Prologue

Scottish Highlands 1539

On a gray late autumn morning the snow began to gently fall as an opening appeared in the very fabric of time. Like a "pocket-door" sliding open in a wall, a portion of the snow dusted, portrait-perfect, landscape disappeared, revealing a black starry night as a man stepped out onto the road leading toward the town of Mortlach. He pulled his cloak up tight against the biting cold of the Highland wind.

This was no ordinary man. No, he was Reginald Ravensblade, the Harpist of Time, but in these parts he was quite simply known as, 'The Bard'.

"Hmm, the snow comes early this year," he thought to himself absently, his mind occupied elsewhere. Had he been paying better attention he would have noticed the scant traffic on the road. The weather clearly was having an effect on travel.

Hearing the thunder of hoofs, he turned and looked up to the sight of a column of riders approaching from the rear. The Bard stopped and turned around, stepping off of the road and waited for the column of mounted soldiers to pass. He noted that these troopers were men-at-arms, specifically demi-lancers, bearing the flag of Scotland: St. Andrew's Cross in white on a blue field. The Scottish cavalry troop of eleven men, two columns of five and a lead horse, all with the trademark lance in the raised position, slowed and stopped in front of him.

"What is your business on the road this early?" the soldier in front asked.

"I am on my way to Mortlach," the bard replied. "Is there a problem?"

"No, we have had reports of bandits in these parts," the soldier replied. "We are investigating anyone out of the ordinary."

"Well, I am a simple bard, on my way to Mortlach," Reg replied, pointing in the direction of the town.

"Wait, are you perhaps the bard that the townsfolk have been talking about?" the soldier asked. "The one responsible for the tales about a strange land called Andor?"

"Yes, that would be me," Reg nodded in the affirmative.

Reg heard the sounds of additional horses and turned toward the direction he was traveling and saw two riders approach. As they got closer he smiled when he recognized one of the riders.

"Good morrow, Sir Knight," the Bard called in greeting.

"Good morrow, Master Bard," Sir Kenneth replied. "I told His Grace, Lord Gordon, about your fantastic tales of a faraway land. He is most anxious to meet you."

"Well, tell His Grace that I am flattered and that I will be starting a new tale in a day or so."

"Lord Gordon will want to know that you have returned," Sir Kenneth replied as his horse began to dance around. The knight tried to control his horse by pulling back on the reins.

The Bard stepped forward and placed his hand, palm down, on the forehead of the horse and spoke softly, calming the horse, and looked up smiling at the knight.

"Sir Kenneth, he would respond better to a tender touch," he explained, rubbing the horse between its eyes. "I will be staying at the inn for several days. My story will not start until tomorrow night."

Sir Kenneth bid him good day and the cavalry rode off, taking the road to the castle. Reg shook his head and continued on toward the town and the inn. The first to notice the stranger entering the town was the blacksmith. Putting down his tongs he walked to the open doors of his shop, mopping his brow. His frown shifted to a smile and he called out a greeting then turned and barked an order to his apprentice. The boy took off like a shot and soon the word would reach the entire town that The Bard had returned. By the time he had reached the inn, Master James, the innkeeper, had already setup a small table outside of the inn with a brown earthenware jug and two glasses.

"Good morrow, Master James," Reg called in greeting. "I see the news of my arrival has preceded me."

"Good morrow to you," James called in replied. "I thought you might like to sit and smoke and rinse the dust from your throat."

"You are too good to me," Reg chuckled, grasping his hand in greeting and then removed the harp bag from his shoulder and sat down.

Reg pulled out his clay pipe and a bag of weed and prepared the pipe as the innkeeper excused himself and went back inside. He looked around and then snapped his fingers over the pipe and a blue spark ignited the weed in the bowl. Taking a deep pull on the pipe he drew the smoke deep into his lungs and then exhaled it in concentric rings of smoke. Reaching over, he poured a glass full of the amber liquid from the jug and then sat back with the glass is his hand and the pipe in his mouth.

He spent the rest of the morning acknowledging the 'good days' of the townsfolk and fielding questions on when he was going to start his next story. Master James served him lunch of meat, cheese, crusty bread and a pitcher of cold mead. Reg had just decided to stand and stretch his legs after lunch when he saw a carriage come up the road.

He sat back down and watched the carriage stop at the inn and a young man jump down from the driver's seat. He approached the sitting man and bowed.

"Are you the bard named Master Ravensblade?" the young man held an envelope. "I have an invitation from His Grace, Lord Gordon, Earl of Huntly."

"Yes, I am Reginald Ravensblade, harpist and bard," Reg replied taking the sealed envelope.

"I am to wait for an answer," the young man stated as Reg opened the message.

After reading the summons from the Earl of Huntly, Reg laid the message on the table and sighed.

"Please tell His Grace that while I appreciate his kind words, I have no intention of embroiling myself in the politics of the court," Reg explained. "My stories are a gift to the people of this region in appreciation of their kindness and hospitality. I will be presenting the latest tale starting tomorrow evening. If His Grace so chooses, he may hear the tale in the common room of the inn."

"I believe His Grace expected you to return in the carriage," the man nervously stated, pointing at the empty carriage.

"Well, then His Grace will be disappointed when you return without me," Reg stated matter-of-factly, "because you will be most assuredly returning without me. Now, good day to you."

The young man bowed and turned back to the carriage and hopped up to the driver's seat and the carriage drove off. Reg shook his head and sat back down and re-lit his pipe. Presently the innkeeper came out to announce dinner and Reg entered the inn and settled in the common room where he was served roast venison, potatoes and field peas.

The common room began to fill up with dinner guests and those looking to exchange gossip and news of the day. Of course the main topic of discussion was sitting in the common room and Reg had to chuckle at the number of guests that snuck glances his way. In an effort to stave off the inevitable questions he picked up his harp and approached the front of the room. A hush fell over the common room as he pulled Belle from her bag.

"I am sure many of you are wondering when the next tale begins," Reg began as he strummed the strings checking for tune. "It is not tonight, I am afraid. There are many that wish to hear about Aaron's latest adventure and should be given an opportunity to arrive. Fear not though, for our tale begins tomorrow evening. In the meantime, perhaps a little music to aid the digestion."

He began to play a light melody that reflected the mood of the inn. Traces of hushed conversation began in different areas as the room's patrons returned to their normal evening past time: gossip. Reg played several tunes and ended the evening's entertainment with a moving ballad. He ended to a rousing round of applause, bowed and put Belle back into her bag.

He had just reclaimed his seat when four of the Earl's soldiers entered the inn, looked around and after spotting him, approached his table.

"Master Bard, we are here to escort you to Lord Gordon," the leader of the group announced, his hand on the hilt of his sword.

Reg slowly stood and drew his sword, tilted his head and stared down the speaker.

"Are you absolutely sure that you want to try and draw your sword?" Reg asked, moving away from the table. "For as sure as the sun will rise in the morning, if that blade moves you will die."

The common room became deathly quiet. Reg glanced quickly around the room and sighed, shaking his head. The last thing he wanted was bloodshed and possibly innocent bloodshed. Sheathing his sword he addressed the soldiers.

"Alright, let us get this over with," reaching down he grabbed his harp bag and slung it over his shoulder. "The impertinence of some people."

"After you," Reg smiled a tight grin and swept his hand forward.

The soldiers turned and marched out of the common room with Reg trailing behind. There was a carriage waiting outside that he climbed into and sat back in the seat slightly irritated. The men-at-arms mounted their horses and the carriage drove off, with the mounted soldiers in escort. The carriage drove up a hill and pulled up in front of an L-plan tower castle and stopped. A footman opened the door and Reg stepped out and looked around. The castle overlooked the banks of the river Fiddich, with the main entrance at the short leg of the L. The great doors opened and a twelve-man, two column honor guard marched out and up to the where he was standing. The guard performed an about-face and stood at the ready. A soldier armored in the style of a man-at-arms exited the tower gates and walked up to Reg.

"Welcome, Master Ravensblade," the soldier announced in greeting. "I am the captain of the guard, would you follow me, please?"

"Do I have a choice?" Reg asked, head cocked to one side.

"You are not a prisoner, Master Ravensblade," the captain countered.

"Really? We obviously have different definitions for prisoner, Captain," Reg replied frostily. "Well? Lead on."

The captain saluted and did an about-face and Reg followed him into the castle, with the honor guard keeping step. They entered the grand hall and marched toward the other end of the hall where tables and benches were set out for a feast. The tables were arranged in a reverse U with the head table at the top. A roaring fire crackled in a fireplace behind the head table.

The captain and guard stopped in front of the head table, where the captain addressed the ornately dressed man at the center of the table.

"Your Grace, may I present Master Ravensblade, the bard you have heard so much about," the captain announced.

"Master Ravensblade, so nice of you to join us," Lord Gordon smiled.

"Let us dispense with the pleasantries," Reg growled. "You have forcibly removed me from my dinner, what do you want?"

"No one talks to the Earl that way," a knight to the Bard's left stood up and drew his sword. "I will cut your disrespectful tongue from your mouth."

Reg looked to his left at the knight and shook his head in disgust. He pushed his hand out and the knight went flying back into the wall and slid down to the floor unconscious.

"You really have no idea who I am, or what I am capable of?" Reg asked drawing his sword which burst into silver flames. "I would like to leave now."

The room was deathly silent as the guests looked back and forth between the unconscious knight and the flaming sword. Finally, several knights rose and moved close to their lord. The honor guard backed away from Reg, or possibly the sword, turned in toward him, and drew their swords. The captain of the guard stood between Reg and Lord Gordon and drew his sword.

Reg reached out with his left hand and lifted it up and over his head. The captain of the guard began screaming as he rose up into the air, flew over Reg, and fell to the ground back by the front door.

"Well, Lord Gordon, what shall it be?" Reg asked backing up slightly. "Am I free to go, or does everyone in this hall die?"

"Blessed Mary, your stories are true!" Lord Gordon exclaimed rising from his chair. Several knights stepped in closer, flanking him for protection.

"Well, of course they are," Reg laughed and then swept his left hand back causing the doors on the first floor to slam shut. "You still have not answered my question. Do you wish to die?"

"No, Master Ravensblade, I do not," Lord Gordon replied. "Nor do I wish to be the cause of any more harm to my men."

"Now we have come to an understanding," Reg smiled, causing the Earl to shiver involuntarily. "Whether this escalates beyond here is up to you. I will be in Mortlach for several days and will begin my latest tale tomorrow evening. You are welcome to attend, of course. However, if there is trouble I will lay the blame squarely at your feet."

"Arguo te Satan!" a robed man entered from the Bard's left. "In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti!"

("I rebuke thee, Satan! In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit!")

The priest was dressed in brown robes and carried a staff affixed with a crucifix at the top in his right hand while swinging an aspergillum, sprinkling holy water, with his left. A young boy similarly dressed was holding a silver aspersorium, filled with holy water.

"Ecce Crucem Domini, Vade, et virtutes adversae!" the Priest commanded, approaching Reg and sprinkling him with holy water.

("See the cross of the Lord; begone, you hostile powers!")

"Pater, non hostem," Reg sheathed his sword and spread his hands out. "Nec mala me Pater."

("Father, I am not the enemy. I am not evil, Father.")

"You speak the language of the church?" the priest asked puzzled.

"Latin is but one of many languages that I speak," Reg replied, and then turned back to the Earl. "I am not your enemy, but I will not be dealt with disrespectfully. Do not think that you can bully me."

"Shall I have the carriage readied to return you to the village?" Lord Gordon asked.

"That will be acceptable. Now, if you will excuse me, I should check on your two fallen knights."

After receiving a nod from the Earl, Reg walked over and knelt by the knight collapsed in a semi-sitting position against the wall. After checking him over, Reg announced that he would be alright with the exception of a headache when he awoke. Two servants picked him up under his arms and dragged him to his quarters.

Reg stood, turned, and walked over to where the captain had landed and knelt by the fallen knight. The captain was in worse shape. He determined that several broken bones and internal bleeding were not the worst of the damage. No, the captain's spine was shattered in three places. Bowing his head, Reg placed his hand on the knight's forehead and began the slow process of healing the many injuries. He reached out and tapped into the faint traces of Eldritch, augmenting his own power as the injuries began to heal. After several moments Reg leaned back and smiled at the priest.

"He is resting easier, take him to the infirmary and watch over him. He should recover completely."

Four men loaded the unconscious captain onto a stretcher and then transported him to the infirmary. After the captain was taken care of Reg stood up and dusted off his pants and turned toward the Earl.

"Lord Gordon, if there is nothing further, I will inform the innkeeper to expect you tomorrow evening? Until then, good evening."

Reg performed a sweeping bow, pivoted on his heels and left the great hall. The doors were opened for him and he stepped out into the night, noting the chill in the air and climbed into the carriage. The carriage left the castle and returned to the town and the inn.

Master James, the innkeeper, met Reg at the door and escorted him in and to an awaiting table.

"I did not quite know what to expect when you left," Master James remarked pouring a glass of Scotch.

"I did not either," Reg chuckled lifting the glass in salute and downing the contents. "But, all is well. The Earl will be attending the performance tomorrow night."

"Lord Gordon is coming here?" Master James asked astonished. "To the inn? Tomorrow night?"

"Yes, yes, and yes," Reg chuckled. "He wants to hear my tale."

"I will need to change the menu, clean the common room, sweep out the fireplace," the innkeeper exclaimed breathlessly. "The Earl coming here, oh, good Lord!"

Reg watched Master James hurry off, muttering to himself, and just laughed at the innkeeper's antics. He sobered up when he realized that he himself had fences to mend if he truly wanted to stay in this time. He needed to make nice with the castle priest and thought his relationship with the monastery might help there. He should not have allowed the Earl's actions to affect him so much. Maybe Melvina was right, too much time around Aaron had affected his responses. Or maybe more than Tarran power was transferred to him those many years ago. It was not like Aaron was ever quick to anger, but he also did not suffer fools lightly. No, he definitely showed his displeasure immediately and decisively. By the Three, he missed his friend! Perhaps tomorrow night he might glean a clue to his whereabouts, but that was a story for another time. Enough melancholy reflection for one day, he had more important things to do. The next day would be busy, so he turned in for the night.

Reg was up early the next morning and after stretching and exercising, he practiced his sword forms. After completing his forms he washed up and had a quick breakfast in the common room before heading out for the day. His first stop was at the blacksmith shop where he procured a horse for the day and headed out of town and toward the monastery.

Arriving at his destination, Reg dismounted, walked up to the main gates of the monastery, rang the bell and waited. Moments later the peep-door opened and a friar appeared.

"Good morrow, is Father James available?"

"Yes. Whom may I say is calling?"

"Tell him Reginald Ravensblade," Reg replied with a sweeping bow.

"Just one moment, please," the friar replied and closed the door.

Reg did not have to wait long before the gates opened and Father James stepped out, clasped him by the shoulders and smiled.

"It is good to see you again, Master Reginald. Come in and share lunch with us."

Reg nodded and followed Father James through the gates and onto the monastery's grounds. Their destination was the Father's private quarters where lunch had been set out. Father James bid him to sit and after a brief prayer they enjoyed lunch in relative silence, each lost in their own thoughts.

"I heard you made quite the impression on the Earl, and more importantly on the parish priest, Father Thomas," Father James chuckled and then looked heavenward. "Forgive me Lord, but what I would have given to see that."

"That is precisely why I came to see you," Reg leaned forward. "How much trouble am I likely to be in?"

"Hard to say," Father James replied, scratching his head. "Father Thomas is a devout man and has the Earl's ear. Did you actually use magic? The magic that you talk about in your tales?"

"It was stupid of me. All I can say is I lost my patience," Reg shrugged. "Magic is not inherently good or evil, you know. It is the disposition of the user that matters."

"The Word of the Lord states that all sorcerers are of Satan," Father James countered. "In the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Paul rebuked the false prophet Bar-Jesus."

"I am aware of your teachings," Reg nodded. "However, I am not a sorcerer, and the power I command is not from Satan. You will have to judge my intent based on our previous interactions. Were they the actions of an evil man?"

"No, you have always spoken truly and dealt fairly with us," Father James replied. "Your actions are not those of a disciple of Satan."

"Well, that is good to hear," Reg chuckled. "You will find that I am neither good nor evil, but actually neutral in that age old struggle. More a fulcrum that maintains the balance. Now, I need your help to convince Father Thomas of that."

"I will vouch for you to Father Thomas," Father James replied. "I will have Father David talk to Father Thomas as well. That should forestall any issues you may have with the church, or for that matter, the church with you."

"Thank you Father," Reg grasped his hand. "I really appreciate that. Now, how goes the distillery business?"

The Bard spent most of the day at the monastery with the monks. Father James had a messenger sent to retrieve Father David and the three discussed whisky production and refinement well into the afternoon. Reg told them about potentially settling in the area and the two monks gave him directions to possible areas of land that might be purchased. Finally Reg wished them well and started the journey back to the inn. Arriving back at the inn he sat out front and smoked his pipe and had several glasses of Scotch and enjoyed the Highland autumn afternoon and early evening.

The dining hall was packed and the waitstaff was busy serving dinner and drinks. The innkeeper had met with a representative of the Earl and together they set two tables aside at the back of the room. The Earl's man decided that was the best placement to ensure his Lord was safe within the room. Not that he had anything to fear from the townsfolk, or any of the guests coming from within the Earl's lands, but an assassin was never out of the realm of possibilities. To ensure the Earl's safety there would be men-at-arms stationed within the common room.

Reg ate sparingly, just a bowl of thick soup and crusty bread, washed down with a glass of wine. After the dinner dishes were cleared and mugs and glasses were filled the innkeeper nodded at Reg. There was his clue. Time to entertain again and perhaps, just perhaps, someone might have information for him. He stood up and grabbed Belle's bag and made his way to the front of the room where his customary chair and table had been placed. After acknowledging the applause from the room, he removed Belle and set about tuning her.

"Good evening, everyone," he began, "I would like to take a moment to acknowledge our special guest. Your Grace, your presence is appreciated by one and all."

"Now, as many of you may know, this is our third tale concerning one Aaron Whiterune, exiled Prince of Tarra, Master Assassin, Thief extraordinaire, and wielder of the Runeswords, Black Rose and Red Rose. When last we left Aaron, he and Tanith had just finished with Lord Devlin and were about to return to Aithen to start the move to Malkur and reunite Lady Laura with her father, the Duke of Malkur."

"Now, I see the snow is starting to fall so let us wait for the innkeeper to throw another log on the fire, let the servers fill your glasses and mugs, and then sit back and travel with me to Andor and we will pickup our tale of Aaron Whiterune, Prince of the Rose..."

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