Primordium

Prelude: The Price

In Which Hugh Encounters a Bounty Hunter

Posted by zero

“The Patron Saint of Liars and Fakes”


“Ungh,” Hugh muttered, and the sound proved far too loud for his hangover. The ache in his head coupled with the feeling like his brain had been stuffed with scratchy wool was almost unbearable. With a great effort, he rolled over and thumped unceremoniously from the bench upon which he lay to the cold dirt floor of the charmingly named Logjammer Inn. A derisive snort from across the common room drew his attention, and he slowly turned his head in that direction.

The bulky barkeeper shook his head in disapproval. Hugh thought he remembered running up a significant tab, and he was positive that he’d spent his last copper a couple of days ago. Groaning, he slowly pushed off the floor to come to a seated position. Gradually, he pulled himself back up onto the nearby bench and yawned, smacking his lips. “So. What’s for breakfast?”

“Cheeky bastard,” growled the barkeep, rounding the bar and coming at Hugh furiously. The young man scrambled down the length of the bench and narrowly prevented himself from falling off the end. He stumbled a few steps toward the door-flap but stopped cold as he slammed into something heavy, metal, and immovable.

Forgetting his pursuer for the moment, Hugh’s bleary eyes began to register an emblazoned breast plate. His gaze scanned slowly up the armored form before coming to rest on a human face. The unassuming man whom he had run into smiled blandly down at Hugh briefly, then seemed to dismiss him – his eyes looking over the young man’s shoulder. Remembering the angry barkeeper, Hugh took a position behind the armored man, peeking back around the greaves sheathing the legs.

“What seems to be the trouble, goodman?” the warrior asked, his rich voice mild.

Coming to a stop a couple arms-lengths from the man, the barkeeper pointed down at Hugh. “Not that it’s any of your business, sir, but that wretch owes me a small fortune is wot!” he snarled.

The man’s gaze dropped to where Hugh cowered behind him and asked, “Is this true?” The youth began to deny it, but something about the look in the man’s eyes made him reconsider. He closed his mouth nodded glumly, too sick with hangover to bother arguing.

Turning his attention back to the barkeeper, the man said, “As it happens, I have an interest in what happens to this one.” Hugh and his creditor were equally startled when the man pulled a pouch off his belt that jingled with coin and handed it over. “I trust that will suffice?” he said.

The barkeeper opened the sack, his eyes widening further when he saw the contents. A look of naked avarice flashed across his face before he looked back up at the armored figure standing passively, awaiting a response. The barkeeper cocked an eyebrow, his mouth twisting wryly before he began to count out a small handful of gold and silver from it. Pulling the drawstrings tight, he handed the pouch back to the man, who accepted it without comment. “This ought to do it, yea,” commented the barkeeper. “I run an honest establishment, sir.” This time, his voice held actual respect.

The armored man nodded once then turned to leave, casually helping Hugh to his feet and leading him out as well. Once they were in the street, Hugh mumbled his thanks and started to walk away. “A word, please,” said the man. He did not raise his voice, but something in it commanded Hugh’s attention. He stopped in his tracks, the motion jarring his aching head and leaving it ringing.

Hugh turned to face the man, scrubbing a hand across his face. “Look, I really do appreciate you helping out back there, but I’ve really got to be going. I- I’ll be late to work,” he lied. “Can’t make more money to blow if I don’t show up, now can I?”

“You would make a terrible lumberjack, Hugh,” said the man.

The young man’s face paled, and weakly he said, “That’s not my name.”

“Yes. It is,” said the man softly. “But where are my manners? I am Petrus, Questing Knight in service to St. Relonor. We have much to discuss, Master Caedmion. How about some breakfast?”

“I- I-” Hugh stammered, noticing the holy symbol engraved on the man’s breastplate. “All right?” he finished lamely.

“Lumberjack?” he asked as Petrus led the way to a nicer part of Sunderland.

“Indeed,” said the paladin. “Lumber is the city’s primary commodity. Considering you were in a jack-bar when I found you, your ‘job’ would most reasonably be woodcutter.” Petrus gave the young man an appraising once over. “You really would be terrible at it.”

“Oh.”

. . .

Breakfast cut through Hugh’s hangover. They took a table in a local café, and as their orders reached the table, the young man dug in with abandon. Petrus ate at a more leisurely pace, sipping coffee and waiting patiently for Hugh to finish. By the time he’d had three helpings of eggs, bacon, and hashed potatoes, the young man was feeling much better.

“So,” he started around a bite of pork sausage, “how is it that you know my name?”

Setting his mug down, Petrus said, “Elric’s family hired me to find their son’s killer.” His tone suggested he was speaking of the weather or something of similar lack of consequence.

His eyes suddenly wide as wide as saucers, Hugh stammered, “I didn’t- I never-“ He started to stand.

“Sit. Down.”

Hugh’s legs went limp beneath him as he slumped back into his chair, breakfast forgotten. “You’ve made some mistake,” he croaked.

“Lying to a paladin? Is that really your plan?” said Petrus with a hint of scorn.

Deflating further, Hugh said, “So, that’s it then? You’re going to drag me back to Southport to be hanged?”

“That depends entirely upon you, Master Caedmion,” said the knight.

Looking up, his face screwed up in confusion. “I don’t understand.”

“Allow me to explain. As I said, I have been hired to find Elric’s killer, and a tavern filled with witnesses all insisted that it was you. So, I tracked you to Sunderland, expecting to find…something else.”

“What do you mean?” Hugh asked.

“Elric’s death was a grisly affair. I expected to have to root you out of a hidden cult or to find a vicious maniac terrorizing the city. Instead, I found you – curled up in a dive bar too drunk to hurt so much as a fly. A miserable creature, really. I asked around and learned that you’d spent your nights here drinking, gambling, and whoring. As your coin dwindled, you only kept up the drinking. I decided there was more to your story, and thus more to be garnered from a conversation.”

“But the family?” Hugh prompted.

“Yes, yes. They want you hanged. Vengeance for their lost son. Some term it justice, but that is really just semantics. I serve a…higher power. I took the job so that others might not, and tracked you down to discover the truth of you.”

“I…I did kill him,” Hugh said, his voice so soft it was barely audible.

“Oh? How?” said Petrus, leaning forward intently.

“Magic… Fire… I-“ Hugh paused, his eyes moist. “There was a man…” The young man recounted the tale of his encounter with the Stranger, and the incidents at the tavern where he had – accidentally – killed the young noble. Petrus listened without interruption, absorbing the tale in quiet contemplation. “I didn’t mean to kill him, I swear. The power… I didn’t know how strong it was.”

Silence reigned for a few moments, before the paladin responded. “I believe you.”

“You do?” said Hugh, his voice strained but hopeful.

“Yes. It is an unfortunate tale, for Elric and for you, but I believe you when you say it was not your intention to kill him.”

“So… What now?” Hugh asked.

“I may have a better use for you and for my time, as well. You are out of coin, and it is only a matter of time before Elric’s family loses patience with me and sends others to hunt you down as well. I have…business to the west. You will accompany me and assist me with another task. You can use your newfound powers to do some good.”

“I- I don’t need your help. I can make it on my own,” Hugh blustered.

“If you do not agree to my terms, I will simply have to take you back to Southport, as I was hired to do.”

“Not if I killed you, too.”

Petrus gave Hugh a level stare. “Very well. Strike me down, warlock.”

The two locked gazes across the small table for several tense moments. Hugh blinked first.

“I can’t,” he sighed. “I can’t use the power against another person. Not again.”

“Then do you accept?”

“What choice do I have?”

“There is always a choice, Master Caedmion. Today, you have made a good one. The first of many, I pray.”

“Mm,” Hugh said noncommittally.

“Here,” said Petrus, placing his pouch of coins on the table in front of the warlock. “I have a few more things to tend to here in town before we leave. Get a room at the inn around the corner, and do not spend any of that money on…vices. I will be back when I have completed my tasks. We shall leave on the morrow.”

“You’re just gonna trust me with the money? What if I took it and ran?”

Petrus smirked. “I’ve taken your measure, Master Caedmion. You may have made a mistake to get where you are, but in your heart you want to do the right thing.” The paladin rose. “I’ll see you later.”

Hugh watched the man go, a dazed look on his face. His gaze fell on the sack of coins, and after a few seconds of staring at it, he scooped it up, paid for breakfast, and made his way to the inn around the corner.


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