Chapter 1 Scene 4

by Richard Perkins
This entry is part 5 of 65 in the series Doormaker's Fall

In the common room at Mabel’s Inn, the crowd was in a lively mood. Merrymakers had started arriving soon after sunset from the town and the surrounding countryside. It was a larger group of jovial villagers than Mabel’s usual quint-end patrons, but only just. The hearth fire crackled contentedly as the Mabel and her girls served the patrons with a combination of friendly smiles and bustling efficiency.

Fronek and Devon sat at a small table on the side of the long hall, near the open area in front of the crackling hearth fire. Fronek caught the eye of Mabel’s eldest girl, and Elspeth wove smoothly through the crowded room to their small table. She was a nimble girl just blossoming into womanhood, and Devon’s senior by three seasonturns. She was clever with figures like Mabel, and would be well suited to running a business of her own before too long. Fronek tipped Devon a sideways wink before asking, “Elspeth my lass, what’s on the trencher tonight that’s worth eating?”

Devon had to work to keep his bottom jaw fixed to his head at Fronek’s audacity. The food at Mabel’s Inn was known far and wide as the best in the Barriers.

Elspeth, however, easily saw through Fronek’s jest and did not rise to the bait as she rattled off the evening menu. “We have a yearling lamb roast served with sourpear glaze and fall greens for a silver apiece. There’s also ham shoulder with beans for two coppers, or mutton stew for one. Fresh bread as well, the dark is a copper for two and the light is a copper each. We have the first press of fall cider at two coppers a tankard, but no wine tonight.”

Devon face lit up at her mention of the lamb roast. Then his glance darted to the purse at his belt, and his enthusiasm visibly dampened.

Though Fronek registered Devon’s reaction and its implication, it flashed by too quickly for Elspeth to follow as she continued. “And I happen to know that you will eat every last drop of whatever mother puts on your plate and declare it the best thing you’ve ever tasted even if it’s just the slop we reserve for the hogs, you old charlatan!”

Fronek affected mock indignation almost convincingly. “You wound me! I’ll have you know that I have a very discerning palate. Can I help it if every dish Mabel makes is better than the one before it? Devon, what will you have tonight?”

If Devon was disappointed a moment before, he showed no trace of it now. “Ham and beans please Elspeth, and a tankard of water if it’s not too much trouble.” Devon took two coppers from his belt purse and extended them across the table to Elspeth.

“I’ll take the lamb. Which bread is good tonight?”

Elspeth replied easily. “They’re both quite good, but I prefer the dark, especially if you’re having cider with it.”

Fronek smiled broadly. “Very well then, I’ll take two of the dark bread and cider with the lamb.” He then reached into the flame of the candle on their small table and made a silver and three coppers appear in his fingers as if by magic. Elspeth rolled her eyes before taking the palmed coins and carrying their order to Mabel’s busy kitchen. Devon, however, continued to stare at the candle flame in concentration for a moment after Elspeth left, the look in his eye suggesting that he had caught a fleeting glimpse of something unexpected. Fronek noted his interest but wisely kept his own counsel. Then the moment passed and the easy smile returned to Devon’s face.

Fronek glanced around the crowded common room, his gaze lingering on the polished crystals protruding a half a hand span from each wall. They were roughly the size and of a man’s palm and placed at the height of a man’s head. They appeared to let the soft glowing light of the fading sun through the walls from the outside. This was misleading, since it was well after sunset and the more traditional polished glass windows showed plainly that it was dark outside in the market square. “Mabel has made some changes to the Inn since my last visit I see.”

Though Fronek spoke of the room generically, Devon could see where the question was leading. “They’re light crystals. In late spring, a Gathering caravan came through with a group of mystics from the Great Desert. They had to divert here when a sand storm closed the lower pass. Their supplies ran out and I brought them back to the Inn. But they couldn’t pay.”

Fronek’s eyebrows shot up. “And Mabel let them wait out the storm free of charge?” Fronek rolled his eyes after Devon nodded briefly. “She is too kind hearted for her own good!”

Devon grinned innocently as he nodded. “I thought so too. But I took them back to their abandoned caravan and sent them on their way after the storm broke. Then I pointed out that they could settle up their debt with me and with Mabel in the summer when they returned.”

Fronek appraised Devon with new appreciation. “You knew they would come back in the summer? And they agreed to this suggestion?”

Devon beamed. “Not at first. But this tribe has hired me to guide them every summer for the past three seasonturns. I told them I could only work for travelers that paid their debts.”

Fronek looked to the ceiling speculatively. “Hmm, that is a persuasive argument for a repeat customer. But somehow I suspect that isn’t all you said?” Then he pinned Devon to the chair with his gaze.

Devon reddened noticeably and lowered his eyes. “No. I also said that none of the Guardian Village guides would take them on if I refused, and some of the horrible fates awaiting unwary travelers without skilled guides in the Barriers.”

At this admission, Fronek burst out in a hearty laugh which momentarily left him at a loss for words. He was wiping his eyes with the back of his hand when he continued breathlessly. “Ah lad, I can just picture their expressions in my mind. An excellent bluff! Well played Devon, well played indeed. I take it that they returned this summer with payment in full?”

Reassured that Fronek would not rebuke his white lie, Devon nodded as he continued. “And then some. They showed Mabel how the light crystals collect the energy from the sun during the day and then return that light in the evening. The brighter the light during the day, the longer into the evening the crystals will glow. The tribe’s craftspeople installed them in the common room as their payment.”

Fronek knew how the crystals worked. He was just surprised to see them here, and more surprised to discover that the Desert Mystics had learned how to craft them. “Light crystals such as these were common in the time of the Ancients.” Then as Devon looked at him with open curiosity, Fronek continued. “Don’t look at me like that boy. It was before my time, but you hear about things like this in stories now and again. I had never thought to see them brought out of the histories though.” He mused silently for a moment before awaking from his reverie. “And what about their guide, hmm? Did they bring any special gifts for your part in their rescue?”

Devon shrugged. “Just my usual fee. But they said that I should visit them in their Gathering some day and they would give me some sort of present there. Or something like that.”

Devon’s last comment brought Fronek’s eyebrows up again. “Something like that? What do you mean?”

“Nothing. It’s just that the Desert Mystics talk strangely. You’ll be having a normal conversation with one of them and then they will drop some phrase that sounds different. Like rhyme or verse without music. This was like that. It’s almost as though they have trouble translating from their native speech or something.”

“Actually, the Desert Tribes and Guardian Villagers share the same native speech.” Fronek suspected that the mystics were not translating from their native tongue but from someone else’s, although he did not voice that suspicion aloud.

“Oh, well I guess that’s not it. Wait, I remember most of what he said now. ‘Should you travel the roaming road beyond the great gatherings, you shall find your gift among us.’

Fronek’s eyes widened marginally before he could control his expression. “That’s suitably cryptic for a desert mystic. Ah look, refreshments have arrived! Lass, I can’t fathom how you have enough hands to manage all of that.” Elspeth had returned to the small table balancing two platters, a bread basket, and two overflowing tankards.

Elspeth deposited the plates, basket and tankards in front of the pair without spilling a drop. She tipped Fronek a cheeky wink. “Comes with the territory. Will you regale us with one of your adventures by firelight after dinner?”

“Yarn spinning is thirsty work. You keep the cider flowing and I’ll tell a tale or two.”

“You always say that!”

“Because it’s always true!’ Fronek grinned like a zealot whose argument is infallible. Devon laughed with delight, the cryptic message forgotten for the moment. Elspeth shook her head, grinning as she continued on her rounds. As she passed the bar, she spoke quietly with Mabel, who chuckled in response and rolled her eyes in Fronek’s general direction.

Fronek wasted no further time taking knife and fork in hand. “Best tuck in while it’s hot boy! If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being on the road, it’s this: eat hearty when there’s good food to be had.” And they did just that. Fronek took several bites of the spit roast lamb, savoring the tender texture and hint of tartness that the sourpear glaze had sealed within it. He let none of his pleasure register on his face, however, as he watched Devon work through his ham and beans. The boy was definitely hungry, but ate slowly rather than ravenously. It showed a level of maturity that Devon had lacked on Fronek’s last trip through Guardian Village.

When Fronek judged that Devon had eaten nearly half of his ham, he grumbled audibly and pushed the lamb roast away in apparent distaste. “Oh my gut! ”

Devon looked up from his plate in alarm. “Are you all right Fronek?”

“Just getting old. I had forgotten how rich lamb can be. In my younger days I would have polished off this little slice as quick as a flame and been at the haunch for more. But now it’s just not sitting well.” Fronek rubbed the supposedly offending gut convincingly. Mabel was a very experienced innkeeper, which meant that she had mastered the art of appearing exactly where she was needed as if by coincidence. She had observed the uncharacteristic outburst from across the room, and accordingly she drifted closer to Fronek’s table, apparently at random.

Devon bent closer to Fronek across the table. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

Fronek shook his head minutely. “No it’s nothing.” Then he looked up as if an idea had just occurred to him. “Actually, I find nothing settles the stomach like some hearty beans with a bit of ham. If it’s not too much to ask could I trade plates with you?”

Devon looked surprised. “Are you sure? I mean it’s just that I’ve already eaten most of it…”

Fronek shook his head again. “No, of course not. Selfish of me to suggest it. You just go ahead and finish your meal. I’ll be fine.” He quaffed a swallow of cider and managed a small belch. He groaned almost inaudibly and rubbed just below his breastbone once more for good measure.

This last display convinced Devon. “Nonsense. If it will help, I insist that you have the rest of my plate.” He pushed the half empty trencher of ham and beans across the table to Fronek.

“That’s very kind of you lad. Now fair is fair. You take the rest of that lamb. No sense letting Mabel’s best cooking go to waste. Eat up.” With that Fronek slid the mostly full portion of sourpear glazed lamb and greens in front of Devon. Fronek tasted the ham, which was also tender and juicy, but an undeniable disappointment after the lamb that Devon was enjoying now.

Ever watchful Mabel saw through Fronek’s charade easily. She smiled inwardly and slowly drifted away from the table again as she exchanged amiable conversation with her other patrons.

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