The Innkeeper at Veglid

We were due to stay the first night at Veglid. It had been dark for some while before we got there, and it was raining quite hard by this time. From a distance, I could see a light on the platform, and as we approached, I could see that there was a teenage boy with a large umbrella, holding a hurricane lamp.

Jinni’s control was as good as Peyr’s. We stopped with the cab precisely beside the boy, with barely a touch on the brakes. Jinni had already shut the fire down, leaving just enough draught to keep it smouldering until the morning.

The boy handed the umbrella to Jinni. “Hold onto this a moment while I light the other lamp.” He lit another lamp, then opened another umbrella, and gave one of the lamps to her. “Two of you? Good job they’re both big umbrellas! See you in a bit.”

He stayed on the platform as Jinni led me down a well-worn path away from the railway. “He’ll follow us down to Veglid with Preysh when he arrives. Miserable night to be hanging around waiting for trains!”

“He has to meet the trains every night? Couldn’t you carry lamps on the trains?”

“We could, I suppose. And umbrellas, and waterproofs for days when it’s windy as well as raining. But all the wagons are locked, and there’s not a lot of room for extra clobber on the engines – the designers never thought of making space for us to carry anything much! And every engine would have to have everything, instead of just two sets here at Veglid. You don’t need it anywhere else.”

“Or it could be kept in a box on the platform.”

“It used to be. But the lamps and umbrellas got stolen a couple of times, so they started doing it this way. It’s not a big deal really anyway. It’s only needed on moonless winter evenings, or wet ones.”

“I’ve not actually met Preysh. We passed him without stopping. He and Peyr congratulated each other on a perfect passing, I remember that well.”

The path became a stone staircase down the side of a steep little valley, and I could see the lighted windows of several buildings at the bottom. The stone gave way to wood as the staircase angled left down the face of what was virtually a cliff, then doubled back on itself the other way across the face, ending in an alleyway between two buildings.

A road, paved with deeply rutted flagstones and crowded with parked carts laden with firewood, was dimly illuminated by lamplight spilling from windows. We crossed the road and went into a handsome stone-built inn. There was a fire blazing, and we went and sat in front of it.

“Is that the old coaching road, with the wheel-ruts?”

“Yes. Nowadays the only traffic on it is those firewood carts supplying the railway and a few local villages. The woodcarts have to go all the way round by the road to get to the station, which is much further than the way we just came. But of course that’s nothing compared to the drive in from the forest before they even get to Veglid.”

The innkeeper brought us our supper without a word, but with a big grin on his face. After he’d gone, Jinni turned to me. “I’d love to wipe that grin off that man’s face. He thinks you’re my boyfriend!”

“Tell him I’m Aila’s betrothed.”

“No, none of us tell him anything. He doesn’t even know Peyr’s got a daughter, much less what her name is.”

“At least the food’s good.”

“Thank his wife for that. I’d worry what he might put in it if it wasn’t for the fact the railway could take his living away overnight if he put a foot wrong.”

“Is the railway really that important to him? Two drivers for supper, bed and breakfast every day?”

“Not even that many drivers. It’s only three in two nights, the passenger trains don’t stay here. But half the railway’s woodcutters do. That’s his main income. And there are two other inns here that would love to get more of the trade.”

“Was that their son up at the station?”

“I think so, but I’ve never enquired too closely. I think he’s okay, just not very talkative. Probably used to not saying too much anywhere near his dad.”

I wondered whether Jinni actually knew anything against the innkeeper, or whether it was just an instinct, but I didn’t ask. Maybe I’ll ask Peyr when I see him.

The atmosphere in the inn certainly wasn’t as congenial as the atmosphere at Brigi, Belgaam or Tambuk. In fact it was positively creepy. Whether I’d have had that feeling if Jinni hadn’t said anything, I don’t know – but certainly there wasn’t the same cheerful chattering going on. People were talking quietly in small groups in corners.

The boy arrived with another driver. I assumed he must be Preysh. He joined Jinni and me. The innkeeper brought him his food as wordlessly as he’d brought ours. Jinni waited until he’d gone before introducing us. “Preysh, this is Owen. Owen, this is Preysh.”

“I guessed that. Peyr said he thought you’d probably be on Jinni’s train. Congratulations! You’ve caught a real prize there, Aila’s a lovely girl. Look after her well!”

“You didn’t pass Peyr without stopping just now, then.”

“No, and I’m sorry we did that last time round. Peyr told me I’d missed meeting you at Embrouha. But there’s rarely a perfect passing at Elbrouha, the down train nearly always has to wait for the up. The up train doesn’t usually stop, because you don’t want to lose momentum on the climb, but Graamon told me I ought to have a chat with Peyr this time. That’s why I’m a bit late here. Doesn’t matter on the last leg of the day, not holding anyone up.”

Jinni raised an objection to that. “Apart from the innkeeper’s lad, hanging about on the station in the rain.”

“Oh, I don’t think he minds a bit. It’s a good excuse to get away from the inn for a while. Imagine what it’s like actually living here.”

So it’s not just Jinni who has that feeling about this place, then.

I woke several times in the night.

The ceiling was just rough beams and the floorboards of the rooms above. Often there seemed to be someone moving about upstairs, the floorboards creaking as they moved and every now and then the glow of an oil lamp here and there through cracks between the boards.

When I did sleep, I had troubled dreams, haunted by a monstrous caricature of the innkeeper.

At one point he was chasing Jinni with a butcher’s cleaver, and I was trying to protect her. Then Jinni became Aila, and I held her close and was about to kiss her when suddenly she was Jinni again, pushing me away and scolding me, but the innkeeper was behind her pushing her towards me.

Another time he was chasing me along an unfamiliar stony path in the dark and the snow. We reached a rickety wooden staircase down the steep side of a ravine. I could see the lights of a village ahead, but the innkeeper was close behind me, laughing horribly, and my feet kept slipping on the icy wooden steps.

Chapter VII

Things were much better in the morning. Supper had been brought in from a back kitchen somewhere, but breakfast was prepared by the innkeeper’s wife at the fire we’d slept beside, in the room we’d spent the whole time in. The innkeeper himself was nowhere to be seen. “I expect he’s fast asleep,” Jinni said. “I don’t know what he was doing, faffing about upstairs all night.”

We were the second shift for breakfast. We weren’t due to depart until eight, and the woodcutters had half a trainload of firewood to load onto Preysh’s train before that. They had already breakfasted and set off for the station with their carts by first light.

The innkeeper still hadn’t made an appearance by the time we left.