You don't need to travel to the darkest places to find the darkest horrors man has to offer.
In a small tavern in the frozen South, true horror lives.
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Late was the hour in the dark but restless tavern. Dim light sparked from candles hung by rusted chains cast silhouettes of the worst kind across the slowly crumbling timber-framed walls. Men in deep and drunken stupors, beards sodden and eyes glazed. Others were cloaked in the shadows of the darkest corners, figures sitting lone and sullen. Grimmest of all patrons were perhaps were the younger men, who chorused in raucous cheers and drank with bright spirits, in this, the dingiest and contemptuous of places. Yet the darkest trick of all the tavern had to offer was not the clients, but instead those that served within it.
The barman, the only man to pull a wage from the wreckage of a tavern, handed out drink without thought or acknowledgement of those who ordered. He simply swiped the money flung upon the bar and poured. He was a grizzled and unsightly creature. Sunken eyes, wide-faced, thinning hair, boils clinging to his crooked nose and an unkempt, almost wild, beard. But he wasn’t the worst sight to behold.
Three rakishly thin women, all narrow faced, hair as thin as the barman’s and draped in the cheapest of linen dresses swept between the tables, clearing drinks away whilst mopping up the drool and vomit. Not one could make a pass of the tavern without being groped, or leered at, or shot a putrid comment. Every now and then, men would wander to the barkeep and barter for time with the woman; his daughters. The barman would always oblige. Each time they would protest, but he would hear nothing of it and they’d be led away. Maybe they used to kick and scream, but not anymore. But even this, was not the worst of it.
Bankamp was not a native to the part of the world. He hadn’t been this far south in all his many years, he’d been keen to avoid it, but a job was a job. He knew people this far below the world were different, he’d met a few before. The nights were longer and darker, the snowfall was near constant and the temperature so low that only the toughest, most hardened animals or people could survive. He had resided to an acceptance of the place he was in. Yes, he detested it. Yes, he would be glad to be rid of it, but as the blizzard churned outside and the ale kept his body warm, he would make his peace with the dreary surroundings and sickest of people. It was only for a few days. Keep his head down and his mind on greener pastures. This was his plan at least. But then she appeared. The brightest of faces he’d seen in weeks. And the most horrible of things he’d seen in his long life.
She wore a long dress, once white but now stained and grey; ripped at the seams and patched up in places. Her hair was a shimmering blonde that stood out in the flickering darkness. She held an expression of anguish upon her soft and pale face, cheeks plumper than her narrow figure should have allowed. Her deep green eyes scanned the room gloomily, as the barman hauled her up on the countertop for all to see.
“Who has her tonight?” He called out, and the bidding started.
Shouts called in from about the room, the price rising higher and higher. The auction became rowdy. People laughed and cheered and swayed with their drink as the money went up, slower and slower by the moment. People this far south had little in the way of coin, but clearly what they had was worth spending on her. The bidding ceased as a man hit the limits of his kin. A vulgar old thing, he was weighed down by fat that ran circles around his body. His bald head shone with sweat as he heaved himself up and waddled across the tavern. He took his prize by the hand as she fearfully hopped to the floor. The girl was half his height, and probably four times his junior.
She couldn’t have been over eleven.
The grizzly, rotund buyer growled hungrily as he eyed up his purchase. His heavy breathing carried across the tavern as men wandering past with sloshing tankards slapped his shoulder in celebration. He took in a deep and pleasureful sigh, salvia slapping against his jowls as he did. But before the deal could be done, as he moved to lay his coin on the table, his hand was caught.
Bankamp clutched his wrist tightly, so tightly that he winced with pain and withdrew. The old soldier seethed at the rounded figure before him, a stern stare turning to a soft gaze as his eyes fell upon the little girl. He reached into his tunic, the finest piece of clothing in the room, and pulled out his own coin, flinging it upon the bar. It was a meagre amount, but more than the man had bid for the girl and the barkeep snapped it up quickly.
“Sorry Borg, out of towners always have the coin.”
The ballooning old Borg snarled at Bankamp, but had no more to offer. He let the girl’s hand go harshly and staggered back to his drink. All eyes fell upon Bankamp, and then swiftly off him and back to their own business as he threw a stony glare about the tavern. His own attention fell upon the barman.
“Where do I take her?” Bankamp demanded.
The girl showed him the way. Around the back of the bar to a staircase and down below into the basement. The halls were dark and cold, lit by a single flaming torch precariously placed on a mental bracket hanging by one nail hammered tight, and another much looser. Carefully, she inched open one of a few wooden doors that lay off the hall, letting it swing with a creak, and beckoned for Bankamp to enter. Inside was much warmer, but no kinder on the eye. Stone walls, stone floors, wooden rafted ceilings that groaned under the weight of men walking about the tavern overhead. A fire burned in a hearth, smoke rising up a narrow chimney and out into the cold night. A small bed lay in the corner, a thin mattress upon its frame, with a solitary tatty sheet and no pillow. The girl closed the door, walked slowly to the bed and started to undress with her back turned. Bankamp caught her by the shoulder as she unbuttoned her clothes.
“Please, don’t.” He said softly.
The girl looked up at him, dress already half slung over her slender shoulder. She carefully did up her buttons and sat on the mattress at Bankamp’s gesture. He leant down to a squat before her, meeting her eye to eye.
“Who are you?” Bankamp asked, softer still. His voice calm and kind. He feared anything would frighten this fragile young girl. She was not a hardened native of the south. Her skin was too smooth. Her hair too fair.
The girl said nothing, she just looked at her feet.
“What is your name?” Bankamp tried a simpler approach.
“Miya.” The girl breathed back, so quietly he almost missed it.
“That’s a beautiful name.” Bankamp smiled. “I’ve met a few Miya’s in my time, and none so far south. You aren’t from around here, are you Miya?”
The girl looked up and shook her head. Her eyes were filled with tears.
“What happened, Miya?”
Miya’s tear-sodden eyes were pierced with a blast of fire. “They killed him.”
“Who was killed?” Bankamp placed a hand on the girl’s knee, trying to comfort her, but she shook him away. He withdrew swiftly, taking a step back.
“Who was?” He repeated.
“My Da,” Miya answered through gritted teeth. “We came to trade, he went missing one night. They found him dead in the snow. I know they killed him.”
Her eyes welled with tears again. “They wanted me.”
“They trapped you here?” Bankamp asked, trying to hold back the anger he felt burning inside him.
“I had nobody but Da, and now I have nothing but this place. I tried to run once. I came back… It’s so cold out there.”
Bankamp said nothing. He just watched the girl as she shifted uncomfortably where she sat, aware of his gaze but not sure what to do with it. He was as uncertain as her. He was warned not to upset the locals. Explicitly and without exception. But how could he not, after what these people were doing to this young girl?
“Why aren’t you doing to me what they do to me?” She asked, breaking the silence.
Bankamp recoiled, aghast by the idea.
“Because where I come from. And you come from. Men don’t do that. You can’t have been here so long as to have forgotten.”
“I think a year,” Miya replied. “But I don’t know. I do forget things about home. I try not to think much at all.”
“How long did I pay for with you?” Bankamp asked, moving the conversation along, unsure of what to do with her words.
“Until the sun rises. You’ll know once the fire burns out and the light comes in through the chimney.” Miya pointed to the still crackling blaze along the back wall of the stone room. “Only one man per night. He doesn’t want me too badly spoilt.”
Bankamp gritted his teeth as he felt his nails dig into his palms.
“You should rest.” He said to her with a weak smile.
Miya didn’t take much persuading. She quickly found herself laying on the tough mattress, the sheet draped over her.
“Will you stay?” She asked with a note that was almost pleading. “I don’t feel safe on my own.”
“Yet you feel safe with a stranger?”
“You are the strangest man to ever visit me, but maybe that is why I feel safe.”
Bankamp gave a smile, wider this time, and nodded. He rose from his squat and sat on the end of the bed, leaning up against the wall. The curled toes of Miya lay just shy of his legs.
“Why are you here?” It was the girl’s turn to question her guest.
“Same reason as your father. Same reason any respectable man comes down this far. Trade.”
“You should leave,” Miya warned. “It’s not safe here.”
“I was a soldier, dear girl. A good one. A strong one. That’s why my Lord hired me to come this far and be his voice. I may be older, but I still remember my youth. I can handle myself, you needn’t worry about me.”
“I wish my Da could have handled himself.” Miya sighed, mournfully.
Bankamp looked down upon the girl. She was curled up even tighter now, sheet clung to her narrow figure. Her eyes were closed, but the sadness was still easy to see on her lips and puffy cheeks.
“Miya. Would you allow me to step outside for a moment?”
She bolted upright, gripping his arm. Eyes wide and scared.
“Why? You aren’t giving me to somebody else are you?”
“I will be back,” Bankamp said soothingly, patting her on the arm and easing her back onto the mattress. “I just need to answer the call of nature.”
“I have a chamber pot beneath the bed.” Miya went to reach for it, but the older man stopped her.
‘I daren’t do that before a lady.” Bankamp said with an air of the respectable soldier left in him. Miya blushed. He didn’t suppose many she met would have such dignity, or call her a lady.
Bankamp found the barkeep in the hallway, lugging a cask towards the stairs.
“Fun isn’t she?” He grinned as Bankamp approached, lowering the heavy cask to the ground with a groan. The retired soldier wanted to bludgeon the man with his own barrel of drink there and then, but he held himself back. His patron would have him hung by the thumbs if he disobeyed his orders. The goal wasn’t just to sell or buy from those this far south, the miners and quarrymen, but continued trade. Trade for years to come. Slaying a barman was not going to be good for business.
“How much?” Bankamp demanded, dodging the question.
“To buy the girl. I want to take her.”
The barkeep laughed. “She isn’t for sale.”
“All things are for sale.”
“She is not. Maybe when she turns of age, but right now, the money, the business, the perks…” The barkeep cracked a wicked smile. “They are just too good for one payment. Sorry, my friend.”
The barkeep hauled the cask above his waist and began to amble up the stairs, leaving Bankamp behind, feeling hopeless and defeated. His dejected state only worsened as he entered Miya’s room. She looked up at him, almost happily, as he came back in, before laying back down.
“I was worried you’d leave.”
“I paid for this bed ‘til morning,” Bankamp said, sitting back down by her feet, kicking off his boots and making himself as comfy as possible against the hard and cold brickwork. “And I intend to get my money’s worth.”
“You can lay with me if you like,” Miya said with warmth, but her voice quickly turned cold. “Most that stay do.”
Bankamp shook his head. “You keep your space dear girl, I am fine as I am.”
Leaving in the morning was one of Bankamp’s greatest trials, and he’d faced some nasty ones over his years. Prying the girl’s tiny fingers from his wrist was made possible only by the promise that he would return that evening, with enough coin to pay for another night in her bedroom. Miya’s eyes lit brighter than the fire Bankamp had rekindled in the hearth to keep them warm through the night, and to stop the girl from stirring in the cold; the shivers of the frozen wastes that encircled her abode crept up on her as she dozed. The young one had slept a deep and long slumber, a rest Bankamp thought was likely to be the first proper one in quite some time.
The inescapable cold couldn’t help but remind Bankamp of where he was, and what he was tasked to do. Trade talks were drawn out, weary and tiresome. Bankamp often found his mind wandering to Miya, worrying over her being alone with that detestable barman. When his focus could fall upon trade, it was of ore and smelting. The mines buried deep in the icy wastes this far south offered riches untold in the warmer and more hospitable lands that the old soldier, and Miya, hailed from. The mines were manned by many of the grim and lecherous creatures Bankamp so eagerly wanted to see castrated and cast outside to shrivel in the cold; it pained him that his hands were so fiercely bound by his duties. A long and fruitful deal meant he needed those workers alive and digging.
A price was agreed, samples were shared, and the owners of the mines were to take him to view their extensive goods and workers the following day, which left Bankamp able to keep his promise. A promise he had, in all honesty, not expected to make good on. To leave Miya like that would have broken his heart, but he knew it would only get worse. He couldn’t take her where he was going, and he couldn’t stay forever.
As the light dwindled, he wondered about remaining at the inn his Lord had paid for. He thought about staying away from the tavern and letting the memory fade. But it was wasted effort, and he soon found his boots crunching over freshly fallen snow, thick furs wrapped about his wide-set frame, as he marched through the harsh and scarring winds towards the wooden doors of the seedy drinking hole.
Bankamp brought a shoulder of mutton from the barman, roasting it over the fire in the corner of Miya’s room. The scrawny girl devoured her food as if she were the monstrous Borg. There was little in the way of fat on her. Her childlike, rounded face was a stark contrast to her arms and legs, so thin Bankamp knew they’d be easier to snap than the kindling he would regularly cast upon the hearth.
“Is there no family for you back home?” Bankamp dared to ask as the conversation moved away from his explanations of the trade he had travelled for.
Miya shook her head.
“Ma died many years ago. Grandfather not long before we left. You remind me of him. He was kind.” She smiled up at him, before a grin spread across her face. “And old, too.”
Bankamp made a look of mock indignation. The spirit in Miya was a marvel to him. How she could live through the horrors she had, and for so long, and still smile a smile so bright that it warmed like no fire ever could, astounded him. He wondered how long that would last once he was gone.
“Do you have family?” Miya asked as she gnawed at the bone clutched between her spindly fingers.
It was Bankamp’s turn to shake his head.
“I was born to be a fighter. Raised to be a warrior and I did my duties until my bones were too weak to hold my shield high enough to protect my fellow men. But while I do still have my youth.” He shot Miya a peevish glare as she snorted with laughter. “I’ve seen too much…”
A harsh tone wrapped his words. He looked darkly into the fire as it flickered across his troubled eyes. “I couldn’t take a wife. Nor settle to a family. I have to keep moving. It’s the only way I can outrun the ghosts that chase me.”
“Do they follow you so far south?” Miya was looking up at him with curious wide eyes. Bankamp wasn’t sure if she was young and naive enough to believe he was talking of actual ghosts.
“They will eventually.” He replied with certainty.
The two remained quiet for a while. The silence broken only by the crackling of the fire and the occasional thud of boots on the floor above.
“Will I haunt you?” Miya’s words pierced the peaceful moment like a knife, tearing it to shreds. And, indeed, it felt as though a knife had pierced Bankamp, as his stomach lurched and twisted.
He sighed. “Worse than any of them.”
Miya sank into herself, curling her back and placing her head in her hands. Bankamp raised his hand to comfort her, but thought better of it. She needed her moment to grieve what was to be lost.
“Have you killed many men?” Came the muffled words of Miya as she talked into her hands.
“Yes.” The old soldier replied gruffly.
“Could you kill another?”
Miya met the gaze of Bankamp as he looked down her. She held a stony expression, determined and earnest. His was far more unsettled.
“Can you kill the Dinap? The Barman. I want him to die.”
Bankamp breathed out deeply. “I want him to die as well, and I would, if I could. But my Lord does not permit me to do such things. He would see me hang for it, I’m sure. He needs this deal, and he needs this trade.”
He drew his eyes away from Miya, unable to take guilt that washed over him from the look of sadness and disappointment that fell upon her face.
“Is tonight your last night here with me?” She asked, dusting off her dress as she clambered up from the floor.
“Maybe I should just kill you instead” Miya said with a distinct taunting arrogance in her voice. “Steal all your money and go.”
Bankamp laughed. “Go ahead. There’s a knife in my coat.” He flung his hand towards the door on which his thick fur jacket was hooked. “I have plenty of money on me. But money isn’t going to get a girl like you far around here, and you know it.”
“Can we sleep? I have not slept so well as I did last night since I left home. Maybe I never will again.” The brightness had gone from Miya’s words, as had sadness, fear or any emotion. She seemed cold and distant. She’d let him see a glimpse of the girl she was beneath, but Bankamp knew this was the face she must have worn most days. The face that kept her alive. Hollow, empty but still here at least. Her fun was over, her glimpse of peace and safety faded, and she knew it.
Bankamp jolted awake. It was the screams that woke him. The fire was still burning, but the room was empty. Miya was gone. The door was swung open. Another scream, a woman’s scream, echoed down the hall. It wasn’t Miya.
He wrenched himself up from the bed. As his hands pushed away from the sheets, Bankamp felt them slide on the coarse fabric. Looking down in horror, his eyes fell upon blood-soaked palms. They began to shake as he stared at them. He could feel his heartbeat now, crashing around his chest.
Miya appeared in the doorway.
“You were supposed to save me.” She whispered. “You were supposed to take me away.”
“What?” Bankamp gasped back. “What’s going on?”
Miya said nothing. She just reached around the door and grabbed the old soldier’s coat, before disappearing out of sight.
“Where are you going?” Bankamp shouted, quickly wiping as much blood off his hands on the sheets as he could before racing out the door after her. Emerging into the dimly lit hallway, he realised what had happened. As Miya climbed up the stairwell, below her, at the foot of the stairs, lay the barkeep. Bankamp recognised his knife, thrust into the man’s chest. Blood coated his body, and the craggy stone floor around him.
Two of his daughters leaned over him. They didn’t seem sad or distressed, the screams probably of shock more than anything else. They showed no emotion at all, that was until they noticed Bankamp. They backed away fearfully as he got closer to the barkeep. He couldn’t help but notice that their eyes fell upon his blood-soaked hands. He threw a glare up towards Miya whose ankles were visible, just for a moment, before she vanished once more.
She’d got him.
Bankamp quickly knelt beside Dinap’s body, yanked the knife from his chest, wiped it against the man’s clothes and followed Miya up into the tavern. It was empty and shut up, stools resting on tables and tankards all stacked behind the bar. No sunlight was to be seen creeping its way through the buildings cracking facade. The frozen night still gripped tightly to the world outside.
Miya stood by the door, coat in hand. She was just waiting with a calm patience.
“What have you done girl?” Bankamp boomed, storming across the creaking woodwork towards her, yanking his clothing from her grasp.
“I’m escaping.” She responded flatly. Her eyes were still empty. Her cold, calculating mind almost visible behind her vacant stare. “You’ve no choice but to run, and you’ll take me with you.”
“I’ll take you with me?” Bankamp fumed. “You’ve ruined me, you’ve made me a murderer! I can’t return home.”
“You have no home. No family to return to. And you won’t leave me here.”
“And why not?” Bankamp bore down on the girl, his fearsome tone and fiery eyes failed to even gain the slightest of reactions from the girl.
“Because you’re haunted,” Miya said, leaning into his glare. “And I’ll haunt you worse than anyone if you leave me here. Dinap sold me, but he also protected me from the worst of them… but there is nobody to help me now. You don’t know if I’ll live to see tomorrow morning.”
“You don’t know if you’ll live to see tomorrow morning with me either,” Bankamp growled, but once again, she’d got him.
Ripping open the door, he slung his coat around them both and powered through the snowfall, searching the darkness for the light hanging from the porch of the inn. He prayed the wax was still burning.
His jacket didn’t quite cover them both, and an icy chill swelled beneath the furs, biting at his body like a thousand frozen blades. The pain was tough for even Bankamp. For Miya, a small girl in a thin dress, it must have been nearly unbearable, but still she forged on without a hint of weakness. Bankamp pulled her closer as they searched in the darkness. At last, the candlelight, splintered through the cracked lantern glass, flickered in the distance.
He took with him all he had, which was little. A small rucksack of clothes, a saddle bag of food and supplies for the road, and the valuable ore and smelt samples Bankamp had been tasked to bring back for his Lord. Miya stood silently, hands clasped to the window ledge of the small bedroom the old soldier now wished he had remained within on his travels, waiting for the sun to rise. The moment its bright glimmer stretched its way over the ice-bound horizon, revealing dark silhouettes of far-away mountains, they were gone. By the time the sun was visible over the ranges, he and Miya were far from the reaches of the tavern.
Miya’s stoic silence was broken as she collapsed into a heap mane of the galloping steed, weeping uncontrollably. Emotion, whether it was sadness, fear or joy, overcame her. Bankamp said nothing and did nothing. He just left her to cry, wrapped in the spare furs he’d bought for nights on the road. He didn’t know where they were going. He knew he couldn’t go back to his Lord. Word would spread from the traders. He wasn’t just a troublemaker, he was a murderer, too. His Lord wouldn’t need much more to have his head, and then what would become of the girl? Orphans didn’t fare well wherever they were.
Despite his anger. Despite his anguish, he couldn’t help but respect Miya. She’d used him, and used him brilliantly. Every word he’d said, every weakness he’d revealed, she’d used without mercy. She had done what he was too much of a coward to do; what he’d wished he had done. She’d freed a helpless child from a world so brutal and vile it made his stomach churn.
Bankamp didn’t have a direction, nor an idea of where to go next, but what he did have was fine ore, good coin and something new to keep his ghosts at bay.