THE SOUND OF HEAVY boots on the wooden landing startled the men sitting in the Waystone Inn. Kvothe bolted to his feet midsentence and was halfway to the bar before the front door opened and the first of the Felling night crowd made their way inside.
“You’ve got hungry men here, Kote!” Cob called out as he opened the door. Shep, Jake, and Graham followed him inside.
“We might have a little something in the back,” Kote said. “I could run and fetch it straightaway, unless you’d like drinks first.” There was a chorus of friendly assent as the men settled onto their stools at the bar. The exchange had a well-worn feel, comfortable as old shoes.
Chronicler stared at the red-haired man behind the bar. There was nothing left of Kvothe in him. It was just an innkeeper: friendly, servile, and so unassuming as to almost be invisible.
Jake took a long drink before noticing Chronicler sitting at the far end of the room. “Well look at you, Kote! A new customer. Hell, we’re lucky to have got any seats at all.”
Shep chuckled. Cob swiveled his stool around and peered at where Chronicler sat next to Bast, pen still poised over his paper. “Is he a scribe or sommat?”
“He is,” Kote said quickly. “Came into town late last night.” Cob squinted toward them. “What’s he writing?”
Kote lowered his voice a bit, drawing the attention of the customers away from the guest and back to his side of the bar. “Remember that trip Bast made to Baedn?” They nodded attentively. “Well, turns out he had a scare with the pox, and he’s been feeling his years a bit since then. He thought he’d best get his will writ down while he had the chance.”
“Sense enough in that, these days,” Shep said darkly. He drank off the last of his beer and knocked the empty mug down. “I’ll do another of those.”
“Whatsoever monies I have saved at the time of my death shall go to the Widow Sage,” Bast said loudly across the room. “To help in raising and dowering her three daughters, as they are soon to be of marriaging age.” He gave Chronicler a troubled look. “Is ‘marriaging’ a word?”
“Little Katie certainly has grown up a bit this last year, hasn’t she?” Graham mused. The others nodded in agreement.
“To my employer, I leave my best pair of boots,” Bast continued magnanimously. “And whatsoever of my pants he finds fit him.”
“Boy does have a fine pair of boots,” Cob said to Kote. “Always thought so.”
“I leave it to Pater Leoden to distribute the remainder of my worldly goods among the parish, as, being an immoral soul, I will have no further need of them.”
“You mean, immortal, don’t you?” Chronicler asked uncertainly.
Bast shrugged. “That’s all I can think of for now.” Chronicler nodded and quickly shuffled the paper, pens, and ink into his flat leather satchel.
“Come on over then,” Cob called to him. “Don’t be a stranger.” Chronicler froze, then made his way slowly toward the bar. “What’s your name, boy?”
“Devan,” he said, then looked stricken and cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Carverson. Devan Carverson.”
Cob made introductions all around, then turned back to the newcomer. “Which way you from, Devan?” Cob asked.
“Off past Abbott’s Ford.” “Any news from that way?”
Chronicler shifted uncomfortably in his seat while Kote eyed him darkly from the other side of the bar. “Well…the roads are rather bad….”
This sparked a chorus of familiar complaints, and Chronicler relaxed. While they were still grousing, the door opened and the smith’s prentice came in, boyish and broad-shouldered with the smell of coalsmoke in his hair. A long rod of iron rested on his shoulder as he held the door open for Carter.
“You look a fool, boy,” Carter groused as he made his way slowly through the door, walking with the stiff care of the recently injured. “You keep hauling that around, and folk’ll start talking about you like they do Crazy Martin. You’ll be that crazy boy from Rannish. You want to listen to that for the next fifty years?”
The smith’s prentice shifted his grip on the iron bar self-consciously. “Let ’em talk,” he mumbled with a hint of defiance. “Since I went out and took care of Nelly I’ve been having dreams about that spider thing.” He shook his head. “Hell, I’d think you’d be carrying one in each hand. That thing could’ve killed you.”
Carter ignored him, his expression stiff as he walked gingerly toward the
“Good to see you up and about, Carter,” Shep called out, raising his mug.
“I thought we might not see you out of bed for another day or two.” “Take more than a few stitches to keep me down,” Carter said.
Bast made a show of offering up his stool to the injured man, then quietly took a seat as far from the smith’s prentice as possible. There was a warm murmur of welcome from everyone.
The innkeeper ducked into the back room and emerged a few minutes later carrying a tray loaded with hot bread and steaming bowls of stew.
Everyone was listening to Chronicler. “…if I remember right, Kvothe was off in Severen when it happened. He was walking home—”
“It weren’t Severen,” Old Cob said. “It was off by the University.”
“Could have been,” Chronicler conceded. “Anyway, he was walking home late at night and some bandits jumped him in an alleyway.”
“It was broad daylight,” Cob said testily. “In the middle of town. All manner of folk were around to see it.”
Chronicler shook his head stubbornly. “I remember an alley. Anyway, the bandits surprised Kvothe. They wanted his horse,” he paused and rubbed his forehead with the tips of his fingers. “Wait, that’s not right. He wouldn’t have his horse in an alley. Maybe he was on the road to Severen.”
“I told you, it weren’t Severen!” Cob demanded, slapping his hand down on the bar, plainly irritated. “Tehlu anyway, just stop. You’ve got it all mixed up.”
Chronicler flushed in embarrassment. “I only heard it once, years ago.”
Shooting Chronicler a dark look, Kote clattered the tray down loudly onto the bar and the story was momentarily forgotten. Old Cob ate so quickly he almost choked himself, and washed it down with a long swallow of beer.
“Seeing as how you’re still working on your dinner there,” he said none too casually to Chronicler as he wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Would you mind terrible if I picked up the story? Just so’s the boy can hear it?”
“If you’re sure you know it….” Chronicler said hesitantly.
“Of course I know it,” Cob said as he spun his stool around to face more of his audience. “Alright. Way back when Kvothe was just a pup, he went to the University. But he didn’t live in the University proper, you see, on account of the fact that he was just ordinary folk. He couldn’t afford all the fancy living that went on there.”
“How come?” the smith’s prentice asked. “You said before that Kvothe was so smart they paid him to stay even though he was just ten years old. They gave him a purse full of gold, and a diamond big as his thumb knuckle, and a brand new horse with a new saddle and tack and new shoes and a full bag of oats and everything.”
Cob gave a conciliatory nod. “True, that’s true. But this was a year or two after Kvothe had got all that. And you see, he’d gave a lot of that gold to some poor folk whose houses had all burned down.”
“Burned down during their wedding,” Graham interjected.
Cob nodded. “And Kvothe had to eat, and rent a room, and buy more oats
for his horse. So his gold was all used up by then. So he—” “What about the diamond?” the boy insisted.
Old Cob gave the barest of frowns. “If you’ve got to know, he gave that diamond to a special friend of his. A special lady friend. But that’s a whole different story than the one I’m telling now.” He glared at the boy, who dropped his eyes contritely and spooned up a mouthful of stew.
Cob continued, “Since Kvothe couldn’t afford all that rich living in the University, he stayed in the town nextby instead, place called Amary.” He shot Chronicler a pointed look. “Kvothe had a room in a inn where he got to stay there for free because the widow who owned the place took a shine to him, and he did chores to help earn his keep.”
“He played music there too,” Jake added. “He was all sorts of clever with his lute.”
“Get your dinner into your gob and let me finish my say, Jacob,” Old Cob snapped. “Everyone knows Kvothe was clever with a lute. That’s why the widow had taken such a shine to him in the first place, and playing music every night was part of his chores.”
Cob took a quick drink and continued. “So one day Kvothe was out running errands for the widow, when a fellow pulls out a knife and tells Kvothe if he doesn’t hand over the widow’s money, he’ll spill Kvothe’s guts all over the street.” Cob pointed an imaginary knife at the boy and gave him a menacing look. “Now you’ve got to remember, this is back when Kvothe was just a pup. He ain’t got no sword, and even if he did, he ain’t learned to fight proper from the Adem yet.”
“So what did Kvothe do?” the smith’s prentice asked.
“Well,” Cob leaned back. “It was the middle of the day, and they were smack in the middle of Amary’s town square. Kvothe was about to call for the constable, but he always had his eyes wide open, you see. And so he noticed that this fellow had white, white teeth….”
The boy’s eyes grew wide. “He was a sweet-eater?”
Cob nodded. “And even worse, the fellow was starting to sweat like a hard-run horse, his eyes were wild, and his hands…” Cob widened his own eyes and held out his hands, making them tremble. “So Kvothe knew the fellow had the hunger something fierce, and that meant he’d stab his own mum for a bent penny.” Cob took another long drink, drawing out the tension. “Whatever did he do?” Bast burst out anxiously from the far end of the
bar, wringing his hands dramatically. The innkeeper glared at his student.
Cob continued, “Well, first he hesitates, and the man comes closer with the knife and Kvothe can see the fellow ain’t going to ask again. So Kvothe uses a dark magic that he found locked away in a secret book in the University. He speaks three terrible, secret words and calls up a demon—”
“A demon?” the prentice’s voice was almost a yelp. “Was it like the
Cob shook his head, slowly. “Oh no, this one weren’t spiderly at all. It was worse. This one was made all of shadows, and when it landed on the fellow it bit him on the chest, right over his heart, and it drank all the blood out of him like you’d suck the juice out of a plum.”
“Blackened hands, Cob,” Carter said, his voice thick with reproach. “You’re going to give the boy nightmares. He’ll be carrying around that damn iron stick for a year with all your nonsense stuffed in his head.”
“That’s not how I heard it,” Graham said slowly. “I heard there was a woman trapped in a burning house, and Kvothe called up a demon to protect him from the fire. Then he ran inside and pulled the lady out of the fire and she wasn’t burned at all.”
“Listen to yourselves,” Jake said, disgusted. “You’re like kids at Midwinter. ‘Demons stole my doll.’ ‘Demons spilled the milk.’ Kvothe didn’t meddle with demons. He was at the University learning all manner of names, right? The fellow came at him with a knife and he called out fire and lightning, just like Taborlin the Great.”
“It was a demon, Jake,” Cob said angrily. “Otherwise the story don’t make a lick of sense. It was a demon he called up, and it drank up the fellow’s blood, and everyone who saw was powerful shook up by it. Someone told a priest, then the priests went to the constable, and the constable went and pulled him out of the widow’s inn that night. Then they slapped him into jail for consorting with dark forces and such.”
“Folk probably just saw the fire and thought it was a demon,” Jake persisted. “You know how folk are.”
“No I don’t, Jacob,” Cob snapped, crossing his arms in front of his chest and leaning back against the bar. “Why don’t you tell me how folk are? Why don’t you just go ahead and tell this whole damn story while…”
Cob stopped at the sound of heavy boots clumping on the wooden landing outside. After a pause, someone fumbled with the latch.
Everyone turned around to look at the door, curious, as all the regular customers were already there. “Two new faces in one day,” Graham said gently, knowing he was touching on a delicate subject. “Looks like your dry spell might be over, Kote.”
“Roads must be getting better,” Shep said into his drink, a hint of relief in his voice. “About time we got a touch of luck.”
The latch clicked and the door swung slowly open, moving in a slow arc until it struck the wall. A man stood outside in the dark, as if deciding whether or not to come in.
“Welcome to the Waystone,” the innkeeper called out from behind the bar. “What can we do for you?”
The man stepped into the light and the farmers’ excitement was smothered
by the sight of the piecemeal leather armor and heavy sword that marked a mercenary. A lone mercenary was never reassuring, even in the best of times. Everyone knew that the difference between an unemployed mercenary and a highwayman was mostly one of timing.
What’s more, it was obvious this mercenary had fallen on hard times. Brownburr clung thick to the bottoms of his pants and the rough leather of his boot’s laces. His shirt was fine linen dyed a deep, royal blue, but mud-spattered and bramble-torn. His hair was a greasy snarl. His eyes were dark and sunken, as if he hadn’t slept in days. He moved a few steps farther into the inn, leaving the door open behind him.
“Looks like you’ve been on the road a while,” Kvothe said cheerily. “Would you like a drink or some dinner?” When the mercenary made no reply, he added, “None of us would blame you if you wanted to catch a bit of sleep first, either. It looks like you’ve had a rough couple days.” Kvothe glanced at Bast, who slid off his stool and went to close the inn’s front door.
After slowly looking over everyone sitting at the bar, the mercenary moved to the empty space between Chronicler and Old Cob. Kvothe gave his best innkeeper’s smile as the mercenary leaned heavily against the bar and mumbled something.
Across the room, Bast froze with his hand on the door handle. “Beg your pardon?” Kvothe asked, leaning forward.
The mercenary looked up, his eyes meeting Kvothe’s then sweeping back and forth behind the bar. His eyes moved sluggishly, as if he had been addled by a blow to the head. “Aethin tseh cthystoi scthaiven vei.”
Kvothe leaned forward, “I’m sorry, what was that again?” When nothing was forthcoming from the mercenary, he looked around at the other men at the bar. “Did anyone catch that?”
Chronicler was looking the mercenary over, eyeing the man’s armor, the empty quiver of arrows, his fine blue linen shirt. The scribe’s stare was intense, but the mercenary didn’t seem to notice.
“It’s Siaru,” Cob said knowingly. “Funny. He don’t look like a shim.”
Shep laughed, shaking his head. “Naw. He’s drunk. My uncle used to talk like that.” He nudged Graham with an elbow. “You remember my Uncle Tam? God, I’ve never known a man who drank like that.”
Bast made a frantic, covert gesture from where he stood near the door, but Kvothe was busy trying to catch the mercenary’s eye. “Speak Aturan?” Kvothe asked slowly. “What do you want?”
The mercenary’s eyes rested momentarily on the innkeeper. “Avoi—” he began, then closed his eyes and tilted his head, as if listening. He opened his eyes again. “I…want…” he began, his voice slow and thick. “I…look…” He trailed off, his gaze wandering aimlessly around the room, his eyes unfocused.
“I know him,” Chronicler said.
Everyone turned to look at the scribe. “What?” Shep asked.
Chronicler’s expression was angry. “This fellow and four of his friends robbed me about five days ago. I didn’t recognize him at first. He was clean-shaven then, but it’s him.”
Behind the man’s back, Bast made a more urgent gesture, trying to catch his master’s attention, but Kvothe was intent on the befuddled man. “Are you sure?”
Chronicler gave a hard, humorless laugh. “He’s wearing my shirt. Ruined it too. Cost me a whole talent. I never even got a chance to wear it.”
“Was he like this before?”
Chronicler shook his head. “Not at all. He was almost genteel as highwaymen go. I had him pegged as a low-ranking officer before he deserted.”
Bast gave up signaling. “Reshi!” He called out, a hint of desperation in his voice.
“Just a moment, Bast,” Kvothe said as he tried to catch the stupefied mercenary’s attention. He waved a hand in front of the man’s face, snapped his fingers. “Hello?”
The man’s eyes followed Kvothe’s moving hand, but seemed oblivious to everything being said around him. “I…am…look…” he said slowly. “I look…”
“What?” Cob demanded testily. “What are you looking for?”
“Looking…” the mercenary echoed vaguely.
“I imagine he’s looking to give me my horse back,” Chronicler said calmly as he took a half step closer to the man and grabbed the hilt of his sword. With a sudden motion he yanked it free, or rather, he tried to. Instead of sliding easily free it of its scabbard, it came halfway out and stuck.
“No!” Bast cried from across the room.
The mercenary stared vaguely at Chronicler, but made no attempt to stop him. Standing awkwardly, still gripping the hilt of the man’s sword, the scribe tugged harder and the sword pulled slowly free. The broad blade was mottled with dried blood and rust.
Taking a step back, Chronicler regained his composure and leveled the sword at the mercenary. “And my horse is just for starters. Afterward I think he’s looking to give me my money back and have a nice chat with the constable.”
The mercenary looked at the point of the sword where it swayed unsteadily in front of his chest. His eyes followed the gently swaying motion for a long moment.
“Just leave him be!” Bast’s voice was shrill. “Please!”
Cob nodded. “Boy’s right, Devan. Fella’s not right in his head. Don’t go
pointing that at him. He looks likely to pass out on top of it.”
The mercenary absentmindedly lifted a hand. “I am looking…” he said, brushing the sword aside as if it were a branch blocking his path. Chronicler sucked in a breath and jerked the sword away as the man’s hand ran along the edge of the blade, drawing blood.
“See?” Old Cob said. “What I tell you? Sod’s a danger to hisself.”
The mercenary’s head tilted to the side. He held up his hand, examining it. A slow trickle of dark blood made its way down his thumb, where it gathered and swelled for a moment before dripping onto the floor. The mercenary drew a deep breath through his nose, and his glassy sunken eyes came into sudden, sharp focus.
He smiled wide at Chronicler, all the vagueness gone from his expression.
“Te varaiyn aroi Seathaloi vei mela,” he said in a deep voice. “I…I don’t follow you,” Chronicler said, disconcerted.
The man’s smile fell away. His eyes hardened, grew angry. “Te-tauren sciyrloet? Amauen.”
“I can’t tell what you’re saying,” Chronicler said. “But I don’t care for your tone.” He brought the sword back up between them, pointing at the man’s chest.
The mercenary looked down at the heavy, notched blade, his forehead furrowing in confusion. Then sudden understanding spread across his face and the wide smile returned. He threw back his head and laughed.
It was no human sound. It was wild and exulting, like a hawk’s shrill cry.
The mercenary brought up his injured hand and grabbed the tip of the sword, moving with such sudden speed that the metal rang dully with the contact. Still smiling, he tightened his grip, bowing the blade. Blood ran from his hand, down the sword’s edge to patter onto the floor.
Everyone in the room watched in stunned disbelief. The only sound was the faint grating of the mercenary’s finger bones grinding against the bare edges of the blade.
Looking Chronicler full in the face, the mercenary twisted his hand sharply and the sword broke with a sound like a shattered bell. As Chronicler stared dumbly at the ruined weapon the mercenary took a step forward and laid his empty hand lightly on the scribe’s shoulder.
Chronicler gave a choked scream and jerked away as if he had been jabbed with a hot poker. He swung the broken sword wildly, knocking the hand away and notching it deep into the meat of the mercenary’s arm. The man’s face showed no pain or fear, or any sign of awareness that he’d been wounded at all.
Still holding the broken tip of the sword in his bloody hand, the mercenary took another step toward Chronicler.
Then Bast was there, barreling into the mercenary with one shoulder,
striking him with such force that the man’s body shattered one of the heavy barstools before slamming into the mahogany bar. Quick as a blink, Bast grabbed the mercenary’s head with both hands and slammed it into the edge of the bar. Lips pulled back in a grimace, Bast drove the man’s head viciously into the mahogany: once, twice….
Then, as if Bast’s action had startled everyone awake, chaos erupted in the room. Old Cob pushed himself away from the bar, tipping his stool over as he backed away. Graham began shouting something about the constable. Jake tried to bolt for the door and tripped over Cob’s fallen stool, sprawling to the floor in a tangle. The smith’s prentice grabbed for his iron rod and ended up knocking it to the floor where it rolled in a wide arc and came to rest under a table.
Bast gave a startled yelp and was thrown violently across the room to land on one of the heavy timber tables. It broke under his weight and he lay sprawled in the wreckage, limp as a rag doll. The mercenary came to his feet, blood flowing freely down the left-hand side of his face. He seemed utterly unconcerned as he turned back to Chronicler, still holding the tip of the broken sword in his bleeding hand.
Behind him, Shep picked up a knife from where it lay next to the half-eaten wheel of cheese. It was just a kitchen knife, its blade about a handspan long. Face grim, the farmer stepped close behind the mercenary and stabbed down hard, driving the whole of the short blade deep into the mercenary’s body where the shoulder meets the neck.
Instead of collapsing, the mercenary spun around and lashed Shep across the face with the jagged edge of the sword. Blood sprayed and Shep lifted his hands to his face. Then, moving so quickly it was little more than a twitch, the mercenary brought the piece of metal back around, burying it in the farmer’s chest. Shep staggered backward against the bar, then collapsed to the floor with the broken end of the sword still jutting between his ribs.
The mercenary reached up and curiously touched the handle of the knife lodged in his own neck. His expression more puzzled than angry, he tugged at it. When it didn’t budge, he gave another wild, birdlike laugh.
As the farmer lay gasping and bleeding on the floor, the mercenary’s attention seemed to wander, as if he had forgotten what he was doing. His eyes slowly wandered around the room, moving lazily past the broken tables, the black stone fireplace, the huge oak barrels. Finally the mercenary’s gaze came to rest on the red-haired man behind the bar. Kvothe did not blanch or back away when the man’s attention settled onto him. Their eyes met.
The mercenary’s eyes sharpened again, focusing on Kvothe. The wide, humorless smile reappeared, made macabre by the blood running down his face. “Te aithiyn Seathaloi?” he demanded. “Te Rhintae?”
With an almost casual motion, Kvothe grabbed a dark bottle from the
counter and flung it across the bar. It struck the mercenary in the mouth and shattered. The air filled with the sharp tang of elderberry, dousing the man’s still-grinning head and shoulders.
Reaching out one hand, Kvothe dipped a finger into the liquor that spattered the bar. He muttered something under his breath, his forehead furrowed in concentration. He stared intently at the bloody man standing on the other side of the bar.
The mercenary reached across the bar, catching hold of Kvothe’s sleeve. The innkeeper simply stood, and in that moment his expression held no fear, no anger or surprise. He only seemed weary, numb, and dismayed.
Before the mercenary could get a grip on Kvothe’s arm, he staggered as Bast tackled him from behind. Bast managed to get one arm around the mercenary’s neck while the other raked at the man’s face. The mercenary let go of Kvothe and laid both hands on the arm that circled his neck, trying to twist away. When the mercenary’s hands touched him, Bast’s face became a tight mask of pain. Teeth bared, he clawed wildly at the mercenary’s eyes with his free hand.
At the far end of the bar, the smith’s prentice finally retrieved his iron rod from under the table and stretched to his full height. He charged over the fallen stools and strewn bodies on the floor. Bellowing, he lifted the iron rod high over one shoulder.
Still clinging to the mercenary, Bast’s eyes grew wide with sudden panic as he saw the smith’s prentice approaching. He released his grip and backed away, his feet tangling in the wreckage of the broken barstool. Falling backward, he scuttled madly away from the both of them.
Turning, the mercenary saw the tall boy charging. He smiled and stretched out a bloody hand. The motion was graceful, almost lazy.
The smith’s prentice swatted the arm away. When the iron bar struck him, the mercenary’s smile fell away. He clutched at his arm, hissing and spitting like an angry cat.
The boy swung the iron rod again, striking the mercenary squarely in the ribs. The force of it knocked him away from the bar, and he fell to his hands and knees, screaming like a slaughtered lamb.
The smith’s prentice grabbed the bar with both hands and brought it down across the mercenary’s back like a man splitting wood. There was the gristly sound of bones cracking. The iron bar rang softly, like a distant, fog-muffled bell.
Back broken, the bloody man still tried to crawl toward the inn’s door. His face was blank now, his mouth open in a low howl as constant and unthinking as the sound of wind through winter trees. The prentice struck again and again, swinging the heavy iron rod lightly as a willow switch. He scored a
deep groove in the wooden floor, then broke a leg, an arm, more ribs. Still the mercenary continued to claw his way toward the door, shrieking and moaning, sounding more animal than human.
Finally the boy landed a blow to the head and the mercenary went limp. There was a moment of perfect quiet, then the mercenary made a deep, wet, coughing sound and vomited up a foul fluid, thick as pitch and black as ink.
It was some time before the boy stopped battering at the motionless corpse, and even when he did stop, he held the bar poised over one shoulder, panting raggedly and looking around wildly. As he slowly caught his breath, the sound of low prayers could be heard from the other side of the room where Old Cob crouched against the black stone of the fireplace.
After a few minutes even the praying stopped, and silence returned to the Waystone Inn.
For the next several hours the Waystone was the center of the town’s attention. The common room was crowded, full of whispers, murmured questions, and broken sobbing. Folk with less curiosity or more propriety stayed outside, peering through the wide windows and gossiping over what they’d heard.
There were no stories yet, just a roiling mass of rumor. The dead man was a bandit come to rob the inn. He’d come looking for revenge against Chronicler, who’d deflowered his sister off in Abbott’s Ford. He was a woodsman gone rabid. He was an old acquaintance of the innkeeper, come to collect a debt. He was an ex-soldier, gone tabard-mad while fighting the rebels off in Resavek.
Jake and Carter made a point of the mercenary’s smile, and while denner addiction was a city problem, folk had still heard of sweet-eaters here. Three-finger Tom knew about these things, as he’d soldiered under the old king nearly thirty years ago. He explained that with four grains of denner resin, a man could have his foot amputated without a twinge of pain. With eight grains he’d saw through the bone himself. With twelve grains he’d go for a jog afterward, laughing and singing “Tinker Tanner.”
Shep’s body was covered with a blanket and prayed over by the priest. Later, the constable looked at it as well, but the man was clearly out of his depth, and was looking because he felt he should rather than because he knew what to look for.
The crowd began to thin after an hour or so. Shep’s brothers showed up with a cart to collect the body. Their grim, red-eyed stares drove away most of the remaining spectators who were idling about.
Still, there was much to be done. The constable tried to piece together what had happened from witnesses and the more opinionated onlookers. After
hours of speculation, the story finally began to coalesce. Eventually it was agreed that the man was a deserter and denner addict come to their little town just in time to go crazy.
It was clear to everyone that the smith’s prentice had done the right thing, a brave thing in fact. Still, the iron law demanded a trial, so there’d be one next month, when the quarter court came through these parts on its rounds.
The constable went home to his wife and children. The priest took the mercenary’s remains off to the church. Bast cleared the wrecked furniture away, stacking it near the kitchen door to be used as firewood. The innkeeper mopped the inn’s hardwood floor seven times, until the water in the bucket no longer tinged red when he rinsed it out. Eventually even the most dedicated gawkers drifted away, leaving the usual Felling night crowd, minus one.
Jake, Cob, and the rest made halting conversation, speaking of everything other than what had happened, clinging to the comfort of each other’s company.
One by one, exhaustion drove them out of the Waystone. Eventually only the smith’s prentice remained, looking down into the cup in his hands. The iron rod lay near his elbow on the top of the mahogany bar.
Nearly half an hour passed without anyone speaking. Chronicler sat at a nearby table, making a pretense of finishing a bowl of stew. Kvothe and Bast puttered about, trying to look busy. A vague tension built in the room as they snuck glances at each other, waiting for the boy to leave.
The innkeeper strolled over to the boy, wiping his hands on a clean linen cloth. “Well boy, I guess—”
“Aaron,” the smith’s prentice interjected, not looking up from his drink. “My name’s Aaron.”
Kvothe nodded seriously. “Aaron, then. I suppose you deserve that.” “I don’t think it was denner,” Aaron said abruptly.
Kvothe paused. “Beg pardon?”
“I don’t think that fellow was a sweet-eater.”
“You with Cob then?” Kvothe asked. “Think he was rabid?”
“I think he had a demon in him,” the boy said with careful deliberation, as if he’d been thinking about the words for a long time. “I didn’t say anything before ’cause I didn’t want folk to think I’d gone all cracked in the head like Crazy Martin.” He looked up from his drink. “But I still think he had a demon in him.”
Kvothe put on a gentle smile and gestured to Bast and Chronicler. “Aren’t you worried we’ll think the same?”
Aaron shook his head seriously. “You aren’t from around here. You’ve been places. You know what sort of things are out in the world.” He gave Kvothe a flat look. “I figure you know it was a demon too.”
Bast grew still where he stood sweeping near the hearth. Kvothe tilted his
head curiously without looking away. “Why would you say that?”
The smith’s prentice gestured behind the bar. “I know you got a big oak drunk-thumper under the bar there. And, well…” His eyes flickered upward to the sword hanging menacingly behind the bar. “There’s only one reason I can think you’d grab a bottle instead of that. You weren’t trying to knock that fellow’s teeth in. You were gonta light him on fire. ’Cept you didn’t have any matches, and there weren’t any candles closeby.”
“My ma used to read to me from the Book of the Path,” he continued. “There’s plenty of demons in there. Some hide in men’s bodies, like we’d hide under a sheepskin. I think he was just some regular fella who’d got a demon inside him. That’s why nothing hurt him. It’d be like someone poking holes in your shirt. That’s why he din’t make no sense, either. He was talking demon talk.”
Aaron’s eyes slid back to the cup he held in his hands, nodding to himself. “The more I think, the better it makes sense. Iron and fire. That’s for demons.”
“Sweet-eaters are stronger than you’d think,” Bast said from across the room. “Once I saw—”
“You’re right,” Kvothe said. “It was a demon.”
Aaron looked up to meet Kvothe’s eye, then nodded and looked down into his mug again. “And you didn’t say anything because you’re new in town, and business is shy enough.”
“And it won’t do me any good to tell folk, will it?”
Kvothe drew a deep breath, then let it out slow. “Probably not.”
Aaron drank off the last swallow of his beer and pushed the empty mug away from himself on the bar. “Alright. I just needed to hear it. Needed to know I hadn’t gone all crazy.” He came to his feet and picked up the heavy iron rod with one hand resting it on his shoulder as he turned toward the door. No one spoke as he made his way across the room and let himself out, closing the door behind him. His heavy boots sounded hollowly on the wooden landing outside, then there was nothing.
“There’s more to that one than I would’ve guessed,” Kvothe said at last. “It’s because he’s big,” Bast said matter-of-factly as he gave up the
pretense of sweeping. “You people are easily confused by the look of things. I’ve had my eye on him for a while now. He’s cleverer than folk give him credit for. Always looking at things and asking questions.” He carried the broom back toward the bar. “He makes me nervous.”
Kvothe looked amused. “Nervous? You?”
“The boy reeks of iron. Spends all day handling it, baking it, breathing its smoke. Then comes in here with clever eyes.” Bast gave a profoundly disapproving look. “It’s not natural.”
“Natural?” Chronicler finally spoke up. There was a tinge of hysteria in his voice. “What do you know about natural? I just saw a demon kill a man, was that natural?” Chronicler turned to face Kvothe. “What the hell was that thing doing here anyway?” Chronicler asked.
“‘Looking,’ apparently,” Kvothe said. “That’s about all I got. How about you, Bast? Could you understand it?”
Bast shook his head. “I recognized the sound more than anything, Reshi.
Its phrasing was very old, archaic. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.” “Fine. It was looking,” Chronicler said abruptly. “Looking for what?” “Me, probably,” Kvothe said grimly.
“Reshi,” Bast admonished him, “you’re just being maudlin. This isn’t your fault.”
Kvothe gave his student a long, weary look. “You know better than that, Bast. All of this is my fault. The scrael, the war. All my fault.”
Bast looked like he wanted to protest, but couldn’t find the words. After a long moment, he looked away, beaten.
Kvothe leaned his elbows onto the bar, sighing. “What do you think it was, anyway?”
Bast shook his head. “It seemed like one of the Mahael-uret, Reshi. A skin dancer.” He frowned as he said it, sounding anything but certain.
Kvothe raised an eyebrow. “It isn’t one of your kind?”
Bast’s normally affable expression sharpened into a glare. “It was not ‘my kind,’” he said indignantly. “The Mael doesn’t even share a border with us. It’s as far away as anywhere can be in the Fae.”
Kvothe nodded a hint of an apology. “I just assumed you knew what it was. You didn’t hesitate to attack it.”
“All snakes bite, Reshi. I don’t need their names to know they’re dangerous. I recognized it as being from the Mael. That was enough.”
“So, probably a skin dancer?” Kvothe mused. “Didn’t you tell me they’d been gone for ages and ages?”
Bast nodded. “And it seemed sort of…dumb, and it didn’t try to escape into a new body.” Bast shrugged. “Plus, we’re all still alive. That seems to indicate that it was something else.”
Chronicler watched the conversation incredulously. “You mean neither of you know what it was?” He looked at Kvothe. “You told the boy it was a demon!”
“For the boy it’s a demon,” Kvothe said, “because that’s the easiest thing for him to understand, and it’s close enough to the truth.” He began to slowly polish the bar. “For everyone else in town it’s a sweet-eater because that will let them get some sleep tonight.”
“Well it’s a demon for me too then,” Chronicler said sharply. “Because my shoulder feels like ice where it touched me.”
Bast hurried over. “I forgot it got a hand on you. Let me see.”
Kvothe closed the window’s shutters while Chronicler removed his shirt; there were bandages stripping the backs of his arms from where he had been wounded by the scrael three nights ago.
Bast looked closely at his shoulder. “Can you move it?”
Chronicler nodded, rolling it around. “It hurt like twelve bastards when he touched me, like something was tearing up inside.” He shook his head in irritation at his own description. “Now it just feels strange. Numb. Like it’s asleep.”
Bast prodded his shoulder with a finger, looking it over dubiously. Chronicler looked back at Kvothe. “The boy was right about the fire,
wasn’t he? Until he mentioned it, I didn’t underaaaaggghhhh!” the scribe shouted, jerking away from Bast. “What in God’s name was that?” he demanded.
“Your brachial nerve plexus, I’m guessing,” Kvothe said dryly.
“I needed to see how deep the damage went,” Bast said, unruffled. “Reshi? Would you get me some goose grease, garlic, mustard…. Do we have any of those green things that smell like onions but aren’t?”
Kvothe nodded. “Keveral? I think there’s a few left.”
“Bring them, and a bandage too. I should get a salve on this.”
Kvothe nodded and stepped through the doorway behind the bar. As soon as he was out of sight, Bast leaned close to Chronicler’s ear. “Don’t ask him about it,” he hissed urgently. “Don’t mention it at all.”
Chronicler looked puzzled. “What are you talking about?” “About the bottle. About the sympathy he tried to do.”
“So he was trying to light that thing on fire? Why didn’t it work? What’s
Bast tightened his grip, his thumb digging into the hollow beneath
Chronicler’s collarbone. The scribe gave another startled yelp. “Don’t talk about that,” Bast hissed in his ear. “Don’t ask questions.” Holding both the scribe’s shoulders, Bast shook him once, like an angry parent with a stubborn child.
“Good lord, Bast. I can hear him howling all the way in the back,” Kvothe called from the kitchen. Bast stood upright and pulled Chronicler straight in his chair as the innkeeper emerged from the doorway. “Tehlu anyway, he’s white as a sheet. Is he going to be okay?”
“It’s about as serious as a frostburn,” Bast said disparagingly. “It’s not my fault if he screams like a little girl.”
“Well, be careful with him,” Kvothe said, setting a pot of grease and a handful of garlic cloves on the table. “He’ll need that arm for at least another couple days.”
Kvothe peeled and crushed the garlic. Bast mixed the salve and smeared
the foul-smelling concoction onto the scribe’s shoulder before wrapping a bandage around it. Chronicler sat very still.
“Do you feel up for a little more writing tonight?” Kvothe asked after the scribe was wearing his shirt again. “We’re still days away from any true ending, but I can tie up a few loose ends before we call it a night.”
“I’m good for hours yet.” Chronicler hurried to unpack his satchel without so much as a glance in Bast’s direction.
“Me too.” Bast turned to face Kvothe, his face bright and eager. “I want to know what you found under the University.”
Kvothe gave a shadow of a smile. “I supposed you would, Bast.” He came to the table and took a seat. “Underneath the University, I found what I had wanted most, yet it was not what I expected.” He motioned for Chronicler to pick up his pen. “As is often the case when you gain your heart’s desire.”