I kind of like the way cold weather sets a scene, you know? It makes the inn setting feel very cozy. In fact, perhaps that will influence our February story time as well.
If you’d like to influence February story time, I direct you to our Patreon, where for a mere twenty bucks a month, you can have my ear.
Tessa wiped her brow and sighed, surveying the clean floor. It may have been a slow night in a strange town—strange as in odd, not unfamiliar—but at least the floor was clean. It wasn’t often she got the chance to properly scrub the place.
The inn had been following a trio of adventurers for a while now. It had been several years since Tessa refurbished and opened the Goblin’s Head, and she occasionally had to remind herself that it was not a normal life she was living, hopping from place to place. She rather liked this particular set of adventurers, a friendly, lively bunch. They seemed as though they’d had a difficult day, though; no sooner had the party arrived than they’d asked for their dinner sent up and gone to bed. Poor dears.
The odder thing, though, was the distinct lack of other customers. Only one or two had come through the whole day, and they had been furtive and wide-eyed, as if ordering a cider and a meal was some sort of illicit act. They hadn’t spoken to each other and they’d barely spoken to her, eating as if they were in a hurry, taking an insultingly short amount of time to savor their cider, and scurrying off.
At least it gave her time to clean the floor properly, which was satisfying even if it wasn’t profitable.
Right. A thorough scrubbing had kept her awake almost as long as a dining room full of guests, so it was time for bed. Tessa flicked the scrub brush dry above the bucket, put it in her apron pocket, and picked up the bucket to go dump it out behind the inn.
Knock knock knock.
Tessa paused. Curious. The door was unlocked, after all. “Come in!”
There was no answer.
Tessa placed the bucket on the floor so she could put her hands on her hips. “Come in, I said, it’s not too late for a drink.”
This time, no answer except a strange little sound, like an animal.
What on earth…Sighing, she picked up the bucket again—dumping it out in the front was as good as the back—and crossed the gleaming floor to answer the door. It opened with a characteristic creak.
There was no one there.
“Hello?” she called to the empty, dark street.
Again, a little sound, but this time it was clear what kind of animal made it. With a creeping sense of dread, Tessa looked down.
A baby, swaddled and wrapped tightly in a soft gray blanket, returned her gaze with big brown eyes. It gurgled.
“Oh, gods,” Tessa groaned. Gingerly, she left the bucket on the stoop, scooped up the baby, and returned inside the inn.
This was no good. This was terrible, in fact. The Goblin’s Head wasn’t a temple or a healer’s clinic! It wasn’t an—no, it certainly wasn’t an orphanage! This would not do, it was no place for a baby!
Something under the blanket crackled. Tessa frowned, and unwrapped a fold of the blanket. It was a ragged piece of parchment, with a scrawled note: I’m sorry, but she isn’t safe here. Take her away. Keep her safe.
“Good grief!” Tessa snapped, holding the baby up in front of her. “They can’t be serious!”
The baby freed an arm from the blanket and reached out for Tessa’s face with a happy little shriek.
“Oh, don’t you start,” Tessa scolded her.
All right. All right. She had to think.
Tessa made to set the baby down on a chair, and then thought better of it and found a dry patch of floor and set her down there. She joined her, keeping the baby in the corner of her eye.
Whoever had left this baby here clearly noticed that the inn had appeared suddenly, and was counting on it disappearing again. And they had to be desperate. The Goblin’s Head was Tessa’s dearest possession, her home, her only real love, but it was still an old and somewhat run-down tavern that appeared out of thin air. Who left a baby in a place like this?
And what on earth was she to do about it?
Tessa looked up to find one of the adventurers coming down the stairs—the dwarf, a grizzled old mercenary named Zoe. Tessa picked up the baby and shifted into customer service. “Oh hello, dear. Can’t sleep?”
“Uh, no.” They raised a bushy eyebrow. “Is that a baby?”
Tessa’s customer service wilted. “Er…yes. Someone left her at the door.”
“Huh.” Zoe finished coming down the stairs, approaching with caution. “Who?”
“Someone desperate, clearly.”
“Hello, little one,” Zoe said, offering their finger to the baby. The baby shouted incoherently and accepted, her little hand barely covering their fingertip. “Aw, what a darling.”
“I have no idea what to do,” Tessa confessed. Zoe and Tessa had spoken before, for long enough that Tessa considered them a friend. Maybe they would have a suggestion.
“I don’t really know how it works for humans,” Zoe said, wiggling their finger so the baby would laugh. “If this was a dwarf city, I’d suggest going to the Family Office. Do you have those?”
“It’s the office where you go for help in family matters,” Zoe said casually. “So they could arrange for a foster family. Or an adoptive one.”
Tessa couldn’t stop herself from loosing a bitter little laugh. “That would be nice, wouldn’t it?”
“What do humans do?” Zoe asked.
“It usually involves a crowded house full of unwanted children, subsisting on donations made out of pity,” Tessa said, knowing that no matter how light her tone, it was a terribly dark thing to say.
Zoe pulled a sour face. “How awful. You’re going to send her there?”
Tessa considered, and then looked the baby again in the eye.
“No.” That much was certain. This baby would not grow up like she did. “But asking the authorities here might not be a bad idea. Maybe they can help whatever situation is unsafe.”
Zoe grimaced. “Did the others tell you why we came?”
Tessa shook her head. Adventurers rarely did.
“There’s a cult,” Zoe explained. “An awful one. Human sacrifice. The works. We found out today that the mayor’s wrapped up in it. A few of the guards, too. I think we can take care of it tomorrow, but…I wouldn’t bring her to any authorities here.”
A chill made its way down Tessa’s back. She looked back to the baby, watched her grab onto Tessa’s braid and give it a tug. Tessa winced at the pain, and at the question she suddenly had to ask: “They wouldn’t hurt a baby.”
Zoe pressed their lips into a thin line, their beard doing absolutely nothing to hide the disgust and dread in their expression.
Right then. An orphanage was always out of the question, and no one here would be any help. No wonder the baby’s caregiver left her with outsiders. Tessa and the Goblin’s Head might be her only hope of survival.
“I suppose she’ll have to stay, then,” Tessa said briskly. Maybe if she treated this like any other guest—albeit one who cost money instead of making money—it would be all right. “For a while, anyway.”
“You have baby stuff?” Zoe asked.
“What baby stuff?”
“A cradle or crib, to start.” Zoe looked a little amused. “You don’t have children, I suppose.”
“No!” Tessa huffed. “I never thought I would. Do you?”
“No, but I have about twelve niblings,” Zoe laughed. “I can help.”
“I would be grateful,” Tessa said with some relief.
“No problem,” Zoe said, carefully prying the baby’s hand off of Tessa’s braid. “What’s her name?”
Naming a child was no small thing, she knew. She wished that whoever had left the baby on the doorstep had done that work for her, but then a name could eventually be traced, she supposed. It was just…
It made it so real, giving the baby a name. It imparted responsibility. Then again, a child needs a name. No sense in referring to her as The Baby or some such nonsense.
Family. The word entered her head without her permission. Friends she had, but the closest thing she had to family was a magical tavern. And that’s what she always expected. It was difficult to expect otherwise, when you weren’t interested in romance and had a business to run, so she’d kept her heart carefully suspended in ice. It was safer that way.
But maybe this could be…something.
That was all premature. One thing at a time. First, a name.
“I’ve always liked Klara,” Tessa said carefully.
Zoe smiled. “Klara. How pretty.”
Zoe’s confidence helped. Tessa lifted baby Klara up to address her, face-to-face. “All right then, Klara, it seems you’ll be staying with me. I hope that’s to your liking.”
Klara burbled and reached for Tessa’s face. This time, Tessa let Klara’s little hands scrabble across her cheeks.
The ice around her heart began to melt.
Tessa cleared her throat. “What’s this about a cradle?”
“I have a few ideas,” Zoe said. “C’mon, I’ll show you.”