by Catherine Dilts
Art by Alicia Ballam
Captain Edmund Winter, hidden in his wool cloak, rode around the back of the tavern to the stables, and then dismounted, leading his horse by the bridle. He saw a lone stableboy huddled in an empty stall, finishing his last bite of dinner. The boy quickly rose when he saw Winter, however, and walked outside as if he didn’t notice the heavy rain. Together, they led the horse into the stall, and Winter pushed his hood off to reveal a hawklike face, black hair, and dark eyes that seemed to take in everything instantly.
He could tell from the boy’s dull gaze that he was simple, but no matter—he saw the lad was gentle but firm with the horse, an enormous black creature. Winter had known others like the boy, those who felt a greater kinship to animals than to people. Seeing the horse would be well cared for, he pressed a coin into the boy’s hand.
“Thank you, sir,” he said, tonelessly.
Winter tossed the saddlebags over his shoulder and walked around the building into the tavern. The few men inside looked up with some surprise at the new arrival. With the violent weather making even local travel uncomfortable and dangerous, only a handful of regulars sat around drinking by the fire—men who readily braved the storm, to escape from their wives and children for a few hours.
A single barmaid, a tall dark-haired girl, was wiping down the counter, and Winter headed straight for her.
“A pint, please. And one for yourself, if you like,” he said, tossing coins onto the counter.
“Thank you,” she said, and served him a tankard. He saw her curious look, and she finally spoke again. “We don’t get many this late who aren’t from around here.”
“I was going to push on to the village, but the rain gave me an excuse to stop. It’ll let up before morning.”
She laughed. “How do you know that?”
“I grew up around farmers who taught me to read the weather. Before dawn, it’ll stop and I’ll continue.”
“Well, if you change your mind, we don’t have any beds here, but you’re welcome to spend the night in a chair by the fire.” He didn’t say anything.
“Where are you from?”
“Northumberland,” he said.
“You rode all the way from there?”
“No, I live in London now. I am riding there from somewhere else.”
With that, he took his ale and pulled up a chair by the fire. The other men looked at him but said nothing, and his face wasn’t one that invited light conversation.
It wasn’t that different from a tavern back home. He remembered one night in particular: He and Robert were hauled in front of Robert’s father—the earl—to give an account of themselves. “My God, do you know the destruction you caused? Furniture smashed into kindling and half the men in the village bloodied. This has your hallmark stamped on it, Edmund.” The young men shifted uncomfortably. “My lord,” said Winter. “It had become clear that the ale had been watered down. My accusations were met with threats. I’m afraid that it escalated from there. I am sorry that my stout defense of principles I know you hold dear caused you embarrassment.” Edmund could sense Robert desperately trying not to laugh. The earl, however, was not amused. “Is this how you plan to stride through life?” He sighed. “Now get out of my sight—both of you.”
He heard the door open and quickly looked up, but it was only the barmaid throwing a scarf over her head as she left. She was gone about ten minutes and returned with the stableboy’s empty plate and tankard. Brother and sister, perhaps, the children of the tavern keeper?
The men began drifting off, saying goodnight to one another, and when the rain finally let up, before dawn, Winter was alone with the girl.
“You were right,” she said. Winter said nothing, but he smiled back, and picking up his saddlebags, he left. The stableboy was asleep, but he had done well by the horse, so Winter left him another coin. The clouds parted and a full moon lit the road to the village.
There was no human company on the road, but Winter missed nothing, such as an occasional deer or fox in the undergrowth. And when he heard the shuffle of boots breaking sticks, it took him only a second to get his hand on one of his horse pistols.
“Stop there, Northman,” said a voice. The man was against a tree on the side of the road. Winter looked around and saw another man on the left, and one just behind him. “Just drop the saddlebags and your coins, and you may go.”
“I’m on the king’s business. To stop me is high treason.”
The man laughed. Winter saw he held a musket. “That’s a good one. But it’s late and we all want to be in bed. Just drop your bags and money and you can keep that fine horse. Don’t make me ask again.”
Winter smiled humorlessly: The robber was half lit by the moon, but Winter was still shadowed. They should’ve attacked him from the other side.
The pistol and musket seemed to go off at the same time, as Winter fell off his saddle, and a few minutes later, there was silence. . . .
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Unrepentant Sinner by Catherine Dilts. Copyright © 2017 with permission of the author. All rights reserved.
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