Daron Innes sat at a table in the local inn, the Sea Wench. A plate of bread, cheese and meat, and a mug of mead lay untouched before her. Bright green eyes critically studied her drawing. Charcoal smudges decorated her cheeks and nose. Dark brown with auburn highlights hair was pulled back in a thick braid that hung to just below her shoulder blades. Bangs hid her brows from view. They also concealed a slight widow’s peak hairline.
Perhaps someone will notice the artist, and I’ll be hired.
Satisfied with her work, at least for the moment, Daron turned her attention to her neglected meal. She nibbled at the cheese like a starved rodent, punctuated by sips of meade. When only crumbs remained, she took a final drink from her mug, set it down on the table, and sighed contentedly.
One can only hope…
She surreptitiously checked the contents of her money pouch. A frown briefly graced her classic-what her brother Dillon had called “pretty” -features.
Faith, but hope won’t pay my way much longer. Damn, but I wish Dillon were here!
Her mind wandered to the last time she saw her twin brother. The breezes which whipped her forest green cloak about her ankles and cut through the heavy wool like daggers stirred his dark auburn hair about his shoulders. Green eyes like her own, shining with the fire of vengeance, looked away to a point in the distance.
“They killed Calley!” “But what of Ma and Pa? And the farm?”
Daron knew any argument was useless. Callista Pryce was Dillon’s heartmate. When he went to get her the day of their bonding, Dillon found Callista’s lifeless body. Her throat was slashed, her elaborate off-white bonding-dress torn and stained with her blood. There was no consoling him. He wanted revenge.
“I’ll be back!”
He rode his mahogany-brown stallion like the demons of Hell were at his very heels.
That was the last time she saw her brother.
A pie-crust promise: easily made, easily broken.
In retaliatory attacks against her family, her mother Elaine was killed outright. Her father lasted a few months longer. In a way, his death was a blessing. His heart and soul had died the same day his lifemate did. And Daron…
She refused to dwell on what they did to her. If she did, she felt she would go mad.
Daron found herself alone in the world. She gathered her meager possessions-those few which the attackers hadn’t destroyed, or carted off-and, after burying her father, set off on her journey. Her mare, the twin to Dillon’s horse, was her only companion.
Daron’s memory shifted, with the suddenness of night to day, back to the present.
The door opened slowly, and a young man…a boy, really, sixteen years of age, entered. He was clothed in a white tunic over brown trousers, and had a lute slung across his back. His hair…extremely pale blond, almost white, surrounded his head in tight curls, longish, creating a halo effect. His eyes were violet.
“Pierre, you’re late!” the woman behind the counter said. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
“Oh, I’m just pulling your leg. You’re welcome to come in whenever you like. Just you usually come here earlier in the day. Anything happened?” She smiled at him.
Pierre frowned, and looked down at his feet. Olga was so happy… these other patrons too, for the most part. No use bothering them with his troubles. “No…everything’s fine. Do you mind if I sit here for a bit before I perform? Just a little while?”
“Yes. Are you sure everything’s ok?”
Pierre gave a sad smile, and nodded. When Olga had moved out of the way, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a note. He opened it up, recognizing the simple yet elegant handwriting instantly.
So, how is my little brother? I have heard you have gotten a job as a lutist at the local inn. Do you get paid well? You ought to be rich; you are the finest musician in the land! – Any land, I would dare say! I am doing well with my studies. Though I do miss you so! That time but a few months ago I went home for vacation seems like forever, does it not? I daresay I might not miss you so much had I not seen you then. My, but you had grown. You’re getting to be such a handsome lad! Have the girls started knocking at your door yet?
Well, there is a bit of a problem with me. Well, more than a bit of a problem. Mother and Father want to keep this secret, but I am telling you anyway. Do not yell at them, please. They are only doing what they feel best – though I disagree. My illness…it is back. Do you remember? How I was extremely ill several years ago, and yet got better? Well, now it has returned, and I fear I shall not get better.
I only wish there was some easier way for me to have broken this to you, but I can think of none. The illness quite stuck up on me. I have only had it for one month, and already it is irreversible.
The doctors have done all they could, but there is no cure….not of medicine, herb, or magick. They have been marvelously kind, and I feel quite compassionate towards them. They have done all they can to make me comfortable, and are so nice.
I dislike that this letter has such a negative turn, I may be ill, but I do not intend to feel sorry for myself. There are so many beautiful things in this world; it is a shame to waste time by moping. I have a lovely view. When I lie in my bed I can see the mountains. They’re gorgoues! Always make me feel so much better.
I believe I shall end this letter soon, for I am feeling tired. I hope you are quite all right, and do not worry about me. Worrying never solved anything, and I would hate for you to waste your life. You are so young and full of life, use it the best you can!
Love, Your Sister, Ana
Pierre reread the note several times, folded it, and put it back into his pocket. How could he not feel sad? Ana was dying … though she had not used so many words, it was easily deducible. Ana … the one person who did not deserve such a fate. Dying … from an incurable disease.
Ana would not want me to cry, he reminded himself. Ana would want me to go on with my life.
He knew he couldn’t, though. There would always be the looming threat of his dear sister’s illness overhead. Pierre knew that whatever he did from now on would be for Ana.
And that included his music.
He stood up, walked over the the “stage”—just a block of wood a bit higher than the rest of the floor, and began playing…a beautiful melody, yet almost hauntingly sad, and wordless.
The music struck a resonant chord in Daron’s heart. So full of grief. Yet beautiful, nonetheless… A picture came unbidden to her mind. She grabbed her tablet and scrubbed furiously with her stick of charcoal.
She finished the drawing with a flourish. Only then did Daron remember to breathe…
...and caught it again at the sight of the picture on the paper. A beautiful girl, who held more than a passing resemblance to the young musician on the inn’s “stage”. Death touched the face, but could not erase the spirit in her eyes.
The charcoal stick snapped in her grasp.
Daron’s so-called “gift” had struck once again, as swift as lightning on a summer’s day. And as frightening to her as the thunder which accompanied such storms.
Daron looked down at her clenched hand. She dropped the charcoal fragments onto the scarred wood tabletop and wiped her palm onto her dark brown pants leg. Unfortunately, this only aggravated the problem: the charcoal dust bonded with the sweat on her skin, and refused to budge.
She hoped no one noticed her actions. Her simple meal laid uneasily on her stomach. Daron waited for the other shoe to drop…
Keir entered Helgastop cautiously but with his head held high, wishing her were back on his island home, Loria. These landers were too rude and condescending. He’d already cracked one man across the shins with his forked staff that day for treating him dismissively and talking over his head as if the Hortus weren’t there. Another crack had been delivered for the insult of calling him “halfling.”
The only one of the Big people that had treated him with any respect at all had been the chemist, Perriton, in the last town were he’d restocked the many pouches and vials that filled the pockets of his leather vest. They’d talked of herbs and alchemy for hours on end and Keir learned much about plants that were unfamiliar to him here. The man’s odd accent made it difficult at times – even the insects here spoke with an unusual twang and hardly understood him – but they’d managed to converse right through dinner at the man’s house and well into the night. Keir regretted leaving Perriton’s but since he’d found no clue as to here his folk had vanished to, he set out again the next morning, after a substantial breakfast of course.
Yesterday’s breakfast was just a pleasant memory now and it was the gnawing rumble in his belly that drew him to the Inn. He was sure to face more indignities from the Big Folk if the stares he’d received on the street were any indication. Well, if it took some thumping to get a meal he was willing to provide them with it.
Thankfully his silver was as good here as in Loria though it produced as many queer looks as he did himself. He ran a furry hand through his thick brown curls, tugged at his vest to straighten it and entered The Wench.
Compared to the street it was dark in the inn and he paused a moment for his eyes to adjust, listening to the soft tune from a lute. The song permeated the air like it was coming from the very walls but he soon spotted it’s source – a yellow-haired boy maybe a quarter Keir’s age, seemingly to young to truly know the depths of pain and sorrow instilled in his music. Ignoring his hunger he stood motionless, as tears formed in his deep brown eyes.
The song ended, and slowly Pierre’s fingers lifted up off of his lute. He stared at his lute, deep in thought. “I am sorry,” he whispered. “I do not feel well enough to continue with this entertainment. I deeply apologize, and shall make it up to you as soon as I can.”
Pierre stepped down off the stage. “Olga?” he asked. “Though I am not entertaining, might I stay here for a bit longer?” Pierre did not think he could go home now; home to where his parents were; to where he would have to act as though he did not know about Ana’s illness so he would not upset them.
When Olga asked him if everything was all right he quickly waved off her concerns. “It’s nothing,” Pierre lied. “Please, don’t worry about it. I’m perfectly all right. I am just a bit…tired.”
Pierre glanced around the inn, hoping to find something that would take his mind off Ana. The vast majority of patrons were going on with their lives as usual, and nothing was out of the ordinary.
Nothing except…Pierre noticed a woman…at least, he thought it was a woman, he only had a view of the back of her head. There were charcoals lying by her…she was an artist, as was evidenced by the picture beside her.
The picture. Pierre blinked. Surely, his view of his must be off… perhaps the light was wrong. Perhaps he needed a closer view. Ah, that was it. Pierre stepped off his stool and started towards the woman, wondering how he should introduce himself. That could not be a picture of Ana.
Daron looked up. The young musician was leaving the stage. His young face held too much sorrow than someone his age should have, she noticed with her artist’s eye, though he was manfully trying to conceal it from the casual observer. The other shoe dropped; he was walking towards her. A chill travelled up and down her spine as she looked at the incriminating drawing. Faith, but how do I explain this? She felt like she did when she was four years old and upset the full milk pail. Her cheeks reddened with the memory. I’ll tell him it came out of my mind. Which it did… A deep sigh escaped her lips. But I don’t have to tell him it was in his mind first…
Daron steeled herself to accept her punishment…
Pierre cleared his throat. “Greetings, miss. Do you mind if I sit down?” He got a closer view of the drawing, and paled, clearing his throat. Dear! It was Ana. But how could that be? How could this stranger have drawn his sister? Certainly, there must be some explanation for it! “My name is Pierre,” he continued. “You seem to be a lovely artist. Might I ask you some questions about your work?”
The first thing Daron noticed were incredibly violet eyes. Lord, but with that halo of hair, he looks like an angel! She wanted to speak, she really did. But she was afraid she might say something that might get her into further trouble. A tendency which she shared with Dillon…
Considering her mental state, Daron’s voice was surprisingly steady. “Thank you for the compliment on my work, young sir.”
“You’re welcome,” Pierre smiled.
In for a penny, in for a pound.. Gaining further confidence, she rattled on, “Of course, I do much better when I have the person before me to work from…” Now you’ve done it!
“Oh?” Pierre blinked. “Have you met A-her-the woman in the drawing- somewhere?” he inquired. “It is such an incredible likeness…of one I know well.” His voice became tinged with sadness. He then smiled… no use making people unhappy; that wasn’t his job, and continued, in a falsely lilting voice. “Or else love truly makes all you see look like the ones you love.”
Daron felt her stomach and throat constrict with the fear of discovery. She debated whether or not to tell him the truth for what seemed like hours to her, but in reality was only a minute or two. Time to face the music, so to speak… “No,” Daron said finally. “I’ve never met…” Her voice caught in her throat. The next word came out in the barest of whispers. ”...Ana…”
Pierre gasped, and placed his hands upon the table to steady himself. “How-” he managed to get out. “Please, I must sit down. I hope I am not invading your privacy, Madame, but I am no longer able to remain standing.” Gasping out the words, he managed to fall into a chair. “How did you know?” He finally manged to put together the entire sentence.
The ending of the song hadn’t broken Keir’s reverie and he found himself following the young musician as he left the stage. When he realized the musician had stopped and was speaking to someone he quickly turned aside and sat at an open table nearby as if that was where he had been headed all along. The chair was too high for his feet to reach the floor and though that had been the case everywhere he had been here it still made him feel foolish. He gave a snort of indignation as he impatiently waited for some service and stole a surreptitious glance at the woman seated alone next to him. Pretty, for a Big Folk, he thought.
The approach of the musician startled him and at first he thought he was headed for his table but it became obvious his eyes were on the woman. Keir tried not to listen to their conversation but it was impossible to ignore, especially without some food to occupy his attention. He was thankful when the elderly woman finally came and took his order, both at the prospect of eating and not hearing the private conversation between Pierre, he’d heard that, and the unnamed artist. The break was temporary however as the kindly old woman briskly set off to get him his meal. He tried to find an insect to talk to as a distraction but there weren’t any in the room at the moment, apparently the Wench was cleaner than most of the inns he’d visited.
Daron’s heart felt like it wanted to burst out of her chest. Subconsciously, her charcoal-stained right hand rested on the rough green wool covering her heart. “I didn’t mean to hurt you! I’m sorry!”
Pierre blinked. “You didn’t hurt me,” he whispered, quite honestly. I was hurting long before I met you.
Faith, but do I tell him the truth?
In the midst of her mental dilemma, she noticed the third party at her table. Why, he was a character from the bedtime stories her father told of the “wee folk”, who helped people and were good and kind, come to life! No harm could come to her with someone like him around! She wasn’t superstitious, she wasn’t. Granted, if she spilled salt, she threw a pinch over her left shoulder. And – Faith Above! -everyone knew that you never let a black cat cross your path! It was just common sense, that’s all.
“Tell the truth and be done with it, lass!”
Daron drew strength from her father’s words. She took a deep breath and looked the young musician square in his expressive violet eyes. “I couldn’t help—that is, I ‘saw’ the picture of her in your mind,” she whispered, hoping no one overheard. “I’ve been able to do it as long as I can remember. I don’t know how.” She saw the sadness in the young man’s eyes as he looked at the portrait. “Faith, but I wish I couldn’t, sometimes. Like now.” She looked down at the table. “I am sorry, Pierre…” Her green eyes filled with tears.
Keir drummed his fingers on the table but that didn’t prevent his sensitive ears from picking up the emotional tone of the pair. His embarassment grew and he tried to find something, anything, in the room to focus on. A customer had walked in with a head full of lice but they had little to say, at least little that anyone would want to hear. He stared for a moment at the moist patch on the sleeve of his green linen shirt were he had wiped his tears after Pierre’s song and thought about Ole Frazzle. The song had touched upon all the loneliness and despair he had felt when he found the village deserted. He hoped his adoptive father wasn’t among the many that lay under the fresh burial mound, surely ole Frazzle had survived whatever it was that drove them away – he must have. Keir swallowed the tears that threatened to flow anew and coughed into his hand. His mood brightened as he spied Olga with his food and ale.
Olga laid the heaping plate of roast beef, potatoes, carrots and other assorted vegetable down along with a large mug of ale. “Will that be all fer ya laddie?” she asked smiling.
Keir fought the urge to thump her on the head. Laddie hah! I’m older than she is! Returning her smile and hiding his thought he replied coolly “Yes, I think that will hold me a bit, but don’t wander away to far.”
He set to the meal with a flourish, content that he could now mind his own affairs and let the conversations around him drift into an incomprehensible hum.
Daron removed the portrait of “Ana” from her drawing tablet and held it out to Pierre. “You can have the drawing…if you want it…”
Pierre took the drawing gently, not wanting to smudge any part of it. “Thank you,” he whispered. “You have remarkable talent.”
Her voice trailed off as if she had seen a ghost. Daron shifted uncomfortably in her seat as she felt the irresistible “urge” to pick up what was left of her charcoal and begin another portrait. Her attempts to ignore the sensation only served to focus her attention on it.
Her sigh seemed to come from her toes. She picked up the largest charcoal shard, retrieved her pad of paper and began to sketch once again. Daron looked up only after she finished the portrait. This time, it was of an older man, of the same ilk as the “wee folk” who sat with her. Only, this one had black hair with silver streaks. She didn’t have any colored chalks to indicate his eye color- a luxury she wished she could afford! – but she knew they were green. She took the sheet off and handed it to the younger, curly brown haired and dark brown eyed “wee folk” gentleman.
“I think this belongs to you...” Daron said in a shaky voice.