Baynes climb book i of t.., p.3
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       Bayne's Climb: Book I of The Sword of Bayne, p.3

           Ty Johnston
 
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  Chapter III: The Tavern

  The following morning was a bright one. The sun ruled high in the heavens above ochre wisps of clouds. Short-billed swallows snatched at insects in the air above the mountain’s sides. A gentle wind beat at the trees below the peaks, washing the leaves of dust and the smallest of crawling creatures.

  Blood had dried to a dark cake in the streets and alleys of the village, and two dozen humps of dirt now lined the sides of the road leading away from the town.

  It had taken Bayne the rest of a day and most of a night to haul the bodies of the villagers and of those he had slain outside the circle of buildings. Finding a shovel had been an easy enough task as each of the houses had been well spirited with domestic tools, reminding the warrior that families had lived here, families who had planted flowers and dug up gardens and grown their own food and sewed their own clothes.

  The amount of digging might have broken another man, but Bayne held reserves unavailable to others. An hour before the sun would rise across the green horizon to the East, the shovel’s head patted the last of the dirt onto the last of the graves.

  Then Bayne returned the shovel to where he had found it in a shed next to one of the houses.

  Next came a bath of cold water in a tub, this too found in a back room of one of the houses. The water was provided by an indoors well pump. The powdered soap and towels were provided by a cupboard in a kitchen that would likely see little use in the near future.

  The grime and sweat of the night’s work cleansed from his body, Bayne went to work washing his few clothes in a wooden bucket with a scrub board and more of the powdered soap. After hanging the clothes on a line in a yard, he retired to an empty bedroom where he lay in the nude for an hour. It was all the rest he needed.

  Soon enough he was clothed again. His fortune still strong, he lucked upon a bottle of oil, a can of grease and a copper-wired brush in the cabinet where he had found the soap and towels. The next hour he spent grinding grit and dirt and dried blood from his chain shirt and weapons. The half hour after that he spent in oiling down his armor and weapons. A sleeveless doublet padded with goose feathers was discovered hanging in a bedroom and made a fine new shirt to go beneath his chain.

  It was late morning when he walked out of a village house and closed the door behind him. He stood in the center of the small town and glanced about from door to door. The birds no longer sounded and the wind was still. The place was like a crypt.

  Bayne shook his head and turned, walking out of the village without another look back. Why he had taken the time and gone to the effort to bury those he had not known and those he had slain was unknown even to Bayne himself. His lips would remain silent on the matter, and no one would ever know to ask.

  The road ahead meandered its way around the mountainside, taking the warrior above the roofs of the village and the smokeless chimneys. The trees along the ground were further away and their verdant insignia no longer held the bright green of health but a darker green, sickly in appearance and almost smoggy. Still, the day ahead was bright and could have been cheerful if not for the blood of the day past and the stoic visage worn by Bayne.

  At times the road was bricked in scarlet and tan, other times it was packed earth. In a few short stretches the path turned to gravel and sometimes sand. But always the road bore on, curving along through the gray rock and the nettles. The cliff to Bayne’s right drove up and up, broken in many places by shadow and crags before becoming invisible in the clouds high above. The drop to the left was straight and dire, though occasionally the plunge was less severe and broken by boulders and brush and sometimes a rare tree.

  It was a sparse trail that rose gradually without causing a man to work too hard, leaving him free to gather his thoughts and to forecast hopes and dreams and fears of the future. But Bayne was always silent. If he hoped or dreamed or feared, he kept it locked within. He was not one to talk aloud to himself, nor did his steady gaze show deep, interlocked workings behind the eyes.

  Silent, and perhaps morose, he walked on.

  His path twined its way around the mountain in a continual bend, and it felt to the wandering warrior as if he had been walking, marching, forever on the trail of the mage who could provide him answers. Bayne supposed that long walk had begun truly the day he had come into existence some ten years earlier. Existence? Perhaps that was not the right word. Wakefulness might be more appropriate. At least he could remember nothing before that day of battle.

  And it had seemed his existence had been filled with war and death since, though usually not of his own choosing. Whether that was his fate or dire circumstance, Bayne would not hazard a guess, though he mostly had come to accept whatever lay along his route.

  Today that route brought him to a tavern.

  Around another bend the warrior plodded, coming to a halt to stare at the three-storied wooden structure against the side of the mountain ahead and to his right. The building seemed little more than a façade, sticking out from the side of the mountain as if the interior itself must slink back into the stone. The main portion of the building was stained and tottering, giving the place an appearance of creaking age. But the place seemed in no threat of falling apart or crumbling mainly due to its solid base of large rocks and gray mortar. At some point someone had tried to add a bit of color to the establishment, having painted the closed shutters of the multiple windows a green, but that green had faded with time and was no longer a signature of happier times but a sad reminder of days long past and forgotten.

  Out front was a stone stoop with three slate steps leading up to the entrance. To the right and left were hitching posts where a half dozen steeds were lined in front of a watering trough.

  Multiple chimneys, two coming straight out of the mountain behind and above the building, belched multi-colored smokes. Reds and greens and yellows smoldered their way higher into the sky along a path like that of a rambling snail.

  The road itself, here compacted earth, widened and wound to the left of the place and apparently continued along the side of the mountain. A sign post was planted near the middle of the road in front of the building’s entrance. The hanging sign read “The Knotted Mesh.”

  A tavern, then, as Bayne had suspected.

  He trod forward. Though his constitution was beyond that of all mortal men he had encountered, he knew better than to tire himself thin. Besides, Bayne possibly could learn more of his quarry.

  He pushed his way through the darkened rosewood door with the brass fittings and a central stained-glass window that portrayed a spider sitting at the center of a web. Inside, his senses were assaulted from all sides. Darkness held sway here, but tiny flashes of yellows and oranges and blues and greens and reds and purples and millions upon millions of colors common and uncommon flashed and blinked from corners of the room, top and bottom and all around. A dull smoke hung about the place, adding to the perception of gloom that the multitude of colors could not destroy. Dull odors lingered about the long chamber that stretched forth, the smells sometimes stinging at the nose and other times leaving behind a sweet numbing. A chillness permeated the place, raising bumps along Bayne’s bare arms.

  It was difficult to see through all the gloom. Bayne closed the door behind him in hopes killing the day’s bright would allow his eyes to adjust all that much sooner.

  Before him stretched a long hall, a fine wooden bar stretching the length of the left wall back into the shadows of the establishment that indeed did run into the mountainside. Far into the mountainside. Bayne could not make out a far wall. Oil lanterns hung from sconces every dozen steps along the walls providing the only steady light, and even that pale beneath the haze and fugue of the place. Along the right wall were row after row of round tables, two chairs to a table, and these too stretched back into the dark. Bayne could make out a railed stairway some distance back on his right that appeared to lead up to a balcony that extended the length of the second floor; up there, too, were more and more of the rou
nd tables with pairs of chairs.

  Bayne blinked and noted the bar on his left sported a mirrored backing that ran the length of the bar, or so he supposed since he could not see the far end of the bar and it and the mirror stretched back and back and back into the nothing that was the back of the tavern.

  Despite a relative calm and quiet that lingered, the only few sounds being clinkings of glass and bottles behind the bar and the occasional scuffling of a chair being moved across the stone floor, The Knotted Mesh was not an empty place.

  The denizens were seated individually, one at each of the tables, none at the bar and none together. They were nearly all male and came in all sizes and shades, most dressed in robes and cloaks though a few sported garb with more of a dash to it like that of the wealthier folk in cities. Nearly all were young, having seen perhaps only a score of summers each. None appeared to wear weaponry other than the occasional dagger or knife.

  In front of these quiet, seated faces came the flashing lights of many colors. Pinks, purples, reds, yellows, greens, blues of every shade. Hues representing the whole of the rainbow and perhaps beyond winked in and out in miniature strobes before the faces of those seated at the tables. What appeared to produce these illuminations were gems floating in the space above the tabletops. At some tables a single gem hovered, the size of a man’s fist. At other tables, multiple precious rocks hung upon the air, circling about one another and dipping and diving. The gems themselves rotated in their colors, rarely staying the same tint for longer than a few seconds.

  The stares of those seated were fastened upon the floating gems as if enthralled, as if looking into the face of a god and finding great, mysterious wonders laid out for all to see and know.

  Bayne did not know what to make of all this. It was something beyond his ken.

  “Welcome, sir.” It was a soft voice to one side, opposite the bar.

  Bayne turned to find a middle-aged fellow staring up at him. The man wore short-cropped dark hair above a pale silken shirt, black padded breeches and leather boots that rose up to his knees. He was obviously a tradesman of some sort, likely a well-to-do tradesman considering the newness, freshness and probable cost of his simple clothing. Though not dressed as a noble or the like, he was clearly of a better station in life than the average man.

  Bayne just stared at him.

  The fellow seemed to ignore the blankness of that stare. “What will be your pleasure this day, sir?”

  Bayne blinked.

  “Sir?”

  “What is this place?” Bayne asked.

  The man smiled. “This is The Knotted Mesh, sir.”

  “A name that signifies nothing to me.”

  “Ah.” A spark of understanding came into the stranger’s eyes. “This is a tavern, of sorts, specializing in gathering facts, messaging and erudition.”

  Bayne’s eyebrows arched in befuddlement. “A spy network?”

  “No, sir.” The fellow chuckled. “The Knotted Mesh is not in operation for any particular government, guild or association. If any such organizations wish to keep particular information … undisclosed … then it is their privilege. However, sometimes those who venture into this establishment attempt to retrieve such information regardless, and they are usually dealt with by the proper authorities of whichever --”

  “Your establishment?”

  “Yes, sir.” The man nodded. “I am the founder of The Knotted Mesh.”

  “And you are?”

  “Ah.” The man’s smile broadened. He gave a curt bow. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Algr Tessenan. My patrons generally refer to me as Algr.”

  Bayne nodded. “Greetings.”

  “As I was saying,” Algr went on, “whenever there is a break in protocol, I myself on rare occasions have to --”

  Bayne shook his head. “Algr, I still do not understand. You say this is a place for knowledge, yet I see no scrolls nor scribes.”

  It did not seem possible, but the tavern keeper’s grin grew wider, nearly from ear to ear. “This is a place of magic, sir.”

  “Magic?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  Bayne nodded. “Then a man I pursue possibly stopped here.”

  “Many stop here, sir.”

  “Wore all black,” Bayne said. “Rode a black horse. Long dark hair with a stripe of white running through.”

  The light of recognition glistened in Algr’s eyes. “Ah, yes, that would have been three days ago.”

  “I’ve lost a day on him,” Bayne muttered more to himself than the tavern keeper. “That village held me too long.”

  “He promised riches to anyone who would slay the man following him,” Algr said.

  Bayne’s eyes hardened as he dug his thumbs into his belt. “And would you try to collect, Algr?”

  “Goodness, no,” the man said with a bark of laughter. “I’m no warrior. And a man would have to be a fool to try to take on the formidable Bayne kul Kanon. Your repute is known wide and far, good sir, as well as the recent events further down the mountainside.”

  “How would you know such?” Bayne asked. “I have but arrived from the village, and there were no riders or other travelers who passed me.”

  “As I said,” Algr said, waving a hand to point out the surroundings, “this is a place of knowledge and communication. It is a simple task to learn of recent events anywhere throughout the world.”

  Bayne grimaced, seeming unconvinced.

  “If you wish, I can show you how to use our apparatus,” Algr offered.

  “What good would this do me?”

  “You could look in on the doings of the one you follow.”

  Bayne allowed this to sink in. Verkanus was now three days ahead of him, ever climbing upward on the mountain path. Verkanus was also horsed. Bayne had little chance of catching up to the mage and former emperor unless he could find a more direct path through the peaks. Knowledge could also warn Bayne of snares and hindrances Verkanus might lay upon the road.

  “ Does one need to be a wizard?” Bayne asked.

  “Ah, no.”

  The muscled warrior nodded. “Very well, Algr. Show me your tricks and I will see what I will see.”

  The tavern owner turned, motioning Bayne to follow, then lead the way deeper into the shadows of The Knotted Mesh. They moved quietly through the gloom, past tables of bleary-eyed youth staring endlessly into the floating, colored rocks that danced above tables. It seemed to Bayne they walked for some good while, passing table after table, with the bar continuously extending along the left wall. The mirror behind the bar also extended, apparently infinitely, following the big man and the smaller man and reflecting their dim images back at them. Every so often a mug or glass, sometimes empty and sometimes not, rested atop the bar though there were never any patrons at hand to partake. There also appeared to be no one behind the bar, as if Algr ran the place on his own.

  Finally the man in silk came to a halt. He stood next to the only table Bayne had witnessed that did not have someone seated before it. Resting on the center of the round wooden table, and noticeably not hanging in the air above, was a yellow crystal the size of a fist.

  Bayne stopped and stared down at Algr’s offering. “How does this work?”

  Algr motioned toward a chair next to the table. “Be seated and grasp the gem in both hands.”

  Bayne’s brow rose in skepticism.

  “Your mind will be free to travel wherever you wish,” Algr said in way of further explanation. “It will happen in an instance. You will be transported to another place of your own choosing. From there, you may see and learn whatever you wish.”

  Bayne glanced up and down the long room, his eyes lingering on the dulled faces of those at other tables.

  Algr noticed the glance. “The experience can be quite intoxicating. There are many who spend their free moments abandoning the outer world for that of the inner.”

  Bayne sat, the wooden chair creaking beneath his heavy weight. He stared at the yellow orb on
the table. “How do I return?”

  “Ah. Simply wish it, and it will happen.”

  Hard eyes glared up at the tavern owner. “If this should be some trick --”

  Algr laughed. “Nothing of the sorts, good sir. What would I have to gain?”

  “A bag of gold,” Bayne said. Then his hands clasped the yellow gem.

  An explosion of light poured over the big man as a brightness that hurt the eyes and came in streaks like arrows flying past. Bayne felt as if catapulted, his body soaring higher and higher through nothingness, the darkness and depths of The Knotted Mesh and its dreary denizens left far behind and him on the wing as fast as a comet racing toward the sun. He blinked though it did little good; the illumination raining around him was much too prevailing for mere eyelids to shield.

  Bayne imagined it must be like a form of madness. He saw nothing but a billion stars zipping past. He felt nothing but a slight chill to the skin. He could smell nothing, nor hear anything.

  Until … there was a roar not unlike that of thousands upon thousands cheering their displeasure in a coliseum. The thousands upon thousands witnessing a bloody spectacle, a duel to the death.

  But it was all in the hearing. There was still no vision, no sight of anything but the light and the light and more of the light.

  It came to a standstill.

  Bayne was no longer racing through unknown heavens. He found himself standing in the middle of a cobbled road in a city. Past him brushed and nudged crowds upon crowds. There must have been a million people, all hurrying past him, working and snaking their ways across the gray brick street. No one stared at Bayne. All rushed on as if seeking someone or something of true import.

  The warrior glanced up to find a blazing sun directly overhead. To his sides were tall walls the color of stone. Those walls rose four stories and were peppered with open windows. Even there, in and atop the building, there were people and more people. Some were hanging out windows. Others were busily walking the rooftops.

  And all the chatter. Everyone was talking. Seemingly to no one or to themselves. Men swept past Bayne, their lips moving and words flying forth though there seemed no one to whom they spoke. Women and children and elderly and folks of all colors and races and cultures and sizes and shapes flowed along the wide road. All were speaking. Most muttered, some even whispered, a few spoke out loud. Every few seconds one would shout or cry out, more often in anger or confusion than in true alarm.

  The din was terrible to the ears. Bayne raised his hands and cupped them around the sides of his bald head to shield himself from the audible blows.

  Still, the assault to his eyes was near as harsh as that of his travels through the never-ending rays of light. Bright silks of all colors flowed around, streaming and hanging and dancing from the shoulders and hips and legs and arms of the multitudes crowding around the warrior. Some wore simple garb, garments taken from sheared beasts or cut from animal flesh or pulled from plants, but many were outfitted in the most intense of dyes, colors that hurt the eyes to stare upon.

  Bayne threw back his head to belt out his confusion, roaring to that bright sun above, .

  When his lungs held no more air, he breathed in, ready for another bellow.

  But there was silence. Nothing came to his ears.

  He lowered his hands to his sides and glanced about.

  The crowd had come to a standstill. All eyes were upon him. The millions upon millions glared at him, their gazes filled with little love but much envy and scorn.

  “You!” The shouter was an old man wearing a dirty turban and little more than rags, his clothing pale, soiled strips of linen. He pointed an angled, gray finger at Bayne.

  The swordsman suddenly found other fingers jammed in his face. Others beyond and above were pointing as well. A man little more than a boy wearing a striped night robe. A woman in a red tunic and a child on one arm. A man of skin the color of the morning sun, his teeth missing between a beard of black above a shirt of rough wool. All pointing.

  “You!” another screamed.

  “You!

  “You!”

  Everyone was shouting and hollering and directing fingers. The voices grew and grew, not in unison but in a mixed discordant jumble of the single word, overlapping one another in different tones and inflections and accents. Never had been heard such a simple, single word said in so many different ways. Some even managed to include more than one syllable. Others barely got the entire word out at all.

  But everywhere everyone was pointing and in tumult and their focus was upon the big man in the chain shirt, the heavy sword on his back.

  The crowd closed in, nearer and nearer, their sweat and stink and flesh pressing up against Bayne. Fingers were in his face, jabbing at his arms, poking his legs. The voices grew louder and louder until he thought his ears might burst.

  Bayne could take no more. His sword came out, gripped in a mighty hand. He swung. The blade bit … nothing.

  The weighty, bright steel had slashed into one man, a feeble wizardly fellow pointing and screaming with cracked lips, but it had been as if the blade had touched only air.

  Bayne marveled, but then he stabbed with his sword. The point appeared to enter another man’s stomach, but there was no impression, no cut, no blood. The end of the blade merely disappeared into the man’s shirt as if passing into a shadow, a mirage.

  “Algr!” Bayne screamed, his head tossed back to the sky once more. Then he was veering his sword to left and right, in front and behind. Jabbing, stabbing, stroking, cutting, chopping. All to no end. The weapon might as well have been striking ghosts.

  The throng continued its pointing and shouting. Now they switched to his name. Louder and louder. “Bayne! Bayne! BAYNE!” Pointing and pointing and pointing.

  Bayne stopped. He closed his eyes, catching his breath and allowing his sword to hang from his hand, the point of the weapon nearly touching the ground. Around him pressed these strange people, their fingers clawing over him and rubbing against him and picking at his chain shirt.

  He needed to think. His mind shut out the tumult as much as possible as he delved deep within himself. Algr had told him he could go where he wished at will, that he could even return at will. It was simply a matter of thought, of control.

  Bayne opened his eyes.

  The roar of the crowd had dissipated. The city street was gone. Only the bright sun above remained of the scene before.

  Bayne found himself standing on a cliff aside a mountain, perhaps the very mountain he had been climbing all along. Dark, ruddy rock was beneath his boots and a gentle, calming breeze rolled across his sweating skin. He breathed in the mountain air, finding it more pleasing than the sweltering stench of the packed streets he had just fled.

  A cackle above him, a laugh not of mirth.

  Bayne glanced up, higher along the side of the mountain.

  A dark figure was there, cloaked in black, too high to see properly but outlined by the sun. It was a tall figure with long, murky hair.

  “Verkanus!” Bayne shouted, pointing with his sword.

  But the figure only continued it’s dark laughter.

  Bayne looked about, studying his surroundings further.

  There was no trail. He was not upon the road that wrapped the mountain, but stranded on a flat island along a vertical wall of rock.

  There was nothing to do but climb.

  He slid his sword back into its sheath and reached up, grabbing at a protruding stone. Planting a booted foot against the wall, he pulled himself up mere inches.

  “You will never catch me this way, Bayne kul Kanon,” said the form of the emperor above. “You must go back, back to the shadows of the tavern.”

  Did the figure speak truth? Could it be? Bayne did not know, but what he did know was that the man he sought was within sight though a hundred yards or more away. Bayne would not give up so easily with his prey before him.

  He pushed and he pulled and climbed a little ways further.


  The mountain disappeared beneath him and Bayne was falling, plummeting into the nothingness of gray clouds appearing below. He shouted out in surprise, his weight pulling him down seemingly faster and faster. He was not flying, but coasting along currents, not rising and falling but simply falling.

  What to do? The yellow gem came to mind. He had grasped it and been transported to

  that city of the callous and agitating. Perhaps the gem was the key. Bayne focused on it, imagined it in his mind between his grasping hands. He imagined pulling back, away from the glowing stone, his fingers letting loose of it. But his fingers seemed as if fastened. No matter how hard he thought of dropping the gem, his fingers would not lose their bond.

  But then they did.

  Air rushed into the big warrior’s lungs. He sat back in his chair, gasping and pulling air into his lungs. Sweat was rushing down his face in rivulets, dripping from the ends of his nose and chin. It was as if he had been held under boiling water. His body was hot and steam rose from his muscled arms and legs. His chain shirt scorched where it rubbed against skin.

  Algr stood over him, staring down with what appeared to be an amused grin. “Ah, you have returned.”

  “You!” Bayne shot out of his chair and grabbed the proprietor by his shirt collar. “Scoundrel! You attempted to snare me!”

  The tavern keeper continued to grin. He held out his hands as if apologizing for something. “My regrets, good sir, if you have --”

  “Hush!” Bayne shouted. “Your words are lies! Tricks to perplex!”

  Algr continued to smile, his hands out flat before him. He opened his mouth to speak once more, but Bayne shoved him to the floor where he landed on his end. A cry of surprise and pain escaped the tavern keeper’s mouth.

  “Stay, if you value your life,” the warrior said, pointing to Algr.

  Then Bayne surveyed his surroundings. He was still in The Knotted Mesh, standing next to his table and chair. The yellow gem no longer emitted light, but rested in the center of the table. Darkness still played about the establishment, and hundreds upon hundreds of slack faces continued to stare down upon glowing rocks in the grasp of their hands, one face and pair of hands per each of the seemingly hundreds upon hundreds of tables in the place.

  There seemed no immediate threat. No one was approaching. No one other than Algr seemed to have noticed the agitated warrior in their midst.

  Bayne caught the face of a fellow several tables away. It was another face with limp features. Sagging eyes were enthralled by a cobalt shine in the hands before them. Those eyes. They were familiar. Bayne had seen them before.

  In the city.

  The old man, the one who had first yelled at him. The one with the dirty turban and the gray skin and the strips of linen for attire.

  “Treachery!” Bayne reached low and once more grabbed Algr by his collar, lifting the much smaller man until his soft leather boots no longer touched the floor.

  Algr threw up his hands as a defense, but Bayne shook him. The tavern keeper rattled and bobbed left and right, his head swirling about and about as if his neck would surely snap.

  “Your lies were a ruse meant to trap me,” Bayne shouted in the bobbling face. “You are as the others, looking to gain gold at my expense!”

  Then he tossed the proprietor, sending Algr sailing across the very table where Bayne had sat. Algr smashed into the wall and crumpled to the ground where with a shriek he landed on his rear once more.

  Bayne shoved his table aside, the yellow gem and chair flying off into shadows.

  “No!” shouted Algr, his eyes following the gem as it disappeared into darkness, his hands clutching out as if to save the bauble.

  Bayne stopped. He stared from the grasping, beaten Algr to the spot along the wall where the gem had gone missing.

  Then he unsheathed his sword, raking steel against the wooden scabbard as a furor escaped his lips not unlike the roar of a jungle cat. The sword went high, over the muscled man’s head, the weapon’s grip clenched in two bulking hands.

  “No!” Algr repeated.

  The sword lashed out to Bayne’s right.

  Where it connected with another gem, this one glowing green in the hands of a young man with nearly-closed eyes. Sparks flew as the orb exploded, sending shards of jade needles in all directions. A screech as of metal on metal filled the air and Bayne threw up an arm to shield his eyes.

  The youth who had held the gem shouted in surprise and anguish as the blooming green light burst before his eyes and the tiny javelins nailed themselves into his hands and face. He fell back from his table, grabbing at his face while flailing to the floor, toppling his chair with him.

  From his spot on the ground, Algr reached out to Bayne. “Madness!”

  No other in The Knotted Mesh seemed aware of the events. Stoned faces were still enthralled by the worlds they found with their shimmering baubles. Table after table and chair after chair carried silence. There were no witnesses other than Algr and Bayne himself. Even the youth on the floor was busy crying and wiping bloody streaks from his face.

  The big warrior bound to the next table. He swung his blade again. Another gem shattered, this one a deep azure. A familiar howl from the once-entranced figure at the table greeted Bayne, then died away to moans and cries. More sparks expanded and more glass-like darts flew.

  Bayne spun for the next table. He swung and slashed and lanced with his blade, sometimes sending the gems hurtling against the wall to smash but most often breaking the orbs with his own blows. Embers and flickers and glints of light illuminated the darkness of the tavern briefly before dying in a hail of glass splinters and crying persons with hazed eyes.

  Men rolled from their tables, toppled to the floor, screamed out in grief and surprise. The place was no longer silent and dull, but turmoil and mayhem reigned. Flames appeared dancing along one wall. A shrieking figure rolled into the fires, catching his tunic ablaze. Everywhere there was dismay as the unaware were brought abruptly to awareness with pain.

  Bayne continued to swing his sword. More shouts and cries followed. The fire spread, growing along the long wall and spreading across the floor as if oil had been poured out. Shadowy figures struggled to their feet and made their way toward the exit or behind the bar or into the deeper darkness of the tavern that extended into the mountainside, anywhere there could be a possibility of freedom. Smoke was growing, building up gradually at first then rushing forth from burning wooden floors and walls and tables and chairs and burning people and their garments.

  Algr used a chair to climb to his feet. He clutched at the air, his fingers clawing to reach for Bayne. “Stop this! Please!”

  The warrior was some distance away by then, having shattered dozens upon dozens of the magic stones, but he heard Algr’s cries and swiftly returned to the man.

  Flames illuminated the anger on Bayne’s face, the glow giving him a demonic appearance. “Flee form here, you fool,” he shouted to the tavern keeper, “and be thankful I do not gut you where you stand.”

  A shove sent Algr reeling toward the front of The Knotted Mesh. The man was quickly lost in the disorganized chaos of the fleeing customers.

  Bayne glanced about. The crowd was gradually forming into lines of the fearful, but the scrabble for escape was too intense to bring order to the chaos. Men were crawling over one another, their shouts cries for their mothers and fathers. The few women present were trampled or shoved up against the bar. Several enterprising patrons knocked aside bottles and mugs and climbed atop the bar itself, reducing the flow toward the exit but not enough.

  The tavern had become like a bottle with the entrance the neck of the bottle and the crowd the cork. Bayne could see little at the doorway other than a mass of scrambling and clawing madmen fighting their way for the exit.

  Meanwhile, the flames were fluttering about his heels and overtaking the ceiling above. Something had to be done. Bayne would have to remove the cork himself.

  “Move!” the warrior yel
led over the heads of the slinking mob.

  As frustrated and desperate as the crowd was, a verbal assault did not help. They were all attempting to squeeze through the doorway at the same time, some fighting between themselves or climbing or scrambling over and around one another. Bedlam ruled.

  Bayne cursed as he put away his sword. Then he charged. He would try not kill any more of these fools, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t rough them up. With a yell he slammed a shoulder into the back of a man, reeling the fellow off to one side. The momentum in Bayne’s muscled legs continued him forward where he shoved against another man, this one sent flailing over the top of the bar. Then another man went flying, and another was thrust atop a table. A woman was pushed out of the way.

  Sensing something was happening, was approaching, cries went up among the mass of corked bodies. Terrified eyes gave fleeting looks back to the monster in chain wading toward them.

  Bayne kept up his rush. A man went down beneath his boots. Another fellow was elbowed out of the way. A youth was lifted off his feet by a forceful shove and sent fluttering over a chair.

  Those between Bayne and the door saw their doom approaching.

  As if a demon were on their very tails, they pushed and twisted and shoved and kicked and thrust.

  There was an audible popping noise. Then bodies began flailing their way through the door. Most were propelled outside by the force of those behind. Some were walked on or stomped on or ran upon. All wanted out of the way of the beast bearing down on them.

  For the first time since entering, Bayne could see daylight. It was weak, but it streamed through the door over the heads of those scrambling away from him.

  He kept pushing and shoving, bashing and punching.

  Then, suddenly, he was at the fore of the mass. Those in the crowd remaining between Bayne and the exit charged out of his way or jumped aside. The door stood before him mere feet away. It was now empty of all.

  Algr appeared from outside. He stood in the doorway, a dagger gripped underhanded, the weapon hoisted for attack.

  Bayne did not hesitate. He snapped out a hand and grabbed Algr’s wrist, crushing bone with a squeeze of his fingers. Throughout this action Bayne did not stop moving. His left shoulder slammed into Algr’s nose, breaking it and spraying blood and sending the man rolling back into the sunlight off the tavern’s porch into the grass and dirt.

  And Bayne was through. He was outside on the stone stoop. He stood atop the few steps there and stared about. Those from the tavern were running, fleeing the madman and disappearing into the woods or down the mountain trail. There were still others making their way out of The Knotted Mesh, but they gave good distance to the warrior and continued their own flight.

  Algr lay on his back several feet from Bayne. The owner of The Knotted Mesh had dropped his flimsy weapon and was holding his nose with his good hand while clutching the broken wrist to his chest. Tears streamed down his face.

  Flames were beginning to flicker through the slats of the tavern’s shutters and black smoke was already rolling out the top of the open doorway.

  Eventually there were no former customers fleeing the establishment, all having made their way elsewhere along the mountain, and Bayne found himself alone with Algr.

  The tavern keeper had not moved. He lay on his back, his eyes wet and staring at the smoke drifting over his head from the flames now snaking out the front door and making their way up the outside of building.

  Bayne strode over to the man and stared down at him.

  Algr blinked and rubbed away his tears with his good hand.

  “You are welcome,” Bayne said.

  “Welcome?” Algr sat up, propping himself on the ground with his good hand as blood continued to trickle from his nose to coat his chin. “For what should I thank you? For obliterating all that I held dear?”

  “For freeing you,” Bayne said.

  Algr sputtered, his anger and pain relinquishing his ability to form words. He appeared only capable of spitting and cursing and kicking at the ground.

  Bayne waited patiently.

  Eventually Algr calmed himself and was able to speak once more. “I did not need your freeing! I was happy and content as I was, as were the others under my care.”

  Bayne snorted. “Not all who are slaves recognize the chains that bind them.”

  “Slavery to what?” Tears sprang alive in Algr’s eyes again as he cried out, spittle flying from his lips and his tears and snot mingling with blood to form a stream of gore down the front of his shirt.

  “It was a false world, Algr,” Bayne said, “a world without true meaning. A world of lies.”

  The owner of the burning building went silent and lay on his back. His eyes closed. If not for the jerky rising and falling of his chest, Bayne would have believed him dead.

  “As you wish,” the warrior stated, then he turned and walked away from The Knotted Mesh and its wounded owner.

  Algr did not rise, nor did he speak or open his eyes. The flames continued clawing their way to the sky. Soon the structure that had been The Knotted Mesh was no more than a pile of blackened, broken timber along the mountainside.

  If Bayne had looked back, he would have found Algr no longer there. But Bayne did not look back.

  The warrior continued up the mountain road, a road of gravel that now rose sharply. Eventually he had to stop, but not because of any wish to do so.

  His path was blocked. Boulders upon boulders, along with tons of soil and broken trees, now served as a wall against him.

  There had been a road slide, an avalanche of unbecoming power.

 
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