A Love so True

Submitted into Contest #7 in response to: Write a story infused with dark humor.... view prompt

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    Never in my life have I seen anyone so miserable. A rat half-drowned in fish broth staring down a hungry cat would have a more pleasant demeanor than this man trudging down the road. A long journey can do that, I’ve seen many grave looks come through my father’s inn, but this wins first prize for graveyard gloom.

    “Aren’t musicians are supposed to be merry? But you look like you’ve split your fiddle.” I greet the man as I emerge from the woods; three rabbits hung over my shoulder. Game has been scarce this autumn but my bow always hits it mark. So far I’ve been able to keep my village from too much grievance. That won’t be true for much longer. 

    “I should have split it over the uncultured man’s head.” The musician bites with the pain of one whose pride has been tarnished. “Deaf! Completely deaf and he criticized my music by the way I hold my fiddle. I had the entire town dancing with my melodies into the morning light.”

    “Ah, nothing burrows like the words of one who knows nothing. A few years back, when these forests were the hunting grounds of the king, a group of court nobles came and gave me a similar insult.

“I like to hide in the trees you see, and when I say in, I mean up. I used to climb to the very top when I was a child. It’s one of the reasons I was picked to be a hunter over my brother. I’m the third, Emil, thats my name by the way. My older brother Edward is going to inherit our father’s inn. Elijah, the second, just married the baker’s only child. He’s not much of a baker but had no other prospects. His wife will whip him into shape soon enough; she’s better at baking than her father and more conniving with finances than the banker. 

“Now our uncle has no children of his own, my mother’s brother. It’s not that he didn’t want any, more that being a hunter is a solitary profession and he spent all his time in it. Being the second, Elijah should have been the one to take up his trade. But he’s always been squeamish around killing things and, as I said, I love to climb trees, so my uncle picked me to be his apprentice. 

“Naturally Elijah was angry at this. Which lasted until the third day of my apprenticeship when I brought home a hare I’d caught with a horrible snare. Still not sure how that thing held, it really shouldn’t have. Elijah saw the skinned body and my bloody knife and fell over in fright! On his birthday, I always make sure to give him rabbit’s feet, just as a reminder. 

“But those nobles that came to visit. They saw themselves as master predators and looked down their noses at me when I jumped from a tree at their arrival to town and informed them of the wolf pack that was traveling through. They come every few years, the wolves, not the nobles. I’m not sure where they’re going to or coming from but they’ll stay in the area for a few moons before continuing on. We have an understanding, these wolves and me, we understand that if we leave each other be then all is well. So when I see a wolf I give it space, or climb a tree if I know it’s busy. Wolves can’t really climb tree you see. And this has worked for the past 20 years I’ve been a hunter. I see the wolves, tell the town and we all give them space. These nobles though, they were pompous people. Came for deer and wouldn’t listen to me when I told them to leave the wolves be. Convinced, they were, that their hunting might would overtake them. Calling them dumb wild beast.

“Beastly they may be at times but wolves are some of the smartest creatures I’ve seen and they deserve respect. All animals do but especially that ones that can crush your head between their teeth. 

“So I warned these pastime hunters about the wolves. Told them they should go elsewhere, North for example, where you’re coming from, has good game with only the odd bear or two. And those had started their winter sleep by this time. But they wouldn’t hear of it. I’m just a village hunter, what do I know about the animals in these woods. Just about everything I tell you, which is why they asked me to be their guide, after calling me a superstitious idiot. I was of a mind to leave them to their fate, but I couldn’t do that to the wolves, so I agreed and tried to lead the hunting party to where I thought the wolves were not. Wolves are proud creatures though and they can tell when you don’t respect them. No less than half a day out and they started following us. I warned those idiots again about the danger but my words rolled off them like rain. It wasn’t until they downed a deer, not a very big one I might add, and started celebrating like it was a dragon that the wolves came to claim the kill. 

“Not wanting to challenge the rulers of the forest I climbed the nearest tree as fast as I could but the others started running or got bucked off their high horses. Scattered to the winds the lot of them but not a single person killed. The wolves saw them as pathetic as I did. We shared a look, their alpha and me. Her on the ground and me in the tree. They can’t climb trees remember, not like foxes. 

“I waited in that tree for a while. Then when I thought it was safe I climbed down and went back home. Took two days for the nobles and their party members to trickle back into town. Mostly just nursing their injured pride. They left faster than they ran from the wolves and never came back.

“The moral of this story is, just because someone else thinks something is true doesn’t mean they’re right or that you’re wrong, only that they can’t keep their opinions to themselves.”

He laughs, merrier than bells and with a voice that almost twinkles. “I’ve never heard such an absurd tale. It’s worthy of a song.”

“Well it's still told on long winter nights to raise spirits. If you really do find it worthy might you should come to my father's inn? We don’t get many performers here, being such an out of the way place. It’d be a treat to hear someone besides Arnold, he makes instruments cry.”

“Not an unfamiliar sound to my ears; but we all have to start somewhere.”

“But you should get better over time, yes? Apparently, he’s been playing this poorly since before I was born.” I wave my free hand in the air as if to demonstrate the ear bleeding screech that is the tailor’s musical abilities. 

    “I could give him some tips.”

    “So you’re coming then?” My breath white in the cooling night air.

    “How could I refuse,” he smiles with journey weary eyes.

    “By saying no, which I hope you don’t.” I look at my worn boots, face flaming from more than the icy wind. I’ve been babbling our entire walk, barely giving him space for a word.

    “And lose the company, perish the thought.” His arm brushes mine as his eyes warm me to my core. “I rarely receive such a warm welcome. I’m more of an instrument myself than my own fiddle in most villages.”

    “It can be difficult when everyone has known each other their whole lives. They aren’t used to new people, or changing their ideas of those that they know. There’s a widow in town, Cali, who still calls me the innkeeper’s son and tries to send me off on errands for her wherever our paths cross, as if I was still a child without errands of my own. If you run into her just nod at what she says and try not answer much back or you’ll be trapped.”

    He looks up at the inn as we reach the door. “That does sound nice though, in its own way. As a traveler, I’m always looking in from the outside.”

    “At least you don’t work with beasts,” I counter. “This famine is growing worse. We’re doing better than those around us because of my willingness to travel the darker woods for game, but that will only sustain us for so much longer.”

    “These are troubling times.”

    “All the more reason for merriment!” I bump my own shoulder into his as I open the door. He has a nice smile; the world is gloomier when its gone. “Father!”

    His balding head pops up from behind the counter. The years are wearing on him and he’s letting Edward take more control of the inn; something we never thought would happen until his death. 

    “You’ve been gone a while. Little luck?” He eyes the three rabbits over my shoulder. Not enough, but better than nothing. 

    “In a way.” I hand him the rabbits. “I only managed these, but I did find a musician.” 

    Stepping back, I present the man with a wide-sweeping gesture. “I’d like to present-” A tint of red sprinkles my checks. “Ah…’


    “Holieb! A fiddler. I told him the story of those nobles and he thinks it’d make a good song.”

    “Ha! It would, just be careful of where you sing it. Nobles don’t like to be reminded of their failures.” My father warns as he takes the rabbits to the kitchen. 

As the gathering place of the town the tables are always full by the time night falls, and in winter night falls early. “Holieb, meet my town. Town, Holieb, our special musician friend who will be entertaining us this evening.” 

He gives a slight bow and removes his instrument from its protective case. It’s an old fiddle; obviously well used but cared for with skilled hands. The wood shines in the warm light from the fire, ready to sing its favorite songs.

“You’re turning Emil’s adventure into a song?” Cali asks from her place near the hearth. A woman just as worn as the Holieb’s fiddle but who’s received less care. The years carved into her wrinkled face. 

“That will be my crowning song of the evening.” He places the fiddle on his shoulder and holds a starting pose. “First I need to warm up with a familiar tune. Do you prefer The Knight’s Quest or A Fox’s Tale?”

Springs Return is my favorite,” she replies. “I made Arnold play it four times at my wedding.”

“As you wish.” He turns his head to me. “Will you be staying to hear my new song?”

“It’s about me so how could I miss it?” I say. “Besides, I live here. I’m never too far away.”

He laughs, “Good to know.”

“Be nice to him Cali,” I slip onto a stole. “He kept me company all the way back from the woods and I wouldn’t want to repay his kindness with you telling him he can’t play your song properly. His musician’s soul has already been attacked recently and you know how delicate artists can be.”

 “We aren’t delicate.”

“The woods? Nothing good can come from the woods,” she says. “You’re being careful while you’re out there?”

“We’re surrounded by it and of course. I’m always careful.”

“Except when nobles are around apparently.” Holieb runs his bow over the fiddle as if he said nothing.

“Wolves aren’t something to fear if you understand and respect them.” I cross my arms over my chest. “Although maybe I should have followed their lead when they left earlier than usual. Like they knew the famine was coming.”

“Devils creatures,” Cali scoffs. “Not to be trusted.”

“Well they follow the prey and the prey is gone,” I sigh. “But enough about that. Holieb, lighten the mood! People come here to forget their troubles.”

Spring Returns it is then,” Holieb says. 

He plays the first note. A strong deep sound that drowns the room and quiets the chatter. I’m not  a musician so I don’t know how you’re supposed to hold a fiddle, but Holieb doesn’t seem to be doing it wrong. He stands straight and posed, his hand with the bow brushing the strings with a controlled ease only captured by practice. Almost like a dance where his instrument leads and his voice follows. They spark the room to dance, tables moved aside and laughter pours outside until all of the town has joined in. It hasn’t been lively for a long time.

“You’re a master of your trade,” I catch Holieb as he rests next to the bar. When the music plays everyone dances with such a fever there’s no time to drink. I’ve never heard such melodies, even with songs I’ve known for years. They’ve sparked me to dance and sneak sips between Holieb’s pause for requests. 

“One has to be to make a living in music,” he replies. His hand pausing over top of mine as he takes the beer I offer him. “Having a good instrument helps. I confess I won my fiddle in a contest with a fairy. Nothing too extravagant, but it helps set the mood.”

“You’ll have to tell me how you came across it one day. Sounds like a tale worthy of its own song.”

“It is. I don’t share it with just anyone but I might make an exception with you. You’ve kept me good company after all,” he winks.

My face flames and I can’t suppress the growing grin. “I can be better company if you stay a bit longer.”

“Witch!” Cali’s voice silences the room. All eyes turn to her, then follow her burning glare to Holieb and I. He pulls his hand away, taking the drinking with it as if to sip it.

“What?” I ask.

“I saw the way he looks at you. With an enchanting smile that’s put you under his power. I keep telling you that the woods are dangerous. Yet you met him there, brought him and even danced. You only dance at festivals when your sister drags you into it,” she says.

“Come now,” my father joins my side. “It’s a hard time for everyone. Emil’s had to spend more time to find less game. Is it wrong of him to spend time around other people and relax? This is his home as well as my business.”

“But he’s still finding food,” Cali continues. “The surrounding villages haven’t seen a hare for weeks and he came back with three. Plump ones at that. He’s working with the devil.”

“My success is suspicious? You’ve known me my entire life.” I look desperately to father but to my horror, her words are reaching him.

“Now he comes with this man and he’s acting strange. Elijah’s been seduced by this demon. They’ll bring death to us all!”

Holieb puts down his cup and takes a step back but my brothers grab his arms. Darkness and fear shadow their eyes and they won’t look at me. 

“Wait, let him go! This is nonsense.” I reach toward Holieb but my father’s firm grip on my arm keeps me where I am. 

“You see!” Cali exclaims. “He’s under the stranger’s spell. We must cleanse him to save his soul and the demon to save us all.”

Cleanse? As in purification by fire cleanse?

“No, no. no, wait, father please.” I try to pull away from him but his grip tightens painfully. “You wouldn’t, I’m your son.”

He looks at me, his eyes filled with sorrow. “You were acting differently.”

“Cleanse?” Holieb asks, his voice steadier than his panicked eyes.

“With the fire of faith.”

He takes a sharp breath.

“Please,” my voice cracks. My uncle was a great hunter, his bow, my bow, never misses its mark. He took me through every part of the forest until I could walk through it in the dark as easily as day. He died not long after the famine started, when I was gone. His house burned with him in it. No one would ever tell me exactly what type of ‘accident’ it had been that took him from me. “You’re wrong.”

“Then God will welcome you gladly,” she says.

“May I have a last request?” Holieb asks, resignation in his eyes. 

“Why would we give that to a demon?”

“I wanted to play that song, about Emil’s adventure with those nobles. He was very excited to hear it.”

“I-I don’t see the harm in that. It’s just a song. One about my son’s success. Maybe.. it could help.”

Cali glares, “Nothing but the lord will help now.” But she nods in agreement.

I was looking forward to hearing it. Only now my blood runs cold at what awaits me at its end. 

My brothers release Holieb’s arms but stay close in case he tries to run. Again he stands posed and begins to play, his voice filling the room. And just like before everyone starts dancing, as if nothing had happened. 

Fairy fiddle indeed.

Unable to resist my father releases my arm as we both join in with the music. Holieb is the only one able to move freely. He pushes me with his back out the door, the town unable to follow.

“Run!” His fiddle screeches with the cut off note as he chases after me.

“Into the forest! Stay close.”

Angry voices call after us for longer than their footsteps. I’ve lost them in the night before they’ve stepped foot in my domain. 

“I don’t like taking people’s wills. But I didn’t see another way.”

“Don’t feel bad. They’re witless as rabbits. I’m just glad I got to hear your song.”

September 19, 2019 17:54

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1 comment

Juliet Tullett
23:42 Jul 02, 2021

Original and enjoyable. Very tense toward the end. I felt so relieved that they escaped.


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