John drained his fifth ale and stared at the girl, hoping to catch a glimpse of her eyes. The wench wore a dress of tight fitting green cotton and a long black cloak that grazed her ankles. Her bodice was fastened loosely, and he could see her pale, voluptuous breasts rise and fall with each breath. The girls face was partly veiled by the hood of her cloak. At first John had thought that she must have some kind of facial disfigurement. But as the night wore on the hood began to slip. Every so often he caught a glimpse of the curve of her neck, a strand of black hair, her delicate, rose bud mouth…
It was getting late now. The only other customers were two grizzled old men, finishing their drinks in stony silence. The barkeep gave them both a look of contempt. He probably wished the tavern would empty so that he could retire for the evening. John knew the man well; he was unlikely to chase away customers. He hauled himself up from the rough wooden bench and signalled to the barkeep to pour him another ale. John fished in his pocket for the right coins, his fingers heavy and clumsy with drink. He dumped a handful of coppers on to the table, picked up his tankard, took a deep breath and walked over to where the girl was sitting.
‘Evening’ he said, sitting himself down with a heavy thud. The girl took no notice of his presence. ‘You’re alone. You’ve been sitting here alone all night.’
‘Well observed’ said the girl in a thin, icy voice. John marvelled at how someone so cold could make him grow hot with desire.
‘You shouldn’t be alone at night. You’ve enough to fear from some of the men that drink here. But there are bad omens in the village. They say that the children have nightmares, the animals are silent, and grown men disappear at night. Good, strong men that know how to wield a sword.
‘Then you have more to fear than I, for I am neither a man nor a child.’
‘You shouldn’t be alone.’ John persisted ‘you need someone to protect you.’ This was where he would normally lock eyes with a wench, but since her eyes were veiled, he found himself staring at the tops of her ivory breasts. ‘You need a young man who knows this village inside out, someone handsome and strong… someone like… me.’
For a moment he thought he might have won the girl over, but John soon realized she was smirking, not smiling.
‘I have no need for the likes of you.’
‘Very well then.’ Said John, and he got up as though preparing to leave. The girls lips formed a perfect oval, and she looked as though she would rise up to stop him. John smiled and sat back down. The chase was almost over.
‘I’ll stay, if that is your desire.’
The girls words were scarcely more than a whisper ‘it is’.
John sat down and lifted a hand to the hood of her cloak ‘now then my darling, take off your hood and let me see that pretty face of yours.’
The girl flinched and bared her teeth. She had been drinking red wine all night, and for a moment the part of her face that was exposed looked almost inhuman. It was as though the teeth and lips were stained with blood. John shivered and withdrew his hand. For a moment he even considered leaving.
‘Very well then. You may keep your face veiled for now. At least tell me your name.’
‘Freya’ he repeated, tasting every syllable, all the fear gone from his voice. ‘My name is John. Would you care for more wine Freya?’
Her nod was almost imperceptible. John grinned wolfishly from ear to ear. The wine would cost him half a day’s wages, but it would be worth it if he could get the little slut to loosen a few more of the strings of her bodice. He staggered back towards the bar, walked straight into one of the long wooden benches and cursed. John didn’t have to look at the girl to know she was smirking.
‘Two flagons of wine. Whatever it was that little slu- Freya was drinking.’
‘I think not boy.’ Said the barkeep, with an iciness in his voice that could almost match Freya’s ‘You’ve had far too much as it is.’
‘Oh Sir… there’s a piece of silver in it for you!’ The barman glanced at John’s outstretched hands and saw the coal dust under his fingernails.
‘I think not. You work down the mines, and unless I’m very much mistaken miners don’t get paid in silver.’ He raised his voice. ‘I’m closed for the night. I advise all of you to hurry home as fast as you can.’ The two grizzled old men shot them a dirty look before slinking off into the night. John was making his way back to where Freya sat when the barkeep spoke again.
‘These are dangerous times boy. Make sure you see that girl safely to her home, lest she become prey to whatever foul creatures been taking our men.’