The breeze was coming up from the south with the warmth of the distant sun carried on it. There had been no storm rolling in from the teeth of the Frozen Range for many cycles of the Blood Moon, and the windows of the tavern had been open all night. Kietrich was running a dirty rag over the tables, casting the dust onto the floor and into the air that the wind had deposited inside. The purple sky and distant glow of the sun in the far south set him at ease, while the thin vein of Stream that ran up the south facing window told him the time of resting would soon be approaching. Typically, the patrons he knew best would wait until the time of resting was upon them before seeking to imbibe.
“How long are you going to stare out that window Kit Rat?” Marta screeched in mock castigation.
“Don’t call me that,” Kietrich scowled. “I’m not a rat.”
“No? You certainly scurry around here like one, picking the scraps off the plates. Don’t think I haven’t noticed you.” Marta continued to hammer him with her shriveling tone and squinty eyes.
“If you fed me properly, I wouldn’t need to!” He shouted, turning to face her with a look of fondness. Kietrich’s eyes sent a message other than his tone. He adored this woman, and most definitely enjoyed this feigned indignation and banter they often shared. She too had a look for him, one that spoke of just how precious he was to her. In this dusty tavern, the two of them had found a life on the distant edge of the northern Trader’s Fold.
“Did you hear that Ellanore?” Marta said, turning to the dog quietly observing in the corner nearest to the door. “I feed you enough, don’t I?”
Ellanore’s eyes acknowledged that she had heard her name but seemed not to agree with Marta’s assessment. Kietrich laughed uproariously.
“That cursed mutt has always been on your side ever since you came around.” Marta grumbled, looking vexed by the broken allegiance with her fur-covered companion.
The door of the tavern swung open and the first two patrons of the night came crashing in, headed for the bar.
“Malthias and Andor! Good to see you both after so many weeks!” Shouted Kietrich as he finished dusting off the last table. “How have you been and where were you off to this time?”
As they both took a seat and signaled Marta for two tall glasses of ale, Malthias spoke first in a somewhat downtrodden tone. “We went looking for a place to build a new home, but this last trip north was more trouble than it was worth. Andor and I were robbed on the way road to Mirondale!”
“That’s terrible!” Marta exclaimed, folding her arms across her chest. “But you still went north anyway?”
“Yes,” Andor said, looking into the now half empty glass. “We wanted to find a place to build our lives together, even if we had no coin to buy anything to stake a claim to the land.” Andor reached across the bar and clasped the hand of his partner. “We feared for our lives, but they spared us and took what they wanted, even our horses. We still have each other though. We went looking just north of the lake but decided to head home soon after.”
Malthias looked into his partner’s eyes. “We got to talking more than we do on our usual trips, so in a way, the fear and time not traveling by horse have brought us closer together.”
“Well that is something!” Kietrich said loudly as the door opened again and more dusty farmers walked in.
“Welcome!” Marta looked over the tavern as it slowly began to fill up with patrons. Kietrich was already moving around taking orders for both food and drink, and the first cask of wine had been opened. Marta knew there would be more of that as the night went forward. These people were hardened from the trauma of the lives they led, and the perils of the places they made their homes. Yet, they were resilient and proven in their desire to earn more for themselves, and to do so with a sense of unwavering honesty.
“Have you seen the Last Knights around these parts lately?” One of the farmers asked Marta as she poured a cup of wine.
“No, I have not,” she began slowly. “Though, did I tell you about the time that Lord Islay came into this bar?”
“Oh boy,” Kietrich sighed. “Not this story again.”
“I love this story! Tell it again Marta!” A younger man from one of the outlying farms said.
Ellanore put her paws over her ears and settled into the floor.
“Go ahead Marta, they all love that story.” Kietrich said taking a seat near her.
“First, Kietrich, can you bring me the last cask of Imperial Blue? It’s out in the cellar. Everyone shall have themselves a glass by the end of the story!” She said as a cheer went up in the cozy cantina. “That was what Lord Dorian Islay asked for the day he came through my door, and at the time, there wasn’t a single drop of that sweet wine anywhere in town…”
As Kietrich moved outside and closed the door behind him, he could hear the muffled sounds of Marta’s voice as she enthusiastically began to tell the tale. Only the softest tones escaped the shuttered windows, but he knew he wanted to be with her, at this dusty old tavern, for the rest of his days. This was where he was happy and felt most alive. He had walked a terrible road himself and understood Andor’s pain when he spoke of the robbery, and the dreams for their future suddenly in peril. His path forward had been put on hold many times, but now, at last, he was walking into it with his eyes wide with gratitude. He loved Marta, and suddenly realized he should marry her and make this place, this tiny little town, their home forever.
Kietrich moved around the stone building and clasped the metal handles to the cellar, unlatching them and swinging the doors wide. It was dark within, so he snatched a torch off the corner of the building and held it before him as he walked down the steps.
He quickly found the distinctly blue-painted cask and slung it under his arm as he walked back up into the perpetual twilight of the northern Trader’s Fold. Arriving at the dirt landing atop the stairs, he set down the cask to close the doors to the cellar behind him. A noise came from the trees several feet away, the sound of something rustling in the leaves. He peered over but saw nothing and paid it no mind as he turned his back to clasp the cellar doors closed.
Marta reached the end of the story and a great cacophony of laughter and cheering echoed off the stone walls, but she quickly noticed that Kietrich was not in the tavern with the cask of wine she had asked for. Thinking first of scolding him playfully, she pushed open the wood shutters on the window nearest to the back of the building and shouted into the dim world beyond the torchlight. “Kietreich you better stop pissing and get yourself back in here! The good people are waiting for their wine!”
Her shouts were met with no response. Ellanore was there too, with her nose pointed out the window as she began to bark. A little lump started to climb up in her throat as she turned back to the tavern, eyes starting to widen with fear.
“Well,” Malthias said. “Where is that boy?”
As they emptied into the dim, a collection of the men of the tavern and Marta all walked to the back of the building, where they found the cask of Imperial Blue sitting upright on the ground, next to a torch that had gone out. The dirt had been moved and some of the plants disturbed, but there was no sign of Kietrich. Marta shouted for him as did others, and still, they heard nothing. Her voice echoed off the tall tree trunks and into the distant black of the northern sky. Little tears pooled in her eyes as the men fanned out to search the woods and cellar. A Stream vein running along the ground was a faded red, but as the patrons came back together where Kietrich’s torch had been left in the dirt, it turned a deep and remorseful blue.