The door creaked open, and a tentative wedge of sunlight began to fan across the room. It nestled in the cracks of walls, painted tables with colour anew, and swept away the grey silence, like a fresh broom taken to cobwebs. The man sitting behind the bar jerked to rapt attention, pausing in his restless wiping. He watched with wary eyes as his guest approached.
The petite figure that came through the doorway trod cautiously towards him, but her gaze was locked firmly on the corner where the cloaked stranger still yet sat. The bartender squinted to make out her face against the sunlit doorway. Besides them three, the rest of the inn was empty, as it had been since last night. Not surprising, Iven thought, given the skittish disposition of his fellow villagers.
The girl pulled up a stool and turned to face him, and Iven saw that it was young Eryn. He blinked. Lom’s daughter. She was perhaps the last person he expected to see back in his inn, especially this soon.
“Iven,” started Eryn, but her voice was parched and weak, as if from lack of use. Iven motioned for her to pause, and turned to the rack of barrels behind him. From the largest, he filled one mug, and after a moment of thought, filled a second from a smaller, red-stamped cask. He offered Eryn the second mug, which she accepted with a grateful gulp. Surprise came over her wan face, and she eyed the contents of her drink.
Iven shook his head. “Sweet cider,” he grinned uncertainly. “From last harvest’s apples. I just brought it up from the cellar yesterday. One of my better batches, eh? Even rotten Eddie couldn’t find anything to complain after a mouthful.”
As he spoke, his eyes wandered anxiously over Eryn’s face. Her skin was sallow and lined, her lips cracked and ashen. Her usual happy cheer was gone, and in its place was a quiet sobriety that he had never seen before. This wasn’t the girl he used to know.
“How are you, my dear?” said Iven softly.
She looked at him, and he felt her gaze slip past. Her eyes were tired and small, but dry and grim. “I’ll manage.”
“It must be difficult,” Iven offered. “I’m sorry about what happened.”
“I’ll be fine, soon,” she said plainly. With a long draw she drained her mug. She glanced at the figure in the far corner, a huddled mass of cloth and shadow. “Iven, have you talked to him?”
“No, young one. He would not say a word. After everyone left, I tried to ask if he needed a room or food or any such thing, but he wouldn’t so much as look at me. I left him be, and,” Iven shrugged, “here he is still, and as still as a statue. Brooding over Palm-knows-what, scaring my patrons away with nary an effort. But he does move, surely – when I came downstairs this morning the curtains were drawn and the fire was still burning.”
Iven took a sip from his own mug. “You shouldn’t be here, Eryn. Sooner or later the village chief will show up and sort him out. Perhaps you should go, and come back when he’s gone.”
Eryn shook her head. “He’s why I’m here, Iven. I… I heard…”
She glanced at the stranger, and leaned in a little more.
“I heard he carries a sword.”
“Yes he does, and a wicked long one too. It hangs from his belt, all casual-like. Why do you think I haven’t thrown him out? I’m no fool. Spooked villagers and missed business isn’t worth dying for.”
“Good,” said Eryn, and Iven sensed that she’d only heard the first part of his reply. “I need to talk to him.”
She slipped off her stool. Taken aback, Iven caught her hand in a belated gesture of concern. “What? What for?”
She blinked at him without answering, as if confused by his question, and suddenly Iven recognized her lack of fear. Recent tragedy – or perhaps liquid courage, he realized to his dismay – was driving her now, and apprehension began knotting in his chest.
Eryn shrugged his hand off and turned to the far corner. Iven hesitated, wringing his rag nervously, before deciding to follow her; whether to provide support or merely to eavesdrop, he knew not.
If the stranger saw them approach, he gave no indication. His hood, drawn low above his brow, masked his face as he continued to sit propped up against the wall. Eryn came to a stop across from him, almost expectantly. Iven hurried himself over to a nearby table, busying himself with a large purple stain that had been there as long as he could remember.
“Well met, sir,” he heard Eryn say.
Nothing followed, only her breathing, short and steady.
“My father once told me that only three types of men carry swords. The king’s men, the baron’s men, and the wandering men that seek work. Which are you?”
“If you wear the king’s red, or the striped boar”, she continued, her voice shaking slightly as she mentioned the latter, “then I would not waste your time. But if you are the third… I have work, sir, if you’d be so inclined. A man, a bad man, by the name of Garmin Falk.”
The stranger’s lack of reply made Iven painfully aware that his earnest scraping was the loudest noise in the room. He made to stop, then realized how self-conscious that would be, and, face reddening, settled for a slow, useless rubbing of cloth on wood.
“I… I can pay,” Eryn ventured, her voice faltering slightly in the face of the stranger’s continued indifference. Iven heard the soft rummaging of fabric. “I would pay you seventeen lots. It’s all I have.”
At this, he couldn’t help but glance over. Eryn held her hands outstretched. A small pile of silver was cupped within.
Iven tensed. His establishment seldom attracted sellswords and ruffians, but he had seen such deals go down before in seedier places. Seventeen silver polots was a small amount to pay for sword-work, even for the meanest of targets. And where had she got the coin – ah, but where else? But still the stranger was silent, and –
“Talk, damn you!” shouted Eryn, her voice almost breaking with emotion. Iven jumped, his rag falling lamely to the floor. “He killed my father! For stopping him and his taxers from stripping old Panny and beating her to a bloody death! For a blasted debt of copper!”
The silence that followed rung in the air, the tolling after a bell. Then the stranger spoke.
“What’s your name?”
Iven felt an odd sense of mismatch. The voice was young, too young to belong to the man he had pictured beneath those mysterious layers. And it was rough and… almost rustic, with a not-unfamiliar accent. It could have belonged to his cousin Henri, or even Brandon, the miller’s boy.
The stranger nodded, and reached out his left hand for the coins. His skin was tanned, and his palm well-callused. A long brown scar crept around his forearm, ending where thumb met index.
Eryn held back the silver, hugging her precious stash close to her chest. “Then you will kill him for me?”
“No,” said the man, and even from his angle Iven could see the anger creep back into Eryn’s face. “I’m none of those three men your father spoke of.”
His arm remained outstretched. “But, for that price, I can teach you.”
“Teach me?” Eryn repeated, curiosity stalling her impatience.
“Teach you how to kill Garmin Falk.”
She drew in a sharp breath, and even as he realized he knew what would happen next, Iven hoped, for the briefest of moments, that she would refuse.
With a cascade of clinks, the silver coins fell into the stranger’s hand. They quickly disappeared into the shadowed folds of his cloak, and the stranger stood up in a single motion. He was not a tall man, but his movements were sure and swift, and as he came around from his corner seat his sword swung casually at his hip, like it would belong nowhere else.
She followed him as he swept past the tables and out of the inn, and for a moment they were two shadows in the stark sunlight. The door swung shut, leaving Iven alone.
Iven let out the breath he had taken in to protest, one that he hadn’t been aware of holding. He watched the door unsteadily for a moment, as if he had seen something balance and fall. He could hear the receding footsteps, and then they were gone.
Eryn, he thought belatedly, his unvoiced objection fading uselessly away. What in Mollom’s name had she gotten herself into? Should he do something? Run out shouting and waving into the street? But he saw once more the resolve in her eyes, and decided against it.
He sighed and surveyed the common room. Most of the tables were still strewn with plates and mugs; food half-eaten and beer half-drunk, the remnants of the previous night’s business. He hadn’t dared to clear them away then, not with the stranger sitting there like a silent judge.
Iven began to collect up the abandoned meals, piling the plates into one greasy stack. He absently lifted a stein, and turned to it curiously as it weighed down hard in his hand. Looking into it, he frowned, as if not understanding what he was seeing.
Then he tipped the vessel out over the table. A glinting mass of small objects spilled out. Still he stared, unsure as to what to make of the sight.
There on the table – lying flat or rolling innocuously across its oaken surface – were seventeen silver polots.