It was Sneal, a friend of mine, who told me this story. Sneal is a peddler, or wandering merchant if you wish to flatter him. Not that flattery will get you anywhere; there are few men with their heads more firmly screwed on than Sneal. Indeed you might wonder how he ended up as the friend of a poet, but that’s a different story for a different day.
Still, Sneal was making his way home from Avitas to Port Naain. Rather than follow the main roads, he’d taken minor roads to get to Avitas, stopping at isolated farms and hamlets, and was taking minor roads back. Again he intended to stop at those places off the beaten track that rarely see packmen. The whole story arises from the fact that he wasn’t familiar with the road, wandered too far to the west and ended up following a trail through wooded country.
Now Sneal has been about and can look after himself. He reasoned that if he didn’t know the area few others would either, and so any trade was bound to be good.
He did find a couple of isolated crofts and sold quite a few bits and pieces. Not enough to allow him to break into a smile, but enough to give him hope that he might possibly show a profit on this leg of the journey. Unfortunately because he didn’t know the area and the crofters didn’t seem to be any better informed, as night fell he found himself stuck in the woods. He was contemplating finding a tree to sleep in; when ahead of him he saw a light. It was the sort of light you see streaming through a window. He pressed on toward the light and saw, in a large clearing, an inn up a tree. There was a croft of sorts nearby but that was in darkness so he scrambled up to the inn and entered.
Now Sneal is of phlegmatic disposition and not easily astounded, so when he discovered the inn was considerably larger insider than outside he didn’t allow himself to be unduly worried. Such things apparently happen to packmen rather more frequently than one might expect. Indeed if you make a habit of listening to their tales, this passes almost for normal. In fact what surprised him most was that the walls were hung with paintings, old and smoke stained, rather than the heads of animals long dead. Also he commented on the tables, there were a dozen of them, round and with room for six but with only four chairs apiece.
He made his way to the long bar with its slate top and enquired about prices. The tariff seemed reasonable so he ordered a drink. The lady behind the bar disappeared down into the cellar and came back with a tankard full of excellent ale. He drained it and then contemplated food. He asked what was available and the lady went into the kitchen and brought back a bowl of stew. Ah but what stew, excellent horrocks, cooked in ale every bit as good as the tankard full he had just drained, with vegetables added as much to soak up the gravy as anything else. All served with bread so fresh it was still warm.
Having eaten the stew he turned to survey the other patrons. Now you might have thought this would have been the first thing to do, but a veteran hawker knows what really counts. It’s amazing what you can cope with when you’ve a decent meal and a tankard of something good inside you.
The place was quiet, which didn’t surprise him; the handful of others seemed to be local men who slowly drifted off home. The proprietress on the other hand was a very striking woman. I remember Sneal’s very words.
“No pretty chit of a girl, no elfin beauty, but a real woman; as bonny as you like and with a bit of flesh on her bones.”
She engaged Sneal in conversation, listened to his tales and smiled warmly at him. Indeed she might possibly have hinted that rather than sleeping on the floor of the common room, another bed might be available; a warmer one with company.
Sneal as always was courteous and tactful. Still he felt that he didn’t want to wake up next morning to find himself cold and hungry in the remnants of a tree which had fallen down a century or more ago. He slept that night wrapped in his cloak on the common room floor.
Next morning he partook of a hearty breakfast, shouldered his pack, settled his account and wished his attractive hostess farewell. With his eye on the sun he followed the trail north, made several useful sales and just before sunset he entered a clearing to find an inn up a tree.
Now even Sneal was a little surprised at this. But it was very obviously a different clearing and so he was willing to believe that inns up in trees were just a local peculiarity. Perhaps this particular area was prone to them?
So he climbed up into the inn and on opening the door discovered he was faced with the same bar and the same barmaid as the previous evening. He called for a tankard and the ale was the same, but this evening the meal was a shoulder of orid, nicely cooked. He studied the other patrons, some of whom he recognised from the previous evening. They nodded to him and wished him a good night as they left. The woman was obviously the same; she remembered him from the previous evening and welcomed him as a valued client.
Again he was left in no doubt that should he so wish, he could sleep somewhere more comfortable than the floor, and again he rolled himself in his cloak and took his repose with his pack as his pillow.
Next day he continued north, indeed from one hill crest he could see Port Naain in the distance. One more night, and then next day would see him home to the bosom of his family.
To be frank I suspect that this night he was almost actively searching for the inn in the tree. The trail took him to it at sunset and again he climbed to the door and entered.
On this occasion, after he’d dined, (thick slices of mott ham, honey glazed and served with a fine selection of vegetables) a number of the other patrons invited him across to take part in a game of Keeps. The cards ran reasonably, the banter was friendly and he played with caution. He ended up with a few dregs more than he’d started. The coins he won he slipped into a separate pocket, they were old but little used, perhaps somebody round here had dug an old grave? He also studied his hostess more closely. She was indeed bonny. Indeed he began to suspect that she might have taken more than the usual amount of care of her appearance. Her bodice seemed designed to give emphasis to her bosom without flaunting it. Her skirt, whilst not tight, somehow clung. Her greeting had almost been affectionate and she addressed him on the friendliest terms.
Finally it was almost with difficulty that he managed to extract himself from conversation and make his solitary bed on the floor.
Next morning, after breakfast he wished her good day and headed for home. He made a few more sales and by the time he’d got to the Roskadil ferry his pack was considerably lighter and his purse somewhat heavier.
It was perhaps two days later I saw him and bought some needles for Shena. Over a quiet drink he told me the tale. Obviously I asked him about his behaviour. He just looked at me and then shook his head. “Just because summat is there don’t mean you’ve got to go round believing in it.”