“Ay! Lass! What is it?”
The voice boomed from the man by the window. It sounded raspy and congested, raw and deepened from the sea air. Aglanthol hoped he was yelling to the woman at the other table, but knew it was unlikely. She sat silently, continuing to stare into the flames.
“Ay! You got an ear, yah? What is it? I got some time to murder.”
He was loud, as people of his race tended to be. He had no tact or subtleties. If he were an elven man, he would have gone about his business, leaving the room in peace. The sailor was certainly no elven man.
His chair scraped loudly against the floor as he stood. The sounds of his heavy footfalls followed, his boots stomping upon the wooden floor with every step. Aglanthol had just craned her head to look by the time he reached the table, noisily pulling out a chair for himself and sitting in it.
“Come on now, lass. You’ve seen some life. Tell me about it. What is it, yeah?”
‘What is it.’ It was a common greeting among seafarers, an invitation to share news or a story. They were words muttered by men used to waiting and passing time. Aglanthol was much more in a mood for silence, however.
“I wish to be undisturbed, sir. I beg your leave.”
“Nah, that ain’t it at all. Ain’t nobody really wish to be alone, love. I been at this place for thirty-seven of these dark days, most of ‘em with no one to talk to but the keeper, there. Each one’s gotten colder and darker than the last. Ain’t nobody wish to be alone, they just ain’t found someone comfortable to jaw at is all.”
The innkeeper returned, placing before Aglanthol a mug and a bowl, steam rising from both. Her hands clasped the crock, feeling its warmth in her palms. The man seemed undeterred by the arrival of the food. He pulled a sliver of wood from his pocket and put it between his teeth to chew on. She stared at him, hoping he would get the point.
“Ain’t no need to wait for it, love. Nothing gets hotter from sittin’ around. ‘Sides, you don’t need your mouth to listen, cause it’s certain you don’t want to jaw back. I guess I shoulds start proper like. My name is Gerund, originally from the Sun Lit Isles. Pleased to meet you, lass.”
“Aglanthol,” she replied. Her name shortened in her mouth, becoming almost a curse as she spat it out.
“Aye-Gland-fol. Easy ‘nough. I been practicin’ with a bunch of elven names since bein’ here. Aye-Gland-Fol. Not bad, aye? Been somethin’ to keep my mind spinnin’ since I’ve been on land. It’s been too long at it, it has. That ship comin’ in, I hope they got room for Gerund. I’m losing the salt in my bones, been here so long.”
Aglanthol dipped her spoon into the stew noiselessly. She brought it to her lips, eating it with equal silence. She would finish it and then leave, as it was obvious Gerund was not going to quiet anytime soon. She had not come here for conversation, especially not with this man. She would warm up with the food and drink, and then ride back to her family home. At least there, she would find some measure of solitude.
“Stews good, ain’t it? He’s a proper cook, he is. I don’t know that he likes me none, but the innkeep ‘ere, he’s probably why I’m livin’ right now. I was about on Braxult’s doorstep when me old ship docked here. Took a cleaver to my leg. I ain’t bein’ cute neither. It was a real butcher’s cleaver. Was pirates, it was. They were desperate folk, not outfitted to fight. I think they must’ve been starvin’ when they found us on the waters. The captain mighta given ‘em a bit to eat, if they’d asked proper. Instead, they boarded us, screaming like demons straight oughta the pit. Desperate, desperate desperate. Most could hardly lift their blade up, they was so weak. It was bloody work, cuttin’ down man after man. Mirlethian, Dezelderian, Sunisian… hell, they even had a dwarf with ‘em. A crew of mutts.
One of ‘em got lucky, put the cook’s cleaver right in muh leg. We ain’t had a doc aboard, so it got infected real quick and real ugly like. They figured I’d be dead in a ten-day when they came into port. They gave the keep here some coin to look after me ‘til I kicked. He’s been real good to me, he has. I’m sure whatever coin they gave him ran out a bit ‘ago, but he keeps feedin’ me. I’m gettin’ some meat back on these bones of mine. Feels good. If you seen me a ten-day ago, I’da looked like a bunch of chicken bones thrown in a sack. I can get me legs under me now, which is a blessin’. Can’t put too much weight on the one, though. It ain’t ever gonna be the same again, it ain’t.”
Aglanthol reached down and rubbed her own leg, the conversation making her acutely aware of her discomfort. She stopped eating for a moment to knead it, shoving her palm hard into the muscle. She winced despite herself, her face unwillingly conveying the pain.
“See now, that’s what I mean. You’re listenin’, you are. I see you punchin’ at your own leg, huh? You know what I mean. Your leg, what is it?”
“I was wounded in the war,” she replied, quickly raising her mug to her lips, somehow bothered that she had found it necessary to reply.
“War, eh? Was you fightin’ with the Mithlethians, too? I talked to a few lads, maybe half a ten ago. They was in the war. Said it went real bad. Said if they didn’t send reinforcements from Carnshertas, they’da all been sucklin’ off of Braxult’s bony teat.”
“When the riders came and said they’d been attacked, we thought it was just a small raiding party. We weren’t ready for their numbers. They almost killed us all.”
Her hand tightened around the wooden mug as she thought about how few returned home with her. Brave elves, veterans that had survived many previous battles, had fallen. She was alive, however. Alive and staring out over a bowl of rapidly cooling stew.
“Aye, they almost did, But ya lived, eh? When I was a pup, hardly used to the sea, I got caught in a storm. Ain’t seen the likes of it since, I haven’t. There was demons screaming in the wind. Yarrloth’s face was in the clouds, lookin’ down at us. I don’t know I been so scared since. It tore our ship right apart, it did.
“I spent what musta been three days clingin’ to a piece of wood ‘fore I washed up on shore. Ain’t no one else survived but me, least not that I know of. Weren’t no heroes out there. Just water. I use ta imagine when I was a pup that I’d get stuck in a shipwreck. I’d git as many mates into lifeboats as I could, then I’d dive right into the water, riskin’ my own lungs, and drag everybody out there somewheres safe. I wouldn’t get everybody, no. But I’d get enough, I would. I’d be a hero.
“I didn’t know I was so much the fool. You don’t have time ta think. The ground is fallin’ away beneath ya, and all you have is water around you. The ship jolted, and I got tossed clear even ‘fore it took itself into the sea. I weren’t the only one, neither. I could see my mates drownin’, not more than the room ‘tween me and that elf at the door. Weren’t nothin’ to do about it. If I let go of that board, even with one of my mitts, I’d join ’em. Heroes is more a product of luck than anything else, you ask me. That’s what it is.”
“How could you just watch them die? How could you not try to save them?” Aglanthol did not say this with anger in her voice, but a slight fear. Her question was genuine, not an accusation.
“You was in war, right? I’m sure you seen one of yer mates die not a few feet from ya. You would have done somethin’ if you could, but ya couldn’t. If you stopped, even for a second, you wouldn’t have been here rubbin’ your leg. It ain’t so much a choice, if you follow me, eh, lass?”
Aglanthol stared blankly at the wooden table, her hand wrapped limply around the mug. Only the slightest bit of steam rose from it.
Her voice was frail when it escaped her lips. “But why me? I came back when there were so many others that deserved it more. I do not come from a great family. I have not committed, or aspired to, any great deeds. I have no trade or skills; that is why I took up the sword to fight for my homeland. By the Great Wyrms, why did I live?”
Gerund leaned in close. He put his left hand upon her shoulder in an unexpectedly tender gesture. Aglanthol’s gaze rose up from the table to meet his eyes. They were steely grey with flecks of blue, a match for the color of the sea outside. The wrinkles of his face seemed to spring from those orbs, spiraling outwards like whirlpools.
He spoke slowly, his lips playing across his gapped teeth. “If yer tryin’ to figure out why you deserved to’ve lived while they all died, you’ll never reach that shore, love. I’d wager three fingers you didn’t. Ain’t gonna change that yer here and they’re not. Marakesh help me, if it did, I would have brought back the dead a dozen times over. There ain’t no meanin’. There ain’t no reason. There’s just the dead and the livin’… and you ain’t of the dead.”
Aglanthol paused for a moment, allowing the words to settle in the pit of her stomach. They were rough and sour, but they were true. She knew this. She did not know if she was ready to hear them, however, let alone accept them. Gerund’s hand remained on her shoulder as she spoke.
“Our Currasant was captured in a blind pass. We unknowingly walked into an ambush, and had to flee before a hail of arrows and boulders. It left our ranks splintered. We were leaderless. We were hungry and scared and a long way from home. No one knew what to do.
A near ten-day before, we had fought a portion our foe’s forces in the forbidden lands. We drove them back, their survivors taking refuge in a nearby underground cave. There was not many of them, less than a dozen. Currisant Quelliorn Silverscale didn’t dare risk sending a large force after them, as it may have been a trap.
“A small party volunteered, however, led by two dwarves—the Ironwrought brothers, leaders of the mercenary troop that marched with us. With them went one of our own, Therisil Silverscale. The other three traveled with us due to circumstance and a common enemy. Two were pirates, human like yourself, but the third was a sea elf. He knew our blade song. “Gerund sat back, his face pulled tight. His eyes opened wide in wonder and slight disbelief. “A sea elf, love? They is just sailor talk, stories to woo ladies and poke at the young pups. Such a thing… aye, I’ve heard it whispered, but mostly in jest or from the mouths of a barmy sea dog.”
“It was a Sea Elf, human. His skin was blue and had the look of scales. Whenever we passed water, he would soak himself in it. He seemed to take his very strength from the liquid. He fought as well as any of ours, better than most.
“I didn’t mean you no harm, I didn’t. I’ve been out there long enough to know I ain’t have the capacity to know all I’ve seen, if you catch my meanin’. There is a whole hold of strange out there, and the ocean goes deeper than I’ll ever see.”
“Then you believe my story?” Aglanthol replied.
“I believe most stories, lass. Though I don’t think you was at the end of it.”