Chapter 1 of TStbNL, Part 2
Comrick Long-traveled had pushed away from the table and laced his fingers over his round stomach minutes before the stranger pushed the inn door open. This spared him the indignity of spilling stew down his chin and into his beard, unlike the three other men sharing his table. True, Brother Derle was half-spared, but that was only due to the lack of a beard. The sight of his friends’ sudden sodden jaws made a kind smile easy to conjure to his apple-cheeked face. “Welcome, stranger! Come, make yourself comfortable and enjoy the fine food and hospitality of the Silver Bear!” Comrick spread both hands expansively around him, as if he were conjuring the rest of the large but mostly empty common area around him.
The man hesitated in the door, scanning the room with one hand curled around the jamb. A black dog nosed past him, testing the air with flaring nostrils and pricked ears. After a span of a half-dozen heartbeats, the dog snorted and moved into the room, heading for the dark back corner farthest from the fireplace. The stranger seemed to take that for a signal, pushing the door shut behind him. He shrugged out of the large pack he wore and set it by the door, then swept the large but unkempt cloak from his shoulders and placed it on a peg near the door. Comrick noted that the man placed his cloak at the farthest peg possible from any adjoining ones. He then followed the man’s progress through the room openly, his smile never slipping.
The stranger appeared to head for the bar before realizing that the top had long since been removed and leaned dustily against the base. He didn’t hesitate, instead shifting direction to follow the mutt he’d entered with. He was soon seated at a table, legs stretched before him, with the dog sitting alertly by his side. Comrick’s companions soon began murmuring among themselves about the man, his possible origins, and whether he constituted a threat. Comrick himself had already made his own decisions, and only half-listened to the others’ talk. The only other occupied table, consisting mainly of the younger men of the town, resumed their rather loud and boisterous conversation, amplified somewhat now that a new set of ears was here. Any attempt to impress is always eagerly seized by young men, thought Cormick, as is any chance for old men to be suspicious.
If the stranger was discomfited by the lack of service in the inn or of the scrutiny of the locals, he showed no sign of it. Comrick knew well the weight of those stares, which he’d always greeted with a warm smile and a ready tale. This stranger acted as if he were alone, and yet carried himself carefully – a man used to stares and indeed expecting them, he thought. As he watched, the man pulled a small pipe from a belt pouch and occupied his whole attention, and, indeed, seemingly his entire being, in filling it. The room was soon filled by the sweet scent of Icadian tobacco. Comrick’s smile deepened as he thought, he looks like he has a pipe so he has something to tap thoughtfully against his teeth, and burst into mirthful laughter as the stranger did just that.
The greybeard’s laughter caused everyone in the room to start, including the stranger. Comrick could resist no longer and heaved himself from the chair. He was still spry despite enduring sixty or more hard winters, but the stiffness in his joints gave him a rolling gait as he moved across the room. His grey hair and beard were long but shaped, and his rounded shape, accumulated from years of settled village life, made him appear even shorter than he was. Some people joked that he was one of the Wee Folk grown a bit too tall and forced into shoes, and Comrick laughed as loud as the rest. Despite the years, the twinkling eyes and ready laugh hadn’t changed since his sometimes wayward youth.
“May I?” Comrick asked in his rolling voice, another wide gesture confined this time to indicate the chair opposite the stranger. Comrick felt before he heard the silence behind him, and was even more acutely aware of the scrutiny given him by the dog. After a moment, the dog lay flat, nose between paws, as if ready to sleep, but its light brown eyes continued scanning the rest of the room. Again, the stranger seemed to take his cues from the black canine, and gestured to the chair with his pipe. Ah, another reason he carries one, Comrick chuckled to himself.
The wooden chair creaked under him alarmingly as he sat, more a testament to its condition than an indictment of his weight, or so Comrick hoped. He settled back and clasped his hands over his stomach once more, as the stranger’s blue eyes inquired his presence mildly. “My name is Comrick,” he said, words sounding easily around the room, “and on behalf of the fair and simple folk of the haven of Daleswall, I once more bid you welcome and a merry stay. May I have the pleasure of knowing what fine company we have this evening, unlooked for though it be?”
The stranger let a half-smile cross his face, and his eyes betrayed amusement. Not mocking, though, Comrick judged, just entertained. The man inclined his head briefly in acknowledgement of Comrick’s generous welcome, and answered in a quiet but pleasant voice, “My name is Dae’shun.” After a moment, he cocked an eyebrow and asked, “How long since you were a Talebearer?”
Ahh, thought Comrick, also someone who pays attention to others. He flashed his own smile a shade brighter and answered. “It has been many a long year since last I walked the lands, bringing news and tales to those desperate for both. Alas, my weary feet and troublesome knee ended my journeys where they began, oh, some twenty-five winters ago.”
The stranger nodded his head. “You stopped young, then. Usually you Talebearers stop wandering when your hearts stop beating.”
Comrick sighed theatrically, casting his eyes to the wooden beams of the ceiling. “Indeed I did. ‘Twas the eyes of a maiden left behind that turned my feet back to the hearths and hearts of home. I ended my wanderings to rest my feet in the company of a fair wife and to raise some children of my own.” He leaned forward once again, merry eyes fixed on the stranger’s. “So, we have established why I have traveled to far and alien lands. What of you? You are clearly not a Talebearer. Why are your feet ever-moving? Have you too decided to end your meandering and settle with a wife?”
The stranger’s eyes hooded quickly, like a snake’s, although his lids never moved. His half-smile descended into something more like a smirk as he walled himself off, and a shrug was the only answer he gave. So, thought Comrick, as wary as an assassin in a monastery. Their eyes stayed locked on one another’s as silence reigned in the room.