The next day brought weather just as miserable as before. Dryden sat beside Flint and Herthrim, his hands wrapped around a steaming mug of cider while rain rapped the roof of Gravenir’s tavern. Shutters flung open then clapped shut with each gust of wind. Water dripped through leaks in the ceiling and pattered against the bottom of buckets spread throughout the room.
The three were seated at the bar, a long slab of wood warped from years of spilt ale. Dryden took a sip of his drink, relishing the warmth it spread through his body. The wet hair clinging to the back of his neck did nothing to slow his shivering. It had been a long, wet ride to get here.
Gravenir stood at the far end of the bar, arms immersed in a tub of soapy water. He scrubbed dirty dishes with his back turned to the three.
Herthrim tipped his head and gulped the rest of his beer. He let out a long breath, wiped the foam from his chin, then frowned. “Gravenir is colder than a witch’s ember. We’ll be lucky if he uses more than three words in a sentence.”
Dryden cringed at the volume he spoke, though Gravenir didn’t seem to hear. Perhaps the rain muffled their conversation. He looked over his shoulder at five foreigners seated around a table, their dark eyes fixed on their plates of food. Every now and then they’d murmur something in their native tongue, then continue eating, seemingly unaware of the farmers’ presence.
Herthrim glanced at the men as well. His eyes narrowed. “I’ve got a mind to walk over there and demand some answers. This sitting around and observing isn’t getting much done.”
Flint brought his drink to his mouth. Steam wafted about the brim. “That’s because you have no eye for subtlety.”
Herthrim scowled. “Why’d you invite me then?”
“As a distraction.” Flint took a drink. “You’re so loud and clumsy, those men will never think you’re spying on them.”
Herthrim slapped his hand on the bar. “There you go making fun of me again. I’m not a moron!”
Flint grinned. “I never said you were. I said you’re loud.”
“And clumsy. Which I’m not. Did you see the gash I made in that—” Herthrim stopped and peered at the foreigners. The five men continued to eat in silence. A shutter banged against the wall.
Herthrim rested his chin in his hands and sighed. “I’m not clumsy. You just like getting me riled up.” He pointed his nose towards Gravenir and slapped his open palm against the bar. “Oi, Gravenir! Can I have another beer?”
The innkeeper wiped his hands dry and approached with a blank stare. He reached for the empty mug, but Herthrim kept his fingers wrapped around the handle. Gravenir gave it a tug. It didn’t move.
He looked up, vileness in his eyes. “Let go of your mug, please.”
Herthrim didn’t budge. “How much are those fellows paying to stay here?”
Gravenir’s expression turned black. “The same as everyone else. Let go of the mug.”
“How come you’re so unpleasant today?”
“Because I have a dimwitted pig farmer playing detective in my tavern.”
Herthrim retracted his arm. His face flushed red. Gravenir refilled the drink then slammed it on the bar. The foreigners raised their heads at the sound, but turned back to their meal a moment later.
Dryden watched Gravenir stomp to his tub of soapy water. He scrubbed the dishes with a stiff tension in his shoulders. Silence lingered for a time, until Flint broke it with a quiet remark. “That’ll be the last word we hear from him.”
Herthrim took a swig of beer, his face still bright red. Dryden’s gaze fell to his own drink. Steam curled around his nostrils. This is hopeless. Gravenir is right: we’re just farmers playing detective. We’re not going to get answers from him or the foreigners.
He peered over his shoulder again. Black scabbards hung from the belts of the foreign men, studded with purple jewels and golden etchings. They looked fit for war, even as they dined on a modest meal of pork and potatoes.
“Funny men,” said Flint. “I’d hate to pick a fight with them. I bet you they could snap my spine in half.”
Herthrim leaned in and spoke with a grin smeared across his face. “They’d be running if they knew what Dryden did to that monster the other day. Actually, I bet they know about it already. Taverns are always a great place to pick up gossip.”
“Especially when people talk so loudly,” replied Flint.
Herthrim grunted then tipped back his drink. Beer slithered down his chin with every loud, obtrusive gulp. After finishing, he pounded the bar again. “Gravenir, my friend!”
The innkeeper turned around, this time with a beaming smile. “Good evening, sir! Welcome!”
Herthrim paused with his mug half-raised. “What?”
Gravenir glazed past him and waved in the direction of the front entrance. “Come in, come in! Make yourself comfortable. You must be relieved to be out of the rain.”
Dryden spun on his chair to see who had caught Gravenir’s attention. Standing by the door was a man shrouded in a mossy-green cloak. Long, elegant strides brought him to the bar, where he seated himself beside Dryden and let out a deep puff of air. “It feels like autumn out there.”
Gravenir passed by Dryden and the others without a glance, and set a steaming portion of cider in front of the new guest. “Compliments of Gravenir, my friend. Warm your bones.”
The man wrapped his hands around the mug. He removed his hood, revealing a thick head of ashen hair. By the way he walked, Dryden had assumed he was no more than thirty, but the creases around his eyes and mouth seemed to suggest he leaned towards fifty.
Gravenir wiped his hands on his apron. He leaned against the wall and spoke in a pleasant tone. “What brings you to Byromar, good sir? You look as if you’ve travelled a thousand miles.”
The man slowly drank his cider, then let out a satisfactory sigh. “I’ve travelled thousands upon thousands of miles when I was younger, but I’m a bit of a homebody nowadays. I’ve only come from Feldamor. Though it seems I picked a terrible time to do so.”
A pair of shutters slammed against the side of the tavern, as if on cue. Gravenir folded his arms and stared out one of the windows. “It’s unfortunate weather, especially after we finally got a clear sky. We can only hope it lets up soon. Is this your first time in Byromar?”
The man shook his head. “No, no, I’ve been here before. It’s a wonderful town.” He looked over at Dryden and smiled. His hazel eyes glowed. “How do you do?”
Dryden nodded, somewhat at a loss for words. He wasn’t sure why, but the man struck him as odd, despite his ordinary appearance.
Before he could offer a reply, Gravenir slid a small bowl of nuts towards the guest. “Is there anything I can get for you, good sir?”
The man held up his hand. “This drink will do for now, thank you.”
Gravenir smiled. “If you need anything, let me know.”
He returned to his dishes while the guest took a handful of peanuts. Dryden looked over at Flint. A deep crease had formed across his brow. A sullen expression darkened Herthrim’s face.
The new guest ate without a word. He hummed quietly to himself, eyes darting from one side of the room to the other. He turned to Dryden again, one hand up, as if giving a defense. “Don’t let me bother you three. You can talk freely.”
Flint shuffled in his chair. “No need to worry, sir. You haven’t interrupted anything.”
“Is it a Byromar tradition to sit at a bar without saying a word?” The man chuckled and took a sip of his drink.
Flint gave a polite laugh. “No, you only caught us at a pause in the conversation.”
“Oh, I see.” The guest leaned back, yawning and stretching his arms. He picked at something in his teeth. His eyes lowered towards the bar and rested there. “Are you injured?” he asked.
Dryden raised an eyebrow. “I’m sorry?”
He pointed a finger. “Your hands. They’re wrapped in bandages.”
“Oh…it’s nothing.” Dryden’s cheeks flushed. He buried his hands in his pockets. “Just—um—a small burn. Nothing serious.”
“Ah...” The man seemed to study him a while longer. “How unfortunate to burn both your hands at the same time.”
Dryden looked away, eager to steer the newcomer’s attention to something else. “Yes, it was an unlucky accident. But you say you’ve travelled thousands of miles. Are you a merchant?”
“No, not at all. I was a wanderer, nothing more.”
Dryden didn’t reply. Fifteen chairs at the bar, and this guy decides to sit right next to me. He checked the foreigners. Their plates were empty, but they remained seated, hands folded as they stared into nothingness. What a failure this evening turned out to be.
“What’s the story with those men?” asked the new guest, as if he could sense the direction Dryden gazed. “They’re a fearsome looking bunch. I got quite a cold welcome from all five of them.”
“Nobody really knows,” said Herthrim. “Can you tell where they’re from?”
The man shrugged. “It’s hard to say. They look like they might be from Northern Velia. Have you spoken to them?”
Herthrim shook his head. “They won’t say a word. They just talk to themselves in their own language.”
The guest gave a low drawl, as if he were weighing clues. “Strange…” He eyed Dryden again. “Are there any thruins in Byromar?”
Dryden’s blood ran cold. This man was gathering an alarming amount of information by simply looking at him. It sounded like the question wasn’t exactly blind curiosity, either. He scrambled for something to say, but Flint spoke before he had a chance to collect his thoughts.
“No, there are only humans here. But it’s a small town, mind you. We don’t—”
The man raised his hands. “That’s not what I was insinuating. I was simply curious. I’m always fascinated by the cultures of different towns.”
Flint murmured. Herthrim sniffed then tapped his mug against the bar. “Can I have another beer?”
Dryden stared into his drink, hands tucked out of sight as the rain continued its onslaught. Shutters clapped against the outer walls without stop. He wanted to leave. The aching in his head hadn’t let up much today.
Chairs scraped against the floor, grabbing his attention. All five foreigners rose to their feet, and without paying, turned towards a hallway that led to the bedrooms.
Herthrim growled. Dryden watched them disappear as a defeated sensation settled in his gut. It had been a long ride in the rain to come up with nothing. Gravenir had been as useful as a mute, the newcomer stifled any further discussion, and the drinks cost money he knew his father didn’t have, especially after Vilitamian’s farewell party.
“You three seem awfully interested in those fellows,” said the newcomer.
Herthrim turned around, his mouth bent in a scowl. “You seem awfully interested in other people’s business.”
The man’s expression dropped. His eyes fell to the floor as he quickly rose from his seat. “My apologies. I had no intention of bothering you.”
He finished his drink and walked over to Gravenir, setting a bronze coin on the bar before relocating to the corner of the tavern, beside a stone fireplace. Herthrim watched him for a moment, then swung back towards the bar. “Hmph! What a nosey character. Not that it matters, really. This whole trip has been a waste of time.”
Flint emptied his mug. He gave an airy sigh. “I was hoping we’d learn something.”
“I think it’s time to confront those foreigners face to face,” said Herthrim. He clenched his fists. “I’m not afraid of them.”
Flint shook his head. “You’ll only stir up trouble. We need to wait until the soldiers from Feldamor check the other forests.”
Herthrim frowned. He rubbed his eyes with his knuckles. “Okay, but what do we do if they find the forests crawling with monsters…and foreigners?”
Flint’s eyes went distant. “We’ll deal with that when the time comes.”