It was an hour after dusk when Conroy caught his first glimpses of the Human Granted Territory of Low Evering. The peacocks that seem to fill the forests of Fae Atlin in general and Greater Evering in particular had ceased their cries and bedded down for the night. When Conroy had suggested to his guide, a sidhe named Lenlin, that they do the same, she’d shook her head and urged him on, insisting that the border was just a little farther, and town only a little ways beyond that. When Conroy asked her what her hurry was, she shrugged at him, and said that there were beds and hot meals once we reached the border. A fair point, he admitted to himself; it had begun to rain just before dusk, and both the night and the rain seemed to be getting colder.
The border, when they finally reached it, was unguarded and ungated. The only sign that there was anything special here was a set of, well, signs, wood with somewhat faded paint, informing whoever approached in both neat upright lettering and elvish script that they were entering Human Granted Territory, that iron and spell-casting were forbidden within, and that any altercations should be reported to the sheriff of Low Evering or to a fae justicar immediately.
Conroy shifted his pack on his shoulders, and said, “Well, not much of a welcome. Tell me, is the entire border unfenced?”
“No need for a fence of wood or metal,” Lenlin said, “there are wards to keep out anything that isn’t permitted, and anyone who isn’t a human, or an elf with the proper keys.”
“And these wards, they also keep people in?”
Lenlin smiled, her pointed teeth shining in the light from his lamp. “Oh, no. The woods do that well enough. The woods and what’s in them.” She turned away from him and started walking, off the road and into the woods. “Town’s only a few minutes from the border, just follow the road.”
“You’re not coming with me?” Conroy squinted to keep her in view as the rain and the darkness threatened to swallow her up.
“Not permitted,” she called back to him. “My bed’s out here, yours is in there.”
“How do I reach you when I need to head back?” He could only just barely make out Lenlin’s shape amid the trees now.
“Just come to the border and wait. Me or someone else will come to take you back.”
Lenlin stepped to the side, behind a tree, breaking Conroy’s line of sight with her. He craned his neck, trying to see if she’d come around the other side, but he could make out nothing in the darkening woods. “How will I pay you?” he called after her.
Her voice echoed out of the dark. “Already took it from your purse. You should be more careful with that.” She laughed, a low snickering laugh, and Conroy heard several more chuckles from the trees around him.
Conroy took a deep breath to steady himself, murmured, “well, I suppose that’s that, then,” under his breath, and stepped across the line and into Low Evering.
Thankfully, Lenlin’s information was correct, and in only a few minutes Conroy emerged from the tree line. The road, now cobble-paved instead of well-worn dirt, stretched ahead between a pair of vegetable fields to end at a town fountain, which was surrounded by perhaps a dozen buildings of white-washed stone. He walked into the heart of town, ran his hand along the edge of the fountain, and then headed for the one building that seemed like it still had life in it, an inn or tavern by the look of it. The sign out front was carved in the likeness of two men dancing around each other, one dressed in the clothes of an Atlish nobleman, the other in a fool’s motley.
The interior of the tavern was small, but not as small as he had expected; there were four or five tables, in addition to a bar running the length of the wall across from the door and a pair of plush-looking chairs facing a rough-chiseled hearth. The scents of stout beer and pipe smoke hung in the air, as well as a rich meaty smell that, after the past few days of hard biscuits and hard travel, made Conroy’s mouth water and his stomach churn.
As he entered, a few young men seated at the far table looked up at him, as did the man standing at the bar. They stared at Conroy for a moment, clearly surprised, and then the bartender spoke. “Well, welcome to the Jack and Jester, stranger.” He gestured at the bar in front of him. “Come, lay down your pack and have a seat.”
Conroy looked back toward the table, where the young men had gone back to talking amongst themselves, and then walked in and sat down at the bar. “Thank you, sir.” Conroy settled his pack against the stool next to him. “I know it’s late for supper, but is there anything still warm I might trouble you for, mister…?
The bartender had turned his back toward Conroy, and started ladling something into an earthenware mug from a pot on the stove. “Oh, there are no ‘misters’ here, friend. You can call me Seamus, and yes, we’ve still got enough stew left for a half-soaked traveler to have a plate or two.” He turned back to Conroy, smiling, and placed the mug on the bar between them. “Why don’t you start with that, though? Get you warmed up quick.”
Conroy placed his hands around the steaming mug, and the strong aromas of clove and spice hit his nose as he lifted the mug to his mouth. The cider was sweet but with a not-unpleasant slight hint of bitterness, and he could feel the warmth flow back into his body as he swallowed.
He smiled and nodded at Seamus as he lowered the mug, and Seamus grinned back at him. “Good, eh?”
“Yes. The best I’ve had in quite some time, in fact.” Conroy took another sip.
“The secret is the cassia; real Preyanti cassia, not like that stuff the Ursanes have gotten to grow along their canals. I know a trader, an old friend of a friend, who brings it to us special whenever he makes a trip into the Territory, along with a few other necessities we can’t grow here ourselves.”
Seamus topped up Conroy’s cider, and then set about providing him with a meal; a few moments later he placed a trencher of thick stew and a sop of bread on the bar beside the cider mug. Conroy thanked him profusely and dug into his meal with perhaps a bit more gusto than manners. By the time he had finished the young men at the table had left, leaving only himself and Seamus in the tavern.
“I imagine you’ll be needing a room here tonight?” Seamus asked.
“Yes, and not just tonight.” Conroy wiped his mouth and adjusted his pack where it leaned against the stool, straightening it a fraction. “I expect to stay for several days, perhaps as much as a week or two. I have fae coin, if you’d prefer that, or I can pay you in Concord talents.”
“We use talents here, friend; I wouldn’t offer fae coin to anyone who actually runs a shop in town, though most of the farm hands and apprentices would probably take it for odd jobs, if you need any done.” Seamus turned a bench over and placed it on top of the table he’d finished cleaning. “What business do you have here in Low Evering, if you don’t mind saying? I don’t mean to offend,” he added, “but you don’t look much like a peddler or trader, and we don’t get much else all the way out here.”
“I don’t mind, it’s fine,” Conroy said, “I’m actually here as a scholar, looking for a man named Colum Mason. I believe he lives here, or did.”
Seamus leaned back against the table. “You’re looking for Griff? What for?”
“Right, I’d heard he had a nickname.” Conroy pulled his thin lead and holder and a scrap of parchment, one of many, from a pouch at the side of his pack, and scribbled down ‘nickname: Griff’ in quick but orderly block letters. “I’d just like to speak to him, that’s all.” He blew the excess lead dust gently off the parchment, then folded it carefully and tucked it back into the pouch.
“Well,” Seamus said, “Griff keeps to himself mostly, at least since old Arric… well, since he went away. I’d wager if you paid for his tobacco and ale, though, he’d probably sit and talk a while. He’s in here most nights, likes to sit by the fire. You only missed him by an hour or so tonight.”
Conroy thanked Seamus for his help, and Seamus showed Conroy to his room. Conroy slept well and woke late, and spent most of the day preparing, honing the copper nibs of his pens and unwrapping his paper notebooks from the oilskins he had used to keep them dry. That evening, Conroy came down to the tavern early, and Seamus pointed him toward the chairs near the hearth; as he’d suggested the night before, one of the chairs was occupied.
Conroy took a couple of breaths to steel himself, then stepped up before the fireplace, holding one of his books to his chest. “Sergeant Mason? My name is Conroy Raine. I wondered if I might speak to you for a minute.”
The man in the chair gave Conroy a dubious look. He was an older man, perhaps sixty, as Conroy had expected, but he seemed to Conroy’s eyes to have little of the frailty that comes to most men as they age. Though his short-cropped hair had gone to gray it was still full, with no thinning or balding, and his face was worn and wrinkled but with a strong jawline and prominent brow. The man’s eyes seemed particularly keen as they stared at Conroy. “You can certainly speak; I can’t promise I’ll speak back.”
Conroy cleared his throat. “I represent a group of scholars at the Etrennian Academy for Historical Preservation. We have been attempting to document the events of the Great Fae War, and your name was presented to us as a person who might have a unique perspective to share with us.”
The old man chuckled. “Unique? I’d very much doubt that, young man. I was only a foot-soldier, there were more than a few of us.”
“Well, not to put too fine a point on it, sir,” Conroy said, nervously clearing his throat again, “while there were, indeed, many infantrymen who served during the war, most either died early or joined the war later. As far as we can determine, you’re one of only a handful of men who served through the whole of the campaign.”
“Really?” Sergeant Mason shook his head. “Me and General Byrne, I guess.” He took a drink from a small glass on the table beside his chair, and started filling the bowl of a well-used wooden pipe with tobacco. “I don’t suppose you could talk to General Byrne, instead?”
“Many men have, Sergeant, and he tells one story of the war. I’m interested in hearing what you experienced.” There was a long pause, so Conroy continued, “I’m a member of a group at the Academy that believes that through multiple viewpoints we can gain a better total understanding of historical events.”
Mason carefully bent forward to pull a twig from the fireplace, and used it to light his pipe, puffing fragrant blue smoke into the air around him. “It’s curious, what some people find interesting.” He pulled a few more contemplative puffs, and took another sip of his drink.
The tavern was silent, except for the crackling of the fire and the muted cries of the peacocks from outside. Conroy shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “I would, of course, be willing to compensate you for your time. In talents, or,” He said, looking over at Seamus, “in libations and tobacco, if you’d prefer.”
The sergeant coughed out a puff of smoke, and then he laughed, a deep, bellowing laugh. “Seamus, you dog!” He twisted in his chair, putting one hand on the deep back as he turned back toward the bar. “How dare you try to make an innocent like this boy responsible for my tab?”
Seamus shot a grin at Conroy, and at Mason. “I had to try it, Griff. You’re certainly not.”
“You’re the one who said, ‘Whenever you’re in town, your drinks are paid for.’” Mason raised his glass in Seamus’ direction.
Seamus rolled his eyes, still smiling. “That was back when you were just passing through, on your way to bigger and more foolish things. I didn’t expect you to move in because of it.” Both men laughed, and Conroy couldn’t suppress a smile myself.
“How about this?” Conroy said to Seamus, “If I give you three talents for a full bottle of your brandywine, and the sergeant drinks half of it? Would that be an equitable solution?”
Seamus put the bottle on the bar. “I’ll just tack it on to what I’m asking for the room. Don’t worry about it, lad.”
Conroy turned back to the sergeant. “And you, sir? Will you sit and talk with me?”
Mason stared at the fire for a moment more, then grunted. “Eh, bring that bottle over here, and if you can stop calling me “sir” and “sergeant” and start calling me “Griff” like a proper human being? Sure, we can talk.”
“Right. Griff. Got it.” Conroy put the brandy and a bottle of ink on the table, and sat down in the other chair with his notebook in one hand and a quill in the other.
Mason sniffed, gripped his pipe in his teeth and poured himself another drink. “Well, where would you like to start?”
Conroy licked the tip of his pen. “I suppose we should start at the beginning.”