A cold mist was falling. The wind blew just enough to give a body a chill. It had been like this the entire day. The tavern was filled with locals, each nursing a mug of mulled wine. The farmers had been out preparing the fields for planting. A group of them were sitting near the fireplace complaining about a late spring. Other groups of friends were discussing one bit of gossip or another. The room was full of the comforting buzz of their conversations until the door opened letting a bit of the cold and mist blow in.
At first glance, the stranger appeared to be a waif of a boy. But to one watchful set of eyes, she was recognized as a young woman of about 16 years. The rest of the patrons didn’t bother to look that closely and returned to their own concerns as soon as the door was once more firmly closed.
The man sitting alone at a table in the corner farthest from the door and to the right of the fireplace raised his mug to his lips and watched as the girl disguised as a boy walked across the tavern to the bar. Jacob was serving today. His wife Mathilda was in the kitchen preparing a stew, probably rabbit.
“Boy, you’re soaked through,” Jacob observed. “Get by the fire and warm yourself. Henry, move out of the way of the lad. Let him warm himself. I’ll fetch thee a mug of hot tea. Just stand as close to the fire as you can.” He finished as he turned to enter the kitchen area and fetch that promised mug of tea.
She stood close to the fire warming herself unaware that she was being watched. The man in the corner had spent years learning to notice and not be noticed. She turned her back to the fire and steam began to rise from the soaked fabric when Jacob reappeared carrying the promised mug of tea and a bowl of stew.
“Come, lad,” He called. “eat.” He told her as he set the mug and bowl on the bar counter. She would have to eat standing all the tables being occupied.
“I have no coin.” She told him in a voice that convincedly cracked like a boy at that age.
“Never mind that,” Jacob told him. “There are dishes to wash or wood to chop. Eat.”
“I need to find the Gray Knight.” The boy told him.
“I’ve been told,” Jacob replied. “That the Gray Knight finds who he wants.”
Albert was sitting on the stairs to the upper level, just out of his father’s sight. He should be out on the floor helping with the guests, but he had a book of Arthurian tales. It fueled his dream of adventuring. He sat quietly and watched as his father attended to the boy.
His father’s first rule was to welcome a new guest as soon as possible. Quicker if they appeared in need. The boy probably had no money, or very little. Albert had seen situations like this before. His parents would make sure the child was dry and fed before any worry for the needs of the tavern would be thought of.
He was drifting back to his daydream of adventure when he noticed a movement. The Count was looking at him. The Count’s left hand was below the tabletop and moved in a gesture that meant come here. As kind as the Count appeared Alfred knew better than to ignore this request, subtle as it might be. Reluctantly he stood. He placed his book in a space in the wall. He had hidden books there before. Then he descended the stairs. He bent over to hear the Count. He was speaking softer than usual.
“Tell your father that his guest needs to be warmed in the kitchen.” He almost whispered. “When you’ve done that. Walk back here with a pitcher of mulled wine. When strangers walk in set the pitcher down and volunteer to tend their horses. When you return from that if they allow it. Come get the pitcher and tell me what you saw.”
What a strange request Alfred thought. Strange it might be, but you never refused the Count’s request. No matter how quirky it might be.
“Father,” Alfred said as he drew near the bar.
“Where have you been boy? There’s work to do. Pick up the broom and sweep up that pile of dirt Henry walked in.” His father told him.
“Father,” Alfred interrupted. “The Count told me that your guest needs to dry in the kitchen. And to bring him a pitcher of mulled wine.”
“What?” Alfred’s father glanced up toward the Count. Alfred didn’t see what his father saw but whatever it was. He turned to the boy. “It will be warmer in the kitchen. Let me show you the way. Closer to the dishes that will need a washing when you’ve had your fill.” He scooped up the half-filled mug of mulled wine and walked toward the kitchen door. Leaving the boy to pick up the bowl of stew and follow him.
Soon Alfred’s father appeared with a full pitcher of mulled wine. No sooner had he handed it to Alfred than the door slammed open and the wind howled through. Two rough-looking men in hunters garb stood in the open doorway their eyes scanned the room. One was turning back to the outside when the other said “We best ask about a bit. They might have seen something.”
Alfred stared. How had the Count known these men were coming? “Alfred,” his father scolded. “Take that to the Count.” Remembering himself Alfred walked over to the Count filled his mug before sitting the pitcher down on his table. Then he walked over to the men standing in front of the now closed doors.
“Want me to tend your horses? ‘tis only a silver pfennig for two horses in the stable overnight. We give them a bit of grain as well.”
The men looked at each other. The taller one raised his eyebrow. In a gruff voice, the shorter man said, “Very well, Tend them.”
As Alfred started to open the door the taller man grabbed him by the arm and asked. “Has a young woman passed through here?”
“I’ve not seen any young women except villagers,” Alfred answered truthfully.
As he exited the door Alfred overheard the tall one say. “Suppose we stay the night here dry, Grego?” He didn’t hear the answer as he shut the door tight before running through the mist to the two horses tied to the rail in front of the tavern. He was in the stables then taking care of the horses. Saddles and tack off, hay and grain provided. He even rubbed them down with an old blanket.
The Count was at his table when Alfred returned. As he passed by the Count’s table on the way to his room to get dry clothing. He paused a moment. “Just two horses. I didn’t see any other man about.” The Count nodded his head at this. He and the lad in the kitchen were gone out the back door when Alfred returned to the tavern’s main room.