by T. Gene Davis
Ivy clung to thick stone walls surrounding the cottage entry. Shade from the castle’s high turreted tower gave some relief from the summer sun. An herb patch rested to the left of the entry providing a scent to the thick muggy air. Smoke curled from the cobblestone chimney defying the summer morning’s warmth.
Entertaining a fire in the cottage was unpleasant, but the baker lived in the castle. Letal and Mary lived outside the castle. Taking their cooking to the baker took a lot of time. On days when Letal entertained the king with his music, Mary took the bread out to the baker. However, with Letal home she chose to endure the heat of the fire. He was glad for it. They were still sappy newly weds, and felt near physical pain at separation.
“Letal,” Mary called from the fire’s hearth laying thick her best damsel in distress tone of voice.
“Yes, my wife?” Letal responded, enjoying the playful attitude of his wife.
“When are you going to stop adding, ‘my wife,’ to everything you say?”
“I like the sound of it. So, never, … my wife.” He smiled at her as he spoke, showing imperfect yellow teeth. However, he had all of his teeth and was proud of it. He showed his teeth whenever he smiled.
“Do you have a tune in that fiddle of yours for getting rid of flies from the kitchen?” She teased Letal, knowing he hated anyone calling his viola a fiddle.
“My viola? Yes, my wife.”
“Well play it, my husband.”
He pulled the bow across the finely tuned cords, playing a simple tune composed of three repeating notes. The tune did not sound like much. However, the flies fled for the window.
“That was amazing, Letal. Did you bewitch me with one of your tunes so I’d marry you?”
“Of course, my wife.”
She never new if he was joking about bewitching her. She also did not know if she cared either way. She felt happy when he was around, and her parents had been proud to marry her off to someone that spent his days in the presence of the king. The king himself had visited their wedding party to wish them well. Mary thought her mother would faint from joy at the neighbors seeing royalty at her daughter’s party!
Then realizing he had said “my wife,” again, Mary flicked Letal with some water off her fingertips.
“Enough with the ‘my wife,’” she said.
Letal flinched away from the drops, instinctively shielding his instrument.
“Don’t you dare say it!”
There was a sharp knock at the door.
Mary laughed, “Serves you right. Time for work,” she said while dipping her fingers in water to flick at him again.
“Is that you, Hal?” Letal called rising irritation undisguised in his voice. He made no move toward opening the door.
“Stop with your rudeness,” Mary said crossing to the door and opening it for Hal to enter. She managed to flick Letal with more water on her way by.
Hal stood in the door in his full armor, obviously irritated that he played errand boy, fetching a court musician. Hal smiled at Mary, politely, as she opened the door.
“Letal, the king requests your presence,” Hal announced.
Letal stood with his instrument, but Hal raised his hand.
“You are requested, but leave your fiddle here.” Hal spat the word fiddle as an insult. Hal and Letal had studied music together as children, so he spoke in malice rather than ignorance.
Mary and Letal exchanged glances, curious as to why a court musician would be requested without his instrument. Letal left with Hal, closing the door quietly behind them. Mary left off kneading her bread, covering it with a wet towel. She moved to the closed door, and opened it—looking at her husband walking and the soldier marching as his escort toward the walls of the king’s castle.
Hal showed Letal to the king’s throne in the king’s great hall deep in the keep. Letal knew the way. He performed at the throne several times a week. Letal fought down the annoyance he felt at Hal.
The king sat on his throne, with the steward in front, and several soldiers stationed about the hall, mostly for affect not for security. The king felt safe in his own keep. With loyal men defending the castle and kingdom, he had all the security he needed. The hall contained more flowers and small fountains than soldiers. Even Mauvis de Torv the great bandit was no threat to the king in this great hall.
Letal smelled cinnamon, probably from the garments of the steward. The steward was a short thin man with a head like a lumpy watermelon. Letal’s stomach churned, reminding him that he had left before Mary had finished cooking their bread. With any luck, he’d be out of here and back home before the bread cooled.
“Steward,” the king commanded. “You’re charge?”
“He’s a witch!”
Letal consciously closed his mouth, and glared at the steward, wanting to laugh and yell. Instead he smirked and said, “I would be a warlock. Witches are female.”
“See! He admits knowledge of forbidden arts!”
Letal rolled his eyes, and kept silent. The hall had a peaceful air. The sun shown through high hidden stained glass windows creating rainbows on the normally grey granite walls. Letal concentrated on the colors pouring down the walls.
“This demon,” the steward spat, “played his foul wizardry and soured the breakfast we prepared for the king! His music must be silenced. All his tunes forbidden! He plays evil enchanted music that will destroy this court if permitted.”
“What are you talking about?” Letal looked the steward in the eye, forgetting the charge momentarily.
“You flattened His Majesty’s souffle with ill magic!”
“I played loud music, and your souffle went flat?”
“Ill magic,” the steward sputtered losing his thought as his face reddened. “That music!”
Letal looked at the King fully expecting a smile on his face. This was a joke. But there was no mirth to be found in the hall, just silence. Letal inhaled strongly, taking in the scent of freshly harvested marigolds.
“Do you deny this charge, Letal?” The king spoke very quietly. His voice was the only sound in the hall, and the beautiful acoustics made the kings near whisper boom.
“If we are talking about yesterday morning, I was practicing in the kitchen. Yes. It is possible the volume of my music affected his souffle.”
The king waved his hand.
“Your services are no longer required.”
Letal’s knees went weak. If he had brought his viola, he would have dropped it in shock. His only thought was, how can the king do this to a loyal subject? Hatred for the king stirred in him.
Hal showed Letal the gate. He did not try to hide his smirk. The menial nature of the job did not bother him this time.
Letal glanced at Hal’s curling lips and said, “Thanks for not rubbing it in that I’m soon to be penniless.”
“Don’t mention it,” Hal said through a now full face grin.
“I’m going to have to get creative to ply my trade.”
“Or, … you could get a real job.”
Hal drew himself up to his full height, pushing out his chest, and making leather straps holding his armor creak in protest.
“Like what?” Letal repeated, ignoring Hal’s hint.
“Military is good work, and even if you have to change allegiance, the work is always there, and the busier your are, the more upward mobility you have.”
Letal grunted. Fancy words for a soldier, he thought.
Hal fought on, “Even if I lost my position, I could convince another monarch into enlisting me.”
“Thanks for the advice, Hal.”
Hal sneered at the thank you as Letal walked out the gate toward home. Hal noted that Letal walked like forest game, taking slow timid steps, while watching for wolves.
Letal returned in time for warm bread. Mary offered him some bread with honey, which he accepted. He nibbled on the bread. Letal related the king’s dismissal.
“We’ll need to leave this home,” Letal explained. “It is the king’s, not ours.”
“I don’t understand. Why didn’t Hal use his influence with the king?” Mary asked, not moving from the chair by the hearth.
“He hates me, Mary.”
“Why? You two were friends.”
“He doesn’t care about me, the king, or anyone but himself. He only cares about advancing his own career.”
“He could have helped you.”
“Hal will never help anyone but himself.”
“That is sad for him,” Mary decided.
The same day, Letal and Mary packed what little they owned, and left the shadow of the castle behind. Letal felt relief at putting distance between him and his former patron. Even looking at the castle made him angry, so he did not turn as Mary did to glance at their former home as they entered the mountain pass.
On the shores of a lake high in the mountains lay a village with narrowly wound roads that climbed impossible knolls that had no business supporting roads or houses, inns or smithies. The place was called Arell, or “by the shore” in the native tongue.
Letal had an uncle in the mountain village Arell that he hoped would let them stay for a while. So with Mary on their one horse, and all their possessions in a small borrowed cart, they made their way over hills and through valleys, and eventually into the mountains surrounding Arell.
Upon arrival, Letal explained his little family’s situation. Letal’s uncle was more than understanding, especially after Mary made him some of her bread. She had a way with cooking, and Letal’s uncle had a great talent for eating. He insisted that Mary stay on the shores of the lake at Arell while Letal visited royal houses in an effort to find a new sponsor.
Letal courted many potential patrons with some luck. He learned the mountain roads to many kingdoms, and he and his mare became very use to the long trips around switchbacks and washed out roads.
Most trips were uneventful. Not all. One day Letal found himself on the way back to the village of Arell on a narrow mountain road. Men with long thick wooden spears stood around the bend, all planted and set for killing of a charging horse. Letal turned back, but pulled the reigns on his horse at the sight of more men behind him setting spears.
“Seems we may have to work together, or be parted,” Letal said while patting his mare on her firm muscled neck.
Letal glanced both directions on the road hoping to find a third route. Long deadly shafts blocked the only paths. To the right, the ground was too steep and loose for his mare. To the left, a ravine covered in rocks and boulders waited to break their fall.
A man appeared above Letal on the rise to the right.
“You are on de Torv’s toll road. Time to pay up.”
“I do not know this ‘de Torv’. Who is this?”
“I am Mauvis de Torv, and I expect a toll on my road.”
“I have no money for a toll. Perhaps a song and dance would suffice?” Letal twisted uncomfortably, pulling his instrument from a case strapped to the back of the saddle. He held it up in offering.
“You have plenty for your toll,” de Torv spoke as several of his men started forward to relieve Letal of his horse, and possessions.
Letal raised his viola and began to play a rousing tune. The music did not stop the bandits, but the mare began to prance and dance in place. That stopped the robbers.
One brave bandit tried to grab the mare’s reigns. A sharp note from Letal drew a hoof down on the bandit’s foot. The injured bandit hopped around, knocking down several of the other approaching men.
The men with the spears and their leader all began laughing at the sight. The mare began spinning while dancing catching the spearmen off guard. Before anyone could stop laughing the bandits blocking the road were on the side of the road in a pile of sticks and legs, knocked there by the rump of the spinning horse.
Mauvis de Torv slapped his knee and half heartedly shouted, “He is getting away!” Letal, however, was on a fine horse and well in his own power to leave by this point.
The bandit leader clapped, and said, “Who was that fantastic fiddler?”
Letal, always willing to entertain an appreciative audience, turned his horse and shouted back, “I am Letal! I have no argument with you! I am only a musician! My argument is with the king!”
When Letal rode out of sight, the bandit said to his men, “I swear that man, Letal, will play at my coronation when I am king.”
Letal rode more cautiously back to Arell for the rest of that journey. He saw no more trouble until he reached his uncle’s home. His uncle met him, instead of Mary. Letal asked if everything was alright. His uncle looked down the entire time he spoke.
“She went into the lake in my skiff. She got it into her head to catch some fish. I found the boat later in the day, floating near shore without her.”
Letal thanked his uncle for his hospitality, and left. His uncle saw Letal rarely after Mary’s disappearance.
Well up the rutted winding lane from the lake shore in the village of Arell stood an inn with rooms to let—one big room for eating, several big rooms for sleeping in the company of strangers, and a few small rooms to stay alone and out of sight.
Every year at the same season, that inn in the village Arell was visited by a middle aged former court musician by the name of Letal. On the night of his visit, he tuned his viola and played for his room, food, and some spare coins that the inn’s residents provided. No one missed Letal’s performance. It was magical. Beasts quieted when he played, and people felt the cheer, and sang and danced and shouted for joy.
This night was the night of the year when Letal played at the inn. News among Arell’s residents spread quickly when Letal came to play. As Letal drew his bow across the strings, residents and sojourners alike rushed in to join the impromptu celebration. The crowd consisted of villagers, traveling merchants, some nobility, and even a couple of soldiers. Soldiers were common enough that no one thought it unusual for the soldiers to be at the inn. There was after all a war with the bandit, de Torv, that continued from year to year.
Letal noticed the soldiers, though. He had served in the king’s court for years, and he knew that soldiers did not often travel in small numbers, unless they had a charge to fill. Also, these soldiers did not behave with discipline. He kept his eye on them, distrustful of their intentions.
After hours of dance and conversation, Letal finished, and the crowds dispersed. The inn was abandoned to its transient residents and the inn keeper. Letal went to his private room, noting that the two soldiers waited for him to leave before going to their own rooms. In his room he waited for the inn to grow quiet before slipping out into the night.
Jonn, one of the two soldiers, woke to distant music just beyond his hearing. The fiddler, Letal, was playing again, but not inside the inn. Jonn grudgingly left the comfort of the bedbug packed mattress and slipped through the inn into the night.
“You heard him, too?” The inn master asked from the shadows.
“Yes,” Jonn stuttered, surprised that he was not alone. “That is him then? I thought it was, but it isn’t very close.”
“No. He’s at the shore, playing to his wife.”
“I did not see her, earlier. He is married then?”
“Not anymore. She was drowned in the lake, … murdered according to Letal.”
“Yes?” The soldier asked wanting the innkeeper to continue.
“Letal feels the king murdered her. It does not matter. He plays for her every time he visits my inn. If you are quiet, you can sneak up and listen. They say she dances on the lake when he plays. The moon is right tonight. You might catch a glimpse of her.”
“He will be back?”
“Yes. He only took his instrument with him.”
Jonn was quiet, then almost went down the lane. Almost. Instead he went back to bed and slept until the sun came up.
Jonn woke the other soldier and looked in the small dining room of the inn. Letal was not yet there but presently entered. Jonn noted Letal did not have a weapon.
“Letal,” the soldier stated, rather than asked.
Letal looked at the soldier, use to men knowing his name when he did not know their names. Many people carried the tools of there trade when traveling, but when those tools were for killing, Letal felt uncomfortable.
Letal replied, “I am called that. What is your name?”
“You play the fiddle beautifully,” Jonn responded, ignoring the question.
“It’s a viola.”
Jonn did not like this musician. Jonn resisted the urge to kill him on the spot. Instead, he continued.
“We are taking you to the new king’s palace. We leave after we eat.”
“I was not aware the king had a new palace,” Letal responded.
Jonn looked at Letal and grunted.
“I am not going to the palace.”
The soldiers placed their hands on their swords.
“You have enough time to bring your fiddle, no more.”
The discussion was over, and Letal returned to his room to gather his belongings. He left all but the viola with the innkeeper. The soldiers finished eating, without waiting for Letal to eat, and they left the inn—Letal on foot and the soldiers on horseback.
They traveled for several days. Letal slept on the ground and ate what little he could gather along the roadside in the form of fruit and nuts. When they arrived, Letal looked about the throne and hall in shock. Stacks of bodies, formed of king’s men and bandits decorated the great hall. Nervous servants hastily arranged tables, glancing at the heaps of carnage and gore, trembling and gagging.
The two soldiers escorted Letal across the expansive hall to the throne, where an elegantly dressed man sat presiding over the mounds of dead subjects. The smell was horrid, worse than rotten fish, and yet the man on the throne looked jubilant.
“You are Letal, the fiddler!” The man on the throne stated.
“Yes.” Letal bowed with one hand holding his instrument. He did not bother to correct the man on the throne. Letal knew the face and voice, but could not place them.
“I sent my men to find the greatest musician in the kingdom in anticipation of this celebration. We met once before on my toll road in the mountains near Arell.”
“Of course,” Letal finally remembered de Torv, leader of the bandits.
“Tonight, we celebrate the end of bandits roaming the countryside!”
The hall roared with laughter of soldiers and cheers of armed men raising their swords above the cowering servants. The man on the throne grinned like the devil himself, raising his hands in triumph.
When the cheering subsided, he looked down at his feet where a man whom Letal thought was a corpse lay bound, swollen, and bleeding. The man on the throne kicked him. Letal hardly recognized the bound man without his royal robes. The man he hated more than any other. It was the king.
“Are you not going to cheer for your new king?” The man on the throne shouted at the bound king. The man on the throne rested his feet on the bound man, and fixed his gaze on Letal.
“Letal, Jonn tells me your family was killed by this man.”
“Yes,” Letal replied with a shaking voice.
“Here is your chance for revenge. This man killed your family,” said the man on the throne, kicking his footstool for emphasis. “He failed the kingdom. He caused every hardship.”
Letal remained silent. He looked at the man he hated, smelled the rotting bodies that filled the hall, and heard the fearful cries of servants rushing around preparing for the coronation of their new king. He did not know what to think.
The man on the throne grinned, again. It was a ghastly grin, filled with missing teeth and exposing a black pit of a maw. Letal looked on the bound man with righteous anger building in him for the injustices that could not be undone.
The soldiers sat Letal at a table near the throne. He looked at the piles of bodies, looking for old friends, and enemies. Thankfully, he saw no one. However, among the living, he saw Hal. He sat at a table across the hall, sharpening a knife. He bragged about his skills with bandits and soldiers that had joined de Torv in bringing down the old king. On a bet, he threw the knife at a servant that happened to pass his table. The man screamed. The new king found this show amusing and laughed, encouraging others to join in the play.
Letal felt sick. He looked at the bound king, and remembered the hall as it was. Surely, de Torv would repeat this destruction across the entire kingdom, given time.
“Steward! Give this fiddler refreshment.”
The booming voice of de Torv woke Letal from his thoughts. He was somewhat startled to see his old accuser rush forward to his table. The steward brought Letal food and drink with trembling hands.
“Steward,” Letal gripped the steward’s hand before he could leave.
“Yes.” It was more of a squeak than a response.
“Are you loyal to your king?” Letal said this nodding his head toward the bound king under de Torv’s feet.
“I am, … while he lives.”
“Then do as I say. Tonight, I will play for the man on the throne. When I begin to play a forbidden tune, flee with all the servants from the hall, and blockade the hall doors until morning’s first rays.”
“Forbidden tune?” The steward questioned, not comprehending. Then the steward began shaking violently. His eyes as round as saucers, he stared at Letal, and pulled his hand away as if from a fire.
“You are Letal! You were banished from the court!” It was a whispered accusation, and he fled like a goat from a coyote.
All through the celebration, tables of soldiers and men with swords ate and drank and cheered. All through the celebration Letal stroked his viola, caressing the neck and gut string, providing a background melody to drown out the stench of the carcasses piled throughout the hall. All through the celebration the servants kept an eye on Letal—a fearful eye.
Finally, when all had had their fill of food and wine, the man on the throne shouted, “Enough of this music for sleeping damsels! Fiddler, play me a tune that will raise the dead! I want to dance to my victory! I want to dance on the graves of my enemies!”
Letal stopped the piece he played. He checked the tuning on his instrument, and let loose a litany of notes that stirred the mind and left the listeners breathless. The servants stopped serving, listened in shock, and then fled the hall. No one noticed that the servants fled. The soldiers, bandits, and man on the throne danced and laughed. The doors closed behind the servants.
The man on the throne danced around his bound enemy, kicking him frequently and raising his hands to clap them to the music. The soldiers and bandits swung each other round and round to the point of hysteria. They danced and sang words of their own creation. They danced around the writhing stacks of corpses. They danced until they realized the bodies of their enemies were actually moving. Then, their celebration turned to terror.
The servants, after fleeing the hall, piled everything of any weight they could find against the great hall’s doors . The music lasted for many hours, until near dawn. The terrible screams of the damned had stopped by then, but they prayed for their own safety despite the relative calm from the other side of the doors.
At dawn’s first rays, the steward took courage and commanded the doors be opened. His fellow servants begged him to change his mind, but he pressed them, and they obeyed.
The stench of the previous night was gone. They found the rightful king, no longer bound on the floor. Instead, he sat somewhat stiffly on the thrown. All the bandits and traitors and bodies of their victims were gone, except one. Mauvis de Torv, the usurper, who only yesterday sat on the king’s throne lay shivering and quite insane at the king’s feet. Letal, the king’s musician, sat at a bench tuning his viola.
T. Gene Davis writes speculative fiction, poetry, articles, books, and computer software. When he is not writing, he loves working on his hobby farm in rural Utah. The farm is still in its beginning stages, but he likes to dream big.
Follow his daily exploits on Twitter @TGeneDavis or visit Gene’s blog at http://freesciencefiction.com on the web.