The man overcame his strange seizure, at least long enough to furnish Falcon with directions to a local hostelry. He delivered his recommendations in hushed tones and kept slipping into his native tongue for sporadic mutterings, but eventually Falcon felt adequately informed, thanked the man and navigated his way through the busy streets to the suggested establishment.
The sign hanging above the door depicted a camel, single-humped in silhouette, with its head pierced by a sharp instrument. Falcon had gleaned from the man’s spilled explanations that the place was called The Eye Of The Camel.
The façade was on the run-down and shabby side, with wonky window frames and a doorway that leaned as though mimicking many a drunk who had passed through it. Supporting timbers inside also leaned at differing angles. There were a few customers propped against them, risking structural collapse, while others huddled over gloomy tables, settling over the furniture like dust. Never mind, thought Falcon. He wasn’t picky.
A number of drinkers sat upright as they noticed Falcon approaching the bar. The landlord, a swarthy local with a tapered beard and eyes that gleamed like glass, bowed so low over the bar he nearly dipped his chin in a puddle of ale.
“I was told you have rooms. Preferably one with a bath.”
The fellow sniffed, but whatever he thought of Falcon’s aroma he hid with a grin big as a city wall. “Rooms? Sir, for you we have the finest chamber this humblest of establishments has to offer. And a bath, of course. Hot or cold water brought to you by our swiftest runner.” He clicked his fingers and a boy jumped up from a stool at the end of the bar. “Ishmed! Light the cauldron, fetch water. As much as the gentleman desires.”
“Thank you.” Falcon nodded to the boy, but he was already scooting off to the kitchens. “Thank you,” he addressed the landlord.
“Oh no no no no. Thank yous – or thank mes – are not necessary. Thank you. That you would choose my roof to shelter you, above all others – it is my honour and my pleasure, wonderful sir.” The landlord placed a hand over his heart. Then, face lighting up like he had a head full of candles, he reached under the bar and produced an enormous ledger. Blowing dust from its sleeve, he opened it like the holiest of books and smoothed down its vellum pages. He turned it and pushed it reverently towards Falcon. “Please, would you do me the great honour of signing our guestbook?”
“Uh, certainly.” Falcon guessed there was more ritual in registering at a hotel than was customary back in his hometown. He was happy to observe local ways as long as it got him his bath and bed.
Accepting the proffered quill, he scratched out his name. “Might I inquire as to your rates?” He was conscious of his limited purse. Hopefully there would be employment to be found somewhere in the city, but in the meantime he would have to ration his expenditures.
“Rates? Why no. No no, wonderful sir.” The landlord clasped his hands and watched Falcon writing his name as though witnessing some great engraving taking place. “It is on the house!” Falcon hoped that didn’t mean he’d be sleeping on the roof. “Free. Gratis. My gift to you.”
“Right.” Falcon nodded slowly. “Um, thank you. Again. That’s – incredibly generous.”
It was tough to be courteous and gracious with suspicions so aroused. There would be a catch at some point. Had to be. For now, Falcon chose not to question it. No sense looking gift-camels in the mouth.
He slid the ledger back to the landlord and laid the quill on the bar.
The landlord twirled the book around and snatched it up to read the single latest addition to his list of guests. Figurative candles burned behind his eyes once more. Falcon had never seen anyone read so few words so avidly. Over and over, it seemed, several times before the man set the book down.
“Falcon,” he uttered. “A fine, fine name indeed.”
“Oh. Well. Thanks.”
Falcon was rather pleased with it himself.
The landlord bustled out from behind the bar and beckoned for Falcon to follow. “Please, please, let me show you to your room.”
Falcon went along, trying to disregard his suspicions. Complimentary accommodation and compliments were wrong somehow. He’d travelled all this distance to escape a past that he ought to be paying for. If life was ever disposed to give anything freely, then it shouldn’t be dishing it out to him.
He wondered what form the bill would take when it came his way.
And he shall be bathed and cleansed and yet his bodily odour shall endure in spite of all the soap and three full hours in the tub. But he shall descend, refreshed, to dine on a simple supper and enjoy a single beer before bedtime.
And as he shall drink and eat, so shall he draw much attention from among the clientele. Yet he shall brook no approaches nor seek any company. For he shall be a quiet man, who feels undeserving of attention. A man who seeks to hide in his own head. For he shall be full of sin and know nothing of the greatness to come.
And he shall utter only two words before he ascends to his room. And they shall be “Good” and “night”, spoke in that order. And he shall close his door and not be seen by a soul until morning.
And on that morning our world shall turn to hell.
Falcon jolted awake and leaped out of bed.
“What the hell was that?”
[To Be Continued…]