Merry Christmas to all! I'm packing these two scenes together into a single post, as both are rather short and they go together well anyway.
* * *
The morning came bright and early, for Balfrith had opened the shutters of his window, and the sunlight streamed in from the east as it rose over Kingfisher Bay. He blinked, rubbing at his eyes, then realized how late it must be for the sun to be so bright already, and leaped out of bed. “I suppose Eldamir’s been up for a couple of hours enjoying his breakfast, and I’ll have to hurry and eat before we depart,” he muttered to himself, grumpily. “I didn’t think I was that tired - why did I sleep so late?”
He quickly changed his tunic and hose, packing the ones he’d worn to sleep into his rucksack, and trying to stretch some of the wrinkles out of the ones he now wore, which had previously been washed in a stream and dried in the sun, and then packed away for a few days until this moment. He quickly concluded that the effort to remove wrinkles was a lost cause, and went back to packing the remainder of his things.
Just then came a knock on his door, and Eldamir’s voice, saying, “Balfrith, are you awake? I hope you’re feeling well this morning.”
Balfrith hopped to the door and opened it, his hair and face still in disarray, but at least he was dressed. “Sorry Eldamir, I just woke up a minute ago. I don’t know how I slept so late! But I’m just about packed and ready to go down for breakfast.”
“Ah, I see,” said Eldamir, looking a bit dubious at Balfrith’s claim that he was almost ready. “Please don’t hurry, Balfrith, we have time. It’s a beautiful morning, with the promise of a long and sunny day - plenty of time still ahead of us for walking.”
Balfrith nodded, tying the last knot on his rucksack to ensure it remained closed. “I’m ready now. Have you eaten?”
Eldamir nodded, “Aye, I had a lovely breakfast with Layla, as I was the first and only person up at sunrise this morning. Now, of course, it’s been a few hours, and several other customers have come and gone. And a few still remain, so we’ll have a bit of company.”
“Oh, you’re coming down too?” Balfrith asked.
“Certainly. I’m packed and ready to go. So I’ll sit with you while you eat, and then we can pay our hostess and be on our way.”
* * *
An hour later, they were back on the road, walking south through the city along the broad main avenue that became the king’s highway beyond the south gate. There was a short wait at the gate itself, as there were quite a few wagons and travelers coming and going, but once through the gate and outside the city wall, the traffic spread out and they were able to walk at their own pace, only occasionally having to step off to the side to let someone on horse-back or in a wagon pass them by.
The highway turned southwest not long after they departed the city, and Balfrith knew from maps he’d seen, that it would continue in that general direction for about a day, before turning more directly south. Eventually they would come to the split where the highway turned east toward the king’s city of Hightower, but there was also a westward branch going to Kings’ Reach in the far west. It was at this junction that Balfrith could change his mind if he wished, and take the eastern path toward Hightower and the university, or continue on his chosen path and turn west to go home.
Thinking of home, Balfrith allowed his mind to wander, and the sun rose to its peak before he really noticed how much time had passed. “Is it really almost noon?” he asked Eldamir, who likewise had been silent all morning.
“Aye, a little bit past in fact. I was starting to wonder if your thoughts would return to the present before much longer.”
“Just thinking about home,” Balfrith replied. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen, well, anyone.”
Eldamir nodded, but said nothing, and they continued walking. The road, before and behind them, was empty. Though they’d seen a few other travelers in the past hour, there had been fewer and fewer to meet, the further they got away from the city.
It was mid-afternoon before either of them was hungry, but they did eventually take a short break for lunch, when they came upon a cleared area that had obviously been used by many other travelers. The grasses were trodden down to almost bare dirt, and there were several small rounded boulders suitable for sitting on gathered around a cold fire pit. Neither Balfrith nor Eldamir felt the need for a fire, but sitting down for a bit of rest was welcome, so they took a break and ate their lunch while resting on the boulders.
Half an hour later, they were refreshed and ready to move once again, so they packed up their food and started walking. A few other travelers had passed them by while they were eating, but now, for as far as they could see, the highway was empty.
The traffic remained about the same for the rest of that day, and for the next several days. However, it steadily increased as they drew near to the crossroads, which came as no surprise since so many people passed through that area on the way to or from the major cities of Nûmidëa.
When they finally arrived at the crossroads, Balfrith’s resolution wavered only slightly - that same fear reared its head, What kind of reaction will I get when we arrive? But he steeled himself, and they turned west toward his home.
While traveling on the highways, both the north-south road and the east-west road, there were plenty of small inns catering to the needs of weary travelers, so they never had a problem finding a bed and a meal at the end of the day. They were also able to restock their light food supplies as needed, which made the walking easier since they didn’t have to carry much. None of the inns were as nice as Layla’s, but they served their purpose well enough.
It was when they had to depart from the Highway and turn south toward his family manor that the road became more rough, and there were fewer inns scattered further apart. Over the course of those days of travel, they twice had to buy room and board from local farmers with space in the hayloft, and food left over from the family supper. But even in those cases, the barns were well-kept, the roofs didn’t leak and allowed very little draft, and the hay was clean and warm enough for those Spring nights. And the food was solid farm fare, plenty of roast meat, bread and gravy, and a few root vegetables left over from winter storage. It wasn’t fancy, but it was hot and it was filling, and they slept as well on those nights, perhaps even better, than they did in the various inns where they’d stayed during the earlier parts of their journey.