From The Songs of Earda
I'm on my way to Pala.
I need to see the Queen
To ask her why the Jewel is Black
And where the White has gone.
Oh Earda, my Earda
Once a land of light.
The magic of the Queen grows dim
And soon the night will come.
A chill wind caused Andalor to pull his cloak tighter. He fought the gale for every step he gained. The words of a song he'd heard in a dreary inn played in his thoughts. He frowned. Everyone knew the Queen's Jewel was as dark as a blind man's sight.
Perhaps he was a fool on a noddy's errand, but the Queen needed to hear about the blight on the land and the desolation of people's lives. A few drops of rain splattered on the dusty road. How far to the nearest inn where for a few songs, he might earn a night's lodging and a meal?
He pulled his lute from his back and tucked the instrument beneath his cloak. If he didn't find shelter soon, he would have to burrow in the woods.
Wind whipped his hood from his head, and then changed direction to beat against his back. An omen, he thought. He raised his head and saw a lane leading to a large house with lights in several windows. No inn, but perhaps a place to shelter for the night. Chill rain sprayed his face. He broke into a loping run down the path between two rows of briars. Aided by the gusts that dashed against his back, he soon reached the steps leading to a broad porch.
Several of the lights flickered and went out. Had the family retired for the night? The hour was not that late. He crossed to the door. If all were abed, he could sleep on one of the many benches against the wall. He'd gone hungry before and he'd slept outside, but he preferred to work for room and board. He raised the brass knocker and banged the metal plate.
The door opened a crack. An elderly man peered out. "What do you here?"
"I beg a night's shelter and a meal."
"Do you know whose house this is?" The man's dark eyes skimmed Andalor's face
"Afraid I have no idea. Saw the house from the road just as the storm broke." To the east and Pala, the sky displayed a multitude of colored streaks of lightning.
"Who be you?" The elderly man made his demand in a deep and haughty voice.
"Andalor, a minstrel." Andalor's breath caught. Beyond the servant, a young woman appeared. Lovely of face. Comely of body. A rope of silver hair curved over her shoulder, caressed one breast and tumbled to her waist. Who was she?
"Macker, who braves the storm to visit?"
"No visitor," the old man said. "Just a minstrel seeking food and shelter from the storm."
"Then bid him enter. We've rooms to spare. Perhaps he'll stay to amuse me while I await my summons."
Her voice was silk and velvet, the tone rich and lush. Andalor stared into eyes of crystalline blue and found one of the things he'd sought in his travels -- the woman of his dreams.
"You know 'tis not allowed," the old man said. "You have much to master before your time comes, and lessons aplenty to learn about your future responsibilities."
Her lips thinned. "For five years since I was four and ten, I've been cloistered with none but you and the servants for company. Unless you count the wizards who creep and pry. Admit him." Her pale eyes darkened. "Any more lessons and I'll scream."
"It will be as you wish, Milady Reena."
The door swung wider and the stoop-shouldered man stepped aside. Andalor swept off his cloak and bowed low. "My humble thanks, Milady." He lightly touched her fingers and raised them to his lips. "How very pleased I am to meet you."
"And my pleasure as well. You may rise."
Her eyes held a hint of the same bemusement he felt. Who was she? She'd been called Reena. Had she been named for the Queen? The common people frequently chose to name their daughters for the Queen, but this Reena was surely not of that class. He released her hand.
She waved the old man forward. "Show him to the Blue Room and see he has a change of clothes." She took the lute. "Once you are dry, you may join me for dinner, and later, I will listen to your stories and your songs."
Andalor bowed again. "'Twill be my pleasure." Her sultry gaze held the promise of other entertainments, yet her cheeks glowed like those of an untried maiden. "I'll not tarry, my queen of beauty."
"I'm not Queen yet."
Her response startled him. He followed the elderly man up the carved and curved staircase. The Queen-to-be? Was it possible? If so, his luck had turned. Perhaps she would enjoy his songs. Maybe his company would please her. If so, his fame and fortune were assured.
He turned to Macker. "Just who is she?"
"Milady Reena, daughter of the Queen. Soon she will come into her own. At any moment, Milady will be called to Pala and the Black Jewel will be hers. I pray you do naught to upset her calm."
"I'll play and sing. 'Tis what I do."
Macker opened a door along the upper hall. "All you need is here. Water will be brought." The old man wrinkled his nose. "Choose clothes from the wardrobe. They belong to Milady's father."
Andalor waited until Macker left before he entered the room. Blue dominated, from the bedcovers to the wall hangings and draperies. He strolled to the alcove where a deep hipbath waited to be filled. A stack of fluffy towels lay on one shelf, and a second held a variety of soaps.
While a line of male servants arrived with buckets of steaming water, Andalor stripped off his boots and tunic. Then he explored the wardrobe. Maybe a bit out of fashion but the quality was better than he'd known. He chose black breeches and a black tunic decorated with triangles in the colors of the Jewels. A shirt with full sleeves and tight cuffs completed his outfit. One of the men took his boots and returned with a pair of house shoes.
Andalor climbed into the water and scrubbed away the travel dust with spice-scented soap. He ducked his head and washed his hair. Dried and dressed, he left the room and strode downstairs. The time and the place seemed fortuitous and he intended to advance his position.
Macker waited at the foot of the stairs. He nodded in approval. "This way, Minstrel."
A long table of ebonwood dominated the spacious room. Milady Reena sat at the far end. The black gown she wore made her skin seem moonlight pale. She was lovely, but he would have dressed her in pastel shades.
Six empty chairs stood on either side of the table. She pointed to the one at her right hand. "Sit here. Since we are so few, why must we shout to be heard?"
"But...but..." Macker sputtered.
Reena smiled at the old man. "'Twill be easier for the servants if we all sit at one end of the table. Please let me dispense with formality tonight."
Andalor walked to the head of the table and bowed. "You do me honor, Milady Reena."
"Just Reena, Minstrel."
"Then I am Andalor."
A servant filled jewel-encrusted goblets with ruby wine. Platters of food arrived, the most he'd ever seen at a single meal. Though he wanted to gorge, he followed his hostess' lead and accepted small portions of rock salmon, banta, antel and hind, of vegetables and grain dishes, of appa, pinel and cheese. By the last sip of wine, he felt replete.
Their conversation had been a struggle for him since he needed to follow Macker's instructions. Reena bristled with questions about the places he'd been and all he'd seen. He told her of the beauty of the land and hid his knowledge of unrest, disease and poverty.
As the servants cleared the dishes away, Andalor held Reena's chair. "What now?"
"Come with me to the sitting room. I've ordered a servant to oil and polish your lute."
"I would follow you to the edge of the world and into the unknown beyond." At this moment and maybe forever, he meant those words. "What songs would you like to hear?"
"Tell me about your childhood and how you came to join the Minstrel's Guild." She sighed. "I've had none but Macker and my mother's counselors to visit." She shuddered. "I do not like the wizards."
"Nor do I, but most people fear them."
She nodded. "I hate them. 'Tis their fault I'm here with nothing but dreary lessons."
Andalor saw no reason for her isolation. She should reside in the palace and have companions of her own age. Why was she hidden here? Hardly for her safety. There'd been no Guards or walls with fortified gateposts. Though some of the male servants were burly men, they bore no weapons.
She curled in a massive chair reminiscent of a throne. He sat on a stool at her feet. Warmth from the fire in the massive fireplace heated his back, and her beauty seared his thoughts.
He told her of his childhood as the third son of a wood worker. He spoke of his gentle mother, of the father who'd made his lute, of the brother who had followed his father into the shop. Of the brother who'd shown a talent for weather prediction and who had been taken away by the wizards, he kept silent. As he spoke, he strummed his lute.
"I envy you," she said.
He heard yearning in her voice. "And when you were a child?"
She sighed. "I stayed in the nursery with my nurse or played alone in the garden."
How sad, he thought. To change the mood, he sang a rollicking song about a lyrcat and a flitter who fell in love.
She laughed and her eyes lost some of their sadness. "Now, tell me about the land and the people's lives. Tell me the things you couldn't say when Macker was there to listen. When I hold the Jewel, I must know where and who to help."
He could spin a pretty tale where all was sweet and bright, but the truth beat in his chest like a blacksmith's hammer.
Until a servant came to bank the fire, he told her what he'd seen and heard. The tales were broken by songs, old and new. "Now you know how the people suffer."
She met his gaze. "I fear you speak the truth. My mother is dying and before her illness, she grieved for my father. One day, he vanished from the palace and never returned. My mother leans heavily on the advice of the Brotherhood of Wizards. When I am Queen, they will be dismissed." Her voice broke. "'Tis not that I wish her dead, I just want her to hear me."
He took her hand in his. "Death comes to all and chooses its time with no thought for those left behind. Have the Healers no help for the Queen?"
"No one tells me a thing. I haven't seen her since the day I was brought here."
She closed her eyes, but not before he caught a glimpse of fear in her eyes. "How sad."
She leaned toward him. "Can you stay awhile?"
Once again, he wondered why she'd been banished from the palace. He would not ask yet. "A minstrel wanders when and where he pleases. There is no one waiting for me to arrive. Yes, I will stay and go to Pala with you."
Dimples appeared in her cheeks. "That would be most pleasant. I hope many tendays pass before I'm summoned."
He drew her into his arms and hugged her. A brotherly embrace, though he felt nothing like a brother.
She touched his face. "I've never had a friend." She stepped away. "Good night."
"Until tomorrow." He watched her run lightly down the hall. Satisfaction filled him until a disturbing thought arose. If he didn't take care, Reena would steal his heart and he would lose the freedom to wander as he pleased.