Inn worker, aka, tavern wench life had its fair share of harassment from the gentry that I had long been expecting. But the first real signs of it didn’t stick themselves out until a few days after mine and Gus’s sobby make up.
Namely, it came as a hand on my rear.
I swung about reflexively and swung my open palm as hard as I could at the face it was attached to. I got a bit of slobber on my hand from the foul aim. The toothy, greasy grin the man gave me made me think I’d hurt my hand a lot more than I’d hurt him. It was hard to tell if I’d left a mark since his face was already red from alcohol.
“What a cute little squeak you make,” he squawled like an excited pig.
I really, really wanted to grab the nearest mug and dump its contents over his head. Just as I was debating on whether the consequences were worth it, or even necessary (couldn’t let myself grow a reputation of being easy), our grizzly, hairy suppertime regular came over and set one of his large, soot lined hands on his shoulder.
“You’ve had too much to drink, Soren,” he said lowly. He shot me a look that said ‘go.’
“No I ain’t. An ass that fine was beg’n for it.”
As I scuttled back behind the bar to fill up on my next order, I just managed to hear, “She’s a proper lady, you bastard, not a whore.”
Bent over, cleaning tankards in a corner out of sight, was my Gus. His hand was frozen in a mug, however, and his big eyes had grown sharp again.
“What happened?” he asked.
“Just a drunk,” I said lightly, urging my hands not to shake as I slipped out two more tankards and set them beneath the barrels of drink, one of mead, the other of ale. They both smelled foul to me. I preferred water.
His mouth turned down. Seeing his cute, knobbly frown helped soothe the trembling in me. It wasn’t so much the feeling of violation that unnerved me as did the old memories it brought up.
When I came back around, stepping carefully so as to spill as little foam as possible, our friendly neighbor blacksmith was just walking back in from escorting the other man outside. His eyes crinkled towards me, which was the most of what I could see of his smile through all the hair.
“You alright, miss?”
“I will be,” I gave him my most grateful smile, for I really was. If he hadn’t stood up, who would? Hal was in the kitchens with Milly, so if he hadn’t stood up, who would. “Thank you so much.”
His eyes uncrinkled and he stiffened. When I turned back after delivering the mugs to a table of two, an old lady and an old man traveling through, he was still there, standing in front of the door as though stunned.
He shook himself and strode back to his table. A trio of men sitting by the window, in prime seating to watch the show, guffawed into their fists. One gestured me over to order another serving of Milly’s chicken roast, a favorite among the patrons.
“Seems you got a guardian, miss,” he said with a mischievous smile.
I just smiled in agreement, making him blush. I didn’t miss his friend muttering “Fine ass indeed” as I walked away.
Hal had returned to the bar when I walked behind it, blushing.
“What can those men even see beneath all these skirts?” I muttered, mostly to myself. I thought it would be my skin that caught people’s attention, since it was unnaturally clear now even for my world, without a freckle or scar.
Gus’s frown got even knobblier.
Hal just pressed his lips together. “You get those sorts everywhere. Some are just more vocal than others. Did something happen while I was back there?”
“Yes, but the blacksmith—the regular—he helped me out.”
“Ah, Derrick. Good man. Had always hoped he and Milly might’ve worked out. Give him an extra pint on the house for me, then add another log to the fires. There’s a storm on the way. Can feel it in my joints.”
“Do you need me to help with those?” I wondered for the first time if ailments I’d healed once came back.
“No, no, you did fine the first time. Ah, good boy, Gus.”
Gus had already handed me the pint of thank-you mead. I rubbed his fuzzy head and walked back around and towards the blacksmith’s, now Derrick’s, table. The hairy man looked especially focused on his meal.
“Here, as thank you from me and Hal, on the house.” I put the mead down gently.
Derrick grunted, not looking up. Thinking it better to leave a man to his meal, I went to putting the logs on the fire.
Just as I finished adjusting the second fire and sweeping ash back into the pit, a roll of thunder rumbled in from outside.
That night, exhausted from the late work of an inn, Gus turned to face me in bed.
“If another man touches you, tell me.”
I couldn’t help but smile at his super serious face. Fourteen or not, he still had a baby face, skinny as it was.
“Oh? Are you going to beat him up for me?”
He scowled. “Don’t make fun of me and just do it. Tell me what he looks like too.”
The utter displeasure in his wrinkled eyebrows made me laugh and I had to kiss them.
Of course, he recoiled back from me. Not that he had much room to go anywhere, as he was against the wall.
“I’m the adult, Gus. It’s the adult’s job to protect children. I’m not going to give you an excuse to go out and get yourself hurt, even if I can heal you.”
“I’m not a child!”
“Yes. You are.” And just because I was having too much fun, I snatched in another kiss, quick as a sparrow’s peck, between those grumpy eyebrows.
His fingers snapped over the spot protectively, face bright. “Stop it! I’ll kick you onto the floor, I swear it!”
“Okay okay, sorry. You’re just so cute when you’re grumpy.”
“I’m not grumpy, I’m being serious!”
“Yes, very serious.”
With a closed-mouth yell of frustration, he flipped over, giving me his back.
“Fine, get molested like some common whore for all I care.”
That hurt a little. But, since I knew he didn’t mean it, I didn’t let it get to me. And when I tucked my hands and forearms against his back, he didn’t shrug them off.
Just as I was nearing the edge of sleep, I heard him say very quietly, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.” Then an even quieter curse at himself.
I drowsily patted the back of his head.
“I know, sweetie. My fuzzy head sweetie.”
We fell asleep to the sound of rain coming down on the cobblestones outsides.
Foul weather meant more customers, since they didn’t have the choice of camping outside, and more work as they brought in mud on their boots and clothes. Milly and I had our work doubled with laundry and Hal even called in Gus to keep the floors mopped clean and the fires going. He only did so after instructing Gus to keep his eyes down at all costs, which Gus hadn’t needed to be told. While Hal and Milly thought nothing of his eye color, none of us, Gus included, wanted the grief that came from someone who did.
At least the cold and rain made the men less energetic about eyeing me.
Even so, despite the rain, Derrick still came. He sat in his usual corner chair with a brooding air about him, eating less than usual and only sipping at his drink. I didn’t have the time to ask him how he was doing until near closing time, when Gus and I were just setting in the last logs of the night. We’d had to set up cots around the fire for customers and push the tables up against the walls. Derrick would have to leave sooner rather than later to make room, so it was inevitable that one of us would approach us.
“Sir Derrick?” I asked, more wearily than anything.
He flinched. “You-you know my name?”
“Hal told me.”
That seemed to embarrass him. “Of course.” He ran a hand down his face. “I’m sorry, do you need me to leave?”
“Yeah, sorry. We got to make room. But,” I put out a hand to stop him as he stood up. “Are you doing okay? You seem depressed.”
He hesitated, his dark eyes darting up and down from beneath his shaggy eyebrows. Half risen beside me, I couldn’t help but compare him to a bear: big, broad, and hairy.
When the pause lasted a bit longer than I was comfortable with, I bit my lip.
“Did I ask something inappropriate again? I am from outside the country…”
He shook his head quickly. “No, no, you did nothing wrong.” He paused. “Your name…is it Lil?”
“It’s Lillian,” I said. “Milly calls me Lil. Though some have called me Lilly. I go by either.”
“Lilly,” he said, as though testing it out on his mouth. “Good. Now we both know each other’s names. I’ll get out of your hair now. Thank you for your patience.”
And with that, he slid out from the table and out into the night.
Gus appeared a second later to help me push away the table, looking grumpier than usual.
“Don’t act so friendly with him,” he said. “It’ll give him the wrong idea.”
My overworked hands ached as I heaved up the table, taking the brunt of the weight despite Gus’s help, since he could only give so little. “Did I do another faux pax? Ugh, the sooner I can learn this countries customs the better.”
“It’s nothing to do with customs.” Gus heaved with all he had, face turning red until we dropped the table into the corner. He let out a puff of air, then continued, “He’s going to think you like him, smiling and caring about how he’s feeling like that. Do you want him to try and marry you?”
A sensation like a heavy plate flying over my head and nearly missing my scalp sent prickles down my spine.
“I never want to get married ever again,” I said, far more darkly than I intended to.
But, to my surprise, Gus smiled.
“Then don’t talk to him. Don’t even look at him. And keep a face like your mom died.”
I chuckled and brushed a sore hand over his soft head. The hair growing in gleamed in the firelight, as though it really were little shavings of pure silver metal.
“Sometimes, I can’t stand how cute you are.”
He looked down, ears still pink from the effort of lifting the table, but didn’t move his head away from my hand.