Chapter 1: A New Companion

Clain threw himself down in the shade of the oak tree with a sigh of relief. The sweltering heat had plagued the young man all day as he made his way down the Great Road on his journey to Dartmith.

Noticing a stream behind the tree, Clain knelt and gulped down the water, finally unclogging the road-dust that had been stuck in his throat since morning. A sound caught his ear and, with water dripping down his chin, Clain looked towards the road. There strolling by as if the heat was non-existent, was a minstrel. As he walked he was coaxing a tune out of the lute he carried in his red-clad arms.

Almost as if he sensed Clain's gaze, the minstrel turned and smiled. He finished his song with a flourish and made his way over to where Clain sat. "Greetings!" he said, dropping down beside Clain.

"Hello." The man greeted the stranger.

"Not many are travelling today." The minstrel commented.

Clain nodded his agreement. "It's the heat."

"Ah this is not so bad. In the south it's much worse."

"You must travel a lot."

"Part of being a bard."

"My name's Clain. What's yours?"

"Oh how rude of me! I'm Alir."

"Pleased to meet you, Alir."

"An equal pleasure to meet you, Clain. Where are you heading?"

"Dartmith."

"That's quite a distance. You have at least week and a half before you'll reach even the outskirts."

"A week and a half? The last person I talked to assured me it wouldn't be more then a week."

"Well people often misjudge distances. I myself am heading towards Dartmith. Mayhap we could travel together? Two people are less of a target then a lone traveller, however well-armed and you are without a weapon."

Clain flushed. Alir was right. He really shouldn't be travelling alone, especially unarmed but… The young man shook his head to shake the bad memories. No, He thought, his decision to leave his sword behind had been a good one. "Yes." He told Alir. "Travelling together would be better. Thank you."

"No thanks needed! I should be thanking you, many people see a bard and think easy target. I find myself often targeted by bandits when travelling alone. I must get to Dartmith with all due speed. I have a job to do once I get there."

The young man grinned at his new companion and stood up. "Well then we had best be off. I don't want to keep you from your job."

"No worries." Alir replied. "I'm not in such a rush that we must run there. Two weeks is the deadline and at a nice walk we will make it with time to spare. Oh and I do hope you don't mind, I tend to play as I walk."

Clain smiled again. "I don't mind at all. I like music."

"Excellent!" Alir replied and once again began playing his lute as the two of them continued on their journey. Clain found the tunes Alir played as they walked lulled him into a half trance and he scarcely noticed the time. It wasn't until the setting sun blazed into his eyes that he realized what time it was.

"Oh! Do you know if there is an inn nearby? Or are we going to spend the night outside?" He asked his new companion.

"The nearest inn is at least two full days of walking ahead of us. In the meantime we will have to spend at least tonight out of doors. Does that bother you?"

Clain shook his head. "Not at all. I like being outside."

Alir smiled back. "Wonderful. I must admit however I am not much of a cook. I will gather wood and start a fire if you'll deal with the meal preparation. I have some dried soup ingredients if you'd like to make that."

"That sounds great." The young man replied, accepting the packet Alir handed him. A few minutes later with pot of soup bubbling over a crackling fire, the two men both sat back against their packs and relaxed as they waited for their dinner to finish. Alir was tuning his lute again and soon a haunting melody was floating up through the trees towards the stars who had only just begun to appear in the deepening night.

When the song came to a close, Clain grinned across the fire at his new friend. "That was incredible. You have to be the most talented musician I've ever heard."

Alir smiled back at him. "I am flattered you think so. It isn't often I receive such high praise."

Clain shook his head. "I'm sure you hear it all the time."

"I believe the soup is ready." Alir replied. "At least I believe it to be done but I do often misjudge it. I have burned countless meals."

Smiling at his companion's thin attempt to change the subject, Clain leaned forward and stirred the pot a couple of times. "You're right. It's ready."

In the next few moments the only sounds were those made by the nocturnal wildlife and the two men eating. Both were ravenous after walking all day. When the pot had been half-emptied and the pair had taken the edge of their respective hungers, they resumed their talk.

"So what takes you to Dartmith?" Alir wanted to know.

"A cousin of mine lives there. I'm hoping she can help me with a problem I've been having."

"What kind of problem?"

"I don't want to talk about it." Clain replied. After a long moment of silence he asked. "What about you? What is this job you're taking?"

Alir smiled. "I've been asked to perform at a special ceremony being held there to honour the Earl's youngest son."

"What kind of ceremony?"

The minstrel shrugged. "They didn't tell me. I'll find out when I get there."

"I hope it'll be worth the journey there."

"I'm sure it will be."

"I don't know about you but I'm exhausted. I say we turn in."

Alir chuckled. "I believe I'll stay awake awhile longer, but please don't wait up for me. I am content just to sit and watch the stars."

Clain couldn't help but smile back. "Alright. I'll see you in the morning."

Once he was certain Clain was asleep, Alir put the lute that had been sitting in his lap down beside and reached into his pack to pull out a silver flute. An odd smile lit his face as he began to play, the notes of his music echoing strangely in the night air.

Morning dawned bright and clear, causing Clain to groan. It was going to be another unbearably hot day. How he hated the intense heat. Alir on the other hand didn't seem to even notice the scorching temperatures. When he sat up, he saw his companion already awake and tuning his lute. "Good morning."

The minstrel smiled. "And a good morning to you. It will be another sunny day."

"Don't remind me. I don't know how you can take the heat."

Alir eyes laughed as he shrugged. "I have always been resistant to extreme temperatures. With luck we should reach the inn by evening and you will not have to endure the hot night air."

Clain flushed. "I didn't mean to sound like I was whining."

This time the bard laughed openly. "You didn't. I was only teasing."

The young man flushed again. "Sorry."

Again Alir laughed. "There is nothing to be sorry for. I suggest we break our fast and then continue on if we want to reach the inn by nightfall."

"Alright then." Clain replied, face still hot.

The two of them set out, early morning sunlight dappling the road with shadow, Alir's lute creating a soft background to their conversation. The bard was keenly interested in Clain and asked him about a myriad of questions.

"Well I'm twenty-four and was born in the capital. My father was a blacksmith and my mother used to be an acrobat with a travelling faire. I'm an only child but I have a lot of cousins so it really doesn't feel like it. What about you?"

Alir smiled slightly. "I am twenty-two and was born far to the south in a small village on the edge of the desert that you won't have heard of. I am the youngest. I have two older sisters."

"And your parents?"

The minstrel shook his head. "I would rather not speak on them."

"Oh." A silent moment stretched between them, making Clain uncomfortable. "So how long have you been a bard?"

Laughing Alir replied. "At times it feels akin to my whole life but in reality it has only been seven years."

Clain smiled back. "That's a long time. So do you visit your home often?"

"No. I have yet to return. I left rather abruptly. My return may not be very…pleasant."

"Oh. I'm sorry."

"It is nothing you need to apologize for. It's my own problem."

"Ummm…so where did you learn to play the lute?"

"I learned as a child. I actually first learned to play the flute, then the lute and then finger drums."

"Really? You're quite accomplished!"

"No. I know many others who have mastered more then three instruments."

"I've never heard of a bard who could play more then one."

"You flatter me."

There conversation continued on until the sun sank below the horizon and the first star was glowing overhead. They caught sight of the inn at the same moment that the moon rose, flooding the countryside with soft silver light.

"As promised, lodging for the evening." Alir told Clain.

The other man laughed. "Thank you. I didn't even know this place was here. I'd have stopped earlier and slept outside again."

Alir smiled. "Shall we inquire after rooms?"

"Yes and dinner would be good too!"

Laughing, Clain's stomach had chosen that exact moment to rumble loudly, the pair entered the brightly lit building.