In the Tavern
The Bruce promised a full three days together soon, but could not tell her when. Rather than torment herself with fruitless conjecture, Eireen decided the time had come to do a bit of sleuthing. Donning her winter dress, cloak and boots, she trudged the two blocks through the snow to the Red Dragon Inn.
“Robyn ap Gryffin! I knew I’d find ye here.”
Robyn glanced up from the dicing table. “Eireen, my lucky charm! Come, popsy, sit here beside me. Let me buy you a pint. Wench! An ale for my lady, if you please. And another round for my friends while you’re at it.”
Eireen flounced over to Robyn’s table while cheerfully blowing kisses to the rogues, drunkards, and scoundrels whose whistles and lewd salutations greeted her from every corner.
“So, what brings the vivacious Eireen to the Red Dragon this morning?”
“It’s well past morning, knave,” Eireen pointed out. “Have ye looked outside lately? How long have ye been at it this time?”
Robyn glanced around the table at each of his ne’er-do-well companions. None of them offered a coherent reply. Robyn shrugged and raised his cup to the elusive passage of time. “What hour did they open, then? All I know is I’m winning. Come to think of it, didn’t I see one or two of you rapscallions loitering about in the wee hours waiting for the inn-keeper to unlock the doors? Better early than late, eh lads?” This elicited an assortment of chortles and unintelligible toasts from the assembled gamesters.
“I need a bit of history on your mountainous Highland friend if you wouldn’t mind passing on what ye know.”
“You mean the Bruce? Oh, Hell!” A snap of the fingers implied a sudden flash of memory. “I was meaning to ask you, Eireen, how did it go the other night? How long has it been, a week? Two?” Robyn gave her a good-natured nudge and a wink. “Now that I think on it, he has been in a better mood lately.”
“Thrice in a fortnight,” she confided.
The remark seemed to sober Robyn up in a hurry. “Wait,” he said, his eyes narrowing. “Did you say ‘thrice in a fortnight’?” His face betrayed a hint of outrage. His friends began to complain about the interruption to their game. “Deal me out of this round,” Robyn announced, collecting his winnings with a sweep of his arm. He shoved his stool away from the table. “Come, woman. We need to talk privately.” He steered her toward a small corner table near the window.
“All right, Eireen,” he said. “Let’s have it. What the Hell is going on?” He caught the eye of one of the tavern maids and motioned for her to bring a jug of ale to their corner.
“I was hoping you might give me some perspective,” she answered. “This friend o’ yours is nothing like what I imagined.”
“Oh? What’s that supposed to mean? You showed him a good time, I assume. Gave him what he paid for?”
“O’course. And more. Ye warned me he’d have little to say. Ye was right about that. Scarcely a word out of him the whole night.”
“Did he bring his barley-bree like I told him?”
“That he did. Wicked powerful elixir, that, especially when followed by Elderberry wine. I don’t think it affected him a bit. The man’s built like an ox. Nothing penetrates that invisible armor he wears.”
Robyn snorted in recognition. “So? I take it you were able to entice him to take part in the main sport.”
Eireen’s freckled face turned three shades of pink in the candlelight. “Oh, aye. It took quite a bit o’warming up, but once the embers caught, that fire burned hot as the Devil’s Oven all night.”
“Spare me the details,” Robyn said with a grimace. “I thought the idea was to loosen him up with an evening’s entertainment and then send him on his way.”
“So did I,” Eireen replied, “It didn’t turn out that way.”
Robyn slammed his empty tankard on the table. “What the deuces are you saying, damn it?”
“No need to get angry,” Eireen said defensively. “You’ve no more a claim to me than half the men in this place.” She sighed. “And besides, who knows? I haven’t seen or heard from him in a week. Maybe he’s decided he’s already had his fill. That’s what I was hoping to talk to ye aboot – about.”
Robyn eyed her suspiciously. “Aboot? Eireen, you’ve taken a fancy to him, haven’t you? God’s blood! I should have known this would happen. Devil damn him!”
“Robyn ap Gryffin. Yer not jealous, are ye?”
“Of course not,” he snapped. “But you’ve been my girl for what? Five years? Longer? Now you tell me you’ve found someone to take my place? I’ll tell you I don’t like it one flaming bit! You would have to fall for the Bruce and not some sod I could easily beat in a fight.”
Eireen’s infectious laughter rose above the tavern din. “Gryffin, ye get what ye deserve.”
“Now what’s that got to do with anything? What’s the matter, Eireen? Don’t you love me anymore?”
“Blethers! Ye know I do, ye nidget. Now, some answers, if ye please.”
“What d’ye know aboot – about – Master Bruce? Has he said anything about me? Do ye know if he’s ever been married? How old d’ye think he is? D’ye know anything about his kin? Where is he from? How did ye meet him?”
“Not half curious, are you? You once told me he was too serious for your taste. Obviously, you’ve changed your mind. When did this happen?”
“Since ye badgered us into spending the night together, that’s when.”
“Well, he didn’t break you, at least,” Robyn noted. “By the look of you, you’re still in one piece.”
Eireen dismissed his remark with a short laugh. “I must say, he’s not what I expected. Underneath that detached exterior lies an entirely different animal. I can only glean so much from the man himself; I’m forced to rely on secondary sources. I didn’t know who else to ask. Have ye known him a long time?”
“Years ago, on watch along the Northern border during a pre-dawn foray, we crashed straight into a band of reivers fresh from a raid, making off with with 30 head of Norman cattle, beating a tidy retreat to one of their sturdy stone towers where they could bide their time until it was safe to divide the spoils and go their separate ways. Expediency dictated we unite with them rather than join battle. As I recall, the Bruce was the leader of that raid or at least part of the patrol. Lord Tomas recognized an asset when he saw one and commissioned him to serve as the prince’s bodyguard, a more lucrative post and certainly a damn sight less risky than taking his chances as a border thief. He accepted, and he’s been with us ever since. I’ve heard he comes from a titled family and that he’s a landed lord himself. You’d never know it. He doesn’t brag or flaunt his wealth.”
“He seems like a very sincere person. Has that been yer experience with him?”
“Sincere?” Robyn shrugged. “I suppose. No one could rightfully call him a liar. I’ve always thought he was rather dogmatic. Once he forms an opinion about something it takes a lot to get him to budge off that first impression. One might conclude the man’s got a stubborn streak a mile long. And slow? Sweet suffering Christ! Your hair could turn gray waiting for him to do something – anything! He hates it when you ask him for a favor. And God forbid you should disturb his sleep. He grumbles and groans like it’s the biggest damned imposition ever wrought and he’ll never let you live it down – how much he had to sacrifice to deal with your petty demands and on and on. But if you let him think it was his idea in the first place, he’ll quietly walk to the ends of the earth for you without a word of complaint. I don’t know, Eireen. To say he’s a mystery would be an understatement. But I’ve never suspected him of ill-will or nefarious motives. If it weren’t for the Bruce, I’d never have met my dog, Merlin. I’ll tell you that story one of these days.”
“He’s asked me to go north with him when he goes.”
This brought Robyn’s head up sharp. “He what? You didn’t tell him you’d go, did you?”
Eireen inhaled and caught her breath briefly before releasing it in a long sigh. “I didn’t know what to say. He was quite vague about when. He just said ‘when the time comes.’ I’m afraid, Robyn. I’ve never had to consider such a big move. I know so little about the man. But he’s offering me a chance at a far more fulfilling future than anything I’ve contemplated before. What do you think I should do?”
“What do you want to do? Never mind, I already know. You want to go with him, don’t you?”
They sat staring at each other over the flickering candlelight, each considering the implications. “Devil damn,” Robyn repeated, his shoulders sagging. “Why does everybody have to leave at once?”
Eireen reached across the table for his hand. “I haven’t decided anything yet,” she said in an attempt to hearten him. “Besides, no one packs up and moves such a great distance in the middle of winter. Which brings me to another dilemma. Bruce seems to think that now we’ve lain together, we’re the same as husband and wife. He hasn’t come right out and said it, but he’s hinted that he would prefer me to end relations with other men.”
Robyn raised a brow. “That doesn’t include me, I hope?”
“I assume it does,” Eireen answered heavy-heartedly. “But as long as I continue to live at my current address, I’m essentially proclaiming my profession for all to see. The village people know me by name and are well aware of what I do for a living. Me patrons like to think they “own” me. I can’t exactly put out a “going-out-of-business” sign.”
Robyn chortled. He refilled his tankard and chugged more ale. Rattling the dice in the palm of his left hand, he gave her his lopsided grin. “We could always roll the dice and see what they say.”
“Or, better yet,” said Eireen. “I brought my Tarot deck. You can be my witness. When I do readings for myself at home I always think I’m guiding the outcome somehow.”
“You mean cheating? How can you cheat at Tarot?”
Eireen wagged her head. “I don’t know,” she said, drawing a single card from the deck and laying it in front of her.
“Ace of Chalices,” observed Robyn. “What does that mean?”
Eireen smiled. “It’s a good omen. The basic meaning promises a productive marriage and the realization of one’s hopes. And it’s upright, which means the feelings are mutual. It announces the beginning of a love affair, attraction, romance.”
“That card was for you, obviously,” Robyn concluded. “If it was for me, it would clearly signify a run of bad luck.”
“Ye needn’t fret,” Eireen assured him. “It was for me.”
“I’ll miss you,” Robyn said. He gave her one of his famous puppy-dog faces.
“I’ll miss you too, Robyn ap Gryffin,” she said, affectionately patting his hand. “I like talking to you. I wish I could take you with me.”
“There, you see?” he remarked. “You have decided. My bet is you’ll be packed and on the road by Spring. I’ll never see you again.”
“Don’t think like that,” Eireen said. “I believe we have yet to play a vital role in each other’s lives. But, Robyn, promise me you won’t do anything to put yerself in needless jeopardy. I don’t know why, but I worry about ye.”
Robyn scoffed. “As long as my luck holds, you needn’t worry about me, Eireen.”