Today I’m posting the beginning of a story I started writing back in the spring of 2013. One of my best friends and I had been playing a story game while travelling somewhere on a bus, and the story we invented became the basis for this one. Recently I was looking back through some of my old notebooks and came upon the page where I started writing the first few sentences of this tale. And now, without further ado, I present the first part of The Minstrel’s Tale.
Night had fallen long ago, and there was not a living soul on the road besides the Minstrel. There were no dead souls either; but the Minstrel almost wished there were, so desperate and lonely was his journey. Tramp tramp, he trudged, with the brook at his right hand and the reaching arms of the forest at his left. His strength was as worn as the hem of his cloak, and his purse was as empty as his stomach, for he hadn’t eaten that day. His only encounter with food had been a village where he made acquaintance with some rotten tomatoes. These had been thrown at him, as had a plethora of other vegetables of varying degrees of decay. His cloak was smeared with them, and his heart was heavy.
He was neither young nor old (one of his inheritances from a fairy godfather long ago) but in all his days he had never found a village—or a land even—where people did not like music. And yet here it was, and he was quite alone. Even the birds had ceased their songs and had retired to their nests. The Minstrel thought longingly of a fire and something hot to drink, and perhaps even a comfortable floor on which to sleep. These he had not had since the first day of the year, and that was many moons ago. He didn’t much like to count exactly how many. It was rather depressing.
His instruments jingled and clanked hopefully in his pack. The Minstrel rested against a dead tree trunk and thought.
“Well,” he said at last, speaking loudly so as to cheer himself up, “a loaf of bread and cheese would be better to eat, but a flute is better than nothing.” He whipped it out and set it to his lips, and a melody issued forth, as silvery and bright as the full moon. And it was as if the flute played without him.
So it was that he came upon a small village at the bottom of a hill (down which he nearly fell, so cheered he was by the flute’s playing) and walked right into it. The houses were dark; nearly everyone had gone to bed. The Minstrel stopped playing and thrust the flute through his belt like a sword.
“Naturally, they’ve all gone,” he said aloud. “Just when I wanted them.” He trudged on, the golden feather in his hat drooping sympathetically.
But as he passed out of the sleeping village, he came to an inn, whose gate was tightly fastened but whose inside looked quite alive.
“Perhaps,” said the Minstrel, “I might have a go.” He set down his pack and took out a double-reeded flute and began to play.
Immediately a giant beast galloped from the door to the gate, snarling and showing fierce teeth the color of ivory. Its shaggy black fur bristled along its back, and the Minstrel paled. But there followed the outraged beast a man, who was obviously the innkeeper.
“Stow it, ye dog, stow it! Shut up! It’s jus’ a…” He saw the Minstrel’s flute. “…a minstrel.” A strange look passed over his face, something like fear and delight and yet not like them at all. He leaned his massive shoulders on the gate and glared at the Minstrel.
“Who are ye?” he demanded in a low voice. “What are ye doin’ here? Why do you come this way?”
“I need a place to sleep,” said the Minstrel, drawing himself up with as much strength as he could find, “and a meal, otherwise there will be no more of me.”
The innkeeper’s forehead knotted darkly. The dog, straining and growling in his master’s grip, suddenly lunged. But the minstrel began to play.
A tune it was such as the innkeeper had never heard. It flowed forth, arresting even the trees in their rustle. All was still.
The dog shrank back, whimpering a little. The innkeeper stared as if hit in the head.
“Whoever plays like that is welcome to me,” he declared huskily. “And in my inn. None of us have heard music like that in years and years. Although I must warn ye, it’s dangerous to be playin’ that thing. They don’t like minstrels much, but you’re safe enough here.”
The Minstrel knew this and decided here was better than nothing. He heaved a great sigh and picked up his pack. The gate swung open before him.
“Who are ye?” said the innkeeper.
“I am the minstrel Cantor, at your service,” said Cantor, and stooping his head entered the inn.
It was a scene most welcome to him, and one that rivaled even his music in its beauty. He found himself led to a blazing hearth and shoved into a chair, and given a foaming tankard of ale that leaked a little down the sides. The innkeeper lumbered around, seeing that all present were well supplied with food and drink.
And a strange lot of people they were, the Minstrel thought, gazing at them from behind a hunk of bread and meat. A small boy the color of dirt crouched in a corner, tormenting a beetle with a long stick. Before the fire a bean pole-like figure had managed to fit in a chair with his long legs stuck out in front. At his side on the floor sat a rather round-faced man with beetle-black eyes and a curiously-shaped mouth. And a tiny woman with hair as black as the night outside peered round one of the doors and rubbed her hands together. It was a strange lot indeed.
Cantor choked and coughed as a huge hand came down on his back.
“Come on, minstrel!” said the innkeeper. “We’re starvin’ for music here. Play us a tune like that!” He gestured toward the gate.
Cantor gulped the last of his meal and took a deep breath. “Very well, but I demand to know one thing first,” he said, extracting a lyre from his pack.
“One thing? And what’s that?” laughed the innkeeper.
“Why is this land so strange? It does not like music, and the people believe the only thing worthy paying a minstrel is rotten vegetables.” Cantor gestured to his stained cloak.
The innkeeper’s smiling face suddenly changed, and deep sadness entered his eyes.
“It’s a sad story,” he muttered. “And one that does not bear well on you, I fear. Ages ago, when the king of the land was very young and only just married, a minstrel—very like yourself—came to his court askin’ for work. He was given it and lived in the king’s house for nigh on three years, and the king became fond of him. Too much, as he soon found out. There came a message from a north kingdom declaring war, and the king sent his queen away. But the minstrel knew the plans, and he—well, the end of it was he betrayed the queen, and they killed her.”
Silence came, and the innkeeper’s story fell on the air like smoke. There was a sniff from the tiny woman.
“The king despaired,” he continued, “and was full of rage, rage like the people had never seen, and he killed the traitorous minstrel himself and ordered all others like him to be killed if they showed their faces in his kingdom. Changed the king was, after that. Some say he sleepwalks with a sword ready to strike in his hand.” The innkeeper heaved a sigh and cast a heavy glance at Cantor. “And so we’ve not had music here since then. You’re first we’ve beheld in many a long year.” At this three other figures turned and Cantor felt their eyes on him, which was not very comfortable somehow.
“Which means,” the innkeeper went on suddenly, “that you’re in great danger in this land.”
Cantor had been considering this fact and was not cheered. “Then why did you—“
“Let you in? You think I’ll betray you like that leech? No. You see we wanted to hear you, because who knows when the likes of you will pass this way again?” The innkeeper looked at Cantor, and his eyes strayed to the lyre at the minstrel’s side. “Well? You have your answer. Will you play?”
Cantor thought very hard about many things for a moment. On the one hand, he might be killed, but on the other, there was the music, and these poor people, and hadn’t he already played outside?
He set the lyre on his lap and began to play, a minor tune that spoke of sorrow and years full of fear and darkness. And as he played the innkeeper’s eyes ran, and the great dog whimpered at his feet, and it was as if a sudden ray of light had glimmered through a thunderous storm. The two men got up and drifted toward him. The small boy let the beetle go and raised his head. The burly innkeeper sank into a chair and buried his face in his hands. And the tiny woman trembled.
The front door shuddered violently, as if spear butts assaulted it. There was a neighing of horses, and a shout.
“Open, in the name of the king!”
The company stood stone-like, arrested even as the minstrel’s hand coaxed the final chord from the strings. No one spoke; all eyes looked to the minstrel.
“They’ve found you,” whispered Bean-pole.
With a crash the door fell down and a company of the king’s men burst through. They bristled with swords; one of them held a length of rope. Still the few in the inn remained at the Minstrel’s side and did not move.
“Traitor!” shouted the captain. His blade came up to the Minstrel’s throat. “You have violated the king’s law!”
Before Cantor could speak he found his wrists were tightly bound and he was on his knees.
“He’s done no harm!” pleaded the innkeeper.
The captain slammed his spear butt into the innkeeper’s chest. He jerked back, his breath knocked from him.
“Keep back, you. His kind deserves death. And he will have it, if the king wills.” The soldiers heaved Cantor upright and forced him to the door.
“Wait!” Bean-pole stepped forward. “Must another also be punished? Is not this enough?” He turned his head, and the left side of his face was a jagged maze of scars. They ran from his temple to his chin, and his ear was but a stub.
The captain sucked in his breath. “You! The king’s page!”
“Yes,” said Bean-pole, “Walter Scallion’s my name, as you well remember. And the king it was who gave me this. Or rather, the mirror he shattered.”
The captain grunted. “Shame, that. One of the queen’s best mirrors.” He gestured impatiently to the soldiers.
“Wait!” shouted Scallion again. “Is not this enough?” He looked to the round-faced man, who shuffled forward. The man opened his mouth, and there was no tongue.
“His voice was like that of the sun itself,” he said, “and you destroyed it. Is not that enough?”
“No,” said the captain shortly. “The king will never rest while a minstrel lives.” And they led the Minstrel Cantor from the inn into the darkness.
But as they went the boy followed, and cried after them. Cantor struggled away and knelt.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said, though fear was stirring in him, and he wasn’t sure of anything. “Take this.” He twisted his bound hands together for an instant, then opened his palms. A little golden flute lay between them.
“It will make you brave.” The boy clasped it and his eyes grew wide and bright.
Then the soldiers mounted, and one of them held the rope that bound the minstrel’s hands, and they led him away into the night.