Gerund motioned to the innkeeper for two more drinks. The elf responded, albeit with a look of slight contempt. Aglanthol picked up on the exchange and placed five elnar on the table, enough to pay for what they had with some left over. The first mug had eased her spirits a bit, relaxing her. She felt more willing to listen to the sailor now. He was brash, but he did seemingly mean well.
“No, you are right. That was far from the end. The party who had descended into the depths came back out as heroes. The rumors of their battles would circulate every night and grow ever larger. It’s hard to say how much of their reputation was deserved, but such is true of most, for better or for ill. They rode at the back of the column when we entered the pass, still recovering from their injuries. When the ambush sprang, it was one of the humans who gave the command to retreat.
“His name was Calvin Cordosaur Smee. It was he who rallied the troops. I fear what would have happened, had he not. No one else had stepped forward to lead us. Our supplies were low, perhaps too low to make the journey back here. He took us forward. We stormed a tower they held and rescued the troops captured in the pass. Our losses were high. Too high. We holed up in the tower for near a ten-day; it was there we got word of reinforcements from Carnshertas. Currisant Smee coordinated the attack, sending us crashing down on the enemy from all sides.
“In that final battle, I felt proud to fight under that human. He had no stake in our cause. No part of the battle was his. He served only for justice and love of his companions. He was brash, impatient, and unsure. In some ways, he represented many of the darker aspects of your race. His bravery outweighed them all, however.”
Aglanthol had not noticed when the Innkeeper returned. Gerund held his hands fast to his mug, having made a decent-sized dent in its contents while Aglanthol told her tale. The elf looked down, finally noticing her tankard. She raised it to her lips, sipping slowly. The spice and the booze had done well to remove the chill from her bones. It was comfortable here, reassuring. She was unsure why she had avoided this, opting instead to roam outside alone.
Gerund followed suit, taking a quick swig. “Life is funny, ain’t it?” he said, breaking the small moment of silence. “We start things all the time, never knowin’ how they are going to turn out. Then it all happens. At the time, we don’t think about it much. It’s all too busy happenin’. It’s only afterwards we start assignin’ meaning and puttin’ together all the pieces. I imagine it’s so we gots a proper story to tell, for good or bad.”
He looked contemplative for a moment and then continued on. “See, people like to say that we all want to be the hero of our own story. That ain’t what it is. We make ourselves the villains, too. That ain’t any closer to the truth of it, but we does it anyway. Truth of it is that everything just happens. Nothing is good or bad or anything, really. It’s how we look at it after the fact, that’s what it is. That’s where we get our tales.”
“You seem to focus a lot on the story, human. Why is that?”
“If we’re made of anything more than meat and our stories, love, I don’t know what it is.”
He stood suddenly, mug in hand, and paced to the window. He stood there for a moment before whirling around and striding back to the table, a smile drooped across his face. He sang as he walked, creating a rhythm with his boots as they slapped the floor.
The sea it took my wife from me
and returned her in the mornin’
I could not make her happy no more
so she left me with some spurnin’
The Ocean was my lover then
lappin’ like waves on sand
It gave me what you could never give
and left me feeling grand
I asked her what my flesh and blood
was never able to give her
She looked at me with such pity
and left me with my liquor
I thought and thought and thought some more
until me brain, it spasmed
The one thing I could never give
was just a one orgasm
He finished his song with a flourish and a little bow.
The woman who’d been sitting at the other table by the fireplace stood up and strode toward the door, tucking her book under her arm.
“Aye, what’s wrong, love? Ain’t liked my song none? Or is you goin’ out to talk to the sea?”
Aglanthol laughed in spite of herself, partly from nerves, but also partly from joy. This human was a fool, it was true. However, perhaps there was something to learn from a fool.
Gerund sat back in his chair, obviously delighted with himself that he had coaxed a laugh out of her. “See, love, it ain’t so bad. That ship, it’s almost to port. That’s my ticket out. Aye, I hope it’s heading south; I’ve spent a little time in the northlands before, in summer, and I was either freezin’ my good bits off above ground, or sleeping below ground in holes too small for a man. I’ve been cooped up on a ship with my mates for a long time, but the sea air tends to wash a man or woman clean, or at least blow their stink off the bough. That ain’t true below the ground, though. Dwarves is a musky lot, they is. They don’t seem to notice, but I do.”
Aglanthol swirled her mug, watching the liquid spin inside. “Tell me, human. Why is it that you would go out to sea in this weather rather than stay here? It is likely that the dwarves will be returning north with their new goods in tow. If they do not go north now, they will have to wait for the thaw.”
“Why, lass? Because it’s in my blood. The sea has been good to me. It’s also nearly killed me a good deal of times. But I do it ‘cause there ain’t nothin’ else I can do. I don’t even mean I don’t know how to do anythin’ else—I mean it’s really the only thing. My body won’t let me do nothin’ else. The worst part about almost dying in this inn was bein’ anywhere other than the sea. When I die, it has to be on the water. Nothin’ else would be right.”
“Then you will leave, despite the discomfort,” she replied, as if it was some sort of resolution for her. “When I came back from the war, I was glad. I was glad it was all over with. Then, as the days went on, I wasn’t. The injury to my leg meant I would probably never fight again, though I didn’t even know that I wanted to. Truth be told, I just didn’t know what else I wanted to do instead. I envy your sense of purpose, human. It would be comforting, always knowing what to do.”
“Is that what you think, love? Aye, I never have to question where I should be. Never once. But you? You have nowhere to be. Don’t you see it, love? That means you could go anywhere, do anythin’. If you wanted to learn to weave, you could do it. If you wanted to jump on that ship with me and go wherever it goes, ya could. If you wanted to become a mercenary, or adventurer, or farmer, or almost anythin’ else, you could do it, lass. I ain’t about to pity you for havin’ a whole world worth of options, no. Me? I got one. I got her out there, waitin’ for me. I know how I’m going to die, love. But I can’t tell you how you’re going to live.”
He stood then, somewhat abruptly. “Aye-Gland-Fol, was nice to meet ya. You’ll have to excuse me, love. My ship’s come in, and Marakesh isn’t always great with patience. I have some dwarves to go sweet talk, which means I’ll need me some extra luck. Just remember, lass, you can start over at any time. You can go anywhere.”
He strode across the room once more, effortlessly stepping over the legs of the elf who sat by the door. He paused for just a moment before going outside to yell to the innkeeper. “Hey, mate, thanks for savin’ me life. May all the gods and dragons and demons bless ya. If I ever make my fortune out there, I’ll bring you yer cut.”
And with that, he was gone.
The room fell silent once again, aside from the crackling of the fire and the melody of the rain. Aglanthol stared after Gerund. She stood, intent on rushing after him, ready to follow him to the docks and get on that ship.
Instead, she hesitated, and then gingerly sat back down, the sudden exertion causing her leg to throb.
“Anywhere,” she whispered softly to herself. “Anywhere.”