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Later, gathered around a fire, they sit quietly, lost in thought, listening to the gentle strumming of Gyffun's harp. A powerful sense of foreboding has descended upon them and no-one has any appetite for cheerful songs that had lifted their spirits earlier in the day.

"Perhaps," says Gyffun, then hesitates for a moment, the sound of his voice surprising them all from their reverie. "Perhaps now is the time for me to tell the harp's tale."

Glancing around, and seeing no sign of objection from his companions (only mild interest or patient resignation), the skald continues.

"I have spoken before of the instrument's curious powers, and some of you have witnessed them first-hand. I have also alluded to its name, to the way that it came into my possession, and to its singular significance. The Harp of Thorns, I have named it, a tangible token of the covenant that was forged between the two great powers that have shaped my life. Now I shall share with you, my friends, something of the quest that effected its creation..."


In my aspiration to the noble profession of skald, I had been blessed with the benevolent tutelage of one Orvan Truevoice, a stern but immensely gifted mentor whose friendship I came, at length, to earn. He was keenly aware of the twin powers at war in my heart, and implored me, on more than one occasion, to put aside the wild attachments of my youth, and to give myself over completely to the sure guidance of the Storm Skald.

Although I perceived the wisdom of his counsel, I could not bring myself to follow it, and when eventually my studies with that great teacher were over, my spirit remained in disaccord. "Go Gyffun, and find your own wyrd," was his instruction upon the hour of our parting, "No other man can tell you the path that you must tread". Thus I travelled far and wide, seeking in songs for the key to my wild and untameable nature, and seeking in the wilds for the music that would bring harmony to my inner turmoil.

Three long years I laboured at this task, seemingly in vain, until at last I stumbled upon the very path that I, all unknowing, had yearned for all along. How exactly I came to find myself on this doom-laden byway, I cannot say, but five short steps upon it were enough to tell me of its potency, and convince me that my destiny awaited at its end, for good or ill.

Numerous and terrible were the perils that I faced upon that road, and many times I fought the urge to turn back, to naysay the doom that impelled me ever on. The travails that I undertook I shall not relate, for all their weight, for they seemed to me interminable, and would render this lengthy tale longer still. Suffice it to say that I was sorely tested on this journey, but clung to my resolve and was not diverted from my course.

At length I was admitted, pain-wracked and exhausted, into the presence of one who did not immediately seek to rend my flesh, nor to buffet me with hail and wind. She (for to all appearances the being before me was a woman) was wreathed in shadow and curiously-formed, her veiled shape evoking vague feelings of unease. Untroubled by my sudden appearance and rude aspect, she studied me intently for what seemed an age, her strange eyes rooting me to the spot with their piercing gaze.

When she spoke, her voice was melodious but tinged with menace. "Child," she growled "Why have you come? You are no Deep Hunter, seeking the Great Bear. You are no Wild-Ranger, come to chase me, come to face the Five Majestic Beasts. You are no Preening One, come to seduce me. If you are a Twin, come to begin the Three Element Dance, then where is your sister? Tell me now, child: what do you seek?"

Then, though I trembled before her, I raised my voice to answer. "I am no hunter, but I too have my quarry. I am no ranger, but the wide world is still my home. I am no seducer, but I do seek a marriage. I am no twin, but my nature is two-fold. Your song is already in my heart, but my feet dance to a different drum. I am called Sword Dancer, Tearbringer, Laughtersmith. Once, in another guise, we composed together the Song of the Hunt. Will you now make a new music with me?"

"And with what will you make this new music, Pipe-maker?" she asked in a dangerous tone. "I warn you: I have little love for the wailing din of that flatulent wind-bag that you call an instrument."

I smiled at this, and produced my flute. "Perhaps this will be more to your liking," I ventured, and proceeded to play with all of the skill I could muster. I played like never before, a ceaseless spiralling harmony that carried me away with it, making my spirit soar. I poured all of my desperate dreams and all of my remaining energy into that performance, and when I had no more breath to sound it, and no more strength to hold it, I let the flute fall from my fingers to the ground. I dared not raise my eyes to gauge her reaction, but my heart was filled with pride and hope.

"More piping," she snarled, and my heart sank. "Only this time you are the wind-bag. A prettier sound than your other noisemaker, I'll grant you, but what need have I for this reedy racket, when birdsong is sweeter by far? What music of yours could ever compare to the cry of the eagle, or the howl of the wolf? What rhythm can you play that rivals the pulse of prey in flight, or the percussion of running feet?"

Her tone was angry now, and I felt the lurch of fear in my breast. "In your arrogance," she continued, spitting the words at me. "You dare to speak of a new music, but you are deaf to the ancient music that is all around you. Why should I care for your new dance of death, when you turn your back on my wild jig of life? Go, skald, and take your pathetic wind-maker with you. No instrument of your devising could ever be worthy of my song!"

"Forgive me, Lady," I cried, dismayed. "In my ignorance I believed that the music I longed for had yet to be created, but mayhap I have erred and merely lacked the wit to recognise it for what it was. Will you not teach me to hear your song more clearly, that I might better comprehend my folly? And if you find my instruments so unworthy, will you not tell me how to make an instrument that *is* worthy of your song?"

"Have you not heard a word that I told you, child?" she hissed. "The jig of life cannot be played upon your lifeless trinkets. It is endless and boundless, untroubled by your petty notions of form and harmony. It is played constantly upon a host of living instruments: flesh and bark, root and claw, twigs and sinews. You cannot bind this great dance up into a simple melody, to be plucked or puffed or pounded out by a mere musician! Pfah! Your presumption is matched only by your ignorance."

"Once again, dear Lady, I must beg for your forgiveness. I do not seek to emulate your song, only to be inspired by it. I could not hope to capture it, nor would I wish to, but I yearn to find some way to marry its joyful energy with the artfulness of mine own. I know enough of your song to feel unsatisfied with what I know; I feel it coursing through my veins, and my body moves to its rhythm. I long to know more of it, and came to you with that purpose."

She did not respond, but seemed less hostile. Emboldened, I dared to say more. "You speak contemptuously of my music, but I do not think it is so displeasing to your ears. You are offended by what it lacks, I think, and not what it is. I have risked much to seek you out; I would gladly risk more to learn how I might marry my song with yours."

Her eyes flashed once more with anger, but when she spoke, I heard a note of interest in her tone, and felt hope once more. "More arrogance!" she declared, then sighed. "But perhaps that is to be expected. If you have the wit to know what you lack, then perhaps you have more wit than I had guessed. Very well, skald. I shall strike you this bargain: if you can fashion a living instrument that is fit to play the merest echo of my song then I shall consider your musical marriage proposal. But be warned: my song is no compliant bed-mate! Now begone!"


With a bow, I turned and fled the Lady's grove, at once triumphant and forlorn. My quest was not yet in vain, it seemed, but the task that she had set me may yet prove my undoing. Slowing my pace, I struggled to imagine how I might devise an instrument to satisfy her demands, and struggled against the fatigue that threatened to overwhelm me. Then the sound of a distant melody roused me, and I found myself once more upon the rough path that had brought me to this place. The sound of music seemed to come from somewhere up ahead, so I stumbled on towards it.

When I found the music's source, I was startled to behold a solitary figure, seated upon a tree stump, playing skilfully on a small harp. He - or perhaps she, for the musician's gender was indeterminate - did not pause in its strumming as I approached, but looked up at me and smiled. "That which you seek is already within you," the harpist told me. "But to know it and give it form, you must return to the moment of your own birth."

"What do you mean?" I asked, now even more confused. "And who are you?" But the harpist merely smiled and kept on playing. Dimly, I surmised that further questions would be useless, but it was a moot point, anyway: I was already sinking to the ground, too tired to even think. Sleep washed over me swiftly, and I no longer had the strength to resist.

When I awoke, still groggy and bewildered, the harpist was gone. Drowsily, I pondered the mysterious figure's advice. All that I knew of my birth I had learned from my hearth-mother. It took place in a briar patch, and was immediately preceded by the death of my mother. What extremity had driven her to this fate, none could say, but it had been Lismelda who braved the thorns and drew me, bloody and wailing, from my mother's lifeless body. Weeping with grief and raked by brambles, she was nevertheless determined to save the life of the child that her sister had died to bring into the world.

What could I learn from this second-hand memory, and how could it help me to make the living instrument that the Lady demanded? Or did the harpist mean for me to return by some other means to the time and place that saw my entry into this world? Glancing about me, I was only half-surprised to spy a briar patch. Resigned to the apparent predestination of my action, I crawled over to it and painfully wormed my way into its heart. Then fatigue once more overcame me and I slept.

Whether my next recollection was a dream, or a vision, I could not at that time determine. Perhaps it was a gift of the harpist, I mused, or a function of that strange realm into which I had gained entry. Whatever its origin, the perspective that I was granted was a strange one indeed: to witness my own entry into the world through the senses of another. To speak in detail of this entry is painful for me, even now, but I must relate some of what I saw, for my tale depends upon it.

When all was still and silent, I watched Lismelda carry my tiny form away from that dreadful spot, and then watched in dumb horror as the author of my unknown perspective drew nearer to my mother's gory corpse. I saw clearly the ravages that had been inflicted upon her flesh, and then reeled in shock as I noticed a tiny form lying half-concealed amidst her tattered clothes! Before I could discern any more, my vision dimmed and I suffered a brief spell of profound disorientation.


When the world stopped spinning, I found myself once more within a bramble bush, but now my perspective was my own again, and the bramble patch was the one into which I'd crawled. Even as the full import of what I had just seen struck home, I became aware of another presence, close but unseen, and cried out in alarm. "Who's there?"

"Calm yourself," a soft voice said in my ear. "You are in no danger." I looked wildly about me, but could not see from whence this voice had come. "Who are you?" I cried. "Where are you? If you mean me no harm, then show yourself!" The voice came again, disturbingly close. "Very well, I shall do as you ask. But fear me not: I am not your enemy."

From the heart of the briar, a pale female form emerged. Her skin was pale and her hair green-tinged, and all her adornments were set about with sharp thorns. "I say once again: fear me not," she told me. "My memory-gift was well-meant, and not intended to cause you pain. If I meant you harm, I would never have permitted you to enter within my bower." I knew little of the tree-folk, but knew enough to understand that this creature was a dryad, or close akin to one, and, by her own admission, the source of my vision.

"Forgive my alarm," I stammered. "And forgive my impertinence, but..." and without further ado I launched into a host of questions. The memory I had shared (by a means that she either could not or would not explain) was her own, she told me, as was the briar patch that bore witness to my birth. My mother, sorely wounded, had crept within and delivered herself of a girl-child, before death took her. Lismelda, it seemed, had not seen the infant - my twin, I realised with a shock - and thus knew naught of her existence. Knowing her sister to be with child, she had cut me from the womb that would otherwise have been my grave, and never thought to look for another infant.

I was dumbfounded, but there were more revelations to come. "And now that you have returned, and learnt the truth of your beginnings," the dryad told me. "I may at last honour your mother's request at her ending." I gaped at her, but could not speak. "Before she died," the nymph continued. "She saw me and, mistaking me for one of her own kind, pleaded with me to care for her seedling. Alas, I knew that I could not care for the tiny creature as she hoped, but I felt obliged to accept this responsibility and to execute it as best I could."

"When another came, I saw a way to honour this request, and granted the female entrance. Imagine my horror when she ignored the seedling and began to rend the flesh of the dead mother! Comprehension finally came when another seedling emerged, but by then it was too late for me to communicate with the departing female, and I was left with a terrible dilemma. The tiny spark of life in the seedling was growing faint. If I waited for the female to return, it might be extinguished altogether, but if I cared for it in my own way, it would be irrevocably transformed in the process."

She regarded me, but I could not read the emotions on her face. "What did you decide?" I asked, but she remained silent. Then, in an oddly human gesture, she nodded and said. "Yes, I must tell you. I chose to sustain the seedling's life in the only way I knew: I took it into myself, and nurtured it and made it a part of the Song. In this way, though it would never know the life its mother wished, it would at least know life in some form."

"I don't understand," I said. "What is this Song you speak of? And what became of my sister? Where is she now?" The dryad stared at me impassively. "I speak of the Song of Aldrya. Your sister is a part of it now, and a part of me. She lives, but not as you live, or even as I live. Part of what she was, I am, but I am not her, and she is not me. But I see that you do not understand, and feel your hurt. Think of this: she would have perished; instead she lives on in me, and in the Song. And you, bound to her by your duality, can hear an echo of that Song. And I, bound to you by the same means, can hear a echo of another Song."

This last revelation finally reminded me of the quest that had brought me to this strange place. I thought again of the words of the harpist, and saw at last what they might mean. Choosing my words with extravagant care, I told the dryad of my quest, and then asked her whether she could help me. To my surprise and delight, she agreed.


A harp had been in my mind from the very beginning, even before I met my mysterious benefactor on the path. My mentor, Orvan, is a master of this eloquent instrument, and taught me both the art of playing it and the rudiments of its manufacture. I hoped that the briar nymph would be at least somewhat familiar with the instrument's form, but when I spoke of my concerns she dismissed them. "The precise shape and structure are of no consequence to me. We are speaking of a living instrument: its form shall be guided by its purpose and by the life that animates it."

"And what life shall that be?" I asked her, half-dreading her response. She smiled gently, seeing my distress. "It shall not be your sister's life, if that is what you fear. As I have told you, she has become part of something greater than herself, and cannot be separated from it. But even as her small life became a part of me, a part of the Song, so something of my being shall pass into this new life, and with it, something of hers."

I watched in wonder as the pale woman moved gracefully away from me and melted soundlessly into the dense thicket. When she returned, she carried a large seed. "But, is this not your... child?" I stammered, flushing. "No, human, you misunderstand. My kind do not bear children, as yours do, nor do we produce child-seeds as the Mreli do. This is a shaping-seed, a singular and much-treasured thing."

I regarded the object with awe. "Then... it lives?" I asked, rather stupidly. "Life dwells within it, surely," she replied "But it is like to the life that dwells within a tree. Such lives as these are no less vital than yours or mine, but their dance is slower than ours. Your kind are ignorant of this. They do not see my tree-brethren as living beings, and think them little different to rocks. Only when we are quickened do you perceive us as beings like yourselves."

She explained that seeds such as this were formed very rarely, and were always a cause of much celebration. They were kept, sometimes for many years, until their purpose was divined, usually in a time of great need. "It is almost unheard of to give one as a gift to an Outsider," she told me. "But I sensed that the purpose of this seed was in some way bound up with your destiny, and when you asked me for aid, its purpose became plain."

I attempted to convey my gratitude, and to express my sense of the honour I felt at this gift, but words failed me. She smiled at my clumsy words, and shook her head. "Your thanks are unnecessary; I know that you will prove yourself worthy of this gift. Come now, let us quicken the life in this seed, and set you back upon your path." Turning my left hand palm up, she placed the seed upon it, and covered it with one of her own hands. Her other child-like hand she placed in my right hand, and I grasped it as gently as I could. "Now, human," she told me. "Listen carefully to me, and to the song of the seed. In order to quicken the seed and give it the form that it needs, you must find it a new song and sing it into shape."

At first I felt and heard nothing, and the stillness grew oppressive. Then I began to feel it: an almost subliminal sensation that caused the hairs on my arms stand up, and left me fighting the urge to shiver. The transition from this tactile awareness to musical whisper was so slow as to be nearly imperceptible. When at last I became conscious of the seed's song it was a most profound experience, akin to the peculiar sense of dislocation that is experienced when a persistent noise is suddenly silenced, only in reverse.

This new level of awareness unlocked an overwhelming flood of perceptions that soon threatened to engulf me. The deep, mournful song of the trees was all about me, accompanied by an intricate counterpoint from the dryad and her kin. Other songs wove gently about them, some distant and vanishingly faint, others seeming closer but sounding softer still. Then the song of the seed rang out clearly through this surging tapestry of sound, and I found myself responding automatically to its unarticulated invitation.

The song that came to me then seemed to unwind itself from deep within me, reaching out, tentatively at first, and then extending itself with growing confidence. Its harmonious infiltration and slow subversion of the seed's song was breathtaking, and its effect dramatic. As the dormant life within the smooth husk began to stir, the briar nymph guided my two hands together and motioned for me to place the seed in the rich earth beneath my feet. Within moments, a splitting sound was heard, heralding the appearance of a green shoot and questing white roots.

With the songs of the forest still enveloping me, and the song of shaping still surging through me, I gazed in awe at the seed's rapid and startling transformation. Delicate green shoots became writhing, thorny tendrils, which wove themselves together into thick braids, and finally merged together to form a slender trunk, gnarled and sinuous. Still the metamorphosis continued, until a distorted but recognisable shape emerged.

When at last the shaping-song fell silent in my aching throat, and the all-pervading chorus of the forest grew hushed, I cradled in my arms the curiously-formed body of the instrument that I now bear.


I shall not tarry with a lengthy description of my subsequent conversation with the dryad, for I sense that you are all eager to hear the next part of my tale. Suffice it to say that I left the briar patch with a fine but incomplete instrument, and many unanswered questions. She had reluctantly given me some strands of her long, greenish hair with which to string the harp, but I could not yet see how to affix and tune them. She assured me that the harp would adapt itself to its proper function when the time came, but it seemed that some further element was required to make it whole. "This must be furnished by another," she told me, and would say no more.

Retracing my steps on the path, I soon drew near to the Lady's grove and once more felt a thrill of fear. On first sight the grove appeared to be deserted, but then I noticed the disturbing noises coming from one of the recesses on its periphery, and edged closer. Mercifully, the shadows of this dark nook spared me a clear view of the interior, but I saw enough to recognise that its denizen was feeding. Alerted by my presence, she raised her head from the kill and growled softly.

"So," she said, swallowing noisily. "You have returned. And with another instrument, I see. Or the makings of one, at least. What makes you think this will be any different to the others?" I conveyed something of the harp's nature to her as calmly as I could, trying to ignore the scent of fresh blood. "Yes, it does have the reek of the Wild-Wood about it," she observed. "And I do taste the sweet tang of life within it. Will it serve, though, skald? And can you play it? It is not yet complete, I think..."

"No, Lady, it is not, and I fear that I still lack the means to finish it. It is within your power to make it whole, I think, and I bring it to you in the hope that you will help me to do so." She was silent for several minutes, and I began to think that I had offended her again. When finally she spoke, however, it was with a note of humour in her voice. "Lack the means? Lack the courage, more like. Very well, skald. You have already fulfilled more of our musical bargain than I expected, and I am curious now to hear the voice of this thorn-gift. Hand it over, and you shall have your strings."

I hesitated for a heartbeat, but there was no time for anxiety. A long-fingered hand emerged from the shadows, sporting sharp talons and bloodstains, and snatched the muted harp from my grasp. Violent motion and the sickening sounds of tearing flesh and cracking bones assaulted my senses. When, moments later, the briar nymph's gift was returned to my shaking hands it was adorned with bright viscera and splinters of bone, and liberally smeared with blood. Barely suppressing my disgust, I felt the harp shiver in my numb fingers, and then gaped in horror as the gore was absorbed or otherwise incorporated into it.

When this alarming process was over, the instrument in my hands seemed truly alive. Its taut strings were vibrating softly of their own accord, and I could not resist their lure. At my first tentative caress they sang with unrestrained joy and I felt within me an answering surge of wild ecstasy. "Ah yes, little one," purred the voice from the shadows. "Nothing quite like the taste of hot blood, is there?"

There was no hesitation in my fingers as they began to pluck feverishly at the quivering strings, no fear in my heart as I joined my voice to their exultant cries. Gone were the voices of anxiety and self-doubt in my mind, their place taken by the rapturous song that now seemed to be coursing through me like a mighty river. As the delirious torrent buoyed me up and swept me away, I was dimly aware of a terrible figure emerging from the shadows to join us, but then I was lost and for a long time knew nothing but the Dance.


When I came back to myself, I know not how many days or weeks later, I found the harp cradled in my arms, and felt utterly drained. The instrument too, seemed spent, but still I felt the life pulsing in its touch, and marvelled at the ready whisper of its strings. I had only just begun to learn its secrets, and even now its moods and unexpected talents hold the power to amaze me. But ever since that day I have felt secure in the path that I tread, and the powers of those that guide me. And though I am sworn to the Storm Skald, and hearken to his command, still in my heart I hear the song of the Lady, and wonder at the joyful harmony of these two voices.