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|Have you ever noticed that bards are never really the Hero in any of the great sagas or stories? Well, some of the people who wrote the songs and things about the heroes came to unpleasant ends. I let myself take that road with this story and show the person really responsible for defeating the warlord.||
The music drifted over the hills. Heather followed the sound away from the tiny village into the hills near the lord’s castle. It stopped near dawn and only then did Heather realize she was lost.
Cursing herself for a fool, she found a place to sit down. There was only one road going through these hills and no landmarks. It would take years of training to learn to navigate by the stars to find the way out, training she did not have.
She railed at herself. “Anybody else would have just stopped to listen or gone about their work. Not me! Oh, no, not me. I had to follow the music away from the village.” Disgusted with herself, she sat and waited for her family to realize she was gone.
As she waited, her mind wandered. She’d only ever been away from the village once before and that once had been enough. Thirteen years earlier, she had gone to audition for the bardic college in Westview, two days away from the village. She’d passed every test with the highest marks, except the last. They’d spent hours on the final test and she’d known she’d failed when the head of the panel had shook his head and uttered two words; “tone deaf.” They sent her home, returning the tuition her parents had sent with her. At twelve years of age, her heart had been broken. Ever since, creating music had been painful. The music last night had been so beautiful; she had to find it.
The sun marched on and no one came looking for her. She wasn’t worried. She couldn’t have gone very far during the night. When night fell, the music started again.
She had to find the source. Any thought of a rescue party fell aside before that perfect sound. A few rises away from where she had spent the day, a picnic was laid out with a note on the blanket. Her stomach reminded her that she hadn’t eaten in over a day. Heather picked up the note and read it twice.
Help yourself and take the blanket with you.
Something about the signature nagged at her but she was too ravenous to be overly concerned. Everything in front of her was delicious and she never had to refill the glass of water. As she finished off a plate it disappeared so that all she was left with was the cup and the blanket. When she picked up the blanket the cup disappeared as well.
She walked through the night. The music stopped at dawn. Exhausted, Heather wrapped up in the blanket and slept until dusk. The music started again just as the sun disappeared and another meal was laid out. Heather followed the music to the woods beyond the hills. Just before dawn, she came to a house. A man was sitting on the railing around the front porch playing a violin. When he noticed her approaching, he stopped.
“It took you long enough to get here,” the man smiled and jumped off the railing.
“You were waiting for me? It took me three nights to walk here. I shouldn’t have been able to hear you from that far away.”
“Honey, I’ve been waiting for you for thirteen years.” He stuck his hand out to her. “My name’s Christopher.”
“Thirteen years?” She took his hand absently. “But you don’t look much older than I am.”
“I never will, either.” He pumped her arm up and down then threw his other arm about her shoulders and gently guided her into the house. “I was supposed to be your mentor at the college but nobody counted on that pompous ass declaring you tone deaf.”
“What do you mean?” Heather looked around the house. The floors were sanded wood with large rag rugs and there were shelves everywhere with interesting bits on them; broken bits of swords, oddly cured leather and parts of antique armor. “I couldn’t keep a pitch once I hit it.”
“Honey, you hit every pitch they threw at you and that made him angry.” Christopher led her down a hallway. “You hit every note. Didn’t you notice when he asked you to sing a chord? No one should be able to sing every note in a chord at the same time. No, you were a marvel and dangerous to him and he knew it. Even being tone deaf, your marks were high enough on every other test to get you in with scholarships.”
“Why was I disqualified?”
“Stupid ambition for a prize that’s given every five years.” Christopher opened a door and gave her a gentle push into the room. “This will be your room. I know you’re tired. Get some sleep and I’ll come get you for breakfast. There should be some clothes for you in the trunk.”
“Wait,” Heather grabbed Christopher before he could close the door. “What do you mean my room?”
“This is where you’ll sleep for the duration of your stay which, thanks to that pompous ass, will be a little under a year.” Christopher closed the door quickly and she could hear his footsteps move quickly down the hallway.
Heather sat down heavily on the bed. Not really sure she understood everything Christopher had said she focused on two things. There were fresh clothes in the trunk. How would he know what size clothes she would wear? She should have gotten into the bardic college! Thirteen years of misery seemed to lift off her shoulders. Her heart much lighter, she stood up to look for a nightgown in the trunk.
A knock on the door jolted her awake and for a moment she thought she was in her bed in her parents home. Memories of the last three nights flooded back to her. She grabbed the dressing gown from the back of the door and pulled in on as she opened the door.
“Ready for breakfast?” Christopher smiled at her.
“Give me a moment to get ready.” Heather smiled back up at him.
“Sure, there’s water in the pitcher. Follow the hallway and your nose to the kitchen and breakfast will be ready.”
Heather got ready and nearly ran to the kitchen. Christopher was flipping a piece of ham onto a plate with eggs and toast already on it.
“That hungry?” He put the plate in front of her as she seated herself at the table.
“Not quite,” she picked up the cutler and started to cut into the ham. “You were holding out on me last night.”
“I assure you, you have all the clothes in your side in that trunk.” He cracked two more eggs into the skillet.
“That’s not what I meant and you know it.” She ate a bite of ham and wondered why she felt so comfortable around Christopher. “Was I really good enough to get into the bardic college?”
“Honey, even with being pronounced tone deaf, you got the highest marks on those tests since the college opened.” He flipped the eggs onto a new plate and put a piece of ham into the skillet. “You should have been one of the most famous musicians in the world by now.”
“What really happened? Why did they send me home?” Heather was steadily working her way through her breakfast.
“You remember the head of the panel? I mean, really remember him?”
“Yeah, he looked angry, angrier every time I saw him.”
“Well, that was all your fault. He was a child prodigy when he applied to the college with amazing vocals. As happens with boys, his voice changed while he was studying at the college.”
“What’s so bad about that? It may have taken a while for his voice to settle but he could have worked strictly on instrumentals until it did.”
“That’s what he did. While he was waiting for it to settle, the king sponsored the first music contest.”
“Which he missed,” Heather pushed the empty plate away.
“That year and every year after for one reason or another.” Christopher put the other plate in front of her. “There was going to be another one a year after you would have been admitted and he wasn’t going to take the chance that he would lose after all the years he had missed. You were the only person he had seen who he thought could be him. So, he broke you. You were so young; he knew that if he killed your hope that day, you’d never come back. Bastard.” Christopher forced his fists open. “He killed your dream that day and he almost killed a whole country because of it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Honey, you’re going to have to take a lot on faith and just trust that I know what I’m about to say. I got my information from the highest source and I would never joke about what I’m going to say.” He took a deep breath and raked his hands through his long blonde hair. “The lord that lives near your little village has been provoking his neighbors.”
“Duncan’s been starving his tenants as well.”
“He’s been building up for a conflict for the last ten years. He has more men at arms than anybody knows. Part of your journeyman tour would have brought you that information. You would have started writing satiric songs. When the neighboring lords invade they will do one of two things. They will pillage the surrounding countryside, believing the people are voluntarily supporting their lord or they will bypass them entirely, gaining their support when they find out they’re getting rid of Duncan.”
“There’s a big difference between those two choices, Christopher.”
“The difference is you, honey.”
Heather put her fork down and leaned back. “How, exactly, am I supposed to do that?”
“You’re going to do what you do best. What your heart has been crying out to do for the last thirteen years. You’re going to create and perform.”
She gulped. “It’s not everyday a person gets handed their dreams, Christopher. How long do I have?”
“A little less than a year until the invasion starts.”
“That’s not very long.”
“Like I said, you should have had thirteen years to build up to this, honey.”
Heather stood up and started pacing. “Why do you keep calling me ‘honey’?”
Christopher smothered a grin. “I’ve been calling you that for thirteen years. The description I was given of you was ‘five foot six, green eyes, honey colored hair and a tendency to fidget in public and pace in private.’ They didn’t tell me you’d never grow another inch.”
“What else were you told?” Heather grumbled under her breath. “Size elitist.”
“I got a warning of sorts and they told me what my reward would be if we succeeded.” His grin burst onto his face. “I have to admit, it’s the reward that intrigued me. They always give something useful and I couldn’t think of a situation where this gift would be useful, at least, not to me.”
“What is it?”
“If you learn quickly, I’ll tell you in a year.” He cleared the table and put everything in a sink then wiped his hands on a towel. “Are you ready?”
“Yes, alright, where do we start?” Heather stopped in front of him.
“Follow me,” Christopher led her down another hallway to a door. He was a bit worried about the warning he’d received that morning. It expanded on the one he’d received thirteen years earlier. “We’ll hustle through the basics. You know most of them already and what you don’t know you’ll pick up fast enough. We’ll only touch on theory as it applies right now, we can cover more of that later, after all this, if you like but we’re going to focus on your voice projection and you’re going to learn an instrument.” He opened the door.
The room was enormous. The wood floor was polished until it shined. Instruments of every description filled the room. Heather could feel tears welling up in her eyes.
“Alright, honey, let’s review. Start with the scales.” Christopher started grilling her on everything she knew, filling in the blanks of what she knew as they went and didn’t stop until her stomach started growling.
“Lunch break,” he smiled, satisfied with the progress they’d made. He led the way back to the kitchen.
Lunch was laid out on the kitchen table. “Are there other people here?” Heather asked.
“No, why do you ask?”
“Well, we’ve been working all morning, how did this get here?”
“It’s the house,” Christopher served himself some lunch.
“Yeah, it’s one of those perks that comes with the position.”
“Don’t tell me you didn’t recognize the signature.”
“I’ve been thinking about that since I saw it. Isn’t that who people say the great sagas were written by? And some of the more recent heroic ballads.”
“That’s right. Does that mean anything to you?”
“I always thought it was a clever way to say nobody really knows who wrote it.”
“That’s what it’s become but it started as the signature of the bard who’d written all the early sagas.”
“All of them? But some of those sagas were written several hundred years apart. And the one thing everyone agrees on is that the bards were all human. The same person couldn’t have written them all. He would have died after the first one. Especially the way the first one ended.”
“So you’re familiar with the Hero’s Cycle?”
“Isn’t everybody? I thought everybody had to learn the Cycle.”
is supposed to learn the Cycle but that doesn’t mean that they commit all the
details to memory.”
“I was going to the bardic college, remember? I wanted to be prepared.”
“All right, so you’re familiar with the Hero Cycle. Now, let me fill you in on some of the things that are never put into the sagas.” Christopher sat back from the table. “There is always a bard with the heroes, right? How else would the sagas get written? But do you remember anything about what the bard does?”
“Well, no, not really. I mean, in most of the other sagas, the bard makes some mention of what he was doing with the heroes.”
“But not in the Hero Cycle.”
“Why is that?”
“The Hero Cycle is more than just a series of saga’s. Have you noticed how all of the Heroes worship different gods? There’s a reason for that.” Christopher leaned forward.
“I just figured they were being used as examples of good worshipers of the different gods. You know, how to literally take up the fight of good versus evil.”
“Well, they have become that but what happens to the bodies at the end of every saga?”
“Everyone assumes they’re destroyed, the endings do tend to be bloody or, hmm, explosive.”
“But no great funerals?”
“No, not one.” A frown settled on Heather’s face. “Why didn’t I notice that before?”
“Because everybody makes a point to not point it out.” Christopher grinned across the table at her. “Would you like to know the answer? Why The Musicmaker makes a point of leaving out the funeral?”
“It’s very simple really. There wasn’t one. The Musicmaker was the same bard for all of the sagas. All the great Heroes had there own powers, speed, strength, a magic sword. The Musicmaker was the original hero. His gift was that he could never die. There were no funerals because The Musicmaker did his job. By saving the Hero, he made them immortal.”
“What do you mean he couldn’t die? Everybody has to die.”
“Not when you’re the First Hero.”
“What do you mean? Is Hero some kind of title?”
“Now you’re catching on.” Christopher stood up. “Ready for more music?”
“But, wait a minute Christopher, don’t do that!” Heather followed him into the hall. “You’re leaving off some vital information here.”
“No I’m not, I’m continuing your music lessons.” He reached the music room and made his way to the wall.
“You can’t just give me a little information and refuse to elaborate.”
“Honey, I can do just that. Now, you have a choice, you can learn the harp or the lute. Personally, I’d learn the lute, you can get the basics down faster and it can go with you everywhere.” He plucked a lute off the wall and began to tune it.
“Yeah, the lute’s fine.” Heather almost stamped her foot in frustration. “Dammit, Christopher. I need more information.”
“And you shall have it, we do have some time for you to learn your place and mine in all this.” Christopher handed her the lute. “But now it’s time for more music lessons.”
Heather harrumphed and took the lute. “Now, watch closely, you put your fingers on the frets here…” The lesson continued on, Christopher positioning her fingers for the most basic chords. Dinner went much like lunch. After dinner, Christopher insisted Heather practice and went to one of the two other rooms in the house. It was the only one with a locked door.
Heather practiced until she grew tired. She made her way back to her room and found a steaming bath waiting there for her. After bathing, she found herself falling wearily into her bed. She didn’t even remember pulling the blankets on after her.
The days fell into a pattern that greatly resembled the first one. Heather proved to be a very adept student and Christopher found himself worrying more and more about that the meaning of the warning he kept getting had more to do with his reward than he had thought at first. His “contact” had warned him that, after she had matured, the relationship would become personal. The longer he spent with Heather, the more he found he liked her. She had a very perverse sense of humor and an appreciation of the absurd that resonated with him. Christopher had already admired her for her willingness to face the situation he had thrown on her, despite the compulsion in the song from the first night, and her fearless attitude in picking up the pieces after her dreams had been smashed. He had a feeling he knew just how personal the relationship was going to get. He also knew that bards never got to be the Hero.
She learned quickly. Instead of the six months he thought it would have taken her, it took three. The songs she had to create simply rolled off the strings of her lute and out of her head. It took longer to commit them to paper than to create them.
“Honey,” Christopher stopped her lessons one day. “I think we need to work on stage presence.” He took a deep breath. “And then you’ll be ready.”
“Ready? But I thought it was going to take half my time here to get ready.” She didn’t want to be ready yet. Heather had grown to love Christopher and enjoyed being with him in the house. Once she was ready, she would have to leave him, unless he was willing to go with her.
“So did I, but,” he smiled ruefully, “ you proved to be a better student than I had ever wished for.”
“Well, thank you, I guess.”
“Oh, don’t even think that you’re through learning,” Christopher held up a finger. “You’re just ready to go out and perform. There is a lot you still need to learn and I’ll be going with you to see that you learn it.”
Her face brightened and she nodded. “All right, stage presence. Where do we start?”
He smiled. “I have a gift for you to start with. Come with me.” He grabbed her hand and pulled her to his room. “Close your eyes and hold out your arms.”
When she had complied, he opened the door to his room and grabbed a package off the bed. He placed it gently in her arms and told her she could open her eyes. Christopher smiled as she tore into the wrapping and held up a gauzy, shimmery dress that exactly matched the color of her eyes.
“Oh, Christopher, it’s beautiful!” She held it up to herself and twirled around. “Thank you so much.” She kissed him quickly on the lips and then stopped. Realizing what she had done, Heather lifted her fingers to her mouth and began to stammer out an apology.
Still smiling, Christopher returned the kiss and said, “Don’t apologize, I accept it as my just reward for pleasing you with a gift. It was gracefully given and dutifully appreciated. Now, return to the practice room and we’ll work on your presentation. Incidentally, you haven’t given any thought to a stage name, have you? Some of your songs are going to get back to Duncan and your family lives very close to his castle. He won’t be able to find you and we wouldn’t want him to hurt your family.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Heather draped the dress over a chair in the room. “I guess I’ll just go by Honey, I’ve gotten used to answering to that.”
“I knew I was brilliant. Now, to work.”
Christopher managed to draw out her rehearsals for another fortnight but his contacts eventually gave him the shove out the door, literally. They both woke up one morning on the ground in the woods with packed bags lying next to them and a donkey covered with supplies. The front door to the house had disappeared.
A sense of foreboding descended on Heather, she was sure she would never see the interior of the house again. “Well, that was a bit rude.”
“It would seem that the house’s owner has decided that it’s time we were on our way,” Christopher picked up his bag and walked over to the donkey.
“I thought you owned the house.” Heather picked up her own bag and followed Christopher.
“No, I’m required to use the house as a base of operations occasionally but it belongs to Melody.” He smiled. “She’s older than I am and a finer musician than either of us will ever be. I have my suspicions about her true identity but, well, it never helps to try and uncover someone’s identity when they are more powerful than you, especially when doing so could very well anger a god or two.”
“Melody has friends in high places.”
The bard known as Honey began her journeys on a road that appeared in the forest. There were never any forks in it but that did not surprise her or Christopher. Her mission had been handed to her and it seemed that when a higher power truly wished to put someone on the correct path, they could do it quite literally. The road took them through small villages and to enormous castles.
It took longer than Christopher had thought for the assassins to begin looking for Honey. Duncan had heard her songs right away and some of the little villages they had passed through early on belonged to him. Her songs did more than raise awareness about Duncan; they propelled the people in the villages to action. No longer was Duncan able to simply demand things beyond his right. His people demanded compensation and he was finding it difficult to keep the nature of his build up of arms a secret. The road before them took them through a circuitous enough route that the assassins were having trouble guessing where they would be next. People were dispensed to every village, town and city within a weeks ride of Duncan’s castle with wizards to send the word should she be found.
Heather knew they would be coming and even knew they were there but Christopher seemed to always be one step ahead of them. When she asked how he could know some of the things he did, he would go very still and look at her sadly and say, “It’s my job.”
The relationship between Christopher and Heather deepened to the degree that Christopher had feared and he was dreading the end of that year. The days ended too swiftly and the end of the year approached to fast and he knew that, when the time came, no matter how good he was somebody was going to get lucky.
The order from Duncan to take Honey alive came on the same day all of Duncan’s neighbors decided to attack. It took time to gather their armies and Christopher knew that time was running dangerously short. The road set out before them took them to Heather’s home village. A reward had been offered for her capture and everybody there knew her. After years of starving and scraping to get by, the reward could have been half what it was and the entire village would have been able to live on it for some time. They arrived at her childhood home exactly seven days before the impending attack. They performed as usual and when they finished, the villagers surrounded them.
Heather had known that the village would turn her in. They had heard news of the small rebellions on Duncan’s land and her home village had been notorious for it’s lack of rebellion. Christopher had managed to keep her safe for all those months and she had somehow hoped he would get her out of this last trouble when it came.
When the villagers surrounded them, Christopher was tempted to try and save Heather. Maybe he could break the pattern and she could be the first Bard Hero. His “contact” knew it would be too much temptation and when Heather was taken captive, he was turned as insubstantial as a shadow. The villagers took no notice of him and Heather was presented to Duncan for the reward.
Duncan destroyed the village down to the last child for their reward, cursing them for being greedy cowards. He ordered that the bard Honey be locked in the dungeon and that she would go with only bread and water for a month, at which time she would be tortured to death. Seven days later, the castle was under siege. A month later, there was no one left alive in Duncan’s castle.
Christopher had followed Honey to her cell in the dungeon. “I can’t get you out of this one, Honey.”
“What happened to you, Christopher? How did you get through the door?” Honey was terrified.
“Do you remember when I explained about Heroes and the First Hero?” Christopher held her and sat with her, propped up by the wall.
“Yes, you never finished telling me about it. What has that got to do with this?”
“Honey, all the true Heroes from the Hero Cycle never died. They traveled with the First Hero and in the end he whisked them away. They’re still alive, serving their gods in the mortal realm.” He took a deep breath and looked into her eyes. “I’m the First Hero. I can’t die and I have very specific tasks set for me in this world.”
“Christopher, if you’re the First Hero, then get me out of here.” Heather clutched at him. “Whisk me away so I can continue serving the goddess of music.”
“I can’t.” Tears shimmered in his eyes. “You see, I can only save Heroes from death… and bards don’t get to be Heroes.”
Heather began to sob. Christopher held her until she stopped crying, wiping her hair away from her face and crying silently with her.
“What’s your reward?” she asked later. “You promised you’d tell me.”
“My reward is to be able to interact with living spirits as easily as with humans. Walls and doors have never been a deterrent for me and now I can touch ghosts.”
“Will you stay with me Christopher? For a while?”
“Always, Honey. Always.”
|Who's Going First||Hounds|