Jason [The Minstrel's Song #1]
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by Jac Eddins
Description: "FAST-PACED, ATTENTION-GRABBING, INTRIGUING CHARACTERS. That's how Ayden Delacroix, writing for In the Library Reviews, describes the work of Jac Eddins. She also calls Eddins' books, "Alive, vibrant and full of surprises." Jason is the first book of an enthralling new fantasy series with science fictional overtones. Jason, a soldier, and Arthur, a minstrel, are impressed into service by the Guardian, Lord of Druids and Magicians. The Guardian has discovered that an impending wedding will lead to a devastating war. So, he sends Jason and Arthur to prevent the planned nuptials. It's a doomed match anyway, the high-born bride, Reina, is an amazon, and the groom a scheming Duke, a tool in the hands of a near-immortal black magician. When Arthur falls for Reina, he and Jason devise a scheme to make it appear Reina has been compromised. Soon the Duke has rejected her and, but due to misunderstanding between the temperamental minstrel and strong-willed amazon, Reina is married to Jason. When the evil sorcerer discovers the trick, he sends the Duke to kill Jason and Arthur and to capture Reina. While Rena and Arthur bicker, the three desperately attempt to defend their own lives against the Duke and his men. The sorcerer looses a plague on Reina's country, and Jason takes her to a druid stronghold to protect her, while Arthur goes in search of the one plant that will cure the plague. Will Jason tame the willful Amazon or vice-versa? With the Duke's army between him and success, how can Arthur possibly get the cure back in time? And will Jason and Reina make their sham wedding a reality, or will Reina still hold to her love for Arthur? And just why does the sorcerer want Reina so badly anyway? The story continues in The Minstrel's Song Book II: Arthur. Cover: Matthew Kammert
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner, 2004
eBookwise Release Date: August 2004
40 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [313 KB]
Reading time: 201-281 min.
"What's wrong, Captain? The ale too strong for you?" Avery, a huge bear of a man, laughed, setting his large frame shaking with mirth. He'd served with Jason too long to worry about repercussions for his teasing. The soldier continued to enjoy his joke and lifted his own mug of the foamy, nut-brown brew in mock salute. "You've hardly touched your drink, and you haven't spoken a score of words all evening."
Amid the noisy merriment of the tap room, Jason remained seated, quietly watching his men enjoy themselves. They deserved their celebration. If he could just banish the eerie feeling something was wrong, he could join in their lighthearted play. Brooding wasn't his normal nature. He'd tried telling himself it came from his reluctance to return home, but that wasn't it; at least not all of it.
Six months past, Jason's father, the Duke of Belham, commanded his only son to resign his commission in the Guardian's service and come home to settle down. Jason obeyed. After weeks of rusticating, he'd been able to persuade the Duke to allow him, with his troop, to attend the games on the coast. He and his men seized upon the diversion as starving hounds would pounce upon a meaty bone. They threw themselves wholeheartedly into the tournaments. Now, with the competitions over, they were once again on their way back to boredom. Their trophies and purses of gold coin meant little when they considered their dull future. Better to enjoy their wealth on the slow march home.
"Nothing to say," Jason grinned. He swept back the waves of dark hair straying in damp ringlets over his forehead. The busy room had grown stifling. Sweat beaded on his brow and the close heat made him drowsy.
Jason pushed away from the rough hewn table, rose from the bench and stretched. Avery frowned, "Going somewhere, sir?"
"I need a breath of fresh air."
Avery set back his mug and rose to accompany him.
"No need for you to come along," Jason smiled. "I'll just take a walk to the stable and check on Lightfoot. That should clear my head."
"I'm not leaving the grounds. Nothing will bother me," Jason laughed aloud. "In case you hadn't noticed, I've grown."
Avery had been Jason's bodyguard throughout his youth, before he went to the Druid Academy at the Black Keep. When Jason returned home, Avery joined Jason's troop, those who elected to follow their Captain to Belham. In an unsettled world filled with ambitious neighbors, a keep could use all the men at arms it could gather. The older man still appeared to consider Jason in need of watching. If Avery knew half the things Jason faced with the Guardian's Rangers he'd likely have suffered a seizure. Jason nodded to him and the other two men at his table and took his leave.
A plump serving maid had waited upon them through the evening and pouted when she saw him leaving. He'd noticed the fresh sweet scent of soap and her vibrant, healthy glow. She'd hoped to gain more than passing attention from him. He saw the way her hand lingered on his when she passed him a fresh mug. Perhaps, when he'd cleared his head, he'd stop back and see how friendly she wanted to be.
Once outside, Jason shivered in the night's chill. Clouds obscured the light from moon and stars. A hint of dampness hung in the air, promising rain by morning. Perhaps he could justify spending another day at the inn before traveling on. Riding in a downpour was uncomfortable at best, and could be dangerous. He smiled to himself. As if his years in the Guardian's Service hadn't posed any dangers! No, he simply wanted an excuse to put off going home. Any excuse.
He made his way down the path toward the stables and found Lightfoot in his stall, eating contentedly. The horse raised its head to nicker a greeting for its master. Jason leaned against the stall gate, smiling with fond pride, and watched the powerful chestnut resume his meal.
Something stirred beside him and he spun about, at once wary. He saw nothing and his brow furrowed. The brew at the inn was potent, but hardly enough to impair his reason.
The air beside him shimmered. This time, a figure took shape. For a few heartbeats it wavered, like the reflection on a pond with the water surface disturbed by a faint breeze. A moment later, Jason found himself gawking, like some green youth, at a woman. She was hardly the first pretty woman he had seen; but she was different.
After seven years of study at the Black Keep, and serving in the Rangers for another six, Jason would have sworn, under oath, he was incapable of surprise. On several occasions he witnessed what the Guardian and his druids could do. While he did not have the gift of magic himself, he had watched some amazing uses of it. The woman's druid robes eased his alarm and assured him he had no fear of attack.
She stood far taller than average, barely tilting her head up to meet his eyes. Her dark auburn hair, brushed back to hang in a single thick braid down her back, shone with the reflected reddish light of the lantern hanging near the stable door. Almond shaped eyes gazed back at him, pale blue eyes with the greenish tint of ice. Those eyes, together with fine, delicate features, marked her of Elven descent despite her darker hair. Most Elves had hair in the shades between silver and gold. Her loose robe disguised most of the shape beneath, but, with a man's practiced appreciation for feminine curves, he could tell she was well formed. The unflattering dress hid high, ample breasts, full enough to please any man with red blood in his veins, including himself.
Any romantic ardor her appearance may have ignited quickly vanished. The heavy silver medallion hanging from a sturdy chain about her neck warned him. It gleamed brightly in the flickering lamplight and he recognized it at once. Jason dropped to one knee and bowed his head. "My Lady."
With a smile and an impatient wave, she gestured to him to rise.
One female druid, in all the Order, wore that insignia of rank; the pendant designating her an archdruid. In his years of service, Jason heard much about her, although he never had the privilege of meeting her. Gossip among the druids told she was the One, the ordained Champion. It would be her quest to find and defeat the awakening Demon.
"I am honored, Lady Malwyn," Jason greeted her.
"My pleasure, Jason. We finally meet. The Guardian speaks well of you." Her eyes crinkled at the corners with a mischievous smile. "He's told me much about you. Most of it good."
Relaxed by her easy manner, Jason grinned. "Not all good?"
"A few exceptions. I'm told they were, for the most part, due to bad company."
Jason winced. Surely the Guardian hadn't told her? Jason had never done anything really bad, just a few things he wouldn't have wanted mentioned to a lady. Whenever he and his friend, the Minstrel, got together, things seemed to get out of control. That rogue was the Guardian's most effective agent and troubleshooter. As an itinerant entertainer, Arthur, 'the Minstrel', made his way about the countryside with little notice from the local authorities. All the while, he gathered information and did whatever work the Guardian asked of him. As a minstrel, he could mingle with those of all classes without attracting attention. ?Except from the ladies; they never failed to notice the handsome rogue. When the two of them traveled together--Jason could only hope this Lady hadn't heard about any of those times.
"How may I serve you?" Jason asked.
"The Guardian sent me for you."
Malwyn's mind appeared to be on her errand, and, to Jason's relief, she remained unaware of his self-conscious embarrassment.
"He needs your service again, if you are willing." At his nod of consent she continued. "Good. I'll take you to him as soon as you advise your men you are leaving. They can await you here. You should not be gone more than a day."
Jason gave no argument; one did not easily dismiss a summons from the Guardian, and certainly not one delivered by his personal aide. Jason's troop of twenty men, together with their squires, could stay at the inn while he was gone. They would be welcome there, enriching the innkeeper with their healthy appetites for his good food and ale.
How the Guardian had known where Jason would be at that precise time was beyond his understanding. Much of druid magic eluded him. The important thing was he had been called.
All his life, Jason had been blessed with good fortune. His father, a wise and open-minded ruler, allowed Jason to be educated at the Black Keep. The Druid Academy was a fitting place to learn the responsibilities of leadership. Few were given the opportunity. Jason had been well prepared to succeed his father, but was in no hurry to do so. When he completed his education, the Guardian offered him a commission to serve with the Rangers and learn more of the world. Jason seized the opportunity, much to his father's irritation. In his travels Jason had seen a good bit of that world, including a vast array of evil mustered to oppose the druids. Maintaining the peace and stability in a turbulent land was no easy task. Renegade magic made it no simpler.
For all he had done, Jason was still in his mid-twenties. Accustomed to the activity of the Service, he quickly became discontented with the bucolic life of his father's Duchy. He gained no satisfaction from applying himself to the daily routines of government, not when his former companions were embroiled in an escalating fight against a rising threat. More than that, the Duke remained a vigorous man, hale and hearty, with many more years to rule in his own stead.
Jason advised his men quickly. None of them were eager to reach the monotony of Belham, either. They had no objection to waiting for him at the inn, not so long as the food and ale were plentiful and the adoration of the serving girls lasted. In Jason's absence they faced one less rival for the attentions of the prettier lasses. They wished him well and offered the sincere hope it meant they, as a troop, would soon see action again.
Jason hastened back to where Lady Malwyn waited.
The woman rose from the bench where she sat resting and extended both her hands to take Jason's. "Hold tight and don't be frightened," she assured him. "It will only take to the count of three."
Jason had no time to protest had he wanted. The woman's eyes closed in concentration. The opportunity to 'blink' through space came rarely. Jason resolved to keep his own eyes open, to see what really happened. Less than a score of all the druids had the magic to travel instantly from place to place, and fewer still were capable of carrying another along. Jason had often heard the druids speak of 'blinking' and learned it was both difficult and draining of energy, something used only when truly needed.
A gust of wind buffeted his face and, involuntarily, his eyelids closed. By the time he could reopen them, it was too late. The dark stableyard had disappeared and they stood in a brightly torchlit hall. Malwyn reached out to him while he gazed about in wonder. He had sense enough to catch her before she could fall, steadying her as the fatigue of her feat washed over her.
"Thank you," she smiled, holding to him for support.
Jason chided himself for forgetting she would be weakened temporarily, particularly after two such journeys within the hour. "I should be thanking you."
"It has been my pleasure to meet you." Malwyn regained her strength quickly and straightened to stand alone. "The Guardian will be waiting in his study. Do you remember where that is?"
Jason nodded in affirmation. "I've been there," he admitted. She had the sweet, clean scent of a spring meadow after a light rain. He shouldn't have noticed how soft, feminine and vulnerable she felt in his arms, but he had. He could get to like that.
The woman smiled up at him. "Good. I have to get back to my own work. I'll likely see you again, later, when I take you back." With a friendly wave she went down the corridor and disappeared around a corner.
Jason watched her go, wishing he dared ask her to guide him to the Guardian's chamber. Why had he told her he knew the way? She seemed so young, yet it was hard to tell with Elves. He never dreamed a druid would be so attractive. Her reputation called her cold; aloof; a dedicated, no-nonsense soldier in the battle against evil. He hadn't found her remote at all. She was very personable. And pretty.
And what was he doing standing in the middle of the hall staring after her? It was unlike him to lose himself, eyeing a lovely face or well-turned ankle. Not when the Lord of the Black Keep had sent for him! The Guardian was waiting!
The stone corridors of the Black Keep had not changed since his days at the school. Jason moved through them swiftly, making his way to the Guardian's study. Many of the druids he passed on his way nodded and smiled in recognition, Masters and his former teachers.
Jason paused outside the Guardian's chamber door and took a deep breath. The Guardian, The Old One, might have the appearance of a genial, white-haired grandfather, but he was, in fact, the single most powerful man on the earth. Except, possibly, for the Demon; Jason didn't want to consider that. He entered the room, filled with the sense of awe he always felt in the presence of the Guardian.
The large chamber, high in the central tower of the Keep, was as he remembered it. Tall candles in elaborate candelabras lit the area immediately surrounding the wooden table which served as a desk, leaving the remainder of the room in dark shadow. A glowing fire on the hearth gave a comforting warmth. High, arched windows looked out over a breathtaking view of the snow-capped mountains ringing the castle.
The fabled Black Keep lay far in the Northern wastelands, too far and too difficult a journey for the frivolous or merely curious. It had been built of smoothly polished obsidian and stood in stark contrast to the eternal snow and ice. Thus it earned its name. The base of the castle rested on an island in the center of a lake. Crystal clear cold waters stretched out in all directions. When the lake froze in winter, it extended as a field of ice all the way to the village on the distant shore.
Tonight there were no clouds. The lake shimmered, reflecting the brilliant moon and the glistening silver of the frozen peaks on its black waters. Later, if he had the chance, Jason would take a moment to admire the beauty of the scene. As many years as he spent there, he never lost the thrill of its majesty.
The Guardian rose from his seat, welcoming him with a broad, open smile. Jason knelt before him. "Sire."
"How was your journey?" The Guardian gestured for him to rise.
"Amazing!" He came to his feet. "I could scarce believe it! And that woman?"
"I take it you were impressed with Malwyn."
"Indeed. She was so pleasant. And pretty. What a shame she's a druid." He caught himself and his cheeks reddened. What possessed him to blurt out such a thing?
The Guardian chuckled deep in his throat, easing the young man's mind. "For my part, I'm glad she is what she is. I couldn't do without her. No ideas, my young buck! She has no time for romantic entanglements." The tolerant amusement faded and the Guardian frowned. "But you are not usually so attentive to women. Perhaps I've chosen the wrong man for this assignment."
"Oh, no, Sire!" Jason hastened to convince the Guardian he'd made no error in selecting him. "It was just? She's so--different." How could he let himself be distracted when he knew how important this must be?
The Guardian watched him closely, blue eyes twinkling with a humor and liveliness at odds with estimates of his age. The old man was nearly as tall as Jason when he stood. No bend to his back, nor any other sign of weakness, betrayed advanced years other than the unruly crop of white ringlets crowning his head. According to rumor, he was older than any man or Elf in the world, yet the spring in his step and his lively wit caused Jason to doubt that. Of course, with magic?
The Guardian walked from behind his desk and paced before the window.
"I? Well, I hope I can be the right one," Jason finished lamely.
"I knew I could rely on you." The old man turned to face him, a sly smile on his lips. "I chose you because I thought you might prevent this task from becoming a disaster. I need someone to keep him in line--and away from the women."
A soaring joy filled Jason. He would have shouted in delight if he dared. That could only mean? "Who might that be, Sire?"
The Guardian laughed. "Need you ask? That is, if we ever find him! He's been in the village several days, but my messengers have yet to locate him."
"But--that's not a large village."
"I know that! This is the second time in?" The Guardian snorted his exasperation. He cut short his tirade of faults and misdeeds when the chamber door opened. An older druid poked his head in and signaled frantically, finger to his lips, then nodded in the direction of the corridor. As quickly as the man appeared, he was gone.
"Sit over there," the Guardian said, motioning Jason toward a chair in a darkened corner where he would not readily be noticed. He did as he was bidden. The old man hurried back to his desk and seated himself, scooped up a paper and pretended to read. He schooled his features into a disapproving scowl. It would not do for him to show his delinquent agent any trace of amusement.
Slowly, cautiously, the heavy wooden door swung open once again. A tall golden haired man stepped in, gingerly, his cap in his hands. His trepidation could be understood; he had kept his Lord waiting. The newcomer took an uneasy stance before the desk and remained there, silent, watching the Guardian finish the letter he appeared to be studying.
The old man lifted his head and stared a moment with narrowed eyes. "A bit late, aren't you?" he asked sharply. "A little trouble getting out of bed?"
The man's clear, strikingly handsome visage flushed, evident even in the candlelight. He smothered a choking cough.
Jason fought to muffle his laughter, noting as he did so that the Guardian's bright eyes could scarcely conceal his own mirth. The conclusion both men reached was unmistakable: it had not been his own bed from which the scoundrel was roused.
The number of foolish females lured to the rascal's bed never failed to astound Jason; or the multitude that coaxed the Minstrel into theirs. That was not a difficult task for any attractive woman. The silly creatures adored him. They all believed they might be the one who could put an end to his wandering ways. Not that devil! Fifteen years earlier, the Minstrel vowed to love all women, but never one; and he had lived by that promise. Those who tried to tie him down swiftly saw their hopes dashed and any dreams of domesticity shattered.
The Guardian tolerated the Minstrel's fickle nature; a permanent union would have cost him a most valuable man.
Jason had some sympathy for the lovely ladies the Minstrel set out to charm. The handsome devil might have foresworn love for any one woman, but the rogue never renounced the pleasures of love. He indulged in them at any opportunity. Nature had been overgenerous in her gifts, endowing the man with looks and talent, including the honey-sweet baritone which, singing a ballad or whispering soft words into a feminine ear, guaranteed he would melt the defenses of any woman naive enough to listen. It was as if he had been designed purposefully for the seduction of the fair sex.
Strangely, men did not resent Arthur, The Minstrel. He proved a lusty and good-natured companion, generous and full of humor. And, he was a good friend and ally in a fight.
From his vantage, Jason could see the Guardian had trouble disguising his amusement at Arthur's discomfort, yet dared not let the Minstrel become aware of it. The old man held an avuncular fondness for the knave, but well knew Arthur would be quick to take advantage if he thought he could get away with it. ?More than he already did.
The Minstrel had changed very little since Jason first met him, back when Jason came to school at the Black Keep, a wide-eyed, slightly frightened boy of twelve. Arthur, just past twenty then, had already become an accomplished agent in the field. He became a hero to the youth. The Minstrel took a liking to the lad, encouraged him, and assumed the role of an older brother. When Jason's education finished and he entered the Service, he joined Arthur on several of his missions. Those missions were never dull and the two men became fast friends.
Most of the changes in the Minstrel were simply the addition of a few more vices to that of his appetite for comely women. Arthur developed a taste for Elven brandy, a penchant for gambling, and an absolute delight in thievery. The last, at least, the Guardian encouraged and harnessed for his own ends. Arthur's light fingers made an immeasurable difference in the task of ridding the earth of objects of dark magic. Many who came into possession of such devices refused to relinquish them to the safekeeping of the druids. In that case, it was Arthur's task to get them, stealing when that was the only way. The Minstrel had been apprenticed to a Master Thief in his youth and became one himself in the process. The Guardian could count on him to retrieve whatever he was sent for. Many of the druid council complained that Arthur also managed to line his own pockets with jewels and coins while he was about it.
The Minstrel remained with bowed head, in a respectful attitude. His servility was not lost on the old man. Jason saw the Guardian frown and set aside his paper. Why was Arthur so docile? The answer struck with the clarity of a lightning bolt. The rogue meant to forestall all further inquiries into his whereabouts when he was found! Whatever bed he'd been in wasn't where he should have been.
"I trust you are ready for your assignment," the Guardian said.
The Minstrel grimaced in his disappointment. "I've been here only a few days. I thought I'd have a chance to--for--business."
"I'll assume you've already attended to some of that 'business' in the time my messengers have been searching for you!" The old man's tone softened. "I'm sorry, Arthur. This matter is too important. It won't wait."
Jason smothered his laugh. The usually eloquent Minstrel dared not mention what he was about. Business indeed! Nor did Jason believe his friend fooled the Guardian for one blink of an eye!
"Aye, Sire," the Minstrel sighed in sorrowful resignation.
The Guardian made no effort to hide a broad smile. Jason, hidden in the darkness, grinned as well. Years of schooling, traveling all over the world, and the pretty scamp had never lost the lilting accent and idiom of his far Northern homeland. It was as much a part of him as his larcenous and libidinous bent. The Minstrel returned the Guardian's smile, along with an easy shrug. He knew what prompted the amusement. Through the years he had been teased for his speech and it had long since ceased to bother him--if it ever had.
Arthur's smile faded quickly. "It must be urgent for you to drag me back to this frigid place and not allow me a bit of comfort to warm my bones." Anyone who knew him, knew the Minstrel had no liking for the Black Keep, nor any appreciation for the isolation or the cold weather.
"It might do you well to visit us here for a time and cool that hot blood of yours," the Guardian told him with a deceptive mildness. His words did not completely mask the implied threat. "Especially if you were to be restricted to the island and denied the 'comforts' of the village."
The warning was not lost. The Minstrel stood on dangerous ground and knew it. Jason watched Arthur's jaw set as he drew himself up to meet the Guardian's penetrating gaze. Once the Minstrel, too, had been a student there in the Black Keep. Jason was one of the few he had ever spoken to about it, of the enjoyable early days he spent there. During the all too brief Spring and Summer the countryside became hospitable, even pleasant. Arthur had not found it confining until he noticed girls. Then, his troubles started. The Minstrel's problem with the Keep endured. All those within its walls were druids and students, all very serious and bound by vows of chastity. Lapses occurred, but were firmly punished if discovered. For Arthur to be condemned to life within the castle was a horrifying prospect to him. In the village was life; raw, robust and rowdy. To be denied that? Watching, Jason imagined he could read the man's thoughts and barely suppressed his laughter when the Minstrel's slight shudder confirmed his belief.
"This mission, Sire," Arthur said smoothly, in what Jason recognized as an attempt to draw his Master's mind from any further ideas of punishment.
"May I then presume you are ready to go?" the Guardian asked, bringing his hand up to cover his mouth. It hid the merriment his smile would reveal.
"Indeed, Sire. Was there any doubt?"
"None at all."
"What would you have me do this time?"
In his dark corner Jason bent his ear. This would affect him as well.
"Prevent a wedding," the Guardian told the Minstrel with a twisted grin. "Something you've been remarkably adept at."
"A wedding? As in 'marriage'?"
"You needn't say it as if it were a dirty word! Some people do believe in it."
"Some sick people enjoy pain," Arthur grumbled. "That doesn't mean it's good for anyone." He broke off under the Guardian's baleful look. "And how am I to accomplish this?"
"That, I must leave to your ingenuity. The one thing you must do is prevent the young Lady involved from marrying the man to whom her father has promised her. You will have to look over the situation and judge how best to accomplish it. Use your imagination."
One golden brow arched. "If the lass is comely I could?"
"No! Absolutely not! This girl is not for you!" the old man thundered. "You cannot touch her. She is a virgin. More than that, the wedding must be halted in some way that will keep the bridegroom from starting a war with her father."
"A Baron's daughter."
Arthur exhaled slowly. "You don't ask much," he grumbled. The Guardian's cold glare cut him short. "But--as usual--I'll do my best to meet your expectations, Sire."
"See that you do. This is a most delicate, and urgent, matter. I can't stress that enough. If Duke Ollivard succeeds in his plan to marry the girl, it could be a catastrophe. Anyone but him! Ollivard serves the Demon. According to prophecy, this wedding will result in a child that could incarnate the Evil One. The Demon will have no easier chance to assume human form. We must prevent it. I can brief you on details while we have our meal. No doubt your 'business' has left you with your usual hearty appetite. After we have dined, I'll want you to leave as soon as possible."
"Today! No more 'business'. That can wait. Unless you prefer I send someone else while you take a rest. A long, long rest here, in the tower. Meditating."
"I am ready whenever you say, Sire."
A soft laugh escaped Jason before he could smother it. Arthur was a gambler and long ago learned the most important rule: Quit when you can't win.
"Good. Good," the Guardian said. "And you won't have to travel alone this time. I'm sending a company of Rangers?"
"Rangers? Damn!" The man made no apology for his crude expletive or the interruption. "How could you do this to me? You're punishing me!"
The old man's brows beetled and his anger flared. "Why would I need to punish you? Have you done something more I am yet unaware of?" He inhaled slowly and let his temper cool. "And what, pray tell, is wrong with the company of my Rangers? They are all good, dedicated men."
"Aye. That they are. Dedicated to destroying any possible enjoyment of life! So damned moral and self righteous?" the Minstrel spat out, too annoyed to care about the Guardian's wrath. "All of them--above reproach--and they see to it that no one else can have a bit of sport!"
"You've had more 'sport' than ten good men enjoy in a lifetime! No more of this!"
Jason was certain the Guardian would burst into laughter; for a moment he looked as if he might. The Minstrel reminded Jason of a cat with its fur rubbed the wrong way. In one respect, he could sympathize with his friend; most of the other Rangers were of a sober, monastic disposition.
When the old man spoke again his voice grew softer and his words placating. "I ask a great deal of you, Arthur. I always have. Perhaps there is something I can do to make this journey more bearable for you." The soothing tone vanished and the Guardian scowled fiercely at the wicked light in the younger man's eyes. "But do not dare to suggest I allow one of your light-skirted companions to accompany you!"
With that small glimmer of hope ended, the Minstrel's shoulders sagged in defeat and he nodded acceptance of his Lord's edict. "As you wish, Sire. But--what of another companion? ?One not adverse to an occasional bawdy song or a belt of good Elven brandy? Apart from your men, of course, so we would not pollute your good troops."
"You make a good case," the old man said with a faint smile, ignoring the sarcasm in the Minstrel's last remark. "Did you have someone in particular in mind? He'd have to be completely trustworthy."
"I was thinking of my friend, Daemon."
"You mean the Orc?" The Guardian frowned.
"Half-Orc, Sire. He would give us protection."
"What need would you have for more protection? With a full troop of Rangers and your own abilities?" The old man paused to consider.
Jason could see the Guardian weighing the possibilities. Daemon had been with Arthur the first time Jason met the big fellow, or Jason might have been terrified of the huge creature himself. He remembered the occasion, and the giant half-Orc, well. Daemon was one huge package of brute strength, in no way resembling the human part of his ancestry. That could be useful. Most of Jason's own men knew the young half-Orc and liked him. They could have no greater asset if it came to a fight, or flight, to save the girl. Jason also knew, as he was sure the Guardian did, if it came to it, Daemon would be better able than anyone else to keep the Minstrel from mischief. The giant was actually the more reasonable of the pair. The old man glanced toward Jason with a subtle query. Jason nodded approval.
The Guardian once again regarded Arthur. "You know Daemon will have to avoid being seen around some of the towns. He could draw too much attention and mayhaps cause a panic."
"He understands that, Sire."
"Yes. Of course. You two have traveled together before. I suppose it could work out. Very well. I'll allow it. If. Do I have your word that you will both behave?"
The Minstrel placed his hand over his heart. "No pranks; no tricks, I swear. No nonsense. No upsetting illusions."
"Not until you are out of sight," Jason murmured to himself.
The Guardian had not finished with the Minstrel. "And no women!" he admonished Arthur. "Not as long as you are on this task. It won't hurt you to abstain for a time."
The Minstrel rolled his eyes heavenward in mute supplication and uttered a heartfelt sigh when he saw the old man unmoved. "No women," he agreed, looking much like a beaten pup.
"I will count on that. You disobey me this time and I'll show you what punishment is!" The Guardian's bright eyes took on a twinkle of humor. "Did I mention that this troop to accompany you is Jason's?"
A slow spreading grin lit the Minstrel's features. "Jason? Truly? But, I thought?"
"He has consented to return for this assignment with you."
"Why didn't you say that in the first place?"
"I tried to tell you." The Guardian laughed with Arthur's obvious delight. "But you were so busy with your objections, I couldn't get a word in. Jason may have some suggestions." He turned to the shadows. "Have you?"
Jason strode into the light to be greeted with an enthusiastic bear hug and a vigorous thumping on the back.
"You damned scamp!" Arthur beamed. He stepped back to look his young friend over. "I thought you were retired--back at your father's castle getting fat and lazy. How did you fare at the tournaments?"
Jason gave the Minstrel a surprised stare. "How did you know I had been to the Games?"
"I stopped by your home some three weeks past, on my way to report here. Didn't your father mention it?"
"I haven't seen my father. I was intercepted on my way back home," Jason explained. He made a wry face. "I did think you'd show more enthusiasm for my company."
"You mean that thing about the Rangers?" Arthur asked sheepishly. "You know most of them aren't like you." The Minstrel's features clouded. "You mean, you haven't yet been back to Belham?"
Jason filled with sudden apprehension. "No. I was brought here before I got that far. Why? Is my family well?"
"Aye?" the Minstrel replied with a trace of hesitancy. "They are all well. Your father wasn't exactly happy to see me, but he did give me shelter on my way. I--I may have some news for you, though."
The Guardian interrupted. "Gentlemen, shall we discuss this over our meal? We have wasted too much time already. More than we can afford. I'll explain the situation in more detail as we dine. You will have a short rest and then you will go."