Edward W. Robertson
He saw me as soon as I walked through the doorless entry, registering me the way a predator at a pool eyes a grazer when it has no need to feed. I recognized him at once. Eyes like caves. Spaces to disappear in. By virulent rumor, a mark of too long in the Lightless. What made it such a good rumor was that Tom Raquepaw himself may have been the only living man with the experience to confirm or deny it.
Soon, if I was convincing enough, I'd be the second.
Men sat in the dirt around overturned crates, murmuring and stinking and glugging beers whose graininess was highlit by beams of sunlight from the gappy walls. The On the Hoof was not my kind of place. Those walls looked to have been weaved right into the crooked trunks of kinkwoods. Still-green thatch proved it had in fact been partially burnt or blown away no longer than two marches previously. I prefer to do my drinking in places I can put up my feet without fearing the entire structure might walk right out from under me, which essentially rules out all taverns as a species.
But I was strolling into what might sound like the opening of a bad tale. Yet it was, in some sense, the kind of tale that can only begin in a tavern. If you'd like to be pedantic? Yes, you could say it more accurately began in the king's shitter when he informed me his daughter had been lost to the Lightless and I would lose vital parts of my own if I couldn't bring her back. But then, more accurate yet would be to say it began when Princess Dalia decided to light out for a land in which there was none rather than do her political and matrimonial duty. And what of that proposed beginning? Could it in turn be traced to the single moment some action of her father curdled the cream of daughterly loyalty into the sourness of willfulness? Let's hope not, because at this point I myself am growing confused beyond return. And so I begin in a tavern, and a poor one at that. Where else would you find a man like Tom Raquepaw?