To begin at the beginning, click on Prologue in the Table of Contents, then on Chapter One, etc.


“Waterskin and pack? I’ve sold my last. I’d have to make new ones,” said Philip Carbold when Taraval described to him the items he wanted to buy. The man’s voice was hard as stone; his piercing eyes met Taraval’s, then took in his worn clothing and finally strayed to his lute. “You have money to pay for them?”

“How much will you charge?”

Carbold gave him a figure that exceeded by far the amount of money he had and was much higher than what he would have had to pay in Trent. Taraval opened his mouth to protest, but the man’s cold eyes convinced him it would be futile to try to bargain with him.

“Come to my booth tomorrow and we will talk about the details,” Carbold said, and without another word he turned and walked out of the inn. Mistress Witherspoon waited until the door had closed, then said to Taraval, “Keep your eyes open when you deal with that one, minstrel.”

“What do you know about him?”

“Everyone in Landshut knows the Carbold brothers,” she said, “Thomas is not a bad fellow, but he hasn’t the courage to stand up to his brother. So you’re better off having as little to do as possible with either of them.”

She smoothed her apron and pushed a wisp of hair away from her face. “Now come with me and I’ll show you your room, and your friend here the stable. Will you sing for my guests tonight?”

“The sooner the better,” Taraval replied.

He followed the proprietress to a small room that was clean but somewhat barren, furnished with only a cot and chest. When she had left him, he sat on the edge of the narrow bed with his head in his hands, thinking forlornly of what she had just said about the Carbolds and wondering If the strangers on the road had had the brothers in mind when they warned him about Landshut.

He was also plagued by misgivings about his new role as minstrel. Would the guests willingly pay to hear his music? He had often performed to high praise at the inn in Ilahee, but how would his audience have responded had he not been the king’s son? And unlike Ilahee, this village was on a main thoroughfare and its people had heard many minstrels. What if they expected him to sing the epic tales of legendary heroes, when all he knew were the ballads of Ilahee?

But he had struck a deal with Carbold. To keep it he needed generous tips from The Hanged Man’s patrons, so it was absolutely essential that he find a way to please them with his music.

His head full of these worrisome thoughts, Taraval wandered out to the stable to see that the horses had been tended to and Segway given his chores. Then he went to the kitchen to eat an early dinner so he would be ready to play for the guests during the evening meal. Elizabeth and Magdalen, the cooks, nodded to him and said his dinner would be served soon, then went on chatting amiably as they worked. There was no sign at all that less than an hour earlier they had been rolling on the floor pulling out each other’s hair.

Taraval stood aside and watched them, wondering what the lute’s secret was, and whether he could learn to call up its power whenever he needed it. Then he laughed, thinking of the genies in the stories Friar Biophilus had told him – genies who would sooner play tricks on humans than do their bidding. It would be bad luck, he thought for my lute to have such capricious magic.

The door opened and a young serving maid walked in from the common room carrying a glass of cider on a tray, and at first sight of her Taraval felt an ache in his chest. She wore her dark gold hair in a thick braid coiled at the back of her neck – the way his sister Alisoun sometimes wore hers. She looked back at him with hazel eyes that were large and innocent as a roe deer’s, and her cheeks had the smooth blush of ripe peaches.

There is a maiden as pretty as my sister, he thought, and was overcome by a homesickness so strong it made his throat tighten.

Noticing his stare, the girl missed her footing just enough that the ale sloshed onto the tray. Flustered, she lowered her eyes and a hot blush rose slowly from the neckline of her bodice to the roots of her golden hair.

Quickly, she set down the tray and busied herself wiping up the spilled cider, then dished up a bowl of stew from the iron pot on the fire and cut a thick slab of bread from a loaf on the table. As she worked she composed herself, and by the time she arrived at his table, all trace of confusion was gone and she looked him straight in the eye.

“Here is your dinner, sir,” she said. “You may sit at the table.” Her voice was firm, but Taraval noticed a fast pulse throbbing in her throat.

Thank you, miss,” he said. Her steady gaze did not flinch, and to cover his own sudden embarrassment, he asked, “May I know your name?”

“Lisa,” she said quietly.

“Thank you, Lisa.”

She nodded, then thrust the tray into his hands and hastened from the room.


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