Fallen Leaves of Blood
Nali Otekha looked up from a hard wooden table she was wiping down with an old gray rag, to see a gray-haired man stomp into the Inn and sit down at a previously washed table. The dirty blonde-haired girl threw her rag on the bar and skipped over to the man's table, where he examined a silver ring, turning it 'round in his fingers. He didn't seem to notice her.
"What'd ya like, sir?" Nali asked, leaning on the table. She brushed a strand of hair behind her ear.
He looked up at Nali, apparently noticing her for the first time. He started for a moment, then said abruptly, "Soup." He didn't wait for an answer but went back to looking at his ring.
Nali shrugged, and hurried off to the kitchen, smoothing down her apron. "The man wants soup," she told the inn's cook, Yital, wrapping her arms around herself and shivering. "It's cold. I hate winter."
"What kind of soup?" Yital wanted to know, ignoring her comment about the chill of the oncoming winter.
"Just give him whatever you're making. He didn't look like he was very interested in food," the girl replied, pulling a nearby window shut.
"Oh?" Yital asked. "How so?" He poured a bowl of potato chunks into the pot and set it on a hook over the fire, watching Nali.
She shrugged. "Oh, I don't know. He didn't really seem like he cared about anything much, other than the ring he had."
"Ring?" Yital asked, peering into the pot and stirring it with a large wooden spoon.
"Oh, he just had an old silver ring he was looking at. He didn't notice me until I said anything to him." She wrapped a strand of hair around her finger absently, a habit she had when she was bored.
"Well, I heard from me friend Lant that our Asandhael is going to be here tonight, telling one of her stories. I suppose he's here for that," Yital said, ladling soup into a bowl. He handed it to Nali, along with a spoon. "Here's the soup. Don't spill it," he warned.
Nali nodded thoughtfully. "I wonder which story she'll be telling tonight."
Yital shrugged and drank from a mug of water. "We'll find out, I s'pose. Now go give the poor man his supper. He must be cold, after being outside." He shooed her out of the kitchen. Nali smiled and waltzed over to the lone man. She set the soup on the table with a small thunk.
"Here's your soup."
The man slowly put the silver ring he still held into the pocket of his over-robe, and looked up at Nali. He smiled wearily. "Thank you, miss."
Nali smiled back. She smoothed her apron again, and said, "You're welcome." And, whistling merrily, she went back to wiping tables.
Cold black night had fallen on the city of Sanorn, creating dark shadows in the corners of the Inn of Lost Days. The fire of the Inn flickered as its customers called for ale and stew, and Nali and the other barmaids hurried around, taking orders. This was the time of day when bards, storytellers, and singers alike would tell their tales to all who cared to listen. Tonight Asandhael, one of the city's best storytellers, was going to tell a tale that had not been heard in many years. Nearly everyone in this part of the city had turned up to hear the story, for it was rumored that Asandhael was going to tell a story of the Kings' War, an event that took place twenty-five years before. Asandhael herself had been of great importance to the outcome of the war, and it was her own story she was about to tell
Nali made her way toward the 43-year-old woman's chair by the fire. "Anything you want, Asandhael?" she asked.
"Asa," she told the girl firmly, smiling. "Just water please, Nali."
The girl nodded and hurried off to the kitchen to get the water. Filling a mug, she looked out over the gathering of people in the Inn's common room, all waiting impatiently for Asa to tell her story. The man with the ring that had ordered soup earlier was still there, watching Asa with rapt attention, on odd smile on his face.
Suddenly realizing that the water was overflowing, she poured out a bit and wiped off the edges of the mug with a cloth. Carrying the water to Asandhael, Nali perched on the arm of the chair next to the woman.
"So what story are you telling tonight?" Nali asked with a smile. She tapped her fingers against the table, beating out a rhythm. Tap-tap-tap-tip-tap-tap-tap.
Asa shook her head slowly. "You shall see," she whispered, scanning the crowd in the common room. "You shall see.
Nali watched the dancing flames in the fireplace, following each twist, turn, and jump of the flames. At the center of the fire a blue blaze danced its own jig, separate from the others. In Asandhael's blue gray eyes, a fire equal to the one in the fireplace burned, her eyes twinkling in the light.
Outside, snow fell upon the city, blanketing the rooftops and reflecting the light of street lamps. The Lighting of the Candles was soon to come. It was a midwinter holiday in which seven candles were lit with the saying of seven prayers to the gods, one candle for each of the Seven Speakers, the seven men and women who created the Named Magic. Oddly, it always snowed on the day of the Lighting, an odd coincidence that some believed was the work of the gods.
A last few stragglers burst into the Inn of Lost Days, shaking snow from their cloaks and stamping it from their boots. Sitting down in the last available chairs, they called for something hot to drink, and Nali had to hurry off again.
When everyone in the common room was settled with their drinks and their food, Asandhael looked around, eyes moving from face to face. No one moved or spoke, waiting breathlessly for Asa to begin her tale.
The woman sighed, watching the fire, and cleared her throat. "The story I am about to tell is a story of a time when the world of Palanros was a place of Fear, of Mistrust, and of Deceit," she began. "It is a time that now seems far away, even to those who were there to see it. But I remember it, as if it were happening now before me. Those of you who are too young to remember the time of the Kings' War do not know Fear. You do not know pain. You are lucky. Those times were not happy.
"This is a story of those times, a time I do not greatly wish to recall. But this story must be told. This story asks to be told. And I will tell it."