“Manu, Manu, we're back!”
Manuel hadn't seen the young boy who was storming into the Cramerhouse like a whirlwind now for a rather long time, and he opened his arms for Oscar with a huge smile on his face, neither of them caring that young lords shouldn't run and yell like that.
Oscar threw himself into his arms with a loud shout of joy, and Manuel whirled him around his axis before putting him back onto his feet again.
“Lord Oscar, I can't believe it! You've already become taller again since your last visit! It won't take long until you'll be as tall as your father,” he said, and Oscar blushed and giggled like only eleven-year-old boys could giggle. “Oh, Manu, it will still take another few years until I'll be as tall as my father – or as you are,” he objected, but he looked pleased and proud at Manuel's words.
The tall and broadly built innkeeper of the Cramerhouse smiled down at him. “Not as long as your father Lord Lindelborn would like it to take, I guess,” he stated, causing Oscar to roll his eyes with another snicker.
“You're right with that, Manu. If my father or Mr. Reus had anything to say in this matter, than I would always stay a young boy and never grow up.”
“That's what parents would like best,” Manuel chuckled, “you must understand that it's hard for your father to watch his sweet boy grow up and mature. I might not be a father myself, but I've encountered enough parents in my life to know that – starting with my own ones who didn't want me to become a grown-up man either.”
Oscar looked doubtful, but he sighed and nodded slowly. “You're probably right with that too,” he said, looking around in the large and friendly taproom. “Tübingen is a nice city, but I've really missed my home. It's so good to be back,” he said, and Manuel could only agree to that.
“We've missed you too, Lord Oscar, a lot,” he smiled, going back to wiping the tables with a wet cloth. “Your return is also a clear sign that summer has finally come to the Pfälzer Forest. By the way – where are them? Your father and Mr. Reus, I mean. They didn't let you come here alone, did they?”
“No, of course not. They're still busied with unpacking and settling in. Grown-ups always need so much more time for these things than children do,” Oscar snickered, “but they allowed me to come here with Nuri and Erik. The horses needed to be moved, and the day is far too beautiful to spend it inside the house. Erik and Nuri should come in here every minute, they only wanted to check the path because there are some rather deep holes right where the bifurcation is.”
The door opened when Oscar hadn't even finished his sentence, revealing two handsome young men who entered the Cramerhouse now as well, Manuel's new employee Marc-André in tow.
Marc-André had lost his parents at a young age, and he'd grown up in the household of his uncle and his aunt, having to work from dawn til dusk and even longer for the small cot and the two meager meals they had grudgingly conceded him for his hard work. Marc-André had never been allowed to attend school, and no one had wanted to offer him a job because of his lack of education and knowledge when his uncle had thrown him out of his house on his eighteenth birthday, telling him that he was old enough to work for his living somewhere else now.
Manuel had caught him when Marc-André had tried to burgle the shack that belonged to the Cramerhouse and where Manuel kept most of his supplies, and instead of calling the police Manuel had offered him his spare room and a job. It had been January and freezing cold outside, and the young man had already lived on the road for several months when his journey had led him to Mnauel's inn on that dark and cold winter night. Manuel still went furious when he thought of Marc-André's cruel uncle's behavior, and he did his best to prove to the boy that not all people were like his own heartless relatives.
The boy hadn't wanted to steal anything or cause any damage or harm, he had only been desperate and simply searched for something to eat and a place where he would survive the cold nights, and Marc-André showed his gratitude about the chance Manuel had given him every single day and worked hard and with greatest passion.
Manuel could do with some help since his foot still gave him some troubles now and then, and he had to be careful after the complicated fracture he had suffered last year because another injury would most likely force him to give up his beloved inn. Marc-André was mistrustful and kept his distance from everyone except Manuel, but Erik and Nuri didn't let themselves be deterred away that easily, always smiling at the younger one and talking friendlily to him whenever they came to the Cramerhouse. Marc was slowly opening up to them, but Oscar's presence made him duck his head between his shoulders and seeking shelter behind Manuel's broad frame.
“Manuel! Lord Oscar was so eager to see you again, he didn't want to wait for us,” Nuri now greeted him, and Manuel chuckled. “Yes, it's good to have him back – and Lord Lindelborn and Mr. Reus as well of course. Even though I fear that we won't get to see them often. The excavation in Castle Trifels will surely take up most of their time over the next months.”
“That's true, but they will certainly come to the summer ball, Manuel,” Erik said, ruffling Oscar's hair. The boy beamed at him before curiously regarding Manuel's young servant. Marc-André had fled behind the counter, busying himself with drying the glasses Manuel had put on the counter top.
“I am Oscar,” the boy now introduced himself to Marc-André, “I don't think that I know you, but Manuel's friends are my friends as well. You must be nice if you work for him.”
The older boy blushed and ducked his head deeper between his shoulders, peering at Oscar with mistrust written all over his face – even though he tried to keep his expression blank. “Good morning, your grace,” he mumbled, looking like a rabbit sitting before a sizzling snake. Manuel felt pity with him and was about to open his mouth and say something when Oscar shot him a quick glance and shook his head. Manuel had always been amazed about Oscar's sensitivity and his caring nature, and he snapped his mouth shut again and watched Oscar approaching Marc-André without trying to interfere.
“I'm not a real lord yet - not as long as my father is the Earl of Lindelborn, I mean – and I really hope that it will stay that way for the next decades. And there is no need to call him 'your grace' either, because only dukes and duchesses have to be addressed this way. We're among friends here, so calling me Oscar will do just fine. Will you tell me your name, please? You really look like someone I want to be friends with too.”
Marc-André finally looked at Oscar, worrying his bottom lip uncertainly. “My name is Marc-André, but Mr. Neuer calls me Marc only, Lor... uhm, Oscar,” he said after a moment or two, carefully putting the glass he had dried onto the counter.
“Marc-André is a beautiful name!” Oscar beamed at his new friend. “But I think I will call you Marc. My teacher Mr. Reus answers to the name Marco. He's the best teacher in the world, and if you share the same name, then you must be as nice as I think that you are!” He turned his head to look pleadingly at Manuel.
“Would you mind Marc coming with me to look for some strawberries and cherries at the other side of the meadow, Manuel? I promised Erik and Nuri not to stroll around on my own, but I really want to bring Mathilda some cherries and strawberries for her delicious cherry and strawberry pies, and I wouldn't be alone if Marc came with me. He's old enough to watch me, right?”
Manuel had never been able to resist Oscar and deny him anything, and he nodded his head with a smile. “That's a really good idea, Oscar. You could pluck some fruits for me too, actually. I'm sure that my customers will appreciate some fresh lemonade when they find their way here after their hiking tours.”
Oscar let out another shout of joy, looking pleadingly at Marc-André and tugging at his hand. “Will you come with me, Marc? Pretty please?” he begged, and the older boy swallowed, apparently fearing that he was only dreaming. “You really wouldn't mind, Mr. Neuer?” he asked, but Manuel was already reaching out for the basket he kept on the shelf over the counter.
“Not at all, Marc. I would be grateful if you plucked some cherries for me, we haven't offered fresh lemonade to our guests since last year, and my foot is still giving me troubles. There must be a ladder in the shack, you will need it for the cherry trees. It shouldn't be too heavy for you to carry it. Take your time, Oscar, I think that Lord Lindelborn and Mr. Reus won't miss you as long as they're still busied with boring adult-stuff.”
Erik and Nuri made a strangled sound at that rather ambiguous remark, shooting Manuel a suspicious glance, but neither Oscar nor Marc looked as if they had caught the double-meaning, their cheeks rosy with joy at the prospect of being allowed to pluck some juicy berries and play around on the meadow together.
“Thank you, Mr. Neuer, the basket will be filled with cherries when we'll come back.” Marc had lost some of his shyness, and he took the basket with a grateful glance and a genuine smile in Manuel's direction when he let Oscar pull him out into the bright sunshine. Manuel leaned against the counter with a relieved sigh and a grateful smile on his own.
“I can hardly believe it, but Oscar has actually done a miracle. Marc hasn't smiled like that ever since I found him in my shack,” he said, and Erik and Nuri nodded their heads thoughtfully. “You're right, we haven't seen him smile so far either. At least not that happily. But Oscar has this effect on people as you know. You should see his father, Manuel. Lord Robert is a totally different man since Marco came to Castle Lindelborn last year. He's so happy now, and Oscar is laughing and happy too. He's not the sad and defiant child he once was any longer, and the entire atmosphere in Castle Lindelborn is cheerful and lighthearted now, everyone has a smile on their faces throughout the whole day.”
“I can imagine, Marco is the best thing that could happen to them. They'll spend the summer months here because of the excavation in Castle Trifels, right?” Manuel filled two glasses with beer, handing them to Nuri and Erik. The dark-haired equerry leaned against the counter beside him while Erik seated himself on one of the tables opposite them, sipping from his beer before he confirmed Manuel's assumption.
“Yes. Lord Robert is one of the financiers, and Marco's professor in Tübingen, Professor Hummels, is the chief archaeologist of the excavation. He agreed to Marco joining him, although he has only just started his studies in winter – not because of Lord Robert's money, but because Marco has passed his first exams with summa cum laude. Besides, they need every helping hand they can get, and a lot of young gentlemen studying archaeology don't want to get their hands dirty. They dream of great discoveries and earning a lot of money with them, but they don't want to spend hours with digging in the sand. Therefore Professor Hummels is all too happy to have someone like Marco by his side.
We feared that Oscar would be disappointed about having to stay in Castle Lindelborn, but his uncle, Mr. Müller, will spend the summer months in Castle Lindelborn to keep Oscar company. Oscar knows how much this chance means to Marco, and the school Lord Robert has built in his old villa in Bad Bergzabern is closed during the summer months anyway, so Mr. Müller has time to take care of Oscar while his father and Marco are away. It's their chance to get to know each other after the years his uncle has lived in America. Sven is driving to Bad Bergzabern to pick him up and bring him to Castle Lindelborn as we talk.”
Manuel didn't know Mr. Müller, but he had heard about him and his relationship to the Earl of Lindelborn, who had been married to Mr. Müller's deceased sister. The school the young earl had built in the former villa of his father offered the children of the poorer people a chance to attend a school without having to pay money for that, but the school was closed during the summer months because Lord Robert knew that the young boys and girls had to help their parents on the fields, on the farm or in the house then. School was reserved for the winter months, and the Earl of Lindelborn knew better than trying to change the way of life the Pfälzer had established over the last centuries and decades.
“I'm glad to hear that Marco has gotten this chance. And that Oscar will spend some time with his uncle. Family is important, and Lord Robert doesn't have siblings, so Mr. Müller is actually one of the few relatives Oscar has.”
“Yes, and he's young enough to understand Oscar. Thomas is about the same age as Lord Robert, a year younger or so, I think. We have met him a couple of times since his return, he's a great guy, and we heard that he's awesome with his students, a natural born teacher – just like Marco,” Nuri said, and Manuel had to admit that he was curious to meet Oscar's uncle now.
His thoughts wandered back to Marc-André, who had never gotten the chance to attend school, and Manuel's attempts to teach him reading and writing had almost ended in a disaster. He had stopped his lessons quickly again, as he had feared that Marc-André would run away if it went on like that, and he spent the late hours after closing the Cramerhouse behind the last customer with seeing to his books instead of letting his young employee do it like he'd hoped that he could do one day.
It was probably too late for Marc to learn these things, and he promised to himself that his young charge would always have a place to live and a job as long as the Cramerhouse existed and Manuel was its innkeeper.
“Can we help you as long as Marc is watching over Oscar?” Erik asked, knowing that Manuel had to be careful with his foot. “I think that your hedgerows could do with a cut, and I know that you don't have time for such things.”
Manuel smiled gratefully at his friend. “I can't ask you to do that, Erik,” he objected though, but Erik waved his protest away. “You're not asking, I was offering my help, Manu,” he said, gliding down from the table. “The tools are in the shack?”
Manuel nodded, and Nuri put his empty glass back on the counter. “I'll see to the fence while Erik cuts the hedges. Will you tell Oscar where we are when he comes back?”
“Of course, thank you, my friends. I'd be lost without you,” Manuel thanked them, and Erik and Nuri smiled at him before they left the taproom. “You're welcome, Manu. That's what friends are for after all,” Erik said, and Manuel watched them leave the Cramerhouse thinking that there was no place on earth where he'd rather live than here at the base of Castle Lindelborn, surrounded by his friends and the people he truly cared about.
“We're almost there, sir,” Sven said stopping the carriage, “I just need to talk to Mr. Neuer for a few minutes. He's the innkeeper of the Cramerhouse, and we're running out of Lord Robert's favorite wine. Manuel has a deal with Lord Robert, and he promised me to get the wine when he would drive to Neustadt last week.”
“Of course, Sven,” Thomas said, climbing out of the carriage with a suppressed groan. The vehicle was comfortable, but the road had been pretty bumpy over the last few miles, and Thomas was grateful that he could stretch his limbs and walk a few meters while Sven talked to the innkeeper. He had visited Castle Lindelborn two or three times but never really paid attention to the neat inn lying at the base of the mountain, and he followed Sven to the white half-timbered house curiously.
Two men were standing behind the counter when Thomas entered the house together with Sven, and the taller one caught Thomas' eye right away. He was really tall, and broadly built, at least those parts of his body Thomas could detect behind the bar, like his shoulders and arms. He had dark-blond hair and boyish features, but Thomas guessed that he was older than he looked like, in his late twenties or early thirties perhaps. Clear blue eyes directed themselves at him for a few seconds before Mr. Neuer – Thomas at least thought that he must be the barkeeper – focused his attention on Sven.
Thomas felt a soft tingling in his stomach when he stepped closer and the other one's fresh male scent filled his nose, but he suppressed his feelings rigorously, as nothing good would come out of it if he saw more in Mr. Neuer than just a new acquaintance he most likely wouldn't see more than a few times over the next months anyway. He really should have learned his lesson after what had happened eleven years ago, and he didn't want to make the same mistake again.
Thomas straightened his shoulders and schooled his features into a mask of polite indifference as Mr. Neuer approached them now, gifting Thomas with a brief bow of his head. “Welcome in the Cramerhouse, sir. I am Manuel Neuer, the innkeeper of the Cramerhouse, and you must be Mr. Müller, Lord Oscar's uncle. He told me about your imminent arrival before he left us half an hour ago.”
Thomas couldn't avert his eyes from Manuel's intense gaze, and he offered his hand to the taller one before he knew what he was doing. “Good afternoon, Mr. Neuer. You're right, I'm Oscar's uncle. I'll spend the summer months in Castle Lindelborn because his father, the Earl of Lindelborn, will be busied with the excavation in Castle Trifels.”
Manuel smiled, and Thomas' heart made a small somersault. “Yes, Oscar told me about that too. He's already excited and looking forward to your visit, sir.”
“He can't be more excited than I am,” Thomas admitted with a smile, “even more because I've never lived in a real castle so far. Lord Robert and I know each other since our childhood, but his father preferred to live in Bad Bergzabern, and I've never been in Castle Lindelborn for longer than a few hours until today.”
“I was told that the castle has even a real dungeon,” Manuel stated with a wink, “perhaps there's also a proper ghost still spooking around there?”
“Uh, I hope not,” Thomas chuckled with a shiver of pleasant disgust, “I would surely get a proper fright if I found a ghost standing before my bed at midnight.”
Sven had listened to their talk with a stoic face, and he cleared his throat now. “Kuno is actually a nice ghost, and he will surely visit you if you ask him nicely. You really don't need to be afraid of him, sir,” he stated almost casually before looking at Manuel, making Thomas gape at him in stunned surprise. “Have you gotten the wine, Manuel?”
“Yes, Marc can help you with the bottles,” Manuel said with a quick glance at Thomas, turning around to smile at the younger man watching them from under his lashes and with a wary expression on his face. “Marc, would you please help Sven packing the bottles? They're already paid.”
“Yes, Mr. Neuer. Good afternoon, sir.” The young man Manuel had addressed as Marc mumbled, leaving his shelter behind the counter only reluctantly as he nodded vaguely in Thomas' direction. He rounded the three men in a large circle and squeezed himself through the small space left between the tables to leave the taproom. Thomas guessed that Manuel kept the wine and his beer in a cellar behind the house, and Sven confirmed his assumption when he followed Marc outside. “I'll wait for you by the carriage, sir. The cellar is behind the house, and Marc can't carry the boxes with the wine without help.”
“Thank you, Sven. I'll be there right away.” Thomas looked at Manuel again when Sven had left them, hesitant to say goodbye to the tall barkeeper with the handsome features. “Robert and Oscar will be waiting for me, I guess,” he said, feeling shy all of a sudden, and Manuel nodded. “Yes, Oscar could hardly wait for your arrival. You will like Castle Lindelborn, it's a wonderful place to live in, sir,” he agreed, and Thomas sighed and slowly made his way to the door.
“I wish you a pleasant day, Mr. Neuer,” he murmured as he opened the door and lifted his hand in some kind of awkward farewell, Manuel's voice still echoing in his head when he was sitting in the carriage again.
“I wish you, the same, sir, I hope that you'll enjoy your stay.”