"The Serving Wench"

By James Berardinelli

    Annie was a child of the streets. "Urchin" was the word she often heard and, at one time, she thought it was her name. Her mother, a whore, died of influenza was she was three. Her father, a member of The Watch, sent her a pouch with a month's wages shortly after her mother's death then was never heard from again. She didn't know his name and, if she had, it wouldn't have mattered. His coins were well-intended but she didn't have them for long. Coins and possessions, like virginity, were rarities among girls of the streets.

    When she was very young, she was cared for by older orphan girls. She was told she spent nearly a year in the care of the Temple but didn't have any memories of that time. As she grew older, she became suitable for employment by noblewomen for housework and a maid's duties. Those years were happy ones and, although she didn't make much coin, she was allowed to sleep in a dormitory room with other household servants. Unfortunately, the approach of maturity found her again on the streets. Her comely face and well-developed figure became a detriment. Mistresses, seeing their husbands' eyes wandering in her direction, dismissed her. She was left with little choice beyond using those assets to keep from starving.

    The life of a whore wasn't as arduous or unpleasant as she feared it would be. The first few times were painful but, after a while, she got used to it. Once in a long while, there were even hints of pleasure, although those were fleeting. She would never forget a conversation she had with one of her first clients, a grizzled farmer three times her age. After they finished and he was lacing up his breeches, she commented that she was sore.

    His laugh surprised her. "Is that all? Lass, I work my ass off from dawn to dusk in the fields. Some days, I get home in so much pain I can hardly move. Everything hurts - hands, feet, arms, legs. And I'm so damn tired I can hardly stay awake for supper. Work ain't supposed to be fun. It's supposed to be unpleasant. Be glad you can do your job on your back or knees rather than pulling a plow behind you. If'n the gods had made menfolk and womenfolk so different in their ways, I'd trade places with you in a moment."

    Since then, she never felt badly about her profession. Most of the men who paid for her services did so after long, hard days. They weren't gentle but they weren't violent either. They had little stamina and didn't last long. She found it strange that they didn't seem to enjoy the act any more than she did. It was as if they did it out of a compulsion. She guessed it wasn't much different for people than it was for the stallions and mares she sometimes glimpsed coupling in barns and stables.

    She made enough to pay for food but not shelter. During the warm months, life without a home in Vantok wasn't difficult. She could lie in the fields or by the river. Winter was harsh, however. Sometimes an unmarried client would let her spend the night on his floor. More often, the best she could hope for was to curl up a barn loft or stable. Snowy days were the worst. Her flimsy shoes were quickly soaked through and her feet were as cold as ice after being outside for only a few minutes. She hadn't lost any toes yet but some of the older women assured her it would come.

    Although prostitution wasn't the revered institution in Vantok it was in the northern city of Syre, whoring was one of the most popular forms of work for unmarried (and sometimes married) women of a certain age. Annie lacked the refinement to secure employment in a brothel so she worked the streets. She quickly became known as "the pretty one" - her natural beauty, youth, and newness to the profession worked in concert to ensure men came looking for her. She rarely suffered abuse at the hands of a client, although it happened from time to time. She was once gifted with a broken arm, and bruises and black eyes were part of the risk girls like her took.

    She had been working as a whore for nearly three years when the woman sought her out. At first, Annie assumed she was just another customer. She mostly served men but she had been with enough women to know how to please them. Tongues and fingers mainly. In fact, many of her most pleasant experiences had been with members of her sex. They were less perfunctory and, although not necessarily more gentle, at least more considerate. But this woman wasn't interested in buying Annie's skills for a single night. She wanted much more.

    "My name is Ponari," she said by way of introduction. There were sitting on bales of hay in an inn's stable. Outside, the pitter-patter of a late Planting season rain could be heard. It was a gray, dreary day - warm for the time of the year but unpleasant to be out in. "My husband, Warburm, owns this inn. Has owned it, in fact, for several years."

    Annie nodded. She didn't know Ponari but had heard the name of Warburm before. A big man with a bigger reputation.

    "What can I do for you, Ma'am?" She smoothed down the front of her revealing frock when it became apparent Ponari's interest in her lay elsewhere… at least for the moment.

    "My stableboy tells me you have spent many nights in the loft up there." She gestured vaguely toward an area toward the back of the building where Annie occasionally slept, especially during the colder months. The stableboy, a red-haired lad named Visnisk, had a sweet spot for her and turned a blind eye when he saw her sneak in late at night. Someday, she might repay him for his kindness, but he was a little too young at the moment. It was her policy never to trade favors to anyone who hadn't yet reached their Maturity.

    "I do, Ma'am. Mainly when it's cold. I don't hurt no one. I'm quiet and make sure no one 'cept Visnisk sees me. And I never do no business in here."

    Ponari smiled; the expression made her weathered features light up and she seemed years younger. Annie guessed her to be a few years shy of thirty. "My purpose isn't to reprimand you for using the stable but it must be a poor substitute for a fire and a blanket."

    "That's the truth, Ma'am. But ones such as me ain't got that option. We take what we can get an' the few coins I make in a day ain't enough to pay for a night in an inn."

    "And what is it you do for those coins?"

    Annie's eyebrow shot up. Surely Ponari couldn't be ignorant of her profession. "I fuck. Mostly men, sometimes women. Whoever's willing to pay."

    "Are you good at anything else?"

    Some might have been offended by the question, but not Annie. She knew more than a few whores who, faced with the possibility of doing something else, would have been lost. But she was young, strong, inquisitive, and willing to learn. She didn't dislike fucking but she wished she could do it on her terms with whomever she wanted. "I worked as a maid for several years before my Maturity. I ain't afeared of hard work."

    "What about serving tables?"

    "Like in an inn?"

    Ponari nodded. "Like in an inn. Could you do that?"

    Annie didn't see why not and said so.

    "There's more to it than just delivering vittles and drinks to patrons. You have to smile. You have to flirt. You have to give them glimpses down your blouse. And occasionally, if one of them is extra generous, you might be asked to go with him up to his room. It's not a job for a pious or shy girl, but you don't seem to be either."

    Was Ponari offering her a position? Annie's heart began to beat faster at the possibility. None of those things seemed difficult. Teasing men? Letting them see her tits? Sleeping with them? As a whore, she did all those things and more but without the promise of a decent wage or a real bed.

    "Folks tell me I spent a spell in the temple when I was real young but nothin' I learned there stuck."

    "And the gods?"

    "Hear tell from some they've turned away from us. Don't rightly matter to me one way or t'other. I suspect they ain't got any more time for me than I got for them. When you're in the streets, you don't think about the gods much. That's for nobles in big houses and working men who got families to come home to."

    "What's your name?"


    "A pretty name for a pretty girl. And when you're cleaned up, I suspect you'll be prettier. Warburm is a great storyteller but our inn needs something more to compete with The Drunk Doxy and others in our class. My husband and I are relatively new at this business; we only came to the city a few years ago and we're losing money. He asked me to visit the other inns and figure out what they have that we lack. It's serving girls like you. Pretty girls who will do a little extra for the customers. I'm not interested in turning The Wayfarer's Comfort into a brothel but we need to offer more than Warburm's larger-than-life stories, watered down ale, cold meats, warm bread, and old crones to deliver to tables."

    "Are you asking me if I'll work for you, Ma'am?" Annie couldn't keep the excitement from her voice. It was a delicious notion, something she had no right to expect… something she never would have thought possible when she awoke this morning, her belly rumbling.

    Ponari nodded.

    A smile split Annie's face from ear to ear.

    "Let's get you cleaned up and I'll present you to my husband and see if he agrees. You'll be the first of a group of new girls. When I'm done, The Wayfarer's Comfort will have the comeliest crew of serving wenches in the city."

    As it turned out, Warburm was in favor of the idea in general and Annie in particular. During their first meeting, as his eyes drank her in, Annie felt almost embarrassed - something that never happened with men. It wasn't that the innkeeper's gaze was probing but this was the first time anyone of importance had looked at her like that. However, as intimidating as Warburm seemed initially, it didn't take long for Annie to warm up to him. He was a good natured man, full of bluster and bravado but obviously devoted to his wife and ten-year old daughter. He treated Annie with respect even if his eyes were drawn almost magnetically to her cleavage. After a while, she began offering Warburm as many teasing glimpses down the front of her blouse as she did for the patrons.

    Annie settled into her new position with ease. She grew to like the atmosphere in The Wayfarer's Comfort's common room, especially on nights when the place was packed and the drinks were flowing. She enjoyed showing off her body and flirting with patrons without the expectation of a physical encounter, although she frequently accompanied the best tippers to their rooms for a brief assignation. Once or twice, Ponari felt duty-bound to remind Annie that The Wayfarer's Comfort wasn't a whorehouse. On the whole, however, the innkeeper's wife was clearly pleased with her newest serving girl and the increase in customers she brought to the inn. Annie was soon joined by three other young serving girls: one was another refugee from Vantok's streets, one was a visitor from Basingham, and the third was the widow of a murdered man of the Watch.

    One morning, she was alone in the common room wiping down tables when Warburm came through the front door. Outside, it was the dead of Winter, and light, fluffy snowflakes blew through the air like ash. Despite being protected by his bulk from the worst of the cold, he will still ill-dressed to go out on a day like this. He shut the door behind him and vigorously stomped his feet and rubbed his hands together to restore circulation. Annie smiled at him fondly. In the half-year she had been at The Wayfarer's Comfort, she had come to regard Warburm, Ponari, and their daughter, Kira, with great affection - the family she had never known growing up on the streets.

    "Fucking cold," Warburm muttered. "This be the one thing I thought to leave behind when I quit the damn North."

    "I'm glad to have a roof over my head these nights." She couldn't help thinking about all the others who weren't so lucky - girls and boys, men and women who would hunker down tonight in some semi-protected place and hope they didn’t freeze to death during the dark. There were so many of them.

    "The rooms in this inn can be cold without another body to warm the bed."

    At first she thought he was jesting, so she laughed off the comment. It was only after he headed into the kitchen to start preparing the morning vittles that she realized he might be serious. The idea of spending a night with him under the sheets, their bodies entwined, made her knees go weak. Out of shape and old he might be, but Warburm exuded the kind of raw magnetism that few men possessed.

    That night, after the front door was barred and the common room shut down for the night, the innkeeper came to her room. His knock on the door pulled her out of a light sleep. Butterflies danced in her stomach - she knew who it was before she answered. She padded barefoot across the wooden floor, shivering as much from anticipation as from the cold. Her thin shift offered little in the way of warmth but she knew that soon she would be generating enough heat for it to be an unwanted encumbrance.

    Warburm's manner was gentle and deferential - much different from the loud, blustering man who held court every night downstairs. He made it clear that she was under no obligation to lie with him. That was her decision and, agree or refuse, it wouldn't impact her employment. She wasn't sure she believed him, but it didn't matter. She wanted this, even though her conscience nipped at her on Ponari's behalf. Annie had fucked countless married men before but this was the first time she liked and was beholden to the wife. It created an unexpected sense of conflict, although her moral qualms were quickly burned away by the flames of desire.

    For two hours, Annie and Warburm performed acts of mutual satisfaction until, with the morning's first rays rapidly approaching, he departed from her room to catch a few winks before the day's duties required his attention. When Annie later encountered him, he favored her with a smile, indicating he had no regrets about what happened. For her part, she wasn't so sure. It was difficult meeting Ponari's eyes.

    The tryst lasted a week, with Warburm visiting Annie's room every night. After their seventh encounter, however, Warburm simply stopped coming. He gave no reason for stopping and his daytime attitude toward her remained unchanged. She wondered if Ponari had found out but she suspected the reason to be more prosaic: Warburm was bored. Whatever thrill he experienced sleeping with his prettiest, most desirable serving girl had a short fuse.

    Less than two weeks after Warburm's last night in her bed, Annie was awakened shortly after closing by a knock. She rose from bed and answered the door naked, fully expecting to see the innkeeper. To her surprise, her predawn visitor was Ponari. The grogginess accompanying her sudden awakening evaporated.

    Ponari entered and closed the door firmly behind her. The room was nearly pitch black, with only a small amount of light filtering through the small, grime-covered window. Annie heard the swish of clothing being removed and dumbly recognized that the innkeeper's wife's intentions were the same as the innkeeper's.

    "I know you and my husband had a fling. I don't begrudge either of you that. Warburm has always been a lusty bastard - I knew that when he came to my village those many years ago - although he has slowed down in recent years. On the day he agreed to marry me, we made a pact: he could sleep with other women under two conditions: he was honest with me about his assignations and he allowed me to 'share' them if I wanted to. Now that he's done with you…"

    "I… He didn't say anything about this to me." Annie was having trouble forming a coherent thought. She knew that many women turned a blind eye to their men's indiscretions. In fact, in some cases, they encouraged them. But this was the first time she had encountered a situation where the woman wanted her own affair with the mistress.

    "He's too discreet to say anything." Ponari had moved behind Annie and she could feel the other woman's breath on her neck. Her flesh broke out in goose pimples. "As brash as he may seem, I'm usually the one who has to take the lead in these things. In fact, I wanted you more than he did. It took a little prodding from me for him to make a move. As I said, he has been slowing down lately. Not as demanding in bed as he used to be and it's more difficult to get his… attention."

    Annie focused on one thing Ponari said. "You wanted me?"

    "From the day I hired you. It was inappropriate then but enough time has passed. Of course, you don't have to do this. All I need is a single word from you. If you say no, I'll pick up my clothing and leave. Nothing will be said about this tomorrow. If, on the other hand, you say yes…"

    Annie didn't have to think about the answer; she didn't even wait for Ponari to finish. "Yes."

    While the affair with Warburm lasted a single week with nightly encounters, it was different with Ponari. The innkeeper's wife came to her room throughout the rest of Winter and into Planting, although almost never more than once a week and sometimes with much longer gaps in between. By the time Ponari's ardor for Annie cooled, Summer was approaching.

    When their trysts ended, Ponari didn't remark on it and the innkeeper's wife continued to be cordial to Annie by day. For his part, Warburm acted as if Annie was just another in his small stable of serving maids; she was unsure whether he was aware of her liaison with his wife although she suspected he was. If it mattered, he never showed an indication of it. By mid-Summer, all was back to where it had been before the night Warburm first came to Annie's room. Much to her surprise, she found herself no worse for the experience and neither Ponari nor Warburm showed any inclination toward reprisals. She put it down to their being foreigners. Natural-born Vantok citizens wouldn't be so open-minded.

    Summer gave way to Harvest, Harvest to Winter, and Winter to Planting. During that time, Annie's outgoing personality and physical attributes made her one of the most popular serving girls in all of Vantok's inns. She received several offers to change employers but her loyalty to Warburm and Ponari was firm (although parlayed those offers into obtaining better terms at The Wayfarer's Comfort). She gradually scaled back on providing customers with "special" service regardless of how well they tipped. Once a whore, always a whore, some might say. Annie was determined to prove them wrong.

    That didn't mean she was ready to swear a vow of celibacy, but her affairs were less often with men who frequented The Wayfarer's Comfort. She spent the better part of a week having nonstop sex (during her off hours) with a handsome, dusky merchant from the northern city of Andel. She dallied with Vagrum, the personal guardian of little Lady Alicia, the daughter of Duke Carannan. And, on one occasion when they were both drunk, she and Ponari briefly re-ignited each other's flames.

    One late Planting morning, Annie came down into the common room after lying abed late. Warburm and Ponari were already up and about, engaged in an animated conversation.

    "He's too young. No one works in a stable at that age. You should have left him on the farm with his parents for a couple more years rather than bringing him here now." Ponari sounded aggrieved.

    "At his age, I were helping my old da clear out whole forests. He'll be fine. Just give him some time ta settle in, that be all he needs. Let that shit Visnisk train him then, when he gets older, he can replace him."

    "Visnisk is hardly the kind of boy I'd want to be a role model."

    "He knows his job an' that be all that matters."

    "Where's he going to sleep?"

    "In the stable."

    "You're not serious."

    "It be a damn better place to bed down that that shit-hole shack where Kara and Lamanar be holed up. Nice straw for bedding…"

    "Shitty, mice-filled straw for bedding."

    Noticing Annie's presence, Warburm aimed a question at her. "Waddya think, Annie? You slept out there sometimes afore you came ta work here. Be the stable a good place to bed down?"

    As an alternative to sleeping in a gutter or out in the open, certainly. But as a place to lie down every night…

    "I suppose if it gets cleaned up…"

    "There!" harrumphed Warburm as if he had scored a point. "That be his incentive to make the stable the cleanest in Vantok."

    "Who?" asked Annie.

    "The boy's name is Sorial," said Ponari, emerging from the kitchen. "He's the son of a farmer and his wife. They offered his service until his Maturity - ten years in all - in exchange for an upfront payment. Their crops have been failing and they need the money. Plus, with their son here, it's one less mouth for them to feed."

    "Pity in a way, though," mused Warburm. "Kara done said he be a natural-born farmer. Better'n his father, that be for sure."

    "When does he get here?"

    "He's here already," said Ponari. "Lamanar brought him up from the farm this morning. He's out in the stable, 'observing' Visnisk, learning all the lazy boy's shortcuts."

    Annie's heart went out to the little boy - five years old, severed from his parents, thrust into a strange situation… She remembered what it was like to be alone in a hostile world at such a young age. "I'll see if he needs anything."

    Ponari nodded but Warburm grunted. "Don't coddle the lad. He be here ta work, an' work he will. You'll have ten years ta get ta know him, if you stick around that long."

    When Annie entered the stable, she received a lascivious grin from Visnisk, which she ignored. Once, when he had been shy and guileless, she had liked him but age had turned a measure of his sweetness to vinegar. Of late, something about him made her skin crawl. She spotted Sorial easily, sitting dejected and cross-legged atop a bale of hay. His clothes were ragged, like those of a beggar, and his skin was filthy. The hair atop his head had been cropped close as a guard against lice. He was short but stout; the musculature evident in his young form testified to how hard he had been worked on his parents' farm. The tone of his skin and his dark eyes marked his heritage as being at least part-Syrene.

    Those eyes met hers as she approached him.

    "Are you here to take me back to my mama?" he asked. His voice was soft but determined. Annie noted there were no tear-tracks in the dirt caking his face. This might be hard on him but he wasn't crying about it.

    "No." She kept her tone gentle as she knelt beside him. "Your ma and da have put you in the care of Master Warburm and Mistress Ponari at The Wayfarer's Comfort. Here, in return for working, you'll have a place to sleep and a full belly every day." She didn't want to lie to the boy but there was no point scaring him with a more frank appraisal of his situation. For ten years, he would be Warburm's slave in all but name. Sorial's services had been paid for until the day of his Maturity. Still, based on her knowledge of Warburm, he wouldn't be an unreasonable master… or so she hoped.

    "I wanna go home," said Sorial. It was a simple statement, made without whining or pleading. But there was resignation in his tone; he knew he wouldn't be returning to the place he called "home."

    "This is your home now. An' there's many of us as will be happy to have you here. All the serving girls." Most of them, herself included, would dote on him. "The lads who run errands. The watchmen Master Warburm pays to keep an eye on his property. Even Visnisk and Errabad, the stable hands."

    "The fat man…"

    "Warburm," clarified Annie, stifling a chuckle. She wondered how the innkeeper would react to being called that. He liked to think of himself as muscular.

    "Fat Waborn said I was to sleep here. I don't like it here. There are things in the straw."

    Annie's lips quirked in a smile. "There's a lot worse places to sleep an' I've spent many a night in a few of them. Here it's dry and don't smell too bad." That was mostly true except during hot summer days when the combined stench of animals and shit made the stable stink worse than The Wayfarer Comfort's privy pit. "The mice and rats won't bother you. They're just looking for a cool place to make their nests."

    "Is you staying out here too?" A note of hope crept into Sorial's voice. Annie's heart went out to him; he was trying so hard to be brave but it was obvious he was lost and scared. She remembered those days. They weren't so long ago.

    "No. I got a room in the inn. I work for Warburm and Ponari and I'm always around. If you need someone to talk to or if you feel lonely, come find me."

    Over the course of the next few weeks, Sorial did that often. As he became more acclimated to living at The Wayfarer's Comfort and as Warburm began assigning him more demanding work - chores that Annie personally believed were too arduous for one so young - the frequency of his visits diminished. When the innkeeper issued an edict that "workers in the stable" weren't allowed in the common room when it was open for business, it required Annie to seek out Sorial rather than the other way around.

    One Restday, after spending a day and evening swimming in the Vantok River and visiting some friends, Annie returned to The Wayfarer's Comfort near closing to find that her presence had been missed. "Someone be waitin' for you in yer room," Warburm told her as soon as she walked through the front door. "She been there for much of the night and ain't gonna leave till she talks to you."


    Warburm's only response was a shrug. She scanned the room for Ponari but the innkeeper's wife was nowhere to be found.

    When Annie entered her small chamber - a converted windowless storage closet that was barely large enough for her bed and a pair of rickety chairs - the lantern was already lit. It didn't offer a great deal of illumination but what there was, was sufficient to reveal her visitor. Annie had never seen the slight, nattily dressed woman before but she recognized the features. There was no mistaking that she was a native of the northern city of Syre and also a close relative of Sorial - most likely his mother.

    She rose from the chair where she had been sitting, nervously smoothed down her skirt, and extended her hand while making direct eye contact with Annie. "My name is Kara. Kara bet Lamanar. You must be Annie."

    She shook her head. "You're Sorial's mother?"

    The answering smile was tinged with sadness. "He's my son. Or at least was until our circumstances forced us to indenture him to Warburm."

    "A choice you don't agree with?"

    "My husband Lamanar is more practical and less sentimental than I am. He did what was best for Sorial and us. Now we don't have to scrimp as much and Sorial can be assured of food, water, and shelter. Warburm has his flaws but he's a good man. That doesn't make it any easier. Sorial is all I have and I miss him dreadfully."

    "He's a good boy. It was hard for him at first but he's starting to fit in."

    "You must be wondering why I'm here."

    Annie didn't say anything but the question was foremost in her mind.

    "Sorial is a special boy. I know all mothers think that of their sons but in this case… At any rate, I'd like you to look after him. That's a lot to ask for a young woman but, as fair a man as Warburm may be, he has many rough edges. Sorial needs nurturing and an inn isn't the best place for him to get it. The work and his new master will harden him up for whatever lies ahead but he needs someone with a… softer touch… as well."

    It was, thought Annie, a strange request. Not difficult but odd. She sensed there was something going on that she wasn't privy to.

    "If all you're asking is that I be Sorial's friend, nothing could be easier. We already got a bond; he's the closest thing I got to a little brother." It was, Annie reflected, an odd family indeed. Father Warburm, mother Ponari, sister Annie, brother Sorial. Like all families, though, theirs was undoubtedly a temporary union. She wondered how long it would last.

    "Thank you." The words were spoken with a mixture of gratitude and relief, almost as if Kara had been expecting another response. Annie supposed a lot of girls her age would feel burdened by the consideration of looking after a boy, but she wasn't one of them. Connecting with people in a meaningful way had become important to her regardless of their age or gender.

    Kara departed without another word, leaving Annie alone in her room.

    The next day, she added another charge to her list of duties: barmaid at the Wayfarer's Comfort, occasional companion to rich and lonely travelers, tutor to Warburm and Ponari's daughter, and close friend and future confidante to the inn's newest stableboy. Little did she know where it would all lead…