The outside of the Salty Maid was unremarkable aside from the signboard hanging above the door, if perhaps a little large to be anything other than what it was. Inside, Einarr fancied he could hear the music that would have played before the place was abandoned. Despite the twilight he could see that furs and other hunting trophies hung from the walls, and the smell of wood smoke lingered in the air, although it had gone stale already. Were it not for the dirty plates and tankards that littered the table, and the bench someone had overturned in their haste to leave, he might have been able to believe it was merely closed.
Such fanciful delusion, however, would get them no closer to their goals. Unfortunately, he was no longer so sure staying here would, either. Still, though, they needed a place to sleep for the night. Einarr sighed: it was too early to start questioning his own judgement. “Right,” he sighed. “Erik, get the fire going. Runa, Jorir, see if there’s anything worth eating back in storage. I’m going to have a look around.”
Taking command always felt strange, and never mind that he’d been being groomed for it since he joined the Vidofnir, or even that the other Vidofnings expected it of him. Jorir may have been sworn to him, but Runa would be his bride and Erik was a friend. That they did not bristle at his directions was a small wonder.
Thankfully, Erik wasted no time in lighting a fire in the hearth, and then Einarr had no more excuse to stand around feeling small. Once there was light, he could see that while there was a smell from the dirty dishes littering the table, and attendant buzzing flies, they had not yet grown maggots. Probably, then, the town had only recently been abandoned.
The prints outside the door were a hopeless muddle and old besides: if there was to be a clue, it would be in objects left behind, and not in the trail of the departed. Not until they could find such a trail, at any rate. With the fire blazing in the light, however, it soon became apparent there simply was not much to find.
But not nothing. As he approached the hearth, where Erik had the fire crackling merrily, he saw scraps of cloth hanging from the wall where a portrait or a tapestry might otherwise have been. Einarr stopped and frowned at the blank spot on the wall.
“Find something?” Erik asked, standing up from the floor by the fire and dusting his hands on his trousers.
“Maybe. Looks like whatever was hanging here, someone thought it was absolutely critical to bring along, but they just tore it down. You didn’t see any other scraps of cloth, did you?”
He shook his head. “No, I… wait. Maybe, but we’ll get singed getting at them now.”
“In the hearth?”
“Bits of color around the edges. Don’t think there was much left. Here. Maybe I’ll get lucky.” Erik grabbed a long stick from the stack of firewood and used it to shift the edge of the fire away from where he remembered seeing the colors. With only a little fumbling he managed to get hold of a small scrap that had yet to catch. He blew a bit to extinguish the embers and handed it to Einarr.
Einarr frowned. It could well have been from the same cloth – and probably a portrait, based on the pattern of color. “So not something they took with them, something they couldn’t leave behind, or didn’t want their assailants to have. But, why?”
Erik could only shrug. “Search me.”
A door opened with a clack behind them. Runa and Jorir shouldered their way through, Runa with an armful of something and Jorir with a cask.
“We’ve got good news and bad news,” the dwarf announced.
“Well, let’s have it.”
Jorir set the cask on the table. It made the solid thump that told Einarr it was full. “The good news is, we’ve ale and mead aplenty. Looks like something fouled the water, though.”
They couldn’t really afford to drink too much tonight, Einarr thought, but certainly a little wouldn’t go amiss.
“The bad news,” Runa continued. “Is that the meat’s all spoilt. No real surprise, and I think there are plenty of vegetables to go around for our supper.”
“That’s the bad news?” Einarr almost wanted to laugh. With the state of the dinner plates out here, he could have guessed that much.
Runa grinned. “That’s the extent of it. That, and it looks like someone took an axe to the walls on their way out.”
Now Einarr frowned. First, a hastily removed and burned picture, now someone cutting into the walls? Something was very strange here. “Show me?”
She nodded and gestured for him to follow. No sooner had the door closed behind their backs than her fingers were entwined in his. Einarr smiled. “Tell me that wasn’t just a ruse to get me back here on my own.”
“A ruse?” She giggled. “Never. An excuse, but it really does look like someone was trying to chop down the building.”
Einarr laughed under his breath and followed where his bride led.
Through the kitchen and out back into a store-room where Einarr could smell the musty pungency of onions and the sickly fumes of slowly rotting meat. She led him past a chopping block – not the source of the rotten meat smell, it seemed – to the wall farthest from the hall itself. There, inscribed in the wall, were a series of regularly spaced chop marks. “I wonder what they were looking for?”
Runa shook her head. “I can guess, but so could you. A secret compartment, or passage, or full-sized room. But I’m certain they didn’t find it. The wall is solid behind each of these.
Einarr hummed. It was as good an idea as any. “I think I might know where the secret door they were looking for is.”
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