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Brand's Tavern

By this time I had met Brand several more times (sans belt or armor, of course, which we kept concealed in the hut's ``safe'' beneath the hearth). He apparently ran a rather disreputable - or perhaps I should better say ``notorious'' since it supposedly had a rather widespread reputation - tavern at a crossroads that lay at the base of the path from the cliffs, isolated from creni by the hills. The creni did not like rocky hills and steep places because of their extreme bulk and their rather fragile bones. Also, their primary food source was a plorna; that was another saurian (I later learned that it was a kind of iguanodon - I think) that was nocturnal and lived on the savannas and grassy hills. Not that a crena would turn its snout up at goat. Or human.

It is interesting to note that the creni and plorni and other leftovers from the Jurassic or Cretaceous period on Earth are both homeotherms (warm-blooded) and not poikilotherms (cold-blooded). There was speculation about this back on Earth, I recall, although I'm definitely not a paleontologist and books on dinosaurs are one thing I didn't think to take.

As a physicist, though, I know that the giant reptiles have a very poor surface-to-volume ratio (which goes roughly as the square to the cube) and they do not sweat. Heat is generated proportional to muscle mass, that is volume, but lost proportional to surface area. Large animals do often have problems with heat control and spend a lot of time cooling off (think elephants or hippos in the river) or at least not moving around any more than they have to in the heat of the day.

I suspect that is why the large carnivores are primarily nocturnal; in the generally warm climate they do not need sunlight to raise their body temperature (and hence metabolism) to the point where they can feed, but they shed surplus heat so slowly that they can run down prey only when it cools off. They like to be near water and soak themselves down if possible before chasing prey. Cool, rainy days are also dangerous days to be caught in the open plains, as sometimes they wake up and feed, especially on a gravelly surface and not slippery mud. However they don't seem to ``like'' pouring rain any more than any other land animal.

It seems worthwhile to give you a bit of what I'd learned either from my observations or from conversations with Arto - some of this is enhanced with precise knowledge I acquired much later from other sources.

Mirath (as the planet was known) has little axial inclination and the only ``seasonal'' cooling and heating occurs on the cycle of the world about the gas giant, Malo. The biggest variation in climate came from the orbit of Mirath about Malo, which brought Mirath considerably closer to the sun and then considerably farther away, but did so uniformly by latitude as its orbit lay almost precisely in the plane of the sun and Malo. The seasons therefore follow the cycle of a revolution around the ``big moon'' - a period of time called a ``maloon'' - with only a bit of superimposed variation from the eccentricity of Malo's orbit around Streya, the sun.

This meant that the seasons were pretty much synchronized with the phases of the gas giant. Dry and comfortable in the day but cool at night in the first quarter. Dry and hot in the second quarter. Hot and humid in the third quarter. Cooling and monsoon-rain in the fourth quarter. The poles were icebound and stable, the tropics were warm and stable, and the temperate zone remained temperate, as the ``seasons'' were at most 10 or 12 days long with little deviation of the jet stream, which didn't permit any really major variation in temperature.

The cool edge of the temperate zone and the great savannas were essentially dinosaur country. When Malo was in its waning or new moon phases and Mirath was farthest from Streya and hence at its coolest phase) the creni tended to roam earlier in the day. Because of the creni and the crenali3.1, successful human habitat was confined primarily to coastal plains ringed by hills, islands, and mountainous areas in general, not too far from the equator. Even in these areas a perpetual holding action was fought that allowed crops to be raised and lives to be lived in relative safety, although creni hide, teeth, claws, and other parts were worth enough economically that they were hunted fairly aggressively near civilization, in spite of the considerable risk involved.

Another difference between creni on this world and the allosaurus on our world is that the creni are actually quite intelligent. Say about the level of dogs or wolves on earth, and, like the wolves, they like to hunt in teams or even packs. This is the primary reason that humans, violent and dangerous as they are, had not managed to drive them to extinction. Think ``Jurassic Park'', but with a continent's worth of smart, big, hungry lizards against men armed with iron-tipped arrows and crude swords and you'll have a bit of the idea. Caravans go heavily armed, and the creni along their routes have (mostly) learned that attacking a caravan is a bad idea - there are easier prey and they tend to avoid them unless they are starving. Travelling alone, on the other hand, was very dangerous and involved going by day in the hottest phase (when creni would often lay up in or near water and just not eat for for a couple of weeks) and hiding in some crena-proof shelter at night.

We were incredibly lucky in that first fight with them, as I learned later. The first one was running us into an ambush by the second one when we by pure chance found that short pathway up the side of the ravine that saved our lives. If we'd run another fifty meters in the direction we were being herded we would have been dead and gone two quick bites later, and as soon as the ambusher had seen where we were it moved quickly to trap us there while its partner worked on the goats.

Basically, creni that succeed in cornering humans as we were cornered almost always kill them, because they are virtually impossible to kill with the local weapons and are both patient and cunning, quite capable of pretending to go away only to appear out of nowhere when their target tries to go on their way. They are usually trapped or poisoned, but are smart enough to avoid most efforts at both. Their only redeeming social value was that they were rare (top of the food chain) in the equatorial zone and that they kept the human population low by limiting their habitat. This world is not overcrowded by any means.

Brand's tavern, The Grinning Shark3.2, was frequented by the rough fishermen who took their boats out on the bay at the risk of being eaten themselves by the various large and toothy inhabitants of the seas of this world. They (the fishermen) liked to drink, and wench and fight. Not necessarily in that order.

They had plenty of opportunity, according to Arto. Soldiers of the Ushti kingdom to which Sind, or Sind-a-Lay (Sind of the Sea) belonged moved along the highland roads and also stopped at the Shark to drink, fight and wench. Merchants and their caravans occasionally stopped there for a last quick one before Sind itself and thirsty business. From everything Arto told me in his ribald stories of the place, it was no place to go if you couldn't defend yourself.

But it kind of sounded like fun, for all of that.

Now, I started with a few minor advantages. First of all, I'm pretty tall (6' 2", which is even taller relative to the mean height of about 5' 2" on pre-medieval Mirath - I was basically ``a giant'') and by that time I was in pretty good shape. The lighter gravity also meant that I was stronger still, since I weighed what I last weighed in high school, while keeping all my highly advantageous mass. Second, I have a, well, call it a talent for fencing. I am one of those people that think, visualize in terms of patterns and flows. It's one reason that I love physics. But it also means that I am quite good at visualizing the flow of directed and redirected forces and rules that swordplay requires. To me, fencing is fluid, a response so rapid that I literally am me and not me, I think and don't think, I enter a state that is no state when I fence.

Miyamoto Musashi understood it, or at least named it. Call it Void.

When that special madness strikes, I (or not-I) am nearly invincible. The only fencing match I have lost since high school (in the NCAA finals, that last year) was lost not because I was better or worse than my opponent. I lost because, curiously enough, my opponent wore garish yellow shoes to fence in. They had little silver tassels and glitter glued onto the toe. They fascinated me because they looked so ludicrous; I quickly went three points down and though I tied the score at four apiece I couldn't prevent him from winning. My usual trance-like concentration was broken.

It was educational in more ways than one. I learned a good trick to try against a skilled swordsman, if I should ever come across one at a time when I happen to have a pair of yellow shoes, some glue and some glitter on me, and I also learned of my own mortality and limitations. One can never be as good as one could be without an awareness of one's ultimate vulnerability, and it had been too long since I had lost a match.

I had waited until I had good enough mail to (I hoped) turn a wrought iron-grade steel blow and had exercised to where I had developed a decent `wind' before trying The Grinning Shark. But now I had it, I was dressed, I could speak the language passably well and I felt like checking out the scene. I even had forty silver pieces or so left over from the crena teeth, as well as pennies, nickles, quarters, and dimes from earth in profuse quantities, each overvalued according to Arto as art as much as coinage. I had guessed that they would count as money anywhere primitive and had brought a hundred pounds or so (by weight, not currency) of them through the gate, so I was pretty rich.

I also had a little gold, most of Julie Eleven's jewelry (all I'd bought her but not things from her family, which went back to her family) and some gold coins that I'd purchased through the mail on good old Visa. I didn't really steal the credit, mind you. I'm sure the house and other chattels I left behind more than covered the debts.

My real wealth, of course, was the knowledge I'd brought with me, both in my head and on paper. If I could get established with the local political system I planned to convert some of that knowledge, and a little of my capital, into the local lucre as fast as I could. I viewed myself as a walking, talking, Industrial Revolution on a planet like this one.

So I put on my duds, packed away my earth things (except for my boots and my derringer and a few other oddments that I felt more comfortable having with me) and gave Arto explicit instructions about forgetting that my cache existed unless I met with a well verified and untimely end. I told him to bury the gun and ammunition in that event and he could have the rest. He nodded and got misty eyed over my trust and swore that we were brothers. I believed him.

So we went down together, a half-trained (and much heavier) Tara replete and asleep in her pack, to pay Arto's slave-bond off to Brand and then appropriately celebrate his consequent freeman status.

The tavern was about half full when we arrived, and it was smoky, but from the eternal cooking fires and a misbehaving chimney, not tobacco (which was unknown here). I learned later that night that marijuana and several other alkaloid-rich leaves were smoked, but not usually until long after dark when the evening was winding down.

Tavern wenches (mostly pretty ugly but good natured) served evaporation-cooled ale in the main room and favors upstairs. A large, heavily muscled man with dark skin and bands on his arms, a cudgel in hand and a massive scimitar-like sword at his side sat impassively on a stool watching the customers with a bored expression: the bouncer. If it weren't for the costumes, the customs, and the spit loaded with a savory-smelling young goat turning over the fire pit, I could have been in a college bar in anytown, USA.

I could even swear that I once saw this very same bouncer, or his spiritual cousin, in a bar that was a biker's haven, sitting in just that way, holding a club and with a magnum forty-four at his belt -- but no. It couldn't be. Don't ask me what I was doing at that particular bar, either...

Brand himself was behind the bar.

On catching sight of Arto he frowned, for it was a little early for him to return with the goats, and he ordinarily had no money to spend in the bar. He nodded at me, and as he caught a glimpse of the crena-skin and mail beneath my cloak, his eyes narrowed a bit in thought.

We strode on over to the bar and I said, ``Greetings, Brand. My brother here has some business to transact with you, but for myself I'd like an ale as cold as you can serve it.'' I loosened my cloak somewhat, then on impulse removed it entirely and rolled it so that it would fasten to my belt. My mail glistened dully, the heavy lizardskin armor shone with a carefully applied oil finish, but his eyes were riveted on the belt.

``Nice belt,'' he said, with a great deal of respect in his voice. ``Crena teeth. Might I guess that they came from the creni you killed?'' There was no trace of humour this time.

``They did indeed. Your man here,'' I indicated Arto, ``is skilled at working the leather and teeth while watching the goats. He made me this out of my share.'' I paused meaningfully, looking at Arto, who was suddenly shy.

``Your share, eh. Well, if the creni had the number of teeth that the last one I saw - from none too favorable a vantage, mind you - had, then I can guess your business with me, can't I young Arto.'' He looked down his beak of a nose at Arto, but I could see that there was laughter in his eyes.

``Uh, yes, master, I mean, uh, Brand, sir.'' Arto swallowed. ``I'd like to pay off my bond, if I may, sir.''

``Well, I can't really stop you, can I now. It is the law, after all, and you seem to have made friends with an enforcer. You have the fifty pieces of silver you are bonded for?''

``Here, sir, as my friend Sam counted them for me, they are.'' Arto pushed a large purse over to Brand that jingled. Brand opened it and stacked the pieces in five separate stacks of ten each. I had tried to teach Arto to count and do simple math, but we hadn't gotten much past ten and two plus two, and so forth. He did know that fifty was five tens, though, and smiled.

``Well, by T'sala, fifty there are. This calls for a drink and a bargain.'' He looked shrewdly at Arto, and turned to pour two large ales in tavern mugs.

``Bargain first, ale second'' I whispered to Arto, ``though he'll try it the other way around.'' Arto nodded.

Brand put the ales in front of us and picked up one of his own. ``Let's drink to the freeman Arto.'' I looked at Arto sideways.

``Uh, pardon, sir, but, uh, could we discuss the bargain first?'' stammered Arto, looking a little pale under his brown skin.

``Ho ho,'' crowed Brand. ``A canny bargainer who knows when to drink and when to talk. All right, my boy. You and Sally do a good job with the goats. Indeed,'' (and here he looked over at me out of the corner of his eyes) ``If you had a run in with two creni and lost only four goats and killed the bastards in the bargain, well, you do a very good job. Even with a little help. And you salvaged most of what was killed, which means you are a thinker. I'll tell you what ...'' He paused and considered a moment.

``I'll pay you a silver piece each maloon3.3 plus room and board when you are in town, as before. Entertainment comes out of your own pocket, but you may have one ale each little moon on the house on Moonday night if you're here. For this, you'll take care of the goats as before, but you'll also work harder to increase the herd. Some of the nannies haven't been properly covered in their season, too many kids have been lost to the shaking fever or crenali. See that the herd increases and do other chores as I require them and you'll get a bonus every year. That'll buy you your farm in time.''

Arto considered the offer a moment, all business now that his precious farm was mentioned. ``That'll do, for the moment,'' he said. ``But as I get bigger and stronger we'll need to reconsider the pay. I don't want to be ten years a-working for you, begging your pardon.''

``Aye, and we'll reconsider the work, too,'' retorted Brand. ``When you're stronger I'll find a better use for you and get a younger lad for the goats. But I think you're a year or three from your man's beard yet, my lad, and five or more from your farm. Well then, if it's a bargain, then drink up. Tonight the ale for the two of you is on the house, for the story of how you killed the creni. Never heard of such a thing. Not that,'' and he paused and winked at Arto, ``I didn't hear from Hassan when you came skulking around selling those teeth. He thought you might have stolen them, you see. From me. I had to assure him that you wouldn't commit such a fatal error and that as far as I knew the teeth were yours.''

Brand turned away to treat another customer, openly grinning now and shaking his head. I turned and raised my mug. ``Freeman Arto!'' I said in toast. It was echoed from here and there around the room, where many of the regulars had known Arto for years. For a moment the tavern paused, and everyone smiled and lifted a glass if it was full or called for more if it was empty. Arto was blushing furiously through his brown and lifted his mug to hide it. We all drank a deep draught together. The ale was rich, brown, and strong. It was also bitter and way too warm. It tasted wonderful, but I began to think about how long it would take me to ``invent'' the refrigerator. Let's see, tubing, alcohol, some sort of motor, a compressor ...too many years. First I had to build the tools to build the tools to build a refrigerator. Starting with a fortune and a safe political base.

Arto was obviously no stranger to ale. He drank steady and hard for a lad of fourteen with fuzz on his chin. After all, he was freeman Arto and the ale was free and both were a total rarity in his life. I was too interested in the tavern and its inhabitants to get totally plowed, and began to snack on a bowl of smoked meat, hard bread chunks, and nuts that Brand set before us. Maybe I was a little paranoid too.

Arto and I had agreed on a story for how I killed the creni, though he had been a little sulky when I told him that under no circumstances should he mention that I was a magician. Apparently magicians and wizards and the like were highly respected here and he wanted that for me. A book read is never wasted; I had read and reread ``A Thousand Nights and a Night'' over the years and for a while was secretly in love with Scheherazade, so I spun him a tale of a vendetta with an evil magician who was looking for me and my need to remain anonymous until such a time as it suited me. Arto lapped it up, and swore never to reveal my secrets and looked both secretive and mysterious all the while that we made up my cover story. I had to bite my tongue, but I managed not to laugh.

Don't get me wrong, I liked (and like) Arto. I just couldn't explain the truth, and a carefully crafted fib produced the same result that the truth would have, if he could have understood it. And, given the possibility that I was ``hiding'' from other, more experienced world walkers (``magicians'') I suspected that it might have been true.

I was wrong again, of course. Real magic was possible on Mirath in particular, because of its peculiar status vis-a-vis all the gates on it, and because I didn't anticipate (then) the possibility of five dimensional life forms that lived spread out across a whole bundle of nearby universes. Including certain humans - ones who have what we once called ``witch sight''. Physics in a higher dimensional space is projective magic in an embedded projective subspace. at least to the untutored eye.

So while Arto was regaling the crowd with this slightly modified story, having appropriated a table top as a stage the better to communicate, I was busy checking out the many interesting characters in the tavern. Arto had just gotten to the point where I had put the third arrow into the eyes of the second creni by moonlight (we simply bent the true story a bit, rather than make up a totally new one) when a scuffle broke out at a table in the corner.

People scurried off of the floor to the walls as a burly man sprang back from four men in leather armor and metal caps who brandished iron broadswords. The first to reach him swung and the burly man parried en quarte but failed to riposte with a thrust to the throat and instead drew his blade back to slash at the head of the other. The blow rang off of the iron cap of the assailant, bringing him to his knees, but then the others were upon him.

He disparately parried a blow apiece from two of them, then threw a stool that caught the third in the groin. As he crouched over involuntarily, and the one on his left jumped back, the big man swung on the other, who caught the blow on the thick base of his sword.

The big man's sword shattered.

The remaining two men smiled, revealing crooked and missing teeth. Truly, grins to frighten young children with. The two on the floor writhed about, a stream of curses coming from their lips. The big man pulled a dagger from his belt and backed up to the bar, grimly waiting to die. Blood dripped from a gash on his arm where a sharp fragment had struck it.

The four were in no hurry now. The other two picked themselves up and circled slowly. And then, well, I lost it.

It has always pissed me off when a fight wasn't fair. I know, it's really a stupid, survival threatening impulse. I try to resist it, but I rarely can, and this time was no exception. I realized what I was doing and the possible fatal implications only after I was standing next to the big man and handing him my saber. Julie was in my hand. And suddenly it was four to two.

Those really weren't very good odds, so I politely said to the big man, casually parrying a clumsy slash from the bravo on my right, ``Excuse me, but would you mind very much if I fought them alone? It makes me nervous to fight with someone next to me when I really let go.''

He looked at me as if I was slightly crazy, but then I was fairly duded up in my fancy mail, and I guess he hurt a little, because he stayed where he was when I took a careful pace forward. I took that as acquiescence.

I grinned at the four men who were facing me in a semicircle, unable to decide what had happened since their easy meat had grown teeth and a supporter. ``Give up?'' I asked, politely.

The one on the left and the one on the right attacked simultaneously. The middle two were a little crowded by each other and held back. My mind shifted into high gear. I saw the feet shift. I saw the weight sway forward. I saw them look at each other to try to synchronize their attack.

I had no such disadvantage. When the one on the right looked back at me, my point was gliding along his sword, delicately binding it as it spiraled through his guard and into his throat. I had never done this with a real sword. There's a lot of blood in a throat, especially when you slice through the carotid and a few other major vessels. One part of me was going to be sick later, but the controlling part exulted. It had lived a lifetime for that moment.

The second man, on the left, initiated his attack and tried to carry it through to reach my supposedly unprotected left side. However, as his sword whistled into my back, my back moved. And so did my blade. I didn't try to catch the weight of his sword, but as it swung by the space I had vacated I did a perfect lunge that skewered his heart in a single motion. I did an instantaneous recovery, sword en garde. I had no desire to be cut by the rusty blade of a dying man, so I politely paused until both of the men I had killed realized they were dead and dropped to the floor, twitching in their death throes.

I really should have offered surrender to the other two. I mean it would have been the sporting thing to do. But Tara, the little dear, was aroused by the smell of blood or something and appeared on my shoulder. She took one look at the two who stood, threatening me with their inner spirits (the part animals read, not the surface) and in a flicker was flowing down my side (walking on my ring mail) and flowing up the side of the one on the right, evading his clumsy cut with a blade as it it was standing still. She reached his throat and it exploded as she literally dug through his throat like a waring blender.

The blood lust still had me completely in its grip and as the remaining man stood there, paralyzed with horror and fear, his blade limp in his hand, I cut his head off. I didn't really mean to. I just cut at his head with the edge (which is unusual for me because I prefer the point) but Julie is sharp and she just slipped between his vertebrae like a knife through warm butter and his head rolled off his shoulders.

His blood spurted from his neck and sprayed me from head to foot. Some made it to the ceiling. It got in my eyes and a little trickled into my mouth. I stood alert, then gradually lowered my guard. I came to myself with blood everywhere. The four of them were in the middle of a widening pool of red. My stomach heaved and I vomited into the middle of the pool. I vomited again and again, until I was weak.

I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Arto, whose eyes were wide. Tara was at my feet, spitting at one and all, but making no move towards the others in the tavern. I managed a weak whistle (the only signal we had really learned together) and she retired to my shoulders, but sat there like an offended cat and complained, looking for wounds through my blood-covered hair with her little hands, claws sheathed. Arto pulled me over to the bar and pressed a mug of ale into my hands. I shuddered and took a long pull on it and spit it out into the sawdust on the floor. That helped settle my stomach. It also washed that faint metallic taste out of my mouth.

The burly stranger came over, looked warily at Tara, who was settling down a bit now that she realized that the threat was over and ``mama'' was unhurt, and took Julie out of my unresisting fingers. That is the one of the few times I've let a stranger has touch her (when I had a choice in the matter), but he was gentle, and I was too unsettled to care for her as she deserved. He reverently wiped the blood from her and washed off her handle in ale, then dried her with a clean rag. He then slipped both her and the saber back into the sheaths on my back, getting a slight cut on one finger when he moved his hands too close to Tara.

Meanwhile, Arto had brought a bucket of water and I cleaned my face off with a wet rag. I slipped off my mail and leather for him to clean.

The stranger lifted his mug in salute. ``My thanks, freeman. I have looked death in the eye before, but this time I thought she might actually kiss these lips.'' (Yes, they really talked this way, at least sometimes, and Rendar was somewhat of a romantic for all of his utterly practical approach to most of life.) He drank again, and this time I joined him. ``I am guard captain Rendar, at your service.''

``And I am Sam Foster. It was nothing. I just hate to see four attack one.''

``Aye,'' he laughed, ``And so you respond by attacking one to four. Strange odds, but after watching you I'd not take them. Two were dead before they knew they'd fought, the third died a unique and interesting death,'' he paused and looked meaningfully at Tara, who had stopped complaining and was starting to look hungry, ``And the fourth died mercifully quickly as well. If you hadn't killed him I'd have had his balls sewn in his untongued mouth, seared out his eyes with hot irons, and had him hung out alive on a gibbet for the crows to finish.'' He spat. ``I've no use for cowards and traitors.''

``I have no use for cowards, traitors, and would add politicians as well, friend Rendar. Yet they are the first men I've ever killed and were they the scum of the earth itself I think I'd still need this drink afterwards.'' I finished the mug, and somehow another appeared in my hand almost as if by magic. I looked sideways at the grinning Brand, who had raised an eyebrow in polite disbelief of my statement that I had never killed before.

A barmaid set down a bowl of milk on the countertop and Tara daintily descended my arm and started slurping noisily. The bodies were already gone, dragged off by the stoic bouncer (who had ignored the entire altercation) and two charwomen were scrubbing and sluicing the last of the blood off of the wooden planking, where it ran into the large cracks. From their bored expressions they had done it before. The tavern was full now, and business was booming. People kept looking over at me, the men nervously or respectfully or enviously, the women speculatively. It was really quite disturbing.

Rendar looked knowingly at me. ``If you worry about getting entangled in intrigue, let me put your heart to rest. They were just disenchanted bravos, mercenaries, that I was in the process of firing. They were caught asleep on duty four times, and then it was discovered that they were taking bribes from smugglers.'' he paused and smiled wryly, ``Without passing along the appropriate tithe to their superior, that is to say, myself. They chose to protest their firing from so lucrative a position and the argument grew heated.''

``I must go now. There are new guards to be appointed and Hassan must have a large shipment due tonight for the old ones to protest so strongly. I must be sure to properly brief the new guards on their duties.'' He bowed. ``I am in your debt. Please do not hesitate to call on me if you should get in trouble with any less than Brin or the prince himself. If you get in trouble with them you'll just have to die.'' He smiled and was gone.

Arto returned with my things clean and towelled dry, and helped me dress. I shudder to recall his worshipful expression. They view a great swordsman on Mirath the way we think of great basketball or baseball players on Earth. A hero is idolized during his day and remembered for a generation after.

The rest of the evening was a blur. I got more and more drunk, until I probably couldn't have held a sword, let alone used it. Tara, fortunately, returned to her bag to sleep off the experience. I turned down at least six propositions. The last two even offered to do it free, and one (at the time) wasn't that bad looking. Business must have been slow.

Arto finished the story of the creni, which generated a good deal more interest (and perhaps some belief) the second time around. Then he started right in on the saving of guard captain Rendar, which lost nothing in even its first telling (to those who came late and missed it, as well as those who were there at the time and chimed in with corrections and comments).

I began to nod, and then realized that I still needed a place to sleep. I gestured to Brand, who came over willingly enough. `` 'M sorry about the mess.'' I gestured. ``I real-(hic)-ly didn't mean to kill them. N'ver killed nobo-(hic)-dy b'fore.''

He looked over his nose at me, sober as a judge and clearly seeing a slightly drunk man. Well, maybe more than slightly. ``It's no problem. Happens all the time. In fact, you did me a favor. If Rendar had gotten himself killed in here there would have been hell to pay. They'd have closed me down or worse until I bribed the new guard captain.'' He frowned, ``I must have words with Gorgi. He is not too smart, but he should have known to stop that one.''

Then he smiled. ``So I owe you a favor too, though not as big a one as Rendar owes you. Mind that you don't collect from him too soon or too often. He'll find ways to do you good turns forever now if you let him, but if you ask favors beyond his patience. . .''

``Consider me repaid with good advice. And now, pray offer me some more good advice. I need a place to stay near town but not in it. Do you know of a good, reputable man who might rent me a room?''

Brand considered for a moment, his eyes scanning the tavern room. Finally his gaze came to rest on a grizzly old man, a fisherman by the looks of him, sitting alone in a corner. ``Try old Graber, over there. He's a fisherman with a small holding near the sea. He lives alone with his daughter; his wife died of a plague six years back. He is aging and needs new nets but his catches won't pay for them. Perhaps he will rent you room in his house, if he judges you as I have.''

``Thanks,'' I said, and paused, trying to clear my head enough to bargain a bit. When my hiccups passed I carried my mug and another over to Graber.

``G'd night, freeman Graber. May I join you and offer you an ale?''

The old man nodded assent gruffly and took a pull of the proffered mug with a dour expression on his face. We sat in silence for a few minutes, just drinking and watching the bustle of the tavern. Finally he squinted at me and asked, ``Well, what is it? Surely you don't want to kill me the way you,'' he paused, ``killed those damn fools. Or the creni your young man has talked about so often tonight. So what do you want?''

I looked him in the eye for a moment or two. He didn't flinch, but then, neither did I. I then said, slowly and distinctly, ``I need a place to stay. Brand recommended you. I will pay in advance and take my meals either with you or here, as you wish.''

``A place to stay, eh. Brand told you I had a place.'' He paused, as if in thought, but I could see his eyes drift over to the bar. I kept my back to the bar and my eyes on his face. Whatever he saw there satisfied him, because he looked back and said, ``all right then. You can have the loft. I'll show you some fresh straw for it. You'll need your own blankets, I've none to spare. If you eat with us, it'll cost you two coppers more a day. Otherwise, it's two silvers a maloon, paid in advance. When do you want to move in?''

``Tonight,'' I said. ``Now.''

``Fine,'' he said. ``Right after this mug. And one more thing.'' He gripped my arm with gnarled fingers like pieces of driftwood, worn smooth and etched rough again. ``Brand told you about my daughter?''

I nodded.

``Leave her be. If you bother her, I'll kill you dead, for all your fancy swords and dead creni. I've killed the great sharks, the sharedhi, and even a mala3.4. I can kill you, too.''

I looked him in the eyes again. ``You'll get no trouble from me. My plans carry me away from here soon enough. I've no desire to be tangled up with a woman when it comes time to leave.''

He looked at me carefully, then nodded. In a few minutes we rose together and went into the streets (with me trying not to weave too much), leaving Arto dead drunk in the middle of a table. Brand would take care of him. He liked the boy, and so did I. I also liked Brand.

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Robert G. Brown 2007-12-29