A Bedtime Story

I'd just finished stacking logs by the fireplace when they came in. I'd felt, when I came to the inn, that windless sort of sky that almost always preceeds a strong rain, and I wanted to get plenty stocked up in case it was long and cold—as rains sometimes will be. Those nights, the inn stays busy longer than usual, and the stewpot sometimes gets filled two or three times—and by the last filling, no one complains at whatever meat's thrown in.

Normally, I wouldn't've been working shorthanded, but da had gone out with the wagon to pick up another tun of ale, and like as not he was sampling it, and wouldn't be back 'till the morning, especially if the weather turned poor. Then he and old man Hanson'd keep sampling it all night, most like.

The door kicked open on a gust of wind and hit the wall hard enough to make me drop the logs and spin around, surprised. The air smelled wet, but it wasn't raining yet.

Three women came in, each of them trail-dusty. This late at night, we don't normally get too many travelers, unless they encountered some sort of trouble on the road. Truth be told, we don't get many travelers any more, anyways. The King's new taxes have been putting a kibosh on that. Not that anyone here pays much mind, but the main road's got collectors, and most people—except tradesmen and caravaners—pretty much avoid it, and our little hamlet.

Three women came in. The first, the one who'd just let the door fly open, had the look of a merchant about her. Her clothes were plain enough, but she was running a little to fat, and you don't see that much here. New taxes and all, no one seems to get enough to eat. The second was thin and pale, and had the look of a scholar, maybe, or else just she'd been sick as a child and never really recovered. And the last looked like every farmer's daughter I'd ever seen. Full bodied, all muscle and hard edges, she had the kind of look that she'd either show you a good time or break you and take all your money.

Each of them was carrying an instrument, and I wondered at minstrels coming here at all. There were a couple of boys and girls in town that occasionally got enough ale in them to sing a few of the old ballads, but for the most part the inn was filled with farming folks that grew a little more bitter each year, and had no interest in the songs of the heros of yore, just whether or not the Crown would leave them enough crop to feed their broods.

But here they were, bold as you please. The last one pushed the door shut, and then, when it showed an inclination to blow back open, gave it a kick for good measure that rattled some years of dust out of the planks. The sickly one took my measure in an instant, and said, in a surprisingly deep voice, "Good evening, sir, and well-met. We are but three trail-weary minstrels who would like nothing more than to warm by your fire and play a couple of tunes in trade."

Against my better judgement, I answered her, noticing out of the corner of my eye that the other two were moving a bench near the fireplace and seemed to be showing every intention of playing, regardless of my answer, "There are no rooms free tonight, but you can keep to the common room well enough. Each of you may have one drink, and should your music be pleasing to my ears, then perhaps more drinks or stew from the common pot."

"We would be pleased to accept any hospitality you offer," she said, and she seemed to mean it. "I am Beth, and my companions are Alex and Lysa," indicating the tough one and the sickly one in that order.

I shrugged, and walked over to the barrel of house ale—the very same that my da was currently replenishing—and thought to pour each a jack of ale, but a look at the inventory of remaining mugs scotched that idea, so I grabbed a slightly chipped ewer and filled it halfway, then, in a fit of generousity, decided to top it off.

I set it between them, and Beth nodded at me as the three of them were tuning their instruments. Beth had a lute, looking as if it had seen a particularly hard life, Lysa held a hurdy-gurdy, and Alex was carrying the nicest mandolin I'd seen in years. Satisfied that their instruments were ready, the trio began a brief but spirited discussion of what song they should begin with, and then started playing.

Up until that moment, the atmosphere in the inn had not changed one whit. Oh, everyone had looked up and taken measure of the newcomers when they arrived, but a moment later, they had returned to the deep study of their ale or stew, and the brief silence that had welcomed the visitors had been replaced with the normal babble and clatter of the inn, almost loud enough to cover the noise of the rain which had just begun falling. Cynical old farmers that they were, the only reaction to the rain had been Elison moving slightly to his right when he discovered he was sitting directly underneath one of the spots where the leak through the thatches made their way down to the ground floor.

Once they began to sing, though, everything changed. Lysa had a marvelous contralto, Alex a fine mezzo-soprano, and Beth a soprano. The three of them sang together as if they had been singing with each other all their lives, often doing things with their voices that I'd never heard before, and I realized, as they ended their first song, that I'd been standing listening to them, mesmerized, for at least the last three verses, and that without even having the slightest idea what language they were singing in. Judging by the sudden, unnatural silence, I wasn't the only one.

It was at that moment, when they were pausing to sip from the shared ewer, that trouble came in the front door. Although I didn't know the men, I knew the type. Two lean, scarred men walked into the inn, bold as you please, each of them looking as if he'd just as soon kill the first man he saw. Even though they looked soaked though, I was about to throw them back outside, when the dulcet voices of the minstrels began again, and I hesitated. The two men also seemed affected by the song, for they simply sat on a long bench near the door, and imagine my surprise when old Marcus Conner slid over to make them just a little more room, and him so stingy that he begrudged the chickens every bit of feed they managed to scratch from his barren land.

After that, I lost all track of time. I remember pouring them a couple more ewers of ale, and I remember at one point—or at least, I think I remember—filling a bowl with some of the third pot of stew, and giving them the half-loaf of bread we had left. Then—and this I do remember—I noticed that the fire was getting low, and there was no more wood, so I braved the pouring rain to fetch some more wood. Everyone had stayed downstairs longer than usual, and the supply I'd fetched earlier was proving to be insufficient.

When I got outside, it was pouring down rain; so much so that I could hardly see the road, although for some reason I didn't feel as uncomfortable in it as I had imagined earlier; indeed, it seemed almost clean and refreshing. So is it any wonder that I tarried for a moment? I could hear the muted voices from inside the inn, and see the flickering firelight through the two precious windows we had on the lower floor—the only glass windows in the whole town. As I bent over to grab another handful of logs, I suddenly heard an entire contingent of horsemen—soldiers, by the heavy sounds of the hooves—ride by in a tearing hurry. I reflexively stepped back—soldiers were never good news—but might as well have not bothered. They never slowed; it seemed they didn't see me, or, for that matter, the inn. Then I went back inside and was lost in the voices for a little longer.

Finally, they stopped playing, and the inn emptied quickly enough. The few who had rooms walked up the stairs, a spring in their step that hadn't been there before. The farmers all made their ways home, no doubt to wake with big heads in the morning, and the minstrels—along with the two troublemaking-types I'd marked earlier—wrapped themselves in their cloaks and got as comfortable as possible near the fire. I closed the downstairs shutters, barred the door, and then went upstairs to my room. Although sleep didn't seem to come as easily as it usually did, I must have fallen asleep eventually, for I dreamed of distant lands.

The next morning, I rose a little later than usual and, after pulling on a chemise that seemed clean enough for the occasion, made my way downstairs. I had a sudden premonition that one or more of the minstrels would be dead on the floor, or perhaps that everything loose and hockable would be gone—I had still had my doubts about the two men who'd come in last night—my fears were for naught. Everyone was gone, and appeared to have left of their own volition; in fact, the downstairs was neater and cleaner than it had any right to be. The bar was off the door, which was to be expected. I opened it, and looked outside, up and down the road, thinking that I might see them, perhaps a little way down the trail, or maybe gathered by the well, filling their waterskins before continuing to wherever it was they were going, but they were well and truly gone.

I straightened up the tables and benches, and threw fresh logs on the fire, to prepare for lunch, then went back to my room to count the night's take (which I really should have done before, but I just didn't feel like it then, and my da wasn't there to box my ears). Not unexpectedly, it was greater than normal.

I was whistling one of their ballads when my da finally stopped the wagon in front of the inn. His cheeks were flushed, and it wasn't just from all the ale he'd sampled the night before; he looked like he had fresh gossip and was just fit to bust with it.

"Two men escaped from the Royal Cells last night," he said. "Soldiers have been out all night looking for them; they've been stopping at every inn and checking every road out of the capital, but there's no sign of them. The King is furious that it could've happened, and the soldiers are the butt of every joke on everyone's lips!" Then he grew more serious. "Were they any trouble last night?"

"Trouble?" I said. "No, they rode right by. Never stopped."

He scratched his beard. "Well, that's odd." Then he brightened. "Maybe they were hot on the trail of the two escapees."

"No one was hot on any trail last night," I reminded him. "Not with all the rain. They'd have missed anyone not standing in the middle of the path. Which would've been why they were stopping at every inn and rest-house." I paused. "Except ours. Somehow, they overlooked it."

"Soldiers are bad news, anyways," da said, lowering the tailboard of the wagon. "If they forgot, pity for them." As he was pushing the ramp into place, "How did we do last night?"

"Better than usual," I replied. "Three minstrels stopped in, and they sang the most beautiful songs, kept everyone up late, and…" I trailed off, as I realized what else they'd done—what they must have done. Those two men, they were the ones the Crown was seeking. But the minstrels, who were surely in collusion with them, had weaved a spell of song over the inn, so that no one left early, no one who could tell the soldiers where the men they were seeking were; in fact, their song had somehow hidden the inn from the soldiers entirely. At that moment, I vowed to never speak a word of my suspicions to anybody, not until the King was gone and the two men were nothing but a distant memory.

"And?" my da asked, tearing me from my reverie.

"And we did better than expected," I said boldly. "So we're in need of this ale more than ever."