Caolä’s cloth swished as he polished the counter, round and round. Outside dust billowed like it always did in the afternoons. Panelled walls creaked, answered the wind always howling through the street. The shuttered door swivelled uncertainly and settled back into its hinges. Clientele was scarce as usual. Ol’ Finlug sat at the bar on the far end of the inn holding a draught from the first barrel of harvest ale, his drooping hat tilted over his eyes and his grey stubble as dirty as the day they’d first met.
“Buried deep, buried far,” the lone woman sang, pressed the keys on her Hurdy Gurdy so the strings whined. Alnä’s idea of entertainment. The instrument sounded like a cat’s mating yowls mixed with the death throes of a plains rat, but then Alnä had insisted and who was he to disagree–it made Kleintjie happy.
“In the depths of the earth,” Kleintjie, his daughter sang.
A smile snuck onto his face, his heart stirred with that strange love awoken at Klentjie’s birth. A memory as vivid as the smell of dust, the feeling of falling into an abyss and the only thing to grasp at a little bundle of screaming blood and amniotic fluid, a shrill little voice, tiny lost hands stretching from the soiled white linen wrapped around it, to him of all people. And there she was, grown, the first shy bumps on her chest hinting at the woman she would be, and still he felt the tug of gravity pulling him downward, her warbling voice the only thing grounding him as it danced with the Hurdy Gurdy’s twanging.
“Behind the Breath of the Fathers,” she sang.
People called the winds of Windburg City, which lay to the south of this town, ‘the Breath of the Fathers’ making Kieperwind behind the Breath of the Fathers. For a while Caolä leaned on the counter and listened, the cloth in his right hand. A new song was rarer than strangers and imagining the treasure was hid in this very town, right under their noses, was a fancy bright enough to distract the afternoon’s lull.
“In the heart of darkness,” she sang, “behind her hearth. In the sun’s eye, on the stone’s neck. Where the ice giants break and Äbädä’s legs quake.”
Was the heart of darkness a reference to evil or to the loss of innocence? The thump of boots on the landing interrupted his musing–a day for rare things. Outside someone yelled.
“Alnä!” he called into the kitchen. Without a word his wife appeared, cleaning her hands on a frilled frock.
“They call it the voice of fortunes,” his daughter sang.
The next line drowned in noise. A warrior with a vicious-looking axe strapped to his back burst through the door. His black eyes fixed on Caolä as he advanced. Ol’ Finlug snorted, and another woman Caolä hadn’t seen enter appeared behind Ol’ Finlug, a raised dagger clutched in her hand. Oh cursed Blood Moon, what had the wind blown into town now?
“Lower yer knife,” Caolä growled.
The woman flinched, her eyes darted to the warrior’s, then she lowered her dagger reluctantly and it disappeared into her voluminous sleeve. The warrior slammed a fist on the counter, a gold coin gleamed in its wake. A strange stillness settled on the room, even the music absent. Only the wind desecrated it with an incessant howl. Alnä stood at Caolä’s side calmer than a summer afternoon.
“We’re looking for someone,” the warrior growled. A fresh cut split his eyebrow and lower lip.
A string or two twanged from the Hurdy Gurdy.
Caolä scowled. Whatever this man wanted he wouldn’t find here, gold coin or no.
“The words and the mystery,” Kleintjie’s voice whispered but gained confidence and volume, whining with her instrument.
Alnä smiled, hands folded. “We’ll help if we can.”
A chill shivered up Caolä’s backbone.
“The one and only,” Kleintjie warbled, the Hurdy Gurdy jumped notes as the melody sped.
“Who ye looking for?” Ol’ Finlug croaked from beneath his hat’s brim.
Caolä and Alnä’s mouths hung open. People often argued over whether Ol’ Finlug could speak. Once, after four hours of debate, Caolä and the boys had concluded that his tongue had been cut out in the southern jungles where it was rumoured he’d spent his youth.
“The guide,” the warrior said.
“They call it destiny’s boon,” Kleintjie sang.
Ol’ Finlug’s stool scraped, his spine straightened. With one eye he glanced up. That eye seemed eerie and wise, wrinkled around the edges but sharp at the heart. “Why?” The eye narrowed.
The warrior frowned, brushed his thumb over the hilt of a short sword sheathed at his hip. “We’re looking for something.”
“Aint nothin’ to find here.” Ol’ Finlug sipped at his beer.
“That’s not what we heard,” the woman said.
Finlug cocked his head, met her eyes. “Well it’s the truth.”
In a rush of movement, the woman ripped a dagger from her sleeve and put it to Ol’ Finlug’s neck. “Listen old man, we didn’t come this far to leave empty handed. Word is there’s is a man called ‘the Guide’ who can show us the way to the Endless Treasu—”
“We don’t have none by that name in Kieperwind.” Alnä answered too quick, the silence after festered.
“We could offer ye a warm meal,” Caolä said, “and proper ale before ye went on yer way.” His palms clung to the counter surface, sweaty. The short sword’s sharp edge threatened from its leather holster, the woman’s dagger gleamed its own promise of peril.
Kleintjie’s fingers danced on the Hurdy Gurdy’s keys. “They call it, they call it…” The music built, wore on Caolä’s shot nerves. “They call it the Book.” She smiled through her dark hair at Caolä as she played the last few keys of the song. A dagger hit her chest with a thump. Shock seeped onto her face, drained it of life. Blood bloomed on her white corset. The Hurdy Gurdy clanged as it fell, reinforcing the deathly silence following. With shaking fingers, she touched the point where the dagger jabbed into her, they came away bloodied.
The quiet choked him. A breath passed, then Alnä screamed as she ran to their musician. Kleintjie, their only daughter, slumped forward and pitched from her chair. Terror constricted his breath. With trembling fingers, he felt below the counter for his crossbow and tried not to whimper under the warrior’s gaze.
“No!” Alna’s shrill voice shook the inn’s timbers, crushed the air.
Ah, his fingers found the crossbow, he fiddled for the catch and released it. The bolt flew from beneath the counter and slammed into the foreign woman’s lower torso through a gap in the panelling designed for this purpose. Her face paled, she collapsed, her fingers unfurled from the knife’s hilt.
The warrior snarled and unsheathed his axe. “Aaargh,” he screamed, split the wooden counter with one swing. Splinters stung Caolä’s cheek, spattered from the path the axe had cut, shards of wood clattered to the floor.
Oh, his counter, he’d it built with his own hands. Curse the wind. He whimpered but put another bolt into the crossbow with shaky hands and pointed it at the warrior’s face. “Get out.”
Alnä wailed, clutched Kleintjie’s head in her hands, her lap and fingers red as the Blood Moon. Kleintjie’s eyes were closed. Right then something in Caolä broke. Numb terror flooded him, he was far away from it all–the wailing, the warrior with his axe, Ol’ Finlug sipping at his draught without a care. The warrior was speaking, but Caolä only heard a humming sound. The man swung the axe again, crunching into the splintered mess that remained of the counter. Caolä did not flinch. As if in a dream, he lifted the crossbow and pointed the arrowhead at the warrior’s nose.
The man’s head exploded, blood and bits of flesh splattered everywhere, and the axe fell at Caolä’s feet. He grabbed it in numb hands and walked to where the foreign woman lay. With one sweep, he chopped clean through her throat. Her blood sprayed in his face, his beard.
Ol’ Finlug flicked a bit of flesh from his hat and nodded.
That night, once they had scrubbed away the blood and buried the bodies, Alnä and Ol’ Finlug sat at the bar while Caolä served them each a draught filled to the brim. The world felt raw, each intake of breath a fresh wound. The small things too crisp, sharp. Like the foam doddering on the mug’s lip and spilling down its side to the counter. A thing as familiar as his hands but tainted forever with the ache of his loss, with Kleintjie’s soft lip curling over the edge of a mug of cider.
“Didn’t know ye were so strong, Ol’ Finlug.” Alnä patted his back.
Caolä nodded. “Aye, and didn’t know ye had a voice neither.” He wanted to smile, but it felt wrong, empty, stained with the remnant of Kleintjie’s dark eyes twinkling as her cheek dimpled.
“I’m sorry,” Ol’ Finlug muttered, “about Kleintjie.” Tears wet Alnä’s puffy cheeks and Caolä swallowed his own. To his shock, Ol’ Finlug removed his hat and clutched it to his chest. “You and Alnä looked after me all these years. Yer like family.” A tear gleamed in Finlug’s eyes, the way Kleintjie’s had shimmered on her round baby cheeks as he rocked her to sleep in the early morning hours. His own tears felt hot and wet as they cut down his face.
“In Kleintjie’s honour, I wanna share something with ye, so long as ye swear to keep it secret.”
Caolä and Alnä nodded.
“That song she sang, t’was my song. I taught ‘er it when she took up playing that cursed yowlin’ instrument.” Finlug shook his head. “I shouldn’t have, look what it brought.”
The inn was silent as death as Caolä realised what Ol’ Finlug was saying. “Ye mean ye wrote that song, Finlug?” The strings twanged in his mind, but instead of irritation Caolä remembered Kleintjie’s delicate nails tapping against the enamel-white keys, her brow furrowed.
“Yessir, sure did.” He gulped his draught down with feverish swallows and belched. “What’s more, I am ‘The Guide’.”
Caolä’s eyes widened.
“That’s right, I exist, and so does that endless treasure people call the Book.”
Deep down, Caolä knew he should feel something. Maybe anger that Ol’ Finlug’s reputation had drawn such scum to Kieperwind, or that he’d taught Kleintjie the song that’d cost her life. And he knew he should feel excited at the opportunity of finding an endless treasure, the fabled Book of the Fathers, but there was only a hollow space in his chest. Behind the inn, a grave dug deep enough so the wolvï couldn’t get to it trapped him, held him. He could see the mound of soil, each granule and the way they had fallen on her ashen face. He could still hear the last words on his daughter’s fair lips. He could still see the blood on her hands, feel the terror as that bolt hit her chest. The thoughts wrenched his heart with anxiety as if he lived it again. He coughed out tears and leaned against the bar.
Ol’ Finlug rubbed Caolä’s back, round and round, whispering, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”