Campaign Logs

Twilight Dawn

By Jaap-Peter Hazelhoff

Chapter 52 - A Meeting of Songs

Berdusk, 1371 DR, Eleint, 10th day, morning

While Marc and Nik are away Ditalidas and Emlyn go over the papers once more hoping the symbols and characters will make some sense. Frustration is visible on their faces when Nik returns to the table. Emlyn folds the papers and hands them to Ditalidas. “No use in fretting more over these, we’ll have to trust in the priests to help us.“ The halfling woman says. Ditalidas nods and takes the papers, putting them away. “I agree. The sooner we get there, the sooner we might now what secrets they hold. I must admit, I’m terribly curious.“

For a brief moment conversation dies down at the table, when Ditalidas straightens in her chair and smiles at Nik and Emlyn. “Both of you are new to this town and haven’t had the opportunity to learn more. While we wait for Marc to return and the carriage to arrive I will tell something about this fair city.“

To an attentive audience Ditalidas talks about the city. Remembering details about its past from stories told to her by her father, she shares this with her new friends, though she can tell more about current day Berdusk, its landmarks and its people. She has barely finished when the outer door opens and Marc walks in, a trail of water indicating where he just walked. When he’s near the table his friends can see he’s really soaking wet, there hardly seems to be a dry thread on his body and water is pouring from his hair.

Marc shivers and smiles broadly at Ditalidas, “Ditalidas? The coach will be here any time now.“ Marc looks proud and satisfied as he – still pouring – takes a step to the table, pets his dog and finishes his mug of stout. Just mere moments after Marc has put his now empty mug the rattle of iron shod wheels on cobblestones can be heard just outside the inn. The sounds come to a stop and a few heartbeats later, a man wearing a tunic very familiar to Ditalidas enters. Upon seeing his mistress and her friends at the table, the man walks over and bows to the young lady Jalarghar, “Milady, you carriage is ready.“

Ditalidas looks at Marc and his wet clothes. Slowly she shakes her head. She sighs and is about to say something about it when the familiar man walks in. She answers the man with a nod. “Thank you Theskul. We’ll be right there.“ Ditalidas turns back to Marc. “I thought I had told you to send one of the boys. Look at you! You’re soaked!“ She shakes her head again. “You better change in something dry. I don’t want you to catch a cold or something worse.“ Again she shakes her head. It’s clear that she’s not angry but there’s disappointment in her eyes with flashes of worry for his health. She is about to turn away when she remembers something. “Do you still have the ring?“

Marc mumbles something at Ditalidas’ remark on his appearance and looks dismayed at the floor. At her question about the ring Marc nods enthusiastically and stretches his left arm, showing his clenched fist to the lady. He straightens his fingers revealing the ring, which he hands to the lady. Then he turns and swiftly runs to Elisa, asking her for his washed and repaired clothing.

After Marc has returned, quickly changing into his old clothes that have been repaired and washed, the four friends follow the man to the carriage, and using a large canopy stretched between the carriage and the inn they enter the four wheeled contraption dry. A quick ride takes them to the complex of buildings known as Twilight Hall.

The bard’s craggy face hadn’t shown the relief that was bright in his eyes when he returned from his room to find his precious guitar safe with the others. Oddly, the normally talkative man took his guitar back without a word and sat in silence throughout the carriage ride, looking pensive. Lost in thought, he doesn’t answer any questions or even seem aware of his new friends at all.

Emlyn’s brown eyes widen as soon as she sees how she is expected to ride in a carriage. Since she is riding with a noblewoman, however, she doesn’t protest, though she looks a bit uncomfortable being transported instead of walking or riding by herself. After a while she settles down and enjoys the ride, looking through the curtain of steady rain.

Entering the carriage Marc makes sure the other Marc, holding the horses, sees him. Once inside he’s impressed; for a few breaths he stands in the door-opening, gazing at the wealth this vehicle indicates: the craftsmanship of the interior, the attention given to the smooth curves in the wood, the details of the carvings, the material and softness of the cushions and seats. Still impressed he sits down – after a little stumbling to get his sword right – and looks through the window, softly humming a sweet melody. From time to time he peeks at the faces of his companions, who, in turn, might see happiness in his big brown sad eyes. When they come past Jalarghar Spires his eyes light up and he nods friendly at the guards.

The humming evolves to a softly sung – nearly whispered – ancient song, which is used in his homeland to focus on his deity: “See me, Feel me, Touch me, Heal me.“ Suddenly Marc frowns, stops humming and looks down in wonder at the seat beneath him. A blush is visible as his eyes quickly jump from one to another, checking whether anyone noticed and what they would think of it. “I… ehm…“ He softly utters but then the carriage stops and in the hustle during their disembarking the event seems to be forgotten, but not by Marc.

The driver helps everyone dismount and assures he will wait for them to return. Ditalidas, Marc, Nik and Emlyn are about to climb the steps to the. Nik walks from the coach like a man sleep-walking, hardly seeming to notice the chill rain soaking through his threadbare, poorly patched cloak.

“Well, look who’s here!“ From out of the sparse crowd near the steps to Twilight Hall comes a jovial and musical voice. “If that isn’t Nik.“ A man wearing flashy yet stylish clothes under a drab cloak against the rain makes his way towards the surprised bard. A narrow face that hints of elvish blood sports a blond goatee and a warm smile. While speaking the man gestures like an experienced entertainer illustrating his words. “Heya old fella. Fancy meeting you here in the Jewel of the Vale.“ In a flamboyant gesture the man spreads his arms as if to encompass the entire city. “The last time I saw you, was in the Gutters of Splendors up North.“ Sketching an artful bow, the man extends a well manicured hand towards Nik.

Ditalidas glances sideways to the stranger. Quickly she looks up at the building and at the gray sky that’s still pouring rain. She grumbles an inaudible curse, ignores the stranger and walks up the stairs till she reaches a dry spot.

The other bard’s recognition of him snaps Nik from his reverie. As the man calls his name, Nik flinches and whirls around, terror replacing the pensiveness on his haggard face. His tall body hunches, cringing as if he fully expects violence to follow identification of his all-too-distinctive form. The fear sharp in his face vanishes as soon as it appears, replaced by Nik’s facade of slightly-aloof dignity, but the fear lingers in his shadowed eyes. The tall, gaunt bard quickly straightens up from his defensive pose, but a careful eye would see he looks as if he might bolt at the slightest hint of aggression from the other man.

With a cheerful smile that almost covers up the tension in his gangly form, Nik takes the other man’s offered hand and shakes it. “Well, hello there!“ He says brightly. “Fancy meeting you here!“ With a sarcastic grin and vague wave at the cold rain soaking them he adds “I thought I’d come south for the winter. You know, get away from the cold, dreary north and enjoy the delightful weather of the southerly environs.“ As he talks Nik’s eyes – still wary and distrustful in spite of his friendly expression and banter – search the other man, both for hostile intent and to jar Nik’s memory as to who this fellow is.

As they exit the vehicle Emlyn looks at the building, a little confused, and smiles as she sees Nik meeting with someone who is ‘obviously’ an old acquaintance. “Um, I thought the Harpers were, well, some sort of ‘secret’ organization.“ She mouths to the person closest to her, either Marc or Ditalidas. “But this really ‘is’ a headquarters… is this fair city the only one with such a building in all of the north?“

As Marc steps – and Friend jumps – out of the carriage he doesn’t immediately walk up the stairs, but gazes up at the walls of Deneir’s Temple, impressed again. Soon he’s distracted, by the meeting between Nik and this newcomer, which event he carefully observes.

Then a female voice sounds from below him, so it seems. Marc looks down and sees the friendly brown eyes of the halfling warrior. He smiles at her question and answers: “Well, dear…“ Marc shrugs, “I wouldn’t know… but I’ve been in Berdusk for months now and this building has been here all this time… So I think it’s no secret after all.“ Marc looks at Ditalidas to check whether his conclusion is right.

Turning Ditalidas looks from the stranger to Nik and back. Narrowing her eyes she studies Nik’s behavior and casts a suspicious glance towards the stranger. Then she’s distracted by Emlyn’s question. “There is no other headquarter that I know of. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.“

The steps leading up to the Inner Chamber, the actual name of the complex though, it is more often referred to as Twilight Hall, the apparently not so secret base of the Harpers, are never empty; a variety of folk come to visit the priests of Deneir for their aid in identifying images or texts. The actual temple is only one of a complex of interconnected, low stone buildings, all of which are plain but carved to form a series of beautiful sweeping curves. The temple proper is not easily recognized by the casual visitor, as Ditalidas has pointed out during the ride in the carriage, the temple is the only building whose turrets are not adorned with a royal blue, star-shot banner. Enclosing the entire complex is a low, stone wall. The courtyards of trees, grass, moss, and rock garden plantings that girdle the complex within the wall provides a nice relaxing ground where several benches allow visitors to study texts in the open or enjoy the view of the castle and the city.

The other bard slaps Nik playfully on his shoulder. With a hearty laugh he says, “Still your good sense of humor I see.“ Leading Nik up the steps towards the shelter of the temple and the adjacent buildings he continues, “You picked the right place to come. Though Silverymoon is currently in ‘vogue’ with our esteemed colleagues, the real artists still congregate here in the Jewel of the Vale.“ With a grand gesture he turns a full 360 degrees, “Where else can one be so close to where stories are generated with every breath; Berdusk, capital of gossip, metropolis of meddlers and fools according to our ‘friends’ in Darkhold. Hah!“

Nik winces as the other bard gives him a friendly slap on the shoulder, rubbing at the point of impact and scowling. He follows the other man out of the rain, but hesitates when he mentions Silverymoon. For a brief moment the tall bard’s face is filled with loss and longing, then his eyes turn bitter and he shakes his head angrily, muttering darkly “Silverymoon. Nothing there for the likes of me.“

Stalking after the other bard, Nik gives him a lopsided, self-mocking grin. “I never claimed I was a real artist, Sumbarl.“ He says dryly. With one eyebrow arched in sarcastic appraisal, Nik continues “So I must be here because I’m a meddler and a fool.“ The tall bard’s wry smile denies the bitterness lurking in his shadowed eyes, and there is nothing but friendly cheer in his voice as he introduces his companions. “This fine lad is Marc, with his fearsome dog Friend. The lovely hin is Emlyn Ashenleaf, until lately of Calimshan. And the gracious lady is Ditalidas, Lady Jalarghar.“ He points to each of his friends in turn and then continues. “And this fine fellow is Sumbarl Andalor.“ With a rakish wink at his friends Nik adds “He’s an actor, you know.“

“I should have known.“ Emlyn says, quite neutrally. It could either be a compliment or something else. She pats Friend on her head, assuming she allows that. “You hear that, Friend… you’ve been promoted to fearsome, and I to lovely!“

Marc smiles at Nik’s deductive work. As Nik presents him to the actor Marc bows cheerfully, gracefully holding his hand on the hilt of his sword. He points his big brown sad eyes friendly at the man and mumbles, “Actually not too fearsome at all.“ As a correction on Nik’s vision on his dog. Then he bashfully looks down and aside, curious what this man will do or say and awaiting the ladies’ reactions.

The black and white sheepdog holds his head low as he sees this man approaching and the friendly tone of the voices. She slowly crawls nearer, while showing her teeth in a wry smile, wagging her tail slowly, yet strong enough to make her whole backside move from side to side. Then she raises her nose to accept a caress.

With an eloquent bow, the man introduced as Sumbarl Andalor greets first Emlyn and Marc and then in a flourish of charming manners and gestures addresses Ditalidas, “I’m honored to meet you Lady Jalarghar, your grace lightens the dark skies over this city. I feel privileged in having met the true Jewel of the Vale.“ Taking her hand lightly in his Sumbarl kneels in front of Ditalidas, bowing his head he kisses her hand. “What ever happens to this overrated actor doesn’t matter after having met you.“ With a disarming and gentle twinkle in his eyes the actor rises and as if out of nowhere produces a small bouquet of flowers. Bowing his head once more, he offers the flowers to Dita. “Milady, please accept these flowers, they are but a pale reflection of your beauty, yet enhance yours even more.“

Ditalidas smiles as Sumbarl introduces himself. As he takes her hand and kisses it a blush flushes over her cheeks. When he summons the flowers she laughs surprised and she accepts then with a small curtsy. “You honor me too much, saer Andalor.“ Admiring the flowers she says: “They are beautiful, sir. Thank you.“

Turning back to Sumbarl, Nik says “We’re here to have some nearly-indecipherable writings decoded. These fine folks are embroiled in a bit of a mystery, and as for me, well, I’m afraid my curiosity got the best of me once again.“ The tall bard grins disarmingly, but his eyes are still wary as he adds “So what brings you to Twilight Hall, Sumbarl? You have some old, musty script you need translated?“

“Close, but not quite, the Deneirrath do have some old plays in their library. And I have been looking forward to read some of those. Yet I’m here…“ Again Sumbarl makes a gesture trying to encompass the entire city, “… to join many esteemed colleagues and be at the center stage of cosmopolitan life. Despite rumors in some of the bigger cities, Berdusk offers so much more to the experienced observer.“ Sumbarl lays his hand on Nik’ shoulder, this time not ‘slapping’ the man, “Come see me some time and offer Lady Jalarghar and her friends a chance to enjoy my performance. Evensong Tower is the place to be.“ With a wink at Nik, Sumbarl turns around and makes another extravagant bow before Ditalidas. “Oh wonderful flower, true Jewel, may Milil’s song guide you and proclaim your beauty to the world.“ Bowing less extravagant, but still with the flair of an artist he takes his leave from Emlyn and Marc as well. “May the song of life hold much joy for all of you. Sweet water and light laughter, until next we meet.“

Nik’s smile grows more crooked, and he raises an eyebrow cynically as Sumbarl shamelessly flatters Ditalidas, but when the man turns back to him the vague annoyance is gone from the tall bard’s craggy face. “I’m sure we’ll be along to see you, Sumbarl.“ He says cheerfully. “And I’m at the Running Stag, should you wish to stop by for a drink or two.“

With a sigh Nik watches Sumbarl leave, muttering “Show off.“ bitterly under his breath. But there is a hint of jealousy in the muddy green eyes as they follow the actor as he makes his way through the crowd. His narrow shoulders slump back into his habitual stoop and despite the new clothes under his threadbare cloak Nik again seems the ragged vagabond he first appeared. The contrast between the handsome, graceful actor and the gaunt, haggard musician seems even sharper now that the other man is gone.

Muttering a soft “Urk!“ that sounds only like a breeze caught in the carriage wheels, Nik feels soft, gossamer wings against the back of his neck as a small weight rises from him after the rough, familiar greeting of Sumbarl. “Hmmm, smooth talker he is, not say much he does.“ A tiny yet familiar voice sounds in Nik’s left ear and he hears the beating of fluttering wings. “Yes.“ a solid confirmatory tone in the little one’s voice is heard, “Like you better I do.“

Suddenly Nik stiffens; his face blank but his eyes huge and wild with fear. His hands clench into fists at his sides, and he swallows hard several times before he whispers hoarsely to himself, “I’m not crazy. I’m not. There’s got to be someone…“ He glances over (or at) his left shoulder, then stares blankly straight ahead of himself again. “Oh, gods…“ He moans, his eyes filled with despair as he leans against a nearby wall and wraps his long arms around his chest, shivering. “I AM going mad, aren’t I?“ The bard asks himself in a soft, frightened voice. “Or is this all just the end result of another week-long drunk? Maybe I’ll wake up in that inn in Nashkel with a hangover and a king’s ransom in wine to pay for…“

Marc looks around him and walks a bit up the stairs to get out of the rain a little. He was rearranging his fur over his shoulders when he sees Nik stiffen. As he sees fear in Nik’s eyes Marc stumbles down the stairs, triples over the sheath of his sword, takes a few huge steps and finally regaining his equilibrium by leaning for a breath with one hand on Emlyn’s shoulder.

“Easy, oh mighty warrior.“ Emlyn says as she supports Marc’s weight a little. “Again a good reason for small people not to use a sword…“ Marc can’t suppress a chuckle at Emlyn’s addressing him, but deep inside he likes her admiration, be it real or just kidding.Marc has his attention with Nik and in the back of his mind he makes a note to think of a solution for the long sheath one day.

Marc swallows and mumbles an excuse and a thank you at her and walks on towards the tall friend. “Nik?“ He says worried, standing shoulder to shoulder on Nik’s left side and placing a warm hand on the latter’s right shoulder, “You aren’t crazy… ehm… as far as I know… well…“ Marc effortlessly seeks his mind for the right words. He looks Nik in the eye and says “You’re a nice bloke! And that’s what is important.“ He stares in front of him – or at Emlyn, who is standing there – for a few breaths.

Then he takes his fur from his shoulder and drapes it over the shoulders of Nik and himself, saying, “Here, it’s made to be large enough to cover two persons.“ With a friendly smile he adds, “You shouldn’t get wet AGAIN, should you?“ Then he whispers, to be only heard by Nik, “I did hear it TOO the other day, remember?“ He turns to the ladies and pleads, “Please, he’s soaking… let’s go inside!“

The fluttering sound comes again and Nik feels a delicate touch on his ear opposite where Marc just whispered. “Mad you are not, wet you are. Wet you do not like. Cloak is not a limb but dry it is. Huddle and hurry, waiting I will be.“ The soft fluttering of gossamer wings fades and the light touch is gone.

A non-understanding frown crosses her face at Nik’s ranting and Emlyn searches her memory as to the situation of Nashkel. Then she shrugs and mutters: “Well, I don’t understand a camel’s ass of what you mean, pardon me saying… but you don’t sound *crazy*.“ She doesn’t pay too much attention to the rain that makes her curls stick to her face until Marc asks them to go inside. “Yes, it will be dryer inside, and then we can get some help with that text too.“

Suddenly Marc looks up dazzled. His eyes seem to follow something and he turns his head, – rapidly at first, but slowing down as the something that apparently caught his attention seems to move away from him – starting from the wet bard next to him up to the temple as if he tries to follow something with his look. Then he cocks his head and frowns deeply. “Strange“ he utters with a voice as dark as his eyes. And again Marc is forced to do this unusual labor: thinking. He looks at Friend, his head still cocked, his brows still frown, “Did you hear THAT… ?“ But Friend doesn’t speak a word and Marc’s gaze falls on Nik. Marc squeezes his eyes a bit, “I could have sworn… !“ After a quick glance up to lady Ditalidas, he looks down at Emlyn to check whether she might have heard what he did, or perhaps even saw what he didn’t.

“Emlyn?“ He asks prudently, “It’s whispered that… well… you folks have better eyes and ears… Did you notice something just now?“ Marc cocks his head to the other side, “you know, like a dragon-fly or something?“

His frown gets a bit deeper when he looks questioning at Nik a moment. Then there’s a gleam of understanding in his eyes and he winks with a lean smile at the tall man. “Hmmm…“ he mumbles. His smile broadens as he states, “Orb orphaned orcs… I mean… never mind, let’s get out of this draggy drizzle!“ And with a slight pressure on the musician’s shoulder he’ll start moving to the entrance.

Emlyn, already on her way inside, turns around at the new commotion. “Well, my people may be very good listeners, they tend to be only when they’re not too busy hearing themselves talking…“ She listens more intently for a moment, then gives up. “I’m sorry.“

The tall bard has been oblivious to Marc’s attention; a sharp reflexive flinch at the young man’s touch is his only response. Nik’s dull hazel eyes are wild and terrified, staring blankly at nothing, and his breath hisses between his clenched teeth. His gaunt body trembles under Marc’s hand, although there is no telling whether it is from cold or the fear so plain in his eyes. The man seems like a rabbit facing a snake, too terrified to move.

As Marc starts to gently urge Nik towards the dry hall he may as well be pushing stone. After a moment, though, the tall bard gives a low moan and staggers forward a step, his head bowed and his face buried in his hands. Shoulder still against the wall, Nik slides down to crouch, his arms across his drawn-up knees and his chin resting on his arms. His craggy face is still eerily blank but he blinks and the blind fear is gone from his eyes, replaced instead with bitter anguish. With another blink, even that is gone, leaving only resignation as his face settles into its familiar careworn lines. Nik looks over his shoulder at his concerned friends and gives them a faint, rueful smile that vanishes as soon as it appears.

“I think I AM going crazy.“ He says quietly. “And perhaps you are all simply creations of my madness.“ Nik’s smile reappears, and he adds “But at least you are pleasant companions.“ He unfolds to his full, gangly height, but seems even more stooped than usual. He looks at the doors in front of him, and for a moment the fear is back in his eyes. With a deep sigh he mutters harshly to himself “In you go, you sorry bastard. And for the gods’ sakes keep your hands to yourself.“ Hiking his backpack higher up on one slumped shoulder, the bard heads to the doors without even looking to see if the others are following him.

Ditalidas watches the actor until he disappears out of sight. The mirth about Sumbarl’s behavior disappears from her eyes when the actor reaches the street and is replaced with a thoughtful look that follows the man until he turns a corner. Finally she notices something is wrong. She puts her hands on her hips as Marc and Nik approach her. “Is any of you going to be clear about what is happening here any time soon?“ Her posture gives the impression that she’s angry, but her eyes only express worry and a little frustration.

The tall bard turns from the doors at Ditalidas’ question, his left hand still on the door handle in preparation to enter. “Oh, nothing much.“ He says flippantly as he turns to face her, a bright, brittle smile on his face and his eyes shadowed with fear. “I seem to be going mad, is all.“ Then he sees her angry pose, and the smile vanishes from his face to be replaced by terror. He cringes away from her, huddling against the door behind him, one arm raised as if to ward off a blow. It is a long moment before he notices that there is no anger in her eyes.

Nik straightens up, embarrassment coloring his gaunt face. Staring at the wet ground between his broken-down boots, he mumbles “Sorry.“ Looking up at Ditalidas, he offers her an apologetic smile, adding softly: “You… you reminded me of my mother just then. She never did tolerate my cowardice, my little… fits…“ His smile turns bitter as he looks away and finishes harshly “She never tolerated me at all. But I think all she did was make me worse.“ Shoulders slumped and head bowed, the tall bard wrenches open the door and goes inside without another word.

Ditalidas follows Nik’s movements with her eyes. As the door shuts a shiver runs down her spine. Her arms fall feebly alongside her body. Emlyn looks sharply at the tall man, gives a slight nod as if a little piece of a puzzle falls into place. “Not all people are tolerant…“ She says finally. “And sometimes they take their own character flaws out on others. It is a good thing that sometimes, when faced with those minds, Ilmater lets the underdogs rise up against their cruel masters.“

At the ladies’ pose and question – and at Nik’s turning – Marc lets go of the slim man and turns too, gazing at Nik’s reactions.

As Nik disappears from view without a satisfactory explanation Marc slowly shakes his head, a mild smile on his face. He takes a step down to Ditalidas and Emlyn, nods with a wry smile over his shoulder at the closing door and cautiously states, “Hmm… well… excuse our new friend here please, he’s… eh… bit confused, I gather.“

Marc raises his eyebrows in a helpless expression. He stares at the coach a short while and then continues, “He sees things others don’t see and it seems to worry him… like… well, yesterday near the fire… I most certainly *heard* something or perhaps even someone… then again… didn’t *see* anything though.“ Marc shrugs. “Perhaps his vision is better than mine or it’s the wish of the gods only he can see it… or…“ Marc smiles at a new idea, “or it’s just that much closer to him than it is to us… I mean… I don’t know.“

Marc smiles friendly at the two women, “And just yet… I did hear something again… a bit like a fire-fly flying to this temple here… or something.“ Marc looks a bit awkward. “… I just don’t know…“ Marc frowns puzzled and sighs, “But it does worry our friend and in turn that is worrying me.“

Marc looks down at the dog and whistles. Friend stands up and draws nearer. Then the young shepherd spreads his hands, slowly shakes his head again before he softly adds: “Anyway… poor fella.“ He spreads the fingers of his left hand in a helpless gesture, looking expressly at Ditalidas with question in his eyes, as if to ask, “Is this clear enough for you?“ Then he gestures them, proposing to enter the building too.

Ditalidas bows her head and looks at the stairs beneath her feet. She looks chagrined. “Clear enough?“ Slowly she shakes her head causing her hair to cover her face like curtains. “No, not clear enough. Not by far.“ Her voice is soft and thick with disappointment. She closes her eyes before she looks up at Marc, throwing her long black hair out of her face with a quick movement of her head. She briefly shrugs before she adds: “Maybe time will provide some answers.“

Purposefulness appears in her blue eyes and forms her attitude. “Let’s just do what we came for and hope there’s somebody here who can translate the script you found.“ She smiles at Marc and Emlyn, turns to the door and follows Nik inside.

Marc’s eyes seem more sad than usual as the others enter the building. Then his eyes fall on the pale bleu eyes of his dog, who’s faithfully gazing at him. A tiny smile emerges on Marc’s face, but – tiny it may be – it washes the saddest part of the look from his face. He takes a large breathe, smiles at Emlyn with risen eyebrows, shrugs and turns to the door. He follows the others inside and shortly after Friend follows him in turn.

The doorway and temple entrance is framed by two slender pillars topped with stone eyes that hold lit candles. Despite the adverse weather, the candles burn normally. Stepping through the large and ornamented doorway, the friends find themselves in a large columned hall of white marble. The smooth surfaces of the columns are decorated with signs and glyphs of all sorts; all embossed in gold. Along the walls of the vast chamber are side-tables and shelves holding all kinds of writing implements and stacks of parchment and vellum.

Small clusters of priests and worshippers are standing at random in the chamber, most near the tables. Hanging form the ceiling is a sort of wind-chime that lazily turns in the drafts of the room. Ditalidas, Marc and Emlyn see Nik staring, mouth agape, at the slowly revolving artwork.

Sitting on one of the pieces of the chime is a small, humanoid figure with gossamer wings; apparently the object of Nik’s attention. With a bright smile for such a tiny creature, it regards the befuddled bard and his friends.

Right behind lady Ditalidas Marc enters the hall, followed by a black and white dog. The shepherd looks around at the large room and the scattered people. Then he sees the stature of the bard. He hesitatingly takes a few steps towards him before he sees the man’s gaze, follows it with his eyes and stops progressing.

His eyes are wide with astonishment as he sees the tiny figure up there and is speechless for a couple of breaths. Then he stammers: “Gee… I mean… Gush!“ Marc winks both of his eyes a couple of times before he continues: “I *knew* it!… You really exist!“ Marc slams his right fist in his left hand. “I knew it. I just knew it all the time!… Imagined you to be a bit bigger, but… Gee!… It’s you… the tooth-fairy!“ There’s a broad smile on his face as he turns to his companions. “The tooth-fairy! Look… up there!“

The tall bard stands like a statue, staring up at the tiny creature with his haggard face filled with dumbfounded shock. As Marc proclaims his guess at the creature’s identity, Nik’s head snaps around and he turns to Marc, puzzlement, annoyance and then anger chasing the shock from his face. “That’s not the tooth-fairy, you ridiculous boy! The tooth-fairy is nothing but a story parents tell their children!“ the bard barks, fury darkening his face as he points at the creature in question with one shaking hand. “That’s… that’s…“

Shocked by Nik’s annoyance and anger Marc looks at the small creature again, before returning his look and attention to Nik. Puzzled he takes a step back, but then he boggles.

The anger vanishes from his shadowed eyes as quickly as it appeared, and his hand drops back to his side as he finishes helplessly in a tiny voice “I have no idea what it is.“ Confusion and bitterness fill his gaunt face as he adds “But it’s been following me around since Nashkel…“

Suddenly he starts laughing, at first a hesitant, nervous chuckle that quickly builds into an uncontrolled howl. The tall bard’s knees buckle and he sits down, unable to stop the hysterical laughter. His eyes are huge and wild, and the laughter shakes his gaunt form like a tree in a gale.

Emlyn looks at Nik, wondering if she should help him snap out of his hysterical laughing fit or not. “The tooth fairy?“ She says, puzzled. “Now what’s that… although I sure must admit it… he… does show a lot of teeth.“

Marc’s anxiety – about what he might have done to upset this sensitive man – drifts away with Nik’s laughter and even more with Emlyn’s remark. A smile emerges on his face and Marc starts moving forward again, in the bard’s direction. When he gets there he looks down at the tall man. Compassion sits in Marc’s eyes as he squats beside him.

The tiny faerie creature holds onto one twirling side of the chime with a steadying hand while it looks at the other with ever widening eyes. “Impossible this is, see me I can.“ He looks down and sees he is the obvious object of awe and strange wonderings. He suddenly stands on the chime and flips his wings behind him in a huff, “Silly creatures – tooth fairy – hmmph. See me you can, hiding I am not.“ The last is said with some sorrow. When Nik begins laughing uncontrollably Puddy puts both hands on his ears and flutters down to the bard. “Mad you are not! Told you I did, listen you did not!“ The pixie lands on Nik’s shoulder and tugs hard on his ear to stop his convulsive rumblings. “Calm you must be, real am I.“

Marc, intending to comfort the poor artist, hesitates and looks up at the sound of speaking can be heard above. Then the sudden approach of this wondrous creature baffles the lad even more. Marc swallows twice, his eyes staring boldly at the lowering Puddy. He takes a breath before stating, with tremble in his voice: “Ehm…“ A nervous twitch is at the corner of his mouth.

“Would you look at him.“ Emlyn mumbles under her breath. “He sure is tiny…“ She turns to the creature and studies it. “It’s not a firefly.“ She says finally. Turning to the little shiny creature, she eyes it suspiciously. “What are you then, the familiar of a sha’ir, sent to search a spell?“

Still tugging at Nik’s ear, Puddy looks down at Emlyn, “What I am not. Who is Pudruelantreda. Familiar I am only with Nik. Myself I would hide from you, but magical this place is. “Finally Puddy sits on Nik’s shoulders and hides his tiny face in his small hands, “Woe! Woe this is! See me they can!! Ruined! Ruined it is!!“

Marc’s faithful dog didn’t seem impressed by the interior of the temple at all. She focuses on her boss, making sure not to loose him from sight. Then she sees something flying down towards her private leader-of-the-pack and she just dashes forward, loudly barking up to the petite winged figure.

Marc reacts at the impolite welcoming gesture of his dog and more fiercely than necessary he commands her to lie down calm and quietly. The dog indeed lies down and ceases barking at once. But she’s not at all at ease. The hairs on her neck are risen while she shows her impressive teeth trying to impress Puddy.

As Marc looks down at her he can’t help snickering. Infected by Nik’s hilarious laughter Marc’s laughter descends into a relieving guffaw. Soon Marc pulls himself together though: he bows his head and swallows again. Then his big brown eyes look at Puddy from behind his fringe while Marc humbly says sorry. After a breath, during which Marc seems to study the floor intensively, he whispers, “Hi there… ehm… what’s ruined…? Can I be of any help?“

When Friend starts barking Puddy stands up and screams (unfortunately into Nik’s ear). “Wolf! W-w-wolf!!“ It is several more moments before Puddy calms down enough to release his death grip on Nik’s earlobe and hair. The little creature is visibly shaken, as he visibly shakes, by the noise and glares from Friend. The further glare from the dog including the smiling tooth filled maw makes the pixie scream again and point, “Puppy bad! Scare me no more!“ Tearing his tiny eyes away from the furred beastie he peeks at Marc, “Ruined it is! Help you I would, but see me you can. Ruined! Ruined!“ He moans miserably.

Emlyn scratches her brown curls. “Um, I’d not say ‘ruined’… merely… different.“

While the neither the comments of his friends nor the attentions of the little sprite-like creature get a reaction from the hysterical bard, Friend is quite another story. Nik’s wild laughter spirals into a shriek of pure terror as Friend races up barking. Nik scrambles to his feet, hands raised to ward off the dog he is sure is attacking him.

When the dog follows Marc’s sharp command Nik lowers his hands slowly, his haggard face white with fear and his gaunt frame trembling with reaction. He swallows hard several times, looking around nervously at the attention he has drawn to himself. The pallor of fear is quickly replaced by a hot flush of shame and embarrassment, and the tall bard wraps his arms around his chest, stares at the floor between his boots, and mutters bitterly to himself “Oh, gods… I never should have come here. Not today.“ His shoulders hunch and the tall man looks like he would like nothing more than for the floor to swallow him up about now.

When the floor doesn’t oblige him, Nik glances up at his friends and gives them a twisted, bitter smile. “Heh.“ He says flatly, his eyes dark with a tempest of emotions – fear, embarrassment and self-loathing the most recognizable. “I’m a right bloody mess, aren’t I?“ His smile twists even more, a harsh parody of humor as he adds “You can dress me up, but you can’t take me out.“

Not expecting this in the least, Emlyn first drops into a fighting pose, small leather-wrapped fists poised. As she realizes the sudden commotion is mostly Nik, she lets down her guard. “Ye gods, Nik, you shouldn’t immediately act like a llama being kicked in the…“ She doesn’t finish her sentence; instead, the small monk sits down on the floor, legs crossed. “Look, it isn’t that hard… you just find a comfortable pose and you breathe in deeply through one part of your nose, then breathe out through the other… all very calm.“ She shows the trick for a short while, then smiles. “See? Slows down your heartbeat, stops anyone from hyperventilating and is also very good for not yelling when entering cold water.“

Ditalidas looks at the sprite with wide eyes, but is soon distracted by Nik’s hysteria. Disapproving she shakes her head. When Marc joins in she rolls her eyes towards the ceiling, not believing this is happening. When on top of all even Emlyn drops to the floor, Ditalidas shakes her head again and mumbles: “I hope Deneir has no behavior code for his temples. If he has, I hope he’s not offended by this.“

“People, people, a little quiet please!“ One of the priests, having noticed the arrival and subsequent noise of the four friends and their new companion, hurries forward. The young man, wearing glasses set into a small frame and has hands that are stained with ink, appears a little irritated and the behavior and noise in the temple. “And young man, please keep the dog under control or you’ll have to take it outside. This is a Temple, not a Tankard House or Festhall.“

After a short last giggle after the llama Emlyn talked about, Marc’s fit of laughter slowly dies away. At the arrival of the priest – not to mention his opening-sentence – Marc quietly stalls. At the remark about the dog he nods and looks at Friend. But Friend is still lying on the floor without making a sound, just like Marc ordered her to. Marc looks back at the priest with a small gesture at the silent dog as if to say “I do have it under control.“

Several visitors and priests are looking at the group, some with expressions of irritation and annoyance at the unwelcome interruption, others with amusement at the antics of man and beast. Apparently not amazed by the appearance of a faerie creature in his Temple, the priest looks at the companions over the rim of his glasses, finally resting his gaze on Ditalidas. In a less agitated, almost insecure voice, as if he is surprised by his own outburst, he asks the young woman, “Well… ehm… how may I help you?“

Ditalidas greets the man with an apologizing smile. “Good day sir. I am Ditalidas Jalarghar. I feel the need to apologize for my companions here. These have been… ehm, stressful days.“ She sends her friends a gaze in which she pleads for a bit more correct behavior. Facing the priest with another smile she continuous: “As for your question: We have a piece of vellum containing a text in a strange language. I was hoping that someone in your temple could be of any help revealing its contents.“ While talking to the priest Ditalidas fumbles with her pouch till she has the piece of paper out and offers it to the priest for examination. When the priest is about to take it from her she holds it for a few more seconds than necessary, as if she’s reluctant to let go of it. In a soft tone so the priest and only some standing close by can hear it she continues: “This text is recovered from a place that was tainted with evil, please make sure that this piece of paper stays in hands that know how to deal with that. I don’t want some new kid panicking around.“

Nik looks even more embarrassed at the priest’s admonishment, and he buries his face in his hands for a long moment. When Ditalidas apologizes for him, Nik’s slumped shoulders hunch even more. His hands drop to his sides and the tall bard stares at the floor between his broken-down boots again, his gaunt face a twisted mask of shame and bitter self-loathing. “Oh, gods.“ He sighs, then mumbles to the floor “I’m a man grown, for all that I may seem more like a whipped pup. No one need make excuses for me. I am perfectly capable of doing it all by myself. I’ve been doing it all my life, for the gods’ sake…“

Marc, still squatting beside Nik, slowly shakes his head and smilingly pats the man’s shoulder. “You’re no coward.“ Marc whispers friendly at his ear, while beholding the diminutive being on the man’s other shoulder intensely, intrigued by this wondrous creature.

He straightens up as Ditalidas mentions panicking, and adds bitterly: “No need for anyone to panic. I’m quite sure I have that covered. The gods know I’ve enough practice at it.“ Nik looks the young priest in the eyes, his own eyes dark and bitter and the twisted, self-mocking smile on his face. “You folks should leave panicking to the professionals.“ the bard says flippantly. “If anyone’s going to panic around here it’ll be me.“

He bows to the priest, and adds “I truly am sorry for my behavior. The simple fact is that I was quite sure I was going stark, raving mad.“ His smile grows even more twisted at that admission, and he continues “It turns out I was mistaken. I’m not insane; I’m just a complete, thorough-going coward, as I’m sure you and everyone else in this city know by now.“

“Ah, I see.“ The young priest says somewhat absentmindedly, leaving it in the middle if it is addressed to Ditalidas’ explanation or Nik’s apologies. “If you’d please?“ The thin haired, bespectacled priest holds out an ink-stained hand to receive the writings from Ditalidas. He readjusts his glasses, something he seems to be doing almost continuously, and takes a look at the papers handed over.

Nik sighs and the mocking smile leaves his haggard face. He looks down at the floor again, tugging nervously at his scarf once before his hand drops to his side again. “I never should have come here.“ He adds flatly, his voice the same dull monotone it had been when he admitted his criminal past. “I’ve little self-control on the best of days. And I haven’t had a good day for quite a long while.“ The bard looks old, exhausted and used-up, his sunken eyes dull and lifeless in his gaunt, haggard face.

“I’m going back to the Stag.“ He says finally, still staring at the floor beneath his boots. “Where, when I make an ass of myself, at least I get paid.“ He gives Ditalidas a fleeting look, the twisted, bitter smile back on his lips. “Don’t worry. I promise not to drink myself into a stupor before you all return.“ He raises his left fist in a bit of a flourish, palm up, and opens his fingers to reveal the ring and bit of cord resting there. “I’ll find out what there is to know about these.“ the bard says softly, a flash of determination in his dull eyes. “I’m going to be useful if it kills me.“ He closes his fist around the mysterious items, turns on his heel and starts for the door.

Puddy is interrupted from his personal lament by the bard’s movement. “Careful you need to be! Stay you should! See me they can so this to be used it is.“

Squinting at the scribbling and adjusting the position of his glasses for the umpteenth time, he looks up at the visitors after a short while. “Interesting and intriguing, yet the writing lies beyond my normal skills. I will need to resort to the insights of the Lord of Glyphs to interpret what these writings mean. Normally I would charge a hundred gold for that, but if you are willing to deliver some manuscripts to Ondrear’s Fine Pages on Gollahaer, I will reduce the price to five-hundred silver.“

Marc looks up at the tall bard from his lowered position. When he mentions returning to the stag Marc looks surprised. While Nik walks to the gate Marc gazes at his back, wondering why he’s leaving.

Still sitting on the floor, hands in her lap with the palms upward, Emlyn looks up to Nik, at least one person seems to have completely allowed herself to relax. “Are you sure? No curiosity at all, in solving a little mystery not from the books or the songs? Maybe this time you have fallen into something not quite as bad as you are used to…“ Her brown eyes pierce into Nik’s, but the gaze isn’t unfriendly. Then she turns back to the bookish man, awaiting his and her friends’ propositions.

Marc, still staring dazed at Nik’s back, turns his head to Emlyn. He friendly nods at her and a spark of a smile lights up his eyes, then he turns his attention back to the tall man, curious for his reaction.

Nik stops, and turns slowly to face Emlyn as she talks to him. He looks exhausted and defeated once again, and he gives her a weary smile. “Oh, I’m deathly curious. Or I would never have set foot in here.“ He says wryly. “But I’m also painfully aware than I have once again proven that I stagger the fine line between genius and insanity.“ Anger flares in his shadowed eyes as he adds “Just imagine what kind of scene I can cause on this next errand.“

The bard glances back at the fairy-creature, his eyes narrowed furiously and his gaunt face now full of rage. “And don’t you be telling ME what to do.“ He snarls, a muscle twitching below his left eye and his hands clenched into fists at his sides. “You are responsible for at least some of this! Gods, what am I, the week’s entertainment for you?“ Frustration strains his deep voice now as he snaps “Slow times in fairy-land, so let’s mess with the bard, he looks a neurotic sort and should be quite a laugh?! Go play with someone else’s sanity, mine’s on shaky enough footing as it is.“ Nik turns back to the door, adding harshly “You lot are better off without me.“

At Nik’s second turn Marc sighs and takes a breath. He spreads his hands in a wide gesture and declaims: “but, Nik… I’m not!!“ Quite a bit softer – perhaps even too subdued to be heard by Nik – he adds “… ehm… better off without you, I mean.“ He clenches his left hand and reopens it, searching the words to reach the forlorn bard.

Puddy’s face copies the angry mask of Nik’s. He jumps off the bard’s shoulder and flutters in front of him. “Laugh? Laugh? Laughing no one is, laughter do you hear? Help I was, remember do you?“ The pixie imitates Nik’s voice, “Is it dry where you are? If so, maybe you’d find it in your heart to make room for me.“

The little creature’s face turns quiet and compassionate as he grabs Nik’s cheeks between his arms and looks the bard straight in the eyes, “Running again are you? Friends you have, maybe friends you need. Leave now and be alone, stay now and be friends. See into your heart do I, see into your eyes do I. Know you I do, better than you.“ He releases Nik and flutters back, “Stay.“

Marc’s wonder for the actions of this special species is dimmed by his search for words. Seemingly he’s listening with half an ear only, yet the mirth emerging in his expression betrays him. Intrigued he continues to listen to the airborne companion. After this last word of Puddy, Marc – sadness apparent in his eyes – spreads his hands higher and wider. The large gesture could mean helplessness but looks like an invitation for a warm hug as well. “Nik!?“ He says loudly.

Then he looks down and languidly lowers his arms. For a moment he just stands there, then he slowly looks at Nik, Ditalidas and Emlyn. His despondency grows as his look wanders back to Nik and Puddy and on to the clerk, his dog and finally back to his master. He looks small as he addresses her. “Dita?“ He pleads, “Can’t YOU ask him to remain…? Perhaps he’ll listen to you.“

Friend seems to sense his master’s mood and cocks her head.

Puddy stops Nik an arms-length from the door, and the bard looks even angrier as the little creature confronts him. One clenched fist starts up to bat Puddy out of the way, but then the fey attaches himself to the bard’s face. Nik’s hand drops back to his side, and the fury is gone from his gaunt, haggard face when Puddy flies back away from him. The bard looks stricken, as if the little creature’s words were a knife to the gut. His haunted eyes are full of pain mingled with no little amount of fear and he wraps his long arms around his bony chest, shivering. “Maybe I’m better off alone.“ He whispers bitterly. “What has friendship gotten me in the past but betrayal, abuse and pain?“

The bard glances at Marc over one hunched shoulder, looking at the lad with eyes full of that terrible combination of longing, bitterness, anguish and fear. The bard swallows hard, tries to say something, and fails to make a sound. He reaches for the door but doesn’t open it, instead just standing there with his head bowed and his hand on the doorknob. The battle raging within the man burns from his sunken eyes and twists his haggard face while his gaunt form trembles with the force of his emotions.

Finally he closes his eyes, sighing wearily, and his hand falls from the doorknob to dangle at his side once again. He doesn’t straighten up, but he turns slowly and trudges back to Emlyn, Ditalidas and Marc. His eyes are fixed on the floor and his face is full of the resignation of a condemned man on his way to his execution.

As he approaches he looks up, forcing a smile that does nothing to hide the wariness, pain and fear in his dull eyes. “I guess if you want me that bad I’ll stick around.“ Nik says as he stops near them, but the attempt at his old humor is flat and hollow. He seems to realize that, and he stares at the floor again, swallows hard and mumbles “I wasn’t going to leave town. Really. I’m not… I was… I…“ he stammers to a stop, then says hoarsely “Gods. I can’t take much more of this. I hardly know you people, but you’ve seen and heard things about me I haven’t admitted to in years.“

His left hand rubs absently at the scars hidden under his right sleeve, then he realizes what he’s doing and he quickly shoves his hands into his pockets. “I shouldn’t have come here with you.“ He says, his voice a bit stronger but his haunted eyes still fixed on the floor between his battered boots. “I should have stayed at the Stag and worked on the ring and cord.“ The tall bard offers the floor a rueful smile and continues “I’m just not up to all this. Not today.“ A tilt of his bowed head indicates that it is the place, and perhaps the crowd, that he fears, not his companions.

Nik gives Emlyn a brief, fleeting smile, a flash of gratitude in his shadowed eyes, then he stares bleakly at the floor again. “I can’t help being what I am. But most days I can cover it up better than I have today. I just… just need some time to gather what few shreds of self-control I possess.“ He swallows hard several times and seems about to say something else, but finally just sighs and shakes his head slightly instead. The bard just stands there staring at the floor, narrow shoulders hunched, hands in his pockets, looking utterly broken and defeated.

Marc smiles friendly at the man and pats his nearest shoulder twice, but doesn’t speak. The eyes above his smile still look sadly.

Puddy suddenly smiles and his entire body seems to lighten, “Relieved am I, and saddened. Friends true you never had if suffer pain is all you did. Remember the music you should, remember well. More than travel it can do…“ The little creature stops and twirls abruptly in the air, ecstatic in joy. “Never Puddy had you by your side before, different now it is. See you will!!“ The creature pulls out his tiny silver flute and plays a joyous jig while dancing in mid air.

“The… Puddy is right.“ Emlyn says, not really knowing how to call the fairy-like creature’s species. “Friendship isn’t there to cause you pain, though it can help you overcome it…“ As the pixie begins his melody, the halfling falls still and she eyes Puddy’s dance and listens to his music in wondrous amazement.

Briefly Marc nods at the halfling. Next he gazes at the fluttering creature and the darkness in his eyes slowly vanishes. His lips form the unspoken questions: “What are you? WHO are you?“

Then Marc starts humming along, trying to catch the swirling melody, his hand resting on Nik’s shoulder, squeezing it softly. As water drips from the bedraggled bard’s hair, he suddenly is reminded of a dunking in the pool at the Stag. An involuntary shudder courses through his body as he remembers the strange old woman.

Ditalidas eyes widen just a little at the price of one hundred gold. She tosses a quick look at Nik at the door and looks a little irritated before she returns her attention back to the priest, she just about to reply the priest when Marc interrupts. She smiles apologizing to the priest. “One moment please.“ But when she turns the problem seems solved. Shrugging her shoulder she turns back to the priest. “A hundred gold pieces…“ For an instant she looks at her companions, considering indeed paying the full hundred and be done with it. Then she shakes her head. “I think we could deliver those manuscripts for you.“

Suddenly Ditalidas sees a familiar face in the crowds; Druth. It takes the elf a while but then recognition flickers across his face as well. Stepping across the hall at the small group he moves over to Ditalidas. “Fair maiden, I did not recognize you at first. You look… different.“ Smiling Druth regards the woman in front of him before looking at the others. “Well met again young man.“ He greets Marc and then a puzzled look crosses his elfin features, “Calathra? No…“ He turns back to Ditalidas and Marc, the puzzled frown lessened as if the matter is trivial to him. “I trust everything is well?“

After Marc’s introduction, Emlyn fold her hands and bows at the elf. “That’s the second time someone calls me Calathra.“ She winks to Druth and Marc, “Must be quite a special person then.“

Then Friend stands up and walks very slowly, head low and tail wagging, towards the gold elf even before he seems to recognize our group. By the time Druth meets Ditalidas, Friend is there at his feet, her lower jaw seemingly touching the floor and her blue eyes fixed on Druth.

Marc’s eyes grow at the sudden action of the dog. The actions of the dog are no reason for alarm, that’s clear enough, but Marc looks over his shoulder into the crowd. He doesn’t see or identifies Druth before he’s close and addresses them.

A broad smile lightens up Ditalidas’ face. “Druth!“ She greets. “Different? Me?“ This time she looks puzzled, her smile gone for a moment. Then the smile is back. “It must be my outfit.“ She says with a wink. The priest is clearly forgotten. She takes Druth’s hand between her own and kisses him on his cheek. “I was wondering where you were. And worried too. Did you know they kidnapped Portia?“

The shepherd’s dog is wagging intensively, enough to make the back of her body shake. Her pale eyes are fixed on the elf. Marc suddenly realizes who’s standing here in front of him. “Gee!“ He utters, but he swiftly corrects himself and adds, “I mean… by the pureness of the gods, Druth! You’re here… Alive!“

With a warm smile Druth clasps the offered hand and returns the kiss. Then the smile disappears. “Portia? The priestess of your deity of Death, Kelemvor?“ Though there is a hint of surprise in his voice, no emotion is visible on the elf’s face. “No, I am not aware of that. I must say that I have spent quite some time researching old and dusty tomes. Sad it is indeed what has befallen that woman.“ A pensive frown briefly crosses Druth’s face as he glances at the tall man and the small faerie creature facing off, when suddenly he is almost bowled over by Marc’s enthusiastic greeting.

Marc jumps forward and hugs the fair man, squeezing him tight. Friend, in turn, jumps up against the twosome, dancing around them.

When he lets go off the elf Marc holds him at arm’s length and looks at him, “I’m glad you seem to be alright.“ Smilingly he shakes his head, “The stories I could tell you!“ But Marc interrupts himself, gesturing at the gathered heroes, “But wait… let me introduce you to our friends! Here’s Emlyn, tall as a child, brave as a man… and this is Nik, a gifted musician, at least twice as valiant as he thinks he is… and this… well… he calls himself ‘Puddy’, don’t know to much about him yet, but he seems friendly enough…“

Druth smiles at the youthful enthusiasm from Marc, and the young bespectacled priest heaves his hands in the air in a desperate gesture looking helplessly up as if aid could come from above. Druth pats Marc’s shoulder, “I’ll certainly want to listen to your stories. Yet this is hardly the place to tell them.“ The elf offers Marc a pleasant smile.

Marc continues addressing his friends with the same enthusiasm, “… Friends, meet Druth, the elf I told you about, but… ehm… Druth, how are you?? And why didn’t you show up yesterday?“

With a wink at Marc, Druth leans over to the young man and says to him, “I’ll answer your questions in due time my friend. Yet remember it is not very polite to interrupt a conversation with such a lovely lady as Ditalidas.“ The elf removes his hand from Marc shoulder and turns towards the young Lady Jalarghar again.

Marc swallows and takes a step back, next to Ditalidas, curiously peeking at her before returning his attention to Druth and his other friends. Friend comes at ease and lies down at Marc’s feet. Ditalidas smiles at Marc’s enthusiasm, but tries to look displeased as she agrees with Druth on the interruption. She fails miserably though and soon smiles again.

Marc swiftly gazes at Druth and next at the lady again. In a pity tone he addresses them both: “O, Gee! sorry, I didn’t mean to…“ Suddenly he interrupts himself and states, “… ehm… and I’m disturbing you right…“ A final “ehm“ is hardly audible when Marc discovers he repeats the disturbance, sounding as if he just coughed lightly. Then he looks at Druth’ face and a pensive look appears on his face. With one eye closed he glances over his shoulder at Ditalidas.

“What about our friend Telsom? I don’t see him with you.“ Druth asks Ditalidas, the elf’s slanted eyes regarding the woman in front of him with some curiosity. “He seemed rather fond of you. I had thought he would be at your side.“

Marc slowly nods, but the pensive look is still on his face. When he turns his attention away from his master he sees Emlyn standing close to him.

Marc bows over to Emlyn and says in a soft voice, – trying not to trouble Druth and Dita, but probably audible to Nik and Puddy – “Well… In a way Calathra was… ehm… *IS* I suppose.“ A smile touches his large eyes, “… then again… nah… she just *looked* a bit like you… that’s about it.“

“Ah, you met another halfling.“ Emlyn nods. “To you we probably all look alike – well, that’s what snooties back home always say.“ She smiles. “Though if they would hear a halfling from the Heartlands, a Calishite snooty would probably have thrown her out immediately – there’s only one thing they despise more than halflings, and that’s *foreign* halflings.“

Marc bends further and whispers to the halfling, glances at Dita and whispers a few more words at Emlyn; “What is this?“ Marc asks Emlyn with annoyance in his eyes and voice, “is it more rude to interrupt a conversation if the person involved is more pretty or… even… ‘lovely’?“ He glances over his shoulder at the dark-haired noble woman, “Can’t deny she is… still… sounds unfair to me.“ Then he throws Emlyn a warm and slant smile and sighs, while wrinkling his mouth, “Silly people.“

“Well, that’s the nobles and the fair folk for you.“ Emlyn quips back. “But I’ve seen you can get pretty far with the right talk and the right smile.“ She winks. “Mostly in con artists, actually.“ Then she continues more seriously. “I suppose we’ll be on our way soon. You know the elf?“

Marc sniggers as Emlyn answers him. Then he nods, “Yes I do.“ He answers her, “This is Druth, a sun-elf who accompanied the group as I met them.“ Marc is silent for a moment. “Druth and I had a long talk the night before last.“ He smiles as he friendly nods at Druth, and then he adds, “He told me that he and Telsom saved Ditalidas earlier that day.“

“Telsom is not with us. He went to Lord Sillisten with Matteo to ask some questions about Portia’s disappearance.“ A worried look crosses Dita’s face, “I hope they found some clues about her whereabouts. About his fondness for me…“ She shrugs her shoulder, “I’m not sure if he’s fond of me or of my appearance.“ She sighs, but shakes the thoughts away. Then her smile is back and a little sparkle lights up her gaze. “So… dusty and old tomes.“ With her head slightly cocked she asks: “Found anything useful? What were you looking for?“

 “Not yet. And probably not for a while…“ The elf replies. “Not that my efforts have been in vain. I learned a lot, but there is so much more to learn.“ Druth gives Ditalidas another smile and takes another look at her friends. The young priest looks a little impatient through his glasses at Ditalidas. “Ehm… milady? Are you going to deliver the manuscripts or… ?“

Ditalidas regards the priest for a moment, a slight frown appearing on her face. “Yes.“ She says coolly, “We’ll take them, but I cannot pay you the fifty gold right away.“ She puts her hands on her hip, taking a pose that is just shy of defiant. “I guarantee payment, you have my word on that as a Jalarghar.“

The priest, slightly taken aback, almost tumbles over his words, “Yeah, ehm yes, sure. That’s good I mean… your word.“ Trying to regain some of his composure, he smoothes his tunic. “If you’ll excuse me I’ll get the manuscripts.“ And he turns around walking between two pillars into an anteroom. Ditalidas regards the man’s retreating back for a moment, a small smile playing on her lips.

Humor twinkles in Druth’s eyes as he regards the exchange between Ditalidas and the priest, though he keeps his face calm. “I will leave you to your mission. We will meet again. Please give my regards to your protector and my former traveling companion. Good luck on your quest to save Portia.“ Druth crosses his arms in front of him in an elven greeting, “Sweet water and light laughter, until next we meet.“

As the elf steps away, his eyes fall on the sullen Nik and then on the little faerie playing the last notes of the song on her flute. Cocking his head a little, the elf’s slanted eyes fall again on Nik. “You look too sad for a man with such joyous friends around you. I wish you well on your journey find your joy, I’m sure you’ll find it.“ He crosses his arms once more and turns to all five companions in turn. Then he walks away.

Ditalidas nods at Druth in answer to his greeting. “Take care of yourself. If you ever need me for anything, you know where to find me.“

Within mere moments the young spectacled priest reappears carrying a canvas wrapped bundle. “Here are the manuscripts for Ondrear’s shop. Thank you for taking these to old Ondraeas. I will have your text deciphered and translated upon your return.“ He says to Ditalidas. Again readjusting the glasses on his nose the young priest hands the canvas wrapped bundle to Marc.

Marc startles when he discovers he unknowingly accepted something. When he looks up he just can see Druth’ back, dissolving in the crowd again. “Take care!“ He shouts at him, the words resounding in the large hall. Then he looks down, swiftly examining the package in his left hand. He smiles at Emlyn.

Then he looks aside to his adopted master and says, “So, what to do next…? Deliver this immediately… or… should we get further acquainted with this creature first?“ He nods indicating at the swirling Puddy. As his eye catches the little fairy a glimpse of a smile touches his cheek.

Ditalidas follows Druth with her eyes as he disappears in the crowd. As Marc addresses her she’s clearly disturbed from a deeper thought. She tosses Marc a smile and returns her attention to the things at hand. First she looks at the priest. With a “Thank you, your message will be delivered.“ She dismisses him.

The young priest looks a little befuddled at the dismissal and seems to search for a reply. Finally he almost stammers, fumbling with the indecipherable text. “Ehm… ah… well, I guess I’ll check out this writing then…“ With a quick nod of his head he bids everyone farewell and hurries off into the temple’s interior.

With an apologizing smile Ditalidas turns to the fairy, “My young friend here is right. It wasn’t very polite of me that I did not introduce myself to you yet.“ Ditalidas makes a small curtsy. “If I may… I am Ditalidas, at your service. This young man here is Marc. The small woman over there is Emlyn, who…“ and at this point she looks at Emlyn, “… in my opinion does not look like Calathra apart from the fact that they are both halfling…“ She turns back to Puddy, “… and I believe there is no need for me to introduce you to Nik, who you already seem to know.“

The last is said with a wink and a smile. “Maybe you will be so kind to tell us something about yourself and this whole situation…“ Again Ditalidas smiles and mirth is visible in her eyes, “… but this…“ She gestures to the surroundings, “… might hardly be the place to do that. I’d like to invite you all back to the coach, so we can be on our way to deliver those papers. We’ll have some time to talk before we arrive at the shop.“

With a flutter of gossamer wings the small faerie alights, “Good thinking that is, talking outside we do.“ Flying over head Puddy smiles down at the group, only to cock his head a little when he regards the sullen Nik.

The tall bard stands silently throughout the conversations going on around him, sunk deep in his own personal well of bitterness and despair. Neither the cheerful fae nor Marc’s comforting hand could draw Nik’s dull, deadened eyes from the floor between his worn-out boots, and even Druth’s remark to him only merited a small, twisted smirk that vanished like a fish in murky water.

The content of Twilight Dawn are the property and copyright of J P Hazelhoff, and are not to be published or redistributed without permission.

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