The sun was sinking down beneath the Western Woods as I made my way along the Farrow Lake, then cut back along a track that led into the forest to the north. After a hundred strides or so, I came to a clearing with a curious fork-trunk willow at its centre, with a sign – the Split-Willow Tavern – dangling on chains between the two trunks. Behind it, nestling in the shadows, was the tavern itself.
It was a squat, single-storey wood cabin, with a crooked chimney emerging from the pitch roof and dozens of empty woodale barrels and sapwine casks piled up against its walls. The place had only been open a few months and was already, by some accounts, was ‘nothing but a den of thieves’.
The thing was, if I was to take the law into my own hands, I needed help. And what better place to find a band of like-minded souls than a tavern, where all sorts gathered and, as the woodale flowed, tongues loosened and allegiances could be forged?
All the same, I checked the phraxpistol at my belt as I halted by the door. A clamour of voices was coming from inside. I pushed the tavern door open and stepped over the threshold – and the voices fell still.
The tavern was gloomy, with the smoking oil-lamps seeming to cast more shadow than light. There were rows of spigotted barrels stacked at the far end, and a wooden drinking trough, frothing with ale, along one wall. Drinkers stood in clusters, or sat at roughhewn tables on log benches, the dull yellow light glinting in their suspicious eyes as they stared at me.
‘Welcome,’ came a voice, and a stout shryke matron in a crisp apron and speckled headscarf came striding towards me. It was Mother Redwattle, the owner of the tavern. ‘What can I get you?’
I ordered a tankard of woodporter and was shown to a table in the far corner. She brought me my drink and, as my eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, I surveyed my drinking companions, raising my drink in greeting to any who made eye contact. There were two young fettleleggers from the southern shores, a group of webfoots, a hulking cloddertrog and two battle-scarred flatheads; a grizzled old slaughterer and his son, two woodtrolls…
‘I know you, don’t I?’ said one of the flatheads, striding across to me. I looked up and recognized him as one of the Freeglade Lancers who had ridden beside me at the Battle of Farrow Lake. ‘Hedgethorn Lammergyre, isn’t it?’
‘Bragsworn!’ I exclaimed, and the two of us knocked our drinking-tankards together in greeting. ‘Draw up a seat.’
As the ale flowed, we fell into easy conversation about the war and fallen comrades – comrades like Parvis Helm. I told him about Laria Chillax, and Vitus. He in turn talked of his family, of the house he’d built and, as we quaffed yet another tankard, he went on at length about the drainage ditches he was working on with his brother to irrigate a piece of newly-cleared farmland.
‘These days, there are so many new innovations which could help you do that,’ I told him. ‘Phraxengines to dig the ditches, phraxpumps to shift the water…’
As I spoke, I saw Bragsworn tense. All around us the atmosphere seemed to change.
‘So, you’re all for this so-called phrax revolution, are you, friend?’ the hulking cloddertrog called from across the other side of the tavern.
‘He’s all right is Hedgethorn, Hench,’ said Bragsworn. ‘I can vouch for him.’
But the cloddertrog wasn’t listening. He climbed to his feet and, fists clenched, started towards me. Others stood up in support. I leaped to my feet, my hand gripping the handle of my phraxpistol. I waited for his next move, my gaze never leaving his for a moment, then swallowed as I saw the vicious-looking machete that Hench had produced, seemingly out of nowhere.
‘Now, now,’ I heard Mother Redwattle squawk, as she bustled towards us, a heavy flail swinging from one hand. ‘I’ll have no violence in my tavern.’
I raised my hands defensively. ‘I want no trouble,’ I said.
Then why did you come here? The voice was in my head. Forgive me, Hedgethorn, but this is for your own good…
The next moment, I felt a ferocious blow to the side of my head. The pain was red and angular and numbing. I saw stars, that blurred and spun as I keeled to one side, and was falling, falling. Then blackness closed in…