Unobserved, they danced across the rough wooden walls twisting like demons wakening from a cold, dark sleep. Long black arms snaked upward, swaying and moving to the firelight. They were called shadows, and this evening they danced to the music of crackling wood as it burnt in the hearth. They were born of the fire, these shadowy children of the flames. They lived with the fire and they died with the fire, but for this evening they rejoiced and celebrated with the fire as it burned brightly to warm those who were gathered together in the Inn.
There were but a handful of strangers in the common room where the fire burned the brightest. These men were, for the most part, travelers, merchants or tradesmen. Some had stopped for food and shelter for the night, others had taken shelter from the storm that raged with the fury of a tempest outside. Mostly they ignored the dancing shadow demons, even as the firelight caressed a tired face or warmed a weary body. These travelers ate and drank in relative silence. Many were lost in their own thoughts while a few murmured softly among themselves. One rather plump merchant, dressed in a scarlet tunic, dozed peacefully beside the fireplace. His chair tilted back against the warm stones. In his hand was his partially finished cup of ale and the jaunty cap upon his head had slipped down over one closed eye.
A solitary woman wove her way through the maze of tables. She gathered the dirty bowls that had held that evening’s stew. Working swiftly at the task, she paused only to converse briefly with a local tradesman before moving on about her work. Occasionally she would coyly glance at the large man who tended bar. She gave him a special smile; the kind of smile that only lovers knew.
As for the barman, Davfyd Innsman, he never grew tired of watching his wife as she moved through the room. She was as beautiful, if not more so, than the day he had first seen her. It was impossible for him to think of running the Inn without her beside him. The days were long and full of hard work as was part of the night, but she never complained.
A sudden flash of lightning and rumble of thunder interrupted his thoughts. Going to the Inn’s main door, Davfyd slowly inched it open only to feel the sting of hard driven rain on his face and hand. Another flash of lightning illuminated the countryside enough that he could see the trees as they bent in the wind.
“Kinza”, he said to his wife as she passed. “When ye go to the kitchen, tell Gwain to go to the barn and check on those horses.” She looked at him with soft moss green eyes and nodded, knowing that her eldest son would be in the kitchen studying his lessons.
It was common knowledge among Innkeepers that rainy nights made for better business. So it was on this night that the rain beat an endless rhythm against the closed shutters and the thatched roof. It flowed like a river through the gutters and into the rain barrels. Davfyd was glad that his Inn was full, it meant more coins for the coffer, but he was equally glad that his guests were a quiet lot. There was not a bugger or a blackguard among them. It was mostly due to the fact that this land was not a war and there were no need for soldiers and mercenaries to tread the merchant’s road.
Davfyd’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of an empty glass being set on the bar beside him. He glanced over at the young man who stood there. He had wandered in a couple of hours ago just when the rain had started and seated himself at a table near the window. He was not a merchant or a tradesman by the lack of wares, probably just some lone traveler unlucky to be caught out on the stormy night.
The young man nodded toward the kitchen door. “Your wife is a beautiful woman, sir,” he said quietly. Davfyd reached for the empty glass. He gave the young man a long look full of warning. As if he understood the message the stranger smiled.” I meant that as a compliment, sir, not on the question of her availability.” Davfyd nodded. “Then I take it as such and thank ye for your compliment.” Handing back the glass Davfyd nodded toward the heavy wooden door.
“ I know this is none of my business, but I could not help but notice that ye travel alone. Even in peaceful times I would not travel this road on into the hills alone. There be bandits and thieves not to mention the hill trolls.”
The young man smiled and pushed back his hat to reveal bright red hair. “Those that are in a hurry sometimes can not afford the security of companions, however if it will put your mind to rest, I will be joining friends tomorrow near the river bridge. We will continue the rest of the way together.” He sipped the wine. “But for tonight there is this most excellent wine, a roaring fire and maybe a tale of two.”
The Innkeeper shook his head. “Ahh if it is a tale ye seek, lad, then it is not here. I have but a small Inn and afford neither a bard or a minstrel.” He looked about his Inn and added. “And by the looks of those gathered tonight, there is not a storyteller in the lot.”
The young man removed his cap and stepped back to make a slight bow. “Then the God of fortune smiles on you tonight for I am Ruben Clearwater, Bard, weaver of stories. All of my tales are true enough, some are even too true to believe.”
Davfyd leaned against his side of the bar. He studied the young lad carefully. He was dressed well, but not flamboyant as many bards do. His sea green eyes sparkled with a bit of humor, yet they were eyes of a person who had seen many lifetimes. He was not overly handsome, but fair enough to turn a few heads. Davfyd gave him a stern look and considered him. “Ye claim to be a Bard, lad, but I see before me a whelp of a boy. I think it is my leg that ye pull and that is a story true enough.”
The lad smiled broadly. “It is true that I am young, but I have trained with one of the best masters and I have learned his lessons.” He paused to sip his wine. “I will make you this deal. I will tell you a take of adventure, of a land that some think is only legend and a tale of the Gods themselves. Some in this room will claim it is the wine that speaks, but I swear by the Gods of my clan that every word that I say has come to pass.” He raised his hand to the stormy heavens. “Even the Gods themselves will witness this story.” There was a mighty roar of thunder that jarred even the dozing merchant beside the fire.
Ruben turned his head back to Davfyd. “Now if I tell this tale and your guests find it good, my room and board for the night is free, but if I tell this tale and they find it lacking...I will double my payment to your. Either way you come the better of it.” The lad smiled. “Is it a deal?”
What the lad lacked in years, he made up for in tenacity. The Innkeeper took the younger man’s outstretched hand and the deal was done.
Ruben Clearwater raised his glass in a silent toast to the proprietor and took one last drink. He turned toward the fireplace with its dancing fire and strolled to the spot that was commonly known as the bard’s corner. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and the story began.