Morning could not come soon enough for Keri. Not only was the kitchen crowded with six people in it, there were also two horses, one of them a huge warhorse. And much as she loved her horse, stabling with him was a bit much. She had done her best to rub him dry, and a spell in a stable had done him a world of good too after the gruelling trek through the muddy forest yesterday, but there was only so much she could do about horse smell, and frankly the kitchen began to reek.

What really had kept her awake most of the night though was fear and no small amount of bewilderment about how her supposed quiet stay in the inn had turned into dodging around a war zone. Not that she had any experience with war zones other than from the classical ballads and she was rather certain that those did not do justice to reality. For one thing, seeing five men being killed before her eyes already was far worse than the most graphic of songs she had ever sung. The ease with which her companions had done so was giving her shivers, and every time she closed her eyes she saw flashes of the cold determination. Keri wasn’t certain if she was more scared of the mercenaries, or of her companions.

And that was the other thing that made her stomach churn, the thought that tomorrow she would have to leave with either the mercenary company, or with the three killers who were also not really sleeping the rest of the night. Only in their case she suspected it was more because they were expecting to fight more and not because they couldn’t sleep after all the violence.

Finally giving up Keri unwrapped herself from her blanket and rolled it up, along with her bed roll. The kitchen had no windows so she could not tell the time, but she felt as if it was just the wrong side of dawn and sleep was not coming now any more than it had all night. Despite eyes that felt like sand had been sprinkled in them liberally and eyelids that felt stuck to her eyeballs. It wasn’t her first sleepless night, though it mostly had been for fun reasons and it had been a long time since the last time the nightmares had kept her awake. Once those dreams had kept her running away for a long time, all the way to Kingstown and beyond, but that was years ago.

While she was working she had that crawling sensation between her shoulders that she sometimes got when somebody was staring at her. Trying not to show how uncomfortable the unseen scrutiny made her, Keri tidied up her pack so she was ready to leave at a moment’s notice. After all that had happened she expected it to come to that.

Covering a yawn with her hand she look around the dark room. There was the faintest bit of light coming from the door to the stables, and slightly more from the carefully banked fire in the cooking hearth. It gave her just enough to see her horse by. Suddenly desperate for some simple company that she did not have to fear — beyond the chance that he would step on her feet or nip at her hands — Keri got her soft brush from her pack, where she kept the essential grooming tools. Snowflake had been confused last night when she took him from his stable and led him deeper into the building instead of outside. He hadn’t been happy about being woken up from his comfortable doze either, of course, but got a bit difficult when she did not lead him to the big stable doors to the cold outside where he definitely did not want to return to, but instead to the tiny door into even deeper darkness. Standing next to Brandt’s monster of a horse had not calmed him down much either. She had stayed with him, muttering soft nonsense words in his ears until he had finally settled down.

Keri leaned against her horses neck, breathing in the smell of him. Which was weirdly comforting, because the scent of horse in the kitchen was becoming a little overpowering and here she was burying her nose even deeper in it. Still, he was her horse, and his scent was familiar in a situation where nothing else was. She needed that moment of normality to help her ground herself a little better.

Snowflake woke up enough to try and nibble on her hair. Keri smiled to herself. He always tried to do that during grooming, though she knew not why. He did not actually like the taste of hair any better than she did, but he still tried to get his teeth on hers.

She put her brush on his shoulder and the horse sighed. As she drew long but gentle strokes through his fur that was fast growing to winter thickness, her horse sighed again, contently, and some of the tension was brushed out of him with each stroke. Keri felt the painful tension in her shoulders dissolve, as did the uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. Snowflake loved the soft brush, and not just because it must feel good, but also because it meant the end of a day of work for him. Briefly Keri felt bad about it, because rather than the end of the day she was now brushing him at the start of it. She didn’t like lying much, unless she could convince herself it was artistic license in a song, of course. Very little of the classical ballads, or the modern ones for that matter, was factual, and all of it was embellished or exaggerated in some form or other. The truth made for poor stories, and poorer songs, and embellishing the reality a bit got coins tossed her way.

Keri could brush only one side of her horse. There was no way she was going to get between Snowflake and Brandt’s horse, even if there had been room. His horse was combat trained, she recognised the signs from time spent with a handful of King’s heavy cavalry officers. Even if he was very well trained and would not attack unless ordered, he also would protect himself, in particular from anybody trying to get underneath him. She wasn’t as short as Talya, but it would not take a big push from Snowflake to shove her under Brandt’s eighteen hands tall horse. Keri had no doubt that the horse was trained to kill, both with his very big teeth and with his very big hooves. Getting within reach of either was not on her list of things to do on a dark morning where the horse might feel as unsettled as she did.

When she started on brushing out her horse’s mane for the third time she grimaced and heaved a deep sigh. She was beginning to feel pathetic for hiding behind her horse and couldn’t pretend any longer that she wasn’t.

Suddenly tired of the gloom in the kitchen, she changed course to the hearth. Swept against it were fragments of a chair that had gotten crushed. On touch she found some smaller bits and tossed them on the coals, then used a larger piece of wood to rake the coal till she had a better fire going and could throw the rest of the splintered chair on it.

With a groan for her knees that had stiffened up while building the fire she got up and picked her way around the others who pretended to be sleeping and made her way to the little storage room that was tacked on to the kitchen. It wasn’t well stocked, as the innkeeper already had warned her the previous evening, but she found a mostly empty bag of flour and half a dozen eggs. There was milk but she didn’t like the smell of it so she decided to stick with water instead. Fresh fruit would have been nice, but even though it was the season for it, she didn’t expect to find anybody foolish enough to venture in the forest to gather berries. On the top shelf she spotted a stoneware pot, carefully sealed, that on closer inspection turned out to contain a bottom of crystallising syrup.

Smiling to herself she picked up her haul and returned to the kitchen, set to make pancakes for breakfast.

Her stirring the ingredients together in a metal pan produced so much noise that the others couldn’t pretend to be sleeping any more. By the time she poured the first batter in the sizzling frying pan they were all busy rolling up their sleeping mats and blankets. Or rather Brandt was, neither Melissa nor Talya seemed to have a sleeping mat, nor much in the way of blankets. Keri figured that made sense since they both had come here walking rather than riding. She wouldn’t want to lug a bedroll around on her back either, if she didn’t have to. Then again, she did not want to sleep on the ground under a thin sheet. She could not bring herself to call what those two had wrapped themselves in a blanket as they were too flimsy for that moniker.

“Somebody find a plate.” she said to nobody in particular when she turned the first pancake to bake the other side.

“Also, there’s syrup on the table, but there isn’t much so please don’t take more than a little.”

Of course, by the time the second side of the pancake was done there was no plate on the table to put it on. Rather than getting up and look for one herself she dumped the pancake on the table, where it lay steaming. She figured somebody would pick it up and have breakfast, or not, in which case it would be the plate for the rest of the pancakes.
When she turned around with the second one the table was empty, so apparently the other three did not care enough about plates, nor about how clean table was since they obviously had no trouble eating directly from it. She did, but she planned to eat hers directly from the pan anyway.

By the time her batter was all gone, she had made a dozen pancakes, the last one a bit on the small side which she kept for herself. All that was left of breakfast was two dirty pans and a greasy spot on the table. Keri figured that somebody else could clean up after her, She wasn’t about to take care of that too. Not when the others had done nothing about breakfast but eat it.

Besides, it was urgent time to get Snowflake outside the kitchen at least. He had been better behaved than could be reasonably expected of a horse, but she knew the signs that it would not last much longer. She did not expect the innkeeper to be understanding if their horses left any gift in the kitchen. The others might not expect to come this way again in the future, but she did and she did not need an innkeeper with a long memory and a reason to toss her out the door. It was a long and hard day of travel either way to get out of the forest and it was not a journey she cared to make in the dark. Or in the gloom like she had. The uneasy feelings she’d had about the trees and forest just beyond the path were too real to be just from the scary stories told about the Black Forest. Worse than that, Melissa and Talya had been similarly spooked about the forest, so, no, she needed an innkeeper with reasons to hate her as much as she needed the inn prices during festival season, or a difficult audience. Only less so.

“I’m getting my horse back to the stable before he leaves something worse than a smell.” she told Brandt.

The big man looked like he wanted to object, then glanced at his own horse, who was fretting uneasily just like Snowflake.

“Probably a good idea,” he admitted “we also need to check if the weather is improved so that we can get out of here.”

“Is. Can? Rain stopped.” Melissa said, drawing a surprised glance from the others.

“Air drier is,” she explained, noticing the surprise “and no hearing of water falling any more”.

“Huh” was all Brandt could say to that. Talya looked speculatively at the strange tall woman, as if she had done something interesting rather than surprising.

With a shrug Keri let them to their posturing, if that was what they were doing. She had her horse to take care off.

She was halfway through talking her horse into the narrow hallway — and just how had Brandt managed that with his horse last night she had no idea — when a thought struck her “Melissa? Can you hear people in the stable? Through this door?”

Melissa waited a moment or two before answering “Many big animals like yours. No counting. Women of last night. And men like you. About a hand of voices. Stopped now so no certain.” She turned to Brandt “No big humans like you. They make sleep noises through that opening.”

“Well, what do you know” Keri muttered before saying out loud “Thank you”.

Snowflake was, once past the scary door, quite happy to proceed. He no doubt smelled his food and after a night with nothing but some hay, that probably the other horse had eaten most of, he should be getting quite hungry and thirsty. Which was convenient in that it probably had helped keeping the kitchen clean, but she disliked treating her horse like that. She gave a cursory scratching with her fingers to the side of him she hadn’t been able to brush earlier, but with his nose buried in his feed sack Snowflake did not seem not notice. Giving up on finding more comfort in spending time with her horse Keri left his stable, and waited for Brandt, who had led his horse in the box next to hers, to do the same.

She wasn’t in a talkative mood, and neither was Brandt. Keri kept quiet, remembering that the man had travelled and fought with these mercenaries by his side, and that now five of them were dead and the rest clearly wanted him dead in return. She wouldn’t be happy either in those circumstances, and frankly, it just screamed of a tragic ballad to her composer’s instincts.

Silently she followed him back to the kitchen where Melissa and Talya were waiting pretty much at opposite sides of the room. Ostensibly it was so they could keep an eye on both entrances. Even Keri could hear the sounds of men stirring with, and not being happy with considerable hangovers.

There was a lot of tension between the two women that Keri did not feel like trying to figure out. She already had the beginnings of a headache and the day had barely started. Dealing with the two women would be certain to make it worse that much sooner. Instead, she made herself as comfortable as she could leaning against her pack. It was next to the fire, and now that it was going again it made her feel relaxed, even a bit sleepy. Brandt half sat on the table, spacing the four of them out in the kitchen. It probably said something about how uncomfortable they all were with the situation and with each other.

Three puzzles‘ Keri decided. ‘for three different reasons.’ Normally that would have her hunting after their stories, and she knew she would not be able to contain her curiosity in check indefinitely, but for now she was content to lean back, bask in the warmth and let the others decide. She’d done her share with organising breakfast.

Brandt at last stirred and said to the two bound and gagged prisoners “No point in pretending to sleep Captain.”

The mercenary he was speaking to snapped his eyes open and glared. There was little doubt that if he hadn’t been gagged there would have been a stream of invective to accompany that glare. And that only the rope securing his arms and legs kept him from jumping at the big man.

“The way I see it,” Brandt continued, ignoring the murderous glare “hitting you like I did should get me kicked out and my wages garnered. Instead you tried to stab me in the back. We can take it to a magistrate, but I think none of us want that. If Sytz had family I would pay the death benefit, even though it wasn’t my fault, but no woman could stomach being with him more than a night, so there’s nothing to pay.”

He waited to see if the captain, his former captain, would do anything but glare.

Sighing when that was not the case, Brandt continued “Joshy, you weren’t here for. He was being drunk out of his mind and invited himself to that lady’s bath. When she kicked him out he tried to brain her with a broom. There’s three witnesses of that, two if you exclude me. Seeing that the lady was buck naked at the time and had the bruises on her legs to show that Joshy had been trying more than inviting himself I’d say she acted in self defence and he was too stupid to back off.”

The captain’s glare lost some of its fierceness for a moment. Both men knew what kind of troublesome drunk Joshy had been, and that he had been destined to get himself stabbed to death in some kind of brawl or another if a fight for which he was hired did not do him in sooner.

Nodding to himself at the sight of at least momentary agreement Brandt pressed on “No idea what those six last night had planned, but sneaking around in the middle of the night does not look good. Carl was carrying a loaded crossbow. In a pitch black kitchen. Can’t think of a lawyer who can make that sound innocent. Sieb and a Wulf were swinging their swords blindly so I’d call it self defence too. Again, we can take it to a magistrate but I’d figure he will just toss the lot of us in the mines for a decade of hard labour.”

Brandt sighed “So instead I suggest we all walk away from this. I’ll leave your circuit and you’ll leave us alone. Otherwise I can only see this ending with most of us dead and the rest waiting to be strung up from a gallows. You’ll leave first and we wait a bit to see if you’re really gone and then we make for the other direction and make sure we never meet again.”

He gestured to Talya who was sitting nearest to the two captives “So Talya, if you would cut free their legs so they can walk out and explain to the others what we all should do.”

Brandt did not offer to untie their hands, not to remove their gags, and neither did Talya. She just stared as the two men made their unsteady way out of the kitchen.

“Now I guess we wait if they want to be smart. Or dead.” Brandt said.

Nobody had anything to add to that.

Keri waited, tension making her stomach ache. But after the initial shouting of “Captain” the inn quieted down again. She worried that the mercenaries were plotting to rush them but Brandt looked relaxed, if listening attentively, and so did the other two.

Eventually Talya said “They’re packing.”

Keri heaved sigh of relief, which earned her an amused smile by Brandt. She didn’t care though. She was too relieved that they had dodged that arrow.