|"Damn the luck," Jack said, throwing his cards in disgust to the table. "If I didn't know better, Tucker Littlefield, I'd say you were cheating."
"Why, Jack, what a terrible thing to say, and we've been friends for so long," I answered innocently, raking the pot to my side of the table.
Few things pleased me more than a quiet drink on a Saturday morning and a friendly game of cards. Jack's Tavern had always held that contentment for me for as long as I could remember. There is something comforting in the smell of well-worn wood, stale beer, burnt food, and the dust of an energetic broom.
"I know you, Littlefield, and no one wins this much without cheating. I don't know how you're doing it, but you're doing it right enough."
"Jack, you were dealing; how could I possibly cheat?"
At that moment, the door flew open with a loud bang, startling me, not to mention Jack.
"You'd better come quick, Mr. Littlefield, they're looking for you," a young man called, breathing heavily as he leaned against the door.
"Who's looking for him?" Jack asked, standing.
"They are," he said, pointing nervously down the street.
Slowly, I stood, moving to the door.
"Soul bearer," a deep, angry voice boomed.
"Who the hell?" Jack asked.
"Littlefield," a second voice shouted, almost as annoyed, adding itself to the first.
My heart sank at the sound of it. I was certain who it was before I stuck my head out the door to confirm it.
"Damn it," I said softly, slipping back inside.
"Littlefield!" they shouted again.
Outside, two Jonda, each dressed in nothing more than loincloths, walked down the center of the street as if they did it every day. They stood well over seven feet tall, with long, black hair pulled into a tail at the back of their heads and tied with a thick, red string. Around their necks they wore a small string of blue and white shells. Their near-naked, copper colored bodies had been painted with thin, dull yellow paint in misshapen circles, giving them a turtle-like appearance. Hanging low from their hips were the overly large knives I had seen in action far more than I cared to remember.
It had been two years, and I still trembled a little inside at the sight of those knives, not to mention the men that knew how to use them.
"You better go see what they want before they set fire to the whole damn town," Jack said sternly, stabbing a meaty thumb at the door.
I gave him a distasteful look but knew he was right.
"Here," I shouted. Standing half in and half out of the doorway, I waved an arm to get their attention, bidding them to come this way.
"Better bring some cheese, Jack," I said dully.
His face contorted with concern at my words.
"So help me, Tucker, if they break one–" he began.
"Cheese, Jack, quickly," I interrupted, turning him by his shoulders toward the kitchen.
I straightened my clothes quickly, determined not to let my nervous concern show, and turned toward the door to wait.
After a few moments, both Jonda came to the door, bending slightly to peer inside far more tentatively than I would have thought. The larger of the two was first to enter, bowing slightly to clear the doorway. The second followed his lead to stand next to him. They turned their heads from side to side with distaste as they inspected their surroundings.
At that moment, Jack reappeared with a large wedge of cheese on a cutting board, a knife stuck in its surface quivering next to it.
Jack, not a small man by any measure, stood mouth gaping widely, staring up the length of each man until he tilted back dramatically then passed out, falling with a loud thump.
"Gentlemen," I said, trying desperately to balance the offering I caught from his failing grip. "Nice to see you again."
Without a word, the larger of the two picked it up, sniffed at it hesitantly and then broke it in half, handing one piece to his counterpart. Each sniffed at it several times before devouring it in three or four bites.
"Daneba say come," the largest intoned.
"So, she's still alive," I said with no small level of relief. I owed my life to the woman, hands down. Her fate had kept me up more nights than I cared to count. "Well, give her my thanks, but I'm afraid my schedule doesn't allow me to be–" I began to lie.
"Daneba say Black Moon coming, Soul Bearer must come."
"Daneba say Black Moon…Tucker come in two days or all Jonda come here for Soul bearer," he said, folding his arms across his chest.
"All Jonda?" Jack asked from the floor, looking up to me. "Tucker, that can't be good."
"I'll think about it," I returned, waving him off. It had been two years, and I was determined I wouldn't risk my life in the outlands again for anything in the world…not for anything.
"Soul Bearer come…two days…Black Moon comes soon," the larger of the two men said again, pushing my shoulder to make his point before turning to leave.
I folded my arms in defiance but said nothing.
"Bring more this," the shorter one whispered harshly, before pushing the now empty wax cheese rind into my chest.
I stood there unmoved as they made their way outside.
"Tucker, you have any idea what a black moon is?"
"No, and I have no desire to find out," I said, moving to look out the door. I hadn't realized it until this moment, but I had been holding my breath.
By the time I reached the opening, my Jonda friends were nowhere to be seen.
"You know you have to go, right?" Jack asked, getting off the floor and pushing lightly past me to look outside.
"Yeah, I do," I said in resignation.