There once was a bard with a very large ego.
Most bards, being of the public sort, do enjoy the admiration of their audience, but this particular bard’s ambitions went beyond the desire for mere accolades. No, this bard desired fame, craved fortune—he wished no less than to be the most famous bard in all the land, installed in the King’s own court, above all others, without peer.
This bard, though skilled, pursued his trade for all the wrong reasons.
Oh, he studied, and learned the old songs, the ones that his audiences would request time and again—epic tales of romance and derring-do. But all the while, there lived a tiny stone of resentment in his heart, for despite all his efforts to capture what was so magic, so compelling, about those old tales, he could create no such songs of his own.
He stayed abreast of the machinations of King and Court, hearing from heralds all the latest activities in the Great City. From such news, he attempted to craft new epics—for such were the times that there was no shortage of heroism from the King or his men.
It was a wealthy kingdom, situated on rich farmlands, with a port that sat in the midst of a prosperous trade route.
The King’s ancestors had wisely settled there, many generations ago, defending and fortifying the holding, patiently expanding it, all the while taking care that its citizens prospered right along with the kingdom. For these kings knew that their hold on the land was dependent on the contentment of the people there.
Theirs was a wise dynasty.
Kings and chieftains of surrounding lands saw the wealth of this place and desired it for themselves. They beset the borders constantly, not understanding that the happy people recognized their good fortune and would fight to keep it.
So in this bard’s youth, his rich home was also rich with tales of heroic deeds, of citizens defeating invaders, knights holding off entire regiments single-handedly, women and children defending their homes, love affairs born in the heat of battle, all manner of tales grand and humble.
And this bard’s songs were good, or good enough so that he never starved, but still he was unable to capture the hearts and minds of his audiences with his own songs quite as well as the works of the old masters could.
So that resentful stone grew a tiny bit heavier in his heart, every year weighing a little more on his ambitions.
Over the years his skill grew, and while the magic of past masters still eluded him, he nevertheless gained enough stature to warrant the attention of the local lord, himself an ambitious man. The lord carried a stone in his own heart, that of resentment for the wise old king (for the king was already slipping past his prime when the bard was born), who kept a check on his court, constraining its members not to accumulate too much wealth, for to do so would be at the expense of the people.
But this lord chafed under such a yoke, declaring to all who listened that he was certain he could manage it better than the foolish old king—for so he thought him—if only he were allowed to hold more of it. He would invest it, he said, in rapid expansion of the trade routes, buying and building a vast fleet of ships to plunder sea and shore, turning a few coins into wealth beyond imagining. And of course, be able to keep more for himself.
But the King stood firm, and watched this lord closely. So the lord’s resentment grew just as the bard’s did, slowly over time.
In the first year of the bard’s post to the lord’s household, the old King died. Having no male heirs, and his only daughter yet unwed, it was she who ascended to the throne.
While this caused a stir, it was not a scandal, for other women had held this throne wisely and well. Too, the old King had raised his daughter to rule in his stead, teaching her to be politic and kind, yet firm when such was warranted.
So the people were content that the throne would remain in good hands, and worried not that those hands were more slender than the previous pair.
But that contentment did not reach the jealous lord, who was now even more convinced that the old King had been a fool—for who but a fool would allow a mere woman to take up the mantle?
This lord stewed in his resentment, stirring and fussing over it until boiled over and consumed his every waking thought.
“Bard!” he would call: “Sing me the Epic of Thomas the Knight.” For Thomas was a knight who became a king by defeating a powerful enemy and winning the hand of a princess.
So the bard would sing the Epic of Thomas the Knight to his discontented lord, who would close his eyes and smile dreamily, visions of battles and glory chasing themselves behind his eyes.
This went on for some months, the bard feeding his lord’s resentment along with his own, until one evening a realization struck him with such stunning clarity that his fingers still and his voice stumbled to a halt.
The lord’s eyes squinted opened and leveled themselves balefully on the bard.
“What ails you? Go on, or I shall find me another. There are many waiting to take your place.”
An empty threat, the bard knew, for the lord’s resentment had infected his keep such that all manner of performers kept themselves well away, preferring the company (and the coin) of gentler hosts.
The bard began tentatively, “I’ve had a thought, my lord, one that could bring your great satisfaction,” as well as my own, the bard added silently.
“A thought?” the lord laughed dismissively. “I don’t pay you for your thoughts.”
“You hardly pay me at all, lord, but I have—”
The lord’s face grew dangerous at that, for no one had ever had such audacity, not even his jester, a bent, dour old fellow who had nothing left to fear.
“Have a care, bard…” the lord growled.
The bard shrugged, now both fully convinced of and committed to the idea that had seized him.
He cleared his throat. “Good my lord, you say that our new Queen is weak and in need of a strong guiding hand.”
“For so she is, yes. A mere woman on the throne—bah. What is your point?”
The bard took a breath and said carefully, “What if yours were that guiding hand? What if you were to be her Thomas the Knight, the defeater of her enemies, and the champion of her kingdom… and her heart?”
The lord was silent for a moment, considering possibilities. For although he was a greedy man, he was also canny and could see a happy end to this tale. Well, happy for him anyway.
“Why, bard, I do believe yours was a good thought! What if, indeed…” his voice trailed off, a plan already forming in his mind.
The bard slowly took up the tune again, dwelling on the part of the epic where Thomas the Knight defeated the enemy inside the gates of what was to become his kingdom.
The bard was not malicious, but had by then been overtaken enough by his own ambitions (for were his lord to become King, he would naturally take the post of King’s Bard), that the possible consequences of his suggestion didn’t quite occur to him.
Not considering that the Queen might have no interest in this lord, or how he should finally defeat their enemies, his only thought was that if his lord ascended, so too would he.
“Leave me, bard, for I wish to think upon this notion and make it manifest if I can.”
The bard bowed and took his leave, the epic unfinished on his lips.
How should this lord, who was by no means a capable fighter, follow Thomas the Knight’s example and defeat the enemy inside the…
He couldn’t possibly be thinking…
The bard’s blood ran cold, for he was not so far gone that he didn’t recognize his lord’s greater avarice. He considered returning to the lord’s chamber to advise against such madness but stopped himself, knowing that the course was likely already set.
“I am an evil man to think so harshly of my lord. Surely he would not betray his own people to gain the throne? An unworthy thought, fool, as unworthy of the lord as of yourself.”
Instead of retiring to his own humble chamber, his feet led him across the grounds to the tiny chapel.
At this hour only a single candle was lit, casting the chapel in eerie dancing shadows.
The bard knelt, crossing himself and bowing his head in prayer.
His mind was blank, stunned into its own silence. Shocked at the path his thoughts had followed, shocked still more at the very real and gut-sinking possibility that he might be right…
…and that, if he were right, it would be he who had planted this seed in his master’s heart.
“Lord…” he began, but stumbled immediately to a halt.
“Lord,” he choked out a second time, “I have not been a faithful servant, asking only that my own wants be satisfied. But you know my heart, and you know my master’s heart…” he fell silent again for a moment, horror at what he had started filling his heart.
“Please let me be wrong.”
A single tear escaped.
He remained there in stunned silence an hour or more, considering what might happen if his ambitious lord followed this destructive path.
He heard a shuffling from behind the altar and looked up, startled out of his miserable reverie.
“Who’s there?” It was the old priest.
“Only I, Father, the bard, your humble servant.”
The friar shuffled closer, holding up a lamp and peering into the bard’s face.
Something in the bard’s expression gave the old cleric pause.
“What is it, son?”
“Oh, Father, I think I have done a terrible thing.”
The priest looked down his nose at the bard, suspicious of such words coming from this man—for the priest knew him to be nearly as ambitious as this keep’s lord.
The bard looked sheepish for a moment. “Yes. I deserve that. And it is my ambition that may have caught us all in a terrible snare.”
“Well, what is it, boy?” the priest snapped, impatient to be done and back in his bed.
“Ah— well, I’m not even certain that I’m right about its effect, but I said something tonight— that is, I made a suggestion to our master that may have been— ah— ill-advised.”
“Boy, I’m tired and have no wish to solve one of your bard’s riddles. Out with it.”
So the bard told the old man of the Epic of Thomas the Knight (“Yes, yes, I know the tale. Go on.”) and the idea that had struck him, the suggestion to his master, and the chilling thought that followed him out of his master’s chamber and to this chapel.
The priest remained quiet, his face schooled into confessor’s calm, hiding his thoughts.
“Surely he would never do such a thing. He knows as well as anyone that our prosperity depends on keeping this kingdom safe, protected from the marauders who would take it from us.” He fell silent again.
“No. Even he would not be so foolish. Though marrying the Queen— that would be interesting, now, would it not?” The priest’s expression lightened for just an instant, then settled itself again.
“Go, boy. Speak to no one of this. For if you speak of it, you may well invoke this evil if it is not already done. And carry penance in your heart, for if indeed you have planted this seed, you must answer to God for its fruit.”
The bard bowed his head, sincere for the first time in his life. The priest placed a hand on his head in silent benediction, then turned away.
“Remember— say nothing. Perhaps this idea will die on its own.”
The next morning, the bard awoke as usual and, as usual, took his breakfast in the kitchen with the rest of the household, before making his way to the lord’s audience chamber.
But when he presented himself, he was waved away, the lord engrossed in conversation with a stranger— and a slightly unsavory looking one at that. The lord was normally quite attentive to the bard, sensing in him something of a kindred soul, so his negligence stung. Worse, it seemed to confirm the bard’s late night suspicions.
He took a breath to speak, reconsidered and moved on.
At odds with himself that day, he wandered the grounds, listening for what news came his way, growing more and more worried that his lord was indeed plotting something rash.
Over the next few days, he fell into a new routine: each morning he would present himself, each morning he was sent on his way. And each morning he observed the lord keeping company with more unsavory men, and occasionally a sympathetic courtier.
Each day, too, he would wander the grounds, listening for news—any news—of what might be afoot.
At last, a fortnight gone, he heard news that at once reassured and frightened him.
His master was going to the capital city to ask the Queen’s hand.
“Oh, I am such a fool,” he berated himself. “Why, oh, why did I suggest such an awful thing?” But there was nothing for it now but to watch and hope for the best.
News came to him that day that he was to be part of the lord’s entourage. How ironic that my wish should finally come true, he thought, when I no longer care about it, and all I am is sick with worry. What was the lord plotting? Who were those men? And what could he, a lowly and—he could finally admit—mediocre bard do to change this course that he himself had set?
The lord’s household rushed about for days, sending heralds ahead, packing trunks, sewing resplendent new regalia for the lord—for he must impress this new Queen with something, if not his wit or prowess on the field.
The lord called to himself all the fighting men of that district, and this warning the bard heard:
“You will accompany us to the capital city, and there you will stand guard, for I have heard rumors that the enemy gathers and will attempt to breach the gates.”
Shocked whispers slid through the crowd like an errant breeze, and the bard’s blood ran cold again, for then he was certain that his first awful thought was true—that the lord would contrive to let the enemy in, then, armed with his “rumored” foreknowledge, defeat them and emerge in glory.
But there were so many things wrong with this idea, so many ways in which even the most carefully hatched plot could go awry, that the bard nearly wept in frustration.
For now he was never permitted into the lord’s presence at all—perhaps that one knew on some level that the bard had already gleaned his intention. The effect was that he appeared to have fallen out of favor, for all that he was to be part of the train, and that any word he spoke against the lord now would merely be dismissed as further evidence of his own self-serving resentment.
And was that not just desserts, the bard thought bitterly.
As the household frenzy peaked, the bard found himself further and further sidelined, until he could stand the derisive side-eyes no longer, and shut himself in his chamber.
He tuned and polished his harp and his lute, determined to put on as fine a show as the lord—if he were ever given the opportunity. He cleaned and mended his garb, and finally out of tasks to occupy his hands, sat himself at his writing desk and picked up his quill.
Words began to form in his mind…
In solitude solace, in stillness content—
Sigh. If it were only true.
The peaceful day with no outcry rent—
But soon enough there would be a great outcry, and greater losses if he could not contrive a way to warn the Queen.
For drama the stage, for revels torment—
An idea began to form. Could he catch the ear of the Queen with a song, perhaps he could warn her.
Comes quiet of night, the day’s motion now spent.
And indeed the keep’s bustle was settling for the night, and in the relative calm the bard was alight.
The muse maintained her grip on him deep into the the dark hours, creating and refining, crafting an unusual song— something new that might be just odd enough to capture the Queen’s attention, without getting the singer thrown out of the hall.
Finally, as pre-dawn light was kissing the eastern horizon, the bard fell asleep, confident that the first part of this mad plan was ready. The second part? He knew not. The rest would be up to God.
The bard only slept an hour or two before the household noise pierced his slumber. He sat up, looked around and grinned fiercely, determined to set things right in the only way he knew how: through poetry and song.
The journey would take three days, with the entourage occupying inns along the way.
As was his habit since joining the lord’s household, the bard kept himself slightly apart from the company (but now for different reasons), listening intently for any news, any change that might suggest a different course of action or a different outcome than the one he most dreaded.
But aside from gossip about the lord’s intentions for the Queen (and much of that expressed in distaste), the bard heard nothing. The visits from the strangers ceased as well, once the company set out, so the bard was left to speculate. And worry.
His stomach was in such knots that eating seemed impossible, until even the Head Cook who had also been brought along—another bit of arrogance on the part of the lord, for the Royal Kitchen was well know to be staffed by far and away the best in the land—looked askance at the untouched food and asked roughly if the bard were ill.
“No, Aunt,” — everyone called her Aunt — “only excited to be on this journey.”
“Hmph,” was all she said in reply, and turned her attention back to her own plate.
The bard managed a few bites and then gave up, surreptitiously feeding the rest to the fleethounds who had been brought along as a gift for the Queen.
The journey passed quickly and uneventfully, and finally the entourage approached the gate. The road was busy, exceptionally so, or so it seemed to the bard. But perhaps it was always like this.
The bard eyed other approaching parties, looking for anyone suspicious—but of course if the enemy were among them, they would take great pains to be inconspicuous. And anyway the Royal Guard were scrutinizing passersby very carefully. If anyone could detect a suspicious character, it would be they.
Then the most suspicious of them all, the lord pranced toward the Guard on his finest horse, rather inappropriately decked out for the journey in finery better suited to a festival day.
“You know who I am,” he declared. “I am here to claim the Queen’s hand this day.”
“To claim…” the Guard sputtered, then bit his tongue. “Yes, we know who you are. Very well, you may pass.”
The entourage resumed their march through the gate.
“And good luck to you!” the Guard shouted after them with a laugh.
The bard could no longer see his master’s face, but guessed he was grinding his teeth, tallying up yet another imagined slight against his illustrious self.
The bard had seen through the lord’s demeanor and now clearly saw him for what he was: a greedy middle-aged man with ambition that overtook his merit by leagues.
He shook his head in pity, then caught himself, remembering that the Queen, the city—their entire kingdom—was in grave peril. And the bard may be the only one who had even the remotest chance of stopping it.
His stomach dropped again as they wove their way into the city.
The royal palace was situated near the eastern wall of the city. Beyond that wall was a tiny strip of land and a sheer drop to the river as it emptied into the ocean port.
The wall was guarded of course, but the enemy had never come close to that wall, understanding the near-impossibility of breaching it.
The bard felt certain that was the direction from which the enemy would come. They might never have conquered it, but if by the lord’s betrayal they were simply allowed in under cover of darkness, the palace would fall.
Unless the bard could somehow give warning.
But chances were still harrowingly slim, and the bard knew it. Luck and prayer, and God’s mercy, were the only things that could help at this point—and that the bard had the courage to see this through, for whether he failed or succeeded, there was a very real chance he would lose his life. Even if the Queen’s forces managed to hold the city. And he was grimly certain they would not be so lucky if he could not puzzle out a solution.
The lord and his retinue arrived at the palace where they were met by the Royal Chamberlain.
“You know who I am and why I am here,” again declared the lord.
The Royal Chamberlain paled, shocked by the ill-mannered arrogance of this upstart lord. Before he could take a breath to offer his practiced welcome, the lord continued:
“When shall I expect to be presented to Her Majesty the Queen?”
The Royal Chamberlain, recovering from initial stunned silence and now both angry and mortified, replied, “The Queen will welcome you and your retinue at this evening’s meal in the Great Hall.” He gave a curt bow, the minimum that courtesy required. “In the meantime, please allow me to direct you and your people to your quarters, where you may rest and refresh yourselves until then.”
The lord was satisfied—barely—and nodded, finally dismounting and tossing the reins to a waiting stable man.
Following his lead, the rest dismounted and the household staff were directed to follow the Mistress of Household, while the lord and his relations followed the Royal Chamberlain.
The bard followed the household reluctantly, wishing he could be in both places at once.
The Mistress of Household led them to a wing where the retinue would be installed. Quarters were assigned, humble but considerably grander than their accommodations in the lord’s keep. The cook, Aunt, and what staff she had with her, offered themselves to assist in the royal kitchens. The Mistress of Household, taken slightly off guard by the modestly phrased offer, accepted.
Aunt, wise in her own way, had understood the lord’s presumption in bringing them here, and moved to relieve what tension might have arisen by offering help rather than presuming to take over, as their Master had wished.
The bard stood at his chamber door, watching Aunt follow the Mistress of Household to the kitchens…
…and the second part of the plan clicked into place in his head.
He quickly followed, hastening to catch up.
“Aunt,” he whispered urgently as he drew near to her.
She turned to him, eyebrows raised but with an otherwise bland expression on her normally grumpy face.
“What is it, boy?”
“Aunt, I need to speak with you. ’Tis a matter of some urgency.”
“Well, we’re about to become very busy, so make it quick.”
“Yes, Aunt.” He looked around, then lowered his voice even further. “Aunt, something is wrong.”
Aunt looked at him intently for a moment. His ears turned red under her scrutiny.
“I know you for an ambitious, arrogant, ungenerous—”
“Yes, boy, I know. Something is wrong. I have eyes and ears, just like you, and ’tis certain something foul is afoot.”
The bard cleared his throat. “I think I know what it is. And I fear I’m the cause of it.”
“And I want—I need—to set it right. For our Queen’s sake. For all our sakes. That ambition… you have the right of it, and it is the cause of all this mischief—and worse to come.”
He had her full attention now.
“Tell me what you know, boy, and we’ll see what we can do.”
As they followed the Mistress of Household through the vast palace, the bard had time to describe in some detail his first suggestion, and the awful observations he had made since. Aunt paled.
“Why did you say naught, boy? It may be too late now.”
“And say what, exactly? The lord seemed to withdraw his favor, you know me for an ambitious dolt—how would such an accusation have sounded?”
“True enough. So why now? Never mind that, it doesn’t matter. You must have an idea or you wouldn’t have told me. So. Tell me your thought, and what’s it to do with me?”
So he told her, surprising a laugh from her in the process.
“Boy, you are utterly mad. But it might just work. Yes. We’ll do it.”
So the bard left Aunt, and she went on her way to the kitchens, working out how much stew it would take…
Supper was in two hours. That gave the bard time to refresh himself, rest a bit—he would need the full power of his voice come nightfall—and prepare his mind for this evening’s adventure. He was still uncertain that he would even be permitted to present himself, but he was fairly certain his master now felt that his scheme was in motion, and there was no longer any need to keep his bard at a remove.
And sure enough, an hour later, there was a knock at the door, and a young page rather nervously announced that the Queen had requested the honor of a song or two, having heard that the visiting lord had brought along a bard of some skill.
A bard of some skill. Bah. More puffery. But the bard nodded politely and thanked the page, who gave him a moment to gather the tools of his trade, then led him toward the Great Hall.
If the bard had been nervous before, now he was trembling from head to toe. If he succeeded, the kingdom and its young Queen were saved. If he failed, the loss of his own life was the least of his worries.
The page led him to a side chamber where other entertainers were having an early meal. They would, of course, be plying their craft while those in the Great Hall dined.
The bard blew out a breath, partly in relief—for this would be a good opportunity to calm himself—and partly in trepidation, for there was much at stake and he had to be at his very finest, which was never great even on his best day.
He sat for a moment and closed his eyes, concentrating on stilling his trembling limbs.
He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder and opened his eyes. It was Aunt, a bowl of savory stew in her hand. She put it on the board in front of him, gave him the tiniest of nods and a wink, then turned silently away, headed back toward the kitchens.
A surge of elation nearly caused the bard to shout out loud. He laughed quietly and turned to his stew, which smelled delicious. Shame to waste all that, but if it could save the kingdom…
He made short work of the stew, his appetite finally returning full force, and looked around at his fellows. Some were bored, some were clearly terrified, some were feigning indifference but interested to see who this arrogant lord’s bard might be.
“Boy,” called one man, tuning a viol as he spoke. “What do you this e’en? An epic? A tale of love and woe?”
The bard smiled calmly. “Something new,” said he, “of my own devising.”
The other musician nodded. “Don’t always go over so well here, but the new Queen, at least she’s kind about it it. Poor Harry over there—“ he pointed at an older man sitting at another table “—made a right fool of himself last week, but the Queen refused to larf at ‘im and instead tossed an extra copper, saying that she appreciated the courage it took to be there at all. Courage!” The man shook his head in good-humored disbelief. “Well, if that sort o’ courage be all it takes for an extra copper, then I daresay every half-baked idiot who ever fancied himself a tunesmith’ll be showin’ up now, expectin’ a copper and a hot meal.” The man chuckled again and returned to tuning his instrument.
The bard had another idea. He got up and walked over to where the old man sat. “Harry, is it?”
“Aye, and who’s askin’?”
“Nobody, really. I am the bard that the visiting lord brought along.”
Harry nearly spit, but stopped himself. “You, eh? I hope fer yer sake that y’ live up to all the fine things yer master’s sayin’ about you.”
“I doubt it,” said the bard. “He says things to make himself look good, with no care to how it might affect others.” He swallowed hard, knowing that he himself had done the same thing too many times to count.
No more. Tonight was different. It was no longer about him, or serving his own ambitions, but about righting a great wrong, saving a kingdom, and protecting a Queen.
“Say, Harry, I wonder if you’d be willing to lend your fine voice to a new tune I’ve made for the occasion?”
“Me? No. If you know my name, you know I’ve been made a fool and like to do so again.”
“Nonsense. You’re just the man for it.”
Despite himself, the old man was intrigued. “Sing it me, then, and I’ll tell ye if I can.”
So the bard quite sang his new tune, and as he did so, the room gradually stilled as those gathered quieted themselves to listen.
“Well, now, that’s right unusual. Don’t know how well it’ll go over in the Great Hall, but I like it well enough. Let’s hear it again.”
So the bard sang it again, and then once more as Harry’s voice began to pick out harmonies.
Other voices quietly joined in as well at the end, and the bard’s breath caught. This was a surprise, and maybe just the thing.
“Yes! Friends, will you do the same again in the Great Hall, joining me on the final verse?”
They nodded, those who had sung, and smiled at the bard, for it was an unusual song indeed—and captivating.
Finally the hour approached when the entertainers were to present themselves, and the bard was to be the first of them.
His trepidation returned, as he knew that Aunt would be carrying out her task about now—and that the lord still sat at the Queen’s table. So much risk—but this time, and for once in his life, he had allies. And he enjoyed the feeling it gave him.
This would work. This had to work.
The bard followed the herald out to the center of the Great Hall. There was noise aplenty, and candles and smoke and the constant movement of servers and diners.
The bard gulped, choking on his fear. Never had he been before such a large or lofty audience.
He took a deep breath. He could do this.
The herald announced him and the room fell quiet. Well, quieter anyway.
The young Queen looked his way, interested. “You are he, then, of whom your master speaks so highly?”
The bard bowed deeply. “Your Majesty, I know nothing of such high praise from my lord, for I seem to have fallen out of favor these past weeks.”
“Is it so?” the Queen asked, turning to the visiting lord.
“He is a good enough bard, my Queen,” (she bristled at the familiar tone) “but I have grown tired of him of late, for his songs all begin to sound alike to my ears.”
The Queen addressed the bard again, saying generously, “Perhaps it is merely the burden of long acquaintance. Here, his voice is new, and I hope that the occasion is novel enough to inspire freshness.”
The bard bowed again. Truly this Queen had a kind heart.
“Your Majesty, it is the highest honor a bard such as I could ever hope for in a lifetime, and so indeed I have crafted a new tune in your honor.”
The lord stifled a yawn, but the Queen gestured gracefully to begin.
The bard took up his harp but only touched the strings to silence them and calm his heart. The room did fall silent then, but he hesitated a moment more, drawing anticipation from the gathered company.
He took a breath and began, still without sounding the harp:
In solitude solace, in stillness content;
The peaceful day with no outcry rent;
The bard’s voice rose and fell gently, courtiers leaning forward the better to hear this unusual tune.
For drama the stage, for revels torment;
Come quiet of night, the day’s motion now spent.
He heard a few appreciative sighs, and took a breath for the second stanza, his voice still alone in the room.
The single note its own company keep;
The plainchant inspiring prayerful deep;
Or mournful resonance sudden to weep,
The sweet-throated lullaby leading to sleep.
The bard quietly touched the harp now:
Then quietly stealing its way to the ear,
And Harry’s fine tenor voice came very softly from the side of the hall where he stood, joining in:
Comes harmony, delicate, lovely to hear,
Its presence enigma until it draw near,
Encircling, ennobling, bestowing new cheer.
Harry’s voice now met the bard’s as an equal.
Two voices soon raised, to the rafters they ring,
Now major, now minor, to heaven now sing,
As one voice the two to each other now cling,
Diverge for a while and then consonance bring.
The remaining singers then joined:
Thus do you give to my soul new delight,
Our voices now mingling in harmony bright;
As music dost love catch when timing is right.
But then the other voices all stopped at once, to the bard’s surprise, leaving him to finish:
Sweet friend new-companion’d, my heart set alight.
The bard let the last note linger, coming gently to rest on the hearts of his audience.
And he knew that he—no, they—had done it. For he could not have had this effect on his own. Many eyes were closed, some even glistening with tears, and nearly every pair of lips wore a gentle smile.
Except the lord’s, whose face wore a sour scowl, as though he had eaten something unpleasant. For in that moment he knew that the bard had not only divined his intention—he had also defected.
Presently people began stirring from their reveries and applauding.
The Queen looked delighted and, looking askance at the unhappy lord, said, “Why, my lord; who could ever tire of such a masterful song?”
“Truly, your Majesty,” the bard began, looking pointedly at his master, “the occasion did inspire me.”
The lord’s scowl grew even blacker. “Well, fool, you got your wish.”
The Queen looked questioningly from one to the other, disturbed and a little alarmed at the sudden tension.
“What means he, bard?” she asked calmly, for she was wise and knew to keep her head.
“Just this, your Majesty: that my greatest ambition has been to sing before this court and be gently received.”
“And so you have,” said she, “so then why do I sense there is more to this pronouncement that I cannot yet discern?”
The bard cleared his throat. “Majesty, all will be made clear very soon, I think—”
And as if on cue, there was a ruckus at the main entrance. To the bard’s great relief, a dozen or so of the Queen’s Guard appeared, towing several enemy soldiers—who were scalded, soaked, and covered in kitchen…scraps?
Aunt followed behind, a look of triumph on her flushed face.
The Queen stood.
“What means this?” she exclaimed.
The bard bowed again. “Your Majesty, you have a viper in your midst.”
The Queen’s eyes narrowed and looked immediately toward the visiting lord, who was turning purple now with rage—and who was now being held in his seat by two strapping Guardsmen.
“Explain yourself—“ she began.
“It was he!” The lord pointed at the stunned bard. “He planted this idea in my head, the wicked boy.”
The Queen crossed her arms. “I grow weary of your posturing, my lord. And my father the King warned me of your machinations. One of you, tell me the truth.”
The bard bowed even more deeply, and knelt.
“Majesty, it is true. That is, it is partly true. It was indeed I who suggested that a marriage to the Queen might satisfy his ambition—and, I confess, my own—and unfortunately the idea was inspired by the Epic of Thomas the Knight… who defeated the enemy…” he watched the Queen’s face carefully as he continued “…inside the city walls…” and her eyes widened as realization dawned. “Yes. You understand. While I did not suggest it outright, it was my telling of the tale that did.”
The Queen looked at the bard thoughtfully for a moment.
“By the time I realized my error, it was too late—the idea had already taken hold of his mind. He shut me out of court proceedings, playing as though I had fallen out of favor—I assume to discredit me were I to speak up.”
The bard took a deep breath.
“So here we are.”
The Queen looked past the bard to where the Guardsmen held their sodden and smelly captives. “And what of them?”
“I guessed that he would arrange for them to be let in by the eastern wall for two reasons—nobody has ever breached it, and it is closest to the palace.”
“And the…” she wrinkled her nose “…mess?”
Aunt stepped forward. “That was ‘is idea too, yer Majesty. We—that is, my staff and I—would create a distraction at the gate to give the Guardsmen enough time to do their soldierin’. So we brought pots and flung hot scraps at ‘em. Scalded a few so’s they’d yell, and sure enough, them Guardsmen came a-runnin’.” She chuckled in delight. “Seemed a waste o’ good stew, boy, so we just boiled the scraps instead.”
The bard nearly laughed out loud in delight, but remembered how perilous his own position still was.
“Are there others yet?” inquired the Queen.
One of the Guardsmen stepped forward and bowed. “The rest are dead on the other side of the wall, Majesty. Cook’s diversion bought us enough time to nock arrows and fire on them before they could get through the gate.”
“But who opened the gate?”
Another Guardsman stepped forward, prisoner in tow. This one looked a bit beaten rather than scalded. “This one, Majesty. Caught him running from the gate, knocked him down, and found this…” he threw back the man’s cloak, revealing the insignia of one of the enemy nations. “Not too smart to be runnin’ round with that on his shoulder, but I s’pose it was so his mates wouldn’t kill him when they met up.”
The bard recognized the man as the unsavory fellow he’d seen with the lord that first morning after their fateful conversation.
“Majesty, I know without a doubt that this man met with my master the very next day, the day my master began to shut me out.”
The Queen nodded. “We know of him, and are glad to have finally captured him, for he is… troublesome.”
She turned to the disgraced lord. “What, then? What did you hope to accomplish by this? That you would somehow come out the hero and win my heart and hand in so doing? You put this nation in peril so that you could sit on this throne?” She allowed some of her anger to show then.
“Majesty, I didn’t—”
“Silence.” She did not raise her voice, but the strength of her authority was evident in its tone. The lord closed his mouth so quickly that the bard heard his teeth click.
The Queen turned back to the bard.
“And what do we do with you? Your ambition nearly killed us, yet your change of heart and quick thinking saved us.”
She sighed. “I am new in this rule, and not yet so wise as the Kings of old.”
“Majesty, if I may suggest a solution—”
“I wish to take the orders. I have no ambition now but to craft hymns and sing with my brothers, spending my life in penitence.”
“This is rather a harsher sentence than I would have given you. You have great talent, and this court would have been graced by it. You are certain?”
“Majesty, a fortnight ago, I would have leapt at it. But a fortnight ago, I was merely mediocre, and entirely more ambitious than my meager skill could sustain—“ at this, the lord snorted disdainfully but the Queen silenced him with an icy glare.
“If I rose to the occasion, it is because I finally realized that art is bigger than any one of us, and if I could use my art to save not just me, but all of us, then I fulfilled a far greater purpose. And I am satisfied.”
“We can give you no reward, then?”
“Majesty, there are only two things: that Aunt be rewarded for her cleverness and courage, and that men like my, ahem, former master not be allowed to poison this land.”
“We know how good we have it, yer Majesty,” Aunt piped up. “Men like ‘im think they deserve more without earnin’ a copper on their own merit.”
The Queen leveled her gaze on the now-disgraced lord.
“You.” She sighed. “The penalty for high treason is death.”
He turned ghostly pale, looking for all the world like he would lose the contents of his stomach.
“But your cook has given me an idea. Bard: if you are to take orders, your new monastery will need a drudge.”
She fell silent a moment.
Then she addressed the room in a firm voice. “In fact, here is my decision: this lord shall be forever stripped of his title, rank, and holdings—” he groaned in sorrowful protest “—and his keep shall be given over to the church in perpetuity. He shall serve there—” he groaned again “—serve there as a drudge, there to live out his days, attending to those who serve the Lord and mankind.”
The lord—now drudge—sagged in equal parts relief and defeat. His life was spared. But hard work had never been his strong suit, and he was now condemned to a life of it.
“Bard, you will take your orders, and when you have done with your novitiate, you will found a new cathedral choir school at the keep of your former master. There you will write your hymns and train up new voices for the cathedral here.”
The bard nodded and bowed his head, fully aware of the generosity of the Queen’s “punishment”.
“Cook—Aunt, is it? As your young friend has said, your quick thinking and courage have saved the day. I give you a choice: come join our staff here, or serve at this new cathedral school.”
Aunt offered a deep curtsey. “I have no wish to spend my days looking at the face of that man, and I fear that I would take vengeance on him were I daily to remain too close to him, at the peril of my own soul. It will be my honor and pleasure to serve you here, Majesty.”
The Queen smiled. “Those of your staff who wish to stay on may do so as well, of course—but someone will need to feed the friars at the new school.”
“I know just the ones to do it, Majesty, two sisters as pious and sweet as one could ever hope for.”
“It is done, then.”
* * *
Ten years later…
Friar Thomas sat in the garden one sunny spring morning, humming fragments of the tune he had created years before, thinking of how he might rework it into a hymn to honor the Queen’s tenth year of rule.
Across the garden a fine tenor voice drifted, harmonizing perfectly.
Two voices soon raised, to the rafters they ring…
Friar Thomas stood and looked around in delight. He spied Harry and… was that Aunt? walking hand in had toward him. Harry and Aunt both looked younger, if such were possible, than they had that fateful night. The reason for the spring in Harry’s step was made obvious by the way he and Aunt looked at one another.
Friar Thomas clapped Harry on the back, then found himself gathered up in Aunt’s ample arms.
“My two old friends! I am blessed indeed to see you, and looking so well!” Thomas’ grin was mischievous.
Harry winked and Aunt chuckled.
“Married a month ago, finally. Seemed foolish to waste any more time, us both widowed an’ gettin’ older by the minute.”
“Though he could use some fattening up, isn’t he a sweet armful, too!” Aunt hooted.
“Mabel!” Harry exclaimed, shocked laughter escaping him.
Thomas laughed. “I wasn’t always a priest, remember?”
“Come, sit. Let me have some tea brought out.”
An awkward silence fell.
“Ah—you hadn’t heard.” Thomas said. “He died in his sleep last year, just too miserable, I think, to take another step. Hard work was never his strong suit, and I think he never truly repented.”
A young novice came through the door to the garden. Thomas looked proudly at him.
“Harry, Aunt, this is one of my best students, Christopher.”
“Christopher!” Aunt exclaimed. “Not Bronwyn’s boy? Why, he was but a wee babe…”
“The very one. Turns out he’s quite a singer. Too early to tell yet whether he’s headed for the priesthood, but if not, he’ll make a fine bard—better than I ever was.”
“Now, Thomas, don’t go sayin’ such things. I recall a certain song, on a certain fateful night…” Harry said.
“The only one of its kind before or since,” Thomas said. “I have never again been able to make its like, and have stopped trying. The moment we try to capture what is so compelling about such a work, it ceases to be art and becomes merely… formula. Ritual, like our prayers and forms.
“But I have made one work of art in my life, and with it—and with my friends—saved a kingdom. What mortal could dare ask for more?”