They’d been paving major highways in Anduin with cement over the last few months, and it was getting noticeably better as we got closer to the capital. Between that and Aylwyn’s knack for getting more endurance out of the horses, we made it to Declan in five days.
I was really getting to like that lute I’d picked up from the dragon’s hoard. I didn’t know how long it had been sitting around in that cave, but the strings were still in very good shape, and the tone was just beautiful. At the inns we’d stay at each night, I’d introduce myself as Peter Parker of the Bards’ College, (I explained to Aylwyn that that was a stage name) and ask the innkeeper’s leave to play. That earned me a free dinner each night, and free rooms a couple times depending on the innkeeper’s mood. Not that I particularly needed the money now, but spending lavishly when you have money–especially if it’s some sort of windfall–is a great way to end up not having money anymore. And besides, performing for an audience is fun!
I tried to get Aylwyn to sing with me a few times. At first she demurred, saying that the music of her people would likely not be well-received in the noisy, unrefined environment of a tavern hall. But the third night, I pushed a little. We had a good-sized crowd, and I’d been taking requests for over an hour. My voice was worn out, but they were calling for more. So I called Aylwyn over to the hearth. Her eyes widened a little and she squirmed at the request. “I don’t think…” she began, but I cut her off.
“Who wants to hear a song of the angels?” I’d already gotten the audience worked up and in a good mood with a bunch of up-tempo, highly entertaining songs, so when I made a suggestion like that, they cheered. “They say an angel’s voice can put the greatest bards to shame!” More cheers, and some of the patrons started calling out for her to sing. They got louder when people saw her squirming, clearly a bit uncomfortable from all the attention. It’s basic psychology; works every time.
Finally, after it became clear that the calls for her to sing weren’t going to die down quickly, she got up from her seat and slowly walked over towards me, glowering at me for putting her on the spot like that. I just grinned and waved my hand around the room, still working the crowd. “There! We have a very special guest tonight, a genuine Celestial Paladin if you can believe it, and a good friend of mine. I asked her a few days ago if she wanted to sing, and she said she wasn’t sure you fine folks would enjoy the songs of her people. I say, let them be the judge of that!” They cheered as Aylwyn came over and stood beside me. “So, my friends, without further ado I present the lovely, the magnificent… Aylwyn!”
Her cheeks were burning and she shot me a “you’re so going to regret this later” look. I just grinned at her. “Any specific needs for accompaniment?” I asked quietly while the patrons were still cheering.
She gave me perhaps the darkest look I’ve ever seen from her. “Try and keep up,” she challenged me under her breath.
I’m not sure quite what I was expecting, but what she came up with was a strong, soulful anthem, an inspirational tune about Terelon, a legendary angelic hero who overcame great tragedy and personal loss to end up rising to prominence and eventually founding the order of Celestial Paladins. It ran for eight verses, building momentum with each one, and after the third I stopped even trying to play along to it. I don’t think anyone noticed. The song ended strong, on a high note that she held for a good forty seconds, long enough to bring everyone in the room to a cheering ovation. Her singing was awe-inspiring, amazing, and a little bit overwhelming.
“Wowwwww,” I murmured, low enough that only she could hear. After all her reluctance, pulling out a masterpiece like that with no preparation was worthy of a little teasing at least. “If you’d held that note one more measure, I’d have had no choice but to kiss you again, and without any dragon to blame it on this time!”
She just scoffed and rolled her eyes at me, but I could see she was enjoying the response. The patrons called out for another one, but she begged off, saying she’d had a long journey and she was weary and needed to rest. She headed to her room, and I took up my lute again, singing a few more songs, but after Aylwyn left the momentum was really gone, and things were just winding down. It was less than half an hour before I went off to my own room and drifted off to sleep.
* * *
I was a bit worried that Aylwyn would be mad at me the next morning, but the strong response to her singing had apparently done a lot to improve her mood.
“Where did you learn that song?” I asked once we were out on the road again. “I mean, that was magnificent! You have to have had some sort of training.”
She laughed. “That? That is simple oral history. A song taught to children, a primer on culture. I chose it because it was it was easy to sing, but also because it was a tale that always inspired me, that drove me, from a young age, to become a Paladin.”
I scoffed and shook my head. “No no no, you’re not fooling me with a line like that, Aylwyn. I don’t care how awesome angels are compared to humans; there’s no way a child can pull off that last verse and then hold a note that long, that strong, at the end!”
The angel nodded slowly. “I have had little choice but to watch you perform over the last few nights,” she said, “and you never do the same song exactly the same way twice. You adapt to the mood of the audience. I simply did the same.” I looked at her wordlessly, one eyebrow raised, and after a moment, she continued. “My pace was perhaps half again faster than is normally sung, and as befits a song for teaching children, the strength of the verses traditionally remains consistent throughout. It is customary to hold the last note in honor of Terelon’s triumph, but generally for four or five seconds.”
“And you just sort of… improvised all of that? At a moment’s notice?”
She gave me a puzzled look. “Is that supposed to be something difficult? You make similar adjustments to your own music.”
“I’ve been trained as a performer.” On two different worlds, but saying that would complicate things.
She smirked at me playfully. “And thus we see that, as you say, angels are awesome compared to humans.”
Ugh. I walked right into that, didn’t I? “So you’ve had no training at all?”
“I have had extensive training,” she replied. “Just not in that particular discipline. Had a trained Lorekeeper been present last night, they could have brought everyone in the room to tears with a single note.”
“Lorekeeper. Is that what you call Celestial bards?”
She shook her head. “It’s what we call Celestial Lorekeepers. Bards are a thing of this realm. They use their talents to amuse and entertain. But the office of a Lorekeeper is a sacred one, to preserve the history and culture of my people.”
“I see,” I said slowly. “So then, what do you do for entertainment?”
She laughed mirthfully, her eyes twinkling as she turned to me and said, “If I told you the tale, you wouldn’t believe me. But maybe, someday… I will anyway.”
Bah! Using my own words against me like that!
* * *
The fourth night, I talked with Aylwyn about a reprise as we were approaching the town we’d be staying at, and she said she was willing. We found an inn and I walked in with my lute, only to find that someone had beaten me to the punch. There was a bard already present up by the hearth. It was an elven woman in a pale blue gown of some surprisingly smooth and modern-looking material, probably silk. She had a table pulled up to the hearth, and seated on the table was a wooden board holding an array of sparkling crystals, which she was running her fingers over to produce chiming tones that almost sounded electronic while she sang some ballad I wasn’t familiar with.
Magic crystals were supposed to be one of the most difficult instruments to master, not only because it required magical talent as well as musical just to use them, but because unlike most instruments, where the sounds produced were purely mechanical in nature–you do this, you get this tone, you do that, you get that tone instead–a major component of what came out of a crystal tune was what the bard was thinking and visualizing at the time. That meant that playing crystals required constant focus; there was no way to learn it well enough that you can just play by rote and let habit take over.
I grinned at Aylwyn when I saw this. “She’s pretty good,” I said softly. “But her voice just doesn’t have the power that yours does.”
Aylwyn nodded slowly. “That’s true,” she said. “Why do you mention it?”
“Just watch.” We took a seat at an empty table and waited for the bard’s song to wind down. Once it did, I stood up, beckoning to Aylwyn to follow me. “A lovely song, m’lady,” I said as I approached. “Would you care to play together?”
That’s a question that works on multiple levels. It’s not exactly the simple, friendly invitation it sounds like, among bards at least. It’s more of a challenge–particularly to a stranger–carrying the unspoken implication that they could do better if they had some help. There’s an informal etiquette to these things, and she responded appropriately. “If you can best me at a duel.”
Now, this didn’t mean pistols at ten paces at high noon, or even swords or daggers for that matter. No, a bard’s duel is a much more civilized thing: you each perform one song, and let the audience decide the victor. “Very well,” I said. There were three ways we could do this. “Would you like to perform a new song, or let this last speak for you? Or have us go first?”
A smart challenger would choose to go second here, to know what she was up against, and that’s just what she did. “Please,” she said. “You may play first. My voice could use a brief rest.”
The gathered patrons were observing the ritual with interest, so I turned to address the room as I unpacked my lute. “I am called Peter Parker, and my companion is Aylwyn, and we’re here tonight to perform a song of the angels, the Tale of Terelon.” I had considered trying a name with a bit more panache to it, but I wasn’t sure how Aylwyn would react to me messing with her culture, so I just went with something simple and descriptive.
“Just like you did it last night,” I said softly to her, and she nodded. I took a few moments to ensure the lute was in tune, then strummed an introduction, hoping I’d be able to pull off a better accompaniment than I had the night before.
It was srill harder than I thought. I’d only heard it once, and as memorable as the song is, that’s really not enough time to memorize the whole thing. So I found myself flubbing chords a few times, especially as it gained momentum. But I kept playing, and kept my accompaniment to the background; it was really Aylwyn’s voice carrying the whole thing. I really built up the accompaniment at the triumphant ending, though; that part I hadn’t been able to get out of my head all day, and I ended it strumming as hard as I could, hoping that the well-crafted instrument could hold the final chord as long as she could hold the note.
It didn’t, of course. The humming of the strings died down soon enough, but Aylwyn seemed to notice, and she let her own voice taper off in a near-perfect unity with my strings. That really wowed me; the level of vocal control required to pull that off, especially after you’ve already been singing for a while, was impressive. Glancing over at my rival, I could see that she was similarly impressed. If it was anyone else, I’d say she looked a bit intimidated, but I’m not sure that’s an expression that elves are actually capable of.
“Your voice is lovely,” the bard calmly remarked to Aylwyn, “but it is clear that you have not practiced together nearly enough.”
Aylwyn nodded. “True,” she said modestly. “I am no bard, with years of training in the arts of music. I simply… sing, from time to time.”
She smiled at Aylwyn. “You certainly have potential. Perhaps, if you were to train…” She looked up and addressed the room. “That was a beautiful song. But now I, Nulaera, bring my response.”
Nulaera began to slowly run her long, slender fingers over the array of crystals on the table before her, beginning to draw a soft, slow, melancholy melody from them. She simply let the music build, flowing slowly through the room over the course of perhaps a minute and a half, waiting patiently. Once everyone in the room was watching carefully, once every eye was on her and all conversation and even eating and drinking had ceased, only then did she begin to sing.
Íludar, the lovely land
that waits for me across a sea
of tears and raging storms,
oh Íludar, I’m lost, cast out,
wand’ring here so far
from my beloved home
until the day that I return, my Íludar.
She was good, I’ll give her that. She sang of the beauty of the distant Elven homeland, and we could almost see it. She mourned her separation from those she loved, and the magic crystals wailed her agony. Several of the patrons were openly moved to tears. Me, I was kind of scowling. That’s a nasty trick to play; letting your adversary get their emotions all riled up with a powerful anthem like Aylwyn’s, and then piggybacking on it with a song like this that’s going to drop a massive load of catharsis on everyone.
If we’d been at the Bard’s College, I’d have been perfectly within my rights to sabotage her song by jumping in with my lute and turning it into an impromptu duet, adding snarky counterpoints that would make the listeners laugh instead of cry. The other bards would judge you on style, on your skill at such improvisational tasks, and that’s something I was always good at. But here, where the audience wasn’t familiar with that culture, it would most likely be seen as boorish, so I just held my peace and let her finish her song.
When a bard’s duel ends, sometimes it’s obvious who’s won, just by observing the audience. They really reacted to one song, and not the other. But sometimes, times like this one, it’s not so clear. So we called for a vote among the crowd of patrons in the common room, and in the end it was close enough that we decided to both play. Aylwyn even sang a few more of her Celestial oral history pieces, and Nulaera proved quicker than me at picking up on the tune, improvising a harmony on her crystals. This is actually the sort of outcome that most bards truly hope for when they duel. Winning is fun, sure, but when it ends in a draw, when you’re able to perform with someone, to both learn learn from each other and build something together, especially when it’s a new bard who you’re not yet familiar with… there’s just a certain simple joy in that, one that you don’t find too many other places.
So the last night of my quest together with Aylwyn went really well, right up until things were winding down. When we were both packing up our instruments, Nulaera turned to me with a smile. “That was much more fun than I had expected this night to be,” she said. “And I must say I am impressed, Peter Parker. You have a certain depth of appreciation for the profound that I would not have expected from the author of something as whimsical and silly as the Lay of Paul Twister.”
Aylwyn looked up when she heard that, looking over at me with a questioning expression. I just sighed and gave her a subtle nod. Her face didn’t give away much, but I’d spent enough time with her to know what she was most likely thinking. It probably had a lot to do with disapproving sentiments about someone who would write a song to boast of their own deeds.
I smiled to Nulaera and thanked her, and we exchanged a few more pleasantries before I headed to my room, all the while dreading the inevitable questions from Aylwyn the next day. But there wasn’t much to do about that; in the end I’d just have to face the music, as it were.