Brandt looked at the wreckage of the kitchen and sighed at the waste of it all. Two dead, two with at least a concussion, a kitchen that was in ruins. He could not honestly call these men his friends, but his comrades they had been, and now they were anything but that. For all that he had been seriously considering leaving them not even an hour earlier, he found that he missed having comrades.

At least the cause of all the trouble had retreated to the bathing room. This Melissa was even more of an enigma than he had initially thought. He had watched her walk, no stalk, out of that room without wearing a stich and not a grain of shame about it. He had also seen how quickly and competently she had killed the moment she decided her opponent was a danger to her. That spoke to him of training, and good training too. Only … female soldiers were almost unheard of as no officer wanted that kind of trouble in his command. Female mercenaries were even rarer, for much the same reason, only paired with a greater lack of discipline. He knew of a mere handful of women who hired out as bodyguards for women of high nobility because only a woman would be allowed to enter a Lady’s boudoir or sewing room, and only a professional female bodyguard could be trusted to defend her guard even in the privacy of a bathing room. In fact, he had even met the team of women who guarded the queen in that capacity and they had quietly and competently wiped the floor with him in training excercises. This Melissa did not strike him as a bodyguard. Her posture was subtly wrong for it. Too aggressive he thought, not enough awareness. This of course left the question where she had received her training, and from her shameless behaviour he was certain that it was not anywhere within the Kingdom.

Shrugging the mystery aside for more immediate concerns he said to Talya “Can you see to it that the living ones are securely tied and gagged?”

He did not want to burden the others with dealing with the dead. They were his … comrades, and his responsibility. It was his error of judgement that had led to this disaster. He had dragged the bodies aside from the place where they had fallen during the tense moments after the fighting stopped, but they deserved more recognition than being pushed away from where they might get underfoot if more fighting broke out. So he laid them out properly and covered their faces. There was nothing he could do about the blood that stained Joshun’s tunic, a failed stab at the heart if he was any judge of such things, nor about Sevan’s destroyed eye and the small trickle of blood that had escaped from it. At least neither had suffered, there was at least that small comfort.

He said a quiet prayer to the Goddess of Mercy as he covered each of their faces, then got up on his feet and dusted off his knees. His eye was drawn to the unconscious forms of his captain, former captain he best start thinking of him right away, and his second, Luco. Those two he could not blame on Melissa, not even partially. They were entirely and fully his to blame for losing his temper earlier that evening.

A faint sound of footsteps drew his attention away from the mess he had caused. Brandt did not really want to speak to Melissa right now, but it was apparent that she did not pay attention to what he wanted. In all fairness, she could not really be expected to know that he did not want to speak to her, but he was not particularly interested in fairness right now either.

Turning around reluctantly he saw that at least she had dressed again. In style it was identical to what Talya was wearing, near as he could tell, only in mottled browns and greens rather than something as close to black as he had ever seen. There was a tension between the two women though. Whatever their identical clothing suggested, they clearly were not entirely friendly. If anything it reminded Brandt of watching two court ladies arriving at a ball wearing the same dress.

Amusing as that thought was it was driven right out of his mind by the barbaric ritual she made him witness next. First smearing blood on her face in what looked a deliberate pattern, then staring at her bloody dagger until it flared like tinder catching fire. It looked suspiciously like magic, and from the sharp look Talya gave, she had the same impression.

Oblivious to the thinly veiled look aimed at her that comprised of equal amounts of discomfort and dislike, Melissa sheathed her dagger and went looking from something edible in the wreckage left behind by a table getting overturned and the kitchen getting turned into a battlefield. Getting in a fight for her life clearly didn’t bother her. Neither did, and Brandt had to do a double take at seeing that, scraping food off the floor. And eating it. Catching his surprised look Melissa grinned at him, showing him that it she had been doing it intentionally. Though for what reason Brandt could not imagine.

What is up with her? he asked himself, again, before mentally castigating himself for letting the woman distract him from the far more pressing problems that he should try to find a solution for. Like how to get away from the inn tomorrow morning without his ex-comrades ambushing them. Or, even more pressing, how they would make it through the night without them doing the same. There were only two fighters in the kitchen, three if he counted Melissa, And he was not sure if he wanted to count Talya either, for all that she killed quickly and competently. There also were two entrances to the kitchen and the table that blocked one of them was really only there to warn them of somebody trying to force his way in. The other exit, to the stable, he did not want to block in the same way, not even if he had the materials to do so, in case they had to make a run for it. It left him with an indefensible position though and not nearly enough men … soldiers … people to even cover the entrances, let alone guard the prisoners who would be waking up in an hour or so with a terrible headache and a mood to match.

Brandt sighed, drawing the attention of everybody in the kitchen.

“Logically, we should get our stuff and make a run for it before they notice we’re gone.” he said to nobody in particular, He didn’t expect an answer, since it was his problem and his duty to find a way out of this mess.

“We can’t!” Keri spoke up, her voice expressing her alarm at the prospect.

Brandt did not understand why the prospect of a night march would so terrify the woman who otherwise seemed levelheaded to him and began to say so, only to be interrupted by Melissa “The man, Keri, right is. Forest … ” she said something in a language that sounded like nothing that he had ever heard “Forest black heart has, and is twisted. Not travel in darkness. Not even the scar safe is.”

“uhm… okay” Brandt managed to get past his mute surprise.

“We could just kill them all?” Talya suggested quietly.

“No!” Brandt exclaimed “There’s been too much killing already. Not going to add any if I can avoid it.”

“Heads on stakes. Scares humans away.” Melissa suggested helpfully.

Brandt looked at her sharply but could not tell from her expression if she was serious or inappropriately trying to be amusing. Not taking any risks he answered her “Let’s not do that Melissa. People around here don’t like that kind of thing.”

Melissa looked confused and mouthed the words he just said, as if trying to make sense of them. Dismissing her curious behaviour Brandt vocalised his thoughts “So we apparently can’t run,” he barely restrained himself from adding because the forest is too scary, “and we can’t defend this kitchen if they decide to storm us. We need a better place to wait out the night.”

Brandt looked around the kitchen. The other two doors led to rooms with no exits, the bathing room and the kitchen storage shed. The first made a better place to put their prisoners but had no lock on the outside to keep them there. The shed on the other hand could be locked from the kitchen side, but he hoped it would indeed be a shed that was tacked on to the building. That would make it in theory fragile enough to kick out part of the wall and create an improvised exit. It was a lot more ifs than he liked in any strategic plan, but under the circumstances it was the best he could come up with.

“Here’s what we will do,” he said, “We’ll move closer to the door to the storage and keep that open. It’s close enough to the hearth to keep us warm tonight. Keri if you can pile some of those platters in the hallway to the stables, that should be enough to warn us if somebody tries to enter that way. Talya, can you help me drag the prisoners closer to the door? I want them close enough so they’ll hinder attackers.”

Talya nodded briskly and grabbed the captain by his ankles and gave a tug, trying to get him to move and grunting with the effort. Brandt moved to help as the captain outweighed her by at least a factor two and for her to move him would be needlessly difficult. He was surprised to see that she actually managed to shift the weight at all. Talya obviously was stronger than her slight size suggested. Brandt filed that little bit of information away for future reference. It might come in handy to know that other fighters would likely underestimate her.

After Talya and he had deposited the unconscious mercenaries where he wanted them to be, Brandt uprighted two of the stairs and dragged them to the storage shed door. They would serve as additional obstacles in case of a battle and in the mean time he was getting tired of standing up.

Keri sat down next to Melissa in front of the hearth and whispered to her. Brandt let her, maybe she could get some more information about the strange woman. He did not have the patience for questioning her right now, and he was not proud to admit to himself that he had trouble watching her and not seeing her nudity, which made speaking to her awkward for him. And he had some questions to ask of Talya too.

Gesturing her to sit down on the other stair he said “So, Talya, what brought you here?”

The woman smiled pleasantly and answered smoothly “I was traveling to Glivenr and planned to stay in this inn.”

Brandt raised his eyebrows. That was, in his opinion, a little too glib. “And you came in and decided to get involved in a brawl without knowing anything about it?”

Talya shrugged “I saw they were going to stab you in the back. Couldn’t let them do that to anybody.”

He mulled over that answer for a moment. It sounded plausible and was pleasantly delivered, but something about it sounded off to him. It was just too much coincidence, and there was not enough emotion behind her words. He did not want to accuse her of lying, though. Not right from the start anyway.

“Well, that was a happy coincidence, for me,” he said pleasantly “and I thank you for not standing back and letting them stab me.”

Brandt paused briefly before adding “That also was some show of skill.” He hadn’t actually seen any of it of course, but stabbing a man through the eye with one hand while controlling another one with the other was far beyond anything he had the skill to pull off, and he had been training since he was old enough to hold a dagger.

“I have some training,” Talya admitted easily “but I was lucky. I got to surprise them because everybody was looking at your duel.”

Brandt considered that explanation. Again it was entirely plausible. The woman was small enough to slip through a crowd of mercenaries most of whom where a head or two taller, and if any of them had been paying attention to anything but the battle he would gladly eat his … chainmail.

“We’ll talk more about it later,” he finally decided “for now I think we two should take turns at standing watch.” He glanced at the other two women “We shouldn’t rely on those two, I don’t think.”

He sighed and said softly “I’m banking everything on us being able to bash our way out of that storage shed. It might be a good idea to make sure that we actually can while I take first watch.”