31: Around the Hearthstone

He saw four queer-looking people standing in the corner. Three men and one boy no older than fifteen. Their skin was much darker than that of the locals. Even more so than the skin of the people from the Kingdom. They wore nothing on their upper bodies and were completely hairless besides their scalps. Only one of them had facial hair, a mustache that hung down onto his chest. They wore pants of beautiful white fur from some beast not from here. A fifth man came to them holding a tankard in each hand that he put down on the table in front of them and sat down. The others followed. The man with the mustache took one of the tankards and drank in big gulps.

The Devourer averted his gaze and looked around the room. There were many people, of whom most were locals, mostly men but also some women. They drank and sang and ate their way toward the night. In the middle of the room lay a giant hearthstone radiating heat. The stone was covered in carving like those on the houses of the village. A group of men stood around it playing some game, laughing and drinking.

Do you have rooms for rent? The Devourer asked a girl as she passed him.

Yes, She answered over her shoulder. Just come with me.

He rose from the table and followed the girl up a flight of stairs.

He slept for a while before someone knocked at the door and then banged at it. The Devourer waited for a moment, but when the banging did not stop, he got up from the bead and opened the door. On the other side stood one of the foreign men he noticed earlier. So drunk he could not stand by himself and held onto the railing as a seaman in the middle of a storm. The man looked at the Devourer with a confused grimace. He swayed as he stood.

This is my room, I’m afraid, The Devourer said.

The drunkard only looked at him as if he tried to solve some complex equation.

You’re drunk, go home, The Devourer continued.

Let me in. I need to sleep, The drunkard said in a dialect weird to the Devourer.

Here, let me help you, The Devourer said and went out of the room and closed the door behind him. Wait here. I’ll be back in a moment. He went down the stairs to the bar and found a woman working there and said, I’ve got a man upstairs that’s drunk and don’t know which room is his.

The woman sighed and said, Yes, I’ll look into it. They went up the stairs and found the drunkard leaning against the wall, more asleep than awake.

Do you need help? The Devourer asked the woman.

No, I’ve done this a thousand times before. Go and get some sleep.

He slept far into the day, and when he woke up, he went downstairs to the tavern. There were not many people there at that time of day, but he noticed the foreigners sitting around a table eating. Two of them seemed more tired than the others as they sat with their heads burrowed in their hands. When the drunk man from the night before saw the Devourer, he said something to the others and pointed at him. They waved for him to come over to the table.

Thank you for yesterday, The man said. I was, well, a little drunk, He added as the others burst into laughter.

The oldest of the men patted him hard in the back and said, Our friend here has a hard time knowing his limits. This happens every time we go here. Once he crept into a room through the window as a woman was sleeping. Stealthy as a shadowcat before he passed out on the floor. When the man got home and found him, he gave him a good whooping.

Let me buy you something to eat, The man with the mustache said. My name is Hut, nice meeting you.

My name is Nihil, The Devourer said as he sat down into an empty chair.

You see, the old man continued, we don’t have strong drink were we are from. Or, well, yes, we import some, but we don’t make it ourselves. So there’s not much to go around.

So where are you from? The Devourer asked

North, the Borderlands, you people call it. You? The old man said.

The Kingdom, The Devourer answered.

What brings you here? Asked another of the men.

Traveling. Just wanting to see the world.

That’s a reason as good as any, The man said.

When are you going? The Devourer asked.

Going? The old man said.

Back upriver?

Oh, tomorrow.

I don’t want to be brash, but could you take me with you?