In Nuln, the companions sold the silver settings from the keep and split the proceeds among theselves.
They were relieved to find that the gossip in the inns around and in Nuln did not feature the guard sargeant whose house had collapsed during their last visit nor did the guard seem to take any undue interest in them. The conversation centered around a supposed indiscretion comitted by one of the Countess' waiting women and four of the Tall Pikes; the dearth of pike and eel from the Reik and corresponding high prices for them; concern over the Black Coach, bandits preying on travellers along the road toward Averheim and the Moot; reports of goblin raiding parties in the south and speculation about whether or not the Countess would commit troops; and delight in telling the lurid tale of a wagon accident on the Grossebrucke that sent two wagons, three horses and five people over the edge and to their deaths in the river below.
After a little more than a week's ride, the company found themselves in the last coaching inn outside of the Moot, the Stone Pony, named for a strange rock formation visible from the front of the Inn. From here it was day's ride to the next inn, the Falcon's Rest, and from there they could turn south and travel for another day to Thistletoe along a side road. The main road continued east, turning gradually to the south and reached Moot Crossing two days travel later.
"I've been thinking" Marri said quietly to her companions as they sat together at a small table enjoying some ale, after a supper in the common room of the Stone Pony that Marri had enthusiastically rated excellent. Watching to make certain none of the other patrons seemed to be taking any undue interest in them, she continued "Perhaps Tibbi and I should go on to the Thistletoe alone, then meet you somewhere... after. If... Herger's uncle has... become lost... or something, perhaps a bit of discretion in asking after him might be called for. Not," she added rolling her eyes slightly, "that I am implying that Tibbi is in the least discrete, but... we could make sure everyone here knows that the group of us are splitting up...that the rest are going... somewhere.." she shrugged. "The two of us traveling to Moot Crossing to see my family, and stopping by the Inn will be a lot less... memorable... than the entire group of us doing so. That might be to our advantage later... should it happen we need an advantage." She looked around doubtfully at her friends. "I don't know. Mayhap I am being a bit... paranoid... but such ... ummm... strange things happened to us... when last we traveled..." She trailed off and looked around again, waiting to see if anyone laughed at her fears.
Lothar nodded his agreement and, rubbing his eyes, added, "I think prudence is always called for in one's travels. If Miss Marri suggests that discretion is called for, then perhaps a temporary parting is best." Glancing about at the others, he pulled at his mustache, "Where then, assuming we're in accord, shall we rendez-vous?"
Tibbiddo gulped at Marri's suggestion. Splitting up meant he might actually have to do something heroic and that definitely concerned him. As bad as it seemed, he eyed Marri and decided that he might be able to outrun her, if the situation warranted it. Clearing his throat he voiced, "It should be someplace close by and easy to find, in case there is trouble."
The companions agreed that Tibbo and Marri would leave first, stop at the Falcon's Rest, the next coaching inn alaong, and then turn south for Thistletoe. The rest would leave a day later and wait at the Falcoln's Rest for word from the halflings.
They put the plan into effect the next day. The two halflings travelled without incident to The Falcon's Rest, where they were greeted with great cordiality by Raymond Cheesewind, the proprietor. The next morning, they set off on the side road that led toward Thistletoe, while the others departed the Stone Pony, bidding farewell to Linda and Ronald Stadtvolk the owners.
* * * *Marri annd Tibbo (and Traveller) rode south through the woods toward Thistletoe and the Aver river. The halfling folk preferred company, and so they passed no homesteads; when they saw the first fields, they knew they had arrived. Almost immediately, they passed a turning to their right, westerly, and in the distance they could see what looked like a largish dwelling. The main path led onward, though, and soon they passed a somewhat rundown shack with a scraggly garden. At that point, the path became a road and they passed several more dwellings and workshops before the road ended in a T at the river road. This was familiar to them; it ran along the Aver and at the western end was Hayfoot's, while at the eastern end was the Three Poles.
Arriving as they were toward dinner time, most of the folk were in their homes and preparing for a meal. A few however were on their way to or from the two Inns, presumably for their own dinners. These wanderers greeted the travellers in a friendly fashion as they went their way.
Tibbiddo turned to Marri and patted his ample belly. "Dinner sounds like a ripe good fruit to be picked. Shall we find an inn?"
The halflings turned their horses to the right, passing a few more homes and shops before arriving at Hayfoot's inn. They tied up their ponies and stepped into the familiar happy bustle of a halfling inn. Marri racked her brains and came up with the names of the staff, Goosey was in the kitchen, Willy the paterfamilias was behind the bar and Barto and Weedy were working the room. Three other halflings sat in the room, and two humans who looked to be rivermen, probably from the ship they had seen tied up at the dock. All looked up in a friendly fashion as Marri and Tibbo entered. "Welcome!" called Willy from behind the bar. "Two beers, of course, will ye be needing dinner or rooms?"
"Both, if you please" Marri said cheerfully. "And a bath! But not before that ale, good innkeeper! Not before the ale!"
Tibbiddo nodded joyfully and turned to rest his back against the bar, surveying the room. "You know Marri, tis sad that these fellows have not faced danger like I. In fact, it brings a tear to my eye, one that I cannot take leave of until I share of our travels. Fear not, I will not tell any of our secrets nor cause embarassment of our colleagues when their bravery wavered."
Marri, who had just taken a large, refreshing mouthful of the inn's fine ale, did her best to keep from spitting it out all over the floor, or having it come back out her nose! After a bit of coughing and sputtering, she glanced around, daubing herself off and trying to look sheepish as the other customers cheerfully razzed her a bit for being a halfling who couldn't hold her ale, mostly to be certain she was not overheard, and hissed, "Be careful, boastful one! Your tongue has been known to loosen a bit with too much ale! AND remember why we are here! Not to fatten your purse! But to DISCRETELY," and here she eyed her fellow halfing as sternly as her cheerful countenance could manage, "seek out news of a friend who may need help! D-I-S-C-R-E-T-E-L-Y! Now," she finished with a snort "you can at least spell the word!"
Unflappable, at even the most obvious subtlety, Tibbiddo responded with a hearty "But of course," and grabbed his ale to work the room.
Heaving a resigned sigh, and knowing that only the Divine Esmeralda dimpled hands clasped over Tibbi's mouth would keep him quiet, Marri looked around for Willy, and seeing him asked "What will you be serving for dinner?"
"Mudflat Boil," said Willy, referring to a Mootland speciality of mussels, crayfish and sometimes pieces of eel or other fish, simmered in a savory broth. "Or I could have Goosey fry up some bacon if you'd rather."
Tibbo began to move around the room and soon he had a mug of beer in his hand, and now and then Marri could familiar lines from the Tibbiddo version of The Mound of Bones, or The Skeletons in the Keep.
Weedy Hayfoot, that is to say Richenda, seemed particularly taken with Tibbo and kept his mug full as the evening wore on.
Spurred on by the lass, Tibbiddo gave greater, more fanciful tales whenever she came nearby. Once he even turned her around in a pirouette, shielding her from imaginary skeletons as he fought them off one-handed while taking a drink.
A steaming bowl of crayfish and mussels appeared in front of Marri along with another beer. "Quite the talker, your friend is," commented Willy.
"Yes, yes he is," Marri replied around a mouthful of seafood. "He'll make up a story about almost anything unusual," she continued, washing the food down with some beer. "He has quite some imagination. I'm sure if he meets anyone here, any one especially tall or ...bearded or... I don't know, covering their face with t he hood of their cloak... it'll end up in one of his stories eventually! With hi m the hero, of course!" Taking another swallow from her mug, she continued "I ha d heard that you have a bit of a reputation as a story teller. Of course, I had heard your stories tend to touch a bit closer to the truth!"
"Well now, I'm not sure I'd call myself a storyteller," said Willy, preening just a bit. "Though I do try to be an entertaining speaker."
Tibbiddo stumbled back over to the bar with a roar of laughter and a toast to his fans. "And that is how I rescued Herger!"
With a salute to Willy, Tibbiddo ordered up some of the aromatic soup and spoke to Marri in quiet terms as the man fetched his dinner. "I have learned that Alastair is well-known in these parts and was here about a month ago staying for a couple of days. I get the impression that he left rather abruptly. Where, I do not know."
As Willy returned with the hot soup Tibbiddo took in the smell of the delicacy, "Aye tis a beautiful bouquet! I will need a room." Tibbiddo leaned closer and added quietly "a private room," with a nod toward the beautiful serving girl.
Willy either didn't notice the nod, didn't catch the meaning or didn't care. "A private room, sir, of course. And one for you, miss." He picked up a glass and a rag in the time-honoured manner of bartenders. "Herger ... you said Herger. Why does that name ring a bell?"
"Tis a portly man who sold sheep over the hills," said Tibbiddo. "He was a might fancy of the ale and fell into a pit of bone fiends. Fortunate for him I happened by and fought them off!" added the halfling.
"Ah, 'tis not an uncommon name. Wait!" Willy put down his glass. "I recognize you now, mistress. You came through night on two years ago, and there was a Herger with you then. Friends of Alistair's you were. Do you bring news of him?" he asked eagerly.
Tibbiddo refrained from saying uh-oh and instead took another drink of his beer, finding some other tale to loose himself in; thereby leaving Marri to clean up his misstep.
Marri slowly chewed another bit of bread before answering, trying to keep her annoyance at her fellow halfling from showing on her face. Finally deciding that since she couldn't put the milk back in the cow, she might as well simply plunge ahead and ask what she wanted to know.
"Indeed we did, good sir! Indeed we did! And quite a fine meal you served us then as well! I could use a bit more of this stew! Excellent! Blessed Esmeralda herself couldn't have seasoned it better! Uh.... and no, we've no news of Alistair. We're just on my way to visit my family. I haven't seen my sisters younglings for quite some time and they grow so fast at that age! Barely able to toddle about after you round the house and the next thing you know... off running about the fields with their friends and you lucky to see them at all! Don't suppose you've seen the old gentleman recently have you? Its quite possible my sister's in the family way again, too! And I think my father is planning to open another bakery soon! Another two of my brothers off in the world! Its lovely they're doing so well though! Why just the other day...."
Marri finally paused to draw breath as her new bowl of stew arrived.
Willy launched into an exhaustive analysis of Marri's family on his return. Verifying her name, their names, the status of the children and so and so forth. Marri felt as if her bonafides were being checked, and eventually passed. Willy finally topped off her beer and said, "The reason I asked if you had news of Alistair was that he was here a few months ago and left a bit ... quickly."
"Really?" Marri said, stopping with her spoon halfway between bowl and mouth. "Quickly? Whatever do you mean?"
"Well," said Willy slowly, "he actually just left without saying goodbye or anything. That was a little strange. But then, "he's a busy man."
"You mean he walked out without saying anything? It isn't like him to be rude. Or do you mean, he went up to his room, and was simply gone the next morning?" Marri asked. "You know, Willy, this would be a much better story if you were to begin at the beginning."
"Is it a story?" he asked, causing Marri to wonder if she was pushing too hard. He continued, "He went out one morning, as he often does, and just didn't return that night."
"Ah, " Marri said, "well, I didn't mean to be pushing my nose into a cauldron where it doesn't belong. It's just... well... I consider him a friend... and I was just curious... and a little worried by what you said. Might I have another ale, if you please?"
"No harm done, mistress. I think of him as a friend as well," said Willi turning away. A moment later he was back. "Another ale. Whoops, excuse me!" Several of the other guests were now calling for ale as well and Willi hurried off to refill their mugs, giving Marri and Tibbo a chance to confer.
Sheepishly Tibbiddo returned to Marri's side. "Sorry about that, but I knew you could handle yourself." With a smile and wave across the room Tibbiddo leaned in, "did you learn anything about Alastair?"
"Only that he was here and that he went out for a walk one morning and didn't come back," Marri answered. "I think there's more here to be learned. But not necessarily tonight ... at least not from Willy. Did you learn anything else?"
"No, but then again I haven't tried any harder," he replied with a grin. "I sense a bit of concern among Alastair's friends and to pry only invites more trouble. Perhaps I will be granted the opportunity to probe a bit deeper." Tibbiddo tipped his cap with a wink toward Weedy as she flitted about the tavern tables carrying frothy topped mugs.
The two friends passed several more pleasant hours in the tavern as various halflings, and human crewmen from the boat, before they retired to their respective beds.
Tibbo waited expectantly in his room as the noises died out in the common room. The guests who were not spending the night departed and he heard the sounds of the hosts making ready to retire for the night. His guess was half an hour after that would tell the tale.
It was only fifteen minutes later that a soft tap came on his door. He took it as a good sign. The door cracked open and Weedy's head appeared, "Master Tibbido, is there anything else I can do for you?" Tibbo nodded and Weedy enthusiastically went to join him.
* * * *Some time later, two somewhat sweaty halflings cuddled on Tibbo's bed. "And that, my dear, is why Tibbiddo Stoutwaddle is considered a 'full-ing' amongst us halflings," he cooed into her ear. "This is an evening I will remember always, meeting such a wonderful lady as yourself and hearing of an old friend."
"Yes, you know old Alistair, don't you?" she replied. Then sighed, "I must go." She slipped out of the bed and began to gather her clothes.
"Wait," called out Tibbiddo patting the still-warm spot beside him. "There is much more to do, what is your hurry?"
"How long are you staying?" she countered playfully.
"Alas, there are more adventures to be had by my merry band. What would they think were their brave leader to delay?" Tibbiddo sighed wistfully, "I fear I must leave soon."
"A pity, but I must get my rest. The meals don't cook themselves, and I have an inn to help run," she said beginning to dress herself.
"Aye, a fine job you and your father do too!" Tibbiddo stretched, "I will tell everyone I meet of the hospitality and good food found here."
"Thank you sir," she dimpled prettily.
* * * *Meanwhile ...
The four humans arrived at the Falcon's Rest shortly before dark. Although the Inn was in the Moot, it served the coach line and was built to a human scale. The layout, however, was halfling; sprawling a bit and on a single level. They arrived ahead of the coach, which they knew had left behind them, and so received the full attention of the master, Raymond Cheesewind, who greeted them with a cheerful cry of, "Welcome to the Falcon's Rest," and waved his ostentatious falconer's gauntlet at them by way of punctuation. "Willem and Ted will take your horses, go on lads. Lila! Come attend our guests. I'm sorry, sirs, the main meal is not quite ready yet, we try to have it just finished when the coach arrives, which should be in another hour or so. I can provide you with some cold viands, or if you'd rather wait for the dinner ..."
Their host led them into the common room, which was comfortably furnished with chairs and tables, and decorated with bear skins on the walls. To one side, a fire burned in a fireplace through which they could see the kitchen and a cheeful halfling at work. A few doors opened off the common room, and they assumed they led to private rooms and a common dormitory. "Will you be wanting private rooms?" asked Cheesewind.
Rurik had been uncharacteristically quiet the whole trip; almost brooding. He'd been a hermit in the mountains far too long, and what he needed was something to rekindle his spark. Sadly, there wasn't much mischief available to him at the coaching inn. Maybe this 'Lila' would provide some interest.
Alas, Lila turned out to be another halfling, albeit one bearing beer. The arrival of the coach would provide no relief since the passengers would doubtless be the same ones who had been with them since Nuln. Perhaps, though, a coach coming the other way would provide a diversion, if one was due.
Rurik sighed as he contemplated his options. Purse feeling a tad heavy from the silver sale proceeds, he decided on a 'civilized' evening. "Single room please, with a warm bath... and a shave perchance?" Perhaps shedding his 'winter growth' could return the moribund wastelander to his usual light-hearted self.
"Of course, sir, of course! Lila, show the gentleman to a room and fetch the tub. Wilhelmina," he called toward the kitchen, "put on some water for our guest's bath." He moved to fetch drinks for the company, keeping up a stream of trivial chatter as he went, while Lila led Rurik to the back of the common room, where three doors stood open. "You can have your choice of rooms, sir." Glancing in, Rurik saw that they were all more or less identical with a bed large enough for two humans, covered with a bear skin blanket, a table with a jug, basin and lamp, and a chair. There was no window in any of the rooms, so they were dim, although they looked cozy. "I'll fetch the tub, sir."
Rurik smiled broadly at the thought of a cozy single room, a warm bath, and a hot halfling-prepared dinner. With any luck this cook will share at least some of Marri's culinary mastery.
"Thank you, Lila. Could I trouble you to have my clothing washed as well while I bathe?" Rurik extended a bright, boyish grin to the girl as he produced silver from his coin purse. "For your troubles," he finished cheerfully.
"Of course, good sir," she said, dropping a curtsey, and departing. Rurik's companions had seated themselves in the common room and Rurik joined them while he waited for his bath. A few minutes later, one of the stable boys came in with the tub, "Bath for someone? Which room?" Rurik pointed him right and he set up the tub and went back outside. Lila arrived with mugs for all the companions. "It'll be a bit before the water is hot, sir," she said. "Can I get you, any of you, something while you wait?"
Taking his mug, Rurik settled contentedly into his chair. "Thank you. I believe everything is in order." Everything - except for a warm, soft female body...
After about half an hour, the Nuln bound coach arrived with six passengers, much to Rurik's frustration, all were male. The remaining rooms were quickly snapped up so that when the Moot bound coach arrived, the passengers were left to take up the dorm and the common room. Mine host scurried around to hang a curtain to divide the dormitory into two spaces so that the ladies might have some privacy. As he did so, a man who had travelled with them from Nuln approached Rurik. Rurik knew him to be a merchant named Ostmann, travelling with his wife and daughter. He beseeched Rurik to forgo his room so that his family might use it, and offered to pay for Rurik's food and lodging in exchange for the favour.
With the exception of one man who retired early to his room, the rest of the company enjoyed a convivial evening in the common room before seeking their own beds.