After the poisoned cow incident, it was hard to imagine things could have gotten any worse for the mayor. Then the Bursacks showed up, and things got much worse indeed. All five brothers came riding into town at dusk well sluiced and in high spirits. In place of their dilapidated, one-horse cart, three of them rode fresh steeds while the remaining pair shared a single mount. Conspicuous additions had also been made to their wardrobes such as clean hats, boots and shirts. Kadav even noticed a sword being worn the wrong way around. After some meandering, the three solo riders collected themselves in front of the tavern while the duo wandered off, bickering over whose turn it was to ride in front.
Now Kadav was really in a bind. If word of his dealings with the Bursacks got out, he would be pilloried and run out of town. Fortunately, the Bursacks were in little danger of being understood by anyone who was not blood related. Of the three Bursacks facing him, the gangly one with the sword appeared to be in charge. Bursack the Taller, the mayor pegged him.
The Taller dismounted clumsily, leaving one of his oversized boots in the stirrup. “We cumz ta kalects th’ paymenz weze owed,” he said.
“Get out of here, you drunken louts!” the mayor shouted loud enough to be heard up and down the road.
“Now mayuh, is that any way ta talk to your dear ol’ frenz?” the Taller said.
“Yeah, wut about our ranj-iment?” one of his mounted sidekicks joined in.
“Where’d you get the sword?” Kadav asked. “And the horses? Who’d you steal them from?”
“We jez sorta found ’em like,” said the Taller.
“Yeh, someone up ‘n give ’em to us on accoun’ uv ur gud beehayvyer,” said the Wilder.
“Whaz it mattah ta yah, anywayz?” said the Uglier.
“You brainless galoots!” Kadav fumed. “Tell me you haven’t been raiding the border towns.”
“Now ah wouldn’ call it raidin’ like,” said the Taller.
“What would you call it then?”
“Yeah, weze here tuh negosheeyate,” the Uglier chimed in.
“I don’t negotiate with ruffians!” Kadav shouted. “Now get off my property!”
Bursack the Taller turned around to address his posse. “Well, bruthas, seemz like ur gud mayuh here cud uze hisself sum gen-teel perswayshun.”
Acting on impulse, Kadav rushed forward and drew the Taller’s sword which, owing to the fact it was being worn backward, slid smoothly from its scabbard. He brought the blade around and pressed it to the Bursack’s Adam’s apple, which jutted out like a second nose. He didn’t know what he would do if the tall man resisted. He hadn’t the taste for committing violence by his own hands; when wits alone were insufficient, he hired out the brawn.
But the Taller had no intention of calling his bluff. “Pleez, mayuh, we wuz only hurse-playin’ wid ya. Wuhn’t we, bruthas?”
Caught between the conflicting impulse to come to their brother’s aid and gloat over his misfortunes, the other Bursacks made no move to intervene.
Kadav shifted the sword. His palm was sweaty, and he was just trying to get a better grip, but the Taller took it as a precursor to his doom.
“Honust to gawd, mayuh!” he pleaded. “We didna mean nuthin by it! I swearz by muh pappy’s bonez. Pleez duhn’t huht me!”
“Listen here you overgrown galoot with pigeon droppings for brains,” Kadav spoke into his ear. “If you or your brothers ever show your ugly faces in this town again, you won’t just be swearing by your pappy’s bones, you’ll be joining them, got it? Now get out of my sight!”
Withdrawing the sword, he aimed a kick at the Bursack’s butt that only reached his lower thigh. It did the job. In his hurry to get away, the Taller went to mount his horse and give it a hard slap on the flank, only in the wrong order. The horse bolted, still riderless. Hobbling in one boot, he took off after it as fast as his storky legs could carry him. His brothers, having already forgotten what they were there for, followed him to heckle and jeer.
Noticing a small puddle where the Taller had been standing, Kadav felt the rush of omnipotence that came with holding the power of life and death over someone. It didn’t last. The bitter reality of his situation quickly sank in.
Kadav knew the Bursacks would be tough to manage, but he had never imagined them capable of carrying out such audacious acts of banditry. Waylaying unarmed travelers was one thing; staging a raid on a border town quite another. With the closest town, Vargill’s Crossing, a hard day’s ride from Manfred’s Mill, a raid would have required planning, determination and craftiness, qualities which the Bursacks possessed in no great abundance. Then again, the Bursacks were well endowed with cousins and second cousins littered throughout the backwoods, and it was remotely conceivable that a few of them had escaped the ill effects of inbreeding.
The Bursacks’ looting spree was an unexpected complication. Unlike Manfred’s Mill, the border towns paid duties to the Alvarian crown which, in theory, entitled them to royal protection. In practice, it meant the crown leeched them dry and occasionally bestirred itself to fend off some minor threat for the right to leech them some more. The whole point of having the Bursacks guard the way out of Manfred’s Mill was to keep word of the dragon from getting back to Alvaron. Now, thanks to the Bursacks, news would already be on its way.
“Mayor!” a familiar voice rang in his ears. “Mayor!”
Blinking away the memory, Kadav found himself back in the darkened tavern with only Bert and a shiny red dragon scale for company.
Bert held out an empty mug. When Kadav went to fill it, the spigot yielded not a drop. “Ord’s blazes,” he swore, glancing in the direction of the darkened kitchen and the storeroom beyond. Then he remembered the earthenware jug on the shelf below the bar.
The jug’s potent contents were the property of Ruford, the town veterinarian, physician and dentist. He paid the mayor a silva a month to store it for him, his wife refusing to tolerate strong spirits under her roof. Prior to a tooth extraction, Ruford would send his patients to the tavern for a swig. The firewater served its purpose well. On one occasion, a customer disputed the extraction had taken place on the grounds that he had no recollection of the event. The dispute was finally resolved when the physician produced proof that fit the gap in his patient’s smile. Kadav felt no qualms about partaking of the physician’s firewater now. It was, after all, a matter of some medical necessity; he was starting to feel uncomfortably sober.
“I never should have trusted the Bursacks,” the mayor said, uncorking the jug and pouring a few splashes into Bert’s mug. It looked perfectly benign, clear and smooth as lamp-oil.
“I could have told you that lot was no good.” Bert raised the mug to his lips. His eyes brightened for a moment, but he otherwise showed no ill effects. “My pa used to say I could see right through people to what was on the inside. He wouldn’t shake hands with no man lest I took a liking to ’em. I could always tell if they had evil in their hearts. Just like I took one look at you and I says to myself, ‘Now there’s a man can be trusted.'”
Kadav poured a liberal amount of firewater into his own mug. “Oh, I trusted them all right. And what did they do? They took my gold. They drank my ale. Then they stabbed me in the back like the two-timing sons of bitches they are.”
“I stabbed myself in the back once trying to get a leech off. Right here.” Bert twisted around on his stool to point at a spot just behind his left armpit. “It healed up sort of funny, looks like a swan. Wanna see?” He started to hike up his tunic.
“Another time.” Kadav took a sip of the firewater. It felt like swallowing live coals. His vision constricted and he thought he might black out. Just as quickly, the fire burned out, leaving a pleasant smoldering sensation in the pit of his gut. “The Bursacks sure made a burnt hash of things this time. I gave them simple instructions a halfwit could have followed. Ord’s blazes, you could have done it, Bert! All they had to do was keep the townspeople from leaving. Scare them a little, if you take my meaning.”
“I know just what you mean,” Bert said agreeably. “It’s not right to go about scaring people. But don’t you worry, Mister Mayor, I ain’t leaving here no how. This here’s my home. My pa died here all his life and his pa before him and his…”
“And the townspeople, fine lot of hypocrites they are. Sitting at this very bar night after night and partaking of my warmest hospitality. But when the chips were down, they didn’t lift a finger to help. Did you see the way they looked at me? They were laughing at me, mocking me. I could see it in their eyes.”
“Oh, I didn’t laugh, no sir. I took one look at you and I says to myself, now that ain’t no laughing matter. He can’t help it if his mouth got the twitches.”
“I was talking about the cow, Bert. You know, the bleeding cow that was stuck in my chimney?”
Bert’s brows furrowed in a mighty attempt at concentration. “Cow? In your chimney, you say?” He chuckled. “Now how in blazes could it o’ got up there?”
“Oh, never mind.” Kadav took another sip of the firewater, obliterating all thoughts of cows and catastrophes.
“I say, did you notice that there hole in the roof?” Bert corkscrewed his skinny chicken neck around for a better look. “Wow, just look at all them stars up there, so calm and peaceful like a thousand tiny candles burnin’ bravely ‘gainst the darkness.”
“Right,” Kadav said vaguely, running his fingers over the dragon scale. It was pentagonal in shape and slightly convex with upraised ridges radiating outward from the center. While the edges were heavily scuffed, the interior surface was ruby red and clear as a mirror. He angled it so it caught the light from the dying oil lamp and threw a jewel-like reflection onto the polished bar-top. “Damned if I know what the dragon’s after.”
“Maybe it’s hungry,” Bert replied.
“Then why doesn’t it eat us? Or our cattle or livestock?”
“It took that Berla girl. Maybe it et her up.”
Kadav shook his head. “Why would it bother hauling her around the countryside then? If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was taunting us.”
“Maybe it took her so she could make bread for it. I say, she do make the best bread. You ever had it?”
“But it wasn’t even after her. It was after that Krystal girl. The fat one just got in the way.”
“Ramsey’s little girl?” Bert whistled appreciatively. “Now ain’t she a real look-see.”
“But it doesn’t make sense. What would a dragon want with a pretty little thing like that?”
“What do all men want? Now my pa used to tell me that there were only two things in this world that all men were after—”
Kadav pounded a fist on the bar. “Dammit—that’s just the problem, Bert! If it were a man I would know how to deal with it. But it’s not a man, is it? It’s the fire-breathing mother of all demons. Why, it couldn’t be less like a man if—” the words caught in his throat. He slumped back onto his stool, shaken by the power of his revelation. “Seven hells and all the holy saints. Of course. The girl. My medallion. The cow in my chimney…” His thoughts crystallized in the afterglow of the firewater. “Bert, you are bleeding brilliant!” Leaning across the bar, he enveloped the old drunkard in a heartfelt embrace.