“Here you go, beautiful,” says the innkeeper as he sets a bowl of broth with a small hunk of mutton on the table in front of me. “There’s a little meat in there, compliments of your admirer over there.” As he straightens, the innkeeper motions across the room towards a big, grubby looking man sitting in the corner. I catch his eye, and he smiles, baring broken, jagged teeth.
I push the bowl away. “No thanks. I only need some broth and a chunk of bread.”
The innkeeper glances at my admirer and then leans down to pick the bowl up. “It doesn’t make any difference to me, dear, but a free meal’s a nice thing. What could it hurt to enjoy the generosity?”
Shaking my head and fighting not to scowl, I say, “I don’t want it. Please bring me what I ordered.”
He sighs and nods. “Very well.” As he carries the bowl away, I hear him muttering to himself about ungrateful customers.
It’s a pain having to give up that piece of mutton, but the innkeeper’s wrong about a free meal. There’d be a cost for accepting it. Hell, there will probably be a cost for rejecting it too.
While I wait for the innkeeper to bring my meal, I inspect the other patrons who are taking their supper here. Most of them are merchants of one sort or another, some from Mercia, most from Northumbria with their characteristic pointed ears. Even after traveling in the north for a few months, I’m still getting accustomed to the look of the elves. Everyone who lives on the roads has a worn look about them, their faces always a little dirty and their clothes always tinged brown, but the elves manage to make themselves look beautiful despite that. Maybe it’s because they tend to be just a little paler than humans.
The big brute in the corner tries to get my attention again, but I pointedly ignore him, instead fixating on a ragged old man who sits on the floor against the far wall next to the door. Though we’re in the midst of summer and the evening is pleasantly cool, he’s wrapped tightly in a threadbare cloak that might have been dyed a color other than gray at some point. One gnarled hand sticks out, palm up.
The innkeeper sets down a plain bowl of broth with a crust of bread sitting in it. “Can I get you anything else, beautiful?”
I tense up, but don’t snap at the man. I really hate being talked down to. “No, thank you.” It’s a small victory for me.
“Well, just let me know if you need anything. Kitchen’s open until sundown.” He smiles and moves to pat my shoulder.
“Don’t touch me,” I bite.
The moment hangs between us as his hand hovers over my shoulder. “I didn’t mean any harm, dear.”
“Well, then you shouldn’t be so familiar with your customers.” For punctuation, I take a bite out of my bread and scowl at the innkeeper.
Without comment, the innkeeper backs away from my table. As he turns to check on his other customers, his face resumes its jovial look.
I watch him float among the tables, laughing and joking with everyone, happily pocketing coins as people pay him for food and drinks. When he wanders over to the old beggar sitting by the wall, his expression changes. It isn’t exactly hostile, but definitely not friendly. He tosses a piece of barley bread smaller than my fist at the beggar, who catches it in his outstretched hand.
The old man swiftly brings the bread to his mouth and stuffs it whole inside before going back to his silent begging. Brown crumbs tangle in his white beard. He notices me watching him and stares back with golden eyes. I’m surprised, because most Mercians have brown eyes, and he’s definitely not Northumbrian.
The man who tried to buy my supper scuffs his chair on the floor as he stands up. I glance toward the corner to see him shoving his way towards the door. He’s drunk and loud enough that everyone turns to stare when he grumbles about needing to take a piss.
The great ass stumbles towards the door, knocking chairs and people as he goes, but he’s large enough that no one complains. He doesn’t notice the beggar sitting by the door, and when he trips over the old man’s cloak, he takes a hard fall.
The old man sits passive.
In a moment, the drunk man is back on his feet, bellowing, “You inconsiderate wretch! Watch where you’re going!” That the beggar was sitting perfectly still seems to have eluded him.
The old man continues to sit, seemingly unaware of the drunk standing over him.
“Well, at least apologize, you old fool!” The drunk man’s words slur, and he pelts the beggar with his fist.
Aside from a grunt, the old man doesn’t respond.
“What, are you dumb too? Get up!” The drunk’s boot lands in the old man’s chest, and he lets out a sharp wheeze before falling over.
Everyone watches, interested in the proceedings, but no one seems inclined to help that poor man. Even the innkeeper gives the drunk a wide berth.
I suppose hospitality only goes as far as a person’s coin.
“Leave him alone!” I say.
A few heads turn in my direction, and I feel myself blush, but it doesn’t matter. The drunk eyes me as though he’s not quite sure what he’s looking at.
“You’re a pretty thing. Why don’t you come over here and give us a kiss, you fiery little,” he pauses as he tries to think of a word, “thing.”
“I wouldn’t want to risk getting fleas.”
The drunk laughs, spittle flying from his mouth. “A fiery tongue to match your fiery head! I like women with a little bit of spark.”
My face flushes more. I hate when people point out my hair. It’s not really that red, not like my mother’s. Mercians are just so uniformly brown that even a little bit of extra color stands out to them.
“Just go take your piss and leave the old man alone. He didn’t do anything wrong.”
The drunk turns, remembering why he was angry in the first place. He reaches down and roughly drags the beggar to his feet by the nape of his neck. Upright, the old man looks gaunt and drawn, his tattered clothes looking like they’re hanging from a frame of twigs.
“This thing got in my way!” the drunk man bellows, and he punches the old man in the stomach for emphasis. I’m almost surprised at the flat smack that the blow makes, the beggar looks so much like he’d just bend with the punch.
I pick up my spear from beside the table and stride towards the drunk. This is foolish, and I know it.
“Oh, the vixen has a pointy stick! Do you know how to handle that thing, girl?” The drunk grins, his broken smile revolting. He adds, “If you do, maybe you’d like to play with mine.” He thrusts his hips lasciviously, laughing at his own joke. A few patrons chuckle as well.
I try to swing my spear around to bear on him, but in the crowded room it’s difficult. With every knock and scrape that the shaft makes, he and the men who think this display is funny laugh at me.
“How’d you like to get stuck, you pig,” I spit. Bracing myself, I point the blade towards the man, holding ready in case he comes near me.
He drops the beggar, who crumples back down to the floor, still oblivious to what’s happening. I think I notice him picking at the bread crumbs in his beard.
“So feisty! What’s your name, girl?” asks the drunk as he lumbers towards me.
“None of your business, you ass.” I jab the spear towards him in warning. “Don’t come any closer.”
Laughing, he takes another step towards me, swaying just a bit. I keep my spear pointed at his chest. “I bet you say sweet nothings to all the lads. Come here and give us a kiss.” He half lunges, half falls toward me, and I thrust my spear towards him instinctively.
It catches him in the shoulder, and his weight jerks my spear from my hands. All the patrons who were sitting closest to me leap from their chairs and back away as the man screams.
“You bitch!” he cries as he jerks the blade from his shoulder and throws it to the floor. His arms outstretched, he rushes me, and I fall backwards, tripping over my chair. I land hard on my back, my breath knocked out of me.
Before I can recover, he’s straddled atop me, trying to pin my arms down. His blood splatters on my clothes and arms, feeling warm and slick.
The thought flashes through my mind that I’m about to die, and then my vision goes white as a large, meaty hand strikes me across the face. Struggling, I manage to free one leg from under his and kick up as hard as I can. It’s no good though; the way he has me pinned keeps me from reaching his groin.
I keep kicking, but I know it’s useless at this point. Stupid, Erin. This is what I get sticking up for some doddering old fool.
A thin, wheezy voice calls out, “Crack your cheeks!” and I feel a hard draft as the drunk is blown off of me by a sudden wind. He slams into a couple of the inn’s tables and groans.
Not waiting to see what the man’s going to do next, I scramble to my feet, grabbing my pack and my spear, and run for the door.
Standing in its archway, holding the door open, is the old beggar. His eyes are wild, and he grins manicly as he waves for me to follow him. He shouts in the same wheezy voice as before, “Come, dear heart! Let’s away!” Then, without waiting, he leaps outside, letting his ragged cloak fly behind him.
I’m not sure what to make of this crazy fool, but considering my current options I spring after him. As I run by the innkeeper I scowl at him, and he has enough sense to turn away, ashamed.
So I’ve decided that for November, I’m going to post excerpts from my book here in place of my usual flash fiction. The scene above is my opener, and I’m already thinking about rewriting it so that my protagonist Erin doesn’t have such a Xena: Warrior Princess vibe (also, I’m probably going to tone down the drunk and the innkeeper, since they’re a little bit too obviously sexist; I always tend to draw my villains with too many broad strokes on the first draft). Anyhow, I hope you enjoyed it. I have to get back to writing.