The faded letters on the street sign were barely legible, faded with age and rain into cryptic symbols. Sparrow looked down the crooked path that supposedly led somewhere. Trees leaned over the pitted dirt, making it difficult to see where any potential town began, if it ever did. Sparrow checked his phone, confirming he was still without service or position. Still he’d found the road and its sign on his own, a town couldn’t be far off.
It was far off. Sparrow walked until dark set it, bringing with it the smell of rain. He almost missed the first house, tucked deep in the treeline with black windows like holes and rotting steps. The second was easier to spot, but only because he searched for the hard silhouettes tucked into the mountain trees. The homes were strung out along the road, set haphazard like mismatched beads on a long chain.
Nestled this deep in the mountains, the place would see few visitors. Now as he leaned forward, searching for a flicker of light in the windows he passed, Sparrow could see why. If anyone lived here, he saw no hospitality.
The first sign of it came with the yellow glow of old electric lights. A lantern post stood at road edge, its dull illumination bright only in the dark. Behind it and down a mottled muddy path Sparrow could make out more light between the tree branches. They were windows. Weariness grew in his legs as the wind picked up, burning his nose as he breathed. Sparrow had lived months on the road at a time, he was no stranger to travel, but the prospect of a bed started a hungry ache in his chest.
Sparrow trudged up the path. The building was larger than the hovels he’d passed by, but made of the same damp wood that leaned and blended into the brush and rock. If not for the lamppost Sparrow might have missed it. He looked up at the words carved above the door. Marrowbone Inn.
He frowned at the antiquated name, but the yellow windows and gentle mutter of voices from within promised comfort. Sparrow knocked before trying the inn’s door. It opened smoothly, and Sparrow was met with a surprising number of curious expressions.
“This is an inn?” Sparrow knew it was, but he felt the question would explain his presence.
“It is. Come in.” He was waived inside by the bent old man tending the fire. Sparrow was greeted with several nods from the patrons already sitting around the single table. He returned them; perhaps this was more of a destination than he’d been told.
“Put your pack down, no rooms open tonight, but we’ll set you here with a cot.” The old man stood and straightened, brushing soot from his hands. Sparrow blinked and leaned back involuntarily. The old man towered over Sparrow’s average frame like one of the trees outside. “Dinner will be out soon.”
Sparrow set his pack by the door and took the open seat. The four other guests smiled, they were all young like him and bore the grime and damp of long travel. The narrow, high walls of the common room seemed claustrophobic after weeks alone on the trails. “Hi. You all arrived today?” Sparrow asked.
A young woman with oily blonde hair nodded. “This evening. They are prepping the rooms, so we haven’t cleaned up yet. I’m Justine.”
“I’m Sparrow.” He supplied the name. Sparrow looked back towards the door the spindly proprietor had left through. “They?”
“The innkeeper and his wife.” The man next to Justine answered. His once fashionable dark mustache had grown out poorly into a scraggly beard. “Justine and I were prepared for at least another week of backpacking. Figured we were miles away from anything until we saw the street sign, and then the lamppost. Looking forward to a bed tonight.” The man laughed, and the others agreed, all grateful they’d seen the sign and lamp during their trek through the mountains.
“We all just found this place?” Sparrow asked the innocent enough question even as he felt and odd shiver prickle along the back of his neck.
“Lucky isn’t it?” Justine smiled at Sparrow.
Sparrow didn’t have a chance to answer, the kitchen door opened and the innkeeper and his wife returned bearing savory smelling bowls of thick stew. Like her husband, the innkeepers wife had to duck slightly under the door, balancing the food between rangy limbs. A murmur of appreciation rose from the table and a bowl was set before each of them.
Steam wisped from the greasy broth before him. Brown stringy pieces rose from the liquid without a potato or carrot in sight. Sparrow leaned back, the bloody scent of meat turning his stomach.
His discomfort did not go unnoticed, the innkeeper stopped. The old man cocked his head, bending down close enough for Sparrow to hear the odd creak of his bones. With long knobbed fingers the innkeeper pushed the bowl closer, as if proximity would entice Sparrow into eating. “Something wrong? Travelers are a hungry sort.”
The other guests paused their meal, all looking at Sparrow with varying levels of vitriol. It was both rude and stupid to refuse food so far from civilization.
“I’m letting it cool.” Sparrow said, noting the old man’s breath stank like the soup. He smiled weakly, wishing the innkeeper would rise and back away. “Thank you.”
The old man’s mouth tightened, and he hovered long enough for Sparrow’s pulse to quicken. The long moment passed, and the innkeeper and his wife retreated with murmured promises to turn beds and prepare linens.
Sparrow didn’t touch his stew, even after the steam stopped rising. The gesture was enough to earn him terse replies and sideways glances from the rest of the guests until the fire died to embers. One by one they retreated upstairs with cold shoulders, leaving Sparrow to his bedroll in the common room.
He almost left then, chancing the night and rain. But as the storm picked up, the tall trees cradling the inn began to bend, and scratch, drawing their knobbed branches against the walls. Sparrow listened to them whisper, remembering of the spindly creak of the innkeeper.
Sparrow crawled beneath his blanket, settling down for a sleepless night in the common room.
The second half of this story can be found here. This particular piece is in response to Mindlovesmiserys Menagerie’s Wordle Prompt.