Authors: Nicole Dennis
the increasing ferocity of the ice blizzard dropping in from the northern mountains, a traveling minstrel taught by the Bard Guild, Kerryll MacGhylle, huddled over the shaggy mane and neck of his pony, Aychear. His double-layered cloak surrounded him in its warmth and protection, but this freezing cold was starting to delve underneath even that fabric. He shifted the heavy scarf over his mouth and nose to be able to breathe through the icy chill. Their lungs could easily freeze if they didn’t find shelter soon, and he wasn’t sure Aychear remained on the Outer Road.
The last town didn’t allow strangers beyond their walls. It’d been similar in many places he visited after the devastating wasting plague swept across the kingdom. Throughout the four quadrants, towns blamed the traveling guilds for spreading the plague, to the point where some captured and executed members of the traveling guilds.
This was the first triple season Kerryll had managed to travel, but he didn’t retain many contracts. Now the Dark Solstice was upon him, and he needed a place to stay when the roads closed from the piling snow and ice. Of the triple seasons, families spent the dark season indoors, enjoying the work and reward of the previous year. Before the plague, minstrels used to be the only ones to officially perform and provide all the music and festivities throughout the ceremonials and rituals. This blessed event had disappeared from most repertoires and requests. Most solstice celebrations were silent and grave instead of joyous.
Kerryll hated the change within the quadrants since the plague. Life as a traveler had become worse. He couldn’t enjoy the simple pleasure of playing for the celebrations. He yearned to see the joy and light upon the children’s faces as they danced and frolicked to his music. Though he wished he could return to the ways prior to the plague, he knew they wouldn’t change. Instead of trying to procure multiple contracts and treading the endless roads, Kerryll wanted to stay within one main castle and perform the minstrel’s role permanently through all the blessed celebrations and beyond. He wanted to belong somewhere.
Thunder rumbled through the darkness. Kerryll lifted his gaze from Aychear’s neck and tried to peer through the dense snowfall and thick cloud cover. They could die if trapped within this weather and unable to get warm.
Tugging on the reins, he pulled the pony to a stop. He fumbled out the locater crystal compass and map from a deep pocket under the cloak. Speaking an incantation, he held the compass over the map, trying to stop everything from flapping away, to see if he could learn their position. He wasn’t sure how far he had gone since forced away from the last village that refused him entrance. According to his last check, he believed they remained within the far edge of the northern quadrant near the central city, home of the D’Antuono family. He knew this family was long supporters of the traveling guilds, and he could only hope this remained true.
“Almost there,” he murmured.
Replacing everything in the pocket, Kerryll nudged Aychear, sending a bit of magic to him to follow the map’s direction, and they plodded ahead. By the time the brunt of the storm reached them, Kerryll heard the difference in noise. The pony’s footsteps sounded hollow. They had made it to the bridge by the entrance to the D’Antuono’s ancient city. He clicked and nudged the pony across, knowing they couldn’t linger. They needed the protection of the walls to survive. While clip-clopping across the bridge, Kerryll lifted his gaze and saw an opening appear through the snow. Lights hovered and moved. Without prodding, Aychear tossed his head and trotted forward.
A tall figure appeared and leaned against Aychear’s side to speak. “What are you doing out in this blizzard? Are you insane?”
“I’m a minstrel looking for a Dark Solstice contract. Am I welcomed here?”
“Crazy travelers. Many within these lands know to never venture beyond the walls during an incoming ice blizzard.”
“I was told to travel in this direction. A village refused my entrance. They said nothing about the incoming storms,” Kerryll said. “Am I welcomed?”
“As the Captain of the Duke’s guards, I’ll welcome and escort you to the castle.”
“And my pony?”
“He’ll be well treated. You’re both safe within the D’Antuono’s lands.”
Kerryll let the unknown man take the reins to lead them through the streets. Frozen to the core, he wanted to fall off Aychear’s back.
“Can you step off your horse?”
“I may not be able to stand for long.”
“I’ll help you inside. The Duke’s seneschal will take care of you. See if you can slide your leg around. I’m right behind you.”
With a groan as he moved his body, Kerryll unhooked his boot from the stirrup and lifted his leg. He felt strong hands press against his back and guide his stiff body. When both boots reached the stone covering, he held on to the saddle as his knees quivered. “My things… I can’t leave….”
“One of the servants will bring them to the chamber the seneschal assigns.”
“I can’t step away….”
“I’ll help you,” the captain said, moving his arm around Kerryll’s stiff body.
“May I ask your name? So I know who to thank once I’m well.”
The captain helped Kerryll move toward the castle’s heavy front doors. “I’m Donovan Layder, the Captain of the Duke’s guards. How about you, Minstrel?”
“Kerryll MacGhylle of the Bard Guild. My pony is called Aychear.”
“I’ll make sure the stable marshal knows,” Donovan said.
Kerryll lifted his head, deep inside the covering hood, when he heard the heavy doors open. He shuffled his way past them and the guards. Unable to stand straighter, he saw several pairs of indoor shoes.
“Minstrel, may I introduce the seneschal, his chamberlain, and other staff. Seneschal Bladyn, may I introduce you to our unexpected frozen traveler, minstrel of the Bard Guild, Kerryll MacGhylle,” Donovan said.
“Welcome to the Northern Quadrant and our home, Minstrel,” one of the newcomers said.
“I apologize for my sudden, unexpected appearance. My pony and I weren’t able to procure a contract with the last village. I hope to make a contract for the Dark Solstice celebration. If I could, I would straighten and offer my respects, but….” Kerryll moved a hand over his frozen cloak.
“What is happening?” another male called in a booming voice.
“Duke D’Antuono, we have an unexpected traveler. I took the chance and welcomed him,” Donovan said, but didn’t shift his support from Kerryll’s arm.
“And our traveler is?”
“I’m Minstrel Kerryll MacGhylle of the Bard Guild, my Duke,” Kerryll said. “I’m here to request a contract for the Dark Solstice celebrations.”
“It’s been some time since a minstrel graced us with his presence and abilities. The last so-called travelers tried to pass off their talents, but they weren’t of the guild.”
“I’m guild trained and received my official bands upon completing my training and internship with a master. I would reveal them, but I’m not feeling well.”
“We need to help you heal. I missed having music for our celebrations. Seneschal, is there a free chamber?”
“There is, sire. I’m having it prepared now,” the seneschal said.
“I can’t leave until the contract is fixed,” Kerryll said.
“What does it take to complete the contract?”
“There is magic, an intonation, and a clasp of my hand.”
“I’ll accept this contract.” The Duke lifted a hand to stop the seneschal’s protest. “Is there harm doing this?”
“No. A minstrel never harms anyone who accepts a contract. The magic will remain until the contract ends or is broken.”
“Perform your magic, minstrel,” the Duke said as he stepped into Kerryll’s limited view and clasped Kerryll’s hand.
Using his voice in a different fashion, calling upon his magic, Kerryll sang:
Ancient Muses, ladies fair
Aid us in this contract we enter
From the land of spirits wise
Bless our union and our rite
To bring magic and music to this solstice night
During his incantation, pale blue wisps appeared and created a rope. The magic wrapped around his wrist, above his tattoo, and did the same with the Duke’s wrist. When the incantation finished, the rope disappeared, and Kerryll stepped away.
“This is a true minstrel contract, a guild contract,” the Duke said as he touched the sparkling band.
This knowledge caught Kerryll’s attention. “Have you seen one?”
“Before the plague swept through, yes, I’ve seen one.”
“You know how it will disappear once it is finished.”
The seneschal cleared his throat. “What does this mean for you, my Duke?”
“Relax, Patryk, the minstrel is correct. The mark will last the duration of the contract.”
The seneschal studied Kerryll. “Is there a way this could remain?”
With an exhausted sigh, Kerryll wondered if he had made the correct decision. To console the seneschal’s concern, he said, “If a contract is broken and unfulfilled by either party, yes, it would become permanent. As it turns permanent, there will be broken sections as a signal to another.”
“We better not have issues.”
“No, my Duke, there will be no issues….” Kerryll said and wavered on his feet. The incantation and moving through the blizzard took its toll upon him.
Kerryll felt his eyes roll toward the back of his head. His knees gave out, and he dropped to the floor. Caught by a strong pair of arms, he lifted his gaze to see a pair of clear blue eyes. The Duke was handsome, gorgeous, and refined.
Darkness swept across him.
Gryffyn D’Antuono didn’t hesitate to catch the weary traveler within his arms. He dropped to one knee to support the slender figure. The deep cowl hood fell back, revealing the beauty of the minstrel. Kerryll had the golden coloring of the Southern Quadrant, and his honey curly hair and those whiskey brown eyes captivated him. It was different from the darker northern shades with pale skin.
“My Duke, what shall we do with him?” Donovan asked as he crouched next to them.
“Help me remove the cloak, Donovan; it’s encrusted with ice,” Gryff said. “Did he have gloves?”
“They’re on the floor. They must have fallen from his grip,” Donovan said, reaching out and lifting the thick, ice-covered gloves.
“When the blizzard clears, I want to know what village would let a traveler leave their protection and knowingly enter such dangerous conditions. He should never have been on the path. Anyone within our quadrant recognizes the signs of an incoming storm and knows of my protection of all guild travelers,” Gryff said.
“I’ll send my guards in the direction he came.”
“They’ll pay for not showing hospitality to a traveler. I’m tired of the grievances and inhospitable attitudes. I’ll not tolerate this behavior.”
“As you wish,” Donovan said as he handed off the gloves. He managed to find the row of clasps down the front of Kerryll’s cloak and released them to let it fall. Donovan gathered and passed it to one of the servants. “See what you can do to salvage his garments. They are of fine quality.”
“Yes, sir,” the servant said.
“Patryk,” Gryff said as he rose, sweeping Kerryll into his arms.
“Aye, sir,” the seneschal said.
“Make sure the chamber next to mine is prepared instead for Kerryll’s stay. I’ll look after his well-being tonight. I want the dual fireplaces roaring, the spring open to fill the tub, extra blankets, and several warming stones heated by our mystic. We need to counteract the ice sickness,” Gryff ordered.
“It’ll be done. I’ll have his things moved to the chamber,” Patryk said with a deep bow. He waved a hand to some gathered servants and sent them moving off on the latest orders.
“Perhaps have the mystic create a warm, healing tea as well for him?” Donovan rose and stood next to Gryff.
“Good idea. Patryk?”
“Excellent idea. I’ll speak with the mystic. Should I have some clothes prepared? We noticed only his instruments were well packed in oiled and prepared wraps and hides.”
“Of course those would be protected, as they’re his pieces of life and work. I doubt his clothes will be in any condition for him to wear. Have them laundered and repaired. Since those will take some time, please locate additional clothing from our stores.”
“Of course.” Patryk left and called out additional orders.
“Donovan, protect the castle as I take care of this songbird. I don’t wish for the ice sickness to worsen and ruin his ability to celebrate the solstice,” Gryff said as he turned toward the stairs. He shouldered the double doors and entered the main chamber. He placed Kerryll on the bed as the housekeeper, Jayme, headed to the bath. “I don’t like his coloring. It’s too pale for a golden songbird. Is the bath ready?”
“Almost. Do you wish me to add oils or minerals?”
“Add several drops of ginger oil and swirl it around. I’ll massage it in his skin after the bath and maintain skin contact.”