"Page 50" Part 1 (short story), by M&V Severtson
"Page 50" Part 1
"Mind your course, Perez! Do not let the evil intentions of ne'er do
wells, stifle your noble direction!"
The comment suspended Perez' perusal of the room’s assembly of swords, and daggers - some, hung on the walls as ornaments; others, carried by patrons in the tavern. He replied, "And what do you know of my course? You, who I've been in the acquaintance of for a mere score of days, and I am not at all sure - "
Devereaux interrupted, "I meant no offence, young traveler. I simply wished to warn you of the unseemly character of those recent introductions - "
The stern glance shot at Devereaux silenced him.
Devereaux knew that his new friend was involved in something of great import and wished to be there for the payday. Over his many years, he had encountered several men of Perez's type, and had never failed to garner fair harvest with the attachments. Sometimes... the host had to die. He also knew, however, that this one's intellect and resolve could prove deadly in turn, and that he would have to watch his step very carefully.
Perez spent no further time intimidating Devereaux. He had silenced the weasel and did not wish to feed him more information than was useful. If it were not for the great part the old man must play in future events he would not have tolerated his presence beyond their meeting three weeks hence.
Perez' focus returned to the contents of the dinning hall and his mug. It had been a long time, indeed, since he had last stopped at the Black Boar Inn, and even longer still since his last encounter with Cedric Balfour. Just moments ago, Balfour had introduced his three companions to Perez and his reaction to the exchange was that of muted surprise since he and Balfour had never been friends. He now wondered why he would have gone to the trouble to introduce anyone to him.
Two of the three that accompanied Balfour were obvious thugs, while the third had a glimmer in her eye and something in her carriage that revealed she was, at the very least, partner to Balfour - perhaps even his employer. Suspicious was an understatement. Perez wondered if the attention he had received was not rather due to old seaman that accompanied him. Time was on his side - he could afford to be patient.
Devereaux studied Perez for a moment longer, and took a drink from his mug. His gaze then wandered about the Inn as he pulled on his ale. His eyes stopped at Balfour's table. He set down the mug, and glanced for an instant at the young woman introduced to Perez simply as Anne. Devereaux wondered if he had seen her before. She seemed very familiar, yet he could not place the face.
As young as she was, Devereaux reckoned that he might have seen her last as a child. He was sure that if it were a more recent encounter, he would have remembered her. The concept troubled him some, and he returned to his mug. He wondered when Perez would have his fill of the place, and they could finally move on. He chanced the question.
"What do we wait for, Perez?"
Perez paused as he searched himself for the most advantageous response. He quickly glanced at the table across the room, leaned forward, and slowly whispered, "We wait for a friend... his name is Castille. When he arrives, we will find out if fortune smiles upon us or not!"
Perez knew that his answer was perfectly executed and might even convey the idea that his partner was their group's leader. His hope was that the mere mention of it would lessen the relentless maneuvering that Devereaux was engaged in and offer him relief.
Devereaux sat back quietly. He knew he would have to change his strategy considerably.
Balfour and Anne sat at a long table that jutted out from the wall. The two hired thugs, William and Jean, sat at the opposite end joking back and forth oblivious to the two who had hired them. Anne and Balfour sat with their backs against the wall, and faced the table where Perez was seated with his friend. It made it easier for them to stay apprised of the situation. The only obstructions between them and the objects of their on-again-off-again attentions were the mindless antics of the two brothers that worked for them as bodyguards.
Balfour hated this Inn! It smelled so much of pine pitch, mildew, and spilled drink it made it nearly impossible to eat there. As soon as circumstances allowed, he would pay off the brothers and put this miserable trial behind him. This girl who called herself Anne had better pay the full amount of hire, or he would visit some of his present misery on her.
Anne looked beyond the younger of the two brothers to get yet another studious glimpse of the other table. She had heard of Perez and his partner, Castille, and from the descriptions of the latter, this could not possibly be the man that was with Perez now. No, this could only be the man she had searched for since the tragedy suffered eleven years hence.
She had been but twelve then, and had only seen part of his face - his eyes - just for a moment. It had been frigid that day, and most of his face had been covered. All of these years - through fifteen regions in four different countries - she had followed a reputation really more than a memory. Could this truly be the end of her quest?
Castille knew that he would be riding for at least another two hours to reach Perez at the Black Boar Inn an hour before dark. He had not ridden very hard and could probably press his mount to arrive sooner, but did not wish to risk the horse's reserve. He decided he would save the strength of the animal in the event of an emergency.
He had received a sealed note by messenger eight days past, stating that Perez had found that which they had sought for the last nine months. It was six months ago that the leads, by sheer number, required them to split their efforts. They agreed on ten message stations for reports of progress, and on four sites for actual rendezvous points if their quarry surfaced. They had numbered the Inn as their third point.
The sealed message sent by Perez simply said Three. It had spoken volumes.
Devereaux's calm appearance hid the anxiety produced when Perez revealed that he had a partner. He was usually prepared for such variables, but this could prove to be an eleventh-hour turn of events that could easily spell out his own doom. His thoughts raced to make adjustments in planning. Should he continue with this enterprise? Should he gracefully bow out? Or should he simply disappear as quickly as possible?
Perez gave every appearance of being totally engrossed with his ale. Wishing to stay aware of his surroundings, he maintained his vigil peripherally while staring into his mug and sipping at it rarely. Nearly escaping his notice was a man who had arrived only moments before Balfour and his group. Everything about that one seemed average. The only reason the man had gained his attention at all was the fact that he arrived alone... and remained alone.
Perez set down his mug for a moment and looked around the crowded hall of the Inn. There, across the room opposite him, on the same wall where Balfour and his group were seated, was the stranger. He had obviously situated himself to survey the majority of the little tavern. Perez did not allow his gaze to linger on the stranger, but forced his own re-assessment of the room. His gaze traveled to the counter, behind which, Alfonse, the proprietor, kept himself most of the time.
Alfonse's youngest son, Frederick, was a brute of a man with a reputation for drunken violence and avarice. He stood at the counter, taking an occasional drink, while looking at the stranger who had entered his father's establishment. Perez did not have to wonder long as to what would soon transpire.
Frederick was beginning to feel the first waves of the stupor that he had been drinking all morning to generate. He had been feeling the lint in his pockets for days and knew his father would soon stop his line of credit. After watching the stranger for some time, he was certain he could shake some silver out of him and remain in his father's good opinion. Frederick picked up his mug and slowly walked to the stranger's table. As he approached the stranger, he calculated his possible moves according to how the stranger might flee.
He reached the table where the stranger sat, and placed his empty mug on the table. He leaned forward to begin his extortion, when the stranger slid a gold crown to the center of the table. Without looking up he asked, "What would you be willing to do for ten of these?"
Frederick’s brow furrowed in an attempt to focus on the coin. "I'd be willing to risk prison!" he grunted.
"Then sobering up, and waiting for my signal should not present a problem for you?"
Trying to recover, Frederick began recalculating. He picked up his mug and began backing away.
"Here. A down payment for your services." The stranger pushed a small pouch to the center of the table and retrieved the crown. The pouch contained just enough to allow its new owner to get good and drunk - and the former owner knew it.
Frederick stared at the pouch for an instant before picking it up. He looked at the stranger again, and then again. The stranger never acknowledged him with eye contact. While Frederick made his way back to the counter, he thought that he may yet have his ten gold crowns without having to do any service to earn it. The amount offered by the stranger was large - a small fortune actually - but it would be better if he could acquire it with little risk.
The stranger watched as his new hire retreated with his first installment. He knew he would have no more trouble from him. Even if the oaf decided to renew his former intentions he would be too drunk to be taken as a serious threat. Moreover, the incident seemed to have been sidestepped with no one noticing - except Perez. The stranger knew that little escaped his careful eye.
Perez had carefully scrutinized the transpirings and was somewhat surprised by what he had observed. When Frederick had crossed the room to the stranger's table, Perez was certain there would be lively entertainment to follow. He had heard of Frederick retrieving money from terrorized travelers who had wandered into the Inn alone. Perez wondered at the manner in which Frederick had been put off. Things were suddenly becoming very interesting.
Castille rounded the last treeline that obscured his view of the Inn from the opposite end of the valley. He could now see the thatched roof of it’s two stories and the entire west wall struck by the raking amber light of late afternoon. The smoke curling from the distant chimney indicated the cold wind was picking up. He knew, that even though he would be meeting his partner shortly, he would not be able to share the things that he had discovered, nor would he receive much of an update himself.
He now felt confident requesting more speed. He applied his heels to the mount.
Devereaux had served for many years as a first mate on a large vessel in the Mediterranean Sea. There had been those who had said that it was probably a pirate vessel, though no proof was ever offered. He had learned countless things during his long life that had kept him breathing in many a tight spot. The more unseemly tactics, he admitted, he learned as a sailor.
As he sat at the table with Perez, he was gaining confidence again, having considered many possibilities. He would reconsider the situation after the arrival of this Castille that Perez spoke of. Devereaux was certain that he would be able to discern and come to his decision about their partnership within an hour of his arrival.
He knew in this setting, if need be, he could depart and no one would be privy to the fact - at least, not for a while. He could accomplish his disappearance in short order, and could watch for the two at a distance, safely, from outside the Inn.
When Frederick returned to the counter, he called his father over and handed him the pouch. They appeared engaged in heavy, albeit quiet, discussion. His father had taken his mug, filled it, and returned. They had been involved in discussion ever since. Being preoccupied, Alphonse left his pouring duties to the serving maid. He turned away several times, as if to resume pouring, then returned to Frederick with yet more questions.
The two sibling body guards, William and Jean, were not at all interested in draining one mug after another. They concentrated their efforts on eating, being loud, and by their raucous treatment of one another intimidating others in the room. No one would come to this table except to bring food, drink, or serious trouble - and Balfour knew that when he hired them. The two were well-known in the region as responsible bodyguards, although quite unorthodox.
Castille came through the front door accompanied by a blast of cold air.
Entering, he quickly shot a glance around the hall to size up his surroundings and spied his partner, Perez, sitting in the far right corner of the room. His eye was, if that was possible, even more keen than that of Perez. He immediately took notice of Balfour's table, as well as the huddle between Frederick and his father. His eye stopped for an uncomfortable instant at the stranger's table. Taking off his cloak, he moved toward his partner's table. He gestured for service as he made his way. Perez rose to greet Castille, and as he did, Devereaux rose, as well.
Castille did not acknowledge Devereaux's presence except to gruffly ask, "Who is this?"
Perez smirked as he replied quietly, "This is someone who could prove valuable enough to include in our little affair."
Castille feigned a look of surprise and quietly said, "I really think we have all the information we need. And, another share to disappear from the total... well... "
Perez answered, "After you hear out this man's contribution, you may change your mind." With that, and a gesture from Castille, the three sat down.
Devereaux gained confidence with the exchange of the two, and though he remained very cautious, liked his situation better. When the serving maid arrived, Castille ordered food and drink. He told her where his horse was so it could be stabled and fed.
Perez was very pleased though it did not show.
Alphonse's daughter, Marie, opened the double-doors at the back of the Inn, and in stepped her two eldest brothers, Lorenzo and Gregor. They carried a large steaming tub filled with various selections of cooked beef, chicken, and pork. The aroma filled the tavern, as another cold blast of air filled the room. The former sense was welcome - the latter was not. The sudden chill on the air promised an early snow.
The two brothers had been outside all day tending the cook pit, and preparing the property for the coming season. Gregor's son entered with them, and was shutting the doors behind, when the serving girl informed him Castille's horse needed tending. The lad quickly looked over to Castille who returned a nod and the lad retreated outside.
Castille gave an inquisitive glance at Perez who said, "It is harvest time, and Alphonse has been expecting an influx of customers who will be eating."
Castille nodded and asked, "So... does this partner have a name, or no?"
As the introductions and explanations continued at Perez' table, Anne and Balfour made their own assessment of Castille's arrival. Balfour had known Castille many years longer than he had known Perez, and had hated him for the last eight. The two had been partners once, but because of Balfour's sadistic nature, Castille ended their business with the threat of a sword. Balfour had indicated that their dealings with one another were far from over, though they proved to have had rare contact since.
Anne recognized Castille immediately. He fit his many descriptions well, with or without the beard. No one could mistake his dark eyes and commanding presence. Alone, one might not be able to pick him out of a crowded street, but Perez had already been introduced, and with the various fitting descriptions... Yes, this must be Castille.
She thought one of the two would be hard enough to handle, but together... well, she had hoped for an earlier resolution.
Lorenzo and Gregor listened to their father as they moved the meats from the tub to the warming pots.
The stranger had much to keep an eye on; Castille's arrival and the reaction at Balfour's table, the transpirings at the counter with his new hire and what appeared to be his family, not to mention what must be the usual chaos of the Inn. The stranger, however, did not seem moved in the least by anything that demanded his attention. He suspected that the tension in the hall would soon break.
Anne leaned over the table to give Balfour some instruction, then sat back.
Devereaux seemed to be quietly explaining some very important information at length. Castille appeared very skeptical when suddenly his brows rose and he sat back in his chair thoughtfully as Devereaux continued. Gregor pretended to look around the Inn in an effort to catch a glimpse of the stranger - even that did not escape the stranger's notice. He thought to himself Yes, things here will soon be very dangerous. He reached inside his cloak and removed the safety strap on his dagger.
The hair on Perez’ neck stood on end as he watched the exchange between Anne and Balfour - between Balfour and William. Without interrupting Devereaux, who was still busy trying to sell himself as a partner, Perez signaled Castille. Castille never looked away from Devereaux, but nodded ever so slightly in response.
Devereaux could tell something was about to happen, but gave no indication to the pair that he had noticed the signal. He continued with his explanation. He knew from his experience that trouble would likely break out from another table. If this duo had planned any harm to him, they would not have bothered to signal each other in such a way. If trouble came from another source he would, indeed, convince the two of his worth.
Devereaux guessed that for the others to be so bold, they must possess some sort of knowledge that one of these two carried written information about the fortune they all sought. Things looked better and better.
Anne had informed Balfour of the necessity of separating Devereaux from Perez and Castille, but she never expected what followed. Without a word, Balfour moved to the end of their table and whispered to William. She suspected that there might have been some history between Balfour and Perez (maybe even with Castille by Balfour's reaction at his arrival) but she hoped history would not interfere with her present.
Balfour's instructions to William were pointed, “I will take Castille, the one newly arrived. You and Jean keep the other two busy. Kill Perez if you have to, but stay your hand with the old man. Be ready to rise when I do, and follow my lead.”
Anne was not privy to the instructions, and Balfour did not allow her to question him. When she made the attempt, he raised his hand slightly to stifle her query. It troubled her greatly. She now expected the worst, for she knew she could not thwart his intentions without tipping her own hand.
Balfour waited patiently for Castille's dinner to be served. He would time his advance to coincide with the server's arrival at his table. He knew that the confusion generated by the arrival of dinner, and his attack, would be to his advantage and serve him well.
He watched as the girl picked up a platter with a few plates and several mugs on it. She left the counter and headed toward their table, dropping off two mugs along the way. He made sure of her direction and speed, calculated, and then he rose.
Perez pretended not to have noticed when Balfour and his henchmen stood to their feet. Instead, he lifted the mug to his face. That had been a long-standing signal between him and Castille.
Castille's back was to his opponent, when the serving girl arrived with the platter. Castille rose as if to make it easier for her to place his refreshments. Devereaux continued talking as Castille carefully watched the eyes of his partner. Balfour closed the distance.
Flanked by the brothers, Balfour neared his enemy's back. As he advanced the last few steps, he reached for his sword. Castille was at the ready when Balfour reached for his weapon, and Perez made eye contact with Castille.
Hearing the draw of the weapon, Castille became a blur. He wrenched the serving platter from the girl, and with most of the food and drink still on it, he whirled around, upending the platter sideways as he spun. He hurled the cargo at William's knees.