The elderly man shuffled along the narrow cobblestone street leaning heavily on his long oaken walking staff. His tattered clothes hung loosely on his thin frame. Passing through the unmanned gate at the entrance to the small village of Brackenshire, he immediately turned to his right towards the Griffon’s Head Inn, the finest and only establishment that provided what he sought; a warm meal and soft bed.
Raucous noise filled the air from inside the common room. His nostrils caught the scent of wood and tobacco smoke as he entered. Scanning the room he spied an empty table towards the back near the fire. Gertrude, the busty and slightly past-her-prime barmaid saw him enter and met him at his table.
“Good evening, sir,” she smiled. “Back again?”
“Ah yes my dear, my travels have returned me to your fine establishment. I wonder, could I trouble you for a pint of your ale and a plate of the lamb?”
“Anything for you, dearie,” she flirted. “You like it cooked rare, is that right?”
“Yes, please,” he said, collapsing in an exhausted heap in the chair next to the small round table.
The man’s weathered eyes took in the company around him. The room was replete with an assorted lot: Farmers and tradesmen mostly, but here and there sat a few rather unsavory characters. The old man took note. His age and constitution tended to attract opportunists who marked him as an easy target.
As expected, several pairs of eyes turned his way and some muttering between confederates heralded the expected aggression.
Three grizzled strangers stood in unison and slowly stalked around tables towards the old man. Watching their approach he gripped his walking stick tightly.
“‘Ere now, what’s this?” asked the shortest of the three as he neared the table. “Travelin’ alone now, are we?”
“It’s dangerous to be out on the road all by yerself,” sneered the second man with a hawkish nose.
“I agree,” replied the old man calmly. “It’s a good thing I’m not on the road then, isn’t it?”
Gertrude pushed herself past Hawk Nose carrying a foaming mug which she quickly slammed down on the table in front of the old man.
“You lot just back of now, why don’t ya?” she said, trying to sound intimidating. “‘E ain’t ‘urtin’ nobody!”
“That’s right,” said the third man, sporting a dirty patch over his eye. “He won’t be hurting anyone with that twig he carries.”
“Just back off, Gorton,” shouted Gertrude, stepping backwards. “We don’t need no trouble in ‘ere.”
Hawk Nose reached out and grabbed Gertrude roughly by her arm. “Why don’t you fetch me some ale, and then meet me out back for a bit o’ fun?” he grinned.
Gertrude wrinkled her nose at the stench of Hawk Noses breath, but said nothing. Realizing the trio would not be deterred, she slipped past the men and retreated to the kitchen. It wasn’t ale she went to fetch, but rather Horace, the beefy cook.
“You’ve got coin enough for a plate of lamb, so maybe you’ve got enough to buy us all some dinner,” said Shorty, sliding in closer to the old man. Hawk Nose and Eye Patch bookended him.
“Perhaps I do,” replied the old man, maintaining his composure. “But why would I wish to part with my money just to buy three smelly strangers a meal?”
“Smelly?” replied Shorty turning to Hawk Nose. “Did he just call us smelly?”
Hawk Nose chuckled throatily. “Well you are pretty ripe there, Mallon.” He waved his hand in front of his nose.
“Shut up!” shouted Shorty, punching his companion in the shoulder.
Eye Patch leaned in close to the old man. “I think you’d better hand over everything you have before you have an unfortunate accident, you winded ol’ geezer.”
“I see,” replied the old man sternly. “Well then, allow me to stand and I’ll bestow upon you your reward.”
The three thieves grinned, pleased with the results of their intimidation.
Gertrude emerged from the kitchen with a tall, stocky man in a filthy apron. He gripped a cleaver so tightly his knuckles were white. Gertrude gestured to the back of the common room where the three grubby men had the elderly gentlemen surrounded.
When Horace spotted the old man he stopped abruptly. Gertrude grabbed his arm urging him forward but he brushed her off.
“What’s the matter with you?” she pleaded. “They might kill him!”
“You just stay right here, Gertie. You don’t want to be anywhere near that group right now.”
He gave her a look that meant there would be no more discussion. She turned a fearful eye back towards the escalating confrontation.
Shorty was grinning and rubbing his hands together. The crooked old man slowly took to his feet and drew himself to full height, which was half a head taller than Hawk Nose, the tallest of the three. The muggers involuntarily took a step back in surprise.
“You wish to take from me that which is not yours? Reap your harvest.”
The wizened old man raised his staff, which began to glow brightly.
“Tine Sruthán Geal!” he cried as he brought down the staff in a near deafening crash.
The three men howled as they burst into columns of intense flame. Blinding light and hellish heat spread throughout the room. The men’s screams of pain were quickly snuffed as their flesh burned from their bones. Within seconds all that remained of the ruffians were three smouldering piles of ash. The common room went silent.
No one moved as all eyes were fixed on the wizard in the back of the room. Gertrude gaped in disbelief. Before returning to his chair, Marandal the Mighty motioned to Gertrude to come forward. She stood motionless until prompted by Horace to move.
She arrived at his table, trembling.
“S…sir, yes sir?” she stuttered.
“Yes, my dear,” Marandal smiled soothingly. “I’ve changed my mind. I think I’ll have my lamb cooked well done.”
[Author’s note: I wrote this for a short story contest only to realize after it was finished that I’d gone over the limit by about 300 words. Not wanting to edit it down that far, I chose not to submit it. I liked the story and didn’t want it to go to waste, so I thought I’d publish it here for all of my readers to enjoy. I hope you liked it.]