"'Bout bloody time," Kraig mumbled under his breath, but it was so shy of being audible, that I barely heard his whispered disgruntlement.
Sasha apparently didn't hear, or didn't care, for he stepped aside and motioned us into the castle courtyard with a cordial wave of his hand. As we stepped inside, I tried to see his face, but the lantern's light did nothing to illuminate the dark shadows cast over his face by his voluminous hood.
With an inward shrug I thought nothing more of his anonymous face. There was only another human under the hood, I reasoned. I would see his face in due time, once we were safely inside the castle keep.
"And welcome, Lady Morgaan," Sasha reached for Ahearn's reigns. "A follower of Lord Sylvan is always welcome at StoneMaster Castle. It would be an honor for you to stay with us for the night."
I gripped my horse's reigns even tighter; Ahearn's ears flickered forward and he suspiciously eyed the young StoneMaster apprentice.
"M'lady," Sasha's tone turned into one used toward wayward children. "I'm certain your horse is tired from his long journey. The castle stables are clean, spacious, and warm – would you permit me to call one of the stable boys?"
"Thank you for your hospitality," I set my jaw firmly, wrapping my fingers even tighter around Ahearn's reigns. "But as a Ranger, I live by a code. I do not rest myself until my horse is fed, watered, and settled in for the night – by my own hand."
"Very well," Sasha withdrew his hands, his voice returning to its distant, yet hospitable tones. "May I show you the way, Lady Morgaan?"
"Lead the way," I motioned forward with my hand and Sasha turned on his heel, heading toward the far left side of the courtyard.
I exchanged a quick glance and small smile with Kraig, who had remained silent all this time. His face was solemnly, but a small twinkle in his eyes shone when he winked at me.
"Smart move, lassie," he muttered under his breath as we followed Sasha's lantern from a safe distance. "I dinna' trust these StoneMasters."
I nodded grimly – for some odd reason, I didn't trust our host either. Perhaps it was the Elf in me, but I had a hard time having positive thoughts about people who made their living among dead stone, instead of the living warmth of wood, earth, and plant.
The stables were as dark as the castle itself – Sasha's words were confirmed, however, when he finally shed some light on the matter. With a soft whispering of robes, he moved from torch to torch secured along the stable stone wall and flooded our senses with flickering firelight.
The stables were indeed warm and clean, and the stalls were indeed spacious and filled with thick beds of fresh, sweet-smelling hay. I led Ahearn into the nearest stall and began to unbuckle his saddle and bridle.
"I beg your leave, Lady Morgaan," Sasha flittered back into view, his face still hooded in green velvet. "But I will go back to the castle while you tend to your horse and tell the servants to set your dinner," the apprentice turned toward Kraig. "King Konig -?"
"I'm stayin' here," Kraig folded his arms across his thick chest and glared up at Sasha, as if daring the young human to argue with him. "Since I see no stable-hands, as ye claimed there were, I will stay here an' help Lady Morgaan."
"Very well," Sasha acquiesced after a slight, uncomfortable pause.
With a slight bow, the slim-framed StoneMaster turned and practically glided out of the stable door, into the darkness beyond.
"What a strange man," I sighed deeply. "But then, all humans seem a little strange to me, even after all of my years traveling among them."
"Humph!" Kraig snorted loudly, grabbing the stall's bucket and trotting over toward a large barrel that stood nearby. "That's no human, lassie."
"What do you mean?" I glanced up, puzzled yet once again by the Dwarf's cryptic words.
"There's not a one o' the StoneMasters that has human blood," Kraig explained gruffly, pushing back the barrel lid and plunging the bucket into a barely touched pile of oats.
"Then what are they?" I frowned, neatly setting aside Ahearn's saddle and bridle and leaving his warm side in search of a hoof pick, brush, and curry comb. "Sasha looked human enough to me…what I could see of him, anyway."
"Yer a wee lassie," Kraig brushed past me with a chuckle, squeezing his way past a curious and hungry Ahearn. "I suppose most folks seem tall to ye."
"What's that supposed to mean?" usually, I wasn't so sensitive about my height, but something about a Dwarf telling me that was I was short rubbed my pride the wrong way.
"It means that ye haven't noticed that Sasha 'tisn't tall 'nough to be human," he pointed out calmly while elbowing Ahearn's nose out of the way so he could pour the oats into the feeding trough. "The lad's taller than ye an' me, to be sure, but that's not sayin' much," the middle-aged Dwarf turned toward me with a kind smile. "He's too small fer a human."
"Then what is he?" I cried in exasperation, finally finding what I was looking for on a shelf above the oat barrel.
"He's a –"
But I never heard what Sasha was, because he suddenly appeared at the stable door.
"Your dinner is waiting," he said calmly, folding his long, graceful fingers inside of his robe sleeves.
"Damn dinner!" Kraig's ill humor returned quickly as he took the hoof pick from me and promptly picked up one of the Ahearn's front hooves. "I dinna' come here to sup wi' StoneMasters," he shot Sasha a dirty look before digging the dirt and caked grass out of the V-shaped grooves of Ahearn's hoof. "I came to bargain fer my son.
"However," the Dwarf paused, glancing over at me. "I'll break bread wi' ye, Elf lass," Kraig stated stoutly, then glared defiantly at Sasha. "But wi' no other."
Is that the only answer he's capable of giving? I wondered in frustration.
Just once, I wished Sasha would stand up to Kraig's demands. Something about the apprentice's willing acquiescence to the Dwarf's every whim struck me as both ominous and calculating.
As if sensing my thoughts, Sasha shifted his feet slightly and bowed slightly toward Kraig.
"If you will, m'lord, I will take you ahead to the castle," the apprentice then turned to me. "If you don't mind, Lady Morgaan, I will leave you and take King Konig to see his son."
"Do what you must," I shrugged slightly, glancing curiously at Kraig before resuming Ahearn's grooming.
Though I find it strange that you virtually give me run of the castle grounds, I thought to myself.
Once again, Sasha seemed uncannily able to read my thoughts. His response nearly floored me, though.
"This is your castle as much as it is ours," Sasha bowed toward me – a bow significantly lower than the one he afforded the king of the Dwarves. "However, I will bid one of the StoneMasters to escort you to the castle once you're done here, if that would make you more comfortable."
"Why…uh…thank you," I stuttered once I had found my voice.
I exchanged another puzzled glance at Kraig, who simply shrugged before following Sasha out of the stables. For the first time since stepping through the StoneMasters' cold gate, I was left alone with my jumbled thoughts.