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Authors: Elaine Cunningham

Songs & Swords 2

BOOK: Songs & Swords 2
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Elfsong

By Elaine Cunningham

Copyright 1994

Version 1.0

 

Prelude:

 

In the heart of the Northlands, a few days’ travel from the great city of Waterdeep, lay a vast, primeval wood known as the High Forest. The adventurous few who braved the forest brought back tales of strange sights and magical beasts, and many were the legends and songs that told of the land’s beauty and its dangers. One tale, however, did not find its way into fireside boasting or bardic lore.

The villain of the untold tale was a green dragon named Grinmoshtadrano—Grimnosh, to his friends and victims—and this lack of notoriety hampered the dragon in his pursuit of his favorite pastime. Grimnosh collected riddles as avidly as he hoarded treasure. He waylaid and challenged all those who passed near his woodland lair, offering them their lives in exchange for a new riddle. Travelers were scarce, and none had offered a riddle that Grimnosh could not answer. The dragon had let two or three go free regardless, in hope that their stories might lure more worthy challengers to the forest: riddlemasters and bards in search of fame and adventure. Of course, in accordance with his nature, the dragon intended to eat these learned men and women as soon as he separated them from their riddles.

Unfortunately for the dragon, the travelers he’d set free had scuttled away into grateful anonymity, and more than a century had passed since the dragon’s last riddle challenge. He was therefore surprised when a lone traveler came to the forest with a challenge of her own, a magical summons powerful enough to reach into his labyrinth of caves and shatter his winter sleep.

Grimnosh emerged into a world of stark contrast and icy brilliance. It was the morning of the winter solstice, and the forest was shrouded with a deep, unblemished blanket of snow. Except for the small clearing directly in front of the cave’s mouth and the narrow road that lay beyond, the trees grew so close that even in winter they all but blotted out the sky. Their entwined dark branches were glossy with ice, and draped with so many icicles that the forest resembled a cave carved from diamond and obsidian.

The dragon’s hooded eyes narrowed into golden slits as he studied the woman who’d ventured into this forbidding land. Swathed in a gray cloak and bent with age, she was seated upon a small, fine-boned white mare. Little of her was visible—a deep cowl covered her head and obscured her face—but the dragon’s keen nose caught the tantalizing scent of elven blood. His first impulse was to devour the foolish elfwoman who had summoned him out into the snow and the cold, but he remembered the force of the spell that had wakened him. Grimnosh had been without diversion for too long, and the elven sorceress seemed promising.

So the dragon listened to her, all the while padding in slow circles around her, weaving his sinuous green tail in patterns as deft and ominous as a wizard’s arcane gestures —taking her measure. When she finished her outrageous request, Grimnosh sat back on his haunches and let out a burst of derisive laughter. The thunderous roar sent a tremor through a stand of ancient oak trees. Like harps reverberating to a plucked string, the living wood echoed the deep, thrumming sound of the forest dragon’s voice. Winter-bare branches shook, sending icicles crashing down around the elfwoman like so many descending fangs.

“The great Grimnoshtadrano does not bargain with elves,” the wyrm said, malevolent humor in his golden eyes. “I eat them.”

“Do you think that the best I can offer you is a light lunch?” she demanded in a voice worn thin by the passing of years. “In my time I have been a bard and a riddlemaster, and I am a sorceress still.” A tiny, ironic smile deepened the wrinkles that creased her face, and she added in a wry tone, “And, lest you spoil your digestion, you should know that I am a half-elf.”

“Is that so?” rumbled the dragon, taking a step closer. He was both annoyed and intrigued by this woman who showed no fear. “Which half of you should I eat?” The tip of his tail whipped forward, and with -a flick he tossed back her cowl so that he might take a better look

As a snack, the woman was not at all appealing. Elves at best were tasty but insubstantial, and centuries of life had nearly picked this one’s bones clean. She was old, even by the dragon’s reckoning, and her angular face had the hue and texture of aged parchment Wispy strands of smoke-colored hair clung to her skull, and her eyes were so faded as to be almost colorless. Yet power surrounded her like morning mist on a woodland pond.

The dragon stopped toying with the sorceress and got down to business. “You want me to give you the Morninglark. What do you offer in exchange?” Grimnosh asked bluntly.

“A riddle that no one can answer.”

“Considering the number and caliber of humans who’ve passed this way of late, that shouldn’t be too difficult,” the dragon observed, casually inspecting the talons of a green forepaw.

“That will change. An ancient ballad about the great Grimnoshtadrano will inspire ambitious bards to seek you out.”

“Oh? It hasn’t yet”

“It hasn’t been written yet,” she said with a touch of asperity. “For that, I need the Morninglark.”

For a long, ominous moment, the dragon glared down at the presumptuous half-elf. “Strange though this may seem, I’m in no mood for riddles. Explain yourself, and speak

“To you, the Morninglark is just another elven harp, a magic trinket lying atop your hoard.” The sorceress held up her hands, which were long and elegant. “With these I can wield a rare type of elven magic known as spellsong. When my power is combined with that of the harp, I can cast a spell that will weave this new ballad into the memory of every bard within the city walls. Every enspelled bard will believe he has always known about the mighty Grimnoshtadrano. Every enspelled bard will aspire to meet your riddle challenge. These bards will spread the ballad throughout the land. Many will know your name, and the best and bravest of these will come.”

“Hmmm.” The dragon nodded thoughtfully. “And what will this ballad say?”

“It will send out a challenge to those who are both Harpers and bards. These must pass three tests: answer a riddle, read a scroll, and sing a song.”

“And what will this ballad offer these bards, should they succeed? The usual fame and fortune, I suppose?’ “That hardly matters?

Grimnosh snorted, sending a puff of foul-smelling steam toward the half-elven woman. “You’re quick to give away treasure that isn’t yours!”

“Your hoard is secure,” she said firmly “The riddle will be one of your choosing, and how many have answered such a riddle correctly?”

“In all modesty, none.”

“Whoever passes this first test—which is most unlikely—will proceed to the second. The scroll I shall give you will be a many-layered riddle. I can say with reasonable assurance that no Harper could answer every layer of the riddle. I can say with absolute certainty that none wields the magic of spellsong. This magic is needed to truly read the scroll and to sing the song.”

Grimnosh thought this over, and his sinuous tail wandered toward the half-elf’s horse. The dragon absently twirled the horse’s braided tail as a child might worry a lock of hair. The mare whuffled nervously but held her ground. At length the dragon said, “If all you say is true, how did you come by this knowledge?”

The woman pushed aside the folds of her cloak, revealing a small silver pin on her coat: a tiny harp cradled in the curve of a new moon. “I have been with the Harpers for over three centuries, and I know what they have become.” Her face hardened, and her chest rose and fell in a long, measured breath. ‘The Harpers of today are likely to come against you with steel, not song. Eat as many of them as pleases you.”

“Treachery!” Grimnosh exclaimed, regarding the ancient Harper with surprise and pleasure.

She shrugged and lifted her colorless eyes to meet the intent gaze of the great wyrm. “That depends entirely upon your perspective.”

“A good answer.” The dragon fell silent for a long, speculative moment. “It seems to me that you could accomplish a great deal with such a spell. Apart from sending me an occasional afternoon’s entertainment, what do you hope to achieve?”

“What does any Harper hope to achieve. This time her smile held a touch of bitterness. “In all things, there must be a balance.”

Winter was hard and slow to pass. Twice the moon waxed and waned over the Northlands, but drifted snow still piled high against the walls of Silverymoon. Within the wondrous city, however, the Spring Faire was in full flower.

From her tower window, the half-elven sorceress looked down at the living tapestry of color and sound. Directly below her lay the courtyards of Utrumm’s Music Conservatory, and bards from many lands crowded into the outdoor theater to share and celebrate their art Snatches of melody drifted up to her, borne on breezes that were warmed by powerful enchantments and scented with flowers. Beyond the music school stretched the teeming marketplace, which offered all the goods and treasures of any such faire, as well as the specialties of Silverymoon: rare books and scrolls, spell components, and all Manner of musical and magical devices. Equally on display were the people of Silverymoon. Brightly garbed in their best finery, they celebrated the ageless rites of spring with laughter, dancing, and whispered promises of joys to come.

She watched the merry crowd for a long time. The Spring Faire was a scene of such color and celebration, such pageantry and promise that it could not fail to gladden the heart. Even hers quickened, although it had risen with the tides of over three hundred springs. Again that painful joy tugged at her, as it did every year when the dying winter yielded to a season of renewal. She felt it all, as keenly as did any youth or maid.

Soon the people of Silverymoon would dance to a different music, and all the bards in the city would sing only the songs that she herself had written. It pleased her that these songs would spring from a Harper’s silent silver strings.

Her withered fingers sought the Harper pin on the shoulder of her gown, the once-cherished badge that she had worn—despite everything—for so many years. She tore it free and clenched it in her fist, as if to imprint every tiny curve and line of the harp-and-moon talisman upon the flesh of her hand.

With a sigh, she turned to the enspelled brazier that glowed in the center of the tower room. Steeling herself against the intense heat, she went as close as she dared and tossed her Harper pin into the brazier’s dish. She watched in silence as the pin collapsed into a tiny, gleaming puddle.

Only one preparation remained for the casting of her greatest spell: the years had stolen the song from her voice, and song she must have. The last of her family’s wealth had gone to purchase a potion to restore the beauty of her voice and her person. She drew the flagon from her sleeve and stood before the tower room’s mirror. Closing ‘her eyes, she whispered the words of enchantment and then drank deeply. The potion’s warmth coursed through her, burning away the years and leaving her gasping with unexpected pain. She clutched the mirror’s frame for support, and when the red haze was spent, she opened her eyes and gazed in dismay at what the spell had done.

The mirror reflected the image of a woman in her late middle years. A once-willowy figure was plump and matronly. Her brilliant red hair, which in her youth had been flame and silk, was reduced to a dull brown streaked with gray. At least her ancient and faded eyes had regained their youthful color, for they were again the brilliant blue that her lovers had often likened to fine sapphires. After the first stab of disappointment, she realized that she couldn’t have chosen a better guise. The beautiful woman who had inspired comparison to rubies and sapphires would draw too much attention, and no one alive remembered her as she now appeared. The true test of the spell was her voice. She drew a deep breath and sang a verse of an elven lament. The notes rang out clear and true, the bell-like soprano for which she had once been celebrated. Satisfied, she studied her reflection anew, and a little smile curved her lips. The Harpers knew her as Iriador, a name taken from the Elvish word for ruby. Now she was merely garnet, a jewel still, but a dim shadow of a ruby’s luster and fire. She was content with image of the darker gem. Garnet would serve for her new name.

She turned to study the harp that stood near the tower window. At first glance, it too seemed unremarkable. Small and light enough to carry with ease, it had but twenty strings. It was fashioned of dark wood, and its curving lines and subtle carvings proclaimed its elven origin. But when the harp was played, a tiny morninglark carved into the wood moved as if singing in time to the music. This was not easy to discern, for the harp’s magical namesake was carved on the soundboard where only the harpist could see it, and only then if she knew precisely where to look.

Garnet seated herself before the Morninglark harp and flexed her fingers, rejoicing in their renewed agility, and then played a few silver notes. Finally she began to sing, and voice and harp blended into a spell of great power. The music reached out with invisible hands for the last component of the spell: the melted silver bubbling in the enspelled brazier. As Garnet sang, the remains of the Harper pin rose into the air like a tiny vortex and spun itself into a long, slender ribbon. Unerringly it flew toward Garnet’s harp, wrapping itself around one harp string. It bonded as tightly as if it had been absorbed into the very metal, and the spell was complete. The ancient melody ceased, and the last rippled chord faded into silence.

Exultant now, the sorceress again began to Play and sing. Her songs floated over the city, carrying a corrosive, insidious magic on the breath of the wind. Throughout the night she played, until her voice was reduced to a whimper and her fingertips bled. When the first colors of morning stole through the tower window, Garnet shouldered the harp and ventured forth to see what she had created.

A heavy blow landed on Wyn Ashgrove’s back, knocking his magical lyre off his shoulder. The elven minstrel’s first impulse was to reach for the fallen instrument, but years of adventuring had trained him otherwise. He whirled to face his assailant, his fingers tight on his long sword’s grip.

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