Mrs. Morrison was too busy to die. Oh, she would tease Death every now and again by putting an end to fights in her inn’s common room, but truth be told, dying was not high on her to-do list. It would simply have to wait.
The front door to the common room swung open as three more men sauntered in, ready to escape the pains of the day. It was still early – if two hours past sunset was considered early – so the drinks would be flowing for another couple of hours.
The soft buzz that made it through her ears told her just how lively the place was. The clamor of the common room always sounded like it was passing through thick cotton before she finally heard it; being mostly deaf certainly had its perks in this job. She would have gone insane long before now had she been forced to actually listen to the chaos that enveloped her establishment. Old age had at least given her that blessing. That, and a full head of thick brown hair; not a trace of gray to be found. People constantly asked her for her secret that kept her from going gray. She just smiled as if she knew and left them to their guesses.
Mrs. Morrison spun an already damp cloth inside the glass she was supposed to be drying. As long as it looked like the dishes were getting cleaned, her patrons wouldn’t put up a fuss; a few wet streaks would be inoffensive. Besides, it was just going to get filled up with those yellow-gray suds, anyway. Wet was wet. What did it matter?
Mrs. Morrison shook her head as she looked out over the patrons in the crowded room. People practically spilled out of all fifteen round tables that stood in the center of the room. The bar was occupied with its usual mourners and frequent strangers, and the booths around the sides of the room were likewise crammed with people. If one more person were to walk through the door, Mrs. Morrison feared the entire place might burst outward.
There was one booth, however, in which sat only one figure. Back in the corner where the flickering lamps failed to effectively illuminate sat a straight-backed man garbed in full highland attire. His pleated yellow and black patterned kilt stopped at his knees, and the same tartan patterned his belted plaid which wrapped around his body. His goat-skinned sporran rested on his lap.
A sgian dubh hung from his belt.
Mrs. Morrison’s eyes rested on the knife. In the dimness of his booth, she could barely see the black knife, but the occasional candle light reflected off its dark blade. She had been watching him since he first stepped foot inside her tavern, well before the place became crowded. He didn’t order a drink, which was unusual. Instead, he walked straight to the booth and sat down in the corner, watching the nearly empty room, eyes never straying in her direction.
Mrs. Morrison knew the man. He lived just outside of town, but mostly kept to himself. It was little wonder nobody shared a booth with Donald MacLeod. Who wanted to sit and share drinks with someone as sultry as him? Every night the highlander came in for drinks, sitting in the same booth in the same corner. He had been absent for the last couple of nights, but routine – the man’s only companion – settled back in with him quickly.
“He don’t say much.”
Mrs. Morrison jumped. She hadn’t seen anyone approach the bar; she was too focused on the man. “Keep your voice down!” she hushed, as he must be practically yelling for her to be able to hear him.
Jake Robinson laughed, leaning against the bar, his white shirt only laced halfway up the chest. He wore the same hat he always wore, tight around his head but loose on top. Most men could wear it easily, but Jake’s angular face clashed with his headgear.
“Don’t you worry, Mrs. Morrison. It’s far too loud in here for him to hear. Besides,” he motioned towards the solitary man with his head, “Folks say he don’t hear so well, neither.”
Mrs. Morrison huffed as she filled a glass with ale and slid it over to Jake. He was a young lad, just old enough to have a drink without getting a whipping from his ma. But he was still naïve. These young boys in their modern ways didn’t pay any regard to the stories their parents told them at night to keep them from sneaking off.
Mrs. Morrison, however, knew better. She pointed a wrinkled, crooked finger at Jake. “Don’t you be paying him no mind, you hear me?”
Jake smiled his boyish grin. “There’s no harm done, ma’am. He’s just passing through, just like he does every night. Nothing more.”
Mrs. Morrison leaned in close to the young man. “He’ll be passing through alright, but as he does, he’ll have a companion with him, consensual or not.”
Jake took a swig of drink and set the glass down, his smile splitting his boyish face. “You don’t think that old bloke is him, do you?” He laughed. “Those are just old stories meant to frighten young children.”
“But his knife,” whispered Mrs. Morrison. “He carries the sgian dubh.”
“Pah. Wives’ tales, that. Besides, old Mr. MacLeod has more important things to do, like work his farm.” Jake downed the rest of his ale in three large gulps. He set it down firmly on the bar. “I’ll prove it to you.” Jake pushed himself away from the bar and with the courage of drink – or perhaps the daring of youth – approached the highlander in the corner booth.
Now Mrs. Morrison cursed her deaf ears, not that she would be able to hear over the cacophony in the room anyway. The buzz of noise continued its muffled journey through her head as the patrons paid Jake no mind as he sat down with the man. Still, some folks shot him a sidelong glance as Jake took his seat across from the highlander. Folks in these parts were always wary of the silent ones. Perhaps there was reason to be wary.
I should not have let him go speak with him, she thought as she repeatedly dried the same glass over and over again. What were they talking about? Maybe she was wrong about the man. Maybe he wasn’t anybody special after all.
Conversation in the common room slowed once Jake took his seat across from Mr. MacLeod, the sound of idle chatter and raucous laughter ebbing from Mrs. Morrison’s feeble ears. Another eternal minute passed before Jake stood up and walked back towards the bar. Mrs. Morrison focused solely on Jake. As far as Mrs. Morrison was concerned, the room was silent as Death himself. Mrs. Morrison cringed. Best not think about Death when he could very well be sitting in the corner of her common room.
A man at the bar vacated his seat as Jake approached. Jake didn’t even acknowledge the man as he sat down on the newly vacated bar stool. His snowy white face didn’t assuage her fears any.
“Jake?” Mrs. Morrison looked into the lad’s eyes, but they didn’t look back. He stared ahead, fixed on some invisible point only he could see.
“More ale, please,” Jake whispered. At least, that’s what his lips looked to be saying.
Mrs. Morrison didn’t need to hear the words to know what he wanted. She refilled Jake’s glass, but he didn’t reach for it.
“I asked him where he got his knife.” Jake trembled in his seat, sweat breaking free from his forehead. He spoke loudly enough for Mrs. Morrison to be able to hear, but just barely. The boy’s eyes remained locked at a fixed point directly ahead of himself. “He said…he said he forged it himself. In Aodh’s realm. He…he told me…that I would be joining him soon, if I wished. Perhaps even tonight.”
Mrs. Morrison glanced over at the man in the corner, who was now looking in their direction. His gaze didn’t falter, his eyes never blinked. She locked eyes with the man, and in that moment her initial fear was realized. He wasn’t here for Jake at all. He came for her.
Mrs. Morrison leaned up against the table. She felt…weak. She knew this day would come, but after so long, she began to hope that it never would. She had always believed in the stories of a man with a black knife roaming the land, searching for companions to take back with him to his kingdom of the dead.
That’s why she started this inn to begin with. Ankou, king of the underworld, roamed outside, away from people. Seldom did he come indoors, and even less frequently into a public gathering, much less a common room. But there he sat, come for her at last. She would miss this life, especially the people she served here at the inn. But, her time was up.
She took a deep breath and looked up at Jake, still pale as a ghost. Poor lad.
Mrs. Morrison stood up straight and squared her shoulders. “Jacob Robinson, that was a brave thing you did, approaching Ankou. Foolish, but brave.” She smiled as Jake came out of his reverie. Mrs. Morrison laid a gentle hand on top of the boy’s still-shaking hand. “He’s not here for you, lad. He’s here for me.”
Jake blinked twice. “You? But…what ill have you done?”
Mrs. Morrison chuckled. “I have done no ill, child. At least, none that I know of. But death comes to all, and tonight it is my turn.”
Jake’s face slowly regained its color. “But he can’t! You’re not that old yet! You still have plenty of years ahead of you.”
“I have thought that myself.” Mrs. Morrison’s smile weakened, but still remained on her lips. She would be brave, if not for herself then for Jake. “I do love it here, and I will miss you. But there is nothing you can do to help me, although I do thank you for your concern.” Her eyes twinkled.
“I’ll think of something, Mrs. Morrison,” said Jake. “I won’t let him take you. Not if I can help it, I won’t!”
“Don’t do anything foolish, lad,” warned Mrs. Morrison. Jake nodded, stood up, and nearly tripped out the door.
Mrs. Morrison looked back at Ankou. The man – well, Death, rather – was still watching her. Mrs. Morrison nodded slowly at the living phantom. She cleaned another glass, filled it with ale, and brought it to the king of death himself.
She placed the drink on Ankou’s table. “I knew who you were from the moment you came in,” she said softly. Conversations lulled, but still continued in hushed voices. Approaching Donald MacLeod on one’s own was enough to make anyone curious. Having two people do it in one night would most certainly be counted as out of the ordinary. “Donald MacLeod has been dead two days already.”
“And yet you did not try to flee.” Ankou’s voice was deep and full. He wasn’t raising his voice, but she still heard him as clear as she could when her ears still worked properly. It sounded as if he spoke directly to her very soul.
“Can one flee Death?” she asked.
“You are wise. Most of those I visit attempt to trick me into letting them live. I am no fool, and I cannot be tricked.”
Mrs. Morrison nodded. “I won’t try and trick you into leaving me be,” she said. “But I do ask that you at least wait until my patrons finish here. No sense spoiling their night with the death of an old lady, hm?”
Ankou raised the glass to his lips and took a sip. “It is fair.”
Mrs. Morrison left Ankou with his drink and returned to her position behind the bar. Time crept by for Mrs. Morrison, but, slowly, her customers began to file out, leaving her alone with the one that would take her away from the land of the living. As the door closed behind the last patron, Ankou stood up and walked across the room. Mrs. Morrison stiffened. Empty glass in hand, Death was coming for her.
This was the end.
She took one last look around the common room; the wooden tables remained cluttered with half-empty glasses and chairs askew, and dirt blanketed the floor. With so many people in the common room this night, news would spread quickly of her death. At least nobody would have any reason to wonder as to what happened to her. Soon the entire town would know of Donald MacLeod’s own demise, and that it was his body that housed Ankou, sitting in the corner of the common room two nights after his death.
Ankou set the glass down on the bar and continued out the door, kilt swaying as he walked. Mrs. Morrison stared after him. Minutes passed, her heart thumping so strong she could practically hear it reverberating with her own ears. After waiting nearly half an hour, Mrs. Morrison decided she couldn’t wait any longer. She had to be about her work. She needed to be moving.
She cleared the tables and washed the dishes, putting them back where they belonged behind the bar. Ankou still hadn’t come back by the time she finished sweeping the floor, so she opened the door and swept out the dust and dirt. Outside, a handcart sat in front of the inn, one wheel broken. The rim looked as if someone had taken a blacksmith’s hammer to it. It wouldn’t be going anywhere tonight. A scythe lay across the cart, the steel blade shimmering from the bright stars above. “Some poor farmer’s out of luck tonight,” she mumbled to herself as she closed the door behind her.
With Ankou still nowhere to be found, Mrs. Morrison retired to her bed. The next morning she awoke with the sun’s rays bathing her face in a warm, golden light. She sat up on the edge of her bed, sliding her feet into her slippers. Was she still alive? She felt at her face. Yes, she was alive and well.
Why had Ankou not come back for her? She shook her head, trying to clear her mind. Perhaps it was just a dream. She was an old woman, after all. Mind tricks were a sign of aging. Perhaps that was all there was to it.
She trudged over to the washbasin and splashed her face with cold water, shivering as it showered her face. She felt around for the towel and then dried herself off. She looked up into the mirror above the washbasin and paused; a streak of gray adorned her formerly brunette bangs. She ran her fingers through her hair, half expecting it to be some sort of trick of light or some other natural cause. Bringing a lock of hair in front of her eyes, she saw it was most certainly not a ruse. Her hair had finally started losing its color.
“I suppose I couldn’t run from gray hairs forever,” she mused.
Once washed and dressed, Mrs. Morrison went to the common room, hoping – and also fearing – to find an answer. Everything was as she left it: spotless and immaculate. Not so much of a hint that Death had ever been her guest the night before.
She opened the door to let in the cool, morning air. A man knelt by the broken cart she had seen the night before, fixing the wheel. The top of his hat rippled in the light morning breeze, but stayed snug around his head.
“You should have stayed the night here,” called Mrs. Morrison to the farmer. “There were extra rooms.”
“I had other business to attend to,” said the man, still leaning over his cart.
Mrs. Morrison cocked her head. The voice was familiar. Was this a man she knew and not just some farmer merely passing through? The man stood up.
“Jacob Robinson!” exclaimed Mrs. Morrison. “What are you doing with that cart?”
Jake met her gaze but said nothing. Mrs. Morrison’s breath caught in her chest. Jake ambled to the front of the cart, grabbed the handle, and pulled it away from the inn, both wheels stirring up a skiff of dust. Mrs. Morrison watched as Jake moved methodically away. She let out the breath she forgot she was holding.
Poor, poor lad.
A dim flicker of light glittered from Jake’s side, reflecting off a black knife hanging from his belt.