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          The tavern door opened, then smacked against the wall so hard the timbers shivered and creaked. The startled inhabitants could only gap as the storm rushed in chilling their already wet bodies. Sleet and icy rain swirled through doorway and spat upon the patrons relegated to the dirt floor near it.  Some grumbled and scuttled away from the muddy puddles as ice and rain pelted the interior. The barkeep rushed to close the door only to shriek when a dark shadow detached itself from the storm, moving into the common room.

         The shaggy apparition moved the frightened man aside by stepping into his space. The door swung back and closed with another bang. The bar dropped across it, leaving the bitter weather to slap and push from the outside. A rough cloak dropped from a set of massive shoulders.  The collective sighed with relief at the tall male figure. Oh, well not a demon, just another mercenary.

          Raven hung his dripping cloak on the hook near the door and rung the water from the dark braid draped around his neck. He already knew how many men sat at the greasy tables and that any women here had long since gone to bed in the cramped musty upper rooms. He turned on the still stupefied bartender.

          “Boil some water, now.”

          “Water, boil water?”

          “Water, now.”

          Raven crossed the dark room, removing the sword hanging from his back to a table nearest the soot darkened back wall. He pulled the table away and settled in the rickety chair that groaned under his weight. He ignored the bleary eyes peering at him and the stench of wet unwashed bodies. He took a leather pouch from the thick belt he wore and placed it on the table along with his damp travel bag. The barkeep rushed to the table holding a battered kettle, the handle wrapped by the bottom of his dirty apron.

          “A tankard and the kettle before the water’s cold.” Raven growled at the seemingly witless man.

          “Oh, yes, a tankard.  Yes...yes sir...I yes.” He scurried away again the kettle swinging wildly, causing swearing occupants of the floor and tables to duck and move from his path. Raven glared. The man finally stumbled back, dropping the tankard so it rolled across the table. The warrior’s hand closed around it.  The kettle banged against the side of the table, splashing water on the hapless bartender. He managed to put the kettle down and back away. One more glance from the warrior at the table sent him back to his duties on trembling legs.

          Raven poured a portion of dried herbs into the tankard and filled it with water. He warmed his cold hands in the steam from the cup.  After a few minutes he raised it to his lips. The first sip nearly forced a groan from the exhausted man. He had to really control the urge to gulp the bitter liquid down and scald his throat. The heat settled in his belly, warming him completely after a while. He finally relaxed against the wall and let his eyes travel openly around the room. Most of the inhabitants avoided his gaze.        

          There were just as many brigands as honest travelers in the room. His size and the gleaming steel of his sword should prevent any one from getting ideas about lifting his purse. He chuckled out loud at the thought because his purse was painfully thin right now. He was hoarding what remained in anticipation of a new job, hence the smelly hovel having to do for for this moment.  He rested his head on the wall to doze, at least content the tavern was shielded by a hill that blocked the winds from blowing through the ill fitted logs at his back. He did not move as the people in the room finally settled once more before the meager fire. 

         The strong slept near the flames, the not so bold lay shivering in the cold and enduring the draft whistling through the ramshackle walls and around the ill fitted door. After a while, Raven pulled a woolen blanket from his pack and wrapped it around himself. He allowed himself to relax, just a little, in the heavy folds and went to sleep.

          Silence awakened him. The storm was over for now. He folded the blanket tightly and stuffed it into his pack. He knew the sun had risen, although he expected the day would be sullen with clouds, fog and more rain. The slide of metal on leather stirred some of the other wayfarers.  Grabbing his still damp cloak, Raven stepped across bodies on the floor and lifted the bar from the door. He slipped into the chilly morning, crossing quickly to the shed to fetch his horses. The animals were nosing around in ice-rimmed hay. He slipped a bag of oats over their noses and rubbed them down before tossing blanket and saddle on his mount. Very soon, the animal would refuse the grains and need to hunt or  Raven would have to buy fresh meat. He reloaded all his gear on the shaggy packhorse and stepped into the saddle.

          Chi walked carefully, wary of the cracking ice and mud sliding beneath his hooves. Raven looked around at the dull winter landscape and figured he had at least a six-hour ride to the next tavern along the twisting,   treacherous track passing for a road. He hoped to make it before the weather soured again. Another night in a filthy roadside tavern would not improve his mood. Sighing heavily he guided his animals off into the tall pines, growling as wind blown water cascaded down from the trees. The rumble of distant thunder herald another round of storms.

          The mercenary had heard a local lord, new to his position, was hiring men-at-arms to shore up his troops. Fighters from all over the Midlands were finding their way to these sparsely populated mountains. NorBlad raiders would be scouring the land very soon. It was said the old master of the lands paid tribute to the northern fighters but the peasants and lesser nobles still lost too much to the raiders. There should be fighting aplenty and gold for his war bag.

          From time to time he dozed in the saddle aware that Chi would let him know if trouble approached.  

          Like him, the animal stood out in this land of dark pine forest and snow.  Iron gray with black stockings, mane and tail, his muzzle and face were black as well.  Chi hailed from the far western plains. The animal enabled the mercenary to charge twice the fees offered for only his sword.  More than once Raven had literally been plucked from death’s jaws by his oft times vicious guardian. Chi was heavily boned and muscled with deceptively gentle dark eyes. His teeth were dagger long and sharp edged, dealing deep and grievous wounds. Tales were told that they were not true horses, but demon spawn erupting on the western plains during a fight between the gods. Raven always wondered if there was more truth than not to the tale. The demons chose their riders and seemed to anticipate their needs. They also had a sack of gall in their throats, which injected into a bite caused a lingering agonizing death. No one else rode him, no one dared.  Savage, the animals were known to kill other four legs for food including their own kind.

***** 

          Torches were just being lit within the timber walled city of Virgilia when Raven finally reached the gate days later. The guardsmen paid little attention to Chi. In the dark he appeared just like any other horse and Raven was grateful. He had no wish to spend the evening in the cold arguing with superstitious men. Once inside he realized the city was teeming with people.          

          Observation determined many of the farmers from the countryside had moved into the city. Resigned to a longer wait for bed and a meal, Raven traveled through the town until arriving on the paths just below the high road to the lord’s residence.  Taverns, choked with smoke and rank odors, rang with off key music and fighting. The upper paths hosted the higher priced inns for the more sedate clientele. There would be people from the richer farms, merchants and nobles. Raven listened to the chatter from the throng pushing and shoving along the narrow torch lit way. Though disconcerted at finding a horse barring their way, most of the people were too inebriated to do more than stumble from his path. Hawkers stood in front of the doors, shouting about the best wines, feather mattresses and of course who had the fattest and cleanest bed warmers. He pondered over the gold left in his purse and finally decided to move a little closer to his goal. The best place would have a large barn where Chi could rest away from the majority of animals.  Oddly, though he was a stallion, the animal did not insight other horses to fight, but they were very nervous around him.

          He came to a place with a gate and a wall nearly his height surrounding it. Lamps and a bell hung from the posts. Further along the wall he could see an even wider gate, probably for carriages and wagons to come and go. Faint music could be heard over the rabble in the road.  Decision made, he rang the bell.

After a time, a small head popped up under the bell.

          “An ya bizna bein’?”

          “What else would I be here for?  Open the gate brat!”

          “Tha li ya havin’ na coin!”  The guardian of the gate assessed Raven with an exaggerated leer only to have a hand surround his head and lift him from his perch. 

          “Open the damn gate, or I will open it with your head.” Raven growled, squeezing the bug-eyed boy’s skull. Torchlight reflected in the catlike eyes of the monster crushing his head. Frightened spitless, the youngster scrabbled at the wooden bar, arms and legs flailing wildly.  He managed to lift it just enough that Raven dropped him and grabbed the heavy log.  It was little effort to toss the bar over the head of the boy.  He flinched as it hit the ground, one end narrowly missing his head.  Chi pushed through the gate and the boy scrambled from his path.

          “You don’t decide for a man where his coin is spent brat.  Keepers of gates can be slaves on the morrow.”

          The gulp was audible as the boy scrambled to his feet and hurried to get the bar back up on the gate. He would endure the dampness of his ragged britches for the remainder of his shift, but have two fights later on unable to endure the taunting about his smelly condition.

          Raven rode across the yard and stepped down before the main doors of a very large inn. To one side he could see a taproom filled with revelers.  Well to do nobles and merchants communed together. Tomorrow in his lordships residence they would pretend ignorance of each other. He stepped through double doors. The main lobby was well lit and he was not surprised to see a very fat tavern keeper leaning against a podium.  This one obviously trusted no one to collect his coin. How else could he maintain the mountain of flesh that covered his slim bones? Raven stepped up to the counter.  Before the man could launch into his tirade the mercenary dropped a very small bag on the ledger book.

          “See here now...”

          “Look in the pouch before you give me any sass, old man.”

          Insulted, the man just prevented himself from calling for his bouncers. He untied the drawstring and poured two gold coins into this palm.  Instantly his expression changed, to suspicion.

          “I’m no thief, you greedy bastard. Say I am and taste steel.”

          “I, I would not dream of it. No sir, did...did not, er…cross my mind.”

          Raven scowled at the innkeeper. The man visibly shrank under the pale silver gaze of the mercenary.

          “How many nights will that buy me and care for my horses?”

          The coins disappeared into the chubby hands, then the man sank his teeth into the coin. On further inspection a smile creased his face until his eyes disappeared. His bite left marks in the soft metal.

          “Forgive me sir, a man cannot be too careful in these trying times.  Come, come this way.  Why I will escort you myself.  Yes yes, this will afford you one of our best rooms and food for at least a moon.”

          “My animals need tending and my bags brought in.”

          “I have ser...”

          “I tend my own things.”

          “As you wish...of course.  Right this way.”