North and west of the Capitals, in the political no-man’s land between that domain and that of the Gindi, are numerous villages and hamlets caught in the anarchy. They are called, by some amalgamation of local tongues, shulk-towns and they are mostly autarchic. These towns get by on work from Traders, local commerce and agriculture, and they manage well enough.
One such shulk-town is called Niwari. It can be found at the bottom of a broad and terribly forested hill, called Teela Hill by those who care. The placement is, at once, foolishly fortuitous. The sharp incline of the western side of the hill can mean regular flooding when it rains (and it does). So, many dwellings are built on little stilts that mostly tide them over when tiding can be done. The hill is also the source of their meagre fortune. For the hill and its forest draw loggers from many nearby steadings, and has for generations; forestry begat trade; trade, a road; a road, lodgers and workers, and so on until the little shulk-town sprouted up out of the ground some generations ago.
Teela Hill is part of a broader range of such hills that has no name, or at least no names are there for the finding on any maps in any archive of the Capitals. No dwarf scholar or Keeper claims any knowledge of that range either, nor any other landmark in that sparsely inhabited dead space. If there is a name it is kept, solely, by the locals.
But it must be old and long-populated. And the folk there must know a thing or two about forestry, as the woods show no sign of diminishing. There is only Niwari, its people, its seasonal workers (who emerge from the hills during logging season and recede as quietly as they came), and its inn.
Now the inn is, of course, a curious development among all those civilized beings of the Continent, and perhaps beyond it. No expedition has returned from beyond the Break in generations, so if there are pubs that way no one knows about them. But I digress. Inn, hus, saraay, wokheya, hostel. We all of us may call it by different names, but an inn is an inn, just as a tavern is a tavern.
The Green Crow is the principal inn and business of Niwari. For it is not merely an alehouse with rooms on top; it’s trade post, parcelry, and general store. It’s a family gathering place, a romantic evening away, the only performance hall in town, the only lecture hall in town, the only place for a glass and a warm meal. It is a home in the dearest sense of the word.
It is staffed by a magnificent but skeletal crew of four.
First is Sumi Kind, who most describe as nimble, taut, unpleasantly cheerful, and dwarf. She is the barback but in title only, for Sumi is also room service and entertainer, known to keep even a full common room laughing for a full 20 minutes (25 if engaged parties have had a few).
Next is Furrier: tall, lanky, off-putting, trollish. Do not let his name fool you, for this fellow, all pale-green six-and-a-half feet of him, could not catch any forest creature should his life depend on it. It seems the more cultured trolls of today merely have odd naming customs. Furrier would better be called cellarer, because that’s what he is. His is the domain of deliveries, of stock and inventory, and lifting most anything what needs lifting. Behind his small and piebald eyes sits a mind full of numbers, however. And those numbers equate to not only an unerring account of every ingredient in the Green Crow, but also an exacting application of those ingredients to every stew, pie, and ale produced in the kitchen. When Kalka is not in the kitchen, Furrier is there.
Who is Kalka? Why she is the innkeeper, the reverend mother of hospitality. Nearly as tall as Furrier, not half as cheerful as Sumi, Kalka runs the Green Crow with austerity and agonizing generosity. Hers is the realm of barkeep, hotelier, town listener, post master, and head chef. Never married, without children, and nearing her…fiftieth year? Few know her history with the Green Crow save that she has run it since she was as joyous and young as Sumi Kind. And, despite her stern demeanor, she took on a sprightly newcomer to round out her employ.
That newcomer was, naturally, myself.
“Girlad’s run off,” she said to me. “Can you clean a stables?”
“Yes!” I nodded, though I’d only ever ridden horses, and not taken care of them.
“Can you shoe a horse?”
“Yes!” I said, this time with even more confidence.
After a pause the innkeeper spoke again. “Fine. You’re hired. On a temporary basis.”
“Isn’t all of life but one temporary stop?” I mused, extending my hand for her to shake.
An unpleasant look took Kalka’s face, as if she’d caught wind of some newly soured milk. She rose and turned out of her office and walked into the quiet common room. Ah, well. The niceties of the Capitals are not for everyone.
And since that fateful day all of one day ago, I have been in the employ of the Green Crow. What ups and downs await us? Who, or what, will come through those doors next? What, in fact, is that smell?