Luvian was not so busy between baking and the brewery itself that he did not know who his customers were. He was well aware of who his regulars were, and who came into his brewery without invitation. Specifically, soldiers.
Rarely did Crown soldiers make their way into The Brew House and Tavern, for South Fairview was generally mistrustful of soldiers, even Crown soldiers. Crown soldiers usually meant that taxes were being collected or that someone was being hunted for a crime, and, of course, South Fairview was a breeding ground for criminals, especially since the War. Poverty had risen and criminals took to theft and even good folks made unwise decisions upon occasion just to survive. Such was South Fairview. But in The Brew House and Tavern, Crown soldiers drank their first pint free, and Luvian made a point to set an example to his patrons that Crown soldiers were protectors, not bullies.
Of late, however, more and more soldiers were stepping foot in his brewery, and not Crown soldiers, and nor were they in uniform. Luvian could always recognize a currently enlisted soldier, as could Tank, having fought in the Army themselves. Straight backed, chin up, hair cropped, clean shaven, eyes watching about him for the enemy….
The last year alone had seen a rise in soldiers passing through. They were taking the Silver River up and getting off at the docks, said the fishmongers in town, those who knew how to listen and watch. Others said they came in on horse outside the Brace Fort, then sold their horses for wagons and come up into Fairview direct that way. Either way, they were coming into Fairview from the south, and that meant they were stopping at The Brew House and Tavern.
Depending on the length of their trip, they might ask for a room. Ruthie wanted to refuse them rooms, lie to them about having availability, but Luvian said no. He wanted to know what their business was. And as a rule, he rarely turned paying customers away, even when he didn’t like them. Just good business sense. King or beggar, the coin still spent the same, his Pappy used to say.
All Luvian had learned was that wherever these soldiers were headed, they were moving through South Fairview as a waypoint. And he still was not sure where they were coming from, for their coin was Rommish.
When soldiers did stay overnight, Ruthie rummaged through their belongings while the soldiers drank downstairs. She occasionally found something of importance, maps and coins of other countries, but otherwise just nonsense as travelers would carry. These men were paid to keep themselves hidden in plain sight. Luvian was tired of watching them pour through Fairview, and more and more of them as time passed. Something was wrong, he knew it and he didn’t like it.
Today, a group of soldiers in common clothing strode in and sat down in the corner. It was just early afternoon and Luvian would bet they only wanted to pass through. Usually, when soldiers came in, he was inside the kitchen, and Tank would sneeze twice to let him know that he needed to step out to the bar. Today, however, he happened to be stocking the shelves beneath the bar with freshly cleaned tankards when the four soldiers walked into his brewery.
They inspected the bar as they sat down, nodding and shrugging with an arrogance that immediately pissed Luvian off. Hasley stepped out of the kitchen, for she’d heard the creak of the door open and knew to check for new customers to welcome. But Luvian told her in a low voice, “Get back in the kitchen, girl.”
“O-okay, Pappy,” Hasley stuttered, shrugging as she turned on her heel and returned to the kitchen.
Luvian tossed his dishrag over his shoulder and strode over to the corner. He nodded to the table of frequent customers behind the soldiers, who held up their tankards to him in good will.
“I always like to see new customers here. What’ll you be drinking today?” he said as he studied each of their faces. Fair hair and complexions…. A bit sunburned, or, perhaps their sunburns had faded. Luvian guessed they’d gone up the Silver River – no woods to shelter them from the sun.
“Ale all around – you do have ale here, do you not?” asked the nearest of the four in a patronizing tone.
Luvian held to a respectful demeanor and smiled, trying not to clench his teeth. “Oh, yes, we do, being a brewery, man. We have the very best of stout in the area, I’ll have four brought right up. And send over some bread to break your fast, shall I?” He smiled a gritty smile and turned about.
“Tank, our very best for these men!”
Tank nodded and disappeared in the direction of the cellar.
Luvian met him downstairs. His eyes took a moment to adjust to the darkness of the cellar while he leaned against one of the barrels.
“You want to do the honors or shall I, boss?” asked Tank, holding out four tankards.
“Split the difference,” Luvian said, and they both hawked up their best globs of spit they could and dropped them into the tankards before filling them with ale. It had become a challenge between him and Tank, whose glob was the biggest. They decided it depended on who had eaten recently, so it wasn’t really a fair fight, but they competed nevertheless.
“That one. That one goes to the asshole who ordered,” Tank held up a tankard.
“You think so? I like this one, actually.” Luvian held another one up.
Tank shrugged. “If you say so, bossman.”
Luvian shrugged. He gathered the other two tankards, filled them with ale, swirled the ale about, and then stepped upstairs. Such were the finer points of his life, the smaller things that entertained him nowadays….
The light of the afternoon streaming into the bar met his eyes and he stepped over toward the table. He decided on Tank’s choice as he set the tankards before the soldiers and took a private moment to enjoy his spite as he watched each of them drink thirstily.
He brought over two large baskets of bread and a slab of butter. Unfortunately, he was too far away to hear what they were talking about, and their mouths were mostly full as they ate bread anyway.
Luvian leaned on his bar and pretended to be interested in the people passing by on the street.
But just then, Ron and Metz walked in. Good kids, apprentices nearby, mused Luvian. What an age to grow up in. At their age, he’d been serving in the Army two years already….
“Ronnie, Metz.” Luvian smiled a genuine smile as they sat down at the bar before him. “Your usual, then?”
“Always,” Metz, with a smile, slapped the polished bar twice with emphasis. Ronnie held his finger up for one pint of ale.
Luvian eyed the corner again before he disappeared behind the kitchen doors. Wordlessly, Halsey supplied him with a fresh basket of bread and a small slab of butter. Even from behind the kitchen doors, she knew to serve the customers, and what they wanted. Such a good girl – they’d run this place long after he was gone, Luvian knew.
Quietly, Luvian set the basket and their two pints down. He kept a surreptitious eye on the corner of soldiers as he made idle conversation with his young customers.
Finally, they stood up. Luvian met Tank’s eyes across the room. He knew this was about to end badly.
Tank wandered casually over to collect payment. Suddenly, what happened next was a blur. Luvian heard who he recognized as the team’s commander in charge tell Tank to “Put it on our tab.”
Tank was a large man, even more so than Luvian, stronger, taller, and without doubt, a man to be reckoned with in a fight. Which is why Luvian took him on when he rebuilt The Brew House. Luvian was sure that Tank tried to convince the soldier to pay up his tab, but in watching the soldiers’ expressions, that did not meet with an arrangement to transfer funds as requested.
Within seconds, the commanding soldier’s face was laying against a nearby table, with Tank holding his arm behind his back. The rest of the soldiers stood up, jarring their tankards upon their table as they did so. Tank gave them a single look that dissuaded them.
The table of men behind them had stopped talking to witness this spectacle, craning their necks around to watch. Ronnie and Metz twisted around on their bar stools to observe. What was it about violence that everyone loved to see, Luvian wondered idly.
“Let me up!” spluttered the soldier. “Let me up,” he demanded again, his other arm flailing around uselessly, looking for something to grab on the table. Tank looked bored and began to lean on him, ever so slowly.
Luvian couldn’t help but enjoy this. But, business was business. Still, he took his time approaching the table.
Tank leaned on the soldier just a bit more, his arm looking unnatural in that pose. “Ow, ow, ouch, son of a bitch, you bastard, let me up! Let me up!”
Luvian finally stood in front of the soldier and leaned down to stare him in the face. “Do we have a problem here?”
“Tell your man to let me up!”
“Well, my friend, he gets his wages from me. He only does that if someone hasn’t behaved himself in a fashion as is expected from our patrons here at The Brew House and Tavern. Maybe lots of other ale houses let their customers act in ways such as we might consider dishonorable, but here at The Brew House and Tavern, my patrons have come to expect a certain quality of behavior from the customers who pass through. So Tank here is just giving you what we call a friendly reminder to watch your manners, mate. You watch yours, and we’ll watch ours. Understand, then?”
The soldier glared at Luvian with fury but was silent.
Luvian slapped Tank on the shoulder. “Tank, let the good man up. I’m sure he and his friends would like to pay their tab now.”
Tank let the soldier up slowly and Luvian stepped back behind the bar.
The man’s face was red with rage. His compatriots pretended that they had not noticed anything from the ordinary had happened, not wishing to risk their commanding officer’s wrath.
The man rotated his forearm back and forth. He spat something lowly to his nearest officer, who then handed him some money. Glaring at Luvian across the room, the commanding officer tossed a silver at Luvian for payment.
Luvian caught it with ease but then threw it back at the soldier who had supplied it to his commanding officer. “We always like making new friends here at The Brew House and Tavern. First one’s free of charge.” It flashed in the sunlight as it flew through the air. The soldier caught it nervously and stuffed it into a pocket.
The commanding soldier’s eyes glittered with fury and the four of them stepped out into the street.
“I’ll get the slops bucket, shall I,” called Tank, as in the fray, the tankards on the table had spilled over onto the wooden floor.
Luvian turned around to see the heads of Hasley and Ellia peeping through the kitchen doors. Had they stood and watched the whole thing? Girls and their silliness!
He waved his hands at them. “Get back in there! Go on – shoo!” He heard them giggling as they turned and ran into the kitchen.
Luvian turned and looked at Ronnie and Metz, seated at the bar in front of him. Metz held up his tankard. “To Tank, the man of the hour!”
Ronnie smiled and held his own tankard up. “Aye, to Tank!”
Luvian nodded. “Aye, to Tank.”
Tank moved back behind the bar as soon as he finished cleaning up the slops. “Assholes, aye?”
Luvian agreed. “Aye.” He shook his head, puzzled as he leaned on the bar. “What I can’t figure is their accents. They’re not Northern. And not Rommish.”
Tank thought for a moment and shook his head. “Couldn’t place it, either.”
“Some sort of Coastal, maybe,” Luvian mused.
Ronnie cleared his throat then. “Sounded Western, I think. I mean, it could be….” He trailed off.
Luvian looked down at Ronnie. “Western? Why do you say Western? Have you ever heard a Western accent before?”
Ronnie’s face turned innocent as he shrugged. “I – no, just knew someone from there once, I think.” He shook his head and took a swig of ale. “I’m probably wrong, it’s been a while.” He smiled disarmingly.
Luvian frowned. Then, over his shoulder, he called, “Nick! I’ve got a job for you!”
Ronnie washed down the last of his ale. “Want me to follow them for you?”
Luvian looked at Ronnie and shook his head. Nice kid, this blacksmith’s boy, but he knew nothing about the street. He smiled down at him.
“Nah. That won’t be necessary. Besides, I don’t think they’ll be back.”
Luvian was never wrong. He hated to be wrong, he was hardly ever wrong, but today, tonight, he was wrong. Bloody hell.
“About a full house tonight, Luvi,” Mags called.
“Excellent,” Luvian nodded.
Nick waved at him over the top of everyone in the kitchen but Luvian shook his head, signaling not now. Nick jumped in the air and waved both hands over his head urgently, insistent on Luvian’s attention. What news could he possibly have of such import that he must speak with me now, Luvian grumped. A full house bloody well trumped information any day of the week.
Donvan removed the warm, crusty loaves of bread, holding the oven ajar for Luvian to slip in the dough. One day, Donvan would be able to run this kitchen… almost as well as he could. Luvian had this kitchen working like the cogs in a wheel. He liked to think his Pappy would be proud. He eyed the kettles – one full and the other half full. Tonight was going to be a good night, even if the day had started out rough.
And then he heard Tank sneeze. Twice. And then a third time, which meant the rough equivalent of, get yer arse out here now. And then he heard a whistle, which was Tank’s way of making sure he heard him over the noise and bustle of a full house. Times when people were singing and dancing, uproarious laughter, jokes, times it was hard to hear back in the kitchen.
Luvian immediately dusted his hands free of flour and pulled his apron over his head, tossing it aside on the counter.
“Luvi?” Mags had heard Tank’s signal and Hasley and Mollie had come bustling into the kitchen.
“Keep the girls in the kitchen, Mags.”
He stepped out behind the bar to see what Tank’s concern was, not sure what to expect.
And there, standing under the torchlight of the street outside The Brew House and Tavern, were the same four common-dressed soldiers he and Tank had dismissed earlier that day.
Which was, he suddenly realized, what Nick was attempting to tell him.
Luvian quickly assessed the situation as best he could from inside. At least they had no torches, that was good. But they were, however, barely able to stand they were so drunk. And their commanding officer – a sergeant, Luvian judged – was out in the street laughing maniacally. His obnoxious personality had been magnified by an afternoon spent drinking, and now he was here to avenge the wrong done to his honor earlier today. Bloody hell.
Tank caught his eye across the room.
Ruthie appeared out of the kitchen doors, glancing about nervously. “Luvi?” Her tone was worried.
“Ruthie, get four of our very best stouts for the gentlemen about to come in the door,” he commanded quietly, his eyes never leaving the front door.
He heard the kitchen doors swing closed behind her.
Ronnie and Metz were seated back at their stools. Ronnie cleared his throat and sat up. “The very best?”
Luvian looked down at him. “Aye – we always save the best –”
“Special stout for your special customers. I recall your telling me once what that meant.”
Luvian raised an eyebrow. “Did I now,” he returned quietly, but he watched the door. He nodded in the direction of the door. “You see who’s back?”
Ronnie was already twisted around in his seat, watching the door. Metz was slurping at his stew, oblivious to their exchange. Luvian wasn’t surprised, the place was packed.
“Don’t stare,” warned Luvian, directing Ronnie to turn around. He wasn’t going to encourage those bastards if he could help it.
Tank moved in closer, slowly, ’til he leaned against the bar. Ruthie reappeared with four full tankards of ale. She set them just below the bar.
She stared up at him and glanced at the men outside the door. “Who are they?”
“Just a bunch of drunks, no one special. Go back inside, Ruthie. We have this handled.”
She looked worried but retreated all the same.
Finally, the four commonly-dressed soldiers entered The Brew House.
Luvian stood up straight and walked to the center of the bar. “Back so soon?” He didn’t frown, but nor did he smile. Tank walked forward to stand in front of the bar.
The soldier Luvian deemed a sergeant cackled and pointed at Luvian. “The barkeep. Do we drink for free again now, too,” he hooted.
Tank stepped forward, but Luvian, stepping from around the bar, held him back with an arm. “No, my friend, allow me.”
As he advanced toward the sergeant, he addressed him in a loud voice, “I think you need to find another place to drink.” Luvian crossed his arms and stared at the sergeant, blocking further entrance into the brewery.
The grin faded quickly from the sergeant’s flushed face. He swayed slightly on his feet, though he still stood his ground. “Are you – denying us service?” The idea seemed fascinating to him, and Luvian decided he was as much an asshole at home as he was standing in his bar here tonight, for apparently, no one had ever denied him anything he’d ever wanted.
“Denying you service?” Luvian pretended to think for a moment, throwing sarcasm at the sergeant. “No. I am not refusing to ‘serve’ you. I, as the owner of this establishment, am refusing you entry into it. They’re something slightly different, although,” and he made a great show of leaning forward and sniffing, “in your current condition, I doubt you’d be able to distinguish between the two.” He coughed pointedly and waved in front of his face. The combined odor of ale and spirits surrounding the sergeant was enough to make a horse gag. He was surprised the man was able to stand, much less function.
“You lowlife, uneducated son-of-a-bitch! Back away this instant and let us pass!”
Luvian’s eyes narrowed. “Back. Away. And leave.”
The sergeant snorted over his shoulder and laughed. “Do you see this?” His compatriots snickered.
And then the sergeant reached out and tried to shove Luvian. The action served only to knock his balance off, for the sergeant was not only drunk, but a man of a far smaller stature than Luvian.
“That – was a very bad decision,” Luvian told him. The sergeant reached up his fist to throw around a punch, but Luvian caught it in his own fist. He dragged the drunken sergeant over to the bar and slammed his face into the bar between two patrons.
Behind him, the other three soldiers had run in to support their sergeant. Luvian saw Tank grab two of them by the necks and slam their heads together. They slid down into an unconscious puddle of drunken haze on the wooden floor. The remaining soldier stood staring up at Tank, as if weighing his options. He threw his fist back to swing at Tank, but Tank caught it and suddenly the soldier started howling in pain.
More and more of the customers at the tables became aware of the fight and the atmosphere hushed as they stared.
“You bloody bastard!” yelled the soldier. “You’ve broken my bloody hand!” He clutched at his hand and held it against his chest.
Then Luvian felt the sergeant beneath him move slightly, and saw the soldier with the broken hand suddenly slip his good hand inside his pocket.
“Don’t do it!” Luvian yelled. “Don’t you do it! Don’t you draw!”
At the same time, he heard Ronnie yell, “Luvian! Knife!”
Tank pulled the knife from the soldier’s pocket and dropped it on the floor, where he stood on it with his boot. But Luvian twisted awkwardly to pull the knife that the sergeant had reached for out of his pocket.
“Guests in my establishment do not draw weapons! Especially not upon me!” Luvian growled. He whirled the sergeant around as he spoke and slammed him down on a table where two regulars were sitting.
Luvian forced the sergeant’s hand upon the table with one hand, and with the other, drove the knife into it, straight through into the table below.
The sergeant screamed. In incredible pain, he was unable to move, for whichever direction he moved caused the blade inside his hand to cut into even more flesh. He was left to stand bowed forward in a very awkward position.
The patrons at the table wore a mixture of lurid fascination at the hand pinned to their table by a knife, and the horrible drunken breath forced upon them by the sergeant’s stance.
Luvian cast an eye at the two soldiers on the floor but they were still unconscious, fallen upon each other in a heap.
Tank had picked up the other soldier’s knife. Holding it to the soldier’s throat, he waited for Luvian’s direction.
“Now. Hear me. This is my establishment and I am the proprietor. I may refuse anyone I please, but I always refuse those who have given me no reason to trust them once already, and that would be you. South Fairview does not look kindly on strangers, and South Fairview looks out for its own. Every man in here has seen your face, all four of you, and they will remember you tonight, and they will tell everyone else in South Fairview about you. We here remember the War all too well, and we have come back proud and strong. So you take yourselves out of South Fairview, and do not come back. And then you leave Fairview, and then you leave Romeny. And stay gone.
“Tank?” Luvian pointed at the door.
Tank pushed his captive soldier toward the door, trickles of blood streaming into the soldier’s collar where Tank held him by his own knife point. As soon as the soldier was outside, Tank heaved up the two unconscious soldiers and shoved them out the door into the night.
Luvian grasped the sergeant by the back of the neck and squeezed. Then he yanked the knife up out of his hand. The sergeant screeched with pain.
Luvian dragged him to the door by the neck and before he threw him into the street, he grated menacingly, “Now stay the fuck out of my bar!” Then he shoved him out and turned around.
“I’ll get the slops bucket, then, shall I?” called Tank.
He looked down at the knife in his hand, the blade bloodied. He’d never seen a hilt like this before. Enraged suddenly with the invasion of the outside world into the safe, ordinary, quiet and content life that he had constructed here, Luvian turned and tossed the blade across the brewery, where it sank forcefully into the wooden wall and quivered.
Luvian was suddenly aware that the room was hushed. He turned about and stared around him. His patrons were staring at him like lost children.
“Well, what are all you lookin’ at? Drinks on the house! To South Fairview!” The sound of tankards clanking in widespread agreement and cheers all over filled The Brew House and Tavern.