On a normal night the Black Canary, the only pub in Coal Town, was a dreary place, full of sour beer and sour people. It was for that special breed of working class that felt life was against them. This sentiment matched a majority of the populace of Coal Town. The usual patrons considered themselves a hard lot, but they were brittle and prone to breaking. A past, present and future of toiling in a mine for stones that did not earn the description of precious left them bleak and cheerless. The Black Canary’s resident bard did not deserve the title as he usually sat mournfully in the corner incessantly proclaiming life too sorrowful for music. When he did play it was one of the three songs he knew and all of them were sad. His performances consisted of playing the three songs over and over again in random order. His badly plucked chords added a gloomy background to the gloominess of the pub. The usual sounds were grumbles, half-hearted curses and the occasional sigh. Laughter was such a stranger here that one would think it unwelcome. Which is why young Jackson Velvet was dumbstruck by the roar of cheer that echoed off the walls on that one peculiar night.
“And what are you going to do then?” asked pink faced Anton Cleaver as he slapped the wobbly wooden table the stranger was standing upon.
“That, my dear sir, is when I will distract that silly lizard by undoing my trousers and showing her something truly monstrous in size!” The half-filled pub bawled with laughter. Even toothless Gareg was hissing with mirth.
Jackson squeezed his eyes shut and counted to ten. He feared that he was still in the mine breathing in some fume unlocked by an unlucky swing of the pick or perhaps pinned beneath a sudden downpour of rock. But when he opened his eyes the same scene was presented to him. Standing on a table in the center of the room was a tall man with blonde hair cascading down his back, longer than any man should let his hair grow. His face was free of whiskers except for thin sideburns coming down just to the level of his ears. His clothes lacked the simple utility of what was standard in the mining town. Instead they were a patchwork of colors and fabrics, sewn together seemingly at random with accents of polished buttons placed where there was seemingly no need. The only thing about the stranger’s dress that made sense to the miner was the simple leather boots.
“It will only be natural for her to rear back in mortal fear from such a sight, as you or I would from a great bear. If only I could manage a convincing roar then the beast would have no choice other than to die of fright or fall madly in love. I will keep my preference to myself.” The crowd reacted with a mixture of guffaws and appreciative gasps.
“While I keep the beast otherwise entertained, my erstwhile companions will strike, moving like lightning into said den of terror!” With a flourish the blonde stranger motioned to a table against the far wall where sat three companions who seemed to be doing their best to sink into what little shadow the flickering pub torches offered. Jackson could make out a black haired youth, a young lass with short and shaggy red hair burying her face in her hands and a chestnut-skinned man. They looked to be of equal age with Jackson, and while they did not match the eccentric dress of their companion, their clothes stood out from the rest of the pub patrons as they were not covered in soot and coal dust.
“Before the beast has recovered,” a ripple of laughs spread through the bar, “they will…”
“Alek,” called out the chestnut one, his voice weary “wouldn’t you rather play a song?”
“A song? Quite right.” The blonde nimbly pulled a mandolin slung around his back into position and began to play a lively tune that none in the pub had heard before. Hands were soon clapping in time and the tale of the bard’s fight with the dragon was forgotten by most to the relief of the other three companions.
Jackson went to the bar and ordered a lager. Brendy, the owner and bartender, barely took her eyes off the golden-haired musician as she rather clumsily poured the drink and handed over a glass more than half full of foam. “First one’s on the house,” she mumbled as she stared at the bard’s gyrations. Jackson’s eyes bulged at this unexpected act of generosity and he quickly scuttled away from the bar before Brendy changed her mind.
His eyes turned again to the companions. They lacked the joy of the bard, especially the raven-headed fellow who even in the orange torch-glow looked a rancid shade of green. The female’s skin too had a waxy pallor to it. Of the third, the chestnut color itself was enough of a rarity in these parts to attract attention. Half memories of the stories Jackson’s gran would tell on stormy nights flooded over him. Excepting the capering bard, these companions full-fit the descriptions of the Plagued Travelers of fireside story fame that left disease and madness in their wake. The three whispered among themselves and Jackson’s imaginings caused him to shudder at what possible horrors they spoke of.
“We are not actually considering following through with this bat-shit scheme are we?” the green-faced Demetrius Tate asked again. The boat ride had agreed neither with him nor with the copious amounts of firewine that had sloshed around his belly until it had escaped in a most dramatic fashion.
“We swore a public vow on the Stone Prince. Unless we want to sacrifice all the reputation we have among the Free Thinkers, we must follow through.” Talbert Gretchen remained as level-headed as ever despite his feeling that Alek’s two-step was taking place on his head instead of on a rickety table in the pub’s center.
“In that case then, fuck our reputation. I imagine it will be much worse off if we are reduced to dragon shit. Don’t hear many famous songs about that!”
“Tarwyn and the Dragon, the Dragon and Sir Drake, the Razing of Gilead, the Fiery Death of the Halfheart Prince…” Talbert counted on his fingers as he tallied up the stories which illustrated the fame of being ended by a dragon or the utter madness it was to confront one depending on what point was being made.
“Oh, yes, I remember now all those childhood games. ‘No, no! I want to be the one who gets to die horribly in the gullet of a dragon!’ I would say.” Demetrius wildly gestured miming the enthusiasm that he had, in fact, not shown as a child.
“It would be highly unlikely to die in a dragon’s gullet,” Talbert went on to clarify, “it would be much more likely to die either in its maw due to the sword-like teeth or in the stomach due to the corrosive fluids contained there. That is, of course, ignoring a much more likely demise at the end of its talons or even the possibility of dragonfire.”
“You do realize that it is the demise itself and not the exact method of said demise which I am advocating against?”
“Of course. That was merely an attempt to change the discussion from one involving our likely and horrible deaths into an examination of how exactly we can avoid messy death by dragon and…”
“Perhaps by going home?”
“And,” Talbert continued, “avoiding breaking our oaths. Need I remind you that forswearing ourselves will get us removed from the Order? Unless that is an option you care to consider?”
Demetrius clenched his jaw and stared meekly at the table. Being exiled from the Order of Free Thinkers was not something he wanted to consider, not with all that went into getting them admitted to the guild in the first place. “Stones painted to look like eggs?” was all he could offer.
Talbert sighed. “Assuming we found or even manufactured a stone to look like a proper dragon egg, which we have never seen, it would hardly be a convincing forgery. Ignoring the various alchemical properties a dragon egg possesses that stone lacks, it would arise no small suspicion when discovered that our egg contained stone and not a forming dragon. How many times do we have to go over this?”
Kestra rose to her feet, still slightly unsteady from the rolling, stormy boat ride earlier that day. “We will not retreat from this. We made our oath to the Stone Prince. The decision is made. There is nothing else but to follow through.” That was the truth of it, no matter how much Demetrius protested. They had made their oath and made it publicly. If they wanted a future within the Order, they had no choice but to abide by their words even if it was foolishly given.
“Now you must excuse me. I’m going outside before I cover you and this table in what little hasn’t already been offered to the Gods of the Sea.” She stumbled to the door gaining in speed as she went. Kestra was not a fan of boats, or really any travel other than her own two legs, under normal conditions. The recent weather had not been kind, and they were all still in poor conditions from the celebratory intake of alcohol that lead to their current situation.
Kestra had spent much of their time aboard doubled over a bucket. Talbert was amazed that such a small woman could bring up so much sick and still have anything at all inside her. Demetrius had grown ill himself listening to her wretch repeatedly. Alek, who remained as carefree as ever, had merely strummed and plucked on his mandolin while pondering different rhymes for “vomit”.
Demetrius’ face deepened its verdant shade as he watched her storm out the pub door and he gave thanks that the sound of rain and song drowned out noises she was surely making on the other side of the thin pub walls. “How can such a small thing hold in so much?”
Talbert lifted his glass and held it up to his mouth without drinking. “She holds in much too much,” he said with a frown and placed the untouched glass back on the table.