By Jaap-Peter Hazelhoff
Chapter 28 - A pleasant Surprise
Not far from Berdusk, 1371 DR, Eleint, 9th day, the morning hours
Nik arrives at the other guards on top of the rise in no time. The quick hike up the land rise even warmed him up somewhat. “Guess you’ll be the only one coming back with us.“ One of the guards asks in what sounds more like a statement. “I’m Sergeant Ashcroft, I’ll make sure you’ll get in Berdusk in one piece saer.“
The walk has done more than warm the tall man up. It has also let him burn off some of the frustration and nervous tension that have been plaguing him all morning. He smiles happily at the sergeant, giving the man a slight bow. “I’m Nik. And I’m very grateful to you and your men for the escort to town.“ He rubs his hands together to warm them, and adds, “I’m ready to go when ever you are.“ He glances back at his new friends preparing to enter the woods, concern lining his gaunt face. He watches them for only a moment then turns back to the sergeant, his face once again cheerful. “I hope you don’t mind if I don’t ride. I’m not very good with horses. It’s not far to town, is it?“
The sergeant blinks a few times, an incredulous look on the man’s face, “Ehm… good saer, ye plan to walk all the way to town?“ He scratches his head, shoving his helmet in a comical tilted position. “It’s gonna slow us down, and it’ll take ye a good part of the afternoon… Are ye really sure ye wanna walk?“ Evidently the notion of walking to town has the sergeant slip into his dialect. ‘Baldur’s Gate, or close to there…’ is what Nik thinks he recognizes. Picking up some murmuring from the other men, the tall bard picks up a few words and half sentences, “…daft he is… with winter coming… all the way… scrawny type… if he’d sing…“ Glancing toward the sky, Nik does notice that the clouds seem to get closer and closer.
Nik swallows nervously, tugging at the scarf again. The fear is back in his eyes, but with visible effort he musters his meager courage and says, “I had no idea we were so far from town.“ His voice is a bit strained, and he swallows again and clears his throat before continuing “That, ehm, changes things, doesn’t it?“ He attempts a casual smile, but it comes out looking forced and somewhat pathetic.
He tries to ignore the half-heard comments from the men, but the one about him singing strikes home – and certainly not in the way the man intended. Nik flinches, his eyes wild, Nik mutters bitterly under his breath “Oh, right. And it was my music that got me here in the first place!“
Nik shudders suddenly, torn between his terrible fear of horses and the horrible thoughts of how a spell-song might misfire on him. Between his current unsettled state of mind, the horrible luck he’s had lately and the possible presence of the music-loving faerie that are able to open portals to places hundreds of miles away – Nik is afraid to attempt even the simplest magic. But that means riding to Berdusk…
Realizing that he is about to suffer a panic attack in front of yet another group of strangers, Nik clenches his teeth, controlling his fear with an almost physical effort. He looks back at the sergeant, trying to keep the fear out of his posture and voice. “So.“ He forces himself to say, “Whom do I ride with?“
“You can ride with me saer.“ The sergeant says. “Just put your left foot on the stirrup…“ The sergeant lifts his own foot out of the stirrup, “…grab my hand, and swing your leg over the horse’s rear. Once seated you can hold on to me.“
Once the tall bard is seated, the Sergeant signals his men to ride. A sigh of relief seems to go through the men as they spur their horses into action again. It’s a panicky moment for Nik when the sergeant urges his horse forward, but once moving, it doesn’t feel too bad to the scared man.
As they get underway, a strangled whimper comes from the terrified bard – the first sound he has made since he told the sergeant he would in fact ride. His eyes squeezed tightly closed, he looks like a man about to be thrown from a high cliff. After he survives the first few moments, he loosens his death-grip on the man in front of him to a merely uncomfortable pressure. He doesn’t open his eyes, however.
For a long while the journey continues with Nik silently sitting behind the Sergeant. The talk of the other guards mostly passes him without picking it up. Though he does capture the general trend; they are all muttering about the coming winter. The journey is uneventful, though the countryside is not bad to look at, with his eyes closed, Nik misses out on the scenery. Then after an agonizing long period for the bard, the horse stops.
“Are we there?“ Nik mutters through his clenched teeth. “Tell me we’re there.“ He opens one eye a slit and peeks around.
Much to the bard’s surprise, he sees the thick walls of a city, and a large gate leading into it. A cobblestone street slopes upward on a hill, on which a proud castle stands. Houses line the street on both sides, and large, bare, trees are visible near the castle, its spires rising defiantly against the approaching dark clouds. ‘This must be Berdusk, civilization at last’.
“Yes saer, fair Berdusk. Jewel of the Vale as some call it. To me it’s just home.“ The Sergeant replies, relief to be back before the snow penetrates the man’s voice subtly. “Now, where did you want to go to again?“
The terror leaves the bard’s face, replaced by a thankful smile. He sighs happily, and seems almost to have forgotten his fear of horses in his relief to find himself safely in the city. “I am to meet my new friends at the Running Stag.“ He says, wiping the fear-sweat from his gaunt face. “But I think I would like to find a tailor’s shop first. I need to find myself some more presentable clothes.“ He offers the sergeant a sheepish smile. “You don’t have to ferry me about, however. If you just want to point me in the right direction, I can find my way. I’m much more at home in the city than I am in the wilderness.“
“A tailor’s shop?“ The Sergeant quirks an eyebrow looking over his shoulder at Nik, “Hah, you should have stayed with Saer Ashgale then, he works for one of the largest cloth merchants in the Vale.“
“And for the Running Stag. Do you see that large building over there, up the hill, at the very end of Reaching Woods Street?“ The Sergeant points in the direction the road leads. “Aye, that’s the Stag. As for tailors, there’s a couple of decent tailor shops down Steelspur Street. Just before ye hit the Stag, turn left.“ After helping the tall bard down to his own feet, the Sergeant signals his men to be ready. “Till swords part Saer, and I hope I’ll be able to enjoy one of yer performances sometime.“ Giving a quick salute, the Sergeant wheels his horse about and rides of with his men. The patrol rides away, parallel to the walls, remaining outside the city.
As Nik turns around looking through the streets, the sun momentarily breaks partially through the clouds, sending rays of light and lining the dark clouds with a golden trim.
“You have my eternal thanks!“ The bard calls to the sergeant, his deep voice strong and smooth once again. “And if you truly wish to hear me play, I’m sure I’ll be playing in the common room of the Stag.“ Grinning happily into the momentary flash of sunlight, he murmurs to himself “Ah, this is more like it!“ Whistling tunelessly between his teeth he strides off up the street, totally at home in the crowd. He pauses in front of the Stag, then decides that he is in fact too disreputable looking to go in now and heads to the tailor shops the kind sergeant had mentioned. Choosing one that looks like it has a good selection without being too fancy, he enters the shop in search of more suitable clothing.
It takes a while, but Nik is able to find something to his taste and for a reasonable price, only 20 silvers. Feeling better dressed, the tall bard returns to the collection of buildings that makes up ‘The Running Stag’ inn. A wooden sign with a painted running stag hangs out from the wall, next to the door. Two decorative lanterns are mounted on both sides of the door. The sign, written in Chondathan reads:
Underneath, someone has scrawled:
Opening the door, it is as if Nik steps into an autumn forest bathed in soft sunlight. Sturdy, vine wrapped tree trunks seem to hold the roof, which is obscured by thick multicolored foliage overhead. A small rock formation is located in the center, a tinkling spring cascades from it into a small pond. At the far end, a hearth is burning, providing comfortable warmth. Logs and natural wood constructions function as chairs and tables. Several patrons can be seen, some of them clearly city folk, others would not seem out of place in the middle of a normal forest. A curly redheaded serving girl, holding a tray with foaming mugs of ale, walks by the door and glances at Nik. “Welcome saer, please make yourself comfortable. I’ll be right with you.“ And she moves over to a table, swerving lightly around a few patting hands.
Smiling in satisfaction at the civilized (yet comfortably rustic) surroundings, Nik straightens up to his full, gangling height and sighs happily. Rubbing his knuckles self-consciously over the stubble on his harsh jaw, he heads to the toilet for a quick shave and works the worst of the tangles out of his shabby mane of hair with his fingers. Once his hair looks less like a rat’s nest, he pulls it back into a long tail and ties it with a short leather thong. Then he heads back into the common room and finds himself a seat at an unoccupied table, setting his still-covered guitar on the table in front of him, one hand resting on it possessively. His backpack sits between his feet under the table.
When the serving girl makes her way back over to him, he gives her a bright and charming smile. “Pleasant day to you.“ He says, his deep, mellow voice cheerful. “I would like a glass of red wine to start – not too sweet, if possible – and whatever dish you would suggest for a hungry traveler. And, as you can see, I am a musician.“ He pats the instrument affectionately. “I wonder if the owner might wish to have some music in this lovely place? I am a journeyman bard from Foclucan College in Silverymoon, and I really am quite good. Do you suppose I might speak to the owner, after I eat, perhaps?“ With a twitch of one long-fingered hand he makes a single silver coin appear seemingly from nowhere, then sets it to dance across the bony knuckles of his left hand. Tossing it up in the air then catching it nimbly, he opens his hand to show an empty palm. “Oh!“ He says, with almost comic surprise. “Where did it go? Ah, there it is…“ He reaches up to the serving girl’s ear and shows her the coin now in his fingers. With an open and honest smile, he drops the coin into her hand and says “Consider that a pre-meal tip.“
Giggling and with color flushing to her cheeks the girl moves way to fetch Nik a drink. After returning with a cup of wine, she introduces herself as Elisa and explains that the Stag doesn’t serve meals except for cheese and hot buttered biscuits. However a meal can be arranged. It will be brought from ‘The Red Lion’, an establishment nearby with which the Stag has a good relationship. The Inn’s proprietor is pleased to have a bard from Silverymoon as his guest and he is willing to pay a reasonable fee if Nik wants to entertain the guests. The drinks are on the house of course.
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