He ducked beneath the protruding iron Brew House sign, its hinges creaking slightly in the afternoon breeze, his eyes adjusting from the brightness of the sunlit street to the torchlit tavern. Ron had grown fond of the knotty wooden planks of the tavern, fragrant with stew and bread, its tables ringed with ale from the pints and tankards of many an uproarious eve.
This afternoon he had to himself. Almost all customer orders were complete. Only a set of doorlatches for an artisan expanding his shop remained. Ron had planned to work them himself this afternoon instead of seeking a mead at The Brew House, but Cradwick had roused himself from his bed to take up the hammer and tongs. In a blustery haze, Cradwick had stumbled about the forge, then sent Ron to the woodmonger. Though a plentiful stack of lumber rested behind the shop awaiting use, Ron knew Cradwick was grasping at the fringes of an old routine and so hastily bowed with obeisance to his master before setting out upon the needless errand. Cradwick would, if custom served, soon sit down for a rest and a sip of wine, and be snoring by the time Ron returned.
Ron glanced at the table he usually preferred to take a meal at, but found it occupied. With nonchalance, he slid onto a stool at the far side of the bar and loosened the strings of his tunic.
“Why, Ronnie,” came the warm voice of the innkeeper’s wife from behind the counter.
“Miss Ruth,” he dipped his head respectfully to the green-eyed, smiling matronly woman as she smoothed her dishtowel across the bar surface.
“Pshaw, those manners. Someone raised you right,” she chuckled. “How is it you’re here this time of day?” she asked as she set down a full pint of mead and a plate of fresh brown bread before him. Inwardly, Ron smiled. Had he been frequenting The Brew House so often that they knew his preference without his ordering it?
“Master Cradwick had a special project he wanted to work on.” Ron’s lie came with a practiced ease.
“He’s a gifted talent, he is. When he takes to a project, you know it’ll be done just right.” She pointed up at the oil lamps. “He did those for us years ago. Imported the iron and all.”
Ron noted the deft craftsmanship and agreed with her.
She patted his hand and disappeared behind the swinging kitchen doors.
He was just spreading butter on his bread when Ellia pushed airily through the swinging doors. “Oh!” Her blue eyes rounded with sudden surprise. “I didn’t expect to see you there, Ronnie. Have you got the afternoon off, then?”
“Some of it,” Ron admitted. “Have some bread with me?” He held up a slice of bread.
Ellia smiled. “Oh, no. The help doesn’t eat with the customers,” she replied with a hint of mischief.
Ron held the bread toward her insistently. “What if the customers insist?” He smiled and held it out.
Ellia shook her head and accepted the buttered bread. “What my father would say if he saw me right now….”
“I won’t tell him if you don’t.”
“Fair enough, Ronnie.” Ellia bit into her crusty slice of bread as he buttered another slice. He hated to admit, while Cradwick was loyal to the baker, Ron really did prefer Luvian’s bread. He bit into his own slice and washed it down with mead.
Just then, the hinges of The Brew House door creaked open. Ellia looked with curiosity over his shoulder. He watched her expression become guarded and she immediately stood up and brushed the bread crumbs from the bar.
Ron turned on his wooden stool to behold Denward walking up to the bar. He was a regular, but an odd one. He rode in every three or four weeks, sat on the same bar stool, and usually even asked the same questions, if phrased differently. He sensed Ellia’s growing discomfort, and in a raised voice, called, “Ah! Denward! Good to see you again, friend! How is the world outside of South Fairview?”
In all actuality, Ron would as soon spit on a viper than call Denward a friend, but Ron’s raised voice brought Luvian sauntering through the kitchen doors.
Luvian was an immense man, tall and compact, with shrewd dark eyes that knew when you were lying and also, Ron was sure, how to lie. Ron had decided many months ago that Luvian was one of the few people he totally respected, and possibly feared.
“Ellie, see to the stew, please.”
Luvian’s low voice immediately sent Ellia scurrying back into the kitchen, though Ron knew she was glad of the excuse. Nor was Luvian ever angry with his daughters – they climbed all over him like kittens.
Right now, Ron enjoyed watching Luvian fix Denward with those shrewd eyes. Luvian tossed a damp rag over his shoulder before he leaned his meaty arms on the bar. “Denward. Welcome back. What’ll you have today?”
Denward frowned. His lined face framed brown eyes and an upturned lip that always seemed scornful. His condescension had bought him no friends in The Brew House. As he was about to draw breath in to place his order, Ruth appeared from behind the swinging doors. Ron was sure Ellia had run upstairs to get her.
“Master Denward. We love having you back, you know that. What’ll it be? Your usual, then?”
Luvian’s eyes never left Denward’s, though he addressed his wife. “Ruthie, run down to the cellar and bring up a pint of that special stout we keep on hand for Master Denward here.”
“Of course.” Ruth smiled warmly and slipped behind the kitchen doors.
“How about some of that stew I saw your youngest girl go back for? You know I like that. Stew, things all mixed together, you never know what’s in it.”
“Aye, that’s why we keep our special recipe close and personal, Master Denward. Family recipe, I’m afraid. We don’t give it out. But I’ve got a pot back there almost ready. About to boil.” Luvian’s tone was respectful, but a steely evenness underlied it.
Denward nodded slowly. Ruth swung through from the kitchen then, with a tall pint of ale. She set it down with a smile. “Only our very best for you, Master Denward.”
He sipped it and set it down. “Luvian, I don’t see how she stays with you.”
Wow, thought Ron – the balls on this bastard. Every time he came, he needled and poked like this.
Luvian smiled a rare smile. “Well, that’s easy. She’s blind to all my flaws.”
Ruth smiled up at him. She hugged him and he encircled her with an arm. Ron smiled inwardly. He rarely saw them together, but when they were, Luvian and Miss Ruth had eyes only for each other. He could only hope for that one day.
But Denward, of course, had to sour the moment by saying. “No, I don’t think she’s blind at all. I think she’s just a very tolerant woman.” He took another swig of ale from his pewter pint. “Speaking of eyes, where did your youngest daughter ever get those blue eyes? I’d have thought she’d get her mother’s eyes. Or yours, Luvian….” Denward trailed off.
Mags walked out with a bowl of stew, hot from the pot. She set it before Denward stiffly, saying not a word, and turned her back around.
“Gets it all from her mum – beauty, luck, grace, charm – I’m a lucky man, Denward. You should find yourself a wife and settle down. You wander too much. Find a woman who’ll give you children, keep you busy,” Luvian said calmly.
Ron was trying to decide whether there was an underlying message behind Luvian’s words or not, but Luvian’s face was unreadable, as Ron often found.
Denward scoffed and answered, “Children and a wife. I think not.” He swallowed all of his pint down and set it down on the bar with a clank. “That’ll be all.” He flipped his coppers for the pint on the bar and left, though the stew had gone untouched.
Ruth stared after him. “That was a short visit.”
“Not short enough,” Luvian rumbled, crossing his arms against his chest with a frown.
“Special stout?” asked Ron. “I didn’t know you had any new ales in stock.”
Luvian snorted and couldn’t resist a half smile as he looked down at Ron. “Believe me, lad, you don’t want any of this stuff.”
“Why is that?”
Ruth grinned. “Because we have Tank spit a luger in it before we serve it.”