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A Barmaid's Tale

Written by JKIJ :: [Sunday, 14 April 2013 15:22] Last updated by :: [Sunday, 14 April 2013 19:07]

A Barmaid’s Tale

 

Author's Note: This was written for the Winter 2013 Short Story Workshop but it ended up being about double the acceptable length. Rather than try to cut it down., I'm submitting it as a non-workshop story.

 

At the Wizard’s Hat the end of the night was approaching. Many of the inn’s patrons had left to return to their homes with most of the others having gone to their rooms to sleep leaving only a dozen or so regulars sitting at the bar or their table, happily chatting to each other and to the inn’s staff as they went about their business.

“It’s good to see you again, Louise,” one of the regulars said to a pretty young red-haired woman wearing a drab grey dress and apron with plain, sensible shoes on her feet. “You haven’t been here in a while have you?”

“No, I’ve had other things I needed to do,” Louise replied, smiling at the man. “I’m flattered that you still remember me. Is there anything I can get you before we close?” Louise asked, directing the question both to him and the other two miners with him. All three spent their days down the pit extracting the useful metals and minerals buried under the city. It was hard, dangerous work but well paid, so when they were off duty they liked nothing better than to while away their time at their local pub, drinking as much alcohol as they could. They were not averse to spreading their money around so the miners were very popular with the inn’s staff.

“Another round of ale,” one said, putting more money than was needed into Louise’s hand. “And keep the rest of the money for the staff.”

“Thank you.” Louise set off to get the drinks, giving all the money to Wally the barman and owner of the inn, asking him to split it later. As she turned to take the ales to the miners, the door opened and a man dressed in impractical black armour decorated with skulls and other symbols walked in, his purple cloak billowing dramatically behind him. He made his way to the bar and sat down.

“I’m sorry, we’re just closing up,” Wally said to the newcomer. “Why don’t you come back tomorrow?”

“I think not. I am here to drink now. Tomorrow, this building may not be standing. The strongest alcohol you have, at once. Lord Nechman deserves no less,” the stranger said, his tone a menacing gravelly sound.

“We can’t do that. We’ve served our last drinks for the night and the city watch would have us closed down if they caught us selling anything now. You can have a room here if you want, but that’s it.” Wally was firm in his refusal, standing as straight and unafraid as the ex-soldier he was.

“Alcohol. Now. Or face the consequences.”

“In that case, I’ll have to ask you to leave. Please see him out.”

After the barman finished speaking the inn’s two burly bouncers who had been sitting in a corner drinking water until this point walked up to Nechman, each of them taking one arm and trying to force him out. “Come with us,” one of them said.

Despite their much larger size, the bouncers were unable to get Nechman to his feet. Instead he sat there calmly then made an indecipherable sound. The two men were thrown away from him at a high speed, smashing headlong into the wall where they slumped unconscious. “Anybody else?” he said, turning to fix everybody in the room with a contemptuous stare.

“Nobody does magic in our inn,” one miner said, getting to his feet along with his friends and marching towards Nechman.

“How tiresome,” Nechman said, snapping his fingers. There was a blinding burst of light and when everybody’s vision had cleared they saw a horrific sight in the centre of the room; a group of twelve fleshless skeletons, six rapidly decomposing zombies  and what seemed to be three ghosts, their outline translucent allowing everybody to see through them. “Take care of them.”

One skeleton, one zombie and one ghost moved towards the miners. The miners were confused both by the undead and by the drinks they had consumed and found themselves slow to react. They still tried to fight back though; one tried punching the skeleton, one the zombie with one taking the ghost. The men were outmatched, the zombie shrugging off the miner’s strongest punches before casually swatting him across the room, the skeleton moving fluidly to avoid every punch before thrusting its fingers into the miner’s chest causing him to collapse in agony, blood flowing freely from the wound, while as soon as the last miner touched the ghost he screamed and collapsed shivering to the floor muttering “So cold,” repeatedly.

The rest of the patrons fled screaming from the inn. The staff were about to do the same when Nechman said “No. You stay until I’ve had my drink.” His creatures swiftly rounded the staff up and huddled them next to the barman.

“As you wish,” Wally said through clenched teeth, reaching for the strongest drink he had.

“Better,” Nechman said. “Now more. I need every drop before I see the Empress tomorrow.”

The barman complied, serving drinks until there was none of the strong and expensive liquor left. “Thank you,” Nechman said. “But this place must now be destroyed as an example. You will be more willing to serve me as zombies, I think.”

“No!” shrieked Louise, moving to stand between him and her fellow staff. “Please, just leave.”

“Alas, defiance must be punished,” Nechman said, smiling evily. “Deal with them,” he said, snapping his fingers. The undead moved to their master’s side, ready to destroy the inn.

“I’m sorry, Wally,” Louise said before she exploded into action.

Louise was suddenly a blur, speeding past Nechman before punching the heads clean off of two skeletons which crumpled to dust. The necromancer and her colleagues were astonished, having seen how agile the skeletons were when the miner tried to attack one. Louise quickly gave the other skeletons the same treatment, easily avoiding their attacks in return before grabbing the arms of a zombie, one in each hand, and tearing them off. The now harmless creature staggered around as if in pain, ignored by and ignoring Louise and the astonished staff who couldn’t work out how the slender young woman was able to do that. Louise quickly dealt with the rest of the zombies, most of them in exactly the same way though one of them she punched through the area where its throat would have been causing foul smelling fluid to spurt out and the zombie to seem to choke. Next Louise muttered something causing her right hand to glow. She quickly put her hand to each ghost in turn. The ghosts almost immediately dissolved into the air, though not before turning to look at Louise with gratitude.

Nechman, now outraged, got to his feet and said “You will die for this.” He pointed at Louise and a blast of searing fire sprayed from his finger to cover her. The flames were so bright that the staff had to look away, one or two barmaids weeping at what they thought was their friend’s death. When the fire cleared to everybody’s astonishment Louise stood there completely unharmed. “How is this possible?” Nechman said, fear rather than condescension now in his voice.

Louise snapped her fingers, dispelling the illusion that had surrounded her and that nobody had ever suspected existed. Her dress was now a spectacular golden gown studded with runes that glowed with a subdued silver light, her now even brighter red hair was adorned with a sparkling tiara while around her neck was the star amulet that signified her true identity, the Crown Princess Marie-Louise, known throughout the Empire as its mightiest Wizard-Knight, defender of the weak and scourge of evil. “I never wanted to reveal this to my friends but you threatened everybody’s life. For that, you must die,” she said, an implacable look of hatred on her face.

Nechman turned to flee, terrified of facing the woman who his sources had assured him was far away from the city and would not have been at the Empress’s court the next day. Marie-Louise let him run, allowing him to get within two steps of the door before she sprinted after him. Before the astonished eyes of everybody left in the inn that was still conscious, Marie-Louise became a blur of motion, reaching the door before Nechman could and reaching out with her elegant left arm to grab the necromancer by the throat and lift him from the floor. She drew her right arm back, palm open which began to glow even more brightly than when she had dealt with the ghosts. “By my authority as one of the Wizard-Knights of Wulfton I pronounce you guilty of attempted murder and of the vile crime of murdering and enslaving the souls and bodies of the dead. Your actions have proven your guilt beyond any doubt and there is only one penalty. May the Gods have mercy on your soul.”

Marie-Louise brought her hand slowly to Nechman’s face, giving him every opportunity to see it and to feel fear at what he knew was coming. As soon as she touched him the glow left her hand, being transferred to the necromancer’s agonized face before flowing through his body. Marie-Louise released the man’s throat, allowing him to collapse to the floor, a soundless scream coming from his open mouth as the light spread, seemingly devouring him from the inside out. Nechman seemed to crumple in on himself, his skin becoming stretched and loose as all of his organs, bones and muscles became overwhelmed by the light before dissolving. Throughout this, the necromancer was conscious and obviously in pain, watched over impassively and remorselessly by Marie-Louise until his skin was glowing so brightly that the others in the inn had to shield their eyes. Marie-Louise made a gesture and Nechman’s skin began to crumple itself into a ball, his horrified face being visible until at the very end the light exploded outwards, flooding the inn with its luminescence and leaving the onlookers with mingled feelings of fear, awe and love.

When their vision cleared, to their surprise Wally and the rest of the staff saw Marie-Louise collapsed in a heap, sobbing to herself. Wally went over to her and gave her a comforting hug. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I hate doing that, Wally,” she replied, tears glistening on her face as she turned it to him. “They suffer so much.”

“He deserved it lass,” Wally said sympathetically. “We all know how the souls of ghosts suffer for being bound here by their killer. Nobody can be allowed to do that.”

“I know, but there has to be a less painful way. And I will find it someday.” Marie-Louise got to her feet and turned to face her fellow barmaids. “Well Karen,” she said to one of them, smiling in a sadly sardonic way, “you keep asking me where I go when I’m not working here. Now you know.”

“But why?” Karen asked, unable to keep the disbelief from her voice. The Crown Princess working at a lowly inn? What a scandal that would be! “You’re rich and powerful. You’ve heard us gushing about you and how we’d all love to be you. You don’t have to work here, so why do it?” The other barmaids nodded their heads in agreement at the question.

“You don’t have any idea how exhausting it is to be me,” Marie Louise said tiredly. “As Princess Marie-Louise I’m always having to deal with a crisis somewhere. When I’m not doing that, I usually have to sit in on mother’s court, learning how to rule the Empire when she dies. Being just Louise the barmaid was my way of relaxing. Evading my guards is always fun. Not to mention being Louise continually reminded me about who I fight for, who the Empire is for, the people like you, my friends. Wally knew me from when he was a palace guard and when he suggested I start work at his in to relieve the pressure a little I jumped at the chance. I will understand if you never want to see me again though.” As she finished speaking Marie-Louise got to her feet and walked towards the door, her head bowed.

Before she got to the door, Karen reached her and pulled her back. “You don’t have to go. We like having you around when you’re here, right girls?” she said, looking at the others who nodded their agreement. “I know you can’t be here all the time and now I know why, but it doesn’t change the person who’s become my friend, who I’ve been shopping with. When you’re able to work here, I want you to. Besides, we’ve got some cleaning up to do.”

Marie-Louise looked into Karen’s eyes and saw nothing but sincerity, helping drag her from her despair. “Alright. Let me just change into something more comfortable.” Marie-Louise muttered a few words, reinstating the illusion of Louise the drably dressed barmaid. “Let’s get the unconscious men to a healer and get this place cleaned up then,” Louise said, smiling at the others.

A couple of hours later, after clearing the mess and providing the city watch with a semi-believable story, Louise sat around a table with the rest of the inn’s staff, having a drink and relaxing. “So, why don’t you tell us a story about Princess Marie-Louise?” Karen said, a cheeky grin on her face, taking care not to hint to the two watchmen who were still investigating the night’s events who Louise really was.

Louise smiled at her friends then began, “Well,” she said, beginning her tale, “there was this time that she …”

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