by Salinda Tyson
The tavern is crowded, and although my bed will likely be in the stable, the coppers I earn and the food and ale, will keep flesh on my bones and soles on my boots for a while.
Back-country folk are eager for songs and stories, news of places they have never seen, places dreamed of, places rumored, and some places these men perhaps have been, like the lords’ wars and work crews and mine pits, galleys and dungeons.
Their clothes are homespun, worn and patched, no finery among them. A rather pretty serving girl stares at me and tilts her head. As if she is considering what might be between us. Or spinning dreams of what her life might be in the wide world beyond. So I take a breath, let it out, and respond to an inner dare.
My fingers stroke the nine strings of the lyre-harp. Humming, crooning, I sing softly and low, almost in the voice of a boy child.
My granny was grumpy. Her voice went on and on…
A few laughs and smiles. Evidently, bad-tempered grannies are known to all.
It begins so innocently, this song.
So words pour out of me. But I remember her.
She had been telling stories of fantastic places on that day, of adventures and opinions fit to stuff a brain full and hang out of one’s ears like straw to feed the mules and donkeys. She punctuated her tales with frowns and smirks and hands on ample hips — and sometimes more.
A show shake of her head and a finger stabbed into my face were the most dangerous signs.
Suddenly as I listened came the slow head shaking, the lips tightening, the finger pointing.
I froze. What had I done this time?
Granny shoved me inside the cottage. “Run, boy,” she said hoarsely. “Get the horses. Take your brothers and sisters and mother with you. Run for the woods. ”
That rough shove hurt. The feel of her broad, calloused hand burned between my shoulder blades.
I yelled and twisted around, fighting to see what she was shoving me away from.
Granny had never moved so fast. She grabbed an ancient sword from the wall and strapped on a helm and a round shield over her left arm, quick as lightning. A moment transformed her from a muttering old woman to …a guardian spirit. Her head was held high, her eyes snapped. She did not look like gran. She had become a powerful, frightening other. She stared me down.
“Hear that thunder? See the dust cloud coming for us? It’s death, boy, it’s riders on great horses. Get the rest of the family or I’ll slap this blade on your backside.”
Horses’ hooves drummed the ground. A woman screamed. A smell of smoke rolled uphill.
“They’re at the outer gate! Run, child, run.” She shoved the bag of food and coins that was always kept ready over my shoulders.
“No time. I’d slow you down. I’m too old to run again. Take the bow and arrows with you, and the snares. Tell your ma to hide in the woods, up in the mountains beyond the snows.” Her eyes blazed despite her calm. She scared and thrilled me at once. The back of my neck burned and goose flesh covered my arms. She bent the great bow, slung a full quiver over her left shoulder. As she shooed me toward the woods, she wrapped a fat-soaked cloth around an arrowhead, dipped it into an abandoned cooking fire, and shot the flaming arrow into the midst of the oncoming riders. It struck a hayrick and sparked a sheet of fire, trapping both horse and lead rider. Man and beast toppled to the ground, pulling two other riders down.
“Run!” she growled at me over her shoulder, fixing another arrow and taking cover behind our market cart.
Archers stepped from their huts, firing into the oncoming ranks. They covered our escape. Mother and the other women looked back only once, then herded us grimly away, onto the shaggy ponies, into the hills, into the deep woods. Other villagers fled with horses, cattle, and goats, and anything they could carry. Screams of horses and men and the farm animals left behind filled the smoky air.
I looked back once when mama let us stop to catch our breath. We stared down into the valley that had been home. Gran, mounted on a cart horse, had reached the storehouse beneath the cliff, the stone house we called the safe house, and staggered inside. The village was overrun by foot soldiers and horsemen scything down village men and those unlucky enough to have fled too late. Mother swept her cloak across my eyes, yanked me to her side, pushed my head into her skirts. So I could not see.
“Do not look back,” she said. Her body stiffened. She kneed her pony onward.
“But what is gran doing?” I twisted in her grasp. Always wide-eyed, wanting to see.
A sudden great sound pierced the air, a deep, low, unearthly boom. It raised every hair on the back of my neck. I peeked, and spotted Gran, a tiny figure who had raised a horn to her lips and blown. The sound went on, climbed and thinned eerily. An arrow hit gran. She slumped to her knees in the snow.
Mother embraced me. Her shoulders shook as she dug her heels into the pony.
Other sounds joined that of the horn: a crack like a branch snapping, then a great shushing whisper of the crust of snow above the cliff. Snow slid atop snow, an avalanche unleashed on the soldiers below. The only weapon we in the hills at the edge of the snows had. A roaring greater than that of rivers and beasts descended the rock faces into our valley. The snows gathered speed, plunging downhill, flinging a vast white blanket over the lord’s riders, burying them all.
So some of our village had escaped the greedy lord’s men, who came to steal our food and animals. And granny was lost, her voice gone beneath the snow she called down to save us.
Now a grown man, I travel the hills. Minstrel and storyteller, I stroke the harp and honor the old heroes, the old tales. Often in villages huddled in valleys beneath the shelter of forest and granite walls and drifts of snow, I sing of granny. Sometimes my eyes burn and tears slide down my cheeks. My gaze rises to the deep, dark belt of heavy forest that protects and provides, but which we never cut or clear because it alone can hold the rush of snow from burying us. And I smile grimly at the knowledge all mountain folk carry: Our secret way of using nature’s cold gift to protect us and let us revenge ourselves on ruthless overlords.
And my songs acquire an edge and are remembered. But of course, some of them are never sung in a lord’s court.
Yet here I have sung them. My hand eases and I stroke the strings, coaxing from them the music of a dance. But I have seen the eyes, the thoughtfulness in those usually down-turned faces. I know that I have planted a seed, sparked an idea.
Salinda Tyson has appeared in recent Third Flatiron anthologies, Shadows in Salem, and Fantasia Divinity’s Menagerie de Mythique. A lifetime fan of mythology and fractured fairy-tales, she lived a long time in San Francisco. Currently, banyan and mangrove trees fascinate her. And she has avoided snow for quite a while..