By Jaap-Peter Hazelhoff
Chapter 24 - Folds in the Land
Sword Coast, East of Nashkel, 1371 DR, Eleint, 9th day, the morning hours
As the drizzle continues to fall and soak him to his bones, Nik’s mood does not improve. ‘That arrogant caravan master didn’t need some vagabond bard… The man probably couldn’t distinguish between his left and right hand, let alone appreciate the skills of a true troubadour. No… better go on foot. Nikolai Estoba Winterborne III would not waste his skills on uncultured barbarians like that. But being all alone on the road somewhere east of Nashkel in the middle of… of… well in the middle of someplace, with this cold and wet weather isn’t really motivating either for a musician. Greenrest, Scornubel, Iriaebor or Berdusk… hmm, hopefully another caravan will travel this way.’
Trough the curtain of fine droplets from the sky and the bigger ones falling from his hair, Nik spots a group of boulders under a giant solitary pine tree. Under the boughs of that tree, it seems to be dry. At least dryer then it is on the road.
Narrow shoulders hunched and shivering with cold, Nik sighs expansively. “Here’s hoping there aren’t any snakes or spiders or long-legged beasties waiting in that tiny oasis of rainlessness.“ He muses, his deep baritone voice swallowed by the rain. “If there are, they’d better be willing to share it with the likes of me!“ Striding over to the tree, he pauses before the first rock. His voice booms out as he calls “Ahoy, the tree! One, requesting permission to come aboard!“ With a chuckle at his own odd behavior, he climbs awkwardly up under the tree. Patting the slightly less waterlogged boulder he perches on, he pulls his long legs up and tries to make himself comfortable, saying “Ah, mighty granite. A fitting throne for a king.“ Peering up at the tree he adds “Ah, mighty… ehm… what ever it is you are. A fitting roof for a… “
He sighs dejectedly, curling into a miserable ball, head resting on his drawn-up knees, arms crossed around his shins. “Aw, hells.“ He groans, his low, expressive voice almost melodramatically depressed. “Who am I kidding? Here I sit, on a rock, under a tree, in the RAIN. Talking to myself, again, like some half-wit, although I must admit I DO provide the best conversation I’ve had in months.“ He sighs again. “I should have stayed in Nashkel, even if it meant washing dishes again.“ Holding up a water-wrinkled hand he grins bitterly “At least the rest of me would be dry.“ Wiping at the rain on his face he perches on his rock like a waterlogged vulture, peering into the drizzle in hopes that there might be a coach, or better yet, a caravan along. Anything that might have a dry place that he could beg, borrow or work his way into. His gaunt face settles into a look of weary resignation, water dripping off his beaky nose. “Any time now.“ He mutters bitterly. “You can stop raining any time now. Of course, then I’ll still be wet for hours… “
He is silent for only a few long moments. “Come on, Tymora.“ He says, craning his head to look up into the sky, the pleading in his deep, beautiful voice almost comic. “Give me a smile, eh?“ A raindrop lands in his eye, and he drops his head to his knees again, cursing with astonishing creativity as he rubs at his eye with one hand. Sting in his eye subdued, he grumbles – voice thick with sarcasm. “Actually, Tymora, if you’re too busy to spend a little time on poor little me, could you at least ask your lovely sister Beshaba to stop hovering over me? I think I’ve had more than my share of her attentions in my life.“
Muttering to himself every few moments, as if he can’t bear the depressing patter of the rain, Nik waits.
Not before long though, Nik has the feeling he is being watched. The feeling is not threatening; it is as if someone, or something, is watching him curiously.
As Nik senses he’s being watched, a momentary flicker of terror crosses his face. Curling up tighter on the rock, he glances around himself, fear plain in his jerky, hasty movements. When nothing leaps out to eat or rob him, Nik heaves a shaky sigh and wipes at the fear-sweat mingling with the rain on his face.
Initial panic over, he realizes belatedly that there seems to be no threat in the watcher. Unfolding to his impressive, gangling height, he peers into the rain, right hand raised to shield his eyes from the drizzle. Turning slowly in an attempt to spot his admirer, he calls out “Hullo, there! It’s somewhat dry here under this tree, and there’s room for both of us.“
A sudden rueful grin twists his lips and he adds, “Well, alright, it’s not really dry at all under this tree, as a matter of fact. Is it dry where you are? If so, maybe you’d find it in your heart to make room for me. I seem to be well on my way to becoming liquid. My name is Andreus Nikolai Estoba Winterborne the Third, but you won’t have heard of me. You can call me Nik. Everyone else does.“
Having introduced himself, he offers a hopeful – and rather desperate – smile to the world at large. Narrow shoulders hunched in his habitual stoop, water dripping from his upraised hand, hawkish nose and sodden clothes, he looks utterly bedraggled and pathetic.
On one of the lower branches of the pine tree the air seems to shimmer for a moment before revealing a tiny creature. The creature – appearing to a miniature humanoid – regards Nik with large eyes, making the little figure look like some sort of insect. Though whether that’s a trick of the eyes or not, Nik can’t tell. In it’s left hand it carries a large leaf, which it uses as an umbrella. “It’s dry up here.“ The words are spoken nonchalantly in common, but have a strange, almost sylvan accent to them. With a comical expression on it’s face, the creature shifts a little bit on the branch as if making place for Nik, though the branch is certainly to small and thin to even bear a fraction of Nik’s weight.
The little creature offends most eyes with the color combinations it wears, bright yellow trousers and a purple and green tunic, and a red hat with a white fluffy feather on top of its head. Sticking out of one of the tunic’s pockets is a tiny silvery flute.
Nik tenses as the little creature appears out of thin air, fully prepared to run for his life. When the curious being speaks kindly to him, Nik relaxes, a sheepish expression on his long and bony face. “Well, hello!“ He says cheerfully, recovering his composure and grinning hugely. He sweeps a dramatic bow, managing through long practice to bow formally without either losing the backpack dangling over only one shoulder or whacking his arm on the neck of the leather-covered Yarting slung across his back. “Greetings, salutations and felicitations on this… ehm…“ His smile becomes apologetic and he finishes in a more subdued tone “On this dismal, rainy day.“
“I see you brighten the dreariness considerably.“ He adds with a wink, “I like a touch of color as well, in spite of my current drab attire.“ He pulls at the tail of the sodden scarf wrapped around his neck, a dangling bright slash of color against the drab brown of his shirt. Weather, wear and sweat have not yet ruined the silk scarf, but they are taking their toll. The delicate patterns of blue and red are blurred to muddy purple in places, and in others the sun has faded the colors to a dull gray and orange. The ragged, unmatched patches on his cloak are the only other spot of color in his mainly monochrome wardrobe, but unlike the scarf there was no skill in their making. It looks like he simply patches his threadbare cloak with whatever color and type of fabric happens to be around when he discovers a hole.
“So.“ He continues, the genial grin still on his face. “I’m just passing though, on my way to where ever my feet take me. And how about yourself? Do you live around here, or are you traveling as well? I see your flute. Are you also a lover of music? I have some small skill myself.“
With a friendly creature to talk to, Nik begins to relax. The rabbit-like timidity that has long been his only survival skill fades, as it always does when he’s in company. Eager for conversation, Nik awaits his new companion’s replies.
“Musician I am not.“ The little creature replies. “But the music helps me travel. The right tune you play, and before you know it further along wherever you want to go you are.“ Crossing its legs, the creature plucks the tiny flute out of its pocket in a blur of motion and plays a little merry but haunting tune. Involuntarily Nik’s feet tap to the beat of the tune. As quickly as the little fellow retrieved its flute, it puts it back in the pocket.
From the corner of his eyes Nik thought he saw movement, but when he looks, nothing can be seen but the rocks and the rain beyond. With its head cocked to one side, the little creature looks at Nik. “Let’s hear your tune then. Mayhaps the right tune for travel it is.“
An involuntary shiver of fear shakes Nik’s gaunt frame as he catches the blur of movement, but he silently chides himself for being paranoid. Smiling at the little musician, Nik says, “Music does make the miles pass, doesn’t it? Sadly, it’s too wet for Julia, here.“ He pats the Yarting slung across his back, securely covered against the rigors of travel. “All this water will ruin the strings and may even warp the frets or soundboard. I myself have a flute, but I’m more of a noodler than an artist like yourself.“
He pulls his own slightly battered flute from its place beside the belt pouch on his right hip and plays a few scales to limber up his fingers. Clearing his throat, he rocks back slightly on his heels and closes his eyes. Long fingers dancing on the tarnished silver flute, Nik plays a beautiful, melancholy, bittersweet melody, using the steady patter of the rain as an accompaniment. It is a sad tune that speaks of longing, loss and things left unsaid and undone. When the last note dies away, Nik opens his eyes and for a long moment they are weary and sad. His worn face seems even more haggard and his narrow shoulders slump as he lowers the flute slowly. A deep sigh shakes him and he closes his eyes again, chin sinking to his chest.
Then he blinks, and remembers where he is. He straightens up suddenly and coughs, embarrassed. “I’m not sure what made me chose that song.“ He says, with a sheepish grin. “It must be the rain.“ His smile broadens with forced cheer, but there is still a shadow dulling his greenish-brown eyes. “I hate the rain. Let me play something more spirited.“ Raising the flute to his lips again, he plays a jaunty, cheerful tune; it is the music to a popular and ribald ballad and is jarringly at odds with the almost mournful piece he just finished.
“I really am better with Julia.“ He says as he lowers the flute once again, his deep voice slightly apologetic. “And I really do hate the rain.“
“Taking you far such music would.“ The small creature unfolds a pair of delicate wings and flies down to perch on the rock next to Nik. “Music is in the hart it is. No matter the instrument.“ The little creature folds its wings and makes a quick flip-flop backwards. “Play some more you would, and travel far you will.“ With a large grin on its small face the creature regards Nik, making a couple of quick dancing steps.
The shadow of remembered regrets lifts from Nik’s eyes, and he smiles at the tiny being. “I agree. Music IS in the heart. And I should play something to brighten our hearts on this dreary day, not something I wrote to remind me of the path I had not taken or some pointless tavern-fare.“ An almost manic grin lightens his careworn face and he winks to his small companion and raises the flute to his lips again. “Let’s have some traveling music, shall we?“
Closing his eyes again, one foot tapping out the time, Nik plays a boisterous, rousing tune. His bony fingers flash on the worn flute, and his gangly frame sways slightly in time with the music. It is obvious that this time he is playing simply for the joy of the music.
“See, travel far you will.“ The tiny creature says, just as the earlier shimmering Nik saw reappears.
A large creature, vaguely humanoid comes slowly into view, swaying slightly on the music. The creature vaguely reminds Nik of stories he has heard on earth elementals, yet this creature is more than primal earth. In part it resembles a mound of humus and small shrubs, as well as glistening rocks. In a deep booming voice it addresses Nik.
Gaping at the creature before him, Nik is too awed to be afraid. He looks comical with his mouth hanging open and his flute dangling from nerveless fingers.
At first the words sound strange, then Nik realizes it is talking in a form of Sylvan. “Good music travels well and far. If you want to pass, you may.“ Gesturing with an arm-like appendage, the creature points at the base of the group of rocks. Between two rocks the air seems to liquefy and appear like a mirror.
Yet it is no mirror, the surroundings are not reflected. The view in the mirror-like surface is of a different landscape. It shows a hillside near a large forest. On a ridge Nik sees a lone figure sitting on a splendid white horse. On the ground next to the horse lies a dog, its head peacefully resting on its paws. The rider and the animals seem to bask in the rays of early sunshine.
“Wow“ Nik gasps, his eyes like saucers at this amazing feat. He swallows nervously, looks from the magical passage to the elemental and says again “Wow.“
Finally regaining some composure, he bows deeply to the elemental and to the tiny man and says in his best Sylvan “I thank you both for your kind assistance. I am both flattered and humbled that you feel that my music is worth such a fine reward. If our paths cross again, and may Shaundakul grant they do, I will gladly play for you again, and for no other reward than the pleasure of your company.“
The large creature bows its head and gestures once more to the portal.
Nik smiles gratefully, and adds, “I have no wish to hastily depart your excellent company, but I shall not impose upon your skills in keeping such a fabulous portal open.“ He bows again to both of them, his smile widening. “I owe you both for saving me from a miserable slog in the rain. May all the kind and benevolent gods watch over you. And remember, Andreus Nikolai Estoba Winterborne the Third is always at your service!“
He gives them both a mischievous wink and adds “But you’d better just ask for Nik. It’s easier to remember.“
With that said he replaces his flute in his pouch, hikes his backpack up more securely onto the one shoulder it dangles from, squares his shoulders and marches into the unknown. Just before he steps into it he says softly “Ah, and it’s DRY there…“
Stepping through the portal, Nik feels a tiny tug on his backpack, but is able to continue unhindered. When he emerges on the other side, he sees the person on the white horse riding down the slope towards the forest, chasing the dog. Near them, a woman is riding another white horse; she is also riding towards the forest. Behind her a man and a woman are mounting their horses, both of them intent on the edge of the forest.
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