The young woman brought the contents of the mug to her lips. Then promptly choked.
Best known as cloudim, the steamed milk drink was always served spicy and piping hot. Gretchen had sat so long watching the dancing troupe her drink had begun to cool.
She didn’t mind too much.
These were the moments of life that she loved.
Besides, there was a chill wind blowing outside and the warm crackle of the hearth nearby made her rather lazy.
So she remained seated, even knowing her father would be disappointed.
Belphon stretched languidly out in the seat next to her, nursing his mug. His green eyes would occasionally drift to the female performers as they spun and twirled, his gaze contemplative.
“Hey Fri. Bet you a pence the red-haired one is from Patali.” He murmured to the table’s other occupant.
Fridon laughed heartily, his dark bushy beard covered in the foam of a third drink. “Nah, she’s too skinny to be from the south. That’d be the darker one. Still, me mind is set on the tall one with golden hair!”
Gretchen rolled her eyes at the discussion. “The only one either of you will be able to fight over is the one Doric doesn’t choose. Which will probably mean none of them. Regardless, Bel is right. The red-hair is definitely from Patali.”
“Aww, don’t be like that Gretchy.” Fridon nudged her shoulder roughly. “Besides, Doric isn’t even here. We can’t be beat!”
“Ya, where is the legendary hunter?” Belphon made a half-turn with his head, staring around the crowded tavern. “He never misses an evening like this.”
“Oh, he’ll be around, I’m sure.” Gretchen soured at the thought, and no longer felt quite as comfortable. Doric had been a problem for a while now. A well-known womanizer, he had tried pursuing her multiple times. He certainly wasn’t the only one.
Now that she had entered her nineteenth year, many of the village men had done their best to win her hand.
Bel and Fri were some of the few who didn’t even try. They had all grown up together and were as close as the rest of Gretchen’s siblings. Her older sister Temi had been the pretty housewife, all prepared for a family and kids. Her younger brothers didn’t have to think about a family yet, which just left her.
She’d been the one to take up the workload of the farm after Kadon left for the city. Her father had been disappointed when his eldest son left but had struggled on regardless. Wheat and maze would not grow itself. Together, the two of them had made ends meet. It was one of the reasons her father had not pushed her into leaving to start her own family.
Then Salvie came along. Her father had fallen in love with the traveling singer and had somehow convinced the woman to marry him.
By the time her step-brothers arrived into the world, the farm was considered one of the most successful in the valley. The value of hard work, her father always said.
And now she was past normal marrying age, and no man in the valley besides Doric would even try.
One hand under her chin, Gretchen watched the dancers finish their performance and pondered her future. It wasn’t that she didn’t want a family someday. She just hadn’t met the right man. And she was adventurous! Well, she wanted to have adventures. She just hadn’t been given very many opportunities growing up.
The Salvie came into their lives, telling stories of vast lush forests to the south, clinging to the side of mountains that rose beyond the clouds. And giant oceans surrounding the entire country, where creatures of the deep roamed and preyed upon unlucky sailors.
And what of the faraway kingdoms, were it was whispered races other than humans dwelt in hidden sanctuaries? Where lived the elves and dwarves, gnomes and orcs? Were there really cruel demons that screamed far below the earth? And did the floating cities built of gold and jewels host powerful angels?
What about the rest of the world?
Salvie had many stories, but even she had only ever lived in the kingdom of Daeton. Gretchen wanted to know if such places were true, if they really existed!
So no, she hadn’t gotten married. She did dream though. Just like Salvie, a man would come through the village of Bluthown, and he would be magnificent! Tall and broad-shouldered. Strong features. Black hair. Sharp blue eyes.
He would see her and know. Know she was his, and he was hers. Together, they would leave the farmlands behind. They would travel the world and explore every mystery, every lost secret and hidden ruin. Their love would be eternal. Immortal. All who heard of them would bow in respect. Their fame would spread beyond the seas, the stars, and even the…
Her elbow was abruptly knocked off the table, and she barely caught her balance before falling. Bel was grinning ear to ear, and Fri was holding his shaking belly as laughter pealed out. Embarrassed, Gretchen chugged the rest of the drink. The furious coughing that followed helped disguise her red cheeks.
“Well boys, that’s enough for me. I’d better get home before it gets any later.”
“Awww.” Fri tried to hold her with one arm, his belly still rolling a bit. “Don’t be like that Gretchy, it was just some fun.”
“Ya, I didn’t mean to hurt your timid feelings or anything.” Bel was still grinning.
“Oh sod off. I’m serious. I’m already late as it is. You guys can stay and get mopped, but don’t forget to be in the east pasture two marks past sunrise. We’ve got to finish getting that grain off the ground or it will rot. Be there.” She smiled to take the edge off her voice and slipped loose from Fri’s grip. She did care for them. And knew they felt the same.
Gretchen began to wind her way across the tavern floor, pausing to drop a few copper pence into the small basket at the front of resting trope. She exchanged light pleasantries with the dancing girls and dropped a few hints about the boys in the corner table, just to make up for her early departure. She also confirmed that, yes, the red-haired girl was indeed from Patali.
Lastly, she bid a hasty goodeve to Bijok the tavern owner and his wife Glenoa while backing towards the front entrance. Glenoa could talk your ear off if you let her and Gretchen wasn’t really in the mood tonight.
The tavern door slammed open behind her, prompting Gretchen to move aside as Doric loudly pronounced his entrance.
“Bring me the best ale in the house tavernkeep, for I have hunted a rare beast and survived to tell the tale!”
Rolling her eyes at his over-exaggerated antics, Gretchen waited for Doric to pass by her.
He didn’t. Instead, he turned and looked her up and down. “My my, hasn’t little Gretchy filled out a bit! What say you darling, want to hear my tale of bravery and valor?”
“Those are the same things, idiot.”
Doric looked a bit taken aback by her sharp tongue but quickly recovered.
“Of course I know that, for it took twice the bravery to accomplish this heroic endeavor!”
Gretchen squinted her eyes at his clothing. “Did this heroic event involve rolling in cow dung?”
Now she had done it. His eyes sharpened in anger, but his tongue stayed as glib as ever. “You see, I found and fought the Dire Wolf hunting our herds. The ensuing battle covered much terrain. Hahaha!”
This provoked quite a few responses in the tavern crowd, most clamoring for evidence of his tale. Doric continued to keep his eyes on Gretchen but reached up to the large pack around his shoulders. A quick tug on the straps, followed by the thud of a heavy skin hitting the floor.
Drat. Gretchen had thought his tale a falsehood. But there was the evidence in front of all, in the form of a massive gray wolf pelt. She hadn’t realized his pack was anything other than traveling gear, as he had purposefully hidden the pelt under his tent canvas.
Sighing, she met his gaze. “Fine, you found the dire wolf. Doesn’t mean you killed it.”
A twitch of his eyes, imperceptible to most in the tavern, but enough evidence that she knew her guess was correct. Gretchen turned away, heading towards the door even as many of the villagers gathered around the bloody wolf pelt.
In a sudden flash, Doric’s hand had grasped her arm, much tighter than Fri had earlier. His face pulled close to her own; close enough that she could smell the alcohol on his breath.
Barely above a murmur, his lips moved beside her ear. “You continue to vex me, girl. I’ll have you know I plan to ask your father’s approval after this. I have no doubt what his answer will be. Then you won’t have anywhere to run to, and I’ll be able to taste what no other man has.”
Furious, Gretchen jerked out of his grasp. His gaze met her own and she could see his intent plainly across his face. Then he took a step back, giving her a wink before turning away to laugh at the surrounding patrons.
“Patience, patience my friends! Allow me a moment to drink and let my feet up, then I will be more than happy to tell you my tale!”
She snarled, clenching her fists in anger. How dare he?!
Across the floor, she could just make Bel and Fri, half risen from their table with worried looks. Shaking her head at them, she signaled them to sit back down. No point in causing a ruckus now. It would only make Doric appear even higher in the eyes of the townsfolk.
Talyion gag it, she hated that man.
Pushing her way outside, Gretchen stopped to take a breath of the crisp night air. It was refreshing, and helped to wash away the feeling of Doric’s aura. Her eyes remained closed for a minute, then with a sigh, she shook it off and stepped down onto the dirt road. It was a long walk home.
Right now, she needed it.