The Three Sisters
Dedicated to any girl in need of a good adventure.
There once was a woman who was afraid of the sun. Mind you, this was a perfectly understandable fear, because she had never actually seen the sun before.
This young woman, or Cillan as she was called, spent over twenty years living in an extraordinary city, tucked behind a waterfall that fell underground from the world above. She would see the light from the sun flitting through the water, little flickers like fireflies in summer fields. Of course, Cillan knew nothing of fireflies, nor even anything of fields-such things were as far away and mysterious to her, as her city is to you and me.
Cillan used to listen to the travelling merchants as they told stories of a light so bright it could blind, and so powerful that it could warm all of the world. She wanted to see if it was true, and if the sun was as impressive as they said; and so, Cillan set out for the world above.
When Cillan reached the surface world in the dark of night, the vast openness frightened her. Because she was so scared, Cillan spent her days and nights in a small cave, connected to the tunnel that led back to the safety of her underground city. For a long time, she fought within herself for the courage to step out of her little cave. She desperately wished she could conjure up the courage to take up her pack and leave her camp behind. Each morning, she would cower in the darkness of the early hours. She would listen to the merchants rumbling past her in large wagons, heading to and from the underground city she had just left. She would imagine strutting proudly out of her cave, and gazing on the world before her; and every morning, she would remember the wide-open spaces, mountains, and rolling hills. Her heart would hammer in her chest as she thought about the endless world, sky and ground going on forever; and each morning, she would flee back into the safety of her cave before the sun rose.
Cillan was content to do this for a long time. Day after day, she would sneak a little closer to the entrance to the over-world, and then flee back to the safety of her cave, thinking, “perhaps tomorrow.” Her self-reassurances waned, and she slowly ate up her food supply. Finally, on a day just like many others, she woke up to the sound of rumbling carts, her belly rumbling back in response. She patted around her packs, holding out hope that perhaps she had missed a small morsel of food somewhere. She sighed in defeat. There was no more food; it was time to move on.
Cillan packed her things carefully, double-checking and triple-checking to ensure she hadn’t left something behind, nervous with excitement and fear. She turned around and gave one last look, to confirm what she already knew: that there was nothing left in the cave for her anymore. She snugged her pack on her back, and stepped outside of her shelter.
Cautiously, she crept forward, toward the tunnel exit. Already she could see that something was different. The ground outside looked as if it glowed an unearthly dark blue color; so bright was it outside, that she thought she could see shadows, even in the darkness. She had peeked at the light in the darkness before, but she still wasn’t sure what it was. Could this be the light source from the day? She wondered. Could it be so bright, that even when hidden in the night, it shines from afar? She crept outside to take a closer look. In the distance, the bluish colors took on a shadowy grey, outlining the tall silhouettes of mountains in the distance, with peaks that disappeared into clouds. Not far from her, carts rattled and creaked their way along a long winding path. They disappeared into the mouth of the tunnel, tempting her to follow them back into the bosom of the world that she knew best.
A light shone down from above, startling her. Cillan whipped her head around and looked up, seeking the source of the brightness. A bright white orb hung in the sky, wisps of dark shapes to either side; then, as quickly as it showed its face, it disappeared. Her heart hammered in her chest.
Cillan clambered up the hill above the tunnel entrance until she reached the top. She spun in a slow circle, looking around. Her heart leapt again. Everything extended in nearly every direction, as far as she could see. Though she had always considered the cavern of her home to be huge, it had not prepared her for the sight of the vastness before her. She began to feel a little queasy and panicked. She squinted into the darkness until she saw the familiar glow of a city, not far from where she stood.
She headed down toward the lights, pleased to have a reason to get away from the broad view atop the hill. She walked in the chilly air, happier with each step closer that she took toward the lights. Her feet, always confident on the rock solid ground of the paths back home, wavered as she stepped from the stone path of the small mountain and onto the cart-ridged dirt road that led to town. Soon the comforting feel of tightly packed cobblestones was underfoot, beckoning her towards the city. Another caravan of traders rumbled by. The clattering sound of the wagon faded behind her, leaving her in silence. She stared down a long row of shops lining the road, flickering lamps lighting up the street that disappeared into the distance.
Cillan searched for something familiar, and settled on an inn at the outskirts. She took a step toward the front door and hesitated. She walked away from the front door, instead opting to creep around back toward the stables. It was quiet. All the veteran merchants had moved on, having begun their journey to the underground city of Solypse before first light. Lantern light splashed on the only person remaining, a young man struggling to mount a horse laden down with books.
She waved to him, half smiling. “Excuse me, I am a bit new here. Can you tell me where I might find food?”
The man gestured at the doorway behind him without turning his head away from his task. “Innkeeper is up. Stove is already hot for breakfast.”
She nodded curtly. “Thank you. One more thing-what time does the, uh, sun get brighter?”
He cocked his head to the side, confused. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I understand.”
She pointed at the glowing orb in the sky. “The sun. It is dim. I think it gets much brighter, yes? Or is that…the moon?”
The man grabbed his saddle horn and grinned righting himself on his saddle. “Miss, you must be from Solypse down beneath. That there is the moon, not the sun. The moon lights the night sky, just as the sun lights the day.”
Cillan bit her lip, grateful that the darkness hid her blushing face.
The man shook his head, grinning. “Miss, there’s a lot you probably could stand to learn if this is your first trip up here. I wish I could stay to help you out, but I am already late. Melle is inside, and she’ll help you out. Goodness knows she helped me out when I first came here.”
Cillan bowed her head. “Perhaps we will see each other again.” The man gestured at the door behind him. “Tell Melle you’re new; she will help you. She can be a bit rough sometimes, but don’t let that fool you-she has a heart of gold.”
Cillan said her thanks once again and walked toward the door.
Cillan turned at the sound of his voice.
“I didn’t catch your name.”
She smiled. “Cillan.”
He dipped his head toward her. “A pleasure to meet you Cillan, I’m Jenre. Good luck with your journey, wherever it leads.”
Cillan stepped into the inn. Relief crept over her; the hearth at the back wall gave off a pleasant aroma, its warmth radiating outward across the room. At the far side of the big open inn room, a matronly woman deftly stacked up plates, the shock of orange hair peeking from her kerchief standing out as a stark contrast to the deep brown wood and gentle glow of the oil lamps.
The woman glanced at Cillan, wiping her hands on her apron as she finished her task. The woman gestured around the empty room. “I’m Melle. You can sit anywhere you like. You missed the morning rush.”
Cillan sat down next to the hearth and smiled to herself as she closed her eyes and inhaled the exotic smells.
Melle sidled up next to her, her lively eyes accented by cherubic cheeks. “You’re from down below aren’t ya?”
Cillan’s eyes snapped open and her smile dropped, this time her blushing cheeks obvious in the bright firelight.
“Aaaah! I knew it!” Melle crowed in delight. “You have that look; I’ve seen it before. Part curious adventurer, part scared little girl, and all pale from lack of sunlight.”
Cillan bristled. “I am no scared little girl,” she said hotly, “when I lived in Solypse I was-” She halted, the words stuck in her throat. ”It doesn’t matter. Anyway, Jenre told me you might be able to help me get my bearings.”
Melle rolled her eyes. “When he first got here, Jenre didn’t think he needed a hand either. You’re in Kahlig now, Miss; your power, money, whatever it was-frankly, nobody cares about that here, unless you plan on using it in town. Time to start over my friend. If you have money, it may help you a bit, but this is a different game. Kahlig is a staging ground for expeditions, not a place to relax. If you plan to stay here, you’re going to have to work. If you want work, you’re going to have to prove yourself. Being pretty won’t get you as far as it once did.”
Cillan stood up sharply. “I worked hard. I didn’t get by in life by being pretty.”
Melle arched an eyebrow. “Is that so? Let me tell you something honey, there’s nothing wrong with being pretty. In some places, it can help you get by—I’m just saying that Kahlig isn’t that place. Back before I had this shelf following me,” Melle smacked her ample backside for emphasis, “I enjoyed my share of attention. But attention wasn’t what made me a good innkeeper, and it certainly didn’t pay for this inn. People expect you to bring more than that here; they expect you to prove yourself with wit and iron.” Melle shooed Cillan back. “I’m talking too much. Sit. You’re here because you’re hungry; I’m here because I cook well. Let me get you some breakfast.”
Cillan sat down, once again glancing back into the fire.
Melle followed her gaze. “Wood. You’re probably used to coal burning down below. Here, we have trees everywhere. That’s what makes that great smell too.”
Cillan smiled faintly, still staring into the fire.
Melle’s voice softened, and she squeezed Cillan’s shoulder gently. “I’ll get that breakfast going.” Cillan nodded in response.
Fire. Who knew that even fire would be different? She looked around the inn again in renewed curiosity. The entire building was made of wood. She had seen wood in Solypse of course, but it wasn’t commonplace. Nearly everything in the city that she had grown up in was carved from stone; all wood had to be imported from the overworld. She craned her neck, looking at the ceiling that disappeared into the flickering shadows far above her. A balcony lined three walls of the inn, presumably leading toward guest quarters. More wood layered above wood. The wall behind the bar at the far end of the room stretched from the floor into the dark reaches above. She studied the heads of exotic beasts hanging on the soot-darkened wood, lost in thought. A door behind the bar led to the back kitchen, where she could hear Melle singing to herself as she prepared breakfast.
Cillan ran her hand over the slick surface of her table. She smiled. More wood.
Melle emerged from the kitchen door carrying a heavy wooden tray sporting two sizzling iron skillets. “Come on.” Melle gestured Cillan over with a toss of orange hair, and headed up the stairs. Cillan followed her, up to wide doors at the top. “Open it please? Hands are full.”
Cillan pressed down the levers to the door handles and pulled them wide. She let out a gasping shriek, slapping her hand to her mouth.
Melle smiled, shouldering past her with the tray. “I figured you might not’ve seen a sunrise. Beautiful one today.” Cillan stood frozen in the doorway with both hands clapped over her mouth, tears welling in her eyes.
The top crescent of a golden orb hung in the distance, surrounded by skies of pink and orange. Shadowed mountains were silhouetted in the distance, while rolling hills disappeared into the low morning mist.
Melle gestured at the chair across from her. “Come on honey, have some breakfast.”
Cillan walked on trembling legs toward the chair, eyes transfixed on the horizon.
“Don’t stare too long, you might go blind.”
Cillan gasped. “That can really happen?”
Melle laughed. “I suppose it could. Never actually seen it happen; it hurts to look too long.”
They ate, Cillan stealing looks at the sun as it rose in the sky. “How high will it go?”
Melle pointed at the sun, and drew a line across the sky, pointing behind them. “It rises over there, then it sets behind us, over there.” She pointed straight up. “At mid day, it is straight up overhead.”
Cillan looked up at the crystal blue sky. “What are those?” she said, pointing. “I saw one go in front of the...moon.”
Melle smiled. “Clouds? They’re called clouds. Rain comes out of them. Do you know rain? Water that falls from the sky?”
Cillan shook her head.
Melle shook her head slowly. “I suppose you wouldn’t, would you?” She looked down the street at the town waking up for the day. “So what brings you to Kahlig, if you don’t mind me asking?”
Cillan stretched. “I wanted to get out of Solypse, and see if the world above was as big as they say. I came for adventure, among other reasons.”
Melle grunted. “Adventure. Okay, adventure it is; there is plenty to be found around here. A little advice though: If you decide to venture outside of the city limits, you’re best joining up with one of the seeker groups around town. There’s some scary stuff that creeps around at night, and you’re going to want some able blades by your side.”
“Seekers. Treasure hunters. Though you think of Kahlig as just the gateway to Solypse, it is also at the heart of Almir in a way. People come to Kahlig from all over, hoping to join seeker groups. I don’t know how things are down below, but up here there’s much treasure to be had, if only you know where to look.”
“Like the Dwarven mines?”
Melle laughed. “Not quite. The land is vast, and open. Many years ago, there was a kingdom known as Dapar. Dapar was small, but it was home to the most powerful wizards in all of Almir. The wizards, confident in their power, wanted to expand the influence of Dapar to reach across the whole world.
Melle tugged her chair in, and leaned forward. “As the legend goes, the wizards scattered far and wide. Each wizard brought a small fortune with them, in hopes of securing their own fiefdom and trade routes. To this day, many of those fiefdoms continue on as powerful cities, having fulfilled their purpose and outgrown the visions of their solitary lords. Others have fallen to neglect, protected by aging wards and ghosts of their past masters. Still others remain shrouded in mystery, vibrant and strong without anyone coming or going. Seekers look for castles that seem abandoned, and pilfer what they can get.”
Cillan leaned back in her chair. “But doesn’t that upset Dapar?”
Melle shrugged. “Dapar likely brings in more from trade in a day than it would lose to bands of seekers in a month,” said Melle. “They have been known to retaliate, but not often. It usually isn’t worth their time, if they could even catch the seekers in the first place.”
“And seekers come through Kahlig often?”
Melle nodded. “Yup. Thanks to your home city, Kahlig is a nexus for adventurers. Solypse is a great place for seekers to sell or hide their finds from Dapar. As a result, everyone seems to start out here too.”
Cillan crossed her arms, a broad grin painting her face. “Sounds like I’m in the right place. Do you have any space here at the inn for me? I could use a place to stay for a bit.”
Melle nodded hesitantly. “Yes but…I’m afraid I can’t give you a discount on the price. Sojourn fills up quickly.” She smiled at Cillan’s puzzled expression. “The Sojourner’s Inn. Around here we just call it Sojourn.”
Cillan nodded. “That is fine. I should be able to afford it. I just need someplace safe.”
Melle stood up and laughed, stacking the dirty dishes back on the tray. “Safe as any place in these parts. Safe enough for me.”
“Do you have any rooms that will let me see…this?” Cillan said, gesturing toward the sun rising in the distance.
Melle nodded. “Sure thing hun, but it’s the most expensive room at the Inn.” She gestured at a door adjacent that opened onto the balcony. “The Sunrise Suite has windows that face Main Street, and a private balcony facing the sunrise itself. It also is the only one with direct access to this balcony.”
“There’s an inside door as well, I assume?”
Cillan bit her tongue. She clenched her chair arms tightly. “I’ll take it.”
Melle looked at her skeptically. “Is there a problem?”
“It sounds so…open.”
Melle nodded. “I think I have just the thing to reassure you. Hold tight.” Melle disappeared with the tray and reappeared with a large iron key. She waved Cillan over.
“First, I hate to ask, but-may I see your coin?” Melle blushed. “You seem very nice, but I would hate to get your hopes up.”
Cillan reached inside of her pack, mumbling quietly to herself. Her hand emerged with thick golden medallions, her fingertips white around the large stack. Melle’s eyes went wide. “Oh! I only need about five of those.”
Cillan nodded. “Keep the rest-that should pay for the month.” Melle blushed again. “The five is for the month, food included. What did you say you did in Solypse?”
Cillan shook her head, handing five coins to Melle and pocketing the rest. “I didn’t say.”
Melle gave her a curt nod. “Fair enough. Follow me.” Melle led her into the Sunrise Suite. “These rooms are yours. Private privy, balcony, main living quarters, separate bedroom, and windows everywhere.” She glanced at Cillan and guided her to a door at the back of the bedroom. “We have found that many of our patrons who have the means to afford this suite also have unique concerns about their security, so we took that into consideration with the room. Your key will get you into an area designed for your safety.” Melle unlocked the door, revealing a room with a small bed and chest as well as a trap door in the floor. “There is a deadbolt on either side of this room. Your key also opens the trap door, which leads to a private stairwell with a discreet exit. You can sleep in either bed as you choose. We have spikes beneath the windows and balcony, just in case anyone tries to climb up.” Melle shrugged. “Of course, someone determined probably could find a way in, but if your concerns are that grave, then perhaps you should be running, not paying for a month up front.”
Cillan squeezed Melle’s hand between her own. “This is perfect. Thank you so much.”
Melle nodded. “Not a problem.”
Cillan put her hand on Melle’s shoulder until Melle met her gaze. “And thank you for this morning.”
Melle smiled. “I thought that if you were getting a fresh start, you should start it out right.”
Cillan smiled back at her. “It was the best of beginnings.”