Finding Your Place in Routines. The Guest. Attachment.
Benzie arrived at the Swindle & Swine after dawn. It was the beginning of fall; the air was cool and crisp. He brought two logs into his arms and, balancing the load with a huff, reached into his pocket to fetch a key to the kitchen’s back door. Pushing it open with his hip, he entered the inn to gently lay the logs next to the kitchen’s blue and gray fieldstone hearth.
Elina Hogsbreath, the inn’s proprietor, slept above the kitchen, and Benzie was mindful of her comfort.
Going to the wood stack on the porch, Benzie used a hatchet to cut kindling. He dipped the ends in a ceramic jar of pork fat kept on the floor and lit his starter in the fireplace.
Thereafter, Benzie pumped water into a tin pail and filled a black iron cooking cauldron suspended over the hearth. When the water touched its surface, blazing orange runes activated along its rim.
Propping the logs up over his fledging starter and, taking a chip of ignited kindling, Benzie lit a dozen beeswax candles stationed around the kitchen, bathing the room with warm, soft yellow light.
The magicked cauldron brought the water to a boil in less than a minute before its glowing runes faded. Retrieving a scoop of lye lard from the basement, Benzie used a mit to pour hot water into the pail and added the lye. He mopped the kitchen floor where a mosaic of quarter-inch tiles depicted a green Tree of Life.
By the time Benzie entered the dining hall, the early morning sun spilled through the tavern’s paned circular windows. Above, an iron chandelier covered in melted candles hung from a thick chain. A taxidermied warthog wearing an entertainer’s tophat was mounted above a hearth of mortared limestone. And the inn’s big, round burgundy door was shut for the night.
Getting to work, Benzie lifted chairs and benches to table surfaces to mop the hardwoods. He scrubbed the hall, the entry, and the stairs leading up to the suite on the second floor. After, he cleaned behind the bar and the hall connecting the kitchen, pantry, and larder. Benzie followed a well-rehearsed pattern to keep his feet off the wet floor. Finally, he dumped the dirty water off the edge of the back porch and stowed the mop and pail in a narrow storage closet found behind the bar.
Lighting a fire in the tavern’s fireplace, Benzie spent the rest of the morning arranging tables and wiping down surfaces. It wasn’t long before he smelled frying sausage; Elina was up and preparing her kitchen, and his tummy growled expectantly.
A lightfoot, young, fit, and thin - admittedly too thin by halfling standards - Benzie Fernbottom preferred to keep his chestnut-colored hair disheveled and untrimmed, his pointed ears poking out along the sides. He had thick eyebrows, a sharper nose than most, and an eager, wide smile that would give a stranger the impression he was up to something. He wore a white collared, button-up shirt with a handsome brown and green vest and matching pants cut at his knees. And like all halflings, Benzie didn’t wear shoes; he was barefoot.
“Merry mornin’, Truffler,” he said happily, standing on a chair to dust the mantle with a cloth. Benzie proudly squared the tophat on Truffler’s head and patted its crown for good measure.
Saving the inn from Maron Maloney over the summer was the highlight of Benzie’s life, and the villain’s hat reminded him of his place here - a place where he was loved; a place where he felt needed; a place that needed him.
“Mornin’, Benzie,” Elina hallooed, carrying a serving tray of breakfast tea. Middle-aged, Elina wore a cream-colored frock under a brown corset and a kitchen apron over a pleated skirt that extended to her ankles. A signature white sunflower graced her left ear, and curly brown hair rolled over her bare shoulders. She smiled graciously at Benzie. “I’ll have your breakfast out quick’n’spit.”
“Thanks, Elina!” Benzie waved, jumping off of the chair.
“Open’er up, will you?”
“Sure thing!” Benzie joyfully replied, pushing the chair under a table.
“Oh, you’re such a dear,” Elina smiled and went to her kitchen.
Benzie unlocked the front door and pulled on the knob located directly in its center. It creaked open, sunlight raced into the room, and Benzie could see particulates of mussed-up dust drifting in the air.
Stopping the door with a river rock, Benzie stood at its threshold to inhale the fresh scent of fall pine, and he stretched, extending his arms behind him to arch his back. He rested his hands on his hips and kicked out his left leg to rotate his ankle.
“Whew,” he said smartly to himself. He folded his arms and grinned, feeling the sun's warmth on his nose. It would be another beautiful day at the Swindle & Swine, Pondaroak’s only inn and tavern.
Halflings didn’t have a use for money, and, as a people, they abstained from hoarding wealth. Instead, they bartered, trading their time, effort, passions, and skills for what they needed. Although Benzie’s service could’ve been construed as a job, he found joy and purpose in the work, and Elina was only too happy to feed him. What resulted was an understanding between them - an unspoken agreement common to the halfling folk of the Aevalorn Parishes - where one back was scratched for the benefit of another, where everyone got what they needed, and nobody ever went wanting.
Elina reentered the dining hall with Benzie’s favorite breakfast: a steaming hot Scotch egg served with a dipping sauce of mustard, vinegar, and white wine, dressed over a sprig of chilled kale accompanied by three freshly-cut apple slices. As Benzie cut through the crisp fried sausage, runny, bright yellow yoke spilled across the plate, saturating the kale to make it reasonably palatable. Benzie inhaled his food beginning with the apple slices first, having not quite learned how to savor a well-prepared, simple meal.
Elina ate her own Scotch egg with her fingers in outright rejection of the fussy table etiquette some halflings believed it demanded. “You’ll turn over the upstairs an’ at’ll be all for the day, Benzie.”
“What?” Benzie gasped through a full mouth. “But, uh, the linens, the side apartments-”
“There’ll be no guests at the inn tonight,” Elina shrugged, nibbling at her egg to expertly keep the yoke from dribbling.
“But why?” Benzie was flabbergasted.
“It’s a tradition, of sorts,” Elina said nonchalantly, chewing her breakfast. “I’ll be up late an’ you needn’t come over in the mornin’, not unless you’re hungry.”
Since last winter, Benzie had never experienced a day where he wasn’t needed at the Swindle & Swine, and the disappointment quickly settled in. The bevy of chores, his practiced routines, the satisfaction gleaned from folding fitted bedsheets perfectly - clearly, this wasn’t how he imagined the day would go.
“But Elina,” he swallowed. “What will I-”
“You’ll get out of me way an’ go enjoy yourself,” Elina said, cutting him off. She smiled at him kindly. “You’ll find your friends. Go fishin’. Take a hike. Or you’ll go sits quietly, ruminatin’ on a hill, whatever pleases ya.”
Benzie glanced ruefully at Truffler across the hall.
“You-you don’t need me?” Benzie asked, setting his fork on the bar, his eyes sad and confused.
“No, no,” Elina chuckled, patting a comforting hand on his forearm. “I’ll still be expectin’ ya the day after the ‘morrow.”
“Er, why will you be up late?” Benzie asked side-eyed, his mind eventually coming around to process what she’d said.
Finishing her breakfast, Elina wiped her hands on her apron. “Now that’s my business, Benzie, an’ nothin’ you need concern yourself with.”
Benzie felt a cold chill run down his arms. Elina never kept secrets.
“What’s wrong?” he snapped, fearing the worst.
Elina smirked as she pulled back her hair to tie it behind her head. “Benzie, nothin’s wrong. Just come ‘round the day after next.”
“Psshhh,” Elina jeered, dismissively flinging her fingers at him. She escaped from behind the bar into her kitchen.
Benzie, dismayed, ate another bite of yoked kale but stopped, for his favorite breakfast didn’t have the same flavor as when he started.
Descending the stairwell, the guest staying in the upstairs suite entered the tavern.
Marinus Leighton, a Gaelwyn Man in his prime, was dressed in a comfortable lined sheepskin jacket, boots, and leggings. He brought his gear, pack, and shortsword with him. Marinus was new to the Parishes and unfamiliar with the local taboos against wearing shoes indoors. Still, he was warmly accepted at the Swindle & Swine, all the same.
“A merry morning to you, sir,” Benzie said despondently, barely looking up from his plate.
“Is it?” Marinus scoffed, throwing his scabbard’s leather strap around his shoulder.
Benzie sorrowfully picked up his plate to take it into the kitchen.
“Mister Leighton!” Elina cheerfully cried as she entered the tavern with his breakfast. She handed him the plate while, in her other hand, she set a glass decanter of orange juice on the bar. “Citrus?”
“Hmm,” Marinus agreed, taking a voracious bite out of the Scotch egg after plowing it indelicately into the sauce, sending hot yoke and mustard streaming down his fingers.
Prepared, Elina offered him a moist Gaelwyn-sized towel draped over her forearm. “Where you headed? All th’ way from Bracklenock, are ye not?”
“Hmm,” he repeated, gruffly wiping himself with the towel. “I’m for Enceröss, to make a new life. I lost my sister to a gorgon.”
Benzie emerged from the kitchen as Elina gasped, putting a polite hand over her mouth.
Marinus Leighton explained Bracklenock was beset by a terrible curse. Overnight, a teenage girl was transformed into a snake-headed monster whose gaze turned onlookers to stone. Many lives were lost - not just his sister’s - and having no other reason to stay, Marinus went to Enceröss to find work.
Benzie, his spirits already low and suffering, looked at him, appalled, and blurted, “You left her?”
“Benzie,” Elina hushed, shaking her head at him.
Uncertain how to respond, Marinus ate the rest of his smallfoot-sized Scotch egg and said, “Well, she’s, er, a statue now. None of us, we … we, well, we didn’t have the heart to smash them. They were friends, relatives. So we dug a pit, and we buried them. Together. All of them.”
“But you left her behind?” Benzie whispered, unable to fathom why anyone would do such a thing.
“Benzie!” Elina exclaimed. She went over to where Benzie stood aside the bar and whispered, “Gaelwyn traditions ain’t like ours! Now, head on upstairs an’ pick up the room.”
Benzie grumbled and, with a long, moody stare at Elina, dashed upstairs with a healthy dose of displeased stomping.
“You’ll have to forgive ‘em,” Elina apologized, picking up Marinus’ plate to wipe down the bar. “Benzie’s young an’ never set foot outside the Parishes.”
“Hmm,” he grunted and guzzled the juice from the decanter so fast it ran down the side of his cheek. He used the towel to clean up and hoisted his pack to his back. Marinus removed a narrow purple gemstone from his coin purse and tossed it on the counter. “Acceptable?”
Elina needn’t even look at it. She just smiled and said, “Yes. Thank you for staying. Have a safe journey.”
* * *
Benzie lugged a bundle of linens down the stairs to toss them on the tavern floor. He used a corner to wipe the sweat from his forehead. He had finished with the upstairs suite and was, disappointedly, done for the day.
The inn’s stillness made Benzie uncomfortable. At this time of day, the Swindle should be bustling. Benzie should be turning over the adjacent apartments, serving drinks, greeting new guests, or wishing others a fond farewell.
Morosely checking outside, Benzie encountered no gossiping, giggling, tea-sipping, ale-belching patrons on the porch. All he found was the cricketing and crackling of late summer insects and a charming, hand-written sign hung from the doorknob which read, “Come Back Soon.”
Loathing that sign with every ounce of his being, Benzie put his back against the door to close it.
And then, he realized, on top of everything else, Elina wasn’t cooking. There were no smells of baking bread or sizzling pork, no chopping or grinding, clinking, clanging, or banging - no kitchen clamor whatsoever - and no pleasant humming Elina made when she was preparing meals.
Feeling a chill, Benzie rubbed his shoulders and shivered. The oven wasn’t stoked and the place felt like it was freezing.
Benzie felt very small. To him, the inn felt deserted, evacuated - as if it had stopped breathing.
Addressing Truffler, he implored, “Why? What is this madness?!”
And the stuffed warthog glared at him silently from above the mantle.
“Ugh, you, too?” Benzie exclaimed. He ran his palm through his hair and, resolved, slapped his knees and said, “Right!”
* * *
Elina Hogsbreath used an old broom handle to stir a barrel of soapy linen behind the inn. It was a lovely day. The sun was warm. There was a splendid fall breeze accompanied by the sound of rushing wind over the tippy-tops of the pine trees, and, as the Swindle was closed, she didn’t feel any pressure to-
“Elina!” Benzie barked as he marched headstrong out of the kitchen. Upon reaching her, he stubbornly folded his arms, leaned in, and popped open his eyes expectantly.
“Benzie?” she asked.
“What is it? Hmm?” Benzie demanded, nervously tapping his foot.
Elina frowned at him. She stopped stirring the barrel. “What’s what?”
“This … nonsense!” Benzie exclaimed, rolling his wrist at her in a flourish. “Come on. Tell me. Is something wrong? Did you catch a fever? Is it the pox?”
She guffawed, “Oh, Benzie, I’m fine. Really.”
“Is there more I can do? Do you need more help?”
Elina smiled and said, “No. If you’ve cleaned the upstairs, everythin’ that needs doin’ is done. Thank you.”
Benzie put his hands to his waist as his foot continued to tap on its own. He opened his mouth as if to speak again, thought twice about it, then held his tongue.
“Benzie, this is normal. I realize you’re unaccustomed to me ways, but I close the inn once a year, every year, on this day,” Elina explained. She used the broomstick to agitate the linens, whipping them around in circles. “Me grandmother did it, me mum did it, an’ I does it, every year, on the same day, this day.”
“Why?” Benzie demanded. His foot pounded the earth like an angry jackrabbit. “Why close the inn?”
Elina rolled her eyes and slumped her shoulders. “‘Cause takin’ a rest is a healthy an’ sane thing to do, but if you must know…”
Benzie’s ears perked, his brows jolted up, and his foot stopped.
Elina sighed, “I’m expecting an’ old friend for tea. She arrives late, as is her custom, an’ll stay for the night.”
Still keeping his arms folded, Benzie reared back with a puzzled expression. “A late-night traveler? A visitor? Every year, on the same day?”
“Yes, every year,” Elina confirmed and returned to her work.
Benzie scrutinized the information with an inquisitive finger under his chin. “That’s very peculiar.”
Elina shrugged, saying, “It’s her way.”
Jutting out his foot, Benzie relaxed his posture and exhaled. “Ugh,” is all he managed to say.
Elina stopped washing the linens and straightened her back. “Benzie, you’re young, an’ you’ve got a lot of attachment. Like this mornin’, with Marinus. Just ‘cause somethin’ isn’t our way doesn’t mean it’s wrong, or the only way. An’ if I be closin’ the Swindle, it ain’t a slight on you. Things just are, an’ if you’ll be helpin’ me ‘round here, you gotta learn to accept what is an’ keep yourself from the center of it. Am I makin’ sense?”
Benzie, feeling a wave of guilt, cringed, and he looked to his feet.
“Go home, Benzie,” Elina encouraged, and she looked side-eyed at the pine trees behind the inn. Sensing his bruised feelings, Elina figured she needed to give him something to look forward to, so she added, “If you’d like, come by on the ‘morrow. I’ll cook ye breakfast an’ introduce you to me friend.”
Then Benzie perked right up. He smiled and gripped his vest’s lapels.
“Now, help yourself to some carrots on your way out,” Elina smiled and gestured to the kitchen. “I won’t use ‘em all before the end of the week. Sleep in. I’ll see you mid-mornin’ tomorrow.”
Tight-lipped, Benzie nodded thankfully and waved goodbye as he climbed the porch’s steps and entered the kitchen. He raided the pantry to take carrots and celery sticks and smeared a serving of oily peanut butter into a ramekin. Grabbing a mug, he poured himself a bit of cool brambleberry lemonade. Drinking it all down and setting the mug in the sink, Benzie wandered from the kitchen to enter the dining hall.
Slowing his pace, Benzie opened the door to the narrow supply closet behind the bar, entered - taking care to leave the pail and mop undisturbed - and closed the door behind him.