Story — To Better Days

The Feral Jackal Inn creaked with the somber sigh of old age as it snoozed amidst the light morning drizzle. The grey of the fog enshrouded any obvious signs of disrepair on the building, but even so the building drooped with an imperceptible weight.

Dreary as it was, Kopek found the sight to be a welcome one. He wasn’t sure if he missed cooked meals or friendly, human faces more, and the rain certainly didn’t improve his mood.

As he opened the door, the soft hum of rain in the trees transitioned into the loud barks of dismay as an older man yelled in an otherwise quiet room.

“I told you I’ll be fine if you just give me another drink!”

“Sir, I can’t just give you another one, you’ve—oh, hello!”

Kopek shook the wet off himself a bit as he closed the door behind him. The barmaid—or presumably the owner of the establishment—was a middle-aged woman whose face matched the walls and space around her. Her friendly smile showed signs of thinning patience. The man she had been speaking to wore thick, muddied furs, and his brown hair was losing the battle of years. He turned to see the newcomer, and as soon as Kopek saw his face he immediately recognized the man as a fellow Ormen outlander, Bardam.

“Kopek?” he murmured, tilting his head like a dog a bit.

“Indeed. It’s good to see you, Bardam!” he called with a grin, sitting down next to the man. “How’s Altani?”

Bardam’s face darkened, his gaze turning to the empty stein in his hand. “Things haven’t been good, Kopek.”

Kopek nodded. “I see.”

“Like a drink?” the barmaid asked, pulling a rag from her apron.

“Oh, no thank you,” he replied. “It’s well before noon.”

“Didn’t stop your friend here,” she shrugged. “Keep up as he has and he’ll be dead by noon. My husband found him passed out in the trees last night. Would have died in the cold, probably. Gave him a free bed and he has the gall to ask for the whole cask.”

Kopek turned to Bardam, whose eyes were glazing over a bit with some echo of torment. He pulled out two coins and placed them on the table. “Will this do to cover his expenses?”

She rolled her eyes, but pocketed the money in silence before setting to wiping down the counter top.

Kopek glanced about the room, searching for a more private avenue for conversation, but with the already quiet room and the lack of any other people, there was none to be had. “What happened?”

Bardam looked at Kopek, and the dead intensity of those eyes spoke of a new decade of age the man had yet to live. Kopek watched as the words formed on his lips, then died as he broke the gaze by returning back to the stein.

“Father of Stars, man, you look like you’ve seen a ghost. Maybe I can help.”

“Undoing take you,” Bardam muttered.

Kopek sighed. This wasn’t exactly the conversation he had hoped to be having today. Still, it was better not to push, and a familiar face was company enough. Kopek dropped the subject and turned his attention to a nearby window. The soft din of the outside rain fell into pace with the sound of the barmaid’s work. It wasn’t ideal, but he was at least happy to be indoors.

Bardam cleared his throat after a few minutes, but didn’t look up. “Hemloch is gone.”

Kopek caught the barmaid stealing glances at the two of them, and she turned her attention to the table once more.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Burned to the ground. The whole village. Must have happened the night before I got there. The whole place smelled like ash and… death. There were crows everywhere.”

“Any survivors?”

Bardam bit his lip. “I don’t know. Probably a few, but not many. I… wasn’t in the mood to investigate.”

Kopek frowned, starting to get a grasp of the situation. “And Altani…”

“I did find her,” he said. It wasn’t good news.

“Stars,” Kopek breathed. Another tense moment passed, and Kopek pulled out another coin, pushing it across the counter to the barmaid. “Another round for both of us.”