I'm not a teller of tales, not like the Rhymer. My voice isn't smooth, nor my tongue quick. I know a few tunes, everyone does, but nothing like his: from me you'll never hear songs of gentle maidens fording seven rivers for their false lover so bittersweet as to make the hardest old soldiers weep; nor yet merry ones of rich misers tricked out of their gold, with the twist of a word and a jest so neatly turned that the meanest old uncle that ever pinched a dowry still laughs without offense. Well, it's a power, surely, that music and those words, and I just haven't got it.
Not that I'm sure I'd take it, even if it were offered me. One of Tom's very tales is of Jock of the Knowe, that was coming home from Mellerstain Fair with a long face, for he'd walked all that way with his old shorthorned cow to sell at the fair, but not a man would have her. So here's Jock returning to his goodwife with no money nor goods, and winter coming on. Jock's going on down Mellerstain road with his cow, and he starts in railing at her, in a temper, like: "What wouldn't I give to be quit of you, and good money in my purse?"
Well, just then he sees a cloaked man by the side of the road. And the man says, "Good even to you, Jock of the Knowe. And how's the milk from your shorthorned cow?"
Taking the stranger for some man from the fair, Jock answers, "Why, this cow gives half cream and half honey. And if she gives one bucket at morning, she gives two at evening."
They fall to bargaining over the price of the cow. It seems to Jock that anyone wandering the roads after the fair in search of a cow must be in a hard case, so he's setting the price high. Then the tall stranger says, "Well, silver is silver, but I can offer you something worth twice that, cow and all." And he pulls out a fiddle.
Jock says he can't even play, but the stranger says never mind, this fiddle does the playing for you.
With that Jock sees that this twilight man must be one of Elvenkind. The cow's milk is wanted for some human child they've stolen. Now the fairy gold, if he takes it, could turn to grass and leaves tomorrow. But a magic fiddle's a magic fiddle; wherever you go people will give good money for music. So he says, "I'll take the fiddle."
And, sure enough, when the exchange is made, the fairy takes the cow, and walks right up to the side of the hill, and raps with his staff three times. And the hill opens up, and fairy and cow disappear into it, right into Elfland.
As for Jock with his fiddle, he never knows a day's hunger--but he never knows a day's rest, neither, with folk from one end of the country to the other calling on him for music for dances and weddings and such. His goodwife sees only his money, for he's never at home now. Oh, and every Beltane night, which is Fairies' Holiday, Jock goes to that same hillside and plays, and out come a host of gorgeous folk that are the lords and ladies of Elfland, and they dance to Jock's fiddle all night long, until his arms ache and his fingers are sore.
The way I see it, that's no way to live. He'd have done better to keep the cow.
But, then, I'm a plain man. A crofter, living high in the hills above Leader Water with one wife, many sheep, few neighbors. I don't even see a cow but twice a year at Earl's Market.
I'd never seen anything like the Rhymer before he appeared on our doorstep.
It was one of those dismal autumn nights, with the wind whistling like a mad huntsman calling up the Hounds of Hell, and you know there's rain toward. And sure enough it came, battering at the roof and shutters, and not a little down the chimney so the fire smoked up the place. But there sat my Meg, nice as you please, sewing at a shirt for her niece's eldest down Rutherford way. I was doing a bit of basketmending, glad that the flock were well penned up already this rough night. Between the rushlight and the fire's glow we could see to work, or maybe it was our fingers remembering the way of it. Lately, light's not as bright as once it was.
Then the dog at my feet, Tray it would be, son of old Belta that was, Tray goes stiff like he's heard something, though my ears caught nothing over the racket of wind and rain. "Soft, there, lad," I say, like you do to a dog that's spooking. "Easy, lad. Silly hound, scared of a bit of weather."
My Meg looks up. "Oh, Gavin," she says, her voice strong against the noise of storm. "Gavin, it's a night for the dead to ride, and no mistake."
She sounded like she was readying to tell one of her tales. Tales go well with dark nights; like the one of that restless spirit, the Lord of Traquair, that rides on stormy nights seeking the wife he murdered in a jealous rage, looking to beg her innocent pardon . . . but her body's long, long in the mold, and her blessed soul in Heaven. It happened not a day's walk from here, across the river, some years gone by.
"The Wild Hunt rides tonight." Meg's eyes glinted with her eerie tale. "They ride on horses with nostrils like burning coals, chasing the souls of the wicked, that cannot rest for--" Then her head came up sharp. And, "Gavin," she says, "there's knocking at the door."
I thought her saying it was still part of the tale. Then I heard it too, a thud too regular for wind and rain.
Tray was growling at my side, his hackles raised. I kept one hand on his head, for there's no telling who might be abroad on such a night: or gypsy, or vagrant, or fiend from Hell. I took light in my other hand, and went and unbarred the door, good Tray by me.
Standing there was a very tall, very wet hunchback, one shoulder higher than the other under a muddy dripping black cloak. He pushed back his hood as I raised my light to his face. I saw a young man, beardless but stubbled with travel, and dark hair falling into his eyes.
"Blessings on this house," he says, not the greeting of a Godless man, or one of the Other Ones. Tray growled. "Yes," the stranger says to him, "I've had a pleasant journey, thank you--although it could have been drier. And what do you think of this new fashion in yellow garters?"
I stared at him. "You're talking to the dog," I said.
The stranger shook rain out of his eyes. "Well, he spoke to me first. I did not want to be rude. It makes such a bad impression." For all I could see of his face in the flickering light, he meant it.
"Gavin," Meg calls, "mind the wind blowing in"--which was her way of telling me to stop standing there like a gawk.
Well, we'd had the stones blessed when we built the house, and rowan over the door against those Others. And it's holy charity to shelter those wit-wandering. So, "Peace to all who enter here," I muttered quickly, and stood aside to let the mad hunchback in.
"I thank you." He had to dip his head to pass under the lintel. When he drew near the hearth he saw Meg sitting there. Still in his sodden cloak, he made a bow to my goodwife like any queen. I heard the smile in her voice as she said, "Be welcome to the house, harper."
And, sure enough, he drew the "hump" from off his shoulder: a harp wrapped tight in oilskin. While Meg busied herself wetting a handful of meal for hearthcakes, and setting milk to warm on the fire, he drew off his sodden wool cloak--more mud than wool--and if the house smelt powerful of wet sheep, there was nothing new in that.
Sometimes when you're doing or thinking on one thing, another comes of a sudden into your mind, or your mind's eye. It was like that then: the man turned to sit down, and suddenly I was seeing the flash of a bright sunny day at Earl's Market, with a woman stuffing a goose, of all things! I looked at our visitor harder. His skin was pale, fine as a maiden's, with the flush of returning heat coming to his cheeks like a sinner's blush. His cuffs were wet; he held them out to the fire, and I saw the thin wool of them, dyed with some bright foreign dye such as we don't see much hereabouts. Unfortunately, the dye had run onto the white cuffs of his shirt. Under one of them the glint of a gold band showed; he saw me looking, but made no great shift to hide it. His hands were very harpers' hands, long and supple and smooth.
Meg handed him the welcome cup, saying, "I'm Meg, and this is my goodman, Gavin, son of Coll Blacksides." We hold by the old laws in these parts, so it was right that he know the names of his hosts, and be under no weird to give his own, but only to accept our hospitality if it went not against his honor or his kin's.
The harper shuddered as though shaking the last of the bone-chill out of him, and drank deep of Meg's posset. "Never king was better feasted," he told her. Meg doesn't hold with nonsense, and she dealt him the look she keeps for troublesome bairns, or chickens that stray from the yard. He coughed, smiled sweetly at her, coughed again to clear his throat, said even sweeter, "Ah, mistress, you think I flatter! And, indeed, what call have you to take the word of a poor traveler with more mud on him than he left on the road, and a face to frighten the very bogles in the glen? Is this a man, you say, to come before the king's highness? But, I beg you, picture me washed and combed, dry-shod and clad, a song on my lips and a harp in my hand. And so have I harped before the very king at Roxburgh. He was feasting at the time, and I have gazed with pleasure at the dishes set on his table." He nodded with a grave air. "Aye; seen, but not tasted, for harpers are to kings as our friend there is to you"--nodding at Tray, who dozed fitfully at my feet, uneasy with the stranger. "Oh, I have watched our good king feast on the white bread and the marrow--and, like you, he sometimes throws his crumbs to the dogs." And making only to scratch his head, he raised his arm so that his sleeve fell back to show us the gold bracelet.
Well, it was a fool's trick, if you ask me, risking much to show off: how was he to know we'd not murder him for the gold? It made me wonder how long the minstrel had been on the road, not to think of that.
Still, I was curious to hear more: I'm not much traveled myself, but I always like news of the world, and a good tale is welcome everywhere. We don't get many passing through hereabouts, save the odd friar.
It's not that we hadn't seen harpers before. There's one usually stops at the fair, and Laverock Hugh had one resting at his place once. But none like this. I wondered if he really did know the king, and if he'd harp for us.
"Sir," I began.
But he held up one of his hands, very pretty, like he was halting a procession. "Goodman," he says, "I am not deserving of that title, nor of any. I am but a plain man, whom it has pleased God to grant some gift of music and verse, and to find favor with the princes of the earth."
Now, I'm not the sort to find fault in myself just because others do; but for all his fine words, an older man would have put that better, so I didn't feel wrong about it. Oh, he was quick and clever enough. Still, there's plenty of room for everyone in this world.
I didn't say anything, and Meg clattered loud at the hearth, turning the cakes. The minstrel looks from one to the other of us, and then his face brightens like some young dogs I've known, that think to turn your mind from the mess they've made with fetching of the ball.
"Now, surely, friends," he says, "you've heard the tale of the Cat Who Spoke Truth to Kings?"
"No," says Meg. "We have not." I could tell she wished to hear it, but my Meg is a woman of sense. "And have you heard," she says to him, "the tale of the lad who talked so much his tongue fell off?"
The wanderer laughed, breaking to cough. "I have not," he says hoarsely. "I pray you, tell it me, for I am always looking for strange, unlikely tales to amuse folk with on my travels."
I held my breath, waiting for Meg to give him his come-uppance. Even as a lass she'd never let folk get the better of her. The corners of her mouth quirked down, then up. She laughed a real laugh, not a tight one like his.
And, "I'm sure," she says, "you know many a fine tale. And we'll be pleased to hear them--when you've gotten out of those wet clothes and had a bit to sup. You'll take Gavin's cloak that's dry, for now, and lie next the fire this night."
He opened his hands, empty. "You understand--I have nothing to give you."
"Tch!" Meg went from sweet to sharp in a flash. "Young man, do you think this house is Michaelmas Fair? There's no trading going on here. Now, you've had a hard journey, so you'll drink up your posset now and lie down nice by the fire. And when your own clothes are dry tomorrow you'll have them back, and then if you like you can press on to wherever it is you're in such a hurry to get to."
"You're very kind." There was a sort of surprise in his voice. The minstrel coughed. Then he stood up, like in some lord's hall. My old cloak hung only to his knees, and sat his well-made shoulders better than it ever did on me.
Excerpted from Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner. Copyright © 1990 by Ellen Kushner. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.