The Inn of Blood

© December 1992

“I hate horses!” Kallisti fumed quietly as she ploughed her way through the snow, leading her lame horse by a long rein. She had never been happy around horses – in fact they normally terrified her. One end bit, the other end kicked and neither end was particularly fragrant. Their eyes always glared at her with an evil glitter and they would edge closer to her as if sensing her fear.

On this occasion, though, she had had no other option. She had chosen the most docile and peaceful looking animal in the stable in the town by the coast. Blossom had been a good selection, patient and easy going.

The journey had gone well up to the point where the blizzard hit them two days ago. Kallisti was not used to cold weather – Mardona was normally much warmer. Initially the snow had been a novelty, but the cold and damp soon seeped through her thick clothes and the novelty wore off. Then Blossom had stepped on a buried rock and bruised her hoof.

They halted in the lee of an overhanging boulder. They were crossing a spur of the range of mountains known as the Sintar Heights, and were at present in a steep ravine which provided a ‘back-door’ route from the small independent Kingdom of Sintar to the extensive prairies of the Republic of Laar, with whom her homeland, Mardona, were currently at war. It was a lonely spot – not a good place to be stuck in a blizzard with a lame horse.

They needed shelter – Blossom would not survive another night in the open. Kallisti was not keen on repeating the experience either. She had consulted the map a while ago and somewhere up ahead should be an inn. It was pretty isolated, but would attract travellers from all over this region as it was the only habitation for miles. She stamped her feet and clapped her hands to get the circulation going.

“Come on horse, let’s get moving. The sooner we start the sooner we’ll get there,” she said, tugging on the reins.

The wind howled mournfully. Visibility had dropped to barely a few feet. Snow was being driven into wild flurries by the wind bouncing back a forth along the ravine. She could no longer see the walls – everything was a swirling grey-whiteness. Blossom was ploughing her legs through fetlock-deep snow, her stamina failing. Kallisti fared little better. She was in snow up to her knees and her thighs burned with the exertion of wading through it. Her boots and breeches were soaked through with melted snow.

“It can’t be much further!” she shouted over the howling wind, her lips chapped with cold. She peered ahead, trying to see beyond the flurries. At one point the wind died for a few seconds and a gap appeared – there – a darker shape against the grey of snow and rock. “Come on horse – lift your feet up!” she urged, feeling a burst of hope renew her strength.

The shape up ahead grew clearer and gradually resolved itself into a wide sloping turfed roof with two chimneys emitting dark smoke, quickly whipped away by the swirling winds. The roof overhung the walls by several feet, providing a shelter from the wind and snow. There were no windows, but there were two doors visible – one large and one small.

Kallisti hurriedly coaxed Blossom into the shelter of the roof and went to the smaller door. She tried to open it, but it was barred from inside. She hammered on the door and shouted.

There came the muffled sound of voices and a small panel opened in the door. Two eyes peered out at her. “Aright, aright, just hang on!” came a gruff voice.

“Open up – it’s freezing out here!” Kallisti shouted. The eyes narrowed and glanced to where Blossom stood sagging.

“Bring yer mount tae the big door, an’ be quick about it. I dinnae want tae let the cold in.”

“Praise the Gods!” she muttered sarcastically, but pulled Blossom to the large door anyway. The door creaked outward making Blossom nicker. A short man in a heavy fur coat waved them onward into the warmth of what turned out to be a stable built on the side of the inn.

The howling wind was cut off as the man forced the door shut again and bolted it. The warmth hit her like a blow and she gasped. Her head swam and it was all she could do to keep on her feet.

“Are ye aright lad?” the man came to her aid. She nodded, pulling at her mittens. She reached for her saddlebags on Blossom’s back. “It’s aright I’ll get one o’ my girls tae see tae yer horse. Ye look like ye could do wi’ a drop o’ something tae warm ye.”

Kallisti hefted the saddlebags onto her shoulder, her knees almost buckling with their weight. “Thanks, but I need these,” she said.

“Ye gods, a lassie!” the man exclaimed. “Yer not a runaway slave fae Pharag are ye?”

“I’ve still got my tongue.” she replied, pushing back her hood.

“True enough,” he looked her up and down. “Yer too well dressed fae a runaway though. The name’s Marcus and I’m the owner o’ this gods forsaken heap o’ shite. Yer welcome tae stay – its seven sil’er a night fae yer horse and yersel, plus food an’ drink.”

“Cheap at half the price,” she sighed. She followed him through a side door into a low-beamed common room, lit by a large log fire and a number of greasy lamps. There were several wooden tables with benches in front gathered around the fire, while to their left was a trestle table with several barrels and bottles on and around it. To the side were a door and a stair leading up.

A plump, plain-looking girl with straggly dark hair sat on a stool by the barrels, looking intently at the newcomer. She wore a simple homespun dress, open at the collar. Four men sat around two tables near the fire. All were looking Kallisti’s way.

“Come in an’ sit yersel down. Mary, pour a cup o’ brandy for the lass.” Marcus guided her toward the table to the right of the fire. “An you, move yersel out o’ the road and let her get tae the fire.” He jerked his thumb at a middle-aged man with close-cropped hair and sharp features. The man snorted, but relinquished his place by the fire. As he stood, his chain mail armour jingled and Kallisti saw the sword and dagger at his belt.

She sat down heavily on the bench and dropped the saddlebags onto the table. The heat from the fire stung her cheeks as she struggled with numb fingers to undo the bindings of her cloak. The plump girl came over with an earthenware cup.

“Can I give ye a hand?” she offered, seeing Kallisti’s struggling. She nodded and the girl sat beside her and helped loosen the frozen knots while Kallisti took a mouthful of the coarse brandy. It stung her throat, but she could feel its warmth seeping through her chilled body. She was aware of the four men eyeing her cagily. As Mary undid the last knot of her cloak and started pulling it off her shoulders, the sharp featured man said something to the man beside him, a man with deep-set eyes, dark greasy hair and coarse stubble on his chin. He wore a patched black leather jacket, with metal rings sewn into it at intervals. Both men laughed crudely, and she had no doubt the joke was at her expense.

The third man was also dark-haired, but his features were more pleasing to the eye than the other two. His skin was a dusky olive, showing he too came from warmer climes, and he wore several rings on his fingers. His clothes were finer, albeit a little threadbare at the cuffs. He looked like a merchant – maybe fallen on hard times.

The last man averted his gaze when she looked at him. He was blonde and had a short beard, although it was marred by an ugly scar on his left cheek, running diagonally from the bridge of his nose to this chin. His nose was crooked, a though it had been broken and not healed straight. His clothing was nondescript leather and wool, but Kallisti caught sight of swordsman’s calluses on his hand when he lifted his mug.

As Kallisti’s cloak fell away, she was able to loosen the fur-lined jacket. The heat was beginning to make her sweat and she felt uncomfortable.

“I daresay ye could take a bite tae eat?” Marcus the innkeeper returned from the stable. “Yer horse will be fine, but she’s chipped a hoof – it’ll need seein’ to afore ye can go much further.”

“I’ll deal with that later.” Kallisti sighed.

“Not from these parts are you?” The merchant spoke.

“Mm? Sorry? No, just passing through.” she replied, unlacing her jacket and shaking her braid of hair free. The men’s eyes narrowed as they were able to see more of the attractive newcomer.

“Odd place to find so pretty a lady.” The second man asked, scratching his chin.

“Permit me to introduce your fellow stranded travellers.” The merchant ignored him. “Our curious friend here is Maruk,” he indicated the second man, who nodded his head and leered at her. “The jingling one,” he pointed to the first man in chain mail, “is his business partner Harum. Our quiet companion,” he indicated the blonde man, “is Dorik, although it took us a while to prise even that much out of him.” Dorik scowled but the other three laughed. “And I am Casir, a poor merchant from Oruidon who is trying to scratch a measly living out of the pitiful trade the Laarians indulge us with.” he bowed his head.

“My name is Jenna,” Kallisti replied, taking another drink of brandy. The feeling was beginning to return to her extremities from the brandy and warmth. As she spoke, she looked at the ‘poor merchant’. There was a furtiveness to his eyes that was not a merchant’s keenness. To her practiced eye, the rings and jewellery he wore did not appear as genuine as he made out – much like the man himself suspected!

The innkeeper came back with a wooden bowl on a tray. He set it down before her. The bowl was heaped with a vegetable soup, although it was so thick she could have eaten it with a fork. She tasted it and found it hot and tasty. She broke off some of the bread provided and very soon dispatched the whole bowl. The four men talked amongst themselves while she ate, glancing at her occasionally.

“Hah, time to feed the animals,” Maruk said. “This delay’ll be the ruin of us,” he grumbled, getting to his feet. He called Mary over. “Have you got the leavings ready?” He put his arm round her familiarly. Mary blushed as he squeezed her and lowered her eyes.

“Aye sir, I’ll get the bucket right away,” she replied and disengaged herself. Maruk laughed and slapped her behind. Kallisti gritted her teeth.

“Are you a horse trader?” Kallisti asked. The only animals she had seen in the stable were horses which she assumed belonged to the guests.

“Hah, horse flesh’d be sturdier than this, but not so enjoyable!” he laughed. Harum burst out laughing as well.

Mary brought out a bucket and handed it to Maruk. He held it out at arm’s length to avoid the smell and went through into the stables. Harum was still chortling into this mug.

“Master Maruk’s merchandise is not horses,” Casir explained to Kallisti. “He transports animals for a much more – erm – select market.” Kallisti scowled.

“He’s a slaver?” she gripped the hilt of her dagger.

“So what if he is?” Harum spoke, his eyes challenging. Kallisti looked away as Marcus came up to her trailing another serving girl. She was quite pretty, with long fair hair but suffered badly from acne.

“This is Ania,” he said. “If it’s aright with ye, ye’ll be sharing the attic wi’ her and my Mary. We’ve only got the one bunkroom ye see…” he explained.

“That’d be fine,” Kallisti sighed. “I think I’ll take a rest now – I feel shattered. I just need something from my saddle, can you take these up for me?” she handed Ania the saddlebags and rose from the bench.

She turned toward the stable but the sound of a snigger made her glance round. Harum was drinking from his mug, but was looking at her with amusement. She scowled and moved away.

It was noticeably cooler in the stable, but not cold enough to worry about. She looked for Blossom in the half-light from the few lanterns and saw her stall near the other horses. There was a groan from further along and she saw Maruk standing at another stall. As her eyes grew accustomed to the dark, she realised there was a figure kneeling in front of him. Maruk gasped and threw his head back. After a second he stepped back, fastening his breeches. Kallisti saw the kneeling figure was a nearly naked girl, shaven headed and shockingly emaciated. The slave girl wiped her face with her hand, glancing fearfully at Maruk.

“There’s a good girl,” Maruk said, not realising Kallisti was there. “And here’s your little present.” He opened a pouch at his belt and took out something small. The light was poor, but Kallisti still recognised the purple leaf that had haunted her dreams for over a year – Ambre!

Kallisti could not help the cry which escaped her lips. Maruk froze in the act of putting the plump purple leaf into the slave’s mouth. The girl, eyes alight with a terrible hunger lunged forward to catch the leaf and accidentally bit Maruk’s hand.

“Stupid animal!” Maruk swore, pulling it away. He savagely kicked the frantically chewing slave girl who collapsed in the straw. He drew his foot back to kick again but was knocked aside as Kallisti barrelled into him.

“No you bastard!” she snarled. “You filth!” Maruk drew his knife.

“Get out of my way bitch – its my property and I’ll do with it as I like.” His tone was level, carrying a terrible threat. “I thought you looked like one of those bleeding heart Mardonan’s as soon as I saw you. Are you prepared to die for that piece of meat? Look at it, it wouldn’t feel anything now, not with the Ambre in its system.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Kallisti spat each word angrily. “She’ll feel it even more, but she can’t react – the drug screws up your coordination,” she deliberately turned her back on him and knelt by the twitching slave. The girl’s eyes were glassy and her mouth hung open. Kallisti grimaced when she saw the ragged stump of a tongue in the girl’s mouth.

There were tears in her eyes as she looked upon the poor wretch, and a terrible rage growing within her. A rustle from the back of the stall made her jump. Another figure crawled out of the shadows, this time a man. He too had a shaven head, was dressed in rags and was dreadfully thin. His eyes, though, held a desperate hunger. He ignored the girl, crawling over her to reach Maruk, one dirty hand held out in a silent plea.

Maruk sheathed his dagger and produced another Ambre leaf. He smiled cruelly as Kallisti flinched. “Well well, what have we here?” he said. “Not afraid of a little bitty leaf are we?” he lunged at her.

A terrible fear clenched her stomach. She could not help it – her mouth watered at the sight of the leaf, glistening invitingly in the lamp light. “No!” she gasped, flinging herself away from him. Maruk laughed.

“So, got a secret have you? You’re stronger than you look if you’ve kicked the Ambre habit. The only ones I’ve seen beat it were dead!”

“Get away you baboon-faced scum!” Kallisti snarled, backing up against the side of the stall. Maruk kept advancing toward her, his big mistake. Before he knew what had hit him, he was on his back gazing up at the ceiling with one arm twisted at an impossible angle and a dagger at his throat. Kallisti’s furious face loomed over him.

“I ought to cut your entrails out and feed them to the crows while you watch,” she snarled. The pain suddenly hit him – his arm! He screamed.

“What in the name of Vastur…” growled Harum.

“How did you do that?” Casir looked dumbfounded. “One second you were crouched by the wall, the next you were flying over his head!”

“My arm… she’s broken it!” Maruk screamed.

Kallisti glanced round – the male slave was chewing frantically, having found the Ambre leaf. Harum’s sword was drawn.

“Murdering whore!” He advanced toward Kallisti.

“She hasn’t killed him.” The blonde man, Dorik stepped in front of him. Harum tried to push the big man aside, but he seemed to be rooted to the spot.

“You saw it – he was threatening her and she defended herself. She hasn’t killed him,” Casir joined Dorik.

“Please please, the horses, yer frightening the horses,” Marcus wrung his hands. Harum growled but sheathed his sword.

“Get out of my way or I’ll give you a matching scar,” he snarled to Dorik. The tall blonde man stepped aside but followed him to Maruk’s side. Kallisti backed away, slipping the dagger back in her boot.

“Are you alright? What happened?” Casir was at her side. “I saw him threatening you with something.”

“He’s addicted the slaves to Ambre,” she said through gritted teeth. Casir gasped.

“How… Where…” he gulped. Kallisti glared at him. He shrugged. “I used to do a little dealing before, but in recent years its so difficult to… come… by…” his explanation dried up under Kallisti’s withering glare.

“Get out of my sight!” she spoke each word with such carefully measured ferocity that Casir backed away gingerly. He had just seen the violence this attractive woman was capable of.

The attic was warm, heated by the two chimney stacks which ran through it, one from the common room, the other from the kitchen. There were four wooden pallets, two of which were used by Mary and Ania. The third was where Kallisti rested, bundled up in blankets and a fur over-blanket. Mary lay in her bed, having come up once everything had quietened down and the others had turned in. Ania had not come up yet.

“Jenna, are ye awake?” Mary whispered. Kallisti sighed, breaking out of her reverie.

“Mm. Where’s Ania, she can’t still be working?”

Mary giggled. “I suppose ye could call it work,” she replied.

“Oh I see, earning a little extra eh?” Kallisti chuckled.

“Why were ye sae frightened of Maruk?” Mary asked tentatively.

“I wasn’t frightened of Maruk. I’ve seen his sort before – it’s easy to bully slaves or women,” Kallisti sighed, “but as soon as you stand up to them, they show themselves to be the cowards they really are. I’ve grown accustomed to that sort of thing – people have a habit of misjudging me.”


“It was the Ambre. I was addicted to it.”

“But I was always told it was impossible tae get cured.”

“It is. I’m not cured really – I’m still an Ambre addict in many ways, it’s just I refuse to take it any more. The temptation is still very strong, though, and I hate seeing anyone who is addicted. The thought of Ambre sends my pulse racing, but I know I might as well cut my own throat as soon as take one more leaf. It would kill me – not straight away, but it is poison nonetheless. I’ve been through too much and have got too much to live for to throw it all away on Ambre.”

“Ye must be very brave,” Mary’s awe-filled voice came out of the darkness.

“It’s not just me – I couldn’t have done it all on my own.”

Breakfast consisted of bacon, cheese, bread and ale. When Kallisti entered the common room, conversations paused for a moment before resuming. She wore her leather breeches and a fur trimmed waistcoat over a white linen shirt. Three daggers were in plain view.

Maruk’s arm was splinted and bound against his chest. He glowered in her direction, but did not meet her eye. Opposite him, Harum stared at her challengingly. She ignored him and moved to the other table where Casir and Dorik nodded to her as she sat beside them.

“Sleep well?” Casir asked casually. She glanced at him stony faced.

“Alright, I’ve done worse,” she replied, her tone frosty.

“If you don’t mind me saying,” Dorik spoke quietly, “I’d suggest you didn’t alienate anyone else. You haven’t many friends here at the moment and we are not likely to be moving for a few days yet.” His blue-green eyes held her’s earnestly. After a moment she nodded.

“Please accept my apologies Casir,” she sighed. “I have a strong dislike of Ambre and anything to do with it.”

“I do understand dear lady. It was in my youth that I dabbled, but my own morality precluded continuing in the business because of the suffering I perceived.”

“Who bound the Slaver’s arm?” Kallisti asked.

“Our normally silent companion has hidden talents it seems,” Casir replied. “I believe there is more to our friend here than meets the eye.”

Dorik lowered her head, not looking at them. Kallisti glanced at this hands again. They were a soldier’s hands, the well worn calluses from swinging a sword mute evidence. Kallisti smiled.

“I think you could be right,” she said quietly. Dorik looked up at her, a concerned expression on his face. She gave him a half-smile and winked. He frowned slightly, but said nothing.

A movement out of the corner of her eye made her look round. Casir was gazing intently at the pouch on Maruk’s belt. His eyes narrowed slightly and the tip of his tongue moistened his lips. Kallisti looked away again but saw Dorik had also noticed.

“Do you come from these parts?” she spoke to him. He shrugged his shoulders.

“I was born in a village on the coast, but I’ve been away for a while.”

“And now you’ve earned your fortune, you’re heading home?” Casir slapped his shoulder. Dorik smiled.

“Sort of,” he replied. “Time to feed the slaves,” He rose from the table. Kallisti looked at him in horror. He sat down again. “Maruk can’t do it with his broken arm, and if Harum does it, he’ll be just as cruel if not worse. If I do it, I can make sure they are treated well and fed properly. You can come with me if you like.”

Kallisti softened. “I’m sorry, of course you are right. I’ll help you.”

“She,” Maruk spat the word, “goes nowhere near my property.” He glared at them angrily. Harum’s hand was on his sword as usual. Kallisti sat down again.

Casir produced a pair of dice. “Interested?” he asked.

“No thanks Casir,” she smiled, “I don’t like loosing my money.” She cocked an eyebrow. Casir frowned then smiled conspiratorially.

“Then you, won’t mind…” he nodded toward Maruk and Harum.

“Not in the slightest.” She smiled again. Casir moved to the other table.

The dice game was well under way when Dorik came out of the stable, so only Kallisti saw him. His face was pale and his expression had a bleak haunted look. He glared at Maruk, hatred plain on his face. Kallisti shivered, but found himself sympathetic to this feelings.

Slavery was bad enough, but the cruelty and abuse Maruk subjected them to – and Ambre on top of that…

The day passed slowly. Outside the wind howled and the snow continued to fall. The dice game continued for most of the day with Ania joining in for a while to the amusement of the men.

Kallisti spent some time with her sewing kit repairing the clothes she had brought. A crude comment from Maruk made her put it aside, though, and in its place she produced a whetstone and conscientiously began to sharpen one of her daggers. The sound of blade on stone brought a scowl to Maruk’s face.

She turned in early, out of sheer boredom and retired to the attic. Mary and Ania were still busy downstairs, so she knew she would have it to herself.

“Jenna wake up!” Mary shook her urgently.

“What?” Kallisti came instantly awake. She was aware of raised voices. “What time is it?”

“An hour fae dawn. There’s been something dreadful happen.”

“What is it?” Kallisti pulled the blankets aside and reached for her boots. “Damn,” she muttered, “what’s happened to my dagger?” The knife she kept in the sheath in the side of her boot was missing. She shrugged and pulled them on anyway. “What’s happened Mary?”

“It’s Maruk, he’s been killed!”

“Oh shit!” Kallisti followed her down. When she entered the main room she heard Harum shout:

“There she is – I’ll slice the bitch!” She dived to one side and rolled across the floor, coming to her feet in a crouch, a dagger in each hand. Casir and Dorik were struggling with Harum who snarled and glared at her.

“How do you know she did it?” Casir shouted at him.

“You saw the dagger – it was her’s!”

“How do you know? Calm down and let us sort this out sensibly,” Casir calmed him down.

“What has happened?” she asked.

“You know damn well!” Harum spat on the floor.

“You’d better come and see,” Casir pointed toward the door to the stables.

Marcus was calming down the horses. The smell of blood was upsetting them. Kallisti saw the bodies by the stall where the slaves were kept. She glanced over her shoulder – Casir, Dorik and Harum were following.

Maruk lay on his back, his throat cut from ear to ear, blood everywhere. The expression on his face was one of sheer terror. Nearby, the slave girl lay on her side, both hands grasping the hilt of a dagger jutting out of her chest. With a groan, Kallisti recognised the dagger – her missing one.

“Well?” Harum demanded.

“It’s my dagger alright,” she sighed. The steely rasp of a sword being drawn made her step out of his reach. “It went missing – I only realised I hadn’t got it just now.” She faced Harum. “I didn’t kill him.”

“If you didn’t who did?” Harum snarled.

“It could have been you for one,” Casir jumped back as Harum turned to him, sword weaving dangerously. “Put that away, someone might get hurt.”

“Why do you say that?” Kallisti asked.

“Because he gambled his share of the sale away to Maruk last night,” Casir replied.

“But what about her dagger?” Harum stabbed his sword in Kallisti’s direction.

“It was stolen while I was asleep!” she replied. Kallisti looked down at the bodies. “The Ambre pouch is missing,” she said looking at Casir. He frowned.

“So it is,” he looked for himself. Harum’s sword appeared by his neck.

“You’re a thief and you were interested in the Ambre yesterday, so maybe you killed him?” Casir licked his lips, carefully glancing down at the sword.

“Well I did not. I don’t have or want anything to do with Ambre,” he spoke carefully.

“But you’ve fallen on hard times lately haven’t you? You’ve been telling us often enough while we’ve been stuck here,” Harum sneered. “And what about you,” he turned to Dorik suddenly, “mister deserter from the Laarian Army?” Dorik was suddenly holding a long-bladed dagger in his hand. “Maruk told me what he thought you were. Well?”

“If I killed him why would I take the Ambre?” Dorik’s voice was calm.

“The same reason you stole her dagger to do it with,” Harum replied, “to try to shift the blame.”

“This is stupid,” Marcus sighed. “Look, why can ye no see what really happened – the slave girl killed Maruk an’ then stabbed herself. Maybe this Ambre ye keep going on about is bad enough tae drive someone tae that.” Harum lowered his sword.

“How did she get hold of Jenna’s dagger?” Casir knelt by the slave girl’s body. He prised the stiff hands away from the hilt and tried to pull it out. “Hmph, its stuck.” He grunted and pulled again. “No, it won’t budge. It seems to have been driven in with quite some force.” He braced his foot against the girl’s chest and heaved. The dagger came free accompanied by the creak of steel against bone.

Kallisti saw a movement to the left. Dorik turned his face away, a pained expression on his face. Kallisti scowled.

“It was lodged in bone,” Casir explained as he examined the dagger. “I doubt if she had the strength to do that by herself.”

Kallisti moved to his side, keeping clear of Harum. She looked at the slave girl, first at the wound and then at her face. There was something niggling in her mind.

“What is the reward for turning in a deserter?” Casir asked Dorik.

“Five hundred gold,” he replied. Casir whistled.

“You’re worth quite a bit then.”

“Try cashing it in,” Dorik’s voice was low, but the challenge was there.

“I’m missing something here,” Kallisti muttered.

“A dagger?” Casir held it out. Harum flicked his sword toward him. “Please put that away!” Casir edged back. “What’s that?” he pointed at a shape toward the back of the stall.

“Its the other slave,” Kallisti knelt beside the prone figure. “I think this solves one mystery and lets you off the hook Casir.” She held up the pouch which had contained the Ambre leaves. It was empty. She rolled the slave over onto his back. The expression on his face was a mixture of horror and ecstasy. Bile hit the back of Kallisti’s throat and she turned away retching.

“What is it?” Casir moved to her side.

“He – he died of an overdose,” she gasped, forcing her stomach back under control. “He must have eaten the rest of the leaves.”

“Gods!” Harum swore. “We had a score or more of them – and they cost a fortune!.” He kicked the dead slave. “Damn waste! Stupid animal!” Kallisti was instantly on her feet and lashed out with a lightning fast punch. Harum’s head snapped back and he stumbled back a few paces as the blow landed with a crack. “You’ll pay for that whore!” he swung his sword, but it sliced through empty air. Before he could react, his arm was trapped against the wooden post at the side of the stall, wrist twisted painfully, elbow locked and under tension.

“Make a move and I’ll snap your arm like a stick of kindling,” Kallisti snarled, her eyes ablaze. Casir gripped the hilt of Harum’s sword. “Release it!” Kallisti ordered. Harum’s fingers opened and Casir removed the sword. She relaxed her grip and stepped back, away from Harum. “Don’t do anything rash,” she warned, “I don’t need a sword to be able to kill the likes of you.” She walked away from him, deliberately turning her back. Her heart was pounding, almost deafening her as she strained to hear any movement from behind that would signal an attack. There was none – she breathed a sigh of relief.

Dorik was covering the female slave’s body with his cloak. Before he covered her face, he bent down and closed her eyes. Kallisti frowned. Dorik saw her watching him. “It did not seem decent to let her remain uncovered. Someone should do the same for the other one,” he indicated the male slave. Kallisti nodded and spoke to Marcus.

“Why don’t we all have a drink to calm us down?” she said after the innkeeper scurried out. “We have a puzzle here to solve and all this fighting and threatening is not going to help.”

They helped themselves to ale and sat near the large fire, keeping a distance between each other, an uneasy silence settling over them. Marcus reappeared with two blankets which he took out to the stables.

“We ought to bury them.” Dorik said after a while. “They might have been slaves, but they should be treated with some dignity in death.”

“Leave ’em out for the wolves!” Harum muttered into his mug. Dorik glared at him. Kallisti frowned – there was sure there was something she had missed.

“Alright, first things first.” Kallisti said. “We all seem to have a motive for killing Maruk, tenuous though some may be, and there is circumstantial evidence which points toward me. I think we ought to begin by finding out who was where and when the murder might have taken place.”

“Seems reasonable,” Casir nodded. “I can definitely say I was in my bunk all night – you two must have seen me there.” He looked at both Harum and Dorik.

“Except for the time you went to the privy,” Dorik added. Casir scowled.

“Who was the last person to see Maruk?” Kallisti asked.

“The last I saw of him was when he went out to the stables. He wanted a bit of fun with the slaves, he said,” Harum smirked. Dorik’s face was stony.

“It was after that I went to bed,” Dorik said. “Casir had already gone and was asleep when I got up there. Harum was behind me, but stopped to talk to Ania. I then went to the privy and went to bed and didn’t get up again until this morning.”

“Harum, what about you?” Kallisti did not look at him.

“Yeah, so I arranged for Ania to come up to me. Then I went up to the privy and then to bed. I saw Dorik coming in after me, and Ania arrived soon after. I got up this morning and saw Marcus. He was complaining about the noise from the horses in the stable and so we went in and found him dead. What about you then? Where were you, and what proof do you have?”

“You all saw me retire before the rest of you. Mary came up some time later and I slept until she woke me this morning.”

“I think we ought to include Marcus and the girls as well. Maybe they saw something,” Casir tapped his chin.

“Maybe one of them killed him,” Harum muttered. It was not long before Marcus, Mary and Ania joined them.

“After Harum and I spoke, I had to finish cleaning the tables and then I went up to him,” Ania said, her head lowered. “I was there until I got up to feed the fires this morning.”

“I helped Dorik and Maruk feed the slaves last night, then I was cooking in the kitchen until I went to bed,” Mary told her story.

“I went to check the horses’ feed and as I came back out from the stable, Maruk came in. I supposed he wanted to check on his slaves,” Marcus frowned. “I picked up the mugs from the tables, went through to the kitchen and upstairs to check the privy. I came back down to feed the fire and said good night to Dorik as he went up the stairs. Then I went to see how Mary was doing, helped her finish and we both retired after turning the lamps down.”

“Where are you going?” Harum got to his feet as Kallisti moved toward the stables. The others followed.

“I need to check something.” she replied over her shoulder, keeping ahead of them all. She went straight to the covered body of the female slave and drew back Dorik’s cloak. Yes! The thing that had been puzzling her, nagging at the back of her mind was now clear, as clear as the features on the face of the slave.

Triumphantly, she looked up. Harum saw her expression and where she was looking and turned with a roar of anger, drawing his dagger at the same time.

Kallisti lunged and dragged Casir back out of the way as Harum’s roar turned into a gurgling gasp as Dorik’s dagger sank deep into his chest, driven by all the blonde man’s strength.

Harum sank to his knees, blood splashing from his mouth, still feebly trying to lunge with his knife. Dorik twisted the dagger in Harum’s chest to the sound of grating bone and a sickening gurgle from Harum. He collapsed into the straw, twitching.

Kallisti held Casir behind her, her own dagger drawn in defence. Marcus moved well away, keeping his girls behind him. Dorik put his foot on Harum’s chest and drew the dagger out. He turned toward Kallisti.

“Well?” he said, his voice as expressionless as his face.

“You knew what Maruk would be doing, so you came back down when Harum went to the privy. You killed Maruk and went back, but Marcus saw you going up the stairs,” Dorik glowered at her.

“She was your sister,” Kallisti added, her voice softening. The dagger lowered. Dorik nodded, his eyes going to his dead sister.

“I didn’t recognise her at first, only yesterday when I came out to feed them.”

“I’m not going to turn you in, and neither is Casir or the others – are you?” she glanced at the heavily sweating Casir.

“N – no.” he muttered. Marcus shook his head, not daring to speak.

Dorik dropped the dagger and sank to his knees beside his sister.

“She could have only been sixteen,” he said quietly. Kallisti pushed Casir away, nodding for them to leave. “I left them three years ago to earn money, but I couldn’t keep on killing.” Kallisti knelt beside him and put her hand on his shoulder. He looked up, tears in his eyes.

“He was making her…” he gulped, “and holding out the Ambre to make her do it. I – I couldn’t…”

Kallisti held him gently as the big man cried for the sister whose miserable existence he had ended.