“Trade, trade.” He said from beyond the door. Vanna pulled her face away from the slats and opened the front door.
“What are you doing?” She said.
Skayn adjusted the sack over his right shoulder. “I bring tidings of good cheers and presents for all the good boys and girls.”
She grabbed his sleeves and pulled him in. “Get in here before somebody sees you.” She closed the door behind him.
Skayn was tall and well-meaning with a dopy farm-boy smile and sandy blond hair. His eyes were small and cast together, set like holes in his wide flat face. He sauntered into the inn. The fire still cooked but was tempered by the draining red coals and the occasional crackle of marigold embers.
Vanna had kept the fire stroked at first but as the night dragged on she was content to let the light and heat fade. She had her lantern for reading and only stayed out of the accounts which needed to be done before morning. She was fixed to retire to bed when his knocking came and now she stood, narrowed eyed and folded arms, her pleasant face all points and lines in her consternation.
“Have you lost your senses, Skayn? Why are you at my door?
“I live here.”
“I mean literally. Why are you at my front door. You know you’re supposed to enter thorough the cellar.”
“But it’s such a lovely night. I wanted to see the blood moon turn without having to walk thorough brumbles. To hear the cockcrow sing in the trees without pine needles poking me in the ass.”
“That’s not…” She bit down her words. Anything else would be humoring him. Skayn loved to see her froth. He loved to see her neck veins bulge as she began to rage.
“If anyone saw you coming up the road, or to the door, serious questions would be raised about my maidenship. Need I remind you that our arrangement serves only under the auspice that you don’t exist? I don’t need to tell you that as far as anyone else is concern, I am the sole proprietor of this inn and the only permanent occupant thereof? Has that been made clear to you yet?”
She watched her words wash over him for a moment, and then he dropped the bag and threw a few more logs into the fire. When he turned, the backlight shadowed his features so that she could only see the outline of his dopey smile.
“I love you too dear. What’s for supper?”
“So I say ‘Your choice, boy. You can either choose to walk away or choose not to. Either way, I’m getting your coin.’ Well, the boy squares up and he goes ‘You and what host?’ Well, you should have seen the look on his face when Yoan and the boys climbed out of the hedges. Nearly cacked himself he did.”
He fed on the last of the mutton and a half-mug of spice ale that remained. She sat acrossed the table, separating the silver from the copper and setting them aside from the gold in distinct individual piles. She never minded his tall-tales. His teling of them were always fanciful and filled with japes. To hear him barding, you’d think his robberies were all quips and punch lines, written routines recited for stage players.
She never inquired what he did with the bodies and he never told her. “No one important gets hurt” was the lie she told herself. “It’s all for the good of the inn.”
The inn itself was homely but decrepit. It overlooked at hill just off the main road, connected to the thoroughfare by a dirt trail and hidden on either side by thorn birch and black oaks. The only way to see it would be straight on, looking up from the road. By then, most decided to stay on passed the curve of the hill and try to reach Everton by evening.
The few that stayed on were usually families traveling or the elderly, those who chartered one of the minor coaching companies who were contracted to the inn. She treated her guess to a mild stock lamb mutton, sheep haggish and beets, barley and sprouts. The spice ale was quaint but the beer and rum were watered down. The wine was of an even poorer vintage and selection. Anything stout tasted as if it was casked in a show.
It was a hard life getting hader. A new road was being cut through the forest, passing the hills and smaller towns. Travel had lightened in the bleak, long winter and had not returned in the spring thaw.
Thank Avandra for Skayn.
“Did you pay Gassavan before you left?”
Skayn took a swallow of ale.
“Yeh. Gave him two silvers and a tuppence of gold. He wanted more.”
“What did you say?”
“I reminded him that we know where his wife lives and where he beds his whores.”
“I imagine that sat him straight.”
“For the time. I might have to letter his wife anyway. Just in case he smartens up.”
“Hah! Him smart is bread mold.” The thought caught her off-guard and she closed her lip over her teeth to stifle a laugh. “Gassavan couldn’t find his knickers with two hands, two eyes, a map and a compass. He won’t trouble us.”
“No.” Skayn said. “He won’t.” and then he stared off.
She watched firelight as it danced on his face and then silently began counting the coins.
“When you first saw me, what popped into your head?” He said.
“What is this man doing in my cellar?”
He laughed and looked at the mug.
“I thought that you were a briggan come to kill and rape me in the night.”
“’Kill and rape’ you? You mean ‘rape and kill’ you.”
“No. No. I distinctly remembered “kill” then “rape”. I was very startled.”
Skayn laughed again, a musical sound common to little boys. He looked up at her with his small, bright eyes.
“You know what I thought?”
“No.” She said, already smiling.
“Wow, what a pretty girl…I’m going to get blood all over her when I die.”
The man was still there. The last carriage had set off more than an hour ago. The rain swept across the hill in the interim and he was still here. He had already paid for the meal and he made no mention of staying the night, but when she returned from nailing down the shutters she saw him, helping himself to another bowl of barley broth from the pot.
She removed her slick-coak and hung it up on the hook behind the bar. Thunder rattled outside and the wind hissed between cracks like words thorough teeth. The fire cocked on, filled the in with a pillow worth, and the smell of the soap was still strong even as it cool.
She walked over to the stranger.
“So, changed your mind about leaving?”
The man didn’t look up as he slurped from the spoon. “No.”
“Well, the last carriage is out. If you leave, you’ll be walking in that.”
Thunder clapped for emphasis.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t mind a stay?” She said. “You already paid for the soup. A shilling will get you a room and a bed.”
“No, thank you.”
She glanced at the pack seated next to him.
“He had come early in the evening with the others. He was tall and thin. His face was square and rough, as if hewed from clay and hardened. His nose was broad and flat. A rough beard grimed his face. His hair was shaggy and dark. His eyes, his eyes, gazed out of the world with a wild cunning. They were eyes better suited for dogs…or wolves.
It made her tense to look at him. She turned away and headed around the corner of the bar.
“Well, you better be quick about it.” Said picking up a rag from the counter. “I have to clean.” She saw the man nod from the corner or eye.
She had begun summing totals when the man dropped a quintet of coins on the desk. She jawed openly, her mouth hanged down to her throat. She swallowing forced her lips to close and she looked down at the gold again.
“You…you already paid.”
“For the food.” Said the man. “I seek purchase of something else.”
“Like what? The inn?” She heard herself say. The man didn’t laugh. He simply stared.
“I seek information about a man. He would have traveled thorough here fairly recently.”
“oh. Um…what did he look like.”
The man withdrew a folded piece of paper from his belt and the coin-purse at his side jingled as his hand brushed up against it. On the paper was a quilled image.
“Oh. He’s young.”
“So I’ve been told.”
Vanna stared at the image.
“Who is he?”
“A merchant’s son. Someone who should not be far from home.”
“Hmm. He certainly looks familiar. Hemight have stayed a night but…no that doesn’t seem right.”
Her tongue pushed against her gums and she looked into the boy with big doe eyes and round, full face. She blinked hard and then raised her head. “No.” She lied. “I don’t recognize him.”
The man gave her a look that chilled her. He took the paper and folded it neatly, putting it back into the belt. He looked at the coin at the counter as if deciding something. Then he turned away, hiding his hands under his cloak.
“For the hospitality.” He said. She watched him leave as a draft blew in from beyond the door. When she was certain that he was gone, she went down to the cellar and told Skayn to get his sword.
The pieces of the dream were beginning to fade when she reached the door. She remembered her father and something about the price of a bag of grain, she remembered losing the gold to make the purchase and Skayn was there but he had never met Vanna’s father. He was long dead before he arrived, but that didn’t seem that seem to matter much.
Still fogged, Vanna was surprised just how lulled she still was. Fumbling in the dark, she found a lantern. As she lid it, she began forward toward the door and caught the edge of the table with her shin.
She had convinced herself that she would stay up tonight. There was a unease in her as she watched him go. Something about the night and the rain that fell knotted her stomach. The blackness beyond the door seemed unnatural to her. Unnatural and foreboding.
She had been sitting in a chair before a low fire, occasionally prodding at it, causing the embers to crackle and pop like white-hot firebugs. In her boredom, she weaved elaborate fantasies that began as whimsy tales of adventure and took violent turns. She dispelled them as quickly as she conjured them, trying hard to stare at the fire and think nothing at all.
Those feelings must have been subsumed into the very ore of her bones, for the weariness she rose with was that of an lich of her father’s fairy tales and the disconcertion in which she found herself arrested with in the moments before slumber overtook her had now awaken beside her as she walked toward the door.
Here heart thudded as parts of her mind arrange themselves. Something with the appearance of rationality began to offer reassurances. It is Skayn, she said. Back with the gold. But these whispers could not still her beating heart. Her fingers wrapped around the knob and she pressed her face against the door.
“Who’s there?” She asked.
The rain drummed. The rhythm of her heart pounded in her ears. She could breathing beyond the breach.
“Answer me.” She said. “Who call?”
The knob was cold, so cold that it seemed to throb in her hand. The wind bit thorough the slats and her teeth clattered as a knifing wind made her shiver. She heard someone shift and try to speak over the rumbling above.
She imagine Skayn then, wet and shivering, weak from his travels and the fight, hands clutching the purse he would have died for. Just like the first time in the cellar where the young thief stole away behind the turnips and picked the lock around her heart.
“Who is it?” She said over the rain, her face reddened by the fear.
She heard it then. Just under the thunder’s bellow and the percussion of the rain, she heard it. “Trade trade.”
She flung the door open, a breath leaving her teeth as her relief fell upon her like a shawl. She could no longer feel the cold as she began to step forward to throw her arms around Skayn.
The man who stood at the door was not her husband. He said “I’m sorry, it’s late”.
The man came in, wet and mud-slick, and stood just behind the door. He dropped his satchel and his travel pack near the door. Strapped to his back was his shield. Across his belt laid a sword. His cloak was grimy and bloodstain. His greaves, the metal of his bracers, the steel of the buckles that secured the scale to his chest, caught the dim and dreary light with a tarnished glint. It gave him an ethereal glow. In his right hand, he clutched a filled rucksack. He went to the table and pulled out a chair.
“May I sit?”
Vanna said nothing.
Quietly, the man sat down and placed the sack on the floor.
His face was rain-streaked. His hair was dripping wet. He looked at the fire for a turn and then he turned to her and bade her over.
“Please. Join me.”
Vanna didn’t move.
His eyes…his eyes caught the glow of the fire and gleamed like moonstones. They beamed bright from the shadows, hot and wide like burning coals. His voice asked her to join him. His eyes commanded her to do so.
She walked across the room and around the table, sitting across from him.
For a while, the man just stared, the way a dog would stare at something it didn’t understand, blending innocent curiosity and quiet suspicion. Finally, he said ”There are about fourteen other inns around the main roads, running east to west, lessening as you head away from the central city. Fourteen stops. That’s more than a few weeks’ worth of travel.
I started by taking an inventory on the boy took with him on his journey; A pack, a bedroll, a map, a few ledgers, a few day books for the travel, a bagful of salt meats and dried fruit. Water to last, a sack of gold. I knew the boy hadn’t so much left Cormyr, so I reason he would be equip only for road travel. I assumed he melded into a caravan or taken a wagon.
The inns, the inns were the hard part. A lot oftravel and nightriding. My horse died two towns back so I took the carriage in which took a day. That’s when it hit me actually. The carriage ride. I asked the driver how much it would take to take a private carriage out toward Everton. It wasn’t that expensive. The boy would be able to afford it.
Now the main road, as you know, diverts at a crossing. If a man were to escape pursuit, they would take the center line and veer off the path into the forest roads. Skip Everton, go down to Highhorn and avoid the bandits in the main roads. But an ignorant boy would take the common paths thorough the village s and mark that way all the way to Sword Coast, flying their down the road for ever brigand and blackguard.
Now, knowing the path he would possibly took, I would have to find the brigand band in question. Knowing outlaw, I assumed that they would be locals, or else how else would they know the road. I wittled it down to two feasthalls and two inns. The Magician, Hawkmoor’s Tavern, The Goat Wench and here. I gave each due consideration. Ultimately, I chose here.”
Vanna stared dull at her hands. Her lips parted, her breath was leaving under her teeth in great whispery huffs. Outside, the rain poured. The opened door rattled on its hinges.
“Why?” She said.
“A man paid me to find his son or the man that killed him.”
She glanced at the rucksack on the floor. He followed her gaze and then he met her eyes. She saw his brow furrow and a line curve down his lips.
After a moment, he stood and reached into his cloak.
He tossed a coin.
“For the inconvenience.” He said.