Note: Sometimes, when I am writing a scene, I experiment and write it out in first person. Later, when I add the scene/chapter to the current novel in progress, I rewrite the pov into 3rd person. I write close and personal. The reader wears the character's skin. I offer no explanations for the following scene, the before or the after story. Take it for what it is... a work in progress... an idea searching for fuition.
“What is the winter for? To remember love.” — Theodore Roethke
I had not set foot within the Blue Swan since the night of the Winter Ball scandal. Not because I didn’t want to, or could not bear thinking about the darkest night of my soul ― but from shame.
I had treated Tisane unfairly, although she had enjoyed jiggling her hips on my lap, and later in her room upstairs. In all fairness, I had used Tisane ― not that she minded being used, but I thought I should make amends, and apologies would not suffice for a creature such as Tisane.
The noise level dropped a few notches when I walked into the tavern. Men turned in their seats, stared, at least those men capable of lifting their heads from their ale tankards and peering at each newcomer who strode through the entrance. Even those seated at the bar swiveled on their seats. A man poked his comrade and nodded ― Have a look. It’s him.
Significant stares followed me through the smoky din, from curiosity mostly. I would make no apologies. Respect was earned; my countrymen did not give away free respect.
“Well, well, look here who decided to rejoin the living. Dragged yourself outta the pit, did ya, Fayerfield?”
I nodded at the man and walked on past him. I was looking for Tisane, not trouble. I’d had my share of trouble that winter and was in no mood for more.
I saw a table tucked in a dark corner near the hearth and headed toward it. I knew I should have avoided the Blue Swan and that chimney corner, but I keeled toward the table and empty chair without thought or care.
Several men hurling darts at a scarred dartboard cast a quick glance over their shoulders between dart tosses. I heard laughter rumble and crude remarks, but paid them no heed. I pulled out the chair and sat down, my back to the wall. No one bothered to intrude into the chimney corner I had claimed.
Through the tavern racket ― a typical night for the Blue Swan ― I heard the twang of gut strings and the accompanying rasp of a musician’s rusty voice. The boy sang no better that night than on another night, slightly out of tune voice and lute strings, yet I found his voice oddly compelling. I glanced at the musician and received a nod, a flash of teeth. The lad cocked his head and twisted a tuning key, more interested in the pitch of the gut string than a stranger’s casual interest.
My gaze lingered, as curious as any patron that night, perhaps more so, if only to take my attention away from the curious stares and whispers. The musician wore oversized clothes more than a couple of years out of fashion and faded from the vibrant colors that had once dyed the threads of tunic and trousers, but despite the bagginess of the boy’s clothing, I could distinguish fragile bone structure and delicacy of face ― a face that had yet to feel the stroke of a razor’s edge. Young, I thought, too young to earn a living playing taverns and back alley establishments, but I had learned hard lessons that winter. A musician, even a boy, could earn a decent livelihood playing more than out of tune lute strings and rasping half forgotten folk ballads. A man could buy anything for his coin, depending on the willingness of the one selling. I wondered what the young musician sold, besides a song for a penny?
My attention drifted toward the barmaid I spotted edging toward my table. She was one of Tisane’s friends ― another blue swan working the tavern for more than tips and wages.
“If you’re lookin’ for Tisane, she’s not here,” the girl said. She set a full ale tankard upon the table before me.
“Where is she?”
“Working.” The girl glanced toward the rafters that spanned the common room’s smoky ceiling. “She’s entertaining.”
The barmaid’s dark gaze scoured me, and thinking she wanted coin for the tankard of ale, I fished an eagle piece from my pocket and tossed the coin upon the ale stained table. She scooped up the coin and tucked the silver piece into her skirt pocket, but not before she leaned close and murmured, “Ya broke Tisane’s heart, ya know. You and that San Bargellian bastard.”
I was inclined to disagree that I or any other man was capable of breaking Tisane’s heart, but the barmaid sniffed, turned away in a swirl of scarlet petticoats, and sauntered off toward the group of men clustered around the dartboards. I caught the flash of dark eyes glancing my way when she leaned toward one of the dart throwers, whispered something to the man. He laughed and pulled the girl into his arms for a hearty smooch on her lips.
I looked away, caught the roving gaze of the musician who launched into a melodic rendition of Barmaid’s Lament ― she stole men’s hearts, she took their coins, and drained their tankards dry-o. A grin tugged the corners of my mouth. I laughed, shook my head and pushed the ale tankard away. I had lost my taste for Blue Swan ale. One sip was all I needed to feel every savage craving that had sent me reeling into that bottomless pit of need. I knew I should not have entered the Blue Swan, but I could not avoid my life or confronting my demons.
I stared at the untouched tankard. I wanted a drink more than I wanted anything ― anything decent. Decent men stayed at home and tended their children; decent men did not haunt midnight taverns nor make amends to blue swans for perceived wrongs. Who said I was a decent man? Blue swans possessed more scruples and decency than I did.
I picked up the tankard and drained its liquid contents in long, thirsty swallows. The potent brew rushed straight to my head and burned all the way down my gullet into a pool of simmering fire that spread through the pit of my belly. I wanted more. Oh, I wanted. I wanted Reece Rau’s bane of bliss. I wanted the aching hunger I had tasted and devoured like a starving creature clawing its way from the imprisonment of its skin.
I heard a feminine, husky laugh and, looking up, I watched the barmaid set another ale tankard upon the table before me. I smiled into dark, knowing eyes and then my gaze slid beyond the girl, into the watchful squint of the dart thrower’s eyes and the red fletched dart he pinched in his thick fingers. I tread dangerous territory, but I pushed forward, relentless in my disregard of another man’s prior claim.
I tossed the contents of the second tankard down my throat, swallowed each mouthful. Heat spread from my belly into my limbs ― a tingling that scoured the hunger from my blood. The hunger was always there, lurking beneath the surface, whispering, waiting. I would spend the rest of my life fighting that particular need and, in the end, would always wonder at my success. Victory was temporal, but a man could fill the hunger with other needs ― like ale ― or the wicked promise gleaming in a woman’s eyes or curling at the corners of a lush mouth.
I almost groaned aloud imagining the curl of the barmaid’s lips ― the scorch of her tongue. I ached for more than the narcotic bliss I craved and needed. I had only deceived myself, again. Amends or apologies had not brought me to the Blue Swan that night, but Tisane ― then I realized ― any woman would suffice, including a night hag like Maybelle Flower. Whatever held the power to vanquish Reece Rau’s forbidden touch and the nagging doubt that I craved Rau’s lust as much as I hungered for the opiates that he had plied to rouse me.
No! I refused to follow the dark despair of that path. I stared at the dart thrower, locked my gaze into the blackness of his eyes, and feeling a lick of heat pulse through my groin, I flecked my tongue across my lower lip. I tasted ale, and smoke.
“Why are ya lookin’ at me like that, Fayerfield!” The man lumbered toward my table, all brawn and swagger and I wondered if he was related to Duncan of Whitehorse. The barmaid backed up a step, smiled, dark eyes shuttered. Did she think the impending confrontation was between two men quarreling over a woman, over her?
“Damn you Rau,” I muttered.
“What did ya say, man?”
“Nothing. I was not speaking to you,” I said to the man who now stood at my table and intruded into my privacy. I had not asked for a quarrel, but neither was I in the mood to back down either, no matter how much bigger the man was than me, or stronger.
I leaned back in my chair, aware of the lull in the surrounding din, the lilting warble of the musician launching into another lively tune. Oh, a lover’s quarrel spilled his blood and she wept for her lover slain-ain. From what hidden trunk did the musician find his ballads or did he improvise?
“Well, now Fayerfield, I can't figure if it’s Meggie here ya want to bed ― or myself,” the man drawled. A grunt of laughter drew a chorus of uneasy chuckles from his dart game partners.
“Can’t you?” I quipped. I did not care for the barb of the man’s words, but rather than feel the sting, I resorted to humor. The dart tosser did not possess a sense of humor.
“No, I can’t.”
“No?” Cocking my eyebrow, I raked my gaze down the man ― the degrading stare a man gives a woman when he has only one thing on his mind. I smiled and tossed a second eagle piece upon the table. The coin spun, flashed silver in the lantern light. Astonishment flared in the man’s eyes ― right before his fist hurtled toward my face and all hell broke loose.
The lucky punch the dart thrower landed slammed me into the wall. I shook my head and staggered to my feet. Wood splintered; I looked up. The musician held his lute by its broken neck and the coil of loose strings. Surprise riddled the boy’s face, but he wasn't as surprised as the dart thrower sprawled on his knees and the melon shaped body of the lute busted over his head.
“I’m gonna wring your scrawny neck, boy!”
The brawl erupted like a summer wild fire devouring parched grass and spilled from the tavern into the stable yard. The crowd surged outside and I followed. I parried fists, ducked punches, jumped and avoided swaggering bodies. Throughout the rioting dance, I watched the musician. The boy clutched a wooden staff, grabbed as he had run from the tavern, and was using the long pole with an amazing skill ― unlike any thing I had ever seen before, although I did recall Chaeran using such a long, stout pole to propel his body over stacked bales of hay one summer. The musician did more than use the staff to swing at the heads, arms and legs of those who lunged toward him. In a furious dance, he jabbed, poked, bashed, swung, struck, and swept― an expert in the fighting arts or at least the use of a wooden staff to defend himself.
When a group of louts decided enough was enough and ganged up to take the musician’s stick away from him, I darted through the throng and ducked the swing of a staff whistling past my head when the boy launched it through the air. Grabbing the boy’s arm, I tugged him away from the melee.
We dashed through the deserted village streets, and running for our lives, we left the noise of fists smacking flesh, cracking bones, grunted curses, and shouts behind. We ran until a stitch of pain stabbed my side and I collapsed into a grassy patch beside the road. The boy laughed and plunged down beside me gasping for air.
“You didn’t have to do that.” I sucked air into my lungs and wondered if I’d ever be able to breathe again.
“Break your lute over the man’s head.”
He shrugged. “The instrument was worthless and couldn’t hold a decent tune.”
In the darkness, I caught the gleam of the boy’s smile. “You saved my life back there,” I said.
“I’d done the same for any fool.”
“Yeah, I deserve that.” I planted my elbows into the grassy earth and leaned back. Above, glittering constellations marked the night sky and the wheel of the hours.
“You started it. You didn’t have to―” The boy paused.
“Toss down the coin―”
“Like I was buying the man for the night?” I glanced at the boy who had stretched out on his back a few feet away, his arms at his sides. He turned his head toward me. I caught the glint of an eye exposed from the shadows that obscured his features.
“Call it self-defense,” I replied.
“I call it asking for trouble.”
I laughed. “Yeah, well. I should have known better. You are right. I am a fool.”
“Most men are,” the boy said.
His statement intrigued me ― spoken more from a female’s point of view I thought than from the mouth of an inexperienced boy, but then I doubted most boys who played taverns for their supper inexperienced.
“I gotta go. It’s been fun.” The boy stood, shook out the folds of his tunic, dusted grass from his trousers.
“Are you all right?” I don’t know why I asked, or cared.
“Yeah, sure. And you?”
“Couldn’t be better.”