Well, the two Nomads listened quite happily to that tale, then the woman leaned forward in her chair, apparently to ask for another drink. Instantly good Lena came over and refilled our mugs.
Then evening’s regulars began to drift in along with some odd and diverse travelers. But, as the other patrons came in, I detected some grumblings of derision towards my companions. I understood well enough. Many were dockhands and sailors for the families that live in the area and had had poor dealings with the Nomads in the past.
Eian’s hand dropped to rest casually on the hilt of his sword though Ailea raised a hand to restrain any further action on his part. Meanwhile, many of the incoming patrons glared daggers at my companions. But, luckily, no violence erupted, perhaps partially because the Nomads were with me, but also because I like to think that all of the Dolphin’s patrons have some measure of respect for Mistress Seastar as well as myself – an esteem which in turn extends to our guests.
In any case, soon the very astute Lady Ailea launched into another tale with a mind to lessening the tension in the room.
“This may seem strange to you, Taran, but some of my people, although rarely, tire of our water-going way of life and seek to settle in one place. This indeed happened once, a generation ago, to a woman of my clan. Her name was Laiea, and she was the third ranking member of our clan’s Religious caste. At the time, the clan was plying the trade routes in the Inner Sea, near Altalia and the western lands of your country, trading leathers and cloths from the far west for south Hinterlands wood, while also netting the fish of the Inner Sea that are such a delicacy for the Dwarves of Zargonin.
It was as the five clan ships were coming to the end of their time in the Inner Sea that Laiea—whose duties involved leading sacrifices of fish and goods and other rites to bring favor from Anei, the Trade goddess, on behalf of the clan – was struck with a sleep so profound that she could neither awake nor even respond to the familiar voices of her caste-mates. She was on my family’s ship, so my grandfather moved her off the deck to the sanctuary of our gods – our ship’s Shrine to the Divine Quintet. He felt it best to move the woman closer to a representation of her calling.
The shrine is a small place below decks near the front of every Cuaha ship which houses a small table dedicated to each of our five deities. Everyday the Religious Caste makes small sacrifices to the deities in order to garner their favor on behalf of the clan. The caste also tries to aid those who are in need of supplicating the Divine Quintet and those who need the return of a clear mind and strong body.
But her brethren’s supplications did not seem to help. Laiea remained in her sleep for the whole of a pair of eight-days; then, suddenly, staring at some point far beyond the starboard wall of the shrine, she awoke babbling about sights that no one else had ever seen. She described strange colors and the expanse of sea in each direction and the open sky above, and spoke about tall brown-greenish points topped in rose and white and gold that looked like a giant’s crown with smoke floating upward, about water the same color as the clan’s crimson and purple sails and the yellow shade of her family’s head coverings. But, most unusual of all, Laiea kept going on and on about a woman with flowing hair longer than that of any Cuaha, a woman clad in a beautiful raiment of silver and sea-green.
The other four members of the Religious caste sat at Laiea’s feet until she slowly calmed down, and began to speak coherently. Laiea then described the woman further, saying he woman stood taller than any Cuaha she had met, yet not tall enough that Laiea felt dwarfed by her size. Furthermore, the woman’s skin looked to be fashioned of worn copper and stout mahogany while her hair, which fell down below her waist, was as gold as a new coin. The clothing meanwhile was of silver while her head was covered by a cloth of scarlet and tourmaline, depicting emerald gulls with brilliant silver crowns.
Immediately Laiea’s fellows moved to the tables of their respective deities and made appropriate ablations and petitions for the Divine Quintet’s aid. Then the priest devoted to Einal rose and ushered all the other priests from the shrine. None were allowed in, not even to feed Laiea. The priests then spent the next pair of days in the shrine fasting and discussing Laeia’s visions. When the second day ended, they came forth and declared that they could not completely interpret the dreams yet, but that they were convinced our goddess Anei had visited Laiea in order to deliver a message to us.
The ships halted, anchoring close together. The news of Anei’s visit to Laiea was then passed along, and a large feast was soon being planned, under the guidance of the Religious caste, by the Fishers and Workers. My people have always been close to our deities, but even so, visitations, even in dreams, are rare enough that we must immediately celebrate them.
The feast was a grand affair. All sorts of foods were taken from the stores and prepared in as many ways as there are nations and peoples in the world. There was Grralti mutton and Altalian perch, Hinterlander stew and platters of Zargonin mushrooms and tubers. There were even many of the leaf and reptile dishes from lands much further to the west than Grralt, lands whose names would be quite unfamiliar to you, Friend Taran. Contests of skill were held as well; knife and dart throwing among the Warriors, juggling and acrobatics among the Workers, feats of listening among the Fishers, star-naming and astrological reckoning and prediction by the Navigators and, above all, the relation of our tales of the gods by the Religious caste. For the entire day and evening of the feast, clan members roamed from ship to ship, sampling and judging the marvelous cooking and diverse entertainments. Many great feats were lauded, while those of considerably less note were met with jestful ridicule. The feast and related festivities lasted well into the night before the celebrants succumbed to their heavy eyelids.
When dawn came, it found the clan resting, recovering and blissful in Anei’s favor, except for Laiea and a small cadre of the Religious caste. All through the feast, Laiea had continued to stare toward the west, ignoring everything around her.
In truth, many days had to pass and the clan’s ships to leave the Inner Sea for the Outer Oceans before the cadre believed they had discovered the answer to Laeia’s trance. The dreams, they believed, were a message from Anei that the clan should go to a different land, off the normal route, where through the favor of Anei great profits and prosperity would meet them. Furthermore, they said that Laiea’s staring meant that the land lay to the west, not the east.
So, for the first time in the clan’s history, they left their normal trade routes – from the western lands, into the Inner Sea along Altalia and Grralt, then into Zargonin, Colcul, and the Elven Nations and struck out toward the land of Anei’s favor. There was much discussion and grumbling. But all dispute was muted. Who can argue with the gods?
It was not the season for winds from the east, so the going was hard and the waves were no less of a friend. The voyage went on for many eight-days. Every so often the clan would stop at a settlement, in lands far to the west of Grralt and Altalia, to refill their stores of food and trade goods. Mother even told me that a brace of powerful storms came and nearly swamped all of the ships. But those whose duties were to interpret the will of the gods pronounced reassuringly that the storms were only Anei’s siblings, Iean the Wind and Einia of the Seas, testing the will of Clan Irquea. But that was of little comfort for the members of the clan; that all five ships remained afloat with no one overboard was in itself a cause for rejoicing.
And Laiea still sat, turning as the ships turned, continuing to stare at a point to the west.
Meanwhile, the stars shifted in the night sky, as they are wont to do in the course of the seasons. Still the clan ships sailed on to the setting sun. Already weeks had passed since our final stop at the westernmost town of this landmass. The locals deemed the humble port a town, though it was really only about as large as your Wharfs. There we has stocked our last supplies, for the clan was truly going off the Sailed Routes. None were sure where the ships were going, or how long the journey would last.
It was almost a half score of days since the clan had left the Sailed Routes when the children on the main masts spotted a haze on the horizon that usually indicated the presence of some bit of land. But another day had to pass before the new shore could be seen clearly from the decks. Then a shiver ran along the crews as it does moments before a thunderstorm. Each top deck and the oar-deck below bustled with activity. Men and women grabbed ropes and shifted sails while children shouted directions from the rigging. Then oars sprouted from the sides as the rowers below deck added their muscle to the strength of Iean’s Breath. Everyone was consumed by their tasks. Even the infirm below the oar deck gave their aid by voicing prayers to the Divine Quintet.
But even with the extra speed the sun was dipping into the sea in front of the clan ships before they reached the land. Then, as dawn rose, the mountains that the Cuaha could just barely make out the day before came even more clearly into view. Not just the members of the Religious caste but everyone on ship who could see all inhaled in wonder. The mountains seemed to be the brown-green crown of Laiea’s dream.
The clan’s whaling boats hit the water and slid toward the shore. Laiea even joined the crew of the lead boat while those left behind on the ships watched in awe at the tail of many colors that appeared behind her boat. Meanwhile, although Laiea still seemed dazed, she was nonetheless moving on her own and seemed more aware of her surroundings than previously. Those who had aided her in her disembarking were even surprised when she walked to the rail on her own and had even climbed down the ropes to the waiting boat without any more aid than they usually gave one of their companions.
The landing party scouted the island for most of the day before returning to our ships. They bore no news of people, at least none that they could see, but that the place was rich with raw wood and other goods so plentiful as to fill the clan ships many many times over. Meanwhile, the member of the landing party assigned to watch Laiea informed Laiea’s religious brethren that she had seemed less distracted than she had previously been. Many times she seemed to take interest in some of the natural features of the new-discovered land and asked questions about different spots: a waterfall, a couple stands of trees, and the like . ‘In fact,’ he said, ‘she seemed to have completely recovered from her condition.’ But, it wasn’t until after the evening meal that the Cuaha discovered why.
It was then, after the sun had set and the fires onboard were of a safe height, that Laiea asked to borrow a glass from the family head. Since this was the first time she had spoken in almost a whole season, the eldest of our family gladly offered up her own glass to Laiea. Then, as everyone looked on in anticipation, Laiea took the glass in both hands and carefully set it on the floor.
After first filling the glass with drinking water from one of the tables, Laiea then touched the water with one finger and closed her eyes. Then, before the gaze of all present, a glint of light suddenly appeared within the glass. Many thought it a trick of the flames of the fires, but soon the glass was filled with the red of the Filenta family’s banner, mixed with the green of the Valantan, along with the azure of the Karnen. Then as the family watched some more, an image of the peaks and woods of the newly discovered land slowly took form in the center of the water, completely realistic except for the waviness that comes from seeing through water.
Laiea stood and handed the glass, which still retained the perfect image of the isle, to the eldest member of the family. She said it was to remember her by, for Anei had told her that in the morning she was to go to the shore and remain there, practicing this new art of water-sculpting and painting.
And so it came to pass that at dawn a boat took Laiea to the beach and she stepped off a boat for the last time. The clan left her gifts of food and other supplies; then, after five days of rest and restocking the holds of the ships, the clan sailed back east to the known markets of our normal trade routes.
That was many years ago, but ever since then the Isle of Laiea has been on the clan’s trading route. Laiea herself lived on that small island for many scores – I believe that is your term for four fives – of cycles. Our clan’s ships stopped to see her every fifth season. I was actually able to meet her once when I was a young child before she passed on to Iean’s windy realm. And Anei’s favor has indeed looked upon us; for, at that time, each family in the clan had only a small ship of three fives of Cuaha aboard. But, already within a year, each ship had been added to in size and bore five fives of Cuaha. It has been thus ever since. And land traders of course have been offering greater and greater prices for our fish and wood, for our cloths from Altalia and horse trappings from Grralt. But, no matter the price, we have never sold any of the sacred pieces of Laiea’s water-sculpting to a non-Cuaha. They have passed into the hands of land-walkers only as a gift, as a rare sign of friendship to those with who have done great services to our people.”
So ended Lady Ailea’s second telling of her people and their way of life. But, never fear, I shall assuage your curiosity about the tension between my Cuaha friends and the crews of our own ships first. Lady Ailea and her companion even met some muted applause at the close of that tale, and might have even been treated to a few rounds and asked to tell another tale by a few of Lord Rafeh’s captains, yet unfortunately they could not stay longer because they were needed to help unload their ships. But, my friends, they still come to our city every spring or two and invariably come to this inn after their deals are concluded, so you may see them yet.
Now, to those who have been here all night, I beg your forgiveness, but I see a sizable group of newcomers have arrived, so I feel I should reintroduce myself . . .
. . . Greetings good gentles, and welcome to the warmth of the Dancing Dolphin on this chill, windy night. Mistress Seastar, whom I am certain you have all seen this evening, welcomes you to the light of her fire. And, I am Taran, a humble weaver of words, teller of tales, describer of deeds, orator of . . .
Well, you understand.
After the past serious tales, I think it time for a tale of some levity. Would you not agree? Very good, then. I have just the perfect tale for such wants. It concerns a young friend of mine who serves in the court of Baron Calirmorn. His name is Brondun and he waits upon the Baron’s table at feasts and the like. The particular feast he told me about, and which I in turn shall pass on to you, is the Feast of Isstark, held in the latter part of the time of snows to ensure that the fish and other sea creatures are plentiful and come to our good fishers’ nets. This was an important occasion for my friend Brondun because it was the first time he had served the Baron during this important feast. That evening the Baron would be hosting every noble for days around as well as many of the local guildmasters and fishermen.
Brondun rose early that morning. He was to aid his fellow servants and the master cook in preparing the feast and getting the main hall prepared for Isstark’s pleasure. For, if Isstark was not pleased with the ceremonies and feast, then not even Lady Tya’s greatest efforts could completely save the city’s livelihood.
So it was that the young lad – before Weila herself had risen to shine light upon the city – was already in the main hall, steadying a ladder as his friend Jharie affixed the decorative and ceremonial tridents to the walls. Meanwhile, other servants on the palace staff strung lines of mock fish and crabs along the hall as well as banners of blue and green bearing Isstark’s golden fish and silver trident. Then they set out to hang the banners of the Baron and those of his noble guests.
Meanwhile, in the kitchens, pans clanged, spoons stirred, cleavers thunked, the master cook overlooking the orchestrated chaos with her stern gaze. Her harsh voice shouted at the kitchen boys to put more wood on the fires or at a slow apprentice whom she felt was not chopping fast enough. The air was pungent with the smells of garlic, pepper, and scallions, many of the servants weeping from the chopped onions. The aromas of baking bread and roasting hog mixed with the scent of the ginger and beer that was being basted over the skins of the pigs. Other cooks were busily scaling and cutting the various fish that had been brought in from the store houses.
After a break at midday for food, Brondun and his companions swarmed the main hall again. This time they set the five long tables as instructed. Silver settings and plates of brightly glazed stoneware graced not just the head table, but the two tables for the guildmasters and other dignitaries that ran parallel to each other in a U shape out from the head table. Situated at the foot of the guildmasters were the two tables for the fishermen, which also had fine settings and plates, though consisting of the Baron’s less ornate silver and stoneware.
In the kitchens began the making of fruit and cheese pies. Barrels of apples, peaches, and ysíls from the Elven Nations were brought in and chopped up. Wheel upon wheel of cheese was sliced as the many loaves of bread were removed from the ovens.
As soon as the main hall was done, Brondun and some of his fellows reported to the Baron’s steward and were assigned the task of bringing casks of wine and barrels of beer up from the palace’s extensive cellar. Others were sent to aid the stableboys in stocking hay, water, and oats for the guests’ horses or to help the maids clean the rooms in which the visiting lords and ladies and their retinues would reside.
Moments after the last cask and barrel had been brought up from the cellars, Brondun and his cadre of servants were ordered to clean up quickly so they could help serve the first course of the feast. As they rushed through the hall straightening their tunics, they could hear sounds of guests being welcomed and then standing around the main hall speaking amongst themselves.
Then the Baron and his entourage entered and a hush fell over the crowd. Brondun waited in the wings with a large pitcher of beer in hand. Then the Baron and his wife and children all took their places and sat down, followed immediately by the dark blue and green clad nobility. The guildmasters were also decked out in vibrant blues and greens, but had also mixed in bright reds and yellow as well as overly ostentatious amounts of gold jewelry, each wearing enough to feed the whole of the kingdom for a year. And then came the fishermen in their best clothes – rough homespun for the most part, though Brondun glimpsed some softer fabrics – in the traditional sea-green and blue of the festival. Then a heartbeat after everyone had settled, Brondun sped forward with the other serving boys. His job was to wait upon the guildmasters, or rather their cups, and if they needed no more drink then to go directly on to the fisherfolk.
The very instant that Brondun began pouring for the corpulent master of the brewers guild, the first course was brought from the kitchens.
And that was only the first of many scores of delights. The list of foods that were prepared for that feast would stretch well into the morning, my friends. So, I shall just say that many cows, sheep, fish, deer, and hogs died to provide for the august personages on the occasion of Isstark, as did many ducks, geese, chickens, and birds of the field. And many barrels of barley and wheat, corn and apples, onions and potatoes, carrots and beets.
Instead, I shall attempt to do justice to the honored entertainers who passed into the Baron’s great hall to perform. First, during the middle of the meal, the brightly clad music makers came in troupe by troupe, each variously arrayed with pipes or drums, lutes or lyres, or even outfitted with all four. They played many a gay and bright tune as well as many more soothing ones, all created especially for the feast – and all without singers – so as not to distract their patrons from their meals. Brondun said many were very competent musicians, as one might well assume considering their audience, but, of them all, Brondun claimed only a meager handful stood out. These few, he told me, included the master of melodious music, Master Hasbarc the famous lyrist from the north, and Demelldivan’s very own piper of some renown, Sahaen of the Silvertounge.
While Brondun’s coworkers began serving the final course – small bowls of shrimps soaked in a sauce of honey and apple wine – and while Brondun busily poured drink after drink for the guildmasters, the next entertainers appeared in the hall. They were a motley group of fools, according to him. Foppish caps and clashing suits of bright orange and lavender made up their outfits. They made their best attempt at one of Jacinth’s comedies, but Brondun said the audience gained more amusement from the bungling and untimely slips of the would-be-actors than they did from the poorly delivered lines. Then these supposed actors were hurried out of the room and a much more promising group was led in. Some were dressed as the wondrous creatures of the sea – dolphins, great fish, and sea horses among them – while others more closely resembled pirates and knights. There in the center of the great fallen arch created by the tables they set forth to reenact the adventures of the Knights of the Deep. There was much swordplay and many mock deaths, many rescues and punished villains; but, even this was nothing to compare to some of the later entertainers whom Baron Calirmorn hired for that night.
For, you see, next to take the scene, once the actors had left to not a little applause from the Baron’s guests, was a troop of a half score and three jongleurs in many colored patchwork trousers and shirts who had just arrived from a pair of eight-days entertaining the King. These men so amazed Brondun, my friends, that at one point he very nearly overfilled the cup of a lord. The jongleurs started off harmlessly enough, juggling children’s balls in the air as they slowly walked around to each table. Then, they started to throw sticks back and forth to a single partner as they continued circling around through the room. Afterwards, they began not only throwing to one partner as they circulated, but to two and then three and then four partners until all three and ten were tossing sticks at one another. Then, my friends, came the part which took the gathered guests’ collective breath away. Slowly the jugglers began replacing the sticks with knives, daggers, cleavers, and swords until the room was filled with a full score and a half pieces of sharp flying steel. And, most amazing of all friends, Brondun told me that many times when it appeared a man had already lost his arm to a cleaver or his life to a dagger, his hand – in the exact fraction of a heartbeat needed – would catch the handle and redirect the blade toward one of his fellow jongleurs.
After a time the jugglers grew weary, however, as you can well imagine, so they gave their place to musicians and singers before anyone was seriously injured. There then appeared a group of Vethiani singers, with voices to rival the late Indrisial’s, rising in praise of the dolphins and seals as well as the other playful creatures of Isstark. The Vethiani were then followed by a line of local music makers, singing songs of heroes who had given their lives for the sea and for Lord Isstark – many of their odes concerned famous, if not legendary, fishermen and women who had given of themselves so that Isstark’s children and creatures could be saved. After each of these songs there was much applause, as well as many tears, deriving from the lower tables. Then came a group of Arapas from the Elven Nations chanting to Isstark’s cousin Weila, whom they know as the Spirit of the Sun and worship with song at the beginning and end of each day. A group of Dwarves from Zargonin followed the Arapa and presented a chant to Isstark’s brother Granthen Rockshaper, their Lord of the Earth. Finally, at least in terms of the musical part of the feast, some more local minstrels came forth to present new songs written specially for Isstark’s feast.
By the time the singing was done, the meal itself was over and Brondun and his companions were rushing back and forth from the table to the kitchens for beer and wine, as many toasts to Isstark were being made as well as much chatter, backslapping and shouts for good drink and entertainment. It was now time for a bit of magic to enter the hall. My young friend got to see Baron Calirmorn’s court wizard and her two apprentices put on a rather controversial show. It turns out the Vethiani mistress of the Green, Lady Flamesling, disdains the theatrical use of magic. But, that is of no matter when the Baron wanted a performance. So his pet mage and her devotees obliged him with tongues of flame leaping from their hands, birds and other animals appearing out of nothingness, and coins hiding behind people’s ears. They even made one of the tables disappear while the place settings remained unmoved, floating in the air. This last worried and impressed Brondun most, because at that very moment he was pouring for Master Olen, the Dwarven co-head of the Guild of Merchants – and Master Olen’s table suddenly was not there. Fortunately, however, the young Master was a jolly sort and did not mind that my young friend had nearly upended a pitcher of libations on him in surprise.
Then suddenly the whole of the gathering moved forward in their seats as a dozen men and women entered the hall. It was time for the Baron’s tournament. The contestants – three groups in all – were evenly divided between wearing the leather and sea-green tabards of the Knights of the Deep, the plate and black tabard with the King’s silver hawk, scroll, and lily of the Fellowship of the Crown, and the sword broach and tabard the color of ripe apples of the Silver Sword. This was a common sight at the Baron’s feasts. The four best of each of the three orders of warriors in Demelldivan would compete for the honor of bearing the Baron’s chain of recognition until the next holy feast. Of course, all used blunted arms so that no serious injury might occur and thus cause a feud to arise.
There were a great many displays of extreme skill that evening, but nothing compared to the final bout when Sir Arnis Kraken, a swarthy leather clad man possessed of a devilish skill with his trident and short blade met Sir Illyania Covenethialis, a well reputed young Vethianai lady whom rumor says will be Sir Marinden’s replacement upon her grace’s passing. The Silver Sword’s champion, Cornis Fillensen, a great advocate of the small axe and long knife, had just been eliminated by Sir Kraken, but by only a narrow call, the tournament judges deciding that Sir Kraken’s death blow had connected just before Master Fillensen’s.
So it came down to the Crown Knight, unstoppable in her suit of steel plates and the spry, slippery sea knight with his quick trident and flashing short sword. The two knights began by circling each other, Sir Kraken’s trident darting forth toward his opponent’s shield, while her sword cut through the air about her, each feeling out the other’s defenses before the bout truly began.
Sir Covenethialis was to strike first. The ring of steel on steel mixed with the dull thunk of wood on leather. Then the knights disengaged to think about their next moves, both warriors gauging each other’s movements through narrowed eyes before coming together once more. As with all the Baron’s tournaments, each would now receive the opportunity to strike one blow while the other defended, then the combatants would switch and the former defendant would get a chance to strike. And thus the bout would go, each opponent trading off one blow at a time. Victory would go to the first hit to the body, or to the best in either placement or skillful dodging of the other’s defense in the case of each combatant scoring a hit in the same round. The last such contest at one of the Baron’s feasts had lasted nearly until dawn.
Then – eventually – due to a cunning twist of her wrist at the last possible moment in her eleventh strike that sent the tip of her sword around Sir Kraken’s parry with his trident, Sir Covenethialis stood alone before the Baron’s table, sweat streaming down her face with her helm under her arm, to be named victor while her lord, Sir Marinden of the Knights of the Crown radiated a subdued pride. The gathered lords and ladies then burst into wave upon wave of applause for Sir Covenethialis had shown great skill and a cunning wit in her final maneuver, which was exceedingly difficult, as the eighth bell of the night rang in the Market District.
Well, friends, Brondun’s tale is concluded there. The bouts of drinking and merrymaking continued for some time before many of the noblemen and women retired to their chambers, while most of the rest collapsed right there at the table into a drunken yet peaceful slumber. At some point Brondun dragged himself to the rooms he shared with the other serving boys and slumped down on to his bed, asleep before he even touched the straw mattress.
And now, pardon me friends, but it is late for us as well. Many of you have caravans to catch come dawn or homes to return to. Even I grow weary. So, my friends, I must bid you goodnight. Be certain to return here tomorrow, though, for it shall be an evening you will not want to miss. The cook is revealing a new dish which he has been busily concocting and kept secret for many eight-days now, while I shall have many tales to tell you that have been brought to me by the plethora of travelers who have come to our city to worship divine Tya, including one which I call “The Beggar of Olta and The Grralti Stranger” and another which I was told is known as “Everinaliethiani” by the Arapa Elves. But, until then, my friends, I bid you goodnight, good dreams, and hope that Ladies Tya, Einal, and Nolminat bless you in the days to come.
(But, perhaps I shall wait, for who might you be? I have seen you here before, yes, I have seen you coming in alone in the early evenings as the sun lowers herself toward the Inner Sea. And you always spy out the darkest table, my friend. Yes, I have seen you before and yet you have never spoken to me. What is your name, stranger? And what, I wonder, is your tale?)