Copyright© 2017 by Cutlass
The front part of the inn was an eating house with a half-dozen small tables and a serving counter at the back. Most of the people here preferred to eat here, rather than cook in the houses, especially in the warmer months. The innkeeper bought the food supplies, and many of the villagers, me included, would barter for meals and use of the bathing house for the items we raised, hunted, or gathered. There were a few people sitting at the tables, and two more sitting on stools at the counter.
“Hello, Ornthalas!” I turned to see the innkeeper’s daughter, a young human woman with dark black hair and an easy smile. “Who’s your friend?”
“Hello, Della, this is Vall. We’re hungry,” I told her with a grin.
“Hello, Vall, I’m Della. Come in and sit. What do you want to eat?”
“Hello,” Vall replied. She looked uncomfortable at the question.
“Let’s sit here,” I pointed toward an empty table, and waited for Vall to move.
“Anything is fine,” Vall said quietly, allowing me to lead her to the table.
“We have mutton stew, so I’ll bring that, along with some fresh apple cider.” With that, Della walked away.
“Thank you, Della,” I called after her. I looked at Vall as we sat down. “Are you okay?”
“I’ve never been in a place where someone served me,” Vall said with a crooked smile. “I’ve always stayed outside, or just fended for myself in the kitchen.”
“You will like the food here, and they certainly don’t mind bringing it to you.”
Della returned a moment later with a pair of tall cups, and a plate with a small loaf of bread. “Here’s something for you while you’re waiting.” She set the items down and walked away.
Vall reached for the bread, and then hesitated, looking at me.
“Please, eat. You don’t need my permission, or anyone else’s.”
She picked up the loaf, tore it in half, and set it in front of her on the table. She ate three morsels quickly, and then smiled awkwardly at me. “I’m used to eating like this.”
“Yes, I understand.” I picked up the other half and tore off a morsel. I popped it into my mouth and started chewing. It was delicious, fresh baked and darkly rich.
A movement behind Vall caught my attention, and I looked up. A woman I’d never before seen was walking toward us from across the room. She was about Vall’s height, but any similarities ended there. Her skin was golden brown, and I could see a lot of it, since she wore sandals, a loincloth, and a vest that was open a handspan at the front, held closed by a gold chain at her cleavage.
She smiled as she caught my eye, and her ample breasts jiggled and swayed as she approached. She glided rather than walked across the floor, her hips rolling in time with the jiggles above. Her golden hair was an unruly halo around her head, and she wore an expression of amused attention.
Vall said something to me, and then twisted in her seat to see what had drawn my attention.
“Hello, you two,” the woman said as she stepped up to our table.
“Hello,” Vall said. “I am Vall.” She glanced at me, but I was still staring at the stranger’s eyes. They were, inevitably, golden, but they seemed to have flecks of light within them. “He,” she leaned over to poke me in the arm with her finger, “is Ornthalas.”
I started at Vall’s touch. “Uh, yes.” I swallowed my bread, nearly choked on it, and grabbed my cup to wash it down.
“May I sit?” the woman asked with a dazzling smile.
Vall waited, found I was still staring, and sighed. “Certainly.”
The woman pulled the chair out and sat down. “I am Nilyn. Ornthalas I know of, but I haven’t seen you here before, Vall.”
“I haven’t been around here before. He rescued me from some very bad orcs.”
“Well, that was nice of him,” Nilyn said, casting a glance in my direction. “If you don’t mind my saying so,” she looked back at Vall, “you seem to have orcish blood in you, as well.” She raised a hand. “It’s just an observation, my dear.”
Vall clamped her jaw closed and nodded.
“I know about how the orcs and other folk are fighting with the northern invaders. No race is all bad, or all good,” Nilyn continued. “The forest folk, and those living nearby, have lived peaceably for many turnings.”
She looked at each of us for a moment, and then reached out to lightly touch our hands with hers. “You two are not yet lovers, but you likely will be soon.” We both looked startled, and she laughed in her melodic voice. “You are well matched, I must say.”
“I don’t love him,” Vall said quietly.
“Love is a choice, my dear,” Nilyn said with a gentle smile. “You have had a hard life, and trust comes slowly for you. Unless I miss my guess, you’ve never before been with anyone you could trust.”
Vall nodded mutely, and Nilyn turned to me. “Listen to her, Ornthalas. She is strong, indeed, stronger than you in some ways. Once she trusts you, do not ever spurn her.”
I looked into Nilyn’s eyes, and then I turned to look at Vall. Her dark eyes bored into mine, and my heart turned over at the mingled determination and fear I saw in them. I reached for Vall’s hand with my free hand. “I love you, Vall, and I won’t fail you.”
“Everyone fails,” Nilyn said, “it’s just the way life is. Make your choice, hunter. You are with her, or you are not.”
“What about my choice?” Vall retorted sharply.
“Is he holding you here against your will?”
Vall looked down and shook her head. “No.”
“Then make your choice. Love him, or do not love him.”
Vall’s eyes flashed as she glared at Nilyn. “It’s not that simple for me!” she hissed. “You have no idea what I’ve been through!”
Nilyn’s smile turned sad. “Your countenance and manner speak, even when your mouth does not. Suffering has been your lot, but it does not have to continue. You are strong, Vall, or you would have died long before Ornthalas found you.”
Vall blotted the corners of her eyes with her shirt sleeves. “I don’t love him. I will stay here, but I don’t love him!”
“That is your choice, then.” Nilyn turned to me. “What is your choice, Ornthalas?”
I looked at Vall. She was still distressed, but she did not look away from me. “I love Vall, and I choose to stay with her as long as she will have me.”
“This is good,” Nilyn said as she released our hands. “The two of you will have need of your mutual trust, I’m afraid.”
“What do you mean?” Vall asked. She wiped at her face with her sleeve.
“Yes, what do you mean?” The voice came from behind me, and it was a familiar one. I turned around. “Lirimaer!”
A half-elven woman of nearly my own height stood behind my chair. She was a redhead, with closely cropped hair. She wore her armor and weapons, and an elven hunter’s cloak. Lirimaer was my mentor; the two of us had spent many days in the forest, teaching and learning the hunter’s craft.
Lirimaer cocked her head as she regarded Nilyn with a crooked smile. “Hello, Nilyn. What great disaster is about to befall us, this time?”
“Can’t a girl ever come to just see old friends, and make new ones?”
Lirimaer chuckled, and pulled out a chair to sit across from Nilyn. “I love you, I really do, but you never come without trouble tailing behind you.”
“You haven’t come to see me nearly often enough these last few turnings, my dear.” Nilyn smiled wickedly.
“That’s because you are trouble incarnate, my dear.” Lirimaer turned to Vall. “Forgive my poor manners. I am Lirimaer.”
“I am Vall. Ornthalas rescued me from some orcs.”
“Did he, now?” Lirimaer turned to Ornthalas. “How did that come to pass?”
I sighed. “I was tracking an orc band out near the bald hill cut, and their trail led to the edge of the forest. They had camped there in a clearing, and I heard her screaming. I killed her attacker, took her, and hid in a creek until the other orcs moved away. Then, I brought her here.”
“Good,” Lirimaer nodded. She looked back at Vall. “Do you have a bed?”
Vall looked down for a moment. “I am sharing his. We are just sleeping, not mating.”
“You will want to decide about that soon. I know of a maiden who is swooning over him.” Lirimaer smiled. “Not that I’ve told him about her before now.”
“Thank you so much,” I said with a sigh.
“I don’t love him,” Vall said quietly.
“But I love you,” I put in.
“I see,” Lirimaer said with a neutral expression. “So, Nilyn, my lovely friend, what misfortune do you bring us today?”
“I am afraid that you are right this time, my friend. I have need of a hunter, and of a spellcaster.”
“Spellcaster?” I asked. “Who?”