The cabin looked shabby and unkempt, but it was the only abode he had that night. It seemed fate had played an uncanny trick on him, and looking back at the incidents that occurred, there was no denying that it was indeed quite bizarre. His horse-driven carriage met with an accident, breaking a wheel and the poor animal’s shoe. He was forced to tread on foot till the nearest village in this heavy downpour as no help arrived for hours. Finally, he reached Middleton, a tiny farming village known principally for its sweet vineyards, and to his great dismay Lord Furlong found the streets empty. Not a soul stirred. He roamed his eyes all around and even in the flash of lightning, he could see no movement, save for the wind-blown leaves and quivering sign boards. Where was everyone? Was it a ghost town, abandoned by its residents due to reasons that couldn’t be spoken in words in the far off country-side? For those days, a terrible nemesis walked the lands in the shape of a man.
No one quite knew his precise appearance, but stories were passed on that a few who claimed to have witnessed the horror and lived to speak of it, assured that he appeared very pleasant and charming on initial notice. He was polite, assertive and very optimistic in his outlook. In addition, he was a patient listener and gave positive reviews on any query that crept up. Quite the politician, the Lord smirked as he trudged up the road. He could have given some of his peers a run for their money during the elections with an attitude and personality like that. But it wasn’t his resume` that worried this wily, old diplomat. It was the rumours. The country-side was always a place where bon-fire tales and old grandma stories always raised a spook in little children. Well, who wasn’t afraid of the big bad wolf? Lord Furlong in his time as Chief Tax Administrator had paid court to various defaulters and their absurd folk-tales. Many stated foxes and racoons as prime suspects for their poor harvests and more commonly the farmers particularly blamed the seeds. The seed story always fascinated the Lord and the reason for this amusement was a devious one. Seeds in the land those days were reasonably cheap and rich in quality. But the Lord had bribed the suppliers and stocked the prime seeds away. The farmers were indeed being supplied low yield seeds for higher prices, which provided a fair share of profit for the suppliers and in turn for the Lord. Hundreds of farmers had fallen prey to this evil scheme and when the state demanded tax, they had no or extremely poor income to pay for it. The Lord would then trick then into taking loans and hence, push them deeper into the dungeons of debt. The same story recurred year after year until the debt-ridden farmers had to sell off their land to the Lord or render even higher tax rates, while the defaulters who were unable to do either had to face execution. This way Lord Furlong and his aides filled up their coffers while the common man rotted in the gutters. The word of this evil never reached the soft ears of the Higher Council for the roads where well guarded and more importantly heavily bribed too. Even if a clever soul did manage to reach the court, he was never paid audience to. Lord Furlong had his sources well pinned at crucial spaces.
But one story stood out from amongst all. At first, it didn’t appear queer, but the target crowd for the story was always the well-fed farmers who were amply rich and were successful in paying their taxes, many of whom were registered in the Lord’s good books. Every victim had the same explanation, same identical story – the story of the Butcher. Literally speaking, he wasn’t a meat butcher, but his methods of slaying his victims earned him that title. A normal meat butcher slays his goat or pig methodically. The animal is fed amply until it gains the much required fat. It is then killed, but the murder is quiet and quick. The animal doesn’t even know what was coming and before you know it, its minced meat waiting to be cooked. The Butcher had his ways too, and much like any other butcher, he wore an apron, that was smeared red, supposedly with the blood of his victims. His only weapon was a long butcher knife, whose steel gleamed and smiled devilishly. His hands covered with blood, and his faced masked by a black hood, preventing his victims from seeing his face. But the ones who escaped recalled much horrifyingly that the Butcher did revealed his face before slaying the person, in spite of which none of the survivors had the courage to explain the murderer’s sketch to the artist. Their reasons – that they were traumatized by the events that they had gone through and couldn’t live to recall that horror again. As much as it frustrated the Lord and despite his great urge to torture out the information required from the narrators, he was bound to let them go on the notion that he didn’t want any unhappy, rebellious subjects to add to already increasing woes. He decided to imply a little patience and wait for someone who had the necessary courage to sketch the Butcher. He had already issued a warrant and a handsome reward for who-so-ever captures this mystery assassin. All he was bound to do now was waiting.
But he had no intension of waiting in the dark that night for the rain to subside. It was a known fact that storms like this often prevailed the entire night. His best hope was to find an inn and ask for shelter. A moment later, he did. “The Half-Bred Home”, read the sign. Snobby name, the Lord smirked again as he knocked on the big oak door. The door thudded open, and a small boy, no older than ten answered the door.
“Are you a weary traveller looking for food and shelter, Sir?” the boy asked inquisitively, with an anxious look on his face.
“No, I am wondering if pigs can fly!! Of course, I am looking for a place to spend the night, boy,” Furlong answered back sharply. “Now let me in. It’s freezing outside and I am drenched from head to toe.”
“There’s no need to be so harsh on the boy. He was merely being polite. Step aside Tom.” The Lord peered inside to trace the source of the gruff voice and saw a fat, thickly beard man who was thrice as huge for any normal person. He appeared to be the owner of the inn by his outlook and authoritative language. “You need a place to sleep for the night?” he asked again.
“Yes,” Furlong replied back, impatiently. “Now can I please step inside? I might catch a cold you know.” The fat man chuckled and spoke to the child to usher the man in. The inn was old, far too old to remain in a working condition. It was pleasantly warm but the room reeked of pipe weed smoke. A few tables accompanied by benches lay scattered in one corner where two men dressed in capes were sitting rather silently. The lord tried to catch a glimpse of the hooded strangers but their faces were well cloaked and the dim candle-light didn’t help either. They smoked on from their pipes and caused a faint mist in the room. Their long shadows stretched across the floor as the lord made his way to the front desk. There wasn’t any other noticeable furniture around and the walls were muddy and void of any colour. An ancient oil painting hung behind the desk but the room could have surely done without it. A weary old staircase was leading upstairs, possibly to the guest rooms. It’s not a palace, but it will just have to do, Furlong thought as approached the man.
“I need to fill in your name and place of origin in the journals,” he said. “So if you would be kind enough to state them both.” The man picked up dusty looking register and flipped it open, and looked up anticipating a reply.
“Lord Reginald Furlong, Advisor to the Royal Crown and Chief of the Tax Administration Department to Her Majesty,” the visitor proudly proclaimed. The fat man behind the counter looked up as if to say something, but quietly resumed writing. The boy was brimming with surprise and the lord could swear he saw tiny droplets of tears gleam in the dark as they ran across his rosy cheeks. The lord was smiling to himself at his proud salutation. He fancied his name and its announcement in public places. Often people would stop and watch as he passed by them after he was introduced; his head held high from confidence as looked onto his audience. There would be no such spectators that night, but the boy’s anxiety would do, he thought.
All of a sudden something caught his eye. He turned his head towards the movement and noticed one of the strangers had gone missing, while the other had stretched himself on the bench, sleeping with a soft snore.
“How many guests do you have tonight?” Lord Furlong asked tentatively.
“Well business isn’t this scarce on usual nights,” the man replied back with a slight concern on his face. “It’s the storm. It drove away all my customers early tonight. Looks like it will just be Tommy over here and me along with the two of you,” he said as he did a head count.
“The two of us? By that you mean the man over there and myself,” the lord quizzed pointing in the direction on the slumbering man.
“Yes, that’s all tonight. Would you like a drink or anything to eat?”
“Just a glass of water would be fine.” He didn’t trust the man so much so that he could drink anything else. He had the notion that the whiskey might be too strong and that he would get burgled after he fell unconscious as he seated himself on the chair in front.
“But if I may. I did happen to see another man sitting on the far bench over there as I stepped inside.” The lord wanted to clear his doubt.
“Not that I know of,” the owner answered back. “Hey Tommy, did anyone else step in with that gentleman over there?” he asked the lad.
“No sir,” Tommy said. “He was alone. We served just him tonight.”
“There you have it. Are you concerned about your safety or that you might be robbed?”
“No, no. Absolutely not,” Furlong uttered nervously, but in the back of his mind he had this nagging feeling he might.
“You need not have a worry, sire. There’s been no thieving in Middleton for the past few months,” assured Tommy. “Not since the incident of...” He stopped dead in his tracks and cast a frightened glance at the owner, who was red-eyed now.
“That’s enough there lad!! Let the man rest now,” he scolded. “And off with you. Shouldn’t you be sleeping? There’s plenty of work in the morning.”
To his surprise, the lord saw Tommy bite his tongue on the way out and almost got the feeling as if the young boy had escaped quite a larger punishment. He turned back to the fat man.
“What was that all about?” he asked taking a sip from the glass of water.
“Oh it was nothing at all, my lord,” the owner gingerly replied, trying to fit in a smile. “Children you know. Always with their stories,” he said rolling back his eyes. “I am sure he was just about to recite a tale he must have overheard from one of the guests here. Not that I dislike them myself. Some of them are indeed very griping, particularly the story of the Butcher.” He grinned as he uttered the last few words, revealing his tobacco-smothered teeth, but to his great surprise, the lord remained unfazed. Not him again, he thought to himself.
“Yes, yes. That folk-tale is quite popular from where I come from,” he said casually. “Was that the one Tommy had in his mind?”
“Well you can never guess what that little simpleton might he wondering, but probably that might have been the one,” he answered shrugging his shoulders. “It’s the perfect one for dark, stormy nights like this.”
“Well go on then. I doubt I’ll be able to sleep with the wind howling like this,” the lord insisted as he took another sip and from the corner of his eyes stole as glance of the hooded stranger. Still asleep, he thought. “I might as well spend it listening to abash child make-belief.” In reality, his inquisitiveness regarding this ‘Butcher’ was still very high. But he didn’t want to appear beaming the way Tommy’s face was. So he curtained his expression.
The man looked uncertain for a while but then cleared his throat and questioned, “Well if you say so, sir. But may I ask if I can offer you some of the wine from Middleton’s finest brewery to go with it?”
“Well I think there is no harm in one drink.” The owner was successful in tempting him, and he didn’t mind. It was a bit chilly that night and the lord was still slightly wet from his long trek.
“Right away, sir.” The man’s face lit up and he disappeared behind his cabinet, fishing for the drink and glasses.
“I’m terribly sorry, but it seems I didn’t get your name,” said the lord as he removed his coat and lay it aside on the chair beside him.
“It’s Samuel, sir. Sam as everyone around here knows me,” he muffled a reply as he came back with a large black bottle and two glasses in hand. “An old friend of mine who owns some of the finest grape fields gifted this bottle. Almost forgot it was still here, hah!” he laughed. “I cannot think of a better occasion to open it up.” He seemed to struggle to uncork it, and after a seemingly embarrassing tassel, he finally emerged victorious with the golden liquid oozing out from the bottle. Looking very pleased with himself, Sam poured the two glasses and handed one to his guest.
“To tonight!” he raised his glass. The lord couldn’t see what the special occasion was. If all, it was a terrible night. The summer had been relatively calm and on his way back home he was promised by the weatherman a starry night. That was his reason for setting off only to be caught in this peach of a storm. Nevertheless, he too raised his glass to the toast, ungrudgingly, and quietly sipped his drink. It was excellent.
“This is high quality wine,” he commented with raised eye-brows. “I am envious of your friend now. I might just be tempted to buy his fields,” he joked. “Now as you were saying?” He set aside his glass and looked up.
Sam was two-thirds over with his second drink all this while. He gulped down the remaining portion and let out a loud burp. The lord pushed back his chair, somewhat disgusted at his behaviour, to avoid the pungent smell.
“Sorry ‘bout that sire,” the fat owner replied, whipping his bushy moustache with his dirty sleeves. “It has been a while since I laid my hand on such a delicious bottle.” Content with himself he sat down and began.