Chapter 1: The Stars' Inn

The repetitive pounding of the horse's hooves on the slick, rain- soaked cobblestones did little improve Everen's mood as he rode through the town of Greymare. Dark, scudding clouds rolled ponderously across the sky, lit only briefly by flashes of lightning. Rain continued to pour down on the town as the traveler rode through the deserted streets. Greymare's inhabitants had obviously sought shelter from the cold rain and wild wind, and, like any weary voyager, Everen planned to do the same.

"Come on, Rina," he urged his exhausted mount. "Only a little more, then we can stop for the night." The tired old mare trudged forward again. "There's a good girl. Don't worry. I see an inn a couple of signs ahead. We'll stop there." Rina let out a sigh and continued her plodding.

"Halt!" a crisp voice commanded. A guard, dripping wet and clearly wishing he were somewhere else, stepped out in front of Everen and held up his hand imperiously. "Hold, stranger. What is your business in this fair city?"

"It's exactly that, my friend - my business. Would you move aside so that I may pass?" Everen asked loftily. He smiled inwardly at the guard's awkward attempt to hide a splutter; the guard was quite young and very inexperienced.

"Who are you, to speak to me that way?" the guard demanded, his boyish face flushed with anger. His hand went to the hilt of his rusty sword.

"I'm Everen Starguard," Everen told the young man. "Might you move aside, my friend?" There were times he hated having to put on this smooth exterior, but he had to admit, watching people's faces contort as they put two and two together was somewhat fun.

"S-Starguard?" the guard repeated incredulously. "For-forgive me. I had no idea-"

"That's fine, friend, as long as I can make it to an inn before midday tomorrow," Everen replied pleasantly. Rain dripped off of his hooded cloak onto Rina, who shot him an injured look.

"O-of course, sir. Be on your way," the guard stuttered. Everen nodded in acknowledgement and nudged Rina into a walk. As he passed the guard, he pressed a small silver coin into his hand.

"Take this and forget we've passed by," Everen instructed the guard. "It would be very bad if you happened to mention it to anybody." His hand strayed significantly to his sword, and his dark eyes glittered strangely.

Any remaining color drained from the guard's face. "O-of course, sir. G-good night."

"Pleasant evening," Everen murmured. Rina plodded on.

Everen laughed to himself as he heard the splashing sound of the guard scurrying away. "Little people are so much fun," he announced to no one in particular. "C'mon, Rina. Let's get to that inn before we melt."

They stopped beneath a faded old sign depicting a cluster of stars over a cornucopia of food. Under the picture, written in washed out white letters, were the words "The Stars' Inn." The sign blew back and forth on a rusty chain as the storm's winds continued to scour the city. A warm glow came from the inside of the inn, and, if the noise was any indication, the people inside cared very little about the gale outside. Suddenly, more than anything, Everen wanted to get inside someplace warm and sleep until his tired body stopped screeching at him.

"May I help you, kind sir?"

Everen started and looked down. A short, adolescent girl stood by Rina. Her rust-colored dress, white apron, and hooded cloak were soaked through, but she appeared to be oblivious to the deluge.

"May I help you, kind sir?" she repeated. The embroidered insignia on her cloak, Everen noted, was the same as the sign, which most likely meant she worked there.

"Yes," he answered. "Do you have a room open?"

"Just one, sir, and it is rather small," the girl replied, brushing the rain out of her eyes. "One silver piece a night. It includes meals."

"I'll take it," Everen told her, sliding down from Rina. "Do you have a stable for my horse?"

"Yes, sir. I'll send Bark to take Rina here to the stables." The girl stroked Rina's neck affectionately.

"You know my horse's name?"

"It's on her bridle. I can read those runes. Now, why don't you come inside and get dry while Bark sees to your horse." She turned and shouted into the inn, "Ho! Bark! Horse! And be quick, too!"

A young boy, all quicksilver grace and flashing eyes, darted out into the rain, bowed smoothly to Everen, and took hold of Rina's reins. "She doesn't bite, does she?" he asked. Everen shook his head. The boy doffed his hat and led Rina to the stables.

"Come inside, sir. It is getting cold." The girl beckoned Everen to go into the inn. Everen, feeling a trifle surprised at the girl's kind manner, stepped inside the building to find a piece of traveler's heaven.

The inn was a large building constructed mainly of dark, heavy wood. The ceiling was low, but a clean coat of creamy whitewash gave it the appearance of being higher. The walls were the same creamy color as the ceiling and were dotted with glass candle sconces whose contents threw shatters of light around the main room. The common area of the inn was clean and neat. Low tables of dark wood lined the walls, and sturdy benches provided seats. A small lamp decorated each table. Near the rear of the room, a warm fire crackled on the hearth as a flutist, fiddler, and a mandolin player filled the inn with rollicking music that had half of the patrons dancing.

All this Everen took in at a glance as he stood in the doorway, his lanky frame dripping water on the smooth floor.

"Please, step inside. I've sent your saddlebags upstairs along with a towel. If you need dry clothes, don't hesitate to ask. Your room is at the top of the stairs and to the right. It has a blue door. You can't miss it." The girl smiled at him pleasantly. "Is there anything else I can get you?"

" ." Everen dug in his belt pouch and handed her a small silver coin and a few coppers. "Take these, friend. Might I have your name?"

The girl counted the coins and looked up at him in perplexity. "Sir," she protested, "you've given me almost double the rent! That-"

"Keep the coppers," he told her. "I'd rather you not mention that I was here to anyone."

"Sir, I don't need money to hold my tongue," the girl informed him quite seriously. Everen smiled gruffly and closed her fingers around the coins.

"Keep them," he repeated. "You've an honest face. I haven't seen honesty in anyone in a long time."

"Thank you, sir," she said, dropping a curtsy.

"It's no trouble. Now, what's your name?"

"Ket," she answered as she tucked the coppers into her apron pocket. "Why don't you go dry off? Mama will have a fit if you keep dripping on her floor."

Everen nodded, giving the peculiar impression that he was bowing, and headed up the stairs.

The room that Ket had directed him to was indeed easy to find. For one thing, the door of the room was an almost fluorescent blue, and it was also the only room of the right of the stairs. Everen pushed the door open and stepped inside.

Like the rest of the inn, the room was scrupulously neat and made mainly of dark wood daubed with whitewash. A bed covered with a patchwork quilt stood in one corner. Next to it was a nightstand of sorts with a lantern, towel, and what appeared to be a book on its top. A mirror was hung above it. A chest of drawers took up another corner. There was a window covered with red-checked curtains across from the bed, and a multicolored braided rug lay on the floor beneath the window. His saddlebags rested there. All in all, the room, though sparse, was rather homelike, and it made Everen feel quite content for the first time in weeks.

He shut the door carefully, listening for the small click that meant the latch had caught. Then he pulled off his sodden clothing and dried off roughly with the towel retrieved from the nightstand. Already warmth was beginning to seep through his cold limbs. "Clothes, clothes," he muttered to himself as he dug through his saddlebags. "Please be dry." They were, luckily, and he pulled on the garments with evident relief. Next he belted his sword about his waist. He had seen several patrons wearing swords and so deduced that it was fine to be armed in the Greymare area. Now fully dressed, he turned to the mirror and ran his fingers through his dark, messy hair. "Mildly presentable," he said as he surveyed his appearance. "Now to get something to eat." He headed back down the stairs after closing the door softly behind him.

He found an empty spot on one of the numerous benches and sat down in relief. After having been in the saddle for days, even the hard surface of the bench was a welcome change.

"Food for you?" a busty waitress asked as she passed the table.

"Yes, and something hot to drink," Everen called after her.

"Get it to you in a moment, sir!"

Everen nodded in acknowledgement and settled back against the table to watch the musicians and the dancing people. He marveled inwardly as the agility of the waitresses and the lone waiter as the wove in and out of the dancing throng, seeming to almost instinctively know when to duck a swung dancing partner or dodge an arm flung wide.

A few minutes later, the busty waitress returned, carrying a tray with a plate of food and a mug of hot cider. She set these down in front of him then smiled. "If you need anything," she said, winking at him, "don't hesitate to ask for Ree."

"I won't," Everen said calmly. Ree pouted at his unspoken denial of her offer and flounced away.

"Watch out for Ree," Ket said in his ear, her voice shaded with amusement. "Once she lays eyes on the man she wants, there is no force in the natural world that could pry her away."

"Thanks for the warning," Everen murmured back. "I'm not in the mood for any . . .ah . . . entanglements."

Ket smothered a giggle. "I see," she said. "Is your room all right?"

"Wonderful. It's the nicest thing I've seen in about three weeks," Everen told her. "I've been on the road for a long time."

"I gathered that." Ket fell silent for a moment. Then: "I realized I never asked your name. Who are you?"

"I'm Everen," he replied hesitantly.

"Everen." Ket tried out the name. "You write it with the Old Runes 'evé' and 'ren', right? Or with 'ever' and 'én'? That's . . ." She paused in concentration. "That's 'star' and 'to protect,' or 'night' and 'harbinger,' right?"

"How did you know?" Everen asked in amazement. "Hardly anybody can read runes, and it's rare to find an innkeeper's daughter who can."

Ket shrugged. "So I'm odd. You're strange, too." She sat down beside him on the bench and crossed her arms obstinately.

"Oh?" Everen inquired, feeling amused. He had noted her changing the subject.

"Yes. For example, people treat you like a grown man, yet if they would look closely, they would see you're only about half that age."

"And how old do you put me at, Mistress?"

Ket scowled at his subtle teasing and studied him carefully. Everen was tall and lanky, and he was muscular without being obviously so. His skin, tanned by long exposure to the element, was still stretched smoothly over his frame, and his face was unlined. Dark eyes of an unidentifiable color glittered beneath fine, dark brows. A straw stack of deep brown hair topped off his head. He wore nondescript brown clothes and a somewhat superior manner. The way he carried himself suggested he was at least thirty, but . . .

"I wouldn't put you past, oh, seventeen," Ket said finally. "Am I right? Seventeen?"

"Exactly. How could you tell?" Everen asked.

"You're not done growing, so you're not proportional."

"And you're fifteen, aren't you?'

"You say it like it's a bad thing," she muttered petulantly.

"Not at all," he hastily reassured her. Actually, he had thought she was younger than that at first. Her blue-gray eyes, framed with startlingly dark lashes, and pale complexion had put him in mind of a doll, and the auburn braid that hung down her back was the style worn by much younger children. It didn't really help that she was a good head and a half shorter than he was, either. Once he had the opportunity to take a closer look, however, he had noted that she was closer to maturity than he had realized; she was short but had nearly the proportions of an adult, and her face had lost the characteristic roundness of a child. "Ah, aren't you working?"

"Yikes! Forgot! Mama'll have my hide! Oh, and by the way, your dinner's stone cold. Excuse me!" She hurried away with a mischievous glance cast over her shoulder.

Everen made a face at her retreating back. "Bet she distracted me on purpose." He turned to his plate and began to pick at his cold food.

Luckily, his cider was still warm, and for a few moments he lost himself in the warmth that a hot drink can bring to a cold and tired body. After a while, he even felt slightly rejuvenated. It was the ruckus near the door that drew his attention away from his beverage.

"Have you got a room open, Ket?" a thin blond boy dressed in blue and pale green satin asked the girl, leering at her. Ket's eyes hardened, and she drew herself up in scarcely suppressed anger.

"There are no rooms left, Lyon," she answered coldly. Everen winced at her tone. "Even if there was one, I wouldn't give it to you or any of your hog-faced sycophants! You know this; we've been through this before."

"No space available, then?"

Ket rolled her eyes in exasperation. "Are you thick-headed? That's what I just said."

The young man called Lyon looked Ket up and down suggestively. "I'm sure we could sleep in the loft?"

"We?" Ket repeated. Everen had a feeling that, if he chose to sit on his bench and not interfere, things were going to get quite bloody. Ket did not enjoy being the focus of any innuendo.

"Yes," Lyon answered. "You, me, and Lerc here." He jerked his thumb back to indicate the hulking, hairy man who stood just outside the doorway. "Lerc's a good friend of mine. He says I'm very friendly. Would you like to see if he's right?" He took hold of her arm.

Without the slightest change of expression, Ket wrenched her arm away and slapped Lyon across the face. "You perverted bastard son of a maggot!" she cried. "How dare you?"

Lyon's face grew stony, and he grabbed Ket's arm again. "Know your place, wench," he growled as he twisted her arm cruelly. Ket bit her lip to keep from crying out in pain. "Lerc," Lyon snapped, "take our friend Ket here outside and see if you can persuade her to join us." Lerc grunted and took hold of Ket's shoulder in a gargantuan hand.

"Know this, Ketrine Row'an of Greymare," Lyon hissed as Lerc drew Ket outside. "You do not defy me. You are just a girl. You should never attempt to rise above your station. I am to be the next duke of Greymare, and you are to be a serving wench for the rest of your days. What I want, I get. Do what you will, Lerc." He turned away with seeming indifference.

Everen sat stock-still on his bench. Should he interfere and risk his anonymity, or should he sit all unconcerned as the only person he had known to be kind to him in over three months was mutilated or violated just outside the very inn that offered him comfort? Something tugged at him. Morality, perhaps, or maybe something more. 'Fate doesn't like leaving things to chance, I know,' he mused. 'It's entirely possible that I was supposed to meet her.

'And it's just as possible that I'm supposed to save her, then. . .'

A shriek of pain, scarcely audible over the music and chatter in the inn, reached Everen's ears. He stood up and crossed over to the door, noting idly that the storm had passed. Lyon lounged by the doorframe, examining his fingernails as his henchman beat Ket. Everen clenched his teeth, and hot rage boiled in his veins. The nerve of the over-dressed butterfly, to stand around while an innocent girl was beat to a pulp! Everen drew his sword; its steely whisper as it slid out of its sheath was drowned out by the din of the inn.

"Hello, my friend," he said softly to Lyon as he approached the young man. "Why don't you and I step outside for a moment?"

"Why don't you leave me to my business, peasant?" Lyon retorted, not looking up. "I'm a very busy-" He inhaled sharply, having glanced up and seen Everen's sword.

"Go on, my friend," Everen urged him in that same deadly quiet voice. "Or would you rather step outside?" Lyon gulped, his face white, and edged out the door.

Once outside, Everen pushed the door shut. "So no one will interrupt," he explained. Lyon looked positively terrified of the young man competently holding a very sharp sword in front of him.

Another pain-filled shriek split the silence of the night. Everen and Lyon both looked to the source, Lyon praying devoutly that his henchman had no done anything permanent to Ket, and Everen wishing that he would not observe Lerc taking certain liberties with the innkeeper's daughter's person. What greeted their eyes, however, was a peculiar sight with a not immediately recognizable source of pain.

Lerc had pinned Ket to the ground by digging one knee into her hip and one into her stomach. A long cut decorated one of her cheeks, and blood dripped down from the gash above her eyebrow. One of the huge man's hands held Ket's above her head. With his other hand, the giant was slowly pulling the laces of Ket's bodice tighter. This confused Everen for a moment until he remembered that the lungs and stomach and all sorts of different kinds of sensitive organs were being compressed. In essence, Lerc was gradually suffocating Ket.

Everen hissed. He could not explain why he felt he should save this girl that he had known for only a half hour, but he knew he had to. He advanced on soft feet towards the hulking man, his sword held dangerously low in front of him. "Why don't you stop that now, my friend?" he suggested. Lerc looked up and encountered a fierce glare from Everen. The man said nothing but continued to yank Ket's bodice laces tighter.

"Ah, Lerc, I don't think that's the wisest of ideas," Lyon squeaked.

"I really don't care, master," Lerc replied. "I can take on that shrimp any time and beat him to a pulp."

"I wouldn't make any bets on that." Everen stepped into Lerc's line of vision. "I suggest you stop that immediately. The mistress of this inn will not be pleased."

"She can't do anything," Lerc said derisively. "My master has the power here, not that innkeeper or her daughter."

"You can't say I didn't warn you," Everen sighed.

"Everen," Ket croaked. He glanced down at her. "Don't kill him. Please."

The young man sighed inwardly and nodded. He wouldn't have killed Lerc; he never killed unless he had to. He was just planning on making it abundantly clear that assaulting young girls was a very bad idea.

"Lerc, I'm asking you, please leave her alone," Everen said levelly. Lerc ignored him. "Fine. Pushing right along, then." He smashed the pommel of his sword into the back of the man's neck. Lerc collapsed like a pole-axed ox.

"What do you think you're doing?" Lyon shrieked as Ket squirmed out from underneath the giant. He seemed to have forgotten his fear. "You can't do this! I'll tell my father!"

"You'll tell your father what?" Everen inquired, pointedly swinging his sword in Lyon's direction.

Lyon gulped. "Um. . .tell him that you threatened me."

"Oh? And was this so-called 'threat' unprovoked?"

"Well. . . erm. . . ah. . . no?"

"Wise answer, my friend." Everen sheathed his sword. "Now, are you ever going to assault Ket again?"

"No, sir."

"That's good," Ket interrupted. She had fixed her bodice and was now twirling a small, sharp dagger between her fingers, grinning viciously all the while. "I'm sure there are all sorts of things you'd like to keep inside of you that I'd be more or less obligated to carve out - slowly - if you got over-friendly again." She gave the dagger another twirl.

Lyon visibly paled, then bolted for the white horse that stood patiently beneath the sign next door to the inn. "You'll pay for that!" he screeched as he mounted the horse and kicked its flanks. "You just wait!" He galloped away.

Everen turned to Ket. "Are you all right? He didn't hurt you too badly, did he?"

Ket shook her head. "If you had been a minute later, I couldn't make any promises as to my condition, but I'm fine now. Thank you very much." She curtsied deeply, making Everen rather uncomfortable.

"That was a rather melodramatic exit, hm?" he remarked.

Ket snorted. "You have about three hours to get out of town," she informed him with a dry smile. "Lyon'll have half the guards looking for you by then. I suggest leaving now."

* * * * *

A/N: This is the revised version, since the formatting was screwed up and everything. I'm going to do my best to go back through and fix the things my lovely reviewers have mentioned as either confusing, strange, not right, or just plain wrong. Many thanks go out to those reviewers. Thank you for respecting this enough to tell me what I'm doing not-the-best.