Vinuk hiked along the road, shivering as the wind blew against him. He shook the rain off his cloak, but little good it did. Water ran down his black hair matted against his bronze face and down his arms and legs into his boots. He staggered along, splashing through puddles and searching around every bend for the lights of a village a farmer told him about hours ago, and at least two hours had passed since the darkness had crept in.
He hiked another two miles when he came around a bend. Through the forest, at last he saw lights on in some buildings. At least now, he could find the inn and get a warm bed and a tall mug of ale to ward off the cold. Quickening his pace, Vinuk trotted into the village and passed several buildings on its outskirts. After passing a few buildings, he paused when he spotted what he thought was a dark, hooded figure sitting on the porch in a chair under an awning. He stared for a moment but resumed walking as he studied the figure. The figure moved, but only slightly. Once past the figure, he turned to look one more time. He could not see the figure’s eyes—only its mouth and nose were ghastly. They were a stark contrast to its dark coverings. The figure sat with its arms across its chest, but he could not see the figure’s hands. Nights before, he thought he had seen the figure in the forest as he camped out in a caravansary. A few weeks earlier, he thought he had seen the same figure in the corner of a tavern where he ate his meal. It was there one minute, the next it was gone.
Vinuk shivered at the thought, but he kept pressing forward. Maybe it was his paranoia. Being alone out here was the first time he had been away from his family. His father had offered to escort the boy to the recruiting station in Rhatclang, but Vinuk had assured him he would be fine. His mother was an easterner, and his grandfather had been a high-ranking officer. The boy knew that carried some weight. He was fine until he had passed from the Gypsy domain into the east, beyond Kankahkoh. This territory was unfamiliar to him, having only traveled it with his mother some five years before when they took a journey to Rhatclang to beseech the emperor for help during the Inquisitor War, as the event had become known.
Vinuk glanced one more time at the figure before he turned his face forward and resumed trotting. He put the thought of the figure out of his mind as he entered the village center. There, he spotted what he was looking for: a well-lit tavern bustling with revelers. Vinuk turned and made straight for the tavern. As he entered, a blast of warm air rushed over him, and he stopped for a moment to remove his rain-soaked hood from his head. The boy ran his fingers through his wavy, black hair and shook his legs to get the excess water off. A few people eyed him but returned to their drinks and food. Vinuk walked to a bar at the back of the tavern and pulled up a stool.
“What’ll it be?” the barkeeper asked as the boy seated himself.
“Warm ale. And anything to eat if you got something,” Vinuk said.
“Is soup okay?”
“Good to me.”
“You got it.” The barkeep turned and returned seconds later with a tall mug of warm ale, which Vinuk accepted with a nod. He sipped the beverage, looking about the tavern. It was like all the other ones he had ever been in, with rustic but sturdy furnishing and modest decorations on the walls. A fire burned in the middle of the room in an open hearth and a few lanterns hung from exposed beams, but that was about it.
The barkeep brought the soup “Anything else??”
“Where might I find accommodations?”
“Across the way, there’s an inn.”
“Yep.” The barkeep left the boy to himself, and the boy ate in silence. He wanted to glance over his shoulders, expecting that the figure might be there. However, he noticed others eying him as he ate the warm soup. He tried not to think about it, instead focusing on the bowl of soup and the ale. The prospect of going back out into the rain was not appealing, but there was a bed at the inn calling his name. The boy laid a silver coin on the bar and stood up. He turned, fixed his eyes on the door, and kept his face to the ground. He marched, avoiding eye contact and bumping into anyone or anything. Vinuk made it to the door and exited, where he pulled the cloak back over his head and returned out into the night.
Back out in the rain, Vinuk scanned the buildings across from the tavern for the inn, and he spotted what he believed to be the place. He walked across the square toward the building when someone came out of the tavern and called out to him, “Hey, Gypsy!”
Vinuk didn’t stop, but checked the sword on his hip.
“Gypsy boy! I’m talking to you!” a voice called out.
Vinuk did not respond. He was almost in a jog now. Boots started thundering up from behind him. By his reckoning, there were at least four pairs. Vinuk spun to meet them, and he had guessed right with four men almost on top of him now.
“What do you want?” Vinuk growled.
The four men looked Vinuk up and down, and one said, “You seem far from home…”
Vinuk said nothing.
“What’s the matter?
“Look, I don’t want any trouble… I’m passing through, so if you don’t mind, I will be on my way, and we don’t have to make a mess here tonight.”
“Passing through, are we? Where are you headed?”
“East. Away from here.”
“Feisty, isn’t he?” one said. The other three men laughed.
Vinuk huffed. “What do you want?”
“We want a little sport, that’s all.”
One man advanced toward Vinuk, but the boy stepped back. The other three spread out and circled him. Vinuk spread his legs and bent at the knee with his eyes darting between the men.
“What kind of ‘sport’ did you have in mind?” Vinuk asked, putting his hand on the hilt of his sword. Vinuk started to draw it as he inched towards the inn. The men continued circling him.
Vinuk stopped. “Can we stop this little dance now?”
“What’s the matter, Gypsy?”
Vinuk removed his sword, revealing its curved blade that reflected the lights from the tavern in the darkness.
“Nice and shiny. Have you ever used that blade before?” one man chided.
“Maybe I have, but I would hate to use it on you should you choose to do something stupid.”
Vinuk restarted inching towards the inn with the blade visible, glancing back and forth between the men circling him now. When Vinuk was not looking, one rushed. Vinuk heard the man, whirled, and slashed the man across the face with the razor-sharp edge of his sword. The man had not realized what had happened until he touched his face and found blood gushing out of his cheek. He screamed. Vinuk turned and faced the others. One of them rushed him with a club. Vinuk backpedaled as the man approached. He whipped the sword around again at his assailant, and the blade sliced off two of the man’s fingers against the club. The man dropped the club, clutched his bleeding hand with his good one, and howled. The final two men rushed him, and the boy turned to run. Vinuk about made it to the inn and leaped towards the stairs. His foot slid under the inn’s porch after he landed on the stair. He fell backward, splashing into the mud on the street. The fall wrenched his leg and he howled in pain.
The other two men caught up with him and started thrashing the boy with punches and kicks before the boy could recover. The two injured men caught up and joined in the stomping. Vinuk could hardly see what was going on about him. One boot hit him on the back of the head, and he went down face first in the mud. When he got his head out of the mud, he saw the dark figure he had seen earlier approaching like a ghost. When the figure arrived, it reached out its ghastly hand, put it on one man’s shoulder, and squeezed. Bones crunched. The man howled and dropped to his knees. The others whirled and looked at the figure, who was less foreboding than Vinuk had imagined. Still, they attacked the figure, leaving Vinuk lying on the ground. The figure moved with unnatural speed as they threw punches. It dodged and threw counterstrikes with powerful, quick jabs. The men looked as if they were moving in slow motion next to the fast, precise moves of the figure. One retrieved Vinuk’s sword and faced the figure. He swung the blade wildly, but the figure jumped and whirled. It extended its leg from under its robe and struck the man’s hand holding the sword. Bones cracked, and the blade clamored to the ground.
The men retreated, cradling the wounds as the figure stood by Vinuk like a statue. They ran or stumbled back to the tavern, calling out to the patrons there as they did. Once they were a safe distance away, the figure reached down and picked up Vinuk from the mud, slid its boot under the sword, popped it up in the air, and caught it. Now carrying Vinuk, the figure spun and ran down the street, away from the tavern and the rest of the village. A mob formed and chased them as they fled into the night.
Vinuk watched the crowd attempt to pursue them. Still, they got smaller and smaller and more distant as the figure sprinted away out of the village as quiet as a graceful doe, carrying the boy all the while. Soon the town disappeared, and they were under a canopy of trees, running through the drizzle. Vinuk felt his strength wane, and the night slipped away from him as the entire world around him fell dark.