The tenth response in the One Lovely Blog Award Series is to Elijah Toten's flash fiction, "The Machine".
The traveler held the door open, rain squalling around his arms while he blinked to scatter raindrops from his eyelashes. Mary took his hand, noticing the black soil lining the edges of his nails as she shouldered the door shut. The traveler dripped on the straw chaff. The rain had soaked clear through his jerkin and his linen sleeves clung to his biceps. _Not bad, for a farmer,_ thought Mary.
"You've found the Fortune's End Tavern," said Mary. "The best tavern outside the Krone's Forest. Can I help you?"
"What is the common meal?"
"A beet stew with black bread."
"I'll take that," said the young man.
Mary smiled watching the man's face to see how he'd take it. "I need to see your coin. Sorry, we get too many dead enders out to visit Krone without a farthing left."
The man pulled a purse on a leather thong draped around his neck dripping water and flashed a silver at Mary.
"Would you like some ale to go with that as well?" asked Mary.
Mary carried a platter with a large bowl and hunk of bread on it and in her other hand she held the tankard. The man had sat at a table by the fire. It would take a while for him to dry.
The man tore a hunk of bread and dipped it in the stew and ate it with a single chew almost more for show before swallowing. He glanced up, Mary hadn't left.
"Do you mind if I sit with you?" asked Mary.
A possessiveness tinged the stormcloud gray eyes as the man glanced at his stew and bread.
"No, no need to share," said Mary. "The tavern is empty and William, he's the cook, won't speak to me. It makes the hours creep."
"Okay," said the man.
"What's your name?"
"John. Why is the tavern so empty? I expected a crowd to be waiting for the Krone."
"It's Midsummer Eve," said Mary.
"So." John soaked a cube of bread in the soup.
"The Krone takes a week off."
"No, she can't do that," said John.
"Don't you farmers know anything?" Mary brushed a finger through her hair, pulling her too long bangs behind an ear. "Besides, you shouldn't visit the Krone. She'll cheat you.
"No," said John. "My third cousin twice removed married a princess after visiting the Krone."
Mary shook her head. "You hear about the rare one who succeeds, but what about all those who never return? Who never get their wish granted by the Krone. Instead, they pay with their souls. A forest full of souls for every rare man or woman who succeeds."
He looked at her for a long moment, a drop from his hair falling to scatter on the wood table. "I don't have a choice," he said.
The door banged open, Amegmon and three of his twisted brothers entered the tavern.
Mary approached the four men and said, "I'll get you some ale."
Amegmon grabbed Mary holding her close pinching her through the skirt. "Don't take too long, we wouldn't want to miss your company."
She brought out a pitcher and four tankards for the men. Amegmon grabbed her wrist. "I think you'll join us." Amegmon lips thinned into a sneer that left Mary's blood cold.
"No. Don't coerce the lady."
Mary looked up, surprised to see John standing over the table. "No, don't insult them. They are the Krone's sons."
"I don't care who they are," said John. "They shouldn't treat you this way."
Amegmon let go of Mary. "You look like a traveler here to see the Krone. We can ensure she has a fun challenge for you." Amegmon's brothers chuckled at his words.
John grabbed Mary's hand and retreated back to his table by the fire.
"Why did you do that?" asked Mary.
"You have a point, maybe I won't see the Krone."
_Maybe, he wasn't a stupid villager._ "I thought you were broke," said Mary.
"You can stay with me tonight," said Mary.
"It's just a favor until you have some money." _Or she got to know him better._