It was spring then and if it was the usual spring, birds would have already been chirping and fluttering about in the woods. Rustles would be heard, made by woodland critters, twigs would pop from deer herds and silence would follow patient wolf packs. Indeed, if the spring would be usual, the hooves of horses would dust up the road and creaking wheels of carts would be cross the road through the woods. Many sparrows would be fluttering about, chirping and making noise. A braver one would venture towards a tall tower and dive down onto a sturdy block and boulder building, seeking crumbs and leftovers so many people drop going in and out. The little sparrow would gracefully evade horse hooves, carts and clanking armor and boots, and peck on the dry grass for breadcrumbs that inevitably make their way out of the door. Then, interrupted by eventual passer-by, the sparrow would shoot back up into the sky, make a few circles around warm smoke from the chimney and dive again towards the well, where buckets contain water, take a few sips and flutter back up when eventually strong, weathered arms would pick the buckets up and take them away, only to be refilled later. The little sparrow would be happy. If this was the usual spring.
This time, there were no sparrows, no woodland critters – only dead silence in the forest, interrupted frequently by screams, clanking of steel and unrecognizable, skin crawling roars. Then, silence would follow, and many armed warriors that would enter the forest would come back, significantly fewer in numbers. Some carrying their fallen comrades, others dragging their own ruined weapons or in some occasions – fingers, arms and legs. The latter would not make it very far.
And so in this unusual, dark spring, with heavy rain, cold wind and rivers of blood, the tavern behind the wall stood. At the edge of the forest, on the side of a trade route between kingdoms that now was deserted, save for brave knights, hunters and sorcerers, who pledged to defeat the new scourge of dark creatures that took over the forest. In these dark days, the gate to the tavern was always shut and well-guarded. The tower stayed lit throughout the cloudy days, arrows zipping down from time to time, followed by a squeal or a roar. Knights became fewer in number, trade become extremely scarce and no travelers passed by anymore. Even the name plaque next to the gates was crooked and barely read Fourside Inn anymore.
On one of such dark days, when rain poured down and midday looked more like late dusk, a traveler knocked on the gate. It took a good few moments for tired and drenched guards to realize it was not their imagination – there haven’t been any new guests for three days now.
Knock knock knock. The sound repeated over the rain and finally, the guard with a long spear moved from the sheltered guard station with hay roof towards the peep hole and opened to look down.
“Who goes there?!” the guard yelled. He squinted to see a hooded figure, wrapped itself tightly in a travel cloak, black from the rain. A horse snorted behind the figure, just as drenched, head down in the mud.
“Looking to stay the night!” yelled back a clear, but strained voice of a woman. The horse’s head shot up, the guard stared at the figure, unsure. Then the unmistakable, chilling roar came from behind the drenched woman. She jolted back, keeping close to the horse by the reigns, a longbow in her other hand.
“Open the gate!!!” she shouted as rustles among the trees came closer and howling pounded on the ears and hearts. The guard did not hesitate anymore: yelling after his companion, they both pulled on a heavy block of wood to one side of the gate and pushed the freed side, just enough for the horse to move past.
The cloaked woman let a few arrows fly, followed by squeals and thudding sounds, but as soon as she heard the gate move, she slapped her horse on the back and ran after it, turning to lose a couple more arrows. The guard waited for the animal and its owner to slip inside the safety of the walls and pulled on the gate, his companion waiting with the wood block. The last thing he saw before the gate shut close was multiple pairs of red eyes in cumulus black mist at the tree line and rows of fangs underneath them. The man in guard’s uniform whispered a small prayer under his breath as they listened for thuds against the gate subside and rummaging sounds move away towards the forest.
The guard that stayed inside the gate turned around and looked at the new arrival. She was panting, her hood was off and the cold rain was falling right on her tangled hair, the longbow quivering in her lean hand. The sharp ears and olive green skin gave away her elven heritage immediately.
The guards looked at each other. Elves were rare in these parts, especially free ones and this particular elf did not have her ears trimmed. The guard that let her in, slightly older one with lush silvering mustache nodded to his younger companion and approached the elf. His companion observed the scene suspiciously, but then returned to his sheltered post and made another incision in the wooden pole. The incisions went all the way up to where the hay roof started.
“Ye was lucky, yun’ lady” the grizzled guardsman approached the elf “made it just in the nick o’ time. We lost quite a few just at the gate. Go on. Innkeep will have a room for ye. Not many souls traveling by these days.”
“M-my horse…” the elf shuddered, cold rain and fear finally catching up. Her hand was still gripping the bow tight.
“She’s in the stables behind the well already. Maric will take care of ‘er, don’t ye worry.”
“T-thank you” the elf stammered and turned towards the two story brick and stone building with a tower behind it. Step by step, she made her way towards the sturdy building, pressed on the handle of reinforced wooden door and stepped inside.
After many days on the road, Olivia finally felt the warmth of openly crackling fire on her face. She stood there, dripping with cold rainwater, hand on the longbow trembling, heart still fluttering. But the warmth and dim light of the tavern was so cozy and safe, she felt it was now time to unclench her hand from the bow. She pushed herself to move towards the bar where a surprised innkeep stood still, only his massive beard heaving with his chest. He watched as the drenched elf sat down on the stool behind the bar, leaving a trail of wet behind her.
As if waking from a stupor, the innkeep shook his head and approached Olivia, mug in hand already.
“Long travel, eh?” the man turned out to have a very gentle, deep voice ” ‘ere, let me pour ye some hot ale. Warms the soul, this one.” Olivia didn’t have the strength to protest. She watched the big man walk surprisingly gingerly towards the open fire and reached into the pot with a ladle and poured dark amber liquid into clay mug and brought it over to Olivia. She hesitated for a little bit, but then drank a few gulps and felt warmth spread through her body immediately. Then few gulps more and she was done. She didn’t feel as cold anymore.
“Thank you” she put the mug down “I would like a room. And how much for the ale?”
“On the house, this one” the innkeep waved at her and reached under the bar to pull out a brass key “let me show ye upstairs. Have a nice room for ye, all clean and warm. Ye can come down for food later. Have some stew cookin’.”
Olivia nodded and silently followed the innkeep up the wooden stairs and into a corridor with several doors to each side. Hers was third on the right. The room proved to be indeed warm and clean, although humble, with a single bed, worn linens and a table with a single chair. There was a candle on the said table and the innkeep lit it with a flint and put a single key next to it.
“Settle in now. It’s safe ‘ere” the innkeep said softly and left Olivia on her own.
She looked around the room. Breathing in deeply, she put the bow carefully against the desk and proceeded to take off all the wet clothes on her that made her cold. She hung them out at the foot of the bed, wrapped herself in the linen sheets and dropped on the bed, falling asleep immediately to the sound of rain against roof tiles.
The rain poured all day without any end in sight. The two guards at the top of the tower kept the blazer burning all this time, so the travelers, however few there were, would find their way to the safety of the tavern behind the wall. They watched with worry how a young woman narrowly escaped the dark monsters through the gate and staggered into the tavern. Later that evening, they watched a knight arrive, followed shortly by two riders. By the end of the day, a cart arrived with supplies, guarded by a retinue of eight soldiers on horses. The two watched how the innkeep accepted the goods, talked with the soldiers for a while while Maric, the young redhead stable boy carried goods inside with the help of other guards not on duty. The cart and the soldiers left and the only other person that came through the gate was a stranger in heavy hood, full backpack, no weapons and a black dog following him. After some deliberation, the guards at the gate agreed to let the dog enter the tavern. The guardsmen at the top of the tower concluded that the innkeep should kick the dog out soon, but it never happened. Desperate times, the guardsmen agreed. The two were relieved after dusk by their comrades. The rested guardsmen watched the forest line carefully, for at nightfall, the rustles and the shadows were much more active, the roars and howls chilled the blood. And on clear, moonlit nights, the guards at the top of the tower could even discern individual monsters, moving among the strange fog – all moved on four legs, resembling overgrown lizards with fangs, the mist emanating form them and if some animal was unfortunate enough to get in their way, it would die on contact with the smog, only then quickly devoured by the beasts, leaving nothing, not even bones. No one knew where the monsters came from. Some say it is the curse on the kingdoms by forest gods for robbing their realm of wood and game. Others say it is the curse cast by elves escaped from their masters’ chains and this being their revenge. Whatever the cause, no knight, magic wielder or hunter has been able to stop these roaming packs and hence the forest stood like unattainable fortress, its only resistance left – the tavern behind the wall.
Olivia emerged from sleep as if from deep water – slowly and steadily. She became aware of voices below, footsteps somewhere further away and eerie silence of no rain falling against the roof tiles anymore. Many hours must have passed, the candle has burned down completely. She slowly sat up, still wrapped tightly in sheets. She listened keenly to the light footsteps outside her door, followed by multiple soft scratches that she knew all too well. They were made by a dog. Olivia inhaled deeply several times, shaking her head and dressing up – it was so warm and dry in the room, her garments were already dried. Hesitating, she left the bow against the table and only kept two daggers on her sides.
Going downstairs she heard the voices clearer. The tavern now hosted two hunters – royal by the emblems on their chests – and a knight, sitting and talking over bowls of stew and mugs of steaming ale. The knight gave himself away with short, army issue haircut, shoulder pads resting by his side and a long sword with ornate hilt. Textbook northern knight. Olivia smirked. Then there was a group of six stationed guards, one of them Olivia recognized as the large, mustached man that let her in through the gate. To her, all the guards looks pale, demoralized, sat silently, looking only at their mugs – a stark contrast between the newly arrived group that chatted lively in comparison. Lastly, as Olivia made her way towards the bar, she saw another patron – a dragonborn with blue skin, sitting at the corner-most table, large black dog resting peacefully on the floor. He was reading from a leathery notebook, not lifting his yellow gaze, and had couple more books on the table in front. A mug and a bowl of stew stood empty.
“Ah, slept for quite a while, haven’t ye?” the innkeep greeted Olivia with a warm smile and a bowl full of stew already in his hand. She felt her stomach rumble wildly from all the scents. As soon as the innkeep put it in front of her on the bar, Olivia dug in and finished the dish immediately. Much like everything in the Fourside Inn, it was humble, largely consisting of last year’s potatoes, old wheat, scratchings from animal fat and scraps from the bone. It was the best stew Olivia had.
“So, where ye travelin’ during such dark times? Barely anyone travels alone these days.” Olivia looked up at the innkeep for a moment.
“I’m traveling to the Northern Mountains.” she said curtly.
“Ah, a long and dangerous road ahead, even without these evil beasts. Have business with them dwarves I recon? Chose a poor time to travel, eh? But yer no local, are ye? Whereabouts are ye from?”
“Orcittia” Olivia answered as shortly as possible. She expected the questioning and hoped it would pass soon.
“Ooooh, yer far away from home indeed, young lady. Hah!” the innkeep laughed hardily “I don’t think I ever met any elf from those parts. Well, this is an occasion indeed! More ale on the house for a guest like that! Hah!”
In Olivia’s worst nightmares, this has happened, sure. But now they were coming true. Everyone, even the black dog on the floor, were looking at her, receiving a mug of hot ale free of charge. She drank a gulp and tried to steer the conversation elsewhere:
“Where do these monsters come from?” Olivia asked quickly. She didn’t expect anyone to know for sure.
“Oooh, but that the mystery now, ain’t it?” the innkeep leaned onto his buff elbows against the bar “no one really knows where these beasts come from. Some say it’s a curse, others – a punishment from the Four Gods. But those that could tell for sure all croak or return never the same, raving mad, bumblin’ nonsense. Not even knights of the Fire One managed nothin'” the last sentence he said very silently, glancing at the knight and two royal hunters, but they returned to chatting among themselves, albeit much more quietly now.
“And what do you say?” Olivia wasn’t going to let this opportunity to not talk about her slide.
“I say that these beasts were released as a curse” he looked around and leaned even closer “the two kingdoms have been vying for this part of the wood for years now, robbing it blind. All oldest oaks have been chopped down and now…” he purposely paused and Olivia could see he enjoyed telling this story “now the forest woke, spirits morphed into these flesh eating beasts, protecting themselves from the greed of man” he sighed “perhaps in Orcittia you elves treat your woodlands differently and no such vile things appear. But here, monsters lurk everywhere and all of it due to the kings of the land that think themselves its masters. Now we all suffer and die for their greed. At least those are my two coppers about it.” he leaned back and spoke louder now “At least we’re safe here behind the wall. The creatures are vile, but they can’t scale upwards it seems. So drink up, young lady. No dangers lurk here, hah! Elf from Orcittia! Marvel to behold!”
Olivia drank from her mug, the ale cooling fast. The innkeep walked over to the guards – they looked even more sour now. I must not stay long. Too many questions here. But the road ahead is dangerous, I barely made it. I’m scared to go, those Deep beasts are relentless, how did they even make it up?! Should I turn back? No. Should I go around? No, too long. I don’t know. Work with the knights? There will be too many questions and they’re just as helpless. I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what-
“Can I sit here?” a deep, throaty voice with guttural emphasis on the s woke her from the racing panic in her head. Olivia looked up and the blue dragonborn was standing next to her, mug in one hand and other pointing at a stool. His black dog stood right beside him. Only a second later Olivia realized he was speaking in fluent Orcittian elvish.
“What do you want with me?” she asked firmly in same elvish.
“Some company? Others seem a bit too…local. You know?” he showed around the tavern where only human men sat at their tables. Olivia met and dealt with a lot of dragonborn back in Orcittia and thought she knew the race well: fiery, quick to learn, good at scamming and honest dealings alike. But this one, in his bright yellow eyes and expressionless face was different – she couldn’t read him at all. She gestured towards the stool and he sat down next to her. The black dog lied back down on the floor near his master.
“You trained your dog well” Olivia spoke first.
“Found him on the road, actually” the dragonborn took a sip “was already like this. Well trained and all. He just followed me. You know lots about dogs?”
“I have seven of them at home” Olivia smiled gently “we go hunting often and I train them myself.”
“I see. And what brought you so far away from your pack?”
“I have business in the Northern Mountains.” Olivia again answered very curtly. She regretted saying she was from Orcittia.
“Not the first time you encounter these beasts, is it?” the dragonborn lowered his voice so only she could hear him. The innkeep now stopped at the table with the knight and two huntsmen. They were glancing at Olivia and the blue dragonborn from time to time.
“How do you know?” Olivia was so taken aback, she didn’t even hide the fact.
“It’s how you asked the innkeep about them. Usually people are more inquisitive than that.” he shrugged. Olivia felt it was much too casual to be pretend.
“Well, you are not wrong” Olivia gulped her pride of giving herself away so easily with more ale “I have seen them before. In fact, it’s the reason I’m going to the Northern Mountains. I just didn’t think they would leave the underground. Drohans the dwarves call them. How do you know about them?”
“Met some dwarven merchants on the way. Told me some wild tales about mad packs of Drohan roaming around, stealing babies and whatnot. Thought it nonsense, but…” the dragonborn sighed and placed his mug on the bar with a thud “I’m Quenfar, by the way.”
“Olivia” she nodded “and it’s not nonsense. I’ve seen Drohan lurk at homes of dwarves and devour children and adults alike. The sight is pure gore” Olivia shuddered “and there are no red eyes, just excess skin and fangs. Lots and lots of fangs.”
“And do you think we are safe here from those creatures, as this innkeep claims?”
“I don’t think it’s truly safe anywhere from them” Olivia tapped her fingers a couple of times “but this is not their natural habitat. They act as if disoriented and can very well be unable to jump or otherwise overcome the wall. So, in that sense, we are safe here.”
Quenfar listened in silence. Looking straight ahead of himself. Olivia could not determine a single thing that went through his head.
“I’m on my way north as well. Need to reach Meerstrand. I think it would be safer to travel together. What do you think?” Quenfar looked straight at Olivia. She hesitated.
“I don’t think-” she started, but her answer cut short by a bout of laughter and a yell from the innkeep.
“Maric! Boy, where are you? Bring couple buckets of water. Folk are hungry ‘ere, need more stew.”
Maric, the ginger stable boy emerged from the back room and, nodding fervently, left through the main entrance.
“Ah, good lad, Four bless him” the innkeep winked at Olivia and went in the back, sound of clanking kitchen utensils following him.
“So. What do you say?” Quenfar returned to the topic immediately. His black dog raised its head suddenly and looked after where Maric went.
“I am not sure” Olivia hesitated.
Maric went outside. The night was cool, his feet soaked in the wet mud and patches of last year’s grass and steam rolled out of his mouth with every breath. Yet, the crescent moon shined its light through the passing clouds and at least he didn’t need the torch. Maric sighed inaudibly and reached for the buckets. Strangely, one was lying on the ground, all muddied, even though he clearly remembered them being cleaned and put in place neatly. That Maric was sure off. He liked making sure everything was in its place. He lifted the empty bucket and cleaned off smudges with his sleeve, attached it to the hook above the well and lowered it down. As he was listening for water surface, he looked at horses further in the stables: all were lying down and asleep. Maric sighed again. All was in order now.
Except that the hit of the water surface never came. Instead, a clank against something foreign that Maric never heard before came. He frowned and looked down into the well. It was dark and the well was deep, he didn’t expect to see much. He then tried to pull the bucket up, but it wouldn’t budge, as if stuck. Maric pulled on the rope harder until he heard a loud bang and fell over on his back. The rope untensed and still lying down he pulled it back…with no bucket at the other end. Fear engulfed Maric. He looked around in the pale moonlight.
The horses didn’t make a sound and looking closer, didn’t seem to breathe out steam as Maric did. Now he heard rustled, behind the tavern, where the firewood. He looked more closely that there were no more guards normally stationed at the gate. And worst of all, as Maric looked up with eyes wide as plates, he was the unthinkable. The tower brazer was out.
Maric started running back towards the tavern, as much as his short feet let him. The door was just a few feet away. Then, suddenly, he felt a sharp pain in his back, so sharp it almost paralysed him. He tried reaching where the pain was, but immediately felt his hand soaked in hot blood of his own. Maric looked at it for a while, his vision starting to blur. Only when he lifted his gaze back up and saw a line of fangs almost touching his nose, felt the putrid smell emanating from behind those jaws and heard the squeaking sound of black rotting flesh inside his own that Maric did what he hasn’t done since he was a babe. He screamed.
Olivia thought correctly that everyone in the tavern heard that scream. The guards jumped up and gripped their swords, the hunters pulled out their bows from underneath their table and the innkeep leaped behind the bar to take out a large double axe. Extraordinarily, the knight pulled on his shoulder guards with lightening speed and stood at the ready with a longsword and a round shield. Olivia stood up too and immediately regretted leaving her bow upstairs, but daggers were better than nothing. Quenfar’s dog barked and growled at the door that started received hits from outside. To Olivia’s surprise, Quenfar didn’t move an inch.
“What’s wrong with you?!” she forced in a whisper, while men were barricading the door with tables “Drohan have clearly broken through, we must fight them off-”
“No.” Quenfar cut her short. His dog looked up at him. “We need to flee. If we can get up on the roof, I can get us out of this death trap. If we’re lucky, some of these bastards will focus on the tavern while we get through the thick of the forest.” he stood up. “So, are you in?”
Olivia hesitated. In that moment, the innkeep ran up, panting at them and breathed out:
“The brazer is out. Means the men have fallen and we’re stuck here. You can hide in the cellar, it should be safe there, young lady. We will barricade and fight them back if necessary, until next delivery in three days.” That last part sounded particularly unbelievable to Olivia. She looked back angrily at Quenfar.
“What about them?” she gestured. The innkeep looked confused. Quenfar sighed with irritation as the knocks now pounded from every side of the inn. Time was running very low. Olivia pressed on the matter:
“I won’t go if they are not going.” she made it sound very clear. The innkeep looked confused still, but the sound of breaking glass stirred him: he ran towards the closest window, where a black, misty and amorphous tentacle was already swirling around the inside. Him and the knight chopped off the black tentacle and it fell on the ground and immediately deteriorated into dust. Two men took another table and rammed it against the small, broken window. They both started running around from window to window, barricading them as well.
Olivia turned back to Quenfar and spoke firmly:
“Look, I don’t know what you’re up to, but if you have a way to get out, it must involve these people. We can’t leave them to die!”
“Why do you care?” he retorted “they would put you in chains if circumstances weren’t this dire. You’d be serving grub or rubbing cock at some low life’s house and nobody would care about you. Why do you?”
“Because” she paused “because they haven’t put me in chains. They gave me food and shelter. Not every human is a low life.”
“Right.” Quenfar sighed and as that happened, the table that was jammed against the window flew away and two ever shape-changing limbs invaded the tavern. Unfortunately for one of the hunters, they found him immediately, wrapped around him in seconds and started choking and stabbing him with unexpected sharpness. Everyone except Quenfar and his dog rushed to his aid, but to no avail. The man bled out and choked to death in front of their eyes, with a black mass in his throat. All the group managed to do was to cut down the tentacles and barricade the window again. The banging against the tavern walls was constant now.
“Quenfar!” Olivia yelled, her arms and chest splattered with blood “if you know how, get us out of here! Now! All of us!”
Only for a split second did he look down at his dog. The black dog sneezed and sat down. The dragonborn closed his eyes and nodded.
“Everyone!” he yelled in common tongue. The banging was drowning out his voice now. “Get up on the rooftop. Only take the weapons with you.” No one moved, just stared at him. Quenfar looked around annoyed and roared, almost literally. “WELL? DO YOU WANT TO LIVE?! MOVE!!”
With that roar, two windows broke and sizeable cumulous masses started pouring in. No one needed to be roared at twice. The innkeed was the first to go, showing everyone up the stairs to the inn. Olivia and Quenfar followed, with the knight and remaining hunter behind, while the guardsmen fought back the Drohan. Out of six, only two made it out, the rest dying in pools of blood, suffocating or watching themselves being eaten alive.
The group got on the rooftop through a small trap door – they had to go one by one. Olivia was the last to go – she went back for her bow and arrows, but almost regretted it as the misty Drohan invaded the upper level, barely missing her legs. As she let lose a few arrows in the corridor at them, she tried to hit the red spots. To her horror, in that small corridor, there were such numerous red spots that she couldn’t count them. She knew immediately what was coming and wasn’t planning on staying to witness it again.
As she and the others made it to through the trap door to the tiled roof, they saw, in horrified petrification, that the entire yard around the tavern was floating in black, cumulus mist, filled with red spots, howling and fangs. They were all around the tavern, even up on the tower, with the source of all the mist coming from the well. The sound this many creatures made was otherworldly and chilling to the bone. It was hard to talk over it.
“STAND CLOSE!” Quenfar yelled as the banging on the trap door below them intensified. His dog now stood between his legs, panting heavily.
As everyone gathered in a small circle, touching shoulders, Quenfar closed his eyes and started whispering. Or at least that’s how it looked when Olivia looked at him, because she couldn’t hear anything anymore. A pale blue light shined from underneath Quenfar’s shirt, as Olivia felt a force grip her all over her body and lift her up. She screamed out as their entire little circle, with Quenfar whispering incantations constantly, was now up in the air and flying over the tavern. She looked down and felt sick. The guardsman next to her puked below his own feet. For the last split second, Olivia looked behind her as they flew through the cold night air fast. What she saw already hunted her dreams from time to time, but now, she knew she won’t sleep again for a while. The entire building was devoured in black, bubbling mist and all the red dots, and all the white fangs now converged into one giant red dot and one enormous mouth filled with rows and rows of fangs. It kept growing and growing into the sky, looking like it would devour the moon itself, until it was big enough to twist itself back down and devour the entire tavern behind the wall.
Later, around neighboring villages and towns, there were talks of the Fourside Inn disappearing. Some tales were wild, others down to earth – the black monsters took them, they would say. But all stories ended with the innkeep and the guards perishing inside, save for two strange travelers with a black dog that managed to escape. No one knew who kept these rumors alive. All everyone knew, even after great many years, was not to venture into the evil part of the forest, where the tavern behind the wall once stood.