< Return to Balls Part 2
Must we pick up with our spoony bard? We must. More balls!
Writer’s Confession – often when I didn’t know how to start a section I’ll just begin with describing the setting and see where things go from there. This can lead the narrative into bizarre directions but I just try and roll with it.
The city of Etreria was a city of crossroads. It sat near the border, fed by the famous Eleven Worldly Trails and the magnificent Spine of the World. These twelve trade routes insured an endless supply of travellers and merchants that caused the city to swell with gold and supplies. To say that Etreria was a wealthy city was to say the Infinite Sea merely a puddle.
In its earlier days, the city was little more than a modest hill fort, protecting a small lay-over camp for the traders on the Spice Road. It served little strategic value, it held little desirability for farming and was so far from any serviceable rivers to hardly be considered worthy of any further development.
And yet, miraculously, the damn place kept growing. The traders from the far east began to set up small trading posts beneath the bored eyes of the presiding knight captain and his men. This provided greater incentive for the distant men to carry more and more goods west, garnering the attention of the thrones to the north and south. However, armed conflict over the miserable spit of rock was far more trouble than the kings wanted, so they commissioned the creation of roads connecting their lands to that outpost.
With the sudden interest of foreign regents, the ruling family decided that there must be some value in the oft ignored post where military commanders went to be forgotten. Thus, better infrastructure was funded and suddenly three interests were competing to create the most enticing avenue to funnel the confused foreigners.
The kings entered a fierce trade conflict, each maneuvering to obtain more goods from their foreign visitors than their rivals. What they bought didn’t matter; vases, silks, spices, pets, herbs, goats, grains, berries, alcohol, beads, strange rocks and hats were sold for more than any of the traders would value their worth. With a sudden demand for everything exotic, more and more traders were sent and the roads connecting to Etreria from all angles were paid so much attention that they became renown throughout the kingdoms.
This unexpected boon in trade grabbed the attention of other kingdoms both near and far and suddenly a whole host of new players were throwing their hands in over the fort. But no one dared send a military force to claim the city through force for each ruler feared provoking a collation from the others to permanently oust them from the valuable markets.
And so, the rocky, infertile lands surrounding Etreria were covered in the snaking paths stretching to the far corners of the known lands. Each route vied to be the most enticing to the ever growing number of merchants, seeking to cover their routes with stretches of guard posts, comfortable inns, tax credits and even pleasing banners.
Unfortunately, given so much choice, the foreign merchants became paralyzed by the decision of who to trade with. Instead, they squatted right down at the foot of the old Etreria fort, building their own storehouses and shop fronts to sell to each investor right at the end of the Spine. It wasn’t long before merchants outnumbered the soldiers and competition sprouted amongst the traders for who could sell the most to their eager customers. They did everything to undermine the fellow sellers: marriages were arranged, courts were created to tie opponents in a mountain of bewildering bureaucracy, assassins were hired to quietly eliminate the more troublesome and adept individuals and some even went so far as to cut their prices.
With the merchants so entrenched, it wasn’t long before the kingdoms followed suit. And then, Etreria became a jumbled city of peoples, customs, litigation and general market driven mischief. This hotbed of cultures and ambition could not have been a more perfect place for the College of Bards to settle. And so the minstrels and wastrels arrived, adding ever more colour and confabulation to the City of Roads.
It was a city Derrek had only been to once before but one he had vowed to return. He hadn’t planned on it being as soon as it was, however, but now that he was here he couldn’t help but feel that it was the ever gentle prodding of fate. His journey with his companions had brought him far and wide but to bring their weary feet to Etreria, right near the Challenge, seemed far too fortuitous for it to be anything else.
It was his time to be named Seeker, he knew it. All his experiences, all his adventures, were in preparation for this moment and this time. He just had to pen them down and find the right recourse to express them.
And so he sat beneath the candlelight facing a dozen empty parchments and a full bottle of untouched ink.
His head rested in his palm and mead rested in his spare hand. He stared unblinking at the blank faces of the paper – his mind a complete desert of ideas.
He didn’t know what to write.
He took another swig from his emptying cup, glaring furiously at the papers as if he could will his thoughts upon their surface.
It was a maddening state to be faced with the greatest opportunity but to have nothing to put towards it. He had been here once more, this exact city and this exact place.
And it hadn’t ended well then.
He raised a wavering hand over the table, swiping the parchments dramatically from the desk to flutter freely in the air. He watched the last sheaf drift on lazy currents to the floorboard before stooping over and picking them all up again.
That was the fourth time he’d attempted that method but still no ideas sprouted. Even playing the part of a troubled playwright wasn’t producing results. Perhaps he needed more conviction in his delivery.
“A pox of a thousand and one fleas to infest your armpits!” he screamed. He threw one sheet at a time from his writing table. He then stared at them expectantly upon the floor.
This was going to be harder than he planned.
A welcomed knock came upon his door and he jumped to his feet, hurrying over for the expected
To his disappointment, it was not the serving wench from downstairs upon his step. Instead, it was the flamboyantly dressed Mikael.
“Friend! What a pleasant surprise it is to see you again!”
Mikael burst through the door in a flutter of fantastic cloth and waving hands.
“How long has it been? Three, maybe four years? What have you been doing with yourself? You look absolutely fabulous, I must say. Is that a new jerkin? It looks absolutely smashing on you, really brings out your figure. And what a fabulous colour as well! Did you pick it up from here? I don’t recognize the design.”
The man plopped down upon Derrek’s chair, lifting to inspect his cup carefully. He tipped the drink to his nose, his small nostrils tentatively testing the scent of the beverage. Immediately, a look of disgust painted his face as he sprung to his feet.
“You know, we should really catch up. Last I heard you were bounding off to study at some school or some such. There must be so much to cover!”
He walked over to the window, pulling against the warped wood until enough space had been cleared for him to pitch the mead out.
“I know this terrific tavern… though it’s not really much of a tavern. It’s more like a feast hall. Though there’s less feast in the ‘traditional sense,’” he accentuated those words with his two fingers, “but it is nevertheless a very entertaining place. What say you, old friend, shall we paint this town for old times sake?”
Enough time lapsed between the young man’s words for Derrek to blink. Clearly an indication for him to take a turn to speak.
“What are you doing here?”
It was perhaps a more forward route than Derrek had planned to ask. However, the words had been sprung to life from the tip of his tongue before any reigns could be harnessed about them. Freed now there wasn’t anything that could be done save wait the response.
“Derrek! Confidante! Word on the street was that you were back in Etreria and I thought to myself, ‘Mikael, it has been ages since you’ve spoken with your good friend. Proper decorum would necessitate that I make an appearance upon his stoop, would it not?’”
“I’m sorry,” Derrek said, walking over to his desk and straightening his papers with an air of trained professionalism, “but I am a little busy. Not much time to party and all that.”
“Nonsense,” Mikael said, waving his hand. He strolled over, placing the cup upon the writing desk with finality before clasping Derrek’s arm. “If there is one thing I know, there is always time to party. You’ll have plenty of time to work on your manuscript or ballad or whatever it is you do.”
There was no point in arguing. It was all Derek could do to grab his jacket before being ushered out his cramped room and down the rickety stairs of the inn.
“How did you know I was back?” Derrek asked.
“Oh, words have feet and such,” Mikael smiled. “When they finally reached me I knew I just had to drop what I was doing and come see you right away. And, might I add, you are looking mighty handsome after this time. Been eating well?”
“The stomach doesn’t cramp anymore,” Derrek said. “I spoke to an apothecary and they suggested it was too much meat in my diet. So it’s been nothing but vegetables and fruits.”
“Oh, I hear you,” Mikael laughed. “I could not agree more! Not one bit. Course, it goes without saying that our four-legged brethren are our most trusted companions and we do them a bad turn by throwing them on our dinner plate.”
“They just make my stomach upset.”
Mikael led him into the busy street still bustling with the shuffling bodies of merchants and visitors attempting to push their way from the stalls and into the numerous taverns and theatres that dotted the street sides.
Great paper lanterns were strung overhead, their soft red light illuminating the roads beneath. Long banners were hung down store fronts with elaborate designs to both convey the owner as well as advertise the weaver’s great artistic flair.
A woman of deep ebony skin emerged from her crate, stopping Derrek and Mikael as she held up her slender arms. Bells were fastened to leather straps that ran down the length of her arms and body until wrapping tightly about her ankles. She clicked her fingers, the chime of small cymbals ringing cleanly in the air.
The performer looked seductively at both the men before beginning to writhe and twist her body in tantalizing form. Each bell bedecking her smooth skin gave off the sweetest of chimes as her almost silken gown billowed elegantly about her body.
Immediately, both men reached for their coin purses.
Derrek felt the retreat of dastardly fingertips retreat into the pressing crowds as Mikael pushed his way forcefully past.
“My apologies, milady, but we’re not interest!”
Once cleared, he turned to inspect Derrek’s belt and smiled.
“I see you still haven’t lost your reflexes.”
“Tired distractions lacking originality. This city is better than that.”
“I knew it would come back to you!” Mikael laughed, pulling him ever further through the streets.
The sights and smells washed over them while they forged their way along twisting boulevards. Due to its nature, Etreria loved roads and lay them where they could causing the most peculiar shaped alleyways and streets. Paths would hook in on themselves with no reason and budding buildings would create zigzagging passages beneath their overhanging balconies. It was the sort of city one could easily get lost in; swallowed by the turning paths, shuffling mass and drowning colours.
At last Mikael and Derrek emerged before a massive hall with a grand façade. It was almost entirely wood, with grand carvings covering the entire front. Intricate interwoven ribbons were etched about great sculptures of primitive men with bulging muscles wrestling various flora and fauna in their wild nakedness. The doors to the structure had been thrown wide open, the heat and laughter from inside spilling out in reckless revelry.
“Welcome to the Hall of Bears!” Mikael announced.
Derrek was dragged up its steps and pushed inside.
It was clear the architect was shooting for some northern motive. Once passed the entryway, an enormous fire pit ran straight down the middle of the massive front room. Metal spits held a large collection of foods slowly turning over the flickering flames. Bordering either side of the pit was a pair of large tables with a thin bar splitting their lengths. Beside this area, the tables lined the walls leaving a large space separating the middle seating and the rest. Where a head table would have been was an open stage with large red curtains running along its back.
“Boys!” Mikael called as he entered. “I’m back!”
A raucous cheer rose from the gathered men as goblets and glasses were raised. The heady scent of fine wine and spirits dominated what otherwise should have been a space filled with the mouth watering scent of roasting meat.
However, there was no scent of stuck boar to fill the air below the vaulted timber roof. Only vegetables, roots and fruits were rotating upon the spits. Derrek couldn’t help but also notice a distinct lack of serving wenches.
“Not my typical scene,” Derrek said.
“Come now, my troupe has prepared a special show just for you.”
“An unexpected honour.”
“A celebration for the reigniting of old friendships. Come, we have a seat prepared.”
Derrek was brought to the front of the middle spit. A large man with a penchant for the furs of a wild barbarian moved aside while patting the space invitingly. Derrek slowly buttoned upon the top of his shirt as he smiled and sat down.
“What can I get you?” a bare-chested youth asked walking up to him.
“He’ll have an Ascandian Spirit,” Mikael said, patting Derrek’s shoulders. The young man nodded before departing.
Derrek cleared his throat, running a hand through his luscious blonde hair. The crowd appeared a mixture of rugged aged workers and younger, preened youths. It was the sort of place that Derrek, with his almost feminine features and shape, easily stood out amongst the crowd.
Derrek smiled politely as his server returned with his drink. Once the servers back was turned, he carefully tested the contents to make sure they were genuine.
“Fantastic!” Mikael smiled. “Now give me some time to get ready and we’ll get the show started.”
The man hurried towards the stage, scampering up its side steps and disappearing behind the curtain. Derrek looked around, noticing with some trepidation that all eyes were on him. There were almost twenty patrons, the only two women occupying a far corner beneath the shadows of a large, detailed pillar of a man and buck butting heads.
A soft rumble caused Derrek to turn towards the exit as he watched two of the working youths pull the massive doors closed.
“Shouldn’t we keep those open. Perhaps for fresh air?”
The bear of a man sitting beside Derrek merely folded his arms.
“Don’t want no one interrupting the show.”
A soft drumming echoed from behind the curtains hushing the remainder of idle conversation. The drumming grew louder, joined quickly by the rhythmic stamping of feet. As if rehearsed, many of the patrons began to thump their hands against the tabletops in chorus.
Derrek turned quickly to his wine.
Suddenly, a man burst from the curtains. It took Derrek a second to recognize Mikael Lors beneath the great ironed helm with enormous deer antlers protruding from its studded sides. He had a single red cloth wrapped about his near bare body which he clutched to his chest with his left hand. Derrek hadn’t seen Mikael for a long time and during their absence the boy had obviously misplaced quite a bit of weight. There were still the faint reminders of his rounder days, noticeably in the soft padding of his neck. His skin also seemed slicked, as if he had just been dipped in oil.
Mikael strode boldly to the front of the stage, addressing the gathered crowd with a great, ringing voice.
“Behold my fellow travellers! We stand upon the brink of a great journey, nay, a transformation! For before you stands the great Baldr of the Northern Wilds, a legendary god-man who stood before the might of oppression and tyranny. Behold! For you are about to witness the thrilling tale of liberation and salvation! It is a tale of forbidden love and treacherous betrayal! A tale of personal expression!”
Mikael raised his hands to the hair, the cloth falling from his shoulders to catch about his waist. Beneath the cloth ran a deep red line, clearly paint but fashioned in such a way to appear as a terrific wound that ran all the way down to his navel.
Derrek, of course, had heard the tale of Baldr and the supposed fate that had ended with the legendary man cleaved in two. It seemed a most fitting play given their locale but there was something in Mikael’s delivery that made him sit on edge. Derrek couldn’t pinpoint it, but some mischievous gleam in the young man’s blue eyes tickled the primitive sense of self preservation.
A loud gong rang behind Mikael and the curtains were immediately whisked open, revealing the rest of the cast. Derrek was surprised to note two girls amongst the troupe since he had been convinced he knew the direction this production was heading.
All the men wore fur or tattered breeches with their bare-chests gleaming as if slicked with sweat. The women wore longer costumes of tanned leather. Derrek supposed they were going to portray the wild wolf packs but they looked more armoured mercenary than furry animal.
Another ring of the gong sent the three males rushing to Mikael’s side as they all crouched behind him, reaching around and pressing their fingers against the lead’s wound. A final ring and, in unison, they all pulled their hands back, streaking the red paint as if the blood were exploding from his chest.
One of the women produced a flute, beginning a rapid melody to represent the frantic rise of tension as Mikael squirmed beneath the clawing hands figuratively ripping him apart. The drumming began and many of the patrons joined in, building the feverish tempo.
“Come with me, fellow travellers!” Mikael cried. “Come with me to the end!”
He burst from the grasping arms, leaping from the stage to land upon the middle table. Derrek now realized why space had been cleared and quickly snatched his drink back as Mikael stumbled past, his loincloth now mostly dragging behind him as the cloth fell through the revealed metal rings bound about his hips.
As he descended down the centre of the room, courageous patrons reached up to grasp at the cloth still dangling from his hips, tearing at the fabric with their fingers. The drumming and fluting quickened in beat as the other men of the troupe crawled along the stage like beasts upon their stomachs. They followed the clearly symbolic trail of entrails in their master’s wake.
It was all quite post modern but a little heavy handed.
“Please, how long do you plan to drag this out?”
The voice cut through the revelry like a loosed arrow, killing the musical accompaniment with one, shocked note. The other actors ceased their writhing and Mikael slowed his flight.
The patrons turned towards the shadowed table and the interrupting question. Once again, some prickling warning ran down Derrek’s spine as his ears echoed the words from a familiar voice.
“We… we were at least going to finish the act,” Mikael whispered.
“I’m not paying you for this mindless drivel. Do it now!”
Without further warning, the women drew wicked daggers, leaping from the stage towards Derrek. More surprising, the men stood, producing weapons themselves somehow concealed beneath their meagre clothing.
And it was clear they were coming after Derrek.
He sprung to his feet, hurrying and looking about him trying to size the situation up. However, all the large, burly men in the audience seemed to shrink away from the actors flying off the stage and taking refuge at the furthest edges of the room. Some patrons fled to the front doors, banging uselessly against the barred massive wood.
Reflexively, Derrek reached behind him for his lute but then realized immediately that he had been pulled from his room so quickly he’d forgotten to bring it with him.
The first woman was upon him, striking out with her blades. Derrek didn’t even bother standing for a fair fight. He immediately doused her with the remainder of his drink, before throwing the cup towards the other and scampering for cover.
He cast about for some escape, noting the holes near the roof to vent out the rising smoke from the fire pit. Derrek looked at the pillar he knelt behind, noticing that the intricate carving had plenty of foot and hand holds.
He began his ascent.
There were shouts below him, and he noticed the troupe not even pause as they came tumbling forward. There was no hesitation as they leaped upon the carved bear and muscular man, scampering over them as if it were no more than shimming up a rope. In seconds they were just below him, one reaching up and pulling rudely on Derrek’s boot.
Derrek lost his balance. He landed upon a table and rolled off, laying upon the floor in pain. He turned his head and watched with fascination as Mikael detached the two hoops at his side, holding the items before him with their curious flame styled blades.
They looked remarkably like wind-and-fire wheels.
“Sorry old friend,” Mikael said, bending over in little more than the remaining thin strap of red cloth covering his decency. He pushed one of the blades to Derrek’s throat, the metal uncomfortably warm.
Derrek then heard a sharp clapping.
“Now, that is a performance I can enjoy. A bewildered, cornered animal with just the right touch of betrayal.”
Walking from the shadowed pillar was a face that he could now identify. Her wavy brown hair tied severely back in a tight knot that appeared to pinch her features and add even more severity to her face. Her freckled features were lined and worn by endless scheming and double-dealing.
“Mairen. I didn’t know you enjoyed this kind of show. If you really wanted a date, you could have just asked. You know, like a normal woman.”
“Save the witty banter, I can barely stand it from Keirn,” Mairen said.
“So Mikael is part of your network now too.”
“It shouldn’t be surprising anymore what one can buy with money. Now, you know what I’ve come for, bard.”
“I’m not done my play.”
Mairen leaned down, the heavy smell of her perfume filled with the scent of desperation and ruined lives.
“I’ve come for your balls,” she said.
Mairen drew a long, crooked dagger.
“Well, I believe that is really up to you now, isn’t it?”
Continue to Balls Part 4 >
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