The final day of this April’s Challenge is here, and I’ve got some catching up to do! Unfortunately, I have stumbled at the last hurdle this week and I will need to post three stories in order to complete the Challenge properly. But fear not, for I intend to pick myself up and sprint to make the finish!
I’m starting by uploading Thursday’s story, which was prompted by one of my email followers. The lovely Viki Allerston suggested “X” for “XENOPHOBIA”, and I think it’s a great word in such a restricted letter group! Unfortunately, this word is very relevant to the world today and so I wanted to treat with a degree of care. I have plans to explore this subject another day with a less restrictive word count, but I have come up with a short story which addresses it in the meantime. Thanks for the prompt, Viki!
Here’s what I was able to come up with. I hope you enjoy it.
By Adam Dixon
The good-natured chatter within the tavern hushed as the dark-skinned man wearing a turban walked in. He stopped as dozens of pairs of eyes turned towards him, most with open hostility. He gulped, took a deep breath and strode up towards the tavern keeper. The man ordered a drink in his rough accent and the other patrons reluctantly turned back to their own, grumbling to their companions about the “damn foreigners”. Two men seated close to the door glanced at one another and shook their heads.
“That was a close one, Rek” the first man said, stroking his waxed moustache. “It’s a good thing he isn’t armed or one of those fools at the back might’ve jumped him!”
“He is armed, Jarol,” the second man replied, gesturing towards the stranger with his mug of ale. He was taller than his friend, with a shiny bald head and a bushy beard. “He has a dagger hidden in one of his boots and another one up his sleeve. These are dangerous times, my friend.”
“By the Gods! I know I’ve been away for a while, but things are worse here than I could have imagined!” Jarol exclaimed. “It’s a sorry state of affairs when a man must come secretly armed in order to have a drink! And all because he is from the Eastern realms!”
“It is,” Rek agreed, patting the scabbard of his short-sword. “But there’s more to it than simple dislike. The Easterners have been causing tensions in these parts for decades but the High Lords won’t acknowledge it. The Northmen don’t appreciate the way that Easterners have been muscling in on trade and housing since they settled, but the Easterners do nothing to aid their cause. They strut around villages in large gangs, intimidating all but the bravest or the most foolish of the natives. It’s rather unusual to see an Eastern man come into a tavern alone, actually. Naturally, many Northmen have become embittered and are crying out to ‘reclaim their land’ from these ‘invaders’.”
“Reclaim?” Jarol grimaced in disgust. “Invaders? What do these Northmen think their ancestors were doing in the Eastern realms a century ago, taking in the scenery? That is ridiculous!”
“It is, but keep your voice lowered, my friend,” Rek said quietly, turning to glare at the men in the tavern who had begun to pay attention to them. The men lowered their heads before his stony gaze. “These Northmen are fiercely proud, and arrogant. Do not make the mistake of questioning their ire in public.”
“You’re right, I’m sorry,” Jarol said, nervously glancing around the room. The other men had returned to their conversations, but they seemed to be keeping their ears open.
“It’s happening in my homeland, too,” he said, looking at his ale sadly. “The Southern Province used to be so accepting, so united once the Divide broke down. Alas, twenty years later and the liberators have become our new jailors! My own family had its farmland seized by the new lords and we were all but forced to move north. We don’t have as many issues here, but we are still seen as second-class citizens, even if it’s done politely.”
“It’s such a tragedy that your land couldn’t remain united, it was such a wonderful time to be alive when the Divide ended.” Rek’s mood was sombre.
“It truly was, wasn’t it?” Jarol smiled and his eyes clouded as he became lost in his memories. “We were all cheering, Southerners of all colours and creeds clasping hands and dancing together, sharing music and food. Brothers and sisters at long last! But now…the Divide is back, simply in disguise, coaxed back by ancient prejudice and grudges.” He sighed dejectedly and took a long swallow from his mug. His friend simply nodded, frowning.
“The trouble is,” Rek began, gesturing around the tavern. “Ordinary folk don’t understand what’s happening to their lands, but they are always eager to pin the blame on somebody else. Here, it is the Easterners, and in the Southern Province it’s your kind. We seem to have lost the ability to live amongst each other peacefully.” He stopped as some of the men began loudly talking about the turbaned stranger in aggressive voices. The man sat at the bar, keeping his head low and trying to ignore their comments. The big man stood up.
“Come on, friend,” he said. “Let’s go and sit with that fellow and give him some company. Perhaps he’ll appreciate another drink and a way to shut those braggarts up.” The Jarol nodded, also rising.
“Yes, that’s a fine idea,” he responded with a smile. “The world may have forgotten how to be friendly, but you and I certainly haven’t! Let’s help the poor fellow out.” So the two men strode over to the frightened Eastern man and made his acquaintance. The man was initially suspicious and then greatly relieved at their presence, gesturing happily at the stools next to him. The men sat, and the other patrons looked on in dumb silence.