There was an ineffable weight behind the reverberating strings. A tune that “cut at the ligaments of the soul” some would later say. The musician had played the tune for the last several minutes, captivating his now massive audience with the raw emotionality behind the song and tearing at their instinctual desire for human connection. What was he trying to convey to them? The crowd relegated themselves to never truly knowing, but then he did something no one expected; something no minstrel in all the lands had ever had the courage to do. He sang.
No one understood the words of the song. It was more like the song spoke differently to everyone. Not unlike how the poem reads the reader, the music echoed the audience. For the minstrel, however, there was both relief and regret in the knowledge that not a single soul in all the world could grasp the true meaning of his song. He was alone in his sadness. He sang of heartache, of frustrated dreams, and the troubles of daily life, but mostly he sung of loss. The loss of a people, the loss of home, the loss of family, friends, and the loss of a true love. Yet within the mountain of agony, there was a shining vein of hope. Hope that not all of life would be suffering, hope that he might one day be reunited with the dearly departed, hope that endured when even the act of hoping seemed like nothing more than a guarantee of heartbreak. It was all he clung to, all that nurtured him, and all that drove him. Hope was what made sure that his spirit, as sickly as it had become, would never break or yield. . . The song ended and, with a bow, the musician took his leave.
Cheers the likes of which Damien had never heard overtook the street. Could that have been from The Boar’s Head? Rounding the corner, he noticed the literal mob of people crowding around the building and was astonished that so many had come round to listen to a stranger with a fiddle.
“By the gods…” Deidre said, “Is this all for that musician?”
Damien did not answer the question, but, seeing such a large opportunity, gave his sisters the affirmative to begin pilfering what they could from the mob. Shrugging, the two set to work amongst the distracted villagers.
The King of Thieves, as he was called, did not mean to deal with the madness of the crowd himself; business needed tending. Normally such a gathering would have made his life difficult, but he knew a better way into the inn and he assured himself that nothing would have slowed him anyway. This was a matter of principle after all. With a calm expression, he walked around the side of the inn, making sure he was neither noticed nor followed.
The entrance to the kitchens was well hidden by the stacks of empty crates and barrels. In recent years, Borris had taken to keeping the unusable containers, broken or otherwise, out in the alley way as a makeshift privacy wall. Apparently the portly man had had one too many interruptions while attempting to enjoy a calming smoke outside. Damien eyed the unstable mass of carpentry in front of him, experienced eyes searching for a single foothold… There! One crate was slightly askew from the one beneath it. He took a few steps back, poised as any runner might be, and flung himself at the crates. Reflex took over as his hands skimmed across the wet, wooden, surfaces and he propelled himself over the top of the stack. Making sure to bend his knees, so as to avoid injury, he landed with the crunch of snow under his boot heels. Scanning the alley, he was pleased with his accurate hunch that the kitchen door was open. A locked door would have done little to stop him, but he had never been quite as skilled with tumblers as Deidre had been. She would have inspected his work, and the last thing he wanted was to give her another opportunity to run that mouth of hers.
As he deftly approached the door he could make out that there was an unusual amount of clamor in the kitchens. Not the standard array of pots, pans, and ovens going, but chatter. Damien made the obvious connection that this musician, whoever he was, was spending his break cavorting with the kitchen staff. Silently fuming that he did not pay them to gossip, he made a mental note to arrange a personal meeting with each of them before taking his place at the door’s entrance. The fact that no one seemed to notice him did little to quell his frustrations.
The musician sat at the center island munching away at a dish Damien had never seen before. It was seemingly made of strings of baked dough that had been doused in honey and accompanied by crushed nuts. The dish was eaten with hearty exclamations in between mouthfuls and Natalia grew redder with each joyful grunt that came from the musician.
“Natalia,” the musician said “this is by far the best tasting dessert I have had in my travels. You called it, yifkada?”
The portly brunette nodded vehemently before squeaking out that it was an old family recipe that she normally reserved for extraordinary occasions.
If a face could melt into the literal manifestation of gratitude, the musician’s expression would still have been considered more gracious.
“Thank you.” he said, his voice resonating sincerity.
He asked her if she had ever heard of something called “glacius bellaria” or “iced cream” as it was commonly referred to.The matron shook her head and listened as he described a delicacy made from snow, nectar, fruit, eggs and milk. It would be an excellent compliment to the warm pastry he had just enjoyed, he assured her. She nodded again and stared as he spoke, but it was obvious she was not paying much attention to what the young musician was saying so much as just focusing in on his lips.
Damien, all the while, stood in the doorway, observing. For several minutes he watched as the fiddler, who could not have been much older than himself, was lovingly attended to. Oh they got on with their duties, of course, ensuring that the rest of the paying customers were tended to, but the musician never had to ask for more of anything, his goblet was always filled before it was ever emptied. What’s more, the staff seemed eager to keep him in their company. Honeymead? Another spot of pie perhaps? The custards just finished setting… Then there were the obvious attempts at flirtation. Your music speaks the language of my heart. How ever did you master the craft so young? Do you have a room to stay in? After his stomach began to protest their transparent bootlicking he cleared his throat, loudly. Much to his chagrin, no one seemed to hear him so he made a series of deliberate knocking sounds on the door. All eyes, barring the musician’s, were now on him. Good. He always enjoyed an audience.
He tried his best to make his steps echo as he walked into the oven warmed room. Half of leadership was theatrics. The King of Thieves meant for this to come off as a surprise inspection, a failed one at that. He raised his brow at everything he examined, sneered at the custards, ran his fingers across surfaces and made a face of disgust upon looking at his fingertips. The staff stood still as he meandered through, but the musician continued munching away at a meat pie. Damien made eye contact with each of them,non-verbally letting them know they could easily be thrown out on his whim, but the fiddler’s expression remained fixed as if he was bored.
“Borris!” Damien growled. “Borris, get in here!”
The door flung open and a very nervous looking Borris sped on through.
“Yessir?” was all he managed to eek out.
“I told you to make sure we would be ready for the festival tomorrow. ”
Damien’s voice was as subtle as steel leaving a sheath and had the same effect. The innkeep shrunk in on himself, muttering about a number of people who had come to see the musician he hired, how he had not expected such a large crowd and had been busy keeping the patrons happy. The more he spoke, the more obvious Damien’s anger became.
“I do not recall asking for your excuses.” Damien said, “I recall giving you specific instructions, and making it clear what the consequences would be if you did not follow them.”
His dark hair swayed violently as he continued haranguing the now visibly frightened innkeep. Could he possibly be so dimwitted he could not see the importance of the festival? How had he managed to remember how to masticate the entirety of his life? He was fortunate the gods gifted milk-livered buffoons with the likes of capable men who knew how to run things properly.
“Your utter lack of competence just cost you your livelihood you greasy ball of fat. From this point on, your inn won’t receive my support. You’ll go hungry, and all you will have are the walls of this miserable shack you call a home, but even then only in na-aagh!”
A sharp snapping sound had sent a shock up the spines of the staff, Borris, and even Natalia, but it had interrupted the screaming giant altogether, who now held his hands pressed to his ears. Where had that sound come from? Damien’s head darted back and forth, his gaze finally settling on the fiddler. The fiddler who had been the problem. The fiddler who had somehow earned the respect of this lot in a single evening. The fiddler whose hand betrayed the fact that he had just snapped his fingers. How, by the gods, could that have been so loud?
Natalia felt her hair stand on end as Damien so obviously switched targets. The evening had taken so many turns she was scarcely sure her heart would be able to weather the tide of emotions. It was obvious the tension was already affecting her. If she did not know any better, she would have sworn she saw a flash of…teal? as the musician snapped his fingers. Was it such a loud sound or had it been so quiet the slightest noise would have rung like a bell? What would Damien do to him? Her hands hurt. Why were they so sore? She looked down and noticed they had been wringing her apron.
Silence had fallen along with Damien’s voice. A quiet made all the more apparent by the ruckus just on the other side of the kitchen doors. The thief’s eyes bored into the fiddler’s. It was an expression he had perfected over the years, often used to instill fear in the people he was doing business with. It grated against his patience all the more that this street performer did not seem to take any notice of it.
“Forgive me,” the musician said, “but that was your third one.”
“What?” Damien demanded.,
“Well, my father believed everyone deserved a second chance, and that good people deserved three. I am fairly accommodating but giving you more than that would be an insult to the good men I have known by putting you in their company.”
The staff dared not speak up, stunned in their roles as witnesses to someone asserting themselves with the King of Thieves. Damien, however, did not miss a beat.
“Three chances? Then your father was a fool, and just exactly who are you?”
“Oh, I am just a simple minstrel, passing through. Beneath your notice, really. Foolish and such. But better a fool who entertains than a bully, if you ask me.”
“ Well then, foolish fiddler, beneath my notice, this is none of your concern. I have an accord with this man, you see. He rents this inn from me.”
“In my experience owning a collection of boards and nails does not give one the right to shred another’s dignity.”
“Then you have no experience with matters of business.”
“Well if business, is all that matters, perhaps I can help. This man has displeased you, but I feel he’s an outstanding innkeeper. I would take the accord off your hands. You’re the owner of the inn, how much would you sell it for?”
A smirk spread across Damien’s lips. He did not care what the minstrel offered, he would not sell the Boar’s Head easily.
“No less than 2,000 gold pieces.”
It was a ridiculous number. Complete with the land and all things inside it, the Boar’s Head could only have been worth about a quarter of what he was asking for.
“Surely, you jest.”
“I never jest when it comes to money.”
“You won’t consider altering the price at all?”
“No. It is non-negotiable.”
“And I suppose you would swear by that…”
“Good. Then here’s thirty platinum.”
The minstrel emptied a bag full of large chunks of a bright white metal on the table. They clunked onto the wood and sat there, shimmering in the well-lit kitchen.
“That should cover your asking price as well as any other hidden costs one such as yourself would attempt to tack on. Now, as the new owner of the Boar’s Head, my first and last order of business is to bequeath the inn, and all its contents, to…what was your name again?”
“Ah, yes, to Borris and his lovely wife Natalia.”
The King of Thieves, still in shock over the money on the table, did nothing to prevent the exchange. His silent awe retained its grip on him as he examined the small fortune. Their weight told him the pieces were obviously not silver, and their durability removed the possibility of white gold. This was the most money he had seen in one place in a very long time, but it did not change the fact that the minstrel had handled him. How could he not have seen the baited hook?
“Very well, fiddler. I will take your money.” He said, scooping the pieces into his pouch. “But in the future, you would do best to keep that silver tongue of yours still, lest I take that from you as well.”
“Witness, everyone, how the coward makes play he’s still a man by issuing idle threats.”
Damien deftly drew his knife at this. Exchange of currency or not, he would make the minstrel pay with his blood for such an insult, but the minstrel quickly showed him the palm of his hand.
“Wait.” he said. “Do you hear that?”
“I don’t hear anything!”
The noise from the crowd had gone still. It was then they heard it. A scream that raggedly cut the curtain of silence came from outside. Could that have been Deidre? Damien made for the door but somehow found himself behind the minstrel’s stride. Hadn’t he been sitting down behind the island? Damien could barely match the minstrel’s pace down the alley as both of them made their way to the stack of crates. The makeshift wall now stood between them and the now panicking crowd. Yells for the local heal-all were now clear. The thief’s eyes looked for the foothold on this side of the wall, blood pumping in his ears. As soon as he found his climbing point he looked to his right and barely caught the site of the minstrel’s cloak clearing the top of the wall. By the gods…
Nimbly throwing himself over the topmost crate, Damien landed safely and pushed his way through the crowd and into the heart of the scene. The minstrel was already there, muttering a strange tune over the mangled body of a villager. The man’s body was covered in what looked like savage bite marks. It’s not Deidre. It’s okay. She’s okay. Wait…it can’t be…
The musician looked up, grim in expression.
“There is nothing that can be done for him. The best we can do is make his last moments comfortable.”
“Damien” the man croaked.
The thief king shuffled over to his man’s side.
“We found him…don’t you find him too…not….safe…” he choked while swallowing his blood.
“Don’t find him… Damien.” the man clutched at Damien’s arm, red stained fingers leaving their mark on the beige colored material.
There was a final exhalation, and Damien closed Rowan’s eyes.
“You knew him?” the minstrel asked.
“He worked for me.”
It was an understatement. Rowan had been one of his most loyal trackers. His best set of eyes and ears. One of the few he considered a friend. The last time they spoke, Damien had charged Rowan with what he thought would be a simple matter. Find the backstabbing trail of shite, Geoff. Fate had made him the inadvertent architect of Rowan’s demise.
The surgeon’s room at the King’s Rose was small, clean, and well stocked. Though it had once been intended as a second larder, it had found more use after it had been re-purposed. The cabinets lining the walls were full of anything the Guild may need to patch someone up, and many a member had visited the room as a patient at some point or another. The examination table took up most of the small space but it allowed just enough room for Deidra and Merida to lean over Rowan’s body. The two moved deftly from cabinet to cabinet without exchanging a word. As far as they were concerned, they had had to do this sort of thing far too many times. Damien paced the area, watching his sisters work in tandem.
Deidra’s hands were steady as she examined Rowan’s corpse. The man had been ripped to shreds by wild beasts. Merida examined his other side and made a thoughtful sound in the back of her throat.
“Got something on this side…” Merida reached for the surgeon’s blade and cut through Rowan’s thigh. She dug around in the tissue until she pulled out a tooth.
“Definitely animals then, but this is strange no?”
Damien took the tooth from Merida, wiping the last of the blood on his tunic.
“It’s but a piece and it’s half as long as my finger. Even the bears haven’t got teeth this big.”
“No animal does.” said an unfamiliar voice.
The trio whirled in unison to find the minstrel leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed, the portrait of grim contemplation.
“How did you get in here?” Merida asked.
The musician looked up at her, seemingly acknowledging the triplets for the first time, and shrugged.
“The door was open.” he lied.
A pair of knives sailed harmlessly by the minstrel’s face and thunked into the wooden slats of the hallway behind him. At this the musician held his hands up in a placating manner and uttered the phrase “I am a friend, I swear it.”
Damien looked at Deidre sidelong, as it was unusual for her to throw warnings. Deidre, however, refused to make eye contact with Damien. Truthfully, she had meant for the daggers to kill the intruder. How they had altered their trajectory and passed him altogether was beyond her, but she was almost certain the musician’s eyes had taken a teal glint when it happened.
“A friend,” the musician repeated, “and I can tell you all about the one responsible for Rowan’s death.”
“The one responsible? He was mauled by a pack of animals.” Deidre said.
The musician shook his head.
“You lot know so little and assume so much. That ignorance may be the death of you.”
He stepped into the room now, his gaze focused on Rowan’s dead body.
“In some circles, song has the power to mend wounds and knit flesh. My songs did nothing for him, however.”
Merida and Deidre looked at each other in utter confusion. Did he really believe a jolly tune could stop someone from bleeding out?
“That was the first clue.” The musician continued. “The second came in the form of the wounds themselves. Lacerations in groups of four, as it would seem…”
He was next to the body now, and gently upturned Rowan’s left arm.
“but then why is there a fifth one on the inside of his bicep? Finally, the bites were grouped around the shoulders but strangely avoided the neck. Why? Because of this necklace, I imagine.”
The musician casually examined the sterling chain and pendant Rowan had been wearing. It bore the symbol of Prostoph, guardian of travelers.
“Are you going to explain any of this or do you plan on continuing to be irritatingly unclear?” Damien demanded.
The musician sighed.
“Have you heard of the Four Tribes of Da’ahsead?”
“Children’s fables.” Merida and Deidra chimed in unison.
Damien leaned back against the table crossing his arms and ankles in a casual lean.
“Tales told ‘round campfires to frighten small children. But, please tell us master minstrel, learned in ALL things,” Damien tossed the tooth and the musician snatched it out of the air. “What monster born of legend has teeth like these?”
“I think you already know,” he said. “The pieces are all laid bare.”
The triplets looked at each other. An uneasy silence taking hold.
“Think about it. Unnatural wounds that resist healing, five claws instead of four, and an aversion to silver jewelry.”
Deidre was the first to break their silence.
“Oh, yes… a werewolf killed our best set of eyes. I can see it now. I suppose I should go consult the fairies for assistance, or perhaps an elf, maybe a dwarven priest will aid us.” Her voice dripped with acid as she spoke.
“You jest, but I have seen them. In the North there are stories of the four tribes. The Da’ahsead region is split between the Wolves, Tigers, Bears, and Shifters. They are not the only ones, just the four most dominant. The Wolves, Tigers, and Bears are the monsters of legend: a race of people who can walk amongst us the majority of the time. But with the fullness of the moon comes a transformation and they become animals twice their natural size. The Shifters are the ones who are the most dangerous though.” The minstrel’s eyes closed, his mind repainting the images of his memory. “They are gifted with the ability to control their transformation. They can change without the need of the moon, and they are not beholden to any one animal form. Some myths even say they can assume the form of any animal they have laid their gaze upon.“ His eyes opened and he briefly rubbed his temple. “None of your kind has seen a Were for centuries so I am not surprised you think them just tales. You should heed Rowan’s warning and abandon your search.”
Damien stood, turning his back to the minstrel and waved him off in dismissal.
“You spin a compelling tale Musician but the next time I want your opinion I believe I’ll just give it to you.”
The minstrel sighed.
“Damien, if you keep looking for this creature, more blood will flow in a fruitless search, or worse you will actually find it.”
“No!” Damien barked, wheeling on the musician. “I won’t find IT, I’ll find HIM. This is not a damn tall tale, and you will not frighten me away from hunting Geoff down with cotton-brained legends or any other bullsh-”
The minstrel’s hands exploded into motion as he tapped three places on Damien’s body. The thief king’s voice had gone silent, though not voluntarily, and his body slumped. Surprise and panic dug their fingers into Damien’s mind as he realized he was no longer able to speak or move. His body lurched forward, and the minstrel steadied him, before maneuvering him into a sitting position back at the edge of the table. Damien’s eyes flared with fury as he tried to regain what had been lost.
The other two triplets, now recovered from the initial shock of the minstrel’s movements, now stood between him and the door, weapons drawn if a bit unsteady.
“What did you do to him?”
“Nothing permanent. It was just to prove a point. He will regain the ability to speak and move again shortly.” He ran his fingers through his thick brown hair.
“I did not know how else to get him to listen. And I do not know how to get it across to you that I am telling the truth. But more importantly, I need you all to understand something. Damien, I knew someone like you, once…Proud and full of temper. So sure that death would never knock on his door, that the odds would always be in his favor… He was wrong, Damien. Just like you are now.”
Deidre noticed the musician’s fingers playing with the locket around his neck as he spoke. It gleamed brighter than any other piece of gold she’d seen
“Merida.” he said.
The triplet made eye contact with the musician.
“You strike me as the level-headed one here. I am no fool. I know you lot will not heed my warning. But promise me that when the time comes you will call on me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean just that. Call on me by name, and I will be there.”
She didn’t know what it was that made her promise so wholeheartedly, but she had never made a promise with so much intent to keep it.
“None of you know what you are up against. I hope you come to understand the risks before it is too late”
With a flash of teal, and a loud popping sound, he was gone.
“The idiot never even told you his name.” Deidre said.
“No! Have you gone daft?”
Merida shook her head.
“It’s just that… I’m not sure why, but I swear he said it. The problem is I can’t remember it. It’s like a foggy dream now…”
“Dont believe it!” Damien finally said. “Don’t believe any of it. That was all a parlour trick, and I wont be put off so easily.”
“But, Damien-” Merida started.
“But nothing. We continue the search in full force tomorrow, and I want a bounty put on that charlatan’s head.”