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Malwyn [The Minstrel's Song #3]
by Jac Eddins

Category: Fantasy
Description: Fantasy, Romance, Magic and Danger! When Arthur the Minstrel and Malwyn the Druidess are forced to take shelter from a raging storm in a convenient cave, she is attacked by a giant bear under the control of a Demon they encountered once before. The Demon is determined to destroy Malwyn before she grows grown strong enough to destroy him. The romantic Arthur, who is madly in love with Malwyn, rescues her. But if he is hoping for the usual reward, he is disappointed, for she has sworn a vow of chastity. Arthur believes the vow of chastity the druids take is an outmoded idea. It had been said sex drains magical powers and that at such a time the druids are vulnerable to their enemies. However sex has never drained Arthur and he doesn't believe it really could impair Malwyn's magical powers. When he presses his suite too hard, the resulting fight makes them both realize how deep their love for each other really is. Arthur promises to wait for Malwyn. That promise is shattered when the Demon sends a strange woman to claim she is his legal wife. The Demon knows that Druidesses are forbidden to travel in the company of married men, and Arthur will be banished from Malwyn's presence. Meanwhile, Arthur learns of a magical scroll that can protect Malwyn from the Demon's attacks, if he can find it. When Arthur's supposed wife seduces one of the young men who make up Malwyn's company and provokes a duel between him and Arthurl realizes that to prevent blood-shed, prove his innocence and find the magical scroll, he will have to call upon his own limited store pf magic to create the largest illusion of his life. Jac Eddins' novels are "Fast-paced, attention-grabbing, full of surprises, and filled with intriguing characters," writes Ayden Delacroix, In the Library Reviews
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner, 2005
eBookwise Release Date: March 2005

eBookeBook

26 Reader Ratings:
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [263 KB]
Words: 61715
Reading time: 176-246 min.


CHAPTER 1

Two hours remained before nightfall, but under the heavily overcast skies, it appeared much later. The steady rain gave a chilling edge to the sharp gusts cutting through the cloaks of the seven shrouded figures inching their way northward through the storm. Barren country lay before them, grey and featureless as the clouds above. Ahead, to the left, the black cliffs of the highlands loomed in the distance.

For hours they had trudged through the boot-sucking mud, making slow progress. All weary, chilled to the bone, they hungered for the taste of real, hot, food. After days of gnawing dry hard waybread, a bowl of steaming soup or stew was like a dream of paradise. They would not reach Andor this night; that much was apparent. If the weather which delayed them persisted, they would be fortunate to reach the town in another two or three days.

"Over there," Elezar shouted back to the struggling band behind him. The howling winds whipped his words away even as they came forth. The wave of his arm caught their attention and they followed him westward, off their original course, toward the base of the high bluffs. Night came on by the time they reached the foot of the stony cliff.

In the deepening darkness, the big man searched through the scrubby brush. "Come help me here," he called out moments later.

The two Elves hastened toward him and the Dwarf followed after them at his own pace.

"This is the boulder that has to be moved aside," Elezar said, pointing.

The Dwarf studied its position and checked it over carefully. Similar rock and stone made up much of the ground. This particular large chunk lay half-buried in the vertical rise. Near its bottom a small rune had been scratched, one which would have been seen only by someone knowing what they searched for. "Push there," the Dwarf instructed the others.

The Elves bent their shoulders into it, but the boulder moved with surprising ease, exposing the dark mouth of a cave.

"It was built to do that," the Dwarf explained. The Elves nodded their thanks and the Dwarf, pleased by their acknowledgment, grunted in return.

"We'll camp here tonight," Elezar told the huddled group that had caught up with them. "One of you can get a fire started. You'll find plenty of dry wood inside."

The cave mouth was small; only the Dwarf could enter without stooping. Once inside, however, the cavern spread out quickly to a width four tall men could lie across, head to foot. Within a few feet of the entry, the overhead sloped sharply upward so that, within a short distance, Elezar could stand comfortably. Daemon might have grazed his head, but he was not with them, on leave to attend the Orc councils concerning their change of leadership. Some ten long strides toward the rear found a ridge of stone about waist high on the Elves. Beyond that, the cavern dropped away into darkness.

With the efficiency of much practice, a fire was quickly laid and a stewpot set to cooking over it. Piles of wood had been heaped to the left of the entry, as Elezar predicted, enough to last several days if necessary. All their spirits lifted with the prospect of a hot meal. The warmth of the blaze drove out the dampnes. They swept the floor of dried brush and small stones and placed their bedrolls.

"I surely hope there's nothing else in here!"

The tremulous voice came from a young woman. In the increasing heat, she stripped off her rain soaked cloak and looked about, surveying the place with a nervous eye. She was Elven and young, in the first bloom of womanhood. Her azure eyes went wide staring at the blackness beyond the firelight. "How far back does this go?"

"Quite a way," Elezar answered with a short laugh. "But nothing to worry of. I've camped here before, although it was some time ago."

"To be truthful, I'd forgotten it," a second woman added. She, too, removed her wet cloak. Malwyn smiled toward the soldier. "I'm surprised, and very glad, you did remember it."

"The druids often stay here when they have to travel south," Elezar assured the younger woman. "Over there, beyond that ridge, is a narrow trail leading down and back into the heart of the cliff. There's a good spring of fresh water there where we can refill our waterbags. Don't try going yourself, though. The footing can be treacherous unless you know the way. But there's nothing to fear, nothing here that can harm you."

"Aye," came the Minstrel's rich baritone. "There's not a thing to worry you. And, if a bear comes in the night, just play dead."

A shrill little shriek came from the girl and she moved closer to the older woman beside her.

"Pay him no mind," Malwyn said sharply. She finished shaking the surface moisture from her cloak and spread it over a projecting rock to dry. "There are no bears in this area. And you, Arthur-stop it!"

She bent, fumbling with the ties of her blanket roll, unaware the Minstrel had come up behind her. She straightened, turning as she did to admonish him further. "If you can't resist the temptation to--" She halted abruptly in mid-speech, surprised to find herself directly in his arms. He had been near impossible since he returned to them, along with Elezar, from their captivity with the Orcs. Malwyn had no time to protest before she was pulled tightly to him. His sparkling emerald eyes gazed smugly down into hers.

"You know I can't resist temptation. Especially where you're concerned," he whispered, bending his head close to her ear.

His hot breath on her neck sent a shiver through her, but her pale eyes showed nothing but cool annoyance. "Since you have so much heat and energy, you can be the one to go back out and scout the area."

"You're a heartless woman," he whispered, making no move to turn her loose. "I'll go, but it'll cost you."

Her mouth set in a firm line and her eyes narrowed.

"Just a kiss," he coaxed.

"Go!"

"Just a little one. To keep me warm."

She twisted her head to avoid his lips.

"It's cold out there--"

"You are an impossible wretch!" She tried again to pull from his grasp, but he was far too strong for her. When that didn't work, she turned her head and called, "Elezar!"

At her cry the giant looked about and saw them. In one rapid movement he disposed of the bundle in his hands and came swiftly toward them.

"Damn!" Arthur grumbled. "All right! I'm going!" He released the woman and faced Elezar, his hands open and raised in token of surrender. The Minstrel eased slowly around the giant soldier, not turning his back while he moved in the direction of the cave mouth.

When he disappeared through the opening, into the night beyond, Elezar's stern countenance relaxed and he grinned broadly at Malwyn. "I'll say one thing for him, he never gives up!"

"Don't encourage him." Malwyn shot the soldier a scathing look and turned away, but not before the big man saw she was having trouble hiding her own smile.

* * * *

The tantalizing aroma of cooking food wafted through the dim cavern, lit only by the fire. Everything had a reddish tint and the glow painted dark, grotesque images on the walls as they moved about. Arthur had not returned and Malwyn sat quietly on her blanket watching the activity around her. She was strangely tired, as if the delays and dreary weather had sapped the energy from her and left her drained. Nothing went well. Except for the return of Arthur and Elezar, there had been no good tidings of late.

Malwyn's eyes moistened with unshed tears when she regarded those around her. They gave so much of themselves for her quest. They could have been snug at homes of their own, with comfortable lives and loved ones, but they chose to share her burden and travel with her.

The Dwarf sat off to himself in the far corner, near the ridge, and puffed contentedly at his pipe; the scent, drifting to her, oddly pleasant. He seemed oblivious of his surroundings, perhaps dreaming of the distant mountain caverns which were his home. She suspected he saw more than he ever let on.

Elezar busily polished his sword. He never forgot he was a soldier, the general of their campaigns and responsible for their safety. Together with her, he organized their journeys. How many times his ready humor and easy manner had been a comfort to her! Yet, all that softness would disappear in an instant should there be a threat. If he had any fault, it was his devotion to her. She shouldn't complain of that, but, in truth, he could be as fussy as a new mother hen with her brood. He had become close friends with the Minstrel, although it was plain to see he didn't completely trust the scoundrel. At least, not with her. Nor could she blame him.

The Elven brothers she had known since childhood. In some remote way they were related. Those two sat near the fire cutting up root vegetables they collected while they traveled. The pair did much of the cooking. At one time the group tried rotating the chore amongst them and soon discovered one thing at which Arthur was not adept. Rather than suffer further gastronomic disasters, by common consent, the job fell to the Elves. With the greens and roots they foraged, together with the small game often supplied by the men, they prepared excellent soups and stews.

The brothers' company was always pleasant. Roper, the shy and reclusive elder, seldom spoke except in absolute necessity. As the best tracker and outdoorsman in the Guardian's service, he was all too frequently gone on other missions. It had been said of him, in jest, he could trail the shadow of a bird. That wasn't too far from truth.

Baran, the younger, did most of the talking for both of them. He knew all the old tales and delighted in telling them, whenever he could get someone to listen. In their school days, he had been intrigued by the ancient scrolls and the lore of other peoples. His greatest joy was in the solving of a puzzle, uncovering the hidden meanings of arcane riddles. He knew all the old ballads, and many nights by the campfire his clear tenor would blend with the deeper baritone of the Minstrel. Whenever it was possible, Malwyn kept the brothers with her.

The young Elf maid with them this time moved quickly about, helping the brothers. She had taken on the task of washing the pieces of tuber Baran cut and then placing them in the bubbling kettle. Since she joined them a few days before, she had shown all the eagerness of her youth, reveling in the new adventure. For her it was not yet the long arduous work it was for the rest of them.

The girl chattered away and flitted between the Elves. She was a flirt. That had Malwyn worried. Right now the girl concentrated on Baran; she seemed to genuinely like him and enjoy his company. That was fine. She was safe with him. It was Arthur Malwyn had misgivings about.

A week ago, when the girl appeared at her door with a message from the Guardian, Malwyn had been shocked to recognize her. She watched the maid carefully while they made their way back to Andor. Was it possible so many years had flown? Wasn't it only yesterday Evelyn was a chubby toddler Malwyn visited in the Elvenwood? Or a zealous young student at the Black Keep? One thing Malwyn knew with a certainty: the girl was too young and inexperienced to travel the road with her band. Far too much danger lurked ahead and it was growing. She could feel it pressing upon them. Nothing would harm the girl if Malwyn could prevent it. And the worst danger wasn't from any beast in the wild!

Evelyn had a crush on Arthur. Her eyes followed him, adoring, whenever he was about. She hung on his every word and sat, entranced, whenever he picked up his lute and sang with his playing. Malwyn wanted the girl safely away from him. The Minstrel was not the man for a maiden's first love. She knew. Hadn't she made the mistake of falling in love with a handsome devil much like him? Oh, yes, there would be joy and rapture, the earth moving beneath her feet; days of pure delight. Then would come the fall. The heartache. The pain. Malwyn never wanted the girl to learn the anguish and the suffering she, herself, had known. The joy of the hour was not worth the long, lonely years.

Thoughts of Arthur started her wondering, for the thousandth time, why the Guardian sent him to her. The Old One usually had a good reason for anything he did. But Arthur? Yes, he accomplished whatever he was set to do, but he also complicated a dozen tasks which should have been simple. The past months had done little to allay her view of him. She simply could not trust the rascal!

For one thing, Arthur was a born thief. He positively enjoyed stealing. To him it was a contest, seeing just how much he could succeed in getting away with. The Guardian harnessed his larcenous nature to some degree, retrieving relics. True, the Minstrel never took anything belonging to anyone of their own group, but from anywhere else he would pilfer whatever he could get his hands on. From local farmers, as they passed through, he would steal chickens for the pot; from heaven knew where, he acquired clothes, utensils, or anything else they might be able to use. Whenever he committed a robbery to recover magical items, he helped himself to anything else of value left lying about. Malwyn ranted and raved, threatened and forbade; it had done absolutely no good. She had good reason to believe the wretch had amassed a tidy fortune and stashed it away, although he did spend freely.

The theft at which he was best was most dangerous: stealing women's hearts. Malwyn had difficulty keeping her own heart firmly in hand over the past many months. He was the handsomest rogue it had ever been her misfortune to meet. And he knew her weakness. He was well aware of the effect he had on women. Tall, powerfully built and lithe as a jungle cat, he caught their eyes and made maidens' hearts beat faster, hoping and dreaming he'd come their way. His sun-streaked golden hair had a way of tumbling down over his brow and gave him a boyish air of innocence. One look into the sparkling devilry in his sea-green eyes immediately disspelled that impression. The beardlessness, inherited from Elven ancestors, made him appear youthful, but there was never any doubt he was a man. He could be gallant, the perfect charming gentleman-when he chose. Five minutes later, he would be an unmitigated scoundrel or a lecherous cad. And then there was his voice, that honey-sweet baritone which, whether singing or whispering in a woman's ear, could melt the defenses of any damsel foolish enough to listen.

Malwyn took great pains not to listen. She maintained a cool, detached and blunt manner with him, as best she could, yet she feared he knew, or suspected, just how much he attracted her. If he were ever to become certain, she would be lost. Elezar or no, Arthur would get to her, and she wasn't sure she could fight it. Better she kept him at bay; remind herself that, just as he pursued her, he chased every other attractive woman who crossed his path.

The giant soldier caught her eye again when he moved. She smiled tenderly. He was so gentle, so good. If only she could feel the excitement about a good man like him. He loved her. When their work finished and she was free to love he would be there, faithful, honorable--

Noise from the cave mouth interrupted her reverie. It caught everyone's attention. Something large and hairy pushed its way in through the cave entry. For a moment it lumbered forward, hesitated, and then reared high on its hind legs. It sniffed disdainfully at the creatures it found inside, its eyes glowing red, like burning coals, in the firelight. It snarled angrily at the man-smell. The evil glance swept over them one by one, until it appeared to catch one particular scent.

Elezar barely looked up from where he sat. No trace of alarm or fear moved him. "Enough, Arthur!" he said with some annoyance.

Evelyn gave a terrified little squeal and threw herself back, into Baran's arms. The Elf flushed and wrapped her in a protective embrace, somewhat awkwardly, but not without pleasure. It was for the girl's comfort and he showed no sign of fright either. None but Evelyn took the threat seriously. She was the only one who hadn't been with them long enough to be aware of Arthur's talent for illusion. Or his penchant for such tricks.

The bear didn't fade away. Its massive head brushed the ceiling of the cavern and it remained upright. When it did move, it was with a peculiar, shambling gait. All the while its bright, malevolent eyes were directed to Malwyn.

All at once Elezar didn't smile. He caught the pungent animal scent, something they had never noticed with any of the Minstrel's illusions. The warrior started to his feet, only to be dealt a smashing blow by the swipe of one monstrous paw. Stunned, he went down. His sword clattered on the hard ground, dropping from his hand. The impact might have killed a smaller man. Dazed, the soldier groped for his weapon and tried to shake the shadows from his mind.

The others watched, frozen in horror. The beast resumed its deliberate march toward Malwyn. The woman sat unmoving in its path, unable to break the spell of terror which had turned her limbs to useless ice.

At that moment Arthur burst through the entryway shouting. The bear deigned to turn its head with a growl of warning at the intrusion. It continued on toward the woman. Without regard for himself, the Minstrel dashed on and threw himself bodily against the huge animal. His charge had no effect on the creature's mass. It snarled in rage and seized at the foolish man-thing, hugging him in an embrace that could crush bones. It bared its fangs.

Nothing could save him. Roper and Baran, unarmed, were no match for the beast. Roper reached for his bow, but had no time left to string it and shoot. Zev scrambled to his feet and frantically searched for his battle-axe. Elezar wove unsteadily, trying to stay on his feet. Malwyn remained in shock. Evelyn screamed and buried her face in Baran's breast, unwilling to witness the carnage.

The tableau froze. Time ceased for those who watched helplessly. A long moment passed without motion, and then Arthur squirmed in the animal's forelimbs. A few seconds later he was free. The beast remained rigidly still. Outside of a few scratches, the Minstrel remained unharmed. The bear stayed exactly as he had been.

"Is everyone all right?" Arthur addressed them, slightly short of breath. "I found the tracks and followed them here."

Elezar shook himself, unsteady. "We're all fine. But what about-that?" He pointed to the bear.

"It's safe. It can't hurt anyone."

Malwyn threw off her paralysis and tried to rise, shaken and weak. Arthur hurried to give her his arm. She came to her feet, trembling violently. The Minstrel held her tightly to him and she made no protest. When she did regain herself she stepped back and her gaze went from him to the bear and back.

"What? How did you do that?" she asked him.

"I thought you might say, 'Arthur, you're wonderful!' Or at least, throw your arms around me," he complained.

"Or I could tell you what a fool you were to take such a risk!" She was recovering. "And it wouldn't have happened if you hadn't been clowning in the--"

Whatever else she might have said was silenced by his lips, a lingering, thorough kiss. He held her to him, looking down into her flushed face with a smug grin. "You're welcome," he said.

Malwyn stood speechless. He released her and walked to the cave mouth.

"Now that everyone's safe, I'll continue my look around," the Minstrel said from the cave entrance. "You might want to build another fire, here, just in case the beastie has a friend." He disappeared back out into the night, but not before his eyes found Malwyn's once more. He winked.

With great caution, Evelyn and the Elves approached the oddly immobile bear. The girl's fingers touched the dark body fearfully, and she gave an astonished gasp. The bear was solid stone.


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