There was no gate in front, so he followed the uneven path of stones up to the main house and pushed open the weather-beaten door. The dim interior swallowed the daylight as he stepped across the threshold. The smoky air stung Caim’s eyes. The front room took up most of the ground floor. Its walls were bare timber joined with wattle. Two scarred wooden pillars supported the low roof. There were no windows, and no bar either, just a doorway covered by a sheet of dingy canvas leading to a back room, possibly the kitchen. Two long trestle tables occupied much of the floor. Five men sat around the first, smoking from clay pipes and drinking. By their simple clothing and muddy boots, he took them for farmers or ranch hands.
Three men occupied the second table. Two could have been brothers. Both were large and rawboned, though one had long blond hair, and the other black as pitch. The man sitting across from them was a head shorter. A sharp chin protruded from the confines of his hood, which he kept pulled down. All three wore buckskin instead of wool and carried weapons of a sort. Boar spears leaned against the table beside the larger men; their companion had something hidden under his cloak, maybe a sword or a truncheon. The two larger men looked up with dark, sunken eyes as Caim entered, and just as quick went back to their business.
The canvas sheet was shoved aside, and a man emerged from the back. By the wooden mugs in his hands, he was the proprietor. He had a sagging chin and a dark port-wine stain down the side of his neck. His eyes were deep-set with many folds underneath, but in their depths lay a kernel of toughness, the same as his customers, as though they were all chipped from the same quarry.
When he’d served the drinks, the owner regarded Caim with a sour expression. Caim stood as straight as he could manage and tried not to advertise his injuries. His face itched all of a sudden, but he kept his hands by his sides.
“You the innkeep?” Caim asked.
The man wiped his hands on his shirt, which was covered in grease spots. He glanced at Caim’s torn ear and said, “What do you want?”
“A hot meal and a room for the night if there’s one to be had.”
“We’ve no boarding.” The owner waved a hand at a seat at the end of the table nearest the meager fireplace. “But I’ll bring you something to eat.”
Caim crossed the room and leaned his bundles against the wall. The heat from the fireplace lapped against his back as he sat down. He closed his eyes, imagining the warmth creeping into the marrow of his bones. By his best reckoning, he was roughly twenty leagues north of the Nimean border. If he had succeeded in following a northerly track, and if his injuries allowed him to maintain the pace, that would put him in Liovard, Eregoth’s largest town, in a few days.
The three men sitting together seemed to be arguing, but Caim couldn’t hear their words. Then the larger two stood up. Taking up the spears, they went out the door and left the smaller man alone with a trio of cups. Caim leaned back and closed his eyes, minding his own business. The last thing he wanted was trouble.
The sound of shoes scraping over the floorboards dragged his eyelids open. A woman had come out of the back room to bring him a flattened bread plate covered with brown stew and a wooden mug. She didn’t meet his eyes, but that didn’t surprise him; he knew he looked bad, and probably smelled worse. When she started to turn away, he cleared his throat. She hesitated, but gave no other indication she’d heard.
“I’m heading to Liovard. Can you tell me how far it is?”
The woman shrugged. She was about the same age as the innkeeper, with the same tired features of someone who had been driven hard on the wheel of life.
“Orso!” she yelled over her shoulder. “How far to the city?”
The innkeeper looked over from the table of farmers with a scowl. “Two. Maybe three days on foot.”
Caim nodded to the woman. “I’m trying to find a place.” He dredged the name from the dreams of his earliest years. He wasn’t even sure it was right. “Morrowglen.”
The innkeeper beckoned her, and the woman shuffled away. Her employer, or husband perhaps, cast an ill look at Caim.
“We’ve no boarding!” he grumbled before following the woman into the back.
Caim settled in his chair, and winced as his sore back rubbed against the slats. The other guests had paused again to watch him. He returned their gazes until, one by one, they went back to their cups. The cloaked man never looked up.
Caim stared at the steaming pile of runt potatoes and carrots on his plate. The heat at his back, so delicious just minutes ago, was oppressive now. He took a sip from the cup and almost spat it out. Pieces of millet floated in the bitter beer. He started to put it down, but then took another slug.
The sound of hoofbeats outside almost caused him to spit it out. On the road, horses meant rich people or soldiers, and either way it spelled trouble. Caim placed his hands on the tabletop. There was only one way out unless the back room had an exit. The other patrons cast glances around at the sounds from outside, but otherwise stayed as they were when the door slammed open. Caim eased his chair back out of the light of the fireplace.
A group of men in damp leather armor and steel caps entered and stamped the snow from their boots. Five in number. No uniforms, but they wore enough hardware to make sure everyone knew they meant business. Then a sixth entered, wearing a steel cuirass over a mail byrnie; his riding boots were muddy from the road.
Soldiers. Just what I don’t need.
Everyone in the room bent farther over their drinks at the sight of the new arrivals. All conversation stopped. The crackle of the fire popped loud in the sudden silence. As the soldiers took seats at the table, pushing the farmers down to make room, the innkeeper hurried through the curtain with fistfuls of foaming mugs. He nodded as he set them down, but by the downward curve of his mouth he was anything but glad to see his new guests.
“Good day, my lords.”
One of the soldiers, the largest, tossed a couple coins on the table. “We need something to eat. And fodder for our mounts. See to it.”
The owner bowed as he collected the money, and then departed back through the curtain. There was a ruckus in the back, accompanied by the sound of breaking clay, and the soldiers laughed to each other. Their captain sat with his back to the wall and minded his cup. He looked younger than the rest. Even without his armor or the expensive cavalry sword with its wire-wrapped hilt at his side, Caim would have guessed him to be the leader. He held himself a little apart from the others and had more of a care for his appearance. Likely he was some minor lord’s fourth son, reduced to serving in the army for self-advancement.
While the soldiers drank and spoke among themselves, the cloaked man at Caim’s table stood up and headed toward the door. It looked like he might make it without incident until one of the soldiers called out.
The caller stood up, as did one of his brother soldiers, while the rest watched on. The officer did not stir, but he looked up over the rim of his mug. The cloaked man kept walking.
The soldiers on their feet moved to intercept him, and the others were rising now, too. The farmers bent over their table as if minding their own business, except for one. Older than the rest, he was downright ancient, with a full white beard that hung down to his navel. Of them all, only he dared to raise his head and watch.
One of the soldiers grabbed the cloaked man’s arm and yanked him to a halt. “Where you off to?”
The other trooper snatched back the hood to reveal a youthful face with a hawkish nose, topped by a mop of unruly black hair. He couldn’t have been older than sixteen or eighteen. The soldiers grinned at each other.
“What’s this?” the first asked. “He looks a little young to be out wandering without his mother.”
The cloaked youth looked away, but said nothing. By this time, the big soldier had come over. Still holding his mug, he grabbed the boy by the hair and forced his head back.
“You with the army, boy?”
The first soldier poked the youth in the kidney. “Speak up, boy. We’re talking to you.”
The big soldier threw back the boy’s cloak and whistled as he reached down. He drew out a sword and held it up. It was a northern short sword called a spatha, with a straight blade and a narrow guard. This one had a bronze hilt and a dull steel blade that showed the dents of a blacksmith’s hammer.
“You better be explaining yourself,” the big soldier said.
The officer came over. “What have you got, Sergeant?”
The sergeant dropped the sword to the floor where it rattled with a hollow clang. “A deserter is my guess.”
“Is that true? Are you a deserter from His Grace’s army?”
“Leave him be!” the oldster sitting at the table yelled. “He ain’t harming nobody.”
The officer gestured, and the other three soldiers hauled the farmers to their feet and shoved them against the wall. The old man protested, and was cuffed across the mouth, which only made him curse them more roundly.
“Shut him up!” the sergeant shouted. “Or tickle his ribs with something sharp.”
One of the soldiers drew a dagger from his belt.
Caim sat back in his chair, feeling the ache of his wounds. This was going bad, fast. He thought the soldiers would just give the youth a hard time, but mention of desertion had changed his mind. He didn’t know Eregothic law, but a man could get hung for that in Nimea. And most of the executions were summary judgments on the spot. But this wasn’t his problem. He could remain here in the shadows, with luck pass undetected, and be on his way. But what would Josey say? Would she tell him he’d done the right thing? In his imagination he saw the disappointment in her eyes.
All right, Kit. Where are you?
The officer reached over and pulled aside the collar of the young man’s shirt. A filigree of knotted blue lines was tattooed on the boy’s shoulder in the shape of three circles bound through the center by a fourth. Caim didn’t know what that signified, but the sergeant pounced on the boy all of a sudden, yanking his arms behind his back, while the other soldiers drew their swords. One farmer turned around, and was slugged in the face with a steel pommel. He dropped to the floor, blood streaming from a mouthful of broken teeth. The old man cursed at their oppressors. Caim reached behind his back. He had seen enough.
As the troopers herded the boy toward the door, Caim stood up. His leg burned like red-hot hooks were shredding the flesh. He drew his left-hand suete knife. Every head turned as he slammed its point into the wooden tabletop.
“Let him go.”
A soldier with a drawn infantry sword started toward him. Caim turned the ruined side of his face toward the firelight. The soldier drew up quick. Not quite what you expected to see in this backwoods inn, eh?
The sergeant hollered, “Yanig! Stop ogling the bastard and put him up against the wall.”
The soldier took another step. That was all Caim needed. He jerked the suete free from its wooden prison. The soldier gasped and dropped his sword as the knife’s edge sliced across the back of his hand. As he pulled back, Caim lashed out again. Once, twice, thrice, and the soldier fell back, disarmed and bleeding from holes through his light armor. Messy wounds, but nothing vital. He’d live if they got him to a chirurgeon.
The other pair of soldiers guarding the patrons charged over. Caim drew his right-hand knife and yanked the other from the table. These soldiers showed more sense, coming in side by side. One held a cavalry sword with a long blade; the other had just a mean-looking dirk, but he carried it like he knew what he was doing. Caim caught the sword with a stop-thrust and bit back a curse as his leg buckled. He remained upright and fended off a slash from the knife-man, and responded with quick cuts that sent both soldiers reeling back. Caim let the men limp away. His forearm stung, and the strain of maintaining a fighting stance made his lower back tighten into knots. He was afraid he would fall over if he tried to move. What were his options? Surrender?
Tiny voices whispered in his ears. When the remaining soldiers advanced, he didn’t have to call for the shadows. They came on their own, and the light from the fireplace suddenly cut out as if a wet blanket had been thrown over the flames. One soldier stopped in midstep. His mouth contorted in terror as a shadow dropped on his head and oozed down his face. The others shouted and swiped at the air as an avalanche of shadows fell from the ceiling. Behind them, the officer drew his sword.
Caim took a step. His leg burned like hellfire, but it held. Every step was agony as he crossed the room. The shadows followed him, crawling along the floor, across the walls, over the struggling soldiers. He could feel them watching him, waiting . . . for what? The patrons had fled. The back room was quiet.
Caim stopped in front of the officer. Up close, he looked even younger, but he stood his ground even as his men groaned and bled on the floor. Brave little shit.
“Get out,” Caim said. “And take the others with you.”
The young officer looked at the suete knives. “We’ll be back. With more men.”
“Then bring shovels and a priest.”
Caim dismissed the shadows, sending them back to the corners of the room as the officer gathered up his men and herded them toward the door. They watched him with haunted eyes as they passed out the door. At least they were alive. Their voices murmured in the yard, followed by the muted thunder of retreating hoofbeats. Caim noticed the cloaked youth’s sword was gone, too, vanished from the floor where the soldiers had dropped it. You’re welcome, whoever you were.
Caim dragged himself back to his table, where he found a cloth to clean his knives before putting them away. For a moment, he felt the desire to inflict a real massacre in this place. His gaze went to his father’s sword against the wall. Flexing his right hand, he sat down. The stew had congealed into a gooey mass, but he ate it anyway. While he tore off hunks of the bread platter and shoveled them into his mouth, the innkeeper pushed through the curtain with his wife at his back. Caim got the impression they weren’t particularly glad to see him still here. The innkeeper looked around as if he half-expected the soldiers to come charging back any moment.
“Erm,” he said. The woman prodded him. “You’ll have to be moving on now. We don’t want trouble.”
Funny. That’s what I said. And where did it get me?
Caim paused with a shovel of cold mush halfway to his mouth. “You’ve already had the trouble. It’s gone.”
“They’ll be back,” the woman said from behind the innkeeper’s elbow.
He pushed his cup toward them. “Another beer.”
Shadow’s Lure © Jon Sprunk 2011