Tad went to the cellar to replenish the stock behind the bar. He could barely keep up with the demand. Brewing takes time, but the sudden increase of business is forcing him to stay up long hours just to keep the drink aging sufficiently. He always thought that his craft was sufficient, but the quality had grown so much that customers came in droves. Manhandling another keg up the ramp produced so much noise that he didn’t hear the whispering.
Sara served the last of the beer and spirits when Tad returned. After helping him get the barrel settled, she went down herself to bring up more bottles. They were both worried about how much the crowd was consuming, but it didn’t seem they got any drunker. The sound of pattering as she entered the cellar alarmed her. Please, not rats, she thought. It would be disastrous if the vermin got into the food stores. When she checked, though, there was no sign of damage, but she was certain that there was food missing.
Filling a basket with bottles of whiskey and wine, Sara returned to the taproom. The whispering resumed after she was gone.
“The dear woman is more suspicious than the husband,” a voice said.
Another voice spoke. “Yes, but they deserve the success.”
A third offered their thoughts. “Should we tell them?” It was nervous.
The first speaker was shaking their head.
“Not yet, at least. But they do need more help to keep up before they work themselves sick.”
All agreed with this fact. They set about their own efforts to support their unaware landlords. The couple were good and generous, deserving of the efforts of the unknown helpers.
Tad and Sara were unhappy with the consumption and rowdy behavior, but the crowd was convivial at least. There weren’t arguments or fights, but laughter and singing. That was a blessing to them. It meant that Tad didn’t need to weigh in and deal with the violence. He wasn’t a young man, but leather-skinned with hands as strong as steel. He has proven again and again that he could handle violent drunks half his age.
Both breathed a sigh of relief when the guards showed up to announce the end of the festivities. The town had established a curfew to help deal with the surge in drinking and ensured that people did not imbibe through the night. There were no grumbles or arguments. Everyone left cheerfully, touching knuckles to their foreheads in salute to the proprietors.
The couple took a few minutes to rest, each drinking a mug of beer before cleaning up. They sat in silence, overwhelmed by the recent rise in popularity of their tavern. Although Sara was Tad’s junior by many years, even she was showing the strain of keeping pace with their clientele. Raising their mugs in salute to one another, they drained them off and rose to begin the cleaning. As they passed, Tad gave his wife a quick kiss and squeezed her hand. He wasn’t the most emotive person, much less very talkative, but she had grown to understand his signs of affection. In turn, she swatted his rump and they both chuckled.
Once the bar was restocked and the chores were finished, they shuffled off to bed.
“Tad,” Sara said quietly, “what is going on. You have always made fine drink, but the consistency was not perfect. Now it’s the best thing to have.” Her thoughts echoed Tad’s and he nodded agreement.
“Brewin isn’t always a precise endeavor, and I always prided myself that most was good quality, but I can’t account for this. It’s not only better than ever, but there’s never a bad barrell. I didn’t want to bring it up to you, but this is unnatural. Mind you, we’re doing remarkably well in coin, but it still worries me.”
“What do we do about it?”
“I don’t know, love. But I’ll be more at peace if we can figure this out.”
They climbed under the covers and reached for each other in the darkness, falling asleep in one another’s arms.
In the darkness of the cellar, small shoes clicked on the stone floor. They were small, about the size of a toddler, but fully formed. They were dressed well, but not showy. The clothes are durable and designed to last. All three stood in silent thought, staring around the room. One sucked at his teeth. None were eager to catch each other’s gaze.
“So,” a woman began, “we may be causing them more trouble than good.”
The tooth sucker spoke next.
“Well, we were only trying to do a good turn. They are a lovely pair.”
“Yes, such a rarity for the big ones,” the third male said.
All three sighed. With guilty faces, the three went back to work.
The morning started early for Tad and Sara. The hammering on the door startled them awake. Dressing quickly, they went to the front door and pulled it open. Tad was nearly struck with the hammer being used to tack a notice on the door. The deputy mayor was standing before them with a squad of guards.
Tad began to read the notice while Sara stalked forward, causing the guard with the hammer to back up hurriedly. Fists on her hips, she confronted the group, ignoring the growing crowd.
“Leeds,” she barked at the official, “what is the meaning of this? Waking us so violently?”
The man raised his hands to placate her. He stumbled over his words before coherence came to his aid.
“Sara, there have been serious allegations laid before the justices. So much so that I was sent out to close your tavern.” He got no further before Tad ripped the notice down and shook it at Leeds.
“Witchcraft! What nonsense is this!” The crowd began to mutter among themselves. Alarm spread through them rapidly.
Sara waved her arm at all those gathered. “Don’t you dare hang us with a rumor,” she shouted. People quailed at her ferocity. Most were aware of her past and knew better than to draw her anger.
Skulking in the shadows of a window were the three diminutive residents of the cellar. The woman took umbrage at the scene outside. She gave the other two a look and one of the males grinned and made a gesture. Within moments, Leeds found himself shifting uncomfortably. He made noises of distress.
Look, you two, the justices will render their verdict today and…” He got no further before Tad strode up.
“What! You mean we are not allowed to have a say in this!”
“You are new here, right,” Leeds said, squirming as though there was something wrong with his lower body, “but this is the law. The accusations against you will be weighed and considered.”
Before Tad or Sara could retort, Leeds spun away and walked away with his right leg twitching. The crowd seemed uncertain of what they thought, it seemed. No one spoke or were inclined to leave. The street theater was too short to be satisfying.
Sara began to raise her finger and, coupled with the look on her face, caused them to disperse. She had a glare that could turn water to vinegar.
Tad wadded up the notice and held the door for his wife, slamming it shut behind them. The pair drifted behind the bar and tapped a fresh keg. Tad filled two mugs while Sara gathered some food, setting on the nearest table. They ate in silence, lost in thought.
They shared a puzzled look at the sound of tiny shoes on the floor. Moments later, three small people climbed over the edge of the table. The two males held their hats in hand and the female curtsied. She was about to speak, but was startled into silence at Sara’s glare. Following her eyes, all three looked at their feet. The female kicked her feet backwards, sending her tiny shoes sailing off the table. The other two quickly followed suit. Satisfied, Sara nodded her approval.
Tad watched them with no definable expression on his face. After an uncomfortable silence, he spoke.
“So, you are the reason my drinks have become so good.” All three shuffled their stockinged feet.
“I am Ciara,” the female said, gesturing, “and these are Morgan and Simon. I am sorry about the trouble. We were just trying to help out.”
Sara chimed in. “Are you brownies?”
Simon bridled with indignation.
“We certainly are not! We are clurichauns!”
Tad and Sara exchanged a knowing glance. They were both Netani and grew up on old stories.
“So,” said Tad, “how long have you been living with us?”
Ciara spoke next. Apparently she was the leader, given the way that the other two seemed to defer to her.
“Not too long. When we arrived here it was decided that it would be good to aid you. All of this that is happening is not acceptable. I apologize for causing you such trouble.”
Morgan chuckled. “It was amusing to cast that hex on the fool who shouted at you!”
Sara gaped at him.
“We are accused of witchcraft and you cast a hex on someone?” The three clurichauns looked shocked.
“It will cause more trouble?” Simon began to tremble at the thought.
“Probably,” Sara sighed.
All three looked uncomfortable at the revelation.
“Sorry,” Ciara said.
Tad reached into his shirt and pulled out a necklace with a small silver axe hanging from it. Like all Netani he revered their patron Nechtan. He didn’t speak, but sat thoughtfully, stroking the pendant. After a few minutes he stood and walked behind the bar, returning with a large, well-worn axe. Sara nodded approvingly, pulling out her own necklace. The clurichauns looked at them nervously.
“We must leave,” he said. “If they find out we are Netani the verdict will be guaranteed.”
Sara nodded again and began gathering items from the bar and settling them into bags and baskets. Tad began to walk to the windows, watching the street. Ciara began to wonder who these people really are. Sara continued to walk around the building gathering possessions and supplies. When she had finished, both gathered everything and went to the stable, leaving the clurichauns to rush after them. They loaded the goods on two horses and saddled two more. Once they were ready, Sara reached down and lifted each of their small compatriots onto the pack horses.
“Sara, we need a distraction, please.”
Nodding at her husband, her green eyes flashed blue as she murmured unintelligible words. Within moments, the small passengers could smell smoke. They mounted quickly and rode around behind the buildings. The street was emptying as people ran around to follow the smoke.
“We should make haste,” Simon said, “before the spirits and kegs catch fire.” He sounded worried.
Tad said, “I guess they ignite more spectacularly after you have improved them?”
All three clurichauns hissed in unison: “Yes!”
The small party rode through the now empty street. The explosion didn’t come until they had passed the town boundary. The stone walls of the cellar and tavern send the blast up through the roof. The debris landed in a wide area.
At that point Tad and Sara began to move the horses faster to outdistance any possible pursuit. They were uncertain that anyone had seen them leave, but the confusion of whether they were inside would delay any response. They kept up the pace for several miles, slowing down to spare the strain on their mounts.
“Surely we should move faster,” wheedled Morgan.
“No,” Sara said, “we need to keep from exhausting the horses. We may need their speed later and tiring them out won’t do us good.”
Ciara continued to wonder about their hosts past that led to them being so calm under the threat of capture. Even more so was her curiosity at what Sara was. Could she truly be a witch?
The group continued moving through the night, headed east. When the sun rose, the clurichauns were still bewildered. The horses should have been too exhausted to continue for so long, but Ciara suspected they had some unnatural help.
“Where are we headed,” she asked.
“To Red Maple,” Tad said. “It’s just far enough away to outrun rumors. The place is on a trading route and is growing.”
“Do you think we would be followed that far?” Morgan sounded concerned.
“Doubtful. From the sounds of it they will probably be well rid of us. There might even be some other Netani there that we can seek for help.”
They continued for some time until Sara spoke.
“We should probably stop for a rest.”
Tad nodded and pointed at a small stand of trees. They approached in silence and, after dismounting, the clurichauns watched the pair set up a small camp. It was obviously not going to be a long break. Tad and Sara laid out a few blankets for themselves then set out blankets for their small friends. Without a word, the couple laid down and were asleep in minutes. Ciara pulled the blankets closer to them before crawling into the pile. Simon and Morgan, both still bundles of nerves laid down and slept uneasily.
They woke to the sound of someone chopping wood. The clurichauns started looking around alarmed, but could see nothing. Tad and Sara, though, sprang up and rapidly packed their belongings. Tad grabbed their small companions and hoisted them on the horses. Within minutes of hearing the sound, they were galloping down the road.
“Well,” said Sara, “looks like they are more interested in us than we thought.”
“But it was just woodcutters,” Simon squeaked.
“Did you see anyone,” Tad shouted through the wind.
“No, I didn’t.”
“That was Nechtan warning us of danger,” Sara called. She seemed more alive now than when operating the tavern. Her dark hair was flowing in the wind and she was smiling.
Tad noticed their silence and said, “We’ll explain it later, but right now we need to make distance.”
It seemed as though they flew for hours before slowing. The horses were lathered and the couple dismounted to give them a rest. Morgan and Simon still looked apprehensive, turning often to try and look everywhere. Ciara, rather, studied their hosts. Both seemed more energetic to be away from the town, even with the possibility of pursuit close behind.
“You said you would explain about the noises,” she prompted.
“Tad grinned. “Nechtan was a woodsman in life and the sound of chopping wood has kept trouble at bay for years. Anytime I hear it, well, then it’s time to pay attention.”
Ciara knew little about Nechtan, or the Netani in truth, but she sensed truth in his words, not the notes of superstition.
“You are not the people I had assumed you to be,” she said.
“We were a bit wild in our day,” Sara responded, giving the smaller woman a bright smile. Ciara hadn’t noticed the faint streaks of grey in that dark hair, but it was more evident in the sunshine. The little lines around her eyes seemed to appear from nowhere.
Sara and Tad took out bread, cheese, and smoked meat for their lunch. A jug of ale was opened to wash it all down. Simon and Morgan were hesitant. They did not even approach the jug. All three noticed that the two were just staring at them. Morgan was trembling.
“We’re leaving,” he said at last. “This is all too much for us.”
Ciara stared at them in shock.
“But, how can you do this? At least stay until we reach Red Maple.” Her tone was imploring and she was on the verge of tears.
“No,” Simon retorted. “We just want to live peacefully and now we are in the wilderness being chased by humans and in the company of two that must not, themselves, be human. Goodbye.”
The moment was so abrupt that the other three were speechless, but, as one, their faces set hard at his words. No further words were exchanged as the two turned to walk away, obviously making signs to ward off evil. Sara reached out to hold Ciara’s tiny hand. The little creature looked as though she had never experienced heartbreak or betrayal. Releasing the hand, Sara pulled the small woman into her lap, hugging her in sisterly love.
Tad sighed in resignation, but remained silent. There was nothing he could do that Sara couldn’t do better. After a few minutes of listening to Ciara’s sobbing, he stood up and began making a more serious camp for a longer rest. He walked through the woods they had stopped by to gather fallen limbs for a fire. The voice that came out of the trees left a broad grin on his face.
“Tad,” it said, “you really need to stay out of trouble.” The voice was friendly, almost paternal. There was genuine concern in it as well.
“Not my fault this time,” Tad laughed. He set the firewood down and turned to see a man who could have been his son in age. A little taller than average, with a face of permanent stubble. The lean form was nothing but muscle.
“Father Nechtan,” Tad said affectionately.
Nechtan smiled and caught his follower in a fierce hug.
“Clurichauns,” he said, shaking his head fondly. “I haven’t encountered any in some time. How is the little one?”
Tad sighed again. “She is used to good cheer, not fleeing from possible death.”
“Sara can easily smooth things out for her.”
The men put their arms across each other’s shoulders with a bundle of wood under their other. When they walked up to the small camp, Sara gave a cry of joy. Ciara sat mystified, so surprised that it cut through her emotions.
“Who is this,” she asked. “Where did he come from?”
“I have been shadowing you since you fled Halter. My name is Nechtan,” he said with a bow.
Ciara sat in shock, staring at the man.
“I didn’t think the gods showed themselves so casually,” she breathed.
Nechtan laughed. “I am not really a god. I started life as a mortal man and, well, things happened.” He sounded embarrassed.
Continuing, he said: “You can safely rest. I ran off the people chasing you. They are a superstitious bunch. You would not have been safe there for much longer, clurichauns or not.”
Tad had finished building a rather complicated stack of wood. Sara looked over, her eyes flashed blue again, and the wood ignited. Ciara was bewildered. She had heard a little about Nechtan and his Netani, but nothing gave a hint of what she has learned in such a short period of time.
“Your way to Red Maple will be clear and only take a few days of easy travel. I guarantee it.”
Tad and Sara relaxed, and ate well. Ciara wasn’t feeling hungry, but joined in the tiny air of celebration. She had found a new family, her sense of apprehension melting away. Her tears had dried and the future seemed more hopeful than she had thought a short time before.