The Grey Horse Inn
A wagon pulled by two horses stopped outside the open market in Clearbrook and was still for several minutes. The wagon’s stocky driver, Neal Buchetto, chewed on a strip of dried beef, as he waited for the person sitting next to him to disembark. Neal’s passenger was a fifteen-year-old boy. The lad was mesmerized by the bustle of the bazaar, oblivious to everything else around him. He watched as people haggled over the price of meat, bread, fish, yarn, and countless other items.
How could so many people fit into such a small space? the boy wondered. How non-elven.
Neal finished his snack, picked a bit of beef out of his crooked teeth with his grimy finger, and cleared his throat. “End of the line, Daniel.”
The youth jumped a little at the sound of Neal’s voice and then turned to face him. “Yes,” he said. “Thank you.” He stood and bowed.
Neal scratched his greasy black hair and sighed. Daniel was the first human the wagon driver had ever met who did not understand the custom of shaking hands. Not that it mattered to Neal. He was not one to insist on proper etiquette or protocol.
Daniel grabbed his sack, climbed down from the wagon, and slung the bag over his shoulder.
“One final piece of advice,” said Neal. “Until you’ve learned how to haggle, stay out of the market. Otherwise, they’ll take you for all you’re worth.”
“Thank you, again,” Daniel said, bowing.
Neal waved and drove the wagon down the street and out of sight.
The lad’s curiosity was piqued as he stood outside the market. He craned his head and tried to see what marvels he might find without actually going inside. Then he remembered Neal’s words and his true purpose in town.
There will be time to explore the market later, he told himself. First, there is business to be about. I wonder if any of my family lives in Clearbrook?
He doubted it, but he was in Clearbrook now. Daniel saw no reason to waste the opportunity and decided to begin his search here.
The teen turned around and gazed down the road Neal had taken. It was lined with shops and houses. Daniel’s sky-blue eyes grew larger as he tried to take it all in. In Kaimin’s name, this is beyond anything I ever imagined. Only the fabled palace of Ostrond could be grander.
Starting down the street, Daniel began to put his plan into effect. He would wander about the town a little this morning and then see who in town might know about his family.
Daniel roamed the streets for hours taking in the sights. As he walked, he met shopkeepers and some of the other town residents. He talked with everyone he met and asked if they knew about his family. Most people gaped at him. Between the bowing, the walking barefoot in the chill, and the way he stared at them, most folks didn’t know what to make of Daniel. Some shopkeepers ignored the lad’s odd behavior and questions, and attempted to sell him whatever merchandise they had. Others genuinely wanted to help but had no knowledge of anyone with the surname Salvatori.
Late in the afternoon, he came to the Grey Horse Inn. He was tired by then and all he wanted was to rest. Daniel went inside.
The innkeeper, Frank Jones, heard the doors to the Inn open. He looked up from the receipts he was counting, and saw Daniel enter and close the doors behind him. Frank’s brown eyes examined Daniel’s bare feet, white trousers, and long white coat belted at the waist. They were all dust-covered from his walk through town.
Humph, thought Frank. Looks like a poor street urchin who wants money.
Despite this assessment, Frank stopped his work and rested his hands on his stomach, which protruded like a large melon. He watched as the teen approached the ten-foot-wide mahogany counter that Frank stood behind.
“Is there a room here I could use for sleeping?” asked Daniel.
Frank’s eyebrows rose. Then again, most street urchins don’t speak so well. Perhaps he’s just a poor unfortunate down on his luck.
“Yes,” said the innkeeper. “Rooms are five silvers a night.”
Daniel pulled out some coins and counted them. He had enough for several nights, but he remembered what Neal had told him on the trip to town. He would need as much money as he could earn and probably a job besides to finance the search for his family.
“Actually, I could use a job more than a room to sleep in. Are there any openings here?”
Frank stared at the boy. Even more curious. Who is this strange lad? He scratched his head. If he is just someone down on his luck, who am I not to help? In a way, he reminds me of my old friend Evan Pierce, but I don’t suppose this lad is a prankster or will be shipped off to the school for wayward boys by Father O’Malley. On the other hand, why take the chance? Perhaps I can help prevent this lad from suffering the same fate by giving him a job.
“Yes, I need a dishwasher. You interested?” Frank finally replied.
“Yes,” said Daniel. “I agree to wash dishes for you.”
“Good,” said Frank. “What’s your name?”
“Daniel.” He bowed; Frank ignored the gesture.
“Well, Daniel, I’m Frank Jones, the innkeeper of the Grey Horse. I’ll show you where you can put your things and rest a little. We’ll need to get you some shoes too; you can’t go barefoot in the kitchen. You’ll start in the morning.”
Frank showed Daniel the small common area used by some of the Inn’s staff to sleep. It was a narrow space with just enough room for six straw mats, three along the left wall and three along the right. Four of the mats had backpacks or satchels on them and appeared to be reserved for use by others. Daniel left his belongings next to one of the unused mats and followed Frank into the next room.
Tables and chairs filled the immediate area near the double doors that Frank and Daniel used. On the far wall, a doublewide hearth heated the room. Cobblestones covered an area about nine feet wide and three feet deep in front of the fireplace, forming a crude stage. A tall, attractive man stood by the fire addressing the patrons of the Inn. His blue eyes sparkled and he gestured with his hands as he spoke. His strong, confident voice filled the air too and resonated with the passion of the story he told.
As Frank and Daniel entered the room, the innkeeper said, “That’s James up on the stage. He’s the Inn’s bard.”
Daniel listened to a portion of the story James told. The lad recognized it too; it was the tale of Kaimin and Kellear:
“Kaimin and Kellear were twin brothers who lived before the making of the world. Kellear was ruler of water, oceans, rivers, and lakes. Kaimin was lord of the earth and crafter of jewels, silver, and gold. Together they shaped many lands. Yet both were sometimes quick to anger. And in that rage, Kellear would often flood the coast and Kaimin would cause lava to erupt, creating new areas of dry land and conquering the sea.
“They argued constantly, like most brothers, over the smallest points: a length of coast, the course of a river, or the size of a lake. They seemed not to care so long as they argued. Yet they agreed on one thing — the beauty of Lothanna.
“Lothanna, giver of fruits and flowers, trailed after Kellear and Kaimin and flowers grew where she tread. Now, Lothanna’s beauty was second only to Elas’s, Queen of the Heavens; and early after the world began, Kellear and Kaimin both swore oaths of love to Lothanna.
“Yet Lothanna could not choose whom she loved best. To help her settle the matter, she devised a contest: each brother was to demonstrate his love for her. Kellear made fine water sprays that caught the sunlight and created rainbows over Lothanna’s gardens and orchards. Kaimin crafted silver inlaid with seven gems, to create a circlet for Lothanna.
“And when Lothanna saw the circlet, she loved Kaimin best. Kellear was furious and flooded the land with a great storm. He disappeared after that, preferring to be alone; and they say on cold, windy nights, you can hear Kellear’s lament of loneliness and unrequited love.”
While Daniel listened to the tale, Frank scanned the tables in front of James.
“Ah, there she is,” Frank said at last. He touched Daniel’s arm, gestured, and said, “This way.”
They made their way through the clutter of tables and came to one on the right side of the room. Seated at the table watching James perform was an elven woman clad in a pink blouse, black trousers, and black boots. She was pretty and slim with long dark hair and pointed ears. She heard Frank’s approach and, as he drew near, turned to see that he was not alone.
“Iriel, this is Daniel, our new dishwasher,” Frank said to the woman. “Daniel, this is Iriel,” he continued and gestured to the elf. “She’s our serving girl.”
Daniel bowed. Iriel didn’t seem to notice him; she gave Daniel no more than a glance and turned her gaze back to James.
“Shouldn’t you be waiting tables?” Frank asked Iriel.
She turned back again to face Frank. “I’m having a break,” replied the elf.
Frank exhaled sharply through his nose and gave Iriel a sidelong glance. Why was she always on break when James performed? He shook his head and shifted his attention to the bard.
The sudden eruption of applause made Iriel peer up at the stage once more. She saw James bow with a flourish and prepare to tell another tale. Then something registered in her mind; her eyes flitted back to Daniel. Her brow knitted as she noticed the lad’s clothes. She scanned his face and realized he was staring at her. She got that a lot from humans and ignored it for the moment.
“Daniel,” said Iriel. “Why do you wear the uniform of a Qua’ril master?”
“I am a Qua’ril master,” said Daniel.
Iriel raised an eyebrow and stood. Had she made a mistake just now not giving Daniel the proper respect he was due? She had never heard of a human mastering the elven martial arts. Was that even possible? “A human Qua’ril master?”
“Truly?” said the elf. “How old are you?”
Iriel’s eyes grew round. “Amazing,” she said quietly. “Forgive my lack of respect earlier.” She bowed to him. “But if you are a master of the Art, why do you wash dishes for Mr. Jones?”
“I am searching for members of my family,” said Daniel. “But I don’t know where they are. I plan to work here to earn money to finance my journey.”
“Are you lost?” Iriel asked.
“No,” replied the lad. “My parents died when I was a baby. The elves rescued and raised me.”
The corners of Iriel’s green eyes drooped in sadness and her mouth opened with a frown. Her heart felt heavy and she twirled a strand of her hair to stop herself from hugging Daniel. He was alone and searching for his family. It was the saddest thing Iriel had heard in months; her heart went out to him.
Then another thought popped into her mind. “Your search is a sacred quest, isn’t it?”
“A garal; yes, it is,” Daniel said.
“Then I will help you if it is permitted,” said Iriel. “And so will James.”
Daniel crinkled his brow. “Honest? Both of you?”
“Yes, I will talk to him. Leave it to me.”
“Thank you,” Daniel said with a smile. “You are most kind, like most of the elves I know.”
“It is the least I can do.” She bowed again. He returned the gesture, smiled back at her, and stared like a puppy gazing at its new owner.