The Worst Bard In Etherwood (Preview)

My short story collection, How A Donut Destroyed Earth, is releasing next month. This will be the second and final preview story. All thirteen finished stories will be available June 29th. You can pre-order here. Hope you enjoy this story and remember, the inn is always open.

Barry stood dead center in the royal chambers, watching Queen Veronica tap on the regal throne’s arm rest. Cold and unamused, enough to frighten poor Barry, who clutched his lute tightly, knees wobbling, his hair a mess. He was just a scrawny, half-pint, loser of a bard. Why would the Queen of Etherwood, the mightiest queendom of all, want him?
“A d-dragon, Your Grace?”
“Yes, a dragon. One dragon. One. Singular. Dragon. She is ravaging the land, destroying village after village. If she is not quelled, she will come for us next. The market district will run out of goods to sell. Next thing you know, riots, destruction, chaos. I need that dragon taken care of.
“But why?”
“Because she is terrorizing our people. Have you not listened to a word I said?!” She slammed the arm rest. As they scrambled to make the queen happy, her servants gave her a glass of water and a platter of fruit and cheeses. Queen Veronica took one of the grapes and chewed.
“Forgive me, Your Grace,” Barry said. “What I meant to say was…Why me? Surely there are better bards suited for the task, right? N-not that I wouldn’t do it, mind you.”
Barry knew he wasn’t exactly good with royalty. It was clear, however, that the young bard was not getting on the queen’s good side. That piercing stare, seconds away from tossing something at him. The queen kept her composure.
“If you must know, those from the College of Bards have grown reluctant in sending us their members. Too many bards have perished at the hands of that overgrown gecko. As a result, bards across the land are now scared. Scared of losing to some whelpling. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t be as cruel as to send a twelve-year-old child to confront a dragon. But seeing as you’re the only practicing bard here, we had to hedge our bets. Bard’s are in short supply these days. Surely this isn’t too challenging for the likes of you.”
“O-of course not, Your Grace! I will slay that dragon without hesitation. Then your land will be free from terror.”
Laughter rang out in the court. Even the queen giggled.
“If I wanted that dragon dead, I’d hire the finest soldier in the land. Alas, dragons are sacred creatures. Much as I’d love to snap off their wings and cook them for a nice banquet, conservationists forbid their destruction. So we hire bards to subdue them. Accomplish that, and you’ll have our gratitude.”
That was all? Subdue the dragon? If he wouldn’t have to kill the beast, but convince it to stop burning their farms…“I’ll do it!” Barry said.
“Good. You have two days. I shouldn’t say what would happen if you fail. Now…Get. Going!”
Her deathly glare sent the young bard running for his life. He had two days, two sunrises, to subdue a dragon and save the queendom. Barry wished they’d hire someone aside from a wimpy twelve-year-old to do it. They hired him specifically, though, so he took that as an honor. Once Barry gathered his belongings, a water sack, berries, and of course his lute, he set off to the volcanic Mt. Fury.
En route to the mountain itself, Barry strummed his lute. What came out of it wasn’t exactly a tone, but a mishmash of strings that had no rhyme or rhythm. And of course, there was his singing.
The Dragon came down the mountainside
Her mouth open real wide.
Covered in, uhh, dragon hide…
Something something can really fly.
Now, Barry had no doubt that he was a capable bard. He loved music, enjoyed the melody and rhythm of the lute. The soft, gentle strings. His vocals bearing the loving melody of a thousand angry squirrels fighting over an acorn. Nevertheless, he strummed and hummed, sang and strang. What the animals fled from, Barry reveled in.
At last, Mt. Fury’s bellowing volcano loomed before him. Billows of smoke flowed from the volcano’s mouth. Though an active eruption wasn’t due for a thousand lifetimes. Barry wasn’t here to put fires out, but to subdue a dragon. The volcano had an entrance high above. Naturally, one had to climb in order to reach it. That was where his bardic magic came in. The bards of Etherwood were not just musicians They could conjure anything, sing any song, and perform any magical talent. For a bard, their music transcended even the deepest boundaries of Etherwood.
With a strum, Barry levitated, flipped upside down and bonked his head. He shook himself off. Again, his mind said. Another strum of the lute sent the poor sap flying haphazardly until he face-planted into a random stone pillar nearby. Lucky for him, Bards were immune to their own spells, even if something went horribly wrong. Like “smashing into a wall made of hard rock” wrong.
For Barry, everything went wrong.
That said, Barry wasn’t a quitter. So he tried, again, and again, and again. Floating, falling, flailing, face-planting, until finally, he flopped onto a trail leading to the top. Having dusted himself off, Barry pushed on.
As he climbed, he came to a realization. Barry’s skills with barding was about as useless as a salted snail in the summer. No wonder the queen put him up to the task. Bards were skilled at subduing dragons, that much he knew. They chose him not for his talents but because there was no one else left.
Such was the fate of the most useless bard in Etherwood.
How much more would he have to climb? He wasn’t sure. Farther and higher, he climbed steeper, heavy, labored steps. Barry was sure he’d pass out by the time he’d reach the top. To his left, he saw the massive landscape. Vibrant autumn colors, orange, yellow, brown. And the sunlight in the distance. A view worthy of a song. If his judgment was correct—one of the rare things that wasn’t useless—he hadn’t much more left to climb. He’d be dragon food before long.
After a long, grueling trek that seemed like hours, he arrived at the dragon’s lair. There was no turning back now. He nearly passed out climbing up. Going down would be his last moment.
Inside the lair was a spacious cavern of jagged rocks, stalagmites, and scorch marks scarred about. Short, stout mini-drakes scattered about. They had wingless bodies and ran on their hind legs. Kobolds. Ever the dragon’s servants, they scurried and hurried, grabbing any food, gold, and treasures they could. All for their dragon matriarch. Even as she sat upon her haunches, her mighty frame was bigger than a two-story cottage. Her belly just as full as her minions. One kobold offered a slab of meat. A puff of fire from the dragon scorched the meat to a nice crisp. One bite, and she was in bliss.
Barry stood there with a slack-jawed expression, unaware of the kobold army, who had just now noticed him. They screeched at the bard, some scattering, others brandishing weapons. All of them at the defense of their mighty dragon.
“Kallisae,” one kobold said. “An intruder!”
“I can see that you half-brained lizard!”
Kallisae stood on all fours, knocking some of the kobolds aside and standing tall before Barry. “Who dares enter?” the dragon said. “Speak, human!”
Barry was surrounded by her army. Running now would only seal his fate. Instead, he stood firm. “I, Barry of Etherwood, am here to subdue the mighty dragon of Mt. Fury!” With his lute drawn, he started strumming softly.
“Little child,” she said. “You’re either brave or incredibly foolish to approach me.”
He didn’t listen to the taunts and laughs of those in the dragon’s lair. An unusual sense of determination flowed within Barry that felt like magic—bardic magic. Yet when he played, it sounded like an mishmash of panic and infernal suffering.
The kobolds covered their ears—or at least the part where sound entered their heads.
Barry strummed and played, but all he was doing was forcing it, winging it, and trying to get some kind of sound.
The kobolds grew restless from his awful musical skill. With their weapons, they cackled and screeched, metal clanging, chanting in a draconic language, rough and jagged.
Barry closed his eyes; all he could do was strum, strum, and strum some more. It was all he knew how to do. It was all he was skilled with.
“Wait,” Kallisae said. The kobolds stopped, and Barry ceased his annoying music. The dragon tapped her large claws on the rock, creating a tumbling beat. The kobolds instinctively danced in their tribal rhythm. “Play to my beat,” she said.
Barry, though hesitant, played once more. This time, he measured the tribal sounds, haphazard and chaotic, but Barry easily followed along. It was no more chaotic than what he was used to, but the kobolds bobbed their heads.
Soon, the lair became a musical haven with tribal bellows and frantic strumming. Kallisae bobbed her head, the kobolds danced, and as much as he hated to admit it, Barry danced along with them. He was lost in the beat. Music and rhythm were everything to him. He wasn’t sure if he was succeeding in subduing this dragon and he couldn’t care less. Magic flowed through the lair in a rhythmic display. It was pure bliss for the lair. They danced on and on to the bardic melody until Barry played one final note.
A loving growl came from the dragon. “Bravo, young human. Your skill, while rudimentary, brought joy to this dour lair. We’ve longed for a joyous song such as this. For that, we are grateful for your presence. You will serve the den for a long time to come.”
Barry saw the kobolds clapping and cheering, yet the words of the dragon lingered. “Hold on, serve the den?”
“Yes. You shall provide our melody for our many ritual dances.”
“I-I’d love to, but I only came to help my queendom.”
“Your Queendom? Ah yes. Rest assured, they will henceforth remain unharmed. Only, if you become our musician for all eternity.” The kobolds pointed their weaponry at Barry, their glare cold and meanacing. Kallisae’s smile was caring, yet sinister. “You will play for us, yes?”
Since that day, Barry played for the kobolds for seasons upon seasons. Cycles upon cycles. Playing that one aggravating tune that, combined with a near eternity of kobolds cackling and chanting. Barry played, and strummed, and brought alive his bardic melody until the day the lair decided that Barry would be better off as their dinner.