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Song of Seret

    • 89 posts
    November 1, 2020 7:07 AM PST

     

    Kaven walks through a mourning fog of his own breath. Remains of the harvest festival wilt and crumble in the corners of streets, forgotten, as Thronefast passes into winter unremarked. Old leaves crunch beneath his boots. 

    This early, the sun hasn't fully reached these streets. Light peers over the eastern roofs to light corners and doors unopened. Kaven and his long shadow are alone for now.

    Ropes cross overhead draped with banners or laundry, and birds who have lingered beyond the leaving of their kin watch him pass beneath them. Most of the winged ones he sees are crows, who watch him closely from above.

    The wind picks up, throwing leaves into his face. He lowers his head and walks faster, watching his feet move along the stones.

    Hearing a voice, he slows and looks up. Before him is an open square of broken stones and statues. Long ago this might have been a gathering place of morning merchants and hawkers of a thousand wares, but now this place is rundown and fallen into ragged age.

    But this morning, a girl dancing. Kaven's feet still as he watches her dance, kicking up dry leaves and the dust of autumn. She sees nothing of her path, eyes closed and arms that sway and crave. Somehow her feet avoid the turned stones and missing steps with her eyes closed, never faltering as she moves. Her clothes are a clash of colors, fire and sunset and moss green, spinning in the early sun. What catches his breath are her companions in the dance. A group of seven crows fly around her, resting for a moment on a broken stone or plinth then taking to wing again.

    She sings to them, a wordless cant or hum, and their rough voices twine with her song. There is a rhythm there, just out of reach though he longs to find it. Something in him moves.

    She smiles and trills, a joyful chorus as she opens her eyes. She sees him then and stops. Now he sees that she is no girl, but a halfling woman with dark feathers in her hair and jewelry of tooth and claw. The crows settle in around her and stare, sizing him up as if he is an intruder here. Perhaps I am, he thinks. There was beauty here until I came.

    "Who are you?" the halfling asks.

    What can he answer? A broken bard lost in the dawn.

    "Kaven," he says. Then he shrugs. "I walk this path sometimes when I can't sleep."

    "I don't often see people in the street on cold mornings," she says, "except the early venders."

    He nods. "Night workers greet the dawn before bed—you can see them stepping from pubs and brothels as they wind down their day."

    "Like my friends, I sleep at night. Soon they'll forage on their own, but we like to dance when the light comes."

    "I've never met anyone with so many winged friends."

    The halfling finds a broken plinth and sits. "The friendship of crows is a better wine than wine," she says, laughing. "They're loyal and fierce, they share everything, teach me songs I never dreamed... No human or halfling has ever been so good a companion to me."

    "Then you are blessed," says Kaven. "The best friendships, wherever you find them, are what the heart breathes."

    She looks at him closely, and he realizes that his voice broke at the end. "I should," he clears his throat, "go home and try to sleep before I have to work again."

    "You are one of those night workers you spoke of?"

    "I am. I sing for patrons who do not listen and tell stories that no one hears." Now he laughs, and his usual pitch takes over. "Come to the Frail Feather if you feel a need for ale and music this evening."

    "Maybe I will," says the halfling. "If the mood takes me to drown in a roomful of humans."

    "You'll find many of us in Thronefast, after all."

    "So I have learned." Crows begin to leap away, calling after her, and she waves them on. She caws something in their language—or so it seems to Kaven—and they answer before they fly away.

    "I agree," she says. "It's time to eat something warm."

    "Anyway," he slumps a bit, only now realizing how weary he is, "well met this morning."

    He turns and walks back the way he came without quite hearing her response.


     

    The light is still fading outside the door, but here within the Frail Feather the working day begins. It is not yet as loud as later it will be, but the first patrons are gathering around tables or near the hearth. Here in the back, Kaven tunes his clarsach, letting it become accustomed to the warmth near the open fire where meat is roasting, and well-seasoned beans and cabbage warm in cauldrons by the side.

    Kaven has already eaten, at least a little. His appetite has fallen in recent months, and more than one bar maid has tried to feed him. "You'll become thin as a dagger," said one, "and cut the next woman you embrace." He smiled and promised to eat something, and she went away.

    The bowl at his feet is empty, as it always begins the night. He hopes that there will be a spray of coins within by the time the dawn comes, though coins have been scarce. He's lucky the tavern owner still lets him play, so he will do his best.

    He begins with a sprightly tune, a tale of adventurers who find the end of the world and ask of it the truth about their lives, and each of them begins a quest to find their heart's desire. His fingers dance along the strings, and for a time he loses himself in the story, his voice soaring into the air above the shouting patrons and their own stories of the day.

    As the song ends, he looks up at the tavern full of men and women all trying to yell above the others, expecting to find that none are looking at him.

    But the halfling sits a few feet away, watching him.

    "Hello," he says.

    "Why did she abandon the king?" asks the halfling.

    Kaven thinks back a few stanzas. "Oh, after the battle of Dellendirin. She felt that the king had abandoned her and all of her comrades."

    "Ah. Do you like long and winding songs that are stories?"

    "Not really, but they can be popular." When she looks around, he adds, "Not here, but somewhere I'm sure ballads are popular."

    "What songs would you rather sing?"

    He thinks a moment, then realizes that he does not know. "A few years ago, I knew. Now I have no idea."

    The halfling nods. "A lot of things are that way."

    As he listens, he realizes he has never heard a halfling speak the language of humans before. Her accent is sharp as fir needles and restless as the hunger before a hunt.

    A large mug of ale lands on the floor next to Kaven, sloshing a bit as it settles. He looks up and sees the barkeep.

    "Play something else," he says. "Don't just talk to girls."

    The barkeep walks away. Kaven looks at the halfling, who is staring into the nearby fire.

    "I honestly can't think of anything but tragic ballads these days," he says, "but it's my job."

    He takes a deep draft of ale, then sets down the mug and settles his clarsach on his lap.

    "Once there was a man who loved to live..." he begins.


     

    The early dawn lights his room an eerie blue. It's a small room, only big enough for a rickety cot, a small night table, and a little chest for clothes. But it's his as long as he keeps the music going every night.

    Near the foot of the bed is a small brazier. He stirs the coals, and a warm and friendly glow appears. It won't last, but it should help him while trying to sleep.

    He lies down and pulls the blanket over him. There are holes in the thick wool, and it hasn't been washed in many days, but it's a fair companion on winter days.

    A gust of wind through the window reminds him that he forgot to close the shutters. He tries to muster the will to sit up and take care of that.

    A crow caws through the open window.

    Kaven sits up and looks. A large crow stands on the windowsill, staring at him. For a moment the feathers gleam iridescent in his eyes, but the moment passes, and he sees obsidian black.

    The crow speaks, one drawn-out word and then a shorter one. Kaven shakes his head. "I wish I could dance with you," he says, "but I don't know if there is any dancing left in me."

    The crow coos softly, then looks around the room with a rattle and click. It looks at him again, then caws once more and flies away.

    Kaven feels its absence when it's gone.


     

    He doesn't see the halfling for several days. Every shift he plays the long ballads that he knows well enough, climbs his way through the night, then gathers what few coins have found their way into his bowl and heads to his room.

    When his offday comes, Kaven wakes late in the afternoon. As a night worker, his time off will be at night as well. He could play, listen to someone else's music, or find someone warm for a few hours, or drink with...

    He lies very still in his bed, thinking once again he'll stay here until it's time to work once more. But by chance he hears a calling through the window, two crows sharing whatever they share above the heads of humans—a story, perhaps, a song, a wish, a hunt.

    Kaven sits up and rubs his eyes. Suddenly he rises and puts on outside clothes. A torn but hardy coat and simple boots, and he's ready. On impulse, he picks up his clarsach to carry with him.

    The streets of Summerside District are bare and lonesome in the dawn, but here in the dusk people walk here and there on rapid feet, on their way to an evening meal. He finds a square that's emptier than most and sits down beside a statue of some figure of legend that no one remembers.

    Setting the clarsach on his lap, he checks the tuning, then begins to play. No ballad today, no endless tragedy about great warriors and kings betrayed by fate. This is a simple melody that he wrote once, long ago. Nine beats, a minor key. After a few measures, he closes his eyes and begins to hum. The hum becomes a chant; the chant becomes a song.

    He sings of a young winter, still breathless with joy and longing, and a heart that dreams. But winters always age, and loss and grief weigh down the joy til only frost remains.

    Trying to shift the rhythm, he opens his eyes and stops playing, startled. A line of crows stand before him, silent, listening.

    Kaven swallows. "I apologize, my friends. That was a bit sad, wasn't it? I know some dances..."

    "Is that an old ballad too?"

    Kaven looks up and sees two women sitting on the roof of an abandoned food cart. One is human, dressed in a shabby patchwork cloak and watching him through her hair. The other is the halfling.

    It was the halfling who spoke. Kaven clears his throat and says, "No, I was just... making it up as I sang."

    "Mmm. A friend of mine, another bard, told me once that those can be the truest songs."

    "Maybe a little too true."

    She tilts her head, looking for a moment like a bird examining him.

    "And I'm no bard," he continues, "just a man who plays in a pub where no one listens."

    "You have an audience tonight," says the halfling.

    As she speaks, several more crows join the audience gathering on the ground in front of him.

    He shifts the clarsach on his lap and resumes his song. He hums a while until the words find him again.

    I am a ship whose sails have stilled without the wind

    and Seret sails another sea to find another friend

    He sings into the night, sings about adventurers in the deepest dark, the weft and warp of day to day for common folk, the silence and solitude of crowded streets. He sings about growing up in the febrile city, and companionship, and about the clutch of sorrow. Somewhere in the night he sees the crows asleep beside the halfling, their feathered heads bowed. The human woman leaves, another night worker on her way to whatever she must do.

    But the halfling is awake and listening. A more attentive audience than he's had in months. The full moon passes over them all among the stars.

    At last as night begins to fade, he yawns and lays his harp upon his lap. But now the crows are awake beside the halfling.

    "I think that's all I have in me tonight, my friends," he says, and bows his head. "I thank you for sharing this night with me."

    The halfling drops down from the roof of the food cart and says, "You seemed more a bard tonight then you did in the Frail Feather. More alive and raw and true."

    "It is rare that I get to sing what moves me," says Kaven. He laughs softly. "Rare, too, that people listen. Now I think I need to sleep."

    He stands, bows again, and turns to head toward his room in the inn.

    "Who is Seret?"

    Kaven freezes, then turns to face the halfling. "She was... just an old, old friend who didn't make it."

    He turns again and steps into the merciless dawn.


     

    Nights pass as they do, his voice raised in unheard song, picking at untasted food, dreaming restless in the days between. Somewhere in the hollow in his chest, a simmering has begun. The halfling and her crows have stirred something, kicking embers into flame that doesn't sleep.

    Three mornings after he sang beneath the stars, he drags his feet up the stairs to his room and sets his harp beside the bed as always. He changes out of his performing clothes and prepares for sleep as always.

    Then suddenly he is on his cot, gripping the ragged wool blanket between his hands, wracked with sobs. All the memory and the grief and loss that slept for months has risen from his chest to choke him. After a long time, he realizes he is saying 'why' over and over.

    And then he knows he is no longer alone. He opens his eyes to see a crow beside his head, watching without words. Through tears its wings hold many colors, until he blinks them away.

    "I am sorry my friend," he whispers. "It seems I have nothing to offer but... this."

    The crow steps forward and tugs at his hair with its beak. It croaks and coos, speaking in the way of crows until he feels he understands.

    "What have I been doing since then?" he says. A puff of air leaves his lungs. "Perhaps nothing. Perhaps trying to find what remains. Perhaps trying to decide whether I should follow her."

    Something presses behind his nose, his eyes. A weight of grief that was always there, that he pushed into the depths so that he could move his feet.

    The crow caws softly, then a rattle and click. A question. Its eyes are inches from his own.

    "What can I do? What is left?"

    He remembers what the halfling said. They share everything, teach me songs I never dreamed.

    "How do you fly when they're gone? How do you lift your wings?"

    The crow raises its wings, a brilliant darkness black as the song of the sea, and flaps them several times. Suddenly it lifts its head and sings in a ragged voice, and then it flies out his window. Seconds pass before it returns, landing in his bed in a spray of feathers.

    Kaven sits up. He takes a deep breath, and then another.

    "You're right," he says.

    He moves to the end of his cot and opens the cedar chest. He pulls out his travel clothes long untouched and breathes in the scent of cedar that clings to them.

    After he is dressed, he straps his harp to his back, pulls his coin purse out from behind a loose board, and stands. The crow watches.

    "Will you take me to her?"

    A quick caw and a flurry of wings. Kaven walks down the stairs, then goes through the door of the Frail Feather for the last time. His companion leads him through the mourning streets of Thronefast toward the square where they first met.

    She is there, dancing with her eyes closed and singing to her winged friends. Singing in words he cannot understand, with the crows adding rhythm and murmur and a flap of many wings. She spins once more and opens her eyes, as if she knows he is standing there.

    She looks him over. "You look like a bard about to find a road. Which road have you chosen?"

    "Outside the city," he says. "The worlds I've never seen. A song I haven't sung. Forest and field and flower, town and tower and tomb. I need a new song. I need to find it."

    The halfling smiles. "Then I wish you well in your quest, Kaven."

    "And I wish you well, Singer to Crows."

    She laughs. "My first master named me that when I was very small. And here you've named me that again. It must be my true name."

    Kaven smiles. "And now I need my own. Fare well, all my friends."

    As he heads for the city gates, he hears a song of crows behind him. One crow flies alongside him, lighting on a statue or a broken wall, but always near.

    Early caravans are already passing through the gates. He nods to the city guard and sets foot upon the road south.

    His new companion lands on his shoulder and says something in his ear.

    "Wherever you would lead me," he replies.

     

     - end -


    This post was edited by Crowsinger at November 25, 2020 3:59 PM PST