Deathspell (Peter W. Dawes) - Peter Dawes


The cold had been enough to force men indoors when night fell, but did not yet bear the chill of winter. I recall drifting out of the room we occupied, listless from the tedium of watching my father unpack. Wood creaked beneath my feet, well-worn from the hundreds of travelers who had come and gone from this establishment. My eyes cast downward, I mused on how many of the impressions had been left by us through the years, thoughtful for a boy of fourteen years, or perhaps, too idle to entertain more frivolous notions.

A frown tugged at the corners of my mouth. My hand slid down the bannister, the sound of Father’s cough still echoing in my ears after being a constant presence for the last week. The toll of travel had been harder on him as of late, and while his suggestion I fetch us food had been an obvious distraction, I knew better than to argue against it even if we had plenty of trail rations left from our trip. The main hall beneath came into view the further I descended the stairs, until I found myself immersed in a lively crowd.

Fire crackled in the hearth. Men gathered at tables conducted private conversations, sparing me the occasional glance when I meandered past. Oil lamps flickered, casting shadows on the wall and giving the area added warmth. I allowed my gaze to drift from one thing to the next while bypassing the main collection of benches and customers in favor of heading toward a long counter, made from the same wood apparent elsewhere. As the innkeeper looked up, he gave me a polite smile.

Old John is what the regulars called him, and if he possessed any other names I was not aware of them. While he bore less in the way of height than some men, he made up for it in sheer girth, not all of which could be attributed to the size of his belly. In contrast to the lithe young man I had begun growing into, Old John was arguably three times my weight, with arms larger than the size of my waist, or such is how it appeared to me. I exchanged his smile, a request for food dancing across my tongue and about to be birthed if not for the sound of the front doors opening.

I had reached the counter and slid up onto one of the stools as they walked in –two men, both similarly dressed, donned in cloaks dyed crimson with hoods they lowered while lingering by the door. Both men dark-haired and lean, the taller of the two leaned over to whisper in his cohort’s ear, garnering a nod in response before he strode toward the back of the building. His shorter compatriot headed in my direction, parting ways in a manner that made me think more of the constables than idle travelers. It only made me more curious, the onset of hunger dismissed as something more interesting stole my attention.

I remained silent as the stranger settled in beside me, falling into that ritual boys observe when adults overshadow them with their more pressing concerns. “Can I help ye with anythin’?” Old John asked, both palms resting on the polished wood, while my eyes fell from the sight of the men out of respect. I folded my hands on my lap to keep them still.

“We’re looking for a man. He might’ve just come into town,” he said. I remember thinking this hooded man spoke proper English, just like my father had taught me. It stuck out, as I had become accustomed to the people we met being anything but eloquent, and caused me to take another glance at the crimson cloak. I furrowed my brow at the emblem embroidered on it – a flame within a circle, as though the man bore some stake in nobility. I didn’t care for the air that surrounded him, however. Father had told me to avoid men who bore any hint of danger, and rarely did business with them himself.

Which made what passed through his lips next all the more bizarre to hear.

“Richard Hardi,” the stranger said, raising an eyebrow at Old John. “Does the name sound familiar?”

At first, I failed to register it. Something told me I should look up and so I did, but it wasn’t until Father’s name echoed in my mind that I glanced at Old John with a wide-eyed expression. My gaze shot to the stranger when I felt the weight