Sleep claimed Annan quickly. The spell for his uncle had been great, and it had taken some effort, more than he’d let on. His knew knowledge of the Evil prowled his dreams.
It leeched, latching onto things greater than it, slowly sucking strenght away. That was its power. Not that it was so great itself, but that it was able to attach itself to another thing.
He woke with a start, sweat a light film on his skin. Dawn’s gentle glow created a patch on the ceiling and Annan watched it gratefully until the last vestiges of his nightmares faded. Carefully, so as not to waken Beathan, he crawled out of bed. He’d already slept in, and now, he ached to be away.
It wasn’t just about a woman anymore. After that brief encounter, he wanted to deal with the Evil because of its nature. Something like that would poison the world, if left alone. Checking to make sure his companions still slept, Annan pulled out The Book of Words, gently paging through it.
The need for knowledge coursed through him. Who knew what the days and weeks ahead would bring?
So thoroughly engrossed was he that Alan stirred before him when the knock sounded loudly through the room sometime later.
“What?” Alan snapped, throwing the door open.
Beathan sat up in the bed, his short, light brown hair sticking up around his head in a halo, rubbing his eyes. “Who…?”
Sugn, the seneschal, stood revealed in the doorway, his thin nostrils flared, disgust evident in his eyes. Annan carefully set the Book down at his side, drawing his dirty shirt over it.
“The King’s Wizard has made some improvement in the night,” Sugn informed them. “As he is still uncommunicative, however, the King has decided you are all to leave immediately.”
“Wait.” Annan started. “We still need a fighter!”
Sugn snorted. “What, do you think you are Questing as in the olden days?” His lip curled. “Don’t be so stupid. You simply need to distract—” He cut off abruptly, snapping his mouth shut.
Annan rocked back, understanding dawning. “You want me to distract the Evil. What then?”
“We simply need time to learn what it wants,” Sugn spat. “Everything wants something, and once we know…”
“The Evil wants nothing except to destroy,” Annan said, leaning forward, willing Sugn to understand. “There is nothing you can give it, nothing you can do for it—”
“Enough!” Sugn slashed his hand through the air. “If you do not obey the King, there will be consequences. It will no longer be you alone, boy. You and your…friends...can see the hangman together.” He smiled maliciously. “The King wills it. And if you speak of this to anyone, I will know. It is no longer just your life at stake, shepherd boy. Your village is also well within the King’s reach.”
Beathan stood, drawing his cross out of his shirt, holding it before him. “I have never seen such uncaring inhumanity in a person,” he cried, his voice trembling. “How dare you speak thus to other children of God?” His lips moved in a silent prayer.
Inside the chamber, a wind picked up, whipping around the travelers. The hair on Annan’s arms stood straight, his skin tingling as if lightning were about to strike. Eyes wide, he looked around for the source of the power, far different from what he called upon.
The small cleric straitened, flinging his arms high. “In the Name of Elohim, begone!”
Sugn, his mouth open in surprise, disappeared into the hallway as if a giant hand plucked him backwards. Alan and Annan stared at the cleric, their mouths open.
“It seems,” Tellhouse drawled, appearing in the doorway, “as though you are on very good terms with your God.”
Once the Questers astonishment passed, they made haste to leave. There was not much to pack, and the bard had come with a satchel already over his shoulder. Annan stood over Sugn, unsure how to prevent him from telling the king they already knew of his plans.
“We can slow the seneschal down, you know,” Alan said slyly, drawing a thin cord from his pack.
Beathan sat, still rocking. “How could the king betray his oath?” he moaned again. “This reign cannot be borne!”
“But it must be borne, for now,” Tellhouse said gently, kneeling in front of him. “We do not have time to fight both King and Evil, and even then, the King will not last forever. His daughter, the princess Orlaith, has much potential.”
“It’s treason to think that, much less say it,” Alan pointed out, watching Beathan carefully.
“And it is against all rules of good stewardship of land and people to threaten his subjects,” Tellhouse returned. “I serve the King, yes, but I am not blind to his faults. Nor must I go against my own conscience, which is why I will be accompanying you all.”
“But we need a fighter!” Annan protested.
“I feel that with good Beathan with us, God will provide whatever it is we need for the success of our mission,” the bard said. “And now, before Sugn regains his wits and goes to the king, we should really depart.”
“You did check that we could take these horses, correct?” Annan shouted, struggling to stay on his feisty steed.
They were mounted on large destriers who, upon being let loose, galloped out of the barnyard as if they’d been caged for a year. The four were chased by shouting grooms, and at the gate the guards tried to bar their way, only to dive to the side when the big horses didn’t even slow.
“We definitely have permission to take horses,” Tellhouse called back.
“But these horses?” Annan insisted. The bard just laughed. Dread and exhilaration crept through the young wizard. “What horses did we just take?”
“The mightiest King Brieuc has to offer, the mounts of his best knights,” Tellhouse shouted, grinning. Beathan, nearly lost in his horse’s flowing blond mane, squeaked. “They’re a bunch of popinjays who think most highly of themselves. This will be good for their immortal souls, trust me, good cleric.”
“Are you attempting to argue that theft will help elevate their souls?” the cleric squeaked above the thundering of the horse’s hooves.
“Indeed,” the bard shouted.
For long moments, the cleric was silent while they raced through the quiet city streets, quickly leaving behind the guards’ shouts.
“Very well,” Beathan eventually said. “For their immortal souls.”
They spent the first night camping in the brush, well off the path, in a clearing Tellhouse knew well. He and Alan went back, carefully removing signs of their passing until Annan realized what they were about.
“Here,” Annan shook his head. “Let me.”
After their trail was hidden, they made camp, Tellhouse observing Annan closely. “What will you do, young wizard, when you no longer have your magic?”
Annan smiled. “More free time, to spend with my wife.”
“How do you mean?”
“No more midnight calls to tend sick sheep, or difficult births. No one asking me to fix their roof, their mother’s bowl, their grandfather’s old sword. No one interrupting me to cure small ills, cuts, or holes in their clothing.”
“They truly ask for these things?” Tellhouse asked, amazed. “You use magic in such a trivial way?”
“What else is magic for, but to make life a little more bearable?” Annan shrugged. “As useful as it is, I grow weary of constantly being called upon. I look forward to tending my flock in a normal way and calling upon the younger boys to help when I have a sick ewe.”
And every night, he studied the Book he’d taken from his uncle’s library, lips moving silently while he sought a Word that might help him against the Evil.
Three days later, it poured. The travelers donned cloaks and hoods, though water seeped through, nonetheless. Annan shifted in the saddle, grateful for the warmth offered by the good woolen clothing his mother made.
Alan was the first to notice signs of people. “I smell food,” he announced. He cocked his head. “And hear voices. Methinks there is an inn ahead.”
“We shouldn’t stop.” But Annan strained his eyes, hoping for sight of lights and warmth. A large raindrop dripped from his hood, landing squarely on his nose, causing him to sneeze. “Then again, we might lose our way in the dark.”
“Or become sick,” Beathan supplied. The small cleric huddled miserably on his giant horse’s back, his arms wrapped around himself.
Soon, raucous laughter was audible to everyone in the party. Tellhouse shot the rogue a quick glance. He’d heard noise and scented food long before anyone else, a rare ability.
The small inn loomed out of the dark, its windows glowing golden, the clink of cutlery, boisterous laughter, and the rich scent of roasting meat drifting from it. Smoke curled from its three chimneys, a welcome sight on this dreary night.
“The choice is yours, wizard,” Tellhouse murmured.
Annan looked at his companions. Tellhouse could have ridden all night, he was sure, but Beathan… “Let us see if the innkeeper has space for us,” he decided. “Even if only room in the stable and a hot meal, it should be preferable to this.”
“But we haven’t enough coin,” Beathan protested miserably, shivering in his cloak.
“Leave that to me.” Tellhouse guided his horse towards the stable. “There are some benefits to being a bard.”
Once inside, Annan sighed, warmth seeping into his skin. Shaking the water from their cloaks before entering the main room, Annan cast a quick look at the other occupants. Soldiers, merchants, some local farmers, perhaps.
The hearth blazed along one wall. To its left, a small stage sat, just enough for two or three people. Tellhouse grinned, adjusting his lute across his back.
“Find us a table while I speak to the innkeeper.”
Alan slid into the crush, quickly making his way back. “We’ve luck. There’s a table right next to the stage.”
When they arrived, they found the table located between the stage and the kitchen door, with barely enough space for the serving maids to squeeze through and only three chairs. Dragging it back, closer to the wall, they’d barely seated themselves when Tellhouse appeared, tankards filling his hands.
“Our host, Master Sean, has space either in the common room after closing or in the stable.” Passing the tankards around, he seated himself on the edge of the stage. “I’ve ordered us a meal, and provided I entertain our guests sufficiently, all is on the house.”
While they waited, Tellhouse tuned his lute, strumming softly. Those closest quieted, watching the bard, eager anticipation on their faces. Annan studied the people. The bar itself was fairly quiet, the innkeeper and one other polishing glasses and tankards, kegs set up behind them. People cradled their drinks, making them last as they ate and laughed.
A game of chance took up the farthest corner, those men and women the loudest, stamping their feet and cheering or groaning. Sword hilts protruded, daggers were barely seen, one man had a war hammer leaning against the wall next to him.
A large figure sat with his back to the corner, his face hidden by the hood of his cloak. A massive broadsword leaned against his knee, one finger tapping the pommel while he watched.
Suddenly, quiet fell over the room nearest them and Annan saw Tellhouse leap onto the stage, lute in his hands. He idly strummed while he paced the small area, the clear notes silencing the chatter.
“Good men and women,” he bowed, “it is my honor to be here this fine and pleasant evening.”
Thunder rumbled and the guests laughed.
“I believe there’s enough water outside to float a ship in our good host’s yard!” Without further ado, Tellhouse launched into a sea shanty, his fingers moving nimbly over the strings.
Annan’s eyebrows climbed. Tellhouse’s warm, rich voice filled the room, people pausing their drinking with tankards halfway to their lips in surprise. Soon, he had people clapping and stomping their feet.
Encouraging his audience to join in on the chorus, rough voices lifted the rafters, bringing a different warmth to the evening. At the end of the song, they cheered, some making their way forward to drop coins in the pouch that magically appeared at his feet.
“This one,” Tellhouse announced, “is in honor of the lovely lasses. Ah, here’s one now!”
A serving maid entered, bearing a tray with their meal. Blushing at Tellhouse’s praise, she deftly set their bowls in front of them, smiling boldly at the bard, her dark eyes shining.
“So, to honor the lasses, let’s drink to their beauty and health!” Tellhouse snatched up his own tankard, raising it high.
“Beauty and health!”
“This song has many toasts to the ladies’ charms,” he called. “It’s only right we should drink to each one. And a one, two…”
He burst into song. The bawdy nature made Annan stuff bits of soft wax in his ears, leaving him free to observe. They raised their glasses often, soon running dry, raising their hands to summon the serving maids.
Before long, the innkeeper was busy pulling ale or pouring small glasses of spirits, grinning happily at the bard while he worked.
The next song was quieter and Annan pulled his ear plugs out to listen. A tingle washed over his skin. Power. Magic. Scanning the room, he searched for the source.
His mouth dropped open.
A faint glow emanated from the bard, gathering around his throat. How was this possible? Did his uncle know the bard possessed some form of magic?
As the evening progressed, he began to see. The bard stirred emotions with each song. Whatever he chose, be it bawdy or melancholy, they felt it, every one of them. Not immune himself, he brushed a tear away even as he saw many others, some of them hardened soldiers, do the same.
He’d barely launched into the next song, a ballad, when a fight broke out in the gaming corner. The man with the war hammer leaped to his feet, hammer in hand, facing the huge man in the corner who rose to meet him.
Those nearest scrambled back, shouting, even as the larger man drew his broadsword, flinging back his hood to reveal…a woman?
Her blonde hair—done in many small braids, marking her as a barbarian of the far north—flew around her face as she lifted a sword Annan seriously doubted he’d be able to lift, much less swing. The other man snatched up his war hammer, mouth twisted in a snarl.
Sean, the innkeeper, hovered at the edges, shouting futilely at them.
Tellhouse plunged through the crowd, Annan following in his wake. The barbarian woman hefted her sword, then, faster than the eye could follow, she thrust it into his foot, grabbed the hammer and wrested it from him.
The man screamed.
Annan whispered a Word, touching a piece of drumskin to his throat. “Silence!” The word rolled through the room like thunder and all quieted, staring at the slender wizard. “What goes on here?”
“This…wench…called me a cheat!”
“Because you are,” the woman rumbled.
“Barrial of the Sunset Tribe doesn’t cheat!”
“Sigrid Freyrsdottir does not lie.” Quick as a snake, the barbarian woman snatched his right arm, holding it tight. “Look in his sleeve.”
Carefully plucking his sleeve, ensuring all could see, Tellhouse lifted it enough to show a small cuff with two cards in it. “You were saying?”
While the rest of the players relieved him of everything he’d won, then deposited him none too gently in the mud outside, Annan drew closer to Tellhouse.
“We still need a fighter,” he whispered.
“But we don’t even know if she can fight well,” Tellhouse murmured.
“We know she’s fast, she can swing that sword like it weighs a feather, and she’s controlled enough not to start a barroom brawl.”
Tellhouse shrugged. “Very well. I’ll ask her.”
Beathan, finding his way to Annan’s side, watched the barbarian, his eyes wide.
Noticing his stare, she glared down at him. “Do you want to go, too, little man?”
He sighed. “What a way to die.”