Slumber Page 53

I felt threatened by more than just his height. I was a woman alone and I had been caught by a strange man. But then I realised… he’d called me ‘son’. Glancing down at my boy’s clothing, feeling the boy’s cap on my head, I exhaled in relief. He thought I was a boy. I deepened my voice and tried to emulate a rough accent.

“Just lookin’ for a place to rest before I pass through.”

He straightened a little, eyeing me closely. “Oh yeah? And where you be headin’, boy?”

I’d never heard such an accent before. It was clipped and tight with trilling ‘r’s, dropped ‘g’s’ and a grammar I couldn’t get my head around. I shook myself from my momentary distraction and thought about my answer. It was well known to everyone in Phaedra that the Pool of Phaedra was considered mystical and fascinating. There had been many an adventurer who’d dared the mountains to find it. “The Pool of Phaedra.”

The man smirked at me. “An’ what would a sprite like ye want with the Pool?”

I shrugged. “I’m on a spiritual journey and that is all I wish to say on the matter.”

He laughed and I bit my lip. I’d sounded far too well-bred. But he didn’t say anything, just chuckled, “Well don’t be gettin’ all ornery, yer business is yer business.” He laughed again, shaking his head. There was something jolly about him. Something reassuring in his eyes. I began to relax.

“My name is Brint,” he told me, his booming voice carrying beyond us. “Brint Lokam. I’m about the closest thing Hill o’ Hope has to a Mayor.”

“Hill o’ Hope?” I asked in confusion.

Brint grinned and gestured to the open land before us. “Hill o’ Hope.” He winked at me. “We here at Hill o’ Hope have what some folks call an ironic sense o’ humour,” he drawled out the ‘i’ in ironic comically.

I couldn’t help but return his smile. “My name is Ro-” I stopped, remembering I was supposed to be a boy. “Rolfe. My name is Rolfe.”

“Nice to meet ye, Rolfe. Well, ye don’t look like ye can cause much trouble. Why don’t ye join us at Hope Tavern?” Brint pointed to the larger shack all lit up in the distance. “They’ll give ye some gristle and grub, maybe a splash o’ ale.” He winked again. “It’s no much but it’s somethin’. Plus, folks are in a good mood lately what with the Iavii people who used to crawl all over these parts havin’ taken off for greener pastures. Once yer done fillin’ up, ye can come back with me.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder and I noticed the shack up the hill behind us. A single light flickered in the window. “The wife will be more than happy to put a pallet by the fire for ye so ye can get some rest before movin’ on in yer spiritual journey.”

I smiled reluctantly at his teasing. I knew I probably wouldn’t get a better offer so I nodded in thanks and began following him down the hill towards Hope Tavern. My first encounter with an Alvernian mountain person was not unfolding as I’d always imagined. That preconceived idea in my head was only further slashed to ribbons when we entered the tavern and Brint introduced me to the roughest looking people I’d ever seen. Even rougher than gypsies and the rookery thugs. To start, I couldn’t decipher age among them; they were all so weather-beaten and worn, laughter wrinkles tickling the corners of everyone’s eyes. Despite the obvious fact that their life was hard, that they didn’t have much of anything, they were so friendly and jolly and happy with one another. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing. No, they weren’t well-mannered as a rule, but in spite of that, no one was ill-mannered to me. And, if I were to go by the stories they regaled me with, in amidst this uncivilised, isolated community of theirs was a true civilisation of apparent camaraderie and teamwork.

More shocking for me still, I watched the barkeep - who had thrust a plate of strange food and the darkest ale I’d ever seen at me (but for free, so I couldn’t complain) - kiss a man who slid over the bar and wrapped his arms around him. Wide-eyed, I glanced around to see if anyone was looking but no one cared. Brint caught my look and laughed, explaining the two men were old lovers. Back home in Silvera, I knew of rumours of men who preferred other men, but society pretended it didn’t exist, happy to ignore it as long as the men in question kept it hidden. I’d always believed in every kind of freedom and it amazed me that up here, in the heart of savage country, people were freer and more loving than anywhere else. The worry in my chest began to ease. The situation in Alvernia wasn’t nearly so bad as we’d been led to believe. Mayhap Haydyn need never marry Andrei, whose father perpetuated the ignorance I had grown up with.

It was true.

Once again I had been ignorant and prejudiced.

I decided then and there, as I enjoyed the rambunctious, raucous company of the people of Hill o’ Hope, that I would never again draw an opinion until I knew everything about the subject upon which I spoke. I thought of Haydyn’s long forgotten failed philanthropy regarding these people. If we’d listened to her, we would have done a lot of good. Once again I was ashamed.

After I’d eaten, I had relaxed back beside Brint, listening as his neighbour Dru regaled me with the story of Brint, who organised a search party for a little girl who’d been kidnapped by the Iavii.

“We were lucky that the group who’d taken wee Amelia were few, because no matter what, Brint would be ah takin’ us into the woods to fight the buggers and bring her back.”

I stared wide-eyed at Brint who looked marginally embarrassed by the story. “And did you?”

“Oh indeed,” Dru went on. “We snuck up on the buggers and dealt them out a booting they wouldn’t forget. We got wee Amelia and brung her home to her folks. The Iavii departed the mountain no’ too long after that.”

“You were very brave.” I nodded, lifting my cup to them.

“Are ye brave?” A girl suddenly appeared at my side, swishing her dirty skirts and smiling at me, her teeth yellowed from having not taken care of them. I squinted, feeling warm and fuzzy from the ale. She would have been pretty had she been allowed the life of a lady.

“No,” I replied promptly.

“Ye’ve come into the mountains by yer lonesome. There’s a certain amount of bravery to be said for that.” She brushed her fingers down my face before abruptly dropping into my lap.

Prev Next