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


Taraval’s mouth was dry, his thirst unquenched by the single swallow of water. Had he been along, he might have helped himself to another draught, but he knew that with both of them nipping at their meager water supply, it wouldn’t last the day. And when they came to a town, he thought, he would have to dip into his scant hoard of coins to buy the boy a waterskin and other supplies.

These thoughts nagged at him as Segway’s voice droned on, distracting and annoying him. Finally his patience snapped. When the boy pointed to a golden oriole perched on a fallen limb and opened his mouth to speak, Taraval said sharply, “Hush, Segway! You chatter so much about the birds that I can’t hear them singing.”

Segway’s mouth clamped shut and his blue eyes clouded over. After a moment he said, “I’m sorry, lord Taraval. I didn’t mean to vex you.”

Taraval nodded his acceptance of Segway’s apology. He hadn’t intended to be so short with the boy, but he knew that whatever their relationship was to become would be set in their first few days together. He was grateful for the boon of companionship, but having a page placed a double burden on him. Not only did he have to care for him, but he was no longer free to be just Taraval, a traveling minstrel. Having Segway along was a constant reminder that he was Prince of Ilahee s well, and must conduct himself in a manner befitting a prince. Suddenly everything was more complicated, but he had permitted the boy to tag along and couldn’t change his mind now.

“Come, Segway,” he said, abruptly standing up and brushing the leaves from his clothing. “It’s time to go.”

The trail gradually rose into rough mountains, rockier than the ones they had passed through on their descent from Ilahee, and Taraval was grateful for Segway’s silence as they threaded their way among huge outcroppings of rock. Trees were sparse here, and their way became steeper as the trail skirted the side of the mountain, narrowing till it was scarcely more than an arm span in width. The horses picked their way carefully, for loose gravel made their footing uncertain. Occasionally, their hooves loosed small cascades of pebbles, and the travelers heard the little slides grow as they gathered more rocks on the steep canyon walls below. Now and then they heard a rattling above, and had to duck as stones ricocheted off the slope over their heads.

By late afternoon their throats were parched from the relentless sun and Taraval, wiping his forehead on his sleeve, again pulled out the waterskin. “Only a sip,” he warned Segway. One swallow of the now-warm water scarcely took the edge off their thirst. He started to put away the skin but noticed that Segway’s face was flushed and his eyes were beginning to look glazed. Taking pity on the boy, he said, “Go ahead, you can have another.” Segway tipped the half-empty skin for another swallow, a look of gratitude on his face, and Taraval hoped he wouldn’t soon regret his indulgence. But when they rounded the next bend, the boy cried out in excitement.
“Look, lord Taraval – there’s a rock! And I think that’s water!”

A shadow darkened the trail ahead, cast by a huge boulder jutting from the mountainside high above them. Around the beneath the boulder, and down onto the trail, a dark stain showed where water seeped up through cracks in the rock. A short distance beyond the shadow was the fork in the trail marked on their map. The left branch dropped from sight, while the right fork wound steeply up the mountainside.
As they approached the shadow beneath the boulder, they heard what they had hoped for – the sound of running water. Looking up, Taraval could make out a falling trickle the size of his little finger. Eagerly he reached for the waterskin.

But at that moment, Tressiter’s hoof slipped on loose pebbles and started a small rushing slide. Below the trail the soil was soft from the water seepage, and as the slide picked up momentum, the swishing sound of slipping earth was joined by the rumble of tumbling rocks. The horses tramped nervously, feeling the earth tremble.

“We’d better get our water and move on while we’ve still go ta trail beneath our feet,” said Taraval, seeing the soil crumbling from the mountainside below them. He flicked the reins and urged Tressiter toward the falling stream of water, but the horse balked, for the earth at the edge of the trail ahead of them had begun to slide away.

A sudden high-pitched whining sent a shiver up Taraval’s spine.

“It’s the lute again!” Segway shouted.

Tressiter reared as the whine rose to a shriek and the lute case began to buzz wildly.

From above them came a deep, ominous creaking.

“Segway, follow me!” Taraval commanded. He dug his heels into Tressiter’s flanks and plunged ahead over the crumbling trail as the huge boulder above them, loosened by years of seeping water and the vibrations from the rockslide, broke free and crashed down the mountain. The earth shook as the massive stone and a several smaller rocks the size of wine kegs thundered just behind them and bounced off the trail they had just left.

Crouched low, Taraval clung to Tressiter as a barrage of pebbles and fist-sized stones thumped against his back. Ahead of them was the fork in the trail. Taraval aimed for the westerly branch that descended to a stream bed, but just as they reached it the trail crumbled and slid away before their eyes. His hooves sliding treacherously near the edge, Tressiter veered off onto the eastern fork and scrambled up the sloping trail.

Taraval reined the horse in as soon as they were a safe distance from the slide. Miraculously he found Segway and Festinalentay fast behind him, the old horse heaving from the sudden dash. In silence, they turned and looked back to see a chasm at the trail fork. On the mountainside a gaping hole marked the place the boulder had been, and beneath it, where they had stood only seconds before, was a gap in the trail the length of two tall men.

Segway stared at Taraval and then at the lute. “If it hadn’t been for that shrieking sound,” he said, pointing to the breach in the trail. “That’s where we would have been when the boulder fell. M’lord, what made that noise?”

Taraval dismounted and lifted the lute case from behind the saddle. “I don’t know, Segway. But I hope to find out.”

He took out the lute and carefully examined it, then laid his hand over the rose carving of the sound hole and shook the lute vigorously. The buzzing erupted again – violently – and Taraval yelped as a sharp, stinging pain surged through his palm.
“Bless my Saint Agnes!” he cried, jerking his hand away. “A bee must have gotten into it!”

But when he examined his hand there was no sign of a stinger, nor of redness; in fact, the pain had stopped the moment he removed his hand from the lute’s soundhole.
“It is well, m’lord,” said Segway, looking at Taraval’s hand. “You are not stung after all.”

Taraval shook his head. “Oh, I was stung indeed,” he replied, thinking of the blue sparks that had seared his hand when first he touched the chest that held the tandaril trunk.

He returned the lute to its case and held up the now limp waterskin. Then he leaned against Tressiter, his head on his arms. He had become responsible for another life besides his own. The trail that offered them a slim hope of finding more water had dissolved in front of them, and now there was no chance of returning the way they had come. And if Providence had saved their lives a few minutes earlier, that same Providence had just stung him viciously.

Dejectedly he mounted Tressiter and shook the reins as he looked at the trail that climbed steadily up the mountainside and disappeared into the unknown. “Well, Segway, we might as well go on. Water won’t come to us here.”

Slowly they headed up the steep, narrow trail. Over the clopping of the horses’ hooves, neither of them heard the faint rustling inside the lute case.


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