Rain streamed down, blurring the trees and shadows into a single mass of half-resolved limbs. While the storm washed away light, it strengthened the stench of rot. Reverend Kobb pinched the bridge of his nose. The further north he came, the worse the nightmares became, and the closer the land matched the images in them.
Flicking the reins, he aimed Falcon for the middle of the track. The echoes of threat weakened, but the rain had an easier time getting to him; changing direction mid-fall, it swept under his hat, before shifting again to pass over his drawn-up collar and ooze down his back.
Glad his humour remained dry—even if nothing else did—Kobb reminded himself this was what the Book of Blessings called an opportunity to praise the Maker’s skill, to marvel at how rain was good at making things wet.
Light flickered in the distance. It looked close, but Kobb was certain he’d have time to give praise before he reached it. Fifteen soggy minutes later, a palisade rose through the murk, followed by a small hut. Unmoved by thoughts of stables, rub-downs, or shedding his dripping burden, Falcon squelched on at the same unconcerned pace.
“Greetings, the village!”
Someone shifted inside the hut. “Odd weather for travelling,” called a damp voice.
“Has turned heavy. I’ll be glad to be indoors.”
A hunched youth emerged, holding a lantern on a pole. Beady eyes and a pallid face reinforced the impression of his voice.
The pendant at Kobb’s throat glinted as the watchman thrust his light forward like a pike. “Botherer, eh? Don’t hold much with people going on about how we’re all sinners.”
Kobb let his cloak hang open, revealing the carved butt of his Courser. “My sermons can be loud. But I keep them short.”
The watchman’s mouth twisted as he drew the lantern back. When he dragged his shapeless cap off, Kobb realised he was smiling ingratiatingly.
“Where would a traveller get supplies?”
“Tanton’s. Midway along. Come to where Gamm used to live, you’re too far.”
Kobb settled his cape back in place. If you come to the house of a man you’ve never met, who doesn’t live there anymore, then you’re in the wrong place. An omen for his journey if ever there was one.
Entering the village freed him from the random drips and gushes of overhanging branches, letting him experience the full force of the rain cascading between the rough-hewn houses. A well-designed drop crept down his chest, reminding him no sane man would be cheerful today. He chastised himself for judging in haste. Reaching the general store, he dismounted. “Don’t remember how to gallop while I’m gone, Falcon.”
As Kobb entered the store, a slender, balding man straightened from a barrel and peered at him. “Lambart Tanton. Help you?”
“Absolution Kobb. Looking for food.” Kobb paused. “And a large horse blanket.”
“Food I can do. Expecting some blankets tomorrow. Want to pay now, I’ll have it run over to the inn in the morning.”
The light was almost gone, but the day wasn’t. The rain couldn’t make him wet twice. “Blanket’s not important. I wasn’t planning on staying the night.”
“What’s so urgent you need to go back out in this weather?” A woman, young from the sound of it, asked from the shadow of a doorway.
Kobb bowed to her silhouette. “Not hurrying. Just hadn’t thought to stop.”
She emerged into the light, revealing functional leather coat and breeches. “Anessa Tanton. Forest gets wild around here. You’d be best to take a guide. I’d be—”
“Now you’re back, girl, you can get that store room sorted.” Lambart fixed her with a glare.
“Maybe I will stay over,” said Kobb. “Could you point me at the inn?”
Lambert seemed to ignore him, and then spat out some directions. Deciding he’d be best served checking the supplies before he bought them anyway, Kobb resettled his cloak and strode into the storm.
Boots already filthy, he grasped Falcon’s reins and trudged to the inn. The weather continued to exalt the Maker. Leading Falcon to the inn’s stable, Kobb swung his saddle bag over his shoulder and squelched around the building. He pondered why no one had put a door from the stable into the main building, or even a covered walkway. Vague ideas it might be carpentry related aside, nothing came to him.
Smoke drifted across the tap room from the fireplace, gathering the odours of sweat, damp, and less clear items on its way. Kobb blinked the fug from his eyes. From the press of bodies, whatever people did around here stopped for weather.
Peeling his cape away from his riding leathers, he sidled across to the bar, nodding at the flat faces of the villagers. Seemed glaring at strangers was common even if you weren’t in a leaky hut. But it did mean he didn’t need to attract the innkeeper’s attention. “Looking for room and board. My horse is in the stable; could do with a rub down and a trough.”
The innkeeper wiped his face with his rag before going back to rubbing a tankard. Glancing at the rapier on Kobb’s hip and then at the Courser angled across his chest, he revealed a set of dull teeth. “Don’t allow weapons.”
Kobb looked over his shoulder, taking in the selection of axes, cross-bows, and other dangerous objects propped on tables. Meeting the innkeeper’s eyes again, he raised one brow.
“Might I rent somewhere to store my weapons?”
“Room and board’s three. Another for the horse. Use of the safe’s a strip.”
Safe? That was a surprise. Kobb pulled out two strips. Breaking off a hunk, he put the rest on the bar. “Deal.”
The innkeeper replaced the metal with a crude key. “Top of the stairs. Third door. And remember, you’re not to go disturbing my customers with your noise.”
Kobb squeezed between tables and mounted the stairs. If anything, the smoke from the fire seemed to prefer the upper floor to the chimney. Several short, narrow doors, about five feet apart, ran down the back wall. Eyes watering, Kobb let himself into his room. The door banged against the side of the bed.
He shouldered the door shut. Apart from a narrow palliasse, the room was empty. Not even a curtain over the window—although, the window was dirty enough, a curtain would have made little difference.
Placing his saddlebag at the end of the thin space, he peered at the ceiling and walls. No hooks either. But not all the nails had been hammered flush. He hung his cloak and hat as best he could. Leaving them to drip, pulled the Book of Blessings from his jacket and began to pray.
Having run out of good experiences, he eased himself to his feet. He winced as his left boot squelched. Intellectually, ‘look to that which is with you always before all others’ made sense, but the decades of adherence had not fully overcome the instinct to clean his kit as soon as he stopped.
He pulled a rag from his bag and cleaned the mud from his clothes. Reaching the point where he was only moving the filth around, he considered the window. Apparently, the inn had been built for better things: cobwebbed and grimy though it was, the window opened.
Aware of the irony in making use of the torrential rain, Kobb washed out his rag and continued.
Soul and kit tended, he should eat and try to sleep; there wasn’t a hurry, but an early start would still feel better.
When he emerged, the tap room was more packed than before. Fortunately, without his cloak it was easier to shuffle to the bar. Squeezing between two bulging jerkins, he tilted his head towards the innkeeper.
Mouth pursed, the innkeeper came over. “Didn’t think your sort drank.”
“Nothing in the Book against wetting a dry throat. Mug of ale, and a bite.”
The innkeeper pulled a rag from the stained recesses of his apron and rubbed it across the rim of a wooden tankard. Dipping it in an open barrel, he thumped it down in front of Kobb before trudging off.
Kobb sipped the ale. Watery, with an odd under-note he hoped was resin from the tankard. Not a drink to savour, but adequate for washing away travel.
And for easing the path of the lumps of dark bread and cracked cheese on the plate the innkeeper dropped in front of him. Kobb picked up the plate and mug and shuffled away from the bar.
Most of the seats were taken, and those that looked empty were all in use by people who had gone to the jakes or were but a few minutes away. He sighed, and sidled up the stairs.
The meal tasted as inadequate as it looked, but after days of trail food any variety was as good as spice and the plate was soon clear. Taking the same stance on the palliasse, Kobb collapsed into sleep.
Evil whispers and looming horrors pulled him awake. Still wrapped in nightmares of hungering trees and rocks from before the world was new, it took a moment to realise the whispering was real. The door, locked behind him when he brought his supper up, cracked open.
His hand flicked to the top of his saddle bag, grasping thin air. His Courser was in the innkeeper’s safe.
Two shadowy figures crept into the room. “Told you bastard’d be asleep. Won’t be so sneery without his fancy weapons,” gurgled the watchman.
Recalling, with the fondness of distance, his frequent debates with the Master of Novice on the difference between the Blessing of Action and the Sin of Impatience, Kobb reached for the edge of the empty plate. He pushed down hard with his free arm, sitting up and snapping the plate into the leading figure’s chin.
Kicking his right leg into the knee of the stunned watchman, Kobb cleared room to rise.
The second thug, perhaps more used to getting his blows in before his victim realised the fight had started, was still looking down at his fallen companion when Kobb’s right elbow struck his ear. Turning, he caught Kobb’s left fist on the nose.
Kobb stepped back.
Revealing a lack of true experience in dirty fighting, the watchman struggled to his feet with head still bowed.
Kobb let him reach his full height before flicking an elbow at his chin.
The watchman blocked Kobb’s arm with a grunt, and then rose in both tone and stance as Kobb’s knee reminded him, belatedly, to shield his groin.
Locking his fingers together, Kobb brought both fists down on the watchman’s forehead, sending him back into his companion.
In a display of some sense, if little bravery, the second thug raised his palms.
Kobb nodded at him, and let him drag the watchman from the room.
Closing the door behind his visitors, Kobb considered the lock. After a moment’s thought he shuffled the palliasse away from the wall.
The sound of the door banging into the foot of the palliasse roused him shortly after dawn.
“Stranger! You stand accused of assault. It will go worse if you don’t come peaceful.”
Kobb reached for his leathers. Bringing him to law. Perhaps the watchman did have the makings of a dirty fighter after all.