The inn door banged open, and Tanis barged into the pub, shaking the snow from his hair and drawing a few looks of irritation as he shrugged out of his thick coat. Rell and Ariella were next with Barris closing the door behind them. The blacksmith's apprentice was coated in snow but seemed unconcerned by the cold while Rell shivered and dashed through the pub angling for a table by the fire. He slipped into a seat moments after the previous occupant had only just got up, beating another group to it. He ignored their complaints and pointed to Barris as if the big man was the only defence he required.
Ariella slid in next to the window and sat opposite Rell. The snow was building up on the squares of glass, obscuring the closed shops across the narrow street. She stared out of the window only glancing over as Barris took the seat next to her. Tanis caught the barmaid’s eye and called out for four ales before sitting down with a heavy sigh.
“Do you want to swap places, Ari? You'd be warmer next to the fire.” Rell was concerned by his sister’s sombre mood. She gave a slight shake of her head, disturbing a lock of damp hair draped across her forehead.
“Seated here should warm a person up soon enough. You have to be careful not to raise the body's heat too quickly,” Barris said knowingly. The big man leant over the table and Ariella seemed to shrink in beside him, hiding from the rest of the inn.
“Do you remember the boy that fell in the lake?” Tanis said while he turned to try and see through the gaps to the upper floor of the inn. People had filed in from the plaza, and the upstairs was heaving. “There’s a bit of a party going on up there.”
“Wasn’t his name Rothen or something like that?” Rell jammed his fingers under his armpits and tried not to shiver. The colour was slowly returning to his cheeks but still had a way to go before he would take his coat off.
“He was cursed when his parents named him,” Barris said. “His mother worried he would catch a chill, so she thrust him in front of the fire. Very dangerous.”
“I don’t get why it’s dangerous though,” Rell said. "I'd sit on the coals if I thought the barmaid would let me."
“That was Rothen's problem, his mother put him so close that his trousers caught fire. He ran out of the house with flames licking up his trouser leg and jumped into the nearest snow pile,” Tanis said. “He fell sick soon after. He lived, but it goes to show you have to be careful.”
“Are you saying I might catch fire sitting here?” Ariella brushed her hair back and gave Tanis a tired look.
“Nothing of the sort.” Tanis grinned at the barmaid approaching the table with the tray of drinks.
“I'm sure he’s just looking out for you,” Rell said. “I felt cold just watching you.”
“I don't need you three idiots, looking out for me.” Ariella sat forward and jabbed at her own chest. “I can look out for myself.”
“Clam down, Ari,” Barris said and then recoiled from the glare that Ariella gave him.
“Calm down?” Ariella hissed.
“Ahh, here we go. I’ve been looking forward to a drink all day.” Tanis claimed his tankard from the tray before the barmaid had a chance to deposit them on the table.
“I just put my life on the line while all you three did was stand there and watch. I got the dragon, and I flew it,” Ariella said with barely concealed rage. “I was so close, but those cursed bastards stole it from me.”
“Have you got any of those little sausages?” Tanis enquired of the barmaid.
“The ones in that spicy sauce?” Rell asked Tanis before quickly turning back to Ariella. “I’m listening. They’re bastards, the lot of them. Especially that ungrateful git you saved.”
“I told you, Rell, you can't blame the man. He knew what he was risking. It was Ari’s instinct to save him, but he won't see it that way.” Barris took a deep drink from his mug.
Ariella leant back so she could look up at the big man. Whisps of steam rose from her as some inner fire burned away. “I didn't want to save him. I wanted to win but when I heard the scream I just reacted.”
“I swear you run hotter than normal people,” Rell muttered and took a drink.
“Your instinct was stronger than your desire. That's not a bad thing. You should remember that. You might have lost out on your dream, but that man lives because of you.” Barris looked down at Ariella and gave her a grave nod. She slapped him on the arm.
“Only two idiots then. Why can't you all be like Barris?” The anger left Ariella’s eyes as quickly as it had entered. Rell was used to the quickness of her temper, but also how fast it left.
“It would be a boring world if we were,” Tanis said.
“One full of blunt daggers and square plates,” Rell said.
“It was not meant to be blunt. You took it before I had finished it, and that plate was meant to be square. It is a serving platter for carrots and such,” Barris said defensively.
“You made a carrot plate?” Tanis said.
“What use is it in buying a dagger you have to sharpen yourself? I don’t buy a horse that I have to shod or a book that I have to write myself?” Rell said.
“Firstly, you haven't paid for it and secondly you took it before it was ready. You stole it, Rell, and I ought to get the watch on you,” Barris said and then glared at Tanis. “It was a serving platter and earned me a shilling. What do your fancy socks earn you?”
The dagger in question had been a bone of contention that Rell liked to pick at when he felt the need to wind Barris up.
“I have no fear of the watch,” Rell said and then sat up to look around the inn. When he saw the coast was clear, he let out a relieved sigh and slumped into his seat once more. Ariella shook her head but joined in the laughter.
“Rell, you’d run a mile if one of them even looked at you,” Ariella said.
“Ah, but I’d damn well outrun them. I left the gate the same time you started from the monastery.” Rell perked up and sloshed some of his beer on the table. Tanis looked on in horror at the waste.
“And you got there before me,” Ariella said drolly, already knowing the answer. She wasn’t ready to laugh at her loss, but it wasn't often her little brother got the chance to boast.
“I was there long before any of you even reached the plaza. I had time for a chat with Kynon and with Uncle Victor.”
“They’d already left the monastery before you set off running. So not that impressive really,” Barris said.
“Hah, caught in a lie.” Ariella jabbed a gloved finger at her brother and then at Tanis for good measure.
“Doesn't that make him even quicker?” Tanis said.
“Back to three idiots. Should’ve known not to listen to the Mr Carrot Plate,” Ariella said slapping Barris on the shoulder. He broke into a silent chuckle, and she sat back, content to listen to her friends talk. The ale kept coming, along with a platter of food that Ariella tucked into. The others seemed not to mind that she took the largest share.
“Do you have to go back to the monastery?” Rell asked after they’d drank enough to relax. The question had been going around inside his head since they'd sat down.
“No, that's it. I have no interest in becoming a monk.” Ariella swirled the dregs at the bottom of her mug feeling that she had something in common with them.
“Don’t see a life wearing robes and herding dragons then?” Tanis asked and Ariella shook her head. “I don't blame you, always struck me as a bit risky with very little excitement. Shovelling dragon shit with a high chance of getting burnt. But what are you going to do now? No offence, but I can't see you selling dresses like Rell does.”
“I don’t sell women's garments nor any clothes.” Rell slapped the table and glared at his friend in mock indignation. “How many times do I have to explain this to you? Before a lady’s undergarment is an undergarment it is a yard of cloth.”
“And before it's the cloth, it's the dung of a cow. I know where it comes from,” Tanis said.
“Clearly not.” Rell couldn't help but laugh. “I give up. Barris, you're used to hammering dense things, you explain it to him.”
“Rell does not sell the ladies' undergarments, he merely wears them.” Barris shook with quiet laughter. Ariella felt the bench creak under the weight and couldn’t help but be carried along.
“Don’t know what you're laughing about. You failed the test,” a rough-looking man said from across the bar. He was with a group of men, and they were all staring at Ariella and her table.
“Shouldn’t you be off crying or something?” another man said, and the group fell to cruel laughter.
“Why don’t you shut your gob before I shove this tankard in it,” Tanis called back and fixed the perceived troublemaker with a glare. The man thrust his hand out and stuck his fingers up in a well-known gesture that had Tanis leaping to his feet.
“Leave it. Why have you always got to bite?” Rell said pulling at his arm. He raised his tankard and clinked it against Tanis’.
“Violence is not the right path for you, Tan,” Barris said. “You lack the wit to duck “
“Violence is the only path,” Ariella said.
“All too cowardly, are you?” the antagonist said.
“Leave it, lads,” the bartender said but backed off when the meanest of the group tossed an empty tankard in his direction.
Ariella tried to stand up, but she was boxed in by Barris, who resolutely refused to budge.
“I’ll climb over you if you don’t get out of my way.” Ariella put her face up close to the side of Barris’s head. She was a fraction of his size, but she was ready to force her way past. The blacksmith's apprentice kept his gaze on Tanis, his expression placid.
“Ari, you have more to lose than them. If you win, then all you have done is beaten some drunks, but if they win, they’ll have bested a candidate for the Dragon Eyrie.”
“Barris, stop being a git. Come on, Ari, the three of us can take them,” Tanis said. The men at the bar kept throwing insults egging Tanis on.
“I'm not fighting,” Rell said, surprised at the suggestion. He thought his friend knew him better.
“Of course you are. Get up,” Tanis said pulling at his arm.
Barris reached across the table and gripped his friend by the forearm, his meaty hand circling Tanis’ wrist.
“Sit down,” Barris said. Tanis looked ready to argue but sat down heavily.
“That's it, listen to your mum,” the thug said to a ripple of laughter. More people in the inn were now watching.
“Now look here.” Barris turned in his seat to address the men. “We want no trouble. Let me stand you a round.”
“Barris, let me at them.” Ariella placed a hand on Barris’s shoulder and stood on the bench.
“Nah, you can have mine!” The thug shouted as he hurled his mug at Barris’ head. It found its mark and the clay pot shattered into shards showering Barris with beer.
The inn went quiet as everyone watched Barris squeeze the beer out of his beard. A little ran down Ariella's cheek but she ignored it as she lent close and whispered in Barris's ear.
“Unleash the bear.” Ariella's hushed words were like iron striking on flint and Barris’ face shifted from calm and collected to one of fury. His brow furrowed, and his lips curled as he shot out from the bench, upsetting the drinks. Rell snatched his up in time, but the other pots tumbled over spilling their contents, much to Rell’s horror. Barris was up and had covered several yards before the thug registered his mistake and smugness turned to fear. A table sat between the charging Barris and the five men, but Barris simply gripped the edge and flipped it upwards before catching the underside and propelling it before him. A man screamed, and then the tabletop slammed into the men, smashing them into the bar.
Ariella whooped and jumped from the bench in pursuit of Barris. Tanis, a little slower in the starting blocks, nevertheless got to his feet and raised his fists. Just who he was squaring off against was anybody's guess, but the bystanders in the inn all took a step back, more in awe of Barris’s charge than Tanis’ stance.
Rell sipped his drink and stared out of the window taking a stand against the unnecessary violence and sitting this one out.
The men shouted from behind the table, and one fell to the floor, out for the count, but the two that were on the edge stumbled clear. One struck out at Barris with his boot while the one on the left brought his fists up just as a grinning Ariella joined the fight. She punched one of them in the chest before following up with a savage kick to the groin. The man doubled over in pain only for Ariella to bring her knee up into his face. Blood sprayed across the ceiling as the man collapsed, taking a few of the watching crowd with him.
Barris took the kick in the thigh and slowly turned to look at the man. They were the same height but Barris was twice as wide. The loudmouth seemed to regret his choice but it was too late as Barris grabbed a nearby table and flipped it into the air. It sailed a few yards before finding its mark.
Free from the press of the table, the two men stepped over their fallen comrade and jumped on Barris. One missed and flew past only to fall into Tanis, knocking him into Rell's bench. Rell let out a strangled cry as beer spilled down his trousers. He tossed the mug and set about freeing Tanis from the tangle.
Barris spun around with a red-faced drunk clinging to his neck and the man's legs flying outwards to great howls from the crowd. Bar fights usually dissolved into wrestling in the filth or were pushed out into the street, but the big man was putting on quite a show for them. They cheered when Ariella got involved by snagging the short man’s left leg and shouting for Barris to stand still. Barris stumbled, tripped over a bottle and fell, crushing the man on his back. The inn let out a cheer and raised their tankards.
Left with only one attacker to worry about Rell and Tanis did their best to get in each other's way. Rell threw a wild punch with his eyes closed, hitting Tanis in the back of the head, before rolling across the table and and ending up on the floor where he sat rubbing his head and looking about the inn. A few other fights had broken out on the periphery, as people saw an opportunity to settle old scores. Barris had battered the poor men in front of him and Ariella looked ready to jump into a new fight.
“You silly sod.” Tanis fell to his knees after delivering the knockout blow. Rell tried to stand but wobbled slightly and had to steady himself on the collapsed table. Tanis placed a hand under his shoulder and steered him away.
“What did I do?” Rell asked, confused, and a bit bruised.
“Not you, that guy,” Tanis gestured back to the table and the groaning man on top of it. “Gave him the chance to stay out of it, but he had to mouth off. We’d best get out of here. Big man!”
Barris turned at the shout and gave a thumbs up. The inn was in chaos as people streamed past, eager to leave before the watch showed up and attempted to bring peace and order. Barris looked at the people running past and pointed for Rell and Tanis to leave before he turned and shouted at Ariella. She was already trading blows with a new enemy and Barris had to step in to get her attention.
“The watch,” Barris said attempting to grab hold of Ariella.
“To the pits with them,” Ariella screamed as she spun around, wild eyed with her mass of hair flying around her.
Barris stood dumbfounded for a moment, stunned by the woman before him, but then Ariella made to charge back into the fray and he had no other choice but to scoop her up and run out into the snow with her in his arms. Rell and Tanis waved at them from the top of one of the covered staircases that led into the city's underworld.
“We’d best split up,” Tanis said pointing down the road at the approaching sound of horn blasts. He slapped Rell on the arm and started running away along the street, but Barris shook his head.
“I blame him for this. I just wanted a drink.” Barris stared at Tanis’s back and then glanced in the opposite direction. He could hear the heavy boots of the watch jogging across the square. “Later at the pits?”
“Oh, I should imagine so. Farewell for now.” Rell slapped his hand against his chest in a mockery of the soldier's salute and Barris laughed loudly before running after Tanis.
Rell started down the steps but turned when he realised that Ariella was still in the street. She was looking towards the plaza and the guards that were due to turn into the street at any moment.
“Ari, come on,” Rell begged but Ariella stood her ground in the middle of the street. Snow fell around her, and her long black hair gathered at her shoulders. She spat into the snow before skipping down the steps leaving Rell to be the one following her.