Chapter 4: Myria

After a quick check on Dayla and a promise of stew and homemade bread later, I found a corner to set up in, and started with some slow, soft music, just to get myself warmed up.

The chatter in the bar died down slightly as everyone turned their attention to me. It didn’t seem like too many bards came through here.

Which just meant more gossip for me.

Once the novelty wore off for most patrons, the chatter picked up again. I closed my eyes and opened my ears, my body playing on pure muscle memory now.

Words slipped from my lips on autopilot, a simple ballad that served as nothing more than background noise for most of the patrons now.

Which meant they’d all resumed their conversations and I could slowly start to pick up bit and pieces of them.

So far, it was mostly just the basic back and forth, people talking about their days, their families. Even in these poor towns, people still had regular lives, lives not so different from the richer towns and taverns.

Kids got sick, spouses had arguments, people had issues at work.

One of the thing you realized as a musician was how much of humanity was universal, at least across this world.

I played a few more songs as the bar started to fill up. Bits and pieces of information reached my ears, but none of it was very special.

The comings and goings of the town didn’t seem to be very hot today, at least not that anyone was talking about so far. That could very easily change once the night went on and people had a bit more to drink.

Hash and alcohol, even the mediocre stuff served here, helped loosen lips.

Things people would never dream of talking about sober would start pouring from their lips.

After a couple more songs, the tavern owner caught my attention.

Dinner was ready, and it was time for a break.  When I sat down at the bar, people looked my way, but few actually paid me any attention.

There were used to me now. Just the bard in the corner.

I was invisible.

It meant I could enjoy my meal in peace and quiet. It also meant I could listen to what everyone around me was saying, since they tended to speak as if I wasn’t there.

Which was even better.

“Here you go,” a burly older man said as he put a steaming bowl of stew in front of me, with thick slices of brown bread to the side. “Bread baked this afternoon. Some of my best loaves.”

I glanced up, surprised. “You’re the baker?”

“We worked it out years ago,” he grinned from behind a thick dark beard. “I’m happier in the kitchen, and she’s better in the front. Besides, people think I’m scary. Not good for business.”

He tapped the bowl. “Let me know if you need more.” Then disappeared back into the kitchens.

Whatever arrangement the owners had come up with, I couldn’t argue. The food was delicious, hot and filling.

A couple of women sat not too far from me at the end of the bar. They both had drinks in their hands and were grinning at each other, probably enjoying a much-needed night out.

“I’m tellin’ ya, Dabins saw the most peculiar thing the other day,” the one woman said, her accent thick. Born and raised in this little town, I imagined.

“He was over in Lukin, delivering a load of barrels, and a great honking spaceship came down, just as normal as you please.”

The other woman scoffed. “Had he been drinking the cargo? Nothing lands at Lukin or anywhere.”

The first woman opened her mouth to argue, but before I could hear what she said, a meaty hand fell on my shoulder.

I turned to glare at the man, coming face to face with an orange and black coat.

 A quick glance up told me what I feared.

It was the man from earlier, the one I’d seen walking down the street at the head of Flame’s men, terrifying the locals.

His men occupying a corner to themselves, everyone else staying far away.

Now if only he’d stayed far away from me, I thought to myself.

“Can I help you?” I asked, fighting to keep my tone even. I wanted to pushed him away and tell him to fuck off, but that wasn’t exactly the polite thing to do.

And in my line of work, politeness paid.

For all I knew, he’d liked my performance and wanted to give me a tip.

No sense in biting his head off just yet.

The man grinned at me, quirking an eyebrow. It was a look I’d seen on dozens of men before, the look of someone who’d had way too much to drink and way too much confidence in his meager ability.

“I’m Kaljak,” he said, his voice slightly slurred. I didn’t think he’d been in here long, but apparently, he’d been hitting the brew hard.

Either that or he was a bigger lightweight than me.

“Can I help you with something, Kaljak?” I said dryly. “Did you want to request a song?”

His grin slipped for a moment.

Apparently, he wasn’t used to people not jumping at the chance to get into his pants. In moments though, his surprise had vanished and the grin was back.

“Why don’t you come back over to my place for the night. I bet I can compensate you better than this run-down tavern.”

Turning back toward the bar, I downed the rest of my drink before sliding off the stool.

“Thanks, but no thanks,” I said simply before walking off and leaving him there.

I could feel his gaze boring into me as I headed back over to my alcove.

The women who’d been talking about the ship had moved on to other topics, and no matter how curious I was, it seemed rude to interrupt them and ask about something I’d been eavesdropping on.

I’d get more information about it later.

For now, it was time to get back to work.

The moment I started playing again, I had all eyes on me. There was still a dull murmur going through the bar, but both the music and my voice carried clear through the room as I sung about an epic battle from the war, a classic tale I’d learned early.

It was a favorite in taverns like this, and patrons usually eagerly awaited the song, since every singer performed the ballad differently.

By the time I finished, everyone seemed to be grinning, raising their glasses in support. I was riding a high now, feeding off the crowd’s energy.

Until I noticed him, sitting at a table at the front of the crowd, watching me just a little too intently.

I looked away quickly, but there was no mistaking the dark heat in Kaljak’s eyes.

For some stupid reason, he’d decided to obsess.

About me.

I started another song, but a shadow fell across the floor as Kaljak strode towards me.

“Don’t you think it’s time for another break?”  The leer was unmistakable.

“Nope.” I leaned away, but he pulled at my arm, loosening my grip on the retrew.

And that was it.

“Back off!” I snapped. “I don’t know what you’re doing, but I’m working here!”

“I know, I just can’t resist that magical voice of yours,” Kaljak smirked, tugging me towards him.

“Hey now,” the burly baker hurried out from behind the counter, four more townsmen at his side. “Leave the bard alone. Even Flame’s man should know better than that.”

Kaljak glanced at the rest of his men, then the townsmen, arranging themselves, ready for a fight.

“This is private business, old man.”

“We don’t have any business,” I argued, pulling away. “I’m not interested.”

Kaljak’s face reddened, then grew carefully blank.

“Whatever. I don’t need to waste my time on a whore like you.”

He stomped away, his men following him.

I looked up to the tavern owner. “Sorry if I cost you business.”

She shrugged. “His kind never expects to pay, anyway.”

Despite Flame’s men leaving, the air was still thick with tension. Hurriedly I strummed a few notes, starting a round of old favorites, easy, popular songs that everyone could sing along with.

By the fourth verse, people were slapping each others’ backs, smiling and happy again, tossing a few coins into my upturned cap.

The incident with Flame’s men was forgotten.

But I knew better.

Entitled assholes like Kaljak didn’t forget.

After the crowd had dispersed, I slid upstairs to grab my pack. I looked wistfully at the mattress. It’d have been nice to not sleep on the ground for a change.

But it’d be nicer not to sleep with one ear alert for a heavy step on the stair.

The stable hand wasn’t too happy about being woken up in the middle of the night. With a sigh I gave her more of my earnings than I’d planned

“I’ll get her harnessed myself,” I said. “But, you know if you see anybody around, would you?”

Face twisted in a scowl she headed off, making a circuit of the tavern by the time I had prepared Dayla.

“No one around,” she said. “I heard you picked up something of an admirer.”

“Picked up, and hoping to scrape off,” I answered as I climbed up to Dayla’s back.

“Catch you next time I’m through,” I called over my shoulder as Dayla and I headed towards the edge of town.

Bitters was the next closest to stop, not too far across the open desert.

Not exactly a sprawling city, but bigger than this one.

I’d be able to lose myself there if necessary.

This wasn’t my first time I needed to disappear.

Likely it wouldn’t be my last.

I let myself slip into a half-doze, rocking with Dayla’s easy pace. As dawn crept across the desert I stopped long enough to let her graze.

By the time the sun was midway through the sky Trandor was long behind me.

Dayla’s hearing was far more acute than mine and not once had she shied or bristled in fright.

We plodded along, not in so much of a hurry that I wanted to risk overheating in the desert, but at enough of a clip to make good time across the sand and rocks.

But suddenly Dayla froze, muscles stiff under her pebbled hide.

Turning in the saddle, I saw nothing disturbing the sand that stretched off behind us.

“Ahead of us then. Come on sweetheart, let’s go take a look.”

Cautiously I urged her forward unhooking my bow and notching an arrow.

If it was just some desert creature Dayla would have ignored it if it wasn’t a threat, or altered her path to avoid it.

Humans were the only thing she ever seemed uncertain about.

My gut clinched as we worked around a rocky outcropping.

No one had tech.

That was the rule of the new peace.

But rules were broken with impunity by those in power, and trusted soldiers of a warlord might well have faster transport than a torwynn.

There was a chance that Kaljak had managed to get around me with his men, set up an ambush.

But as we got closer I could hear what had set Dayla off.

If it was an ambush, it was a terrible one, with all the racket being made.

And then finally I could see.

Not Flame’s men, just a band of outlaws, preying on travelers.

I raised my bow, looking for a clear shot.

In theory, my status should have kept me safe.

In practice I’d rather not leave alive any bandits to pray on another group of innocent travelers.

Except it wasn’t a group of travelers.

It was a single man.

But he fought like an army.

Tall and broad, with pale gold hair that caught the sun.

Spinning, throwing kicks and punches so fast I almost couldn’t see, the long knife flashing in the light.

A shaggy haired bandit lunged at him with his sword and in a flash he twisted it away from the man, thrusting it behind him to gut another opponent, then flipping it back around to slit the throat of the one in front of him.

I lowered my bow slightly.

“I don’t think he needs our help, do you?” I asked Dayla.

But then I saw it, just a shadow in the rocks above.

Enough to make me take notice, to squint in the morning light until I saw someone creeping above the besieged fighter.

Dammit.

I was far too far away to be able to shout any sort of coherent warning.

But if I didn’t do something the trap would be complete.

I lifted my bow, taking careful aim.

Slowly, carefully, the bandit crept across the rocks.

And then I loosed the arrow.

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