(Reposted for Fimnora…)
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Inside the Sea Jade half-elven Kalen Ehven leaned her elbows on the polished bar, rested her chin in her hands and cast her eyes contentedly about the noisy Inn. Gray spicy smoke rose in corkscrew spirals from a variety of hand-made pipes here and there mingling with the sweet scent of peat from the fire in the massive rock fireplace on the back wall. Though not a partaker herself, she figured she was likely as addicted to tobacco as the next person just from years of inhaling the smoke!
Her tables were full tonight. It was the end of the work week and men and women alike were gathered to shed the stress of their week’s labor. Folks prattled here and there, some loudly discussing the political situation while others spoke more quietly of things closer to home. Pewter tankards clanked much as they toasted everything from the Frasiers’ new baby boy to Friday itself. The galley was lively as well, for not only was it Friday, it was also the day when meager wages were doled out and entire families had come round for supper.
Hefting a tray laden with meat pastries and pints, Kalen made her way to one such family gathering near the door. Smiling, her eyes lingered briefly on the masthead of a golden-haired woman in a jade-green gown that hung above the fireplace. Freshly painted each year to protect it from the sooty smoke and hide the damage done by the often fierce ocean weather, it was still as beautiful as the day it first graced the bow of the Sea Jade, the inn’s namesake. She had brought the figurehead from her father’s decaying ship when she had settled in Pelargir three years ago. Her mother had posed for the carving the year she and Findarian Ehven were married. To Kalen it was a constant reminder her mother was watching over her.
As the evening grew older Kalen found herself looking often toward the door. Wandering to the fireplace she pulled a leather wing-back chair close to the heat and nudged a footstool before it. Next to the chair she placed a small table where she laid out a freshly packed pipe, a clean tankard and a black and white game board. Near that she sat a second, smaller chair in the event that a game of Fox & Hounds might be managed later on. Perhaps Will would come round soon now, she thought, and he would be weary from his journey. She would remove his boots for him that he might rest his aching feet on the stool and then see to it that he had a cold pint and a freshly baked Shepherd’s Pie for his evening’s fare.
Kalen remembered well the first time she had seen Willem Talberon, having just come from the bakery one cold winter’s morn with a basket full of hot buns and a jar of raspberry honey. He was leaning against the wooden wall by the city gate smoking a long, slender pipe, looking as if he couldn’t make up his mind if he were coming or going. Taller and darker than the men of Pelargir, he was disheveled about his person, and at first she thought him to be a beggar. But his eyes betrayed the truth, for he watched the road into town with great interest. She sensed behind the disguise a person of keen purpose and wondered for what, or whom, he watched and waited.
As she passed him by she spoke. “Good morning, friend. You look to be a might hungry.”
He had smiled back, a weary little smile as if the weight of Adama rested on his shoulders, and puffed out a cloud of blue smoke. “A bit,” he said. Then knocking the bowl of the pipe against the wall, he stepped on the ashes that had fallen to the ground and stashed the still-warm pipe in his great coat pocket.
Kalen had lifted the red and white checked cloth covering the buns and held the basket up for him to breathe in the warm, yeasty smell of the fresh bread. Offering him one, she set the basket on the ground and removed the lid from the jar of honey. The corners of his eyes had wrinkled with pleasure as she poured it onto the warm bun he held between his hands, managing, in the process, to drip the sweet on herself.
“I’m Kalen,” she said, offering her somewhat sticky hand with most unladylike forwardness.
He tilted his head in surprised amusement, or so it had seemed to Kalen, and offered his the same. His hand was rough, his grip strong but not ungentle.
“I’m Willem Talberon of Edhellond,” said he.
His gaze, though not rude, was direct none-the-less, and Kalen had suddenly become aware of how unkempt she must look. She had been cleaning the fireplace in the Sea Jade before the errand to the bakery, and her dress and apron, and even her long golden-red braid were covered with spots of soot.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Talberon,” she had said, pushing her braid back over her shoulder and dropping a quick curtsy.
“Just Will,” he rejoined with a nod of his head, “And the pleasure is mine, to be sure.” He smiled an easy, sincere smile. “Thank you for sharing your bread with me.”
“You’re most welcome . . . Will,” Kalen had said.
Then, not wanting to be impolite by prying into his business, she had bid him good day and gone on her way to the Inn.
She had seen him often since then, and fancied that when he was about he timed his morning smoke to her trips to the bakery. He always brought news from afar and reveled in telling strange, forgotten tales. But for all their shared bread and pleasant conversation, she’d learnt little about him save that he was a curious mix of wandering Tracker and philosopher, having a good turn with a story but choosing most often to keep his own company. In all other ways he had remained a riddle to Kalen.
She turned as Fergus Frasier, the barkeep, whooped her name over the clamor of the crowd and beckoned to a tray loaded with fresh draughts of ale. Then, with a last glance at the chairs by the fire, she smiled wistfully and turned her attention to the work at hand.