Kadav Ersley rolled the dragon scale over his knuckles, his reflection making parodies of himself as it bent across the shiny, ridged surface. He had found it outside the tavern window as if the dragon had left it there in payment for the heirloom medallion. By his accounting, it would take a lot more than one dragon scale to settle accounts. In one stroke, the infernal beast had stolen his heirloom, demolished his home, wrecked his business, and worst of all, undermined his authority.
Though the dragon was chief among his antagonists, there was plenty of blame to go around. The serving wenches had abandoned him, the priest reveled in his misfortune, the townspeople shunned him, and the Bursacks—well, they were just the Bursacks. Each fresh mug of ale brought new insights of treachery and betrayal. At the moment, Kadav was inspired to direct his railings at the townsfolk.
“Two-timing ingrates,” he lamented. “That’s what this town is. Nothing but a den of back-biting vultures.”
Bert glanced up from his mug. “You means a flock?” he asked. “‘Cause I ain’t never seen a vulture take to no den before. Now wolves and foxes, they like to dig ’em these here holes in the ground. Why do you suppose they calls ’em dens? Just look like dern holes to me.”
“You’ve hit the nail on the head there, Bert. Bloodthirsty wolves, that’s what they are.”
“Oh, and thieves live in dens,” Bert said. “Though I ain’t never seen it myself. Now my pa, he once knew a thief that could steal a wooden eye from a blind man’s socket without him ever seeing nothin’.”
“Oh, they’d steal me blind all right, the ungrateful bastards. To think, after all I’ve done for this town, and this is how they repay me.” He buried his face in his hands and even came close to sobbing. Like a bitter ale, he was finding that self-pity tasted better the more one indulged.
Bert reached over the bar and placed a hand tenderly on his forearm. “You still got me, Mister Mayor.”
Kadav snatched his arm away. He didn’t take to touching between men.
“I means that,” Bert said with a hint of injured pride. “Now I may have me a drop too much to drink from time to time, but you ain’t never gonna find no friend more loyal than ol’ Bert, no sir. You bet your bootheels, you can count on me.” He scooted his empty mug across the bar.
Kadav filled it from the frothy dregs of the cask. When he slid the mug back over to Bert, some sloshed over. He rubbed at the spill, but his shirt sleeve was so soiled it left grimy streaks on the polished black oak. “Ah, burn it all.”
Bert’s eyes went wide. “You don’t really mean that, do you, Mister Mayor?”
“It’s just a figure of speech, you blinking fool.”
Bert looked deeply injured, but the next draught restored his countenance to its blank-ful state.
Kadav raised his own mug, which had seen almost as much use as Bert’s that night, and took a long draught.
As a supplier of spirits, Kadav Ersley was not himself given to excessive drink. He had seen firsthand the effect barley nectar had on the minds and tongues of mortals. Under its seductive influence, pious men declared their most lascivious fantasies, gentle souls turned into brawling bullies, and the fearless cowered like mice. And always tongues would wag, flapping out secrets. Kadav would never dream of betraying those secrets, of course—except when there was profit to be had from their disclosure and the breach of confidence could not be traced back to him. When it came to spilling his own secrets to Bert, he needn’t worry there. The town drunk was the perfect confidante, the kind that wouldn’t recognize a secret if it poked him in the eye, the kind that no one would believe even if he proclaimed the mayor’s every dark deed from the rooftops.
Besides, if ever a man had been given a reason to drink, Kadav had been given one today. For the first time since winter, the tavern was closed for business. Hrago had returned to the company of his cabbages and neither hide nor hair of the serving wenches had been seen since that afternoon. Even Shrug, the albino scullery maid, had disappeared just as mysteriously as she had come.
Grimly, he assessed the damage to his tavern. A gaping hole in the roof opened onto a jumbled mess of splintered beams and broken shingles. Furniture and crockery were smashed to pieces and over everything lay a thick layer of dust and soot. The hearth where he had presided over the town council looked like the scene of a pagan ritual, covered in ash and spattered with cow’s blood.
Kadav was no stranger to adversity, but that afternoon’s events had felt personal in a way previous misfortunes had not. The entire town turned out to point and gawk, as if a cow protruding from his chimney was an elaborate spectacle put on for their amusement. Worse than the whispers and back-handed snickers had been the varied attempts at consolation.
“At least the dragon didn’t burn it down,” said Argon the blacksmith. “I ain’t even got a chimney left to hold no cow.”
Marin’s attempt at humor missed the mark. “What’s on the menu tonight, smoked beef?”
“Rhojë’s ways are beyond our knowing,” said the priest, then turned away in an abrupt fit of coughing.
Hrago voiced the question that had been foremost on the mayor’s mind, “How do you intend to get the cow down from there?”
In response, the mayor convened an emergency council right there in the road. In spite of delivering one of his more rousing oratories, he found himself with few volunteers and even fewer friends in good standing. Even Hrago declined on the grounds that he had spotted bees amongst the swarm of insects buzzing around the poison-plastered bovine. They were only sweat bees, Kadav explained, but Hrago would not be budged.
It was a ragtag band of misfits that finally assailed the tavern rooftop: the candlemaker’s dwarfish son, the lanky stone mason’s apprentice with his pumice textured hands, the trapper with his floppy fur coat, and the flea-infested urchin boy that could scuttle up and down rooftops on all fours like a squirrel.
Their first attempt involved a lot of pushing and tugging, but it soon became obvious that this approach was not going to work. They could get little leverage on the steeply sloped roof and the cow was wedged in tight as a cork. The cow wasn’t helping matters any. Mistrustful of its rescuers, it clubbed at them with its protruding forelegs. To Kadav’s dismay, the next attempt involved whacking away at the chimney with picks and hammers. The idea showed promise at first. Directing their efforts at one side of the chimney, the cow began to tilt predictably in that direction. But when the other side gave way unexpectedly, it settled back into the hole and got wedged in just as tightly as before.
There was a moment of collective breath-holding as the urchin boy, who had been holding onto the chimney at the moment of its partial collapse, went tumbling headlong down the roof amid a small avalanche of bricks and shingles. As he hurtled over the edge, he managed to reach out and grab the rain plank where he dangled like a monkey as the debris swept over and past him. When the way was clear, he dropped lightly to the ground, graceful as a cat. The crowd cheered and the urchin bowed, smiling from ear to ear as if he had just been crowned king of the Bader Day festival.
Kadav did not find the scene amusing in the least. For all the acrobatics, they were still no closer to getting the cow down from his roof. Bleeding from multiple lacerations, blood and poison oozed from its coat. He shuddered to think what other excretions might be running down his chimney at that moment.
Despite his earlier display of cowardice, it was Hrago that came up with the idea that would ultimately unseat the cow from its throne atop the tavern. “We could rope it to an ox team and pull it up like a stump,” he suggested.
It took the better part of two hours for the roof-climbers to secure the ropes to the cow and for Hrago to fetch his ox and negotiate the use of another. To improve their chances, Kadav offered up his own dray horse. Weary of delays, he secured the ropes himself, double looping them around the animals’ necks.
Spurred on by Hrago’s lashing, the horse and oxen strained mightily against the ropes. The cow groaned in discomfort but showed no signs of budging. Then, all at once, the chimney capsized with a sharp crunch of splintering mortar. The cow struck the roof like a boulder, but rather than sliding down the pitched slope, it plunged through the weakened timbers into the interior of the tavern.
When the ropes went lax, the dray horse, being lighter and quicker than the oxen, surged out ahead. Without a proper halter, its neck bore the full brunt of the recoil when the ropes snapped taut a moment later. With a sickening crack of sundering vertebrae, it crumpled lifeless to the ground.
“Flaming hells!” Kadav swore. Instead of a cow in his chimney, he now had a gaping hole in his roof and a dead dray horse.
Hrago led the oxen around until slack appeared in the rope, indicating that the cow had landed. When they entered the tavern, they found the animal, remarkably, still alive. Covered in blood and rat poison and trailing ropes, the tenacious bovine had made its way to the kitchen where it thirstily drained the contents of the spent ale bucket.