Demon [The Minstrel's Song #4]
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by Jac Eddins
Description: Minstrel against Demon! Returning from his quest for a protective amulet, Arthur the Minstrel finds the druid outpost destroyed and his beloved Malwyn missing. Together, he and his companions must find and rescue her. Meanwhile, Malwin, the druidess, helpless due to a head injury, has been taken captive by the evil Baron and the Demon he serves. The Demon plans to seize the secret of her powers from her mind, and free himself to conquer the world. Presenting himself as a simple minstrel, Arthur enters the castle of the Baron pretending to be a minstrel in the upcoming festivities. Surrounded by danger, in peril of being recognized at any moment, Arthur finally finds Malwyn--and the Demon! It's a moment the Demon has been waiting for ever since Arthur joined the Druid's efforts to oppose him. What can a minstrel do against the awesome powers of a Demon? Will this be the end of the minstrel's song? Balrog Award winner Ardath Mayhar, author of Warlock's Gift, The Black Tower, and The World Ends in Hickory Hollow, calls the Minstrel's Song, "Engaging and enjoyable, with a great deal of originality. I particularly like the gnome, Squeak, and his hot-air balloon. The characters are likeable, and the action non-stop ... a fun read. The first book is ended satisfactorily, while setting up the basic premise for future novels dealing with continuing difficulties with the dormant Demon. What fun!"
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner, 2005
eBookwise Release Date: April 2005
22 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [213 KB]
Reading time: 141-198 min.
"Soft beds," Arthur murmured. He trudged on up the steep grade.
"Hot food," Daemon added, climbing along beside him.
"Ale," Zev laughed as he plodded upward with them.
The moon, well past full, rose in the east, although the skies had not yet darkened appreciably. The weary travelers wended their way up the rocky trail toward the mountain cabin that awaited them. They had left their horses with Daryl and a servant to be returned to the stables in Andor, a decision Arthur regretted every step since. Elezar was probably right, though. They could make just as good time on foot with a lot less trouble. There would have been a problem pasturing the animals and horses would have problems on difficult mountain trails. And so they pressed on, climbing throughout the day, taking only short breaks in their eagerness to reach their destination by nightfall.
Daemon sniffed the air, disappointed that his keen sense of smell detected no aroma of food cooking. He had been regaled with stories of Rubio's culinary prowess and looked forward to sampling the proof. "What do you want first?" the big fellow asked his friend, the Minstrel.
The answer came as an evil laugh.
"After that," Daemon snorted. All their spirits soared as they anticipated the end of their journey.
"I thought you gave that up," Elezar chided Arthur from a few paces back, his teasing good-natured.
"I was thinking of a bath," the Minstrel answered him with mock indignation. The wicked gleam in his eye indicated he surely lied.
"Sure you were," Daemon rumbled with laughter.
They continued scaling the steep pathway, looking ahead to what promised to be a joyous evening.
Arthur's thoughts centered on seeing Malwyn again. Just a little farther. He had been disappointed when she hadn't joined them on their way or, at least, come to greet them. No doubt they had been spotted making their way up the mountain trail, the last leg of their trek. All through the past weeks he'd looked for her to appear out of nowhere. Smiling. Forgiving. She had time to think things through, and she would have learned the truth about Daryl and Evelyn. Apologizing for being as foolish as he had been. And there would be sweet kisses when they were alone.
Malwyn would be proud of him; he was satisfied with himself. The carnal demands of his body had been tamed. Truth to tell, he hadn't faced any serious temptation. The females of the Lizard people were not much to his taste; he preferred soft to scaly. But, he had been good!
All the men were stiff and sore after the weeks of roughing it, sleeping night after night on cold, hard ground. It had been an arduous task, a fortnight of trudging to the ruins and then two days of battling filth and crawling things while they dug for the cache where the amulet was buried. When druids secreted something they did a job! None of their band thought they would ever feel clean again after wallowing in that slimy muck, not until they had spent a day or two soaking in hot, soapy water.
The small band found the crystal piece, but, before they could leave, they were attacked by the Lizardmen. On an earlier visit to the ruins, Arthur met and befriended one of the Lizard clans. Unfortunately, it wasn't the same one, and this group had anything but peace and friendship on their minds. Half of the attackers were dead or incapacitated before they fell back and Arthur's group had the opportunity to leave. The Lizardmen didn't give up right away either; they stalked the group, just out of crossbow range, waiting another chance to strike. They didn't get one. Roper spotted them, still tracking after them for days, until they left the marshlands far behind. Two more grueling weeks on the trail and they were almost home.
The last bend lay ahead, the cabin just beyond. Their pace quickened. The Elves, Roper, Baran and Faranor, led the group, a few yards to the fore. Arthur saw Roper halt suddenly, frozen, just as he reached the point beyond the curve. The men ran, all fatigue forgotten.
From the roadway, in the darkening evening, they could see something amiss. The cabin door hung open and oddly askew. No flicker of light or hearthfire showed in the dim interior. The blackness inside was like that of an empty grave.
Cold gripped Arthur and a sickening weight pressed down in the pit of his stomach. He dropped his gear and ran like a madman toward the building, passing the running Elves, and shouting Malwyn's name.
No answer came. An ominous silence hung over the tree shadowed cabin.
Arthur reached the doorway a step ahead of the Elves. In the fading light they could see the inside torn apart. Broken pottery and furniture littered the floor, the featherbeds slashed and tossed aside.
The rest of the group reached them and stood beside them in horrified bewilderment. Zev peered in and quickly thought to light a torch. In its glow, the scene appeared even worse. The entire cabin had been ransacked, gutted; anything of value had been taken and the rest smashed, wantonly destroyed. On the woven floor mats spread dark stains. Elezar knelt to study them and confirmed their worst fears. Blood.
Arthur's knees went weak and he leaned against the rough-hewn logs of the cabin wall. He was going to be sick. "No," he groaned. "Please--No--"
Elezar's face became a grim mask. He arose and placed one huge hand on the Minstrel's shoulder. "She's all right. She can take care of herself. You've got to believe that."
"What if she's been taken?"
"Who can hold her against her will?" the giant reasoned.
Arthur smiled faintly. Malwyn had the unusual magical ability to travel instantly with a moment of concentration. "I pray you're right. What should we do?"
"Nothing right now," the soldier answered, composed and in charge. "It's evident this happened some time ago. A few hours won't make a difference and we are all exhausted. We have to rest. We can't blunder about in here, too tired to see. By moving around in the dark we could destroy the sign left and miss something important. We'll camp outside, by that big tree. Take heart, there is no smell of carrion. Come morning we'll search. We might have some word by then." His dark look showed he had no real hope of that. "Until then, let's stay on our guard."
"I think we have a guard," Faranor said, pointing.
At the edge of the woods surrounding them, where Faranor had gestured, sat a huge white wolf, his pelt shining silver white. The animal watched them closely. At Arthur's whistle the beast came bounding. It leaped up on the Minstrel with tail wagging like some huge dog in enthusiastic greeting.
"I'll tell you one thing," Arthur said, grappling with Jo, "We won't worry about anything surprising us in the night." * * * *
Jo's soft whine awakened Arthur. Pale first light streaked the eastern sky, just before dawn. The Minstrel rose quickly and faded back into the shadows of the tree from where he could observe his surroundings without being seen himself. Nothing was apparent but the grey fog blurring the forest into dark irregular patches. He saw Faranor sitting up, propped against the bole of the oak, alert and listening.
"Someone out there?" the Minstrel whispered.
"I thought I heard something," the Elf replied in a soft murmur.
As in answer to his words, they heard the movement of something large, and, almost as an afterthought, the clanking of a metal bell.
Arthur had to grin. "Fresh cream?"
The clank of the cowbell permeated the sleep of those others still wrapped in their blankets. One by one they stretched and opened their eyes. They all swiftly tended their morning needs before they sat to eat a hasty breakfast of trail bread. By the time the sun actually rose over the horizon Roper was studying the ground about the cabin.
Faranor scanned the tracks with Roper, conferring in hushed tones while the rest of the men searched through the wrecked cabin for anything they might have missed in the dark. When all were finished, they gathered to exchange findings.
Roper spoke first, breaking his wonted silence. "Too much time has passed to be absolutely sure. Weeks. At least a dozen horsemen came up the mountain. One of the mounts had a distinctive hoofprint. That horse carried greater weight leaving than it did coming. Possibly a prisoner."
"Malwyn?" Elezar frowned.
"No way to tell. It could also have been something of value from the cabin, although I couldn't guess what. On the other hand, the weight would be about right. Or it could have been another of the druids who lived here with Rubio."
Zev had doubts. "How could they have taken her? She could just pop out on them. We're not even sure she was here."
"I think she was," Baran put in with some reluctance. "I found a small pack she carried, with clothes and personal things. She wouldn't have left it."
"But they couldn't take her--" Zev insisted.
"They might have been able to." Elezar wasn't happy to dispute with the Dwarf, but he had to be honest about it. "It wouldn't be like her to run from a fight and leave friends behind. And she could be taken by surprise, as Arthur was once, with some sort of spell or charm that could strip away her magic. All they'd have to do is shackle her with iron. Any sorcerer would know that. It could bind any magic user, even a druid." He looked to Faranor for confirmation.
"Possible," Faranor admitted.
"Do you have any idea who might have taken her?" the giant soldier asked. He didn't want to think of why.
"We'll find the Demon involved in this, I'm afraid." Baran shook his head in despair.
"We can't just give up," Zev protested.
"We aren't going to," Elezar said with firm resolve. "All we have to do is find where they've taken her."
"There's something else." Roper hesitated.
"Go on," Faranor commanded. "They have to know."
It pained the Elf to tell them, they could read it in his sorrowful expression. "There are graves," he said. "Fresh. The horsemen didn't make them. Farmers-or neighbors-buried three, maybe four."
Elezar's lips set in a thin straight line and anger smoldered in his dark gaze. His calm held deadly menace. The druids who kept this place were healers. Helpers. They never turned away the sick or hungry, or refused anyone shelter. Whoever murdered people like that--Anything more?" he asked, his voice harsh with emotion.
"One horseman has returned here. Several times," Roper added.
"I think we should extend our search further about the cabin," Elezar decided. There was a remote possibility one of the druids might have escaped or crawled off into the woods. They should take pains that no clue be overlooked, especially one that might lead them to those who had done this crime. The group agreed and set out, each in a different assigned area.
Faranor spotted a thin column of wispy blue smoke a short distance away, likely a farmer's cottage. It might be the home of the ones who had performed the burials. Elezar agreed with him, and the Elf started out on a walk to visit them, hoping they might have information to contribute. Elezar himself began searching with the others through the surrounding woods.
Minutes later, Elezar heard Roper's excited call. The Elf had found a bootprint in the brush, small enough to be a woman's. An Elf boot print. The soldier hurried after Roper as the tracker picked up the faded trail. They went swiftly, deeper into the thick brush. Elezar was surprisingly agile and quick for such a large man, and kept up with the fleet Elf. They were some distance from the cabin when Roper gave a smothered cry. Ahead, in the dirt, lay something bright. The two reached it and knelt. * * * *
A pair of eyes, malevolent and filled with hatred, watched from the brush. The belonged to one of the Baron's men, one of his most trusted, one who would do as he was told and keep his mouth shut. Since the raid he had returned several times. The Baron wanted to know what these druids were up to. Earlier that morning, he spotted the small group camped under the nearby tree. Their numbers kept him from revealing himself or challenging them; too many to take on at once. And there had been that wolf. The man waited patiently for a chance to strike when the odds were in his favor.
He had a hunch. That was why he'd paid a local farm boy a copper to run this way wearing the woman's boots. He knew eventually someone would look for her, a pretty thing like that. Her jewelry thrown there was sure to catch their eyes. He'd taken it from the woman, but he hadn't shown it to the Baron. The Lord had all the wealth he needed and wouldn't miss one trifle, even if it was heavy and should prove valuable. It would be his bonus for a job well done, and it would soon be back in his pocket. A long, slender dagger rested in his hand, thin enough to slip through the spaces of chain mail and thirsty for the taste of the giant warrior's blood. One sharp, accurate thrust and, if that one died immediately as he should, the Elf was no match for a man of his size and strength. All he had to do was wait for the right moment.
Elezar's back was toward him. Kneeling down to examine the bright piece. Perfect. He raised the blade slowly, making no sound to give warning; high, so it would have sufficient force to penetrate deep and kill at once. His hand began its downward plunge.
Silver flashed in the sunlight that streamed sporadically through the forest canopy. The Baron's man screamed and his dagger fell harmlessly to the ground, his hand pinned to the tree beside him by a small silver dirk. Blood trickled from the wound.
Elezar sprang to his feet, drawing his sword.
From the brush opposite them, Arthur came walking, Jo beside him snarling and baring his teeth at the would be assassin. The Minstrel knew Jo wouldn't fuss about a damned cow!
Both Elezar and Roper marveled at the change in the Minstrel. This was not the man they had known. No humor sparked the grey-green eyes and his mouth twisted in an unpleasant smile.
"I owe you again," Elezar told him.
Arthur nodded bruskly, his attention on the wounded man. "This is interesting. Perhaps we've found someone who can give us a few answers."
Elezar stood guard while Arthur withdrew the knife holding the man's hand to the tree.
The Baron's soldier clenched his teeth but made no outcry. The blade came free and blood began to flow freely. "You'll learn nothing from me," the man muttered, cradling the injured hand.
No trace of kindness or sympathy touched Arthur's cruel smile. "I think we might. I think you may wish you had more to tell me." The Minstrel ignored Elezar's warning glance, the one reminding him that no harm would be allowed to an injured and unarmed man.
The initial surprised scream of pain had brought Zev and Baran running, with Daemon just a stride behind. They were relieved to find their companions unharmed.
Elezar tried speaking reasonably with the prisoner; he was spat upon and vilified. The Baron's man quickly identified the giant soldier as one of those compassionate fools who wouldn't harm him. He went so far as to dare the big man to kill him. Arthur would have obliged him, but Elezar held him back.
Elezar was in a quandary. He needed the answers and there was no honorable way to get them. He had a prisoner, one they dared not turn their backs on, wounded or not. They couldn't free him, and he would slow them if they took him along. Should he escape and warn his superior, whoever it was, it would increase their difficulties tenfold. But, no matter what he personally felt about the captive, he'd not permit harm to one in his custody. Killing in battle was one thing; he didn't like it even then. He would not violate his code.
Arthur, more intent on Malwyn's safety than the welfare of one of the bastards involved in her disappearance, had no such reservations. There were instances when Elezar was too soft for his own good. Something needed to be done. When the Minstrel weighed this man's life against the risk to Malwyn's, there was no contest. He moved to Baran's side and gave the Elf a slight poke, unseen by the others, to gain his attention.
"Get Elezar away from here. Far as you can get him. Keep him away as long as you can," the Minstrel whispered.
Baran thought about it for a moment, meeting Arthur's cold, steady stare. His eyes strayed to Elezar and back. Almost imperceptibly he nodded.
Zev started and glowered at the Minstrel when he, too, felt a sharp nudge.
"Dwarf, stay with me. Tell Daemon," Arthur breathed, too low for any of the others to hear.
Zev's irritation fled at once when he saw the purpose in the Minstrel's icy visage. He did as he was told.
Baran took a little while to contrive a plan, but, at length, he convinced Elezar there were other signs he should see on the other side of the cabin. The soldier followed after him, cautioning the men left behind to guard the prisoner carefully. Roper went with them.
When the captive looked about him a short while later, he found himself alone with Arthur, Zev and Daemon. His arrogance faded somewhat and his apprehension grew. He watched the three with mounting uneasiness.
"Secure him," Arthur ordered Daemon.
The man started to mock Arthur as he had Elezar. One look into the flinty green fire of those eyes and he knew fear. That fear became terror when he found himself locked in the rock-hard embrace of the monstrous half-Orc.
Arthur's voice came soft and low, like velvet ice, the purr of a cat with the hiss of a cobra.
"Now, my friend," the Minstrel said. "We will talk." * * * *
The hoofprints Elezar and the Elves followed were not unusual. In truth, they were more likely those of a local farm animal than those of the troop that had attacked. The two Elves kept on, and Elezar, yielding to their superior skills in woodcraft, went along for some distance. Suddenly, he had an uneasy feeling, a premonition. It couldn't be the prisoner; certainly Arthur and Daemon would not let him escape--
Arthur and Daemon! A shaft of ice pierced him, the chilling qualm of impending evil, but, before he could act, a shrill scream of intolerable agony split the morning air. The giant's blood ran cold at the sound. He stood for a moment, stunned, a look accusing Baran. The Elf evaded his eyes. Roper had run on ahead and turned at once. A second shriek hung for an interminable moment and ceased abruptly.
Elezar took off on a run, to possibly save the life of the man who would have killed him.--If that man yet lived. Panting for breath after his long dash, he reached the unholy trio where he had left them. The prisoner sat beneath a nearby tree, unwatched. There was no longer any need for vigilance. The man's face held a vacant stare and he babbled to himself like an infant.
"What did you do to him?" the giant demanded of Arthur.
Stony silence was all his answer. Arthur turned deliberately away.
Daemon hurriedly found business elsewhere. Elezar would gain nothing by detaining him and knew it. Unless Arthur told him to speak, there was no force in the world that would loosen Daemon's tongue.
Zev alone met the warrior's glare. "You don't want to know!" was all he would say. It was notable that, from that moment on, the Dwarf accorded Arthur the same deference formerly shown only to the Kings of his own kind.
Playing with the small dagger in his hands, Arthur turned to address Elezar. "We have some answers. It all comes together. The Demon, the Book, and Malwyn. They've taken her to Archet. To Wizard's Keep. As soon as Faranor rejoins us, we go to get her back!" * * * * CHAPTER 2
Faranor brought news from the farmhouse he visited; some heartening. Only two of the young druids had been killed. Rubio lived. With a clap on the Minstrel's shoulder, the Elf assured Arthur that, hereafter, no one in that countryside would ever harm the great white wolf. Rubio had told him his story and Faranor repeated it for the group.
The attack came suddenly, as the peaceful druids sat beside the cabin's hearth after their evening meal. Rubio told one of his outrageous anecdotes for the younger men's enjoyment when, without warning, the door burst open and darts from crossbows flew into the room. Rubio was first to fall, the quarrel through his shoulder pitching him into the darkness of unconsciousness.
He struggled back to awareness with no idea how much time had passed. It could not have been too long, for the soldiers were still there. He wisely lay still, feigning death. The bodies of two companions lay beside him where they had all been dragged, out of the way, while the soldiers searched for anything of value, destroyed and plundered. His wound was serious, he recognized that, and trying to do anything would not have helped and certainly have finished him.
From where he lay Rubio could see Malwyn lying on one of the cots, pale, her eyes closed, but she was breathing. He heard two of the men make crude comments about 'wasting' such a pretty woman. The officer in charge reminded them in no uncertain terms of the penalty for touching any female they found at the druid cabin, in any way other than necessary to effect her capture. Rubio's mind eased on that score. Once more he fought desperately against the blackness trying to engulf him. He prayed, trying to hold back the pain and nausea so he might stay aware, and to escape the notice of the enemy until he could be of some help to her. It was too much; the darkness swallowed him again.
The next thing he recalled was the early morning sun streaming through the gaping door. He tried to move, to crawl from the spot where he had been left. The bodies of his companions sprawled hideously nearby and he did his best to avoid looking at them. All he managed to do, attempting to move, was to bring on the weakness and oblivion once more.
When next he opened his eyes the sun had risen high. The irritation of flies humming, swarming about him, had roused him. The noisome smell of death choked him. His mouth was dry, parched and swollen. He could move one hand, that opposite the side of his wound. Rubio brushed at the buzzing pests to keep them off. A grim certainty filled him. His time was running out. If help didn't come-soon--
A faint sound caught his ear. Rubio raised his eyes to watch the doorway, the direction he faced, and his blood ran cold. Silhouetted against the light stood a huge wolf. The man's throat was too dry to shout, to startle the animal and perhaps drive him off. The horror of seeing his friends devoured, of his own probable fate, overwhelmed him. The beast approached the source of his low, croaked cry of despair.
The wolf stood over the helpless druid, sniffing. Each second lasted an eternity while he waited for the attack that would end his suffering. The animal, unusually large and silver white, moved away. It had examined him with seeming intelligence, but Rubio dismissed that as the delirium which presaged his approaching end. He drifted, and then was jarred to see the great beast coming back to him, dragging something along in its jaws. At his side, the wolf used his heavy muzzle to nudge the druid's good arm. It had brought him a wineskin.
By then Rubio passed beyond fear. He reached cautiously and took the skin, pulling it to his eager mouth. How the soldiers missed it, he didn't know. The wolf sat and watched him sip.
Minutes passed. The wolf crouched and appeared to study him. Once, the animal's ears went up and it growled in warning. Rubio became terrified again, until he saw another beast at the cabin entry. He didn't get a good look at what it was; the wolf set on it at once and drove it away. One more time the wolf returned and sat watching him.
When the animal left him a short time later, Rubio felt a sense of regret, together with his relief; it had been a living creature and he was alone with death. Fever came on him and time distorted. His consciousness faded.
Shouts and noise awakened him, followed by the appearance of the wolf in the doorway. The beast came around and stood behind him, facing the entry. Excited voices of humans approached. A bowman entered first, his arrow ready to loose. Rubio croaked as loudly as he could, crying for the man to spare the wolf. The animal had deliberately gone to find men and taunted them into chasing it, to bring him aid.
The farmers listened. They buried Rubio's companions and carried him to the nearest farmstead to nurse him. The men were in awe of the great wolf that stayed at the druid's side, watching over him to see that no harm came to him. The farmers dug three graves, hoping the soldiers, should they return, would believe Rubio also dead.
Rubio recuperated slowly. He learned that one of the farm women saw the soldiers leave with a captive. A woman. The farmwife had hidden in the brush, too frightened to interfere or even speak. Unprotected women did not challenge soldiers of the Wizard's Keep; they did their best to avoid notice when the Baron's men rode near.
The wolf remained with Rubio through the weeks, impressing the local countryside. The men from the area took to bringing the animal choice tidbits of meat from their hunts and came to regard him as their mascot.
"There is no danger they'll harm Jo," Faranor said, ending his recitation.
That pleased Arthur, but his other concern was greater. "Was that all they had to say of Malwyn? Are you sure it was her?"
"It was," the Elf told him. "The description fit. The woman also said Malwyn seemed dazed, injured. She had a makeshift bandage wrapped about her head. She couldn't ride alone and one of the men carried her before him on his horse, supporting her."
"But why hasn't she escaped since?" Baran wanted to know.
"We won't know until we find her," Faranor replied. "She may be held by spell or by iron. We'll have to see."
"I suggest we get started," Arthur said with an impatient growl, and no hint of his usual good humor.
"Tomorrow," the Elf countered. "We eat; we rest; and we examine our options."
Waiting was not the course Arthur wanted, but he acceded to the wisdom of his companions. * * * *
Up a steep, torturously winding road, atop a sheer faced cliff of grey stone, loomed the castle. Its great towers rose high above the surrounding countryside; the granite of its walls blending into its base so it appeared to have been carved from the mountain rock itself.
A village lay some three leagues down a twisting way, in the castle's protective shadow. The view of the keep dominated the busy village, just as its presence dominated the life of its people. It stood a symbol of the rule of the Baron who held it. Archet lay on the single route from the Eastern coastal cities to those on the Southwestern gulf, and the only way suitable for wagons, coaches or carts. That road was well traveled, not nearly as perilous as the journey by water with all its storms and pirates.
Dwarves passed through, heading west to their distant mountain Kingdom. Elves, rarer these days than in the past, went north and west to the vast forests of Galedon and the Elvenwood. Men, too, traveled through; merchants with convoys of wagons filled with goods brought from across the seas, carrying cloth soft as the silk of a spiders web, blades keener and stronger than any that could be forged by local smiths, strange fruits and spices worth their weight in gold, and sweet scented oils for lovely ladies to enjoy.
Many of those who traveled sought promise of a new life. Some were no more than boys, tired of farming and with no other future in their homelands; younger sons without inheritances. Men passed by who had lost their homes or loved ones and could no longer stand the emptiness. Disappointed lovers went where they would no longer be forced to watch the loves they could not have with someone new. Grizzled veterans, mercenaries, returned from careers in the service of the coastal courts with hard earned money, to at last enjoy a life they could afford and appreciate. Ambitious young men went the opposite way to take their places, seeking their fortunes. In all, the road was always busy.
The Gold Dragon stood on the eastern edge of the town, close to the turnoff where the road split and a path began its winding way up to the castle. This inn was the hub of the town's social life, the center for news from the outside world and the fount of local gossip. Pilgrims stopping there told of happenings in distant kingdoms, along with many a tall tale.
Travelers customarily spent a night or two at the inn before taking to the road again. It was two weeks journey from the coast and three more weeks of hard travel to Andor, the nearest city to the west. A night or two in a comfortable bed was a pleasure few would forego, a welcome break in a grueling trek. Rates were reasonable and, for those who had little silver, it was possible to barter chores for meals and a night in the common sleeping room. The food was wholesome, if not fancy, and served in generous portions. The cellars held huge vats of ale, famous among travelers for generations. Altogether, the inn bustled with life, with talk and news, and with the enjoyment of diverse and pleasant company.
The innkeeper greeted Arthur heartily. He was a portly man who gave the appearance of being his own best customer. Minstrels seldom came that way, content to remain in the cities where their talents drew more generous purses. Good entertainers were rare. Arthur was the best the innkeeper ever had at his establishment and, in the few days he stayed, the taproom crowded to capacity with those who came to hear him. The innkeeper treated him like royalty, even to the unheard of luxury of a room of his own.
When soldiers from the castle arrived early in the evening and commanded the Minstrel to attend the Baron's celebration on the following night it caused the old man some dismay. Protesting would avail him nothing and could be detrimental to his continued good health and prosperity. He had been somewhat pacified by Arthur's promise to return when his engagement with the Baron was done.
Late that night, Arthur left the stragglers remaining in the taproom. He sang throughout the evening, until he was dry and had earned his rest. With a wide yawn, he made a show of weariness and took his leave, declining the ale offered by an appreciative member of his audience. He made his way to his room.
Once inside his room, he waited only moments before dousing his lamp. In the darkness he hastily changed clothes, dressing all in black. He listened silently beside his door for any sign someone might have followed him, but he heard no sound. Once certain it was safe, Arthur went to his window and slid it open. The back of the building, where he was located, was dark, close to the bordering forest. Quiet as a cat after a bird, he slipped out and climbed down to the ground. A moment later he vanished into the blackness of the night shrouded woods.
Arthur moved cautiously and stealthy, scarcely visible in the dim light of the waning moon. Half an hour later, he crossed a small stream. There he halted and listened. An owl hooted mournfully. A dozen yards from him a second bird answered. A pair of shadows took shape, emerging from the darkness of the brush.
"You're late," the larger of the two shapes said in a soft voice.
"That happens when you work for a living. The inn was busy tonight. I got away as soon as I could, without rousing suspicion. I couldn't chance anyone following me. The Baron's men were all over the place earlier."
He dropped to seat himself on a fallen log and drew out his ever-present flask. Each of the others accepted a sip when it was offered and he took a deep draught himself. "Did you check the area?" he asked the two squatting on the grass.
"Certainly!" Baran bristled to think he might believe otherwise. "Roper's watching the roadway and Daemon's lurking somewhere nearby. We'll know if anyone comes this way."
"Have you learned anything?" Elezar asked, impatient with small talk.
"Some. I can't just go about asking questions, can I? I have picked up a bit, here and there. A fair amount of information, really. Most important, the Baron is to be married in three days time. To a Lady Rose."
The men huddled closer, intent on his words.
Arthur took a deep breath and went on. "This Lady Rose is supposed to be his ward, has been for some time. The funny thing about it is, no one actually saw her until four weeks ago. They say she's pretty. Part Elven. Dark auburn hair and blue eyes. Very pale blue eyes."
"You don't think--" The giant warrior was visibly shaken.
"Aye. I do. There aren't many who fit that description."
"He marries her against her will," Elezar fumed.
"My first thought was the same." The Minstrel shook his head. "The wedding will be public. I've been invited to perform at a celebration tomorrow and at the wedding feast. She's not confined. She could leave, if she chose."
Elezar swore a colorful oath. "It is not possible! She would never willingly wed another. I know her heart and it does not lie there!"
A twinge of jealousy shot through Arthur. Elezar was awfully damned sure of himself! Arthur set his emotion aside to continue. "It's said that the Baron is a skilled warrior, well-favored and much admired by the ladies. He's young and strong. Women have been know to fight over who shares his bed."
"Do you imply she might want to marry this man?" Baran asked, stunned by the idea. "She knows he is evil."
"If those things you listed were all she wanted in a man, she could have had you," Elezar teased Arthur. He became serious and scowled. "Never! She wouldn't betray her mission, regardless."
"I hoped you would agree with me on that," the Minstrel said, relieved and satisfied. "It would pose some problem if she didn't want to be rescued."
"There has to be more to this," the giant mused.
"From what I heard, and I learned from what wasn't said as well as what was," Arthur spoke soberly. "In the crowd tonight were dozens of men-at-arms from the Keep. Many more than one would expect, considering they have their own tavern up there within their walls. 'Tis a long way to come for a drink. And, they drank very little and weren't much relaxed; not like any other soldiers I've seen on liberty. They watched. Everything. But now, you might think they came to town to see the lasses. Would you believe there was not one comely wench to be seen? Not even one less attractive! Not a single soiled dove!"
"Could it be the girls' fathers heard you were in town and locked them away for their safety?" Elezar asked, half joking. "Leave it to you to go looking for women!"
"I wasn't looking for any lass." The Minstrel didn't bother to hide his annoyance. "Think! They're afraid."
Elezar stroked his curly beard, frowning darkly. "You believe the fathers might have hidden their daughters for their protection?"
"That would agree with things we've heard of the Baron," Baran affirmed. "But why would Malwyn remain there?"
Arthur shook his head in frustration. "She's not a prisoner. Not from what I've heard. She's free to come and go as she pleases. She's come to the market with only her maid and a soldier to watch over her. There was talk she had been ill, fallen from a horse, but has recovered completely. We must face the likelihood she's been charmed in some way." He gave a deep sigh. "We can talk all night and we won't know. There's just one way. Tomorrow night I'll go to the castle to entertain. One way or other, we'll learn the truth."
"You'll be in great danger if anyone recognizes you," Baran warned him.
"Aye. What's new in that? I'll take care, and I'll use illusion to disguise myself some. Nothing too different. A bit older, I think. Grey--"
"I hope you know what you're doing!" Elezar interrupted him with unusual vehemence.
"So do I," the Minstrel returned with a hint of his old grin.
"I wish you well," Baran offered solemnly. "It will take a miracle."
"If you want magic, send a magician!" Arthur quipped, trying to lighten the heavy atmosphere which had engulfed them. He glanced heavenward. "I have to go. I do need a little rest and it will soon be morning. Remember to stay on this side of the stream. The running water limits his power to read you. I hope this damned amulet I'm wearing is worth what we went through to get it. I'll find out tomorrow. If all goes well, I'll meet you here, day after tomorrow. Midday. I should have some solid news by then."
"Be careful," Elezar's said with genuine concern.
"Always," the Minstrel grinned. He rose to depart.
As he disappeared into the blackness of the forest Arthur heard the Elf's soft voice behind him. "Good fortune walk in your footsteps and lead you safely back to us. With her."