For years, the Oster merchant Neb has been nagging at me to finish his story. For years, I’ve been trying to do so. But now–thanks to the whisper of another character who said simply, “It’s me, ma’am. Don’t worry about them.”–the story is rumbling along apace. And truly, not a moment too soon. I needed a break from the heaviness that can be SheyKhala.
The Drunkard is set in the same lands as my novels, and readers will recognize reference to the land of Osterloh as the enemy not yet fully seen in the current storylines. We have threats and fights and battles and blood-hungry beings… but your narrator Neb is a sharp-tongued man with a knack for odd phrasings and secrets that are both softer and harder then he’s really comfortable talking about. And no matter what you might hear, he’ll have you know he is held in the highest esteem by those merchants who share his penchant for almost-licit dealings, and can count on any of them to nudge the border guards at the proper moment and with the appropriate coin (supplied, of course, by Neb himself).
The dear folks currently supporting me on Patreon will have exclusive, patron-only access to the novella as it unfolds. The first part is up at Patreon now. For a dollar a month, you can join up! I’ll also be revamping my Patreon page and offerings in the coming month, so if you’ve some patron-input you’d like to share, please do!
So here’s a taste of The Drunkard.
Um… wait, I didn’t mean it quite that way…
Here’s how those storytelling dimwits begin the tale:
He rode into town at sunset, just as prophecy had foretold. The folk feared to meet his cold stare as he reckoned the worth of their lives against the risking of his own, for he alone could deliver them from the ancient evil that had descended upon Entibar.
Blah, blah, PAH.
First of all, there was no prophecy. Just some babble from old Plegar, who forgot more often than not to pull up his trousers before tottering into the hostel for breakfast. There was no impressive arrival, either. Near as I could figure, the drunkard staggered out of some tavern in Jendayi, passed out amongst sacks of goatswool in the back of my wagon, went overlooked at the border crossing from Calligar to Osterloh, and slept all the way to Entibar. That’s where I found him—just as I’d pulled the wagon alongside my humble mudbrick home—when I tossed a half-empty jug of cheap Calligari wine over the back of the wagon bench.
He yipped like a puppy over that little tap on the head.
“Who in all hells are you?” I demanded when he lurched to his knees. He answered by puking over the wagon’s side. By the look of his shirt and open longvest, he’d given the same answer numerous times before since his last visit to the laundry.
I drew the knife I kept secreted under the wagon bench, then climbed down the wheel. The knife wasn’t much, but I could stick him if I had to. Or run, despite my stiff back, and yell loud enough to rouse a warrior before the drunkard caught up. I lived outside town, but there was a watchpost over the hill. Someone would hear me if I made an effort.
The man wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. I assumed there were eyes behind the ropes of dark hair slung over his face.
“Gimme a drink,” he slurred, his voice raw from retching. “Gimme a drink, old man.”
I’m older, not old, so I kicked a cloud of dust at him—an insult that said I’d rather bury him than look at him. “Your last drink is in the dirt, dunghead. Scrape it up and take it with you.”
He pushed his hair back to reveal bloodshot eyes amidst circles of bruises. Someone had given him the what-for with both fists. Probably someone familiar with his fine deportment and sweet discourse.
“You’re not… Where am I?”
“In my wagon, dunghead.”
“But I’m supposed to be…” He stared at his shaking hands. Without another word for me, he snatched up my wine jug like a dying man who’d found the elixir of immortality. I gaped as he gulped. I’d never seen a man so frantic for wine.
“More,” he croaked when he’d drained the last.
“This isn’t a hostel,” I snapped back. “And I’m no hoskeep looking to please a customer.”
“You don’t want to see me sober, old man.”
“I don’t want to see you at all.”
The drunkard swayed from the wagon’s edge far enough to reveal what I’d not noticed before. A very long dagger, like those worn by Calligari warriors for the sort of up-close fighting Osters like me had nightmares about. There was peace between Calligar and Osterloh now, but it was still new and not universally favored.
And I’d thought to poke him with my knife, which now seemed as menacing as straw. Limp straw. My late wife always told me my temper would escort me to my grave.
He jerked his longvest over the dagger as if I’d forget it if I couldn’t see it. “Don’t run,” he said. “Just gimme the drink, I’ll be gone.”
“I’ll get to the watchpost and bring back warriors before you can blink. Sober warriors.”
I ran, forgetting to yell. Behind me I heard the clatter of my wagon’s gate, then a solid thud. I rounded my home’s corner and fell against the wall, sucking air through clenched teeth. My back was in worse shape than I thought.
All I heard was the rustling of tamarisk trees. Unless the Calligari was traipsing tippy-toe over the gritty earth, he wasn’t pursuing me. I tightened my hold on the knife and peeked around the corner.
That drunken Calligari was sprawled face down in the dirt. The wagon gate hung open above him. I’d been meaning to fix the latch for a month, and decided the gods loved me enough to have made me procrastinate. If they loved me more, the Calligari had broken his neck. I squinted, counted to twenty, and never once saw him twitch.
I whispered, “Deliver me from malice and dishonor,” then kissed my knife’s blade as I’d been taught decades ago, during the few months I’d trained as a warrior. A fighter’s life hadn’t agreed with me then, and my present aversion remained quite hale.
Once I convinced my back it wouldn’t hurt any worse if I moved than it did standing still, I faced my wagon. Goatswool wasn’t a tempting prize for thieves, but silver was stashed amongst the wool, and those coins were necessary to keep me in the apothecary’s good graces. My back wasn’t getting better, and I suspected my knees would soon vie for attention. Without a medicinal or two, my trading days were finished, as well as my ability to meet other obligations.
So I determined to summon the watch after my silver was stashed elsewhere. No sense in encouraging questions I didn’t wish to answer. I hadn’t spent fourteen years guarding my nearly-licit trade dealings to have them spoiled by a drunkard.
Up close, he looked near enough to dead to be of no concern. Knife set on the wagon bench, I crept past him and hauled my aching self up the wheel. I’d be lucky if my back didn’t cinch up in mid-reach. Fortunately, I never had to endure such torment. Unfortunately, deliverance came on the edge of the dagger that suddenly appeared between my arm and ribs.
“No time left,” the Calligari said, his accent hardening. “Do you have another jug?”
A dozen answers of good wit came to mind, but none were so sharp as that dagger, so I merely sighed. “Two, to be precise. Beer.”
He withdrew the dagger without so much as snagging my sleeve. “Fetch it.”
“Won’t die out here. Keep wasting time, and we will.”
Oh, lovely. I’d trundled home a drunkard bent on killing himself and present company if I couldn’t keep him soused. I eased down from the wheel and faced my captor. He stank of sweat, mildew, and his recent digestive troubles. No squint-lines framed his blackened eyes, which bleakened my outlook for the future. Calligari warriors were half-crazy by nature, and this one had the aid of fermentation and youth to bolster his madness. I thought one last time of racing for the watchpost, my aching back be damned. But he kept his dagger ready, and running with a blade skewering my thigh would likely prove beyond my abilities.
“I shouldn’t be here,” he muttered.
“On that we agree.”
He flinched, then bared his teeth as if angry I’d had the audacity to overhear him. “I can’t fight the demons today.”
I snorted, and hobbled toward my home. “No doubt your ‘demons’ are more terrible than anyone else’s troubles.”
“Pray gods you never find out.”
I found myself abruptly and utterly lacking in curiosity, and opted against begging divine intervention. Since the gods had proved fickle with their favor, I’d be more particular with my prayers.
There’s more to Part One–not to mention the many upcoming parts!–so if you’re interested in going forward, please check out Patreon for more information.!