The rat stood on its hind legs and looked around. Acrid smells wafting on the night breeze caused the rat to sniff and look into the wind. Intelligence flared up in its eyes, however, and it dropped down and ran across the alley.
Staying close to a wall, it ran down the street only to stop suddenly in front of an inn. Looking up, the rat saw a hanging sign with letters and a picture. Two men walked towards the door and stopped before going inside. Normally, the rat would have run, but something else controlled it, and it stood there silently looking at the letters on the sign: Spirit’s Haven.
“Dumb rat,” one man said. “Ought to have ’nuff sense ta run.”
The rat squeaked as the words penetrated its brain and were transmitted across the town into the one who controlled it. He was too late to respond, though.
A swift boot came down. Crunch. The man across town flung himself backwards in his chair. “Augh!” he screamed, holding his head between both hands. Breathing wildly, he rocked back and forth until the pain cascading throughout his brain settled to a dull throb. “I have got to remember,” he wheezed, “to not pick things that are easily killed.”
He reached out with one hand and gripped a long, rune-covered staff that stood of its own accord next to his chair. Blue lightning crackled along the staff, traveled up his arm, and jolted into his eyes. He gasped, bunched his muscles, and then relaxed. “If not for magic …” he sighed.
Leaning forward, he gazed into a round glass sphere on a table in front of him. “Once more into the darkness, old friend,” he whispered. The globe swirled with colors and cleared with a view of the inn. “Time is of the essence. I can’t spare any to find a suitable host. Show me the nearest creature.” The picture in the globe moved as if some person were walking around the inn. There, one building down on the same street stood a rat.
“Not another one,” he sighed in disgust. “Why is there always a rat around when you don’t want one? Straight! As long as I keep a watch out for people, I should be fine.” Looking at the rat, the room around him faded away. He swept down to the street and into the rodent.
Looking around, the rat saw no one. It ran as fast as its short legs could carry it to the door of the inn. Unfortunately, there was no opening for it to enter. Running around the building to the back, it found the back door. Sprinting past small heaps of garbage, it ran straight for the slightly open door. It hit the opening like it was a brick wall. The rat bounced backwards and rolled into the alley. While there was space to enter, something had kept the rat out. Shaking its head and looking closely at the inn, the rat squealed.
“Interesting,” the man replied as he leaned back into his chair. “There is more to this inn than I thought.”
“Oh, Nai,” Simona said. “Someone’s killed a rat.” She stepped out away from it as if it might jump up at any time and scare her. She brushed her long black hair back away from her eyes.
“If it was looking for a haven, it was headed in the right direction,” Kal said, pointing ahead of them at the inn. His long arms ended in hands with long, slender fingers. Matched to that was a frame that bordered on skinny. “Spirit’s Haven,” he said. “I wonder just how true that is?”
“Everyone names their inn with some phrase out of the ordinary. They do that to attract people into their inns. It’s good business sense,” Nai answered. The ex-smith had not lost any of his muscular build even though it had been years since he had worked at the forge.
“Come then, let’s walk past the dead and find a haven for our spirits,” Simona replied.
“She has a way with words,” Kal chuckled and followed her.
“She’s a bard,” Nai said, shrugging and walking behind Kal.
Simona shifted the pack on her back and reached for the lever to open the door. Stepping in, she took a quick look around. It was quiet inside, only a few people were seated at the tables. A large woman was serving a guest. Simona noticed a kind look on her face as this woman approached the group.
“Welcome to Spirit’s Haven,” the woman greeted them. “I’m May. I own and run this here inn. What brings ya here?”
“We’re looking for a place to sleep for the night,” Kal answered. “Do you have any rooms for my traveling companions and me?”
“I have two rooms,” May said and guided them to a table. “Be seated, while I get ya rooms ready. Would ya like something to drink and eat while ya wait?”
“I’ll have some ale,” Kal said.
“I’ll have one, too,” Nai added and sat down heavily on the chair. Simona pushed a chair closer to the table, dropped her pack to the floor, and slid onto the chair. “I’ll have some spiced wine,” she said.
“Ale, ale, and wine,” May repeated as she left to get the drinks. The three settled into the chairs in quiet relaxation.
May returned with the drinks and placed a tankard in front of each of her guests. “If ya want food, there’s a few barmaids runnin’ around. Get one and let her know. I’ll have someone get the rooms ready for ya.”
“Thank you, May,” Simona said with a smile. Suddenly, she felt overtired and wanted to go to sleep immediately. She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. The face of a woman with red hair and green eyes appeared in her mind. She had seen this face many times before and had no problems identifying it: it belonged to her sister Megan. Ever since she had been separated from her twin, she’d seen the face in her mind. It had happened only occasionally at first, but during the past few years increasingly more frequently. Simona had no control over it. Tonight was no different. She took the image in and searched for a hidden message, but to no avail. Yet something was different this time; Simona felt it more than she saw it. It left her restless.
Yawning, she opened her eyes and found the inn in a buzz of activity. Part of the inn was cleared of tables and chairs. As two men were moving the last table, a man came flipping head over heels toward it. He did a somersault onto the table and landed with his arms wide open. The two men holding the table grunted, but didn’t look surprised. Before they could drop the table, the man on top leapt upward and did a lot of spins in the air, only to land on his feet facing the crowd.
“What’s happening?” she asked, shifting in her chair to get comfortable.
“There are performers here tonight on some special occasion,” Kal replied.
“No one would say what the occasion is, but some of the nobles are here with their children,” Nai said, still watching the performers. Before Simona could ask anything else, the performer spoke.
“I am Balor Hardwin,” Balor said, bowing low. From the bow, he leapt upwards and did a backflip. Landing, he had pulled a set of small pipes out and brought them to his lips. Playing a ditty, he leapt and rolled and did flips. Once he was finished, he bowed and pointed to two men.
The two men came forward and started juggling all sorts of items. They tossed around balls and bags while moving around each other. Then, they started tossing the balls and bags to each other all the while moving around the cleared space. There was always something up in the air. They spun around in place quickly while catching all the things in the air until nothing was left.
“Well met good folk,” the first man said. “We are Utal and Zali!”
“I’m Utal,” the second man said.
“No, I’m Utal!” the first corrected. “You are Zali!”
“Straight! You’re Zali!”
“No, no, no!” the first said, a frown upon his face. “I am Utal and you are Zali and we are going to juggle for these good folk.”
“Yes, let me get this right. I’ll be with the good folk while you perform?”
“Augh!” the first man cried, holding his head with both hands. His movements were very exaggerated. Some in the crowd giggled. “You’re juggling also!”
“So, I juggle and you watch?” the second man asked, a perplexed look across his face.
“Zali! Do I have to use hand-speak? We are –”
“I thought you were Zali,” the second man interrupted. He shifted slightly to the crowd and winked. Someone laughed.
“No! I’m Utal,” the first man said, pointing to his own chest. “You are irritating sometimes.”
“I am not irritating!” Zali proclaimed in a loud voice, turning towards the crowd. “I am Zali!” he proclaimed, raising his arms above his head.
“Enough!” Utal shouted.
“Not enough,” Zali corrected. “We have yet to start!”
“Start with this,” Utal said, tossing a knife, then another at Zali. Zali turned and caught the first, tossed it into the air as he caught the second. Twirling the two in the air, he yawned. Bringing a hand up to cover his yawning mouth, he could be heard to say, “Is this all?”
“You want more?” Utal asked, eyes wide. “Why, I have a nice sharp axe here.” He took the axe to some people near them and they ran their hands over the blade. Murmurs of its sharpness echoed about. “Shall I toss it to him?” Utal asked the crowd.
“Yes,” came the answer from various people. Utal tossed the axe to Zali. Zali caught it and spun it into the twirling knives.
“Utal, I don’t know if I can keep this going,” Zali said, stumbling about trying to keep all three objects in the air. He teetered one way and stumbled another, but still kept juggling. “Here, you can have them back.” He tossed them one at a time to Utal.
“I don’t want them,” Utal said, stepping back, but catching them. He spun them in the air just as Zali had. “If you can’t juggle them, how am I supposed to?”
“You look like you’re doing well and good,” Zali replied. “I’m just going to wet my thirst. I’ll be back in a bell or so.”
“No you are not!” Utal yelled. “Here, take them back!” He tossed them quickly one at a time to Zali.
“I don’t want them,” Zali said, tossing them back to Utal just as fast as they came. It became a blurring motion between them.
“Enough!” Utal said, catching each item and holding it. They both turned to the crowd and bowed. The crowd responded with shouts of “more” and banging tankards on the tables.
“One last performance,” Utal called out to the crowd. “Something daring, perhaps?” he asked.
“Not the torches,” Zali said, holding both hands straight out and shaking his head no. He turned to the crowd and said, “We can juggle knives and axes and mugs; just don’t ask for the torches!”
“Torches!” and “We want to see the torches,” issued forth from the crowd. Utal smiled and bowed low.
“The torches it shall be,” Utal said, moving to get two lit torches. Zali had his head down and was shaking it.
“Catch!” Utal yelled. Zali moved quickly into position and caught the thrown torch. Just as quickly, he threw it back only to catch the second. Soon, a blur of fire was weaving between them.
“Can I join in?” Balor asked, stepping between the two.
“Can you juggle?” Utal asked.
“Well …” Balor replied, drawing out the answer. He was between the jugglers and the crowd and was moving back and forth trying to see the torches in the air.
“Get out of the way!” someone yelled.
“Aye! Move!” someone else grumbled.
“I can’t even see a torch,” Balor said, ignoring the crowd.
“Perhaps you shouldn’t juggle, then,” Zali said. His attention was focused on the juggling.
“The crowd seems displeased by where you are standing,” Utal said. “I would suggest moving.”
“I’m blocking the show?” Balor asked, turning around. “Good folk, am I in your way?”
“Yes,” called several from the crowd.
“My apologies. Let me move,” Balor said, turning his back to the crowd once more. Quickly, he stepped through the weaving torches. The crowd gasped. Whispers and murmurs could barely be heard.
“What?” Balor called out. “I can’t hear you!” He stepped through the ring of flying torches to stand before the crowd again. “Did you say something?” There was silence. “Ah, begging your pardon, then. I’ll go back to where I was.” He turned and walked between Utal and Zali. The pattern in the air changed.
“It seems we are one torch short, Zali,” Utal said.
“It seems so,” Zali replied, catching the only torch left and holding it. Both turned to look at Balor who held the other torch. The three of them drew closer and faced the crowd. Bowing low, they thanked everyone and added that any donations would be most appreciated.
“What a performance!” Kal exclaimed.
“Straight!” Nai agreed, pulled a Bit out of his purse, and tossed it towards Utal who caught it effortlessly.
“I’m tired,” Simona yawned.
“You’re tired?” Nai laughed, “You’re the one who slept at the table for half a bell!”
“I did not! It couldn’t have been more than a mene or two.”
“You sure did,” Kal said grinning, “I was contemplating whether or not to carry you to your room.”
“Why didn’t you? If I was asleep for that long.”
“Why? The performers walked in, and I didn’t want to miss any. Besides, what would you have thought if you’d woken in a strange room?”
“Wouldn’t have been the first time,” Simona mumbled, turned away and searched the room for May.
“What did you say, Simona?” Nai wanted to know.
“I’m looking for May, or did she tell you where our rooms are?” Simona replied, ignoring his question.
“She told us while you were asleep. They’re up the stairs at the end of the hallway.” Kal got up and briefly touched Simona’s arm, then took a candle from the table. “Let me show you.”
Simona picked up her belongings and followed Kal’s lead. When they reached the end of the hallway, Kal opened a door and gestured Simona to step inside. “This should be your room; Nai and I are in the room next to yours.”
“Thank you, Kal,” Simona said as she placed her belongings in a corner of the room. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Until morning.” Kal lit a candle, handed it to Simona, and left. Simona closed the door, lifted the candle, and took a look around. The room was sparsely furnished. A bed, a chair, and a table with a washbasin and candleholder were all, but it was enough. She placed the candle in the holder on the table. For a moment she thought about the comfort of the room she’d had at the Bardic College in Magnus and then dismissed it. “I’m searching for Megan,” Simona reminded herself. “Six long years of searching for any sign of her or mother, and what have I found so far?” A deep sigh escaped her. Almost automatically her right hand moved to her head and brushed through her hair. Her fingers grasped a strand of hair and wrapped it around a finger, only to let it slide off again. “The place of my early childhood is gone, only ruins where people used to live. Oh, Megan, where else can I look?”
Simona pulled a blanket off her bed, wrapped it around herself, sat down, and stared into the candle’s flame. She watched as the candle burned down to half of its original height. Usually, looking into a candle’s flame would help her relax and find sleep, but this night was different. The vision of her sister had left her restless. She leaned back, her head touching the wall, and closed her eyes. She could hear snoring from the room next to hers and smiled. “Only Nai can snore like that. I wonder if Kal is getting any sleep.” Wiggling herself out of the blanket, she got up and left her room. Uncertain whether to find out if Kal was awake or not, she stood in front of their room for a mene. She raised her hand to gently knock, but then decided against it. Instead she walked towards the main room of the inn. If there had been action before, no one would have guessed it. The room was almost deserted now. She stopped in the doorway. May was busy cleaning tables and one of her barmaids was sweeping the floor. Simona breathed a small sigh of relief. She wanted to speak with May. Uncertain of how to proceed, she stepped into the room and approached the woman.
“Ya still awake,” May commented as she continued to wipe a table. “Need anything?”
“I was wondering if I could have something hot to drink and …”
“Yes?” May interrupted her cleaning and looked straight at Simona.
“I …” Simona began, not knowing how to ask the question she’d been wanting to ask May since the moment she’d stepped into the inn. “This is silly,” she thought. “I should be able to just ask her straight forward.” “I …” she began again, unable to finish her request.
“Ya wanna talk?” May said with a smile on her face.
“Yes, please,” Simona nodded.
“Sit down. I’ll be back.” May gestured Simona to sit at the table she had just finished cleaning and disappeared into an adjacent room. The barmaid placed the broom into a corner and followed May. Simona realized she was alone and shuddered briefly. She felt a brush of cold air touch her back and turned, but no one was there. “I hope May returns quickly,” she thought, drawing one knee to her chest and wrapping her arms around it. “What were you trying to tell me, Megan,” Simona whispered to herself, searching her memory for previous visions and clues, “Why did you appear to me tonight? What is it you want me to do? Has it something to do with this place? Does it have to do with May? Does she have answers for me?”
May returned, carrying two mugs containing steaming brew. She placed one mug in front of Simona. “Here! That’ll warm ya.” She smiled at Simona, who took the mug and sipped the hot liquid.
“Thank you.” Simona said, looking down into the steam.
May nodded. “Sooo … Ya gonna talk?”
“I don’t know where to begin,” Simona finally said after a few moments of silence. She felt her stomach turn into a knot, drew a deep breath, and looked at May, who returned her gaze, but remained silent. Simona took another sip from her mug, then shifted her position. Summoning all her courage, she started telling her story with a soft voice. “It’s a long story, but I’ll try to keep it short. I am searching for my sister. She’s my twin. Haven’t seen her since I was six years old. My uncle came one day and forcefully took me away from my mother and sister. For a while I was living with my grandparents and then I entered the Bardic College in Magnus. When I finally left there in search of my mother and sister, I couldn’t find them. There are only ruins where we used to live. No one seemed to know where they were.” Simona took a deep breath, uncertain whether or not she should continue on. “I … I have a connection with my sister. Sometimes I see her in my mind. She … I … I think she needs my help, but I don’t know where to start looking. I came to Dargon hoping to find answers, hoping to find a place to start looking.”
“What’s ya sister’s name?” May inquired.
“Megan,” Simona said and noticed surprise on May’s face.
“Describe her! What’d she look like when ya were little?” May asked, leaning forward. Simona sensed more than curiosity in May’s question.
“She has long red hair and green eyes. Her skin is quite fair and she has freckles,” Simona said, describing the face from her visions. “She looks like mother,” Simona added softly, looking down, and then spoke up again. “When she was little, she used to get sick a lot.”
“She called ya Mona when you were young?” May asked quietly.
“How’d you know?” Simona whispered, trembling. She reached for her mug with a shaking hand. Several thoughts whirled through her head simultaneously. “She knows Megan! Seen her! Can tell me about her!” Excitedly, she shifted her position, leaning slightly forward. “Tell me, please!” she asked with an undertone of urgency in her voice.
“A young woman named Megan was here for a while, helping me in the kitchen. We talked about a lot a things. She said, she used to have a sister, but thought she had died.”
Simona stifled a cry of sorrow and joy. Placing her hand over her mouth and closing her eyes, she fought back tears. “Poor Megan,” she thought, “What must it have been like for her and mother not to know?” She shuddered when she thought about the agony they must have gone through and swallowed hard.
“Where is she now?” she asked, looking at May again.
“Megan left here in Firil last year and traveled with my daughter to Hawksbridge to visit her family.”
“Noooo,” Simona called out in utter frustration, then mumbled to herself: “I’m too late.” She hid her face behind her hands and let out a deep sigh.
“Her husband, Raphael, followed her just last month …” May continued.
“Megan’s married? Any children?” Simona interrupted, wanting to know more about her sister.
“She is. Quite a story, too. But no children I know of. Now, I don’t have all the details, mind ya. Let me refill our mugs and I’ll tell ya what I know.” May returned to the kitchen.
Simona stood up and began pacing, tears of joy running down her cheek. “She knows! She knows what happened to Megan!” When she heard footsteps, Simona reached inside her tunic for a handkerchief to dry her tears. She turned around, expecting to see May, but no one was there. A cold shiver surged through her body. Automatically, her hands started rubbing her arms.
“May? Is that you?” Simona called out.
“I’m still in the kitchen. Come join me,” May said. Simona didn’t need a second invitation. Quickly, she covered the distance to the kitchen.
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say there is a ghost in your inn,” Simona said as she entered the kitchen.
“It is the Spirit’s Haven, dear. Ya never know what old spirit’s lurking around here,” laughed May and Simona shuddered. “Here,” May said, handing Simona a mug. “Don’t fret the spirits ya can’t see, but guard against the ones ya can.
“Thank you. Please tell me about Megan.”
“Straight.” May smiled as she gestured Simona to sit down again.
Simona nodded, her fingers clasping tight around the mug.
“I met Megan a few years ago, when her husband, Raphael, brought her to me,” May began. “She was under some kind of curse. She couldn’t walk, ‘cept when guided. Couldn’t talk or care fer herself. Raphael left her under my care so he could find a cure. ‘Bout two years ago, he broke that curse. But he got hurt doing it and couldn’t walk anymore. We brought him here and Megan cared for him. During that time she worked in the kitchen, cooking. Something happened and they had a big fight. Megan didn’t know what ta do, so we talked and she decided ta go home. I sent my daughter along with her ta keep her company and they left fer Hawksbridge.
“Raph didn’t take that too good. I think he knew he could lose her and after a few months of exercises and determination, he started ta walk again. Megan was gone by then and he left the inn. I don’t know why, but I think he didn’t want reminded of what had happened here between them. Through a mutual friend, I kept a watch over him. Last I knew, him and our friend left here about a month ago ta bring Megan back. If all goes well, they should be back in the spring.”
Simona took a deep breath and tried to control her trembling hands. She needed some time to herself to sort the information she’d received. A single tear streaked down her cheek and she quickly wiped it away. As much as she wanted to probe May for more information, Simona decided to save this for another day. Bidding May good night, she returned to her room to lay down. She could still hear Nai’s snoring through the wall. Smiling, she fell asleep, the face of her sister in her mind smiling back at her.