1: The Traveler Returns
Some harsh words had been spoken the previous summer, the first time I lodged at the inn. Nothing serious, milords, just a minor misunderstanding -- a small imbalance on the slate. A trivial sum, truly!
I admit that appearances were against me. My taste for shortcuts has been misinterpreted before. When the hour for my departure dawned -- it was slightly before dawn actually, but I am by nature an early riser -- I chose the swiftest route. I was in a hurry, being bound that day for Gilderburg, a city many hard leagues away. Moreover, I feared I might disturb the other guests if I went clattering down the stairs. Only when I was halfway across the vegetable patch did I realize I had forgotten to pay my bill. The house door would still be locked, so I resolved to leave the money on the hostler‘s desk in the stable.
That was the only reason I approached the stable. Why else would I do so? I had no horse lodged there!
The trouble arose because the innkeeper, Fritz, motivated by unseemly greed, had rented out even his own quarters the previous night. He had chosen to sleep in the hayloft overhead, from which he had a clear view of my window.
The stable door gave me a little trouble. Then it swung open, freely and quietly on well-oiled hinges. I stooped to lift my bundle, and when I straightened up I was exceedingly surprised to discover myself facing what appeared to be a haystack.
I have often been complimented on my expertise in animal husbandry. I am well aware that general practice is to put the livestock on the ground floor and the fodder in the loft. It is a technical matter of getting them up ladders. In this case I could not see why Mine Host Fritz might have reversed the normal filing system. Then I realized that what I was seeing in the chill predawn light was Mine Host Fritz himself. He had no shirt on, which is what had confused me. When I tilted my head back, I discovered his face, higher up.
There can be something very unwholesome about blue eyes. Jaws of that magnitude are better left unclenched.
Instinct warned me that there could be a misunderstanding brewing. I explained carefully, using short sentences and speaking distinctly.
Another problem then arose, concerning the house tariff. I do not deny that it was posted in large letters on the taproom wall, a list very detailed and well lit. No one could claim that the inventory of services offered was incomplete or the scale of charges ambiguous. The Hunters‘ Haunt was an inn of the highest standards. Though small, it offered quality personal service most welcome to experienced and sophisticated travelers such as myself. Within its range, it was one of the finest hostels I had ever graced with my custom, and one I fully intended to recommend heartily to the numerous fellow wayfarers I meet upon my travels -- as I repeatedly assured the innkeeper. However, being a stranger in the Grimm Ranges, I had mistakenly assumed that his prices were posted in Nurgic dinars.
To my astonishment, Fritz informed me that Gilderburg thalers were specified at the bottom of the notice. I explained that every time I had been looking in that direction the previous evening, Fritz himself had been drawing ale from the left-hand barrel, directly underneath. The vital postscript must have been obscured by his shoulders. True, that was a remarkable coincidence, and most men would not have blocked my view, but Fritz was not most men -- only about three of them, hammered into one.
Of course I had funds enough to cover my tab, had the amount been calculated in Nurgic dinars.
That was the truth of the matter, milords. Alas, the oaf chose to disbelieve me!
Do not be too hard on him! Large as he was, Fritz was young for his responsibilities. Even an older, more experienced man might have misconstrued a situation of such manifest ambiguity. He was perhaps a little coarse in his language. He might have used more tact in the way he disassembled my bundle, pronouncing my spare garments to be useless rags and strewing them in the mire of the stable yard. Finesse is not to be expected in the young. But he resisted overt violence, which must have been a great temptation for one of his size.
Pretty much resisted it, that is. He carried me by my right ear over to some distant outbuildings, and there presented me with a monstrous ax, more fittingly sized to his thews than mine. He indicated ten or eleven tree trunks and where they should be stowed when cut into hearth lengths. And then he whistled up an animal I had seen the previous day and at first assumed to be a full-grown bear. It was a dog.
Its name was Tiny, but even by Fritz‘s standards that was inappropriate. Tiny, Fritz assured me, would keep me from leaving -- ever, under any circumstances -- until its master gave it the correct password to release me. Tiny was an excellent guard dog, the innkeeper added, its only fault being the killer frenzy that came upon it when it tasted blood.
While I mulled the implications of that subtle innuendo, Mine Ex-Host stalked away to prepare breakfast for his guests. Tiny ran a tongue like a black doormat over a picket fence of white teeth and lay down to plan my dismemberment.
The sun rose about then, promising a hard day, or perhaps several hard days. I began with a few lusty blows of the ax, continuing until I judged young Fritz would be engrossed in other pursuits and hopefully out of earshot.
I think I mentioned that I am not without knowledge in the ways of our four-legged brethren? Pausing to catch my breath, I edged closer to the corner of the woodshed. Tiny raised a forest of hair down the entire length of its back, rumbling a growl I found strikingly reminiscent of the earthquake that threw down the walls of Atlambaron. Clearly the beast was expressing a warning that I should not progress any farther. Fortunately I was already close enough for my purposes.
To be explicit about my next actions might bring a blush to sensitive cheeks, so I shall wash over the details. Suffice it to say that I rendered said corner of the aforementioned woodshed of immediate interest to the dog. When I had finished, Tiny rose and came across to inspect my labors, its manner indicating a clear belief that it might not know much about firewood, but it did know about that. Tiny came, in short, within reach. When it turned away to initial my signature, I stunned the brute with the back of the ax.
I missed breakfast and lost my bundle, but I sold the ax for six Gilderburg thalers in the next village, so I came out well ahead on the exchange.
That, as I said earlier, had been in the summer. Now winter was setting in.
I had come to the Volkslander in search of the ending of a certain story and had failed to find it. The experienced collector of tales learns to accept disappointment and will not let it discourage him. Somewhere, someday, I would pick up the trail again -- in bazaar gossip, a chance remark upon the highway, a tale heard in an alehouse, or perchance a legend recounted in a monastery. Meanwhile, warmer climes called me, for my way of life can be arduous in cold weather.
Three possible routes south were available. I could take ship, although the season was late. I might seek out a caravan following the amber road and accompany it as far as the salt rivers, but the wild children of the steppes were being gruesome again. All in all, it seemed safest and easiest just to venture a recrossing of the Grimm Ranges. The way is strenuous, but extremely scenic.
My sojourn in the northern marches had not been entirely fruitless. My repertoire of stories had been well rewarded. I left Luzfraul on a sunny, frosty morning, mounted on a sprightly bay mare, journeying in the company of a convivial band of merchants bound for the misty valleys of the Winelands. Our conversation sparkled like the ice crystals on the grass of the verge while we climbed through the foothills. I gathered some trivial tales for my collection, granting others in return, as is my wont.
We lunched well, seated on the bank of a joyous cataract, resting our mounts and making the crags ring with our laughter. The peaks above us wore their winter finery, white and pure in the sunlight. Scenery can be overdone, of course.
By afternoon the sky was taking on a menacing leaden hue, an unfriendly wind was tugging at our cloaks, and we had entered into the forest‘s dark domain. We passed few habitations, only the lonely cottages of woodsmen or charcoal-burners. We debated stopping and taking shelter at one of these, but rasher counsels prevailed. We decided to push on in the hope of crossing the pass before the weather turned on us -- or turned at all, because nothing is more fickle than mountain weather.
Alas, it was not the elements that brought disaster upon us! We were set upon by one of the many bands of brigands that too often haunt such wild places. They were ragged, hairy, and ferocious -- desperate, ruthless men who would have been more than a match for my genteel companions even had we not been outnumbered, which we were, hugely.
Although I am not without skill at swordplay, I was without sword that day. In any case, I have always preferred subtle stratagem to bludgeon brutality. Ambush may succeed where mere impetuous resistance will not. As my horse reared in terror, I reached up and caught hold of an oak branch fortuitously overhanging the road. I hauled myself up, drew my dagger, and waited to drop on the first marauder who came within my range.
I did not expect to escape attention for long, because the trees were bare of leaves. But I did.
I watched in silent horror as my companions were odiously murdered, their goods sequestered, their corpses stripped. Soon it was too late for me to achieve anything other than gallant suicide. In short order the outlaws drove off the baggage train, leaving only naked bodies behind.
Now I was in a difficult situation. The brigands had headed south, deeper into the ranges. They would go no faster than I, for many of them were still on foot. I had no desire to catch up with them to explain that they had overlooked me in their massacre.
My only logical course of action was to retrace my steps northward in the hope of finding one of those woodcutters‘ cottages. Already the first flakes of a winter storm danced amid the boughs.
Having waited awhile to make sure the desperadoes would not return, I scrambled cautiously to the ground, said a sad farewell to my erstwhile friends -- together with a heartfelt apology that I lacked the means to grant them decent burial -- and set off alone through the forest, whistling to keep up my spirits.
There are numerous tales of trolls and evil spirits preying on wayfarers in the Grimm Ranges. I have never spoken with a man who had met any himself, although that does not prove that the stories are false. I encountered none that evening. What I did meet was a mountain blizzard, the likes of which have killed more travelers than all the trolls ever spawned. In pitch darkness, flying snow is not white, it is black. It insinuates into every crevice of a man‘s clothing, it weighs down his cloak and shoulders, soaks his skin, fills his boots; trickles, freezes, and blinds. I should certainly have wandered off the road had it not been flanked by dense woods. I followed the path by bumping into trees.
But where were the cottages? Gradually I was forced to conclude that either I had staggered right by them without noticing, or else I had lost my way. Several routes lead up to the pass, and I might easily have taken a wrong fork. I had no guarantee that there would be any shelter at all on this road.
The night grew colder, the wind stronger, the drifts deeper. I never plague the gods with prayer, since omnipotence requires no advice, but that night I fully expected to greet them in person. I reached the last stage of endurance, the stage of promising myself a rest after fifty more paces and then fifty more, knowing that if I ever stopped, I should never rise again.
Suddenly, to my great relief and astonishment, a light blazed up ahead of me. A moment later it shrank and vanished, but I was not discouraged, knowing that a shutter blown open in the wind would not be allowed to remain open for long. What mattered was that there was a dwelling within reach, and it was inhabited. Surely no one would refuse hospitality to an honest traveler on a night like that?
I plowed through waist-deep drifts, guided eventually by chinks of light. I stumbled at last to the door and fell against the handle. The latch lifted. The door flew open and I through it. I reeled into a crowded room, accompanied by a hurricane of wind and blowing snow. Thus, not exactly unobtrusively, I returned to the Hunters‘ Haunt inn.
Copyright Â© 1995 by Dave Duncan