It was a rare warm evening in early Reylan and the harvest moon rose slowly over the Stone and Sow. The middling tavern was bustling with the normal evening crowd, farmers and merchants laughing and drinking together after a long day plying their disparate trades. The smell of sweat and dirt mixed with that of alcohol and fresh baked bread.
It was an honest smell and Bren, the red-faced and bearded man who owned and ran the bar, loved it. He laughed and joked with the patrons sitting along the dark mahogany slab as he poured large draughts of the nut-brown Ghalish ale he made in the back room.
The serving girl, Kyrie, had near been run ragged clearing empty tankards and fetching new ones to replace them. She was a pleasant and hard-working girl, but even she had her limits; so when the heavy oak door of the tavern slammed open, it was unsurprising when she sent a withering look in the direction of the disturbance.
“Was that really necessary,” she barked, turning toward the door, her arms crossed in front of her chest. Any further invective died on her lips, however, when she caught sight of the man who stumbled into the room.
He looked little more than a mass of tattered cloak and scorched hair. He stumbled slowly across the crowded floor to a seat at the far end of the bar nearest the large fireplace. When he sat, a cloud of dust erupted from his back and shoulders in a dark cloud. Bren moved toward him, absentmindedly cleaning a glass with a rag.
“What kenna get fer yeh,” he said with the thick Ghalish accent that peeked through whenever he wanted to appear as though he were someone who was not to be trifled with.
“Whatever you have on tap, please,” the man replied wearily. “And something to eat if you have it.”
“Yeh ken have a tank of the brown, and some stew with a bit a bread for eighteen lanon, or jus’ the brown an bread for ten.”
The man rifled around in the mass of cloaks and eventually pulled out single silver coin, pressing it onto the polished wood of the bar. Bren’s eyes went wide. “Serrah,” he said. “ I kenna take that, it’s more than twenty times-“
He was interrupted by a dismissive wave of the stranger’s grimy hand.
“Small price; be the first hot meal I’ll have had in close to two weeks.”
“Still too much for food n’ drink. Would feel like I was takin’ vantage of yeh.”
The dark man sighed and thought for a moment.
“Do you have any rooms?”
“Room and a bath for the night then, that satisfy your honor,” the man asked with a tired, but honest smile. He didn’t mean offense, and Bren knew it, so he took none as he took the coin from the bar top with a nod.
“That’d do it,” he nodded. The big man moved off and returned a couple of moments later with a large tankard, a bit of foam sliding down the side and onto the bar where Bren wiped it up with a quick swipe of cloth. “I’ll be right back wit yer food.”
“Much appreciated,” said the man as he reached for the cup and took a long pull, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
The conversations that had died down when the stranger entered had returned. But while many of the patron’s eyes periodically darted toward the bar, no one approached the newcomer.
This suited him just fine. It had been long since he had interacted with others in any sort of social context and he wasn’t sure he remembered how.
Bren came back again a couple seconds later and laid a large wooden bowl full of piping hot stew, a large chunk of dark bread, and a wedge of cheese.
“S’boar, case yer wonderin’,” he said. “Got fresh this morning, and I managed a bit a cheese.”
“Many thanks,” the traveler said, already digging into the food.
Over the next several hours, the tavern slowly emptied of all patrons but the stranger. He had long ago finished his meal. The dark man sat in a pensive sort of silence, broken only by the crackling of the fire and Bren’s absent minded whistling.
He was brought back from his distraction when Bren moved closer and spoke softly.
“Ken I ask a question,” the barkeep said.
The stranger shook off his faraway gaze and nodded.
“Yeh have the look of a man who's seen things men aren’t supposed to see,” Bren said.
A tight, grim smile twitched at the corner of the man’s lips.
“I seen it before, on men who come back from the Thrarian Wilds,” Bren continued. “Or those who fought the wizardlings in the Fey War. I don’t want to pry, and I’ll understand if you refuse to answer, but-“
“Where have I been and what did I see?” The dark man asked, one eyebrow arched in amusement.
“I do not mind that you asked, but there is much I still do not yet understand, but you are right. I have seen things that no living man has seen.”
Seeing the expectant look on the barkeep’s face, the stranger continued.
“You’ve heard tell the stories about the eastern wilds I take it?
“Of course, who hasn’t?”
“My point exactly, most people out there have had hear the tales of The Mad Beggar King, or the legends about the Darkling Prince and the Hollows-men who kidnap naughty children and wear their skins stretched out over their empty faces. But most people also know that these are just stories, right? Thing is, they’re not all just stories.
“Sure, they’re not exactly correct most of the time. The Beggar King isn’t as mad as the stories would have you believe, and the Darklings don’t really have a prince, he’s more of a chieftain. The Hollows-men do wear human skin over their faces as a sort of war-mask, though I do not know if the age of the person matters in the selection.
“I was scouting out along some of the smaller islands to the south when I encountered something that made everything else I had been doing, all of the discoveries I had made, seem completely meaningless.”
The barkeep had long ago stopped wiping down the counter with his rag and instead stared with rapt attention at the stranger.
“What did you find?” Bren said.
“The ruins of Da-dake.”
“Bullshit,” the bartender said, resuming his cleaning. The stranger reached into one of the deepest layers of his mass of cloaks and pulled a stone disk from one of the many hidden pockets, sliding across the counter toward the other man. Bren gave it a hard look before picking it up off of the wooden bar-top.
It was just large enough to cover the big man’s entire palm, perfectly smooth and far lighter than it should have been for a stone of that size. As Bren turned it over in his hand, tracing the elaborate inlay of runes and markings on both sides, he was surprised by the profound coldness that seemed to emanate from deep within the disk.
“That’s a Da-dakerian lodestone you’re holding,” the stranger said, as the barkeep stared in amazement at the ancient piece of mystical technology in his hands. “Do I have your attention now?”
Bren nodded numbly as he carefully handed the disk back to the stranger.
“What was it like?” He asked, his voice barely a whisper.
“I am loathe to describe it. Even as a man who has spent much of his life studying at universities all across the known world, I fear my words would be unable to give voice to the place. It was both achingly beautiful and utterly terrifying. I walked the stone corridors of the city that even after centuries of ruin still maintain their beauty. I marveled at the feats of arithmetical and architectural brilliance and cowered at the sight of the engines of war that lay scattered around the city, crumbling hulks of steel and stone and magic that I could not begin to decipher.
“I made my way toward the center of the city and what I saw there I do not believe I will ever be able to forget. So deeply is the sight burned into my mind that I still see it when I close my eyes. The enormous, circular courtyard, split into alternating sections of smooth stone cobbling and deep pools of water. Ilielli save me, the water. Never in my life have I seen water so blue. It made the clearest midday skies of my childhood seem grey and dead in comparison.
“At the very center, where every path and roadway in the city met lay a tower of such astounding craftsmanship that I dare not even attempt to describe its complexity. And around the tower were wrapped chains of such size that a grown man would be unable to place his fingertips at both ends at the same time.
“Do you remember the stories of what happened to the Da-daker?” he asked darkly.
Bren stumbled a bit, trying to remember the details. The stories of Da-dake were ones he had not heard in earnest since childhood, and that was a long time ago. He mumbled noncommittally about blue water and being woken up by birds.
The stranger let his expression go slack as he began to recite in measured tone:
"And yea, upon the golden city fell a shadow,
And the day was as night, and the sky didst make
The ground shudder and the wind blow,
And upon them did fall the full fury of the ancient gods.
The guardians of the golden city flew,
As demons doth flee, toward the oncoming storm
And with sound and fury they spread their wings
Against the onslaught of dark power and with their own
They didst spirit them away, with magicks unknown
Leaving only the golden city to wait and sleep.
And within the great tower did they imprison the
Dark power that sought to enslave and destroy.
And there in the great city they in vigilant sleep.
They wait for the time of return.
They dream of a day
A day in Da-dake
Where the water is blue
And the birds are awake.”
“I saw,” the stranger said in hushed reverence. “There on the tower, perched in terrible glory, the birds of Da-dake: their golden plumes reflecting the brilliance of the sun in arching rays across the courtyard, casting elaborate plays of light and shadow on the buildings surrounding the town center. The talons, as large as a man’s arm, sunk deep into the side of the tower or gripping tight around the heavy chains.
The man fell silent, his eyes far away and glassy in remembrance. After several moments the bartender nudged the man’s arm lightly trying to wake him from his thoughts. The slight touch elicited a small jolt and the stranger looked around quickly, his dark eyes wide and wild, as though he had forgotten where he was.
“I’m sorry,” he said distractedly. “I- I have to go. I can’t be here any longer. I shouldn’t have stayed this long.”
“But your room,” Bren stammered.
“I’m sorry,” the stranger said as he began to rise from the stool. “I must leave. Keep the money; I have no need of it.”
He moved toward the door, slowly but with the plodding determination of one who has a long way to go before they can truly rest. As he reached the heavy oak door, Bren called out, stopping him halfway out the doorway.
“What was it,” the barkeep said. “What happened? What did you see?”
A shadow passed over the stranger’s face as he spoke.
“The birds,” he whispered. “The birds are awake. The Da-Daker are returning, and we are all in terrible danger."
He disappeared out the door and into the darkness of night, his cloaks whipping in the sudden wind that had begun whistling through the town. The door closed with a solid sounding thump, and Bren was left, standing by the bar; the cold feeling of confusion and apprehension building in the pit of his stomach.
“The Da-daker are returning, and the birds are awake,” he repeated softly, feeling their unfamiliar weight in his mouth.
Outside, the stranger moved swiftly through the darkness; as sure-footed as the hart he ran, cloaks billowing behind him as he made for the edge of the forest that ran parallel to the imperial road that ran north toward the capital.
He ran, and the sound of enormous wings beating out their steady rhythm floated above the sound of the gathering storm.
Aaron Greene is a freelance writer, novelist, and journalist. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona and spends many of his waking hours at the Arizona Conservatory for Arts and Academics where he teaches AP and Honors Language Arts and Film Criticism.
In his remaining time he writes and edits for the nerd culture blog EatYourComics.com, and co-hosts the Parallel Words writing podcast.
He manages this all while being a devoted husband and father, working on his own personal writing projects, and maintaining a loose grip on his sanity.
You can read or hear some of his other work at EatYourComics.com or at ParallelWordsPC.wordpress.com. Additionally, he can be reached on Twitter @iamgreene654 and via email at Greene@eatyourcomics.com.