Rienne held a kerchief to her face, her other hand draping emptily at her side. The small cloth was moist with her tears, though she’d stopped crying now, and was only trying to avoid breathing the dead’s air. This accursed plague had claimed many lives, and she was determined to not add her own name to that ever-lenghtening list. Normally, she wouldn’t even attend the funerals, but today was an exception.
Her voice trembled and her hands shook as she stumbled through the eulogy, delivered to the half-dozen assembled in the rainy cemetary. Not many knew Adlai all that well, and fewer still would miss him, but he’d been a good friend to her. Both of them being elves, he’d felt an initial kinship with her, and had given her a job, and grown close to her and her family in the many years she’d worked for him. He’d died without any kin left to mourn his passing, so Rienne only saw it fitting that she be there to watch over his funeral.
As Rienne had expected, Adlai left the alehouse to her. She’d worked there for almost seven decades, and was running the place by the time Adlai first fell ill. When she returned to it later that day, however, despite Adlai having been redundant and unnecessary for a long time now, it felt empty without him there. As she’d done countless times before, she lit the wall sconces, turned around the ‘closed’ sign to ‘open,’ and began heating the stove and oven.
It had been a dark day, and Rienne didn’t expect any of the townsfolk to come out of their homes for her food. Likewise, travel had waned these last few weeks, and she’d been lucky to see any new faces lately. So when the door-bell jingled not an hour after her opening, it startled her.
“Just make yourself comfortable, I’ll be right out,” she called out from the kitchen. She tossed a handful of herbs into the stew she was brewing, then headed for the main room. She stepped out from the back while wiping her hands on her apron, speaking as she did. “I’ve got stew on the stove, and bread’ll be out of the oven shortly. I can also muster up some better fare, if you’re in the mood for—” She stopped speaking abruptly, frozen in her steps as her eyes finally fell upon her patron.
The man was unusually tall, even for an elf, and was draped in green traveler’s clothes, punctuated by occasional spots of black leather at the left shoulder, chest, and forearms. His short-cropped brown hair was dry, though the hood he’d now pulled back slowly dripped rainwater to the floor. His face, like hers, hid his true age, and its sharp, angular features had long since grown familar to her; a face she’d steadily grown to recognize and find comfort in. Her Traveler.
“Traveler,” Rienne began, surprised at seeing him. “I wasn’t expecting you. You don’t normally pass through until winter.”
The Traveler shrugged, then gestured over his shoulder towards the rough weather outside, cocking an eyebrow as he did. Rienne wasn’t sure of his exact meaning, but had grown familiar enough with his gestures to get the general idea.
“Yeah,” she agreed, her thoughts wandering to Adlai. “My plans changed, too.” She shook her head, regaining her composure. “Where are my manners? Let me take your cloak. Please, sit.” She gestured towards the nearest table, and reached towards the Traveler’s shoulders for his cloak. He let her remove it, but she was surprised to see a quiver of black-fletched arrows hiding beneath it, strung across his shoulder. “I didn’t know you were a hunter,” she said as she hung the soggy cloak near the warm hearth. “I don’t think I’ve seen you with a weapon before.”
The Traveler smirked as he sat, meeting her gaze.
“Yes, I suppose there is much I don’t know of you,” she agreed. She came around to the side of the table opposite him, and leaned gently against one of the chairs. “The usual, then?”
The Traveler looked thoughtful for a moment, then sniffed the air. A broad grin spread across his face, and he patted his stomach.
“It’s just stew, you know. Nothing exciting about it at all.” When he just continued grinning, however, she gave in. “Okay, one bowl of stew, coming up.”
She’d long since gotten used to her mute Traveler, as he’d been a bi-yearly regular for longer than she’d worked here. Always visiting once in summer and once in winter, he’d quickly developed a rapport with Rienne, and she’d likewise grown fond of him just as fast. The two were as good of friends as any in Cinderfell, and, despite their infrequent meeting schedule, she trusted and loved him like family.
Rienne returned from the kitchen a few minutes later, laden down with a large bowl of piping-hot stew and a basket of oven-fresh bread. The Traveler smiled like a child as she placed the food in front of him, and he set into it like a starved beast. After a moment of stuffing his face, he looked around at the empty alehouse, then up at Rienne with a quizzical look.
“Nope, you’re the only one here,” she replied, glumly. “Probably for the rest of the day, the way things have been going.”
He gestured towards the soup bowl in front of him, then at the seat opposite him.
Rienne was about to protest, but her stomach growled in opposition of her stance before she could get a word out. “Oh, alright,” she muttered, and turned towards the kitchen. “I guess it couldn’t hurt.”
“No, I never did know my father,” Rienne began, leaning back in her chair. The Traveler sat opposite her, their empty bowls resting on the table between them. “I actually never met either of my parents. Did you?”
The Traveler winced, and looked away, then back at her with an almost pleading face.
“Yeah, I know. It was a different time, then. Technically I was born under Solis Umbra, but I don’t remember any of it. All of my memories are here.” She gestured around the alehouse, and out the window. “Whoever my parents were, they didn’t care enough to watch me grow up.”
At that, Rienne thought she saw something in the Traveler’s eye, but he looked away before she could be sure. He hung his head for a moment, then looked back up, meeting her gaze. Whatever she thought she saw was gone now, replaced by a look of reassurance. He lifted his eyebrows, and gestured with his head towards the kitchen.
“Well, actually,” Rienne began, surprised this hadn’t come up earlier. “Adlai passed last night. We had his funeral this morning.”
The Traveler leaned back at that, his eyes vacant, as if trying to take in too much at once. After a moment, he leaned foward, and placed his hand on hers.
Rienne let a grin tug at the corner of her mouth. “Thanks, Traveler.” She let the silence linger for a moment before speaking again. “He was a good man, and cared for me. I’m going to miss him.”
The Traveler leaned back again, pulling his hand back and folding it with its twin, across his stomach. He nodded silently, then looked into Rienne’s eyes.
She smiled a bit, glad for the opportunity to speak on something positive. “They’re well, they’re all well, thank the Light. Marcus and I actually just bought a plot outside of town, where he’ll have the room to start keeping more horses.”
The Traveler raised his eyebrows and smiled, tilting his head as he did.
“Yeah, she’s well, too. For the first time, I’m thankful that she didn’t take that job in Ibygya. I wouldn’t do well, fearing I’d lost my baby girl.” She let her eyes travel to his. “I wouldn’t make far it without her.”
And there it was again. A glimmer of something in his gaze, something he’d never shown her before. He didn’t pull away this time, and his breathing got shallow as his eyes started to shimmer. He wanted her to see it, this time. He was saying something to her, but for the first time in decades, she couldn’t hear him. These words were foreign, and unfamiliar, and she scrambled in her mind as she raced against what appeared to be growing emotion within him. She was about to give in, to shout that she couldn’t understand, but then she remembered where she’d seen that look before.