The inn at the forest crossroads had been a gift from the gods. Charrot needed to get away from the coastal strip where the family of his late father’s partner were raising a hue and cry for him, claiming that he was a run-away indenturee. It wasn’t true of course. What was true was that with both the older men dead the Gharee family had decided that they wanted all of the smithy and not just their father’s half. Charrot would happily have sold it to them for a fair price, but they’d not only tried to steal it but impugn his freedom. He wasn’t sure if the new, from-out-of-town magistrate they’d gotten to issue the orders was corrupt or simply gullible but as the result Charrot was on the run and hadn’t dared sleep for days.
The innkeeper hadn’t questioned him or looked at him funny when he’d arrived and asked for a room with a locking door. She’d simply handed him a key and given him directions to the room, the privies and the baths. “You didn’t ask if I could pay,” he’d pointed out to her.
“You obviously haven’t seen yourself,” she’d replied. “The house’s patron has Views that cover your state. There’ll be a meal when you’re ready for one and there’s already a jug of clean drinking water in the room.”
He stopped in the privies before going up to his room and washed his hands and face thoroughly with what was provided there. He locked his door, the room was plain but as stated, took off his outer clothes and boots, intending to slip on sandals and go bathe but the bed was soft, and flat, and there… He may have been asleep before he touched the coverlet.
And he dreamt.
He was being pursued, and he was escaping pursuit, and his sisters who lived down in the Harnican grasslands would give him shelter if he could get to them, but he was lost in the forest on the way to them because it was the wrong forest… And then there was a signpost in the middle of the forest and it was being painted by an angel. Charrot asked the obvious question, “Where am I?”
The angel looked down from his painting. It seemed odd to Charrot that a being with wings would be standing on a stepladder. “Well, if you’re here, then you must be on the way to somewhere.” His wings were banded in brown and two shades of green. “Not been sleeping lately by any chance? That’s usually the other half of how humans wind up here.”
“Where’s here?” Charrot looked around. The forest was tall, and green, and he realised, it was the idea of a forest rather than an actual one.
“This is Kheladare’s domain. You could say we’re all about journeys here.” The angel grinned as if he were making a joke.
“So, where does the signpost point to?” Charrot had only a very hazy idea of where a god’s domain might be; he’d never heard a priest give a clear answer on the subject.
“Where do you need it to point to?” The angel dabbed on a little more white paint.
“I don’t know,” confessed Charrot. “I need to escape from the people who are hunting me. I need somewhere I can start again, beyond their clutches. Beyond that, I don’t know.”
“What does the signpost say?” The angel climbed down from his stepladder, set aside his brush and put the lid on his paint.
“It doesn’t say anything,” pointed out Charrot. “That’s why I asked.”
“If the signpost doesn’t point out any path for you, then maybe you don’t need leave where you are,” suggested the angel. “Perhaps you should go back now and have a look around.”
“How do I do that? I don’t know how I got here in the first place?” Charrot was confused.
The angel laughed, not unkindly. “I suppose you don’t at that.” He reached out with one hand and said, “I’ll just give you a little push and you’ll be on your way. Don’t worry, it won’t hurt.”
Charrot woke up, face down in his shirt, inner trousers and socks on the still made-up inn bed. He remembered that he’d been going to drink and bathe, and from the way the light had changed, that had been hours ago. Fortunately there was still hot water in the bathroom and he could lock the door while he sluiced and scrubbed.
When he emerged from the baths he realised that new guests had only just arrived. There were horses eagerly using the water trough outside the stable and loud voices in the common room. Most of them were calling for food and beer but that wasn’t what the innkeeper was talking about and if he was any judge, she was standing in the doorway between the common room and the less public parts of the inn. “So you’re after someone who’s run off from debtor’s indentures are you, captain?”
“Yes.” The man she was speaking to had a thicker than usual Rajjan accent. “The Gharee are a most respectable family and they wish to be rid of this problem, so they onsold his indenture to me. Have you seen a man of this description?”
“Ah, captain,” the innkeeper’s voice firm and feminine, “if these are the actual indenture papers, I hope you didn’t pay more than a copper groat for them.”
“Why not?” The Rajjad’s voice was cautious.
“If a man can write well enough to sign his own name,” the innkeeper replied, “then he generally doesn’t spell his given name differently in each of the three places he signs the same document at the same time. Also, this magistrate’s seal at the bottom that’s supposed to be from Colanta? The design isn’t right and the wax is wrong – the grade’s too cheap.”
“You are right,” that was the Rajjad again, “in this light you can see the chalk grains and if it’s been coloured with vermilion, then I’ll eat my right boot.” For a moment Charrot didn’t hear anything, then the man said, “There’s no point in going back to the magistrate who certified the transfer of the indenture to me, he must have known this was a forgery. There’s no choice but to go to Colanta and lay a complaint against the lot of them if I’m to have any chance of getting my money back.”
“As you say,” agreed the innkeeper primly. “Will you stay the night or leave after you‘ve eaten?”
“After we’ve eaten,” was the last thing Charrot heard before he snuck back to his room and locked the door behind him.
It was almost an hour before he heard the horses leave the inn and then ten minutes later, as he was considering whether it was safe to emerge, there was a knock on Charrot’s door. He opened it cautiously and found the innkeeper standing there with a meal tray. “I thought you’d be hungry,” she said. Then she added, “You did well to stay out of sight.”
“I heard you talking to the Rajjad when I left the bathroom,” he admitted.
“Well, everything I said about his document was absolutely true,” the inn keeper sighed. “It’s disappointing that your local magistrate seems to have been rather…susceptible.”
“Well, I look disreputable and of no fixed abode,” pointed out Charrot. “I’ve got the blood of at least four races in my veins and I don’t look particularly like any of them. Mostana, my home town, is a little place in Ghessi territory and the Gharee are so pure blood it almost hurts.”
“They say the Benarians are thingy about people with mixed blood, but back country Ghessi can be worse,” agreed the inn keeper. “Now, just in case the Rajjad’s people circle back, I think you should eat in your room for now. Perhaps later we could talk business? Those false papers said that you’re a blacksmith?”
“I am,” agreed Charrot as he took the meal tray, “and I think I would like to talk business.”