The Curse of the Traveller
He arrived late one dusky evening, entering the smoke-filled tavern hooded and cowled. A greatsword was strapped to his back, a sword longer than anyone there had ever seen. His boots rang on the tiled floor as he stepped in. Two paces into the tavern he stopped, and surveyed the watchful faces; all were wary of the traveller. He strode slowly and deliberately towards an empty corner devoid of light. The shadows lingered as he sat down, almost drawing the darkness to him. His cloak slipped open, revealing a weapon belt of magnificent array. The landlord hurried over to take his order.
‘A flagon of ale and a meal,’ came the response, a mere whisper that hinted at a northern accent. Now the landlord was positively terrified; no-one had come out of the North for three long years. War had broken out, men said. Also there was a desert which separated the North from the South, a gulf which formerly was of transversable proportions, had now widened and seemed impossible to be crossed.
Yet now this border village had a stranger: a Northerner, armed to the teeth, and travel-stained. Was he a survivor? Was he a deserter? Or perhaps an emissary? If so, then from whom… or what? The tavern was silent now as the traveller began to eat, fastidiously avoiding uncowling himself. He was just finishing his ale and the villagers were starting to accustom themselves to his presence, when the thunder of hooves tore through the village.
Instantly the stranger was on his feet, his greatsword in hand. He tore off his cloak, revealing chain mail that glittered fiercely in the dim candle light. Proud features crowned with shoulder-length dark hair stared towards the door, and his black eyes blazed. An instant later, he was in the street.
Moments later the whole tavern followed, crowding through the doorway. What met their eyes astounded them. Sword in one hand, dagger in the other, he charged towards a party of seven horsemen, hurtling into the melee, leaping high with sword and dagger flicking, his figure a blur as he sped away, leaving two riders dead on the ground, one headless. The soldiers wheeled their horses just as the traveller turned, dropping his dagger, which clattered to the street. He flicked his arm from his waist in a blinding motion. One horseman fell, his throat transfixed by a throwing knife.
The traveller bent down slowly and picked up his dagger. The soldiers were torn by indecision. Three of their number lay dead, murdered so easily. They hesitated. The traveller, however, did not leave them any time to pause. One fell from his horse, a dagger through his stomach wall. He clutched at it, desperately trying to rid himself of it as the life ebbed from him. One rider took the point of the greatsword through the neck, the force of the traveller’s charge ripping his head clean off. Blood covered his neighbour as the head flew past. Moments later the body tumbled from its horse. The neighbouring soldier slashed wildly at the traveller, his sword blocked by a blow that numbed his arm to the shoulder. A mace, ripped from the traveller’s weapons belt, hurtled up to his face, killing him instantly. The remaining horseman decided discretion was the better part of valour and spurred his horse to a gallop. The traveller sheathed his sword and reclaimed his dagger from a soldier’s stomach. The remaining rider was fifty yards away when a throwing knife caught him in the back.
The spectators were stunned and made way for the traveller as he stalked in to pick up his cloak and drain what was left of his ale.
‘War is coming,’ the stranger said. ‘Flee for your lives.’