The tavern was a cacophonous symphony of drunken shouting and revelry. The noise ravaged any semblance of quiet that may have settled in the street its doors opened to; once inside, it threatened to deafen the patrons. Any sober man would wonder how the good spirit could exist when it was near impossible to hear one another; but, no sober man found himself part of that company. Ironically, the revelry only triumphed because of the unwritten rule of inebriation that made one and all laugh at jests and banter that they could hardly hear – simply because it was what everyone else was doing. Any traveller who passed through was swept up by the celebration with unknown reason. It was infectious. It made healthy men feel ill, and ill men feel healthy – the distinction eventually lost meaning at different points during the night.

Josephine watched the debauchery of tired townguard, labourers and travellers unfold. Inkeeper, bartender, serving whench… blurred lines seemed the only constant in the shifting roles she filled. Less blurred were the lines that covered her forehead, telling the tale of night upon night of shrewd insults flung at tipplers who threated to unintentionally vandalise her property.

Margaery, one of her serving girls, came rushing to the counter – again. Josephine could feel the smirk twisting her features. She knew the girl was shaken by being thrown to the mercy of drunkards. “Gods, Josie! These beasts are too much! They grab at anything that moves past. I… I cannot put a single tankard down without baptizing the tables… I don’t think I can man the front lines.”

“Oh for f*ck sakes Marge! Then stop manning the front lines and be a woman about it. You have tits, so stop being one! If you whip yourself out often enough then these bastards will suck you dry!”

The girl’s eyes widened. She was like a doe caught in the aim of an arrow, with large eyes staring back at her. It was easy to forget the misbegotten innonce of the youth – a blank canvas to write on, but gods… the ink never stuck. The girl had much to learn, and even more to remember. Perhaps it was Josephine’s impatience that made the young girl’s naivete seem so intolerable. Unsheathed, the vociferous slash of her sharp tongue gashed Margaery with the perpeual struggle to find the right words. “But, Josie… they are beyond control! I could not make it to the end of the room!”

Josephine knew by the girl’s expression that her own irritation must have been palpable through the look that crossed her face right then. Entertaining momentarily what she took as an excuse, she looked past the girl across the room to where a throng of drunkards blocked the middle. The tavern was crowded this night, she had to admit. Her own voice would have been hoarse if she had to shout her way through. They would not have dared touch her though. She conceded that the young girl was perhaps challenged with this shift, but she would simply need to strengthen her resolve with this town’s clientele. Josephine softened her scowl ever so slightly and turned back to Margaery, “Well, then you make the end of the room come to you. There’s Peter. Tell the boy to slip through the tables and fling open the doors to give those fellows a taste of winter. The men seated closeby will move closer to the fire and also in arm’s reach. Tactics Marge. Tactics. It is the first thing a woman was born with to crow as master above a couple of cocks.”

After looking around to spot the boy, Margaery threw a sheepish smile before a noticeable relief settled upon her young and unworn features. She trippled off.

Josephine never could bring herself to subject the girl to the full blow of her authoritarian crusade. Though her words cracked like a whip to enforce her will in this establishment, she chided herself often if she subjected an innocent to it. Josephine was firm, but not unfair. A lesson could be learnt hard, but the recovery of a mistake need not be harder.

Men however, were different. The first lesson always needed to be hard; the second, possibly harder – it was the revision of the first and crucial for results. And the gods alone knew that she loved to teach these f*ckers.

But the joy of her guilty pleasure receded when she remembered the time.

With one final glace across the room, the customers, and those in her employ, she unknotted her apron and walked to the back from where the clatter of cooking heralded the preparation of a feast. As she stepped inside the kitchen, she was at once met by the hearty smell of a roast sailing through the room. She imagined that if spices could colour the air that she would see a kaleidoscopic display of hot hues feasting hungry eyes – a seduction beyond the rich mixture of heady aromatics that wafted off the searing meat in all its mouth-watering splendour.

F*ck. That b*tch is brilliant. Her cooking could make men forget the drink. “Bertha! If no man takes you by year’s end, then by the gods… I may just ask to share your bed if I can share your table as well!”

A laugh with the strength of a tolling churchbell erupted from the cook standing in front of the fire. Any man who prefered the jingle of a maiden’s laughter would instantly convert to the religion of Bertha’s heartfelt amusement if not first being won over by her skills in front of a fire. Her mighty bosom teased a magnifecent reveal as it shook with the aftershock of the jest, stretching the fragile fabric thinned by the hours of toil to feed the ravenous. Her face was flushed by her passionate encounter with her cooking, which was a task so intimate that even a priest would sanctify the act. Bertha flashed a brilliant smile inlaid within that enormous and joyous face as she turned toward her employer, “My string of nightly courtiers would be greatly inconvencied by that, my dear! You might want your slice of cake midday if you want any at all. The cold night herds the hungry in and they all want their pound of flesh!”

“Well, there are enough lustfuls out there that would love to see what you do with a piece of meat, Bertha. You better do my testimony proud.”

Beyond the touch of cooking fires, their playful banter flushed Bertha’s face with even more scarlet, colouring her cheeks with her coy modesty. The opportunity for jests was simply too good to resist. Bertha’s company was like a warm loaf of bread on which one’s tensions melted like butter. It was a small comfort that made the long nights in the tavern bearable. She was a joy to the patrons, and Josephine thought it no small coincidence that the number of clientele had swelled since she took station in the kitchen. Whenever that curvaceous shape would step out to help the watrons lay out the feasts for the night, her hearty and vuluptuous personality would firmly enthrall all the attention within the room. There was something about the tavern and its women – each made an indelible impression that could survive the fragmented memory of the most severe stupors. It is what brought the men back, after all.

“You look ready to call it a night. Will the thin lass be able to keep her bearings?”

“That is why I rely on you Bertha. But, the girl is coming through. I think the night will run on as a success until I see you tomorrow.”

Bertha nodded acceptingly. A new question seemed to hang in the air, and the forecast thereof overshadowed her sunny expression but momentarily. The words came tentatively, perfected to convey the concern and instinctual understanding so rarely found outside of true friendship. “How is she?”

Josephine’s reaction reawakened the slump of dejection she had felt in the brief moments before she entered the kitchen. How is she? The hell I know. It changes by the day. Thoughts of her mother always mulled confusion together with the sadness that followed. By all accounts, her mother was in fine health. She just wished her mother recognised her more often in these moments of vitality. Somehow, she had come to bear that she was the daughter forgotten; but the days when her mother’s memory really failed always struck worse. The once proud woman shrunk away, leaving nothing but a helpless husk in her place that did not know how to respond to the world. It was a fragility that could only be met with the tender patience that Josephine did not possess, but had to yield every day upon her return. It left her drained, and thirsty to return to the lively vulgarities and perpetual celebrations of her tavern. And upon that realisation – guilt drew yet another mark on her lined face. How was her mother? Perhaps, thought Josephine, heaven would have given even her mother a better memory. “I suppose I will find out in a few. Will you manage here?”

Bertha threw her brilliant smile. ” ‘Course I will. Get yourself home. And for gods’ sake… throw something over those shoulders or you’ll catch your death out there!”

Josephine’s answering smile was a solemn lift of a mouth corner pulled by the last words of care from her friend. She turned before her eyes could betray her true emotion, and made her leave through the back exit of the kitchen.

Shutting the door behind her felt like a gesture of finality. The fleeting and vibrant templates of the life that permeated the tavern flashed like wisps through her mind before dissipating in the cold of winter that now tugged at her shawl. Gone was that life by the passing of another night, and with it, gone the woman who orchestrated the debaucherous cheer.

Josephine waded her way home through the dimly lit streets of the town. Frosted windows barred the welcome of stolen glimpses into the homes of happy families. Even the lanterns burned with cold flames that made the light seem more sickly than warm. The milieu was set for her ill mood. She looked back forlornly at the tavern – alight with vivacity of boundless celebration and lossened inhibition – with impenetrable walls incapable of containing the vigour of sound that emanated from within. A lively marvel nestled in the dead of a town forced silent by winter, with the snow clad north mountain as a canvas at its back…

…and a darting string of lights snaking down from its side to the mountainfoot.

It took Josephine a moment to focus her attention, shaking the foggy allure of midnight drunkards from her thoughts. She now found herself mesmerized by the specs of light that covered the base of the mountain. Her feet took her in the opposite direction of her home, and back in the direction of the tavern. Passing the building, she made her way to the main road proper, which fell on the trading route that coursed beside the lake and through the town as one of its many trading posts.

The water stretched before Josephine in a body of unruffled black velvet, with crisp edges bordering the rising mountainous sentinels of the north. But the darkness that gave the scenery its calm, quiet and unperturbed beauty was now dotted with the wild passion of something sinister.

Another woman would have despaired at the threat winding its way to her home, but Josephine felt no such shackles holding down her resolve as she raced back the way she’d came. Gods! Fate had to choose tonight to be bored in flicking her own bean. Now she’s coming to f*ck with us while half of the bastards set to defend this town are befuddled by the drink…

At her back, torchlights flanked the lakeside as a molten swarm of pulsating orbs converged on the trading route. As her eyes had followed the eerie lights dotting the panorama of the placid landscape, she caught sight of the closest of those flames held aloft by the flag bearer of an invading enemy the laketown had not seen for generations…

You might also want to read…

…all containing snippets of a larger, interlinked narrative.

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