The Winking Bard
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A mysterious bard comes to a small town looking to meet long lost friends while reminiscing of the past.
Just as I remembered it, Shea thought with a sigh as he settled down into a worn wooden chair. His lute rested casually in his lap as he searched around the common room. The Winking Bard Inn was a cozy dwelling, the bright light from the fireplace painted warm splashes of orange and gold over furniture and people alike. Shadows danced on the handsome wooden walls. The customers—mostly local farmers resting their backs and feet after a long day of toil—all sat around small round wooden tables in comfortable groups, talking into their mugs and dining on spiced potatoes. The aroma wafted like a cloud over the room, mingling pleasantly with the smell of wood smoke. Shea leaned back contentedly, long tendrils of silver-gold hair spilling out from beneath his drab travelling hood framing his fair and finely shaped face. Grassy green eyes closed peacefully as his slender hands gently caressed the instrument, the golden ring on his index finger reflected fire as he gently fingered the strings. The notes hummed heavenly to his ears. Places and people of memory swirled in his head causing his fingers to itch and his heart ache with longing to play their songs.
“Somthin I can get ye, m’lord?” A young serving woman with a bright smile and bouncing auburn curls approached him, disrupting his reverie. A charming scattering of freckles graced her pale skin, across her face and down her arms. Her chocolate eyes darted to and away from his face shyly, trying to avoid attention, but unable to completely look away. Her gaze lingered on his ring and the richly inlaid fabric of his clothing which his simple travelling cloak feebly attempted to conceal, and roamed curiously over the tribal-looking tattoo which curled around his left cheek.
Shea flashed one of his charming grins, reaching a delicate hand to touch a lock of her shimmering waves. “Your company,” he said in a velvety voice, drawing and holding her gaze. The woman blushed, her beauty blooming. Shea’s mouth widened and he leaned closer, drawing her further into his spell. “I am expecting … friends shortly. But should they be late …” he trailed off, letting his hand drop to the table, unspoken promise lingering. The woman stood still, swaying slightly, hanging off his every word. His eyes flickered away abruptly. “Water will suffice in the meantime.” He watched in amusement out of the corner of his eyes as she snapped to and hurried away. He caught her eyes peeking back over her shoulder every few feet as she crossed the room. Chuckling slightly, Shea tightened his cloak and drew his hood closer to his face. He did love pretty girls. An older woman with hard eyes and stern lines around her mouth came a moment later with his water; he ignored her.
It had been so long! His fingers tingled with the desire to play, almost burning in their passionate need. Reluctantly Shea stopped and put the lute aside, leaning its tear-drop frame casually against the polished wall of the Inn, the white of its wood glowing brilliantly in the muted light. Its case, a plain black shell, rested on the ground beside it, papers poking haphazardly out of its open lid. Gripping his water glass in one hand, he sipped it slowly while staring into the embers of the dying fire, letting his mind wander amongst the conversations of the room and in his own memories…
“Tell me a story, Shea. A good one.” She smiled at him, chin resting in her hand as she leaned on the table. Her pale blue eyes shone brightly under long dark lashes and her hair pooled over her shoulders, shimmering like liquid honey in the Inn’s firelight. It was a quiet evening, aside from a few stragglers most of the patrons had already turned in for the night
Shea laughed gently, the last chord of his song fading into the night as he rested his lute on his lap. “My dear, all my stories are good ones. Take your pick: Knights and dragons, rouges and damsels, Gods and men…I know all.” He gave her a wink.
“Tell her about the Tree.” The coldness of the voice set the hair on the back of Shea’s neck on end. Her companion dropped silently into the seat beside her, his face concealed almost entirely by a dark hood and scarf. Cobalt eyes scanned the room before boring into Shea, “Tell her about Jesokah…and the betrayal.”
“…reincarnation of the Goddess her self! Then she slits her wrists an’ bleeds all over the tree-”
“I heard it were her throat, she died sittin’ like a warrior, her blood breathing life back into the tree-“
“No, no, no. Yer both wrong. It were her throat, aye, but it weren’t her that stuck it. It were him, her companion. The demon, Nahtann, her lover if the stories be true-”
Shea’s ears pricked and his attention shifted over to the table on his left with group of four men. They had their broad backs facing him, voices low but clear in the quiet Inn. Demon? He placed his glass down, but continued to stare into the now black coals of the fire pit. What mockery have I made of you, my friend? He frowned. An ominous air had risen around the quartet; they sat sullenly around their large frothing mugs and exchanged dark looks. Shea’s hand came up to fiddle with the pendant around his neck as he listened. It was a curious object, a small hollow sphere of glass with a tiny flint of metal in its centre. A smile twisted his mouth but his eyes remained distant as he slid it back and forth across its golden chain.
“Oh, they be true. They was here once, ye know, in this Inn, many years ago, once upon an evenin’ fair.”
One of the men snorted. “Many years ago? Evenin’ fair? The Lady be damned, ye tryin’ to tell an epic here Cort? It were ten years ago, an Maker knows what the weather were. Leave ballads to the bards, says I, and spare the lot of us yer dramatizin’ bullshit.” This was followed by a roar of laughter and then a cry of surprise as the speaker dodged a clumsy blow. “Hey now, I was only playin’ Cort, no needin’ to be so hard!” The man fell off the edge of his chair in his scramble to avoid confrontation, and then everyone was on their feet, fist’s clenched and ready for a fight.
Shea sighed and shook his head. Clearly this tale wasn’t going to get much of a take-off. Liquor made brutes out of even the most educated of men, let alone country bumpkins such as this crowd. An all-out brawl was sure to follow; chairs would clatter, mugs would be broken, and the ale would flow. All talk and story would be forgotten, and for Shea…well, maybe some things shouldn’t be forgotten. His mind made, and as quick and fluid as only a man such as he could act, he gathered himself and leapt gracefully into the midst of the foursome. His padded leather boots landed soundlessly on the dark table, and he turned dramatically, his cloak billowing around him, hands held out clearly. “Now, now, fellas, let’s not do something that we’ll all re-“The air rushed out his chest and his view was adjusted to that of four grim faces silhouetted before the ceiling. His head throbbed and he could feel a vice-like grip on his left ankle. Shea coughed, his lungs still trying to find his lost breath as another strong hand grabbed his wrist and painfully stretched it out above him. He was strung out like game.
“Who in the Maker’s name do ye lads figure this here be? Tryin’ to get between our play! Looks like a little lordling with a big head but not much for stuffin’! Zed, go check his stuff, will ye? Mayhap he’s got summit of interest…Now, why don’t ye show us all yer soft an’ pretty little face, my little lordling, har!” The speaker—Cort by the sound—reached his big meaty farmers hands around Shea’s head, his dirty sausage fingers catching in his mouth and reefing on his hair before finally pulling back his hood. There was a collective gasp, and all hands fell away.
“Lady be damned, it’s a Shiv.”
Shea rolled up onto his elbows. The men were gathered in a half-circle before him, eyes wide and mouths hanging open. Beyond them other eyes stared, he had the attention of the whole Inn now, even the barmaids had stopped in their duties. What everyone thought would be a fight had somehow changed into a strange and mocking show of awe. Shea grimaced at the attention. He did not come here to put on an act. Compromise, this thought was followed by a mental shrug. When life deals cards, make a hand.
“Shiv yourself,” Shea’s voice was irritated, but he managed to keep his expression mild. “It would benefit you to curb your tongue. Are we in the Dark Ages? Shit. ” The lump forming against the base of his skull gave a small tweak of indignation as he tucked a strand of platinum hair behind a slender, finely-pointed ear. He winced. “I am Shea, one of the Fae. Of the Tyrendell, actually.” He nodded casually to one of the men beside him, “I’ll be taking that back now.”
Zed gave a great jump, nearly dropping the white lute he held clutched before him. He gave a strangled “Yessir!” nearly throwing the instrument at Shea before retreating into the crowd. Cort, still standing before him, gave a grunt of disgust before turning to Shea. He kept a wary distance while addressing him; everyone knew elves had the potential for powerful magics.
“Tyrendell. I’ve heard of yon word.” Cort mused it over, looking Shea over with a gleaming critical eye. “Or Tyde as more oft they be called…And I be hearin’ of ye, Shea Aleaear. Yer one of them, One of the Four,” His voice dropped to a whisper, “Lady be damned!” he swore.
Shea frowned. How did this man know so much? He was a farmer, by the Tide! No, perhaps he was more than that. Shea looked at him. Really looked at him. A mop of shaggy blonde hair, bleached from long, hard hours in the field…or life on the road. Well-muscled body from a life of ploughing…or training in combat. A jagged scar down his right cheek, the result of a work injury…or a reminder of a long-past war. But it was Cort’s eyes that settled it for him. Those were no farmers’ eyes; they were storm clouds. Steel. The eyes of a soldier. Well, ex-soldier he supposed, in these times of peace. He held his gaze, realization dawning.
“You were here,” Shea murmured, just loud enough for the other to hear, “By the Tide, all those years ago…and you saw us.” He shook his head in wonder, grin spreading across his face. “Well, cat’s out of the bag I suppose…” he nodded to Cort, still standing and regarding him with folded arms, before clearing his throat. “I am Shea Aleaear of Verthall,” He spoke loud and clear, each word echoing like thunder in the still quiet of the Inn. “I am One of the Four, bound by circumstance to Ali, Nathan, and Nimiri.” A wave of whispers swept the room as he pushed himself to his feet, lute in hand. “I also fancy myself a bit of a bard.” He smile widened and his eyes glittered as he struck a chord.
“She out of magic, storms of might,
Carrying the world in her heart.
From her hair the sun, peace her lips,
Holding life in one hand, death the other, she came
Bearing the guilt of the ages.
He out of darkness, the sinner, cursed
Of evils hand and whispers of fire.
With chains of servitude, bound by Roke
He reaches for Light and the Lady,
Pursued by demons and memory.
Another out of the forest, daughter of saplings
Abandoned, alone, companion unwanted.
With heart of honour, magic of soul,
Songs of crows and words for trees.
A double-edged blade the path before her.
Finally he of deception, from waves between worlds.
In the depths of the soul, the tides of fate
Sing the songs of valour.
With lute for sword and words of armour
Bearing a heart reluctant for duty.”
Shea paused a moment, the last notes vibrating around the room. Sill smiling, still standing on top of the table, he rested his lute by his feet, leaning gently on the neck. His eyes half closed with memory, his mind already distant. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this. I owe it to them. The truth of things. I am the one who spread all the rumours after all.” His eyes focused. “To put it simply, I will tell you their story. My story. The real story, true to a fault. None of this ‘demon’ and ‘reincarnated goddess’ nonsense.” His words flowed throughout the room capturing all. “The tale of Aaliyah.”
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