Chapter 4

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Gnochi, perching himself upon a wooden stool atop the makeshift, stage nursed a steaming cup of tea and rested his new guitar on his lap. Peering into its hollow depths, he thought he could make out the edge of the short-blade within. The inn was a circus. Patron seating filled within minutes of opening for the dinner rush. As the mistress stood behind the bar directing her staff, Gnochi noticed her favoring a hand that was wrapped in bandage and stained with dried blood. A dozen kegs were brought from storage for the evening's merriment. A ruckus wafted from the kitchen and sounded of cooks practicing the tools of their art. A bold hearth blazed in the center of the floor attempting to ward off the crisp evening air.

The nights should not be getting this cold this soon. How much time do I have left before the snows fall, Gnochi thought to himself. People continued to fill into the inn's dining hall. It brimmed to the point that standing room became scarce. Gnochi put down his empty cup of tea and was about to begin when he heard a loud crash of pewter plates and cutlery against the hard stone ground followed by a scream. Scanning the room, Gnochi spotted the source of the scream: the maid from before, Cleo. A sailor's meaty hand gripped her small wrist as though he meant to snap it. She cried out for help and apologized that she had tripped.

Before he could even contemplate his own actions, Gnochi had removed his hat, perching it on the neck of his chair. He then set his guitar down and leapt off the stage over a table and the three patrons sitting around it. As he pushed through the tight crowd, he glanced the inn mistress making her way over, but neither arrived before the sailor acted, pushing Cleo toward a nearby table, toppling it over sending the drinks and food flying. The sailor moved toward Cleo's limp body rolling up his sleeves. Something in Gnochi's mind, probably his higher reasoning, flicked off as he barreled through the crowd to cut off the sailor.

As Gnochi closed the distance between himself and the raging sailor, he heard someone shout: "Ease up Rook, that's enough." The sailor named Rook looked up as Gnochi slid to a halt not five feet in front of the spill. The already crowded hall created a bubble of space around Gnochi, Rook and Cleo.

"Come to be the knight in shining armor, Jester?"

"You're a lowly pot-valiant," Gnochi proclaimed. "So let's take this outside, lest you vomit on the floor."

"I knew you were going to be my entertainment tonight, jester. I didn't think I'd have to beat ya to get it." The brawny sailor backed out the entrance to the inn keeping his eyes locked onto Gnochi's.

"Keep talking Rook. We will see who's standing in the end." Gnochi charged out of the inn running towards Rook who managed to raise his knee right into Gnochi's gut. "Ooph," Gnochi doubled over, the wind fleeing his lungs. As Gnochi backed up, supporting his lungs in their plight to regain lost air, he experienced a moment of clarity where he questioned why he had signed up for a brawl. He grimaced, thinking of the sword and his other weapons that sat under a foot of dirt nigh a mile outside of the city. But he knew that the guards would have confiscated them upon his entering. Plus a complete search may have netted them the blade that Gnochi had smuggled in that now rested in the hollow of his guitar. He looked up to see the sailor sneering at him. Some from the crowd encircled the pair with other passersby stopping to watch the show. "Haven't got all night," Gnochi grunted, hoping to stoke the sailor's rage. He panted, "I've got a crowd to please."

Gnochi's plan to aggravate the sailor worked. He leaned over and limped a few paces away, clutching his stomach. Rook charged at Gnochi, who, at the last possible second, jumped to the side and jeered: "Toro! Toro!"

"What are you saying, you crazy old man?" Rook bellowed as he stopped and turned for another pass.

"I'm noting how uncultured a swine you are." Rook's face reddened and he charged again. This time he slowed the instant before he reached Gnochi in an effort to catch the feint. Gnochi, seeing the hesitation, fell to the wet cobblestone streets and stuck his legs out to trip the bull-headed sailor. Rook tumbled into a puddle of mud on the street.

Playing to the crowd that had grouped around them, Gnochi turned to his fallen opponent and jeered. "My lad, leave. I don't want to have to embarrass you any more than I have--" Rook pried a loose cobble from the street and chucked it at Gnochi's head, interrupting the taunt. Despite stepping out of the way, a rogue edge of the rock managed to nick his temple. The cut trickled blood through the dark stubble on his chin and dripped onto the poncho, which he reflexively pulled from his head and handed to one of the spectating patrons.

"You're dead, entertainer." Rook surged for again. This time around, Gnochi also charged forward. He stopped before the two would clash which surprised the sailor. Rook faltered, giving Gnochi enough time to land one swift punch to the sailor's nose. Blood sprouted immediately. Rook's mind folded in on itself; he flopped to the ground, unconscious.

"He is going to have one helluva headache when he wakes up. Best not to be around when that happens," Gnochi prodded the nick on his temple. It pulsated in a stinging pain, but the blood had clotted. He accepted his poncho back from the crowd and heading inside. Guess I'll be making tracks earlier than I thought, Gnochi mused.

Gnochi noticed that the staff had picked up the tables and were cleaning the floors when he came back in. He spotted Mirage at the bar. She gave him a nod at a job well done as she sipped her steaming ale. The inn mistress came out bearing fresh drinks replacing those that had tipped over during the scuffle. "Since when do you fight for your crowds Gleeman?" The mistress asked.

"I'm not sure what came over me," he admitted. Glancing around, he did not see Cleo, so he asked the mistress, "How is she?"

"I put her to bed. She's got some bad bruises but nothing's broken, thankfully."

"Good to hear," Gnochi said. "But you folks didn't come here to watch me beat up a drunkard did you?" A chorus of 'no' echoed through the hall. "Okay, good. Now before any of you decide to pick a fight, I'll begin," Gnochi said, mounting his stage and hunkering onto a stool. Strumming a low chord, Gnochi began.


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Next Chapter, we get to see the first inclusion of one of Gnochi's stories from the first age. It is these stories that make him so famous as a bard. Be sure to comment if you have any questions or comments. As always...

Read on,

Matt

Photo credit: Pixabay user epicantus

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