In all the years Harken had been a Slayer, he never imagined the summer heat would be the thing to kill him. After surviving the Iron War, the innumerable attempts on his life and the handful of horses that had thrown him from the saddle, it would be the weather to do him in. At least he didn't need to worry about leaving a good looking corpse behind.
Though tanned skin was fashionable in the metropolitan capital of Vycount, it did little for Harken's appearance. His flesh had turned to leather under the sun, and made him appear feral and decrepit. The gray hairs in his beard didn't help either. What would his wife and daughter think of him, looking like a grizzled old goat when he finally returned home? Harken smiled to himself and let the thought drift from his mind.
The journey to Irgencourt had taken longer than expected. By the third day he had emptied his wine-skin trying to ration whatever water remained. In the end he had given the rest to his horse, knowing that if it died, he'd be dead soon after. Now, being the fifth day, both were close to keeling over.
The summer heat had lapped up every last drop of moisture in the land. The once babbling streams of old now yielded nothing more but cracked earth and stones. The tops of trees wilted like the balding pates of old men. Even the sky was as parched as the brown grasses covering the hillsides, and what the heat didn't take the War of Thrones certainly had. The former villages and Crossroad inns that once pockmarked the Merchant's Road were now nothing more than charred ruins, picked clean by the passing King's armies.
Even worse was that it had not been necessary to ride so hard to Irgencourt. The tattoos that stretched from cheek to cheek across Harken's face had compelled him to go, pointing him in the direction like a compass in his mind and burning at his thoughts if he strayed. Whoever had made the Pact was serious about getting it done.
With his back to the setting sun, Harken watched his shadow gallop across the twilight bathed land until the rider disappeared into the horizon and Irgencourt finally appeared in the distance. Harken stopped his horse at the crest of a hill and breathed a sigh of relief. The tugging had finally begun to subside now that the village was in sight.
Irgencourt was a quaint little place that sat farther south from the Merchant's Road, untouched by Reavers and Marauders who haunted the byway. Small, thatch-roofed houses sat in tight clusters under curls of smoke that eked from protruding chimneys. Surrounding the village was a multitude of farmland brimming with wilted crops, and farther west was a forest stretching on for miles.
The smell of cooked food wafted past Harken and his stomach tightened in response. Five days without a proper meal could do that to you. He hitched his horse to ride forward, hoping someone in the village would be kind enough to spare him a meal.
"We have no want for the likes of you, devil." An old woman barked before slamming the door in Harken's face. He tried again at the next house and was given a similar answer. Other villagers glared at him from a distance or hid when he passed. Harken had half a mind to just give up and ride on to the next town, yet the very thought made his tattoos flare with irritation. Someone in the village had made the Pact and it was now Harken's job to figure out who. Leaving was no longer an option. The tattoos had made their final verdict.
His search eventually led him to a horseshoe shaped building sitting along the edge of a rolling hill. The property was squat and rundown with a sign barely hanging onto its chains. Faded letters read The Mote in the Valley over a rough etching of the inn by a river. Harken looked around. There wasn't a river in sight.
Muted sounds of conversation drifted from the door of the tavern along with the delicious smell of baked bread and roasted potatoes that made Harken's stomach groan. He reached for his coin purse and frowned at the empty feeling inside. Perhaps the innkeeper would be merciful enough to at least let him have a drink.
He tied his horse to a water trough and the beast happily began guzzling away. Though the water was filthy with mud and grass floating on the surface, Harken was almost tempted to dunk his head in for a drink. Almost. He stepped inside the building before he could have a change of heart.
The interior of the tavern fared little better than its exterior. The walls were cracked and moldy, the floor littered with dirt and straw. Rows of tables and benches sat scattered haphazardly around the main hall. Most of the tables were packed with people eating, drinking and conversing. A few looked up at Harken, giving him stares of disapproval. Harken ignored them.
He walked towards the barman who was busy wiping down a spill on the counter, the remains of a broken earthenware mug beside him.
More eyes looked up from their meals to glare at Harken. Others pushed back their chairs and left, not wishing to stay in the same building as someone such as him, as if he were more an unsightly stain on the floor than a man. The very thought made his blood boil with anger, but he quickly pushed the feeling down. Causing trouble was the least of his concerns when he could barely stand from hunger and thirst.
The barman gave Harken a hard look as he approached, sizing him up from top to bottom. His gaze lingered at the sword strapped to his back, then his tattoos, before finally resting on the mace slung to his side.
"What can I do you for, stranger?" The barman asked.
"Looking for something to eat," Harken glanced at the wooden casks sitting on a nearby shelf. "And a beer to wash it down."
"Bowl a stew costs three copper dwans. Beer'll cost you one." The barman squatted down and placed a fresh mug on the counter.
"Don't have any coin, but I'm willing to work for it." Harken stared down at the mug, imagining it filled to the brim with a cold beer that had a nice foamy head to it.
"Sorry," The word was uttered in a sharp, flat response. "No work here for the likes of you." The mug was taken away and the vision of the beer faded with.
Harken decided to press a little harder. "Interesting, because I was under the impression someone did have work for me." He leaned in closer. "I know a Pact was made here."