"Yorren claims to be a bit of a weather seer." Tisolde rolled her eyes as if that was the only action needed to show her thoughts on the matter. "Says it's goin' to be a long, cold winter. Now I'm not one to be feeling all…pessi…pesm—"
"The word you're looking for is pessimistic, my dear," Rannoch chirped helpfully from the table. Arraevn tried not to be too distracted by the steady sound of wood being sheared away. The bard had been working at a lengthy piece the entire morning and refused to tell anyone what he was on about. The curls were piling well up to his ankles.
"That's the one! I'm not one to be pessimistic, but better to be safe than sorry. So more wood dealings for you today, Master Arraevn. You'll take a sled out to Fann, come back with a load, and then more chopping. Is that suiting your temper?" She asked brightly.
"Just fine." He tried to smile at her; she was such a helpful girl. "But I…don't know the way."
Rannoch started laughing before cursing loudly and flinging his knife to the floor along with a couple drops of blood. Arraevn moved to go help, but Tisolde stopped him with a look. "Naught but his own fault. Now dress yourself up and take Yorren's gloves. Yes, those ones. Follow me—this a way."
Trailing after her, Arraevn wrapped his cloak tighter around himself as they stepped out. The air was clear, and cold enough to hurt his throat with every breath. Yet Tisolde walked before him, without a cloak or coat of any type. She seemed completely unbothered. The memories said she was a marvel of a women and should be seduced and bedded promptly. Karst had thought too frequently of such things in Arraevn's opinion.
There was a small trail of pounded snow that wove past the backyard's gate and toward the tree-line. Tisolde pointed to it and said, "Just follow that quick as you please. You'll be to Fann's in no time at all." A cloud of breath puffed over her slight grin. "I'll have ready a mug of my mother's honeyed milk when you get back. Just the thing to warm the stomach on a day like this."
Arraevn nodded and realized she didn't know he would be leaving with the bard. He didn't want to tell her, though couldn't understand why. The memories were no help with the matter.
With a small tap on the shoulder, Tisolde was away in a swirl of skirts. Arraevn watched her vanish into the inn with a shiver, before bending to grab the rope of the sled and starting on his way. The air was full of motes of ice the sparkled in the sun, and the freeze clinging to the trees made them appear covered in sugar. Despite the cold, Arraevn felt the magical scenery lightening his step. He'd seen such beauty before, but the different perspective made it seem anew. The world seemed so much smaller.
Arraevn was finally alone since that first awful night. Though guilt skittered on the edge of his thoughts like a hungry coyote, he took the opportunity to breath. The memories told him he shouldn't be smiling at the small nimbus of rainbow surrounding every snowflake, but there was no human there to witness his joy. The memories could…'sod off' as Rannoch would put it.
Across a little bridge slicked in ice, he heard the sounds of his own kind. It was a lone she-raven that 'laughed' and played in the snow. She might have been one of the flock present at the battleground feast and was now moving on her way. Arraevn couldn't help but call back with vocal chords now unsuited to bird 'speech'.
She stopped as he crested the bridge, and he saw the riverbank she'd been rolling down. The raven cocked her head as she looked at him and let out a querying call. Arraevn answered, which only confused her more. But she didn't fly away as he came closer. Flapping her wings a couple of times, she hopped on the bridge railing and watched him cautiously.
A healthy, pretty thing. He held out a hand to her and tried his best to warble a comforting greeting. If this was her territory he was wrong to trespass, but for a bird so young and unmated that didn't seem likely.
To his surprise, she jumped on his glove and cawed another confused question. The answer was too complex—too human for such simple speech, so Arraevn remained silent. She grew bored with that, and walked up to stand on his shoulder. As he continued to walk, her beak picked through the feathers of his cloak, obviously curious. Arraevn just hoped she didn't think it was made of many, many dead ravens.
She obviously didn't, and eventually moved on to fiddle with his clothes and hair before riding in the sled while making delighted warbles. They came to a hilltop, and Arraevn stared down the gentle slope before glancing back at the sled. After a moment of consideration he sat down on it, startling the raven.
She stared at him from a nearby branch before he called for her to join him. It took a few moments, but she eventually relented and perched on his shoulder. A few shoves of his hands to either side, and they were sailing down the hill.
The bird squawked at him in surprise and fluttered away to a tree as the sled came to a stop. Arraevn laughed freely, falling over awkwardly and holding his side as it felt so strange. The laughter was like lancing a wound that had festered too long—a release. He also hadn't played—hadn't even wanted to—since he'd become a human. It felt so good and light.
Rising, still shaking with lingering chuckles, Arraevn thanked the bird in a very human way before continuing along the path. To his surprise, she followed.
Fann was an older, taciturn man who shrugged and grunted something when Arraevn delivered Tisolde's message. The woodcutter didn't even seem to mind the raven watching them as they piled two sleds high and then started back.
The hill he'd slid down gave Arraevn pause, but Fann started up it with nary a complaint, and the memories said that if an old man could do it—Arraevn had to do it better. This was stupid as all people were better at some things than others, but the urging was so strong Arraevn couldn't go against it. Karst must have been a miserable man if he had lived his life that way.
Panting and with icicles of sweat clinging to their faces, the two men arrived at the inn and quickly began to unload the wood into a pile for chopping. Tisolde must have heard the noise, for she came out and invited Fann to come in for some lunch. The woodcutter refused, and was away as soon as they were done.
Tisolde pursed her lips as she peered into the trees. "We have a raven watching us, as if all Rannoch's talk brought it here."
"Ah." Arraevn turned and there she was. "She… It kept me company along the way. If I could give her—it some of my lunch I hope that wouldn't be taken as an insult."
A frown began to form before Tisolde laughed. "Such a strange man! But I won't be letting any choice bits go to no bird. You come along inside and I'll get it some pig scraps if you insist. Come on, scrape the frost off."
Shivering and wiping at a runny nose, Arraevn sat down across from Rannoch who was still working on his carving. After a moment's pause, he said, "What about your story? I would have thought you need continue writing."
The bard paused and raised an eyebrow. Then a grin crossed his face and he tapped a temple. "All up here, the rest is just for show."
Tisolde snorted as she passed by. Arraevn was pleased to see she carried a bowl of stringy cuts that would have gone to the chickens. Better to a raven than chickens any day. The false knight snuffled more, hoping his thawed nose would stop running soon. What an annoyance.
The bard glanced up again before sighing and digging in a pocket. After a moment, a bright yellow square of cloth emerged and was handed over. "Here. Keep it."
"Thank you." Arraevn dabbed a moment before simply holding it in place. The cloth smelled of dust and a scent distinctly belonging to Rannoch. The memories had no knowledge of such fineries except the perfumed ones rich women had when they walked crowded streets in the height of summer. Arraevn's nostrils flared at that. The dung and unwashed bodies had never bothered him before, but even the faint scent buried in Karst's memories was more than enough.
After a few moments, Rannoch asked, "Hold out your arm. Yes, straight like that." He compared the length to his slowly forming carving.
Arraevn realized with a start that it was shaping out to be a sheathed sword.
A glitter lit up the bard's eye as he noticed. Pulling it back to work on some finery around the hilt, he said, "It won't be confusing anyone from up close—that's to be sure—but a knight without a sword is a bard without a tongue. The mere thought was so wrong I could hardly stand it."
Tisolde had returned indoors, and called out from where she was knocking snow off her boots. "What's this about missing tongues? Can I hope our bard has misplaced his?"
With a dismissive wave, Rannoch shook his head. "Nay, you may never be so fortunate. But what do you think? Should I paint it or leave the wood naked?"
A confused smile crossed her face as she set the empty bowl down. "You aren't like to finish before you leave. It's a kind thought, but—"
"What? Oh I'll finish along the way. The knight's coming with me."
The secret was out and Arraevn flinched, fearing how she would react. But Tisolde's eyes just widened in the space afterwards, and then she nodded to herself. "Right you are. Silly of me to think otherwise… Well, I'll be sure to have something nice prepared for tonight."
She vanished back into the kitchen, and Arraevn felt mounting anxiety as he buried his face in his hands. The memories told him it was because he had lied to a woman by omission, something Karst had done many a time. He had been trying so hard to be entirely unlike the man whose heart he'd eaten…but it wasn't working.
"She'll probably be asking you to bed then."
Rannoch continued working, no longer bothered by Arraevn's lack of knowledge. A small smile formed on the bard's face. "Men like us—travellers and scoundrels—our seed once spilled is no longer our own. A woman with a babe from a man like that can claim it with no need of marriage. Dear Tis has been trying since last I came to Heedra Fell."
"I'm not sure I understand."
Rannoch sighed and put the knife down. "It's really not so complicated. Yorren is her uncle and has no children. If Tis has a baby all her own, she'll need not share ownership of the inn with any other. It will be hers alone."
"Oh…I don't think I could…"
"Shy in bed are we?" A malicious twist infused the bard's smile. This was a horrid offence, but Arraevn didn't care. He was too busy scrambling for an excuse.
"I…I took a vow."
Rannoch looked away, suddenly thoughtful. "Did you now? I suppose…"
The room was a riot of noise and alcohol. Arraevn had tried to fade into the background, but the townspeople were determined to have a 'proper' sendoff for the visiting bard. How the false knight had been forced into that he was unsure.
Tisolde weaved through the crowd, the tray she carried not entirely steady. Even the serving girl had partaken heavily of the brew. She thunked the pitcher on the table, the mead dripping over the edge. To Arraevn's shock, she slung an arm around his shoulders and purred, "How old are you then, Master Arraevn?"
"…How old do you think I am?" he hedged, unwilling to give his true age of four years even in jest.
She squinted, and her face moved closer to his. "Not yet five and twenty…no, younger than I first thought. Your nose and brow make you seem older." A finger lightly traced the supposedly distinctive facial bones
Arraevn shrugged as the men around began to howl like rabid animals. Something was happening and he wasn't sure what until Tisolde took his hand and said loudly, "I'm needing some help. Come along."
Their shouts were unbearable as Arraevn went white and meekly followed after. This was just one more thing to disappoint her with. It was completely unfair considering all Tisolde's kindnesses and patience…but he couldn't. He'd been human for three days—not nearly enough time to be ready to mate with one.
The noise was somewhat muffled as she drew him back to the little corner of the kitchen where she had a bed, shelf, and chest. She sat them down on it, and pulled a faded pink curtain closed so the light was dim and warm. Tisolde giggled and held his hand, playing with the long fingers.
"I know you're thinking me too bold."
Arraevn swallowed. "Not at all."
She nodded. So many wispy curls had escaped their bindings and shivered every time she moved her head. "You know what I need then?" Tisolde was moving closer, unlacing the bindings on her blouse.
Arraevn was nearing panic as he moved away. "I do, but I'm…afraid—sorry I can't give it to you. I took a vow."
The woman's face crumpled and she bowed her head. "I see. Not to stay, not to bed. Just a knight passing through." Softly, she began to shake. Arraevn feared sobs, but after a moment he saw Tisolde was laughing.
"Oh Master Arraevn! Better this way to be sure!" She looked at him with a bright smile. "I like you just the way you are. Polite and proper and even chaste. I'm completely smitten."
"Then you're not cross with—"
She wrapped him in a sudden, tight embrace. "Of course not…if you promise to come visit after you've done your wanderings."
"I promise." Arraevn's eyes burned.
"Then that's that!" Tisolde pulled away and wiped at her face. "Now, we can't just go out there as is." She ran a hand through her hair messily and bit down on her lips while slapping her cheeks. Mischievously, she peered at the knight from under her lashes. In a sudden movement, she'd locked their lips together and sucked hungrily. She tasted only of the mead she'd drunk, and Arraevn hadn't even the time to react before she pulled away.
With a laugh, she brushed his own hair. "Bright red! You'll have to forgive me Master Arraevn, the look on your face was worth any rejection. Now we'll just wait a little while longer and I'll give you back pride intact."
They talked for a time of the things Tisolde would have to do on the morrow, and her hopes for the adventures he'd have following Rannoch. Arraevn didn't mention he hoped no such adventures occurred, and instead laughed softly. Tisolde took his hand again after that.
"I'm glad I got to hear that before you left. But time enough has passed."
They emerged into wild calls that were possibly louder than the first set had been. Tisolde waved a hand over her face as if she were too hot and Arraevn blushed deeply. The serving girl held her hand up for quiet, which only worked to a certain degree.
"Master Arraevn, your efforts were more than satisfactory." She gave him a secret smile and winked. "But before I'm too tired to lift my head, there's one more task for a bard's clever hands."
They erupted again as Rannoch downed his mug and tossed his hat to another. The bard gave Arraevn a shrewd smile as he passed—not fooled in the slightest. The knight tried to escape up the stairs after that, but the townspeople wouldn't let him. They dragged him back and demanded stories while the bard was away. Arraevn tried his best, but they soon grew bored of his manner and told the same tales they told every night.
"With that the bar is closing!" Rannoch announced as he stepped back into the common room looking no less dishevelled. "Our fair lady has departed for the night—thanks to some clever hands—and this bard has energy enough for one last song."
If Arraevn had believed in the human gods he would have sincerely thanked them as Rannoch took to a table with his instrument. The bard plucked at the strings a couple times before quiet fell on the room. The song that followed was entirely unexpected.
Gentle and slow, it was a melody of goodbye and good night. Despite words of friends and drink, there was a bittersweet melancholy to it all. It also forced Arraevn to come to terms with what leaving meant. This place had welcomed the confused, naked human with open arms. It had treated him well, and he would likely not see it for years…if ever. Despite his promise to Tis, Arraevn did not want to return to the place where he'd killed a baby.
The last notes faded into silence, and Rannoch held up his cup before downing it all in one go. He repeated the last line, "Cheer be with you all."
Whatever spell had fallen over the common room was broken, and Arraevn noticed his face was wet with tears. Luckily, most of the men and women were drowsily heading for the door. After putting away the lute, Rannoch came to collect Arraevn and of course noticed. Loud enough so any curious onlookers could overhear, the bard said, "That's enough drink for you me thinks. It's always the battle hardened ones that become despondent in their cups. Always."
Rannoch made a great show of companionably helping Arraevn up the stairs, but as soon as they were in their room he let him go and stumbled into his own bed, the case tumbling beside him.
"I know there's naught but water in the mugs Tis brings you."
Rannoch stared at him a moment longer before shaking his head and muttering, "Where's my damn hat? Hopefully the lout didn't take it home with him." After a moment he tried again, "Will you tell me anything? Why you lie about taking a vow and refuse the most comely girl in town? Why you cry at drinking songs? Why they stole your clothes but not your cloak? Just who is Sir Arraevn?"
Drained and exhausted, Arraevn sighed and settled himself against the wall. "…If I could, I would."
The knob of the lantern squeaked as the bard turned the light low. A few grunts and his boots thudded to the floor. Arraevn thought he was asleep when there came the murmur, "Give me one thing. You'll owe me for the 'sword'."
The knight paused before finding a truth all his own, one that could be believed and spoken. "I was born near the ocean. I would like to see it again before I die."
"That can be arranged…" The bard was snoring moments after.