Chapter Ten: At the Eonóll Inn

There was once beauty here. Here, where the leaves mete and dole light across the clearing, kissing the shingles of the Eonóll Inn with autumn hues. Where the grasses sprout sparse across the dirt and the remnants of a brook trails through the yard, and in its wake stones hunker to the bed. Where a well sags into the earth, and beside it a tree sets roots that slither up through the path leading to the door, throwing over cobblestones. Had there been beauty still, one might have caught the scent of candles from the open windows, or perhaps the smoke of the hearth spooling up out of the red-brick chimney. But there is no scent, and there is no smoke—only the dry stench of dead earth and the whisperings of water, faint and sweet, from a brook that can only be heard.

It is as the Paroeken would have called it in their windswept northern halls, when the snows slept upon the walls so high one could not but drag skins and furs out from a chest and coil around the hearth, cupping mugs for warmth—there, they would have called it pakhí, the majesty of transience, the holy little moments as a flower wilts and its petals drift down to the snow. They have another name for it, if one walks south into the riverlands. If a landsknecht stumbled away from battle, a spear wound dribbling his life out onto the grass behind him, and if he crumpled as a paper doll into the waters of a river, with the light rolling along the water’s surface, casting motes across the stones underneath—then, he would dream of an shéull an chólachnoll, the life of the world. He would think of his wife, and he would think of his mother, and he would think then of his daughter and hers, and how all permutations of love and flesh fall to dust. And in the south, below the Shóroll Strait, they might usher you under the shadow of a red rock, with the sands howling over the dunes, and show you something within you there: muzdjau veze en hairen, fear in a handful of dust. The awe of seeing one’s world hiss away into ash. It is that which one witnesses, standing on the promontory above the sea and wondering whether there was a time when one could catch a glimpse of the other side.

That is what I saw in this inn, standing in the clearing with it, long after the cheers and cries of the tourney behind me had given way to the burbling of the brook which wound just out of sight. What I saw resided in the beams bowing along western walls. It was in the sour-sweet smell of rot along the eaves. There was a well there, but I did not need to draw it up to know that it had long run dry. And the air had stiffened, quieting the wind to little more than a memory. I stood there for a time, sensing but not knowing. The air dragged fingers across my arms, tickling at the hairs. And the whispers in the woodwork searched for someone to hear. There was once beauty here.

I pressed a hand to the door. It would have once been worthy of greater description—a slab of oak, surely from this very clearing, fitted with iron embellishments and a knob in the shape of a fist, whose leftmost finger wore a ring fitted with a bit of quartz. That would have been brought back from the strait, had I to guess, and the iron from just west. It was cool to touch, as I dragged my fingers along the upper beam. Initials peeked, half-hidden behind the door frame, just above my head: ES. And below, wrought in strands of iron, twisted and bound to the door by weary rope, was the word, ‘Nashna,’ in a tongue I could not name.

You are old, aren’t you? I whispered to the wood. How long has it been?

Too long.

A woman stood several paces behind, cleaning her fingers with a rag. Red hair sprouted from her bun, and an unruly curl perched behind her ear, dancing as she jimmied the rag in her waistband and propped her hands on her hips. She wore the apron of an innkeep, but her boots were those of one who worked a sty. In truth, she eluded easy description, though her eyes—no, they were easily put: a pair of black pearls caught in a sea of white. She arched her brows, after a moment, and I proffered my hands.

I would say you look guilty, she said, but you don’t seem to have a bad bone in your body. What brings you around here, outlander?

I’m looking for someone.

He ain’t here.

I don’t… I pressed my lips. How do you know who I’m after?

You think people slink around here looking for anyone else? She blew out a laugh and nodded to the door. You’re better off going after the Grey Hunter, or maybe Vakyrve T’ver herself. You’re not gonna find him.

I don’t follow. I was told he went by the name of Sóro in these parts.

He goes by Sóro in every part, she said. I told you, he…

He’s here then?

You’d better get going.

I haven’t come all this way just to turn away at the door. And who are you?

Who am I? The woman smirked. I’m his wife. The name is Édara.

Ténai, I said, pressing a hand to my chest. I hadn’t realized….

She must have read my puzzlement in my eyes, for she strode forward and reached past me to open the door. You obviously don’t know as much about him as you think you do. But you’re right, she continued. I can’t stop you. But if you so much as lay a hand on him. I swear on all that is holy in this world, I will make you wish you hadn’t.

I let her tug the door open, then followed after. I’m a chronicler, not a killer.

You’re a stranger. And a foreigner at that.

The main room of the inn was divided near in half, the fore dedicated to a hearth, tables and chairs, and what I assumed in better days might serve as a space for dancers, if ever the occasion arose. Now, it was decorated with a fine layer of dust, which seemed to sag the bricks of the fireplace in towards the coals. Édara tossed a few logs in and stoked the flames back up to a crackle, then bid me sit in one of the chairs beside it. She crumpled into the chair across from mine. Her arms draped over their rests, and I noticed she had a series of tattoos slithering down her arms in the ornate characters of the southwestern tongue of Nychiour.

You’re not a local either, I said, beckoning. A long way from home?

Not quite as far as you, she said. You’re not the first chronicler to come to our door, you know. Not even the second.

I steepled my fingers. The warmth of the fire seeped up through the soles of my boots, which I’d propped upon the lip of stone beneath the logs. Glancing up, I noted the criss-cross beams above which met with the back half of the inn. It was, as I have said, split in two; to the left of the bar, a series of stairs carried one up to a second floor which was connected to this main hall by a balcony overlooking the space where we now sat. A rocking chair groaned back and forth before the rails. And above that, another stairway led up to what I assumed to be the living spaces of the innkeep and his family. There is a breadth to old houses. A sort of openness that seems to come as the walls settle into the foundation and learn to shoulder the burden of the roof. I felt that here, in the nibble of dust on the air and the subtle warmth.

The innkeep, I said, I was told he allows you to stay here.

Édara drew her lips tight and narrowed her eyes. Something like that. Tell me, chronicler. How far west have you been in your travels?

I’ve not passed the Meye Strait, barely over the Véosá for that matter.

A pity.

I dragged my hand along my arm. You were going to ask after Nychiour. You’re from there, aren’t you? At a nod from Édara, I drew back into my memories in search of something to report. You can imagine how the war is treating them. But then again, no worse than it is treating us all.

And Saymon?

I tried to hide my pity, but her eyes were sharp. Édara waved a hand. It is fine, she said. You do not need to say. I was only wondering. It is to be expected, times being what they are. One can only hope for a little pain.

We nodded in unison a moment, staring at the flames.

You made the door then, I said. The initials….

Édara én Saymon. She smiled to herself, staring at her tattoos as they glistened in the firelight. We all go by new names, here, I suppose.

And Khal, he….

Sóro. Édara clenched her armrests. As her voice returned, she lifted a hand to knead her brow. He goes by Sóro. Please, you can’t know what it’s like for him. He is not the one you’re looking for. Not anymore.

I only wish to speak to him. To hear his story. I’m not here to get him back on the path.

I’ll bring him down, she said, but remember….

I’m only here to listen.

Then listen to me. Édara prodded a finger at me. There are things you think you know. You do not. He is old. He is tired. I have worked harder than you can understand to keep him with us, to keep him safe. And if you bring back that pain, he— She clenched her jaw and turned away, not enough to hide as she smeared tears across her cheeks. He is not the one in your stories. But he will hate himself for that. And I love him, and I cannot lose him. Not to your tales. Not to himself. So you can ask your questions, but know that if you turn over the wrong stones, if you uproot what has been so carefully laid, you will kill him. Do you understand? Tell me you understand.

I do. I offered a hand, and Édara rested hers within my palm. I cupped her fingers and met her gaze, trying to impart some honest expression of sympathy. I will do all that I can to help you both.

Thank…. But a sob broke off her words, and she hid her head in her hands a moment before rising from her chair. Édara stepped about the tables and chairs, gestured into one of the side rooms, then made her way up the stairs and out of sight, into the living quarters on the third floor. From another room, the innkeep stepped back out.

I moved to rise, but he wagged a hand at me. Stay, stay. I’ll bring something over.

As he wormed his rag into a cup and set about pouring out a pitcher of ale, I studied the various decorations across the walls. Two paintings sat on either side of the fireplace, though I could not recognize their subjects; the first, a middle-aged man with a mustache that might put the old lords to shame, his right hand propped upon his hip beside a saber and a pendant of gold. It was something out of a king’s hall, truth be told, and I scribbled a note in my journal to ask after its origin.

The second was—well, upon closer inspection, it looked like Édara. I grew a wry grin, inspecting the tight coat of her homeland, a high-collared thing that seemed to strangle its wearer, and the way she had rolled up her sleeves to reveal the tattoos that crawled up and out of sight. To my knowledge, they might have covered her from the neck down, save her hands and feet, though my knowledge of their customs was embarrassingly slim. Of her hair though, I knew enough to take note. Here, it was black as slate. Swathes of oil paint were dabbed with streaks of blonde, and the roots were paling yellow along her scalp. An interesting situation, I noted in my journal. There is more to her than I thought.

And between them, propped on two pegs set into the brickwork, a sword sat above its own sheath. It too defied description: a curving blade, black as obsidian, with a series of golden etchings running along its length. The sheath wore a pommel of pearl and a guard with two devilish prongs. I’ve heard of this, I thought, but I’d best leave my questions for later, much later.

After a time, the bartender hurried over and planted a mug of ale in my lap.

Thank you, I said. You wouldn’t happen to know when they’ll be down?

Only a moment longer, he said. Oh, and there’s a bed if—

I’ll take it, I said, burying a coinpurse in his hand. And consider this payment for the ale as well. I’ve heard good things about you.

Well, then I won’t stay around. I would hate to ruin your impression.

I kept a light grip upon his wrist as he pulled away, back towards the bar. I do have a couple questions, if you don’t mind.

For me? I hardly think…. But there was a sparkle in his eye, and he smothered a grin in his hand as he took the seat across from me. Oh well, what harm, I suppose. What is it, chronicler? Here to ask after my tales of cunning and charm?

Not quite. I mirrored his smile. I was just wondering—well, I was told you gave them room and board here. I was curious how that happened.

Dear me, it’s been a while, he said. It was my wife, really. She persuaded me. Met them at one of the Tidings Festivals, actually, and begged me to let them stay. She’s no longer with us, but I appreciate their company. Édara is such a kind woman. And Sóro…. I would be a wicked man to turn them out.

It is very kind. I took a sip of my ale and set it on the floor beside my chair. What is Sóro’s affliction, if you would call it that?

The innkeep held up his hands. I don’t know if I should say, really. He’s only a bit weary, I suppose. Spread thin, as Édara puts it. Doesn’t see things the way he used to. I really shouldn’t say much more.

That’s fine, I said, but thank you. This does help.

I’m only glad I could be of service. He clapped his knees, then began to stroll back to the bar. Something struck him halfway there, and he wheeled about. The name is Liam, by the way. And you?

I shared a laugh. You can call me Ténai.

Ténai, yes, that is a good name.

Liam hurried back to the bar and return to his business. I sat beside the hearth a while longer, waiting to meet the one they called Sóro.