Melyda waved a cheerful farewell to the members of the caravan who would not be stopping in Montfort, then pulled off the road to allow the three wagons to pass her and proceed to the gate. She felt the need to pause for a while and look at Montfort as she never would again, hopefully--as a stranger.
The evening breeze ruffled Melyda's hair and shirt-sleeves as she stopped her horse-drawn wagon in a small clearing by the side of the road. Ari, her wolfhound, flopped down in the shade of the wagon, tongue lolling out happily. Khale, her cat, seemed oblivious to the stop, and continued to doze, perched on one of the many boxes piled in the wagon.
Melyda looked slowly around her, watching the steady stream of people, horses, and wagons going in and out of the gate. Dust from their passage drifted by her in clouds, finally settling into the dry grass. The gate and outer buildings looked well-kept, and what Melyda could see of the streets and buildings inside the gate looked neat as well. It was so different, though, compared to her home near the port of Tyndar. She sighed, remembering the salty smell that carried miles inland, the wind sending waves crashing against the rocks and whipping the small, tough berry bushes around, the incredible sunsets...
Melyda shook her head sharply. 'Enough wool-gathering,' she thought. 'That's all behind me now. Time to see if my future lies here.'
She whistled, and Ari stood up, stretching. Melyda clucked to the horse, and she guided the wagon back onto the road. The gate loomed above her as she paused by one of the gateguards.
"New to Montfort?" the guard asked as he stepped up to her wagon.
"Aye. I'm hoping to set up shop here." she replied.
"Indeed? What kind of shop?" The guard peered into her wagon, trying to see what might be in the boxes.
"A book store." Melyda chuckled inwardly as the guard's face fell. She'd rather doubted he'd like that answer. "Where can I stable my horse?"
"Try Gilglen's stable. I believe he still has some room left. And you'll be close to the Dragon's Inn. Go north to the center of town and turn east. You can't miss it."
"My thanks, sir." Melyda nodded as she drove away. She turned right at the Merchant's Guild building, heading toward the stable. She wondered about many things as she bumped along the streets. Would a book shop be welcomed here? Should she buy an existing, empty building or build a new one? Would she have to use her other skills to make ends meet?
She pulled into the courtyard of the stables. After discussing her situation with Gilglen, she manouvered her wagon to the back of the stable, then led her horse to Gilglen to be stabled. Melyda went back to her wagon, laid her hand on Ari's head, looked her in the face, and said "Guard." Ari was usually a friendly dog, but she took her guardianships seriously, and Melyda knew her wagon and belongings would be safe while she was in the inn. She had already decided to sleep that night in the wagon. After all, she'd been roughing it for months already. Another night or two would hardly matter. She grabbed a small pack from the front seat, stowed her bow and staff under the seat, and turned away.
She twisted her long, mid-blond hair into a knot at the nape of her neck as she walked toward the Dragon's Inn. With her hair tucked back, her ears were now visible; their slight pointiness showed that Melyda had at least some Elven blood in her. Except for those ears, she looked to be a thoroughly unremarkable human. Her blue-grey eyes showed a keen intelligence, however, that belied her appearance. Her clothing, too, was mostly unremarkable--a pleated skirt, a white, wide-sleeved blouse, heavy-soled sandals. What caught peoples' eyes, though, was her necklace. It was a wide gold chain, consisting of many strands of gold wire wrapped and braided intricately around each other.
Melyda paused in the doorway of the Dragon's Inn. It was not very crowded as yet, and she was able to seat herself at the tavern's counter. She ordered a bowl of stew and a light ale from the barman.
"Just passing through, or are you planning on staying in Montfort?" the barman, Hugh, asked as he brought her mug of ale to her. Melyda grinned; trust a tavern owner to know immediately who's new in town.
"I'm hoping to set up a book store here," Melyda replied, "though I've other skills if that doesn't succeed."
"Oh, aye. Bookkeeper, astronomer, historian, cartographer, translator. I'm even a half-decent artist," Melyda concluded with a wry smile. "Has Montfort need of any of these?"
(Meetings and welcomes)
Melyda walked through the streets on the east side of town, grinning to herself. 'My timing is, for once, excellent,' she thought. To come to Montfort just before a Festival! These next three days should give her a good idea of whether a book store could prosper here.
Hugh, the owner of the Dragon's Inn, had told her of the Festival. He also told her of a bar that had just opened--the Whistling Oyster. Melyda was a little leery--rather a strange name, really--but she decided to give it a try before finding someone who could give her information about renting a stall for the Festival. She spared a thought for her wagon as she walked through the shadowed streets.
'Ah, well,' she thought. 'Another hour or two shouldn't make much difference.' She smiled again; any would-be thief would definitely run into some problems. Ari was well trained to protect Melyda's possessions, and had a bark that could wake the dead. Khale could dash off and find Melyda, after giving the thief a nice set of claw- marks to the face and head. Melyda relaxed a little as she approached the area where Hugh had said the bar was.
Melyda saw a crowd gathered in front of the bar, though, and heard a cacophony of crashes. Peering through the now-broken front window, she saw fists and furniture, bottles and bodies flying around. 'Guess I'll have to postpone my investigations,' she thought. She turned to the person standing next to her. "Quite the bar fight, isn't it?" she said with a grin.
Sir Connery looked up from his map, and blinked once or twice while his eyes re-adjusted to the late afternoon sun. His nose twitched, long whiskers trembling with the movement, as he studied the young woman before him. His long white fur had been combed back in its usual impecable manner, but the brightly colored flower shirt and khaki shorts branded him for a tourist. His ears turned toward her, their black speckled tips rising to their full height as he gave her his attention.
"Pardon me, Miss," he said, in an upper-crust Oxford English accent. "But could you point the way to the Bard's Hall? I seem a trifle lost."
Melyda stepped back a pace in astonishment. She hadn't had a good look at the person standing next to her until now, and she didn't know whether to gasp or laugh. Finally, her sense of courtesy reasserted itself, and she smiled.
"My apologies, good sir," she said. "I can take you to the Bard's Hall, actually. I received directions to it from the proprietor of the Dragon's Inn. I had been planning to sample the wares of this bar first," and Melyda gestured to the window and door, where crashes and shouts could still be heard, "but I think I'd better postpone that. Shall we go?"
Melyda could not stop grinning as they walked away from the Whistling Oyster. If anyone, a year ago, had told her she'd eventually be exploring the streets of Montfort with a talking hamster, she'd have seriously considered putting that person out of the misery of their madness. But now...
'I think I'm going to like it here,' she thought to herself.
Turning his nose in the direction of the bar when the young lady mentioned it, he sniffed the air, noting the distinct scents of blood, sweat and alcohol. "Ah, yes, well, I suppose you are right," he mumbled, then hurried a couple of steps to catch up with her. After a moment or two of awkward silence, Sir Connery paused, trying to compare the map to his surroundings. "This doesn't look right, a'tall." He turned around in a circle rapidly enough that his little Tilly hat, fastened with a thin leather cord tied about his neck and covered with souvenir pins, flew out in an arc behind him. "Nearly every building in town seems to have been leveled recently, only some of which are in repair. And I have yet to see a street sign." Sighing wearily, he crumpled the map into a small pack he wore about his waist.
The hamster walked over to the bemused woman and smiled benevolently. "I believe we have yet to be introduced." He cleared his throat before continuing, "My name is Sir Connery Walter Owens Hoffman the third, emeritus professor of literature and psychology, University of Haliberton, currently on an...informal sabbatical. At your service, madam." He bowed gracefully before her.
Melyda clasped her hands in front of her breast and bowed to Sir Connery. "I am Melyda Carrisford, late of the port city of Tyndar. I'm hoping to open a book shop here in Montfort. As a matter of fact, I'm going to the Bard Hall to rent a stall for the Festival. I hope you will do me the honor of visiting it, if you've time." She closed her eyes briefly, reviewing Hugh's directions, then gestured the way to Sir Connery.
"As for the city's condition," Melyda looked around, assessing the condition of the buildings, "I heard a bit about that from Hugh. Apparently there was some kind of conflict between the Bards, with their supporters, and the Church of the Holy Redeemer. It culminated in an explosion that destroyed virtually the entire city." She shook her head somberly for a moment.
"Still, that should be all in the past now," Melyda continued brightly, but with a bit of an air of someone trying to convince themselves against their will. "This Festival should help. It looks like it's brought in a lot of merchants. If they can be convinced that peaceful times have returned, that will go a long way to restoring Montfort's prosperity."
The hamster-professor hadn't heard a word past 'book shop'. While the young woman continued talking, he rummaged about in his pack, searching for something. He found it just as Melyda stopped speaking. "Aha!" he cried out, pulling a long sheet of parchment out of his pack, then quickly recomposed himself. He peered up at Melyda through his spectacles, his whiskers aquiver with excitement.
"A bookseller, you say? Well, my dear Miss Carrisford I have a long list of items I would like to procure. If you would be so kind as to look over this list," he said, handing the parchment to Melyda. "I would be very grateful for any assistance you might be able to provide in obtaining these items. I realize some of them are a long shot, particularly "Love's Labors Refound" by W. Shakespeare. I've even heard rumored that the volume doesn't exist, it is merely a fanciful tale told to beginning graduate students. However, my personal research thus far leads me to believe that such a play does indeed exist."
Melyda gaped a little as she realized that most of her speech had gone unnoticed by the scholarly hamster, but then she smiled. He truly had a one-track mind. Not that she minded--she could get that way herself. She chuckled to herself, remembering how many times she'd come to some noble's estate intending to stay only an hour or two, but ended up having to spend the night.
"I'll be glad to do what I can, Sir Connery--though I must mention, I don't even know what half of my inventory is right now. I bought most of the books in bulk from various nobles' estates, and sometimes I didn't have time to look through them." She grinned wryly. "Most nobles think that a well-stocked library is a sign of affluence, even if they don't read what they own. And when money starts to get tight, books are among the first things to go. I got some great deals that way, though."
Melyda scanned through the list. "Hmmm...yes, I do know I have these two books." Melyda mentally checked off "Once More the Inner Space,' by Erik Erikson and 'Oedipus Rex,' by Sophocles. "And I might have these three; I remember the authors' names, though I'm not sure I have those specific titles." She pointed out the titles: "Totem and Taboo" by Sigmund Freud, "Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist," by Anthony Cronin, and "Under the Lilacs," by Louisa May Alcott. "The rest will have to wait for a more thorough inspection." She tucked the list inside her pack, closing it up tightly.
"As for "Love's Labors Refound," I've heard rumors of it, but I've never seen it myself. I've put a few feelers out, though...just in case."
They were approaching the southern edge of the city by then, and Melyda saw a large building shining in the late-afternoon light. She smiled and pointed. "That must be the Bard Hall."
[At the Bards Hall]
Before them stood a large, slightly fan shaped building, built with a unique mixture of gothic and classical forms. The front facade had statues of the muses erected between columns, while the walls were creeping with ivy planted amidst the impressive flower gardens which ringed the building. Some Bard apprentices, easily recognizable in their sky blue tabards emblazoned with the symbol of a gold lyre, could be seen reading or rushing about on various errands.
At the front gate, two Rangers, dressed in their dark green dress uniforms, stood guard duty. One of them spotted the two figures approaching the Hall, and nudged his companion.
[Aubrey and Selina]
"Here he comes now!" Aubrey Blackwood said, "Let's give him a salute when he enters."
Selina Rosewood peered out from under her leather helmet at Sir Connery. "That's him?"
"Yes." her comrade said, "Elwynn says the old rodent was colonel of Her Majesty's most illustrious and elite Coldstream Guards. A very tough outfit where he's from, so she said."
"He doesn't look like much." Selina said.
"Don't let that fool you. The old fellow's probably killed more orcs than smallpox. You should have heard some of the stories she was telling about him."
"An old campaigner, eh?" Selina said. "Well, here he comes."
At Sir Connery's approach the two Rangers snapped to attention and raised their pikes in a very professional salute.
The hamster-professor, ever in teaching mode, began to explain his researches into the history surrounding the missing play, but stopped mid-sentence when the guards saluted him. Prudence quickly won out over shock, and he returned the salute graciously. "Carry on, soliders."
Once out of earshot, Sir Connery succumed to his disbelief. "Well, I don't know what *that* was all about, but I'm glad I remembered those three years I spent in the service as a lad! Never did see any fighting..." he mused.
Sir Connery paused for a moment, a thoughtful frown on his furry face. "I wonder how they found out I was a supply lieutenant in the Queen's militia?"
"See that?" Aubrey said, nodding his head to where the hamster and his companion had gone, "Still has the old spit and polish, that one. I'd almost hope for a little trouble here and there...maybe we'd get to see the old campaigner in action."
Melyda listened to Sir Connery's puzzled explanation and shrugged back. Her attention quickly wandered, though; she was greatly impressed by the care and attention shown in the architecture and art of the interior of the Hall. She glanced back at Sir Connery, wondering if he knew anyone in the Hall, or if she should start looking for someone who seemed to be at least reasonably in charge.
The pair entered what appeared to be the main theater of the Hall. They could see before them a large stage, which was set like the interior of an Inn. All about them workers were moving back and forth, setting lights, cleaning chairs, and doing other menial tasks.
Sitting in the middle of the set was a halfling girl, dressed in pauper's clothing and carrying a small broom. Her blonde hair was partly hidden beneath a maid's cap, and her large, expressive blue eyes were gazing out at the audience. She was singing a sad little song.
"There is a Castle on a cloud, I like to go there in my sleep...."
In the front row a small group of adults were watching the girl's performance with looks of approval and encouragement. One of them was a lady halfling, also dressed in rags, who appeared to be an adult version of the little singer.
When the song ended, Sir Connery clapped his hands enthusiastically.
"Excellent, Miss Gammidge!" he called out.
Walking closer to the stage he added, "The last note was a tad bit high, but that is understandable, as it is a very difficult note for little girls."
Before anyone could argue with him, he turned to Elanor's mother. "Mrs. Gammidge, this young lady behind me is interested in renting a stall for the Festival." He indicated Melyda with a vague wave of his hand.
The halfling lady smiled under her breath. Beside her, Karyn Silversheen, the chief Bardmistress and director of the play, was regarding Sir Connery with an eye towards turning him into a rug.
"What sort of stall were you interested in, Miss...?" Lily asked.
"Melyda Carrisford," she said with a bow, hands clasped in front of her. "I'm hoping to establish a book store here in Montfort. A book-seller's stall for the Festival will hopefully tell me how well such a store would do. I've a few examples, if anyone wishes to see them." She patted her pack propriatorily.
"Of course, a few of my books are already spoken for," she smiled at Sir Connery. "And as I told Sir Connery here, I don't know what half my inventory is. But I'd be glad to search for any specific books for any of you. I even have some very nice children's books." Melyda smiled warmly at the little halfling girl. She was working hard to overcome her natural shyness and make a good impression. If her bookstore was going to succeed, these people would likely be her best contacts and customers. She waited anxiously for their reply, for some indication of how well she was presenting herself.
"A bookseller!" Lily said, "Thank goodness! Most of our requests have come from beer sellers, wine sellers, tanners, weaponsmiths, jewellers, clothiers, and chestnut carts. You're in luck, Miss Carrisford. You've got yourself a monopoly here."
"Our library is looking for books related to the Bard profession," Karyn Silversheen put in. She was a stunning young woman with shoulder length blonde hair and a fair complexion. "perhaps later we can look over your inventory and see what you might have available."
"I'll see that you get a prominently-placed stall for tomorrow." Lily said. "Do you have accomodations for the night? We can put you up here if you like."
"No...no, I don't have a place to stay. I was planning to sleep in my wagon at Gilglen's stable. But I suppose it'd be safer here. Thank you very much for your help and hospitality."
Melyda was feeling a bit dazed. After all her travels, after all her doubts, wondering if she was squandering her inheritence on a fool's dream, it looked as if Fortune was smiling on her now. She was beginning to think she really would be able to turn her passion into her avocation.
"I'll need to get my horse and wagon from Gilglen's. And I hope you'll be able to put up with a dog and cat as well. They usually don't pick fights with each other or other animals, and they're very respectful of people's property."
"Let me check with our kennel master." Lily said. Turning to the stage, she called out.
"Icarus? Are you still there?"
Icarus Katt, a black short haired tabby, strolled onto the stage, carrying a kitten in his mouth. The kitten looked like a smaller version of Icarus himself, which was no wonder as the little one happened to be his son, Iolus. Icarus set his prodigy down, and said, "Meow?"
"Do we have room for another cat and dog in the kennels?" Lily asked.
The cat meowed affirmatively, and, picking up his son (who appeared to be sleeping), trotted off the way he had come.
"You're all set." Lily said. "I'll have one of the Rangers show you to your quarters. I think we still have a cabin available."
Melyda smiled at Lily even as she mentally berated herself for babbling on like that. The day had been so full of astonishment, she wasn't sure she could handle any more. As she saw the kennel master approach, though, she realized she'd have to.
'Amazing,' she thought as she listened to what undoubtedly was a conversation between Icarus and Lily, short though it was. She'd always thought she had a special relationship with Ari and Khale, and that they were more intelligent than any dog or cat she knew of. But this--she'd never dreamed something like this was possible. Was it magic? If so, where did it lie? In Icarus, in Lily, or perhaps in both? And was it something she could learn?
Half an hour later, Melyda was approaching the Bard's Hall again, Ari and Khale seated on either side of her on the front seat of the wagon. "Now kiddos,' she said to them, 'I'll have to drop you off at the kennel once I've stabled Gypsy." She knew what reaction that one word, "kennel," would provoke, even before they turned to her. Ari gave her a piteous look, Khale a disgusted one. "Now, now," she continued. "I know you don't like kennels, but this will only be for a few days. Besides, I have the distinct feeling you'll find this one very different." Her tone of voice, soothing, sympathetic, but tinged with excitement, conveyed as much to them as her words would to a human, and they settled back down.
Melyda looked intently at the Hall as the wagon rattled down the path toward the entrance. 'Simply amazing,' she thought, remembering all that had happened. She hoped that she could come here often, that she would continue to be welcome. She had the feeling that the residents could teach her much in a variety of subjects, and she thirsted for that knowledge. As she rattled through the front gate, waving to the two guards who had greeted Sir Connery, she felt, for the first time in a year, like she was coming home.
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