child_m.gif (3208 bytes)ale of Light

CHAPTER 4: THE PLOUGHMAN INN

 

Morandor sucked on his pipe as he surveyed the town of Stonegate. From his vantage point on the hill, he could see the thick grey walls which served as the town's defense, and one of the two large gates which gave the place its name. The gates were guarded by two men, soldiers dressed in the uniform of the Isanian militia- red armour emblazoned with a yellow rose. He took another drag on the tobacco as he looked behind him at his rabble of companions. Wearing mud like a second skin, and smelling like the inside of a cow! Grendel and Maree were the worst, their clothes soaked and their hair plastered to their faces. Somehow, he had to get them into the town. He exhaled the pipe-smoke thoughtfully; this was going to be difficult.

The guards on the gate would no doubt question why they had cut through the swamp, instead of taking the roads like anyone else. Morandor wouldn't blame them; only someone trying to avoid something would take that vile shortcut. He took another suck on his pipe. He could clean them up right now, with magic, that would be easy. But he couldn't risk an essence flow so close to a Rhutalathian town; if any Inquisitor was in there, they'd detect it in an instant. No, there was only on way to approach this- the hard way.

Morandor's father had always taught him that the best lie contained an element of truth. Morandor didn't believe a word of that. In order to lie well, you had to be able to lose yourself entirely in the story, spinning a yarn so ridiculous that no one would doubt it was the truth. You didn't want silly little things like reality and facts getting in the way. Still, Morandor guessed he wouldn't need to spin a huge lie- guards were notoriously stupid. Smiling to himself, he came up with a simple and unimaginative tale. He didn't like to waste a good lie on hired muscle who he'd never see again.

Morandor tapped his pipe against his thigh, knocking out the excess tobacco, and replaced it in his belt pouch. "Come along, little ones," he said, smiling at his companions. Maree's face was a picture, streaked with mud and livid with distaste. Even Mep looked clean compared to her, and he doubted whether Mep had ever bathed in his life. "Lets see if we can't get ourselves somewhere warm for the night."

He set a brisk pace down the hill, clearly visible to the guards on the gate. The last thing he wanted was to be accused of sneaking up on them. Grendel was behind him, the rest of his friends in tow. Morandor smiled to himself, wondering whether he should let Grendel talk to the guards. Grendel was improving every day, in every sense of wizardry- especially the lying. Young Grendel could even convince a man he'd never met that his wife was cheating on him; Morandor had seen him do it. He was proud of the young wizard. Still, Grendel was still in the flamboyant stage of tale-telling, and Rhutalathians were perpetually suspicious of interesting stories. Such a damn boring country. Morandor sighed. He'd have to make up a really boring lie. He was wasted in this country, he really was.

As Morandor approached the open gates, the two guards barred their entrance with their spears. Morandor stopped respectfully, and gestured for Grendel, Mep, Bremmy and Maree to do the same.

"Good morning," Morandor said cheerfully. "I trust there's room in there for five more?" he said, gesturing towards the town.

One guard, a captain according to his plumed helmet, looked suspiciously at the swamp-covered group. "Have you any business in the town?" he asked.

Morandor simply shrugged. "Not as such. We're merely looking for somewhere to stay. We're making our way back to Vin Furton, and decided to have a rest here." He looked briefly at his companions. Mep was grinning like a buffoon at the captain, and Bremmy was scowling threateningly. Morandor sighed inwardly- those two cretins were going to get them arrested.

The captain looked them all up and down, giving a side-long look to the other guard. "And you came through the swamp?" he asked Morandor. Morandor noticed two more guards had appeared on the battlements above the wall. They too were eyeing him suspiciously.

"Of course." Morandor said simply. "Wouldn't make much sense to travel the roads now, would it?" he said innocently.

The captain's forehead creased in puzzlement. "Huh?" he said. Morandor smiled. Good to see that the stereotypical guard numbness was alive and kicking.

"We're herbalists." Morandor said. "Looking for herbs. Spent the entire night in that wretched swamp, looking for Krigar's Fern! Only found two samples after all that! Still, should make quite a profit on them alone." Morandor held up some of his tobacco leaves quickly, hoping the guard wouldn't question the similarity.

The guard, true to form, let it pass. "All of your are herbalists?" he asked, still suspicious. The other guards on the battlements were standing more relaxed, Morandor noticed.

"Goodness no." Morandor exclaimed. "Five people needed to gather herbs? That would just be silly." he said. "No, I am the herbalist, and this here," he said indicating Mep, "is my apprentice." Mep stepped forward, grinning like a lunatic. The captain hurriedly stepped back, but whether he was afraid of the insane smile or the pungent Mep smell combined with swamp, he wasn't sure. "This Morrim is our bodyguard." he said, waving towards Bremmy. Bremmy also broke into an insane grin, trying to look less conspicuous. Morandor gritted his teeth and wondered why anyone would copy Mep in order to blend in.

"And the other two?" The captain asked, eyeing Grendel and Maree.

"Ah," Morandor smiled. "This is my son, Grendel, and his wife." he said. Grendel seemed to jump in shock at that, a worried look on his face. Maree just smiled prettily and put her arm around Grendel's back, cleverly concealing the absence of a wedding ring. Grendel tried to look natural, but Morandor had to restrain himself from laughing at the fear in his eyes. "I've just brought them from our native Ardadain. He was growing soft, you know how it is. So I thought I'd bring him with me, back to Vin Furton. There's a shortage of guards up there, so I thought he might get a job. Toughen him up." Morandor leaned closer to the guard and whispered, "Between you and me, I'm glad he finally got married. I was beginning to worry about him; spending all that time in the dancing guild wasn't doing him much good, if you know what I mean. "

The captain grinned to indicate that he knew exactly what Morandor meant. Grendel opened his mouth to object, but was cut off as Maree hugged him close with a grin, making the young apprentice blush.

"Very well," the captain said. "Do you have anywhere to stay in the town?"

Morandor shook his head. "Not as yet. We're were hoping to secure a room at an inn."

The guard nodded. "Its market day, so the town is quite busy. But I think we can find you somewhere to stay." He turned to the other guard. "Sancho, escort these people to the Ploughman. I hear they've still got rooms left there." Sancho nodded, and gestured for the group to follow him. Morandor faked a smile; obviously the guards were making sure they knew where the 'herbalists' were staying so that they could keep an eye on them. That damn grinning shepherd had made them suspicious. Still, things could have been worse.

The group followed the lone guard into the town, Mep grinning at the captain as if he was a personal friend. Maree stopped and smiled sweetly at the suspicious man. "You know, I don't normally look this bad," she said. "Honestly." There was a hint of pleading in her voice. Grendel herded her along quickly. Morandor sighed. He was wrong. He was on a mission of grave importance, with four idiots for company. Things could not have been much worse.

 

The streets of Stonegate were busy; everyone from the nearby villages and farmsteads had come to the town in order to sell their wares on the monthly market, and people from other towns had made the journey to seek out a bargain, or find some rare and collectible item. Morandor cursed as he followed the guard down the wide main street. One man bumped into him, another tripped over his foot. He looked around to make sure his companions were still with him- they were, though they seemed to be faring better than him. Most of the people were avoiding Bremmy's fierce glare, and giving him wide berth. Others were keeping as much distance as possible from the tangible odour that was Mep. Grendel and Maree were following quickly in their wake.

Morandor struggled to keep sight of the guard in all the hustle and bustle. He was tempted to lose the guard now, whilst he had the chance, but thought better of it; the captain had been right- it wasn't going to be easy to find a room. He cursed again as a man nearly ran him over with a wheelbarrow, and yet again as he nearly stood on an army of chickens, marching in his path. The shouting, hawking and murmuring was annoying him, and the locals were pushing like animals, unable to make any progress against the tide of market-goers.

Morandor tried to take in as much as he could of the town- the wide street, the white houses, the red-tiled roofs. Their was something beautiful about Rhutalathian architecture; the way the warm sun glinted of the curved walls, and the way most of the houses were covered in climbing vines and pink roses. Over the tall buildings, Morandor caught a glimpse of a tall and fortified building, its high sand-stone walls perched atop a green hill. Probably a baron's house. Morandor wished that the Rhutalathians were not such intolerant bores- he wouldn't mind living in one of those large houses, if he had the chance. Besides, he was sure the sun would do him good.

Morandor noticed that the guard had stopped outside a large building, and hurried to catch him up. Pushing his way between a man and his pigs, he sopped next to the guard. The inn was a large three-story building, its walls whitewashed and its tiles crimson. Another smaller building was attached to it, likely the kitchen, and that had a flat stone roof. A wicker frame was attached to the front of the inn, and on it grew a variety of pink and yellow flowers. A small garden, complete with banana trees, led up to the front door. A small sign hung over the porch; The Ploughman. Morandor smiled- it seemed a nice enough place, hopefully not too expensive. The guard waited for the others to catch up, before leading them inside.

The interior of the inn was pleasantly warm. Its interior walls were also white-washed, and strewn with strange copper bowls, and other utensils; more decoration that utility. Paintings and vistas of the White Mountains, pine forests, and the sunny Rhutalathian coast lined the far wall. Wooden tables were scattered around the room, some near the roaring log fire which occupied the centre, others near the large leaded window. A small stage, currently unoccupied, was positioned in the furthest corner. The room was mostly empty, except for two men gambling near the fire. Morandor stepped over to the large stone counter behind which stood an aged man with a deep Rhutalathian tan. The guard followed him, and spoke directly to the innkeeper. "These people are looking for rooms." the guard said.

The inn-keeper looked at them, with their soiled clothes, a faint look of revulsion on his face. Finally he nodded. "How many rooms?" he asked Morandor.

Morandor was about to ask for just one, when he noticed the guard watching him. It may look suspicious if they all shared- considering that Grendel and Maree were meant to be married. Two then. Morandor looked at his companions; Maree and Grendel wouldn't be happy, but they had to keep up the pretense. Still, they were the lucky ones; he would have to share with both Bremmy and Mep! He sighed.

"Three rooms." he said eventually, deciding a few silver pieces was worth the cost of getting away from the grinning shepherd and the Morrim for one night. "One for me, one for my apprentice and bodyguard, and one for my son and his wife!"

"What?" Grendel and Maree shouted at same time, their voices full of indignation. Mep gave Grendel a kick, warning them that the guard was still with them.

The inn-keeper nodded. "You're in luck," he said simply. "Two of our patrons left earlier than planned. How long will you be staying?"

He thought for a while. Hopefully, one night would be enough- enough to get some rest, and find out where Valaxus could be found. "Just one night." He smiled as he heard Maree mumbling behind him. She no longer had her arm around Grendel, and was stood as far away from him as she could manage. Grendel, not one for complaining, was instead sulking.

The innkeeper jotted something down in a heavy ledger which was open on the counter. "Your rooms will be ready in about ten minutes. Until then, make yourselves at home," he said, gesturing to the tables.

Morandor smiled. "Thank you." he said simply. The guard, his job done, nodded to Morandor and left. At least he had said nothing to the innkeeper. Morandor sat down at the table and pulled out his pipe. He filled it with tobacco as the rest of his companions sat around him. Closing his eyes, he sat back, and waited for the complaints to start.........

 

"Nice place." Bremmy said simply, admiring the room. "Kind of homely."

Grendel nodded sullenly; Bremmy had more than likely got a sniff off the wine that the two men were drinking- he would hardly be admiring the architecture, or the art and decor. As much as Grendel liked the Morrim warrior, he found it hard to believe him an art lover.

"Shall I order us a drink?" Bremmy asked enthusiastically, proving Grendel's suspicions. Bremmy was rocking excitedly on his chair, looking for a bar wench.

"At this time in the morning?" asked Maree, knowing full well what kind of drink Bremmy meant. "I think I've worked out why you make so little sense. Your brain is pickled with wine!"

Bremmy ignored her comment, instead waving to a girl in a long red dress who was carrying a tray. She began to approach.

"And what's wrong with now?" Bremmy asked, grinning an array of yellow and black teeth. "The way I see it, we haven't slept. And as soon as our rooms are ready, I'll probably have a kip. That would make it about supper time by my reckoning. And I always have wine for supper. Well, Ale at least."

"You have ale for breakfast, too, Bremmy." Maree teased.

"So you'd better order two, as its breakfast time as well." Mep grinned.

"That's a very good idea." Bremmy's grin widened. "Hello, senorita," he said, as the girl approached. "I'd like two mugs of wine, please."

"Si, senor," said the dark-haired girl. Grendel smiled at her, but avoided eye-contact. She was very pretty. He scowled as he remembered that he was apparently married, and shouldn't be looking at pretty girls. "And is there anything else?" she asked.

Morandor nodded, blowing out a plume of smoke. "Bring us all a meal- whatever is going." he said. "Oh, and some more pipeweed, if you have it." The girl nodded that she did. "And a mug of ale," he added. Morandor looked to rest of them, to see if they wanted a drink. Mep nodded excitedly. Grendel just shook his head- he hated alcohol; it was dangerous.

"Just some goat's milk, for me," Grendel said. "And the same for my wife." he smiled. If he was going to have to go through this charade, he may as well have fun.

Maree bristled at the comment. "I want wine!" she said defiantly.

Grendel shook his head, and smiled at the bar wench. "No, she has to have milk. Wine goes straight to her hips!"

The rest of the table laughed. Maree opened her mouth to say something, yet seemed at a loss for words. Smiling, the Rhutalathian girl walked off to the kitchens.

"They have ale?" Bremmy asked, a little upset. "If I'd known, I'd have ordered one of them, too."

"Of course they have ale, you stupid boy," said Morandor. "Its an inn."

"But I thought all they drank was wine in Rhutalath," said the Morrim.

"Yes- and all they eat is octopus!" Morandor mocked. "The Rhutalathians may be barbaric, but they're not stupid; there'd be a revolt if there was no ale."

Grendel nodded at that. They were barbaric! They hated magic and Elves, and they loved alcohol! He wouldn't be surprised if they hated cheese. Grendel sighed in nostalgia as he remembered the cheese they used to have in Doromir. It wasn't home-made- it was usually brought from Dudley. But it was the best cheese in the realm; of that he was sure.

"Who are we going to ask about Valaxus, Morandor?" Grendel asked, trying to take his mind off matured dairy products.

Morandor merely shrugged. "Anyone would probably know, though its probably best if we're discrete." He glared at Bremmy and Mep as he said the last word.

Mep smiled at that comment, for some reason. Grendel couldn't fathom Mep sometimes- he would grin if his hair was on fire. Bremmy ignored the comment, and instead smiled gratefully at the girl who'd arrived with the wine, ale and pipeweed. The girl put the drinks on the table, curtsied, then left.

Bremmy eagerly pulled the wine towards him, and passed the other drinks around. He stared disdainfully at the milk, as if it was some evil creature. Morandor, seemingly as eager as Bremmy, took a gulp of the ale.

"Don't drink too much of that goat's milk, Grendel," Maree said. "I don't want you wetting the bed again."

Grendel coughed on his milk as the rest of the table laughed yet again. Mep was positively hysterical. Stupid shepherd! Stupid Maree! Why did he have to share a room with her? She'd make his life hell! He tried to distract himself with thoughts of cheese.

"This is good," Bremmy said, holding up the wine. "Kind of fruity."

Morandor smiled. "Rhutalathian wine is exceptional- nearly as good Malidoran. I suspect that's the good stuff, from Toltoluine," he said, his moustache covered in ale foam. "Probably cost me a fortune," he muttered to himself.

Grendel ignored the conversation, feeling a little tired. He pulled out his book, and turned to the page he had book-marked with a leaf. He began to read again, going back a few paragraphs so he could get his bearings; 'Plasma itself is the amalgamation of the other elements, which number twelve.....' He stopped reading as noticed the rest of the group were staring at him, and laughing. He looked up.

"Is it true, Grendel?" Mep asked.

"What?" Grendel asked suspiciously.

"Apparently, Maree says that when you eat too much cheese, you're impotent." Grendel blinked a few times. He wasn't sure what impotent meant. He looked briefly to Morandor for help, but Morandor was looking towards the window, pipe in mouth. He tried to think what the word might mean. Sounded something like 'strong.' Well, he knew cheese was good for you, so maybe it was true. He certainly felt stronger afterwards.

"I guess." he said briefly.

They all laughed again. Grendel stared at them, wondering what he'd just walked into. He didn't mind admitting he was confused. Had he sounded stupid? "Yes," he tried again. He made a mental note to find out what the word meant,

Again, they burst out laughing. Except for Morandor- he was still staring away, a small smile on his face. What the hell was wrong with them? Were they under some kind of spell? Why did they keep laughing! Grendel had had enough of them. They were immature. He noticed Maree smiling sweetly at him.

"What does impotent mean?" he asked her suspiciously. She just shrugged.

"Not sure," she said. Mep was still laughing. He wondered if he should set Mep's hair on fire, just to see if it would shut him up. He was suddenly very much aware that Maree had probably been mocking him. Well, two could play at that game.

"Well, Maree's got fat thighs!" he said, a little sulkily. There was a little laughter, especially from Mep. Maree looked shocked and hurt, and subconsciously moved her stool further under the table, to hide her legs.

"Well, I want a divorce because you couldn't consummate our marriage!" she said, a little heatedly. More laughter.

"I want a divorce, because you have hairy feet!" Grendel said, grinning despite himself. Still more laughter. Mep fell off his stool, his face red from laughing so hard.

Maree pouted, but grinned. "I want a divorce because you smell worse than Mep!"

Everyone laughed at that, except Mep, who popped his head over the table. "Eh!" said the shepherd.

"Well I want a divorce, because you're in love with Mep!" Grendel said. He was aware that he was being immature, but he wasn't going to let Maree get the last word. This time it was Bremmy's turn to laugh insanely. Maree pulled her face, and looked a little ill. Mep looked as if he was deciding whether that was an insult to him, or actually a fact. "Eh!" he said, after apparently deciding that Maree wasn't in love with him.

Maree's face was red now. "I want a divorce because YOU'RE in love with Mep!" Mep wasn't laughing anymore. He muttered something, probably an inaudible 'eh!' Bremmy and Morandor both stared at Grendel, apparently working something out. Finally, to Grendel's relief, they laughed.

"Well, I'm divorcing you, because you slept with Zardock!" he said.

No one laughed this time. They were all glaring at him. Maybe they hadn't heard. "You slept with Zardock!" he said again, louder. The two men at the gambling table looked at him briefly. Still no laughter. Still the glare. He looked to Mep, desperate for help, but even the laughing shepherd wasn't laughing. Grendel pulled at his collar nervously. Slowly, all the heads turned to Maree. She was staring wide-eyed.

"It was a joke." exclaimed Grendel, at exactly the same time as Maree.

Still no laughter, but at least the glaring stopped. Grendel felt a tide of relief wash over him.

"Bloody hell!" Morandor said, eventually. "You've only been married for five minutes, and you already sound the part!"

Grendel grinned at that, glad that the argument was over. Maree grinned also, but Grendel felt a stab of pain in his shin as she kicked him. He sighed- it was true; it was just like they were married. He was in the doghouse, and he was sure she was going to make him suffer later.

"This wine really is good!" Bremmy said again, his voice slightly slurred.

At that moment, the bar wench returned with five plates of roast duck. Grendel smiled as the pleasant smell reached his nose. He'd forgotten how hungry he was. He watched as everyone eagerly tucked into the food, their quarrels and tiredness forgotten. Even Maree seemed happy, as she took a large bite of duck. Grendel opened his mouth to make another comment about her thighs, but stopped as three legs kicked him simultaneously. Well, he'd thought it was funny...........

 

Grendel stared suspiciously at the large double bed, as if it was some kind of Demon. The room they had been given was nice enough- a large leaded window looking out onto the garden, pearl-white shutters, white linen on the bed. Yet the bed.........that scared him to death. He looked to Maree, who seemed more interested in the stout pine wardrobe, than the bed. "Can you believe there's no clothes in here?!" she muttered, pulling out the spare linen sheets.

Grendel continued staring at the bed, wondering how he was going to get through the night. "Its....big." he said.

Maree nodded, a small smile on her face. "Did you want something smaller? Something you could rub up against me in?" she said.

Grendel shook his head hurriedly, his face turning crimson. "I just meant that....well, I thought we'd have one each."

Maree raised her eyebrows. "We're supposed to be married, Grendel." she said, as if talking to a child. "Married people generally share a bed."

"But we're not married!" Grendel said, a hint of pleading in his voice. He wondered if Maree had actually realized that they weren't married. She was acting as if it was all real. He didn't understand her sometimes.

Maree simply smiled, and walked over to the hearth. "I know that," she said, placing a pre-filled kettle of water over the burning fire, "That's why you're going to sleep on the floor. And no snoring, or I'll give you a black eye."

Grendel nodded glumly, already feeling like a hen-pecked husband. He walked over to the window, and looked down into the Garden. A strange little man was watering the roses. Grendel wondered if there was any mugwort in the garden- that would certainly help with his spells. He wasn't sure if the little weed would grow in such hot climes. And he supposed that the Inquisitors wouldn't allow it if they did. Those Inquisitors would stop the moon rising if they thought it would get rid of wizards!

"I can't believe I only packed one set of clothes," Maree was saying distractedly, waiting for the kettle to boil. She had found an old wooden bath-tub and was undoubtedly anticipating a long, hot bath. "Its your fault, dragging me off in such a hurry!"

Grendel ignored her. He'd tried to leave her behind, but she had followed, with Mep and Bremmy. It wasn't his fault. He watched the little gardener as he moved to the wall vines, a small pair of trimmers in his hand.

"Are you listening to me?" Maree asked.

Grendel turned to her. "Of course," he smiled. "No clothes, all my fault, stupid Grendel." he said.

Maree grinned. "Good." Maree began to drag the tub out of its closet. The sound of the wood grating on the floorboards irritated him. Grendel walked over, and picked it up, staggering over to a space at the foot of the bed. He put the bath down, and sat down on the bed.

"I didn't need your help," Maree chastised. Grendel merely sighed, and began to remove his muddy boots. If he hadn't helped her, she'd have scoulded him for not being a gentleman. He couldn't win. Maree's face softened, and she sat on the bed next to him. The smell of her perfume, still sweet, despite the musty smell of the swamp, wafted towards him. He could feel her leg touching his. He wrestled with his boot furiously, trying to distract himself from her closeness.

"Remember last year, when we used to go out at night, and rob those nobles." Maree said, smiling.

Grendel nodded, cursing at his boot. He hated nobles. They were so full of themselves, and didn't care about the normal, common people. They'd deserved to be robbed.

"And when we robbed that jewelry store, a couple of months back?" Maree grinned, playing idly with the gold chain around her neck. Grendel smiled at her. That had been one of their greatest achievements. They'd cleared out an entire Rhutalathian jewelry store in one night. It had made them both quite rich.

Maree leaned close to him. "Lets do it again, tonight." she whispered, her mouth close to his ear, her breath warm on his cheek. Grendel yelped as the boot came away from his foot with a squelch, and the momentum carried him off the bed. He landed with a thump near the window.

Maree laughed, and peered over the side of the bed, her hair dangling down. "Why?" Grendel managed to ask, ignoring his own clumsiness.

"Because it was fun," Maree replied, peering down at him. She looked up at him, as he stood. She was sprawled on the bed, her chin in her hands. "And besides, I need new clothes."

Grendel guessed it was a good idea. Neither of them had brought much money with them- there hadn't been time. The jewelry was hidden in various places around Morandor's Tower and Maree's house, and buried around Doromir. And they would probably need more money, on this journey. Reluctantly he agreed that it was a good idea. "Tonight? Are you sure?"

Maree smiled. "Why not." She clapped her hands happily as the kettle began to boil, and walked over to the hearth. "Have you got any money on you?"

Grendel nodded. "A little? Why?" he asked suspiciously. She wanted his money? He began to wonder himself whether someone had secretly married them when he wasn't looking.

"I can't go stealing in this," she said, indicating the heavy and flared dress, "Its impractical." Grendel smiled. What she really meant was 'unfashionable.' Still, it was true- he certainly couldn't go climbing along roof-tops with his robes.

"So we go shopping," he said, watching as she began to pour water into the bathtub, "After your bath."

"Its a plan," she said simply. She began to unbutton the neck of her dress, preparing to strip for the bath. Grendel watched, fascinated and wide-eyed. "Do you really think I'll let you watch me undress?" she asked.

"Well, we are married." Grendel grinned.

Maree snorted an unamused laugh. "Turn around, Grendel." she said, in a tone which Grendel didn't want to argue with. Grendel turned back to the window, and stared down. The gardener was no longer visible, but he could still hear the sounds of his shears. There was a sound of rustling clothes behind him. Grendel desperately tried to ignore it, instead peering down the road at the market. He frowned as a trader kicked a dog hard, its yelp clearly audible. There was another rustle of clothing, and the sound of a zip. Grendel gazed intently at the oranges on a nearby stall, and tried to ignore the images which crept in his head.

Grendel suddenly noticed something across the street, in an alley. A lone figure, hiding in the shadows. Grendel couldn't be sure, but it seemed to be staring up at him. He couldn't see the man's features, but a sword was clearly visible. Grendel leaned closer, trying to get a better view. The man, noticing that Grendel had seen him, stepped back and disappeared into the shadow. Grendel frowned, wondering who the man had been. Probably just a thief, waiting in the shadows for a passing merchant.

"You can turn around now."

Slowly, afraid of what he might see, Grendel turned. Maree was wrapped in the spare linen blanket, her clothes folded neatly on the bed. The white sheet only just covered her breasts, and was wrapped tightly around her body. Grendel was sure, if he looked hard enough, he'd be able to see through the thin white sheet.

Maree smiled, and picked up her dirty dress and small clothes. "Take these to the washer-woman, and get them cleaned," she smiled sweetly. She handed them to Grendel, who stammered something inaudible. He couldn't seem to take his eyes off her chest. He took the clothes woodenly, gazing intently at her cleavage. Maree, apparently noticing, lifted the sheet a little. That seemed to break the spell. Grendel shook his head slightly, and nodded. "Clothes. To the woman. Who washes clothes." he said.

Maree nodded, herding him towards the door, one hand holding up the sheet. "And I'm having a bath, so don't hurry back. Take at least an hour." she said. She opened the door for him, pushing him out quite roughly. "You've seen quite enough for today." she grinned.

Grendel tried to stammer something, but was cut off as the door slammed in his face.

 

Mep smiled with glee as he chased the pea with his fork. He'd finished the duck quickly enough, as ravished as was, and he was the first to admit that Rhutalathian cooking was very good. He wasn't sure what they'd done; some kind of spice, a strange fruity gravy- but it was very nice. He still couldn't believe how much he enjoyed meat. A few years ago, he'd never touch anything which had once been an animal. Eating the corpse of a dead creature was disgusting! He remembered when he was younger, and he'd bought every single rabbit and chicken from the market, just so he could give them a proper burial. Of course, he'd buried them under his house, and he'd been forced to move to Maree's when the smell just became too bad. But he'd hated meat with a passion. Not anymore- Bremmy had made him try some once, and he'd never looked back. Such divine taste, the way the hot grease dripped down his chin!

He belched loudly, before he finally stopped torturing the pea. Picking it up, he threw it at Bremmy, who had his head down on the table. It bounced off his head, and landed in one of the empty wine mugs. Another six mugs stood empty near it.

"Wassat?" Bremmy said, looking up. His face was red, indicating that he was drunk. He tried to fix a glare on Mep, but ended up staring at the shepherd's shoulder. "What?"

Mep just shrugged, and grinned. He'd only had a few mugs- enough for him to feel the effects of the wine, but no so much that he was drunk. Normally he'd tell Bremmy to go to bed, and recover. But it was the middle of the day. And besides, drunken Morrim were amusing.

Bremmy, obviously convinced that the Mep was just an illusion, let his head slump to the table again. Mep smiled. Poor Bremmy! He was going to be sore later; if the hangover didn't get to him, the bruises from falling off his stool would.

Mep grinned as he saw Grendel descending the stairs, Maree's dirty dress in his hand. The young wizard looked far away, deep in thought. Mep waved him over, though it took Grendel a few moments to see him. Grendel sat down next to Mep, and placed the clothes on a stool next to him.

Mep looked at the clothes, a puzzled look on his face, and his grin made Grendel blush. "I'm getting them washed for her." Grendel said, a little annoyed.

Mep's grin widened. "I'm sure you are." he said simply. "And did you scrub her back, too?" Mep wondered how Grendel would fare with Maree, knowing they had to share a room together. He was very much aware of Maree's feelings for Grendel, and he was pretty sure that Grendel felt the same- though the young wizard was never forthcoming about his feelings.

"Not at all!" Grendel said indignantly. "She's having a bath, and she kicked me out! So I'm doing her a favour by getting her clothes washed."

Mep simply nodded, watching as Bremmy slowly lifted his face up. He had a tomato stuck on his forehead, from the plate he'd been resting on. "Look, Bremmy," said Mep, "Grendel's doing his wife's errands for her!"

Bremmy looked at Grendel, struggling to focus. "Wife? You're married?" Bremmy looked upset, as if he'd been left out.

Mep sighed. "Remember, he's married to Maree. Sharing a room with her."

Realization seemed to dawn on Bremmy's face. "Maree has very nice breasts," he said, a drunken grin on his face.

Mep stared at Bremmy, his face taut with trying not to laugh. Grendel's face was a mix of shock, embarrassment and anger. "Bremmy is drunk," he said to Grendel. To his surprise Grendel smiled.

"So, where's Morandor gone?" Grendel asked, peering around the room. He was looking around distractedly, but Mep was sure he was taking in everything around them. Grendel had an uncanny ability to analyse and remember everything he saw.

"He's gone to the market," Mep said, "Asking around discreetly, he says."

"Probably getting a whore!" Bremmy said, laughing at his own joke.

Mep just shook his head, very much aware that the joke wasn't that funny. Grendel scowled at the Morrim- it was one thing insulting Maree, but it was another to insult Grendel's mentor. "He said he'd be back for supper," Mep added.

Grendel simply nodded. "Have you seen anyone suspicious in here?" he asked suddenly.

"Everyone in Rhutalath is bloody suspicious!" Mep said, frowning. He looked around the room. There were a handful of men drinking in the corner, but they seemed friendly enough. And the buxom bar wench- but she was too pretty to be suspicious. He shook his head. "No one that stands out. Why?"

Grendel simply shrugged, as if it wasn't important. "I thought I saw someone watching me. He was looking up to our window."

Mep raised an eyebrow at that. "Inquisitor?" He wondered if the Stormcrows had managed to find them after all.

"I don't think so- he wasn't dressed like one. It was probably nothing."

Mep suddenly grinned. "The question is, what were you and Maree getting up to that was worth spying on?" he asked. He knew he shouldn't tease poor Grendel, but he was bored. And it was no fun teasing Bremmy- he was drunk. The Morrim would either not understand the joke, or smash a bottle over Mep's head.

"Nothing!" Grendel said.

"Shagging!" said Bremmy, before belching loudly.

Mep sighed at Bremmy. The poor Morrim didn't seem to understand humour, and innuendo was completely lost on him. "That was generally my point, Bremmy. But thanks for voicing it so well."

Bremmy said something, loud and triumphant, but the effect was ruined because neither Mep or Grendel could make it out. Whatever it was, it must have been funny because the Morrim suddenly erupted in laughter.

Mep pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration, whilst Grendel looked around paranoid. "Maybe you should go and lie down, Bremmy," Grendel said, realizing that Bremmy wasn't laughing at him. "Get some rest."

Bremmy seemed to have stopped laughing, though his shoulders still convulsed slightly. "Shgud Idea!" Bremmy said. He stood up, using the table as a lever. The mugs rattled together violently as the table shook under the weight. Mep watched, fearful of the table collapsing, whilst Grendel seemed to be studying the scene. Bremmy collapsed back into his chair twice, before finally managing to leave the table. "Bye," he said to Mep. "And you," he said, pointing at Grendel. "You......" Bremmy thought for a long moment. "Congratulations, you." he said. He pointed his finger once more at both of them, before staggering towards the door. He leered at the bar-wench on the way past, before falling through the doorway.

Mep smiled in amusement and relief as Bremmy finally disappeared. "So, fancy a look around town, Grendel?"

Grendel shook his head. "Maybe later. I've got to get these clothes cleaned, then have a bath. Then, I'm going shopping." Mep waited for Grendel to tell him more, but when nothing else was said, just sighed. He knew better than to enquire about Grendel's plans, when the wizard wanted to be cryptical. The only problem was, it meant that Mep was either to be stuck with a drunken Bremmy, or left on his own. The latter was definitely favourable.

"Well, you'd better get on with it then," Mep said, "I doubt that Maree will be happy if she finds out that you left her small-clothes on a stool, for all the inn to see."

Grendel both blushed and paled at that comment, a strange affect which intrigued Mep. Grendel stood up, quickly stuffing the clothes beneath his arm. "See you later, Mep," the wizard said.

"Good luck," he said to Grendel, knowing that he'd need it with Maree. He watched the wizard scurry off to the washroom, the very image of a hen-pecked husband. Mep grinned, and finished his drink. He guessed he wouldn't be too bored- there was plenty of beer, all paid for by Morandor. And then, there was always the pretty serving wench- if she was lucky.