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The Weald

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Weald Fiction: The Vale King

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      Steve
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      Nestor leaned his back against the bar and gulped the last of his ale, savouring the taste of gritty hops. He jingled the coins in his pocket; it was not an encouraging sound. He pulled out the last few coins to his name; three measly copper knots. Nestor’s gang hadn’t collected a Gnarl bounty in weeks and they would soon need to head back out into that black hell of a forest if they didn’t wish to starve.

      “Funny what a man will risk for a full belly.” He muttered to himself as he smiled mirthlessly.

      Breaking free of his thoughts he yawned and flexed his palms together, casting an eye across the cramped inn. Thread-bare farmers, smelly old trappers, a few jaded wardens like himself, drinking their bounties away.

      But off in the corner a familiar figure, part shrouded in in the heady smoke of the peat fire and curling vapours of sweet pipe fungus. A thin faced man with a vivid scar upon his check that ran down behind a drooping moustache: Lairc.

      Nestor knew Lairc, at least as much as any warden knows another; they grew up in neighbouring villages, signed up around the same time and most importantly – Nestor had won a fair share of coin from him at cards and dice in the past.

      Nestor straightened himself, belched, dusted off his coat and made his way over towards the corner. Lairc didn’t see him approach, or didn’t care. Nestor dropped into an empty chair and slapped his hands upon the table. Lairc made no acknowledgement; he seemed to be studying dust motes in the air.

      “Well now friend Lairc, this is a happy coincidence!” Nestor exclaimed with forced humour. He leant forward, beaming his best smile of broken and missing teeth “Lairc? Are you there good fellow? Have you been smoking that pipe fungus?” Nestor gestured with a flourish in the direction of a pair of trappers who sat watching him with dark eyes, pipes in mouths. One barred his teeth and growled, the other spat on the floor.  Nestor quickly turned back to his friend.

      “Well never mind all that; how are you? What brings you to this little slice of paradise? You know, it’s been at least a season since we last played some cards together…”

      Lairc had not moved, his hand was gripped tightly upon his flagon, but he looked not to have taken a single sip of his ale. Glacially, like he was trapped in amber, Lairc slowly turned his eyes to Nestor. About to speak, to make some jovial quip, Nestor shut his mouth with an audible click.

      8Lairc’s eyes were pale orbs, bloodshot and framed in bruised and blistered skin. Nestor saw for the first time the dried blood caked in the hair of Lairc’s scalp, the streaks on his face where tears had mingled with blood and soot. Lairc mumbled something softly to himself. Nestor leaned in and placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder, Lairc was shaking, Nestor felt himself shudder too.

      “My friend, my brother Liarc; what befell you?” He shook Lairc gently seeking a response “Where is your crew; Jonah the Bear, Alice of the Bow, Captain Vult?”

      Liarc had looked away again; he still muttered something quietly under his breath. Nestor slipped around to sit beside him, leaned in further so his ear was just a slither away from Lairc’s drooped moustache. He strained to hear the words:

      “The Vale King.” Lairc whispered, again and again, like a prayer, or a curse.

      Nestor rolled back against his seat in silence, a sudden nausea had overcome him. The inn seemed deathly quiet. After a few heartbeats he realised his hand was in his pocket, the three little coins gripped tight, so tight they bit into the white skin of his palm. He pulled out his hand and stared blankly at the bloody coins for a moment, then at Lairc’s untouched ale. He blinked. Nestor slammed the coins down onto the table and roared across the room:

      “Barkeep, he needs something a lot stronger than this fucking goat-piss, NOW!”

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