A smattering of applause dappled the last notes of his song. He let it die out in the darkening tavern before rising, joints stiff from the long performance.
“Play the one about the Hero of Faron,” a voice slurred from a dim recess.
“Aye, that’s a good ‘un,” Harrow acknowledged agreeably, hoping to collect his dinner without a confrontation with yet another inebriated villager. Slinging his guitar over his shoulder, he called out, “mayhap tomorrow night.”
The drunk set up a complaint cut short by the innkeep harrumphing her way between them like a disgruntled walrus. Harrow sighed in relief. Once he would have favored a good fight, but those days were past.
The innkeep handed him a deep wooden bowl of stew with a small loaf of bread teetering on the rim. “Take a seat, harper. You earned your keep for the night.”
“Obliged, Margrie,” he murmured. Margrie never tried to cheat him of his pay in whatever form it came. Tonight’s was in board and lodging. Tomorrow, he’d move on, up towards Green Haven, where he might get paid in slightly used boots, or a good whetstone, or maybe even a new blanket. He played life by ear, did Harrow, taking what came his way, leaving what stood in it.
He shuffled across the rushes and settled into the only unoccupied table in the room, its wooden surface pitted from idiots playing the finger dance in their idleness and boredom. Digging in, he barely noticed when a small pale form slid onto the bench opposite him, and when he did, it was too late to deny the intruder a place at his table. She had already set down her bowl and loaf as well as two steaming mugs of tea, one of which she slid across the table to him.
Well, if she was buying, he’d not say no.
“Margrie says you care not for ale, so I hope tea is welcome,” she offered.
He lifted it, inhaling its fruity tang. “It’ll do. Now what do I owe you for this mug o tea?”
“A story,” she said simply.
“I’ve just been singing stories this past pair of hours. My word horde is empty.”
“Not stories of heroes,” she said. “I’ve heard them all. How they set out on their quest, conquer their fears, best their opponent, ride home victorious.” She flapped her fingers at her side as if to say, ‘it just never ends.’
“You are bored of the stories of heroes?”
Her fair hair shimmied as she nodded, the tips dipping into the broth. “Aye, full to my eyelids with such tales.”
“You are young to be so jaded.”
“Not so young. I’m 16 this past winter.”
“Ahh, 16 to my 60.”
“I had thought you older.” She gestured vaguely to his white beard.
He grinned. "I'll take the compliment. So what story is it you wish to buy with this fine mug o tea?”
She leaned toward him, announcing, “I’m on a quest.”
He nodded gravely. So many bright young faces had sat across from him at so many scarred tables and blurted out their aspirations, their eyes fixed blindly onto their futures. He sighed. Harrow saw his own future clearly enough, but only because it was so well lit by the lantern of his own long past.
Right now, his immediate future was looking like it might be eclipsed by this young hopeful and her head full of dreams. He assessed the threat to his quiet evening. He had skill at reading the clues his audiences wore, which would ensure he might better please them with his selections and better end the night with a full belly.
This young lass, for instance. She came from the mid-lands - obvious by her wide pants and red belt. From the merchant class – evident by the bright ribbon she was now threading in her hair to keep it out of her stew. Educated - revealed by the corners squaring the cloth bag at her side. Those could only be books, too many of them for a foot traveler, which meant she was well off enough to travel on horseback. He re-evaluated his estimate; she was from a wealthy household.
“Go home,” he said simply. Sometimes there is nothing else to say. This girl was a walking hazard to herself, a pothole in her own road, and likely bad luck to those she encountered on her way.
She blinked and the shadow of disappointment whispered over her features before being swept away by the optimism of youth. Instead, she countered, “You didn’t.”
That caught him off guard. She might be quicker of wit than anticipated, he considered. “True. I didn’t go home. But I learned that quests aren’t all they are cracked up to be in the songs.”
“Then why do you sing them?”
“Look around you,” he answered. Through the haze of smoke, he gestured to the worn faces of farmers staring down into their ale, the woman knitting by the fire with her cracked hands, the aged couple with the bags at their feet as tattered as their hopes. “Harpers cannot trade in truth and expect to keep their bellies full. These people want stories to lift them out of the world they are in, if just for an evening.”
“So, telling them lies gives them hope?”
“No. But for a bit, that farmer there forgets his fields have been infested with blister beetles and he must find other pasture for his herd. That woman knitting, may for a small spell ease the pain of losing a child to the winter colic. The aged pair, for one slender moment might see a different future from the one so obviously lying at their feet. I don’t offer hope; I offer relief.”
She considered this, sharp eyes pinning him with her judgement. “In that case, I seek relief on my quest.”
He heard himself sighing into his mug and set it down. “And what quest is that?” She looked eager as a pup and energetic as one to boot. He dug into his stew with a bad feeling her enthusiasm would exhaust him before he could finish it.
She shook her head impatiently. “My quest is not what I wish to speak of. A hedge minstrel told me a story, it wasn’t even a song. He called it the Golden Gryphon, about a man…”
“I know what it’s about,” Harrow said grimly.
“You should. It’s your story.”
“I wrote it,” he agreed, “on the pages of the world with my body as my quill.”
The girl waved to Margrie for more stew, laying a copper on the table. Confidence flowed out of her, buffeting him with its spunky self-assurance. He felt himself pull away from it like a bad smell. They waited while Margrie ladled the thick broth into their bowls before turning her attention to a dour man playing a solitary finger dance, the tip of the knife thwacking rhythmically into the tabletop.
“I don’t want to hear about the heroes who succeeded. I want to hear about…” She paused searching in her stew for the right words.
“The ones that failed,” he finished for her.
“Went sideways,” she countered diplomatically.
He sighed. It was going to be a long night. “How did you know who I am?”
“The hedge minstrel said the hero of that tale never takes coin. Margrie told me you always barter for your songs. So...” She shrugged as if to say she too could read the clues people wear.
“Well, you’ve paid for your story,” he said, indicating his bowl. “So I’ll tell you. I was born to a poor family –”
“—Youngest son,” she interjected.
Another sigh gusted out. “Yes, of course. It is always the youngest son…” He paused to see if she would feel the need to jump in and hurry his tale along, but she was busy with her stew. “…Of poor farmers,” he continued. “My family struggled after my older brothers went to war and didn’t return. I wanted nothing more than to help.”
“So, you heard about the gryphon,” she prompted.
Harrow clenched his teeth. “So I heard about the gryphon. I grew up on the stories of heroes and the legendary beasts they defeated, the acclaim they won, the riches they gained. And I believed them. The gryphon's eggs are laced with gold, so I figured I could but try.”
“I don’t understand why a gryphon lays eggs. I mean, with the body of a lion.” She flicked her spoon in the air as if to emphasize her point, dripping broth onto the table.
Harrow wondered if the girl had lied about her age. This interactive approach to storytelling pointed to a younger mind. He counseled himself not to sigh again. “The back of the body is an eagle. Hence, eggs.”
“Golden eggs. And you believed that?” Was that a touch of scornful unbelief salting her voice?
“When people are desperate, they believe anything. Something perhaps you do not know much about, desperation.”
She had the decency to look slightly abashed.
“I tell you what,” Harrow offered, mindful his story would never end under the onslaught of interruptions it was experiencing, “I’ll skip the boring bits - the training, and fighting, and turning my ploughshare into a spear, and so on - and cut right to the climax.”
“Turning ploughshares into spears is good,” she conceded.
“Glad you approve, though I’ve since come to see it differently. Regardless, I wandered east, into the mountains, looking for the legendary gryphon.”
“Key word being ‘legendary’,” she inserted, apparently incapable of not participating in the story.
He tapped the back of her hand with a gnarled finger in warning. “But you see, I did find the gryphon. In the high ridges between the kingdoms, at the top of our world. It was nesting on a spear of rock buffeted by winds so fierce I could not stand. I approached her nest from downwind. It was half the size of this room, all tree branches and bracken. She was many times larger than I and exactly as the historians have told us. Body of a lion, head, wings, and back end of an eagle. Let me tell you, when she turned and fixed her eyes upon me, I couldn’t move. Bigger than this bowl were those eyes, with slits of gold that seemed the very gates to the underworld. Had I been able to move, I would have fled, but it was as if she pinned me to the rock with her gaze.”
“Like a snake,” the girl volunteered. Her eyes were glowing. This was the kind of thing she wanted to hear, the hazards people wanted painted lavishly onto the canvas of their minds where they could be safely enjoyed.
“I killed it,” he finished anti-climactically.
She frowned. “No, you can’t just say “I killed it!”! What kind of storyteller are you?”
“One who thinks the stories of his own quest are not all they are cracked up to be.”
“Well, how did you kill it?”
“I crawled beneath the nest.” He pointed his spoon below the lip of the now empty bowl. “The gryphon screamed, a sound like a high gale in the mountain passes, and her beak came down again and again, vicious stabs that splintered the rock. But I was safe under the nest as she could not disturb her own eggs. I crawled up through it, through the decay and shit and bones and feathers. The smell was acid in my lungs. Coughing, my eyes streaming and barely able to see, I came out of that shit pile with my spear and drove it through her heart. And there I stood, smeared with filth and reeking, watching her body tumble from the rocky outcrop. An inglorious hero who had just killed a mother protecting her eggs.”
“But the eggs were there, right?”
He sighed again. If I keep heaving breath like this, I won’t last the night, he thought. “Oh yes. Two orbs, the size of your head, webbed with pure gold. Already the eggs were rocking. I thought if I waited for the chicks to hatch, then I could take the shells.”
“But the chicks would starve without their mother!”
“What would you have done?”
She blinked and the self-assurance she wore like a flag drooped just a little. After a beat, she confessed, “I do not know.”
“An utterly pointless waste. A meaningless stupid quest.” He shook his head, trying to keep the tremor out of his voice.
“But you got the gold! You didn’t fail!”
“I got the gold. I left the chicks to die and travelled home with a burden far heavier than those shells. But without my hands to help on the farm, my father had lost the crops and then lost the farm. If I had stayed, I would have been able to give them my labor, far more valuable to a farmer than a handful of gold stolen from a dying species. And they did not want that gold.”
He waited to let her absorb the ugly turn of his tale. “So, tell me, did I fail?”
She studied her empty bowl. “No.” It was just a feather of sound. “You did what you set out to do.”
“At what cost? All the cost borne by others, the gryphon, my parents. None to myself! How can I sing that song?” He didn’t answer and the silence was filled only by the knife thrower who had resumed his solo game. “Is that the same story of the Golden Gryphon you were told?”
“No. The hedge minstrel only said you slayed the beast and came away a wealthy man and then gave it all away. Why did you give it all away?”
“After what I had done, my desire for gold shriveled into a loathing. Now, I ply my trade only for barter. I will not again take what another cannot give.”
For a span, he listened to the fire crackling and the occasional laughter from the farmers. The girl seemed to be studying a landscape within her mind, a journey that looked as if it might take some time. “As I warned you,” Harrow finally said, “quests aren’t always what they are cracked up to be. Even when you succeed. Go home.”
“I thank you for your tale, harper. I know you think me young and even childish.” Hah! Harrow thought, everyone in the tavern perceives that. But he didn’t say it. No need to strip the confidence from the young.
She firmed her face with determination. “My father is dying. My quest is to find the unicorn whose horn will heal him. I cannot turn back, nor can I fail.”
Harrow drew breath, thinking, Yes, you can. You can fail in so many ways they could not be counted, just as the finger dancer at the table yonder would eventually plunge the knife into his flesh and wonder how that came to pass.
But you do not tell the young they will fail. Instead, he mused, “A unicorn,” wondering at the irony of her having called his gryphon “legendary.” If anything was legendary, surely it was the unicorn. But he didn’t say that either. Instead, he said, “In taking the unicorn, you would be killing it. Is that a price the unicorn should pay? Go home and care for your father in his last days.”
He watched indecision fighting in the girl’s eye. She had heard his tale and felt the truth of it. But would it change her path?
Should it change her path? He paused to consider. His own path, driven by confidence and need, and redirected by regret, had only been visible to him once he’d walked it. The same would be true for her. Her dazzling confidence was her key to succeeding on her quest, though it might also be her undoing. She would have to walk that road in the dark, the choices hers alone, before she would understand it.
Rising, he fished deep into his pocket for the token he’d carried for long enough, a reminder of his regret that, small though it was, had always felt too heavy. He pinched it out of the seams and set it before her, a small gold bead, no bigger than a teardrop, claimed from a legendary beast. “Payment,” he said, “for listening to the real story of this hero. Go in peace.”
He left her alone in the dark room and climbed to the upper chamber to sleep among the other snorting and snoring travelers, who scratched and itched, tossed and mumbled, and lay dreaming or wakeful on their shared voyage of humanity.