I pulled the hood up on my borrowed cloak and followed Stumpy out of the keep. There was already a bucket brigade throwing water on the fire by the time we were out the gate and I began working my way around the north east side. I overheard snatches of conversation as I swam upstream of the crowd that moved toward the fire. Seems that a column of flame shot out of the sky and struck one of the caravan warehouses down along the western road. I had a good guess where that column of flame had come from, and thought more about the vortex I had called forth. It came to my mind that I didn’t stop the attack by Bishop Cirila, I just shunted it elsewhere. That wasn’t a good thing.
I made it back to the inn which was mostly empty but for a few of the scullery maids who leaned against the bar and talked in loud whispers. There were only a few patrons, finishing meals and talking with heads bent.
“Any word on the fire?” one of the young women asked when I closed the door behind me.
I paused, not wanting to be rude, but very much in need of seeing Liz and Kithri. They looked forlorn when I shuffled by them without saying anything, so I paused on the stairs and called down that the fire was at one of the empty caravan warehouses and that the bucket brigade was well under way.
They both smiled, the older one showing two missing teeth.
“Anything to break of the monotony of the day, love,” she said with a barking laugh.
I turned and took the stairs two at a time. Our room was at the end of the hall, but the door was guarded by two gentlemen with hauberks and sheathed swords. As I approached, one of them stepped forward, bored, and held up a hand.
“This room is off-limits,” he said.
I didn’t recognize the fellow, but he wore the insignia of the keep’s guard, so I lowered my hood. “This is my room,” I said, as pleasantly as I could.
The first man, turned to the other one and gave him a questioning look.
“Captain sent word to look out for a tall fellow with no pants,” the second man said, with a shrug. “He ain’t got no pants.”
The first man, faced me. “Why ain’t you got no pants?”
I sighed. “Long story. I believe that my pants are inside that room.”
The first man stared at me for a minute longer, as if he was memorizing my features, then stepped aside. “Fair enough,” he said. “Captain said you was to remain here until she called for you. Do you need food or anything sent up?”
It was fairly late in the day, and I’d not eaten as well as I could’ve. “Wine,” I said after a moment. “And some supper. Whatever they have in the kitchens.”
They nodded and the second man ambled off toward the stairs, while the first stepped aside to let me at the door. It was locked.
I tried the latch twice, then looked at him. But he held his hands in the air and shook his head. “That gal of yours locked it. Only let’s the serving folk in to clear away dishes and bring in new food.”
I turned back to the door and knocked loudly. “Liz, it’s me. Let me in.”
Nothing happened for a moment, and I looked over at the guard sheepishly. He smiled and turned away, allowing me my space. I started to knock again, without looking and nearly fell into the room as the door was yanked open. Then a familiar hand grabbed me by the cloak and hauled me into the room, slamming it behind me, as they flung me halfway across the room.
“Hi, Liz,” I stammered and stumbled to a stop against the far wall. Still on my feet, thank you very much. Victory. I shot both my hands in the air, and smiled, looking around the room. Kithri was tucked into one of the beds, asleep or near enough to pass for it. The one table was empty but for some papers, ink and quills.
Liz stood there, decked out in her armor, swords on her hips, our packs loaded and stacked against the wall by the door.
Once she shunted the bolt into the door, she flew across the room and hugged me, nearly cracking my ribs.
I put my arms around her and stroked the back of her neck. “I’m here, I’m okay.”
She sighed into my chest, not exactly crying, but obviously releasing a significant amount of tension. After a minute, she let me go and stood back. “What happened?” she asked. “I thought you’d run away, but you left all your things.”
I tried to explain about the midnight stroll I’d taken, the trouble I’d gotten into, waking up in the cell and about the guards.
She started to ask me another question, but someone tapped on the door and she turned on the balls of her feet, hands on her swords.
“It’s me, miss,” a young girl’s voice called from the hall. “I brought up the food your mister asked for.”
Liz straightened and walked across the room, pulled back the bolt and cracked the door open. When she was satisfied, she opened it further and allowed the girl in the room. The young girl kept her head down, set the tray on the table, and lifted a second tray of dirty things from the second chair by the door. I hadn’t even see it.
“Will you be needing anything else?” she asked.
Liz pressed a coin in the girl’s hand. “No. Thank you.”
The girl gave an awkward curtsy and went out the door as Liz held it for her. Once she was gone, she bolted the door again and walked over, pulling the cover off the food.
There was porridge and bread, gods I was full of bread for the day. A bowl held steamed turnips and kale, which were not my favorites, but I knew my body needed some vegetables. I pulled the chair from by the door and sat it at the table, motioning for Liz to join me. A third plate held a slab of mutton swimming in gravy. My mouth watered.
I was reaching for the mutton when Liz grabbed my wrist and shook her head. I looked at her, confused, but she slowly stood and went back to the door listening. Then she put the covers back on the tray and went to the window, moving aside the hangings and looking out into the street.
“Don’t touch any of the food,” she whispered to me when she came back. “It’s poisoned.”
I watched her, then looked at the food. It looked so good.
“I think I can fix that,” I said, grabbing Semaunzilla’s holy symbol (may she guide my inexperienced psyche). I called forth a bit of the divine and the food before me glowed for a moment. Then drips of a tarry substance began to rise from the bowl and coalesce in a ball several inches above the trays. Liz watched me, shocked and held out one of the concave covers to catch the final mess. She took it aside and set it on the floor by the door, without spilling a drop.
By the time she looked over, I was already mowing my way through the turnips.
“You can purify food?” she asked, a bit surprised.
“And drink,” I said, raising a glass of wine.
She ate more than half of the mutton, and the lion’s share of the bread before pushing the chair back with a loud belch.
Seems that she’d been avoiding any food that she could detect poison in and she was pretty famished. She needed to eat a lot of food, that one. Her body burned it faster than mine.
We turned down the lantern and huddled next to the window, wrapped in cloaks and I told her the rest of the story. How I had met Captain Kershaw (again) and all about the good Bishop Cirila. She was thrilled at the first and angered by the second. I think more than anything, she was comforted by the sound of my voice, and my presence.
“I’m sorry I was so distant before,” she said when I had grown silent.
Turns out that Liz has been having disturbing, violent dreams of her own and that they had been preoccupying her thoughts. She was ashamed of them and had not been able to talk to me about them for some prideful notion or other. Then I went and disappeared, leaving her here in this inn with a comatose goddess, with people and walls, stench and noise that was near to overwhelming her. When she woke to find me gone, she’d panicked. When the city guard showed up with my letter, she had been angry, and scared.
Now that I was back, she was contented, which should have been the warning sign, after all.
While we sat huddled together, the far smell of smoke wafting in through the windows, we heard a scream from downstairs, and a scuffle in the hallway.
“You can’t be here,” our guard bellowed. That was followed by the sound of rushing feet and the sound of clubs beating a man down.
We jumped to our feet and Liz went to the door. She motioned for me to put on my armor, which seemed silly, but I did as she demanded. Whomever was in the hall, they tried the lock, to no avail. Then a voice called.
“We know you are in there, demonspawn. You can come out, or we will kill the girls downstairs and burn you out.”
Looks like the thuggary of the one true god were taking advantage of the village fire to do a little strong arming.
I had my gambeson on, and my mace in my hand. The plate could wait. We didn’t have time to waste. Liz squatted, picked up the bowl of poison, and put her hand on the bolt. I stood far enough back to let her open the door and nodded.
“Let’s go visit our new friends,” I said, and she grinned.