Geralt of Rivia pushed against the tavern door with a grimy, gloved hand, feeling the door brush against the grit on the wooden floor. The usual fluttering of attention to movement at the door let a few eyes catch him, then more as the whispering started. He ignored it. The bar was a mere eleven steps ahead, with another twenty to get up the stairs, and maybe a final twenty three to reach his room and lie down. Gods, but that pack of drowners in the swamp had been a long fight. He was going to get to that bed as fast as he could.
Of course, he thought as he took the second step into the tavern, that all depended on how far down the hall his room was. Geralt occupied his next two footfalls by attempting to make eye contact with the man at the bar. The bartender was polishing a glass, hurriedly attempting to look anywhere but at Geralt.
He looked behind himself briefly. The swamp water had mostly dried on the ride back, but it seemed the mud on his boots had not. Several tavern-goers were unsubtly scooching their chairs away from him, the screeching of wood scraping along the ground hitting his waterlogged ears. He sighed. Eight more steps to the bar.
Finally, when he was within five paces, the barkeep gave a nervous smile and set down the glass and rag. “I suppose you’ll be wantin’ a room, then?” The ice blue eyes of the bartender were watery, and crinkled at the edges. Geralt stopped three paces from the bar. It only seemed polite given the expression on the bartender’s face.
“If you would. I’ve… had a long day.” Geralt shifted a bit on his feet and hiked his bag further up on his shoulder. There was a splattering noise that sounded suspiciously like a piece of viscera dislodging itself from Geralt’s shoulder and hitting the ground. He grimaced.
The bartender’s eyebrows raised a fair amount higher. “Right away, Sir Witcher!” Executing a half turn on his heel, he reached up into a small set of cupboards behind the counter for a large bronze key, and completed the spin to toss the key to Geralt. A ribbon with a number embroidered into it fluttered in the air and caught the torchlight as it spun towards Geralt’s head.
The witcher caught the key in one gloved hand, avoiding touching the cloth tag with his slimy leather fingers. “Thanks. How much do I owe you for the night?” He made to reach for his coin purse, tucked safely under his crusted armor, when the bartender frantically started shaking his hands.
“No, no, Sir Witcher, I couldn’t think to, er, take your money when you’ve helped us out in such a way, please…” He trailed off as Geralt raised an eyebrow.
Right. Most people were averse to having the entrails of the reanimated dead on their money. And their clothes. And probably their floors. “I’ll be sure to patronize the bar after I’ve had time to collect myself,” he grunted out as he pivoted towards the door. The stairs were closer to fifteen steps away now that he didn’t need to detour as close to the bar. Blessed slumber lay less than two score of paces from his current position.
Geralt paused, foot in the air, and turned back to the bar. A young man in plain clothing was hurrying up to the counter as the bartender waved him over. The bartender picked up two wooden buckets from beneath the counter and handed them to the boy, before holding a hand out to the witcher.
“Please, brave Witcher, let my son bring some water up to your room to heat, complements of the house!” He smiled nervously. Geralt looked at him, then at the boy. His gaze wasn’t returned, as the lad was filling the first bucket from a spigot set into the stone wall. Returning his eyes to the bartender, Geralt set his foot back on the ground and straightened a little. Fourteen steps.
The hum of the evening bar talk that had dimmed when Geralt had opened the door tentatively started back up, a little livelier than before. Someone lit a few more torches, and two or three musicians grouped up near the fireplace and started to strum. A woman with a broom and a bucket ran out into the middle of the floor and started to sweep up the mud and dirt on the floor. A few people of varying genders with low-cut shirts and loose, flowing skirts swept out into the tavern with tankards of foaming ale, and the mood turned merry. The monsters plaguing the town for months were slain, and there was reason again to celebrate.
“I’m ready to go upstairs if you are, Sir Witcher.” The voice from his side startled him out of his observant reverie. Geralt turned to see the bartender’s son, standing next to him and holding the two buckets, now full of clear water. “There’s a spring in the mountain this tavern is built into, and Pa hired the blacksmith to make us some way to pipe it in behind the bar. It’s pretty useful, if I do say so myself!”
The kid must have been twenty five at the absolute oldest, shaggy black hair hiding most of his eyebrows and the tops of his dark ears. His rough-woven woolen shirt was laced loosely at the neck, the sleeves long and unraveling, the bottom hem hanging over thick tights. His feet were tucked into leather slippers. He wasn’t skinny or fat, but solidly built, muscles from years of regular work visible shifting under his tights.
Geralt tilted his head back up to meet the man’s eyes, then turned to the stairs and continued forward. “And your name is?” He growled to the other man as he reached for the banister to steady himself. He could practically feel the eyes of the bartender on his back as he touched the polished wood. Yes, he was tipping sizably.
He was another few steps up the stairs when the barkeep’s son answered. “Deyvan. It’s Deyvan, sir.”
Geralt made a low noise in response and continued up the stairs. He glanced at the key’s tag. There was a duck embroidered in blue thread on the red ribbon, and as he reached the top of the stairs, he saw plaques with animals on each solid wooden door. When he reached the top of the stairs, he stepped aside to allow Deyvan to pass. “Which one is the duck?”
Deyvan smiled. “It’s our largest room, at the end of the hall.” He took a slow, heavy step past Geralt, holding the buckets level.
Resolutely not showing his disappointment at the additional thirteen paces needed to clear the hallway, Geralt kept his mouth closed and his gaze forward. He spun the key in his hand while he walked, unlocking it in a smooth motion and holding the door for Deyvan. The younger man stepped into the room, still carefully moving the full buckets of water without spilling a drop.
The room was modestly sized, with a bed large enough for three buried under a pile of muted woolen blankets and room for a small wooden chair and table in front of the fireplace. A stack of wood rested in a neat pile to the right of the fireplace, while some dried leaves and flowers adorned the mantle above it. There was a door set into the wall across from the bed, which Geralt took note of, and a wooden cabinet a small metal bowl rested on top of. Deyvan made a beeline for the fireplace while Geralt went for the cabinet, gingerly setting his bag down on the table. It made a slight squelching noise as the leather bent and settled into the table. Geralt snuck a look at Deyvan. He was humming while setting some wood and kindling into the fire. The noise probably wasn’t audible from across the room. Excellent.
Deyvan poured the first bucket into the large cauldron hanging over the fire after he’d gotten it started, then moved in a way Geralt could only describe as “scampering” across the room to the door he’d seen earlier. As Deyvan opened it, Geralt noted it seemed to be a linen closet, containing a large metal wash bin, along with shelves full of sheets, blankets, what appeared to be another floor rug, and some large bags of dried herbs that Geralt could smell were mixed into the hay of the mattress. Deyvan dragged the wash bin out, starting when Geralt quickly moved to lift the other end.
“You don’t need to help, sir, it’s not as heavy as it is unwieldy,” Deyvan protested, but lifted his end of the tub closer to the fire. They set the wash tub down and looked at each other.
“I suspect my father’s subtlety did not go unnoticed, but you stink of a wheel of cheese and a healthy fisherman’s haul left in the sun for a week, Sir Witcher.”
Geralt kept his face motionless. “Please, with that level of familiarity, call me Geralt. Of Rivia, if you prefer. And the smell is the unfortunate result of gutting a dozen drowners.”
Deyvan beamed, his eyes shining a bit from under his messy fringe. “And for that, we all thank you. It’s a pleasure, Sir Geralt.”
He leaned in a little and opened his mouth to say something, but Geralt smirked.
“Looks like the water’s boiling, kid.”
Jerking upright, Deyvan turned to the fire and pulled a thick cloth from next to the wood, lifting the metal handle of the cauldron and carrying it to the tub. He looked up again at Geralt as a cloud of steam billowed up between them. Geralt continued to stand still, too conscious of the muddy prints he’d tracked down the hallway and into the room to touch the chairs or lean against the wall. Also, the kid was giving him bedroom eyes and he was going to need to make a decision about that soon.
If he decided to fuck the kid he should probably stop calling him that in his head. And out loud.
While he’d been thinking, Deyvan had turned back to the fire to pour the second bucket into the cauldron. This time, Geralt watched him more closely. No, he decided, he had just enough energy to scrape himself clean and fall into that bed. The pillows might actually have some feathers in them. At this point not even another drowned was going to keep him from going the fuck to sleep.
No, he couldn’t fuck the kid. Which was good, because the name had stuck in his head.
Geralt backed up a few steps to the table. He pulled off his gloves carefully, setting them next to his bag. Deyvan lifted the cauldron again when Geralt put a foot up on the chair and unlacing his boots.
“What’s it like, travelling the continent? Like in the bardsongs that come through the tavern?”
Swiveling his head to meet Deyvan’s eyes, Geralt raised an eyebrow. The young man took the invitation to continue.
“I’ve spent my whole life up here in the mountains, and I…” He lifted the cauldron to pour the remaining water into the tub, and another cloud of steam rose towards the ceiling. “I was wondering if you’ve ever seen the ocean. I’ve read about it before, but if there’s any way for me to see it someday, I’m going to.” He poured the last of the water out decisively, and seemed to blush behind the haze before turning back to hang the cauldron up.
Geralt sighed a bit. “I’m not great with words. And the bard didn’t come with me this time.” He turned to the bartender’s son, leaning on the chair. “I’ve seen the ocean. Or, a few. They’re large enough to fill the horizon twice over and swallow the sight of everything you’ve ever known.” Looking away, he paused, and sighed. “It’s beautiful, though.” Geralt smiled at the boy, who was looking at him with wide eyes. “I think I’ll be good here with the water. Thank you, Deyvan.”
The young man deflated a little, but smiled at Geralt. “No, I must thank you, Sir Geralt of Rivia. Were it not for you, I wouldn’t be able to go through the southern passage to the nearby lake this spring and dream of the ocean.” Deyvan stopped, then turned back to the closet. “Here.” He opened the door and took a few small steps inside, reaching up on the shelf for a dark glass bottle stoppered with a cork. “Some scented bath oils. I know I’m laying it on a bit thick, but it’s good for the skin as well.” Walking out of the closet, he stopped, and held it out to Geralt by the top.
Geralt paced forward to take the bottle by the base, taking it from Deyvan and holding it by his side. “I’ll give it a go. Now, if you would.” He gave a wry half smile and swept his free hand towards the door.
“Take care, Geralt.” Deyvan left, closing the door gently, and Geralt locked it behind the boy.
Now, for a quick enough dunk in the tub to take off the worse of the grime, a good towel down, and a well-deserved fourteen hours of sleep.