The Traveller by Ness Ayton
This story first appeared in "The Alternative Robin of Sherwood Zine" many moons ago and was inspired by Chris de Burgh's song "The Traveller" which appears on his album "Eastern Wind". Thanks, Chris.
The tavern stood at a crossroads some forty miles to the south of Nottingham; a quiet, picturesque hostelry on the busy London road. For several years now it had been run by an ex-soldier, his wife and their two daughters.
The soldier has worked for the Sheriff of Nottingham until news had come that his brother had died and left him the tavern. Grateful for the excuse to leave the Sheriff's blood-ridden service, he had packed his few belongings and brought his family away from the bustling town.
His wife was a comfortably plump woman who made everyone welcome; and his daughters, plain but pleasant. He left most of the running of the tavern to the three women; staying mainly in the background with his quiet strength. They talked little of his days with the Sheriff, preferring to speak only of their new and happier life.
The customers were the usual mix as was seen in other taverns – soldiers on leave who gave them news of the outside world, peasants, the occasional outlaw or nobleman and members of the clergy. As a tavern owner he accepted all sorts for he had a living to make and cared not from whence the gold came with which he was paid.
It had been a beautiful autumn day and now the sun was setting. A glorious red sky heralded another good day on the morrow, but the ex-soldier was ill at ease and found himself thinking back on another red ski in a very different setting, many years before. A cold wind blew round him though no leaf moved on the trees. He turned and entered the tavern wishing to shut out the sight and put the memories that were oppressing him to rest.
As his eyes grew accustomed to the gloom of the room they were drawn to a stranger sitting in the darkest corner. He was hunched over a tankard on the table; a hood hiding his features from prying eyes. A shudder of familiarity ran through the tavern owner and he turned away hastily at his wife's call.
The evening was busy as usual, but not so busy that his attention was prevented from wandering back to the stranger. The hooded customer reminded him vividly of that other bright red sky – so long ago it had seemed to him, but now it was like yesterday – and his heart was filled with foreboding.
The drinkers gradually thinned out until only the shadowy figure in the corner remained. The ex-soldier walked over to him, reluctance in every step, to ask him to leave. Green eyes were raised to his as the hood fell back and the stranger looked up at him. With a startled cry the tavern owner stepped back, recognition dawning in his eyes.
Wordlessly the stranger rose to his feet and beckoned to the frightened man. He knew he had no choice, that he had to go; the green eyes commanded his complete obedience. Stopping only to say a few words to his family, he followed the stranger from the tavern and down the dusty road. And they were never seen again.