Chapter 4 is presented below, to be discussed later. Music has often been a part of fantasy stories, and The First Proving is no exception. The tales sung by the Bards in these stories form a critical part of the overall arc of The Tome of Greystone. This chapter introduces an important Bard via a live performance in The Galleon.
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The Bard threw back her cloak to reveal long blonde hair pulled back into a tail and a young, flawless face. Her eyes were a deep, sky blue, and her expression was warm yet serious as she surveyed the quickly calming room. She wore a jet-black dress that faded into the black inner lining of her scarlet outer cloak, hiding her figure completely.
Max and Varix leaned back and refocused their attention on their tankards, but Brien was obviously struck by the woman’s beauty. Max had never understood why almost every Bard was a breathtaking beauty. He wondered if they just never took ugly women for apprentices! But that seemed too simple an answer.
She produced a lyron from the dark folds of her cloak, and surveyed the room as she ran her fingers along the multi-length and multi-colored strands of the guitar-like instrument.
“I am My, Bard of Greystone, and I would like to thank Perry and Verlin Galleon for their hospitality tonight”, she announced in a crystal clear, almost sing-song voice that carried easily down the long tavern room.
“By the Caroc!!” Brien whispered urgently to his table mates. “I’ve heard of her!”
“Of course you have, Bri,” laughed Max. “And why do I expect that what you heard started with a description of her looks and not her voice, eh?”
Brien snorted dismissively, then grinned as he leaned back in his chair and drank. “She’s an up-and-coming star! The absolute talk of the town all around the Prior, I’ve heard. What a treat, boys. Could this day get any better?”
“And if it pleases the Galleons and the fighting men of the Pathwatch,” the Bard continued, “I would count it a boon to present you with a few tales this night.”
At this the entire crowd erupted in cheers and applause, clanging their tankards on the tables in delight. It was a rare pleasure to enjoy the performance of a trained bard without having to pay an entrance fee of several weight of silver – at least. Serving girls and busboys worked their way through the crowd with stools, mounting them to douse about half of the hanging marsh-oil lamps.
The bard bowed her head in acceptance, then raised a single pale hand that quickly quieted the excited crowd. Strumming her silvery lyron, she filled the long, dim room with an echoing cascade of chords and began to sing.
Max had heard many Bard’s perform before, but he could tell from her first notes that My was truly something special. The crowd all managed to find seats, even resorting to sitting on tables and on the floor in some cases, and almost all chatter faded away as complex strains of music from the lyron began to merge with her strong, high voice. The instrument’s overlapping chords and bright, staccato notes belied the apparently simple movements of her hands. Her eyes were closed, and she swayed gently to the rhythm.
Long ago, in the highland hills, there arose beautiful sisters seven,
Strong of mind and firm of will, they prospered all they put their hand in,
The eldest and by far most fair, was Lady Erissa of the Rose,
Wisdom fell from her like rain, and truth like winter snows.
Max found himself entranced by the bard’s powerful voice. It was the timeless “Tale of Erissa and Tyrol”, a classic this side of theBlack mountainsif ever there was one. Max had heard this story maybe a hundred times in his younger days. Growing up in the shadow of Greystone Castle and having an uncle who was one of the five Dukes of Greystone had its privileges, not the least of which was having easy access to the performances of the finest Bards in the known Land when they came to perform in Greystone City. It was tales like these that had excited him so very much when he was a child, filling his mind with visions of knights and nobles and romantic acts of courage. He took a long pull at his mug, then leaned back in his chair and drank in the song.
Riding forth on a mighty steed came Prince Tyrol the Great,
His mighty men destroyed the siege and sealed the Xerits fate,
But Tyrol won much more that day… he captured Erissa’s heart,
And he in turn was smitten with love, and promised they’d never part.
Despite the wonderful mood in the room, however, and the note-perfect retelling of one of his favorite tales, Max could not help but feel troubled. Var’s words were far too piercing, and his revelation was even more bothersome. Max had gone to great lengths to make sure that his strange… talents… were never too obvious. In truth, most of the time it wasn’t even an issue. When he was spending time inGreystoneCitywith his father and mother, or hanging out with Brien in Chase or Quin Hollow when they were off Pathwatch duty, he never had to pay much attention. It was whenever the pressure built, whenever fighting or training or scared, that was when all of the images and thoughts would come flooding into his mind unbidden. It didn’t bother him in the least; he knew that the flashes of images had either saved his life or at least saved him from injuries on a number of occasions. Or, as in tonight’s case, saved him from a beer-bath. He tried not to think about it most of the time, but Varix’ comments really caught him off guard.
And yet, Max wasn’t surprised. He knew that Varix was somehow… different. He knew that Var couldn’t be hurt by a sword or a knife. In fact, he had the distinct feeling that just about no weapon could hurt him. But thinking that, as crazy as it was, was one thing; having Varix confirm that it was actually true was another matter entirely! What did it mean?
Max shook himself out of his reverie as the song neared its conclusion. He had already missed several verses as he pondered Varix’ words.
So Erissa agreed to the bargain, fearing for Tyrol’s life,
Donning the shroud of the Oracle, she traded away her sight,
She saw the secret tunnels deep where the Overlord lay in wait,
Then passing word to Tyrol’s troops, she sealed the invaders’ fate.
Once upon a time Max would simply listen to such a song and enjoy the rhythm and harmony, paying little heed to the age-old words. But now he found himself thinking about oracles, and dark, magical overlords with their armies of fire. Tales for children, of course… to be enjoyed by candlelight on a mid-summers eve, no more. Or were they? If Varix couldn’t be cut by a sword, and if Max himself could – well, if he could hear people thinking sometimes, and even see what they were about to do before they did it, then maybe oracles and evil magicians really DID exist. Who was he to say otherwise?
Then Tyrol did discover the hidden secret of the shroud,
While any could choose to don the wrap, removal was not allowed,
He lamented Erissa’s blindness with tears on every breath,
Giving honor to the sacrifice that had saved them all from death.
Max noticed that both Brien and Varix were sitting up and leaning forward in interest as the song reached its conclusion. He glanced at Brien, catching the faraway expression on his face, and realized that it wasn’t only Varix that triggered strange thoughts in his head. There was something odd about Brien too, but it was much less obvious. Where with Var he got a sense of hardness and impenetrability, from Brien came a feeling of… distance. As if he wasn’t always really there. It wasn’t a consistent feeling. It came and went depending on where they were and what they were doing. But right at that moment, despite the fact the he was looking right at his friend of nearly 15 years, he would have given all of his weights of silver and gold on a wager that Brien was not – really – there. Max had never felt anything like it from anyone else. Now, though, given Varix’ direct comments, he felt that he could at least bring up the admittedly strange topic. He returned his attention to the singer standing and swaying on the bar-top.
In sorrow deep did the sisters six learn of Erissa’s plight,
And six daggers slid free, one for each, in the glow of firelight,
Since their sister fair had given her sight in the name love and life,
Then at blade’s point they too would be blind, to join fair Erissa’s strife.
Then came waves of soaring major chords building to a crescendo as the song’s finale began. It told of the appearance of the Creator himself as he stopped the six sisters of Erissa from blinding themselves in their sorrow, and how he then restored Erissa’s sight. That also gave Max pause. What of the Creator? Could he also be real? Max shook his head again, turning to reach for his ale as the young bard brought the tale to a close.
But then he froze in place, his eyes going wide.
Brien was gone.
The Galleon was nearly silent except for the final strains of music drifting from the bard’s lyron. No one had moved. There was almost no ROOM for anyone to move. If Brien had stood up and tried to leave, there was no way Max could have missed it. And yet his chair was empty.
Varix didn’t appear to have noticed, since he was facing almost away from Brien’s position at the far end of their small four-seater table. And in the dim light, Max doubted if anyone else could have noticed a single man in a dark cloak moving about.
An eruption of applause made Max jump nearly out of his skin. The song was over, and the throng was rising to their feet to make their appreciation known with clapping and cheers. Max kept his eyes on the empty chair, and a moment later he was glad he had. Suddenly, Brien was back.
He appeared out of thin air, already in motion as he rose out of his chair to join in the applause. He was smiling broadly, clearly enamored with both performance and the performer. Varix turned to Brien and nodded as the applause continued, then they both turned to Max – still sitting in his chair. They both threw him questioning glances.
Max quickly stood up and joined the ovation, trying hard to remove the look of shock and horror that had settled on his face. He glanced back at Brien again as the applause finally trailed off. Brien caught the look and furrowed his brow. “What?” he mouthed silently above the din. Max turned away.
With a few final yells and hoots, the crowd returned to their seats. Max fervently waved for another round of ale as My the bard re-tuned her lyron for the next song.
“Brien…” Max began, then stopped as a young server shoved her way over and slid three new tankards across the table. Max grabbed his and nearly drained it one long pull.
“So… during the finale of Erissa andTyrol…” Max started again, then paused. He was hoping that Brien would jump in with a handy explanation for his disappearing act.
No such luck. “Yeah?” Brien replied, drinking and staring towards My on the bar-top. Varix was looking at Max with a furrowed brow, apparently having caught on to the nervousness in his tone.
“During the finale… where did you go?” Max concluded finally.
“Go? What do you mean where did I go?” Brien glanced at Varix in confusion.
“So… you didn’t, I don’t know, get up, or slide down under the table, or run to the privy, or anything?” Max looked down at the table as he spoke, not catching either of his friend’s eyes.
Brien just stared back for a moment, then just shook his head.
“Max,” said Varix, “are you sure you saw – whatever you saw?”
Max just nodded.
“Do you think maybe it was related to the strange events we were just talking about?”
Max looked up at them both, trying to figure out what to say. He took a deep breath, and thought to himself that perhaps dementia was simply settling in at age twenty Summers in his case. Time to change the subject, he thought, again lifting his tankard.
“The funny thing is,” Brien interrupted before Max could speak. It was his turn to look down into his ale instead of catching anyone’s eyes. “While I didn’t even move a muscle… I kind of felt like I was gone for a few seconds there…”
Max looked up sharply, eyes wide. “Go on, Bri,” he said slowly.
“Hmmm… it’s funny, guys. I don’t have anything going on like you two apparently do…” here he arched his eyebrows at both Max and Varix, “but sometimes, I could almost swear that I… well, am somewhere else.” His voice got quieter as he finished, as he seemed to realize how what he was saying probably sounded.
“So… well…” Max leaned forward, impatiently waiting for more. “So, uhhh…”
Brien sighed. “I don’t know where. Usually no place… real. I see places and things that often make no sense at all. During the battle earlier today, and even in training sometimes, you know how I can be. Distracted. Kind of absent. Yet still able to focus and hold my own with a sword.”
“That’s an understatement, Brien, and you know it,” Max cut in. “Yeah, you have always been a daydreamer, but I don’t think there’s a man here who can best you with a sword.”
Brien grinned at the compliment. “Sure, but what you don’t know is that I do my best fighting when I am barely paying attention,” he said, again looking away. He took a deep breath, then continued.
“I see a land of white clouds and winds, Max. Soaring lights above and below. Cool breezes on a warm summer night. It’s calm. It’s peaceful. It’s… well, it’s beautiful.”
Brien took a long drink as once again the music of the lyron filled the Galleon. Max glanced at Varix, who sat stone-faced as he listened to Brien. Max leaned further forward. “Go on, Bri,” he urged.
“I don’t know what it is,” Brien continued, turning to look at My as she strummed a fast, flowing rhythm that was nearly a dance tune. The gathered soldiers and townsfolk began to tap their feet to the rhythm in the crowded room. “But I can tell you that I have been dreaming about this place since… well, since I can remember.” He paused again, then looked Max in the eye. “I feel like I am almost there sometimes. Like I am standing in those clouds. That’s what I felt during the end of Erissa andTyrol.” He paused. “But then it ended, the applause snapped me out of it, and I stood and clapped like everyone else.”
Then the music slowed, and changed key, dropping into the familiar strains of “The First Venture”, a crowd-pleaser among the ranks of the Grey Shields and the Pathwatch. The audience applauded again and smiles broke all around as she began the first verse of the Greystone warrior’s anthem. My’s crystalline voice rang out over the din as the strums of her lyron took on a martial, drum like cadence.
Into the Black we march,
Brothers all, the fearless few,
To prove our might by sword and shield,
By the light of the first Spring moon.
Into the Black we charge,
Warriors all, the mighty ones,
To prove our worth by bow and staff,
By the light of the Winter sun.
The verses went on to describe the first mighty men of the kingdom, in the days of King Thorien the Liberator, and how they were charged with the task of venturing into the foothills of theBlack Mountainsto the west. Their mission was to return with the head of one of the many dread beasts that inhabited those lands as proof of their courage, strength, and skill. Or to not return at all. The men who succeeded were crowned Knights Royal, and given charge of the defense of the outer realms of old Greystone. The tradition endured for generations, eventually being referred to simply as “Venture”, and continued to the present day. Except of course that the fearsome foothills were now called theHighlandsand were filled with the mining towns and growing cities of Jesserin Duchy. Modern Venturers had to trek much further westward now, into the peaks of the Black themselves.
But the reward remained the same despite the passing of several centuries. Men who succeeded on their Venture and brought their proof back with them to Greystone City were celebrated and praised for their efforts, summarily granted knighthood, then assigned to one of the five duchies as a knight commander. Never again would such a person worry about weights of gold or silver, or be forced to work for pay. Knights lived like royalty, answering only to the Dukes, the Conclave, and the throne itself.
Within the hearts of the people,
We’ll live while we serve the throne,
Toasted and praised to the end of days,
The Knights of old Greystone!
Every man of the Pathwatch, Max, Brien, and Varix included, was on their feet and singing their hearts out for the triumphant last chorus, as was tradition. At the word “knights”, every tankard crashed into another three or four near it for a clanging toast to the champions of old. Then at the end of the verse, every mug was drained in unison followed by an ear-numbing roar of cheers and applause.
Max was smiling despite himself as he sat back down, having momentarily forgotten all about the conversations with his friends. Thoughts of Venture once again fought their way to the surface of his thoughts. No less than five times this month groups of men in Captain Britness’ command had announced their intention to register for this Spring’s Venture. All of them were twenty Summers old as the law required, as was Max. He knew that Brien and maybe even Varix had been thinking about declaring for Venture, but none of them had yet mentioned it. Max himself felt unsure about the whole thing. In a good year, only one in five survived their time in theBlack Mountains. And only one in ten or twenty defeated a beast and became knights.
Once again, My the bard was re-tuning. As if on cue, the servers came flooding out of the rear kitchens with tray after tray of roast hams, sides of beef, and fresh baked bread. Max was shocked, and his friends’ faces reflected the same disbelief. For a small town like Gilston to have food supplies this vast was amazing. Max couldn’t help but begin to keep a mental tally of how many hundred weight of silver this much meat was going to cost them all.
“Attention, Attention, gentlemen and women all,” came My’s sharp voice, silencing the room quickly. “Your hosts here at the Galleon are as gracious as they are kind. Due to your heroic efforts, the meal being set before you is free of charge!”
The roar that followed that pronouncement made all of the others seem like a gentle cheer.
The three friends did not speak as they ate steaming hot slices of roast beef, warm, buttered bread, and chased it all with wide clay mugs of cold water. They each seemed to be lost in their own thoughts. My had placed a seat on the top of the bar and begun playing a series of smooth dining tunes, humming rhythmically in a way that somehow still managed to fill the room of dining men and women. The tune sounded like “The War of Eight Kingdoms”, but was more soothing than sad. Max realized that he was enjoying this simple meal far more than any he could remember, all because of this amazing bard’s skills.
It was maybe twenty minutes later when My again began re-tuning, and Max had just finished his large plate. He looked up sharply at Brien and Varix, having reached a decision. Strangely, he saw that both men were already looking at him.
“Brien, Var, I have something to say,” Max began seriously, just loud enough for them to hear.
But at that moment, the music began anew, and all eyes turned back to the beautiful bard. It was one of Max’ all-time favorite stories, and had been since he was a small child; “The Legend of the Jindal Knights”. He smiled broadly, and turned to see that both Brien and Varix were as well. They exchanged a quick glance between them, one that seemed to say, we’ll talk after the song is over…, and all turned toward the singer. Slow, melodic, and powerful, My’s voice held the crowd entranced as she sang the traditional introduction to the song.
The day will come when all men’s hearts are tested,
By the clarion call of selfish gain over love.
The hour will come when the last sun’s rays have faded,
When corruptions heart descends on the land from above.
A moment will come when the Lords of the Land will fall,
At the clarion call to war that none can refuse.
An instant will come when the verdant moon sees all,
When all mankind must search their hearts and choose.
Max, despite his perfect familiarity with the song that his mother used to sing to him in his cradle, hung on every word. A server brought him another mug of ale as he settled back in his chair to listen to the re-telling. The fanciful tale described how a group of mysterious, silver-armored knights helped to unite the lands between the mountains and the sea three hundred years ago. The tales claimed that the Jindals, who never lifted their visors or gave their names, were invincible, and that they chose young Gil Thorien to be the first King of a united Greystone. Max had never given much thought to the somber introduction before, but this time he couldn’t help but notice that it didn’t really mesh well with the heroic, upbeat style of the rest of the song.
Then all musings stopped as his mind’s eye exploded with a vision of flames and heat–
— Of a torch being lowered to the base of a wall soaked with marsh-oil.
— Of a balding, toothless man grinning with greedy delight as he ran for the stables behind the Galleon— where a tall, imposing looking man in black stood in the shadows wearing a shimmering, silver cloak.
“Var, Bri!” Max yelled, spinning his head from the front of the room to the rear and back again, eyes wild with fright. Several nearby soldiers turned their way at the sound of Max’s panic.
Max stood up, fast, knocking over his chair with a crash. The music stopped. Everyone turned toward Max.
Then, with a vast roar, the entire front wall of the Galleon erupted in flames.
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Thanks for reading!