Laurelyn made her “good-byes” to the members of the Leastholder household, and wished them all the blessings of the gods of wind and stone.
In little more time than that, he had said his own farewells to the family and swung into the saddle to look questioningly at the storyteller. “So where do we go to find The Star Dreamer?”
She looked over at Thomis, savoring his presence, and said, “I figured we’d start in Morrow’s Hold. Depends on when we arrive – like many an old legend, his is tied to the full moon.”
Laurelyn smiled and said, “Well, nothing holding us here – ready?”
In answer, he gathered up the reins and set directed the horse south, choosing a path that would take them around the town. He looked forward to the journey, and the opportunit it would provide for spending more time alone with the storyteller before they found themselves surrounded by her family.
And he couldn’t complain with that.
The morning passed quietly and the further they traveled the less people they saw upon the road. The pair had been riding through forest, and had lapsed into companionable silence. Laurelyn finally asked, “Are you hungry?” She nodded her head toward a path that they had come abreast. “That leads to a stream – the one where Beast saw fit to dump me in on our way to town, but it’s a good locale for a picnic.”
Laurelyn thought back to her preparations for her journey, and the fact that Mary had helped her prepare her food. It had been at the older woman’s suggestion that Laurelyn had packed some honey mead, good cheese, and fresh bread. She had been surprised, touched, and amused at Mary’s interest in helping play matchmaker.
She had also been surprised when Mary had asked Laurelyn’s reason for leaving. The storyteller had shyly told her about the call of The Star Dreamer, and the legend that surrounded the ship, and the boon she sought from the damned Captain and his long-dead crew.
Thomis Parch nodded his agreement to a break for lunch, and turned his mount to follow the path as it snaked through the trees towards the stream. Laurelyn had told him how her bay hunter – who seemed to be acting fairly docile this day – had treated her to a thorough dunking shortly before her arrival in town. This time, though, they stopped near, but not too near, the water, and there Thomis spread out his cloak and helped Laurelyn unpack the food.
It was a simple meal, but quite pleasing, much better than the fare that was typical when Mesani I’Se directed the travel. Thomis told Laurelyn as much, with a slight smile and yet another unconscious touch of the long scar across the bridge of his nose. “How long to Morrow’s Hold?”
Laurelyn leaned back on her hands and did some rough calculations in her head. “About ten days ride to the coast…, then about another two down the coastline.” Her brow furrowed with a touch of worry, “I know it sounds like quite a trip – sorry you came?”
Thomis smiled over his cup of mead and shook his head. “Not at all, Hillrover, not at all.”
Somewhere a little further downstream, something damp was licking across Jacques’ face. Under ordinary circumstances, he wouldn’t be complaining so long as certain ground rules were met, but these weren’t exactly ordinary circumstances. So he groaned, and rolled over, bells a-jangle. And opened his bleary eyes.
Gods, he thought. Wasn’t it enough that he’d accidentally picked up that keg of Thunderspirits instead of honest to goodness lager? Wasn’t it enough he had no clue where he was or how he’d gotten there? Did they have to inflict this on him as well? He hadn’t sinned in, oh at least the day he’d spent lying here in the grass. Or perhaps at most. He wasn’t sure, but given past history perhaps hoping for that long was somewhat wishful thinking.
The licking continued. It was followed by some snuffling. And a little whining.
“Shut up, for God’s sake.” He closed his eyes briefly as a tongue rasped over his forehead, just below the hat.
Then the whining started again.
“OK, OK. I’m up. What are you, some fiend from hell?” Jacques groaned and strained into a half-sitting position. He reached out and picked up the small furry puppy with one hand, pulling it closer so he could see it better. “Looks like I was right. You are a fiend from hell.”
The fiend wagged its tail and licked across his face.
“You do that again, boy, and I’ll have to start paying.” He staggered to a stand, puppy in hand, and bells ringing disconsolately.
“You belong to anyone?” Jacques looked around hopefully. “Like a twelve foot winged beast or something. You’d be about their type. After all, it’s nearly time for a late snack.”
The puppy whined.
“Come on then.” With that, Jacques set off on a slightly unsteady walk upriver. There must be some poor sap he could offload this freeloader on. Gods alone knew where it had come from.
After several minutes of stumbling and tripping, Jacques came across a Couple eating by the stream.
”’Scuse me,” he called as he stopped some small distance away. “Does this creature belong to you?” He held up the small bundle of eagerly yapping light brown puppy dog, complete with big floppy ears, and furiously wagging tail, for their inspection.
At the unexpected voice Laurelyn looked over the rim of her mug of honey mead – and stared. For there came towards them a jester, carrying a puppy. The storyteller focused on the puppy and said, in a half-choked voice, “I’m being haunted.”
“No, he is not a haunting. I cannot see ghosts, but I can see him,” Thomis Parch said quietly, one hand resting near the hilt of his sword. The jester, complete with pet, did not look threatening – but then again, neither a lot of things in this world. Speaking more loudly, he addressed the odd man confronting them. “The pup isn’t familiar to us.” The small animal merely wriggled more in the jester’s grip, and looked at them all as if it desperately wanted to lick someone.
[Jacques – and fiend. Er, friend.]
“Ah well.” Jacques sighed, and lowered the yapping creature to the ground. Fortunately it wasn’t very far. As the puppy’s feet touched the grass it bounded off towards Laurelyn but skidded on something unseen and rolled head over tail to come to a sudden, and somewhat bemused, stop. It was facing the stream, and was utterly confused since it had been facing food before.
Jacques wandered over and picked it up again, despite his reservations.
“You know,” he said to it quietly, “you’re about as intelligent as that tree.”
Then he turned back to the Couple, and realised that he was hungry. And probably so was the puppy.
“Could you spare a poor down on his luck jester and his traveling companion a few nibbles?” he asked them. Or a lager, he thought, but decided against pushing his luck.
“I can juggle or something in payment.”
He pulled a couple of colourful rubber balls out of his uniform with his free hand and began to juggle both them and the puppy in a carefree rhythm. The puppy yapped happily at each apex in the curve, and snuffled at each catch.
Maybe, thought Jacques, I can keep in the act after all.
Then he realised that neither half of the Couple were watching him. They were watching the dog.
Never work with children or animals, he reminded himself and tossed the puppy with a backhanded flip. It yelped, and landed with a deep <plop> in the stream. There was a pause. Then, a small brown head broke the surface, and swam towards the shore, followed by a rapidly wagging tail.
Laurelyn yelped as the puppy went flying into the water, and was half-way to her feet when she saw the pup surface.
“Now,” said Jacques dispiritedly. These fiends were always harder to get rid of than they looked. They had the devil’s own proverbial. “Now, about that food?”
The storyteller knelt by the stream and fished the drenched and wiggling puppy out. From somewhere behind her she heard the Beast snort derisively, and Laurelyn muttered under her breath, “Shut up.”
The puppy squiggled in her arms as it tried to wash the entire bottom half of her face with its pink tongue, and it managed to drench the entire front of her tunic before she had gotten it back to where Thomis sat.
When Laurelyn moved, Thomis kept his eyes on the jester. He considered commenting that perhaps the storyteller could adopt the young mutt, but her quietly growled “shut up” stopped him. “Your choice, Hillrover, whether he has earned his meal.”
Once settled she looked at Thomis, raised an eyebrow in question, and said, “I’m willing to give him something – but only if he doesn’t throw anymore puppies around.”
Watching the woman with the puppy, Jacques realised with some relief that he had found just the sap to offload the animal onto. At least that would be one less thing to worry about.
“If you want him, lady, he’s yours.” He paused. “Though I think he was enjoying the juggling.”
“He didn’t seem to be protesting much,” Thomis was forced to agree. He fished out another cup and filled it with mead, passing it over to the jester. The dog in Laurelyn’s lap watched forlornly as the Oath-Bound followed up with bread and cheese, and stretched his furry neck out over her forearm to sniff at the food. Then the creature had the gall to stare at Thomis with a mournful expression in his wet brown eyes as if sadly disappointed that the true star of the show had gone unrewarded for his contribution to the afternoon entertainment.
With a slight sigh, Thomis carved off a small piece of cheese and crumbled it in his hand, then began feeding it bit by bit to the eager pup. “I don’t suppose you carry dogchow with you as a matter of course,” he remarked to Laurelyn.
Laurelyn’s blue eyes twinkled with good humor as she watched Thomis captured, as she had been, by the pup’s whimsy. She shook her head, “No, I’m afraid I don’t, but I do have a small backpack and a old blanket.” Her expression clouded for a minute, and again she prayed that Jem was safe.
Her attention was brought back to her wiggling foundling as the pup wriggled free of her grasp, but fell over its own feet in its escape attempt – landing it on its black nose. The air carried the noticeable scent of wet dog, and Laurelyn was reminded that the front of her shirt was now soaked and muddy. “What is it about this place that condemns me to being drenched?” she asked no one in particular, as she made a grab for the puppy, before it could get hold of their loaf of bread.
The bread was easier to grab than the puppy and with loaf in hand Laurelyn asked the jester, “So what’s your name?”
Chewing on the bread that the male half of the Couple had passed him, Jacques paused thoughtfully. And swallowed.
“Jack,” he offered. “Unless you can handle ‘Jacques’ with more grace than most others.” That sounded rather too erudite to his ears, and there was only one rude he was generally prepared to be.
He flicked his free wrist, and a knife appeared there as if by magic. Which it was – sleight of hand, perhaps, but magic nonetheless. Jacques proceeded to pare a chunk off the cheese.
Another wrist flick sent the small chunk to the pup in a spinning, spiralling arc. A brown head popped up with a happy yap, and caught the chunk in mid air.
“You know,” Jacques said, “that animal has talent.”
Then he eyed the female half of the Couple suspiciously. “You’re not a lawyer by any chance are you?” It was best to get these things cleared up as soon as possible. No telling what might happen later on if she started soliciting all over the place. It could get quite messy.
“No, I’m not,” Laurelyn answered. She gave Thomis a quick, and slightly bemused glance – before she had to rescue the mead from a puppy’s overly-energetic search for crumbs.
“Good,” he replied with a visible sigh of relief. Then, he straightened and grinned broadly.
“Actually,” he continued, “as I was walking further downstream there, I was attacked by a rabid lion and a lawyer.” His face moulded into mock horror, eyes wide.
“And I only had two arrows for my bow and very little time to choose,” he mimed pulling back a bow string. “So who do you think I shot first?” He shrugged eloquently, and winked at Laurelyn, then turned a questioning look on Thomis. Taking a pull from the mug of mead, Jacques gave them a couple of seconds in case one actually wanted to proffer an answer. It wasn’t high comedy, but it helped if the punters thought they had a part to play.
“You shot the lawyer twice,” Thomis offered, dipping his fingertip in a small jar of honey, then allowing the puppy to lick the sweet stickiness. “What do you call a pile of lawyers at the bottom of the Augustana River?” The honey was a mistake – after cleaning Thomis’ fingertip thoroughly, the creature scrambled after the jar. With the lid firmly in place, the Oath-bound let the animal scour the outside of the container with its tongue.
Scowling and harrumphing, Jacques took another pull from the mug of mead. Amateurs! The correct punchline was ‘I shot the lawyer. And then I shot him again, just to be sure‘
His eyes tracked the puppy’s antics, and he decided that perhaps it hadn’t been such a wise idea to get up after all. Not only was he being upstaged by an animal, but this would-be comedian was ruining his punchlines. He sighed, and swallowed the last of the mead, wishing it was lager.
“So,” he said, ignoring the man’s joke. There were demarcation and union rules to be considered after all. He was not sulking. He repeated it in his mind to be sure. He was not sulking. Much. “So, what’s your name then?”
Laurelyn was grinning. In all the time she had known Thomis she had never, ever, heard him crack a joke. Ever! She was enjoying the moment. Even if the quest to find The Star Dreamer turned out to be a fool’s dream she thanked the gods of sea and stone for the time traveling with Thomis – and even for the jester and pup.
Not only for loosening Thomis’s reserve, but for reminding her the wonders of the ridiculous; where humor wasn’t just a thin layer over the nightmare. “Flotsam?” she offered in answer to Thomis’s joke.
“More like a good start,” harrumphed Jacques less than magnanimously. “Anyway, enough jokes.” At least, he thought, enough of these lawyer jokes. They were getting worse.
He emptied the mug with another swig and began to spin it aimlessly on the tip of one finger.
“You folks headed anywhere a jester might find himself some employment?” He thought back to the nearby town, and barely repressed a shudder. It’d been a haven for jesters in the past – with adventurers always willing to spend money, the Inn reknowned for its lager, and of course the other “attractions” in certain districts of town. But since the advent of the League, it was no longer even worth scrabbling around in the rubble for trinkets. Well, not more than once anyway.
The puppy seemed convinced that it it licked the jar long enough, it could wear a hole through the glass. Seeing the animal thus occupied, Thomis looked inquiringly at Laurelyn; somewhere along the way to Morrow’s Hold, they undoubtedly would pass through a city suitable for a quick-witted jester (he could not picture Jacques wanting to linger among the fisherfolk of her home village). But the choice of whether to accept the man in motley as a traveling companion was hers (she obviously already had accepted the pup, who by now had managed to tumble the honey jar over onto its side and was testing the metal lid to see if it could be worn down more quickly by determined licking).
Laurelyn studied the jester. She hadn’t been planning on other traveling companions – hoping that Thomis and she would have a much deserved (in her opinion) time to themselves. But Jacques and the puppy had definitely added whimsey to the day, and even had Thomis cracking dry jokes. She nodded, and said, “Sure – come along. We’re headed for Morrow’s Hold, which is a fair-sized fishing village. And depending on the roads – and if the clans aren’t feuding – we might be able to travel through Giant’s Knoll – a decent city. Either place you also might catch a ship to more profitable destinations.”
Finishing off the last of the food, and relenting with a sigh, Jacques considered his options. He could travel with these people to new and fascinating places he’d never heard of with the opportunity to make huge sums of money, or he could stay in this place and sleep for a few weeks.
He paused in deep thought.
There were distinct advantages to both options, he considered with a slight yawn. His eyes tracked down to the puppy that had given up licking its way through the jar lid and was now looking up at him with wide brown eyes, head cocked to one side.
No, he silently replied to the apparent question, I haven’t a clue either. Join the club.
Then finally, he relented with a curiously sad grin.
“Sure, I’ll tag along.” He turned slightly to Thomis. “Maybe we can trade jokes along the way?” It was the closest to an apology that he was ever willing to go, and even that was surprising him. Damn Couples, he thought. They always did bring out the worst of his good nature.
Thomis had watched the puppy watching the jester watching the puppy, and smiled slightly at the offer. “I’m afraid you would have me seriously out-classed, but I can try to be your straightman from time to time.” The past months had proven to be …. interesting …. enough, and the trip to Morrow’s Hold looked to be shaping up the same way. Jester and puppy. Things could only get stranger.
“I’ve got a horse around here somewhere,” he added distractedly, and pulled a small whistle from some hidden pocket in his jester outfit. Taking a deep breath, he put the whistle to his mouth and blew ferociously – with no apparent sound or effect. Silence drifted loudly across the scene. Even the puppy was looking at him again curiously.
Then, just as the puppy bounded up to chase a brightly coloured butterfly down to the stream, a small, shaggy, white pony ambled from behind a tree and shuffled up to stand a few yards away from the jester.
“By the way,” he finished, turning back to Laurelyn with a half-satisfied smirk. “You never did tell me your name.”
Laurelyn turned from watching the pony and said, offering her hand, “Laurelyn Hillrover.” She looked back at the pony, glanced at the Beast, and asked, “Think you could teach me that trick with horses?”
The Beast just gave a snort.
“Thomis Parch,” the Oath-bound added, glancing at the puppy, who had skidded to a stop and tumbled head over heels while trying to change direction with the butterfly. The animal scrambled back to its feet and searched frantically for its prey. “I suppose this one is nameless.”
“Sorry, Laurelyn ma’am,” offered Jacques with a shrug, and a glance towards the Beast. “It’s a one pony trick.”
His eyes tracked to the puppy, which was now sitting back and staring cross-eyed with tongue lolling out at the butterfly which had landed on its nose.
Thomis considered the puppy for a moment longer, then glanced towards Laurelyn. With a slight shrug, he pushed himself to his feet and started gathering everything together to repack on Beast and his own horse (as nameless as the pup, whose packing he left to Laurelyn). In several short minutes, he was ready to continue the journey.
“Probably wouldn’t work with the Beast anyway,” Laurelyn said, as she helped pack their food back up for their travels. She dusted Thomis’s cloak off and handed it back to him.
Then she went and began digging around in her saddlebags – in a few minutes she had pulled out a worn-looking leather backpack. And with a practiced air she deftly snagged the puppy and tucked it, wiggling bottom first, into the backpack.
Before the new foundling could pop out she fastened the mesh cover over the top; a great deal of yapping ensued and she made some soothing sounds, which did no good, before hefting the pack onto her shoulders.