THE SOUL-HARP
Copyright 1992, Sarah Hartwell

I woke up after a strange dream, sat down at the PC and began typing. The next thing I knew it was 3 hours later and I had written the whole tale.

The auburn-haired woman regarded her lap harp sadly. The wood frame was cracked and the tuning pegs broken. The once taut brass strings coiled aimlessly like fibre-thin snakes. Damn and double damn! It was bad enough that her horse was lame from the fall on rain-slick roads and that Berylla herself was sore from the tumble; the harp was her livelihood. New harps of the same quality were expensive and although travelling musicians were held in high regard, they were rarely wealthy. More often, they received payment in kind - bed and board for a few days, a new cloak, a pair of boots, a meal in the kitchen or a few coppers.

Although she could sing unaccompanied, Berylla was known as a harpist. She had known every quirk of her well-used instrument; it would take months to get used to a new one, if she could afford a new one. Disconsolately, she unstrung the harp and coiled the brass strings away. Those at least could be used again, but the rest was beyond repair.

She could not bear to burn the glowing rosewood, worn smooth and polished by her hands over the years so, reverently, she buried the shattered remains beneath a cairn of stones.

It was two days before Berylla reached the next town on the Western Trade Route. Her horse was not up to being ridden for long and walking slowed her down. As she approached the town walls, she weighed her belt pouch, estimating that she had enough coppers for a a decent meal and provisions for a few days on the road. Maybe she could forgo the provisions and find a halfway decent harp in the market or in one of the instrument-makerís shops.

A hostler in the outer part of town took charge of the horse - a few coppers less. Apart from the noble-bornís horses, horses, oxen and other pack animals could not enter the main part of the town as their dung fouled the cobbled roads and made them unpleasant and dangerous to walk on. She walked through the poorer quarters and on into the artisanís quarter.

None of the instrument-makers had affordable harps, those that did were using gut instead of brass for the strings. Berylla regarded her own calloused fingertips; the brass was harder to play but it gave a truer sound, like carillons of little bells rather than the rippling-water effect of gut-strung harps. The brass travelled better, not stretching or losing its tone like gut.

The market was a colourful affair with stalls and booths decked in bright-dyed cloth to attract the attention of passers by. Fortune tellers kiosks did a brisk trade, attracting the gullible, the worried and the hopelessly in love. Cloth merchants displayed everything from fine brocade to cheap woollen cloth and fine ladies dawdled over fluttering ribbons and trinkets. The smell of cooking assailed Beryllaís nostrils - there were spiced breads in the fashion of Tasarr and sweet Zimbeckian candies, fish cooked on braziers and scraps of meat cooked on skewers. Berylla bought a skewer of meat, horse and goat she guessed, its flavour disguised with sprinkled herbs and woodsmoke.

At the far side of the market were instrument makerís stalls, but again the harps were far from cheap. Brightly painted flutes lay alongside dulcimers and four-stringed bowed harps; there were cymbals and dogskin bodhrans beside dark wood zitarri from Tasarr. Finally her eyes lit upon a seller of secondhand instruments with a brass strung harp among his wares. Expecting the price to be out of her reach she cautiously asked about the instrument

The stallholder, a wrinkled man with skin the colour of ripe acorns, swept his fingernails across the strings. A peal, as if of tiny bells filled the air. The wood was darkened with age, but could be made to glow again, though not as brightly as when the harp was new.

"A good harp this," he said, "Fine wood, fine tone, fit for a fine harpist."

"How much?" asked Berylla, her eyes narrowing ready to haggle the price within reach - or to walk away if the price was too steep.

"Twenty-five copper, it cost me," the acorn-skinned man said.

"Twenty-five?" The price was out of reach of her pocket. Berylla shook her head.

"Twenty-five it cost me, but I will sell for eighteen; because this harp is special, but it is also bad luck."

Eighteen was closer to what she could afford. Twelve would be ideal, fifteen would be acceptable. The haggling began in earnest and the stallholder finally accepted thirteen copper an auspicious number for a bad luck harp.

How could a harp be bad luck, wondered Berylla as the merchant slipped the instrument into its carrying satchel.

"I will tell you now why that harp is bad luck. It is said to have belonged to the bard Percival and those dark flowers on the wood are not decoration, but the stain of his heartís blood," the merchant said, pointing a yellowed fingernail to rusty markings just visible on the dark wood. "It is said that when the bard died he willed his soul into this harp so that his soul would be as immortal as his music. Sad, very sad."

Berylla smiled and tried not to laugh at the manís superstitiousness. A harp was a harp was a harp. Sure, Percival had met a bad end, but curses were tales for children and superstitious folk. Far from immortality, Percivalís music was virtually forgotten. Sad, so sad, Berylla mused to herself, for Percival was reckoned to have been the greatest bard of all and the story of his death had become the stuff of legend. His songs cut clear to the heart of matters so that he was nicknamed Pierce-Eye for his perceptiveness. Only one person, Lord da Leoun, had taken exception to Pierce-Eyeís song of suffering peasants and unjust rules and had slain the bard in anger. Percival had cursed the lord and his line as his own heartís blood seeped into the wood of the harp and into the polished wood floor of the hall.

Lord da Leoun had seen to it that Percivalís songs and music were never again sung, but had kept the harp for himself, locked away so that no-one would release its beautiful music. However much the servants scrubbed, the stain of blood could not be removed from the hall floor and its indelible presence drove the lord to madness.

One night, so the legend ran, as Lord da Leoun himself scrubbed at the ingrained bloodstain, he upset an oil lantern; the spreading pool of oil caught light, and then the drapes. Not a peasant lifted a bucket of water to douse the blaze which razed the hall to the ground and took with it many of the da Leoun family. Later, townsfolk and country peasant picked through the ashes for salvage and found, among the iron cooking pots and cracked marble busts, Percivalís harp, undamaged.

How that same harp had ended up on a secondhand stall, to be sold for a pittance was a mystery; but Berylla was sure that, for her, it was good luck and not ill.

She lodged that night in the loft above the stables, along with many of the poorer travellers who could not afford a room in a lodging house. She had polished the harp and tuned the strings and though it felt subtley different from her old, broken harp, the dark wood felt pleasing to her hands. She tried a few tunes, experimentally, and after a few adjustments to the tuning, felt that the harp was ready to help her earn her keep the following day.

Dressed in her wool robe, kept rolled up in her travellerís pack, and her much worn travellerís cloak, Berylla visited several inns, playing a few favourite tunes here and there for coppers. The patrons were pleased enough with her performance and Berylla herself could find no fault in the old harpís timbre and tone. Later that afternoon she introduced herself as a travelling musician at one of the houses in the nobleís quarter where she, and her music, was made welcome. Several of the fine ladies wept at the slow sad ballads and the music shivered from the harp in sympathy with the words.

After she had eaten in the kitchens and accepted a skin of wine for later, Berylla found that she could not remember much of what she had sung. Her voice had sung and her fingers had plucked, but she felt as if her mind had been absent. Sometimes it happened like that, she played the popular tunes without thinking about it.

"What was that one you sung about Ďthe lord, his horse, his hawk and his hound, all after one poor hareí?" one of the cooks asked her, "I was listening from the servantsí door behind the great tapestry and it wrung my heart so much I had to listen instead of clearing plates."

"Iím not sure which one you mean," Berylla was puzzled, she could not recall such a song.

"The one where the hare he slew turned out to be his own true love," the cook said, sniffing, "Never mind, itís just that Iíd not heard it before, but then I donít get to travel much beyond the walls and some of the songs take so long to reach us here - except," and the woman frowned, "it was so much written in the old style that I thought it must be an old ballad Iíd missed."

Berylla shook her head in puzzlement as the cook cleared away her wooden trencher, humming and singing snatches from songs.

It happened like that a few times. Sometimes another traveling musician asked if he could arrange one of the songs for his bowed harp or for an ensemble of flutes and harp and later, when it was played to her, Berylla could not recall knowing the tune at all.

Throughout the slow summer months and the long, mellow autumn, Berylla played in villages, towns and cities throughout the region. All too often she recalled little of her performance, but recalled the praise and the requests for encores. She recalled the bawdy songs she played in inns and the newer songs she learned on the way and sometimes she found herself practising a tune when she was alone, only to halt wondering what tune she was playing.

Winter arrived in a blast of snow and cold, which meant seeking lodgings in one of the bigger cities where there were plenty of Inns and halls needing an entertainer. For a while she played in an ensemble with other musicians until they frowned and said she was playing tunes they did not know, so she played and sang solo from then on. And all the time, other musicians came to learn the songs and tunes and carried them away with them to spread further afield. Sometimes the strange blackouts were so bad that she found herself bowing at the end of a performance unaware that she had been playing and singing for two turns of the glass.

One evening, after a performance, a wizened old man came to see her. He was well dressed and obviously a man of some wealth, but not too proud to sit in the servants quarters at the rough pine bench where Berylla was eating.

"1 havenít heard that one in years, my dear," he said.

"Which one?" enquired Berylla, hastily swallowing a mouthful of rabbit.

"ĎMy love is a ship cast adrift on the tide and I am an empty harbourí, itís one that my grandfather used to sing to me when I was small, said it was almost forgotten but had been common in his own fatherís day," the man explained, with a smile. "It was one of Percivalís, but I expect you know that."

"No, no I didnít," Berylla replied. "In fact I seem to be singing a lot of songs lately that I donít recall learning. Sometimes I donít even recall singing them."

The old man placed a trembling hand on her arm, "Ah, but thatís not surprising. Am I right in thinking you have Percivalís harp?"

Berylla nodded.

"And you have heard the stories?" Berylla nodded again.

"But I see that you donít believe them. No matter. Things happen whether we believe in them or not. Ah, you look perturbed. My great-grandfather was in that hall when Percival was slain. I think that more than Pierce-Eyeís heartís blood seeped into that harp you carry." He paused. "Does it worry you? That you are bringing Percivalís songs to life? Only they are Beryllaís songs now."

Berylla frowned, "Curses are things used to frighten children and feebleminded superstitious fools," she snapped, "I am probably overtired and suffering from a temporary amnesia. That is all."

"I have upset you. I am sorry. I will leave you, but if you want to find me, ask for me at the House of Lace in Silk Street" he bowed politely, as if to a noble-born lady, and left.

The conversation disturbed Berylla more than she had realised. The year was turning towards Spring so a few days later, she rode out into nearby woods to compose a new ballad about the fresh green hopes of nature turning brittle and sere; the pyres of autumn bonfires and natureís renewed hopes after a chill period of mourning. The theme was an old one, but Berylla thought she could rework it pleasingly.

She settled herself against the bole of an oak, leaving her horse to crop the new grass. Although winterís chill had not been fully driven out by the spring, the day was warm enough to sit out for a while and think. Early woken bumblebees droned in the spring sunlight, seeking out early flowers; oxalis and early violets. Her fingers plucked idly at the harp, picking out familiar, and unfamiliar, tunes.

Damn you, Percival, leave me alone, she thought idly as she plucked a half familiar tune.

A deep, humourous voice replied within her head: but together we could be the greatest bard that the land has ever known.

Berylla sat up with a start and looked around.

"Whoís there?" she asked aloud.

Hush, the voice told her, I am here. You hold me in your hands, I

Berylla looked at the dark harp she held and dropped it. The voice was abruptly silenced. The slanting rays of sunlight through the branches of nodding catkins touched the heartís blood stains on the polished wood, awakening the old rusty marks into renewed brilliance. Berylla fancied that she could touch the discoloured patches and find them moist and fresh. Tentatively, she picked up the harp again.

Now listen to me, Percival, I donít want to be you. I want to be me. I want to be known for my songs, not for songs I canít remember singing.

Come now, said the rich voice, you have greater fame than ever before, you are welcome in great houses and the seeds of wisdom in those songs are morals for all to learn from.

I donít want to sing songs of wisdom - I donít want to end up spitted on a sword like you.

The voice was quiet for a while and Berylla thought that Percival had left her:

Despite Beryllaís remark, the reply was warm and affectionate. Then at least bring back my songs and music into the world, music should be immortal even when the musician lies long dead and forgotten. I can help you to compose new lays, greater than the ones you contemplate now; music for kings, music that will endure through generations.

No! I want to be known as me, what happens to my music after Iím gone is no concern of mine. Your time is done and over, Percival, the dead should rest in peace and let the living get on with, with

With life? But the deeds of the dead affect the world for many turns to come. The voice sighed, a little plaintively. Let me compose just one more ballad - no! let us compose it together - one that will tell the Legend of Percival in song. My story is half lost nowadays; lost or distorted. Compose a song of truth with me.

And so, Berylla plucked out melodies and words were fitted to them. The words told a much different version of the tale of Percival to the ones that Berylla had heard before. It told of a brash young minstrel who thought he could change the world through music and whose impatience made him more and more outspoken until his accusations could not be left unanswered.

One night Percival played harp in the hall of da Leoun where he was always made welcome and sang such a song of injustices that the lord challenged his words. It was not possible to right those perceived injustices in one fell sweep, change was a gradual thing.

There was a heated argument which turned into an angry swordfight. Percival was no swordsman and the lord wanted only to caution the bard and to open his eyes to the real world, not the world as seen by an idealist. In the anger and confusion of the fight, da Leounís sword pierced the bardís heart. In sorrow, da Leoun placed the harp upon the bardís chest and laid Percivalís hands upon the strings and held him until the light of life fled from the musicianís eyes.

Amid great sorrow, the harp, stained with a bardís heartís blood, was locked away in a metal chest in the great hall where Percival died. Lord da Leoun despaired at what he had done and commanded that the bloodstain on the floor should not be removed as it mirrored the stain on his own soul.

A careless servant, trimming lamps one evening, started the devastating fire which killed the many of the da Leoun family, but the harp in its locked metal chest was unscathed although the metal chest was distorted by the heat. The survivors prised open the chest and sold the harp, saying it was a cursed thing. For many years it was deemed unlucky to sing Percivalís songs and in time, the songs of Percival, known as Pierce-Eye, were largely forgotten.

Let that be a lesson to all who think they can change the world, that they do not destroy themselves through their own folly, Percival said wryly.

When the ballad was finished to Beryllaís satisfaction, the sun was lowering in the sky and the day was growing colder. That night she played the new ballad at several inns where it was well-received. Variations on legends were common themes so no-one questioned the way she had rearranged the tale so that Percival, and not da Leoun, was the rogue of the tale.

Berylla was invited to perform the new song at several of the big houses during the following days. Although she also sang the unfamilIar ballads at the request of those who had heard them before, she found she could remember singing them. It felt as though she was performing a duet with a rich baritone voice that only she could hear.

It was several days before she managed to visit the House of Lace. Her new ballad was popular and there were already several copies of it being practised by lesser musicians. The old man received her courteously in his upstairs room above the storerooms of lace, ribbons and fancy clothes that gave the shop its name.

"Ah, my dear, you have decided to come after all. I have heard your new ballad, several times in fact. Am I right in thinking that Percival had a hand in it?"

Berylla nodded. Her eyes lit upon a corroded sword hanging on the wall above the desk. She shivered.

"That sword has been in my family for generations," the old man said, noticing her interest, "As you may have guessed, judging by your sudden pallor, it is the sword that slew Percival."

"1 think thereís a great deal that you havenít told me," Berylla said at last.

"Please, sit down," the old man told her, shifting aside a bolt of expensive multi-coloured silk, "You are right of course, donít bards always see to the heart of the matter?" His eyes twinkled, "My great-grandfather, in whose time Percivalís songs were well known, was the one who slew Percival. His son, my grandfather, was one of the few who escaped the fire. The sword was retrieved from the ashes as a reminder to keep our tempers firmly in check."

The old man paused, "Our family name was da Leoun, although the sign above the House of Laceís door says Delion, since we are now merchants rather than lords, having lost our wealth, but not our wits, in the fire. I think it is time to lay both Percival and the family temper to rest," he said, lifting the sword from its wall bracket. "Have you enough copper now for a new harp of good quality?"

"Yes, more than enough, thank you," Berylla replied, her belt pouch contained both copper and silver nowadays.

"Good, if you would be so good as to bury this sword and Percivalís harp -somewhere they wonít be found in a hurry. I think it is time to lay the bardís soul at rest. His songs are immortal, the true tale of Pierce-Eye is at large and I believe I am right in thinking that he deserves the rest he has waited so long for."

That night, in the privacy of a lodging room, Berylla played Percivalís harp one last time. As she held it, she spoke to the bard, but no answer was forthcoming. The harp felt odd in her hands, an unliving thing and the wood was beginning to dull and warp, throwing the strings out of tune. Two days later, she went out of her way to an isolated hillside and buried the dark wood harp and the sword in a single shallow grave and built neither cairn nor marker to show people the spot where they lay.

DRAGONQUEEN'S LAIR

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