Reason more effectively opposes evil when anger ministers at her side.
--Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job
he bartender watched the three men with concern out of the corner of his eye. They had been in the bar for over two hours, and were quite drunk. Their bats, tied up outside, occasionally made grunts and low snarling sounds.
He was a heavy set man in his late fifties. His waist, covered by a graying apron, protruded over his beltline, the product of years of excessive consumption and little exercise. His salt and pepper hair was shaved from the back and sides of his head. His neck was hidden under the wattles of fat which hung below his chin. His eyes were deeply set in his fleshy face.
He had been the proprietor of the frontier bar for almost ten years. Many strange people had walked through the door, and from time to time, dangerous, violent men had frequented his establishment. But these three were particularly disturbing. They were big-boned, muscular and tall, and wore high leather boots, gauntlets, and leather armor. One of them, whom he took to be of higher rank, had a steel cuirass and a single metal couter. All of them had green-tinted skin and filmy, yellowish cataracts in their eyes. They seemed sociopathic; he felt they would just as soon kill him as give him the time of day.
From the snippets of conversation, they were cavalrymen from a roving band of nomads who had come up somewhere from the south. It sounded as though the rest of the group were occupying a dilapidated transfer station near a ridge of mountains to the west. From some of the locals he had heard talk of strange things going on in the mountains, stories of a greenish light which had appeared a few nights ago.
Curiously, the troopers had seemingly limitless amounts of money. After coming in they had not wasted time in taking some prostitutes into the back rooms. But when they were finished, the women, for reasons unknown, had not returned to the bar.
The afternoon crowd gradually increased as people trickled in from work. A group of regulars sat playing cards a few feet from the stage where the band was playing. An usurer, universally despised by everyone in the village, sat on a stool at the bar nursing a drink, and a grizzled herdsman lounged in the far corner beneath a boar's head mounted on the wall.
The barroom sported garish decor, with green walls and red and orange fixtures. Over the bar itself, tasteless and gauche, was the sculpted body of a woman, feet merging into the frame surrounding the mirror on the wall, arms becoming posts which ran down to the countertop.
As the band grew louder, one of the three troopers grabbed a patron sitting on a stool to his left and threw him out the swinging doors and onto the stoop. He swaggered out after the smaller man, delivered a kick to his ribs, then straddled him and began pummeling his face. The bartender kept drying his glasses, wisely deciding not to interfere.
Abruptly, the beating ceased. The patron's head thunked onto the steps as the distracted trooper relinquished his grasp. He appeared to be leering at someone.
The batwing doors were suddenly thrust open, and a woman stepped into the room. The bartender did not change his studied aplomb, but he watched her with interest. Others, who had had more to drink, unabashedly turned their heads to stare.
She was strikingly beautiful, with a well-proportioned body barely concealed beneath an outlandish red and black outfit. The trooper loomed in the doorway behind her, grinning and staring. There were a few catcalls and whistles, to which she paid no attention.
As she approached, the other two troopers jumped the usurer sitting between them. The three of them fell to the floor behind the far side of the bar, grunting and struggling.
The woman turned and stood directly before the bartender. For the first time, he realized how tall she was and caught her grim expression, which was marked by a downturned mouth and furrowed brow. Her direct, unfriendly gaze contrasted oddly with her revealing costume, creating in him an unsettling mixture of apprehension and lust. He wanted to let his eyes drift down to her chest, and even further, but he checked himself. She said nothing but only signaled with three fingers, and he promptly set out a mug and flask.
Taarna sat down at a table and poured herself a drink. It had been easy to determine who the bat riders were; the ornamentation on their saddlebags had matched the medallion. She studied them carefully, looking for weapons and guaging their strength and armor. They all appeared drunk, and she could not see that they bore arms.
Having finished with the usurer, the leader of the group nudged his companion and grinned. "Hey . . . a new one," he said in a gravelly voice, looking at Taarna. The three of them drifted over to congregate around her table.
"Where you from, baby?" he asked. She said nothing in reply, merely raising her glass to drain it. But her left hand slipped beneath the table to unfasten the strap which secured her sword in its scabbard.
"Doesn't talk much, does she?" remarked one of the three.
"She doesn't have to talk for what I want to do with her," responded the leader. "Com'on, baby, let's see what's under there."
As he reached over to pull down the fabric covering her breast, Taarna swung her heavy glass around and struck the leader squarely in the nose. He uttered a surprised grunt and fell backwards. The music came to a discordant halt and the musicians and patrons, now quite nervous, turned to watch.
The leader sat up, touching the blood running from his shattered nose with surprise. "Hey . . . she's tough," he said thickly as he regained his feet.
"Maybe she wants to fight!" said the tallest one, cracking his knuckles in anticipation.
At this, Taarna was on her feet, arms out, hands flexed. A cold, familiar mantle of objectivity settled over her; in an instant she became sharply focused, poised to confront and destroy. The trooper who had followed her in replied in a low, dangerous voice, "Maybe she wants to take us all on." And with that, he grabbed the edge of the table and threw it aside with a crash.
The bartender stood frozen behind the bar, shot glass and towel forgotten in his hands. He watched with alarm as the leader and the tall trooper advanced, towering over the woman and blocking his view. When they were very close, he heard the sound of metal drawing on metal and saw a silver blur.
Suddenly, shockingly, the mens' heads were no longer attached to their bodies. The action had been perfectly executed: in one motion the woman had withdrawn the blade from its scabbard and swung at the precise height required to shear through the necks of both men. Their heads spun and fell to the floor to the horrified gasps of the onlookers. From the stumps ghastly fountains of arterial blood spouted into the air. Shoulders and chests soaked in red, the twitching, decapitated bodies rapidly slumped to the floor in an expanding puddle of blood.
The last trooper was immobilized with shock. He stood, idiotically staring at the woman with his mouth open. Drunkenly he raised his hand in a defensive gesture. As the bartender watched, he at last saw the blade; in an arc it snapped almost instantaneously from behind the woman's head around to the front. Four fingers departed the trooper's left hand and his decapitated head struck the floor with a sickening thud, rolled, and came to rest beneath a barstool, eyes staring vacantly at the ceiling.
There was complete silence in the room. In the sudden, frozen stillness, all eyes were upon her.
Taarna wiped her sword clean on the back of the last trooper, then returned it to her scabbard. She was not excited or breathing hard. Without a backward glance, she stepped over the bodies and approached the bartender. As she drew near and fixed her gaze on the barkeep, he found himself involuntarily backing up.
With a quick gesture she silently threw the medallion down onto the counter, and at the same time grabbed him roughly by the shoulder, pulling his face down forcefully until it almost touched the table. Shaken and pale, he leaned back to find himself face to face with an angry Taarakian warrior. At last things had clicked in his mind; he understood who she was, and what she wanted. He was amazed, since he had thought the Taarakians had died out long ago.
He did not hesitate to tell her what he knew. "You'll find them over there, beyond the oasis," he croaked. "Towards the green glow."
Silently, she took the medallion and walked rapidly out the double doors, which squeaked shut behind her. The bartender turned and watched out the side window as she quickly tied the sheathed sword to her saddle, mounted her bird, and took off. From the Taarakian's abrupt and violent visit, he had a feeling in his gut that something out there had gone terribly, terribly wrong.