“Ravi?” Salish called through the open kitchen door. “Ravi?”
“What is it?” The red-headed woman appeared from the back of the inn, sword in hand, expecting trouble. Things at the inn had been too quiet, too long.
“No, no. Look,” Salish said, pointing into the common room.
“Bend down.” He guided her. “Up on the second floor.”
Ravi bent over the counter, trying to see the second floor balcony in the common room, mostly hidden by the low ceiling of the vestibule. Two pairs of feet could be seen at a door. They stood there a moment, then the door opened and they went inside.
“I just rented out a room!”
“You did what?”
“A toast!” Salish picked up a mug sitting on the counter. “To good business at a good location!”
“You rented out a room?” Ravi asked as he took a big gulp from the mug.
“Well, this is an inn and they wanted lodging, so … It seemed the natural thing to do.” He got up and got another mug of ale for Ravi.
She laughed. “I didn’t think about that. This is an inn.”
“‘The Forgotten Inn’,” Salish added, again raising the mug in a symbolic toast to the sign hanging outside the door.
“Feels a little strange,” Ravi said. She took a careful sip from the large vessel. “And just after we buried Delor …”
“We can always take the sign down,” Salish suggested, obviously not really liking the idea.
“No … No, we shouldn’t. I don’t think Sand would want to.”
“Sand? He wasn’t even here for most of the fight.”
“He’s more native to these parts than the rest of us,” Ravi explained. “And this is more of a home to him than to the rest of us. He was just telling me last night about how he met Delor a couple of years back.”
Salish pulled up a stool and sat down. “It’s so hard to understand what happened here that night … Maybe if we had expected it, or if I had my bow, or Delor was …”
“Hard to believe it’s been less than two days,” Ravi muttered. She did not like Salish changing the topic. She wanted to talk about Delor, but she wanted to talk about the bandits as well.
“Hard to believe I feel sorry for a slob who overcharged me,” Salish sighed.
“I’m surprised I’ve come to respect the man in death more than I did in life,” Ravi agreed. “I’ve stayed here a few times before …”
“I guess if we pay the taxes on it,” Salish started, “we can keep this place.” He paused, thinking. “What am I saying? I’m not ready to settle down.”
“Are any of us … How much did you charge for the room?”
“Sure, that’s what Kreb and I were charged.” Salish paused again, thinking. “It was three Rounds a day for a regular room, four for a room and a bath and five per day for a corner room with a bath. Stabling is a Round a day, plus five Bits to groom the horse.”
“You’d think this was Merchants’ Quarter, Hawksbridge,” Ravi laughed. “This is a dunghill!”
“Compared to what’s out there,” Salish motioned at the door, “this is lodging fit for nobility.”
Ravi nodded. “We’re going to have to be ready for guests in this case. Why don’t I go and check the rooms and see if they’re in good shape.”
Salish hopped off his stool. “If you see Kreb, send him my way.”
Kishore watched Sand put the last of the horses which had belonged to the brigands in the barn and helped him close the doors. “That’s an extra eight horses to deal with,” the woodsman said, heaving at the door one last time. “They’ll stay in there.”
“They’re good animals,” Kishore noted, referring to the horses the brigands rode. “I imagine they’d fetch a good price on the market.”
“Three or four Marks, easily,” Sand agreed. “But I get the feeling they didn’t happen upon them honestly.”
“Well, actually, neither did we.”
“Honestly enough for my taste,” Sand grumbled.
They headed back to the inn.
“What changed your mind to stay longer?” Sand asked as they crossed the yard behind the house.
“Jana. We’ve been on the road for quite some time, sleeping mostly under the open sky. A storm overtook us a few nights ago … It’s nice to sleep in a bed, with a roof overhead.”
“You’re not …” Sand started to say something, but did not finish.
“No, I’m not used to being rained on,” Kishore said, guessing at what the woodsman was after. Like the woodsman, he appreciated what little privacy was afforded to him.
Sand nodded. “Will you help us look for the brigands?”
Kishore shrugged. “I don’t want to promise what I’m not sure I can deliver. Jana is my primary responsibility. She is young and in search of an adventure. I don’t want her to learn the dangers of adventuring at this age. Not first hand, anyhow.”
They entered the inn through the rear door and came into the vestibule by the back room.
“You’re, of course, welcome to stay here as long as you need,” Sand said. “You’ve spilled as much blood as the next man defending this place.”
“It’s the blood spilling that makes me want to leave,” Kishore responded.
They paused at the door in the vestibule, not far from the counter behind which sat Salish. Giles Kreb rumbled down the stairs from the second floor. Short as he was, he was also plump, and made quite a racket on the way down.
“Ravi wants to see you upstairs.” He came to a stop at the bottom. “Corner room.”
“Him or me?”
Exchanging a puzzled look, Kishore and Sand proceeded upstairs.
“What’d you want, Sal?” the midget asked. He looked back after the two men, neither of which made an effort to move out of his way as they went up.
“I rented a room out,” the tall archer answered.
“So I’ve heard.” Kreb went behind the counter and moved a stool closer to the front.
“I figure if we can fill half the rooms at three Rounds a night, that’s thirty Rounds … That’s over forty Marks a month!”
“From what I’ve seen,” Kreb said, “this inn’ll be lucky if it fills two rooms a night. What fool’d ever build a twenty room inn in the middle of nowhere!?”
“Some fools are really visionaries in disguise,” Salish declared. “Maybe this was one of them …”
Kreb grumbled. “We’ll make better money guarding a caravan.”
“Stay here and watch for business,” Salish advised. “The two that came in left their horses out front. I promised I’d put them up.”
Sand knocked on the partially open door to the first corner room.
“Yes?” Ravi’s voice sounded.
Sand pushed the door open and entered the room, followed by Kishore. “Shorty says you wanted to see us.”
The room they were in was somewhat of a mess. The floor was dirty, the bed frame cracked. A broken chair stood off in a corner. One of the window shutters was missing and a big stain could be seen on the floor where rain would freely blow in.
“Either of you know the first thing about being a carpenter?”
“Possibly first and second,” Sand said after Kishore shook his head.
“Good,” Ravi answered. “Look at this mess. We need to get this room in shape. Would you help?”
“Why? Your room too small for you?”
“We’ve got guests,” Ravi said. “This is an inn, after all.”
“Guests?” Kishore asked.
“A couple of people came in just recently. They’re staying in the room down the corridor.”
Sand frowned. “I didn’t expect to be running an inn …”
“This is an inn,” Ravi stressed, “and we are staying here, so that’s just a part of what’ll be expected of us. We either give free room and board, or we charge for it and I see nothing wrong with charging money for a place to stay. If it’s in good shape, anyhow.”
Sand walked across to the window and examined the wall where the missing shutter used to hang. “I guess I can do something about it. Midget or his friend know anything about woodwork?”
Ravi shook her head. “They can chop it.”
“Great.” Sand turned to Kishore. “I don’t suppose you’ve got some hidden talents?”
“Sorry,” the Lashkirian laughed. “I hadn’t seen a tree until after I could hold a sword.”
Sand let out a laugh for the first time in two days. “No wood, no rain. What did you do all your life?”
“I fought the Haber-Hayn,” Kishore said, almost immediately regretting the fast words. The woodsman’s laugh gave him a false sense of security.
“The what?” Ravi asked.
“The clan that fought my clan,” the Lashkirian sighed. “The desert is not barren of conflict.”
Giles Kreb moved the stool closer to the counter and climbed up on it. Sitting atop the stool, he could easily see over the counter, which otherwise was chin high to him. He looked around, wondering if the fat man who owned the inn kept a log of guests. Neither he, nor Salish, were asked to sign in, as was customary at most inns and taverns that offered a bed to weary travelers. For that matter, he witnessed Ravi, the red-haired woman, come in and not sign in. It was strange that no records existed. Perhaps the proprietor was illiterate, but then there was the name of the inn, carved over the door. There had to be a ledger somewhere!
Kreb twisted right and left on the stool, trying to see what else was in the space behind the counter. Was there something he overlooked?
The front door opened and a pair of men in grey uniforms walked in. They paused only a moment, to identify Kreb at the counter and headed directly for him.
“Can I help you, gentlemen?” Kreb perked up, ready to make another sale. The men were clearly not the Dargon Ducal or Town Guard. On their uniforms they wore the Narragan coat of arms and other symbols.
“Are you the owner of this establishment?” one of the soldiers asked.
“I … well, as much as I can be,” Kreb brushed his gut. If one sixths of the inn was all he could claim, then he was one sixths an owner — no less one than any one else.
“We’re with Duke Narragan’s personal guard. Have you seen this girl?” The guard handed Kreb a sheet with a picture of a woman, looking remarkably like Jana. The picture appeared to be a sketch from a larger painting.
Giles Kreb bit his lip to maintain a neutral expression. “What she do?”
“We believe she’s with a tall dark-skinned man, possibly a Benosian or a Lashkirian. He kidnapped her just over a fortnight ago.”
Kreb shook his head.
“There is a reward — five Marks for the man and ten more for the girl’s safe return.”
Kreb had to bite his lip even harder, unsure why he was protecting the lizard man, but proud of his ability to stand up to the guards. Too often he had found himself on the wrong side of their wrath and this time he held power over them.
“That’s a lot of gold for a face on parchment.”
The two guards exchanged a conspiring glance. “The girl is the daughter to Duke Narragan.”
“His daughter? You should probably sit at home and wait for a ransom notice.”
“Do you mind if we hang this notice here?”
Kreb shrugged. “Use your own nails.”
One of the guards quickly produced a hammer and nail and proceeded to hammer the sheet to the wall right across from the counter in the vestibule.
“Keep it down in there!” Ravi’s voice floated down from the second floor.
“Yeah, yeah,” Kreb called back as the hammering stopped.
The guard posting the notice replaced the hammer on his belt and returned to the counter.
“Would you like a room as well?” Kreb asked. He could see by looking at them that they would refuse, but he had to ask.
“We must make it to Dargon with all haste,” the soldier who had been doing all the talking said.
“It’s a fortnight’s journey,” Kreb repeated the words Delor said to him and Salish. “You’re bound to get lost at night and not make it at all.”
The two men exchanged concerned glances. “Which way to Dargon?”
“Right there,” Kreb pointed out the door, twisting his stubby finger to point east. “Down the road and through the woods.”
“Does the road fork?”
“Not if you stick to the wagon tracks in the dirt.”
“I wish to buy two pints of lamp oil, then,” the soldier responded. He sounded rather determined.
“A Round,” Kreb said, hiding a smile. “A Round each.”
“A Round?!” the guard exclaimed. “I can buy it in town for four or five Bits a pint!”
“But we’re not in town,” Kreb stressed, “and lamp oil doesn’t grow on trees …”
The guard angrily slapped some coins on the counter.
Kreb smiled and hoped off the stool. “I’ll give you a room for two silver, if you want …”
“Give me the oil.”
“What was that?” Kishore asked as Ravi returned to the room.
“I don’t know. Sounded like Kreb was beating something into the wall.”
Sand looked up from examining the broken bed. “If he wasn’t fixing something, he will be when I get down there.”
“Maybe he was building himself a stool,” Kishore laughed.
“Arrogant little ass.”
“Cut it out, you two,” Ravi warned. “He was good for you when he helped in the fight. Remember that when you’re talking about him.”
“He’s an arrogant little ass,” Kishore repeated Sand’s words, “with no respect for other cultures or people. He’s obnoxious, greedy, and short tempered. And short.”
“So you’d have fought him if those men hadn’t come?” Ravi asked.
“I’d have beat him into the ground.”
“Is ‘lizard man’ as bad a thing to be called as ‘dwarf’?”
Kishore set his jaw. “I never called him that.”
“Give me a hand,” Sand asked Kishore and they flipped over the bed as Ravi continued talking.
“I think a lot of others have and it made him bitter, just like you are at being called a ‘lizard man’.”
“He should keep his bitterness to himself,” Kishore answered, straightening up. “Have some respect.”
“Since you’re staying here, can you promise me not to start any fights?”
“Damn ants …” Sand muttered over the conversation behind him.
Kishore had leaned on the tilted bed after it was turned over, but Sand’s comment forced him to step away. “I won’t start anything, but I will finish anything Kreb starts,” he said and turned to look at the bed.
“Then let’s hope he only does beneficial things,” Ravi stressed the objective of the conversation.
“Ants,” Sand shook his head. “White ants. See right here?”
Kishore bent down to get a closer look where the woodsman pointed. A series of small holes could be seen in the boards on the floor.
“I can fix the bed,” Sand said, “but this …”
“I remember my parents used lye to kill them,” Ravi said, also taking a closer look.
“Sure. As soon as someone hunts us some fresh dinner, I can boil some up.”
Kishore let loose a twisted smile, but hurried to hide it, looking at what Sand was doing. “Can you fix it?”
“Easier than fixing you and that midget. I’ll need a board to reinforce the bed. I saw some in the storage room. The floor … depends on how bad it is on the other side.”
“What about the shutters?” Ravi asked. “If it keeps blowing wind and rain in here, the planks will rot, no matter what else you fix.”
“Shutters will be tougher. I’ll need a block of wood to cut them. We’ll need to fell a tree … or just get a set in town.”
“If we have enough customers,” Ravi said, “we can buy a set.”
“Why?” Sand got up. “Have you had enough adventuring? Want to run an inn now?”
“I’d like to avoid going through Tench any time soon,” Ravi smiled. “I’ve got the feeling few people will be happy to see me there.”
“Well, I’m willing to give this inn business a try,” Sand said. “Maybe until I find Delor’s kids … or find out that he doesn’t have any.”
“What about you?” Ravi asked Kishore.
“Maybe a few more days and I’ll have to be leaving,” he said.
“See if they still remember me in Tench,” Ravi laughed.
“I’ll do better than that. I’ll …”
Something crashed outside, followed by a series of loud exclamations. Ravi rushed to the door, followed by Kishore and then Sand. From the landing, they could see two men pulling Giles Kreb off a third. The midget roared furiously, managing to use his smaller bulkier stature to lever one of the men over himself before being tackled by the third.
“Damn them!” Sand exclaimed and leaped over the second floor guard rail, crashing on one of the men below. He grabbed the man by his black cuir boulli and flung him to the ground, giving Kreb a chance to regain his feet.
“The brigands,” Ravi whispered, recognizing the black leather armor.
Kishore followed Sand’s example, taking a leap off the second floor, landing on a brigand about to smash a chair across Kreb’s back. Both men tumbled to the floor, knocking Kreb down in the process. Kishore attempted to wrestle the large man he had tackled, until a sudden crash and splintering of wood sounded above and the brigand went limp, dropping on Kishore.
Giles Kreb tossed aside the the remnants of the chair he had smashed across the Lashkirian’s opponent’s back and rushed at the man he had initially tackled when the three brigands first came in. Tripping over the scattered furniture, they both tumbled into the vestibule of the inn, coming to a rest against the edge of the counter before the front door.
Kishore jumped up to his feet and grabbed hold of a brigand’s arm, who was about to strike at Sand. The man turned to face the Lashkirian, a much larger opponent than Sand, when the woodsman kicked at the back of his knees, bringing him down to the ground. A second strike at the man’s head knocked him cold.
Kishore rushed to Kreb’s aid, making it to the vestibule just in time to see the midget smash his opponent into the wall. The man wavered in place for a moment and fell forward, just missing impacting Kreb. A splatter of red remained on the wall.
Kishore carefully examined the blood on the wall. It was clustered around and dripping off a heavy nail, hammered in at the brigand’s head level. His impact into the wall forced the sharp metal spike to penetrate at the base of his skull.
Kreb shrugged, as Sand made his way into the vestibule from the common room and Ravi came down the stairs.
“Why the hell did you hammer that in?” Sand asked as Kishore bent down to check the bandit.
“I was going to hang a picture …” Kreb muttered.
“He’s dead,” Kishore got up. “I think that went right in his spine.”
“Lucky hit …”
“Why don’t you clean up your luck,” Sand muttered.
The front door swung open and Salish entered the vestibule, whistling a tune. He paused, looking at the carnage in the two rooms. “What the …”
“Same armor,” Ravi said. “They had to have come for Delor.”
“They asked for ‘the fat goat’,” Kreb said. “And if I saw more men dressed like them.”
“They’re probably backtracking,” Sand said. “It’s only a matter of time before more come. We’ll have to fight them all …”
“We should’ve thought of that,” Ravi said. She sounded angry. “This could have cost us dearly.”
Kishore turned to look back into the common room, where the two unconscious bodies lay. “Three chairs and a table were worth it.”
“There’s that slab of wood for the shutters,” Sand chuckled, seeing the ruined table.
The five of them remained standing in the vestibule, looking at one another, at the litter and bodies scattered on the floor, no longer sure if this inheritance of theirs and the task Constable Trumfor had charged them with were such a good idea after all. They were now challenged in what they had assumed to be a safe haven, a home of sorts. A place they had trusted to be their fortress. Now blood and bodies and broken furniture littered the floor. They would have to fight for everything, even this piece of land, far removed from the nearest city.
“Let’s clean this mess up.” There was nothing else to do.