Keri

As Keri rounded the final corner she could see the inn across the clearing dimly, very dimly indeed because it was now well past dusk and into being fully dark. And in a forest that had earned its name Black fair and square that was saying something. No doubt something unpleasant but she was too tired and too chilled to care about anything but reaching the warmth that building promised. Light would be nice too, since she had been tripping over tree roots for the past hour, and she could not tell if she might have broken a toe since she could not actually feel her feet anymore.
Her poor horse was in no better shape, if she ignored the fact that he had no toes to stub on the roots. He was stumbling too, though, and his head was practically brushing the ground.
She had of course lied to her horse about how far it had been to the inn from that dangerous crossing of the mountain brook. If the horse had understood her, he had chosen not to complain about it. Not that he had ever either spoken or given the impression he understood her actual words. Still, if he had done so now under this extreme maltreatment by weather, forest and Keri, it would not have surprised her overly much. Stranger tales were told about the Black forest and tales, of course, were her profession.

As she approached the inn another few steps a figure came flying out of the door, only to land with a splash in an invisible puddle of water. Or more likely, a smallish lake that had formed in front of the inn. The figure did not get up again. Keri, with a lifetime of experience of staying out of bar brawls, did not run to see if he was fine either. Especially not because she could see, barely visible in the doorway, the dark figure of the man who had tossed him out.

‘Big guy’ Keri thought.

Her horse shied at something in the forest to their right and by the time she had him under control again and looked at the inn the figure was gone. The man in the puddle likely was still there but she could not see him either. What little illumination had escaped from the door of the inn was gone and she had once again trouble seeing her own feet. The horse on the other hand caught the scent of other horses and picked up the pace, knowing with long experience that other horses meant a stable, warmth and something to eat. All of which he no doubt felt were long overdue.

Keri was for the moment content to be dragged along. After all for her the stable also meant a chance to finally get out of the rain and if she prefered a little more warmth, it was still better than anything she had endured all day. Maybe she could even find a bit of privacy and get out of her boots and soaked clothes. She held out, against better knowledge, some small hope that her oilskin pack had kept enough of the weather out that her spare clothes were still dry.

The stable was manned by a boy alone. Keri gave him twelve years at most, just short of his apprenticeship. Though in truth what apprenticeship he could find in the middle of this forest was going to be none. She did not recognise him, but she had been this way only once before and that when she was barely older than the boy was now. He probably had not been born back then. She might recognise the inn keeper, if it was the same man. Probably not though since that had been a man too old to still start a family, even with a new and much younger wife. Keri shook her head a little, as much to shake off the cobwebs of exhausted thoughts as the raindrops that stubbornly clung to her hair and insisted on continuing to chill her face. And roll down her back.

“Hello,” she said to the boy as he approached her “I’m Keri and I will need a stable for my horse and a couple of towels, a hot blankets and a hot mash. We’ve been trying to get through the forest all day and we are both soaked, tired and freezing.”

The boy did not bat an eye, which to Keri suggested he was no stranger to serving in the stables. On a day like this that would be a common order. He also did not get the shifty expression that she associated with somebody trying to get a higher price for goods when they saw they were needed. Instead the boy pointed to the plaque that was attached to the inside of the stable door.

“If you can read miss, it says that it will cost you eighteen copper a day for a stable, ten copper if your horse can share a box. The blankets are free, but washing them will cost three copper if they get too dirty to only dry. The blanket comes with the stable or two copper if he shares a box. The mash …” the boy paused and Keri could almost see him do the mental calculations “… I will have to ask Da, not sure what we still have available with the stables so full with them mercs.”

Keri frowned, an inn full of mercenaries was not something she liked to encounter, unless it was in one of the bigger inns, with bouncers she trusted and having a secure place with them to play for a couple of evenings. This far out in the forest she might be better off arranging to sleep in the hay loft. If that was still available. Odds were that the inn keeper had his wife and daughters hidden there for the same reason she was contemplating.

“He’s a stallion so best keep him in a box of his own” she started, temporising while she was ordering her thoughts. She did not need to count her well hidden coins to know that she could afford it but that it would make an additional dent in her small savings. She had a gold coin of course for expenses and payment, but that she could neither use nor show here. The inn could not possibly have enough money in its strong box to even begin changing that much coin. She would have to wait till she reached Glivenr and found one of the bigger and more reputable money changers for that. Until then she would have to make do with what little coin she had left in her purse.

“If you can give me a couple of towels and hang his blanket by your fire I can start on getting him dry while you ask your Da about the mash. You can also ask him about a place for me to stay, and a hot meal.” she hesitated again. If the big guy she had seen was the inn’s bouncer then it should be reasonably safe to go to the common room and get really warm at the fire. If not — then she might be better off eating in the kitchen and hide in a corner somewhere.

With quick and well-practiced efficiency he handed her a pair of towels that were stacked neatly on a stool by the door he had come through, and ducked into that same door to presumably hang a blanket closer to the fire.

“Tell your Da that I don’t want to cause trouble.” she settled for, instead of offering to play for her supper as she was more used to. Under the circumstances that seemed the safer bet, and she was too tired to play or sing well. Given that the inn apparently was full of bored mercs playing poorly was a bad idea.

The boy nodded, silently repeated her words to memorise them and then sped off through a back door that presumably connected the stables to the inn. Keri did not bother to figure out where that might be. Instead she used the moment of privacy to strip out of her sodden clothes and get her spares from her pack. The oilskin had not quite managed to keep all the rain out, but the gods of ill fortune had at least had this much mercy on her that none of it was worse than merely being damp. Immediately she felt a lot better, and warmer, and with renewed energy picked up the first of the towels to dry her horse. There was some dry straw on the ground that he picked listlessly on while she worked.

The rhythm was soothing and she worked for a while content with letting her activity warm up her muscles again some. It was only after a while that she became aware that the boy had returned and had brought his Da with him. The man was middle-aged, not yet greying, but clearly past his youthful prime. He also was a bit on the spindly side. More sinew than muscle. Likely capable of working hard for long hours but no good for lifting wine barrels into the attic when they were full. And likely not when they were empty either.

He nodded approvingly at the care she took for her horse “Taking care of your horse is part of the price for the stabling.”

Keri heard the unspoken I can’t offer a refund if you do it yourself and shook her head “It really is no problem for me. And Snowflake here is a bit skittish when people he doesn’t know touch his legs. Tends to bite and kick. I figure it is easier to do it myself than to pay for a stable hand who got his arm or shoulder broken and can’t work for a moon or two.”

The man nodded and pulled his hand through his hair. He really looked more than a little worried to Keri, which made her wonder again just what exactly did he have in his inn?

“Now about that mash you asked for. Don’t have much left that is good I’m afraid. Supplies were supposed to be here a week ago, but — the weather. Might be able to scare up a bit of barley that the mice have overlooked.”

Keri grinned, recognising a bargaining ploy, “well — if’n you can promise it is clean of mice or what they leave behind — and scare up some apples that haven’t gone bad but aren’t fit for eating anymore either, I’d think I can call it even with what you’re asking for that mash.”

She deliberately used an accent that was very similar to the man’s, to let him know she was no ignorant big city traveler who had gotten caught out in the rain, but somebody who knew the area, and what inns could and could not offer here.

“Nine coppers” He said.

“Six” Keri countered “Or I expect my supper to be included. And better than last year’s barley and apples.”

The man laughed and shook her hand “Agreed. I had to try though”

Keri shrugged, but dragged up a smile anyway. “Now, about that room and supper for me?”

He shook his head regretfully “Dinner I can offer, for six coppers too, if you don’t mind yesterday’s soup, dark bread and a mug of ale. But rooms — I’m full up. The only room you can get is you share with a couple of them fellers.”

Keri shook her head emphatically “Dinner sounds good but no way am I going to share that way”

“Didn’t seem the type to me that would, but there’s all kind of folk passing through and you can’t always tell at a glance what’n they’ll be looking for. Especially not them singers”

Keri did not bristle at the last comment. She knew the reputation women on the road had, and when she had been younger and much more stupid she had even done her small share in perpetuating the rumours. She didn’t even bristle, anymore, at the fact that young men on the road did exactly the same things but were not condemned for it.

“What about the hay loft?” Keri asked.

“Nobody sleeping there” was the reply “that’s asking for me inn to get burned down.”

It was about the answer she expected, at least the denial part, and the slight hesitation all but confirmed that was where the rest of the family was hiding.

“Will it be safe enough for me to eat in the common room? I saw a big guy throwing somebody out as I arrived. That your bouncer?”

“Best you keep to the kitchen miss … ?”

“Keri”

“Miss Keri then. Never before needed me no bouncer. Seemed silly to pay for one.”

It was clear he now deeply regretted the shortsightedness of saving himself a couple of coppers a day. Then again, this time of the year hardly anybody could be expected to make the trip through the Black Forest. The place might as well close up for winter soon. The lack of supplies for even a hot mash for a horse was testimony that this in fact had been planned to happen in another moon or so.

Keri gave her horse a last swipe with the now sodden second towel and then led him to the box all the way at the end of the stable that the boy led the way to. It wasn’t the warmest spot in the stable but now he was drier her horse did not seem to mind the cold as much.

“I really hate to tie him up in a box if I don’t have to.” She said “If you can dry him off a little more, just his sides and back, before putting the warm blanket on him that would be lovely. If you have trouble just come get me and I’ll help. Stay away from his legs and he hates it if anybody is underneath him, not even me, so don’t think of ducking that way to get to his other side. Oh, and be quick. He can kick sideways.”

She smiled “But if you give him something to munch on while you work I think he will let you if you don’t annoy him too much.”

The boy looked at the horse with wide-eyed new respect. Keri did not feel inclined to tell him that Snowflake was flushed out of the royal stables for being too temperamental and had received initial training for the King’s Horse Guard before that. It would impress the inn keeper, but would also encourage the kind of questions she much rather avoided entirely. She had a horse much better than he looked. Not the kind of flashy horse that the nobility usually went for, nor the heavy war horses of the heavy cavalry, but the smart dependable and unassuming horse that horse skirmishers preferred. It suited her just fine, just as the more quiet life a troubadour and occasional King’s messenger suited the horse better than the pressure and stress of a cavalry horse.

After impressing on the boy a last time not to try to be proud or stubborn and come directly to her if there was any problem, because she was not going to pay for his healing and recovery after all the warnings she had given, she followed the inn keeper.

Through the short and narrow hallway she had already suspected connected the inn with the stables. She ended up in a tiny ante-room between the kitchen and the supply room. Which was not an arrangement she was unused to, but unexpected anyway in such a backwater inn. These kind of in-between rooms were usually only found in the big mansions and country residences. Keri looked around more attentively while she was waiting for her supper. Now she thought about it the building was way too big for a common country inn. Not so much big in size, caravans, even the donkey caravans which were the only ones that could negotiate the forest road, tended to have a lot of animals and attendants and required an equally large inn to stable and house them. No, the ceilings were too high, and if any ornamentation had long since broken down and been replaced with patchwork and plain plaster walls, details of a once much richer interior were still visible if you knew where to look. Which made her wonder how old this building actually was. She could not imagine any noble, no matter how eccentric, deciding to, never mind succeeding in, cutting down a large clearing in the middle of the Black Forest to build a mansion.

Which meant that the building, in one form or another might well have been standing here since before the founding of the Kingdom. Keri felt her lips curl up at the realisation that, with only a little more information about the building, she had the subject of a song that just might set her up for a comfortable retirement. A haunted mansion in a haunted forest. A building that could be burned down but would always be rebuilt by the next poor sap to stumble on its ruins.

She was mentally composing the second verse when her dinner arrived and renewed hunger pangs distracted her.

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