I’ve been in the most amazing creative spree the last little while, so much so that I’ve set aside the novel idea I was initially developing for NaNoWriMo to focus on this one. Charles and I have been speculating and hashing out what has emerged as an entire world outside of the initial retelling of our D&D campaign. We have a more developed idea of some characters now, much more of the plot, and world fundamentals are emerging. It’s been so exciting and fun. I love collaborating on this kind of thing! I’m really grateful for the time and effort he’s putting into this with me. This project is bringing me such joy right now.
Given our recent conversations around character creation, I decided to re-write the tavern meeting in hopes of exploring Shaava’s personality and foibles a bit more. She’s far more whimsical and poetic than I’d realized, and I am not sure I am going to be able to write the conflict between her rich inner world and her very reserved public persona without a lot of practice and feedback. That tension becomes a major part of her character arc so I want to be sure I can handle it well. I am also concerned about how to demonstrate her social reservation without it becoming stale. This is a challenge because she doesn’t speak to hear herself talk, and one of her glitches is to avoid drawing attention to herself, so she avoids making large gestures of any kind…
What follows is an exploration; I have no idea if it will end up as part of the story or not. So much of what I thought I was going to do has changed with the addition of Charles’ ideas and feedback, and for the better. ^_^
She had been running south for two months. Navigating the world outside of life as she knew it had been so overwhelming it felt like it had been twenty years. To finally arrive at her goal only to have her hope shattered by her fear was painfully frustrating. How was she going to track and kill a dragon when she couldn’t ignore a handful of lecherous caravan guards? She cursed herself severely for not following through with her plan. Why should it matter what they’d do to her? The worst had already been done by the dragon who had burned her friends alive and her dreams to ash. Whatever was left in this world, she deserved it. And yet, something made her mouth fill with honey, lies, and apologies and set her running again. Back into the bustling streets, humans swarming like so many bees. Back into the inclement weather, unwelcome rain soaking her thin robe, the resulting mud chilling her bare feet. Back into worrying, wondering how she was going to alert the Symposium now. She retraced her steps to the stand of trees near the village green where she had been sleeping. She was approaching the towering pine she’d taken to resting under when a voice stopped her.
She turned around in tense surprise, needles of ice blooming in her hands. It was the aged, split-lipped caravan master from the warehouse whose job she had declined this morning. What was he doing here? He’d been confused when she’d left after making it through the first round of cuts, but she didn’t have it in her to explain when the panic started stealing her breath. Years of training in social grace allowed the lie and curtsy to drop politely before she fled, hiding until the shaking stopped and her eyes dried.
“I figgured yous hada betta offa like yous said, bein’ a mage ‘n’ all,” he began, slowly raising his hands as if to pacify her, “but I’m seein’ yer still here an’ thinkin’ mayee tha’ wasn’ the case?” He hesitated a moment to see if she would reply. She didn’t say anything, but the ice shards faded and she inclined her head to indicate she was listening. He swallowed his relief and continued. “See, turns oot tha’ I hava job come up might suit yous, if yer interessed. None o’ the boys c’n take it, bein’ they ain’t mages an’ all. ‘Sa crew headin’ t’ Invictus, an’ I remember’d yous sayin’ tha’s yer plan.”
She arched an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“Yess’m. They’s meetin’ a’ the Clearwata’ Inn, roun’ aboot noo. The gennlemun, call hisself Goodbarrel, be interviewin’ folk the las’ few nights, hopin’ fer a mage. Yous don’ gotta go, but I thought yous a’ least ougt’a know. He seemed t’ me t’ be a bit more yer type than me usual louts. Classy, yous folk.”
She nodded gracefully. “I appreciate the effort you took to tell me this.”
He smiled sadly. “Me mam, rest ‘er, she raised me t’ be good to wummin. Not all men get learned like I did. I dunno wha’s on yer heels, missy, but I sees enough t’ know i’s importan’. Mam’d wan’ me t’ tell yous, so’n I did.” He tipped his rough canvas cap to her. “I’ll be off, then. Goo’ luck noo.” With an awkward half bow, he turned and made his way back across the green.
She watched him go, contemplating his words. An adage about open windows came to her and she nodded nervously, shifting her pack to try and ease some of the burden from her aching shoulders. She winced as the strap on her left shoulder rubbed against the pressure bruise that had developed there. She was not used to this. She didn’t want to get used to this. With a last longing look at the towering pine, she resettled her hood to better block the rain and went to find the tavern. Open windows, indeed.
The Clearwater Inn was the largest gathering house for quite a distance and did steady trade. Laughter, shouting, and the sound of music washed over her as she entered. She stopped in the vestibule momentarily to charm her feet clean and assess the situation. The common room was crowded and difficult to see across. Nothing for it, then. With another grimace for the shifting straps of her pack, she headed for the bar, bracing herself against a gauntlet of unwanted attention. She forced herself to count her steps rather than the pinches, pokes, and outright gropes that landed on her as she navigated the crowded tables. It seemed to her that every human tavern was the same: too much alcohol and not enough discretion. Small wonder these places made her uncomfortable.
She stood at the bar patiently, watching the crowd and waiting for a server to whom she could direct her inquiry. A large figure in the far corner caught her attention when it stood up, silver scales catching the light as it—no, with shoulders like that, ‘it’ was likely a ‘he’—stretched. A Dragonborn? Here? She squinted but couldn’t make out enough detail at this distance to confirm her surmise. She’d never met one before. It would be interesting if she could get close enough to observe him. Then she’d be able to evaluate the quality of the illustrations in that text on magical races she had salvaged… She was lost in the respite of academic thought when a perky blonde server caught her attention by sliding her tray onto the bar.
“What can I get for you, Hun?” she asked, smiling brightly.
“Tea, please. And information, if I may?”
“Yes to both,” the server grinned, reaching below the bar and producing a small ceramic teapot and matching mug. “What are you looking for?”
“A whom, if you please. I was informed there was a gentleman calling himself Goodbarrel who was conducting interviews here this evening?”
“Finneas? Yeah, he’s here. Not sure I’d call him a gentleman though,” the server winked, pouring the kettle over the tealeaves. “See that big table back there? The one with the Dragonborn? That’s the one you want. Are you okay to carry this hot stuff over there, or would you like me to follow you with my tray?”
“Please do not inconvenience yourself. I am more than capable,” the mage replied with a soft smile. “It seems you already have much to do.”
“Isn’t that the truth!” The server laughed, pushing the tea service across the bar and waving off the proffered copper coins. “On me, Hun. A pot of tea won’t break the bank and you look done in. Anything else I can get you?”
“No, thank you. I appreciate your generosity,” she replied with another shy smile.
“No problem. Off you go. I’ve got tables to clean and men to part from their money.” With another wink the server launched back into the sea of tables, empty tray in one hand, rag in the other.
Balancing the teapot and mug while managing her pack kept her mind occupied while she made her way to the table the server had indicated. Her fatigue combined with the heat and clamor of the room, making her feel disoriented. It would be good to sit down and thaw out even if the interview didn’t yield results. As she approached the correct table, two dazzling women who had been seated on the farther end stood and made a great show of having to leave, calling out mocking wails and sulks that verged on actual whining. A short man in an audacious hat countered their replies with gusto. Not man, she corrected, taking a second look as he doffed his wide brimmed hat and waved it after them playfully. Halfling. Didn’t she know his voice from somewhere? In the midst of the melodrama, a man at the end of the table nearest to her stood, the holy symbol of _______ catching her eye as he moved.
“Are you looking for someone?”
She nodded. “A Finneas Goodbarrel. Might you know him?”
“That would be him,” he confirmed, gesturing to the ebullient halfling. “Aryn Ebonstorm,” he said, placing his hand on his chest. “Please, allow me,” he said with a slight bow, angling his chair for her to sit. She stared uncomprehendingly at him for a moment before registering his offer. With a reserved but grateful smile she set her tea on the table and slid her pack to her feet before taking the seat. “My thanks, Cleric,” she replied, not offering her name in return. There would be time for that later, if the interview went well. Until then, the fewer people who could place her here, the better.
Years of practice kept the wince from her face as the biting straps finally left her shoulders. Never let them see you hurt. She eased her hood back and self-consciously tucked the tendrils that had escaped her braid behind her ears, noting absently how cold the tips of her ears were. She couldn’t do anything about the uncomfortable chill of her sodden hood at the moment and so blocked it from her mind. With a second mental twist the clamour of the room faded into the background of her awareness. Graceful movement drew her eye as her benefactor rounded the table and took an empty chair beside Finneas. He moved with an assurance she couldn’t quite place. A dancer, perhaps? Intriguing. She nodded her thanks once more and he smiled acceptance while reaching across the table to reclaim his tankard.
She found herself at a loss for words, looking at him. She sipped her tea even though it wasn’t quite cool enough yet, covering her attempt to observe him without staring. Stars, he’s beautiful. Taller than her by a hand span, he had broad shoulders and a narrow waist. The fitted tailoring of his jacket implied muscle rather than softness under his clothing and unspoken confidence his shape would not change. His skin was pale and smooth, almost the same porcelain as many of the mages she had known in her parent’s retinue. His thick hair was similarly white, a striking feature on one so young. He wore it carefully, tapered along the back and sides, crowned with longer waves that partially covered his forehead. His ears were definitely the soft shell shape particular to humans, though; no evidence of elven blood there. His features were refined, elegant in their delicacy and symmetry. His eyes, the blue of deepest twilight, scattered with silver motes and fine grains of pale blue topaz, framed with lashes that were the dark of night, were absolutely enchanting. In all her years she had never seen anything to rival them, even among the legendary beauty of her own people.
Be careful, Shaava. If you let yourself drown in them, you’ll never reach the Symposium… She took another sip of tea, scalding her tongue. Inwardly she smiled at her foolishness, surprising herself. Poetic thought had been spheres away since WhiteRock. WhiteRock. The memory sobered her immediately.
The Halfling finally redirected his attention to the table. “Oh, excellent, we’re all here.” She forced herself to redirect her attention to Finneas. Stars, that hat was as loud as his voice.
“So you’re Shaava then? The wizard?” Finneas asked over the rim of his tankard. It looked comic and awkward in his small hands, but was almost empty anyway. “Decker said he thought you might come.”
She nodded, focus and confidence returning as the heat of the tea settled into her body, waking her up. “I am.”
“Well, are you any good?” Finneas asked, with exaggerated expectation.
“Of course,” she affirmed, confidently. Her eyes sharpened slightly and she noted the tension in her shoulders increasing. She wasn’t fond of having her abilities questioned, but there was no way for him to know what she was capable of. “Although you only have my word for it.”
“Or not. Good Ol’ Decker said you did some trick that impressed him this morning. Can you do it again?” the bard asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Certainly.” Inwardly, Shaava grimaced. She knew she was too tired to safely call the flames right now. It was a shame that spell seemed to impress non-elven the most—it had certainly impressed the caravan master this morning. She appeared outwardly serene as factors flashed rapidly through her mind. Showy enough to impress the table but not so much so that she attracted attention from the crowded room beyond. She needed to impress them, so nothing that could give her away if her fatigue made her control less than flawless. Something vibrant that would appeal to the bard’s eye-watering taste in colour. There. She had it. She lifted her left hand, slowly wreathing it in shifting shards of light that began dancing and weaving through an ethereal spectrum of colour. It was a miniature replica of the borealis from home, not that she expected any of them to recognize it. The illusion built upon itself until the glowing colours played across the table and then the faces of those assembled. The dragonborn’s silver scales looked positively radiant highlighted with pale aqua and Quinn’s tanned skin reflected golds and greens that harmonized well with his dark leathers. The cleric’s pale countenance reflected the more subtle shades of indigo and violet exactly as she thought it might. Success.
Finneas’ face was a picture, his eyes rapt. He let out a low whistle. “Neat trick.”
“Thank you. You are too kind.” She let herself enjoy the shifting kaleidoscope for a moment more before dispelling it. Contentment with her small victory eased the last of her nerves. Casting had always done that for her, placing her back into confidence born of the intimate familiarity with her craft.
“Good enough! It helps that so far you’re the only one to make any sparks fly.”
“Doesn’t hurt that she’ll improve the view, either,” the ranger muttered. He likely thought she couldn’t hear him. He was wrong.
Finneas flashed him a wink. Setting his mug down and surveying the table, he met the eyes of the ranger, the paladin, and the cleric in turn. “So here’s the deal: I need to find a guy who doesn’t really want to be found and I need some help doing it. I’ve heard he could be in a few places that I don’t necessarily want to go to alone, hence enlisting all of you. It’ll take a few months, I wager. There’s probably going to be treasure along the way, which is good because I can’t afford to pay you all that much if at all until we get back to the Meadery. At the very least, I’ll get you to Invictus and comp you a drink while we are there. Sound good?”
“Sounds vague, Finneas,” the ranger observed, his tone implying that they’d had this conversation before. “How are we going to do this?”
“I already told you, Quinn. I’ve got a bead on a caravan that will take us on as guards. It’s going through a few of the places I’ve got in mind,” Finneas’ tone held the subtle frustration of someone who hated repeating themselves. Shaava took note.
“You do?” She asked, her interest piqued. “I saw you at the caravan master’s warehouse this morning. You weren’t hired.”
“I do,” Finneas confirmed. “I may be too short to guard for that particular gentleman, but a Goodbarrel’s always got options. I’ve explored them and arrived at this one.”
Shaava’s expression remained skeptical. “That sounds… convenient.”
“It is,” Finneas returned dryly, and then turned pointedly to look at Torrin, edging Shaava out of his field of vision.
“The caravan is going to pay us though, right?” Quinn asked before Finneas got too huffy. The halfling didn’t like being reminded of his failures and the archer knew it.
“Of course!” Finneas retorted, dismissively. “Decent wages, too. A bit better than what we could have gotten here, even.”
Quinn nodded, taking a pull on his beer. “Money always sounds good to me.”
“Who is this person and why are you looking for him?” Torrin asked casually, as if the answer didn’t matter to him one way or another.
“I’m collecting a debt for my Dad. This guy owes the Meadery a lot of money,” Finneas replied, glibly. This seemed overly simple to Shaava but Torrin seemed satisfied. Quinn’s face cleared as well as he arrived at some silent conclusion. Shaava got the sense that these three were well established as companions to accept so much at face value. Finneas turned to look at the cleric. “So, pretty boy? You in?”
Solemn eyes regarded the bard. “Certainly. It sounds like you could use the assistance and I am on my way back to Invictus, regardless.”
Finneas grinned. “Atta boy, Ebonstorm.” The bard turned to look at Shaava. “And you?”
She nodded slowly. “I believe this may be a suitable arrangement.”
“Settled then!” Finneas crowed, slapping the table with his palm delightedly. He climbed up on the bench and then stood on the table itself. “Shandy! Where are you, girl? We need drinks!”
Shaava couldn’t stop herself from staring. Had this man no sense of propriety?
A short while later, Shandy, the blonde server Shaava had spoken with earlier appeared at the table, tray laden with another round of tankards and a fresh pot of hot tea. Shandy stared at the cleric as she unloaded the drinks, obviously smitten. For his part, Aryn appeared not to notice her interest, answering her questions respectfully. If he caught the innuendo Shandy was heaping onto her words, he was was a better actor than Shaava could credit with the obliviousness of his expression. Down the table Quinn snorted and elbowed Torrin, gesturing at the tableau. Torrin shook his head in disbelief. With good-natured frustration Shandy took her leave, weaving her way into the crowd to respond to another summons, Finneas’ gold stashed safely in her apron.
Shaava refilled her mug and listened carefully as the talk turned to planning. Finneas wanted to leave in the morning and had secured rooms for them in the inn for the night so departure would be swift. It would take them roughly a fortnight of riding to reach the village where they would connect with the caravan Finneas had spoken of. Shaava was relieved they weren’t going to have to walk. She largely tuned out the conversation about supplies; she didn’t have money for anything other than food at this point, so she would continue to make do with what she had. The steady warmth of the mug in her hands and the flavour of cinnamon on her tongue were lovely after the trials of the day and she allowed them to mellow her. Idly, she noticed the cleric was regarding Finneas with an expression of quiet incredulity and watched as his eyes took on a faraway look as if preoccupied. Such eyes. She was struggling to stay awake when the sound of a chair scraping across the floor brought her back to alertness.
“On that note, I’ll take my leave,” the cleric was saying with a slight bow to the seated men. He turned to look at her. “Shaava, may I assist you in getting your packs to your room?”
She considered him carefully and nodded after a moment. “I would appreciate that, Stormborn. My thanks.”
He offered a slight bow. “It’s my pleasure.” Within a few steps he had her pack and was swinging it over his shoulder. Her eyes widened a bit at the ease of his movement. She knew the weight of it intimately. Impressive.
Finneas absently handed Shaava a key, barely pausing his conversation with Quinn and Torrin to do so. She wrapped her hand around it and squeezed, the bite of the metal helping her to stay awake. She crossed the crowded floor, too tired to realize she hadn’t been accosted on the return trip. She made her way to the third floor and found the correct room. She fumbled the key while unlocking the door and swore softly. Once she’d opened it, Aryn made to follow her across the threshold with her pack. She turned to face him, blocking his entry. That was far enough.
“Thank you for your assistance. I will take my pack from here.”
“I can take it in for you, Shaava. It’s hardly a problem.”
“That’s unnecessary. I appreciate the offer.” She hoped the fatigue in her voice would hide the slightly defensive edge in her tone. That was far enough.
Slightly perplexed, he swung the pack down and offered it to her. She accepted it and carefully hoisted the now familiar weight back onto her tender shoulder. He nodded awkwardly, stepping back a pace. “Goodnight, then.”
“Goodnight, Stormborn. Thank you for your courtesy this evening.”
“It is what anyone should offer,” he replied with a slight bow.
She quirked an eyebrow. He wasn’t wrong. “Indeed.” She offered him a small smile and withdrew.
Her bare feet were silent on the floor as she closed the door behind her. She could hear his footsteps fade down the hallway as she turned the lock and made certain of it. She cringed openly as she settled the pack on the floor, regretting once again that healing magic wasn’t her forte. She could dull the pain, but never relieve it entirely. She moved tiredly around the room lighting the candles placed throughout from the lamp on the bureau, placing a charm on each one that would prevent the fire from spreading should something knock it over. The sturdy wooden furnishings and well-made blankets on the bed were a far cry from the luxury she had grown up with. But then, they were also a far cry from being cradled in the shallow roots of an evergreen. She noted two doors and moved to check them. The first was a small closet that smelled faintly of rosemary. The other was a washroom. With a bath.
Suddenly awake, she smiled the first unguarded smile she could recall since WhiteRock. She entered the small room, locking the door behind her and began investigating the taps. Within moments the room was filling with steam and the scent of the rose geranium soap she’d added to the water. It took her the time the tub was filling to finish unpinning her hair and unbraid the heavy cable that trailed down her back. She quickly shed her damp clothing and eased herself into the water, leaving her hair trailing over the edge of the tub where the length of it piled on the floor. The water was as hot as she could stand it and felt marvelous. She lazed delightedly as the water grew cooler before reluctantly scrubbing her skin clean and taking on the task of washing her hair. She would have to sleep with it wet, but that was less of a problem in a heated inn than it would have been if she’d been sleeping outside.
She gathered her comb and patiently towelled it dry while sitting on the bed. The candles had raised the temperature in the room significantly while she bathed and she was finally comfortable for the first time in months. With fluid motions she started putting her hair in order. The untangling charm she had worked on the comb had been an inspired choice, cutting the effort substantially. By the time it fell in its proper waves, she was practically swaying with exhaustion as the day finally overtook her. She dimmed the lamp and blew the candles out one by one, her unbound hair tickling the backs of her thighs as she walked. Within moments she was buried deeply under the blankets, her contented sigh at the feel of the soft sheets against her bare skin following her into sleep.