I move quickly to follow him but almost immediately stop in my tracks, amazed by what hides inside. I am flanked on both sides by bricked walls, stretching on down along this rocky lane into the distance. On the left is a doorway with a sign posted above it which reads, The Goat and the Mare. The smells emanating from this door are like nothing I’ve ever encountered before. Not all of them are good. Most of them are downright terrible. On the right, is a stairway leading into darkness below street level.
Griff has also come back to stop and stare at the smelly door to the left. His mouth is slack and I think I catch a glimpse of drool. “You ready to eat, kid?” he asks.
“Sure,” I say, even though I’m rather uncertain about eating at a place which stinks like this. “I’ll even pay.”
“I don’t think so, kid. I haven’t paid for lunch in ages.”
“It’s really okay,” I reply.
“No, it’s not. I’ve made it my lifelong goal to prove those idiots who claim there’s no such thing as a free lunch wrong. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let them be right at a place like this.”
“Okay, so, what’s the scam then?”
“Good question.” Griff scratches his chin. He snaps his finger quickly and points it at me. “Alright, so, what we do, is we sit down, eat our meal, and when the bill comes, we both—“
“Let me stop you there,” I cut in. “We both battle over who will pay the bill and the owner, because we’re such good patrons and they fear losing business, will offer the thing on the house.”
“Right,” Griff grins.
“Only a few problems with that one,” I reply. “We’ve never been here before, how do they know we’re good customers?”
“Well, look at us,” Griff’s smile grows devious, a tell-tale sign he’s working a scam. “We’re both obviously well-to-do. This place looks like it’s for a much lesser clientele.”
“Sure, okay,” I smile. “There’s one other issue. I know how this scam really works.”
“You do?” Griff frowns, his face showing that he’s been caught.
“Yeah, it’s an old George Burns joke. Basically, the bill comes, I say, ‘I’ll pay for it,” and you say ‘Thanks!’”
“Oh,” Griff frowns deeper. “Guess I’ve told that one a few times, eh? Always wanted to try it out”
“There is one additional issue I have with that scam,” I continue.
“Yeah? What’s that? Too simple?”
“I thought you said you’d never scam me.”
“Well,” Griff says, a knowing smile crossing his lips. “You did say you were willing to pay.”
“You’re damned right I am,” Griff laughs heartily on his way into the building.
I sigh and follow. My eyes are forced to adjust to the darkened interior. Candles and a fire in the fireplace seem to be the only lighting allowed within this stinky stone-walled establishment. Around the room I see four tables and eight men, all wearing brown colored tunics with what appeared to be nothing more than stockings underneath.
“Looks like some sort of soup kitchen,” Griff whispers in my ear.
“Yeah,” is all can come up with for a response.
“Just make like you’re poor and we should be able to come out of this with some bellies full of gruel and your pockets still flush with cash.”
“But, don’t you think—“
“It’s gruel, kid. I don’t have to think.”
Griff enters and sits at the only empty table available. I sit down next to him, hoping the smell will either dissipate, or I’ll finally get used to it.
“Man, it’s potent in here, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I agree, “I’m starting to think those tunics didn’t start out brown.”
“Gross.” Griff scrunches his face in disgust. “No, I meant the gruel. They must be making a fantastic batch today. Service!” he yells to the lady standing behind the bar.
A round woman with a grimace that could turn away armies waddles over to our table. For a brief moment, I could swear she smiled at the sight of us, but every look from then on shows nothing but the scowliest of scowls. She has a white fabric over her head. It looks almost like something a nun would wear. She’s also wearing a large dark gown which looks a lot like the tunics the men in here have on, just longer.
“Wha’ d’ewe wan’?” she asks grumpily, seeming almost like she’s trying to make it extra obvious we’re putting her out.
“Two bowls of your finest gruel, please,” Griff states happily, ignoring the foul stench which arrived at the table with our waitress.
“Awright, won fo’ ewe and ewer moo’ den,” she responds. “Since Eye own’t knows ya, Owl be needin’ me paymen’ obfron’. Foe pence foe the lot o’ ya.”
“What?” Griff asks.
“Oi sed foe pence.”
“I’m sorry ma’am, but I fear we’re speaking different languages here. Would you be able to provide us both with a bowl of gruel or not?”
“Yeh,” she answers and then holds her hand out, palm up, in front of Griff’s face, “foe pence.”
“I have absolutely—“
“Hold on,” I cut Griff off. “I think she’s saying we owe her four pence for the food,” I say, looking at the woman.
“Yeh, foe pence,” she looks at Griff with a scowl. “Yeh gotcher sef a brigh’ ‘ittle moo’ dea, doncha?”
“Excuse us for a minute, will you?” Griff says to the lady.
“Awright,” she grumbles. “Oi’ll be ‘ere.” She returns to her spot behind the bar and continues her conversation with the frail man who is hastily slurping from his own bowl of food.
“What the hell is going on here?” Griff asks me in a hushed scream.
“I don’t know,” I respond back in kind. “Do they have like a Renaissance Faire or something that we didn’t know about?”
“That lady just asked us for four pence. Four pence! Who the hell even knows what a pence is?”
“It’s the plural of a penny, isn’t it? You know, like in middle age talk or whatever.”
“Oh, so, she just wants four cents?”
“Well I can do that.” He begins fishing through his pockets. “Actually, I don’t have any change. And you said you were going to pay.”
I place my backpack on the ground beside me and begin digging through the front pocket, knowing I had placed a collection of coins in here a few days ago. I find a pile at the bottom and grab a handful, placing it on the table in front of me. Noting it was mostly chrome colored coinage and not the copper, I return to my hunt. Griff waves the woman back over.
“Awright den,” she says while walking toward us. “Ya get ‘er awl figgered out yet?”
“Yes.” Griff digs through my coins while I hunt to see if I can find the missing fourth penny we need. “We have one, two, three. Oh, here it is, four pennies for you.” He picks the pennies off the table and hands them to the woman.
“Wha’ da bwoody ‘ell is dis, den?” she cackles. “Ya got all that stirling in fron’ uv ya and ya fink ya ken give me dis garbage?” She reaches toward the table, grabs a quarter, and bites down on it. “Oi’ll be roight back wiv yas grull.” She waddles away once again.
“I thought she said it was just four cents,” Griff scowls.
“Whatever,” I reply. “A quarter for a dinner for two is still a steal in this town.”
“I’m pretty sure we just got scammed.”
“What about rule number 5?” I ask.
Griff crosses his arms angrily. “Never get in the way of another man’s grift. But that’s only rule 5a. You’re forgetting 5b.”
“5b?” I ask in surprise, reaching into my bag to pull out The Scammer’s Bible to see what I might have missed.
“Never get in the way of another man’s grift, unless they’re trying to swindle you.” He closes my book as soon as I get it open on the table. “Don’t worry, it’s not in there. It’s a common sense amendment.”
“I didn’t know there were any amendments to the Bible,” I smirk.
“Well, now you do.”
“’Ere ya gow,” the lady says gruffly. She plops two bowls down on the table in front of us, slopping big gobs of the porridge-like substance onto the cover of my book. She leaves without another word. Griff licks his lips and picks up a spoon from the table behind him.
“Is this what you ordered?” I feel a growing urge to run outside.
“Don’t let the look fool ya, kid.” He ladles a spoonful and holds it in front of his face to blow on it. “This is the real deal.”
I eye the concoction before me with a wrinkled nose, more concerned about the smell than the appearance of the dish.
“Don’t let it get cold on you,” he says between spoonfuls. He lets out a disgusting moan I fear might be from pleasure before he looks at me again. “Seriously, don’t let it get cold. That stuff turns to pure cement when it cools down.” He reaches behind himself again and grabs another spoon, sliding it in front of me before he returns to his bowl and prepares another bite for consumption.
I lift the spoon and tentatively place it within the goopy material. It sucks the spoon under, forcing me to hold on tightly or fear losing it within the murky depths.
“You got lucky, kid. Normally this stuff is much thinner. Looks like they’ve got barley and oats here.”
“Yeah,” I mutter under my breath, pulling my spoon from the bowl and noting how the whole thing, bowl and all, lifts slightly from the table at the action, until the gruel finally gives way and allows a heaping pile of the supposedly liquid foodstuff to separate from the rest of the goopy mess.
“Go on,” Griff says eagerly, watching me intently, waiting for me to take my first bite.
Tenderly I bring the spoon to my mouth, the smell of the witch’s brew growing exponentially the closer it gets to my nose. I pinch my nostrils shut with my free hand and open my mouth wide, figuring I should probably give it a real try before completely counting it out. I mean, egg salad smells horrible and tastes almost edible, right?
I close my eyes tightly, hoping that removing all sensory connections to what is about to enter my mouth will somehow make this effort a less scary affair.
Mustering up all the courage I have, I shove the spoon into my mouth and close my lips around it, instantly barraged by an assault on the two senses I have left. It tastes like someone slow roasted a piece of roadkill, probably an opossum, and used the drippings to make oatmeal out of rabbit turds, before finally covering the whole thing in sugar.
Interestingly enough, the texture was less intricate and more like rotten leather.
I jump up from my chair, knocking it over in the process. A loud yelp unintentionally escapes my lips right before I sputter and spit the vile stew from my mouth, falling over myself and the table behind me as I do.
Griff breaks into uproarious laughter. The rest of the patrons of the establishment look on with fear at this crazed girl making a scene in their odd restaurant.
“Relax, kid.” Griff stands and helps get me steadied before returning me to my chair. “Everyone reacts to the stuff the same way the first time. You’ll learn to love it.”
“I don’t think I want to learn anything more about that stuff ever.”
“Oi,” comes a shout from across the room. “Ewe awright?” I’m pretty certain I catch a smirk on her face.
“Yeah,” I say with a breathless gasp. “I’m fine.”
Griff attempts to stifle his laughter, but a light guffaw breaks out every few seconds as he relives the sequence of events in his mind.
“How in the world do you eat that?” I ask in surprise.
“I grew up on the stuff. Come to think of it, I don’t think my mom ever ate much of it, but she made a bunch of it for me for some reason.”
“Gross.” I attempt to spit out a few kernels of barley stuck behind my teeth.
“I’ll admit, it ain’t perfect, but it’s about as close to what mom used to make as you can get nowadays,” he says, reflecting happily. “It’s a pretty darn good recipe.”
“Yeah?” I ask. “What is it? Take everything that’s about to rot in the kitchen, boil it for three days, and then strain it through a dirty sock?”
“Yeah,” Griff responds while swallowing. “Pretty much exactly like that.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever understand you,” I scowl in frustration.
“Good.” He scrapes the sticky substance off the bottom of his bowl. “That’s how I like it. So, you gonna finish that or what?”
I shove the bowl toward him without a word.
Clang, clang, clang, clang!
At the sound of the bells, which I’m guessing comes from the nearby cathedral, everyone inside the bar jumps to their feet and scrambles to get out the door.
“Oi,” one of the men says. He trips over himself to get to the exit, “eddn’t fought it war fore bells ‘et.”
Griff and I look at each other in stunned silence. We’re now the only two people left within this odd establishment. Even the person running it has left.
“You think it’s part of the show?” I ask him, hoping to be able to get away from the smell which continues to linger within this dank room.
“Iunoh,” he says through a full mouth. He scrambles to shove the last few mouthfuls of gruel from my bowl into his mouth. He swallows and follows up with, “But it looks like there’s more gruel for me.”
He jumps to his feet and appears behind the counter, pouring himself a third bowl of the questionable substance. I decide to take the lead and head for the exit, hoping he’ll decide to follow.
He does. Bowl in hand.
Go to Chapter Eight