I stood bracing the cold, watching a group of men and women inside a tavern roar with laughter at some joke made by a greying man atop a bar.
He had the air of a performer about him, and stood wide legged and defyingly nimble as he wooed the crowd with his boisterous words and flailing arms. I almost laughed myself as he took on the persona of a rowdy drunk, stumbling to and fro on the worn wooden table. More than once he came close to falling off, but pulled back at every last minute to the wild approval and applause of all those that watched.
I pushed through the tavern doors to silently join the crowd at the back, happy to shrug off the wearisome weight of the cold. I sent a quiet thank you to the person charged with keeping such a hefty fire as the one that crackled away to my left.
I watched the man and his act for a moment more before turning away in search of an owner or barkeep. The performance itself was not terrible, nor was the man’s acting, but as I looked around into the faces of the tentative audience I noticed more than a few strained smiles. Their laughs came just a little too hard, like they wanted to enjoy the act more then they could. I wondered for a moment if they were so starved for entertainment they were trying to fool even themselves. A unique kind of sadness settled on me seeing people so deprived of true laughs and smiles.
Behind a second bar opposite to where the man was now waltzing with an invisible partner, an older woman wearing a large white apron leaned forward on the countertop, her eyes also fixed on the actor. She was smiling as the man continued to speak in a slur of words I barely recognized.
She didn't laugh though as the rest erupted into another bubble of howling, so I made the assumption she was the woman in charge, having seen his performance enough to know it well. I stopped right before her and dropped my pack onto the floor a little harder then I intended, finally free of the weight digging tiny trenches into my shoulders. She turned away from the man to glance at me. I saw surprise flash across her features, but it was quickly suppressed as though she did not often show her feelings. She spoke as she straightened herself.
“I don't know your face,” she said.
I tried to smile, grimacing a little when she pulled away. The road had a way at exposing a rawness in anyone that traveled it for more than a few days.
“I'm new here,” I said, hoping to keep it simple. The mere thought of a proper bed was enough to weaken my knees and I didn't feel much like bantering with anyone. I paused a second to consider how much money I had left, and if a room was something I could even afford, but swiftly felt the weeks of exhaustion pile together. The thought was washed away in a tide of fatigue.
“New? What does that mean?”
Knowing it had probably been naive of me to think I would be left unquestioned, I couldn't stop a sigh from escaping. A new face wasn't something that one saw often anymore. I tried to shrug as if to say it didn't matter but only one of my shoulders moved. I pointed to the lute case on the ground then, too tired to think of anything else.
“I'm not from around here, I was— I just came to the city today.”
At first her brow furrowed together with confusion, but then with a speed too fast for my dreary eyes to really register, she jumped in the air like a child receiving a long awaited gift. Her voice was shrill as she unintentionally announced to the room who and what I was. I felt any hope of a few hours sleep dwindle away to nothing.
She gasped. “A musician! Really?”
A sudden lull overcame the room and those that were focused on the actor only seconds before whipped around to see who had spoken. Someone near the first bar shouted with displeasure, but all else had fallen to a stillness as quiet as I had ever heard.
The room quickly seemed to take on an air of mixed hope and disbelief.
With a hidden strength that surprised even me, I raised my head and nodded once stiffly, looking around at the people glancing back and forth between me and the woman. A round of cheering swept through the room with my curt acknowledgement and I was half pulled half dragged towards the performance bar. I almost cried out when a stranger picked up my lute behind me, though when I saw the awe and care in her touch as she handled it, I held my tongue.
It followed me through the crowd of people until both my instrument and I were pressed against and up onto the makeshift stage. I expected an angry glare from the man who had been entertaining the people until my arrival, but found nothing but the same stunned delight in his eyes. I offered him a tired smile and a hand as he climbed down all too willingly to give me his stage. I found it was getting harder and harder to remember the days when musicians fought for crowds, and not the other way around.
I felt their gazes more than I saw them as I bent down to open the rust covered case and pull out the faded wooden carving in held inside.
It was not the best, far from it in fact, but it was all I had.
At first glance it was clear the instrument had been around as long as some of the oldest in the tavern, but if one took the time to dig a little deeper into her craftsmanship they would find the intricate woodwork of a proudly made tool.
One certainly made with heart if little else.
I ran a hand down the neck as softly as I could. Despite her aged appearance the audience seemed to drive forward to get a better look.
My weariness didn't abandon me entirely, but it did dull some and fade to the back of my mind as I considered what I was to play. I decided on something that would take these people as far away from the unnerving walls of their city as possible. Far away from those grey skies that trapped in an angry cold.
As I did every time I played, I ran through a scale, letting the notes ring and extinguish themselves in the freshly hushed tavern. It was nice to feel the people hang on tightly to each note, their attentive silence adding a kind of emphasis.
As I came to a decision in my mind, most things faded into nothing and I let myself fall back into the reassuring warmth of the familiar; the simple act of playing.
From an emptiness, I started boldly, jumping away into a series of quick paced notes that seemed only eager to get faster. I let myself border that line, keeping the speed in check while making it obvious the song yearned for something more. And before long, it got just that. My fingers looked more like they were dancing along the frets than singling out the notes they were.
I didn't need to look up to know the people were already long lost in the song, but I did anyway, noticing the strain from their smiles disappear like the sun outside as it fell behind a faraway row of houses.
I was able to give them almost two hours of uninterrupted repose. Two hours where even the darkest of their thoughts were dampened by the hum of four gentle strings.
I stopped when I felt the weariness return and travel down to my fingers, leaving them just numb enough to tingle lightly. All musicians worthy of their salt knew that it was better to leave the stage then stay and make mistakes, and so I did, before I could.
As I stopped, I was glad to see more than a few people shake themselves from whatever trance they had fallen into. The whole tavern felt different, like it had ridden itself of a small but persistent pain. When I stepped from the stage there were a few calls of those disappointed, but mostly just looks of gratitude.
It was all I could do to safely put my lute into its case before the full weight of my fatigue slammed into me.
With the last of a long fading resolve, I stepped down from the bar and into a hushed crowd. A pair of hands steadied me when one of my legs stopped short of moving as I expected. I tried to smile my thanks to the stranger but found with some surprise I didn't have the strength to lift my head that far.
In a quiet moment before my weariness crept forward triumphantly, I stole one last look from those peaceful faces peering down at my own.
I smiled softly as a wolfish wind howled outside.
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