The other end is the handle. If you plan to stab me in the back, make sure to do it right.
Even over the dull roar of so many voices he heard the rattle of the door swinging open to let yet another thirsty patron into the tavern. A glance up from the half-filled mug cradled in his hands let him take in the sight without seeming to be interested. A mercenary most likely, from the looks of his clothes; probably looking to hire on with one of the dozen or so merchant parties trying to make it over the passes before winter closed them. The worn look of his gear meant that he’d seen his share of adventures.
This time of year only two western passes remained open to the heavy wagons. There was still a chance to get mules up the slate wall, but those caravaners seldom hired mercs. It was too far from Amberleaf for the king to spare many men from his skirmishes in the East. Several bands of highway-men knew this all too well, and made a hefty profit from the merchants and caravaners. The few patrols of king’s men left in these parts couldn’t keep them out for long, and often there wasn’t much difference between the two.
A quick flip of the mercenary’s hand sent a coin sailing into mug of ale being carried along by the serving girl. She paused to dig it out, and settled for drinking the ale to retrieve the coin; much to the blustering protest of the man who’d been waiting for that very ale. Meanwhile the merc had found his own seat along the far wall, settling into a pose that let him keep an eye on the entrance as well as the stairs. Such habits are what kept men like that breathing. John silently chuckled as he realized he was the mirror of that mercenary, right down to the furtively unclasped dirk on his wrist.
He’d found the Twisted Frog like so many other inns along his more than twenty years of travels, by bribing a few local workers with the promise of a drink. Two ales had gotten him here, where he had a door that actually closed and locked properly and ale made from the mid-summer harvest. John had sat like this in so many inns that he couldn’t even begin to count them all. For the most part they all looked alike too.
The merchants favored the Prancing Pony down the street, and spent a lot of coin there. It always had a new coat of paint to dazzle the fat merchants, and watered ale to keep them sober enough to continue buying more of it. Let them have such places, John thought. An honest innkeeper was worth more than serving girls with overly stuffed bodices.
A trio of Dwarves walked in from the dying sunset outside, glancing around only long enough to spy the table in the alcove. They piled around it dropping heavy packs in the corner. One of them set a small coffer on the table. This was presumably the most expensive of the things they carried.
They were yelling for ales even as they argued over who would pay for them. The first mug for each was downed in one gulp while they savored the second one. A handful of the deep six coins were piled on the table for the girl to draw from as each round of drinks arrived. The six-sided coins, artwork in themselves, were common nowhere but the deep roads of the Dwarves. Strange for them to be bringing such tokens into the land of man. Stranger still to see them; Dwarves were never overly fond of the open world. She walked away admiring the image on it in the flickering lanterns.
John's attention was drawn back to the table on the far side of the room where a rather thuggish looking man was loudly demanding something from the mercenary seated there. The shouts were enough to draw everyone’s attention by now, and sure enough, the son came running in through the kitchen to break up the impending fight. In another few years he might have a chance, but for now the best thing to do was run for the guard when the thug’s sword came out.
Something just didn’t feel right to John. Unless this was a long standing dispute, there hadn’t been time for problems with the merc. It took him only another moment to spot the Bogrunner, cutting the strings on a belt pouch. Not an uncommon teaming.
“An’ I says you be Grenk, what owes me ten gold duckies. Now give em!”
“Get out of my face before I make you eat that dung sticker.”
Getting involved in the petty games like this one, were usually more of a hassle than any good he might bring. Still, this could quickly turn into a brawl that would remove any chance of a quiet night. John stepped toward the Bogrunner, letting the dirk slide down into his grasp. The mercenary’s insult was just now working its way into the thug’s brain.
“Dung sticker? I tell you this sword has a name! Choppy is gonna cut you in half.”
With a roar of rage the thug lunged across the table, sending the bowl of stew and mug flying into another man standing near. The merc’s sword came out in a flash, knocking the thug’s sword aside with ease. Even the Bogrunner was distracted enough by the burgeoning battle that he didn’t notice John behind him until the dirk pressed into his back. He was smart enough to take his hand off the other patron’s pouch.
By now the merc had the thug backed into a post at sword point, with the crowd closing in around them. Seeing his hopes of escape vanishing rapidly, the thug grabbed the lantern from the post to smash on the merc. Flaming oil splattered across him and the few people standing too close to dodge away. The thug ran through the door without a backward glance.
His departure sent a wave of people chasing after him, while others dumped ale on the flames. John glanced down to deal with the Bogrunner, only to find his dirk pointing to empty air. The small thief had slipped away in the confusion. With the flames drenched, and the thief gone, John returned to his waiting mug of ale. He had no sooner settled into the seat when the cry went up in the gruff voice of a Dwarf.
“It’s gone! Nobody move till we find it.”
For as short and stout as they were, the Dwarves could move surprisingly fast. The span of a few breaths had them shoving through the other patrons, menacing all with the heavy war hammers they favored. Broad heads that easily weighed a few stones tapered back to points that could shatter rock as readily as skulls. The leader grabbed the nearest man.
“You there, fat Human, let’s see what ya got in that pack.”
“It were that wench I tell ya, Ya saw how she craved that coin ya gave her. I told you it was fool to use them.”
“Yeah, you an’ wantin’ ta bed her did this.”
“Wait! It were there when the fire hit. That sell-sword went this way when the lantern broke.”
The three of them were surrounding the merc with hammers poised, when the guard bustled in the door. The son followed in behind, looking around at the new situation. The two guardsmen didn’t hesitate to place their swords between merc and Dwarves.
“What happened to that guy?”
“You mean that brute? He took off after trying to burn down the inn. Right now I got these rock bellies trying to ruin my dinner.”
“That filthy Human stole it.”
The barb hit home with the guard, and he turned on the Dwarf. “Watch who you’re calling filthy granite brain. We didn’t crawl out of some hole under a rock. One more word like that and I might just haul you off to the hole we got for troublemakers.”
“Try it and you’ll have a flat skull to match your brain.”
One of his fellows seemed to have a better feel for the situation, and urged the first Dwarf. “Easy Fen’ore, we need to find it. Can’t do that from the stockade.”
“Aye, You’re right Bas’dil, but that one has it I know.”
“I don’t have your, whatever it is. Might try looking at your ugly pal there. He never left the table.”
The third Dwarf spoke up. “How would ya know I was there?”
“Because you kicked me when I stumbled past to the bar.”
“That’s cause I didn’t want ya near it.”
A third man, wearing the town guard tunic with shoulder ribbon for Sergeant walked in the door. Immediately the first two straightened a bit taller. The older one spoke first.
“These here rock bellies claim they lost something. They trying to claim this guy took it too.”
“The proper term for them is Dwarf, and that one bears the crest of Deep Hammerfell.” Turning to the lead Dwarf he continued. “You, What are you laying claim to having been stolen.”
“A coffer about yea big.”
“What was in it?”
“A small trinket, nothing of great value.”
“Really? And how will I know if I see it?”
“How many Dwarven coffers ya think are runnin’ around this dirt scrabbling hovel? Ya find one and it’s got to be the right one.”
It took only a few words from the first guard to convince the merc that dumping his pack was the best way to prove himself innocent. It wasn’t hard to see that it contained only the normal assortment of traveling needs, and a couple of odd little items that bore no resemblance to a coffer.
Satisfied that the merc wasn’t their thief, the guards expanded the search to everyone else. John readily obliged them with the simple contents of his own pack. The only real difference between his and the mercenary’s pack was the thick journal he kept. It was filled with letters to his dear Velimina; letters that never left those pages. They even looked through the kitchen, drawing angry glares from the Dwarves as they stopped long enough to sample the roasting goat. The innkeeper was happy to feed them if it meant keeping the peace.
With the fruitless search ending, the patrons wandered off about their business. Nobody was upset with the outcome, except the Dwarves. They had no recourse other than to grab a small keg and retire upstairs to their room. At this point nothing escaped their angry complaints, from being charges for the keg to stairs built for Human sized legs.
Most of the patrons, being local town folk, decided it was time to head home. This left only a handful of travelers, including Dwarves, to sit around muttering about thick skulled Dwarves. John sat back down to find his stew had cooled enough to congeal. Goat was not his favorite, but owner's wife had made this stew taste better than any of the others he'd had. The down side of less glamorous places was that the menu was limited; what they had cooking was what was on the menu. Not that a menu even existed.