"You are the owner of this establishment?" The man who’d just entered the tavern drew back the hood of his cloak.
"Yes, my lord." Harlimun Breyde stiffened his knees and cursed himself for allowing his voice to tremble. Throwing Harlimun a curious glance, the bartender, Ford, drew two ales. Ford slid one to the man and one to his master. Obviously, Ford thought Harlimun unwell instead of what he really was -- scared witless –- and why not?
After all, if you didn’t know who the murderous knave really was, why would you think there was anything to fear from a handsome, richly dressed blond gentleman with such a friendly smile?
Harlimun took the ale and drank deep. This was no ordinary 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’s late wife Selah had been been a bard. One of Selah’s final performances was at the Keep during of one of Reyah’s Natal Celebrations. Unlike most years, all Her sons had attended. Harlimun never forgot 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 six months, and no one, not even Jagger, could say for sure when or how they’d been killed.
But everyone knew who 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’d 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 the dark arts, no one knew.
Goddess, Harlimun prayed, let Your son depart quickly from my tavern and my life, I beg thee.
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, my lord," Ford assured Deryk. "Mr. Breyde, here, that’s the owner, keeps the best cellar in Salentia. Why I bet the queen herself doesn’t have any finer!"
"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."
Deryk sauntered to the best table in the common room with all the assurance of a man who’d never suffered second best in his life and never expected to. Harlimun gathered his courage and followed. This was Salentia, after all, and despite its dark corners and slums, the city was well patrolled by the Queen’s guards. Why General Mecron himself had favored Harlimun’s tavern with a visit just the other day.
As if Harlimun’s thoughts had conjured him from thin air, General Mecron stepped into the tavern. Harlimun straightened in his chair. 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 to Deryk. "I agreed to meet you in private – not in the common room where anyone may 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-encrusted boot impatiently.
Harlimun’s eyes widened. 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 cobweb-encrusted bottle of Shinarn and one of the tavern’s finest goblets. Deryk’s expression switched back to benign. "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 saw Deryk’s hand, hidden at the sorcerer’s side, trace a sigil in the air. The sigil flared crimson and Mecron’s florid face suddenly 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 the ale he’d so rashly drank.
Ford, bless him, took the general’s sudden turn in his usual easy-going stride, and bowed low to Deryk. "Yes, m’lord," Ford said. "Our best room, m’lord?"
"Absolutely. Oh, and barkeep?"
"Take the wine upstairs, but don’t give any to my fat friend there. His heart, you know." With a shrug and 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 I see you know me.”
Harlimun cursed his all-too open face and, for good measure, the day Reyah birthed the smiling abomination sitting across the table. 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 leaned back in his chair and 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 said through stiff lips.
"My needs are simple," Deryk said. "I want your best room, finest wine, and most delectable food." Deryk leaned forward. Once again the expression on the Vanyr’s face turned from pleasant to terrifying. "But most importantly, I want privacy. Is that understood, publican?"
Harlimun stood and bowed. 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 Mage 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 rose from his chair. At the foot of the stairs he paused and looked over his shoulder.
"By the way," Deryk said. "You definitely want to forget about sending someone to the palace to tattle. After all, you wouldn’t want all of Salentia – especially 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 were…discovered." Deryk’s laughter echoed down the stairwell.
No. Oh Goddess, no, no, no. Harlimun sank back down 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 divine 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.
"Call the staff," Harlimun told Ford. "And keep everyone away from that room. I’ll serve those two myself."
Ford trotted towards the kitchen. Harlimun walked to the back of the common room and waited for his staff to join him. Death had just moved in. And there was no knowing when he would leave – or who he’d take with him.
Chapter One to follow soon…..