‘I met the strangest traveller once.’
The promise of a tale from the Old Timer kills our other conversations, as all eyes turn to her slight frame. Her stories are legendary, all of us know that. The booth becomes a campfire; we are children, toasting marshmallows, and she is the storyteller ready to enchant us.
She sits at the end, her back bracing us against the mess of bodies beyond as we line the cushioned seats within. She leans back heavily, her eyes staring off into the middle distance somewhere behind the Magi’s head, as she takes absent-minded sips of ale. Ten – fifteen – thirty seconds pass in anxious quiet. The other sounds, clinking glass, conversation and live music in the background: muted by our focus on her.
The Engineer curses quietly as something splinters and cracks. I glance back at her, nestled into the corner; she is engrossed in an intricate glass mechanism, fiddling with a small tool in one hand as the other protects it from the mess of the table.
‘You can’t just say that and stop.’ The Warrior’s voice makes a few of us wince after such quiet, tumbling out into the breath we all held, breaking the tension. Something else splinters.
‘Come on. There’s a story there.’
The Druid and the Acolyte both agree, nodding as they lean over the table towards her. The Engineer looks up from her project, deciding that now there’s enough to hold her attention – or maybe just saving what’s not yet splintered. I am the last to turn to the Old Timer, shifting in my seat to give her my full attention and raising my eyebrows. She’s set us up well – and now it’s time to deliver.
She doesn’t immediately respond to any of us, but eventually:
‘He brokered a deal with me. A pact of mutual benefit, to see me through my mission and I through his. Of course, such a thing isn’t much help to me, but to hear his story I agreed nonetheless.’ Another pause fills the air, hanging for just long enough that I suspect she’s drifted into a daydream. Her mission is well known to us for being impossible, but that’s all she’s ever explained. My hand is halfway from my side to nudge her back to our world when she starts up again.
‘He called himself a ‘Tome-Keeper’, although at first glance I had taken him for no more than another traveller along the road. He dressed in a robe long enough to obscure his form and a hood pulled so low that I could only make out his thin mouth and jaw. He had a walking staff in one hand and this Tome of his held in the other, tucked under his armpit and wrapped in a leather case.’ She stares still at that same middle distance, and I find myself staring at her in turn. She wears only basic clothes – shirt, trousers, boots – as do we all in the heat of the crowds that throng beyond our booth. Her charcoal hair is always kept trimmed and short to stay out of her face, which itself is sharp and defined. Her name is accurate, beyond all our years put together, but her body maintains an ethereal youth that even the most beautiful Angels can’t match. In my opinion, at least.
Armour of leather, steel and composite alloy lies strewn and piled about the place, while swords, staves and firearms are kept close to hand. It was for the chance of hearing these stories that we claimed the cubby tonight; we all sit in the places silently agreed as our own, despite the lack of space or comfort.
‘I asked him for his terms and after some badgering, he obliged. He claimed he was a scholar, hence the Tome, travelling around Earkran and collecting information. I asked from which academy he hailed, but apparently he existed as a lone wolf, separate from the Apex or the Carvers. He was interested in me, he said, and wanted to better understand my abilities.’
At this, the booth fills with laughter. Her abilities are famously inscrutable. I raise an eyebrow, looking at the Acolyte across the table. He looks back in much the same way; there’s a lot we’d like to know about her, too. I wonder how much this ‘lone wolf’ uncovered, whether he even got her real name.
‘I tell you, this man, he was – unique. He spoke with the tone of a much older figure than his voice betrayed – much like me, I imagine, wisened by years of travel and toil. It reminded me of my own people.’ She falters. We all wait patiently this time.
‘We were in the Residential District by that point, so we ambled over to the Boar’s Tusk and I bought him a drink. He drew me in with his knowledge, I must admit. We spoke at great length about the world generally, Earkran in particular and how the political climate on the continent has evolved over the centuries. He has either uncovered a trove of records I am unaware of, or he has been alive at least as long as the Age of Ash has lasted. Whether he is as old as me, well – that certainly wouldn’t surprise me.’
Now we’re shifting in our seats, glancing at one another with scrunched eyebrows and frowns. The Old Timer is ancient, not just by our standards but across all living species on the planet. For her to have met an equal, or at least someone as old as the Age of Ash, puts him at multiple centuries or more. I have questions and I open my mouth to ask them, but –
No. I want to hear more first. She watches me like I’m a precocious child, forming questions they don’t quite understand; softly smiling with a hint of pity. When it’s clear I’m not going to venture any comment, she continues.
‘As the evening wore on, I asked him about his own journey to Bastion, why he had been on the road in the first place, and he gave me some answer about ‘visiting family’ and the like. He never took his hood down, so I couldn’t read his face for clues, but my best guess would be he hasn’t had any family worth speaking of for years’ She pauses for a moment. ‘No longing, no happy or sad memories brought to mind by their mention. Just a throwaway comment, a quick answer to a question just as quickly forgotten.’
She takes another moment, draining the dregs from her mug. As she sets it down, her body seems to shift slightly, like her muscles are tensing and resetting themselves. She looks around us all slowly, the first time she’s really registered the whole group that night, as if we’re gathered around her deathbed. Then, she shrugs, suddenly enamoured by a mark on the table.
‘Anyway – the rest of the evening was much the same. When I left for my room, he bid me goodnight and went on his way.’ She looks up. ‘The end.’
She pushes her chair out from the end of the table, stands up and reaches for her armour. Hers is the composite alloy, a material that betrays her age with how old and scarce it is. There’s a few scuffs and scratches on one bracer and shoulder pad, marks that weren’t there the last time I saw her. It takes quite a knock to make any impact on that stuff.
There’s a story in those marks.
The Warrior shoots up from the corner, knocking over several clustered drinks in the process. ‘What? No! That’s all we get?’
She looks at them with the same pitying smile she wielded against me. ‘I’m afraid so. I’m getting rather – tired, now.’
No one says anything, but we know the code. The Old Timer doesn’t get tired, she gets bored. She finishes fixing the armour back onto her body and notices us all, staring at her like kicked puppies. ‘Oh, come now. You all know how to find me.’
I do know how to find her, when she wants to be found, but she’s fooling no one. Her stories are never truly over, but she finished that one like she wasn’t even trying; none of the half-hearted pretence she normally adds. I move to say something, but this time she cuts me off with a shout over her shoulder, piercing the considerable noise of the crowd to the owner herself.
‘Aeral! Six pints for the booth, on my tab!’ She looks back to the Warrior’s corner, as they set about mopping up the spilled ale. ‘That should ease the pain, I should think?’
The Warrior wears a look of defeat while the Old Timer dons her greatcoat and pulls on her signature white balaclava. As she turns to leave, the Engineer’s voice sparks up, shaking us all from our melancholy:
‘Good to see you!’ She’s returned to her project, lifting one hand to wave briskly in the Old Timer’s direction.
‘A pleasure, as always, Sketch,’ she replies, giving us one final look before turning, pushing her way through the crowds and disappearing entirely. The spell breaks and the volume of the raucous crowd washes over us.
Naturally, I grab my own coat and follow her. There’s far more to that Tome Keeper than she’s letting on.