The sun had vanished behind the mountains by the time we arrived at the city gate. We had pulled our cloaks’ hoods up and had joined in with the line of people, carts, and wagons waiting to enter the city. Vall and I talked a little, but we spent most of our time looking around, and trying to avoid stepping in animal droppings.
Finally, we were the next to enter the gates. A burly human, clad in chainmail and carrying a longsword at his left side, looked us over. “State your business in Grey’s Hall.”
So that was the name of this place, I thought. “We are travelers.”
“And this one?” He pointed to Vall. She had pulled her cloak close, so her face wasn’t clearly visible.
“She is my mate,” I said.
“Hm.” He reached into an open bag at his waist, and extracted two coins. “These are your traveler’s tokens. Keep them with you at all times. The fee to stay is a dragon each.”
“A dragon?” I glanced at Vall.
“Gold coins,” she whispered.
“Oh, yes.” I lifted my coin pouch from my pocket, shook out two gold coins, and handed them to the guard.
“Thank you,” he turned to another guard, who took the coins and dropped them into a small strongbox. He handed each of us a token. “Off with you, now.”
“Yes, thank you.” I put my arm around Vall, and we walked through the gate into the city. The first thing I noticed was the smells. Fresh animal shit competed with wood smoke for dominance, but someone was baking bread nearby, too. I wrinkled my nose. “This isn’t the forest.”
“No, it isn’t, Vall said. She pointed to the right. “We need to get out of the middle of the street. Make sure you tie your coin pouch tightly, and watch for pickpockets.” She had told me of these things as we walked, so we had pulled our cloaks tightly about us to discourage pickpockets.
“Where are we going?”
“We need to eat, rest, and get information,” Vall said, leaning close to me to be heard on the crowded street. We walked onward for maybe fifty paces, and then she pointed. “There.”
I saw a sign hanging from a wall just ahead of us. The buildings here were at least three stories tall, and made of stone and wooden timbers. Lanterns hung from poles at regular intervals, and the sky was indistinct from all of the lights. I found it disorienting.
“Come, Ornthalas!” Vall tugged at me, and I followed her up the street. She weaved her way through the crowd, and we arrived at the doorway we sought. The sign proclaimed the place to be the Fox and Crow Inn, with the creatures drawn on it for the illiterate, I supposed.
The inn was somewhat like the eating house at home, only much larger, and much busier. Vall took my hand and led me to a booth against a wall, and near the door. The noise level was incredible, with fifty or more people all talking and calling out at once. We pulled off our packs, and I set mine on the bench beside me, and arranged my bow and sword scabbard so I could sit.
Near the bar, a group of dwarves were sitting at a table, singing something while they pounded the oaken table with their steins. Another group was gathered around a raised stage at the far end of the room, where someone was singing and playing some instrument while another person danced beside them. A trio of elves, merchants from their clothing, sat at the booth next to us, talking quietly among themselves.
Weaving through the throng, a dozen barmaids expertly dodged the customers while carrying trays of food and drink. One of them approached us after a moment. “What will you have?”
“Stew, bread, and ale,” I replied.
“The same, except I want wine,” Vall said. “We also need a room for the night.”
“The meals are a drake each, and you’ll have to see the man at the desk for the room. I’d hurry, because we fill up fast this time of year.”
I pulled out another gold coin, since it was all I had.
“I owe you eight drakes,” she said, taking the coin with a smile and turning away to fetch our food.
“Odd names for coins,” I muttered. “I will go get us that room.” Vall nodded, so I stood and walked over to the desk. The innkeep was an older half-elf, and he looked unsmilingly at me as I approached. “Help you?”
“A room for me and my mate for the night.”
“One dragon per night, includes a bath and towels.”
I nodded, and took out another gold coin. He dropped the coin into a box, and handed me a brass key on an iron ring. “It’s three dragons if you lose the key. You’re in Room Five.”
“Thank you.” I took the key, and returned to my seat, and smiled at Vall as I sat down. “I got us a room with a bath, but it’s a gold piece per night.”
Vall sighed. “We have enough for a while.”
We had counted what Nilyn had given us; we had a hundred gold coins that we had split between us. Some were in our purses, and the rest was in our packs. I had even secreted three coins in the bottom of my quiver.
The barmaid brought our food and drink, along with eight silver coins adorned with inscriptions different than those of the gold coins we carried. I slid four of them to Vall, and I dropped the four I kept into my coin pouch.
We ate quickly, since we were both hungry, and eager to be away from the noisy taproom. The meal was reasonably good, and I ate all of what was set before me. Vall did the same, and, when we were done, Vall sat back with a sigh. “I will sleep like a baby with all of that food.”
“Are you too tired for a bath?”
She shook her head with a smile. “No.”
I stood and collected my gear. “Let’s see about our room, first.” Vall followed me up the wooden staircase to the upper floor. The rooms were numbered by engraved signs on the doors. I opened the door with the key, and pushed it open. The furnishings were more ornate than what I had at home, with carved corners to the wardrobe, and more woodwork on the bed’s headboard and footboard.
A thick, woven rug covered about a quarter of the wooden floor, and a tiny table and two chairs completed the furnishings. The table held a pile of four neatly folded towels with a piece of paper on top. I picked up the paper, and read that the bathhouse was down the back steps, reached from the hallway. “The bathhouse is downstairs in the back,” I read out loud.
Vall nodded while closely examining the door. “It seems sturdy enough, she proclaimed. “Put our packs in the wardrobe, and I will set a ward on the door.”
“What’s a ward?”
“It’s a magical trap,” Vall explained. “Anyone who opens it will ... well; we will know who it was, let’s just say.”
I grinned. “That’s a good spell to know.” I set both of our packs in the wardrobe, but I kept my sword with me. Vall spoke a few words, and waved her hands at the door in an intricate pattern. Some runes glowed redly on the door for a moment, and then they faded.
“There,” she announced. “Just don’t forget to let me open it.”
“I won’t,” I promised.
We gathered up our towels, and set off for the bathhouse. The back stairs were steep and narrow, and we made our way down them more by our vision than by the dim lanterns that hung from the walls at the top and bottom of the stairs.
The bathhouse was made of stone, with a half dozen rooms closed off by lightly constructed wooden doors. The first three were occupied, so we took the fourth one. Inside, we found a stone bathing tub, flanked on both sides by slatted wooden benches.
We sat down on the benches to remove our boots, when the door opened. A young girl peered in at us. “Just pull the chains for water,” she explained. “Hot is the right one, and cold is the left.” We looked to see a an odd, flat spout with small holes set at head height on one end of the tub, with a pair of chains hanging from the ceiling next to them.
“Thank you,” Vall said, and the girl closed the door. “Oh, here is some soap,” she said as she lifted a bowl on the tub’s rim. “And what I’m guessing are washing cloths.” She peered into the tub. “I don’t see a stopper in the drain, so I’d guess you stand under the water to wash.”
“What an odd way to bathe,” I said as I laid my sword and baldric aside and stripped out of my clothes. “Why not just have a tub?”
“I don’t know,” Vall said. “I have heard of these baths, but I have never used one.” She stripped out of her clothes, and stepped over the low wall into the tub. She pulled the hot water chain, and stood to one side as the water poured out in many small rivulets, instead of a single stream. “Ow, that is hot.” She pulled on the second chain. “And that is very cold.” So...” She pulled both chains at the same time, and gingerly put her leg under the spray. “There, that’s nice. Hot, but not unbearable.”
I stood and watched as the water sluiced over her green skin. She turned toward me, and her breasts became visible, standing proudly with their large, dark nipples on her chest. She was beautiful, and I felt my erection rising as I stared at her.
“Help me bathe,” Vall asked with a smile. “I will hold the chains.” She lifted her arms over her head and grasped the chains in both hands.