Chapter 11: The Inn

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The next morning brought more riding on the same road. The scenery was an unchanging wall of trees on one side with the rush of the river on the other. Birds sang off in the distance, and more than a couple flew across their path, adding a colorful streak of red or yellow to the monotonous background. A few deer also rushed across the road, but that was the only excitement offered in the first few days. The road didn't seem too well traveled after all, Hildegund thought to herself.

After several days of riding through uninhabited forests and nights of sleeping under the bows of trees, the trio came upon a small community. The sky was overcast and threatened rain. It was the perfect time to find shelter.

The village was only a few homesteads with a couple of acres of cleared farmland. There were no stone buildings or busy markets, like back in Loconge, and the whole area seemed to be as gray and dull as the clouds in the sky. But, after days in the wilderness, it was a happy sight.

"My stiff back could use a soft mattress," Richart cheerfully declared.

"There is an inn here. I've stayed there more than a few times. It's over yonder, above the tavern," Grimbert pointed off beyond a fenced-in yard that housed about a dozen chickens.

They all dismounted their horses and walked in the direction of the inn. As they approached, the aroma of thick barley stew mixed with the pungent odor of the fermenting hops used to brew beer. Richart went inside to inquire about the availability of a bed, leaving Grimbert and Hildegund outside to wait.

Hildegund, who had always been so comfortable chasing after Adso, wrestling in the dirt, and climbing trees barefoot, was suddenly shy. This would be the first test of her disguise. She stared at her small hands. They had thin, delicate fingers. Her wrists were narrower that any boy's. She thought about how she should hold herself. When she slouched she looked too short, but if she stood tall and puffed out her chest she was afraid that strangers might notice her emerging female form, even if it was hidden under both a leather vest and a woolen cloak. And her voice was also troublesome. It had never been especially high, but at thirteen years, wouldn't a boy's voice be popping and crackling? Adso's was. Her heart was doing flips in her chest and her mouth had gone bone dry in the few minutes since her father had gone inside. She looked over at Grimbert, who was squinting up at the sky. "How does my voice sound?"

"Huh?" He glanced down at her before returning his gaze to the quickly approaching rain clouds.

"What does my voice sound like?" She repeated.

"I don't know. Like a child's, I guess," he said impatiently.

Ignoring his grumpiness, she tried adding some gravelly texture to her words, "What about now?"

"Like a frog's," he turned to stare at her, his eyebrows furrowed in a puzzled stare. When he saw the nervous expression on her face he softened slightly. "Relax. Children should be seen and not heard anyway." He examined her, and then waving his hand in her direction he said, "With hair cropped to your ears, and dressed for the road as you are, you look every inch the son of a traveler. Speaking of, what's taking so long? I don't want to get soaked if it can be avoided."

At that moment Richart emerged from the tavern, "We are all set. We just need to lead the horses over to the stables." He patted Hildegund's shoulder and pointed to a structure behind the tavern. "The innkeeper's son will be out in a minute, okay? You wait here, Joseph, we'll be inside."

"You want me to wait by myself?" she stammered, a quiver in her voice.

"Is that a problem, son?"

"No Papa, why would it be? Just making sure." She wanted to scream at herself for acting so ridiculous. For acting like a, well, like a girl. Adso wouldn't recognize this timid behavior.

The two men walked away and Hildegund took a deep breath. Adso told her she had nothing to worry about; all she had to do was act like herself.

Almost immediately a young man came sauntering around from the back of the tavern. He looked to be no more than twenty years old, with medium-length scruffy hair the color of dried grass, and a broad friendly face.

He approached Hildegund with a bright smile. "What beautiful horses. I assume one of 'em is your own? How long have you been riding?" His voice was loud and affable and immediately put Hildegund at ease. He took the reigns of two of the horses and started to lead them back in the direction he had come from.

"Since I was eight," she lied, walking after him, and doing her best to match his upbeat tone.

"That's great. I began on ponies, myself, when I was just a bit younger than that." He only half looked at her when he spoke; his focus was now directed on the horses.

"Well, this is the first time I've had to travel so far on one," she admitted. They had reached the fenced in area where the horse stables stood. The yard was covered in a layer of straw, and Hildegund did her best to step carefully around any suspicious piles.

"Seems like you got here all in one piece, so you must have been doing something right," he laughed, dropping the reigns of Grimbert's horse and brushing his bangs out of his eyes. "You should go grab a big bowl of stew – Maggie makes the best around! I'll take care of these guys for you real well." He then stroked her father's gray horse as he led it away to one of the stable stalls.

The nervous rumblings that Hildegund had felt just moments before seemed to dissipate. She felt emboldened by this brief encounter. As she turned away from the stables a few heavy drops of rain began to fall lazily from the sky. In a few more moments there would be a downpour. She quickly bounded toward the tavern and confidently walked through the entrance.

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