Four guests sat down to dinner together that night in The Travellers Rest in Ailstbridge. They were: Acorn Elmsfather and Russet Thornfruit who were paladins of Humia; the Reverend Morthi, a priestess of Agricus; and Slinderin Elmsfather who was Acorn's son and currently a pilgrim following his unsuccessful candidature for Humia's service. Slinderin was also the only one of them who'd been in the village when the attack that had led to the other three being here had occurred.
On the other hand, Reverend Morthi was, relatively speaking, a local and knew something of the two combatants who were trying to claim possession of the village’s bridge over the River Uldar. "Lord Swithin and Lord Bantry," she said, "are neither of them the wisest of men. Both of them are used to taking what they want, but neither of them has large or powerful neighbours. Both also have, from what I hear, cash flow problems."
"What sort of cash flow problems?" Brother Acorn asked the question as he poured her more beer. "Debts? Gambling? Expensive courtships?"
Reverend Morthi tucked an escaping blonde braid of hair back where it belonged behind her ear and then picked up her beer mug. "More that they can't get it. Most of their tenants pay them in kind and a lot of the local trade is in barter of goods or services. Their lordships can pay a portion of their taxes in kind as well, but they answer to different Earls and both of those good gentles want a portion of coin from their vassals. It seems that neither Godrick Swainhart nor Bethel Advinsson currently think it their problem to consider where that cash could or should come from, so their lordships are grabbing at an apparent opportunity." She stopped and drank her beer.
The two paladins exchanged a glance, and Brother Russet asked, "Apparent opportunity?"
"It's not a Crown bridge," answered Reverend Morthi, "that's very clear. They'd not be trying this if it was, even if we don't often see representatives of the Crown in these parts. It predates the foundation of both their manors, back in the time of their great grandfathers, and my own temple's records which go back further than all three foundations."
"It's a relic then," deduced Brother Acorn.
"You'd think so," replied Reverend Morthi, "but someone sends a gang of men along every year or two to do maintenance and repairs. It may have been here long enough to be a relic, but it's not been abandoned." She drank some more beer.
Slinderin ventured the question, "So who sends the workmen?"
"I have no idea," replied Reverend Morthi. "I've never had a conversation with them - I either haven't been here because I'm not here often or regularly, or they've been busy when I've been passing through. Frankly, up until now it hasn't been any of my business and even now it may not be. The murder of one of my outlying congregants by someone trying to steal the bridge doesn't necessarily make the ownership of the bridge my concern." She finished the contents of her beer mug. "Unless, of course, they keep killing people over it."
"And only if knowing who owns the bridge will stop the killing and wanton destruction," agreed Brother Russet. "The Earls and the Crown may not care about the details of how their lordships raise the coin they owe, but they'll care if the religious orders start overseeing local justice without regard and deference to them."
Brother Acorn asked thoughtfully, "Do you know if the workmen stay in one of the inns when they're here? If they do, then the inn keeper probably knows who they work for."
"If we need to take this farther, then we can ask," replied Brother Russet. "For now, we should all drink some more of this fine beer and finish this excellent dinner before we repair to our beds. The morning will bring its own tasks."
It was almost another hour before Slinderin was making his way across and up the road from The Travellers Rest to the other inn in the village, The Wheel and Staff, where he was staying. The two weren't quite opposite each other across the road that ran from the bridge through the village, but it was close. The moon was a little past full so there was plenty of light to walk by but not enough to see the world in colour. When he had almost reached the second inn, he thought he saw movement in the corner of his eye along the forest fringe and a direct look showed him nothing, but he hurried into the taproom of The Wheel and Staff where the landlord was putting out the extra lights before closing up for the night.
"You're back in good time, young'un," he greeted Slinderin cheerfully. "Have a good natter with your dad and his mate, did you?"
"Yes, thank you." Slinderin hesitated a moment and went on, "Just now, outside, I thought I saw something moving at the forest's edge. It wasn't there when I looked again. Of course, I may have just thought that I saw something - the light's not that good outside and I have been drinking a considerable amount of beer."
The man paused, then said, "It may be nothing, as you say, and it may be nothing to do with us, or it could be everything to do with us, so you did right to mention it. Even so, all of us who live here know that there are folk who wait till after dark to use the bridge so that no-one sees their comings and goings. They do us no harm and we let them go about their business unbothered."
"I'll hope that it was one of them, then." Slinderin smiled and added, "If there's trouble in the night, don't hesitate to wake me up. I've had more to drink than usual, but I've not had so much as to make me useless."
"I'll keep that in mind, young'un," the innkeeper agreed. "I'll leave you a candle to see yourself up to your room after you've seen to your business. Sleep well, and we'll see you in the morning." The innkeeper went off to his own room then, and Slinderin took himself off to the common facility that sat on the far side of the inn's courtyard, then up to his room. He stripped off, folding his clothes over the chair, snuffed the candle, and fell into the bed.
When he woke again, it was morning. The day was sunny out and Slinderin lay where he was for a moment, listing in his mind the things that needed doing, and he could accomplish, to repair the ruined village gardens. Then he got up, dressed, and went downstairs for breakfast.
Reverend Morthi found him turning over the inn's muck pile sometime later. "I see that you're at work again," she said cheerfully. "I did wonder how you were after last night."
"I'm fine, I think," replied Slinderin. "Did you want me for something?"
"Actually, yes I do," admitted Reverend Morthi. "This morning there's a group of men camped in the patch next to the bridge: between the river, The Traveller's Rest, and that cottage. They weren't there last night, and I know I said last night that the bridge is none of my business, but I want to know who they are."
"So that you can protect your congregants if you have to?" Slinderin remembered that duty from his studies.
"Yes," she agreed. "That's it exactly. If I know who they are and why they're here I'll know if there's going to be more trouble because of them. I'm sure your father and his friend would help, but...."
"Perhaps a little too much intimidation?" Slinderin smiled. "If you think I'd be helpful, I'll come but you might get back there to find my dad and Brother Russet already talking to them."
"You're right," she agreed, "but I don't think they'd left their rooms when I came out."
"They might still be at their prayers," agreed Slinderin. "It can take a while sometimes."
Reverend Morthi went to say something but stopped with her mouth open and her gaze fixed just to one side of Slinderin, in the direction of the forest. "More immediately, who's this now?"
Slinderin turned to look and saw a man walking towards them. The striking thing about him was the reddish deer skin that covered him from halfway up the muzzle of the animal skull he was wearing on his head to the back of his knees. Slinderin was certain that the man wasn’t wearing a deer skull.
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