Fourcade the Fabulous

Gren Blockman

November 24, 2018

After a long day of patrolling his particular sector of the woods, Gren made his way to the portal that led him to the Forgotten Layers Inn. Entering the realm, he walked up the path, whistling a little tune, glad to be able to see Izira after a long day of walking around. As he put his foot on the first wooden step, he heard a whimpering coming from the bushes on his right. He stopped and focused his ears in that direction. The whimpering started again, this time descending into blubbering. Blinking, Gren quietly sidled around the Inn and peered behind the bushes. He saw a very thin elf man curled up in the fetal position near the wall. He was wearing a fancy red velvet jacket and green tights. A red bycocket, or bard's hat, with a feather in it lay nearby, as did a smashed wooden lute. The man's blond hair was streaked with blood. Gren knelt down next to him and laid his hand on his shoulder. "Sir? Sir! Are you alright?"

The elf quickly raised his hands to shield his face as if Gren was going to hit him.

"Don't be afraid! I'm not going to hurt you! We're at an Inn, here, let me help you up! I can get you inside and take care of you."

Reluctantly, the man let Gren help him to his feet. He barely looked to be a hundred pounds. His face was narrow with a pointy chin, and he looked haggard and exhausted. Putting his arm under the elf’s shoulders, Gren gingerly led him up the wooden steps and through the door. "Izira? Izira, this man is injured and needs our help!"

Izira stood on a small wooden ladder, up near the top as she dusted the candle holders hanging from the ceiling. Hair pulled up in a bun, she wore a dress in a softened tone of autumn's russet red. Her legs were in view from below the knee down to oak brown heels. Sheer talent kept her from losing her balance. Her features turned alert at Gren's words. Amber-brown eyes scanned the leaf of a man that Gren carried. Feather duster abandoned, Izira made her way down as quickly as caution would allow. "Take him to the couch, please. Is there anything wrong other than the cut?" Her words directed to Gren and then both men as she slipped behind the bar, fetching a couple of cloths and a bowl of warm water with soap.

Gren moved to comply with Izira's request, guiding the man over to the couch. The man seemed to have roused to the point that he was willing to speak. His voice was high-pitched and almost musical.

"Ohhhh, ohhhh dear . . . . I feel faint . . . . light-headed . . . . oh, what a horrible cruel world it is out there . . . . "

Gren got him to the couch where he collapsed into a little heap. Gren scooted his legs out and put a pillow under his head so he could lay down. "Are you hurt anywhere other than your head?” Gren asked the elf.

"No . . . no, I . . . . Oh! My face! Tell me they didn't hurt my face!"

Gren blinked and looked to the side. "Eh . . . uh . . . no, I don't see anything wrong."

"Oh, thank the Goddess for that at least. How could I ever perform for Her Majesty again with a scarred complexion? Oh, the room is spinning . . . “The elf rapidly blinked his eyes as if he was going to pass out.

Following behind the pair, Izira set the bowl on a table at the end of the couch nearest the elf's head. A delicate hand brushing hair from his face. "Shh... you will be alright." Her tone aimed to soothe him while she looked to the cut. "Merely a flesh wound, you won't even need stitches." Then reaching for a cloth and the warm water, she soaked a bit of the warm water and took to cleaning the small wound and his hair. Her touch gentle, as caring as a mother tending to her babe. "How did this happen?"

"A flesh wound?” It feels like they drove a spike right into my skull! Oh, the knaves! Those uncouth ruffians! I was playing a set of classic lute ballads at the Inn of the Demure Tigress. Some local thugs told me to knock that "racket" off. I said I would do no such thing! Don't they have any culture to speak of? What cads! Then the man took my lute and . . . “Here he sobs and touches his hand to his forehead in a tragic pose.” . . . . he broke my lute right across my head! That lute was carved for me personally by the Duke of Bellington! Then they shoved me out of the Inn and chased me into the forest! I . . . barely survived." The young elf leaned back against the pillow, his chin quivering as if he was about to burst into weeping.

"What a tragedy.” Izira’s tone managed to hold no indication of sarcasm, only concern. "It is good you happened to find your way here, away from such... as you said... ruffians." Continuing to dab his head delicately.

"I'm not going to black out, am I? Suffer irreparable brain damage? All of my training in the art of the lute! All the folk ballads and love songs I use in my repertoire!" Suddenly he lifts his hands up to his face and stares at his fingers. " . . . . eight . . . nine . . . ten. Oh they're all there." He claps his hands to his chest and exhales deeply.

Gren blinked several times, looked at Izira for a moment, then back at the elf. "Uh . . . . what is your name, sir?"

The elf blinked his bright green eyes for a minute, as if accessing his muddled memory. "Wait . . . don't tell me you haven't heard of Fourcade the Fabulous? The greatest Elven Bard in all the land? Oh, please tell me this isn't a dream and my reputation has vanished in this horrible nightmare I'm currently suffering from!"

"Gren?" Izira wetted another cloth, offering it to Gren to take over. Her voice taking on a note of seriousness. "I think we must give him an elixir to make sure his mind does not suffer any harm." A light touch to the bard's shoulder, "Forgive us our lack of culture... we are... simple folk... we rarely get bards, and never such a famous one." A glance at Gren as she stood would let her fiancée know her words were spoken for the sake of trying to soothe the dramatic patient.

Gren momentarily got a look of bewilderment on his face at Izira's words, but then it slowly dawned on him what Izira was getting at. He took the damp cloth from her and patted Fourcade's forehead with it. "I'll look after our important guest." Gren nodded sagely.

Fourcade lightly touched Izira's hand before she left. "I will not hold it against you", he replied, in regards to her statement of them being 'simple folks'. "Please . . . the elixir . . . is it Elven made? With my weak constitution I may not be able to handle . . . less than stalwart craftsmanship."

"Of course, sir. I would not think to give one such as yourself anything less. I will be a moment, preparing it." Izira offered Gren a little sympathetic smile as she slipped into the kitchen and left him to tend to the elf on his own.

As Izira walked away, Fourcade return to his self-pitying. "Oh, what a horrid, horrid day. The trials and tribulations that a Bard of my caliber must suffer . . . “Suddenly he began glancing around the sitting room of the Inn, looking at the fireplace and the chairs.”What village is this? Am I still in Vanovia at least? I mustn't worry. The King will send the Royal Guard for me, I just know it. I must relax. Not get excited. Stress is very bad for the vocal cords, you know. You wouldn't . . . happen to have a mirror? So I can check my face?"

"Uh . . . . I'll get you one in a little while. Let's wait for you elixir first”, Gren replied.

"Oh, very well. Medicine comes first, I suppose." Fourcade was still absently poking at his face with an index finger regardless.
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Gren Blockman

It took a bit, but soon Izira returned, carrying a small curved green vial. It held a blend of fresh made cider, seasoned with cloves, orange zest, anise, and cinnamon, mixed with a light elven red wine. Mulled cider. Uncorking the bottle, she settled beside their patient to feed the drink to him. "Careful, not too quickly."

Fourcade took little, hesitant sips, then drank more deeply until the vial was drained. "Oh . . . I do believe I feel more vibrant already. How wonderful to have fallen upon such a competent establishment. Might I inquire, good lady, what your name is, and the name of this goodly Inn?"

She took the vial back, placing the topper into place. "I am the Lady Izira Nyte and this is the Forgotten Layer's Inn.” Tipping her head toward Gren, "This is Ranger Gren Blockman."

"A Ranger?" Fourcade looked shocked. "I must really be out in the countryside. We are not that far from civilization are we? I should really try to get back to the Royal Court. After a good night sleep, of course. I trust you have a room available for those of high stature in emergencies such as this?"

Izira's mouth opened, then paused. She considered if informing him of the realm he'd entered would only make him more worked up. She glanced to Gren, tell him or let him rest?

Gren noticed Izira's look and thought about his answer for a second or two. "Don't worry about the details right now, after what you've been through. Just relax, enjoy our hospitality, and in the morning, we'll get you home. Alright?"

Fourcade looked relieved and settled back into the couch. "That sounds smashing." He began to lightly dab at his face again. "Tell me . . . does my lute appear salvageable?"

Gren thought back to the smashed instrument laying in the Inn's yard. He shook his head. "I'm afraid it doesn't look good."

"An unfortunate casualty. Its sacrifice will not be in vain. Just wait until I tell the Duke of Bellington about this wanton destruction of property. He's liable to send out every knight in his employ to avenge my loss."

Izira nodded in agreement to the elf's words. "I will give you our finest room. I can tell from your… sensibilities that anything less would hinder your ability to sleep. And you must rest." With another reassuring touch of support, she asked, "Is there anything else we can do for you?"

Fourcade's face showed he was mulling Izira's question over in his mind. "I am particularly famished. Is your menu quite extensive here?"

"Menu? I would not think to limit you so, especially not after such a traumatizing experience. Tell me, what would you like to eat?"

"I feel I am in the mood for salmon, lightly smoked. A baguette would be nice. Not too crusty. But not uncrusty either. Cucumber, sliced thin. Very thin. Perhaps some Brie on the side. Not too crumbly. I'd like an Elven white wine. Something buoyant and impulsive. I would like a chocolate mousse, heavy on the whipped cream, and pecans sprinkled on the top." Fourcade looked pleased at himself with his thorough selection.

Izira refrained from looking at Gren as Fourcade's list continued. "Well chosen." Standing up again, she gestured to the fire place, "Please enjoy the fire while I prepare your meal. Gren will bring you the wine to enjoy as you wait." She left the water bowl and clean cloths there, taking the dirty ones and the empty vial with her to the bar. Gren needn't worry about finding the wine. She took out a small stepping stool and pulled a bottle out from behind a couple others. Of course, whites are best served chilled. The bottle was cold by the time she set it upon the counter.

Once Gren was back at the bar and out of earshot, he whispered to izira. "Boy, we got a live one today, didn't we?"

"I am more concerned about getting him back to Vanovia." Izira spoke softly back to Gren, "And what it would mean for us should his stay be... prolonged." If this was an example of what could come. With that, Izira vanished into the kitchen to fix up the requested meal.

Gren grimaced at Izira's words as he took a wine glass from beneath the counter and began to pour a healthy amount of the white wine within. Hopefully this visit wouldn't be too painful on them. He returned to Fourcade with the glass of wine, setting it on the table next to him. The elf was lightly dabbing his forehead with the damp cloth. He forgot about the cloth when he saw the wine, and he lifted the glass to take a delicate sip. He lightly smacked his lips.

"This is more airy and spontaneous than buoyant and impulsive, but I can live with it”, Fourcade observed.

Gren watched Fourcade with an odd look.

Time passed as Izira fixed up the meal, leaving the pair to each other's company. Finally she emerged with a tray in hand, bringing it to the couch. She stood waiting, giving the bard time to resettle for his meal. The salmon and thinly sliced cucumber were on one plate, the cucumber nearly paper thin. The baguette was sliced and offered on another small plate. The brie rested on yet another, a small cheese knife resting there. Other silverware rested on a folded cloth napkin. "I thought it best to save the dessert for last."

Rising into a sitting position, Fourcade eyed the platter with practiced discernment. Taking the knife and fork, he cut a tiny half inch by half inch portion of the salmon, daintily placing it into his mouth, where he proceeded to chew for what seemed like a long time. Finally he brightened. "Very serviceable." He then took one of the paper thin slices of cucumber and chewed thoughtfully on it, as if it was a tough piece of beef jerky.

Gren was giving Fourcade more bewildered looks, before asking. "Uh . . . . we could eat dinner with you, if you'd like. Maybe we could get to know you better."

"If you insist", Fourcade replied, looking off into the distance as if he was still making up his mind about the cucumber.

Gren received another sympathetic smile from Izira, "I will fix you a plate. I am sure you're hungry too." She was quicker in the kitchen this time, fixing Gren a plate was less fussy. She added a mix of freshly cooked vegetables to the fish and brought him a small salad instead of the brie. Returning to the pair, the tray carried a Broot for Gren and a glass of wine for herself. She gave Gren his tray, taking her wine and moving to sit in an armchair.

Gren was hungry after his long day and looked appreciatively at the meal Izira fixed him. "Looks wonderful. Thank you, darling."

Fourcade eyed the bottle of Broot with distrust. "What . . . is . . . that?" He asked.

Gren smiled and held the bottle up. "Broot! It's a Root Beer. Only the greatest beverage ever made."

"Is there any alcohol in it?"

Gren's face fell a little. "Well, no."

"Then what makes it so great?"

"Taste! Why don't you try some?"

Fourcade lifted a delicate hand. "Perhaps another time." He went back to nibbling on a small square of salmon.

Gren showed no such restraint. The salmon, vegetables, and salad disappeared quickly from his plate, and he was soon sitting back, wondering why Fourcade looked like he had barely started his own meal.

Fourcade was giving Gren the same odd look. "How can you properly digest your food when you inhale it so?"

"It takes a strong constitution to be a ranger. Their stomachs are made of hard stuff." Izira offered the elf before she took another sip of her wine. "Remember, we are simple people."

Fourcade nodded as if the 'simple people' comment explained everything. Using the knife he cut a cracker sized piece off the baguette and nibbled it thoughtfully. "You don't get a lot of customers here, do you?"

"We do not... but people find their way here when they are in need of place to… regroup."

"Pity. If the crowd was not non-existent and my lute destroyed I could have played a song. I will need to test out my musical skills at some point anyway, due to the . . . appalling damage I incurred."
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Gren Blockman

"Hopefully the Duke will provide you with a suitable replacement. Do you play anything else?" Izira questioned.

"Oh no, we at the Court specialize in one instrument, and one alone. It takes years, decades to master just one. The life of the Bard is one of dedication and sacrifice." Fourcade flashed another tragic look, putting one hand over his heart.

"Very noble." Taking another sip, Izira passed Gren a glance over the edge of her glass.

Gren looked sideways at Izira, then glanced heavenward.

Fourcade finished his meal, albeit well behind Gren. Picking at the last morsel of Brie, he sighed happily. "If only other Inns could match a dinner like this. The local taverns have such coarse fare to choose from. I commend you on your skill in the culinary arts." A compliment from Fourcade? As close as anyone would get to one.

"Very kind of you to say." Izira smiled, "Will you take breakfast in the morning?" Setting her glass aside, she stood and collected the trays from them.

"Since you are offering. I would like an omelette, with Gouda cheese, shredded, not cubed. Spinach and mushroom, but not that dry spinach, and the mushrooms should be halved, not cut in pieces. I would like grapefruit juice freshly squeezed with just a dash of sugar. Oh, and a small helping of link sausage. Please pat a napkin over it too remove the excess fat. Wonderful." Fourcade brightened more at the idea of getting served two meals tailored to his liking.

With a simple nod, Izira noted the lengthy order. "I will have it ready for you when you wake."

At the word wake, Fourcade yawned, lightly placing his hand up to his mouth as he did so. "Forgive me, but my ordeal has left me simply drained. I do believe I should rest and regain my strength for what promises to be a wearying trek in the morning. Could you please direct me to my room for the evening?" He gracefully shifted his head to take in his surroundings again.

"I can do that for you, I'm sure Izira needs to tidy up after dinner."

"Marvelous, Gren the Ranger. Could you bring my dessert with you? I will enjoy it in bed while I rest." Fourcade stood, dusting off his red jacket.

"Thank you." Izira offer Gren a kiss to his cheek as she passed, taking the dishes to the kitchen. She brought Fourcade’s mousse back with her, pausing on the way to take a key out of the cabinet and set them both on the counter for Gren.

Gren gave Izira a soft look while he picked up the key and dessert from the counter. He mouthed the words "I love you", before walking back over to escort Fourcade to his room.

Fourcade had a knowing smirk on his face. "Are you and Izira the Innkeeper an item, Gren the Ranger?"

Gren chuckled despite himself. "Yes we are, we're engaged."

"Ah, the inscrutable power of love . . .” Fourcade answered mysteriously.

Gren looked at him oddly before leading him up the stairs. He showed Fourcade to the suite with the opulent sitting room. Gren pointed out the large bedroom, and the bath with the claw footed tub off to the side. "I trust this suite will meet your needs."

Fourcade analyzed the area with his nose in the air as if trying to find something wrong with it. "It is satisfactory for a mere night's stay."

"Alright then, let us know if you need anything further." Gren nodded, setting Fourcade’s dessert down, then left the room. He went back down the stairs to see if Izira was still by the fireplace.

After setting the dishes in the sink to tend to later, Izira returned to her armchair with more wine. Looking up at Gren's footsteps, she asked, "How did our guest take the quality of his room?"

"Satisfactory." He mimicked Fourcade with his nose in the air, before having a seat next to her. "I was thinking in the morning, of just trying to help him find the portal he came through and escorting him to the nearest Inn. I don't know if we necessarily need to tell him where he's really at."

"And if you do not find it? I cannot imagine he will quietly follow you through the woods for too long. Likely not even a minute in." Placing a hand on his knee, "Perhaps you should see if you can find anything tonight?"

"Hmm. You may have a point. Let me go check outside before it gets too dark."

With a soft pat and yet another sympathetic smile, she replied, "Hopefully you can find it before too long." She picked up his hand and kissed the back of it. "I will ready a warm bath for us for when you return."

Gren perked at Izira's offer. "I'll be sure to find it quickly then." Standing back up, he kissed her on the lips before hurrying out the front door. The sun was almost set, and in the twilight Gren made his way back to the spot where he had found Fourcade. His broken lute was still laying there. Being an elf, Fourcade was not going to be easy to track, even in his wounded state. Thankfully his footfalls had been heavy enough in the fall grass that he could pick out the track that he had followed. Here and there was a spot of blood that affirmed he was on the right path. Going east, and through a meadow, he briefly reentered the forest, stumbling on the portal quite blindly, the flash of blue lights signifying his entrance to Vanovia. The forest he found himself in was much darker, gnarled limbs twisted their way up into the twilight sky. The cluster of grey trees seemed menacing almost. Having found what he was looking for, he turned to leave when he heard the faint sound of angry voices.

“. . . don't tell me you've lost the trail? We've got to find that little prick! I'm gonna bash his prissy head in!"

"Take it easy, we'll find him, do you think he can really make it in the forest all alone? That little pansy won't last the night!"

"Keep looking, I'm gonna strangle that little jerk Fourcade if it's the last thing I do."

Gren gulped, then hurried back through the portal. Going through the door, he was going to have to tell Izira this would be more complicated than they thought.

Gren Blockman

True to her word, Izira had gone and started a bath for them. The scent of lilacs drifted in the air of the bedroom, slipping through the open door of the bathroom from the oils in the hot water. Perching on a small cushioned stool, Izira runs a brush through her hair before a simple vanity. The clothing of the day replaced with a light silk robe in deep red.

"Izira . . . . Izira, we've got problems, I . . . “Gren had entered the Inn, run down the hallway, and burst into the bedroom. The encounter in the woods had caused him to forget all about the bath, and he stopped and unconsciously gawked at Izira in her red silk robe. "Aw, this is just not fair . . .”

"Gren?" The brush left Izira’s hair as her hand drew away. She looked to the ranger with some confusion.

Gren sighed and hung his head. "I went through the portal. Those "ruffians" Fourcade was talking about . . . they're on the other side looking for him."

"Oh." She paused, thinking, then returning to the mindful brushing of her locks. "The realm should keep him safe enough in here.... but..." Her expression saying that a prolonged stay would not work for any of them.

Gren nodded solemnly. "We're between a rock and a hard place. Look, I kind of came up with an idea on the way back here. But I might need your help."

Izira gestured Gren to sit on the bed near the vanity, "Do tell." Setting the brush down, she pulled her hair up into a quick makeshift bun. One leg and a little thigh exposed as, turning to Gren, the robes fabric shifted.

"Well, I could hmmmmmm . . .” Gren gulped and turned a bit red when Izira's leg was exposed. Some habits die hard. "Wuh-wuh-wuh-what I wanted to do, was scout out the route to the nearest Inn on the Vanovia side. I'll mark the route with something you would recognize, a mark or strip of cloth. Then in the morning, you can escort Fourcade back, following the trail, while I go ahead and run interference for you two. What do you think?"

Izira thought about it before nodding. "I can do that, yes." With a wave of her hand toward the upper rooms, she asked, "Are we going to tell the great bard Fourcade of his... situation?"

Gren rubbed his forehead. "Considering his . . . personality, I don't know if that'd be a good idea. I'll just tell him I'm scouting the way ahead. If everything goes right, you two should never even notice that anything was amiss. That's the best plan I can come up with."

"Hopefully nothing goes wrong." She gave a glance to the upper rooms and then back to Gren, "I take it we will still wait until morning so as not to make him think anything is… amiss?"

"That's probably for the best. As much as I hate to do this, I should set the route right now, before it gets any darker out there. Hopefully I'll be back in a few hours. Only a few." He glanced up and down at Izira's silk robe again.

"It will make it easier to decide how best to mark the way for us." She stood up, moving to him and giving him a kiss. "Don't worry, I won't start anything fun without you." Lips turning into the smile she wore just for him, she moved to the washroom undoing the robe. A hint of bare shoulder seen before she slipped out of view, "Hurry back."

"I will. I will." Gren said, craning his neck so he could see Izira even as she was slipping out of view. "Believe me I will." Hurrying back out of the room, he knew he had an old cloak that he didn't wear any more beneath the counter at the bar. He fumbled around until he found it, then using his knife, cut it into little strips. Going back out of the Inn, he made his way down to the portal to Vanovia. He couldn't hear the voices that well, but they were still there. Campfires had sprung up as if Fourcade's pursuers had planned to make camp for the night and continue their search in the morning. Moving quietly through the brush, he tried to backtrack Fourcade's route to the portal. Tying the little grey strips on bushes and tree limbs, he had gone about a mile when he saw a large Inn with log walls situated in a meadow. There was a sign with a reclining tiger on it. "Inn of the Demure Tigress. That must be it." Gren just hoped that once they got Fourcade here, he would have enough sense to get back to wherever his Royal Court was, and in a hurry. Blending back into the woods, Gren followed the trail back to the portal, and the Inn. Wiping his face off, he walked back to the bedroom to see if Izira was waiting for him.

Dry from her bath, her skin still held the scent of lilacs. She reclined on the bed above the covers, a book in hand. With Gren's return she smiled, "How did it go?" She set the book aside. "I ran a fresh bath for you."

"It went well enough. Thankfully the Inn isn't too far, only about a mile. I put grey strips of cloth from an old cloak along the route. You should be able to recognize them."

Izira nodded, "If I do not I am sure you will be able to hear Fourcade's scream of terror should we be confronted. I suspect it would carry, what with being a bard." She stepped off the bed as she spoke, moving over to him.

"Let's hope it doesn't come to that. His pursuers are rather noisy, so I should know where they're at. I'll keep them distracted long enough for you to get Fourcade to safety." Gren walked over to Izira, putting his hands on her hips. "I think we can do this."

"We can do anything." Her supportive response was also playful. Her amber-brown eyes drifted from his face down to his shirt, she started undoing the top button. "Anything..."

Gren Blockman

November 25, 2018

Early the next morning, Gren awoke and leisurely put some travel clothes on. Strolling out into the main room, Gren noticed that Fourcade had not come down from his room yet. Wanting to check on him and see how the night went, he ascended the stairs. The door was still closed, so Gren delicately placed his ear against the door to see if he could hear anything. He heard a muffled sound that sounded like Fourcade was being strangled. Fearing the 'ruffians' had somehow found the portal and the Inn, Gren busted through the door and barged into the bathroom where the noise came from.

Fourcade was standing there wearing nothing but a white towel around his waist. His head was tilted back and he was gargling with something. Seeing Gren caused him to sputter and almost swallow, but he managed to cough and spit into the sink. "Gren the Ranger! What is the cause of this invasion of my privacy?"

Gren gawked at Fourcade, then turned red. "I . . . uh . . . I thought someone was strangling you!"

Fourcade got a haughty look on his face. "I must douse my vocal cords with a proper disinfectant for several minutes every morning to ensure my vocal cords are in peak performance! Really, Gren the Ranger!"

Gren rubbed the back of his head. "I'll . . . uh . . . I'll just be downstairs if you need me . . . " Gulping, Gren quickly vacated the room and returned to the bar, where he sat massaging his forehead.

Izira, up slightly earlier as she was tending to breakfast, now emerged from the kitchen. She set a plate before Gren of fresh fruit and pancakes with a couple pieces of sausage and bacon to the side. "Did you check on our guest?"

"Eh . . . uh . . . yes. He's . . . just fine. Be down in a minute." He cleared his throat and stuffed some of the bacon in his mouth.

Izira lifted a brow at Gren, but she nodded. "I'll fetch his breakfast then."

"Good idea." Gren smiled widely for Izira.

Fourcade had gingerly made his way down the stairs, having gotten dressed and ready. He was still giving Gren a look of disdain, but then he noticed the bar stools. "I don't have to sit there do I? I've never sat on a bar stool in my life."

Izira returned from the kitchen with a tray in hand. As requested, she had prepared an omelette with shredded Gouda cheese, not overly dry spinach, and halved mushrooms. A glass of freshly squeezed grapefruit with just a dash of sugar and a small helping of link sausage, patted dry, accompanied the omelette. "You may sit where you please."

Fourcade walked back over to the couch that he had laid on when he first entered the Inn. He absently ran a comb through his long blonde hair as he waited for Izira to bring his tray.

With a glance to Gren, Izira followed the bard with the tray. She waited for him to settle before placing it down for him. Polished silverware rested on a cloth napkin of fine fabric. "Will there be anything else?"

"This is a suitable breakfast, Izira the Innkeeper." He lightly picked at the sausage to make sure the excess fat was gone. He took the grapefruit juice, and after a small sip, gargled it some in the back of the throat before swallowing. "La la la . . . me me me . . . " Lightly touching his throat with his fingers, he seemed satisfied, and removed a tiny hunk of the omelette with his fork before chewing thoughtfully.

"Izira is fine... Your voice can be put to better use than troubling over simple titles." With a smile and a dip of her head, she removed herself and returned to the bar.

Fourcade nodded lightly at Izira's suggestion while he continued processing the bit of omelette.

Gren was eating his pancakes and sausage more quickly at the bar as Izira returned. He smiled and nodded in Fourcade's direction.

Izira fixed up a glass of water for herself and coffee for Gren. "Will you wait for breakfast to finish before heading out?" She then glanced to the couch.

"What I'll do is, go through the portal with you both, that way he knows I'm going along. Once we're through, I'll tell him I'm scouting ahead. Then we go from there."

She nodded following his explanation of the plan before leaning over and kissing his cheek. "I'm going to change into something better for travel."

He raised his eyebrows and smiled for Izira. Finishing his plate, he risked a glance over at Fourcade, who was still staring, daydreaming out the window while sipping a bit of the juice. "Um . . . sorry about earlier.I thought you were in danger."

Fourcade gave Gren a little sideways glance, before waving it off with a delicate hand. "I forgive you, Gren the Ranger. I suppose it's in your nature to help others even if they don't need it. Besides, it would be terribly rude of me to hold a grudge against someone who took care of me and fed me."

"Alright, then." Gren looked out the window to see what he was staring at, before looking back. "We'll go once you've finished eating."

"Very well", Fourcade replied.

Izira returned, tidying her hair into a bun. She wore a brown shirt dress paired with slightly darker brown boots that covered her legs up to her thigh. Walking across the room, she plucked the maroon cloak and wrapped it around her shoulders. A small pack could be seen worn at her hip. She took out a small flask for water and filled it behind the sink. She didn't think it would be that long of a journey, but the company could make it seem that way.

Fourcade had finished his breakfast and set the empty juice glass on the tray when Izira returned in her journeying outfit.

Gren took the tray and brought it over to the sink to be washed later. Nodding to them both, he said, "Are we ready?"

Fourcade stood from the couch, walking over to the door. "Yes, I hope the Royal Court is not too worried over me."

Gren put his grey cloak around his shoulders, fastening it at his throat. "Alright then, let's get you home."

Leaving the Inn, Gren led them to the left outside the door, then through the meadow, and finally up to the forest where the portal was. Gren had forgotten about the blue flash of light that occur when he moved between worlds, and the display caused Fourcade to jump and look oddly at Gren.

"I say, what is all that?" Fourcade's hands fluttered around in front of Gren.

Gren gulped and thought quickly, "Uh . . . It's a Ranger spell . . . of, uh, Tracking . . . . and Woodsmanship."

Fourcade blinked several times in response.

Gren quickly continued. "Look, I'm going to scout ahead and make sure we're going in the right direction. You and Izira will follow behind me, alright? You'll be just fine. Stay sharp." Gren then hurried off into the old, gnarled forest of Vanovia.

Fourcade, still looking perturbed, straightened his jacket and looked to Izira.

Gren Blockman

Izira's hand moved over her mouth to stifle a chuckle at Gren's explanation for the blue light. Schooling her features, she waved her hand aside as if to say who could ever really understand the way of a ranger. "Think of him as... your honor guard. Yes?" That said, Izira moved forward in the direction that Gren had gone, watching for the path markers. "What is your court like?"

"Honor Guard." Something about the prestige of a title like that appealed to Fourcade, so he shrugged off Gren's behavior. "Oh, the Royal Court is most grand. Elven courtiers dressed in the most expensive finery. All the Dukes and Duchesses from across the kingdom are there. Feasts fit for a King. I cannot wait to return! They must miss me terribly."

Up ahead, a strip of grey cloth waved from a nearby tree branch at the head of a narrow forest path. Izira motioned Fourcade to follow her as she moved in that direction. "Are there many minstrels of your talent there?"

"Ah, yes. There is a University . . . The University of Vanovia. All the Fine Arts are taught by the best practitioners in the land. One day, when I retire, I might teach there myself . . . for the right price of course." Fourcade gave an arrogant, lilting laugh. "Oh, I do hope I can find a proper lute when I return to the Court. Not one of those cheap knock-offs they're always trying to pawn on us Bards."

Somewhere in the distance, voices could be heard. “. . . did you hear something? It sounds like that wussy little Bard! I think we found the little . . . OOF! UGH! AAARGH!" The sounds of fists being rained upon someone, and the telltale sound of two bodies falling to the earth followed.

Fourcade perked up and looked around, perplexed. "What was that noise?"

"There are all sorts of curious sounds in the woods, have you noticed? You were saying they try to pawn knock-offs on you? Don't they know your knowledge would reveal the cheapness of their offerings?" As she spoke, and walked, Izira looked for any indication of a means around the... noise. Then the forest was quiet again, and ahead another grey strip of cloth dangled from an old fence post.

"They think we Bards are idiots, apparently. But I refuse such paltry offerings. The best lutes are made from plumwood, I refuse to play anything but. Of course plumwood is very rare, but being a member of the Royal Court, ha ha, I have no trouble obtaining it." Fourcade looked pleased with himself.

In the distance they heard voices again. ". . . where the hell did Jask and Renny go? They were right here a minute ag . . . . UGH! OOOWUFFF! OUCH!" More punching and kicking could be heard. The next grey strip of cloth could be seen fluttering on a dead tree limb.

Leading the bard from one path to another as the path markers indicated, Izira continued to keep the conversation going and to do what she could to cover the sounds of Gren running interference. Comforted that none of the pained sounds seemed to match her fiancée's voice. "How long do you suppose it will take you to find a suitable replacement?"

"That depends if they have one ready-made, or if we have to pay a craftsman to create a new one. Both have their advantages. The older lutes have more . . . . experience, more panache. The newer ones have a bolder, more impulsive sound."

The forest remained quiet for the rest of their trek. As Fourcade and Izira crested a grassy hill, they could see Gren standing at the bottom, leaning against tree, looking winded. He was poking at one of his eyes, which was blackened.

Fourcade looked surprised by Gren's appearance. "Good Goddess . . . Gren the Ranger, whatever happened to you?"

Gren lifted his head at the sound of them and quickly put his hands behind his back. "Oh! Eh, I . . . . fell over a log. No big deal. Heh." He gave the two a nervous smile.

"Fell over a log? What about your Spell of Woodsmanship?"

Gren's eyes darted left to right. "It . . . uh . . . wore off."

Izira's lips pressed together to suppress another laugh. Stroking his arm with affection, "I am glad that log didn't do further damage to you."

Gren winced slightly but gave Izira a hug in return. "You and me both. Well, let's finish this little journey. The Inn's just over this hill." Crossing over the one remaining hill, the three looked down upon an Inn with wooden walls that were ornately carved with runes and fanciful pictures. A sign out front had a Tigress lounging on some grass. The courtyard was filled with armored knights and horses. Their silver and blue armor gleamed in the morning sun. The ones that had their helmets off had long, flowing blonde hair and pointed features like Fourcade.

Fourcade immediately brightened and clapped his hands to his chest. "Oh! The Duke of Bellington! He came for me! I am saved!"

Izira's glance passed from the gathered knights to Gren at Fourcade's exclamation of being saved. Poor Gren, the unknown hero. She reached out and gently squeezed his hand. "It is good to know that you will be well attended to from here."

Gren momentarily looked bewildered, but then relieved as he realized he had gotten Fourcade to safety. He squeezed Izira's hand in return, giving her a warm smile as they approached the Inn.

Gren Blockman

Fourcade scampered up to the tallest of the Elven Knights and bowed low, from the waist. "GRAND LORD DEVERAULT, DUKE OF BELLINGTON, I, Fourcade the Fabulous, do present myself to you, alive and . . . . well, I would say unharmed, but I was dealt a horrific blow by some local ruffians. And I am obliged to report the loss of your excellent plumwood lute do to their malicious actions. I do hope you find the scoundrels and dispense a swift and righteous justice upon them."

The Duke slowly looked down at Fourcade, taking in his words, and nearly rolled his eyes heavenward. "Ah, Fourcade. Well, this saves us a trip into the forest. The Queen will be most pleased." He replied with an emphasis on the Queen and not him. "Who are these . . . people." The Duke gestured to Gren and Izira, lightly squinting at their ears, noticing they were not elven.

Fourcade swept his arm in their direction. "This is Izira the Innkeeper and Gren the Ranger, from the Forgotten Layers Inn."

The Duke squinted more. "Forgotten Layers, Forgotten Layers . . . that does not sound familiar . . .”

Gren tried to cover by quickly stepping forward and speaking. "Uh . . . Duke, sir, your Lordship . . . We found Fourcade injured near our Inn and helped him as best as we could, then returned him here for his safety." Gren smiled and looked to Izira to back up his story.

Izira did not cower before the Duke, standing tall and holding herself as elegantly as any maid of the court. She smiled, bowing her head in agreement to Gren's statement. "It is as he says. We are merely simple folk who have managed to save you a more troublesome journey." She looked to the woods and back to the Duke. "I suspect you are as eager to get back as Fourcade." Her amber-brown eyes travelled over the gathered knights and to the path beyond.

Deverault was tall, with a high forehead, piercing blue eyes, and a pointed chin which he tapped thoughtfully with a finger. "Something seems amiss . . . but far be it from me to refuse a gift from the Goddess. The Queen thanks you both for your return of her prized Bard. And speaking of the Queen . . . “, here he turned back to Fourcade, ". . . she wanted me to give you this whenever we found you." The Duke removed a white silken bag from his saddle, opening the golden thread at the top. Within was a lute made of polished wood with elven runes carved along the fretboard.

Fourcade gasped and clutched the lute to his chest. "Oh! Her Majesty spoils me with such a gift . . . . ", he squinted at it closely, " . . . well, it is rosewood, but it will suffice." He finished by beaming at Deverault, whose eyes did take a turn upward at that.

"Shall we return to the Court, then?"

Fourcade lifted a hand. "Grand Lord, I do beseech thee to wait but a while! While I properly reward my two saviors."

Deverault managed to look even more perturbed. "Very well." He crossed his arms and waited.

Fourcade bounced over to Gren and Izira. "Gren the Ranger, Izira the Innkeeper, permit me to sing you a song as thanks for all you have done."

"You are too kind, Fourcade... But... We would not want to be so selfish as to delay your return home…" She glanced to Gren.

Gren saw Izira's glance, and backed her up. "Really, Fourcade it was our pleasure, we should return home."

"Nonsense! This is a once in a lifetime opportunity! I am Fourcade the Fabulous, the greatest Bard in all of Vanovia! Let's see . . . I have it! A jaunty little tune in the key of A Minor. Or is it Major? I shall just have to wing it." Placing his slender fingers on the fretboard, the elven runes began to glow brightly, as Fourcade tilted his head back and began to sing.

Gren couldn't make out the words, as they were in some form of elvish, but the words began to blend into one long note as if a group of monks were chanting in unison. Suddenly the Inn of the Demure Tigress vanished, only to be replaced by an opulent Court with white walls trimmed in gold, and crystal chandeliers hanging from the high roof. Royal courtiers seemed to be standing around Gren and Izira (even though they could still see Fourcade and the flustered Duke and his men). Gren looked down and he was dressed in a posh military outfit, a green coat with gold trim, a blue vest beneath and a sword at his side. Izira was dressed in a flowing blue dress of silk that left her shoulders bare. The courtiers began to pair off and dance around them. Gren was momentarily baffled, then smiled broadly and turned to Izira. "Maybe we should just go with it. May I have this dance?" He bowed slightly to her and offered his hand.

With amusement in her smile, Izira gave in. "Of course... It appears I'm dressed for it." Taking the offered hand, she gave Gren the lead.

The courtiers danced a waltz around them, while Gren tried to keep up and mimic their movements. Gren thought Izira looked beautiful in her flowing dress, her brown hair waving behind her as they twirled in time. It felt odd, as if Fourcade's song was all in his mind, but it filled him with a sense of romance and love. His skin tingled and he could not help but smile. They danced on for several minutes, hearing the laughter and the shifting of those around him, until Gren felt the song slowly begin to subside in his mind. The courtiers one by one disappeared until they were left again in the Courtyard of the Inn. Fourcade slowly closed his mouth, the chant turning into elven words, then finally silence. Gren was still standing with his arm around Izira's waist as if they were still dancing, then he slowly looked around and blinked. Fourcade tucked his lute under his arm and clapped his hands. "You both dance splendidly!"

Izira's eyes sparkled toward Gren with a deep affection. A hand moved to his as she turned to face Fourcade, offering him a courtly curtsy. "Thank you. And for the song as well. It is no wonder the Queen holds you in such high regards."

"But of course! Farewell, Izira the Innkeeper and Gren the Ranger!" Fourcade returned Izira's bow, then turned to the Duke. "I am ready to return to the Court now." He popped up onto the Duke's horse before he could say otherwise.

The Duke looked angry at Fourcade imposing upon his own horse, gave Izira and Gren a look of annoyance, then mounted his steed in front of Fourcade, who put his arms around the Duke's stomach. The knights then spurred their steeds and thundered off, away from the Inn.

Gren watched them leave, then scratched his head and looked at Izira. "I guess we're done then."

"A job well done Gren the Ranger”, she said with a tease in the title, "Come, let us get home. I will tend to your bruises and give you a proper hero's reward." Turning back to the path they had followed there, she smiled over to him, keeping her fingers entwined in his.

"That's a good idea. Before Jask, Renny and the boys wake up. I did like that dancing, though . . ." With his fingers still holding Izira's, he did a few waltzing steps from side to side as they travelled back through the forest and home.

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