There was a time when I wanted nothing more than to kill the King. But a shepherd girl, orphaned by his impatience, how was I to get close enough? It was Hugh, the harper, who showed me the way when he took me in. His eyes were failing, even then, gone gray as his beard, but I think he saw what was in my heart.
“Harper’s can go where they please.” He said, twisting my fingers against the strings time and again, until they took that shape of their own accord. There were many things he could have taught me, but it was how to please the crowd that came first, always, for that was my passport to the King. Why he taught me with such a passion I will never know. Perhaps he wished me to succeed. Perhaps there was revenge in his heart as well, though, if there was, he never spoke of it. Yet he did teach me.
Patience I learned on my own.
When his grandson was born, the King ordered a feast.
By now my skill was known across the land, forged in a hundred taverns and honed to a fine edge by the more discriminating tastes of the nobility. I could read my audience like a book, could play them as well as I played my harp. Who else would the King command to play? Those weeks before the feast passed slower than the years of waiting.
I arrived at the palace early, and asked if there was a place where I might prepare myself. The Chamberlain showed me to the palace garden. In the center was a small pool, surrounded by rosebushes, and flower beds marched with military precision about it, turf benches set in their ranks like siege engines. At one end stood an arbor, thick with broad leaves and heavy with dark grapes going dusty purple as they ripened.
I sat in its cool shade as I tuned my harp – checking for nicks in the strings, looking for older ones that had to be wound too tight to reach their note. I had done this at home, in the early hours after a restless night, but even now, I could not be still. I played a few songs to limber up my fingers, to keep myself busy. My mind hummed like a hive, and only the motion of my hands could keep it from bursting forth.
Small birds flew in and out of the garden, as they often do when I play, and after a while I set aside my harp and listened to their singing – my eyes closed that I might hear them better. I was so lost in their song that I did not notice when the King entered, only wondered why their music had stopped and where the small, whispering voice that replaced it was coming from.
“Vengeance!” It whispered, small and frail in the sudden silence. “Vengeance!”
My eyes snapped open. I could see the King plainly from where I sat, saw his eyes, narrow and searching, beneath his dark brows. He too, had heard the voice.
As quietly as I could, I lifted the right side of my skirt and unwrapped the cloth that held my father’s skinning knife tight against my thigh. He was just the other side of the vines. So close, I could smell his breath. It did not surprise me that he preferred the acid tartness of Roman wine to sweet mead.
“Vengeance!” Came the voice again, and I saw the King grimace before he turned his back to me. The knife was in my hand, the King distracted and just within reach.
“Nonsense!” He muttered, but it came out weak and uncertain. He clutched the drinking horn as tightly as I gripped my father’s knife and my hands trembled with the strain as much as his.
A sparrow sang a brief, warbling note from a bush and the King stepped forward, out of my reach. He hurled his horn, red wine staining white roses, then straightened himself with an effort.
“Nonsense,” he said again and walked stiffly inside while I collapsed back upon the bench. Tears rolled down my cheeks like rivers of molten lead. So close! And yet I’d failed. No, not failed, not yet, but I began to realize that it would take more than years of dreaming his death to make it real.
It was strange to see fear on his face. Strange to think that he might have demons of his own. I had only seen him once before, the day he killed my father. A careless and unthinking blow with a mailed fist because our sheep blocked the road and my father had not moved them fast enough to suit him.
He had seemed invincible then, a force of nature, like the winds that scoured the hillsides where our sheep grazed. Now that I had seen him in a moment of weakness, killing him would not be the easy thing I’d imagined.
In time the Chamberlain came to take me into the hall. We passed the King and his daughter and it was then I saw the grandchild in her arms. He was barely three months old and yet there was no mistaking that he had the King’s eyes. Oh yes, now the reason for his pride was clear, for this was the son the Queen had never given him. This was to be the heir to his throne and there was no doubt in my mind that he would be molded in the King’s likeness.
I played softly from a small balcony, looking down as the nobility of Balor made their nervous way past the King and his daughter. I watched their faces drop as they bowed and curtsied in passing. With a cold certainty I suddenly realized that there would be no end to the tyranny. I could see defeat in the set of their shoulders and if the people of Balor had held any hope in their hearts, it was dashed on the hard rocks of the King’s smile.
The dinner seemed endless and for once I was grateful that I was occupied with my music, for I doubt if I could have eaten anything. The table was a long narrow U, with the guests along the outside and an endless stream of pages and serving girls tending their needs from inside. I saw platters of food going out nearly as full as they had come in, for the guests had no more appetite than I.
When the last course had been served, I was brought down to play for the King. He smiled, and thanked me, and said he’d never heard such wonderful music. The he dismissed me – all without recognition.
I sought the shadows of an alcove and waited patiently for the King to leave the hall, my father’s knife heavy in my hand once more. This time I would not hesitate.
”Vengeance!” Came the small voice once more, and through the window I saw the sparrow hovering.
“Vengeance!” It said, and flew out over the garden.
Years of waiting, yet this small bird tempted me from my revenge. What, I thought, could so small a thing know of vengeance? What could it do, that I could not do easier? Yet this thin whisper of a voice was like a cord tied around my heart and I had no choice but to follow.
I stole out of the palace, through the garden and out into the fields – harp, revenge, the two things that had consumed my life for eight long years were both forgotten. Up into the mountains it lead me, that whisper and the flutter of small wings. Up and up I climbed until I could climb no further. There, in the dark, the small voice trailed off in the distance, and I was left with silence broken only by the murmur of a small brook.
Down in the valley, lights still burned brightly through the palace windows, sparkling gems in its pale grey walls. Odd, I thought, that brightness should mask such evil. For long hours, I stared down at those lights and wondered at the ease with which I had abandoned my goal. I watched the lights go out, one by one. The last, from the uppermost chamber of the tallest tower, was snuffed in the early morning hours.
When I finally slept, I dreamed of water. A small brook, a rushing torrent. Waves and cataracts and all the water in the world. It washed over me, through me, until dawn came and I woke to find myself at the edge of a vast sheet of blue. The morning breeze rippled the surface of a newborn lake. I thought I heard music, but it was only my harp, bumping against the stony shore. The valley was gone beneath the tiny waves. The palace, too, was buried deep beneath its surface
They say that sparrows are the souls of the dead. Perhaps it’s true. Perhaps those birds that whispered to me were the souls of all those the King had killed in his time. Perhaps they took the sin of murder upon themselves and saved me from it. Others people lined the shore of the newborn lake, though not as many as had lived in Balor, and I wonder sometimes, who saved them. Could there have been that many sparrows?
Some say I’m the best harpist in the land, that I must have the blood of old bards in my veins. In truth, I like myself better now. It’s the only thing that can keep me awake into the small hours of the morning, when I get to wondering what I would have become if I’d succeeded.
I have never set this story to music.
And, yes, the birds still come when I play. I have become adept at matching their song, or they at matching mine. I’m not sure which. I only know that I’m always happy to play for them.