Rev. Jan's Fiction Extravaganza

The Minstrel

The minstrel walked on, alone.

He had been walking for some days now; he knew them only by the rising and setting of the sun: his concern was not for time. He had all the time in the world.

He watched the sky as he walked, seeing the clouds as they passed overhead. He was reminded vaguely of another place, on another day; then, too, the heavens had been grey, thunderous. But then there had been rain, and no rain fell on this day. And all days were one for him, but for those that found him with company.

He heard... nothing. There were no birds, none of the rustling and wingsounds that he had taken so much for granted in the past. He did not know when they had ceased; suddenly it seemed as though the entire forest had stopped to hear him walking. But there was little to listen to; the leather of his boots made barely a sound on the path; only the rhythmic chords of the lute against his hip gave him reality.

It had been perhaps days since he left the last town, perhaps weeks. Or longer; he had no way of knowing. He walked as in a trance, enthralled by the trees, the sky, the soft whisper of his humming. And when the sun shone, there was the warmth against his skin, a pleading heat that begged him to stop and play. But he was oblivious to all around him but the world; the slight pain in his legs meant less to him than the colours that trapped him, and the path that led him on.

When night came, he would slip off the path, into the woods. There, he would lay down his cloak, with the leaves as his pillow, and there he would sleep. On clear nights he could look up and see the moon, broad and shining even through the branches; then sometimes he remembered another night, when he was not so alone. Always when he remembered, he brought out the lute and let it tease the memory away, and the chords rang through the forest.

This night, he knew, there would be no moon. The clouds were dark and heavy now, bringing twilight early to his world. All the trees were bare, their leaves long gone with the changing of seasons; even so, there were no other sounds: the wind was still as well, and he could see no life but his own. He sighed, breaking the silence; if he were to play in this deadness, how would it change?

It did not seem to matter. He took the lute from his side, warming it with his arms; the strings were cold, taut and barely resonant, but it had stayed in tune. And the melody slipped away from him when he played, dying in air as quickly as it had come. He felt only colder when he let the last note fall, and shivered at the sound of the dull scratch when he let the instrument rest. It brushed against his thigh, swinging with his movement; it would not come to rest.

But now it was growing darker; he would continue when the sun rose again.


There was still no sound when he awoke to the thin light of cloudy dawn. He was stiff, cold, as he always was on these mornings; only when he slept in the company of others was his body satisfied. He smiled slightly, remembering those days; it was the first time this forest had seen him smile. It faded quickly, like the memory, and then he could go on without it.

He paid no attention to the food he ate that morning; he never did. Sometimes he couldn't even recall where it had come from. But there was no need to; it was time to walk again, to find another place that would give him life. All he could want was an audience, someone to share in his music. There was nothing in the world that mattered so much as that, the music; it was his life, and his reason for life. He remembered the dead sound of it the night before -- was it then? -- and shivered, twisting his hands together in some effort to find warmth.

There were other harmonies to be had, of course, and other instruments to bring them forth: he carried recorders, the finest he could purchase; a viol as well, and a minute lyre, all the trademarks of his craft. But on a day such as this, none of them would offer comfort. He was still alone, still walking on this path that seemed to have no end. And there was no indication that it ever would.

At least until he reached a split in the road, one path to the right, one to the left. And, walking further up the right-hand side, he saw the indistinct haze of smoke in the sunlight. There was a house ahead; now, going ahead still more, his feet told him that this path had been paved. The bricks were smooth and unbroken beneath him, worn down by decades of weary travel. He smiled to himself, slightly. They would hear him play, these people, whoever they were.

He took the lute again from his side, its strings shining in the early light. The hemisphere of its soundbox settled in the hollow of his waist, held by the light touch of his hand, and the pressure of his arms. It was almost out of habit that he struck the first chord, feeling the tension of the strings beneath his fingers, the raised coolness of the frets to guide him. And still he walked, letting the chord die away with the strength it ought to have had in the days past. But then there had not been listeners.

Now he approached the centre of this little town, a small square that appeared from nowhere. It was surrounded by stone buildings, their poorly thatched roofs glinting with a diamond layer of frost; the windows were shuttered against the cold. No one was yet about on this morning; they would come soon enough; the shops would open; children would come to play; he would hear, finally, the light sound of human conversation. He played another chord, smiling now, allowing the white teeth to show through his lips. He had heard the first cries of an infant, waking to the cold air of morning; and then the cry had ceased, perhaps comforted by the callused hand of the mother.

These were the ones for whom he would play, these plebians who did little more with their lives than work and sleep. He came to give them reason to do more, to stop and listen to his music, perchance to play themselves; many times he had shown a willing boy the ways of the lute; young women, frightened as they might be, had approached him asking of the recorder. He had shown them all, with the little smile that meant pleasure; if they could learn music, his kind would not have wandered in vain.

Now he closed his eyes, seeing in his mind the tablature that symbolized the notes he would play. Six strings meant six notes; the frets allowed few variations -- but this meant nothing to him; he knew only the sounds that would come from them, so taut and so simple -- and yet they were all the sustenance he would ever need.

There was no hesitation when he began to play; it was light and quiet, but unerringly staccato, unquestionably Italian; these people had never heard a note that was not French. Et vive la differance! Where the French were cheerless and even morose, the Italians found room for a bit of gaiety now and then. The minstrel smiled as he played, fingers constantly in motion; they would set the square moving as well.

And finally he was rewarded; a child came running from an alley, his thin leather shoes striking the ground in syncopated bursts. His eyes flashed in the cloudy light, naive intelligence breaking through this atmosphere of obvious poverty.

"Monsieur!" cried the child, "la musique!" He stopped in front of the minstrel, his hands clasped to his chest; his breathing was fast and irregular with the stress of his exertions.

The minstrel smiled again, nodding, still caressing the strings, softer now. This he had seen many times before, this eager curiosity; it never ceased to surprise him that these ill-educated children still had the urge to learn; it always pleased him. The next time he looked up the boy had come closer, gazing with unabashed wonder at the lute. And another door had opened; this time it was an adult who came into the chill morning, bent under the weight of a yoke, but almost happy at seeing the minstrel.

"Bonjour," she called to him; he answered with a nod, and a bright chord, sent purposely in her direction. The child's eyes widened in something of surprise; he wanted to touch the lute, reaching his fingers out slightly, with timidity that was nearly painful to the minstrel. Without stopping the music, he looked into the child's eyes, telling him yes, he could touch it.

And he did, his little mouth opening when he felt the powerful vibration of it. And then he smiled, caressing the soft, smooth wood that carried the sound so far.

Now there were others about, still obviously tired -- but then they heard the notes of his lute. He saw them smile, shake their heads slightly; some of them tried not to look at him, and failed; he felt their eyes on him even as they passed. It was not hostility that he felt. After a few moments, the song was ended, the final chord ringing about this little square. The boy grinned, showing uneven, unfinished teeth and a pink tongue between them.

And then, the minstrel gave him more than the child had thought possible. Without saying a word, he handed the lute to him; he knew that this child had nothing but wonder for it, that it was safe. And the child: his smile grew larger, his hands almost shook, feeling the weight of the instrument, and then he held it as the minstrel had, awkwardly because of its size, but proud and nervous as well. He touched the strings one by one, hearing the solid notes they made, and then he reached for the frets as well. There was more than a smile then; even those who sought not to watch were drawn to the two, watching the child with passive interest.

"Would you like to play it?" he murmured. They were the first words he had yet spoken, since the beginning of this journey; his last had been... but he did not like to think of them, uttered in such distress. The French was low, hushed, almost a whisper, though it could not be missed. The child's smile disappeared, replaced with what might have been love, and he nodded quickly, "Yes." The minstrel signaled him to come closer, and then placed his hands over the child's, grasping the fingers steadily, showing them the right way to move.

The child caught on as children do, learning before any adult thinks it possible -- but the minstrel knew it was. He showed the boy three chords, simple and yet ever so important; then he brought out the tenor recorder, and began a soft melody. His student understood, and played the chords where they were meant to go; when they finished, the people stood silently for a moment, amazed, and then from somewhere in the back, the applause began, a low murmur of approval and acceptance.

Very little business was done on that day; few citizens were willing to leave the minstrel for fear that he might do something new, and they would miss it. But he seemed to recognize this; all of his gentle teaching was done only when they were present -- he remembered a day when he had not... He let it go quickly; it passed across his face like a shiver of pain; only one of them noticed it.

That night he went, without fanfare, to the town's one inn, asking quietly for a room. He had no coins to give, he said, but gold was not all that could be valued. The landlady agreed at once, with a knowing wink that he could not understand; she gave him a room for the night, and a supper of meat and hot bread. She was puzzled that he drank nothing, though, almost as though their mead was too common for him -- but of course, he had never said such words.

There were few other people there on that night; there were never many -- but among those who clustered around him, the minstrel noticed a young lady, her hair in a single plait, her dress of little more than coarse wool -- and yet when he glanced at her, she stared back almost pleadingly. And when the oily lamps had begun to flicker and he excused himself, she followed; it did not seem to matter that the others saw her go.

She came up the stairs behind him, the thin soles of her sandals tapping lightly on the wood. "Monsieur?" she whispered, so bold as to tug on the hem of his tunic. He turned slowly, unsure of her intentions. Her eyes danced in the candlelight, and she smiled shyly. "Your lyre -- I wished to know how... how to play it... but there were always so many people..."

For the first time his movements had become uncertain, almost frightened, and he nodded slightly, lines appearing on his forehead; the darkness of his hair could not quite hide them. "You could come to my room, I suppose," he sighed; though she had no qualms, he remembered too much... and yet, here she was, standing beside him in the flickering light, the braid of her hair reflecting that unsteadiness with its auburn glow.

He smiled hesitantly, and began to walk up the stairs, his hand on the ribs of his lute: it would not sound out so. When they reached his door, he turned to the girl. "Your name?" he asked quietly.

"Cecilia," she said, looking away from him for the first time. She stared at the low, beamed ceilings, the heavy doors; then she came back to him. Her eyes alone reflected the contrast: he was so slender, almost tall, dressed in simple, dark clothes, and yet there was something alien about him, the way he held himself now. It had been quite different downstairs, before they were alone; the confidence was still there, but what there was with it...

He had opened the door, gesturing her inside. She noticed that he did not lock it, whether for her sake or his she could not tell. There were two chairs inside, rough, barely finished; it seemed strange that he took one, if only for that inexplicable void between him and the world around him. But in a moment he sat across from her, holding the lyre cautiously in his arms; soon, she knew, he would speak, and the void would come with greater force.

When he did speak, though, his voice was curiously soft; the most remarkable expression had come over him. It seemed only a memory -- perhaps it was. "Do you know who the Greeks were?" he asked her. She nodded once, as serious as he was. "This was the instrument that their god Apollo was said to favour. He was the god of light, of music, and poetry... Listen to it, Cecilia. This lyre -- it tells me that he is still alive."

He played a muted chord; its overtones lingered in the darkness. And then, without introduction, he began a piece that was older than the aged wood that made the lyre; it was more pure than the strings that resounded with it; it was more familiar, more human than the man who played it. She did not know the names of the notes; the melodies were as distant to her people as ancient Greece herself -- but still, they called out to her, caressed her with their lightness and the innocence that they found within her.

Her eyes were closed when it was finished, her body relaxed with the absolute trust that she felt for the man who made the music. It was a moment before she glanced up again, to feel his eyes on her, half-mast and languid as they were -- but something different burned inside them. And yet, there was no fear for her.

He looked away while he spoke. "It has been a very long time since someone else has felt the music as I do. One other had the gift, and could bring that pleasure as I do -- she would not let me help her." He sighed, ever so faintly; it was then that she saw the marks on his wrists. A shudder passed through her; it was not so brief that he could miss it. His eyes grew dark at her trembling; he wanted to touch her, but how could he now?

"No," she whispered, drawing her arms closer to her, as though they would protect her from the chill that those marks brought to her. "Not you, not with that music... the Darkness could not work through it..."

"What are you saying?" he murmured, but he felt her stare, and where it fell. And there were no excuses to be offered, no way to tell her that it had been different then; he was a minstrel now, but had not always been so. He could not hope to assure her that it was not the cult of Darkness that he served: she had seen the scars, where that cruel knife had cut his skin, forever warning others of the gift they did not understand, that he alone possessed. All of his soul cried out that he had never wanted it; he said nothing, but sighed again, and moved swiftly to the door.

"Darkness can work through nothing but its own shadow," he said quietly. She did not reply, though a sob escaped her. He winced; how like the other she was -- but it could not matter now. He took the lyre in his hands, steadying the lute where it hung; he offered her a final chord, soft and somehow full of the sadness he could release in no other way. He was gone when she looked up; her eyes were bright with tears; they fell for the music that she wanted with all of her being but could not have, and the man who had seemed so pure...


The minstrel gazed at the sky as he walked. He had left the last town the night before; he did not like to remember it, though it was all that his mind would allow him to have. He glanced down at the path beneath his feet; it was growing wilder now, untended and uncared for. He saw the lute at his side; his sleeves were short even in the cold, and he could not repress the moan that came when he saw the scars on his wrists. They meant little to him -- until he remembered; he always remembered.

There were clouds in every direction that he looked. There had always been clouds; they had been heavy like this on the night of his Vows; he recalled that they had receded the first time he held the lute, and thought no more of Darkness. But they followed him; they would not let him love. No matter how badly he wanted it, no matter how pure it seemed, there were the scars, and they meant more than anything he could do now. And only those he would love could see them; his broken Vows would never allow the pain to stop. Only the music could heal -- he had to believe it...

The minstrel walked on, alone.

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