Telling Tales 146
Old Acquaintances Warmly Met
“Would you say you’re losing your touch?” The voice had a sharp quality, biting.
The old man jumped at its sound. Just as quickly, he identified the speaker and relaxed again. Had anyone else been in the room, they would have been puzzled, for he was as alone in the space now as he had been since the owners had left him. “How long have you been here?”
“Since before you, as it happens. Saw the smoke. Didn’t know you were in the area. Always nice to see a familiar face, even one as ugly as yours.”
“Isn’t it, though?” returned the traveler. He stretched his body this way and that before dragging one of the nearer chairs that much closer to the fire. Then, after a moment’s thought, he pulled it a bit back again. He sat himself down, considered his distance to the hearth, and pushed himself yet further away. The wooden legs squealed against the wooden floor. “How’ve you been?”
He directed his words directly into the fireplace and it was the fire that answered, its voice a combination of the crackling flames, splitting wood, and popping, hissing water. “Well as can be expected.”
“Hard times are good business, are they not?” asked the soldier.
“Not so’s you’d notice. Hard times bring out the need. Sure, hard times mean more theft, often means more killing, but the ledger book doesn’t work that way. Not like there’s a column for ‘stealing’ with a tick for every time you stole a loaf of bread or the bishop’s candlesticks. Why’d you do it, that’s the trick. Nah, things don’t get fat until the good times. Good times bring out the worst in more folks than bad do. Time to strike it rich. Time to get yours. World owes it to you or you’d be a fool not to do it. Whatever ‘it’ is, you get me?”
“I never thought of it that way,” said the man, nodding his head.
“Well, when all you got is time, you can put a lot into it.” The flames leapt and spat in sudden laughter. “Like I need to tell you about time!”
“Don’t remind me.”
The logs seemed to cackle their delight. “With all the time in the world, shouldn’t you be better at telling your stories? How’d you misread your audience so badly?”
“The problem with getting old is that I rely more and more on old habits. It’s not fair to the stories, you know? They’re older than I am, most of them, and you don’t see them always being the same thing. I guess I’ve paid more attention to speeding up and slowing down my tales than I have to their order. Sloppy. I may pay for it this time.”
“Cold night to be kicked to the storm,” observed the fire.
“For now. Besides, if there’s enough snow out there to make me uncomfortable, I can only imagine how it must make you feel.”
“You have the right of it, there,” agreed the traveler. “Tell me. Is it a coincidence that we’re both here in this inn?”
“As it happens it is. Throw another log on and I’ll tell you what happened.”