Mr Ballentini was as unprepossessing as the tavern in which he had arranged to meet the adventurers. The name Ballentini had conjured a certain image in Derek’s mind of a large ebullient man with massive flaring nostrils and a rich, resonant voice. He had hoped for the fumes of inexpensive liquor on his breath as his voluminous chortle echoed around the room. Instead of a picturesque bonviveur, Derek was now sitting opposite the dullest man he had ever encountered. Mr Horace Ballentini was gaunt, but not to the point of being interesting and he had one of the biggest noses Derek had encountered in a long time. Apart from that, he was completely average in appearance – short light brown hair, mildly weather-beaten skin, hazel eyes and a slightly miserable mouth. On top of this complete lack of distinction, he also had the most monotonous voice Derek had ever heard. In fact, Derek was struggling not to fall asleep just listening to him detailing the terms of travel.
Morwenna and Iona, who had a tendency to act like naughty school girls when given half the chance, were sitting either side of him snorting into their mugs of ale. Derek had given up trying to silence them with school-masterly type glares because they only made things worse. Luckily, it appeared that Horace Ballentini was completely oblivious to their rudeness. He just continued to explain the caveats under which the caravan would not protect them from flood, fire, bandits, demons and acts of assorted deities.
The Mages, Adarius and Reet were sitting at a separate table a little way away because there had been no other space. Bobang was sitting on a stool with one foot balanced delicately on top of the other so that as little of himself was in contact with the floor as possible and a look on his flabby face that suggested he was only putting his buttocks in contact with the seat because he didn’t want to waste the magic of conjuring himself a shelf to sit on. He had left the construct outside the tavern guarding everyone’s bags. Bert was teaching Reet how to play a game that was apparently very big in Alendria. As it wasn’t dissimilar from draughts, Reet was winning and Bert was taking this in good spirits. Adarius was looking on at the whole affair with the same gently bemused expression he had been wearing since they left Aberddu. He had at least put his coin back into his shirt pocket. Tollie and Sylas, who were somewhat subdued from their earlier escapades, had decided it was probably more politic if they sequestered themselves in a nook by the fireplace, hoods pulled well up, faces down. They still hadn’t let on about what had led to the incident with the militia.
Derek gathered them all together half an hour later and with a lack-lustre smile opened his mouth to explain the arrangements.
“Now, the plan is this,” he said, but that was as far as he got before he was rudely interrupted by Bobang, who let out an effected snort and said in a voice clearly used to its own way,
“I hope you’re not about to suggest that we spend the night here.” It might have been possible to fill a word with more disdain that he had put into ‘here’ but it would have taken quite some effort and possibly a funnel. Derek, who had a well-deserved reputation as one of the most even-tempered Guild Masters in Adventuring history, produced an irked snort and closed his eyes.
“Funnily enough Professor,” he said quietly with a satisfied half-smile, “I wasn’t.”
Two hours later, as Iona cracked the reigns of her wagon and gently easied the cart out into the caravan, she was still chuckling under her breath. Bobang was wearing the same sour scowl that had slipped over his features sometime earlier, when Derek had explained that they wouldn’t be spending the night anywhere. Or at least, anywhere that contained a bed, a fireplace or even a privy. Apparently, the caravan need to leave post-haste, so they were going to have to travel over-night to make up some miles. He was even less pleased when he had discovered that they would be travelling with the livestock.
Tollie, Sylas, Derek and Iona had volunteered to take turns driving and the others had been offered seats in the lap of luxury – amongst the sheep and goats. Reet and Adarius had climbed into the back of Derek’s cart without a word. Morwenna had let out a joyful squeal, clapped Bert soundly on the back, said cheerfully,
“Sheep, excellent! Better than chickens believe me Berty,” hiked up her skirt and scrambled into Iona’s cart. “Come on, give me your hand.” Bert, who seemed to be treating the whole trip as a delightful cultural exchange, held out both hands and with little dignity crawled into the cart with Morwenna’s help. She installed in one corner, and he adjusted his hat. Morwenna turned back to Bobang and said,
“Come on then, prof. You’re next.”