Once everyone was equipped with a sharp stick and marshmallows, Eluisa was feeling quite satisfied with how the evening had gone. The story seemed to have gone over well with the kids – they were alternately discussing the land where their parents had been born, school, and the best way to keep your marshmallow from falling off your stick.
“Look, Achenar, if you tilt the end forward just a little, it’ll get nice and brown,” Aranel advised her little brother, “Don’t be afraid to dip it into the fire a little.”
Achenar made a dubious face, and Aranel proceeded to show him how it was done.
“Gyaaaaaah! I can’t put it out!”
As soon as the laughter had died down, all was quiet once more until there were only a few more marshmallows left in the bag.
It wasn’t long before Calanthe, checking to see if she had singed the edges of her marshmallow to her satisfaction, mentioned something that Eluisa had been wondering if she could ever say.
“So, if you met Mom and Viridia when you were in Elphemerea, how did everyone else get here?” She asked. “And how did you get here?”
Eluisa snuck a glance around the fire, only to find six faces looking back at her, impatient for her to resume her story. But, with what had happened, she wasn’t quite certain of how to tell them the story. What happened next was something that would probably be hard for them to understand – maybe it wasn’t right to tell them. Not that she would tell them everything – they were children, after all - but what she had intended to say suddenly seemed like it wouldn’t be enough, and to tell them was to destroy some notion of justice, or of the basic safety of the world, or something similar.
But they were waiting – and anyway, she had already begun.
“Our ship never reached the southern kingdoms. We were detained at a port in one of the human kingdoms, and forced to disembark. Rather than waiting for the ship to be released, which could have taken weeks, we opted to cut across the kingdom on foot.
Little did we know, however, that simply leaving the port without becoming lost would be an undertaking in and of itself.
Before we knew it, the twisting alleyways of the city had enveloped us, and the drizzling rain wore the afternoon away as the streets grew progressively narrower and darker. In the end, we decided to seek out a place in which to stay the night.
We entered the first inn that we saw, hoping for a hot meal and a decent place to spend the night. The front room was a dark space with a sooty ceiling neither very empty nor very crowded, but we felt sure that it would improve once they lit the fire. We hung back a little, realizing that the room was filled, not with fellow elves, but with humans. They looked very little different from us, and with our hair loose and hanging over our ears, they would probably never suspect where we came from.
Seating ourselves at the bar, we proceeded to make our orders, and chat with the blonde woman tending the bar about the dismal weather. To our surprise, she was very friendly, but quiet, as if she were a normally outgoing person trying hard not to draw attention to herself.
Once we were warm and dry, the misfortune of our ship having been detained seemed more like an opportunity, and we talked for a long time about all the places we planned to see on our way to the southern realms.
“Just think – we could see that mysterious arch in the woods that shows you a different landscape than the one that’s behind it,” I told my two companions, “They say it’s a door to a completely different world.”
“The Elipsis,” the barmaid confirmed with a small nod. “They say those that pass through it never pass out again.”
“That sounds dangerous,” Viridia said, seriously, “Maybe we’d better not.”
“But we wouldn’t actually go through it,” I explained, already grinning in anticipation of the adventure, “We’d simply have a look at it to see if the rumors are true. Even if it isn’t real, then it’s an amazing illusion and it makes no sense to waste our one chance to see it.”
“From what I’ve heard of the whole area, it seems like there’s some powerful magic going on there,” Chalimyra weighed in. Viridia looked worried.
“If there’s magicthen it’s definitely not safe to go there,” she said, “I really think that we shouldn’t try, Elu. What if it’s the kind of magic which makes the people who go there just to look walk through and disappear forever?”
I scoffed. “Magic doesn’t work like that,” I told her, and before long the two of us were so wrapped up in our discussion of exactly what magic was that we didn’t notice that Chalimyra had stopped talking to us.
Nor did we notice the barmaid excuse herself and walk into the kitchen.
“Look,” I told Viridia, “just because we don’t understand something doesn’t automatically make it dangerous. Who knows what a tree thinks? Or a rock? In fact -”
My line of argument was cut off by Chalimyra kicking me under the bar.
“Did you just see that?” She asked us in a low voice. Both of us shook our heads. “If you’d been paying attention, you might have noticed that the barmaid here has pointy ears.” We gaped, and she elaborated, “When she brushed her hair back, just before she left – the whole side of her face is bruised, I think she was trying to hide it behind her hair – I noticed that her ear is pointed on the top.”
“What are the chances of another elf, here?” I wondered. “It must really be a small world – maybe we should ask her what the best way to get to the southern kingdoms is when she comes back.”
“Poor thing,” Viridia breathed. Both of us turned to look at her. “How did she get that bruise? And on the side of her face, too. It’s hard to get a bruise there and nowhere else, unless of course you’re in a fight and someone hits you.” It took a moment before she seemed to realize what she had just said.
All of us exchanged worried glances quickly.
“Elu, Chali,” Viridia addressed us tentatively, after a moment of silence, “I have a bad feeling about this…”
“Wait a second,” Achenar put in, while the rest sat quietly. “Who was that? You’d already met everybody’s moms.”
“Don’t be dense,” Aranel reprimanded him. Anariel winced, but Achenar didn’t even seem to notice. “Just because someone’s in the story doesn’t mean that they ended up here.”
“Maybe they did, but just don’t live near us,” Calla piped up in Achenar’s defense. “And that doesn’t answer the question of who it was.”
“Yeah, I want to know who it was!” Elirand piped up, “And I want to know what your mom thought was such a bad idea, too, ‘Enar, so everybody shut up or Auntie Elu’s not going to finish before our parents get here.”
It was with an amused smile that Eluisa continued. But as the story progressed, the smile left her face.
“We were not the only travelers at the inn that night.
In fact, we were most likely not even the only ones to come from lands beyond the city. Neither conspicuously rich nor obviously poor… so in a way, what happened was merely the arbitrary dice-roll of chance.
But in the back of the room, unknown at the time to any of us, we were being watched.
“Those three,” the leader said in a low voice, “the pretty wenches at the bar.”
“Aye,” the one at his left hand took a swig of ale. “D’you reckon?”
The third one nodded. “They’ve money. The dark one’s purse is heavy, and she tipped the wench at the bar.”
The leader nodded once. “The usual, then.”
“Aw, why’d you have to say that?” the man at his side questioned, “Pretty girls like them… they wouldn’t be any trouble.”
“For the last time,” the leader sighed, “Getting all sentimental is a sure way to land all our necks in the hangman’s noose. There’s plenty of pretty wenches in this world.
Just because you don’t have the guts to kill a woman doesn’t mean it’s a problem for the rest of us.”
“Send those two away,” the leader hissed at the fourth member of their band, who had found a convenient corner. “We have work to do.”
The blonde barmaid froze, bending over to pick up the platter on the table, as the brown – haired man gave her a wink. Slowly, the leader’s scowl turned towards her.
She couldn’t let them know that she had heard, so she smiled back immediately. “Excuse me, sirs,” she said brightly, trying to ignore the fact that the scowl on the leader’s face had turned to appraisal as he looked at her, “I only wanted to know if you’re finished with this.”
The leader indicated that they were with a wave of his hand, and she picked the tray up. “Of course. But be sure to bring us all a bottle of wine later,” he said, “As soon as the bar closes for the night.”
“Good girl. Run along now and you’ll see us later.”
Unknowing what was occurring below, the three of us had finished our dinner and gone up to the room that we had rented for the night. The upper floor of the inn was nowhere near as warm and cheery as the common room, and as the drafts played around our ankles and the sound of raindrops could be heard overhead, none of us could help but feel that the sooner we were on our way towards the open countryside, the better.
We entered our room with some apprehension, to find it as dark, drafty, run-down and unwelcoming as the hall outside, very much unlike anywhere that any of the three of us had ever known while still in the elven kingdoms.
It was agreed that we would leave at first light.
And as the raindrops drummed outside and the continuing noise from downstairs seeped up through the cracks between the floorboards, the three of us uneasily made ready for bed.
“Eluisa?” Viridia asked me, still sitting on her bed after Chalimyra and I had both burrowed under the covers, “Do you think that all of the human kingdoms will be like this?”
I thought about it, and couldn’t think of a good answer to give her.
“Of course not,” Chalimyra said, sitting back up without opening her eyes, “Not all the elven kingdoms are the same, are they?”
Viridia nodded, which Chalimyra couldn’t see, but she continued anyway. “We’re just in an old, run-down part of town,” she reassured her, “And we’ll be well on our way out of it tomorrow.”
With that we said our goodnights.
It seemed like only a few minutes later that I heard a light footstep and someone lit the candles. Thinking that it was Viridia or Chalimyra, I rolled over.
“Psst. Hey, wake up.”
The voice was unfamiliar, so I threw the covers off and sat up, blinking.
Then I cracked one eye open and jumped out of bed.
“Who are you?” I asked before my brain connected the blonde waif in front of me with the young elven woman who had been tending the bar earlier. “Why are you here?” I asked instead.
“There’s no time,” she replied instead, “Wake up your friends – you need to be gone before sunrise.”
“Why?” I asked snappishly, a little irritated at the thought of starting off again into the now fitful rain before the sun even rolled out of bed. I was unprepared for her reply.
“Please just do as I say and you’ll be saving all of your lives,” she pleaded with me, eyes wide despite the bruise that surrounded one, “There are people here who want to kill you.”
As Viridia and Chalimyra rolled themselves out of bed, our midnight visitor proceeded to insist, in a low voice, that we leave the inn at that very instant. Perhaps because of the late hour, or the fact that we were all standing in the middle of the room in our nightgowns, no one was inclined to believe her at first.
After she repeated her explanation twice, she convinced us that she indeed had overheard a group of men in earlier in the inn plotting to rob and murder us, and we resolved very quickly not to wait until first light to depart. Chalimyra and I began to change into our traveling clothes and gather our few belongings. Viridia, after a moment’s hesitation, did likewise.
“You should come with us,” she told our mysterious blonde visitor. “You could get away from all of this…” she gestured towards the bruise beneath the blonde’s right eye, then stopped, unsure.
Our visitor simply watched her.
“You wouldn’t mind?” she finally asked.
“Of course not,” Viridia hastened to reassure her, “We’re all running from our circumstances. You’d fit right in.”
After a moment’s hesitation, she agreed, throwing her dirty smock back on and leading us cautiously down the drafty, creaking stairs.
We were tiptoeing across the long-empty front room of the inn when Chalimyra made a detour towards the bar, and our midnight visitor stopped her.
“What are you doing?” she hissed.
Chalimyra turned around, surprised, “I’m paying for our room,” she explained.
“Save your money,” the blonde advised, “The innkeeper’s paid well enough to turn a blind eye to the occasional corpse showing up in his beds.”
The three of us gasped, but not loudly.
“How…” Viridia began, but the blonde cut her off.
“It’s easy enough to buy the law in this city,” she explained, matter-of-factly, “The watch is prepared to look the other way for a price, for nearly any crime. A successful robber like the ones who are currently snoring away upstairs probably has enough money to bribe them, but it’s quicker and cleaner for them to simply murder you, take your purses, and depart into the night to avoid questioning. It’s also easy enough to drug their wine, which is another good reason for us to be gone before dawn.”
“You what…?” I asked, but we were already on our way, slipping out into the drizzle that coated the city streets.
Memoria Part Four