He'd found the overgrown path from the ford easily enough. And he had followed it faithfully as it threaded through the trees, deeper into heavy forest and close, cool air. The sun ought to be perhaps three hours from setting now, he guessed, but beneath the branches of Rowansgrove, the shadows were already thick and threatening. He’d tired long ago of pulling twigs from his plum velvet tunic and lace collar. Would this path never end?
"Curse that peasant of a tavernkeeper!” he muttered. “Should’ve known better than to trust his directions. Man’s probably never been more than a mile from Deaversmith his whole life."
There was some small comfort in saying the words aloud. The shadows preyed on Corbane’s nerves. He felt the touch of unseen eyes on his back, but whenever he turned around, he saw nothing. Occasionally he thought he heard snatches of song, half-familiar melodies that reminded him of his student days; the chambers and corridors of Selcaster had rung with music at all hours.
Hands trembling on the reins, he paused to listen. But now he heard nothing.
"Tis only my imagination," he told himself. He had few fond memories of those days. His teachers had accused him of laziness, of not having composition skills to equal his voice. Then, thanks to a single superb song, he had won the Masters Prize and graduated with honors. It didn’t matter where the song came from, did it? He had succeeded. That was enough.
Branches scraped overhead; a flurry of twigs and dry leaves cascaded down on him and a scream tore at his ears. Sharp talons raked his scalp through his black curls and his mount shied. He threw himself on the horse's neck and clung like a burr as the animal bolted forward, in the wake of an enormous black bird that swooped ahead, cawing its alarm.
The way veered left and right, curved around a gnarled tree trunk bigger than a keep tower, and ended in a clearing overhung by branches thick with gray-green moss. In the center of that clearing squatted a house of wood and stone and plaster, shrouded with tangled vines.
Corbane hauled back on the reins and dragged his mount to a dancing halt. Of the black bird, he saw no sign. The clearing was silent, no ghostly measures drifting through the branches above.
He touched his head where the bird's claws had torn his skin; his fingers came away sticky and dark with fresh blood.
"A fine thing this is," he said, steadying his breath. "I shall never buy a horse from the Quaystone stables again. This beast is far too skittish! But I’ll eat my lute if this isn’t the wizard's lair."
He swung down from the saddle, gripping the reins hard as the horse jerked its head and whinnied nervously. The place smelled rank with decay; the tendrils of vine that clung to the plaster walls were dry and curling with death.
He saw no post-ring. "Well, one must make do," he said, and stretched to wrap the reins over a nearby bush, its leaves withered and brown. A thorn snatched at his hand, slashing neatly through the palm of his leather riding glove.
"Curses!" He spent a moment examining the shallow wound. "Cheap leather! Shan't buy gloves in Deaversmith again, either."
His horse looked too tired to think of wandering away, so he let it stand free. He straightened his tunic and smoothed the lace at his throat, removed the boiled leather lute case from the pack behind the saddle, and rang the small bell that hung beside the hovel door. There was no answer.
He rang again and called out, "Come, wizard, I've a deal to strike with you!"
All was stillness. Then the door swung inward on creaking leather hinges and he faced a small, swaddled figure. Firelight gleamed behind it, too bright for him to make out a face within the tattered shroud. It took him a moment to find his voice.
"Are you the wizard of Rowansgrove?"
The scarf-wrapped head nodded once. An arm withdrew from the bundle of mismatched fabrics. The limb was slim and pale, a young woman's arm, clothed in a ragged sleeve sewn with metallic threads that glimmered like the memory of a dream. With a slow, sweeping gesture, it motioned him inside. He hesitated a heartbeat, then resolved himself and followed her into the cottage.
The hovel was a single room with an alcove on the left curtained off by a faded piece of ancient tapestry; the weaving showed a hunting scene, a brindle-coated wolfhound pulling down a proud white stag. Hanging cloths decked the plastered walls, some of the pieces quite rich, their quality obvious despite the uneven light from the smoking hearth. To the left of the mantle crouched a loom; to the right, a spinning wheel.
The wizard—if indeed this swaddled figure truly was a being of magical power—took a seat on a low stool before the hearth, her voluminous patchwork skirts swallowing the sorry piece of furniture. The white arm gestured again, toward a rough wooden bench in the center of the room. Corbane bent to pull the bench closer to the fire; a raised white palm bid him stop.
"I have never found charades to be amusing," he snapped. "Have you no speech?"
Within its concealing scarf the head nodded.
"Well then, use it!"
"My voice is far from appealing, I fear."
Corbane barely recognized the grating voice as female. The sound was worse than coarse and unappealing: It was ugly, an affront to his musically trained ears—but it belonged to a wizard, so he did not voice this opinion.
"Tell me," the wizard asked. "Why has the great Corbane come to my humble cottage? Surely not for a love charm, or a potion to improve his appearance. My simple skills could not possibly assist you in that regard."
A shiver crept up Corbane's spine on sharp-toed mouse feet. "How do you know my name?"
The wizard gave a rough, braying laugh. "Is there anyone in all the land who would not recognize the great, the most exquisite, Corbane? Who else possesses such gorgeous garb, such fine manners, and a voice so mellifluous that the very birds of the forest hide their heads beneath their wings rather than dare to compete with it? Aye," the wizard grated, "I know who, and what, you are, sir. Now tell me what you want."
Corbane drew himself up. "I want to buy a wish."
"You think someone wrapped in rags, living in such a shoddy kennel as this, has the power to grant wishes?" She laughed again, and Corbane winced at the horrible sound. "Tell me, Master Bard, if I can perform such miracles, why don't I repair this animal squawking that comes from my throat?"
"Everyone knows wizards sacrifice to gain their magic. You have clearly given up your human voice for you powers."
The wizard looked at him long before replying. “Of course. And as my voice is so appalling, I must thereby have gained great powers.”
He wrenched the purse from his belt. "I'm prepared to pay you whatever you desire."
"As much as that?" she said. "I doubt it."
Corbane scowled and cast the purse down on the floor before her worn leather slippers. A king's ransom of jewels scattered across the beaten earth, winking in the firelight.
"If that isn't enough, I can bring you more," he said. "But I warn you, wizard: I will not be cheated."
The swaddled bundle beside the fire regarded him silently for a moment. Then the wizard inclined her head. "Have no fear, Master Bard. I have no intention of giving you anything less than you ask for."
She paused again and he was aware of his heart beating like a bodhran at a country dance. "What is your wish?" she asked.
Slowly he opened his lute case and lifted out the fine instrument, turning it so the firelight caught on the gold-tipped pegs and the knotty complexities of its carved rosette.
"This is the most expensive, best-made lute I could procure. But an instrument's sound is only as good as the skill of the player." He fingered through a fast chord progression and winced as his fingers tangled on the notes. "My hands lack the flexibility of my voice. I need to be the best lute player in the world. Then I'll be the finest bard of all time." The look he gave her was almost a dare.
"I want to be a legend, madam. Can you give me that?"
He could feel her gaze slicing into his body, his mind; as if she could cut out his soul and weigh it. His heartbeat filled his ears.
"I can do this," she said. "Are you sure you want it?"
"As sure as my life."
The wizard nodded slowly. "Then you shall have it.”
She took a lock of his black hair, a broken lute string, and a drop of blood from his fingertip, turned to her spinning wheel and began to work. There beside the hearth she fashioned a thread that burned with cold sparks like stars in a winter night sky.
Corbane watched as she mounted the thread on a reel at her loom. Humming brokenly, a sound so coarse he wanted to plug his ears, she wove a piece of fabric the size of a handkerchief, flimsy as old cobweb. She lit a splint from the fire and burned the cloth in a clay bowl to catch the ashes. It went up like vellum, and smelled of rosemary and sage.
The wizard handed him the bowl. "Rub the ashes into your hands. Be sure to use all. Let none be wasted."
Corbane did as she told him. The powdery white stuff seemed to disappear into his skin; there was no grit, only a cool softness, as if he handled fresh moss. The ashes put a tingling in his fingers. As soon as he felt it, he could wait no longer. He picked up the lute and played.
The notes came freely, without effort. He picked his way through the lilting obbligato of a ballad which had previously given him trouble; now every chord came strong and pure, perfectly balanced, drawing him deeper into the music than he'd ever been before. He felt the wizard's eyes on him and looked up.
"The spell seems to be satisfactory," he said shortly. Her cloaked regard unnerved him more than he liked to admit. He bent to put the lute away.
"Wait," the wizard said. "One more thing, if you please." He froze, surprised at the softness of her tone. "I haven't heard music in so long. Would you play something for me?"
Now this was much more the thing, Corbane thought. He had gotten his wish; he could afford to be a little gracious. "Is there anything in particular you wish to hear?" he asked, shifting the lute across his thighs.
The wizard nodded. "Yes. Riversong."
Corbane felt a cold touch down his back.
"Your thesis ballad, wasn't it?" the wizard said. "The beautiful piece for which the College awarded you the Master's cloak and stole."
"Please," she said. "The song has made your fame. Surely you can play me a single verse."
It doesn't mean anything, he told himself. The bloody thing is as well-known as I am. She couldn't possibly know.
He drew a deep breath and launched into the melody. He could feel her gaze on him through every appogiatura and mordent; the same way Gwen had watched him from the side of the Great Hall, when he'd performed her song before the Masters. He thought he would stumble now, as he hadn't then, but the spell, or sheer professionalism, won out. He played the ballad perfectly.
The wizard let the final chord die away in the air before speaking.
"Lovely. The way you sing it almost makes me believe you wrote it."
"I did write it," Corbane said, too quickly.
"No, you didn't." The swaddled head tilted; the wizard's tone was one of bemusement. "You stole it from another student. She told the Masters, but she had always been an unsuitable candidate for bard: literate, and an able enough player, but with little confidence or stage presence, and a female in the bargain. They refused to believe her, and so the crime was never acknowledged. I wonder, does that make you a master thief, as well as a master bard?"
He could think of no good response.
"Be careful on the path in the dark," the wizard said, then turned away, sat looking into the fire.
Corbane dropped the lute into its case and stood up. He glared at her, wanting more than anything to put her in her place—but she was a wizard, he reminded himself. She had given him what he'd asked for, and maybe she would take it away again if he angered her.
He picked up his lute case and went out the door, left it to slam back on creaking hinges. For once in his life, just once, he would let rudeness go unremarked. It seemed by far the safest thing to do.
Inside the hut the wizard sat before the fire and listened as he rode away.
"Fool." Her voice grated low in her throat. "Poor, arrogant fool."
She kicked the spilled gemstones aside and went back to her spinning wheel, for she hadn't used quite all of the thread she had made from him.
She drew a bit of fringe from her headscarf and spun it into the thread, humming a song under her breath. Then she moved to her loom and began to weave. As she worked, her rusty voice softened, mellowed, became almost musical.
The first thing Corbane did in Deaversmith was to trade his horse for a better animal, for the nag had continued to be nervy all the way out of the woods. He also purchased a fine new pair of kidskin gloves embroidered with red and gold. He threw the old torn glove and its mate into the street and donned the new pair immediately.
At the inn where he dined, the patrons pressed him to play, and the innkeeper offered him lodging and board for a song.
Finally acquiescing, Corbane readied his lute and strummed a soft chord pattern to loosen his fingers. He recognized it immediately--Riversong, as if the thing were determined to haunt him now for the rest of his life.
No, you won't, he told the tune. And immediately sent his fingers flying through an arpeggio the crowd was bound to recognize as the opening to Blame Not a Woman, always a popular tavern song. It was common, but then so was his audience. Surely they would appreciate it far better than some more artful work.
"Play Riversong!" a voice in the back of the crowd called. The lighting was poor; he couldn't see who made the request.
"Riversong!" Someone else took up the cry—" Riversong!"—and another, and another; he'd made the damned song too famous for his own good. Finally he gritted his teeth and flung his voice out above the tumult.
"Then Riversong it shall be!" he said.
Set on the path now, his fingers flew through the opening, and it was clear from their rapt faces that his audience was well-caught. Never had his playing been better. Burning with pleasure, he drew a breath, opened his mouth to sing and—nothing. His fingers played on automatically, flawlessly, but the only thing his throat could produce was a cawing sound with no musical qualities whatsoever. He swallowed, kept playing with a pasted-on smile on his face, and waited for the next verse.
Again he tried to sing, and again the best he could do sounded more like the ragged squawk of a crow than the dulcet tones of a Master Bard. Still his fingers played on, undisturbed, perfect, though he could feel the blood rise in his cheeks.
And suddenly there was a voice singing with the power of a swift current undammed: a woman's voice, beautiful, that raised echoes in his memory and sent chills down his spine. His fingers danced to the rhythm of her words and Riversong flowed through its first verse, its second, its third and fourth. With a final swirl of notes, the tune eddied to a close, the last notes fading away in the warm smoky air.
His audience sat in silence for a heartbeat. He expected to feel their eyes picking him apart, but they had all turned in their seats, looking to a figure standing in the shadows at the back of the room. A woman in cloak and traveling dress, her hood covering her head.
Quickly he began another song; again his voice betrayed him. But the woman in the back covered his sorry squawk with her own words and the tune ran and leapt and played in pure joy.
When the song came to its end—his fingers would play the entire thing, he could not stop them—the audience cheered and pounded the tables and called out for more. The woman at the back pushed her hood from her hair and made her way forward, wending between the tables, her lips curved in a small smile.
Witless, Corbane chose a song at random, and her voice joined the lute's notes. She moved to stand beside him as he played. Her hand came to rest on his shoulder and squeezed as she smiled at him and sang, and sang, and sang.
The tavernkeeper finally had to beg them to stop, so the crowd would disperse and he could close for the night.
Corbane didn't dare meet her eyes. He bent to put his lute away and a pale, slim-fingered hand dropped a handful of bright gems into the open lute case at his feet.
"You played my song very well," Gwen said, in a voice liquid with pleasure. He met her eyes, blue and brilliant as he remembered them, though her face told a tale of fifteen years of hard living since their days at Selcaster. Gwen smiled.
"It was a pleasure to sing with such skilled accompaniment. You really are the finest lute player I've ever heard," she said.
He watched her walk to the door. She looked back and nodded to him, once, and then she was gone.
Corbane put his lute away and drew on his cloak. No one cared to notice as he slunk out the door.
At the harvest festivals that year, revelers were disappointed by the news that Corbane had gone off to travel foreign lands. Fortunately a new bard arrived, a woman fresh to the countryside, and she enchanted one and all. She knew all the old favorites, and she could sing Riversong as if it had been written for her—but the crowd's favorite was a ballad she said she'd composed that summer: the legend of an arrogant young man, and the day he bought a wish from the wizard of Rowansgrove.
© Charlene Brusso 2012
Charlene Brusso's work has appeared in Fantasy Magazine, Amazing Stories, and Strange Horizons, among others. Her short stories have received recommendations for the Nebula Award and she is an active member of SFWA.