By Jaap-Peter Hazelhoff
Chapter 78 - Windstream Lodge
Windstream Lodge 1371 DR, Eleint, 13th day (The Maiming, Tyr), evening
Between the trees a little further along the trail occasional light shimmers where a door to a building is opened to let people in or out. “That’ll be the ‘Boar’s Head’…” Drouth says, “My destination for tonight, and unless you plan to continue your journey in the dark, I suppose this’ll be your destination as well. The place doesn’t have the fineries you city folk are probably accustomed to, but it’s a good and honest place where a traveler can get a hot meal and a dry bed.”
Nodding, Matteo purses his lips as he regards the wooden establishment ahead through the trees. “Not exactly the Golden Pheasant, that’s for sure,” he mutters. His voice picking up he adds, “Still, it’s probably better than the alternative.” Moving forward he says, “Let’s get the horses sorted away for the night. Nik? Can you go in and get us some rooms and food please?”
Nik looks up as Matteo addresses him, the crooked smile back on his drawn face. “My pleasure, milord.” he says with a wink and a flippant salute. Turning briskly on his heel, the bard heads over to the inn. There is a bit of a spring to the tall man’s stride, clearly the prospect of a night indoors instead of on the road has lifted his spirits.
Although unsure of his companions objections to sleeping in the open, the little fey is buoyed by Nik’s uplifted spirits, and follows the tall bard into the inn.
Gracelessly, Kevin slides down from his horse. Doing his best to hide the trembling in his hands, he takes the reigns to lead his mount into the stables for the night. Dismounting and taking her reins, Portia moves to stop Kevin. “Go inside, Kevin. I’ll take care of the horse.”
Kevin smiles gratefully. “If you’re sure you don’t mind?” He unfastens his bag from behind his horse’s saddle and follows Nik into the building. He hopes this place has clean linens, but he feels as though he could sleep in the dirt at the moment.
Stepping off his horse, Jez takes the reins of the remaining horses. “I’ll take he other horses into the stables and secure the equipment,” he announces. Looking at Portia, he says, “can you use the company?”
Portia smiles at the Berduskan native. “Always.” Jez nods at Portia’s reply. “Thank you,” he says. A slight whining shrill can be heard as Alanna pokes her head out of the satchel. She squeaks at Jezbodiah and in turn, he rolls his eyes. “No, I haven’t forgotten about you. Yes Alanna, just a few more minutes and you can eat to your heart’s content.”
Taking the horses by their reins, Jez leads them towards the stall and into their separate stables. Once the horses are taking care of, Portia moves to join the others within the lodge. Upon entering, she moves directly to see about securing rooms for the evening…
Thanking Jez for taking his horse, Matteo grabs his saddlebag and slings it over his shoulder before following Nik, Kevin and Portia into the inn.
By the time Matteo makes it into the establishment – a little more than a converted barn of sorts – Nik is already consuming the contents of a bottle, ignoring the disproving looks of Kevin and Portia. Puddy, hovering invisible near the tall bard’s head is looking at him with curiosity; is the Nik continuing in his good spirits, or is he going back to consume the spirits of before…
The little fey takes an opportunity to appropriate a choice bit of fruit or fresh bread, if available. He then sits cross-legged on the table in front Nik, absently munching on his ill-gotten repast, as he continues to consider the bards consumption of alcohol.
Shaking her head once more at Nik’s behavior, Portia makes her way to the innkeeper to arrange for lodging and a meal. Shortly after she joins the others at a table. Kevin and Matteo seated and Nik standing a little off cradling the bottle.
As the bard lifts the bottle once more to his lips, Jezbodiah enters and walks over towards the table. Not many patrons are present in the inn, and those who are seem to be keeping to themselves. A fire is burning in the hearth, adding to the still present from of the day. Several fish on a stick are roasting over the fire, a young lad turning them over every once in a while. With only a hole in the roof to function as a chimney, the whole place reeks of smoke, roasted fish and a mixture of beer and pipeweed.
The exuberant half-elf enters the establishment, carrying the day’s saddlebags. Upon seeing his companions at the table, his eyes show a look of disapproval as Nik is preparing to chug down another bottle of bowl-shattering grog. The merriment and the thought of a night’s rest out of the saddle, even in the arms of a comely tavern wench, disappear from Jez’s mind like Shar in darkness.
“Good to see your promise to Immerine didn’t last long,” he says almost biting the scorn off his tongue. Not carrying whether Nik consumes the drink or not, Jezbodiah takes a seat next to Portia.
Once seated with the others, the red-haired cleric looks around, closes her eyes for a moment and simply enjoys the peace of the moment. The stresses of the last few days have been extreme. It’s nice to just be able to sit for a bit…
Once the food is delivered, she digs in, thoroughly enjoying the meal. As she finishes, she looks over to Matteo. “It’s been a while since I’ve been able to just sit for a bit.” Then, with a sigh, she continues… “I’m a little worried about finding the mill though.” Looking around the place, she adds, “I don’t see any of the Hellriders that Drouth mentioned…”
When Jezbodiah opens her carrying satchel, Alanna ventures forth and scurries onto the table. Her nose twitches at the scent of the foul pipeweed. She sneezes in a sharp squeak then quickly moves towards Portia’s plate. “They shouldn’t be to hard to find,” replies Jez to Portia. “Maybe I can ask the barkeep if they have a favorite gathering place or some such.”
A furry little paw reaches for a tender piece of bread. The ferret looks playfully at Portia with an innocent mischievousness and confidence she’ll take a piece without a complaint from the priestess. That is until Jezbodiah reaches across the table and grabs her by the tail. “You have better manners than that young lady,” he says to Alanna as he drags back across the table. Jez looks at Portia and says, “Sorry.”
Portia grins at the familiar’s antics, and holds out the targeted piece of bread. “Oh, no problem. She’s too cute!” Then, returning to the conversation, she says, “asking the barkeep might be a good idea.” She shrugs. “Can’t hurt to ask.”
Nodding, Matteo murmurs, “I’ll go and make some enquiries while getting a drink.” Crossing the floor towards the bar, Matteo leans against the bar and signals for the barkeep.
The ferret takes the bread-morsel from Portia’s fingers and places it firmly in her mouth. With head held high, she returns to Jezbodiah haughty and proud in knowing she may have a new friend. “Show-off,” he says to her with a smile. “I’m trying to teach her some manners, but her appetite seems bottomless.” Then Jez looks at Kevin and says, “Say, how are you feeling? Are you well enough to make it to your room?”
As close to the cooking fish as possible – the smell of the fish and wood-smoke partially overpowers that of drink and pipe at this range – Kevin has taken his seat. The young mage’s stomach growls a bit, and a hot meal seems almost as attractive as a bed at this point. Waiting for the fish to be finished, as well as for rooms to be secured by other members of his group, Kevin puts his head down, burying his face in his folded arms. Just a few minutes… then he’ll go ask about some food… He doesn’t seem to even hear Jezbodiah’s question or for that matter the rest of the noise in the inn…
The tressym, wings folded tightly against his back, considers Kevin for a moment. Evidently deciding that a lap and stroking would not be forthcoming from the usual source, Kethron instead pads softly to Portia. He pokes at her leg, giving a plaintive cry and looking up at her.
With another smile, Portia scoots her chair back and pats her lap, giving the Tressym room. “Looks like Kevin’s beat, hmm, kitten?” Once the winged cat hops into her lap, Portia leans forward, stroking it carefully – avoiding the wings for now – and says softly, “You’re not planning on snacking on Alanna, are you?”
The tressym looks at the fellow familiar briefly and yawns, oozing the sort of playful contempt that only a cat can produce. The action puts his wickedly sharp teeth on display for a moment, before Kethron settles back down, purring as he enjoys the wonderful petting.
Alanna finishing her bread-morsel squeaks with disapproval to Jez. “I’m sure the tressym is just playing with you. At least I think she is.” Alanna displays her disapproval again, but hugs closer to Jezbodiah, to err on the side of caution.
Although the inn is a far cry from the comforts he has left in Berdusk, Nik appears genuinely glad to be here. The dull, deadened look has left his sunken eyes, and he smiles cheerfully at the others as they file in. Apparently a few disapproving glances at the bottle he casually swigs from are not enough to dampen the tall man’s new-found good humor.
But Jez’s sharp comment slaps the merriment from Nik’s careworn face. For a heartbeat the fear is back in the bard’s muddy-green eyes, and he flinches as if he expects Jez’s words to be followed by a blow. When the half-elf ignores him and instead sits down and begins talking to Portia, Nik sighs and takes a big gulp from his bottle, his eyes bleak and his gaunt face unspeakably weary. Narrow shoulders slumped and head bowed, Nik turns away from his companions and trudges over to an empty table.
The tall, frail man looks broken and defeated once again, moving as slowly as an invalid as he pulls his precious guitar from his back and sets it carefully on the table. Dropping his battered backpack negligently at his feet Nik slumps down in the chair, his hunched back to the others and one hand resting on the leather-covered instrument in front of him. The other hand methodically raises the bottle to his lips as he morosely stares at the rough tabletop and works his way through what may be only the first of several bottles tonight.
While Nik seeks the company of the bottle over that of his companions, Matteo approaches the barman to ask about the Hellriders as well as ordering drinks for the others. “They’d be comin’ in soon.” The barman replies to the first question while pouring the ordered drinks, “Patrol’s due every day. They’d be leavin’ on the morn.”
And indeed, true to the barkeep’s word, the door to the simple inn opens to allow entry of just over a dozen armed and armored men and women. All of them stained by the road and smelling of horse. They survey the interior of the common room before taking a seat or hanging out near the bar. A couple laugh and point towards the sleeping form of the wizard, Kevin being oblivious to the entry of the patrol. Kethron however does look up, but apparently finds no trouble as he makes herself comfortable on Portia’s lap once more.
The arrival of the Hellriders draws Nik’s attention. The bard glances warily over one shoulder at the company, his gaze sharp, suspicious and quite clearly still sober. But when they seem more interested in the sleeping mage than himself, Nik returns to more pressing matters – his brooding study of the tabletop and his interrupted fall from sobriety.
Despite the entrance of so many people, the half-elven wizard does not stir. With his face in his arms, it is difficult to tell whether Kevin is even awake. Of course, if one were to step right up and put his ear close, one might hear a few soft snores.
Portia examines the Hellriders with interest, wondering if they might know where to find the mill. Looking at Jez, she quirks an eyebrow and says, “I hope they can help us out. Matteo can probably get them to tell us what they know.” Throughout, she never ceases stroking the remarkable feline in her lap. “Perhaps…” The Berduskan says, “…but I would rather watch and listen.”
Matteo smiles in amusement as the Hellriders point to Kevin. Shaking his head, he pushes himself away from the bar and stretches his back, as though weary from a day in the saddle. Crossing over towards what looks to be the leader of the Hellriders he gestures towards a seat as though asking for permission to sit and asks, “Buy your troops a drink?”
“Aye a drink would be good.” One of the Hellriders replies to Matteo, “But pray tell, why would you want to buy us a drink – not that we mind though.” The man, slightly heavy-set and his flesh bulging slightly out of the armor, rests his arm on the table and leans over towards Matteo.
The smell of horse and sweat wafts over to Matteo as the mustached man leans closer. The markings on the man’s tabard – the detail that drew Matteo to him – mark the rider as a sergeant of sorts in charge of the group.
Jez, in his best manners, hails a passing waitress. She bends down and he whispers something in her ear. She giggles and moments later retrieves a tray with steamed fish sprinkled with herbs and spice. Throwing a few coppers and a silver tip for her on the tray, he thanks her for her expeditious service. Sided next to it are several slices of dark wheat bread and a short cup of butter. A simple plate, but Jez eats the meal while giving generous scraps of buttered bread to Alanna. The ferret cherished the treat all the while wiping butter from her whiskers and fur.
As Matteo gestures the Hellriders to join them, Jez watches them with interest, but he makes a mental note to study each one.
Though seeming content to never budge from his perch on the nice female two-legger’s lap, dismissing the newcomers as irrelevant to the pleasant stroking he is receiving, something else does manage to catch the tressym’s attention. Namely, the absolutely *wonderful* smell approaching him. He looks up with great interest as the plate of food comes to the two-legger across the table. Fish! Laden with the extras that two-leggers seemed to enjoy, and a little over-burnt – again, two-leggers were odd that way – but still smelling like a tressym heaven.
But Kethron’s ears fall when he sees it comes only for the two-legger and his little rodent. He looks to where Kevin is slumped at the table, but can easily feel he is asleep. That left the nice two-legger rubbing him. Kethron turns his face to hers and meows plaintively. He isn’t starving, but the smell has reminded him that it has been a long time since that fresh bird earlier that day. And besides, he couldn’t let a *rodent* get such wonderful food without some himself!
When he has the two-legger’s attention, Kethron meows again, looking at the food, then back up at the nice two-legger. He puts on the most kittenish face he can, wrapping his tail around her arm lightly.
Seeing the cute feline obviously begging for the fish across the table, Portia can’t restrain a smile, nor can she help but flag down a waitress and order TWO servings of the same meal as Jez. “Alright, mister, you win. Kevin’s going to be put out with me if you eat so much you can’t fly tomorrow though.”
Once the meal arrives, she sets the winged cat on the table, and sets one plate in front of him. She takes the other for herself and says, “this one’s for me…”
The waitress, obviously impressed with the winged cat’s presence, stays around looking with wonder at the animal eating. “Is that your cat?” She asks the red-haired priestess. The waitress is not the only one interested in the winged cat’s presence. Several of the other patrons – including some of the Hellriders – look with awe and wonder at the rare animal. Kethron as immediately become one of the hot topics discussed that evening… as does Kevin once Portia answer to the waitress becomes more common knowledge.
The link laid between the winged cat and the sleeping mage has its effects. The two riders who were making fun of the sleeping Kevin and were seemingly brooding on a plan to tease the hapless mage. The winged cat’s relation with the mage immediately raises the reputation of the sleeping wizard and quickly the two drop off much to the mirth of their colleagues.
The tressym is obviously delighted by the gift of the food, trembling like an excited child as it is placed in front of him. Surprisingly, he doesn’t dive in right away; instead, he turns in place and, placing his paws on the nice two-legger’s chest, rubs the top of his head against her chin, purring up a storm. His wings wrap around her slightly, as if hugging her, and his tail tightens on her arm.
Then, his gratitude firmly displayed, the familiar jumps onto the table and begins to devour the fish in large bites that still, somehow, remain almost dainty. In fact, the tressym seems almost obsessive about not spilling anything. Whether that’s because he doesn’t want to waste any, or whether Kevin has taught him some table manners, isn’t clear. Either way, the little creature is enjoying himself highly.
“Look what I started,” Jezbodiah says then smiles a wide grin. “You know,” he says to the winged feline not knowing if he could understand him. “You could’ve asked. Alanna and I would more than happy to share.” At the mention of her name, Alanna squeaks and squeaks with approval.
The little tressym pauses in his epicurean delight and looks up at the two-legger with the rodent. He considers him soberly for a moment, tilting his head in a curious and not entirely feline fashion. Then he simply flicks his ears, gives out a happy “reow!” and goes back to his meal.
Puddy sighs to himself as the bard moves to another table, accompanied only by his bottle. However, as Nik handles the guitar, the little fey flies up and over to the bard’s table, “Play!” he whispers emphatically. “A lively tune the mood to lighten. Throats be made thirsty dancing, and an innkeep happy is an innkeep generous,” he mumbles slyly as he jostles the bottle with one elbow.
Nik doesn’t even flinch at Puddy’s sudden arrival, instead simply shaking his head slowly and muttering “No.”
After another few moments of staring at the table and several more sips from his bottle, Nik sighs and elaborates, “Matteo is trying to talk to the leader of the Hellriders. I rather doubt he would thank me if he couldn’t hear over the rest of the company shouting out the chorus to some ribald camp-song.” Nik’s faint, emotionless voice matches the exhausted, defeated look to his haggard face and hunched posture. He drains the bottle in one long gulp, then pushes back his chair and stands. The faintest spark of his old manic humor flickers in his dull eyes as he adds, “Anyway, I think Kevin needs his beauty sleep.”
Nik ambles over to the bar and gets himself a second bottle. Once he settles back at his solitary – with the exception of the invisible Puddy – table and has had a few more drinks, Nik leans back in his chair and pulls the leather cover off his guitar. With gentle touches of his long fingers, the bard checks the tune of the fine instrument, bringing the barest whisper of sound from the strings. After a few adjustments to correct some jostling from the day’s hard travel, Nik sighs and takes another long drink.
His tall frame hunched over the guitar in his lap, Nik begins to play the same haunting, bittersweet melody he had once played for Puddy on the road from Nashkel. His fingers merely brush the strings, and the melancholy notes barely carry past the man’s bowed back, as if his gaunt body muffles the sound. Clearly he is playing only for himself – the faint melody is undeniably beautiful, but full of loss and longing, as anguished and haunted as the man who created it.
As the notes of Nik’s music start to filter through the conversations, the ambient noise created by the multitude of voices starts to drop noticeable and true to the song’s nature, the atmosphere in the common room follows the mood – even eliciting a tear from the waitress. Portia is also drawn into song as it conveys feelings similar to several of the Kelemvorite rites of passing.
“Think of the drinks as a courtesy from the Berdusk city guard,” Matteo replies in a dry tone, maintaining a little distance between himself and the fragrant sergeant. “Lieutenant Ashgale,” he adds, introducing himself. “Thought you gentlemen might be able to help me out. I’m looking for a haunted mill that’s apparently around here, the drinks are least I can do in return for your assistance.”
“A drink ‘ll buy ye a good tale, lieutenant Ashgale.” The Hellrider sergeant replies, “Mills aplenty around these parts. And some of them indeed rumored to be haunted. Though we patrol the region frequently, we can’t be everywhere at the same time and monsters and bandits still plague the roads.”
As the lanky bard’s tunes start registering with most of the patrons, the sergeant frowns in the direction of the musician. “Seems yon fellow finds the right mood for the tale you’re looking for. Anyway, with the caravans being our primary task for safekeeping, some of the outlying villages and businesses are on their own – not many make it successfully after more than two years or so. Any wealth attracts bandits and all sorts of scum like honey.”
Signaling the barmaid, Matteo orders a round of ale for the sergeant and his men before returning to the subject at hand. “The mill I’m looking for lies on the banks of a stream or river, being a watermill rather than windmill. Wouldn’t have been used recently and is probably within a good day’s travel from here.” Though Matteo remains relaxed and at ease, his hand tightens upon the hilt of his dirk as Nik continues to play.
Nik finishes his melancholy song, and takes another long drink from his bottle. As he drinks he finally notices the now-subdued atmosphere in the tavern. Turning slowly in his seat Nik warily searches the room for what has affected the patrons, and it is a long moment before he realizes it is him. Shock mingles with horror on the bard’s haggard face, and he scrambles gracelessly to his feet.
With shaking hands he replaces the cover on his priceless guitar, and slings the instrument across his back once again. Grabbing up his backpack and his bottle of whiskey, Nik gives the tavern’s occupants a crooked, embarrassed smile. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to play that aloud. Wasn’t thinking. Happens all the time. I’m a daft bastard, dropped on my head as a child.” Nik says, his voice cheerful and apologetic but his eyes betraying the bitter self-loathing beneath the feckless smile. “Forget I was ever here.”
Narrow shoulders hunched against the violence he clearly expects, the tall bard flees the scene he has created – his long strides never faster than his steady amble, but it is definitely flight none the less. A clearly exasperated “Godsdamned bloody idiot…” is the bard’s last remark before the door shuts behind him and cuts off the rest of what is surely the beginnings of a furious rant at himself.
Puddy listens in awe to the music the bard produces on the guitar. Debating on accompanying Nik with his flute, the little fey is taken aback at Nik’s abrupt exit from the room. Sighing to himself, Puddy decides to silently follow the bard for the time being, determined to keep him out of trouble.
At the table, Jez scoops up Alanna who in turns protests with a loud squeak. “Sorry young lady,” he says. “I’ll explain later.” A muffled squeak of protest can be heard once again as Alanna disappears into his satchel without permission, then the ferret elapses into silence.
The young Berduskan half-elf looks at Matteo but remains quiet. He shrugs his shoulders and says, “I’ve heard of performance anxiety, but Nik pushes it just a bit too far.” His eyes turn towards a certain departed bard then back to the Matteo and the Hellriders. What Matteo has planned, the next move is in the hands of the Hellriders.
Portia watches the bard retreat with a melancholy expression on her face. Still stroking the tressym absently, she sighs and looks over at Matteo and the Hell Rider. As Jez rises, she looks at him questioningly before asking, “Are you going to check on Nik?”
“No, I’m going to wait here,” he says. “If he drinks himself into a stupor tonight, I fling him over his saddle tomorrow.” Sighing deeply, he continues. “I’m in no mood for his antics and weak-kneed cowardice, or any other problems he has. The man’s to hard on himself and he doesn’t care. He’ll find his own way into dance and laughter, someday, Lliira be willing that I’m sure.”
Alanna sticks her head out of the satchel and squeaks loudly. “No, you may not come out!” Jez says to her.
Several sets of eyes follow the tall bard as he retreats and exits the inn. Conversations return when Nik has disappeared beyond the door, but in hushed tones and certainly without any humor or merriment. The combination of the bard’s music and his hasty departure has left a strange atmosphere in the room, something the innkeeper is certainly not comfortable with judging by the twitch of his eyes and few beads of perspiration on his forehead…
Matteo’s conversation partner had also been watching the bard beat a hasty retreat, and with a nod of his head sends two of his men to follow. Then he regards the standing half-elf for a moment before returning his attention to the Sembian. The sergeant leans back a little in his chair while resting one hand on the table. “Several of those mills nearby, although I’d count most of them as still functioning. There used to be one near the old landing. But last year’s events have seen to it that the area is avoided by most. Could be that you’d find that one to your haunted place.”
Strangely it is the virtual absence of noise that wakes the sleeping wizard. It takes a moment for the bleary eyed Kevin to register where he is and what he had been doing and why his feet are so damn warm…
Kethron lifts his head to look in Kevin’s direction, licking his needle-like teeth clean as he does. He stands up, runs to the end of the table, and jumps in the air. With three beats of his wings, he reaches Kevin’s seat and immediately begins rubbing Kevin affectionately.
Kevin raises his head, smiling. “Hello,” he said to his familiar in Elven. “I suppose I dozed off, didn’t I?” He looks around, spotting the newcomers. Frowning faintly, he adds “What did I miss?”
Kethron glances at the new two-leggers, but pays them no more mind than he did before. Instead, he begins cleaning himself, projecting a feeling of contentment in body over their link.
“Oh, dear,” Kevin mutters, closing his eyes. He isn’t surprised, though; this had been rather common back at the College. “You’ve charmed some poor innocent into giving you food again, haven’t you?” Kethron purrs, looking as pleased as only a well-fed feline could. “Alright, you four-footed thief,” Kevin says resignedly, standing and lifting his familiar in his arms as he does so. “Time for me to clean up after you. Again.”
Kethron moves to his customary perch on his person’s shoulder, draping his tail over Kevin’s arm. The tressym purrs again, feeling well-stuffed. Kevin shakes his head at the smell of fish from his familiar’s mouth, picks up his hat from the table, and walks to the next table. Noting the plate of mostly-eaten fish with no apparent owner and the unmistakable marks of a small creature’s bites, Kevin looks rueful. Looking between the sorcerer and the cleric, he asks, “Which one of you poor souls got suckered into fetching food for this bottomless pit that calls himself my familiar?”
Getting a better look at the plate on the table, Kevin looks a bit taken aback and adds, “And was it a *whole* fish?”
Jez’s mirthful voice is half-serious and quite mirthful humorous as he speaks. “Sir, as a native born of Berdusk it is my duty, nay an honor to say that Portia is to blame.” He says smiling as he points to the Kelemvorite priestess. He turns as looks at Portia, eyes sheepish, but blinking in tomfoolery. “Grace before beauty my dear…,” he says as he shrugs his shoulders before Portia. “…well, that and my ferret Alanna had something to do with it as well.” In response a muffled squeak emits from his satchel.
He looks at Portia one last time, expecting her fist to come down barreling down on his jaw at any given moment.
Lips twitching slightly at Jez’s remarks, Kevin nodded to Portia. “Then it seems I owe you twice. Once for saving my life, and once for the meal my familiar soaked off of you. How much was it?”
When Jez places the blame squarely in Portia’s lap, the woman grins and rolls her eyes, then sticks her tongue out at him. When Kevin asks the price, the redhead waves a hand and says, “oh, pish. Think nothing of it, Kevin. Kethron is too cute for words though, isn’t he?” From the way Portia smiles at the preening tressym, it’s obvious that the priestess is well and truly under the feline’s spell…
After a moment, with a sigh, she looks Kevin in the eye and brings him up to date on the Hellrider arrival and Nik’s rather sudden departure. “Some of the Hellriders went out too,” she says absently, and then pulls herself to her feet, absently adjusting the large sword across her back. “I’m going to check on him.”
Moving to the door, Portia catches Matteo’s eye, pantomiming playing like a bard, then nodding to the door. Then she exits, hoping that Nik hasn’t wandered too far…
“Sounds entirely possible,” Matteo replies with a nod that seems to both acknowledge Portia’s messages as well as the sergeant. “Where is this old landing exactly?” he asks, leaning forward slightly, “and what happened last year? Details please.”
“Hmm, don’t know too much details on that…” The sergeant replies thoughtfully as he scratches his head,”…but there were a bunch of wizards during midsummer festival and somehow things got screwed up. Took a while to clean most of the damage up, but every once in a while we come across some strange phenomenon or beast that is a likely result of the clash between several mages.”
Grabbing the tankard that the maid puts down in front of him, the sergeant hoists it in a brief salute before draining about half of its contents. “Of course there’s also these treasure seekers to deal with, hoping to find some valuable remnant of the battle. Some or genuinely crazy, others come with a more evil disposition. Followers of Cyric, or those godsbedamned Zhents.”
The last comment drawing some frowning looks of the other Hellriders as they eye the group out of Berdusk once more.
“The Old Landing, sergeant,” Matteo replies with the sigh of someone who has had a long day and just wants a simple, straightforward answer. “Where can I find it?”
The sergeant takes another gulp of ale before answering Matteo, “Yeah, yeah, don’t get too impatient with me lad. The landing is across from Qheldin’s Mask on the other bank of the Chionthar. Roughly half a day’s ride from here, likely a bit more. If you go across the marsh, you can take a short-cut, but you might find yourself mired. If you take that route though, you’d save a decent amount of time.”
Kevin shakes his head as he sits down. “You really got your claws into her, didn’t you?” he asks his familiar. The little tressym looks smug as he flows into Kevin’s lap. Catching the eye of the waitress, the young mage orders himself a fish as well. Once it arrives, he compares it with the remains on Kethron’s plate. He shakes his head again, this time in disbelieve. “I don’t know where you *put* it all!” he mutters. “Must have ate a bag of holding as a kitten…”
“Heh! That’s a good one,” snickers Jez aloud. “Well, Alanna, I finally met something that eats more than you do.” The ferret squeaks with disapproval from Jez’s satchel. “Come on, let’s go outside. I need to walk off some of this meal.”
“I’ll back in two shakes of a cat’s tail,” Jez says to Matteo and Kevin. He stands and traces Portia’s footsteps with his own stride out the door. Kevin looks at his familiar. “Think you could shake your tail twice?” he asks innocently. Kethron simply sniffs and pretends to ignore the wizard.
“Creatures you’re most likely to encounter if you go through the marsh are lizard folk, frog-men, occasionally a scrag or two…” The sergeant continues after looking up as two of his men re-enter the inn, “…but after last year’s events, who knows what else might be lurking there. It is not an area frequented often anymore. Never used to be much contact with Qheldin’s Mask through there in the first place, treacherous current making it difficult for any ferry.”
Shaking his head, Matteo replies, “For the sake of saving less than half a day’s travel, I think I’ll take the long way around.” Pushing away from the table and rising to his feet he adds, “A few hours in the saddle aren’t worth risking the lives of my men.”
Nodding at the sergeant as he takes his leave, Matteo crosses to the bar and orders a bottle of wine before heading outside. Veering away from the sound of voices, Matteo quietly makes his way across the village, stumbling occasionally in the dark until he finds a secluded area with something of a view back over the huts. Sitting down on a log, he wraps his black coat around himself for warmth and nurses the bottle of wine while watching the lights filtering through the village. As time passes his vision blurs as his mind travels back in time to dwell on his dead wife.
Windstream Lodge 1371 DR, Eleint, 13th day (The Maiming – Tyr), evening
Godsdamned bloody idiot!” Nik snarls to himself as the door shuts behind him. “Can you possibly be any more STUPID?! Your mother was right, you worthless piece of shit. No one needs you, no one wants you, hells, no one even LIKES you. You can’t do a godsdamned thing right. You’re nothing but a selfish, pathetic, stupid, gods-cursed, cowardly drunk. A complete waste of space and air. All you’re good for is trouble. All you have EVER been good for. And it’s all you will ever BE good for.”
Glaring around, the tall man abruptly stalks off into the forest, kicking and striking irritably at trees, roots, rocks and other inoffensive items that have the misfortune to be in his way. All the while he keeps up a furious rant, barely pausing for breath between curses at himself and anything in his path, unaware that his faerie companion is hovering a few paces behind him, invisible as usual.
Finally Nik runs out of both breath and temper, and Nik staggers to a stop. Sucking absently at the knuckles he bloodied on a tree that had the misfortune to be in his way, Nik shrugs his backpack off his shoulder, drops it carelessly on the ground and gives it a half-hearted kick. His precious guitar is treated much more carefully, leaned against a handy tree. Nik then sinks down, hunched back pressed against the tree his guitar leans on and long legs drawn up to his chest. He sighs, and looks up at the sky and branches above him.
While Nik is moving into the forest, Portia exits the inn on the heels of the two Hellriders, finding them looking about as if searching. One of the two shrugs his shoulders and points his thumb back over his shoulder towards the much more inviting common room. His partner nods in assent, and the turn around. As the see the red-haired priestess, their first reaction is a typical male interest in a female body, eyes roaming over Portia’s curves – that is until they notice the symbol of her Lord. Lightning quick their expressions change from almost leering to something much more disapproving and they mutter their way past Portia.
The priestess ignores the two soldiers and steps further away from the inn, to reduce the amount of background noise, and listens for any sign of Nik’s. Almost startling her, Jezbodiah appears suddenly next to the priestess, having made his way past the two subdued Hellriders without incident and more or less deducted the reason for their disappointment.
Young master Wisp’s ears – courtesy of his elven lineage – are more acute than Portia’s and before the priestess has a chance to ask or comment on his sudden appearance, Jezbodiah says, “Nik is over there.” The Berduskan half-elf points into the direction of the forest and sets of that way, followed by Portia. As they draw closer to where Nik is sitting with his back against the tree, the can hear him muttering.
Taking a long pull from the bottle he has somehow managed not to break or spill, Nik mutters “You never should have come. You can’t possibly be of any help. What can a drunk like yourself do to help these people?” The anger is gone now, leaving nothing but the old bitterness behind. “Immerine is wrong. You’re nothing but a coward and a drunk. You’ll never be anything more. And all that Jez lad does is rub your face in it. Hells, I think he ENJOYS reminding you of what a pathetic wreck you are. Maybe things really are that easy for him to shrug off, but they sure as hells aren’t for me. ‘Put aside the bottle and things will be all better.’ he says. Right.”
Nik laughs bitterly, looking at the bottle in his right hand. “As if it were just that easy. As if I could just snap my fingers and the nightmares will be gone. Just never take another drink and I don’t ever have to be afraid again.” Another bitter bark of laughter, and Nik shakes his head and sighs “I’ve been afraid so long I don’t think I even know what it would feel like to NOT be afraid.” The gaunt bard takes another long drink, then looks pensively at the blood running from the rapidly swelling knuckles on his bony left hand. “Oh, that’s good.” he sighs. “Break your own godsdamned hand. You really are an idiot.”
Glancing back over his shoulder to be sure he can still see the dim lights of the inn, Nik sighs again and takes another long drink. “Should have brought another bottle.” he mutters sourly. “You know two isn’t going to do it tonight. But it will have to do. I’m sure not going back in there. The gods only know what kind of scene I’ll be in for if I come back for another bottle. I guess I’ll just have to pound it down and hope that if I drink fast enough I can make up for not having nearly enough to put me out for the night.”
With a faint shudder, eyes bleak and filled with the bitter self-loathing, Nik settles down to embark on his quest for alcohol-soaked oblivion. Clearly this is something he has done many times before, although he drinks the whisky far quicker than most people would be able to handle he keeps it down easily – another mark of the man’s life-long dance with the bottle.
Having watched in silence, the little fey speaks softly from the branches above the bard, “What did you see, when finished the song you had? A room, with onlookers filled? Staring in disdain, pity, mocking you? Left too fast, you did. Music is played by many, no more than noise as the wind through the leaves. Different you were, for yourself playing. Their attention you snared, like a fox in a noose. Whilst you saw reflected in their eyes a broken down useless man, saw I an artist, using your guitar as a brush, your notes the pigment, their hearts your canvas.”
Portia, hearing the depressed bard muttering to himself, stops, hesitant to interrupt the man’s self-loathing.
After a moment, the priestess continues on, not trying to hide her presence, but not saying anything either. The redhead moves and crouches next to the bard, offering him a sad smile if he looks her way, but still says nothing…
“Yup, I do like to rub it in, don’t I,” He says. “But I have my reasons,” he says. “It involves my mother, the impending arrival of my sibling and the safety of my family. Like it or not, you have some importance in the survival of Berdusk” He sighs, “Nik, what I can’t have is the chance that you’ll arse up and fall into bad habits. Habits that can hurt my family or my mother or someone else in our little group. Take the road less traveled, at least until we’re finished the Windmill. Please?”
The melancholy bard pauses in his steady drinking as Puddy speaks, confusion cutting through the alcohol and bitterness that hazes his sunken eyes. The confusion deepens to pure bewilderment as Portia arrives. Nik is clearly drunk enough that her arrival doesn’t startle him as it normally would – instead he just stares at her for a long moment, brow furrowed in confusion. Finally her silent concern seems to arrive in his muddled brain. The haunted pain in his unfocused eyes fades a little, and a small, grateful smile touches his lips.
Nik seems completely unaware of Jez until he speaks, and the young half-elf’s voice startles the drunken bard far more than Portia’s quiet arrival. With a small, thin cry of fear Nik scrambles clumsily to his feet, grabbing at the trunk of the tree beside him to keep from falling. It is quite clear that if he were able to stay upright without hanging on to the tree the bard would have put several long strides between himself and Jez. “Lemme’lone!” he moans, the words slurred together and his haggard face filled with the terror in his eyes. But as Jez’s words register in his alcohol-soaked brain, the fear turns slowly to anger.
“Lemme alone…” Nik growls, his words more distinct now; eyes narrowed and his right hand clenched so tightly on the neck of his whiskey bottle that it’s a wonder it doesn’t shatter. “I’m na’ hurtin’ nothin’ ou’ere.” Nik shakes his head sharply, as if to clear some of the fog from his brain, and adds “An’who’re you ta’tell me wha’ta do? Stop pushin’ me al’th’ damn time.” His voice rises, and a faint tic tugs at his left eye. “You don’know me, boy. You don’unnerstan’ what I’ve done, wha’s been done to me… You thin’ it’s all a big game, doncha? That I’m doin’ this for… oh, I dunno… sympathy or somethin’ I dunno wha’ th’hells you think.” Nik takes another long gulp from his bottle, tilting his head back to catch the last drops. His arm falls to his side and Nik leans against the tree, glaring at Jez through the anger roiling in his dull hazel eyes.
“WELL YOU’RE WRONG!” Nik roars abruptly, drunken rage twisting his haggard face – his fury even taking the slur from his deep voice. “I’M TRYING, GODSDAMNIT! BUT I CAN’T JUST FORGET THE LAST SEVEN YEARS OF MY LIFE! YOU CAN’T EVEN IN YOUR WORST NIGHTMARE IMAGINE WHAT’S HAPPENED TO ME!!! SO LET ME ALONE, YOU SMUG LITTLE BASTARD!” Nik suddenly throws his empty bottle at Jez, but as the bottle is in his off hand and the bard is clearly still too drunk to stand unaided, it misses Jez by several arm-lengths and lands disappointingly unbroken in a bush – robbing Nik of even the satisfaction of shattering the bottle on a tree.
All the man’s energy seems to have gone into that outburst, and he sags against the tree and stares at the ground between his feet. “And maybe you COULD deal with what eats me alive every day. You should hope you never have to find out.” Nik mumbles dully, the pain raw in his downcast eyes. “But I’m not you, and I have to drink to forget. Beating a cringing dog over and over again won’t teach him to be brave.” A tiny, rueful smile flickers across his anguished face, and he murmurs “Trust me, tougher people than you have tried.”
Turning awkwardly away from Jez and Portia, Nik starts to stagger off deeper into the woods, head down and back bowed under the weight of his troubled past. In spite of the clarity of his words, the bard is still far too drunk to walk unaided, and he reels from tree to tree, grabbing at branches and trunks to keep from falling. He makes it only a few paces before his knees buckle and he crumples to the ground like an un-strung puppet. Dragging himself to his hands and knees, Nik crawls to the nearest tree and huddles against it. Hunched back to the others, long legs drawn up to his chest and head buried in his arms the gaunt bard just sits there, shaking as if the night has suddenly become far colder.
Portia winces as Nik explodes, and she sighs as the man huddles up against the tree. “Jez,” she says softly, without any emotion in her voice, “now isn’t the time to try to shock him out of it. Go on back to the taproom. I’ll stay with him, and make sure he gets into his bed.”
Moving over to the same tree, but in no way trying to talk or touch the drunken bard, Portia crouches down and reclines a bit uncomfortably against the tree as well. She makes a shooing gesture to the Lliiran, indicating he should go back.
Shrugging his shoulders at Nik’s latest irrational outburst, Jez nods his head at Portia and turns to leave. Portia nods back as Jez turns to leave, and then settles in. She seems perfectly willing to sit there, silent, until dawn or her drunken companion falls into a drunken sleep, whichever comes first…
“Nay, beneath the stars let him sleep,” mutters the faerie, sounding rather irritated. “Poison dreams a cool wind may blow away. A blanket he needs, and this night watch over him I shall.”
The drunk bard just sits there for the longest time, silent and shaking like a man naked in a blizzard. But finally -after what seems hours – the bone rattling tremors fade to only an occasional shudder, and Nik raises his head from his arms. Abruptly he snaps his head back into the tree trunk behind him, once and then again even harder. One more shudder wracks his gaunt frame, and with a sigh he rests his chin on arms still crossed on his drawn-up knees.
“M’srry.” he mumbles, deep voice slurred and eyes bleak behind the fog of alcohol. “I lef’ th’inn so wha’ jes’ happ’ned wouldn’ happ’n. But it happ’ned an’way, dinnit?” He sighs again, shrugging slightly. “I s’pose tha’ mouthy Jez lad’s right ‘bout me. I’m jus’ a cock-up waitin’ t’happ’n, no matter wha’ I do. I can’ help bein’ wha’ I am. I keep tryin’ but ever’n keeps pushin’ at me an’ pokin’ at me an’ pickin’ at all the scabby bits, like it’s some kinda fun t’watch me bleed. An’ th’n I get yelled at wh’n I say it hurts or try t’do somethin’ t’ put the demons tha’ haunt me back in th’cages.”
He whacks the back of his head into the tree again, as if the pain helps keep the alcohol at bay, or perhaps it is to punish himself further…
“M’srry.” Nik says again, finally turning awkwardly to look at Portia, although only a last-second clumsy grab at the tree trunk keeps him from falling over on top of her. He leans his head against the trunk and blinks blearily at her, beard-stubbled cheek pressed against the tree and one arm wrapped tightly around it. Slumped over like he is, his unfocused eyes are level with Portia’s and this close to him the reek of whiskey combined with the sour smell of fear in his sweat is overpowering. “M’really srry. I shouldn’ ha’ come with ya. ‘M afraid of th’horses, ‘m afraid of gettin’ hurt, an’m afraid of Jez.” he sighs, the old pain burning through the fog in the sunken hazel eyes. “Bu’ most of all ‘m afraid he’s right. ‘M gonna cock up again an’ get you all killed…”
Nik’s eyes close, and his chin drops to his bony chest as he heaves another sigh. “M’srry. You shoul’ jus’ leave me here, and if nothin’ eats me and I don’ choke to death on m’ own spew in th’night I’ll come back t’th’ inn when ‘m not such a mis’rble li’l drunken piece of shit. An’ if you all are gone I promise I won’ follow. I don’ wanna be a burden. Or th’ one who gets you all killed. All I ever wann’d t’ do was help.”
The drunken bard starts to turn back around, but seems unable to coordinate his rangy limbs. So he gives up, offering Portia a crooked, apologetic grin as he clings to the tree trunk for support so he doesn’t just topple over on her. “M’srry.” Nik mumbles again, wry humor replacing the pain in his unfocused eyes. “M’ jus’ too damn drunk t’get back ‘round the damn tree.”
Portia, her expression serious to not in the least bit accusatory, shakes her head. “Nik, I’m not going to tell you that you can’t come. I’m not going to lecture you on anything. If you want to talk, I’ll listen. If you don’t, I’ll stay here and keep you company. I’m not going to let you spend the night on the ground out here though, even if I have to wait until you fall asleep before I drag you back and get you in bed.” Portia smiles softly at that, and adds, “though I know Puddy would look after you if you did, and I have the feeling that you’ve done it before.”
The priestess continues to keep the drunken bard company…
The lack of anger or disapproval in Portia’s reaction seems to confuse Nik at first, and it is several long moments before understanding forces its way through the bard’s muddled brain. His crooked smile widens, and his sunken hazel eyes suddenly fill with an almost pathetic gratitude. “Yer awful nice t’a cowardly drunk li’me. Thank ya…” Nik mumbles, the awkward smile and the somewhat-bewildered gratitude in his eyes makes him seem almost young beneath the day’s scraggly beard-stubble. Even the harsh lines of pain and fear that are etched deeply into his craggy face are eased by the potent combination of alcohol and the priestess’ non-judgmental support.
“An’ you’re right tha’ I’ve done th’s many times b’fore… before I met all’uv’ya bein’ drunk an’ alone was kinda my reg’lar state.” Nik chuckles softly, and a flash of his odd humor glimmers through the haze in his eyes as he adds “When I wasn’ in jail bein’ beaten haf’ta death or gettin’ broke in as th’ new girl in th’ cellblock, that is.” Nik’s lopsided smile grows rueful, and he sighs, blinking blearily at Portia as another thought makes it through his alcohol-soaked brain.
“Y’dinn’t know none of this ‘bout me, didja?” he murmurs, and strangely there is no pain in his sunken eyes, only resignation. With the candor of the utterly drunk the bard continues “I’ve been in an’ out of jails most of my adult life. I’ve got a prob’l’m, y’see. Sometimes a thin’ll grab my int’rest an’ I kinda end up… borrowin’… it. I always give’m back, an’ tha’s us’lly wha’ gets me in jail. An’ disowned an’ banished from m’home, an’ the woman I love married t’my best friend, an’ chained up like a dog for months, an’ flogged t’where I damn near died. An’ soon’r or lat’r it’s gonna get me killed. So y’see, I’ve reason t’be li’this, no matter wha’ tha’ lad thinks. I don’ think he knows wha’it’s like t’live in fear your whole life. An’ I don’ know nothin’ else. I drink t’keep from rememb’rin’ all I’ve lost an’ all tha’s happ’n’d t’me. An’ t’keep th’ nightmares away…”
Nik unfocused gaze remains steady and directly into Portia’s eyes, the bard’s usual skittish reluctance to make eye contact is oddly absent, as is the bitter self-loathing that has always accompanied any discussion of his haunted past. “So y’see, Jez DOES ‘ave a reason for act’n like he does t’me. Imm’rine gave me some stuff t’keep th’ nightmares away, but I dunno how long this li’l trip is gonna take an’ I don’ wanna be screamin’ fit t’wake the dead in th’ middle of th’ night an’ bringin’ every damn brigand and monster in on us cause I ran out of it.”
He offers Portia another rueful, crooked smile and says “So are ya still sure y’wan’ th’likes of me along with ya? I wanna help. Really, I do. I wanna do somethin’ good, for once. But I don’wanna get you all killed, either.”
Clearly the drunken bard took Portia’s invitation to talk quite literally. But there is no pain or even fear in Nik’s unfocused eyes, in fact there is even the faintest spark of hope lurking in the hazy depths.
“Oh you poor man…” Portia returns the bard’s gaze sadly. “Yes, I’m still sure I want the likes of you along with us.”
After a moment, she adds, “I know I can’t offer any real words of comfort, Nik. What’s done is done, and that’s part of who you are. If you ever find yourself heading down that path again, I’m here to help, however I can.”
With a sigh, she says, “I know it’s cliché Nik, and I know you can’t simply forget your past and the hurts you’ve suffered. It does not have to be that way in the future though. It won’t be with me anyway.” She smiles faintly and continues with, “if you ever get a hankering for something that I’m carrying around, help yourself, I’m happy to share. If you find yourself struggling with the urge to ‘borrow’ something, I’ll understand, even if others won’t.”
“Come, why don’t we return to the inn. You can get yourself settled into your room, and take whatever Immerine has given you to ward away the dreams. Get a good night’s rest, and we’ll see about getting a cart or something tomorrow. No need to have to put up with riding when there’s no real need, right? The mill’s not going anywhere…”
Once again profound gratitude fills the bard’s careworn face, a look so intense that it borders on pathetic. It’s easy to see that kindness and sympathy have been rarities in Nik’s life. “Than’ya. I’m r’lly terr’fied of horses. An’ gettin’ run off wid li’dat didn’ help.” he says, his glassy hazel eyes still fixed on Portia’s with no trace of the self-mocking bitterness or even embarrassment at his fear. “It’d be nice for me t’have one less thing to be scairt of on this trip.”
“I dunno if I’m goin’ back t’the inn tonite, though.” Nik’s slurred voice is pensive, and he offers her his crooked grin as honest humor sparkles in his hazy eyes. “I dunno if I can even stan’ up…” After much trial and error, however, the drunk bard manages to untangle his long limbs. Clawing at the tree for support, he clumsily gets to his feet, but it is quite clear that the only thing keeping him upright is the tree trunk he sags against.
Clambering to her feet as well, Portia moves close and wraps an arm around the skinny bard’s waist. Looking up, she says, “Just hang on to my shoulders, Nik. Er, you might want to watch the sword hilt.” Tucking herself in close, she can’t contain a sneeze at the smell of the alcohol. “Ah, excuse me,” she says, grinning ruefully…
“Bless’ya.” The tall bard smiles down at Portia, then carefully drapes one long arm across her shoulders and shifts his weight from the tree to the priestess. In spite of his frail build Nik is not a light burden, and the fact that he is too drunk to really help support his own weight only complicates things.
The bard’s knobby spine and the sharp wing of his hipbone dig into Portia’s supporting arm as he staggers, and through his thin shirt she can feel the ridged web-work of scars that covers his back. His left arm is a dead weight across her shoulders, and the sour stench of whiskey and old fear surrounds him like a fog. But there is nothing but drunken humor lighting his sunken eyes as he lifts his right hand and points vaguely in the direction of the inn. “T’th’inn!” he slurs cheerfully, the manic grin taking years off his careworn face.
A thought creeps into his muddled brain, and he frowns as if he has forgotten something of great importance. “Oh, no, wait.” he mumbles, unfocused eyes searching for something among the trees. “Gotta get Julia. Can’ leave ‘er out here ‘lone, th’gods only know what’d happen t’her. S’the onna thin’ I’ve got left t’remember what I used t’be…”
Finally Nik spots his precious guitar, right where he left it. Waving a hand at the leather-wrapped instrument he says “Th’re she is. Oh, look. Is tha’ my backpack, too?” He grins down at Portia, the alcohol haze thick in his sunken eyes. “Tha’s good. Lemme get m’stuff. Th’n we c’n go back.”
The tiny fey heaves a mighty sigh as he follows the priestess and bard back to the inn. More than once, wisps of invective about the misuse of the gifts of Faerie to mortals waft through the night air.
It takes a while, but finally the besotted bard manages to pick up his pack and sling it over his shoulder, the added weight even more affecting his walk as he staggers along leaning on the small red-haired priestess. The pair – accompanied by the almost ghostly whisperings of the invisible faerie – makes it back to the inn. Fortunately for Nik, the Hellriders have left as did Jezbodiah, Matteo and Kevin. Only the inn’s staff is busy cleaning up the place in preparation for the next day’s business.
“Ye’r beddin’ is up in the common.” One of the maids directs the pair as she points to a ladder leading up into the loft. Despite his drunkenness, Nik manages to climb the ladder and make his way up to the sleeping area. Several straw pallets are placed on the floor, some occupied and others empty. Two oil lamps provide sparse illumination, and in the half-light Nik and Portia can make their way without overly disturbing the sleepers – although Portia has to yank the bard back hard as he almost steps on an occupied pallet.
The only ones actively noticing the arrival of the two are Kevin’s winged cat and Jezbodiah’s ferret. Both animals regard the proceedings with a detached interest as they curl back to snuggle up to their masters.After Portia manages to put Nik down on a vacant pallet, it doesn’t take long before the lanky bard’s eyes close and passes out. As she beds down herself, the priestess sighs as apparently she is the only one awake and with the snoring of Nik it’ll be some time before she finds her rest…
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