A tall boy fidgeted over his food. He looked down at the bland meal, Why has she let him hire me as well? I cannot fight. I have no power, physical or magical... I am just a paddling commoner.
From across the table, a warrior woman looked up at him.
Hah, commoner! he mused within his mind. Only in their eyes.
"Is something wrong?" she asked. "You haven't touched your food."
"It's bland, Naieyle. I miss the spices of home."
Naieyle removed a vial of bronze-coloured flakes from a pouch at her waist. She handed it to him, "Sprinkle a bit of this on your duck and potatoes. But not too much -- as it might kill you!"
He grinned, his face brining with youth, and took it from her. And gently, he sprinkled it upon the meat and bare potatoes. Killing is probably why she keeps so many flakes with her.
The man beside them spoke, "Your tongue may be more sensitive to the spices of the north than to what you have in Pwonteiyeep."
"I've had autumn's bane before, Rossel," he told the merchant.
"Oh?" his eyelids fell ponderously over his brown eyes. "Those flakes are quite the rare and expensive commodity down south."
"A pickpocket comes across all kinds," Allerk said. I should not have said that. The fencer is bright, and surely this merchant knows his tidings. "But I've grown since then."
Rossel coughed, "I should hope so."
"Tell us more about the egg," Naieyle asked, between bites of duck breast.
The tradesman shifted nervously in his seat, and tugged idly upon one of his earrings in a superstitious way. And then he stared down at the golden bracelet upon Naieyle's upper wrist.
"It's a diamond," she said, impatiently. "And I doubt it's pure gold."
Allerk watched, as the man's jaw fell and his brown narrowed in concentration. This man has a rich taste in beauty. But this is downright eccentric. Then again, I did buy this lovely robe...
"That's not a diamond," he said. "I know the woman who made that bracelet. I have seen this design before."
"Speak, merchant. This bracelet is dear to my heart."
"It was not bought as a bauble of chastity, then, was it?"
"Of course not. Surely, you know almost as well as I do what the trades of a Lakeland Forest Fencer can involve." And, setting down her fork, she pulled it form her right wrist, handing it to him.
"I can take you to the jeweler, on our way north. She lives in Gabe," Rossel told her, as he took it from her.
Allerk looked on with idle curiosity, as a lump of chewed potato pushed a pleasantly burning flake against his tongue. Even with his tan, his face had grown visibly red.
Rossel held it up, closer to the light. Then he shut his eyes tight, and grunted. And when he let go, the bracelet hung motionless in the air, shining stone pointed upward.
Naieyle gasped, as did Allerk, and she exclaimed, "Qurr!"
"Which brand of magic is that?" the boy demanded.
"A brand that flows within us all," Rossel answered. "Every woman, animal and man is connected to the Qurystal. That's the same magic the clergy use to arrange the crystals in the temples."
"That's a Qurystal?" Allerk was surprised, "I have never seen one before."
"What!? Don't pull my leg, boy," Rossel warned. "I know they must have Qurystal down in Pwonteiyeep!"
"It is forbidden for the young. We pray from afar, never to glean. And when we come of age, we awaken to power... and responsibility."
Naieyle quickly grabbed it, concentrated for a brief moment to mobilize it, and swung the bracelet into the bag that hung upon the back of her chair, "You shall not awaken here!"
Allerk grinned, and wistfully cursed, "Darn..."
"Perhaps he should," Rossel suggested. "He is away from his culture, and headed into dangerous territory. You won't be taking me through the cities past Gabe. Once we reach the island city, we're heading straight north, through the Wild Expanse. That's the fastest way to the capital."
"Aye," she agreed. "We both share your need to get there as fast as possible."
"Are the two of you getting married there?"
Allerk's head rolled back upon his neck in surprise, as he made eye contact with Naieyle. She remained surprisingly indifferent. Does she like me in such a manner?
Silence followed, and Rossel tugged once more upon his left earring.
Naieyle gave an insincere cough, trying to politely break the awkward silence.
"I am mistaken," Rossel realized. I hope she does not ask me again about the egg. I'm not sure if I even know. And she'll think I'm daft to follow the famed Prophecy of Windsmire just because of that egg. "You are lucky to have a limitless source of Qurr upon your arm. I have seen few able to bond metal to the Tears of the Depths in such a way."
And they finished their in near silence. Neither Naieyle nor Allerk remembered to ask more about their cargo. They didn't even haggle up the price of their service.
Rossel, too, thought less about his mission. He did not bother to question why he had hired a Qurrless young one, for he knew they'd have to awaken his power.
Allerk downed several flagons of water, as the burning had ceased to become soothing. Now, it was a fire he sought to quench. I always loved the water. Such a scarcity in my father's land.
"You said you were from Haeville," Rossel recalled. "So that bracelet was probably bought from my father's market stall. He passes by there in late springtime."
"My fiancé bought it," the fencer told him. "He's a bard. Got hired upon his life, to play in the courts of Crownlake Castle. That is why I am in pursuit."
Realization abruptly struck Rossel. His intake of breath slowed. His chest grew warm, and the scar across his face stung at the notch in his nose. And he got up, seething and yelling, "That wretched bag of dung!"
Naieyle reached for the hilt of her blade, unsure of what was going through the man's head.
The door swung open, and then slammed behind him.
Naieyle stayed to pay the bill, as Allerk quickly ran after him.
Beneath the tarps and the darkening sky of early summer, Allerk chased the merchant across the north edge of town. They left deep footprints in the sand. Beside them, bats swooped high and low over the waters. And in the distance, an owl hooted.
There was an old man standing on the porch of a shabby old house, that had once been the boathouse for the abandoned pier. He whistled an off-key tune, as the men approached.
Allerk had longer legs, and caught up with Rossel as they reached the decrepit house. As he caught his breath, Allerk felt as if steam was boiling out of his throat.
There was no lilting unbroken voice singing from above. There were no moans of man or woman. Just an old man and his creaking chair.
He looked at them with knowing eyes, his face drooping around a nose that was too big for it, "You're too late. They left with the old woman."