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Witch Hunt

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:Three days, two nights, and seventeen candlemarks. You're losing your touch, love.:

:Quiet, horse.: The rain was growing steadily heavier, and most of the people still outside were swathed in cloak and hood, effectively anonymous to his querying gaze.

Valdir hunched deeper into his own cloak, trying to ignore the frigid trickle of water leaking from a frayed spot in the oilcloth. Nights like these were almost always bad; not enough custom to buy his way into safe shelter, gangs and Guardsmen on alert for strange vagrants, and inevitably a cold and uncomfortable bed, if he could manage to find one. It was uncomfortable enough thinking about how life could be different for people just miles from the Valdemaran border.

Lights beckoned at him; a tavern of some sort, raucous with cheering – and music. Very good music. Valdir let himself slow for a moment and listen. A minstrel, Hardorn-trained, on a hurdy-gurdee. Her voice was Giftless but steady and strong. The bouncer gave Valdir a dirty look and moved one hand to the club at her waist; he got the point and moved on.

One of the inns had a stable large enough to have its own hayloft and multiple doors. Valdir hoped it was an inn, at least. There was an empty stall near the tack room and he slid into it gratefully, intending to be gone by the time the hostlers came in.

The stable's doors slammed open. Valdir woke with a start, cursing mentally. A young man in a sodden, heavily embroidered red cape froze, staring at the stranger occupying the stall meant for his horse.

"I- I'll just be going," Valdir stammered, seizing his lute. "Thought it would be a good time to check up on my horse and fell asleep before I could make it back to my rooms. Bye."

He bolted.

Or at least, that was his intention. Instead, the young man reached out, startlingly fast, and caught his arm. Valdir flinched.

"I see you're a minstrel, at the very least," the stranger said, smiling. Too late, Valdir noticed a lute case, in much better condition than his own, slung beneath the fancy cloak. "I'm... Staven. I rarely meet another songster on the road. Will you not come in and share some songs with me?"

Staven. Vanyel fought down the memories that the name dredged up.

He smiled shyly at Staven. "I would be honored to," he murmured, contriving to sound awed and grateful. "Thank you."

Staven returned his smile. It was a lovely smile, Valdir noted. "And I would be honored to share hearth and ome with you,"

Valdir nodded hesitantly at the formal welcome. Staven paused, as if waiting for further introduction. When none was forthcoming he extended a courteous, entirely theatrical half-bow, clapped Valdir on the back, and all but pushed him toward the still-open doors. It was, Valdir thought despairingly, entirely muddy outside.

"Come on!" Staven called, sprinting through the mud. Valdir followed him, uncertain on the wet cobblestones, into an enormous room filled with light and sound and people.

The innkeeper materialized at Staven's elbow. Valdir barely merited a second glance, but Staven was quickly whisked away to a private room.

So Staven wasn't expected to perform? Valdir frowned, trying to make sense of this strange reversal of custom, when the innkeeper reappeared and hustled him into Staven's room.

The man in question lounged on the stuffed couches lining the small room. The meal on the small table in front of him was enough to make Valdir's mouth water.

"Sit," Staven urged. His eyes were hazel, direct, and very intent. Valdir looked away, flushing.

"I don't mean to impose," he murmured, but Staven only waved a hand lazily.

"Believe it or not, I would be more than glad if you chose to partake," he drawled.

Valdir complied, shoveling food into his mouth with the desperate efficiency of the long-deprived. And it was good – bread fresh and hot from the oven, butter sweet and salted both, dried and pickled vegetables stewed with pork, rabbit pie, and miracle of miracles, a pocket pie thick and bursting with chopped fruit – fruit! In winter! He revised his estimation of Staven's fortunes several times higher.

"There's a mage in Wintersnest who grows fruit year-round," Staven explained, interpreting Vanyel's surprised look. "The innkeeper gets what he doesn't sell, for cheap. As I was the one who introduced the two, he saves me his spares."

Valdir chuckled appreciatively.

"Speaking of introductions," Staven continued dryly. "I don't believe I ever got your name...?"

"Valdir." Valdir downed a last mouthful of pie. "I'm Valdir. Nice to meet you."

"Hello, Valdir," Staven grinned. "Valdir. Sounds like a Valdemaran name."

Valdir nodded. "Valdemar born and bred, but I thought I might like to learn about Hardornen musical customs."

Staven's grin grew wider. "Most excellent!" he cried. "I have been looking into Valdemaran music myself!"

Valdir felt an answering grin bloom on his face. "I daresay we have a lot to learn from each other then!"

Staven reached over to clasp Valdir's forearm. "Done! In the meantime, let me put you in room and board – if anyone asks, just tell them to add it to Staven Frelennye's tab."

"Staven Frelennye?" Gaelle murmurs, one eyebrow raised. "Wasn't he some Valdemaran baron or something?"

"Yes," you reply irritably. You aren't quite sure why you picked that particular name in the first place; it's not – quite – obscure enough for your tastes.

Gaelle muses it over, spinning a knife over and over in her hands. The walls of this hidden room are pocked with knife-marks. The other three knives are embedded on a map pinned to the wall, in a tight circle over Sunhame. "Well, how did he react?"

"Definitely surprised," you reply. There had definitely been an element of shock in the Bard – Valdir's – face when you gave Staven's name. "He's familiar with old Valdemaran politics, at least."

"A Valdemaran Bard," Gaelle sighs. "Spies, the lot of them."

You think of the faint awe on Valdir's face when he saw your lute, the thin and faintly starved look about him. "He might not be a spy," you argue. "Maybe he's running from something. Maybe he needs our help."

Gaelle actually laughs. The sound is sharp and not even remotely friendly.

"I think he's fey," you continue stubbornly. "You know Northern prejudices. I wouldn't be surprised if he were fleeing persecution."

"Oh, Stef," Gaelle sighs. "I was not expecting you to fall for a pretty face."

That would be ridiculous. You know who holds your purse strings – and your loyalty. A pretty face is nothing in the face of everything that makes you Somebody.

"Keep an eye on him, then," you tell her curtly. "If you're right, then I want to know."

Gaelle's face softens. "You've come too far to give it all up, Stef."

That much is obvious, at least.