The first of them came with the fading of the day, striding through the curtain of road dust hanging against the sunset, seeming in the backlight like the ebony statue of some warrior
god come to life.
The Innkeeper leaned against the doorjamb and watched him come. Mercenary, he thought, I’d best be gettin’ my money in advance from this one.
The stranger stopped at the foot of the stairs and looked up. The Innkeeper (who’s name was Appleyard, though he hardly ever answered to it) looked back appraisingly. The stranger
was tall, well over six feet. At this range, it was clear that his dark skin wasn’t a trick of the evening light. He was black. Not the dark chocolate brown or any of the shadings between that
and cafe au lait often called black, but a complete, matt black which seemed to absorb the light. He wore worn leather leggings, a pair of good calf-length boots which had seen better
days, and a faded tunic which might once have been dark blue. The newcomer grinned, the whiteness of his teeth startling against his dark skin.
"Evening, Innkeep!" he cried. "I’ll be needing a room for the night. There’s a storm brewing, and I hate getting wet."
Appleyard eyed the glorious sunset dubiously. Old saws about red skies at night ran through his mind. "Don’t be daft, man." he said. "There’s not a sign of storm clouds. Ye’ll just be
after a free room for the night, claiming storm privileges."
The stranger’s grin widened. "Not at all, good sir!" he replied. His hand dug into the pouch hanging at his belt and produced enough gold to buy the inn, the town, and a good stretch of
the farmland around. "Will this do for the price of the night?" he asked innocently.
Appleyard reached out and took the smallest coin from the proffered handful. He looked at it thoughtfully, bit into it, and pocketed it without speaking. He looked down at the stranger
again. "That’ll buy ye a bed for the night, a meal, a bath if ye want one, and breakfast tomorrow." He said. "And I’ll see what change I owe ye when we reckon up the bill." He sniffed as
he stood aside to let the stranger enter. "I still say it won’t rain the night."
The white teeth flashed again. "Oh, it’s going to rain, Innkeep. Trust me. It’s going to rain." Roaring with laughter, the dark man walked into the common room. He looked around, still
grinning, and chose a table in the corner away from the fire, where the shadows would allow him to watch the door without being seen.
The room was much the same as any of half a hundred inns along the highway: low ceilinged, with rough plank benches around the walls, and a couple of tables with straight-backed
chairs. Through the door to the taproom could be glimpsed a row of stools dragged up to the bar which ran along one side of that room. A stew-pot hung over the common-room fire.
The chimney didn’t appear to be up to much; more smoke escaped back into the room and lurked under the roof-beams than made a break for it through the narrow vent. A timid face
peered out from the taproom; dark rat’s-tails of hair escaping from under a mob cap which might once have been white.
The newcomer dropped his pack on the floor, hung his sword-belt over the back of a chair, and beckoned to the serving wench. "Come here, girl!" he boomed. The face vanished.
Frantic whispering from the taproom. The face re-appeared, followed by a body staggering from a push from behind. The Innkeeper came in behind her, frowning.
"Of course there’s someone in here, Janey." He explained in the overly patient tones of someone who has had this conversation too often before. "We’ve got a guest for the night. He’s
going to stay here, Janey. And it’s your job to look after him, remember? Make sure his glass is kept full, bring him his supper when he wants it? Remember?"
Mutter, furtive look from under the cap, mutter.
"No, he don’t look strange, Janey. He’s just from a powerful long way away. People’s different in foreign parts. Now just you say hello to Mr..." he paused, and turned to his guest. "I’m
sorry, Master, but I didn’t get your name"
"Didn’t you?" The teeth flashed. "Call me ... Nox."
"There ye go, Janey. Say hello to Mr Knox."
Mutter, bob, peer out from under cap.
"I’m sorry, Master Knox." said the Innkeeper. "She’s my wife’s sister’s youngest." His voice dropped to a confidential whisper "She’s a bit daft, poor thing. Has fancies. Come to me just
now saying there was a man made of shadows sitting in the common room, meaning yerself, begging yer pardon."
"Did she indeed?" asked Knox, his eyebrows rising.
"There’s no harm in her, Master Knox," Appleyard hastened to assure his guest, visions of a month’s takings walking out of the door dancing before his eyes, "and she’ll look after yer
well enough. She’s just a bit, well... strange."
Knox looked at the girl more closely. Thirteen, fourteen perhaps. Old enough to be a woman, young enough not to have forgotten the innocence and beliefs of childhood. Thin arms
poked out from sleeves several sizes too big rolled up to the elbow. The girl’s tunic hung baggy and shapeless around her, probably a deliberate ploy by the landlord to hide his niece
from the lecherous eyes of his patrons. Eyebrows which could have been drawn in black pencil on a skin which would be pure white under the dirt. Pale blue eyes peeking furtively from
under the stray hair escaped from her cap. Eyes which saw all too well, and believed what they saw.
Knox beckoned to the girl again.
"Come here," he said, in the gentle tones of one coaxing a cat out from under the dresser.
Shake head, hide behind uncle, peer out.
"Come here, girl. I won’t harm you. See?" He held up a gold coin where she could see it. "I just want to talk to you, Janey. You can keep this, all for yourself. Just come and talk to me for
a minute." The voice was honey poured over gravel, sweet and rough.
Shake head, gnaw lip, eye coin.
"Come on, Janey. I’m not going to bite. Just think what this can buy you. You’d like a new dress, wouldn’t you, Janey? Yeeees, you would, wouldn’t you? You already know which one,
don’t you Janey? Well, this can get it for you, Janey. That, and everything else in the shop your heart desires. Come and talk to me, girl."
Gnaw lip, gnaw lip, pounce!
"That’s a girl."
Knox’s voice dropped to a low rumble. A few sentences passed between him and the girl, inaudible to her uncle. Janey frowned, then brightened suddenly. She grinned knowingly,
darted a sly, conspiratorial look at her uncle, and nodded. Clutching the coin, she dashed off into the scullery.
Appleyard started suddenly and looked around himself.
"Where’s that girl?" he asked. The sound of a beer being drawn from the barrel in the taproom could be clearly heard.
"Ah! Gone to get ye a beer, has she?" He shook his head sadly.
"Sorry about that, Master Knox. As I said, the poor girl’s daft. Seeing things all the time that aren’t there."
"Not at all, Innkeep," said Knox. "I think she has the makings of a remarkably fine young lady. In fact, I may have a small errand for her to run, later tonight."
"An errand master? What about your storm?" The Innkeeper laughed.
"Don’t worry, Innkeep, I’ll not have her do anything that would harm her. Quite the opposite, in fact." The deep laugh rolled forth once more.
The conversation was interrupted by the second arrival of the evening. The taproom door crashed open, revealing a blonde, muscular woman, quite as tall as Knox, outlined by the last
ray of light from the departed sun.
"Where is he?" she roared. Catching sight of the Innkeeper standing by the table in the corner, she swept into the room, dumping her pack by the door.
"Innkeep! Have you seen a dark man this even- There you are, you reprobate! Have you got the money you owe me?"
Knox was on his feet and, sweeping her into a bear hug, swung her around in the middle of the room.
"I owe you?" he cried, setting her on her feet and pounding her on the back. "As I recall it, you still owe me from the dice game at that place in Alexandria! What’s this talk of me owing
you anything? JANEY! Another mug of ale!"
"Selective memory again, I see Ni..."
The dark man held up a hand. "Here, I am Knox," he said.
The fair woman giggled. "That would make me what? Lucia? As good as anything, I suppose. Where’s that ale?"
Appleyard watched this exchange with a baffled look on his round face. At the mention of ale, he bustled towards the scullery, nearly falling over Janey, who was coming back with two
brimming tankards in her hands. Janey put the ale on the table and looked at the newcomer. Her face glowed with the smile that sprang onto it, and she bobbed a courtesy.
"This is Janey" said Knox to his companion, "who sees more than most people. You see Janey? Didn’t I promise you wonders before the night was out?" He turned back to Lucia. "Come
and sit down, wench! Where have you been since last we met?"
Lucia sat at the corner table, and leaned a lochaber axe against the chair holding Knox’s sword.
"Where have I not been? Is more like it," she said. The two fell to talking, describing campaigns and battles each had been in, comparing notes where they had fought on different
sides, and laughing over shared experiences. None of it made much sense to Appleyard, but then he didn’t pay much attention to foreign wars. Still, he was fairly sure he’d never heard
tell of an Emperor Saddam, whose Guard Knox appeared to have served with, and what in the name of the seven hells was a scud?
Resigning himself to a long evening with the thought of the money he was likely to make off these two, he set about lighting the lamps. It was funny, he thought as he trimmed the wick
of the lantern by the door, how he could hardly see Knox in the corner, but the woman sitting next to him seemed to catch every glimmer of light the lamps put out. Janey was running
backwards and forwards with tankards of ale and plates of stew from the pot, and loaves of bread, and whatever else the pair called for, all with that same daft grin on her face, and a
look of almost worship on her face whenever the mercenary woman spoke to her. I’ll have to put a stop to that, he thought. She’ll be dashing off to join some mercenary troop if I don’t.
He coughed apologetically to get his guests’ attention.
"Everythin’ all right?" he asked. "Janey lookin’ after you proper like? Good, good. If I might have a word, Mistress? Thank ye kindly. First off, would ye be wantin’ a room fer the night,
same as the master, here? Things have been quiet here since the new toll bridge opened up the ways, so there’s plenty of room, if ye’ve a mind?"
"Oh yes, I’ll be staying!" the woman replied. "And don’t worry about your lack of custom, Innkeep! There’ll be plenty tonight." She glanced at Knox. "More than you might want, even."
she added with a knowing wink.
She dug a hand into her purse and produced a large coin. "Here," she said, "let me know when I’ve drunk through this, and I’ll give you some more." She looked up at Appleyard and
grinned wickedly. "And I promise I won’t corrupt your serving wench and convince her to run off with a mercenary band, either! How’s that for payment, Landlord?"
"Thank ye kindly on both counts, Mistress," he said. "As I told yer friend here, she’s a daft lass, and I wouldn’t want her to get herself into any trouble, as it were."
Appleyard took the strange coin and bit it. More foreign money, but it looked all right. The image on one side was some form of coat of arms, but the image on the reverse looked more
like a banker than a king. The script was strange and angular. Ah well, it was gold, that was the main thing.
Outside, it began to rain.
The next two arrived together, a great roaring bear of a man with waving red hair, and a quiet, reserved woman whose hair could not be said to be blonde, so much as colourless. The
man had to stoop to come through the door, and when he stood upright his hair brushed the beams of the ceiling above him.
"Ho! Innkeep!" he shouted, slamming the door back on it’s hinges. "Ale! Pints of it, and quick! You wouldn’t believe how far I’ve walked today!"
"Don’t exaggerate, brother," said the woman quietly. "You’ve only walked about a mile. We were riding before that."
Appleyard bustled forward to greet the newcomers, frantically signalling to Janey to fetch more ale in from the taproom. Honestly, the girl was getting more scatter-brained as the night
went on, just standing gawping when guests called for service!
Lucia leaped up from her place in the corner and flung herself at the red-haired man. "Vulcan!" she cried, wrapping her arms around his neck, "How’ve ya been, big boy?" The red
haired man roared with laughter, and swept Lucia up in a bear hug, lifting her off her feet.
"Vulcan, is it?" he boomed. "Don’t tell me: the dark chap got here first?! I never can understand his fascination with dead languages. The boss, now, I could see... But never mind that!
How’ve ye been, Lucy? It’s been far too long since I saw ye last. Afghanistan, wasn’t it? Or that business in the Khanate? I forget. Still, it’s good to see ye."
"Which question should she answer first?" sighed the colourless woman, rolling her eyes. "Honestly, brother, sometimes I despair of having a sensible conversation with you around."
"Come now, Glaze" said Knox from his seat in the corner. "You should know better than anyone that your brother’s tongue runs on ahead of him. Come and sit with us, the pair of you,
and we’ll await the rest of the company in comfort. Here’s the maid with your ale, Vulcan."
Janey came back in, carefully balancing four tankards of ale on a small wooden tray. Vulcan put Lucia down with a sudden thump and seized the tray eagerly, transferring it’s contents
to the table in the corner with not a drop spilled, and then transferring the contents of the first tankard to his capacious belly without pausing for breath. He sighed vastly and let out a
deep and resonant belch. The other four of his company laughed indulgently, as at a child performing his party piece. Janey scurried off to refill the tankard.
Appleyard, meanwhile, was looking out into the night and shaking his head. "Looks like ye were right, after all, Master Knox." He said as he shut the outer door. "It’s raining buckets out
there, and showing signs of getting worse." He turned to the two newcomers, ready to offer them towels and dry clothing (though where he would find a tunic for Vulcan’s prodigious
girth, he didn’t know). He was surprised to see that the big man was completely dry, though his sister’s hair was draggled in rat’s tails across her forehead and she was shivering. She
thanked him for the offer, and he hurried off to get the woman a towel and one of his wife’s tunics.
When he returned, Glaze was crouched near the fire, which had died down to a few embers and gave off little heat to warm her. That was odd. Appleyard could have sworn he’d just put
more fuel on. As he draped the towel around the shivering woman he threw a puzzled glance at the fire. It was steaming as if someone had just poured a bucket of water over it, and
water appeared to be pouring off the woman in torrents.
"There ye are, Mistress," he said. "I’ll just stir up the fire a little for ye. Must be the rain coming down the chimbley."
Vulcan put down his latest beer tankard and came over to the ingle. "Here, Innkeep," he said, "I’ll do that. Why don’t you get some broth for my sister?"
Appleyard looked to the side of the fire where he kept a supply of bowls for guests to help themselves from the stewpot. The spot was conspicuously empty. Cursing Janey under his
breath, he scuttled off to the kitchen to get a fresh supply. When he returned, the fire was blazing brightly and Glaze was ensconced in the corner next to Knox, huddled under the dark
man’s protective arm. Her sopping tunic steamed on the back of a chair. Appleyard spooned stew into a bowl and carried it across to her. Her gloomy expression lightened as she
thanked him for it. Her hand was still cold as she took it from him.
The room was suddenly lit by a bright flash from without, and in the same instant thunder boomed overhead. Gods, thought Appleyard, that were close. There’ll be damage to fix in the
morning. The booming continued, and it took the Innkeeper a moment to realise that this was not thunder, but someone pounding on the door for admission. He hurried to the door,
detouring around Janey, who was coming in with yet another tray of ale. Have to open another keg in a minute, thought Appleyard. The pounding on the door started again.
"All right, I’s a comin’" called Appleyard. "No need to hammer the blasted door down." He opened the door sharply, just as the first of the two men outside raised his fist to beat on it
again. Despite the fact that he was soaking wet the man had a huge grin plastered over his face.
"Ah, there you are!" he boomed, pushing his way in. He was tall, another six-foot-plus specimen, wearing a water-darkened green cloak over a somewhat stained white tunic. As he took
off his sodden cape and handed it to the innkeeper Appleyard could see the hilts of twin short swords poking their heads over his shoulders from their scabbards. He had shoulder-
length brown hair, and the most overwhelming air of smug superiority the Innkeeper had ever seen. This was a man who truly believed that the world owed him a living, and from the
looks of it, he’d yet to be disappointed. The man who followed him in was identical to him in all ways but one: instead of the smug grin, his face bore the sneer of one to whom the mug
is forever half-empty.
"Gods, but it’s wet out there!" boomed Smug.
"I thought you were going to leave us standing out there all night." whined Sourpuss.
Appleyard, nowhere near as thick as he looked, sized the pair up in one look.
"Your party’s through here in the parlour, Masters," he bowed them through into the common room, hung their cloaks over chairs in front of the fire, and hurried through to the taproom
to see where Janey was with the next round of drinks. She was already coming back through, bearing six tankards on a tray.
"Nuncle!" she hissed in passing, "I gotta talk to ye!"
"Not now, Janey, I’ve got to get towels for the two new guests."
"Later. Now git out there with them drinks."
When the Innkeeper came back in, the two newcomers were, as he had expected, seated at either end of the table occupied by his other guests. Appleyard plastered his best
welcoming smile onto his face and approached the table beaming genially.
"Evening, masters", he said, handing each of them a towel, and collecting the used ones to hang in front of the fire. "All well? I ‘spect you’ll be wanting rooms as well?"
"Yes. We will." grumped the brother nearest the fire. He glared down the table. "I expect you’ll be wanting me to pay, Victor?" His twin grinned.
"I do believe those were the terms of the wager," he gloated. "Of course, if you’d rather go double or nothing on the next fight?" he left the offer floating in the air.
The glum one sneered, and produced a pouch from his belt. "What’s the damage?" he asked Appleyard. The Innkeeper glanced around the table. This lot had been mighty free with
their gold so far...
"Er, ah, that’ll be one gold coin. Each." he said, clearing his throat.
"What? That’s robbery!" blustered the guest.
"Oh, pay him, Vance" said the pale Glaze, "It’s not as if -" she broke off as Knox gave her a warning nudge.
With ill grace, the man produced two coins and tossed them to the innkeeper. "This had better be worth It." he muttered.
Appleyard caught the coins and made them vanish under his apron. He cleared his throat again, to gain the group’s attention.
"Beggin’ yer pardons, Masters and Mistresses all," he began, "but are ye expecting many more of yer company the night? It’s just I’ll be hard pressed ter house more than yerselves,
without crowdin’. I could always make arrangements at some o’ the local houses if need be..." he trailed off, obviously reluctant to share any of the bounty this strange group were
dishing out with such abandon.
Vulcan spoke for the group. "There’ll be only two more, Innkeep, and don’t worry about the housing. I doubt we’ll be making use of the rooms. These gatherings usually last all night.
Speaking of which," the red-head looked around "JANEY! MORE ALE!"
Appleyard bobbed thankfully to the group, and dashed off to the cellar to bring up another cask of ale. Thinking about it, he went back for a second, and then a third. Eight people who
drank this much, all night, would probably exhaust his stocks. Not to worry, though. With what they were paying, he could get more in from the neighbouring towns. Leaving two barrels
at the cellar door, he rolled the third through to the tap-room and heaved it into a cradle. He was busy hammering a tap into it when Janey came hurrying through again.
"Nuncle!" she wailed.
"Ah! Janey!" Appleyard cut her off. "I wants a word with you, young liddy. Didn’t I tell yer earlier this evening ter put bowls out by the fire fer the company?"
"I did, Nuncle!"
"Now don’t yer go lyin’ ter me, Janey! Just now I went ter get some fer that pale liddy, and there weren’t no bowls there! Now just do as yer told in future!"
"But I did put ‘em out, Nuncle! Truly! Lissen, Nuncle, there’s somethin’ I gots ter tell yer! These people, they’re not-" she was interrupted by a knock on the door, barely audible through
the rumble of the storm outside.
"That’s enough of yer nonsense fer one night, Janey. Just git the drinks in. And draw eight this time. That should be the last of the comp’ny". Appleyard bustled through to open the
There was only one person at the door, a woman swathed in a vibrant green cloak. She smiled at Appleyard as he opened the door, and he felt like a lad at his first dance, enchanted
by the beauty of the woman before him, and completely unable to think of anything sensible to say. The brilliant smile widened.
"Can I come in, then?" she asked. Her voice made him think of spring evenings in the meadows of his youth, chasing after girls only too willing to be caught. Wordlessly, he stepped
back and opened the door wide, for some reason he could not name bowing as deeply as his girth allowed.
"Please come in, M’lady" he breathed.
The lady in the green cloak stepped across the doorstep, a queen entering her palace. She gave her hand to Appleyard in passing.
"Please, " she said, "get up. There’s no need to stand on ceremony."
Appleyard straightened up at her touch. She was busy taking off her wet cloak. Beneath it, she wore a tunic of the same startling green, perfectly setting off the brilliant red of the hair
which spilled in waves down her back. Wordlessly, Appleyard lead her through to the common room. A roar went up from the assembled group.
"Medic!" cried Lucia.
"Vee!" roared Vulcan. "Lords, but it’s good to see you, lass! Still patching up hopeless cases?"
The woman in green smiled. "Only those that can be saved, red one. That’s most of them."
Knox looked behind her. "The boss not with you, then?"
Vee grinned. "My pale sister will be along shortly. You know she always gets here last." She sat down in the chair that Vulcan hastily pulled up for her, draping a satchel across the back
of the chair which held the motley collection of weapons deposited by the rest of the group. She slapped the table with both hands. "So, " she enquired, looking around, "what’s up,
The group around the table erupted into a babble, each of them vying for the attention of the newcomer. Knox looked around and beckoned to Janey.
"Come lass," he said when she hung back at the edge of the group. Reluctantly, she moved in closer. Speaking in a low voice, he continued. "Now is the time for you to perform that
errand for me that I mentioned earlier. I left my horse down at the toll bridge. Go and fetch her around to the livery stable, and see that she’s well cared for. Here’s for the livery," he
pressed a coin into her hand, "and here’s for you. Now go."
Janey took the money and ran for the front door.
"JANEY!" called Knox. She stopped and looked back at him with wide eyes. He jerked his head toward the taproom. "Go out the back way." Eyes widening even further, she bobbed her
head and headed for the back entrance to the inn.
Appleyard caught her by the arm as she ran through the taproom.
"And where do ye be orf to, young liddy?"
"Please, Nuncle, Mr Knox has sent me for his horse to the tollbridge. I’m to take it to the liv’ry."
"Right, then. Off ye go, but don’t be too long about it. We’re expecting another o’ these fine folk, don’t fergit, and I’ll be needin’ help."
Janey hung back in the doorway.
"Nuncle," she said. "I know ye’ll think I’m bein’ daft, but be careful o’ these folk. They ain’t usin’ their right names. That Master Nox, I’m after thinkin’ he’s the Night hisself, and that bright
lady that came in after him would be the Day, an’..."
"Nah that’s enough o’ yer nonsense, girl" interrupted Appleyard. "Git!"
Janey grabbed her cloak from the peg by the door and ran into the night.
Shaking his head, Appleyard drew another seven pints of ale and carefully piled them on a tray. The nonsense that girl talks, he thought, picking up the tray. Night and Day, indeed! He
moved unobtrusively around the table, picking up the empty tankards and replacing them with full ones. He shivered as he passed the colourless woman, Glaze. Lord, but it’s cold here!
Almost as cold as...ice. He looked back. And the big yin with the red hair’s mighty handy with a fire. That’s funny. The smug one and ‘is brother ‘ave switched ends o’ the table. When did
that ‘appen? The woman in the green tunic laughed, and Appleyard felt stirrings he’d not felt for years. He grinned to himself. By Janey’s reckoning, that would make the lady Life
Herself! The grin faded. ‘Ang about. Didn’t the Lady say her sister was comin’? And the sister of Life would be...
There came a knock at the door. A slow, heavy knock. Appleyard straightened his apron and went to answer the door one last time.
|Copyright © Iain Muir 1998