One of the first things Tesni had learned about Elethay Ardoc was that she was, at any given time, either outdoors or wishing she were. Ellie was perfectly capable of stepping out any one of Kaer Maga’s many doorways, disappearing into the grasslands and chapparal of the Storval Plains (with or without Tesni by her side), and not showing her face in the city again for a month or more. Her hair, originally glossy black, had become scoured to a much lighter hue by life out in the sun, wind and dust.
Knowing that, it always amazed Tesni how easily this girl of the open country could always shut out the world to concentrate on her precious journal, even in the midst of the noisiest and most boisterous crowds.
And The Country Round was certainly noisy and crowded this evening. It was one of the best taverns in Bis District, as well as the biggest, and certainly the loudest. The circular common room measured nearly a hundred feet across, and its painted scenes of green hills, meadows and woods (things most people in this roofed city on an arid plain had never seen up close in real life) looked cheerily down on several hundred night-lifers in various stages of inebriation and mirth. Many of them, Tesni was happy to say, had come to hear her recently-completed performance. Halfling singers were much in vogue right now in the city, and Tesni Larkwood was one of the most popular. In addition to the generous pay, she wouldn’t have to buy any of her own drinks tonight, and neither would Ellie. Not that the ranger-lass really needed to buy her own drinks. Her family — the male members of it, at least — ruled this particular district of the city with (literally) an iron fist.
Tesni sat daintily perched atop one of the high stools The Country Round provided for its more diminutive guests, careful to keep her knees tight together on account of the short blue dress she’d worn for her performance. She stared patiently across the table at Ellie, who was once again miles deep in that damned journal of hers — the one that was the size of a small chapbook when closed, but expanded into a huge and weighty tome when opened, with seemingly thousands of blank pages awaiting Ellie’s careful notes, well-rendered sketches, and the occasional pasted-in example of local flora and fauna.
“Ahem,” Tesni ventured hopefully. “I sang The Stag Girl tonight just for you. Because it’s your favorite. Did you notice?”
“I noticed.” Ellie didn’t look up from her book.
“I thought it went over pretty well. I hit the vibrato on the high notes right this time. I’m never sure about it, with that song.”
Ellie looked up at her this time, and smiled at her fondly. “Tes, I noticed.” She flipped the journal back a couple of pages, and turned it round to show her. Ellie had filled an entire page with a fine charcoal sketch of Tesni on stage, holding her hands over the top of her head to make comic pantomime antlers, while the crowd roared with laughter.
“You did notice,” Tesni beamed.
“I notice everything. Be dead if I didn’t.”
Tesni knew from personal experience that was true — at least outside on the wild plains, where Ellie no doubt wished she was right now. And where she would be again, by midday tomorrow.
The ranger was already engrossed in her notes again. Tes craned her neck to see. “What are you reading now?” The colorful beads in her waist-length hair-braids clacked softly together as she leaned.
Ellie looked up. “You don’t think I’d take us to a place called The Hated Halls without studying up on everything I’ve found out about it, do you?”
“I don’t think you’d take us to a place called The Hated Halls at all, unless you were as crazy as a drunken troll in a rainstorm.”
Ellie gave her a sour look.
“Elethay,” Tesni said to her in her reasonable voice. “How long have you known me?”
“Almost a year.”
“See? You’re one of my oldest friends. And all that time, I’ve been telling you how pointless it is to try and prove yourself to those uncles and cousins and brothers of yours. You have breasts and you bleed every month, so you’ll never be one of them. That’s the way it is. Why would you even want to be? So you can carry a chisel on your belt and break fingerbones like they do? I mean, you don’t even live here in Bis. Not really. You stop here every so often for a change of clothes, a hot bath and a warm snuggle, and then you’re off again. More often than not, I go with you. I’ll go this time, but I want to know why, apart from a point of pride that you know doesn’t matter.”
“It’s different this time,” Ellie shrugged. “It’s a matter of family honor. I may not be a very good Ardoc, but I am one. And a soul is at stake. My great-grandfather’s. Perhaps others as well.”
Tesni sighed, resigned. “It’s going to be dangerous, isn’t it?”
Ellie smirked at her. “The place is called The Hated Halls, Tes. Not The Cuddly Halls. What do you think?”
Ellie closed her book at last, and slipped it into her tunic. “It’s getting late, you’ve had a long and tiring sing, and we need to get started by mid-morning tomorrow if we’re to reach the Halls by nightfall. I believe you mentioned a hot bath and a warm snuggle.”
“And so I did,” Tes smiled. “But Grey sleeps on the floor tonight.” She looked down under the table to where a mechanical animal-thing sat at Elethay’s feet. It was a golem — one of the ones given to every Ardoc girl-child as a lifelong protector and sign of status. Each girl got a unique one, and Ellie’s looked like some sort of sleek quadruped — canine or feline, or both — made of finely carved and beautifully etched metallic scales that allowed it to move with all the agility and speed of a living predator. It was made of enchanted silver, and had originally shone brilliantly in the light… but Ellie had deliberately, carefully burnished and tarnished its surface to a pewter-like patina, so that it wouldn’t glint in the sunlight out on the plains and alert everything within miles to its, and Ellie’s, presence. Hence its name… Grey.
“Alright,” Ellie shrugged. “But you know very well it doesn’t actually sleep at all.”
“That’s what bothers me,” Tesni said, giving Grey the stink-eye. “I don’t like him watching us.”
“He knows you. And he knows when I’m being attacked and when I’m not.”
“All the same,” Tes insisted, “on the floor he goes.” She tried to put her foot down, and nearly slipped off her high stool.
Ellie shook her head fondly, and stood up to help Tes down. She knew the tab would be taken care of. It always was.
* * * * *
The journey took most of the next day, and the hot sun would have been quite oppressive if Tesni hadn’t cast one of her “little spells” — Pinya’s parasol, which caused a bit of starry night sky to appear overhead and follow them where they walked, keeping always between them and the sun, and thus always in shade. The parasol could only be seen from directly underneath, and so wouldn’t give their position away to any of the predators (human and otherwise) who roamed the Storval. Tes passed the time by (quietly) singing road songs, which Ellie even joined in with sometimes, now that no one was around to hear. Grey ran along silently beside them (or behind them, or sometimes ahead.)
Ellie stopped them just as the sun was setting, at a thick stand of brush with a barren clearing on the other side.