Just before nightfall, Shane spotted a fair sized village several miles further down the slightly downhill road. Setting his sights eagerly upon the town he rode on hoping to find an inn with a hot meal and a room for the night there.
Preferably, one where crazy horses were not allowed inside. He told Black Star his plans and the stallion stepped up his pace to hasten their arrival. He was looking forward to a bag of oats and a cozy, warm stall. Preferably one where snoring humans were not allowed inside.
They reached the village thirty minutes after dark and missed the curfew by minutes but the watchman guarding the gate did not see them as a threat and let them pass. He pointed them towards the Pig and Whistle Inn, just down Main Street there, he said it was. Shane was assured they had sufficient room for him and the stallion, whom the guards admired greatly as they sat there talking.
“Whatever you do, please don’t say too much in his favor, gentlemen or he might get a swollen head” Shane warned them. As he rode off towards the inn, the two men guarding the gates to the village gave one another a knowing glance.
“Oh wonderful,” one guard sighed tiredly, “another lunatic.” Just what they had been hoping for. The younger guard shrugged his narrow shoulders and watched Shane ride away towards the center of town.
“I’ll wager you two months pay that lad doesn’t keep that fancy horse and saddle very long,” the older guard said with a gruff laugh.
“I won’t take that bet again, Wilber, ” the other guard said with a laugh. “I’m still trying to catch up on me bills since the last one rode into town.”
The Pig and Whistle Inn was not the sort of place you might hope to find featured in a travel brochure, but by local standards it was first class all the way. The proprietor was a short, fat, balding gentleman with bushy mutton chop whiskers named Riley. He met Shane in the courtyard where he informed him that yes they did have a room with a goose down mattress, a clean comfortable stable for the stallion. Not only that but he assured, Shane that he had more than enough hot stew and rolled oats for the both of them and more.
“I’ll brush him down myself after I have my dinner.” Shane told the innkeeper. “Just be sure to tell your stable hands to be very gentle with him and to watch what they say around him because he is what you might call, rather high-strung and overly-sensitive.’”
“Not to worry at all young sir” the proprietor assured him “My stable hands are the very cream of gentility and discretion where another man’s horse is concerned.”
After he made sure that Dark Star was settled in his stall and munching happily on a fat measure of rolled oats, Shane went inside the crowded main hall of the Pig and Whistle and found for himself a tiny corner table that looked like it had not been wiped off since King John V sat on the throne.
A homely young serving wench in a dingy old dress that no doubt fit her much better when she was 2 sizes smaller, came slouching over after he had been waiting for about a half an hour and asked him “What’s your pleasure boy?” with a complete lack of interest.
“Do you have venison?” he asked the young woman.
“Yes we have the best roasted venison in the land,” she answered proudly.
I’ll have the roasted venison then, please.” Shane said, rubbing his hands in anticipation of the meal.
“That is to say we usually have roasted venison. Typically we have more bloody roasted venison then we know what to bloody do with. But, (here she paused for a deep breath), as it just so happens, sir we are fresh out of venison just now.”
“Yes, sir, we are. Fresh out sir.”
“What else do you have then?” Shane asked
“Well, sir, we have most everything your heart might desire, we do.” The serving wench assured him as cheerily as a bored tone of voice allows one to.
“Well then I think I shall have a rack of lamb and with some carrots and potatoes.” Shane said.
“Okay, that’s one order of rack of lamb with carrots and potatoes. Got it, On, no wait a second love I just remembered that we just ran out of new potatoes , sir.”
“Then I’ll just have the rack of lamb with some carrots. You do have carrots don’t you miss?” Shane asked skeptically.
“Oh yes indeed we do have carrots sir.” She assured him “But I’m afraid that we are all out of lamb. Perhaps a tasty veal cutlet would be more to your liking your grace?” She asked, hopefully.
“Sure, that sounds excellent. Yes, I’ll have that “
“I’m afraid we ran out of veal cutlets about a week ago, sir.”
“Are you kidding me woman!?” Shane asked incredulously. The wench assured him she was not having fun with him, he just had the rotten luck to pick everything they did not have in the kitchen.
“What about…, baked chicken?” Shane tried.
“Our baked whole chickens are the pride of the shire sir, but as it just so happens,”
“You’re out of baked chicken.”
” We are just out of the baked chicken tonight. One of me regular customers ordered the last one, sir. Perhpas something else?”
“Before I starve to death at the dinner table how about just telling me what you do have and then I’ll decide whether I’ll have that or not.”
“I would have the pork stew if I were you, sir.”
“I thought the proprietor said you were having beef stew tonight?!” Shane exclaimed with no small measure of concern over the discrepancy. “Which is it, beef stew, or pork?
“Would you prefer the beef stew, sir?” the wench asked him hopefully.
“Is it any better than the pork stew?”
“Yes, sir. Much better, sir. We don’t have any pork stew.”
” Do you even have any beef stew?” Shane wanted to know. His patience was beginning to wear thin.
“Yes sir, that we do have. Beef stew we have plenty of, sir” She replied saucily.
“Then bring me that, and a mug of apple cider.”
“Sorry, sir, but I’m almost certain we’re out of apple cider.”
“Then bring me whatever you do have to drink! I don’t care if it’s dirty dish water! Just go find it, and be gone already, woman.” Shane growled, menacingly.
“As you desire sir.” The wench said and took her leave of him with a short, rude curtsey.
When the stew arrived, thirty-five minutes later it came with a mug of watered down apple cider. Worst of all it was warm and smelled faintly of dirty dishwater. The beef stew was cold and had a thick film of greasy scum on top of it and chunks of meat that were dubious at best. At least it didn’t smell so bad, Shane observed.
“Dig in, your Lordship” the serving wench said as she plopped it down in front of him, unceremoniously. A few globlules of the stew splashed out onto the tabletop and Shane could almost imagine them trying to crawl away if not toward him.
“Can I get some bread with this, please?” Shane asked.
“Nope. Sorry, but I’m afraid we’re out of that too, sir.” The wench said, as she left to see to her other customers across the dining hall. Apparently they were calling for her but Shane could not hear them.
The whatever-it-was stew was ice cold and the alleged beef was of questionable ancestry, but it was tasty. The girl brought him a hard heel of bread with butter that was also of questionable ancestry to dip in it. He was tempted to ask her for some honey just to see if they were out of that too but Shane decided to just let it drop and ate his dinner instead.
When he had eaten his fill, Shane paid his bill and went to find the proprietor, who showed him to his room. The innkeeper’s name was Kruger, and he made a comment about the staff Shane was carrying along with his bed roll and saddlebags. “I hope you don’t mind my asking you this, but are you a sorcerer, sir?” He had asked as they climbed up the dark narrow stairway to the second floor where Shane’s room was located.
“Yes and no, mister Kruger.” Shane said, but no more than that would he say.
“That is some very fine livery you have for your horse your Lordship.” Kruger said, his voice all but oozing greed. He had been eyeballing the fine gold work on Shane’s saddle and the stallion’s tack ever since he had ridden up in the courtyard. “Where did you get them if I may ask sir?” He added, almost as an afterthought.
“They were a birthday gift from my employer.” Shane said dismissively.
“I see, Then you are most assuredly blessed with a generous employer, sir.” Kruger said as they reached the door to Shane’s room. “Here we are then young sir, this is our finest suite. If you are in need anything at all just tug on the bell rope here and I’ll be right here at your service, sir.” He added before beating a hasty retreat back to the tavern where his other paying customers awaited.
Shane toed the door open, went into the darkened room and dropped his luggage beside the door. The light spilling in through the open door and from the the wall sconces showed little of the interior of the suite until Shane turned the flame in the coal oil lamp up to bring light to the whole room.
Immediately he was sorry he had because the sudden light startled a startling number of startlingly large cockroaches, a fair sized family of field mice, and a big white rat that seemed to prefer his own company and who all but ignored the intrusion. The other critters scattered and ran for parts unknown.
The rat on the other hand stood there looking at him with frank curiosity for a moment or two before going on about its business of collecting things that people lost or left lying around to take back to his nest under the bed.
Shane looked around the room and decided sleeping outside, even in the creek, didn’t seem like such a bad prospect anymore. In the courtyard the innkeeper had told him that his rooms were rustic and filled with priceless antiques.
He decided that must mean it was dusty and full of broken old furniture. Like the broken chair with only three legs on it or the broken mirror by the cracked water basin. He tugged on the frayed old cord that served for a bell rope but didn’t hear a bell ring so he pulled it a little harder and the entire length of the dusty bell cord fell from the rafter it had been nailed to.
Kruger had told him that every room had an unmatched view but looking out on the view through the filthy pane of glass in his, all Shane could see were the torch lit outhouses.
That did help clear up some of the mystery of the lingering odor that permeated the room. Kroger had also told him that every mattress was stuffed with the finest goose down available; but when Shane inspected it he found it hard to believe it could be holding more than a few handfuls of feathers. If that.
Still, Shane had to admit to himself it was a room, it was his, and it did have most of the roof over it. The food was close enough to edible, if you could get it, but the best ammenity of all was that there were no stupid horses in it.
He ignored the rat who was bumping about, and rolling stuff around beneath the bed, in fact Shane found it somehow comforting in an odd way. He actually smiled as he unrolled his bed roll out onto the mattress. He blew out the lamps and let the riot of noise coming from beneath the bed lull him to sleep.
Meanwhile, back in the stables, Dark Star was having a somewhat better time than his new master was insid, but not a whole lot more. His stall was clean and full of fresh straw, and his feed box and water trough were clean and filled too, That was not the problem.
The problem was the two stable hands whose names were Brill and Crandle. They kept hanging around, and were constanly pointing and giggling at the black stallion and his gold worked saddle which hung beside him on the rail of his stall. They were making plans for them but, little did they know, all of their plans were overheard by one of their intended victims. “That sure is one fine looking horse, isn’t he,” Brill was saying.
“Aye, it is a fine looking one at that.” Crandle agreed.
“How do you suppose a lousy sheepherder ever got ahold of an animal like that, Crandle?”
“I’m blasted if I can tell you, Brill, but I know that there saddle and bridle outfit must be worth a bag full of gold crowns.”
“Aye” Brill agreed “I’ll bet it will bring us a bag full of gold crowns when we sell it too.” Brill laughed greedily
“Aye. Do you think the boy might be carrying any coin in his purse too, Crandle?”
“Sure, and you know that he must be loaded by the looks of his furniture and his luggage Brill.”
“Aye, I would wager it’s the truth meself.” Brill agreed.
“I don’t like the way that stupid horse of his is staring at me though, Brill, it’s creepy.” Crandle said, nervously.
“Neither do I.” Brill agreed.
“Did you see the way his ears perked up when you said that?”
“I did, and it is a little creepy. It’s almost like he can understand what we’re saying you know it?”
“Yeah, I do, but that’s ridiculous to imagine that a stupid horse can understand the King’s English, Brill.”
“Aye, now he’s staring at you.”
“I can see that . So when are we going to rob him then?” Crandle wanted to know. He always looked to Brill for guidance, him being the brains of the outfit and all, which really was not saying a whole lot.
“We can’t do it here or the Sheriff will probably have get involved. I say we follow him when he leaves the village tomorrow and then we will be able to choose when and where we want to, er, relieve him of his burdens. That way he will never know where we came from, or where we have gone to.”
“That sounds like a good plan alright.” Crandle said as he went over to the stallions stall so that he could finger the fine gold work on his saddle.
Just as he was reaching out to touch it, however; Dark Star struck as quick as a snake and caught the thief’s wrist in his teeth.
“Ahh!” Crandle hollered. “Help! He’s got me Brill! He’s got me!”
“Well then, tell him to let go!” Brill suggested.
“I don’t think that’s going to work Brill. Help me!” But before Brill could do anything for his partner in crime, the black stallion let Crandle’s wrist slip out of his teeth. Before he could pull the arm away again, however, Star caught his coat sleeve in is teeth and with a quickyank, ripped off Crandle’s coatsleve and shirt sleeve and threw them in his face with a toss of his shaggy head.
Crandle back peddled quickly as soon as the stallion let go of him and examined his now destroyed coat “Arrgh!” he cried when he saw all the damage “That stupid horse went and ruined my new coat! And my best shirt too!”
“Forget about it Crandle” Brill advised his friend. “When we sell him and his saddle you will be able to buy 5 new coats and 10 new shirts.”
“Aye,” Crandle agreed “But I would sure like to horse whip his flea bitten hide right now.”
“You touch that animal with a horse whip Crandle and I’ll flog you within an inch of your life for it.” Brill promised him and, Crandle knew he meant every word of it.
“Just look at him, Brill, he’s laughing at me.” And indeed the horse was. He was giving Crandle his best horse grin and neighing so it sounded very much like laughter.
“I don’t care if he’s laughing at you or not!” Brill growled “Just keep in mind that those who laugh last laughs the best.”
“What does that mean?” Crandle asked.
“It means get your lazy hide to work and muck out those two stalls on the end before I take a mind to horsewhip you.” Brill ordered “And stay away from that stupid horse lest he gets a nice chunk of your backside to match your coat!” he warned.
“Okay, Brill.” Crandle mumbled as he huried to his work, and out of the reach of the horsewhip.
The next morning breakfast went pretty much the same way dinner had. Shane even had the good fortune of having the same serving wench as he’d had the night before.
“Let’s just skip the comedy this morning and bring me whatever you’re not all out of. Preferably something hot this time.” He told her gruffly when she finally chose to grace his table with his presence.
“Hmph” she snorted indignantly and flounced saucily away.
When his order finally came, more than an hour later, it was of course cold and barely edible, but Shane managed to choke it down all the same with the help of a cup of cold, weak coffee the serving wench had practically slammed down in front of him in passing.
“And how is everything, sir?” She asked at one point.
“I have had worse,” Shane told her, adding thoughtfully, “you know, I wanted to leave you a silver crown for a gratuity?”
“Oh is that right, good sir?” The serving wench asked, excited at the prospect of a sudden windfall.
“Aye indeed it is right, wench. Alas I’m sorry to inform you that we are fresh out of silver crowns.”
“A gold crown would do just as well then kind sir.” The wench ventured hopefully.
“Yes, I suppose I could leave you a gold crown, But if I’m not mistaken we are fresh out of gold crowns also.” Shane told the crestfallen wench.
“Half a crown then, sir? she asked.
“Nope, sorry. Were out of those too.”
“A sixpence then?”
. “No I’m afraid we’re all out of sixpence too. Sorry, perhaps next time.” Shane told her as he got up from the remainder of his breakfast of cold porridge, stale biscuits, runny, undercooked eggs and equally undercooked bacon. He bid her goodbye and went back up to his so called room to gather up his gear.
He settled his bill with Kruger then carried everything out to the stables where he curried Black Stars coat before he saddled him.
“This place is kind of crazy Star” he told the stallion as he brushed his long sleek back.
From the way the stallion was nodding his head he obviously agreed. “You should have seen my room, Star! Why I believe I would have been much better off if I had just slept out here in the stables with you instead.” Shane, “And the food! Oh! It was terrible Star. I should have come out here and shared a bucket of oats with you.”
The black stallion snorted in disgust and Shane found he had to agree with the horse. “I agree,” he said. “I would liked to have stayed a few nights in a nice inn. But I don’t want to spend another moment here if I don’t have to.”
Dark Star nodded his head emphatically to show he felt the same way. Twenty minutes later the stallion was saddled and they rode out of the village of Northam at sunrise shortly after the palisade gates were thrown open for the day.
“I think they must have built those palisades to keep people in that village, not keep them out, Star.” Shane said as they put it behind them and rode North along the King’s Highway. The Thieron Mountains now loomed large in front of them and grew closer with every passing hour.
“We should have no problem getting through those passes before the next full moon.” Shane said to the stallion as he walked on. “Besides that, I think Morloch does his hunting mostly to the South around Mayrewood anyway.” Dark Star just nickered.
He did not like dragons, not at all because a dragon had carried off his Dam when he was still just a very young foal leaving him an orphan. An aunt had had to take him to suckle and raise as her own. “Don’t you worry Star I wont let any dragons get us. The voice of his master rang with confidence but even so the black stallion quickened his pace a little bit.
Brill and Crandle watched from the shadows of the barn as Shane left Northam on the black stallion and headed North towards the Thieron Mountains “Look at him.” Brill said with a nasty sneer “Why he doesn’t even have a proper sword. Or any kind of weapon but that old walking stick with the rock on it. I know that old stick will not stop the blade of my sword.”
“Nor mine!” Crandle agreed eyeing the stallion’s gilded saddle hungrily.
They gave Shane a two hour head start before they set out behind him. They were mounted on two sway back mules that quite frankly looked like they were on their last legs and sinking fast. It didn’t matter though because they would not require speed to catch up with the boy. Once he made camp for the night all they had to do was ride by moonlight until they caught up to him. They could rob Shane and kill him at their leisure and no one would ever be the wiser.
“This is almost going to be too easy.” Crandle said at one point.
“Aye it’ll be just like robbing the church poor box.” Brill agreed and they shared a rude fit of laughter and made jokes about how terribly clever they both were until they grew tired of it.
Because they had left Northam two hours later than Shane did, he was unable to see the two men traveling behind him. He had no reason to suspect that he was being followed. And because he was not familiar with what being followed entailed he rode on without looking behind him. Ever Northward the stallion walked and soon they were climbing into the foothills of the Thieron Mountains. Shane was blissfully unaware of the grave danger now dogging his back trail. The warhorse beneath his saddle was not.