Laurelyn sipped her tea while she staved off a chuckle at the boy’s boisterousness. She recognized him the night before – he had retrieved Fiend from under the table.
From his ill-fitting clothes and manner she sized him up to be a child of the streets, but one of quick wits and charming manner. But not a woodland child, she’d guess. “We travel fairly light,” she said, taking another sip of tea. She wasn’t about to announce they were heading to Morrow’s Hold – it could easily be that the highwaymen had spies within the Inn – family maybe. She almost chuckled aloud – in this case her caution stemmed from the fact that her Da’s family once oft used a similiar trick when they were in a harbor inn. Though they had given up pirating a generation or two ago – sticking now only to fishing and smuggling. “And since we don’t have many packs to deal with – tell me what your scouting resume is.”
Laurelyn had her doubts that the boy had been beyond Helgastop.
Having given up entirely on breakfast, Jacques looked at the boy with some suspicion. After all, not only had he seen the boy “acquire” some money from one of the inn’s patrons, but the pup didn’t seem to trust him either.
As if to underscore that, Fiend looked up at Rudolpho and growled lightly for a second. Then he returned to licking at the empty plate in a desperate attempt to find something edible.
Jacques nodded to himself. And then realised he was relying on the word of an animal about as intelligent as the average cockroach. Next he’d probably be asking his pony for stock market tips.
The pup made a snuffling, growling sound that Jacques though was suspiciously close to a laugh.
He shook himself out of him momentary reverie and looked up at Laurelyn. “If by resume you mean what scouting I have done, I have honestly never been a scout for any others but myself.” He continued on a bit defiantly. “But you would be surprised how many places I have been without anyone else’s knowledge. I can be really quite unnoticeable and if the need arises, quite formidable. If you like I can tell you all the things I have gathered about your group of travelers?” Rudolpho realized it right after the words had left his lips, that they would probably not like it well known among the patrons of the Inn what exactly he had gathered about them. “Or maybe some other time…” he trailed off. This is not going well- “I have many useful skills and you would be better off with me along to help you” he said proudly.
“Actually,” said Jacques, “I’d be rather curious as to what it is you’ve ‘gathered’ about me.”
Kids. Always trying to be so important, so grown up when it just wasn’t necessary. Jacques looked at Rudolpho with a grin and blank eyes.
Smiling into his coffee, Keir chuckled at Rudolpho’s rather frantic pleas to go along. Accompanying a thief, albeit a relatively harmless one, while trying to avoid thieves amused him to no end. His eyes flitted across the faces of the others to see if they too saw the irony or if they suspected the young pickpocket was in league with the road bandits.
Thomis kept his own eyes trained on his bowl as he scraped it clean of the last of his oatmeal. Hearing the sound of the spoon, Fiend pawed desperately at Thomis’ pant-leg and whimpered hopefully. “Not a chance, boy,” Thomis murmured, and swallowed the last bite. The pup sank back down on its haunches and gave him a disappointed look before turning back to his own empty saucer. Finding it still empty, the animal sighed and looked around for something to do.
“I also would be interested in knowing what you’ve gathered,” Thomis finally said to the other youngster who was agitating for some attention. Something in Jacques’ manner, in the way the jester waited, so relaxed, for Rudolpho’s response, made the Oath-bound curious to hear the response.
Rudolpho turned to look at he jester. “You sir, claim to be a jester. By the way you dress, the fact that you can juggle and perform, make a convincing one. But you never really joke around. You make a bunch of sarcastic comments and don’t generally look on the bright side of things I would guess. You drink a lot and suffer from hang overs as you are now. You are very agile and I would bet that you can throw things as well as toss them in circles. Is that enough?” Rudolpho turned to look back at Laurelyn and Thomis to see their reactions to his summation.
“I’ve made no particular secret of any of that, kid. Any of the other kids at that table,” he pointed, “could say the same. Though you wound me when you say I only claim to be a jester.”
The grin slipped into something subtly different, Jacques relaxed, and lifted the oatmeal bowl to spin it lightly on a pair of fingers. Despite slopping at the sides, no oatmeal actually spilt.
“Besides which, we’re supposed to trust a young thief to aid us in avoiding older thieves? I may be a fool, boy, but I ain’t that stupid.”
As Daron nibbled on bread and honey, she debated between what supplies she would need for the journey ahead versus the coin she had in her money pouch. Listening to the conversations swirling around her, she blessed and cursed her excellent hearing in one breath. The news of highwaymen on the road ahead made her wish she hadn’t eaten quite so much for breakfast. She pushed the plate away with a frown, leaving half of her portions untouched. Getting provisions would have to wait a bit longer.
Faith, but what do I do now? she wondered silently.
Daron did not relish the idea of traveling alone. She hoped her stomach would settle down enough to stock up soon. If she was to join the party at the next table, she would have to move quickly.
Rudolpho opened his mouth to reply with a scathing insult. Catching himself he snapped it shut with an audible click. One, two, three, four, five. “I did actually say you make a convincing jester.” Have you been listening? “But if you want to be called a fool I guess I could do that too. I guess though, as far as being a thief,” he smiled sweetly now at the jester, “it takes one to know one doesn’t it? Oh, one more observation sir, I have noticed that you are not in charge of your party. Ultimately it matters not what you think, but what advice Thomis gives and what Laurelyn decides. But don’t feel bad, you spin a bowl of oatmeal very well.”
Thomis raised one eyebrow and kept his eyes trained on Laurelyn, wondering whether even Drywen, with his tendency to speak his mind without thinking, would have made such a show as this. Fiend took one last lick at his saucer and almost glared at Rudolpho before letting out one almost-fierce bark.
The bowl jumped a couple of inches on Jacques’ fingers as he restrained an impulse to smear it over the boy’s face. At least the boy hadn’t actually noticed anything Jacques needed to be worried about.
Shaking his head, letting the bells ring, he placed the bowl back on the table, leaned back and closed his eyes.
Kids, he thought. I hate kids.
“As you say, boy, what happens will be due to,” his voice changed to a near perfect imitation of Rudolpho’s, “what advice Thomis gives and what Laurelyn decides.” And then back to his own. “Just puttin’ my oar in, for whatever its worth.”
He pulled his hat down over his eyes.
“Somebody wake me when the decision’s been made.”
A series of soft snores issued from the recumbent jester.
Fiend let out a fierce yawn and lay down, though his eyes remained open and fixed on Rudolpho.
Washing down the last of his meal with a gulp of strong coffee Keir rose and stood. The day was passing and there was a long walk ahead. “Master Thomas and Mistress Laurelyn,” he began, bowing slightly. “and good jester. I am traveling in much the same direction and offer to escort you so you need not fear any mere brigands.” With staff in hand he tried to present his most stern and confident pose.
“Please have a seat, Master Keir,” Laurelyn said. She studied the “sleeping” jester – having no doubts (not after earlier seeing his ease with his dagger) that he could defend himself. She also looked young Rudolpho up and down. Finally she said, pitching her voice only loud enough that those at the table could hear, “Once we have breakfast – I would suggest we move elsewhere to discuss our travel plans and ….”
She looked back at the boy, and “And your resume….”
Daron stood up. Her next course of action was decided for her. She strode over to the bar and made arrangements for traveling provisions. She knew she could trap or fish for whatever she needed, if push came to shove. But it was nice to have a bit of made-goods in the beginning.
That business taken care of, she returned to the table. Daron retrieved the picture of Rudolpho’s mother from her stack of drawing supplies. She walked over and handed it to Rudolpho.
“Thought you should have this before you go.”
She walked back to her table and started to pack up her possessions. If she had to travel alone, she would do so. Her horse wasn’t named “Falcon” for nothing; the mare was as fast as the wind and fierce enough to defend her mistress.
Pierre lifted his head from where it was resting on his palm. Others were conversing, he supposed. He hadn’t really been paying much attention.
I decided to do this yesterday, he told himself. I have to find Ana and say goodbye to her before she dies.
Rudolpho bowed slightly to Laurelyn. She had given him a chance to show them, which was all he was asking for. He took the picture when Daron approached him. For the first time, he realized he had not asked Daron what she intended to do. The thought of having to go in separate directions made him feel….funny. “So where are you gonna go? Do you plan to go alone?”
Daron paused in her packing and turned to face Rudolpho. If one looked close, they could see her expression quickly change from dejected to hopeful.
“I hadn’t planned to go by myself.” She regarded each of the others in turn. “My father taught me there are no such things as coincidences, but I, too, am headed towards the coast.”
-Please, let me find Dillon whole and safe!
Daron stubbornly pushed such thoughts to the back of her mind. “And it would be safer to travel in a group. My horse, Falcon, can carry two as easily as one. Who will ride with me?”
Pierre’s ears perked up. While he didn’t have abnormally sensitive hearing, it was rather good. “If it is permissable,” he whispered. “I should like to join with you. I am heading that way, myself.”
Laurelyn signaled the young performer over.
Thomis continued to sip his water as he considered what had passed between the jester and Rudolpho. That would be something to ask Jacques about later, what it was he had seen that made him conclude the boy was a thief. Not that it was a surprising revelation, given the boy’s obvious status as a street-child, but it would be good to know where everyone stood.
Thomis had concluded already that Laurelyn would agree to allow the boy to travel with them …. and most likely, Daron the artist also. And like the storyteller, he already had evaluated each person’s likely ability to protect themselves if the rumored highwaymen were to prove troublesome. “Do you have a mount, Master Keir?” he asked easily, leaving the other discussion to Laurelyn.
I thought so. This is gonna be fun. “It might be easiest on the Falcon if I rode with you. I’m pretty light and that way Keir can have his own mount. Besides. I’m pretty good with horses. We used to have ‘em back home. Maybe he and I could have a nice chat too.” Rudolpho sounded cheerful for the first time in ages.
The little Hortus sat down alongside Thomas, glancing at the sleeping Jacques as he leaned his staff against the table. “I have always found my own legs to be sufficient master Thomas as you shall see. That is, providing you don’t intend on a full gallop the entire day.” He had seen big folk upon the animals they called horses and at first thought they were cripples until he had seen one dismount and walk away without much of a noticeable incapacity. Viewing it as both odd and a sign of laziness, he swore he would ride nothing that couldn’t fly or float as he could do all else well enough himself. “So when do we depart?”
Laurelyn took a final sip of her cooling tea and quietly asked Keir, “Should we have to gallop – in case of danger – would you have any objections to riding?”
Keir’s large brown eyes looked puzzled and his face alternated between embarassed and offended. “Mistress Laurelyn, I’ve pledged to defend you against danger, I would not run off and leave you behind?” He looked at Thomas, noting the scar on his nose, and wondered if she made him ride to keep him from getting away. He suspected not and if an obviously honorable man such as Thomas could endure it… “If the need should arise I will shield your back upon your… horse.”
Laurelyn realized she had offended their new traveling companion, and she honestly wondered if his race had some gift of speed. She said, “Good Master Keir, my apologies for any offense given – none was meant. And both your generous offer to protect me, and ride – if necessary – are deeply appreciated.”
Rudolpho had tried to wait patiently for the others to settle things. He had begun to get bored and was hoping for a distraction. Finding none he looked back to Laurelyn. “So can we go now? I think we should start moving soon to maximize on daylight. It is also easier to see threats from further distances assuming they are not hiding. So can we go now? please please please?”
They had already payed in advance for their breakfast so Laurelyn stood – trying to restrain a chuckle at the boy’s eagerness – and softly said, “Let us go to the stable and continue this discussion.”
Her glance included the young performer – who’s name she had yet to learn.
Pushing his hat back up so he could see, as well as hear, Jacques grunted.
”’Bout time. Think I’ll leave most of that out of my memoirs.”
The pup yipped, and managed to jump up onto Jacques’ lap, and then onto the table.
“And you better stick with Laurelyn, boy. There’re bound to be more rivers ‘tween here and where ever it is we’re heading.”
Head cocked to one side, the pup looked at him imploringly for a second, then turned and trotted over to where Laurelyn stood by the table and yapped twice.
Jacques shook his head and stood, fumbling at his clothes for his whistle.
Laurelyn picked up the Pup and led the way to the stable. Once they were safely away from prying eyes she said, “Thomis’ and my destination lies towards Morrow’s Hold – and any of you who are heading in that direction are welcome to ride with us.”
She studied each of their new companions, and said, “I mean no insult by this – but with the threat of highwaymen upon the road it would be helpful to know who can fight?”
While Laurelyn discussed the logistics of the journey with their new traveling companions, Thomis located the stable-boy, and with his assistance started to saddle his and Laurelyn’s mounts. The jester’s pony he would leave to its owner; with the many tricks Jacques’ had up his sleeves, the Oath-bound was reluctant to risk disturbing the jester’s property. When the stable-boy looked dubious about approaching Beast, Thomis waved him towards Thomis’ own more docile-looking horse.
Once the horses had been resaddled, and the packs tied firmly down, Thomis led the two from their stalls to where Laurelyn still waited with the pup wriggling in her arms.
Daron turned from transferring travel provisions into her saddlebags. She met Laurelyn’s gaze evenly.
“My father believed in his children being able to defend themselves. I’ve had to for the past year, as I’ve been on my own. I don’t like to fight, that much is true.” She looked at each of those assembled in turn. “Nevertheless, I will defend my fellow travelers, to the death if need be. My word is my bond.” She smiled at Rudolpho. “And I agree with Rudolpho. We should make use of the daylight as much as possible.”
Pierre spoke quietly, while checking through his packs to make sure he had everything he needed. “I fear, mademoiselle, that I may not be the best of fighters. I have spent most of my years in this town, and even then have preferred the arts over the athletic. Though I do give you my solemn word that I shall not simply run and hide.” He looked up. “I apologize for not introducing myself earlier. I am Pierre DuBlanc, but, if you like, you may simply call me Pierre.”
“I can be a great deterrent when I want to be. Sometimes I like to simply scare off the other people. I find that it works best that way. Sometimes though, it takes more persuasion. Don’t worry, I can help protect people if they need it.” The young boy spoke confidently, with his shoulders held back and his head held high. “Nice to meet ya Pierre!” He held out his small hand to the man. “Don’t worry, some people are just quiet by nature.”
Pierre smiled at the young boy’s boisterousness, and took his hand in his own. “I, too, am pleased to meet you,” he said, giving him a smile.
She put the wiggling Pup down so the youngster would have a chance to scamper before his long journey in her backpack began. The Pup took a couple of joyous yaps – then he plunged into a mound of straw…. followed by a sneezing retreat.
Meanwhile Laurelyn listened to her fellow travelers and said, “Then I would say we are reasonably well prepared.”
Before she scooped the Pup back up she looked over at the young musician and said, “By the way, welcome Pierre – you play quite well.”
“Thank you, mademoiselle,” he whispered.
While the others got their mounts ready – or in Keir’s case, readied his gear, the storyteller joined Thomis. “Thanks for getting the horses ready,” she said to him with a gentle smile. She dropped her voice and asked, “So what do you think of our little crew – any recommendations on precautionary measures?”
With a great deal of patting and reassuring murmurs she got the wiggling Pup safely settled into his backpack.
Thomis glanced over the crowd again casually, then gave a slight shrug. “Fortunately, the reports of the bandits do not hold them out to be a particularly vicious crew.” The two young boys worried him most of all; at least the older, Pierre had been up-front about his lack of combat ability. Rudolpho’s over-confidence in any confrontation with highwaymen, threatened to cause more trouble for them than any robbers themselves. “If it comes to it, Hillrover, I will watch the children if you will keep your eyes on Master Keir.” He had no doubt the jester would prove quite capable of guarding himself.
“Agreed,” she said. She didn’t have many doubts that Master Keir was a healer, but she wasn’t sure about his dragon hunting.
Walking over to his shaggy white pony, Jacques kept half an ear on the conversation, but wasn’t too concerned with the answers. Personally, he had no doubt that the Thomis half of the Couple could look after more than himself if it came down to it. And he wasn’t exactly harmless himself if need be.
The pony whinnied as he approached and stared directly into its face.
“So, you think I should buy Malisis Pork Importers and sell Sa’iph Wide Travel Holdings?” he asked it quietly.
The pony whickered quietly in return.
He caught Rudolpho’s reply and snorted. While he wasn’t entirely convinced the boy would be able to scare off more than a couple of field mice, at least it was a sensible thought.
Jacques checked the small saddle bags had been strapped on safely and led his pony out of the stables and into some fresh air to wait for the others.
Keir stepped aside from his position by the door to let the jester pass. Though he felt his skills were as self-evident as Thomas’, he decided to declare himself for the benefit of the younger members of the party. “I am a healer by vocation but have been many things through need, including dragon hunter.” He neglected to mention that he had been an involuntary hunter and had, thankfully, not had to actually fight a dragon. He twirled his staff over his head then slammed the butt-end into the floor to emphasize his point but was disappointed when the soft straw-strewn floor muffled the sound of the blow.
Outside the stable, Thomis swung himself back up into his saddle, settling in for what might prove to be a long ride. “A brave pursuit,” he said to Keir in all seriousness. “With any luck, we shall not have to call upon either your dragon-hunting or your healing abilities.” He looked across to Laurelyn, and smiled slightly at the soft yip that came from her backpack.
For once Beast wasn’t being restive – probably because she had an audience. Laurelyn swung to the saddle and returned Thomis’s smile.
Pierre put on a smile, reminding himself for what must have been the thousandth time that he could not bring the emotions of these people down far simply because he was not in a particularly joyous mood himself. He mounted his horse, thinking. Perhaps he should tell them why he was going on this mission. Tell them about his sister.
No. Not yet. Pierre refused to be the bearer of bad news. Abigail would not want him to depress others; Ana liked it when people were happy. He would keep it to himself, and act cheerful.
Ana would want it that way.