Kate Novak, Jeff Grubb
Joel turned his horse from the paved Northride Road onto the muddy Tethyamar Trail. The bard halted and watched with some reluctance as the caravan moved past him up the road toward Shadowdale. A shrine built by the followers of the god Torm stood at the juncture of the road and the trail. With its walls of stone and thatched roof the shrine doubled as a way station for travelers who couldn't reach Shadowdale by nightfall. It was too early in the day and the weather far too fair for any of the merchants of the caravan to halt here. They were intent on pushing on to their markets in the north.
One of the caravan guards guided his horse forward until it stood beside the bard's. The guard, a Dalesman named Branson, was a grizzled twenty-year veteran of the road. He was always uncomfortable watching someone ride away from the safety of his caravan, especially someone as alone and young as Joel was.
Branson had to admit the bard wasn't exactly a boy. Joel had the muscular physique of a man and the sober demeanor of an adult, but the caravan guard could detect the signs of youth in him. The bard's long red hair had the sheen of a child's, and after ten days without a shave, his beard was still sparse, though his mustache stood out well enough. More telling was the way the young man's blue eyes widened with every new vista. He wasn't, Branson judged, a seasoned traveler.
'Change o' heart, lad?' the guard asked hopefully.
The younger man shook his head. 'No. The trail through Daggerdale is the only way to the Lost Vale, and that's where I'm determined to go.'
'I didn't exaggerate the dangers, lad. The trail's ridden with giant spiders and wolves and orcs and bandits and Zhentish scum, and the Daggerdale folk are none too friendly neither,' Branson warned.
'I'm ready for some adventure,' the bard declared.
The caravan guard snorted derisively and replied, 'You're young yet. You'll grow out of it.'
The young bard grinned but was wise enough not to argue. He stared after the tail end of the caravan with which he'd traveled all the way from Cormyr. 'I'm going to miss your singing,' he said.
Branson roared with laughter. 'You're going to miss your audience, you mean,' he teased.
The bard lowered his eyes self-consciously.
'Aye, bard. Nothing to be ashamed of. You're a man who likes people. That's a good thing. And a man who likes entertaining them. That's an even better thing.'
'I don't think I've ever been so entertained as I was by the verses you made up to that campfire song- especially the one about the drunken mind flayer,' Joel said. 'You have a gift for verse.'
Branson chuckled. 'No wonder the church o' Milil don't like you bards becoming Finder priests. Encouraging an old fool like me to write songs-competing with the likes o' you.'
'Music doesn't belong only to bards,' Joel insisted. 'Nor any art just to the learned. Art belongs to everyone. People can create it or change it any way they want… Promise me you'll keep making new songs,' the bard said sincerely.
'Aye. I'll do that, if you promise to come back to hear 'em, so's I know you made it through.'
'Deal,' Joel agreed with a nod.
'But now you've got to be moving on, haven't you?' Branson asked. 'Once knew a halfling bard who had a saying-always leave 'em wantin' more.' He stuck out his hand.
Joel grasped the old man's meaty wrist with his own slender hand and smiled as the guard reached out with his other hand and squeezed his forearm reassuringly.
'Thanks for the good company. Safe journey,' Joel said.
'Safe journey yourself,' Branson retorted. 'You'll be needing it more than I. Be off with you, then.' He slapped Joel's mare on the rear.
The horse kicked once and trotted down the trail a few yards before slowing uncertainly.
Joel turned in his saddle to wave farewell, but the guard had already taken off after his caravan.
'Hai, Butternut!' the bard called out to his mount, urging her forward. The mare, no doubt relieved to have finally escaped the crush of the caravan wagons and pleased to have soft dirt beneath her hooves, took off down the trail without complaint.
The noise of the caravan quickly faded in the distance. Soon the Spiderhaunt Woods began to close in about the trail, muffling all sound. The woods were composed mainly of oak and evergreen trees growing very close together, their tangled branches creaking as they rubbed against one another. The undergrowth was dense with vines and saplings and fallen trees. Sticky cobwebs brushed at Joel's face, but fortunately there was no sign of the giant spiders that gave the woods its name. Occasionally some tiny creature rustled in the brush, and overhead birds chirped busily, but otherwise it was quiet on the trail. After days of traveling with a crowd of merchants, talking deals and markets, the bard welcomed the peace. Miles later, though, the stillness began to feel eerie to Joel.
He started humming softly to himself. A short while later he was singing 'Market Day,' a song he'd written as an apprentice and had earned his former master a fat purse from a delighted merchants' guild. He began softly, but soon, pleased with his own skill and determined to fill the void of sound all about him, his voice swelled.
He was just belting out the final repeat of the refrain when his mare slowed and then halted in her tracks, her ears pricked up high, her nostrils flaring, the skin on her neck quivering. Joel stood up in the stirrups and peered down the trail, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. He nudged the beast's flanks, but she responded by turning away, heading back the way they'd come.
'What's got into you, girl?' the bard muttered as he pulled up on her reins.
Butternut stopped and stood still.
Joel pulled hard on her left rein, but she stubbornly shook her head and whinnied with annoyance.
Remembering Branson's warning about wolves, the bard realized the mare might have reason to balk. He dismounted and pulled Butternut's bridle toward him until he stood eye to eye with the mare. He stroked her muzzle and sang a lullaby softly into her ear: 'Courage will wash away your fear, whatever evil may be near.' Joel repeated the verse over and over until a sense of safety and well-being swept through him; then Butternut snorted and her muscles relaxed. Holding the mare's bridle, the bard led her back up the trail a few paces. She followed obediently, without qualms.
Joel snapped a lead rope on the bridle and walked beside his mount. The trail began to climb upward, and the woods began to take on a different appearance. The trees grew farther apart, and the undergrowth was more sparse. The ground was rockier, strewn with moss-covered boulders of great size, some larger than a man.
The bard tried to remain alert to any sign of what had spooked Butternut, but his thoughts were distracted by memories that made him uneasy.
He'd learned the courage verse on the day he had agreed to become a priest of Finder. It was one of many spells the priest Jedidiah had taught him after anointing him. Joel knew he was lucky to have found Jedidiah; priests of Finder were almost unheard of. Finder was a new god, a force for renewal and change in all things, but especially in art. Steeped from birth in the traditions of lore and music, Joel yearned for a rebirth in his art.
Yet the calling to Finder's priesthood had not come easily. It had angered Joel's masters, annoyed his friends, and embarrassed his family. More importantly, it frightened him. With joy and pride, he'd trained as a bard from childhood and attained his master's ring at a remarkably young age. Now it was hard to let go of the title.
Jedidiah had somehow understood Joel's fear of starting all over again, of trading the security and honor of his position for the role of a priest. 'For now, you can call yourself the Rebel Bard,' the old priest had told him, chuckling at the title. Finder had been known as the Nameless Bard in the days before he'd become a god.