What do you see in the mirror?
Arcantonic and Brom have returned from their ‘humble’ side trip into the Great Arashkan City, back to the inn and Brom has given the small, gnomic girl the letter scroll he picked from Gnine Tinkerdome. The letter that was given to Arcantonic by no other than Gnine’s great, great, great-something ancestor, Prince Gordigon Tinkerdome.
This story takes place around noon,
on the same day as, and a few hours after
Quiet In The Library.
SOMETIME LATER, IN THE ROOM FACING THE STREET..
The sun had risen, traveled through a beautiful, bright blue sky, and settled somewhere at noon, casting the smallest of shadows, but the Tundra Walkers were still slumbering in an inn, in the Richarc District of the Great Arashkan City.
Cora Sleet slept soundly among the wreckage of her room, on top of a heap of feathers; the remains of what had just last night been, a rich, soft bed.
The softness was still there, but the bed was not.
She drooled and snored a bit, giving her an adorable cast, quite in contrast with her otherwise savage appearance.
Her long, white hair was unbraided too, which was a novelty on her part. Cora loved her long, white hair, but being the practical girl she was, she never wanted it getting in the way. Particularly when the bloodletting started. Besides, she’d been threatened by a large, cruel pair of scissors a few too many times in the past by her mother unless she braided them and kept them out of the stew and those threats had stuck.
Now, however, her hair was ‘down’, so to speak, and she was having a rather pleasant dream.
Whatever she was dreaming, she watched it with a content smile on her face.
Too bad it would be cut short as she would be rudely awakened by the innkeeper —probably a mistake on his part.
She, with the help of Seressa, the very tall, very dark girl sleeping a few rooms down the hall, had ruined his inn, after all.
✱ ✱ ✱
TWO ROOMS AWAY..
Seressa was also sleeping with a content smile on her face.
Whether her smile was due to a pretty dream she was having, the engaging evening she’d had with the pretty barbarian girl, breaking the proverbial ice, and the rest of the room, or for the fact that she had snuggled up to her pair, was unclear. From a totally neutral perspective, the very tall, very dark girl looked like someone who hadn’t quite outgrown sleeping with her dolls, because that’s exactly how it seemed; the giant girl had hugged her little, gnomic pair, into her bosom, and both were breathing softly into one another’s face.
The whole scene was endearing..
..and a bit alarming!
Arcantonic Palecog slipped out of the ginormous feather bed as silently as she could. She didn’t want Seressa to wake up.
Tonic had been equally shocked, surprised, and quite unexpectedly happy when she’d woken up to find her pair not only sleeping with her in the same bed but snuggled up, the way they had.. And she’d been hugging her because she was so warm.
And she felt much softer, and nicer than the feather bed!
She also smelled of phloxes, cherry blooms, and her unique self. A combination Tonic had resisted for as long as she had but had caved horrible at the end.
It had been hard for the little gnomic girl to admit she liked her pair and that she smelled simply awesome!
Seressa’s face was at peace when she slept. More now than for these past few days. In fact, she seemed happier than she had ever seen her before.
Arcantonic Palecog felt no rancor, nor resentful at having finally been ‘coin pursed’ by her pair.
The unscrupulous little weasel of a hobbit had been right about at least one thing; her pair, Seressa Wraiven, had a beautiful smile..
Hence, she slipped out of the bed, shivered a bit, and quietly hoped down, and softly landed on the cold wooden floor.
She considered bothering with her boots but decided against it.
Trying to slip her left boot seemed like too much trouble, just now.
She hamstered to her artificer’s satchel, dug her hand in it, and pulled out a small, palm-sized mirror and a brush, scurried to the window, cracked open a sliver between the curtains, and with the help of the mirror, she hastily brushed her hair and bunned it up.
It was noon outside.
That was to be expected. She and Brom had returned quite late that evening.
She dumped the mirror and brush back into the satchel, shouldered it and silently walked to the door, and slipped out.
The hallway was clear.
Good, she thought. No need for random encounters.
She silently crept up to the room, furthest from the stair. Her quarry was there.
Tonic thought of the brush and the mirror.
Had it been just a month ago, she would be laughing at herself.
Tonic very nearly never brushed her hair. She would just pull them back, then bind them haphazardly with anything that was readily available; a bit of string, a broken piece of twig, a stand of vine, or a piece of cut wire.. Now it was adorned with one of Seressa’s many scrunchies, and she felt no shame nor guilt whatsoever at having burglarized into her pairs’ collection either! Apparently, this burglarizing things from her pair was becoming a habit for her.
This brush and mirror were a late habit, though. An acquired, or self-enforced habit, to be more precise..
A habit since the Gordigon boy!
The sky was still standing.
There were no sudden earthquakes.
And no blaring brasses of doomsday was heard!
That hadn’t been so hard now, had it?
✱ ✱ ✱
THE FURTHEST ROOM DOWN THE HALL..
Tonic knocked on the door of her quarry and politely waited.
But there came no reply.
She tried again to no avail.
“Alright then.”, she said. “We go, Plan B!”
Tonic loved Plan B as it was pretty much always back to back with Plan A;
Barge in! —was Plan B!
Tonic had many bad habits, or rather, shortcomings, true, but she always prided on her Plan B. It was easy, practical, and more or less, always produced a solution.
“Brom?”, she whispered.
The room’s curtains were pulled and it was somewhat dim. Much like her room had been.
“Brom?!”, she hissed.
Still no answer.
Damit. Was she going to have to go for Plan B, again? She’d always done Plan B, back to back with Plan A, but never a Plan B, back to back with another Plan B! This was going to get awkward real fast.
Then she heard a sniffling, shuffling noise from the far corner of the room.
She slinked in that direction to find Brom sitting on a stool, facing the corner!
“What the—”, she began.
“What is it, Miss Tonic?”, she heard him say.
“Umm.. I.. I thought we had agreed on you not needing to ‘Miss’ me all the time..”, she said hesitantly.
Tonic was not a good mood reader. When it came to moods, that was Seressa’s department and Tonic had rather strong opinions about poaching. Some deep instinct, however, told her that something was wrong.. with Brom.
“No.”, said the hobbit. “We had agreed that me calling you ‘Miss Tonic’ sounded a lot like I was saying ‘I MISS TONIC‘, to you and that it was weird and just creepy.”
“Well.. When you say it like that, it does sort of sound weird.. and creepy.”, stumbled Tonic.
“What can I do for you, Miss Tonic?”, repeated Brom, “I would have thought you’d have had enough adventuring, and certainly enough of me, for one day.”
Tonic noted the weary in the hobbit’s voice. She couldn’t discern the reason for it. Only notice it.
Well.. At least that was something. She was getting better at this.
“Baby steps, Tonic, baby steps..”, she told herself.
“No, no.. No more adventuring for today..”, said Tonic, a bit hesitantly. “I just wanted to thank you.. For last night. Never got the chance to say it properly.”
“It’s alright Miss Tonic. No need for thanks. We both.. enjoyed it.. in our own way, I suppose. Feeling any better?”, came the hobbit’s voice.
“Much.”, she said promptly.
“Mission accomplished, then.”
“Perhaps.”, said Tonic, a bit perplexed.
Something was going on here. With the hobbit. But she wasn’t sure if she should push.
“PLAN B.. PLAN B.. PLAN B..”, choired inner Tonic suddenly!
“Alright. Plan B, it is.”, murmured the gnomic girl.
“Hmmm..?”, asked Brom.
“You.. You brought back Gordigon’s letter for me..”, she said. “How did you..?”
“No mystery there. Miss Tonic.. I picked that Tinker-guy’s pocket on the way out of the library..”
“You.. You did what? But why?”, she asked incredulously.
“For reasons, I don’t really want to fathom, the boy seemed important to you, since you went into all the trouble to want to warn him but refused to meet him face to face yourself. I have some ideas as to why, but I just don’t want to entertain them because none of them are good, per se, and all of them are creepy as hell! But I thought, perhaps you’d want something of him. A memento, maybe. Something personnel.. Suffice to say, the letter came as much of a surprise to me, as it did to you. As to how it came by the Tinker-guy, I have no idea..”, said the hobbit in the dim.
There was a moment of silence as the gnomic girl tried to digest that.
“I.. I don’t know what to say.. Thank you.”, she said with a small voice. “I can not phrase how happy it made me. It broke my heart when I’d found out I’d lost it, back at Ritual Forest. I.. I hope you didn’t get in trouble because of our.. little adventure last night.”
“Miss Tonic.” Brom’s voice said and there was a district steely quality to it. “Our venture last night, was not a little adventure, no matter how we stretch the words. It was possibly one of the greatest events of this time. It was monumental and its echoes will reverberate back and forth between history and years, no, centuries to come. Willy-nilly, you have changed the past, present, and the future of not only Silent Hills but you have also changed that of High Woods, Bari Na-ammen, and all the lands and civilizations in the kingdom that will get affected by both. Whatever the celestials are playing at, Miss Tonic, it is subtle and it is huge!”
“Well.. When you say it like that..”, Tonic stammered.
“Trust me when I say, I am putting it ‘lightly’, Miss Tonic. Many, many people will live because of our little adventure last night. And many, many people will also die, because of it.”
“I.. never really thought about it like that.”, she admitted with a flushed face.
“Don’t fret, Miss Tonic, neither did I. Not until much later. But the deed is done.”, Brom said.
“You didn’t tell Cora..”, she said.
“No.”, replied the hobbit shortly.
“Why? She must have been.. angry..”, Tonic said carefully.
“She was. And she tried to grill me. Though I must give her credit; she didn’t really try very hard.”
“I don’t understand..”, said the gnomic girl with a baffled voice.
The hobbit sighed and turned around. But because of the poor light, his face was still not quite visible.
“Because Miss Tonic, both Cora and I know, she is not my mother, my elder sister, my aunt nor my grandmother. We are friends and we are equals. She doesn’t get to squeeze information out of me. This, she knows and this, she respects.”
“Would have made it easier.. and convenient had you just told her though.”
“Easier, convenient.. and totally wrong. It wasn’t my secret to give, Miss Tonic, it was yours. But even if it had been mine, caving in just because she glared down at me, would have made her lose the only thing we much care and have in common.”, the hobbit said.
“Mutual respect, Miss Tonic. Mutual respect.”
Another pause ensued.
“You are.. You seem out of sorts.. Out of your self, Brom. What is it? What is wrong?”, Tonic asked.
“Something that has little to do with you, Miss Tonic.”, said the hobbit’s voice, and this time, Tonic did catch the nuance.
Slowly and carefully, she approached the corner where the hobbit sat.
Slowly and carefully, she reached down at him, took his face in her small hands, and raised it.
Broms’s face was a blotchy mess.
And with a very unexpected but equally tender insight, Tonic refused to describe what she beheld.
Very quietly, she spoke.
“‘We suffer. We mourn. We sing and we celebrate.. We do. And what we do, we share!‘”, she quoted Brom’s own words.
“Did every single one of those, and then some, just this very evening, Miss Tonic.”, said Brom with brimming eyes.
“We did. And we did not.. A fool, I am. This, I have learned. And this, I know. But I would not have expected a fool out of you, Master Bard.”, she whispered.
Brom stared at the diminutive cute face holding his. He didn’t shy his eyes from her but stubbornly held them.
“We bards make the best of fools, Miss Tonic.”, whispered Brom.
Tonic produced the little mirror from her artificer’s satchel again and held it before the hobbit’s face.
“Tell me, then, Master Bard.. What do you see in the mirror?”
“A blotchy face.”
“No snarks, Mr. Brom.. What do you see in the mirror?”
“A bushy hedgehog!”
“No snarks! What do you see?”
“A face in dire need for sleep!”
“I said no snarks, damit!”
“A hobbit about to lose his temper!”
“Wow. I ask one simple question of you, and you can’t even give me a straight answer.”, she said. Then her voice steeled. “Even if you were much, much taller, much more muscular, and prettier, you don’t deserve my pair, Mr. Brom. You don’t deserve Seressa Wraiven!”
Brom froze. His face lost what remained of its color and hardened.
“That was a bit harsh, don’t you think?”, he said with an angry voice.
“Harsh is when I produce Mechaber, right here and now, and beat some sense into you!”, she replied savagely.
And the hobbit lost all his will.
His shoulders slumped.
He lowered his face.
He passed one hand through his bushy, brown hair and absently scratched his head.
“It doesn’t matter what I see, Miss Tonic..”, he said in a defeated voice. “It all amounts to the same thing; a little hobbit!”
“Would you like to know what I used to see in the same mirror?”, she blazed.
“Not particularly, no.”, Brom mumbled.
Tonic ignored him.
“I saw the same things you did, Mr. Brom; A lot of snark—”
“Your point being?”, asked Brom tiredly.
“—until I met Gordigon. Now I see a girl in that mirror. A girl that could use a brush, and possibly an eyeliner every once in a while..”
“Must be some neat, magic mirror!”, mumbled Brom.
Tonic glared down at the hobbit.
“Would you like to know what I see when I look at you?”
“Not particularly, no.”, repeated Brom.
Tonic ignored him again.
“When I look at you, I see a ‘guy'”, she hissed angrily.
“Umm.. Your point being?”, Brom repeated that too.
Apparently, this conversation was heading straight into a ‘broken record repetitions’ for Brom..
“Stop looking at misery and start looking at hearts, you dolt!”
“Has it ever occurred to you why I kept shouting ‘Eyes Front’, at you, Mr. Hobbit?”
“Because you are an insufferable little—?”, started Brom.
But the gnomic girl cut in..
“Because you are a threat!”,
“I feared you would steal my pair from me because you are a guy! That’s why I didn’t want you staring at her. Don’t you see?”
“The free staring was alright but it all became a case of morality for you because you saw and deciphered that she was even greater on the inside and you actually felt something for her.. And all of a sudden, you decided you are not ‘guy enough’? Wow. I have seen some arrogance and high drama in my time, but you, sir, just landed on my top ten, and I was graced by the best of them; my uncle Arcanton Mordenon.. Should’ve seen him lording over his demons, the way he did.. A three-foot midget looking down on demons eight times his height!”
Brom just stared at the gnomic girl.
“The hardest thing in life, Mr. Hobbit, is not besting our foes. It is besting ourselves, our fears, our shortcomings, our insufficiencies, and our own stupidities.. This, I figured too late, and now my chance for the love of my life is gone, and I will have to suffer that loss for the rest of my days, Master Brom.”, she said and her own eyes were brimming too now.
“I implore you. No. I am begging you. Please don’t make my mistakes. One idiot is far more than what our odd little family can handle..”
She wiped her brimming eyes, reached over to the hobbit and held his face once more, and gently kissed him.
“You are a good man, Brom Bumblebrim, and Seressa Wraiven does not require tall, muscular, or pretty. She’s already tried those.. Not a lot of good they did her! They all saw pinks, but never got past it. What she needs, what she wants is love. And care. And sentient intuition. And the ability to put those into honest words.. You have all those, and then some..”
Tonic took a deep, shuddering breath and considered something. Then she sighed, dipped her hand into her satchel once more, and drew out a rather large, but slim book.
“Here.”, she said. “This.. uhhh.. belongs to Seressa. It is everything about her. You will find anything and everything you need to know about her in this, including which shades of pink she likes, all color-coded.. Some of the things in here are.. quiet private and.. sensitive.. One could say, it’s Wraiven’s User Manuel. She.. she doesn’t know I have it, even though she had originally prepared it specifically for me. I would much appreciate it stayed that way. Skim through it, find out all you want to know about her, then return it to me, discreetly, please. It would truly break her heart if she found out I.. liberated it from her, and gave it to you..”
Brom silently reached out and took the book.
As it turned out, it wasn’t really a book, but a hand prepared dossier. It had the arrogant symbol of the Academy of Melshieve embossed on its dark blue-green cover.
Brom gently opened the cover to see Seressa’s handwriting. It was a recursive, delicate script, very tenderly inked, like it reflected the inside, the very soul of the owner of the hand that had written it;
To my bestest and awesomest pair:
Days will always be better because we will have you..
“See.. And find out, Brom, exactly what you are missing.. And if it’s her size that still worries you, use a bloody stool!”, she scowled.
Brom stared at the sentiment written by Seressa Wraiven for a long moment. Then, slowly but firmly, he closed its cover.
“No.”, he said. “I shall not break into her privacy. From Wraiven, I shall never take what she does not impart freely.. Taking is all everyone has ever done to her.. Take, but never give..”
“What?”, said Tonic with a shocked expression. “I just gave you Seressa on a silver platter!”
“Wraiven is not a cuisine to be served on a silver platter, Miss Tonic, delicious as she might be.. For what I want, I must give the effort, and suffer her trials. For everything she gives, she must divulge knowingly, willingly, and with the intention of giving them to me.. I shall not use shortcuts, nor cheat my way into her good graces. Otherwise, all credit will go to the bloody stool!”, he replied harshly.
He looked down at the embossed dossier in his hands with honest longing.
“Reading this might get me a Wraiven, but it will not be my Wraiven. And it sure as hell will make me worse than all the other animals out there, Miss Tonic.”
And handed the dossier that beheld everything about Seressa Wraiven, back to the gnomic girl.
Tonic stared incredulously at the hobbit before her.
Then, slowly, she smiled.
“Now, I know you truly care..”, she said softly. “Thank you, Mister Brom, for your honesty, your insight, and your care for my Seressa. Should something ever happen to me one day, to you, and only you will I freely entrust her wellbeing..”
For a very short moment, she paused, then signed.
“I will not, however, help you in this matter, Master Bard, because I am a selfish girl who just recently realized the kind of awesome person my pair truly is.. But I shall not hinder, nor undermine your efforts, which, I am sure will intrigue her to no end.”
With that, Arcantonic Palecog turned around and left..
✱ ✱ ✱
He wasn’t sure what had awakened him but it sounded vaguely like someone was pleading for help..
After the pestering little gnomic girl had left, Brom had sat in that stool for only a short more while. With a tired sigh, he’d risen, taken off his coat, his shirt, and pants, and jumped into the feather-soft bed.
He hadn’t bothered with the boots.
He was a hobbit.
And hobbits wore no shoes.
Everyone knew that.
“Please. I meant no disrespect nor was I intruding.. I certainly wasn’t trying to peek, miss!”
Brom opened his eyes and looked around blearily. Yep. Someone was pleading and it didn’t sound good.
The shortlist of his friends ran through his head.
Seressa wouldn’t be threatening anyone. She was too cultured. She would instead put them to shame, and send them crying in confused humiliation. Unless someone had been dumb enough to have threatened her pair, in which case, they probably deserved the kind of hell that was coming their way and there wouldn’t have been anyone left to plead anyway.
Naa.. The little midget could be insufferable at times and a bother all the time, but she was not big on human interactions and would have left it to her pair to have handled whatever that required interacting.. And by some misfortunate chance that she was forced to act on her own initiative, she would go for ‘the big guns and grenades’.. Since the room he was sleeping in was still intact, however, it was probable that the rest of the inn was too.
Tonic could be quite destructive..
But not very surgical in her precision.
Brom sat up.
“Damit!”, he spluttered. “Damit. Damit. Damit. Damit. Can’t a hobbit have a moment of peace?”
He jumped out of his bed, swiftly put his shirt and pants on, ran to the door, and yanked it open..
..to behold a scene he had dreaded.
Cora Sleet was holding up a man —the innkeeper— with one strong arm and had her ginormous sword pressed against his throat with the other!
“Then what were you doing in my room?”, she hissed at the poor man.
“I.. the rooms were rented for one day by Master Bard and I had merely come to ask if you would be continuing your stay. When I knocked, no one answered so I entered to make sure everything was alright and to pick up the plates, bowls, and mugs for the food and drinks you had ordered.. and when I saw the room in a wreck and you lying there, I thought someone had done a crime in my inn!”, the innkeeper spluttered.
“So you thought it’d be a good idea to grope a sleeping girl?”, Cora blazed.
“Miss, please. I wasn’ groping you. I am a happily married man. I have daughters your age!”, he cried.
“I doubt you have daughters one hundred years old!”, snarled Cora.
The innkeeper shrank and stared at the savage girl with the long, white hair.
“I.. am sorry I offended you.. uhh.. young.. miss.. But you look barely old enough to drink! And I was bent over you to make sure you were still breathing! Please!”
“Damit!”, cursed Brom as he jogged up to Cora before she did, whatever she was planning on doing at the devastated innkeeper.
“I thought it was rude to talk about a girl’s age in these civilized places you call cities!”, hissed the barbarian girl.
The poor innkeeper just gaped at her.
“Cora.”, said Brom as he came up to her. “Please put the honorable innkeeper down and your sword away.”
“This little minks tried to—”, started Cora.
“CORA SLEET!“, Brom barked. “PUT THE SWORD AWAY. NOW!“
She slowly turned and looked down at the little hobbit, her eyes ablaze.
And a whole slew of expressions crossed her face until she settled on one.. or maybe two; shock, and surprise.. followed by a third; hurt!
Slowly, she removed her sword from the innkeeper’s throat, and with restrained fury, rammed it into its scabbard.
Then she lowered the innkeeper, her eyes still burning and still on the hobbit.
“Thank you.”, Brom said. “Now. I am not sure if we will be staying another night, honorable innkeeper. But we will pay for the rooms for another day. If we are not here, you may keep the pay, and rent them out at your convenience.”
“Tha.. Thank you, Master Bard.”, stammered the innkeeper. “But.. the room.. This room.. it’s destroyed! Who shall pay for the damages done?”
“We shall cover the damages done, honorable innkeeper. The room’s condition is due to some unexpected altercations late last night. Nothing important.. Merely unexpected.”, Brom said meaningfully. Then, with a great show of regret, he sighed, “Girls!”
Whatever the innkeeper thought the hobbit implied, he did not comment. He did cock an eyebrow though.
“How much do you surmise the repairs for the rooms will cost, honorable innkeeper?”, he asked amiably.
The innkeeper stared into the room, with a haggard expression. It was quite apparent he cared for his inn.
He did a quick estimation in his mind, turned around, and told the sum to the hobbit.
It wasn’t a small sum but this was Arashkan and they were also on the richer district of the city.
“We shall pay for the damages done, sir, and then some, for the loss you will likely suffer during the time of your repairs. Does that sound agreeable for you?”, he asked politely.
“Of course, Master Bard, of course. You are a fine example of your kind, sir, and an excellence at your art. My wife and daughters wept at your performance.”, said the innkeeper genuinely.
“Thank you, honorable innkeeper. I do but try.”, replied Brom happily. “Now, if you please, I would like to have a word with my colleagues and listen to what they have to say about shaming a bard at the inn he has performed.”
“Please..”, said the innkeeper, gave a quick glance at the still simmering girl with the long, white hair and the ginormous sword, “..they are all fine, beautiful, and honorable ladies. Don’t be too harsh on them. I will have dinner sent to your rooms. I noted.. uhh.. the lady here, preferred our kababs and midgetoes.. Would.. would she like another treat of them?”
“Yes, yes she would. Very much.. Thank you honorable innkeeper.”, replied Brom.
The innkeeper bowed at Brom, carefully nodded at Cora, turned around, and went down the stairs..
“You.. you shouted at me.”, fumed Cora. And there was a shimmer in her eyes now.
“You dishonored me Cora. At an inn I performed and stayed.”, he said, but not too harshly. “And you never, and I mean NEVER, attack or threaten an innkeeper.”
“I was not aware these.. innkeepers were holy men!”, Cora said and all the heat in her stance was gone.
“They are not holy men, Cora. Not in the sense you mean. But they are hosts. They house strangers of all races and colors. And they respect their privacy and keep their secrets.. Yes, we pay for their services, but not for the kind of crap they have to take from every guest under their roof. Innkeepers, my dear Cora, are the core of what we call, ‘guest and host’ relation. It is easy to guest someone you know. Not so fun when you have to put up with strangers, and then clean up after them, day and night, while risking their own lives, the lives of their families, and their other guests. Consider yourself in his place, then think what it would be like if everyone acted as you did.”, he said.
Cora was silent for a moment.
“I do not understand your civilized rules, Brom. But I know the responsibilities of a host to his guests and the responsibilities of guests to their host. It is different in my land, but then, my land is not civilized and it is a harsh land.”, she said mutely.
“Your land is a beautiful land, Cora. Your land is ‘The Endless White’.”, he said with a smile.
“Loved that song.”, she said quietly.
Cora was.. She felt hurt that Brom had shouted at her. More so because the last time anyone had shouted at her, had been her mother.. just before she’d gone off to her watch. The day her Ironfrost, and all her people had died..
Her eyes shimmered some more.
“One day..”, she said with her soft, throaty voice. “..if you would write a saga for me, I would want that song to play.”
“Deal.”, replied Brom. “Now.. How in the blazes did you two destroy this room, girl? We are going to lose very nearly everything we earned thus far, because of your little, fun night!”
“We had a girl’s night. I told you already.”, Cora replied seriously.
“Cora. I do not think either you nor.. Tonic’s pair knows what a girl’s night really is.. When people say, let’s party and wreck a room, they don’t mean… THIS!”, he said pointing at the devastation.
“I do not understand. This is wrecking. Did we miss something?”, she asked and peered curiously into the room.
“When they say wreck a room, they mean.. Ow.. never mind. Would take too long to explain. One of these days, though, I am going to have to set both you and her down and explain how to not understand some things so literally.”, he said, signed again, and added, “That is going to be one, very long day!”
“I am sorry I dishonored you in an inn you performed.”, said Cora. “I was not aware there was such a rule. There are so many rules in these civilized places you call cities.”
“‘Tis alright. There are rules wherever there are people. The more people, the more rules, I guess..”, he said absently as he did a quick calculation in his mind.
“Damn..”, he swore. “I don’t think we have enough coin to cover the repairs.”
“What are we going to do? Want me to go down and bargain with your innkeeper to lower the prices a bit?”, she asked hopefully.
“What? NO. PLEASE NO!“, replied Brom immediately. Then he frowned. Seemed he was going to have to do something he really dreaded doing.
“Look. You stay here and clean up your room..”, began Brom.
“That was the last thing my mother had said to me that morning.. the day Ironfrost was destroyed. ‘Cora, clean up your room!’.. And we’d argued about it.. Now I am back to cleaning my room? Again?”, mumbled Cora.
“I am sorry about Ironfrost, Cora. But this is quite unavoidable. While you do that, I am going to see if I can borrow some money from Tonic.. or.. her pair..”, Brom said.
“First I am expected to wreck this room, and now I have to clean it.. These rules you have to stay civilized are complicated and many!”, Cora signed. Then she looked down at the hobbit.
“You are avoiding saying her name.”, she said.
“What? No..”, Brom tried to deny.. and a bit too hastily.
“Before, you were all excited talking about her. Then you started having these funny and concussed faces every time you said her name. Now you are avoiding it altogether. Is there anything I should know, Brom?”, she asked with both her brows up.
“Wow.”, thought Brom. It seemed like it would be a really, really bad idea to ever underestimate this barbarian girl. She might not know civilized rules nor understand the implications of certain things, but she seemed to miss very little.
Brom sighed again.
“Noting to worry about. If and when it becomes an issue, I’ll be sure to tell you about it.”, he said.
“You like her.”, she stated bluntly.
“I.. What?..How in the.. Why would you..”, he spluttered.
“Good.”, said Cora with the same blunt voice. “At least you take me seriously enough not to lie, and care for her enough not to totally deny it. She is a good girl. A bit silly for my taste but, hey, who am I to judge. I mean, I just wrecked a room with her, ate truly awful food, had loads of fun, and stupidly laughed when we both threw up, talked about the silliest things.. and it turns out ‘wrecking a room‘, doesn’t even mean, wrecking a room! And we striped ’cause she dared me to put her silly pink undies and I certainly wasn’t going to fall short on a dare. We skimped around, then destroyed the room in nothing but skin and pinks! I am not going to deny the fact that I loved it. But I am never putting those on again. I can’t run around with that kind of ‘draft’ around there. It’s distracting as hell! So, yea.. Who am I to judge!”
“What? Ow. My. Gosh, girl..”, Brom spluttered some more.
“I mean, you wouldn’t believe some of the things she’s done at that academy of hers. Had I done but a tint of what she’s done, mother would have taken a kukri at my braids and sawed them off down to my scalp! Together, we sang like a pair of sore crows while holding hands and danced like the Ice Wolves! Then we beat at each other with pillows.. Should have seen her face when I impaled my pillow on her horns by mistake when I hit her head while she was ducking! She was so beautifully abashed and then I impaled the other pillow with my sword, just to get even! There we were; her, with this big, white pillow stuck on her head, brushing the ceiling, me, with a pillow dying on my sword and feathers flying everywhere.. We laughed so hard, my side hurt! And then she said, “Shall we?”, and I was like “Let’s!”, and we destroyed everything in sight..
She paused for a moment with a thoughtful expression on her face.
“She was ashamed because of something she couldn’t help, Brom. I was ashamed of everything I did last night, all of which I could have stopped at any moment. Yet, she made sure I did not stop and for that, I am grateful to her. That girl lives for silly.. and makes you enjoy it so thoroughly as well.. I have never had that much fun in my entire life.
Consider the hell I went through just a few months ago, Brom. And not a few days ago, I had to relive it, and in greater detail, because apparently, the first time wasn’t enough.. Yet, she made me happy in manic, silly pinks! If that is not ‘special’, I do not know what is. And you want to know what truly got to me? All that while, I could see the sad in her eyes.. She wasn’t trying to have fun, Brom. She was trying to make sure I had fun, all the while holding back because she thinks she is so tall and silly, she imagines herself to be some clumsy juvenile axebeak, and fears that she can hurt me! Not to mention she foolishly believes I am so ‘cool’..
I never had a girl’s night before, Brom. Not because I didn’t want to or didn’t care for such things, but because I never heard of them before. We just didn’t have such things in Ironfrost because we never had the luxury to drop our guard.. We had celebrations, sure, but there was always a contingency of our storm heralds and zerkers on guard, and snow rangers hiding all around the village. That girl has never had a girl’s night in her entire life, even though she knew there was such a thing, had other girls all around her at that academy, and yearned to have them all along.. Yet she lived last night for me! That, Brom, is a whole different kind of ‘special’..”
Cora stared at Brom and there was both loss and mirth in the shimmer of her eyes.
“I have never had the privilege of falling in love, my friend.. And now my people are destroyed. I have seen, first hand, just how short every life can be.. Hell, so have you, for that matter.. Don’t waste your time. Either do something about it or put it behind you, which I doubt is even possible.”, she said briskly. Then she lowered her voice, and she spoke sympathetically this time. “I do not envy your disposition though. I hear love hurts.. A lot..”
Brom blushed.. Then blushed even more.
“And the fact that she is like twice my height has gone unnoticed?”, he asked with an angry voice.
Cora looked down at her friend.
Then, with an unexpected display of feline dexterity, and Ursidaen strength, she picked up the hobbit and brought him up to an inch of her face.
“There..”, she said to the stunned hobbit. “..we are now at the same height. What are you going to do about it..?”
Brom struggled for words.
Just nothing was coming out!
“My point, exactly!”, said Cora with brutal bluntness. “If you had planned on doing something —anything, you would have done it from down there, and never needed to be up here —yet, even up here, you still got nothing!”
Then she slowly lowered Brom.
“Your problem is not your height, my friend.”, she said briskly. “You just don’t have a plan! You do not know what to do.. You are a sensible hobbit, ‘a fine example of your kind’, as your honorable innkeeper so nicely put, and she is a silly, unpredictable girl.. She is every bit a mystery to you and everything you are afraid of; exactly the way any girl should be to any man who cares, and matters.. It isn’t what we appear on the outside that makes us who we truly are. Otherwise, what are we but a pair of.. well.. you know.. and a pretty face, really?”
She squinted at the hobbit for a bit, then barked a short, capturing laugh.
“Back at Ironfrost, guys thought I was all cool and stuff and they honestly thought they were all just too beneath my cool for me to bother with them, the way I was with my cold and expressionless face.. Like I knew things they didn’t.. The matter of fact was, I had nothing to say.. I mean, I truly had nothing to say. So instead of spluttering crap, I just shut up. And you know what the hardest part was? Keeping a straight face.. Should have seen me when I got home in the evenings when my watch was over. I used to go to my room, then laugh my face off until it hurt, very nearly every night!”
“You.. you are a cruel, cruel girl, Cora Sleet..”, whispered Brom, staring at the barbarian with amazement.
What truly amazed him was how much the barbarian girl had to say.
He’d thought he’d known this snow elf for so long as they had been together, all quiet and cool yet to see how much she had kept bottled up inside. Wraiven must have done some wonders last night to have this girl open up as she just had.. He also felt a slight pang of shame to have not been the one to have done the same, but then, Wraiven was something else..
He was bard, with bardic skills, and he knew the intricacies of the heart.. Or he’d thought he knew. And yet, the very tall, very dark girl had done to Cora in one night, what he hadn’t been able to do in months.
That just had to be something special, alright..
“Yea, well..”, said Cora. “That’s all over now, isn’t it? Ironfrost is gone, my cool is gone, now I actually do have things to say, just none of my friends left to say it..”
“You are still ‘cool’ for me, Cora.. And you can say whatever you like to me. ‘Bone and Cleave’, I am your friend..”, Brom mumbled.
“Bone and Cleave, huh? Rather poetic.. in a barbaric way.. I like!”, she said with a whimsical smile.
Then, her eyes softened as she looked down at him.
“Brom..”, she said with a quiet but serious voice. “..just when have we ever faced anything that is smaller than us? And don’t say, goblin sappers! They had numbers and those bloody grenades.. Yet, we are here, they are not. We have bested everything that is always bigger than us.. Go.. And best her.. Again!.. Shouldn’t be too hard for you, since you already bested her once before. Must I also remind you that it was because of you that she held her punches then.. And that it was your victory against her that made her our friend.. and ruined you for her..”
Then she gave the hobbit one of her rare, crooked smiles, patted him on one shoulder, and before turning to leave for her wrecked room to start clearing the bits and pieces of the debris, she said..
“If that isn’t karma, I do not know what is..!”
Brom heard her talking from inside as she tossed large, broken furniture around.
“You have so much more in common than you think, my bushy little friend. She loves flowers, you love gardens. You can make her whole gardens full of those silly, pink flowers and she will love it.. She is an insoluble mystery, you are forever intrigued by mystery. You can spend the rest of your life trying to solve her, and it will not be a life wasted.. She is pretty, you appreciate and honor that pretty. You can stare and stare at her and never be bored.. She adores cute, you are adorable.. She can put you in her coin purse and carry you around all day and be happy – though I have no idea how you are going to fit in a little pouch. Must be some magic pouch, I think.. To remember my father and mother had nothing in common, yet loved each other like eloped teenagers, was ever awkward for me to watch..”
✱ ✱ ✱
You look happy today.”, said Seressa, peering closely at her little pair.
“I am happy today. I am sorry I made such a ruckus yesterday, Seressa. Things just.. sort of piled on top of each other in one me and.. this isn’t.. this is all very new to me.”, Tonic admitted quietly.
“All is fine, all is fine, luv. Long as you’re are happy.”, her very tall, very dark pair smiled. “Your Gordigon’s letter seems to have found its way back home, I see..”
“Thanks to Brom. He is very smart, crafty, and caring, you know.”, she replied glibly.
Seressa looked down at her pair, one eyebrow cocked.
“You said nice about him.”, she said a bit surprised.
“Well, yes, I suppose I did.. He did endure me all last night and somehow got me my lost letter, did he not? He was very patient with me. Patient and understanding. I’d say he’s a great guy!”, Tonic mumbled, as she blushed slightly.
“That he is, luv. That he is.. But how did he do it? I gave it my all and came up with nothing. I just can’t imagine how that letter traveled eight hundred years, all the way from there, to here!“, she said in a marveled tone.
“I am guessing maybe it’s a bard thing. You know, bards have magic we will never have. You said it yourself!”, she replied elusively. “He is sleeping, anyway. The poor hobbit had a rough night. All the gnomes he had to put up with.”
“Casting yourself in the plural now, are we?”, smiled Seressa.
“Yea.. uhh.. there is just so many of me!”, Tonic blushed some more at her blunder.
“I am sure he will forgive us.”, said Seressa. “Boots?”
“Boots..”, replied Tonic, hopped on the bed and wiggled her feet.
“Tonic, luv..”, said Seressa. “What did you do last night?”
“Eh?”, froze Tonic.
“Look at your feet, girl.. We had a bath just last night and you got your feet all dirtied up again. You can’t wear your boots in such a state. You’ll stink them!”, Seressa said with a disconcerted voice.
“You just want to wash them cuz you like playing with them.”, replied Tonic, wiggling her tiny feet again.
“Yea..”, said Seressa with a smile. “They are soooo cute.”
“They are just feet, girl.”, Tonic frowned
“But very cute and very little feet. I could put them in my mouth and still have room to talk.”, she snickered.
“Ewww, girl.. That’s just gross.”, Tonic pinched her face.
Seressa laughed as she got up and went for the washing pan.
“There’s no water in this!”, she said.
“Ummm…”, said the gnomic girl and she suddenly went red. “I.. might have dumbed its content on Brom, last night..”
Seressa stared at Tonic.
“Why?!”, she wailed. “Why? All the nice things he’s done, and you dumped the content of a washing pan on him? That’s not nice, luv..”
“Look, I am sorry. It wasn’t one of my proudest moments, alright! I was a wreck, looking for a beach to crash and.. he just seemed to be so.. dunno.. convenient?”, she mumbled.
“Tonic..”, despaired Seressa. “Luv.. You can’t keep doing this.. to me.. to yourself.. to OTHERS! Please!”
“I know, I know.. we sort of talked and apologized to one another. Here. give me my satchel, will you?”, she said.
Seressa handed Tonic her artificer’s satchel and Tonic started rummaging it.
After a while, she pulled a round, potbelly jug out of it.
“Bring the pan here, please.”, she said.
Seressa brought the empty washing pan and Tonic tilted the jug. More water than the jug could have possibly contained poured out until the pan was full.
“That’s neat.”, said Seressa. “Is it finite?”
“Yea. Too bad really, otherwise we could have drowned Dreadmaw using just this. Provided he stood still and didn’t get out of his cave!”, said Tonic with a sad voice.
“Indeed.. would have taken only about a century or ten to fill his cave, I surmise.”, she smiled.. “Come, luv.. Let’s get on with the feet. We should be leaving soon..”
Tonic giggled as her pair vigorously washed her feet, any number of times until she was satisfied.
Then she went for her own pack, produced a medium-sized towel, and started robustly rubbing the gnomic girl’s tiny little feet.
Then, while holding her left foot by the ankle, she froze.
“Whot?”, squeaked Tonic, staring at her pair and she noted her long, slender tail. All through the washing and drying, Seressa’s fascinating tail had been dancing back and forth in a lazy, content, and hypnotizing pattern. Now it stood up very still. Its pink, fluffy end, however, was twitching with an erratic irritation —always a bad sign. It meant her master was feeling provoked.. or was seeking mischief!
Tonic looked up to her pair to see Seressa smirking, her white, beautiful canines fully on display.
“No..”, said Tonic seriously. “Seressa no.. no, no, no, NOOO!”
Seressa smirked some more.
“I have you now.”, she hissed..
..and poped it!
..into her mouth!
Tonic held her breath, then squealed, laughing in manic despair.
“Eww, girl, get it out. Get it out!”, she shrieked, still squealing and giggling.
“Told you I could do it, and still have room to talk!”, Seressa mumbled, her own tummy hopping with bubbles of laughter!
Tonic threw herself back and started banging her fists while she shrieked and squealed as she convulsed with the electrifying jolts of tickle running up her tiny foot in Seressa’s mouth!
“Enough.. Se..Seressa.. Enough.. Pwahahahahaa! Ahahahahaaa.. Seres.. Hahahahaa! Ow. My.. Gwahahahahahaa..!”
“Ehem..”, said a voice from the door.
“Perhaps I came at a wrong time?”, said Brom.. with a professionally straight face, as he beheld the mad? creepy? insane? funny? hilarious? sight before him.
A Tonic, squealing like a hyped little squirrel, and a Seressa, with her pairs foot in her mouth..
It was a very nearly surreal sight.
Perhaps I am not quite awake yet, and this is just a weird dream with a lot of metaphors, thought Brom.
“This isn’t what it looks like!”, blurted Wraiven in unveiled panic, the foot still in her mouth.
“I am not eating her!”
And she blushed.
Brom hadn’t seen the very tall, very dark girl blush before.. Not really.. Probably because she was a cultured and classy girl, she had maturely accepted herself as who and what she was, or never truly put herself in situations where she would end up blushing.. even at her moments of klutz, and as silly as she always seemed.
Or perhaps he was overthinking or overanalyzing it and the girl was just so dark, a blush merely camouflaged itself.. A bit like her bruises.
Whatever the reasons may be, it told something about the girl to Brom. As to what it was, he put it aside for the moment. The current situation had precedence and was likely one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ things..
Hence it came quite as a surprise when he saw the very tall, very dark girl truly, and actually blush.
Her face, her whole demeanor, really.. just changed. The whole of Seressa Wraiven started to glow with a searing, simmering, red-orange inner fire one would only see in pitched coal at the very bottom and center of a hearth where the fickle fire had died, and what remained was the core ember that gave off a calm, but steady heat.
It was ‘awesome’, at a whole new level..
“Ow. My. Gosh!”, he barely heard Tonic squeak in destroyed embarrassment.
Brom could only gawk at Wraiven.
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meets in her aspect and her eyes..
He murmured silently.
Then, a whisper escaped him..
“Or perhaps my timing was of the best.”
Slowly, and deliberately, Brom Bumblebrim turned around, took a deep breath, and left.
Perhaps Cora could use some help. There had been a lot of debris in that wreck.
✱ ✱ ✱
You bested her already?”, asked Cora as she picked up what was perhaps once a wardrobe like it was made of straws than hardwood. “That was quick. Way to go hobbit! Hope you didn’t comment about the size of her.. well, you know.. She is a bit touchy on that subject, though I can’t understand why considering your initial assumptions and accusations were totally wrong..”
Brom scratched his head dubiously.
“Never accuse a girl about the size of their..”, continued Cora.
He wasn’t quite sure who had, perhaps unwittingly, bested whom there, just then, or if there had been any besting at all. He certainly felt bested, though.. He also felt something smolder at the pit of his stomach!
“Did you tell her she’s pretty? Seressa likes pretty.”
Seressa Wraiven was not just pretty..
She was something..
And he saw something new in her, every time she turned around.. and thus Brom Bumblebrim wondered..
“But it’s always nice hearing it from others..”
Why had she blushed so..?
The poem Brom recites;
She Walks in Beauty
by Lord Byron (George Gordon Byron, 1788 – 1824)
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.
And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!
Seressa: “I have you now.”