Baldo pushed open the double doors and sauntered into the gants1.
A man who looked to be the shopkeeper was preparing food behind the counter.
He stole a glance at Baldo but continued his work nevertheless.
These actions were quite an affront to a knight, one of the noble class.
Of course, though there was a sword at his waist and armor on his person, both were old and covered in grime.
Certainly this knight did not look the part.
Baldo himself wished not for the attention.
Though not far from the Pacra domain, he had never before set foot in this town.
He wanted to see just what kind of place it was before leaving these lands behind.
Pacra was but five days away, and yet it took him a month to arrive, for there was much that caught his attention on the way.
It was a strangely peaceful place for one so close to the gap in the Great Wall.
Baldo showed the man behind the counter two corlulose and negotiated their price.
He was in fact the shopkeeper after all.
Compared to other wild fowl, the corlulose was not in the least bit gamey and tasted quite fine.
They were hard to catch, being few in number and so timid.
Their feathers were beautiful and prized as accessories in the city, it was said.
The two corlulose were deliciously plump.
Not a scratch could be seen on their hide.
Not a drop of blood remained inside.
After a moment of discussion and with the promise of two nights of shelter, food, alcohol, warm water aplenty to bathe his body, horsefeed, and dried meats and bread, Baldo handed the shopkeeper the two corlulose.
This place was a gants, a shared dining hall and inn.
They were often built by the owners of mines or farms.
Occasionally were they funded by a collective of those who wielded authority in their respective towns.
Laborers were provided a set number of meals a day there.
For a certain price, travelers would also have access to the food and board.
“Clean yourself off before going up to your room, sir,”
said the owner, so Baldo left the building.
A girl thirteen or fourteen years of age followed him outside and proceeded to brush him off.
On his month-long journey through the mountains and fields, a great deal of dirt coated his clothes.
So too were his shoes caked with mud.
The girl continued to help him, and soon he was clean enough to go inside.
The rooms were all on the second floor.
Baldo ascended the stairs, belongings in hand, and went to his room.
He placed the items on the floor; he removed his armor and cloak.
He sat down on the bed; he took off his shoes.
Slowly he massaged the soles of his feet.
With the flow of blood came pain and fatigue.
Though his horse joined him on this journey, rarely did he ride it.
The horse came with him in tow and carried his belongings.
Baldo’s horse was even further along in its years than he was.
Years ago, it had retired from service.
Any longer, and it would surely be slaughtered for its meat.
For that reason, he had chosen this horse to be his travel companion.
In a small corner of the continent’s eastern frontier, the two houses Coendela and Norra had fought for many a year over the Great Lord’s seat.
House Coendela had recently triumphed over the Norras, claiming the title of Lord of the greater Giguenza region.
The house Telsia that Baldo served too had no choice but to acknowledge their rightful authority.
The Coendelas called a meeting of lords and demanded that the earnings of the Zaliza silver mines be used in the reconstruction of the areas ravaged by the conflict for the next ten years.
A preposterous demand, truly.
The bounty of the Zaliza silver mines and Repozia bronze mines had both been under the jurisdiction of House Telsia since time immemorial.
As those who ruled over the Pacra domain—located at the gap in Jhan Dessa Roh2—it was their duty to repel all manner of cursed beast that might attempt entry.
The thought that one might try to plunder the coffers of the house tasked with that burden was absurd.
Not to mention, the lands ravaged by the conflict had been razed by the very Coendelas no less, so to claim that it was for “reconstruction” seemed laughable.
All they could do for now, however, was silently yield to the Coendelas’ insistence.
Baldo served four generations of Telsia lords, and deeply he respected the strength of their will.
So too did these lords generously reward Baldo’s bravery and loyalty.
However, Baldo declined every of their offers of additional land.
No longer did he have family.
Never did he marry.
Upon hearing of what came to pass at the meeting of lords, Baldo wrote a letter to his lord conveying his intent to retire from service, surrendering his estate and finances thereupon.
Without so much as waiting for a response, he paid each of those employed by him a handsome bonus, secured their livelihood thereafter, and then left on his journey.
The sum that Baldo left behind was to give the house Telsia a moment of respite.
This journey had no destination.
It was but a trip for Baldo to meet the end of his life.
The water’s ready! he heard the girl shout, so he retrieved his equipment and headed downstairs, to the area behind the gants.
Next to the well was a gravel-laid washing basin, and further behind it was a large barrel filled to the brim with warm water.
Heavens, it seems they have a bath at the ready.
This will be much appreciated.
He leaned his sword against a small fence beside him and took off his clothes.
As he did, the girl handed him a wooden pail and said, Use this if you’d like.
He scooped some of the barrel’s water with the pail and poured it over his head.
Over him came a sensation of pure bliss as the water flowed down his hair, beard, and body.
He scooped water once more and used it as he scrubbed himself clean.
After this, he lowered himself into the washing barrel.
Copious amounts of water spilled over the edge for Baldo possessed a towering figure.
Wow, your body is so large, the girl exclaimed with wide eyes.
With a great crackle did his his legs, hip, back, and shoulders all loosen up.
It can be said a knight’s most essential of qualities is that of withstanding pain and suffering, yet it seems a month of walking and camping will still certainly take a toll on the body.
The pain he had repressed, ignored, and eventually forgotten came to life once more throughout all his body.
This is what it means to be alive, however.
Though Baldo reveled in the happiness of his receding exhaustion, the oncoming pain caused him to wince.
Does it sting? the girl asked him.
Baldo’s body was covered with scars.
Doesn’t the water hurt with those wounds? the girl worried.
Baldo smiled softly and said back to the girl,
These wounds are ages old—long since have they hurt.
The bathwater felt divine, and it gave my body a jolt is all.
A scrub fashioned from a dried porpos fruit lay nearby, so he used it all across his body.
The water grew ever so dirty.
Cleaning this will be troublesome I’m sure, he thought apologetically towards the girl.
She washed his boots and garments atop the gravel.
While scrubbing the boots back and forth, back and forth, she asked him for the name of his horse.
It goes by Staboros,
he responded, to which the girl asked, What does it mean?
Someone I know bestowed upon it the name.
I never asked the meaning,
I’ve already fed and given it water, she said, and I’ll be sure to wash it later, though is it alright that its horn is so small?
Horses possessed horns, and so did many livestock.
They became smaller with age, and once they became too small for the eye to see, occasionally they brought with them a fit of madness.
There’s nothing to fear,
Once an excess of dirt and filth had piled up at the bottom of the barrel, the girl opened it partway to release half of what was inside and once more filled it to the brim with clean water.
Baldo watched her carry the barrels of water around behind the gants, grunting as she did with her sleeved rolled up, and the scene brought no shortage of peace to his heart.
Truly, what a fine bath.
The girl seemed happy as well to witness Baldo’s merriment.
He stepped out from the bath, returned to his room, and laid flat on the bed, quickly descending into slumber.
Downstairs, the gants was teeming with activity.
Baldo retrieved his sword, descended the stairs, and sat down in an unoccupied seat.
Before long came the shopkeeper with stew, bread, a jar of distilled alcohol, and a cup to drink it from.
Taken aback at the generous size of the jar, Baldo poured some of the spirit into the cup and took in a hearty quaff.
The liquid burned his throat, settling deep into his body.
Before long, the warmth bore into his stomach, and his insides squirmed about.
The stew was made with meat and freshly picked vegetables, so a succulent smell started to drift about.
He scooped some with the wooden spoon and brought it to his mouth, chewing ever so deliberately.
It was corlulose meat.
To an immaculate tenderness was it cooked.
As such, every bite brought with it further savoriness.
The vegetables too had thoroughly absorbed the flavor while remaining firm still.
An absolute masterpiece.
The man sitting across from Baldo turned to the shopkeeper and said,
“Gimme some of what he’s having.”
The shopkeeper said to him it was a special dish and so it came with a special price and then announced that very price.
“That’s way too expensive!”
the man exclaimed.
Baldo brought another spoonful of the stew to his mouth, and this time, he took a sip of the spirit before the flavor would fade away.
The deliciousness of the stew only brought out the taste of the alcohol.
As an indescribable bliss descended upon his body, he sighed,
The man watched Baldo, gulped, and then finally yelled,
“Bring me the damn stew already!”
Similar voices started to come from the various tables all ordering the stew as if spurned on as well.
The girl ran busily around, delivering the bowls of stew and collecting payment.
It was not long before the shopkeeper announced he had no more left to sell.
As Baldo finished eating the stew and bread, the shopkeeper brought a small plate over to him.
On it were pieces of corlulose skin, grilled to a delicious crisp.
Basking in the envious stare of the man sitting across him, Baldo took a bite of the skin.
The taste of salt sprinkled atop provided an exquisite balance, and the addition of juice from some citrus-like fruit worked to eliminate the unpleasant oiliness, paving the way for satisfying aftertaste.
Paired with the spirit, it was a masterful union.
The man across the table inquired as to the price, and the shopkeeper responded with a figure even higher than that of the stew before.
For a good amount of quality charcoal was required in its making, was the reason the shopkeeper gave.
The grilled skin sold out more quickly than even the stew before it.
Neither did the alcohol lose out in popularity.
Lastly, the shopkeeper brought out a small bowl filled with stewed ingredients.
Unsure of the contents, Baldo inquired the shopkeeper as to what it was, and the man responded that it was in fact stewed corlulose giblets.
Can one truly eat something like that, Baldo wondered, but the skills of the shopkeeper were long-since evident, and the dish appeared truly delectable.
He ate a single piece.
There was nary a trace of pungency nor acridity.
It had thoroughly absorbed the light taste of the broth—perfection manifest for any and all who savor alcohol.
He took another bite even before he could come to his senses.
It tasted differently than that of the meat before.
Utterly and entirely different.
So was the consistency different, and so was the way the meaty juiciness exploded in the mouth on a wholly different level.
It was a flavor that seeped into every recess of his body.
It felt as if present in this dish was a taste completely different from the stew, bread, and grilled skin in his stomach.
Baldo was in a state of shock, and so the shopkeeper explained:
“This is all because you drained the blood so expertly, sir.
After seeing it done so well, I just knew I had to try making it.
I changed the water countless times and did my best to skim off all the impurities.
These are innards we’re talking about, so of course there’s gonna be a ton of crap inside.
But then again, cleaning them is what I do best.
The finishing touch was our local specialty, rock salt.
Depending on the ingredients, you see, the meat ends up smelling something fierce.
I can say this stewed dish here is the finest thing to come out of my kitchen in years.
With innards, you see, each part tastes differently.
Stuffed in this tiny little dish is a whole world of flavor.”
The man sitting across the table ordered the stewed giblets.
The shopkeeper responded with the price.
It was even higher than that of the grilled corlulose skin.
Not often is one presented with the opportunity to try a taste so rare, after all, and especially one made from ingredients of such a caliber.
The man paid the price no heed and had the shopkeeper bring him the dish.
Amazing! he exclaimed after a single bite, and the shopkeeper then drowned in the deluge of new orders.
The girl ran around, bounding with energy, and in the blink of an eye, there was no longer any left.
The shopkeeper ended up making a hefty profit this night.
Baldo was entirely satisfied as well.
Just as he thought to wrap his meal up, however, the bustling shop suddenly grew silent.
All stared at the entrance.
Three men had just strolled in through the open doors.
They had the demeanor of scoundrels, of those who caused only storms in their wake.
At the front stood a large man of considerable girth.
His left ear was deformed, and a large scar stretched across his left cheek.
He scanned the room with a repulsive glare and shouted,
I’m ever so pleased to see you all in such high spirits!”
He slammed the battle-ax he had been carrying in his right hand on the floor and then belted, his face now contorted with malice,
“Of course, I’m certain your festivities tonight will prevent none of you from showing up to work on time tomorrow.
Oh, how about this!
Since all of you are having such fun, surely you wouldn’t mind if I shortened your breaks by half tomorrow!”
One by one, the customers in the shop stood from their seats and left the establishment.
The man with the battle-ax suddenly beckoned with his chin towards one of the men about to leave.
One of the scoundrels took the man to the corner of the shop and started talking to him.
It seemed to be particularly nasty conversation, one of debts and taking little sisters for the night.
The man with the battle-ax then approached Baldo, sitting by himself.
He glared at Baldo’s face and at the sword resting by his side.
Baldo sat upright in his chair, always ready to move, and kept his left hand free, always ready to draw his sword.
The man with the battle-ax then stared at Baldo’s hands.
A knife and fork.
Most of the customers ate with their bare hands or with things like wooden spoons or skewers.
That was the norm.
What Baldo possessed at this moment was quite the item, however.
Each utensil was made of metal.
The knife in particular had upon it etched a beautiful, intricate design, and its surface radiated a silvery sheen.
It was grossly out of place in a countryside gants such as this.
Baldo brought the final bite of stewed giblets to his lips, unaffected by the man’s bloodthirsty glare, drank the last bit of alcohol in a single gulp, and then finally heaved a sigh of satisfaction.
The man’s bloodlust subsided as if put off by the display, and with the men who accompanied him he left the gants behind.
The shopkeeper came round to where Baldo sat with another cup and jar of liquor.
He filled Baldo’s cup to the brim.
Was it as thanks for the night’s profit or perhaps as recompense for the troubles that had previously transpired?
The shopkeeper sank deeply into one of the chairs, and he filled his cup too with the spirit, downing the liquid.
Little by little came the shopkeeper’s story of this town.
The area here rose to prominence by the cultivation of rock salt.
Following the death of the town’s head, whom all respected dearly, a man named Brando arrived and wound up in charge.
Brando was himself a man of skill and magnanimity, however the five sons of his who were tasked with supervising the work lorded over the workers with an iron fist, terrorized the townsfolk for all debts they incurred, and in all their actions exhibited tyranny unjust.
Brando’s estate possessed ample men of caliber, however it seemed in comparison with them the sons all paled.
The shopkeeper gave up on this place for it had no future and thus arranged to send his foster daughter to live under his cousin’s wing, to the town of Mithra in the Palzamic Kingdom.
There was a school in Mithra.
The shopkeeper had exhausted all of his savings in paying the tuition and succeeded in trying to get her enrolled.
The girl was the daughter of his late sister, he said.
She would depart by carriage to the river town Lints tomorrow afternoon.
The one who would drive it was a friend dear and old, he said.
He would take her across the Orva River in a trading ship of the lord of Lints and then bring her along in a trading caravan to the town of Mithra.
He knew an official in the Lints domain and had requested all this of him.
Once his contract with this gants had expired, the shopkeeper too wished to travel to Mithra and open up a restaurant of his own.
Thanks to the corlulose you brought, I’ve come across a good sum, said the shopkeeper as he poured Baldo the last of the spirit.
Baldo saw in the shopkeeper’s countenance the loneliness of a man sending away his precious niece and so he shared some of the drink in his cup.
Baldo upon returning to his room removed his sword from its scabbard and inspected the blade.
He put the lamp alight and shone it along the metal surface.
Here and there on the blade were the faintest traces of tarnish.
And so he took a cloth and gently removed it all.
This was the ritual Baldo observed at the end of every day, no matter how tired he was.
Once finishing his maintenance, he tried swinging the blade with his right hand.
When brandishing the sword upwards in a large swing, both his elbow and shoulder cried out in pain.
It appears yet again his old wounds would throb.
Swinging the sword from top to bottom would not work well either.
Baldo then tried swinging the blade up from left to right.
This approach would not bring pain it appeared as long as he did not overextend his right elbow.
If came the time he must use his sword, then this approach would prove best.
Surely if necessary he could ignore the pain altogether, but why purposefully maim one’s self?
Baldo sheathed the sword and embraced slumber.
He did not wake until the afternoon of the next day, at which point he peacefully passed the time by taking care of his horse and inspecting his belongings.
If missing any supplies, he would buy more in town.
He would stay the night today as well and then depart posthaste on the morning of the third day.
There was a ruckus on the first floor of the gants.
Baldo left his bed and opened a fraction the door to his room.
He overheard this exchange downstairs:
“Don’t be like that, keep.
Doncha think you’re being awfully cruel here, tryin’ to send such a cute girl away to the city without even telling us?
You do realize our old man owns this place, right?
Don’t forget ‘bout a little thing called manners.”
The shopkeeper with traces of anger in his voice insisted, It’s time for the carriage to leave, but the other men present clearly did not intend on listening.
The townsfolk had meant to keep the departure a secret as to hide it from the scoundrels, but the carriage driver had apparently let slip the truth.
Baldo started to equip himself.
Quick were his actions.
A strong light shone in his eyes.
Old were his traditions, that in moments of true he would waste no time in preparing for the fight.
He no longer felt any fatigue or pain.
“Half a year should do it.
Send her over to work at our old man’s place.
Do that, an’ we’ll look past how rude you’ve been bein’.
We’ll even go an’ pay her for the work.
There’s a lot were gonna be teachin’ her.
Not a raw deal, ain’t it?”
one of the men added, and vulgar laughter followed.
Baldo listened to the exchange downstairs, and he put on his boots, equipped his armor, attached his sword, donned his cloak, slipped on his gloves, wore his cap.
Let me go! Stop! Don’t touch me! he heard the girl shout with a heart of iron.
Baldo finished his preparations expertly yet with composure undaunted and with a loud thud did he swing open the door.
All those downstairs then looked up at Baldo.
Amid the tense silence came but the sound of Baldo’s boots as he slowly walked.
Near the counter stood a man with a battle-ax.
Surely he was Machius, eldest of the brothers Brando.
The one sitting atop a table sequestered in a corner of the gants was likely the third son Geronimus.
Supposedly he was versed in the throwing knife.
Then the man at the entrance who in his grasp held the girl captive must be the fifth son Cainen.
In his left hand was a bow and on his back a quiver with arrows.
Baldo descended the stairs, creaking with his every step.
And he too carefully watched the scoundrels.
It appeared these men had predicted Baldo’s entrance.
Were he to continue his descent, he would find himself on three sides surrounded.
His approach did not grow timid, however, and he now stood on the first floor.
The third son on the left glanced over.
Into the fold of his shirt he reached his right hand.
Baldo caught a brief glimpse of the man’s suspenders and the throwing knives hanging from them.
They were rather large for knives meant to be thrown.
Next to the counter on the right, the eldest son reached for his battle-ax.
Standing at the front entrance, the fifth son let go of the girl and from his quiver retrieved an arrow.
Upon regaining her freedom, the girl rushed into the embrace of the shopkeeper who stood in front of the counter.
The three scoundrels directed their focus all onto Baldo.
It was then that a playful glee welled up in Baldo’s heart.
For in this situation, he could make sport of his fierce swordplay and rob the scoundrels of their fighting spirit.
Failure would reward him with life-threatening injury, but Baldo did not hold his life dear.
This journey was after all one that would lead Baldo to the end of his life, so would doing so while saving the innocent common folk not be a fine way to go?
Would he receive terrible wounds regardless, Baldo would continue until all three were struck down and the last of the life left his body.
However, if at all possible…
It should go without saying that he would rather he could eliminate the men with minimal damage to his own body.
To the left Baldo turned and glared with intensity at the third son.
The third son gulped and tightened his grip on the knife.
Suddenly Baldo looked away and took three steps toward the entrance.
Taken by alarm, the fifth son notched an arrow.
Baldo looked away from the fifth son as well and stopped moving facing the eldest.
At this moment were the eldest son, Baldo, and the third son all in a straight line.
The third son was doubtlessly searching for opening into which he might throw his knife.
Then Baldo threw up his cloak with a loud flourish.
As the left part of the cloak hung over his shoulder, the sword hanging to the left of his waist was bared for all to see.
All who laid witness to this thought Baldo did so as to render his blade easier to draw.
His left flank was consequently now more susceptible to attack.
Baldo additionally untied the string holding up the left side of the cloak.
In doing so he revealed his left flank to even those behind him.
There were certain places one should aim a throwing knife.
These were for the most part anywhere in the stomach, chest, or back, and if the distance was sufficiently close, the face and neck too.
Baldo’s cap, cloak, armor, and boots at this moment covered all of his body aside from his left flank.
The third son was surely resting his gaze upon that very exposed part of Baldo’s body.
The eldest son then spoke as if no longer able to bear the heavy silence,
“Explain yourself, you senile fool.”
Though his tone was ever contemptible, so too was it almost hoarse, for perhaps the man was weary of his mysterious opponent or predicted an arduous fight ahead.
Baldo never broke the silence and took yet another step forward.
The third son behind him showed signs of activity.
Is he preparing a knife, Baldo wondered.
“You really wanna do this, huh?
All by yourself?”
Baldo took yet another step.
He must not be too eager.
The moment to strike shall be decided by the opponent.
“Well alright then.
If that’s how you wanna play it…”
The eldest son signaled the third with a momentary glance.
“Draw your blade!”
shouted the eldest son at the very moment he jumped to the side, but Baldo in that instant had already begun to move.
To the right he twisted the lower half of his body, and with a thud, he slammed his ironclad boots atop the floor.
The toes on that foot pointed towards the third son.
That very third son had already begun to throw the knife.
The moment the knife left his fingertips was his face painted with shock at Baldo’s actions.
Though Baldo drew his blade in that moment with ample force born from the rotations of his hips, his eyes drew steady watch over the throwing knife’s trajectory.
The knife would not stray from its path, so he but needed to guide his blade with the right timing that the two might collide.
came the clash of iron, and the stricken knife pierced deeply into the floor.
Baldo continued the rotation of his hips yet as if he had never stopped and stored his blade back into its scabbard.
His cloak once billowing about with the wind beneath its fabric now came back down and covered his body.
Time froze in that moment.
The eldest son stared at Baldo, battle-ax still in both his hands.
His eyes were open wide.
His mouth agape.
Slowly did the reality of what transpired start to finally dawn upon the troublemakers, surely.
Out of the corner of his eye, Baldo saw the fifth son lower his arrow in shock.
The eldest son’s expression finally betrayed his fear, or perhaps something akin to awe.
The third son behind Baldo surely looked the same.
One cannot blame them.
For by spinning around and striking down a throwing knife did Baldo show them an incredible feat.
Furthermore, it appeared to these scoundrels that he had turned around only after sensing that the knife was about to be thrown.
Though seen in the realm of storytelling, one might find it hard to believe such a thing was possible, moreso after seeing it with one’s own eyes.
Baldo fearlessly turned his back to the third brother, armed as he was.
Though the eldest and fifth sons had their weapons at the ready, he still sheathed his blade upon striking down the knife.
This was nothing but a display of pure confidence that he could deal with attacks from any which direction.
Though clad in shabby attire, might this old man be a knight of great repute?
The three of them could not begin to cross swords with such a man.
Furthermore, If they made an enemy out of a vassal such as him, their entire lineage would face naught but destruction.
Such were the thoughts that raced through the minds of these scoundrels.
Baldo, though clad in calm demeanor, truthfully felt concern deep down.
The knife that flew at him was far larger and heavier than he had dared imagine.
By the sound it produced, he judged the material to be of high quality as well.
That which Baldo possessed was naught more than a light, short blade, one appropriate for a long journey.
He had left all of his treasures back at the manor.
Had this blade met squarely with the knife, it likely would have shattered.
It was truly harrowing.
After staring for a moment with unmoving eyes at the eldest son, Baldo turned to the shopkeeper, indicating towards the door with a nudge of the head.
The shopkeeper nodded with a sigh of relief and went with the girl towards the entrance.
The fifth son moved with a jolt as the shopkeeper tried to pick up the luggage, but a glance from Baldo stopped him in his tracks.
And so were the shopkeeper and the girl able to leave the gants.
Baldo took a step.
The three scoundrels immediately stiffened.
Baldo walked slowly forwards in the direction of the front doors.
The fifth son moved back, clearing a path.
Upon swinging open the doors and stepping outside, he was temporarily blinded by the afternoon sun.
The shopkeeper and the girl were dashing towards the horse-drawn carriage, stopped in the middle of the town’s central plaza.
As he squinted his eyes, he was able to make out the face of the girl as she looked back at the shopkeeper every now and then.
It was glowing with happiness.
Outside were a number of townsfolk, watching the situation unfold with baited breath.
As if surrounding the girl they moved, blessing her with congratulations countless.
The carriage finally started to move as the last of the riders had boarded, and those that saw the carriage off waved their hands and shouted with vigor, lamenting the pain of a farewell.
The shopkeeper did shout as well, screaming the girl’s name.
For him it wasn’t enough, as he quickly set out, running after the carriage.
Be well! Be wary of the water you drink! he yelled, his voice now nearly a sob.
Send her off with all you have.
You have indeed raised that girl well,
whispered Baldo in his heart, and he removed his cap with his left hand and held it up high, bidding the carriage farewell as it disappeared beyond the cloud of dust.