"Bring us out the beer and mead, the whisky and the wine!
A Kalmish man'll drink it all, until he's rendered blind!"
The barmaid yelped as a pair of strong arms grabbed her about the waist. She felt herself being lifted into the air, and suddenly she was standing in the middle of the table with a collection of half-finished meals, empty mugs and unwashed men at her feet.
"Come on then Saeo, you know the words," called a barrel chested woodsman as he helped her regain her balance. The other men roared with laughter when she linked her hands behind her back and fixed him with the most playfully vicious look she could muster. He clutched at his heart theatrically but, having drunk more than his share already that night, lost his balance and tumbled to the floor laughing. Well, she supposed there was no getting out of it. The girl began tapping out a beat with her foot, waiting for the men to start clapping along before she began the tune.
"I've never been a riding man, and I may never be.
This horse is just too tall, too wide and too skittish for me.
But wait until I've had my fill, and let not one man scoff!
With reins in hand, I'll roam the land until he throws me off!
My love will see me riding home, 'You're bloody drunk' she'll scream!
But I promise you, my dearest heart, it's the horse who's drunk, not me!"
A dozen hoarse voices launched back into the chorus, and Saeo used the musical interlude to make her retreat. It had reached that time of night when drinking songs came out to play, and tankards didn't fill themselves, so she gathered up a few empty dishes and made her way discreetly back to the kitchen. Marius was quick to ease her burden as she crossed the threshold, and just as quick to replace it with a heavy tray of roasted pork and potatoes.
"Dunno where they put it all," he grunted, depositing the empty dishes in a heap by the already overflowing sink. Marius was a giant of a man who would have looked more at home handling red-hot iron in a forge. In his youth he had done just that, but now that his age was beginning to catch up with him, he had turned his attention toward the use of cast-iron rather than the production of it.
"We're out of pork, if anyone asks. Drop off your tips."
"Right, thanks." She had almost forgotten. Saeo shifted the tray onto her hip and produced a small handful of coins from her apron pocket, which she dropped into a wooden box labelled 'cinnamon' next to the spice rack.
"It'd be a lean night if she caught you with all that," the man said, a subtle warning in his tone as he whisked a pan of dark gravy.
"Good thing she didn't catch me then," the girl replied sharply, having never appreciated his lectures. Saeo shouldered open the door to the main hall and made her way across the room toward the long table, where another song was just beginning. She set down the tray in the centre and it was immediately set upon by a dozen hungry woodsmen armed with greasy hands and forks.
It didn't occur to her to be offended by their lack of table manners. It was like this every Saturday when the lumber camps handed out their wages. Their employees could always be relied upon to stop at the Bonny Swan to spend half of their pay before returning home. Saeo thought they really weren't such a bad collection of men, apart from the smell of pine-tar and unwashed laundry they always brought with them.
The man whom she had struck dead earlier seemed to have made a full recovery, and he pressed a silver coin into her hand when she came to collect his empty bowl. She smiled her most gracious smile, slipped it into her pocket and tried not o yelp when he sent her away with a fond pat on the rear. She took only a moment to note which drinks she needed from the kitchen before quickly moving to check on the other tables.
Saeo was the only barmaid at the Bonny Swan, and she imagined that until Mistress Aveline stopped being stingier than a nobleman giving alms, it would remain that way. It was frustrating on nights like this one, when she would be lucky to get to bed before the sun started rising. Most other days though, business was so slow that she had to polish the undersides of the tables just to keep busy. It wasn't a town inn, the sort that might have regular customers who came in for their dinners every night and ensure a fairly steady income. The Bonny Swan was a traveller's inn, standing half a mile from Ambervale, a village made up almost entirely of travelling merchants. It boasted little more than a general store, the families of local hunters and woodsmen, and a small temple devoted to the Spirit of the Hunt. Mistress Aveline ran her business under the assumption that anyone who came to trade in Ambervale would at one point get hungry or tired, and luckily, that assumption usually proved correct.
Saeo suddenly noticed the Mistress fixing her with a pointed look from the upstairs balcony and felt a spike of panic shoot through her chest. She gestured for Saeo to come upstairs, and the girl nodded obligingly, though when the Landlady had turned and walked back into her study she stuck out her tongue at the back of her head. It had been Saeo's experience that being called into Mistress Aveline's study was a bit like reaching out to stroke a vicious animal; you know that something unpleasant is going to happen, but you're aren't sure how agonizing it's going to be until you feel the claws sink in.
She set down her stack of dirty dishes and began to climb the stairs as slowly she could. Her eyes stayed on the floor, looking for an escape route in the curling patterns of the threadbare carpet. It had faded since she first came to live at the inn; the reds and burgundies washed out, the creams a little more the colour of the bottom of shoes. She glanced downstairs at the long table, where men were still laughing and making jokes at one another's expense. Saeo paused at the top of the stairs. Here, they joined an L-shaped balcony which overlooked the great hall and displayed the long row of wooden doors which made up the second floor.
Her bedroom was the first door on the right, only a few steps away. When she was younger, Saeo had often crept out of her room at night and hid at the top of the stairs. There, she had watched the inn's visitors as they drank, sang and laughed with one another. To entertain herself, she had often invented names and stories for them, imagining inn as a meeting place for lost princes, cunning assassins, shape-shifting animals and enchanters, all of whom were constantly plotting against one another. She of course, had been a shape-shifting assassin princess with the limitless magical power to make them get along.
A Knight had visited the inn once -not the imaginary sort that usually visited, but a tall man in steel armour who wore the royal crest embroidered on his surcoat. Saeo had never seen such a grand figure before, and had instantly been mesmerized. He had noticed her perched on the stairs and smiled at her, and even though she had been too shy to smile back, Saeo had immediately felt that they shared a secret between them.
She had watched her Knight all evening, creating an elaborate story for herself about how her father had saved his life and they had become travelling companions. Her father missed her desperately of course, but he knew that it was too dangerous for her to join him on his adventures. Eventually, word had reached her father of the cruelties Mistress Aveline was inflicting upon his only child, and he had sent his most trusted friend, the Knight in blue, to rescue her and bring her with him to Dragon's Port where the three of them could live happily forever after. She had wanted to believe her own story so badly that Marius had to send her to bed four times. Even then, she had only obeyed him when her Knight had gone on is way. The stranger in blue had carried a small, delicate piece of her heart away with him, and the rest had been aching for it ever since.
It suddenly dawned on Saeo that she had spent almost half her life at the top of these stairs, dreaming about the day she would see her father again and her life would go back to normal. It was getting to be that she couldn't even remember what normal felt like. She thought of her Knight. If he had taken her away with him, where would she be now? She found herself praying, not for the first time, for the Spirit of Freedom to carry her to better days.
The Mistress had her back turned when Saeo stepped inside, a sheet of accounts held so near to her face that it brushed her nose. Eyeglasses were a luxury she chose not to afford, and the girl got a certain amount of satisfaction from knowing that she was as stingy with herself as she was with her employees. She closed the door behind her. The stumps of candles cast weak light over a room that smelled of old paper and lavender water.
"You haven't been serving Elisan, I do hope." The Mistress asked without really asking, setting down the sheet of paper and scribbling something onto it. Saeo curtsied, prepared to tell her exactly what she wanted to hear.
"Ma'am, I have been serving him."
The woman sighed and rubbed her temples in an expression of disappointment that made Saeo wish she would just scold her properly and be done with it.
"You are aware that he owes us twenty three marks from his visit two weeks ago, and that his account has not been paid."
"Mistress, the men said they would pay for him tonight. They gave me the money beforehand." The woman scowled, finally turning to look at her. Mistress Aveline was neither old nor ugly, but had a remarkable talent for looking like a crow when she was displeased. It had something to do with the shape of her nose, and the way her brow would furrow over her eyes until they were almost not there.
"It isn't about the money, Saeo. It's about dishonesty. I don't intend to be taken advantage of by someone who doesn't have the decency to pay his tab. Don't serve him anything else until he pays off his account, understood?"
"Yes Ma'am." The girl nodded blithely while secretly wishing all manner of unpleasant fates upon her employer. Mistress Aveline paused for a moment, a strange look settling onto her face, then rose from her chair. Her hands were cold and rough, and Saeo tried not to look her in the eye as the woman tilted her chin up to examine her face, turning it left and right as though it were a melon she might buy. The Landlady tucked a strand of the girl's straw coloured hair behind her ear, and Saeo bit her lip as her sharp fingernails scratched against her scalp.
"Does your good dress still fit properly?" She asked. Saeo nodded, confused and curious in equal measure. The Mistress said nothing for a long while, and simply looked at her appraisingly. When she did speak, her words were very precise.
"You're sixteen years old, Saeo. You're getting to an age where you need to start being very careful about how you present yourself. I don't want to see you dancing on top of the tables again, understood?" The girl nodded again, somewhat puzzled. What did she mean by 'how you present yourself'? Surely she wasn't implying that the men who had known her since she was ten years old were looking at her in that way? They would never be so disgusting, and in any case, she certainly wouldn't consider herself pretty enough to draw that sort of attention. What business was it of hers, anyway? The more she thought about it, the more Saeo wanted to tell her Mistress just now not her business it was.
The landlady looked at her thoughtfully for another long moment, but just as Saeo was beginning to seriously consider speaking her mind, she gave her head a brisk, decisive nod.
"Right, empty your pockets." Her frustration dissolved at once, turning into a cloud of bitter snowflakes that froze her from the inside out. Stiffly, she dug the silver coin out of her pocket and dropped it into the Landlady's hand.
"This will go toward your winter boots," She said, her voice all business as she set it down on the desk. Saeo clenched her teeth to keep a rude comment from escaping.
"You may go. Make sure the dishes are washed before you go to bed."
The girl left without raising her eyes or speaking a word. It wasn't fair, she fumed, pulling the study door shut hard enough to make it rattle in it's frame. She had earned that money, and that wicked stoat was acting as though she'd stolen it right out of her pocket. A cheer came from the main hall as Marius brought out a round of drinks -the round of drinks Saeo had been preparing to fetch when the Mistress had called her upstairs to waste her time and accuse her of being a harlot. If there had been a cat living at the inn, Saeo was sure that she would have gone out of her way to kick it. Instead, she reclaimed her pile of dishes and stomped back into the kitchen.
When Marius returned a few minutes later with an empty tray, he found Saeo scrubbing dishes with the vicious determination of a trapped fox gnawing it's own leg off. He watched her for a moment, as though weighing his odds, then turned his attention to wiping flour and grease from the counter top with a soiled rag.
"You can leave that roasting pan to soak overnight. You'll never get it clean that way." He remarked casually. Saeo responded by throwing her rag down and growling like a wild animal.
"She's a witch! I hate her! She's a greedy crone who wants to keep me here for the rest of my life!"
Marius gave a non-committal shrug of his shoulders, looking for all the world as though he had expected such a reaction.
"I get paid a slave wage that I never see a penny of," she continued, stammering with rage, "she has me working day and night while she sits up there and, and copies down numbers and drinks tea and she's going to keep ordering me around until every ounce of work is squeezed out of me and I die!" She gestured theatrically and kicked a small onion across the floor to add emphasis to the statement.
"You don't think you're being a tad dramatic?" Marius asked in the slow, even tone he always used when Saeo worked herself into a lather. He moved to the fire to stir the contents of a cast iron pot, deliberately putting distance between them as she began to turn red in the face.
"Oh, what do you care? You don't have to live here!"
"When I was your age," he told her, patiently "I did my chores and respected my elders because it was the responsible thing to do, and because helping my family meant helping myself."
"This isn't the same thing."
"You live here? Get fed good, wholesome meals, wear sturdy shoes and sleep under a warm blanket at night?"
"This isn't my home, and the Witch isn't my mother! What right does she have to decide what I need?"
"What would you even do with that money if you had it? Eat sugar cookies three meals a day and buy yourself a pony?"
"Maybe I would! Maybe I'd buy myself a whole trunk of sugar cookies, put them on a wagon and ride across Kalmin, eating cookies and giving pony rides to children! Maybe I'd buy myself a dress that doesn't make me look like a twelve year old boy! It shouldn't even matter what I'd use it for! I'm a grown woman, and I deserve to be in charge of my own money!"
"What you think you deserve don't matter. If you wanna be treated like a grown woman, then you should stop behaving like a child and be grateful for what you have. You know, most orphans don't get the chance to-"
"I'm not an orphan!"
Marius stopped suddenly, realizing his mistake. He turned to make an apology, but thought better of it when he found himself greeted with a stare as cold and hard as polished stone.
"My father is coming back for me." Saeo told him, her voice very quiet. Marius said nothing for a long moment, then nodded.
"I know he is." There was no point in pushing the subject any further. In the silence that followed, Saeo returned to her dishes and he set about placing a roasted chicken and vegetables onto a serving dish.
"You do your job, I'll do mine." The man told her once he had finished. Saeo nodded silently, dried her hands on her apron, collected the tray and left without looking at him. Marius sighed deeply as the door swung shut behind her. Why couldn't she just cry when she was upset, like a normal girl? He sighed, thinking that it was just as well he'd never had children. His tried and true method for dealing with stubborn objects involved the use of fire, violence and a big hammer.