Chapter 11 of a book I'm working on
feedback is appreciated
Loren stood behind the bar, near the far end, and watched the crowd. He was surprised by the size of it. The tavern had opened for lunch a few hours ago, and now it was going on dinner time and still almost all of the chairs were occupied, as well as most of the bar stools. Horaas had been as good as his word, evidently, and had spread the word about the tavern's opening, and business had been steady. It seemed that no sooner did one patron leave than another came in to take his place. Loren would have thought the rumors about Smitty's ghost would have kept some people away, but apparently the novelty of the well-known monster hunter and her elf partner running a tavern was enough to quell any fear of the ghost, and so people flocked to the tavern. Loren had no problem with that. Even if people only came just to see him and Althea, they were still paying customers, and if they had a pleasant experience – and judging from all the smiles and bouts of laughter he had seen, they certainly seemed to be doing so – they would recommend the place to their friends and business would grow.
Or so he hoped, for Althea's sake.
Loren watched for a few moments as Anju wandered through the crowd, keeping an eye on the patrons and watching for trouble. And looking for any wayward scraps of food, too, Loren guessed. Then the elf shifted his gaze to Althea.
His partner wended her way through the crowd, effortlessly moving from table to table as she made sure each customer was satisfied and collected any dirty dishes from them when they were done. Althea had originally planned to do the cooking and have Dani do the serving. But when Dani learned just how limited Althea's collection of recipies was, she took over the cooking. So Althea ended up doing the serving instead. Personally, Loren thought it was a good idea. He thought it was more appropriate for the owner to be visible to the customers instead of being shut up in the kitchen.
Loren watched as she greeted and chatted with the patrons at a table near the lit fireplace. The glow from the fire highlighted her red hair, making her long tresses almost seem like flames themselves. She had a happy, almost contented, smile on her face, and Loren could not help but smile in response. He liked seeing her smile, and it made him happy to see her happy and living her dream. He hoped she could continue to do so once everything was over, so he could see her smile like that again. And he had to admit, running a tavern was not really all that bad. It was rather relaxing, and serving food and drink to people and watching them have a good time and occasionally joining in with them felt good. I could get used to this, he thought.
Almost as if she sensed him watching her, Althea suddenly turned to look at him. Seeing him looking at her with a smile on his face, she smiled back at him. Not a teasing smile this time, but a genuine smile that left Loren staring at her, even after she turned back to her customers. The door opened, but Loren did not notice.
“She certainly seems quite happy,” a voice suddenly commented from in front of Loren.
“Yes,” Loren replied distractedly, still watching Althea. She had just gathered some dishes and was making her way around some tables to take them back to the kitchen. “Quite.”
“She looks lovely in that dress, too,” the voice added with a hint of teasing.
“Yes, quite,” Loren said, still somewhat distracted. Then he realized he was talking to someone. And then he realized what he had just said, and his face grew warm. He quickly pulled his eyes away from Althea and composed himself before turning his attention to the person talking to him. He smiled when he saw who it was. “Oh, Quinten! Hello! It's good to see you again.”
“It's good to see you, too, Loren,” said the bespectacled, brown-haired pawnshop owner.
“Hello, Quinten,” said Althea as she passed by on her way to the kitchen.
“Hello, Althea,” he said, then turned back to Loren. “Looks like business is good here, despite the ghost stories.”
Loren nodded. “It is. We've been busy all day, moreso than I had expected. Can I get you anything?”
“An ale and a bowl of stew would be great.”
“Sure.” Loren stepped into the kitchen to request the stew, then returned to the bar and fixed a mug of ale for his friend. “The stew will be out shortly,” he said as he set the mug down in front of Quinten.
“Thanks.” He took a swallow of the drink. “Ah, that's good,” he said as he set the mug down. “So, how do you like running a tavern? It's quite a change from hunting monsters, isn't it?”
“Yeah, it is. It's not bad, though. I could probably get used it. Don't tell Althea I said that, though,” he added, recalling all the fuss he had made about her buying the place and imagining the smug “I told you so” attitude she would take if she found out.
“Don't worry. Your secret is safe with me,” Quinten said with a conspiratorial smile.
The kitchen door opened and Althea walked out with a tray of bowls and plates of food. She set a bowl down in front of Quinten. “Here you go. Sorry I can't stay and chat, but you see how busy we are.”
The pawnshop owner nodded. “I understand completely. We'll talk later, if there is time.”
With a smile of thanks, Althea walked off among the sea of tables.
Quinten took a bite of stew. “This is really good. Did Althea fix it?”
Loren shook his head. “No. Horaas's daughter, Dani, did. She's our cook. Althea was going to cook, but Dani insisted on doing it instead, since she has more experience in the kitchen.”
“I see. Well, please give Dani my compliments.”
“I certainly will. Thanks.”
Some of the patrons sitting at the bar called for refills then, and Loren left his friend to his meal to tend to his barkeeping duties. He had barely gotten his customers taken care of when Althea walked up with some drink orders of her own to fill. Just as she was leaving with the drinks, the front door opened and Tarn and Raven walked in, Raven holding some clothing bundled in her arms.
While Loren and Althea had gone to prepare for the tavern's opening after breakfast, Tarn had taken Raven to his room so she could take a look at the dagger. Tarn had left it lying on the small table under the window. Raven had studied it for a few minutes, then had cast a couple of spells on it. The first had caused a blue glow to surround the dagger, and the other, a green glow. Tarn had no idea what the glows meant, but Raven had given a small nod and a slight smile, as if she had been proven right. She had then cast another, longer spell on the dagger. For a moment, nothing happened. Then a yellow light had engulfed the weapon briefly before the ruby in the pommel shattered, startling Tarn.
Once Raven had deemed the dagger safe, she and Tarn had returned downstairs, where Althea had cornered them and asked Raven to take her clothes into town for her to get them cleaned and mended. Not wanting to be in the way once the tavern opened, Raven had agreed. Tarn had opted to go with her, ostensibly to keep an eye on the mage and keep her out of mischief, but really just wanting to be out of the way as well.
Now they had returned and stood just inside the doorway, staring at the crowd.
“Wow,” said Raven as she looked around.
“I know,” Tarn replied. “I had no idea it would be this busy.”
“Welcome back, guys,” Loren called to them as he refilled the tankard of a big, burly man sitting at the bar.
“Oh, good, you're back,” Althea said, making her way between tables with a tray of dirty dishes, heading for the kitchen. “Could you take them up to my room, please, then help me and Loren for a few minutes? We didn't expect it to be this busy.”
“Sure, no problem,” said Tarn.
Raven looked less than enthusiastic about the idea, but nodded and headed for the stairs while Tarn joined Loren behind the bar.
Quinten took his leave shortly thereafter, promising to come back again soon.
The tavern remained busy all evening, requiring Tarn and Raven to continue helping out. As the night wore on, business finally began to slow down. When only a handful of patrons remained just after midnight, Althea finally called it time to close up. She was feeling worn out and, from the looks of Loren and the others, she could tell they were, too. Especially Dani, who looked like she was about to drop on the spot. Anju had already curled up by the fireplace to nap, though an occasional ear twitch told he was not fully asleep.
Once the last of the patrons had left, at Loren's stern but polite insistence, and the door had been locked, Althea and the others sat down at a table for some much-needed rest and a quick meal. Then Loren escorted Dani home, accompanied by Anju, while the others cleaned up. When Loren returned, the others had just finished cleaning and were about to retire for the night.
The foursome bid each other good night at the foot of the stairs. Althea was going to go upstairs first, and had one foot on the bottom step, when Wren's voice suddenly called out for Raven. Althea sighed tiredly and turned back around.
The group settled down at the nearest table and Raven took out the small, round mirror from the pocket of her robe. She placed it in the middle of the table then said the arcane word to display Wren's image, which was again surround by trees.
“This had better be important, Wren,” Raven said testily. “We were just about to go to bed after a long, busy day of serving food and drink.”
“I'm sorry,” the young girl said. “I know how late it is. But I wouldn't have contacted you if it wasn't really important.”
“What's so important,” Loren asked, stifling a yawn, “that it couldn't wait until morning, or until you get here?”
Wren shifted her gaze in the mirror to look directly at the elf. “A little while ago, I spotted a group of soldiers heading south toward Maarkess. I think you might know one of them, Loren, though I don't know why you would. I watched them for a while after they set up camp, and the leader spoke angrily in his sleep. One of the things he said was the name Lorenathalus. That's you, isn't it?”
Loren stared at Wren's image, dumbstruck. Althea, Tarn and Raven stared at Loren in surprise and confusion.
“Loren?” Althea asked, her voice soft and hesistant.
Loren finally found his voice and asked Wren, “What did he look like?” He was fairly certain who it was, though, but he wanted confirmation.
“He had dark hair and a beard sprinkled with grey, dark eyes, and a scar down his left cheek.”
“Just as I thought,” Loren said grimly.
“So you do know him.”
Loren nodded, a steel look in his chocolate-brown eyes that sent a shiver down Althea's back and made Tarn and Raven flinch. “General Ivan Kinski,” Loren said with more than a hint of deep-seated hatred. “I gave him that scar.”
“Is that why he called you a traitor?”
Loren paused briefly before replying, “Among other things.”
“'Among other things'?” Althea repeated. “'Traitor'? I think it's time you quit balking like you have for these past few years and explain yourself, Loren.”
Loren looked at Althea and saw the anger he heard in her voice reflected in her green eyes. But he also saw, behind the anger, hurt and disappointment. He knew why, and promised himself to do whatever he had to to make it up to her, though he had no idea if it was even possible to do so. He hoped it was, but considering what she was asking to be told, he felt that her forgiving him for not telling her sooner was a scant hope at best.
Looking his partner in the eye, Loren heaved a resigned sigh. He always knew he would end up telling her one day, no matter how much he was afraid to. He just wished it could have been under better circumstances. This was certianly not the way he would have wanted her to find out.
“Remember those silver daggers of mine that you used?” he asked her. “The one used to help pay for this pub, and the one sold to Quinten? Remember how enthusiastic he was and how rare he said it was to see one?”
“Yes,” she said hesistantly.
“They are special daggers issued specifically to members of the Assassin's Guild in Rahtzberg.” He held up his left hand, palm facing out so the others could see the very faint, thin scar in the shape of an X. “I was one of them.”
“You were an assassin for King Heinrich?” Tarn asked in surprise. Beside him, Raven just stared at the elf, speechless. Even Wren was silent.
Loren, though, only had eyes for Althea. Her reaction was all he was interested in. He watched her as he answered Tarn. “Yes. Kinski apprenticed me to the Guild when I was but a boy.”
What Loren saw in Althea's eyes was not what he had expected, and it turned his stomach to think he had caused it. He would have been happy to see anger in her eyes. Anger from her he was used to and could deal with. Even hatred or disgust would have been acceptable. But he had never thought he would see fear. And that was what he saw as she looked at him with shimmering eyes. Fear. Of him.
For a few moments, no one spoke. Then Althea pushed back her chair and stood up. “I...I don't believe it,” she said. With a tear trickling down her cheek, she turned and ran upstairs. The sound of a door slamming made those sitting at the table jump.
“I'd better go after her,” Loren said. “To try to apologize and explain.”
Tarn and Raven nodded, and Loren went upstairs after Althea.
“Well, that was certainly...unexpected,” Wren said, startling Tarn and Raven and drawing their attention back to her. “Though it explained some things, I'm sure there's more to the story. Guess we'll find out what it is later, after Althea does.”
The sound of Loren knocking on Althea's door and him pleading with her to let him in echoed down the staircase into the dining room.
“I suppose so,” said Tarn.
“There was something else I wanted to mention. Along with the soldiers, there was someone wearing dark green robes. At least, I think it was a person. He kept the cowl up all the time, and I couldn't see his face well. Anyway, he gave me a bad feeling.”
Tarn frowned. “Dark green robes, you say?”
Tarn's frown deepened. “Not good. This is not good at all.”
“Why?” Raven asked.
“That was a priest of Aerith.”
Loren knocked on Althea's door. “Althea?” he called. “Let me in, please. I want to talk to you. Please?” He could hear her crying inside, and mentally berated himself for making her cry. Getting no response from her, he knocked again. “Althea? Look, I'm sorry. I really am. This wasn't they way I would have wanted you to find out. Please, let me in so I can explain. I won't ask you to forgive me. I know I don't deserve it for keeping that from you all this time. But I want you to hear the whole story.” He waited a moment, but still got no response. “Please?” he said gently, just loud enough for her to hear, and rested his forehead against the door. “I'm so sorry. The last thing I wanted was to hurt you like this.”
In the silence that followed, he heard her stop crying, then he heard slow footsteps heading for the door. As he heard the lock turn, he lifted his head from the door.
The door opened and Althea stood there, wiping away tears and frowning at him.
“I can't believe you would keep that from me, Loren. I knew you were hiding something from your past, but I never would have expected that I had been travelling for years with one of Heinrich’s assassins. But I'll listen to your story. We've been partners for so long, I owe you that much. After that, I'll decide what to do with you.”
“Fair enough. Probably more than fair.” Actually, it was. When he saw her frown at him, he had expected her to throw him out, right then and there. “Thank you.”
Althea stepped aside and let him enter her room. Then she shut the door and sat down on the edge of her bed. An oil lamp on the desk under the window had been lit, providing a little light to see by in the dark room.
Loren stood across the room from Althea, afraid to be too close to her, given the situation. She was very upset with him at the moment, and who knew what she would do to him if he even tried to get near her. So he fought back the urge he had to sit beside her and take her hand as he explained things to her, and instead stood there, staring down into her angry green eyes.
“Well?” Althea prompted brusquely, unphased by the guilt and sorrow she saw on his sharp-featured face and in his dark brown eyes. “What's this story of yours that you're so eager for me to hear?”
Loren took a deep breath. It was time to face his fear. “When I was but a very young boy and Anju was a pup, we went for a walk in the forest with my parents, enjoying the spring afternoon. Anju ran off into the woods and I chased after him. I caught him and was on my back to the road with Anju in my arms when I heard horses, followed by screams cut short. I ran for the road. When I got there, I found a group of soldiers standing around the bodies of my parents. The soldiers would have killed me, too, if their leader hadn't called them off and told them to take me along with them instead.
“Their leader was Kinski.”
Althea's eyes widened. She had no idea something like that had happened to her partner. Loren saw dawning understanding in her eyes and nodded once before continuing his story.
“Anju and I were taken to Rahtzberg, where Kinski got Heinrich’s permission to apprentice me to the Assassin's Guild. I didn't particularly want to become an assassin, but I put up with the years of training so I could learn the skills I needed to avenge my parents.”
“So that's why you seem to act more human than elf,” interrupted Althea, who seemed to forget her anger at him as she became caught up in his story. “You practically grew up among humans, although not the best kind.”
“Right. Then, one day, the Guild decided I had successfully completed my training and was ready to undertake solo missions. They held an induction ceremony, where I was to become a full member of the Guild. That's where the X-shaped scar on my palm came from. Afterwards, I was given my first solo mission, an order from King Heinrich himself. He wanted me to kill a child in order to secure his claim on the throne for a few more years. The order angered me so much that I decided it was time to leave. But first I wanted to get my revenge on Heinrich and Kinski.
“I snuck into the castle that same night, but I ran into Kinski before I could reach Heinrich’s chambers. We fought briefly, and I managed to cut him on the cheek. But guards were already on their way, so I had to escape. I jumped out a nearby window and fled the castle grounds. Then Anju and I fled Rahtzberg and the entire Rahtz Kingdom.
“We wandered around for a while after that, taking odd jobs here and there while trying to avoid drawing the attention of the Guild, who don't take kindly to traitors. And eventually we ran across you fighting that troll in the mountains. You know what happened next.”
Althea sat, staring at Loren. She had been so engrossed in his story, it took her a few moments to realize he was done speaking and now nervously awaited her decision.
Loren anxiously shifted his weight from one foot to the other as he stood in place, wondering if she was going to send him away, as he had always feared she would once she learned of his past as an assassin. He looked in her eyes, trying to tell what she was thinking, but to no avail. The mixture of emotions he saw there was too confusing. As he continued to watch her eyes for any telltale sign of her thoughts, he could see the moment she came to a decision, and he gulped reflexively as he prepared to hear his fate.
“Why didn't you tell me this sooner?” Althea asked, her voice betraying no hint to Loren of what she might have decided.
“I was trying to protect you.”
“Yes. I sort of thought I could keep you safe by keeping you ignorant of my past as an assassin. That way, if any Guild members managed to find me, they might leave you alone, since you wouldn't know anything.”
“I see. I suppose that makes some sense. But is that your only reason?”
“Well, no,” Loren said timidly, and he felt his face grow warm at the thought of what he was about to admit to her. “I was afraid, also.”
Althea's eyes widened in surprise. “Afraid?” she asked. “Afraid of what?”
Loren took another deep breath. “I was afraid to tell you. I was afraid of how you might react when you found out I was an assassin. You know how I would balk and change the topic when you would ask me about my past? Well, each time you would ask, I would imagine you getting angry and sending me away after learning of my past, and I didn't want that to happen. You're my best friend, Althea. My only friend. That's what I was afraid of. I was afraid of losing your friendship – afraid of losing you.”
Althea made no reaction to Loren's heartfelt admission, and the elf's heart sank at the thought that he had ended up losing her, after all. “I'll go get my things, then,” he said dejectedly, and turned to leave the room.
Althea looked at him in confusion. “What? What are you talking about, Loren?”
Loren returned her look. “You're sending me away, aren't you?”
Althea's eyebrows rose in surprise. “What? Of course not! Why would you think that?”
“Well, you didn't say anything, so I thought...”
“I didn't say anything because I didn't know what to say.”
Althea walked over to Loren and looked him in the eyes. “I admit to feeling a little afraid when I first heard you were an assassin,” she told him. “And yes, I was angry and hurt that you had kept it from me for all those years. But you're my best friend, too, Loren. And you're a good partner. And after all the time we've spent together, there's no one else I would want with me. Especially now, with all that's going on.”
“Althea...” Loren said softly, and smiled. He lifted his arms, intending to hug her, but her next words stopped him and made him lower his arms.
“That doesn't mean I've completely forgiven you for not telling me about this sooner,” she said tersely. “I still intend to punish you for that. I just haven't decided how, yet.” Then she gave him a small smile and took the edge from her voice. “Now go on to bed, partner. We have a tavern to run tomorrow.”
“Yes, dear,” he quipped with a grin, happy that she was keeping him around. Whatever punishment she came up with did not matter to him. He knew he deserved it, and he would gladly suffer any punishment she handed down, so long as he could stay with her.
“A priest of Aerith?” Wren asked Tarn's image in the mirror. “Are you serious?”
“Unfortunately. And his presence among those soldiers means we can't stay here much longer.”
“Althea won't be too happy about that,” Raven said. “She's enjoying playing tavern owner.”
“I know. But don't forget, she knew this time would come, but decided to go ahead and open shop anyway.”
“Oh, yeah. You're right. She did. I remember now.”
“So, Wren, how much time do you think we have before the soldiers and priest reach Maarkess?”
Wren thought for a minute. “We're pretty close. I'd say they're two, maybe three days out. Not long.”
Tarn frowned. “You're right. That's not long at all. I doubt we could talk Althea into leaving before tomorrow. Plus we still have no idea where we need to go. Is there anything you can do to slow them down, Wren?”
“Maybe. I doubt I can buy you a lot of time, but I might be able to slow them down a little.”
“Well, it's better than nothing. Do what you can, Wren, then hurry here. We need to see that book as soon as possible.”
Wren nodded. “Right. I'll be there soon.”
She whispered a word, and the mirror went dark. She placed the mirror in the small bag on her belt, then heaved a sigh. The young girl brushed bangs of brown hair out of her face and looked up at the forest canopy above her. The branches were so think and interlocked, the night sky was hidden from sight. The small glass globe floating over her head glowed with a dim light, allowing her to see her surroundings well enough without drawing the attention of whatever might be lurking among the trees.
As she stared at the treetops, she wondered just how she was going to buy time for Tarn and the others, as she had promised. After a few minutes, a smile slowly formed on her lips as an idea came to her.
The young mage grabbed the floating bauble, and the light went out. She placed it in the small bag at her waist then hurried from the clearing and back to the road.