She held her face up to the gentle fall sun. It was warm, but not the overpowering heat of summer. So many things troubled her mind. Not only the war that was soon to come, but also her increasing feelings toward Adrian. She knew his reputation. Every woman from puberty to old age, in the many hamlets, villages and towns of the kingdom, were in love with the traveling bard. He turned women’s heads and made grown men jealous of his magnetism. He was charismatic. His deep brown eyes in a darkly tanned face, surrounded with a mane of black hair, were not easy to resist and he knew it.
Sarah shifted on the bench to follow the sun’s rays. She had been cooped up, with the captain of the queen’s guard, for days working on defensive strategies for the coming battle. The captain was often making overtures toward her, but her heart belonged to Adrian.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” Adrian said as soon as he came through the gate from the garden. “I was receiving some last minute instructions from Larkin.”
Sarah came to her feet. “So, you are off soon?” She had dreaded his departure to act as spy for the queen until such time as the Baldar army started to move, or Farloft and his companions returned.
“Tomorrow morning, before dawn.” He took her hand and pulled her down on the bench beside him. “The queen and I thought it best if I was not seen leaving the castle. Just less questions. I can make it through the Divide to the Baldar side of the Westridge by nightfall.”
Sarah squeezed his hand. “You will be careful.”
“There is no reason to worry.” He placed his other hand over hers and gave her a reassuring smile. “The ‘Bard’ travels where he likes, freely and without question. I am the bringer of stories… the singer of songs… no one questions me.”
“The two kingdoms have not been at war previously,” Sarah reminded him. She leaned into his shoulder and placed a hand on his chest. She loved this man. “It is a different climate now.”
“I have the Dragoncall. If I find the need to retreat, James will come and fetch me.” He lifted Sarah’s chin and placed a light kiss on her lips. “I am not worried, and you should not be either.” He encircled her in a warm embrace. He was so nonchalant about the whole affair.
She snuggled into his arms for the feeling of reassurance she needed.
Neither one of them saw Anna watching them from the depths of the orchard.
When Adrian left the next morning, he was followed by Anna. She had overheard the couple’s conversation, and she was worried about the bard as well. She trailed along behind him at a safe distance, in her human form, totally unnoticed. She had played this game with her brother, James, many times in the past. She could be as quiet as a mouse and just as stealthy. She was the equivalent of a twelve-year-old in human thoughts and size, and Adrian was her first crush. Her dragon-self was not going to let anything happen to him.
Clearair found Anna missing the next morning. This was not an uncommon occurrence. The child had been very unsettled since reaching the human age of puberty. She went for long walks in the woods, or shifted into her dragon form and spread her wings to drift upon a warm thermal for hours on end.
Her mother could not imagine what the child was thinking about. Outwardly Anna was gentle and loving, but she never shared her inner thoughts, or any troubles she might have. Clearair knew from her own experience that living in two worlds was hard for an adult. She tried her best to get her daughter to confide in her, but the child was as closed mouthed as Farloft was loose.
Clearair had told Anna not to leave the valley until this business with the Baldars was settled. She hoped the child obeyed her. Perhaps she had gone to see Theresa. The Healer and Sarah, her niece, were like Anna’s surrogate mothers. The large blue dragon spread her wings and went to check on her missing child.
“Is Anna with you?” Clearair asked Sarah, as soon as the sorceress appeared at the castle gate. The dragon had been to Theresa’s and the child was not there.
“I haven’t seen her since yesterday… about mid-day,” Sarah replied. “Have you checked with Aunt T?”
“I have, and she has not seen her since yesterday morning when she was on her way here.” Clearair frowned and huffed smoke in irritation. “I told her not to leave the valley.”
“Perhaps she went to see James,” Sarah offered, trying to calm the large female.
“No…” Clearair shook her head. “I flew over where James and the men are digging the trench traps. I stopped and asked. He has not seen her for two days. He thought she was with me.” The dragon’s tail slashed across the ground behind her in irritation. “She has become quite taxing recently.”
Sarah pulled her hood up. The morning was overcast, and a light rain had begun to fall. “In what way?”
“She has become very withdrawn. She is moody, and I need to repeat myself to her several times before she will actually listen to me. It is like her mind is not in her head.”
The rain began to pelt down. The ground was turning to mud at their feet.
“I will go look in the village. Maybe she’s with Johnson at the forge. She likes the warmth of the smithy and the company of his sons,” Sarah offered.
“Really?” Clearair blinked the water out of her large eyes by closing her second lid. “She never talks about any humans to me except for you, Theresa and Adrian.”
Sarah smiled to herself. Anna confided in her yesterday that she thought she was in love with Adrian. Of course, she had sworn Sarah to secrecy. The sorceress had acknowledged, when Anna said it, that the bard was probably the handsomest man in the world. Sarah took note to tell Adrian of the child’s adoration, so he could make sure he didn’t break her young heart.
The sorceress thought for a moment. Anna did show up shortly after Adrian left her in the orchard. The child did come through the trees. Could she have overheard their conversation? Anna had exceptional hearing – way beyond that of any human.
Sarah chose not to say anything just now. She didn’t want to worry Clearair. More than likely, it was as she said, Anna was at the Johnson’s forge sharing a chat and a cup of tea with Henrietta and her two young strapping boys.
Adrian was shocked at what he found when he emerged on the Baldar end of the canyon which ran through the Westridge. A huge tent city had grown on the plain for as far as the eye could see in the dusk of the fading day. Normally, this plain was empty, and you had to walk for another day before you reached the small hamlet of Dryden. It was a good three-day walk from Dryden to the midland where King Minuss was in residence.
Adrian noticed the guards stationed on the east end of the canyon up among the rocks and ridges. He waved at them. They were a normal sight, but the mass of bodies when he came through the crevasse was a surprise.
It was all he could do to avoid being jostled off his feet. He stepped to one side, in the lee of a tent awning to study the scene around him. The crowd was a mixture of both men and women, but predominately men. The women all looked like camp followers. They were tending to fires and cooking. However, the men were a mixture of everything from peasants to heavily armed mercenaries. The mercenaries ranged from what Adrian recognized as the local sell-swords to men he could only guess at their origin. There were some men who could have been termed giants – at least twice the height of a normal man. The skin color, clothing and weapons of the varying mercenaries spoke to the bard of far off places.
There was a massive building project going on at the edge of the woods. They were constructing catapults. Huge towers for assaulting Kerth’s castle walls and perhaps for defense against dragons. King Minuss ancestors had been thwarted more than once by dragons, while attempting to take over Kerth.
King Minuss had obviously planned this invasion well. He had always wanted Kerth for the Great Divide, the river that ran right through the kingdom, at the base of the castle. This river was a major trade route to the sea. The kingdom of Kerth was rich because of it. Baldar was landlocked. Any trade they tried had to be conducted over treacherous mountain passes, or by crossing miles of arid land.
King Minuss’ ancestors tried to overthrow the rulers of Kerth in the past. A more recent attempt had been to negotiate with Queen Larkin, as the prize in a truce between the two kingdoms, but nothing gave King Minuss the access he sought. Now there would be war and from what Adrian could see, it would be a bloody one.
A light rain started to fall. It had been raining off and on all day. The bard decided he would see if he could seek shelter and food in exchange for a story or two. He wandered through the camp searching for the usual makeshift pub these kinds of gatherings could not live without. He found it within the hour. A large tent sat in a cleared area with torches surrounding it. The ground around the tent was well worn. There were crudely cobbled together tables and stools sitting outside in the rain for use when the weather permitted it. There would be a pub owner to approach for permission to tell his tales, but few owners refused to let a bard speak. It attracted customers and encouraged them to linger over another tankard. Overall, it was good for business.
Adrian would set himself up at this pub and while passing on his collection of stories, he would be able to learn about what the plans were for the movement of this mass of humanity toward Kerth. A good bard not only spoke, but listened as well.
He hitched his backpack up firmly on his shoulder. There would be cutpurses in the cesspool and he had no desire to lose what little he had brought with him.
The tent flap was pulled back and the smell of warm bodies, stale beer and roasted meat filled his nostrils as he entered. There was indeed a pub owner behind a long board placed on several tall barrels to form a bar. He was a mountain of a man and bald as a newborn baby, however the rest of his body was hairy as the beast of a man he resembled.
His stock was safely tucked away in the barrels, tapped and laying on their sides behind him. He had several young men, perhaps his sons, helping man the bar and run orders out to the tables. There was not a woman in sight. Unlike Kerth, where women and children were allotted a special area of the pub so they could enjoy the words and songs of a bard, Baldar had laws against women and children in pubs.
Adrian walked up to the bar, slung his pack off his shoulder and placed it on the floor between his feet. He waited patiently for his turn to be served.
“I’ll take a mead if you have one,” he said politely to the man he took to be the owner.
The bald burly man, with more hair on his arms then the family dog, pulled a pint for Adrian and sat it on the bar. “That will be one silver.”
Adrian’s eyebrow shot up. “A full silver?” It was an atrocious sum. At home, you could get the same for a token or two.
The barkeep grabbed for the tankard. “Take it or leave it.”
Adrian fished in his pouch for the coin and laid it on the plank. “I’ll take it for now, but I would like to offer you my services. I am a bard and well known in the kingdom.”
The man picked up the coin and placed it in his apron pocket where a bulge of similar coins securely rested. “Really?” The man eyed him. “And what be your name?”
“Adrian.” He smiled and raised his tankard in a salute.
The muscular pub owner hammered his fist on the plank, making each and every one of the men with drinks sitting there, grab them to keep them from spilling. A quiet grew over the room.
“Who here has heard of this bard what goes by the name of Adrian?” he demanded of the assembled group while pointing at Adrian.
Two men by the fire pit looked his direction. One spoke up as the other nodded. “We heard him speak in Dryden a couple of summers ago.”
Another man leaning against a tent pole for support raised his tankard. “Cheers, Adrian.” Whether he recognized Adrian or just wanted to hear a story, the bard did not know. He looked like he was deep in his cups and the pole was all that was holding him up.
“All right! Back you go to your drinks,” the pub owner ordered, and the crowd immediately became noisy again. “I’m Heeltrek,” the man introduced himself. “I’ll give ya a try. Camp rules are close by midnight. After that, you can sleep by the fire. You can pay me a silver a day for what meat and drink you consume.”
Adrian shook his head. It was unthinkable – a bard paying to entertain an owner’s customers. If it was not a straight across trade, entertainment for room and board, then it was a trade in favor of the bard. Bard’s were often paid a little as well as what they could pick up from the customers as tips for their tales and songs.
“I won’t be helping you if you charge me,” Adrian said and leisurely took a sip of his mead.
Heeltrek pushed at his rolled up sleeves and leaned on the bar. He thought to intimidate the bard. “Three tokens a day and that is as low as I go. I gotta make a living.”
“And you will, selling tankards for a silver a piece, but not long if someone else sets up a shop and sells for less and I go work for him instead.” Adrian smiled and took another sip.
Heeltrek’s attention was drawn up over Adrian’s head to some commotion by the tent flap. “Get out of here!” he shouted. “You know better, girly.” He shooed with his hand. “OUT! You’ll bring the camp guard down on me.”
Adrian turned to see Anna just inside the tent. Her eyes met the bard’s before she ducked her head, turned and left.
Adrian couldn’t imagine what she was doing here. He leaned down for his pack and slung it up on his shoulder intent on following her. This was no place for a child.
But, Heeltrek was not finished with him. He thought the bard was raising the stakes by threatening to leave, not following the girl. He reached out and grabbed Adrian’s arm to stop him. “Okay, food, drink and a place by the fire for stories and song from dawn until midnight, but if you are not bringing in the customers and keeping them buying then I find someone else.”
Adrian tried to shake the man’s hand off. “Deal. I’ll start tomorrow.” He had to follow Anna.
“It would be best if you started now,” Heeltrek added in a huff.
Adrian could see he thought he had given in and should have satisfaction immediately, but Adrian had to get to Anna and send her home. “Tonight, later. I have someone I have to see first.”
A customer called for more beer further down the bar and there was no one at the moment to fetch it besides Heeltrek, so he let Adrian go. “If you are not here and telling stories for at least two hours before closing, you’ll not sleep by my fire tonight.” He turned to get the other man a drink.