TWO

Though it had been nearly a week since he left, Valo could still hear the music and smell the aromas of Sayfe's Twins Festival so clearly in his mind on his clothes, and he could still feel the goose bumps on his skin. As he replayed the occasion in his mind, his feet skipped along the wide dirt road, toward his next destination. Although he never knew where the roads would take him, something deep within him always told him the way to go.

The plains between the ocean to the West and mountains to the East rolled like waves in the mid-Summer wind. A hot yellow sun hung high above in a cloudless, bright blue sky. There was nothing but the sky and the waves of grass to keep Valo company. He could almost feel the life in the earth beneath his soles, breathing slowly and deeply. As much as he loved seeing the world in all its divine simplicity, he couldn't wait to reach the nearest inn.

It was just then that Valo happened upon a weathered wooden sign to his right, on the edge of the road. In big, bold, black letters it read; "Blue Haven. Five Miles."

Valo huffed. "Odd name. Hope it's a big enough town for an inn." He readjusted the straps of his knapsack and continued onward as the sun very gently descended toward the horizon.

Once the sun kissed the horizon, Valo could see in the distance plumes of chimney smoke, stretching toward the few pink, wispy clouds in the sky. He judged it would take roughly two more hours to reach the town, so he didn't waste another moment admiring the skyline.

As he approached the outer limits, he noticed a small wooden sign painted with bold red letters: "Welcome to Blue Haven. Yndria's most historical inn!"

"A historic inn?" chimed Valo. He looked past the sign to a three-storied building painted a cheerful blue. It was obviously in need of a fresh coat; the paint was peeling from the wooden siding. "Certainly looks…historic." His cheerful mood waned, thinking of how the inside must match the well-worn exterior.

The entrance to Blue Haven was a cotton-white door, and once pushed aside; Valo was greeted with the heavy aromas of cooking meats, the sweat of working men, and alcohol on the breaths of the patrons. The inn's pub was bursting at the seams with the sounds of glasses banging on wooden tables, raucous laughter, arguments in the back carried over the voices of a few burly drunkards singing.

Valo made his way to what very well may have been the last empty seat in the pub, at the counter. Instantly, he was greeted by a giant of a man in a heavily stained apron. "Greetings, patron!" came a roar from within a bushy beard. "What can I getcha?"

"I'd love a room, if one's available, sir," answered Valo.

"We have plenty of rooms upstairs, and never enough chairs in here, I'm afraid. Lotsa passersby, hardly ever any overnighters. Kinda room ya needin'?"

"Just a bed. I only plan on staying a night or two. I have to get to Hail soon."

The innkeeper nodded thoughtfully, and then winked, "You'll be pleased to know, then, the Blue Haven has runnin' water! Spent good money to get it and it has yet to pay for itself, as I was told it would. Lotta taxes in runnin' water, ya know." He picked up a mug and was wiping it dry. "You know, since you'll be stayin', how's about a good meal? On the house!"

"Why thank you, sir! I'd love something other than stale bread and jerky for a change."

"It's no problem. And, it's Lou, by the way."

"Valo." He smiled at the burly man. "Thanks again."

Lou returned the smile-Valo could tell by the way the ends of Lou's beard turned upward. "Ah, don't worry about it. I'll have my cook bring out tonight's special for ya." Before leaving Valo to serve his other patrons, Lou poured him a pint of mead.

Only a short fifteen minutes had passed by when a steaming plate of pot roast and vegetables was set before Valo. "Need a refill, sir?" asked a pretty voice from above.

Valo looked up to lock onto a pair of violet eyes set within a pale, smiling face. He swallowed a lump in his throat.

"Sir? Need a refill?" she asked again, only not as friendly.

"Oh! Y-yes, please," stammered Valo, blushing. "Thank you."

She giggled. "No problem. Enjoy." With that, she turned on her heel and disappeared behind the swinging door to the kitchen.

Valo watched the slight swivel in her hips as she walked away. As he watched her, his heart raced. The image of her eyes, her violet-like-the-sunrise eyes burned into his mind. Who was she, he just had to know.

Just then, Lou came back around, wiping down the counter along his way. "See ya gotcher food. How ya likin' it?"

"Delicious!" Valo answered between bites. "So, that black-haired girl is the cook?"

Lou nodded. "And the waitress, she cleans the pub and rooms, and even does most of the shopping."

"Sounds like a busy girl."

"She loves this inn just about as much as I do. I have arthritis so I can't do as much as I'd like, but she does it all without a hitch."

"Is she family?"

"Aye that she is. Sorta adopted the kid when was about seven or so. I 'spose ya noticed she's part kin to ya, eh?" He made a hand gesture over his ears. "She's only half kin, but kin all the same."

Valo pushed his plate forward and finished his mead. "Her story certainly sounds interesting."

"Well, if you'd like to hear it, maybe you should from her," Lou said with a wink. "Oh! Before I forget, here's your room key. On the second floor, to the left."

"Thanks, Lou. I think I'll be heading up now, actually."

"Pleasant dreams, Valo!" Lou chimed as Valo trotted up the stairs. "Seems like a nice enough fella, eh?"

The young woman nodded. "We don't really see too many Elves travelling alone, though. Most villages would think it a bad omen. Kinda strange," she pondered aloud.

Lou huffed his agreeance, but said, "A man is free to go where he pleases, with company or no. Still, there's probably a story behind the man. Speakin' of which, he asked to know yours."

"Mine?" She blinked in surprise. "Why would he want to know anything about me?"

"Why else would a man want to know anything about a woman? It's cuz yer cute!" Lou laughed heartily, clutching his jiggling belly.

She blushed wildly and smacked Lou on his arm. "Oh, shut up! By the gods, Uncle Lou, you're embarrassing."

Rubbing his arm, Lou continued, "Most of our patrons do, you know. A few have even asked to court ya!" He then said, too low for her to hear, "There was something different in that Elf's eyes, though."

"Well, I'd better start wiping tables and closing down the bar," the violet-eyed beauty stated, hopping over the bar counter.

When Valo found his room, he was pleasantly surprised at the condition; in no way was it similar to the inn's exterior. On the unpainted, wooden paneled walls were simple paintings of local landscapes; an armoire to the left of the door with a few spindly wire hangers; and a small bed on a simple metal frame was set against one wall, made neatly with crisp, white linens.

Next to the bed was the door that led into the washroom. Instantly, his dirty clothes were shed and his long hair untied, and he was underneath a faucet of steaming water. Nothing felt better on travel-weary muscles than hot water-except, of course, for the touch of the delicate touch of a woman's hand.

Just as he was getting lost in the relaxation of the shower, there was a knock at the door. Growling, Valo turned off the shower, threw a towel around his waist and then, opened the door.

Standing before him, with fresh linens and towels, was the black-haired young woman from the pub, with a very shocked expression on a very red face.

Valo was just as shocked; he nearly lost his towel as he stammered, unable to produce any audible words.

She couldn't help but allow her eyes to fall from his face down his neck, and along his still-soaking skin, to the hand that clinged to the towel. Certainly none of the other overnighters she had tended to were so, so, well…"Um!" she squeaked, shaking her current thoughts from her mind, "I've brought you a change of sheets. I, uhh, I haven't had time to change them earlier."

Valo blinked. Thank the gods she spoke first, he thought. "Oh, yes, thank you very much." The words he spoke felt so thick in his throat, he felt he couldn't breathe. Why, of all the women he's ever met, did she make him feel this way?

"Thank you." She squeezed past him, being very careful not to touch him. "I told Lou earlier this room wasn't ready; I think he just wanted to show off. I was a little worried you had gone to bed already," she said as she tore the old linens from the mattress. "I'd hate to have you sleeping in a dirty bed."

Valo smiled, feeling the ice broken-somewhat. He moved toward his knapsack. "I don't mind, really. I'm accustomed to sleeping on dirt."

She giggled. "I suppose, but here, there is not to be a speck of dirt on one's bed." Changing the subject, she asked, "Why do you travel alone?"

A common question, though unlike most asking out of suspicion, hers seemed like nothing more than innocent curiosity. To many villages, a lone Elf was an ill omen of drought or disease. "Well, I don't bring a plague with me, if that's why you're asking," he said jokingly.

She laughed again. Her laugh made Valo's skin tingle. "That's good to know. I'll rest easy tonight, then." Valo began to comment, but she stopped him. "Maybe you'd be more comfortable clothed?"

It was Valo's turn to laugh. He grabbed his knapsack from the floor and disappeared into the washroom. When he emerged, he was fully dressed with his damp hair tied back. "You know, I am more comfortable."

"Good," the barmaid said. She sat at the edge of the bed, looking up at him inquisitively. "Are you ready to answer my question now?"

"Just one thing first." Valo plopped down next to her.

"Yes?" She felt more than a little strange sitting next to this man on his bed. His skin was radiating heat and smelled lightly of soap. She felt her cheeks become warm.

"I should like to know your name, please."

"Oh," she replied shyly, "It's Alya."

Alya…Valo grinned. Ignoring as he could the skip in his heartbeat, he informed her, "There's no real reason, really. I enjoy the company of others, but I also enjoy being out on my own, setting my own pace. Besides, we Elves can be rather stuffy."

"Don't I know it," was her response. Her voice deepened to a disapproving tone.

"What do you mean?" Valo asked. "Do many pass through here?" They probably treat her poorly, the bastards.

Alya shook her head. "Not too many, but my relatives left that impression on me. They don't take kindly to 'tainted' blood, you know. Lou took me in when he learned of the abuse I was dealt by their hands. They blamed me for my mother's death."

"Why would they do such a thing?" Valo felt nauseous then, thinking of the race he was a part of could be so prejudice.

She shrugged. "She ended falling in love with a Human man. He was a city guard in Sayfe when she visited on a mission trip for the clans-she was a fledgling priestess with tremendous talent, I was told. Her family hated him, but she married him and quickly became pregnant. She died in childbirth, with me."

Valo shook his head. He felt deep empathy for Alya, knowing firsthand the cruelty of Elves. "Why didn't your father care for you?"

"He did, and he loved me dearly, Lou said. Lou is his older brother. But, when I was three, he was murdered by a purse thief. I was sent to live with Elfish relatives who beat me and nearly starved me. When Lou came by one day to visit, I told him everything they did, and he threatened to kill them if they didn't put me in his care. 'My brother was an honorable man!' he told them, 'and I'll be damned if I let you harm his beloved daughter another day.' I'm so grateful to my Uncle Lou." Alya wiped a tear from the corner of her eye.

"It seems to me honorable men run through the family. Lou is honoring his brother by caring for you and loving you as his own," Valo said. "Alya, I'm sorry if I made you upset at all, recounting your story."

Alya smiled sweetly at Valo. "You didn't at all. In fact, it feels good to have someone to tell it to."

"I'm glad it was me, then."

"Me, too." The newfound friends shared a moment of silence before Alya asked, "Don't you ever get lonely?"

Valo creased his brow. He had never really thought about that until that moment. Was he lonely? Was that why he felt so compelled to suddenly get to know this woman, a complete stranger? "Talking with you," he answered slowly, thoughtfully, "I suppose I am."

Alya's head drooped. "I'm sorry."

Valo placed a hand on her knee. "Don't be sorry, Alya. I truly enjoy your company. Times like this make the road less lonely."

"I'm glad, then." The smile returned to Alya's face, then she stood. "I should let you get some sleep."

"Alright." Valo felt disappointed. He wished he could spend more time with her to talk to her and be with her. He rose to walk her to his door.

"Um?" she started, standing in the hall before him, "Can we talk more? Before you leave?"

"I'd like nothing more."

The two exchanged their goodnights and Valo closed the door. He crawled in between the cool sheets and quickly fell asleep.