He’d decided to stop at the inn for the evening, because that was where you were supposed to stop. Everyone knew that. Adventures always started in an inn, or a tavern, or, at the utter least, somewhere that served halfway decent beer.
But, because he wasn’t an idiot, it was also the inn two towns over. No-one started off on an adventure by going to a place where everyone knew them, after all.
He’d almost lost his nerve when he’d walked through the door – the place had been so loud and bright and crowded compared to the little tavern in the village – but sheer determination had made him press on, even if his rough clothes and heavy pack drew more than a few sideways looks and half-hidden smiles from the more worldly-looking patrons.
And he’d even managed to order a drink, though the barkeep’d made a crack or two about how he seemed a little young for strong ale (wasn’t his fault his voice was higher than he’d like, and the vague attempts he’d made at emulating stubble with coal-ash had just left him looking like he’d not washed his face for a few days).
Which meant he was now sitting in the corner, pack tucked under his chair, hands clamped resolutely around a tankard of dark ale, waiting for his adventure to make itself known.
It probably wasn’t going to be obvious, of course. That’d be far too easy. But there’d be something.
He looked around, eyeing the other patrons. Could it be one of them?
Some of them certainly seemed like a likely enough bet.
Take the figure in the corner by the fire, for example: dark well-fitting leathers which’d obviously been worn in but were just as obviously not exactly cheap, a pair of short swords laid out on the table next to them in plain leather scabbards, and a leather hood pulled down enough that their entire face was in shadow. And sitting on their own, not talking to anyone, with a tankard next to them that looked like they’d not even touched it yet.
Or what about the pair by the bar? They neither of them looked all that much older than him – dark-skinned, red-headed, with slightly pointed ears and bright laughing eyes. They looked almost identical, though the girl had a long scar cutting through the side of her short hair that’d taken off the tip of her left ear, and her leather armour looked a little newer and less battle-scarred than the boy’s. The two of them seemed to be engaged in some sort of argument, though they were far enough away that he couldn’t make out what it was about, other than the girl seemed to be winning.
There was another argument going on at one of the tables closer to the centre of the room – a burly woman in a sleeveless jerkin with a sledgehammer slung on her belt was on her feet, gesticulating with a tankard at her companion, a smaller, slender woman in green robes with silver thread woven into her dark plaited hair. The woman in green seemed unimpressed by her friend’s theatrics, though she was smiling slightly all the same.
They could be his adventure, he supposed, but they seemed rather more tied up in their own story, as did the twins. No, the person in the corner seemed like the most likely suspect. Though he’d no idea how you went about approaching someone for this kind of thing. ‘Hello, I’m off to seek my fortune, are you looking for a bodyguard/adventurer/similar?’ didn’t really feel like it would work, after all, even if it was what he wanted to say.
“Ahoy there. This seat taken?”
He blinked, suddenly aware that he wasn’t alone at the table any more. “I don’t- I-”
“Perfect.” The new arrival dropped down in the chair across from him, setting their mug down on the table with an audible thunk. “You alright? You look like you just got a spar dropped on your head.”
“I’m… fine.” He winced, coughed, and dragged his voice lower. “I mean, I’m fine. I’m not from around here, is all.”
“That’s obvious.” They grinned, showing sharp white teeth. “Tamarind Ashgrove. Tam, for preference. And you are?”
“Caleb. Caleb Brewer.” He offered his hand – the new arrival took it, gave it a hard, firm shake, as though testing a knot in a rope, and nodded. “I’m off to seek my fortune.”
“Y’know, I thought you might be.” They must have caught his expression, because they sighed, rolled their eyes, and ran a hand through their cropped hair. “Right, let’s get this over with. I’m a girl. That’s what you were wondering about. Am I right?”
“…Yes.” He hadn’t realised the question he’d been wanting to ask had been so obvious. “I’m sorry. I was wondering if you were-”
“Like you? No. Thought I might be, for a bit, but no.” She pulled a slight face. “Sorry. This is awkward as hell, isn’t it?”
“A bit.” He’d been hoping it wasn’t that obvious, but… “Um.”
“Only reason I figured it was the fact I’ve done similar, Caleb. You’re fine.” She looked around, obviously looking for another topic of conversation. “Let me guess. You’re looking for an adventure, aren’t you?”
It wasn’t as though he could deny it. “Yes. I was thinking it might be… whoever that is.” He nodded towards the hooded figure in the corner. “But I’m not sure, now.”
Tam laughed. “Rethan? Yeah, that’d not go so well. He’s a decent enough fellow, but he doesn’t take all that kindly to being interrupted when he’s brooding. You’d have better luck if you go talk to him tomorrow.”
“You know him?”
“Aye. We’re… kind of in the same business. Not really a guild, not really a mercenary company, but something a bit like.” She frowned, obviously thinking something through. “Point of fact, we’re running short of hands at the moment. Can you swing a sword at all?”
“Yes.” Which… wasn’t exactly true – he’d practiced a time or two with his brothers, but not nearly enough that he was confident with a blade. But at the same time, this was starting to sound more and more like an actual adventure just falling into his lap, and he wasn’t about to let it get away just because he’d not got enough experience yet. On the other hand, lying about his combat ability probably wasn’t that good an idea either. “Though I’m better with a staff, or my fists.”
“Good enough for me. Know any magic?”
“A couple of charms to stop milk going sour. And one for keeping fences up.” He winced. “I don’t think they’ll likely be that much use to you, though.”
“Not much, but we’ve Ariane for that. Though it’d be nice to have another mage someday.” She raised her voice. “One who’s not got her nose in a book quite so much.”
The woman in green looked over, raising her hands in mock surrender. “I admit it, I am a terrible person. I read. The horror!”
“Yes, an’ that’d be funny if you’d not nearly got my head stove in over a book.”
Ariane looked back up at the woman in the short-sleeved jerkin, quirking an eyebrow. “It was the only copy left in the kingdom, Dana. It wasn’t something I could just pick up in a shop. And I said I was sorry. And I bought you a new hammer.”
“Doesn’t balance as well as the last one,” Dana grumbled, but she seemed somewhat mollified. “Who’ve you got there, Tam?”
“New blood. His name’s Caleb.”
“Looks like a farmboy.”
“That’s because he is. He’s come seeking his fortune – we need more people, and I like the cut of his jib. And he’s looking for adventure. I reckon we can provide that.”
Dana shrugged. “If you like him, and the Captain says yes, he’s in.” She rolled one muscled shoulder. “Though you’d best not make a habit of taking in strays.”
“I’m not a stray!” His voice cracked, louder and higher than he’d meant it to be, and he sank lower in his seat as half the bar turned to look at him.
But Dana grinned, exposing sharp fangs jutting from her lower jaw. “He’s got fire, at least. I like him more already.”
Tam elbowed him in the ribs. “There. Dana likes you, so you’re halfway to being part of the crew already.”
“What did she mean about the Captain?”
“Ah.” And Tam’s grin wavered a little. “So. When I said we weren’t a mercenary company, I… wasn’t entirely telling the truth. We’re what’s left of a mercenary company. Me, Rethan, Dana, Ariane, the twins-” she nodded to the pair of redheads at the bar “-Talan, and the Captain. And you, I suppose, if she likes you enough to add you to the roster.”
There was something she wasn’t telling him, he was sure of it. But at the same time, this seemed like too much of an opportunity to let slip by. “So. How do I convince the Captain that I’d be a good fit?”
“We go and see her.” And now Tam definitely looked uncomfortable. “And then we find out.” She sighed. “Assuming she’s even going to talk to us right now.” She took a swig of her drink, frowned, then pushed back her chair. “Come on. Let’s get this over with, before I completely lose my nerve.”
Copyright © 2018 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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