“Ah, there she is — the beauty of Stowreath!”
“I’ve told you, if you keep calling me that, I’ll start selling to other taverns.” Vigdis directed her hired men to carry the barrels of beer to the storeroom behind the bar. She followed behind them, past the smattering of customers at scuffed tables; this time of day it was only ever drunks or passing travelers, making it the perfect time to swap barrels and money with Allyn. “Micah down at The Yawning Goat has offered me a better sum per barrel than I get here.”
Allyn feigned hurt, as he always did, clutching his hand to his heart. “You wound me, oh beauteous one. If I don’t have your brews, I only have my wife’s cooking to keep this place afloat.”
“And she’d have no need of you at all.” Vigdis shook her head and was glad her beard could hide her amusement. “This is the last time I let you get away with it.”
“On my honor, I’ll never do it again.” He winked beforing turning to the men as they brought in the fresh ale. “Come along, lads, I’ll lead the way to the empties.”
Vigdis paced the length of the bar while Allyn led the men back, lost in the thought of planning her day. The wagon had deliveries needed in four neighboring towns. The weekly circuit took her from sun-up to sundown and being away from home for so long made her anxious anymore. It had been easier when she was young, working in her father’s brewery under the mountains. She had longed for the open road and the promise of adventure each time they loaded their cart.
“So, you’re the Beauty of Stowreath?”
“Call me that again if you’d like a bloody nose.” Vigdis squared her shoulders as she turned to face the stranger sitting alone at a nearby table. She longed for an axe, but tended to leave hers in the wagon; instead, she hooked her thumb through the empty loop on her belt and puffed out her chest, filling her breastplate.
“But that is what they call you? And only you?”
“Aye, men think it’s funny. What’s it to you?”
The man hesitated, and then lowered his hood with a sigh. His high brow, silken hair, and pointed ears marked him immediately as an elf. “My son married the Beauty of Stowreath, and I was told I could find her here.”
Vigdis froze where she stood, the bluster and bravery seeping out of her. She could see the hints of Remi in his narrow nose and bright eyes. “You’re the Lord of Dunshen Vale?”
“That’s what they like to call me, yes.” The elf looked her up and down, not that there was much distance to travel. “You’re… Do you have a name?”
“Of course I have — I’m Vigdis.”
He looked like he was trying to swallow a particularly rancid sip of beer. “Would you care to sit down, Vigdis?”
She took the seat opposite him at the table. Idly, she fingered the light metal beads wound into the bottom of her braided beard. “Why are you here? Remi led me to believe that you parted on poor terms.”
His laugh was sharp and bitter — nothing like the warmth in Remi’s laugh. “Yes, he was quite clear when he left that he had no need of Dunshen Vale or his family obligations. But it’s been a decade, and his mother misses him. In a month’s time it’ll be her hundredth, and I had hoped perhaps now that he was wed, I could count on his wife to speak reason to him.”
Vigdis scowled, even as her heart softened. “You hoped to find a palatable messenger.”
“And instead I found you.”
She cracked her knuckles.
The elf waved a hand in dismissal. “I’m sure you’re a perfectly reasonable dwarf, but hoping that he’s going to be reasonable when he’s living such an… unconventional life, is perhaps too much.”
“It’s not so unconventional.”
The elf raised an eyebrow, then shook his head with a sigh. “Well, the message is unchanged. We would like Remi and his wife to come visit Dunshen Vale for his mother’s birthday, and perhaps stay for a while. It’s in a month’s time, so that should be plenty of time to make arrangements and travel. It’s a week by horse, perhaps two weeks if you can’t ride one.”
“Listen here — “
“Vigdis! Sorry, I kept your boys, I know you’re eager to get on the road.” Allyn came back to the bar with a bag of coin in hand. After taking a second to assess the situation, he asked, “This wanderer bothering you?”
Vigdis took a deep breath and stood. “No, Allyn. Thank you.” Addressing her husband’s father, she said, “Thank you for the invitation, sir. I’ll pass it on my husband when I return home this evening. Do send word if you or the Lady of Dunshen Vale change your minds.” She bit her tongue from saying more, and took her payment from Allyn as the hired men took the empty barrels back to the cart.
The rest of her appointments passed in a blur of effort, as she tried and failed not to dwell on the meeting with her husband’s father. Once the men were dropped off back in town, Vigdis took the cart back to her home a few miles outside of town. The sun was long gone as she steered the cart back by the brewhouse and set the donkeys out to pasture. They had bought the land and the existing brewhouse — the owner had passed on years previous, and it had fallen into disrepair.
The brewery was her passion, and the home they’d built had been Remi’s. It wasn’t a large house – just a few rooms on a single floor — but the fence around it contained Remi’s garden. He had been carefully cultivating it over the seasons, and it had grown into a lush array of bushy flowers under the windows, root vegetables flat to the ground around further from the house. The tall plants were in two rows: one row against the fence for the fauna to nibble through the slats, and a second row for him to collect for the house.
Once through the gate and at the front door, Vigdis removed her gauntlets and set them on the ground. She opened opened the door enough to slip the bag containing her hand-axes and earnings inside. As she set her great axe in beside it, she called out in an elevated whisper, “Is she sleeping?”
Remi leapt from where he sat at the table, nodding as he left the house. Once the door closed behind them, he said, “It was a long day for our darling. I think her milk teeth are coming in.” He undid the buckles at the shoulders of her breastplate while Vigdis set about releasing the ones at the side. “How did delivery go?”
“It was interesting.” She bit her lip as the buckles fell loose, and they both caught the metal pieces before they could fall. Remi helped her pull the chainmail shirt over her head, and took it inside with the breastplate while Vigdis undid her greaves. Finally, she pulled off her helmet, the coil of her braided hair falling from where the helmet kept it up on her head.
Remi returned to help bring the rest of her armor inside to the chest where they kept it. Tomorrow she would polish it, but for tonight it would fine.
Vigdis went to their room to remove her doublet and set it aside, instead finding. Had she been able, she would have kept her armor on to have the talk with Remi about his father. She smiled at Remi as she passed through the main room to check on the baby.
The sound of Gyda snoring softened Vigdis’ nerves. The smell of juniper wafted in with the breeze. Vigdis brushed the girl’s soft curls, careful not to wake her. Teething had made the child sleepless and cranky. Even with as little sleep as Remi needed, Vigdis could see it wearing on him.
When she was content enough by the sight of her daughter, Vigdis went back to the main room to sit with Remi at the table. He already had hot water in the pot over the fire, and set in the work of brewing tea by the time she sat.
“What was so interesting about delivery?”
Vidgis looked down at the dry leaves at the bottom of her mug. Goodness, but a flagon of beer would have been more soothing. “Your father was at the Zestful Giant today.”
Remi went perfectly still. When he finally turned, it was to very deliberately pour the steaming water into their mugs. Once the pot was set aside to cool on a trivet, he sat wordlessly at the table.
Vigdis reached across the table to hold his hand. “You know I can’t read your mind.”
“Sorry. Was he awful?”
“He was no more awful than any other elf I meet on the road.”
Remi blew out a breath. “Not good, then. Cordial but cold?”
“What did he want? How did he find me?”
“It’s not like you moved across the ocean, Remi. Word has travelled back to your home that you married the Beauty of Stowreath — “
“– and your father decided he would come find your wife. His goal was to have me convince you to bring your family home for your lady mother’s birthday celebration next month.”
“Oh no.” He sat back in his seat, letting his long legs stretch out below the table; Vigdis could feel them under her dangling feet. “It is her hundredth, isn’t it?”
“That’s what he said.” She watched the range of emotion pass over his face — old anger dulled by time, and the deep buried ache of a lost home. Vigdis knew it well. “Do you want to see your mother?”
He blew out a breath. “My mother is not much warmer than my father. But… My father, did he look well?”
“That’s good.” Remi tested the heat of his tea with his finger, then took a slow sip. “Is Gyda old enough to take on the road?”
“Certainly. Back home, we throw the swaddled babes in sawed half-barrels to keep them safe while we go about our work.”
Remi laughed. “You do not. You can’t fool me with that dwarf bluster.”
“No, honestly!” She laughed with him, then admitted, “We tend to do less work when the babes are young, and keep them in the safe parts of the mountain.” Her mirth faded as she thought back to Heldich Mountain. She wouldn’t have the pleasure of being invited home. Her father had considered her marriage to Remi a rebellious phase until she became pregnant with Gyda. Then, he had finally reported the news to their clan. She was not welcome home. “We can travel with Gyda.”
“What about the brewery?”
“Oh.” She sipped her tea. “Erick ran it well after Gyda was born.”
“But you were right here the whole time. We would be gone much longer.” He looked down at his tea. “How long could we be gone?”
“A month at least, maybe two.” She chewed her lower lip and added, “It’s been years, and a break might be good for me. Plus, imagine the seedlings we could pick up on the trip home. Good for your garden, and good for my brewery.” She forced a smile, but it didn’t hold under Remi’s scrutiny. “I think it would be good for you to visit home, if you’re wanted. And perhaps it is good for Gyda to connect with family.”
They sat in silence for a while, sipping their tea while the breeze outside rustled through the tall branches of the bushes.
Vigdis finally said, “Maybe I should leave my armor at home.”
“Surely it would make me look combative, traveling in elf land so armed. The armor and the weapons may be too much.”
“You’re thinking of leaving your axe at home?” He shook his head. “I married a dwarf. I won’t have you coming home with me while pretending to be something else.”
“It’s just… the damned nickname.” She sighed. “It’s not as though it’ll be a secret, by the time we get there, but maybe it will be less jarring if I show up and I’m not quite so much a dwarf. A beauty of a dwarf isn’t as good as a beauty of an elf, but it will be something.”
“Oh, love.” He stood and crossed the table to her, kneeling down to pull her close in his arms. “You are more than a beauty of a dwarf or elf or man, and I don’t ever want you to leave pieces of yourself behind.”
She leaned into him and exhaled. Another long moment of silence passed between them. “I don’t need to bring all of the axes. Perhaps just my mother’s ceremonial marriage axe.”
“It is the prettiest axe. My mother will love the gem work.”
She nodded. “I’ll visit Erick in the morning to make arrangements.”
The weeks leading up to their departure were hectic, with Vigdis waiting until the last possible second to barrel her juniper brew. When the berries had earlier ripened, Vigdis had brewed them into her seasonal ale. The whole brewhouse had smelled like her daughter’s room.
It was the first batch, and it had turned out beautifully. The floral tones worked well with the spice and honey flavors of the ale. Erick would take most of it to the pubs on her usual route, but a few barrels seemed a perfect gift to bring her mother-in-law. At least, it would be if her mother-in-law had been a dwarf.
As they finished loading up the wagon with their supplies the morning of their departure, Remi helped Vigdis into her armor. She noted that his style of dress was more similar to the clothes he had worn when they met, his tunic flowing and longer to fit in with the fashion sensibility of his home. He had dressed more and more like the men in town since they settled near Stowreath.
“Did you name the beer?” he asked as he locked up the house.
“I did, eventually.”
“I decided to call it the Beauty of Stowreath. That’s what they’re expecting you to arrive with, after all.”
Remi laughed as he climbed into the back of wagon with Gyda in his arms. “I think that’s perfect.”