The banquet lasted through the night, and Teirtu was exhausted, having played every tune he knew from his extensive repertoire, as well as with his wealthy host’s own musicians, his children, and finally the host himself,
None of them were particularly talented, but they weren’t awful, so he flattered them anyway, as sincere as he could without making his real thoughts obvious, though he suspected they already knew.
The weight of the purse he received for his night’s labor told him he’d been obsequious enough to please the man.
Some distance from the mansion now, he found himself walking down a smooth and pleasant path, and heard his stomach rumble. He decided to stop and eat some of the food the pretty kitchen girl had set aside for his journey.
In parting she also gave him a deep and tasty kiss, and rubbed the heel of her hand on the front of his pants to give him something to distract him from the fact that it was a cold morning.
Intrigued by her forwardness, he silently vowed to return, knowing deep inside he probably never actually would; kitchen girls were notorious, and he could bring to mind a few, but what good would it do him now.
A pleasant scene of dappled sunlight shining through the high summer leaves got his attention, and there seemed to be an opening that one could pass through.
He ambled through, calm, assessing his surroundings, delighted to see there was a slow moving river with flat rocks on the shore that was bperfect for laying out his small repast.
A good place to rest and eat.
Leaving his small wineskin alone, his mouth still fuzzy with its taste from last night, he decided he no longer wanted it at all.
Pouring the wine in the river, he rinsed and filled it with the clean running water.
As the skin filled and he tipped it to rinse the residue of the wine out, he saw, just outside the copse of trees, the figure of a young woman in a green, elegant gown not suited for the forest.
Her honey-gold hair spread across her shoulders and spilled down her back in waves that jounced slightly with her steps.
She was smiling at him, and he waved at her, and beckoned her to sit with him.
Her walk was as stately as her dress, but there was something in her eyes that evoked curiosity as well as dread; they were preternaturally bright, just short of glowing.
“Welcome, young bard.”
“Madam.” His eyes slowly roamed her form under the gown.
She noticed, but didn’t take offense, or blush, or give any indication she was uncomfortable with his rudeness; if anything, she seemed amused.
“Are you a long way from home?” he asked.
She smiled. It was a beautiful smile. “This is my home.”
“You live in the woods.”
“We live in each other; there’s an understanding that’s too deep to go into now, and I seem to have interested you, but interrupted your meal.
“I will go.”
“No, oh no, please, don’t.” He scrambled to get in front of her. “I’d like some company.”
“And your own is not up to the task?” she teased.
He chuckled. “I spend enough time alone that I don’t need anymore at the moment.
“Please join me.”
He offered his hand to help her up, and she made herself comfortable beside him, and he noticed that she really did seem quite at home in her bearing; there was no fear of him emanating from her at all.
He considered her enigmatic comment a moment.
“So you live here.”
“How is that possible?”
She didn’t answer him right away, but was looking at the lute he carried.
She reached toward him. “May I?”
“What…? Oh. Oh, yes, by all means.” He unpacked it and handed it to her.
“It’s a fine lute, much used.” With nimble fingers, she plucked a pleasant chord.
“…and much cared for, and loved.”
He shifted, just watching her, noticing how she played, and how beautifully she hummed along.
She stopped, smiling at him. “Eat, troubadour. I will play for you.”
As she played, she hummed a perfect harmony, clean and sweet, and he stopped eating and closed his eyes.
His heart seemed to keep time.
Soft wind blew tendrils of her hair across the contours of her smooth face, lifted now to the westering light.
A memory of hi mother’s face, smiling down at him as he sat on her knee, singing as he played…
“That song,” he whispered. “From my childhood. How could you know?”
He looked, but she was no longer beside him.
She’d taken his wineskin and was drinking from it, but not putting her mouth to it.
She finished, and laughing, wiped her lips on the bell of her sleeve.
“Singing is thirsty work. I am Soyala.”
She handed the wineskin to him, and as he drank, he found that it was soemthing fruit flavored, with a hint of honey.
He didn’t know if it was wine, as such but it was heady.
“What are you?” He stoppered the skin.
“I am what you want me to be, my young troubadour.”
The reply opened up for him a world of crude possibilities he could say, but her bearing would not brook such insults, and they died stillborn on his tongue. She had an ineffable quality that intrigued him, even though it slightly annoyed him.
He ventured a smile. “How about my patron?”
She laughed, not at him, but clearly amused by the remark.
“Anything but that, good sir. The rifts between friends when such things are undertaken are the stuff of legend.”
He laughed as well. “I would have to agree. Soyala, you sing and play beautifully.”
He took another pull of the exotic elixir, looked out at the river flecked with sparks of sunlight.
“You have questions,” she said.
He nodded. “Many.”
“I could answer, but you have not understood even the simplest of them.”
“That you and the woods live in each other.”
She smiled approvingly. “Your memory’s good.”
“It would have to be to do what I do. That was the simplest? You don’t just mean that you live here, and are familiar with your surroundings, you mean they’re somehow a part of you.”
“I won’t pretend I understand, and I’ll probe no deeper for today, but I’d like to return sometime to talk with you.”
“You are welcome here. Tell me your name.”
She laughed, and he smiled, knowing why.
“That is what you are called, but not your name.”
“You have the right of it.”
“Does it pertain to you, or your profession?”
“All stories are essentially lies, Soyala.”
“In their essence perhaps, but at their core, there is always a seed of truth.
“You intrigue me, Teirtu; your name is a riddle.”
“Do you like riddles?” He handed her back the wineskin.
“I do.” She drank and gave it back.
He smiled again. “We’ve essentially kissed.”
“But at the core, we haven’t.”
He laughed. “We could make it true.”
She tilted her head, her eyes amused.
“You’ve had your meal, and song, and wine; there is no need for you to linger.”
“The trio’s not complete.”
“Ah. That trio. A bard’s love is plural.”
“I’m not interested in plural.”
She walked up close to him.
“I’ll not kiss you, Teirtu. You’ll need a reason to return, and if I give you what you desire, you may not.”
“What if I promised?”
“The promises of men are breath, nothing more, and the promise of a troubadour…”
“Less so. Yes, we do have a bad reputation, and not undeserved.”
He stepped away.
“I’ll walk with you to the road.”
“I’d like that, Soyala.”
She reached for his hand.
“I will write a song for you.”
“I will hear it when you sing.”
“Kiss me, Soyala.”
She touched his cheek, and leaned in, and he closed his eyes, but the kiss never landed.
When he opened his eyes, she was gone.
He chuckled and shook his head.
“You are a riddle of your own, Soyala.
“I will return to solve it.”