Snorts snorted as the cart rolled into Crickhall under the bright afternoon sun. He snorted again as Arden brought the cart to a stop in front of a tavern along the main street, and once more when Arden hopped down from the cart and ran a hand along the old horse’s flank.
“Well done, old boy.” Given Snort’s advanced age and slight limp, it was impressive that they had made it all the way to Crickhall from their home in the forest.
Arden turned and entered the tavern, which a newly painted sign identified as The Hobbled Harpist. The taproom was small, with a bar along the far wall and the room cluttered with round wooden tables. An old man in a worn leather apron stood behind the bar cleaning glasses. His hair was shot through with grey, and his shirt, rolled up to his elbows, revealed wiry forearms crossed with scars.
“Arden!” he exclaimed, looking up from the counter as the door opened. “To what to I owe the pleasure?”
“I decided it was time to come sell some furs,” Arden said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been into town, Jon.”
Jon nodded. “One hundred and four days,” he said. “Would’ve been better if you had made it one hundred and three, though. You won’t be able to get a stall in the market this late in the day.”
“I ran into trouble on the road.”
Jon looked up as if to ask about it, then seemed to think better of it. He slid Arden a glass of water. “I’ll see if I can scrounge up some food for you. You look like you could use some.”
“How much will that cost me?” Arden asked, reaching for his coin-purse.
“Nothing at all,” Jon called as he disappeared back into the kitchen. “Not after what you did for me last time you were here.”
Arden returned his purse to his belt and turned to observe the room. It seemed that the Harpist was doing well. A new stage for performers had been erected in the corner, and iron-and-glass lamps hung from the walls, whereas they hadn’t during his last visit. What had Jon said, one hundred and four days? It must have been; Jon never forgot a date.
“You won’t have to pay for a single thing while you’re here,” Jon said, entering with a bowl of hot soup. “You have done me service worth a lifetime of meals and rooms. Those bandits almost robbed me blind, but you and that gimpy old horse ran them off. What was his name?”
Arden cracked a smile. “Snorts.”
“Yes, that was it! Should’ve remembered that, there’s nothing you could say that that horse wouldn’t have answered with a snort. Whatever happened to that old nag?”
“He’s still with me,” Arden said, gesturing towards the street with his spoon. “I’ll need a place for him and the cart.”
“I’ll get my boy Gorden to bring them both around back. I was able to get a small stable built.”
“It would seem that life has been treating you well in the past one hundred and four days.”
“It has indeed. I’ve had to break up a few fights, those accounted for some of these scars here, but that’s to be expected. Fights are good for business.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes as Arden finished his soup and Jon continued his cleaning.
“I’m going to have to pay you somehow,” Arden said. “It might take me a while to get these furs sold, and I don’t want you to lose too much money.”
“Nonsense. I’m doing well enough as to afford it. You don’t have to pay a thing.”
“All the same, I’d like to. Do you still have that old lute?”
“Of course I do,” Jon said.
“I’ll play for my keep, then. An hour or two every night.”
Jon face lit up in a wide smile. “That’ll do nicely,” he said. “You know, I used to play a bit myself. I was rather good until I broke some of my fingers in a fight. I reckon I could have made a profession out of it.” He sighed. “Go up to your room whenever you’re ready. Last one at the end of the hall. Gorden will bring up your things.”
Arden woke up well past dark, the moonlight streaming through his open window and casting odd shadows on the floor. His white chest sat in the corner by the door; presumably Jon’s boy had brought it up. The rest of the room was simply furnished, all worn wood and rustic colors.
Arden rose and walked to the door. He could hear the muffled sounds of a crowded taproom, the shouting and laughing that usually accompanied drinking. He stepped into the hall and locked the door behind him, then made his way down the stairs.
The taproom was full to bursting, all of the tables taken, and the rest of the patrons crowded around the bar. Arden was able to locate Jon through the crowd, and the tavern owner waved him over.
“You can start to play in a few minutes,” he said. “The lute’s back behind the bar.”
Arden fetched the old instrument, and then made his way to the small stage in the corner. As he was tuning it, he noticed an old man seated near him, bent over his cup.
“Any requests?” he asked.
The old man looked up from his drink. “Start with something slow, son. Something sad and sweet.”
Arden nodded once. “Maybe I’ll end with that,” he said.
He scanned the room before he began to play. The tavern was full, and he could pick up some snippets of conversation.
“Did you and the rest of your boys finally catch up with Jode?” one man asked.
His friend, whose clothes marked him as part of the local militia, shook his head. “We just found him and one of his ruffians dead on the road this morning. Jode got his throat cut.”
“That’s what he deserved, preying on honest merchants like me. I didn’t spend my whole life learning about trade to be bankrupted by some brigands.”
A few tables down, one of Jon’s serving girls talked incessantly to another man, who was too deep in his cups to be paying attention. “It’s an outrage,” she said. “Our militias say that they can’t protect us from these bandits, and then two of them just turn up dead. And their leader no less! The mayor needs to invest in better guards instead of spending his coin on a new dock.”
The man she was talking to just nodded slowly, his eyelids drooping.
Arden finished tuning the lute, and plucked the strings experimentally. Their noise was pleasant, if slightly off tune. He struck up a tune, one that was greeted with a roar of approval from the crowd. It was a common tavern song, one with a simple melody and memorable chorus. It was the kind of song that accompanied good food and drink, and the patrons immediately picked up the rhythm, stomping out the beat with their boots.
He then began “The Dog and his Daughter”, a song about a young girl that had been raised by dogs and was trying to find a human mate. The chorus was nothing more than barking along with the lute and the crowd joined in enthusiastically.
He played well into the night. By the time he was finished, the old man next to him had fallen asleep at the table, his request forgotten. Most of the crowd had left, returning to their homes or their rooms upstairs. At one point during the night, a young man with fiery red hair had come inside, his nose broken and his leg bandaged. He had tried to eat his meal unobtrusively, but Arden had noticed. The young man was one of the last to leave, and he left the largest tip in the small jar on the stage.
Jon approached him after the last song, a smile on his face. “That was great,” he said. “You’re almost as good as I was back in the day. Five years and sixteen days, and my fingers have never had the same speed.”
“I’m sure you could still draw a crowd.”
“Probably, but not like you did.” Jon emptied out the tip jar and handed Arden the coins. “That’s the largest crowd I’ve had in a long while. I almost had to ask Rona to serve drinks instead of letting her complain to everyone.”
“I’m glad I could find a way to pay for my room,” Arden said.
“Will you be playing tomorrow night?”
“If you’re in the mood for a melody, then yes.”
Read more about Arden here.