The trip to Haarm led the group of travelers over the Idunwood Road, along cow paths, deer trails and fields before they were able to connect with Haarms Way, a wide and fairly well-traveled road, well maintained for commerce. It took eleven days and about as much whining from the children as Garr thought he could stand, but finally, as he trudged along beside the cart, hot and irritated, Huldred reached out with her cane and knocked him on the head saying, “C’mon now, sonny, git that chin o’ yours out of the dirt. Haarm is right the other side of that rise yonder.” This unexpected revelation raised a smile on Garr’s dust-streaked face and rounds of cheers and applause from the children.
At the crest of the hill overlooking Haarm, the troupe halted. The sight that greeted them was a typical one as port towns went; the merchant’s shops, inns and hostelries lining the main thoroughfare, with the liveries, slaughter houses and myriad other businesses and private dwellings relegated to the secondary streets and outer perimeters. Garr took an immediate liking to Haarm most likely because it was a stark contrast to the trauma and destruction he had left behind in Josdahl. Haarm was alive with people going to and fro on their mundane daily business, and the sounds of a thriving community; dogs barking, chickens and geese squawking, men working the docks and cutting wood while fishwives and merchants hawked their wares in the market.
Garr vowed then that someday he would return to his beloved Josdahl and rebuild and revitalize it. He wasn’t sure how or even when, but it was a promise that he made to himself. It had, in that moment, become his life’s ambition; what he would use as his inspiration and directive for all that he would do henceforth. Funny, he thought to himself, how it took the sight of bustling Haarm to make him realize how important this was to him.
His reverie was interrupted by Helmut’s huge hand on his shoulder. “Well, there she be, lad, Haarm, home of Fatbelly’s brewery and the famous Maggie’s Tits Inn.” And with a wink and a lowered voice he added, “Not to mention the best cat-houses this side of the Daggernasties. Why, them little ladies kin do things with their…OW! HEY! YEOW! Huldred, what th…!”
“Shame on your offal mouth, Helmut Muskelmann! How can you put such thoughts in the mind of a whelpling… er, I mean a young man,” and this revision drew raised eyebrows from all within earshot. Huldred continued, swishing her cane-weapon menacingly, “Anyhow, he’s got better things than trollop chasin’ to occupy his mind; serious things, things of substance and consequence.” With this she turned and strode back to the waiting, wide-eyed children croaking, “Come, come, now, my little big-eared elves. Line up, look sharp! Chieftain Garr is going to lead us into Haarm. Let us be a credit to our tribe.” Garr noticed to his great amazement then, that Huldred gave him the sweetest smile that he had ever seen grace that sea of wrinkles she called a face, and as much as this thrilled him, it also was the cause of an underlying consternation, so atypical was this gesture. But he steeled himself, turned to his “tribe” and said, “Well, no time like the present, as they say. Shall we?” And they did.
The rest of the way was downhill and consequently a pleasure. Garr let the sights, sounds and smells wash over his senses. Haarm was a millworks of human interaction and quasi-choreographed confusion. But the smells, at close range, were to Garr the most impressive, what with the bakeries, the sweet meat venders, the rouged flower girls and whores with their heady perfumes. And, as a sort of ironic balance, thought Garr, there were the unmistakable odors of the fish markets, garbage, human bodies and human waste. But Garr was perfectly content to take the good with the bad, for the wonder of all he was now experiencing of the world was nothing less than intoxicating.
The oaken sign, which swayed, creaking above the doorway read:
MAGGIES TITS INN
HOGNI B. PROP.
The tantalizing aromas of sundry culinary delights where making their welcome way over, through and around the party of travelers, when the stout wood and wrought iron door swung suddenly inward. Just as suddenly, out through the portal, came a torrential gust of dirt and debris followed by a monster of a man deftly wielding a straw broom and sniffling.
“AAH…AAH…AAH…CCHHOOOOO!!! Woo! Damnable dust… always gets me that way, it does…Oh, my! Terribly sorry, ma’am. Here, let me wipe that off your shawl. There we go. Little dab with the old bar-rag an… Huldred? HULDRED! You old witch… haha!” With that he thrust his massive hands under poor Huldred’s armpits and off her feet and through the air she went, the huge man swinging her round and round like some grotesque carousel, with Huldred feeling perfectly humiliated, squawking… “Aaaagh… st…op… aaaagh… it… Hog, you aaaaaaaggghh!” When finally the big man set her on her feet again, Huldred performed a neat little pirouette, took a pot-shot with her cane, plopped down on her rump and threw up.
The rest of the party was aghast, all standing at the door, staring into the dim light of the inn at the ridiculous scene they had just witnessed. Garr felt he should say something to break the awkward lull, but couldn’t for the life of him figure out what.
When someone finally did speak it was Bromar. “Little rough on the poor ol’ thing, weren’t ya, pardner?” By this time the whole party was trickling into the inn.
“Why, yes, it does appear that I was at that. I am dreadfully sorry, Huldred. Please, allow me,” he said bending over Huldred, offering her his ham of a hand. “AAgh, back,” squealed Huldred brandishing her cane like a swordsman. “Don’t you dare touch me you… you… oaf! Garr, help me up, please.” It was more of a command than a request, Garr recognized and acted accordingly.
Glossing over the awkwardness of the situation with an adeptness that comes from years of peacefully quelling bar disputes and playing the role of diplomat and arbitrator to the antagonists, Hogni turned and yelled, “Maggie, sweetheart, come see who’s come to visit.”
From what Garr assumed could only be the kitchen, came a lovely fluting voice. “Be right there, Dumpling!”
Moments later, through the swinging louvered doors came one of the most astonishing examples of womanhood Garr had ever seen. For although Maggie was well into her forties, she was imbued with a youthful vivacity and warmth that was instantly transmitted. Hair the color of honey added perfect complement to large hazel eyes and full lips that seemed always to be smiling. Garr thought that this strangely alluring woman was a study in round, soft sensuality. While some would call Maggie plump, Garr had to admit that any extra weight was certainly consigned to the right places, which apparently was popular opinion as was evidenced in the inn’s audacious name.
When Maggie’s eyes scanned the room and eventually came to rest on Huldred, Garr was astonished to note the look of unmistakable warm affection mirrored by the older woman. Forgotten now was the well intentioned physical abuse that she had suffered only moments ago at the hands of lumbering cousin Hog as they clasped hands and exchanged hugs.
“Huldred, dear Huldred. How long has it been?”
“Entirely too long, my dear. Too, too long,” replied Huldred, visibly drinking in the sight of one obviously highly endeared. “I can only wish that the circumstances that bring us together this time where as joyous as the last time we met.” She stalled for brief moment, reflecting retrospectively on the occasion of Hogni and Maggie’s wedding. “Ah, but enough of that for now. Where are my manners?” Hogni had just returned from cleaning up Huldred’s little accident, and now stood with his arm around Maggie grinning like a schoolboy. “Maggie, Hogni;” when she said his name, she tried to affect a dour air which was betray by an ever so slight upward curve of the lips, “May I present Garr Guntarsen, son of Guntar Bloodaxe and chieftain of the Josdahl tribes. Garr; Hogni Bjordyboffnoktopkaflapfart and his lovely wife, Maggie, who is entirely too good for him.”
“My pleasure,” said Garr heartily and meant it just a tad more when he offered Maggie his hand. She pulled him close and gave him a big kiss on the cheek.
“And,” Huldred continued, “I believe you are already acquainted with masters Tykkand Helmut?”
“Absolutely,” said Hog going over to put his arms around both men and Garr realized, to his amazement, that he was bigger than both men. Tykk and Helmut were grinning amicably and returning slaps on the back. “These guys-n-me go way back. And they still owe me for the bay window.”
After all the proper introductions were made and old relationships rekindled, Hog poured rounds of Old Fatbelly’s brew while Maggie proceeded load the table with an array of exotic victuals the like of which Garr, Ilsa, and Dolf had never seen. There were things called truffles and pungent fruits from far south. There were cheeses of every description. Garr was amazed to discover that tomatoes, something his clan had always viewed as poisonous, could be eaten and were in fact quite good. Maggie brought out a large pot of things that looked suspiciously like fish worms and Garr refused to try them until he saw everyone else enjoying them so. They were topped with a sauce prepared from the heretofore deadly tomato. Garr was so taken by this dish that he had second and third helpings. At the end of the meal there was squash pie topped with thickened cream, flavored with honey, and sweetmeats.
Finally, Garr pushed himself away from the table announcing, “Maggie, my good woman, I am in awe. Now I can die,” which brought a rousing round of laughter from all at the table. When he asked if there was a name for this kind of dinning, Hog told him, “I believe the Sveans call it ‘smugglebroad’.” “Smorgasbord,” corrected Maggie.
By this time it was late afternoon and the evening help and a few early revelers came straggling in. One of the serving wenches caught Garr’s eye immediately, a fact that did not escape the trained eye of Mistress Maggie and they were promptly introduced.
“Leorrelai,” repeated Garr. “A strange yet beautiful name.” Then he wondered if what he had just said sounded as foolish to her as it did to him. Apparently not.
Leorrelai blushed a perfect peach, batted her long black lashes and leaned across the table inadvertently revealing ample cleavage. “It’s Elfish,” she said. “My friends call me Lai.”
Garr certainly did not mean to be so transparent, but Leorrelai could see the question in Garr’s eyes at the mention of her Elfish name. In way of explanation she said, “Elfish blood. On my mother’s side. My Great, Great Grand… no… it would be my Great, Great, Great Grandfather was an elfin warrior/shaman or some such. It’s really quite the tale …star crossed lovers and all that.”
“Lai,” said Garr, feeling a little embarrassed. “Please excuse my reaction. I am, it seems, something of a bumpkin. I was raised in a remote village. Indeed, this is the first time in my life that I have ever been to a full-blown town… Well… what I mean to say is, that while I have met a few elves, I have never met anyone of mixed blood before. May I say, however, that your heritage has certainly done you justice? And excuse me if I seem too forward in saying so, but you are the most strikingly handsome girl I have ever met.” In this, Garr realized, he was not exaggerating. For while the light of the inn was subdued, Lai seemed to emit a personal radiance. Now that Garr was aware of it, he could definitely see a slight elfin cast to her features that was nothing if not alluring. Her eyes, large and brown, angled barely perceptibly upward at the corners and her hair, while raven hued and therefore in stark contrast to the almost white of the Elves, retained the silken smoothness typical of that race. She was of a delicate stature but (much to Garr’s appreciative eye) well rounded and proportionately endowed.
Before either of them was aware of it, they were holding hands across the table and gazing wistfully at each other. “Why yes, you may say that. As often as you care to, in fact. And tell me, are all the ‘bumpkins’ in your village as eloquent as you, Master Garr?” Now it was Garr’s turn to blush. “I’d love nothing better than to stay and talk all evening,” she finally said, birthing the pregnant pause, “but old Hog pays the best wages in Haarm, and since I expect to collect mine, I really should be earning them, don’t you think? I get off at midnight. Will I see you later, Garr?”
Garr rose with her as she stood. “Why, yes. I’d like that very much. Perhaps you would do me the honor of showing me the sights of Haarm. I’d particularly like to see the docking and staging areas and shuttle barges down at the harbor.”`
“Really?” asked Lai, somewhat surprised. “I could think of a hundred more interesting places to see than that.”
“Well, Lai, you see, my home village of Josdahl was attacked and destroyed by trulls and it is my dream to someday return and rebuild it into a thriving port town. We had good sea access, albeit a bit shallow, but failed to make much use of it in the way of trade. Oh, we saw an occasional pig iron barge from the dwarven mining areas, and the Lapps would come by now and then in their sealskin skiffs to peddle their ivory and skins, but on the whole we made very little use of something that I’ve always thought could be a great asset. I’d kind of like to compare and see what might be done.” He finished and looked up surprised to see what he was sure was a glint of moisture in those big eyes.
Instantly he felt guilty and a little self-conscious. “Forgive me, Lai, I tend to ramble,” he stammered.
“Shhh,” she said, putting a finger to his lips, “You do not. Oh, Garr, I had no idea. By all means we shall go visit the docks. But the dock area is no place for decent people who value their skin to be in the middle of the night. It also occurs to me that you must be a little travel weary and could probably use a good night’s sleep.”
“A bath, too, will make me much more agreeable company, I think,” he admitted realizing for the first time just how right she was. “When I shake the dust out of these clothes, I’ll be shocked if I don’t own at least an acre more real estate than I started out with.”
“So shall we say tomorrow at noon?”
“Noon it is,” he agreed.
“Very well, Garr,” she said, smiling. “I shall see to it that beds and baths are prepared for everyone. Sweet dreams,” she said and turned to leave only to return after a few steps to surprise and delight Garr with kiss, and then she was gone.
One hour later Garr, Tykk, Helmut, Dolf and Bromar were soaking in tubs of hot soapy water in the bath-house behind the inn, when Garr suddenly asked, “When was the last time anyone saw the nissa?” Everyone stopped scrubbing for a moment to think. Finally Bromar, peeping above the lip of his tub said, “Nissa! What nissa?”
Bromar had joined the group over a week ago.