They divvy up the last of the supplies amongst the twenty members of the group and continue along the coast.
In the distance a small bump rises in the horizon. As though it had emerged from the sea, a large city fights the waves back. Where most cities would pull away from the water, further inland, the city before them embraced it. Built off the coast, the sea surrounds the city on all sides. So many ships fight for room at the city’s docks when one spot opens up, three or more attempt to fill it.
Four bridges connect the city to the mainland via large gates. Towns are built around the gates and it’s one of these the group decides to aim for before night fully overtakes them.
With a goal in sight everyone’s speed picks up. The idea of fresh food and warm beds fills them with renewed energy.
They reach the closest town, fire starters lighting the last of the lamps as folks hurry to their destinations for the night. Two relaxed guards sit on either side of the entrance, their eyes briefly glancing at the group walking towards them, clearly feeling no threat.
“Inns are all by the dock gate.” The larger of the two guards points behind him using his thumb, an amused smile forming on his lips. “If you can find a room.”
The other guard stares at Ari, a flash of recognition in his eyes. He turns away, but not before Ari catches him.
“You got any recommendations?” she asks the younger man, trying to sound friendly.
The younger guard shakes his head, his eyes locked on the ground. “They’re all good.”
“But which one do you think we’ll have the best chance finding a few rooms at?”
The guard lifts his head, meeting her eyes, but quickly looking past her to the other guard. Seeing the older man not paying attention, he takes a deep breath and leans close to her.
“Before you reach the dock gate, there’s a nasty lookin’ alley with a broken gate. If you follow it you’ll find the Rotten Rotrauk. Woman in charge’s name is Lorel. Tell her Heddy sent you and she’ll treat you good.”
The name of the inn startles Ari. Memories fill her of her mother telling her stories about those she fought alongside with. She remembers the story of the Lakeen brothers fighting beasts and Kylii losing his arm to a rotrauk, but her mother was able to fully heal him.
Nodding her head in thanks, Ari eyes Crofton and he nods in understanding. The group moves past the gate, walking close together. Making their way towards the dock gate, the buildings become distinct. Signs hanging above the doors show images of beasts, food, drinks, or beds. But all were inns of varying sizes. Loud voices echoed through the doorways and windows and shadows danced against the light.
Ari spies a broken gate leading into a dark alley and she motions the group to follow her. They leave the well-lit walkway and noisy inns for the damp, quiet alley. Small, scurrying animals run from the group, dodging into piles of unidentifiable muck.
A low glow warms the alley and exiting the alley, they find themselves in front of a building separate from the others. It’s built on the edge of the cliff, wood barely keeping it from collapsing into the sea below. Lanterns hanging on either side of the doorway cover the entrance with warmth. Unlike the other inns, there’s no shouting or loud voices coming from inside.
“We sure this is the place?” Kemp asks, eyeing the wood holding the building.
“That sign looks like a rotrauk to me,” Ari says, pointing to the sign above the door. A rotrauk on its back with flies above it are carved into the dark wood of the sign.
“So, are we going in?” Tal asks.
“Why not? Where else are we going to go?” Ari turns to the group. “Does anyone really want to sleep outside again?”
The faces in the dark alley give her the answer she expected. They move out of the alley and enter the Rotten Rotrauk.
The inside is warm and inviting, the tables spread throughout the room close enough to create a homely feel, but also far enough private conversations can be had. A few patrons sit at separate tables, one laying his head on the heavy wood next to his empty drink and others huddle close together, talking in private.
Opposite the entrance, a bar counter is flanked on either side by two doorways. One is closed while the other shows a hallway with multiple doors leading off to rooms. Above the bar, a balcony shows more doors as well as a hallway leading further into the inn. A stairway on the wall to the left leads up to the second floor.
Standing behind the bar counter, a young woman works on bottles, organizing them and making notes on paper. She doesn’t look up at the group, keeping her attention on her work. Her long hair falls over her shoulders, hanging above the counter. The waves mimic the motions of the sea outside and the sound of the water seems to echo through the inn.
Ari eyes the woman at the bar counter, leaning close to Tal. “Have everyone sit and rest. I’ll see what the boarding situation is.”
“I’ll go with you,” Kemp offers.
“Me too,” Vico adds.
Nodding, Ari heads towards the bar followed by Kemp and Vico. The others find empty tables and sit, a few laying their heads on their arms. Crofton sits facing the bar to keep an eye on the woman.
The three sit at the bar in front of the woman. Ari leans forward on the counter, watching her work quietly.
“Sorry, no rooms left. All booked up,” the young woman says without looking up.
Kemp and Vico turn to glance around the room, before staring at each other in disbelief.
“Seems pretty empty to me,” Vico says.
Placing a hand on his shoulder, Ari smiles at the woman “That’s too bad. Heddy told us this was the best inn in town. Told us Lorel would treat us well.”
Hearing the name Heddy, the woman stops working and slowly looks up at Ari. Her eyes flash with recognition and she has a slight catch in her breath. Quickly she recovers and she crosses her arms over her chest. “I doubt two of those things. This isn’t the best inn in town and Heddy doesn’t say well. He’d tell you I would treat you good.”
“And the third?”
“It sure is too bad we’re all booked up.” Her dark eyes peer behind the three at the bar at the rest of the group. “Though I might be forgetting a few folks who recently checked out. Let me check my log.”
Reaching below the counter, Lorel brings out a thick, dusty book. She opens it to one of the first few pages. Tracing her finger on the page a sly smile forms on her lips.
“Well, look at that. Five rooms opened up on the second floor. You’re lucky tonight.”
“Only five?” Kemp asks.
“Hmm, maybe I read it wrong. Maybe there were only two?” She stares at Kemp with the same sly smile.
Grabbing Kemp’s arm tightly, Ari shakes her head. “Oh no, you could never make a mistake. Thank you. Now about payment…”
“What’re you talking about? You already paid.” Lorel puts the logbook back under the bar counter, giving Ari a knowing wink.
Nodding her head, Ari motions the two men to head back to the group. They both hesitate but understand they don’t need to help. Once they’re safely back with the group, Ari faces Lorel.
“Thank you. I guess I should ask, why?”
“You could.” Lorel crosses to the end of the bar, grabbing keys from the wall. Walking back to Ari, she also grabs a bottle. She places everything in front of Ari. “But I don’t have to tell you.”
“You don’t. But something tells me you don’t do it for everyone Heddy sends this way.”
“What gives you that idea?”
“Just an observation.” Ari grabs the bottle and takes a tentative drink. “Interesting choice, Rotten Rotrauk.”
“Are there many rotrauks around here? I always heard they lived mainly way down south in the Minn Fields.”
“Do they? Interesting that you know that.”
“How long have you had this inn?”
“You’re very inquisitive about inns, aren’t you? Let’s see, the building has been here for probably fifty years.” Lorel’s expression changes slightly, as though she knows what Ari’s trying to ask her, but is enjoying the misleading. “I’ve owned it for almost twenty years.”
Ari’s heart pounds excitedly. “Twenty years? And was Rotten Rotrauk what you always wanted to call it?”
“Nope. Got the name from my first guests, a large group that passed through here around that time. Filled up my whole inn and paid me enough to really get started. The guy in charge had a strange name.”
“Do you remember it?” Ari asks, struggling to keep the eagerness from her voice.
Lorel cocks her head to the side, leaning back slightly. “No.”
Ari’s heart fell.
“But I remember the name of the guy who gave me the idea for the name Rotten Rotrauk. Said it was in honor of his young and stupid days.” Lorel laughs to herself and a slight blush fills her cheeks. “Kylii Lakeen. I remember because he had a twin brother.”
A flash of warmth and excitement fills her. Her father had come through this town, this very inn. She was following his path and the realization…she could almost feel her father’s presence.
“You all right there?” Lorel’s question breaks Ari’s reverie. The young woman leans on the bar counter. “Looks like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Ime…Ime Gurek? Was that his name? The guy in charge?” Ari’s voice shakes. She knows it could only be him, but she needs to hear someone else say his name.
“Might’ve been. Why does that matter to you?” Lorel’s eyes hold Ari’s gaze.
Neither sees Crofton approach.
“Ari,” his soft voice still surprises both women. “We should let everyone get some sleep. How’re the rooms coming?”
Snatching the keys form the counter, Ari stands and moves away. “Five rooms. We’ll have to split up into groups of four.”
“The rooms are the last five down the hall upstairs. Three on the left, two on the right.” Lorel walks back to the bottles she was working on, placing Ari’s forgotten drink in a bucket on the floor.
Crofton leads Ari back towards the group. She glances back at Lorel and sees her wink back.