The wind gusted the door out of his grip to bash it against a crowded table as he entered. The silence of his entrance did not last long, but the room had noticed and he wished he had crawled into the stables to sleep rather than have his presence announced in such a way.
The place was crowded, there seemed barely an inch of space that was not filled by mortal men and the heat of them. Fires blazed in two hearths making the place so hot and stuffy he felt he could take the air in his hands and hold it. Sweat glistened on the skin of the serving girls, bare armed and with skirts hiked up, stuck loose strands of hair to their necks and darkened the underarms of garments. It crawled down the temples of the Barleyman as he attempted to keep up to the demands of his customers, already loud and merry with ale and mead. It even glistened on the faces of the minstrels, two young men standing far from the fire. The one played the zurna, the other a tabor and sang a tune in a high reedy voice. The place smelled of sweating humans, dirt and wood and ale, and also of roasting goat and rosemary. He hauled the door closed behind him, cutting off the gust of cold air that ruffled skirts and cloaks and sleeves, that vied to be heard over the merriment of music and warm contented men.
He had been here before, he knew this Roadhouse perhaps better than any other. He knew its exact proximity to the capital city called Andrese, the city that he had grown up in, fell in love with, and barely escaped from as a fugitive. But that was long years ago, he was a different man in appearance and demeanour, none in the city could know him anymore, none could recognize him.
At least he hoped.
He stomped the wet snow off his boots and moved toward the Barleyman, trying to scan the room discreetly. A good few men, particularly those who he had disturbed, those closest to the door, watched him. He was a stranger, an outsider, a traveller, and sedentary folk mistrusted men like him, though most folk in the place were travellers, there were some few farmers and a tradesman or two, ones who had set up businesses outside of the protection of the city walls. Most men, though, were travelling tradesmen or couriers. There were a few merchants as well, pompous looking men richly accoutred in bright coloured silks and broadcloth, with barrel bellies; and with merchants there were always merchant guards, and sell-swords looking to become merchants guards, big men all, with dark watchful eyes and hands that strayed to weapon hilts all too often.
There were Queen’s Guard there as well, a special regiment of the Royal Guard. Not many, but even men of the haughty Red Talons needed to come in out of the weather. The Red Talons proclaimed themselves loudly, with burnished helms and breastplates emblazoned with the Red Hawk of Ur, with pristine white tabards, handsome short swords hanging by their sides and ever wary eyes which lingered on anyone carrying a weapon. At least, that was how it had been years before, when he had lived in the city, when he had been...
He shook the thought away and tried not to scowl as the Queen’s guard made merry, grabbing at the serving women and downing mugs of strong ale like sell-swords. There was nothing pristine about them, their tabards were wrinkled, their pose careless, slovenly. He was appalled by their appearance. They should have been neat and straight backed, sober, a shining example of the Queen’s power and privilege. They were anything but.
He leaned over the counter that the Barleyman might hear him easier, but kept half an eye on the Red Talons.
“Have you any room for the night?” he asked.
“I have space if you have the coin,” the Barleyman answered.
In reply he pulled a delicate gold chain from his belt pouch and slid it across the counter toward the Barleyman. It had been Eponina’s.
The Barleyman examined it closely before he placed it in his pocket and smiled.
“That should do nicely, Myster...?” the Barleyman stated.
He stared hard at the Barleyman. He wanted a name, something he had lived so long without. Who was there to call him by name? The trees and the rocks and the kobal? He could hardly recall the last person that had used his name. It fluttered on the edge of his memory like a flag on a castle wall, but he pushed it away, grabbed at another name that came into his head.
“Do you wish to sup, Myster Tanis? Elsa will bring you a trencher. And what would you care to drink? We have a fine mead available made from Foresters dark honey, served hot, it will warm you right up. Or perhaps you would like a nice red? We have a fresh cask from the Eastern Provinces, sweet fruit and those pungent spices that are so popular out...”
The Barleyman’s smile was certainty that the chain was worth far more than a room and a meal, and yet he let any anger or disquiet slide off of him. He had no use for gold, nor would the chain help him to remember Eponina any clearer if he had wanted to. What he wanted more than anything was to warm and dry himself by the fire. He cared not for wine or ale, had only rarely as a young man, but knew that drink was the way of the Roadhouse. If he wanted to draw further attention to himself he would not drink.
“...ferocious stuff, brewed here in the house and a favourite among the locals.”
“Yes,” he interrupted. “That sounds fine.” He tucked his gloves into his belt, took the proffered mug and moved off to locate a seat as far from the Red Talons as possible. But the only seats available seemed to surround the Queen’s Men and so he stood beside the larger hearth, with his back to the room and tried to be as invisible as possible. The first sip from his mug had him near to choking and sputtering.
“Barley wine,” he sneered, staring hard at the dark contents as if that would change them. Heavy and thick, with a spice that hit the back of his throat like sand and proceeded straight to his head. He wished he had paid attention to what the Barleyman had been saying. He took another sip, prepared for the spice, and found that it was drinkable. He stared at the flames, and lost himself among the chatter and music.
“I once knew a maid so pretty, we loved throughout the city...”
“I said I hadn’t the money to pay the fees, so he said pr’haps I should ask my daughter about the money.”
“Well, I said there was no reason to bring my girl into it, us both being gentlemen. I told him to take his pick of my wares, there’s always a crate or two as goes astray on The Queen’s Pride. He said he wasn’t interested in wares, he wanted gold but I saw the way he looked at my girl...”
“...I wrote this song so witty, don’t care about the city...”
“ ... I’d be damned if I ever let a man look at my daughter the way he did. We got to arguing, raised my voice and the city guard comes along. Well you know they’re no thieves...”
“Downright robberts! If the Atholine’s were still in charge of the guard...”
“We drink fine wine and forget about time, my maid and I, so pretty!”
“My son! Cut him down right before my eyes, they did! Out in the street, in the open! And the guards just turned their backs! I cried ‘murder, murder’ and they hauled me away like a dog!”
“....Supposed to protect us! Worse than bandits, they are...”
“I knew a maid of five and ten, her face was sweet and fair...”
“...those were good days, when men behaved with some semblance of grace and dignity. I tell you, it won’t be soon enough, when men like that return to the city.”
“Here,” a serving girl handed him a trencher full of a thin, dark stew that smelled mostly of herbs. In her other hand she held a pitcher and offered to fill his cup.
“I’ve not seen you round here before,” she said. She was young, perhaps sixteen winters, with a smooth round face and gentle features. Her honey hair was tied back in a braid that reached nearly to her waist and she had a delicate sweet scent underlying that of sweat and ale. Her grey eyes were all encompassing, he felt them penetrate his very soul, waited for her to speak his real name, to chastise him for his past cruelties and heresy.
“Nor I you,” he responded.
“You’ve been here before?” she said, she spoke with the speed and curiosity of youth. “You look a stranger. From where do you hail?”
“Aye,” he said, his voice gruff from the barley wine. “I’ve been in the eastern ranges for many years.” He clamped his teeth together and cursed silently. Speak no more, he thought, the barley wine has loosed your tongue too much already.
“The eastern ranges,” she said, her eyes sparkling with excitement. “How far east? Have you seen the green river basin? The Tommellin Sea? The Eastern watchtower on Speaker’s tor?”
He barely heard her questions for the commotion that had begun. The three Red Talons sitting at the nearby table were deep in their cups. All three wore their dark hair short, and their faces bare as was regulation. They were young, though one of them already bore the marks of leadership upon his breast. It was the leader who caused the trouble itself. A man used to getting what he wanted, used to having people jump when he said. He had a long, flat face and snub nose, small dark eyes and thin lips. He had been grabbing at the serving women whenever they passed near. The deeper he fell into his cup the sloppier and more aggressive he became. Until he pinched a dark-haired girl hard enough that she slapped him full across the face. He reacted and she was on the floor with a clatter before she saw him move. Her face burned bright red and the corner of her lip was bleeding. His companions were on their feet. Their chairs clattering noisily away, swords half drawn in an instant.
Half the men in the room had their hands on sword hilts, benches overturned behind them. It only took a moment for the patrons to realize what had happened, to turn their backs and continue conversations. The minstrels in the corner started up a merry tune. But the talk had grown a little too loud and laughter was forced. A few of the men nearest the door hurried to toss coins down upon their tables and slip away into the cold and the wind. The serving girl spat a bloody gob at the man’s feet as she stood. She seemed half near to hissing and arching her back, but the man merely grabbed her by the hair and dragged her ear close to his face.
The man who called himself Tanis set down his cup and trencher without thinking. He started toward the Red Talons as they pushed the girl away, to fall against him. He caught her, his eye caught a glint of steel slipping back up the sleeve of the leader. That was meant for the girl’s eyes alone.
“Bella take you!” she snarled at the Red Talons, pushing out of Tanis’s grip before he could be sure she was okay, leaving him to stand and watch the two men slide their swords away.
“What do you want?” the leader snarled, and Tanis could now see clearly the marks of leadership upon his breast: a bronze horse in a red circle. So he was Cornet, leader of cavalry. But what was he doing way out here, rather than in the city? They couldn’t be running drills at this time of year in the fields, could they? It stank of war.
Tanis said nothing, turned away awkwardly.
“Hoy,” the man shouted, silencing the room once again. But only for the briefest moment this time. “I’m talking to you, Outlander.”
Tanis closed his eyes and stopped. His blood ran hot in his veins, his muscles ached for violence, the only language men like this understood. He gritted his teeth, tried to call to mind a calming chant from his monastery days, but a cruel face from his past flashed before his eyes, dashing any hope of calm from him. That face brought his blood to boil and he shook with anger. How was it that cruel men came to posses power? How was it that arrogance was allowed to run rampant in the Royal guard? Pride, surely, protecting one’s sovereign and one’s people was a noble, worthy business, but arrogant men like this did not protect the people, they only hurt them. It was like hunting with rabid hounds, they were just as like to bite your horse and the other hounds as to catch any deer. If one did not put them down, they would ruin the whole pack. And that’s what these men were, already in high ranking positions, had no one noticed they were diseased? Was it now up to him to put them down?
He opened his eyes, his back to the guard. The room stank of fear, the patron’s hunching over their meals and mead, casting only sidelong glances at the Cornet and his men, at Tanis, proving that there was no one who would face these men to stop their cruelty.
Guilt weighed heavy on his shoulders. These had been his people to protect. He had seen the disease creeping in and he had run from it, run from his responsibility, run from his people. He had let the disease take over, he had not cared. And now this. How could he have been such a fool? How could he have been so selfish? How many others had shared the fate of his Rora, because he had run? He could almost feel the icy hands of the dead urging him to defend them, whispering in his ear. And fresh anger bubbled up within him, overflowed. Anger at himself.
He had lost his fear of death with Eponina. He turned and as he did so the two men with the Cornet stood with a scraping of chair legs across the floor.
“When Cornet Bashelfyr asks you a question,” one of them said, he was a square-faced man, with high cheekbones and sunken jowls, giving him an overall look of being dangerously hungry. “You answer.”
Tanis moved toward the now seated Cornet, who leaned back, eyes half lidded, a mean smile upon his face.
“Cornet,” Tanis said, looking down at him. “Keep your dogs in hand.”
Bashelfyr smiled. His dogs moved first, eager with gritted, snarling teeth. But Tanis was faster. He picked up the Cornet’s cup, tossed the contents in the face of the guard on the left and broke the cup on the side of Square-face’s head. Tanis did not notice the general sharp intake of breath from the other people in the room, the off-note made on the zurna. Did not notice the merchants guards and sell-swords putting down their cups and grasping at their sword-hilts. Everything happened too fast.
Square-face howled, dropped his sword to clutch at his bloody ear. Tanis balled his fist and struck the other guard in the throat, before he could recover from having hot mead thrown in his face. He choked and laboured to breathe, clutched his throat, face redder by the minute. Square-face had recovered enough to throw a fist, which Tanis caught in the belly. The pain was so acute Tanis wondered if he hadn’t been stabbed. He gasped for air, vision swimming, and kicked out wildly. He caught Square-face a lucky strike in the knee and the man toppled. The other was already on the ground. That left Bashelfyr. Tanis threw himself at the Cornet before he could get up. They landed hard upon the floor, the chair tangled in their legs. Their heads connected, and hot blood spewed from Bashelfyr’s nose. The man was shouting and then choking on his own blood. He struggled under the weight of Tanis, who simply raised his head and brought it down again upon Bashelfyr’s face. And again. Now there were two Cornet’s lying beneath him, moaning and bloody. He wasn’t sure which one to hit, so he was glad when they closed their eyes and passed out. Tanis took a shaky breath. He rested his head on the straw strewn floor. He just needed to close his eyes for a minute.