Here is another installment in the flash fiction category. This one weighs in at closer to 2000 words, but that was my target length, so I did better this time. Again, this was inspired by a challenge found here.
The challenge was a randomizer, with a person, place, and situation determined by picking a number then corresponding item from a list. I came up with:
The Who: Assassin
The Where: Amusement Park (I took some creative liberty and made this a bazaar)
The Uh-Oh: Warring against nature
I hope you enjoy!
"Surely, sir, you cannot be more than twenty-five," the barkeeper said as he grabbed a rag from beneath the bar and began polishing the surface in front of him. It was a habit, a barkeeper's form of fidgeting, and Eren could tell that he did it often; the bar surface glittered and shone like a mirror in the sun.
"Am I wrong?" The man prodded.
Eren let his dark cowl fall back from his head, revealing a crown of gray. His dark hair had begun turning more than a few years back, but the true age was on the world weary lines of his face. His skin had grown hard and rough from the road, from his profession.
"Ah," the barkeeper said, "but not all of us who are so adorned have the years to back it up." He gestured to his own patch of gray hair. "In fact, if I grow my beard out, it is nearly all white, and I am not yet forty. So I could not, in good conscience, place you older than that."
He smiled to himself as he continued rubbing at the wooden surface, but Eren did not offer any more information, consumed with his thoughts.
"But I do see the wear of the road in your eyes," the barkeeper conceded. In deep thought, he stopped his polishing, as if it was impossible to perform both functions at the same time. His gaze pierced Eren as he examined the man, trying to make out some lost time, long ago. "You know, when I owned the tavern off of the great road, I saw many a man like you pass through. They say a barkeeper never forgets a face, but I think in your case it is the lack of a face that I remember. Yes, I have seen you before, I am sure of it now."
"Is that so?"
"Quite so," the pudgy man dropped his polishing cloth and extended his hand. Eren instinctively flinched back slightly, before realizing the hand was given in friendship. "The name's Barrow, James Barrow, but most just call me by my last name."
Eren hesitated, then grasped the man's hand. "You can call me Eren."
"Well the, Eren, I believe that I owe you the next round."
The friendly gesture came as a shock to the shadowy figure at the bar. He looked at the barkeeper with curiosity, tilting his head ever so slightly. He was not accustomed to generosity.
"Ah. I can see that you have forgotten. Allow me to enlighten you." Barrow pulled a tall glass of what appeared to be a rather dark ale. "My best brew," he said absently as the glass filled, "I make it here myself. Call it my special recipe."
He winked and placed the glass on the newly polished surface. Eren nodded his thanks and pulled the glass closer to himself, drinking in the intoxicating smell.
"I had just opened up my establishment off of the great road. The Wayward Inn, I called it. Yes I know the name is common among these sorts of places, but it sounded good to me, so I stuck with it. Mighty proud of it, I was."
The wheels in Eren's mind began to turn, harking back to a time long ago. He was a much younger man when he had traveled that road, yet still world-wise, perhaps more so than now.
"Anyways, I had just opened for the day, but it was still early and I wasn't expecting company for another hour or so, so I took up my broom to clean the last of the soot from the fireplace that had accumulated the night before.
"In walks a man, covered in mud, looks like he's been running for quite some time. I tell him to have a seat and that I would be right with him. By the time I make it out of the fireplace and around the bar, he had helped himself to a drink and some lunch that I had tucked away for myself.
"Now, I was young in the business, so I didn't yet have the fortitude to tell him off. I just stood there and watched him drink my ale, eat my food, and give me a look that scared me off of making any kind of move. I had the feeling that he wouldn't be paying, so it didn't surprise me when he up and walks out of the front door without a word.
"I resolved to forget about the situation, and to put myself to serious study of how to avoid such situations in the future. I almost did forget about it too, but a dark traveler appeared just a few days later. He strolled in, cloak, hood, and all, just like you walked in here."
Eren nodded. "Yes, I do remember now." The ale was beginning to limber him up, and he felt like he could speak again, the pains of life and age slowly melting from him. "I asked if you had seen a man, covered in mud and on the run a few days back."
"Aha! It was you. I was sure of it." The barkeeper was beaming.
"It was no bother, I have a soft spot for helpful barkeepers."
"You more than paid for his damages. This is the least I could do." Barrow gestured at the ale on the counter.
Eren nodded again and took another swig from his glass, letting out a low hum of approval. "This is very good by the way. Much better than I remember that stuff you used to serve."
Barrow smiled and pulled out the rag again to polish off where the glass of ale had briefly rested on the bar.
"Whatever happened of the man, if you don't mind my curiosity?" He asked.
Eren sat for a moment, staring into the empty space behind the bar, then answered. "Let's just say that fate is not with those that I pursue."
The barkeeper said nothing and the sounds of the other customers began to consume the room. Eren had forgotten that he was not the only patron in the small building. Glasses clinking to his left, hearty laughter from nearly everywhere, and an attempt at some form of ragtime tune rang out from the piano in the corner all floated on the musty air to the solitary figure at the bar, nursing a dark ale and old wounds.
Eventually the barkeeper was called away to deal with other customers, leaving Eren alone with his thoughts; alone with his regrets. His thoughts were dark at best, and his memories were more often than not those that he wished he could rid himself of.
The doors to the bar crashed open and a hush fell over the room. The poorly executed ragtime tune faltered and died in a way that seemed fitting to its performer's sloppiness. Eren turned to the doorway and watched as the most beautiful woman he had ever beheld walked into the bar.
Catcalls replaced the other sounds that had filled the room previously, and the old assassin felt a familiar rage wash over him in response. It was a feeling that he had grown accustomed to, and had spent many years learning how to control and focus on those who truly deserved it.
The woman largely ignored the whistles and shouts, smiling once at an offer of marriage, which she refused, before locking eyes with Eren. Her smile was full and beautiful, melting the old man's heart. This feeling he had not learned to control.
"What are you doing here?" She asked when she was close enough to have a relatively private conversation. Her tone was playful, if not a little condescending. There was a collective moan from the room as the others were ignored for this one man, and slowly the familiar sounds of the room returned.
"I thought I would just pop in for a quick drink," Eren said, motioning to the glass of ale that was nearly empty by now.
Barrow was back and asked if she wanted anything, which she refused with a polite smile.
"Terribly sorry about the welcome you were given," the barkeeper said. "I cannot vouch for the morality of my customers, I'm afraid." He bowed slightly behind the bar and returned with a glass of water, which the woman accepted gratefully.
"So, what brings you in, if not for drink?" Barrow asked.
"Just looking for my father."
Barrow nearly fell over backwards. "This man is your father?"
The woman laughed, "Yes."
The dark, world weary man took on even more age in the barkeeper's eyes, almost instantaneously. He began to understand that he was very wrong about his patron's age.
"You see what I have to put up with," Eren said with a rueful smile. He was rewarded with a playful punch to the shoulder from his daughter.
"I see now that there is more to your story than I had thought."
"Oh, dad has lots of stories," the woman said, bumping her father with her shoulder. The action shook loose a long curl of brown hair which she then tucked behind her ear. "He told me most of them at bedtime when I was growing up."
"Save a few details, I'm sure," Barrow said.
"And embellished a little," she smiled, "after all, a good story is only a slightly altered version of the truth. You trim out the bad, accentuate the good, maybe heighten the suspense, but most of it actually happened."
"They say that the truth is often stranger than the stories we tell."
Eren sat as an observer to the conversation, holding his thoughts. He watched with a detached curiosity. Having seen his daughter with many different men, he knew when to be concerned with either party's intentions, and this situation warranted none of it.
"Well, father," she said, turning to him. "I'm off to the magic show, and I would love some company."
"You know it's all slight of hand," Eren said, which was rewarded with another playful punch to the shoulder. He was glad that it was only in jest, and not the kind of punch that he had taught her to throw. He often thought that he would be no match for her in a proper fight. She had come a long way from the tiny little thing he had held in his arms so long ago, that little bundled that had changed his life forever, and changed it for the good.
"All right," Eren relented, "but only grudgingly."
"That's all I asked." She smiled, brightening the entire room.
Eren tried to leave payment at the bar, but Barrow refused to accept it and would only shake the man's hand. He rose gingerly to his feet, with his daughter's assistance. His joints so quickly became stiff these days, having been worn down from too many days on the road.
With a parting word from the friendly barkeeper, the two walked out of the bar and onto the bustling street. The bazaar was in full swing, and they melted into the crowd as father and daughter.