“Jana, wait for me!” a tall blond man called, yanking the bridle from his mount’s mouth and hanging it off the saddle, resting in the corner of the stall. “Chew on some hay, Ranger,” he said, brushing the horse’s mane.
“Come on, Shor. I’m really tired and really hungry and the innkeeper should be doing that anyway.”
“Patience, Jana.” The man picked up his pack and slung it over his shoulder. “We’ve been on the road all day. A few more moments won’t make a difference for us tonight, but may produce rested horses tomorrow. You’re too young to be in such a hurry.”
“I’m not going to wait to be your age before doing all the things I want to do.”
Kishore Talluri yanked a sword from the saddlebag of the white horse next to Ranger and handed it to Jana. “Ten years isn’t so long a wait and if you’re in such a hurry to start your adventure, you can do so by not leaving your weapon behind.”
“Next thing you’ll be telling me is that I have to kill what I eat!”
“Some days, you do.”
They left the small barn which served as the inn’s stables and went into the large house across the courtyard, Jana having to remind herself to slow down to her companion’s relaxed pace.
The inn was tall by forest standards, a two story building with an attic on one side and an extended third floor on the other, barely covered by the trees that stood around it. A sign over the door — there was no customary plaque — read ‘The Forgotten Inn’, referring to the inn’s location in the middle of nowhere.
“What can I do for you, folks?” an overweight elderly man at the counter by the stairs asked. He stood up and shifted his weight uncomfortably, a pocket of belly fat hanging over his belt.
“How far is it to Dargon?” Kishore asked.
The innkeeper delayed giving his answer, studying the man and his companion. The man was tall, almost tall enough for his size to seem absurd, but proportionately built. His long sun-bleached hair hung down to his shoulders, a dark streak running above his temple and down behind his ear. His skin was well tanned, darker than the bleached hair, giving him an exotic foreign appearance.
The girl, in contrast, was of average height, with delicate, almost aristocratic features, making her appear out of place so far from civilization. Her long, sandy blond hair was ruffled from what must have been a long trip. She shifted impatiently beside the man, holding a pack in one hand and a sheathed sword in the other.
“A few days or so in the light,” the innkeeper sang his pitch. “At night you’re bound to get lost and never get there at all.”
“Then we will need two rooms,” Kishore declared.
“One room. I only have one room.”
“We need two.” He could tell the man was lying, trying to raise the price.
“I’m sorry, but …”
Kishore dropped his pack with a thud and drew his sword, slamming the blade on the counter. “Do I have to kill someone to make room?” his previously quiet voice boomed in the lobby.
A tall skinny man, the only patron in the common room, looked up at the exchange from his meal. His sharp features betrayed no emotion.
“Well, I …” the innkeeper stammered. “… I … of course. Look, we do have two rooms, after all.” He placed two round keys on the counter.
“Next time you wish to drive the price up,” Kishore warned, “tell me how good the rooms are, not how few you have.” He sheathed his sword and picked up his pack. “Do you wish to eat first?” he asked Jana.
“If it won’t trouble you too much,” Jana said. Her voice remained level, as if no violent exchange took place. She was either oblivious to her companion drawing his sword or simply saw it enough times that it made little difference to her.
“Serve us in the common room,” Kishore said and followed the young woman to a table.
The skinny man by the wall threw them one last glance and resumed his meal as they walked by. As Kishore and Jana took their seats, a heavyset, bearded man wearing a gold and blue tabard over plain yellow and brown clothes came down the stairs and sat at the table deep in the corner not far from the entrance. Jana immediately moved to place Kishore between herself and the man in the corner. Even sitting down, Kishore was almost a full head taller than she and his height enabled her to almost completely disappear from view of the tabarded man.
“Problem?” Kishore glanced at her.
“He’s from Narragan. The crest is of the House of Pyenson.”
“Do you know him?” Kishore carefully glanced over at the man, who was clearly minding his own business, looking towards the common room entrance, clearly waiting or the innkeep.
“No,” Jana answered, “but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know me.”
Kishore was about to answer, but said nothing as the innkeep entered the room. He stopped first to talk to the man wearing the tabard, then came over to Kishore and Jana’s table.
“What is it you wish to order?”
“Lamb, please,” Jana said. “And some fruit.”
“And you, sir?”
“Lamb is fine,” Kishore agreed, “and a pitcher of watered-down ale.”
“We have no watered-down ale, I assure you,” the fat man protested.
Kishore’s coal dark eyes challenged him.
“Right away. I’ll find the worst in the house …”
“Hey, barkeep! Where’s my food?” a particularly short man wearing an earth-colored cape over well worn leather bounced his way down the stairs and into the common room.
“It’s coming, it’s coming,” the innkeeper grumbled and left.
The midget sat by the skinny man, looking curiously at the pair of newcomers a table away. “Hey, Sal, that’s a lizard man,” he whispered to his companion.
Kishore slowly turned his head and stood up. “Call me that again, midget, and I’ll cut you in two.”
The man in the tabard looked up at the sound of the terse words, but said nothing.
The skinny man hurried to stand up, drawing himself to his full height, almost as tall as Kishore. “My companion merely means he has never seen a Lashkirian before. I am sure no insult was intended.”
“If he says it again, he’ll never have to worry about seeing another Lashkirian again,” Kishore said and sat down.
“You’re not going to walk over and slam your sword in his soup?” Jana asked.
“Not before it’s served to him,” Kishore laughed.
“Hey, let it go! People like you are rare around here.” She was concerned about a potential fight, and happy that Kishore chose to return to his seat, where he shielded her from the man who belonged to the House of Pyenson.
“Obviously,” Kishore leaned back in his chair, throwing one last glance at the two men who had managed to insult him before he was comfortably in his seat. Jana shifted uncomfortably, using Kishore for cover.
“What do we do after Dargon?” Jana asked.
“After Dargon?” Kishore tilted his head back to look at the high ceiling with two tiers of corridors over the common room. The first balcony circling the room was wide, with doors to rooms, five to a wall. The second, far above it, was small and narrow, with no visible ladders or stairs, perching up in the rafters. “Beautiful architecture. I saw this …” he paused, thinking, “… somewhere down south. Armand or Sharks’ Cove or Bitom … They all blend together after a time.”
“I haven’t seen anything like it in Armand,” Jana said. “Of course I didn’t go to many taverns there.”
Kishore shrugged. “It’ll come to me.”
“Yes … what’s the next large city to the east?”
“There isn’t one. Not until you’re in Asbridge. That’s maybe a month distant.”
Kishore bit his lower lip. “Waste of time. What else is there?”
The inn door slammed as a red-headed woman in armor walked in. “Innkeep!”
Everyone in the common room turned to look at the newcomer.
“Coming, coming!” the man’s voice sounded from somewhere behind the counter and a moment later he appeared, a dirty apron hanging off his neck, barely covering his belly. “What is it, miss? Sir?”
Kishore and Jana exchanged amused expressions, as the two men the nearby table did the same. The woman was muscular, wearing dull red mail, augmented with steel plates. Her hair was tied back and hanging over her shoulder in a messy tail. A sword sat in a scabbard hanging on her back, the hilt sticking out over her right shoulder.
“I want a room and a meal. Can you handle that tonight?”
“Yes, yes. Or course. Always glad to do repeat business.”
“Left-handed fighter,” Kishore whispered to Jana as the woman walked into the common room.
“How can you tell?”
“Sword on left shoulder.”
The red-haired woman paused in the middle of the room, looking at the tables and the patrons already present. She selected a table not far from Kishore and Jana and sat down, merely nodding a greeting to them.
“Yes … I don’t want to spend a month on the road.”
“There’s a town called Tench a half month south of Dargon. You can follow the River Coldwell most of the way there. It’s sort of a big place that’s really small.”
“Rat hole,” the red-haired woman looked over at Jana.
“Stinking Lame Duck Inn. Innkeeper’s boy tried to rob me. Came into my room in the middle of the night, thought he could take my armor.”
“It would seem he did not succeed,” Kishore said.
“I gutted the little weasel on the banister.”
“Gutted?” Jana winced.
“Like a rabbit,” the woman leaned forward.
Jana pushed herself further into her chair, away from the red-head. “Did he … did he … die?”
“Die? I hope not! I want him to remember the night that earned him that scar!”
“You didn’t stay to find out?” Kishore asked.
“How could I? Every bandit in the place was on me before the kid slid down to the first floor. What are they thinking in that town? That a woman can’t take care of herself?”
“Did you prove them wrong?”
“The first two or three … Then I had to run.”
Kishore laughed. “A town for you not to visit, then.”
“Not anytime soon,” the woman agreed. She extended her arm. “Ravi Lavgan.”
“Kishore Talluri,” the Lashkirian gripped forearms with her — untraditional, as she was a woman. “Jana Wynn, my ward,” he added, introducing his companion.
“A pleasure,” Jana said.
The innkeeper bustled into the common room and placed a plate before the midget, then placed pitchers of ale and water and some wooden cups on the table in front of Kishore. “Busy night tonight,” he commented and ran off again.
“Please, join us,” the Lashkirian invited the red-haired woman and she gladly changed tables.
“That’s a … dwarf,” she nodded at the other table with a smile.
“Shhh. He’s very sensitive about that,” Kishore said.
“And with a bad temper,” Jana laughed.
“It’s just that I’ve never seen one,” Ravi said.
“I’m sure he knows just that feeling,” Kishore laughed.
“All right, lizard man, enough’s enough!” The short man stood up, flinging back his cloak to reveal a war hammer hanging at his side.
“A carpenter dwarf,” Kishore said, kicking aside his chair.
The door to the inn slammed again and four men walked in, all dressed in dark leather armor and carrying swords. Two went behind the counter, through the doorway to the kitchen. The other two entered the common room, but did not sit down, placing themselves in the entry way, between the kitchen and the patrons in the common room.
“Hey, look, a dwarf and an elf,” one elbowed the other.
A yell for help sounded from behind the counter.
Kishore and the midget, no longer interested in one another, turned to the two men. The skinny man with the midget and Ravi also stood up as a second yell sounded. Jana looked around and stood up as well, not wanting to be left out. The only man to remain sitting was the one in the tabard, closest to the two leather-clad men.
“Just mind your own business, folks,” one of the two men said.
“My business is the meal being made for me back there,” Kishore warned.
The bandit drew his sword. “I said mind your own business, peasant!”
As the third scream sounded, Kishore pulled his sword. Ravi followed his example, drawing her sword and the midget pulled out his hammer.
“Shor, don’t,” Jana asked, but he took a determined step forward, sword ready.
“Get out of my way.”
“Three of us, two of you,” Ravi warned.
“Two and a half,” the second brigand corrected, drawing his blade and leering at the midget.
“Four,” Jana sighed, pulling her sword from its scabbard.
“You, don’t,” Kishore turned back and warned.
The first brigand moved forward, his sword ready for a strike, when the table where the man in the tabard sat tilted forward and slammed into him, making him tumble to the floor. “There are five, actually,” he said in a rich voice and stood up. Having no weapon, he picked up a chair by its back and moved it closer, to use as a weapon.
The fallen bandit got up and in a quick lunge swung his blade, hoping to catch the large man off guard, but his blade met Ravi’s parry and was almost ripped from his grasp.
Kishore responded with a roundhouse swing that caught the surprised brigand in the side, the flat of the blade knocking the wind out of him. The strike was followed by a chair shattering across the brigand’s back, sending him to the ground. The second bandit, not waiting for the focus of attention to change, swung at the midget, but found his blow blocked by the hammer.
The flat of Kishore’s sword came down sharply, across the head of the breathless man kneeling before him, decisively knocking him down to the ground with a clattering of metal as the sword fell from the brigand’s grasp. The door to the inn again swung open and two more men rushed in. They were dressed in black leather armor, just like their predecessors, and they held readied swords. Ravi hurried forward, blocking the path of one of the men, meeting his sword with hers, creating a dull clanging of metal on metal. The other brigand took position over his fallen comrade, taking two wild swings at Kishore.
The sound of running feet could be heard behind the counter and the two men who had first disappeared into the kitchen ran out, one leaping over the counter and landing right next to Kishore, forcing the Lashkirian back, looking for space to set for two attackers. Jana forced her way into the fight, trying to lure one of the men off her companion.
A chair crashed across the side of one of the brigands, forcing him to stumble sideways, disturbing the midget’s defense against the man fighting him. Kishore barely managed to parry his other opponent as Jana’s strategy worked. One of the brigands was now out of Kishore’s reach and facing Jana one on one. This also placed Jana almost in the center of the fray.
The man fighting Ravi took the opportunity to alter his attack and took an extra swing at the young woman in between blows exchanged with the red-headed fighter. The man in the tabard barely managed to pull Jana back as the brigand’s sword passed through the space where she stood a moment before.
The second man of the two who were in the kitchen took the long way around the bar, only now coming into the common room. Although his sword was drawn, he tackled Jana and her rescuer off the top of the first stair, sending both of them tumbling to the ground.
The midget’s opponent, although clearly not comfortable fighting against a hammer, had the advantage of height. He unyielding swings forced the midget back into the common room. The tall skinny man, who sat with the midget, reluctantly drew his sword and backed his friend, awkwardly holding the blade, but being enough a distraction to prevent an unbalanced fight and not giving anyone the opportunity to dominate the melee.
Jana rolled out of the way, trying to maintain a grip on her weapon as the man who tackled her leapt to his feet. She frantically scooted back, expecting a strike from above, but instead the bandit swung his sword down at the man on the ground. There was no distinct sound that Jana could hear, but when the sword came back bloodied, she scrambled to her feet, assuming a defensive position. She backed up to where the rest of the group fought as the man advanced on her. She parried a swing and managed to avoid a thrust before discovering her retreat placed her against a table.
Jana staggered as her opponent’s sword tangled in her cloak and pulled her off balance. Ravi attempted to counter the advancing attacker, but only left herself open for a blow that crushed her armor below her ribs. She stumbled into the wall, leaving Jana completely open to another attack, when the door again opened and a new sword sank into the arm of the man who struck her. The brigand’s sword fell to the floor and the man groaned in pain.
Jana twisted out of the way of the man whose sword had caught her cloak. Before Ravi could strike at him again, the stranger, a man in worn armor with matted black hair, sank his blade into the brigand’s side.
Kishore parried his own opponent, delivering a sharp thrust to his chest. The man staggered back and sank to the floor and Kishore, no longer interested in the man, recovered from his downward thrust and brought his blade up sharply under the sword of the man fighting the midget. The brigand’s weapon angled up and sank into the soft wood of the low ceiling separating the common room from the inn vestibule.
“That’s right!” The midget’s hammer impacted his opponent’s unprotected stomach, throwing him into the counter several feet behind him.
The remaining brigand, fighting Jana, was quickly confronted and brought down by Ravi and the man who was last to join the fight.
Before any of the swords were down, Kishore leaped over the counter and hurried to the kitchen to see what had happened to the innkeeper. He reappeared a moment later, shaking his head.
“Let me see,” Ravi pushed her way past him, followed by the tall skinny man.
Kishore leaned on the counter, brushing his hair out of his face with both hands. “I don’t understand why.”
He took hold of Jana, not sure if she wanted to go into the kitchen and held her back. “He’s dead.”
The man in dirty armor dropped his sword, still stuck in the leg of his last opponent and hurried to the kitchen after the others, leaving Kishore, Jana and the midget alone.
“The fat fellow’s dead,” the midget said, coming up the three steps from the common room. “Probably would have done better with a sword.”
Jana turned back to look at the man she tried to hide from, not expecting to hear that he did not make it, but not really surprised at the results of the blow she saw him receive.
“Hope that’s not what you were after,” Kishore challenged the man he was ready to fight before the bandits’ arrival and turned his back to the midget, as he sat down on a stool.
“You okay, Shor?”
“Fine,” he nodded. “Just a few scrapes. You?”
Jana appeared tired, but not hurt. “I got my cloak torn. That man saved my life. And you and Ravi parried for me.”
“Don’t jump into the fight like that again,” he said. “It’s bad enough you’re here with me.”
Ravi came out of the kitchen, followed by the two men. “They killed him after the fight started,” she said. “They were torturing him before that.”
The man in the dirty armor made his way around the counter and up to the man he had first attacked, lying barely conscious on the floor. “Break his fingers, will you?” he grabbed the brigand by his neck and pulled him up. The brigand gurgled something, but was only shaken harder, his head being hit against the floor. “Like that?!”
By the time Kishore and the midget’s companion made it to him, the last brigand was dead, a pool of blood forming under his cracked skull.
“Good move,” the skinny man said. “Kill our only prisoner.”
“You idiot. Don’t you know how to hold a sword?”
“Hey, that’s enough!” Ravi intervened. She pushed the stranger’s sword away. “Thank you for helping us. And for saving me that cut.”
“I … ” He looked her in the eyes and shook his head. “Who were they?”
“I don’t know …”
“Who are you?”
“Ravi Lavgan,” the red-haired woman introduced herself.
“Sand,” the dirty man replied. “I’ve worked for Delor every now and again. He was a friend …”
“I’m sorry …”
Sand took a deep breath and pulled himself up on the counter.
“This is Kishore Talluri,” Ravi introduced the Lashkirian, “and Jana.”
“We’re all grateful for your help,” Kishore gripped forearms with Sand.
“You two may as well introduce yourselves,” Ravi said to the two men holding back. “You made as big a mess as we.”
The skinny man looked down at his companion, then stepped forward. “Salish. I’m sorry I wasn’t of more help, but I only know the bow.”
“You were a pair of hands and that’s what we needed,” Ravi said.
The midget held back the longest, then introduced himself as Giles Kreb. He made an effort of greeting everyone except Kishore and by the look on the Lashkirian’s face, he would have it no other way.
“What now?” Salish asked.
“We wait until morning, then get the constable,” Ravi suggested.
“You do that,” Sand said. “I’m leaving.”
“You can’t,” Ravi protested. “You’re the only one who knew this man.”
“Yeah, and he’s a dead body now. I’ve got other things to do.”
Ravi took hold of his arm. “None of us are from around here. Please.”
He set his jaw, challenging her with his eyes, but then gave in. “All right. I’ll stay.”
Jana looked at Kishore, fear clearly in her eyes.
“It’ll be fine,” he assured her. “We’re in Dargon.”
“What are you talking about?” Ravi asked.