|Brutus and Avianna - Chapter One
Part One, Chapter One
A loud round of banging awoke the innkeeper late at night. At first he thought it might have been a guest (and a prostitute from down the street) testing out one of the old beds in the inn, but then he remembered that there was only two guests staying in the inn. The first was a young priest on pilgrimage to visit mountain temples and the second guest was a retired tradesman, returning from a funeral; Neither was a likely candidate to hire a prostitute.
So then where was the banging coming from, if not from a bed banging against the wall?
The second round of banging was louder than the first, and it was definitely coming from downstairs. Travellers in the middle of the night? Only a very foolish person would travel at night in these mountains. There were wolves, mountain lions and worse.
The old innkeeper grunted and groaned as he rolled out of bed. He pulled on some trousers and a woolen jacket. The floor was very cold and he fumbled in the dark for his slippers.
By the time he went down the stairs a third round of banging had begun, although from this distance it was now more like heavy thudding. The traveller was either very angry, or very strong. The innkeeper snatched up a dagger from behind the bar and hid it under his wool jacket as he approached the door.
The banging stopped. All he could hear was the wind and the drizzle of rain from outside.
It took some grunting to lift the thick wooden plank that held the door closed. The door opened slowly to reveal a dark massive figure with the fur of a bear and the head of a lion. There was a moment of hesitation on both sides of the door.
“Thanks,” rumbled the bear/lion figure and stepped within, the floorboards creaking under the weight. It paused in the darkness, as if unsure of its surroundings.
Relieved it wasn’t some kind of monster, and that it wasn’t angry, the innkeeper rushed around the bar to light a lantern with some flint and steel. The flickering light did not improve the situation much, but at least it confirmed the innkeeper’s suspicions.
The guest was a barbarian, and a big one at that.
The barbarian came closer and dropped a bundle of belongings to the floor beside the bar. He settled into a stool across from the innkeeper. “I’d like a place to sleep,” rumbled the deep baritone of the barbarian. “And food.” His accent was thick, he was obviously a barbarian of the far north. He had travelled south quite a distance to reach these mountains and foothills.
“Of course, of course,” said the innkeeper, lighting another lantern and a candle. He placed them about the bar so he could see his guest better. He realized as he did so that he had set the dagger down on the bar, in plain view. He had set it there in his rush to light the first lantern. “What food would you like?”
“Meat, bread and drink. Potatoes if you have any.”
The innkeeper nodded and decided the drink should come first. He fetched a clean tankard and started filling it with thick brown beer, the kind that miners and lumberjacks usually drank.
The barbarian removed the lion’s head-skin from his shoulders, revealing a mane of thick black hair, braided with the feathers of eagles. His face was unshaven, a bit square but handsome nevertheless. His nose was hawkish, his eyebrows thick and his eyes a steely grey in the firelight. He was younger than the innkeeper had expected, and perhaps not as large as he had first thought, but his eyes showed a level of intelligence and intensity that suggested the barbarian was older than he looked. It was hard to say with barbarians sometimes. Their ages were difficult to tell, and indeed, when asked, barbarians usually didn’t even know their age.
The innkeeper realized that he was staring and mumbled something about getting the food and left. The barbarian merely nodded and started to drink his beer.
Before he left however, he noticed the blood on the barbarian’s neck and arms.
The axe across the barbarian’s back was also shiny with blood and rain.
The barbarian ate his food mostly in silence, stopping briefly to comment on the quality of the fried potatoes. This pleased the innkeeper because the barbarian had thus far been quite polite and a gracious guest. Not talkative of course, few barbarians could even speak Southtongue, and so it was understandable that the barbarian before him didn’t really want to talk much.
The wounds on the barbarian’s neck and arms did not look deep. He might have more wounds however that the innkeeper could not see. The innkeeper cleared his throat as he tried to think of what to say.
The barbarian turned to look at him. That stern gaze was enough to frighten the old man into stammering like a school-boy.
“Uh, would you, ah, would you like me to send for a healer?”
The barbarian stared at him for a moment and then cracked a smile. “They’re only scratches. I was attacked by highwaymen on the road north of town.”
The innkeeper was shocked. First by the smile, but again by the mention of the highwaymen who had been plaguing the nearby towns for over a year. They had killed numerous people travelling on the road and despite several attempts to capture or kill them, none had succeeded. The identities and descriptions of the eight highwaymen however were well-known, and if this barbarian had killed one, or even several, there would be a sizeable reward.
He decided to tell the barbarian what he knew of the highwaymen, eventually asking the question: “How many did you kill and which ones?”
“Four,” the barbarian said at last, stuffing a piece of fried potato into his mouth. “The other two that I saw escaped on horseback.” He sounded disappointed and disgusted, which he likely was from the innkeeper’s perspective. Barbarians were said to have a strong sense of personal honour. They would never flee from combat like the two highwaymen had fled, and ambushes, although not uncommon, were still against their nature, and therefore anyone who committed ambushes against unarmed or unaware opponents were considered to be cowards.
“Of the four that I killed, I did not really pay much attention to what they looked like. I left them for the crows to eat,” rumbled the barbarian, his disgust of cowards now obvious. He paused and washed down the potatoes with some beer. He looked at the innkeeper and then looked meaningfully at the bundle on the floor near his stool. “But that didn’t stop me from picking up some useful supplies.”
The innkeeper nodded, catching the barbarian’s meaning. Stealing from the dead was also against a barbarian’s sense of honour, but taking things that would be useful was simply common sense.
The barbarian set several coins on the table, and looked at the innkeeper with a curious look. “How much are these worth? I am unfamiliar with using money.”
The innkeeper licked his lips, betraying some of his greed, but stopped himself. He calmed himself down and moved his stool closer to the spot across from where the barbarian was sitting. He leaned forward to get a better look.
“That’s gold, this one is silver and that’s copper,” he explained, moving three coins forward into a row. “Gold is the most valuable and copper is the cheapest.”
The question seemed ludicrous to the innkeeper for a moment, until he thought about it for a moment. Why was gold so much more expensive anyway? He thought deeply before answering. “Basically because gold is more rare and used for jewelry and decorating things. Silver and copper are more common and they tarnish.”
The barbarian nodded, seeming to understand.
“One gold sovereign is worth ten silver. Likewise, one silver is worth ten copper.”
“So one gold is worth a hundred copper?” rumbled the barbarian, surprising the innkeeper that he could even count to a hundred in Southtongue, and also surprising him that he had caught on so easily.
“Yes,” the innkeeper said, a bit nervous now. This barbarian was definitely no fool. He picked up the dagger from the bar carefully, not wanting to alarm the barbarian, setting it closer. “This dagger for example is worth about two gold. A decent sword is worth about ten gold.”
“And a horse, how much should a horse cost?” asked the barbarian.
The innkeeper paused, thinking. “It depends on the horse. A decent horse will cost about seventy to eighty gold.” He stopped again, not sure if he should mention the other issue, but then decided it would be only fair to tell him. “Horse traders, I must warn you, are a tricky bunch. They could sell you a diseased horse and not tell you about it. Therefore, its always best to look the horse in the mouth before you buy it.”
The barbarian seemed to think about it and then nodded.
“Also,” the innkeeper said, choosing his words carefully. “Many horse traders do not like people from the far north. They may try to trick you.”
The barbarian seemed to be breathing heavily, and for a moment the innkeeper thought he had offended the man. Perhaps he was angry, but trying not to let it show? Why then was the barbarian’s hand inching towards the dagger? Surely he had not offended the barbarian that much? He had been being helpful after all.
“I don’t like northerners either!” declared a new voice at the door. The innkeeper had not noticed him standing there. He was tall and broad and carrying a sword dripping from the rain.
The innkeeper fell backwards, knocking over his stool. As he fell he saw the barbarian pick up the dagger.
He banged his head against some cupboards behind the bar and lay there for a moment, watching as the barbarian drew his axe with his spare hand. Everything was going too fast and the innkeeper wished he was still in bed.
Then the barbarian moved out of view and the innkeeper could hear the stamping of feet, furniture being moved and the clash of arms. If the barbarian had truly killed four of the highwaymen, then apparently the other four had come seeking vengeance in the middle of the night. He had apparently survived the first battle with only scratches, but would he fare so well in a second battle?
The innkeeper rolled to one side, rising carefully to peek over the top of the bar at what was happening.
The highwaymen, dressed mostly in black and brown and carrying swords of various kinds had fanned out in a semi-circle against the barbarian, who had his back to the bar. They seemed to circle him like wolves, waiting for a chance.
The barbarian also seemed to be waiting for something. He appeared quite calm, not even angry despite the circumstances. Barbarians were supposed to have ruthless, ferocious tempers, but where was the temper of this young man who had been so far quite polite?
At last one of highwaymen attacked, it was the leader who had spoken earlier. He lunged forward, jabbing at the barbarian’s face and chest. The other three closed in too, and for a moment it appeared that the barbarian would be skewered on four swords at once.
Instead, he fell to the floor and rolled forward, ducking beneath all of the reaching blades. When he came to his knees, he stabbed the leader in the thigh with the dagger and swept the axe out to the side, catching another highwayman in the back of the leg.
The other two highwaymen hesitated and then rushed to the aid of their leader. The barbarian spun about on his knees, never leaving the ground, and tripped both men with a backswing of his axe.
By now it was obvious to the innkeeper why the barbarian had bested four highwaymen so easily that the other two had run off. He didn’t fight like other men. The innkeeper was no judge of warriors, but he had never seen or heard of someone fighting like this. It was very unusual. Before his eyes, he watched as the barbarian headbutted one man, kicked another in the groin, stabbed another through the chest and lopped off the leader’s hand with an axe.
All at the same time!
Now certainly, the innkeeper had heard of skilled fighters using two swords at the same time, a skill which was very difficult, but he had never heard of a fighter combining his feet or his head with weapons, let alone doing all of it from a kneeling position on the floor.
The barbarian got to his feet. One man was dead and the other three were either severely injured or maimed. He seemed to be deciding what to do with them, for none were putting up a fight anymore. “This reward you mentioned. Did it call for them to be dead or alive?” rumbled the barbarian.
The innkeeper swallowed, still shocked. He wasn’t sure if he wanted four dead men on his floor. “Either,” he blurted truthfully.
“And what do you do with the live ones?”
“They will be sent to a prison in the south, a quarry likely where they will cut stone.”
“Death would be too merciful,” the barbarian said after a thoughtful moment. “Amongst mine people, we scar them and abandon them naked in the wilderness. The gods decide their fate.”
The innkeeper’s mouth went dry as he watched the barbarian bend over and cut X-shaped marks across the foreheads of the three men left alive. After that was done, the barbarian started to scalp them, an act which caused the innkeeper to look away in horror. He only listened as the barbarian looted them for things that could be useful.
The sound of coins being set on the bar startled the innkeeper and he looked around to see three gold coins.
“I am buying the dagger. Do you mind?” asked the barbarian, his eyes intent.
The innkeeper nodded consent, rather dumbfounded. “But its only worth two, remember?”
“The other one is for the food and the bed. I am going to sleep now.” The barbarian picked up his bundle and headed for the stairs. “We will tend to these men in the morning. For now, you can tie them up. I’ve already taken away their weapons.”
The innkeeper nodded, content to just follow orders. After a moment however, he blurted out: “Wait!”
“Uh, you didn’t tell me your name. For the inn registry, you see. We keep a record of all the people who stay here.”
“Brutus. My name is Brutus. Good night.”