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Oliver D. Bernuetz's Stories

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The Harpist

The shouting roused the girl out of her fever dreams or perhaps it was fate instead. Drawn by the sounds of anger or something she was unaware of she fumbled her way through the curtains of her sleeping niche. Stumbling, she made her way unheeded toward the light, toward the sound. She stopped at the end of the hallway to shelter, blinking in the darkness beyond the fire pit’s reach. The girl shivered for it was Valind’s season and the hall was cold with it. Night as well as snow lay over the stead like some suffocating blanket. The source of the noise was the chieftain and the leader of the tula patrol yelling at each other. The girl strained to listen and understand what it was that they were saying. At first the words were incomprehensible to her as though she listened to some language other than Heortling. But then as though drawing some strength from escaping her confinement, for she could see her warder over there as caught up in the ruckus as the rest and little realizing that her ward was out of bed she slowly began to understand what it was that they were yelling at each other.

"I must be an addled, deaf old fool," the chief yelled, a man who was neither of these things, "for I do not understand what it is that you tell me." The leader of the tula patrol, a big bear of a man named with no little irony Maus, yelled back, "I am telling you Bjorn that this very evening I have turned a stranger back from our tula’s borders who had asked us for our hospitality." He paused, then continued. "And what is worse I had given it to him." He crossed his burly arms and looked both defiant and frightened, though not of the chief. Bjorn replied, "And had this stranger not responded properly to the sacred Orlanthi greeting?" Maus looked down, "Aye, that he did. He spoke full fair and made all the right responses." Bjorn looked even further incensed than he had before, if that was possible. His hair crackled with the god’s lightning as though he would soon cast a thunderstone at Maus and strike him dead. It had happened before and all there, including Maus knew it. "And why in Orlanth’s name did you turn this stranger away once you had already offered him shelter?" Maus looked down at the floor and mumbled something. Bjorn looked even angrier and the god light flew from his visage and set small fires in the strewn straw. Servants hastened to put them out. Bjorn stood and his hands gripped the rune-carved arms of his oak seat so hard the wood squeaked and splintered. "Speak," he roared, "or get you hence and call yourself my man no more."

Maus looked up defiant once more. "After the wyter had warned us we hastened to the streamlet at the north boundary. He waited there for us and we thought him a wandering Issaries or perhaps a shiftless beggar from his tattered clothes and the large sack slung on his back. I challenged him as Heort taught us and he answered back with a rich, cultured voice, speaking the responses as proper as proper could be. We gave him our names and he answered back that he was friend but that he could not give us his name as he knew it not. I thought this was strange but thought that it would not preclude hospitality. I offered him hospitality and shelter and water and he accepted in proper fashion. I then offered him blanket to sleep under as a friend and he accepted in proper fashion. I then went further and offered him meat and he accepted in proper fashion. So I made welcome to him of our tula and bade him cross over." Here Maus paused again for a moment. "And then he approached the light of the torches we held, for he had no light of his own, and I saw what the dark had hidden." He shuddered, this man who knew no fear or at least admitted none. He spoke quietly again and the whole hall had gone so still that no one needed him to speak up now. "He had no eyes in his face, just ruin, and the large sack on his back we could now see to be a harp." The girl heard a bold mouse creep across the floor in the sudden silence that had befallen the hall. And then uproar. The girl’s warder cried out and fell to the floor in a dead faint. The girl’s blood ran cold and the face of Bjorn went as white as one of the hrolli. "Is it now?" he whispered. "Is this the time prophesied long past? When the blind harpist comes and takes our greatest treasure away?"

Bjorn gazed deep into the fire looking much deflated from his recent rage. "And what did you do then when you saw that this stranger was a blind harpist?" "My blood had run cold but I swiftly made a barrier of my spear." Maus shook his head. "It was as though he could see me for he stopped before he stumbled into my spear. He looked as sad as though he bore all the sadness of the world and said, "Are you now turning me away then? Do you fear a blind harpist?" I shuddered and spoke him fair. "Stranger", I said, "we have a dire prophesy over us concerning a blind harpist and I must deny the fates, trample on hospitality and tradition and turn you away lest it come true." And if I had thought he had looked sad before it was as nothing to as sad as he looked now. My patrol wept to see such sorrow and I wept with them unashamed. He nodded slowly and turned away. He walked haltingly back into the darkness and the last thing we heard from him were these words, "Though we all must fear prophesy and deny our fates the gods drive us as they wish though it destroy us completely."

"I almost wish that you had slain him," whispered Bjorn and all gasped at the monstrousness of this act that he had suggested. But then the girl’s warder, who had been roused by one of her tiring women finally spotted her and clucking like an addled hen whisked her back to bed. After being coddled and fussed over and bundled under a suffocating mass of blankets the girl finally made her escape into the oblivion of sleep. Her dreams were haunted by the face of the eyeless harpist and he looked at her in her dreams as sad as sad could be. As though he bore some burden too heavy for mortal man to bear. Could he be one of the immortals? Would one of them wander the world looking like a beggar and sporting such a disfigurement? None of the stories she knew spoke of such but perhaps the men’s secret stories spoke of such a one.

The girl was awakened by the sound of a harp. It had wormed its way down into her mind, past the layers of blankets and the fog of sleep so that she was dragged from her bed for the second time that night. The girl didn’t feel right, as though she was awake and asleep at the same time. Wandering down the hallway and into the dull light of the banked firepit. In the sluggish light she could see that the guards and servant in charge of the fire pit all slept and she knew that it was the harp music that made them sleep. Even the alynxes, normally so alert were asleep and senseless. Following the music across the hall and out into the snow. And she felt not the cold as as though the music kept her warm. She moved in dreamlike state across the snow, hearing it distractedly crunching under bare feet. Nothing was awake or moving as she drifted across the landscape. Somewhere deep inside she screamed as she passed a mighty hollri lying asleep in a drift but even it did not move as the girl passed. Over hill and through fields she went until she reached the frozen streamlet that marked the northern border of the tula. Over the stream she went and through the bushes until she reached a little campfire safely beyond ther tula’s boundaries though she knew somehow that even the wyter was asleep.

There a figure in tattered robes sat on a rock playing a strangely shaped harp. The girl sat down across the fire from him as though bade to and waited for him to speak. And he did, though his hands never stopped playing the harp. "Do you know who I am?" he asked. The girl shook her head no dreamily. He looked up from his playing and the girl flinched away from the horror of his torn visage. "I do not know who I am any more than you do." He lowered his head again to his harping and the girl saw that the harp was crafted from bone. The upright and cross-piece looked to be the long bones of a human and verterbrae from a spine made for a sinister curve. Keeping his head down the harpist spoke on.

"This is the maiden harp. My doom is to wander the world until I finish it. Do you know why it is called the maiden harp?" Again the girl shook her head no. A shudder passed through the harpist. "It is called the maiden harp because it is made from maidens. Each bone, each string is fashioned from some unfortunate maiden." He caressed the spine, "This spine was once my heart’s true love though I remember her not. I have wandered this world for years searching for the right maidens to fashion my harp. Some compulsion makes me do this and I have no will to resist. Something guides my feet to the right maidens. Can you guess why I have come to your stead this night?" The girl shivered in fear but some compulsion made it so she could not flee.

"Finally, after many years the harp is almost finished. All that is left is one more string. My harp has many strings wound from maiden’s hair and they all play magic. But the harp shall have seven strings only that possess special magic". He gestured at the harp and the girl could see that six of the strings closest to the harpist were coloured differently than the rest. The harpist plucked the first of the six strings. A low sound emerged and the girl felt like throwing herself into the fire so sad did the sound make her feel. "That string was made from Sorrow." He plucked the next string. Another low sound, though different, and the girl felt like smashing the harpist’s face in. "This string is Hate." "This string Envy." The girl felt like snatching the harp away. "Lust." She felt like spreading her legs for the harpist though she was not a woman yet. "Fear." Only the compulsion kept her from fleeing. "Sloth." The girl felt herself falling asleep. The harpist waited for her to awaken before continuing. "Each string is true to the person who it came from. Each maiden was consumed by the emotion the string possesses."

"And what string shall you give me?"

The girl thought of all the maidens who had died to make the harp. And she imagined the harpist playing his terrible harp against her people. Thought of her father and mother and kin. All the relatives who troubled her and cared for her. She thought of how she cared for them back and thought of how terrible the harp was. She thought of all the things she would never do now. And she answered the harpist with the last word she ever spoke. "Love", she said.

And the next day when the search parties sought for the chieftain's only daughter all they found was a burnt out fire, age old dry bones and a strangely fashioned harp that bore one golden string. And it was many years before a harpist was found who was brave enough to play the harp.

September 29, 2003.  Slight changes made September 08, 2019

Last updated September 08, 2019

Glorantha is a trademark of Chaosium, Inc. Gloranthan material on this page is copyright ©1997-2016 by Oliver D. Bernuetz or by the author specifically mentioned on an individual page. Glorantha is the creation of Greg Stafford, and is used with his permission.

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