I moved through the back door and proceeded to take my place at the table. Sabella rushed forward, putting her hand on my chest at the top of her height, stopping me in my tracks.
She leaned forward delicately and sniffed the air around me, then narrowed her eyes.
"Don't ever do that again. We've had to leave the doors open and use fans to get rid of the smell. Now we're full of flies. I hate flies." She said, irritation lining her voice, but her expression softened as I passed the check, "Thankfully, you clean up nicely."
She said it with a smirk and turned gracefully on her heel, keeping an eye on me as she did before turning direct.
"And yet more drama." I mumbled to her back while moving forward to take my place.
The smile on Silah's face seemed genuine. She was among friends, quiet and fiddling with a mug in front of her. I ran my hand along her arm and she moved into me automatically. She seemed to catch herself, and withdrew slightly, causing that aching wound within me to tear open further. The stout I'd requested hadn't reached the table before I did. Tagaern shrugged as I rapped at the table in front of me, annoyed. I realized that Rana had joined us. She and Floki were taking turns, jabbing at their father, Jurgen.
"There was nothing I could do. We went to Osterman Flats and, in a freak sand storm, I wake up in a lush meadow." He was exasperated as he spoke, his eyes were blurry, likely from the ale, and weariness seemed to pull him closer and closer to the table. "I've spent over two years trying to find a way to get back home. And this is what I get from my own flesh and blood. I’m not even sure I have a bed to sleep in."
Floki shook his head.
"You wouldn't want to sleep where my wolf's been. It's best that you take the floor." Floki said with a shrug.
Jurgen shook his head, looking defeated. I could relate.
It was strange to see them together. They talked similarly, using the same words and gestures. Both Floki and Rana had seemed to inherit much more from their father than either realized. It was clear that he was down on himself, and, from what he said, it was completely out of his control. I was curious, though, Osterman Flats had often been a topic of conversation for the magical void that it was. I was both intrigued and unsettled at what had happened to Jurgen there.
Sabella placed a stout-filled mug in front of me.
"One more thing." I said, catching her attention, "Could I also get a plate of food? I don't care what it is."
She looked at me sidelong.
"Just… surprise me?" I said with a smirk.
Taking the weight off of my feet felt great, but sitting with a bellyful of ale had started to remind me of my intense weariness that I had been keeping at arm's length.
"Bromm. I need to talk to your father about renting one of those apartments. I have it in mind to march up there and knock on his door right now."
"Bold. Weren't you a little hesitant earlier?"
"I've fought giants that were more intimidating than him. I figure this is a good weight to measure my mettle against."
"You're sure that's not the beer talking?" Bromm said with his knowing grin.
"Not the beer. More likely the need for sleep." I paused, then continued the thought, "And preferably in a bed that's not someone else's the next day."
"I could help with that transaction." Sabella said, as she placed a massive plate of potatoes, beef mash, and boiled greens in front of me. "You don't seem to be a particularly good bargainer."
I gave her a disgruntled look.
"What would you save me on the deal?"
Sig and Tagaern seemed to take interest, sitting forward to listen in.
"He's asking seventy gold for those, per month. I'm sure I could get that lower." She said, rocking her head in time in the rhythm of her speech, her shoulder-length black hair swaying in the process.
"I'd consider it for sixty." I said, eyeing Sabella's now placid face. Her expression had changed as soon as business was being discussed.
Everyone's in business for themselves these days. I thought.
"Sixty-five. You do realize that I still have to present this to my father, right? I really am doing you a favor." She said with a shake of head, "So, why don't you do me a favor?"
"Sixty. I'm willing to talk to your father or take my business elsewhere. They are vacant, aren't they?" I said with a smirk.
"You know too much." She said, her lips pulled together thinly as she glared at Bromm. "I'll try for sixty."
"Fifty-five, and we'll take three of them." Sig piped up as Sabella seemed to get settled with the idea.
Her glare now moved to him and she looked heavenward with a silent curse on her lips.
"These friends of yours, Bromm. They may be a handsome lot, but they sure are difficult to work with." She turned and glanced toward Macauley at the bar who gave her a small two finger salute as she moved toward the stairs up to their father's office.
A home. A place to put that sword on the wall. I thought. You'd be proud, Duncan.
The conversations went on above my head. Sig was now talking to Tagaern about the financials around the apartments. Floki and Rana had re-engaged with their father while Danin looked on. Bromm was sipping at an ale, looking glad to be in familiar surroundings.
I turned to the plate in front of me then looked at Silah who had been eyeing it with a strange mix of emotions. I nodded toward it.
"I don't have much of an appetite. I'm sure you do." I said, "Hopefully, this will take the edge off?"
She looked at me with surprise, wide eyed.
"What? I'm not entirely ignorant." I said with a chuckle.
"Oh, no. I had forgotten. I'm glad you remembered." She lifted her hand and grabbed a chunk of potato and swallowed it whole.
I nodded, recognizing the pain she had been in. This had sated her in the past when she was drained, I hoped it would bring up her mood.
"At least use a fork. And try not to frighten anyone." I grinned at her.
Bromm had been listening in with a smile and he looked at me with an unspoken question.
"She kept me alive out there. She put all she had into me during that fight." I said as an explanation and he responded with a nod, sipping at his Shatterhammer ale.
Silah reached out to me, clasping my forearm.
"Thank you." Her voice echoed in my mind.
He hand was warm to the touch and I savored it. The room began to fall away as she moved into my mind. She appeared in front of me in resplendent majesty. The angelic golden glow that filled her eyes emanated from her skin as well. Her face spread with a smile as she looked into my eyes sending an aching longing for her through my very soul. She bent forward and kissed me, sending my heart racing.
You look different. I thought in wonder as I looked into her glowing eyes.
"I am different." She said, looking a little sheepish with the words and her glow diminished slightly.
I put my hand to her chin and moved close.
The vision evaporated as quickly as it came. As I came to my senses, I looked down and saw Silah had raised her hand from my arm. Looking at me, suddenly conflicted.
"I think I'll have what he's having?" Bromm said, looking to me with a raised eyebrow.
I shook as a chill ran up my spine. Silah had turned back to her nearly empty plate and I was left alone to wonder, oblivious to the conversations eddying around me. My heart was still hammering away in my chest, filled with both with adoration and an unrequited ache.
Sabella closed again with the table. There was a fine sheen of sweat standing on her forehead and she gave us a miserable expression.
"Fifty-five it is, but the contract will change month to month. You're lucky these had already been partially paid for, otherwise he'd kick you out of here, right now." She said, her usually sweet voice sounding hoarse, "And I'd be happy to help him."
She shook her head, looking at the members of the table with some disdain.
"You do realize that I have to make a living here, too." She turned to her brother who was busily eyeing the bottom of a mug, "Bromm? Are you hearing me? I know you're sitting on a small fortune in these businesses. Tell your friends here to loosen up on their purse-strings."
"We tip well, don't we?" Floki said with a smile, raising his mug.
"When it isn't on the house, perhaps?" She said dabbing again at her forehead. "You've got your way. But I'd suggest that you be kinder to those who stand in for you. One day, I may not feel so generous."
Guilt was as effective a negotiating tool as the threat of force. I thought with a grimace.
We did owe her, though. I looked on Bromm to see if he had an opinion. He glanced at me expressionless then turned his eyes back into the bottom of his mug.
Silah sat woodenly, pushing the empty plate away from her, running the cloth napkin around her lips. Her eyes were wide and unfocused as she looked into the air in front of her. Every step forward with her had been short-lived. My heart ached again with the thought of her so far away from me.
Rana and Danin adjourned after he'd mentioned needing to clean up after our trials and travels. He asked for Bromm's room and Bromm obliged with a gracious sweep of his hand. Bromm wouldn't be using it, anyway, he'd be off to Robyn's cottage shortly to face whatever challenges she had for him there. The thought brought a slight grin.
I looked to Silah who had come to herself again and looked at me, her eyes expectant while her face was expressionless.
"We should go, too. I want to see what I just put money on." I said absently, finding myself suddenly engrossed by grooves in the rough table.
"Mind if I join you? I'm still learning where things are around here." Tagaern said, his head swivelled toward me as he heard my plans.
"By all means." I said with a smile.
The stout in front of me was nearly untouched. I grimaced at it, feeling slightly ill, then walked away.
The night air stirred with a slight breeze pushing out toward the ocean. The heat from earlier had tempered quickly after the sun had set. A chill had readily taken its place, it was a welcomed respite from my fevered thoughts.
"I'm planning to offer my services to Amalia to help her restore Kellas House." Tagaern said, as his boots clacked over the worn stones. "While you and the others have become family to me, this is something that I must do. I feel it in my heart."
"I'll stand with you, there." I said with a nod, attentive even with my mind heavy with other thoughts, "We should speak with Amalia. She's staying just across from the apartments we've rented."
"Oh! That's fortuitous." He said with a smile grasping again at his loose belt with some annoyance.
"You should probably do something about that." I said, grinning as he grappled at the loose clothes.
"Tomorrow, lad. Tomorrow." He said with a huff.
"Good luck with tomorrow. Everyone's going to be at the festival." I said with a widening grin sparking a look of disdain from the haggard looking man.
The streets were still being dressed late into the night. A towering woven wicker form was perched outside of the Acionna's temple. I looked on it as buntings and streamers were being hung throughout the city. Directly opposite the bustle, Hagan's apartments sat quiet and empty.
"We should check in on Amalia first. If I lay down on the bed, I may not get back up." I said with a smirk, looking at the door that matched the key Sabella had given me.
With the word, he was already halfway across the courtyard, moving among the laborers helping with the preparations. I turned and hurriedly caught up with him. Silah followed quietly, barely letting her presence be known.
The door had remained unlocked during the night to keep the flow of traffic for all the preparations unimpeded. One of the priestesses immediately attended to us. She looked slightly familiar standing in regal robes of Acionna in their blue and white. She had smiled kindly at the request and sent someone to fetch Amalia from her room.
My heart and stomach were unsettled with the knowledge I'd be seeing her. Yet another kind of heartache had come to cause me pain while I looked on and waited. Even though we had accomplished the tasks to hold the Bulwark and lay our friend to rest, I still felt a guilt linger over the loss of Duncan. I assumed Tagaern did, too. His plan to help Amalia was a subtle way to begin to pay whatever price he felt in order to honor Duncan's memory.
A bleary-eyed, barefooted Amalia tiptoed over the gray flagstones in a long nightgown. Her brown hair was tousled, giving her slender face a weary wildness. Her eyes lit up as she saw us. I moved in and embraced her. She also turned to Tagaern and gave him a hug that he wasn't expecting. He sheepishly patted her on the back in response.
"It's good to see you. I was worried that you'd be lost, too." She looked back and forth between us an ache filled her eyes with her words.
"No. We're safe. We've laid Duncan to rest and have slain the beast that was responsible." Tagaern said gruffly. I could hear the subtleties of emotion catching in his voice.
Amalia nodded, her expression turning sullen. She seemed to want to press on to other things.
"Are you well?" I asked, simply.
"As well as can be expected. I've been helping with the preparations around here, making friends along the way." She said with a slight smile.
"Good. And your brothers?"
"They're being put to work. I've been worried about a bit worried about Falk. He's taken this harder than any of us. Keval is strong, though. He's been keeping an eye on Falk." Amalia said quietly, then gave me a strange look, tilting her head, "And I'm fine. No one needs to be keeping an eye on me."
My eyes widened. That disconcerting eddy trickled through me as she seemed to pick the thought out of my head.
"Sorry. I forget myself." She said with a smirk. "People need to stop feeling sorry for me. The thoughts ring in my head constantly around here. I'm much more than Duncan's poor daughter."
I nodded. Suddenly concerned about other thoughts that may have leaked through. Silah's own ability to perceive required a connection, but this was something else entirely.
Amalia had a smirk and shook her head knowingly.
"I'd like to offer my strength for the rebuilding effort." Tagaern said solemnly. "I want to help you put things back together."
I wonder if Tagaern is aware of Amalia's gift? I thought as I looked to him then back to Amalia.
I nodded in response to his point.
"I've been thinking on what's next. I think I'll need to ally myself with either Dowry or Hlofreden going forward." She said, seeming to be pained by the thought, "I am no warrior like my father and he liked his independence. I don't think I will have the same luxury."
"Dowry would likely offer more support, but everything with Dowry is sticky." I said with some disdain, "There's no telling what favors you'll be called on for."
She furrowed her brow in thought.
"The alternative is allying with the regent here, who is also beholden to Dowry to some degree. It may shield you from some things, but it might make getting things done more difficult." I reached out and put a hand on her shoulder as I spoke, "But we've … gained some recognition. I'll do all I can to make sure you are well taken care of."
"And I as well." Tagaern added.
She bowed a heavy head and nodded.
"I couldn't have better men at my back." She said glancing between us. "Genuine and honest men."
"Oh, and … what you can do there? Be wary." I said with a look of concern, "You'd be a valuable prize to the Princess, but you'd likely lose your freedom in the process if she gets word of what you're capable of."
Amalia glanced around at the bustling of Acionna garbed men and women, and gave me a wide eyed look.
"I will be careful." She said, realizing the gravity of her situation.
She looked around, suddenly uncomfortable. I grit my teeth, seeing that I had now pulled her into my own paranoia. I thought to backpedal, but who knew what she'd already seen floating around in my head.
"I'm sorry to make you wary. I want what's best for you." I said with a grimace.
She nodded, giving me a determined look.
"It's best that I go in with both eyes open." She said, a fierceness lit her face as she spoke.
Every bit Duncan's daughter. I thought.
"Rest well, Amalia. We'll see you during the festival, I'm sure." I said attempting an easy smile.
"Yes. I'm sure that we will see each other." She said, now smiling at the challenge.
She performed a curtsy in her billowing night gown. Tagaern and I both bowed in unison as she turned and moved back into the temple.
(Get to know Akeron.)