Rain patters on a plastic roof. Water splashes in a barrel at the corner of a shed.
A pub’s master trudges through a back yard with a burden of beer. One full keg in each hand. She shuffles and grunts. Strains and sweats. It is not an easy burden, but she does it anyway – because she can.
Careful steps down old stone stairs, through an open door, and into a basement.
Stone walls. Concrete floor. Rows of shelves and piles of junk. A storage room is full of things that may come in handy some day – perhaps.
Along a wall are doors. Wardrobes and cabinets. Other rooms where no one ever goes. Some doors are locked, some are not. Some have keys, some do not. It is of no matter. Doors are closed for a reason and there is plenty of space in other places.
A stairway at the far end, by the keg room door, leads up – to a bar and a kitchen, and a master’s apartment above.
Not much further now, and then just one more trip. Another two kegs and then a break. Coffee.
– – –
“Hey! Boss!” Ali’ast shouted from up the top of the stairs. “Boss, are you there?”
Paivi paused at the foot of the stairs. “Yes. I’m here.” Groaning, she turned and sidled through the door to the keg room.
Footsteps drummed down the steps of the staircase and Ali’ast appeared in the doorway behind her. Short and thin and brown. Bald as an egg but with a thick black beard that had started to go white in place. Sometimes she called him Guru Al when she wanted to tease him about something.
White t-shirt, blue jeans, and a white apron with grey stripes. He even still held on to the broom for some reason.
“Hey, boss. There’s someone looking for you.” He looked at her with wide eyes. “I think it’s important.”
The pub hadn’t been wrong. There definitely was some elf standing in the pub right now wanting to talk to her. They’d probably pulled some trick on Ali’ast to get him worked up enough to come running for her.
He knew she was doing the kegs. She’d be done soon enough. No need to run around and holler like loon. How important could it be?
“I know.” Paivi set the kegs down on the floor. She stretched and took a deep breath. “Give them a pint and tell them I’ll be there soon. On the house. Just gotta get this sorted. Only two more kegs after this.”
“Uhm… Boss…” Ali’ast squirmed. “She didn’t seem to keen on waiting.”
Paivi groaned and bent down to grasp one of the kegs. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’ll be five minutes. She can wait.”
Ali’ast’s eyes grew wide. “No!” The word burst out of him and he clamped his mouth shut and stared at her – his face growing redder by the moment.
“I mean…” He clasped the broom in both hands and swallowed. “I don’t know… It just it seemed really important. I think you should go talk to her.”
“Geez Al.” Paivi frowned at him and then she hoisted the keg up on top of the pile. “What’s gotten into you?” She flexed her fingers and turned to the other keg. “It’s just some elf. They live for stupid ever. She can wait another five minutes.”
Ali’ast cleared his throat. “It’s not an elf, boss. She’s a human.”
“Really?” Paivi straightened up and raised an eyebrow at him. “I felt the whole building react. You must have noticed it too. It was a big one.”
“I didn’t think about it.” He shrugged and leaned on the broom. “But I haven’t been here half as long as you have.”
“But… No human would cause that kind of reaction.” Her brow furrowed, and she scratched her head.
She’d been on vacation once, a few years back, and had been gone for over a week. All she’d felt when she came back was relief at being home, and that was probably just her. The spirit hadn’t had anything to do with it.
Something wasn’t right. “What did she look like?”
Ali’ast frowned. “Some kind of hippie chick. You know the kind. Short and chubby.” He held up a hand at about eye level, for him. “She had tattoos all over her face, and dreads too.”
“What?” Paivi grimaced. “Little hippie with tattoos on her face?”
Perhaps she was from some band that had played here. She’d remember that though, and he too. He’d just have told her it was this or that person from this or that band. He wasn’t one to faff about.
“Did she give a name?”
“Yeah, Toini. She said her name was Toini.”
“What?” She stared at him for a moment, and then the name hit her like a sledgehammer in the guts.
Her mind reeled and her knees grew weak and she reached out a hand to steady herself agains a stack of kegs. It could not be. Images flashed through her mind. It must be a coincidence. Cheeks as round as apples. Blonde locks. Smiling eyes. Afternoons in the park, and a pearling laughter she would never hear again.
A plain brown letter.
“Err, boss, what’s up?” Ali’ast took a step towards her and reached out a hand. “Are you okay?”
A plain brown letter from the International Peace Keeping Force of Knysvian.
She hadn’t gone to the park since then. Not like that. Not that park.
Paivi closed her eyes and shook her head. She took a deep breath, and swallowed. “Are you’re sure you heard right?” It had to be a coincidence. It had to be someone else. “Are you’re sure she said… That name?”
She still had that letter in a box upstairs.
“Well, duh! Of course I am.” Ali’ast frowned at her. “Do you want me to run her off? She didn’t look very tough.” He leaned on the broom nodded back up the stairs.
“No!” Panic. She had to see for herself. Had to know. It would be some cruel coincidence, but she had to know.
Ali’ast stared at her, and her face grew red. She hadn’t meant to shout at him. It wasn’t his fault. He didn’t know. She should have told him. Long ago really. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust him. There just hadn’t been a good time and it hadn’t seemed important and everything was just fine anyway, right?
“I’m sorry.” Paivi swallowed and forced a smile on to her face. “It’s fine. I’ll talk to her. I… I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?” Worry creased his brow. “You don’t look too good.”
She straightened up, shrugged, and brushed her hands off on her hips. “Did she say what she wanted?”
“No, err…” He paused for a moment and then scowled at her. “I didn’t ask. I just got this feeling it was important.”
“Really?” Paivi crossed her arms over her chest and tapped her foot against the floor.
Ali’ast drew himself up and planted his hands on his hips. “Why don’t you just go and talk to her?” He nodded back towards the door and the stairs up. “She’s right there in the bar. I can take care of the kegs.”
She looked at him. Looked at at the door. Swallowed. Looked at the kegs. He was right – of course. What other option was there? She had to go look.
“Yes… Yes, okay. Good. I’ll go.”
Ali’ast smiled and nodded. He stepped out of the way with a swagger and leaned on the broom. “Don’t worry boss. I’ve got this.”