The Bardess of Rhulon

 

By Verna McKinnon

CHAPTER ONE

Rose Greenleaf wanted her recitation of the epic poem to be perfect for her Bard Master, Belenus Aylecross. She conjured images of blood-soaked battlefields and valiant warriors as she prepared to recite the epic story of King Gregor Ironheart. Her focus waivered as her mother’s shrill voice returned to haunt her.

You’re wasting your life on nursery rhymes instead of filling a nursery! Selfish girl, are you a changeling? No true daughter of mine would refuse marriage and children. It’s unnatural!

I’m a person with hopes and dreams, Mother! I’m not breeding stock just because you want grandchildren.

Belenus struck a match, lighting the tobacco in his pipe, puffing away as smoky clouds masked his expression. He rapped his staff on the wooden floor, snapping Rose out of her tortured thoughts. “Come in Rose, don’t dawdle. Recite the poem.” The old Bard reclined in his over-stuffed crimson chair, the velvet threadbare and musty with age. Low lamplight cast amber-hued reflections on his wrinkled face as he leaned his staff against the wobbly side table.

“Sorry, Master,” Rose mumbled. Her mother’s grating voice continued to nag inwardly, disrupting Rose’s focus.

Foolish girl! Why do you study this poetry nonsense when there are pies to bake! No wonder you’re a spinster!

It wasn’t just the fight with her mother. Since she woke this morning, Rose suffered ominous feelings all day, as though a black cloud loomed above her, threatening a terrible storm. Karta help me, Rose inwardly prayed to her patron goddess to banish her mother’s stubborn presence from her mind, especially before reciting her favorite epic poem. She inhaled deeply the woodsy pipe smoke. It calmed her because it reminded her of her father, who enjoyed a good smoke, though her mother always fussed about the smell. The fusty odor of ancient books and scrolls was like perfume, and always beckoned adventure if one only dared to read! Rose exiled her mother from her mind. She invoked instead the memory of a king long dead, from a war long remembered.

The story transported her to the grim battle fields where Ironheart’s forces stood against the demon armies of the goblin king, Raziel Drujaesh. Raw sensations coursed through Rose’s veins as her mind’s eye envisioned the grueling battle trek of Ironheart’s soldiers during the goblin wars. Her tongue parched and belly rumbled as she recounted their sufferings when the field rations had long been consumed. Her bones rattled with stampeding horses screaming across the rocky terrain as they charged the demon hordes. It was a dark and terrible age that bristled with adventure and intrigue. Tales of sorcery, heroes, and love-struck maidens filled countless volumes from that mythic era.

Rose’s poem reached its heartbreaking final battle when Gregor Ironheart stormed Raziel’s stronghold in Fire Skull Mountain. In that fiery chamber of demons within the mountain, Gregor faced Raziel, a demon born of that rare Kobalos goblin breed, seven feet tall with crimson skin and black eyes. They clashed in the heated shadows. Gregor unsheathed his secret weapon, the legendary Sun Blade; the enchanted blade’s light blinded the demon. Raziel managed to thrust his colossal black iron sword into King Gregor’s heart. Broken and bleeding, Gregor shouted a final war cry and thrust the Sun Blade into Raziel’s side before he collapsed. Raziel perished, howling as he was consumed by the mystical light until he burst into flaming ashes.

Tears welled in Roses eyes as she spoke the final words and she envisioned Gregor Ironheart carried away on a great shield by kings of old, his sacrifice for the world complete and the demons banished to the dark. The tragic fate of so many heroes is death. That loss resonated in her soul as she came to those final lines. She paused for a heartbeat, and then spoke deeply as the valor of the ancient king reverberated in her heart-

Light’s glory dimmed as Ironheart’s mortal life ebbed.

Gregor, King of Rhulon, fell to his stony deathbed.

Comrades lifted him upon a shield of victory so hard won.

His triumph over darkness done.

Finished, Rose wondered if her effort was worthy of Gregor Ironheart’s legacy, and more importantly, would Belenus approve? Frustrated, she knew she would torture herself later over her performance, so she folded her hands together and bowed her head with practiced patience as Master Belenus pondered his judgment.

After what seemed an eternity of torment, but was really just a few ticks of the wall clock, Belenus bellowed and rapped his staff on the scuffed floor. “Well done, Rose. Well done! Wonderful telling.”

“Thank you, Master Belenus.”

“What’s the matter, Rose? You don’t seem pleased, girl,” he replied, studying her expression with sharp eyes.

She shrugged and sat down. “Well, I wasn’t perfect.”

He burst out laughing and Rose bit her lip in irritation, and then laughed at herself.

“You take things too seriously, Rose.” Belenus tapped his pipe on the copper ashtray. “You had another argument with your mother, didn’t you?”

“You know we fight every week now. It’s getting worse. Still, it shouldn’t matter. A true bard must perform no matter how they feel personally. I must be serious, Master Belenus. Teaching a girl to become a bard is not, well—”

“Not common? Not accepted?” Belenus huffed and slowly pushed himself up from his chair. “I’ve seen much of the world, Rose. It’s not blasphemy to teach a woman. Many kingdoms accept women for more than housewifery and child bearing. Our people are noble, but have grown very isolated and traditionalist. They do not suffer change well. Compliance and stiff traditions are the greatest threats to any culture. That’s why I was surprised to find a girl so eager to study the art, when most maidens your age have already snagged husbands and are bouncing squalling brats on their knees.”

Rose shivered in mock horror. “That sounds more terrifying than facing Raziel the goblin king! Still, it’s springtime again and the season of weddings. You know what that means.”

“It means that mother of yours is on the bridal warpath again.” He laughed, and put down his pipe. He coughed and waving a hand toward the cupboard. “Dear Rose, fetch me a bit of brandy. My throat’s dry after my smoke. Take some water for yourself, for surely your pipes must need it after that long poem.”

The faded green pine cupboard was crammed with old dishes and cups, mismatched utensils, a loaf of bread, a wrapped block of cheese, and several leather pouches of tobacco. She took the bottle of brandy from the top shelf and found the carafe of water, pouring herself a cupful. It was warm but soothed her thirst. “My spinster status irks my mother like a nasty plague. Simon Split-Oak has been trying to court me since last winter, much to my mother’s delight and my annoyance.”

“Isn’t Simon that big, thick lad? He’s your father’s apprentice at his smithy, isn’t he?”

“Yes. Mother forced me to sit with him at church last Solday. We have nothing in common. He hates reading and cares nothing about music.” She poured the brandy into his favorite cup, an old ceramic mug with chipped painted flowers and handed it to him. “Most of all, I just have no desire to marry anyone.”

“What does your father say?”

“Very little in front of Mother,” Rose replied dryly.

“With your mother Gerta, that’s probably wise.”

“Oh Master Belenus, I just need to survive a few more months and I will be free. Then I will be eighteen and of legal age. I can do what I want then. It’s so unfair. A boy turns sixteen and he’s considered a man. A girl has no say about her life until she’s eighteen, and by then she is usually married off to some buffoon. Then it’s all moot.”

Belenus chuckled. A sturdy knock on the front door froze them both into muteness. Rose tiptoed to the window and peeked through the tattered curtains. It was Simon Split-Oak, the bane of her existence. A burly young man with a dull wit, pampered by an overprotective mother, he could not take no for an answer about courting her. What was he doing now—tracking her?

“Rose, you in there?” Simon bellowed through the door. “You mum sent me to walk you home. A girl needs a proper escort.”

As if I need an escort! What’s going to happen to me in this sleepy, tiny village? Will a swarm of ogres attack? A pack of wild beasts devour me?

Belenus pushed himself up, grabbed his staff and motioned for Rose to hide. She cursed the fact he had no backdoor. She grabbed her precious lute and went to the far corner opposite the door and crouched low next to a crowded shelf, crammed with old books and scrolls piled haphazardly.

Belenus opened door in mid-knock. “Stop your bloody knocking. What the hell do you want, boy?”

“I’m supposed to walk Miss Rose home. Her mother sent me.”

“Rose left half an hour ago, Simon. Go away.” Before Simon could utter another word, Belenus slammed the door. He peeped out the window and after a moment, motioned Rose from her corner of sanctuary.

“Is it safe?” Rose whispered.

“Simon’s gone now. What the hell does his mother feed him anyway? He’s big as a house and smells like cooked onions.”

“I know,” Rose giggled. “It’s very odd.”

“Why did your blasted mother send him here to fetch you?”

“Mother hates it when I come here. Thinks I have better things to do—like knitting or whipping lace for my wedding veil. This morning she had me running all over the village like a madwoman doing silly errands. I didn’t even get breakfast. I was tempted to eat the apple pie I took to old Widow Brook. It smelled so good, I could have devoured the whole thing, but I do not steal food from old widows. I didn’t even have time to grab a bite when I returned home. Mother fretted over a gooseberry pie while I obediently peeled the potatoes, watching the clock on the wall to chime my hour of freedom. Before the vegetables made it into the pot we were arguing. When it came time for me to leave for my lesson with you, she made me wash the dishes and sweep the floor, knowing it would make me late. When I asked to leave, she demanded to know where I had to go that was so important. Her face puckered like a wormy apple when I reminded her about my bardic lesson.

“Mother put my trousers in the wash, so I had to run in this damned heavy skirt, my lute bouncing on my back. I’m sure my back is riddled with bruises. I tripped twice, and since the ground was muddy from last night’s rain, my dress and shoes are caked with it. I left the shoes outside to dry.” She brushed at the dried mud on her skirt, which dropped off in flakes. “Ever since I started coming three times a week, it has become a war. Whenever I have a lesson, my house duties triple.” Rose dropped down on the stool, exhausted. “But enough about my silly woes. I want to hear more about your adventures as a bard on the road or the kingdoms you visited. Last time, you told me about your time in the Tirangel court in White Thorn as a young man. Is it true that it never snows in Tirangel? Did the old Emperor truly have six mistresses at once? Tell me about your years as Chief Bard to our King Grimkel Ironheart at Rhundoran Keep. Is it true Rhundoran Keep is carved right out of the mountain? What happened to the Sun Blade they always talk about in the poems?”

“Stop, stop!” Belenus waved his hand in defense, laughing as he sank back into his chair. “Yes, yes, that charming seaside kingdom of Tirangel was one of my favorite haunts when I was younger…and spryer of foot. The honor of being the Royal Bard to King Grimkel Ironheart was my greatest achievement. I lived in Rhundoran Keep for a long time, and the King was a good friend as well as a benefactor.”

“That is an honor few can boast,” Rose nodded, hugging her knees. “It must have been wonderful to be at the court of King Grimkel.”

Belenus chuckled, his mood lightened by her enthusiasm. “There are many mysteries, my dear. That’s what makes life a wonder. That mystical sword vanished centuries ago. Still, the luxury of court life did not calm my restless feet. They itched for adventure and new kingdoms to explore. I learned much about life as I journeyed. The best way to learn the culture and history of a land is to live there my dear, research their ancient fables and legends. Eat their food and drink their wine. This emersion fermented my own poetry and tales with fresh vision. A bard best serves the way—the art—on the road. A king or noble merely provides the purse for the bard to feed himself. If you are good, you eat well. If you are bad, you starve. There is a sacrifice in wearing the bardic mantle. It is a nomadic life—a lonely life. Do you really want that?”

“Yes,” Rose replied with such swift conviction that Belenus raised his eyebrow.

“Are you sure you’re not driven by the desire to be free of your mother’s…coddling?”

“Mother doesn’t coddle, though she curdles a bit,” Rose grinned. “I dream of seeing the world and all its wonders. I want to sing and tell stories. Becoming a bard, a true bard, is all I have ever dreamed of. I love my family, I really do, but I feel trapped here, as though a spider has me caught in its web; but instead of being cocooned and eaten I am condemned to drudgery and a life without music or epic poetry. Whenever I talked about this to my best friend and cousin, Peony, she looks at me like I am a madwoman, but at least she does not ridicule. Do you think me mad too?”

“To be a bard is to be a little mad. We have the souls of wanderers. It’s a curse, Rose, though you’re too young to understand. But what you have is the talent; else you would not be under my tutelage. Your singing could enchant the Fey and your storytelling is masterful for one so young. I even endorsed you to the Bard Academy, but—”

“They don’t accept girls,” Rose finished sadly. “It was kind that you tried.”

“Damned fools. The Academy in Rhungar is not the only school, Rose. Every land worth its salt has a bard academy.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Rose insisted smiling with pride. “I have you to teach me, and I can think of no better teacher.”

“And I am glad I could teach someone with the talent. Those arrogant, pompous bureaucrats at the Bard Academy are just a pack of ignorant fools—the whole lot of them. You bring the words to life and have fire in your song. You have the memory too, which is rare and necessary. All you need do is read a page once or twice and you have it committed to memory. What is your tale and song choice for next week?”

“I’m looking over some tales now. For the music, the Song of Talasyn,” Rose answered brightly.

Belenus nodded approval. “Fine and challenging choice. Talasyn had the glam rhapsodé, a magic so rare among our caste that perhaps one or two a century are blessed with this gift—or cursed.” Belenus sipped his brandy. “There are many tales of glory and sorrow for those with this magic. A bard named Ailínn actually summoned the ocean waves with his song to crush an armada of invading warships. Javid, who hailed from the eastern lands of Uragon, used the magic to enchant a maiden to fall in love him, but when he grew tired of her, he could not break the spell. She killed herself out of grief and he never sang again. They had power, but their magic can be a bane as well as a blessing. Some even went mad.”

Rose hugged her knees, her eyes wide with worship. “Talasyn was touched by the glam rhapsodé, but he never abused it, nor did he seem to suffer for it. I read the great biography of Talasyn Peony bought for me last Solstice. She had to order it from Rhungar. I have committed every poem and story he ever wrote to memory. There is a legend he was so beloved by the Fairy Folk that they made him immortal and took him to their misty Otherworld. In the Fairy Country, they restored the old bard to his youthful vigor. Talasyn still sings in their enchanted woods beneath the starlight.”

“Damned Fairies were never that considerate of me,” Belenus gruffly laughed. “For the best, I think. I’d get bored.” His smile faded and his eyes became serious. “The magic of the rhapsodé touches few of us. What would you do if you were touched?”

Rose laughed and then stared at Belenus quizzically. “I don’t know if you are testing me or joking? I don’t know what I would feel. It’s both frightening and marvelous to imagine. People treat you differently when you are different, and folks in this village already look at me like I am an oddity. Maybe I could enchant my mother to stop nagging me and leave me in peace.”

“Speaking of peace, a drop more brandy please.”

Rose refilled his glass and handed it back to him. “There are rumors you were also a spy for the King? I’ve read many tales of minstrels and bards acting as spies.”

“There is some truth to those rumors in that some bards have also added watchers to our list of talents, but few ever speak of it,” he grinned.

“Do you have regrets?” Rose asked.

“Only about a few comely maidens I had to leave behind.”

“Rogue,” she teased and pushed her stool forward, eager to hear more.

Belenus leaned forward, his eyes bright as a child. “Has any young man ever tugged at your heart, Rose?”

“Love starts out with flowers and honeyed words. It ends with smelly diapers and squalling babies. Doesn’t seem like a fair trade.”

“You’re so young to be so cynical.”

“The love stories are good,” Rose shrugged. “Still, war sagas are much more interesting. I’m glad you came here, Master. At least I had the opportunity to study with one of the great bards of Rhulon. I know the Academy will never accept a girl, so you were my salvation. Tell me, why didn’t you go back to Rhundoran Keep in Rhungar when you retired? The King would have welcomed you at court.”

“I could have, but I decided to retire here in blessed obscurity and rest my weary bones in peace. This old cottage belonged to my grandfather and he left it to me many years ago. It’s decrepit, the roof leaks, and I think there are mice living in the walls, but it’s a quiet nest for me in my old age. Of course, when folks heard Belenus Aylecross, Bard of the First Order, had settled here, parents dragged their sons here to be instructed. Not one of them was worth salt. Then you banged on my door, with your lute on your back and a scroll of poetry in your hand. You announced that you wanted to be a Bard! I almost laughed, but something inside me whistled caution. Then, when I heard you sing and listened to your poetry and storytelling, I knew you had the gift.” He looked pensive now, his green eyes shadowed. “But what will you do with my training, truly? There are no female bards among our clans. None have held that rank in more than a century.”

Rose picked up her lute and fiddled with tuning the strings. “That’s why I want to travel. I must find my own path. You’ve spoken of women in other lands that are considered equals among men. I don’t belong here. I don’t want a husband or wailing babies. My dream is to be a Bard. It has been since I was four years old when I saw an old Bard perform during Solstice that year in the village. He told marvelous tales of adventure and sang with the most wonderful voice. I knew from that moment that was what I wanted to be. I studied on my own until you came to our village. If I want to become a true bard, I must leave here. You know that, Master.”

“Where will you go?”

“South to Tirangel, I think. The land of the tall folk seems daunting, but you did it. I’m not sure, but I must find my home on the road. Tell the stories. Sing the songs. Maybe I’m cursed, as you say. I’m saving the money I earn from singing. Last week I sang at the spring festival, plus there are always weddings and christenings. Until I reach adult age, I will do my best to please mother, barring marriage to some oaf, of course.”

“What about your father? It will be hard on him to see his only girl leave.”

“I will miss Papa. I know he tolerates my love of poetry and music as a childish dream, but he’s never berated me for it. Papa overrode my mother’s refusal for me to study with you-even though she raved liked a banshee for days. She burned supper three nights in a row to punish us both. Papa always spoiled me a little; sometimes I think to compensate for mother’s strict demands. I’m their only child. Still, if I were a boy, they would praise me for my bard ambitions; as a girl, I am rebuked for it. They think I will put on a matronly apron and bake pies, but how many pies must suffer a scorched death before they realize I’m not like other girls?”

Belenus put down his cup and walked over to the window, his slight limp not slowing his step. He opened the curtains to let in the last of the day’s sunshine and fresh air. “You’re only seventeen. That’s so young. I’m passed seventy winters now, beyond the time of supple youth and hot hearts. The decades have turned me gray and stiffened my joints, yet if I could walk a few good miles a day, I would still be on the road singing for my supper.”

Rose tried to imagine Belenus Aylecross, still in his youthful prime and her imagination erased the crippling of age and gray hair. Yes, she could envision the young bard, defiant and strong, storming through the world with his lute. She could sense his captivity now, here in their insignificant village of Stone Haven. She felt a sorrow for him at that moment, but concealed it, knowing he would chafe at her pity.

He turned to Rose, his gaze serious. “What do you want Rose?”

“Freedom,” she replied.

“Freedom has a price,” Belenus warned. “It takes more than a sharp memory or a singing voice to be a bard, so much more and you have it, but it involves sacrifice. It can be a stark life touched with loneliness.”

The wall clock chimed. Rose jumped to her feet. “Oh blast! Mother will have a fit if I’m late for supper tonight.” She carefully slipped her lute into its leather cover and slung it across her shoulder.

“All that fuss just to eat at a specific time? Odd to be so persnickety about time tables when folks don’t go anywhere.”

“We’re having company. Simon and his mother are coming to supper. At least Mother invited Peony and Tom too.” She opened the front door and stepped outside for her shoes were caked with mud. She pulled them on and kicked against the outside wall, breaking off the dried earth in crusty chunks. “If I’m late again, I’ll never hear the end of it.” She hiked up her skirts and bolted. “Thank you, Master! See you next week!”

“Be careful not to fall in the mud this time,” Belenus shouted as she jumped over a fallen tree branch without breaking her stride.

As Rose rushed home, the black storm cloud in her mind still hovered with mysterious threat, no matter how fast she raced from it.

See the rest of The Bardess of Rhulon as an ebook or as a print book.