Jazz snuck into the crypt, armed with candle and tin whistle. His friends quietly jeered him between grunts and curses of closing the forbidding stone door. He hurriedly sparked flint to tinder in the fading patch of starlight, a murmuring flame from its cotton depths, and snapped it to the wick. A final heave as the door cracked shut, their laughs and calls muffled in the still.
Never again would he allow drink to get the better of him; not with a mind so young and a body so old.
The candle flared in his eyes and gleamed off the mess of massed bones which stood silent around the room. He sat, cross-legged, and let its flickering steady him, relaxing him in its caress. His mind drifted, past-tense.
“Pour me another.”
Jasper sat at the small table with three of his friends, all students at the College of Bards. They were well into a skin of akvavit, not quite of the promised quality but smooth in its strength, and exchanging boasts. He didn’t look as if he fit with the group: greying hair, age-lined face and haggard beard a sharp contrast to their cherubic features. However, they enjoyed many of the same pursuits, and all suffered similar failures when it came to wooing women — Magnus wenches not being easily impressed by a sweet young voice. Not that you’d think it from the novices’ stories. They crowed of their conquest of hearts by flattery and song, all the while vocally dismissing the claims of the others.
“Jazz, you’re too quiet,” exclaimed Carris. “What’s the matter, you never had a woman want to play with your whistle?” They laughed lewdly as he waved them to silence.
“Boys,” he mocked them, “I could tell. But you would not believe.”
“Oh-ho!” mocked Carris. “So the great Jazz has no tales to tell, no great stories of how he’d coerce a kiss from kith, kin or cousin?”
“No, no, I have them. Hells, I had them all at one time,” he smiled indulgently. “They’d all dance for me. I’d work them to a frenzy by playing my pipe, and they’d do anything, *anything*, just so the music wouldn’t stop.” His friends guffawed and hooted at him, none believing that “It wasn’t just the people either. The cats would sheath their claws and dance with dogs, hissing and howling together along with the pipe.” Jazz getting angrier, sounding righteous, as their jeers grew apace. “I’d bring the birds from the trees, doing backflips in the air, charm the snakes from the grass and the rats from their nests.”
Carris fell from his stool, still howling with laughter. “Yeah, and I’m sure you could raise the sleepers and make them dance like marionettes.”
Jasper slammed his fists on the table and stood, sending his seat flying. “I could make a dead man dance!”
“Want a bet?”
Silence awhile as Jasper stared them down. The mood sombred. “Aye,” he replied, quiet and determined as he swayed. “Right then.”
Thoughts were still there. No matter. Whistle would clear them.
Leaden arms, too relaxed, raised the whistle to his mouth. Reflected flame gleamed blue along its length, burning embers on his cheek as his mouth carressed and clamped the wood. His tongue touched gingerly, tender and teasing as a virgin’s kiss, but the wood was wanton and lustful, sucking his tongue and laving itself in his saliva. It grew damp with expectation and opened its flavours to him: raw and spicy, yet so familiar.
A first-time actress.
Opening night nerves.
An eager lover.
Ready to play.
He stretched slowly for consciousness, noting only the beginnings of sensation. The bed below him was cool, his kidneys: chilled. He reached in dreaming to pull up his blanket, only to find he had none. His hands felt strange, heavy and unfamiliar. His mouth opened to breathe, taking its time to unstick his tongue from its roof.
Thirsty. He opened his eyes to a darkness greater than the one behind his eyelids; listened, and found himself alone in the cold and dark. He gathered his legs and moved to perch on the edge of the bed, his weight swinging him upright in a most unfamiliar manner. He stood, disoriented, banging his head on the low roof as he did so, and scratched with concern at the coarse and unfamiliar matt of hair that covered his face and chin. He felt his way around the walls, taking small and hesitant steps as he learned to walk in this larger and denser form, finally finding the latch of a door. The mechanism clicked loud in the silence. It opened to more cold and dark, and he shuffled down the stone corridor with strange unfamiliar steps, his fingertips acting as eyes. He felt more doors as he made his way, trying the handle of each of them as he passed. Until one opened to a room with a window, through which snow flurries blew.
Hadn’t it been spring yesterday?
He sighed into the opening, nervous about the dead around him. It was not the first time he had played for the dead, but it was the first time he had played for their pleasure alone. The first notes susurrated from the whistle, a tiny ripple which shattered the mirror surface of the black pool in which he sat. The flame twitched, pricked to rapture as the notes oozed out, each a wondrous flavour from the stirring cauldron of his flute.
His eyes closed, opening himself to the quiet of music, but still aware enough to think back further.
Jazz was trying to get to the College of Bards. He’d heard rumours that the bards had their own magics, and it was the only thing that he knew of that might be able to keep him sane. His tribe would hold no court with them in normal circumstances.
He’d been walking for the entire day, ever since being discovered just before dawn as a stowaway on a riverboat headed for the capital. Within menes of discovery he was afoot; cold, wet and lighter of load as he had swum out of his jacket just to keep his head above water.
He had wandered into the valley to get out of the wind as it chilled his adolescent frame, and was surprised to find a castle, under construction, hidden in its depths. He approached it, wondering if he could prove himself of service to the lord in residence or, if he was charitable, just find a bed for the night. However, the place looked strangely silent.
He entered the gatehouse to find a man sleeping there. Or rather, lying comatose. Unable to rouse him with a simple touch, he cocked his head and pulled his whistle from his pocket, watching the man as he began to play. After a stanza, the man’s eyes flickered and opened. It took a while to get some sense from him, by which time an older man arrived, asking who he was to have the talent to find the valley and wake the man from his possession.
Talent? Possession? He grew disoriented as he pondered these Words. Only one other thing remained with him from that time. The name Roharvardenul.
His eyes narrowed as he concentrated on the tune. Enough of laments! The dead would surely have had enough of long, slow dirges at their funerals. These were bards he was playing to! They would appreciate the dance in which he would lead them.
He stood, bringing the tempo up with him. His feet beat the rhythm: stomping and slapping in time to the tune as it started to quicken.
Starting to lose himself as it quickened.
Rats were everywhere. Never uncommon, the summer of 989 had bred a surfeit of them in Sharks’ Cove, and now, close to the end of winter, the people were really starting to suffer. The rats had got into the grain stores, eating until they were fat and lazy. They fouled the salt that cured the hams, and feasted when they uncovered the meat. They chewed on the wine barrels, opening their contents to the souring air, and infected bites grew commonplace. And in walked Jasper.
He was well wrapped, but a day in the cold had left him wanting something hot. He wandered into the nearest inn and squeezed between the seated adults to get as close as he could get to the mean fire, rubbing his hands together try to get the blood flowing again.
“What can I get you, son?” asked the bored looking barkeep.
“Mulled wine and a bowl of something hot, please,” he asked softly, his voice chittering.
“No wine. We’ve got akvavit or ale. And whatever’s hot is bread and porridge.” The inkeeper thought a moment. “Actually, the bread’s cold.”
“No wine?” He looked around incredulously, checking to be sure that he was in an inn. “Mulled akvavit then. And some meat along with the porridge would be welcome.”
“Your choice,” said the barkeep, making his way into the kitchen.
Jasper turned himself back to the fire, now noting the muffled laughs that the other patrons were sharing. “What’s so funny?” he asked of the nearest back before blowing the droplet of snot from the end of his nose.
“Ah, nothing,” said the man, looking around at him. “Just that no one here particularly enjoys the thought of eating rat.” A titter sounded from many of the patrons.
“Rat?” Jazz asked, looking perturbed. “Would there happen to be a slightly more upmarket inn nearby?”
The man laughed, weakly this time. “We’ve got another inn, but you’re not likely to get anything better there. The only meat in this town is spoiled, and we’ve stripped the surrounding farms pretty much to the minimum they need to get by. Rats have eaten everything else, and even the fish seem to be avoiding us right now. I guess this is what we get for keeping the catfeast tradition alive.” The man perked up as he thought for a moment. “Don’t suppose you came in by horse, did you?”
“M’Kivar!” he exclaimed in shock. “Erm, no, I walked in. Hasn’t anyone done anything about them?”
“Oh, people have tried. They breed worse than bunnies though. We’ve killed hundreds, but that’s just because there are so many that they don’t have room to hide any more.”
“I mean, has anyone thought to get someone in to get rid of them?”
The man laughed openly. “There’s no way one man could do anything significant about *that* number of rats. If it doesn’t improve soon though, Sharks’ Cove is going to be renamed Rats’ Haven. We can’t afford to live like this for another year.”
Jazz was silent a moment, thinking. “I can get rid of them.”
The quiet words echoed around the room. Men looked at each other to confirm what they’d heard. One turned to him, a sad smile on his face. “Yeah, straight kid. And just how are you going to manage that?”
Jazz brought his flute from his pocket. “Watch me.”
Quickening. He leapt and twirled a frenzied fling, lost in the rapture of the dancing flame and echoing tomb. His eyes drum-rolled as the tune sang from him, infecting and injecting itself into the scattered bones of the bards as they started to shudder.
Mere quivers from the bass of his feet they moved, traversing, coalescing their original form. With tune their tissue they arose, beat for blood and dance their deity, their ghostly glow fighting the light as they pranced and pitched in the black. And silently they sang with him, summoning him to stay.
Jazz played on, lost to himself as he led the dance, never noticing his robes slowly stripped and his flesh freely falling. He shone with the afterlight, cavorting and decaying, never stopping playing. The beat of his feet rang hard through the ground, twin heavy hammers sounding out their mass. The music grew, the instrument glowing hot and bright in his hands as it entered the very essence of the stone, ringing clear to the outside as it crept and climbed to a cacophonous crescendo. He sprang into the air, the last of his tissue tumbling as he pulled the whistle from his mouth, breaking the spell as, all around, the bones unbound.
And the bards took him home as silence settled through the candlelit crypt once more.
Jasper was nervous. He was ten years old and being brought before the assembled elders of the Gwynt Gyrun tribe. His father awaited him with tear-filled eyes. And he’d never seen his father cry.
Silence reigned awhile as he looked nervously at the elders. They sat in a semicircle around the fire as dusk settled over the campsite. Some looked sadly back at him, others harshly, and some could not hold his gaze at all.
“The council has made their decision, Jasper,” his father said shakily, taking him by the shoulders. “They say you’re too dangerous. That a boy with your kind of talent has rarely stayed sane, and that whole families have been lost when they snap.” Jazz started to blubber, grabbing onto his father’s cloak and mumbling negatives. “Tribal law three generations back would have killed you. As it stands now, you’re to be exiled.” His father held him close and let the love flow between them as they each sobbed and grat into the other’s shoulder. “M’Kivar! I wish it could have worked out different. I just wish I’d never given you that damned whistle. Take what you can carry from the caravan, and go. With love, my boy. Always with love.”
The massed body of the college was gathered around the Crypt of the Masters, though the bell was late. They waited in silence to see who would be the first to approach the door to investigate the perfect music. For to do so, they would have to cross a sea of mourning rats.