Few noticed the young woman who emerged from the woods south of the village. She moved deliberately, her head turning this way and that, taking in her surroundings. If anyone had paid attention, they would have remarked on her thinness, her oversized man’s trousers and tunic, and her matted, short, dark hair. Neither her bow nor her dagger would have rated a second glance. Weapons like those were common enough for hunters, and as she walked slowly up the cold, muddy street, that is exactly what passers-by would have taken her to be.
The young woman guessed she had found an inn. She needed one. It was getting colder and windier, and sunset wasn’t far off. The words “Harvest Hem” on the sign told her nothing of what she would find inside, but the picture of the beer mug did. Stepping inside, she saw a hearth to her right, with four or five customers sitting nearby. To her left was a bar, tended by a middle-aged man. The hearth was welcome, but the man was more important now. She strode over and said, “I might sleep here?”
“Might you vad?” the man said. The young woman mimed sleeping. “Oho,” he said. “Su-lipp! You are south person!” The young woman shuddered, then, composing herself, grinned shyly. She hadn’t anticipated the dialect change, but this was the first person she’d spoken to in some days. The man smiled. “Sulipp? Tvo schilling.”
“One schilling,” said the young woman.
“Tvo – two schillings!” said the man, remembering southern talk, but apparently losing patience.
The young woman reached into her bag and retrieved a rabbit carcass. “One schilling and – plus…rabbit!”
“Plus hare?” He inspected the carcass, which seemed fresh enough. “Deal!” he said, taking a coin and the rabbit. He pointed to his left. “Racks there! Oho!”
The young woman stifled another shudder, then asked, “Can one bathe here?” She mimed washing.
The man responded with a yell. “Sigi!” Sigi was a stout middle-aged woman who arrived with an armload of plates and an annoyed countenance, which melted when she saw the young woman. “Poor child! Poor sad child!” she cried. “Skinny! Dirty! You come, poor sad child!” She took the young woman by the hand and dragged her to the cellar.
Two hours later, the young woman found herself alone, lying on a straw mattress, cleaner and fuller than she’d been in ages. First was the huge, steaming washtub Sigi had ordered her into. Sigi emptied the contents of a small satchel into the water, which began to bubble and foam. “Magisk!” said Sigi, winking. The young woman didn’t know if it was magic or not, but it made the bath smell like lavender. Then came supper: stew with fried cornmeal mush. Sigi made sure the young woman consumed every bit.
Sigi had a fire going, and the young woman’s clothes were drying on a rack by the fireplace. The young woman was wearing an old robe, presumably Sigi’s, which was much too big for her. She was exhausted, but sleep wouldn’t come. The clomping of footsteps above her had grown more frequent, and the subdued conversations had become louder. Only when she crept upstairs behind the bar could she hear the wind howling outside, rattling the shutters. Sigi spotted her coming up. “Not sleeping? Scary storm, eh?” she said. “Cold rain! Hard rain! Isstorm!”
It really was an ice storm, and the young woman was scared. She was afraid the wind and sleet would tear the roof off. The inn was more crowded now – men and women, all ages. She sensed they were there more for mutual support than celebration. It was certainly better to wait out a storm with company than to suffer alone. Someone produced a lute and started a rousing folk tune that everyone seemed to know. As the patrons sang and clapped, two muddy farmers started to dance in the middle of the room. The storm’s rage increased, the wind making an eerie cry as it demanded admittance. The young woman searched for a cheerful face, but even with the singing and dancing, everyone looked as grim as she was terrified.
Sigi seemed to sense the young woman’s fear. “You go back down,” Sigi said. “Try sleeping. When storm go, you help me.” The young woman didn’t need to be told twice. Lonely as it was, the cellar seemed safer than upstairs. And in this weather, nobody was likely to be looking for her. She was safe for tonight, at least.