THE BAR WAS PACKED WALL TO WALL with customers this particular evening. The Crimson Boar’s resident lothario, Cartigan Benevere V, squeezed in between two rangers in road-worn clothing and ordered two more cheap whiskeys from the bar’s proprietor, Britomus, no doubt taking them back to the pair of young ingenues at his table to pass them off as top-shelf quality. The smuggler Taels and her usual entourage of brigands were deeply embroiled in a card game; Britomus noted with interest that although Taels tipped her glass back frequently, the level of liquid in the crystal tumbler never seemed to change. Amos Abernathy, the Boar’s resident confidence man, had captivated a few travelers with his cups-and-balls game and was rapidly relieving them of their hard-earned money.
For the moment, Britomus had caught up on all the orders at the bar, and few glasses were sitting empty. He took advantage of the opportunity to wander down to the far end of the bar nearest the front door of the Inn and speak to his old friend Garth, a barrel-chested middle-aged warrior who was enjoying a tall tankard of Brother Al’s new golden ale. Quiet is in short supply these days, Britomus thought to himself. The gold keeps coming in, but I could do with a slow night for a change. Warm weather had thawed the snows on the roads passing by the Crimson Boar Inn, and as trade had picked up, so too had the number of guests. A few of them were downright unsettling, too – particularly the fellow in the black cloak who had just checked in that morning. His hand was deathly cold to the touch when Britomus shook it, and the stable girl, Molly, said the stranger’s jet-black mare was mean and difficult. The malevolent horse’s rider sat near Garth, his face shrouded by the hood of his cloak, his pale hands occasionally reaching down to grab the glass of lukewarm grain alcohol he nursed sullenly.
Suddenly pandemonium broke loose in the bar room. A mass of mottled grey fur dropped from the balcony above the tables smack into the midst of Taels’ card game. The prowling tomcat Nicodemus clamped his teeth down on a half-eaten deer haunch belonging to one of the gamblers. Incensed by the loss of his unfinished meal, the card player drew a dagger from a wrist sheath and threw it at the cat, narrowly missing the poor animal’s ears and shattering the tumbler of rotgut whiskey in Cartigan’s hand. Shards of glass flew in all directions, embedding themselves in Amos Abernathy’s cheek. The con man screamed in pain and stood from the table, scattering the cups and balls used in his swindle across the floor. The pale man in the black cloak also stood, whirling on his heel and reaching for the longsword strapped to his belt – but as he stepped down from the bar stool, his foot slipped on a stray ball from the con game and he fell backwards into Garth, knocking over the aging fighter’s tankard of golden ale.
Britomus closed his eyes and grimaced, knowing without even looking what was coming next. Garth turned a shade of red that could spark a bull’s fury and decked the cloaked traveler with a haymaker that would have downed a good-sized aurochs. Yet the man in black stood tall and still, unflinching and seemingly unaffected by the punch. The innkeeper ducked behind the bar and reached for his crossbow, already loaded for bear. Just what I need, he thought. I really oughta sell this place and retire already.
What no one witnessed in the ensuing brawl, though, was the cat, Nicodemus, dashing straight toward the stairwell leading up to the private rooms, where the cleaning woman Helga smiled serenely as she took the unfinished haunch of venison and rewarded the cat with a pickled herring for his trouble. She slipped the bone into her apron and quickly returned to cleaning the rooms…