Skyler - The Beginning by Alistair Lambert

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SUMMARY: A man, fallen from grace, is forced to recruit some muscle for a job for a mysterious benefactor. A short story full of action, atmosphere and world-building. First in what will eventually be several episodes.

Part 1

Garrick drank with the flair and determination of one who is convinced, deep down, that he will come to a violent end. Like most veterans, he would cloak this inner certainty with, in turns, bravado, nonchalance, recklessness, and most often, comfortable oblivion. He was not exactly afraid of death; it was just that he resented its loitering presence and would do almost anything to distract himself from it - which, on the cool breezy night that I first met him, was to have his first (and thankfully last) taste of The Side of Mutton's unique skull-splitting homebrew.

The Side of Mutton was the fifth ale-house I had visited that night, my information from the Patron being less than reliable. It was a squat, timber framed structure, a survivor from the great fire that decimated its contemporaries. The old oak beams now leaned against cold quarried stone houses on both sides, the ale-house seeming to bulge into the street, alive and raucous, its painted sign creaking and swinging.

I remember the sweet smell of roasting pork and a sharp burst of garrulous laughter as I swung open the heavy door and stamped the dust off my boots. I paused to let my eyes adjust to the soft flickering light and to the hard weathered faces glancing up at me as I entered.

This had shaken me a couple of hours ago, at the bottom of the Farley hill, when I entered the tavern whose name matched the rich, elegant script on the parchment the Patron had delivered to the safe house. I quickly realised that hard stares were nothing just a reflex action taken against an unknown. The thought settled me.

I chose a table close to the spitting, crackling fire, the pig slowly roasting, fat dripping and sizzling into the glowing embers. I peered through the smoky haze, hoping to either spot him or eliminate the place before I was forced to dip into the precious silver I had saved up from the Patron's retainer.

I was on the verge of giving up, with the swarthy bearded land-lord bearing down on me, when I finally saw him. He was more or less as the Patron had described: A tall man with a broad, strong and straight back. His hair was cut short, in the style of the Marshall's own regiment. He seemed young, for a Second-Seven. His eyes were a soft, sky blue and yet somehow it was hard to believe the description which stated that he was just shy of thirty. He had dark rough stubble over a strong jaw. He was wearing the discharge casuals he had been given over a month ago, with good, solid brown leather boots, rough-spun cotton trousers and a grey tunic.

As I watched him, he up-ended his tankard and clumsily slid up to an unfortunate woman by the bar, cutting her off from her companions. I leaned in to listen but was interrupted by the landlord's surly demand of what I wanted. Unsure yet of how I would approach him, I welcomed the idea of a drink, to give myself a moment.

As the landlord moved off, my eyes returned to Garrick, who had somehow gathered another woman around him, both of them throwing their heads back in laughter.

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