The road rose ahead of Sanya and the sun was blissfully warm on her face. Birds trilled from the banks of pine trees around her. In the clear air, as the mountain path twisted, she caught glimpses of the mighty Erech river, crashing far below her through its steep-sided valley.
Sanya began to sing for the simple joy of it. A song for the road, telling the tale of Elmir of the elven folk, who wandered the land for years—talking, so the story went, to every single tree. The joke in Sanya’s village was that she had elven blood in her, too. How else to explain the beauty of her singing voice? Well, perhaps she would find out the truth of that now. She adjusted the pack she carried on her back, shifting its weight where one of the straps was cutting into her a little. She didn’t mind. She was finally free, walking out to explore the world. Oh, she’d go back home one day, older, wiser and with tales of her own to tell. For now, it was good to be moving, going where her feet took her.
High Erech Bridge finally came into view. She’d wondered whether the ancient crossing still existed. It was little more than a line and a scribble on the old map her grandmother had given her. But there it was, a spindly span of logs connecting two high cliffs, the churning river hundreds and hundreds of feet below.
Soon, a little out of breath from the climb, she reached it. Up close it looked solid enough, the wood only a little mildewed with green. Over there, on the other side, lay lands unknown. A blank on her map.
She stepped onto the bridge. Immediately, coming from nowhere, a figure appeared before her. An old man, crooked beneath his cloak, leaning on a staff. His voice was a thin croak over the distant roar of the river.
“You must pay the price to cross, traveler.”
Sanya stopped mid-stride, considering the man. Could he stop her crossing? She had heard tales of a guardian on the High Bridge, and there could be no doubt he was magical in nature. Old men with wooden staffs were as likely as not to be wizards or sorcerers.
“I have no money,” she said. In fact, she had a few coppers, collected for her by her family. She doubted the paltry sum would be of much interest to this figure.
The man waved a hand dismissively. She still hadn’t seen his face.
“The price is something more valuable than money,” he said. “Give me something precious, precious beyond measure.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Give me a treasure like none I have ever had before. That is the price each must pay.”
Sanya had no treasures. Apart from her coppers, her backpack contained only spare clothes and cloths, some dry bread and fruit, a flint for lighting fires and her precious notebook. She doubted any of that could be considered treasure.
“What if I cannot pay?”
“Then you cannot cross here.”
“How else might I reach the lands on the other side?”
“You could brave the frozen passes high in the snows. Or turn south. A hundred leagues that way the river is shallow enough to ford, they say.”
Neither prospect was appealing. Either journey would take many weeks, even if she could find the way. The wind picked up, threatening to pluck her off the bridge. The old man stood unmoved. Behind him were the unknown woods of the far mountains.
She did have one treasure. Of sorts. She had no idea if it would be enough.
“I could sing you a song,” she said.
The old man looked up at her and she finally saw his lined face, his beady dark eyes. She thought she saw something in them. Anticipation, perhaps. Hunger.
“Sing?” he said, as if he didn’t know the word.
“My people say my voice is a gift.”
After a moment, the old man nodded. “Sing.”
Sanya set down her backpack and took a breath, then returned to the lay she had begun on the road up. The Journeys of Elmir. Her voice was weak at first, hesitant, but it grew into the song, drawn on by its melody and the mounting dangers Elmir faced. She sang for long minutes, the old man as still as a statue. Toward the end, she closed her eyes, lost in the sound of her own voice.
When it was done, she opened her eyes again. The old man had pulled his hood back now, and she could see that there were tears in his eyes.
“Your voice is a treasure like no other,” he said.
“I may cross the bridge?”
The old man nodded his head, then faded into the air right in front of her.
Sanya picked up her backpack, slung it across her shoulders, and strode over to the other side.
— Simon Kewin