Chapter Two

 

          Na’ilah watched as Baeta stood in front of a tall, heavy framed mirror set in the corner of their bed chamber. She cast a slow gaze over every detail of Baeta’s appearance, although she knew Baeta was immaculate. Her light silk bodice was wrapped to perfection. Thin, meticulously woven strips of silk enhanced her narrow waist and were bound into her chest piece, enticingly embracing her partially exposed frame.

          The colour was a soft enchantment of subtle green upon silver, a running river reflecting bending willows in the snows above. Her blue eyes were the source from which that water ran, her blonde hair rolling in cascades that fell in soft curls toward her bare shoulders. Against her pale white skin, Baeta’s lips were a full red, warm and unique like the last beautiful autumn leaf on a desolate tree.

          “Na’ilah, tell me again about my desirable young man. Tell me of those unique qualities that will make him stand out above all others. I want to be reminded of why this man should have the pleasure of my… pleasures.”

Na’ilah whispered her answer from right behind Baeta.

          “Your pleasures? Need I remind you that your pleasures are not in my interest here, though you may have your way with him as you see fit.”

          Na’ilah moved in front of Baeta, blocking the mirrored view with her own beautiful frame. She moved a finger up to Baeta’s cheek, tenderly stroking it with the outside of her knuckle, then softly lifted Baeta’s dipped chin so that their gaze met.

          “You do understand what is at stake here?” Na’ilah asked. “We have been waiting long enough. He is the one we are after, the only one that can lead us to the stone of power. I can feel it. We have tracked him for a full month, but he’s shown no sign of revealing his secrets. We must entrap him by other means.”

          Na’ilah did not wait for Baeta to respond, instead she moved into the shadow of the opposite corner. She was dressed in dark, blood coloured leathers, her black chest piece strapped hard into a tight corset. Her toned legs slipped into a pair of slim leather leggings, her hair bound in one long, perfect tail. Na’ilah looked no less alluring than Baeta, but in the darkened smoky atmosphere of the Floating Inn, she would blend into the background whereas Baeta would be the source of illumination.

          When she turned, her voice was low and assured, her eyes burning with a fire, resolute and determined.

          “It is here, Baeta. There is something strong in this city that I have not felt anywhere else we have searched. We have done well to remain undetected, but now is the time to claim what is mine.”

          The single firelight, a glowing sphere of incandescent gas, floated above Baeta. Everywhere else fell into shadow. The walls, a dull brown of tapestry against rock, reflected none of the grace of the woman admiring herself in the mirror. You truly are beautiful, Na’ilah thought, and she knew Baeta’s questions were not the product of vanity. She would not have chosen Baeta as second in command if arrogance would be her downfall.

          Baeta could be as cold as the colour of her skin, a porcelain heart that would never shatter and was completely loyal to her. Na’ilah had counted on Baeta’s strength many times without fail, especially in this horrid cold country, far from her own over the great seas to the east. For an instant Na’ilah remembered the hot winds, the expanse of sand and the will to survive that drove her toward her final goal. Na’ilah rested her gaze upon Baeta. Her muscles clenched, and her jaw tightened as her soul once again bound itself to her destiny.

          “You are ready.”

They slipped into their silver fur coats and left the warmth of their chamber. The chill air gripped them. Spring had begun, but high in the mountains it would be a long time before ‘warm’ was a commonly used word.

         

          The Floating Inn straddled the mighty Oystkrakr high above the Oysteinn River, occupying the remains of the original bridge before a new one was constructed some thirty years prior. The solid framework had been partially dismantled on its upper surface, then reinforced with the clear resin mined from the Haeringr. From a distance the massive bulk of the inn appeared to hover in mid-air, floating midway between the east and west banks of Brúnn.

          Interwoven into the clear framework below were layers of pathways and stairs leading to viewing platforms and small sheltered rooms, finally ending at its lowest level with a single see-through enclosure. In the early morning light, the myriad clear pathways and steps mimicked a spider’s silk heavily laden with dew.

        Mirroring the mountains that sourced the Oysteinn River, the Floating Inn had steep slate rooftops that remained pocketed with snow. Smoke arose from its tall chimneys all year round, a sign that the inn never slept and its ale always flowed. The inn’s heavy wooden doors, with imposing metal spikes carved and worn like the Oystkrakr itself, were taken from the original eastern gate. They were a reminder of days long gone, when there was a thought to protect these borders from invaders to the north. These days however there was peace in Hejveld, and the welcome traders from both north and south were a constant flow in all but the winter months. There was never any trouble, as both the locals and the market traders travelling through respected this inn above all others as a safe place to do business and unwind. It had been some time since the great doors had denied anyone access to the Floating Inn.

          Tonight was the first night since the official opening of the mountain passes that traders had finally made it through. Friends would reunite, with new acquaintances acquired as the hustle of trade once again breathed life into Brúnn. As much business happened here as in the streets and merchant houses, as new allegiances formed, perhaps with a little help from the innkeeper Amold’s ales. It was a night that Ohrl and his brother, Faerl, wouldn’t miss for the world.

          They strode across the great bridge, wrapped tightly in heavy furs to keep warm against the evening winds. Joining them were their three best friends, Jossi, Fulke and Haarlund. Each were generous drinkers, though none more so than Jossi. Haarlund trained as a physician, while Fulke worked within his father’s warehouses. Perhaps the least prone to a drunken evening was Faerl, his studies less harmonious while hung over, but each had talked about this evening for months, looking forward to the influx of merchants traversing the mountain passes, hopefully with a daughter or two in tow. They pushed through the outer doors of the Floating Inn, embraced by the warmth of laughter and song. Ohrl saw his friends’ eyes light up at the sight of the large and vocal crowd. He shared little concern for the hope of fresh and inquisitive travelling maidens, for though he was the youngest of them all, the object of his desire had always remained in Brúnn.

          “There she is,” Ohrl heard Faerl say with a nudge to his back. “Go and rescue her before it’s too late.”

          Jossi stood in front of them all, blocking Ohrl’s view of Keysa, the innkeeper’s daughter. “If you don’t, I will.”

         “Get out of my way,” Ohrl said, ignoring the others’ laughter. “If you’re going to do anything, go get us some drinks.”

        As the others sat down, Ohrl looked over at Keysa. Catching sight of her warmed his heart more than the roaring fires ever could. They had been friends since childhood, the Floating Inn becoming more like a second home for Ohrl. Keysa’s mother had become seriously ill when she had just turned twelve, and was dead long before Keysa reached thirteen. The loss nearly broke her father, and it was a blessing for him that Keysa had the fortitude at that age to begin helping at the inn as much as she could. Their family was loved within the community. Amold refrained from ever taking sides in the politics of trading, and her father found that should he ever need help, all private doors were open to him as much as the inn doors were to others.

          Ohrl was aware that the patrons of the Floating Inn soon began to think of Keysa as their own foster child. They kept an eye on her on behalf of Amold if his cares ever became too overwhelming, believing that in some way they helped shape the young girl into the beautiful woman she was becoming. Ohrl knew that many had forged a paternal bond with her, and in return Amold always made sure their company was full of ale, laughter and song.

Now she was almost nineteen, not even a year younger than Ohrl, and one of the most cherished and desired of all the young girls in Brúnn. She was tall and lithe, her dark blonde hair reaching in long waves past her shoulders, her natural smile and charm enhanced by a slight freckling on her fair skin. Ohrl stood, entranced, enjoying watching her laugh with those she served.

        Although not the daughter of a wealthy merchant, the Floating Inn was known far beyond the mountains surrounding Brúnn, and as the sole heir to this lucrative institution, Keysa’s entry into the social scene was, for several young boys, the focus of many a fantasy, mainly for the free ale she had always mused.

          Ohrl knew, however, that she gave it no second thought. She had already been part of the social scene since she was twelve. She knew each customer by name and all the most important people in the city usually had more than a few moments to chat idly throughout the night with her. She knew many secrets and issues happening in the lives of the Brúnnese, but it was never something she held in store for use against another person. She simply enjoyed the happiness and joy that the Floating Inn spread.

          Ohrl was also aware that many suitors would start to call on her. Many of her customers dropped hints about their boys who were of a similar age, or brought them in to meet her. He’d plucked the courage to ask her one day how she felt about that. She said they seemed so young, that after years of being around traders and merchants, they were too naïve to keep her attention for long. Sometimes, without Keysa knowing, he’d watch the merchants’ sons. They would gape at her, smiling foolishly when she tried to engage them in conversation, or try to be too mature and end up sounding like old men stuck in their ways, repeating their father’s attitudes. After a few drinks their real personalities often came through, normally to the embarrassment and reluctant acceptance of their fathers watching on.

          Despite all the attention she received, Ohrl knew that through her anguish and sorrow, she knew would always turn to him. For everyone else, she was a face of happiness and never-ending joy, but for Ohrl, she was Keysa; sad, overwhelmed, or at best, optimistic that things would get better for her and her father.

          His reverie was broken as Amold clanged a large brass bell hung above the bar.

         “Drink up,” he heard Amold call. “You’ve come to the only place at this time of year where your ale will get warm if you leave it too long.”

         Ohrl laughed, caring deeply for the portly old man. Amold referred to the roaring fires that laid siege to the chill outside, then stepped out from behind the bar to meet every customer, personally making sure that all were having a good time. All were welcome here, and it was a sign of ill fortune for any who were turned out of the Floating Inn. No self-respecting man would ever go into business with anyone with such a blackened mark against their name. There was also the rumour that Amold had several secret trap doors inserted into the floor, so that at any time if he so desired he could flip a lever, and the poor disruptive fool would plummet to a watery grave before he had time to ruin his reputation. To Ohrl’s amusement, it wasn’t long before those rumours were put to the test.

          He heard a shout from the crowded centre of the inn. It came from an elderly wolf hunter, Mahlmer, whose best days had long since passed.

           “Amold!”

         Ohrl smiled, shaking his head at the tenacity of the old man as he rose to arrest the innkeeper’s attention. Mahlmer was almost a permanent fixture at the inn, now that his sons had taken over the actual hunting. As Mahlmer reached Amold, Ohrl saw him jab a finger at a well dressed man sitting at the table he had just left, looking rather perplexed and nursing a half empty ale.

          “Mr. Graslund here is asking me to capture every wolf in the Haeringr in exchange for a sack of old grass and two left shoes,” Mahlmer called. “What does he expect me to do? Give each of my boys half the footwear they deserve while they re-patch the top of my grave?”

          Suppressed laughs mixed with sharp intakes of breath rippled through the crowd. All thought Graslund appeared on the surface a respectable businessman. In contrast, Mahlmer’s composure dissolved as he slammed his palm on the top of a table.

          “Well if you want to drive me into the ground so badly I may as well save you the trouble. Amold!” The old man hobbled over to a section of the room where no tables were placed.

          “Amold, I’m ready to leave this place. It seems my time has come to move on, and it may as well be you who casts me to my death in the Oysteinn.”

          “Now calm down, Mahlmer,” Ohrl heard Amold counter, raising his hands to try and restrain the old man. “No need to go that far, besides which it’s Mr. Graslund that I want to have a word with. Sir, if you would kindly step this way.”

          Keysa had moved to where Graslund sat, taking the mug of ale from his hand. Ohrl could tell he was shocked by this reproach, as he had been trying in all ways to calmly placate Mahlmer. Somehow it had all ballooned out of his control. He caught Keysa’s smile and reassuring nod. Mr. Graslund cautiously rose and moved to where Amold ominously stood, arms folded, in the centre of the room. He seemed acutely aware that everyone in close proximity had not so subtly moved away, leaving a clear circle of space around himself and Keysa’s father.

          “Mr. Graslund,” Amold continued. “Here, in Brúnn, and especially at the Floating Inn, we have a tradition to uphold, one that demands courtesy and respect. We will not tolerate bullying or irrational negotiations from our patrons, be they local or otherwise.”

          Graslund stood stunned, unable to say a word.

          “You may not be aware, however, that we have a certain penalty for such unreasonable communication. It has been a long time since being administered, so long in fact that I doubt many here have ever witnessed it.”

          Ohrl watched as Amold slowly circled Graslund, disorientating him, reminding him that he was the absolute authority within the inn. His serious tone cast doubt in the minds of those who thought it was a joke, no longer completely sure that Graslund was going to stay among the living, or at least the dry. He saw Keysa return to the bar, as those near Graslund shifted nervously away.

          “Mr. Graslund,” Amold bellowed. “There is but one course of action open to me. It is with deep regret that this must be done, yet you leave me with no choice.”

          Abruptly more people moved further away. Chairs and tables scraped back, with one young man tripping over in his haste to get away from the trapdoor. Ohrl suppressed a laugh as he saw Graslund begin to protest, and caught Keysa concealing her mirth as her father called to her from the middle of the inn.

           “Keysa, pull the lever.”

          Keysa feigned to protest, but she was silenced with a dramatic wave of her father’s hand. All sound ceased as onlookers watched in horror and excitement as Keysa laid two hands on a black handled lever behind the bar. She took one last look at the petrified Mr. Graslund, and pulled with all her might.

          A series of groans and clanks ensued, setting an invisible chain of events in motion. Something opened in the rooftop vaults, a creak of metal on wood, a catch releasing. The final sound made those near Graslund jerk back, like the sound of a dead bolt disengaging directly beneath their feet. Graslund spread out his arms ready to cling on to anything around him as the trapdoor fell, when he heard a small bell chime to his left.

          Amold was now standing by a heavy support beam with an empty glass. As the bell sounded, he placed it under a small pipe leading from the roof. After a few seconds, creamy honey coloured ale began pouring from its end. Graslund stood motionless, unsure if he was still to be ejected from the inn, when Amold came over to him carrying the overflowing glass.

         “Mr. Graslund. I present you with the only way forward in your negotiations with Mahlmer. If you don’t succeed in reaching an agreement, then your discussion obviously needs to be lubricated with a little more ale!”

          He said this to the whole crowd, as though a finale in a theatrical show. There was a moment of silence, then the inn erupted with cheers and laughter, as Graslund’s face went from shock to embarrassment. Mahlmer appeared behind him and patted him on the shoulder, escorting him back to the table, though not before he convinced Graslund to share some of his ale without Graslund really being aware he had given most of it away. The crowd returned to the empty spot above the trapdoor, and soon the Floating Inn was again alive with activity.

          Amold laughed after rejoining Keysa behind the bar. Ohrl watched on as she put her arms around her father’s shoulders and kissed him on the cheek, happy that for a few moments, the weight of raising her on his own seemed temporarily off his weary shoulders.

          Unable to take his eyes from her, she finally caught his glance. Her face lit up, and her beautiful smile rendered those who watched her breathless. In that instant, he felt her happiness was unrestrained, sending a tinge of jealousy even to those old enough to be her grandfather. She put down her tray and squeezed her way through the crowd to wrap her arms completely around him. Ohrl held her tightly as he returned her embrace. Ohrl stood tall, his athletic physique toned from a ferocious appetite for sword play and ranging in the mountains.

          “Hey, you’ll be ruining our chances with any of the girls in here,” Ohrl heard Fulke shouted from behind him.

Ohrl released his hold to let Keysa punched Fulke on the shoulder.

         “You know perfectly well that all the girls have left you alone for me to deal with,” she said. Ohrl felt her entwine her fingers within his own. “Besides, what do I want with any of the other boys around here? All I hear is how big this is and how much that costs, or it’s the, ‘I’ll only be here for a week and it’d be a shame if we didn’t get to know each other’ line.”

          She looked up at him. “You know you are all I need.”

          Before he could enjoy the moment, Jossi appeared over his shoulder.

          “But Keysa, Ohrl has known you most of his life and we know his needs haven’t got him anywhere.”

          Keysa screamed and hurled herself at Jossi, trying to slap him with her table wipe. Ohrl counted Jossi lucky that he stood between them, for she lunged right into his obstructing arms. She made a small amount of effort to get past, but once she felt his arms tighten around her, she relaxed. The smell of his leathers was familiar, his embrace secure and warm. He was sure that if her father didn’t need her she would happily not move from this spot.

She looked at him with pleading eyes, and a twinkle sparkled in the corners.

          “You wouldn’t try and get anywhere with me just to brag with your stupid friends, would you?” She directed the last at Jossi, but before Ohrl could answer she quickly kissed him on the cheek and broke free of his grasp, bouncing instantly back into the industrious and ever cheerful barmaid, and addressed his companions.

          “So what can I get you boys tonight? Jossi, you’re getting thrown out the trapdoor as usual. Fulke? Haarlund? What about you Faerl? How can some of our ale affect that brain of yours?”

         Faerl was Ohrl’s older and only brother, they were alike yet poles apart in so many ways. Faerl dedicated himself to study, while Ohrl loved to spend time roaming the forests that surrounded Brúnn. Faerl was thin, delicate and could not match Ohrl’s broader frame. Yet they both had the same infectious humour, a double act whenever they were together.

          Keysa poured them all ales, then gave Ohrl a wink as she left to serve the other customers. As she passed, Ohrl gently took her hand to bring her closer to him.

          “Keysa, let’s go down to the viewing platform when you get your break,” he whispered, away from the others’ earshot. “Something’s troubling me. Bring your coat. It’s still freezing under the inn.”

He paused just for a second.

          “There’ll be no one but us down there.” She blushed as he held her close, then she returned to help her father at the bar.

 

          “What was that little exchange all about?” Haarlund jibed, seeing them talk but not hearing the words over the din of the crowd.

          “None of your business,” Ohrl replied with a wide grin on his face. “If you were as amazing as I am, she’d be having that conversation with you, but you’re not and she wasn’t. Now drink that ale, we have some celebrating to do.”

          The band of young men cheered, for they had come to toast Haarlund’s new position of physician’s apprentice in an academy in the capital.

          “Haarlund of Hastunnd,” they called. “The great physician and healer of the sick.” Ohrl laughed as Haarlund belched in appreciation of their toast. Ohrl was quite convinced Haarlund would be the one in need of healing come the dawn. Ohrl’s only concern was not to let Haarlund fall into the depths of the Oystkrakr before the evening was through.

          Word had come through with one of the latest couriers of Haarlund’s acceptance into the academy, and he was to leave in a month’s time. That meant their group, which had been together for the last five years, was finally being divided, and they had little time to make the most of it.

          They drank on into the night, singing songs, sometimes being joined by others, their arms around total strangers as was the custom in the Floating Inn. No one left as a stranger, for the inn was always common ground. Even poor Mr. Graslund, who for a while fought to keep his reputation intact, soon realised that the more he fought the worse it got. He received a loud cheer when he stood with a certain lack of grace on his table, spilling the last of his ale, and shouting, “We have a deal!”

          Haarlund began telling everyone about Hejveld’s capital, Hastunnd, as none of the others had been that far south of the Hardingr ranges before. The array of ales he’d consumed added a certain intrigue to his tale.

           “And did you know… that the view from the Great Tower stretches all the way to the cliffs of the Inner Sea. It’s so high, that it takes two weeks to climb and at the top there is... is….”

        “Hopefully there’s a bed if it takes two whole weeks to climb.” Ohrl laughed, never tiring of Haarlund’s exaggerated stories.

          “And do you sew up your patients with silver thread?”

       “No!” Haarlund shouted, slamming his fist theatrically on the table, before leaning closer, returning with a whisper. “No. I use gold, but I normally heal them just by looking at them, and they are ready to leave straight away.”

         “That’s what you’ll be doing with the girls, not the patients,” Faerl laughed. “Just one look at you and they will run frightened all the way up here to Brúnn.”

          “Ha, aye Faerl. I will send you some with my stamp of approval. Maybe I will sew in an extra brain if yours gets too full.” The group laughed, enjoying the banter.

          Ohrl suddenly felt an arm slip around his, and the warmth of a familiar body pressed against him. “You said you wanted to see me?”

          Ohrl turned to the glowing face that appeared beside his left shoulder. “Excuse me lads. I need to talk to Keysa about something.”

          The boys abruptly stopped their chatter and appraised Ohrl and Keysa.

          “That’s my little brother for you,” laughed Faerl, catching a few sniggers from the others.

          Ohrl waved them away. “Just get back to your drinks. I won’t be long.”

          There was silence for a few seconds as he escorted Keysa toward the heavy carved doors, until Jossi yelled out.

          “Hey, Ohrl. If she knows you’ll be done in such a short time, why does she bother?”

          This received a huge round of cheers from the others, and nearly sent Keysa running back to smack Jossi on the back of his head. Ohrl’s decision to pick her up and almost carry her outside only served to increase the cheering from the boys, until the imposing figure of Amold stood between them and their target of ridicule. Instantly the cheers died, and as Ohrl closed the inner doors to the inn he saw Amold walking away without having said a word. He smiled. knowing Amold approved of his relationship with Keysa. It made him proud, for he knew if there was one young man in this city that Amold would willingly have take his daughter’s hand, it would be him.

         

          Ohrl took his cloak from the hook and stepped out into the cold night air. Closing the outer door behind Keysa, he escorted her to the southern walkway. The resin platform was free of ice, but Ohrl still held Keysa’s athletic frame. There was meshing to stop people from slipping, but Ohrl thought there was nothing wrong with a little chivalry.

          The moon hung directly over the jagged edges of the Oystkrakr. The cliffs plunged down until the light turned the churning madness that was the Oysteinn River into intricately spun threads of silver. Tonight the moon seemed fat and lazy, content to hang low on the horizon, giving everything in sight a glowing halo of white.

          Ohrl led Keysa down several flights of stairs to the lowest part of the framework, the observation tower. It was more of a tower in reverse, suspended far beneath the Floating Inn, leaving nothing between them and the mighty river below.

          “It’s so beautiful here,” he heard Keysa whisper as she nestled into his fur coat, trying to keep warm against the wind.

          “I miss the days when the two of us would sneak down here, with our blankets and covers and spend hours watching the waterfalls and talk about everything. You were always the only one I could talk to, Ohrl. Even with my father I find it hard, especially after mama died.”

         Ohrl let her talk. Even though she wasn’t saying anything he didn’t already know, he needed time before voicing his true concerns.

          “How is Amold?” Ohrl asked. “He seems in good spirits up there tonight.” Another cheer had erupted, muffled by the inn walls before merging with the roar of the river.

          Keysa smiled. “I think that was his best trapdoor trick in years. It’s good to see him laughing again. There were new faces tonight. I think he enjoyed having a captive audience.”

          Ohrl laughed, remembering the first night he had been taken to the inn with his father. The chosen target that night had heard all kinds of stories about the trapdoor. He’d been told that Amold was ruthless and when he was suddenly on the spot with Keysa’s young hands pulling on the lever, he broke down begging for mercy. Amold had to pour him several pints of ale just to get his nerves back to scratch.

          “I am sorry about Jossi, and Haarlund... and Fulke,” Ohrl said through his laughter, pulling Keysa closer to him. “In fact, I think my brother might be the only one I don’t have to apologise for.”

          He stepped back as Keysa shifted her weight under his cloak. She moved her head away from his chest, idly straightening the ties on the front of his leather shirt.

          “Ohrl, I don’t have much time. I hope you didn’t bring me all the way down here just to apologise for your idiot friends.”

          Ohrl sighed. “It’s my father.”

          He felt her stiffen under his embrace.

         “I’m not sure what it is. Normally at this time of year he’s preparing to head north over the Haeringr to see his customers. But this year he seems unsettled, unsure. There were some visitors on the first trader run from Burdynn. He spent a long time in conference with them. I don’t know what they spoke about, but when he emerged he’d aged twenty years. It was as though all of the excitement of this year’s markets held no appetite for him, and he had cast the idea away like a spoiled meal.”

          Ohrl dropped his head, lost in his own thoughts.

        “Bad news from a deal?” Keysa asked softly. “Anything could have happened over the winter months, we’ve been isolated for so long.”

       “That’s what I thought at first,” replied Ohrl, fastening his hands around her waist and pulling her close, enjoying her warmth. “But he normally discusses that openly with the family. As one door closes another opens, and he jumps straight in. No, this was something else.”

          He shifted to stand behind Keysa, gently pressing her against the railing. They looked out upon the Pórulfr and Pórvaldr, the two great falls plummeting over the southern flanks of the Oystkrakr, as the snow melt from the mountains forced their arc well clear of the cliff walls.

          “I asked my mother if she knew if anything was wrong, but she was unaware that the men had even been there. When I caught them talking about it, father seemed angry that she should be discussing this with him and he stormed off. My mother looked up at me, yet not to apologise or let me know it was okay. She simply stared. For an age, she looked right through me, then walked off, her eyes in the distance as though she was coming to terms with something she feared. Father hasn’t told me anything.”

          “So what does that mean?” Keysa squeezed around to face him, and Ohrl’s heart warmed, taking great comfort in her concern.

         “I have no idea,” he said, exasperated. “It was the way she looked at me, like it had something to do with me. Neither of them say anything is wrong, just that it was some bad news for business, but I know they are trying to protect me from something. We are always such an open family, so this has got me thinking it’s a lot more than they are letting on.”

          He sighed, and let his shoulders slump. He saw the concern on Keysa’s face, and felt ashamed for adding to the woes she already had without her mother. He smiled at her, catching a loose hair that was flying in front of her eyes and pinning it behind her ear.

        “Perhaps it’s nothing,” he said, trying to convince himself more than Keysa, but he knew she would see any truth he tried to hide. She looked up into his eyes, a myriad of blues and greens, with flecks of yellow and spots of brown. Tonight under the moonlight they were a silvery slate, always reflecting what was going on around him. His brown skin, tanned from working and training outside in the warmer days shone under the moon. His teeth weren’t quite straight, his smile was a little crooked, as was his nose, and he needed a shave. Yet he knew she loved him, he was her charming Ohrl, pure of heart and....

          “Keysa!”

        Amold’s bellowing voice hollered from above. It broke their spell, happily encased in each other’s arms. Her father had decided Keysa’s break was over. Ohrl couldn’t help but laugh.

          “I don’t think Amold is ready for me to have my way with you when ever I want, not yet anyway.” Ohrl felt his woes lessen as he saw her blush.

         “Come on,” Keysa said. “You need to look after your friends. Who knows what state they’ll be in by the time you get back in there.”

          Begrudgingly, Ohrl let Keysa break free of his arms and they both headed for the stairs. On the second step she stopped and turned. Ohrl came close, wrapping his hands around her waist. She put her hands to his face, framing his cheeks.

          “Anytime you need me, okay?”

Ohrl smiled and rested his head on her chest as her hands pulled him closer.

          “And anytime in between.”