Arthur [The Minstrel's Song #2]
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by Jac Eddins
Description: Second Volume In Bestselling New Fantasy Saga! The minstrel Arthur, on an urgent mission for the Guardian, Lord of Druids and Magicians. is attacked and left for dead. He awakens in the care of a beautiful young woman. His romantic notions are crushed when he discovers she is Malwyn, the druid he has been ordered to serve on his new assignment. The more Malwyn refuses him the more his attraction to her grows, and the more persistent his attentions to her become. It's all the romantic bard can do to keep his mind on his work. Which is very unfortunate. For, it is very dangerous work indeed. First, accompanied by Malwyn's friend Elessar and a troup of elves, they are to locate and report on the hiding place of a reforming demon. Along the way, he and Malwyn are to seek out and destroy a group of powerful magical relics before the demon can find them. An ancient Oracle offers hints of the future and tells them the story of the demon and its origin. When Malwyn seems attracted to a young druid they rescue, Arthur can hardly control his growing jealousy. Which may be why he and Elessar are easily captured by orcs, who plan to offer them to their ruler, an immortal sorceress who maintains her youth by draining the life from her victims. Is there any way Elessar and Arthur can escape from the underground Orc stronghold, where even the Guardian can do nothing to aid them? Will Malwyn admit to herself she loves Arthur? And how can they hope to defeat the demon, if anything happens to Author, who the prophecy says must be witg Malwyn when she faces the Demon? Jac Eddins' novels are "Fast-paces, attention-grabbing, full of surprises, and filled with intriguing characters," writes Ayden Delacroix, In the Library Reviews. Cover: Matthew Kammert.
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner, 2004
eBookwise Release Date: November 2004
33 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [272 KB]
Reading time: 183-257 min.
Damn, he hurt!
The intense pain was like nothing he'd ever felt before. Usually, when he awakened after a night of excess, it was just a persistent throbbing at the temples and an uncertainty as to the stability of his stomach's content. This felt as if a woodpecker were drumming on his skull, sending crimson darts of agony throughout his body. It was worse when he tried to move; every inch of him ached. Nothing could have caused this much damage short of being seized by a dragon. He could picture himself being carried aloft, chewed on, and spit out to plummet back to the rocky earth. Aye, that would have done it! But he didn't remember any dragon.
He'd really done it this time! Never again, he swore to himself. He'd never touch another drop of miroval. By now he should have learned the potency of the Elven brandy he so dearly loved. His oath was the same he'd taken on a dozen prior occasions; 'never' lasted two to three weeks on the average. The pounding in his head continued and he tried opening his eyes slowly, cautiously, recalling what bright light could do to magnify his misery.
It was dark; he was in luck. Overhead, in the open sky, the stars were just beginning to fade with the first grey light of morning. A few darker clouds scudded along before a freshening easterly breeze. Misty haze distorted and shrouded the surrounding darkness so it appeared the trees and shrubs blended together into an inky wall surrounding him. The embers of a campfire glowed nearby.
A blanket had been wrapped over him to protect him from the night chill. The bright pattern woven into it was strange, one he had not seen before. Where, in the name of all that was holy to all the races of the world, was he? More to the point, how had he come there? Try as he might, he had no memory of woods or a camp in the confusion th was his mind. It was hardly the first time he'd awakened in a strange place after a night of revelry but he usually had some dim recollection of how he got there. And, it was most often in his own room at an inn, or some pretty lass' bed chamber.
Birds in the nearby trees twittered away noisily, as they always did just before dawn, hundreds of little gossips catching up on the latest before beginning the business of the day. Their racket must have been what awakened him. He winced. Their cheerful chirping could rouse the dead! If they would just fly away somewhere- anywhere he couldn't hear them.
He made another effort to sit up. Movement near his feet stopped him and he watched a large form rise and pad its way toward him. The huge wolf, white and ghostlike in the mist, reached him and poked its muzzle at him, checking him over to see if he was whole. The beast whimpered softly, questioning, and its tail began a tentative wag.
Rather than frightening him, the wolf was the first reassuring thing the Minstrel had seen. If Jo was with him, he was safe. The great beast had been with him for many a year, since the day Arthur had come upon him in the den of a she-wolf killed by villagers. The rest of the litter had starved, all dead but the one gaunt, pure white cub. Weak as it was, it greeted the man with a ferocity and gallantry of spirit that impressed him. So noble a beast should not be left to die. It took time to earn the animal's trust, and many a painful nip, but the Minstrel nursed the cub back to health. A bond formed between them, an understanding. Rather than master and beast they became partners. Friends.
"Good- boy-" the man croaked hoarsely. His mouth was dry, his throat parched, and words came with difficulty. His mind was not functioning coherently yet, and he still didn't know where he was.
A second shape rose from what he had taken to be a pile of blankets. The shape which approached him this time was distinctly feminine; something he never missed. The woman came and dropped to her knees beside him.
"I see you've awakened at last."
Her voice came soft, low and musical. And concerned. Once again he tried to rise, to see her more clearly.
"No! Don't try to sit up yet!"
White hot bolts of light seared through him and sent him back down with a groan.
"Give it a moment," the woman said. "Then I'll help you."
Eyes tight shut, concentrating on each number to dull the perception of pain, the Minstrel counted slowly to fifty. When he chanced opening his eyes again, his vision had improved. He studied the woman beside him with mounting interest. She was younger than he first thought, slender, and decidedly Elven. Her dress was that of the country people, a loose fitting, brightly embroidered blouse with an ankle length dark skirt. She was searching for something in the large pocket of the white linen apron covering the front of her skirt.
The Minstrel moved more carefully. Aches and bruises, too many to identify individually at once, intruded upon his consciousness. Despite the pain, he was aware the woman had slipped her arm beneath his head and supported him as he came to a sitting position.
"Take it slowly," she said.
Had he been his normal self, he would have flashed her his most charming grin and told her he'd take it any way he could get it. In his present condition it would kill him if she took him up on the offer. Wisely, he held his tongue. Besides, he hadn't had a thorough look around yet. There could be a man nearby, one who would take exception to such a remark. He took a closer look. Aye, the lass was pretty. More than likely, there was a man. He had no need to invite trouble; it usually found him without any invitation. If she had a man, he was in no shape to fight. Another groan escaped him.
"Drink this." The woman proffered the small vial she had taken from her apron. Her tone commanded, the voice of someone accustomed to giving orders and having them obeyed. When he hesitated, trying to determine what the vial contained, she frowned. "If you'd rather hurt, that's up to you."
He was convinced.
Whatever it was began to work immediately. Even as he gulped it down, he could feel the pain begin to fade. Moments passed and she watched him closely. When he breathed easier, she gave a relieved sigh.
"Do you remember what happened?" she asked him.
His attention focused on her, not her question. He'd made no mistake; she was pretty. -Not the most beautiful he'd ever seen, but something about her was fresh and wholesome. She smelled of sweet soap and fresh Spring flowers. Her ivory skin, Elven fair, had no blemish. If he dared slide his fingers over it, he would find it soft and smooth as the finest velvet. Each feature was fine and delicate and yet she reflected an image of inner strength and determination. Her single, thick braid hung down her back, to her waist, and had the color of chestnuts burnished by the late afternoon sun. That was unusual among the Elves; most Elves had hair some shade between gold and silver. She was staring at him with annoyance as he noted the odd color of her eyes, the pale greenish-blue of ice. A man could freeze in that steady gaze.
"Are you able to speak?" she repeated.
He realized, with some chagrin, he had been so occupied with surveying her that he hadn't heard her. Now she implyed his wits might have become impaired. He gave her a wide smile. "Aye, lass. I can speak."
"Do you know where you are?"
A long look about told him nothing. Trees, brush, sky; there wasn't a thing to distinguish this glade from any other in the temperate forests of the earth. "Can't say that I do."
"What's the last you remember?"
The pain had not completely disappeared and the effort to think brought a sharp twinge. He grimaced, but persisted. Dimly, he recalled an inn, the last place he?d stayed. He'd had a mug of ale, nothing much for him! Aye. And he retired early. Before moonrise. He had planned an early start come daybreak. His memory was coming back to him. He rose with the dawn and been on the road when the sun climbed the sky. It grew hot, hotter as the morning wore on. He'd grown thirsty, but had sipped only water from his flask. Not a drop of brandy, nothing that would account for this blasted headache!
"I was on the road," he said haltingly. "On my way to Highbridge. I took the main road, to make better time. An appointment. I had an appointment that I didn't want to be late for. Damn, it was hot. Sticky. I was wishing I'd chance upon a stream on the way, where I could bathe. Cool off. Then, there was a girl¡V"
"Pretty, I suppose."
The sarcasm in the woman's tone took him aback. Maybe he had been mistaken; he'd pretend he hadn't heard it. "Aye. She was a fair lass. She'd been traveling the road, too, but she strayed too close to the thorn bushes at the side of the way and her skirt caught. She'd gotten herself entangled and couldn't get loose. I went to help her. I bent¡V and the stars came out!" He gave a deep groan that was half remembered pain and half embarrassment for his stupidity. "A trap. Thieves!"
"They obviously knew the right bait!"
There was no misunderstanding this time. She sounded like an outraged wife rounding on an errant husband. Did she think ill of him in particular, or was this one of those women who disliked men in general?
The woman rose from where she had been kneeling. "You were lucky this time," she said with an ice tinged voice and stared down at him. "If Jo hadn't been with you to keep them from finishing you off¡V"
"How did you know his name was Jo?"
"You spoke a good bit. You may not have been conscious, but you weren't silent."
"Oh." And what more had he said? Perhaps that was the reason why she seemed so judgmental. He averted his gaze and noticed that the wolf's ears had gone up in response to hearing his name spoken. Jo whined again, softly, and pushed his snout into the woman's hand in a flagrant bid for attention. Without thinking, she reached to scratch the animal's ears, just as she might have done with a dog she'd owned for years. The beast whimpered with pleasure.
A new thought occurred to him. "My lute¡V" If the thieves had taken that¡V All the rest of his possessions were easily replaceable. ¡VAnd his boots were still on; his valuables were concealed in those.
"The lute is there, with your pack. Jo must have intervened. He didn't allow them take anything." She frowned. "You are a minstrel."
"Aye," he assured her. She appeared to have some doubt.
The woman exhaled thoughtfully. "I wanted to be certain." With that she extended her hand to him where he sat. "I believe you are ready to try getting up. You'll be wobbly at first, but that will pass quickly. Once you are able to walk, there's privacy for you in the wood a short ways, and a small stream where you can wash while I prepare something for you to eat."
The Minstrel came to his feet unsteadily, lurching to an upright position. The world spun for a moment and he leaned on her shoulder until the dizziness passed. In truth, he took advantage past what was necessary, holding to her, before she gave him a suspicious scowl. It was worth it; he enjoyed the closeness, the warmth and the clean, sweet scent of her. Her shoulder fitted nicely under his arm.
Her expression remained cool and aloof. She pointed him in the right direction. "Go," she said. "We have things to discuss while you rest today. Tomorrow you'll be well enough to travel."
He paused a moment before entering the brush and turned back to her, unleashing his most winning smile. "I wish I could stay with you, lass. I appreciate all you've done for me, but I really must go on. Today. There's someone I have to meet."
Her icy stare silenced him. "I'd say you had already met someone."
* * * *
The brook wasn't far. Thank heavens! He felt far better than he had when he awakened, but he was weaker than he thought. That must have been one hell of a clout. The shallow water bubbled over the rocky stream bed. Lush greenery of mid-Spring surrounded him. He stripped off his shirt and shivered slightly in the early morning chill. Cool clear water braced and refreshed, but he wasn?t going to strip down for the bath he would have liked; his teeth were already chattering. He did wash to make himself presentable.
His hand skimmed lightly over his jawline and he grinned to himself. Strangely, after all these years, he still checked to see if a beard might suddenly have sprouted. Not a single whisker. He could thank the Elven part of his ancestry for that, whoever they were. As a man, he had sometimes regretted the lack of any beard, yet it always kept him smooth for the ladies.
Or Lady. His thoughts returned to the woman awaiting him. She had spent the night in the forest tending him, a dangerous forest. She charmed the wolf and even showed it affection. Jo obeyed her and sought her petting. There was more to her than met the eye, although that part was pleasant enough.
His strength returned rapidly. The fog which had obscured his thinking had washed away with the chill water. His headache had subsided to a dull intermittent pain and even that was fading. His stride was surer as he made his way back to the camp site.
A surprise awaited him, a welcome one. She said she'd fix him something to eat, but he had expected dry rations¡V a cold, plain biscuit; at best, a bowl of porridge. To his delight she presented him with a healthy portion of savory stew, rich with meat and vegetables. And warm, along with freshly baked bread.
For the first time she smiled at him. "I have a bit of talent myself. Eat.
The Minstrel was too hungry to argue. Ravenous. He dug in with gusto while she seated herself on a blanket across from him and picked daintily at the food in her own small bowl, all the while watching his enjoyment with amusement. He had only a few morsels remaining when she set her meal aside and spoke to him again.
"Your name is Arthur," she said quietly.
"Aye. Guilty," he managed with his mouth full. He must have talked plenty while he was unconscious. He hoped there was nothing¡V
"You are a very lucky man." She no longer smiled. "When I reached Highbridge, I looked for you at the inn. They had no word. I would have awaited you there, but something didn't seem right. You have a reputation for being punctual, when it counts. I set out this way, thinking to meet you en route. Had it not been for Jo, I would have missed you. He must have sensed I could help and he led me to you."
"You understood him?"
She gave a short laugh. "You could say that. I have a way with animals."
He liked her throaty chuckle, no girlish twitter there. "So I see. Jo doesn't often take to people.
"Oh, he wasn't too sure of me at first. He watched every move I made, caring for you. When he was confident you were safe in my hands, we became friends. In the last three days¡V"
The food caught in the Minstrel's throat and nearly choked him. "Three? Did you say- three days? I've been here that long?"
Those pale, cool eyes raked him. "In spite of your obvious charm and handsome face, it was no love-tap you got. Your damsel might have been gentler, but her companion wanted no fight from you. You're fortunate you have such a hard head; few men would have survived such a blow. A leech would have lost you. Even with the magic, I had my doubts for a bit." She gave a deep sigh.
"Magic?" That had his attention. "Just who are you?"
Her look was one of long suffering patience. "I would have thought you had figured it out by now. I'm the one you were to meet. Did you expect me to travel about the countryside like this?" Her fingers snapped and she came to her feet with a dramatic flourish. She stood before him garbed in the dark robes of a Guardian.
The gown was loose, bulky and shapeless, giving no suggestion of the nicely rounded curves he knew were underneath; a decided waste, in his opinion. The dull, greyish brown color did nothing to flatter her complexion. In fact, it gave her a sallow, unhealthy yellowish cast. All in all, he could see why she would prefer the peasant dress.
The illusion she created didn't impress him either. Illusion had been the first and easiest of his own magic to master, and he knew his talent in it was far superior. The only thing that did impress him was the medallion she wore on a thick chain about her neck.
"You? You are the ArchGuardian?"
His astonishment brought a satisfied smile from her. She had potent magic to have earned that title!
Arthur recalled his friend, Jason, telling him about a pretty Guardian, and he had been less than pleasant about it. Guardian females were a waste of woman flesh. He resolved to watch his step, at least until he knew more about her. And, he had solved the mystery of how he came to eat so well! This was the one who was able to blink from place to place. She had simply gone to the Keep and picked up the food, already done. The Minstrel usually avoided Guardians, particularly the women, whenever he could. They all tended to be stuffy and sober. He hadn't been at all happy when the Grand Guardian told him he'd be working with one, although he'd expected somewhat more of a matron. If only he'd paid a bit more attention!
"You may call me Malwyn," she said. She allowed the illusion to fade. Once again she was a pretty lass in country dress. "You were sent to me by the Guardian Council¡V"
"By the Guardian," he corrected her, cutting in. He didn't miss the look of annoyance she shot him, and he grinned in seeming wide-eyed innocence, gazing up at her. "I just wanted to be accurate."
She took a deep breath. "Yes. Well. He seemed to think you could be of some service to me." Her arms, folded across her chest, and the cold fish-eye she gave him, echoed the ice in her voice. She wasn't buying that.
Arthur was silent, studying her, gauging the best way to deal with her.
"I'm told your talent, in magic, is considerable." She began to pace before him. "I'm also aware your conduct at times is- at best¡V" She paused, searching for the right word.
"Disgraceful?" he offered with a grin. The woman went from ice to fire; he'd have sworn he saw sparks when she glared at him, her jaw firming.
"We have no time for nonsense! We have work to do. Serious work! Why the Guardian would send me someone like you¡V Oh, I've heard of you! Anyone working among the Guardians couldn't help hearing of your- exploits. I can't believe this! You¡Va dissolute wretch! A rake and a felon!"
"Now hold on!" he protested. He wasn't that bad!
"You drink!" she accused.
He considered a moment. "Sometimes."
"Most of the time. And when you aren't drunk, you're chasing women!"
That wasn't precisely true. He chased them when he was drinking, too. And often caught them. "I wouldn't put it quite that way. I¡Vappreciate women. I enjoy their company. I like to brighten their days with my songs."
"And their nights!"
"Aye. Especially the nights!" Her smoldering anger was difficult to ignore, but he resolved to maintain his composure.
"And you are a thief! Deny that, if you can!" She glared at him balefully.
That denunciation brought a grimace to his handsome features. "That's terribly harsh." What did the witch expect? That was part of the job the Guardian had given him! "I am not a criminal."
Her laughter came, curt and derisive. "Several sheriffs would disagree. At least three I know of, personally, would love to get their hands on you."
"Matters of small misunderstandings."
"Such as the way you find things? Before they're lost?"
His eyes rolled in an exaggerated appeal to the heavens for some divine justice. "If you are referring to the incident with that Lady's jewels, I didn't steal them. The- Lady- gave them to me and then, later, reported them stolen so I would be brought back to her. She- didn't want me to move on."
"And you do move on!"
The Minstrel had about enough. "I had work to do! Remember? It's my business. Our business. Surely you can understand¡V"
"Do you ever stay in one place?"
"Not long. When have I been able to? My mother keeps our home and I've seen it four times in the past fifteen years, years I spent roaming about on the Guardian's bidding- if that's a fault, too." With that he pushed aside the empty bowl, inhaled and let his mounting anger cool. When he had control again, he smiled up at her. "That was delicious. I thank you."
Arthur had expected her examination, and her displeasure. He hadn't been at all happy himself when the Guardian told him he'd be working with a woman. This was part of the price of dealing with one. How the Old One could have inflicted another female on him after what he'd been through on his last assignment¡V! That had been cruelty. Pure hell! He'd had to fight with that damned Amazon female halfway across the Western continent while he guided her party to the one area a particular plant grew. His friend, Jason, needed it, and the Amazons did, too, to halt an epidemic in their homelands. Of course the damned weed only flourished in the most inaccessible, miserable and perilous place possible. Arthur succeeded, in spite of that damned shrew. And how had that female thanked him? By trying to buy him from the Guardian! She wanted him as a damned pet! Wanted his child! As if he'd have wished her as mother on any child of his! If he could have one. Now this one!
This one was carping on his peccadillos. She hadn't said one word of the good things, his many accomplishments, his long years of loyalty and service. He'd gone where he was told, done as he was told. Did she take any of that into account? No. Just his faults¡V faults as she saw them. Any man worthy of the name had a vice. Or two. Damn her! The woman was as cold as the ice of her eyes. The Ice Maiden; a good name for her. And she'd probably demand he live a good, clean, celibate, life. The Guardian would have to put her straight on that!
He became aware of her scrutiny.
"Are you a man?" she asked.
"Shall I strip?" The crimson which suffused her face gave him enormous pleasure.
"You know what I mean!" she answered him tartly.
"Aye, lass. I'm definitely a man. On all counts."
His deep, mellow laughter heightened her blush. "You look a little Elven," she said defensively, pretending not to understand his intimation.
"I have some Elven blood."
"Have you ever been tested?"
"Aye. I'm a man."
The woman nodded absently. Children of mixed ancestry seldom took the Elven side, although they often inherited some of the Elven abilities; night vision, acute hearing, balance and longer lifespan. With this one's reputation with the ladies she should have known he couldn't be Elf. She regarded him thoughtfully. "Just how long did you intend to stay with me- with my band?"
Emerald eyes captured hers, dancing with silent mirth. He caught her slip, her momentary drop in guard which told him she was far more aware of him than she would admit. Her interest had been there, just for a second, before she could force it away. "Forever, if you wish," he said in a low voice. His grinned, sly and devilish. "Of course, if the Guardian summons me- or you send me away¡V"
"That would seem the most likely," she retorted, as if reminding herself of what a scoundrel he was.
"Have you judged me already?"
"It is not my place to judge. The Guardian sent you. He must have had a reason. But your attitude disturbs me. Your lack of discipline¡V"
"My love of life," he cut in. "Don't forget that! Enjoying one's self appears to be a major flaw. And don't look at me like that! I'm every bit as dedicated to our cause as you are. Maybe more. I've risked my life, and more. I've never failed an assignment or let down a comrade who needed me!" His smile disappeared and he met her stare evenly. "But, we may not be able to work together. You may as well know right now. I won't be some woman's lackey!"
"Now that- that was spoken like a man."
"Thank you," he said with biting sarcasm. "I consider that a compliment, even if you didn't mean it that way. I'll work with you, but not for you." His bold, heavy lidded eyes swept over her, lingering pointedly at the curve of her hips and the swell of her bosom. "Under you might prove interesting."
"This will not work out!"
She burned bright red again. Her discomfort pleased him; turnabout was fair. "And why not? Can't you cope with a mere man? Or am I too much of a challenge for a poor, wee lass? And why don't you smile more? Your face won't crack. You're beautiful when you do smile, you know. You just don't do it often enough." His gaze was brazen as before and he made no effort to hide his frank appraisal. A slow, speculative smile curled his lip. "Or are you afraid I'll wake up the part of you that's been buried in ice for years?"
"Is it? Why are you trembling? Is it anger, or something else?" He met the fury in her expression unaffected and pulled himself to his feet. He came to her, leisurely.
She drew back slightly, not knowing what to expect.
With courtly grace he gave her a deep, sweeping bow and then slipped down onto one knee. He reached to take her hand in his. "Forgive me. I haven't thanked you properly for saving my life, such as it is. You have been most kind and gracious. I regret we've gotten off to so poor a start. Let's begin again. Here I am, my Lady. I would be honored to serve with you, if you'll have me. I will try to be all you require of me. If I have lapses, they will be in small things, matters which will not affect my work. I will lay down my life for you, if the need arises. That is my pledge to you. Shall I stay, or go?"
The sudden change momentarily seemed to throw her off balance. Their wills contested as their eyes locked. Malwyn was first to look away.
"My life, my love and devotion. Do I stay or go?" he asked again, gently.
"I don't need you!"
"You may, one day."
"And I surely don't need your kind of love!"
"Don't you?" he asked with mild surprise. "Maybe you could teach me another kind."
"Don't play your games with me!" She was quiet as she appeared to consider. "I suppose the Guardian had good reason to send you," she said at long last. "Stay. We'll see if your talent is as great as your arrogance and conceit."
"Aye. And perhaps we'll see if you can learn to laugh a bit. Or does the ice go all the way through? Do you have any real, woman's feelings?"
"My love is given where it is deserved. And it is no concern of yours!" Her hand was still held in his and she withdrew it as if his touch had become a burning brand. Spinning about, she stalked away from him.
Arthur watched her go, eyeing the swing of her hips as she went. He marked the haughty tilt of her head, the proud carriage¡Vand he wanted her. A rush of desire swept over him, causing his body to react. Damn! He knew better than that! "A damned Elf female. A druid. He had learned that painful lesson years ago. But, she was a challenge such as no woman before. Caution! Warning bells sounded the alarm in his mind. She had power. How should a man approach a woman like that?
Very carefully, if he didn't want to live out his days crawling around as something unnatural. A slow, canny grin played over his mouth. She had made a mistake. He'd seen her interest, even when she tried to deny it, and she was a woman, after all. Underestimating him was a dangerous error on her part. And she was no innocent maiden either, or he wouldn't have felt that surge of lust. Whoever her lover had been- or was- she would forget him. One way or another, by fair means or foul, he was going to have her.
That ice was going to melt.