Telling Tales 137
A Lukewarm Start to a Cold Day
Over and over, the words echoed in his mind, “It’s time,” “It’s time,” “Get up,” and “It’s time to get up.” They sank through his thoughts, a sodden piece of wood drifting its way to the bottom of a lake. When they settled at long last his eyes snapped open and he gasped sharply at the light that flooded his eyes.
The bartender took a startled step back away from the old traveler. The rise of his chest made her think that he was about to breathe his last there and then, right in front of her. The expression of fear and alarm faded from his face as he took in his surroundings and the smile that she was more accustomed to seeing from the previous night grew back, tinged with relief. “I have to clean,” she informed him, lingering a moment to see if he was going to collapse. The general camaraderie of the night’s talking and exhaustion had given way to daylight’s wariness, reinforced by a short sleep, the isolation of her afternoon’s work, and the knowledge that she was already a half day behind. The crisis of the past was dead and gone, to be replaced by the crisis of the present. She hoped that the old man would not contribute to her struggles and suspected that he would.
“A bad dream,” he said, already shaking off whatever had been plaguing him. The woman waited a polite moment and then gave him a jerk of her chin to indicate that he needed to move from where he sat. For the first time, he noticed the rag and bucket of steaming water at her feet. “Your pardon!” he exclaimed, and rose to his feet. Rising from the chair told him that he had slept for some hours while seated. The muscles in his neck and lower back protested but now that he was in motion, the bartender did not urge him faster movement. The inn’s common room seemed larger in the daylight. “You have glass windows!”
“Only some,” she cautioned. “Barter with a tradesman my husband knew from childhood. They brighten the room even though they let in the cold.”
“You’ve got a broad fire already.” He nodded toward the hearth.
“As long as we have guests, it burns most of the time. My husband is out cutting wood.” The traveler walked over to the brick fireplace. None of the merchants were in sight. The bartender observed him taking in the room as she began to wipe down the sticky surface of the wooden table where the traveler had sat. “They’ve gone to bed, at long last. They’ll sleep through the day, most of them.”
She nodded and wiped.
“Another night of enforced company?”
She looked up at him, taking in his measure and what he might mean and think. She nodded again.
“I expect nothing for free,” he said.
The bartender snorted a laugh that could have been either humor or scorn. “You still owe us the story of your bottle.”
If the old man took offense, there was no sign. “That was the wager, though Master Dmitri paid for my food last evening.”
Without looking at him, she said, “I believe everyone managed fairly well last night.” The truth was, she half-hoped that he would stay another captive night and keep the merchants entertained, but she didn’t want to give her desire away. Desire was weak and in her experience, people took advantage of weakness.