The Squeaky Wheel

For my first Achaeanniversary, I stayed up way too late and wrote my Bardic. It was disqualified for not being on theme enough. I had a vague feeling it might be, but I've always liked writing the less obvious thing that comes to mind, and there are a few notions of "contenders" woven throughout. See if you can find them!

While I'm sad I didn't get to compete, I had fun writing it.

I blame @Reyson for dragging me back into my love of Westerns.

Reaching down with a massive hand, Sartan lifts your head and draws a taloned finger across your throat, the wound closing as He does so.


  • The sun is low on the horizon when the saloon gets its last visitors of the day. It sets on a watercolour sky, touched by the orange-pink fingers of dusk, brushstrokes on canvas. Out front stands a hitching post of sturdy, solid wood.

    The rider considers it for a moment. It won't hold, but he has a word for that. He has a word for most things. Walking his horse to the post, he slides one foot from the stirrups and dismounts with his usual grace. His boots jingle as they hit the ground, spurs spinning. His horse is unimpressed. A big black beast, it paws at the ground and snorts a journey's worth of dust from its nose. Its eyes blaze with fury at being left out by the water trough. The saddle on its back is humped over something, some strange, crawling movement beneath the waxed leather and hide. "Whoa," says the rider. The pawing stops, and he smiles.

    A mare pulls up next to the stallion, smaller and stockier. The woman astride the painted mazaran swings herself off, soundless. As the rider tethers his horse to the post, he shakes his head at her.

    "I don't see why you couldn't have ridden with me."

    "Poor Ataraxes," she says.

    "Poor Ataraxes?"

    He frowns at Ataraxes, sceptical. The stallion picks up his huge head and tosses it around, apparently in agreement, until the woman comes to lay her hand on his muzzle. Her breath barely escapes her in a hushing sound. Without another word, Ataraxes calms, lulled into a state of staring ahead at nothing.

    "You'll teach me that trick."

    "Maybe," says the woman. Her smile is evasive. The sun setting behind her turns her ash-blonde hair a blinding white, and the rider shades his eyes to look at her. His own smile tugs at his lips, summoned there by the vision she's become. He drops his hand from his brow, then hop-skips ahead of her to get the door.

    The outside of the building is painted an off-white, standing out against the duller houses and establishments. In the waning daylight, a brass lantern hangs from a hook by the roof. Before they go in, the rider sweeps his broad-brimmed hat off his head and smooths a hand through his dark hair. He points with the hat at the signpost above them, swinging in the wind. A wagon wheel is drawn beside the curling yellow cursive. "It's a good name."

    The woman laughs, nods, and steps inside.

    The door jingles too. A small golden doorbell swings from its top hinge. Glancing up, her smile solidifies as she strides through the open door. "I like the interior." Inside, the walls are lacquered in warmer, darker wood. She cuts a line straight through the saloon, her head held high and her skirts trailing across the floor behind her. The dress she wears is a fashionable shade of blue for this time and place, if a little too eye-catching. It fits her well, apart from being torn in exactly one place along the hip. The fabric parts over an inch of her bare skin, but she doesn't seem to notice, making a beeline for an old-fashioned piano against the wall.

    Some of the patrons look up from their drinks to watch her go by, drawn by the click of her boot heels on the floorboards. The rest are too deep in their cups to notice.

    At the bar, the rider pulls up a chair and slings himself into it. He starts to shrug out of his long leather coat, then doesn't. His palm slaps down on the countertop, and he lifts it with a flourish over a coin purse, like he's just performed a magic trick. Maybe he has, because it gets the attention of the man behind the bar, who stops polishing a set of progressively cloudier mugs.

    "Afternoon, sir! Dusty traveller like you, what can I get you? You must be parched. You've got a mean thirst in your eyes." The barkeep is a heavyset man, almost mythical in how well he suits his bar. His black hair and beard are combed into something approaching respectability, and a pressed white apron stretches over his profound gut. "We've got all the usuals, and some of the exotics, and you can't leave without trying the whiskey. Burns like nothing else! I don't have to tell you that, or do I? I can't recall seeing you or your lady around. You've come a ways, haven't you? I can tell." A collection of colourful bottles lines the back of the bar, selling itself better than any patter he has. One of the blue bottles sports a label with sileris berries, one of the aforementioned exotics.

    "It's a good name," says the rider.

    "Oh, that? You like it? My brother's idea, Gods rest him! It used to be he worked out the back of here. We were more of an inn a decade ago, though we still have rooms upstairs, if you need them. He was a wagoner, you know, best in town. Fixed those wheels right up, made sure they got the..."


    The barkeep forces a smile, stopped short. "Right, the grease."

    "We've travelled far. Hit a few places before yours," agrees the rider. "Let's see... Hugh." He leans back from having read the man's name tag. His hand passes over his jaw, scraping his palm over day-old stubble as he grinds his teeth in thought. Thin white scars crisscross the knuckles. "We'll need those drinks, and a song. Any of you sing?" He turns at the waist, hooking his thumbs through his belt. Like the liquor behind the bar, there's no real commonality among the patrons. They're colourful, varied, some of them weaving in and out of drunken conversations. Some slump over their tables, snoring. His question gets a handful of long, silent stares, so he turns away and shakes his head, grinning. He opens his coin purse, feels around in it for a coin.

    It hardly flashes between his fingers before a girl stands up out of the crowd, almost knocking her chair over in her haste. An older man, likely her father, reaches to pull her down by her fraying dress, but she knocks his hand away and stands taller. She's prettyish, a redhead, cresting the hill between adolescence and womanhood. Her dun-feathered wings furl tightly against her back. "I can sing, sir."

    The rider gives her that wolfish grin. "Well, ain't that just our good fortune?" His hazel eyes trawl over her from head to toe, until she blushes and looks away. He's handsome enough. "Not 'sir'. I'm not a knight, Miss...?"


    "Miss Avery. You go on over there and sit with the blonde. Yes, the little lady."

    The little lady in question aligns her fingers with the keys of the piano. She strokes the ivories without making a sound. She waits for the girl to join her, sliding over on the bench to make room for her and her wingspan. "You don't need to know the words. I don't know them either. Just sing with me as they come out, and we'll see how it sounds." She smiles at Avery once, and Avery brightens and smiles back unbidden.

    Then the woman begins to play and sing.

    "The yellow of the sun is just a serpent's opening eye.
    The sky is paper tearing at just one of my sweet sighs.
    Brother Rattlesnake comes calling,
    and I ain't the least surprised.
    He comes now to take your life."

    Resonant, the last keys of the piano punctuate the song's halting twang. When her voice lifts in song, a stillness falls over the saloon. Not the still of before, half-drunk and suspicious of strangers, but a heavy kind of awe that waits on every word. Hers is a clarion call, a golden bell unlike the doorbell. Avery upsets herself trying to keep up. She has a sweet voice, but when she tries to match the woman in the blue dress, it catches in her throat.

    "No, once more. Pitchy. Wrong. Still wrong." The woman stops to scold her, upsetting her further. Tears spring to the girl's eyes, as everyone else looks on transfixed.

    Hugh blinks. It takes a couple snaps of the rider's fingers to get him serving again. Shaking himself out of his reverie, he tips a number of different liquors into a tidy row of shot glasses, pouring from a height meant to impress his new customer. "You're sure you can..."

    "Serve 'em up! Unless you've got rattlesnake venom under that bar of yours, none of this is putting me under." True to his word, the rider puts them back one by one, throwing his head back with each noxious swallow. He smacks his lips on the last, savouring the burn with a flare of his nostrils and a swipe of his tongue. His eyes shut to listen to the song.

    "He says guilt'll teach you lessons, and the rains come when they cry.
    The highway's easy living if you don't mind when you die.
    I keep saying, 'Sing it sweetly,
    and I'll spare you on a dime.'
    But all they could sing was strife."

    A soft scream goes up by the window. "Fire!" Touching a webbed fingertip to the glass, a tiny grook in a patterned dress points off into the distance. "There's smoke." The pad of her finger leaves a sticky smudge on the window as it comes away. "The tailor's on fire! Please, someone go check on Bertrand."

    The saloon teems with a sudden uproar of shouts, whimpers, and staggering to the windowsill. Black smoke builds on the horizon, limned by the light of the blaze consuming the tailor's shop. Three of the men at the bar immediately spring to their feet, abandoning the mugs they were nursing. They get a few steps to the door before, with the telltale whistle of metal slicing through the air, one of them falls to the floor. Or the top of his torso falls. Bisected, the rest of his body slumps at the feet of his friends, whose faces gleam with a thin spray of blood. Struck by the sudden horror of their reality, they stare at the rider. Also on his feet now, the arc of his sword completes and he shakes off the gore. "You're leaving, and she's still singin'? I thought countryfolk were good and neighbourly." He grins and slides the longsword smoothly into the scabbard at his hip, waggling his fingers all friendly-like. The wyvern for a crossguard clicks snugly into its brass fitting. With the leather of his coat hitched back over his belt, the second scabbard is starkly visible. "Come on, boys. Both of you together."

    Both of them together snarl and go for their weapons. The rider draws first. He repaints the interior of the saloon in a thick new coat of red, sloshing it over the bar and into their open glasses. Blood soaks the dresses of the unfortunate women close enough. The screaming rises to a fever pitch, but the stranger just tips his hat. "Ladies."

    With the patronage huddling in the corners of the room, he glances at the piano. His woman, his canary-voiced blonde, is patting Avery's head with a mild look of disappointment. Avery has stopped singing. The whites of her eyes gaze sightlessly at the piano keys, her throat slit. It drips quietly into her neckline, the saloon so silent that the blood can be heard sliding off the wooden surfaces and the corpses.

    "This isn't the right one," says the woman.

    The rider doesn't argue. Not the right place, not the right time, not the right song. He comes to take her by the hand, drawing her away from the piano. "I thought not. The booze is swill anyway."

    As the woman stands, the weight of Avery's body against her slips and goes tumbling to the floor. She reaches down, picks up her skirts over her doeskin boots, and steps gingerly over the dead girl on her way to the door. This time she gets to it first, pushing it open with aplomb and beaming at the sight that greets her.

    Whole beams of wood snap, split, and cave in merrily at the tailor's shop, the fire gutting it from the inside out. The sky is indigo, and the lantern on its hook glows like a beacon. Inside, a dozen terrified faces press up against the glass, waiting and watching the pair of dark figures on the other side.

    The two say something to each other and smile. The rider squeezes the woman's hand in his, beginning to lead her away again. Someone sighs in relief.

    At the edge of the wooden porch, she pauses. He stops walking. Their eyes travel to the lantern. His calloused hand goes to his sword's hilt, but her knife is already out of hers, whipped like a throwing dart. It snicks cleanly through the rope holding up the lamp, and the glass and flame fall as one to the floorboards, spilling the flammable oil under the door a second before the fire catches. The pale faces in the window twist with realisation and panic. Several of them disappear at once. A man resurfaces, holding a barstool and ready to hurl it through the glass.

    Standing at the doorway, the rider gives a slow shake of his head. The man at the window backs away.

    Incandescent flames lick up the wood, peeling away the off-white paint to the skeleton beneath. They eat into the building, hungrier than any animal, until they snatch at hair and cloth and flesh, and the screams for help become urgent, inhuman wails, like the calls of the coyotes out in the hills.

    Eventually the howling stops. Helping the woman up onto her horse, the rider takes one last look over his shoulder. The yellow lettering on the sign is the last thing to burn: The Squeaky Wheel is soon The Sq   ky Wheel, and then just The         Wheel. It's a modest inferno, but it rises high against the backdrop of the dusky sky. He shares another commiserating smile with the woman, then puts his foot in the stirrup and sits himself in the saddle.

    As they ride off into the sunset, the sounds of the small town fade behind them. The crackling flames and the alarm are lost in the wind. Their easy conversation starts up again.

    "I'm burning your pony," he says.

    "Don't you dare."

    "Maybe there is no perfect place, but the one we carve for ourselves in the world."

    "Not even a perfect place to drink?" she asks, frowning.

    "Not even that."

    "Then the world will have to contend with us."

    "It will, Stheno. It will."

    Reaching down with a massive hand, Sartan lifts your head and draws a taloned finger across your throat, the wound closing as He does so.

  • I regret nothing! <3
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