Tornmile: Part 3
Part III: The King’s Arms
Brielle pulled the last cup from the bowl of cold water and ran a cloth half-heartedly around the rim. It made little difference to the state of the cup, which was already well past its best. Fortunately, if it could be called that, the King’s Arms Inn had very few customers at present and the ones they did have didn’t seem to mind whether the cup was dirty so long as it was kept full. She had hoped that the recent influx of refugees would mean more trade for the flagging tavern, but the trade had not come. Few of the refugees had enough money to feed themselves, let alone enough for spending on board and wine. Some of the soldiers amongst them had come by initially, but they had been lured away to inns closer to the barracks, to where she understood they had now been moved.
Standing the cup on the board to dry alongside the thirty or so others she had washed this morning, Brielle left the kitchen into the common room to see if by some miracle there was a full room of customers calling for drink. She knew there would not be – the inn was deathly quiet. There were only two people in the common room besides herself. The first was Barnaby, who always started his day with a cup of wine in the King’s Arms. He had worked in the Spire for the last fifty years and for at least twenty of those he had been coming to the King’s Arms for wine before work. She suspected that he had said no more than twenty words to her in all that time; he kept himself to himself, and that suited them both.
The other did not suit her at all. A dark eyed Stamm with lank, greasy hair, was passed out across one of the larger tables, a half-full cup of mead still clutched loosely in one hand. He wore an outfit that seemed to be entirely made of fur and that he had not changed for months. The only good thing that could be said of him was that he drank a lot and paid in advance for far more than he could manage. Most nights her father would come down from his room and drink with the Stamm, despite the fact that he did not seem to speak a word of Tornmilian. Her father couldn’t even say his name and called him Nev, his best attempt at pronouncing the syllables that, to Brielle’s ears, did not even sound related.
She returned to the kitchen to fetch the bowl of water left over from washing the cups, brought it back into the common room and sloshed half of it over Nev’s head. He jerked awake, yelled in Stammish, drank the remaining mead and slammed the cup down on the table. Brielle watched him with her hands on her hips. He smiled a gap-toothed smile, wiped his wild beard and mouth on his sleeve, said something that might have been a thank you, and then left, tossing a coin onto the table as he went.
Brielle retrieved it from the pool of water and tucked it into her serving apron. Taking the bowl up once more she returned it and the empty cup to the kitchen. The rest of the water would do for her father in an hour or two. It would at least give him a bit of a wash before he reached for another bottle. She slammed the Stamm’s cup down onto the kitchen table and gasped as it shattered, slicing open her thumb. The wound prickled as the blood reached the surface. She took a strip of cloth from the storeroom to bind around the cut. Why is he allowed to drink himself into oblivion and not me?! She knew why. There was an inn to be run, and no matter how much they both missed Caiden, drinking every hour of the day would not bring him back.
It had been a hot day when they had received the news; sunlight poured like molten gold across the city. Brielle had been helping her father, acting as a server, under promise that she could take the afternoon to herself. She planned to walk with some friends down towards the docks to enjoy the sunshine. But then the news had come, spreading like a fire in a grain store; Lapion had fallen and the whole Tornmile garrison had been put to the sword. She did not go down to the docks. She sat on the step by the kitchen door and she wept until she fell into a restless sleep. For weeks she thought that Caiden would come back, that he had made it out before the city was attacked, and that he would come riding in through the garden gate. She spent most of her time by the kitchen door, oblivious to the loss of custom and her father’s descent into the bottle, thinking that Caiden would come back, sunlight glinting from his armour and pull her into a hug. She remembered the last words he had spoken to her: “You’ve become as pretty as a rose, so see you don’t marry someone I wouldn’t approve of when I’m gone. Take care.” Then one day, without any warning, the sun was not shining. Instead, rain fell like a hail of arrows, and she knew that Caiden would not be coming back.
She never sat by the door again; instead she spent her time trying to salvage what little business they had, taking over the running of the inn. Her father was content to let her. No one ever came to ask for her hand in marriage as Caiden had predicted, but she would not have accepted them if they had done. She had built herself a life, and even if it was not the life she had imagined, it was still hers. The inn was hers. It was hers as much as it was supposed to have been Caiden’s; her father was going to give it to him when he finished his military service in Lapion. She would not give it up for any man, even when the custom was slack and the profits were low.
Rousing herself with these thoughts, she stood up proudly from the table, thrusting the chair backwards, and declared aloud: “It’s my inn, damn it!”
A small boy ducked back out of the kitchen door, startled by her sudden declaration. Brielle sighed deeply, picked up the pieces of shattered cup, and then crossed to the door. The boy stood on the step, shifting nervously from foot to foot.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” Brielle said, dropping the pieces of the cup into a crate of rubbish.
“I’m not scared. I’m eight years old and I don’t get scared anymore,” he said defiantly, before adding ruefully, “ ‘cept when it’s really dark.”
“All right,” Brielle said, trying to hide her impatience, “do you want to be a brave boy and tell me what you want from me?”
“Yes,” the boy said, rubbing at his dirty face with an equally dirty finger, “I’ve come to tell you Léa can’t come to work today. She’s sick.”
Brielle sighed with frustration, though she was not exactly surprised. Léa was her serving girl, prone to ineptly flirt with any man that looked her twice, and prone to be ‘sick’ twice as often as that. Still, when she came into work she was a help, and inept though her flirting might be, it kept the customers amused. Brielle reached into the kitchen and picked up a small stack of honey cakes.
“Is she really sick or is she just pretending to be sick?” Brielle asked, holding the cakes just out of the boy’s reach. He eyed them hungrily.
“Really sick,” he said, never taking his eyes from the honey cakes, “it went everywhere.”
“Oh,” Brielle said, delivering the honey cakes into his outstretched hand, “Tell her I hope she gets better soon. It sounds horrible.”
“No,” he said, biting into one of the cakes, “it was great. She was even sick on our dog!”
He beamed as he ran off towards the gate, which lead into the small alleyway behind the inn, pausing only to shout a ‘thank you’ over his shoulder. Brielle watched him go and then turned to face the kitchen. Just me today then. It was alright; she wasn’t expecting there to be a huge amount of custom today and she’d done the majority of the jobs she could do in the kitchen. Even if Léa was here there’d be nothing for her to do.
She left the kitchen and returned to the common room just to check if there was anyone wanting service. She was surprised to see a group of men huddled together at one end of the bar, casting their eyes over the interior. Barnaby had turned to face away from them, but glanced over his shoulder at them every few seconds to see if they were still there.
“What can I get for you gentlemen?” she asked, approaching the group.
They leered at her with mouths full of crooked yellowing teeth, the effect of which was a little unnerving. They all wore rough tunics of sackcloth and carried clubs at their belts. All but one had their hair slicked back and faded tattoos covered their forearms. Dockworkers? One of them had a puckered scar across his face, running from the right of his mouth up to his hairline. His right eye was white and unmoving.
“It’s more what we can do for you,” White-Eye said, leaning across the bar towards her.
“What do you mean?” she asked, cautiously, checking to see that the doorkeeper’s cudgel was still tucked under the bar. It was.
“I mean that inns are often targets for unsavoury activity, fights, and fires. Accidents happen. Wouldn’t it be a pity if a lovely establishment such as this were to meet with an accident?”
She knew who they were now; they worked for Dunstan Ferrer, a man well-known for dealing in stolen property and taking payments to protect people’s businesses. If they didn’t pay, he made them regret it. He usually operated in the poorest areas away near the tanners’ pits, but it appeared that he was spreading closer to the centre of the city, taking advantage of the current turmoil. A show of strength was needed to keep them away.
Brielle took a step forward, staring at White-Eye, and felt for the handle of the cudgel. Iron bands strapped around a stout piece of wood were usually enough to discourage most people from anything untoward, especially after the first blow. Brielle could fight – Caiden had taught her.
“It would be a pity,” she said, “because then I’d know it was you that caused the accident, and I’d have to walk all the way to the tanners’ pits to pay you back.”
The group of them started laughing. It sounded a bit like a pack of wild dogs. Very slowly, very deliberately, Brielle drew out the doorkeeper’s cudgel and swung it down with a bang onto the bar. The group stopped laughing. Their hands strayed towards the clubs at their belts.
“You want to be careful, missy,” White-Eye said, drawing his hands back towards his body.
“No, you do,” she returned, “this is my inn, you hear me? This is my inn and I’ll be dragged naked through the sands of Abboral before you get your slimy hands anywhere near it. Now, get out while you’ve still got the use of your legs.”
White-Eye breathed in. Brielle prepared to raise the cudgel, keeping them all in view, picking out places to deliver her blows. Then White-Eye grinned again and his companions relaxed.
“Come on, boys,” he said, and started to lead them out of the bar. Once they had all crossed the threshold he turned back to her: “Take care, missy.”
As soon as they were gone, she placed the cudgel back into the space beneath the bar, but it was a long time before she relaxed enough to let the handle fall from her grip. They would be back, she knew that, but she would deal with them again. Her brother had already been taken from her, she was damned if she was going to let filth like that take her inn.