“I was born under unfortunate circumstances. My mother died in childbirth, and not long after I had entered into my third year, war with the Alfar broke out. I used to be an actual citizen of Eirethstead, mind you. The king didn’t like that the Alfar were thriving, so he sought to prune the hedge of Alfarian society. I’m certain Gillireth never saw it this way, but the Alfar only fought out of self-defense. Anyway, when I was three years old, my father had to join the ranks against the Alfar, and he left me to live with my aunt.
“She already had perhaps seven children to look after, so it was easy enough for me to slip away unnoticed into one of the carts that carried provisions to the battlefield. It’s difficult to remember the motivations of my three-year-old self, dear, but I suppose I just missed my father and wanted to see him again. I survived on mead, bread and the like those days I spent in the cart, and it was easy enough to stay hidden. I suppose I’ve always had a natural talent for going unnoticed that’s served me well in my profession!
“At any rate, the carts were raided by the Alfar before we reached the soldiers. Guerilla troops of dark elves descended upon us, and I heard fighting and death from my spot under the canvas of the cart. I was crying loudly by the end of it, terrified of course, and Orlo heard me. He lifted up the cloth and the other elves asked if they should kill me. Orlo spared me, and I guess ever since then he’s made quite an effort to be a father figure to me. Not to say I’ve welcomed it. But it’s the fate to which I’ve resigned myself.
“All I have of my human past is this necklace my father left me,” he lifted a thin, burlap string with a reddish wooden pendant from under his shirt that Oliana had never noticed before. Then he slipped off Oliana’s ring without a word and returned it. He stopped in his tracks and looked Oliana square in the eye. “Does that answer your question, dear? You think you’ve lost things? We’ve all lost things. This kingdom is a broken place.”
He resumed his treading down the road to the stalls. The urge to spend some of his money had struck him, but the alcohol was in the opposite direction, so he would not make his usual purchase that arose from such moods.
“I’m actually quite aware of the state of the kingdom and the losses people besides myself have suffered. But thank you for sharing. And thank you for my ring,” Oliana said with just a hint of bitterness.
Keon only half-listened, sighing. “If there’s anything you’d like to buy, dear, just let me know.”
“You buy things?” Oliana was taken aback. “I just assumed you stole everything.”
Keon chuckled loudly and looked around him, then in a muted tone said, “You can’t be saying things like that out in the open like this, dear. I do buy things, on occasion. It throws the guards off my scent. Now please, be discreet.”
They finally reached the clamor of the merchant stalls. Cries rose out from either side of the main path, the sellers enticing the buyers with their magnificent stock. This man had potions, this woman had dolls. One booth in particular caught Oliana’s eye.
“Books!” she chirped. The portly woman behind the stall smiled at her and welcomed her to peruse the many pages laid out before her. There were tomes on all manner of histories and magic and creatures. Oliana wished she could read them all.
“You read?” Keon noticed her enthusiasm.
“Of course I read! It’s one of my favorite pastimes! There weren’t as many books as are in this one stall as were in my entire village, though. Don’t you read?”
“You can’t? You speak two languages yet you can’t read in one? Even Dechar knows how to read, and he didn’t know he had thumbs for the longest time!” Oliana laughed. “Perhaps if I teach you the very basics of reading, you’ll let Ylva go free as well?”
“Once again, that’s not up to me, dear. Orlo’s the one to ask. I’ll be sure to mention your she-wolf to him when we get back. Right now, we should just focus on today’s tasks.”
As Oliana glanced back at the piles of books, she captured one of special interest in the corner of her eye. The Book of Faeries and Other Magical Creatures, the cover read. An illustration graced its front, one of a small faerie covered in leaves, sitting on a stump and smoking a pipe. Ghillie Dhu? Oliana wondered. She smiled and picked it up, blowing some dust off the old bindings.
“Would you like that one, dear? I can get it for you,” Keon unlatched his satchel as Oliana nodded. She hadn’t planned on accepting anything to be paid for with his dirty money, but this book was like a piece of her past that she could physically carry with her into her future.
“And that’s one book for the lovely couple,” the merchant woman smiled when the transaction was complete.
“Oh, we’re not a--” Oliana tried to explain as Keon once again took her by the arm and whisked her away.
“The sweeter the picture these people paint of us, the better,” Keon explained.
Oliana huffed. “Do we have a moment to look in this book? I could even read some of it aloud to you, if you like.”
“I suppose we have a moment. The fog’s already lifted quite a bit, hasn’t it? We’ll get a better look when things are clear.”
The two of them took a seat on an old log that served as a bench. Oliana opened the book to the first page and saw an illustration of a giant, black, feathered beast.