Noreena began the story the way she always did: by downing a tall, frothing ale in a furious chug and smashing the stein at her feet.
“TAKE HEED, REVELLERS!” she bellowed, stepping up onto one of the stout oaken longtables scattered across the Plucky Pidgeon tavern.
Heads turned to look at her with alarm and curiosity. Wary customers stepped back, creating a bubble of space around her. That’s right, she thought, all eyes on me.
Her grifting partner, Trevor, was making the rounds pilfering the purses of bar patrons as they gawked at the old tavern barnacle atop the table. She scanned the room, making sure no face looked familiar from previous performances. There was a man at the back with a weathered, haunted face whom she thought she remembered from working an alehouse in Scrumpton last week, but if he remembered her, he gave no sign of it.
“Tonight you will hear the tale of the Stein Lord!” she shouted. “A most unfortunate story that will chill you deeper than the coldest ale.”
“‘Stein Lord?'” laughed a young, muscular, blonde-haired mercenary woman from back. She stuck her crooked chin out defiantly and grinned, showing a missing tooth. “Sounds like me after five pints of draught!” Scattered laughs came from the group around her.
Noreena leaped down from the table, landing inches from the mercenary’s face. A hush fell over the room.
“Laugh if you want! The Stein Lord was once a joker like you. A drinker. A merrymaker. A fool. Until a curse shaped him into something that never should have been.”
Noreena turned from the woman to gaze into the fire, letting the crowd’s curiosity grow and giving Trevor more time to work. He only needed a few minutes to sweep a crowded room for the plumpest purses.
She could feel the grifter’s high coming on, stronger than any ale. After decades of parting patrons from their coin in winesinks across Axia, she had all but lost her taste for drink, but the rush of the con still buzzed through her veins like the finest flamebrandy. At times like this, Noreena felt half her age.
“No one knows what kind of man the Stein Lord was before he became the Stein Lord,” she continued, savouring the rapt attention of the crowd. “We know only that he was a gambler with a bitter rivalry. One day he and his mortal enemy sat down to settle their feud once and for all with a game of dice for all their gold. The Stein Lord cheated, and he won.”
“He won? This sounds like a happy story!” called the mercenary, grinning.
Noreena whirled to face her. “Oh, but you should know, child, that winning can be a curse all its own.”
The mercenary’s grin faded, and a look of cold sobriety overtook her face. She looked away, and Noreena smiled. Defeat the heckler, win the room, she thought.
She caught Trevor’s eye in the crowd and nodded. He had standing instructions to rob any hecklers blind if he got the chance. Noreena may have been a liar and a thief, but she was also a performer, and she believed show-wreckers were the worst kind of scum.
“His rival had put a dark magic on the gold, and the magic got inside him. First he felt cold, and then he felt frozen, and then he felt nothing. By the time the curse had run its course, it had turned him into a massive, floating totem in the shape of a stein. He was doomed to be an object of ridicule and disdain forever!”
Noreena took a moment to savour the expressions on the crowd. She loved telling the Stein Lord story. Trevor’s uncle had taught it to them, dredged up from his ale-addled memories of travelling the world as a younger man. It was a strange blend of dark and ridiculous, and it kept listeners on their back foot, giving Trevor more opportunities to get away with his purse-filching.
“You’ve been telling the story wrong,” a voice said from the back. The man with the haunted-looking face stood up, and the crowd turned to look at him, whispering and muttering.
Caught off guard, Noreena paused for a moment. She’d thought she had the audience in the palm of her hand. She prepared to cut the stranger off with a jibe about him looking like a haunted painting come to life, but when her gaze met his cold stare, her voice caught in her throat.
“Yes, there was ridicule and disdain,” he continued. “But that wasn’t the brunt of the curse. The words were this: cold as frost, bitter as hops, dull as stone. The Stein Lord feels nothing, loves nothing, fears nothing. Where he goes, a dark cloud follows. Those who look on his grim, carved face sense his dark aura. The Stein Lord is the dread of the lonely boozehound who feels his youth slipping away. He is the despair of the wineflower who wonders how quickly the world will forget her when she is gone. He is the emptiness of the hungover drunkard who shivers with an unshakeable chill and remembers what every drinker has always tried to forget: there is always a price to pay tomorrow.”
The room had gone totally silent, save for the crackling of the hearth. Even Noreena felt a pang of cold despondence passing through her at the man’s words. She looked into his eyes, seeing deep and hollow sorrow within them.
Noreena struggled to find her composure again.
“You do well to heed the legend of the Stein Lord, fellow merrymaker,” she said. “But his tale has many tellings, and not all are true. Some men say that if any drink were to be poured from the Stein Lord, it would be the coldest and most refreshing ever imbibed. Others say that mad magicians have tried to recreate the curse and make their own Stein Lords, but their efforts have only yielded pale imitations, all as watered-down as a crooked innkeeper’s ale. But this is all conjecture and legend.”
Standing on tippy-toes to see over the crowd, Trevor signalled from the back of the room that he had finished his sweep. Noreena began to wrap up her tale.
“Learn from the sad story of the Stein Lord, my friends. Never gamble with a grudge. Never take a man’s last coin. And never let yourself believe you’ve won.”
She stepped down from the table and walked through the crowd to the door. She looked back at all the sobering faces.
“Winning is a curse all its own,” she said, and then pushed the door open and headed out into the night.
Riding their cart along the darkened road out of town, Noreena and Trevor listened the sounds of mirth slowly returned to the tavern, then faded into the distance behind them.
The two grifters had their own reason to celebrate. Noreena had taken one look at Trevor’s grinning face when he slipped out of the Plucky Pidgeon, and known they’d won big. She didn’t realize just how big until he gave her peek inside the haul bag.
This was their biggest pull in years, thanks to the many travellers who had flocked to the area for the annual inventors’ festival up the road in Sparkstone, and in part to a particular purse Trevor had lifted.
“Belonged to that sour-faced bloke who spoke up near the end. I made sure to get ‘im before I left. The purse was just sitting there on the table, fat as a prize pig. Like ‘e was asking for it.”
Feeling a growing sense of dread, Noreena lit a lantern and took a closer look at the spoils. The coins were strange, an old minting she didn’t recognize. When she touched them, she felt a deep and frigid draught cut through her, right down to her bones.
She thought about the words she always ended the Stein Lord tale on:
Never gamble on a grudge.
But she’d instructed Trevor to target the audience members who ruined her performance, purely out of spite.
Never take a man’s last coin.
But here she was, holding the full purse of the sour-faced man.
Never let yourself believe you’ve won.
But Noreena had never been able to contain the rush that came after a successful con.
“Like you said…winning is a curse all its own,” a familiar voice said from the darkness ahead.
Trevor pulled up sharply, stopping the mule. The two of them peered into the black woods around them, and the sour-faced man stepped forward into the ring of light given off by the lantern.
“We’ve been watching you for some time,” the man said. “And we decided something needed to be done. Our story is not some fanciful ale-tale you can tell to part a pack of drunkards from their coin.”
Noreena sensed Trevor reaching for the crossbow he kept hidden in the foot of the driver’s bench, and placed a hand on his arm. Somehow it didn’t seem like a good idea to provoke this man.
“We’ll give the gold back,” she said. “Yours and everyone’s. We don’t want trouble.”
“Too late,” he said. “The curse has already begun.”
“But the curse is just a story.”
“Oh?” he said, and a massive shape emerged from behind a dense stand of trees.
It’s not possible, Noreena thought. Trevor gaped. The mule pulled fitfully at its reins.
The Stein Lord was bigger than she’d imagined, its totem-like bulk carved with glaring, demonic eyes and a pained grimace revealing a mouth of wicked teeth. It hovered a few feet off the ground, emitting a dim, swirling glow from its dull metal surface. The absurdity of seeing it there in front of her almost made her laugh. At the same time, something about its grim features and dark aura made her believe she might never laugh again. The creature radiated cold despair like winter chill leaking through the glass of a tavern window.
Suddenly Trevor shifted, reaching for his crossbow. Before he could aim it, a powerful geyser of a dark liquid blasted from the Stein Lord’s mouth, knocking the pickpocket clean out of the cart. He tumbled to the ground and lay there, blinking the liquid out of his eyes.
“I would advise against that,” said the man, unperturbed.
Trevor arose, seeming to stumble drunk and off-balance. His face had gone pale as bone and his teeth chattered as convulsions of cold shook his whole body. Noreena blinked as a familiar smell wafted from the sodden Trevor to her nose. Is that…ale I smell?
“He’ll be fine in a couple hours,” the sour-faced man told Noreena. “You, on the other hand—yours is a longer path. I will do you the favour I never did for the first Stein Lord. I will tell you how to stop the curse from taking you.”
“Tell me,” Noreena begged, still staring at the creature. “I’ll do anything!”
“Drink. Drink every day for a full year. If you miss a single day, the curse takes hold of you, and there’s no turning it back.”
Noreena thought about having to drink for another year. That’s it? I mean a whole year sure, but what a year that could be…
But it already seemed like the curse wasn’t letting her enjoy the potential benefits. It was like her soul flooded with all the decades of bad wine and noxious ale that had brought her to this point. All the sweaty nights and queasy mornings. She was tired of taverns. Tired of the sour taste of ale. She imagined that if she had to keep on drinking, keep on filling the frozen void inside her with liquour, she’d eventually become as cold and unfeeling as the Stein Lord anyway.
Still, she had to try, didn’t she? What else was there to do?
“You’ll need to start immediately,” he said. “Midnight is fast approaching.”
“Midnight?” she said. “But we’ll never get to the next tavern in time.”
“Guess you’ll have to go back,” he said.
“What? They’ll have figured out we robbed them by now. If they see us, they’ll tear us apart.”
“Well, you know what happens if you don’t,” he said. “I leave the choice up to you.”
He and the Stein Lord retreated into the darkness, leaving Noreena and Trevor alone in the dim lantern light. He looked at her, and she at him, neither of them saying anything for a time.
Finally, Noreena took the reins from Trevor and got the mule moving again. As the cart lurched forward, her partner gave her a puzzled look.
“But…the curse…” he said.
She put on a brave face and smiled at him. “Let it try and claim me. We’ve been outrunning curses and lawmen and jilted drunks and consequences for years. A great big floating mug of sadness won’t change our chances.”
He seemed to believe her. Noreena only wished she could believe her words herself. But deep inside, in the parts of herself that only came out after too many drinks and too little self-reflection, she felt something cold and hard taking hold, like the first crystals of ice on the surface of a lake. And she’d been on the road long enough to learn that there are some kinds of cold that no amount of mulled wine can shake.
As their small cart passed through the dark woods and they huddled together in the light of the lantern, Noreena couldn’t help but shiver thinking of the inconsolable sadness of the Stein Lord, and what the man had said in the Plucky Pidgeon.
There’s always a price to pay tomorrow.
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Art by William Liu, a freelance artist from Toronto, Canada, who is passionate about designing and illustrating creatures and approaches life with a calm, curious demeanour.