Fantasy young adult medieval swordplay minstrels coming-of-age

Follow a Song

By Edward Willett
Jun 28, 2020 · 4,407 words · 17 minutes

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From the author: A very early story, written when I was a 19-year-old student at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas. It won (or at least placed in—I can’t quite remember anymore) the annual creative writing contest. I was nineteen.


TELAR, PERCHED ON THE BOTTOM BRANCH of the dead tree, stared sheepishly down at his father, who glared up at him. “Telar,” said Annuin with some heat, “I am a blacksmith, but I cannot make a living as one when I must leave my forge cold to search for you. Why are you not at the war-hall practicing your swordplay as you should be?”

Telar climbed down from the tree, but hung his head and said nothing, hearing exasperation in Annuin’s voice as he continued, “It has been three months since the First Rite, boy. What’s wrong with you? For two months you were the most promising firstling, when Master Nimarl was teaching you the history of the kingdom. Yet now he tells me you are spending more and more time away from your instruction—now, when you have left behind the dull classroom and gone on to the war-arts, your true study. Nimarl tells me you are far behind the others in swordplay, archery, and spearwork. Yet when you should be practicing, I find you sitting in a tree, playing the harp and singing!” His voice rose almost to a shout.

Telar flushed. He fingered the carved and polished wood of his harp, and ran his fingers over the silver strings. The instrument breathed a faint chord. He dared to raise his head slightly, peering up at his father through his eyelashes.

Annuin’s jaw clenched. “You are my youngest son, Telar. Your three brothers are all warriors; Kerpal is even now recovering from the honourable wounds he received defending the King at Sazaran. Where have I gone wrong with you?”

Telar looked down again. He loved his father, but it hurt to know Annuin considered him a failure. In his younger days Annuin had been a King’s Guard, and could not understand why a healthy, strapping youth of Telar’s years, bearing the scar across his chest of the coming-of-age ceremony known as the First Rite, would want to waste his time in reading and, worse, music.

But Telar detested all the trappings of war the firstlings were taught: the clashing swords, the bloodthirsty shouts, the weight of a shield, the awkwardness of a scabbard, the dust and sweat of the practice court. He hated—

He suddenly became aware of an expectant silence. He glanced up. “What did you say, father?”

“Go to your lessons, boy,” Annuin said wearily, and turned away.

Telar watched him go, then looked at the sun and sighed. His father had found him too soon. There would be a lot of daylight for swordplay yet, and he didn’t dare stay away now his father had come looking for him. Slinging his harp over his shoulder, he waded through the tall grass to the narrow path leading down to the village.

He could hear the crack of wooden swords and the cries of his fellow firstlings as he approached the gate of the War Hall, but silence fell as he entered the courtyard. Every face turned toward him, then looked expectantly at Master Nimarl, a burly, middle-aged man, just beginning to turn grey, who pushed through the boys until he stood glaring down at Telar. “Well?”

“I’m sorry, master—”

“Sorry? You’re not sorry. Twice before you have been so late you missed sword practice altogether. You have also missed spearwork three times and archery at least once.”

The other firstlings snickered, and Telar looked at the ground. “Yes, master.”

“You must be punished, Telar.”

Telar’s head jerked up. “Punished?” The only punishment until now had been the lectures on the importance of the war-arts that Nimarl would deliver to anyone at the slightest provocation.

“Unless you can demonstrate that your skills in the war-arts are such you can afford to miss practices.”

“But, master, I’m the best reader, I spend more time than is required on geography, history, calculating—”

“Enough!” Nimarl roared. “Such things are important only in better suiting you for battle. Without the war-arts, they are meaningless, suited only to women and old men!”

Telar’s face grew hot. “Meaningless? They’re our noblest achievements!”

The courtyard rang with Nimarl’s scornful laughter. “Women’s words! Here, boy.” He tossed a javelin to Telar. “Now we’ll find out how much of a man you are!”

The rest of the afternoon was a nightmare. Telar’s javelin missed the target by the width of a doorway, and in spear-and-shield sparring he received, almost at once, a blow to the stomach that doubled him over, gasping. “What good is reading now, boy?” Nimarl taunted him.

In archery he fared little better. Though he hit the target, his arrow was so near the edge the wood splintered and the shaft fell to the ground.

Then came swordplay. His first bout was with one-handed swords and shields; he lasted no more than ten seconds before his opponent’s wooden blade cracked him on the wrist so hard he dropped his weapon. Then came two-handed swords; almost before he could blink something smashed across his head and he found himself flat on his back in the dirt, looking up into the sneering face of the other boy.

Telar sat up, gingerly feeling the bump on his head, then got a little shakily to his feet and faced Nimarl. “All right!” he said defiantly. “You’ve proved I’m a poor fighter, master. How will you punish me?”

Nimarl looked from him to the contemptuous faces of his fellow firstlings, and shrugged. “I think your punishment is already sufficient.” He turned his back and clapped his hands. “Enough standing around, lads!”

Telar heard the taunts thrown at him as the firstlings returned to their own weapons, and realized what Nimarl had done. Furiously he snatched up his harp and left the courtyard.

He climbed back up to the tree where his father had found him, slammed his fist against it, then leaned his forehead against its rough bark and kicked at the ground with his foot. No doubt his father had known Nimarl intended to make a fool of him, and had approved it as suitable “punishment.” That made him even angrier. He knew his father didn’t think very highly of him, but to agree to his humiliation…

But he was just as angry with himself. What was wrong with him? Why didn’t he like the war-arts? He was sure he was the only firstling the village had ever produced that was not dying to go into battle.

He turned his back on the tree, unslung his harp, and slammed his fingers across the strings, crashing through a raw, sorrowful tune and ending with a harsh discord that summed up his feelings very accurately.

A voice behind him said, “A poor note on which to end a performance, don’t you think? It might spoil your host’s appetite, and that could easily spoil your own.”

Telar spun to see a tall, broad-shouldered man with greying hair and beard. He wore a longsword on the belt of his blue tunic, but he also carried a harp, and Telar’s eyes went to it immediately. “Your pardon, my lord—”

The man laughed. “Kailar is my name, and my only title. I come from a fishing family; hardly noble heritage. Now, however, I am a bard, as you seem to be yourself. I see there is no great house at which to play in this village, so if you could direct me to the inn—unless, of course, you already have the only business here, in which case I shall certainly leave it to you and move on.”

“I am not a bard, my lord.”

“Kailar. What are you, then?”

Telar grimaced. “Only a firstling, and a poor one. As for our inn, unless you sing of war, you won’t find much welcome there.”

Kailar shrugged. “I can sing songs of war if of war I must sing.” He looked at Telar thoughtfully. “You deny you are a bard, but I heard you playing as I came up—and playing well, though, in truth, the tune was not much to my liking.”

“Nor mine. But little is. The things I want to learn are despised by my teachers. Most of our time is spent in the ‘glorious’ pursuit of learning to kill.”

Kailar raised an eyebrow. “Traditional firstling instruction disagrees with you?”

“I hate it!” Telar burst out, and, instinctively feeling Kailar would understand, poured out the story of his embarrassment that afternoon. “History—geography—the things that matter, he dismissed as meaningless! You’re a bard, Kailar, a learned man—is what I feel wrong?”

Kailar said nothing for a moment, looking down at the town. “I think I will come to your house, Telar,” he said finally. “You said your father was in the Guard—he will surely welcome me for my news, if not for my music. Then tomorrow I will try to help you with your problem.”

Joyfully Telar agreed and started down the hill at a gallop. “Come on!” he called over his shoulder. “It’s almost suppertime!”

Kailar followed more slowly, smiling.

* * *

Annuin was more than a little surprised when Telar arrived with a guest, but made Kailar welcome, as the custom of hospitality demanded. “Your name, my lord?” he said, taking the bard’s cloak.

“Kailar, son of Gerra, originally of Rhys.” Kailar took off his sword and leaned it against the wall by the front door. “My father was a fisherman, but I am a bard—and in your debt.”

Annuin laughed. “A bard. I might have known. Well, you are welcome, Kailar. Take a place at our table.” As Kailar bowed and sat down, Annuin turned to his son. “And you, firstling. Did you go to your practice as I commanded?”

“Yes. And what you knew would happen, happened,” Telar said sullenly.

“What?”

“You knew Nimarl planned to humiliate me in front of the other firstlings!” Telar burst out. “You must have! You probably arranged for it. But it won’t work, father! I will not learn the war-arts. I—I’ll go with Kailar, and be a bard!” The last was a flash of inspiration.

His father’s face reddened. “You will hold your tongue, Telar,” he growled. “I will not have you being disrespectful to me before a guest—a bard, at that! Would you shame me before the entire country? Sit at table!”

Telar banged down on the bench beside Kailar, shooting a glance at the man with whom he had just allied himself. But Kailar seemed oblivious. His eyes were closed, and his lips moved silently.

Thus he remained until Telar’s mother, Hella, brought in the meal. She retired at once to the kitchen to eat her portion; it would not have been seemly for her to dine at table with a strange man. As his plate was set before him, Kailar opened his eyes, smiled at Hella, and reached for his spoon. “What were you doing?” Telar asked.

“Working on a new song,” Kailar replied. “Part of it will be finished tomorrow.”

“Will you sing it for me?”

“Perhaps. If all goes as it should.” He would say no more about it. Instead he began talking to Annuin, and soon the two men were deep in discussion of the latest news of the King and his court. Telar marvelled at Kailar’s memory—he seemed to know everyone in the kingdom by name and everything they had done for the past ten years.

When the meal was over, they settled in chairs around the fire and Hella rejoined them. Then Kailar sang for them, mostly the great old songs of the ancient heroes and the world as it had been before the Scattering. Telar admired the bard’s skill, but the songs were war-songs. He stirred impatiently.

Perhaps Kailar noticed; abruptly his playing changed to a minor key, and his voice filled with longing:

Tree and leaf and wood and plain,
Snow and wind and sun and rain;
Day by day they come and go,
And pass forever by.

Deeds of peace and deeds of war,
King and warrior, rich and poor;
One by one they rise and fall,
And pass forever by.

Day to night and night to day
I go my ever-restless way:
No home, no hearth, no kith, no kin—
They’ve passed forever by.

Infant, child, youth, and man;
The months and years like seconds ran.
My life, my songs; like winter wind,
They pass forever by.

But flowers blossom, rivers run;
Each day beneath the springtime sun
New life, new hope, new joy appears
That never will pass by.

And so I play, and so I sing,
To bring my wintry soul its spring,
And new souls, too, my legacy
To pass forever—on.”

For a moment after the last chord died away only the crackling of the fire on the hearth broke the silence. Then Annuin stirred and said gruffly, “You’ve travelled far today and must be tired. Telar will show you to your room.”

Kailar rose and bowed. “I thank you, sir and lady. May you sleep well.” Taking up his pack, Telar led him to the room they would share. He offered the bard his bed, but Kailar laughed and said he was as used to sleeping on the ground as on a mattress. He took blankets from his pack and spread them on the wooden floor.

Telar sat on the bed and watched him. “Kailar...” he said finally.

The bard glanced at him. “Yes?”

“That last song. It’s…I…I would like to learn it,” he finished lamely.

“It touched you, then? I thought it would. I wrote it a year or so ago, after—well, after a painful time. Certainly I will teach it to you—if you will return the favour and teach me some of the songs you know.”

“I know nothing you would want to hear!”

“But you do, lad, you do. We each learn songs in our day-to-day lives that no one else knows. I try to share mine; won’t you return the favour?”

“I have written one or two,” Telar admitted shyly. “If you really want to hear them—”

“I would. But,” he continued, lying down on his blankets, “I think it should wait until tomorrow. I’ve walked my legs to the bone today, and you should rest as well. Tomorrow I will come with you to the War Hall.”

Telar looked down. “I—I almost wish you wouldn’t.”

“Why not?”

“I—well, I know what Nimarl and the others think of me for not wanting to be a warrior. I don’t want them to think that of you.”

“But, Telar, that’s exactly why I’m going—to show them, if I can, that to be a bard and not a warrior does not make a man any less a man.”

“They won’t listen.”

“Perhaps they will, if I use the right language. Now will you please go to bed and douse the candles so we can both sleep?”

Telar said nothing more, but though he undressed and lay beneath the blankets, it was a long time before he slept.

The next day dawned clear and cold; autumn was giving way to winter. Telar dreaded what was to come; he doubted he would be allowed near the library, after slipping off the day before. He would have to spend the whole day at the war-arts. Nimarl might never let him read again.

“And I have read only half of The Book of the Great, up to the passage where Shirra meets Gharus on Mount Nyngal to decide in single combat the fate of the kingdom,” he told Kailar at breakfast.

Kailar looked at him with the amused expression Telar was beginning to find familiar. “The Book of the Great? Isn’t that a rather war-filled book for someone who hates the thought of war as much as you do?”

“It’s different in legends,” Telar said defensively. “It means something. Here-and-now, all it is is killing other people. Can that ever be right?”

Kailar chewed and swallowed thoughtfully, then said, “Do you see nothing noble in war, then?”

“Nothing!”

“Nothing? Is it not noble for a man to give his life to save another’s? Or to give it to save his family—or even the lives of an entire race? Is there nothing noble in such acts of heroism?”

Telar frowned. “Well—perhaps there can be noble acts in war. But war itself is evil!”

Kailar shrugged. “There are many evil things in the world, Telar. We try to avoid them, but we don’t always succeed.” Then he grinned. “Come, enough philosophy for early morning. Eat, then lead me to your War Hall. I am eager to meet your teacher.”

Telar finished his bread and cheese in thoughtful silence. Kailar had a way of making people examine their assumptions more closely than they were used to. Telar found it a not-entirely comfortable experience.

The War Hall courtyard, full of laughing firstlings strapping on practice armour and swords, fell silent when Telar entered with Kailar. Nimarl came forward to greet them. “Telar, you’re late again—” he rumbled.

Kailar interrupted. “It’s more my fault than his, Master Nimarl.” He bowed. “I am Kailar, a wandering bard. I have accompanied my friend Telar to watch your instruction of firstlings.”

Nimarl laughed. “I might have known our little harp-plucker would bring us a bard. Well, sir, you are welcome. But since you have given up the manly art of war, I don’t know that you will find much here to interest you.”

Kailar raised an eyebrow. “You consider barding unmanly?”

“Nay, sir! It is as manly as any occupation can be for someone who can no longer be a warrior. No doubt you were wounded or weakened by illness—I’m sure you were a mighty warrior in your youth.”

Telar winced. He knew what was coming.

Kailar gave Nimarl an innocent look. “Master Nimarl, I have never been a warrior—only a bard, since my First Rite, trained in it by the great Theros of Gharwen.”

Nimarl snorted. “Then I’m quite certain there is no point in your remaining here. We do not waste our time on such matters. Since you have no knowledge of the war-arts—”

“I didn’t say that, Master Nimarl. I said I was trained as a bard.”

“Sir, a bard is not a warrior.”

“I bear a sword.”

“Even Telar can bear a sword—though he has been known to trip on it!” Telar flushed. “But only a man can wield one—and all true men do!”

Telar’s stomach lurched. He expected Kailar to leave in anger, but instead the bard astonished him by quoting a section of a song Telar knew: 

“The minds of men do differ ever; 

what’s dull to one, to another’s clever.”

Then he said, “I propose a wager, Master Nimarl. I wager I can defeat your best warrior—yourself, no doubt—in archery, spearwork, and swordplay, just as Telar was tested yesterday.”

Nimarl laughed. “And what would you risk on such a hopeless contest?”

“Name my stake yourself.”

The firstling master considered. “Very well, then! If I win, you will proclaim to the firstlings that I am right, and you are no true man. Then you will spend the winter here, and amuse us at meals. If you win—”

Kailar raised his hand. “Nay, Master Nimarl, this part of the wager is mine. If I win, you will release Telar from his firstling instruction, and send his father a recommendation, as is your right, that he be apprenticed to me.”

Excitement filled Telar. He straightened his shoulders. “There’s nothing I would like more, Kailar!”

Nimarl shook his head. “You set a small stake. It would be little loss to me or the village were Telar gone. But, so, the wager is set. Shall we begin?”

“By all means,” said Kailar.

A few moments later the firstlings clustered around the two men, who bore bows and quivers, at one end of the courtyard. At the other stood the target, a man-shaped cut-out of wood, with a circle marking the heart. At the centre of the circle was a round spot the diameter of a gold piece.

Nimarl loosed his arrow first. The bolt slammed into the heart, and the nearest boy ran to look. “Two finger’s breadths from the centre!”¯he shouted, and the firstlings cheered.

Nimarl turned to Kailar smugly. “Your shot, sir bard.”

Kailar made no reply, but put arrow to string, drew, and released in one smooth motion. The dart shuddered into the wood an inch and a half from Nimarl’s arrow—precisely in the centre of the heart.

The firstlings gaped at each other. Nimarl flushed, then bowed stiffly to Kailar. “Well shot. Spearwork is next.”

The spear-throw went as had the archery contest. Kailar’s spear hung in the centre; Nimarl’s was a good hand’s breadth away. A sound suspiciously like muffled laughter ran through the gathered firstlings, but it died in a hurry when Nimarl glared around at the boys. The master did not congratulate Kailar this time, but said only, “Spear-and-shield is next, bard.”

The two men took blunted wooden staffs and round wooden shields and faced off. The contest was brief, wicked, and decisive. Almost before the firstlings knew what had happened, Nimarl was down, doubled over by a blow from the blunt tip of Kailar’s shaft. This time the laughter wasn’t muted at all.

Nimarl said nothing to the bard, but stalked into the War Hall. When he returned, he carried not the wooden swords and shields used by the firstlings, but the razor-sharp and deadly war-weapons that hung in the hall. He flung shield and sword before Kailar, and Telar paled. He had never seen Nimarl so angry—he had never seen anyone that angry.

“Bard,” Nimarl said between clenched teeth, “you are not a bard at all. You are obviously a warrior—a warrior brought into this court by Telar to humiliate me before the firstlings. But no more! I Challenge you!”

The firstlings gasped. Those words meant a duel—probably to the death. Telar looked at Kailar’s white face and realized he had not anticipated this. “Master Nimarl,” he protested, “this is not what I sought! Believe me, I am not here to shame you, but only to show you that there are true men who are not warriors. Don’t make me fight you.”

“I have Challenged you!” Nimarl shouted. “You must fight—or I will kill you where you stand!”

The colour flooded back into Kailar’s face; he stiffened. “As you wish,” he said coldly.

“In the King’s name, Kailar—” Telar burst out.

The bard turned to him. “Did I not tell you sometimes evil cannot be avoided? But wait and see—some good may yet come of it.” He turned back to Nimarl. “I am ready.”

Nimarl pointed at the weapons in the dirt before him. “Arm yourself!”

Kailar hefted the sword and shield for a moment, then saluted Nimarl with his blade. Nimarl did not salute: he attacked.

His first stroke, blocked by Kailar’s shield, drove the bard almost to his knees. Telar cried out, certain Kailar would fall. But he did not. Instead he threw his shield to one side, knocking Nimarl’s sword-arm away, and drove in with the point of his blade—but not at Nimarl’s vitals. Telar, with a thrill of fear, realized Kailar fought not to kill, but only to disable—to end the contest with no loss of life.

Nimarl realized it as well, and as he blocked the thrust with savage glee, cried, “Do you show me mercy, bard-who-is-no-bard? I’ll have none for you!” A slash of his sword came within a hair’s breadth of cutting Kailar in two, but the bard sprang back. With his own sword he blocked the return stroke, and smashed his shield down on Nimarl’s with such force the master dropped to one knee. Nimarl tried to thrust up, under Kailar’s shield, but Kailar brought the shield’s edge down on the blade and it flew from Nimarl’s grasp.

A cry rose from the watching firstlings. Nimarl was doomed!

The firstling master paled. He raised his shield in a hopeless attempt to block his death blow.

But it did not fall. Kailar stepped back. “Noble Nimarl,” he panted, “I declare myself victor in the Challenge, but I decline blood-right.”

Nimarl lowered his shield in amazement. “But you disarmed me—I insulted you—are you not going to take revenge?”

Kailar shook his head. “Master Nimarl, I sing songs. Someday I will sing one about today, and revenge does not make a sweet song.”

Nimarl stared at him, bewildered, sweat streaking the dust on his face.

Telar ran to Kailar’s side. “Kailar, are you all right?

Kailar laughed, a little shakily. “Not a scratch.”

“And did you mean what you said? About making me your apprentice?”

The bard looked down at him. “There is a condition.”

“Anything!”

“I will teach you the war-arts.”

Telar stepped back a pace. “But—but—”

“Did you think I did all this—” he tossed his sword and shield into the dust—”only for these?” He gestured at the silent, watching firstlings. “Didn’t you learn anything? It’s possible to be both strong and peaceable. Sometimes you have to be strong and willing to fight in order to remain peaceable. But the rest of you—” he raised his voice then, and turned slowly, looking from face to face. “Know there is more to life than war! I take no joy in what I have done.” He held out his hand, and hesitantly, Nimarl took it, and let the bard help him to his feet. “None at all,” Kailar finished in a low voice.

“I—I don’t understand,” said Telar.

“Well, never mind. There’ll be a long time to explain it.” He kept his eyes on Nimarl. “Right?”

Nimarl inclined his head a fraction of an inch. “I do not understand you, bard; nor do I understand Telar. But I am no longer shamed. Bard or warrior, I would we had had a hundred like you in the Guard! I will tell Annuin you would be a worthy master for his son.”

“Thank you, master Nimarl.” Kailar bowed, then looked at Telar. “Shall we go, apprentice?”

“With pleasure, master—if.”

“If?”

“If you will tell me what the song is you said would be partially finished today.” Telar planted his feet. “That is my condition.”

Kailar laughed. “Why, that’s your song, Telar. The one you write day to day. You’ve just finished a major part of it. Now you get to move on to a whole new verse.”

Telar frowned. “I’ll never understand you, master.”

Kailar led the way to the courtyard gate. “Perhaps someday, lad. Perhaps someday.” And as they walked back to Telar’s home, he sang:

And so I play, and so I sing,
To bring my wintry soul its spring,
And new souls, too, my legacy
To pass forever—on.”


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Paths to the Stars: Twenty-Two Fantastic Tales of Imagination

Twenty-two tales of fantasy, science fiction, and horror from Aurora Award-winning author Edward Willett.

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Edward Willett

Edward Willett is an award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy for readers of all ages.