Neil trundled along letting Willow, the old draft horse, guide the cart toward the center of the village. He gently plucked at the strings of his lyre while the horse did all the steering. Farmers and field hands smiled and waved as they passed with their daily milk deliveries.
The fields gave way to trees lining the road which gave way to homes sitting closer together. The tiny village of Laeris, simple in its wooden buildings, thatched roofs, and brick chimneys was home, and there were few places he found more beautiful than this secluded paradise in the southern portion of the kingdom.
Neil was just setting his lyre down when Willow came to a stop in front of their first stop where an empty jug sat on the stoop of the front door.
“You’re too smart for your own good,” Neil chuckled as he dropped from the front of the cart. Willow’s tail whipped him in the face in reply as she snorted at him. “Thank you for that.”
Neil replaced the empty jug and returned to his seat. The nine stops that he needed to make went quickly and finished just out back of the only inn in the village, The Sleepy Ox.
“Alright, Willow, do I even need to hitch you up anymore?” he asked as he came around the front of the horse. She shook her head, but he wasn’t sure if it was because she understood him or because of the flies that were already beginning to gather.
“Are you still talking to that horse of yours like its a person?” Jack said as he stepped out onto the porch, “Don’t you know horses don’t speak common?”
“If not common, what do they speak?” Neil asked with a smile.
“Vegetable,” Jack answered, throwing a carrot to him. “Give that to Willow and help me bring the milk in before it spoils.”
“Yes, sir,” Neil replied, setting the carrot on the edge of the porch in front of the horse.
He spent the next ten minutes helping Jack unload the cart of the fresh milk, ensuring to return the empty jugs before they finished. The sun had barely risen when he left, now it was a full three hands high, and he was sweating despite the cooler weather.
“Could you tell your father that Credence will be needing three more tomorrow?” Jack asked as he set the last empty down.
“So soon?” Neil asked.
“There are guests in the inn today, so more business than just the farmers and their hands and whatnot,” Jack replied.
“What sort of guests?”
“I don’t know, actually. They haven’t stopped in at the store yet, so Credence is the only one that’s seen them so far. Came in late last night according to her.”
“You think Credence will be needing entertainment?” Neil asked, feeling a bubble of hope in his chest that he might be able to earn a few copper pieces or maybe hear some good stories.
“You’ll have to ask her,” Jack said with a wink, “I don’t run the inn, just the store.”
“Thanks!” Neil said as he began the walk around the building.
The smell of the stables wafted past him as he glanced in to see a draft horse larger than Willow eating lazily from a feed bucket. Just out front of the stable was a wagon that looked as though it had been through a rough few years. There were burns and scars cut into the wood. What little remained of the paint that had once covered the outside was flaking off each time a decent breeze caught the edge of another piece.
“It’s been through a lot,” a voice said from behind him. Neil turned to see a halfling leaning against a post. His sand-colored hair hung messily over his purple-colored eyes while his smile was easy and relaxed. “What’s your name?”
“Neil L’Grange, sir,” Neil said lowering his eyes to his feet.
“Neil, I’m Cade, Cade Tosscoble. It’s a pleasure to meet you,” the halfling said extending his hand to shake it.
Neil took his hand and noticed how small the creature truly was when he walked over to him. While he knew he wasn’t a tall human by any means, the halfling stood barely up to the middle of his thigh. Neil’s eyes darted away quickly when Cade winked at him.
“It’s alright, I imagine you don’t see many of us halflings around here. The southeast corner of the kingdom is about as far as you can get from my village,” Cade mused.
“S-sorry,” Neil stuttered, “I need to speak with Credence.”
Neil looked up, and Cade was gone. The hay on the ground where he had been standing didn’t even appear to be disturbed. Neil shook his head, rubbed his eyes, and finished walking around the building, taking a wide enough berth that he didn’t get close to the wagon.
Neil pushed the door open and stepped inside as the wind picked up, nearly taking the heavy door from his hand. It opened into a simple dining area with a hearth burning merrily on the far left side of the building and a bar to the right. A rough-hewn banister lined the back wall leading up to the rooms on the second floor.
“Careful there,” Credence called from behind the bar, “what brings you around the front?”
The small woman stood on a raised floor behind the bar, giving the illusion that she was larger than she was to her customers. Her dark hair and playful eyes were occasionally mistaken for a gentle touch. She had been quick to demonstrate her skills of disabling a man after the inn had opened. Stories still circulated around the village of things that she could have done in her past.
“Sorry, Credence,” Neil said pushing the door shut. “Jack told me that you have guests. I didn’t know if I could be of service.”
“Please let him play!” Fiona chimed in as she came around the back corner from the kitchen. “It’ll be a treat for all of us.”
“I suppose I’ll have to let you play,” Credence laughed, “Fiona is practically begging for you to play. I suppose I could forgo speaking with the few other people in the village with a musical affinity-”
“Knock it off!” Fiona snapped, “You and I both know that Neil is practically the only person in the village that can carry a tune. Don’t get all crazy about it now!”
Neil tried to stifle the laugh that came up, and the result sounded somewhere between a kicking mule and a bull horn. Fiona’s cheeks grew red as her mouth snapped closed. She looked from Credence to Neil and back again before running from the room covering her face.
“Well that was rude,” Credence joked with a wink. “What the hell happened there?”
“I was trying not to laugh,” Neil said, “Honestly, I”m a little embarrassed.”
“Maybe you can work it into your routine tonight?” Credence teased, “I think your lyre could use a horn accompaniment.”
“Very funny,” Neil said, “What time should I be back then?”
“By sixth bell, if you can’t manage earlier,” she replied as he looked up to the clock on her wall.
“I need to get moving if I want to get back in time,” Neil said as he moved for the door.
“Tell your family I said hi!” Credence called after him as he jumped off the porch.
“I will,” he called back and continued around the building to Willow. He untied her and got her moving along without a second thought.
Neil pushed Willow to make the trip faster than we usually did, he was nervous that she would have trouble at first, but soon found that Willow liked the added excitement. She moved with a grace he had never seen before, as though in some past life she wasn’t a draft horse, but rather a riding horse.
Neil and Willow arrived at back at the farm in just under two hands, nearly a full hand faster than the trip usually took. Neil jumped off the seat and unhitched the horse before leading her into the barn.
“Is everything okay?” His father asked appearing at the back door. “You came in here like you were being chased by a devil.”
“Everything is fine, Father,” Neil said, “I have some good news though. Credence wants extra milk delivered tomorrow if we can spare it.”
“That’s good,” his father said nodding with distant eyes. “I thought something else would have been going on with the speed you brought old Willow in here. You know she can’t take traveling like that. It’ll be the death of her.”
“Also, Credence has a small group of travelers at the inn tonight, and she wants me to play!” Neil said feeling his palms grow hot.
“I see,” his father said nodding. “That’s what has you worked up. She wants you to play tonight, or you want to play tonight?”
“Yes!” he grinned. “I’ll be sure to complete my chores before I leave.”
“If your chores are done, you can go, but otherwise we could really use your help around here. George hurt his hand today pretty bad, so we are going to be behind planting unless we can get more help.” His father said.
“I can help with the planting tomorrow,” Neil said, “I’d really like to go tonight and play. Maybe I can earn a few coins to bring home as well.”
“Enough of that,” his father said waving him off, “we only get taxed on what actually comes in, your few coins is only going to make the tax larger than it already is. Keep the coins, but keep them hidden.”
“I’ll ask around tonight about anyone looking for work as well,” Neil said as he poured grain in the trough for Willow. “See if we can get ahead of the planting season this year.”
“Just worry about getting your chores done, that’s enough for today,” his father said.
“Thank you, Father,” Neil said as he handed him the coin purse from the day’s deliveries.
“It feels light,” his father said looking down at the pouch.
Neil felt the blood drain from his face, “I forgot to get the payment from Credence in the excitement.”
“Well, it looks like you have another reason to go back to town today,” his father said walking past him, his head shaking, “farming isn’t all that easy, son, and, one day, I hope you’ll take it as seriously as Goddard does.”
Neil’s father left him standing in the barn with that last statement hanging in the air like some sort of thinly veiled threat.
Of course, I take farming seriously, Neil thought as he left the barn and headed for the house. How can I not when it’s all he talks about?
Neil walked up to the cart and retrieved his lyre from the seat. He didn’t want to risk it getting damaged by his brother if he needed the cart for anything. Walking quickly up to his room, he set the lyre down on his bed and returned outside to the barn where his chores would begin. He mucked the stalls in the barn, putting fresh straw down. He fed all the livestock and was halfway through the cleaning the chicken coop by the kitchen door when his mother came out.
“What are you still doing here?” There was a slight panic in her voice.
“I promised father I would finish my chores before I left. Credence will have to wait,” Neil said, feeling a slight sense of defeat as he thought about the rest of his chores.
“You need to go get ready to leave and put your chores out of your mind. Your father understands farming in a way that neither of us ever could,” she winked as she touched the side of his face, “but the chicken coop and the rest of your chores will still get done, one way or another.”
“I promised,” Neil said as he startled a chicken.
“I’ll finish them for you then,” his mother said. Her tone was one he had only heard a handful of times in his life, but it was one that not even his father dared to argue.
“Are you sure?”
“A true bard never leaves his audience waiting,” she winked as she helped him to his feet. “Go to your audience, maybe today is the day your fate changes for the better.”
He gave her a smile and a quick kiss on the cheek before he ran into the house to clean up and get ready to leave. He stepped into his room, seeing immediately that his mother had laid out fine clothes for him, packed his lyre in its case, left him a bag of traveling food, and set up a wash basin.
Neil shook his head with a smile as he stripped down, washed, and put on his clothes. The fabric was soft and moved easily over his skin like someone running their fingers up his arm. The muted orange tunic stood out against the deep black of the trousers. When he tested the flexibility, he noted that there were no restrictions to his movement, regardless of which way he moved.
A knock on the door drew his attention from the clothes as he grabbed his lyre. “Hello?”
“You look so handsome!” his mother cried as she opened the door and covered her mouth.
“Don’t be so dramatic, Mother,” he replied walking over to give her a hug, “but thank you.”
“These clothes belonged to your grandfather,” she said playing with the fabric, “You look so much like him it’s uncanny. It’s as though I’m a little girl again.”
“Thank you for everything, Mother,” he said, “The clothes, and the hard work you do. I don’t know that Father and Goddard notice how much you do around here.”
“They thank me in their own ways,” she said, “now get moving, you don’t want to be late. And take Hurricane. He’s a little wilder, but needs the exercise.”
Neil listened to his father, taking the horse, his lyre, and a few snacks for the trip. Without the cart, the trip was significantly faster. He found himself genuinely hopeful for the first time in a while that he might be doing exactly what he felt he should be doing.
He arrived at the inn with a quarter hand remaining before the sixth bell. Credence, Jack, and Fiona were just finishing up with the daily cleaning when he walked through the door to the warm and inviting common space.
“Perfect timing,” Jack said, “I was just getting ready to call it quits.”
“We were finishing up anyway,” Credence said, slapping him playfully on the arm. “I like the new clothes.”
“Where did you get these?” Fiona asked as she grabbed at his clothes, feeling the material between her fingers. “It’s so light but thick at the same time. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
“They were my grandfather’s clothes when he was still traveling as a minstrel,” Neil replied as he pulled the lyre off his shoulder.
“What kept you so long?” Credence asked. “Was your father giving you a hard time again?”
“Surprisingly, no. I had to do some odd chores before I left, but my mother was kind enough to finish them up for me.”
Neil looked around the room and felt a stab of panic when he saw that no one was in the place with them. As though on cue, a set of heavy boots thudded loudly on the floor above, and he could make out the beginnings of a heated conversation just muffled enough that he couldn’t hear what it was over.
“You have to be patient, Tevarin,” a friendly sounding voice said from the top of the stairs.
“Don’t tell me to be patient, Cade. Faleth was clear that we were going to be leaving in the morning. Now he wants to stay another night! It’s unreasonable. We have to keep traveling until we find something profitable to do. Staying-” Tevarin stopped talking when she reached the bottom of the stairs and found the Credence, Jack, Fiona, and Neil standing around a table in the common area. Her fierce eyes looked out over the room disapprovingly as she shifted her shoulders. The linen shifted, but the melodic clinking of metal gave Neil the impression she was wearing a chain shirt under it. “This is what I’m talking about.” She waved her hands around the room as a small man stepped out from behind her. “Look at the pathetic excuse for nightlife. I can’t fight a single person in this room. What am I supposed to do tonight?”
The small man looked at Neil and winked. He felt a sudden rush of excitement. He had already met one of them. His mind quickly went to the conclusion that Tevarin was too much for him, but she had mentioned a third person.
“Are you the minstrel?” Cade asked as he walked away from Tevarin with a smile.
“I am,” Neil replied as the small man thrust his hand forward.
“I’m Cade, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said, “and before you ask, I’m a halfling, not a dwarf, gnome, or small human. Please don’t call me a dwarf.”
“Ever,” Tevarin said as she walked over to join us, “he’ll bite you. Trust me.”
Cade shot her a look as she put her boot on a chair and began rubbing her calf as though it still hurt.
“I’m glad to see you’re in a better mood, Tevarin.” A voice said as a man opened the door behind Neil.
Neil swung around to see a simple looking elf wearing a long purple robe with a rope belt around his waist. From the belt, he had a handful of small, brightly colored pouches that looked as though they had been used a lot in their time. He held his chin high as his eyes focused on Neil, “Who are you?”
“It’s the minstrel!” Cade interjected.
“Ah, yes, Credence had said something or other of entertainment tonight,” he said with a half glance in the innkeeper’s direction, “I only wonder if she told anyone else in the village that a wizard was staying here, perhaps we could make some money during our stay if she had…”