EGGING NOG

Laura J. Underwood

Copyright (c) 2009

All Rights Reserved

"So let the wind blow cold and raw

Each man shall drink until he's braw

And celebrates the Winter Feast

With Nog and Ale to warm him..."

Rhoyd Smytheson huddled in the shadows at the head of the stairs, listening to the raunchy laughter that filled the White Hart Inn. Conor's voice stood out among the rest, rich with seasonal cheer. Moments before, he had been playing his Keltoran pipes, and the thump of heels and clap of hands that had joined his merry jig vibrated the very rail against which Rhoyd now leaned.

He sighed. He longed to be down there among them, but he was not exactly on good terms with his adopted parents--or their hostess--at the moment. Granted, they had not told him he could not come down, but he knew he would just be reminded of the reason for their anger.

My own fault, he thought. Though in light of all that had happened on this day, he suspect "thinking" had little to do with it. Perhaps if he had thought about it, matters would not be in such a mess. He was only trying to do something nice for the people he had come to think of as his family.

And made a fine mess of it all--though it wasn't entirely my fault.

He sighed again, and this time, a tumultuous rattle that put his noise to shame echoed in the stairwell. Rhoyd shifted his eyes towards the source of the gargantuan sound. Tom Lysson also sat on the top step, taking up nearly all of the available space. At the moment, he looked like a large toddler, which belied the fact that he was a grown man. Well, except for the sparse growth of hair on his chin. Meg must not have had time to shave her son, since he could not be trusted to handle a razor without accidentally cutting himself.

Tom leaned forward and rubbed his hands together. Eithne once said Tom's mind was hurt by a fever he had when he was young. So Tom acted like he was much younger than Rhoyd--which made him fun to be around--most of the time.

"Do you think they know we're here?" Tom whispered in a hopeful manner.

Rhoyd shrugged. He had wondered that too.

"Are you mad at me, Rhoyd?" Tom asked in a quavering voice.

Rhoyd shook his head and turned so he could look Tom in the face. Not an easy feat, since Tom was more than twice as tall as Rhoyd. Taller than Conor, as a matter of fact, and twice as wide. "I'm not mad at you, Tom," Rhoyd said and tried to smile reassuringly. "I should have known better and you just wanted to help me."

"Mama's mad at me," Tom said and looked down.

Rhoyd rolled his eyes. That was an understatement. Meg Lysson had been so angry, Rhoyd feared she was going to throw him and Conor and Eithne out in the snow. The only thing to mollify her was that Conor was just as angry. Fortunately, Eithne had intervened and kept all heads cool.

"Do you think the hens are angry at me?" Tom asked.

Rhoyd closed his eyes and bit his tongue. That was the last think he wanted to think about just now. He took another deep breath to still the urge to giggle and whispered. "Hens are too stupid to be angry, Tom."

He opened his eyes and looked at the large man again. Tom did not look reassured. Probably because they both knew that the hen wife was another matter. Rhoyd touched the scrip hanging off his belt. It was still fat with silver. He wished Meg had let him pay for the damages. Maybe then she wouldn't have been so mad at him or Tom.

Rhoyd glanced back down the stairs as the sound of Keltoran pipes started again.

How he wished he had the power to turn the day backwards.

If he only had another chance...

***

Morning sunshine leaked through the shutters of the White Hart Inn as Rhoyd slipped down the stairs. Meg's regular customers would not be in for another span, and Conor and Eithne were still asleep. Rhoyd had surprised himself by being quiet enough to escape notice. Normally Conor said that Rhoyd was like a herd of small cattle when he started moving around.

Only Meg herself was up and about, nattering at her kitchen help.

"Sally, don't just pat that bread or it'll never rise. Put your fists into it, lass!"

Rhoyd crept over to the kitchen door and peered through the opening. The aromas that slipped into his nose were tantalizing, so much so, he was tempted to forego his mission and beg for breakfast. But the smith down on the market had sent word that the dagger was ready, and the herbalist had promised to have what Rhoyd needed in his shop by this morning. So Rhoyd could not do much more than hope Meg was in a good mood.

He stepped into the kitchen, feeling the weight of the silver sgillinns in his pouch.

Meg looked up, ready to scold until she saw it was him.

"Rhoyd, what are you doing up so early, lad?" she asked.

"I have to go to the market and..."

"By yourself?" Meg said and frowned. "I don't think Conor or Eithne would approve. Your too young to be larking about in the market on your own."

Rhoyd refrained from telling her that his age was often a miscalculation, since mageborn aged much more slowly than mortalborn.

"But I have to go," Rhoyd said. "It's important. Tonight is the eve of the Winter Feast, and I, well...I wanted to do something nice for Conor and Eithne."

"Ah," Meg said and raised eyebrows as her plump face took on a knowing smile. "I understand, but I cannot let you go alone. Conor and Eithne would have fits."

Rhoyd did his best to look sorrowful. "Could you come with me?" he asked.

Meg shook her head. "Sorry, but there's the feast meal to prepare, so I can't, and I can't spare Sally just now."

"What about Tom?" Rhoyd asked.

Meg's face twitched just a hair. "Tom's a bit of a handful to manage himself."

"But he's bigger than me, and no one messes with him," Rhoyd insisted. "He can protect me, and I can see that he stays out of trouble and I wouldn't ask if it wasn't so important. I just have to go pick up some things that are waiting for me, and then we'll come right back, and I'll even help Tom with his chores..."

Meg didn't exactly look like she believed him. But she sighed. "Well, lad, far be it from me to say no when yer offering to assist my Tom with his chores, though as I rightly recall, the last time you helped Tom with his chores, it took him four times as long to do them."

Rhoyd sighed and pulled a long face. This was not working out at all. He really needed to get to the market and back before Conor and Eithne noticed he was out.

"But I can see by that look on yer face that I'll hear no end of maudlin sighs from ye if I continue to say no," she added and smiled. "So you and Tom can go to market and do whatever it is you need to be doing, but you've got to promise me one thing. Ye'll stay on the main roads and come straight back as soon as yer errands are run and ye'll not go by the Grimwall Tavern."

Rhoyd made a face. To be honest, he wasn't even sure where the Grimwall Tavern was, but he nodded vigorously in the hopes of earning Meg's approval. "I promise," he said.

"Off ye go then," she said. "Tom's out in the stables. Tell him to come in here for a minute, and then ye can go."

Rhoyd nodded eagerly and bolted for the back door. He stopped long enough to look back at Meg and say "Thanks, Meg. Oh, and please don't tell Conor and Eithne where I've gone if they come down before I get back. I don't want to spoil the surprise."

"Then what am I to tell them?" Meg asked.

"That I'm helping Tom run an errand and that you asked me to go with him."

Meg looked uncertain.

"Please?" Rhoyd asked.

She smiled again. "All right. One story is as good as another, I suppose, as long as you keep your end of the bargain."

Rhoyd dashed on out to find Tom.

***

Tom was more than willing to drop his chores and go with Rhoyd. He danced across the cobbled yard and stumbled into the kitchen, grinning wide.

"Are ye sure about this" Meg asked, shaking her head.

Rhoyd nodded.

"All right, then," Meg said and began lecturing her son to make certain Tom understood that he was not to tarry, and not to go anywhere near the Grimwall Tavern. Rhoyd considered asking her why, but since it was getting about the time he expected Conor and Eithne would be rising, he decided to delay the question. Tom shuffled his feet and gave his word to stay with Rhoyd wherever Rhoyd went and not to wander, and to behave.

That seemed like a lot for Tom to remember, in Rhoyd's opinion, but he was eager to get going. Within moments, he and Tom were hurrying out the front door of the White Hart Inn, tumbling into the snow-laden streets of Wenthorn and heading for the main road and the market.

Winter's nip had a strong grip on the air. Rhoyd watched his breath turning white before his face as he and Tom hurried down the road. Tom seemed as happy as a toddler turned loose for the day. He picked up snow and tossed it high overhead and laughed when it splattered on the road. Then he crouched to gather more into a rather large mass.

"Tom, don't or we'll get wet and Meg will get mad at me," Rhoyd said.

"Okay," Tom said in his slow, methodical manner. He stood up and shook his snow-crusted mittens. "So where we going?"

"To the smithy and the herbalist," Rhoyd said.

"But not near Grimwall Tavern," Tom said cheerfully.

Rhody managed not to frown. "Why are you supposed to stay away from there?" he asked.

Tom looked up at the sky and grinned, and nearly walked into a farmer's hay wagon sitting off to one side of the thoroughfare. Rhoyd grabbed Tom's arm and pulled him on and repeated his question.

A frown furrowed Tom's brows. "Because Nog is there."

"Nog?" Rhoyd asked as they hurried along the main street and reached the market. "Isn't that some sort of festival drink?" He vaguely remembered a time when his real mother made nog for his father to drink during the time of the Winter Feast, and how frightening it was when Evan got roaring drunk. Rhoyd shook his head. He didn't like to remember his real father. The man had been an insane brute.

"Nog's a bully, not a drink" Tom said, looking cross and breaking Rhoyd out of the pain of the past. "His whole name was Noggingham, but everyone just called him Nog. Before you came Nog used to come to Mama's place and make trouble with me. We used to fight a lot. He broke my nose and made it bleed all over my good shirt. I broke his hand and split his lip and stomped his toes, and then I threw him out the door like a sack of potatoes!!!"

Tom laughed and started to dance a bit, clearly pleased. Rhoyd shook his head in wonder.

"It was funny," Tom said, "but it made Nog mad, so he came back with some other mean people and tried to tear up the White Hart. But the watch was in there having Mama's venison stew, and they made Nog and his boys stop, and took them to the watch house. Mama told Nog he couldn't come in no more, and the watch captain told Nog to never come up here again. Nog is bad. He has a turnip for a head and he's just plain mean. Someone needs to pelt him with nasty old eggs."

"He doesn't sound like a nice person at all," Rhoyd agreed. "Why was he always making trouble with you?"

"He said I was a big stupid lummox and Mama could hitch me to a wagon if the ox died, but we didn't have no ox and I told him so, and he started making fun of me and I got mad…"

Rhoyd arched an eyebrow. Though it was a rare sight, he had seen Tom angry before and it was rather scary. Tom's size made him seem like some behemoth monster, even though Rhoyd knew Tom was as gentle as a lamb most of the time. And that it took a lot to make Tom angry.

"Well, I don't like this Nog for being mean to you, and if he ever comes to the White Hart, I'll just hit him with a mage bolt," Rhoyd said and smiled.

Tom grinned. "That would be fun. And then maybe we could hit him with nasty rotten eggs."

"If that makes you happy," Rhoyd said. "But why eggs?"

"Cos Nog egged me once, and I wanted to egg him back, but Mama wouldn't let me."

Rhoyd laughed, and Tom laughed too, and followed Rhoyd on towards the market and the smithy.

***

The dagger was beautiful. Rhoyd tapped the metal and listen to the song it sang, and then admired the boar of Keltora that decorated the hilt and had been etched into the blade. His own father had made such artful metal, that it was hard for Rhoyd not to know good steel from bad. He pronounced it perfect and paid the smith two silver sgillinns. The smith slipped the steel back into the leather sheath with the knotwork pattern, and wrapped it in burlap tied with twine.

Their next stop took them up one of the side streets off the market to where the herbalist had his shop. Having gone there with both Conor and Eithne, Rhoyd was readily recognized the moment he entered the place. However, the herbalist also recognized Tom and told him to stand at the door and not move because sometimes he got a bit clumsy in tight places. Tom didn't like it, but he stood where he was told and shuffled from one foot to the other.

The box that the herbalist had obtained was beautifully crafted from oak. Acorns and oak leaves decorated the lid. Rhoyd examined it, making certain all the hinges worked and all the little trays fit well. Two more silver sgillinns deserted Rhoyd's scrip as the herbalist wrapped the box in burlap to make it easier to carry. Rhoyd then used two copper sgillinns to buy himself and Tom some of the cinnamon and chocolate bark the herbalist made and sold. At the sight of that, Tom lost his frown and clapped his hands.

Once more, they hurried out into the streets of Wenthorn. Rhoyd divided the cinnamon and chocolate bark, and laughed as Tom practically devoured it all in one gulp, and then made a face because the cinnamon was bitter and spicy, and it burned his mouth and throat. Tom gasped and demanded water and started to run, and Rhoyd followed, biting back his urge to keep laughing. Tom was bolting all over the place, in and out of alleys and it was all Rhoyd could do to keep up. Finally, they reached a small courtyard where few horses had trod, and Rhoyd saw Tom kneel and practically bury his head in a bank of snow.

Rhoyd stopped behind Tom, uncertain of what else to do. He watched as Tom devoured big hands full of snow. Horns, Rhoyd hoped it was not some place where men and animals pissed.

"Are you all right?" Rhoyd asked.

A muffled "yes" sounded through a mouth full of snow, and this time Rhoyd did laugh.

At last, Tom stopped and looked at Rhoyd and grinned and asked, "Got any more?"

"You had your share," Rhoyd said, backing away a step or two as Tom lurched clumsily to his feet. "But I'll give you another piece when we get back to the inn. And this time, you have to promise not to eat it so fast. All right?"

Tom smiled and clapped his big hands so loud, the echo made snow fall from the roofs over their heads. Rhoyd gasped as a large pile of snow suddenly dropped all over Tom, but the big man merely laughed and stamped and danced around.

"All right," Tom said. "Which way?" He looked around and frowned.

Rhoyd looked too and realized that in their rapid dash, they had paid little attention to their path and were off the main route. The little courtyard looked deserted. Rhoyd frowned as he turned around. Their footprints were all scattered in the mad dash so he could not exactly determine which way they had come in now. But he could hear the market sounds off in the distance and looked for a path in that direction. There was an alley cutting towards the general direction of the market just to their right. It didn't exactly go straight, but then Rhoyd knew that several of the alleyways in Wenthorn took a dogleg turn to the left or the right.

"This way," Rhoyd said, and started into the alley. Tom obediently trotted after Rhoyd as he followed the twists and turns and found himself on a short road. He looked right and knew that way led to the river for in the distance he could see a mast with sails. The left path he could see headed for the market. So he started that way only to stop. There was a sign dangling over a seedy looking structure with multi-paned windows. Grey-washed river rock formed the lower part of the exterior, along with daub and wattle and dark wood beams. On the sign that dangled from a post of rusting iron, it displayed a wall of stone and the words Grimwall Tavern.

"We can't go this way," Rhoyd said.

"Yes we can," Tom said and forged ahead. "There's the market…"

Before Rhoyd could call out a warning, Tom went marching straight down the lane, and only when he reached the windows did he stop and stare. Rhoyd rushed to catch up with Tom, to grab his arm and tug, but he might as well have been trying to move a tree. Tom stood solid, glaring at the windows, and Rhoyd could see a man's face in profile. The man was drinking from a tankard. He was a round, beefy individual with tow hair and a large nose and teeth that were not exactly straight or clean. His eyes had the look of a mad pug dog, and his jowls dangled in much the same manner. One of his hands had fingers that were twisted almost into knots.

The man suddenly turned and looked out the window as Rhoyd tugged Tom again and said, "We have to go or Meg will be angry at us."

"That's Nog," Tom said.

The man inside the tavern suddenly leered in a wicked manner. Setting his mug down, he wiped his crooked hand across his mouth.

"I know. Let's go. Please, Tom, or your Mama will be angry…" Rhoyd pushed and pulled, trying not to drop his packages in the process.

That rousted Tom from his staring contest. He gave in to Rhoyd's tug so abruptly that Rhoyd slipped and teetered and almost fell. But Tom snagged Rhoyd's tunic and kept him from landing in the snow. Together, they hurried for the market square.

Rhoyd looked back just as they reached the end of the alley and saw the man named Nog emerging from Grimwall Tavern with a sneer. A cold chill shot through Rhoyd. We need to get out of here now! he thought.

***

They stopped once they were well out into the market area. Their rapid pace slowed to a meandering walk. Rhoyd felt his heart thundering in his chest as they reached the baker's stall and stopped.

"That was close," Rhoyd said.

Tom was staring back towards the alleyway, his face still mashed into a terrible frown.

"Nog is bad. I hope he gets rotten eggs in his face."

Rhoyd quirked his mouth and fought the urge to giggle. Tom's insults sounded silly and childish, but then he reminded himself that Tom was a bit of an oversized child and to him, rotten eggs in the face probably was the most terrible thing that could happen to anyone.

"We'd best get back to the White Hart," Rhoyd said, looking at his packages. More light filtered through the clouds overhead, and that meant Conor and Eithne would probably have risen. I'll have to hide these in the stable, he thought, and that would mean going up the back way from the market.

I promised Meg we would stay on the main roads. But then he had thought they would just be fetching the items and heading back. Not running around the back alleys of Wenthorn looking for a watering trough. He would have to sneak back through the horse gate to get to the stables.

Rhoyd shrugged and started walking. "Come on, Tom," he said.

But Tom was not moving. He was turned towards the roadway they had emerged from, glaring.

"Tom," Rhoyd said.

It was then that Rhoyd spotted the now-familiar figure of a man stepping out into the market and looking around. Horns, it was the dreaded Nog, and he was clearly not alone. Several rather unruly looking characters gathered just behind him as he started peering over the crowd now wandering in and out of the shops and stalls that filled the market.

"Tom, come on before Meg gets angry!" Rhoyd said.

Tom continued to frown, but he turned and started towards Rhoyd. Unfortunately, as soon as he moved, Nog's head shifted so he was looking in their direction, and his pudgy face mashed into a scowl. He grabbed the man nearest to him, gave him a shake and pointed. Wicked grins spread across their grubby faces. They began to stoop down and scoop up large balls of snow and broken cobblestones from the street, and then packed them together.

Horns, those would hurt! Rhoyd took a deep breath and reached for the nearest source of essence he could find, and just as Nog and his bully friends started to toss the barrage of stone-filled snowballs, Rhoyd hissed, "Adhar clach!" and willed the air behind Tom to harden.

There was a loud cracking sounds as the snowballs and rocks struck the magic wall of air. Tom turned, startled by the sound and saw the looks on the faces of Nog and his friends because their snowballs were splattered across an invisible surface. And it apparently only took Tom a moment to realize that Nog and his cohorts had tossed those wads of snow and stone at Tom for a reason. He gave an angry shout and before Rhoyd could call out a warning or a counter spell, Tom charged at Nog...

...Only to meet a wall of solid air and bounce back. And the force caused Tom to stumble and land on top of the baker's cart. He knocked it over and sent the wrapped loaves she had just laid out falling all over the muddy, snowy ground.

Nog's expression changed from startled to one of amusement. Then he and his friends started to laugh and cackle and fall to the ground where they rolled like dogs. Their braying actually inspired the woodcutter's donkey to add its voice to the chorus and several heads turned to see what the fuss was all about.

"Tom!" Rhoyd called out and rushed over to his large friend's side, dispelling the wall with a hiss of mage words. The baker was out there as well, cursing and waving her arms at them both.

"Look at my loaves!" she shouted. "They's all ruined!"

"It was an accident," Rhoyd insisted as she pointed to her wares. "Here, I can pay." He pulled out several silver sgillinns and offered them to the woman as Tom was getting on his feet. The snowballs were plopping to the ground since there was no longer a surface to hold them up in the air. Nog and his cohorts continued to howl like apes.

The baker looked dubiously at the coins, but she accepted them and then snarled, "Just don't let me catch you near my stall again!"

"Come on, let's get out of here before something else happens," Rhoyd said.

"Hey, Tom, you better look where you're going or you might fall again," Nog shouted.

Tom stopped and turned back, his features mashed into a horrible scowl.

"Ignore them," Rhoyd said. "Please, Tom, please ignore them."

Tom's chest heaved like a smith's bellows, and his face was turning red with rage. And Rhoyd feared that Tom was going to attack again. He tugged harder, wracking his brains as to what to do should Tom turn into a terrible behemoth that Rhoyd knew he could not control.

But then Tom suddenly turned and started to walk away, leaving Rhoyd floundering for balance. He barely stopped himself from falling over in a puddle, doing a wild dance and landing on his feet in a crouch. He juggled his gifts bundled in burlap, and finally clutched them tightly under his arm to keep them from falling into the mud and snow. Nog and his cronies laughed even harder then. One of them shouted, "He looks like a bloody chicken about to lay an egg!"

The laughter increased tenfold, and Rhoyd felt his face warm as several locals joined their own hilarity to the mess.

Horns, Rhoyd thought. He stood upright and hurried after Tom, eager to get away from this place.

At least Tom was heading in the right direction.

Or was he? It occurred to Rhoyd that Tom was striding furiously across the market instead of taking the more northerly edge around to Geal Street. At that rate, Rhoyd would lose sight of Tom among the vendor stalls set up on the cleared-out cobbles of the market proper. Even when there was snow on the ground, the market of Wenthorn was in full swing. Everyone wanted to take advantage of the Winter Feast. Folks often sold many goods to those looking for something to gift on family and friends. At this rate, if Rhoyd lost sight of Tom, there would be little chance of getting back to the White Hart or hiding his gifts before Conor and Eithne discovered his absence. Rhoyd only hoped Meg was good as her word.

And why should she be since I was not as good with mine? I let Tom go past the Grimwall Tavern, and now Nog and his cronies are plaguing us...

Speaking of that unholy crowd. Rhoyd glanced back over his shoulder and was not pleased to see that Nog and his friends had vanished from view. Oh, horns, Rhoyd hoped they had just gone back to their tavern, that they'd had their fill of cold entertainment and would want their warm ale and a fire to heat their bones. But he had that itchy feeling on his nerves that as much as he hoped they would go away, they would not. Even now, as he fought to push through the throngs and keep up with Tom who was rapidly increasing the distance between them, Rhoyd sent mage senses spreading. Too bad he had not taken time to scry Nog and his cohorts before now. Because even as he stretched mage senses, he realized he had no clue as to what Nog felt like.

This was not working out at all!

And as he looked forward again, he was startled to find that Tom was now nowhere to be seen.

Oh, horns! Rhoyd stopped and looked around, trying to spot that lofty head, but he was a small lad in the midst of a crowd of adults, and from his point of view, all he could see was hands and feet and backsides and bags.

"Tom?" he called, but there were too many other voices shouting out about wares for sale, and added to that, the clucks, bleats, honks and moos of various livestock.

Panic surged through Rhoyd. Perhaps he should go back to the White Hart, tell Meg what happened and get her assistance. But he had said he would keep Tom out of trouble, and now he would have to admit he had failed.

I can't fail. How can I convince them I can take care of myself if I can't take care of Tom?

It was not that he didn't feel grateful for what Conor and Eithne had done. But there were time he thought they forgot what he was and what he could do.

And at the moment, what he needed to do was find Tom and get him back to the White Hart before anything really bad could happen.

So he closed his eyes and stretched mage senses once more, and this time, he concentrated on finding Tom. He could feel the big man somewhere up ahead. Opening his eyes, Rhoyd kept his awareness stretched and hurried towards the essence that was Tom.

***

The path Tom wove among the market stalls started out straight enough, and Rhoyd kept hoping Tom would tire of charging forward and stop. But then, his path changed and he began to weave in and out like a drunk, forcing Rhoyd to zig and zag in and out of various parts of the market.

What is he doing?

Tiring of the chase, Rhoyd stopped for a moment. He was in among the livestock sellers. Every group of merchants had their specific area in the Wenthorn Market. Rhoyd had learned this early on. Shops with windows and doors on the market generally set up tables outside their stores to display wares. Farmers who brought vegetables or livestock into Wenthorn to sell on market day were given the area downwind of most of the vendors. The smith's shop sat in the middle of it all, and even now, Rhoyd could hear the ring of anvil and hammer off to his left.

The problem was in the winter, there were a lot more tents overhead. So instead of open air, it was like a maze of miniature shops. At least over in the livestock area, the tents were actually tarps overhead, allowing more of a view, though some of the way was blocked by small sheds and temporary huts and wagons.

And unfortunately, it still didn't allow him to see Tom, even though Rhoyd sensed that Tom was in the area. The big man's aura was strong now, and had a certain sadness to it. But he was still on the move, and now it seemed like more of a frantic pacing as though searching for something or someone.

Oh, horns, he's probably looking for me. Rhoyd had hoped that sooner or later, there would be something to distract Tom from his angry march that would allow him to remember he had come to the market with Rhoyd. And Meg will kill me if I go back without him. Not to mention what she might do to Tom. And far worse, there would be Conor and Eithne to face. Conor would declare this the most irresponsible thing Rhoyd could do...

Tom's aura suddenly stopped. Oh, good, he's stationary. Maybe now Rhoyd would be able to catch him and...

But just as Rhoyd started to move towards Tom's aura, a wall of bodies suddenly jumped into his path. Rhoyd bounced off one of the bodies and stumbled back, bumping into a tent post and shaking the tarp.

"Hey, be careful!" someone called from behind him.

Rhoyd was busy looking at the one who now stood before him. Nog wore a sneer that did not bode well in Rhoyd's opinion. He sidestepped the pole and started to back away, not eager to get into a confrontation but there was another body at his back. He turned, hoping it was someone familiar, only to find one of Nog's cronies glaring down at him.

"Where's Tom?" Nog asked and his bully friend seized Rhoyd's shoulders in a heavy grasp and propelled him closer.

"I don't know," Rhoyd said, clutching his packages close to protect them in case Nog had any thoughts of stealing them. "He just ran away."

"Well, then, I supposed we will have to find some other way to amuse ourselves," Nog said. He pushed a hand through Rhoyd's hair, mussing it and leaving it dangling in his face.

"You could always go back to the Grimwall Tavern and leave us alone," Rhoyd said, struggling to toss back his hair and keep hold of his things. "We didn't do anything to you."

"You, no," Nog said. "But Tom fixed it so I could never go anywhere but the Grimwall without getting tossed out, and he fixed it so my hand don't always work like it should." Nog held up his left hand. The fingers were crooked and unwieldy, and clearly useless. "Do you know what I used to do? I used to be a leather crafter. I used to make fancy scabbards. After Tom broke my fingers, I couldn't get no work."

He waved the hand in front of Rhoyd. "Why didn't you go to a True Healer?" Rhoyd asked. "They could have fixed the hand so it worked again."

"I can't afford no True Healer's fee, boy," Nog said. "I ain't got no fancy pouch of silver jangling from my belt." He pointed to Rhoyd's scrip and grinned.

"True Healers don't charge. They give their gifts freely as Diancecht wills," Rhoyd said, repeating Eithne's oft-spoken words.

"That's a sodding lie!" Nog snarled. "And just for that we should take you back to the Grimwall Tavern and introduce you to some of the folks who live there. Handsome little boy like you might be able to earn a lot more silver for us than you're carrying in your scrip now..."

Rhoyd tried to pull free, but the one who held him only tightened the grip, digging fingers painfully into his shoulder so that Rhoyd cried out.

"Let go!" Rhoyd shouted. "Adhar clach!"

He threw up his hands, nearly dropping the packages as he shouted the spell words. The man behind him gave a shout and let go as a fist of air clouted him in the head and knocked him backwards.

There was a shout from Nog that Rhoyd chose to ignore. Free of his captors, he tucked both of his packages under one arm, and then sprinted over the small fence and into a pen full of goats. They bleated and parted and he charged through them to reach the other side.

"Get him!" Nog shouted.

Rhoyd bounded over the next fence like a gazelle, eager to get lost in the crowd, but his flight was blocked by a host of people as they turned to see what was happening. Some of them gasped, and others stepped out of the way. He heard someone mutter, "Isn't that Manahan's boy?" before he sprinted around a group of stalls with Nog's cronies in pursuit.

At first, he thought he was about to lose them, but one of the cronies had apparently taken a shortcut through a neighboring pen of sheep. Rhoyd ducked under grasping arms that were intent upon snagging him. And then instincts took over, and Rhoyd turned and stretched finger towards the man and shouted, Gath saighead buahl!" The mage bolt slammed into the man's chest and knocked him down. He gave a shout of pain, rolling about in the muck as Rhoyd ran on towards the nearest turn. Getting around it, he flung himself behind a stack of hay bales and crouched. Just in time. The thunder of feet, the angry shouts of Nog, the order to spread out and "find the brat," and then more thundering and the order was obeyed.

Rhoyd waited until it sounded quiet. Only then did he poke his head up. None of Nog's cronies were visible. With a sigh, Rhoyd slipped over to the turn he had previous come from and stretched mage senses through the market.

A glimmer of Tom's essence was back near the poultry stalls. So Tom was somewhere near, and Rhoyd decided it was best if he fetched Tom and they headed back for the White Hart as soon as possible.

Bad move. He had hardly gone five paces from his hiding place when Nog appeared at the other end of the row. The surly man was looking around, his head snapping back and forth.

Horns! Rhoyd thought. Surely Nog wasn't sensitive to magic. Oh, PLEASE don't let him be sensitive to magic!

"Faic mi cha," Rhoyd muttered in the mage tongue and drew essence from the shadows to hide from view as he backed over against the wall of one of the animal sheds.

But as soon as he did, Nog turned, and his nose wrinkled and he grinned.

"So I know you're around here, you little mage brat!" Nog said and started towards Rhoyd. "I thought I smelled magic. It's me nose, you see. Gets ticklish when there's magic about."

Great, Rhoyd thought. The spell he used would hide him as long as he didn't move, but it Nog could smell magic, Rhoyd might not have a choice. So he stood still as stone and watched as Nog wandered over towards the wall in a determined manner. Nog stopped a mere two ells away from where Rhoyd stood trying to become part of the wall. The man's head went back and forth. Rhoyd held his breath. The spell was still keeping him hidden and though Nog might be sensing the magic in his nose, he clearly could not see through the spell.

Nog grunted and turned his back on Rhoyd, looking around, sniffing as though that made a difference.

"Cinnamon bark and herbs," he muttered, and slowly he turned back towards where Rhoyd stood. "You're here!" Nog said suddenly and dove at the wall--straight at Rhoyd.

Rhoyd barely managed to dodge off to one side. But Nog's good hand snagged Rhoyd's winter tunic by one sleeve, and managed to clamp down and stop Rhoyd from escaping. Rhoyd shouted and swung the box at the hand, but Nog parried it with his bad hand, knocking the package free from Rhoyd's grasp. Rhoyd gasped as the burlap wrapped box hit the ground. There was a resounding thunk that told him it had not broken. But before he could grab for it, Nog kicked it aside and swinging Rhoyd around, Nog slammed him into the wall.

"I got him!" Nog shouted.

Rhoyd felt his head swim from the strength of the blow. But he tried to yank essence out of the air, determined to hit Nog with another spell, only to have his head slammed into the wood. Dizziness blacked his vision. He started to sink to the ground. Nog let Rhoyd go and yanked the other package out of Rhoyd's hand, and he stopped as though recognizing the weight.

"A dagger," Nog said, and he untied the string and pushed back the folds to reveal the dagger and sheath. "This will make a fine prize for me."

"No!" Rhoyd shouted. "That's for Conor! Give it back."

He struggled to get up again, but his knees were still weak. And Nog merely shouted and kicked him in the chest, knocking him back down and sending red lights flashing across Rhoyd's vision. Hitting the wall, Rhoyd realized that the shed was shuddering a little more than was good, and he could hear the angry clatter of hens being disturbed from their roosts over the ringing in his ears.

"Give it up, boy!" Nog said. He slipped the dagger out of the sheath. "This is mine now, and since you're Tom's friend, I'm gonna make sure you never forgets me."

The blade wavered close to Rhoyd's vision. He stared at the sharp point that moved closer to his cheek. Nog's stump of a hand shoved across his throat. The dagger came closer.

"I think I'll start by carving my name on you," Nog said.

Rhoyd opened his mouth to shout, but the arm over his throat cut off any sound. He was having trouble breathing as it was. But then it was Nog who gave a shout, and the pressure on Rhoyd ceased as he heard the sound of something breaking and the spread of a stench that reminded him of rotten eggs.

"Let him go!" Tom shouted. "And give that back!"

Rhoyd turned in time to see Tom just a few meters away rearing back with an egg. Nog snarled and turned towards the big man, brandishing the knife when another egg hit him square in the face. He shouted in rage as Tom moved closer and pelted Nog with yet another egg. Rhoyd suddenly realized there were hens everywhere, and a hen wife was screaming. Tom must have taken their eggs for they were chasing after the big man and squawking as loudly as the small woman in the apron and cloak.

"My eggs!" she shouted. "My eggs."

"Why you!" Nog snarled and wiped the egg from his face. He started to rush at Tom, brandishing the knife, even as more eggs came flying at him.

Rhoyd decided that was as good as time as any to stick his boot into Nog's path. The man tripped, and floundered and fell, losing the knife but landing on the box. Rhoyd cringed as he heard a loud cracking sound.

"No!" he shouted.

"You mean man!" Tom snarled. "You broke Rhoyd's gift!"

Tom charged forward like an angry dray, throwing all the eggs in his arm down on Nog who could do no more than cover his head and shout. The hen woman screamed, "My eggs!" once more and started to pummel Tom's huge back. He ignored her, glaring down at Nog.

"I oughta…I oughta…" Tom stopped at a loss for words and looked at Rhoyd. "What should I do?" he asked.

"I think you've done enough," Rhoyd said, struggling to get back on his feet.

And about that time, the local watch arrived.

***

It took a lot of explaining. More than Rhoyd had wanted to do, but at least the watch captain knew Tom on sight, and was willing to believe Rhoyd and Tom when they told what happened.

Nog tried to claim that Rhoyd had used magic to hurt him and his bully boys, but the captain of the watch decided Nog needed a bath because the eggs were really stinking, and a night in the watch house to cool his temper.

But then, the captain had sent one of his men to the White Hart, and in no time, Conor and Eithne and Meg were there. And none of them looked pleased, though Eithne took note of Rhoyd's scratches and bruises and was quick to use her healing powers on him.

Rhoyd stood silently with them, clutching the now broken box and the mud-encrusted dagger, listening as the hen wife voiced her demands for the price of her eggs, and complained that she would never be able to get all her hens back together because Tom had apparently broken down one of the doors of her stall to get inside.

"At least ten silver sgillinns to replace the hens and the eggs I lost, and another five to replace the door," she insisted was her due.

Meg looked sourly at her son and opened her scrip to count out the coin.

"Wait," Rhoyd said and stepped forward then and held out his own scrip, hoping to placate her. Meg shook her head, counted the coins and handed them over to the hen wife. Then she took Tom by the arm and started out of the market.

And that was when Conor's hand found Rhoyd's shoulder and turned him in the same general direction. "March on, lad, and we'll discuss this when we get back to the White Hart," Conor said, and Rhoyd felt his heart sliding into his boots at the sound of Conor's voice.

This will not go well for me, he thought as he followed the winding path through the market stalls back to the White Hart.

***

Conor spared no hint of his disappointment over Rhoyd's irresponsible adventures, though he did decide that Rhoyd had already suffered enough bullying for one day. The lesson went no further than words that burned as bad as any blow. Rhoyd could see the anger all the same, and sensed it in Conor's aura.

Meg had words for Rhoyd as well, but then Eithne stepped in and suggested that both "lads" needed a bathing and some food in their bellies. So Meg relented and took Tom off, leaving Eithne to deal with Rhoyd. Conor left then at that point, and Rhoyd barely kept the tears out of his eyes.

"It was not a wise thing," she said gently as she got him out of his mucky clothes and into cleaner ones, and then saw to it that he had bread and soup enough to feed him. By then, darkness was falling, and Conor had gone down to the tavern, and the festivities began.

So now Rhoyd sat on the stairs feeling his heart had sunk into his boots. With another sigh, he crawled up off the stairs and headed back to the room he shared with his adopted family.

The burlap packages lay on the floor under his bed. Eithne had pushed them there to get them out of the way. Rhoyd pulled them out and untied the twine. The dagger's sheath was scarred, and mud coursed the blade. He tried to wipe it away. The steel would need a good polishing.

As for the box, there was a crack in the lid now, and one of the trays no longer fit into its space. Rhoyd looked at his gifts and shook his head in dismay. How he had wanted to make them perfect, to give them to the people who had turned his life around, but instead, he had made such a mess of things...

He laid the gifts on the hearth, and crawled into his bed, pulling the blankets up in the hopes of shutting out the world.

***

Rhoyd might have fallen asleep, for he kept seeing Nog's face, and the blade coming close to his own. But the creak of his own bed as a weigh settled down on it startled him upright.

Conor was sitting on the edge, Keltoran pipes in one hand, the dagger in the other. "This was for me, was it?"

Rhoyd bit his lip. "It looked much better before…" He hesitated. "I'm sorry. I just wanted to do something…"

Conor smiled slightly. "It has a nice weight. Shouldn't take long to get it clean again."

Rhoyd looked up at the tall, red-haired Keltoran.

"Look," Conor said. "The next time ye want to do to market, just ask. I'll take ye."

"But I wanted it to be a surprise," Rhoyd said softly.

"Aye," Conor said and sighed. "It was a surprise, I will admit. Did ye know that Tom carried nearly every single egg that woman had just to pelt that fellow Nog?

Rhoyd bit his lip. "Tom said he wanted to pelt Nog with eggs because Nog once egged him. I guess he needed a lot of eggs."

Conor chuckled. "Why don't ye come on down now."

"I didn't think you wanted me to…" Rhoyd said. "And Meg is furious and..."

Conor laid the dagger on the bed and pushed a hand through Rhoyd's hair. "Meg will get over it, and I want ye there. No one else appreciates me pipes so well. And after all, it's Winter Feast, and yer supposed to give thanks for the ones ye love. How can I when he's up here hiding under his blankets?"

"I wasn't hiding," Rhoyd said. "I was asleep."

"Aye," Conor said with a grin and rose. "Are ye coming?"

Rhoyd scrambled off the bed as Conor started for the door. He practically chased the Keltoran down the stairs to the common tavern where the warmth and the odors of food were best shared with those he cared about. And just as he reached the foot of the stairs, he spied Tom sitting next to the bar, a cup of sweet nog in hand. The big man looked up and smiled at Rhoyd and raised his glass.

So all is forgiven, Rhoyd thought.

The Winter Feast could proceed.

END