“I’m telling you Barry, she was driving me crazy. I’ve never been so happy for it to be such a dry month.” The dark-haired, burly man in the thick coat leaned against the bar, his face flush from ale. He was among at least a dozen guests of the cozy inn, milling about merrily throughout the establishment.
The innkeeper Barry chuckled in response. He had a deep, hearty laugh that rumbled from beneath his short, red beard. He leaned against the other side of the bar, sharing a drink with the other man. “I’m glad you’re happy about the lack of bucks and minerals this season, Bern. You’re the only one.”
Barry’s inn, The Charging Bear, was a rare oasis nestled within the remote and unforgiving Sharpsbeak Mountains. With its abundance of predators, snowy peaks, winding passes, deep ravines, and cliffs, it ranged from a mild hazard for veteran frontiersmen to a deathtrap for young glory-seekers. These dangers were heightened in the early spring, when the weather became more unpredictable. The mountain range held a plethora of valuable resources that skilled miners and hunters could take advantage of to support themselves and their families between harvesting seasons. This brought men back, season after season, despite the risks.
Barry knew many of his seasonal regulars and their sensibilities, and most of them depended heavily on the mountains for their livelihood, far from home as they may be. They stayed long enough to make ends meet for the coming year and then returned home with their spoils. The Charging Bear was isolated compared to the scant other inns that dotted the mountains, and thus was less frequented. The inn survived on reputation, which Barry built through hard work and regular patrons.
“They would know what I mean if they met her,” Bern continued, “She’s more troublesome than her parents made her out to be; I should’ve asked for a higher dowry. These coastal people act like animals and don’t know a woman’s place. I had to knock her back down to size before I left.
Bern shook his head and lowered his voice so that only Barry could hear, “She thinks she’s the boss of ME…Well,” he sniggered and slurred, “she became the boss of the floor, which better be spotless when I return.” His face lightened up some. “Honestly, I stay here longer than I need to. I like here.”
Barry had figured as much, considering Bern was one his most generous patrons, and he made good coin serving him ale and listening to his tales. Barry preferred to not get involved with his patrons’ troubled relationships; all their towns and families were far away, and as a result, to him, most of their problems were as well. Besides, most people just needed an ear, not advice. “Hopefully,” Barry said with a smile, “Most of them learn eventually, right?”
Bern shook his head. “Fat chance with this one.”
“Help! By God, please!”
A young man crashed through the heavy wooden door, yelling, “Monty’s been bit by a cougar, and h-he won’t quit bleeding!” as he struggled to support his friend who leaned heavily against him, head lolling in half-consciousness.
Barry, instantly alert, though neither surprised nor panicked, surveyed them. Rivulets of blood had soaked the thigh of Monty’s thick winter pants. He approached the pair of men, as conversation died in the inn. A couple patrons had gotten up to help the struggling men. One closed the door behind them, blocking the encroaching snow and howling, cold winds. “Can someone help get him to Room 1?” Barry asked.
“Of course,” a couple men murmured in response. As Barry turned to go towards the room, they carried Monty down a short hallway to the open door of Room 1.
Inside to the left, there were shelves of medical supplies, and to the right was a warm woodstove with a large water-filled bucket beside it. In the middle sat a cot.
“Set him on the cot,” Barry ordered as he set the bucket on the stove and gathered various supplies from his shelves.
The man groaned as they laid him down, “Leeren? Leeren?!” He struggled against them in confusion.
“I’m fine, Monty! Lay down, lay down!” Leeren, the man who’d accompanied him had just made it to the room.
With the help of the men, Barry stripped the man of his ruined pants to assess the damage and applied a cloth strip around his upper thigh as a tourniquet. He packed the deep wound with gauze and wrapped the gash very firmly with more strips. The patrons helped hold the boy down, as he struggled in pain.
After he’d staunched the bleeding some, Barry gave him a dose of opium tincture. “This’ll help, Monty, but I’m gonna have to sew your leg closed, after we wash it out.”
“Okay,” a still-disoriented Monty replied faintly, as he began to quiet down. He’s probably still in pain, Barry thought, but wants to keep a brave face. Barry washed the wound with warm water, disinfected it with alcohol, and sewed up what he could.
He wasn’t a true university physician, but over the years at The Charging Bear, this sort of event was a common enough occurrence that he’d garnered substantial field experience. It was either a bite, a fall, a broken bone, sickness from thin air, or some variation. He’d help people get stable and then send them with one of his few workers by wagon to the nearest town to a true doctor if they had no other means to get there. Well, eventually. Talon still hadn’t returned from his last such trip, and probably wouldn’t until tomorrow. Honestly, in between serving ale and hearing grandiose stories and secrets he relished the occasional exciting interludes. Not many would call it a calm life, but he truly enjoyed it. Also, he usually garnered very generous tips.
“Taste’s just fine to me,” Barry said with a shrug. Barry was back in the kitchen tasting some stew prepared by his cook, to investigate a new patron’s claim that the was opposite was true. Liam was an older fellow, with greys sprinkled among his long brown hair and a gut that was protruding more and more over the years. But he respected Barry, and usually forgot the kid was only 25, now that he had grown that beard. Barry stood a good six feet and had to stoop to enter some of the older doorways. He’d also seen him develop into a rather shrewd businessman over the years.
“See, that’s what I said, init? I think your new man’s just a spoiled rich boy.” Liam replied haughtily.
“Oh, I definitely agree, he looks well off,” Barry nodded nonchalantly. “Which means he’s either very generous or very stingy with his coin.” He flashed Liam a smile.
Just then, Barry heard what sounded like a bobcat screaming. He looked toward the front room door and frowned. “Is there a wild animal out there?”
“I honestly wouldn’t be surprised at this point, mate.” Liam sighed. “You should probably go toss it back out on the street. I’ll eh, see if I can spruce up the stew for the princess.” Liam swiftly gained an intense interest in his stew.
A sudden crashing and tumble of yelling and cacophonous sounds emanated from the other room. “I guess she’s mauling people now.” And Barry, feeling for his flintlock tucked in his coat pocket, ran towards the door.
“Its…a woman?” Barry stood in the doorway, stunned for a moment, genuinely surprised and confused for the first time in…he couldn’t remember how long.
A woman stood in the middle of the inn. She was swaddled in many layers of oversized men’s coats. More importantly, she was brandishing a pistol.
Besides that, Barry couldn’t help but notice that she was beautiful. Or maybe it was just that he hadn’t seen one in…God knows how long. Years? He hadn’t left the mountain in years. Hadn’t really wanted to. She was tall, with a flowing chestnut braid that matched the finish of her gun. Tan, like the people in the tribes of the coast, and with a strong face, she held a gaze of fiery determination that seared a hole in…Bern.
Oh God. He thought he lived far enough away from anyone to have to deal with this sort of thing. Drunken brawls, and men fighting over silly things, yes, the occasional bear attack, sure, but not this. He didn’t consider himself to be terribly gentlemanly, but he couldn’t envision himself shooting or punching her.
The small crowd of men—there were maybe six here, it was too early in the evening for a full house just yet—had given her a wide berth, presumably because of the gun. Patrons were not allowed access to their guns while in the main room of the inn. Barry had learned long ago that ale and firearms was a terrible combination. They were all tightly locked in the stables, and his stable boy held the key. A ‘pleasant’ sign on Barry’s front door explained the rules and redirected them to check in at the stables first.
She was aiming the pistol at Bern, as he was mumbling some drunken nonsense. He was clutching his nose as blood poured down his face. He snarled, “Bitch! I could be well within my rights to have you killed for this! For less than this!”
The last thing Barry wanted to do was intervene in marital affairs, but he didn’t like the idea of anyone getting killed on his premises. Terrible for business. He ran out to the floor before the two could approach each other and yelled “Hey! Hey! Hey! —excuse me, I’m the barkeep here—let’s calm down and not do something we’ll all regret!”
They both reminded him of enraged bears as they turned their heads to face him. He half expected a hiss or a growl for all the hatred that emanated between them. Honestly, he’d rather be fighting a bear. They were more familiar to him than women at this point. He didn’t know why he was wigging out so much inside. He tried to calm himself down as he stepped between them.
“Get the hell away Barry! I’m gonna kill the whore.”
“And you think I’d stoop to letting you!? I won’t bow to you!” she cried defiantly, keeping the pistol held at chest height. Barry realized she was quite young as he observed her, far younger than Bern, and he struggled to keep his eyes off her. He hated picking sides, and he didn’t know where to start. If he threw out Bern, well that would be a significant loss. But if he threw them both out, a murder just outside the door wasn’t good either. And he didn’t know how safe it would be to try to apprehend her. Again, he wished it were a cougar or a bear. He could just shoot that. But judging from the many stories he’d heard, women could be serious trouble.
“Uh, miss,” he said, searching for an approach, “guns aren’t allowed in this establishment. If you shoot him, you will be, apprehended, and I doubt you want that.”
She scoffed, “Are you gonna call the king’s guard up here, barkeep? Or a militia?” Fair point, he thought. There was no law in Sharpsbeak Mountains. It was too far from most of the kingdom for the king’s guard, and not enough people lived here for there to be any sort of local law. In fact, Barry didn’t think anyone ‘lived’ in the mountains. They all stayed in the sparsely scattered inns when they came through. The best Barry could do law-wise was tie her up and bring her down the mountain a day or two’s journey to the nearest town. That is, if he could apprehend her without getting shot. He couldn’t just shoot her; he’d already lost the element of surprise, and he’d never actually shot a human. Warning shots were the furthest he’d ever got.
“Barry, I’m gonna ask you to not get involved between a man and his wife,” Bern growled, obviously barely holding back the urge to shove him aside. Somehow, the large-framed man looked even taller now. His long, black hair and thick beard were disheveled enough that they looked like they were bristled. Barry figured the fact that he had known him for years was the only thing keeping him slightly contained. He desperately wanted to not get involved if he was being honest. As he stood between them, he looked at him and knew he wouldn’t take a bullet for Bern, not ever, but especially not right now.
Then he looked at her and realized she was wincing. It lasted a moment, and then she tried to resume her hot demeanor, but Barry could tell she’d lost some of her heat. But she was tough enough to make it here. He thought about it, and Bern must have done something terrible for her to just not run away while he was gone. He’d heard that story more than once, along with the story of the lady secretly running into the arms of another while her husband toiled in the mountains. Or she was just hysterical.
“Barkeep, if you want to know why I want to kill him—”
Bern barked, “You shut your lying whore mouth! Why the hell are you—”
“He raped my little sister, forced her to keep it a secret for years, forced her to take seed of peacock flower when her belly started to grow.”
Barry didn’t know how to respond to that. It was deathly quiet in the inn, except for the panting of the angry couple.
“And if you want to know more things that he probably hasn’t told to his little boys club—” she looked around at the silent tavern-folk, and in that slight pause, Bern took the chance to try to sidestep Barry and charge.
Before Barry could even think about it, something broke in him, and he tackled the man.
In that same instant, a shot rang.
A searing strike of pain tore through Barry’s shoulder. And then Bern became a heavy weight that collapsed against him.
Barry fell, Bern on top of him. He struggled to push him off, his arm burning at the effort. He finally shoved him to the side and realized the man was dead.
“Barry!” his stable boy Terren had joined the crowd. He rushed toward him to help him up. Terren wasn’t worried about the woman; he knew her gun was only a single-shot flintlock.
But Barry was, strangely enough; worried more about her than he had truly worried about anyone in a long time. She was braver than a hunter. He stared at her, mesmerized, then realized the wincing had returned in full force. She fell to her knees in pain. Started screaming.
She started ripping her coats off, and he realized how well they’d hid her protruding belly.
He forced himself to get up. “Help…get her to—to Room 1.”
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d panicked when he had to treat someone.
But he had no clue what to do. He’d never seen a birth, hadn’t seen a baby in years, and sure as hell didn’t learn about them up here. Fear coiled in the pit of his stomach.
A couple men started waking from their stupors and proceeded to assist her. Terren still held Barry’s shoulder. He shoved him away and said, “I’m fine! I just can’t help move her.” Terren nodded and turned his concern toward her.
In Room 1, she bellowed and brayed on the cot. Barry sent the other men away to give her some privacy, but as the only person here even remotely medically inclined, he knew he had to stay. Men weren’t even usually allowed in birthing chambers! What use was he?
She quieted for a moment as a contraction ended, and he asked, unsure what else to do, “How can I—how can I help you?” She opened eyes that had been shut tight in pain a second ago. She looked at him blankly, distantly.
“Get a blanket.” He prepared a wrap for the baby to be, and for a second he panicked, wondering how all that stress would affect her.
Would it be alive?
Would she even want it, considering who the father was?
He thought about how much turmoil she must have inside her. He suddenly felt foolish for his internal struggles earlier. And he briefly wondered, before shoving the thought back down, about the other side of all the stories he’d heard over the years.
He realized all could do right now was support her.
He crouched down and squeezed her shoulder. “You can do this.” And he knew it when he said it. He knew she was beautiful and strong. Even now, especially now. Life was happening right now.
She was beautiful. Perfect. They both were. Why would someone hurt this? He couldn’t help but stare as she held her, tired as she was. She looked up at him. He didn’t know why, but he held out his arms.
Nestled and sleeping quietly in his arms, he watched her. He suddenly vaguely remembered getting shot in the shoulder. And Bern. He’d deal with that all later. As long as these two were safe.
“What is your name?” he said to her.
“I am called Amrit. And her, I’m not sure yet.”
“Well, there’s a room for the both of you here, no charge. I’d be honored if you would stay…at least for a little while, or as long as you like, or need.” He didn’t know why he was rambling. But he hoped she would stay.
“Well then,” she gave a weak laugh, “if that’s all it takes to get a free room, I’ll take it.”
And for some reason, he grinned bigger than he had in a long time.