An evening breeze slipped gently through the open door of the Great Tur in Berestye, redolent with the smell of peat and flowering oak trees.
The heavy sheepskin that had covered the doorway during the recent winter was now folded neatly in a corner.
A small fire in the center of the room provided most of the light, although there were also wax candles spaced every few feet along the two long trestle tables.
Dir bent down to speak quietly to his father, the proprietor of the tavern. “Bac’ka,” he said, respectfully. There must have been something urgent in his tone, because Old Askold looked up. “The man in the corner,” Dir said.
The corner in question was far from the fire, and poorly lit. Somebody sat hunched over a wooden mug. Neither of them could make out his face from the other side of the room.
“What of him?”
“His skin is blue,” said Dir. “If I give him more harelka, I worry that he may become ill. If he dies in here, Gleb and I will need to drag him to the river, and the town watch will undoubtedly ask us many questions.”
“I have heard of a man who had blue skin,” Old Askold said. “He worked in a silver mine, and accidentally consumed some of the metal in his food with each meal. His skin slowly changed to a sickly blue color, although he did not appear to be harmed as a result. Perhaps our stranger is a miner.”
“He certainly paid in silver,” said Dir, showing his father the rough chunk of hacked-off metal in his hand.
“Perhaps he is a miner then,” said Old Askold. “As long as he can pay for his drink.”
Dir inclined his head. “I will give him more then, Bac’ka.” He hefted his large wooden flask, filled with birch-sap harelka, and went about his task. Old Askold saw him speak briefly to the stranger in the corner.
A few minutes later Dir returned.
“I think we will need to ask Truvor if we can borrow his wheelbarrow,” he said. “The stranger said that he intends to drink until either he runs out of money, or he dies. Also that the latter was preferable to him.”
Old Askold frowned, but said nothing.
“He is not a silver miner either, ” Dvir said. “His clothes are ragged, and I think he is barely clambering from his bread to his kvass. He is intent on spending the last of his remaining silver on drink.”
“Why does he want to die?” asked Old Askold.
“He said his home is gone. Destroyed.”
This earned another frown from Old Askold. There had been increased raids from nomadic tribes in recent years, and this topic would have been of great interest and concern to anyone living in the lands of the Eastern Slavs.
“Is he from out on the steppes?” asked Old Askold.
“No,” said Dvir. “I asked him that, of course.”
“Did he say where he was from then?”
Dvir glanced at his father, who looked worried.
“He said he was not from around here,” said Dvir. “But he also said something tremendously strange.”
“Strange? How so?”
“He said his home was destroyed by a hole.”
“A sink hole? That is not strange.” It was not that uncommon for the warmer weather of the spring to produce holes in the thawing ground, even ones large enough to destroy a house.
“He said that it was dark,” said Dvir. He paused for a moment, thinking. “No, I think that what he actually said was that it was black. He said a black hole. But how can a sink hole be large enough to swallow an entire land?”