Her song found me on the road and pulled at me like something out of a dream like when you know you have to find the end to a tunnel. So you look, but you’re not sure what it is you’re looking for.
I knew what I had to find, the moment I saw from within the trees, her kneeling beside a small stream that cut through the wood. Her long, red strands of hair fell like strips of fire down her shoulders to her breasts that swelled when she leaned forward to fill a bucket with water. She brushed back a lock of hair that framed her elegant, slender face allowing me a better view in which to linger while she sang something in a language I couldn’t understand.
Like the land, the language seemed to be born of enchantment or spells, the kind children don’t hesitate to believe in, the kind that gives myth to dragons and lore. The moment I stepped off the boat and touched foot down into Eire’s Land I felt it. The earth rolled with a life preserved by its stories. Legends gave life to this realm. This woman was just like the land, mesmerizing. Her voice pulled me in like a witch’s spell. I couldn’t look away, not that I tried. I just stood in the trees and watched, letting the rolls and breathes of her native tongue slide through me.
She noticed me the moment her song was done and she raised her eyes. I gulped and a ball of heat slid down my pants. I suspected she had known I was there before I found her. She smiled, which only made things more uncomfortable for me.
“Dia duit,” she said.
Even without singing, her words were like music.
I emerged from my corner and entered the glen where the sun touched down on her crimson hair. Curiously, she eyed my foreign features just as the other Eire landers had at the docks. I was tall compared to her people, insanely tall, and my black, short hair contrasted their native red. While her people appeared to be part of the spell that seemed to naturally cling to this land, I must have appeared wild and untamed, almost out of place. I smirked, unable to hold back that boast. Despite my features, she seemed undaunted by my arrival.
“You are from the north,” she said.
My language in her mouth stirred other ideas I kept to myself. I nodded and approached her stream, her bucket, and her.
“I am.” I took a knee, dumped my bag to the grass, and cupped the water to my mouth. I felt her watch me drink. We were only a few feet apart, but that space filled with exhilarating tension that encouraged me closer. Instead, I splashed the water over my face and rubbed a hand over my neck to relieve some of the heat her attention coaxed from me. The day was mild and the air, thick with humidity as if the summer sea pushed a cloud through the island. Even the water felt like spell-craft here.
“What brings a Northman to the isle of Eire?” He voice was one endless song.
“Rumors,” I said and decided to stop there. Leave her wondering.
“Yes.” I rested my arm on my knee and liberally looked her over. She matched my boldness with a playful smile that only encouraged me. “Ages ago a man returned with a bride he plucked from these lands. Her beauty surpassed anything unseen in the north and rumors stirred of women whose beauty matched that of Freyja’s.” I shrugged for affect. At least most of that was true. “I had to see for myself.”
Her smile grew and I caught the green of earth in her eyes. So much, they reminded me of the forests of home. She had a splattering of freckles only seen up close and the wild red locks framed her pale face like nothing I had seen in Alfheim. While the women back at home were strong and beautiful, she was like nothing I had seen and carried an exotic air about her much like this land.
“And?” she asked encouraging the compliment I was ready to give. I said nothing, knowing my silence would evoke her question. “Are the rumors true?”
She held my gaze and didn’t falter or shy away when I stared back at her. She had the kind of eyes I could fall into and so I did. If I leaned, I suspected she would mirror my forwardness and meet me half way, but this, I wanted to savor.
“There is a glen in the north,” I said. “Every morning the sun pours its light over the greens of that field. A waterfall spills into a gorge there, catching the sunlight. Its waters cascade like a river of precious gems.” I paused, cradling the tension between us. “Its beauty unrivaled ‘til now.”
Her breasts rose and fell with her hastened breath and, while I resisted the urge to look down, I could see her neck and bosom flush red and my body too eagerly responded. When she stood suddenly and turned her blessed backside to me, I gratefully, quietly exhaled and shook the fog from my head. I needed to move. The look in her eye beckoned me to follow. Well, maybe it didn’t, but I decided it so. I took up my bag and fell in step beside her then relieved her of the bucket of water, purposely brushing my hand with hers.
“Why are you really here?” She asked.
I smiled at her wit. She hadn’t bought my lie for a moment. Good girl.
I breathed in the fresh morning air. “To immortalize myself in song.”
She nearly stumbled, composed herself then chuckled softly at my wit. I liked that and grinned.
“Hardly a deed one would call noble,” she said still smiling. Her brogue encouraged my charm so I shrugged again.
“Noble can wait,” I said. “That’s what I plan to do after I’ve made a name for myself.”
I could feel her watching me again, but I held my gaze on the trees ahead. “Well, only at first,” I said. “I figured I would do all the things I write about doing in song. Then I thought about how much more terrible I would be if people knew who I was while doing them. And who better to teach me song than the masters themselves?”
“You sailed all the way from the northern realms to commission the services of the master Bards?”
I held back a smile and made my declaration. “That’s right.”
“To immortalize yourself in song before you carry out the deeds you plan to write about.”
“Yes.” I still wouldn’t look at her and I could feel it unsettling her.
She stopped and I followed her lead. We had reached a dry stone wall that met the road I had followed from the docks before her voice had lured me away. I turned to her as she shoved her hand through her hair, arranging it so that it was out of the way of her face, the supple swell of her breasts, and the slender curve of her neck. She threw back her shoulders and raised her eyes to mine.
“And tell me, Man of the north,” she said.
“Bergen,” I said. One step closer and we would touch.
“Bergen.” She rolled my name in her mouth around a native breath that tugged at my pelvis. I suddenly couldn’t take my eyes off her mouth. “Tell me, Bergen, what will your first song be?”
“Yes, Bergen,” A man’s voice growled.
The lady bowed her head, lowering her eyes as she abandoned her pose and stepped back, putting a good two…three paces between us while her face flushed as red as her hair. Beside the wall, where neither of us could see, a man, ugly, cold, and almost sickly looking, emerged. His brows were wild and untamed while his sad excuse for a beard, collected into an unnatural, manicured point to protrude further than the crooked beak he tried to pass off as a nose.
He scowled at me with a pair of beady black eyes, the kind you expect from a vulture or a rat. “What will your first song be?” he sneered.
I didn’t answer. Now that my attention was no longer on the woman, I noticed the small village she had led me to. Every structure was made entirely of stone and covered in ivy and moss.
“Rose,” he said, not daring to take his eyes from mine. “Get on with your chores.”
I heard her sheepish reply. “Yes, Athair.”
Fumbling, she took the bucket from me. I could smell her sweet scent of woman and managed to steal a second brush with her hand before she took back the bucket and scurried off. The flash of red caught the corner of my eye and the lady, Rose, was gone.
Athair. I eyed the great brute with loathing and pure disdain from which no evils can equate. He matched my eye and I knew he felt the same for me. As sweet and delectable as Rose had been, this small man was vile and uncouth.
“In the lands of my fathers, it is a great dishonor to interfere with a man where a lady is concerned,” I said once I was sure Rose was out of earshot,
“Where that lady is concerned,” he growled in his rancid voice, “it is my duty to interfere. That lady is my pupil.”
It was on.
“Pupil she may be, but she has a will of her own,” I said.
“And a mother I have to answer to should she allow herself to become dissuaded by the sea dog that stands before me.”
He puffed out his chest and I puffed out mine, we sized the other up then down, confirmed our disdain, then I decided to move on. I shifted the weight of my bag on my shoulder and started in Rose’s shadow.
“No man is to enter these walls,” he said. I afforded him my finest glare. “Only those who have received the Master Bard’s approval may enter here.”
“Where may I find him?”
His thin lips curled into a smile I could fix with my fist.
“You already have.”
Wait, what? “Y—you’re…”
He bowed his head in a half-nod and I curled my fingers.
“Master Bard,” he said smugly. “Yes.”
That ball of heat Rose had dumped into my pants now moved to my chest.
“Follow me,” he said and swept into the village with an arrogance that seemed to part the way for me. Just like a rat.
He led me to the first door of the first building, a keep that greeted any and all hopefuls, I assumed. The door creaked and my eyes went to work studying the countless baubles and jars filled with red bubbling brews and liquids positioned carefully over tiny fires lit mystically beneath the glass with no flint or workings of a proper fire. Scrolls of vellum filled one wall while artifacts and brick-a-brack I couldn’t identify cluttered a countless number of shelves shoved behind a large wooden desk in the center of the room.
One window, high and lined with colored glass imported from the deserts permitted some light aside from the several candles that lit the room. The air was thick and stuffy and it smelled like used foot wraps and old, dirty man that made me want to wretch.
Athair took his seat behind his desk with an arrogance that made me want to bash his skull in. Instead, I watched him steeple his fingers and smile.
“So,” he began. I frowned at his crooked, yellow teeth. “You seek to enter my services.”
Feeling too much like a mouse forced to perform for the snake, I said nothing.
“And with what do you bring to protest your worth?”
I continued to say nothing.
“What grand things have you to offer that proves your valor to me?”
He rocked in his chair. It creaked. I hated him for that too.
“Recite,” he said at once.
He chuckled amused at his own game.
“You think we just play songs?” he asked. “You think us simple, musicians sold on dreams and drugged with starry-eyed tales of heroes?” The ugly, old man slapped his desk and frowned as if I had spoken to offend. “A bard isn’t about songs and dance and random wandering lute playing. We are not children with stories and dreams. A bard is a servant.”
He stood from his chair and I let him preach.
“We are servants born with the highest of honors, born from the bloodline of Danann herself! Ours is a dedicated service we commit a lifetime to so that we can recall every note, every word of story. Bards are the legend keepers, the record keepers. Bards are historians. When one dies, we lose a piece of our history unless we succeed in passing it along. It is our goal for any apprentice to become a Master so that he too may take on an apprentice to pass on the words of his master. A bard remembers for everyone, to keep the culture alive. You wish to come to my service? Recite!” He slapped his desk again to conclude his pompous lecture.
My mind was a blank. “I have prepared nothing.”
“What a shame.” His smile was anything, but sincere. “Amuse me. Improvise. Free style.”
“What shall I tell?”
He tried to suppress a grin and, instead, mangled his already contorted face.
“Why don’t you tell me everything you just said.” I furrowed my brow. “Every word you exchanged with Rose,” he said, “Every moment, every word, every nasty little thought you had in your head. Let’s see how skilled you truly are. How honest you are.”
I felt the blood drain leaving behind a stiff chill that encouraged me to wretch on his floor.
“Everything?” I asked.
“Everything,” he grinned. He knew he had me. “Every nuance, every thought, every idea you had in your dark mind. And don’t consider lying. Part of the bard’s trade is to detect liars.”
I recalled every flux in my body that Rose had evoked from me. The heat, the private thoughts I harbored.
“Where would you have me st—”
“From the beginning,” Athair said. “From the moment you met my Rose.”
If I declined, he would deny my entrance and the journey would be for naught. If I recited everything, every thought, every moment I had with Rose, I still held a chance in my favor. And if I lied, I risked the same fate as if I refused. I swallowed my humility and forced the words, “Very well,” I said then began.
Bergen finished his recitation and stared hating the headmaster’s pointy red beard and narrow eyes. The tale had been easy enough to recite having just happened, but he couldn’t ignore the discomfort that had settled into the bottom of his stomach while he retold his meeting with Rose.
Through the entire recitation, Athair hadn’t moved, but stood staring. Bergen expected an eye twitch, but the cold stare he got back was far worse. None of it was like the tension that sat stagnant between them now.
“Get out,” Athair said through gritted teeth.
Bergen blinked back disbelief.
“That’s it? I did as you asked. I recited everything.”
“‘Crooked beak he tried to pass off as a nose’,” Athair repeated Bergen’s words back to him. Okay, so maybe I did lay it on a little thick. “You said be honest,” Bergen said and Athair dropped his shoulders with an air of finality.
“Isn’t there a second test or a trial I can take to get in?” Bergen said.
Athair scoffed. “I never said there was a trial. I never said you even had a chance to get in.”
“Then why did you ask me to recite all that?”
“I told you,” Athair sneered. “I have a duty to the girl to report to her mother. You have disclosed everything I need that satisfies me. Now good day!”
“Athair, please!” Bergen dropped his fists to the desk as Athair took his seat.
“Athair, sea dog,” he said, “is Eire’s word for ‘father.’ Rose is my daughter. And you, Bergen, have just spent the past several minutes telling me exactly what your thoughts were of my daughter. Good day!”
Ian appeared in the doorframe that seemed to swallow him whole. Red headed, tall and gangly, Bergen assessed the man-boy and decided he had spent his life in a school.
“See to it this dog finds his way off the grounds,” the Master said.
Ian stared at Bergen with a wide-eyed look of panic and Bergen knew they shared the same thought. Neither Ian nor Rose’s father had the strength to move him. But forced or not, if the master refused teach the pupil, he wouldn’t be using physical brawn to do it.
“I’ll show myself out,” Bergen grumbled and left the keep, barely giving Ian time to leap out of the Norseman’s way.