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I nodded and turned, leading the way back inside and easing my way into a chair at the smith’s table while Tara ladled a bowl of stew from the cauldron and set it in front of me. The smell tickled my nose and I was suddenly ravenous. I pulled the bowl to me and ate swiftly, nearly finishing my bowl before she had even sat with her own helping. I refilled my bowl and sat again, staring at the food and relishing the warmth in my stomach. Tara seemed content to eat quietly, breaking her silence only to introduce me to her companions as they entered.

First through the door, almost before Tara had sat down was a short, small built woman, barely topping my shoulders. She wore a long charcoal grey great coat and knee high black boots. She carried an odd weapon with her, some oddly ornate blunt tipped spear with club-like crest of wood on the other end. Her silver hair was pulled loosely behind her, revealing long slender ears jutting upward beneath an odd tri- cornered hat.

I sat stunned, staring at her, my face slack and eyes wide. I didn’t even know how to react. I couldn’t fathom what had cursed this otherwise beautiful woman so. She ladled herself a bowl of stew and turned back to the table, her rich blue eyes meeting mine. Slowly, she put the bowl down and asked softly, in a voice I could tell was dangerous. “Is there a problem?”

My jaws clicked shut as I stuttered, too surprised to be polite. “You… You have pointy ears!”

She jerked like I’d slapped her, her eyes flailing wide. “And you have a crooked nose.”

“I do not!” I said, indignantly, my hand rising automatically to my face.

I gasped as my fingers touched my nose and Tara burst into laughter as I ran to the water bucket. I stood staring at my reflection in the water, not quite believing it. I hadn’t gotten the nose straight when I set the bone. I hung my head, muttering under my breath as I turned back towards the table.

I had completely forgotten the other woman. She still stood with her chin up and arms crossed, eyes blazing and even at her small stature she radiated a confidence and power I knew it had been wrong to offend. I met her gaze, ignoring Tara’s continued laughter. “I apologize, my lady. It was wrong of me to judge you by your difference and I hope I didn’t offend you by calling attention to it. You cannot help the circumstances of your birth. I was simply stunned. I’ve never seen a curse like that before. Can I ask what happened?”

Her jaw dropped and Tara’s laughter choked itself to a halt. I felt myself go pale, my eyes flying from Tara to Serena and back, wondering what I’d done wrong. I certainly hadn’t meant to be rude. The woman looked at Tara with wide eyes and tried to speak, her mouth working soundlessly. She tried again and shook her head, collapsing into a chair, harsh barking laughter erupting from her throat.

Tara smiled, trying to talk instead of laugh, heaving out great bellows of guffawing laughter. She turned pale, struggling to breathe as she gasped. “Great Gods Cary… don’t you know what an elf is?”

My jaw dropped and I could feel my face flush in embarrassment. I’d only heard of elves in stories, no one I knew had ever seen one. They were a strange people from a continent far across the western sea, but I didn’t know much more than that. I hung my head, my voice small. “I…I’ve heard of elves, but I’ve never actually seen one. I didn’t know they had pointy ears.”

Tara laughed even harder, holding her stomach and almost losing her chair, but Serena moved around the table, her barking laughter fading to a warm smile. She put her hands on my shoulders and kissed me gently on the cheek, looking me in the eyes. “My name is Serena Lightpull and I have pointy ears because I’m an elf. Your name is Cary and you were apparently unaware that your nose is crooked.”

I laughed, nodding. “Yes, you can call me Cary. My full name is Carytas Empyrean. It means ‘The Charity of Heaven’.” I shook my head. “It’s a reminder that I owe my life to luck.”

She raised an eyebrow. “How so?”

“I’m an orphan. I was only a few years old when the pox took the village we lived in. My parents died, but I survived. The priests who were tending the sick said Heaven was too kind to steal a baby like me. So they gave me this new name and said I’d been born into a new life with my survival.”

Serena gestured out the window behind her. “And now you survive again. You have the heart of a fighter.”

“It’s not fight. It’s pure luck.”

She snorted. “Luck’s usually better anyway.” She cocked her head. “And your nose?”

I shook my head, looking absently past her. “It’s been a rough few days.”

The elf studied me silently for another minute before her face softened. “You should probably eat something.”

I nodded and sat, taking the refilled bowl Tara slid in front of me as two more people walked through the door. Jason was tall and lanky, with a flat and fairly handsome face split by a broad confident smile. His clothes were worn and well-travelled, but his dark green brigandine surcoat and the long straight sword hanging from his hip glowed with pride and quality beneath the dirty black cloak slung carelessly over his shoulder. He smiled at me and bowed with an easy grace. I liked him immediately.

I smiled a greeting and my face froze, my heart tightening in my chest. Walking in the door behind Jason was the man whose song had stolen my heart. He wore loose black leggings tucked into soft boots and the rich, dark blue, vested doublet covered his lean bodied frame. His skin was deeply tanned from working long hours in the sun, and the sleeves of his tunic were rolled and tied around his strongly muscled upper arms. He walked in, drying his large calloused hands on a borrowed towel. His face was older than I’d expected, but was unlined and lively. His salt and pepper hair hung long, framing his kind smile and sad eyes with natural perfection. When he took my hand and introduced himself as Thomas, a long warm tingle ran the length of my body.

A booted kick beneath the table shattered my reverie and I jumped slightly, spinning in my chair to face the others. Jason stood by the fire, filling his bowl and talking to Serena, but Tara was grinning at me like a wild raccoon. I swallowed hard and turned back to my stew, silently aware of Thomas moving through the room and settling near the side to eat.

I kept him in the corner of my eye while I ate, his presence like an anchor in the room, trying to steal my attention while I ate with steady abandon, filling my bowl again before the others had even finished their first helping. The food was delicious. Even the smell was nearly overwhelming. My stomach grew warm and the painful ache slowly began to subside. The sound of metal grinding behind the cabin still rang through the air and I sighed softly. It was strangely comforting to hear someone actually working.

I turned at the thought and looked around the room, my hand slipping to my belt. The ancient pouch still hung at my side and I rubbed it slowly, feeling the old bones through the worn leather. Tara’s impish voice broke the silence. “What are you looking for?”

I shrugged. “I was wondering what happened to my sword.”

Tara chuckled with an evil grin. “Friss found it.”

“Who’s Friss?”

Jason spoke, his voice brimming with admiration. “Sword Master Friss, my instructor and Captain of the Landsmen.”

“He’s been out there working on it since we found you.” Tara said with a laugh. “You’re lucky you were unconscious. He was so scandalized by the shape it was in he probably would’ve taken a strap to you had you been awake.” I gave a small cringe and laughed with her.

Jason gave her a look. “It wasn’t that bad. Where did you get that sword anyway?” He asked. “Was it an heirloom of some kind or hanging on someone’s wall?”

I shook my head. “No, it was lying in someone’s grave.” Jason’s jaw dropped open in shock. “I…I didn’t steal it.” I sputtered hastily. “His ghost gave it to me.”

The room fell into an instant silence, every eye turning my way. I looked around and met each questioning stare. Serena raised an eyebrow and from the corner of my eye I saw Thomas slowly put his spoonful of stew back into his bowl. Tara looked at me through glittering eyes. “I think it’s time you tell us what happened.”