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


During the dinner hour the dozen inn guests were joined gradually by local patrons, who gathered in groups of four or five, chatting with one another and calling out greetings to friends across the room. While the meal was being served, Taraval wandered around the room playing soft, wordless melodies, so that the patrons could have their fill of talking. As he moved from table to table, he overheard bits of conversation.

“How now, Matthew. Have you seen Grunewald’s pear crop?” said a lanky, ruddy-face farmer. “I swear by my rake and hoe I’ve never seen bigger fruit.”

“Aye, perhaps, but he sacrifices all the small ones for the sake of over-growing the rest. I’d wager that, on the scale, each of my trees will out-produce his.”

“The nip in the air these mornings promises an early winter. It will put a blush on the apples, but only if they have time to mature first.”

An early winter? The words revived in Taraval a nagging worry and a sense of urgency. He must earn the money he needed quickly, so that he and Segway could get on with their quest before the spectre of winter was upon them.

But he couldn’t let such fears distract him now. Shifting the lute, he stopped to play near a group of craftsmen.

“Have you seen the work of the new silversmith who’s set up on the south end?” This from a glassblower Taraval had noticed at the marketplace that afternoon. “Thomas had better watch out for the competition – the man doesn’t do leather, but his buckles have more detail than Thomas’s, and at better prices.”

“The new man had better be the one to watch out, if he vexes one of the Carbold brothers.”

“Aye, ‘tis true, anyone who crosses the Carbolds soon regrets it. By the way, I hear Philip has his eye on a serving wench, but she’ll have none of him.”

“Do you blame her? Speaking of wenches, I saw the girl from the alehouse slipping into the grove down by the bend in the river, and young James, the carpenter’s apprentice, following a few minutes later. What do you make of that?”

There was a burst of raucous laughter, and a slurred voice interjected, “A better question is what did they make of it?” This comment came from one of the rowdier guests, a slovenly young farmer who had arrived at the inn already tipsy and was quaffing glasses of ale so fast he risked tiring for his elbow.

“Bruno, slow down,” one of his drinking mates cautioned, but Bruno only glared at him, downed the rest of his glass in one gulp, and poured himself another from the communal pitcher.

As he strolled about, Taraval noticed that the patrons’ eyes kept straying to him even while they were talking, as if they were enjoying the music but were waiting for something more. Over the snatches of talk about crops and weather and romantic trysts, he caught occasional phrases that made his ears burn.

“… rumored to be magical…”

“… a treat in store…”

“… I’ll hold my purse until he proves it…”

Then someone began baiting the drunken youth. “Hey, Bruno,” he called, “I heard you’re going to let Stephen keep the pig.” Bruno banged his glass on the table and the ale splashed over his hand. “I’ll bash the man who said it!” he snapped.

Lisa can in from the kitchen with fresh pitchers of ale for the tables. She had passed Taraval several times as she served the dinner, and though each time she carefully avoided looking at him, her closeness and the faint scent of woodruff from her clothing – the same scent his sister used – distracted him for an instant, so that he lost his concentration on his music. He sensed that his playing suffered for it, not only because of his inattention, but because each time the girl came near him the lute seemed, for a moment at least, less responsive to his touch. This time she glanced at him briefly, and again it seemed that the lute reacted – the notes sounded dull, Taraval thought, as if the strings had been damped.

He felt a tightness begin to settle between his shoulder blades. The door of the inn kept opening and the room became more and more crowded with people who regarded him with eyes full of expectation .Where were they all coming from? And what did they want from him? Finally, at the end of a song, he turned to a young tradesman seated at the table nearest him.

“Does a minstrel always draw this large a crowd?” he asked.

The young man laughed. “Word has gotten about that you are no ordinary minstrel,” he said. “Anyone who can tame those two battling hens, Elizabeth and Magdalen, must have a rare gift, so everyone is here to see you perform another feat of magic with your playing.”

The subtle glances he had been receiving all evening suddenly took on meaning, and a shiver snaked down Taraval’s spine. These people had not come to hear his music; they had come to see what his lute could do – the lute that was such a mystery to him, and that tonight seemed less than ever under his control.

Now, aware that the pause between his songs had become prolonged, the patrons began to turn in their seats to look at him, and the hum of conversation dwindled. I must entertain them, Taraval thought. Taking up his lout again and launching into one of the liveliest songs he knew, he began to sing for the first time during the evening, his clear young voice ringing out with more force and confidence than he felt. With some relief he noticed the guests begin to exchange glances of approval.

Lisa was clearing away empty dishes as he started to sing, bu ton hearing the strength and sweetness of his voice she turned her hazel eyes full upon him in a look so intense that an unfamiliar warmth rose in his belly and he fumbled a word of the song. The slip was slight enough that only the most attentive listener would have noticed, yet it made him even more conscious of his response to the girl.

She turned to go back to the kitchen, this time passing so close by him that he could smell, besides the woodruff, the sachet of rose petals she wore in her bodice, and her hand lightly brushed his arm. A little tingling thrill coursed through him, down to the tips of his fingers as they slid over the lute strings.

But in the next instant the pleasant sensation was replaced by a searing pain shooting through his hand and arm. He yelped as the lute went wild in his hands, shaking and jerking as if an invisible giant were trying to wrench it from his hands. A torrent of raging squeals, screeches, and squawks belched from it. Desperately, Taraval pressed the instrument against him, his hands flat against the soundboard, but the more he tried to damp the strings, the louder and more discordant the noises grew. At first the crowd met these startling antics with hoots of laughter, but as the uproar continued, they began to complain.

“God’s blood! What is this?” an offended tradesman bellowed. “Are you making fun of us? We were told you could make magic with your music, but if so it’s a vile magic!”

“I’ve heard better music coming from Bruno’s pig pen at slop time,” a cobbler sneered.

Quickly others picked up the taunting.

“You call yourself a minstrel? I wouldn’t hire you to play at my dog’s funeral!” scoffed a portly farmer.

Another man swept a handful of coins from the table into his pocket. “I’ll save the money I was planning to give,” he jeered. “I’m getting out of here!”

“Wait!” Taraval shouted, but there was a general scraping of chairs and benches as the indignant patrons began to rise and move toward the door.


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