Merry Christmas Eve, everyone! Here's another story sample for your enjoyment. If you're good, maybe Santa will leave you another post tomorrow. ;-)
* * *
Balfrith and Eldamir saw the glitter of the Asca river as it cut through the middle of the city, on its final leg before emptying into great Kingfisher Bay. Balfrith was transported in his memory to that night so long ago when he’d met Eldamir, and the next day when he’d crossed the river in the company of the Elefdar, lord Felaranthir among them.
“We can cross the bridge today, and find an inn on the other side,” said Balfrith. “I’ve heard that the inns on the north side of the river are a bit rough, full of woodsmen and sailors. But on the south side, the lord of the city has his manor home, as well as a few other nobility, and the market there tends to cater to their desires.”
Eldamir said nothing, and they continued walking down into the valley toward the city. This was not the first time he’d been to Graystone, and his experience matched what Balfrith had said.
They crossed through the north side of town quickly, ignoring the raucous sounds of laughter coming from the inns and ale-houses, and walked over the bridge to the southern half of the city. There, the day’s business was largely done, and shopkeepers were closing their doors and shuttering windows for the night. The inns, of course, were just as busy in the south as they were in the north, and now Balfrith kept his eyes open for anything that looked like it would cater to weary travelers with little coin to spend.
Eldamir pointed to one building a short way up the main road, having a painted sign with a gray goose over the door. “How about that one?” he asked. “The goose certainly appears to be having a good time.”
Balfrith looked closer, and noticed that its beak was turned up in a smile. “The Happy Goose,” he read, now that he could see the letters below the goose. “Well, I suppose that will be as good as any,” Balfrith said, shrugging.
They walked the remaining yards to the named inn, and Balfrith was pleasantly surprised to note that the sounds emanating from this one were rather muted in comparison to most of the ones they’d passed thus far. Opening the door, he paused briefly to let his eyes adjust to the reddish, smoky light in the tap room. Then he stepped inside, Eldamir following silently.
A feminine voiced called from further back, “Come in, good masters, and make yourselves comfortable. I’ll be along in a bit, just need to bring supper up to one of my guests.”
Balfrith looked around, but she must have already disappeared through a door or up some stairs, for he didn’t see any sign of the innkeeper. There were a few guests quietly talking at their own tables, but the room was largely empty. He and Eldamir chose a table against a wall, some distance from the hearth as it was already warm in the room. Though the fire wasn’t lit, if the innkeeper decided to do so later, they didn’t want to get any warmer.
Balfrith looked around the room from his chair, noting the other patrons as he did so: an older couple, probably married, holding hands across the table and smiling at one another; a large, rotund fellow sitting alone in one corner, sipping his ale as he leaned back: their eyes met briefly, and he nodded at Balfrith; and three soldiers, probably mercenaries, sitting at the bar laughing and drinking. It was their voices he’d heard as they entered, making some off-color joke.
Eldamir spoke up, “Now that you’ve decided to return home, what is your plan to get there? I imagine the walk to your manor will take some days on foot.” He didn’t have to imagine much, of course - he’d made the run from the Asca all the way to that same manor five years previously, and back to Fanyamar, in a matter of a few weeks.
Balfrith nodded and said, “Aye, though I’ve never been this far north and east, I remember even my own walk from the manor to where I met you, took me over a week. We will make better time on the King’s Highway, but even so, it is a long walk south to the crossroads, and then west almost to the Goldwood before we leave the highway for my family’s manor. If I had to guess, we may arrive at my home in two weeks. Today is the eighth of the Wyrm, so we should be over a week into summer by then.”
Eldamir said nothing for a moment, then replied, “I don’t remember the last time I missed a High Summer’s Day celebration.”
Balfrith shrugged. “The summer solstice was never a big holiday in my family, or even among my people as far as I have ever heard. We always focused on the spring equinox and Year’s End Day. But I did enjoy the summer celebrations in Fanyamar these past few years.”
Eldamir nodded, saying nothing in response.
Just then, the innkeeper returned, walking quickly and carrying an empty tray. She started talking when she was still several paces away, saying, “Now then goodmen, thank you for stopping into the Smiling Goose this evening. My name is Layla, and I am at your service. Will you be needing rooms and a meal tonight? I’ve got a few good rooms available, as I had some customers depart this morning and just got things cleaned up. Don’t pay attention to the quiet in here, most of my rooms are actually taken. But I didn’t have any music or entertainment this evening, so folk went elsewhere for their supper. If you stay on tomorrow though, I’ve got a singer and poet coming who will have you laughing until your toes curl.” She smiled then, and her round cheeks dimpled, making her look like an over-sized little girl.
Balfrith said, “I thank you, good woman. We will need a room and supper, as you guessed. What have you got in the kitchen this evening?”
Balfrith suddenly realized she wasn’t actually looking at him or paying attention to what he said. Rather, she was staring at Eldamir with squinted eyes. And then she burst out, “Master Eldamir! It’s been so long, I almost didn’t recognize you. Welcome back - and how do you fare?”
Eldamir smiled in return, and said, “I am well, Layla. In truth, I was not sure if you would recognize me, though I recall the Smiling Goose fondly and deliberately sought this place when we entered the city. I hoped you might remember, but it has been a long time.”
“Indeed it has,” she said. “And you haven’t changed a bit - though I suppose that’s not too surprising. But what do you here in Graystone? We don’t often see your folk here in these days, though I wish it were otherwise.”
“My friend and I are returning to his ancestral home in the south. He visited my people for a time, and now it is my turn to visit his.”
She turned to Balfrith, who was still in a mild state of shock. Still smiling, she said, “Well, young master, you are a lucky one, whether you know it or not. To be called a friend by master Eldamir, and to have spent time among the Elves - that’s no common thing, let me tell you! We here in Graystone are as close to the Elves as any Men in Nûmidëa, and I can’t recall any time in my life that I’ve heard such a thing spoken of, except in stories.”
Balfrith recovered enough to nod, in recognition of his luck and her words. “Thank you, Layla. You may call me master Balfrith.”
She smiled again, and turned back to Eldamir. “Master Eldamir, I wish I had more time this evening, but if you’re staying the night, then perhaps we can talk more in the morning, over breakfast. For tonight, I have a bit of roast duck left stewing in its juices, and bread, cheese - the usual. I also have a nice summer red from down south, it should complement the duck very nicely - as I recall, you always favored wine over beer?”
Eldamir replied, “Aye, mistress, you remember rightly. Wine for me, and your excellent amber ale for Balfrith here. You are still brewing your own, yes?”
“I’m so pleased you remember, master Eldamir. Oh, it’s nice to see a familiar face in here from time to time! But I must get back to work - I’ll return with your supper shortly.” And with one last smile and a wink, she hustled off to the kitchen.
Balfrith looked at his companion, and said, “That was interesting. Here I thought you had randomly picked an inn, and you were searching for this very one all that time.”
“I am sorry Balfrith, I didn’t intend any deception. In truth, it has been some years since I’ve been to Graystone, and I had no idea whether the Smiling Goose would still be here, and if it was here, whether it would still have the same owner. Seeing mistress Layla is a truly pleasant surprise for me, and it brings a joy to my heart that I cannot express. I hope you can forgive me for seeking out an old friend.”
Balfrith felt a stab of jealousy for a moment, as he realized that Eldamir had friends among Men other than himself. And not only that, but he’d known them for longer, and probably better, than he knew Balfrith. He had to stop and remind himself that, though she apparently knew him from some years back, still she had never been to Illithëon, nor Fanyamar, while he alone had been granted that honor among Men. He knew it was childish and petty to take comfort in that, but it was there nonetheless.
Finally he replied, “There is nothing to forgive, my friend. How can I blame you for seeking out an old friend from years past? But just to avoid any surprises, maybe you can tell me if this will happen again in the future?” he asked, smiling.
“Of course - though I do not think it will happen again.”
Just then, Layla returned with a large tray in her hand, laden with two wooden bowls, platters with bread and butter, some sort of white cheese, and mugs of wine and ale. She set them down quickly, apologized for not staying longer to chat, and left again, disappearing into the kitchen. Balfrith wondered what could be keeping her so busy, with the tap room so empty. But he supposed there were other jobs to do around the inn, such as cleaning rooms, and thought little more of it after that.
They ate in silence at first, both of them content to simply enjoy the meal. The duck was swimming in a gravy, and was moist and tender. Balfrith used the bread to soak up some of the gravy, and he slathered on a thick layer of butter over the rest of it. The cheese was soft and pungent, with bluish veins running through it like marble. It complemented the ale perfectly, which was strong and bitter, while the cheese was sharp, and made his mouth water with just a small bite.
Layla returned a while later, and picked up their plates. She asked, “Would you like another drink tonight, or shall I bring you to your rooms?”
Eldamir spoke up, “I think the rooms would be best. We must depart early tomorrow, though I will take you up on that offer to chat over breakfast.”
She smiled, showing dimples again. “Good, I shall look forward to it. Give me just a minute, and I’ll be back to take you to your rooms.” She took the plates away, and returned immediately thereafter, waving them to follow her through another door towards the back of the room. They followed her through, up some stairs, and down a few doors. “I have adjoining rooms for you, fortunately. They are the same, so I’ll just show you this room and you can choose who wants which one.” She opened the door, and ushered them in.
The room was plain but functional, similar to inns throughout Nûmidëa that Balfrith had experienced. The floor was unfinished wood, swept clean but turning silver with age. A woven rug occupied the center of the floor, covering a large area but still leaving plenty of uncovered wood all around. The walls were plaster and lath, white-washed and clean but otherwise unadorned.
Against one wall was a single bed of fresh straw wrapped in clean cotton, with a light blanket to ward off the night’s chill. At the foot of the bed sat a small wooden chest, for storing belongings. On the opposite wall was a small round table with two solid chairs, useful for dining, or reading and writing if one desired. A shuttered window opened over the front street, allowing in the fresh air, as well as the sounds of traffic from below. Lastly, a cloak-tree with several stubby branches stood against the wall near the door, for hanging cloaks and other heavy clothing.
“Everything looks clean and well-kept,” Balfrith muttered, not thinking that Layla stood nearby and could hear him.
“Of course it is, master Balfrith,” Layla said, slightly piqued. “I run a quality inn, else I wouldn’t have custom like your friend Eldamir, at least not any that returned for more.” At that, she smiled at Eldamir, who grinned back.
Before Balfrith could put his foot further in his mouth, Eldamir said, “I am certain my friend means no insult, mistress Layla. I didn’t have opportunity to tell him about your quality establishment before we arrived, so to him, this is just another inn that needs to be inspected before we decide to stay. I, of course, already knew the answer to that question.”
Balfrith nodded in agreement, not wanting to say anything further as she glared at him. But she seemed to take Eldamir’s words to heart, for she smiled and winked at Balfrith. “Not to worry, young master Balfrith - no insult, no offense, as they say. And if you’ll not be needing anything else, I should return to the tap room before my customers begin pouring their own ale…” she trailed off, her voice lilting into a question at the end, and Balfrith and Eldamir both nodded their agreement.
Thus dismissed, she turned and left the room, lifting her skirts enough to quickly run back down the hall and down the stairs. Balfrith watched her go, until her head disappeared below the stairs, then he turned back into the room where Eldamir stood. “Well, tomorrow morning will come soon enough,” he said, having no desire for small-talk.
Eldamir nodded, “Sleep well, and see you in the morning.” Balfrith left the room and stepped next door to his own, opening the door and closing it behind him.
He was asleep in a few minutes, still wearing most of his clothes.