The hearth was a good six feet across. A nice fire had been set and was crackling away merrily, driving back the chill.
Tamelin tugged off his boots, setting them down on the stone to dry. The left had developed a hole at some point on his journey from Merilor and the days rains had seeped in. He spread his cloak beside them, the wool heavy and sodden. Divested, he stretched his long legs out, feet toward the fire. The warmth began to creep back into his limbs and he smiled contentedly.
The serving girl brought him a bowl and a mug and he slipped her a copper coin which made her smile. ‘A pretty lass’ He thought. Prettier than the food anyway. Still, it was warm and he spooned the mutton stew into his mouth. The cook, or whoever the inn had, had put a number of spices into it, giving the stew a good, rich flavor, far better than he’d expected. He ate his stew and drank his ale and watched the inns other inhabitants.
There were few enough. Perhaps the rains that had swept across him had convinced other travelers to remain where they were. But there were some.
A short man, portly and balding, but with rich clothes that told Tam he was a merchant. Presumably the two toughs sharing his table were hired men, paid to safeguard him and his monies or goods. One of them, with the look of a Valcaran about him, took hold of the serving girl as she refilled his ale. He pulled her into his lap, trying to land a kiss on her. She struggled but it was a laughing kind of struggle, and after a moment she freed herself, putting a playful clap about his ear. The other guard, this one a Hygar, was less gentle, buffeting his fellow’s arm and laughing. The merchant watched them both with a pinched, disapproving look on his face.
‘Typical merchant.’ Tam thought. ‘Typical Laurentian. Always so concerned with propriety, at least in public.’ He shrugged to himself and continued examining his fellow diners.
There was an older man, possibly a local. Certainly the broken veins about his nose suggested he was a common fixture of some tavern, if not this one. He was at a table by himself, nursing his own mug, and the serving girl stopped by him rarely.
The next time she was close by him, Tam held up the bowl. She came to his side, smiling again for him.
“Will you be wanting more?” She had a sweet voice, a lilting accent that put him in mind of someone else.
Tam handed her the bowl. “No thankee, lass.” He told her, patting his stomach. He’d had enough occasions where he’d had to go without, that he no longer need as much to fill him. “But I will take another.” He said, gesturing with the mug.
She lifted her earthenware jug and poured him a new ale. “Have you been far?” She said as she poured, perhaps hoping for another copper.
“Oh, it’s been a long road, lass.” He said. Old habits died hard.
“Janelle.” She said and Tam nodded.
“Long road and the raid hasn’t helped none.” He paused, glancing out one of the windows. The rain still hammered at the glass and drummed against the walls. “Will there be a room available, you think?”
Before Janelle could answer, one of the merchant’s guards, the Hygar, called for another refill and she bustled off to see him. Tam sat back in his chair, sipping at his own ale. He felt no great need to move on again so soon and the weather only made him less inclined. He missed a nice comfortable bed. And a nice, comfortable woman to share it with. He threw that thought aside almost as soon as it arose.
It took a while for the girl to pass by him again. After serving both guards and the merchant, she was called by the cook. Two fresh bowls of stew were taken to a man and a woman sat at one of the tables furthest from the fire. Man and wife by the look of them, and Merenese as well, to judge by their style of dress. They should have been accustomed to weather like this but neither looked happy about their circumstances. They took their food from the girl almost sullenly and she turned sharply from them, heading back toward him.
She looked almost apologetic. “We don’t have a room.” She told him. “We only have the three and,” She gestured over her shoulder and Tam nodded his understanding. So much from the comfortable bed, then.
“You can shelter in the barn.” She said. “There’s plenty of straw so you should be warm enough.”
Tam sighed. Better than nothing, he supposed, and he’d often spent the night in worse places. “Thankee, lass.” He answered, then corrected himself. “Janelle. I trust you’ll have no objection to me staying by the fire a while longer?”
“You stay as long as you like.” She told him with another smile, and poured him a fresh ale. Then she bustled off again.
After a fourth ale and a good hour or so toasting himself before the fire, Tam felt ready to brave the journey out to the barn. He pulled his boots on, the leather still damp but bearable, then lifted his stained and patched cloak. He went to the door, opening it a crack and looked out. The rain had slackened a little but the night brought even colder air with it. He drew his cloak tight about himself and sprinted the distance between the inn and the barn. He sheltered at the side for a moment, glancing about him. The inns windows were still lit, although the others in the common room, aside from the old man, had already gone to their rooms for the night. Hastily, he opened his breeches and pissed, relieving the pressure in his bladder. More comfortable now, he found the door to the barn and snuck inside, feeling strangely like a thief.
The inside was dark, smelling of straw and horse. He wished he’d had the presence of mind to beg a candle from the inn. He cursed, digging in his belongings for a moment. He pulled a crystal free and raised it to his lips. He murmured to it and, from within, a soft azure glow arose. He raised the crystal above his head and looked about the barn. There were some bales of straw, a few rickety looking partitions at the far end under the loft area. There was some whickering from them, probably horses belonging to the merchant and his guards. A thin ladder led up to the loft and he climbed carefully, feeling the wood creak under his weight. More straw up here, loose and enough to make himself a nest of sorts. He lowered the crystal, muttered to it once more and its glow began to recede, until it was indistinguishable from any other stone. He stowed it away in his pack.
He set his boots aside, then pulled off his cloak. He lay in the straw, wriggling a little to make himself comfortable, then drew the cloak over him like a blanket. The warmth of the inns fire and the days travel combined to make him tired and soon he was asleep.
The dreams came soon, as they so often did. He was back in the Lyceum, back in his youth. And, as usual, Derora was there. With her eyes full of mischief and her glossy black hair hanging to the small of her back. There was their first meeting, their first kiss. The sneaking between each other’s rooms at night, thinking themselves so sly. And then they were in that cursed sickroom, the air heavy with pain and sweat. She had held his hand, screaming and panting as the child inside her twisted and denied every attempt to bring her forth.
He jerked awake, still hearing her screams inside his head.
Gods, but he’d loved her. Back then it had been all too easy to confuse love and lust, but with the hindsight of a dozen years he knew now that he’d loved her. When she’d died, and the child with her, he’d ran. Everything about the Lyceum was a memory of her, even though she had only come there in his final year.
The libraries where he’d first met her, had once been his favorite place, as much of sanctuary as of study. Before her he’d spent hours, even whole days, there, pouring over books from all over the world. He may not have been the best pupil, but he had certainly been the most well-read.
He’d spent three, almost four years at the Lyceum, learning everything he could, with as wide a range as they could provide. And then she’d burst into his life with the beauty and vibrancy he hadn’t know he’d been lacking. And then, almost as quick she was gone.
He’d spent the years since the Lyceum, since Derora, wandering one end of the continent to the other; the sands of Alauria to the snows of Valcar. He’d drifted, town to town, village to village; losing himself in a haze of cheap lodging and cheaper ale.
He supposed he should be glad of all the histories he’d read in the libraries; they’d given him a means to earn some food and coin. And he’d learned enough other things; herb lore, some simple elemental magics, things he could use for barter or trade.
As the years had passed and the pain of her loss has lessened, he’d occasionally found himself thinking of returning to the Lyceum. But those times had passed, and he was no longer the boy he’d been then.
He hugged himself, wrapping his cloak about him, trying to burrow into the straw. He pushed thoughts of the Lyceum and Derora away from him. No point in dwelling on people and places so long gone. Hard enough getting through tomorrow without borrowing the troubles of yesterday. He hoped sleep, true sleep, would come quickly.