The Stranger from Scyllamar
by C. J. Heckman
It was a rainy night, and business was slow at the Bristled Boar Inn. The only patrons were a group of regulars crowded around the corner table and a burly man seated alone by the windowsill.
Oren avoided the table of boisterous locals as best he could. Nidis and his brother Aegar the Roach were among them, and those two could become troublesome whenever they hit the drinks hard. Most men in Anihar treated dwarf folk kindly enough, but some could forget their manners once they were deep in their cups.
As the locals burst into laughter over some dirty joke, Oren made his way over to the lone man by the window and filled up his drink.
“You shouldn’t wash it overmuch,” said the stranger.
“The beard,” the stranger took a sip from his ale and grimaced at the taste.
Oren instinctively touched his braided beard. “Why shouldn’t I wash it?”
“You’ll give yourself away. Dwarf men never wash their beards. I fought amongst them when I was down south. I could smell the stink in their beards for miles.”
Oren looked as though someone had slapped him.
Across the common room, the locals burst into laughter again and Oren stole a glance at their table. They were just laughing at another stupid joke; they hadn’t overheard.
“How did you know?” Oren kept his eyes fixed on the crowded table as he whispered the question to the stranger.
“Let’s call it instinct. Do you have a name?”
“Ora,” said the dwarf. It felt good to say it. She hadn’t said her real name to anyone since her cousins left Anihar. She turned her gaze back to the stranger and got her first good look at his face.
The man was clean-shaven, with long greasy black hair and pock-marked cheeks. He had a square face and a wide forehead. There was an odd look in his eyes. Ora had seen that look only once before: it was the blank, unblinking stare of the dead.
“Who are you hiding from?” asked the stranger.
“Everyone,” said Ora.
The man laughed softly. It was an odd, unnatural sound. “Me, too,” he said. “But why are you hiding?”
“It’s easier this way. A dwarf is never really safe in a city of men. A dwarf woman even less so. We have a way of disappearing in the night. We fetch high prices to the right buyers.”
“The right buyers?”
“Pleasure houses,” said Ora, the words bitter in her mouth. “Mostly ones down south. I guess we’re... curiosities there.”
The stranger nodded. “Well, don’t worry; your secret is safe with me.”
“And what about you? You said you were hiding as well.”
The man smiled oddly. “I’m from Scyllamar.”
Ora raised her bushy eyebrows. “You mean Cinder?”
“I suppose that’s what they call it now. People always ask me uncomfortable questions about the tragedy down there.”
“How did you survive?” Ora blurted out the words before she could catch herself.
“See, questions like that.”
“Sorry,” said Ora, blushing. “I won’t pester you with any more questions. I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine.” She extended her hand for the stranger to shake. He looked perplexed.
“You shake it,” said Ora. “Don’t they have that custom down south?”
The stranger clasped her hand gently and shook it. “I’m afraid not. I have much to learn. But I learn fast.”
“Hey, dwarf!” shouted Nidis from across the room. “I’ve been staring at the bottom of my cup for ages!”
Ora hurried over to the table of locals. There was only one man there she didn’t recognize. He was wearing a stiff leather jerkin and had the gritty look of a soldier. The others were listening to him attentively as he recounted a story. Ora listened in as well while she filled up the patrons’ mugs.
“The ground shook something terrible when it hit. We were stationed a day’s ride away, and the impact still woke me up in me cot. The Lord General had us on the march before the sun was up.”
“We were the first to see it in the light o’ day. I’d been to Scyllamar twice afore and let me tell you, they right to call it Cinder now. There weren’t hardly anything o’ the capital left standing, and the fragments that remained were burned black as charcoal, even the stone! All day we sifted through burned bits o’ the city, searching for survivors and whatnot, but there weren’t naught to be found. Some o’ the more pious fellows said that we’d find the Glass Gardens untouched, no matter what’d happened to the rest o’ the capital, but those boys fell quiet once we come to the center o’ the city and seen the big crater there.”
The soldier paused to take a long draught from his ale once Ora had refilled it.
“Later that day, I talked to some farmers from the countryside who said they seen it come down. A fireball they said it was, one that burned bright as the sun and turned the night to day. Folks said it was Amon Rhaal’s punishment for the emperor marrying his blood cousin. Me? I don’t believe none o’ that. I couldn’t serve any god that would go and do that to all those men and women and children as punishment for nothing. Least of all having a poke at your cousin.”
The soldier paused to take another sip of his drink, clearly relishing the attention he was getting.
“We camped in Dunny Wood that first night, and that’s when they come and hit us—”
“You seen one?” it was Aegar the Roach that had interrupted.
“Seen one? Aye, I seen one,” said the soldier with a scoff. “I was bloody well impaled by one of ’em!
“The big ones were the size of war horses with claws as sharp as daggers and spikes sticking out their backs. And their hides, Rhaal alive, they were hard as plate, almost like... like a beetle’s shell they were. Some folks said they come out the fireball, monsters from another world they say. Me? I think they were sleeping underground, and it’s the fireball striking that woke ’em.”
“Sleeping underground?” said Nidis. “Bah! What do you know?”
“A good deal more than you, fellow!” yelled the soldier. “You didn’t see ’em! I saw ’em with me own eyes! The big ones weren’t even the worst of ’em neither.”
“What was the worst of ’em?” asked Aegar eagerly.
“The worst of ’em was the little ones. Younglings I guess they was...” the soldier shivered. The mirth went out of his voice, and suddenly it seemed he wasn’t enjoying the attention so much.
“They would take our dead you see. They would take our dead and put their young in ’em. And before those younglings were full-grown, they could control the bodies of the dead men they were in. Walk around in ’em, talk in ’em, fight in ’em even. They would hide among our ranks sometimes, and we wouldn’t even know it... They would wait... wait until right before some big attack were coming and then surprise us right before the big ones come bursting out of the woods. That was the worst of ’em that was.”
Everyone was silent for a moment. It was Ora that broke the quiet. “Was there any way to tell?” she asked.
Everyone at the table looked up at her, seemingly surprised she had the impudence to speak.
“To tell who was man and who was monster, I mean.”
“Aye,” the soldier nodded. “There were one way. A pinch o’ salt did the trick. Dunno why, but it burns those devils like fire. They can’t stand to touch the stuff even for a moment. Every man in the Dunny Wood had his own personal pouch of salt eventually, and anytime someone was acting funny, we would take a pinch and put it on his palm. If he was one o’ them, he wouldn’t be able to stand it.”
Ora couldn’t help but glance over at the stranger by the window while she poured Nidis’s drink. She didn’t notice the mug was overflowing until she heard ale spilling onto the floor. That startled her, and she accidentally knocked the drink over in Nidis’s lap.
“Damn you!” yelled Nidis. He stood up, grabbing Ora by the beard before she could scramble away.
“Let me go, you bastard!” she yelled, but Nidis had a firm hold on her.
“Break his nose, Nidis!” cheered Aegar.
“It would improve that ugly face,” sneered Nidis.
“Release the dwarf.”
Everyone at the table turned their attention to the stranger. He stood in the middle of the room with his cloak swept aside to reveal a sword on his hip.
“You really want to spill blood over a dwarf, friend?” Nidis said. “I don’t like your odds...” Nidis turned and looked at his companions, grinning an awful grin.
“I would happily cut you down over this dwarf. You may not know it, country boy, but for the last few months, dwarves just like this one here have died fighting the Cinderspawn in Dunny Wood. Dwarves who left their homes in the far north to fight monsters that you and your foolish friends tremble at the mention of.”
The grin on Nidis’s face faltered. He glanced briefly at the soldier.
“He’s right boy,” said the soldier reluctantly. “Let the dwarf go. For all you know, his father died to protect this filthy little town o’ yours.”
Nidis scoffed, but he released Ora and returned to his seat. “You’ll bring me another ale,” he said. “On the house!”
“Of course,” said Ora, clenching her fists. It took all her willpower not to lunge him. She straightened her beard before running off to fetch more ale.
After she had filled Nidis’s mug, Ora returned to the stranger’s table by the window.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
The stranger only nodded.
“You were right you know. My cousins did leave Anihar to fight the Cinderspawn. They never came back.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said the stranger. He stared blankly out the window, avoiding Ora’s gaze.
“Why did you come here?” Ora glanced over at Nidis’s table and saw they were whispering among themselves as well.
“I’m just passing through.”
“To where? What do you want?”
“I want to be left in peace. It’s true, I fought at the Dunny Wood, and not on the side of your cousins. Now I am done fighting. I am going north, to the mountains of Darthyr. I want to find a place where I will be left alone.”
The soldier at Nidis’s table suddenly stood up. The whispering among his fellows ceased.
“How’d you know about the dwarves in Dunny Wood, stranger?” asked the soldier. He slowly made his way across the common area with the others falling into step behind him.
The stranger closed his eyes and was silent for a moment. Eventually, he stood and turned to face the soldier, wearing an unnaturally wide grin on his face. “Because I was there, friend. I fought same as you.”
The soldier scowled. “Aye, no doubt you were there. No doubt you fought, neither. It’s who or what you fought for that has me and me new friends concerned.” The soldier spat on the floor as though to punctuate his accusation.
“Your new friends are a trusting lot if they suspect me of deception and don’t think the same of you.”
The locals exchanged uneasy glances with each other.
“Enough of this,” said the soldier. “Dwarf, fetch us some salt. We’ll find out who’s man and who’s monster the same as we did in Dunny Wood.”
Ora hesitated a moment before making her way to the kitchen. She fetched a pouch from the storeroom and returned to the common area to find everyone crowded around the bar.
The men of Anihar stood beside the soldier, though Ora noticed they now seemed hesitant to get too close to their newfound friend. The stranger from Scyllamar stood off by himself, leaning against the bar with his eyes closed as though deep in thought.
“Here,” said the soldier. He pulled off his right glove and extended his bare hand across the bar.
The men of Anihar collectively held their breath as Ora tipped her pouch of salt forward and poured a coin-sized pile onto the soldier’s hand. They exhaled in relief when he didn’t recoil. Aegar the Roach cheered and slapped the soldier on the shoulder.
“It’s nothing, you idiot,” said the soldier, shrugging him off. “Only salt.”
“Now him,” said Nidis. He stood at the far end of the bar with his arms crossed, staring daggers at the stranger from Scyllamar.
Ora made her way over to him. The stranger still had his eyes closed and his head down as though he had fallen asleep standing up.
“What’s the matter with you, eh?” muttered Aegar. “Nidis, what’s the matter with him?”
The stranger opened his eyes and lifted his head suddenly.
“Nothing my friends,” he said without looking at Aegar. “This brings back memories, is all. Bad memories.”
The stranger extended an open palm toward Ora. “Let’s be done with this.”
Ora hesitated a moment. She met the stranger’s eyes and expected to see fear or hesitation there, but she saw nothing save a lingering sorrow.
For the first time that night, there was complete silence in the Bristled Boar Inn. As Ora poured the salt onto the stranger’s hand, the only sound to be heard was the steady patter of rain on the roof above.
The stranger didn’t flinch or move in the slightest at the touch of the salt on his palm. For a moment he looked just as surprised as the other patrons.
“I hope you find the place you’re looking for,” said Ora.
The stranger looked up with his dead eyes and nodded.
“That can’t be!” cried Aegar the Roach. “I was certain he was one of ’em!”
“Quiet, you fool,” said Nidis. He took a long sip from his ale, perhaps to hide the relief on his face.
“I’ll be damned!” said the soldier with a look of confusion. “Barkeep, fetch a round for my comrade, it’s the least I can do for him.”
“That’s not necessary,” said the stranger. “I think it would be best for all if I took my leave.”
The soldier and his fellows made no argument as the stranger made his way to the door. He drew his hood up and looked at Ora one last time before vanishing into the night.
The remaining patrons returned to their night of bawdy talk and meandering stories. They were calling for more drinks quickly enough.
Ora put the pouch of sugar back in the storeroom and went back to the business of serving her guests.
Copyright © 2020 by C. J. Heckman