Coffee Break

Coffee Break

He was Pallin Kask. That Pallin Kask. The last of the Mourning Swords. The terror of Yann, he who tamed the great Beast of Mal.

He was trying to decide on a drink.

The barmaid stood there, trying her best not to tap her fingers against the table. The knight was a nice enough sort. Nice enough to look at. Golden flowing locks over burnished silver plate armor. Melancholia was buckled across the back of his seat, the hilt of the greatsword rapping against his armor whenever someone bumped into the chair. His own set of silverware, immaculately polished, rattled on the table, disused until he made his choice.

This was a difficult decision for the legend. He had never been to the Reprieve Inn. They had an extensive list of beverages, both hot and cold. Though the night air was chilled in early autumn, Pallin still wondered about the merits of evening coffee. It was a philosophical decision he had struggled with for many years. And their specialty drinks truly read in exquisite manner. But was this a ruse, pretty words to hide something truly odious?

The knight had led armies to the very edge of the Pit, and against the highest hordes of the heavens. He had had to grapple with the Minotaur’s Conundrum. But this plagued him with more indecision than ever before.

“It’s just a freaking drink!”

Bricklemane never had to face indecision. He had to make a decision, he made it, and damn the consequences. That’s why he had to scrunch his eyes shut and down this latest concoction. It held froth, and slime, and the hunter wasn’t entirely sure something didn’t try to crawl back up his throat. He never complained though.

Bricklemane was just the latest name for the silent woodsman. A reference to the cloak he wore constantly, and the time he strangled six men in its folds before they could reveal his position. The name suited him, and he liked the way it sounded. His cloak appreciated being a part of the conversation.

It seemed with every campaign and war he picked up a new one. In the Coral wars thirty years ago he was Salthair, with crystals sticking to his coarse black hair as he beat the Sea Fiend back from the shores. The name Ash came from an unfortunate incident, and took him years to get his beard back to a comfortable length. He still despised salamanders to this day.

But Bricklemane was what he was now. And he’d be damned if he didn’t finish this drink.

Pallin had been there when he was known as Ash. The knight had fought for the salamanders. He’d even clashed with Ash, or Bricklemane or Salthair, fighting on the great burning sands against the rebellion. The hunter was not just a mercenary fighting against the knight. Pallin had been sworn bodyguard to the Sand Tsar, and Ash had pledged his soul to the peasants the lord supposedly subjugated. The civil war had lasted three years, and both Pallin and Ash had been personally responsible for killing the other’s closest companions.

“Is there anything else I can get you?” the barmaid asked.

Pallin and the woodsman looked across from each other, unsure of what the right response would be. Another round of bread while the knight looked over the menu again? Maybe a couple of swords and thirty paces? The two men weren’t sure whether they wanted to hug each other, or draw blades.

Hettie Magusson winked at the barmaid. “They’ll need a few moments. They’re kind of idiots.”

She watched the barmaid go by. “And if you aren’t doing anything later…” She trailed off with a little smile.

It’s fascinating that of the three legends seated there, Hettie was the one who no one truly knew. Perhaps it was because the hunter and the knight were such polar opposites, while Hettie was nice and agreeable. She just seemed wedged in between two titans determined to either drink or fight.

Everyone knew of the last of the Mourning Swords. The magnificent code of Pallin, which to this day was inviolate. His word was his bond, his oath was his shield. And his arm was merciless. Even when he struck down peasants, in their last breaths they realized that he took no pleasure in their deaths. For Pallin it was a matter of law, of justice. He openly wept when it clashed with goodness.

Bricklemane was a man of a different code. Or, more accurately, a man without a code. He found the very concept of codes to be flawed. Something, somewhere along the line was going to make you either a hypocrite or a bastard. Just be concerned with the good, and law and order would sort itself out. Or not, who really gives a damn?

These two men had been on one side or the other of many conflicts over the years. More often than not they fought alongside each other, combatting an evil tyrant or sorcerer that broke Pallin’s code and was just a right ass to the hunter. They quested together, brokered peace, and started noble conflicts. Let it never be said that either of these were evil men.

Pallin and Bricklemane were just a little incompatible. Just enough to fight on opposite sides enough times to open wounds that could never be truly healed. Neither of them truly believed they would be here. The knight should have never had to sit in this chair, tangling with an obscure menu. Bricklemane couldn’t imagine trying to choke down another of those stupid drinks.

But they had made a promise to Hettie.

Hettie was a half-elf. Everything about her seemed to be half-something, half another. Her burning red hair was offset by blonde streaks mixed in, her deep green iris in the right eye an opposite to the human mud staring out her left. And her mouth always seemed a quirk, caught between a smile and frown.

Her clothes were the only thing uniform, and forgettable. A simple white blouse over brown leggings. A red tunic, just for a little flavor. A necklace of twine, bare of any ornament, that she constantly picked at.

For all the half-measures, she seemed destined for obscurity. The history books would agree with that sentiment. She was not at any treaty signing, nor led the charge of any great battle. She did not pen the great song, nor was she known as a holder of great secrets. No, Hettie just lived.

And in living, walked through every momentous occasion of note for the last thirty years.

Not in ways that get mentioned. She had been in Yann as Pallin rampaged at the bandit clans. She was on board one of the great warships that helped plunge one of the Sea Witch’s monsters back into the depths. And Hettie ended the Sand Tsar’s war, being both his mistress and the love of the peasant lord. This half-elf quietly nudged each of her partners towards each other.

Just as she had gotten Pallin and Bricklemane to pledge to one break so many years ago. No matter the circumstance, no matter the hardships of each man. Hettie Magusson wrung it out of the men in ways that made all excuses seem dry and useless.

The barmaid returned, and Hettie nodded. “He is having a cup of coffee.” She said.

“I can very well order my own drink!” Pallin protested.

“Very well,” Hettie smiled. “What is the very pretty lady spiking it with?”

“Brandy,” The knight muttered.

“And for the other man?”

“Anything that’s not this swill,” Bricklemane said.

“And I’ll have some of that delicious house wine,” Hettie said. “And the pleasure of your company later,” She continued. The server stumbled away, flushed.

“Hettie,” Pallin chided. “This is not the south. You cannot just inquire on a woman without…” He searched for the right words.

“She might not like girls,” Bricklemane said.

“I don’t like girls,” Hettie said. “No one likes girls. Girls are vain, stupid, flighty, and prone to emotional outbursts. I’m seducing a woman.”

Bricklemane laughed. Long, loud and hard. Pallin himself managed a smile.

“So, what should we talk about?” Hettie asked.

What to talk about? The rules the half-elf laid out were simple, and limiting. No dredging up past troubles, no airing of grievances. But this removed so many things.

Love? There was the famous ballad of Nivia, the Black Lily. Pallin’s second lover, and one that he held most dear. Bricklemane stole her away in the night, taking her as his own. The hunter claimed that she was truly lost, and desired freedom. Those who supported the knight understood that this was truly when he joined the Mourning Swords, lost without his love.

Work was supremely out of the question. Politics would only exasperate the situation. Friends of one could easily be seen as another’s enemy.

“A year ago, I was sent to hunt you down.”

Bricklemane nodded. It was an open secret. Pallin had been given the quest by the local baron. On one hand, it was a local rebellion that Bricklemane had helped instigate. Peasants rising up against taxation, led by a legendary firebrand. But this was where Bricklemane received his new name. and one of the six men he strangled to death was the baron’s son. Pallin felt compelled to answer the call.

“I thought this was…” Hettie trailed off as the knight raised his hand.

“Spent three weeks tracking you down. Through the densest forest I had ever seen. I had left my armor behind in the first three days, and picked through muck that looked like it belonged in the latrines rather than my boots.”

Pallin smiled. “I hated you. You had gone too far, hunter. Always having an arrow pointed at fortunate souls, sentenced to death for being too rich. And this time the baron’s son, a friend of mine, was strangled so some peasants could play at being hero.

“But twelve days in, I crested a ridge. And just stopped.”

The hunter nodded. He almost teared at the memory. “Solace ridge,” he whispered.

The two sat in silence. Their drinks arrived, Hettie leered at the barmaid, who seemed to return the glance and make a promise to their friend. Pallin and Bricklemane stared into nothing. They tried to pierce walls, night, space, trying to once again see from Solace ridge. See the dogwoods scattered among the evergreens. The wild ivy that played up and down the waterfall, the sheer rocks at the bottom of the cliffs that formed some pattern that only nature could discern. All beneath a clouded sky that made it all the more wondrous.

“How many times did you manage to witness such beauty?” Pallin asked. Bricklemane shrugged, he hadn’t kept count. The knight sighed. “I would have given so much to stay there.”

“You almost did,” The hunter said. He had been there. He had been with Pallin for all of those twelve days, contemplating the shot. A chance to get rid of that cog in the establishment. Even though a good man, Pallin held together so many governments in his fist. Should he have fallen, how many of the poor would be free? How many lives would be improved if this good man didn’t survive this quest?

And the shot was so easy. Bricklemane had been less than twenty yards away from Solace ridge. He had the arrow nocked. Pallin wouldn’t have even noticed he was dead.

“Why not?” The knight asked.

“Can’t kill a man on Solace ridge,” The hunter said. “It’s just not done.”

Hettie raised a drink. Her hand snaked out and caught the poor barmaid, dragging her close. “To the beauty of this world,” She toasted.

The men gladly drank to that. Afterwards, conversation became more civilized and relaxed. Both Pallin and Bricklemane laughed at some of their failures to kill each other. When they found out Hettie was the one that convinced the baron to lower taxes, they laughed even harder.

The three must have talked for hours. Hettie caroused, and made eyes for more than just the barmaid. But she always kept an eye on both knight and hunter.

Towards the end, Pallin went to relieve himself. Bricklemane stood up, and laid some coins on the table for his drinks. “Pallin is still looking for me,” The hunter said. “Something about a failed coup.”

He kissed the half-elf on the cheek. “Thanks for this, Hettie. Always a doll.”

She punched him in the arm once. “Stay alive, Oan,” she muttered.

“I’d say the same,” Bricklemane said. “But who wants to harm you?”

Hettie shrugged. Bricklemane exited through the kitchens, and before Pallin returned to the table his quarry was half a mile away.

“He escaped.” The knight sighed. “Was planning on talking to him about that assassination attempt.”

“He called it a coup.” Hettie said. The knight shook his head. Coup, assassination, one preceded the other.

“Why now, Hettie?” Pallin asked. For all the times he had loved that hunter as a brother, in truth they had not worked together in years. It happened. Too much bad blood just drove out any good intentions.

“Why not?”

That was as good a reason as any, he supposed. Pallin remained with her for a few minutes, before paying more than his fair share of the bill. He thanked the barmaid, and whispered a few things in her ear that made her flush a deep crimson. With a wink, the knight was gone. Out the door, saddled on his horse, and off in the opposite direction of the hunter.

Hettie sipped at her wine. It was somewhere between her fifth and eighth glass, but she still felt lucid. The bar started to clear out, many heading out to their farmsteads or hidey-holes deep in the trees.

“Are you leaving?” The barmaid asked. Hettie shook her head. She had scrounged enough money for a room above the bar.

“Seem to be drinking a lot for someone whose friends have already left.”

Hettie laughed. “It’s my chance to breathe.” She said. She motioned for the maid to sit down, and pushed the glass her way. “I’m collecting on your promise of company.”

The maid looked around the empty bar, and drank. “Were those two really Sir Pallin Kask and Bricklemane the hunter?”

“Mmhmm.” Hettie nudged her chair closer. “Just a couple of friends, enjoying themselves.”

“Were they brokering a peace?” The maid asked. “Or maybe deciding on a place to duel for the fate of a nation? Or Navia’s hand…”

“What’s your name?” Hettie asked.

“Melody,” The maid mumbled.

“A song,” Hettie said. “Would you believe me if I told you we just sat here, had our drinks, and talked about old times?”

Melody thought about it for a moment. It didn’t really seem likely.

Hettie kissed her hand. “Well, when you figure out what we were talking about, come tell me. Upstairs.”

It didn’t seem possible. All the tales, all the stories of greatness between those two men. They couldn’t truly be normal. Fate wouldn’t allow it.

Right?

copyright 2016 Jack Holder