Arenhal was a small town that seemed to creep from the southern bank of the Haevin. There was a cluster of two-storied buildings by the docks, and a few houses and stores that framed a broad square, but the rest of the town was spread out, each structure a little further away than the last, until the whole gave way to fields and ranches of withered crops and emaciated cattle. There were two riverboats moored in the shallow water, and a string of bare-chested workers were unloading barrels and crates from one of them, while nearby a tall fellow in a fine coat was talking animatedly with a gray-haired man.
The wagon rumbled to a stop as it entered the commons, and the driver turned towards Madel, sitting in the back on a mound of wool. "Here you are, son. Take care of yourself, and see that you get something to eat." Pointing at one of the taller buildings, he added, "That there is The Shining Bottle; Master Guiren owns it, a fair man, and he'll see that you get your fill. Let you work off the debt, too, if you don't got the coin." That last was added with a knowing look at the boy's ragged clothes. The young man thanked the farmer for the ride and the advice, and hopped down to the rutted street. His legs nearly buckled beneath him, and he had to cling to the side of the cart to steady himself. It had been four days since he'd last eaten, and though he strangely had stopped feeling hunger pains, his body felt weak and insubstantial, like mist ready to fly away at the slightest breeze. Those first few days had been hellish; his stomach constantly seizing and doubling him over, leaving him dry heaving on hands and knees. Sleep, when he was able to drift into it, was fitful and full of nightmares.
When he had regained his balance, Madel thanked the old farmer once again and started in the direction of the inn, leaning heavily on his stave. The Shining Bottle was broad faced, with a railed porch and a set of stone steps leading up to it. A few pieces of dark red paint clung to the wooden planks, but overall it seemed a long time since the building had seen any real upkeep. The door was wide open, and snippets of conversations and raucous laughter drifted out, accompanied by the clatter of wooden plates and mugs. While the inn's exterior looked shabby, the common room was well-furnished and clean. Most of the twenty or so tables were full, and four young girls were scurrying to and fro with trays or pitchers, smiling or winking at patrons who called out obscene remarks. A pair of thick brutes with cudgels hanging from their belts watched over the scene with impassive stares, and a wrinkled old man wearing a dirty white apron shouted orders at the serving girls from behind a long bar. Seeing Madel walking in, the man in the apron waved the youth over.
"Ho there, lad, welcome to the Shining Bottle. I'm Temer Guilan. You looking for a bed, or just a meal? Neither is free, but I can see you don't have much. You're welcome to work off the price, if you'd like; I can always use another hand in the kitchen."
Madel opened his mouth to interject that he did, in fact, have coin, but the innkeeper barely paused for breath before continuing. "You don't look like a sailor, and I doubt you came in on the boats anyway. Your clothes say you've been travelling hard, though. Where'd you come in from? Out on the Grass? Running from something, I'll wager. You're not an outlaw, are you?" Again, he didn't give the young man a chance to reply before prattling on. "No matter, it's none of my concern. Long as you don't cause trouble, you're free to stay. You're not going to cause trouble, are you?" With a nod towards the club-wielding duo, "I don't abide troublemakers in my establishment. Alright then, find yourself a seat, I'll send one of the girls over in a moment. We can discuss payment after you've had something to eat; Light knows you look famished."
Stalking off towards a table near the fireplace, with a cry of "Here now, I thought I told you scoundrels-", Master Guilen left Madel to find his own seat, feeling like he'd been spun about in the rush of the man's words. There were few open chairs, and no empty tables, so he sat down with the first group that didn't seem to be giving him hard stares. A graying man in plain brown wool and a younger one perhaps no older than Madel, a farmer and his adult son, introduced themselves and welcomed the boy to Arenhal, then returned to their ales and their conversation about crops and strange weather. They didn't seem interested in including the newcomer, so he sat in silence while he waited for the food to come.
At the table behind him men were tossing dice and exclaiming loudly about the rolls, good and bad, so Madel turned in his seat to watch. After a few tosses, one of the men noticed his observation, and smiled. "Pull your chair around, lad, there's room for another hand! You know how to play?" All the men at the table stopped to look at him, and he suddenly felt trapped. He didn't have much coin, and he was planning to use that to get food, a bed, and maybe a ride upriver. On the other hand, the expectant looks he was getting quickly made him spin his chair about to face the gamblers. Light, what are you doing? You don't even know how to dice, and you certainly don't have the money to lose at it.
"I have a few marks, but I'm not so sure how you play." At their sudden grins, he quickly added, "We dice back home, but the rules are kinda funny. Maybe you could explain this version, so we're all together on it." Blood and ashes, I must look a complete fool.
The men took a few moments to explain the various tosses and betting procedures, each one competing with the others to explain this point or that, or to expand upon another man's statement. When they were finished, Madel thought he probably knew less about the game now than when he hadn't known anything about it, but one man was holding the cup out for him, so he took it in hand. With a silent prayer, he made his first toss.
He played for most of the night, stopping only to eat when his food came. Stew more broth than beef, and a small cut of bread, but he ate voraciously, and it was easily the best meal he'd ever had. The men at the table ordered several rounds of ale, spending their coin freely and happily, bantering and joking loudly. They argued constantly about poor rolls, but only once did anything come near to blows, and that was quickly eased by another round of drinks and quiet reprimand from the other players. Madel lost nine of ten games, but when he did win it always seemed to be on a hard set, where the bets were heavy, so when the game ended well after midnight, he'd actually come out ahead, earning enough to pay for his meal and bed, and for breakfast besides, with no loss to the silver he'd started with.
After some well wishes and hearty slaps on the back, he finally found himself stumbling into his room. He managed to tug one of his boots off before giving up on the other and collapsing in a heap on the mattress.