Alternate timelines for the win! Also, always wanted to have Moose as a bard.
The village of Pork Grove was a fairly prosperous one. It sprawled across the steep hills, the roads spiraling around the sharp angles, the houses slim and stately. As the name suggested, one of the major exports was their pig flesh, considered one of the finest that the Kingdoms of Brinhall could offer.
One day, in one particular alehouse, there was well-gossiped talk of a mysterious monster, one that devoured the boars whole and left only the bones. The problem was already well known, and the town mayor issued a reward for whoever brought the monster on its knees.
Or at least brought the head.
The talk was lively, and the ale was plentiful, when a large shadow appeared on the front stained glass door. It opened to show a bigger creature dressed in colorful rags and patches that did nothing to hide the muscular bulk underneath.
The room fell silent when the creature came in. Many people looked agog at the antlers, inlaid with silver wiring and strung with various charms. A wooden case wrapped in leather straps was slung against his back, but it was the staff that brought the most attention. It was tall and silvery, almost as tall as the creature. Myriad wires wrapped themselves around a top loop and surrounded a clear, faceted crystal the size of a fist. Around the lower hemisphere of the loop dangled small crystals of various colors and lengths.
“Greetings, residents of this fair city!” the creature exclaimed, the voice deep and sonorous. “I am Joseph Moose, a traveler from the lands distant. I have been hired by your mayor for your Summer Festival as part of the entertainment!” He spread his arms wide, as if expecting applause.
Silence made a pointed remark to the creature.
“Ahem,” Joseph said, feeling rather foolish. He put his arms down and continued. “I was suggested to come here on the mayor’s wise council, and he offered me to stay for a few days after the festival. Allow me a small sample of my talents, please, in exchange for refreshments.”
A small man dressed in a purple loose-fitting shirt and tight breeches came into the scene, and he bowed shallowly. “Allow me to welcome you, sir, to The Vineyard. I am the innkeep of this fine establishment, and I would gladly agree to the bargain you have prescribed to us.”
Joe nodded. “I thank ye, goodsir. We shall do an honest trade.”
The innkeep waved a hand in the direction of the tavern counter. “Please sit, sir, and we will serve you a feast to leave you full beyond expectations.”
Joseph said his thanks again and sat himself down at the counter. He leaned the staff against him, where it slid down to the bar.
“We don’t see many moose here, goodsir.”
Joseph looked at the innkeep, who was pouring out a tankard of a richly brown fluid from a ready barrel. “Really?”
He nodded. “Indeed.” He brought the tankard to Joseph. “Our best rootbeer, sir. With my compliments.”
The moose took a small sip, and his face scrunched up a bit. “A trifle strong, sir.” He took a bigger sip. “But very good. Spicy and bold.”
“I am not surprised about the lack of my brethren here,” Joseph said in between sips. “We are solitary creatures, seeking the frigid cold of the northern territories. I could be said to be one of the exceptions.”
A plump lady in floury clothing interrupted by bustling out of the kitchens and placing a plate of grilled meat, a large bowl of stewed greens, and a steaming-hot roll in front of Joe. She nodded once to Joseph, her eyes lingering on the antlers, and bustled back.
The innkeep reached under the bar and brought out a set of wooden cutlery. “Let me know if you need anything else, goodsir.” He left to take care of another patron.
Joseph chewed thoughtfully, listening to the surrounding talk. He nodded a bit on some points, then his eyes went a bit wide at the muffled talk of the monster.
He quickly looked around and picked up the staff, making it look like he was adjusting it. He muttered a word, and the crystal glimmered.
The words were as clear as if he was right next to the speaker. “I’ve seen it! I have! It m’st h’ve been twenty cubits wide, w’a tail filled w’spikes! I barely got away, I did!”
He lowered the staff and narrowed his eyes. So, he thought, the tales were true.
“Alright,” the innkeep said as he bustled up. He peered into the mug. “Looks like you need a refill. And perhaps another helping of spinach stew?”
Joseph shook his head and leaned forward a bit. “What is this talk about a monster?” he asked, pitching his voice to a mere murmur
The innkeep glared at something behind the moose, then began industrially wiping an imaginary scruff off the bar. He also lowered his voice. “Pay no mention to such talk, goodsir, for it creates discord among the guests.” Then in a louder voice, “Now, you were talking about a refill of the rootbeer, goodsir? Something to wet your throat before you sing for your supper?”
The room quieted in expectation.
“Ah, yes, give me a moment.” Joseph unslung the case, gingerly undoing the straps, and opening it. He pulled out a strange lute, almost a miniature guitar.
“What a strange instrument,” one of the nearby guests said, eyeing the item. It was pure blue, with inlaid chips of glistening white and blue forming a design of ocean waves on the bottom. “May I ask what it is called?”
“I call it an ukeuke, though the natives would call it something else.” Joseph lightly plucked the strings and turned the bright blue keys on the top. “It was a gift from Queen Harine several years ago for solving a rather interesting problem involving a dragon and a marriage proposal.”
“Surely you jest,” the innkeep said, playing along.
Joseph shook his head. “No sir,” he strummed the instrument. A sweet-sour chord filled the air. “All of you know your tales of beauty and grace and charm, how ladies enrobing all three are oft the target of unsavory creatures.” He pitched his voice to carry to the farthest corners of the room. “Her Most Gracious Majesty, Queen Harine of the Nine Western Isles, Holder of the Lunar Throne was the most charming, most gracious of them all.”
He plucked a few strings, the music atonal and crystalline. “She swore an oath of honor for her kingdom, to let nothing, nay, even her heart stand in the way of the throne, and that was her error. A week after (so she told me) a dragon warrior from the Northern Kingdoms came to her, asking in the most courteous tones, for her hand in marriage. Or else see everything she strove for go down in flames.”
“When I arrived, she was at wits end, not knowing what to do. I offered to help, and she graciously accepted.”
“What happened?” one of the guests yelled out.
Joseph played a few chords, the music serious. “I went up to the dragon, and was told of his plight. She besotted him, madly in love with her beauty and her voice. The poor creature was delirious with love, and it drove him insane. He was unable to touch Her Majesty’s heart, and it brought him grief. He then offered me a deal: If I bested him in battle, he would give up the proposal. If not, I was to be burned alive. I offered to go first.”
He began strumming a 3/4 rhythm. “I took out my lute at the time, and played him this.” He cleared his throat and sung, his voice a honeyed tenor.
“A wand’ring minstrel I
A thing of shreds and patches
Of ballads, songs and snatches
And dreamy lullaby!”
Joseph played on. “The dragon was entranced, and he demanded more with every verse. At the end of the song, he wept. He never heard anything so beautiful, and as such, he could not fight with me.”
He grinned. “Instead, he asked me to teach him how to play such music, and I did. Gone was the madness the Queen gave him. Instead, he was mad with the passion of the music.”
“Several months later, when I finished teaching him all I knew, he fulfilled his bargain, and gave up the marriage proposal. In honor of the deal, I gave him my lute as a token for remembrance. And in honor of that time, Her Majesty gave me this instrument.”
“And so, my story ends.” A few playful chords finished the tale.
A loud cheer erupted from the guests, and the innkeep nodded. “A fine tale, sir, and an even better ending!” He plunked a tankard of rootbeer at Joe’s elbow. “What did happen to the dragon?”
“Last I heard he went to his own lands to charm the royal courts. He is doing a fine job there, so I hear.” Joe placed the ukeuke back and closed the case. “Now, if I may have a room?”
“A room?” the innkeep said, surprised.
“Aye, sir.” He reached into a hidden pocket and pulled out a gold coin. He placed it in front of the innkeep with a sharp clink. “That is for the meal. And for a night or three here?” Another two joined the first.
The innkeep eyed the coins with raised eyebrows. “A princely sum,” he muttered, looking at the chiseled profiles on them. He looked at Joe and nodded. “Alright, then, sir, I shall let you get our best room.” He waved to a passing maid. “Mari, please escort our new guest to the top floor. He is to be staying here for the festival.”
Mari did a small curtsy, her curled hair bobbing slightly. “If you could follow me, Sir Bard?”