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The Harp


by


Mya McMillan


A fairy harp hangs in the wood
Played by every breeze
Vanished to-day are the fairy-folk
Who left it high in the trees
--copyright 1936 by The Willis Music Company


Let me start this by saying that I’ve heard quite a few stories in my time, and quite a variety of them. As a child my parents ran a small inn on the coast of Kaniuk, the capitol of Feor, and there was always a traveler with a tale to tell. Mostly fishermen, coming in from the harbor for a hot meal. But the man who told me this story was a wandering minstrel, and for some reason it stayed in my head more than the others stories. Perhaps it because it had what almost seemed to be the ring of truth in it. To this day, I couldn’t really say whether the minstrel knew more than he was telling or not, but I know it seemed so to me at the time.
How did it happen? Oh, yes. The minstrel arrived late one stormy evening. From the start you knew he wasn’t just someone trying to get out of the rain, for he carried with him a wooden harp, one of the strangest and most beautiful I have ever seen. It was carved with vines and flowers in the most intricate workmanship, and--though perhaps this was simply my overactive imagination once again at work--it almost seemed to glow with a golden light of its own. I was certain it was no ordinary harp.
The minstrel said he had no money to offer in exchange for a night under a roof, but he offered to provide entertainment. My parents, taking pity on his plight--for who wants to be left outside on such a night as that?--agreed.
He sang a few songs to start, simple ones we all knew, and then a longer ballad of King Alexander V, one of the greatest and most noble monarchs the county of Feor had ever known.
So anyway, it was not long before my two brothers and I were clustered at his feet, begging for a tale. The minstrel asked us what kind of story we would like, and I was the first to respond by pointing at his harp. “Tell us about your harp,” I said. “I like it.”
At this a special kind of light seemed to kindle behind his eyes, and he leaned back, staring at some point on the ceiling. “Ah, yes,” he said. “The Harp. Very well. I will tell you the story of a harp. A harp, mark you, though whether or not it is this harp I shall leave for you to decide.”
We all leaned forward, listening eagerly.
“It begins,” he said, “in the ninth year of the reign of King Alexander VI. The village where this story takes place, however, was rarely concerned with such things as dates and kings. A small village, and far removed from such great cities as Kaniuk. A village called Lith...”
And so the story began. I will attempt to tell it in his words.

Lith was a small village, nestled in the lower slopes of the Andalucian mountains. The people there kept to themselves, with only the occasional piece of news from merchants who sometimes traveled out that far to sell their goods. Certainly no travelers ever went that way. The climate was fairly mild and allowed for the villagers to support themselves off of small farms. Above Lith, the mountainsides were heavily forested, right up to the snowcaps at the top. No one ever ventured up that way--there were too many stories about the sort of things that lived in those dark forests.
It was one of those heavily-traditional societies, where life had been the same for generations and probably would continue so for a good many more generations to come. Children were brought up to fulfill specific roles in the society. They were taught to respect their elders, to follow tradition, and generally grew up to be farmers, or learned a trade such as blacksmithing. Curiosity about the world outside of the village was frowned upon, and such thoughts were usually trained out of a child by the time he or she was six or seven years of age.
Not so with Nar.
Nar was the second son of his family. His only siblings were his baby sister Kenya and his older brother, Jek. Nar didn’t mind his sister, but he often found himself wishing his brother were different. Jek was a model son and obviously his father’s favorite child. He was responsible and mature and also, at least to Nar, extremely dull.
Of course, Jek didn’t have to worry about anything. His future was all planned out for him. As oldest son, Jek would inherit the farm and just about everything else. When he became of age, he would find a wife and start a family. Nar, on the other hand, didn’t have it so lucky. As the younger son, he would be left to make his way in the world, probably being apprenticed to someone and learning a trade until he could earn enough to make his own living. That was the way of life.
This was the topic that was foremost on Nar’s mind while he did the evening chores in the stable one day late in spring. The sun was setting and he could hear his mother calling him to supper as he finished pitching the hay into Bess, the horse’s stall.
“There you go, old girl,” he said, walking over to the pump to clean his hands. “Hope you like it. It’s freshly reaped from the fields.”
“Talking to the horse again, Nar?”
Nar straightened up at the sound of his brother’s voice. He didn’t bother to answer.
“Mother’s calling. It’s time for supper. You’re going to be late again if you don’t hurry.”
“I’m coming, I’m coming.”
“Maybe if you concentrated on your tasks instead dilly-dallying and speaking to the animals, or making up those ridiculous tunes, they would done quicker, and you wouldn’t irk Father so, coming in after the meal has started.”
“Maybe this time, I’ll be there before you,” Nar answered, slipping past Jek, who was still standing in the doorway, and taking off at a dead run for the cottage. He had learned long ago that it was no use to answer back when Jek teased him. Especially because most of the time, his brother was right. It wasn’t that Nar didn’t care what his brother thought, but there was just no arguing with Jek when he was in such a mood.
He noted the raised eyebrow on his father’s face when he did indeed slip into his seat before Jek, who, thinking it childish to run, had so much as gotten in the door. Supper was beef stew and boiled potatoes. He smiled warmly at his mother, who was reputed throughout Lith as an exellent cook, not to mention wife and mother. Kenya was Lytana’s favorite child, but she did enjoy the company of her younger son more than his brother. Jek had always seemed to her almost too mature.
Only Nar’s grandfather, who lived with the family, truly favored Nar. Nar had been a pleasant suprise to Merko, after seeing the way his son and first grandson had turned out. Not that there was anything wrong with either of them; they were honest, hard-working men. But there was something...something so alive about Nar, a life that the boy’s father and brother lacked. Personally, the old man thought Nar was more alive than the rest of the population of Lith put together.
It was on this evening that Nar’s father brought up the subject that had been bothering Nar that afternoon.
“I was talking to Hayne today,” his father started. “About you, Nar, as a matter of fact.”
Nar frowned. What did Hayne, the miller, have to do with him? He asked as much.
“Son, you’re thirteen years old. It’s time you were apprenticed. Don’t look at me like that. You know perfectly well you need to be able to make a living, and for you, that means learning a trade. Now, Hayne says he’s been in need of a helper at his mill. He was a bit doubtful about taking on someone so young, especially in apprenticeship, but if you go and speak to him about it yourself, and be a mature lad, I’m sure it will change his mind.”
Nar looked away. The last thing he wanted was to spend the rest of his life working in a dusty mill, but he didn’t know how to tell his father that. Thorn was the kind of man who was extremely set in his ways, even more so than the rest of the villagers, and if he’d gotten it into his head that his younger son would become a miller, than there was little Nar could say or do to make a difference.
The problem was, there was only one thing that really interested Nar. That was music. For as long as he could remember, Nar had loved music. He had taught himself to play the whistle and pipe, which could be easily carved from a stick of wood, but it wasn’t enough. A pipe was too simple an instrument to play the songs Nar wanted to play.
These songs were wondrous things, or at least they would have been to anyone who had listened to enough music to appreciate them. He could never have really explained to anyone where they came from; they simply came. He heard them in his head wherever he went, hummed them in the day, and dreamed them at night. It was strange music; beautiful and wonderful and yet so alien. He had learned long ago that people were suspiscious of such music, so he kept his songs to himself.
But he still longed to play them.
Of course, such a profession was out of the question for the son of a down-to-earth farmer in a village like Lith. Music encouraged idle fantasies and was to be frowned upon; to make one’s living upon it was a horrendous idea.
Perhaps it was because of this dilemma that he got around to asking his grandfather a question he’d often wondered about, but never voiced, as he had the feeling that it, too, would be frowned on. What was it like outside of Lith?
Nar’s grandfather had been smoking his pipe in front of the fire, and Nar trying to whittle a piece of wood by the light of the flames. Nothing in particular, simply letting the knife shape the wood. When Nar asked his questions, his grandfather almost seemed to smile to himself. Unbeknownst to Nar, Merko had been waiting a long time for Nar to ask such a question. Young boys, as a given, did not leave the village, nor did anyone else for that matter, but it had always been obvious to anyone who cared that there was no place for Nar in Lith. The capitol, Kaniuk, would have been better, but...well, Nar was special. And a special path lay ahead of him.
“Curiosity is a good thing,” Nar’s grandfather began. “Truly, I believe it is, though you will never hear it from another mouth in this village. It shows an awareness of the world, and I am glad you have it. And perhaps you are one of the few who will lead a different sort of life because of it.”
“What do you mean?” Nar asked.
“My boy, have you ever heard the legend about the Harp?”
“No. Mother says legends encourage idle fantasies and should not be talked about.”
“Well, your mother is a sensible woman in many things. But this story has been in your family for generations. I never told it to your father, but I believe I will tell it to you.
You see, they say that once, a long, long time ago, Fae lived in these mountains. You know what I mean, fairies and elves and such. But when humans arose to rule the world, these magical folk left forever.”
Anything to do with a harp, with music, made a good story as far as Nar was concerned. He settled down to listen.
“But...the Fae left some things behind. Magical things. High in the mountains, where no man goes, they say you can even find the palace of the fairy-queen herself. But that is not the magical remnant of these special beings that I am thinking of now. I am thinking of the Harp.”
“That’s the second time you’ve mentioned the Harp,” Nar said. “What is it?”
“The Harp is a fairy-harp,” his grandfather answered. “A more beautiful and delicate instrument than human hands could ever craft. It is magical, of course, though one might not think so at first. It’s magic lies in its ability to make the sweetest and wildest, haunting music that could possibly be imagined. The fairies were best-known for their music, of course, and naturally they had instruments that were equal to the task.”
“A harp,” murmured Nar. “If only I had a harp, I could play my songs.” He glanced up at his grandfather. “But...such a thing couldn’t really exists, could it?”
“Wait before you leap to conclusions, my boy. You see, it’s more than a story. My grandfather told this to me when I was a boy, just as I am telling it to you, and he first heard it from his father. My great-grandfather, your great-great-great-grandfather, saw the Harp with his own eyes.”
Nar stared. “Really?”
“Of course! Your great-great-great-grandfather was a wood-cutter. He spent most of his days in the forest, finding firewood to sell in the village. One night, he was out late. The moon was full, so of course he thought he would be safe, but somehow or other, and perhaps he was guided by some left-behind Fae magic, he got lost.
“He wandered around for a while before deciding he should stay in one place until morning, when he might be able to find his way back. So he did, sleeping beneath a tree. But when the sun rose the next day, he found that he was in a comepletely unfamilier part of the woods, and had no idea how to return to the village.
“It was about then that he first heard a sound--music, it was. The man was a loss to determine what was making it, so he followed it, hoping to find someone who could help him.
“The music was elusive, and it was almost mid-morning before he finally stumbled across a beautiful little clearing, all filled with green moss and flowers...and there it was.”
“You mean...” Nar trailed off.
“Yes,” his grandfather answered. “The Harp. It was hung on one of the branches high in the trees, and its strings were so delicate that the breeze itself had been plucking them and making the music your great-great-great-grandfather had heard.”
“Impossible,” Nar breathed, but he was entranced.
“Possible, and true,” his grandfather corrected. “And, as he looked, a great golden bird, the likes of which he had never seen, came and perched on the tree-branch beside the Harp. The bird began to sing, its music intertwining with that of the harp. And, somehow, the music formed words in his head.”
*Does the Song sing to you?* the bird asked.
“What song?” he replied aloud.
*The song of the Harp. The song of the Fae. The song that will speak to the one mortal being who is worthy to recieve the Harp.*
“The Harp...it is beautiful,” your great-great-great-grandfather said. “Might I take it?” But your great-great-great-grandfather was not thinking of music. A woodcutter is a poor man, and he thought only of the price such an instrument would fetch.
The bird stretched out its wing towards the harp. *Take it if you can,* it replied, then flew away.
“Oh, how the man tried to reach the Harp! Yet it had been delicately placed, on the far end of a branch that would not hold a man’s weight, and the tree was tall and offered no foothold until the first twenty feet up. Finally, he fell asleep again, exhausted with his efforts.
“And in his sleep, he dreamed, and the bird came to him in his dream.
*I am the guardian of the Harp,* the bird said, *and I have seen that the Song does not sing to you. Alas, you are not the one I have awaited.*
And in his dream, he felt himself being carried away, and when he awoke, he was on the path again. He had no idea how to get back to the clearing, and by then the memory seemed more like fantasy than reality. He returned to the village.”
Nar’s grandfather leaned forward and looked Nar right in the eye. “Nar, where do you get those songs that you sing?”
Nar stared, stuttered, and fell silent. “I...I don’t know,” he finally said.
Merko smiled. “Think on it,” he said. He stood up and left.


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