Long ago, and perhaps, as an ancient shadow lore haunting man’s first fire lit tale, it was thus; that a man was bourne, a certain gnosis of character that is as old as the bard’s song and as when men came to write and record their progress, or to construct things in a literary sense, and this antiquity of character could even be seen in an elemental notion- in the hoary backside of manhood and the dark comedy of the animal world. Perhaps, even in the vegetation of the wild wood, one could find the adversity of this character, this mountain goat of a man and class, and present in the cells of men’s marrows the personage laughs, as if the gods themselves were playing certain games of chance, and wanton folly, as if the winds themselves were capable of heckling and sham.
This pure fool; this idiotic stranger spirit was the same found in the Countryman’s Inn and Tavern of the City of Burl, where he now sit, curled like an evil satyr in a crooked slack and slump over a deserted mug of ale in the darkest corner of the room, and he was, at best, seen as a rouge or of a scoundrel class from afar by the more herd-like perceptions of the working class who now frequented the dusk lit tavern. The cobblers, smiths, horsemen and pack handlers now came in after a hard day’s labors in the mills, hills and fields, and some came from the king’s castle even, though it was mostly stocked with the class of man from the lower ends and slums of the old town quarters. Upon further passing of the character who leered from his strange post, one could tell that this certain character had the aura of a loner, and the smell from his lonesome table could attest that he had neither spent the day working or one of hardship or toil-that he had slept in a horse stable was almost certain, for the odour of horse manure mixed with the scent of rotten hay was inescapable, and a hint of another agent would suggest the frank odour of animal urine long attributed to the musk of weasel or badger. Only a true diviner of the more secret art could tell of his attire, however; the top part of his body was covered from the stolen undershirt of a foreign merchant’s wagon, and the tunic itself from a farmer’s corpse that he had stumbled upon in great chance and luck upon a winding road long ago and far away. The same good lady of chance and bald fortune had bestowed him with the tomfoolery that led to the scent of a long and cunning weasel in a chicken pen were he slept a thrice pence of sun and moon before. The joker’s breeches came to his knees, ragged and bramble torn like the hairy legs that were almost as crooked haunches visible from the knee to boot. His feet were covered with ankle high boots almost entirely eaten away by long distance walks to and fro on the earthen roads that wound and crossed the bastard lands of travel; and a traveler and rover was he, indeed…
As the sun sank in the rising mists of hills and woods, the light of the tavern was brought to life by candle and lantern of the barkeep, and the man laughed at this very notion like a whimpering animal in a soft and jerky, choking manner, quietly to himself; for his fugitive mind had found a certain comedy of the situation, and he laughed for far too long to be understood by the surrounding good folk of the common class who were getting started on their nightly drinking rituals. The man’s eyes were leering and wild, set in an unusually long face and nose, and his ears were dog-like around a furry head of hair. His face was like a stupid puppet or wooden dummy; something that looked like his own thoughts brought to flesh. He wouldn’t last much longer in the town, for his lore was spoken in the town and of very ill repute in the local tavern gossip in his absence. There was a certain timeless idea that men of this ilk were dangerous strangers and loafers who wandered to and fro however the pleased, and such were treated as troublesome and evil outsiders who could not be trusted in their structures or living quarters. Already, it was talked of how he sat in the corner and conversed with himself over others, and how he disappeared every night, not into the warm inns or houses but into the woods and hills. There was even talk at low whisper in certain blood lineages and said circles that the man was a devil; a man cursed to forever walk the roads forever as a punishment from the gods, who he insulted at banquets and gatherings when the years were long ago, and it was said by a cunning man who conjured felon night spirits that he was reborn as a man who was ignorant of his own station every time he died. Certainly, this tale would be complimented handsomely by the local torturer if one found the square patch of weasel’s fur he had sown into the inner side of his tunic- this, which he had done so in the belief it made him somehow stronger, and to protect him in brawls and duals with men.
Somewhere outside he heard a piper playing a tune, and thought it to be of greater significance than it probably was, and he thanked only himself for his own cunning in obtaining the drink that bloated his underbelly, likening it to the skill and craftsmanship he believed he possessed in a magical sense. He smiled and leered at the entourage tonight; of the burly and hard working sort, of their big and solid builds and thick beards. He could smell a plate of hot venison and greens and licked his lips. If he had another coin it would have went to a cup of ale instead, and he made his way to the back of the bar, sensing the uproar and distraction and then slipping in the shadows and behind the busy barkeep. Here he helped himself to another cup of ale from a fresh barrel, and loafed all the while, slipping slowly and quietly back to his corner where he was never missed. The joy of this kept him in tune to the fading piping of the piper that carried off into the night. And as the sound dispersed into the underbrush of the hills it carried on the winds, eventually being smothered into a faint demise.
It was now night and the fireplace glow cast shadows of the merriment in the tavern hall as the men grew louder and braver in heroic banter and story. Hearty laughter now rolled from the men , and yet the loafing figure sat laughing to himself in a frequency that could only be heard by dogs. His overstay was becoming noticed by the hawk eye of a local stag hunter, who he saw lean and whisper something to the barkeep. He returned their stares by fixing his gaze on the half eaten plate of venison and greens, and then looking up at the two, smiling. He meant to have the meal; he felt that it was endowed to him utterly. It was much to his surprise when the barkeep whistled in conjure of the dogs, which came and ate the mass from the dirt floors in only moments.
“Will ye buy a drink or….” A barmaid said, but the loafer only stared in a trance of terror as the dogs licked and snorted the meal and he saw a bone leg thrown outside, where the dogs ran and fought for the rights. He stared ahead again, laughing without a sound, and was oblivious to the barmaid, slipping back into a death-like trance, afraid of getting caught by way of all the attention. Soon, he was somewhat forgotten again, and he began taking deeper pulls from the wooded cup, until he felt oafish and dangerous joy.
The long table near the fire was now covered with a cooked boar, and the men drank their rounds and ate from the beast, hollering loudly and telling tales of hunts and women; and of the King of Burl; some lies were told, and rustic jokes came forth of the first two subjects, but of the King, was spoken a certain reverence, and honour.
“TO THE KING!” The table roared and the smiths and laborers raised their cups high and a minstrel of strings played a jolly tune along a roll of drum beats by fists upon the tables. Dancing came and such merriment, filling the room with uproar and cheer.
The stag hunter commanded a following of commoners, telling his tale of the kill with a big voice and waving of hands. The heckler now stood upright in his curling slouch and walked toward the company slowly. He picked up a startled Hillman’s cup and threw it back, gurgling the ale as fast as he could. He then pointed at the hunter and slung the remains of the cup at him, hitting him square in the face. A moment of confusion overtook the place, and the heckler stood staring at the hunter, as if in trance. Suddenly, the music died, and the tavern stared at the stranger who had arisen from his dark corner.
The hunter looked bewildered about the room and then to the man, who stood there, laughing under his breath, looking down at his feet as if fighting off some great joke.
The hunter whirled around and threw a set of chairs out of his way, making an opening to the one who had wrought this offense.
He walked within strangling distance of the man and stood to his face, his fists clenched, and his posture fierce. Not a sound came from the room, and the man continued to stare down, laughing slowly-too slowly to be a normal sort of laughter but one of a madman who has learned an evil pun.
The heckler spoke, in a voice and manner that was like a character in a play:
“I challenge you, hunter; I, the heckler, the jongleur….I have no homage for your King or for your fire lit lies…he who would deny me the leg of a hart; you will meet me as a man and foe tonight.”
The room was hushed and many stared in disbelief…. some were startled and scared.
The heckler suddenly swayed back, crookedly, and a certain awe came from the viewers of his strange movements, as if he was a most dangerous adversary. His hands and arms softly flailed in a motion that was like a dog swimming in waters. He swung his arm in an arc, and slapped the hunter fully in the face, he then clapped both hands in a fierce shot of open hands to the hunter’s ears, which now rang like thunder struck bells.
The crowd remained stunned, and in another instant the heckler had thrust his fist into the wild boar on the nearby table and now ate and sucked at the meat hurriedly, backing a short distance from his opponent. The hunter moved towards the man with a great speed and hit him full in the face with a fist, knocking the man into a wall. He closed in on the man and threw another blow to his gut, and the heckler doubled over, gasping and spitting meat from his maw. A farmer leaned and listened in that interval, and could have swore he heard the man laughing still.
The stag hunter grabbed him quick and ran his head into the table, and then grabbed him by the nape of his tunic and slung him over two tables and into the opposite wall, tearing his shirt and threads from his back. He stood staring at the figure of the man, who lay half naked in the dirt motionlessly.
“He’s got a twisted back! A hunch of the spine?” A voice called over the heckler, and another shone the lantern on the figure, which began to pull himself up by a chair. They encircled him and the hunter stood staring at the inner garments of the tunic, and at the square patch of hair sown therein.
“What manner of devilry is this?” Someone asked as they saw the square patch and began to huddle around the hunter, looking and peering at the torn shirt. The hunter now began to smell the strong animal musk and flung the shirt into the fireplace, where it burst into a bright flame in an almost unusual blaze.
“What sort of poor wretched devil are ye?” The hunter asked, staring at the bare-chested joker who bled from his long nose.
“My back is troubled; I was placed on a rack by a King once, and I was his fool….this is why my back is the way it is….the hide you see is from a terrible weasel I bested with jack iron and is my right, and you will be a sorry man for what you have done to offend me this way.” The heckler spoke in a pitiful manner with his finger pointing at the offender. The spectacle was so strange that when he began to slip and loaf backwards towards the door no one dared to pursue the man. Then, he was gone, out the door and into the night. A few stuck their heads outside and saw only horses and empty streets. Soon the laughter arose again and the fire grew bigger and the company continued their drink and merriment. And somewhere in the night chill, as a sound perhaps heard only by dogs, was something like laughter.
When the evening came again to the tavern, one could hear the piping of song, and smell the scent of greens and venison as the place began to sound with talk and joke again. The countryman’s Inn was not as full as the night before, but there were still many a folk therein and one of the town watchmen drew interest and entourage at a table inside, interested of the whereabouts of the queer stranger who was present the night before. It had seemed someone had let loose the pack animals sometime late in the night, and he was suspect, of course. Soon, the hunter returned with a young stag, and another boar was spread out, to be eaten with loaves of bread and cups of ale. The soldier was held in regards and drank much and ate plenty at the expense of the keep who kept him busy with inquires of town talk and chatter. It was not until the late of the night that a certain breeze blew and a strange, curled figure stood in the doorway of the tavern. The room became hushed as the figure stood there, silently. It was of little doubt that the figure was the same as had came the night before and had returned to settle a score, for wrong or right. The figure suddenly and calmly leaned against the doorway, kicking his leg up in a bend and began to slouch there, something in a large sack hanging from his hand. A sound could be heard from somewhere, though it was strangely unknown and many brows rose as the company looked around in astonishment to themselves. It was a low sort of hum, like a buzzing drone coming from the stranger who slouched there, leaning with his back against the entranceway. The soldier finished his drink and began to slip his sword from the sheath. Suddenly, the hunter got to his feet and wiped boar juice and gravy from his drizzled beard, prepared to trounce again his suitor.
But, suddenly, a panic enveloped the tavern as the sounds of hooves and gallops came from somewhere outside and a horse keeper hollered. It had indeed been the stranger who let loose the stock and he had done it again, sending forth an air of madness about the room. The buzzing grew louder from the heckler and he shook the sack he held around. In another instant he loosed the cords and threw it loose into the center of the room, hitting the hunter with a great, fat hornet’s nest and releasing hundreds of wood hornets angrily into the tavern. The spectacle happened so fast that many were not even aware of what it was that was actually happening, as if it were witchcraft or evil magic. They swarmed around and stung the soldier and hunter, and a smith fell to the floor, screaming in pain and waving his hands around to fend off the devils. One flew and stung a fat man and curses could be heard called out into the night and towards the heckler, who had slipped away by now, into the night. And as the piper retired to his room in the opposite hills of the Inn and Tavern, he began hearing the noise in the tavern and the baying of dogs and wondering what had happened. In the night air he thought he heard something coming in with the cool draft of the open window; something, like a man…slowly laughing.