Chapter 16 - The Road to Tristram, Part II
With the conclusion of the piece Taril set down his flute and bowed, and the room burst into applause. "Good tale," said Art, clapping Taril on the back. "Owe you one for that." -- "I'd been meaning to ask, why you seemed so insistent on this one. You usually couldn't care less." -- "Sharp, this one, unfortunately the explaining of it would ruin it."
"Ah, I'm out of beer, can we get some service over here?" Roland hollered, holding out his jug, then hiccuped. A servant girl, hair done up and held in place with a pin and only scantily dressed, duly poured him another before stepping to inconspicuousness at the back of the room.
Art, who'd been watching Roland the whole time to gauge the man's reaction, smirked. Roland had been drinking more and more as the story had been told, and that last one had been his second refill, which suggested that Taril's telling of the story had started getting to him, and that he'd been none too happy about being reminded of how far he'd fallen from the ideal of the righteous templar. Maybe he'd have a chance at persuading the man yet.
"One more!" a deep voice in the crowd shouted, and several others followed in agreement. -- "Ah, now, which story should I tell this time?" -- One of the sisters spoke up, "Our turn, Taril. You have some story that those of us who are holed up in the monastery would otherwise never get to hear?" -- Taril gave her a dashing smile. "I know just the one."
Taril soon began to perform another piece. Art took a moment to relocate to one of the empty chairs attending the table Roland sat at. "You won't mind if I sit here, would you?" -- "Why the sudden consideration? Seeing as you didn't ask if I would mind before getting our resident bard to start this tale of his." -- "You wound me, Roland, I merely enjoy a good tale as much as the next soul." -- "Tricky bastard, aren't ya? You think I don't know what you're up to? Hic. I told you to stop trying to get me involved in things I have no business sticking my nose into, but would you learn? Oh, no never!" -- "I think you must be mistaking things. Maybe you've had a bit too much to drink and you don't know what you're saying. It was just an ordinary tale." -- "Oh, come on, now you're going to turn that around and try to spoof on me? That tactic ain't fresh no more, hic."
"Ah, whatever you say then, I can indulge a drunkard a little while. A jug, please," he called out and pounded the table with the palm of his hand, to signal for the servant girl. -- "Who you calling a drunkard?" -- "I'm sorry, I hadn't noticed these other two people sitting at the table, care to introduce them to me?" -- He gestured, at the two empty chairs on the other sides of the table. -- "Ah, bollocks, you're pulling my leg, aren't ya? I know who you're talking about, and I'm no drunkard." He'd been about to take another drink, and realizing that, he set it down instead. Then he stared at his jug for a moment. "Oh, you sneaky bastard," he said with a shake of his head before he resumed drinking, while Art burst out laughing. -- "Here, sorry about messing with your head," Art said. He took the jug of beer the servant girl had set down before him, and clinked it against Roland's. "To rogue templars." -- "To sneaky bastards." They bottomed their jugs.
In the story, he mused, Sir Aidan Brightwine had received the hand of the princess for his gallantry at Tristram, making him prince, along with all the land, power and wealth to go with it. The standard hero's recompense. No one quite took it seriously; it only amounted to an indication that yes, the story's over. After all the time spent describing the prior struggles, the prize at the end was relegated to a footnote, and just as easily forgettable. It almost seemed as if the reward never happened, which just made the entire story one of suffering. Hardly someone one would sign up for.
Roland slammed down his empty jug. "Another," he shouted. The serving girl came up as usual, bringing the refill.
As she poured it out, leaning forward, Art looked at her. Pretty face, big breasts, narrow waist and wide hips, and revealing clothing. He whistled as he stared, then caught Roland looking at the serving girl as well. "Well? Pretty, no?" -- Roland stared at him with an embarrassed look, like he'd just pissed in his pants. -- Art turned to the girl. "My friend here is feeling in the doldrums and is in need of some company, and you look quite the fetcher." -- "Art, what the hell--" -- "Are you available tonight?" -- "Hey -- seriously?" -- "If my lord would be so kind as to have me." -- "Wonderful." -- "How do you just make these kinds of-- " -- "Twopence[denarii]," said Art, slapping down the two coins Gheed had passed him earlier, -- "What are you getting out of this?" -- "My lord is most kind--" -- "Stop thinking up there and start thinking down there. My friend's a bit slow witted at the moment, you'll need to lead him by the hand." -- "What did you call me?" -- "Drunk, my friend, drunk." -- "My lord, as I am indentured I cannot accept your silver directly." -- "Oh? For how long?" -- "Almost two years remaining." -- "Very well, I suppose I should take this matter up with the caravanserai owner?" -- "Yes, my lord." -- "Have you no decency? She's an indentured servant, she has no choice in the matter." -- "Oh, I'm sure she knew what she was getting into when she signed her indentures, and I'm sure she had her reasons, now stop yapping and go!" Art finished by pushing Roland after the serving girl.
"Twopence[denarii]," he thought as he took the coins and headed down the hall toward the atrium to pay the owner. It's for a good cause, he thought to himself, almost like the mantra. So long as he got Roland to aid the sisters, with his way of channeling vigor, he could very well save the lives of quite a few commoners on this side of the monastery pass. Maybe even this servant girl included. Yes, that's right; it was for a good cause after all, he thought as he passed the coins to the caravanserai's owner. A good cause, he thought as he went to bed.
The next day the caravaners were up and out the gates of the caravanserai within an hour after dawn. The skies shone a clear and crystal blue, and the fields they passed by a sea of gold. Gheed had his wagon back, so this time Art, Taril, and Roland walked side by side a bit towards the front of the caravan.
"So, how was last night? Did you have a good time?" asked Art, shooting Roland a wry grin. -- "What's this? Being more naughty last night than the usual old me?" asked Taril. "What did I miss?" -- Both Art and Taril looked to Roland. Roland groaned. "In knew you were up to nothing good," he said, shaking his head at them. -- "As if you had anything to complain about, mister wanted some, got some." -- "Come on now, I paid good money on your behalf, twice the going rate. I think I have a right to know." -- "Just why are you so interested?" challenged Roland, looking beet red. "I think you're having more fun out of this than I." -- "That's what she said." -- "Who? …Never mind." -- Art and Taril chuckled.
One of the archers, who'd been chatting with her fellow sisters ahead of the trio, flitted away from them, dropped back to walk alongside them. Slender and tan, with blonde hair done into a ponytail, with a bow and quiver at her back. "Hi!" she said to Art, Taril, and Roland, beaming. "Sorry I don't think we've met, this caravan's quite the large group, and it's taking me ages to get to know everyone. I'm Ryann." she said enthusiastically. "Taril of course we've met from last night. I daresay your performance of Prince Aidan and the Darkening of Tristram, was like, quite the endearing tale," she said, she said with a nod to Taril.
"And Roland… I saw your antics with the merchant yesterday. Quite daring you are." -- "Ah, I think you must have me mixed up with Gheed." -- "Really now? He doesn't strike me as the heroic type." -- "And I do?" -- "I mean, for refusing to get off the seat when sister Liene asked? Do you have any idea how many of my sisters would have stood up to her?" -- "About as many ideas as such sisters. Zero." -- "Hmm, seems you have an inkling after all," she said with a smile.
She then went around to Art's side. "Art, is it? I daresay I've heard much about you from my fellow sisters." -- "Just how much?"
"Oh come now. Our sisterhood is like one big family. We girls hear more gossip in an hour than men like you would hear in a year, and that's on quiet days," she said to him gaily, speaking excitedly. "That said, I'll let you in on a secret: I wasn't at your trial. Couldn't attend, as me and Isolde had guard duty at the time. I heard what happened afterward. Actually, we heard many stories that day, some of it transcending legend," she said, looking up in a musing expression. "Some said you had slaughtered hundreds of the red skinned warriors. Others, that you had stood toe to toe against the beast and didn't flinch. That must have taken true courage. I have to say, I'm am downright impressed. If I hadn't pledged myself to my sisters I'd find myself quite smitten. Oops! What am I saying," she said, covering her lips with a pair of fingers and looking embarassed.
Art smiled wryly. "My, I hadn't expected my story to become so twisted from the truth in less than a day. You sure you hadn't been getting these stories from Taril over there?"
"Who? Ah, Taril. Last we talked, he wanted to hear me a story, so I told all about Alathea and Tristan. Looked to me like it drank it all up and couldn't care less whether any of it was true. Which it totally is true, of course," she said, covering her mouth in mock embarassment. "The man likes stories, almost as much as the next girl. I'm sure he'll feel right at home with the big gossips. But ah, I seem to have wandered off topic again. Darn it, What were we talking about?" she said, pounding fist into palm. "Oh! I wanted to ask you. The other sisters, they said like, all these things about you…"
"Not all of it pleasant, I suspect?"
"Well no, not really. Liene seems to think you born straight out of hell, the way she tells it, and I'm like, 'no way is this man possibly that bad, I guess I better check with him'. You couldn't possibly have done anything truly bad, like really really bad, or at least not out of ill will… Could you? I mean no, right?"
"Why, no, of course not," said Art, chuckling.
"See? I knew you were better than they made you out to be! And they'd painted you so wrongfully too, what with seemingly half the sisterhood in on it. Good thing I asked you then."
"You know, you can't just take what everyone says at face value," he said, referring to himself and not sure whether to snicker.
"Well maybe not at face value, usually. Though, to be honest it depends on how much I like the story, to be fair. If it paints the person in a golden light, then I'm all for it. Makes the story better that way, so why care whether it's true or not? Now those naughty little stories that say bad things about people, those are the ones you have to watch out for, for they're almost always the product of some shrew of a sister wanting to make someone else look bad. Those ones I refuse to believe. Oh dear, I think I've gotten a bit carried away talking about that, and I'd never even apologized on behalf of the sisterhood. So here goes-- Apologies!" she said as she clasped her hands and bowed down to Art for a split second, then came up flashing a smile. "Something like that, I believe? Well, it may just be coming from me but I represent the rest of the sisterhood! Honest I do! You'll see, it just takes the rest of them some time to come around, but if you stick with us long enough you'll find them all quite charming."
"Well then it's quite unfortunate that it won't happen," said Art, staring forward.
"What, just because you're banished? Oh no, Kashya couldn't have been serious. Why, that was just to scare you in line!" -- "Easy for you to say," Art retorted. "…Or maybe she really was being serious, I wouldn't really know," she said, cheeks flushed as she looked away for a quiet moment, then turned back. "Was she… being that serious?" -- Art shrugged. -- "Well, that just won't do! We've only just met, how can we be going our separate ways in… what, one day? We're like already halfway there, right?" she asked, looking around. Several others nodded. She continued, "Yeah, only two days. How can that be enough? And without all the caravaners here, it'll be quite lonely… You wouldn't leave a heart-torn young maiden like me all alone, would you?" she said, looking at him with doe-like eyes. "Course you wouldn't. But even if you did, you have to at least get to meet us sisters before you do!"
She turned to call to the sisters who'd kept walking in front of of them, "Amplisa, Paige," and within moments they arrived. "Art, Roland, Taril: Amplisa, Paige. Amplisa, Paige: Art, Roland, Taril. There now, you know each other. I'd be sorely disappointed if you forgot each other's names by noon," she said, wagging a warning finger at them all with a grin. She turned to Art. "Paige and I are pillow friends," she said, prompting a gasp of surprise from Paige. -- "Ryann! How could you… that's not something you just go about telling others! How many times do I have to tell you?" -- "Oh, don't worry," Ryann said, waving dismissively at her. "I've lost count how many people I've told, I'm sure the entire monastery knows about how we throw pillow fights whenever you steal my arrows--" -- "Ahh! Keep quiet, Ryann," said Paige, looking scandalized and rushing to cover Ryann's mouth with her hand. -- "What? You're not bashful about it, are you? Then maybe you should consider not taking my things, like my bras, and my undies, and that one time ow ow ow," she gasped in mock pain as Paige started pounding on her shoulder in alarm. "Okay, I'll stop talking about you now…
"Oh yes, meet Amplisa. Great with the bow, even better with the brush… Did you know, the monastery has a studio where Amplisa led our art club? We had easels and chairs," Ryann offered. Amplisa looked away, smiling with a face almost beet red. -- "Yep, they almost killed me," remarked Art, "seeing as how they almost knocked the breath out of me when I'd almost tripped over some of them." -- "Breathtaking, aren't they? We've been putting them up for gallery in the withdrawing room. Amplisa's our best painter when it comes to fruit basket and carnation setups. Those're my favorites, one look at one of those and you can just feel the sweetness of the grapes and the fragrance of the flowers," -- she took a deep breath -- "mmm… So refreshing. And the best part is," she said as she poked Amplisa in the side, "it took me doing some scribbling to get her started on it. Wouldn't even touch it at first, amiright?" -- "Oh noes," muttered Amplisa as she planted a palm against her face. -- "Oh come on, he hasn't heard it." She turned back to Art. "So you see--" -- "Manure duty for you when we get back to the monastery if I hear another word out of you about that," said Amplisa, glaring at her. -- "Not a word," Ryann echoed with a grimace.
Ryann turned back to Art. "Say, what you did back at the monastery… I wanted to say thank you. For what it's worth, I think what you did to be quite noble, and courageous."
"Courage can be hard to distinguish from stupidity," said Art, raising his right arm. "Sometimes, when I'm my more discerning self, I realize that I'd played the fool."
"Most of the caravaners, even those who were armed, went the other way when we went to join the fight. You… You asked me how you could help in the fight. I think, in times like these, we need more people like you."
It suddenly struck Art what she referred to. When he'd parted ways with Warriv and Taril, he'd asked one of the archers… that was her. "Ah," he said, blushing. "I believe we hadn't been properly introduced back then. I would like to say well met, but I think we can both agree we could have met in happier circumstances," said Art.
"Oh come now, don't look so down," chided Roland. "We're at least leaving the place in one piece." He winced. "Most of us, at least."
"Yes, we're leaving," said Art, glaring at Roland. "And once we're gone, what then? The sisterhood continues their fight, all one their own? With what assets, exactly?" He turned to Ryann. "Oh wait, forget I asked. Last time I asked I got lies tossed in my face, and they used it against me at trial. So forget it. After all, I'm leaving here, and never coming back. Why should I care what happens to the sisterhood? Once we get to Tristram, we're all going separate ways."
Ryann turned to look at him with some sadness. "Our sisterhood has not proven a very good host as of late. But in Sasha's defense… The north hall took severe losses. Most of our sisters from that wing were the first to engage the invaders, and the first to die. Sasha's lost pretty much everyone she knew, and Liene fared little better. And though we are loath to admit it, our sisterhood has not fared all that well. We lost seventy five sisters then, and a few others we dispatched since then have also failed to show up. We have less than a hundred and fifty sisters all in all, and many of those are scattered between guard duty at various other villages close to the monastery, and scouting parties throughout the intervening forest. Many of us are desperate, we don't see any light at the end of the tunnel."
"Why are you telling me all this? Won't Liene get upset if she finds out you've been disclosing all this to someone she thinks is a spy?"
"Liene isn't here, and I doubt you'd run to tell her. Besides, I saw you coming downstairs to help in the fight. You showed up. Even if you fled afterwards… that, in my book, makes you one of us. Not quite the same as a sister, since you're a lad, but close, like you're part of the family." -- "You mean, 'brother'?" -- "Yes, that," she said, chuckling. Then more seriously: "From what Diane said… You stood before the beast, there at the end when all our other sisters had fled or been slain. Even if it was for only a moment. It must have taken more courage than I ever had, to do that. It couldn't have been easy, and we hadn't the right to demand that of anyone, certainly not from our guests. And what you were doing with necroturgy… That was your own way of trying to help, wasn't it?"
"And if it was?"
"Well, even if it wasn't… For what you did that night, our sisterhood ought to welcome you with open arms."
"It sure doesn't seem like it did."
"We erred this time, and we don't deserve a second chance, but if you were to stay, I believe you'd have seen that there's yet some good in our order."
"Well, it's a bit too late, isn't it?" asked Art. "Unless Kashya decides to let me back, I can never return."
Ryann fell silent. Roland turned to Art with a chuckle. "Oh yes, I seem to recall a certain someone wanting me to stay behind to help the sisterhood, but I can't seem to remember who. Remind me again what idiot it was that said that?" he said, shooting Art a wide grin. -- "Why are you looking at me? I didn't say anything," said Art, before making a point to study his fingernails.
"Looks like the game's up," noted Taril. "Care to spills the beans now?"
Art relented, and turned to Roland. "You said you didn't feel like you had the courage to do it. I couldn't just watch you walk away in defeat, or you'd forever feel like you've been a terrible failure. I felt the same way, when I fled from the beast." He grimaced. "You know who the first person I killed that night was? A sister." He shot the stunned Ryann a look that said, don't protest. "A mercy killing, and not the only one I had to commit that night, either. You want to know who was the first person whom my blade drew blood from? A damsel in distress." The memory of him slashing through the woman's bloody, carved skin echoed in his mind. "So no, I don't think I had any right to call myself a hero after that. But you know what? Not half an hour later I went and stood before the gates of the monastery, sword upraised, ready to receive all the fury of a stampeding horde of redskins." He turned to Roland. "What right did I have, to fight that night? And yet I did. I did it because I had someone to protect." He patted Roland on the shoulder. "If nothing else, it's an opportunity to redeem yourself. You may not see yourself as a templar now, but put yourself in the right place, and the opportunity will present itself to you."
"Aye, and put yourself in the wrong place, and a sword will present itself to your heart," retorted Roland.
They fell into silence at that, and after a moment the flighty Ryann dropped further back to speak to some other caravaners behind them. Art felt a bit disingenuous about the whole thing, what with him looking to abandon the sisterhood at the earliest opportunity while telling Roland that he ought to go support it. If he, who at least felt close with several people at the village the sisterhood now defended, wasn't going to be returning back to the sisterhood, how could he expect any more of a man who had no ties to the sisterhood whatsoever? The hypocrisy of it chewed at him.
They walked on for the rest of the morning and noon in silence. Many villages passed them by, but he couldn't be bothered with those. All along the way, his thoughts went to the plight of the sisterhood he'd be leaving behind. Perhaps his first impression of the sisterhood had been tainted by his prosecution by Liene and his being put in the pillory. The sisterhood's own impression of him certainly had been twisted by his use of necroturgy, and he'd hardly even used it.
His mind drifted to his memories of the other sisters. Kashya, who'd manipulated Gheed's greed for the sisterhood's own benefit. Diane, tentatively approaching him to apologize for being too afraid to speak out earlier. Ryann, with seemingly not a care in the world, whose innocence reminded him of Selena.
It was late that evening when they approached the gates of the walls of Tristram. Turrets lined machicolated stone walls, which rose fifty feet into the air. The gates were massive, red oaken doors, guarded by half a dozen guards in the silver-knight-and-red-demon livery of the town. Merchants passed in and out of the bustling gates, with the guards inspecting the cargoes of each as they passed. "We're here at last," cheered Art, stretching his arms. "Sure took a long while to get this far. From here on out, we'll all be going our separate ways."
"Welcome to Tristram," said Warriv, loud enough to get everyone's attention. "You all have your entry tolls ready. One penny a person. Gheed, I'm sure you know that doesn't apply to you, so don't be complaining to me about life not being fair. It certainly isn't you have more goods than the rest of us combined," he said to the merchant, garnering a few chuckles.
After the guards, satisfied with their inspections, had waved everyone through the gates, the caravaners and the sisters grouped together along the main street, by the entrance. Warriv called out for attention once more. "Alright, this is it, I'm sure many of you are eager to be headed your separate ways. If you are bound for Duncraig however, I ask that you consider meeting us back here morning after tomorrow, when we'll be setting out once again. That gives us all some time to take care of business in this town. The sisters won't be going any further than here, and my group has a couple of veteran guards and you've already spent quite a few days traveling with us, so you know going with us'll be your safest bet. See you then!"
Warriv, Taril, and some of the other caravaners said their farewells to each other. Some of the caravaners began dispersing in all directions, and the sisters headed down main street. Warriv led the rest of his group, Art included, to the Smug Mug, where the sisters were staying as well. The new arrivals paid the innkeep a penny each for board. Warriv offered to pay for Art, which he graciously accepted; he'd only had six pennies[denarii] left, all that the Bedfords could gift him, and could ill afford to spend them, not when he had no forseeable means of securing an income. Taril performed for his keep that night with the usual routine that he performed at every inn he visited, much to the delight of the other customers. Warriv paid a penny to claim a squalid little room on the third floor of the establishment, to which he, Taril, and Art retired for the night.
The next morning Warriv got up early and left to go buy a wagon. Shortly afterward Taril left as well; Art knew he'd be visiting some of the other inns up and down main street, performing for silver. That left him alone his room, and as there was precious little to do in a room with naught but a round little wooden desk and three mats for beds, he exited, and almost ran into Ryann, who'd been engaged in conversation with another of her fellow sisters out in the hallway. Behind her, the door to their own room had been propped half open.
"Oh look who's up! I hope our conversation didn't wake you up," said Ryann, turning to him. -- "Good morning to you too. I… guess this is farewell." -- "Whatever do you mean?" -- "Aren't you going to be headed back to Thistledown this morning?"
"Oh, haven't you heard? We actually have another assignment for while we're here," Ryann replied. "Liene and a few of our sisters are going to seek an audience with Count Trabern, see if we can't get some support in our battle. Amplisa's group's going to be visiting the cathedral to ask the the local bishop for a pledge of assistance from the Order of the Light. Once we've gotten the coin we need, we'll be buying supplies." -- "Which group are you going with then?" -- "Neither. Blaise and I are going to be scouting the local market, she said, tilting her head toward the lanky young woman standing beside her. "That way we can give a report to Liene and Amplisa before we start allocating our silver between the various supplies we need to purchase."
Art took note of Blaise's puffy eyes and cheeks stained with tears, and asked Ryann, "is she all right?" -- "Oh, don't mind her. I've told her a thousand times, she can't put on such a teary face in front of people who aren't her sisters, but she never listened," she said, and nipped at Blaise's cheeks with her fingers, smiling. "Hey Blaise, can we cheer up a little bit over here?" -- Blaise just sniffed. -- "Why is she crying though?" -- Blaise replied, "Why can't you take me seriously, Ryann? Do you really not see what we're up against? They took the monastery, and…" she broke off sobbing. -- "There now, younger sister, you have to stay strong." -- Blaise wrapped her arms around Ryann. "I don't know how you can keep staying so strong…" -- "It's all right, we'll manage," Ryann said to her, before turning back to Art. "Ah, almost forgot. We told you where we're headed; but what about you?"
Art pointed a thumb back at his room. "I'm going to be going with Warriv's group on to Duncraig, eventually. That means I'm free to wander for today." -- "Well then why don't you come with us? Come, come!" said Ryann, dragging him by his left hand. -- "But I don't have much money…" -- "Oh, you mean you don't enjoy our company?" -- "What? No, that's not--" -- "Excuses, excuses! Come now," she said, and dragging him, they went downstairs and then bounding down the street.
A few blocks down main street they came across a perpendicular, wide street lined with stalls and store buildings on both sides. The buildings on either side loomed with their three floors, each of them overhanging the level below with the second floors overshadowing the stalls lining the road on either side. Merchants hawked their wares at what must surely have been hundreds of passersby walking up and down the street. Here on the primary market street, large inns and taverns lined the road. They went down the street, passing by a performer who Art recognized as using the way of fiery breath to spew gouts of flame from his mouth while spinning about in a martial dance with a pair of sword-twirling co-performers. They went past a brothel, with its red lanterns hanging out before its facade and several scantily clad women standing at the entrance.
"This way," said Ryann as they took a right at the next intersection into Fishmonger's Street, where salmon and trout, bass and mackerel lay on wooden chopping boards and in barrels lining both sides of the road, the distinct smell of bad fish borne on the air. At one of the stalls, fried fish hung suspended on skewers, and a crowd had gathered as another merchant brought in their latest shipment of clam, crab and lobster.
A block down the street turned into Greens Street, where they passed by stalls and markets to the brim with all manner of fruit and vegetables, past a store selling turnips and a sweet scented stall of a merchant selling carnations. All over the ground littered scraps of foot-trodden vegetables, and in boxes in the back Art could make out a few loads of watermelon, canteloupe.
They went a block down that street. "Ah, we're almost there," said Ryann, gesturing at the intersecting street before them. "Grains Street." Then as they rounded the corner, they froze in silence in utter surprise. There they saw a group, about two dozen odd, strolling leisurely down the street with a group of six town guards standing beside them. There they were, inspecting sacks of flour and millet and barley, pointing at several piles, and setting down silver pieces to the merchants before them, and others the midgets throwing batches of them onto a trio of wheelbarrows. That in itself would have been the most normal thing on Grains Street. But that was not all.
Art looked on, mouth agape in shock. He couldn't believe his eyes as they beheld four shamans and a dozen-odd midget warriors.