By Stephen Schamber
The wood walls of the building were faded and discolored with age, and the interior was poorly lit. In contrast to the building’s exterior, the proprietor did a good job of keeping the place clean; it lacked the smells of stale, spilled ale and rotting food remnants Egilhard had come to expect from run-down taverns. It was a two-story building, but as Egilhard stepped into the entry he noted that there were no stairs in the dining room or taproom. Presumably they were in the kitchens, and the proprietor lived on the second level.
The dining room was cramped, with half a dozen tables of various sizes stuffed into it and barely enough space to slip between them. Only half of them were occupied. The taproom was smaller but less crowded and separated from the dining room by a low half-wall made of planks. It had a bar with five seats from which the bartender could keep an eye on the dining room, and surprisingly appealing smells came from the door behind the counter which led to the kitchen.
The server was a gloomy, middle-age woman with gray-streaked brown hair in a tight bun. She was drawing several tankards of ale from a keg behind the bar when he entered.
"Sit anywhere you'd like, sir," she instructed politely, spotting him almost immediately. "I'll be with you in a moment."
She took the tankards to the table nearest the door, which was rather rowdy. Several armed men sat there, arguing loudly about local news. Their chainmail shirts and the insignia on their shoulders marked them as members of the town guard. Egilhard chose the bar stool closest to the door, where he could see most of those in the dining room and would have no trouble listening in on their conversation.
"...can complain all they want, but the mayor says there's no evidence of any bandits on the roads anyway, so he's not sending out any extra patrols," one of them was saying. Egilhard snorted softly at this.
"Even if there are," another commented, "Roads are the Baron's responsibility, not the town's. If there's going to be extra patrols they're the ones that ought to be taking on the extra bother."
"We're paid by the day anyway," the third grumbled. "Unless they're going to offer me a bonus, I don't want any extra work coming my way."
"Well, if you want any pay at all, you'll do what you’re told," the first, who appeared to be the highest-ranking of the three, said acidly.
"Never said I wouldn't," the third speaker protested in reply. "I'm just saying I don't want to unless I'm getting paid extra. Nothing wrong with that, is there?"
Egilhard was distracted from their conversation by the return of the barmaid, who noticed his interest. "They're just a bunch of blowhards," she assured him with a sigh and a fleeting smile. "They do a good job of keeping the town safe and, better yet, they're good customers."
"It's also nice to have a few town watchmen as regulars in case someone actually gets out of hand?" he suggested, smiling slyly.
"They've come in handy a time or two," she admitted. "What can I get for you? We have ham stew and roast chicken tonight, though there isn't much left of the chicken now. I made the bread this afternoon so it's fresh, although it’s not warm."
"Ham stew and bread would be fine, and some ale please."
She drew him a tankard and disappeared into the kitchen. He sipped it while he waited; it wasn't bad. The barmaid came back with a good-sized bowl of stew and a larger plate of bread and set them before him. He paid for it with a Sou, the most common silver coin minted by Terfarine, being careful not to let her see any of the coinage of his home region in his small bag of money. He continued to listen to the guards' conversation as he ate, but they weren't saying anything more of interest.
While he was eating, the barmaid went back into the kitchen and returned with another serving of stew and bread and a young girl in tow, perhaps twelve or thirteen years old. "Sit up at the bar with the man in the cloak, Emmie," the barmaid instructed the girl. "I'll get you something to drink," she promised, bustling back into the kitchen.
The glance the girl directed at Egilhard was brief, but he doubted she'd missed much. Her sharp, silver-green eyes flicked from his face to the longbow on his back to the sword, knives and quiver on his belt. Then she sat on the stool next to him and devoted her attention to her food. He was of little interest to her, just another mercenary passing through.
She was a somewhat more startling picture to Egilhard. She wore a brown wool dress which was torn in several places and stained with mud, and her bare feet were not much cleaner. Her golden-blonde hair was matted, tied back into a braid with a worn piece of rope to keep it out of the way, and her face was streaked with dirt. Her hands and arms were the only things that were clean; they bore distinct evidence of recent submersion in soapy water. Her hollow cheeks and scrawny frame showed that she rarely got enough to eat in a day.
The barmaid came back with a tankard filled with milk instead of beer, and set it down by the girl's plate.
She muttered a soft "thank you" around a mouthful of bread, took a drink, and continued eating.
Egilhard wasn't the only one in the bar to notice the girl. The guardsmen's perfectly-audible griping now turned to the subject of the town's street urchins and what ought to be done about them. Throwing them out of the city or sending them to the clay pits were both popular ideas with the three.
"There’s no reason they shouldn't be put to work," one was saying. "That'll leave them too tired for any other mischief at the end of the day. That's where most of the thievery in this town comes from, street urchins and beggars. Why are you letting them in here now?" he finished belligerently, suddenly addressing the question to the passing barmaid.
"She's a paying customer same as you, Archibald," the barmaid replied with some heat, causing Egilhard to look around at her in surprise. It was the first hint of aggression she'd shown. "You paid with money, she paid with work. If you like eating off a clean plate, let her be."
Archibald spluttered a bit, insulted at being equated to a street urchin, but he backed down. His two friends were startled, but recovered quickly, laughing at Archibald's confusion. He soon recovered his good humor and laughed with them.
"That'll put me in my place I suppose," Archibald said wryly, and their conversation moved hastily to other topics. They weren't willing to risk the ire of their favorite tavern's proprietor.