The sounds of an argument roused me from my slumber. While certainly a disagreement in a Tavern is not news, lately, sleeping there, at least, isn't either. Ignoring the raised voices for a moment, I tried to concentrate on my priorities. Like, how much wine did I have left? I fumbled for the bottle in front of me, hopefully, nearly knocking it off the table. Sadly, it was empty. How much money did I have? Also, none.
I sighed. Sooner or later the barkeep would notice me and I would be back on the street. Life isn't easy for an unemployed caravan guard.
Maybe I can find work as a bodyguard, I thought, considering my sheer bulk, someone would have to believe I am as imposing as I look. At least I still have my sword.
With a slightly panicked grab, I felt for my scabbard. Still there. Although it was made of a metal better suited to pots, it WAS a sword. Many didn't even have that much and resorted to using clubs.
The argument intruded on my misery again, as it was getting noticeably louder. Oddly enough, the shouting all seemed one-sided, like a man arguing with himself. I leaned around the ell-shaped room's corner to see what was happening.
"Now, THAT isn't something you see everyday," I muttered to myself, smiling. The only occupants of the Tavern at this late an hour were a drunken lout, not me... ANOTHER drunken lout, and a Noblewoman. Not that I hadn't heard stories of Noblewomen whose preferences ran to unclean, unshaven drunken bar patrons, I just had never run into one. Not that I wouldn't LIKE to, you know.
This Lady was obviously nothing like that. She was regally tall, with short-cut gray hair, wearing an elegant, though simple dress. Her poise suggested somehow that she was accustomed to the weight of a crown. Standing with her arms crossed, she faced a very drunken man, who lounged half on, half off a stool tilted precariously against the wall. It was he that was responsible for all the shouting. Even just these few feet from them, I could barely hear her responses.
"Really, Rando," she said, calmly and hardly above a whisper, "I don't think you know nearly enough about my parentage to make such claims. That however is not the point. Once again, you were hired as a guide and guard, to get my husband and myself to Shilla safely. Not merely as far as your favorite pig sty of a watering hole."
"Hey!" the drunk objected, tilting his chair back from one leg to another, never quite losing his balance. "The barkeep's a friend of mine! Don't call him a pig!"
"Actually, I didn't." Somehow I got the distinct impression that she had called for the Headsman to silence less offensive louts. "I called YOU a pig. The barkeep may take his place as the swineherd."
Somehow, even through my wine-muddled senses, I got the impression that something just wasn't right about this. Several questions came to mind. Why would a Noble woman be in such a lowly bar this late? Where WAS that thrice-damned barkeep, anyway? What was it about that drunk that just didn't ring true?
By the Gods, I could use a drink! Then I remembered how I had fumbled for the wine bottle that turned out to be empty, and it struck me.
What drunk could balance on two legs of a barstool? He had to be faking how drunk he was.
This was a set-up.
Sure enough, as if on cue, the barkeep appeared from the back room. He moved silently but the glint in his hand wasn't from a bottle. He held a dagger!
Somewhere deep inside my guts rose a feeling that I needed to do something. My eyes strayed to my pot-metal sword. No thanks; I barely knew how to hold the weapon.
What I needed was a plan.
"What I really need is a drink," I muttered almost silently.
I picked up my empty wine bottle and staggered--very little real acting was involved--to my feet and started singing.
"The Sohni girl had big black eyes.
"The biggest pair I've ever seen..."
I crashed noisily around the corner towards the Noble woman. She turned her back on the drunk and the treacherous barkeep. Uh, oh. This wasn't going quite the way I had planned it.
"Barkeep!" I shouted, pointing my empty bottle towards the shadow. "Stop lurking in the shadows, and get a man a drink!"
Both the acrobatic drunk and the Lady turned towards the Barkeep.
"I thought you said we were alone," the drunk said, coldly to the fat Innkeeper. Suddenly, he didn't sound all that drunk anymore.
The barkeep shrugged.
"Look at the size of him!" he explained. "After he passed out, it would have taken four of us to throw him out. Don't worry, I will get rid of him."
The interplay between these two was not lost on the Noble. Whatever else you can say about her, she wasn't stupid. Slowly, she began edging away from the pair, towards the door.
"Forget it, Sweets," the barkeep leered, noticing her motion. "The door's barred until we finish our business."
"Barkeep!" I roared, stumbling closer, putting the slight frame of the Noble Lady protectively behind me. "What do I have to do to get that drink!?"
I brandished my empty bottle drunkenly.
"Careful with that, sot," the barkeep sneered, "Rando might not look like much, but he's the best swordsman in the kingdom."
Rando smiled at the compliment and crossed his arms, exposing the hilt of a sword. Even my untrained eyes, I could tell that HIS sword was not made from a pot.
I turned back to the barkeep.
"Guess it's a good thing I never learned to use a sword then."
The bottle smashed against the side of the barkeep's head with a very pleasing crunch.
"Run!" I yelled to the Noble Lady, but she was already running... heading in the wrong direction! Toward Rando!
With one dainty slippered toe, she delicately kicked the carefully balanced stool out from under him. He collapsed with a crash, splintering the stool, but doing no real harm.
"Lady, I'm no swordfighter!" I hollered, at a loss as to how to proceed. So much for plans!
"Then fall on him!" she yelled, the first I had heard her voice over a whisper.
Nice voice, I thought.
Obediently, I threw all my weight directly on top of Rando.
After a moment, I slowly got back to my feet, expecting Rando's blade to slide between my ribs any second.
"I'd say he's out of the fight." The Noble Lady was bent over Rando, peeling back one eyelid. He seemed to still be breathing, but there was definitely no one home.
"We make a good team," Smiling, I hobbled towards the door, which opened easily at my tug.
"Thrice bedamned!" I shouted. "He lied! This wasn't locked. You could have run!"
"And miss all this fun?" she smiled at me and I swear for a moment, her smile was so bright, I forgot how much my shoulder hurt.
Although I really hadn't been much help in the bar fight, I gallantly offered to escort the Lady home. I guessed that such a classy would be staying in a fine Inn, and that means fine wine. No more cheap rice wine for me!
My hopes faded bit my bit, as we turned away from the avenue with quality Inns, and then passed without pausing at the medium quality Inns. Even the poor Inns went by without a comment from the Lady. We finally came to a halt in front of the Palace's garden gate.
"You are staying at the Palace?" I asked, dumbfounded. My stomach gurgled at the thought of the quality of wine served here.
The Lady deftly slipped the latch, opened the gate and waving me through. Then quietly shut it behind her.
"Not exactly," she frowned, and then hurried past me along the path.
In a clearing near a fountain was a small campfire, burnt mostly to ashes with a single blackened pot resting carelessly tilted on the coals. Two bedrolls had been laid next to the fire, one was occupied. Faint sounds of slumber escaped whoever was wrapped so tightly in what appeared to be several blankets.
"He seems safe," the Lady whispered, and then moved away a bit for privacy.
"Thank you for your help. I am afraid I wasn't expecting trouble from our own guide. Tomorrow I will start looking for another; as we still need to get to Shilla."
I glanced around the clearing. The campfire was small, true, but must have been spotted by the Palace Guards. Who could possibly be important enough to be left alone to camp on the King's doorstep, yet not be welcome to stay inside? Why not stay at an Inn? My curiosity was gnawing at my guts, like a ferret with a fish.
"Can't say I am busy, My Lady," I rubbed my chin. "As a caravan guard up and down these roads for my whole life, I think I would be a good guide. Never been as far south as Shilla, but at least you know from the fight, that I am trustworthy."
As she considered this and seemed carefully choosing her words, I suddenly caught a whiff of something VILE. I glanced around the campsite again, expecting from the smell, something like a forgotten corpse.
"Good Gods, what is that?" The odor seemed to be coming from the pot in the fire. Leaving the Lady, I bent over the pot and pulling out a rag from my pack, wrapped my hand against the heat. "May I?"
When I cracked the lid, steam escaped... along with an indescribable odor of old socks, seaweed and someone's forgotten barnyard boots?
"Um, is it a poultice?" I guessed. "Your companion has a bad rash? Perhaps an infected wound?"
The Lady frowned and the garden noticeably got colder. I shivered.
"Dinner," she responded, grimly.
"No! Really?" Curiousity was always my greatest weakness, so I dug a spoon out of my pack and stirred the murky contents of the pot. "What is in this? I think I see beans... cabbage?"
.... There is more of this story ...