The loch breathed its mists up the staggered granite spine of the crumbling castle, darkening the gray stones with its clammy serpent breath. From a distance the fog seemed to be as smoke, and in the smouldering blaze of dawn the ruinous castle seemed almost afire, as it had been a century ago when the warlord Dundan Und Gadden laid siege to that ancestral home of Duke Loengel with trebuchets, pyromancers, and their horde of pet wyrms. Now, the half-toppled castle was home to little more than bats and starlings, the occasional grazing sheep wandering in among the fallen stones where the magical fire had enriched the soil to grow abundant grasses, and, of course, the ghosts of that fateful night, echoing onward with silent screams bemoaning their slaughter. No one set foot in among the ruins for fear of the ghosts. A wise shepherd was wary whenever he had to fetch a sheep, too, and oftentimes would let it find its destiny however the destiny was written, lest he, too, disappear from the living world.
Yet, the bard Arnady de Clain, was most welcome wherever he had gone in life to ply his lute strings. Whether ancient kingdom or burgeoning town, he was a musician with a talent for enchanting his way into the graces of many people, and even animals and other such creatures. So he thought—as he traveled by foot along the glens and glades and heaths of the Northerlands—that he would be no less welcome among the dead as among the living.
Arnady was a handsome man, for a man without ample riches, and though not wealthy in gold or silver he had a golden touch for any stringed instrument and a silver voice for any style of song. His gift for song was a double-edged sword at times, however, and while it earned him a stay among many halls, it also earned him the occasional stay in a dungeon, though never for too terribly long a time.
Nor was Arnady naive. Life on the road quickly killed all naivete about the world, if it did not kill the traveler first. He had come to Castle Loengel to compose a new dirge and thought the castle and the loch would be the perfect distillers of mood for the melancholic song he aspired to compose. The castle was dark, brooding, had a keenly sorrowful history and was, most importantly, haunted. If he could channel the spirits—if only as inspiration and not literally as their conduit upon the carnal plane—then he might write something in honor of their woes. As a rule, Arnady never wrote songs to dishonor the dead unless they had been, during their lives, dishonorable; nor was it due to superstition or fear of the “Evil Eye”. Rather, he just felt that it was underserved and morally unseemly. And a bard, he knew, had to assume the moral high ground, otherwise it would taint the Art with hypocrisy. To write a mocking ballad about an evil king who had fallen off the balcony of his tallest tower was fine, if not divine, but to speak derisively of the victims of history was to fail as a bard.
As the sun rose, Arnady sat upon a granite stone the size of a boar. Its back was softened by green moss. He began strumming his lute to various chords and singing patches of words and images that came to the fore of his thoughts as he gazed upon the castle. He always worked a song into being this way, combining word and melody together, augmenting and reconciling them in many turns and variations. As a distinguished bard, he knew that word and melody had to find their natural union, as two lovers must when making love for the first time.
It was this compositional method that made it necessary that each song that Arnady wrote had to be performed in an exact melody of instrument and cadence of voice, matching to a precise rhythm, otherwise the whole song would come apart in its meticulous particulars. His songs were deceptively complex, using as much restraint and space of silence as strumming chords and mellifluous verses. It was the same as weaving a complex tapestry in that the weave and the waft had to be properly aligned, otherwise the intricacies of its images and scheme would dissolve into amateurish shoddiness. A unicorn would look like a goat; a lion like a Pomeranian.
And so he dabbled with word and fiddled with melody for hours, sitting atop his mossy stone with a modest oak tree reaching over him like a mother draping its shadow over her child to tuck him into bed.
“By loch, by lay,
by sun, by day,
the grief doth flow
as a salty brook,
the ancient woe
of each proud rook
one and all burned
without hope or pity…”
He paused a moment to remember the exact wording and melody of the next passage.
“…as stones shattered
and battle raged on,
the men scattered
from a bloody dawn.
There rose a pyre
and many perished—
lost all he cherished…”
It was around noon and Arnady set aside his lute in favor of his wheel of cheese and hardtack. He uncovered the cloth from the wheel and, using a deceptively sharp knife, sliced a wedge to put on his bread. To this meager lunch he added a small sliver of salted ham and washed it down with a flask of mulberry wine. As he ate he occasionally mouthed new verses to his burgeoning ballad. When he saw the man approach him, he cut another piece from his wheel of cheese and, as the man came within arm’s distance, he offered the man the slice. Yet, Arnady kept the knife tightly in hand should the man aspire beyond the proffered piece of cheese.
“Thank you kindly,” the stranger said, taking the piece of cheese. He chewed it with what remained of his teeth and nodded in appreciation. He wore what appeared to be a shepherd’s frock—a simple drape of wool. Otherwise he was bare of skin, bare of foot, and, if not for the remaining curls of gray hair, bare of scalp. “I was not expecting hospitality. I only came over here to see if you were real, or if you were one of those ghosts.”
“Real enough,” the bard said, relaxing his grip on his knife.
“You never know in this place,” the shepherd said. His eyes scanned the ruins sprawling out behind them, lazing in the loch and on the heath. His age was indeterminate, for hard labor and weather had aged him prematurely, and he had a whittled jaw dotted in dark stubble. Half of his teeth were missing. “Spirits conspire here. You would do best to leave soon before they start rising. Sometimes at night you can hear voices and see torches burning in the dark, only to go out with the silence. They may be ghosts. They may be will o’ the wisps. They may be something worse. Whatever they are, they are trouble.”
“I will be cautious,” the bard said.
The man shook his head, his weathered hands on his hips, elbows akimbo. “Lost three sheep to this place. A friend of mine lost a good dog. Things go missing here, and I would hate for someone generous with his cheese to go missing, too.”
“I do not fear ghosts,” the bard said.
“It’s not a matter of fearing them,” the shepherd said, raising his hands, palms up, as if beseeching spirits to lend him aid in convincing a fool. “Grass doesn’t fear sheep, but it still gets eaten. Do not plant yourself where bad things can happen to you.”
Arnady laughed, not unkindly. “That is the shepherd wisdom I always appreciate. Perhaps I shall include your words in a new song.”
“You are a singer?” the shepherd said. His eyes went to the lute. “You play music, too?”
“When I am of a heart to,” the bard said, trying not to smile. He knew that the shepherd knew before approaching him that he could sing and play music. It was not so much a lie or a false premise on the shepherd’s part, but countryside etiquette—the easing of an outsider into introductions, in their own time, and disclosures through a pretense of unassertive ignorance. It was not manipulation, but self-defense, and it was justified. The bard always exercised caution in the same way himself when meeting people of potential harm; only, he did so with greater finesse.
“I know I have taken some of your cheese,” the shepherd said, “but could you be so gracious as to play something for me? My wife would love to hear a song…if you would.”
What he really said, beneath his words, was “If you are really a bard like you say you are.”
“I always enjoy entertaining guests,” Arnady said.
The man nodded. “I have a barrel of chicory beer I’ve been meaning to open for a special occasion,” he continued. “If you came to our humble home we could give you a blanket and let you sleep beneath our roof.”
“That sounds an excellent idea,” Arnady said, not really caring for beer, but always caring about manners. “But I must stay here tonight and…well, channel the spirits of this place. I know it seems a risk, but such are all ventures worth the risk.”
Before the shepherd could argue, the bard took up his lute and strummed the scene to silence with a single stroke. This silence established, he filled it with an old shepherd song, and whatever argument the shepherd was forming in his mind was overcome by the awe of the song he heard and felt.
“Flock of clouds, flock of sheep,
where hills rise and valleys sleep,
there came a man with a cane
cut from oak, weathered by rain,
and where he walked the flocks followed,
his silence vast, his silence hollowed
until the air seemed too loud a thing
in its breeze and butterfly wing…”
“That…that was a fine thing,” the shepherd said, after a long moment of silence. He nodded in agreement with himself. “I must see to my sheep, friend. Thank you for your song. And your cheese.”
He left abruptly, disappearing over the heath and down into a nearby valley. In that valley Arnady had seen the small village as he passed earlier that morning. It was a loose collection of stone huts and timber barns and pens. What the villagers lacked in wealth and luxury they were compensated by simple lives in a small corner of the world, mostly unobserved by greater forces and threats. It reminded Arnady of an axiom of one of those minor houses: “Head down without a crown, or head tall soon to fall.”
It was strange to think that the Loengels ruled here for so long only to be toppled, and then the warlord was himself victim to his own incessant need for war, thus undoing himself with the impulses and schemes that had raised him so high. Duke Loengel and warlord Gadden were both tyrants with two different touches; the former a soft fingertip’s pluck and the latter a hard-strumming swipe. Both were gone now and the small people who survived in their absences thrived…at least until the next conqueror should drag his shadow across their land. Arnady wondered what kind of a man he would have been had he not music to conquer hearts and earn his bread. Perhaps he would have been a tyrant himself, of either touch. Perhaps he would have been a simple shepherd, happy to never know of castles and kings except as crumbling stones and dusty bones.
Arnady was content to add to his song and refine it for as long as there was daylight. But he had to fetch water from the loch, boil it and pour it into his water flask. So he took his tin kettle to the crystalline lake and filled it. As he stooped and scooped he thought he glimpsed someone standing in the water, in his peripheries. When he turned to look at them directly, they were gone. People claimed that a boy’s ghost stood in the loch at the coming of twilight, and if you stared long enough his reflection would reach across the smooth pane of water and touch you as the warlord had touched him—strangling you helplessly in the darkening gloom. But it was not twilight, and more importantly, Arnady did not fear ghosts.
He brought his water tin back to his sitting stone. He gradually boiled the water over a small fire. He had learned of the importance of boiling water from a hydromancy healer in the Eostrelands after he had nearly died after drinking from a dubious brook. The healer nursed him back to health, and for her troubles he gave her a song, and his heart, for a time. They tested his recuperation every night for a month until he left one morning, fearful of returning to that small village lest he stay there forever.
It was at the decline of the Summer’s sun that the shepherd returned, accompanied by a hard-looking, lean woman of roughly the same years as himself— presumably his wife—and a younger woman, smiling as only a country girl can who has spent her life around her family and no one else. She had seen no more than twenty winters, and was handsome in her own way, with plaited brown hair which her mother no doubt prepared while she stirred the pot of stew they currently carried between them, shouldered with a thick stick. The shepherd carried a barrel of what Arnady presumed to be his chicory beer.
“What a fine banquet,” the bard remarked. “And here I thought I would have to settle for stone soup.”
“You can eat your fill in this soup,” the shepherd said, “and have all the beer your belly can carry. We have already eaten, and we would be poor neighbors if we did not share our blessings.”
The two women set the steaming pot in front of Arnady, then gave him a wooden spoon, which he accepted with many thanks.
“It is deserving of a king,” he said. “And many more kings would never deserve such hospitality.”
The two women bowed to him and retreated behind the shepherd. The shepherd set down the small barrel of beer and, using a hammer and chisel, cracked open its top. He produced a ceramic cup and dipped it into the beer, bringing up a dark brown liquid which he handed to Arnady. Arnady took a sip of the beer, finding it very bitter—bitter as the winds that blew down from the ice-capped mountains and across the shivering loch—but pretended an appreciative smile.
Their meal served, the family retired a few yards away, letting the bard eat in peace. The shepherd and his wife did not look at him while he ate, but the young woman’s gaze wandered to him intermittently, lingering with curious abandon. When he had finished the hearty mutton stew, the small family returned promptly to prepare for their return home. Of course, Arnady knew people, being a bard and a traveler, and he knew what they wanted; and he never declined anyone wanting a song or two. This was all merely rural theatrics. Their humility, and their pride, would not allow them to ask expressly for a song—no, never these humble-proud people in their roughspun wool frocks.
“Before you leave,” he said, “please let me share a song with you.”
The shepherd and his wife were slow in reply, but their daughter was quick to plop down in front of the bard, eagerly awaiting the true purpose of their hospitality.
Arnady took up his lute and strummed once across the strings with his fluttering fingers, letting the notes provoke the song he would play for his audience. His hand began to play “Secret Flower”, and his heart concurred with it. It was the right song for that crepuscular sky, that descending sun, and this young woman’s open face as it beamed up at him like a singular flower in an otherwise fallow field.
“My lord and my lady
had a garden, green and shady,
and this they thus forbade me
on threat of death they made me
from that courtyard glade glee.
And that secret flower
wilts within her tower
as dawn nears, hour by hour.
Yet I forget why I
slipped past the guard’s eye
and entered that garden, well nigh
upon midnight, the moon-runed sky
welcoming me with a breezy sigh
to that tower where starlings cry.
And that secret flower
with a taste sweet and sour
wilts in her secluded bower.
Climbing the tower, stone by stone,
I came to a window, from rock hewn,
and thereupon a single candle shone,
lumning a maiden, all alone
until the moment I became known.
And that secret flower
whose petals had no power
wished only for a rainshower.
Loveliest of women, she,
with golden tresses three,
she took my hand and helped me
inside her tower, glad to see
someone other than her family.
And that secret flower
promised me in that hour
to give me her bloom to devour.
She showed me her blessed bloom
and all the wonders of her room,
in being both home and tomb
since she could not leave that gloom
until she married to a groom
which, she vowed, a terrible doom.
And that secret flower
betrayed me, somehow, her
fragrance clinging as I left her tower.
Caught by guards, damned by king,
I was locked away from my dearest darling,
and thrown in the dungeon’s darkest ring
to await my death in the morning,
consoled by the song of a single starling.
And that secret flower
wanes and withers, hour to hour,
in that lonely garden tower.”
There was a long, reverent silence and Arnady saw tears in the eyes of the young woman. Her mother smiled thinly, though her face had dried of tears long ago, made barren by a harsh life. Her father grinned openly, pleased that he had shown his family something wondrous in their otherwise grueling lives.
“Beautiful,” was all the young woman could say.
Arnady was pleased that she was pleased, but he felt sorrow for the look in her eye. It was a look he had seen in many a young woman’s eye whenever he sang, or made love.
“It is the one song that remains to us from the Satoine Empire,” the bard said. “It fell centuries ago, and all that remains intact is that song. Perhaps that is all an empire can aspire to be, in the tides of time; perhaps they should not be even that.”
“You must know a lot,” the young woman said, without a droplet of irony or mockery. Her eyes were so wide that they might pop out from their sockets at any moment.
“I know a few things,” he said. “But just enough to know that I know little. Still, I suppose there are wizards that spend centuries learning only a little. A little is all any of us will ever know.”
“I know how to sew and knit and cook and clean,” she said eagerly, standing in excitement to talk to him about herself; to impress him even a fraction as much as he impressed her. “I know how to deliver lambs that have turned the wrong way, and how to sheer rams so they cannot break free, and what a crow flying against the wind means.”
“Then you know a lot more than I do,” Arnady said, also without irony or mockery in his voice.
The young woman blushed, her callused hand unconsciously playing in her hair. Arnady realized, painfully, that she had likely not spoken to many men beyond her village, and so had little experience in being a woman.
“But I wish I could sing like you,” she said. “I sing a little, but not very well. Would you like to hear a song?”
“Abby, no,” her father said suddenly.
Arnady saw no harm in the girl indulging herself, especially considering the vain, unspoken hopes of her parents.
“I should like to hear you, Abby,” the bard said. “If you would, please.”
The girl looked to her father, doubtfully, then back to the bard. Quietly, she sange a simple Matharist prayer—one among the trite thousand that the bard had heard in his travels, and never condescended to sing—but hers was a sweet voice, even if unpracticed and diffident.
“Divine light, shine bright,
divine light lead the fight,
divine light, burn the night,
divine light, love and might.”
It was a Matharist hymn, meant to indoctrinate with dogma rather than inspire visions and emotions. Yet, as irritable as such songs always made him feel, he could not offend her while she watched him in giddy expectation, eyes eager for approval.
“Very good,” Arnady said generously. “Quite pleasant, and perfect for the heath and hills. Like any songbird singing to the morning. That is the Matharist Hymn of Dawn, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” she said, grinning so openly at him that he felt sorry for her. “Did you really like it?”
“Of course,” he said.
He laughed softly. “When was a bard known to lie?”
She was so overcome with joy at his praise that she clapped her hands together and held them tight to her heart. She was a very skinny young woman, but her breasts were large. Arnady noticed and looked away, feeling his blood rise and fidgeting uneasily at the shame of it. It had been a month since he had last touched a woman.
“Perhaps I could sing a song with you?” she said. “Do you know the Matharist Hymn of Love?”
His forced smile faltered, though he recovered it when he saw the utterly crestfallen look upon her face.
“I said something wrong, didn’t I?” she said.
“No, no, not at all,” he said. “It is just that I…I do not sing hymns. I would not profane them with my voice.”
“But your voice is divine,” she said. “How could you profane them?”
“It is no consequence,” he said, evasively. “As to your request for a duet, yes, someday, I may sing with you. As of now, however, I feel the weight of your delicious stew and beer on my belly, and it begs me to bed.”
He rose to his feet.
“Wait!” she said suddenly, grasping at his arm. She blushed and released him. “I am sorry. But…you…you must be very important. You must be like a king. Like the Wandering King in the Flaezel Chronicle. Aren’t you?” Her eyes were full of tears, as if the Wandering King had somehow stepped out of her Matharist tome and visited her in her lowborn life.
“I am only a bard, Abby,” Arnady said. “Some think fondly of us, at best, and some could live their whole lives without hearing our songs and feel all the happier for it.”
“I am glad…glad I heard your song,” she said. Her face contorted with a sudden pain of sorrow. “My life is more beautiful for having heard it.”
“Thank you,” he said, cautiously. Once again, that familiar sparkle in her eyes, hinting at a longing as wide and crystalline as the sea. There was a reason sailors sang songs about divided hearts; about being torn between a mistress at home and the mistress of waves. Arnady lamented that he had divided her heart simply by meeting her.
“I wonder, though,” she said. She took a deep breath and looked away from him, to the side, deferentially. “Your song made me feel so much. It was like magic.” She dropped her voice to a confidential whisper. “Are you…are you a wizard?”
He laughed, now, openly and unabashedly. “No, I am no wizard. I am only a bard. We have very little magical power, except, perhaps, in flattery. There are stories, of course, to the contrary. Stories likely embellished into mendacity by bards themselves. The story of the singer, Olfensen, whose song stayed the heart of the Emperor Vandorf so that he spared Olfensen’s favored valley village from conquest. And there is the story of Endor, a bard whose song recounted the tragedy of war so vividly that the tyrant king Bladforth abandoned his march toward empire once and for all. The bard, Andon von Goetzal was said to have sang a song so sad that the Emperor wept for months, indifferent to the world as his empire fell apart all around him.” Arnady grinned wryly. “But those are wishful embellishments at best, and outright lies at worst. No empire has ever fallen to a song.”
She nodded mousily, then looked to her parents. They had already picked up the stew pot and were carrying it homeward, leaving her behind. It was all part of their game. Arnady wondered how aware she was of this game, however. She was such a child in pretenses that she likely had no intentional part in the scheme. She was doing as was expected of her without consciously knowing it, and doing so quite willingly. Her parents wanted a husband for her, before she should grow too old and haggardly to catch one, and here was a man of refinement and skill, however contrasted his life was from their own. And she wanted a husband, too. Sadly, no husband would ever escape being compared to Arnady now, and seeming poorer for it.
“My parents are going,” she observed sadly.
She hesitated in following them, oscillating in indecision to stay or follow. She then blurted out, quite clumsily, what her anguished heart could not restrain.
“Are you married?” she said. Watching her say it was like watching a rabbit flee into the fox: wide-eyed, affrighted, and utterly tragic in its inevitable idiotic course. Arnady sighed heavily.
“The only mistress I know is Song,” Arnady said. “I will know no other bride in my life.”
“But you are not married to a wife?” she persisted, gritting her teeth through the pain of her humiliation.
“No, Abby,” he said, “and I never will be.”
Crestfallen, the girl nodded sadly and turned away. She shuffled home as the twilight unveiled its first stars. If Arnady could, he would have reached up and given her stars to match the twinkling dreams in her eyes, but he could not. She would have to find solace wherever she may.
The darkening of day, and the heavy mutton stew, ushered Arnady into the ruins. He brought his things with him: his kettle, his lute, his satchel of cheese and wine and water flask. The ruins were vast, where the scorched stones did not crowd the passages, and he made his way into the heart of the collapsed castle, coming to the scorched throne room. It was much like other throne rooms he had seen in his travels. It had been largely spared from the pyromancer flames. A large crack ran from the lakeside wall up to the ceiling, splitting the stone to reveal the rising moon. Its pale light washed over the throne room, revealing the dusty tapestries on the wall, behind the overturned throne.
According to the survivors of the raid, Duke Loengel and his family were taken from the throne room and executed at Dundan und Gadden’s leisure. He tormented them all, raping the Duchess and drowning their son, Mannuel, in the loch, holding the boy down with his own arm armored hands. The green-and-blue tapestries remained intact, but moldy and besmirched with smoke and dust. The throne itself—a modest wooden chair with gold inlay distinguishing it from the other chairs in the throne room—was broken. Arnady used it, and some other chairs, to make a fire to fend off the misty chill. Autumn, he realized, would be descending soon here. It was time to head South to the Midlands; perhaps even to the Southerlands. One of his greatest joys was to swim in the Southern Seas while Winter warred against the Northerlands. Nor was it a joy in the suffering of others; only in knowing that a mortal man could sometimes escape suffering, and thrive beyond it.
But these thoughts brought him again to the ebullient joy, and subsequent sorrow, in Abby’s eyes. She would survive the Winter, doubtlessly, yet she would remain alone here; all of the village too close of kin to produce a good husband for her. Arnady thought of her lonely Winter nights— and those cold, dark gulfs of night that might befall her heart in the lonely hours— and felt guilt in his own heart. Yet, he always felt guilt in how he unerringly inspired love only to flee from it. It was his curse, and his blessing. It compelled him forward. He feared the trap of marriage. He feared its stagnation. There were songs to be written, songs to be sung, and ears to entertain; minds to enlighten. Freedom called more sweetly than any maiden’s voice. And his mistress was Song, so what maiden could possibly hope to compete in wooing his heart against Song itself?
But the guilt remained, however much he exorcized it with the cold holy water of reason. Abby deserved more than her life would give her. She was a good girl, he could tell, and much more deserving of a palace of luxury and leisure than the ladies and princesses he had met in his life. Yet, he also knew that her hard life was what made her as she was, and if softened by a life in luxury she, too, would eventually become as those spoiled women. Her face was so open with its smiles and its lack of wiles; too childishly naive and unworldly to be ashamed of her teeth, especially as she beamed in admiration of this otherworldly man singing his beautiful songs. Her hands, conversely, were not so soft or silken as the ladies whom he had met, cloistered in villas and marriage chambers and pleasure palaces for the enjoyment of powerful men, all kept similarly ignorant of the world. No, she had garnered calluses which sailors would have prided themselves upon. Her eyes and heart were sheltered, but her hands had grappled with the world in its fiercest, feistiest moods. Life in luxury would have softened her calluses, but hardened her heart.
While the poor girl still had all of her teeth, some of them were crooked; as if they were embarrassed and trying to hide behind one another. This was no great fault to Arnady. He had made love to women with worse teeth, and the girl was certainly pretty enough. A few more years of hard labor out here, however, would sap her youth dry, if the curdling of pregnancy did not waste it all at once.
Arnady knew about life’s imperfections. While a bard might sing a tale lamenting a perfect love soon gone to rot, he knew enough about life to not succumb to the delusion of believing the saccharine love songs he sometimes sang. He preferred the songs that spoke of life as it was, not as a myth overlaid upon the visage to cover its mottled spots and pockmark scars. And he preferred his women much the same way: prettily imperfect. He had enjoyed a high elf twice, and while the two maidens were flawlessly skinned, there seemed a theatricality to their perfection; a staged presence of living rather than a cohabited union of body and soul. Their every movement was scripted by the obsession with perfection. He supposed bards fell to the same trap in their songs, or the unskilled did, anyway. Loftiness can leave a mortal feeling nothing in a song, except perhaps resentment or ridicule, and so the poetry and images had to be tempered by the realities of the world. If not, maudlin ballads abounded and cultural tastes decayed.
In the flickering light of his fire Arnady played a few songs. The throne room reminded him of the many he had seen and visited in his travels in the Northerlands. Courts were different in the Southerlands— they were more open to the elements since they suffer little for Winter and must only survive the heat of Summers. Their courts were but open colonnades with small pediments and eaves over the king, awnings over the important personages, and nothing for everyone else. The commoners had to abide the sun, and the king, with patience.
“They grip their castles made of sand
so tightly in their tyrant’s hand
that towers crumble, falling down,
destroyed by that knuckled crown
and the need to grasp with fretted fists,
lost their kingdoms to the mists.
But there are those who also find
themselves ruling in due kind
softer and defter than a tyrant king
and yet still losing everything
to the lapping of Time’s endless tides
while Mathara sits and abides…”
He paused a moment to tune his lute. The chords did not sound quite right and he knew his playing was not to blame. He plucked and tuned each string in turn, listening as the notes echoed in that empty, despondent place. When he had tuned each string to his satisfaction, he opened his mouth to sing again, and raised his hand to strum the chords, but then paused, glancing all around him; imbibing the melancholy scenery of that wasted throne room.
Every part of a castle was a dungeon to Arnady. They were meant to protect and conserve, but all they did was imprison and control. Even kings were trapped inside castles, inside their throne rooms, enslaved to tradition, old blood debts from previous generations, and their own idleness and inability to survive on their own, without the peasantry to feed and clothe and sustain them. Arnady was truly free. A bard could be free. He could sustain himself, playing music to earn his food and his way as well as he could. True, he was also reliant upon others to appreciate his music enough to feed and pay him, but if there ever came a day when bards were no longer appreciated with gold or food or a living then he would gladly starve to death in the wilderness, listening to birdsong and wishing a good riddance to the human world.
“The hart of the woodland wide
was a king with an abounding stride
and fought away all foes that may
come to steal a bride.
He fought them all, however strong,
and however many, however long,
and although he never lost a doe
he nonetheless feared a wrong.
And soon he came to fight the trees,
thinking their branches spread to seize
his many does, and so he met his foes
with antlers raking all adversaries.
And then he found himself caught,
antlers stuck in the trees he fought,
and as he struggled his does snuggled
with stags he had hoped to give naught…”
This, too, was a cumbersome song, which was why he needed to practice it. He also needed to take his mind off dishonorable thoughts about Abby and her sun-freckled skin, her broad-bosomed chest, and the innocence of her smile. How many such young women had privileged him with their trust in the past? Too many to count. Yet, he never indulged them fully, preserving their maidenhoods, if still intact, and even foregoing the folly of consummation if they were already “broken in”. In terms of the latter, he feared what might linger after their encounter; and in terms of the former, there was no fun in a virgin, for it was invariably painful for any maiden’s first time, and he did not revel in pain. Rather, he often charmed for himself mothers in various cities; mothers healthy and of otherwise level heads. This was convenience for him, for whereas a young naive virgin might entertain delusions of a future for any such dalliance, a married woman with children had already set anchor, so to speak, and considered him in the same manner that he considered her: a ship passing in the night. And as for their husbands— they made love more to their beer than to the lovely women they took for granted. That was how he justified it to himself, anyway.
The twilight darkened to night, and with it the moon rose wanly above the blackening mountains. The moon was a skull-faced necromancer and summoned up the chill mists from the loch, a fog rising as if an army of ghosts lingering after that terrible conquest long ago. Arnady wondered from whom were the villagers in the valley descended: the serfs of Castle Loengel, or the invading army that destroyed the castle. Perhaps both; perhaps neither. What did it matter anyhow? Scrawlings in the sand just before high tide—that was all history became.
He sipped some wine from his pouch, for it had always helped him sleep easier. He had stuffed the cork back into the flask when he heard footsteps approaching. A torch flickering in that moonlit gloom.
“Be not afraid,” Abby said. “It is only me.”
“I am surprised you are not afraid,” Arnady said. “Your father speaks of this place as being very dangerous. Ghosts and the like.”
She approached his fire intrepidly enough, nimbly navigating the crumbled stones and burnt furniture.
“I do not fear ghosts,” she said, “because I have faith in Mathara.”
Arnady did not nod, or shake his head, or blink, or say anything. He disagreed with her sentiment, but would not discredit the girl’s faith. It might be the only thing that would keep her strong in the coming years of labor and loneliness. It might also be the thing that would kill her in coming years. The bard forswore the hubris of knowing which.
“It is late, Abby,” he said. “Your parents will worry where you are.”
She stood stiffly by the fire, illuminated like a fiery genie from the Southerlands.
“They trust me,” she said. “And they trust you.”
He smiled wryly. “That is a lie,” he said. “They do not know me enough to trust me.”
“They trust you…” she said slowly. “…to do what a man wishes to do.”
Arnady marveled at the boldness of the parents; the daughter, on the other hand, was only doing what she was told. Was she not?
“I will not do as a man wishes,” he said. “Though, it is true that I wish to.” He picked up his lute once again, and plucked at the strings; a trickling cadence of droplets from melting icicles onto a tin roof.
She lingered on the other side of the fire, staring at him.
“Father says…” she said hesitantly. “Father says I will never have a husband.”
Arnady’s heart reached toward the young woman, even as his mouth stayed closed and his eyes dwelled in the flames. The song he plucked echoed in the shadows of the throne room. The moon stared wanly through the breach of the wall and ceiling.
“My village is small,” she said. “And many people do not come here anymore. The grazing is good for sheep, but it is a hard life. He wants me to escape. He wants me to…he says there is nothing for me here.”
“Abby,” he said, “I am a traveling bard. Sometimes all that saves me from starvation is a single fish caught at the end of a hook, or a handful of nuts found by happenstance in a dying woods. It is not consistent. It is dangerous. What I would suggest for you is to travel to another village. Southward, perhaps, or Westward. There you will find your pick of husbands among the locals. You are a very pretty girl, and I am incredibly flattered by your interest. But it is not a good fit. I am not worthy of your hand. You must find someone with a steady heart and rooted feet.”
He looked from the flames to her face. There was a mixture of pain and sorrow written there, in the flickering light, that wounded him. It was often said that a bard felt more than common men. This was true only in certain instances—instances when the futility of life bore upon his sympathies toward his fellow creatures, beautiful and broken as they all were—and thus was one such moment now. Abby was trapped in a hard life, and he was not the knight to sweep her off to palatial future.
“Come here and sit a while,” he said, motioning toward the fire with his head. He continued plucking at the strings. “This is no hearthstone, but I am sure Mathara watches over us from these humble flames.”
“She watches over us from every flame,” Abby said, her face softening. She sat beside him— not too close, not too far away. “From the flames in the stars to the flames in our hearts.”
“Indeed,” was all Arnady could say to that. He suddenly stopped plucking, and let the lute rest in his lap, like a cat gone to sleep. He sighed.
“I want to tell you about the caprices of my life. And the sins.” He looked her in the eye, where the flame reflected in undulating light— or was it her desire that flared there? He pushed such thoughts aside. “My life is never steady, Abby. Thrice was my life nearly forfeited by a single hiccup at the wrong place and wrong time. Once while I was hiding in a tree as a basilisk passed beneath the branch. I had become lost after wandering through a forest of black branches and black eyes. I escaped, by luck, and never again returned to that place.” He shook his head ruefully. “And yet, that was a light brush with death. At the wedding of King Philos’s demented son, to his fourth wife, I had been asked to sing a song of auspicious favor to the couple. A fit of nervous hiccups betook me, after too much wine and too many threats from the groom, but somehow I managed to transform the hiccups into a strange adornment to the song which, being a Northerland court, was well received. It was a bawdy song, of course, but the King had an appreciation of bawdy songs. Unfortunately, for King Philos’s daughter-in-law no improvisation could save her head from her husband’s whims—no more than all three of the other wives who had found themselves in a shorter coffin than they would have expected while living. I thought that I, too, was to spend the night in a shortened coffin.” Arnady grinned confidentially at Abby, but her look of concern did not indulge any dark-humored camaraderie. He shrugged impassively and continued, looking now at the flames directly. “The last time I nearly died from a hiccup was when I was hiding beneath the bed of a married woman, after a night of passion. Her husband came home, unexpectedly, but was so drunk that he passed out onto the floor as he bent over to see what was hiccuping beneath his bed.”
“How did you come to be there?” Abby asked.
He had hoped the obvious would be plain to see, but she was such an innocent that she saw the world as being full of innocents.
“I had been sleeping with the woman,” he said. “As I have slept with many women.”
“To keep warm against the chill of night,” Abby said, her smile perplexed by how such a common practice could be so scandalous.
“No, Abby,” he said. “I was fornicating with them.”
Her face brightened red in the fire, though whether from anger or shame or sheer embarrassment he did not know. Her tongue tripped over itself with denials and delusions.
“But you…you sing beautiful things…you do not…not beastly…not like that…Mathara blessed you…you would not…you have a pure heart!”
“No, Abby,” he said. “You have a pure heart. I am merely living day to day. I live for Song, and I live for whatever it provides me, whether it be coin or rack of lamb or the bed of a married woman. Song is my one and only mistress.”
She rose to her feet quickly and turned, but hesitated, wringing her callused hands in frenzied indecision. She almost looked at him, but her head halted in turning upon her slender neck. All at once, she plopped down beside the fire once more.
“It does not matter to me how many women you have had…” she said. “What matters is what Mathara wills.”
“I do not believe Mathara wills much of anything,” Arnady said. “For better or worse, we all drift without grand purpose through this world. Life is not a song formed in rhyme and reason.”
“But you are a bard,” she said. “You sing songs of rhyme and reason. How can you not believe in how you live your life?”
“That is a good question,” he said, surprised by her intelligence. “But I suppose Man craves rhyme and reason for things. So bards earn their keep in providing such false assurances, as do priests and kings. We create rhyme and reason out of chaos to ease the anxious hearts of the world.”
“With the help of chance and coincidence,” she countered. “You could not rhyme without words working the way they do.”
“True,” he said.
“And so Mathara wills them to work through chance and coincidence,” she said.
“I do not know about that,” he said, stroking the hair on his chin thoughtfully. “There are many times when I wanted to use one word, but the rhyme scheme forced me to use another. Sometimes I have to butcher whole stanzas just to satisfy the sound at the end of two lines. It can be maddening.”
“That just keeps you humble,” she said.
He regarded her for a moment. “You know, I tend to like feisty women who think for themselves. It makes their bedding that much more enjoyable, when they finally surrender to me.”
“I will not give you my maidenhead so easily,” she said, looking very cross as she crossed her arms defiantly.
“Nor would I expect you to,” he said. “I was just speaking to you openly. Opening my maidenhead to you, if you will pardon the comparison. It may sound strange, but while a bard shares part of his soul in a song, he does not share much else of his heart. Perhaps we covet our private selves so much because we have to share so much of our public selves when we perform. What remains to us, hidden away, we guard.”
“I think I prefer your public self,” she said, giving him a scrutinizing look.
He laughed. “Most people would. I can be quite lewd.”
“But you sing of such grand things,” she observed. “How can you be so…so…contradictory?”
He shrugged. “I have seen the loveliest monuments built by the cruellest men. I have seen the most pious people commit the most heinous acts. I have seen the prettiest birds tear apart bugs and lizards and even other birds, and with beaks still smeared in blood they sing the most beautiful songs. I sing songs, too, and have killed a man who tried to wrong me. I have wronged many men by sleeping with their wives. I have seduced with my songs and my charms, and, so far, have not been killed for the wrongs committed. You, Abby, are innocent and pretty and dedicated to your parents. You work hard and you are devout, praying to Mathara every day…”
“Three times a day,” she interjected in earnest.
He chuckled. “I do not doubt you,” he said. “But even you could work horrors upon the world. If your father told you I was evil, or your mother said so, or you thought you heard Mathara, in her flames, telling you to slit my throat, burn me alive, or poison my stew, you would do as you were told, would you not?”
“I…no…you…” she stammered.
“And you might even enjoy it with religious zeal,” Arnady said. “And so the beautiful, pious flower known as Abby would bite with a poisonous thorn, killing the man she wished to pluck her from her soil.”
A war of emotions and thoughts erupted along Abby’s brow. She stared into the flames, then into Arnady’s eyes, then back to the flames, then toward the shadows, out of the castle, eyes searching for the valley where her parents waited and prayed and hoped that she did what they had bidden her to do.
“I do not feel well,” she said.
“You need something to cool your thoughts,” he said. He reached for a flask, found the wine flask, gripped it momentarily, then set it down and grabbed instead the water flask. He handed it to her. She took it, gratefully, and held it to her puckered lips. Arnady looked away as she drank from it, pushing his blood down lest it run riot and claim what guilt and regret would tax him for later. When she had finished drinking, she corked the flask and returned it to him.
“Neither my parents or Mathara would wish me to harm you,” she said. “This I know to be true, so your question makes no sense.”
Arnady pretended not to hear her as he set the water flask in his satchel once again. He did not wish to argue with her anymore. He was tired.
“Why did you come here?” she asked.
“To conceive a song,” he said.
“Why here?” She was leaning toward him; whether out of curiosity for her answer or to come closer, he did not know.
“Songs are only the echoes of empires,” he said. He did not lean away from her. “For Man makes empires for himself, large and small, and bards like myself, sick of empires, become as mockingbirds repeating those vainglorious echoes throughout the ages. Mocking them forever, as ghosts do a previous age.”
She scooted closer to him. He never realized how short her wool frock was. Her thighs were bare in the firelight, and honed by years of walking and working. Small flecks of golden hairs lined them. They were not unattractive.
“And you listen to the echoes for your songs?”
“I hear the echoes, yes,” he said. Her legs touched his own. Through his pantaloons he could feel the warmth of her skin. “The ghosts of empire tell me what they know, and I put it to song.”
“But you sing of more than ghosts and death,” she said. “Don’t you?”
“Sometimes,” he said. “The lands speak to me, too. The harmonies of life. The dissonances, too. Birds in flight. Squirrels in trees. Fish in creeks. The silence, too, hums in between as needful spaces, reminding me to punctuate what I say with breadths for contemplation; gulfs to underscore what I play with breaks, like the hushing pause between the receding and the returning of the waves on the beach.”
“Then let me be the hushing pause between the waves,” she said. “Let me be the needful space. Just for tonight. Please?”
He said nothing, nor did he move away from her as she put her arms around him. They huddled together in the shadow of that ruined edifice, their little flickering flame flecking light like a carrion tongue against the carcass of an empire.