The inn, creatively named ‘Halfway Inn’, was bigger than one would have expected for a place in the middle of a vast and decidedly unfriendly forest, with no other people around for at least a day’s travel along something that only the most charitable would call a road. Most of the time it was a dirt path. And right now it seemed unable to decide between being a mud bath or a skating ring. And so to avoid answering the question it was both, at different places, but still.
Brandt had kept apart a bit from the other mercenaries, a bit closer to the small fire too. If it was close to freezing outside the innkeeper did not intent to spend too much on keeping his small number of guests warm. It made sense, and at least it was warmer and drier inside than out, and the fire kept the place just light enough not to stumble over the furniture, but at the same time just dark enough that the raucous mercenaries were blurs in the darkness, unless one wanted to pay close attention to them. That suited Brandt just fine as he was at that moment having trouble remembering why it had seemed such a good idea to join them. Of course he remembered the mid summer celebration and lying awake with a head fuzzy with wine, wondering if that was what his life would be. He even remembered the impulsive decision to go out and find, if not adventure then at least something meaningful. He’d had at least enough common sense left to leave a letter for his parents. Even now, five moons after that night, he did not disagree with his decision. He just wondered about the chain of bad decisions since that had him end up here in this remote inn, in a mercenary company that barely deserved the name and had nothing at all in common with his vague, and admittedly naive, ideas of what life on the road would be like.

The mercenaries in question were in a good mood. They had not been yesterday nor this morning, but a day of drinking beer, even watered down, would do that to anybody’s disposition. The group made a living out of escorting merchant caravans around the forest to the city of Glivenr where the regions largest and most profitable harvest festival was being held each year. Since rich trade caravans implied lots of goods headed for a ready market, they drew brigands like mead drew wasps. Some of those brigands even worked for the competition. Guards were therefore a necessity and small mercenary outfits could make a good living those several months escorting and protecting the caravans.

They had made good progress the last trip and fought off a determined band of highway men without any loss to the caravan, so the grateful merchants had offered a bonus on top of the agreed upon fee. This had put the mercenaries in a celebratory mood, but the captain had decided that since they were early they could cut through the Black Forest and make it to the other side just in time to pick up a caravan that had arrived late. It had seemed a good plan as it would mean they could winter in comfort in an inn, instead of having to take on a short-term job as warehouse guards or night watch.

The innkeeper had welcomed them the night before as they arrived late, wet and very cold, and had informed them that the next day, today, the weather would be worse still so they might as well plan on spending another day. There had been some scoffing at the transparent ploy to part them with more of their earnings, but in the morning it became clear that if anything the innkeeper had underestimated how bad the weather had become overnight.

The field in front of the inn was no longer in any way or form fit for horses. It was a mud pool at least ankle-deep, and chunks of ice were floating around in it where the mud was watery enough. The path disappearing into the forest was in worse condition, and a stormy wind was driving before it a heavy rain that at times turned into sleet. They probably could make it through the forest but it would be very bad on the horses, and there was no small risk of serious injuries should anybody slip and fall. At the end the few who wanted to press on were outshouted by the ones who decided to stay another day where at least it was warmer and there was beer to be found.

Sitting where he was, at some distance from the increasingly drunk group, Brandt had some time to look at his companions. Well, not exactly look at them as the room was far too dark to see more than shadowed figures, but figuratively reconsider his rash decisions. It was not, he decided, that they were bad people. They weren’t brigands, though, if he was forced to think about it, he had to admit they were not that much of a step above them either. They were at least loyal to each other, and if they treated him as an outsider most of the time, they had his back in a fight just as he had theirs.

The problem with them, he decided eventually as he nursed his second mulled wine of the day, was that they were not going anywhere. They made a living, a dangerous one, with their small skills at fighting. They had chosen to protect others rather than prey on them, but they were content to live this life from year to year, with no imagination for what they would do in another decade. The songs and tales he had heard as a young boy, and an equally young man, about the heroic life of the legendary mercenary companies that saved kingdoms and rescued princes and princesses were entirely unlike the reality. And Brandt had reluctantly been forced to realise that hanging out with a bunch of drunk men in an inn in the middle of an ominous forest was the reality, not the songs. Even this forest, with its dark mysteries did not tempt these men to try to find out what exactly was going on, and see if perhaps it represented a danger to the kingdom.

It was not what he was trained for. And if there had been no use for his skills at home, he found he could not bring himself to consider wasting his years of hard training on a mercenary’s life. Except that at home his life had not been any more meaningful. A fifth son was nothing but a spare of a spare. Living an idle life, trying to keep up his skills against an increasing certainty they would never be needed unless his elder brothers died.

He had of course equally heard many stories of younger sons plotting to make just that happen. Those songs were presented as cautionary tales, but he had never needed that. He loved his brothers dearly, most of the time anyway, and would readily agree that at least two of them would be better than he could ever hope to be, and that the third was in an entirely different line of succession to him anyway. His relation with Erhan was a more complicated one, but much as he disliked him, Brandt could not wish him dead. Just safely, and preferably far, out-of-the-way.

And much as he had to admit he had made some bad decisions to end up here in this inn, in the company of these men, it was the thought of what Erhan would say that kept him from returning home. Not until he had found a place for himself and done something meaningful at any rate.

He signaled the innkeeper, who was looking increasingly apprehensive at having a dozen and a half drunk mercenaries in his inn, and asked for some bread and small slice of cheese if it was available. It would help him stay sober, though in truth the wine was weak and two small mugs of it over most of the day was not likely going to make him drunk.

Brandt in general hated to impair his reactions, even in a presumably safe situation. His weapons master, and generally best friend in the world despite, or maybe because of, their vast differences in age and experience, had drilled the dangers into him early and often with both story and example. The one time he had shown up hung over and late, after a spectacular feast he had first looked at him long and disapprovingly, and then proceeded to give him the trouncing of a lifetime. Entirely unarmed while Brandt was armed with an edged blade. With his coordination and reactions shot to pieces by the aftermath of too much drinking he had been unable to touch the old man even once, while the reverse was entirely and humiliating true. After dumping his bruised face and torso in the horse trough and the chilling cold of the water had revived him some, he had completed the lesson with a tongue lashing. He’d been twelve years old at the time and never indulged himself like that again ever since.

The innkeeper brought the smoothed wooden plate with the slices of coarse bread on it, and the cheese was, if old at least scraped free of mold. Brandt thanked the man politely and tried not to feel insulted by the pinched look of worry on the other man’s face. He had some right to be concerned. It had been quite a few hours since Brandt had last seen the man’s small family. Especially his wife and daughter. He imagined those two were hiding somewhere safe until the mercenaries passed out. The two sons probably were kept at the back of the inn, or at the stables, to equally keep them out of sight. Brandt silently agreed with that. He knew at least a few of the mercenaries would think it a great joke to goad the young men into a fight. And whatever club or other weapon the innkeeper kept hidden behind the counter, it would not help him against even two mercenaries spoiling for a fight.

Angry cursing from the darkest corner of the inn drew his attention away from his musings about the inn, and how he had ended up there. From the sound, and the very faint look, of it, some of the men had decided on a friendly game of dice that had stopped being friendly. Brandt looked for the captain of the company, though that was a far too grand name for something as small as this. The man had also noticed that a brawl was about to break out, but did not seem to care. He looked bored and then returned his attention to his ale and the story one of the more competent mercenaries was telling.

Before he thought about it consciously Brandt realised he was on his feet and walking over to stop the imminent fighting and destruction of the property of the innkeeper. This was not his job. If anything, it was anything but his job being the newest member of the company, but if none of the officers who should have headed off the problem were inclined to do their job, somebody else would have to.

Two of the four gamblers were shouting drunkenly at each other over something. Because they were too drunk to speak properly he could not make out what the cause of the shouting was, nor did he particularly care.

Using his best approximation of a sergeant’s voice he barked “What’s the reason for this shouting?”
The two other men looked up, surprised. They had been too intent on watching the spectacle to notice his arrival.

“Carl says that Petr smeared the dice and then called the wrong number”

Brandt casually reached over the table and pushed both men apart. Carl was too uncoordinated and bounced right off his chair. Petr barely held on to his seat.

“Nonsense” Brandt said while he watched Carl clamber to his feet. He had to hold on to his chair and then the table and was still swaying so bad that Brandt would have taken a bet that he would fall over again within 30 seconds of standing on his feet without support. The man also seemed to not have realised just exactly what had happened moments earlier.

“Carl is too drunk to count to five, with the aid of his left hand” Brandt explained, specifying the hand because Carl had lost two fingers on his right hand in a fight long before Brandt had joined the company.

“And you are not much better either Petr.”

Brandt added a nice menacing glower because Petr at least seemed belligerent and looking for a fight. He wouldn’t last five seconds against a sober Brandt, but the violence would draw in others and spark the wholesale destruction of the inn that Brandt was trying to prevent.

Brandt hauled him to his feet and pushed him stumbling closer to the fire “Go sit there. I will be with you shortly with something better to drink than this cheap ale.”

The two who had kept out of the fighting peeked up at that mention but Brandt glowered them into behaving themselves. “You two keep to yourself quietly. And keep him out of my hair too”. The last was with a toss of the head to where Carl was now getting back into his chair in an uncoordinated way that only the truly drunk could manage without falling flat on their faces. “I am not in the mood to bust heads and all this rain and snow is making me very cranky” he added for good measure.

After the two less drunk gamblers had nodded vigorously that they indeed had no intention to make Brandt angry, he headed to the counter, and the innkeeper who had taken refuge behind it at the first sign of trouble.

“Give me a mug of your strongest ale” Brandt ordered, dropping a silver coin on the surface.

Apparently his bad mood was still evidenced on his face for the foaming mug with dark beer appeared with commendable haste. Brandt had deliberately put way too much money on the counter, to make clear that he was serious and was prepared to pay for the stuff, but the innkeeper did not seek to make him overpay. Still the stuff was expensive and the single mug cost more than the pitchers that the others had been drinking their beer out of.

The expensive mug Brandt thrust at Petr, who was sitting near the fire as ordered and was glowering his own daggers at him.

“Here, drink this. Consider it payment for Carl being stupid. And don’t tick me off any further.”

Brandt figured that the strong ale and the heat of the fire would put Petr to sleep before too much longer, which would keep the troublesome drunk quiet till the next morning, hopefully.

Petr considered drinking the much better ale a good idea, and not pissing off Brandt any further an even better one, and was soon dozing, half leaning against the outside of the hearth itself. He would probably wake up stiff, with a cooked side and a gods awful headache but that really was not Brandt’s problem. Most of the mercenaries would at least have that headache, and sides that were frozen rather than cooked, depending on where they stumbled to before falling asleep.

Brandt reached for his plate to finally start on his bread and cheese, only to be distracted again. This time by the captain looming over him. The leader of the company was a big man, bigger even than Brandt, though the later had training that started earlier and was by far superior than what the first had cobbled together over the years. Of course he had also learned to fight dirty first, second and last, so in a fight he was likely to come out on top of Brandt who had it drilled into him to fight honourably and fairly and was slow to shed those early inhibitions.

“What do you think you’re doing” the captain said angrily. He kept his voice low. For now this was not a disciplining a wayward member of his company. The fact that the words were a question, but the tone of voice was anything but, reinforced that impression.

“They were about to start a brawl. Somebody had to step in and I was closest” Brandt replied equally quiet and with his own heat in his voice. Truth of course was that he had been doing the captain’s job of keeping order. Stepping in like that he had undermined his authority, had anybody been paying attention.
The captain apparently had, and made his disapproval known “Your job is to fight when I tell you, who I tell you and nothing more, until your contract is up, you’re dead or I kick you out. Tell me again why I should not kick you out for this stunt?”

Brandt slowly got to his feet, arms wide to show he meant no aggression. The captain was also drunk and would not hesitate to knife him if he thought Brandt a threat. He slowly moved to the front door, saying only

“This discussion is not something the others need to overhear.”

The captain followed him, shoving him ahead when Brandt was within reach.

When they reached the small room between the front door and the actual inn, Brandt turned around quickly and angrily. He had tried not to let the shoving get to him but was only partially successful.

“You are right that I should not have done anything sir.” He ground out “But you should have. Or made the sarge do it.”

“After a day cooped up like this the boys need to let out a little steam”

“And demolish an inn while doing so? Just make them do twenty laps around the inn. That would cool them down real quick.”

A knife flashed in the captain’s hand and moved towards Brandt’s face. The captain however was drunk, and as slow as the young Brandt had been that day. The older and sober Brandt moved out-of-the-way and slammed first the captain’s fist to the wall, then followed it up by a pivot and shoving the other man face first into the same surface. The captain crumbled, unconscious and Brandt, who was still holding on to him pushed him out of the front door with enough force that he cleared the two steps entirely and landed in the mud some three meters away. Not face first, Brandt checked for that. He might end up with a severe case of pneumonia from exposure but Brandt could not bring himself to care at the moment.

“Consider this my resignation, sir” he muttered sarcastically. It looked like he had added another poor decisions to the long string of them that had him end up here.