Keri slowly stirred her spoon through the last remains of her stew. Now that she was comfortably warm she found she had lost her appetite for it. It had seemed better when she was still shivering with cold and it was the only source of warmth. Now their roles were reversed the grease in the stew was slowly congealing into grey globs. Which her spoon kept from solidifying any further.

However, the lack of appetite was not the main reason why she was shoving slowly congealing food around instead of eating it. She’d been distracted by the two peculiar guests that had walked through the room she had been sitting in, listening to the rowdy mercenaries at the other side of the wall. The door opening had been a bit of a heart stopping moment. Even if the inn had a bouncer, a troop of drunk mercs stuck in the middle of nowhere was bad news. Especially for the one woman they had seen all day. Even in a city Keri would have avoided an tavern like that, and that was with city guards nearby to keep them in line. Here all she could hope to do was being able to escape into the forest, and she knew enough of the stories about the Black Forest to realise how bad an idea that was.

But instead of a drunk entering her little private antechamber, she’d almost lost her jaw at the sight of the woman who had come in — wearing less than a nightshirt. A soaking wet nightshirt that left pretty much nothing to the imagination. She’d been closely followed by a mercenary, which kind of made sense under the circumstances. Or maybe not. Keri could think of no way that got her in that state of undress without causing a riot in the main room.

The merc did not look like he was anticipating a little bouncing on a mattress either. He was tense and grim and his hand was clenched near where his sword hilt would be if he had worn it. He closed the door behind him very quickly. A thought she strongly agreed with. The sound of drunk mercenaries arguing over who would get the next mug of ale was even more unnerving when it was not filtered through a closed door and a thin wall.

His first words were about as inane as could be though of, and Keri had to suppress a totally inappropriate giggle. Which just had to be because of the stress, because she never ever giggled. Not even when she was being tickled. It also did give her an idea for a song, if only she could get it to work without the mystery women being nude in all but name. Innkeepers and tavern owners frowned on songs that were too lewd in their opinion, claiming it drew the wrong crowds and caused fights and city guards to descend on their place with the wrath of fines and angry bureaucrats. It meant that the market for that type of songs was cornered by street buskers and festival troupes. Who, she knew full well, were grateful for the attitude of the townsfolk, as it allowed them to make a lot more money than they otherwise would have earned. She pursed her lips for a moment and thought that a festival troupe would not touch a song with a nude woman in it either.

The first thing the woman said was a stunning surprise “What man kind are you?” spoken in a thick accent she had difficulty placing at first.

Then with a click she could almost hear all the little details fell into place that she had been picking up unconsciously. The heavy accent became a lot less impenetrable with the realisation that it had the lilt to it of the lands beyond the Green Mountains. The unusual tall size and unnaturally green eyes of the woman, as well as her apparent, or expertly played, lack of understanding of humans, brought to Keri’s mind some of the rare songs of ancient eastern myths. Myths that were not really part of any of the stories and song cycles of the Kingdom, and that only rarely and after careful coaxing the eastern traders might be willing to share. A handful of those stories were about beings that looked human but were not. She had learned two of them from bards who had actually travelled to the east, and a third from a trader she had spent a couple of nights with as they both made their way to the King’s City from the great eastern pass, which the merchant in a drunken moment had called the dragon gate and then refused to talk about any further. None of the beings alluded to in the songs had been anything like this woman. But none of the songs had anything good to say about the beings that attempted to pass for human. To the traders they were almost certainly embarrassing children’s stories that had retained their ability to scare, thus the reluctance to share them, but seeing this woman Keri suddenly was not quite so certain there was not a truth in the myths.

“What are you?” she blurted out, before she could check her mouth.

If Keri had needed proof that the woman understood more than she let out, she had it when she brought her knife up in defence. It clearly was not a question she wished asked, or answered. Keri privately agreed that it had been a question that was both rude and foolish and let the matter rest. It was not as if she planned travelling with her and needed to know if the woman would try to eat her or suck out her soul at night.

To diffuse the situation she introduced herself and allowed the conversation to address safer topics. Like who the two intruders on her dinner were and why they had ended up in her private room.

From there the discussion steered towards arranging a bath for the woman and being moved to the kitchen. That last was something Keri would have paid coin for if she had known it was an option. Her tiny room was warmer than outside, but it still was chilly and she was far from dry herself. She felt the cold keenly, and could not imagine how the other woman had to be feeling, who was soaking wet and unsuitably dressed. The kitchen at least had a hearth fire that did a decent job at keeping the room comfortable.

Which was how she ended up sitting at the kitchen table poking listlessly at her cold stew. The more she thought about it the less she felt Brandt’s idea about Melissa being an escaped slave was correct. It made sense and everything. Except that Brandt apparently knew less about the Black Forest than he should, if he believed she could have survived travelling through it. And if she really had escaped from a trade caravan they would have arrived at the inn by now because there was only one path for them to take as well. Unless, Keri pondered, she had killed her captors and ditched her blood-soaked clothes. That would explain her lack of clothes. But … no, if the woman, Melissa, even was capable of killing, she had not just murdered dozens of men and women. On that Keri would stake her reputation.

The mercenary was as big an enigma in his own way as the woman. Too rich, too … cultured … to be the common merc he pretended to be. He was probably not actually rich, mercenaries never were, but he spent money as if he was used to not having to think about it. Keri knew better than to believe that all mercenaries were dumb brutes, but at the same time, it was not exactly a profession that attracted the deep thinkers of the world. And Brandt had not only come up with an plausible explanation for why Melissa had shown up here, almost naked but with a lot of money, he also had shown an unexpected gallantry in trying to protect her and not taking advantage of her vulnerable situation. There were not many mercenaries, no scratch that, not many men or women, who would have done something like that in the same situation.

The sound of a chair scraping over the floor and a muttered curse distracted Keri from her musings. A chair falling over and a more explosive curse followed moments later. Both Keri and the kitchen boy looked at the door to the little antechamber. The boy confused, Keri with alarm. Brandt was still in the, well, wherever he had run off to through the fourth door in the kitchen. The innkeeper had a much higher voice than the curses sounded and as far as she could tell the only other guests were all mercenaries.

It was indeed a mercenary who staggered through the door. He was roaring drunk and had trouble focussing his eyes. This hopefully explained why he did not seem to notice Keri sitting at the table. Not that she was complaining as the man was undoing the buttons of his pants as he stumbled to the door that led to the bathing room according to Brandt and the innkeeper.

“This is bad.” Keri muttered to nobody in particular. The kitchen boy was not going to be any help. The mercenary looked like he would be able to break him in two without trying particularly hard. Keri was honest enough to herself to admit that she was not about to come to the rescue of the other woman. She mostly considered finding a place where she herself could hide from the ugly scene that was about to follow. Once the shouting started this would alert the other mercenaries and she could not count on them all being too drunk to notice her. She felt for Melissa, but not nearly enough to risk sharing her fate.

“We have to get out of here before more of them come” she said to the kitchen boy. “You know of any place in the stables where we can hide?”

The boy nodded mutely and pointed towards the door. That was not as useful as he might have been, she already knew where to find the stables, having entered then inn through that same door. The boy however did not seem to know what else to do. Apparently he did not dare leaving the kitchen for fear of his father, and had never encountered any serious problem. Dragging him by the arm Keri made her way around the table, only to run into Brandt who was, finally, returning.

“You have a problem. One of your buddies just staggered to the bathing room. It seemed he had a clear enough idea of what he might find there.” she said and stepped aside so he could pass and go deal with it before it got completely out of control.

The gods, or the imps of the perverse, had other ideas though. Before Brandt could recover from the unwelcome surprise Keri had sprung on him, there was a shout and a muted roar coming from the direction of the bathing room. Keri spun around, drawn by the sound. Brandt took an involuntary step forward, either out of a sense of chivalry or because he was drawn to the prospect of a brawl, like most soldiers that Keri had met. She hoped it was the first because right now she could use a knight in shining armour much more than an eager brawler.

Everybody stared at the door for a long moment, and saw the drunk merc come sailing through it backwards. Without using his feet, or touching the tiles really. He landed half on, half against the table and lay there for a moment, stunned.

Melissa came through the door next, under her own power. Her face was twisted with outrage and her eyes were positively sparking with anger. She was wielding a wicked looking dagger about the size of her forearm, and it was clear from her stance even to Keri that she knew how to use it. It was also the only thing she was wearing.

Brandt cursed as the kitchen table obstructed his way to intervene, and again, louder, as the mercenary that had just been tossed out of the bathing room jumped to his feet and roared in anger. Keri winced and inched back towards the stable door and its dubious promise of safety. The mercenary had murder on his mind if she had any skill at reading body postures from behind. Melissa did not seem concerned and when the mercenary took a swing at her she simply stepped aside and give him a light push that sent him crashing face first into the doorpost.

That should have been the end of the fight, but apparently being very drunk also made one impervious to pain. Or maybe he was too stupid to be knocked out by a hit on the head like that. Worse still was that he purely by accident put his hand on a broomstick. He also was shouting near incomprehensible threats loud enough to be heard outside the inn. The answering shouts and the banging of a door, and a table, thrown aside was therefore not unexpected. Keri glanced around, desperate for something she could use as a weapon to defend herself with.

She spotted a carving knife and a roasting fork hanging from a hook next to the hearth and ran over to retrieve it. There also was a big heavy chopping knife, and as she lifted that off its hook there was a lot of shouting and a big crashing noise behind her. It sounded like the table had been thrown over, and when she whipped around with her improvised weapons she saw that that was indeed what Brandt had done. The table had been upended and shoved against the door opening, blocking further access to the kitchen for the moment. Keri could see that the remains of her supper were dripping from the wall and that her plate was rolling to a corner. The kitchen boy was cowering in the corner next to the door to the stables and the drunk mercenary and Melissa were still squaring off, oblivious to anything else. Except that the woman was wary about more than the man attacking her. Only with that realisation and all the other trivia out of the way did her brain allow her to acknowledge that four mercenaries had made it into the kitchen before Brandt had blocked the door, and that they were angry, drunk and siding with their buddy.

Brandt was trying to block them from reaching Melissa as well as talking them down, but Keri could tell that he was not having much success. So far they were just trying to get past him but it was not going to be much longer before they would start using force to get him out of their way. The mercenaries looking over the table were also shouting and calling for somebody to get their weapons, and to find another way into the kitchen. Things were completely out of control, just as Keri, and Brandt, had feared and seemed to get rapidly worse.

The only one mercenary who was armed, and who had started the whole mess, took another swing at Melissa with his broomstick. She dodged the blow and instead Brandt got whacked across his back, hard. Hard enough in fact that above the dull sound of the impact of the broomstick there was a sharp crack of a rib breaking. Brandt cried out in pain and stumbled forward, tripping the other four mercenaries and bringing them all down in a tangle of limbs.

Keri gasped as she understood that meant the mercenary had not been trying to subdue Melissa any more. That had been an attempt at a killing blow, plain and simple, and the woman was now fighting for her life instead of simply fighting to remain unmolested. Keri could see in the change of Melissa’s eyes, and the sudden hardening of her expression, that she realised this too. While Brandt and his four buddies were still falling the mercenary had pulled back his staff weapon and readied it for another deadly blow. Only this time Melissa did not move out of the  way nor did she dodge it. Instead she stepped into his reach before he could build up momentum for his swing. The knife flashed. Keri could not see where Melissa stabbed the man, but his breathless grunt made it clear she had hit him some place likely to be fatal. Then, her eyes still shockingly green, Melissa pivoted aside and pulled the mercenary forward, tripping him and breaking his neck as he fell.

It was over in a second, except for the last few twitches of the corpse.

Melissa did not pay any further attention to the dead man and turned towards the other four mercenaries in the kitchen, her bloody knife held at the ready, just as they began to untangle themselves. Keri stepped in and hauled Brandt up, as much as she could with the much bigger and heavier man. She also thrust the meat cleaver in his hand so that the four mercenaries were now facing three armed opponents. Though admittedly Keri was mostly cowering behind the other two and had could not hide the fact that her hands, and the weapons in them, were shaking violently. She had been in her share of bar brawls over the years, even a handful that had turned ugly, but never ever something remotely like this … execution.

The mercenaries recognised it too and were slowly backing away into the table, hands up in appeasement. The kitchen became quiet except for Brandt’s shallow breathing, as did the men on the other side of the overturned table who had witnessed the whole thing, though further in the antechamber and main room there was confused shouting about what was going on. For a moment it even seemed like the violence might end there.

That hope was dashed when a furious voice roared “Brandt!”

The big mercenary winced, then winced again as the movement shifted his broken rib.

There was some confusion and pushing and shoving of the men packed tightly in the antechamber. Then a big burly men with a face incoherent with rage shoved aside the table as if it weighed nothing. He pushed aside the four mercenaries with equally little effort — as if he had no notion they were even there — and brought up his big two-handed sword. Hands above his shoulder, tip of the sword angling down, in an odd stance that manage to look exceptionally deadly to Keri’s untrained eye. Two more armed mercenaries followed him in, both armed with shorter swords. Those two did not look like they had any clear idea what was going on, but they clearly meant business protecting the burly man’s back.

Melissa stepped back, to give herself room to fight. Keri did the same, but she did not want to get in the way of the fight that was imminent. There was some shouting and catcalling from the rest of the mercenaries, but the ones who had seen how quickly and easily Melissa had killed were subdued and seemed to be fighting against the press of men to back away from the door. They were replaced by others who seemed eager to watch, though not eager enough to join in. And while that jockeying for position went on Melissa watched the two mercenaries sharply, as they did her, but neither made a move.

Similarly Brandt and the big man — and Keri could now see he was even bigger and stronger than Brandt, who was by no means small or a weakling himself — stared at each other. The tip of the sword never wavered or dropped.

“Captain” Brandt said at last. His voice was breathless and laced with pain but still managed to convey polite disinterest.

The other man, apparently the leader of the mercenary troop, answered by taking a step forward and whipping his sword in a lightning fast diagonal cut that would have cut Brandt in half had he remained standing where he had been. Instead Brandt simply stepped back and bent out of the way and let the tip, and cutting edge, whistle past him. Without a pause the mercenary captain brought his sword up, and down again in another diagonal cut from the other direction. Forcing Brandt to take another step back.

Keri dove to the floor as by the third swing the sword came dangerously close to her as well. She also restrained the kitchen boy who looked like he was going to bolt for the stables, and likely would get cut down by accident the moment he got up from the floor. She did not think the mercenary captain had attention for anything or anybody but Brandt.

Looking over her shoulder to the fight that was now almost on top of her she thought that she understood what Brandt was trying to do. If he could lure his opponent into the narrow corridor that big sword would be all but useless and Brandt with his meat cleaver would have a distinct advantage. The mercenary captain realised that too and he abruptly changed the direction of his attacks, forcing Brandt to turn away again and again until their positions were reversed. After that he drove him relentlessly back through the kitchen, one step at a time.

Keri came up to a deep crouch and helped the kitchen boy crawl through the relative safety of the stable door. She considered crawling after him but some sense of … responsibility made her stay and watch. Brandt was still dodging and evading the big sword, but Keri could see that would not work much longer. His face was pale and sweaty from the pain of his broken rib, and he was clearly beginning to slow down. He also was getting close to the other two armed mercenaries and she did not like the eager look on their faces one bit. Two more steps and either of them could simply make sure their captain did not have to hit Brandt with his big sword to end the fight decisively.

Even thinking back at what happened next Keri could not quite figure out what exactly it had been. The order in which things must have happened she was able to deduce logically, but her memory just did not provide a recall of the events, certainly not in that logical order.

An unexpected movement from the mercenaries who were packed at the door, cheering and shouting, drew her eye from the fight. One of them slowly fell over into the room. There was a dark figure for a moment and then in the blink of an eye one of the two mercenaries who had been raising his sword to stab Brandt in the bag sagged to the floor boneless and the other suddenly was not there any more. It took her a moment to find him again and in that second the captain also fell over like a tree after it was cut down.

Keri blinked. Melissa was standing with the broomstick in her hand, which she apparently had used to club the mercenary in the back of his head with. The third mercenary was standing against the wall, with a knife at his throat and his sword arm stretched out against the faces of the mercenaries eager to get in. Somehow the fight was over and she managed to miss it in a moment of distraction.

Brandt bent over and picked up de captain’s big two-handed sword. He then tossed the meat cleaver like a throwing axe leaving it stuck quivering in the door frame.

“Why don’t you all return to your drinking now the excitement is over.” he said genially to his pale-faced audience. “The captain and I will have a friendly little chat about a misunderstanding. And about stabbing your friends in the back. And tomorrow we can all go our separate ways. No need to add more unpleasantness.” He glanced at the two obviously dead men on the floor and though Keri only could catch a glimpse of it as she was crouching half behind him, she thought she saw a moment of regret pass over his face, before he straightened up and pointed the big sword at the men in the door.

“Like about — now!” there was a lot of steel in his voice with the last three words and the mercenaries cleared the door, and antechamber, with commendable haste.

The captured mercenary dropped his sword and then fell to the floor with two dull thuds. The first one of something hard against his skull knocking him out, the second his skull hitting the floor. Keri could see now what his bulk had concealed. A short woman dressed entirely in black, or maybe it was dark brown, clothes. Her face and hair were unusually pale as were here eyes. Both her knives disappeared somewhere in her clothing and she waited, watching Brandt coolly.

Brandt bowed and said formally “Thank you miss, for saving my life. If I or mine can do anything to aid you, tell me and I will do so, if it is within my power.”

She bowed in return ans answered equally formally “My presence here was coincidence and I came to your aid not with the expectation of a reward but because I can not stand such cowards as these who would stab a man in the back. The debt owed is therefore small.”

Her accent was pure northlandic, Keri noticed. Which surprised her because the northlanders tended to be as tall as, or taller than, Brandt, and have thick black hair they wore in a long braid. Of course the northlanders also tended to be barbarians who occasionally came down from their cold homeland to raid and pillage the border villages of the Kingdom. None of which Keri could imagine this woman being involved in.

Brandt grinned as Keri slowly got on her feet. Melissa kept watching at the newcomer with suspicion, and did not drop her defensive stance the way Brandt and Keri had. She did not look like she was about to attack though so Keri considered that good enough for now. Melissa also did not seem in the least concerned that she was still naked and that if the kitchen was not cold, it was not exactly comfortable either.

“Brandt,” the mercenary said to the short woman. “and these are Keri and Melissa”

“Nachtgren Talya” she answered.

“Nachtgren?” Brandt asked “That is an unusual name.”

Keri was certain that if Brandt recognised the eastern accent of Melissa he would have no trouble recognising the northern accent of this woman, and would have betted that he asked the question to get her to tell a bit more about herself.

“Nachtgren is the name of my … clan? You can name me Talya if you please.”

“Very well … Talya. If you could help me tying up these two then we can figure out what to do next. Maybe we should take the horses and disappear into the forest, before the lot in the main room gets over their shock and decides they want revenge after all.”

“NO!” both Keri and Talya shouted at the same time.

More quietly Keri explained “The forest is not … safe. Especially not at night. If you go in now you will never come out again.”

Talya nodded emphatically her agreement. Melissa, Keri noticed with interest, was indifferent about the notion of hiding in the forest, but did not apparently disagree with the statement that the forest was dangerous.