I shivered my way into the Esterloch Stables' stableyard as the snow continued to whirl down in fat white flakes. I was glad for the heavy covering of my cloak, yet even that was not quite enough to stop the chill of the day from nipping at my face; the snow-driven wind also turned my hair into tangled waves.
I was surprised to find a whole procession of travellers arriving in the stableyard at the same time as I did; they had with them a whole retinue of carts and attendant ponies and horses of all descriptions. I nodded at a few of them as they greeted me with tugs of their forelocks and shouted halloos.
"Would ye be the owner of this fair establishment, sir?" one of the travellers asked in a thick western Erialandish accent I didn't recognise.
"'Fraid not," I said with a grin. "I'm just a local blacksmith. You'll be wanting Rufus; he's the owner of this place. I'll get him for you if you like."
"That would be grand, sir," the man said with a nod. "And would ye be so kind as to shoe some of our horses for us? Seeing as you're a blacksmith and all."
I shrugged at that and said - "I can do that, yes. Although the Stables do have their own farrier if you'd rather."
"Either one of you would be grand, now. I bet you'd work for a fair price, wouldn't you now," the traveller said and grinned.
"I can't speak for the farrier but in this instance, I'd be happy with the price of a drink and a hot meal," I said and laughed, only half meaning it.
The traveller also laughed and tugged his forelock again. I didn't know what that meant and just shrugged; I didn't want to risk offence through asking. As such, I made my excuses and walked away to find Rufus. Once I'd found the Stables' owner, I sent him out to see to the travellers.
Meanwhile, the snow had started to fall a little more thickly and the flakes washed the world in a dizzying wave of white streaks against the stark blackness of the winter view. I made my way to the stables themselves, where Jay's emotional colours burned the brightest over our mated soul-bond; I also followed the sound of his off-key singing. My mate was inside, mucking out one of the stalls; a few horses poked their heads out of their stalls out at my approach and whickered out sudden greetings at me. I greeted a few of them with affectionate pats to their long muzzles, while some of the haughtier gryphons and hippogriffs merely peeked out at me, squawked and returned to their stalls with disinterest.
"Lovely day, isn't it?" Jay said when he saw me.
He grinned and that one expression pushed deep dimples into his cheeks. I rolled my eyes at him; of course, his ice dragon side loved the snow and colder temperatures while my inner fire dragon detested it. I could imagine Jay champing at the bit, wanting to change into his dragon form just so that he could play amongst the falling snow for a while.
"No. It isn't, Jay. It's horrible," I said drolly.
Jay tutted and tried to pinch my cheek yet his hand was smeared with something I thought had once dropped out of a horse's behind. I ducked away with a cry of feigned disgust, even as Jay laughingly advanced towards me; he jokingly threatened to smear more of the waste into my hair. Rufus appeared in the doorway which stopped Jay in his tracks; the Stables' owner was followed by some of the travellers and their horses. Luckily, the Stable owner hadn't noticed Jay's very literal horsing around. Instead, he was too busy talking to the traveller who'd addressed me earlier.
"Of course, I have plenty of space here to house your horses for the night. As you can see it's all clean and dry in here. You can't get better or safer accommodation for your horses than here," Rufus said proudly.
"Aye, I can see that, sir," the traveller said. "I see ye have some grand-looking gryphons in here, sir. Ye wouldn't happen to have some spare feathers, would ye?"
"Feathers?" Rufus asked in surprise.
"Aye. For talismans. Good luck charms. Hung on the sides of our carts, they'd protect us from trouble on the road, sir," the traveller said. "Of course, we have money to pay for them if ye need that."
Rufus seemed to hesitate then so I decided to step in.
"You know, it's no different to selling them to Toby, Ruf," I reminded the Stable owner.
Rufus looked over at me and grinned. Toby was the mage that lived in the valley ten miles distant from Esterloch. He often bought feathers dropped or preened out of the wings of gryphons, hippogriffs and winged horses alike. Toby often said they had magical properties and so, they aided him in his spell-casting.
"You're right, Quinn; it's not. We do have some," Rufus said and addressed this last to the traveller. "I'll get some for you if you like."
"That'd be grand," the man said before he looked over at me. "And would ye be willing to shoe the horses now, big sir?"
The traveller grinned at me. Even though Jay and I, as dragonshifters, dwarfed everyone in Esterloch with our natural greater height, I had the advantage over Jay. Alpha dragonshifters were always larger than dragonshifters of other ranks.
"As you wish," I said with a shrug. "Although I think the farrier should lend a hand, too. You have a lot of horses."
The traveller nodded equably enough, as Jay offered to fetch the farrier. I led some of the horses towards the door again and after a few moments, Jay returned with the Stables' farrier in tow. The farrier and I then set to work, unshoeing the horses and trimming the hooves to fit new ones. We had only been working for roughly five minutes when Rufus returned with a small sack of feathers held in one hand. The traveller who had done all the talking so far handed over a few coins which Rufus slipped into his money pouch before being called away by one of the stable-hands.
I stopped work for a while to watch the proceedings, interested despite myself to see what the travellers did with them. The lead traveller, whose name I'd learned was Seamus, seemed pleased with the quality of the feathers; he also assured the Stables owner that he'd brought enough. Seamus noticed me watching him and waved me over.
"Have a wee rest for a while, why don't ye? Take the load off and watch real magic at work," he said and grinned.
I snorted softly and didn't like to comment that I counted an actual mage as a close friend. Jay also joined us and watched with interest as the travellers began collecting scraps of red and yellow fabric from out of their carts. Soon, they'd made each scrap into pouches, which they soon filled with thistles, milkweed and dandelions which I guessed must have been picked on their travels. Horse hairs, plucked from their own steeds' tails soon joined the mix, as well as the gryphon feathers that Rufus had gathered together. Each pouch was tied closed with rough twine while the travellers sang lilting songs in a language that Jay and I didn't know. While we both had seen Toby work similar magic in the past, the travellers' magic seemed oddly different; their song seemed more exotic somehow than even the mage-speak that Toby often used when spell-casting.
"Now these bags will be hung on our carts, ye see," Seamus said cheerfully once the pouches were finished. "And they shall protect us from storms on the path ahead. Both literal, figurative and magical."
He winked at us cheerfully before continuing.
"And ye both can have a pouch of your own, on the house as they say," he said and threw two pouches in our direction. "Seeing as you'll be travelling somewhere soon, so ye will."
To our surprise, the colours of the bags perfectly matched our scales when we were in our dragon forms. I caught the red one while Jay caught the blue - red for a fire drake and blue for an ice drake. My mate and I exchanged glances and sudden laughs before we thanked the traveller profusely.
I then returned to the task of helping the farrier to shoe the remaining horses once it became obvious the show was over. Jay also returned to his work in mucking out the remaining stalls. The travellers still were singing and cavorting when Jay and I finally left the Stables, our jobs for the day finally finished.
The following morning, I yawned my way to the front door of the cabin I shared with Jay and opened it onto the cheerfully grinning face of Seamus; he'd been knocking for a few minutes while I'd struggled out of bed. I greeted him with some surprise as the traveller sketched out a hasty bow. While it lacked the finesse of a true high-born, it still held a certain amount of genuine sincerity.
"I never thanked ye for the fine farrier work last eve," he said. "And because I never skimp on a debt, here is the money I owe ye, sir."
He handed over a bulging pouch of coins and I narrowed my eyes at him.
"This is more than the price of a drink and a meal I asked for," I said with some amusement.
"Depends what you're buying, hnn?" Seamus said with a laugh. "And I might be able to interest you in something else, so I will."
He then handed me two wooden beakers, finely carved with dragons on the sides.
"For you and the other dragon in the house," Seamus said cheerfully. "I carved them myself with my own fair hands."
He held his hands up as though to prove a point but I was too engrossed in examining the craftsmanship of the beakers.
"These are lovely," I said in surprise. "How much do you want for them?"
"Call it three gold pieces and they're both yours," the traveller said.
I winced at the higher than expected price, yet paid the money anyway, naturally out of the pouch that Seamus had given to me.
"Thank ye again. Good day to ye, sir," Seamus said before he wandered jauntily away.
I shook my head in amusement and shut the door on the day and the snow that still fell outside.
"Guess I was left with the price of a drink and a meal after all," I said with a laugh as I tilted out the remainder of the coins onto the kitchen table.
All that was left of the money that Seamus had given me were two gold coins and a few silver pieces.
"The crafty little - " Jay said before he descended into some true low-born curses that even I had not heard before.
I laughed at that, surprised at my mate's foul mouth before I gathered up the coins again; I did not remonstrate with my mate however. Jay just gave me one of his cheeky grins and winked.
"Never mind about the coins, my love. We've got our beakers and those magical talisman things," I said with a shrug. "It's hardly as though he truly robbed us, is it?"
"I suppose not," Jay said with a shrug of his own. "Wonder how he knew we were dragonshifters, though?"
Not many people did realise that fact upon first meeting us. I quirked out a baffled expression at him before I spoke.
"They're travellers, dear. Who knows what travellers know?" I asked.
"True. Still, these beakers seem too good to use, don't they?" Jay asked ruefully as he gestured at the beakers.
He then stared down at the expertly realised craftsmanship displayed in the carvings.
"Well, we don't have to use them. We could always display them in the living room," I said with a shrug. "I'll put up a shelf for them. We could even start a collection or something."
Jay laughed at that but didn't disagree. Instead, he changed the subject abruptly and demanded a meal post-haste in rather loud tones. I sighed as I realised that despite the magic we'd witnessed the night before, the day was starting in much the same mundane way as previous ones had.