The Lyre’s Case
Malik woke with the rising sun and the smell of coffee. It was a Saint’s given conclusion that no matter how early Malik rose, he would never get up before Abrie. In his youth, Malik wondered if Abrie even slept at all. However, as the years passed, Malik saw Abrie catch winks here and there.
Malik rolled out of his covers and made a quick dash to roll them back tight. It would be his duty, after morning coffee, to break down the tent and stack the supplies onto Callie. He was hard-pressed to pick which one he loathed more.
“Good morning,” Abrie said, as Malik poked his head from the tent flap. “Today we will move west. I have poured over the map while you slept in.”
Malik looked to the horizon and saw that the sun was barely peeking into view. He took the coffee and said nothing in return. It was too early to argue.
“The conclusion. We can be at the Green Market far sooner than any town. There will still be pulled inns available for purchase.”
“If only we had a stone to spend on one,” Malik replied.
Abrie patted on his lyre case. “That is the satisfaction of bringing another form of currency everywhere we travel. No one will deny a bard the right to a meal, not if he is worth his weight in stone.”
Malik had learned early in life that people would pay you with their last breath for a good night.
“We will work on a retinue as we travel. The Green Market is always a tricky place to play. So many travelers from across the country; no two men or women know the song the same. It is easy to get caught up and lose yourself a good meal. That is why you must know your audience, Malik.”
Abrie always seemed most excited when he analyzed others. He always pressed on Malik that in the southern hills, you had to sing with grasp undertones. In the Northern swells, one had to pitch their voice like a seabird. Each location provided a chance for a new tone or trick. Malik played to several crowds as a bard, but Abrie was quick to remind him he never played to the same crowd twice. Even if one person left, and another arrived, it changed the dynamic of the room.
Malik paid attention to all the lessons. Although, like last night at the Wayward, he was not always quick to use said lessons for good deeds.
“Do we have any more coffee?” Malik asked, draining the tin pot that hung over the small fire.
Abrie shrugged. “It would appear that coffee is always the first thing to go.”
With a heavy sigh, Malik took his last drink and moved off to break down the camp. Abrie started his morning conversation with Sally. She nuzzled into his chest and soaked in all his innermost thoughts. He spoke them far too quiet for Malik to hear, but Malik had every intention to believe that if Sally was interested, they were boring anyhow.
Malik loaded Callie with as much speed as he could muster, while still getting the ropes tight. He wanted no part in putting the items back into the fallen cases.
“I wish you would stop with the constant droning,” Malik said to Callie, as he placed the last of the cases onto her back.
“Maybe if you would listen, you could carry a tune like she carries our supplies,” Abrie said.
Malik turned around and saw Abrie ready to go, holding Sally’s reigns inside his palm. No one had to guide the pack animal, but Abrie liked her to be close to him.
“I hate when you sneak up on me like that,” Malik said, pulling the last knot tight.
Abrie moved closer and patted Callie on the head. “I am sure Callie here is trying to tell you she does not enjoy your constant droning on her,” Abrie laughed.
Malik wished the coffee had been more plentiful. There was nothing like a lengthy walk with no energy or motivation.
Malik looked off into the distance. It could have been worse; at least they were going to the Green Market. There they could find coffee, food, and a place to lie out of the weather. Abrie did many things well, but bartering might have been his strongest suit.
Abrie took the lead down the path. Sally followed him. Next in line was Malik and behind him, braying like a rooster who just saw the morning sun, was Callie. Malik looked back at the mule and could almost swear he saw a large toothed smile.
Malik was about to say something again about her, but that smileif it had been a smilevanished. Sally kicked out and narrowly missed Malik’s jaw. Malik flung himself back and landed in a small shrub on the side of the path. Abrie stopped and turned, watching Sally rear up.
“What is going on?” Malik had a hard time getting the words out of his mouth. Sally was a calm old mule, but this was far from calm.
“What is the matter, girl?” Abrie tried to place his hand on Sally’s forehead.
The mule looked congealed for a moment, and then Callie kicked up dirt too. Callie’s entire body came up from the ground and drove back into the dry path. A cloud of dust pooled around Malik, and he coughed.
Abrie was under the nose of Sally now, trying with no luck to soothe her. Callie was even worse. Without her reins, she spun in dramatic circles. Malik was ready for her to dart off into the trees nearest them. He wondered for a moment if he would even bother stopping her from going. Then he remembered everything he owned was strapped to her back. The idiot animal would have to stay.
Malik hopped up to his feet and tried to sidle in next to Callie. She ignored his presence. She brayed louder than she had ever sounded off before. Malik looked back to Abrie, who had not calmed Sally but had stopped her kicking and running.
Malik avoided another broken jaw and pushed off Callie, using her own force to sidestep her wild, thrashing body.
The first case slid off Callie’s back and onto the ground after the third leap into the air. Malik may have rushed more than he should have this morning. Honestly though, who would have ever guessed the mules would jump off the deep end. Neither of them had ever so much as tugged on their reins. Not even Calliewith all her annoying traitshad ever tried something so drastic.
Malik took a moment to glance over at Abrie again. Abrie did better with Sally, who nuzzled into his chest, but Malik had no relationship with Callie to lean on. Malik was about to suggest a tradeoff of mules when he heard the first vestiges of a scream from somewhere in the trees.
Callie stopped thrashing long enough to turn toward the sound. Abrie held his hand up to stop Malik from asking the obvious question. Everything seemed to fall into silence. Even the wind died away. The bugs that would normally buzz at a constant rate were quiet. Malik waited for the scream to come again. He waited for any sign of where it had come from the first time.
Something much lower emitted from the trees. The scream had been high pitched, but this was a rumble. It made the leaves on the trees shiver down onto the ground. Callie’s eyes were wide with terror. Malik wanted to ask Abrie what went on, but the older man already stepped away from him, toward the tree line. Malik moved to follow; Abrie held his hand up and waved him back without saying a word. Abrie listened for something.
The silence fell back over their surrounding area. Malik felt trapped in the silence and wonder for so long he thought maybe they had all imagined the noises. Maybe there had been no scream. The mules had got swept up in a panic over nothing, and then they had spread the panic to Malik and Abrie. Abrie still stared into the trees. His back was to Malik, but Malik did not think Abrie imagined anything. Abrie never rattled. Something had his attention though. Something he thought important enough to stop their pursuit of the Green Market.
Malik grew so tired of waiting that he moved toward the case that had fallen from Callie’s back. If they planned to stand around, then he could at least get the mule ready to go again. Abrie turned his head to check on what Malik did and said nothing. He still looked to be straining to hear something further.
Malik’s heart had reached a normal rhythm, and the mules had calmed down, though Callie still looked spooked.
“I don’t…” Malik started, but a second scream cut him off.
This time, there was no way of mistaking the blood-chilling scream. It had come from their left. Malik knew too little of the map to know what lay in those woods, but that scream told him he never wanted to find out.
Abrie ran over to Callie and pulled off his lyre case. Not the lyre he used for playing, but the lyre he never used. Malik was not only confused by the sudden rush to get the lyre, but it also confused him why the never used lyre would be his first grab.
“Stay here,” Abrie said to Malik. “Guard the mules and our things. I will return.”
Abrie jumped over the first row of vines and weeds and disappeared. Abrie knew full well Malik would never stay put. Not while there was excitement. There was no way it could be that bad anyhow. Not if Abrie rushed head on with only a lyre case and not a bit of training for violence.
“Stay here,” Malik said to the two mules. He still tethered each of them to low-hanging branches, just in case. Then he took off over the first layer of brush and after Abrie.
The trees were much thicker than Malik would have guessed. He cursed his decision with almost every other step. He lost count after the third time of how many times he had almost rolled his ankle. Malik thought about going back and staying with the mules. Abrie had wanted him to stay. Abrie had asked him to stay. It would have been noble of him to protect the mules. The scream came louder as he moved through the trees and his resolve changed. He remembered the screams of his own mother and father. He remembered little of anything else about the day, but those screams were ever present with him. He doubled his pace and stopped worrying so much about where he placed his feet. Oddly enough, the less he thought about it, the faster he moved through the brush. When he came out through a clearing, small prickly balls covered his legs. He pulled the prickles that were accessible off his pants and kept moving. Abrie could not have been too far ahead of him. He thought about yelling after him, but then the scream came again, and another low rumble followed it. This time acorns fell from the trees, and birds scattered into the reaches of the sky.
Malik decided it would be best if he maybe kept the yelling to a bare minimum. He would have to find Abrie the old-fashioned way, following the main path until he stumbled upon him. Malik would call himself more of a map reader than a tracker, although he was little of either. Still, he looked down for any signs of footprints or signs of Abrie. He saw none. What he heard were the screams again, much louder. They were right beside him now. Malik ran toward a small overhang of vines and pushed them aside. The pathway dropped off to a small ravine. The drop was only about fifteen feet to the ravine floor. Malik would have been able to make the leap and help whoever was down below.
There was just one small problem that stopped him from doing anything; the nine-foot-tall monster standing over her limp body.
Malik felt a strong urge to turn and run. Abrie said that he was to wait with the mules. He had every inclination to return to those mules and wait it out. Then he saw the girl stand up, picking something up off the ground from beside her leg. As the leaves fell away from it, Malik had no trouble seeing that it was an exceptionally large, two-handed, beast of a sword. Malik felt a slight pang of guilt. He would have just left a girl to her own devices against a nine-foot-tall monster. Then she pulled out a sword and made him realize he was nothing more than a scared bard.
The girl let out another scream that dwarfed even the low growl of the monster. She swung the sword with some power, but with no accuracy behind it. The monster sidestepped, and the girl swung again. She could never kill it at the rate she went. Before too long, she would tire and fall again. Malik doubted the next time she fell, the monster would allow her to get back up.
Malik heard another scream from the girl’s small body. He doubted she could be any older than he was. She could have even been younger. That seemed to hold no factor, as she continued to come at the beast with a fire in her fury. She ducked under a massive claw that would have torn her in half and struck a blow to the monster’s leather-like hide. The sword careened off, and the girl stumbled back. Malik knew she was in trouble when he first saw her down in the ravine. Now that the sword glanced off the creature without as much as a scratch, he knew she would be dead soon. All the while he stood there, slack-jawed and wide-eyed.
Malik knew he would be no help to the girl. She would die, and he would sit there watching as she did. His dreams of defeating the Tempre Warriors were just that, a dream. He knew nothing of combat. He played with sticks and branches and the rest of the world swung metal with sharp points.
Malik closed his eyes. If he planned to stand here being a coward, he would do so without having to see the final blow.
The girl let out a grunt with every swing. Malik kept his eyes closed, but he could imagine her body moving slower and slower. In all honesty, it surprised him she made it this long. The beast rumbled the forest floor and again he felt the trees shake free leaves and nuts.
Malik wondered where Abrie had made it to. When Abrie saw the girl, did he turn and run? Was that the men Malik and Abrie were? Malik opened his eyes and saw that the girl was not wielding her sword high anymore. The chunk of metal lay point down in her hand. She looked spent. Her hair drenched in sweat, her face beet red from exertion, she looked ready to fall over. Malik felt pity for her. He knew nothing about her, but he would be the only man in the world to know she had died. Where was her family? Why was she even here in this forest?
As his thoughts swirled, Malik felt more and more like a failure. What he did was not right. He could fight an innkeeper. He could start bar room brawls and laugh. He could dream a big dream of changing the world, but when it came right down to it, he froze in fear.
Malik felt sick. This was not who he envisioned himself being. His first ever sign of real danger after the attack on his village, and he ignored it. His hand reached out, and he grabbed onto the nearest tree, ripping away a dead branch from its trunk.
He would die here today. At least he would die with some honor. Malik made to jump down the ravine, but a gnarled, old hand caught him by the shoulder.
“Shh, don’t move,” said Abrie into his ear.
Malik warred with his own thoughts. On one hand, Abrie was right to stop him. He would throw his life away, and he knew nothing of the girl he went to protect. He did not know all the members of his village, but if he had the chance, he would go back and save them all.
“We can’t sit back and just watch her die,” Malik said.
Abrie had been staring down into the ravine alongside Malik, but he turned to look the younger man. “We will do what is best,” Abrie replied.
Malik readied to argue his case. Too many times he had let Abrie talk of personal peace and the sanctity of the whole, not today. He had no desire to let Abrie talk his way out of this situation. Abrie could stay calm if he wished. Malik would fight. Even if he knew for a complete certainty that he would lose.
Malik took a step back and moved to jump into the ravine for the second time. Abrie reached his full arm and struck Malik in the chest. Malik would have never called Abrie a strong man. Abrie was old, and he knew nothing of physical violence. Abrie always talked of being meek and avoiding fights. When Malik stumbled back and fell onto his backside, those thoughts slivered away. Abrie’s arm was like a brick wall and Malik had run full long into it. Abrie made no perceptible movement with the collision. It was as if Malik were a flea being swatted by a dog.
Malik would have commented, but Abrie pulled the old lyre case from his back. Malik could not remember a time Abrie ever opened the case. Malik leaned forward as Abrie dropped to one knee without saying a word. Malik felt more angst now than he had moments ago when he first saw the towering monster. Why was he so eager to see what the lyre looked like? He had seen many lyres throughout his youth. Matter of fact, he played one almost nightly for the drunks at local inns. Still, he bit his lip and leaned in for a closer view of the wooden instrument.
Abrie seemed to be taking his time, although it was only a few moments. Abrie flipped the two small metal clasps holding the case shut. Then, with practiced fingers, he flipped the case open. Malik gasped. The lyre looked like no lyre he had ever seen before. It had no strings and there was no way music emitted from that thing.
“What is that?” Malik caught himself asking.
Abrie pulled the instrument from its case without answering. In his hands, the lyre took shape. It was one long piece of curved wood that bore clips at either end. Dangling from the bottom clip was a thick braided cord. Abrie reached down and grabbed the cord into his hand before slinging it over the top clip. This was not the first time Abrie had done that movement, Malik thought.
Abrie reached into the case again and pulled out a second item. This one was a straight wooden shaft with a sharpened metal tip and feathers protruding from the back. Malik knew that this instrument was no lyre.
“Why do you have a bow?” Malik stumbled over the words.
Abrie turned and like a falcon diving for its prey, the arrow jumped off the string. Malik barely blinked before a second arrow flew. Malik watched the arrows trail through the air and embed themselves into the monster’s flesh. The roar that came next split Malik’s eardrums. Malik felt the spit catch in his throat.
“When, how?” Malik tried to say.
Abrie nocked another arrow and watched the monster. Malik was not sure if Abrie ignored him, or if his throat was just too dry to make sensible words. Either way, it was as if Malik was alone in the forest. Like he watched a man he had never met, shooting at a monster he could hardly believe existed.
Abrie waited for the monster to turn toward the clearing. Without a second passing, he shot two more arrows true to course. Five arrows now protruded from the monster’s flesh. Still, the creature did not stumble.
The girl spared a glance up the ravine. Malik was sure that they made eye contact for a split second, but she quickly broke it. Her sword came up off the ground. She hoisted it up high over her head. Malik wondered if he could even lift that giant sword, but the girl did not look muscular or strong.
Malik glanced back to Abrie, who had the sixth arrow onto the string.
The girl let out a grunt from down below and Abrie let loose. The girl’s sword traced through the air right above the monster’s head. The arrow reached the beast first, driving into the monster’s skull. There was no roar, no loud thud of a body hitting the ground. Instead, the monster turned into a cloud of gray smoke. The girl’s sword drove through the smoke and sliced into the ground with a clang.
Malik watched the smoke dissipate with the wind. The girl looked up at them again.
Malik laughed at everything he had just seen. That was when the girl fell over from pure exhaustion.