Summer had arrived in full force with swarming mosquitoes, ripening fruit on the trees, and days hotter than Simona liked. She had gotten up early in the morning, helped her mother with the meal preparations and then excused herself for the rest of the day to spend it to her liking. Kalanu and Nai, her traveling companions for the past two years, had offered to accompany her, but she had turned them down. Simona took her bag of scrolls and set out for the forest, where she knew she could find a place cool enough for her to escape the heat as well as secluded so she wouldn’t be disturbed. She needed solitude to go over the scrolls containing her family history and she knew her mother wouldn’t approve.
“Simona! Wait up!” She turned to see Kalanu running toward her and sighed inwardly. “What now?” she muttered, irritated, and then thought, “Didn’t I just tell him I want to be alone?”
“Let me go with you,” Kalanu said. “You really shouldn’t go by yourself.”
“And be distracted by you?” Simona laughed. “No, Kal, I need some time alone.”
“Simona,” Kal spoke softly and took her hand. Their eyes met. The gentle touch of Kal’s lips against her hand made Simona shudder. She pulled her hand away.
“Go, and don’t follow me!” Simona ran towards the forest and didn’t stop until the trees hid her from view.
“Turdation,” she cursed out loud and then muttered to herself. “Why does he affect me so? He’s my friend, nothing else!” She sat on a fallen trunk to refocus. For several menes the thought of Kal stayed with her. She let her thoughts wander and imagined what it would be like to have him always close by, without their friend Nai.
“This isn’t helping at all! I have to focus if I want to get anything done!” Angry with herself for letting her thoughts wander, Simona closed her eyes, slowed her breathing, and listened to the twittering of nearby birds. She concentrated on the chirping and thought about the birds searching for food for their young.
“The mother bird — my mother,” Simona thought and a deep sense of joy and belonging flooded over her. She took in a full breath, stood up, and continued on her path, remembering her early childhood with her twin sister Megan and the day her uncle Ezra had forcefully taken her from her mother and Megan. Simona remembered what her uncle had told her about the family curse that affected the women of the family. If a woman gave birth to a girl, the baby’s father would die on the day the child was born and the woman would die a forceful death later. Her uncle had shown her scrolls that documented the family curse.
She recalled the time she had spent with her grandparents, disguised as a boy so they would think her father had sired a son and broken the family curse. Simona remembered her travels across Baranur with her uncle who had given her a flute and taught her to play it. He had also instructed her in reading and writing. She also called to mind the years she had spent at the College of Bards. All this time she had been separated from her mother and sister. She had wanted nothing more than to be reunited with them.
After years of studying, she had left the College of Bards to find her sister, and ended up with two traveling companions: Nai, a former smith, and Kal, a sailor who had decided that the countryside had more to offer than the sea. From then on, the three had been almost inseparable. They had made slow progress in locating anyone who knew of Megan, but when they had reached Dargon and checked in at Spirit’s Haven, the owner of the inn, May, had been able to help them. Two years after leaving the College of Bards, Simona had finally known where to look for her sister.
When the companions reached her sister’s location, they found disaster. An old man and a boy lay dead, a cat stood over the dead man’s body as if it were crying, a slain wolf lay next to the boy, and nearby they had found a dying couple: Megan and her husband Raphael. Simona had held her sister in her arms, calling her name, and Megan had responded. With her last breath, Megan had revealed that their mother, Anna, was still alive and well in Hawksbridge.
After Simona, Kal, and Nai had sent the spirits of the dead on their way with a traditional cremation, the three had left and traveled to Hawksbridge, a journey complicated by the snowstorms of winter. During this journey, Kal had been more attentive to her needs than usual, seeking to spend time with her alone. If Nai had noticed, he didn’t speak of it.
When the three finally arrived in Hawksbridge, Simona had no trouble locating her mother. Reunited, she had stayed with her mother, Anna, bridging the time they had spent apart by telling each other what had happened. One day, when Kal and Nai had been outside, chopping firewood, Simona had discussed the family curse with her mother and had found out that Anna had given birth to another daughter, and on the same day had lost her second husband. The little girl had since died and Anna had never remarried.
Simona remembered vividly how upset her mother had become when she told her she wanted to see the curse ended.
“It’s all just a coincidence,” Anna had said, brushing her daughter’s concerns aside.
“Five generations, mother, and six dead husbands, and you still think it’s all a coincidence?” Simona had countered. “What about me? What if I want a husband and children? Do I then have to raise my daughter alone or grieve for stillborns like you had to? Hasn’t our family suffered enough?”
“It’s not a curse,” Anna had insisted. “I’m still alive, yet my mother died early and so did hers and the others before her.”
“And for that I am grateful, but it doesn’t mean it is over. If it were, then my sisters and your husband would still be alive!”
“You don’t know that!” Anna had yelled.
“Mother, uncle Ezra showed me scrolls, which track this curse. I –”
“Leave it alone, Simona. Nothing good will come of it!”
Simona had decided then not to mention that she was in possession of said scrolls and that all previous attempts to break the curse had failed. She wasn’t going to tell her mother that she believed the scrolls and wanted to see this curse broken and the suffering ended.
Simona reached the clearing in the forest near the creek she had been seeking. The water bubbled gently over the rocks. Several lizards sat on stones, baking in the sun. None scurried away when Simona settled herself into the soft moss. “I found my mother!”
For several menes, Simona dwelled on the thought of being reunited with her mother. She let out a sigh, pulled several scrolls out of her bag, and read what Ezra’s family had documented over the decades. She removed her quill and ink bottle and added her mother’s story and what she knew of Megan’s. After reading the scrolls a second time, she realized it would take a powerful mage to help her lift the curse again.
“How many powerful wizards are there?” she asked herself and stared at the scroll in her hands. “Shanna would know,” Simona thought. “Somehow she always knew the answer or where to look for it.” A soft giggle escaped her as she thought of the girl she had shared a room with at the College of Bards.
Simona searched her memory for incidences of magic and odd happenings. She had heard of places north and west of the Darst Range that had old magic, but those stories were only gypsy truth if she were to believe her teachers. In one such place rain was constantly falling; in another the person entering would age within menes and die. As she thought about the tales, Simona realized that those who had created such magic were surely long dead.
“Where else can I look?” she muttered to herself and thought: “The tower in which Megan was trapped? No! I don’t want to be trapped there accidentally.
“Rubel has a mage who helps to protect the island, but I need a ship to get there. Would he help an outsider?” Simona stretched her arms and legs briefly and then wrapped her arms around her legs and placed her head on her knees.
“I could go to Magnus. In the Fifth Quarter are surely magi willing to help for a price, but my chances of making it in and out alive and with my possessions are slim. And the magi who don’t live in the Fifth Quarter have already had their laugh, dismissing my claim to be cursed as an old wives’ tale. No, they won’t do either. Maybe Dargon has a magus willing to help me?”
Simona watched as a mouse tried to nibble on one of the scrolls that stuck out of her bag. She waved her hand and the rodent scurried away instantly. “Sorry little one,” she said softly. “No luck …” Simona stopped herself mid sentence and thought: “No luck, Northern Hope has no luck! That place is supposed to be cursed. Maybe there is a mage nearby, causing all the problems. The settlement isn’t that old. Maybe I should begin there? Yes! It’s a start. And from there to Dargon.” Shouldering her bag, she walked back, her mind made up to search for a mage. How she would convince her mother to let her go without an argument was going to be a challenge. Even more challenging would be to leave alone. She hadn’t told either Kal or Nai too much about the curse and worried about what they would say, but neither would take it lightly if sh e’d left without them. “Maybe I can convince one of them to stay behind?” she muttered to no one in particular. “I have to do this for myself, without distractions and lots of questions.”
On a cool morning four days later, Simona and Kal left Hawksbridge and set out for Northern Hope. Kal had donned his traveling clothes again and Simona was wearing her gown and harp-and-stars insignia belt that identified her as a bard. She had also applied her blue lip color again and braided her long black hair to prevent it from getting into her face. Simona felt a sense of purpose: she was searching for a mage to help her lift the curse. As they stepped outside the house, Anna and Nai, who remained behind, wished them well.
Simona had already taken several steps away from the house, when she turned around and walked back to her mother to give her one last hug good-bye. “I will be back before winter,” she promised, released her mother, and walked down the pathway into Hawksbridge, waving her hand.
Simona had enjoyed traveling before, and now that she was on the road again, she realized how much she had missed it. She took in a deep breath and increased her pace.
“How did you ever convince Nai to stay behind?” Kal asked as he and Simona walked briskly along the road that would take them to Northern Hope.
“That was the easy part,” Simona laughed. “Haven’t you seen the way Nai looked at my mother in these past months? I just suggested he keep her company and talk about our travels. It was much harder to say good-bye to mother. I didn’t really tell her why we were leaving. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her the truth. I don’t think she’d approve, but it is important to me. I’m sure Nai will let her know eventually. Mother won’t stop asking until then.”
“What did you tell your mother?”
“That I had to go to Dargon and take care of unfinished business.”
“And she didn’t inquire to the nature of the business?”
“Not really. I think she was afraid to find out the truth.”
“But you told Nai, straight?”
“I told him. How could I not? We’ve been traveling together for a long time now. You helped me find my sister, and stayed with me so I could find my mother. Without you two, I don’t know if I would have had the courage to go on.”
“Then why did you leave Nai behind?”
Simona didn’t answer.
“Why *did* you leave Nai behind?”
Simona’s thoughts raced. Kal deserved an answer, but she wasn’t ready to give it. Several explanations shot through her mind: “I wanted someone to stay with mother? I wanted to travel with only one companion? I wanted mother to have someone to help her with the hard work and Nai likes her?” None of the answers sounded convincing to her so she remained silent.
“We’ll be back before winter if all goes well.” Simona finally said.
“That is, if you find a mage to assist you quickly enough. What if there isn’t one there? What if no one in Northern Hope knows of a powerful mage? What if there is one, but the people don’t want others to know? What –?”
“Kal!” Simona interrupted and halted in her tracks, making Kal halt as well. “Stop it! We’ll deal with that when it comes to it. I do not want to spend the next few sennights arguing with you whether or not a mage is in Northern Hope and whether or not he can do what I’ll ask him to do.” She gave him a stern look. “You don’t have to come along …”
“As if I’d let you go by yourself,” Kal interjected. “I had to promise Nai –”
“Promise him what?”
“Promise him I’ll take care of you and keep you safe.”
“I can take care of myself,” Simona retorted angrily, turning towards Kal. “I don’t need to be treated like a child. Is that why you insisted on accompanying me?”
“No!” Kal said and reached out for her, his expression somber. He spoke softly, “I wanted to be with you, Mona.” The use of her childhood name gave Simona a sense of belonging and warmth. When Kal’s hand touched her face she leaned into it and closed her eyes for a moment. Her anger vanished. She felt his tender kiss on her lips and responded hungrily, pulling him close. Time seemed to stop for Simona as a whole array of feelings swept through her. When they finally separated, they continued their walk in silence.
Simona kept her eyes on the path before her, thoughts racing through her mind. “I shouldn’t have done that. I shouldn’t have responded to his kiss. It’s going to ruin our friendship. I want him to kiss me again — no, not again. This shouldn’t be, can’t be! It’s been too long since anyone tried to even come close. Why did I give in?” She stomped one foot, kept her eyes down, and thereby missed the surprised look Kal gave her. “I need this curse removed before I let anyone come close. I care about him. But would he understand? I told him all about the curse just yesterday. He’s seen Megan and heard mother’s story, yet he seems not to believe it. I don’t want to lose him. Why didn’t I warn him off?” she asked herself and the answer came as no surprise. “Because I love him! And I don’t want him to think I feel otherwise.” Simona continued walking in silence, listening to the twittering of th e birds and the sound her feet made on the dry dirt to take her mind off what had just happened. She was so focused that she only heard Kal’s voice when he first spoke up, but not his words.
“Pardon me?” she said apologetically.
“Nightfall is near,” Kal said. “We should make camp soon.”
Simona looked up and realized he was right. She began gathering firewood along the way. At the first sheltered place they reached they set camp. After consuming a small meal, they settled down next to each other for the night. Simona felt Kal’s arm reach for her, as he had done so many times in the past, resting his hand on her stomach. It meant comfort to her and a sense of security, knowing he was close. Tonight though, his hand didn’t stop at her stomach, instead it caressed her side ever so lightly and sent a tingling sensation through her body. “Stop! Don’t!” her mind screamed, but her body didn’t listen. Instead it responded to the caress, turned to face him, her hands returning the caress on his body. By the time his lips found hers, Simona’s mind had given up any resistance and reservation she had harbored.
The next morning both Simona and Kalanu were slow to rise, each reluctant to let go of the other. Eventually nature’s call needed to be answered and forced them up. Simona took her own time to return to the campsite and only did so when she heard Kal call for her. She felt uneasy and guilty that she had relented to her body’s desire and that she had given in so easily. “I can’t take it back. Do I really want to?” she thought and answered herself. “No.”
“Kal,” Simona began when she reached the campsite. “I –” Kal placed a finger on her lips.
“Don’t say it,” he interrupted her. “Last night was wonderful. I love you with all my heart. I’m yours … forever!”
“I love you, too,” she whispered and embraced him.
Simona and Kal quickly disassembled their makeshift camp and after a small meal went on their way, smiling at each other, hands touching, interlacing. For the next few sennights, they spent their days walking, but only on a few occasions did Simona succumb to Kal’s gentle demands. She urged Kal to push forward, hoping to find a mage in Northern Hope.
Halfway through their journey, they stayed an extra day at a roadside inn. Simona spent her day of rest inside the barroom, sitting at a table, a tankard of ale in front of her, studying a map of northern Baranur. She was trying to plan ahead should Northern Hope have no mage in town.
“Maybe Greenmont next,” she muttered to herself, “and then across the Darst Range to Kenna. Stop at Fennell Keep and Shireton on the way to Dargon.”
“Or you could cross the Darst Range, go to Myridon and Tench, and then make your way to Magnus,” Kal whispered in her ear and then kissed her neck. Simona had been so focused on her map, she hadn’t heard him approach from behind.
“It might be easier to get a ship to take us to Magnus from Dargon, spend the winter there and with the first signs of spring, we’ll continue on. We’re bound to find a wizard in Magnus; besides, it will be good to spend some time at the College of Bards.”
“Then why are we going to Northern Hope, if you know you can find someone to help you in Magnus?”
“I’m not too keen on searching through the Fifth Quarter. The magi living outside the Fifth Quarter have been of no help. Besides, there is some kind of magic going on in Northern Hope that seems to make things go wrong. Someone must be doing this and I intend to find out who.”
The next day Kal and Simona set out for their final days of travel. Kal had purchased more food and filled his bag not only with bread and cheese, but also some dried meat and apples. He had also acquired a second skin and filled it with water. Both had shouldered their bags again and quickly picked up their usual walking pace.
Two and a half days travel away from the inn, the road to Northern Hope became steep and less even. Loose stones littered the road and here and there a gopher had decided to dig his entrance in the middle of the path. Overgrown bushes on both sides of the road narrowed the way and weeds had sprouted where usually wagon wheels would roll. It seemed this road was even less traveled than the innkeeper had let on.
“Are you sure this is the right way?” Kal asked after he’d climbed over a fallen tree and given Simona a hand across.
“There is no other; I haven’t seen any crossroads since we left the inn.”
“I’m not so sure about that. I mean, look at this road. It looks like no one has traveled here in months.”
“Just because no one bothered to remove the fallen tree, doesn’t mean that this isn’t the right way,” Simona replied and continued on.
“I need a break!” Kal stated and pulled his bag off his shoulder. It was then that the strap ripped, the contents of their food bag fell out, toppled downhill, and landed in the middle of a small creek.
“Turdation!” Kal cursed. “Our food! I have to go down and get it; otherwise there won’t be anything until we reach Northern Hope.”
Simona emptied her bag and gave it to Kal. “I’ll repair it while you collect the food.” Kal nodded and climbed down to the creek. Some of their provisions had floated downstream and he spent the better part of the afternoon retrieving it. When he finally returned to Simona the bag contained only half of what had fallen out.
“The bread is all wet. What didn’t wash down the creek, the birds have picked up. Half of the meat was taken by animals. I got most of the cheese and the apples.” Kal sounded frustrated and tired.
“We’ll find some berries along the road. I’ve seen quite a few bushes with raspberries and blackberries.” Simona tried to comfort Kal, but with limited success. They made camp next to the fallen tree and continued on their way the next morning.
Even though Simona had seen berry bushes and thought she’d find berries along the way, she’d been wrong. All the bushes they found had been picked clean. What was left was either dried up, full of worms, or rotten. “I can’t believe it,” she muttered to herself. “Who out here picks all the berries? It doesn’t make sense. A road that’s barely traveled, yet not a single edible berry left.”
Kal began setting traps at night, but had to take them down empty in the morning. The bait was gone, and the traps triggered, yet no animal was caught in it. Kal’s mood went from angry to furious when he realized that he had lost his flints.
“We must be getting close to Northern Hope,” Simona remarked after Kal told her about the flints.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, whoever is controlling Northern Hope has us in his realm. It can’t just be coincidence that the strap broke, we lost half of our food, all the berry bushes are empty, no animal finds its way into your traps, and then the flints go missing.”
“And now this!” Kal commented as they walked around a bend and stared at the road ahead of them. Where the road had been was now a large gap. It seemed a mudslide had taken part of the mountain downhill and ripped the road apart. Large boulders and fallen trees were easily visible below their location. Any vegetation above the road had been pulled out and sent downhill or been covered with dirt.
“We’ll have to climb down and then up again,” Kal said after staring at the new obstacle for a few menes. “I don’t think we can get around it by crawling along the side. It doesn’t look stable enough.”
“I want to give it a try anyway,” Simona said and approached the western side of the road where boulders and gravel had torn down trees and covered bushes.
“See here,” she called out, “if you use these branches to hold on, we can make it across. It will save us several bells of climbing. It is already late in the day. Nightfall is a mere bell or two at the most.” Simona took her first step, reached for a branch to steady herself and carefully set her foot down on a boulder. She shifted her weight. The boulder stayed in place. She continued to slowly ease her way forward, testing each step before she set her foot down and released the other. Simona was almost across when the boulder she had thought to be safe broke loose and rolled down hill. She let out a scream as she slipped, slid down hill behind the boulder, and disappeared in a cloud of dust. The last thing she heard was Kal yelling her name.
When Simona opened her eyes it was getting dark. She tried to sit up, but found that most of her body was covered with dirt, gravel, and broken branches. Slowly, she pulled her arms out and pushed the dirt away from her chest. It was harder than she thought and soon she was drenched in sweat, yet she had made little progress.
“Kal? Kal where are you?” she shouted.
“Looking for you! Keep talking so I can find you,” Kal called.
“I’m over here and I’m stuck.” Simona kept calling until she heard his footsteps come closer. “Watch out! I’m buried up to my waist. Don’t step on me!”
“Are you hurt?” Kal asked as he sat next to her on the ground. “I’ve been looking for you for over a bell and you didn’t answer.”
“My head hurts. I must have hit it on something. Other than that, I’m stuck!”
“In half a bell we’ll only have stars to light the sky,” Kal remarked, “Not sure that Nochturon can be seen tonight, too many clouds where he should rise. Digging you out will take some time.”
“Then hurry! I’m getting cold and I’m hungry.” Simona used both hands to move the dirt away from her body and Kal used a broken-off branch as a lever to move a boulder that sat directly over Simona’s legs. She was finally free by the time the last of the daylight vanished.
“Did you find my bags? I lost both when I fell and I’m not sure what happened to my water skin,” Simona said after she had eaten an apple, which Kal had given her.
“Your water skin is torn. It can’t be repaired. I found it while I was looking for you. One of your bags is quite a bit further down. I was about to go there when I heard you calling. The other? I don’t know. We’ll have to look for it in the morning. Right now we should get away from here, before something else falls on you.”
“It’s too dark,” Simona said, afraid to move. “I won’t be able to see where I’m setting my feet. I might slip again.”
“We only have to move a short distance to get off the debris. It’s where I came down. There is also some water nearby.” Kal said, stood up, and pulled Simona to a stand. “Can you walk?”
Simona took a couple of careful steps. “Straight, lead the way,” Simona said, holding on to Kal’s hand.
Within a few menes they reached the relative safety of the forest, settled next to each other underneath the hanging branches of a large tree, wrapped their blanket around themselves, and went to sleep.
Simona woke the next morning to find that Kal was already up and gone. He had left his bags at her side. After finishing her morning ablutions, she went looking for Kal. It didn’t take her long to find him.
“Look what I found,” Kal greeted her with a broad smile on his face. He held his hand up high and Simona could see something dripping from it. Her eyes went wide when she realized what he was holding.
“Honey! You found honey!”
“Here, this is for you.” He gave her a piece of honeycomb the size of his hand.
“Thank you!” Simona broke it in half and passed a piece of the dripping gold back. “We’ll share!”
“I located your bags, too,” Kal remarked after he had finished his piece. “We’ll get them when we cross the debris to get to the other side. Then we need to climb back up. There might be a path on the other side, I’m not quite sure though.”
“Then let’s go. I filled the water skin already.” Simona reached for the bags, shouldered one, and handed the other to Kal.
Even though there were considerably fewer boulders and broken trees, they had to carefully climb over the debris. Kal had barely managed to clear the last of the hurdles when he slipped, twisted his ankle, and got his foot stuck in a gopher hole. Simona had to dig out his foot. Simona was grateful that Kal could still walk and didn’t have a broken bone, though his foot looked quite swollen and it slowed their progress. As she looked up the mountain to locate the road they had to reach, she realized just how far she had slid down and how lucky she had been. She could have been seriously hurt. Simona paled as she thought of what could have happened. It was her fault that it would take them the remainder of the day to climb back up.
Three days later, Simona and Kal arrived in Northern Hope just as the sun was about to set. Their journey, which should have taken them a fortnight, had taken them a sennight longer than anticipated due to the mishaps during their travel.
“Finally!” Kal said as they walked past the first houses. The streets seemed deserted, the houses empty. Some of the houses lay in ruins.
“I wonder if anyone lives here?” Kal muttered, looking around.
“I could use a good meal,” Simona replied, her stomach growling. “Our last meal wasn’t exactly –”
“You don’t need to remind me,” Kal grumbled. “If the strap of our food bag hadn’t broken, we’d have had enough.”
“There must be people somewhere,” Simona said as they walked past the first houses. None of the windows were illuminated. “It’s too early for everyone to have gone to bed already.”
Halfway down the street she spotted a house with light shining onto the street. The door opened and a handful of people exited and hurried down the street without giving the two travelers a glance. Simona looked at Kal in surprise and was about to comment when the door opened again and a woman carrying a large basket stepped out and walked towards them.
“Good day, mistress. Pardon my intrusion,” Kal addressed the woman when she had reached them. “We just arrived and need a place to stay for the night. Which is the local inn?”
The woman stared at Simona. “A bard! Never seen a bard in town. Did ya come to sing fo’ us?”
Simona smiled. “I can, time permitting. What town is this?”
“‘Tis Northern Hope,” the woman said and carefully touched Simona’s arm.
Simona stepped half a step backward and the woman pulled her hand back. “Would you be so kind to direct me to the local inn?”
“Da Lucky Round’s over there,” the woman replied and pointed in a general direction. Simona looked where the woman had pointed and saw the unmistakable sign of a pub.
“Let’s go,” Kal said. “I could use a warm meal and a soft bed.”
“Many thanks,” Simona said and the woman went on her way.
“Do you think the people in this inn know if a mage is here?” Kal asked quietly after they’d entered the sparsely populated barroom. Three old men in dirty clothing sat at a table, drinking ale. A plump woman with brown hair tied in a bun, wearing a yellow dress, was cleaning tables. Nonetheless, she had heard him and answered before Simona could reply.
“Of course we would know!” the woman said with confidence. “Everyone here knows him! My name is Dora. I’m the barmaid here.”
“Him?” Kal gave Dora a quizzing look.
“He promised to get rid of the curse in town. Folk are curious to see if he can.”
“Where would the mage be?” Simona asked.
“I think Anarr is either at Lord Araesto’s Cat or somewhere in the mountains,” Dora replied after a few moments of thought. “Don’t know for sure.”
“Did you say Anarr is the mage in town?” Simona couldn’t believe her ears. It was more than she had hoped for. She had heard about Anarr during her studies at the College of Bards. He had managed to use his powers to extend his own life many times, even after being on his deathbed. She thought, “He should be able to help me!” She felt relieved. A bit of luck after all the mishaps of the past few days felt good.
“Maybe we should go to that inn and stay there,” Kal suggested. Before Simona could answer the barmaid answered for her.
“You won’t get a room there. ‘Sides, we’ve got the better beds.”
Simona grinned inwardly. She liked the woman. “We’ll stay!” she decided and sat down at a table. “Why don’t you bring us some ale and a bowl of whatever the cook made today?” The barmaid scurried away and in no time returned with two bowls of stew, placed one in front of Simona and handed the other to Kal.
“Are you going to eat standing?” Dora said indignantly. Kal shook his head and then seated himself, picked up a spoon, and ate.
“Not too bad,” he commented when the barmaid seemed out of earshot, but she’d heard him again.
“What’d you mean, ‘not too bad’?” Dora quickly moved back to their table and stood in front of Kal, hands on her hips. “That’s the best stew in town! And there better not be anything left in the bowl when I come to pick it up!”
Simona had to bite her lip not to burst out laughing. She turned her head instead and coughed. Kal swallowed hard. “Of course not,” he managed to reply and Dora stepped away from their table. Kal and Simona finished their meal in silence.
When Dora returned, she inquired, “What brings you here? We’ve never seen a bard in town. Are you going to sing for us?”
“Not tonight, Dora. I’m thirsty and in need of rest,” Simona said.
“Maybe a short song? While I get you some ale? Please?” Dora’s eyes begged even more than her voice. Simona gave in and pulled her lyre from her bag. She gently plucked the strings on her instrument and began to sing, telling the story of her sister Megan as she had heard it from the people who had known her.
“What a sad story.” Dora wiped tears from her eyes and placed two tankards of ale on the table.
“Would you mind telling us where our room is?” Simona asked and packed her lyre away. She then reached for one of the tankards and took several sips of ale.
“You two married?” Dora asked. Simona looked at her in amazement.
“What does it matter? We only need one room,” Kal said before Simona could speak up.
“T’is a respectable inn,” Dora replied and pointed towards a wooden door. “You can sleep on the second floor. Through this door here, up the stairs, first door on your right. And you,” Dora pointed at Simona, “can sleep in my room. I only have one empty room anyway. All others are taken.”
“It’s quite alright –” Simona said, but Dora didn’t let her finish.
“He might take advantage of you. You’ll stay with me.” Dora wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, Simona had no doubt about that. Taking one look at Kal’s face, she grinned. He seemed overrun by superior power.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” Simona said, placed a quick kiss on his cheek, and picked up her bag. “We’ll try to find Anarr then.”
“Straight,” Kal replied and downed the contents of his tankard without stopping. “I’ll see you in the morning.”