An excerpt from Jac’s Tall Tales
The heavy wooden door slammed open so violently the frame shuddered and the hinges nearly tore free. Through it stormed a giant of a man. Seven feet of muscle crowned with the horned and dessicated skull of a deer stormed through and came to a sudden, jerking halt in front of the man leaning against a ruined stone wall. The Stag Lord swayed as he stood, the bottle of green wine Jac had poisoned and given as a gift hanging in his right hand, but an evil light almost glowed from the sockets of the stag’s skull.
Jac Steele lit another cigarette.
“You brought this?” the Stag Lord demanded, brandishing the green wine. Jac inhaled, pulling the orange flame closer.
“Yeah.” The word was shrouded in smoke that caught beneath the brim of Jac’s hat, shrouding his face.
“There will be an extra 200 crowns for you this month.” The bottle dropped to the Stag Lord’s side as though the arm had suddenly lost all life. “I hear you think you’re better than my men and that you killed the northern patrol.”
Jac’s yellow eyes slipped past the terrifying figure before him to the man he dwarfed. Akiros stood as tall as ever but in the shadow of the Stag Lord he seemed almost to be skulking.
“Dat’s raght,” Jac said before drawing again on the taste and effect of tobacco.
“You’ll take over the northern patrol, then. You’ll keep an extra 10% of your take for the first month. Welcome to the Stag Lord’s army. Soon we will carve our kingdom out of these Stolen Lands.” The monster turned on his heel and swept back into his room, the door jarring behind him. Jac let out his breath and this time the smoke rose out beyond his overhanging hat to curl up into the air. Akiros gave Jac a meaningful look and began counting out gold.
The green wine was unopened and the chartered group’s current plan to kill the beast Jac had just seen depended on the poison. Jac knew he would have to make sure it was drunk. He glanced at Wiktor, sitting ten paces away and feigning involvement in the fat bandit’s game. Wiktor’s cold eyes met Jac’s gold ones. The northman’s lips barely moved, but a second later Vedal’s voice magically carried the whisper to Jac’s ear.
“Wiktor wants you to get Akiros to open the door again.” Jac nodded to the barbarian as Akiros handed over a pouch of coins. Beneath his hat, Jac’s eyes flicked towards the bandit seated with Wiktor. With his usual chains missing he was nearly as terrifying as the Stag Lord. Jac hadn’t realized how much of a comfort that strange habit had brought before now but rumors of the Stag Lord crushing a man’s skull in his hands twisted with memories of Wiktor beating his foes into oblivion without the aid of a weapon. Wiktor, too, was sober. And cold.
As Akiros moved back towards the gate, Wiktor made a sign with his hands. Jac understood the image of a man falling and glanced at the partial second story above the table. Surely Wiktor couldn’t mean to kill the only man in this fort isolated enough to turn against the bandits. There must be other ways to draw the Stag Lord out.
Jac caught the retreating Akiros.
“Hey, Ah told ya we’re bettah dan da rest o’ da mooks ya got heah. 10% fo’ a month ain’t enough. We deserve more dan dat.” Akiros turned and gave the smuggler a weary look. “Now why don’t you go back an’ fetch da Stag Lord back out so we can talk ’bout dis?”
“He doesn’t like to be disturbed. You’re lucky to get what you did and I wouldn’t push it, he might kill you. If you’d like to try, though, be my guest.” Akiros waved past Jac towards the Stag Lord’s door.
“Okay, sho’. Go get ‘im an’ we can discuss dis over a drink or somethin’.” Jac stepped aside, indicating the way for Akiros, and ashed his cigarette.
“Oh, I’m not getting involved,” Akiros declined, the trace of a smile almost reaching his eyes. “He’d be just as likely to kill me for rousing him.”
“Ah tought you were more important dan dat,” Jac chided desperately, watching Wiktor and the bandit rise from their table. He knew he’d made a mistake when Akiros’s eyes narrowed and he turned from Jac, leaving him to his whim.
All right, Jac thought. I can at least draw the Stag Lord out myself. He turned, pulled on the cigarette again and exhaled as he moved toward the door. Besides, he’s a well-known drunk. And that green wine’s supposed to be a mighty fine vintage. There’s a good chance he’s already downed the bottle. Might be he’s already passed out or dead from the poison.
Jac reached the door and could now see that the wood had indeed splintered where the hinges clung to it. I do wish I knew what baneberry poison did. He raised a gloved hand and knocked four times on the door. He pulled his hat from his head and put his ear to the door, listening closely for any sound of breathing.
“What?!?” The growl of the Stag Lords voice shuddered through the wood, catching Jac off guard and robbing him of his nerve. Only twice before had Jac been more sure he would die and his mind warped with images of still pools, a blood-stained apron, a smile, and a man with a cleaver. Whipping his hat back onto his head, he turned and fled, walking as quickly as he thought he could without arousing suspicion. He rounded the ruined stone wall’s corner and nearly slammed into Akiros, who had taken up position leaning against the wall.
“’e’s asleep,” Jac tried to lie.
The old man smirked. “I thought you were more important than that.”
Jac realized his teeth had clamped down on the still smoldering cigarette. He loosened his jaw and managed to return the smile. Beneath his hat, his eyes shot to Wiktor, rounding what feebly passed for a stable in the fort and heading towards a staircase.
“Ya know, you’re raght.” Jac steeled himself and returned to the door. Not wanting to further irritate the man within, Jac pushed open the door and stepped inside.
It was a bit like walking into Hell.
The room was dark except for a furnace on the right wall. The flames of the furnace cast shadows and heat throughout the room, creating an oppressive atmosphere. As Jac looked, he noticed that fueling the fire were stacks and stacks of wanted posters, all featuring Jac Steele’s own face.
“Sit down.” Jac jumped as the Stag Lord’s voice rolled out of the shadows. The man was sitting bolt upright beneath a mass of furs. Jac glanced around, searching for a seat. All he found were dozens of sacks overflowing with gold and gems. Inhaling the smoke again, Jac chose one against the wall near the door and sat. He reached down and drew one of the coins from the sack, rolling it over his fingers.
“What do you want?” The Stag Lord’s head was down, as though he were watching Jac through the eyes of the skull he wore, rather than his own. The coin rolled faster across the fingers of Jac’s glove.
“Ah know you ain’t seen mah men outside, but we’re bettah dan anyone else you got in dis place.” Jac paused, waiting for a response. When none came he continued, “Now Ah’m thinkin’ we deserve somethin’ mo’ like 90% o’ our take.” The Stag Lord stared and Jac felt the heat grow. He was about to go on when the Stag Lord interrupted.
“Drink.” He held out the bottle Jac had given. Jac swallowed and then swallowed a mouthful of the wine. Thank the gods I drank that antitoxin. He watched as the Stag Lord took back the bottle and then downed a full half of it in a single swallow.
“Youll get 10% extra for 2 months. After that, I’ll make you a lieutenant, but you have to do something to earn it.”
What?" Jac asked.
“You came in with another man. He looked strong. Kill him.”
The coin stopped spinning for a moment. Then Jac continued. “Ah came wit four men. Ah’ll kill ‘em all but den dat won’t leave me wit none. Leave your army da smaller.” The man on the bed rose, throwing back one of the furs to reveal a massive recurved bow. Jac’s coin spun faster.
“Do I know you?” Jac casually tugged the brim of his hat lower and failed to keep from glancing at the piles of his picture sitting five feet from him.
“No…” There was no way not to see through the lie, Jac was sure. The coin was flying. The Stag Lord drew back an arrow and knocked it.
“I do know you.” Jac dropped the coin back in the sack.
“You remind me of my father.” The cigarette fell from Jac’s mouth in his haste.
“Raght, so we’re goin’ to go wit’ dat 90% and Ah’ll get outta your way.” He lunged for the latch and pulled the door open, bursting out of the heat and into the open air. Akiros was waiting.
“Ah got 90%,” Jac boasted, feigning calm. Akiros shook his head.
“Lieutenants get 75%, same as everyone else. They just have more responsibilities.” Jac would have retorted were it not for an earth shuddering crash at that moment. Jac looked up just in time to see Wiktor leap from the second floor onto one of the bandits…