Fantasy Fiction

By Any Other Name
The Towers of Zolyniak
A Diamond Is A Girl’s Worst Enemy
Marion the Unmagical
The Road to Udupi
The Thief of Cardinal Falls (Part 1)
The Treasure of Totowa Hills (Part 2)
Seeress (Part 3)


©Melissa Katherine Michael
2000 words

by Melissa Michael

Gwenilyn heard muffled giggling behind her. She turned from her desk to regard the window where a squirrel sprite hopped from one long, clawed foot to the other while smothering its giggles with a paw.
What a life. The sprites she'd created were her only friends now. Gwenilyn had been lost in reverie, recalling the rustle of fine new Summerfest clothes, the dancing, the music and pastries, all the enjoyments of castle life she'd left behind. Sitting lonely in her tree hut, it was at times hard to remember why she'd left.
"All right, rascal," Gwenilyn addressed the sprite. "I'll give you a treat. Tell me what you've found."
The squirrel sprite bounded for the table by Gwenilyn's seat and hastily bolted the honey sweet Gwenilyn handed it. This was one of her earlier efforts. She'd sacrificed the tail to give it speech and a little reasoning, but beyond that and a human face, she hadn't changed its shape. A felt hat perched smartly between its tufted ears.
"Music it was!" the sprite squeaked excitedly. "Most wondrous. And he looks handsome like please to meet."
Gwenilyn stroked the tiny muscular body. "Music, eh? We've not heard much music in these woods. A wandering Bard, perhaps?" The sprite rolled over on its back and thumped one foot in the air as Gwen scratched its belly.
"Handsome it was, too. For you!" the sprite giggled helplessly for a moment. "But such music, like never heard. I take you to it."
"Did he see you?"
The sprite looked uncomfortable.
"And what was his reaction?"
The sprite shrugged. "Stopped."
It all came back, the frustrations, the maddening condescensions, the thousand and one reasons she'd left the Academe and refused a village appointment. For a male Wizard to create sprites was a matter of course, but for a female . . . oh that was too dangerous, what if she'd made a mistake and created something abominable and uncontrollable? Like Stuart had, Gwen sneered to herself. Fools, all! She'd tried to set up her own Women's School of Wizardry, but all the surrounding Kings refused to sell her land with the gold she'd changed from lead. Even when she'd persuaded her father to front for her they knew it was hers and would have no part in establishing a school to teach women independence.
No, a Wizard woman's place was behind a Wizard, making love potions and beauty glamours while he got to control court politics and kill dragons. And got all the recognition! While his poor wife worked her fingers to the bone supporting and reinforcing his half-cast spells. And they'd all been shocked when Gwen left before she'd found a husband! And even refused their generous appointment of Assistant to the bachelor Animal Healer, a fitting position for a spinster Wizard. What a waste of half the Wizard talent of the land; to attend the Academe for ten to twenty years only to find a husband!
Bah! Gwenilyn was the equal of any of the teachers at the Academe. She'd copied her favorite spellbooks and come to Darkwood to make a home among the trees and perhaps render help to any Providence sent her way.
But the Bard didn't know any of that, and neither was it any of his fault. What he was doing this deep in the Darkwood, Gwenilyn could not fathom. Perhaps she should find out.
Gwen made her body light to easily follow the squirrel sprite's path among the tree tops. After near an hour she heard faint music. The sprite landed on her shoulder and said, "Quiet and secret now. He'll stop if he knows us near."
Gwen crept forward until she could hear clearly. He played a mandolin, but like no other Bard she'd ever heard. Many came to the Academe to seek favor among the Wizards who could change lead to gold as easily as a Bard could pluck a string. She crept closer until her head was filled with glorious impassioned sound. He fiercely strummed a four-chord sequence then fingered runs in each of the chords alternating the two musical phrases. Gwen stepped around a tree and saw him some distance below her, facing away. Well, the sprite was right about his beautiful blonde hair gleaming in the sunlight. Now she could hear him humming and lalling a counterpoint. Then the phrase came round to the hard strum of the chords and his rich tenor burst into song with
To keep Collector at bay, Lay-ee-oh-ee-lay
I cut an acre of hay, Lay-ee-oh-ee-lay
T'was a long, lonely day, Lay-ee-oh-ee-lay
So won't you marry me, May-ay-ee-oh-ee-ay?
Gwen felt gooseflesh start on her arms. His dynamism transformed a simple folk song into an anthem for the salt-of-the-earth Growers. She'd never heard this version of the song and felt certain he'd created it. She blinked her magesight into use and saw a shower of blue bardsparks flying from his fingers and lingering on his lips.
Suddenly he stopped. The mandolin twanged on a last, sour note. Oops. She'd meandered around to see his face and forgotten about hiding. Surely a Bard of such exceptional quality was used to pleasing the most demanding audience.
"Please forgive my intrusion. That was wondrous fair. If you please, take no note of me and pray continue your lovely music."
The Bard took a deep breath before speaking. "I thank you kindly for your compliment, fair lady, but I fear I must be on my way. I've just finished for the day."
He started and stared at a place above her shoulder. "What are you?" he demanded.
Gwen spun around and saw the sprite hanging by one paw and a foot to the bark of an old oak with a merry smile. "Sprite is I, Bard."
"It was watching me earlier," he said to Gwen. "I've never seen such a tiny person."
"There are a few around, this deep in the woods. Pray, what brings you this way? What is your name and whither are you headed? Surely you could tarry a day and make nice music to the trees."
"Oh no. Must keep moving. My name's Bartholomew Bard, m'lady," he said, packing up the mandolin with alacrity. "I like the woods. Bit shy of people you know. Good day to you, m'lady."
Shy of people was he? What kind of Bard was that? "But you must stay and play one more song. Anything you like." Gwenilyn heard the desperation in her voice. Summerfest. And her all alone without a new dress or a dancing partner. At least she could hear a Bard. "I'm a Wizard, you know. Gwenilyn Mage." She curtsied. "I can pay good gold."
"Oh no, I appreciate that. Tis mighty kindly of you, but I must get on."
"You're headed for Pecan Valley?"
"No. Which way is that? I've enough gold to last a while. I'm not headed for any cities."
Gwen pointed northwest. He seemed quite panic stricken and for no apparent reason. Gwen sighed in envy. She had always wanted to travel. But it was not only unseemly for a young woman alone, but downright impossible. Any village she entered would brand her a harlot and refuse her barter at the inns and markets. And why? Simply because she didn't have a man with her. A lusty, lazy, groping, good-for-nothing, balls instead of breasts man! Gwen sighed again. She mustn't let her own troubles blind her to those before her.
"What ails you, Bard?" she asked softly.
He had prepared to mount his horse but now he coughed and stood still gathering his wit. He looked to his feet. "I can't sing in front of anyone. I-I-I get afeared something terrible. Voice chokes up, my fingers stumble on the strings. I've never played for an audience."
"Yet you made it through Bard training," Gwen was mystified.
"Yes, when I was a lad, Nilithian Master Bard heard me singing in the woods like you did just now, and recommended me to the Music Hall. So, even though I never did well for my teachers, they couldn't gainsay his recommendation and so, I completed my training, playing impeccably in practice, but I passed none of my examinations and thus never achieved an Apprenticeship. I make enough to survive by my Growing talent." He changed the subject in the face of her horrified glance. "I've been to Healers by the dozen."
Gwenilyn laughed. "A Healer can't heal what isn't diseased!"
But the Bard looked miserable. "That's what they all said."
"Have you never been to a Wizard about it?"
"There aren't many what have time for a lad who can't sing calling himself a Bard."
Yes, Gwenilyn well knew the stilted reception he would receive. Without something the Wizard wanted, namely power, fame, or royal favor, none of the common citizenry would be seen. Another issue Gwenilyn wanted changed. 'Those with power owe a moral duty to serve those in need' was one of the principal tenets of the school that existed only in her fancy.
"Today's your lucky day, Bartholomew Bard. You happen to be in the presence of the most skillful, powerful, learned, and experienced Wizard in all of Darkwood," Gwen said with a rueful smile. "Come. Play again and let me see if there is a glamour on you. I saw nothing when you were unaware of my attention. Let's see if it's different when you are aware."
The Bard frowned, but after a sigh, he took out his lute this time. He sat and tuned it briefly, then started the letter song, a teaching tool for children. Simple, yet still he made mistakes. His fingering was slightly sour and his glorious tenor was reduced to an airy sigh. Even his enunciation was muffled by a lisp.
Gwen detected magic. She concentrated until she could make out the scraps of red indicating a very old glamour twisting around his fingers and throat. She blinked to her pastsight striving for the source of the spell that she might counter it or simply dissipate it. She saw Bartholomew as a fresh-faced boy, skipping merrily through a brook. There! An age-old enemy of Nilithian Master Bard had hired a Wizard to cast a spell on the lad simply to thwart the Bard's recommendation and cast doubt on his authority. Gwen gathered the tattered scraps of the old spell and dissipated them easily, for all the concerned parties were years in their graves. She opened her eyes to find the sprite snoring softly in her lap.
"So you see m'lady. Tis of no use. I simply play for my own pleasure and perhaps for the trees. Tis enough."
Gwen smiled at the Bard. "One more simple song like that. I did see evidence of a spell on you. Just try one more."
Bartholomew Bard sighed and settled again. He took a deep breath and started a lullaby. A bright smile broke over his face like the sun breaks over a storm-torn sea. His voice pealed forth rich and full, his fingers struck the strings with meticulous meter. He boldly and easily met the eyes of his audience. After one verse he sprang to his feet waving the lute in the air.
"M'lady Gwenilyn! Tis truly a miracle! Anything! Anything you want, just name your fee!"
Gwenilyn considered for a moment. "Actually . . . if it wouldn't be too much trouble, I would like to travel with you. You can play for all the Kings of the land. And perhaps you could accumulate enough funds so that we could go into a partnership and purchase land. I have an idea for a revolutionary new form of education."
Bartholomew Bard nodded eagerly. "Done! A noble idea. I've an idea for schooling, too; for combining talents instead of strictly practicing only one. I've survived on my Growing skill although music was my main talent. That way one needn't be ruined if one talent fades or is hindered in some way. We'll make a grand revolutionary Academe!"


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