Meeting

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Bar your doors and lock your windows when the black wind blows from the north, for he who opens his heart to that wind will surely be taken by the plague.
-Words of a wise man

It was as foul a night as any man living had seen, and Tranton, for its size, was clinging yet to handful of men whose lives had not been strangled short by the plague.

The sky was as dark as the mind of a lunatic, and lightning danced from cloud to cloud. Rain sleeted, bloating the earth and turning the town's beaten roads into quagmires of slime.

The wayhouse had no name - it was known by the townsfolk as Jorge's place and by travellers by no name at all, for it had been many months since a single soul had passed through Tranton's decrepit gate. It clung to the side of a hill like a frightened animal. Each howling gust of wind caused the whole building to shiver, and its wooden supports to groan as if in pain. Presently a shutter burst open and slammed loudly against the outer wall, until a grasping arm reached out, drew it around, and pulled it fast.

The owner of the arm reclaimed his seat, flicking droplets of rain from his fingers. Each was wrapped tightly in black cloth, as was the arm beyond them. From the elbow up this arm disappeared into a flowing coat buttoned tight against the cold. Around the coat was draped a tattered and threadbare cloth mantle. Light and gauzy, it fluttered in the air disturbed by the storm.

The man's face was hidden behind a mask with a wickedly curved beak. Above the mask was a wide-brimmed hat that in looks sat somewhere between foreboding and ridiculous.

The regulars at Jorge's place certainly did not take kindly to the stranger, or to his even stranger companion. The place was packed full, and would remain so for the night - any man who had taken refuge under this creaking roof would not step outside again until sunrise. They knew, as surely as mice knew the shadow of an eagle passing overhead, that tonight was a night that did not belong to them. Those who had an appetite sat hunched over their food and drink, and those that did not sat as closely to their fellows as possible, huddling together for warmth. They cringed when the foul wind blew the house's shutters open, and cast mean, furtive glances at the man who had barred them once more.

Now the man was looking across the table at his companion. He was dressed much the same way as the hatted man, though he wore a deep-set hood instead of a hat, and his mantle was large enough that it would brush the grimy floor if he were to stand. He sat with it wrapped around and around himself, looking like a bedraggled raven.

The hatted man had ordered a cup of ale, from which he now drank. His companion had no taste for it, and had in front of him only a bowl of cold cooked eggs. He picked at them incessantly, shelling them with small, sharp movements of his fingers, then thrusting gobbets of white and yellow flesh into his mouth as if expecting them to be stolen even as he touched them.

The men of Jorge's place watched all this with knitted brows and darkness in their eyes. None of them would approach the two men - all they wanted from this night was to live and see their wives and children in the morning sun - but if the horrible cloaked one were to choke on one of his thrice-damned eggs, not one of them would lift a finger to help.

The hatted one, sensing their hatred as easily as one could sense a cold draft in a warm room, leaned back in his seat and addressed his companion.

"They don't much care for us," he said.

His companion hissed, an animal sound that made a few nearby men grind their teeth together.

"And I don't care for them." He spat a piece of unshelled egg into his hand and dropped it into the bowl. "Foolish, ungrateful creatures, to the last."

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