"You are the owner of this establishment?"
The tall stranger threw back hood of his royal blue cloak, and all warmth vanished from the sunny taproom as suddenly as if the Wayward Bard had been plunged, from cellar floor to chimney pots, into the heart of the Gruende Ice Fields. Harlimun Breyde could almost feel the ice growing in his veins. He half hoped the shock of it would kill him.
"Yes, my lord." Harlimun rose from his customary chair and bent from the waist in a deep court bow that gave no quarter to middle-aged paunch or shaking knees. He cursed himself for the tremor in his voice.
Throwing Harlimun a curious glance, the lanky bartender Ford drew two ales from a tapped keg behind the bar. Ford slid one to the man and one to his master. Obviously, Ford thought Harlimun had taken ill instead of what Harlimun really was -- scared witless -- and why not?
After all, if you didn't know who the murderous bastard really was, why would you think there was anything to fear from a handsome gentleman wearing garments of the finest zeffirwolle and such a friendly smile?
Harlimun didn't dare touch the drink Ford had so thoughtfully drawn, no matter how dry his throat had become. This was no wealthy merchant stopping by for a drink after doing business over at the Seaman's Hall, or a bored aristo slumming down by the docks. No, Harlimun knew, without a doubt, who'd entered the Wayward Bard. It was Vanyr Deryk, one of the nine sons of the Elder Goddess, Reyah.
Harlimun knew all about the Vanyr. His late wife Selah had been a bard. One of Selah's final performances had been at the Keep during Reyah's annual Natal Day Celebration. Unlike most years, all Her sons had attended this particular celebration. Harlimun had never forgotten the faces of Reyah's sons. Especially since two young bards had gone missing during that celebration. Their mutilated bodies hadn't been found for months, and no one, not even Jagger, could say for sure when or how they'd been killed.
But everyone knew who had killed them. Everyone. The smug smile on Deryk's face whenever their names were mentioned proclaimed the bastard's guilt as surely as if he shouted it to the world. Why Blessed Reyah doted on the black-hearted scum, when even She must know of his taste for blood and necromancy, no one knew.
Goddess, Harlimun prayed, let Your son depart quickly from my tavern and my life, I beg You.
Harlimun started when Deryk flicked a finger at the foaming tankard of ale. "I prefer wine," Deryk told Ford, "a Gordo or Shinarn, if you have it."
"Yes, m'lord," Ford assured Deryk. "Mr. Breyde here, that's the owner, keeps the best cellar in Salentia. "
"Excellent," Deryk purred. "Just what I wanted to hear. Bring me a bottle and a glass and make sure no one interrupts my conversation with…," Deryk smiled at Harlimun, "…Mr. Breyde."
As he seated the Vanyr in the cushioned inglenook considered the best table in the house, Harlimun thanked the Goddess that at least Deryk had waited until the mid-afternoon lull to afflict the tavern with his presence. Even so, the public house offered too many potential sacrifices to Deryk's dark appetites. There was Ford, the two tweenies learning the business from the scullery up, the cook who might even now be nursing her infant daughter. (Harlimun offered another prayer that the yeasty scents of beer and freshly baked bread and the aroma of pickled fish blowing from the docks would cover the faint odor of mother's milk. That the baby would not take it in her head to cry.)
Harlimun felt as helpless as he had at his wife's deathbed, and he hated it. He was a free-born cityman of Seshmeel, the greatest of Domain's Eight Lands. Saving only the Queen who was Reyah's Living Presence in Seshmeel, Harlimun need not bend his neck to the yoke of prince or Vanyr. Especially not in Salentia, Seshmeel's capital and Harlimun's hometown, where the Queen's Guard and the Alder's sixteen hand-picked constables protected the lives and property of honest, Goddess-fearing folk like Harlimun Breyde.
That thought cheered him slightly. After all, Harlimun was not entirely without friends at the palace. Why just the other day, Queen Isabeau's Quartermaster General Mecron had favored Harlimun's tavern with a visit. Mecron proclaimed it to have the finest victuals of any establishment south of the palace -- and the well-fed Quartermaster General was surely in a position to know.
As if Harlimun's thoughts had conjured him from the crisp autumn breezes darting through the open windows of the common room, General Mecron stepped into the tavern. Harlimun straightened. Luck was on his side, after all. The general would take one look at Deryk and instantly call for his guards.
"What kind of fool are you?" the general hissed theatrically. "I agreed to meet you in private -- not in the common room where anyone might walk in and see us!"
Harlimun's heart sank to his boots. He was out of the frying pan, all right, and smack into the fire. There could be no doubt that Mecron was in league with Deryk, the only question was, what were they up to? Was the Queen in danger?
"I'm waiting for an explanation, Nilak," Mecron snarled, tapping his jewel-buckled boot impatiently.
Reyah in heaven above, Mecron didn't know it was Deryk. Was the general really that blind -- or that stupid?
Mecron snapped his fingers. Deryk raised one blond eyebrow. Harlimun flinched at the expression on Deryk's face and decided Mecron was both.
Ford appeared with a cobwebbed bottle of Shinarn and a single crystal goblet. Deryk's expression switched back to benign. "Ah, yes, an excellent year. Barkeep, would you escort the gentleman here to a private room? He's feeling unwell, poor man. I will be joining him in a few minutes."
Only Harlimun seemed to see Deryk trace a sigil in the air beneath the table. The sigil flared crimson, and Mecron's florid face lost all color. The general's eyes went blank. His movements became short and jerky.
"I feel unwell," the general echoed in a toneless voice.
"Take me to a room." Harlimun's stomach threatened to expel his lunch.
Ford, bless him, took the general's sudden turn in his usual easy-going stride. The bartender bowed low to Deryk.
"Yes, m'lord," Ford said.
"Our best room, m'lord?"
"Absolutely. And, barkeep?"
"Take the wine upstairs, but don't give any to my friend. His gout, you know."
With a shrug and another bow, Ford led the spell-bound general upstairs.
"Now, Mr. Breyde, " Deryk said. "Or may I call you Harlimun? I feel I know you as well as you think you know me."
Harlimun cursed his all-too open face and, for good measure, the day Reyah birthed the elegant abomination lording it over his common room. Ford hadn't used Harlimun's given name. He'd said, "Mr. Breyde." That meant Deryk had been studying the Wayward Bard and its owner for some time.
Deryk gazed at Harlimun over steepled fingers. Harlimun knew what the Vanyr saw: a short, very frightened man wearing a robin's egg blue silk waistcoat that matched the color of his eyes and steel-gray breeches that matched the color of the unruly hair on his trembling head. Harlimun knew he wasn't a very prepossessing figure at the best of times, but under Deryk's steady regard he felt exactly like a timid rabbit cornered by a large snake.
"How may I serve you, my lord?" Harlimun asked through stiff lips.
"My needs are simple," Deryk said. "I want your best room, finest wine, and most delectable food." Deryk leaned forward. Again the expression on the Vanyr's face turned from pleasant to terrifying. "But most importantly, I want privacy. Is that understood, publican?"
Harlimun nodded. It was best to agree to everything Deryk wanted. Once Deryk joined Mecron upstairs, Harlimun would send Ford to the palace to warn Queen Isabeau. Or maybe it'd be better to send Ford to Captain Atlee first, and if Ford's luck failed there, then have him look for Chosen Wizard Gwynneth or her husband, Chosen Wizard Sejanus. Once any of those folk knew Deryk was hiding in Salentia and plotting with Mecron, they'd take action, and then Harlimun and his people would be safe.
Deryk paused at the foot of the stairs.
"By the way," Deryk said over his shoulder. "You want to forget about sending someone to the palace to tattle. After all, you wouldn't want the court -- or my dear brother Jagger -- to find out about your wife and her family's tainted blood. How very unfortunate it would be if your children and all their relatives, including that little tow-headed child napping in the kitchen, were…discovered." Deryk's laughter echoed down the stairwell.
No. Oh Goddess, no, no, no. Harlimun sank into his chair and buried his face in his hands. Everything he loved -- his tavern, his family, his staff -- was doomed.
"Blessed Reyah," Harlimun groaned, "What have I done to deserve Your worst son? He will not only destroy me, but my beautiful tavern and my family! What am I going to do?"
No divine voice whispered words of comfort to him, no blaze of Reyah Blue light revealed a miraculous way to escape Deryk's sordid net. Harlimun wiped his face and got to his feet. Miracles didn't happen to folk like him. Harlimun tried to think of how he could warn his staff without putting them in greater danger. Ford trotted back down the stairs.
"Gather everyone in the private dining room quickly and quietly," Harlimun told Ford. "Keep them away from our two noble guests. I'll serve them myself."
Ford headed towards the kitchen. Harlimun locked the tavern door for the first time since his wife's funeral four years before. With a pang of wistfulness, Harlimun remembered how afraid all the neighbors had been that Selah's weak heart might somehow be contagious. Now Death had, in fact, taken up residence in the Wayward Bard, and there was no knowing when he would leave. Or who he'd take with him.
Chapter One to follow soon…..
© Teri Smith 1999-2006