This is the complete, rough-cut of the story. It is in no way finished off or ‘polished’. This is straight from my head to the page, first draft, raw. I haven’t even re-read it for spelling or dropped words.
This MAY NOT be copied, or shared.
Even King David Made Mistakes
Can people change?
It was a question that had been bothering the old minstrel for a while now. Maybe it was age creeping up on him, or the thought of his own mortality starting to weigh heavy on his still-sturdy shoulders since the incident, but he couldn’t quite shake the question from his mind, no matter how hard he threw himself into the besotted reverie that was a minstrel’s trade.
Can people change?
It wasn’t that he wanted to, he only wanted to know if it was possible? The drunken and debauched noblemen and noblewomen that he performed for had long ago taught him the truth of the saying that leopards cannot change their spots. Not that he’d ever encountered one those exotic beasts; Lord knows, he’d never had opportunity or reason to venture anywhere near the Dark Continent. Thus, he’d also never had the opportunity to verify the truth of the expression. Perhaps those legendary creatures actually were capable of changing thier patterns at will? Who knows? And, moreover, who was he to know, when he’d never actually encountered one?
But people, people were a different thing. He’d seen them in all their dubious glory, and until the incident there had been nothing to suggest that they were capable of changing once their character had set.
Now that was a familiar argument, he thought as a smile formed beneath his ample red beard. When exactly does a person’s character set, and was their character something they were born with, or was it the result of their circumstances? He leaned back against his still-rolled up bedroll, stretching out his strongly muscled legs towards the campfire. As he reached for his water flask, filled as always with the best damned whiskey he could lay his hands on out in the boonies, he lifted one foot and dropped it over the other, crossing his legs at the ankle. It had been a bloody long time since he’d had cause to remember those discussions with his own old master that so often took place late at night after the parties they’d been hired to perform at were over. With the passing of the years, he’s almost forgotten about them.
But not his old master. There was no way he could ever forget about that strange old bird. In a business where randiness was a virtual prerequisite, his old fart of a master had developed the personal habits of a thoughtful ascetic. Or, at least in comparison to other minstrels, that was.
The minstrel reached down and gave his groin a good scratch, hoping that the itch he’d been feeling all day was nothing more than a completely mundane case of crotch-itch or some fleas picked up in one of the barns he’d slept in along the way. Scourge of man and beast that the pesky little creatures were, they sure as hell beat a case of crabs. While the wench he’d bedded a few villages back had certainly seemed like a typical farmer’s widow, stolid and respectable, and prone to keeping her knees together, you could never be certain as to whom someone had been with before you got under her skirts. If a travelling minstrel such as himself could lay bare a woman’s pent-up urges, so might have someone far less fastidious than himself.
He took another swig from his flask, then set it down on ground beside him. Propping one arm behind his head, he gazed up at the night sky lost in thought.
His old master, that annoying fart, had been right about a lot of things. Foremost among the things he’d been right about were women. He’d drilled it in to the young minstrel’s head that a woman who gave herself over to you too easily had given herself over to other men just as easily. And, just as living closely in cramped towns and cities led to poor health and disease, bedding down with everyone who happened to be willing led to the much dreaded social disease. After being introduced by his master to a fellow who guild-member who first lose his sight, and then his mind to the disease, he’d become a willing follower of the old man’s teachings on the topic.
As he’d matured, he had come to realize that there was a second boon to only bedding women who didn’t make it easy for a man: the subtle thrill of the chase, followed by the inestimable pleasure of the victory.
Yes, the old fart had been right about just about everything, he’d give him that. But the big question, the one that had come back to haunt him this last while, the one about whether people can really change, that was something about which the minstrel wasn’t quite ready to cede his teacher the victory. At least not yet. Not even after the incident.
The incident had indeed proven to be puzzling to the minstrel, who, on this one point at least, had never been able to see the reasoning behind his master’s belief. His master had always held that human beings were often like rivers that had been rerouted from their beds and used to irrigate crops, or were walled up to create reservoirs. Once diverted from their natural course, anything could happen, good or bad, and often it was bad. A dam would burst, sending torrents of long held-back water coursing through villages and towns, leaving death and destruction in its wake.
That’s what happened when you perverted something’s nature, the old man would often say, shooting the minstrel a look that presumed the young man had fully grasped the analogy and agreed with it. Humans were no different, he’d go on. If their true natures were forced to bend as a result of circumstances beyond their control, their basically good and beneficial nature could become twisted, even dangerous and unstable.
But what if their true nature was dangerous and unstable, the minstrel had often wondered, too awed by his master’s aura of certitude to give voice to the question. Other apprentices had gotten their arses beaten with young, green branches snapped from nearby trees for daring to question the sagacity of their masters’ ramblings, even their drunken ones that they no longer remembered uttering. The minstrel was one young apprentice who fully understood the value of being able to sit while giving a night’s recital.
Eventually, however, he could contain his doubt no longer. He’d seen too much of the world at his master’s side not to wonder about it. There were people out there who just seemed to have been born as selfish, bullying brutes. You could see evidence of it on the streets and in the town squares where children gathered to play. There would always be one who dominated the others, either terrorizing them, or inciting them to terrorize others. On several occasions he’d witnessed children committing heinous acts of cruelty on innocent animals.
Much to his surprise, the old fart gave him neither a switch-lashing, nor a tongue-lashing. He only looked at his young apprentice with a trace of sadness in his eyes and admitted that yes, it might very well seem that way. But, you had to try to have faith in your fellow man; you had to believe that somewhere inside of every person there was a kernel of good to be found that has somehow been deprived the chance to germinate.
The earnestness with which his master spoke had almost made him want to believe. Then the sun would rise, and new day begin, one in which he always saw the same horrors and malice repeating itself in whatever town or village they happened to be, and couldn’t believe. Not even if he wanted to. Not even if he tried to force himself to. Not even if he wanted to try to force himself to try to, which he had to admit in the cold, hard light of day wasn’t something he was all that inclined to do. What he saw in people disgusted him. Their drunken debauchery at night, a debauchery that he and his master contributed to and encouraged in the name of ‘making a living’, their undisguised and unabashed cruelty towards the weak and the odd in the bright light of day – it all served only to confirm his suspicions that human beings were the worst and lowliest of God’s creatures.
His master would have none of it, and thus began the discussions about human nature with which they’d idle the time away during journeys and after performances. Eventually the heat of the discussions cooled, and was replaced by a more philosophical air. Their talks became a source of enjoyment for both of them, something to look forward to as they journeyed from town to town. At each rest-stop the minstrel would find further evidence of man’s inhumanity, while his master would find further proof of man’s goodness.
So the years passed, until the apprentice became a minstrel in his own right. By then, the two of them had become more like old friends than master and former student. From time to time they still even journeyed and performed together.
Then one day it was all over. Just like that. The minstrel returned to his master ‘s home village, only to discover that the rumors circulating at every minstrel-stop along the way were undeniably, and horribly true. A minstrel had been killed, stealthily and sleazily, by one of the local noblemen for the crime of singing the truth about that man’s relationship with, and subsequent abandonment of, a simple village girl. The story itself was a tragedy, the type of which the minstrel’s old master could never just stand by and silently watch. The poor girl, ashamed and humiliated, had gone out and hung herself after giving birth to the nobleman’s bastard child, and the old man would have none of it. So, he crafted a song which he sung at the nobleman’s wedding celebration.
The bride didn’t bat an eyelash while the groom squirmed and seethed in anger. She was, after all, a noblewoman herself, and well acquainted with the peccadilloes of her class. In fact, some witnesses to the event claimed that she seemed amused at the old man’s gumption, and applauded his tune quite enthusiastically.
The minstrel later heard that this remarkable woman had taken in the poor girl’s child and placed with one of her servants to raise. ‘My husband-to-be may be an ass who can’t control his pecker, and the girl a silly ninny who believed everything he told her, but the child should not be punished for the fact that both his parents were brainless idiots,’ she was rumored to have said by way of explanation for her unexpected benevolence. Rumors even began to circulate that she herself had paid the old minstrel to compose the damned song, and thus teach her new husband a thing or two about keeping his pecker in his pants, as well as the value of respecting the women around him.
A fortnight after his ballsy performance, the minstrel’s old master was found dead his bed, the victim of an obvious poisoning. Not long after, a well-known thug from a nearby town got plastered in a local tavern one evening and spilled the beans as to how the nobleman in question had approached him on the matter of offing the old minstrel. The thug swore on the crucifix hanging in the room’s corner that he’d told the nobleman to stuff his offer up his pansy arse, and that he’d had nothing whatsoever to do with the old man’s murder. He may be a lot of bad things, he insisted, but he weren’t no killer.
The cat was now out of the bag as the identity of the poisoner. If anyone doubted it, the thug’s inexplicable subsequent sudden demise in a ‘drowning accident’ quickly changed their minds on the matter. Of course, nothing was ever done about finding the murder, or holding the nobleman accountable for his actions.
As time went on, it came to be said that the reason the nobleman had acted surreptitiously in punishing the minstrel’s old teacher for daring to sing the unspeakable, instead of openly as was the habit of most nobles, was a livid fear of what his new wife would do should the matter ever be undeniably linked to him. She would, it was rumored, cut off his purse-strings, or worse, cut off his balls. Hers was not only an indomitable spirit, hers was also the wealth in the family. The nobleman was as poor as a peasant by comparison.
His master… His friend… The minstrel sighed as he stared up at the night sky. Do you still believe there is good in men, even now? What good can there be in someone who kills another person over something as trivial as embarrassment and a song?
Can people change? Really and truly change? I think not. I am the way that I am, and there is no way in hell that I will ever change. I like to be alone. I work alone. I’m happy that way. I’ll never teach; I’ll never be anyone’s master. I don’t have the patience you had, old friend. I’d best not even think about trying…
The nearby bushes rustled. The minstrel groaned and sat up, casting a venomous glare in the direction from which the noise had come.
“You can stop skulking around and come out. I know you’re there,” he snapped impatiently. The annoying brat had been stalking him for six villages now. He’d thought – no he’d hoped – the kid would have had the good sense to give up a long time ago. But no. Instead of quietly disappearing back into the morass he’d come from, he’d stuck to the minstrel with more tenacity than a horse’s shoe stick to its feet. Try as he might, he couldn’t shake the brat. Whenever he thought he had, that vile spawn of Satan would turn up once again, usually when he was deep in his cups and too besotted to find his way back to whatever lodgings he’d found for himself that night. It was then that the youth would appear and silently lend assistance in getting him there. In the morning he’d be gone, knowing full well the tongue-lashing he’d be given if the minstrel woke up and found him still at his side.
A twig snapped in the campfire, exploding in a shower of sparks as a figure stepped hesitantly into the clearing. He was a fine example of a youth, handsome and strapping, yet gangly; all knees and elbows sad brown eyes. Standing as uncertainly as he was by the fire, he looked every bit like a young buck caught between the urge to stay and nibble on the cabbages or flee from the scary human who’d caught him in his garden patch.
“Feeling a little awkward, are you?” the minstrel asked, eyeing the youth.
The kid swallowed hard and nodded.
“I’m not a monster, you know. I’ll not take you on as student, but neither’ll I do you any harm. It’s not my way to demand tit for tat, no matter how grievous the harm done to me and mine.”
The kid nodded again, but still made no move to either approach or flee.
“Look laddie,” the minstrel continued, “the woods out this way are no place for the inexperienced or faint of heart to be skulking about in. They’re not like the gentle woods we’ve been traversing up ’till now, so it’d be best if you spent the night here in my company. But I’ll expect you to be heading back to where you came from come morning. Have I made myself clear?”
The lad nodded weakly, and dragged his duffle closer to the fire, shooting the minstrel a nervous glance. He started to open his mouth as if to say something, then promptly shut it again, obviously rethinking the wisdom of giving voice to whatever was on his mind. Quickly, and with a surprising expertise, the young lad unrolled his bedding and set himself up for the night. Without uttering a single word to his companion, he slipped into his bed-roll and drifted off to sleep.
‘You have a fine voice, laddie. You truly do. You don’t know it, but I heard you back there, when she asked that boon of me,’ the minstrel thought, watching over the boy as he slept. It would be a while before he, himself, was ready to pack it in for the night. A lifetime spent entertaining his clients, often late into the night, had fostered in him a rather unique perspective on sleep. Except for those times when his duties or personal safety dictated that adhere to a specific schedule, he slept when he felt like it, and that was that. This stretch of woods, however, was one of those places where you journeyed in twos whenever possible, and when not, you either stayed up until day-break or slept with one eye open. He was a master at both, but the lad was a different story. The youth was unaccustomed to such things, and the last six weeks spent tailing the remarkably energetic minstrel had, without a doubt, taken its toll.
That’s another reason I can’t take the lad on. He’ll slow me down. It’s a shame, though. He has the hands of a fine lute-player, despite his size, and he’s obviously been practicing. Even in the flickering light cast by the campfire several newly-formed callouses were visible on the boy’s slender, yet strong, fingers. When the lad had found the time for it, the minstrel could only guess. He hadn’t heard a peep from him since telling the boy to get lost three villages back. Oh, he’d known he was still out there, tailing him. That became obvious every time the boy materialized from nowhere in order to pluck him from the streets whenever he was in a drunken stupor. He just couldn’t figure out how the lad had managed to stick so close yet practice without his hearing the twang of a single string. Unless…
The minstrel got up and stealthily made his way around the fire, to where the boy had lovingly lain his lute to rest. Like a mother coddling her baby. But this was one ugly baby, the minstrel thought in surprise as he inspected the instrument. All things considered, he’d expected the lad’s lute to be of at least moderate professional quality, if not better. Yet the lute he now held in his hands was barely more than a rough practice instrument, and one of low quality, at that. How had the boy managed to make it sound so sweet at that time? Had he been using another instrument?
No, the minstrel doubted that was the case. She had been quite specific about that. He had attached himself to the instrument and would have no other, not even the one suitable to a court musician she had promised to give him if only he’d put aside his silly dream of becoming a traveling minstrel.
But the lad had found for himself a genuine, if low-grade, minstrel’s lute, and clung to it through thick and thin. The minstrel was impressed. The boy must posses prodigious talent, as well as tremendous skill, to have drawn such a beautiful sound from such an ugly instrument… As for how he’d managed to keep his practice silent these past weeks, the answer was just as the minstrel expected. Inserted into the lute’s belly was a wad of cloth, most likely an old shirt or vest of some kind.
He returned the lute to the spot where the boy had so lovingly placed it, then crossed back over to his side of the camp-fire. After unpacking his own bed-role, he stretched out on it, and staring up at the the stars above, found his thoughts drifting back to the youth’s relentless pursuit of him.
The lad’s dogged determination alone would have been enough to convince another minstrel to change his mind and take him on, and truth be told, if it were a question of the boy’s merits alone, the minstrel would gladly have done so. But there were other things to consider, including whether or not he wanted to take on an apprentice – which he didn’t. In any case, the life of a traveling minstrel was hardly as romantic as many people imagined it to be. The kid would be far better off as somebody’s court-musician, if a musician’s life was what he was what he’d truly set his heart on.
Please, reconsider. Take the boy and make him your apprentice. Don’t make him pay twice for the mistakes that I made. You’d be within your right to do so, to even demand my life for what I’ve done, but I’m begging you, please put aside whatever anger and hatred you might hold towards me. The boy is innocent. Don’t punish him for what I did…
The message requesting he appear at an audience with the very same nobleman who had ordered the death of his master had come both as something of a surprise, and not very much of one at all. The summer solstice was fast approaching, and it wasn’t unusual for the nobleman in question to demand his services at any number of events he held at that time of the year. The minstrel was, after all, now considered to be one of the best amongst the very best, and a little thing like a guilty conscience rarely got in the way of any noble’s partying pleasure. It was, however, the fact that the note wasn’t a summons to perform per se, but a request, and a humble one at that, for a private meeting which struck the minstrel as uncharacteristically odd and more than a little suspicious. Nonetheless, it was understood far and wide that a nobleman’s request was to be taken as a order by any commoner unfortunate enough to have received it.
Ignoring it was, therefore, not an option. In any case, the minstrel was the ballsy sort, not prone to cowering in the face of authority or danger. If the nobleman planned to treacherously knock him off for some unknown reason, well, then the minstrel had every intention of living to compose a song about it.
As it turned out, however, the nobleman was not only entirely sincere, but had a boon to ask of him. It was a rather strange request considering their history, and one that the minstrel flatly refused. The nobleman then did something totally unexpected; he summoned his wife and left the convincing of recalcitrant minstrel to her.
The result was less than stellar.
Linking her arm through his, the nobleman’s wife led the minstrel out of the main building and off the estate. As they strolled on the nearby commons, the sound of a sweetly tuned lute drifted up to meet them. The voice that accompanied it was pure gold with a diamond lining, if that were possible.
“That’s him,” the nobleman’s wife said, lightly squeezing the minstrel’s arm. Her confidence was obvious, and not without merit. The boy was good, very good. In fact, if he was at all consistent and capable of performing every song that well, he’d fulfill many a master’s desire for an ideal apprentice. However, even if the lad was only trotting out an example of his finest, it was still an excellent example of the heights that he was capable of one day achieving.
Still… It wasn’t enough. The minstrel wanted no apprentice, no matter how good a candidate, or how much potential the youth had. Not even the siren’s song lure of a well-off and well-connected father could sway him.
“I’m truly sorry, and it’s nothing personal my Lady, but an apprentice is something I’m not suited for and really don’t want. I appreciate that you’re trying to place him with the best of the best, and believe I’m that, however there are many masters far more suitable for the lad than I.”
The nobleman’s wife appeared crestfallen for the briefest of moments, then quickly recovered herself.
“In truth, dear minstrel, the facts are not far off from what you say. However, there exists a small detail which neither my husband nor myself has revealed to you, and that is that it’s the boy’s own choice to study with you. My husband and I have done our best to dissuade him from this course he’s set himself upon, but he will have none of it. Your old master is the one he idolizes, and he’ll accept no teacher but that man’s own disciple.”
And so the minstrel learned of how the nobleman’s son by the gullible farm-girl grew up admiring the man who paid with his life for daring to sing about that sad woman’s story. Yet…
“I’m not half the man that my master was,” the minstrel confessed to the nobleman’s wife. “About the fate of the world and the people in it, I care very little indeed. In all honesty, when it comes to matters of what’s just and unjust, I care not at all. If it’s a life-mentor that your husband’s son is looking for, I’m the last person qualified to fill the role. A minstrel, a singer of tales, is all that I am, and nothing more.”
With that the two returned to the nobleman’s estate, the matter closed, sealed shut by the minstrel’s abject refusal to be a mentor to anyone. As she left him at the door to the room her husband used for private audiences, the same one from which she’d led him early, in fact, she momentarily hesitated, as if wanting to plead her step-son’s case one final time. She quickly recollected herself, and setting her jaw firmly against any inadvertent slip of the tongue, bid the minstrel farewell.
The nobleman was waiting inside of the room, having been hastily summoned by a household servant upon his wife’s return. On his face was a look of hope, which quickly disappeared on seeing the stubborn resolution etched in the minstrel’s slight frown. Lowering his gaze, he heaved a heavy sigh.
“I suppose I can’t blame your refusing. In your position, I’d want vengeance on the man who killed my mentor, and yet here I am, that same man, asking you a favor instead. Even a saint would be hard pressed to stop himself from spitting in my face and doing to the child no better than I did to your master. But I beg of you… Please, reconsider. Take the boy and make him your apprentice…”
The minstrel fixed the nobleman with a steely gaze, rife with insult at the words he’d just heard.
“I have no interest in tit-for-tat, an eye for an eye, and all of that. And, while in truth a saint I’m not, I’d never raise a hand in anger, let alone vengeance against you or your innocent child. A simple minstrel is all I am, a weaver of tales and an entertainer of men. Vengeance and retribution are matters best left to more vindictive men; for myself I’d rather a peaceful life where past is past and there is no strife.
“That said, I’ll tell you once again, so there is no doubt, a simple minstrel is all I am, and want to be no teacher of any man. My reason for refusal is no more complex than that.” With a slight bow of respect – not more than he would give any man – the minstrel took his leave, expecting that to be the end of that. But as he was about to cross the threshold, the nobleman uttered the strangest thing.
“Even King David made mistakes…”
The minstrel turned on his heel, casting the nobleman an inquiring glance.
“Alas, I was nowhere near the man King David was,” the nobleman stated plainly. “Your master had too much faith in the goodness of men.”
It was only after the minstrel had left the district that he discovered his unwanted pursuer. How the boy had managed to doggedly tail him, unnoticed until then, was a mystery the older man still had yet to unravel. What the youth hoped to accomplish through his stealthy pursuit of the minstrel was yet another mystery. For mile after mile, he had lurked in the shadows, sulked in the woods, and silently observed the minstrel from establishments located across the street from the ones his hoped-for mentor frequented. If the boy had once approached him to plead his case, his actions might have made some sense, but as it was, there was no point in his following if he was too timid to make an approach.
Finally, after three weeks and two districts, the minstrel called the youth out to account for himself.
Unfortunately, that proved to be the recipe for another disaster. The minstrel, while supremely sociable on the job, was something of a taciturn middle-aged fart when off it. He was doubly so when in his cups, which he happened to be at the time. The young lad’s nervous twitching and stammering as he attempted to explain himself strained the older man’s already limited patience to the absolute breaking point.
“Enough!” he snapped, causing the boy to jump in alarm. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I have no desire to be the teacher of any man… or boy, in your case. So I’ll thank you to stop following me, and leave me in peace.”
That was when the trouble hit. When the boy opened his mouth to protest, or give voice to whatever was on his mind at least, the minstrel cut him off.
“I’ll not hear another word from you. If you want me for a teacher, then let me teach you this thing first: the value of silence and holding your tongue when in my presence. If you can’t shut up and respect my wishes, I’ll have not of you even if I ever should change my mind and decide to take on an apprentice. Now begone from my sight and not let me see or hear you while I’m in my straight senses again!”
And so, the youth set sadly off, disappearing into the darkness of the night for what the minstrel, in his drunken state, hoped would be the last time. Unfortunately, the youth put a more literal spin on the instructions given to him than had been intended. From that point on, the boy completely disappeared from sight, except for those occasions when he escorted the drunken, and technically not in his straight senses, minstrel to his lodgings.
The lad had definitely proven that he could follow instructions, and improvise upon them, too boot!
Can people change?
Maybe some, but not himself. Of that he was certain. Surely he sympathized with the boy, and admittedly he’d make a fine apprentice to some other minstrel, or better yet, court musician, but the facts remained what they were. The minstrel enjoyed the solitary life, the drunken carousing, the carefree, unencumbered existence that having an apprentice at his heels would severely crimp. There was also his lack of patience and utter inability to cope with people who failed to grasp things as quickly as he did.
No, taking on an apprentice was not for him.
The boy stirred in his sleep, drawing the minstrel back to the here and now. What a strange youth this child was! Even asleep, his fingers seemed to curve around the neck of his lute and pluck at it’s strings. His devotion to the instrument was as unquestionable in its depth as his talent was. His determination wasn’t lacking either, though his timidity might pose something of a problem. It was hard to imagine him circulating at boozy, ribald gatherings, chatting up the ladies while simultaneously engaging the men. He was to reticent, too thoughtful, too much like… the minstrel’s old master.
The minstrel shoved the thought aside. What did he really know of the lad, other than what he’d gleaned these few weeks being followed by him? Perhaps the boy possessed a minstrel’s ability to wear whatever mask the occasion demanded of him? Few minstrels were as jovial on their own time as they were on the job. In any case, it wasn’t anything to concern himself about. He wasn’t taking the lad on, and that was final. Whatever master the boy eventually found would be the one to sort that out.
As he gazed up at the night sky, he felt a tug at his heart-strings that he hadn’t felt for quite some time. For the first time in more years than he could remember, a sense of indecision had begun to plague him, and he didn’t like it one whit. What a fine kettle of fish he’d been thrown into! Even if he shooed off the lad, he was almost certain to be back again sooner or later. How would his old master have handled such a conundrum, he wondered? What would that old fart have done?
Pondering the question, he dropped off to sleep.
The woods were awash in the cold, grey light that always precedes dawn when he finally awoke from his unplanned slumber. Cursing, he raised himself up on his elbows just in time to see the lad setting light to some kindling. The youth looked briefly up at him, then dropped his eyes again.
The minstrel felt a pang of guilt over the outburst which had caused the boy to voluntarily silence his own voice.
“Laddie, I know I told you never to speak in my presence again, but the truthful fact is that I was drunker than a moose who’d found himself a trove of fermented apples. I meant only for you to hold your tongue and not plague me with pleas to change my mind. I never thought you’d take what I said so deeply to heart.”
The lad raised his eyes, fixing the minstrel with an expectant gaze. For the briefest moment the older man was flummoxed by the look.
“Aye,” he said, understanding the boy at last, “You have permission to speak, now and always. I take back everything I said back then. It was only the drink speaking.”
The boy tipped his head in a show of respectful thanks.
“Master — I know you want to be no one’s master, but please allow me to call you that if only for this moment. I wish to say to you that though you feel unsuited as a teacher to any man, and doubt in your own abilities, I know you to be someone who can. These last few weeks observing you was time well spent for me. I’ve learned so much; far more than I ever dreamed I would, even seated at your knee. And well I know what a bawdy existence the life of a minstrel is, but your life is tame by comparison to many. Though strongly you may deny it, you are without a doubt your own master’s finest prodigy.”
The minstrel nodded, scratching his beard as he mulled over the young lad’s comment. At last he spoke, uncertainty heavy in both his face and voice.
“You seem an fine and honest lad, or at the least, sincere in you views. I know your comments come from the heart and are no effort at appealing to my vanity, though how I could have taught you anything, even inadvertently is something of a mystery. As for being my master’s prodigy, I can only say that that old man took few students on, my being only his third and last. The other two accomplished naught, or very little at least, before settling down to lives of greater ease. So, truth be told and all things being fair, being that man’s best disciple isn’t hard when the competition is so very weak.
“That being said, your sincerity and youthful innocence are, without a doubt, a great impediment. A minstrel is a crafter of tales, a teller of fables, a man whose geniality can be bought for the price of his song. We’re naught but the shills of kings and purveyors of lies. If any truth is found in us, it is by purest accident. We are men without integrity.”
A flame shot up from the fire which the youth had been assiduously tending to, even while the minstrel spoke. It danced merrily in the grey predawn light, highlighting the eager expression on the young man’s face as he leaned forward in anticipation.
“I know all that, and am prepared. For, although inexperienced I yet may be, I am not entirely naive. I have observed many a minstrel working a crowd, and am certain I can do the same. I may be shy, and awkward yet, but am confident in my own ability. In time, I’ll grow, and even thrive, of this I give my solemn word. And, while I know no promise of wealth could buy your acquiescence, though indeed you have the right to demand some form of recompense, I promise to you here and now that you will find me to be of service to you in many things, both large and small. Come what may, you’ll have no cause for any complaint, nor will I be a burden hanging round your neck or get into your way. No, master, you will see that I well able to carry my own weight.”
The minstrel sighed a heavy sigh, and for but a moment weighed the benefits of simply giving in and thus ending the youth’s ceaseless pestering, before shaking his head in refusal. Were it not for the fact that he’d be stuck with the lad, day-in, day-out, should he weaken and give in, his resolve might have broken there and then. But traveling day and night in someone’s company… well, it was something he hadn’t done since the days he’d spent at his own master’s side.
The lad appeared crestfallen, having pled his case and failed. He poked at the fire, stirring the embers around until he’d attained a low, even flame, then hoisted a cooking pot onto it. Whatever was in the pot, he’d obviously prepared it while the minstrel lay dozing only a few feet away, a sure indication that the minstrel was either getting old and sleeping heavier than he used to, or that the lad could be exceptionally quiet and stealthy when the situation merited it. Having been relentlessly pursued by the boy these past few weeks, the minstrel was inclined to believe it had to do more with the boy’s natural talents, than with his aging.
“Lad, I’d like to ask you a question, that is, if I may?” the minstrel queried, giving in at last to his own curiosity. The boy looked up from the cooking fire and nodded his consent, his eyes filled with sadness over his earlier rebuff.
The minstrel leaned in closer to the fire, accepting, as he did, a cup of some warm brew from the youth’s outstretched hand. He raised it to his lips and took a swig, a tiny, tentative one at first, followed by a larger more enthusiastic one, from its spicy, mead-like contents. As he lowered the cup, he smacked his lips, signaling his approval to the boy.
“A fine brew, lad, and one I’ll admit I’ve not had the pleasure of tasting before. If what you’re cooking up in that pot right now is half as good as this what’s in this cup, then I’ll be a happy man this morning,” he said, eliciting a hint of a smile from the young man. The truth of the matter was, on those rare mornings when the minstrel was forced by circumstance to be awake, he was anything but happy a man. Smiling himself, he knit his fingers around the cup as he rested it on his knee.
“I’ll ask you this now, lad, and you have the right not to answer, but it’s been on my mind this whole time, and I just can’t help wondering why it is you’re so besotted with me? I mean,” he said quickly, forestalling the youth’s reply with the raising of one hand, “is that I know it’s my old master who has you so enthralled, but what I can’t wrap my mind around is what it is about him that has left you refusing to accept any other. That he was unique, a man unto himself, there is no doubt, nor that his skill and talent made him stand out, however among minstrel-men, there are many on a par, and all of them the originals, not the copy of the star.”
The hint of a smile on the young lad’s face broadened into a fair-wide grin, and in simple words did he reply, a single phrase that should have explained everything.
“Even King David made mistakes.”
The minstrel looked at the lad, his jaw gone slack, incomprehension in his startled eyes. “How is it,'” he asked, “you know that phrase, the favorite of that man long dead, that man who died for what he said?”
The youth shook his head, his smile growing. “The song,” he said, “That song, I mean; the one he wrote because of me.”
The minstrel stared at him, more baffled still. What song, he wondered, could it have been? While, indeed, his master had composed many, there was not one he’d not passed on. Perhaps in his later years… something incomplete? Something he’d been working, but had not the chance to pass along, before his much lamented death? He doubted that, but even then, how, pray tell, could such a thing pertain to this most unfortunate young man? No, it couldn’t be. His master sent word of every song that he was working on, so the minstrel’s library was certainly complete. The only song he hadn’t heard, and still refused to hear, was that very last, the one he found too difficult to bear. The scroll on which his master had left his notes remained unopened to this day.
It hit him then, the reason why, and what the young lad meant. His jaw fell slack; how could it be? That song had long been banned…
Seeing how the light had dawned, the youth nodded in encouragement.
“But lad,” the minstrel said in a low and cautious voice, “how could you know about that ill-omened song, my master’s accusation of a man of measure?”
The expression on the young lad’s face changed to one of surprise. “How so is that noble song an accusation of the man who sired me? A gentle admonition, perhaps, but more, I’d say, an encouragement towards assuming his responsibility.”
The minstrel’s eyebrows knotted above his finely chiseled nose, as his mouth turned down in a contemplative frown. The youth’s words rang true to his jaded ears in ways too many to mention.
The young lad eyed him curiously. Could it be? “Might it be – and I mean no disrespect in saying it – but is it possible that you, yourself, are unfamiliar with your master’s final song?”
“Aye, it’s as you say,” the minstrel replied, looking the youth straight in the eye. “T’was hard for me to bear, the news of that good man’s undeserved demise. He was dear to me, like unto a father and a friend combined, too boot. Since he composed it while I was away, I had no chance to hear it sung from his very own lips, nor later could never see ’round to opening the notes he left behind.
“But, you, young man, I wonder how you came to know about that song? None but those who heard it then, that one and only time it was ever publicly performed, would have any knowledge of it’s melody or content. How then is it that you, who had only just been born, came to know it’s contents, when this old man does not?”
The youth lowered his eyes, returning his attention to the contents of the pot, which was now sizzling atop the fire, his relief at having just navigated through some tricky waters with the minstrel evident in both his posture and his smile.
“T’was my nursemaid who first taught me it, though her skill and voice were a shade lacking. Yet still, I’m told, the rendition was exceeding well expressed and altogether accurate. The finer points of melody I learned from an old musician-man in town, who, like my dear old maid, was present on that day. And though you know it not, and neither does my sire, that incredibly bold song still thrives heartily underground.”
The minstrel snorted derisively and shook his head in wonderment.
“How foolish people are, to keep alive a silly song at threat to life and limb. Tell me, boy, if you can, what point such nonsense serves?”
The youth’s smiled deepened, the minstrel’s attitude obviously everything he’d heard.
“Nonsense it might be,” he replied, “Yet even so, it touched a heart and the heart it touched belonged to my father’s wife. Thus it was that she reigned him in, and forced him to acknowledge me. Sadly, though, I do admit, too late to save your friend. Nonetheless, it was his song that struck that chord in reminding him that even King David overcame his sin.”
The minstrel sat quietly, considering the import of his companion’s words. A bright young lad, he seemed to be, and skilled in argument. A pang of something shot through his heart, though what it was, he couldn’t say. A sense of regret at passing up a golden opportunity? So like it was, back in those days when he sat at his master’s knee. A hint, a trace of memory, embedded in a sense of loss at what would never be.
But was it change, when all it was, was an echo of his past? The roles reversed, but the nonetheless, a comfortable old suit? After all, all it was, was the old become the new.
“Listen, lad, I’ve had a thought,” the minstrel said, putting down his cup, “What say for now you come with me, and from here on in, we see? But mark my words, and here me well, only a trial this will be.”
The youth’s face lit up, his expression changed, brightened by a grin. Without a word, he grabbed a bowl and ladled in some food. With eyes still bright, he turned around and offered it to the minstrel, who took it with gratitude. One heavenly mouthful was all it took to convince him that his decision had been, if not ultimately the right on, at least temporarily worthwhile.
As they were finishing off their breakfast, the lad shot the minstrel a shy and uncertain look. Clearing his throat as if to speak a comment or a question difficult to voice, he asked in timid tones, “Sir, a suggestion if I may?”
With one eyebrow raised in question, the minstrel gazed upon the boy. He wiped his beard and nodded, saying gravely, “Speak, I give you leave.”
Tentatively the lad began, “Well, the song that your old master wrote is banned until this day, and though I know you’re not inclined to opening the wound, I believe that I may have found a way to trick my noble sire into revoking his own ban.” He paused, glancing at the minstrel as if requesting authorization to continue. When the older man inclined his head slightly, he continued, “Between the two of us, yourself and I, I believe we hold some sway. His lady-wife is well intent on granting me my whim, so if I were to say to her that my boon you’d grant conditional upon the lifting of the ban – and you the same to him – I do believe we’d win.”
The minstrel smiled amusedly at the slyness of the lad, and laying down his empty bowl got up and stretched his legs. Certain now his choice was good, he nodded to the boy. “This we’ll do, you have my word, on but our way back round. For now, however, we’d best get on our way, for from here to there are many miles and with many towns to play.”
The lad looked up, astonishment clear upon his face. The minstrel laughed a hearty laugh and clapped him on the back. “You know it not, but soon you’ll see that, lad, you’re just like me.”