"Let me be the first to apologize for the rude welcome," Moraenor began. "We have not had any visitors since we began living in this cave."
"Ah, yes, the Brat-King's last edict," Jeroham mused, "I heard something of that at the last town."
Laurel passed around mugs of hot cider before taking a seat next to Moraenor.
"Why do you travel?" she asked curiously.
Jeroham paused to sip his mug, and clasped his hands around it pensively as he answered, "We're entertainers, ma'am, the Respertians and I."
"The--what do you call them?" Laurel asked.
The short, dark boy with the frizzy hair spoke for himself. "Respertians, ma'am, from the hill country of Respert," he explained. "My name is Samrill, and this is Laililika, Molotto, and Gokken."
Laurel gazed over the small, dark faces as she tried to comprehend the strange names. "You all look so alike! Are you from the same family?"
Jeroham chuckled fondly at his little friends. "They're all close friends ‘n’ neighbors; 'cept Sammy and Laililika, they're cousins. T'other two ain't related. All Respertians look about the same; only when you've worked around 'em as long as I have, you can start to tell the difference betwixt 'em."
"What about you?" Moraenor asked the Elf, "What is your name, and how did you come to join a troop like this? Do you perform as well?"
The Elf's expression never changed as he replied evenly, "My name is Athelron. I do not perform with Jeroham's troupe, I am only with them as protection."
Moraenor and Laurel glanced at each other significantly; Jeroham's fighting skills were sufficient for the amount of danger a troupe of entertainers might occasionally run across. Athelron was far too skilled and grand in his bearing to merely serve as a bodyguard for a bunch of performers. Laurel sensed a deeper story. Jeroham soon supplied his hosts.
He laughed loudly at his companion. "What my stately friend neglects to mention is he and I are bonded by the code of the Elves!"
Both Moraenor and Laurel raised their eyebrows. They were familiar with this code, common knowledge to all Elves of every race on Murinda. "You saved his life?" Laurel queried.
Jeroham nodded. "The Respertians and I were on the road from Clywen to Deerfest, back East, and we came up on a band of ruffians just in the act of throwing the Elf here over the ravine. The boys and I scared the ruffians away, helped the Elf back onto the cliff, and before we can say anything, he gets right down on his knees and--"
"I merely introduced myself and pledged my services, as the code requires," Athelron interrupted coldly. "That is all."
Your accent," Laurel remarked, attempting to ease the tension, "I've never heard it before. Where are you from?"
Athelron fixed his piercing gaze on her. "I am from Bregundi, the Elf-country." he sniffed contemptuously. "And you are--"
"We are elves from...overseas," Laurel replied. She surprised herself, but she suddenly felt like she could not mention the country that had rejected her.
Athelron raised an eyebrow, "Are you, now? Both of you?"
He looked significantly at Laurel, and she wondered if he could tell she was different; he certainly looked like he did, and it stung her.
"Yes," she snapped quietly, "both of us."
Jeroham glanced at the elves for one tense, uncomfortable moment, and then he cleared his throat.
"Well!" he cried, turning to the Respertians, "While we're here, as a thank-you to our fine hosts, what say we give them a little show?"
Laurel seized on the opportunity, “Oh, yes please!” she clapped her hands in delight.
Moraenor helped Jeroham move the table out of the way, and the four Respertians took their places in the center of the room. Jeroham pulled out an old squeeze-box and heaved a few chords on it to begin the performance.
"Ladies and gentle Elves," Jeroham announced as if speaking to a crowd larger than the three sitting before him, "Allow me to introduce to you the most incredible sight never before seen in this country!"
Molotto winked slyly at Laurel, "Normally, we'd be out of sight behind the stage or in the wagon, but you've already seen us, so we needn't bother."
Laurel smiled and winked back at him.
"PRESENTING," Jeroham cried grandly, "the dance of the little people!"
The show began with Samrill and Laililika dancing pleasantly. Gokken pantomimed a blind man trying to "propose" to Laililika, and Molotto was a tubby little clumsy whose job it seemed was to periodically trip over various objects the blind man inadvertently dropped, or his own feet and tumble into the other characters, causing comical chaos as the blind man offered flowers to everyone but Laililika by mistake, Samrill tried to fend off the interlopers, Jeroham pumped away on the box, and the whole performance delighted the audience.
Their delight, though, was not readily displayed merely because they were Elves. Athelron and Moraenor expressed their pleasure in the manner of their breed, by shifting their posture in an agreeable and imperceptible manner, raising their eyebrows only slightly, and allowing a pleased expression to glimmer across their features.
Laurel, on the other hand, noticed the exertions of the performers and the expectant glint in their eye, and surmised that they were probably accustomed to loud cheers and happy applause of their more human crowd. She felt herself capable of such response, and indeed longed to recognized the hard-working Respertians thus, but felt herself restrained by the arrogant glances of Athelron. Every time Laurel so much as giggled at a joke in the pantomime, or one given by Jeroham himself during a lull in the play, she could feel the Bregundian's steely gaze boring into her, making her very uncomfortable. When the show was over, Athelron and Moraenor acknowledged the panting performers' bows with a silent nod. A sudden spurt of rebellion seized Laurel, and she burst out with wild applause, enjoying for her abandon the grateful glances of the little people. She looked to Athelron and saw him glaring at her. She faced the performance again, but for the next hour she could feel his gaze burning into the back of her neck.