|Summary:||Taleryth pauses an errand at the Bronze Flagon, and meets Maud Astley. They get cautiously acquainted.|
|The Bronze Flagon, Hag's Mire|
|A large common room, kept warm- if a bit smokey- by the peat fire in the stone hearth. The smoke smell mingles with the beer and food ladled out from a large cookpot, which fills the large room with a noticeable, and not entirely unpleasant-smelling haze. Wood plank walls, and slightly warped plank floors contain the long well-worn tables whcih recieve guests. Each table is flanked by a wooden bench of matching length, where overnight guests who can't find a place by the fire will stretch out. There is a back room as well for those seeking company. Above the hearth hangs the place's namesake: an antique bronze cup, well wrought, whose origin seems to change with each telling.|
|8th October, 289|
With last of the sunlight fading into an early summer's dusk, assorted toilers in field and bog have laid down their tools and gathered in the Bronze Flagon to see about the vital business of getting outside a large quantity of ale. Some of them have even paused long enough to wipe their boots.
They are a less prepossessing crowd, these mirefolk, than the inhabitants of Stonebridge, who themselves take a bit of getting used to if one is a citified gent. Seen through a growing haze of peat smoke their rough homespun garments, impromptu hairstyles, and determined pursuit of inebriation might well give an impression ogreous and strange — and that's just the women. Let's not even talk about the men.
The most peculiar tableau of all is taking place in the corner farthest from the fire, where the air is clearest, and the crowd most sparse. A woman in a dark grey dress, with her hair bound up in a brilliantly blue kerchief, is peering down her large nose at a sheet of parchment spread before her on the table; opposite her sits a bumpkin nervously twisting his cloth cap in his hands.
The bumpkin's lips move, framing two or three words, inaudible from the doorway — then two or three more — then the woman looks up, speaks a full sentence in the same low tones, nods firmly, dips her quill into a small stone inkwell of the sort of a maester might keep in his belt-pouch while traveling, and… continues writing. She appears to be halfway down the page.
'Only a Harpy can quell the Mud', one saying round these parts goes, and there's little more that works quicker to clear the quagmire of the Flagon's patrons than a file of 'gentlemen', or even thugs, who sport the green-and-orange of Nayland. Such a band, eight, more muscular in general than tall, heavy with the arms that mark continuing duty, now bustle their way to the bar. Almost lost in their midst is their actual charge - no stray Nayland knight or noblewoman, but a delicate man in a pale, somehow clean and kempt robe, who, though he lours above his protectors in height, is still slight enough to be hard to catch.
This Maester of the Citadel - you can just glimpse a short chain; perhaps the lad was ordained early on account of his slender neck - makes his way to the cleared space and requests a surprisingly heavy desire from the barman there, a quart of Mire beer. Perhaps Maester Taleryth is beginning to adapt to his masters' territories after all. Then his escort shows him to a board that has miraculously emptied, near the fire; but the maester dissents; he is after air, it seems, not warmth, necessitating a complex series of scrambling and adjustment.
As for the kerchiefed woman, the young Maester does not yet face the crowd with sufficient energy to distinguish her…
He may not yet have recovered sufficiently from the rigours of the road to pay due attention to his surroundings; but his surroundings, of course, find him riveting. The glances may be more furtive for his escort's might, the whispers less specific, but a stranger, a strange maester at that, could not but make a diverting addition to this evening's menu of gossip and innuendo.
His desire to surround himself with an invisible moat has placed him well to distinguish, amidst the hubbub of local accents, a voice of more complex pedigree: part Rivermouth, part Northern, seasoned with occasional consonants from King's Landing and the odd unmistakeable Oldtown vowel. It is a woman's voice, low and clipped, uttering such phrases as "obtaining for my son a position" and "with the greatest respect for your accomplishments" and "I know you will find him hard-working and conscientious". Should he seek its source he will find that it emanates from beneath a blue kerchief.
Maester Taleryth's now attracted, too, a certain amount of approbrium. Rising from a hard-fought seat once on the say-so of a Harpy maester's bullies may be an unpleasant necessity for Miremen, but hopping about twice in your favourite free house because of the bloodless bookworm's finnickiness is definitely pushing it. Besides, even if he ordered a proper beer, he did it in a damn fruity voice, all soft southern cooings like a turtle-dove, and when he settles to his new position - the table adjacent to queer Mistress Astley at her book-learning - it becomes apparent that he ordered the enormous tankard for his guards, not himself. A quart, but between *eight*! The lad's a miser too, goes the mutter now, and from Stonebridge besides. Since Lord Frey's decree granting Stonebridge to Ser Tyroan, the Bootleather Harpy, folk have been less certain whether Stonebridge stands firm with Lord Rickart's Fortress, or not.
It's probably hauteur more than crass unawareness that keeps Taleryth coldly above all the grumbling he has caused. Himself unpreoccupied by a beverage, his hazel eyes are at liberty to prowl, and, indeed, to settle on the second-most notable focus of curiosity in the Flagon. The Maester asks something of one of the elder of his escort, and then the guard rattles over with an invitation for Mistress Astley to join their table…
Shadow falls upon the parchment; the quill's measured progress halts. Mistress Astley looks up into the guard's face, indubitably puzzled, though not, to her credit, alarmed. Her gaze — rather a shrewd gaze, from rather fine dark eyes — flicks across to Master Taleryth, then back to her interlocutor. She gestures, apologetically, to her parchment and her bumpkin.
The mime is clear enough; it comes as no surprise when the guard, returning to the maester's side, conveys that: "She says she thanks you and 'll be along in a few moments, when she's finished her work."
The maester is youthful but serious looking in his aspect, and not just because of the grey garb; so the light, brisk, laugh the guard's apologetic answer elicits may come as a surprise. "She does her work, I mine," he observes, cheerfully and perfectly audibly, "though I confess I wasn't expecting her hours to be the longer…"
The only sign Mistress Astley gives that she has heard is a sniff of amusement as she leans once more in towards her bumpkin. He was taciturn before; the interruption by a fully-accoutered Nayland guardsman appears to have stemmed his flow of words entirely, and after an attempt or two to solicit his thinking she just makes up the rest of the letter herself and shows him where to sign it — "As I taught you," she prompts gently, putting the quill into his hand.
Their mutual labours complete, to the local man's visible relief, sand is shaken across the parchment and tipped once more into the little box which contains it. A candle already burning upon their table suffices to melt the wax to seal it. And then they are both standing up, shaking hands, gathering their belongings. She is the taller, as well as, perhaps, the elder. She says something which makes him laugh as he retreats from her corner into the more comfortable company of his fellows.
On her way to Maester Taleryth, she carries her empty tankard: calling "Ella!" she raises the latter in a salute to the serving wench, points to it, holds up two fingers, then indicates her destination. And then, business completed, refreshments ordered, she presents herself to the young man with a cautiously courteous: "How do you do, Maester Taleryth? I'm Maud Astley."
As he, in truth, has little better to do, for a change, and is attempting to take a break from the Mire beer Ser Tyroan has remorselessly been disseminating about the household, Taleryth just sits back and watches Mistress Astley at her task with simple, idle, and yet acute curiosity. She is welcomed then with an unusually open countenance, by his standards - though he grimaces a little as he realises he likely has not escaped 'refreshments' after all.
"You introduce yourself with some initiative, mistress," he remarks ruefully. "I hardly knew my name was known so far from Tordane Tower. Forgive me, I failed to spot…what were you paid in, for that kindness just passed? Is it generous work? Did I miss my path in life when I forged these trinkets?", he jokes with a jingle of his neck accoutrements.
Mistress Astley settles herself on the bench across the table from his, neither forward nor backward in her manners, only thoughtful and — yes, with a curiosity which almost equals his.
"I wasn't paid," she answers, "as such. It is a way of building up credit for the future. In a village, everyone is the good-brother of the good-son of a friend of a friend. Favours go around, and then they come around. As to your name—" She tilts her head toward the guardsman who earlier intercepted her. "He told me," she says simply. "I hope it was not a great secret."
The ale arrives, set before them with a flourish by the pert little Ella; Mistress Astley notes her companion's reaction and adds, with the same gentleness with which she exhorted her friend of earlier to write his name, "You'll find it's better than the wine."
Some of Taleryth's henchmen appear to be smiling quietly despite themselves, as do any patrons interested enough to keep watching - Mistress Astley may have, even more than by her literate aid, raised her stock by her mild admonishment of the snooty maester, in the matters of his question, his name, and his drink. For himself, he looks mildly cut down to size to hear he *isn't* rumoured of round here, after all, though certainly not surprised! He takes up another line of her talk - but not, yet, that kindly offered mug.
"Building up credit, eh," he muses. "Why, you remind me quite of my childhood, mistress. My grandfather and uncles were - indeed, are, I suppose - merchants in Fairmarket…perhaps things are not so very different when settlements get smaller." The hint of a sneer in his tone suggests he is offering this thesis with some irony.
"And in Oldtown, an archmaester told me - the smaller the prize, the bitterer the strife…let us hope the principle works to the good, also."
"In any place where men and women gather," she points out, "there are a certain few who ought not to be trusted. In a city, one meets them every day, often without knowing till it's too late. In a village, everyone knows who they are. One may avoid them, or make allowances when dealing with them. I find that outweighs the occasional annoyance of having one's business known by others before one knows it oneself. Besides, I have very little business to know."
Her broad shoulders shrug beneath the loose fabric of her dress — the grey of which, upon closer examination, reveals subtle undertones of blue.
"Do you," the maester asks without overt scepticism, but in such a way as to stress his own southern vowels…perhaps implicitly alluding to the question of her even more magpied accent. At the same time he surrenders by taking a large, rapid gulp at his drink. The lingeringly bitter kick appears to sting him into further discourse.
"Well, I wouldn't dream of prying, of course, Mistress Astley…but if you ever happen to be in Stonebridge, or should I have to pass this way again…it seems I owe you some…ichor."
The guards exchanges glances. Sarky the casting of Taleryth's response may have been, but he isn't usually even this open to casual conversation with strange smallfolk. Is this the beginning of an, if not beautiful, then…sensible bond…?