THE TOWN WAS CALLED Hallowfell. We stopped for a handful of days because there was a good wainwright there, and nearly all our wagons needed tending or mending of some sort. While we were waiting, Ben got the offer he couldn’t refuse.
She was a widow, fairly wealthy, fairly young, and to my inexperienced eyes, fairly attractive. The official story was that she needed someone to tutor her young son. However, anyone who saw the two of them walking together knew the truth behind that story.
She had been the brewer’s wife, but he had drowned two years ago. She was trying to run the brewery as best she could, but she didn’t really have the know-how to do a good job of it….
As you can see, I don’t think anyone could have built a better snare for Ben if they had tried.
Plans were changed and the troupe stayed on at Hallowfell for a few extra days. My twelfth birthday was moved up and combined with Ben’s going away party.
To truly understand what it was like, you must realize that nothing is so grand as a troupe showing off for one another. Good entertainers try to make each performance seem special, but you need to remember that the show they’re putting on for you is the same one they’ve put on for hundreds of other audiences. Even the most dedicated troupes have an occasional lackluster performance, especially when they know they can get away with it.
Small towns, rural inns, those places didn’t know good entertainment from bad. Your fellow performers did.
Think then, how do you entertain the people who have seen your act a thousand times? You dust off the old tricks. You try out some new ones. You hope for the best. And, of course, the grand failures are as entertaining as the great successes.
I remember the evening as a wonderful blur of warm emotion, tinged in bitter. Fiddles, lutes, and drums, everyone played and danced and sang as they
wished. I dare say we rivaled any faerie revel you can bring to mind.
I got presents. Trip gave me a belt knife with a leather grip, claiming that all boys should have something they can hurt themselves with. Shandi gave me a lovely cloak she had made, scattered with little pockets for a boy’s treasures. My parents gave me a lute, a beautiful thing of smooth dark wood. I had to play a song of course, and Ben sang with me. I slipped a little on the strings of the unfamiliar instrument, and Ben wandered off looking for notes once or twice, but it was nice.
Ben opened up a small keg of mead he had been saving for “just such an occasion.” I remember it tasting the way I felt, sweet and bitter and sullen.
Several people had collaborated to write “The Ballad of Ben, Brewer Supreme.” My father recited it as gravely as if it were the Modegan royal lineage while accompanying himself on a half harp. Everyone laughed until they hurt, and Ben twice as much as everyone else.
At some point in the night, my mother swept me up and danced around in a great spinning circle. Her laughter sang out like music trailing in the wind. Her hair and skirt spun around me as she twirled. She smelled comforting, the way only mothers do. That smell, and the quick laughing kiss she gave me did more to ease the dull ache of Ben’s leaving than all the entertainments combined.
Shandi offered to do a special dance for Ben, but only if he came into her tent to see it. I’d never seen Ben blush before, but he did it well. He hesitated, and when he refused it was obviously about as easy for him as tearing out his own soul. Shandi protested and pouted prettily, saying she’d been practicing it for a long time. Finally she dragged him into the tent, their disappearance encouraged by a cheer from the entire troupe.
Trip and Teren staged a mock sword fight that was one part breathtaking swordplay, one part dramatic soliloquy (provided by Teren), and one part buffoonery that I’m sure Trip must have invented on the spot. It ranged all over the camp. In the course of the fight Trip managed to break his sword, hide under a lady’s dress, fence with a sausage, and perform such fantastical acrobatics that it’s a miracle he didn’t seriously injure himself. Although he did split his pants up the back.
Dax set himself alight while attempting a spectacular bit of fire breathing and had to be doused. All he suffered was a bit of singed beard and a slightly bruised pride. He recovered quickly under Ben’s tender ministrations, a mug of mead, and a reminder that not everyone was cut out to have eyebrows.
My parents sang “The Lay of Sir Savien Traliard.” Like most of the great songs, Sir Savien was written by Illien, and generally considered to be his crowning work.
It’s a beautiful song, made more so by the fact that I’d only heard my father perform the whole thing a handful of times before. It’s hellishly
complex, and my father was probably the only one in the troupe who could do it justice. Though he didn’t particularly show it, I knew it was taxing even for him. My mother sang the counter-harmony, her voice soft and lilting. Even the fire seemed subdued when they took a breath. I felt my heart lift and dive. I wept as much for the glory of two voices so perfectly enmeshed as for the tragedy of the song.
Yes, I cried at the end of it. I did then, and I have every time since. Even a reading of the story aloud will bring tears to my eyes. In my opinion, anyone who isn’t moved by it is less than human inside.
There was a momentary quiet after they finished, wherein everyone wiped their eyes and blew their noses. Then, after a suitable period of recovery had elapsed, someone called out, “Lanre! Lanre!”
The shout was taken up by several other people. “Yes, Lanre!”
My father gave a wry smile and shook his head. He never performed any part of a song until it was finished.
“C’mon, Arl!” Shandi called out. “You’ve been stewing it long enough.
Let some out of the pot.”
He shook his head again, still smiling. “It’s not ready yet.” He bent down and carefully set his lute into its case.
“Let’s have a taste, Arliden.” It was Teren this time.
“Yeah, for Ben’s sake. It’s not fair that he should have to hear you mumble over it for all this while and not get…”
“…are wondering what you’re doing in that wagon with your wife if it’s not…”
Trip quickly organized the whole troupe into a great chanting, howling mass that my father managed to withstand for almost a minute before he stooped and lifted his lute back out of the case. Everyone cheered.
The crowd hushed as soon as he sat back down. He tuned a string or two, even though he’d only just set it down. He flexed his fingers and struck a few soft, experimental notes, then swept into the song so gently that I caught myself listening to it before I knew it had begun. Then my father’s voice spoke over the rise and fall of the music.
“Sit and listen all, for I will sing
A story, wrought and forgotten in a time Old and gone. A story of a man.
Proud Lanre, strong as the spring
Steel of the sword he had at ready hand. Hear how he fought, fell, and rose again,
To fall again. Under shadow falling then. Love felled him, love for native land,
And love of his wife Lyra, at whose calling Some say he rose, through doors of death
To speak her name as his first reborn breath.”
My father drew a breath and paused, his mouth open as if he would continue. Then a wide, wicked grin spread across his face and he bent to tuck his lute safely away. There was an outcry and a great deal of complaining, but everyone knew they had been lucky to hear as much as they had. Someone else struck up a song for dancing, and the protests faded away.
My parents danced together, her head on his chest. Both had their eyes closed. They seemed so perfectly content. If you can find someone like that, someone who you can hold and close your eyes to the world with, then you’re lucky. Even if it only lasts for a minute or a day. The image of them gently swaying to the music is how I picture love in my mind even after all these years.
Afterward, Ben danced with my mother, his steps sure and stately. I was struck by how beautiful they looked together. Ben, old, grey, and portly, with his lined face and half-burned eyebrows. My mother, slender, fresh, and bright, pale and smooth-skinned in the firelight. They complemented each other by contrast. I ached knowing I might never see them together again.
By this time the sky was beginning to brighten in the east. Everyone gathered to say their final good-byes.
I can’t remember what I said to him before we left. I know it felt woefully inadequate, but I knew he understood. He made me promise not to get myself into any trouble, tinkering with the things he had taught me.
He stooped a bit and gave me a hug, then tousled my hair. I didn’t even mind. In semiretaliation I tried to smooth out his eyebrows, something I’d always wanted to try.
His expression was marvelous in its surprise. He gathered me into another hug. Then he stepped away.
My parents promised to steer the troupe back toward the town when we were in the area. All the troupers said they wouldn’t need much steering. But, even as young as I was, I knew the truth. It would be a great long time before I saw him again. Years.
I don’t remember starting out that morning, but I do remember trying to sleep and feeling quite alone except for a dull, bittersweet ache.
When I awoke later in the afternoon I found a package resting next to me.
Wrapped in sackcloth and tied with twine, there was a bright piece of paper with my name fixed to the top, waving in the wind like a little flag.
Unwrapping it, I recognized the book’s binding. It was Rhetoric and Logic, the book Ben had used to teach me argument. Out of his small library of a dozen books it was the only one I hadn’t read from cover to cover. I hated it.
I cracked it open and saw writing on the inside cover. It said:
Defend yourself well at the University. Make me proud. Remember your father’s song. Be wary of folly.
Your friend, Abenthy.”
Ben and I had never discussed my attending the University. Of course I had dreams of going there, someday. But they were dreams I hesitated to share with my parents. Attending the University would mean leaving my parents, my troupe, everyone and everything I had ever known.
Quite frankly, the thought was terrifying. What would it be like to settle in one place, not just for an evening or a span of days, but for months? Years? No more performing? No tumbling with Trip, or playing the bratty young noble’s son in Three Pennies for Wishing? No more wagons? No one to sing with?
I’d never said anything aloud, but Ben would have guessed. I read his inscription again, cried a bit, and promised him that I would do my best.