Chapter 18 – Saturday Afternoon, June 7 — The Festivities
While there was much grumbling when the ship’s crew came ashore for the festivities, there was little surprise. The townsfolk were particularly pleased and relieved to see several barrels and crates being rolled or hoisted to the General Store, where Dahlia directed their placement. Their scabbards were empty, which was also a big relief.
What was more surprising was the entourage of savages that accompanied them. While the crew was not introduced, the savages were presented to the guards at the marketplace by Lady Luna, in a loud voice that carried. “Please welcome our passengers, Chief Conch, his daughter Shelly, Eve, Dawn, and Crystal. I hope you will treat them as honored guests.”
Shortly the scantily clad maidens were surrounded by a flock of admirers, consisting of nearly every unattached male in the valley. Sapphire clucked her tongue and went to their rescue. “Welcome to Founder’s Valley. Let me introduce you to another new arrival, my friend Dorothy. I’m sure you’ll enjoy getting to know her and her friends.” She led them over to the front corner by the river, where the four had found seats for the performance. At the odd sight of the lion, tin man, and scarecrow, the bachelor party dispersed.
Madam Claire appeared and helped the young women find seats on a blanket or sections of logs brought in for that purpose. She then began to talk up the virtues of her son, Hound, to the newly arrived maidens. Sapphire just shook her head ruefully and turned away, only to find Lady Luna at her elbow.
Sapphire looked at her appraisingly before answering. “Actually not. I tried to get my hands on some myself, but there is a local dragon who seems set on consuming what pitiful trickles are coming out of the mountains, what with all the troubles the locals are having. Sorry to bring you bad news. That is why your ship came here – the gem trade – isn’t it?”
Lady Luna grimaced. “Not really sure why we came here. We had just set up some lucrative ah… transportation arrangements through Chief Conch’s islands into the city when my husband suddenly took it into his head to come this way instead. Very much unlike him. I’d almost suspect sorcery, but I can’t figure out who benefited from this. Unless maybe our passengers are planning on staying her in this hole. Still thinking about it.”
Sapphire smiled. “Do let me know how I can help with that.”
Lady Luna looked at her somewhat startled. “It has been real… nice, chatting with you. So good to find someone I can… open up to like that. Well, I must find a good seat for the performance. Enjoy the show.” She hurried off quickly, and Sapphire dropped her charisma charm.
A makeshift stage had been erected along the side of the church with several large empty crates and some boards. A man in purple robes stepped up, and called for attention. “Ladies and Gentlemen, my name is Socrates, after the ancient character with a gift for gab. I’ll be your Master of Ceremonies for today’s performance by our renown troop of entertainers from around the world, led by the epic bard Beowulf, who will regale you with tales of the daring heroics by which he won the right to claim his place in Valhalla, should that sad day ever come. Can we have a hand for the man who brought us to you — Beowulf!”
Another man in purple robes stepped up on a crate and waved. The applause was rather tepid, as people got serious about finding seats. “Folks, the performers are putting the final touch on their plans. The show will be starting in 10 minutes, so please find your seats.” Both men then stepped down and turned away.
Chief Ash then stepped up on a box. “Friends, I know you’re all here to have a good time but I must ask you all to help out in these unusually crowded circumstances, here in the valley. No smoking in or around buildings, no open fires in the town or marketplace, and no candles without glass chimneys or the like.” Several boos came from the crowd. “Please make sure you’ve not left any hazardous conditions back home while you enjoy the show. Thank you for your attention.”
Flummox was alone, since D-Stract had gone off for the final fitting of her dress, and to try and make herself look the part of a lady. Bored, he wandered over to where the last table in the marketplace seemed busy, the apothecary stand.
Olivia was dealing with a one-legged pirate. “I’m sorry Master Stumpy, but I have no way to regrow limbs once they have been, ah, lost. Perhaps a miracle from the divines would come following earnest prayers at the church; I’m afraid that’s what it might take.” The man turned away with his head bowed.
Next in line was Chief Conch’s jumbo sized daughter, Shelly. She leaned forward and whispered, but Flummox had good hearing. “Do you have anything in the way of a diet potion? You may be surprised but I have a bit of a problem with a tiny bit of extra weight.
Olivia considered, and handed her a jar. “Here’s what I can offer you.”
Shelly opened it eagerly, then her face fell in disappointment. “But it’s empty.”
Olivia shook her head. “No, it contains the essence of willpower. Every time you feel like eating something, take a sniff from this jar instead. Every time you’ll be lighter than you might otherwise have been.”
Shelly sniffed the jar. “And what does this cost?”
Olivia smiled. “For the Chief’s daughter, nothing. It’s on the house.” Shelly wandered away, her nose in the jar.
The chief looked around surreptitiously. “Not your problem, my problem. I’m drooling all the time now, and I can’t stop it. I need help.”
Olivia looked at him appraisingly. “While I’m sure it’s embarrassing, I’d say the biggest concern is dehydration. Are you still eating and drinking well?”
Chief Grief nodded his head. “Absolutely. In fact I’m thirsty all the time, and ravenous. I eat like a tiger, and yet I’m still hungry – and sleepy at the same time. I tell you, it’s driving me crazy.”
“Well, I’ve told you before, and I’ll tell you again. You should consult the doctors in the lab. They’re studying this disease, but I know nothing about it other than that you’ve resisted longer than anybody. Poor Maude is drying up, though I shouldn’t be talking about another patient. Go talk to the doctors.”
The chief shook his head. “You see what sort of idiots the Earl summoned to help me around town. Can you imagine the likes of them running around acting like doctors? Giving me potions and nostrums? Operating on me, for bog’s sake? I am not stepping foot in that lab. Now what can you do to help me?”
Olivia took a gallon jug from under her table, and a large absorbent cloth. “That is water, not moonshine. And this is for the drool. Stay hydrated at all costs.”
The Chief nodded. “Thanks. I’ll check in with you later.” He took a swig from the jug and headed off, wiping his chin.
Flummox stepped up. “You’ve been busy today.”
Olivia just shook her head. “You can’t imagine. So what do you need?”
“Actually, I couldn’t help overhearing you about the symptoms of Grief and Maude. They were both bitten by undead zombies, or whatever you call them, right?”
“That’s what I understand.”
“So why are they reacting so differently? And are there other cases?”
Olivia looked sad. “Two others, not sure what they were bit by, or how they are doing. Mrs. Iggy Benoit and Mrs. Chessy Exchequers, but they’re not under my care. The Visitor whisked them off to the lab in the castle as soon he found out what had happened.”
“So, this disease is probably at the root of the Valley’s real troubles. This storm, and the problem with the roads, is incidental.”
Olivia nodded. “I’d have to agree, but really I’m at a loss. I’m not privy to the uptown secrets of how they prepared their ancestors, or what the Withers did to themselves. Nor if there is any connection to the rise of werewolves. Maybe you can talk with the doctors. They dismiss me as a quack or worse, and won’t even allow me in the castle, let alone talk to me.”
Flummox nodded. “Definitely food for thought.” He headed back towards the stage, thinking about his mission uptown tonight. Maybe it had nothing to do with gems and jewelry, maybe he should be focusing on the uptown mysteries of preserving their dead.
Socrates was back on the stage, giving some sort of monologue. “… wanted to welcome the crown prince to the show today, but I don’t see him in the audience. Maybe he’s upset by the news of the latest village his father has had burned to the ground, and is off crying about it. Or perhaps he’s writing a strongly worded letter of protest. I have heard rumors that his travels have something to do with a disagreement in principle, but with that family, probably not. In fact, I think his absence has another reason. More likely it has something to do with the huge quantity of ale we all saw the prince imbibe at the inn last night. After noon, and he’s still sleeping it off. I have news for you, Prince Aahzah, no amount of liquid you can get from a bartender can put out the blazes your father has started. Alcohol only feeds the flames. Some day you’ll have to step up and take some responsibility for your family’s governance. And now, thank you all for your kind attention. I’d better get off the stage, and hide before the prince’s Ninjas catch up with me. Politics, you know, it’s dangerous being a gadfly. Without further adieu, we bring you the exciting singing and dancing of Donna Fiero Florez, accompanied by the master guitarist Gracia de la Montainia. Hope you continue to enjoy the show.” He hopped off his crate and ducked behind the curtains someone had erected in back of the stage.
Two performers mounted the stage and began a hot, wild, and semi-erotic dance of a distant land. She alternately whirled about and draped herself over the guitarist, who drank in her beauty with his eyes, even while his fingers danced on the neck of his guitar like the wind.
“My dear, you look like you’ll roast in those furs.”
“You get used to it.”
“You’re clearly not from the same islands as the others? Where is home?”
“I’m from the icy north. My village was suffering from a sickness, and I lost my family. I left then, and met the crew of the ship Buccaneer at the edge of the ice. I’ve been helping in their galley for many years now.”
“A sickness in your village?! My dear, I must examine you immediately! Who knows what vile spirits you may be carrying. You certainly don’t want to be responsible for another plague loose in the valley! Do you?”
“I suppose not.”
“Well, come with me, immediately, and I will examine you.”
Cleo glanced over and saw that the Visitor was standing, and had his hand on the girl’s upper arm, trying to pull her upright. Cleo leapt up behind the Visitor and put her hand on his shoulder. “One moment there, bucko. She doesn’t want to go with you. In fact you heard her say this whole thing happened years ago, and nobody on the Buccaneer is sick. How about you leave her alone?”
The Visitor turned with a charming smile on his face, which froze when he saw that Cleo had half-drawn her dagger from its sheath. He dropped his hand from the girls’ arm. “Perhaps at a later time then. Excuse me.” He hurried off.
Cleo sat down next to the girl. “I’m Cleo.”
“I’m Crystal. Thanks. I usually am pretty good at warding off men’s attentions. That’s the real reason for the furs.”
“You really don’t fit in with that crew, or the islanders. Why are you still with them?”
“You’re right, and I feel really useless. Fish I know, whale blubber, seals. But I can’t cook all the weird animals they catch. Fowl. Then there’s bread. Pies. Greens. Salads. And the seasonings! Ugh! It’s too much for my simple tastes. So they mostly make me wash dishes and tend the chickens. But where would I go? I won’t give myself to any of these rough men.”
“I have an idea. Let me introduce you to Bonnie Marsh, she’s the fish monger hereabouts. She has a handsome but gentle son named Rip, who is a fisherman. You two might really hit it off.”
Crystal smiled. “I would like that.”
Applause broke out as the performers finished.
A woman in a red dress took the stage. “So let’s hear it for Donna F-ing whatever her name is. Backstage we just call her Blaze. That’s ‘cause of her red hair, not her heat, since I don’t think ice would melt in her mouth, do you? She’s just a high-class hoity-toity tease – you know the type. Now, do you want to hear some love songs from a real woman?” The crowd cheered, and she began a throaty ballad that was more moaning than words. She didn’t quite fall out of her dress, though she came close.
In the back, near the now-empty market booths, Animus and Lady Luna met in shadows. Animus beckoned her to the back of one of the booths. “I don’t like this. The prince and his body guards are nowhere to be seen.”
“How many are there?”
“Might be as many as four that I can’t spot. There’s the Lady, Lord, and Samurai over there, but the two ninjas and two grey cloaked ones – I just don’t know if it would be safe.”
Luna gave a little laugh, then looked out over the marketplace. After a moment she signaled with a head jerk.
“Pass the word. 5 Asians missing. How many of us are ready?”
“We should be five as well. Captain is running interference and will join us later. Jugs is chasing cock like usual.”
“What about Boomer?”
“He met up with some dwarf. Something about collaborating on an extermination job. No idea.”
“Well, Jugs and Boomer are on their own then. Pass the word – go.”
Lady Luna turned back to Animus. “I suppose you’re wanting to be visible to establish an alibi. Wish us luck.” She then sidled over to the corral and slipped between the fence rails.
Animus worked his way slowly along the edge of the crowd nearest the river.
Two elvish musicians took the stage, and began a ballad that few other than Animus and Cleo understood. Animus took this opportunity to clap and vocally call out encouragements and counterpoints to their song. He shouted, “Well said brothers!” in between verses. This gained him annoyed looks from the stage, as well as not a few of the audience. Trying to look abashed he sat down with Chief Conch’s party.
Two of the girls were clearly bored with the song they could not understand and whispered between themselves. When the song finished, Animus turned to them. “That was an elvish ballad about the pretty wild flowers in the golden woods of Elvendom, but none of those flowers match the beauty of you two.”
The girls tittered and blushed.
Animus smiled. “Well then, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Animus. But you said ‘nieces’? Surely you are not all related?”
The blonde one finally spoke up. “You mean me. I’m Dawn, and my sister is Eve. We’re a matched set.” Animus looked confused, so she continued. “Of course my skin has marked me as not of islander birth all my life. I was found adrift in a lifeboat as an infant, and adopted by the islanders. So yes, Eve is my sister in truth.”
Animus nodded. “Ah, I see now. I know how it is, being among humans, for everyone to pre-judge you based on your appearance.” He turned to the Chief. “But sir, how is it you and these young ladies find yourself in the company of a bunch of buccaneers?”
The Chief looked at him appraisingly. “We islanders prefer a life of peace and tranquility, but we know how to defend ourselves. When pirate ships began passing through our islands, they brought with them crime and violence. When we denied them our islands to resupply their ships, they became treacherous. My daughter was tricked into thinking that the Captain loved her, so she boarded their ship willingly. Dawn and Eve followed to attend her, and I followed to protect all their virtue.”
“So the buccaneers have not harmed you? But what advantage do they gain from keeping you on board?”
“That is the joke on them. The Islanders have many chiefs, and most continue to resist their violent ways. A few may have agreed to well-behaved commerce, but none have buckled under to a threat against us. In fact, they now know that to attempt to harm us would be a most dangerous course of action. Disaster for them would be immediate.”
“Do they fear you personally, then?”
“Yes, and well they should. I must find a safe harbor for my family, all three together so they can support one another. This valley may not be the place for them; too much storm damage. But when they are settled in a good land, I will take wing and fly back to my own home once again. In this way, our peoples spread from island to island, and populate the world. Until then, I will protect them from any who mean them harm.” His eyes drilled into Animus’s own, and the elf felt the power that rested therein.
Animus blanched and looked away. “I believe you sir. But you said three? There are four maidens accompanying you.”
Chief Conch sat back and crossed his arms. “Crystal is not of my people.”
At that moment, there was a loud explosion from across the main street. Everyone turned to look. Smoke and splinters burst out of the walls of the butcher shop.
Dawn turned to her sister, and whispered with a voice that carried over the silence. “There goes Boomer again. I don’t care if the rest of you are coming or going. I am not getting back on that ship, whatever uncle says.”
Eve shot back, “I wish that Beowulf fellow wasn’t a traveller. He’s so heroic, and handsome too. I’d go for him.”
A clown appeared on stage and began a monologue, trying hard to recover the audience’s attention. A juggling dwarf appeared and cynically criticized the jokes the clown was using, and insulted him. Their give-and-take developed into an engagingly polished performance. All the time a scantily clad female gasped and exclaimed at the verbal battle, while using the opportunity to show off her buxom form in a variety of erotic poses.
He was followed by a hobbit named ‘Napoleon’ who somehow transported them with the eerie sound of his flute. Without words, images formed in their minds of far away places, fairy castles in the clouds, towers of light beaten by ocean waves, and green meadows between trees with red and golden leaves, that fell like ashes to the ground. When he finished, all were silent, and he slipped quietly from the stage un-noticed.
Socrates reappeared and thanked everyone for their attention, droning on in banalities as the lady that had posed with the clowns danced up and down the aisles, passing the hat. It was clearly getting quite heavy with coins. Finally, Socrates announced the final act. “Now the newest addition to our troop would like to play awhile, a postlude if you will, to see you all on your way. Don’t worry about disturbing her as you pick up your trash, and secure all of your belongings, she, er… lives in a world of her own. I give you — Moonbeam!”
An oddly clad woman with smoky spectacles wandered out onto stage, looking a bit confused. She began playing her guitar in erratic, strange and tortured tones. There was no melody, just sounds like that of a wounded and dying animal. The crowd quickly began to disperse.
The seven adventurers gathered at the inn to admire D-Stract’s new gown and sophisticated hair and face job. As they moved on to discussing the events of the day, and what to do next, they were approached by a surprising figure.
The young boy from the ship, that had been called ‘Punk’, grabbed at Sapphire’s shirt sleeve. “Lords and Ladies, I beseech you! I have waited for an opportunity to escape from the buccaneers ever since they raided my father’s ship and took me captive. They seem to have forgotten me, in their haste to return to the ship. Please, hide me, protect me. I can’t go back with them. I beg of you. Help me!”
Animus looked around innocently. “I wonder where the Buccaneers have gotten to, anyway?”