The tavern was busy; they’d all heard that the hero-bard would be performing her great epic tonight. It had been whispered all over the city that she’d been perfecting the tale for weeks, and that it was finally ready. Song and tale alike, the rumors said. Her masterpiece. Adventurers of every stripe had gathered beneath the sign of the Arrows; ordinary citizens packed the tables, stools, and corners. And when she swept onto the stage, the cheers and applause shook the rafters.
Red of hair, was she. Her blue woad curled in spirals on cheek, wrist, and collarbone. She sat on the stool in leather armor worked as smooth and supple as silk, her longsword chiming lightly against the rough boards as she tuned her lute. Plink, plink, went the strings as she turned a peg here. There. All was perfect. The crowd held its breath, and she sang the introductory verses.
Oh gather round brothers, I’ll tell you a tale,
Of those warriors, valiant but few
Who gave wager of battle with blade and with guile
Who stared Death in her face and laughed back with a smile
And who kept all their solemn oaths true, so true
Oh always for them to be true…
And here the bard paused, and let her fingers drift away after a final melodic flourish. The cheers washed over her, and she stood to deliver the first soliloquy. In the traditional Elven way, the Heroes of the story are never named until the last verses of the song, but all those gathered knew the names already. How could they not?
“Fall was coming on when the heroes struck south. Many adventures they had, and many tales already had been sung of their deeds. But a few will I may speak of this night, that we might remember them.”
“Remember when the shepherd, so weary and sick, took a long journey to bring back a sheep that had wandered very far. His faith was his armor, his allies his weapons. And from an angel dark as pitch they claimed that rarest treasure; redemption.”
“Remember when the bastard slew in single combat a beast with tusks like scimitars, and came back covered in glory to her Sisters and Brothers. And then she found altogether different sorts of brothers, needing altogether different kinds of glory.”
“Remember that smuggler, his smile so untrustworthy, when he and his comrades made that most impossible alchemy a gleaming reality. They turned a millstone into gold, and none could say how they did it.”
“Remember the scout who always volunteered for the cause of the right; who flew in on wings of ropes and shattered glass to free from bondage those so cruelly imprisoned, and followed a Way that is rewarding but hard.”
“Remember the lord who never bowed to anyone, who lost his name but found his nobility in the streets and canals of the city. They bragged that a battering ram couldn’t knock him down, and it turned out they were right.”
“Do you recall the knave? How she crept unseen into a most distinguished parliament of the dead? And then, by inviting her friends to the conversation, caught these debaters of consummate skill quite unawares and, for the first and last time, at a loss for words and chess alike?”
“The secret seeker found out more than he had ever bargained for, if I recall correctly. What do you call a dead man who talks? I’d say an awful liar, but to him it told a whole new kind of truth. Concern for the living on the part of the dead is unsettling at the best of times, and those times were most unsettled.”
“The dragon had roared a thousand times, but never to the accompaniment of church bells before she and her companions struck out for a grove of live oak and peculiar sorceries. The knight wasn’t there, and she thanked her queer gods for that, for otherwise she’d never have heard the end of it. Can you ever remember seeing a dragon blush? I can.”
“The gambler bet it all on a dwarf who lived in a mountain of gold, forgetting whatever small amount of good sense he’d had beside the ocean. But in the sea of grass he found something rather greater than what he’d expected.”
“All this we remember, and let songs be sung of those days. But now we must turn to what they found on their leaving, and on their returning, that cool foggy day. What evil awoke from the swamp, what good awoke in the city. That day not long ago at all, in the fading of the year…”
The bard sat back down, her blade ringing like a tuning fork. A few more plucks of the strings, a crowd charged with bated breath. And she strummed, and she breathed.
And she sang.