The Merchant The King wanted a full report on the behavior of a knight many of us considered to have gone rotten. He tasked me with finding the information to either clear the man's name, or send him to the gallows. The task brought me to a tiny village on the outskirts of the mountains.
The freezing rain lashed through the air in torrents and ran down the thatched roofs of the little village with a ferocity scarcely scene before. Small streams trickled down the cobblestone streets and formed large puddles in the gutters of the village. The merchants that lined the street flipped up their hoods and drew their cloaks tighter, they were not to be discouraged from selling their wares. They called out over the storm to anyone that looked like he would listen.
I looked out from under my hood at the merchants and scratched my beard thoughtfully. I sought the one who sold jewels. I trudged through the pools of water, rubbing my hands together and glancing up at every stand, dodging the merchants' attempts to draw me over to their various curios and walked up to a man with a pointed chin and a long black mustache.
"Ah, hello there friend, I see you are-"
He stopped when he noticed my upright hand. "I am not here to buy your jewels," I said, "Come, step out of the rain with me and into the local tavern. I will pay for your meal and your ale."
"This is most curious of you, stranger, I almost fancy it to be some kind of trap," he murmured. He looked me up and down appraisingly and nodded, "Alright, let us go."
"Two pints of ale, some cheese, roasted chicken and some bread." I said to the tavern keeper, glad to be able to speak normally again. He nodded and I laid a sizable pile of coins down on the bar. The tavern keeper filled two mugs and slid them across the bar.
I picked them up and walked them over to the corner table where the merchant sat. He had his head on his hand and was gazing into the fire.
The tavern was comfortable: the tables, bar, and booths were dark mahogany, lacquered heavily and very reflective. The floor was brick around the fireplace, and hardwood everywhere else. The walls were concrete with wooden arches here and there. A fire was crackling in the fireplace, warming the room and painting shadows across it. A candle was burning at every table. A few four-paned wIndows were sunken into the stone at intervals and revealed the heavy downpour on the street outside, making the room all the cozier.
Behind the bar were barrels of ale and from the ceiling hung meats and herbs of all kinds.
Besides all that, the room was packed to the brim with merry travellers; rosy cheeked men with long beards and full mugs.
I sat down and slid a mug towards the merchant. He grabbed it and downed it in three gulps. This is gonna be easier than I thought, slid across my mind. His complexion changed immediately. His face grew redder and a smile grew on his face.
"Thirsty?" I asked, forcing a chuckle. I didn't care to learn this man too well, I just needed what he knew.
"HAH," he exclaimed, "Parched! We merchants go hours without drinking...," the bartender appeared with our food and the man took a massive bite of bread, "and eating!"
"Really!" I exclaimed, "How do you like your trade?" Get him comfortable...I thought as the bartender refilled the merchant's drink.
"It has its ups and downs. Besides the lack of eating and drinking, depending on the public's trends to stay in business, and staying out in all kinds of weather, which are all downs to be sure, I get to travel, see all kinds of places, and hear all kinds of tales." He took a bite of chicken and washed it down with a gulp of ale. His cheeks grew redder.
"Tell me friend, have you any interesting stories? Anything you witnessed first hand?" I asked.
"Well yes, why I saw something quite interesting around two weeks ago. Now where was I...near Surrey, I believe. Odd little town." He laughed raucously for no apparent reason, "I was riding along in my wagon. Single horse caravan more like. Can a caravan be single horse?"
He noticed me looking at him expectantly and laughed. "Yes, yes, I'm getting there." He finished his ale and the tavern keeper bustled over to refill his mug.
"Anyway," he said, "I was rolling along the path to one of the villages along my route when I noticed the sky was orange ahead of me. When I drew closer I saw glimmering light through the trees and heard the crackling of fire along with yells of terror. Well naturally I sped up and approached the village. It was a terrible sight, the houses were engulfed in flame, people running to and fro, children screaming, horses crying, and in the center of it there was a knight. He was fighting the village defenders from the looks of it, and trying to plunder the village. He had a little escort with him, three other knights, cutting down the village defenders from horseback. Then when they'd finished the lot, they went in to the houses and started removing all the valuables. Don't know why they done it, thought knights swore loyalty and kindness or whatever. I think he was just a greedy bugger, content to kill for wealth."
"Ah, that ain't what happened at all, you idjit." A new, equally drunk voice sounded over my left ear. I turned to see a man, smaller than the merchant, with a round face and a long orange beard. He sat down heavily.
The merchant was not offended and slurred, for by now he was quite drunk, "Go on n' tell it then n' let me finish my meal in peace."
The smaller man turned to me, burped, then said, "Aye, like 'e said, the village was on fire, but it weren't the knights 'ew done it. In fact, them knights was protecting that village. Them 'village defenders' weren't village defenders at all. They was raiders. Yes, raiders!" He said when he saw the merchant roll his eyes.
"Village defenders struck down without cause!" exclaimed the merchant.
"Oi! You said your bit, now I got mine," the stranger said.
The stranger continued, "Anyway, I heard from my friend what lives there, yeah they live there, he says to me he says, 'Robert, we was just minding our own business when a band of men rides into our village and starts lighting all the houses afire. When we tried to stop 'em they killed whoever resisted. They rounded us up like cattle and I'm convinced,' he says 'I'm convinced they was gonna kill us when in rides this band of knights with the lead one holding his shield high and charging right at the raiders. We scattered and the knights took to fighting the raiders. Us townspeople hid in the forest and when it was all over, we saw the knights pulling all our valuables from the houses so they wouldn't be ruined. Mighty kind of 'em. When we tried to come back to thank them, they galloped away,' and that's what 'e said."
We both turned to ask the merchant his opinion but he was fast asleep.
The stranger laughed and said, "Ah, he's so full of brew he's gone and passed out...I'm feeling mighty tired myself." And he laid his head down and was soon fast asleep.
I smiled and drained my cup. I stood, nodded again to the tavern keeper, drew my hood over my head, walked out the tavern and into the street, saddled my horse and galloped out of the town. A baker's wife, was my next source. I wonder what will make her talk?