Chapter 12: Rumors

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Hildegund brushed the few drops of rain out her short blond curls as she stepped through the entrance of the tavern-inn. Shaking off the damp chill of outside, she noticed an immediate shift in both temperature and brightness. Oil lamps were already lit, despite it still being early evening, and the room was awash in yellow light. The air hummed with casual conversation.

From where she stood in the entranceway, Hildegund saw a wide wooden staircase to her right, which she assumed led to the sleeping quarters above. The main floor appeared to be one large room. Long tables were set up to accommodate many guests, but only about a dozen travelers - all men - occupied the benches. As she scanned the room for her father and Grimbert, she noticed an older woman was sitting on a stool along the far wall. The woman was sitting by a counter that was next to the burning hearth. A large simmering cooking pot was the source of the tempting aroma she had noticed outside. In here, the smell of stew was even stronger, masking the musky and earthy odors that the many travelers surely had brought with them.

After about a minute of standing, Hildegund's eyes finally landed on Richart and Grimbert. They were sitting next together at a table with other travelers. A stein of beer was sitting in front of her father, who was busy talking to an older man wearing a dark green cloak. Grimbert's stein, however, was pressed to his lips, his head tilted back as he drank eagerly.

"It smells wonderful in here," Hildegund declared as she sat next to her father.

"I'm sure it tastes delicious, too," he turned to her. "Are you hungry?"

"It does taste delicious, honey, lemme grab you all a bowl, it will warm you top to toe," the woman who had been sitting next to the hearth responded. The full-figured woman now stood only a few feet away and Hildegund noticed how the woman's broad and friendly features resembled those of the young man who had just helped her with the horses.

"You must be Maggie. The stable hand said your stew was the best around," Hildegund smiled.

"That's my son. And he would be correct. And, if you know my name, honey, may I know yours?"

"Yes, I'm Joseph," she said without hesitation. It was the first time she had introduced herself to a stranger, and a thrill rushed through her.

"While you're grabbing us bowls of stews, refill my ale, will you?" Grimbert half-asked-half-demanded.

"Yes, of course," Maggie replied curtly before walking back over to the cooking pot to serve them supper.

"Joseph, eh? That was my son's name," the man wearing a green riding cloak mumbled. He was slowly nursing his drink and beer was dripping down the corners of his mouth, dampening his white whiskers.

"A good name indeed," Richart confirmed.

"He was a good lad, until he ran into trouble on the road," the man continued.

"Recently?" Grimbert questioned.

"Oh no, many years ago, but you've always had to have precautions on the road," he said, a fire in his eyes.

"There you go, honey," Maggie said as she placed three bowls of stew and a freshly full stein on the table in front of them. Grimbert grabbed for the beer immediately. "Old Gregory is right, though. There's been talk of trouble on the road once you cross into the Kingdom of Hungary."

"Ay, along the Danube," another man with a patch on one eye added from down the table.

"We are still two days ride outside of Worms," Richart began, sliding one bowl of stew towards Hildegund and keeping one in front of him. Hildegund knew that Worms was where they would stop following the Rhine River and instead catch a barge down the Danube River. "How have you come upon this information?" Richart wanted to know.

"This is an inn. News spreads quickly," Maggie answered matter-of-factly.

Richart seemed to consider this for a moment as he took a bite of stew, "Well, we thank you for the caution, friends."

"And thank you for the stew. It really is delicious," Hildegund said truthfully as she slurped from the bowl.

"She's right, it is delicious," Richart nodded in agreement.

Hildegund froze. Her cheeks flushed and her ears burned. She? Did her father just say she? Everything had been going so well and now her entire disguise was going to be undone by a pronoun.

Catching his daughter's panicked look, Richart stuttered, "Maggie was right, yes, Maggie, you were right, this is the best stew around! I agree with my son."

Grimbert, who had been busily drowning himself in ale stopped, baffled, and looked at Richart and Hildegund. But before Grimbert could say anything, Maggie accepted the compliment graciously and walked away from their table.

"If you both think the stew is so fabulous, I guess I better eat up," Grimbert said, a quizzical expression lingering on his face.

Hildegund realized with amazement that no one seemed to notice her father's flub. Either people were oblivious, or her disguise was truly convincing.

After they had supped, they went to lay in a shared bed located in the corner of a communal sleeping room on the second floor. As snores reverberated around the room, Hildegund couldn't seem to close her eyes. Her disguise had worked well. Better than expected. Even with her father's slip of tongue.

But that wasn't the only thing that kept her awake. What sort of trouble was waiting down the road? Being a boy wouldn't save her from a robber's blade. She prayed to God for her safety.

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