It was quiet that night. Snow fell lightly, sprinkling the land in a soft, white blanket. Winter’s first messenger had eluded this land for a while, but now it came with haste, leading the flakes into a wild, unpredictable dance.
All was quiet.
Yet, from time to time one could distinguish a faint, tittering noise, barely audible–foraging animals, perhaps? Then, all was quiet once again.
Sometime later, a more discernible noise could be heard. It rose in volume, till it became the sound of heavy boots, crunching the cold snow beneath, stopping the foraging creatures in midst of their tracks. But soon enough, the sound had passed, slipping away to the distance.
All was well. The creatures continued their endless search, never to be interrupted again tonight.
The cause of those crunching sounds had belonged to a traveller, a man perhaps in his forties, now walking down a hardened dirt road. Adjusting the strap of his lute case, he stopped to sip a gulp of water from his canteen, then, restopping it, carried on walking.
Occasionally, he looked up at the shining stars above, breathing in the cold, yet refreshing air.
The fur coat he wore gave him no reason to feel the harsh bite of the wind. Nor the matching cap, which he pulled down to protect his face, so that only his eyes were visible. Despite the cold night, those eyes were smiling.
Starlight was sparkling on the snow around him, but now there was another light to his right. The traveller, adjusting his bearings slightly, increased his pace. In the distance, someone began playing a light tune. He was nearly there… They knew he was coming.
A few minutes later, a handful of people greeted him. Only a few children were present, but he was not disappointed. The one he sought would wake up sooner or later tonight.
A small boy tugged at his coat, drawing a tired smile.
“Ah, well met, young man,” the traveller said. “I’d like to bestow a quite important task on you.”
The boy looked up at him with a serious expression.
“Is the hearth warm enough for an old man like myself? Because, as you know, you cannot tell stories while your bones are shaking!”
The boy seemed to hesitate for a moment, then pointed at the traveller’s fur coat.
“But you are warm inside that, aren’t you?”
The man chuckled heartily. “I think someone is getting clever by the day! This coat is not as warm as it looks. But as I said, I have a task for you, a quite important one, if you ask me. Make sure that fire is warm enough.”
“And if it is,” said the boy with a smile, “can I ask for a… song in return?”
The traveller’s features turned serious.
“Oh, but songs are not given lightly. They are gems of a bard’s mind. You will have to work more to receive one!”
“I will, master bard, I will!”
With that, the boy turned and ran away. The traveller could not follow him for long with his gaze, as one of the men, a muscular one at that, approached and hugged him warmly, handing him a cup full of a clear, steaming liquid.
“Welcome back among us. It has been a long time.”
“A long time indeed,” said the traveller. “Thank you, Edren.”
as the two men talked, the children scampered away, their parents in their tracks. They were heading toward a wooden building with a flat roof that was crudely constructed in haste, only as a temporary settlement. As some of the children started to increase their speed, there seemed to be a contest forming, of who would get there first. Pumping their small arms back and forth excitedly, they emitted cheerful, inarticulate sounds.
“Thank Eld,” Eldren chuckled. “She knew your coming earlier than anyone here. Come, sit with us for a while.” He looked around, realising too late that everyone except the two of them had left for the moment. A grin tugged at the corners of his lips, making his youthful features shine. “No wonder the saying that a bard can do miracles in the blink of an eye is becoming so popular each time you visit us,” he muttered.
“That, I can do,” the traveller said good-naturedly, putting down his lute case. He seemed not to notice Eldren’s previous remark.
They were standing in a clearing, surrounded by tall trees. He gently lowered himself onto the earth and let out a long sigh. The tiredness he felt was partly owed to the long road, and partly to the fact that he could feel something. From the day he set out from the northern side of the great forest Ryll and followed the road that wound its way around Mount Kelishmer like a serpent around its pray, he had felt something. If it wouldn’t make him seem like a horse, he would even have said that he tasted it on his tongue, like the sharp tang of bitter ale. But it spoke of adventure, of new songs and new heroes. That was the only good thing that could be said of the calm before the storm.
“How fair you then, Edren?” The traveller asked, even though he knew. But small talk was how a bard earned his songs and found his way. It was how a bard wriggled his way into people’s souls and hearts.
A look of sadness passed over Edren’s normally placid features as he looked down. “Lady Kira has been resting with a fever. I fear some day she will not wake. Or if she does, something bad will befall her.” He looked up at the traveller, concern written plainly across his face. “She exhausts herself too much. If… if one would ask my opinion, I would say she presses too far, too fast.”
“Oh, enough such talk,” the bard said, sipping at his Sippermint tea. It settled comfortably in his guts, soothing a coldness deep within him that he didn’t know existed. “I am certain lady Kira knows what she is doing better than you and I do. You would help her with your trust.”
For a moment, it seemed as if Edren was on the verge of uttering something that would rebuke lady Kira, however be it disrespectful and far above his station. But realisation glowed in his eyes, and he looked down shamefully, swallowing the words. The traveller’s gaze sought his, held it, and that brief notion was enough to make him feel that the bard did, indeed, sympathise with him.
“We cannot direct her path, Eldren. But, believe me when I say that for me, it is just as painful to hear these things as it is for you. But we mustn’t give up on her. We shall trust her ways and hope.”
Eldren cleared his throat. “I’ll… I’ll go and wake up the children,” he said, as though to cover up his momentary outburst.
The traveller nodded, offering him a smile above the rim of his cup. “Yes, you do that,” he said, putting in some cheeriness in his voice that he didn’t quite feel.
As Edren turned to leave he looked at the traveller from the corner of his eye, and the traveller returned it with an imperceptable nod. It seemed that an unspoken deal had also been agreed upon: no one would know of the words spoken by Edren tonight, nor of the bond that formed between two men, a bond for lady Kira herself.
During their conversation, a shapeless apparition had formed behind the tree the traveller was leaning against. It would have been discerned, if anyone had looked closely, but noone was there to do so.
Its purpose served, the unseen apparition now allowed itself to dematerialize, floating apart on the wind like wisps of smoke.