Gertrude didn’t like being an Innkeeper. It was a job that called for long hours, few thanks and dealing with people who were cranky and sore from a long day’s travel. Oh to be sure, there were the good ones now and then. People who would leave generous tips for the service they received, or who were polite and friendly despite the long haul up to the peak where the Sunblossom Inne sat. Those sorts of people were a joy and a blessing. They made the work lighter and more fulfilling and were always a welcome change of pace from the general grumbling rabble that trekked through the mountain pass..
Then there were those on the opposite end of the spectrum. The ones who you knew were bringing trouble with them from the moment they stepped through the door. After decades of running the Sunblossom, Gertrude had developed a fine sense for distinguishing between the ornery guests and the ones who were actually dangerous. For the latter sort, she had a nice spiky mace and a broad shield ready at hand, artifacts of her misspent and foolish youth.
“My apologies Keeper,” a dwarven woman said as she strode through the door, escorting two human girls in with her.
The dwarf looked to be an ok sort but no one who started a conversation by apologizing ever had anything good to follow it up with. Gertrude was tempted to throw them out just for that. It had started to rain though, one of the chill high mountain drizzles that would send travelers hunkering down into the tents rather than risking pressing forward and being caught in a worse downpour. The prospect of few additional customers weighed in the dwarf’s favor as did the fact that travel had been slow with the winter lingering into spring by a few extra weeks. Gertrude wasn’t overly greedy but any business needs funds to stay alive so the prospect of some extra coin swayed Gertrude’s wallet if not her heart.
“What’s wrong,” Gertrude asked, imagining the next words would have something to do with a lack of funds.
“I need to rent six stalls in your stable,” Venita, the dwarven woman, said. “I’ve got four Wind Steeds and a cargo wagon that’s going to take up two berths, and I need them taken care of before this storm lets loose.”
Gertrude blinked. Wind Steeds were not the sort of beasts her stables played host to. Ever. She wasn’t some high mountain noble lady, or a great hub of commerce. Anyone with Wind Steeds at their disposal didn’t need to stop at an inn like hers.
“That’ll take up most of my stable space,” Gertrude said. “There’ll be a fee.”
“Didn’t expect you’d be running a charity up here,” Venita said. “Got any stable hands on duty?”
“How many rooms are you going to take with them?” Gertrude asked. Most travelers had a single mule for hauling their goods. Hauling teams would come through from time to time but even there they didn’t tend to worry about stabling their beasts. Easier to time them by the forest’s edge and set a guard or two over them for the night. It’s what the guards were there for after all and haul team horses were remarkably unconcerned creatures as horses went. Unless a wolf pack was ranging nearby, a good haul team would sit there happily grazing away. Heck even if some wolves were dropping by for a visit there was hardly any trouble. Gallagrin’s small game animals were abundant enough that wolves made for decent neighbors, and didn’t tend to bother humans or horses, both of which were more trouble for a wolf than any rabbit every could be.
“You got a big family room?” Venita asked. “Preferably someplace I can stash these two where they won’t be off killing each other?”
Something about how Venita said that left Gertrude wondering how literal the dwarf was being. The two girls looked peaceful enough, though one of them had a foreign cast to her features that troubled Gertrude. The more she looked at the three of them the more strangeness she saw. The picture of the three of them together just didn’t add up quite right. None of them looked comfortable enough to be family with each other, and three strangers traveling together had to have a story behind it.
A story that Gertrude wanted no part of. She’d ridden away as a girl to find and be a part of grand stories and come back with her (now long dead) husband to found the Sunblossom after she learned how unpleasant being on the wrong side of a story could be.
“How long are you staying?” she asked. Most travelers only stayed for one night, which in Gertrude’s mind was probably going to be one night too many.
“That’s an excellent question,” Venita said. “How about we say a week and we’ll see if takes longer than that.”
Her Inn was going to burn. Right to the ground. Gertrude was certain of this. It wasn’t magic. Magic wasn’t as reliable as the bone deep certainty with which she could sense the trouble that lay ahead of her. If this group of three seemingly harmless people stayed at the Sunblossom for longer than the next five minutes, a calamity was certain to occur.
The words “we’re full up” were struggling to force themselves out of Gertrude’s lips when Venita pronounced the magic counterspell to ward them off.
“We’ll pay the premium rate for your trouble of course.”
Gertrude tried to spit out a rejection of the offer. What good was a premium rate going to be when the Inn was nothing more than a burnt pile of ash?
“Payment’s due up front.” It was her last defense against the doom that had arrived on her doorstep.
“Do you prefer Crown coins or Telli gold pieces?” Venita asked.
Crown coins? The dwarf was offering crown coins for the rooms? Gertrude wasn’t even sure she’d be able to bring herself to spend them, but that was perfectly fine. Maybe she wouldn’t need an Inn after all.
“Let me get your Steeds stabled,” she said. “They going to need any special care?”
“Yeah, but I can manage that. The big babies are get nippy if they don’t get their proper treats,” Venita said.
“Let’s get that done before I show you the room,” Gertrude said.
“So we’re just going to stay here? With her?” one of the human girls, Yuehne, asked.
“It’s a defensible position,” the other, foreign looking one, Iana, said.
“What’s all this about?” Gertrude asked, disliking any conversation the included the term ‘defensible position’. She’d listened to innumerable soldiers telling drunken war stories. None of them had been narratives that were thrilling to be a part of at the time she was sure.
“Just silly girl talk,” Venita said, casting the kind of death glare at the two girls which told Gertrude that whatever the girls were referring to was from silly.
“No, I see what Yuehne’s saying,” Iana said. “She’s right, our host has the right know what we’re making her a part of. My apologies, I’m used to thinking of support staff as being invisible. It didn’t occur to me that they might target you too.”
Not one word of that reassured Gertrude and the last bit raised every red flag she had. In fact, the back corner of her mind seemed to have taken up frantic stitching to make more red flags for the occasion.
“Might what?” she asked.
Venita sighed and deflated a bit.
“There are some people who might be chasing after us,” she said.
“And you brought them here?” Gertrude asked, not hiding even a degree of her anger.
“Yes,” Iana said. “They shouldn’t be directly interested in disturbing you. We’re their primary target, but if they succeed in eliminating us then they may turn on you as well to remove any potential witnesses.”
“What are you talking about?” Gertrude asked, as much to buy time to process the information as because her mind was vigorously denying what her ears had just heard.
“Assassins,” Iana said. “There’s a group of them trying to kill us, and they may not stop there.”
“Who are you people?” Gertrude asked.
“The more you know the more reason they’ll have to kill you,” Venita said.
“I am Iana Raprimdel, and if strife comes to your house, I believe it will seek me before it troubles you.”
“Not hardly it won’t. Get out of here!” Gertrude said.
“That’s not going to be safe either, is it?” Yuenhe asked.
“I said get out of here!” Gertrude yelled. No amount of gold was worth dealing with trained killers.
“Are you sure you want that?” Venita asked.
“Out!” Gertrude yelled.
“That’s fine, we can do that,” Venita said. “I’m just curious though, when the people following us come here and need to figure out where we went, what are you going to tell them?”
“I’m not going to tell them anything!” Gertrude said.
“And how do you think they’re going to like that?” Venita said.
“Don’t care how much they like it, I’ve got no part of any of this!” Gertrude said.
“You won’t be able to convince them of that,” Iana said. “They’re going to believe that you know something valuable. Or that it’s at least worth torturing you to extract everything you know so they can decide for themselves if it’s valuable or not.”
“Then I’ll tell them right where I saw you go. This isn’t my problem.”
“And what do you think it’s going to take to make them believe you’re telling the truth?” Venita asked.
Gertrude staggered backwards.
“I’ll….I’ll…,” she couldn’t find the words to fit her thoughts, largely because her thoughts were flitting in a thousand different directions at once.
“Let us stay,” Iana said. “We’ll protect you.”
“What if you can’t?” Yuehne asked.
“This is a remote Inn,” Iana said. “I’m sure our host isn’t helpless, she must have to deal with dangerous people often enough.”
“Not like the Shadowfolk though,” Yuehne said.
“True, but she’s not unfamiliar with risk,” Iana said.
“Risk sure, but I know a bad risk when I see one,” Gertrude said. “It’s why I’m still around after all these years, and you are a bad risk.”
“We are,” Iana said. “But we’re also the best option you have at the moment.”
“Best option I have is to pretend I never saw you,” Gertrude said.
“They’ll know we were here,” Yuehne said. “We think they can track where I go.”
“And when they get here, and we’re gone, and you say that you never saw us, what they’re going to hear is ‘I will protect their destination with my life’, and then they’ll try to put that claim to the test,” Venita said.
“I’m not running away from my home,” Gertrude said.
“You don’t have to,” Iana said. “If they’re not here in a week, then we’ll need to move on and start hunting them instead.”
“Why can’t you just do that now?” Gertrude asked.
“If I’m going to hunt those out for my blood then there are rituals I must perform,” Iana said. “Things I learned in the Green Council.”
“Can’t you perform them someplace else?” Gertrude asked.
“Not safely,” Iana said.
“Well what about my safety?” Gertrude asked.
“I was speaking of your safety. The preparation rituals will make it much harder for the Shadowfolk to launch their assault here. If I fortify some other area they will turn to your inn as a base of operations.”
“I won’t let them stay here any more than I will you,” Gertrude said.
“They won’t need your authorization to setup a camp if you’re dead,” Iana said.
“This isn’t fair,” Gertrude said.
“I know, it’s wonderful isn’t it?” Venita said.
“Wonderful?” Gertrude asked, her face screwing up into a wrinkled mass of rejection of the idea.
“You’ve got an occasion you can rise to here,” Venita said. “Come on, you can’t really be surprised misfortune showed up at your door can you? Trouble and turmoil is all the Sleeping Gods left us. Instead of moaning on though, you’ve got a chance to do something about it. You’re even getting a chance to prepare for it. Do you know how rare and precious that is?”