by Matt Appleby
On the frontier of ancient Britannia, five strangers prepare for a showdown.
|Author's Note: This is part of the 2016 "Game of Thrones" contest. Specifically, the first of the Weekly Writing Challenges.
Of the five available prompts, I chose the one to write a Western. What I've got here isn't a Western in the traditional sense, but I still think I've hit enough of the classic genre tropes for it to count.
But that's for y'all to judge. See what you think...
A Fistful of Denarii
By Matt Appleby
(Word count: 1,986)
We were due for a showdown in the Forum. These things always went that way, in the end.
There were five of us holed up in this dingy little tavern. It wouldn't shelter us for long. Caelius and his boys were coming, would be here any minute. There weren't many of them left, we'd already seen to that, but there were still enough to cause us problems.
I looked around the tavern. Otho was sat against the bar, staring into an empty wine bottle. He would've downed the whole thing if only there was any of it left. I could see the longing in his eyes. I didn't hold it against him. He'd been a soldier for as long as the army would have him, and I'd seen enough of the things he'd seen to know that there's only so much war a man can take. But here he was, riding out one last time despite his better nature, and I kinda respected him for that.
Longinus was sat next to him, holding a knife in his lap. He was looking at it like he'd never seen one before. Maybe he hadn't. He'd been raised in the bosom of one of the richest families in Hispania, wanting for nothing and doing even less. I didn't know the details, didn't care to either, but apparently he'd offended them somehow, which must have taken a lot, and he'd been sent to tour the frontier until he 'found himself'. Which was how he'd found himself at the edge of the world, in a one-horse town that needed help, and he hadn't said no fast enough. I almost felt sorry for him. I certainly didn't want his help, but it wasn't like I had the luxury of choice.
A spear flew through the open window, smacking into the bar next to Longinus' head. The boy yelped, in surprise and terror both. It wasn't meant to hurt him or anyone, of course. Just Caelius letting everyone know he was here.
I looked out the window. Caelius was stood in the middle of the Forum. It wasn't much of one, just an empty square of ground that had been flattened out, and maybe half-a-dozen vacated market stalls. This town wasn't even big enough to warrant one, not by a long shot, but they'd had some grand dreams. Hadn't ended well for them. Not like it ever had for anyone.
Caelius was flanked by eight soldiers. The last of his crew, and the most dangerous. They were all on horseback, riding huge, snorting beats even tougher than themselves. Just my luck.
The Priestess stuck her head out next to me and yelled a long stream of celtic. I didn't speak the language, but given her tone, I could guess what she was on about. Caelius' mother and depraved sex acts, that sort of thing. Caelius himself seemed unmoved. He outnumbered us nearly two-to-one, so he could afford to be.
The Priestess...I hadn't found out her name, or which god she was a priestess of. Some strange monster of dark Britannia, one of dozens that had no concern for me at all, and so I didn't care in return. She was a tiny thing, looked like a light breeze would knock her over, but there was a fire behind her eyes that mocked such basic notions of strength. I didn't know how the natives of this island did things, what they expected women to be, but I doubted there was a man among them who could control her. She'd already made it quite clear that I wouldn't fare any better. I didn't know if I liked her, but she was definitely interesting to be around.
Faelan opened the tavern door and fired his bow. It was a good shot, would've hurt Caelius pretty badly, at least if one of his men hadn't stuck out his massive shield and taken the blow. Again, Caelius barely reacted. He was a fat old man, but he was tough. Had to give him that.
I doubted Faelan cared. He'd been a slave until a week ago, toiling in the local lead mine that's the only reason anyone cared about this place at all. The chaos I'd unleashed down there had been the perfect window for him to escape, and now he was looking to put an arrow through his former master's throat. He wanted to make that happen very, very badly. He'd be here until the bitter end, even if the rest of us weren't. I'd seen the conditions in that pit, and I understood completely.
And then there was me. Just another vagabond, riding into town wanting nothing more than a drink, finding a whole mountain of trouble instead. Pretty much a typical day for me, whether I wanted it that way or not.
Caelius stepped his horse forward a few paces.
“We all know how this is going to end.” he called to us. “Are you gonna come out here like civilised people, or are we gonna have to go in there and get you?”
The Priestess let off another long string of obscenities. I waited for her to finish, then took my turn to speak.
“Let's not kid ourselves.” I called back. “No one here's civilised.”
“So it's the hard way, then?”
Caelius was quiet for a moment, then nodded. “Good.”
We all knew there was no point in surrendering. He'd kill us all just the same. He was that kind of man. And even if he wasn't, I still wouldn't surrender. I never have, not in anything. Just plain don't have it in me.
Fluminis Fortes was not the town in which I wanted to die. The name had struck me as being hilariously inaccurate from the moment I arrived. But I guess I'd achieved enough here to be proud of, one way or another. There used to be three gangs here, feuding with each other over the lead mine. There was Caelius, obviously, the mine's current despot; the Antoninus brothers, local bandits who dreamed of bigger things; and the native tribe whose name I couldn't pronounce, who owned the land before and were taking it back one beheading at a time.
I'm a big guy and I know how to handle myself, so when I arrived all three hired me to deal with their rivals. I still didn't know why they hadn't already done it themselves long ago, but the pay was good and none of them were people I liked very much, so I saw no problem in taking the work. And that's what I did. Mostly, I just prodded them into killing each other, which in the end didn't even take much. Over the space of a week, a few hundred whittled themselves down to nine, with the occasional help from myself and my four erstwhile allies, and ultimately it had led us all to here.
The last nine were the ones I wouldn't be able to beat. Served me right for being clever.
...And that, right then, was when the Wheel turned.
Faelan fired another shot. One of the soldiers tried to block it, but couldn't reach far enough. The arrow went clean through the head of Caelius' horse. He shouted in alarm as his mount crashed to the ground, taking him down hard with it. He was pinned underneath the massive dead animal, everything below his chest crushed.
The eight soliders looked at each other, and then they all quietly dismounted. The horses were shooed away without complaint.
Caelius starting moaning. It was a low sound, that of a man more than just in pain.
One of the soldiers threw another spear. This one wasn't meant as a friendly warning. I ducked just in time, the wood brushing my hair as it went past. It thumped into the bar next to the first one. Longinus yelped again.
Otho scuttled across the floor until he was with me at the wall.
“I can go out the back.” he said. “See if I can get around behind them, maybe take out one or two once I find a good spot.”
I shook my head. The way this town was laid out, even using the tavern's back entrance would still put him in full view of the soldiers. It would be about fifty feet from there to the nearest building, and there was no chance he'd make it.
I took a quick peek out the window. Caelius was still under his horse. Still moaning, but much quieter now. It was almost disappointing. I'd pictured him dying much harder than that.
Thought it did get me to thinking. This wasn't the first showdown I'd ever been caught up in. I knew how they worked, what I could survive and what I couldn't. I'd fought my way out all the others, and I probably could've fought my way out of this one too, if I'd put my mind to it.
But that was the way I did it before. Why couldn't I do it a different way now?
“Hey, fellas!” I called out.
“Yeah?” a solider shouted back. “What d'you want?”
“Your boss ain't got long. Listen to him. He's breathin' his last.”
There was a long pause. The soldiers were talking amongst themselves.
“What's your point?” they eventually asked.
“Even if you come in here and kill us all, you're still not gonna get paid.”
The soliders debated again. Took longer this time. I didn't hold out much hope on winning them over. Most of their crew was dead, and even the ones I hadn't directly killed could still be tied to my hand. If I was them, I'd want payback for that, whether there was money in it or not. But I wasn't them, and I had to take a chance that they weren't anything like me at all.
The soldiers finished their debate.
“If we let you leave,” they said, “what are you gonna do?”
“I can't speak for the others. I don't own 'em. But me...I plan on leavin' and never comin' back. That work for ya?”
Another long talk, bordering on argument. I had no idea which way it would go.
“Fair enough.” was all they said.
I peeked out the window again. The eight soldiers were walking away. Caelius was left behind, the man groaning not at all by now.
Longinus looked up. “So it's all over?”
“Looks that way.” Otho said.
The kid sighed in relief. So did I.
And it ended, just like that. Part of me felt let down, like I'd been robbed of some exciting climax. But then I realised that was stupid. I'd only come to this place for a drink.
I stood up and walked out of the tavern. Took a deep breath of fresh air. It tasted real good. The Priestess stepped out beside me, not looking nearly so pleased.
“You're letting them live?” she asked. More like demanded, really.
“That's not up to me. Like I said, I don't own you. Or Faelan, or the others. Do what you like. Kill 'em all, if that makes you happy.”
She smiled. I had the image of circling wolves. “It will.”
I couldn't think of a response that meant anything at all, so I just nodded and walked away. Earlier in the day, I'd tied my horse up by a tree on the edge of town, and with any luck she'd still be around. There was another town at the other end of the hills, and if I hustled, I'd get there by sundown.
I hadn't found the three big paydays I'd been promised, but amidst all the blood-letting I'd gathered up enough gold to at least buy that drink. I hoped it would be worth it.