“Shor?” Jana stuck her head through the trap door leading to the topmost balcony over the common room.
The Lashkirian warrior stood with his back to her, looking down at the common room below. The balcony was right below the ceiling of the inn’s extended third floor, just roomy enough to prevent the Lashkirian from having to bend down. Below, in a larger and wider concentric ring sat the second floor balcony with doors leading to rooms. It was set further out, causing the topmost floor to protrude out above it, making it seem like the extended portion of the rafters. Thirty feet below it all, lay the floor of the common room, with eight tables along walls, forming a semi-circle, leaving the center of the room open and clear. The east end of the room opened into the vestibule of the inn, disappearing under the low overhang of the second floor, separating what must have been the old and new portions of the building.
“Shor?” Jana climbed up to the balcony and walked up to him, holding the rail for support.
“I didn’t realize how open the room is to this balcony,” Kishore said to Jana, as she stopped by him. “You can see every corner from here … ”
“Are you setting up an ambush?”
He turned his head. “Are you afraid of heights?”
“What makes you say that?”
“Your bad jokes and the way you stand. You’re wittier, usually.”
“I’m just a little scared. I’ll be fine if I don’t look down.”
“Sit,” Kishore offered. “You were telling me about Tench last night, before the brigands came.”
Jana sat down by the trap door, placing her back against the wall. The bandits from the night before, she remembered nervously, came to rob the inn, involving the guests in a fight and causing all of them to spend an extra day here, waiting for the local constable to show to clear things up.
“You look a little pale,” Kishore said, sitting down by her. “Perhaps we should go downstairs.”
“I’m fine, really.” She took a deep breath. The chasm in the floor appeared right before her, seeming a league wide.
“Last few days been too much for you?” Kishore asked.
Jana nodded. “I didn’t think those men would be killed.”
“They’re brigands, Jana. Thieves. I am less worried about their well being than I am about yours. I am only sorry the time was so inappropriate.”
“I wanted some adventure, remember,” Jana smiled. “And besides, you didn’t know they would pick last night to raid the inn. It could have happened anywhere.”
“Nonetheless, it was bad timing.”
“Yes, but it would have to happen to me at one time or another. Better now, when there were people around, than later on, when I’m alone.”
“People died, Jana. You could have been one of them.”
Jana tilted her head towards Kishore. “I wanted to help.”
“Next time, please don’t.”
She nodded. “I’m sorry.”
“You did not know that man from Pyn … ?”
“Pyenson. Pyenson Barony is in the southwest part of the duchy, right up against the Darst Range.” She fell silent for a moment, then added. “I have no idea who the man is, other than a member of the House of Pyenson, judging by his dress. He was pretty far from home. I was afraid he’d recognize me. He gave his life for me instead.”
“Did that teach you anything?” Kishore asked. He was hoping she would decide she was reaching too far.
“I learned that when my brother and I sparred, he held back. The fight caught me off guard.”
“I never intended for you to fall into danger like last night.”
“Don’t worry about it. I was ready for a fight … with the Narragan guard. The brigands just caught me unprepared. I am ready, now.”
“You only think you are,” Kishore said. He had grown used to the girl’s stubborn streak. “You were telling me about Tench.”
“Tench is in Narragan … ” Jana started thoughtfully.
“How close to Armand?”
“Not very. Actually, it’s clear on the other side of the Duchy. There’s also a military camp not far from there, Castle Pentamorlo, on the Dargon side, so the Ducal Guard does not patrol the area much.”
“Who do the troops answer to?” Kishore asked.
“Lord Morion, a minor noble. The land was vested to him by three Kings of Baranur, so it’s his now,” Jana explained. “He’s sort of a Duke, but not really. And his soldiers patrol the area, so there’s no need for the Ducal Guard to go out of their way.”
“A sort of a Duke in a sort of a big place that is small?” Kishore inquired.
Jana laughed. “Did I say that?”
“Something like that.”
“Well, it is. The only reason Tench ever grew beyond a farming community is that it’s at a major crossroads. Hawksbridge and Wachock are south of it and Miass, east in Asbridge. I guess those would be the choices for where to go after Tench.”
“Before we settle on a place,” Kishore said, “how far do you intend to run?”
“I … ” Jana looked up at her companion. “How far will you take me?”
“How far will I … ”
“Hey, anybody around here?” A gruff voice sounded below.
Kishore leaned forward and looked down through the planks of the balcony rail. A large man in a faded military jacket stood in the middle of the common room, looking around. He scanned the balcony of the second floor with his eyes, but did not bother looking above that.
“Who is it?” Jana whispered.
“The constable, perhaps.”
“Can I help you?” Ravi’s voice sounded down below.
“I’m Constable Trumfor. I understand you folks had some guests last night.”
“We were the guests, Constable,” Ravi answered. “Some men attacked us. They killed the proprietor.”
“Who is ‘we’, lady? And what is your name?”
“My name is Ravi Lavgan and we — the other guests and I — were the people staying here for the night.”
“Yes, well … ”
Footsteps sounded in the common room. “Giles Kreb, a pleasure to meet you, Constable.” Metal clanked below.
“You were here last night?” Trumfor asked.
“Yes, I was.”
“I’m going to join them,” Kishore whispered to Jana. “Stay here. You’ll be able to see everything.”
“Yeah, as if I’ll look.”
“If your curiosity gets the better of you, you will.”
“Don’t pick a fight with the midget, Shor,” Jana reminded him.
“Not unless his tongue lashes out again.”
“Please, take a seat,” Ravi’s voice sounded as Kishore disappeared down the narrow ladder.
“I’d be happy to,” the constable answered. “It’s unseasonably hot out there,” he hinted to his hosts.
Wood creaked, as if a heavy load settled into a chair and Jana leaned forward a bit, trying to see what was going on. She moved forward, only far enough to see the balcony of the second floor across the room before her fear forced her to lean back against the wall.
“So, why don’t you tell me the story from the start,” Trumfor asked.
“Of course, Constable.”
Another chair creaked.
“Would you get us some mead?” Ravi asked.
“What? Me?” Kreb groaned.
“You’re just sitting here.”
“And you’re standing.”
“I’m telling a story. You get the constable something to drink.”
The midget grumbled and got up, the chair creaking once again.
“So, what happened last night?” Trumfor asked again.
Ravi sat down in the chair Kreb vacated, taking her time and trying the constable’s patience. “We were here waiting for our meals, six of us, when four men walked in. Two waited in the entry and the other two … ”
Kishore entered the common room from the vestibule stairs. “Ravi,” he greeted the woman.
“Kishore,” she stood up. “Kishore Talluri, Constable Trumfor. The Constable is here to investigate the murder.”
“An honor, sir,” Kishore gripped forearms with the man. The Constable was a heavy set man with greying hair and a weathered face. He was easily in his forties and possessed a powerful grip.
“Continue, please,” the constable insisted, returning to his chair. Kishore also sat down.
“Two men waited in the entryway,” Ravi went on, “while the other two entered the kitchen. I didn’t give it much thought at the time; the men acted rather boldly, as if they belonged.”
“It really didn’t look like they were here to kill anyone,” Kishore interjected into Ravi’s statement, “although they did have an air of arrogance about them.”
The Constable turned his head to Kishore, an irritated look on his face, but said nothing, seeing Kreb’s return.
The midget put three wooden mugs on the table and filled them from the pitcher he had brought. One mug was passed to the constable and another to Ravi. The third he kept for himself, having placed the pitcher back on the table.
“I admit I’m much larger than you,” Kishore leaned forward in his seat, coming nose to nose with the standing midget, “but a pitcher is far too large a mug for me.”
“So get yourself one,” Kreb barked, pulling up a seat.
“The story, please!” Trumfor interrupted the argument.
“Well, after the men disappeared into the kitchen,” Ravi went on, “we didn’t do anything until the innkeeper started yelling. It sounded like he was in trouble then, so we all got up and confronted the two men who were watching us … ”
“All of you. Three of you and … ? You said you were six.”
“My friend, Salish, was with us,” Kreb said.
“And my ward,” Kishore added. “And another patron, who was killed in the fight.”
“Where are they now?” the constable asked.
“Jana is around, I expect,” Kishore said. “She had little participation in the confrontation.”
“And the other one?”
“Salish,” Kreb repeated. “He was the one who rode out to get you. He’ll be back tomorrow morning.”
“Yes, the skinny man,” the constable remembered. “He said he was getting supplies.”
“After we confronted them, the men drew steel on us,” Ravi said. “They had first strike, but not first blood.”
“And you killed them?”
“Not that easily. Their companions in the kitchen joined them, as did two other men who apparently waited outside.”
“So there were six of them and six of you, and the innkeeper,” the constable tallied the people.
“Right, at first,” Ravi agreed, “but the innkeeper was dead by then. They killed him before they left the kitchen. And another man joined us in the fight. While we fought, he came in the door and aided us in the fight. He’s the only one from around here. A friend of the innkeeper.”
“Is he still here?” Trumfor asked.
“Out back, I think. I left him there just recently.”
“The bandits showed no will to yield, so we killed all of them in the fight.”
“Seven of you and six of them?”
“Most of us seem to be trained fighters. We held our own.” Ravi answered to the constable’s skepticism.
“Where are the bodies and where is the innkeeper’s friend?” Trumfor asked.
“The bodies are in the barn, also out back.”
“All right, let’s go see about them,” Trumfor got up.
They all went into the vestibule and through the back room to get outside, Kishore pausing at the edge of the common room to take a look up. He could see just a trace of Jana on the top balcony, sitting back from the rail. The balcony was too high to naturally fall in his line of vision and so appeared to be a perfect hiding space.
Outside Ravi brought the constable to Sand, who was splitting wood with an axe. Splinters flew in all directions each time he struck a log, but he would quickly turn it, or pull up another one, and strike again.
“You’re the innkeeper’s friend?” Trumfor asked. It was obvious that he recognized the woodsman.
“Yeah, what’s it to you?”
“Nothing, I suppose. Did the old man have any family?”
“None that I know of,” Sand said. “I know he built this place after his wife died, but I don’t know if they had children.”
“You know what those bandits wanted from him?”
“Money? Food? Room and lodging?” Sand said sarcastically.
“Don’t give me your mouth,” the constable warned. “Show me the bodies.”
Ravi led him and the others to the barn and let them in. “They’re in the back.”
Trumfor walked between the eight stabled horses, looking right and left at the animals. He paused by the white stallion that belonged to Jana, admiring the horse. “Nice, nice … ”
Having looked in each of the twelve stalls, the constable turned to Ravi. “Whose animals are these?”
“All but the three on the end are ours,” Ravi responded. “I guess the extras are the innkeeper’s. One could belong to the dead guest.”
“Are they?” Trumfor asked Sand.
“I imagine so,” he said. “I wasn’t writing his ledger.”
“What about the bandits? They didn’t walk, did they?”
“I put their horses in the woods behind the house,” Sand said. “Didn’t want them recognized by others who may pass through.”
The constable nodded at that and entered the stall where eight bodies lay on the hay. He first looked over the dead innkeeper, pausing on the cuts in his neck and chest. “Quick cuts. They wanted him to die.”
“Look at his hand,” Sand said. “They broke some fingers before they killed him.”
The constable picked up the dead man’s hand and examined the now black bruises, then let it drop in the hay and looked at the other bodies. He paused again at the man who was obviously not with the brigands and straightened his tabard to get a better look. “Pyenson Barony, in Narragan, if I’m not mistaken. Know his name?”
“We did not exactly have the time to ask,” Ravi said. “It all happened pretty quickly.”
“And these are the six you killed?”
He looked the men over one by one, taking care to examine the cuts. “Someone bash this man while he was on the ground?” he asked, examining the split skull of the man Kishore had struck from above, the first casualty of the fight.
“It was a rather vigorous battle,” Ravi said. “I’m sure one of us did.”
“Well, no matter. This one has a reward of five silver on him. Ten, if he were alive.” The constable looked at the last of the bodies, the man Sand killed after the fight ended. “Don’t tell me this happened in the fight, too.” The back of the brigand’s skull was crushed and throat covered with bloody scratches. The body was stained with dried blood.
“It was a rather vigorous battle,” Ravi repeated. “I don’t think any of us could say how that happened exactly.”
“Yes, well. I know him, too, and I don’t care how he died. And if I’m destined to ever find his buddies, I wouldn’t object to them suffering the same fate. Save the Duke’s Advocate the bother of trying them.” The constable stood up and critically examined the old barn. “You know, five years patrolling this part of the Duchy and this is the first time I stopped at this rat hole.” He kicked the wall of a stall, causing the old board to crack. “I watered my horse in better swamps. Now I have to investigate this one … ”
“I’m willing to offer any help that I can,” Sand said. “I owe the man something for his kindness … ”
“We’re all willing to help,” Ravi said. Kreb started to say something, but she kicked him instead. “We all suffered through the night.”
Trumfor brushed his chin, a little grey growth on it from the previous day. “Why don’t I just deputize you for this and have you look?”
“For what?” Ravi asked.
“Why don’t you come with me, all of you.”
Jana climbed down the vertical ladder off the top balcony, clinging to it for fear of falling. She hated heights, but she hated the idea of being seen by the local Constable even more. For that matter, she did not much want to be seen by anyone, including the people she had spent the night with at the inn.
‘The Forgotten Inn’, the sign proclaimed over the doors, and she had hoped that meant that this lone building, in the middle of nowhere, would be a quiet place to spend the night before continuing to Dargon, but instead it was besieged by guests, and later bandits. She had not wanted to spend the evening in a fight.
At home brigands were rare. Narragan, like Dargon, was still a frontier of Baranur and justice in the Duchy was always rapid. Public executions were not uncommon and did their share to discourage crime. She had never heard of a group of men, such as this, being able to attempt what she had witnessed the night before. She had no doubt they would have killed everyone at the inn, had they been given a chance, and that made her wish she was back home. It was the first time she felt this way in her dozen days on the road and it scared her to think that her father was right when he told her she was not bred for a life of adventure.
Jana hurried down the flight of stairs from the guest rooms, wanting to escape the inn for the deep woods outside, to wait for the Constable’s departure, but instead, as she entered the vestibule, came face to face with the constable, returning from the back of the inn.
The old soldier reflexively grabbed Jana, preventing a collision and the girl immediately shrunk back.
“My ward,” Kishore said, hurrying to the constable’s side, protectively putting his arm around Jana’s shoulders and pulling her back. “Constable Trumfor, Jana Wynn.”
“How old are you, girl?”
“Sixteen,” she hesitated before answering.
“Yes, yes,” Trumfor muttered and went on.
“Are you all right?” Ravi asked Jana.
“Yes,” she nodded.
“Go outside,” Kishore said. “We will be done soon.”
Jana let out a breath of relief and hurried out the back way. Kishore hurried to catch up with the others in the common room.
Constable Trumfor sat in his chair and took a long drink from a freshly filled mug. “There is a whole lair of these brigands somewhere here in the woods. Two dozen or so. I figure if you catch all of them — all the right ones — you’ll earn yourselves a couple of gold Marks. Nothing to make you rich, but enough to keep you in rations for a year or two.”
“Why haven’t they been caught yet?” Ravi asked.
“Because they’re not that big a problem,” the constable answered. “They’re just annoying enough to have a price on their heads, but not enough of one to summon bounty hunters or send the Guard after them. Bring ‘em in and I’ll pay you.”
“Where are they?” Kreb asked, a greedy sparkle in his eyes.
“If I knew that, I wouldn’t be here telling you to go find them.”
“How will we know it’s them if we find them?” Ravi asked. “There are travellers on this road and people in these woods.”
“Your first clue will be them trying to rob you,” Trumfor laughed. He downed the rest of the ale and stood up. “I’ll send someone for the bodies, and to pay you the reward. If you find anymore, take them to Dargon, or look me up in Heahun or Shireton.” He shuffled a moment longer, checking his sword and belt, then headed for the door.
“Constable,” Sand called out after him. “What about the inn?”
“What about it?”
“Delor is dead,” Sand answered, “and I don’t know if he had children … ”
“If no one claims it in three years, the land will revert to the Duke … but so long as the taxes are paid, no one will care who’s here. I certainly won’t.”
“An inn and a reward … ” Kreb muttered as Trumfor again headed for the door, no longer paying attention to them.
Ravi cast Kreb a look of disgust. “Personally, I’d like to get my hands on their leader. This seems like too quiet a road to have bandits on it.”
“I’d like nothing more myself,” Sand agreed.
“I already said I’m in,” Kreb repeated.
Kishore looked at all of them, his gaze passing from one face to another. “Your intentions are admirable, but you know nothing of one another, or what awaits you down the road.”
“Are you not joining us?” Ravi asked.
“I was planing to be in Dargon soon,” Kishore said.
“So what’s a few more days?”
“A few less days I will have to do something else. I have a young girl to care for. I have no wish to drag her into some personal revenge. I killed two men last night. That’s two more than I have killed in a long time. Death isn’t something I want her to experience. We’ll be leaving tomorrow morning.”
No one replied and Kishore got up and left the room, leaving the others to think about what he had said.
“Well, that’s his loss,” Kreb was the first to get up.
“It’s his choice, not his loss,” Sand corrected him. “I can understand what he said.”
“Whatever,” the midget muttered and left the room.
“Foul attitude,” Ravi leaned back in her chair.
“I can understand him, too,” Sand answered. “Four foot tall is a long way to look up, especially if you’re dealing with someone as tall as the Lashkirian.”
“You weren’t here when he got called a ‘lizard man’.”
“Then maybe it’s for the better if he left,” Sand agreed. “We’ll be having plenty of battles if we tackle the brigands.”
“But he is good with a sword … ”
“Jana?” Kishore called to his companion, having come out the kitchen door of the inn. Jana sat on a low wooden bench behind the building and he took a seat by the girl. “The constable left. Are you all right?”
“Fine. He scared me a bit.”
“You did run into him.”
“I wanted … thought if I could get outside … He didn’t recognize me, did he?”
“Do you know him?”
“No,” Jana protested. “He’s just a soldier, and in Dargon, at that.”
“Then don’t worry about it,” Kishore said. “I doubt anyone not looking for you will know who you are. And we’ll be leaving tomorrow, anyway.”
“For Dargon? And then Tench?”
“Dargon, and then Tench,” Kishore agreed. “And then you’ll have to give me more advice.”
“Miass,” Jana answered without being prompted. “As far away from Armand as I can get.”
“You’ll miss your family.”
“Are you asking me, or telling me?”
“I’m telling you,” Kishore answered thoughtfully. “I miss mine.”
“You never told me about your family,” Jana said.
“No. And I’d rather not now.”
“Doesn’t seem like I’m the only one running.” Jana got up, dusting herself off.
“Everyone runs. We just do it for different reasons.”
“I’ll check the horses, so we can keep running tomorrow,” Jana laughed and headed for the barn.
“Don’t be too long!” Kishore called after her.
As soon as she was out of sight in the darkness, new footsteps sounded from the house, behind Kishore, and he turned to look. Giles Kreb slowly made his way to him. “Don’t fight me, Lashkirian.”
“I’ll be leaving soon enough. Fight whoever you want, then,” Kishore said, getting up.
“I’ll fight who I want, when I want to, but I’ll also be man enough to appreciate another’s skill.”
Kishore looked down at the midget. “If this is about last night, you’re welcome.”
“It’s about last night and all other nights to come. Your presence made a difference.”
“Shor!” Jana called from the barn. Kishore glanced her way and when he looked back, Kreb was making his way back to the inn.
“Yes?” Kishore started for Jana, puzzled over the midget’s words. What was he trying to say?
“What did Kreb want from you?” Jana asked.
“I’m not sure … He didn’t really thank me … and he didn’t ask me to stay, but I’ve got the feeling that’s what he wanted to do … ”
“Stay? You mean at the inn? Why?”
“The constable hired us — I say ‘us’ loosely — to find the rest of the brigands in these parts. I thought it would be better if we moved on.”
“You didn’t ask me?” Jana chided.
“I don’t think looking for highwaymen is a good thing for us to do.”
“You mean for me, right?” Jana asked.
“More for you than me,” Kishore agreed.
“Can’t we stay another day or two?”
“Well, you say Kreb asked you to,” Jana offered, “and if he could swallow his pride, it must be pretty important.”
“He didn’t ask me,” Kishore stressed, “and even if he had, I don’t think I’d do it for him.”
“You weren’t in this much of a hurry last night.”
“I hadn’t met Kreb then. And we weren’t in any danger.”
“But can we stay a day or two longer?” Jana insisted.
“I stayed up last night talking with Ravi,” Jana explained. “She … she’s the type of a person I always wanted to be — free and independent. I really like her, and if she’s going to stay … ”
“Jana,” Kishore sighed, “we’re a mere fortnight from Armand. We’re not safe here. Anyone can follow us. This is the only road to Dargon.”
“This is the most direct, but not the largest, nor the safest,” Jana corrected Kishore’s argument. “That’s why we took this road. Please?”
He nodded with reluctance. “All right. Come on, it’s dark out.”
“Wait. Isn’t the constable taking the bodies? They’ve been here a whole day now. They will start to smell in this heat soon.”
“The horses won’t mind another day,” Kishore answered. “Trumfor said he will send someone to get them.”
“Yeah, but in the barn … ”
“They could be in the house,” Kishore said, “or in a war. Be glad you didn’t see the bodies in the war.”
“My brother was in the war,” Jana told him. “He said the same thing.”
“You don’t know how right he was.”
They returned to the inn, pausing at the kitchen doorway.
“Do you want something to eat?” Kishore asked.
“No. Not now. Not after seeing those bodies again.”
“Suit yourself.” He headed into the kitchen, leaving Jana in the vestibule.
Ravi was putting mugs away in the kitchen, cleaning up after the constable’s visit. “So can I change your mind about leaving tomorrow?” she asked as he came in.
“Are you anxious I left sooner?” Kishore hid a smile, looking through a storage bin which contained fruit. He selected a dark green apple and turned back to the red-headed woman.
“I was wondering if you could be persuaded to change your mind,” she answered. “We could use the help.”
“You say that as if you expect to find the other brigands,” Kishore said, taking a bite from his apple.
“I know we will,” she answered, “or they’ll find us first — we cut their number by six. A dozen or five dozen, losing six will sting.”
“And if I say ‘yes’?”
“Then one sixth of two Marks is just over three Rounds.”
“And that’ll keep me in rations for a month or two?” Kishore asked with a smile.
“Depends on how much you eat. You’re pretty big.”
Kishore thought for a moment, chewing on the apple. “You’re not the first one to ask me to stay.”
“But were you convinced before I asked?” Ravi asked.
“Almost. And I’m almost convinced now. I guess another day or two won’t hurt.”