by Prester John
Dragon's keep entry
|"Almayo" sat on a rock his feet stretched out in front of him as he took a small repast of hard, tart cheese and the last stale remnants of a black loaf purchased several days before. A large boiled leather case sat beside him on the ground. It contained his only means of support, a harp and a fife, all that remained of his former life in the court of the Queen of Mitaraban, Eloame. His lean frame and weathered, lined face stood testimony to a life on the open road making him appear older than his forty years. His eyes were a clear hazel and betrayed a depth of experience that was difficult to conceal. A broad belt cinched his waist and suspended a short sword and dagger as well as his empty purse, a thick travel stained woollen cloak of good quality lay on his shoulders covering his worn jacket and trews.
As he stolidly chewed the food, he surveyed the shallow agricultural valley before him, quietly assessing the town that lay in its center. It stood in two parts, each one on opposite sides of the broad river which flowed down the middle of the valley. He could see a robust stone bridge joining them. A stone built dock lined both sides of the river upstream of the bridge, with small trading vessels tied alongside. Warehouses and inns stood back from the dock and the usual work of stevedores and boatmen occupied the space between them. Smoke curling up from the chimneys of most of the buildings in the town signalled the onset of winter. Almayo swallowed his mouthful and, after fastidiously wiping his lips with a clean but threadbare kerchief stood, swinging up his harp-case on one shoulder and his satchel containing his meagre possessions on the other, and advanced on the town.
Almayo stood quietly in the queue as he waited for entry to the town. The gatekeepers asked him to state his business and the expected length of his stay then brusquely admitted him to the town. Many itinerant Minstrels and story tellers came to try their skills in the town's taverns and inns and Almayo appeared quite unremarkable.
It felt good to be in a sizeable town again after weeks spent on the road. He anticipated being able to fill his purse easier here than he had been able to in the poorer villages he performed in on his travels. Yes, this place, Thorford as he had been informed at the gate, might just be the place to stay for the coming winter. The square inside the gates bustled with the traffic of a prosperous town and trading centre. Hawkers cries filled the air and mingled with the smell of food wafting from the stalls of the various vendors, Hand carts piled high with goods of various sorts and their operators jostled with larger horse and ox drawn waggons, as Almayo made his way towards the dock area and the Inns he hoped to play in. His stomach grumbled in response to the smell of freshly baked bread and the other appetising aromas that filled the air, ignoring his troubled past he made his way to the docks and the taverns therein.
He found it more difficult to secure an engagement in one of the dockside taverns than he anticipated. Several other itinerant minstrels and story-tellers had arrived and ensconced themselves in a number of the better taverns in the area, perhaps understandable with winter on its way. Eventually he found an inn of middling quality that was willing to take him on for the winter. Baratus, the inn keeper of "The Riverman's Rest", was most determined to make the bargain in his favour rather than Almayo's. This bargain saw that a full two thirds of any money that patrons might send his way would end up in the purse of Baratus himself. He reasonably explained that the semi-squalid room and the one daily meal he would provide was worth the tax on Almayo's earnings. Almayo accepted this since he had a lodging for the winter and some income that would accrue to an extent that would allow him to travel on in the spring when the weather moderated.
His first few audiences were the usual patrons of such seedy establishments. Nondescript dockers having a drink before going home to their wives and children, dock side whores on the trawl for clients, the river-men who had nowhere else to go of an evening, their homes and families lying in distant river-side places. His skill with the flute and harp, and the expertly schooled baritone of his songs soon gained him a following. Gradually the salon, in reality a somewhat unwarranted and inaccurate sobriquet for the large and fairly dingy drinking and dining hall of "The Riverman's Rest," became a favoured lingering place for the aforementioned denizens of Thorford. So much so that Baratus allowed him to keep half of his earnings and also threw in a hot breakfast of barley porridge and ale.
By far the one piece that attracted the greatest audiences and drew the loudest applause was his poem, set to music describing the fall of the Great Queen of Mitaraban, Eloame, who had been deposed and made to disappear by the usurper Addramach. It told of the betrayal by one who had been the favourite of the Queen who, by sorceries, evil oaths and conspiracies, had sold his soul and that of his Queen into a damnation from which there could be no redemption.
One particular evening, just before the winter solstice and on the Twelfth anniversary of the Usurpation, as those still loyal to the Queen called it. Almayo took his accustomed place on a raised platform near to the main hearth of the salon. He took his harp and fife from the case and then set it up to accept whatever donations the patrons of The Riverman's Rest may decide to give him in token of their appreciation of his skills. After wooing the crowded and smoky salon with several tunes on his fife including the ribald air "The Maid of scant honour" and the salacious "Tinkers Wedding." He lifted his harp and struck the opening chord of his magnum opus. Silence filled the hall as the patrons paused in their evening diversions to listen to the tale that Almayo would tell. The minor chord shimmered through the smoky atmosphere, followed by a seventh which provoked an emotion of tranquillity in the listeners. This prelude filled them with a sense of calm and melancholy for what had been. The chords died and, in the stillness that followed this introduction, Almayo's baritone sounded out, clear and compelling.
Once, in days not long ago,
our fair Queen ruled this land.
Her Grace and Justice ruled us all
as children of her hand.
She sought to build a better place
where no one was oppressed.
A land in which each one of us
Could feel completely blessed
His voice and the mellow tone of his harp soothed the souls of all present, and evoked reminisces of a time that all could remember. A time when justice was fair and available to all, rich or poor. A time when no one could buy justice for themselves at the expense of the less fortunate. His song went on to describe the arrival of Addramach and wove a spell of words and music that described the beauty and charm of the usurper-to-be. The strings of the harp cried out with the love which had filled the heart of Queen Eloame for the young Knight and his pleasant ways and easy manner. The music subtly took a darker tone as the glory of the Court and the corrupt desires of his vain heart swept Addramach along on a powerful tide of ambition and betrayal. His unenlightened heart became darker with the covetousness which now encompassed his soul.
He sought the arcane sorceries
which made the wielder's role
a wondrous and a mighty one
tho' the price would be his soul.
Addramach now possessed by need
to gain this mighty prize
performed the dark and evil rites
yet kept his fair disguise.
Almayo's song inflamed the sense of justice in the crowd and made them wish for revenge against the usurper Addramach, as the verses flowed from Almayo's throat and strings, he carefully stoked the outrage that the people felt. He described how Addramach made the great dragon, Shimmelech, from a fusion of the bones and flesh of a man, a bat and a crocodile. How he had used the arcane magics to blend and animate them into the evil collaborator of his ambitious plans of domination. He felt mood of the crowd darken and carefully sustained it as he described the betrayal of Eloame, his words struck like the blows of a smith's hammer on an anvil, forging in the hearts of them all a desire for a return of the true Monarch, Eloame and revenge on the Usurper. His song swept to its climax carrying the emotions of the audience to a passionate zenith.
Addramach on the throne now sits
the crown on his unworthy brow.
The great of this once golden land
beneath his boots must bow
The last chord sang out across the salon and was buried under a sussuration of murmuring and discontent.
"Long live Eloame!" someone cried, and a cheer of royal support engulfed the crowd. They drummed their boots on the floor and thumped the tables with their fists and ale-jacks and hooted with approbation as Almayo gathered up his case with its coins, and his instruments and left the salon.
Almayo retired to his room as the loyal sentiments gained ground in the salon and sat on the worn chair at the side of his cot waiting for the visitors that would arrive shortly as, in fact, they had for several nights now. Men who would ask how he knew such things and seek a corroboration of the rumours that had reached even this quiet backwater of Mitaraban. Came they did and he answered their questions about the affairs of twelve years ago. Affairs that he himself had witnessed first hand. He assured them that in other places the population felt as they did, betrayed and robbed of their rightful sovereign, sentimental of a lost past. Most left and would carry on with their lives, but a seed had been planted, that in time would germinate into the flower of rebellion against Addramach and the dragon Shimmelech. A few remained, those in whom the seed had already quickened, those who had the characteristics and determination to act now. After more discussion and careful questioning by Almayo, he was assured that Thorford would be ready when the time came. The last of his visitors left him in the small hours of the morning and Almayo retired to his cot. His dreams were of a young blond woman being carried down into the dank dungeons below the Royal Palace, a large bruise on her forehead and her dress in disarray as he lay beaten and bloody on the marble floor of the palace. Addramach stood laughing at the head of the steps leading into the dark with Shimmelech at his side. A tear slid down the unconscious cheek of the sleeping minstrel.