My upcoming publication, Death Comes to Town, is a crime story in a fantasy setting, with a touch of horror.
Blacksmith Tavish Kraigdhu is enjoying a well-deserved retirement from the Salasian Third Legion in the foothills of the Cragenrath Mountains. Sanders Avarez is trying to live up to the impossible expectations of his harsh father, the richest man in the bustling mining town of Shargol.
Nothing will ever be the same for either of them when…death comes to town…
The story was originally published in the anthology The Outsiders. An expanded edition of the story will be published in Spring 2024.
Meanwhile, here’s a preview of Chapter 1…
I. THE STRANGER
— Unzio Stonebreaker, from his postumously published diary In he Shadow of the Cragenraths
It was dusk when a lone traveler made his way along the narrow road that wound through the jagged foothills of the Cragenraths, taking advantage of the momentary respite between snowstorms to head for Shargol. The snow made the road more of a suggestion than a reality, but it was still mostly discernible in its outline thanks to occasional ice-covered wooden marker posts that thrust upward through the clinging snow like claws reaching for the hidden sun.
The man was bundled in a black, knee-length fur coat, with brown leggings and a fur hat wrapped around most of his head, still scant protection against the driving wind and the gritty snow that it picked up and swirled around. He had a red scarf pulled up over his face so that only his eyes were visible. The bottom part of the scarf was covered in ice where his breath had frozen. Shifting his pack to a more comfortable position, he trudged forward with an easy walking rhythm, a steady pace that covered distance and preserved strength.
Rounding a bend, he spotted the first few outlying buildings of Shargol looming like dark shadows out of the whirling snow mist. As he approached, details became more discernible and he was able to distinguish the building he’d been told to look for, a two-story stone structure with a steep-pitched roof.
A sign hung next to the door, crudely but effectively painted with a furless and wide-eyed badger standing in a bashful pose and holding its paws over its privates. There were lines painted strategically to indicate that the badger was shivering, which the traveler could certainly identify with. For a town that catered mostly to fur trappers and prospectors, the irony was obvious.
He opened the door and went in, slamming it behind him. The first thing that struck him was the warmth. The next was the smell of something savory being cooked. There was one main room, with a large stone fireplace at one end and a bar at the other. A number of long, roughhewn plank tables filled the room. A handful of men sat at one of the tables with mugs of beer and plates in front of them. They looked up at him briefly, then returned to their conversation. A thin, older man with long, graying hair gathered in a queue sat at the bar with a wine glass in his hand, dressed in a tailored outfit that might have been fashionable in Aerunstark a decade ago.
A woman came out of a back room, accompanied by a dog that was probably at least part wolf.
“This the Naked Badger?” He stopped short as the dog bared its teeth at him and growled.
“It’s the Drunken Badger now,” she said. “I ain’t had a chance to replace the damn sign since my uncle passed on a few winters ago.” She admonished the dog, “Stop that, Jugger.” Looking up, her eyes were a startlingly light blue in a narrow, high-cheekboned face framed by long black hair. “Sorry, sir, he gets protective.” The dog stopped growling but continued to fix him with a baleful glare.
“It’s all right,” he said, smiling. “He’s prob’ly just smellin’ my furs and such.” I hate dogs. They’re always a complication. She best keep that bastard away from me.
“I’m Bayla Kor. I own the place now.” She gestured around the main room. We got rooms and the finest food hereabouts. You want whores, well, you got to go further on up the road for that. Since I took over, we’re out of that business.”
“Fine with me. Name’s Benison. Thought I’d get a room for the night, mebbe a couple nights what with the weather.” Yeah, not likely. I need to be out of town before my competition gets here. “Mebbe restock some provisions tomorrow.” He thought about the appetizing smell coming from the kitchen and added, “Could use some of whatever’s cookin’, too.”
“The room and the food, we can do that.” She grinned, then looked at him speculatively. “Funny time of year to have to restock your supplies, though.”
Benison grimaced. “Somebody ransacked my camp while I was making a circuit.” Trappers placed a lot of traps, then had to check them frequently or else they found gnawed skeletons instead of valuable furs. “I find the bastard, well, I’ll have plenty of bait for my traps.” It was all a lie, of course, but reasonably close to the truth.
A young girl with her hair in pigtails, perhaps five years old or so, came out of the kitchen. She looked up at them with wide eyes, held up a small mug, and said, “Mama, can I have some more juice?” The dog, Jugger, moved in front of her protectively, silently baring his teeth at Benison.
“Yes, dear heart,” Bayla said, smiling. “You can have a little bit more. But only a little bit. We’ve got to make it last so you can have some all winter.” To Benison: “Apple cider. She just loves it.” She shook her head. “Why don’t you get settled at the table in front of the fire while I take care of Mayga here? I’ll get a beer and some food out for you shortly.”
Benison nodded. He could bide his time for a while.
Yulani Makdar made his way down the stairs with a death grip on the railing, favoring the ankle he’d broken in a bad fall on the icy road a few days previously. The bone was already knitting nicely, but his ankle was still fiendishly sore.
By trade, he was a traveling healer who made the rounds of the various mountain settlements, administering basic medical arts, sound advice, herbal remedies and, every once in a while when luck was with him, a sluggishly effective talent for magical healing. This morning, though, he was a man with a killer headache, thanks to a bit too much wine the night before, and an empty belly.
The way he figured, if you had to get stuck someplace for a week or so until your ankle got better, well, the Drunken Badger was just about at the top of his list for places to get stuck. Bayla Kor’s cooking was widely known around the Cragenraths. He was practically salivating just thinking about what Bayla probably had on the stove right now.
When he got down to the main room, he was surprised at how cold it was. Bayla’s young cousin, Geeta, a slip of a girl in a gray print dress with white trim, was in the process of stoking the fire. Usually, it was a roaring inferno by now as Bayla prepared for the onslaught of the breakfast crowd. And that wasn’t all that was missing. He couldn’t smell anything cooking, either.
“Geeta,” Yulani said. “Where’s Bayla?”
She looked up and he noticed a smudge of ash on her cheek. “I don’t know, sir. She’s not in the kitchen. I knocked on her door and she’s not answering.” There was a worried frown on her face. “All I heard was Jugger barkin’.”
“All right, I’ll check on her.”
Yulani turned around and limped over to the door to Bayla’s suite of rooms, on the other side of the bar from the kitchen door. As he got close, he could hear Jugger whining on the other side, but he didn’t sound like he was anywhere close to the door. He reached out and turned the doorknob. Locked. No surprise there. He cocked his head. There was a dark mark on the frame of the door at about waist level.
He rubbed the mark with a finger, looked, and saw red. Blood. Mostly dried.
Turning, he shouted, “Geeta, is there a key anywhere?” For sure, a lame, thin stick of a man like him wasn’t going to be smashing that door open.
She came over. “I don’t know. She never told me about an extra key.”
“Check the bar.”
“Now, please,” he said mildly, but in a tone that brooked no argument.
She stared at him for a beat, then nodded.
They each started at opposite ends of the bar. Geeta found a key, but it turned out to be the key to the liquor cabinet.
Yulani glanced up when he heard the inn’s front door open. He recognized Hollis Karkani, who he’d once treated for a badly broken leg, but not the other young man who came in with him. Both were bulky, athletic men.
He pointed to Hollis. “You,” he said, “I need you to break down that door.” He gestured at the innkeeper’s door, ignoring Geeta watching them with wide eyes. Angling his gaze at the other man, he said, “Go get Tavish. Tell him there might be trouble at the Badger.”
Hollis’ companion nodded and headed back out into the cold without a word. Say whatever you like about mountain folk, but when trouble comes calling, they just do whatever is needed.
Tavish Kraigdhu and Feskin, his eleven-year-old apprentice, had just gotten the forge fired up when the door to the shop burst open, letting in a blast of wintry air. Turning, he beheld Sanders Avarez in the doorway. His family owned the general store in town and sent a lot of repair work Tavish’s way.
“Come quick!” Sanders said. “There’s trouble at the Naked Badger.” He bent over and put his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. He’d obviously run all the way across town, no small feat with the ice and snow.
“What kind of trouble?” Tavish asked.
“I don’t know.” Sanders looked up at him, his roughly cut bangs partly obscuring his eyes. “I just walked in and Geeta, she told me to get you right away.”
Tavish raised an eyebrow. Geeta had sent him, not her aunt Bayla. He looked over at his apprentice and growled, “Fetch my armor, boy.” As Feskin hurried away, he added, “Just the chain mail, not the helmet or odds ’n sods.”
Geeta had a good head on her shoulders. If she said there was trouble, then he believed her. As a veteran soldier, now retired after his two score in Salasia’s Third Legion, trouble to him meant: grab your weapons and armor and be ready for anything. If anybody was bothering Bayla or Geeta, they were going to be sorry.
The boy came out of the back room, laboring under the weight of his gear, the chain mail and gambeson, a padded linen garment worn beneath the armor. It was the work of just a moment for Tavish to get his chain mail on. He threw on his fur coat and donned his moleskin gloves, then his apprentice handed him his sword harness, which he threw over his broad shoulders and strapped in place. He grabbed Swan Song from its rack on the wall, slid the two-handed sword into the sheath on his back and followed Sanders out into the biting cold.
Arriving a short time later at the Naked Badger—he didn’t think Bela’s name change was going to stick, the old name had been in place far too long—he ducked as he went through the doorway to avoid hitting his head. He and Sanders found a crowd of ten or twelve people milling around a harried-looking Geeta. The breakfast crowd, and no grub in sight. And no smell of anything cooking, either.
Everybody looked his way and did a double-take. The sheathed sword on his back wasn’t something they’d seen before. The locals knew he was a retired soldier, of course, but knowing it and seeing a grim, tall, formidable warrior standing in their midst were two separate things. The chatter died down as Tavish stalked forward. Folks scurried out of his way and he stopped in front of Geeta and Yulani.
Tavish eyed the crowd around Geeta and said in a deep, rumbling voice. “Back off, you lot.” After two decades of putting the fear of the gods into the legion’s new recruits, he was pleased to see how fast everybody found someplace else to be. Apparently, he hadn’t lost his touch since he’d mustered out. He turned towards Geeta. “Tell me what’s going on.”
Geeta looked up at him with wide eyes. “I got here this morning and nothing was going, no fire, no cookin’, no Bayla, nothing. No Mayga, neither.” She gestured at the door to Bayla’s quarters. “I knocked, but Bayla didn’t answer her door.”
“There’s some blood on the edge of the door frame,” Yulani added. “Still tacky, so it can’t be too old. We need to get in there, but Geeta and I couldn’t find a key.”
Tavish frowned. Usually, if the inn had a problem, it was drunk or rowdy customers. “All right, I can do that,” he said. “Meanwhile, Geeta, can you cook?”
“Simple stuff, not like Bayla.”
“Feed these people, then.” In a lower voice, he added, “Hungry people are unhappy people. Just like soldiers, they’ll be easier to manage when their bellies are full. Maybe you can draft somebody to give you a hand?”
She nodded and walked away.
To Yulani: “Blood, you say?”
“Yes,” the healer answered, heading for the door to Bayla’s suite. “Let me show you.”
Unsurprisingly, it was indeed blood.
“You and Geeta account for the guests?” Tavish asked.
“Yes,” Yulani replied. “One of them is missing. A trapper named Benison, came in last night. And the inn’s doors were locked when Geeta arrived this morning.”
“I do believe I’d like to have a word with this Benison fellow.” Tavish backed up a few paces. “Move aside, I’ll open the door.”
A voice behind Tavish said, “I helped put that door in. That’s solid wood. You ain’t gettin’ through that door without tools.”
“Hoy, Hollis,” Sanders said. The newcomer was stocky, muscular, and exceedingly tall for the mountain folk, which meant that the top of his head came up to Tavish’s chin.
Ignoring Hollis, Tavish launched himself and kicked the door solidly, right next to the brass door knob. There was a splintering sound as the frame partially gave way, accompanied by a round of frenzied, but still muffled, barking from the other side. Tavish smashed the door again and it burst open.
Tavish grinned mirthlessly. “Not the first door I’ve taken down.”
He stepped into Bayla’s suite, followed closely by Yulani. Sanders and Hollis peeked through the doorway as they entered. Tavish had been in the suite a few times, though he’d never slept there. Any time he and Bayla had gotten together, they’d used one of the guest rooms.
There was a comfortable sitting room with a small desk on one side where Bayla did her accounting, a decent-sized bedroom for the innkeeper, and a smaller bedroom for her daughter. A few drops of blood on the floor. Not a lot, but somebody had been bleeding. The dog was howling now, scrabbling at the door to Bayla’s bedroom. He crossed the room and pulled Bayla’s bedroom door open.
Barking madly, Jugger darted past them, claws scrabbling wildly on the floor as he accelerated to full speed and ran out of the suite. Tavish thought he’d seen blood on the dog’s muzzle as it went by him.
Tavish quickly ascertained that neither Bayla nor Mayga were present, then took a more careful look at the sitting room. There were a few papers on the floor. A little statuette on the desk had been knocked over. Evidence of a struggle? Even with the blood, it must have been a one-sided affair.
Yulani looked at Tavish earnestly. “Any idea what’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” Tavish said. “But I don’t like it.” Beyond Yulani, Sanders and Hollis were looking at him expectantly. “Maybe Benison knocked on the door last night. Tried to subdue Bayla when she answered, and—” He paused and gestured at the blood on the floor. “—got bit by Jugger for his troubles. But that doesn’t explain where they are now. And, you all know Bayla, I don’t see her being easily subdued. Especially not if Jugger’s in the fight.”
Geeta appeared behind Sanders and Hollis.
At her unspoken question, Tavish said, “Neither one of them is here.”
Geeta clasped her hands over her mouth. After a moment, she brought her hands down and said, “I let Jugger out the back door, from the kitchen. There’s tracks outside.”
She led them through the kitchen and pulled open the back door. Tavish stepped out into the cold. His breath steamed. A few flurries were tumbling out of the gray sky. He could hear the dog barking in the distance.
The trail was so clear that even a drunken badger could have followed it. First, the trail of whoever had left in the night, a single set of footprints, many of them obscured by what looked like drag marks, heading into a forest of mountain birches standing stark and forbidding against the pristine whiteness of the overnight snowfall. Then, next to the original trail, Jugger’s paw prints.
Sanders stepped up next to Tavish and made a footprint of his own next to a good representative footprint of whoever had left the inn, presumably the trapper Yulani had mentioned.
“A large man,” Sanders said, looking down at the tracks. “Almost your size. He was probably carrying Mayga and dragging Bayla.” When he wasn’t working in his father’s store, Sanders was an expert hunter. “A strong man could carry a little girl and drag an unconscious woman through the snow, but not far.”
Tavish nodded and sighed heavily. “No, not far at all.”