Authors: B. J. Beach
A Minstrel’s Quest
B J Beach
Book Four of
The Trouble with Magic
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This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance between the characters in this work and any persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
The right of B. J. Beach to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1998.
Published by Ex-L-Ence Publishing a division of Winghigh Limited, England.
He came to with his nose an inch away from a water-filled pothole. Mud squished through his fingers as he pushed himself to his knees, his head was clanging like an empty bucket and his clothes were soaked. The steady clop of hooves brought Corlin struggling to his feet and stumbling to the side of the rutted track. There he half sat half fell onto the wet grass verge in front of a tangled bramble thicket. Forearms on drawn up knees and chin on arms, he felt his head slowly clearing as the approaching hazy shapes resolved themselves into a trio of mounted soldiers.
Easy in the saddle, the corporal in front reined in his mount, looked down at Corlin and then looked round at his troopers. “I think we’ve found ourselves a vagrant!”
Corlin struggled to his feet, gingerly prodded the back of his head and frowned. The lump he found there felt as though it might hatch at any minute.
Swaying briefly he adjusted his balance on the uneven ground. “No sir; my name is Corlin. “I’m a travelling minstrel.”
The corporal exchanged glances with his two grinning troopers, and gave him a disbelieving smirk. “Well Master whatever your name is, I see no pipe or gimalin. Invisible, is it?”
Not overly impressed by the corporal’s attempts at humour, Corlin scowled. “I was set upon by footpads. They took my horse, my gimalin and my purse.”
The corporal leaned forward across his saddle-bow and sneered down. “Well, it seems to me that you have no visible means of support. I reckon that definitely makes you a vagrant.”
Looking back along the track, Corlin shrugged. “Not really. My visible means of support will be along directly.”
A peal of high-pitched laughter rang out from the dense woodland behind Corlin.
He smiled as the soldiers looked nervously about, hands ready on sword-hilts. “That’s just my travelling companion.”
It was the corporal’s turn to scowl. “Well, let him show himself or we go in and fetch him.”
He was not best pleased when Corlin responded with a derisory snort. “Good luck with that.”
Seeing the trio preparing to dismount, Corlin shrugged, put two fingers between his lips and gave a short piercing double-noted whistle. The winter-bare branches above their heads rattled and a chirpy female voice called “Hello boys!”
The soldiers roared with laughter as a large, orange-beaked glossy blue-black bird flew down to settle on Corlin’s shoulder. It spoke again in the same female voice. “Hello Corlin.”
Tension broken, the corporal gave an approving nod, before his expression darkened. “Very entertaining, but a Hilnah bird’s not exactly support, is it?
Corlin moved the bird from his shoulder and stroked a finger slowly down its back. “She’ll be here soon.”
A bark of contempt erupted from the mouth of one of the soldiers. “Hah! Travelling with his doxy is it?”
The sound of hoof-beats approaching at a canter had them all turning to look back along the narrow woodland track. Corlin stepped forward as a nondescript dapple grey mare came into view, and the Hilnah bird flew off to perch on the saddle’s cantle.
Corlin smiled as he gestured towards the horse. “Here’s my ‘doxy’, gentlemen; my visible means of support, for without her I would be unable to travel either fast or far.”
The mare came to a stop behind the soldiers, and as Corlin moved past them to greet her, they could see that his left foot, which had until now been hidden in the tussocks of the grass verge, was twisted inwards and encased in a curiously fashioned and laced-up boot. They watched as he patted the mare’s neck and looked her over, before moving to her right side.
Placing his right foot in the stirrup he swung himself into the saddle, gathered the reins and, with the bird settled on his shoulder, edged up beside the corporal. “My gimalin and my pack are gone. It would seem that after only three days on the road my quest has met a setback when it has hardly begun.”
The corporal’s eyes narrowed. “So how come they didn’t keep the mare? That’s worth a silver coin or three.”
Corlin grinned. “They probably meant to, and tied her up somewhere. They didn’t know about Hobb. He waited until they were out of sight, and untied the tether. He’s done it before. That’s how I knew she’d get here if I waited long enough.”
Clearly impressed, the corporal glanced at the bird then back at Corlin. “So, what will you do now? You mentioned a quest. Will you abandon it?”
The minstrel shook his head. “There’s too much at stake. I shall have to continue as best I can. If I can get to Redmire before nightfall I may be able to borrow a gimalin and earn a copper or two towards buying another one.”
The corporal gave him a sidelong glance. “You can ride with us as far as Redmire, and then we’ll have to leave you. As we’re going to be keeping company, I’m Rowan, and the two troopers are Jouan and Artheg. While we ride you can tell us about yourself and your quest. Depending on what you tell us, we might be able to put some help your way, but I’m making no promises.”
Although the narrowness of the track would force him to ride almost knee to knee with the corporal, Corlin readily agreed, thankful for the unexpected protection the soldiers would provide.
They kept up a steady trot for a mile or so to make up time, and then Rowan eased them to a steady walk.
He nodded at Corlin. “So, tell us about this quest. What’s the reason for it?”
His lips pressed tight together, the minstrel gazed into the middle distance for a long moment while he gathered his thoughts. Then he began his tale, the soldiers smiling in appreciation of his soft WestLands rolling burr.
“We lived on a small-holding, about three days ride down west, but after my father died, Lord Treevers took back his land and took my younger brother Clies as a slave. He turned me out to fend for myself, for obvious reasons. He already had his own minstrels, and had no use for a cripple. I pleaded with him to let Clies come away with me, but he just laughed and gave me one day to get off his lands. I’ll give him his due though; he let me keep Megan.”
The corporal looked puzzled. “Who’s Megan?”
Corlin grinned. “Megan is my ‘visible means of support’; this grey mare. I suppose Treevers thought that I wouldn’t go far enough away if I had to walk.”
“So, what’s this quest you’re on?”
“I was just coming to that. As I was leaving the holding, one of Treevers’ men rode in and ordered me to attend his hall. I had my gimalin with me so I thought he’d changed his mind and wanted another minstrel, so off I went. Anyway, it was nothing like that. Treevers said that if I could find something he wanted, and present it to him at his hall during the Winter Festival, he would set Clies free.”
Rowan gave Corlin an encouraging little smile. “That doesn’t sound too difficult. What’s this thing this Lord wants?”
Corlin shook his head. “I don’t think it’ll be as easy as it sounds. The thing I’m looking for is a clock.”
One of the troopers called forward. “I saw a clock once, in a temple. The priests said it was very valuable.”
Rowan turned in his saddle. “Thank you Artheg, but I’m guessing that the clock friend Corlin is looking for is not going to be that simple to find.”
Jouan looked across the fields that had come into view as the hedge petered out, and spoke to no-one in particular. “My great granny used to talk about a clock when we were brats. I didn’t know what one was then, but she used to try and scare us with it if we were naughty. She said she’d tell the Grollarts to bring the evil magician’s clock and turn back the time so we’d disappear.”
Rowan’s response was tinged with scorn. “I hope you don’t still believe that old tale. There’s no such thing as Grollarts for a start.”
His irritation was obvious as Corlin butted in. “I think he may have something there, Rowan, even though it is an old tale. It sounds like the clock I’ve been sent to find.”
He called back to Jouan. “Did your grandma tell you a name, or did she always call it ‘the magician’s clock’?”
They all rode in silence as the trooper thought for a while, his face screwed up with the effort. Finally, he shook his head. “I’m sure she used a name, an odd-sounding sort of a name, but I’m blowed if I can remember it.”
Corlin grimaced. “Keep trying Jouan. It will be a big help if you can.”
Rowan looked across at Corlin. “Let’s pick it up a bit. It’ll be dark soon and they close Redmire’s gates an hour after sunset.”
He kneed his big black gelding to a fast trot, leaving Corlin and the two troopers to follow in single file. Half an hour later they were passing the first of Redmire’s outlying cottages, and they could see lights coming on in the town ahead of them. They clattered across the heavy-planked bridge spanning the river, surging and swollen with winter rain, barely two feet below. Corlin looked about him as they rode two abreast through the town gates.
He turned to Rowan. “Do you know an inn where I might have some luck?”
Artheg called forward and pointed straight ahead. “Go down there and take the second street to the left. You’ll find an inn called ‘The Red Dog’. It’s clean and they have stables.”
Corporal Rowan nodded in agreement and held out his hand.”We have to leave you here. Good luck.”
Corlin shook the proffered hand and nodded towards Artheg. “Thanks for your help. Perhaps we’ll meet again sometime!”
As he turned into the street towards the inn, he looked back. The three soldiers were nowhere to be seen.
An ostler hurried out as Corlin reined in under the archway which led to the stable-yard of ‘The Red Dog’. “Was you wanting stabling sir?”
Corlin dismounted and patted Megan’s neck as he handed over the reins. “Just for tonight, thanks.”
The man led the mare away, and Corlin ducked into the shadow provided by the inn’s wall. There, he pushed two fingers down inside his left boot and pulled out two copper coins which he dropped into a pocket inside his jerkin. With Hobb perched on his shoulder, he turned towards the door and the welcoming warmth of the inn.
Four of the five people in the bar-room looked up and watched Corlin’s uneven progress towards the bar. It was the one who didn’t that caught his eye.
The landlord nodded as his gaze took in his latest visitor’s muddy clothes and the bright-eyed bird perched on his shoulder “Good evening sir. What’ll it be?”
Hobb flapped his wings and looked round the bar. “Hello boys!”
Corlin acknowledged the landlord’s nod with a smile, leaned on the plain timber bar-top and glanced around as he eased his weight onto his good leg. “A hot meal, a tankard of your best ale and a bed for the night, if that’s possible.”
The landlord looked him up and down as he reached for a clean tankard. “Looks like you could do with a good bath too, if you don’t mind me saying so sir.”
Corlin gave a wry smile and looked down at the dried mud which plastered his coat and trousers. He decided that some economy with the truth would not come amiss. “Yes. My horse shied and pitched me onto the track on the way here. So now you have two lodgers, one out there and one in here.”
The landlord placed the full tankard on the bar. “That’ll be three and a half pennies altogether please sir. That’s including your lodging and stabling.”
Taking one of the two pennies out of his jerkin, Corlin placed it on the bar and, promising the balance later, downed half the ale before turning and making his way slowly down to the far end of the room. The two men who had been playing battle-stones and the one sitting by the fire all got to their feet as he moved past them. He turned, gave a little shake of his head and prodded the shabbily clothed character slumped on a bench against the far wall. The man simply slumped a little lower, but it was the object cradled in the man’s arms that had fired Corlin’s interest.
He gestured at the unresponsive man as he called down the bar-room. “What’s his story?”
The landlord came from behind the bar and stood beside Corlin. “That’s Otty. He reckons he’s a minstrel, but he ain’t all that good and he drank the few pennies he managed to make. Then a string broke on that instrument of his and he gave up. ‘E’s been there since noon, dead drunk. Can’t hold his beer, and he still owes me a penny.”
Corlin slipped off his thick woollen coat, tucked it under the bench, then reached out and eased the battered old gimalin from the grasp of the man called Otty. Settling the instrument against his body, he avoided the broken string and strummed a chord. He winced. The gimalin was painfully out of tune. Knowing that every move he made was being watched very closely by the inn’s present customers, Corlin perched on a nearby stool and rested the gimalin across his knees.
Carefully he turned the bone tuning peg until the broken string was loose, pulled it away and let it fall to the floor. Then he eased the other end of the string from the tailpiece and also let that fall. Being a minstrel, Corlin always carried spare strings, and he quietly congratulated himself for having had the forethought to stow them in his jerkin and not in his pack. He placed the tightly coiled strings on the gimalin’s broad flat body and began to loosen a few of the remaining eleven strings.
He pulled out the other penny from inside his jerkin and handed it up to the watching landlord. “This could take a while, so if you’d be so good as to bring my ale over here...er?”
The landlord nodded. “It’s Ned. I’ll get your ale.”
The evening wore on, and customers came and went as Corlin worked. To the deep satisfaction of the landlord, word quickly spread that a new minstrel was working at ‘The Red Dog’, and by the time Corlin had the old gimalin re-strung and tuned, the bar had filled almost to capacity and games of battle-stones were forgotten. Hobb flew up onto a beam and greeted all who entered with a chirpy “Hello boys!” much to everyone’s amusement, until he disgraced himself on a customer’s head. After obtaining Corlin’s permission, the bird was banished to the stables to keep company with Megan.
There were a few anxious moments when the owner of the gimalin woke and demanded in a most belligerent fashion to know who had stolen his ‘valuable’ instrument. Corlin assured him that his gimalin was in good hands, reminded him that the most ‘valuable’ thing about it was the new strings, and asked him if he could possibly borrow it for a while. Encouraged by a tankard of strong ale willingly donated by the landlord, Otty sullenly agreed, downed the ale and slumped back on the bench.
Satisfied that both he and the gimalin were now ready, Corlin slipped the worn leather strap over his shoulder, settled the instrument against his body and gently strummed a couple of chords. Now in perfect tune, the twelve strings sang a rich harmony and all chatter and hubbub ceased in anticipation of this new minstrel’s performance.