Brandt

Brandt sighed exasperated at the innkeeper’s expression when he mentioned distracting the other mercenaries by offering them a round of ale.

“Fine, I’ll pay for the drinks. Make it the same as what I got for sleepy head here” He said.
“You’d think you care a bit more for your inn” he added under his breath.

The innkeeper looked at him, suspicion written clear over his face.

“Look, you know I have the coin for it. And I can always parade her through the room, if you want?”

The innkeeper paled and shook his head “No, no. That will not be necessary. Just — don’t want trouble with the lawman, that’s all.”

Brandt was certain that was not all, but watched the innkeeper hurry back to the relative safety of his bar. Whatever else the innkeeper had on his mind, he himself wanted the woman out of the common room, and not about to be causing a brawl. A brawl that he would feel compelled to protect her from. And at the moment he was cranky enough to be inclined to blame his teachers — as well as the bards who told him the stories — for his exaggerated sense of chivalry.

As soon as the innkeeper had gathered enough mugs and a huge pitcher of beer, that made Brandt wince thinking about how much it would set him back, he headed over to the gathered mercenaries. As expected they initially protested the expensive beer but the innkeeper pointed at Brandt, who raised his glass in salute. He could only hope that he was fully obscuring the woman from their sight or all the trouble, and expense, would be for nothing.

There was some drunken cheering and his name was chanted by a couple of the mercenaries, but that soon quieted as they all concentrated on getting their drink. Brandt took that as his cue to get up and gesture to the woman that she should do so too.

‘Hot water’ she mouthed, or at least that was what he thought she was asking him.

He nodded and gestured her to follow, quickly and quietly. Surprisingly she did, and Brandt briefly wondered how much she really understood, and if she was not a fair bit smarter than she at first glance appeared to be. At the very least she was alert and wary. She also held on to her knife and the strange bow-like contraption like she knew how to handle weapons. This did not reassure Brandt though. In his mind this meant it was far more likely that she would try to use her knife instead of letting him defuse the situation, should it come to that. Which would be unfortunate because nobody sane would take seriously a woman wearing less than a nightgown; not even when she was waving around a knife somewhat competently.

Carefully keeping the bulk of his body between the woman and the tables with his colleagues, well, ex-colleagues he supposed after what he did to their captain, he guided her to the door next to the bar that led to the backrooms and presumably the bath she was promised. Brandt was profoundly grateful the door was at the same side of the bar as the fire, for he could not imagine sneaking her past the crowd otherwise. The common room was spacious but not that big that nobody would notice and look up to see what he was doing.

When he had safely ushered the woman through the door he let out a sigh of relief and quickly closed the door behind him. Only to be confronted with the second big surprise of the evening. At least he was not the only one surprised this time. Sitting at a table, eating a simple meal, was another woman. Her jaw was in imminent danger of detaching from her face at the sight of who had just entered the room. The woman had that effect on everybody she encountered it appeared.

“uhm … hello” Brandt said.

Clearly nothing in the many hours of schooling had prepared him for dealing with this situation, because as soon as he opened his mouth he realised he could not think of anything to say that made the situation look remotely good or less ridiculous.

The seated woman was equally at a loss for words. At least she did not make a fool of herself by saying something inane. She sensibly kept her mouth closed. The strange woman kept looking between them, her head whipping back and forth.

“What man kind are you?” she finally asked.

“What kind of question is that?” Brandt blurted out.

The seated woman looked at her sharply and asked in return “What are you?”

The other woman clamped down, unconsciously bringing up her knife to a defensive pose. Clearly that was both a highly perceptive question and something the strange woman did not want to talk about. Brandt looked more closely at the stranger, and in her wet clothes there was not much left to the imagination, but could not find anything non-human about her appearance that justified the peculiar phrasing of the return question.

Turning to the seated woman he asked “Why do you ask? And what do you mean?”

“Never mind, Just a silly idea … my name is Keri. Who might you two be? And why are you bringing her here?”

The tone turned a bit sharp towards the end, and Brandt felt a twinge of irritation at the hostility of it.

“My name is Brandt. I have no idea who this lady is. She just wandered into the common room and I thought it best to bring her here before she caused a brawl. I believe it is the same reason why you are sitting here in this tiny dark room instead of enjoying the warmth of the hearth fire.”

Keri had the grace to blush slightly.

“Melissa”

Keri and Brandt looked at the woman who had spoken that single word once Brandt had stopped talking long enough for her to get it in.

“Name is. Means Honey in language of you”

“Huh”

Brandt mentally kicked himself for again not framing a smart answer before opening his mouth. Master Thossis, his old oratory teacher, would be so disappointed with him if he could see him now, all his lessons forgotten at the first sight of a pretty body. Though he preferred not to believe that the sight of this Melissa had short circuited his brain. He had not been thinking too straight before she had arrived. The way he had reacted to the captain getting angry at him was quite unlike himself, looking back at it. And likely to cause a huge amount of trouble once the captain came back in, looking for revenge.

Again Keri had a better way with words than he had “So, honey, what brought you here?” Without waiting for an answer the turned to Brandt and asked him in a sharp tone of voice “And why didn’t you think of giving her something to cover herself up? She must be freezing.”

Brandt held up his hands in surrender. He could have argued that he did not have any spare cloak handy to share, seeing as that one was hanging to dry in the room he shared with four others of the mercenary troop. But he was honest enough to himself to silently admit that the thought had not crossed his mind. At first he’d been too surprised, and then he had been thinking only of how to prevent her from stirring up trouble. But if he was honest with himself, he also was vain enough not to relish the idea of admitting to that he never had thought much about what it must be like for this escaped slave.

“Name is Melissa. Not is Honey. Is only meaning that. Not understand rest of you say.”

Again he was struck with the notion that this strange woman understood a lot more than she let out, and that her apparent feeble-mindedness was more the result of her poor grasp of the language than of a lack of intelligence. It was equally clear that she was aware of her first impressions and that she understood how to use them to her advantage when it came to dodging questions. From the slight narrowing of her eyes Brandt thought that Keri had come to the same conclusion.

The innkeeper came through the door behind Brandt’s back, preventing for the moment any further attempts of finding out further details about Melissa’s past, and how she had ended up in the middle of the Black Forest dressed in what only could be called sleep wear if one was feeling charitable. Brandt did not mind the interruption, though Keri probably did. He figured it would take a long time for Melissa to get over her suspicion of everything and everyone she encountered. Given what had likely happened to her the past months that was entirely understandable. As he was going to escort her to Glivenr at least he figured he would have the time to talk to her and put her mind at ease. Maybe he could even talk this Keri into accompanying them. The presence of another woman might ease her suspicions towards him and make him feel less like a lawman escorting a prisoner.

“Hot water, now, yes?”

Melissa eagerly seized on the opportunity of changing the subject of her whereabouts.

“Yes yes. A hot bath” the innkeeper replied, clearly not happy to have either women in his inn at this time. He turned to Brandt to tell “You’ll pay for it in cash too. Seventy coppers and not a one less. Firewood is expensive and I have no use for the water after.”

Brandt grinned “Fifty copper. I know what your firewood costs you. But I give you that the water will be more mud than anything after.”

Keri perked up at the mention of a hot bath, but deflated once she heard the cost. Brandt looked at her. Other than a few specks of mud on her hands and face she seemed clean, as did her clothes. She did look cold and wet though, so he assumed that she had arrived earlier today but had changed into dry, or at least drier, clothes. Her travel clothes probably were caked with mud and standing by some fire without the need of a hanger to keep them upright, if the state of Melissa — being covered head to toe in mud — was anything to go by regarding the conditions on the road.

“Sixty–five, and only because I am grateful for you trying to keep those drunks from trashing my inn.” the innkeeper countered.

Brandt sighed “You’re overcharging me at least twenty coppers, but I’ll let it pass if you can get my pack and clothes from my room and bring them to the kitchen. Keri and I are both cold and tired and would like to sit near a fire. If I am to help Melissa here get home it’s best if I leave the troop now, while they’re too drunk to notice.”

Like she had done in the common room Melissa avidly followed the discussion between the innkeeper and him by whipping her head looking at whoever was speaking. It was still a weird body language that he had never seen before in any woman, or man. Not wary but almost — aggressive. This time though her lack of understanding was clearly not feigned, and she was obviously not too happy about being in the dark regarding the conversation.

Brandt felt compelled to answer the question in her expression “We were talking about the cost of the bath”

When that failed to clarify anything he continued “Hot water is difficult to make. He wants coins in return. Yes. you have one, but he needs different coins. Yours is for big things. Really big things. Hot water is not that big.”

Brandt ignored Keri’s poorly suppressed wince at his childish explanation. She had not seen Melissa wave a gold coin, and a big one at that, around without any understanding of the value. Wherever the stranger was from, money clearly was not part of everyday life and the explanation one might give a child was in order.

Melissa looked at him with suspicion but after a moment decided to let slide the issue, whatever it was in her mind.

The innkeeper gestured them to follow and they all obediently trooped after him, Keri carrying the remainder of her supper. He led them through another door and short hallway into the kitchen.

A young boy of maybe thirteen years was sitting near the hearth, looking bored. His eyes popped open and his jaw dropped when he saw Melissa enter. Melissa’s eyes had darted around the room and instantly fastened on his presence, but otherwise completely ignored him. Clearly he was not a threat. Brandt on the other hand was uncomfortably reminded of the scouts he had, rarely, trained with. It added to the enigma that was Melissa quickly becoming in his mind.

The speed with which the innkeeper escorted Melissa through a side door to the kitchen confirmed Brandt’s suspicion that he had overpaid for the bath if the water for it was already hot enough, but he tried to be philosophical about it. The innkeeper was concerned for his family and his inn, and he at least had gotten a warm place out of it for himself and Keri.

Keri watched at the closing door for a moment, then shrugged and put her bowl, mug and plate on a corner of the big central table in the kitchen. She had only barely resumed her interrupted supper when the innkeeper returned and said tersely to his son “Go get two towels from the stable and bring them to our guest. Just hang them on the hook and don’t stay to look or even speak to her. Don’t look at the bath at all in fact. That woman is clinging to her knife a bit too much like somebody aching to use it.”

The boy’s eyes which had returned to their normal size widened again. He did however obey his father without questions.

The innkeeper turned to Brandt and, eyes narrow in suspicion, asked “I need to go to the common room before those drunks decide to make a mess of it. Can I trust you here?”

Brandt tried not to take offense at neither tone nor implication. He reached into his belt with his left hand while his right made a show of poking around in his belt pouch.
Putting a silver coin on the table he said, a bit coolly but that could be forgiven he felt “This should cover for the bath, that round of ale, my stay here these two days and then some.”

The innkeeper nodded briskly, palming the coin with the ease of long practice. Brandt did not bother to try to see where it was going. He was not a pickpocket nor a thief and had no interest in becoming an innkeeper himself, to need to know where his host was keeping his money.

Keri had been watching and listening to him and said, as soon as the innkeeper had opened and closed the door to the noisy common room “You’re not a common mercenary, to pay that much without sweating over it.”

Brandt shrugged “I’m common enough. We just made a good run, and got a bonus for doing an exceptional job. I have money to spare.”

It was of course a prevarication, and Keri noticed it. She was however too polite to point it out.

“Good of you to try to help the woman”, Keri said just a shade too casually “Not many mercs I know of would do that and not try to take advantage of her.”

Brandt took the comment as the question it actually was “I think she’s an escaped slave that got lost in the forest somehow. Law says we can’t interfere with outkingdom slaves, as long as they’re only passing through, but that is really only meant for ambassadors from barbaric countries and such. I figure the proper thing to do with any abducted girl is to see her home safely.”

He sat down across the corner, close enough to the woman to talk easily to her, but not so close that he was in her personal space. He did not want to give the impression he was interested in bedding her. Which considering the day he’d had so far he wasn’t. Under different circumstances he might have entertained the notion. She was easy enough on the eye, even if she carefully downplayed it. But — no — he was tired, and if not drunk he still had a bit too much to drink. Most of all he did not trust himself right now. Not after how he had been overreacting all evening.

“That’s quite generous of you” Keri said. There was no sarcasm in her voice, and so far she hadn’t had problems with shading her opinion into bland words.

“Bard?” Brandt asked her.

“Minstrel.” she replied, without the defensiveness that was common. She was proud of her skills and profession, even though it was commonly held to be pretenders compared to the much higher regarded bards.

Brandt grinned. This Keri was clearly unusual in her own way, and he liked her better for her self-confidence. He caught himself leaning closer to her. Hopefully before it had become too obvious for Keri. Probably not though, it was part of her job after all to notice the small changes in the mood of her audience. She was polite enough not to take offense at his slip. For a brief moment Brandt regretted that she also did not seem to be flattered by it.

Unfortunately leaning forward had also put pressure on his bladder, which now rather insistently reminded him that he had been drinking a lot all day, even if very little of it had been beer.

Grimacing Brandt got up to his feet again. He was in no mood to go through the common room to find the outhouse, where he might run into questions, or worse, the captain. Going outside all but guaranteed that he would meet him and that meeting would turn ugly very quickly. There was nobody in the kitchen he could ask for directions either. So he muttered something under his breath about ‘needing to find the jacks’ and made his way through the third door out of the kitchen. The fourth was opened a bit and clearly led to a store-room of sorts. He did not think that had a back door, and the innkeeper would be entirely unamused to find him there, doing what was becoming more urgent by the moment.

Going through the unadorned hallway behind the door Brandt quickly found himself in the stables, where two boys, the kitchen boy and what looked to be his older brother, were huddled together speaking softly but urgently. The young one looked up as he entered and turned beet red, then pale. Without a word he snatched up the towels he had dropped on the rough table and ran past him, back to the kitchen. Brandt hid a grin at the sight. The boy no doubt thought he had come to remind him of his duties.

The other boy looked uncomfortable at the interruption but managed a polite enough “How can I help you sir?” while making it clear not believing any help could be found in the stables.

Brandt quickly explained what he was looking for and was, after some hesitation, directed to the back of the stables, through the inn’s livestock stables, a rickety door and the rain that was still falling as if it had no intention to ever stop again. At the far end of the field, close to the boundary of the forest there was a small outhouse that served the family. Brandt understood the hesitation in telling him this. There was an obvious shortage of wife and daughters in the inn this evening and he had no trouble understanding why that would be the case. Any place the family might be found they would want to keep from the mercenaries, just to be on the safe side. It was in fact more surprising that the stable hand had been willing to tell him. Brandt suspected it was because he had been seen rescuing the slave girl. He didn’t figure it was because of his charming personality.

Returning to the stable he took some time to look after his horse. The stable boy had done a good job, but his horse was precious to him and would be reassured by a familiar voice and touch. It had taken long enough for him to get used to the other horses in the troop, and Brandt preferred to care for him as much as possible. It also gave his clothes a chance to dry up again.

When he finally returned to the kitchen Keri was waiting for him with a serious expression on his face, and the kitchen boy just looked scared.

“You have a problem” she stated without preamble “One of your buddies just staggered to the bathing room. It seemed he had a clear enough idea of what he might find there.”

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