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The cold wind nearly shredded me.
My thin body wavered in the sharp breeze like paper just waiting to be cut, and I wanted to close my eyes through all of it. I wanted my nightmare to be over. But, forcing my eyes open as wide as they would go, I pushed on. I had to find shelter, a town, anything. My second chance was ruined if I died again. In this body, even with all my knowledge, I wouldn’t stand a chance against the beast for a second time.
The wind smacked my face as if taunting me for my pain. I pressed right through it. My eyes scanned the trees, catching only brief glimpses of movement between the dark, gnarled forms. I grimaced, pulling up my resolve in a desperate attempt to mask the pain.
My body, once a formidable force in the land, was now weak and frail. The weakness of it stung me to the bone with each step on the path. My right hand uselessly twitched in air, grasping for a sword that wasn’t there. I cringed again, forcing myself to focus on thoughts instead of agony. The events of it all swirled through my head.
How could I have been so stupid? Why had I agreed? Had the beast manipulated my mind? The entire encounter now just seemed fuzzy, like a distant memory that still hurt far too much. What had I been thinking? The prospect had seemed so good at the time.
Pushing back thoughts, I walked on with clenched fists and keen eyes at the ready. If I was to die, to be tricked into a second death, I wasn’t going to allow it. The beast wouldn’t get the better of me. It had tricked me without lying and that burned like a wound in my side. But it wasn’t the lie that burned, it was that I fact that I’d fallen for it. I’d been weak. I’d let my guard down.
My feet quickened their pace, fueled on by my anger. I would not succumb to the mere will of death; I was better than that. My whole life I’d trained with the sword. I’d become the best in the land. None had been able to challenge my might. I was stronger than the best of the knights, faster than any ranger in the woods, and more powerful than the most coveted of mages. I’d worked my whole life—training, working, building my life. Even in my old age, I was the best of the best.
And I’d fallen for a trick.
My stick legs carried me down the winding forest path. I ignored it their screams for relief. As I tried to scour the trees, stray locks of brown hair fell in front of my gaze. My eyes widened as I pushed it out of the way. That hair that wasn’t my own—it was just another reminder of my mistake.
But before my rage could cloud judgement again, something else caught my eye. Something much less natural than the shades of green waving in the shadows, but something that filled me with hope.
Beyond the next bend in the path, beyond the dark forms of the trees, I recognized the perfect orange glow of firelight. It was a signal of deliverance. My home flashed in my head, its beautiful fireplace crackling softly on a winter night. I bit down hard, pushing the memory away. That didn’t matter right now; I wouldn’t get to go back there anyway, so I had no need for the image. Salvation was near.
I picked up my pace, cutting through the air like the sharpest of blades. My feet pounded on dirt, thankfully not missing a step, and I clenched my fist as I pushed on. My body swiveled awkwardly, turning at the bend.
Beautiful firelight warmed my eyes.
It looked so sweet, so delicate, so innocent. It was a beacon of safety that split the night like the halo of an angel coming down to save me from my suffering.
My eyes focused on the flame and watched it in detail. Each fiery tendril and each crackling spark as it put up resistance against the wind. It was being produced by a torch, I noticed, on the front of a building. I couldn’t make out what the building was, but that fact didn’t matter. The possibility of safety held me up.
I pushed my legs to run, slicing through the cold with abandon. If I could get inside, I would be safe. That fact echoed loud and clear. Legs screamed and muscles burned, bringing back a painful feeling I hadn’t truly felt in years. My body needed rest—I needed rest, and it was so close.
As the building rushed toward me, I finally recognized what it was. An old tavern with a red sign on it, the paint cracked and worn. It wasn’t large, and it definitely didn’t look busy, but I didn’t care. It would be warm and it would have food.
The tavern’s form filled my vision as I neared it, my muscles on the verge of giving out. I clenched my fist tight, stabbing myself with cold pain, and I forced out a breath. My lungs burned with chill, and all I wanted to do was collapse right there.
But eventually, I made it.
Stumbling up the porch and straining myself just to stay stable, I pushed in the door. My legs buckled under me and I dropped to the floor. I hit the wood with a painful thud that warmed my heart simply because of the fact that it sounded on wood. My face skidded on a carpet and I sprawled myself out, taking advantage of the newfound comfort and heat. I’d made it.
A grin grew on my new face as I realized what I’d done. I’d bested the beast. When it had tried to reap my soul, I’d warded off his attacks. And when it had tried to trick me again, I’d still come out alive.
“Excuse me?” a voice asked, firm and bewildered. It split through the soft crackling of fire, colliding with my ears like a chariot and ripping me from my thoughts.
What? I wanted to ask as I lifted my gaze. My mouth opened a sliver, but no sound came out. Even the small patch of breath that slipped from my lips seared my insides, causing me to press my lips shut.
The creaking of wood rang out through the room in complete clarity as a large form walked over to me. A bushy beard draped over a soft face filled my vision.
The large barkeep, with sweat on his brow and what looked like food stains on his shirt, looked down at my embarrassment of a body. As soon as he noticed my daze and my starved body though, all anger faded from his face. The large, gruffly man picked me up off his rug, guiding me with strong hands, and sat me down on a barstool. I didn’t resist; I couldn’t have if I’d wanted to. Despite walking only for less than an hour, all my energy was gone.
My eyelids grew heavy as I rested my head on the bar. All of the tension slowly bled from my bones, taunting me with sleep. But the tavern keep wasn’t having any of it. He lifted my head up, forcing me to look into his blue eyes, and placed a bowl of soup in front of me. I looked at him in confusion, disoriented by tiredness. He only nodded back, his beard bobbing in my vision as he pointed to the bowl.
Recognition flashed in my head, the simple concept finally making sense. My face flushing red, I nodded a quick thanks. The smell of the bowl filled my nose. A hearty stew, from what I could tell—thick broth filled with what I instantly recognized as beef and other random vegetables. My mind flashed back to the feasts of pure elegance that I’d eaten in my king’s court. The perfectly prepared dishes that had been lined up one-by-one. Bread, stew, pastries. My tongue twitched at the memory. What was sitting in front of me now couldn’t hold a candle to the king’s feast, but was definitely good enough.
I hadn’t realized how hungry I’d been until I started eating, my mouth working faster than my mind. But apparently, my stomach had been empty because before I knew it, the stew was gone. Its warm elixir filled my stomach, swirling with the flavors that were but shadows on my tongue.
The wooden spoon clattered softly in the bowl, confirming that I’d finished my meal. I looked up. The now-smiling barkeep stared at me with warm eyes. For the entire time, he’d let me eat in peace. But, as soon as I was done, he took the empty bowl out of my way and finally asked another question.
“Are you okay?” he asked, the gruffly voice reminding me of my father. I winced at the memory, finding the image of him further out of reach than it should’ve been. I shook my head, chalking it all up to exhaustion before returning to the question. For most of my life, I would’ve answered easily. But as my stomach rumbled, despite being already filled with an entire bowl of stew, I found it difficult to find words.
I shook my head lightly, not having the courage to speak. The barkeep nodded. He grasped the empty bowl, walked into a back room, and came back within seconds holding another steaming bowl of the brew. He raised it to me. My eyes tracked it greedily. And as soon as he placed the bowl down, I was on it like a starved wolf hunting its prey.
Again, I picked up the spoon and shoveled food straight into my mouth. I gulped it down readily, filling my stomach anew. The feeling was blissful as I sat there, realizing how nice it was to simply sit and eat—to truly be in peace. But this time, the barkeep had more to say.
“So what’s your story?” he asked, the smile on his lips obvious before I’d even raised my gaze. I stared at his face, so full of life and care. And before I knew it, my lips had curled into a dry smile. How was I supposed to answer that question? Even after living a life of fantastical journeys and achievement, my story seemed a little far-fetched for the likes of a humble barkeep.
I offered a shrug as I found my voice. “It’s a long story,” I said, hoping that he would take it and leave me alone. But that didn’t happen. He persisted.
The barkeep looked me right in the face as the smile on his face only grew wider. “I’ve got time.”