#10 The Bard and the Arnädraig
And with autumn upon us in the northern hemisphere comes a new misadventure from the Storyteller and Aiga the bard just below. The small arnädraig don't miss the opportunity to greet the outsiders.
“Behold, behold!”, Aiga chants as we cross the Arnwellian border. “The treetops, the birds, the might of the earth! How deep their roots go, how far their crowns see! Rejoice, rejoice, for barbarians never gave us chase!”
The last note is the loudest. I keep very still and quiet, pretending to be asleep in the corner right next to her. She’s playing an ayllyre. To me it looks like a small normal lyre, but it’s been enhanced with mahrymic runes. They glow stronger with every note she plays.
“We’re almost there”, the driver announces, having a peek at the joyful bard beside me.
He doesn’t say it, but his look clearly expresses “Please keep quiet and be respectful in the heart of the forest”. Aiga dismisses his signals and is quickly hushed by two other passengers.
She smiles at them, bows her head and sits down, the ayllyre still in her hands, ready to sing again at the sight of inspiration.
We continue advancing in a blissful silence as she continues humming her merry tune. Our surroundings change ever so slowly, and the mantle of a lazy afternoon crawls through the windows of the carriage.
The driver announces the final stop right at the swamps of Arnara. They’re beautiful if you ignore how the humid air sticks to your skin, and trust the waters enough to walk through them. We should probably get a small boat.
“Enjoy your stay”, the driver mumbles as he greets another driver, who takes his place.
“Ah, look! The trees, the waters, the lush greens, the myriad insects of a thousand colours!”
Even I am mesmerised by the grandeur and beauty of Arnara.
It is as we stand there, like a pair of tourists, that Aiga notices a clasp against her hip. She turns around to see who attempted such a move on her and the ayllyre is taken off her hands.
She gasps. I gasp. People around us laugh and mutter the word “outsiders”.
We look around and spot a small arnädraig. A dragon of the forest. It is staring back at us with the ayllyre in its tiny claws.
Arnädraig are known for stealing from passers-by, and the dumber they look the better target they become. Aiga’s face is a blend of incredulity, amusement and shock.
“Aiga, you don’t want to make any sudden movements”, I whisper as I turn very slowly toward the thieving beast. “We need to be strategic about this—“
She’s already chasing after it. The arnädraig is happy to have found someone willing to play, and also bearing so many odd and noisy gifts.
It meanders around one of the trees and jumps swiftly from branch to branch, the ayllyre tightly held between its small teeth. It practically melts with the leaves on the treetop.
“Did it jump to another tree?”, Aiga asks as she herself attempts to climb, not very dextrously I may add. “Can you help me?”
“How can I find it?”, she insists. “I only built that ayllyre. It will take me months to make another one, and the materials…!”
“I should’ve mentioned the arnädraig. Pesky little creatures, always stealing whatever catches their eye.”
I sigh and start walking in her direction, but she tells me to halt with a swift single gesture. I can tell she’s had an idea.
She drops a glowing flute on the ground and walks away from it. Some Arnwellii walk by and look in our direction, curious to see what Aiga is up to.
Some of the leaves shake, only it’s not leaves but the arnädraig’s mantle. Its preying eyes look at the shiny oddity, then at me, and then at Aiga.
“I should point out this is destined to fail. Arnädraig are one of the smartest, most cunning—“
“Hush, here it comes”, Aiga whispers.
Indeed, a leaf-coated arnadräig descends from the treetop, scans the area around the flute, and propels itself forward, grabbing it with its teeth.
To my and everyone’s surprise, Aiga swiftly jumps back and manages to hold the dragon for a moment. It’s barely as big as her arm.
“Good job”, I say, “but this isn’t the arnädraig that stole your ayllyre.”
“It isn’t?”, the bard says. Her eyes slowly move to the treetop and sees a large family of forest dragons looking back at her. “Uh, Storyteller?”
I’ve noticed them too. I look at Aiga in horror.
“I think you have a youngling in your hands”, I whisper. “Let it go. Slowly.”
“But my instruments…!”
In a fraction of a second, the treetop becomes empty as the dragons jump in Aiga’s direction, hissing, angry, their tiny claws extended.
A swirl of leaves surrounds the bard, engulfing her in a blur of greens and browns.
“Aiga!”, I shout. I step forward and extend my arm. Bone begins to grow from it and shape into a shield.
I can’t believe I’m standing between the bard and the dragons. They collide against the bone and become angrier. A single arnädraig isn’t deadly, but a whole family of them is a different story.
Aiga is quick to release the young arnädraig and cowers in fear behind the shield, but the dragons do not give up.
“Give them the instrument!”, I yell.
“The instrument!”, I repeat. “We need to appease them!”
With tears in her eyes, Aiga’s trembling hands pick up the flute from the ground and she throws it into the swirl of arnädraig surrounding us.
A moment passes.
With a screech of delight indicating they achieved what they wanted, the dragon family dissipates in different directions. The tree in front of us looks dead without them perching on its branches.
The bone shield is a shield no more. My arm shapeshifts back to normal, and I’m quick to cover it with the sleeve. People around us laugh and applaud as if it is a usual occurrence in that part of the world.
By the gods, Aiga. The last thing I wanted was attention.
She’s crying and sobbing, thanking me profusely but immensely regretting having lost not one but two instruments.
“I made them”, she repeats over and over again. “And now they’re… they’re gone. Forever.”
“Well, sometimes these things turn up elsewhere”, I reply. “You can also put up a reward, I’m sure many Arnwellii are used to these challenges.”
“And you protected me!”, Aiga cries even louder.
“Let’s call it even for paying my travel fee this morning”, I retort.
“I thought you renounced your mahrym”, the bard says. Her face of bone still has tear trails all over.
“I did”, I concede. “You do know mahrym and bone shapeshifting aren’t incompatible, right?”
“Right”, she says, her breathing now steadying. She takes a deep inhalation of the myriad smells of the swamps. “Ah well! Time to sing our troubles away!”
“Our troubles?”, I repeat.
“We’ve been traveling for a while and you haven’t gotten rid of me yet. I’d say we make a great team! Shared travels, shared troubles!”
I don’t have the hear to correct her. She sits on a fallen log and starts to sing a beautiful melody about a dragon who loved music.
For a moment, the world around her stands still. The sun hiding in the horizon, the first fireflies dancing in the air, the people in the distance looking in her direction, mesmerised, the still waters of the swamp, the clouds in the sky and the silent summer wind.
Some arnädraig perch themselves on the tallest branches and listen to the bard’s song in silence, tilting their heads as the tune changes. In no time, the empty tree is full of life again.
One of the dragons extends a pair of wings, earlier hidden in its mantle of leaves, and glides down, right beside Aiga. Her eyes are closed as she sings, pouring her heart in the song.
The arnädraig flees and the others hide as soon as the bard finishes the song. She looks happy with her improvisation.
She looks even happier when she discovers her ayllyre right where the curious arnädraig had been.
“I’ll hide it well this time”, she promises, and buries it deep in her bag.
The atmosphere she had created vanishes as the sun finally sets and tiny dots of light fill the air around us.
“Where’s the inn? I’m starving!”, she exclaims. Any trace of sadness is no longer there. She seems to have forgotten about the flute for now.
We walk away from the arnädraig tree and enter the first town in Arnara: Arnán.
Aiga’s already thrilled with all the new sights and smells, and thank the gods Arnwellii label their trees with names, otherwise we would’ve walked past the inn.
Perhaps, for the first time in longer than I can remember, I can stay here for a while and enjoy this priceless peace. I’m sure Aiga needs it too.