Written for the NYCMidnight Short Story Competition 2019 Round One.
Got me through to Round Two.

Writing criteria: 8 days, 2500 words, fantasy genre, theme is a blood feud, incoporate a bartender character.
Enjoy.

Bram spotted the twinkling lights of the tavern as he galloped along the road to Highcastle. A solitary beacon on the misty moors, it was a sight that warmed his heart, and his aching bones, after many hours in the saddle.

‘Whoa!’ He pulled on the reins and slowed to a walk, wary of the shadows, as he approached the thatched dwelling with its lean-to barn. Out front, a rusted metal post creaked in the wind, its wooden sign long gone, etched at its base was a crude cup and a fork, the journeyman’s sign of hospitality.

Tired and thirsty, but grateful to have made it thus far without incident, Bram slid from his saddle and called out for attention. A small boy ran from the barn and took his horse’s reins. Bram tossed him a copper bit, which he caught mid-air with a grin.

‘She’s had a long run, let her cool down first. Water, oats and a good rub.’

‘Yes, sir,’ the boy said, leading the horse away.

Bram opened the door to the tavern and stepped inside. It was cosy and welcoming, the aroma of fresh bread and hot soup filled his nostrils. He scanned the room, still on alert, sizing up its few customers. Seven noisy dwarves sat at a table to the left. They were playing blackjack and showing off their tattoos, and wasted no more than passing glances at his entry. The only other customer, a hooded man, sat slumped in the window settle, gently snoring.

‘Come in, sir,’ the bartender welcomed him from across the room. ‘Rest and refresh at The Plucked Duck. May I tempt you with food and drink?’ She leaned forward as she spoke, resting her elbows on the counter, tempting him with far more than victuals.

Bram sat opposite her at the bar.

‘Just something to drink, thanks,’ he said.

‘I can recommend the Elven Dew,’ the bartender said pointing at a green tap. ‘It’s brewed inhouse and most popular.’ The thought of cool ale made Bram’s mouth pucker.
‘Great,’ he said.

The bartender winked as she thrust a jar of the amber liquid into Bram’s hand with practised ease. ‘Haven’t seen you in here before. Are you new to Highcastle?’  There was more than idle curiosity to her question – wariness stalked her dark eyes, and the straight line of her mouth reminded Bram that strangers on this stretch of road were held in suspicion. One hand remained beneath the counter top, and Bram wondered if a sword lay within easy reach.

 He took a sip of the ale. It was worse than he expected. Too malty and very bitter, but the liquid washed away the dusty road from his throat. He downed the rest of his glass in two gulps. The bartender smiled warmly at him. Perhaps he’d been harsh in his judgement, it didn’t taste that bad after all. Bram pushed his glass forward for a refill.

‘I’m just passing through,’ he replied.

The bartender poured a fresh glass of ale, but she paused before handing it to Bram. ‘Many travellers pass through our doors,’ she said. ‘Some with coin and some without.’

Bram jingled the pouch at his belt. ‘I can pay.’

The bartender relaxed her stance and smiled showing her teeth, white and even as she leant forward and pushed the full glass towards Bram. ‘That’s a heavy sounding pouch, my friend. I’d be careful if I were you.’

Bram sipped at his ale. Nope, still bad. He glanced around to see if anyone was paying attention to their conversation. The dwarves had put away their cards and were playing a drinking game involving handstands and blindfolds. The hooded man still snored.

‘Thanks for the advice,’ Bram said. He drew his coat closer, making sure it hid his money-bag from view.

The bartender rubbed a rag over the  bar-top. ‘Passing through, you say. From where?’

 ‘I’m from Castle Blachwall. I have business with Baron Highcastle.’

The bartender whistled. ‘Few from Castle Blachwall would dare show their faces at Highcastle. Only the mad or the brave, I’d wager. You do know there’s a blood feud between the Barons? Three generations of stealing, fighting, killing and spying. I’ve had more ruffians sit at this bar and plot downfall and revenge than I’ve served hot dinners. Thirty heads on spikes above Highcastle Gate this year alone. I pray your pretty face doesn’t make it thirty-one.’

Bram felt the blood drain from his face. He knew things were bad between the barons, but not this bad. He signalled for another beer.

‘I go to parlay for peace, at Baron Blachwall’s request,’ he said.

‘Indeed!’ The bartender put her hands on her hips. ‘Well I hope you have more up your sleeve than just the idea of jingling that bag of money. Either your baron has signed your death warrant, or he’s a high opinion of your ability to sweet-talk a very vengeful man. Be careful, honey, pride comes before a fall, and a fool and his money are soon parted.’

‘I fear you might be right,’ Bram said, seeking solace in the ale. ‘I may go to my death, but at least with honor. This wer-gild I bring, ‘ he jingled the money pouch at his belt.’ is the Baron’s generous offer to end the blood feud, I have nothing else.’

‘Well then, honey,’ the bartender said with a jingle of her breasts. ‘You take that pouch and you run for the hills.’

Bram sighed. ‘I cannot, for I have given my word.’

The bartender raised an eyebrow and cocked her head. She gave Bram an assessing scan before shaking her head. She reached up to the top shelf behind the bar and brought down a dusty bottle of brandy. The cork came out with a soft whisper and the bartender poured two shots.

‘Well, that isn’t something I often hear. Someone with integrity heading to Highcastle. If this is your last hour, I’m honoured to drink to one so brave and compassionate of heart as to intercede in this bloody conflict. Your Baron is indebted to you, good sir. I assume he intends to reward you or your family handsomely?’ She raised her glass to Bram and downed the spirit in one.

Bram looked at the shot of brandy and thought of the treacherous meeting ahead. The bartender’s words added a gravitas he had tried to ignore. He could not tell her that the Barony of Blachwall was near ruin, that two previous attempts at peace with Highcastle had failed, the envoys doing exactly as the bartender suggested – running away with the wer-gild. He tossed back the shot of fiery liquid in one swallow, relishing the warmth that spread through his body. ‘I will have the gratitude of my liege lord.’

‘Nothing else? You risk your life for words of thanks? You Blachwall men are a strange if valiant lot. Alas, I fear you suffer a grave injustice, brother.’ She poured another tot of brandy.

Bram knocked back his second shot. Faster than the first the rush of heat filled his stomach.  But not even the finest brandy in the kingdom could reach the knot that twisted deep within as Bram pondered his predicament.

The son of a noble, yet improverised house, Bram had never considered profiting from the circumstances. But perhaps the bartender was right; he was risking his life and deserved more tangible recognition.

‘Perhaps you are right,’ he mumbled. The world tilted a little on his stool. It was time for him to leave.

The bartender smiled and lent towards Bram, her lips inches from his. Her hair smelled of rose-petals and her blouse gaped in a manner not unpleasant.

‘May I make a suggestion?’

‘Please do.’

‘It is most fortunate that you happened by tonight. There is a game of high stakes dungeon dice in progress as we speak. Several rich wizards stop by once a month. Entry is by invitation only,  but I’m sure I could get you in. Use the wer-gild as your stake. A few hours at the table and you’ll leave a rich man. Neither your Baron nor Baron Highcastle will be any the wiser. Then, whatever befalls you, your family will be taken care of.’

Bram shook his head. ‘I couldn’t take that risk. What if I lose?’

The bartender slid another brandy into his hand. ‘What if you win?’ She glanced around furtively, before reaching under the bar and bringing up a carved wooden box. From inside the box, she produced an amulet.

‘I shouldn’t be telling you this, but this belonged to Marvin the Magnificent. It is a lucky charm. Wear this while you’re playing you can’t lose. Hide it under your shirt.’ She traced her fingers in a lazy circle over his fluttering heart.

The bartender’s proposition was tempting. Richer by morning and still able to deliver the wer-gild and keep his honour. Better a rich hero than a poor one. He picked up the amulet. A black stone in an ornate silver setting, it lay heavy and inviting in his hand, staring one-eyed, egging him on.  His family’s name restored by morning in both reputation and wealth. He looked down at the bartender’s fingers still circling their way around his chest. There might be more treasure to be had here than just gold.

‘How does it work and will it work for me?’ he asked. The bartender produced a pack of cards.

‘Why don’t we see?’

Bram put on the amulet and the bartender shuffled the cards. Hand after hand, no matter the game, Bram won every time.

He slammed his fist onto the counter and stood up. ‘Show me the way, miss,’ he said as he tucked the amulet under his shirt.

‘With pleasure.’ The bartender jumped over the bar, showing more than her ankles, and sashayed across the room. At the far wall she pulled aside a curtain to reveal a small door. The bartender pressed her ear to the door and rapped with her knuckles twice. She listened again and rapped three times. A rattle and a click, and the door sprung open an inch.

‘Down the stairs and to the left.’ The bartender pushed the door revealing a dimly lit interior.

Bram rubbed his hands together. ‘Are you certain I -?’

‘Absolutely.’ The bartender stood in the doorway so Bram had to squeeze past her.. ‘Ne’er the faint heart, good sir.’ She kissed Bram on the lips. ‘For luck.’

 Bram took a deep breath and walked inside.

#

The bartender pulled the door closed behind Bram. It locked with a firm clunk. She dropped the curtain to conceal the doorway and hummed as she returned to the bar. Vaulting the bar with ease, she opened the carved wooden box and dropped into it the money pouch she pickpocketed from Bram’s belt. It landed with a heavy thud beside two other money pouches. All three bore the insignia of the Baron of Blachwall. The bartender snapped the box shut and tucked it back under the counter.

Muffled banging and shouting came from behind the curtain, but the raucous laugher from the dwarves’ table drowned it out.

The sleeping man in the window settle, yawned and raised his head.

‘Another failed attempt at ending the blood feud, eh Maude?’

The bartender grinned and returned to polishing the glasses. ‘Too right, Orlo. Peace is bad for business.’