In the gray light before dawn, a dark figure raced out from the forest and across the field to the building that stood apart from the rest of the small town, only pausing at the top of the steps to hammer on the front door.
After a brief pause, the person knocked again just before a thump and a muffled swear came from within and the door jerked open.
The young man on the front porch stepped back at the appearance of a disheveled Erin, who rubbed her stubbed toe. Her dark hair fell in a tangled mat around her face, and she had clearly slept in her clothes from yesterday, but it was the scowl on her face that caused the young man to realize he might have made a mistake.
“Sorry,” he said,” I didn’t mean to wake you….This is the Last Inn, isn’t it?”
“That’s what the sign says, right?” Erin snapped and pointed up.
The young man glanced up at the faded sign that dangled from one corner thanks to a broken chain over his head and noticed the pink streaks in the sky signalling dawn.
“Can I help you?” Erin said, and he turned away from the troubling sight.
“I was hoping to speak to the owner, Master Sollis,” he said and with another glance at the sky. “It’s urgent.”
“Oh,” Erin said and her expression changed. “Mr. Sollis passed away, months ago.”
“I see.” The young man said, unable to find any other words.
“Did you know him?” Erin asked.
“No, I never met the man,” he answered and his gaze fell. To his surprise, the ground had not dropped out from beneath his feet, even if it felt like it.
“Oh,” she said again, and the young man missed the brief look of relief that crossed her face before he looked up again. He did catch her stare that took in his threadbare clothes and the slim bag over his shoulder. His long, uncut brown hair covered the left side of his face, but that portion of it she could see received the most attention, and he self-consciously patted down his hair to make sure it still covered his left eye.
“Are you the new owner of this inn?” he asked.
“Well, yes,” she said and bit her lip as if the thought bothered her.
The young man rubbed his red-rimmed eye and looked at the horizon again. It would be daylight soon, and now that he thought about it he could not remember the last time he had slept, much less with a roof over his head. Reaching a decision, he said, “Could I rent a room for the night? Or the day at least?”
“What?” Erin said.
“Well, this is an inn,” he said, pointing up at the sign. “Inns take in guests, right?”
“The thing is, I just got here yesterday, and there’s still a lot of cleaning and renovations that need to be done before we’re ready to take in guests,” Erin said, a little too quickly.
He stared at her for a little longer than she seemed comfortable with and then pulled some money out of his pocket.
“I’m sure that I’ve seen worse. Would this cover it?”
Erin glanced at the money being thrust into her hand and visibly swallowed. He wondered if it was too much, but in his experience people rarely complained if that was the case. After an inner struggle she nodded.
“Yeah, I think that will be enough,” she said, her voice breaking slightly as she took the money. “Come on in, and just remember that I warned you.”
The young man followed her inside the dark common room, which looked little better when she found the light switch. The hours Erin had spent in haphazard attempts at cleaning resulted in a few bare patches of floor with broad swathes of dust and cobwebs standing in small piles here and there around the tables, which still bore signs of wipe marks and soap residue. A strong aroma of disinfectant and lemon managed to nearly drown out the musty smell that permeated the inn.
To his credit, the young man barely reacted, except to say, “Believe it or not, I really have seen worse. So far.”
“The rooms are much better,” Erin said quickly and led him up the creaking stairs, after pulling a random guest key from one of the line hanging behind the front desk.
Opening the door to room 1D she asked, “Is this all right?”
The young man stepped inside and looked around at the narrow bed and the door that led to a personal bath. He nodded and waited until Erin gave him the key and left before dropping his bag on the floor and striding over to the window. He looked out at the rising sun and swiftly shut the thick curtains, blocking out all of the light.