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Bells Around the Neck

BY SHEREENA WITTS-WILLIAMS


Sweat and ale. Smoke from the hearth fire, and old decaying wood. There was a fifth, metallic smell that drifted along with them – unidentifiable, but which burnt the nostrils and eyes. On the wall, a row of lanterns blazed, their yellow light chasing away the darkness that had begun to seep inside. A clatter sounded from the kitchen. At the start of the evening the tavern had been empty, but as the sun had drifted beneath the horizon, a dense crowd had begun to form. First a pair of travellers, a store clerk come in for dinner, and then the entire town Guard. They were sat at the back of the hall, surrounded by an audience of patrons keen to hear the day’s tales. Every so often, a shout of laughter would come from the throng, filling the air and choking any other sound that might have dared to rise. When it did, Lothi’s grip tightened around his tankard. The feeling of stary, nervous glances followed each peal, the sensation searing through his hood and warming his nape. The barmaid paused her cleaning to give him a sympathetic smile each time he tensed; she hadn’t missed that the other patrons chose to sit away from him.

 

He had been the first into the tavern that day. As he had been the past three days as well. The food was simple, and the ale bland, but it was no more than a minute’s walk from his inn. His journey into town had not left him eager to travel through its streets for any longer. Even with his heavy hooded cloak and thick boots, people had seen him and known him at once. No, they had not known him, but they knew of those like him – the prowling beasts that lived in the tundra. That ran on four feet like an animal, then rose to walk on two legs like a man. The bright white fur of Lothi’s face whispered out into the open. It didn’t matter how far back in his hood he buried himself. Descended from Spotted Snow Cats, – muttered from the mouth of a father to a child as he passed – Look away.

 

Across the room, the Captain of the Guard’s voice belted out the punchline of a joke and a roar of joy followed. The barmaid offered another smile. She too was a foreigner; tightly coiled hair and bronze skin.

 

“They’re always like this at the end of the month. They rotate duty tomorrow.” She gestured at the tankard held between his claws, “another drink?”

 

Lothi nodded, drawing his paws back into his sleeves. For the few days of his stay, the barmaid had been his companion whenever he ventured out of his rooms. She filled the silence of the evenings with conversation, and he listened with sparse input; her father had been a dragon slayer, her mother a goat herd. She had sworn both in hushed, reverent tones the first night he’d come to the Tavern.  Her home lay at the most southern part of the continent, but her destination lay far in the east; like him, she too was only passing through. She had six siblings, all younger, and all of whom she intended to bring gifts home for. She was born in The Second Summer.

 

Another full tankard of ale thudded down in front of him. She stilled his hand as he reached for his coin purse.

 

“Tonight’s your last night,” she pulled a purse of her own from her apron, “I’ll pay.”

 

Lothi, let her place her coins down on the table, and nodded at her in thanks. A wide smile beamed across her face, and she turned back to wiping the bar. Cathyn was her name, though she’d never offered it herself. He had heard it from one of the Guards. ‘Her good friend,’ he had introduced himself as to Lothi with an open sneer. ‘For as long as I’m in town,’ Cathyn had added with a wink when he’d walked away.

 

“Where are you heading next then, Master Cat?’ her cloth wiped a puddle of gravy from the counter. Lothi had never offered his name either.

 

He worked his mouth for a second, remembering the shapes for the unfamiliar language. When he spoke, his voice came out rough from disuse.

 

“Somewhere.”

 

Cathyn looked at him from over her shoulder. Her mouth was hidden by her black hair, but a grin shone in her eyes.

 

“A mysterious man who speaks in platitudes,” she turned to face him fully, “when he doesn’t choose to stay silent.” She looked past him and to the rest of the room. Lothi tracked her gaze as it scanned over the tavern, inspecting the crowd, before coming to rest on him again. “Every traveller who comes through here says ‘somewhere’,” her eyes glimmered with something wet and subtle, “half of them never get there.”

 

There was another loud cheer from behind him, accompanied by the heavy thump of a blade sinking into wood. Cathyn’s head jerked up in that direction.

 

“Gentlemen! Careful with the tables!” Her voice was melodic and playful, but Lothi could sense the faint strings of authority beneath the lilt. There was more laughter, and she flashed her smile to someone across the room. Two more tankards of ale were poured and carried off past Lothi’s view. Their conversation was finished.

 

Lothi turned his attention back to the tankard in front of him, watching the shifting reflection in the ale’s surface. His face started back at him in hues of amber, wobbling with streaks of light. Sharp yellow eyes and rounded ears. Pointed claws that traced the rim of the cup and left grooves in the leather covering. At home, he’d been considered handsome. He wondered if there was anyone left in the world that would agree. Across the tavern, the Captain’s voice rose above his audience to tell a final story; a beast had been slain out by the lake that day. A vicious creature – long and wet and glowing with unnatural light. Vile and wicked. Bipedal, yes; as big as a woman. Lothi drank the ale in a single swallow. The tail tucked safely from view twitched against its pinning The lantern burning nearest to him flickered as its fuel ran low. The fire in the hearth had reduced to cinders.

 

Rummaging in his own cloak, he pulled a handful of gold pieces from his purse and left it in a neat stack near Cathyn’s own pile of coins. A gift for her hospitality. Wood squeaked and shuddered as he pushed his stool back, and the feeling of eyes pressed against his back once more. Sweat and ale. Smoke from the hearth fire, and old decaying wood. A fifth smell – blood. From the beast by the lake. Lothi kept his eyes ahead of him as he made his way towards the door. The heavy tread of his boots betrayed the natural lightness of his step, and his cloak dragged heavily against the wood.

 

“Should we follow him?” His ears caught a whispered voice from the Guard’s table.

 

“No, he should be fine – Cathyn swears by him,” Her good friend.

 

“She’s a good girl. Better than most of those who come into town—”

 

Lothi didn’t hear the rest of the statement; the creaking of the door and rush of cold air muffled it as he stepped into the black night beyond the tavern walls. The street lanterns too were burning low, and a heavy cover of clouds obscured the sky. Wet, acrid mud and damp leaves. A sharp breeze, almost like that of the tundra. Down the street, a woman was taking in her laundry, guided by a candle held in the small hands of a child. On the stoop of the tavern was a man half dead with ale. Lothi stepped around him as he lolled forward, grasping his head. The fingers on his left hand were covered in hair and dirt. A low groan left him, and Lothi looked back to see him wretch against his palms. Once, twice. No sickness came, and Lothi hurried down the steps as the man glanced at him from between his fingers.

 

“Got any coins?” It was the same ragged breath which he had heaved and groaned with. Lothi didn’t respond. There was the shuffling as the man shifted on the steps, and then, finally, emptied his stomach into the bank of grass that ran along the road.  “Got any gold?”

 

Lothi kept walking.

 

Mud stuck to the soles of his boots as he walked, causing a soft wet noise that soon sounded louder in his ears than the muffled mirth from the tavern. The gentle thrum of music from another establishment bled out into the night, and a bird whirled somewhere overhead. There were few people on the streets, and the soft pad of footsteps seemed to follow behind him. The man from the stoop, he assumed, or some other patron of the tavern. The faces of the guards came to his mind, and he pulled his cloak tight around himself, though the pale grey shroud had never hidden what lay beneath. Eyes strayed to him on instinct, as if there was a bell around his neck. Poor lost kitten, far from home. Lothi counted in his head the money left in his purse – thought about what work he might get. Where he would go to get it, which path he would take.

 

The inn’s downstairs windows were dark when he approached it. The keeper had told him she retired on the twenty-second hour, and to let himself in if he insisted on staying at the tavern until the morning hours. Her tone had implied he do so silently – snide and suggestive – but he had no desire to cause a quarrel. He was quiet, by nature and practice; if she had doubted that upon his first entrance, she didn’t for the rest of his stay. Drawing the key from his pocket, Lothi began up the stairs to the door. It was made of a sturdy, dark oak which looked almost black in the night, and had any but Lothi searched for it, their eyes may have not been able to discern it from shadow. The key was halfway in the lock when the footsteps from before came close behind him and stopped.

 

“Got any coins?” the man from the stoop breathed in laboured gasps, “You’ve always got gold.”

 

Lothi had never seen this man before tonight, his face had never appeared amongst the crowds in the tavern or on the streets outside. But the man was not speaking of Lothi.

 

“Your sort’s always got gold, whenever you come into any town.” The man continued, and Lothi felt his shoulders bristle. He finished turning the key and began to push the door open with a gentle creak.

 

“Oi!” the man’s voice rose to a sudden shout, “Oi! Don’t walk away.”

 

Sighing, Lothi turned; the man would wake the innkeeper with his commotion. He was the same as he had been on the tavern stoop – shaking and unsteady, reeking of sickness and alcohol. Hazy, glazed eyes started through the darkness, trying to find Lothi’s face beneath his hood. The man sneered.

 

“Got nothing to say?”

 

“I’ve got no gold. Be quiet.”

 

“Don’t tell me to be quiet. Who are you,” the man wobbled, “what are you to tell me to be quiet?”

 

Lothi grunted, gritted his teeth, and made to turn back towards the door.

 

“Oi!” The man reached into his jacket. There was a flash in the darkness and Lothi stopped. The man shook his dagger at him. “I’m talking to you.”

 

It was a poor weapon; dull at the edge, leather handle worn and ripped. There was a simple rune carved into the blade that glowed with a faint blue. A mark for poison. The fur on Lothi’s tail spiked, his hackles raised. The man staggered forwards.

 

“Whatever coins you got – give them to me.” He was shouting again, and Lothi felt his heart begin to rattle against his ribcage. He wasn’t worried about the innkeeper being disturbed anymore.

 

“I’ve got nothing for you,” his voice was level, even as his lungs began to stutter, “Go away.”

 

Another step forward, the blade shone.

 

A low growl rumbled in Lothi’s chest and his vision narrowed. Distantly, he was aware of the sound of footsteps coming from down the street. Someone coming to investigate the noise. His mind raced over the idea, passing over it to focus on the image in front of him. The man’s grimy fingers twitched around the handle, scratching groves into the leather. Another step, another slurred threat. Deep in his nailbeds, Lothi’s claws itched and shifted.

 

“Stupid cat, stupid – what’ve you got? Give me what you – give me what you’ve got.” Louder and louder. He took another step, feet bumping against the bottom step. “Give me what you’ve got.” Louder. “Give me what you’ve got.”

 

The man lunged.

 

A sharp hiss erupted from Lothi’s mouth – his arm jerked forward. The quick release of his claws, a heavy slice across the face. Clinking, as the dagger bounced down the steps. The man crumpled into a heap at the bottom of the stairs; a wretched sob left his throat. There was blood in the air. There was blood in his ears. Thrumming, drowning. Every inch of Lothi’s body seemed to recoil. His skin prickled. There were footsteps.

 

“What’s this?” A sword was drawn.

 

Lothi forced his neck to turn in the direction of the sound, fought to get a handle on his breathing. Standing a few paces down away was Cathyn holding a lantern. In front of her, a guard brandishing a sword. He looked between the two of them, eyes reading their faces through the darkness; they were wrought with fear.

 

“Well?” The guard asked. Her good friend.

 

There was silence save for the heavy pant from Lothi’s mouth.

 

“Well?” His voice rose. The man from the stoop sobbed.

 

Cathyn moved closer with tentative steps, her hand rested on the guard’s shoulder.

 

“I’m sure,” her voice shook and she swallowed, “I’m sure he didn’t start it.”

 

“Sure? Sure?”

 

Cathyn swallowed once more, her eyes flitted to Lothi. She tried again, “He’s leaving tomorrow.”

 

“I’m leaving tonight.” Lothi’s voice came to him, his claws retracted. Something like shame pressed against his stomach. The guard’s eyes narrowed.

 

“And I should let you go?” A sneer; fear replaced with anger.

 

Cathyn squeezed the shoulder, her gaze fell to the ground.

 

“I’m sure.” Her voice betrayed her; she wasn’t.

 

Shame burned.

 

The guard looked at her, frowned, and sheathed his sword.

 

“I’ll be gone in an hour.”

 

“Quicker than that.”

 

Lothi nodded.

 


 

 

He was packed before half his time was finished. The innkeeper’s payment was left by her door. Cathyn returned to the tavern. Her good friend followed him to the edge of town, eyes tracking him into the darkness.

 

 

Shereena Witts-Williams is a short story and long-form prose writer based in Lincoln, England. Currently studying for her MA in Creative Writing, Shereena has a passion for the Fantasy genre, and strives to incorporate her many interests – such as the environment – into her writing. She has worked in the past as a freelance content and copywriter, and hopes to expand her horizons in fiction writing as well. An animal lover to her core, Shereena is just a likely to be found petting animals as she is to be writing about them.


© Bells Around the Neck | Shereena Witts-Williams

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