The Innkeeper and the Pilgrim
“For God he came, through Hell he journeyed, and to God he has now most surely gone,” the innkeeper told his visitor. His eyes, flickering in the dim torchlight, dared further enquiry. “That is all I know of the good man; he weren’t much of a talker.”
“Mr. Taeppere, we have it on good authority that that man disclosed information of great importance to the landlord of this inn,” the visitor said, leaning closer. “Information that is desired by the king.”
“I don’t know a damned thing,” the innkeeper replied, not changing his expression a fraction, “and the only information the king should be wanting now is the fastest route to heaven, God rest his soul.”
“Sir,” the visitor said as he shifted himself back into his chair again, “let me get a few facts straight with you, before we continue any further. Harold Godwinson was never truly the king: the king is William.” He eyed the innkeeper, expecting some form of interruption. He was met with the same steady gaze with which he had been met the entire evening, so he continued: “The king is in a great hurry to get a certain piece of information. And, before I leave this wretched building tonight, you will have given this to me, his trusted servant.” He let a small smile spread across his face. “One way or another.” At this he let his right hand fall to his left hip, where there just so happened to be the hilt of a sword protruding from its scabbard, glittering very slightly in the soft glow of the torches.
“I’ll tell you all I know about the poor soul,” the innkeeper said, still keeping his face frozen, “and if that just don’t satisfy you, then there’s not a whole lot more I can do about that now, is there?”
“No,” the visitor smiled, “I suppose not.” His hand never left his sword.
It was a fairly calm September evening on Thor’s day, one thousand and sixty-six years since the birth of Christ, and Durwin Taeppere was preparing to pack up for the night and go to bed. It had been an unusually quiet evening; normally the bar would be full of patrons at this time of day, but the rooms of the inn were mostly empty and only one gent, possessing a questionable degree of consciousness, was present, slumped in a corner with an empty beer mug clasped in his hand.
The Boar’s Head was a family business stretching back more generations than anyone could count, situated about a half-day’s walk from Dover, along Watling Street. Being a major road, many a traveller passed by the Boar’s head, travelling between the coast and the cities of Canterbury and London. Many, however, came from, or were headed, further, up north to the borders with the Norsemen, or further west to the kingdoms of Ireland and the great sea, where Durwin had heard that you could gaze out and see where the dome of the sky met the sea at the edge of the world.
Many a tale Durwin had heard over a jug of ale and the Boar’s Head, over time, had become known among the locals not only for the huge variety of ales it could afford to import from all over Kent, but also the tales and news that the Taepperes could tell of far off kingdoms and distant lands. Visitors from any further than Rome were rare occurrences indeed (Durwin had seen two, maybe three, in his thirty seven years), so most of his information of these semi-mythical lands weren’t from people who lived there, but from those who had visited them on their travels or had merely heard tales of such places themselves. These stories were still of great interest to his patrons, however, and so, on many a dark winter’s evening or lazy summer’s afternoon, they would hear of snow or sand that stretched out like the fair meadows of England, of great empires and vicious wars, of bloodthirsty tyrants and noble kings, of terrible massacres and joyous celebrations, of barbarians in dingy huts deep in the darkest woods and of palaces built by mighty emperors, laden with jewels and so tall as to scrape the bowels of the heavens. Such tales were, to many a customer, of far greater value than even the finest of ales.
However, since the old king Edward had died, all talk had been concerned by one thing and one thing only: invasion. The Norsemen were making quite a bit of trouble, and the Normans getting increasingly dangerous. Harold Godwinson had his army up north, so if old William chose this moment to strike, it would be the residents of Kent who paid the price, with the Boar’s Head right in the path to London. Travel to the region had, therefore, stopped, and the hostility of the France limited travel out of Dover, so custom had simply dried up. Durwin had not been a fool with his money, so had enough savings and land to feed his family for a while yet, but the rapidly stemming inflow of silver had caused a few restless nights.
The sound of hoof beats rattling the cobbles outside woke Durwin from his quiet thoughts, forcing him to get out of his seat and provide service. He stood in this rehearsed position even as the owner of the horse sprinted towards the desk, stumbling over his unwieldy cloak as he did so.
“I need a room,” the man said, “quickly.” He was certainly a foreigner, the tone of his voice confirmed that, but Durwin found himself unable to identify where from.
“Now where would you like that room to be? Stuck to the earth or up some stairs? Pretty much anywhere’s free these days. Barely a wink of business in months, thanks to the old Confessor biting the...”
“Quickly,” the man interrupted, panic written on every inch of his face. “Please.”
“Whatever you say,” Durwin replied, a little offended, “and a place for your horse as well, I assume?” The customer frowned, then nodded. “Perry!” The innkeeper called over his shoulder, “get the horse out front to the stables, and then get this gentleman in here to his room.”
“Which one?” said a young, approaching voice.
“Take your pick.” A boy of about eight walked from a door behind the bar to the doorway leading out of the inn. After he had gone, Durwin decided to ignore any oddities his customer might have, and get back to business. It was a policy which had served him well over the years. “Can I get you anything to drink? Finest ales in the land, we have here, or even some cider from down in ...”
“No thank you,” the man once again interrupted. Durwin was beginning to mildly dislike him.
“So then, what brings you over these parts in times like these?” Durwin asked, stubbornly refusing to be perturbed by the man’s rudeness, “not many a traveller comes this way of late.”
“The church,” he replied, after a brief silence, “I am bound for Canterbury, to see the cathedral, and the abbey of St. Augustine.”
Durwin frowned at this. “Not many a pilgrim comes from overseas to see Canterbury. Through it, yes, so I’ve heard, but only on their way to Rome, You know, passing through, may as well stop off and have a peek. Besides,” he said while softly chuckling, “there isn’t much of the old cathedral left after what the Danes came and done to it.” The man did not make any attempt to reply. At this Durwin decided to give up, and went to sit back down.
More hoof beats rattled down the road, making Durwin, this time more reluctantly, stand back up. The pilgrim, however, had transformed from panic to absolute terror. “I need a room. Now.”
“Hold your horses, young Perry will be back in just a moment,” Durwin replied. The hoof beats began to slow down.
“No. I need it now!” The pilgrim demanded, finally letting his fear get the better of him.
“Aye, whatever will make the customer happy, as me old father would have said.” Durwin tried to act as if nothing seemed to be even slightly amiss. “Go through the doorway to your left, take the first right, and your room is right there on your left.” The hoof beats had now slowed to a halt: four horses, Durwin thought.
“Thank you,” the pilgrim said, before hurrying off in the advised direction. No sooner had his footsteps faded to silence when the front doors burst open, and in strode four – Durwin smiled to himself – tall men, who walked rather quickly towards the bar. Everyone was in a hurry today, it seemed.
“Did a man just walk in here?” one demanded, glaring at Durwin.
“Crying your pardon, good sir,” Durwin replied, looking genuinely sorry, “but may I ask one small thing first?”
The man who spoke glanced at his companions, before returning his gaze to Durwin.”Go on,” he said, “But be quick.”
“Well, you see good sir,” Durwin began, “we’re a bit slow on the news ‘round these parts, so I was just wondering, is all, whether William of Normandy has crossed the channel and seized the crown just yet?”
The one who had spoken looked to his fellows once again, before replying: “No, not to my knowledge. Godwinson is still the king.”
“Aye, aye, my mistake,” Durwin admitted, “only got me thinking, seeing you four strutting through the door so proud o’ yourselves. Just didn’t think four Norman knights would behave in such a manner if old Harold were still king, is all.” They looked rather confused at this, but Durwin had seen their faces the moment he’d made his assumption, hovering there for a fraction of a second: panic.
“We are not Norman knights,” the speaker said slowly, “merely four Kentish folk, looking for a lost friend.”
“Oh I do apologize for my mistake,” the innkeeper responded, again appearing apologetic, “just I made assumptions, what with your blond hair and blue eyes. Not to mention swords strapped around your waists, and even mail glinting under your coats. Even wondered at how poorly disguised you were, but, if Kentish folk be what you say, then Kentish folk be what you are. After all, ‘tis a well known fact that Normans cannot lie – ‘tis why William’s fairy tale about being promised England isn’t dismissed as preposterous nonsense, is it not?”
“Errm... yes, I suppose, but...” The talker once again attempted, but was once again cut short.
“Of course, if you had been Norman knights, barging their way into the middle of Kent,” Durwin said, his smile still growing, “I guess you would encounter a few problems. Such as, for instance, if you were to encounter a local innkeeper, with a signal fire attached to the roof of his inn and a bell to signal the lighting of the flame. A protection installed after the raids by the Norsemen.” At this he reached below the table, his hand returning with a small, rusted bronze bell.
“Are you threatening us, barkeep?” The talker asked, and Durwin noted how his hand moved to a lump in his coat, lying just by his left hip.
“Nay, of course not,” Durwin replied. “I would have no need to threaten four simple Kentish folk looking for a lost friend.”
“However,” the innkeeper cut in, “I would have every need to threaten a group of foreign noblemen, arrogant enough to think they could march straight in to enemy land with only a coat thrown over their chainmail for disguise, commit vile murder in a local inn, and then walk straight back home without a lick of trouble. To those men I would say get out. Get out of my inn right now, or kill me where I stand, for a won’t take a moment more of your nonsense.” The smile was still there, but Durwin’s eyes, always without humour, were now staring the four men down, daring them to make a move; to draw a sword, and invoke the wrath of his locals.”
The talker signalled their exit, and they left, reluctantly, back the way they’d come. One of the three who had remained quiet now turned, stared at Durwin, and said: “I will find you barkeep. You shall pay for your insolence,” before leaving with the rest.
After the retreating hoof beats faded to nothing Durwin turned, smiling in truth now, to the man slumped in the corner. “Normans,” he said, not expecting or receiving any reply, “they’ll believe anything.” And with that, he sat back down, and shut his eyes.
Durwin did not, as a rule, press matters further than a client wished for them to go, no matter how strong his curiosity had grown: for the most part, drink tended to do that job for him, even if the reliability of any information thus gained was harmed in the process. However, the morning of the third day since the knights had swept into the inn, and after his usual hearty breakfast (prepared by Mrs. Taeppere, like all meals in the Boar’s Head), he decided that he had a right for some sort of explanation. The reservation of the “pilgrim” was annoying Durwin, especially as it was quite obvious that he had done the man a great service, for reasons unclear even to himself. And now, Durwin told himself, it was time to get a few things cleared up.
He was just about to walk into the pilgrim’s room and demand answers when the pilgrim walked through the doors at the side of the entrance room, approaching the desk.
“My stay is done,” he said in that same undeniably foreign tone, although it was now devoid of the barely constrained panic that had previously saturated it. “What do I owe you?”
“A couple of pennies would be just fine, good sir,” Durwin answered, but before the man could even reach into his bag, the innkeeper continued: “And a brief explanation, as well, if you please.”
The man looked up at Durwin, frowning. “Explanation?”
“Yes, an explanation. An explanation about why I needed to divert a group of armed knights from your scent, and why they looked like they wanted a bit more than an explanation themselves.”
“The story is long.”
“I have time.”
“But I do not,” the man replied, “now may I go?”
“Look, sir,” Durwin said, an edge of sternness encroaching on his voice, “I have every reason to believe that I saved you from an early grave a few days ago, so I do, and so it would, I reckon, be only courteous to provide some sort of reasoning as to why I risked my own life in doing so.” For a long time the man just stared at him, as if deep in thought. Finally, he spoke: “Do you support King Harold Godwinson, and reject William of Normandy as the rightful king of England?” He said it fast and flat, as if learnt and rehearsed. Even though there was no-one else in the room, his voice was barely a whisper.
“Aye, of course I do,” Durwin replied, “as any true man of England would.”
“Do you advocate death and glory, or peace and prosperity?” The man said it in the same manner.
“Peace,” Durwin replied, confused, “always peace. Never been too fond of old glory, I haven’t, never done a lick of good for nobody. But I don’t see what on God’s Earth this has to do with...”
“You are in a field,” the man interrupted. “The sky is gold, the grass is red. A house, abandoned, lies alone. You are at the door. Do you open?”
“Now, for the love of Jesus,” Durwin exclaimed, “what in the name of all that is holy are you rattling on about, you mad fool?”
“Do you open?” The man repeated, slightly louder, but still safely below the volume of regular conversation.
“Look you...” Durwin began, but stopped, thought, and answered the question: “Yes. I open the damned door.”
“Good,” the man replied, finally speaking at a regular volume, “that is very good. I believe destiny has brought us together barkeep, and I will take advantage of that if I can. I do not know your role, but I think that you shall have one to play.”
“Speak some sense man!” Durwin exclaimed. “Destiny is the excuse of fools and madmen; there’s nothing on this earth but the actions of man and the will of God!”
“I speak more sense then you shall ever know. Now hear me, and hear me well. What I am about to say is the most important thing that you shall ever hear.” He leaned forwards, and whispered a few words into Durwin’s ear, so quiet that it was barely audible. Durwin complained no longer, though pure confusion and bewilderment were spiralling through his brain. Just as the man was stepping back through the door into the chilled morning air Durwin called out to him: “Who are yer? Really?”
“I am who I said I was,” he replied, “nothing but a humble pilgrim.” And with that, he left.
© Copyright 2016 Aqualung. All rights reserved.
Short Story / Fantasy
Book / Historical Fiction
Short Story / Humor
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