‘We stopped seeing magick the moment we saw a horse for what it could carry and not for where it could take us.’
His face turned to look up at me, weathered by life on the road with a voice graveled by drink and tobacco. His brown eyes still twinkled and his smile was quick. He’d arrived less than an hour ago, driving his battered wagon into the rain-drenched courtyard.
First he led the horse to the stables. He hummed a tune as he brushed it down before giving it food and water. I watched as he put his arm under its thick cob neck and rest his forehead upon the beast as he whispered a chant, barely heard over the clattering rain outside. Horse and man closed their eyes. Only when he had wished the animal a peaceful night did he enter my inn.
‘That was the moment we divided and your lot stayed to grow food. You asphyxiated our stories with your writing. You built your religions and your wars. ‘
I placed the mug of tea before him and he gripped it with both hands before slugging down its hot sweetness. His hands were knotted with the veins of the strong.
‘Thanks Son. Well done you. We carried our stories with us. But the places they still breathe freely are few now. Soon they’ll be gone. This used to be one of those places.’
‘Here?’ I asked.
‘Oh Yes.’
‘What do you mean ‘used to be’’?’
‘It must be five hundred years since we last justiced here.’
‘Justiced? Here?’
Memories of the old tales reawakened within me. Grand-father telling us stories of mermaids and mermen, giant otters and how the hearts of men were balanced. I had just thrown a few damp logs onto the fire behind him and the wood crackled and sparked loudly.
‘Oh Yes. Here in this ancient place.’
‘What did they do?’
‘They?’ He paused on the word, smiling a little more, one eyebrow arched. ‘They killed a horse. One of ours.’
‘Killed a horse? And what did you do?’
It was five hundred years ago but somehow I knew it was him.
‘Yes boy, it was me. I brought each of them a gift. These here beauties.’
He moved his left hand as if to sweep crumbs from the table and when it had passed there were four silver knives on the table. Each blade shone, heavy and balanced. I could tell by the way they reflected the firelight that they were as sharp as a highwayman’s cutlass. Each silver handle was embedded with a single gem the size of my thumbnail.
‘The blades are brothers, once taken from my jacket at least one must fly within the hour or…’
‘How did you…?’
‘Find you? I have always found your sort. I always will.’
Pushing the table forward he stood up, picked up a knife and hefted it to me.
‘You know what to do.’
I knew alright. Throw the knife high and if it fell before me he would release me. But if I was guilty its magick would embed the blade deeply into my skull. Or he would use that blunderbuss in his belt to blast my life from me. At least I had a chance if I threw the blade.
‘But we didn’t kill a horse … I … tried to … she …’
‘She was one of ours.’ He whispered and his hand moved slowly to grasp his gun. ‘Throw it or you’ll die without a face. Throw!’
The knife silvered upwards, spinning in the firelight. I pleaded in my heart for forgiveness. Yes, I was there but I had tried to stop them. I had pleaded with them to leave her alone. But they were too big, too many for me and would have killed me too.
I heard the blade embed itself into the wooden floor before me.
‘So you tried to stop them, Lad?’
I nodded and began to weep. I stood crying like a child before him.
‘Bring me my food. Then prepare me a bed for the night.’
I did as he bid and after cleaning up I too went to bed. For the first night in many years I slept easy.
He was gone before I awoke the next morning. Later, that evening I heard the news of three deaths in the village, each with a single deep knife wound through the skull.
I would sleep easy for all my nights to come.