Mary looked up from her meal. The chicken and potatoes were at once burnt and yet tepid. “Lizzy? Is Stroz feeling okay? Everything is just a little bit cold…” This was unusual since normally it was burnt but at least it was hot.
Lizzy grabbed Finos’ freshly poured tankard and stomped over to the bar.
“Hey! I was drinking that.” He called after her.
Mary turned to Faute, “What’s up with her?”
Faute sat down across from Mary and leaned toward her whispering, “Kegar came by a while ago and asked Strozazand to go into the bone tower with him.” She glanced toward Lizzy, “He said she couldn’t come. That she would be useless.”
Finos hopped down from his bench and waddled on pudgy legs to the girls. “Faute, mind if I get another beer?” He looked at Mary and winked.
Faute sat up straight and looked down at him haughtily, “Fine, get one.”
Finos sighed and walked toward the bar muttering to himself, “I just wanted her to get me another drink. I thought that’s what barmaids were for.”
Mary watched the hobbit stumble off, “You don’t have to be mean to him.”
“He’s a little creep and he hits on all the girls.” Faute said, watching him out of the corner of her eye.
Mary took a bite of the cold chicken, shuddered and put her fork down. “He just wanted a drink. He wasn’t hitting on you.”
That was the problem of course. Faute had made it clear to the whole village that she was better than them. It made her an abysmal barmaid. Finos Nimblequick was a flirt. He was charming and tried, playfully, to pick up every woman in town. Married or unmarried. Except for Faute. No one would accuse her of being jealous… but then, much like Shandra, she had a gift for the magic arts.
Faute touched her slightly pointed ears, seeking reassurance, before pushing back her hair to reveal her well-known and over emphasized fae heritage to Mary. “I don’t know why he would bother to hit on a blue mutant like yourself!” She stood up and stalked off to the back room where her father, adopted father as she was insistent to tell everyone, kept the books.
Mary looked down at the cobalt epidermis on her hand. Tears threatened. She knew she should have a thicker skin when it came to comments about her skin color. She had been blue her whole life and no one knew how or why, but it was still very hurtful. Knowing that she should be tough only made it worse really. The tears started to leak out. She had sniffed once when a slightly dirty hanky was thrust at her.
Finos held out the hanky in one hand and held two mugs of ale in the other. “Here.” He set the mugs down and hopped up on the bench. “Looks like everyone is having a bad day.”
Mary sniffed and wiped her eyes with the hanky, “What makes you say that?”
He shrugged and took a pull on one of the ales, pushing the other toward her, “Well, certainly everyone in this tavern. You, me, I hardly need to explain. Lizzy is going to kill Kegar for obvious reasons. So that’s bad for both of them. Faute is angry, again.” He shrugged again. “I don’t know if the day could get much worse.”
They both looked up as the door opened. Percival stepped through looking like a dandy. Seeing them he smiled and walked over. Percival snatched Mary’s pint as she was reaching for it, grabbed one of the available chairs in his other hand, and sat down. “I hope you don’t have plans, because I have news from Capita.”
He launched into a dramatic and drawn out description of the horrors they were about to face. He was no royal courtier – or courtier at all – to be under an oath to make him withhold what he knew about the message he was given. He was a merchant and he dealt in information as well as goods. Drumming up fear or excitement in the villagers would help them loosen their purse strings and purchase things for the journey ahead of them. Especially, if he hinted that his father may not be able to make a trip next year due to the unrest in the Northern Kingdom.
Finos Nimblequick listened, while trying to maintain an almost bored look on his face. His attempt to look too worldly for such ideal speculation was foiled by the way he gripped his mug and his white knuckles.
Mary, for her part, knew that she was a country bumpkin and ate it up unashamedly. Wars and rumors of wars were new topics for Pode and she was excited to hear about something other than how Danny Watson’s cow had escaped its pen and after some time in the forest was returned by a spidren, who told him the cow had gotten in with her milk thistles. When the cow dropped its calf, the calf looked normal, except that where it was supposed to be white it was green. After the calf was grown it produced mint colored milk with a strange taste, but it produced a great deal of it. Anyway, I’ve heard that story a hundred times and I’m ready for a new story to be talked to death.
The door opened suddenly. Katrina’s boots thudded into the tavern room of the inn. She had bits of woodchips clinging to her bland tunic and pants. Sweat from recent labor clung to her forehead. She swiped her arm across her brow, streaking dust and sweat, leaving a wet patch on her sleeve.
“Percival! While you’ve been gabbing away, some of us have been doing real work. Poor me a pint and slide down the bench.” She gave him a playful shove and took a swig from his mug.
“Gabbing?” He said with mock horror, “Gabbing? Well, I never! I have been informing these good citizens of the Northern Kingdom the state of things.”
Katrina laughed, before calling to Faute, “A pint, please!”
Mary nodded, her fuchsia hair bobbing around her ears, “It’s actually true. Things have been going on. Things that will effect us.”
Katrina took in Mary’s eagerness while she accepted her pint from Lizzy. Katrina noted Lizzy’s pinched face and that Faute had retreated into the back room. They aren’t having a pleasant day. Katrina leaned over to Mary and whispered, “What’s eating them?”
Mary sighed, dragging her fingers through her short hair before responding in a hushed tone, “Well…” She related everything as she knew it. Hesitating when she spoke to the reason Kegar was forming a group to go into the spire.
Katrina’s pale face lost all color, turning ghostly. Her red hair seemed to lose some of its lustrous shine, like the fire of her spirit had been dampened. Her gray eyes turned hard as steel. Mary saw the change in her friend at once and wavered in her tale, but Katrina motioned for her to continue.
Mary finished the tale up with, “And that’s when you came in.”
Katrina nodded. It had been such a long time since her father had gone with the other hunters, of course her mother and she had feared the worst… but they clung to hope. They had to. I don’t know how we will explain this to the littles… her mind tried to shy away from the thought, she couldn’t pin it down. He might not be dead. Maybe he is just unable to come back. Taken prisoner or something. There is a… a chance.
Percival rested a comforting arm around her shoulders. She leaned into him, resting her head on his shoulder. His clothing was a much finer weft than her homespun clothes. It felt soft and smooth against her cheek. The stress and fear faded from her face as she breathed in the quiet strength he emanated. A hush fell across the table as they sat there in pensive silence.
The quiet was broken by Faute clearing her throat behind Katrina and Percival, “That isn’t appropriate conduct for a woman promised to another man.”
Katrina’s head snapped up, the serenity shattered with that well placed barb. “I’m not engaged, as you well know.” Her eyes sparked.
Faute refused to back down, “Well, you could have fooled me. The way you make him prove himself and the hoops he jumps through. It’s all that’s ever talked about around here, what’s the next useless task you’ll force on a man that just wants to love you.”
Faute’s words confused everyone at the table. Not a single one of them had ever heard Katrina set a task before Cole. Even at ten, Katrina had been fairly articulate, though less sensitive… at that age, she had told him she would rather lick stones for a year then marry him. Now, she just told him “no”.
Finos, who often felt like Faute swapped the rules for what it meant to be a basic sentient being on him, spoke cautiously, “Faute, what in the nine hells are you talking about?”
Faute’s face twisted in an ugly snarl. “Well, you would hardly understand. You aren’t even a fully sized man!”
Her barb wounded Finos at the heart of his soul. He didn’t know why she was so cruel to him. All he wanted was for her to smile at him. She was so beautiful when she smiled those lovely satin lips. He couldn’t understand her anger. His greatest fear was that without any understanding of her anger, he would never be able to fix it.
Katrina patted Finos’ arm as Faute stomped away without refilling any of their mugs. “Thanks for your support. I wish she would stop saying garbage like that.”
Finos shrugged, trying to dismiss it, “She says it so often, we all know I’ve developed a hard skin.” He winked at them.
The girls groaned and Percival laughed. After that the comradery was stilted. The understanding was lost, each floating about in their own wounds. Almost everyone in town had a talent: When Lizzy played her lute, everyone who heard her was enchanted by the heart of the song she played; Shandra made a potion for every eventuality. She also had blown up most of the town with her experiments, which is why Sir Wilbur had insisted she build herself a sturdy tower.
Finos was constantly getting into places he didn’t belong. Not for malicious reasons, he was just always itching for a challenge. Sir Wilbur had tossed Finos out of the treasury on multiple occasions. Katrina always seemed to be at the right place at the right time. When John Walker nearly cut off his leg with an axe, she had been on her way to his home. All she could say about the instance was that she felt she had to go there… Faute’s talent and passion seemed to be being able to speak the exact words that would stir up the most strife and pain. It was strange how she could talk her way into a person’s confidence, even when they all knew her so well. She seemed to gobble up information and wedge herself into situations she didn’t belong.
In moments when Katrina wasn’t aching with sorrow from the damage Faute had done, she believed that if Faute turned her thoughts to how to help instead of how to harm, she could do great things. But there was a deep fear and bitterness that festered inside Faute. It was rooted in the core of her soul and there was no one who knew how to prune the rot. All anyone could do was mitigate the damage done.