His other paymaster was already waiting, fingers tapping impatiently, when the rider lurched through the tavern doors. Without acknowledging the man’s presence, he strode to the bar, slammed a coin down, and in response to the innkeep’s inquiring glance, held up two fingers. Then he walked over to the table, dropped his scrip on its scarred surface, and slumped heavily into the rough wooden chair.
The cowled figure sitting across from him leaned forward. “You took your time,” he whispered harshly.
The rider rocked his chair back, put one sodden boot on the table, and smiled grimly. “In a place like this,” he said, “you would attract less attention if you dressed like one of the locals and spoke in a normal tone of voice.”
“No one would dare interfere with one of my order,” the stranger replied stiffly.
The rider shrugged, unbuckling his purse. He removed the bottle and loaf that the sorceress had given him, and without further ceremony, bit deeply into the latter. “Your business,” he said around a mouthful. “But if I were you, I would be more worried about notice than interference. Any road,” he continued, sensing that the other was about to protest, “it’s done.” He reached back into his scrip and removed Rathorn’s purse. “The old man paid me. Fourscore crowns. Now match it, as promised.”
“You were not promised money!” the stranger protested angrily.
“I’m flexible. Cough up, or I ride back to the wizard with a tale to tell.”
“He’d kill you for betraying him.”
“He’ll be too busy hunting you down and yanking your guts out through an eye socket to bother with me.” The rider took another bite from his loaf.
The stranger hesitated for a moment, then sighed. “Very well.” Reaching into a pocket deep within the folds of his robe, he withdrew a small silken pouch. He released the ties, and tipped a heavy silver ring onto the table.
The rider picked it up, and examined it carefully from every angle. It was set with a trio of red stones; although no expert, he thought they might be garnets. “Very nice,” he said absently. “A lovely lady’s bauble.” He smacked it down on the table, and the stranger winced. “Where’s the rest?”
“That ring,” the cowled man replied coldly, “is worth tenscore crowns.”
“Not to me.”
“It’s what I have to offer you,” the stranger snarled. “Take it or leave it. And before you consider assaulting me…”
At this, the rider laughed out loud, spraying his host with moist crumbs. “Assault? My dear fellow, what you must think of me!” He picked the ring up, glanced at it again, and tucked it into his vest. “Very well, we’re square.”
Leaning further back, the rider snatched a pair of cups – neither too clean nor too foul – from a nearby table. With a practiced movement, he bit the cork out of the wizard’s wine bottle and poured two glasses. “Enough business. Join me?”
“Of course,” the other replied evenly. They raised their glasses together.
“Success!” said the rider, tipping the glass towards his lips.
“Health,” his host replied, drinking deeply.
“Disappointing vintage,” the rider remarked, eyeing his glass before leaning forward to refill the other’s cup. “You'd think a practitioner of the profound arts might…” He glanced up as the stranger made a sudden strangled sound. "Your pardon?"
The fellow was clawing at his throat, gasping for air and jerking uncontrollably in his chair. The hood fell back, and the rider caught a sudden glimpse of pale skin, red-rimmed eyes, and a trickle of dark blood streaming from the stranger’s mouth and nose. A final lurch, and the man’s chair crashed backwards, spilling his twitching body to the floor.
The rider regarded his late tablemate solemnly, then leaned forward and pushed his untasted glass a little further away with a grim smile. He heard a tightly-controlled moan, and turned to see one of the tavern wenches standing nearby with a pair of foaming mugs.
“Good timing,” he remarked, taking one of them and emptying half of it in a single draught.
“Is it…is it plague?” the girl whispered, terrified.
“Poison, belike,” the rider answered sourly. He placed the tankard on the table, then picked up the bottle and his wine-cup, and set them carefully on the girl’s tray. “You might want to employ a little extra caution disposing of these, my darling,” he said with a wink. Then a thought struck him; fumbling in his vest, he produced the stranger’s ring. “Take this as well. And if you want my advice, throw it in the midden," he added, setting the jewel on the tray before her.
The girl took her eyes off the motionless corpse and smiled uncertainly at the rider. Then she nodded, turned, and wended her way carefully between the other guests and back to the bar.
Hitching his scabbard around out of the way, the rider knelt by the stranger’s body. He searched the cooling and unpleasant mass thoroughly and professionally, recovering the man’s purse and a small but ornate dagger. Stowing these in his scrip, he shifted the fellow’s clothing, examining his wrists, upper arms and chest before finally finding what he sought – and had expected – at the nape of the man’s neck: a tiny tattoo of a red hand and thundercloud, enclosed within a chieftain’s torc.
Clucking absently at this discovery, he stood, gathered up his scrip and started for the door. He was halfway there when he heard an agonized shriek and a shout of terror. The tavern wench, tray fallen to the floor, stood wreathed in in a pillar of black, hungry flame. As he watched, her hair vanished into ash, her fair skin charred and cracked, and bubbles of fat swelled and burst beneath her flesh. Blazing like a heitsommer bonfire, she fell to the floor, writhing in agony, as a few horrified patrons tried to douse her with pitifully inadequate flagons of ale. Others, fearing for their lives, bolted for the tavern door.
The rider lingered only long enough to see for himself that the stricken maiden had the stranger’s emerald ring on one twisted, blackening finger. He grimaced in sorrow and cynical amusement, then turned on his heel and strode out of the tavern. His exhausted mount waited patiently by the rail, and the rider groaned as he levered himself up into the saddle, dropping his scrip across the pommel. He spurred the tired animal gently, and it trotted slowly away from the tavern, heading down the Westroad at its master’s urging.
The rider shifted uncomfortably as the chill rain soaked his mantle again. Behind him, he could hear the shrieks of agony and shouts of alarm grow fainter, and he shook his head sadly. This, he reminded himself with a sigh, is why I never deal with magi.