Skellech shouldered the door open and then quickly closed it against the wind. The warmth inside enveloped him, and the tension from the long trek up from the mill began to ease immediately.
“It be real stormy out there, Skell,” said Ania as she passed by balancing three platters of food.
“Aye,” he replied. “Fierce stormy it is.”
He stomped his feet and removed his coat, heavy with rain, and hung it from a peg.
The food smelled great.
“What’s fer dinner?” he asked.
“Mutton, taters an’ ale,” Ania replied over her shoulder before turning back to the customers she was serving.
Skellech rubbed his hands together, breathing warmth into them as he glanced around the room.
Teriel and Gronner were seated together, as usual. Munder sat hunched over his platter growling at anyone who came too close and that clown, Finiorn, was seated with a half a dozen youths from Senlow Town. The storm must have caught them before they could make their way back home.
Skellech’s face lit up when he spotted Pieten warming himself by the fire. He headed towards his friend but checked himself in time and immediately veered away when he realised that he would have walked right past that insufferable fool, Gretrol.
Skellech was no coward, or at least he kept telling himself so, but the last thing he wanted after twelve hard hours at the mill was to deal with that troublemaker. He steered a roundabout path, noticing out of the corner of his eye that Gretrol also seemed in no mood for a confrontation.
Just as well, he thought.
“Skell!” Pieten said as he dropped onto the bench alongside his friend. “Why so late? Did the millstone crack?”
He grunted in response.
“No such luck. Emier had a big order today, is all. Couldn’t get out any sooner, and then the storm…”
“Aye, not what we expect at this time of year, is it? Brought in a lot of riffraff with it.”
He finished with a snort, for emphasis.
“Ye mean them Senlow lads?”
“And then some…” he said just as Ania dropped a tankard in front of Skellech.
“So, are ye eating tonight, Skell?”
He placed his order and when she left he turned back to his friend.
“What ye mean?”
“Look back there, in the corner. Jest don’t be too obvious ’bout it,” he made a small gesture with his head.
Skellech picked up his tankard.
“To an easier life!” he said and as the two tankards clanked together he darted a look behind him.
He needn’t have bothered with stealth, for the man who sat there was wearing a wide brimmed hat and hunched as he was over the bench, would not have noticed if a bull had entered the inn. He seemed to be sleeping.
“Who is he?”
“Don’t stare like that, ye looking for more trouble?
“He’s asleep! So, who is he?”
Pieten pulled a face.
“No one knows. Came out of the forest earlier today. Emier’s wife saw him.”
“Out of the forest?” Skellech asked with a troubled frown.
“Aye! And what’s more, he came alone and on foot.”
Skellech stared at the newcomer again.
Pieten looked annoyed.
“Are ye jus’ going to sit there an’ repeat everything I say?”
Skeggech ignored the jibe.
“Is he addled?”
“How should I know? Maybe.”
“Has anyone spoken to him?”
“No one save Ania, when he ordered food.”
“I’m surprised he had the coin … looks like a bit of a vagabond to me.”
“Ye’d look much the same if ye jus’ crossed the forest! Sure, he’s been sleeping rough and probably stinks like a sty, but if ye look close ye’ll see. Good clothes and sturdy boots. He ain’t no vagabond, more like a fugitive’s what I thinks.”
When Skellech finished his pint, he signalled for Ania to bring him a fresh one.
As she delivered it, he took a hold of her wrist to prevent her from moving away.
“Did that stranger over there say anything when he spoke to ye?”
Ania raised her eyes from the hand around her wrist.
“Nothing,” she whispered. “And I wouldn’t be telling ye if he had. He’s just an ol’ man. He’s paid’s all that matters, and he’s entitled to be left alone.”
“I don’t want to pester him,” Skellech protested. “Jus’ curious, is all. Did he say where he’s from? Where he’s going? I’ve heard he walked out of the forest.”
It was clear that Ania already knew this. Nevertheless, after a quick glance around she moved closer to Skellech and spoke in a soft voice.
“What surprised me was that he coughed up for three days board.”
She straightened and shrugged.
“An’ that’s all I can tell ye.”