Elricky’s mood became positively sunny as she walked through the streets of the town with the young Mukthar by her side. Yllyesh suspected she might break out in song any moment. She didn’t, but he smiled faintly when she started humming softly, and he offered to carry her jar. They passed another young girl who stared with large eyes at the couple. Elricky stuck out her tongue and grabbed Yllyesh’s arm, pulling him nearer.
After a short while the houses began to stand farther apart and at last they came at what appeared to be the very last house, not only of the street, but of the whole town. The land where it stood was roughly four times the size of the house itself, and at the back of the yard there was a small barn — as Elricky had said. It looked very well-maintained, with a thatched roof made from water reed and not the more usual — and more perishable — straw. Even from far off, Yllyesh could see that not one reed bundle stuck out farther than the other. The outer walls would have had to have been plastered white recently to be so immaculate. A path of gravel, bordered with flowering plants, led from the barn door to the street that had in fact become a road.
The Mukthar looked around.
“I like it,” he said.
“What?” the young woman asked.
“The border feeling. Look that way and you see the town. The other way and you see—”
“Just a little bit of land of no value at all and cliffs. And the berthings of the fishing boats.” Elricky cocked her head. “You’re a dreamer. Like Hroald. It’s something he would say.”
“Ah. And you’re not a dreamer?”
“I don’t have time to dream. Someone has to think of those little practical things like earning money, preparing food, cleaning…”
“I’ve disappointed you.”
Elricky let go of the Mukthar’s arm and took his hand. She smiled.
“No. On the contrary. In this family all the men were dreamers and it was up to us women-folk to keep all the bodies and souls, including those of the dreamers, together under one roof.” She blushed and cast her eyes down, fearing she had been tactless. “There is the barn. You can stable your horse there. When you’re done, come up to the house. Meanwhile I’ll tell mother about you. No need to knock. Just come in.” To avoid further discussion, she turned brusquely around and entered the house. Yllyesh caught a glimpse of a middle-aged woman sitting at a table.
Taking his horse to the barn he noticed another small path. From the direction it took, he guessed it led to the one road in and out of Tarbalainn.
“A shortcut,” he mumbled to himself.
Although Elricky had told him not to, Yllyesh had planned to knock anyway, but when he came to the front of the house, the door was open.
“Come in,” the older woman said. She adjusted a strand of her flaxen hair and turned to her daughter. “He doesn’t look like a savage, now does he? He seems nice actually.” She looked again at the Mukthar. “Are you nice, Master Barbarian?”
“Mother,” Elricky exclaimed in a scandalized voice. “You’re embarrassing him.” She colored deep red.
“You must pardon my daughter, my good sir, but ever since her father, the late baron of La-ti-dah, expired she has put on airs. To keep up the family name, of course.”
“Oh, Mother, stop it. You can be poor and civilized, you know? Being polite won’t hurt you one bit. And neither will cleanliness.”
“What’s Whatshisname’s name?”
The mother sighed.
“Yllyesh, My Lady. And how shall I address your good self?” the Mukthar said, trying not to laugh.
“Not as ‘My Lady,’ that’s for sure. Fronthe. My name is Fronthe.”
“And the late baron?”
“Doesn’t exist. The father of this perpetually blushing creature and her brother isn’t around and hasn’t been for many years. I suppose two children — one still in diapers and the other a toddler — weren’t enough to retain him. Or maybe they’re what drove him away.”
“Mother, Yllyesh doesn’t want to know all that,” Elricky said.
Fronthe gave her a sad grin.
“No, you’re right. Let’s keep this businesslike. You need clothes and lodgings, I understand?”
“Indeed, Mistress, and I have the wherewithal to pay for them.”
“You’re sure you’re not a brother of Elricky I’ve forgotten about? Except for your excruciating accent, you begin to sound like her.”
“Oh, Mother… I offered Yllyesh a place in the barn for his horse and himself, and… well, clothes.” She flushed. “I know that the clothes belonged to—”
“Never mind the clothes. Your friend can sleep in Hroald’s bed. Or in yours.”
“Mother,” Elricky cried out in protest, trying to sound insulted.
“What? You’re old enough. The clothes shouldn’t be a problem either.” Fronthe scrutinized the Mukthar. “Your friend seems to be of the same height as our Hroald. Maybe an inch or two shorter, and he certainly isn’t as broad as your brother. Some minor adjustments may be necessary or his pants will drop to his ankles. Nothing major, though.”
“Won’t your son miss his clothes when he returns?” Yllyesh asked.
“Who’s to say those clothes will still fit him if he returns? If, not when. Which I doubt.”
Yllyesh raised an eyebrow.
“There seems to lie a curse on Tarbalainn. People tend to disappear. My father did. My brother did,” Elricky said.
Fronthe looked at her daughter.
“You’re such a sweet, naive little thing.” She turned to Yllyesh. “There’s no mystery at all. I don’t know what you came here for, and it’s none of my business, but unless you have a specific purpose for visiting this hellhole, you’ll be bored out of your skull or disgusted with the unruly rabble that infests Tarbalainn within weeks, if not days. So, imagine you were born here. You’d want to go away as well at the earliest opportunity. See? No mystery.” She smiled at her daughter. “Elricky, dear, if I’m not mistaken we still have a small jug of wine. Please get it and three beakers.” She turned to Yllyesh. “We’ll have a drink and meanwhile I’ll have Elricky get the clothes. Then we should talk money. Will silver be a problem?”
“Not at all, Mistress. Not at all,” the Mukthar replied pleasantly.