~ Ravens, Owls and a Nightingale ~ by Quatorze ~

1. Minstrel and Master

The everyday hustle and bustle of the castle swallowed him as soon as he stepped out of the luxurious solitude of his tiny room. Male and female servants breezed past, hems of long shirts and voluptuous skirts flapping against their legs, sweat glistening on their faces. Arm muscles were straining to carry their various burdens — water, firewood, laundry. Stacks of clean linen. Trays about to overflow with food. Barrels full and empty, flour, meat, beer...

As always, the noises and smells and traffic attacked him from all directions. He nearly stumbled on a broom wielded by a lanky boy of thirteen or fourteen, hopped over it, then swiftly ducked in order to avoid knocking into a maid who was hurrying past, not really seeing where she was going over the huge bundle of bedcovers clasped in her arms. He shook his head, straightened himself, pressed flat against the wall and held his breath. Two burly soldiers pushed past him, their stride purposeful, talking to each other and not sparing a glance at the other people in the corridor. Everyone would give way to them, anyway.

Yes, evening was approaching fast, and that meant still some more work for the servants. Just a while ago he'd been outside, enjoying the quiet and the wind up on the castle walls, and seen the familiar sight of steam and smoke billowing out of the bathhouse on the outer courtyard. He knew what it looked like inside, too, could see sweat pouring from the people working there, busy carrying wood and feeding it to the stove, pumping and heating enough water for all who wanted to wash off the grime of the day. He'd go there later, much later, when most everybody had already used the bathhouse and only the people working there would be left to put off the fire. He wasn't going to be drenched with sweat and dust or coated with animal hairs; he'd only need a bucket of lukewarm water to get clean.

The clatter of heavy boots sounded again in the corridor. The soldiers were gathering in their hall for the night, expecting to be properly fed before they'd spend the evening there with beer and games and bragging and loud laughter. The Lord wouldn't be there, though. He and his closest, most valued men were most likely closeted inside one of the more comfortable chambers, to dine and discuss war, what else? And soon the Lady would want her meal in her own upstairs rooms, but not before having her own leisurely bath — for which she, of course, couldn't be bothered to go to the same bathhouse everyone else used. It was good enough for the Lord, but not for the Lady, oh no. So the servants would be cursing her in the foulest language they could think of, while hauling bucket after bucket of hot water up several curving flights of stairs. But they'd wisely hold their tongues in check while pouring the precious water into that oval copper tub she'd brought with herself when she'd been married to the Lord. The Lady was not a woman to suffer impertinence; there wasn't a single person in the castle who didn't know that.

Only after all this would it finally be time for the servants to sit down for a moment and eat as well — provided that they'd already looked after all the cattle and sheep and poultry and pigs that inhabited the stables and sheds huddling next to the outer walls of the castle. And especially the horses, the big and sturdy horses that their masters sometimes seemed to value higher than their wives. But now was not the time for the servants to breathe easily, no, not right now. This was the time to hurry, and hurry they did.

He had to hurry too. It wasn't good to get in the servants' way, and besides, he was being expected. He weaved his way through the corridor, slipped into a staircase and let out a sigh of relief. Up and up, round and round he went until, just before he would definitely get dizzy, he reached the landing and the door. It was heavy and thick like all the doors in the castle, with ornate curving iron hinges. He knocked three times, then opened the door without waiting for an answer. Why wait, when he already knew that he was always welcome here?

True enough, a smile much too broad for such a narrow face greeted him as he peered into the warm, cozy room. Luxurious rugs and tapestries covered the walls and bed and benches, cushions put in front of the fireplace glowed deep red and green and blue in the dancing glow of the light. The air inside was slightly stuffy, it smelled of wood and smoke and tallow, but the door leading to a small balcony was tightly closed. As usual. Nobody in their right minds would have suggested opening it, either; it was chilly outside, and the boy sitting by the fire got ill easily enough even without extra draught.

"Heliet!" The boy beckoned to the young minstrel and coughed a little. "I've been waiting for you!"

"Good evening, Ranea!" He greeted the boy with an easy bow and closed the door behind him. "How are you feeling today?"

The boy made a face, quickly pushed away some half-empty bowls and plates, and patted impatiently the cushions he was sitting on. "Oh, I'm all right. Especially now that you are here! Come here, sit down with me. Have you eaten already?"

"I have, Ranea, don't you worry for me!" The minstrel laughed, but the boy picked up a piece of cheese and pushed it into his hand.

"Take this. I can't eat any more, and I know you like it."

The minstrel took the cheese and munched on the soft inside with relish. "Are you sure you've eaten enough?"

"Oh, I have." The boy showed him a plate. "Look, this was full. I can't swallow another crumb tonight!"

With a nod the minstrel squatted down and quickly finished the offered morsels. He'd known that he would be coming here while dinner was being served, so he'd gone to the kitchen to snatch something to eat before the food was taken to the halls and chambers. But the maids were always watchful at this time of the day, and his catch had necessarily been meager. Too bad that there wasn't going to be a party of any kind that night — of course he could always eat his fill in the soldiers' hall, but then they'd want him to play, and he'd promised to be with the boy tonight. Nor did he particularly like playing the rowdy, bawdy songs that the soldiers invariably preferred, until they were drunk enough to feel mellow and melancholy, in which case he always needed to dig deep into his repertory of teary stories of lost love. Whereas here...

Here he always got to eat the rest of all the delicacies that had been brought to the boy, and afterwards to play to his heart's content. The minstrel swallowed the last piece of sausage and licked his fingers, already anticipating the question. It wouldn't be long in coming any more, seeing how the boy's gaze kept flickering towards the corner.

"Heliet, will you play for me?"

"Of course I will. Have you looked after my lute?"

"Sure I have. It's over there, right where you left it."

There were comfortable benches along the walls, too, but the boy mostly preferred lounging closer to the fire. So the young minstrel fetched his pot-bellied lute from the corner and sat down as well. It wouldn't do to sit higher up than his young lord and master, and besides, the boy's coughing didn't worry him. This was nothing he could catch, that much he could tell. But that didn't stop him from worrying for the boy.

Schean Lyennam, the young minstrel, placed the lute more comfortably in his lap and began tuning it, all the while feeling the boy's dark eyes on him. The boy watched and listened to the process in equal fascination every time, and Schean couldn't help smiling, even though his throat went tight once more as he glanced at the boy.

His young Master — oh how he liked the caressing sound of the Revnashi word for it... Ranea. Such a brilliantly clever boy he was, fluent in reading and writing even though there wasn't too much to read in the castle, with wit and a sharp mind, endlessly interested in everything. But he was also always ill, too slim, far too weak. Well into his thirteenth year by now, the boy should've been outside even today, getting his clothes soiled and his palms and knees scraped in rough-and-tumble games with other boys. He should've been running around in whatever mischief, cheeks red, eyes shining, only to come reluctantly back indoors towards the evening, hungry as a pack of wolves.

Or maybe not, after all... Schean had to correct himself yet again. He shouldn't forget what 'Ranea' meant: the eldest son and heir of the Lord. Of course the Ranea wouldn't be playing with village boys or servants' children; no, he should've been riding horses and learning how to use a sword, training the strength of his arm and honing his eye for battle. But the boy knew such pastimes only from hearsay. Twelve years old he was, but he looked at the same time much younger and much older. He was medium height for his age, but his frailty and those deep thoughtful eyes hinted at someone much older. And yet he had a boy's imagination and craving for live, for all those things he could only dream about. It broke the minstrel's heart.

Schean looked up from his instrument, at the boy, and smiled at the boy's expectant grin. He had now lived here for two years, almost to a day, and yet the Ranea never seemed to tire of him. 'Sandy', the boy would call him — Heliet, his most loyal companion. The boy liked to make up such nicknames, and he absolutely loved listening to all the wondrous tales and songs the minstrel knew. Schean could keep the Ranea entertained for hours on end, though of course he hadn't seen even half of the places or known the people he sang about. But what did that matter? Schean had nevertheless seen and experienced so much more than the boy, and besides, he had a lively imagination and a way with words. So he had no trouble describing things yet again, painting them in front of the Ranea in vivid colors until the boy could almost see them too. And the boy loved listening to his soft voice and to the strange lilt in his speech, could listen to it the whole day.

The minstrel plucked a chord from his lute and nodded to it in approval. Now the instrument was ready to be played, and his fingers caressed the strings thoughtfully. In this warm room it tended to never stay in tune for long, so he could only hope that the boy wouldn't want to hear yet another one of the more epic ballads — but then, Ranea would always wait patiently while Schean needed to re-tune. Playing long without pauses was easier in the bigger, airier halls, but this was where Schean was really listened to. Here his music was raptly loved, not just enjoyed as something pleasant in the background.

He tilted his head and pulled his pale brown, shoulder-length hair behind the ears. "What would you like to hear, Ranea? Shall I perhaps sing you a lullaby?"

The boy stuck out his tongue at the teasing tone and stretched himself on the floor cushions. "Heliet, I'm not a baby! No, please sing about the feud between the two Lords of the East!"

Schean nodded and hid his grimace by bowing over his lute. As if he hadn't guessed... but the ballad was Ranea's current favorite. Sometimes he wondered at the ways in which the minds of the Revnashi people worked — for example, why was it that his sweet and clever Ranea couldn't get enough of that sinister story? How could he be so totally fascinated by it, while the cold-blooded cunning of the protagonists made Schean shiver every time?

But he played and sang it nevertheless, flexible voice not once faltering as he recounted once again the long story of greed and betrayal. The boy listened attentively, every now and then he nodded with a wicked little grin, or clenched a fist at a perceived wrongdoing. When the song was over he sighed, content, and requested another. And then another, until Schean laughed and asked for a break.

"I'm sorry, Heliet!" The boy was immediately contrite. "Here, drink some..."

Schean accepted the cup of some mulled drink that the Ranea offered him, and smelled it appreciatively. Definitely, no expense was spared where the boy was concerned — in addition to plentiful honey, Schean's nose identified at least half a dozen different herbs that combined with warm liquid to caress his tongue like finest velvet. It tasted thick and wonderful, and so sweet that his eyes watered.

"What is this?" he asked and ventured to take another sip of the heavenly brew.

"Oh, I don't know. The Wizard says it's good for me."

Schean nearly dropped the sturdy goblet. "The — Wizard?"

"Yes." Ranea took the drink from him and gulped down the rest of it. "It's good, don't you think?"

Schean swallowed with difficulty. "Yes... very good."

Of course he knew that the Lord would balk at nothing in the hopes of making his son well again, and that the means employed to that end naturally included the Wizard. But this was the first time that he had actually touched — or worse still, swallowed — something that had apparently been prescribed by the dark shadow that resided in the Ghost Tower.

Now that, if anything, was in Schean's opinion a highly appropriate name for the place. Oh, of course he knew the stories. That the Wizard had lived in Deleon Castle since times immemorial, and that the castle would fall on the day when there'd be no Wizard any more. But the stories didn't make him feel any less apprehensive. So far his experience of that elusive character had been a few sightings, for the Wizard rarely left his abode, and never before had he actually come across anything that he knew to have come from the Ghost Tower.

The drink crawled down Schean's throat, warming him all the way. It didn't feel unpleasant, though, nor did the boy seem any worse for it. The minstrel picked up his lute again and tightened the strings once more, trying to push the vague dread away and listening to the young Ranea's happy chattering.

"Do you think father will still be here tonight?" the boy asked suddenly, hope flaring in his eyes. Schean instantly felt bad, because in all honesty he had to shake his head.

"I don't think so, Ranea... the Lord is talking to his captains tonight, so I hear."

"Oh." The boy didn't sound too disappointed. "Well, he was here this morning." For a moment his smile faltered before broadening again. "He'll come tomorrow, no doubt."

Schean just nodded in agreement. Yes, the Lord would do just that, unless something truly exceptional happened. It had been the Lady of the castle who had met the young minstrel, two years ago, and brought him to keep company to the Ranea, but her visits to the boy were few and far between. The father, on the other hand, never let a day pass without seeing his son, unless he was away on one campaign or another. That was a common enough occurrence, but whenever the Lord was in his castle, it was evident to anyone with eyes to see that he doted on his son who totally adored him in return.

The minstrel chose a lively, flowing tune and began to play, fingers dancing on the strings with marvelous swiftness. The piece, like the Lady, was from the east, from the opulent castles that vied for supremacy further down the mighty River Czorhass. Schean had never been there, never seen the fabulous places and people that his kinsmen told of in numerous songs and ballads, but maybe he would travel there one day? He wasn't sure, though, whether he'd actually like it. He'd heard of all the finesse and sophistication of those places, and how they competed with each other in everything: who had the best minstrels, the finest clothes, the most intricate etiquette and the most lavish banquets. And in all honesty, those things didn't sound particularly appealing to him. For some reason he much preferred the enormous, sturdy, outwardly forbidding Deleon Castle to many others he'd seen — including the neighboring Moydherr, where he'd first encountered the Lady.

Schean shook his head, deep in thought, and played on. Sure the constant skirmishes that Deleon engaged in with great regularity were something of a nuisance, since they limited the number of more peace-loving visitors — including other minstrels — and ensured that the place mostly looked like a military camp. And of course life with the Ranea, mostly confined to his large and comfortable room, was extremely quiet and sometimes tedious. Still, during his long journey from the coast Schean had had time to see all sorts of things and face quite a number of hardships. He didn't feel any great urge to forsake his comfortable existence any time soon, to voluntarily set out to face endless miles walking, spending nights in sheds or under the bare sky, going cold and wet and hungry, and constantly fearing for his precious lute. Oh no. He liked a warm bed, regular food and an ever attentive audience of one well enough, at least for now.

But it seemed that the attention of said audience was beginning to wane. The boy had settled comfortably on the soft cushions, and in the warm glow of the fire his eyelids were now drooping, cheek resting on a hand. Schean shook himself out of reverie and smiled warmly at the boy who was about to fall asleep any moment now.

"Ranea," he said quietly and touched a wool-clad shoulder. "You should go to bed. You mustn't fall asleep on the floor like this."

"I'm not asleep." Immediately the boy's dark eyes opened wide and he scrambled up from where he'd been sprawled to soak up the warmth. "But you are right, it's getting late. Good night, Heliet. Sleep well, and play for me again tomorrow."

"Of course I will," Schean assured as the boy headed towards his bed, slim fingers busy with the fastenings of the deep green doublet. "Sleep well, Ranea."

He hung his lute on the peg on the wall, picked up the now empty bowls and plates and padded to the door. The servants would soon come to take a look at the fire.

One last glance at the boy, a smile of good night, and the heavy door closed slowly after the young minstrel.


Author's notes: This story takes place in a world of its own, so don't expect to find familiar places etc. (or, if you do, that's pure coincidence!)

And just in case somebody is interested in how I pronounce the names here, here it is: Ranea = three syllables, stress on the second one, roughly [rah-NE-ah]; Schean = two syllables, stress on the first, [SCHE-an].