He was a tall and imposing figure dressed in midnight blue, the wolf of the Kalmish Empire emblazoned across his back in silver thread. Suddenly self-conscious, Saeo smoothed back her hair with a trembling hand. She fell in a step behind Danwyn, hiding in his shadow in the hope that he might draw some attention from her. The hunter bowed, and she moved to do the same before remembering that ladies curtsied. The result was a very awkward movement which might have been interpreted as both, or neither.
The Knight turned to greet them with a gentle smile. The lines on his face resembled the creases of a map that had been folded and unfolded many times. He had the dark complexion of a coastal man, and while his head was shaved clean, the stubble on his chin was an equal mix of black and grey. His eyes were very dark and very kind. Saeo desperately wanted to smile back at him, but instead found herself shyly covering her mouth with her hand, worried that she would somehow offend him.
"Good morning, Sir Knight." Danwyn said brightly, setting Rayna on his shoulder. Saeo was glad that one of them still had the wits to address him properly.
"I hope you'll pardon our stares. We don't often see men of your status this side of Amberwood."
"There's nothing to pardon," the Knight said. Saeo thought his voice sounded very much like distant thunder.
"Please, if you'll pardon my asking, sir," Wynn said, "what brings you to the Bonny Swan?"
"My squire and I are here to visit an old friend, but one of our horses was injured along the way," the Knight told him, "he's just getting them settled now."
"Oh!" Saeo couldn't keep the small sound from escaping. When both men turned to look at her, she realized that she needed to either continue, or risk looking like a fool.
"I could...I work here...if you needed hot water or bandages..." she stammered. The Knight cut her off with a short nod. He seemed to understand, despite her stuttering.
"My thanks. I'm sure Ashleigh will appreciate the help," he told her. Saeo turned to Danwyn, looking for reassurance in his sleepy green eyes. The tiniest of frowns curled in the corner of his mouth, and he bobbed his head toward the door as if to say 'well, go on'. Saeo nodded, and darted across the courtyard without another word.
"There's a Knight outside!" She cried, slamming open the kitchen door, tearing off her cloak and moving to fill the kettle with water. Marius lifted his head slightly, but continued peeling potatoes.
"I know. I told him he could get his animals settled in the stable. Oi! What're you doing with my clean towels, girl?" Saeo turned toward him holding an armful of drying towels, a puzzled and slightly panicked expression on her face.
"Knight's horse or no, he's not getting my clean towels." He said, giving her a stern look that convinced her to return them to their cupboard. "Go get something from the linen closet. There's a tablecloth with a big stain in the middle you can tear up."
"I can't use that!" She said, mortified by the idea of providing a Knight's steed with such an undignified excuse for a bandage.
"That horse has faced worse hardships than gravy stains, now go."
Saeo made a frustrated, high pitched noise in the back of her throat as she turned on her heel and stormed into the main hall. She was halfway up the stairs, cursing Marius for his lack of priorities when a voice drew her attention.
"Wearing your wet shoes inside, Saeo?" The girl looked up, and was puzzled by what she saw. A thin woman with high cheekbones stood on the balcony a few paces away. She was wearing an old fashioned, but attractive burgundy dress decorated with lace and floral embroidery. Her dark hair was carefully brushed and styled, and she wore delicate colours on her eyes and lips. It was Mistress Aveline, only she looked ten years younger, and a good deal less sour than she did every other day.
"Saeo, answer me when I'm speaking to you. Why are you wearing your shoes inside?"
She had almost forgotten that she was being spoken to.
"Oh! Uh, there's a Knight outside and his horse is hurt. I was going to the linen closet for something to make bandages out of."
She mistress nodded, and gave a dismissive wave of her hand.
"Alright, get back to it then." Saeo nodded and continued upstairs, but as the Landlady passed her on the way to the kitchen, Saeo couldn't keep from pausing to watch her. Under the bulky, unflattering clothes she usually wore, it was difficult to see how pale and slender the Mistress really was. She looked like a paper doll, Saeo thought, one that might be blown away by a stiff breeze. What a shame it was that none of the windows were open.
The linen closet was on the second floor, farthest from the stairs and next to the study. It was more of a room than a closet, lined with wooden shelves that held extra bedsheets, tablecloths, blankets, dinnerware and a saddle that Marius never seemed to get around to repairing. Saeo wasted no time in locating the table cloth, which she dragged out into the hallway to cut into more manageable pieces. She hated the linen closet. She used to have nightmares about monsters coming out of it at night and creeping down the hall to gobble her up. Besides that, it was the only room at the inn without a window, and there was always some manner of creeping, crawling thing making a home for itself in there.
Once she had divided the tablecloth into quarters using a pair of dull fabric scissors, Saeo made her way back downstairs with a giddy spring in her step. What type of horse would it be, she wondered? A stallion, likely. She remembered hearing somewhere that Knights always rode stallions into battle because the heat in their blood made them more vicious. She had just begun imagining what it would be like to ride a charger through an ocean of enemy soldiers when the sound of voices on the other side of the kitchen door drew her attention. It sounded as though Mistress Aveline and the Knight were having some sort of conversation. Saeo felt her face flush with inarticulate rage at the thought, and against her better judgement, she leaned her forehead against the door and listened.
The warmth from the kitchen fire was exquisite. Brennan closed his eyes, savouring it's kiss on his weather beaten cheeks. There was nothing like a long journey to make one grateful for small comforts.
"From what I hear, you've had quite a time of getting here. Are you and your boy alright?" asked a woman's voice. He opened his eyes. Aveline sat at the kitchen table beside him, rearranging a basket of apples, rotating each one so that it's stem pointed upward. Her constant fidgeting had driven him mad at one time, but now he found the quirk almost endearing.
"Yes, thankfully," he replied, "one of them caught Thunder across the flank, but I'm sure he'll be alright once Ashleigh gets it cleaned up and he's had some rest. I think we'll all appreciate the comforts of a warm bed tonight."
"Our girl's just gone up to fetch some cloth for bandaging." Said the big cook, pouring a kettle of boiling water into a pail along with a handful of salt. Brennan knew the man's face, and though he couldn't remember his name, he remembered liking him.
"Yes, it was very kind of her to offer," he said, "what was her name?"
"Saeo," Aveline answered, running a knife through the centre of an apple and offering him half, "You met her once before, I think. You were on your way home then." Brennan accepted the fruit, raising it to his lips only after Aveline had already bitten into hers. It was soft and somewhat mealy, but most fruit stored through the dead of winter was the same way. It was still the best tasting thing he'd eaten in a long while.
"That was a long time ago," he said, thoughtfully, "she must have been just a tiny thing."
"Ten or eleven, I should think. She spent the whole night staring at you, don't you remember?" Aveline tilted her head inquiringly, licking juice and paint from her upper lip.
"Hard to say," He frowned. For a long moment he remembered nothing, and then suddenly he could see her, perched on the stairs like a little barn owl with a blanket pulled up over her head. "Wait, the little blonde girl?"
"Aye, that's her," the cook said from across the kitchen as he poured two glasses of something golden from a large barrel, "the one with eyes like big blue oysters."
"Well, she has grown up, hasn't she?" Brennan chuckled. "Spirits preserve me, I have gotten old." The cook placed one of the glasses in front of him, and he nodded his thanks.
"No older than the rest of us, Bren." Aveline smiled wanly, rubbing at her eye and causing the paint to smear. He couldn't help smiling at her. No matter how she painted herself up and tried to convince herself otherwise, she was still the same old Avey; the girl with the dirty fingernails and a tongue that could split firewood.
"She's not your child?" He asked, knowing what her answer would be even before she shook her head.
"Her father was a trader. Usually he left the girl in Ambervale with his wife when he was travelling, but a few years ago she died of fever, Bright One keep her, so he arranged to have her stay with us."
"He travels often, then?" Brennan asked. Aveline took a small sip from her glass and shrugged.
"You could say that. We haven't seen him in almost six years. Marius, what in creation are we drinking?"
"The only wine we could afford this month, Mistress." said the cook. "It's fine for cooking, and the boys from the camps sure can't tell the difference between good wine and bad." Aveline scowled, pushing her glass away.
"It's the principle of the thing," she muttered, resting her chin upon linked fingers. "I hate cutting corners...better the wine than the roof though, I suppose." Brennan sensed her discomfort around the topic of money, and so tried to steer the conversation back toward it's original path.
"So, you've cared for the girl all this time?" He asked, taking a large gulp of his wine so she would know her hospitality wasn't unappreciated. It tasted like weak vinegar, and swallowing it took effort.
"Well I couldn't very well turn a child out into the forest to die, could I?" Aveline asked, flicking her eyes toward him crossly. "The poor thing had no money, no family, spent every waking moment wailing about how she missed her mum and dad-"
The sound of someone whistling drew Brennan's attention to the kitchen door. The blonde servant girl, Saeo, emerged from it a moment later carrying an armful of cloth. She curtsied lightly, and smiled in an awkward, forced way that made him wonder if she hadn't been listening at the door.
"Mistress, Sir Knight."
She greeted them. Brennan noticed Aveline stiffen visibly when she made eye contact with Saeo, and her face took on an unpleasant, pinched quality.
"Saeo, this is Sir Brennan of Raven's Peak," she told the girl, briskly, "Once you're finished in the stables, I would like you to take care of any other tasks he and his squire might have for you."
"Yes, Mistress." The girl nodded. Her voice was obliging, but Brennan saw that her pale eyes were frosted over with contempt. She excused herself with another small curtsey and moved to collect the bucket Marius held out to her. The big cook murmured something to her, and the ghost of a smile flickered across her face, then Brennan watched her as she threw a short cape about her shoulders and slipped out the kitchen door. He then turned to Aveline. She suddenly looked exhausted, and he was beginning to think that her earlier cheer had been put on for his benefit.
"What was that?" He asked her. She turned to give him a questioning look, then sighed and reached for her wine.
"She's always like that around me. She's convinced I'm a skinshifter who's only purpose in life is to make her miserable."
"I'm sure that isn't true," he said gently, trying to reassure her.
"Oh trust me, it's true," she said, smiling bitterly, "You know I'm no good with kids, Bren. I never planned to have her stay this long. She's grown up to be selfish, bad tempered, disrespectful-"
"She is a teenage girl, Avey. I have two girls of my own, you know. When they get to be around this age, they think they know everything and they won't be told otherwise."
"But she doesn't, Bren. She doesn't know anything at all about responsibility, or how a young woman ought to act, and you can forget about gratitude. You know, I could hire two girls for the amount it costs to keep Saeo properly fed and clothed, and still have coin to spare. I could use that money, too. The Swan is barely staying afloat as it is. Marius hasn't had a proper vacation in three years, I'm scrounging to keep us in bread and potatoes-"
"How about your medicine?" He asked, frowning. Aveline shifted uncomfortably in her seat and refused to meet his eye.
"It's fine," she murmured, "my eyes haven't even been bothering me lately."
"Aveline, you need to be using that medicine." He told her sternly, "If I need to ride into town and buy it for you myself-" Aveline cut him off with a bark of mirthless laughter.
"I don't want your money, Sir Brennan. I was just whining, alright? I know how to take care of myself and my business. Can we please talk about something else?"
"If you don't use it the way the healers told you to, you're going to go blind." He insisted, feeling anger and frustration flare in his heart. The look she gave him was dull and resigned.
"Then I'll just have to deal with it when the time comes."
An uncomfortable silence settled over the kitchen, and as Aveline searched for solace in the pale surface of her wine, Brennan found himself counting the lines on her face and wondering where the years had gone.