So I’ve been through some weird stuff since coming here, but that has to be one of the most surreal experiences of my life. Wyntaf wandering off for no good reason and somehow passing through some sort of… whatever a Sameness is, that drops me halfway around the world so a nude forest spirit can tell me I’m under a death curse for taking an ancient treasure from a dead dragon.
And just as if things weren’t weird enough already, Wyntaf acted completely normal once we got back, as if nothing unusual in the slightest had just happened. She kept on walking down the road as if she went on little side-trips like this every day. Stupid horse. I was gonna have to have some words with Aylwyn about this when I got back.
And the worst part about it was the way it required a different role from me. I couldn’t take the lute with me to Keliar; Mr. Stark was not known for any musical proclivities. Not to mention the raised eyebrows that would result from Mr. Parker showing up at Amber String with a horse like this. (And showing up with no horse at all would look even weirder!) Or just in general, one of my alter-egos taking something invaluable and having it later show up in the possession of another version of me. Argh! Why’d Aylwyn have to saddle me with… no, wrong metaphor here. Why’d she have to go and lay a burden like this on my shoulders?
The more I thought about it, the more I realized there was only one way to do this. Especially if the curse would continue to get worse and worse over time until it eventually put me in the ground, the only thing to do would be to take the lute home first.
I hoped Aylwyn would understand. And I really hoped her bond with Wyntaf didn’t include some sort of GPS-tracking ability!
With my luck, it probably would.
I found the right place to turn off the road, and made my way to the camp just a bit after noon. As always, I had to dismount before reaching the camp, leading Wyntaf the last leg of the journey.
As I arrived, I saw a handful of bards walking across the camp, headed in my general direction. And just my luck, one of them had red hair, dusky skin and a feminine figure. Even at a distance, there’s only one person it could be.
“Ho, Peter,” one of them called out as the group approached. It was Simon. The third was a middle-aged man I didn’t recognize. “You seem to be short a horse! Where’s your remount?”
Best to deflect the question. I turned, making a show of looking my oversized mount up and down. “You’d best look again, Simon; there’s nothing short about my horse!”
Amber’s eyes widened as she stepped closer. “Peter, where did you come by an etaria?”
All right, that’s the second time today I’ve had that term tossed at me. “What’s an etaria?” I asked her.
She gave me an odd look. “That is. It’s a rare breed, only ever found among the angels. Paladin’s steed.”
She was doing it again, talking oddly, but every time I thought I had the pattern, she changed it. Just like always. “You don’t say,” I said. “Yeah, I got this horse from a paladin all right. Won her in a game of kebat.”
They all laughed at that; just imagine a paladin gambling their horse away! Telling a brazen, ridiculous, but entertaining lie like that is a bard’s way of saying that he doesn’t feel like answering a question. And they generally respect that; everyone has some things they want to keep private.
“So what brings you back here so quickly?” Simon asked. “Usually you’re away for months, not three days!”
“Funny story, that. I had a bit of a run-in with a forest nymph.”
“Oho!” the third bard guffawed. “Spent three days running in with her, and now you need to rest and regain your strength?”
I just laughed and rolled my eyes. “If only! No, all she wanted to do is talk.” I made a comical face. “Her and every other woman I meet…”
“Every?” Amber asked with a raised eyebrow and a slightly flirtatious grin.
Was she really going to go there? OK, let’s play Missing The Point. “Well, I’ve never seen you do anything but talk to people. Do you sing? Or play an instrument? Perhaps you dance?” I didn’t want to keep on this topic for too long, though. “But regardless, what truly matters is what she said to me.”
“What she said brought you back to this camp?” Amber asked.
I nodded. “She sensed that I am under a curse, that the lute was stolen, at some point in the past, from the Treasury of Fate.”
Her face clouded. “Peter, that is not a thing to even joke of! Keeping it here, that would make us all partakers of the malediction!”
So she knew the lore. And she had an interesting way of talking about it. “Exactly; that’s why I came back. I need to take it to the Treasury so that no harm will befall the rest of you.”
Simon looked over at me, looking worried. “You’re not joking,” he said slowly.
“I wouldn’t joke about something like this. It’s a tragedy, and I wish I didn’t have to, but the lute needs to be returned home. Amber, can you draft a letter to Master Patrick Hill, explaining the situation? He should be made aware of this.”
She nodded wordlessly, and I headed over to the hall where the lute was stored. It was a beautiful place, an open salon with a dozen or so tables placed throughout the room, each holding some priceless example of the instrument-crafter’s art under glass, strengthened and warded by magic.
Magical wards. Heh. If only they knew.
There were two attendants on duty, and they reluctantly agreed to let me take the lute once I had explained the curse. Technically it was mine anyway and I shouldn’t have needed an explanation, but of course the rules get a bit hazier when dealing with high-value items.
I got the lute, packed it in its case, and was turning to leave when the door opened. It was Simon. “Peter?” he asked, looking nervous. “The paladin… was it a woman?”
OK, that came straight out of left field. It took me a sec to realize what he was referring to. “The one I got the horse from?” He nodded. “Yes, why?”
“Because an angel with no horse just walked into the camp, and she’s looking for you.”
Well that was about the last thing I ever expected to hear! Every bit of it made no sense. Aylwyn shouldn’t have any reason to leave Barley until I got back. She shouldn’t know where I am right now–unless she actually can track Wyntaf somehow–and even if she did show up here, she shouldn’t have any way of knowing to ask for my bardic persona here. That meant something was very wrong. I tensed as a thought came to mind: could it be Ashley, sent here in a new disguise to make trouble for me?
I left the lute inside the hall and slipped my dagger out of the lining of my boot, just in case it was something bad.
Turns out it was something even worse. I had barely stepped out of the relic hall when I heard a happy cry and suddenly found myself being hugged by a very enthusiastic half-angel.
I tensed, then realized what was going on, and quickly turned my wrist, pressing the flat of the dagger blade firmly against my thigh until Sarah released me. “Sarah!” I said, forcing a smile. Have to stay in character around here. “I didn’t know you knew of this camp.”
“I didn’t know any angels knew of this camp,” Simon remarked with some bemusement. “I heard the angels had bards of their own…”
“This is no angel, Simon,” I grinned. “At least not most of the time. Allow me to introduce you to Sarah O’Neill.”
Sarah beamed as Simon got all excited and a bit flustered at meeting a celebrity of sorts. Here before him was one of the great Companions of Aylwyn, the heroic paladin who had struck down the renegade Archmagus Ken’tu Kel. (Two bards who were present for the events in question had devised and publicized the official account of what happened that night. We made sure it even bore some slight resemblance to reality.)
I tried to slip away unnoticed as Simon distracted Sarah. I headed back into the relic hall, got my dagger sheathed properly, and picked up the lute case, checking inside just to be doubly certain it was intact. When I headed out, Sarah and Simon’s conversation appeared to have expanded to include Amber, and the three of them were discussing something or other about meter and verse. Sarah’s back was to me. So far, so good.
Sarah must have heard me; she turned suddenly and smiled brightly. “There you are!” Wow, she really was dangerously hot in this form, especially when she smiled! And her wings weren’t nearly as big as Aylwyn’s, but they looked just as soft and warm.
“Yes, here I am, but I was just leaving,” I said airily. “I have a most urgent task to attend to, so I must take my leave, if you’ll pardon me.”
“Ooo!” Her face brightened excitedly. “A quest?”
I shrugged. “Of sorts.” I gave her a brief explanation of my encounter with the dryad. “And so you see that I must be away posthaste. My luck has already been quite bad recently, and I’d not care to see it get any worse.”
Sarah nodded. “That makes sense.” Then she went quiet, pondering something briefly. “What you need, then,” she mused, “is a companion. One who is free of the curse.”
Yup. My luck was definitely deteriorating.
“Bad things are likely to happen around me, things I can’t foresee or prepare for. I couldn’t put you in that sort of danger,” I demurred. “Your father would have my head if anything happened!”
“Nonsense,” she retorted, giggling softly. “Who do you think told me to look for you here?”
Sarah’s offhand remark brought raised eyebrows from the other two. I don’t think she realized the implications of what she just said. So I looked her in the face. “Wait, when did you first find this camp?”
“About a year ago,” she said. “I followed the song and–oh!” It took a moment, but realization dawned. “No, I already knew about here; Daddy would never cheat me out of the fun of finding a camp like that!”
A year ago. So she was keeping up her bardic studies then? I hadn’t known that. She had been her father’s apprentice–sort of; the bards didn’t exactly do apprenticeships–back before the big fight, but since then she’d been dedicating herself to the pursuit of magical knowledge and skill. And of me.
Amber nodded. “I met her briefly when she first arrived.” That was interesting; Amber had looked as surprised by Sarah’s statement as Simon. But if she knew she was legitimate here, then what… oh. Et tu, Patrick? Amber caught my expression when it registered, and shot me a positively impish grin. “It would seem you have gained Patrick Hill’s favor, yes? Lucky you!”
Well, if what she was implying was true, that would certainly be entirely consistent with my luck. I was at least tactful enough to not say that out loud. Even if I had no feelings for her that way, Sarah was still a friend, and it wouldn’t do to insult her like that. But I made a little mental note to have some words with Hill as well as Aylwyn once this was all over.
Sarah blushed a little at Amber’s teasing. I just shook my head. “Even so, I don’t want to put you in danger.”
She gave a dramatic sigh. “Ah, very well,” she said. “I will simply have to make a long, perilous journey to the Treasury of Fate all by myself!”
I had no time or patience for her antics. “You will if you can’t keep up with a horse!” That should stop her cold. She arrived here on foot and she’d never learned to ride.
But she just giggled and grinned at me. “I’ll fly.”
I gave her my most dubious look. “Those wings are too small, and besides, they’re only tempor–uhh…” Crap. She was flying all of a sudden. Levitating, really, about two feet off the ground, and she could probably keep it up for hours, if not all day. That was the other side of her mother’s heritage: a prodigious reserve of magical energy to draw upon. “You’ll fly.” I sighed. “I can’t talk you out of this, can I?”
“No,” she said, way too cheerfully. And I really couldn’t stop her by other means; it’s not like I was going to pull out the Twist in front of an entire camp full of bards, and she knew it.
“…all right,” I sighed, conceding defeat. For some reason, Amber was smirking at that. I wondered what her deal was. Then again, it was Amber. No one ever knew what was up with her, as near as I could tell. “Let me go get my horse.”
I smiled to myself as I headed over to the stable. Seeing the look on Sarah’s face when she saw me show up with Wyntaf would almost be worth all this.