One Night

PhD student at HMS studying microbial genetics!

Image of Long Story Short Award - 2022
Image of Short Fiction
The rain fell in sheets, obscuring all but the road directly in front of me. As my fingers fumble to tie my horse, I can feel the damp cold worming its way through my overcloak and into my bones. I make my way to the inn's entrance, and remembering my mother's training, I vainly attempt to knock the rain off my shoes and clothes before entering. I know this to be a futile exercise given the current deluge, but I'm sure she would be proud of my attempt.

As I enter, I am momentarily struck by the size of the inn. The roadside tavern is carved directly into the mountainside, a technique I later learn is used to provide shelter from the punishing wind. A side effect of this is that seemingly small buildings belie cavernous interiors. This inn is no exception, the entrance gives way to a spacious dining area with a large hearth and roaring fireplace in the center.

I shed my wettest clothes to dry on a chair by the fire and approach the bar to restock on provisions for my journey. Though I do not know the local language, the bartender understands my gestures well enough and my gold even better. His quick comprehension combined with the motley crowd around me confirms this place to be a true traveler's waystation; a location that attracts society's travelers, vagabonds, and scamps. After acquiring a warm bowl of something I believe to be vegetable stew and a large pitcher of something I ensure is strongly alcoholic, I retreat to my table and let the fire and food warm me from the inside out. Perhaps it is my fatigue and hunger, but it takes me a while to notice that the rest of the inn has fallen disturbingly quiet. Suddenly conscious of the sound of my spoon scraping the bowl, I instinctively reach into my bag to feel both the parchment of the message I am relaying and the hilt of my shortsword. I soon realize the silence is not due to an impending fight, but directed towards the fire at the center of the room.

There, a women huddles over a wooden contraption lying on the floor in front of her. A circular, gourd-like bottom elongates upwards into a thin, rounded rectangle. Four long strings made from what appear to be horse-hair are pulled taut over the length of the device. The entire inn silently watches as she lifts the apparatus onto her lap. She begins plucking the strings one by one. With each pluck, sound pours from her lap and washes over the room. I had heard tales of strange sounding instruments specific to this region, but had dismissed them as fantasy. Now directly confronted with one, I understand why the stories invariably spoke of them with such rapture. The notes hang in the air and vibrate with a tenderness unlike anything I have ever heard.

I watch as she fiddles with crude knobs near the top, and creates subtly different sounds. When she appears satisfied with her changes, she takes a moment to stop and survey the audience. While she scans the room with clinical precision, I study her features. Her dark curly hair is tightly coiled into a knot atop her head, and she is wearing a large black shirt tucked into simple brown pants. She sits barefoot and cross-legged, having removed her shoes and placed them neatly on the ground in front of her. They are large unassuming black boots, and despite their simple nature, I can tell they are well-made and likely tailored for the extreme weather of the region. Her brown skin is unadorned except for two long earrings dancing over her shoulders. They are made from a string of small white stones ending in a small golden pendant. She is undoubtedly beautiful, but in a severe and scolding way.

Finally, her gaze turns to the corner where I am sitting. Though our eyes lock for only a moment, I can feel my chest tighten and heart quicken. It reminds me of the moment just before a duel, when time slows and you can feel the blood roaring faster through you.

She breaks her gaze, takes a deep breath and begins playing in earnest. It is a haunting melody, ripe with lingering emotions. She begins singing, softly at first and then more forcefully as the song progresses. Though I can't understand the words, I can feel the primal beasts of anger and sorrow raging through her voice. Years later, I will recall the lyrics for a scholar specializing in extinct languages. He will confirm my initial suspicion: the song describes a lover leaving for war against her wishes and never returning. At one point, she lifts her face to reveal red eyes and tear-stained cheeks. Despite her obvious pain, her fingers continue to fly precisely across the strings and her voice remains forceful. The song reaches a climax and slowly fades out, leaving the air vibrating with the waning notes. There is silence in the inn. Then, a slow applause builds from the audience eventually reaching a fever pitch that is maintained for a number of minutes. I glance around me and am surprised at the extent of emotion on display around me. She stands and bows deeply before once again sitting on the floor and fiddling with her instrument. Though I long to stay for another performance, I still have two days of hard travel before arriving at the Northern Garrison and I've been ordered to deliver my message as fast as possible.

I gather my belongings and head for the door. It's still raining heavily, but I notice it seems less daunting than before. It's hard to tell if this represents an actual change in the weather or if I'm still reeling under the influence of her melody. I linger in the doorway and look back to the center of the inn one last time. As I do, I'm startled to see her red-tinged brown eyes staring directly into mine. I can still hear the lilt of the rain, feel the warmth of the fire-doused clothes on my skin, and smell the burning wood. But through it all, I most remember those eyes in that moment. Their intensity and their emotion. I feel my cheeks flush and am suddenly aware of the weight of my tongue. Fearing she'll notice my blushing, this time I break our stare. I duck under my cloak and flee into the rain.

As I fumble again with the knot around my horse, I think about my orders. Within my bag lies an invasion plan for another war in the north; a foolhardy endeavor if anybody had bothered to ask me. I know enough about our new king to know he lacks the ability to lead a successful multi-year campaign on unfamiliar ground. But that is not the role I have been cast.

That brief moment our eyes touched plays again in my mind, and I wonder at the whims of history. History remembers the kingdoms that rise and fall, the follies and fables of nobility, the disasters that ravage the land and its people; but I don't believe these make up the true essence of history.

History is a moment suspended in time. History is a good meal and a strong drink. History is the crackly reprieve of a fire during a thunderstorm. History is two strangers locking eyes in an inn by the road, never to see each other again. History is intimate.

I take one last look at the inn, then turn my horse to the road and continue on my journey.