As the cart trundled merrily down the road, Neil kept his eyes on the woods around them. He spent the majority of the ride thinking of the stranger and the gnashing teeth snapping at him. His mind occasionally came back around to the broken instrument in the pack on his lap where his hands fiddled with the ties. Goddard rode in perfect silence beside him, stiff and thinking.
Ten minutes from the edge of village center Goddard pulled Willow to a slow walk, bringing Neil’s attention back to current events.
Neil looked over to his brother, seeing the sadness in his eyes, buried deep inside. Since they had been children, Neil had only rarely seen his face express anything other than anger or joy. Goddard sighed deeply and opened his mouth.
“Are you sure about this, Neil?” he asked. “What if something happens to you?”
“I’ve never been sure of anything, Goddard. You know me better than that,” Neil replied, forcing a smile to his face.
“You know what I mean,” Goddard said.
“I do,” Neil agreed, “but I also know that I was never meant to be a farmer. I need something more. Something that I can’t find on the farm.”
“I’m not sure what you’re looking for, but I hope you find it sooner rather than later,” Goddard said, “I expect my baby brother to make it home in one piece.”
“An I expect that I’ll find what I’m looking for easy enough,” Neil said, “Who knows, maybe I’ll get out there and change my mind. All I know right now is I need to do this.”
“Are you all leaving tonight?” Goddard asked.
“I have no idea,” Neil admitted. “I’m not sure how they travel.”
Goddard fell back into silence as he picked up the reins and signaled for Willow to pick up the pace. Neil felt the growing tension in his back and excitement in his chest as they got closer to the town. The buildings became more defined as they got closer.
Goddard pulled Willow to a stop outside the inn where Credence was standing with a broad smile on her face.
“Good evening, Credence,” Goddard said.
“Good evening, Goddard. What brings a tall, handsome drink of water like you down here,” Credence shot back with a wink.
Neil watched as Goddard’s face went pale and he began stumbling over his words. After a few moments, he seemed to find the ones he needed.
“Neil’s leaving. I brought him down,” Goddard finally managed.
“I’ll be expecting you in the morning with my delivery, no late night gallivanting with the smith’s daughter, you hear me?” Credence said.
“Of course! I mean, I won’t-I mean, safe travels, Neil,” Goddard bumbled as he gave his brother a hug and scrambled back into the seat of the cart, wasting no time getting the horse moving once more.
Credence and Neil watched silently for a few minutes while the cart remained in sight, turning the corner where the store stood a few blocks away taking the silence with it.
“You’re actually leaving then?” Credence asked before Neil had a chance to turn around.
“Yes,” Neil said plainly, still looking at the corner. “I can’t stay here forever. I can’t be a simple farmer like my brother. There is more out there for me now than there is back at the farm.”
Neil could feel the bubble of anxiety shrink to nothingness in his gut. All the fear of the road going away with it. The thoughts of the wolves all but vanishing from his mind as a small blue light suddenly appeared down the road, bobbing and floating as though carried on the wind.
Neil’s eyes focused on the light. He thought it was getting closer as something murmured behind him. The world shrank away as the light grew brighter. He could hear dull thuds coming from some far off place before the sound of the door to the inn closed, forcing his attention to his right. He was alone in the street now, and the blue light was gone when he looked back.
Shaking his head, he walked up the steps and entered the inn, greeted by the smell of smoke and cooking meat.
“I told you he’d come back!” Cade shouted in glee as he pointed to the door. “Come over here, Neil! Let’s hear some more of your music.”
Though at first, a smile had spread across his face, it faded just as quickly at the mention of music.
“What’s wrong?” Cade asked, his own smile vanishing.
“You look as though someone died,” Tevarin said as she turned to face him from where she sat.
“I can’t play for you tonight,” Neil snapped as he walked to the bar where Credence stood, “I need to get some sleep.”
“May I please have a room,” Neil said as he placed a silver on the bar, sliding toward her.
Credence produced a copper key and slid it toward him, pushing the coin back to his side with it. “No charge.”
“Are you sure? I don’t mind paying.” Neil said.
“Consider it a going away present,” Credence smiled, “Now, before you disappear up the stairs, what’s wrong?”
“Father broke my lyre,” Neil said.
“What?” she gasped.
“He smashed it against the cart because I was late this morning. He told me I wasn’t allowed to play anymore,” Neil said as tears blurred the edges of his vision.
“Can I see it?” Faleth said making Neil jump.
“When did you get there?” Neil asked, taking a step back.
“Your lyre, please. May I see it?” Faleth asked, pointing to Neil’s pack.
Neil slid the straps off his shoulders and set the pack gently on the bar.
“I’m not sure it’ll be repairable, even by a talented craftsman,” Neil said as he released the buckle and pulled the bundle of wood and strings from the top of the pack.
“Why would you take it with you if it’s so far gone?” Credence asked.
“It’s special to me,” Neil said as he opened the fabric revealing the splintered instrument. “A long time ago it belonged to my grandfather. I love this lyre more than almost anything else in the world.”
Faleth reached out slowly, whispering something so softly had Neil not been watching he would have mistaken it for the wind. The wizard’s finger touched the nearest piece of wood and a light burst forth from it. The air in the room suddenly felt heavy as the fires nearby shrank and sputtered.
Neil watched in amazement as the wood began to twitch and shift on the cloth. Fragments of the instrument bumped and tumbled across the shirt toward one another, sealing and straightening as they joined. A piece of wood rose over the lip of the pack and shot quickly to the side of the lyre where the strings were stringing themselves, and the tuning knobs turned gently bringing the instrument into tune.
“There we are,” Faleth said, “No harm done. Now get some rest tonight, we will be leaving early in the morning.”
Neil reached out with a shaking hand and gingerly touched the healed instrument. A loud, booming sob erupted from him as he pulled it into his chest like a long lost loved one. All the other noise in the room stopped as he cried in joy, not even the fires crackled or popped at that moment.
“Come on, love. I’ll show you to your room,” Credence said as she grabbed Neil’s elbow with one hand and pulled his pack with the other.
Credence laid him down in the cot that sat on one side of his tiny room and began singing softly.
Even though his tears, Neil recognized the song as an elvish lullaby that his mother used to sing to him. He felt his breath slow, and the tears stopped. Before she could finish the second verse of the song, the stress of the day fell away from him, and he slipped into sleep as easily as breathing.