A hooded, hunched-over stranger walked into the tavern. Trava looked up from her seat at the bar. Usually she knew everyone who came in. But she didn’t know this man. She stood up. “Stranger, would you like a drink?” she asked.
The hooded man came over. “Gladly,” he said in a shrill voice. He pulled off his hood, revealing a bald head and a white beard. Trava was taken aback. All the men she knew had deep, not shrill, voices. She reached over to the counter where she had a jar of beer and a wood cup, and poured some beer into the cup. “What’s your name?” Trava asked, handing the white-bearded stranger a cup of beer.
“I have many names,” the old man said. He snatched the beer from her.
Trava’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re supposed to pay,” she said. She tried to keep her voice calm, but she was annoyed by the old man’s behavior. She held out her hand. “One ark for one drink,” she said.
The old man looked up at her. He seemed startled by the suggestion that he should pay money. “I have a better way to pay,” he said. He turned to address the people in the tavern. “How about a story?” he asked.
Trava was not happy with him telling a story instead of paying, but the people in the tavern looked intrigued.
She was about to interrupt the old man when a coin was shoved over the counter. She looked over and saw Badan had pushed the coin over. Badan was a brown-haired fellow with a chiseled build. He helped at the tavern sometimes, since Trava’s father had taken sick.
“Let him talk,” Badan said. He pointed at the coin. “That’ll pay for his drink.”
Trava pursed her lips and nodded. At least she’d been paid.
The old man started his story. He spoke in his squeaky voice. “In my many years of life,” he said. He took a sip from his drink. “I have been from the city of Arden and out far into the sea. I have seen dragons, slain pirates, and gained many names.” He took another sip of his drink.
“The first name I was given -” he started.
Trava interrupted him. “We only need one,” she said. “Get to the story.”
The old man glared at her, but Trava couldn’t bring herself to feel bad about it. The old man had refused to pay for his drink, so she didn’t feel any obligation to humor him.
“As the mistress of the tavern commands,” the old man said. He turned back toward the rest of the people in the tavern.
“I’ll start with the dragons,” the old man said. That elicited a moment of shocked silence from the people in the tavern, including Trava. People didn’t talk about dragons. You ignored dragons, and you hoped dragons would ignore you.
The old man continued onward, not noticing the reaction his words had provoked. “Dragon fire is a potent thing,” he said. “I don’t know of anything it couldn’t burn through, given enough time.”
Badan cleared his throat. “We’d prefer to hear about Arden, sir. Not dragons.”
Trava felt sorry for Badan. He’d paid for the old man’s drink in exchange for a story, but the old man had talked about dragons. If the old man kept frightening everyone, she doubted she’d manage to keep all the paying customers in the tavern.
“Tell us something more cheerful,” Trava said, seconding Badan’s statement.
“Something more cheerful, eh?” the old man asked, he looked confused. “Very well. I’ll tell you the story of a dragon’s death.”
That was more acceptable to Trava. Stories of dragons dying were acceptable. Stories of live dragons were better left as hushed rumors.
The old man spoke. “A story of a dragon’s death, then.” He turned to Badan. “In Arden, as you requested.”
The old man took a moment to make sure everyone’s attention was on him. “A dragon came to Arden, once,” he said in his reedy voice. “A century or two ago. It was the Dragon Queen, fiercest of dragons. It tried to burn the Temple of the Sun, to steal the sun’s statue there for its hoard of treasure…” The old man continued speaking, but Trava stopped paying attention. His voice was annoying.
Besides, people were starting to buy drinks again. The tale was clearly fictional enough that it didn’t seem to terrify anyone. Trava busied herself pouring drinks.
The tale ended with the Dragon Queen’s eyes being shot out. That was how all such stories ended, as that was supposedly the only way a dragon could die. Then again, anything died if both its eyes were put out.
After the story ended, people bought more drinks for the old man and asked him more questions about Arden. Trava might have among those asking – she was curious about Arden – but she had to prepare drinks.
The old man kept talking, interspersing pauses to drink regularly. Trava focused on what she was doing, not paying attention to what the old man said. Until he looked directly at her and said, “I knew your mother, you know.”
Trava dropped the glass she was filling up. Luckily, it was just a few inches above the counter, so she was able to steady it before it tipped over and spilled. “I didn’t know my mother,” she managed.
The old man gave her a knowing smile. “Yes,” he said, “I know.”
“When did you meet her?” Trava asked, looking directly at the old man. “What was she like?” She’d heard conflicting accounts from the villagers who had known her mother. Her father had always told her that her mother had been wonderful. But he always looked sad when Trava asked about her, so she’d quit asking a few years ago. But she’d heard from some other villagers that her mother had been strange. Her mother had spent just a year in the village, courting Trava’s father. Then she’d left the same day Trava had been born.
“I knew your mother before you were born,” the old man said. “She told me to find you when you were grown up. Which you are, now.” Some of the bar patrons looked at the old man strangely. He’d started saying more and more ridiculous things as he got drunk, but it had been amusing until now.
Trava looked at him. “You weren’t in the village when my mother was here,” she said. Someone would have recognized him if he’d been in the village before. She refrained from calling him a liar. She sighed. A man of his age probably shouldn’t have had the ten drinks he’d had already. He couldn’t be blamed much for making things up.
“Look,” she said to the old man, “You’re probably getting tired. We can offer you lodging for the night, you can pay my father in the morning.” She indicated the hallway that led to the three bedrooms they had. One for her, one for her father, and one they could rent out to anyone passing through. It had come in handy with the last stranger who’d decided to live in the village a few years ago. Sajag no longer lived in the tavern. He’d built his own home, though Trava still saw him often. And he’d been a more polite guest than this old man. She offered the man a hand and took him to the guest room. She closed the door to the guest room and sighed. She shouldn’t have gotten her hopes up. She’d never known her mother, and she probably never would. She went back to the bar and sold a few more drinks before everyone headed out. Then she closed for the night.
As she walked back to her room, her father called her name from his room.
Trava turned into his room. He was sitting up on a mattress, gray hair covering the top of his head in all but a few spots. Trava looked into his eyes. Her father had white pupils, as he’d gone blind as a child.
“Trava,” he said again, “There is someone sleeping in the guest room. Who is it?”
“An old man,” Trava said, “He got drunk tonight. He’s not from around here, so I thought he needed a place to stay.”
Her father nodded. “That was kind of you, Trava.” He coughed. “I’m glad you’ll be taking care of this place when I die.”
“You’re not going to die,” Trava tried to reassure him. Her father was old, and sick, but Trava didn’t want to think about him dying. “You’ll get better.”
Her father smiled at her, though his white pupils were vacant. “It’s fine, Trava. Everyone dies sometime. I’m just sad that you will be without any parents to take care of you.”
Trava frowned. She didn’t think of herself as young or needing care. This was her seventeenth summer, after all. Some girls had gotten married by this age. But her father still thought of her as younger than she was. “I’ll be fine, father, whatever happens.” She turned toward the doorway, but hesitated before going through it. “The old man who is staying with us,” she paused. “He said he knew my mother.” She turned around and saw her father smile.
“I miss her,” he said to Trava. “Your mother was a beautiful person. Not her looks, you understand. It’s not like I saw those.” He laughed. Trava knew he’d been blind for years. “She was very idealistic. And she cared,” he said, “She really cared about people.”
Trava caught herself nodding, even though her father wouldn’t be able to see it. “Yes,” she said. “You’ve told me that a lot of times.” Her father always thought the best of people, though, so Trava took what her father said with a grain of salt.
“I wish I’d known her more than a year,” her father said. “But she left right after you were born. Bring the man in here to meet me when he wakes up in the morning. Maybe we can talk about her.”
“Sure,” Trava said. She hoped the man hadn’t been lying. That would disappoint her father. But there wasn’t anything to do about it either way till morning. “Father, I’m going to bed. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Good night,” he said, laying back down onto his mattress. His white eyes closed. “Sleep well, Trava.”
Trava headed to her room and flopped down onto her straw mattress. I want to take care of this tavern, Trava thought. She owed her father that much. It had been hard for him to work as a blind barkeeper for the past few decades, and Trava didn’t want that to go to waste. But I want to find my mother, too, Trava thought. Maybe the old man would tell her something useful in the morning. I’ll find out eventually, Trava resolved. She fell asleep, and dreamed of a family, her father, younger and healthier, and a fuzzy shape she thought was her mother.