About noon the next day, they passed Braundorf, and entered a long empty stretch on the way to Streissen.
Two days up the Aver, in the late afternoon, Marri was idling on deck when her attention was caught by what seemed to be an abandoned boat on the shore. She looked a little more carefully at the boat. She saw nothing unusual but she was curious. Finally she got up and went over to the Captain. "Sir" she said hesitantly pointing "there seems to be an abandoned boat over there."
Those words got Maewyn's attention moving from her comfortable spot she walked over shielding her eyes to look in the direction that Marri was pointing.
Maewyn's sharp eyes added a bit of detail to the picture; the boat appeared to have been beached intentionally, and was of a size that would carry perhaps as many as five or six persons, but not a great deal of cargo. It didn't look to be fitted out as a fishing vessel or a cargo ship, and there was no sign of intelligent life on or near the boat. The boat itself seemed in good repair, from what she could see, with no indication of why it had been abandoned.
Marri was a bit startled to hear that the boat would have carried only passengers. She glanced at Maewyn before saying to the captain, "Sir, should someone check that boat?"
The captain looked a little concerned, "I don't know. It could just be abandoned, and it will cost us some time, but on the other hand ..."
Herger had also come to take a look at the mysterious boat. With a small sense of foreboding he said, "We should leave it and continue with our journey. There does not seem to be any sign of trouble from what we can see. I think there would be someone here on shore, by the boat, if someone was in trouble. I am just worried about bandits."
Marri glanced back and forth between Herger and the Captain, then shrugged. "I am curious, but if you think that's best" she said.
Maewyn said, "You know what they say about curiosity."
Feeling a bit outnumbered, Marri nodded and said with another shrug, "I am not a cat. And I think it might be better to investigate rather than leave things at our back. Still..." She turned and walked back to her place on the deck and sat down next to Traveller and watched the abandoned boat as they continued by.
With a smile Maewyn walked over and scratched Traveller's ears as she sat next to the halfling, "No one was saying that you are. Also although most folk know the first part of that saying not all know the second would you like to hear it?"
"Surely," Marri said, looking over at Maewyn.
"Well, While satisfaction may kill the cat," Maewyn bends closer in a sort of conspiratal whisper, "Satisfaction always bring it back."
Maewyn leaned back wink a wink at Marri and then continued, "Of course as you pointed out we are not cats so it may be safer not to give in to curiosity."
"Obviously the Captain and Herger agree with you Maewayn." Marri shrugged again.
Herger nodded introspectively and watched the empty boat as it dwindled behind them into the distance.
The days slipped one into the next as the Royal Otter made its way upstream. After nearly two weeks, they arrived in Streissen and everyone enjoyed the chance to stretch their legs and get a good meal at a dockside tavern. Then it was only another four days to Averheim. They had a one day lay-over there while the boat loaded and unloaded cargo. The travellers took the opportunity to replenish their supplies.
Another two days on the river and they arrived at the halfling village of Westlee in the Moot and the boat tied up for the night. A few inquiries revealed that Hayfoot's was in the next village over, Thistletoe, which their captain told them would be their stopping point next evening.
Sure enough, just before dusk the next night, the Royal Otter pulled into the small pier on the north side of the Aver at the village of Thistletoe. An old halfling sat in a chair on the dock with a pipe and watched as they tied up, nodding at the captain, who hailed him, "Good evening, Dinky!"
Turning back to his passengers, he pointed west. "Hayfoot's is down that way. They have a guest room that might do for you, if you don't want to sleep on the boat." Already some of the crew were slipping off the ship, some heading west and others east toward a building with a sign depicting three long poles tied into a tripod, which appeared to be another inn or tavern.
Herger thanked the Captain for the directions and disembarked. He waited for Marri and Maewyn at the bottom of the ramp before leading the way off towards Hayfoot's. "Well," he said to Marri, "are we near enough that you are starting to feel back at home, again? It has been a fair amount of time that you have been away, if I am not mistaken." He kept his stride short so that Marri did not have to work at trying to keep up. He made certain that he was the one carrying the groups supplies as they trudged along.
A short walk brought them to Hayfoot's Inn. The human and the elf had to stoop to enter, while to Marri's eyes the door was impressively large. Inside everything was a-bustle. Two youngish looking halflings moved around the common room taking orders and serving drinks and food, while an older halfling presided over the bar. Another young halfing was visible in the kitchen just off the bar. There were twenty or so halflings in the Inn at the moment, and half a dozen crewmen from the ship.
Herger ran a hand through his hair after entering and looked around at the patrons. "Popular place," he said. Then he worked his way towards the older halfling, making sure to not tread on anyone's toes as he did so.
The trio made their way through the crowd up to the low bar, where the halfing beamed at them, "Welcome, welcome! What can I get for you? Beer, of course, but anything else?" Without waiting for an answer, he began to draw a beer.
Herger smiled as he took a place at the bar and returned the Halfling's warm greeting, "Well met! Indeed, a beer would parch the thirst I acquired on the river boat. Is this your wonderful establishment?"
"It is, indeed. Wilhelm Hayfoot is the name. Call me Willy, everyone does."
Herger was in a decent mood and had no difficulty keeping his smile in place as he continued the conversation, "Well, Willy, my name is Herger Blichtrest, and it was mentioned to me by Alastair that this was the place to stay when passing through this lovely town."
"A friend of Alistair's are you? Good on you! How is the old devil?" He placed the beer in front of Herger and began to draw new ones for Marri and Maewyn. "First round's on the house, then."
Herger grinned as he brought the first beer to his lips and drank a mouthful. He said, "Thanks for the round! As for Alastair he was fine when last I saw him. A month has passed since then, at least. I last had word from him in Nuln and he directed me to your establishment. My friends and I shall be meeting up with him further into the Moot. In fact, if you have anything you would like taken to him I can make sure he gets it. A letter, or what have you." He swallowed another mouthful and complimented Willy on his brew.
Maewyn stood at the door for a while as the talk and conversation flowed around her. She was a little uncomfortable around so many folks and the room. Seated in the chair she accepted the beer without comment and just listened to the conversation
"Thankee," said Willy. "Just tell him to stop by again soon. Excuse me!" He moved down to the end of the bar to tend to a new customer leaving the companions a few minutes to themselves.
"Will you be wanting dinner?" asked Willy as he returned. "Or a room? I've got one room that might fit such tall folk as yourself."
"I am sure that Marri is ready for a meal even if none of the rest of us are. Although this time I happen to agree with her I for one would be interested in having a little something to eat. If you happen to have any bread, fruit, cheese, nuts or berries. I prefer to eat that over eating any of the Goddess'es children. I am not one that will not eat flesh but I prefer not to if there is a choice," said Maewyn.
"I think we can find something for you Mistress Elf." He called back over his shoulder, "Goosey! Is there any of that cheese pie left?" "Just a piece or two, pa," called back the halfing girl manning (halflinging?) the kitchen.
"Well serve it, then," called Willy. "I've got some friends of Alistair's here who're hungering! Put a hunk of bread and butter with it." He turned back to Marri and Herger, "And what can I get you? The mutton pasties are good."
Herger agreed readily as he was quite hungry, "The mutton pasties sound very tempting. I think I would enjoy a couple of those, if it is not too much trouble." After another swallow of beer he adds, "We will take the room, as well. It will do us good to sleep in nice beds rather than on the boat for a change."
"Good! Barto," called Willy to the boy halfling working the room, "prepare the Big Room for our guests."
"Right dad," said the boy, who finished serving the drinks he had in hand and then dissappeared into the hall that led back into the hill.
Marri had been standing, uncharacteristically silent, throughout this exchange, sipping the surprising good ale, and looking around at the building filled mostly with halflings. She was lost in thought. Somehow she had almost come to believe she would never really see home again. And yet now, here she was surrounded by her own people. Folks who understood the importance of a good ale, or a mutton pastie. She smiled and let out a long content sigh.
"We're home Traveller... nearly anyway" she whispered. Even as she said the words, she was aware that she wouldn't be staying long. Quicksilver, her mood descended toward sadness. She blinked back the beginning of tears, shook her head, determined, as a halfling *should* be she thought, to enjoy the day... and the food... that she had. She took another drink of ale, giving her a moment to get her emotions under control.
"A half dozen or so pasties would hit the spot! And perhaps a couple for Traveller as well! And another pint of that delicious ale!" she said with a big grin at Willy. "And I can't wait to sleep in a bed that doesn't move!"
Herger enjoyed his ale as he listened to the conversations and noises of a trouble-free inn. He watched Maewyn out of the corner of his eye, never having seen an Elf before her and wondering how she would react to being in the inn.
Noticing Herger watching her she saluted him with her drink as she smiled at him.
With a grin, Herger said to Marri, "It is good to see your mood lightened by this trip home. I will bet that your family will be ecstatic. Just wait until we reach your village, or is it more of a hamlet? In what kind of house does your family live?"
"I suppose you will think Moot Crossing a small village, Herger, although it is the largest town in the Moot. I'm not certain what Maewyn may think of it. There's a large market square in the middle of town. My father's shop is there. But our home is on the outer edge of town. We're a social people, but we don't like to be crowded. Perhaps a bit like the elves, we like a bit of the land about us. And once our family began to expand beyond what one would expect, my father began building us a house in a spot with some room for expansion." Marri laughed and continued, "I said began building because he is still building it! He added on a room or sometimes two each time I got a new brother, or sister. And when my sister married, she and her husband moved in there, and of course now she has children of her own. I've no idea how many rooms there will be when we get there! And my father's style of building is somewhat... eclectic, I think you would say. Still I've no doubt there will be room for us all."
Marri laughed again, but her smile dimmed a little when she said "I shall certainly be happy to see my family. I know they will welcome us in, we halflings are very hospitable... but... well... I did leave home without permission... ran away really. I hope Father's not still upset with me about that."
Soon after that, the food came and conversation was stilled as the companions devoured the best meal they'd had in weeks. Maewyn sat eating what was put in front of her she did not speak much and seemed a little nervous by all the activity and noise level. She seemed to be able to handle it just that she may have preferred a quieter place to eat. After dinner the conversation became general, until their beds beckoned.
One of the children showed them to their room. Herger and Maewyn had to stoop slightly in the corridor, but the room itself, dug into the side of the hill was large enough for them to stand in and the two beds were constructed to human scale. A third, halfing sized bed had been pulled in as well, cramping the room somewhat. The decor was cozy and Hayfoot promised to wake them before the boat left in the morning.
Herger had a quick bath, then he, too, retired.
The next morning, refreshed by a good meal and a good night's sleep, the companions reboarded their ship and continued on their way. Two days later, they arrived in Moot Crossing, and once again were faced with choices about how to proceed.
Theobald had said to meet him across the Blackfire Pass in the village of Erikspall. It seemed their best path would be up the southernmost tributary of the Aver until they reached the foot of the mountains, and then to bear southwest until they reached the pass. No regular boats travelled that way, though, so they would have to travel on foot, charter or buy a boat, or purchase mounts.
Having arrived in Moot Crossing did nothing to lighten the load that had been growing on Herger's mind for the past couple of days. He had been trying to work out the groups next move and had approached Maewyn on the matter. Her plan for traveling down the Aver and bearing southwest was sound and fit what little knowledge of the area geography that Herger could muster. At an opportune moment he approached his fellow travellers and said, "I think we should look into getting a boat of our own to take down the southern arm of the Aver. If that's too expensive for us, I would then suggest traveling on foot. In which case, at least a pack horse, or pony, would be very nice to have."
"Hmmmm...." Marri said after listening to Herger. She paced around in a circle for a few minutes while she thought about what he had said. Stopping to look up at him, she said, "I have to admit I am not very excited about either prospect! Though the last part of our river journey was pleasant enough, I am a bit tired of being confined to the space on a moving bit of wood. On the other hand, while there will come a time when walking is our only choice, I hesitate to start it any sooner than we have to. I... have the feeling we are going to need all our strenth for later. And travel by river is faster. So I guess my vote is to try to find a boat... if you are sure you can handle it Herger ... and unless Maewyn has some other suggestion."
"Travel by river does has in advantages but if we travel by feet with a pack horse we can use the animal all the way to the mountains while the boat will eventually have to be left behind. I am not for one over the other but I am leaning more to foot and pack horse for more reasons than my desire to be on solid ground away from floating pieces of wood." Maewyn looked over at the halfling and gave her a smile.
Herger nodded at the opinions presented and scratched his chin where a full beard had managed to grow in since the time the trio had left Altdorf. He leaned against the corner of the building by which they were standing in conversation and looked out at the people milling about in the village square. He rubbed his left shoulder and said, "I'm sure I could handle a boat all the way to the mountains as long as there is a lack of rapids and waterfalls and the like. I am always in favour of the quickest form of transport available. Whatever gets me to the pass and my good uncle Theo the fastest. I miss my family. I also think that there will be plenty of walking to do once we reach the mountains and you will not be cooped up in a boat for much longer. However, we haven't even explored the option of getting a boat of our own. We may not even be able to afford it, and that would settle the situation right on its bare end." He held his hands up in a surrendering shrug and concluded, "I am learning as I go. Maybe your father has some advice, Marri."
With that prompting, Marri led the way to the Gold family home. The bakery and home was not built into a hill, but like most halfling architecture, it rather looked like it should have been. Low (naturally), and long rather than wide, although there was some extra frontage added for the bakery, it looked sort of like a T, with the crossbar on the road.
Marri was greeted with much joy and only a few recriminations and suggestions that perhaps she ought to return to the family business now. "You're past your tweens now, girl. Time to get serious," said her father. All was soon swept aside, though, as a great dinner was prepared. Marri introduced her brothers and sisters and cousins and semi-cousins and so forth, but soon Herger and Maewyn were completely lost. They had no choice but to ride out the impromptu party and banquet.
Eventually, though, things quieted down and everyone but the immediate family departed. Old Leopold Gold, Marri's father, lit a pipe and settled back with a cup of beer on the porch while some of Marri's seeminly innummerable nephews and nieces cleared a storage room for the big'uns to stay in. "You're off again soon, I can tell," he said. "Where to this time?"
Herger sat upon the porch with his legs stretched out in front of him. He alternately sipped from his tankard of beer and rested it on his thighs as he listened to Marri and her father. He glanced around for Traveller, but the dog was not in sight. His boots lay on the porch beside him and he wiggled his toes in the evening breeze as he relaxed after a filling dinner.
Looking over at Herger, Marri said to her father with a smile "You are right, this *must* be a short visit I'm afraid. I should dearly love to tarry for a bit. All the children....! But... well this is ... my friend's journey and its rather urgent! Maewyn and I but accompany him. Perhaps it would be better if he told the story... and the reason... for our journey." Marri drank deeply from her own tankard and waited for Herger to speak.
Maewyn relaxed she was a wee bit more comfortable now that most of the littles had left. For such a small folk the certainly had a way of making themselves noticed. Maewyn could not imagine a room full of giants making more of an impression. Having eaten her fill she relaxed and sat back to listen to Herger story.
Marri grinned to herself as she noticed her elf companion settling down a bit. She'd been afraid the mass of halflings crammed into her home might completely overwhelm the solitary Maewyn. She allowed herself a real smile when she noted Traveller walk over over and curl up at Maewyn's feet and fall immediately asleep. The mass of young halflings *had* totally exhausted the social dog! It was good to be home!
Herger turned his gaze from the sunset-coloured sky and regarded Marri and her father. He said, "There is much importance in what I must accomplish, but it is also a tale with a dark side. I do not think that now, here, at your homecoming that we should discuss such things. Such a pleasant evening and we're all relaxing and enjoying the break while we are able. It is true, however, that we need to leave relatively soon. I wish to meet up with my Uncle in the mountain pass to the southwest. He will be there, awaiting our arrival. We did wish to ask you for a bit of travel advice, though. We were trying to decide between making the trek on foot with an animal of burden, or trying to buy or rent a boat which we could sail down the tributary of the Aver and then walk from the foothills."
The old halfing smoked thoughtfully for a moment. "Sailing would be easiest, but you need to know how to sail. A smallish rowboat would do you well, and probably take you further up river than a sailing ship, at the cost of a sore arms, though. Much cheaper, too.
"I don't know much about the country, we halfings are a homey folk," he pointed his pipe-stem at Marri, "My wayward daughter notwithstanding. Still, I've heard one can cross the pass with a cart or wagon, so there must be a trail of some kind. A pony for your gear would cost less than a boat, but could be slow going."
He mused for a long moment. "Since you have to leave the river, I'd want a couple of ponies, I'd think. One for the food and one for any other gear you might need."
Herger smiled and crossed his arms, taking a moment to consider this newadvice before saying, "Well, sir, if you can direct us to the best place in town to get two well-priced ponies I believe that traveling by foot may be our best option. I am sure that Maewyn is pleased to hear this." He passed Maewyn a questioning glance.
Old Master Gold's eyes followed Herger's toward Maewyn as he nodded. "Aye, I can certainly steer you right on the question of horse trading. Will you follow the river," he asked, "or head cross country?"
"I would vote for following the river that way we now that we would have a water supply and food if it is needed. Although I will not object if the cross country route is taken instead," said Maewyn.
Leopold Gold nodded, "That makes sense to me, Mistress Elf. Unless you know the countryside well, you're best sticking to landmarks."
Herger nodded his agreement, "Then tomorrow we shall need to secure ourselves two ponies, whatever equipment and supplies we feel are required and prepare for our departure." He went back to watching the darkening sky and had a sudden premonition that it paralleled the darkening of the path before him.