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The Four Spoke Inn failed to be all manner of things. It wasn’t the cheapest place around, nor was it the warmest, the most welcoming, the largest, the busiest, not even the most convenient. Yet it was a little of all of these. The landlord, Seth Bryant, was well aware of this. He had long since come to terms with the hostelry’s strengths and limitations, determining to make the most of the former while learning to live with the latter.
Seth knew his clientele and what to expect of them. Many were regulars, but, the inn being situated where it was, just as many weren’t. This was one of the things he loved most about the place – it offered constant variety to spice up the underlying sense of stability, as comfortable as a well-worn chair, provided by familiar faces who could be counted on to appear more nights than not, picking up on conversations begun the previous evening or the one before that as if the world had stood still in between. There was little opportunity for boredom to set in, for life to grow stale, because new faces were ever imminent if not already arrived. Every time the door swung open and an unfamiliar figure strode through, the dynamics of the tap room would shift – sometimes by only a subtle degree, but by no means always.
This particular evening the bar was dominated by a group of bargemen who sat clustered around the long table by the window. They weren’t yet deep in their cups but a few of them were well on their way, the volume of the conversation from that part of the room rising steadily as the ale continued to flow. Ol’ Jake had taken to scowling in their direction at regular intervals from his accustomed perch on a stool at the right-hand corner of the bar.
“Don’t know why you put up with them,” he said to Seth as the latter drew him a pint of darkly sweet Dancastre ale.
“Yes you do,” Matty said from beside him. “It’s for the sake of their coin, ‘ey, Seth?”
The landlord smiled. “What can I say, Mat? You’ve got me bang to rights. The old women’ll be whispering in each other’s ears and word will spread like wildfire through Crosston and all the villages beyond – the shock of it! Respected innkeeper caught accepting honest coin in return for ale!”
Matty laughed and slapped Jake on the back.
His friend’s scowl only deepened. “All well and good, but do you have to accept it from them?”
“If you want the inn to still be here so you can keep coming in and moaning about every new face that wanders in then yes, Jake; I have to take coin from whoever’s willing to part with it. Besides, they’re not that bad.”
“So you say,” the old man muttered into his beer.
There were nine in total crammed around the long table – the crew of two barges, all male. Seth knew this lot; they’d stopped here before. Not all did. Some stayed close to their boats, sleeping on the great vessels as well as working them, irrespective of how prosperous a trip might have been, but not this lot. Their owner-captains were happy to let the crews enjoy an evening’s relaxation from time to time when a trip had gone especially well.
As long as their tankards were frequently replenished and nobody riled them, there would be no trouble from this mob, while the inn’s coffers would benefit considerably from their custom. Seth had ensured they were in good hands – he’d asked Molly to make a point of looking after them and she had plenty of experience with the like; knew how much cleavage to show as she leant across to collect the empties and how much of a wiggle to give her hips as she walked away again, while she wouldn’t take offence at their coarse humour or ribald comments and coped admirably with wandering hands. Thank goodness Bethany wasn’t on tonight. Younger, slimmer, less buxom, and by most estimates a good deal prettier than Molly, that one had a sharp tongue on her and a habit of not standing for any nonsense.
With no one waiting to be served at present, Seth left his station at the bar and wandered over to where the bargemen sat. “Everything all right, lads?” Contented murmurings rippled around the table. “Molly looking after you, is she?” At this the murmurings grew louder and more enthusiastic, with a few appreciative chuckles thrown in for good measure. “If you’re hungry at all, we’ve a few of this morning’s catch left – good plump sandfish, only a few, mind, which we serve basted in butter and lemon juice on a bed of fresh river samph – or there’s some mutton stew, steeped in a rich ale gravy, and we’ve a fully mature Cabrian cheese if you’d prefer. That comes with home-baked bread and I might even find you some really spicy Deliian pickle if you’ve a fancy.” He smacked his lips at this last. “Just let Molly know when you want to order anything.”
They assured him that they would and, with a final smile, Seth sauntered back towards the bar. He stopped en-route to exchange a few pleasantries with Lal and Si, who occupied their usual table in front of the hearth and were deeply absorbed in a game of checkers. No need to have the fire lit at this season, thank goodness, but this would form a cosy focal point later in the year as winter began to bite. Seth just hoped that, when it did, this winter would be milder than the last, which had been especially bitter, with even the Thair threatening to freeze over – something Seth had yet to see in his lifetime – icy skirts forming on both banks, though they failed to spread out and meet by covering the truly deep waters in between. A little chill could be good for business, encouraging people to seek solace in front of a roaring hearth while warming their hands around a cup of mulled wine or cider, but when it was that cold they generally stayed at home and battened down the hatches.
With a rueful shake of his head, Seth banished memories of such lean times and headed back towards the bar, where Matty looked ready for a refill, only to be stopped by two merchants at another table, who had evidently been discussing the origins of the inn’s peculiar name and were hoping for some enlightenment.
Seth smiled, trying to do so without any hint of indulgence; this was hardly the first time such a question had been asked of him.
“There’s been much speculation over the years on that very subject,” he told the two men – younglings both; the youngest sons of noble families most probably, who, seeing no opportunity for rapid advancement at home, set out flushed with dreams of making their fortunes by ferrying goods common in one area to places where they were not, little considering how many had already trod that path before them and how rare it was to find such undiscovered or unexploited commodities.
“Some would have it,” he continued, “that a vintner travelling from far Kathay suffered an accident on the road and, unable to make proper repairs, had to continue with one of his precious wagon’s wheels badly damaged and only partially mended, so that it boasted just four spokes rather than the original six. Yet that patched-up wheel carried him for many leagues, finally giving out here, where the great trade road meets the Thair. Taking this as an omen and judging it a likely spot, he set up shop where the wagon foundered and proceeded to sell his wines, doing very well in the process and establishing this inn as a result.
“Others claim the place was established by four strong-willed brothers who determined to go into business together but could agree on little else, arguing about every pernickety detail, until they found this spot. For the first time, all four agreed that this was where they should establish an inn, which they did, naming the place to reflect the four strands of their divergent personalities – all of which led away from each other in every instant but came together here and here alone.”
“And do you favour either of these origin tales, sir?”
Seth smiled. “Truth to tell, no. Both have their appeal yet strike me as fanciful. I prefer the more pragmatic theory.”
“Well, you’ll see that the inn is situated on the great trade route, that mighty road of commerce which stretches from distant Deliia in the east to the Atlean Sea in the west, bisecting the continent like the corded belt around some lanky cleric’s waist. It also stands on the banks of the mighty Thair, the river that stretches from fabled Thaiburley, the City of Dreams, in the south to the distant northern mountains. I believe that these are your four spokes, gentlemen: the road stretching in two opposing directions on the one hand, the river doing likewise on the other. Four passages to distant lands, representing the greatest trade routes in the world, all four conspiring to meet here, at the hub.”
One of the young merchants laughed. “Good fortune for you, then, Landlord.”
Seth nodded. “Good fortune indeed. Now, if you’ll excuse me…?” He looked towards the bar, where Matty still waited.
“Yes, of course.”
There was a deal of truth in what Seth had told the merchants, though by no means the whole truth. Few people alive knew or even suspected that, and Seth certainly had no intention of enlightening anyone. Best to let sleeping dogs lie, as far as he was concerned.
Having reached the bar without any further interruptions, he took Matty’s battered pewter goblet, which the man insisted was reserved especially for him though Seth couldn’t imagine why – it was as worn and sorry a piece of tat as you could imagine. Even when new the cup could hardly have been remarkable, yet Matty would drink from nothing else. Presumably for sentimental reasons, though Seth had to wonder whether any self-respecting sentiment would truly wish to be associated with such an uninspired piece of metalwork.
As he placed the brimming tankard down on the counter in front of Matty, the door swung open. Seth glanced up in time to witness the most beautiful man he had ever seen step inside. This was not a description he had ever expected to make about any man – beauty being something he considered to be sole property of the fairer sex – but it was the one word that sprang instantly to mind. The newcomer was tall, with golden blonde hair which seemed to have captured a stray sunbeam or two as a net might snare and hold an insect. He had piercing blue eyes and the sort of face which a truly gifted artist might aspire to produce one day, were he perhaps to render the image of a god. Despite being muffled beneath a heavy dark cloak, his physique looked to be well-toned and muscular.
All conversation ceased; even the bargemen went quiet and simply stared as this golden youth crossed to the bar, where Seth stood gaping.
“What can I get you, sir?” Seth asked, remembering his manners.
The eyes flashed with what… amusement? “I have a fancy for some wine, please, Landlord; white.” His voice matched the appearance; clear, fully masculine, yet a little higher than some might expect and with a lilting, almost musical quality. “Do you by any chance have any Abissian white – a bottle of sundew, ideally?”
Seth swallowed on a suddenly dry throat. The stranger had just asked for one of the rarest wines in existence, a label prized by connoisseurs irrespective of vintage. The given year made a difference of degree alone, not to whether the bottle cost a fortune. Nobody would think to order such a highly prized drink at a mere roadside tavern.
Correction; one person would.
Seth was glad to note that conversation had started up again in the room around him. It gave proceedings a welcome sense of normality as he smiled at this newcomer, this individual who had just uttered words he had never expected to hear, and said, “If you’d care to step into the back room, sir, I’ll see what I can find.”
This earned him a few odd looks from Matty and Ol’ Jake as he ushered the golden youth behind the bar, but there was no helping that.
Glancing over his shoulder as he led the unusual visitor through the dimly lit hallway that led to the back room, Seth couldn’t help but note that the dimness seemed dispelled by the youth’s passage, almost as if the lad glowed with light. Once they were away from prying eyes and inquisitive ears, Seth turned to the stranger. “You have something to show me, I believe.”
The youth dipped a hand inside his voluminous cloak and emerged holding something; a quite unremarkable length of wood, roughly as long as a man’s forearm, perhaps a little more. It was slightly broader and squared at one end, more rounded at the other, but nothing special you might think.
Seth stared at the crudely turned stick as if this were the holiest of all relics being presented to him. He licked his lips and said, a little hoarsely, “The fifth spoke.”
“Just so,” the golden boy said, and then smiled. He reached up to the clasp at his throat and, with a shrug of broad shoulders, sent his cloak drifting to the floor. The garment dropped languidly, as if in slow motion – a curtain drawn to one side at some major unveiling. Beneath, he was naked from the waist up, revealing the toned, bronzed torso of a young woman’s dream, every muscle perfectly defined and not an ounce of fat in evidence.
And then he spread his wings.
White and pure, they filled the room and more, unable to fully extend yet still magnificent. The light was unmistakable now, shining forth from the visitor in a blaze of golden glory.
Seth found that he had fallen to his knees. “What do you want of me?” he asked in a voice full of reverence. And the other proceeded to tell him.
The room felt oddly smaller once the visitor had departed, as if the youth had taken something more than simply his presence with him. For long seconds the man who had been calling himself Seth Bryant for more years than he cared to remember stood as if frozen, his attention focused on a single simple word which burned deeply in his thoughts; two fateful syllables he hoped passionately would never need to be uttered while fearing that they inevitably would, or why else had he been told them? Drawing a deep breath, he picked up a glass from the side, polished it, and then poured out a generous measure of brandy from the accompanying decanter. His continued absence would no doubt set tongues wagging back in the tap room, but what if it did? He needed a few additional moments to compose himself before facing the customers again. No one could blame him for that, surely?
After all, it wasn’t every day that a man came face to face with a demon.
From the Paperback edition.