Chapter 2: Bridgeton

Chapter 2: Bridgeton

“It’s the perfect marriage of form and function, Boudreaux,” whispered Arden intensely, holding up and examining another boot as though it was some precious ancient relic.

On his previous visits to this town, Arden had frequented the Bridgeton Armory but had never imagined he would be in a position to actually buy anything here. He loved the feel of fine, supple leather, he deeply enjoyed tastefully-colored and tailored garments, and he dreamed of well-fitted, light, strong, and flexible armor. But boots! Boots were far and away his favorite things, perhaps, in the entire world.

“I just love the long square toes!” he exclaimed. “I think these are the ones. They have the small steel-plate studding, the soft green reinforced snakeskin uppers, and the troll-hide soles. You should get a pair too, Boudreaux. Boudreaux?”

He’d lost Boudreaux. Somewhere between the third and fourth pair of boots, his massive companion had run out of patience and wandered away. Still holding his prize, Arden turned to see his friend across the room closely examining a fine silvery mesh tunic.

“Those pinch,” he announced knowingly, as he threaded his way across the densely packed shop. “You’re going to want silks underneath it, at least. But I think it would look really sharp on you, Boudreaux, plus it has good high neck coverage that’ll really compliment that new helmet of yours. Which, by the way, you really need to have cleaned and polished.”

Boudreaux grunted noncommittally, head still foggy from far too much ale the previous night.

“They do that here, you know.” Arden was standing at his friend’s side now. “Hey, feel the inside of this boot and tell me this isn’t the most perfect piece of footwear you’ve ever laid eyes on.”

Leaving the horror of the goblin lair behind them, the six companions had walked to Bridgeton as fast as their weary and hungry bodies would allow them.

That had turned out to be two days.

Shortly after emerging above ground, they had cleaned the blood and dirt from themselves, drank, and then filled their wine skins in the cold clear mountain stream. Hours later, at Gnome’s encouragement, they made camp in a small forest just south of the desolated Westover. They had seen no living thing on their march, but after an hour or so of sniffing, crawling and waiting, Arden’s superior outdoor senses enabled him to track and ensnare a small, skittish wild boar. X’andria sparked up a fire of dry leaves and slender fallen limbs, which soon roared brightly, and Boudreaux roasted their precious meal. As darkness fell, they were eating eagerly, and the only sounds in the night were the smacking of lips, the licking of fingers, and the crackling of the fire.

They slept in shifts with weapons at the ready, but thankfully the night had passed without incident. Setting out early the next morning under grey skies and light drizzle, they found themselves approaching Bridgeton just before noon.

“To the Dancing Deer!” exclaimed Boudreaux in an uncharacteristically bright tone.

“Lead the way, Boudreaux,” sighed Gnome, with no better idea of his own. “They have rooms, right? Like the kind of rooms people can rent for more than an hour or two at a time?”

Oblivious to the jest, Boudreaux considered the question. “I don’t know, Gnome. We’ll ask Maddy when we get there.”

To Boudreaux’s sour disappointment, Mathilde, the bar maid at the Dancing Deer Inn, gave him a rotten look when he greeted her with the informal, slightly suggestive exuberance of an old special friend. Equally disdainful glances were cast by the few burly men standing at the bar.

Sensing trouble, Ohlen had stepped calmly forward. “Fair maiden, we six are weary from a long and arduous journey. We seek safe shelter and a hot meal, and are prepared to pay you well.”

The difference was like night and day.

With Mathilde’s good wishes and the promise of roast meat, stew, and fresh bread, they had soon headed up the narrow stairs, Boudreaux muttering dejectedly to himself as they walked. They had rented the largest of the inn’s rooms. It was not quite spacious enough for them all to fit comfortably, but, ever cautious, Gnome insisted they stay together at least until they knew the lay of the land.

They had collapsed in exhaustion. Finally safe, with walls surrounding them and civilization beyond, they allowed their mental and physical fatigue to overwhelm them.

The sun was still high in the sky, and Ruprecht and X’andria were still fast asleep, when a scrawny boy of no more than fifteen staggered into their room under the weight of an entire roast lamb on a wooden tray. Moments later he returned nervously with a cask of ale and six empty horns, and then skittered away without a word. Ohlen, Boudreaux, Arden, and Gnome ate and drank in silence, deep in their own tired thoughts. Soon only Boudreaux remained awake to finish the cask of ale all by himself. The others snored heavily, having fallen asleep without even clearing the mess from the tray, the floor, or from their fingers and chins.

 “I’m gonna go buy more of those beautiful Bridgeton darts at the silversmith’s,” X’andria had enthused the following morning, fingering a small topaz from her stash of dwarf valuables. “Then I think I’ll head to the gorge to see the bridge of Bridgeton—I’ve heard it’s amazing. Does anyone want to come with me?”

“I’ll go,” came a staccato chorus of replies from Gnome and Arden followed closely by Boudreaux, who until that moment everyone thought was still asleep.

They had rested well. The good people of the Dancing Deer made an exhilarating morning brew of bark and needles and leafy herbs, served piping hot in small earthenware bowls, that helped prop open even Boudreaux’s bleary eyes.

The silversmith’s shop was part store and part museum. X’andria went straight to the velvet-lined tray displaying the large heavy darts of which she was so fond. The long, silver-barbed spears protruded fiercely from teardrop-shaped wooden bodies that gleamed from attentive polishing. The eagle feather flights were a study in balance and perfection.

“Oh, I just love them!” she gushed to the master smithy, and proudly showed him the wear and tear on the four darts still remaining in her possession. Reading a dark and cautionary look from Gnome, X’andria mentioned no goblins or demons, but instead claimed she valued her darts so highly that she recovered them on hunting trips whenever possible.

The smithy’s eyes had widened when she produced her four scratched darts with squished feather flights from within her wrinkled and blood-stained night-blue robes, but he recovered his smile quickly and volunteered, “We can fix those right up for you if you like, young lady. Our commitment to the fine items we make here is life-long. If you have a few minutes, I’ll get my apprentice to straighten and polish those so they’re as good as new.”

“Oh, could you?” X’andria was thrilled. To the shopkeeper’s astounded surprise she added, “and I’d like to buy all the others here as well. I seem to be going through them a bit fast, you know?”

Boudreaux saved the smithy his reply by grunting, “This silver?” He had been closely examining an ornate short sword lying beneath a locked iron grate affixed to the floor.

The flustered smith addled over, handing off X’andria’s four maimed darts to a short and powerful young man with dark smudges on his face who had appeared in the rear door of the shop. “Why, yes,” he stammered. “That is a supreme weapon of pure silver over which I have labored for months. It is my masterpiece.”

Boudreaux continued to study the blade.

“I’m gonna need to try it,” he mumbled, and then eyed the smith meaningfully through messy tangles of his thick brown hair. “You never know when a sticky situation might call for silver.”

The smith composed himself a bit, and replied, looking determinedly at the floor: “Look, I really appreciate your interest in our treasures, but I must advise you that the items we make here are extremely expensive, and,” gesturing suggestively now at the four of them, all still clad in the torn and filthy garments they had worn out of the hideous goblin lair, “I’m just not sure this is the right shop for you all to be browsing.”

At this remark, Boudreaux’s expression contorted into something unpleasant along the lines of, One more word out of you, and I’ll tear your arms and legs off.

Fortunately, Gnome interpreted this look before the shopkeeper did and stepped forward. “We apologize for our appearance, kind sir. We have been on a long journey. I am quite confident, though, that we can come to an arrangement you’ll be very pleased with for the glorious missiles and the masterful blade.”

“And this belt, too!” Arden burst in. “Just look at the setting of this opal—supreme craftsmanship!”

Flustered anew, the smithy looked down at Gnome and seemed to register the small character’s presence for the first time.

“What’ll it be for the darts, the sword… and the belt?” Gnome asked bluntly.

Gnome and the smithy fell to animated whispers as they negotiated a fair price for the items. The kindly man must have been convinced of their capacity to pay because when Boudreaux demanded loudly, “I need to handle the blade!” he jumped forward with keys in hand to open the iron cage containing the weapon.

A short while later, they left the shop, the owner beaming and waving behind them. X’andria carefully stowed her dozen new and four restored darts, Arden admired his attractive new belt, and Boudreaux glowered through half-closed eyelids, and slung his new silver short sword in a soft black scabbard over his back.

X’andria announced, “Gnome and I are heading to the gorge, you two.”

Arden piped up, “Come with me to the armory, Boudreaux. We have got to get out of these smelly clothes.” Boudreaux seemed conflicted, so Arden sweetened the deal: “If we go to the armory, Boudreaux, we can spar for a while afterward, before lunch.”

The offer to spar was all Boudreaux needed to hear. He shifted his gait toward Arden and the armory, while Gnome and X’andria waved goodbye and headed in the opposite direction.

An hour later, the two men left the Bridgeton Armory wearing new boots (Boudreaux’s were a bit more utilitarian than Arden’s), new clothes, and for Boudreaux a new silver mesh tunic.And an hour after that, they were sweating profusely in an open field, drilling thrusts, parries, and feints. Some children from the town looked on in amazement as their blades whirred and clashed. Boudreaux, a light breeze cooling his sweat-soaked face, found himself smiling for the first time since Mathilde had rudely rejected his advances at the Dancing Deer Inn the afternoon before.

READ CHAPTER 3

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