Fantasy Historical

Verthandi

By Gabrielle Harbowy
Aug 3, 2018 · 1,882 words · 7 minutes


The innkeeper’s tiny daughter is curled upon herself in my chair, watching the fire. She pretends she doesn’t see me, but is too young to hide her sly little grin. This is our game: she steals my seat, I pretend to be surprised. Some days I pretend I don’t see her at all, and make as if to sit right atop her. The days I only thank her for warming the cushions for me, she seems disappointed.

Her innocence brings a tightness to my chest. That there are places where children can sweetly play, reminds me that there is some sweetness in the world. That it is a place worth nurturing and protecting.

Nurturing and protecting are a part of what I am here to do. They are tasks that take many forms. Not all of those forms are sweet.

Drawn by the sound of my lute strings, the innkeeper emerges from the kitchen with a mug of steaming broth. It is all she has ever seen me eat or drink.

The innkeeper's name is Aundria. She is like a peach: soft and sweet on the surface, but with a solid core of will and strength. Enough courage to break up a brawl, as I learned my first night here. I was unsure at first, but now I am certain that what is to come will not break her.

I take the mug in both my hands, bow my head over it in thanks, and then look up with a smile into doe-brown eyes. “You warm me, mistress,” I say, as I do every day, and every day she laughs happily and turns to bustle about her work. The broth is rich, with floating slivers of onion and carrot and tiny shreds of beef. It is not watered down.

The innkeeper’s husband, Iohan, is the cook. He manages the kitchen with compassion and iron that both equal and complement hers. Never have I seen two people fit together so seamlessly. He comes from a long line of smiths, but when he set out to woo the innkeeper he traded the heat of the forge for the heat of the cookfire. It is well. He has a finer touch for spices than he ever had for steel. Even this rustic broth is more a work of artistry than I have sampled at the finest palace banquets. Truth be told, I drink it every day because I know that once I move on from here, I will never taste its like again.

I drink half before setting it aside, hands nicely warmed and fingers limber. A few simple child’s melodies to start. By the time the inn is full of weary diners and lively revelers, I will be long lost in music, unaware of my fingers on the strings and cognizant only of the heartbeats of inn and town and all who reside within or pass through. Their life pulse sets the meter of my song.

For now, the song of daybreak. It fills the inn with the hope of new beginnings. It can drive poison from the food and ill intent from any who hear it.

More important than it sounds, for I have seen how the threads of these lives may snarl if I do not keep them smooth. Yestereve, the visitor at the end of the upstairs hall offered the cook certain diversions, which he gently declined. He and his wife do dabble in the pleasure of others’ company from time to time, but only together, and with a discerning eye. He judged this particular opportunity unstable, and so she is: in the small hours, she slipped into the kitchen and painted venomroot extract on every knife and spoon.

Two tendays hence, the traveler—who is not as common-born as she seems—shall seek company with another innkeeper in another town, and will there beget a child who will grow to become the trusted advisor to the greatest ruler this land will ever know.

Fate is often seen as a weaver of strands; this I have been, when times have called for it, but at this moment I am best suited as a weaver of melody and harmony, descants and counterpoints. Every life has its motif, and I am here now as I am anywhere when I am needed—to ensure that the disparate melodies align themselves into chords, when the timing of one player can tip the song toward dissonance.

The traveler must not already be with child when she arrives at that inn, and these good people and their patrons... their cutlery is now clean and safe. Whether one calls them strings, or songs, or lives, or whatever you like, theirs are not meant to end today. That is not their fate.

It is...kinder than what must be.

Visitors come and go. Some seek only a meal, or a few hours by the fire. Some seek their fortune, but my song whispers to them that they will not find it here.

Toward evening I feel the tickle of prophecy along my spine. Yes. It comes soon.

The innkeeper sends her little daughter up to bed. I ruffle the child’s hair before she goes, and take one last look into the depths of her eyes. I know I will never forget—it is not in the nature of the dísir to have the luxury of lapses in memory—but of all the tableaux in which I see-have-seen-will-see her, I wish to remember this one most of all.

Two figures enter in a gust of chilled air. They stamp the snow from their boots, but leave their faces in the shadow of their hoods. Now I must retire, for my very presence may distract these two gods, and draw this song out of tune.

“You resided with them,” the Youngest pouts. “You didn’t let me play with her my way. Now she will not grow to inherit the inn and fall in love with the handsome traveler.”

I cannot be cross with her, for she is the Youngest and her thoughts are always on love.

“Sigyn will still find love, my dearest. But now she will have a Destiny, as well.”

She leaves off from her spinning and crosses her arms. “Why must they all have grand Destinies, sister?” she demands of me.

“Not all of them, dearest. Just the ones who are marked for it. The ones who are strong enough to bear it. Have you seen how they all look to tales of greatness to nourish their souls?”

“Yes. So?”

“So, some of them must be great.”

When the muses carry tales of the girl, they will say that her origin is unknown; that her life begins when she becomes a goddess. But I know where her story is born. It is here, in this inn, in this snowy hamlet.

Her mother weeps. Her father, having never seen the innkeeper inconsolable, hides his own grief in anger; in mead. He blames the woman whose advances he refused, and calls it revenge. The innkeeper calls it a curse, and blames the gods for toying with their lives. She is nearer the truth, but I say nothing. I play my lute and duck my head, and try not to think of how empty my chair was this morning with no sly little one to warm it.

I could pacify their anguish with my song, but I do not. They have earned it, as have I. I have caused their grief; enduring it is my penance.

“My poor dear Verthandi,” the Youngest whispers. My head rests upon her shoulder, my hair smoothed by her hand. “Do you not wish you’d let the girl have a simpler life?”

“No...I do not regret it, sister,” I answer. “She is suited to this destiny. Weave it with me and you will see.”

I attend her wedding. She is still quite young, but carries her mother’s iron and her father’s compassion, woven together into a quiet strength. Her unbound hair shines in a soft curtain over her shoulders. She loves the god, the trickster, to whom she is given as second wife. He loves her. They bring out the playfulness in each other.

And the loyalty.

I still my fingers on the lute. “Do you see?”

“All right. She has happiness. And handsome sons. And look how she adores him when he dramatizes the tales of his dalliances. Hers is truly the sweetest laugh.”

It is not just the bond that they call love, the one that develops over many years of coexistence. A mighty passion exists between them, as exists between her parents.

Ah, her parents. They still run the inn. They still grieve. But their grief has brought them closer, so I take that scant consolation and hold it close to my heart. I have stopped looking in on them.

It is the way of tricksters to play at trickery, and it is the way of trickery to offend. Sigyn’s husband has offended; he is complicit in the death of a son of Odin, and such things do not go unpunished. She has seen her two sons twisted and broken to punish their father’s misdeed. Her beloved is chained in a cave, and a serpent brought above him. It is to drip its venom on his face unceasingly, until the twilight of the gods.

This trial is his alone to endure, but the girl—woman, now—attends him. With arms outstretched, she holds a wide bowl between the venom and her husband, protecting him from its sting. This she does unceasingly, devotedly, without complaint. Her mother’s strength and her father’s compassion gleam in eyes that only mist with tears when she looks upon the ropy entrails with which her love is bound. She, too, knows the pain of losing her children.

Sometimes she sings to her captive husband, sharing songs I played for her in her youth. When she does this, my heart swells to fill my chest with the sweetest of sorrows.

I travel the mortal realm with my lute once more. There are shrines to her now. Not many, but enough. She is a goddess of grieving as well as comfort. Women worship her three aspects: innocent child-bride, nurturing wife, and mourning mother.

Her own mother has dedicated a shrine to Sigyn the mourner—a twist in Fate’s song to which even the trickster himself might bow. Yet I take no joy in it, and must look away.

“It is a brave and honorable thing you do,” I tell her, while clasping her husband’s hand warmly in mine.

“It is my Destiny,” Sigyn answers. “I do it gladly.” Black droplets make steady, percussive whispers as they splash into her bowl, marking time.

“There is another, a mother who lost her child long ago, who needs your comfort. Will you go to her? I will hold your bowl an hour, so that your beloved does not suffer for your absence.”

Her lower lip finds its way between her teeth. She is torn between that shared pain and this one.

“Yes,” she says, after a time. “I will go.”

I shift the lute to my back and replace her hands with mine. Carrying her burden, even for a time, lightens my own.

This story originally appeared in The Bard’s Tale: Stories and Recipes from the Black Dragon Inn.