“Daddy, tell me the story of when you met the Seven again.”
“Are you sure, sweetheart? It’s the same story I told you last night.”
“I know, but it’s my favourite.”
“It’s mine too. Alright then. Here we go. So it was three days after Darknight when the Seven come striding through my tavern door, looking for lodgings for the night.”
“Two days, daddy.”
“It’s two days. You always say two.”
“Do I? My mistake, then. Two days it was, sweetheart. Anyway I knew it was the Seven right away from the very look of them, just how different they looked from ordinary folk. Most who came through that door were merchants or farmers, not soldiers and adventurers with swords and armour and the like.
“First comes Sir Tibolt, and he throws the door open with a mailed fist and looks around my tavern as cautiously as a man who expects a fight to come from almost anywhere. Now at first I didn’t know it was Sir Tibolt, only that it was a knight. He was clad all in plate and mail, but had no helm, and the snow was all about his long dark hair. He was very young, about the same age as me at the time, with not a whisker on his face, but still there was a look in his eyes like a man who had seen more than his years. He was a man very accustomed to danger, and the look he gave me as I polished up the bar was one that told me he wouldn’t tolerate any kind of trouble.
“Right behind him comes Aedan the Lucky, who was always smiling, and wearing his fine black cloak. Then beside him was none other than Prince Orwen of the fabled Isle of the Fae, though again I didn’t yet know it was him. Now he was just a boy then, but he had the look of somebody out to prove something. His clothing wasn’t fine like you’d expect of a prince. Rather he wore old and faded leathers and his face was as dirty as all the others’.
“So the three of them stride up to the bar and Sir Tibolt places a gold piece on the counter, which is more money than I usually saw in a week. The gold piece looked foreign; it had no king on the face side but rather an eye, and the other side had writing in a language I had never seen before. So Sir Tibolt places the gold piece on the bar and says that he and his six companions need lodging for the night, and stables and feed for their horses, and food to feed the lot of them. He also informed me that they need a separate room on account of the fact that they were travelling with a lady.”
“Selena the witch!”
“That’s right, dear. I’m getting to that part. Anyway so I bite the coin...”
“Why did you bite the coin, daddy? You always say that part but you never explain why. You can’t eat a coin.”
“Oh, well it’s quite simple, dear. I had never seen a coin of that like before and I wanted to make sure it was real gold, and real gold is soft enough that you can sink your teeth into it. So that’s what I did. Not that I didn’t trust the word of a knight, but he could have been only dressed as a knight and I had no way of knowing that he was the one and only Sir Tibolt.
“So the gold piece was real enough, and I accept it, saying that it’s enough to pay for all of them because it’s really more than a generous offer and times got hard in the dead of winter. There had been nobody through the inn in days except for the local farmers and merchants and townsfolk who came to drink. It’s hard to maintain a tavern this far from the centre of the kingdom, as I’m sure I’ve told you many a time. So Sir Tibolt tells me that the horses needed tending to first. I apologize and inform him that it may take me some time to get the food prepared, as it’s well into the evening past supper and it was only just me running the tavern after my wife had died and I had no children then.
“So as the three young men take off their boots and sit by the fire I go out into the billowing snow in the dead of winter. No sooner do I step out the door then I come face-to-face with Oruch the Silent. Now Oruch...”
“Daddy, did you really see him? Dariusz said that his daddy said that there are no such thing as trolls.”
“Well that’s because his daddy has never seen one, but I have. Do you believe that I saw the Seven?”
“Then I saw Oruch the Silent, also known as Oruch the Troll. He was as real as you or me, but taller than any man, and stronger, with a jutting jaw and big heavy brows. He was dressed all in hunting leathers, and had a big powerful bow slung over his shoulder. Well he didn’t say anything to me, just hops down off his great big black horse and hands me the reins and gives me this intense look that says he can hurt me in a lot of ways if I hurt his horse. So I shiver as he walks by and start walking to the stables with the horse. Now by this time I start really wondering about these people who are going to be staying at the inn, and especially about Oruch, because usually people won’t travel with a troll. So I walk into the stables with the horse and there are the last three of the seven, handling the other horses all by themselves. There was Rashad-al-Rashed the scholar, a tiny little man with skin like bronze who was putting hay in the troughs, and...”
“And Selena the witch was there! Dressed in her plain clothes but with beautiful raven hair and icy blue eyes, right daddy?”
“Yes, I was getting to that part. So by now from looking at them all I know that it’s the Seven who have come to stay at my tavern. And Calder the Healer comes up to me, only he doesn’t look like no healer. His hair was all a fiery, wavy red, with a beard to match, and speaking of beards he had a great bearded axe strapped to his back. And he claps me on the shoulder, which almost breaks my arm, and says in a friendly voice that they’ve got the horses covered if I want to get supper going because they’ve had a hard few days in the forest. So he takes the reins from me and I go to the kitchen to make supper for the Seven.”
“Daddy, tell me more about what Selena looked like.”
“I’ve already told you a hundred times, little one.”
“Tell me again.”
“Alright. Well she had a look that could freeze you solid, with eyes to match, but her face was more beautiful than any woman in this kingdom or the next. She wore a sword at her belt, which was unlike any woman around these parts, and though she was slight of frame, her arms looked strong and I never doubted that she knew how to use her weapon. At first glance she didn’t look like a witch, just a fierce woman, but...”
“But you saw her cast spells!”
“Would you like to tell the story instead, sweetling?”
“Sure! So then you made supper for the Seven and you heard them all talking really loudly by the fire. Sir Tibolt was arguing about finding the princess, and Calder was urging him to give it up, saying that she was lost for good. Only you didn’t know what princess they were talking about. And then Aedan poked his head into the kitchen and asked if you had any wenches around and you said no, and then Rashad was talking about going to the eye to look for a sceptre, and then Aedan poked his head in and asked for more beer so you got them all some beer, and they all thanked you except for Oruch who doesn’t speak, and Selena, she only glared at you. So then you went back to the kitchen and then the townsfolk came in and...”
“You missed a part.”
“Oh, right! So Prince Orwen was saying something about a lost sword and everybody started to get really loud, and then you heard the tromping of boots and somebody left. And by that time supper was done and you came out and started serving everybody only Oruch was missing. Then you went back to the kitchen to get more food and when you came back out the townsfolk were there in the tavern asking for the troll, and they had scythes and pitchforks and torches and the town guards had swords. And...you tell the next part daddy, you’re better at it.”
“Alright, sweetie. So there I am, standing between the Seven and the townsfolk, the people I had known all my life, and I’m carrying this big tray of food in my hands, and Marek tells me to stand aside so that they can bring the troll to justice on account of the trolls that had come and taken away his wife last summer. And before any of the Seven can say anything, I say no, you can’t have him because he’s a guest under my roof and that’s the law of the land, and anyway Marek was just a guard and had no official sanction from any villmaster, duke, prince or king. So the townsfolk are about to make a fuss and the Seven look about ready to draw all their weapons when Aedan the Lucky comes and stands beside me and...”
“And casts a spell and summons a dragon to scare them all away! Only it wasn’t a real dragon, just an illusion.”
“That’s right, sweetheart. So the townsfolk all run off. And I had spilled my tray everywhere and I’m cleaning it up and thinking about how I’m going to have to leave the town and my tavern in the dead of winter on account of the Seven when Selena puts her hand on my shoulder and tells me how brave I am for standing up to everybody like that. Well I go darker than a pickled beet for that, and she’s looking me right in the eyes and I stammer and run off to the kitchen to get more food for my guests. When I come back Oruch is gone again and I get real worried that something has happened but Calder tells me not to worry and invites me to sit with them, so I do.
“So they’re all chatting, but I don’t feel that I have anything interesting to say to adventurers such as them, so I just keep my mouth shut, and I can feel Selena’s eyes on me the whole time. Then Oruch comes crashing through the door with his bow in hand and a wild look in his eyes, and he starts flailing around wildly and only Selena seems to be able to understand him...”
“And she says that the Black Brotherhood is coming, and they have to protect the town!”
“Right, only they don’t all agree on it. Calder says that the town deserves it for wanting to hang Oruch, and Prince Orwen says that they have more important things to go after and should leave right after supper, but Selena shushes them all and says that the blood of all the townsfolk will be on their hands if they don’t do something because the brotherhood is after the Seven, not the town. Calder and Selena start shouting at each other, but Aedan and Tibolt just quietly stand up and draw their weapons and say that they need to intercept the brotherhood before they reach the town. Oruch and Rashad follow them, and Selena looks at me then and asks if there’s any place to ambush them on the west road, because she isn’t familiar with the area as she came from the south. I tell her about the bridge over the river and she says that’s perfect and then suddenly she’s putting a sword in my hands, just in case, she tells me. It happens to be her spare sword, she tells me, but it looks to me to be worth more than the entire tavern.”
“Daddy, how come there was only one girl in the Seven?”
“Well there used to be two. They were looking for Princess Lula the night that they stayed at my tavern. That was when Rashad-al-Rashed of the Eye was travelling with them instead.”
“Was the princess beautiful?”
“I don’t know, I never saw her, but she was rumoured to be. Some might not think so, on account of how she was fae. Do you want to hear the end of the story, or talk about princesses? It’s way past your bedtime and I have to be up early to fetch eggs from the market.”
“Okay, finish the story.”
“Alright, so it’s the dead of winter and I’m freezing holding a sword that I don’t really know how to use because tavern owners are rarely also sword owners. I show Selena and the others to the bridge, except Calder and Prince Orwen stayed behind. So Selena says the bridge is perfect and we all hide in the bushes. Well my heart is pounding and I’m as cold as I can ever remember and Selena is beside me, breathing softly. I hear the sound of horses in the distance and suddenly Selena grabs my hand and all the fear goes away. ‘Don’t try to be brave’, she tells me, but somehow that makes me more brave. So the horses come over the bridge and then suddenly it all happens at once.
“There’s this bright flash of light and suddenly Selena is in the middle of the road in front of the horses with a crystal sword held up high. Arrows start flying from Oruch’s bow and Rashad is praying to his strange god and Aedan starts running between the horses, and his blade is going faster than anything I’ve ever seen. Well the horses are spooked and some of them start to run but there are a lot of men there in their black hoods and they start swinging at all of us with thin, curved blades. Nobody seems to be coming at me so I just watch, not wanting to get in the way or get trampled by a horse.
“Then this man in a hood comes up to Selena from behind and she doesn’t seem to see him, and I shout out so he turns to me instead. I bring my sword down at him and it digs deep into his ribs but he manages to put his sword into my own belly and it’s the most painful thing I can ever remember. I fall down and Selena is standing over me and then there’s lightning everywhere, and suddenly the battle is over. Then they throw me on a horse and I’m riding back to town with Selena, clutching my guts and screaming. She scolds me for being brave when she told me not to be.
“So we get back to the tavern and Selena helps me through the door and the first thing she says to Calder is ‘thanks for the help back there’. Calder doesn’t say anything back but he helps me upstairs to a bed and I tell him that I don’t want to get any blood on the beds but he doesn’t listen, he just lies me down and puts his hands on my stomach and suddenly I’ve stopped bleeding, but I still feel unwell so I stay lying down.
“Well the others get back and they all come in and ask if I’m alright and thank me for letting them stay at the tavern, then they all go off to bed, all except Selena. She stays behind and tells me that I saved her life, and that she’s glad to see that ordinary people can still be brave sometimes. I tell her that I’m not brave, just foolish around beautiful women. And Selena the Witch, the woman who never smiles, laughed right there in front of me. May all the gods strike me down if I’m lying.
“Anyway the next morning I made them all breakfast, and my guts where I got stabbed didn’t hurt in the least. They were in a rush to be off but they all thanked me and promised to come back this way again, except that they never did, none of them except Selena. But she gave me a kiss before she left, and that made it all worthwhile, the stabbing, the townsfolk being mad at me for the next three years and all.”
“Why did Selena come back, daddy? Was she in love with you?”
“I don’t know, little one. To this day I don’t know. All I know is that when she came back, she brought me back something that I love more than anything else in the world.”