Singing an ambling harvest tune, Harold scrounged through the pile of rubbish outside the back entrance to the Dove Tail Inn’s kitchen. He plucked a half-eaten apple and a handful of wilted turnip greens from the refuse, before the door hinges’ creaked.
Hugging the shadows, Harold willed himself to vanish against the plaster and into the shade of his hat’s flopped brim.
Meanwhile, firelight created a slivered silhouette out of the servant girl standing in the opening. Around her, the warmth of blazing hearths and merriment flooded across the threshold, twined with smell of savory meats and fresh baked loaves.
“Here,” she said, “take this instead.” She offered a bundle wrapped in a sauce-spattered rag.
Harold clutched his findings close.
“It’s all right,” said the girl. She stepped from the kitchen, her rounded cheeks dimpled by a tentative smile.
Gently discarding his collection, Harold neared. He held out both hands, and the girl placed the bundle on his grimy palms.
“Thank you, Miss,” said Harold. He bowed his head, and scraped his foot upon the cobblestones.
The girl winced.
“You’re welcome,” she said before dashing back inside as the Inn’s husky matron hollered her name again.
Cradling the bundle, Harold stared at the closed door. Pots clanged within, and snapping embers spoke of stirred fires. The glug of pouring ale or wine made his mouth water. With a glance at his treasure, he chortled.
A Melinda inspired tune swelled in his chest, and he sang to himself as he shuffled along the wall separating the Inn’s private dining chambers from the side alley. He sang as he crossed wagon-carved ruts the main thoroughfare, and traversed another debris cluttered lane. He sang until he reached the river gleaming beneath the rising moon.
Finding a spot for himself on the stone banks, Harold began modifying the verses as he investigated the bundle’s contents. He added a line for the discovered half-loaf of rye and created two stanzas for the hand-sized wedge of verdant-veined cheese. He tweaked the chorus to include a reference to the cluster of walnuts. Between famished bites, he bellowed the praises of the sweet Melinda, making generous comparisons to the lapping waves, and the pure gleam of the orb overhead.
As Harold belted out a new verse on how Melinda might also rival the sun, a pair of shutters cracked open from the clustered homes lining the waterway.
“Will you shut up?”
Harold ducked a handful of mortar pitched at his head.
“Go on,” said the disgruntled listener, “get out of here.”
Harold doffed his hat in an apologetic salute. Tucking the empty napkin into his tattered coat, he scurried down the waterfront. The shutters snapped closed, and a nighttime quiet draped the waves and surrounding blocks.
Winding his way along the river, Harold spotted the bridge and his good-nature rebound. Oil-fueled lanterns glowed across the archway, intensifying the shadows underneath. Harold started in on another tune inspired by the dry patch of earth waiting beneath the stones, and the meager possessions he’d accumulated between the pylons.
“Hey,” said a shadow down a perpendicular lane.
Hunching into his coat, Harold ignored the nearing shade. The footsteps, however, matched his pace, and then neared at a trot.
Diving into his song, Harold focused on a new stanza and ignored the stranger in his wake.
“Hey, you, with the hat, stop.”
Closing his eyes, Harold hurried on, until a hand landed on his shoulder. The heavy grasp halted him in his tracks, silenced his voice, and then spun Harold where he stood.
A burly fellow clouded in haze of beer, with a thick ebony beard stared down, eyes like onyx blades.
“I’m sorry if I bothered you, sir.” Harold cowered in anticipation of a forthcoming blow.
Instead, a beaming smile appeared between the man’s bushy lips.
“Sing that bit again,” he said. “The one you were belting at the river.”
Frowning, Harold glanced back the way he had come. The spot where he’d eaten lay empty, the windows all shuttered against the night. He struggled to recall the tune, but the notes and the words slipped through his mind as if greased.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, sir.”
“Sure you do. The one about the Inn’s servant girl.”
Harold squeezed the sauce-stained linen sprouting from his pocket. The warmth of the Inn and Melinda’s smile stirred his memory. Closing his eyes, he started humming. As the words tumbled back from the depths of inspiration, the burly man released Harold’s shoulder. Regardless, Harold sung on, beginning to sway and bob his head in the rhythm. As the last stanza crossed his lips, he quieted, and opened his eyes.
Latched onto Harold’s face, the man stood stock still, his gaze intent. “How would you like a job?”
Harold smirked. “I’m not sure sir. It’s been a long time since I’ve had one.”
The man’s grin returned, his teeth catching the moonlight. “Fair enough. I’d like to offer you one.”
Tilting his head, Harold looked the man up and down, from polished boots to the cape draping his broad shoulders and hiding a barrel-sized form.
The fellow tossed back his cloak, and Harold flinched. Instead of a sword, dagger, or quick punch, however, the man revealed a scarlet and tangerine checkered tunic beneath the dun-colored fabric. He set his hands on his hips.
“Have you heard of the Burling Brothers?”
Gaping, Harold shook his head.
“Really?” The man’s smile faded a hair. “Well,” he said, recovering his bravado, “I’m Mathias, the third in the quintet. We’re a traveling troupe of players.”
“Good for you,” said Harold.
“Thanks,” said Mathias with a chuckle. “I heard you singing from inside the Inn. You’re good. We could use a man with that kind of voice, that kind of spin with lyrics.”
Harold shrugged. “I just sing what comes to mind.”
“That’s fine, that’s fine,” said Mathias. “My brother Edgar can help you with the rest.”
“Well I don’t know….”
“Wouldn’t you rather be inside the Inn’s then out in the garbage?”
The idea of being dry and fed, cozying up to flames and friends, stirred a sense of loneliness within Harold’s gut. He glanced toward the bridge, and his make-shift hovel underneath.
Additional footsteps diverted his gaze.
Four more figures emerged out of the night. One cupped a hand to his mouth, aiding his already booming voice. “Did you find him, Mathias?”
“Yes,” said Mathias.
“He’s making up his mind.” Mathias grinned, and swept his arm toward the foursome slowing at the riverbank’s edge. “My brothers.”
“I see,” said Harold. He shuffled back a step, and curled into his coat. “I don’t know….”
Mathias relaxed, his poise softening. Digging into his tunic’s pocket, he offered a handful of coins. “No rush my friend. Take the night. Think it over.”
Harold stared at Mathias’ open palm, and froze. The burly man grabbed Harold’s hesitant arm, deposited the coins into his dirty hand, and folded his fingers over the bit of money.
“We’ll be leaving the Inn in the morning,” said Mathias. “Come join us if you like, if not, at least find yourself a good meal.”
Mathias thumped Harold’s shoulder, nearly pitching him into the river. The player’s smiled again, and he turned, sauntering off into the waiting band of his compatriots.
“He’ll tell us in the morning,” said Mathias.
The four others shrugged, and then they started back into town. One, a high tenor, began a tune, and after a few steps their harmony blossomed.
Harold waited until their voices dwindled. He imagined them inside the Inn, snug and warm, maybe having another drink or bite to eat delivered by the fair Melinda. Their song lingered in his ears, bawdy and merry like a summer day. He glanced at his closed fist, the coins countering with a metallic chill. A shiver dashed through him, and he hunched deeper into his coat.
Even when he crouched beneath the bridge, and bundled into the threadbare remains of once-horse blankets he’d gathered over the intervening months, the song of the Burling Brothers teased. Within the comforts of his known possessions, Harold watched the river surge by and wondered what the morning would bring.