The further down the mountain we traveled, the warmer the air started to get. It replaced the crisp winter air that we had been traveling through for days. My bones were so cold that they soaked up the heat like a sponge. My fingers burned from the chill as the breeze touched them. It felt nice to finally be warm again, even if my magic preferred the cold.
The landscape was beginning to flatten out as we reached the foot of Mount Erined. The forest turned sparse, letting the sunshine through its branches. The path down into the valley rolled into hills covered in green grass and wild flowers. I had never known flowers to grow this time of year, but then again I had never traveled this far over the mountains. It was a different place here, one that would hold new adventures and many things to see.
From the top of one of the smaller hills the trees ceased all together, opening up to blue sky and pockets of white clouds. It was late afternoon. The oranges and purples of the sun set were beginning to paint the sky above when I laid my eyes on a city below.
It was a large town. It stretched from the sea to the foot hills with strange looking buildings filling the entire valley below. This place must have housed thousands.
I wanted to stop and marvel at the site, but my momentary stillness only brought me a hard nudge from behind. Nell prodded me with her fingers. “You’ll keep moving if you want dinner before the sun goes down.”
“You’re always such a ball of sunshine,” I poked back wishing that I could punch her pretty little nose. She brought out the worst in me. Delah had always encouraged me to be the better person, but with Nell I found that I wanted to retaliate with sarcasm and violence. I could feel the warmth of my magic sneaking up my arm, but Arsan’s hand slipping into mine reminded me to calm myself.
“Don’t let her get under your skin. It’s not worth it.” Arsan smiled at me, melting the ice that formed over my heart when Nell was around. He was a good man. Someone I could trust. I was glad he was here.
With a sigh, I moved. Nell didn’t follow. She stood right where she had shoved me. She looked into my eyes with an odd scowl. I scowled back. “Well, come on then. I want my dinner.”
She didn’t say anything, but cocked her head to the side listening to something I couldn’t hear. “Farenan has tracked you to the peak of the mountain. He will be here by morning…”
“What do you mean? He’s catching up?” Arsan crossed his hands over his chest. Nell suddenly turned to smoke, rippling in a mass of white and red, stretching out toward the mountains. Her soft airy voice echoed all around me. “Find a ship that sails in the morning. Sail as far north as you can. I will hold off Farenan as long as I can and catch up with you in WinterLand.”
The impact of her words sunk in. Then the one thing I never thought I would say to Nell slipped from my mouth. “Be careful, Nell?”
Nell’s mist motioned toward the town that was growing steadily darker as the sun dropped behind the distant hills. “That’s a merchant’s town with cut throat vile men who would snatch you up in an instant and sell you on the black market. You must not be seen outside after dark. Do you understand me? They will not let you leave if they find out what you are and there are men down there who will know.”
I shook my head. “I understand.”
Reluctantly, Nell left us behind on the hill top to give us time to find a ship north. I felt bad walking away. I didn’t know why, but it felt wrong. At least the arguing was over. We had fought so long the sun had set sending us along the wooded path to town in complete darkness. I could hardly see my hand in front of my face. The black of night consumed any light that might have illuminated my pale skin, but Arsan was near. I could feel his warmth. He kept his hand weaved in mine, guiding me.
It wasn’t long before the thick forest was gone and we could see the moon light on the path in front of us. The city gates lay ahead, warm and welcoming in their soft torch light, beckoning for us to come in.
These walls didn’t look anything like what Nell had described. There were no sounds of drunken sailors drifting through the air and the men standing guard were well dressed in clean pressed brown and black uniforms with spears in hand. It was calm and quiet, inviting even. I had never seen a place like this.
Excitement filled my mind, but also the fear of the unknown. I tightened my grip on Arsan’s hand. Holding onto the one true thing I knew.
We were near the gates. The guards stepped forward, asking what our business was in town.
Arsan spoke up. “We’ve just traveled over the mountains and are looking for a hot meal and place to sleep tonight.”
One of the guards held his torch out to illuminate our faces. He was a gruff, balding older man who looked like he had seen many harsh winters in the years he had been in service. He studied Arsan with his brow set straight then turned his gaze upon me. “We don’t get many travelers this side of town during winter. What drove you through the passes?”
“The reason for our travel is none of your business.” My words came out harsher than I had intended. I realized how much I sounded like Nell after the words slipped from my mouth. I felt dangerous and unfriendly. Maybe it was better this way. People would want to leave me alone and wouldn’t ask questions. The less people knew about us the better. But still, the guilt from my words was uncomfortable. I didn’t like it.
The guard huffed and shuffled back to the wall where his companion stood by the gate house. “Raffle, open the gate. Let the girl through before she bits our heads off.”
The younger man called out to a guard stationed in a tower above the gate. With a creak the two large wooden slabs swung outward revealing a quiet street that was lit with lamps every twenty feet or so. It was welcoming and warm, calling to me to come in and rest my wary feet.
We slowly wandered down the deserted streets. The gate keepers had mentioned a tavern near the board walk that still served a hot meal this late in the evening. It might even have a room available for the night. I wasn’t thrilled about staying at an establishment so close to the water. It was probably full of untrustworthy sailors and vile merchants, the one place that Nell explicitly told me to stay away from, but as we walked I was more aware that the store fronts and inns in the better part of town were closed up tight for the night.
I begged Arsan to try a tavern that we had come across that was closer to the wall than the sea. Reluctantly he beat on the heavy wooden door and waited. No one came, and even if they did, I was pretty sure they would turn us away. They would claim they had no more rooms for the night.
There was an uneasy feeling forming in my gut. As we passed deeper and deeper into town the feeling became worse. I didn’t like the look of this place. The streets were narrower and most of them weren’t lit with torches. Drunks slept outside closed doors and stumbled through the streets. This was not a place I wanted to be. It didn’t feel safe and my magic was going wild with danger. If Nell only knew where I was, she would be furious, but then again, what did I care about what Nell thought? The sense of rebellion thrilled me. I smiled a little, but was still uneasy in this unknown town.
I found myself clinging to Arsan’s arm, trying to calm my rough breathing. I concentrated on his chest and tried to match his slow breaths. My magic was warming me, taking my senses and heightening them. I was more aware of my surroundings. Every little sound and smell, every movement around me. It was as if it was trying to tell me to run, save yourself. Maybe I was frightening myself? Working myself up into a worry? I took a deep breath and shook the feeling off. There was no other choice.
Our destination could be heard before we laid eyes on it. Around a dark corner the light from the open tavern door spilled out onto the narrow street. There was laughter, mixed from both men and women. Drunks that said whatever came to mind. It felt like a vile place. The sign wasn’t comforting at all, not like the inns we’d passed. It read in a large lettered sign hanging over the door. “Pig’s Ear Tavern.”
This was the place I was supposed to sleep in tonight? I doubted that much rest would come of this, if any.
We carefully picked our way across the tavern floor to where the bar keep was. The smell of alcohol filled my nostrils and turned my stomach. I was pretty sure someone had thrown up in the corner.
An old man followed me from the door. He kept trying to touch my braid. From the smell of his breath that poured from his mouth, he was drunk. It was disgusting to me. I wanted to run for the door, but the grip Arsan had on my hand held me in place.
“What can I do for you two this fine evening?” The barkeep bellowed with a very cheerful tone as he slopped stew into a bowl on the counter. The bowl slid in front of me down to a sailor at the end. The smell of the hot food taunted my empty stomach, making it turn and grumble. I ignored it, not wanting to get my hopes up.
“We need a hot meal and a room for the night.” Arsan had to yell to be heard over the roar of the patrons. The tavern was so crowded and noisy that I wasn’t optimistic about a room being available. It wouldn’t have bothered me so much if there wasn’t, although the stew was starting to smell really amazing. I almost couldn’t stand the smell any longer.
“You’re in luck young man. I have a room at the end of the hall upstairs that’s vacant and my wife made a delicious stew from real cow beef.” The barkeep served up another bowl of the steaming hot stew and sent it sliding down the counter in front of me to another sailors open hands. My mouth watered for a taste. “It will only cost you a silver coin.”
The thought never crossed my mind that currency would be involved. I didn’t have money. I wasn’t sure how we were going to pay the man. The thought of a warm meal that I had let my hopes up for was beginning to dwindle, leaving me hungry again.
Arsan dug into his pants pocket and pulled out a coin. He placed it in the bar keeps palm. I stared at the shiny silver circle in wonder.
The smell of hot beef and steamed vegetables being slid under my nose snapped my attention away from the passing of currency. My stomach protested from my pause to take in the smell. I grabbed my spoon and shoveled bite after bite in my mouth, only stopping to breathe. The barkeep let out a bellowing laugh as he watched me tip my bowl up and slurp down the juice at the bottom. “You should really feed the girl more often. Your room is up those stairs at the end of the hall. Number six.”