When you run the only inn at the mountain pass border between Iria and Catlin, you meet your fair share of oddness. One might even say that was to be expected, even. Only those crossed the pass that wanted to test their luck or those whose luck had run out. The pass connecting both countries was steep and dangerous, passable only on sunny days for the slightest snowfall would unleash deadly avalanches.
After ten years of working in the business of pouring tankards, wiping tables, and breaking up drunken brawls, Anton had seen all: fellowships of dwarfs longing to expand their wealth, daredevils – missing a few fingers or even a limb – in search for a new adventure and on one memorable occasion a princess trying to flee her betrothed. The ensuing one-minute wedding of the noble to a mere stable boy might have thrown a different village in utter turmoil – not Keswick, though. Far more whimsical and mind-boggling events occurred on a regular basis in the tiny village. For them, it was just another feast, some guests that drank the offered beer, indulged in the local food, and paid in coin as good as any other.
No, when you anticipate everything, nothing unexpected ever happens. And even if by chance something unpredictable happened... Well, that’s where The Rules come into play.
Rule Nr. 1: Payment before service – no exceptions.
All his experience with the unexpected, however, didn't prepare Anton for the group of travelers currently sitting in a remote booth at the far end of the taproom, the combination of people like a bad joke that he’d heard one too many times: A mage, a huntress and a bard walk into a bar…
Chuckling to himself, the barman lay down the rag that he had been pretending to polish the glasses with, while secretly observing the crowd. Then, he purposefully approached the newcomers. As soon as he was within earshot of the table – the most secluded one in the whole room – all conversation ceased, and three pairs of wary eyes scrutinized him. Not the adventurous and usually boisterous type of group, then. The quiet patrons usually preferred most when Anton talked less.
“What will it be?”
“Three ales, one cider, please.”, the bard rose to speak, his voice a lilting baritone, pleasing to listen to. For a moment, Anton considered asking the man to perform some songs for that reason alone. However, a brief glance at his tunic, finely woven and a lovely enough but much too flashy teal color, had him pause. The fading embroidery and yellowed sweat stains spoke of difficult roads traveled and too little coin to afford basic necessities. Probably another group of refugees, like countless ones before, despite the strange constellation. They wouldn’t want to draw attention to themselves, surely. The bard’s companions looked much the same – deep sunken eye bags, occasional scratches, and torn shirt hems. Even the mage, usually of the poised and distinguished sort, looked disheveled, hair tucked into a low, messy bun, and the huntress, who surely must be used to hard times, held herself gingerly.
Trying not to let the silence stretch, Anton threw her a disarming smile, and asked:
“Some food.”, her voice was raspy, rough edges against soft lips.
“We got some fresh beef stew.”
“Sounds lovely!”, the bard chimed in again, angling his upper body over the table.
“Sure, coming up. That will be 20 coppers.”
When no one was forthcoming, Anton showed them the sign adorning the bar counter where The Rules were blatantly displayed. The local customs weren’t commonly practiced, and the sign had been installed when a drunken member of the king's guard tried to contest them through the use of sword. As a way of explanation, he added:
“In case someone tries to dine and dash. Or, you know, dies before paying.”
Blank stares told Anton, that his joke had fallen flat. Not that it was much of a joke, after all, according to his great grandfather, the rule about payment had been introduced after two mercenaries had died within a week of each other and trying to collect their drinking and gambling debts had proven more challenging than trying to attain a dragon's egg. The silence stretched uncomfortably long until the mage, her status made clear by the silver snake pendant resting against her delightfully revealing cleavage, reached for her purse. The jingle it made spoke of few coins left.
As Anton reached across the table to take the coin from her, he spotted a shock of white-blond hair – previously covered by the tabletop. A small girl was resting her head on the huntress' thigh, eyes fluttered shut and obviously deeply asleep. So that was who the cider was for.
For a moment, the innkeeper’s gaze rested on the peaceful lines of her face, slack with sleep, when suddenly, her eyes snapped open. At once, dark pools of liquid gold took him captive. It was as if a warm breeze ruffled his clothing and his hair, pervaded his skin, and warmed his core. He could hear the chiming of bells spreading through his body, resounding through his soul and echoing the beat of his heart, murmuring with reverence: Glory, glory, salvation, and redemption is neigh.
What the fuck.
Of course, he remembered the prophecy the last great king of the high mountain had proclaimed shortly before his untimely demise. Knew, that there would be a time when worlds fate would be balanced on a razor edge and only the golden star of Iria would have the power to pull back humankind from the brink of destruction.
He just never thought those battles would be fought in his short and rather insignificant lifetime. And he didn’t expect that the prophecy’s star would rise as a small child. For that was what this young girl was, he was sure of it.
See, Anton may be a common man, who only attended school for two years, earned his coin by selling liquor, and enjoyed the simple things in life like a quiet evening by his wife’s side watching the fire in the stack slowly burn down while the whisky did the same down his throat. But he was no fool. After years of becoming acquainted with the world's vast oddities and experiencing an abundance of mirages in his own barroom, he had learned to distinguish between genuine and counterfeit. Often his life dependent on it: A real brawl or only feigned anger? Authentic silver coin or only painted copper? Someone trying to rob him with genuine intent or another unfortunate soul trying to just get by?
The point is, he knew a real miracle when he looked at it. Especially if bells were chiming and rattling his heart.
Anton blinked, and the moment passed. The girl grazed him with a sweet, albeit sleepy smile. When he looked up again, three piercing gazes had fixated on him, and the fierce protectiveness in them nearly had him taking a step back. In particular, the huntress’ focus made the hair on Anton’s forearms stand on edge. Her previously slightly unfocused gaze had hardened into steel, mouth twisted into a barely-there snarl. She was the one who spoke next, her narrowed eyes fixating Anton in place as if daring him to ask one too many questions:
“We also need two rooms for the night.”
Anton was about to nod his approval, when the bard interrupted: “One room please, with at least three beds.”
“No.”, the huntress retorted, and even though the innkeeper tried to ignore the ensuing whispered but nonetheless heated discussion between the three adults, he picked up scraps of sentences:
“No, you need to get at least some sleep.”
“We need you at fighting capacity if there is need.”
Until finally, the huntress grunted: “Fine. One room with at least three beds.”
“Sure. No problem. You can pay and get your keys at the bar. I will reserve the room.”
After waiting a few seconds, in case his guests had any more requests, Anton picked up the tankards that the previous customers had left and stepped back around the tables towards the bar.
Rule Nr. 2: No magic allowed.
As soon as the order was ready, Anton send his daughter over with four steaming bowls of beef stew alongside a generous platter of bread. Throughout the evening, he often lost sight of the strange newcomers, distracted by the familiar flow of customers, orders, and tapping beer. He gave advice to a group of hikers on where to purchase the best gear in town and which path to choose to see the best view by sunrise, broke up a quarrel between the tanner and his brother, and threw out a dwarf that had cheated on Tarock.
Finally, the flow of customers ebbed away, leaving everyone nursing their pints and a low and comforting murmur of noise. The strange group had taken their leave nearly half an hour ago, heading towards the upper floor, where the guest rooms were located. However, only a few minutes later the bard strutted up towards the bar. He immediatelly started chattering, not even waiting for Anton to lay down his rug, let alone face him. He only caught the last sentence (for his hearing wasn’t as it used to be after a shot that had been fired right next to his ear a few years ago had left a nasty ringing).
“Dear, good sir. Is it possible to arrange a bath taken to our room?”
The innkeeper examined the man, bypassing the flamboyant exterior, letting his gaze wander over the tambourine tied to his girdle and the calluses on his fingertips that spoke of a very different instrument (a lute, maybe?).
It was a problem. Preparing a bath was always a pain in the ass. Heaving the tub up the stairs and buckets of water to go with it had Anton cursing the afflictions that came with old age. At the end of the hallway, right in front of the guest room, he paused, trying to catch his breath. From inside the room, he could hear slightly raised voices. Somebody – the mage maybe – was trying to get another one to keep still. In between the argument, a high voice chirped up, requesting for everyone to “please, please, stop fighting, we need to stick together.”
When he straightened up again, Anton could make out two shapes in the crack of the door. The mage was bent over one bed, keeping a firm hand on the huntress’ chest, pressing her down while shifting the other hand around her left side. The faint glow of gleaming green healing magic was unmistakable. Gritting her teeth against her sleeve hem, fingers clawed into the bedsheet, the huntress looked as if she was barely holding herself together. Under the mage’s careful ministrations, the skin of the woman slowly knitted back together, leaving in its wake only an angry-looking mar.
Anton’s first instinct was to throw open the door and, while he was at it, kick the whole group out of his fine establishment. There were good reasons why magic was not allowed in his inn, and Anton could go into heavy detail explaining them. But.
But technically the room wasn’t even part of the tavern. Was not, in fact, subjected to his control. As if, reasoned Anton, no one had ever performed magic in his room, where the innkeeper could not see and therefore not sanction the use. And nothing bad had happened despite a breach of The Rules. Surely, one more time wouldn’t lead to his ruin.
And anyway, what the eye does not see, the heart does not grieve over. He just... hadn’t seen anything. No flicker of green magic, just some guest, patching up their companion.
Taking a deep breath, Anton knocked and without waiting for an answer began to push the heavy tub into the room. Once again, all discussion ceased and silence greeted him until the bard thanked him profusely for the kindness of a bath, because: “Good sir, you have no idea how much I am in need of a good scrubbing right now, not to mention my companions. You are a gift sent by the gods, really, saving my nose from further irritation, you see.”
The innkeeper only grunted in response and announced that his wife would be on her way with fresh towels and if there was any laundry to just entrust it to her. He emptied the last bucket into the tub, wiped his wet hands on his trousers, and left without further unnecessary chit-chat.
After he had closed the door, silence stretched for a few more seconds until the residents thought Anton gone. Then, the huntress muttered in her low voice: “You know, healing me won’t change anything if we don’t make it through the pass before the Irian military intelligence arrives.”
Silently, Anton made his way through the hallway.
3. Under no circumstances – whatsoever – get involved with the customers' affairs.
Usually, Anton would drop off into sleep as soon as his head made connection with his pillow. This night, however, sleep evaded him. His wife’s breath had since long evened out and still, the innkeeper was stuck looking at the ceiling. Continuously, his mind wandered back to the small girl and her strange companions. He knew that he should not get involved. That it was unadvisable, foolish even. The Rules were in place to keep them safe because otherwise disorder and disaster would follow. And yet, he couldn’t help but wonder. What if he didn’t offer his help? Would the world end, just like the prophecy predicted, and could he live in the knowledge that his inaction had ruined his children’s future?
When morning announced itself by stretching dim tendrils of blue light through the blinds and the cuckoo had called three times, Anton ran out of excuses. Breakfast was a quiet affair, and he was sure his wife knew something was off, but unlike other times, he could not reassure her. Instead, he filled the family in on his plan over steaming mugs of strong, black coffee. Anton’s daughter accepted her intended role without complaint, only giving thoughtful input when necessary. Her level-headedness filled the innkeeper with pride and when they got up from the table, he squeezed her shoulder gently in a rare show of affection. The answering smile was nearly enough to suppress his growing unease.
The strange guests were early to rise, and they did not stay for breakfast, instead preparing the horses to leave as early as possible. From behind the safety of his bar, Anton observed them bustling about, noticing how the huntress today seemed to have regained some of her agility, and the young girl, star of Iria, showed a little bit more color in her cheek. Good. They would need their strength.
Making up his mind, Anton took the bard – who seemed like the most approachable one of the group – to the side. Without preamble, he said: “If you want to evade the military intelligence…” The bard sucked in a surprised breath, but Anton continued. “You will be better of taking the secret trail up the mountainside. It will lead you further south than the pass and is quite steep but will take only half of the time. My daughter will guide you.”
When the bard looked at him now, there was no smirk on his lips or twinkle in his eyes. Gravely, he said his thanks, and the innkeeper felt his lips twitch in an involuntary half-sided smile. And when he watched the group depart, until all he could make out in the distance were slightly greyish shapes and the redish curles of his daughter's head, a shiver ran down his spine.
Not even a full day had passed since the travelers left when their pursuers arrived. They announced themselves with a loud bang, slamming the inn’s door in their wake and bringing every conversation to a standstill. Their leader, a fierce man with a beak-like nose, made his way through the barroom, scrutinizing every face, clearly looking for that one little girl with hair like ice, while his men made their way up towards the guest rooms. Out of the corner of his eyes, Anton could see his wife start to rant indignantly, but he silenced her with a serious look.
“What can I do for you, sir?”, he inquired, when the beak man stalked his way over to the bar.
“I’m looking for a little girl. This tall, pale hair. Might be in presence of at least two adults, one of them probably a mage. Did they pass through here?”, the man’s voice was quite ill-fitting, too light for a man of his statue.
Anton took a moment to pretend he was considering the question until he shook his head: “No, haven’t seen them. I can get you an ale, though.”
The man sneered, but before he could give a churlish response, one of his men returned, reporting:
“One of the bloodhounds bayed. Must have passed through here not long ago.”
The beak man dismissed him with a nod, then he bent over the bar, signaling Anton to step closer. When he spoke next, he could feel the man’s foul breath on his cheek:
“Never seen them, huh?”
Before the innkeeper could even begin to form an excuse, a sharp pain brought all train of thought to an end. And when Anton looked down, there was a handle sticking out of his chest. Oh. He must have lost consciousness, then, because the next thing he became aware of was, that the world had tilted sideways, and someone was crying. A bloody hand was gripping his own, tightly, on the borderline to painful. What a shitty destiny, he reflected, nearly hysterically and at the same time unusually calm, dying before his time, on the floor of his own bar. His great grandfather would be so disappointed.