It was winter, and the Prince’s men were far away. Under the low roof of the North Forest Inn, Revi moved back and forth between her cooking fire and a few woodsmen who had braved the cold evening and the driving snow, bringing them hot stew and wooden mugs full of her best brewed ale. They responded with cheers and toasts to her health, and the sound of their talk and laughter filled the low, smoky room.
“Here’s to Revi, queen among innkeepers!”
“May her barrels never go empty and her stew never grow cold.”
The woman grinned over her shoulder, flinging back her still dark hair as she danced back towards the kitchen. “Keep bringing me wood for my fire and silver for my coffer, Bram, and you know they never will!”
They met her words with shouts of approval, raising their mugs and high before setting to with a will. For just an instant, the room was quiet. Flames snapped in the hearth. Spoons scraped on bowls. Someone called out at the door.
If the sound had come at any other time, it would have drowned beneath the roars of merriment. It was a quiet noise, a small noise, just a low call that wavered in the cold. Revi stopped on her way and turned back to look at the door.
“Boys, did you leave someone outside?”
The oldest of the woodsmen paused and shook his head. “No, marm. It was just the four of us today.” He lowered his mug to the table. “You heard someone?”
“I heard something,” said Revi.
All the woodsmen grew quiet, glancing to the door and burying themselves in their food, leaning in over the table as if to wall themselves away. Revi pulled a heavy stick from its place on the wall as she continued toward the door and gripped it with one hand as she reached for the latch with her other.
Cold air and powdered snow fell inside as soon as the door swung open, and the innkeeper frowned into the night and white storm. She found nothing there she had imagined. No ghosts, no monsters, no soldiers waiting for half an excuse. Nothing at all, she thought, until she looked a little farther and saw the dark figure fallen on the path just beyond the light that spilled past her and into the night. It was already half buried in falling snow.
“Bram! Lucas! Get over here and help me! Some poor fool was out traveling tonight.”
Chair legs scraped on the floor. Rough voices muttered wariness. The two men she called joined her at the door and ventured into the cold with her, towards the still and snowbound visitor.
It was a man, wrapped in a woolen cloak that was stiff with cold. His brown hair stuck to his face and his eyes were mostly shut. He barely shivered, barely had a voice to lend to his words as he whispered his thanks again and again while Bram and Lucas hoisted him upwards and draped his arms over their shoulders. Revi went ahead and chased the others away from the fire, pulling an empty chair close and ordering the men to bring their burden forward.
“Set him there. Get him some strew. Quickly!” She cleared the way. “Roosh, go to the back and fetch my cloak from my room. The one on the end!”
They all obeyed. The half frozen stranger sank into the chair, leaning heavily on his rescuers. He made no argument as his icy cloak was pulled from his shoulders or his snowy boots from his feet. His hands shook more violently than before and closed around an offered bowl full of hot food. It took him several seconds more before he could wrap his fingers around the spoon and lift it to his blue lips and hungry mouth.
Roosh returned with the demanded cloak and Revi snatched it from him and warmed it by the fire for just a moment, just enough to heat it above the temperature of the room before she draped it around the stranger. He shuddered as sudden heat returned to his bones, and he groaned quietly.
“There,” said Revi. “Good. Eat that and then you can tell us who you are.”
The stranger nodded and managed to swallow a spoonful of stew. It was enough to satisfy Revi for the time being, and she breathed out a quiet sigh before smiling her thanks to the woodsmen and waving them gently away so that the visitor might have a moment to himself. They went, returning to their bowls at the table nearest the fire and sliding them to its far side so that they could sit and still watch the newcomer.
If he noticed or minded his audience, he gave no indication. Instead, he focused on his bowl and all the little movements required to lift each bite to his mouth. It seemed to grow easier for him after a while, requiring less effort to keep from spilling until the simple movements came to him naturally and easily once again.
Revi gave a short, satisfied nod. “That’s a bit better,” she said. “You look less like death, my friend.”
The stranger paused and managed a wry smile. “I feel less like death,” he said. His voice cracked and rasped. “Thank you.”
“Consider it our pleasure,” said Revi, and her own face wrinkled with warmth and welcome. “That being said, now that you’re a bit warmer, perhaps you’ll tell us who it is we’ve rescued? I can’t imagine a man could travel far in this weather.”
Another wry grin. “Ah, yes,” he said. “A man would have trouble with it, that’s certain.”
Revi waited for him to continue, and a pointed look glimmered in her eyes until the visitor continued speaking.
“No hiding for the traveler here, then.” He pronounced the words lightly, though they fell from his lips with a certain seriousness.
Bram and his companions looked over from their own table again and allowed their curiosity to trail across their faces. The stranger chuckled when he saw them.
“You can try, certainly,” said Revi, “but I hope you won’t. We’re friendly folk here, and I think there’s no need.”
The stranger laughed again, low and gravely in his throat, and he paused before speaking. “I won’t, then,” he said, slowly, “though it’s nothing so remarkable. I’m Eriat, just a traveler who misjudged the road north.” He shrugged and spooned another bite into his mouth, chewing it and savoring it longer than he needed to before swallowing it down.
“Just a traveler?” asked Revi as the quiet began to stretch on a little.
The man smiled again and nodded. “Just a traveler.”
A careful glint flashed in his eyes, though it faded quickly. Revi saw it, but there was nothing she could do with it. And the man seemed simple enough. Just a traveler. Just a guest caught in the cold and half frozen to death. She filled his bowl again when he finished, and he thanked her warmly and profusely.
He stayed at the inn for several days, helping where he could and keeping out of the way when he couldn’t, always keeping one eye on the door. The harsher weather that had caught him days before let up, bit by bit, until the grey sky hung less heavy and the falling snow eased and stopped. More guests visited the inn. Shepherds and woodsmen, a few travelers whose business took them along the long North Road despite the season. Revi served hot food to those who came and prepared warm beds to those who stayed, and short, cold days passed.
On the fourth day after Eriat’s arrival, on an evening that saw no guests, Revi joined the stranger in front of the fire. They sat together for a while, Revi sighing and leaning back and resting her feet, Eriat staring into the low, orange flames and watching as they flickered on a half burned log.
“So, my friend,” said Revi. “What was it that brought you here?”
Eriat kept looking at the fire for a while, and its light reflected in his eyes. Finally, he glanced over at Revi. “I was traveling,” he said. “Just traveling.”
“You don’t seem anxious to be on your way again,” said Revi. Her words were gentle, and instead of looking at the man she stared into the fire as well.
“The weather is still cold,” he said. “I can finish my journey once the way is a little more hospitable.”
“Most would have waited for that before starting.”
Eriat laughed, faintly. “My business was urgent.”
Revi turned to him with a quick grin. “Not so urgent as that, I think.”
The stranger grunted. “Perhaps not.”
They let the conversation lull for a while, listening instead to the dying cracks of the fire and the hiss of the wind through the needles of the dark evergreens. Revi chuckled.
“We could sit here for many more nights than this before you told me where you’ve actually come from.”
“Ah, perhaps,” said Eriat, and he paused for a while before continuing with a clever grin. “Or perhaps I’m exactly what I’ve said I am. Just a traveler who made a poor decision regarding the timing of his journey.”
Eriat’s grin remained. “You can believe it or not. It won’t make it any more or less true.”
“No, I suppose not,” said Revi. “But then, that cuts both ways, doesn’t it?”
The next days continued in much the same way. A trickle of visitors, more or less steady, kept them busy much of the time, and chores filled most of their remaining time. Their routine was simple and pleasant, and Revi appreciated the company almost as much as she did the help, and it remained so for almost two weeks.
Then, a shift in the weather brought a warmer wind and the roads that had been difficult to pass opened once again. With them came more visitors to the inn, and the quiet hum of three or four voices on the busiest of evenings was replaced by the songs and enthusiastic roar of a full dozen guests.
The soldiers came later, well after sundown.
The sound of their marching tramp on the road gave them away before they could be seen, but that seemed to be their intention. It seized the attention of the merrymakers in the inn, silencing their songs and their laughter. Those who ate hunched over their plates. Those who drank clutched their mugs closer to their chests. Every eye lowered. Every back turned. Eriat was with Revi in the kitchen, and in the instant before the soldiers came through the door, she saw that his face blanched pale and his calm frame went rigid.
There were four of them, all armed and draped in the Prince’s blue and silver. Revi felt a a familiar, uneasy twist make its home in her gut, coiling and sliding and waiting for inevitable trouble. She stepped out to greet them anyway.
“Good evening, sirs,” she said. “You look like you’ve traveled some way. Find a seat by the fire and I’ll bring you meat and drink to warm you.”
The leader of the soldiers stopped in front of Revi. “No, thank you, goodwife. We are not here for your food.”
He motioned for the three who followed him to move throughout the room, which they did, looking at the faces of each of the guests as they passed. The knot in Revi’s stomach twisted again.
“We’re here looking for a traitor to the Prince, a man called Taire. Have you seen him? He’s a man of about your age, mousy haired, dark eyed. He fled from us at Kedon about two weeks ago after we attempted to arrest him for stirring up the Prince’s subjects.”
“I don’t know of any men named Taire,” said Revi. She did not move as the soldiers continued to make their way around the room, and they were forced to step around her. She remembered the frightened look that had rushed across Eriat’s face, and she kept herself from even glancing in his direction. The description was vague enough. It could be him. It could be almost anyone.
“He might have called himself by a different name,” said the soldiers’ leader, a cold-eyed sergeant. “Do you remember seeing anyone who might be the man we’re looking for?”
“You’ll forgive me, sir, but over the case of any given week I’m sure I see four or five men that might match that description.”
Behind her, Revi heard the soldiers’ boots still crossing the floor. Tromping past the tables. Moving towards the kitchen.
“Anyone you’ve never seen before? A stranger, perhaps?”
Revi opened her mouth and cast about for an answer. She never had a chance to give it. A shout came from behind as one of the soldiers caught sight of Eriat in the kitchen and gave a cry. The soldiers all rushed to the back. Their leader pushed Revi aside as he joined them. A terrible crash and splatter and clang shattered through the room as Eriat grabbed the big cooking pot, still half full of broth and meat and hurled it at the soldiers advancing towards him.
It bought him an instant. And instant was all he needed. He rushed past his attackers, shoving them violently aside, narrowly missing the blades that slipped from their sheaths to hunt for his flesh. He bolted past the tables, flung himself towards the door, out and away to vanish in the night and snow. The soldiers gave chase, rushing back out after him and leaving the aftermath to the inn.
Within a moment, all of Revi’s guests were gone. Some muttered apologies. Others offered looks of sympathy. Every one of them rose and slipped out through the door and away from the inn. The soldiers would return. The soldiers always would return. But perhaps they had not noticed them, had not marked their faces. So it was that Revi found herself alone, sitting in an empty inn and waiting to see if fate meant to come calling.
It did not come. Not that night. The soldiers came back, empty handed and asking a thousand questions and breathing threats, but they did not act on them. When they left, she bolted her door and went to her bed and fell asleep, leaving the dishes and the cleaning until the morning.
The next day was quiet, devoid of guests and company. She cleaned and set the inn back in order. The day after that was much the same, and she gathered wood and made a little food in case someone should brave the winter and the danger of the Prince’s men. No one did.
On the third day, a few visitors came creeping back. Bram was the first, faithful if sheepish, though he did not stay long. Others came after, and each successive day brought more and returned things to the normalcy that had been before.
On the ninth day, the soldiers came back, asking more questions that could not be answered, and the cycle started over once again. The same happened six days after that, and then eleven days after that, and on and on. The shepherds and trappers and woodsmen who frequented the inn learned the pattern, such as it was, and most stopped avoiding the North Forest Inn in the days following such a visit.
There was the dog, too. It was a big creature, shaggy and grey and a little dirty. Revi found it on the steps leading up to the inn door almost a month after the soldiers’ first visit. She paused a moment and looked at it, eyeing the lanky canine before leaving it alone. It was still there when Bram arrived that night, and if a few scraps of food made their way outside, it might not have been by accident.
And the dog stayed. “I think he thinks he’s guarding you,” said Bram, chuckling a little to himself.
Revi grimaced. “He looks to me like he’s mostly just sleeping his days away,” she said, but giblets and dry bread crusts and other scraps continued to make their way to the porch. After a while, she wasn’t sure when, she even caught herself reaching down to scratch behind the animal’s ears when she passed by. And on a particularly cold night, she let the dog inside to sleep beside the fire.
“You seem to have warmed to him,” said Bram.
“Hush, you,” said Revi.
So it continued until the snow began to melt and the air began to warm. Almost two weeks had passed since the last visit by the soldiers, and Revi almost allowed herself to believe that things might return to the way they had been before. Bram came by less often, busy as he now was with traps and hunting, but when he did return he brought fresh meat and Revi welcomed him with open arms.
The dog had begun to look almost respectable, or at least as respectable as a shaggy canine could. He had no name; Revi only called him the Dog. Even without a name, visitors to the inn knew to expect him, and a few seemed to visit specifically to see him.
He would vanish now and again, disappearing for most of a day or even several days at a time. No one ever saw him go, and when Bram once tried to track him out of curiosity, he lost the trail before it led anywhere in particular. But he always came back, and it seemed wisest to consider it more a mystery than a puzzle.
Revi was outside the last time he returned. It was a warm day, the warmest yet that spring, and she had a tub of wash to hang up to dry. She had emptied half of it when the dog trotted up, bumping her hand with his nose as he went by and slipped inside the open inn door as if to hide inside.
The soldiers arrived only half an hour later. There were five of them marching in line behind the same sergeant who had led the first group during the winter. His eyes were still cold.
“Did you miss me, goodwife?”
Revi frowned. “No, I’m afraid I can’t say that I did. But what can I get for you?”
“The same thing I asked for the first time I was here, perhaps? You know where the man called Taire is.”
Revi stiffened as a chill spun its way down her spine. “I don’t, sir.”
The sergeant took a step towards her, and she only held her ground through a fierce act of will.
“I’m sure you do,” he said. “We’ve tracked him here.”
She swallowed once. “That can’t be possible. No one has come here since last night, and I know each of those men. None of them are called Taire.”
The sergeant stepped forward again until he fairly towered above her. “I’m not talking about last night, woman. He was in Kedon this morning, wreaking his havoc.”
“And I’m telling you that no one has arrived here today, not from Kedon or anywhere else,” said Revi. Her heart thumped and leaped in her throat, but she reached out to push past the man anyway.
He caught her her wrist in a tight grip. “I wonder,” he said. “Are you perhaps a sympathizer with his rebellion?”
She yanked her hand away and stepped back. “I know nothing of any rebellion,” she said.
The sergeant moved to follow her, only to stop as a sudden, deep bark sounded out from the door of the inn. The dog stood there, hackles raised and teeth bared, staring down at the soldiers with a ferocity in his eyes too intelligent to be only animal.
“A skin-changer,” hissed the sergeant, and he cursed. “Kill him!”
The five soldiers following him jumped forward, their blades out, bearing down on the single, shaggy creature. The dog barked again, then a third time, and he snarled and growled. He charged between the legs of the nearest man just as one of the swords flashed down towards him. He bounded back and forth, always keeping just inches away from death. He broke from the gang surrounding him and charged at the sergeant, gathering himself and leaping and bearing the man to the ground before snapping at the man’s neck with his teeth and bolting back down the path and vanishing down the road.
Three of the soldiers gave chase. Two stopped to help their fallen leader, taking him inside the inn and demanding that Revi render aid. She did so, enough to stop the bleeding and keep him alive until a more skilled healer could see to his needs. They took him away before the end of the day, commandeering a cart from a nearby farm so that they could take him back to Kedon more easily.
Revi never saw him again She never saw Eriat or the big dog again either, but months later a nameless traveler heading north spent the night at the inn and handed a folded letter to the innkeeper without more than a word or two of explanation. She read it later and exchanged a word or two with Bram the next night, and though neither one spoke of it after that, they would share a smile from time to time. Revi changed the name of the inn as well, though she never gave an explanation. Those who had frequented the inn during that winter, though, could guess why the sign that hung above the door was repainted with the image of a shaggy grey canine.