The tavern was dimly lit as the proprietor had been low on cash and was sparingly using candles as of late. Shadows dances around on the floors and walls like dark spirits in the night. The air was thick with smoke and carried the smell of sour ale and spoiled meat. The patrons were in a word—dirty. Most of them were simple folk, farmers, hunters, woodsmen, the type of people who worked hard and then drank a lot in order to forget how hard they work before doing it all over again the next day. They had scowls on their faces and calluses on their hands. Their backs ached as much as their bellies from the rotten ale and food.
It was here that Rhyk found himself. It was not where he thought he would be of course, but then he didn’t think he would get caught with the king’s daughter either. My how he had fallen he thought as he performed a ballad to a hero of old, the revered Sir Mead. He retold the tail of how Sir Mead had charged into battle against invading orcs, led by an evil wizard. How he slaughtered them with might and bravery in spite of overwhelming odds. Rhyk swung his arms and relived the battle miming the movements of the brave knight’s sword as he told of the hundred, no, thousands of enemy orcs the man slew. He continued to explain that the brave knight was rewarded with a title and property and eventually married a princess and fathered dozens of children.
The patrons of the inn clapped half-heartedly and continued to drain their mugs and choke down their meals. Rhyk huffed but reached for his lute. He began to play a tune and recite a poem about fairies and dryads, but was interrupted by a man with a dirty beard and even dirtier shirt who shouted, “Play a drinking song!” and added under his breath before taking a slug from his ale, “if you know any you girly little whelp.”
Rhyk scowled at them man, paused for a moment and then started playing a tune he knew from his youth. It was a folk tune and had a quick tempo. He suddenly remembered the words to the tune as well and started signing:
Lift your glasses, lift them high
Cheers to happy golden times
Dance a dance of joy and glee
Dance with someone merrily
Let your pains and sorrows go
Let your friends and fam’ly know
Now tis time to have some fun
Let the wine and beer mugs run
By the time he hit the second verse the people were singing along with the mugs held high and smiles on their faces. The room was lit up with singing and joy it had not known in years and the energy spread from there into the town where people were sitting in the dark alone. They soon flocked to the inn drawn by the sound of collective voices and a skillfully played instrument.
For hours Rhyk continued playing every old folk song he could remember and even made some up as he continue long into the night until the sun threatened to chase them away with rays of reality.They cheered for Rhyk to continue playing until they could hardly stand nor sing any longer and crawled home to the stench that awaited them. Coins were left in abundance in Rhyk’s hat which he collected with a light heart as he finally ran out of patrons to perform to.
As he was collecting his hat, his instruments, and his affects as three men approached him. Rhyk had not noticed them before but they had been observing the performer for hours. They were well dressed in fine tunics and pants, with newly soled boots. Each had a sword on his belt. Rhyk’s heart sunk as he became aware of them.
“Pretty fine playing there,” the man in the center began. His voice was harsh as though he had damaged it in a fight. It scratched and grated as he spoke. “I wonder how a bard as talented as you ended up out here?”
Rhyk kept his head down. Trying to shield his face with his wide hat adorned with a long feather as though they had not already seen how he looked. “Oh just passing through. Thought I would spread a little joy through the country side you know,” he replied with just a hint of fear in his voice.
“Good to hear, what a kind soul you are to do that for these people,” the man baited. “You must really love people then.”
“Of course. These are good people here. They deserve to enjoy some music and song.”
“Oh I agree. Doing it out of love. How quaint. But sometimes you can love the wrong person. It can get you into trouble.” Rhyk didn’t answer because there was no question. He looked over the leader quickly and noticed a rolled up parchment in his belt. He did not need to see it to know that on it was likely the bounty for his own head. It seemed the king had not forgiven him yet for his indiscretion.
“I’m sure such well-manicured, cosmopolitan, socialites as yourselves have tastes for music and soliloquy far beyond the scope of what you observed this evening. Perhaps you would enjoy indulging in the fantastic and fabulous arts of the theater? Or are complex and well-crafted compositions your preference?” Rhyk had stood and was waving his arms about dramatically as he wove his words together.
The men looked to each other, then to Rhyk and then to each other. The leader spoke once more with his voice raised in pitch and volume and a finger pointed at Rhyk, “Hey, are you making fun of us?”
“Me? Making fun of you? On the contrary! I find you the most sophisticated and savvy men I’ve met in months. I hardly find it apropos to mock the only men I’ve found worthy of conversation in this county.”
Again they looked to one another for affirmation that one understood a word bard spoke. None of them gave the others any confidence.
Rhyk continued, “I am going to retire now to rest and take repose so that I may perform something worthy of your tastes for talent and tales. I bid you good night kind sirs, until tomorrow.” He bowed low removing his hat as he did and then quickly stepped out the door into an ally behind the inn where bins of garbage and empty barrels of ale rested.
The bounty hunters searched once more among themselves for an explanation but could not piece together the conversation to save their very lives. None had any sense of what Rhyk said. Suddenly, as though struck by divine thought one noticed that Rhyk Swift was gone. They ran to the ally and searched all around but could not find the quick-talking bard. Frustrated and tired they finally went to sleep themselves, more determined than before to capture him and bring him back to the king to be held accountable for his offenses.
Rhyk had other plans of course.