The haunting melody of an unanswered heartsong lured me into the tavern. Once inside, the hubbub of the patrons drowned it out, but I was certain I had heard it. It had come from somewhere within these walls.
The patrons were a varied bunch of villagers, but the table in the back drew my attention. Adventurers. They were the likely source. I’d seen it enough times before.
They appeared to be a group, but they barely opened their mouths except to drink their ale or eat a chunky stew. If one of them had developed their heartsong, they certainly weren’t bragging about it.
I approached the counter, where the plump barkeep waited, her gaze not having strayed from me since I walked in. “Pint of ale and some stew?”
I placed a piece of silver on the bar and she nodded, turning her attention away from me to collect my order.
I leaned my back against the edge of the counter and gave the villagers in the common room a careful look. In my days of hearing heartsongs, I had learned that all too often, the bearers were easily overlooked. But as I examined each of them with my carefully attuned sense, the heartsong remained silent.
The man beside me at the counter had the bleary-eyed look of someone who had been drinking there all day. When he noticed me looking at him, he chuckled and said, “So, you hear it too?”
I was taken aback. Was I that obvious? “Hear what, old man?”
He chuckled again but didn’t answer my question.
I’d seen too many who heard the heartsong take his route—the coward’s route, drowning in drink the unfulfilled needs that only we could help manifest. The thought of squandering this gift, no matter how weary it made me, was abhorrent. I turned my back to him.
The barkeep returned with my ale and stew, which I took as far from the counter as I could, while keeping an eye on the adventurers in the corner.
There were seven of them: a mix of men and women, a pair of dwarves of indeterminate gender, and a radiant elf who contrasted sharply with the aesthetic of the rest of the group. The elf held my attention, but no matter how much I focused on them, I caught no hint of the music.
I considered each of the adventurers again in turn as I sipped my ale and nibbled my stew. I didn’t want to finish either too quickly, for fear I would outstay my welcome without finding the source of the refrain I had heard clear as day in the street.
One of the dwarves? No, the refrain was plaintive, but it didn’t match their dourness.
The two human women? Both had an aura of darkness about them, but the melody hinted at something more.
Hope. That was what the tune turned toward, despite its melancholy.
I met the gaze of one of the men, nearly as beautiful as the elf, and the heartsong soared in my mind. He did not flinch under my scrutiny, nor I under his, as the refrain flowed between us.
He rose from his seat in a flash, though I would have met him halfway across the room, had I been capable of movement. Stalking to my table, he pounded his fist into its surface. “What are you, a witch?”
“Not a witch,” I murmured. “Merely attuned to the song of the world, and a friendly ear to the deviations from it.”
His posture relaxed, his eyes wide with surprise, and he swallowed hard.
His outburst had drawn attention to the two of us, but as he calmed and sat across from me, the sounds of the tavern resumed, overlapping the quiet words he spoke. “This tune is new to me. It will not allow me a moment’s rest. What does it mean?”
I considered the melody, stronger now that I could focus my attention on this man. Snippets of another melody underlaid the dominant tune. He was a holy crusader. His faith was wavering. He had shared an intimate moment with another of his group, and now it haunted him in the form of this song.
I gazed past him, evaluating his fellow adventurers once more, following the ethereal threads carrying musical notes from one to the other, and found the solution. “Tell them how you feel.”
He frowned. “But my patron—”
“Do you follow your patron over the pull of your own heart?” I shook my head. “You serve your patron poorly if you do.”
He was silent, contemplating his hands before him. I sipped my ale and ate my stew, awaiting the moment when he made his decision.
Finally he rose, nodding. His song shifted, reaching a crescendo of hope. “Thank you,” he said. Glancing sidelong at his friends, he asked, “Can you talk to Maevise next? She could use some sage advice, too.”
I nodded. “Keep my ale cup full, and I’ll help all your friends find the truth of their tunes.”
— Dawn Vogel
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