There were no ill omens that morning as I rode into the tiny village of Densur. No grey hawks flying upside down, no bucks heying around two birch trees, no hedgehogs parading backwards along the hedgerows. I suppose it is presumptuous of me to expect such obvious warnings, as the tragedy to come was not so great as to threaten the very crown of Baranur. Yet I would have liked to have had the time to prepare myself.
So I, Bard Nakaz, rode into Densur all unknowing on that morning in late Firil. The spring had been a warm one, and the mid-morning sun was warm and comfortable on my back. Word of my arrival had preceded me. The farmers I had passed on the road had easily picked out the star-and-harp design on my saddlebags and other tack, and had sent others running ahead of me with the news. As I entered the small market square at the edge of Densur there was already a crowd of people gathered to cheer my arrival.
I dismounted and had to fend off a handful of youngsters who each wanted the honor of taking my horse, Riesta, to the only stable in town. I chose the oldest of them to hand her reins to, asking the lad to wait a moment while I fetched a small scroll case from one of the saddlebags.
As I waved the youngster to take Riesta away and get her settled, a man approached. He was short and balding, wore an apron about his waist and carried a rag in one hand. He bowed to me like I wore a coronet and said, “Good bard, my wife is even now preparing the best room our humble inn can offer, and it will be ready for you in just a moment.”
A racket started up just then, someone indignantly shouting about being rousted from their bed. I looked over the innkeeper’s shoulder as he made every promise he could think of to me as long as I would consent to play in his taproom that evening. I saw an angry-looking man dressed in nightclothes stomping out of a doorway over which swung a painted sign of a pig with wings. He was yelling angrily about how he had been expecting to stay abed ’til midday in such a quiet, sleepy village. He was followed by a willowy woman with long, mouse-brown hair and reddened hands, who was trying to calm him down.
The recently-roused man plowed into the crowded market square, heading straight for the innkeeper. Suddenly, he halted his progress, a confused look on his face. He looked around at all the people, then noticed my horse being led away. I saw his eyes widen as he saw the star-and-harp symbol of a bard embossed on the leather it bore. His shoulders slumped as his confusion changed to resignation. He turned around and was led back into the inn by the innkeeper’s wife, who was patting him on the back in consolation.
I realized as I watched him retreat in defeat that the inn probably only had a single, separate sleeping room. Densur was so small that I was lucky it had an inn; I often ended up sharing houses with the village headman. The innkeeper had decided that my needs preceded those of whomever had been staying in the inn’s room — most likely a merchant out gathering spring wares.
I reassured the innkeeper that I was looking forward to playing and singing later in his taproom. Then I asked, “And now, could you kindly direct me to the local crier, so that I can be about the business of my visit?”
“Oh, yes, of course, mi’lord bard. Crier Jeffith’s shop is just over there.” The innkeeper pointed, and I picked out the small brass trumpet hanging on a green square next to one of the doors that flanked the market square. I thanked the man, who was beginning to annoy me slightly with the way he was fawning over me. I tried to control my irritation. After all, I would probably bring him more business that night than he would normally get in all of the months between spring thaw and Melrin.
I finally broke away from the man and headed over to the crier’s shop with my small case of scrolls. As a bard, I had several duties that took me from village to town to city, all across the kingdom. One of those duties was the carrying of news. Whether from the king to all of his subjects, or from duke or baron, or from hamlet to hamlet, bards disseminated news.
We weren’t the only ones. Anyone who traveled took stories with them from place to place, from person to person. But those were just gossip: campfire stories embellished or turned inside out to entertain, or to prove the teller’s point. Bards tell the truth. Sometimes not all of the truth, sometimes only the truth as we know it, but in our official capacity, we never lie.
In my scroll case I carried the current news from the crown, as well as from Duke Othuldane, in whose demesne Densur was located. I had not yet visited the area’s baron, but expected the local crier to have any news from him.
The job of a town crier was to be a central point that people could come to and receive any announcements and news of import. They also served to keep the records for the area as well as making sure they were carried to the ducal and kingdom levels. The job required the ability to read and write, which meant that it could be a difficult post to fill. It could be counted on that the larger towns and cities had a crier, but only a few of Baranur’s duchies could boast having one in every village and hamlet as well. Othuldane was one of these, as was the Royal Duchy of Magnus, of course.
I knocked on the door of Jeffith’s shop and let myself in. The place was large and remarkably uncluttered. A large table took up most of the space in the center of the room, with low cabinets of narrow drawers lining the walls. Hanging above the cabinets were well-executed drawings of a variety of subjects. One was of a modest house nestled into a forest clearing. The woodgrain of the front door was as clear as the bark of the trees. Another showed a young woman sitting on the edge of the well in the center of the market square. I could see the fibers of the rope she held, and could tell that she was lowering her bucket into the well by the set of her hands. The longing on her face as she went about her work told any viewer that her mind was not on her task.
All of the drawings were done in black ink, but none lacked detail because of it; the artist’s ability to vary tone and texture with only a brush was amazing.
A tall, muscular man straightened up from the other side of the table as I walked in. A shorter man, but not less muscular, stood to the side of the table. He saw me first and said quickly, “Sir?”
The taller man said, “Yes, I see him boy,” before striding around the table and extending a hand toward me. He said, “Greetings, good bard. I am Crier Jeffith. How may I be of service?”
Jeffith had an excellent voice, rich and melodic. I wondered if he sang. His fingers were well ink-stained, and there were smudges all over his arms, as well as his tunic and leggings. There was even a smear on his cheek, which only made his round, open face even more engaging.
I shook his hand firmly and said, “I wish you well, Crier Jeffith. I am Bard Nakaz, and am pleased to make your acquaintance. I’ve got the royal and ducal news for you here. I haven’t yet visited the local baron, and was wondering whether you had any announcements from him, or from the neighboring villages?”
“Of course, of course. When I heard you were coming, I got everything ready for you.” Jeffith gestured to me and walked back around the table. I followed. He continued, “I’ve got everything piled right here.” He picked up a scroll from among several others on a cabinet top and unrolled it. After perusing it for a moment, he handed it to me.
As I took it, I caught sight of the top of the table and the drawing tacked down there amid ink wells and a cup containing brushes of several sizes. It had the quality of a sketch, set down hurriedly, or so the brush strokes seemed to indicate. It was the scene of my arrival in the market square. I turned and looked through the small window that the shop possessed, and saw what Jeffith’s vantage point had been. The sketch was excellent, capturing the moving crowd as a blur rather than recognizable individuals. There were a few people given detail as the focus of the image: the displaced merchant, the obsequious innkeeper and, of course, myself.
Jeffith noticed my interest in his artwork, but instead of being proud of it, he seemed displeased that I had seen it. He fussed and fretted, drawing another sheet of parchment carefully over it so as not to smear any still-wet ink. I wondered why he felt his talents weren’t worth my notice, but tactfully decided not to pursue the matter.
I opened the scroll he had handed me and was as surprised by its contents as by the artful sketch I had seen. I said, “Ah, I beg your pardon Crier Jeffith, but this isn’t the local news. It seems to be a list of some kind. It says ‘Portraits’ at the top, and there are half a dozen names …”
Jeffith turned red so quickly, I feared for his health. “Boy!” he shouted. “What did you do with that scroll?”
The shorter man hurried around the table and fumbled through the pile of scrolls. He looked at a few, then offered one to me, taking back the one I held out to him. He scurried back around to the other side of the table, an odd look on his face. He just stood there, his arms crossed in front of himself, and I began to understand.
It could just have been an honest mistake of shifting scrolls. So I would have believed, had Jeffith not taken the time to look at the first scroll before handing it to me. The only conclusion I could come to was that Jeffith, Densur’s town crier, could not read. His “boy”, this man who was nearly his own age, was his reader. From the way that man moved with shortened steps, and the way he held his hands crossed, I got the impression that he had once been a monk, which would explain his letters. I wondered whose son or cousin Jeffith was to secure a job he was incapable of fulfilling on his own.
I handed the two copies of my own news to the still-red Jeffith and pretended not to notice when the crier handed them to his apprentice immediately. I glanced at the scroll the former monk had handed me, noticing that it consisted of only a few items, the most important one being the wedding announcement of the son of the local baron, Baron Frasilk, to Baron Jaleit’s daughter, which would occur during Melrin. I recalled from the maps I had seen that Frasilk and Jaleit were adjacent to each other, but I didn’t know more than that.
Jeffith cleared his throat, then said, “You will be making today’s announcements, won’t you Bard Nakaz? The people are expecting it, as they always do.”
I replied, “Yes, I’d be happy to. It will give you a break from your duties, and perhaps allow you the opportunity to create another work of art.”
I didn’t look to see his reaction as I left. Right next to the door was a little platform reached by three steps, which I promptly climbed. This was where Jeffith normally made his announcements from, and everyone crowding into the market square knew what it meant that I was now standing there. They turned toward me and quieted down in anticipation.
As I looked out over a sizable portion of the population of Densur, I began crying the announcements I had carried from the royal court of Baranur. I may only be imagining the recollection of a brief glimpse of a bird flying upside down over the trees in the distance.
The Flying Pig’s taproom was noisy and crowded that evening, but there wasn’t a sour face in the whole place. The innkeeper was too busy behind his bar to bother me with attempts to ensure my comfort. His willowy wife walked by every so often and replaced the empty mug on my table with a full one, and when I asked for some dinner after my first round of songs, I got a plate so full of excellent stew that I simply couldn’t eat it all.
Ale and wine flowed freely, and as the night wore on these spirits made the townsfolk bold. Some took up their own instruments and bade fair to entertain their neighbors. Others attempted juggling with the inn’s tin mugs, or tossing knives at a target set up next to the large hearth at one end of the room. And some, once their courage was sufficiently stoked, came hesitantly to sit at my solitary table and seek my counsel.
The first of these was a young man, good looking, healthy, and very nervous. He introduced himself as Resh and asked if he could sit for a moment. I nodded and we sat together in silence for a bit, listening to a villager with more enthusiasm than talent bellow out a marching tune. I noticed that Resh winced almost as often as I did; the applause when it was over may well have been as much for its ending as its performance.
There was clearly something on Resh’s mind as he sat there across from me, running his finger up and down his tin mug. He cleared his throat twice and looked up at me once, but his question never won free of his shyness. Finally, in sympathy I asked, “Was there something you wanted to say, Resh?”
“Well, ah … I wondered, that is …” He paused, and took a deep breath. He set the mug down on the table and clasped both hands around it. Another deep breath, and he looked up into my face. “It’s like this, sir. I wondered if you could give me a hint of advice. My parents are farmers and as I’m their only child, I will inherit their land in time and be a farmer too. As it falls, I’m to be married at Melrin –”
I interrupted with, “You, too?”
Resh looked at me oddly, like I was a slow child, but presently realized that I was a stranger to these parts. “Oh, yes, I didn’t … we hold all of our marriages around here at Melrin. Always have.
“Now, where was … oh, straight. Well, our neighbors have four children, three boys and a girl, born a handful of years after their last son. Chare, their daughter, and I have known each other all our lives. We grew up together almost like relatives. Early on, our parents agreed that Chare and I would be wed, with a fine dowry coming to us from her parents, whose farm is very successful. My own parents have been counting on that dowry for years, borrowing money against it, making plans for improving what is to be my own inheritance upon their passing.
“I like Chare a great deal, but just recently I have been having … doubts. Last year I traveled with my father and Chare’s brothers to Luemik, the next town down the eastern road. Luemik is larger than Densur, and has a more widely attended market. We were taking our excess produce there to sell.
“I’ve been to Luemik before, but last year was different. I noticed how different Luemik was to Densur — the buildings, the customs, the people.” He blushed a bit, dipping his eyes from mine briefly, and clarified, “The women. One woman. Her name was Whilla, and she was … breathtaking. Exotic, exciting, so different from plain little Chare from next door. And she liked me. I met her at one of the taverns there, and she sat at my table for the whole night. We talked and talked, and I learned things about the world that I had never dreamed of. Whilla was a merchant’s daughter who had been traveling with the caravans for most of her life. She’s been to places I’ve never imagined, and done things that made my blood stir.
“We parted having traded nothing more than kisses and promises. She told me that she’ll be in Luemik this Melrin, and that if I want to experience the world, I should meet her there.” I could see the longing in his face as he contemplated the lure of what this Whilla offered. I knew what he would say next, as I had known where his story was leading almost since he had begun it.
He continued, “I don’t know what to do, sir. I don’t want to hurt Chare or my parents, but I don’t know what I might be giving up by not following where Whilla leads. There is so much out there, so much more to do than plow fields and reap the harvest. I was hoping you could give me the benefit of your experience in such matters.”
Resh looked at me expectantly. I could see what he hoped I would say, what he had come to me, a world-walking bard, to hear. I wondered how many others he had asked advice of, and how many had given him the advice I was about to.
“Resh, the world is a big place, full of wonders uncounted. What you may not know is that your own fields are just as full of wonders. Not only that, but that wide, wonderful world is also full of dangers the like of which you have also not heard.
“If this brief flirtation of yours last year is even remembered by your Whilla, and she indeed plans to be in Luemik at Melrin, there is no guarantee that she has not made the same promises to a score of young farmhands, and even taken those foolish enough to believe her away from the only life they’ve ever known. Like as not, she has also abandoned every one of those young farmhands in a foreign duchy to fend for themselves far away from home.”
I reached across the table to free the mangled tin mug from Resh’s gripping hands before he hurt himself on it. “What you are feeling right now is natural, Resh. You are seeing where your future lies, and you are making a last bid for freedom from what is best for you. You know Chare, and you know she would never hurt you, or leave you in a strange land. She will be a good wife to you, and you will be the best farmer in Densur with her by your side. Just make the right choice and stay here this Melrin. Marry Chare, settle down into your rightful future, and leave fantasies of Whilla where they belong.”
Resh had clasped his hands together once the mug was out of them, and he hung his head in defeat. I could have told him to seek out Whilla, or whatever caravan would hire him on. I could have encouraged his fears of settling down, and told him to take advantage of the opportunity to run away from them. I might have painted a very enticing picture of the adventure of traveling from place to place. In short, I could have told him only what he wanted to hear. But that would not have been honest or right. So I had told him the clear and plain truth; it was what he needed to hear.
I saw acceptance in his eyes as he rose from my table. He said, “Thank you, Bard Nakaz. I sought different advice from you, but I know that you are right. I will remember you at Melrin as I stand beside Chare and set my course for the future I belong to. Fare well.”
I watched the young man stride through the crowd and out the door. I hoped that he would listen to me as he had not, I was sure, listened to his father or his friends or even, perhaps, Chare’s own brothers. Our wisdom had surely all been the same; only my station made Resh truly listen to my words.
As I sat alone amidst the noise and bustle of the taproom, I found my thoughts turning to Shorel. She was a fellow bard, as well as a friend and lover. I imagined her sitting next to me, long brown hair shining in the light, her expressive brown eyes twinkling with merriment. I wondered whether Resh would have had the courage to approach our table with such a lovely woman present. I then wondered whether Shorel would have bewitched Resh even more than his Whilla had.
Another villager with more ale in her than talent got up in front of her friends and neighbors and played a love song on a lute that had seen better days, but which was at least in tune. After the first verse, a young man with a plain face and lank, black hair rose from his seat and joined her, and they sang the song to each other. The emotion in their eyes and voices drowned out their lack of talent.
I recalled similar duets with Shorel, and if the love that echoed between she and I did not quite match the utter devotion being sung at that moment, there was still a deep bond between us. Over the three years we had known each other, we had become very close. The last time we had seen each other had been the previous summer at the College of Bards in Magnus. I remembered our days together, singing, reading, laughing. I remembered our nights together, touching, holding, gasping. I remembered our parting, knowing we would see each other again, wishing each other safe journey.
As the last notes of the love song faded under rising applause, I suddenly wished she really was sitting next to me. Instead, all I had were my memories to keep me company. They would do; they always had.
A bit later in the evening, two men approached my table. They were either not at all shy, or in their cups enough not to care, for they sat down without asking my leave and began talking at once.
They were both thin and wiry, with weathered skin and strong-looking hands. The one on the right, a black-haired man with a pointed nose and a chin full of hair, said, “Greetings, bard. I’m Ablim, a farmer from south of Densur. This,” he gestured to his companion, a brown-haired man with bushy eyebrows and a very small moustache, “is Meack, my neighbor. We’ve got this problem –”
Meack spoke up with, “Straight, we’ve a problem! It’s our boundary stones. It’s no one’s fault –”
“No one’s, straight,” interrupted Ablim. “It was cows as pushed the fences over, but both of ourn, not his or mine.”
“And we put the fences back up, but the doing moved the stones.” Meack looked at me as if that was enough explanation for anyone to see the answer, but I didn’t even understand the question yet.
My silence prodded Ablim to continue, “We want to put things back right. We’ve been friends forever, and our families before us back even farther’n the first Othuldane. This is new land, divided from the neighbor between us when old Dorraw died childless, and we never got around to building proper boundary pillars, just marking the divide with some rocks.”
“Rocks as was easy to move. Too easy,” chimed in Meack.
“So, Bard Nakaz, we want you to fix it.”
I looked at Ablim as blankly as I had at the beginning. “How?” was all I could manage.
The farmers looked at each other in puzzlement, then back at me. “Why, can’t you just, you know …” started Ablim.
Meack finished, “Just remember. The records. It was all written down and sent away all proper and fit.”
Ablim added, “‘Twas before Jeffith was crier. Before we had a crier, three, four years ago. Bard came, wrote all down, took it to Othuldane. And now you’re here.”
It still took me several menes to come at their meaning, but only because the only possible conclusion was so ludicrous.
The most common idea of the function of a bard is entertainer. Our traveling nature makes it natural to ask us to bear news from place to place. But there is more to us than that. As we travel, we observe and record, but not just the great events, those things that end up comprising the kind of history that the children of nobles are taught in winter. Everything is noticed and remembered, all of the little events that make up the fabric of everyday life.
At times, we are called on to produce more formal documents, recording momentous events in the lives of citizens of Baranur and placing our seal on them to guarantee their authenticity: births, marriages, and deaths, inheritance duties, property changing hands, even less formal promises that need to be remembered.
These formal records are incomplete out of necessity, as there are not enough bards to be everywhere a birth or property-line alteration is happening. Of late, town criers have been assuming these duties in their areas of influence. They have the skill of letters and they are more reliably available locally than a wandering bard. I understand that some criers even undertake the delivering news between towns. I don’t begrudge this usurping of our duties, for it is a task that needs doing.
There are public archives at every ducal seat and one in Magnus as well. Archivists are employed to care for these records and ensure that they are available when required. Even so, it can sometimes be months between sending for a document and receiving it. Again, the system of town criers is beginning to alleviate that difficulty by storing records at their own level as well.
Somehow, Meack and Ablim believed that because bards were involved in making records, they were also somehow able to recall all records made, without that two month or more wait. I tried to fathom the reason why, but all I could manage was a recollection of how the ancient Fretheod skaldrics had kept the history of their empire in their memories, never writing it down. Once prompted by that memory, I was also able to recall legends from the early days of Baranur, when our bards did the same. We no longer were required to develop that skill; knowledge written down and stored away was never lost to an untimely death.
It was obvious that this ancient facility for memorization was still remembered here, but in a different form. I voiced my guess. “You think that I have all of the records in Baranur memorized?”
“You don’t?” the two chorused, clearly astonished.
I had a good memory, more for tunes than for words, but I doubted if even one of those legendary bards could have memorized every piece of parchment in Duke Othuldane’s cellars alone, much less the vaults of the entire kingdom.
I shook my head. “No, I’m afraid that we are no longer trained in that way. Even if I had ever seen the deeds to your lands, I could not recall them now. Not that I have, understand.”
The farmers were dismayed. “What shall we do, then?” asked Meack.
“We could, maybe, send someone to Othuldane …?” ventured Ablim.
“Or you could,” I said, “between the two of you, just agree on what you both think your boundary should be and have Jeffith record that and send it to the duke. That way, no one has to locate your original deeds, and there will be an official record of your new agreement. Perhaps you could dig proper pillar holes this time. And perhaps Jeffith could keep a copy of the deeds to hand in case your cows get rowdy again.”
The smiles on the faces of the two friends were priceless. They both thanked me profusely, and promised to name a whole generation of calves after me. They rose, chattering between themselves, and faded back into the crowd.
I lifted my mandolin and rose to take my place again before the hearth, ready to entertain the room as a whole. I reflected as I walked forward that it was amazing what some people believed bards capable of. Was it because we traveled? Was it because we could read and write? Or was it just because of legends, some of which we even promoted ourselves with our own songs and stories? I was sure I’d never know.
The next morning was clear and lovely, fine weather for leaving Densur. The innkeeper of the Flying Pig was as excessively complimentary that morning as he had been fawning the previous morning, standing next to me outside his establishment with me while I waited for my horse to be brought.
Riesta was led into the market square, well rested and fed, curried expertly, with all of her tack shining. My saddlebags had already been taken from my room and now rested on her back behind my saddle.
The innkeeper’s wife slipped out of the doorway around her husband and presented me with a bundle of food for the trail. I thanked her and stuffed the bundle into a saddlebag. Then I waved to the crowd that had gathered to see me on my way, noticing without surprise that it was much smaller than the one that had greeted my arrival. I mounted Riesta, settled myself into the saddle, and set out southward. I had been informed that Baron Frasilk’s keep was a good day’s journey in that direction.
I was soon amid a forest, traveling alone with only the wilderness of the woods to keep me company. I listened to the wind sighing through the branches, and likened it to the music of the trees. I heard the birds chirping all around me and the small rustlings of rodents in the brush at the verge of the road. I uncased my mandolin and started strumming, letting Riesta be guided by my knees and the clear trail before us. I harmonized with the wind, I accompanied the birds, I wrote themes for every rustle or beady set of eyes glimpsed between the leaves, all while I rode south.
Every blade of grass is different and every tree is unique. Still, it would be beyond the powers of even the greatest bard who ever lived to make every forest journey exciting and different. Dappled sunlight and cheerful-sounding birds never lose their magic for me, but it is a magic that must be experienced, not related.
Thus, let me just say that the morning and early afternoon passed without undue incident. I made my way south with not a thought on my mind apart from looking forward to visiting Baron Frasilk’s court.
The sun had not yet reached the halfway mark between its height and the horizon when I took a brief break. The clearing I stopped in cut deeply into the trees, and there was a stream at the back of it where I watered Riesta. About a hundred yards beyond the clearing, the path I had been following turned at an angle and vanished from view. As Riesta drank and I shook my legs out, I caught the sound of a galloping horse coming toward me from around that bend.
I walked back to the tree-fringed edge of the clearing and looked. Shortly, a figure came into view around the bend in the path. I recognized first the star-and-harp decoration on the horse’s tack. I recognized second that it was Shorel, my friend, lover and fellow bard, who rode the horse. I recognized third that Shorel was fleeing something as she looked over her shoulder and urged her horse to even greater speed.
I prepared to step out into into the road to aid her against what chased her. I waited only to see what form her pursuit took.
She had reached a point about halfway between the bend and the clearing when her pursuers appeared. Two men dressed like guards atop speeding horses rounded the curve. Both carried crossbows, which they must have fired as soon as they caught sight of their quarry again.
I didn’t see the bolts strike Shorel. I only saw her rise up in her stirrups, a look of pain crumpling her face. As she sagged, I saw her fling something into the woods, a staff of some kind. The momentum of her swing caused her to lose her balance, and she fell from her horse.
She lay sprawled in the middle of the path, two crossbow bolts sticking out of her back, her leg at an unnatural angle, utterly unmoving. I stared, stunned, right into her open and sightless eyes.
Where are the omens when you need them?