By Willow Taylor
It's not hard to
Victor Shelly walked into the town only minutes before the snowstorm. His dark, slightly spiky black hair was crusted with snow and ice. He'd been walking all day, and his face looked dead and pale from the cold. His entire appearance gave the impression of being washed out, like the cold had sucked the color out of him as he walked. The only spot of color was the glowing coal of the clove cigarette that was held between his lips. Before entering the tavern, even though the wind blew harsh and cruel around him, he took a moment to extinguish the cigarette and put the stub in one pocket of his ankle length, battered leather duster near the end of its useful life time. Then he pushed the door open and stepped inside, shoving the door shut quickly behind him.
The main room of the inn was dim - not dark, but dim. There were only a scattering of patrons that night, and as the wind rattled the very walls, Angel figured that they knew that the storm was coming. The drifter gave a quick scan of the room, picking ice crystals out of his hair and moving slowly towards one of the fireplaces.
"Hey now - be careful not to drip too much - it makes the floors slippery," came a voice. The dark haired man nodded and carefully dusted off the clinging ice crystals to the fire grate, where they sizzled. Finally, Angel was a good deal closer to dry and warm, and he headed to the bar.
"You aren't from around here are you?" asked the barkeep, who by Victor's deduction, owned the entire inn.
"No," said Victor simply. "I'm a traveler."
"Traveling where?" asked the barkeep, as the slim young man indicated what he wanted to drink. "From where?"
"From somewhere," said Victor with a wry smile. "To somewhere else."
"Heh. You like to keep your secrets do you?"
"Everyone likes to keep their secrets," Victor said, pulling out a grey doeskin pouch and extracting a few silver coins from it. "Don't they?" The Barkeeper nodded and scooped the coins up.
"I suppose they do," he said, eyes narrow at the drifter, as he set the drink down.
"Excellent brew," commented Angel pleasantly. "Sadly enough however, I do hope there's one secret you'll be willing to share."
"Eh? And what would that be?"
"The name of this town, and tavern." The dark haired drifter looked up, eyes sparkling with amusement. "I'm afraid I was more concerned with getting here when I saw the smoke than figuring out where 'here' was." The wind rattled the shutters again. It almost covered the sound of chuckles that went around the room. Victor smiled good naturedly.
"Well this here is Everand's Tavern. I'm Evens Everand. And this town," the wind howled outside, "as godforsaken as it is in winter, is Tanner's Rest."
Setting his glass down, Victor produced a map from inside his coat and spread it out on the bar.
"Hmmm," he mumbled. "This would be a heavy leather works town."
"One would guess," Everand said dryly. Victor flashed a smile.
"Then perhaps this was where I was heading." He grinned. "At least for now." He yawned. "Actually, for now, where I want to be headed is a warm bed, immediately preceded by a hot dinner."
Evens thawed a little, as the drifted produced more coin to pay for the services he needed. As suspicious as the short man seemed, he was fairly good natured, and polite. Even if he did smoke the sissy little cigarettes that smelled more like incense than a real man's smokes. But who cared what the little man did or was as long as he didn't do it under his roof. Or if he did, he paid for it.
Perched on the edge of the bed, Victor inspected his boots. The soles were worn thin, and the leather gone nappy in places. What did he expect, honestly. Both the boots and his jacket had lived a full and useful life, but even good leather can only last so long. The dark haired man set his boot down, then took off his shoulder holster, and put it carefully on the head of the bed, and the gun he carried in it on the bedside table. He looked at the bed with a deep longing, as he'd been camping out for the last week, but he was also dirty, and he wasn't going to ruin a good night's sleep by being grimy. Though the only thing that could make the prospect of that better was if there was someone in it to help keep him warm. Victor smiled and stripped to the waist, pouring the warm water he'd requested into the washbasin every room was provided with.
The rooms at Everand Tavern, oh that was an inspired name, weren't lavish, but they were good. The beds were soft, the linens clean, and each room contained a chair, a small table and a washstand besides the bed. Beyond that, the walls were papered in colors to match the bedspreads, which as far as Victor could tell, were exactly the same in every room, and above each washstand was a mirror. Victor wondered how Evens had afforded that expense as he washed the travel grime away. His reflection showed him the same picture as always. A lean, but sturdy man, pale skin from his hair line to his pants, with a small silver cross hanging around his neck, resting on the mass of scar tissue that flowed down his chest. It was all one scar. There were other, smaller scars here and there, on his arms, and a few on his back, but the strange, shiny, smooth scar was the biggest and the most mysterious. What could a man have lived through that would leave a scar that big and twisted? Victor carefully dumped out the water and climbed into the bed. Whatever he normally did with his life, sleep was his only quarry now.
The next day he spent in quiet rest, mending some rips and tears in his spare clothes that he hadn't had time for on the road. Then he went down to the main room, and played cards with the regulars. No one got bilked, so no fights broke out. 'Angel' as he introduced himself, was well on the way to being 'nice enough', though he'd have to live there for a decade to receive a 'good kid' and another two to be a 'good old boy' But he was used to small towns so it didn't bother him. He was just unwinding and resting his feet. Besides which, it was still snowing.
It was still snowing the next day. Victor continued to play cards with the few other travelers in the tavern and the locals, who had for some reason or another holed up here. They shared gossip and stories about their travels over cups of hard cider. It was refreshing. As far as Victor could see, this was going to be one of the all too rare, and all too welcome times when he came to a town that needed no help.
Finally, the icestorm that had blown in at his heels blew itself out again, and Victor could see about getting himself fitted for a new pair of boots.
"These are good boots," commented the cobbler, inspecting the worn leather. "You must walk a lot." Victor nodded and exhaled smoke softly. The shop was warm and comfortable, and he wasn't exactly loathe to stand around and chat till the cobbler got down to business. "How long did you say you've been wearing these?" Victor thought for a moment.
"Oh, at least ten or fifteen years." The cobbler, a Mr. Bradly by name, gave Angel a sharp look. Victor contrived to look as innocent (and as old) as possible, as sunlight caught and held the dustmotes around him.
"Feh," Mr. Bradly said good naturedly. "You age well."
"You could say that." Angel laughed. "Just good genes I guess."
"Nothing," Angel said with another smile. The days of rest had done wonders for his disposition.
"Well, I can get these cleaned up so they'll last at least other five years, but..."
"Well, I am in the market for a new pair."
Mr. Bradly tugged on he end of his white mustache thoughtfully. "I can do that, sure enough, as matter of fact, I could probably make you a pair of boots that'd last even longer." Victor's eyebrows sought to make acquaintance with his hairline.
"You don't believe me?"
"Oh I believe you!" Victor said, grinning. "How long would that take?"
"Well, mid summer, you'd have a wait. But this being mid winter, I've already got the back orders cleared out and..." He paused and tugged on the end of his mustache again. "Oh a week, perhaps two." Victor contemplated two whole weeks of rest in this sleepy town. Lamentably, probably with an empty bed, but still very appealing.
"Well then, I'm going to have to order pair of your fine boots." They shook on it.
David Masterson, the leather merchant clucked his tongue at the state of the leather coat that was flung across his counter, as the short, dark haired drifter who'd put it there perused the selection of jackets and coats that hung along the wall. He passed it to his son to begin cleaning, then returned to the small, careful stitches he was using to put the liner in a pair of gloves.
"Whatever did you do to abuse this so?" asked Stanly Masterson, who had been working leather since he was old enough to hold a needle without picking himself.
"Oh that's a long story," Victor said. Then he chuckled. "Several, actually."
"These marks here, for instance," Stanly said. "It looks as if you were attacked by a wild dog!"
"Something like that," Victor said, glancing over to see which marks the leather merchant's son was looking at.
"This one I recognize. It's a knife score."
"Are you a mercenary, Mr. Shelly?" asked Stanly. Victor turned and looked at the tanned youth, searching his face for an emotion, and found one, which was strangely close to hero worship.
"No, young Mr. Masterson," he said. "I'm just a man who keeps being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"What do you mean by that?" David shot his son a look that told his son not to keep bothering the customer. However, the whip-cord thin drifter walked over and leaned on the counter that separated the workshop and the store.
"I keep getting into bad situations through no fault of my own." He paused. "You don't know how lucky you are, young man."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, look at me. I'm wandering about from place to place with nowhere to call home, while you have a job, a family, and a good honest craft."
"Oh but the places you must have seen."
"Oh yeah, I see a lot of places." Angel laughed softly. "You know what, a lot of them are just like here." The disappointed look on the boy's face and the relived one on the father's told Victor he had said just the right thing. "But 'here' is a pretty good place." The pale drifter cajoled the young man into talking about the pretty girls of the village, and the festivals at the turning of the year. It was a while before his coat got cleaned.
The weather, as if embarrassed by the ice storm, was uncommonly warm and sweet. The sky was azure and cloudless, sparkling like a giant sapphire dome. The sun shone softly, which was a godsend, because everywhere it hit, it reflected back from the snow and ice that lay everywhere. Even still, going about without snow goggles was risking blindness. Many people of the town who saw Victor going here and there getting errands done while he waited for his boots to be made commented on the interesting design of his snow goggles, for they seemed to be little more than eye glasses set with dark glass. The doctor and the glazier were collaborating to try and come up with something similar, because they were so much smoother looking than the wooden pieces with slits that most people of the town wore to shield their eyes from snowglare.
Victor sat at one end of the bar, and nursed his drink. Except for the lack of companionship, he liked it here. But he was going to have to move on soon. According to Mr. Bradly, his boots would be done at the end of the week, and the weather witch was fairly sure that the weather would stay clear for the next week, which was plenty of time to get to the next town, and getting that much time of clear weather was a chancy thing this time of year.
"Hello there," came a voice from behind him. A female voice. Victor turned.
The woman was pretty. Maybe a little more than pretty, but definitely not beautiful. Her eyes were a soft, sparkling grey, and her hair was the color of a banked fire in the dark. A deep, brooding red, almost brown, with flashes of brighter color hidden in it. She wore a deep red blouse, mostly hidden beneath a dark grey leather vest. Except for the blouse, all of her clothes were the same dark grey of old ashes.
"You'd be the one they call Angel, right?" she said, tossing her jacket on the bar, and sitting down beside him.
"Oh good." She stretched out her left leg and smiled. It made her seem much prettier. "My name is Asher Royal." Everand came over and the slender woman ordered a small glass of schnapps. Victor got himself a refill.
"Anyhow, to make a long story short, I'm a wanderer like yourself," she said, pushing her thick hair out of her eyes. "I got caught by an avalanche, and was fortunate enough to be found by a shepherd who brought me here." She stretched out her left leg again. "I've been recovering in the doctor's house for the last few months, and well..."
"You just got your cast off and you want to get going already..." Angel said with a smile. She returned it.
"Yes. Precisely!" Now she frowned. "But the thing is, the doctor is worried that I'd over tax myself and doesn't want me traveling alone." She made a little face and took a sip of her drink. "So my choices are basically wait for another month till he's sure, or find someone to travel with." She smiled at Victor. "I've been watching you through the window when you pass by... uhm..." She blushed a little. Victor raised an eyebrow.
"You're quite lovely too," he said evenly, with a hint of a smile. "Though, given the choice between us, most people would definitely pick you." Asher laughed.
"Well, I wouldn't," she returned. "But that's off subject."
"Ah yes," Victor said, "you want to travel with me?"
"You're wrong you know," Victor said pleasantly, taking another drink. "I'm grumpy in the morning, and sullen while I travel. And I walk."
"How do you think I got into these godforsaken mountains?"
"I rather thought your horse broke a leg too."
"Oh you're one of those people who think that just because I'm a girl, I can't be as tough as them," Asher railed.
"No no no," interrupted Angel before she could get very far. "God, if I thought that I'd be in trouble. Half the things that clean my clock are female. My sister could probably pin me down with one hand." He paused. "Of course, she's half again my height, but I'm coping fairly well with that, I think."
Asher laughed, and her hair danced around her, lamp light catching it and picking out golden highlights.
"Well providing that your at least as pleasant a travel companion as I am - " Victor said with a small smile that indicated that he thought he was nothing of the sort, "I think traveling with you'd be a refreshing change of pace."
"Good!" Asher said brightly. "Then I'll bring my things over from the doctor's house and spend my last few days here." She gave another smile and leaned forward confidentially. "Just between us, Angel, the good doctor and his dear sainted mother don't believe in drinking, and if I stay there much longer I may go insane." Angel shared a small smile with her.
The end of the week saw them leaving Tanner's Rest, steaming like engines in the cold. Victor was extremely relived that she didn't seem too inclined to talk as they moved along. As far as he could tell, it slowed you down to an amble - and he just wasn't used to it. He was also pleased to note that her stride was almost as ground devouring as the one that he'd developed over the years. His third gratification was that she was very easy on the eyes.
Asher Royal was turning out to be much more than Victor had expected. Victor reflected on her as he took his turn keeping the fire stoked during the night. They'd constructed a lean to together, and packed the edges with snow to insulate, leaving only a small smokehole. She looked like a child, sleeping. Like the Angel that some people called him, her dark hair pooled around a soft pale face. Victor smiled softly to himself. He wondered, briefly if there was any chance they could actually have an affair before they went their separate ways. Victor was deep down a bit of a romantic soul. He'd never really had a long term lover. Anywhere from a week's romance to the ubiquitous one night stand was about his area of expertise. But this lady - ah... she seemed like a perfect match for him. The fire popped and Asher turned in her sleep, pulling her blanket more firmly around her. Victor sighed and rested his head on one hand. He wondered why she was out here in the middle of winter.
Two nights later, they barely made it to a hunting shelter on the wings of a raging snow storm. The place didn't have any food, or really furniture or bedding, but it did have firewood. A lot of firewood, which is what they needed more than anything else in that case. Victor set about starting a fine fire, as Asher made sure that as few kinks as possible blew frigid breezes onto them.
"Ugh," laughed Asher, peeling off her coat and shirt as the small room got warmer. "I'm caked with snow down to my bottom layer."
"Traveling in winter is never easy," Victor allowed. She smiled at him again and rolled her eyes. he was almost inclined to smile back as broadly. She was very pretty when she smiled.
"Then why were you?"
"Me?" The dark haired man shrugged. "Don't have anywhere to go."
"You could have holed up in a tavern over the winter."
"I'd have gone insane and hurt someone."
Asher laughed. "Yeah, me too." The slender young woman brought her bag over to beside the fire, and began looking through it, at last coming up with a thick dark grey wool sweater which she pulled on over her burnished copper colored camisole. Victor did smile at the play of light on her slender muscles while her head was under the sweater. Victor hung up his new coat by the fire, and spared it a happy look as well. Leatherman Masterson was a true genius. The coat was waterproof, and strong leather, but on top of that, it had a clever lining which fastened in place, but could be removed easily for warmer climes. The reoutfitting he'd done at Tanner's Rest had cost him most of his somewhat meager supply of coins, but, Victor reflected it was worth it. A slight draft filtered through his thick sweater, and the dark haired man turned, to fasten his murky grey eyes on Asher, who was reclosing the door against a gale.
design ©2001 by Cindy Rosenthal
Femme Fatale © 2001 by Willow Taylor
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