The Lorelei Signal
The Invisible Harp
Written by Laura J. Underwood / Artwork by Marge Simon
“Hurry up,” the steward said. “They are about to start.”
Before Anwyn Baldomyre could ask what was about to start, the steward seized his wrist and hauled him through the door. He felt the jangle of harp strings inside the cerecloth sack.
“Have a care,” Glynnanis protested.
“Go on, take him to the hall to join the rest of the harpers,” the steward snarled at the nearest guards, and Anwyn found himself being herded like a sheep gone astray. He was whisked through a set of doors into a grand hall where quite a crowd had gathered. Men and women jostled for a place along a set of ropes overlooking the central venue.
Anwyn was taken to an arrangement of benches on the side. There he spied several harpers ranging from a child of no more than ten clutching a tiny harp that had seen better days to an ancient codger whose hands rested on nothing. The latter noticed Anwyn’s puzzled stare and sniffed with derision, his grey eyes narrowing.
Grey eyes? Anwyn thought.
Before Anwyn could ask any of the others what was about to happen, the steward stopped before them.
“All right, you all know the rules. You are allowed to play one song and you may sing along with it if you desire. There will be a sand timer turned, and you will have until the sand runs out to complete your song. His lordship will ask her ladyship to choose the best among you to serve her for the year. You will be provided with room and board and a sack of gold and be expected to perform at all dinners and functions as pleases his lordship and his lady. At the end of the year, you will be free to go, but if you choose to stay, you will be paid a handsome annual salary as her ladyship’s official harper.”
Anwyn frowned. He had not come to serve a lord or his lady. All he wanted was to shelter for the night. He started to open his mouth and say so, but the steward turned his back. A fanfare of horns blasted throughout the air, and a small entourage entered the chamber, led by young ladies with baskets of flower petals. They scattered the contents of their baskets across the path of a couple who entered wearing gowns of white and gold.
“Hear ye, hear ye, make welcome to the Lord and Lady of the Golden Rosecroft.”
Every man and woman in the place suddenly bowed or curtsied. The steward cast a glance at all the harpers, and they rose and followed suit. Anwyn, however, could not help but notice that the ancient one merely rubbed his beard and bowed in a curt manner as one who did not believe the Lord of the castle was his master. And when his hand moved away, a bit of his beard stuck to his fingers. He gave them a shake and frowned.
Grey eyes and a false beard and no harp?
“Oh, it’s there all right,” Glynnanis sang in his head. “And if you had made your sacrifice, you would be able to see it.”
An invisible harp?
The grey eyes flashed on him once more. Anwyn decided to look elsewhere. Several other harpers sat on the bench as well, most of them looking a little careworn. So did their harps, for that matter. Neglected old instruments that looked as though they had been cobbled together from odd pieces of wood.
Something is definitely not right here, Anwyn thought.
The fanfare ended. The Lord and his Lady stood on the dais now. He gestured grandly to the room and said, “Thank you one and all for attending my wedding feast. On behalf of my beloved new wife, I welcome all harpers who come here to compete, and wish all of you the best of luck.”
He turned and assisted his bride to her chair at the high table before claiming his own. Servants began to hustle about, serving them food and drink. The steward stepped forward and bowed to the couple.
“My Lord, my Lady, how shall we proceed?”
“By color, of course,” the Lord replied. “Pass out the tiles, and I shall allow my Lady to pull their mates from within the second sack.”
“As you will,” the steward said.
He stepped over to one side where two sacks lay. Picking up one, he gave it a shake and marched over to the row of harpers. “Reach in,” he said, “and draw a tile.”
One by one, they drew. Anwyn got one painted gold. The child received one in green and she smiled. The old man--assuming he was old at all--drew a tile as black as pitch, and somehow, Anwyn decided from the looks the fellow kept passing his way, it was appropriate.
“I think he thinks you are going to use magic to cheat,” Glynnanis said.
How would you know that?
“His harp told me so,”_ Glynnanis replied.
His invisible harp speaks to you?
“It is not invisible to me,” his harp replied in his head.
Anwyn tried not to frown. That was a riddle he could not resist. How could a harp be invisible and sentient at the same time?
“Because it is not a true harp,”_ Glynnanis said. “It is an elemental—a spirit of air.”
Like a wraith?
Even more of a puzzle now, but before Anwyn could ask, the steward had taken up the second sack and approached the dais. He bowed and the Lord gestured permission for him to approach. As Anwyn watched, a servant brought a small bench and set it before the dais. The steward took his sack over to the Lady, and with another bow, he opened the top and held it out to her.
The Lady’s smile was wistful and pretty, and she looked a bit shy as she slipped one hand into the sack and rummaged around. Then her tiny hand came out clutching a tile that she offered to the steward. He took the tile and held it high for all to see.
“The first is blue,” the steward announced.
The harper in possession of the matching tile rose from the bench and started towards the little stool with as much dignity as he could muster. He seated himself, drawing his harp to his chest. Waiting, he watched as the steward turned the hourglass over and the sands began to spill. He began to play a simple but elegant country tune.
Alas, some of his strings quickly lost their tuning, and he looked puzzled but continued to play. Anwyn felt something in the air, like a breeze passing over the small hairs of his own hands. And even the strings that the harper was not touching appeared to vibrate just a whit, causing a discordant sound to fill the air.
The audience cringed. The sand seemed to take forever to slide out of the top of the glass, and then suddenly the steward called “Time.” Notes fell silent, and the whisper of air ceased to touch Anwyn’s senses.
Glynnanis, what did I just feel?
“The air elemental,” the harp replied.
Anwyn glanced at the old harper and saw his eyes narrow. He was playing with a crystal that dangled about his neck now and as Anwyn narrowed his own gaze, he saw the pale aura of magic in the stone.
The steward took the bag to the lady once more, and this time she drew a tile of white. Another harper rose and stepped over to the stool as the first took a bench on the far side of the room. As before, the man’s strings began to shift and lose their tension, and again, from the corner of his eye, Anwyn saw the old harper was fingering the stone. This happened again and again as yellow, red and grey were drawn. Either the strings would lose their tuning, or the harper would flinch and hit a wrong note.
There were three harpers remaining now who had not played. Anwyn, the old man and the little girl. As the last harper whose tile was brown began to play and kept batting at his neck between notes, she sidled over closer to Anwyn, her eyes wide.
“Your harp is beautiful,” she whispered.
“Thank you,” Anwyn whispered back. “What’s your name?”
“Kira,” she said. “And yours.”
“I am Anwyn,” he replied.
“Pleased to meet you,” she whispered. Then she sighed and said, “I am afraid,”
“That I will fail as they have.”
Anwyn leaned closer to her. “Just do what you love to do best,” he said. “That is what my old master used to tell me. Let nothing distract you. Play from your heart.”
The harper on the stool sighed and ceased to try and play even though he still had time.
The steward shrugged and let the hourglass run out before as he took the sack to the lady once more. She reached in, rummaged a bit and drew forth a tile of green. Anwyn heard little Kira gasp. He reached over and patted her hand and said, “Just do what you love.”
Nodding, she stood and carried her ragged little harp over to the stool. The steward eyed her for a moment, and then picked up the hourglass and turned it over.
Kira took a deep breath. Her fingers danced over the strings, and she began to sing a simple ballad about the first days of spring. Anwyn saw the lady’s face light up just a hint. Kira played and sang, and seemed to be safe from the interference.
But then Anwyn felt the movement of air, and though her strings did not falter, she suddenly coughed in the middle of her song.
Anwyn glanced at the old harper. He was rubbing that crystal harder than usual. Air lifted Kira’s hair and pulled it into her eyes. She closed them and continued to play. Good for you, Anwyn thought.
“Time!” the steward called.
Kira gasped and ceased to sing or play. She looked up at the lady, then over at Anwyn as she bowed and scurried over to the bench on the far side to join the others who had finished.
He is cheating, Anwyn thought. He is using his elemental to interfere with their songs and their playing.
“As he will do to us,” Glynnanis agreed. “The elemental tells me his master is determined to gain this position. He has tried to gain it before, and was rejected because he was not good enough. So he captured the elemental and forced him to wear the shape of an invisible harp.”
We will see about that, Anwyn replied in his head.
The lady was rummaging in the sack again, and this time, she drew forth a tile of gold. The steward held it up. Anwyn took a deep breath and crawled to his feet and approached the dais. Even as he seated himself, he felt the whisper of the air elemental growing around him. The steward turned the hourglass over once more.
Anwyn began to play a strathspey, humming with it. He felt the elemental approaching, and it whipped about his hands. He ignored it and continued to play, Glynnanis’ golden strings humming like beautiful bells. He felt the elemental whip around his head and try to tickle his ears. Anwyn merely bowed his head and continued to play, remembering the ways his old teacher would try to distract him. It tickled, but he kept on playing.
“Please, stop,” a whispering voice said in his ear. “I do not wish to harm you or your living wood, but he will only make me do worse if you keep playing so well.”
Do you wish to be free? Anwyn thought.
“I do,” the windy voice replied.
Anwyn continued to play, but now he changed his tune. In his head, he summoned the Song of Breaking, letting the notes tinkle about like broken shards of glass. Then with a deep breath, he let go the one piercing note, aiming all his concentration on the crystal in the old man’s hands.
There was a keening, and the old man gasped as the crystal shattered to a fine dust.
“I am free!” the elemental cried, and with a rushing wind, it fled the chamber.
Anwyn tried not to laugh aloud as he continued his song until he saw the last flicker of sand tumbling out of the hourglass. But he saw the old man glaring.
“Time!” the steward called.
Anwyn ceased to play. He saw the lady’s eyebrows rise in admiration, and her lord looked a little stunned. Anwyn rose from the stool, bowed and stepped over to the far side with the others to take a seat.
“I believe that leaves but one tile,” the steward said and held the bag to the lady. She drew forth the black and shuddered.
The old man stormed over to the stool, but he did not sit down.
“Where is your harp?” the steward asked.
“That one destroyed it with his song. That note he sang shattered my invisible harp. He cheated because he knew I would win.”
Anwyn rose as the old man stormed over to the bench and shook a finger at him.
“You cheated! You destroyed my invisible harp because you knew I was the best there is. None of you deserve this position, but I do!”
“I cheated?” Anwyn retorted. “You were using the magic of your so-called invisible harp to stop others from playing a fair contest. Besides, your beard is coming off.”
Anwyn reached up and yanked a mass of hair free. The old man screamed in rage and reached for Anwyn’s throat. Anwyn tried to back away, but the bench caught the back of his knees, staggering him and he fought to keep his balance. The old man bore down on him with a roar.
But then there was a youthful shout, and before the old man could connect, a small harp bashed him in the side of the head. He tumbled away, screaming in pain. Anwyn caught himself and looked over at his rescuer.
Kira was standing there, heaving with outrage and sorrow. Her small harp was mangled now.
Still screaming, the old man started to raise a hand to strike Kira, but by then, the guards had rushed over and seized him.
“Bring him here,” the Lord ordered, and they dragged him to the dais.
Now his white hair rode askew, and the rest of his beard fell away.
“Lothoria,” the lady whispered.
“How dare you return when you were banished before?” the Lord said angrily. “Take him to the dungeons. Gag him and chain him to the walls to await his fate.”
Lothoria screamed as he was hauled out of the chamber. The populace whispered and muttered when the steward raised his hand and shouted, “Silence.”
He turned and bowed to the lady.
“Are you ready to choose?” he asked.
“I am,” she said and rose to face the rest of the harpers. “The one who saved my life by revealing that odious man is the one who will be rewarded as my harper.”
The steward gestured for Anwyn to come forward. For a moment, he hesitated as the lady gestured to her servants.
“As part of your reward, you shall receive this beautiful harp,” she said.
A small harp carved with leaves was revealed under a cloth. Anwyn stared at it and sighed as it was brought down the stairs and placed in his hands.
“My lady,” he said with a deep bow. “You honor me, but I am not here to take a position. I was merely seeking shelter for the night. Besides, as far as I am concerned, there is one here who far better deserves this post.”
He turned and smiled as he urged Kira to come forward. For a moment, the girl hesitated. Anwyn put the small harp into her hands.
“She is a brave little soul, and I think she will grow up to be the most celebrated harper you could ever find in your land,” Anwyn said.
The lord started to speak, but his lady raised her hand and smiled.
“You are a truly honorable man, Master Baldomyre,” she said. “Kira, if you are willing to accept the post in Master Baldomyre’s stead, I will gladly have you serve me.”
Kira curtsied. “As your ladyship wishes, I shall be honored.”
A cheer rose from the ranks. Kira looked up at Anwyn and beamed with joy.
“A very wise decision, I must say,” Glynnanis sang in his head.
On that, Anwyn felt certain he and the harp would agree.
Laura J. Underwood will probably never stop writing tales. She is a retired librarian who published her first article at 17 and has continued to produce nonfiction, novels and short stories. Her latest novel was Angels of Mercy, a fantasy of dark elves and old folklore set in East Tennessee where she has lived her life thus far and has no intention of moving from at this time. She can usually be found noodling on her own harp Glynnanis when she is not putting pictures of food on Facebook where she sometimes reviews and talks about writing too.