The Inn at the Crossroads (chapters 1-3)

By Mark Vincent LaPolla

Chapter 1

In retrospect, waking up in a pit of screaming unicorns, with their sharp silver hooves and their pointed horns, would have been better. Instead, Summer was over and Autumn was falling. The leaves were turning a magnificent painter’s box of vibrant colors, reds, yellows, browns dotted with green. The year plodded on.

Finally, the day had arrived. December 1st, minus eight degrees Fahrenheit, we huddled in the downstairs office, sitting at a big mahogany table, signing papers. 

The cold winter weather pressed in, with only the thin skin of the house separating us from nose hair freezing temperatures. Steam curled up from the coffee cup that Timothy had given each of us. 

The coffee was bitter, flat and tasted cheaply metallic. I took a sip and then used it as a hand warmer. I made plans to talk to Timothy’s coffee purveyor about giving us a tasting so we could upgrade the coffee. It would have to be upgraded many times before it was drinkable.

The room, though heated, was drafty and cool. The cold would have been a delight in the summer but with the frost and ice and howling winds of winter at the door and window, begging to be let in, it penetrated through our imagination to our bones.

Carey and I sat at the big table with Timothy, the current owner of the inn, Gregg, our banker, and our realtor, Johanna, and the two lawyers. Salvatore “call me Sal” Buccio was our lawyer. Timothy introduced his lawyer as Balthazar, a common name in the old country, wherever that was. I couldn’t hazard a guess where he was from. Neither Balthazar nor Timothy looked particularly ethnic. Besides, this was the first Balthazar I had ever met outside of The Merchant of Venice or The Alexandria Quartet.

“Before we begin, I’d like to give you this.” Timothy slid one of those cheap ledgers you get at the grocery store to Carey. “This is my personal journal of our life here at the inn.” Carey flipped through it. “I hope it’ll help you. It has recipes in the back as well, both for dinners and breakfasts. There’s a lot of information about the inn as well as my speculation.” 

“Speculation about what?” I wondered out loud. 

“Some of the quirks of the inn,” replied Timothy, “and I listed some projects to be done.” 

Ah, I thought and nodded my head, speculation about projects. At the time, that made a quasi-sense, in retrospect not a jot.

“Thanks,” mumbled Carey, hunched over her cup of coffee, her hands stuck fast to the cup, leaching heat from it; a California girl through and through.

“And here is my card, in case you have any questions.” He handed me an expensive cream-colored business card with his name and number embossed on it, but no area code and no address. 

His card didn’t strike me as odd at the time, but it should have. I was caught up in the excitement of owning our very own inn, so I shrugged mentally and said, “Local number? Glad to hear you’ll be around to answer questions.”

There was nothing left to do but read through the contract and sign on the dotted line. That was when the fun began.

As I finished signing the last document, I looked up and saw Timothy’s face melting, as if he were a prized wax statue caught in a fire at Madame Tussaudsmuseum. His body shimmered. His body blurred. Heat waves over black pavement on a distressingly summery day. Then he disappeared.

Chapter 2

Gasping for breath, I half rose out of my chair, mouth open, jaw dropping. I raised my arm, pointed at the seat where Timothy had been sitting, now occupied by a seven foot, golden creature, silver hair streaked with magenta. It sported pointed ears and wore suede and leather, rather than the sports jacket and tie Timothy had been wearing. And it wasn’t wearing a mask. 

I turned to our friends and said, “Wha, woo, waa.” I can be articulate when I put my mind to it. I tried again. “Mon…mon…goo, gooooo.” No one paid me any mind. “Things!” I finally managed, not even sure what I was trying to communicate but it sounded good, so I repeated myself. “Things! Mask! Mon…! Woo!”

The creature made a casual gesture in my direction and my legs gave out from under me; I sat down hard. My throat closed on another “woo;” my mouth worked, gaped like a fish, but no sound came out.

“Are you okay, Bill?” Carey asked me. She leaned in close, looked me in the eye, and reached for my wrist, pressing two fingers on my pulse. I hoped I still had one.

I smiled at her. Perhaps I drooled. I don’t know! I couldn’t form a coherent thought. My vocal cords had stopped working. But what would I have said or, in this case, screamed, “Some golden giant, some evil goblin, has stolen Timothy?” It sounded insane, even to me, and I was looking at that self-same goblin. I couldn’t even get out a descent “Monsters!” I had no hope of eloquence. 

Carey frowned. She raised an eyebrow and narrowed her eyes. I stared back at her, trying to communicate danger with my cataleptic face.

“Are you okay?” Carey asked again. No one else seemed to pay either of us any mind. Sal started whistling a merry tune: Frère Jacques.

My head, of its own accord, bobbed up and down. I tried to shake it from side to side but it kept bobbing up and down. Satisfied, Carey turned her attention back to the contract.

I studiously avoided looking at Timothy. I was afraid, at some deep level, of what I would see if I did. I wasn’t sure if I were afraid he would still be some giant golden thing or if I were more afraid he’d look like a normal human again. 

Am I having a psychotic break? I asked myself. I slapped my face to see if that helped. It didn’t. I then banged my head on the table. That didn’t help either, but it felt good, so I did it again.

“Bill!” Carey said. “What are you doing?”

“It’s a big step, buying an inn,” the Timothy-thing interjected smoothly. At least he sounded like Timothy even if he didn’t look like him. Timothy had a clear tenor. His voice now had an extra musical quality to it; a Renaissance recorder accompanied his every word. “Overwhelming. I remember when I first bought the Inn.” He shook his golden head in sympathy. “It’ll pass, Bill.” He smiled at me. “It’s a lot of responsibility. I know.”

I turned my head slightly, looking at him out of the corner of my eye. The golden giant winked at me. I swooned. 

Carey looked at me as Balthazar passed her the final set of mortgage papers to sign, except it wasn’t Balthazar. It was another seven-foot giant, coal black instead of golden. The top of his dark head sprouted long silver hair with purple highlights and the requisite pointed ears. He wore silks and suede. His fingers were heavily jeweled. He smiled at me knowingly, almost smirkingly.

No one else noticed aliens were among us. Everyone around the table acted as if it were business as usual. The sky was blue. The inn was warm and cozy; someone had turned up the heat. It smelled of wood, age and comfort; surely not the setting for monsters.

I certainly didn’t feel any different. Gregg, Johanna, Sal, and Carey didn’t look any different. I wondered what sort of mushrooms were in the mushroom omelet I had for breakfast.

I looked over at Gregg. He was completely oblivious to the fact that fashion rejects from the Lord of the Rings had replaced Timothy and Balthazar. Carey also was ignorant of the change until she signed the last document. As she put down her pen, she turned pale. She looked at me, the beginning of fear in her eyes. 

She blinked her eyes, looked at Timothy, and blinked them some more. She rummaged around in her purse and took out a bottle of eye drops. She tilted her head back and put some in her eyes and then looked at Balthazar and put more in, saline running down her face. She reached for her glass of water, sniffed it, dipped a finger into the water, sniffed her finger and then put it in her mouth. She shook her head, looked at Timothy again, and then looked at me, panic blooming bright behind her dark eyes.

She grabbed at her water glass as if it were a line thrown to her from the good ship RMS Titanic, and downed it in one gulp, holding the now empty glass against her forehead. A tear trickled down her face, mingling with the tracks of saline solution, a wide smile plastered on her mouth. 

Our monstrous guests were trying to smile reassuringly. Their teeth came to points. 

They weren’t ugly, but they weren’t entrancingly beautiful either. Both had rather sharp features. And the two of them were golden and black! Timothy was golden like a bar of gold. Balthazar was black like a lump of coal. “Congratulations, Bill and Carey. You are now the proud owner of the Greenwich Inn,” Gregg held out his fist and I numbly shook it. Carey did the same. “A little overwhelming, huh? It must be some change from high tech and California.” 

You could say that, I thought.

“Big day, huge,” I managed to croak. I wanted to say more but my throat had other ideas.

“And congratulations to you, too, Timothy.” Gregg bumped fists with Timothy. “Great working with you Balthazar. I hope we can work together again sometime.” 

We bumped fists all around. It was a fist bumping convention. I bumped as many fists as I could, some twice and some three times. As long as I had fists to bump, I was going to stand there and bump them. Because as soon as the congratulations stopped, the leaving would begin and when the leaving stopped, we’d be alone with the things.

The ritual of the faux handshaking clamed me. I pulled myself together.

“Well,” beamed Timothy, “let’s celebrate the deal with a drink.” He pulled out a crystal bottle with bright blue liquid in it. It sparkled and swirled with internal light. 

“Homebrew,” he said with pride. “Let’s move this party to the parlor.”

Subjective frost numbed my limbs. I tried again to marshal my wits but Innkeeping for Dummies hadn’t had a chapter on what to do when buying an inn from Thor extras. I had no ready-made plan to rescue my shambolic mind. I looked wildly around the room, searching for an escape route. I was hemmed in by well-meaning faces.

“I can’t stay,” Gregg said, barely glancing at the bottle. “Another time. I have to get back to the office. Normally, we do these signings at the bank, not on site at the property. Work is piling up there without me.” He winked at me. “It was a pleasure.”

“Can’t stay either,” Johanna said brusquely. “I have a house to show in an hour.”

“I hate to bail on you, buddy,” Sal drawled, “but duty calls. Besides, it’s a little early to start drinking.” 

They were all tranquil. Just another real estate sale in the lovely town of Greenwich. Except it wasn’t. 

“But you enjoy,” continued Sal, looking from me to Carey. “It isn’t every day you change your life so completely.” He shook his head in a good-natured way. “From Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to New York innkeepers. You two are amazing.” He chuckled and headed to the door. 

If only he knew just how amazing.

I wanted to run to Sal and beg him to stay but I was frozen in place. I tried to throw myself on the ground and fake a fit, but my knees were locked.

Without further ado, everyone filed out and was gone. Carey and I were left alone with the aliens. 

“You can remove the masks. We can neither get nor transmit the virus. It cannot exist in the Inn. The Inn would not allow it,” said Timothy. He gestured for us to follow him. We walked woodenly out of the office to the front parlor. I shivered and collapsed into a Victorian barrel-backed chair. 

Chapter 3

“You must have some questions?” Timothy said after we were seated comfortably around the coffee table in the downstairs parlor.

“What the fuck are you?” I yelled, my voice once again under my control. I sat on the edge of my seat. Adrenaline pumped through my body. Must protect Carey, flashed through my brain. I ran my fingers through my hair, pulling hard.

“Is your name really Timothy?” Carey asked quietly. “Where do you come from? What have we done?” Carey was the steadier of us two. She was sitting on the love seat, cool and collected. She glanced my way and smiled a glassy, Stepford wife smile. “Are you from another planet? Another solar system? Galaxy? What? What have we done?” This last question, though directed to me, was answered by Timothy.

“Let me answer that last question first. You just bought the oldest and most unique property in the world, in any world, anywhere and anywhen. I come from another place, very different from your world here, and I am now going to retire with a tidy fortune and live out the remainder of my years. Living here at the inn, away from my family, with just my senior wife has been a strain. 

“To answer your first question: No. My name is actually Timoteus,” he said shrugging, “but I use Timothy for convenience in your world. Balthazar suggested it. That’s not his real name, by the way. His real name is Baldr, in honor of the Bearer of Light, the Áss of Spring, but we thought Balthazar sounded more human-y.”

“Frosti Baldr, actually, in honor of my great uncle and our patron Aesir, but I always liked the name Balthazar,” the lawyer interjected, chuckling. His voice was deep and gravely with a sonorous, nasal quality, as if bassoons, cellos and bass viols accompanied him. “I prefer it.”  It was entrancing. “And besides, Balthazar is much better than Frosti.”

“As to what I am,” continued Timoteus, shooting Balthazar a look I knew well, “I was an innkeeper and now am retired, thanks to you two lovely people.” Timoteus smiled at us reassuringly. I wasn’t reassured. 

Balthazar chuckled. Their casual, urbane manner helped to settle my nerves, allowing me to catch my mental breath.

“What is going on here? Are we on candid camera or, what’s the name of that show, Punk’d?” I asked with forced calm. Then I heard what I had just said and relaxed, leaning back in the chair. 

Of course, I thought, folding my hands over my stomach. The gelid waters of insanity receded. I came up for a calm steadying breath and climbed out of the lagoon of madness. I was once again on the dry, warm, white sand beach of reality. I relaxed some more, my shot nerves revived, and a warm, toasty glow filled my belly and heart. I had an answer I could hang my hat on. 

“We’ve been Punk’d! Where’s what’s his face? That guy married to Demi Moore.” I glanced at Carey and looked back at Timoteus and Balthazar. Their costumes were perfect, the illusion complete, though, I thought to myself, a tad overdone. I mean, really, gold? 

The special effects had been professional and seamless. Anyone, I reassured myself, salving my wounded ego, would have been fooled. I was not an easy mark and they had fooled me. I took my metaphorical hat off to them, whoever they were.

That had to be it, I thought, chuckling to myself. Was Carey in on this? Of course, she was. Brava! What a wonderful actress, my oh-so-talented sweetheart! Everyone else must have been in on it as well. I shook my head admiringly.

I felt a warm buzz spread through my body as reuptake terminated adrenaline’s fun ride. Perhaps the oxidization of epinephrine had created too much adrenochrome causing psychotic delusions, aiding and abetting the actors, helping me accept their cosplay as real. No matter. I had a handle on this craziness now. No one was going to catch me asleep at the wheel again. The world made sense once more and I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

I smiled a sly smile at Carey. I’ll get you back, my sweet, I thought at her. She just looked at me, confused, her expression wild. Two could play this game.

“Ashton Kutcher? He’s no longer married to Demi Moore,” Balthazar said. “Kutcher is now married to Mila Kunis. The original Punk’d went off the air though a reboot of the series, hosted by Chance the Rapper, premiered on Quibi.”

“Oh my God,” I said, chuckling, “the fashion reject from the Lord of the Rings knows more about stupid TV shows and Hollywood gossip than I do. This has got to be a prank. You two are actors, right?” I laughed. “Where are the cameras?” I searched the room. I didn’t find any cameras. 

“Where’s the camera?” I said, continuing my fruitless search. I scrutinized every nook and every vase for signs of a miniature camera or lens or even a carefully placed phone. “This has got to be a prank. I don’t know how you managed those special effects but bravo.” I said with rising hysteria,

I started clapping. I kept searching for hardware, cameras, cell phones, anything, stopping periodically to clap. I was waiting, hoping, for someone, a producer, to come and tell me I’d been had. 

“I got it,” I shouted, “we’re on Scare Tactics! You gotta love Netflix.” The expression on the creatures’ faces remained unchanged. 

“The New, New Candid Camera?” I asked more quietly, raising an eyebrow. “The New, New, New Candid Camera? I got it!” I snapped my fingers. “Impractical Jokers!”

A little voice in the back of my head was amazed I wasn’t running around in circles screaming or sitting quietly, gibbering in a corner. The same little voice made me turn my head to look at Carey to see how she was taking it. She just sat bolt upright in her plush, wingback chair, broad smile still in place. My cheeks ached in sympathy.

“Easy, Bill,” Carry said softly through her smile. “You need to calm down.”

“Calm down? We are way beyond calming down. First!” I said, ticking it off on my fingers. “Let’s drop this charade. I’m not buying this load of nonsense and, yes, I have every right to be upset. I was just punked at the closing of our inn by Marvel comic book also-rans. That’s a low, mean, dirty trick. And if Carey isn’t in on this…”

“Me!” said Carey, giving me a dirty look. Her fixed smile disappeared. “If anything, you arranged this, Bill. You’re the trickster, not me. But you’re right, it is a dirty trick.”

“Me?” I replied, hurt. “If I were to punk you, my dear, it would be much more sophisticated. Nothing so ridiculous as golden whatever-they’re-supposed-to-be!” I looked at the two aliens. “And the costumes wouldn’t be so slapdash.”

“Thanks,” drawled Balthazar. Timoteus just sat there, his face blank.

“Calm down, Bill, and let’s let them explain what’s going on,” said Carey using her level business tone. “What is going on?” she asked Timothy.

“Listen to your wife,” Balthazar said. “Be at ease and serene. Nothing to get excited about. And no, this is no prank.”

“Nothing to get excited about? How so? Either I’ve been punked or according to Timothy, whatever his name is, I just bought the world’s oldest inn from a…from a what?” I looked at them. “What the hell are you?”

“We’re elves,” replied Balthazar.

“Elves?” said Carey.

“Elves,” said Timothy.

“Elves?” said Carey again, looking around confused. “Seriously? You don’t look like elves. Where are the green tights?”

“Yes,” insisted Balthazar, “elves.” 

“Where’s the blonde hair?” insisted Carey angrily. “The bows and arrows? The curly toe slippers?”

“…from an elf,” I continued, nodding at Balthazar. 

“Where’s the woods?” babbled Carey. “The swords? What’s with the gold and black skin?”

“And you,” I continued, “the elf’s legal council, Baththazar or Baldr or whatever…”

 “’Balthazar,’ please,” interjected Balthazar and then drawled in a perfect imitation of Bela Lugosi, “I am…Balthazar.” He laughed, ruining the effect.

“…are wondering why I’m shocked, confused and befuddled?” I yelled toward the end of the sentence, I’m now ashamed to admit. Looking back on it, I acted like a country bumpkin, which is exactly what they considered us humans. 

“I must say, for a human, you have a quick and excellent grasp of the situation. It took Tara, my wife, and I days to so thoroughly understand ourposition.” I could not tell if Timothy was being snide, sarcastic or just ladling on the soothing charm. “Let me elucidate and relieve your confusion. You just bought the oldest and most unique property in the whole multiverse.”

“M…multiverse?” I stammered.

“Multiverse?” echoed Carey. 

“Don’t you know the word? I got it from reading some of your entertainment magazines, the ones with colored pictures. I think your juveniles read them mostly. I found them absolutely fascinating. They’re a big import item to the Summerlands, my home world. We love stories, tales, old yarns and sagas. I take the books apart and frame them,” he said in an aside to Balthazar. “Yes, multiverse. Or is universe better? Universe? Omniverse? Many universes together make a multiverse, as I understand it. Though why you need another word for universe, since it means ‘all things’, I do not know. Still, we live in a multiverse,” Timoteus said in one breath. “Or perhaps Omniverse would be a better term.” Timoteus shook his head, muttering to himself, trying out ‘omniverse’ and then ‘multiverse.’

“I know what a multiverse is,” I squeaked. “You mean comic books? Are you talking about comic books?” I asked, still confused. “We live in a universe of universes with different initial conditions, each universe separated by a thin dimensional veil or vast distances, each in their own light cone? That type of thing? Multiple timelines, alternate histories, just like in comic books?!” 

“As I understand it, not timelines per se, though I’m sure we have those somewhere around here,” he said, looking to the corners of the parlor, “but, yes, other universes, all at right angles to each other. Balthazar, can you help? I’m no theorist.”

“I’m a lawyer, Tim, not a multiverse specialist,” he said and gave out a big laugh. “I’ve been wanting to say that for years. I love your TV. Hilarious.” Balthazar chuckled. “Seriously, I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m just a country lawyer, Tim.” He laughed heartily. “Don’t ask me how anything works. It was trying enough figuring out the baroque legal system these humans have concocted. Common law!” He said, spitting it out like a curse. Balthazar harrumphed. “And don’t get me started on their crazy property law.

“Do you know, these humans make a distinction between moveable and immoveable property, personal property and property held in common? Held in common, indeed. And to make matters worse, property held in common is not treated by common law but rather by statutory property laws that is, when not covered by regulatory law. Mama mia!” Balthazar threw up his hands. “And each one of these systems is…”

“You’re not helping, Balthazar,” said Timoteus quietly. He looked at Balthazar sharply. “You took first in your S levels in school. Help me explain to them the nature of the inn, please.” 

“The nature of the inn?” Balthazar said aghast, shaking his head. “I know nothing about the nature of the inn or about, what do they call timelines on Star Trek? Temporal mechanics? I know nozsing! I see nozsing!” He said this last in a fake German accent and laughed. “Sorry, Tim, but all I know about timelines I learned from Star Trek. Seriously. The inn is beyond me.”

“Balthazar loves your show, Star Trek. He watches all the TV he can when he’s visiting here.” 

“I like TV, but I love Youtube,” interjected Balthazar. “And Hulu,” he said as an afterthought. “Not to mention Prime and Netflix.”

Timoteus shook his head. Headshaking passed around the room like a contagion. 

Carey shook hers. I shook mine, foolishly hoping that that would clear it and bring me to a better understanding.

“Star Trek, pure high fantasy and that Kirk…” Balthazar beamed at us, shaking his head. “Now he’d be fun at parties. And Picard.” He sighed. “I’m going to miss them.”

“It’s called science fiction,” I corrected him. “You are the fantasy.”

Balthazar chuckled. “Science, what an interesting concept. And math.” He shook his head with a self-deprecating smile. “There are so many interesting concepts here. I don’t know enough about theoretical sorcery to even hazard a guess how all this,” his gesture encompassed the parlor, “is done. Or what or why it is. I just go with the flow. Kowabunga, baby.”

Go with the flow?Kowabunga? I thought to myself. After Balthazar’s speech, I deserved a meltdown. Here I was sitting with one smack-talking, black-elf shyster who loved, pardon, ‘liked’ old science fiction shows and Youtube and Hulu reruns, and another, I assumed older, more respectable, innkeeping-elf-lord quietly discussing the nature of our universe, excuse me, multiverse.

“We’re getting sidetracked. This is a celebration,” said Timoteus. He grabbed his blue crystal bottle and four cordial glasses and poured us each a libation. “I brewed this myself. It’s called,” his lips move for a moment, silently, “mead, blue liquor.” 

The inside of my brain tickled. I knew I had to choose a translation. I chose “blue liquor.” It certainly didn’t look like any mead, wine or beer. The liquid was blue, and I assumed it was liquor. Timoteus said it again and I heard “blue liquor” dubbed in.

“What’s that?” I asked. “I saw your lips move but nothing came out. Then, afterwards, I heard words, like watching a badly dubbed Japanese horror flick.”

“Yes, it is,” said Timoteus. “The inn is dubbing your life. If you concentrate hard enough, you can hear the actual word I am saying, in this case, a proper noun, as well as the translation the inn provides. You hear a delay while the inn tries to figure out how to render the translation in your reality. The same thing happens with objects. If you start seeing objects flicker, it means the inn is having trouble translating reality. Listen! Concentrate!” Timoteus said the name of the blue liquor again. This time, I heard “Óðins mjǫðr” before I heard ‘blue liquor.’ 

“Did you say, Odin’s mother?” I asked.

“Close enough,” he replied. “It means Odin’s mead. We also call it skáldskapar mjaðarthe mead of poetry.” This time I didn’t hear a translation. “After the Æsir-Vanir War, the gods sealed the truce they had concluded by spitting in a vat. To keep a symbol of this truce, they created from their spittle a very wise man named Kvasir. He traveled the world giving out his knowledge. One day, he visited the dwarfs Fialar and Galar. They killed him and mixed his blood with honey, creating a mead, skáldskapar mjaðar, which made anybody who drank it a poet and scholar. When the Gods confronted Fjalar and Galar, they told them that Kvasir had suffocated in his own intelligence.”

Balthazar snickered and Timoteus smiled, shaking his head.

“And the gods…they believed that?” asked Carey.

“The gods are not noted for their intelligence, especially the Æsir.”

“Æsir? You mean the Norse gods?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Timoteus.

“You sure it’s safe for us to drink?” 

“It’s safe to drink. I mean it’s safe for you two to drink in moderation.” He smiled and gently moved one of the small goblets toward each of us. I carefully reached for the glass, feeling as if I had made a move in a deadly game without concrete rules.

“What is it? I mean, it doesn’t look like any mead I’ve tried. Is it alcoholic? I thought mead was alcoholic.”

“No, gods forbid,” Timoteus said, recoiling at my suggestion.

“Alcohol, another interesting concept you have here.” Balthazar smiled at Carey and me.

Balthazar was very cheery for an elf lord and especially for a lawyer. He lightened the mood in the room.

“Cheers,” Timoteus took a sip of the blue liquor. Carey and Balthazar politely did the same. The blue liquor smelled strongly of new car mixed with garlic. 

“Whoa, woweee,” Carey jumped to her feet, her eyes wide.

“Are you trying to poison us?” I yelled again, standing. I was on edge and not feeling particularly friendly or hospitable to our guests. 

My reaction brought me up sharply. We were no longer the guests in the house. We were the owners, the innkeepers. I was now master here. That, absurdly enough, made me feel better, more in control.

Besides, Timoteus had us in his clutches, and if he had meant any mischief, he could certainly have done us in by now, but he hadn’t. Instead, he had been the perfect guest, a charming man or elf or whatever he was.

“Nothing of the sort,” Timoteus said hurt. He sipped his drink. “This is a fine brew. I painstakingly adjusted the skǫp,” there was a pause, “shape,” another pause, “fate,” and yet another pause, “destiny of a vat of exquisite honey to match that of the original skáldskapar mjaðar, convincing the honey to accept its skǫp. And the result, as you can see, is excellent.”

“No easy task,” said Balthazar, nodding his head in appreciation. Timoteus smiled back at him.

“Excellent? I’ll say. This,” Carey said and took another sip, “this is wonderful. Try some, Bill.” Carey slowly spun around in a circle, waving her arms. She twirled faster and faster, laughing, dancing, leaping, spinning, and then stopped abruptly, a wide smile on her face. The elves politely clapped.

“Is it hallucinogenic?” I asked Timoteus, my were eyes on Carey as she flapped her hands in front of her face, caressing her cheeks and neck. 

“As I said, it’s the mead of poetry. For us, it relaxes, stimulates, and inspires us as coffee does for you.”

“You have got to love coffee,” Balthazar said with a chuckle. “Do you have any handy?”

“Not now, Balthazar,” said Timoteus, glancing at him out of the corner of his eye.

Balthazar nodded, chagrined, but didn’t stop smiling. 

“For humans, it’s a little stronger,” Timoteus finished, looking at Carey.

“Bill, you have got to try this, it’s mind expanding. I can hear colors.” Carey flopped back into her seat.

“You’re stoned, Carey.”

“Not a bit of it. I’m clear headed…I think. It really is mind expanding. I not only can think outside the box, I can see the whole damned box.”

I took a sip with some trepidation. I understood what she meant immediately. The liquor melted like perfume on my tongue. I half snorted it and half drank it. The effect was instantaneous.

It wasn’t hallucinogenic so much as it allowed my consciousness, my soul, to fill all the empty spaces. I didn’t feel drunk or disoriented, just bigger and faster, though not smarter. I was one with, well, perhaps not the universe, but at least with the room and my fellow beings. This was better than being drunk or stoned or any other drug I could think of. It was more like puppy love, joyful happiness, and a philosophy course all rolled up in a bottle of swirling, sparkling blue liquor.

A pressure built up inside me and begged to be released. It forced its way up my throat, raced along my tongue and pried open my teeth; I shot to my feet and declaimed, my eyes on the heavens:

“Hearing I ask                   from the holy races,

From Heimdalls sons,             both high and low;

Thou wilt, Valfather,            that well I relate

Old tales I remember             of men long ago.

“I remember yet                  the giants of yore,

Who gave me bread                in the days gone by;

Nine worlds I knew,              the nine in the Tree

With mighty roots                beneath the mold.”

Under the tutelage of the blue liquor, my shattered world reformed. The pieces fell back into place, each according to its kind, forming a new mosaic that I hesitantly called reality. 

On the other hand, it could have been just one more strange thing, one more odd event, one last, overwhelming experience that broke the camel’s back, or rather, my back. Paradoxically, rather than driving me over the edge to insanity, or at least to a civilized mental breakdown, it calmed me. I don’t know if it was the blue liquor or if my mind had simply had its fill of weirdness, but I sank back down into my chair and crossed my legs as reality congealed around me.

“That was some speech,” Carey said, smiling.

“That’s the general idea,” Balthazar said. He laughed and clapped his hands. “By Oðinn, I think they’ve got it.”

“This is going to take some getting used to,” I told Carey, leaning toward her. She giggled. I gazed at her languidly for a few seconds. Then purpose surged through me anew.

“We’ve gotten seriously sidetracked,” I said, unconsciously mimicking Timoteus. “I can’t believe I let myself get off track.”

“What track would that be?” asked Balthazar.

“What the hell is going on here?” I asked him. “I want some answers.”

“I think Tim is trying to sell you his wonderful…” Balthazar’s mouth kept moving, “blue liquor. He’s quite an expert brewer and this is a fine, fine specimen. Top shelf.” Balthazar smacked his lips and took another sip. “Exquisite.” He pushed his glass at Timoteus for a refill.

“I am trying to create a mutually beneficial relationship. This bottle is your house- or rather inn-warming present. If you want more, just go over to the sideboard, open the door, put in say, an ounce of silver, close the door and while holding onto the handle, think, ‘I want more blue liquor, Timoteus.’ When you open the door, there’ll be another bottle for you. How does that sound?”

“Confusing,” I answered truthfully. 

“You’ll get used to it. Perhaps we can work out a deal.” He paused for another sip. 

“But what are we supposed to do?” I asked him. “Why us? Why any of this?”

“This is not what we expected,” Carey said at the same time, summing up my thoughts nicely.

Be innkeepers and keep the inn!” Timoteus said to me. Turning to Carey, he continued, “Life, my dear, is never what one expects, but it is almost always better than the alternative.

“Though I’d like to stay and chat,” his expression said the opposite, “I have not been home since Tara passed away these one hundred years ago.”

“Has it been that long, old friend?” Balthazar asked gently. He drank down his refilled glass and sighed.

“It feels like an eon, Balthazar. It also feels like yesterday. I miss her so.” Timoteus looked morose, then he shook himself and said, “So long, Bill, Carey. Enjoy running the inn.”

And with those last words, the two elves stood, bowed and walked over to the office, opened the door and stepped inside, closing the door behind them. We waited for them to come back out, but they didn’t. Carey and I searched the office. We searched the rest of the house. We didn’t find them. They were gone.

“I thought he would, at least, have given us the grand tour,” I told Carey.

“Well,” she said and took a sip from her glass, “we have his card and can always call him.”

“That, I think, will be one hell of a toll call.”

The Adventure is just beginning. To read the next chapter please click here.