The next day passed in much the same way. True to Bremi's word, they found the River Road and their pace picked up. Avi was thankful for a bit of civilisation. The road, while not paved with anything—even cobbles or the larger stones the Romans used—was still flat, well-defined, and the land had been cleared on both sides for some fifty yards. Avi could almost pretend that she was on the dirt track to Maisie's grandfather's farm in Selkirk.
Except for the distinct lack of cars or trucks, or even motorcycles and bicycles. All the traffic they encountered on this road were horse- or donkey-drawn wagons, people on horses, or on foot. As Avi rode, she puzzled over what this could mean. Maybe she really was still in England or Scotland, but in the past. She'd read enough time-travel manuscripts to think that perhaps it was possible. Certainly it was more possible than being in a completely different world.
Her third night in...wherever she was...was spent in a road-side tavern at the junction of the River Road and Glannyn Creek Road. The Strawberry Inn was a sprawling three-storey structure, with wattle-and-daub covering the top two floors and timber framing on the bottom. Every window on the front of the building was lit with cheerful, welcoming firelight.
“Why's it called the Strawberry?” Avi asked as they tied Bremi's horse, Lashka, to a post in the yard of the inn. She stood shoulder to shoulder with other travel-worn horses, who seemed content to do nothing more than stand at the water trough and lazily flick their tails.
Bremi began unloading his belongings from the back of the horse, slinging the saddle bags over his shoulder and tucking the bedrolls beneath his arm. Avi reached out to take the tent from him and he gave her a grateful smile. “Well,” he began as they mounted the wooden steps that led to the front porch of the inn. “In the summer, specifically during Rose Moon, the brush along the tree line in these parts are filled with tiny wild strawberries. There's a little festival here every year at that time, celebrating the strawberries, and most people stay here during it. It was called the Bold Onion when Eirenko bought it. She decided it would be better to call it the Strawberry.”
The front porch squeaked and sighed as they crossed it. Avi smiled; at least some things were the same no matter where—or when—one found oneself. Bremi opened the door and a blast of air thick with the enticing aromas of roasting meat and baking bread, a score of voices, and woodsmoke blew Avi's hair back. Bremi glanced over his shoulder at Avi, his eyes moving from the top of her head to her feet, and he smirked. “You'll do, I suppose. Can you sing a bit? Or maybe recite poetry? Do you know any stories?”
Avi stared at him dumbfounded for a moment. “What? Sing? A little, I suppose. Why?”
“You'll be singing for your supper tonight, lass,” he said with a wink and stepped over the threshold. Avi watched him for a moment, slack-jawed at his words. Then she shook her head a bit and followed him inside.
The taproom of the Strawberry Inn was large and stuffed to the rafters this night. At one end of the room was a huge hearth with a roaring fire. What looked like an entire pig carcass was slowly being turned by a small child who was sitting at the hearthside. The rest of the room was dominated by tables, benches, and chairs. Across from the door was a long, sturdy looking counter that was fronted by stools. The wall behind the bar was covered with shelves containing colourful bottles of all shapes and sizes, some filled with exotic-looking liquids, others filled with what looked to Avi to be water.
A woman who could have been a Valkyrie in Wagner's operas stood behind the counter, shouting above the din. “Bremi! Come in, come in! We're hungry for news and song!” The woman, presumably the tavern's owner Eirenko, left the bar and approached Avi and Bremi. She was a head taller than Bremi, who was quite tall himself, and broader of chest and thicker of limb than most men Avi had ever known. She hugged Bremi, picking him up bodily and squeezing him until he beat at her back, desperate for breath. She set him down on his feet and turned to Avi, sizing her up with a bold, blue gaze. “And who's this?”
“This, my dear Eirenko, is Avi. She is a Traveller, whom I stumbled across in the Evermere. We're on our way to Litsey so she can meet with Toliver.”
Eirenko's brows scaled her face and her intense scrutiny seemed to become even more focused. “A Traveller, you say?” She grunted and nodded a bit. “Well, she's welcome anyway.” A smile split the large woman's face and she clapped Bremi on the shoulder, nearly sending him to his knees with the force. “Mugs and meat?”
“If you'd be so kind,” Bremi answered. “And a room?”
“Certainly. Teo! A room for the bard and his lass!” The small child at the hearthside bolted up to his feet and ran over to them. Eirenko took Bremi's belongings, the tent, and the bedrolls and thrust them at the boy. He fumbled them a bit but finally got control and turned and sped off, going up the stairs with alacrity. “You'll be on the third floor,” Eirenko said to Bremi and Avi. “Now, sit anywhere and I'll have Ganix bring you food.”
“Thank you, mistress,” Bremi said before gently taking Avi's elbow and steering her towards a table near the hearth. He drew a chair out for her and she sat down, aware of eyes on her. Once Bremi was seated, she sat forward and asked in a low voice, “Why is everyone staring?”
“Well, you're a woman wearing men's clothing, for a start,” Bremi began, but was interrupted by the arrival of a small, dark man whose arms were loaded down with platters of meat, root vegetables and onions, a bread board with a loaf of dark brown bread and a small ramekin of butter, and tall pewter steins. He thunked these down on the table, flashed Bremi a thin-lipped smile, bobbed his head in a bow to Avi, and then turned and was swallowed up by the crowd. “That was Ganix,” Bremi explained. “Eirenko's husband and little Teo's father. A very taciturn man.”
Conversation stalled while Avi and Bremi filled their plates. Under normal circumstances, Avi would have eaten only a little bit, but after not having much in her stomach for the past three days, she allowed herself to have third portions of everything. The meat was pork and had been roasted with some sort of spicy, earthy rub, and the vegetables tasted as though they'd been boiled with beer and rosemary in some sort of broth. The bread was sweet with molasses, and Avi ate nearly the entire loaf by herself.
“How long were you wandering before I met you?” Bremi asked, handing Avi the last slice of pork on the platter.
“At least two days. I didn't eat anything, and made the mistake of drinking water from the burn. It made me sick,” she confessed around a mouthful of carrot.
“Ah,” Bremi said, nodding in understanding. “The...burn, you called it?”
“Yes, burn. Another word for a small stream.”
He nodded again. “The burn isn't sweetwater. Its source is a foul spring in the Dim. Have you thought of what you'll sing?”
Avi blinked at the sudden change of subject and then glanced around the room. Everyone was still staring. She glanced down at herself and smiled ruefully. She supposed she did look a little strange, dressed as she was. But there was something hungrier in the people's faces, and it dawned on Avi that there were no televisions in this place. No newspapers, or internet, or radio. They would rely entirely upon travelling bards for their entertainment and their news. Avi gulped, suddenly feeling light-headed at the thought of performing in front of all these people.
“Well?” Bremi asked. He was smiling pleasantly at her, his sea-green eyes on her face. She nodded slowly.
“Yes,” she answered hesitantly. “A story, I think. One my mother told me when I was little.” Bremi nodded and reached beneath the table where he'd stored his lute during the meal. He withdrew it and stood, headed for the floor in front of the fire. “Oh, God,” Avi muttered beneath her breath, and racking her brain for a song, followed Bremi and stood behind him.
“Good evening!” he called out and was answered by everyone in the tap room. “My name, for those of you who have never seen me before, is Bremi. And this,” he reached behind himself and grabbed Avi's shoulders, pushing her forward. “This is Avi.”
“Hullo, Avi!” the crowd roared back. Avi curtseyed with a nervous smile and was rewarded with a smattering of laughter. She could feel her cheeks pink but strangely enough, the laughter seemed to settle her nerves.
“Hello,” she replied, and glanced over at Bremi. He smiled reassuringly and then turned back to the crowd. She melted back to the stool next to the hearth and promptly sat down.
“Does anyone have family in Orumbury?” he asked, his eyes darting around the crowd. One or two hands rose in the back of the room and Bremi's face fell. He took off his hat and bowed deeply. “My sincerest condolences for your loss.”
A buzz of confused conversation swept the room and Bremi waited in silence until he had the crowd's attention again. “For those of you who have not heard, Orumbury was levelled some three spans back. All the structures were burned to the ground, the livestock slaughtered, and the well poisoned.” He paused and cleared his throat. “There were no survivors.”
Gasps and wordless cries sprang from the assemblage and Avi's heart skipped a beat. She didn't know how large Orumbury was, but even if it was only a tiny village of some three hundred souls, that was still a staggering loss of life. She could feel tears pricking at her eyes and sent up a silent prayer, hoping that those who had perished hadn't suffered much.
“No one knows who did this or how,” Bremi continued once the crowd had settled, “but there have been rumours of living shadows in Turtle Woods. Seems as though it would be a good idea to avoid the area until the King can send in the Aeskrow Guard.” Bremi's words were met with nodding heads and words of agreement. “Anyone have news to share?”
A tall, barrel-chested man with a shock of coppery-red hair and ruddy skin stood and took off his own cap, clenching it in huge, square-fingered hands. “My wife's father says the Clinkingbeards is raisin' their forgin' prices. Them Vergers say war's a-coming and they gotta protect themselves. They also say they're closin' down Struht's mines to outsiders.”
Conversation buzzed about this and Avi frowned in confusion. She'd have to make a point to ask Bremi later who or what the Clinkingbeards and Vergers were. More people stood and delivered news, rumours, and gossip—failing crops, unseasonably cold temperatures, sick livestock, marriages, deaths, births. Bremi handled the crowd masterfully, letting side conversations run themselves out, allowing people ample time to react to things, and balancing solemnity and humour. Avi was quite impressed.
Soon all the news and gossip ran out and it was time for the singing and story-telling to begin. Avi and Bremi exchanged looks and she shrugged. “It's your stage,” she said.
“Indeed it is.” Bremi nodded and slipped his lute over his shoulders, setting it and testing its strings. Then he strummed a few simple chords before launching into a raunchy tavern song about a milkmaid, a tinker, and a piglet. Avi found herself laughing and singing the chorus along with the crowd when Bremi came to it.
The travelling bard sang another bawdy song and then shifted into the same song he'd sung for Avi on their first night together. Much to her amusement, she saw the young and single ladies looking at Bremi with dewy-eyed expressions, their hands clasping in adoration, their shoulders hitching in great, longing sighs. She chuckled softly and shook her head. Bremi didn't seem the sort to have a string of one-night stands in all the villages and towns with taverns; he was too smart for that. It would seriously cut into the number of places he could stay and earn his coin.
After one more love song, he took a deep drink from his stein and glanced over at Avi, brows raised in question. “My turn?” she asked.
“Your turn, for certain. I'm parched, lass.”
She nodded and slid off Teo's stool to stand next to him. “I have a story,” she said, her eyes sweeping the crowd. She took a deep breath and began.
“Once upon a time, there was prince who desperately wanted to marry. His mother eventually agreed, but said whomever he married would have to be a real princess. No fakes allowed.” There was a gentle chuckle from the crowd and Avi continued, emboldened by the response.
“So, the prince travelled the world over, looking for his future wife. He met many beautiful, smart girls, but found it difficult to tell whether he'd met a real princess. There was always something not quite right. He eventually stopped looking and went home, sad and afraid he'd never meet the right girl.
“One evening, there was a horrible storm. The thunder and lightning crashed down and the rain turned the roads to mud. It was a miserable night, not fit for man nor beast. The royal family was having dinner when there was a knocking at the castle door. The footman went to answer it, and ushered inside the royal dining room a wet and bedraggled young girl.
“When questioned, she said she was a princess from a far-off land, and had been stranded in the forest surrounding the castle. The queen and king agreed to allow the girl to stay until the next morning when they saw that their son the prince was completely enamoured of the girl. The queen didn't quite believe that the princess was a true princess and came up with a test to see if the girl was telling the truth.
“As the chambermaids were making up the girl's bed, the queen slipped a dried pea beneath the bedding, then instructed that twenty mattresses and twenty eider-down feather beds be placed atop it. The royal family and the girl said their good-nights and went to bed.
“The next morning, as they broke their fast, the queen asked the girl how she slept. 'Oh, I had the worst night's sleep!' the girl exclaimed. 'Goodness only knows what I was sleeping on, but it was so hard and painful. It's left my body black and blue!'
“And with that, the queen knew the girl was a real princess, because who else could be as sensitive as that. The prince took her as his wife, and they lived happily ever after. The pea has been put in a museum, and is there to this day.”
The crowd applauded heartily and Avi curtseyed for them with a huge smile on her face. She glanced over at Bremi and saw that he was beaming proudly at her. After her story, Bremi sang a few more songs and told some stories of his own. Then some of the crowd got up to sing or tell stories, giving Avi and Bremi a chance to rest their voices.
By the time the crowd had thinned significantly, and even the entertainment couldn't keep Avi's eyes open, Eirenko shooed everyone out, and Bremi and Avi scaled the steps to the top floor and their room. It was a small chamber, filled with a single bedstead, a chair, and a three-drawer dresser. The small hearth had a fire in it and the heat in the room was oppressive. There was, happily, a window above the bed and Avi opened it immediately, letting most of the hot air that had built up from the other rooms during the day to escape.
“You may have the bedstead,” Bremi said, unrolling the bedrolls and blankets. “You did very well tonight. Are you certain you're not a bard?”
Yawning hugely, Avi shook her head and slipped out of her borrowed boots. She sat down on the edge of the creaking bedstead and ran her fingers through her hair, pulling out tangles and bits of leaves and twigs. “No, but I do read stories for a living.”
Bremi laid down on his back, covered with the blankets and stared up at the ceiling. “Yes. I remember. How is that you read stories as a living?”
Avi laid down, too, mirroring Bremi's pose. The ceiling was low and the wooden beams were scorch-marked, as if there had been a fire at some point in this room. “I work for a publishing company. I read books and decide if the company is going to buy them from the author so they can be published.”
“A whole company that does nothing but publish books. That is remarkable. How many stories do you read in a span's time? One? Two?”
Avi chuckled softly. “I read four or five a day.”
“Truly? That is... That is astounding!”
Avi made a little noise of agreement. It must seem astonishing to someone who had never heard of the printing press, to whom books were as rare and as precious as gold. They fell silent then, each occupied by their own thoughts.
“What is a Clinkingbeard?” Avi asked some time later. She'd been staring out the window, up at the cloudless sky. None of the constellations were familiar to her, but then if she was in New Zealand, the stars would be totally different. And even if she was in the past, the stars moved and the skies above medieval Britain wouldn't necessarily be the same as modern Britain, would they?
“You heard the Eslosian tell of the mountains, then” Bremi said, his voice thick with sleep. “The Clinkingbeards are the noble family of the Verger. The Verger are small, hearty people who live beneath the Vilkyrs Mountains. They are miners and astounding blacksmiths. The people of Eslos have a close relationship with them.”
“Why are they called Clinkingbeards?”
Avi heard Bremi yawn and she felt guilty about keeping him awake. “They braid bits of decorative metal into their long beards,” he said. “Go to sleep. We have a long day's journey in the morning. And you'll have to play the story-teller once more tomorrow night.”
He had been describing dwarfs, like right out of a Tolkien story. She shook her head in disbelief. “All right,” she said. “Good-night then.”
“Sleep well, Avi.”