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The Harp of Imach Thyssel
A Lyra Novel
By Patricia C. Wrede
Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.Copyright © 1985 Patricia C. Wrede
All rights reserved.
Dark, still water reflected darker trees and a shadowed sky. As he rode along the lake, Emereck studied the scene, wondering whether he could capture it in words. It would make a good opening for a tragic song, and he'd been thinking of doing a new arrangement of "Corryn's Ride." He hummed the first line of music and paused to fit words around it. Dark water, still water, darker yet the sky ...
"Emereck!" Flindaran's voice jolted him out of his reverie. "Is that an inn, or am I seeing things?"
Emereck glanced at his friend, puzzled. He looked at the lake again, and for the first time became aware of the town farther down the shore. It was a small village, hardly more than a cluster of cottages, but even at this distance Emereck could see the bulk of an inn at its center. "For once you've gotten something right. It's an inn. I take it you mean to stop?"
"Of course! I think we've earned a few small comforts after all this riding. A jug of Brythian wine, a pretty girl, a little entertainment ..."
Emereck laughed in spite of himself. "Beer and a bed is all you're likely to find here. And if there is any entertainment, we'll probably be providing it ourselves."
Flindaran looked at him suspiciously. "You don't expect me to sing for them, do you?"
"How else would we get a meal and a room?"
"We could pay for them."
"I've got more than enough to pay for both of us, if you'd just stop being so sticky about—"
"We've been through that argument before, and you never win. Besides, this time it's not what I meant."
"It's not? That's a first."
Emereck ignored him. "If you're going to pretend to be a minstrel, you'll have to act like one. And no minstrel would pay for dinner if he could sing for it instead."
"Then I'll be a smith or a soldier or something instead."
"You'd give yourself away inside of three sentences. At least you know a little about music."
"After two years at the Ciaron Guildhall, I ought to," Flindaran muttered.
"Don't worry, you'll only have to do a few songs. Just enough so people don't wonder."
"They'll wonder if they hear me sing."
"Your voice isn't that bad. But you don't have to fake it unless you want to. We could just tell them the truth."
Flindaran eyed him with disfavor. "You take all the fun out of things," he complained. "Besides, you'd still make me sing."
"Probably," Emereck said cheerfully. "So it really doesn't matter, does it?"
"All right, all right!" Flindaran heaved an exaggerated sigh. "The things I do for my friends."
"Oh? Whose idea was this? For that matter, who suggested leaving Goldar's caravan in the first place?"
"Don't remind me! I'll hear enough about it from my father when we get to Minathlan."
"Then why were you so pigheaded about taking this shortcut?"
"Because I'd rather be uncomfortable than bored. And the only thing more boring than spending four more weeks with a caravan of Traders is being a Duke's son and spending four more weeks with a caravan of Traders. I'm sick of their bowing and my-lording. Besides, the girls were all either too old or too young."
"I thought that might have something to do with it."
Flindaran grinned. "So I'm going to be a minstrel for a while. Come on, let's see what this inn has to offer."
The two men nudged their horses to a faster walk. A little farther on, the main road slanted away from the village to skirt the end of the lake. A smaller road, little more than a path, branched off toward the town, and in less than an hour they had reached their destination. The town was just as small as it had looked from a distance, but the people seemed used to travelers; only the children paid any attention to the two riders as they passed through the town and stopped before the door of the inn.
As they dismounted beneath the faded sign, a black-haired woman came out to meet them. She was small and neat and quiet looking; a far call from the usual innkeeper, Emereck thought. Her eyes swept over the horses and their riders in cool evaluation, then she nodded. "Good day to you, sirs," she said in Kyrian. "And what do you wish from this house?"
"Whatever you would willingly spare a pair of minstrels in return for song and story," Emereck said in the same language.
"Song and story are very well, but there are few guests to be entertained tonight, and the folk of this town have a choosy taste in such things."
"Including you?" Flindaran asked.
Emereck frowned, but the woman did not seem offended. "Perhaps, though I think my likes are somewhat different from those of the people of Tinbri," she replied calmly.
"You don't consider yourself one of them?"
"There are those who've lived half their lives in Tinbri and don't consider themselves townsfolk. But no, this is not my home. I'm keeping this inn for a time as a ... favor to a friend."
"If songs are unwelcome, is there some other way we might earn your hospitality?" Emereck said. He heard Flindaran shift uncomfortably, and shot him a warning look. Two wandering minstrels would never offer to pay for a room in hard coin, and it was too late now to change their story.
The woman did not notice. "If you and your brother are willing to work, I think I can arrange something."
Emereck did not correct her mistake, though he grinned inwardly. Though they were not even distantly related, they were both tall, brown-haired, and trimly built. He and Flindaran had frequently been taken for brothers during their two years in Ciaron and their resemblance had been of use to them before. Emereck glanced at Flindaran and said, "We're willing to do whatever's reasonable."
The woman laughed suddenly. Emereck blinked. There was music in that laugh, and a startled amusement, and the shadow of a joy as pure as sunlight, and ... and his imagination was running wild again. Emereck shook his head as the woman said, "And we may differ somewhat on the definition of reasonable? Well, I will try not to be too stern. My stableboy has been ill three days, and the stable needs cleaning. Or there is wood to split, or you may help in the kitchen if you prefer. Is that to your liking, or shall I keep naming chores until you hear one that suits you?"
"No need!" Emereck protested, laughing. He glanced at Flindaran and made a quick, questioning gesture toward the horses. Flindaran nodded slightly, and Emereck looked back at the innkeeper. "By your leave, we'll begin with the stables."
"And see your own horses tended as well, I suppose. No, I do not mind; it does you credit that you think of your beasts before yourselves."
"If you'd rather choose the work yourself—"
"As long as the stable ends cleaner than it began, your motives are none of my concern; I'm simply glad it will be done at last. When you're finished, come to the kitchen and I'll show you your room. And if any question you in the meantime, say I sent you. I'm called Ryl."
Emereck bowed and gave her their names in return. Ryl smiled and directed them to an enclosed courtyard at the back of the inn. The stable was set on the far side, opposite the only gate into the courtyard. A large, sweaty man was forking hay into a small wagon just outside the stable door. He looked at them suspiciously, but when they mentioned Ryl's name, he grunted and went back to his work. Flindaran looked at Emereck and raised his eyebrows. Emereck shrugged, and they went on into the stable.
Inside, they found five empty stalls and two occupied ones. The empty stalls were clearly in need of cleaning, but the occupied stalls had recently been swept out. Judging by the condition of the gear hanging beside her stall, the sturdy brown mare was a recent arrival. The roan gelding in the next stall showed signs of longer residence.
A variety of shovels and rakes were hanging on the wall beside the door; they each selected one and began on the stalls near the entrance, where they planned to put their own horses. Flindaran was in an excellent mood, since it appeared he would not have to sing for his supper after all.
"This is going to be even more fun than I expected," he said, pulling a clump of moldy straw out of one of the stalls with a long-handled rake.
"You call this fun?" Emereck looked skeptically at his friend.
"Not this, half-wit! The trip, the inn, the whole evening."
Hearing a familiar note in Flindaran's voice, Emereck shook his head in amusement. "And Ryl?"
"What? No! I—Oh, blast you, Emereck, you know me too well. Yes, and Ryl."
"I'd be careful there if I were you," Emereck said thoughtfully. "She certainly isn't what I'd expect to find in a village like this."
"Weren't you listening? She's not from this village."
"She also speaks as if she's well-born."
"She's probably from Kith Alunel; everyone there sounds like a noble or a minstrel or something."
"It's possible. But—"
"Oh, pack it up!" Flindaran poked his head around the end of the stall Emereck was working on and scowled at him. "You know, what you need is a girl of your own to worry about, instead of picking on mine."
"Don't start that again! All right, I'll quit annoying you. But I still wish I knew why Ryl didn't want us to sing."
"Is that what's bothering you? You ought to be glad I won't be ruining your reputation. Watch where you're stepping!"
Emereck glanced down and sidestepped. "It's not my reputation that's worrying me at the moment, it's Ryl. Innkeepers are usually happy to have a minstrel stay the night, but she wasn't even interested."
"Maybe she's just being careful about how she runs her friend's inn."
"Maybe." Emereck did not believe it, but he could think of no argument that would convince Flindaran. Particularly when Flindaran was clearly determined not to be convinced: Emereck had caught the note of stubbornness in his voice. He shook his head and said lightly, "And maybe she doesn't like minstrels. Where would that leave your plans for tonight?"
"Ryl may think she dislikes minstrels," Flindaran said with dignity, "but if so, I shall convince her otherwise."
"Good looks and irresistible charm, of course."
"Is that what you tried on that farmer's daughter in Harmalla? The one who blacked your eye?"
"I'm sure Ryl has far more discriminating taste. You realize, of course, what a favor I'll be doing the Minstrel's Guild?"
"I'll make sure to let the Master Singer in Ciaron know as soon as we get back."
"Thank you. No doubt the Guild will find a way to return the kindness."
"Oh, if that's all you're worried about, I'll write you a ballad," Emereck said, bowing.
"You already owe me four ballads and a drinking song, and I haven't seen any of them yet," Flindaran said, unimpressed. "How long do I have to wait?"
"Quality takes time. But if you're in a hurry, I suppose I could dash off a third-rate epic poem or a few scurrilous couplets."
"What I'm in a hurry for right now is dinner," Flindaran said. "So pick your feet up! I'm ahead of you already, and I don't intend to do all the work."
The sun was setting when they finally finished in the stable and hauled their packs to the kitchen where Ryl awaited them. She studied them briefly with the same cool appraisal she had given them when they arrived, then led them to a room on the upper floor. The room was large, with a window overlooking the lake, and to Emereck's surprise, a tub of steaming water was waiting for them to wash off the dirt and stable smells. By the time they descended the stairs once more, Emereck was willing to admit even to Flindaran that their hostess did not seem to dislike minstrels.
When they entered the kitchen, Ryl was stirring a large pot of something dark and spicy-smelling. She gave them each a bowl of it and sent them back to the taproom to eat, pointedly ignoring Flindaran's attempts to strike up a conversation.
The taproom smelled of beer, onions, and wood smoke. Several of the rough-hewn tables were already occupied. A tall blond girl moved among them, serving beer and stew with bored efficiency. Most of the customers were clearly locals, but a wiry, white-haired man in faded green leather caught Emereck's attention. He nudged Flindaran and pointed him out.
"So?" Flindaran said after glancing toward the corner table where the man sat.
"So what's a Cilhar doing in a place like this?"
"Spending the night, the same as we are."
"I didn't think Cilhar traveled much on the east side of the Mountains of Morravik." Emereck studied the man speculatively. "I wonder if he knows any of the Witrian song cycle."
"The Witrian song cycle. It's a series of Cilhar songs based on the Two Century War. I heard part of it from a Cilhar woman who stopped at the Guildhall last summer, and I've been looking for a chance to learn the rest ever since." Emereck set his bowl on an empty table and paused uncertainly.
"You're not thinking of asking him about it, are you?" Flindaran demanded.
"Why not? I may not get a chance like this again."
"Most people don't have your passion for obscure old songs. He's probably never heard of it."
Emereck started to reply, then paused. "What's worrying you? All I wanted to do was ask a few questions."
"Bothering a Cilhar is a bad idea," Flindaran said with an uneasy shrug. "They like privacy, and it's not exactly healthy to argue with one of them."
"I see." Emereck felt a sudden perverse desire to walk over and strike up a conversation with the Cilhar for no other reason than to annoy Flindaran. He suppressed the impulse; irritating Flindaran did not seem a sufficient reason for ignoring his advice. He glanced speculatively at the Cilhar as he seated himself at the table. Perhaps he could persuade Ryl to introduce him to the man before they left. That ought to ease Flindaran's objections. Emereck shoved the matter to the back of his mind and began eating.
The stew was excellent, and they finished it quickly. Emereck accepted a refill from the blond girl, but Flindaran, after a moment of indecision, shook his head. As the girl left, Emereck looked at him curiously. "Something wrong with your appetite?"
"Not at all," Flindaran replied, grinning. He picked up the empty bowl and balanced it on his finger, then flipped it into the air and caught it in his other hand. "But you don't expect me to miss an opportunity like this, do you?"
"I'm going to get my refill in the kitchen. Didn't you hear Ryl say we could?"
"Yes, but I got the distinct impression that she was interested mainly in getting you out of the kitchen at the time. And the stew's the same in both places."
"It's not stew I'm after, idiot. I want to talk to Ryl."
Emereck stared at him, then shook his head. "Why don't you talk to that one instead?" he said, nodding at the blond serving girl. "She's at least as pretty as Ryl is, and probably a lot more approachable."
"Ryl's a challenge." Flindaran paused and looked from Emereck to the blond girl. "Why don't you—"
Flindaran shrugged. "All right, then. See you later."
As Flindaran started to rise, Emereck shook his head and glanced toward the kitchen door. "Well, I wish you—" He checked in mid-sentence as Ryl came through the door, wiping her hands on her apron. "—had better timing, I think," he finished, nodding in the innkeeper's direction.
"Oh, demons!" Flindaran dropped back into his seat, looking disgusted. "Now I'll have to think of something else. And on top of that, I have to sit here and watch you eat."
"I didn't think it was food you were interested in."
"You have a low mind."
Emereck grinned and went on eating. A moment later, he heard Flindaran mutter, "Demons take it!"
Emereck looked up in time to see Ryl seat herself across the table from the Cilhar man. "Try to be a little patient; she'll have to get up eventually."
"So? You don't think I'd cross a Cilhar, do you?"
For a moment, Emereck could not believe Flindaran was serious. "He's old enough to be her father! Maybe even her grandfather."
"What does that have to do with anything? Besides, he might be her father, and then where would I be?
"You've managed before."
"Not when a Cilhar was involved." Flindaran stared pensively at his empty bowl. "You know, I think I'd better ask that blond for some more stew after all. No reason to starve myself."
Emereck looked at him suspiciously. Flindaran grinned, then turned and began signaling the serving girl. With a resigned sigh, Emereck went back to eating.
Excerpted from The Harp of Imach Thyssel by Patricia C. Wrede. Copyright © 1985 Patricia C. Wrede. Excerpted by permission of Open Road Integrated Media, Inc..
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