Ohrl and Keysa returned to the inn to find Fulke and Haarlund each with a girl on their arm. Beside them sat Jossi, with Faerl standing to one side, shaking his head at the stories Haarlund was fabricating.
“Looks like you’re missing out on the action,” Keysa mused, before leaving Ohrl to his friends. Faerl noticed him as he approached.
“Is everything okay?”
Ohrl shook his head. “I’m one ale missing and forced to play catch up, though by the looks of it, Haarlund’s well ahead and plans to stay there.”
Ohrl looked at his incorrigible friend, who was leaning on a rather pretty young girl who was clearly very new to town, and seemingly quite enamoured with Brúnn’s newest resident physician.
“And what about you, Faerl? No young girl to charm this evening?”
Faerl grinned. “Not tonight. It seems you and I, my brother, are together again.”
With that, they both danced their little celebratory dance, hunched over and waggling their fingers, moving backwards through the crowd, seeing only the faces in the tunnel created as the patrons rather begrudgingly parted to let them through. The brothers reached the far wall and laughed.
“Now don’t you boys go ruining my inn with your antics,” Amold half-heartedly warned them when they sauntered up to the bar. He handed Faerl the first drink.
“Here you go. On the house. One for you Faerl, for making it into the university this year, and one for you my lad,” Amold smiled, passing the second ale to Ohrl. “I hear you have been accepted for Yngve’s academy.”
Faerl almost spat his ale out his nose. “When did that happen? You never told me?”
“She offered me the position this morning,” Ohrl sheepishly offered. “I haven’t told anyone except—.”
“Except Keysa,” finished Amold.
Ohrl smiled. It meant she must have told her father straight away. Amold seemed as proud of him as his own father would be, and he adored him for it. He looked up at Faerl.
“I meant to tell you this evening but I got distracted.” He thought for a moment of the look on his mother’s face. “Then we ended up here, and it’s Haarlund’s night so I was going to leave it until tomorrow. Don’t say anything to the others. In the state Haarlund is in, he will just want me to give him a demonstration, and I may have to throw him in the Oysteinn after all.”
Amold grunted his approval. “It will do him good to tumble from one of those tall tales he spins. Someone should warn those poor young things. They’re being lured into a spider’s web.”
Ohrl looked over at the two young girls Haarlund and Fulke were entertaining, but his attention was soon arrested by the inner doors slowly opening. Whoever was entering obviously still had the outer iron spiked doors open, as a chill wind tore inside. All those near the entrance braced themselves against the sudden freeze and turned to see who was causing this climactic upheaval.
A tall blonde stepped into the inn. She stood for a second in the warm firelight, examining the room. Ohrl turned without interest, until he noticed Faerl sitting motionless with his ale partially raised to his lips, and dribbling down his chin. Looking around the inn, Ohrl realised all eyes were looking her way. Even the women stopped talking to stare, yet when they noticed that the men they were talking to were no longer listening, they all began talking a little louder to try and regain each males’ attention.
The girl removed her cloak, and in an inn full of drab brown and grey leathers, she shone like an emerald washed up in muddy waters. Ohrl turned back to Faerl, who still remained motionless, staring at her in wonder.
“Excuse me,” Amold interrupted. “An innkeeper should never allow newcomers to be left standing alone.” Amold rushed over to greet her, and Ohrl was surprised to see another equally stunning woman dressed in black at her side who had somehow slipped in with the shadows.
Faerl found he could not tear his sight from her, the way her eyes shone, deep blue, cool, exquisite, and so beautiful. He desperately wished she would glance his way, so he could attract her attention, but found he could barely move.
“At least they closed the outer door,” he heard Ohrl say, but the comment only served to irritate him.
“Shh, I can barely hear what they’re saying.” Faerl shifted to one side, bending one ear to Amold’s conversation.
“How can I help you ladies?” Amold had begun. “My name is Amold Eliasson, and I am the owner of the Floating Inn. Everyone just calls me Amold.”
“Pleased to meet you Mr. Elia... sorry, Amold.” The blonde stood very close to Amold and took his arm. Faerl was instantly jealous of the touch. “My name is Baeta, and this is my friend, Na’ilah.”
“Baeta,” Faerl whispered, her name tasting sweet upon his tongue. To his distress, he could hear very little else over the noise of the boisterous inn, and soon Amold showed them to a distant table by the window overlooking the Oystkrakr.
“Baeta,” Faerl whispered her name once again, liking the way it sounded. He sat unmoving, staring at her, enjoying the way the moon shone, cascading light through the high arched window and down upon her hair. She was beautiful, and all else within the Floating Inn seemed to dim. With his near empty glass dangling from his chin, Faerl watched without drinking as Amold enjoyed a polite conversation, unaware of Ohrl’s laughter beside him.
“Come on. Drink up.” Ohrl slapped another ale into his hands, breaking his reverie. Keysa appeared. Faerl knew she’d have one eye on the two women and the other warily on Ohrl. Faerl’s attention, however, soon returned to Amold’s newest guests, and he was soon lost to all else within the inn.
He felt Keysa nestle in close beside him.
“Hey lover boy,” Keysa mocked as she nestled in close. “Why don’t you go over there and say hello instead of drooling into your ale from way over here? Papa could have just poured you a half glass, you’re filling the rest up yourself.”
Faerl could barely respond. “Hmm? Oh, yeah, umm, well I could, I guess. Who are they? Has anyone seen them around before? I wonder what they are doing here.”
He directed the last statement to Ohrl, who almost choked.
“What? You want me to go over there and find out? You want me to be the first brave or stupid male to do what every other male in this room is wanting to do, but is too afraid to look like a fool in front of everyone else. You want me to go and talk to them?”
Ohrl received a slap from Keysa’s table cloth, much to Faerl’s amusement.
“Not every male I hope!” she warned. “Besides, papa has already been the bravest, if that’s what you boys call it. I bet he knows everything there is to know about those two already.”
“Good,” Faerl said dreamily, his voice far away. “Let’s ask him when he gets back.” He then took a long draught of his ale, not replacing the glass until it was empty.
Amold had bowed politely, and with his cloth wrapped neatly over his arm he returned to the bar. Faerl, Ohrl and Keysa sat quietly as he approached, staring at him like children waiting for their bedtime story. Amold saw their eyes wide open with expectancy and, by the time he had reached the bar, he could ignore them no longer.
Faerl didn’t blink, still staring at the innkeeper like an intrigued kitten, leaving Ohrl and Keysa to flick their eyes over to the table where the women were closely engaged in private conversation.
“Them? Ah well,” remarked Amold, “there’s an interesting tale. Turns out they’ll be staying here for a while to talk to some of the lecturers at our university.”
Faerl almost choked on the froth of the new ale Amold had poured him.
“Anthropologists of sorts,” continued Amold, handing Faerl a cloth. “They have travelled many lands researching different cultures, and the people who survived and progressed after the last upheaval.”
“That was centuries ago, close to a thousand years in fact.” Faerl had regained some of his composure and focused his attention on Amold’s story.
“Was it?” Amold smiled. “Well, I don’t claim to know much about that sort of thing. I just pour my ale and talk to customers. I don’t even—.”
“The most recent upheaval was in fact the sinking of what we now call the Great Depression to the east.”
Quick to interrupt Amold, Faerl sat upright on his stool, and leaned forward against the bar. “Only the great core wall lining the eastern part of the Inner Sea protected the area from being completely flooded. There was a time before that, when a vast cataclysm broke the southern wall of Hejveld, effectively isolating our country from the rest of the world. As the land suddenly collapsed thousands of feet, the wall broke and water poured in from the Great Sea to the west. When the water levels finally met, all the cities and people in that land were wiped out in little over a week.”
Faerl had launched into an impromptu history lesson. “It was rumoured that some escaped through secret paths over the wall to the Great Depression, which at that point was still much higher than it is now and apparently quite fertile.”
He took a breath and another swig of ale almost simultaneously.
“In fact, the whole country of Hejveld is one of the only regions that has escaped these upheavals over time, as we are actually living on the core rock itself, part of the planet’s structure. The rocks of the Hardingr and Haeringr are made of the same substance that the planet’s framework consists of. It’s everything in between that is in danger of collapsing and sinking. The only sign of any disturbance we have ever encountered is the Oystkrakr itself. I’m sure you know this Amold, straddling it as we do here in the inn, but the Oystkrakr is actually a huge rip in the core rock, rent apart when the land collapsed creating the Inner Sea.”
Keysa feigned a yawn.
“Well, that may be,” Amold interrupted. “Why don’t you go and discuss it with those two over there? You seem to have a lot in common.”
Keysa blanched, taking a theatrical hold of her father’s arm. “Papa, you want people to come back to the inn don’t you? Why send Faerl over there armed with all that nonsense? He’ll chase them back to the Sunken Lands, or maybe right off the edge into the Oysteinn.”
Amold smiled. “Well Faerl, when I mentioned your name to Miss Baeta, that’s the blonde one in case you’re interested, and that you’ve been accepted into the university, she seemed most put out that you weren’t already sitting by her side.”
This time it was Ohrl choking on his ale, spilling it all over his lap.
“You’d better hurry,” continued Amold. “Haarlund and Fulke have obviously used up their good charm with the two young ones they’ve been entertaining. It looks like they’re making plans to muscle in on your girl. You’d better get a move on. Don’t miss your chance.”
Without being given a chance to protest, Faerl was pulled from his chair and propelled past the semi-drunken trio of Haarlund, Jossi and Fulke. He felt Ohrl’s rough hands shunt him forward, and he almost fell onto the table Baeta and Na’ilah were sitting at. Completely lost, he bowed his head, sensing that Ohrl and Keysa had quickly disappeared, leaving him alone and stranded.
“Good evening, Miss Baeta,” he said nervously, nodding to her, then again to Na’ilah. “I’m Faerl.”
Baeta smiled, and her beauty almost ruptured Faerl’s heart.
“Of course you are, and we’re so happy that you came to join us.” Baeta stood, gently guiding him to a comfortable seat, and Faerl succumbed as she slipped gracefully into the seat beside him.