by Nix Winter
all rights reserved
notes: This is an older story. I'm going to be working with Jewls again soon, but an older Jewls.
There were six bards, cloaked in black with gray fur, lush wool and leather, like a bad omen against the icy barren plain which wound slender up into the mountains.
They were the same mountains that Jewls had struggled over to find the village of the bard guildmaster. They'd been in fall then and nuts and grasses had been plentiful and he'd been alone. If he could have, he would have quietly wandered away from the other bards, found his own path over and been free.
He had their mark now, his mark, burned and colored into him so that it would never leave. He was a bard in the house of fire, a house made up of road bards and considered the most volatile of the houses, so much so that the master of fire was a permanent guest at the bard village. Jewls had learned though that while bards do not lie, ever, they do create many illusions, misdirection, and they don't always tell the most helpful things. He had no idea what his house had done to gave such an honor as to have their master, Nirese the Pine, be a permanent guest with the guildmaster. Jewls had spend some time with her, and she was very good at everything. She'd taught him more in the month she'd worked with him than in all the years he'd been singing. If it hadn't been for her, he wasn't sure the guildmaster would have let him leave at all.
The way the guildmaster looked at him was unsettling... as if he were looking at a ghost. He didn't know who his father was. He didn't know someone named 'Johara the Forever' and from the way Erin the guildmaster talked about him, Jewls was pretty sure he didn't want to. The man had to be ancient now, if he could even sing at all. Jewls shuddered under his sweater.
Ice crunched under his steps as they doubled back on the path, moving to a steep incline, and he paused, being the last one in the line and looked back at the guild village. It was like him, in a lot of ways. It didn't look like much, from a distance, just a few houses, a town square, the guildmaster's house built right to the edge of a great cliff, surrounded by forest. Having spent a month in the house and the secret places beyond it, Jewls thought it was the most dangerous place in the world. But he was that way too, a little, looked like nothing on the outside, less than nothing, but inside.. he'd be the most dangerous bard at tournaments! He'd steal all the golden leaves.
“Boy!” Berean yelled. “It's too late to run back to a warm bed now!”
Jewls' lips tightened, and slender black leather gloved fingers reached through is muff and pulled his cloak tighter around himself. Deep his thoughts, as subtle as the wind in the trees he could hear his master's voice, “Pride will trip you. You should have stayed home with Sarah.”
“Shut up,” Jewls muttered under his breath, lips brushing against the soft ermine fur at the edge of his hood.
No one came to this part of the world, except bards. Jewls had been convinced of his belonging when he'd arrived. Under his sweater and coat, still wrapped in gauzy bandages, was the proof of that, branded and tattooed was his mark. He was of the bard guild and would be until he died, even after if the keeper of the gate found the measure of his braid long enough to admit him to the great bard hall.
If he earned enough gold leaves, he'd use them to barter his master's wandering soul in with him when he died.
Hours must have passed, trudging up into a mountain path that was full of twists and turns and bridges that were hard and solid, but looked like years old logs. It would be a ruinous path without someone who knew it.
“Are you thinking about how you managed to cross these mountains by yourself,” a girl asked, her voice startlingly loud in the sullen quiet of the frozen path. “Did you really do that? By yourself?”
Jewls glared at her around the fluffy white fur on the edge of his hood. She was pretty, pale blue eyes, healthy skin with a smattering of freckles over her nose. She'd gotten her bard mark as well, but she'd been already healing when he'd ventured out into the bard palace. She had a ring of gold piercing her nose and she was just slightly taller than he was.
“I did come across the mountains by myself. It wasn't that hard. Go up. Go down.” he said shrugging his shoulders, more to feel the weight of his pack's straps and know that his new violin was in there than to really answer her in any way.
“You know it's a death crime to lie, right?”
Jewls shoved his hood back, and she jumped back from him as white flakes of snow settled with false calm over bright red hair. “I don't lie! I did too come over the mountain by myself. It's only hard to believe because you're just a satin slipper!”
She wrinkled her nose and leaned forward, drawing close as if she weren't afraid of him at all. “Oh did the little blood hawk learn a new word?”
“Children,” Marias called back over her shoulder, “Argue if you will, but keep walking.”
“I'm not a child,” they both shouted, then glared at each other.
She broke the glare first, with a giggle. “I'm sorry! I behaved badly! Please forgive me.” She bowed to him then watched him with those pale blue eyes.
They were too pale, made him think of ghosts and he didn't want to think of ghosts. So he pretended he was a great bard, with dozens of gold leaves woven into his hair. He bowed in return, as sweep of his arm, as elegant and gracefully as he could, sweeping back his thick black cloak. “My Lady-Bard, the offense was all mine and I do beg your forgiveness, for I am only a hawk of little training and can not compare to the obvious quality I see in your demeanor.”
She giggled wildly and before he could even come out of his bow. “I like you! You must be a royal bastard,” she pronounced proudly.
They were both walking again, side by side now, the more mature bards keeping a bit a head of them.
“Royal?” Jewls rolled his eyes, as if to say how could such a thing ever touch him. “I am the son of Barri, Goddess of luck, born with,” and he demonstrated by raising his now ungloved hand with a pair of glass dice between his fingers, “dice in my hand and silver on my tongue. I'm sure that does not compare at all with my Lady-bard's parentage, but it shall suffice for me.”
She giggled more and slipped an arm around his, pulling him close, completely missing the look of scared rabbit on his face. “I'm Anila the Dove, the last dove was a princess in the castle in which I was born, but she disappeared about sixteen years ago and her braid was never recovered. I, alas,” she said, laying a gloved hand over her chest and staring at the grey and unimpressed sky, “am the daughter of a laundress and the last dove's brother. I was merely saved by my wit and my tongue, and perhaps the pique of Salia the Claw. She was my master, though she died just last spring.” At this the fair Anila dropped her gaze from the unforgiving clouds to the edge of the ravine with a great sigh. “So it was given to me to make the journey here to get my bardmark. I was brought to the barding pass by six knights and a dozen men at arms. It was very grand as I walked away from them, my white dress fluttering in the wind!”
Jewls swallowed, pulled just a little bit back into his hood, and allowed himself the luxury of winkling his nose. A moment later though, he pushed his hood back a bit and gave her an honest look, an opening for friendship, even if she were a bit more like the froth on milk and less like the milk. “Such things make for very good songs,” he admitted. “Do you go to tourney now?”
“No, no,” she said, not bothering to hide her wrinkling nose, and still pulling him closer as she spoke. “No one is to know it yet, but I return home to be the bard house keeper of the Shining Butterfly Gate house, the bard house near my home.”
The park of hatred was sudden in Jewls, like he'd swallowed a sharp sided gem and was sliding down into his heart leaving red behind it. “You'll win not a single tourney and you'll be the bard house keeper?”
“Well, it isn't as if I'd win against you anyway,” she said, smiling shyly. “But I write very fast with a very clean hand.”
“How can you say you wouldn't win, if you don't try,” Jewls asked. “Don't you like being on stage?”
She almost let go of his arm, but them gave him a squeeze and laid her head on his shoulder instead. “I'm just a girl.”
Jewls shook her off then, pale eyebrows drawing down. “Oh and that means what? I haven't ever known a girl who couldn't do anything I could do.”
“But you weren't raised with proper people! I was raised in a castle and I know the difference between a maid and a knight! You are a fine man! Don't you feel the burning urge to protect me?”
There was no hiding the wrinkling of his nose now, nor the rolling of his eyes. “No. I don't feel a burning need to protect you! You're a bard, same as me and you can fight your own wolves.”
Her mouth dropped open. “I can't fight wolves! Have you ever fought wolves?”
“I killed a wolf once,” Jewls said, moving forward again, glaring at her sideways. It had been a wolf, a very old wolf. “Why did you even want to be a bard? Maybe you should have just married one of those knights and wandered around after him or her saying, 'Oh, can I get you more ale?'”
“Women can't be knights! Not where I come from!” She said.
“I beg your pardon, Lady-bard! I mistook you for a bard who came from the heart of song with a soul of poetry.” He made to bow again, but lost the grace as he dodged her open handed slap.
He giggled then and ran a couple paces ahead of her “I'd think you just tried to hit me, but ladies don't do that, do they?”
She growled and grabbed a fist full of snow to fling at him. “You! I can too hit you!”
And then he was off, making for the bards ahead of them. She wasn't far behind him, throwing snow at him every chance she got. The path was wide enough to allow for them to weave between the other bards, mostly, until he got to the end and ran right into the largest among them, the lead bard, who delivered a solid cuff to the side of Jewls' head.
Jewls lost his balance and hit one knee on the icy path, spinning until one of the other bards grabbed him by the collar. “Don't mind Barean,” she said, with a smirk. “He's always had a fascination with red hair, makes him behave like a bear.”
“Stupid children without a care for their safety or the safety of the distinguished bards in their company, that makes me act like a bear.”
Anila peeked out from behind the bard pulling Jewls back to his feet. “Well, that's no cause for hitting anyone! He's going to be a great bard, so you better be nice to him.”
“I wouldn't be nice to the guildmaster if he had blood red hair like that, and that's the truth!” Barean growled, leaning over just a little to glare at her eye to eye.
“Now Barean, may it be that you're upset that such a sprightly apprentice could make it over your mountain without breaking anything.”
Jewls pulled back a little from the woman who'd helped him back to his feet. All his life he'd felt like a bard, as if someday he'd have his home and he'd belong and it wouldn't matter what color his hair was or how pale his eyes were. The hatred he'd felt for Anila a moment before grew up into a roaring need to beat the bearish man before him, to steal the gold leaves from his reach, to traipse here and there on this man's mountain. “It wasn't so hard to cross the mountain,” he said, sounding as humble as he could.
Barean's eyes grew larger and his temple throbbed. “If one is touched by demon blood, it probably was easy!”
Anila and Jewls looked at each other, then Anila looked back at Berean, “His mother was the goddess of luck.”
“Children,” Berean snarled, spun on his heal and strode up the hill. “Should stay home and drink their milk.”
“I'm not a child,” Jewls yelled, and much to his surprise, the bard nearest him wrapped an arm around him, and then around Anila and drew them close.
“Of course you're a child, don't go stiff on me, little mouse, nor you either Jewls the Lucky,” she said, leaning over in a little conspiratorial way, “Any bard worth their melodies is still a child. If you can not see the world in colors and light and joy, you have nothing to put in your stories. Only by holding onto the eyes of a child can you ever give anything to your audience and the audience is everything.”
The rest of the day passed slowly, in companionable chatter between Jenel, Anila and Jewls. Berean kept his distance, as he lead the way, muttering about roadbards and children and fornicating demons, and Jewls wasn't terribly sure which he wasn't talking about at what time as it all tended to blur together.
Their shelter turned out to be a cabin that Jewls hadn't even seen until Barean opened the door and walked into it. It was set into the side of a hill, or had had hill built over the top of it after it had been built.
Having spent the better part of the last couple of years sleeping outside, as far away from people as he could, the idea that they might sleep in cabin almost felt claustrophobic.
So he was the last one at the door, leaning at the edge, pack still on as snow started to fall again. “Do we need fire wood?”
“Have,” Berean yelled, his voice thunderous in the small place. “Shut the door.”
“Jewls, come inside,” Anila pleaded. “I'm making tea and I have dried strawberries.”
“Those would be big red berries with seeds on the outside,” Berean smirked.
A couple of the other bards gave him stern looks and Jewls slipped back outside. He longed to find a place to himself, some tucked up place where he didn't have to deal with people's looks or the growing fear that he wasn't enough to be a bard, no matter what Erin said.
Erin was looking for a ghost and Jewls knew he wasn't what Erin was looking for. So much company, at the palace, here, he hadn't been really alone in weeks and he wasn't sure he could make himself go into the hidden little cabin.
The door slammed shut and a weight lifted off of him. Alone. He drew a deep breath and covered his nose with a gloved hand. It was that moment, the gauze of his bandages catching at his sleeve, his breath a tendril of white against mixing with the falling snow that he really felt it. He'd gotten his bard mark! He had it! He'd won!
And then he was dancing in the falling snow, hands out, heart pounding for all the repressed excitement and fear. In his mind he relived the last day coming down off the mountain, buying that shirt with the last of his money, taking in his only pair of singing pants. The next image in his mind was of Erin, white brocade, satin, huge feathers from no bird Jewls had ever seen, the sword, and gods, the fear, the absolute certainty that he would have his head removed from his body. His flight from the audition circle did not feel as if it had been cowardice, even now. He was alive! The energy of that sent sparkling tingles over his shoulders, down his arms and he stomped and danced in the darkness, hardly moving, for not knowing the area well.
Jewls the Lucky was alive! And he was free and no matter what came of the world, he was in it to see where the road would go and what songs he might sing. Tears burned down his cheeks and he wanted to scream and cry out to his master, scream so loud that Sarah could hear him all the way from where he was, but stayed silent, just a shadow of things which couldn't be said in front of other people.
He was a bard. The bard houses would be open to him now and he would travel from one tournament to another and gain enough gold to buy Sarah and her son's bard kin price! He'd get a new violin and ribbons to braid into his hair so that he looked like a bard of great renown! Black ribbon to show off his red, or green, and he wouldn't care that he was a blood hawk, because he was a hawk even still! He'd show them the meaning of it!
The door creaked behind him and spun. Crouching down, gloved finger tips resting on the ground, hood pulled forward to hide the pale white face and the hair that would catch any light near it, he watched for any movement.
“Jewls,” Anila called, “Please come inside? There's a private section just for you. There's pillows and a bed, and there's parchment to have if you want to write out your day. I have made cakes and there's tea.”
He had the sudden unpleasant image of the little cottage being set on by robbers and all of them being trapped like rabbits in a warren. So he held still as she looked for him, her eyes, used to the well lit cabin, passed him right over.
Ronnyn, an older male bard, lean as a ferret, who'd been silent all day, stuck his head out and said quietly, “There's two other exits, both secure and hidden. Barean's already passed out, and I shall teach you a new song.”
Hunger exerted itself then, and cold, and maybe it wouldn't be so bad to be inside. He pushed down fear, and stood, his hood falling back. His sudden 'appearance' startled Anila and she gasped. He sucked his cheeks in between his teeth, and felt oddly small, when he'd meant to stand up and make with the grace and eloquent bard roll. Ronnyn's bony hand beckoned him forward and he slipped into the warmth, passed a still disconcerted Anila.
Inside, the place was like a sea shell, chambered and polished. As soon as the door closed, Jewls had the feeling that he was inside something much bigger than he had anticipated.
Anila had recovered though and held out a wooden bowl of strawberries and a mug of steaming bard tea. “I made pudding too, with the bard tea. It's just a sweet, to celebrate our first night as road bards!” She smiled, right at Jewls, but he avoided looking her in the eyes.
“Thank you,” he mumbled, really not sure at all what to do with a princess type bard looking at him like she had butterflies in her stomach.
There were just the three of them left, Ronnyn, Anila, and Jewls. The rest had disappeared into behind the curved walls that seemed to go all the way around the central area, like flower petals in a way.
Ronnyn patted a spot on a bench next to him and Jewls sat, setting his bowl and mug on a ledge built against one of the curving walls. They said nothing to each other, but Jewls took the leather bound book that Ronnyn offered him and reverently opened it.
The script was neat, measured, all the letters of the same size, except the capitals which swooshed and morphed into illustrated animals, swans, the night sky. It was written in an inland language that Jewls knew only in passing, which made him need to read more than once to get the meaning, and then the meaning drew him back for the humor. When he looked up, he found the older man watching him with a smile, which summoned a grin from Jewls.
“Here,” he said, tugging the book back, and turning to a page mid way through. “Sing that.”
The music was notated in a style Jewls didn't know, but the words seemed to be a simple rhyming song about the beauty of the moon and creature of the forest who spoke only the language of moonlight. Nonsense, but pretty nonsense. He pointed to one of the marks he assumed would be a note on a scale. “Give me that note? I don't this way of marking notes.”
“Not surprised. Only mine,” he said, then sang the first five notes, pointing to each as he sang them.
Jewls mimicked him, repeated it again, then sang through the rest of the page, not the words, just the notes. It was a very lovely song.
“Do it again,” Ronnyn said quietly, “Just the song.”
“That's beautiful,” Anila whispered.
Jewls blushed, muttering that it was just a song, but then rang through it again, embellishing the very end with a modification of the main motif.
Ronnyn pulled the book back, keeping a finger between the pages. “Again.”
Jewls closed his eyes and he could see the page in his mind, so singing it was very easy.
Ronnyn handed him the book back, and picked up his mug. “Take the words,” he said, taking a long drink of his tea, “And know that I give you my word as a bard that I shall always have your best interest at heart. So take this advice with the good will that it is intended. Not every bard can do as you just did. People will look at you and see that you are beautiful and assume you are nothing more. It will do you no harm if most people continue to think so. Now eat your food and don't let Barean worry you over much. He's like a mosquito, all nose and irritating bite.”
Jewls straddled the bench and handed the book back. “Do you want me to sing the song with words? I don't know how to pronounce that language well.”
“No, keep the song till you know how to do the words. I wrote it. I just like the way the words seemed to flow. I can't speak that language well either. Eat your food, uh?” Ronnyn tucked his book away and leaned back against the wall.
There was a quiet between them, comfortable, and Jewls could almost think he was somewhere safe tucked among tree branches. The strawberries were sharp a little, sweet, slightly porous against his tongue and got lost in licking and nibbling them.
“How old are you, Jewls,” Ronnyn asked.
“Old enough,” Jewls said, glaring menacingly at the older man, which only got him a laugh, to which Jewls narrowed his eyes and glared harder.
Before he knew it the older man had grabbed Jewls' free hand. The hair stood up on the back of Jewls' neck and he must have looked as if he were going to bolt because Ronnyn released him quickly.
“I knew Wicked Smile. He was a good man.”
Jewls picked up another strawberry and sucked on it, remembering how he'd wanted to have Wicked Smile for his barding name. Now he knew that wouldn't have been possible while his master lived. Ignorance made him feel unsure, and he wasn't sure how how many things he didn't know about bards. Before he could really get angry though, he remembered his master's face, smiling, the blond hair in wispy ends around his face, a smirk that Jewls had always felt was proof that his master could take on the whole world. He didn't say anything back to Ronnyn. He could have said how much he missed his Master. He could have said it felt like a part of his voice had died with his master, but there wasn't any point in telling the bard any of that. It didn't matter to anyone except himself. It might have mattered to Sarah. “I can buy bardkin price for anyone, right?”
“If you want,” Ronnyn said, cautiously. “It's not like you're buying parchment though. A person would need to win a dozen tournaments to buy a bard kin price, work a dozen years.”
“I'll do it,” Jewls said.
Ronnyn made a small sound, then pulled a small harp from his bag.
“Who are you wanting to buy bardkin price for,” Anila asked, her voice curious, and almost edged with hurt.
Jewls almost regretted eating her strawberries. He wasn't about to explain anything to any of them. He'd just kept the company of trees too long.
The morning found them all quiet. A storm had left them with snow to their ankles, which wasn't bad, but it would only be a harbinger for more. Jewls harbored a secret hope that it would snow enough that the rest of them would want to stay in one of the little cabins until it stopped and he could press on by himself. It was naggingly unpleasant that the ghost of his master had chosen to come back and make comments on his intelligence over that plan.
It was all well and good to not be bothered by other people if you were a ghost and didn't have to be seen if you didn't want.
It was the third day. High in the mountains, the air thinner, and the six bards trudged on with thinner conversation to go with it. Two days of light storm had left enough white on the ground to make their path look innocent of guides ahead of them and the white fluttering down was quickly making the path behind them forgetful of the present. Single file in long black wool cloaks, there was yet too much disharmony among them to mistake them for forest spirits.
The leader held the point position mostly due to the breadth of his side. He was not soft, but large in shoulders and a territorial aura of ownership over the path, even over the bards behind him, as if they were his while they were in his forest. Berean was of the forest as most bards are of words.
Easily in his path strode the tall and winter souled Ronnyn, who would follow along not for need of guidance, but simply because it was the easiest path. Marias also followed along quietly for similar reasons, though for her it was more of a territorial need to be shown the path for that was a service owed to her. Madryn simply wanted to keep up, huffing and grabbing at the thin air in fear of being too far behind, of being spoken of harshly later. Anila did not follow Berean. She fluttered around the path because she was more interested in someone else who couldn't quite find his way around Berean.
The sixth bard was the smallest, slender and darting, keeping the path only because the sides were too steep to give him an easy escape. His hood fell back as he turned to look back they way they'd come, displaying sacrilegious flame red hair to the gray sky. There was no missed escape just behind them though and he turned back to the slow moving foot trudging caravan. White melted against his hair as he watched them walk on. It clung in places, slow melting damnation against what had always set him apart. Violet eyes narrowed and he resisted turning back to look one more time before he started the slightly steeper climb of the next part of the path.
This would be his fourteen winter, his fifteenth year, and he was unused to having anyone point his path to him, find him a bed in the dark, tell him what pace to keep. With a jerk he pulled his hood up. Snow dropped from the gray fur at the edge to his face, scattering across a small pointed and freckled face. His nose was curved, lower lip full, eyelashes pale as sunlight, and he wished he was a fire demon to be able to burn his way along the path and make Ke'sedra before the rest.
“Jewls! Come on! Are you tired? Do you need a rest?” Anila asked, her own hood back as she called to him. She was lovely enough, dark hair, pale eyes. She had not a cursed freckle, which Jewls found highly unfair,but she smiled open and broad, the smile of her laundress mother, not the bard that the daughter had become. “Well? I'll sing you a song! Come on!”
Worse than having someone else chose the path, Jewls hated having to try to be nice. He could do it. He had done it. He was going to get better at it, but just then, maybe, maybe it was that he did kind of like this girl. She was trying really hard to be nice to him, to be his friend and, he was sure he didn't have anything she wanted in return.
“I'm coming,” he said, surprised by the surly tone. He rubbed at one wrist in the secrecy of his muff. “I was just thinking, that's all.”
“Odd time to pick to think,” she said, tilting her head. “I have some more strawberries.” This last was said with a whisper, just for his ears.
“I thank you, but not just now.” He studied the side of the hill as they rounded.
“Is it so dreadful just to walk along with the rest of us?
“I'm used to being by myself,” he admitted, and under that he felt the lie. It wasn't really a lie. He had walked from one coast to the other by himself in the two years since his master had died. He'd talked to more trees than he had people, and he was comfortable with the sound of his own thoughts. The lie was more subtle than that, deeper. It wasn't that he didn't crave the company of other people. It was that he distrusted bards in general and the more he walked with them, the more he felt disconcerted with a path that he'd started before he'd even known enough of the world to make a choice. Even then, kicking snow as he walked, he couldn't see that there had been another choice.
The goddess of luck had given him to a bard to raise and that's just who he was. He'd get taller and he'd be just like Ronnyn, Marias, Erin. He'd bow and sing and lie with the truth, because that was what he was born to do. It made him long for the trees and a path of his own more than he could explain to a girl who simply wanted to return home to what she'd been told awaited her.
“It must have been hard, coming across the mountains by yourself. Weren't you scared?” she asked, as she put a dried strawberry slice into her own mouth.
He had been scared. Terrified. Lost. He bit his lip and worried at his wrist, tugged at the bandages on his arm, covering the still scabbed over bard mark. The fear beckoned him, as if he were afraid he'd also have hope, as if he didn't know how to just walk forward without the constant fear. “I was afraid,” he admitted.
Shouldn't it have been better without the fear? Shouldn't it have all been all better now? “Have you ever been afraid?”
“I was afraid to face the guildmaster. I had to sing just for him. All by myself.” She held out faded strawberry to him. “Come on. You didn't each much for breakfast.”
“I don't like eating other people's food,” he admitted. That was true. Food wasn't free.
“Fine.” She took her whole small silk bag of strawberries and shoved them into his muff.
His eyes went wide, his breath stopped, and she grabbed his arm with both hands to keep him from falling off the side. “Sorry! Sorry, Jewls! I just wanted you to have them. Now they're yours! You can share with me!”
Mouth dry, he gave a quick nod. He wanted so much to just slip into storyteller mode, to just be something for her, give her a nice story, a few smiles, slip away, but there on the path there was no where to slip to. He'd looked. “Thank you.” He pulled te small back free and opened it for her. “Please, let me share my treasure with you, Bard.”
“Why thank you!” She smiled and pulled a couple of the larger ones for herself. “See? You can be gracious and elegant. Why aren't you that way all the time?”
“Trees only have flowers in spring,” he said, closing the bag. If it was his now, well, he'd save them. They'd last a while.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Means I say flowery things at the right time.”
They walked along then, for some time. It wasn't until after lunch, and many longing glances from her at his muff where her berries were safely conserved, that she asked, “Do you like being mean?”
That he hadn't been expecting and he held one lip between his teeth for at least twenty steps before he replied. “I'm sorry. Do you want your berries back?”
“No. I want you to smile at me.”
“But I don't want to smile. Can't I just walk by you here?”
“I guess,” she said, pulling out a small wooden recorder. “Well, see this?”
She held it out, but pulled it back when he reached to touch. “This was owned by Elsit the dove. She was a princess and a bard,” Anila said, her voice conveying that she expected him not only not to know, but to be impressed by the wooden thing in her hand. “My master said Elsit had the most beautiful voice in the world and that I must strive hard to live up to being a dove worthy of the name.”
Jewls looked away, feigning disinterest, then back at the pale wood thing, the unfamilar characters carved in the side of it. “Can I hold it, please?”
“No,” Anila said, but she began to play. The little thing had a lovely sound and her bare fingers danced away from falling snow as she played. It made lovely clear notes that lingered and flowed with each other and Jewls was as a small animal entranced.
It was a song he didn't know, and then another song he didn't know, exotic and lovely and he would have followed her around for days listening if they had not reached a lake to be crossed. It was a simple thing. Walk across on a log, that was really three logs, and only meant to look accidental. Jewls held his tongue and was quite pleased with himself.
The day, on the whole, was looking much better. One thing Jewls did very much like about bards was that they knew a lot of music. As they waited to cross over the illusionary bridge, Jewls moved closer to Anila and gave her the smile she'd been wanting, almost, friendly, brotherly. “Can I play it, just until it's your turn to cross?”
“No,” she said, but gave him a smile back and blew softly on the mouth piece.
He had the distinct feeling that she was telling him something, but he didn't understand it, so he stood there, chewing on his lips, imagining the notes that could be made by blowing harder, or softer and fluctuations that could be had, and how long he could hold a note. “Please?”
“Kiss me,” she asked.
“Uh? Why?” Jewls asked, thinking, maybe they would be able to play it together, somehow, share breath as they kissed it.
“How old are you?”
“Fifteen. Is kissing a sharing custom where you come from?”
“No. It's the same everywhere. You kiss someone because you like them.”
“Well,” Jewls said, suddenly understanding, “I should never steal such valuable treasures from the person who is destined to cherish your heart.”
“Did you read a lot of old text somewhere? Sometimes you sound like a great bard from the past, and sometimes you sound like a little kid.” She tucked her recorder back into her muff with very chilled fingers.
Jewls wrinkled his nose. “I read a lot when I studied with the master of earth. She had a lot of scrolls and books, and just loose papers. Very old.”
“You're not a hawk. You're a parrot.”
“Please let me play with the recorder. You're not playing with it now.”
“It belonged to a princess,” she said, lifting her chin.
“And? It's yours now, right? Please? I'll teach you a poem.”
“I have quite enough of my own, thank you,” she said, stepping daintily out on to the log, head held high as if she were a princess.
“Good,” Jewls yelled. “I hope their good ones! They're not as good as the ones I read!”
“Watch where you're going! Put your arms out if you need the balance,” Berean called.
She was half way across when she started to sway, just a little, a miss-step on the log, or something and she threw both arms out wide, stabilized, and the recorder hung, half out of her muff.
Jewls blew his cheeks full of air and didn't exhale. If she dropped it, it was going to be his. A breeze blew snow passed his chapped lips and he resisted licking them again, waited. The cousin of the first breeze blew over Anila, and the recorder slipped. It hung there on her muff for a moment, her arm outstretched, her body as ridge as she could get it, eyes on the decorated little bit of wood.
“Let it go!” Berean snarled, commanding as any bard ever could have been. “It's just a toy.”
As much as Jewls had been waiting for it to fall, he suddenly put the puzzle together. The bridge. The lake. Ice.
The recorder hit with a crack, bounced, rolled. Anila held her place, frozen in a different kind of way.
“I'll get it, Anila! I have a rope and I can throw my cloak on it, drag it over,” Jewls said, already slipping out of his cloak.
“No! I don't want you to have it!”
“I'll give it right back, wouldn't play it at all,” Jewls promised, on his knees slipping out of his pack. “I wouldn't even touch it. Just get it to the edge and you can come get it.”
“I can get it myself!”
“Stay on the bridge! Let him get it for you!” Berean growled. Really growled, and maybe it was that he was on the other end of the bridge now, headed her way, but she jumped. She wasn't very heavy, even with her pack and cloak.
Barean's face went pale as the lake. Jewls blindly fished for his rope in the fore part of his pack.
It was two steps to her recorder and she reached for it. Jewls reached behind his head to take hold of his braid, just to hold it for good luck for her. In his mind, he could almost feel his master's hand on his shoulder, could almost see his master's hand pointing, towards the smallest crack, just hair dark fracture that grew from where she'd set her foot. “Jump to the bridge!”
Anila turned and looked at Jewls, lifted her chin, seconds, being the princess that she imagined the dove ought to be, and then.. she dropped. The ice tilted and she slid down cloak dragging behind her, into the dark water.
Jewls' head snapped from where she'd disappeared to where Berean stood, watched him back away from the bridge. The other three bards stood where they were, watching, and it echoed terribly to other bards that had simply watched.
“Help her,” he screamed, standing now, rope in hand.
Berean gave him a confused look, then pitying. “It is her story. We can not interfere.”
“It would dishonor her,” Marias said. “She chose her path.”
Seconds. She. Chose. Tears were the hottest thing Jewls had then, burning the edge of his eyes. He'd followed along, been good, followed the path they'd lead. He'd become a bard because that was his path, and he would chose. He would chose not to be like them, when to interfere and when not to and he would chose!
“Oh pig fuckers!” Jewls yelled, a curse he'd learned on a barge he'd been on once, when someone had gone overboard and it just felt right to curse at something. He knelt on the log, pulled his eating dagger from the sheath at his boot, then laid down, on it feet light on the ice behind him, as he broke at the ice nearer the log. Her head broke the water, and he knew he'd get her out. She gasp at air and bobbed, down back up, and reached for his hand only to slip back, wet gown against the wet ice, the weight of her pack and cloak pulling her back.
With a hard stab, Jewls broke the nearer ice and when she bobbed again, lunged at his hand he caught her hand. The weight of her pulled at him, but he caught them both with his knees, holding against the log bridge. Blue lips, terrified eyes, and he held her with on hand as he slipped his dagger back into the other sheath at his belt.
“I've got you,” he said, and he'd never felt so heroic, like all the stories he'd ever sang were alive in him now. “I'm going to unfasten your cloak. Slip your arm out of your pack. It's too heavy for me to pull you up.”
“I know. It's cold. We'll make a fire,” he said, gripping her wrist strong enough to leave bruises later.
As he worked to undo the soaked and frozen frog at her throat, she hit at him with her recorder. “No. I need my cloak. I'll freeze.”
“I'm trying to help! You can have mine! Okay?”
Then it was free, and she was so much lighter! The clouds broke above them. The meager light of day bright on her pale face. “Help me,” she begged. “I'm going to run the bard house.”
“I am helping you,” he said, confused about the loosening of her fingers on his arm as he pulled her closer to the little illusionary bridge. “I am helping you.”
“You have red hair,” she said, eyes half closed. “I didn't know red hair could be pretty.”
“Anila! It's not that cold! Wake up!” He snarled and gave her a hard jerk, pulling her half way up out of the water, towards the log bridge, but her head tilted hard back, exposing throat, and she felt back into the water, limp. Under the cloak, she'd had her braid out.
Hand frozen, Jewls fumbled for his dagger again. He'd cut it. Her braid, her link between the great bard hall of their ancestors, the proof of her bard hood, her honor, cut it and pull her free. His head was light, and even though he hadn't been afraid to run from the bard circle, hadn't really believed they could steal his soul, part of him was terrified he'd cut off her soul if he cut her braid.
Her eyes snapped open in the water, just inches below the surface, the weak sunlight making them shine and he lay there, dagger in hand, her mouth open in the water as if she were to say something, as if the words were on her tongue, and he knew, suddenly that this was death. She neither sank, nor bobbed back up, the branches of the tree the bridge had once been ensnared her braid, her pack. He didn't know.
Her eyes watched straight up, pale as moons, the lashes dark. Intelligence was there still, but not, and he lay there, feet numb on the ice behind him.
“You've got to move, Jewlie,” Craylish whispered in the back of his mind.
Then he was putting his dagger back in the sheath at his waist, pushing himself up.
Numb, he walked easily back to his own things, stripped off the wet gloves and considered making himself a fire, right there. On that side of the log. Warming himself. Making tea. Crying alone. He could make that choice, if he wanted.
Death was not honor. Death was just death. Craylish's ghost was quiet for once. Jewls wished the other bards would just walk on. Go about their path. He'd take his chances with the forest and finding his own way. As he blinked, it wasn't her pale eyes in the water, but his violet ones, lifeless.
“Death's not the end,” Craylish promised.
“But I have no family to listen to my ghost,” he said. End of song. Alone. Such an intense feeling, that any company was better than that. Quick, he shouldered his pack and grabbed his cloak.
As he walked over the bridge, ice had already made a thin glass over what lay below. The pale eyes of a laundress' daughter.
He lifted his head just a little, having an easy balance on the log bridge, an easy comfort with his own body, even with the chill. It was not violet eyes in the water, and even when the day came that it was, between this day and that, he would honor his own song, make his own choices. Not wanting family of the guild, nor any other thing. Only his own choices.
He was Jewls the Lucky, of the House of Fire.