By Jaap-Peter Hazelhoff
Chapter 54 - Mist Riders
Berdusk, 1371 DR, Eleint, 10th day, afternoon
Stepping outside, the Berdusk has transformed drastically from the moment the group entered the temple; a gray and cold mist has settled over the city. Sight is still reasonable though, a hundred paces at least. Had there been only a few people about this morning, now the streets seem almost deserted; everyone seems intend on finding a dry and warm spot to pass the rest of the dreary day. Theskul, their coachman, is huddling in his cloak as he paces around the carriage to keep a little warm. He’s holding a steaming mug in his hands; probably a gift from one of Twilight Hall’s residents.
As Marc quickly walks through the wet weather towards the coach his eyes fall on Theskul, who is standing so patiently in the rain. As Marc reaches the coach he hesitates, stops and smiles thankfully at the man. With consideration for the man’s position the lad mumbles a friendly remark about the cold and drizzly weather to the coachman. After a friendly nod at him he resumes his climb inside.
Hurriedly the friends enter the carriage, hoping the closed cabin will prove to be a bit warmer then the cold mist. Before Theskul closes the door behind her, Ditalidas informs the man of their destination; “Theskul, can you take us to Ondrear’s.” Theskul nods his confirmation and then climbs into his seat. Nik has taken his seat in silence across from Marc and looks outside into the city. The bard’s mood not improving with the weather conditions outside. With a little shuddering, the carriage starts to move, the sounds of the horses’ hooves sounding subdued in the foggy conditions. Suddenly Marc realizes Puddy is not with them. As a matter of fact, he hasn’t seen the small faerie since they stepped outside.
When the companions return to the coach Nik follows them slowly, like a man headed to his own execution. Dropping his battered backpack negligently between his feet and resting his precious guitar against the wall of the coach next to him, the bard slumps down in his seat and stares out into the fog. His dull eyes are haunted and vague, and it is obvious that he is not watching the street go by, but instead lost in thought – or memories. One hand rests possessively on the neck of his leather-wrapped guitar, while the other has found its way to the plain hilt of the rapier at his side.
The black and white shepherd’s dog runs joyfully through Berdusk’s streets, following the carriage. Fortunately for the bard Friend is running on the other side of the carriage. Ditalidas regards Nik for a long moment. She shakes her head and sighs. Her hand is on its way to touch him and she is about to say something when…
Marc holds his head upright and peeks from side to side. Without a sound from his mouth Marc’s big brown eyes roam from left to right, thoroughly examining every visible inch of the carriage again and again for a long time. Briefly he looks expressly at Nik, but can’t catch his eye as the bard stares outside, so Marc continues his investigation.
Then Marc suddenly shakes his head, stroke by a possible insight. “Yes!” He yells, immediately followed by a stronger “No!” There’s an eager look in his eyes while he looks at Emlyn and Ditalidas and stressfully utters: “We have to stop the wagon!” He stares at them for a heartbeat or two before adding: “He’s not there!” Again his eyes stray from side to side, Marc’s agitation apparently growing tenser with every breath.
The shepherd bends forward emphasizing his concern, “You see… ‘Talking outside we do’, he said.” Marc imitates the high voice of the faerie as he quotes him, “And look, here we are…” Marc’s gestures indicate the coach they’re in, “… inside… While Puddy must still be – there – somewhere.” Marc slams with his hand behind his head to get the driver’s attention while he explains to the women: “We have to return!”
At first Ditalidas observes Marc’s behavior with surprise clearly visible in her blue eyes. When Marc starts to slam on the couch, Ditalidas leans forward and gets a hold of Marc’s arm. Anger flashes in her yes. “Cut it out will you!” She lays Marc’s arm back in his lap. “Why does it always have to go in extremes with you! Please, think before you act.”
Everyone is aware of the sudden decrease in speed as Theskul applies the brakes and pulls on the reigns. The clatter of hooves on the cobblestones sounds like a cacophony of drums as the horses try to slow down on the wet street. Marc’s breath stalls… He bows his head, looking down at his hand and starts stammering. But almost instantly he ceases speaking as he realizes the lady’s touch is not half as hard as her words. Slowly his look rises until, from behind his curly fringe, his eyes humbly meet those of Ditalidas. He breathes a few times, deeply and a bit jerky.
Then a prudent smile appears on one corner of his lips and he nods shyly. “You’re right,” Marc says with trembling voice, “… it isn’t my place to order the driver.” The last words are hardly audible as Marc’s voice softens. Marc swallows and takes another large – halting – breath; both his voice and his countenance express sincerity as he adds, “I’m sorry… Perhaps I overreacted a bit, but…” Again he silences. Then he thoughtfully nods. More to himself than to the others he says, “Think before speaking up… Think before acting… I’ll try to keep it in mind.”
A bit embarrassed Marc wipes his cheek before he looks up at his three companions. He’s still very tense as his eyes rest at the lady’s face. Then he realizes the pitfall in his words and with a sigh he silently smiles relieved, his eyes still examining her expression thoroughly, his right hand slightly trembling. Seeing the embarrassment on Marc’s face and the tear he wipes away, the anger disappears from Ditalidas face. She sighs deeply lowering her eyelashes as if in shame herself for a moment.
Marc’s first yell startles Nik out of his thoughts, making the bard jump. His head snaps around, fear stark on his face as he half-raises one hand to ward off whatever aggression might be taken out on him. When he realizes what the lad is going on about the tall bard sighs and leans back, eyes closed and the twisted, bitter smile back on his lips. His raised hand tugs nervously at the scarf around his neck and he sits there in silence for a long moment as Ditalidas admonishes Marc and the lad apologizes.
Then Nik says softly “Leave the over-reacting to me, would you, my boy?” The bard’s sunken eyes have a spark of self-mocking humor in them now and he raises one eyebrow cynically as he continues wryly “I’m much better at it than you. I’ve had more practice, you see.” Nik returns his attention to the fog out the window and says absently, “And don’t worry about the little fae not being able to find us. I’m quite sure the little fellow will reappear when ever he feels like it. And when we least expect it.” With a bitter sigh the tall bard mutters, “And undoubtedly when I’m least prepared to handle a sudden shock…”
Surprised the curly haired man looks at Nik, when the tall man suddenly talks about overreacting. Marc cocks his head a little, working hard not to act before thinking. But Nik talks faster than Marc thinks and the tall bard has spoken half a dozen sentences before Marc concludes the man is joking; joking in a weird way. Again… Marc’s shoulders lower a bit as his tension lessens. On the corners of his mouth the beginning of a smile appears while he thinks about the things the bard was saying, trying to get some sense out of them. Then suddenly… “Almost as bad as him are you,” Marc hears a soft yet high-pitched voice near his ear. “Think you I have gone? Wrong you are, here I am.”
Startled Marc rises half up, lifting his hands as if he’s surrounded by a horde of bees. He freezes in that pose and looks to his left, but doesn’t see anything. “Ehm…” He softly utters. But his look crosses the cabin and he silently lowers back to his seat, looks to his left again and whispers with wonder in his eyes: “You are HERE…? Puddy?” The whispered words, however, are drowned by the driver’s voice close behind him…
Theskul’s head appears behind a small opening above Marc and Emlyn’s heads. “Milady?” He asks politely, a neutral expression on his face hiding any hint of surprise at the young shepherd’s actions. Ditalidas is visibly controlling her anger that returned while Nik was speaking, but manages a smile at Theskul. “I’m sorry Theskul, you can ride on. The young man was… oh… never mind… just ride on.” With a gesture and another smile she waves him on.
Marc peeks over his shoulder and looks before him again, with bowed head. Sneakily, with his right eye closed, he peeps at a point just above his left shoulder. Wonder, disbelieve and a joyful relieve shape the expression on his face.
When Theskul’s head disappears from the window she turns to Nik, the smile disappearing from her eyes. “I am really sick and tired of the depressing way you look at the world. If it were only yourself you bothered with it, I would have no objection, but I’m fed up with you spoiling the atmosphere. Nobody has the only rights on over-reacting. While Marc just has to think, you should try to think differently. The world is not as bad as you think it is, and you are probably not as bad as you seem to be… Only thing you have to do is to change your way of looking at the world and yourself… and you might find the gods created pieces of the heavens on earth.” Ditalidas sighs, the anger again disappearing. “For they did create pieces of the heavens on earth you know… it’s just there for you to see… and to experience.”
Ditalidas runs a hand trough her hair, shakes her head and turns back to Marc. “Listen Marc, it’s not about the driver. If the situation commands it I do not see why your instructions to the driver would be less then mine. The problem is that Puddy was invisible to us all the time. Why would you think he would not hide again?”
Again Ditalidas shakes her head and sighs. Absentminded her fingers massage her temples. With her eyes closed and her head hanging down slightly she whispers for herself: “Why are people always so hard on themselves. The world is a hard enough place without people condemning their selves to something they’re not.” At Ditalidas’ outburst the peasant boy seems to shrink at first. But as the fulminating continues it becomes clear that it is not aimed at him this time. He bounces back up and listens intensely at the fire-spitting woman in front of him. His face looks worried while his eyes jump back and forth between the angry lady and the sad man.
The invisible pixie smiles brightly at the lady’s words but realizes no one can see his face or his vigorously nodding head. “See things you do that others do not, smart are you.” Puddy tugs first on Marc’s ear then flies over and tugs on Nik’s, “Open your ears you both should, then open your minds. Less unsure would you both be. Now, fun we should have. Play I will, who will join?”
“Hey!” Marc calls out, but he silences at once and quickly grabs his left ear with his left hand. Softly – probably only to be heard by Emlyn and perhaps by Puddy – he says, “Ouch, not ‘that’ ear, you silly…” Carefully he moves his hand in front of him and looks at the palm. With a frown in his forehead he sighs, drops the hand back on his lap and adds with the same low voice: “Hmm… might have been worse.”
Then he looks at his right to look at Emlyn’s reaction, thinking the couple on the opposite side would have their attention elsewhere. “Yes, the world is,” He says, referring to the woman’s words. In thoughts, while his look seems fixed on a distant building, he softly sighs: “Yes, there are pieces of the heavens on earth.” But his face doesn’t look happy at all.
Theskul gets the carriage to move again, the clatter of the hooves returning to their steady rhythm. Those few people who had stopped to look at the sudden stop of the carriage have continued their way, probably the cold and wet weather cutting any curiosity short.
Emlyn, who had been silently listening to the conversation so far, looks at Marc, her brown eyes reflecting some mirth. “Maybe our little invisible friend is right about opening your minds. I can see the wisdom in that.” Then the halfling looks about in the carriage, a small frown on her face, “Though I can’t see the wisdom of having fun right now. It seems that everyone’s nerves are a little frayed at the moment.” Her brown eyes look a little worried at Ditalidas and Nik, “Let’s enjoy the ride and deliver our package. When we get back, that priest should have been able to translate the strange writing. We can then pour any frustration in trying to solve the puzzle that has been laid in front of us.” A slight blush creeps up Emlyn’s cheeks as she realizes she’s been talking more then she usually does. Marc still stares at distant places and only a vague sense of friendliness and wisdom slowly penetrates into his heart.
The tall bard doesn’t look at Ditalidas as she berates him, keeping his gaze out the window of the carriage. But his gaunt body stiffens at her angry words, and his jaw clenches as if he is biting back an equally-harsh reply. He is stiffly – almost defiantly – silent while Puddy, Marc and then Emlyn speak, giving a short, sharp jerk of his head in response to Puddy’s tug on his ear. Finally a ragged breath hisses through his clenched teeth, and he turns to face the lady beside him.
Nik’s haggard face is rigidly composed, aloof and arrogant. A muscle twitches faintly along one sharp cheekbone, and the bard’s muddy-green eyes are alight with fury. His deep, melodic voice is smooth and as harshly controlled as his face, and for once he doesn’t avoid Ditalidas’ eyes as he says to her “I am sorry I displease your highness.” Ditalidas shrinks back at Nik’s ‘your highness’ part. But then she straightens her shoulders and all expression disappears from her face while she tosses up a wall of royalty to protect herself from what is coming.
Nik’s gaze is steady and cold as the bitter disappointment – that flirts with hatred – normally focused inward at himself is now directed at Ditalidas. “I have seen much of the world – more than you, I am sure – and it is full of beauty. That is true. But it is also full of ugliness, and I have experienced more than enough of the latter to wring the… innocence… out of me. In another life I was more carefree, but that man died long ago. I am sorry I cannot be as eternally cheerful as you and the fairy would wish me to be. I…”
From the opposite side of the carriage, next to the humble halfling, the young man’s eyes wander from a place beyond the city walls back to the here and now. Marc looks at the bitterness, so visible in the middle-aged man in front of him and the sincere reaction of his master. He takes a breath and says… nothing.
The aloof mask slips and for a fleeting moment the tall bard looks lost and vulnerable, a child desperate for forgiveness hidden behind the lined, haggard face. The anger vanishes from his sunken hazel eyes, replaced with honest regret. Just as quickly it is gone, and the tall man closes his eyes, then turns his gaze out the window again. His voice is quiet and queerly expressionless as he continues “I do not always dwell on my past. But those demons do not go meekly back into their cages once I have let them loose. I never should have accepted your invitation to come to the Temple. I know I am not fit company at the moment. But I hoped…” His voice drops to a whisper as he finishes “I hoped this time it would be different.”
Nik stares out the window, the rigid self-control back in place. His dull eyes and haggard face betray no emotion at all, but the stiff set of his narrow shoulders reveals the effort the bard is putting into keeping his emotions in check.
Ditalidas drops her guard. An expression of compassion is evident on her face. She looks at her hands in her lap and closes her eyes for a moment. “I am sorry Nik. I should not have reacted so strongly… You just… shouldn’t judge the glory of my life without knowing anything about it.” Ditalidas squeezes her eyes tight and for an instant a pained grimace glances over her face. When she’s pulled herself together again, she looks back up and faces Nik. Only a little sadness lingering in her eyes holds the evidence of the struggle she just fought. “I just don’t understand. I really do not understand… Why do you have to punish yourself so badly? If you made a mistake why can’t you just decide you won’t do it again? Or do it differently next time. Why all this self mockery. Why… why… oh I don’t know…”
Ditalidas sighs and is silent for a moment. She holds her head slightly cocked while she thinks for a moment with her eyes closed. Then she sighs again. Without looking up she continues: “What do you need Nik? Tell me what you need to cheer a little up. Tell me what you need to feel better. Tell me what you need to lighten the past. And maybe… just maybe… I can help you.” Another little pause falls. Ditalidas fumbles with her hands in her lap, turning a ring around and around. “You know… I do want to help… but… I really don’t know how.” Ditalidas looks at her hands still turning the ring on her finger. Her blue eyes avoid looking at Nik, not sure what kind of reaction to expect.
Intrigued by the glowing tension growing in front of him Marc unwittingly grabs Emlyn’s hand and holds it gently. Affected he bends forward to miss neither syllable nor the twitch of an eyebrow of the communication between Ditalidas and Nik.
Nik is silent while Ditalidas talks, but his shoulders slump and his dull eyes fill with anguish as he stares out the window. Without turning to look at Ditalidas and the others, Nik says softly “I wish my… problem… were as simple as a mistake. But it is neither simple nor a mistake, what I do. All my life I have had this… compulsion… to take what isn’t mine. ‘An over-developed sense of curiosity’ is what my father called it, but my mother called me a thief. I can no more control it than I can stop breathing.” The man’s voice is tired, and so is his face, but unlike the first time he spoke of his past he does not seem about to break down. Instead he seems simply resigned, as if discussing a deadly famine in a far-off village and not his evidently painful past.
He turns now to look at Ditalidas, a small, sad smile on his face and the pain in his eyes sharp even though it doesn’t show on his face. “Six times in the past seven years I have been convicted of thievery by the courts. And those are only the times I was caught, you see. Most times I can put back whatever I take before it is missed. You may think I am punishing myself unnecessarily, but you see, if I don’t some one else will do it for me.” His left hand rubs absently at the scars hidden under his right sleeve, but he doesn’t seem to notice as he shakes his head abruptly and continues harshly “Don’t pity me. I have a problem, like a man who gets drunk every night and beats his wife and children. No amount of good intentions will change that. I…”
Still turning the ring on her finger around Ditalidas looks up for only a second when Nik looks at her. As soon as their eyes meet, she averts her gaze skittishly, back to her hands in her lap. At his last words Ditalidas slightly shakes her head, hardly noticeable.
Marc looks at the bard’s eyes – and the pain in it – while he listens intensely to Nik’s words. In fact there’s little to be seen on the lad while he looks and listens. But Emlyn can feel Marc’s fingers squeezing her hand more tightly as the conversation develops.
Nik’s voice breaks and he buries his face in his hands for a moment. When he looks up again, the anger is gone, and the pain in his eyes is nearly hidden by regret. “I’m sorry. Gods, I’m sorry. Don’t listen to me when I’m like this. I should have stayed in my room at the Stag. Drink myself into a stupor or something. I’m sorry… Gods, I’m so sorry…” The words tumble over themselves in their haste to get out and Nik falters to a stop, then looks out the window again, obviously regretting this whole conversation. Finally he adds softly “You can’t help me. I truly appreciate your desire to do so, but it’s MY problem. Unless you can get inside my head and fix whatever is wrong with me, there’s not a bloody thing you can do. Just give me time to shut the past away more securely, is all I ask. I’ve said a great many things today that I regret, and not just in the past five hundred breaths.”
As Nik’s voice breaks Ditalidas again gazes up. As he speaks over drinking himself in torpor she can’t help but look disapprovingly. As Nik falters to a stop Ditalidas gaze falls again on her lap. Then she shakes her head again, apparently not agreeing with Nik’s words, but she stays silent and does not interrupt Nik. Marc’s slightly squeezes his eyes and softly sighs when Nik repeatedly says he’s sorry.
He sighs and shakes his head again. “Gods. Just give me a little space, is all. Let me get a hold of myself so every time I open my damn mouth I don’t stick both feet down my throat.” The tall bard stares out the window, his arms wrapped across his narrow chest and his sunken eyes full of the anguish he struggles to keep off his face. “I wish you could help me.” He whispers. “But I don’t even know how to help myself…”
Ditalidas’ heart is going out to him, although she does not agree on some of the things Nik said, but she does not know how to make herself clearer. Silently she looks at the man beside her who is staring out the window again. Her hands are not fumbling anymore, but lay silently in her lap.
The fey has fallen silent as Nik continues to berate himself for his past deeds. “Then it is well… well…” Puddy begins. “By the Seelie Court! Nonsense I have never heard in such great form! So, take things you do… give them back as well.” The pixie becomes visible and hovers in front of Nik’s face, “Back! Taken from me you have! Back I want it, now!”
There’s compassion in Marc’s eyes as he looks at the bard. Then, slowly, he shakes his head a bit and takes a breath. At the sudden appearance of Puddy’s floating figure Marc’s breathing stalls for the time of a heartbeat or so. When the faerie suddenly charges Nik, Marc’s torso and head rise all of a sudden, as if a wasp has stung him. Nik cringes back from the little pixie’s accusation, face ashen and twisted with terror. He bumps into Ditalidas, and flinches away from her as well. A frown forms on her forehead as Ditalidas looks from Puddy to Nik and back. “What is this all about?” she inquires. The pixie keeps his eyes on Nik but says, “See you shall when the bard thinks through this in his muddled state.”
The bard’s head snaps around at Ditalidas’ question, his eyes wild with the panic so obvious on his face. When Puddy talks, Nik’s attention snaps back to the faerie creature, his gaunt body trembles, and he stammers “I didn’t… I haven’t… Oh, gods, I swear I haven’t… Oh, gods…” His terrified eyes sweep over the interior of the carriage, but he sees no escape. Nik draws his knees to his chest in a defensive huddle, his hands raised in front of his face as if to ward off any blows that may come. “Oh, gods, I swear I haven’t… I haven’t taken anything… I haven’t taken a thing… Oh, gods… Not anything from any of you, I swear, oh, gods, I swear… Oh, gods, I didn’t… I didn’t… No…” the bard whimpers, shaking like a leaf in a gale. His eyes, nearly blind with fear, dart from face to face and his babbling denials become the incoherent whimper of a trapped and terrified animal.
Marc’s compassion with this saddening man culminates. Again he shakes his head, wildly this time, his forehead deeply frowned. He clenches his fists – by this time he might hurt the halfling’s hand he still is holding – and bends forward to speak, takes a breath and slams his left fist on his lap. Still, he doesn’t speak. Puddy stares at the terrified, cringing bard. “Stolen you have! Stolen yourself from me! Pushing away more you do. Hiding yourself you are. Sad this makes me, very sad.” Puddy shakes his little head.
The tension inside Marc – his compassion for Nik and his self-pity, his impotence to help, his annoyance as well, as well as his reaction to his master’s scolding – grew until it reaches a point in which he can’t control himself anymore. Agitatedly he utters: “Oh… you… you…!” Marc immediately interrupts this rain of syllables as he tries to formulate a complete sentence in his head before speaking. His extent of commitment makes this very hard. He sighs. “Oh Nik! Please?” He sighs again. “We’re not gonna hurt you.” Marc shakes his head once more and takes a breath or two. More calmly, but still emotional, he continues: “So, you’ve done things you regret. Well… haven’t we all? …I for myself, I’ve done worse than stealing.”
There’s a twitch at the corner of his mouth and he stalls a moment. “And I’m not that sure I wouldn’t do some of these things again.” He lets go of the halfling hand as he spreads his hands as a helpless gesture. “I really don’t know and the mere idea I might is killing me… I left my home and homeland to prevent me from that… but it won’t help because it’s right here, inside of me.” The sadness behind his eyes seems to set his face afire. “Remorse is like a cold stone in my chest.” With sad eyes he looks aside and puts his fist against his breastbone. “It’s not like a matter of speaking, it’s really here.”
Marc closes his eyes and breathes slowly, by fits and starts. His voice sounds trembling as he talks on. “And I CAN’T give it back… Can’t undo.” Pleadingly he looks up at the tall bard. Marc sighs and pauses again, clenching his fists. He sits back and shakes his head. Then he bows his head and touches his forehead with his fingertips. He’s breathing heavily now. After a few long moments he swallows, wipes off his forehead and sighs.
“But then, what should I do? Should I do nothing but mourn in endless remorse? Who would benefit from that? It wouldn’t undo what I did, would it…? There is remorse, but… well, you see, I’ve had the time to think it over. Not to mention remembrance of good advice from the loved ones I used to know.” He wiggles his lips. “As a good friend said: ‘What’s done is done. It is as it is, and it’s no use trying to change the past.’”
The memory of his friend the blacksmith softens Marc’s emotion a bit. His tearstained eyes are focused on the talented man in front of him. “We live here and now. Don’t we? Should we tolerate regret or fear to freeze ourselves? Prevent us from acting…? Prevent us from doing good that is…? No!” This last word comes out as a near whisper.
Marc wipes his nose, while tears are cascading from his cheeks, but his talking sounds more at ease now. “We’ve got a saying: ‘It’s good to be alert for an enemy, but fearing that enemy is what has to be feared’… and another: ‘Fear makes you cautious, panic makes you dumb.’” He scratches his head. “You see, from what I’ve heard… and what I’ve found… fear ties you up, withholds you from acting… withholds you from fighting what you are afraid of… so… fear makes you loose the fight before it even started.” Marc peeks out the window looking for words. He wags his forefinger. “Fear…” A smile touches his cheeks, and he adds, “Or self-pity for that matter… well, it turns against you. Always does.” A frown crosses Marc’s face. “Fear is good, to flee… But that’s really all its good for… And one can’t flee from oneself, can you?”
He looks the bard in the eye again and speaks on, carefully choosing his words. “So… everyone has to face his own fears. We all have to look in the eye of just the things you’re afraid of… the more so if it’s inside of you.” At this last sentence Marc points at his stomach. Then he shakes his head, saying: “Don’t deny it… then again don’t let it overwhelm you either… Just look it in the eye, confront it… First THEN you can start to HANDLE it.” He gives the man a friendly nod. “And handle you should, I think.”
He reaches out and gently touches Nik’s knee. He taps it twice and leaves his warm hand there. He smiles friendly at the bard. “Please don’t fear yourself, don’t fear your fears…” And with mirth he adds, “And don’t drawn in self-pity.” His warm smile intensifies. “Act!” Marc lets go of the knee as he sits back. Then his eyes fall on the noble woman next to Nik. Humbly he bows his head. Then a naughty smile appears through his tears. He looks up and the brown eyes behind his fringe show mirth as he mumbles: “I did! I did think first.”
The mirth transforms into a glorious look while he sits up straight. “I did it! And… it works.” He pricks his elbow against Emlyn and joyfully states: “I did it…! You see, people CAN change.” The latter obviously aimed at the bard. Exhaustedly and in a way relieved he leans against the back of the seat. With wet eyes he looks aside at Ditalidas and Puddy. He smiles disarming, glances next to him at Emlyn and turns to look at the ones in front of him.
Ditalidas looks in surprise at Marc when he starts his waterfall of wisdom. Soon she can be seen nodding at his words. Now and then she throws him a curious or worried glance when she wonders what he is hiding behind his words.
At Marc’s outcry that he thought before acting, she smiles broadly and a glimmer of pride is visible in her eyes. As Ditalidas’ gaze meets Marc’s she nods approvingly at him. A bright gleam enlightens Marc’s brown eyes. He raises his wrist to his face and wipes his nose at the sleeve, and then sniffs twice. Then she looks at Nik beside her. Softly she lays a hand on his arm and squeezes it softly. She tosses him a warm comforting smile. She lowers her head, for a moment careful not to show too much of what she feels. But then she looks back up to face Nik. She doesn’t remove her hand, but leaves it where it is. The depth of her blue eyes show him the profound sense of empathy (sympathy) she feels.
Nik peers warily between his raised hands at Marc as the young man talks, and slowly the wild panic loses its grip on the bard. By the time Marc finishes, shame and guilt have replaced the fear in the gaunt man’s eyes. Swallowing hard, Nik lowers his hands and looks away. He wraps his arms around his drawn-up knees, hugging them to his gaunt chest. At Ditalidas’ touch, Nik’s head snaps around, a flicker of fear in his eyes again. But it vanishes in a blink and Nik offers her a tiny, remorseful smile before turning his gaze away from his friends again.
After Marc’s monologue, Emlyn lifts her gaze and stares at him, openmouthed. Then a smile creeps over her face. “What you said right now might have taken people I know who are called ‘wise’ weeks to think up. And those are people who, well, think before they act.”
“Gods.” Nik says faintly. “I’m old enough to be your father, lad, and yet you’ve more strength, wisdom and courage in a single hair on your head than I have in my whole body.” Nik swallows hard again and sighs, staring out the window as if the answer to his problems might be found in the foggy street instead of in the compassion of his companions. Or perhaps it is just that he can’t bear to look them in the eyes…
Marc balances between joyful pride, sad memories, lacks and remorse, empathy with the poor man in front of him – not to mention the urge to do something about his state of mind. There’s a warm smile on his wetted face and while he looks and listens his breathing is still jerky. When the coach speedily takes a corner Marc’s shoulder collides with the side of the carriage and he quickly holds the aching spot with his hand.
Nik’s hands clench into fists on his knees, and under her hand Ditalidas can feel the tension grow in his wiry arm. “That was a dirty trick, accusing me of stealing from you.” Nik says quietly, anger warring with the shame that still colors the harsh planes of his face. He pointedly doesn’t look at the little creature he is addressing, gaze still fixed on the passing street. He clears his throat, and continues hoarsely “You don’t know me as well as you think you do, if you thought accusing me like that would do me anything but harm. And if I’ve hidden anything of me from you, it was by the act I put on in the rain outside Nashkel.” A single bark of bitter laughter is punctuation as he snaps “Gods! You think I WANT to live like this? You think I ENJOY being afraid and miserable all the time? I wish I could turn back time, gods, I wish I could go back to the days before I lost my home, my family, my innocence, my name, my dreams… Before I learned first-hand the horrors that await anyone too weak to fight back in a prison cell, and that sometimes death is a thing to be welcomed, not feared.”
Nik sighs and the growing anger vanishes, replaced by regret. “If I don’t examine the dark ruin of my soul too closely I can play the part of the man I think I was when my name was Niklaus Winter. But that’s not who I am. Not anymore. I am what you see now, whatever you may think or hope differently. A broken man, trying to gather up the few pieces and shards of decency, self control and pride left to me.” He swallows again, and his eyes now reflect his anguish as he adds dully “There. I’ve told you more about myself than I have anyone I’ve met in the last seven years. I’ve nothing left to hide, unless you want the stories to go with all the scars on my body, or the details of the nightmares that I drink to keep at bay.”
The bard turns away from the window finally, but he can’t seem to make himself look at his friend’s faces. He rests his chin on his drawn-up knees, looking more than ever like a frightened child in the body of a middle-aged man. “Give me half a chance and I may yet be able to forge something useful from the dross of my soul.” His voice is faint, his face blank but his eyes filled with anxiety and unshed tears. “Or stop this carriage and let me out before I embarrass myself further.”
He glances up at his companions, his eyes desperate and pleading. Then he looks back down at the floor and mumbles “But for the gods’ sakes – and my own – please don’t push me any more. I just can’t take it. Not now.”
“Well, the thing about bravery, strength and courage is that people who think they don’t have it make up their definition, and people who seem to have it don’t think of it. That’s people for you… we judge too soon.” Watching the others carefully, Emlyn rises off her seat, balancing herself in what resembles a fighting stance a bit, knees bended and her weight almost entirely on one leg. In this strange position, she manages to keep her balance in the carriage, one arm to the side, the other touching Marc’s hand. “Very few people are in perfect harmony…” Oddly enough, the temperature of the small monk’s hand rises a little bit, feeling comfortably warm. “Do you feel it?” She finally asks Marc. “It’s a trick, a way of channeling energy. Something I learned in training… and harmony, of a sort. A simple form of harmony of body and spirit, but it takes years to learn. Imagine how long it would take to have a person’s character in harmony at every inch… more than it takes to train a body. More than a lifetime.”
Marc smiles at the acrobatics of the small woman and with a nod he acknowledges the warmth she mentioned. Then he shakes his head again and looks at Nik and Emlyn. He takes his hand from his shoulder and wipes his nose again with his sleeve. He sniffs his nose again and speaks lowly, hardly audible over the sound of the wheels on the road, “You don’t get it, do you?” He shakes his head and wipes off a tear with his forefinger. “Calling me wise and brave and all that… I’m not.” He throws a pleading look at Ditalidas before he continues speaking to the tall man and the small woman.
“Wise I’m not. And as for brave… I wish I had the courage for bravery, but I think I haven’t… It’s just… well… it’s about LIVING. Living your life that differs from wisdom, I suppose.” Again he strikes his sleeve along his drippy nose. Emlyn makes a helpless gesture. “Well, that was more or less what I meant. Maybe my choice of words isn’t too fortunate… but choosing words is one of those things I haven’t learned to do too well.”
“An’ I won’t push you.” There’s mirth in Marc’s eyes when he responds to the words of the older man. “It’s all up to you, always.” He looks at the others and nods, “It’s up to us, that is.” Marc clenches his lips while he tries to find a way to express himself. “Look… here we are… We might be dead tomorrow.” A twinkle emerges in his eyes, “Even within the hour for that matter” The twinkle disappears as sudden as it came. “Or we won’t be and live happily ever after… and you know what? It really is of no importance.” Marc eyes seem to radiate more warmth than Emlyn’s hand after her gymnastics. “But… when we die we die,” Marc shrugs, “little we can do about that, can we?” Marc pauses for a few heartbeats, “But what we CAN do is… live. Just LIVE… Here. Now.” Again he squeezes his lips. “Make the best of it… or something.” An infatuated look sits on his face.
“The winter before last, a friend of mine, Manuel, volunteered to deliver a message to the blacksmith’s. It would be a dangerous trip, in the midst of the night, because there would be orcs everywhere. But, well, he’d done it often enough, so he could do so without being perceived. At least that was what we thought. But this time it worked out differently. He ran into a patrol of roaming orcs and fled into a tree. There must have been quite of a battle there, in the dark winter night. In the end he sat there, in the tree, unhurt, while some twenty-five orcs lie beneath him, dead. An extraordinary outcome! So, he climbed down astonished and resumed his mission. After delivering the message he went back to the mill. But when he was nearly there he slipped on a snow-covered slope and broke his ankle. We found him the next morning, frozen to death.”
Marc takes a deep breath and continues: “What I mean to say is… ehm…” And to himself, frowning, “What do I mean?” Then he speaks up again, more slowly though, as if he’s unsure what to say. “Would Manual have acted differently in his encounter with the orcs, if he knew he’d be dead before dawn? Ehm… shouldn’t he have volunteered…? ehm… and… while those orcs…”
Marc’s shoulders lower some 2 inches and he looks frustrated. With wide eyes he looks at Puddy and Ditalidas. After a breath or two he spreads his hands. “I really did know what I was going to say,” he says apologetic and sighs. He looks with moist eyes at the poor bard again. Then he smiles and shrugs. Then he stands up, wiggling in the moving wagon, sniffing. After another wipe along his sleeve he puts his hand on Nik’s shoulder. “It doesn’t matter. Don’t rush.” Referring to the bard’s words he adds “Don’t even… ehm… forge… It’ll come…” Marc interrupts himself, calling out: “Freaky fried frogs! Can’t find the words!” Then he falls silent before smiling encouraging while his mood dims. “Just take your time, it’s yours.”
He looks at the floating fairy and says softly, “Yes, a song WOULD be a good idea. We both could do with some cheering up.” He takes a large, jerky, breath and looks aside to Ditalidas. “I don’t know,” he sighs, “it was crystal-clear a moment ago and now… I just don’t know.” New tears well up in his eyes as he speaks. Then a sudden movement of the carriage makes him waver and he falls on his knees. Then he drops his head on the seat between Ditalidas and Nik and weeps.
Ditalidas watches Marc throughout his monologue. Only now and then she glances towards Nik, Emlyn or Puddy. When Marc breaks down and cries she looks down on his head. For one moment she is not sure what to do. Then her hand rises and she lays it gently on his head. “Oh, Marc…” She says in a hushed tone, the empathy clearly in her voice. She shakes her head and slowly runs her hand trough his hair, “Life can really be hard, can it not…” Again she shakes her head. “And I guess it is not wrong to allow it to be that way.” She runs her hand again trough his hair. “Yes, cry. It will ease the pain a bit.” She closes her eyes. “It’s no use fighting against it. Fighting will only make it worse. Just let it go now…” She shakes her head. “Ah… what am I saying… shhhhh… everything is going to be fine… just fine… shhhhh…”
As Marc sways at the carriage movement, Emlyn from her own seat attempts to keep him from falling, but she isn’t fast enough (or her arms are too short, depends on one’s view of the world). After Marc kneels down by the two other humans and starts crying, she curls up again in her seat, hands on her knees and her brown eyes filled with compassion for the shepherd boy she only met two days ago. She watches her company in silence, knowing that like before, words would only get in her way and that the care of his lady Ditalidas and Nik is more than enough.
The tall bard doesn’t relax his defensive huddle on the seat, or even move his gaze from the carriage floor, but one bony hand reaches out awkwardly to rest on Marc’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, lad.” Nik mumbles and the pity in his muddy-green eyes is not for himself for a change. He looks like he might say more, might straighten up and put his feet back where they belong, but shudders faintly and stays where he is. His hand stays on Marc’s shoulder, however, occasionally patting it awkwardly as if it is all the comfort the gaunt man is able to offer at the moment. Emlyn smiles approvingly at Nik’s attempt of comforting Marc, but a protective look about the halfling tells everyone near that they shouldn’t dare and look embarrassed or she will give them a reason to.
As time goes by Marc gradually comes at ease, possibly as a result of the combined efforts of Nik and Ditalidas. The jerking of his shoulders lessens and his breathing slows down to a normal rhythm. And, while the carriage travels on through the wet and hollow streets of Berdusk, Marc slowly lifts his head up a little. Clumsily he retrieves a hanky in which he loudly blows his nose. Then he looks at Ditalidas with tearstained eyes and smiles prudently. He peeks at Nik too and his smile broadens a little. Marc untidily wipes his eyes and cheeks with his wrist and swallows.
“Oh.” He sighs. Then he sniffs as he is touched by the thought, “You are really friends, aren’t you?” With the back of his hands he brushes away another tear from his cheek. He lays one hand on Nik’s and another on the lady’s and straightens his back. “Thank you both,” he solemnly whispers before breathing deeply a few times. Slowly he shakes his head, “Thank you, it is…” Amazed Marc shakes his head, while his eyes go back and forth from Nik to Ditalidas and back. Humbly he smiles, “Gush! Haven’t felt so… well… close, since I… ehm… well… since I came to Berdusk.” A warm satisfaction shows from his wet eyes and face. “You’re SO…” Softly he squeezes both their hands. Still slowly shaking his head he hesitates, looking for words. He tries to explain: “Well… don’t know what… Suddenly it all came over me… The things I’ve done… the emptiness in me, for the ones I miss… the ones I lost that is.” Marc falls silent for a breath or two, “The… well… is home a word?”
Carefully Marc lets go off the hands he held and shuffles backward to sit on his place of the seat. He looks at the couple in front of him and continues: “You’re special. I don’t think…” Suddenly his eyes grow as he sees his wet hanky lying between the thighs of the two. “Sorry.” In a quick action he retrieves the cloth, throwing a humble smile at Emlyn, who must have seen it all.
The sadness in Emlyn’s eyes, both caused by Marc’s sorrow and the fact that she couldn’t help it, is lifted up a little, and soon she answers his feeble smile with a wink. Shrugging her shoulders, the halfling’s face brightens a little and she says: “Life can be like a ride on an elephant sometimes: shut up, hold on, grab it by the ears and try not to fall off.”
As the carriage slows down close to their destination, Marc, peering out of the window to see where Friend is, thinks he recognizes a person he has seen before. Following the man with his eyes, he sees him disappear into a warehouse. Rummaging in his mind he realizes that those times he has seen him, the man was in the company of Lohgran. A shiver creeps down the young man’s spine at the memory of Memblar’s.
Emlyn can sense a trembling in Marc’s shoulder as he suddenly stretches and gazes out of the window opening. “Wha…!” He utters startled. Surprise makes his eyes grow wide as he quickly looks at his companions… his friends. “Did you??” He asks them before turning his face in slow motion to the warehouse. Then he utters a disappointed grown: “Owl! He’s gone.” Marc turns to Ditalidas, “Remember how we met… the night before yesterday… at the quay… the killing at Memblar’s Minstrelry?” Emlyn’s gaze snaps to the direction Marc is staring. She shakes her head a little at first, not understanding, but as Matteo and Telsom’s rather vague story of a killing returns to mind she realizes this must be what Marc is talking about.
Then Marc slows down, remembering a previous admonishment. “Eh…” He says to others before returning to the lady, “I saw one of the blokes who tend to hang around with that Lohgran-chap.” He nods to indicate the direction, “Entered that warehouse, the one with the green doors.” Quickly he looks at the other companions, but he realizes they can’t help him here. “Shouldn’t we… well… he might lead us to that villain Lohgran, couldn’t he?” He glances at Nik and Emlyn, and continues to Ditalidas, “I think if one of us would secretly follow…” Then his eyes fall on the still floating fairy “Hey!” A naughty look sits in Marc’s eye as he softly says, “I think I have an idea!”
“Yes, make yourself useful… small one,” Emlyn says, the last two words with an irony that good-natured though it is, even a dwarf wouldn’t be able to miss. She still keeps a watchful and sharp eye in the direction of the warehouse.
Ditalidas glances suspiciously at Marc as he utters he has an idea. When Emlyn tells Puddy to make himself useful she puts up a hand to stop them. “Wait a moment… let’s not do anything stupid here.” Though the carriage is already slowing down, she puts her head out of the window. “Theskul, you can stop here please.” When sitting again she looks at Marc, yes I remember the docks and the barges.”
Puddy, who had been hovering near the ceiling of the carriage with arms and legs crossed, gives an indignant look at the young bardling. “Strange idea you’ve got. In your eyes see it I can.” The small fairy says, uncrossing limbs and lowering himself down to eye level with Marc. Cocking his little head to one side, a pair of small slanted eyes regards the young human. “Lo-lo-cha another song of yours it is? Sing it we shall and merry be us.” Doing a mid-air flip over Marc’s head the fairy now hovers in front of Nik. “Good music we make yes?” And with a lightning quick motion Puddy produces his tiny flute and starts playing a merry tune.
While Marc peers out of the window most of his attention goes to the conversation going on. He smiles at the sturdy reaction of the halfling and nods as Ditalidas’ interruption. After some four heartbeats he suddenly realizes that her words could point at his quick words as well and quickly he covers his mouth with his left hand. His eyes show guild as well as mirth. The sight of the tiny creature looking him in the eye, or nearly flying him in the eye as it seems, confuses Marc a little and he giggles softly.
Ditalidas removes a lock of her hair that the wind blew in her face while asking Theskul to stop. She turns to Puddy and regards the fairy for a moment. Then thoughtfully she shakes her head. “I don’t know… It could be dangerous. If you want to do it Puddy…” She shakes her head again and runs a hand trough her hair, “…No… I would never forgive myself if anything should happen to you.”
She shrugs with a despairing grimace as she tries to figure out a solution. “It would hardly be low profile if we went in all together, but I prefer that above sending one of us. Maybe we can wait him up till he comes out again. We would not have to deal with any friends or companions who might be inside.” She looks at her companions to see if any of them has other or, preferably, better ideas.
With a little shaking and skidding of hooves on the wet cobbles, the carriage comes to a halt; the motion almost bringing Puddy and Nik nose-to-nose. The fairy sticks out his little tongue, pinches the unfortunate bard in the nose and flies over to the window Marc had been looking out of. “No strangeness I see.” Puddy comments, sticking the little flute back in a pocket. “Only wetness… Wetness is not good for flying.”
The bard has been quiet while the other talk around him, his posture more relaxed now but still huddled up. His face is pensive, and a bit of confusion lurks in his sunken eyes. When the coach comes to a stop and Puddy pinches his nose Nik jerks his head back, fear bright in his eyes until the back of his head smacks against the carriage wall with a dull thud. Wincing, Nik rubs at his head and mutters angrily “Ow. Was that really necessary?”
Marc bows a little aside when Puddy blocks his view and removes his hand from his face. “No Puddy… In fact the strangest thing out there would be us, wouldn’t it?” Marc looks pensive at the warehouse. “I think we would make an odd combination, the four of us… or five…” Marc raises an eyebrow and hesitates. After a brief pause he nods and looks up, “We would attract less attention if we would act as if we’re two groups.” He looks at Emlyn, Nik and Ditalidas to seek if they follow his thoughts. Then he looks at Puddy, “You may not been seen at all, so…”
Marc looks at the ones inside the carriage as he sorts out different combinations. “Nearly any combination of two or three could look more … ehm … normal than the four of us.” He nods, “Least of all the two ladies, perhaps.” He squeezes one eye as he pictures the combinations in his head, “But even that wouldn’t be too special.” He looks down at his sword, of which he thinks that it’ll attract the eyes of anyone. “Perhaps I should…” But he reconsiders, “nah”. The low rhythm of his words underlines the serious look on his face: Marc is thinking.
He turns his attention to his opponents again, “But… shouldn’t we bring those manuscripts first?” Marc asks. There’s a moment of silence before he bows aside and whispers to Emlyn, with a weather-eye on the warehouse outside, “What on Faerûn is an elephant?”
Nik, still grimacing in pain from the not-really-hard knock against the wall behind him, asks absently “An elephant… isn’t that some armored, low-slung animal with a horn on its nose and a really short temper? Lives in the plains and such?” Then he sighs and adds “And as for being inconspicuous, well…” Nik finally puts his feet on the floor again, stretching his long legs out in example. “There’s little in this world that can make me inconspicuous. I tend to… stand out in a crowd.” He smiles wanly at his feeble little joke. “But if it’s a distraction you need, well, I’m quite good at causing scenes, as you’ve all noticed by now.”
“Hmm, don’t know about the horns,” Emlyn says thoughtfully, “But some of the wealthy nobles in my country used to have elephants brought over – huge, grey stomping beasts with tusks, big ears and a hose for a nose.” She scratches her own nose for a while. “Well, if it’s a distraction you need.” She says to Nik, “I can always offer to pick your pockets and then you can scream at me.” She smiles quietly. “It’s what happens to halflings in Calimport, so why not here.”
“Aha! See now I do” cries Puddy. “Know these ‘elephants’ I do. See them stomping in the woods, stinking much they are. Call them orcs, we here do.” Says the little fey, nodding sagely as he hovers in place for a moment.
Marc tries to make sense of the various body parts handed to him, attempting to glue them together in his head in order to take a look at the image of an elephant he build. But his eyes grow as the tiny man mentions the word ‘orcs’. In his head the carefully constructed image of a monstrous creature collapses and transforms into the dreadful enemies of his homeland. Marc is baffled and slowly turns his eyes – which are wide open – to gaze at the halfling warrior beside him. “You… you!” there’s a bewildered tone in his voice. He shakes his head. “A weird folk you are indeed, you halflings… riding orcs! … Aghl!” this last word comes deep from his throat. Marc wrinkles his mouth in disgust. The pitch of his voice rises “And you think life is like riding one??”
Then Marc closes his eyes end hides his face behind a stretched hand. After a breath or two he sighs and swallows. Then he bows to Emlyn again and says “Sorry, but I spoke without thinking again. … Didn’t mean to judge you or your folk…” Marc stares a moment in the direction of the green doors, “…I just can’t understand, that’s all.”
“No, I don’t mean orcs,” Emlyn says, waving her hands to indicate a huge size. “Orcs are monsters – elephants are just animals, and they’re enormous, much bigger than orcs, about the lengths of 5 men!” She stops and lets her arms down. “Halfling men, that is.” She finishes lamely.
“Anyway, do you want to spy on that murderer or not? If you think your wings may get wet, I or…” Emlyn hesitates. “I or Nik could make up an excuse and drop you off inside, or by the door. The man couldn’t possibly know our faces yet. The only thing *you’d* have to do is not be seen, and you’re good at that. What say you, my little friend?”
Ditalidas shakes her head. “I do not see the relevance of an elephant. Why are we talking about a beast or monster from far away when in that warehouse over there is somebody who could lead us to the killer of Tharkas and maybe even to the persons who set up those zombies to attack me or to some clue as to anything else that’s going on at the moment.” She looks at her companions. “It’s nice that you can cause some distraction. But distraction from what? From us entering the warehouse? That does not seem necessary to me. What are we going to do any way. Just stepping up to talk nicely? Or are we going to kidnap him and drag him to Captain Zaina for questioning? Or are we planning on doing some questioning ourselves? Do we want to confront him in a warehouse full of people or on the almost empty streets. The rain could add to a cover.” She sighs again. “I’m not really in favor for getting at the man at all. It could possibly get dangerous.”
She turns to Marc. “If we deliver the papers first we might loose sight of this man. This is one chance out of a hundred. We should not let this get past us. I can give the papers to Theskul. He should be able to keep them save until we find the time to deliver them.” She turns to the group as a whole again. “I have the following suggestion. We wait until he reappears from the warehouse. Marc will be against the wall with a knife ready. Emlyn and Nik will ready themselves for their distractions for when everything else fails. When the man comes out Marc will threaten him from behind. I will ask him kindly to join us for a ride… And then… let’s hope he will, if not we might have to drag him in and…” An expression of disgust crosses Ditalidas face. “…Oh my! What am I planning at! I’m nothing better then those people who kidnapped Portia!”
Emlyn bows her head as the lady speaks, but the look on her small round face is worried. As soon as Ditalidas has finished, the halfling looks up to the others. “A brave suggestion, to turn this man over to the authorities… but more dangerous than finding out what he’s up to, in my honest opinion. And besides, we do not know whether he’s alone in there, neither do we have an idea what’s going on. It might be valuable to spy on his ways before we jump him and put a knife to his throat.”
Marc smiles at the halfling. He opens his mouth to reply, but closes it again with a muffled snap. He sneakily throws a glance at Ditalidas, then he looks at Nik and Puddy, but as they remain silent he looks out off the window again. First then he answers the fierce small woman at his side. “That’s what I thought myself.” A glorious smile emerges on his wet cheeks. “But then I reconsidered.” Proudly his eyes fall on his mistress again, while he entrusts her, “Thinking first… it’s like opening window-shutters… fresh air to breathe… and new light on matters.”
Then he turns to the halfling again. “It sounds so much safer to sneak behind the fellow and find out where he’s going and all that.” Marc nods. “My cuppa tea exactly… ehm… mugga coffee in Berdusk probably… But what’s next?” Marc rises his brows, “That’s the trick, thinking two steps in stead of one. Look, we might follow him to the core dwelling of Lohgran and his folk, but then what?! There might be a hundred villains there and we might as well cover ourselves with honey and lay down in an anthill… Hmm… Better probably.” Marc clears his throat at these unhappy thoughts. He wipes off his nose again before continuing: “Whilst Ditalidas’s idea… well it may sound dodgy at first, but ‘think’ about it… we’re safe in the city, with guards roaming around and all. We’re with five to one… ehm… five and a half if we count the driver…” The latter with a lateral look at the fairy. “No…” He says with a valuing look at the lady in the hunting suit in front of him, “I think it’s the best of ideas.” Then he nods thoughtfully.
Friend who had followed the coach through the wet streets of Berdusk without hesitation, rounds the corners of the streets just a body-length or four behind the vehicle. The pouring rain wakens new odors, the smell of fallen leafs and fungi particularly, but the smell of freshly baked bread dominates here and the tempting perfume of not-to-fresh-fish somewhere else. The black and white dog even slows down near the butchers, remembering how Marc often gained bone for her there.
But on goes the large artifact in front of her – the strange thing with his master in it, following the horse – and Friend quickens to catch up again. After some time the thing stops, at a site where the autumn-odors are mingled with the scent of corn, wet wood, beer and humans. Friend stops her pursuit and walks to the side of the street, where the water forms small, but heavily flooding streams, and drinks a few mouthfuls. She lifts her head as she hears the sound of some mechanical something.
Marc straightens his back and stretches his face. He looks at his friends with a decided look, not quite fitting with the wet appearance of his cheeks and the red rims around his eyes. He pauses to think again. Then he knocks on his knees with his fists. “But, let’s not talk too long, shall we? This man can come out fairly soon now.” A bit agitated he looks from left to right and back and then at the handle of the door. He raises his hands and looks at a point between Ditalidas and Nik for a heartbeat. Then he nods and in a single move he bends forward, opens the door, sneaks out onto the street and softly closes the door again. From within the wagon one can see the top of Marc’s head as he casually walks to the back and past it.
The bard has sat in silence as the others discuss options around him. His gaunt face seems thoughtful and even a tiny bit bored but his eyes are anxious and confused, flitting from face to face as he tries to decide if he should comment or not. When Marc leaves to watch the warehouse door Nik stares after him, the concern in his eyes now obvious on his face. “He shouldn’t be out there by himself.” the tall man murmurs to himself. Swallowing hard and visibly mustering what little courage he possesses, the bard looks back at Emlyn and Ditalidas and says with forced cheer “I’m about worthless in a fight, but this fellow you’re concerned about won’t likely know that. At least I do know to stick the pointy end of my sword into the other guy before he does it to me.” Nik gives the two ladies a weak smile and opens the door to the coach. Staring at his priceless guitar the bard hesitates for a long moment, and then clambers down from the coach, avoiding the backpack at his feet with considerably less grace than Marc did.
His worried eyes still glued on the leather-wrapped instrument resting against the wall of the carriage, Nik reaches one trembling hand towards it, then suddenly says, “No. I can’t risk her.” He looks back to Emlyn and Ditalidas and forces another smile, adding “I’m sure she’s safer in there than I’ll be out here.” Squaring his narrow shoulders, the bard closes the door and heads over towards Marc.
Friend pricks up her ears as she sees her master coming out of the large box. Waggling she walks towards him presents her head and collects a gentle stroke. She follows her master as he calmly walks to the wall next to an entrance and sets himself on a stack of sacks with corn. She watches him unsheathing his sword and putting it at his side. Before laying herself near his feet she shakes out her fur. Satisfied she lays her head on her paws and sees how Marc takes a knife from beneath his shirt and starts cutting a piece of wood. This is a familiar sight, Marc cutting some stick and she, she just lying at his feet. Good!
Nik’s long strides falter as he gets closer to Friend, but the bard forces himself onward, finally leaning his lanky frame against the wall next to Marc. He crosses his long arms across his stomach, the very picture of nonchalance with his left hand seeming to just happen to rest above the worn hilt of the rapier at his right hip. “So…” He murmurs to Marc, the anxiety in his eyes not apparent in his deep voice or craggy face. “What exactly is the plan again?”
As Marc and Nik round the carriage, sauntering towards the warehouse followed by Friend, they can look into the interior of the building. The large green double doors – large enough to let a wagon through – are open though there is not much activity to be seen inside. There appears to be a sort of an office on the ground floor, most of it obscured by crates, boxes and barrels that are stacked everywhere.
In the mean time back in the carriage three pairs of eyes follow the movements of the two men and the dog. There is an almost tangible tension in the air as Ditalidas, Emlyn and Puddy watch their friends approach the building. Still no movement is visible within the building…
Emlyn slips out of the coach and seeks out a spot across Nik and Marc, yet at an easily ‘run-able distance’ away from the vehicle. At a glance, her attention doesn’t seem focused on neither the door nor the carriage. Occasionally, like with all, well, parts of the scenery, her glance may pass over it but she merely pays attention by listening rather than watching. Having sauntered to a suitable place as inconspicuous as possible, she sits down cross-legged and looking expectant. With her simple, worn and troll-battered outfit she looks like a small beggar, albeit a clean one…
With his back against the warehouse Marc sits on a pile of sacks. His sword lies unshielded next to him, partly covered by Marc’s fur, which seems to have slipped accidentally off his shoulder. He just sits there with stretched legs, as if he has all the time of the world. There’s a stick of wood in his left hand and a knife in the other. The knife looks ordinary and quite old, a little simple perhaps with its handle apparently cut from a branch, with the bark still on it. Yet it is sharp and the calm but steady moving of his hands show he must have been cutting these small sculptures often before.
The wood in his hands still looks mostly as just another piece of wood when a tall man casually stands next to him, leaning nonchalantly against the wall. After some time Marc throws a glance at the peculiar looking man and answers him on a casual tone, “Oh, just an attempt to catch the calmed wildness in the look of a horse”. He smiles humbly as he says this, looking up at the horse put to a carriage in front of him for a moment and then returning his attention to his cutting job.
Then he softly whispers, “Hush!” There’s a tension in his voice, “Like the lady just said… She’ll address the man when he leaves.” Sneakily Marc looks at the doors, but as he sees no-one else he continues his whisper, “While he’s distracted we approach him from behind.” Again Marc peeks at the entrance. He briefly looks the bard in the face and nods indicating at the longsword at his side. He returns his attention to the knife and entrusts Nik whispering, with a teasing gleam in his eyes, “She won’t take ‘no’ for an answer”. Immediately he continues on a normal conversation tone, “…Not too hard, done it often enough…”
Very Concentrated, with one eye closed, Marc thoroughly looks at the horse’s head. “Getting just the right ‘expression’… that’s the hard part.” After a few dozen of breaths, he nods satisfied with his findings and resumes cutting, seriously attempting to get the essence of what he just saw into the worthless piece of wood, seemingly not noticing anything else.
A couple of people walk hurriedly by through the fog covered street. Huddled in their cloaks, they pay no attention to the two men sitting inconspicuously against a warehouse. One of the passersby on Emlyn’s side of the street stops near the halfling, and fishing out a couple of coppers, deposits it in the halfling’s hand while listening to the small woman’s plea on behalf of the Crying God. With a quick nod the woman walks on, disappearing soon out of sight.
No other activity is forthcoming from beyond the open doors of the warehouse. Whomever the person was that entered the building apparently is not in a hurry to venture back outside. Theskul, after throwing a discreet glance in the direction of the three disembarked passengers, turns around to look at Ditalidas. “Milady, do you wish to remain her or continue towards the shop?” The man’s eyes drift from the young lady Jalarghar to the small faerie which seems to be interested in the activities of the friends in front of the warehouse.
With her mouth slightly open Ditalidas watches how her friends apparently accept her outrageous idea. She sees them leave one by one until only Puddy and she are left in the coach. She looks at Puddy, her eyes slightly wide… “They just…” She swallows and than smiles feebly, but the smile is quickly replaced by a frustrated look. “Oh my, what did I get myself into? I don’t even know what this guy looks like!” She moves to the spot where Marc sat, for a better view on the doors. Then she faces Puddy again. “Could you go to Marc and ask him to give me signal when the right guy walks out?” A little film of sweat is covering her forehead.
Softly she curses and she’s startled as Theskul shows his head in front of the window. “Theskul! Oh… ehm… we’ll wait for a moment. The friend of some killer just entered that building and I like to talk with him.” A blush covers her cheeks and she shakes her head. “It all sounds so stupid now.” With a desperate look she watches her companions against the wall of the warehouse. “I wish they would just get in again, so we could ride away and forget about this whole plan.” It’s not clear to whom she’s talking, but a good guess would be that she’s talking to herself.
Then she turns to Puddy again. “Tell Marc to hold his knife until the man refuses to come with us willingly. It would be ideal if he just kindly went along… Oh crap… what a situation!” Wiping the sweat from her forehead she concentrates on the open green doors. The little sprite looks at Ditalidas for a long second, then merely bobs his head in assent, circles her head one time as he gives her a quick pat, then fades from view a moment before he darts out the window of the carriage into the mist. Without a thought, the faerie turns invisible, a small flutter of wings the only indication he is moving out of the carriage.
The gaunt man smiles, nodding attentively as Marc explains his carving. “Fascinating!” He says, looking for all the world like a somewhat-lost tourist. “Utterly fascinating. So you do this often? Carve whatever you see? Perhaps you’d be interested in selling it, when you’re done. My wife would love it. I promised to bring her something back from this trip.” Nik crouches down to get a better look at Marc’s work, leaning one elbow on the lad’s grain-sack seat for balance.
Nik’s eyes flicker to Marc’s half-hidden sword, and for an instant the anxiety in his eyes is visible in his face. But just as quickly it’s gone, and Nik says cheerfully “I’ve been told that the secret to good carving is to cut away anything that doesn’t look like your subject. Never could get the hang of it, myself.” With a toothy smile the tall man adds “I seem to cut away all the bits that look like my subject, and leave all the ones that don’t.” Chuckling to himself, Nik straightens up, and asks, “Is the weather always like this here? I thought I’d take a walk today and enjoy your fair city, but it’s really rather dismal out. At least it stopped raining.” The bard watches the street with the interest of a man on holiday, seeming to look at everything and nothing at all while he prattles on to the lad beside him.
Invisible, Puddy flies to the warehouse and hovers over the shoulder of Mark. Whispering low, he murmurs, “When out comes the man you seek, the lady Ditalidas asks that to her you give a signal. But do not draw your blade and strike, she asks, unless cooperate with you, he does not.”
Marc’s right hand moves in constant circles, moving the knife around the stick in his other hand and splinters of wood are steadily falling on his lap. Every now and then an attentive watcher may notice that – while his hand moves on and on and the position of his head doesn’t move – there are no splinters falling for a while and Marc’s eyes Rush from side to side. A tiny flickering in his eyes acknowledges Emlyn’s arrival, a curling on the corner of his mouth shows he did see her receiving some change. In the meantime he responds to the apparent stranger next to him as well: in a friendly tone, with large pauses when he’s concentrated on his carving, he humbly states that his carving is not too special, but that he has indeed sold some of these images.
From time to time he ceases cutting in a more visible manner. Then he looks at the horse’s head and shoulders again with a pensive look. He nods, throws a glance at Nik and resumes cutting. The top of the branch he’s holding gradually begins to resemble a horse head. There is something emerging in the form and angle of the neck of that horse that vaguely reminds of the tamed wildness of a horse.
In the meanwhile he explains the tall visitor that the real essence of carving is hidden in the patient true watching of the subject and a relaxed attitude during the cutting, “…Better to concentrate on cutting twenty tiny slivers than half a small sliver too much…” And that the carving is therefore a way of concentrating and settling down, a way to get peace of mind in stead of a form of art or something, though one could call it craftsmanship of course because practice is…
Then, suddenly Marc startles; his knife stops in mid-air a dozen of inches from the wood while Marc’s eyes are wide-open and his head rises. “Cuddly Creatures of the Dark!” He whispers when he sees that the image of the horse is missing part of an ear. Then he looks at a point above his own shoulder and, clearly irritated, says in a brusque but low voice “Oh, Puddy,” and asks the faerie, “Wha?!” He looks at the hilt of his sword, which is lying at his side, barely visible underneath his fur coat. He frowns pensive and asks Puddy, “No sword?? …But…” He glances at the coach, but he doesn’t get much wiser by doing so and returns his attention to the stick he’s holding. He whispers sideways to Puddy, “Are you sure? …And why… Why is she still inside?” Marc drops the stick in his lap and gazes at the horse for a moment of thoughts. Then he takes a deep breath and resumes cutting. But his enthusiasm seems to have subsided and the rhythm of the movements of his hand has slowed down dramatically and he doesn’t take the initiative in the conversation.
As Marc and Nik – and an invisible Puddy – sit close to the open doors, nothing seems to happen. No activity at all. It is almost as if the warehouse is out of business. But that would not explain all the crates, barrels and sacks that are visible inside… Emlyn, from her position across the street, has a better view of the warehouse’s interior. It might have been a trick of the eyes, but was that some shadowy movement between the stacked crates near the back. As she focuses she can’t see anything moving. Then from a corner of her eye she spots some movement again, closer to the doors – again she looks that way and it seems whatever moved has either frozen or moved on without coming into view.
Having noticed the shifting movements inside the warehouse suddenly stopping, Emlyn frowns. At a moment when she doesn’t have any passers-by to worry about – or beg their coppers from – she tries to catch Marc or Nik’s gaze, her frown deepening. With a slight twist of her head and a movement of her eyes she indicates that she saw something… and then shrugs, not knowing where it went. At Emlyn’s nod Marc freezes for a heartbeat. He doesn’t move a limb, but his eyes turn to one side to catch a glimpse of possible approaching danger. Then he continues his parting in the scenery en resumes cutting the disabled horse. He mumbles to the tall man standing next to him, “Well, it’s still early day, isn’t it. Perhaps the fog will disappear as the sun rises, but I wouldn’t know… See. It’s my first autumn here, I … ehm … hey!”
Nik seems to notice Emlyn for the first time. “Oh, dear!” he says to the world at large, concern roughening his voice. “Look at the poor child…” He strides over to Emlyn and crouches down in front of her, saying – in the too-sweet voice of a man without kids, “Poor little girl! Don’t you have a home and parents, or did you run away…” Suddenly he gasps in surprise. Looking chagrined and embarrassed, he stammers “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you were a human child… how rude of me…” Still crouched down in front of Emlyn, he starts to rummage through one of the beltpouches cluttering his belt, stammering apologies to her the whole time. Finally he pulls out a silver and hands it to her. As he hands her the coin, he looks gravely into her face. His suddenly wary eyes flick once in the direction she indicated as he says somewhat pompously “I’m sure there is someone watching over you right now. Whether it is apparent or not, the gods do care.”
With the self-important air of a man who thinks his tiny gesture will make everything better, Nik stands and returns to annoying Marc. “Oh!” he says, looking confused as he stares at the carving. “Don’t it have two ears just a moment ago?” He leans closer to Marc, looming over him as he peers closely at the carving. Seeming to mumble to himself he whispers to Marc “Emlyn saw something. Keep sharp.” Leaning back and looking disappointed, Nik asks curiously “Now how do you fix it when you screw up like that? My wife isn’t going to want a one-eared horse. If she did I could carve her one myself, instead of paying for that one.” Marc raises his left eyebrow as Nik utters his concern and crosses the street. He slowly continues carving, looking at the scene in front of him from an edge of the eye from time to time, but mainly focused on the horse … and the coach behind it.
The carving proves to be as relaxing as Marc claimed a moment before: he’s gradually growing back to his relaxed and natural way of carving when Nik returns. He briefly clenches his fists at Nik’s remark about the ear, but realizes the man’s just role-playing when Nik whispers the message. He interrupts his carving again, stretches his back and carefully scratches between his shoulder blades with the knife. The expression on his face could express concentration on scratching just the right spot… but it could also mean he’s just thinking. Marc’s eyes roam to his left again, the direction Emlyn indicated just yet. With more agitation than necessary for the pretend he answers Nik. “Saer, if you don’t like it you’re free not to buy it … But look at the angle of his neck and the look in his eyes… isn’t it just the tamed wildness we spoke about?” He looks up at the man and raises his eyebrows, his lips forming the word “What?” Then he returns his attention to the street in front of him, especially on the small woman at the other side of the street.
The content of Twilight Dawn are the property and copyright of J P Hazelhoff, and are not to be published or redistributed without permission.
Return to the Twilight Dawn main page
Return to Campaign Logs