Indeed a good many of the elders peered down gnarled noses or through spectacles at her dress: fawn breeches and a faded grey tunic held together with bark. Having had slept in them the night before, all her clothes were smudged with soil and still damp from the rain. Eryn shifted her weight slightly under their stares, but continued speaking without acknowledgement to their demeaning gazes.
“Most honorable city council,” she said with a loud voice, trying to imagine somebody was taking her seriously. “I come to you on behalf of Elvin leadership, bearing news of great consequence to this fair city Mindondelu.” She paused, hoping for a dramatic effect, but was disappointed to hear only a loud slurping coming from one corner of the room. By now, she was starting to lose the thin shred of patience she’d been saving for this very moment—an obnoxious nymph, incessant rain, insolent guards, and now this. Weary of pleasantries, she straightened a little and finally announced her message.
“The golems of the East Mountains have mobilized,” she practically shouted. There was a hush. A spoon dropped from an open hand and went skittering across the marble floor. For a moment, the oldest council member hemmed and hawed, trying not to look as surprised as he obviously felt.
“Elvin scouts have detected at least several hundred golems, probably more, travelling through the Fields of Urr in this direction,” Eryn continued, quieter this time. “As you know, they don’t have to rest so they’re covering ground at an alarming pace. We don’t know precisely who’s controlling them, but we suspect the lich Asrial.”
The silence continued until the oldest councilor regained face. “Yes, well,” he glanced at a few of the other members who all looked as if they’d been caught in a public place with their trousers down. “We…we’ve had reason to believe something of this magnitude was stirring in the East, haven’t we counselors?” Heads nodded as if on springs. He turned to Eryn. “Nevertheless, we appreciate your notice and will place it under consideration.” He was trying so hard to play it cool that his nature was almost dismissive, and though she saw right through the act, Eryn couldn’t help but feel some simmering beneath the ribs at his words. In clear finality, the counselor added one more obligatory comment: “Please send our gratitude to the Elvin scouts.”
A little stifled in the air of the warm chamber, Eryn retreated without hesitance, that was, until she reached the doorframe. Drawing a tightly-rolled piece of parchment from her satchel, she turned as if in second thought. “I suppose you won’t be needing these preparatory recommendations from the Elvin generals, then,” she said with a hint of question in her voice. Someone coughed and nervous eyes shifted from her to the main councilor.
“I’ll just leave it here,” Eryn said dryly, setting the document on a small iron table draped with cloth napkins, and with that she stepped outside. Behind the door, she could hear the embarrassed shuffling of slippered feet hurrying across the inner chamber, followed by the clang of something heavy and metal. Eryn stood in the foyer for a moment, a small smile threatening to dance on her lips, which she wisely suppressed. It really wasn’t funny, she realized, making her way to the outside door. The fate of the city was in the hands of these imbeciles.
Well, that was not entirely true; the Elves were mainly to thank for the security of West Kirtania as a whole, Mindondelu included. But still, Erin could not help but shudder at the fate of the town should the Elves choose to set their resources elsewhere. These thoughts swam in her head as she pushed past Elric and Fred—who still looked mildly insulted—and into the city streets.
A familiar cocktail of senses barraged her mind as she became enveloped in the urban bustle. Though the sky was still grey, colors leapt out at her from either side, announcing fruit stands, florists, trinket-makers, and sellers of exotic animals. The murmur of many foreign tongues speaking at once was punctuated only by the screeching of offended parrots and hollow rhythm of hoof beats on cobblestone. Eryn was suddenly affronted with sharp fruity smells mixed with the pungent odor of wine and vinegar, and for a moment she almost felt as if she were suffocating from the fumes. With a hand on the dagger in her belt, she pressed through the crowd.
“Eryn of Mottlewood!” cried a voice when she was almost to the outside gates. Her gaze flew to the friendly figure that waved from the porch of a woodcarver’s shop. There, a plump woman beamed and set down the undershirt she had been folding.
Eryn nodded in reply. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Gorit,” she said obligingly.
The woman continued to smile. “Good afternoon my knickers, young one, come give Auntie Bertha a hug.” With that, she thumped down the front steps and swept Eryn into her ample arms, squeezing with a might unanticipated for a woman her age. It was Eryn could do to keep from twisting instinctively from her grip. Once she released Eryn, the woman held her at arms’ length. “Well now, what brings you here outside of harvest time?” she queried eagerly.
Eryn gave a half-smile. “I’m ambassador to the Elves, remember? Official business and stuff.”
“Oh!” chirped the woman. “Treaties and news and the like, eh?”
Eryn almost laughed. “Something like that.”
The woman began to lead Eryn toward the house. “What an exciting job! You must be so tired from your journey all the way here. Why don’t you come inside and share supper with us?”
Eryn was about to decline when her stomach gurgled in resentment. It had been a long time since she’d eaten anything other than game, dry roots, and Elvin bread. That was all good in itself, to be sure, but for a moment she caught of a whiff of something like chicken pie, and her hunger decided for her.
Bertha Gorit led Eryn past the workshop and into the tiny adjoining nook where a shanty table, two chairs, and a pickle barrel just barely fit. The warm cottage smelled of cedar and savory food, giving Eryn just a tinge of nostalgia. Despite protests of hospitality from her host, she seated herself on the barrel, leaving the chairs open for the elderly couple. Within a few minutes, Bertha gave up fretting over her guest and bustled to the kitchen to see to the food. Eryn sat on her perch and glanced about the room.
Nothing had changed. Shelves displaying dainty pieces of crockery were still dusted with care, trails of soot still grew up the walls from the candle holders, and a small, delicate portrait of a child holding a goose still hung over the doorway.
Except now instead of a doll, Eryn held a dagger tucked in her belt. Instead of long, sandy locks painstakingly woven into braids, her hair was darker and cropped short, barely past her ears. It hadn’t been a long piece of her life, but it had left its mark—that one year she’d lived in the city. It was after those six months that she’d vowed to do so never again.
Heavy footsteps interrupted her musings and she looked up to see Mr. Gorit descending the staircase that led up to the bedroom. Though a short, sinewy man, he walked as if carrying the burden of an ox. Upon noticing an unfamiliar silhouette in his dining room, the man peered with suspicious curiosity into the gloom.
“Hello Mr. Gorit,” Eryn said softly. The man’s face flashed with recognition and his eyebrows shot upward in surprise.
“Little Eryn,” he whispered in his sigh-like voice. “How goes it, Elf?”
Eryn smiled in spite of herself at the nickname. True, she wasn’t really an elf, but it was only with them that she felt she belonged—something Mr. Gorit had been quick to notice so many years ago.
“Fine, thank you,” she replied. “How’s the shop?”
Mr. Gorit lowered himself into one of the chairs, letting out a long breath as she knew he would. “Business is business: rich one day and poor the next. I think me and the Missus might finally be turning a corner but I can’t count my chickens before they hatch…”
He would have gone on if Ms. Gorit hadn’t entered just then with a platter of steaming chicken pie. “Eat, eat!” she sang, placing dishes and wooden utensils before her wards. She heaped generous portions onto the plates and seated herself on the remaining chair. The room became silent save the sound of contented chewing.