Late autumn had come to the Sylvan Empire, bringing the blessing of cleansing rains and the curse of near perpetual darkness. The autumn sky hung heavy with dark clouds, disguising the sun and forever making the time of day a mystery. Morning differed little from midday, which differed only slightly from evening. Life had become a never-ending cycle of twilight.
The port of Melilsaridon had quieted now, as less merchants were willing to set sail this time of year. In summer months, it was bustling with activity. Dwarves and humans roamed the seaside inns along with other, stranger folk. Their songs were lively, their voices harsh and loud. But now there was only the song of the sea, as cold, foamy waves broke upon creaking timbers. Those few sailors that were to be found walked briskly, interested only in what meager business lay before them. Rarely did anyone wander outside of their own accord in this weather.
Aglanthol was one of those rare exceptions. Her cloak was drawn tightly about her in a fruitless attempt to keep out the rain. The hooves of her steed made “U”-shaped impressions in the wet sand beneath them, leaving a discernible trail along the shoreline. The tide was rising, however, and would soon wash it away, leaving no mark that she had passed. It was not as if the elf had any need for secrecy. She had wished to avoid others, true, but only to avoid conversation. This had not proved difficult, as no others were about.
The elf pulled her horse to a halt and turned to look out at the sea, pulling her hood back ever so slightly to widen her field of vision. A single ship dotted the horizon, slowly making its way toward port. She imagined it was dwarves out of the cold Northern wastes, come to sell their weapons and metal goods so that they may purchase apples, spices and the like. She knew they would take their finds back to their subterranean lairs, where the stout folk would wait out the worst of the cold, bathed only in the dim light of lamps lit by whale oil. It was not a living situation she wished to consider.
Past the ship was a grey sky and darkened seas, stretching out until both disappeared on the line of the horizon. Leagues past that, Aglanthol knew, was the land of Mirlethia, the homeland of the raiders that she had recently fought.
Her attention turned to her stiffened leg, a pain she brought home with her that would plague her forever more. One of the red-haired barbarians had pressed an opening the elf had carelessly left, crashing the haft of his axe into her leather leggings, the blade barely missing the meat of her thigh.
She had crumpled to the ground, her leg suddenly useless and unable to bear any weight. If not for the intervention of a fellow soldier, the Mirlethian would have split her skull with the next swing. Instead, he fell to an elven long sword, thrust from behind. Aglanthol had seen the tip burst from his stomach. The man had never seen his killer.
There was no fairness in war.
She had made it through the rest of the campaign, albeit miserably. Glorion, the soldier who had saved her life, had not been as fortunate. He was an ambitious young fae, intent on making a name for himself in battle. It was his plan to become a Currasant like his father and have a legion at his command. Instead, a horde of goblins had dragged him to the ground, overwhelming him with numbers as they tore at his flesh with teeth, daggers, and knives. It was during the final battle at the bloodied farm. Glorion died painfully.
Aglanthol had been a battlefield away, unable to return the favor. Even if she had been present, she would hardly have been able to move due to her injury. She had spent that battle tending to the wounded, elven and Mirlethian alike, though she had slit the throats of the injured goblin devils she’d found amongst them. Those demons did not deserve mercy.
She rubbed her hands together, attempting to bring warmth back to her extremities, though it was not overly effective. Her wet cloak clung to her skin, water soaking through the thick cloth. Aglanthol could feel it reaching her bones. Thick drops formed on her hood as she looked up again toward the horizon, noting how far the ship had moved during her remembrance. She then turned her mount around and began a slow trot back toward the docks.
The sound of water assailed her ears. Waves continued to roll in and out as rain fell all around her, mimicking the sound of crumpling scrolls. Thick drops loosed themselves from the hem of her cloak and created a plinking noise as they joined the puddles on the ground. Aglanthol let the rain wash away her other thoughts for a while, letting it ease her heart into a comfortable sadness. She did not know why she felt despair, but she also did not wish it to go away.
She rode forward like that for a while, her eyes staring blindly ahead, until the sensation of warmth brought her out of her trance. The elf had guided her horse, only half knowingly, to Oak and Antler, one of the taverns that thrived by the docks in the summer months. Two torches blazed outside the door invitingly, casting warmth and light on any who wandered close enough. Aglanthol hesitated a moment before tying off the bridle of her horse and making her way inside.
The rain took on a different sound as she did, like hundreds of small mallets striking hundreds of small drums. It thudded against the walls like it wanted to make its way in. The timbers held strong as a shield against the onslaught, providing a refuge to the few inside them.
The group that was assembled was small indeed, and they expressed their thanks quietly. Aside from Aglanthol, there were four others. One was a middle-aged man, a faded white apron of a barkeep laying over his drab brown clothing. The other races of Samsarrass believed that the fae folk did not age; this was true, in comparison to themselves. An elf that had lived for hundreds of years often looked younger than a human in the prime of its life. There were subtle clues, however—a change in bearing, a sterner look in the eye. The barkeep looked to be in his fifth century, if these signs were to be believed. His face, free of wrinkles, drooped expressionlessly from his frame and was topped by a short mess of blond hair. The common, longer style worn by his brethren would only have been an inconvenience for a man of his trade, who no doubt spent much time bent over bubbling pots and unscrubbed countertops.
Two tables were situated in front of the fire. At one of them sat another elven woman. She was younger than Aglanthol, her voluminous hair cascading down around her shoulders, looking unkempt in a way that must have taken a decent time with a brush to achieve. Her already pale skin was powdered, creating a homogenous veneer, on which she had applied other cosmetics, adopting a look more appropriate for court than this tavern. A steaming mug sat on the oak in front of her, likely full of mulled cider or the like. In her hand was a book, covered in worn red leather.
On the same wall as the entrance sat a human male, a sailor by the looks of it. He wore brown leather breeches and a matching tunic, belted loosely at his waist. Around his neck, seemingly out of place, hung a thin, silver chain. Aglanthol always had trouble telling the age of this short-lived race. Their skin would wrinkle and their hair fade to white, but a seaman like this was sure to succumb to those ravages quicker than a sheltered prince; the elements were not friends to the race of man.
Finally, there was another elf of uncertain bearing. Shrouded all in black, he sat close to the door in a chair, his legs stretched out in front of him, and his arms folded across his slight chest. His head was turned downward at a slight angle, leaving his face slightly visible beneath the hood of his cloak, the cloth of which was drawn around his entire body. Aglanthol could make out the shape of a scabbard beneath it, though it did not worry her. Weapons were not unusual by the docks.
The lack of conversation was punctuated by the scrape of a metal spoon against the bottom of a wooden bowl, each dip of the utensil ferrying steamy broth to the eager lips of its recipient. The sailor spared no grace as he shoveled the last of the stew into his mouth, stopping frequently to stare out the nearby window into the driving storm. His other hand nervously drummed its fingers onto the tabletop, creating a tapping that was distinctive from that of the rain outside. He fidgeted as he sat, shifting his weight from left to right.
Aglanthol made her way into the room, stepping over the legs of the elf by the doorway. He did not move or make any sign of recognizing her presence. He looked almost asleep, though his eyes peered out from narrowed slits in his lids. He was watching for something, though what it was, Aglanthol could not hope to guess.
She hung her cloak by the fire before taking a place at the second table that sat before it. The warmth was welcomed, as the chill had already begun to lift from her body. The innkeeper made his way over, seemingly glad for the distraction from his lack of activity.
“You look wetter than most, mi’lady. Something warm to put inside? I have warm cider and a stew bubblin’ on the hearth, if you’re interested.”
“Yes, thank you, sir. I appreciate your hospitality.”
“You’re more than welcome. You gave me a reason to stand up and stretch my legs. No one is coming out in that rain for drink or any other reason. May I ask what brought you?”
Aglanthol hesitated, not knowing how to answer the question. Impulsively, her face scrunched in discontent. She quickly regained her composure, feeling foolish as the innkeeper obviously noted her discomfort.
“It’s not any of my business anyway, really. Just glad to have you here. I’ll be back with the food and the drink, mi’lady.”
He strode away to the back room, rubbing his hands on his apron as he went. Aglanthol felt ashamed and awkward. This was the type of thing she had wanted to avoid. It was as if she had forgotten how to speak to people since her return from the war.
No, it wasn’t that.
She just didn’t have anything to say anymore. She’d been left without any appropriate words.
“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.”