The Rusty Oak Tavern

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2017 Barrett Winner

3rd Place Aaron Matney

Three knocks upon ashen wood, darkened by rain, wind, and time. All round the five travelers, raindrops whipped and landed with hard splats upon them, stinging with each drop that landed on their exposed skin. In the back of their group, Alouise was probably the most comfortable, with her long red and black robes covering her small frame entirely – though Niklas in the far front didn't envy her in the slightest. The robes of a mage, he remembered, were quite heavy to begin with, even without the hundreds of spell components stuffed into the thousands of pockets hidden within them.

Gromin grumbled as he shifted his weight around, his plate armor clanking and clinging against itself while the rainstorm turned him into a walking roll of thunder with each step and cough. Beside Gromin, little Elrik giggled in his high-pitched gnomish laugh at the giant in armor. Though Niklas couldn't see it, he could hear Gromin growl under his breath at the tiny gnome.

A soft hand touched his shoulder. Niklas shuddered from the cold rain and the dark violet skin that seemed to come out of nowhere and blend in to the dark around them. Noira was an Underelf, a member of the race of elves who'd been driven from their homeland by the Dwarves aeons ago. Ironically, the legends said that the Underelfs had once been the fairest of skin, looking almost like angels to the lands of Men. Now their dark skin helped them appear as shadows lurking about in the corner of your eye. He hated not knowing where someone was – even someone as vibrant in life and soul as Noira. It made him instantly distrust them.

“Captain, maybe we ought move down the road?” She quietly suggested.

“And spent a minute more in this downpour?” Niklas scoffed.

He reached forward and knocked thrice more. They'd been on the road for hours when the rain had hit, though each of them had anticipated it once the black clouds had begun to roll overhead an hour or two ago. It had seemed as though their luck had finally changed for the better when a stone and brick tower rose from behind a hill crest. It stood solemn and solitary, surrounded by hills on all sides. A single window rested to the right of the door, just above either of their heads. The weather was too fierce for Elrik to climb up and inside to inspect the light shining through the black rain and wind.

“If we stand 'ere a bit longer, I'll chop the feckin' door down!” Gromin shouted over a nasty crash of thunder.

“And bring the guard upon us?” Alouise chimed in. “Are you certain you've a brain inside your skull, Knight? Or mayhaps only more steel?”

Niklas and Elrik both laughed heartily at Gromin's expense. For a moment, he swore he saw Noira's stoic face twist into a wry smile beneath her brown hooded cloak. A flash of platinum hair fell from beneath the hood, prompting the Underelf to brush it back with her only gloved hand.

Aparently, their laughter garnered more attention than Niklas' knocking. Almost as soon as they'd started laughing, it seemed, the door flew open – partly due to the wind, he reasoned – and revealed a stout old man. His wrinkled face extended well past his forehead and further up his speckled scalp. Two moustaches stretched to the floor, braided and gray, stopping shy of his knees. Though he wasn't tall for a man, he was certainly a few inches taller than Niklas at least, forcing him to look up at the older gentleman.

Smells of food, fire, and ale reached each of the weary travelers, eliciting a reaction from each of them. Gromin's stomach growled. Alouise cooed contentedly at the thought of a fresh meal. Noira looked longingly into the warm, inviting firelight that danced behind the doorway. Niklas smiled at the smell of pies and pastries and fresh stews. Memories of past meals with his family came back to him, warming his heart in the blistering cold rain. Elrik cheered with childish glee before trying to rush past Niklas and into the tower. Niklas had to stomp his foot in front of the gnome to stop the small creature from possibly ruining their chances at a warm meal and a warmer bed.

“Manners, Elrik.”

“Sorry, Cap'n,” the gnome sulked slightly. The moustached man at the door glared at Elrik before turning his attention back to Niklas.

“I suspect ye'll be wantin' shelter?” he growled.

“Aye, my good ser,” Niklas hollered over another crash of thunder.

“One condition – Entertain the rest o' the patrons, and ye can stay. Ifin' I don' like it, I'll kick ye out on yer arses.”

Niklas cast a look to each of his friends. Only Noira looked him in the eye. Only Noira nodded.

“You've a deal, good ser!”

The man moved aside, letting each of the five pass him. Alouise offered a soft thanks from beneath her robe. Gromin grunted with a nod. Elrik scurried passed them all, searching for the smells of food. Noira followed close behind Alouise, making care to keep her hood up as much as she could – Underelfs were often shunned and distrusted due to their past – and Niklas followed behind them all.

Niklas introduced himself with a cheery, almost songlike, introduction. Noira laughed a little when he bowed deeply, removing his green feathered hat in a grand gesture of respect and showmanship. Ever the bard, Niklas never missed a chance to impress and entertain, even when they were on the seas chasing the next treasure ship.

“Niklas Sweet, at your service!”

“Toddington Branchswipe,” the elder said, nodding to Niklas as he returned upright from his grandiose bow.

The tower, it turned out, was in actuality a Tavern and Inn by the name of The Rusty Oak. Toddington – who insisted upon being called by his full name, rather than just “Todd” - was more than happy to provide food and drink to the five of them.

Elrik was happily singing a small tune while pouring himself glass after glass of wines and spirits. His outlandish green and blue clothes that didn't quite fit properly hung in odd places here and there. More than once, a bottle of wine as big as Elrik would somehow slip out of the gnome's sleeve and roll across the table. Gromin wiped his thick beard free of food debris with the back of his hand, his plate armor piled neatly beside his chair, his large sword standing attentively against his left side.

Always the Knight Errant. Always ready for a fight, Niklas thought with a smile. Gromin had always been a good – if gruff - friend, who would defend those he swore an oath of friendship to until his last breath.

Alouise sipped a small cup of hot water she had infused with different spices and herbs. Over the course of their time friendship, Niklas had pieced together that it was a concoction of her own design. It was, apparently, intended to increase one's mindfulness, reduce the stresses of the day, and mentally prepare one's self for the tasks in the day to come. Her mother had taught her, and her mother before that. All Niklas knew about it, for certain, was that it tasted like twigs and dirt mixed with water. She called it “coffee”, while he simply referred to it as “Dirt Juice”. Niklas enjoyed giving her a hard time about it most days; insulting her ability to make a good drink had become a tradition of his, which more often than not lead to a small glare from Noira while Alouise shrunk back into her robes. On a few occasions, he'd even gotten the mage to laugh at his jokes. He often thought that her laughter was one of the things which kept him going now and then.

Noira was nowhere to be seen. Often, Niklas wondered if she vanished on purpose, just to keep him on his toes. It would make sense, he supposed, as she often considered herself to be his surrogate sister; always startling him or sneaking up on him when he least expected it so as to keep his senses sharp.

“Making sure the girls don't steal more than your heart,” she often put it.

Noira was one of the few in their small crew of pirates who could legitimately make him laugh, while also piss him off more than he could imagine. She had a way of somehow pointing out the obvious, or telling him exactly what he was doing wrong in no uncertain terms.

Normally, Niklas would have joined in with his crew merrily; drinking and eating to his heart's content. Today, however, Niklas was upset to see a sign hanging prominently above the bar where Toddington stood whilst tending bar. Its words struck at his very soul, poisoning his mind and his mood with a vile sense of despair and hate, and it reminded him of the curse he wore each and every day; the curse he often tried to hide beneath his flamboyant green hat and red feathered plume. He wanted desperately to look away, to focus on something – anything – but the sign, yet even as homey and comfortable the wooden décor was, he couldn't bring himself to look anywhere but dark oak planks which read simply

“NO HALFBREEDS”

In large red letters.

Niklas carefully tucked his ears further into his hat while also pulling his hair down atop of them. Alouise's pale hand touched his bronzed hand for a moment. If he hadn't known any better, Niklas may have sworn she cast a spell upon him to break his daze and force his attention to her pointed features and smooth and chiseled face.

“Bear the fools no mind, dear Captain,” cooed the young woman. “They fear that which they are not.”

“It doesn't change facts, Alouise,” whispered Niklas. His voice broke only slightly; the hint of weakness and pain showing through his facade.

“Men such as myself have no home. So we make our own.”

“A ship is not a home.”

“A ship is as fine a home as any,” He spat. Venom left his lips and pierced at Alouise's kind heart. She retreated back into her robes quietly. Niklas looked at her for a moment longer, his eyes softening and his heart aching. Before he let himself get caught, however, he turned away from her and turned his eyes to the dwarf entertaining them with a juggling act. He barely paid attention, however. Even as the dwarf fell on his ass and brought the entire tavern to tears in laughter, Niklas' mind stayed in the past and how his accursed father had damned him to a life of never being welcome no matter where he was.

“Cursing an elfish father won't bring peace to your mind, my Captain.” Noira this time. Silently she sipped tea from beneath her robes as she took a seat immediately on his left.

“Nor will causing pain to a mage's soft heart.” she continued.

“And what of it? Hm?” Growled Niklas as quietly as he dared.

“Niklas,” she said. “Alouise wants only to help. And as your firstmate, It's my duty to tell my Captain when he's being a right old shithead. And when he's got something truly treasured in front of his eyes.”

“What're you even talking about, Noira?”

The Underelf laughed heartily for the first time that night.

“Perhaps when you pull your eyes off of that sign, you'll not be blind to the ones all 'round you!”

Hours seemed to pass by like minutes and plates seemed to pile up on their table like mountains – especially in front of Elrik, who – despite his small stature – was shoveling food down his throat as if he'd never eaten in his life. Each of them had gone forward to entertain the hundred some people within the tavern. It had been a surprise, to Niklas at least, when Toddington had told them that each had to win their places in the Inn, rather than as a group. The only one left was Alouise. Gromlin had regaled the bar with a tale of bravery and honor, Elrik had performed a small acrobatics routine, Noira had retold the story of her coming to his service as his firstmate, and Niklas had concocted a story of his bravery against a dragon - “No, two dragons!” - all on his own, and how he'd bested them in a game of wits to save his life and the lives of his comrades. Alouise now was preparing for a small magic display. Simple and easy – He knew she could do it, and such didn't pay much attention.

A few moments into his soup and bread, a massive crash of thunder echoed through the Tavern, knocking him to the floor. It was followed promptly by a chorus of hisses and jeers while Alouise stood in the center of the room with a small fizzle of sparks and nothing more. Her spell had backfired and collapsed in on itself, the energy redirecting in a random direction and smacking Niklas' chair hard enough to throw him to the floor. Niklas looked to Alouise, trying desperately to find words of comfort all the while watching as she retreated into her robes. For just an instant, he thought he saw the glistening sparkle of tears upon her soft cheeks before the black and gold trim of her hood enveloped her, as though protecting her from the eyes of anyone who would mock or ridicule her.

Toddington approached roughly. A blazing fire erupted in his soul as the man's two giant hands clutched Alouise by the shoulders. They hadn't made it two steps before Niklas bounded from the hardened oak floor, nearly toppling the table and all the food with it.

“Niklas-” Noira called after him.

“Uh-oh,” Elrik chirpped. “Cap'n's gonna fight 'im!”

“So long as he doesn't get us thrown out,” growled Gromin as he stuffed his face with roasted venison.

Alouise was silent as a lamb being led to slaughter. All of them knew the price of admission was entertainment, and Alouise hadn't entertained.

She's too tired, Niklas scolded himself for pushing them all too far.

“Hold one moment, Toddington!” exclaimed Niklas. He put himself between Alouise, Toddington, and the door.

“She's a mage, and she's had quite the rough day! Magic takes energy – energy she clearly doesn't have at the moment! Give the girl a chance!”

“I don' care,” barked Toddington. “She didn' make fer good entertainment, she don' get no bed!”

“Niklas,” Alouise said.

Her voice was barely a whisper. Her head was bowed, invisible beneath the gargantuan hood. Toddington's hands were almost as large as her head, and judging by the impressions his sausages for fingers were leaving his grip on the young mage woman was by no means 'gentle'.

“Rest easy, Alouise,” Niklas said softly.

He cast a glance under the hood, hoping to catch her eyes. His lip curled in a sly smile meant to comfort and reassure her.

“Toddington, why not look the other way, just this once?” Niklas gestured to the storm beyond the door. “You see the torrent outside, yes? Would you truly throw a young woman out in this?”

“Aye, I would, ifin' she don't bring a tale or act!” barked Toddingon. “She cannae act, she don't belong! She ain't one of us, Mr. Sweet!”

Instantly, everything turned red for Niklas. His eyes grew wide and his sly smile twisted and bent into a furious grimace.

“One of us?” He repeated. “You wish to speak of inclusion and unity? When you've a SIGN DELIBERATELY EXLCUDING PEOPLE?!”

“Niklas,” Alouise reached a hand to try and calm him.

“What's it to you 'ow I run me business?! Hm?!”

“Give the girl my room, Mr. Branchswipe!” Niklas spat. Toddington shook his head.

“She didn' earn her bed! My bar, my rules! Ye be wantin' five rooms, ye gotta earn five rooms! I've already got it in the ledger for the night!”

“So change the damn ledger!”

“Are ye tellin' me how t' be runnin' me business, lad? You earned yer room! She didn'! You're welcome here, but as of now, yer wee lass isn't!”

With a roar, Niklas threw his hat to the ground, revealing his slightly pointed ears. If truly he were welcome, Niklas reasoned, then it would be of no consequence. But ever since he'd seen that sign, Niklas never once felt truly welcome.

The tavern grew silent. Even the storm outside seemed to stare in silent awe, awaiting what would happen; what Toddington's next move would be. Shadows all around danced with the flickering of candles. Toddington's face grew red, far more red than ought have been healthy. With a forceful shove, the moustached man threw Alouise at Niklas who caught her. His arms went around her, steadying her. He could see her face now, and the tear stained cheeks.

“The girl can 'ave your room, Halfbreed.” the words stung Niklas like poison, yet he dared not let Toddington see it.

“You can get out o' of me inn. I don' want yer filfthy halfblood taintin' me establishment!”

“Then we've come to an agreement.” Niklas stared Toddington in the eye. He never blinked nor wavered.

“Niklas,” Alouise murmered. “You shouldn't have done that. It's my fault the spell failed. I'm the one who should be sleeping in the storm.”

“Nonsense,” he assured her, turning away from Toddington. “You know me, luv; always looking for a good fight and all.”

Niklas led her back to their table with a hand on her back. He gave her his place at the table, his food, and his seat. Another roll of thunder roared outside. Niklas paid it no mind. The tavern was still silent as he threw his cloak and satchel over his shoulder.

“Anoira, you're in charge while I'm away. Make sure Gromin and Elrik don't kill each other, would you?” he joked.

“Hey!” Elrik leaped up onto his chair, looking a bit huffy. Gromin used one large hand to pick the gnome up and set him back in his seat. Anoira was silent for a moment before finally speaking.

“Aye, Captain.”

Silent as a mouse, Alouise didn't seem to react when Niklas walked passed her and paused for a moment before continuing on into the storm.

Lightning flashed and thunder roared like a dragon as Niklas began to search for the spot nearest the Rusty Oak that might offer him some semblance of protection from the storm.

Damned storm, he thought as he clutched his hat. Damned Toddington! Who is he to say who is or isn't good enough for a bed?!

Niklas' thoughts drifted to the constant ridicule he'd suffered as a child. Being half-elf was often seen as a curse in the lands of Men and Elfs alike. You never truly belonged anywhere, certainly not with either men nor elf. You were always regarded as a mistake rather than a person. Toddington was the embodiment of that for Niklas at the moment.

And yet, with the wind threatening to take him away and the rain stinging like daggers, Niklas wouldn't complain. His crew – his friends – were safe and sheltered. He would gladly take the storm over allowing any of them to be thrown out. Especially Alouise.

Out of nowhere, a rough hand grasped his shoulder and spun Niklas around. His gloved hands instantly reached for the rapier at his side, ready to skewer whomever had come to assault him, but before he could do anything, a sack was shoved into his chest and the gruff, barking voice of Gromin shook him from his thoughts and instincts.

“C'mon, Cap'n! Storm's only getting worse! Noira's got the food, and the Gnome's got some of that bastard's gold and goods! Knicked it while he wasn't lookin'! It'll fetch a fair price at the next town, I'm sure!”

Niklas stood dumbfounded for a moment longer. Gromin began walking down the road, throwing a cloak over his plate armor that he hadn't had when they first arrived. Elrik followed shortly behind him, a bag twice the size of him attached securely to his tiny back. Noira was next, giving Niklas a smile – a full smile, no less! - as she gracefully stepped. Somehow she avoided every single puddle. Alouise was last. She stopped just in front of Niklas, looking him in the eye. The wind picked up her hood, blowing it off and whipping her brown hair all about.

“Thank you, Captain,” she said over the winds and rain.

“For you, my dear, I'd do it all over again.” Niklas grinned. Alouise returned his grin. Before he knew it, she leaned forward and pressed her soft lips against his cheek, tickling his beard a little. She pulled away to begin walking, yet even in the dark of the storm, Niklas thought he could see a blush streak across her face.

And though whe was taken aback by the Rusty Oak, Mr. Toddington Branchswipe, and the kiss from Alouise, Niklas found a sense of clarity beginning to plant the seeds of something new within him. Though the storm around him refused to die down, the storm within his mind and soul began to quiet just a bit. And, perhaps, with that small gesture from Alouise the Mage, he was realizing that he truly did belong somewhere.

Niklas ensured his bag was secured tightly to his shoulders as his crew of friends made their way further on southward. Alouise paused for him, all while Noira tried to keep Gromin from kicking Elrik into a puddle for fun. His maroon cloak whipped around him in the winds as he walked, somehow catching onto Alouise's robes and pulling the two closer together. With a laugh, Niklas and Alouise walked towards an uncertain future, matching each other step for step.

“Onwards!” he called over the storm. “To adventure and glory! Ha ha!”