Morning soon followed as we began the last leg of our journey. The sun, however, did not rule the skies that day. Instead, we were harassed by a cold fall rain, which ended and then returned so many times we lost count. Being unable to ride in my pack, Rat was drenched. I never thought I would be happy to have that cloak on, but as it seemed to resist absorbing the rain, I almost wished I’d had another to share. The other goods now in my pack increased the load a little but not too terribly.
Thankfully, we made it to Bridgeton a little before midday. We arrived at the town jail a few minutes into town. After stomping the worst of the mud off our boots, we went in. The sheriff’s office consisted of a drab, little, stone walled room heated by a miserly fire. An iron-girded door behind the sheriff, went to the cells in the back. The sheriff, sitting behind a table stacked high with silver coins, wore a small bronze shield on his vest. He watched as I followed Rat inside, sliding sideways through the narrow doorway.
“Can I help ya?” The sheriff’s voice was rough as he spoke past a pipe, which had filled the room with a ghastly smell.
“I have a message which needs to be delivered to Evincere.” I spoke quickly, hoping that the sooner I was finished here, the sooner I could return home. “Stumpton has been set upon by an army of brigands. Several score of armed men wearing chain and plate attacked the town killing twenty men and injuring many more.”
The sheriff nodded, writing the information down on a bit of parchment as I dictated it to him. He then stood and quickly made his way over to the door in the back, calling one of the guards to relay the message.
We waited and watched as the sheriff dispatched him to the town stables whereat he could fetch a horse for the ride north. We were about to leave as a young deputy rushed in the door.
“Sheriff Pedge, that lizard is back. He’s waiting at The Crystal Garden for you.”
Sheriff Pedge nodded to the deputy and then walked out the door, with us right behind him. We watched as he walked down the road.
Following that, I was restless and so, taking advantage of a short abatement in the rain, we walked quickly towards the town’s square. I was sure that Rat would want to get somewhere in town that was dry and warm for a while, but, despite the occasional sneeze, Rat’s spirits were high enough that he resisted the idea.
“Let’s instead go to the smith here and see if we can make a coin or two on the spoils of our victory, eh?” His face shone now that he was finally going to be doing something he was better at than hiking.
It took us a while to find the smith. Bridgeton’s city center was at least three times larger than Stumpton’s.
“This place should be called Bridge City for as large as it is.” I intoned as we made our way down yet another street lined with various shops.
Rat snorted laughingly as he replied. “You should see Evincere. Now that’s a city!”
I shrugged. A moment later, we walked into the shop front of the town’s smith. My head bobbed with approval as I looked at the quality of the wares displayed which ranged from horseshoes to dining utensils. One wall was entirely devoted to arms and armors. The placement of bows and crossbows amongst the other items on the wall surprised me. They must have a partnership with the local fletcher. Hmm.
I was still admiring his wares when I heard Rat speaking to the clerk behind me. I removed the three swords, five daggers and assorted bits of armor from my bag while Rat spoke with him. They were decent quality. They were not as good as Jonathan could make, but they were sufficient to the task. The clerk asked to see them as I finished looking them over, and so I brought them to him.
“Seven silver for the whole lot.” The clerk mumbled after looking at each of them.
“Seven silver? The metal alone is worth that.” I could not fathom the gall of the smallish man in front of me. “Are you the owner?”
Looking up at me, he shook his head and asked. “Would you rather speak with him, sir?”
Not waiting for a reply, he spun around and stepped nimbly through the door, closing the door behind him, and walked into the din of the forge.
After a few minutes, another man walked through the door, still wearing his gloves and apron, the soot-covered smith looked up at me.
“Can I help you?” His tone was even, not bearing the grace of a man used to dealing with the customers.
“Yes, we’re looking for a fair price for these items. The clerk was offering only seven silvers for all of this.” I motioned at the counter.
He dispassionately sighed and looked them over.
“I’ve told him only to offer ore cost for used goods that come through here. Seven silvers seem about right by that equation.”
Then I was just confused. The anger completely gone from me, I could do no more than ask. “Ore cost? As a fellow smith, might I ask you why?”
“Smith? Where’s your mark?”
I pulled the cloak back and pulled up the sleeve of the tunic so he could see where Jonathan had burnt the smith’s hammer sigil above his signature mark, a small wolf’s paw, into my left shoulder. The mark was a smith’s graduation gift, proof to other smithies of a competency in the basic skills of the trade.
“Well, I’ll be! That’s Jonathan’s mark. I haven’t seen him in… ” The man reminisced to himself for a fraction of a second before remembering me. “Oh, how rude of me. I can’t offer you any more than that because I won’t sell another smith’s goods. I can’t claim them as mine, and I won’t guarantee another man’s work.”
I understood his logic. Jonathan had often made the same complaint, but, being unable to afford taking such a stand at the risk of losing some business to the other smith in town; he always gave the full, used price for such goods.
“Now don’t you worry, anyone Jonathan would approve of, I would, too. I’ll help you out.” Pointing to the door, he continued, saying, “Go across the street to the outfitter. Tell him Wilbur sent you. He buys used weapons at price because he doesn’t care who made them. I’ll warn you now that it might not be much more, but every bit helps.”
I smiled, thankful that my mark had earned me some respect here. After packing up the stuff on the counter and waving goodbye to Wilbur, I made my way, Rat atop my shoulder, across the street, wading through the muddy rain-filled wagon ruts, to the outfitter’s shop.
The décor on the inside of the shop betrayed its prior existence as an inn and bar, with the bar having been converted to a clerk’s desk.
I let Rat down just inside the door, staying outside to let the mucky water run down my leg before kicking it off my boot. After the worst of it fell off, I followed Rat to the counter.
“Excuse me, sir, Wilbur sent me over. I have some used blades and such to sell?” I offered.
“Well then, let’s see ‘em.” The man waited as I pulled the menagerie from my bag and then looked them over. “…four, five… I’ll give you three scales for the lot of it.”
I thought the offer over, considering that a scale’s value of five silver made the deal only a little fairer than highway robbery, but I accepted resignedly. After all, Wilbur had warned me about the trade value before I came over.
I offered the three scale-shaped, gold coins to Rat to hold onto. He refused all but one, which he pocketed very quickly, “You hold onto two of them. I’ve funds of my own, and I’ll not have money become an issue to divide us on the road. With just the two of us making our way, there has to be some trust between us.”
I pocketed the other two and asked, “Well, it’s a little past lunch and I’m starving. I say we find an inn with some good warm food.”
“Ah yes, I could go for a warm mug of honey mead myself.” Rat grinned.
We went back out, retracing our steps to where we had seen a clean looking inn and stepped in.
“Gentleman, if you would leave your cloaks and boots at the door, we’ll get those washed and dry for when you need them again.” A portly, balding man with a chubby-cheeked smile walked over, taking our cloaks from us when we removed them. He then had an errand boy take our shoes and took us to a table.
My cold damp feet slowly felt the warmth return as we sat at the table. The inn floor was festooned with carpets of every size and color, the stone floor underneath only occasionally peeking out in the odd spots near corners and hallways.
After I sat down, I looked at the innkeeper and asked, “How long will our belongings be drying?”
“Ho-hoo!” The fat man laughed, “You’re quite the village bumpkin! My inn is equipped with a water-powered generator, and, with the electric washer and dryer brought here all the way from Evincere, Your clothes will be ready to go in less than three hours.”
My eyes must have bugged out, because then Rat gave me the “how adorable” look.
The large man merely paused before introducing himself, “My name is Arlo J. Butterby, I am the owner of this fine establishment, and I will also be your waiter this fine day.”
My surprise gave way to my hunger, as I made ready to ask what was available to eat; however, my chair interrupted my question by breaking beneath me, allowing me to spill to the floor.
Another laugh from Butterby echoed in the nearly empty room, as he had another errand boy fetch me a ‘real man’s seat.’
A moment later, I settled into a recliner they had pushed up against the table. It was a little tight through the hips, but I made no complaints.
With both of us seated, Butterby took our orders, which consisted of a meat pastry and some mead for Rat and a large bowl of split pea porridge with generous chunks of bacon swimming in it and a small beer for me.
“Are you gentleman needing a room for the evening?” The innkeeper asked as he passed by a few moments later.
“Yes, how much is a room here, sir?” I was a little worried that the price for such a well-equipped inn might be steep.
“Well we are completely empty right now so we lower the prices to get the customers in here. Right now a room with two beds is three silvers.”
The price seemed steep, but Rat raised his gaze to mine and nodded an emphatic approval.
I then turned towards Butterby and smiled. “I guess we’ll be staying here tonight.” I gave him the three silvers as well as a fourth in advance for lunch and eventually dinner.
A few more people walked in as I did so, and he went to help them, leaving Rat and I to our meal once again.
“Three silvers for as clean a place as this will be a steal once we get to Evincere, m’boy. The prices for such rooms there can cost several scales! We might as well get nice rooms while we can afford to. That reminds me, though. How much did the mayor give us for such things?”
“About fifteen silver.” I breathed out.
As Rat spoke a flaky piece of pastry caught in his beard. “Hmph! Well, that won’t last too long. Never thought I’d be happy to run into highwaymen.”
I motioned to my chin to point out the crumb, and as he picked it out I asked, “Once we get to Evincere? I‘ve no reason to go all the way there. The envoy will deliver the message. I’m needed back at home.”
“Oh well, I thought a young buck like yourself might be up for a bit of adventuring. Guess I had you figured wrong.” A note of disappointment tainted his voice as he spoke.
After a few minutes of quietly eating my porridge, my curiosity finally won out. “So you were planning to go on, then?”
“Well, I was… but I’m not so young and foolish as I used to be. If you’re not going, I won’t go, either.” He shrugged as he finished off his mead.
“You’re from around here, right?” I asked him
“Not really. I’ve lived in Evincere all my life, but I travel the kingdom as much as I can. I usually get to Stumpton around the fall to help with the harvests, but it’s purely coincidental.”
“So, you’re coming back with me, then?”
“Aye. It’s not as if I’ve anything better to do, besides who knows what you’d meet on the way back. Even you might need help if ‘some’ things found you out there.”
When we had both finished, the errand boy who’d taken my cloak returned and, while the one who’d fetched my chair took our dishes from the table, the two of us were escorted to our room upstairs.
Rat looked around, admiring the two beds in the room. I looked at the beds reminded of Jonathan’s little matchbox and visualized myself crammed onto one of them. Our young escort, who introduced himself as ‘Hammond,’ asked if we’d prefer a wake up.
“Yes, preferably before the cock crows.” I answered.
“Cock crows…?” The boy looked at Rat and then back at me, confused.
“Sunrise will do, m’boy.” Rat clarified for him. After the boy left, Rat continued, saying, “Large towns and cities don’t usually go by such things, Rickter.”
I rolled my eyes. “The more I learn about city living the more I prefer the life I live in Stumpton.”
“Not all change is bad, Rickter. In fact, I’d wager that a bit of change is good for a man, occasionally.”
I shrugged. “Maybe.”
* * *
That night, I chose not to sleep on the bed, opting instead to spread the linens from it onto the floor and sleep there. Upon lying down, I felt as waves of exhaustion pushed my eyelids closed.
I laid there for a second as I relaxed waiting for sleep to come, but a sound seemed to carry from downstairs into the darkness of the room. I forced my tired eyes open to judge the direction of the sound.
On a nightstand between the beds, a candle Rat had lit burned faintly. I looked over and, seeing Rat’s small sleeping form on the bed under the blankets, stood up. Walking over to the candle, I placed my hand on the other side of it, and blew on it.
The candle sizzled out, leaving the smell of smoke. I turned back around to walk back to my spot on the floor, when a spitting sound from behind me startled me.
I turned around to see the candle lit once again. I looked at Rat, who had apparently moved and I snickered. “Good one.”
I licked my fingers squeezing the candle’s wick, to douse the small flame and turned around again… and again, a spitting noise echoed from behind me.
“Rat, I’m not in the mood for this.” I said as I turned towards his bed. He’d definitely moved again.
”Rat?” No reply. “Oh, Ra-at.” I tried to be patient. After another moment of silence, I pulled the covers expecting him to laugh or some such, but Rat wasn’t there. Instead, I was shocked to see the charred corpse of a young girl. Her small face frozen in a painful scream.
I jumped backwards stumbling over the bed and landed in a still smoking pile of charred wood. I looked down at my dirty hands. A yell from somewhere to my right caught my attention and I whipped my head towards it. The wall of my room was gone. I could see into a night sky, choked with smoke and ash. Looking around I found myself somewhere else completely.
I was in what seemed to have been a bedroom judging by the little girl who now lay in a pile of charred feathers and bedding between the burnt remains of a bed frame, her ruined toys lying at my feet.
I walked through the wreckage of a wall into the bitter cold air of night. Looking around, I saw no one who still lived. Bloodied, broken bodies laid everywhere. A scream echoed again to my left and I ran to find its source. Around a corner and into a small alley, I found myself face to face with a group of four men. They seemed overly large as I looked upon them. A flash of movement at their feet caught my attention as I looked and I saw her.
Naked and bruised, Henny was on her knees, her hair, matted and bloody, was clenched in the fist of one of the men.
* * *
Rat’s voice in my ear told me I had woken up from the horrible dream. I rolled to my feet. It was still dark outside, but I didn’t care. I had to make sure it had been just a dream.
“Get ready. We have to leave now.” I said as I began to check over our things.
“Why?” Rat looked at me, puzzled.
“I have to make sure they’re okay.”
A terse look from me, and Rat said no more. I didn’t mean to scare him, but afterwards his pace was frenzied, and his little hands shook as he packed.