Hardened wax dripped from the windowsills above like drapery, and all but one of the windows was shut and close-curtained, a set of men’s clothes hung out to dry below it on the thatched porch roof. As he approached, Willow saw two palominos tied to stakes in a small, wooden stall. Stood between them smoothing their ears was Anala, her cloak and hood wrapped protectively around her, sheened with rainwater. Her head was bowed and smiling affectionately at the creatures, and she noticed him glancing sidelong, her smile dropping flat. She turned and her cloak blew apart, showing that her expensive dress and boots had been replaced by a white blouse and a long, high-banded skirt: the clothes of peasantry. She pulled down her hood and lowered her head in greeting; the rain had frizzed her curls around her face like dark tumbleweed. She turned and walked towards the entrance, silently bidding Willow to follow her. He did so, snaking his hand into his satchel and tightening his grip on the flint shard.
There were fewer than ten inside the inn, excepting those buried away from sight on the upper floors, a mismatch of Easterners who had braved – or foolishly disregarded – the frightening stories of that time of year. Two tradesmen wives were bent towards each other around a burnt-out hearth, wrapped in blankets and sharing all sorts of gossip from their travels. A couple of men sat at square tables in the corners nursing bowls of millet porridge, whilst the rest kept to themselves until somebody new entered, at which point they all looked over their shoulders with a bored kind of interest.
The building was held up by a framework of rafters and wooden pillars, the wood dark as if it was half-burnt and ready to split. The air was strong with the scent of paraffin oil and stale hops. The bar was placed between two bowing staircases leading to the upper lodgings, and standing at it was the landlord, a man with hairy, bulbous arms and a paunch dipping out of his shirt. He went about his business, swigging the leftovers in used mugs before cleaning them, and already intoxicated, he swayed on the spot and whined out an old song:
‘We’s dead, so we might as well dance,
I’s rottin’, just gimme a chance,
So give th’bard a beat,
An’ I’ll try n’ move my feet,
To th’music o’ the deadman’s land.’