[Author's note: I came up with this story based off the word "harbinger." I thought it meant one that preceded something. I was right, but only partly. Harbinger has its roots in one that provides shelter for an army. I don't know what this story would have looked like if it hadn't had those roots, but it does, and so here's the story -- L]
Geofred, the innkeeper, looked down the road. A large cloud of dust billowed in the distance, clear evidence of a large party. They weren’t so far off now, but Geofred had been watching it for some time.
The innkeeper on a crossroads heard many things, and for months the gossip had been that a mighty host was coming to put paid to the kingdom of Annalen. Given that his inn was on the border to Annalen, and that the pass was a short trip down the road past his inn, he had no doubt that the army would pass by him on their way to … what? Conquest? Vengeance? The rumour mill was not of one mind as to their motivations; only their destination and their intent.
So Geofred watched while chores went undone, and while the staff loafed about without his haranguing tongue to keep them working.
“So many, milord? It is true that I have many rooms. The gods have been good in their providence. But I cannot house so many.”
“I only need rooms for my officers, then, innkeeper. The rest may sleep beneath the stars. They will be happy to have food they didn’t have to prepare themselves.”
Even that was going to put a strain, but Geofred knew what this custom was worth, and it would repay emptying his larders at least four times over.
The kitchens were not equal to the task, even though he had enough food. He would have to source some of the work to the families of the town. They would be happy for the paid work.
Once all that was seen to, Geofred hurried to the cellar to ready the food so that it could be prepared.
All were asleep. All but Geofred. He had gotten all ready, and instructed each of the families who had helped out, making sure they were safe in disposing the remainder afterwards, taking none of the food for themselves. There was a risk, and the food would have to be burnt up in a fire so as not to risk livestock or the possible contamination of the water supply, but he was sure that the families would do as they were instructed. After all, this would result in a lot of money coming into the small town.
Geofred had been in the employ of the kingdom of Annalen for years, passing on the tidbits that he had gleaned over the years. He had made himself so valuable to them that the money he earned from travelers was a pittance. He was careful with his money and didn’t throw it around, so no one else knew his role, and he did it well.
When he told his contact about the impending invasion, there had been some surprise, but more resignation. Quickly after that, the woman had returned with the proposition that Geofred could earn enough to retire, and enough for the town to prosper. Geofred had not balked at the offer. There had been a delivery of an additive that would see their problems gone, and, though it had been stretched to the limit by the sheer number of soldiers that had come, Geofred had no doubt it would work. Now it was just to wait.
Not many people could say that they won a war without even a battle, though Geofred and the people of his town could now make that claim.
Geofred had basked in his accolades. The stories made him out to be courageous, steadfast, and ever so patriotic. He’d never expected this kind of scrutiny, but it worked.
Traffic to the small town surged, with people staying at his inn just to get a glimpse of the hero. But even though there were more people, talk dried up. No one would share anything in his vicinity. They knew how Geofred had arranged things, and they didn’t want to be the next ones victimized by him. But he didn’t worry about such things. He wasn’t a whisperer anymore, and that was fine. He was the hero of the day, and rich on reward from the Annalen treasury besides. If he knew the occasional pang of conscience at his decision, if he drank more to drown the memory of so many corpses, and if he spent more time than he ought, cleaning areas that had already been scrubbed clean, well, it was a small price to pay for infamy.
The thing about accepting accolades and rewards for the deeds you have done is that then, everyone knows where to lay the blame.
The thing about whispers drying up, people not trusting you with their secrets, is that now you know nothing.
These two understandable but tragic repercussions crashed down on Geofred and the small town in the form of an army, bent not on conquest, but on vengeance. Death at the hands of a defending army was right and just, and a battle well-fought could be forgiven, but to die at the hands of a poisoner in the night was a slight that the families of the fallen army could not let go. They sent a second army.
By the time anyone from the kingdom of Annalen thought to check on the small town that had grown up around an inn at a crossroads, there was not really anything left.
Oh, there could be no doubt that there had been a town -- civilization would not be so erased. But not a person survived, man, woman, or child. The ashes of their bones were scattered among the stones of what had been the inn.
[Postscript: Here is the original blurb I wrote for this story: Innkeeper has his rooms taken over by an invading army. He kills the leader in his sleep, in the hopes that it will demoralize the army and send them home. They carry on after killing him.]