Forest Edge

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Smoke hung a veil over the din of the tavern and muted the grumble of the surly looking patrons and the clinking of their pewter mugs. The smell of burnt venison wafted out from somewhere behind the bar, giving a slightly rancid taste to the hanging cloud. Indeed, the veil seemed almost mystical in the manner in which it dulled the room's sound. The bard's lyre found itself lost in the smoke, even to the bard himself as he moaned out the tale of Andur the Silver Knight, his voice grating with each held note. A deep scar ran diagonally across his forehead, along the edge of his left eye, down his temple. Years of hard travel and harder drinks had aged him prematurely and pushed out his belly, in spite of the relatively lithe frame. The sun had leathered his hands and his face, and if they could be seen, the scars of a hundred beatings would make their presence known upon his body.

Life, as it were, had not been kind, a fact registered by anyone who paid attention, though few did. He was simply another singer scrounging for scraps and a place to sleep, though unlikely to find much of either. The barmaid, a curvy redhead in an unambiguously lowcut blouse, weaved in and among the patrons, avoiding gropes and mischievious hands. The bard put down the lyre and rolled a small pocket of stankweed in birch paper. No eyes were on him. He picked up a candle from the footstool beside him and lit the makeshift blunt.

"Got a request for ya," the barmaid dropped a mug of ale in front of the bard.

"Takin' a break," the bard didn't look up.

"Bought you a drink. Least you could do," she replied.

The bard grumbled under his breath. "What? Let me guess. Kind Hardy's Balls? The Duke of Horsecock. Bippity Doo?"

Fucking Bippity Doo, he thought and spat on the floor next to him. That fucking gremlin. He and the bard that wrote it could get split by dragon dick for all he cared.

"I was thinking something more... local," the waitress replied.

The bard looked the waitress up and down. He'd not paid much attention to her before, save her cleavage. Her hair was a faded red, her face the kind of pale that only came from working past dark, indoors, night after night. She looked close to his age, if not a bit older. The barmaid stood over him, her eyes watching him intently.

"Hurry up, Falgo don't like me standing around," she urged.

"Fine. What'd you have in mind?"

"The Maiden and the Whore," the waitress replied.

The bard's eyebrows rose. "You're kidding."

"Nope. Heard it years ago in a village outside Earp. Bard who wrote it had left town, but a local singer picked it up. Said it were written by someone right here in Keening."

The bard's teeth ground.

"So it were. That where we are? Keening?"

"Just outside. You don't know where you are?"

It was the waitress' turn to raise her eyebrows.

"Been wandering so long, you tend to forget which way is west. Never worried about it too much. Walking, riding if I could. Merchant I came here with said we were going out Goldsnart way."

The waitress chuckled. "You're well past Goldsnart, unless you go back north about twenty miles and then east fifty."

"Son of a..." the bard muttered.

The waitress reached for the mug of ale. The bard intercepted it before she could snatch it away.

"You playing my song or what?" she demanded.

The bard held up a finger as he drained the ale. He slammed the mug down next to the spent stankweed.

"Fill it up again and throw in some mutton, and you got yourself a deal."

"Play my song, and I'll make sure you're taken care of," the woman replied.

The bard shrugged and pulled the lyre to his lap.

"Let me see if I remember..." he picked out a tune on the strings. "A dream, dream, heaven unseen..."

The waitress picked up the empty mug and headed back to the bar. Behind her, the bard's song began.

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