Two days later, slowed by rainstorms, Laurelyn, Thomis, and Jacques rode along the river – the silence of the woods scattered into hiding by the puppy’s howling from the backpack. An encounter the day before with a farmer – whose the pup had chased around a field – had resulted in directions to Helgastop, on the other side of the river. Laurelyn had been studying the riverbank for a good crossing point for the road to Helgastop, but finally reined the Beast to a halt. The storyteller looked at her companions, sighed, and said, “I wish I could keep my promise in regards to that decent crossing, but it looks like it’s flooded over.”
The packed puppy yapped in dismay.
Trying with some success to not fall off the shaggy white pony, Jacques glanced at the yapping back pack.
At least the yap was a darn sight better than all that howling. He’d been getting a headache, even through the constant jangling of his hat bells every time the pony lifted a hoof. For some reason he kept wanting to whistle an obscure tune he’d picked up in Darilei. Something about a “one horse open slay”, though he couldn’t for the life of him figure out why one would kill a horse – open or not. He turned towards the stream with a sigh. The sight of all that water was beginning to make him queasy – and he knew green did not go well with his uniform. Jacques paused in thought.
“If either of you has a rope, we could tie it to something and toss it over.” Maybe something small, brown, and furry, he added silently. “Then only one of us would probably drown trying to get over rather than all three.”
He grinned to show he wasn’t serious – though his eyes weren’t so sure.
“Volunteering?” Thomis asked with a glance towards the frantically wailing backpack. His own horse, and Laurelyn’s Beast, might be able to make it across easily enough, depending on how deep the water was, and probably without the pup getting wet again (though from the sound of it, the creature was quite distressed at the possibility). The jester’s pony, though, was quite a bit shorter and seemingly dubious about venturing into the current.
Laurelyn sat studying the restless, swollen waters, and wished she had control of water itself – and not just wind and fish. But that was not the gift she’d been born with so she reined Beast away from the water’s edge and said, “I think it would be best to ride further down and see if there is a better crossing, or see if we can find another road.”
With a sigh, Jacques pulled a small, silver bottle from one of his numerous pockets, spun the cap open with one hand, and took a hefty swig from the contents.
“Hair of the dog,” he muttered to no one in particular. Then he turned to Laurelyn’s backpack where the puppy had been strangely quiet for a few minutes, and raised the bottle in salute. “No offense, boy.”
Hopefully the booze would get rid of the hangover. Or at least make it so he didn’t care about it any more. The combination of puppy wailing and rushing river was giving him a headache fit to rival the one the reputed six-headed ogre-king of Kth’Kthwin had routinely got trying to walk through doorways before he’d passed that law.
He kneed the pony gently over to a tree away from Laurelyn, took another pull from the bottle, and tried not to think about the puppy. Or the river.
Screwing the cap tightly back on the bottle, Jacques vowed to never drink again. The sight of all that water rising up like that … His head throbbed somewhat, and he felt more than a little seasick. Why if it had been real….
He unscrewed the cap and took a generous gulp. And vowed to stop drinking some other time. Then he slipped the bottle back into its hidden pocket – somehow without leaving a bulge in his uniform – and turned his shaggy and unperturbed pony back towards Laurelyn.
The puppy paused in its howling as he got closer, yapped a couple of times, and then returned to its woeful cry.
The night had fallen full upon the travelers while Laurelyn, Thomis, and Jacques had continued on the road to Helgastop. The group had mostly lapsed into silence, except for the pup that had insisted on an evening run – and managed to be terrified by an angry rabbit. Though Laurelyn had to admit – it was large rabbit and her grumbling stomach reminded her that rabbit stew was always good.
She would have been willing to camp instead of heading into the town, but the rocky nature of the land that the road ran through offered few places of comfort.
The shaggy pony followed the other two horses in a slow, regular, tired, plodding along the road. Jacques thought that it was probably as anxious to see the fabled Helgastop appear over the next rise as he was.
A curious name for a town, he pondered as he took another drink from the silver bottle. Sadly, that was the last. There were few things worse than an empty bottle. Being stuck in the middle of nowhere, in the dark, with Gods-alone knew what out and about hunting..... He shuddered.
He’d only known one Helga, he considered, returning to his previous thought to keep his mind off the darkness and lack of lager. And that Helga hadn’t been the kind to stop, or ask anyone else to for that matter.
An owl screeched from somewhere off to his left. At least, he hoped it was an owl. His hand strayed to one of the floppy points on his hat and he stroked it nervously. The screeching echoed a little among the rocks, and then faded. Jacques sighed, and peered ahead into the increasing darkness.
A point of light shown through the trees, but disappeared as the road took another curve, leaving the party in the awesome darkness of the woods, and again the craggy shadows of the stones surrounded them.
Laurelyn broke the silence, waking the pup and causing it to whine, by saying, “Maybe we’re almost there.” She, herself, had her doubts – the twists in the roads could take them miles out the way, before leading them into civilization.
Bells rang furiously as Jacques started at the sound. He relaxed a fraction as he took in what Laurelyn had said, though he considered it hopelessly optimistic.
More than likely that, come morning, some poor farmer (perhaps the one with the goat?) would find their battered and chewed carcasses at the bottom of some crevasse, or strung up in a tree, or a blood trail leading to their corpses in a cave, or …
The bells jangled forlornly, and he reached for the silver bottle, forgetting it was empty.
The doubt in Laurelyn’s voice, and the note of pessimism in the jester’s, were almost palpable in the darkness. The moon had waned, and provided little illumination, and briefly Thomis wished for a small mage-light. The dark did not trouble him – he was as relaxed as he ever was – but it did dampen the party’s mood. And caused the horses to move even more slowly over the uneven ground. “Lamps,” he remarked to Laurelyn. “We should get some lamps in Helgastop. When we finally arrive there.” A slight sigh of resignation from the storyteller’s backpack might have been the pup’s agreement.
Laurelyn nodded, and said, “You’re more than right – lanterns are what we need.” She could feel the restive shifting of the pup in the backpack, and began to hum softly a gentle tune in hopes it would settle the youngster. The storyteller shook herself awake, exasperated with herself; she knew what would help ease their journey. She began to sing a light folksong about the coming of Spring and the “frolics” the dancing of the Spring pole would end in. A bit risque – true, but a merry tune.
After she had sung a couple of the stanzas she said, with a bit of gentle challenge in her voice, “Do either of you gentlemen feel game enough to help with the refrain?”
Maybe not the song she would normally have chosen – she was surprised that she felt a little shy about singing such in front of Thomis, but she was tired and not feeling overly creative.
The Oath-Bound could not help but smile widely in response. “I think you have my face burning as it is, Hillrover. An innocent such as myself surely would die of embarrassment if I were to join in.” The lightness of his tone let her know he enjoyed the song, and was not at all troubled by hearing it from her. “Though perhaps Jacques…”
Laurelyn chuckled – shyly.
Jacques shook his head, bells ringing faintly. Juggling he could do, and magic tricks, and tumbling, and jokes, and all manner of other jesterish things. But singing was not one of them. Not this sober, anyway.
“Trust me,” he said with a half grin, “unless you want the forest creatures throwing nuts in disgust, you don’t want me singing.”
He paused and glanced sideways as if for any roaming armed squirrels.
“Though I think you left out the verse with the donkeys,” he added by way of encouragement to continue. Anything (except his own singing) was better than the weird noises nature was making in the darkness.
“Hmmm….,” Laurelyn said, with a chuckle in her voice, “That must be from the bawdier version.” Singing was helping to lift her mood and she started off a song about sailing into a safe harbor.
After two more dark miles of road way shouldered by sharp rock, the trio, plus pup, saw that Helgastop lay lit before them.
“Looks like we’re about to quadruple the equine population,” muttered Jacques as he took in the smattering of lights. He wondered if such a place had any decent lager. Probably they would consider their local ale to be sufficient, watery and vile though it likely was.
The pup whined a little as if in agreement to his thoughts – if not his words.
“So long as they’ve got a good hot bath in the inn, though, I’ll be happy,” Jacques added after a pause. He didn’t want to sound too pessimistic.
The pup whined a great deal at that.
“Not for you boy. Doubtless you’ll end up in the barn with all the mice and bugs.”
A cheerful yap met that comment, and Jacques shook his head.
“Should have known you’d want something to chase all night.”
Then he realised what he was doing and harrumphed. As if the animal could understand what he was saying! Must be going mad out here in the sticks.
The Oath-Bound’s level of alertness did not change as they approached the town, for it held its own potential threats, even if it wasn’t quite as dark and unnerving as the road they had been travelling on. Still, it looked peaceful enough, and surely had to be less troublesome than their previous rest-stop, and most likely would have a comfortable inn where they could pass the night. And possible where the jester could find a financially-rewarding audience.
Even a sulking Beast had began to pick-up pace at the sight of the lights and Laurelyn had to pay heed to the unpredictable hunter. She spared a moment to say over her shoulder, “I haven’t had cause to ride through Helgastop, but I understand that its at least large enough to offer a touch of imported drink.”