Vorel groaned and bestirred himself. Just outside his quarters, a donkey was braying in protest. Light grew as a door was flung back.
“Sorry mister – you’ll have to shift out. We have newcomers and they are paying for stabling.”
Dragging together his few miserable possessions, Vorel stumbled out, rubbed his dirty face, scratched his thinning mop of silver hair, and tried to put a plan together. With a mere handful of silver pieces left he was reluctant to pay for actual lodgings. And with the inn so crowded, rooms would be going at a much higher price than usual. Still, he could bargain for a section of the common room.
Vorel’s attention was caught by the rising hubbub of the newcomers. It seemed they were escorting someone of importance, or had followed someone. A holy man? Was that the cry? He’d drifted this far south – right down on the Brythunian border with Zamora – because a friendly and not-too expensive priest had told him Edric was to be found here! Time to head in!
Mine host Caliaxos boasted of little regarding his inn, being a fairly close-mouthed, retiring sort, happy to leave the everyday running of meals, drinks and lodgings to his experienced staff. He did like to boast, just a little, that it was as strong as a fortress. The reason for his hyperbole was obvious: at some earlier time the inn had expanded up to and into the wall of the adjacent castle. The old officers’ quarters now served as superior lodgings for travelers that valued security over proximity to the galley and bar. Below that level, the walls had been let through to afford plentiful stabling. A tiled war-gallery above had been turned into garrets for servants and the poorer lodgers.
In the most secure and luxurious of the stone rooms, Morath heard a polite knocking. Stationing himself behind the door with dagger drawn, he bade “enter.” Caliaxos himself, apologetic and nervous, was the supplicant. It seemed the room was required for a dignitary. In return, Morath’s bed and board would be on the house, with apologies. Morath glanced around the room: of his gear, the least portable was the splendid scimitar, a trophy of spoils from the Hack Brothers that Morath had neither quite persuaded himself to sell nor to master. He agreed, stipulating that if he could not have the best room, he would take an anonymous one.
Down in the common room, two comrades that had not seen one another for half a year exchanged greetings.
“Well, here we are then, and no Edric. I hold no grudge against you Celo, for you’ve always done right by me. What say we team up?”
“Good enough. Though I’ll tell you what Bardic, I dare say if we do get word of that, what d’you call ‘em?”
“The White… uh… Ring. The Circle are the bad sorcerers, the Ring are the good sorcerers. Though if you ask me the only good sorcerer is…”
“…White Ring, back to Edric, he’d reward us.”
Both travelers privately thought the other had been hard-worn. Bardic looked older than his years, though perhaps that was owing to his clothing, worn and stained with the marks of armor. Celo’s clothing was even more worn, and he himself looked frayed around the edges, honed to an edge by misadventure. He laughed off any detail about his travels, saying only that he’d tell the tale another time, and stood Bardic a drink. Glass was cheap in this region and ale was served in heavy, durable glass cups.
The common room of the inn was broad and spacious and though not low-beamed, smoke from tapers and lamps made details in the corners hard to pick out. Sojourners sat at the ten tables elbow to elbow and supped as best they could, or stood at ledges or around the bar counter. Others simply stood to drink and gossip. Both men, newly arrived, wondered if it was always so crowded. And becoming more so! Men stamped and pushed and swore as at least a dozen newcomers forced their way in, surrounding and protecting someone.
Bardic’s sharp ears caught the phrase “holy man” and having failed to catch sight of the man in the middle, lofted Celo up to the level of the heavy cross-beams above.
“No, it’s not him. At least an inch shorter and a lot older. And he’s got a fancy staff, not a Quarterstaff.”
“Are you sure? Edric was looking a little thin on top last I saw him. Maybe he’s gone grey as well. And he got a fancy Quarterstaff from the Hack Brothers!”
Their debate was interrupted by the pert bar-distaff who reclaimed their glasses and suggested that men that nursed drinks half the day ought to give bar space to others who had coin.
Bardic’s vehement protest was cut short at Vorel’s hail. He too was trying to see if the holy man was Edric, and his disappointment was lost amidst answering the wondering gaze of Celo and blunt comments of Bardic as to his aged appearance, and shabby, nay beggarly appearance. Indeed Vorel was still wearing what remained of the outfit he had bade farewell in, a year previous. Bardic hoisted out his purse and counted out ten silver, and slapped them into Vorel’s hand with a grip that would not be denied.
“That’s touching, all comrades together. Hello Bardic. I’m right behind you – don’t react suddenly.”
So said Morath, who, curious as to who he had been evicted for, had slipped through the shadows and woven deftly through the throng.
Morath was easily the best-presented of the four, dressed in black that was not yet sun-bleached. Knowing him, the others easily picked out several visible daggers tucked here and there about him. But time had not stood still for Morath either: he looked older than his years, and dissipated.
Vorel, who had arrived a couple of days ago, and who had picked up plenty of road gossip, was able to sketch the local situation in a lot more. Normally the inn was simply a short staging-point for travelers bound through the nearby pass into Zamora, and did most of its business with arrivals from Zamora. But for some reason – most likely the ill weather in the ranges recently – the pass was still closed and no one could say when it could be crossed. As a result, many more times the normal amount of men, women and pack animals were crowded into the place.
The scrimmage around the bar had moved the four back through the common room some way, and a seated man who had been eyeing them stood and spoke. This was Negaces, a merchant of a rank midway between merchant-prince and humble trader. He was one of the chief men of the caravan now being organized. Seeing that they were clearly men of their hands, he could offer a post guarding the caravan in exchange for its protection, and food and board here until such time it left.
Morath declined since his travel arrangements were already made, but on Negaces stumping up a brace of silvers apiece the other three assented and the deal was made.
Some few hours later Morath’s bump of curiosity took him sliding like an extra shadow along the passage to his old quarters. He had been wondering about that so-called “holy man” until he just had to find out!
The sound of a heavyset individual accompanied by giggling girls and chiming metal bangles came to his ears and he lay deeper in the shadows and waited. Thick calves passed his gaze, and three pairs of slim ankles, all with the type of anklets favored by dancing girls.
“This way girls… the holy one is about to grant you his blessing! Ho ho ho!”
Giggling, and a door closing, and Morath stole forward. To his surprise though, the giggling came from the room next the best chamber. So who was in the best chamber? Sidling up to the door and pressing his ear to it, Morath caught the syllables of what sounded like a prayer to Mitra. But the sound of more guests ascending to the passage decided him in favor of discretion and he slipped away to his own garret.
By the deeps of night, the bar and galley were long closed. Those with no bed but enough money for a roof were bedded down on tables in the common room. A scream rent the night!
Rolling off his table and drawing his great-sword from its scabbard, Bardic wove between the tables and to the main passage to the wall-chambers. His uncanny senses allowed him to avoid the many obstacles, and he was sure of the direction of the scream. Behind him other voices were raised in sleepy alarm. But bending his ear up in the direction of the stair, Bardic caught a whisper of sound from something or someone rushing, and a musical chime. Could it have been the chiming of a holy man’s bell? Or the ankle-bangles of a dancing girl?