The Red Blade
Part One – A Breaking Song
The lilting tones of a young boy’s voice drifted high above the murmur of the market forums, above the endless susurration of conversations, and of shopkeepers competing with one another, hawking their wares to potential customers, the raucous bursts of laughter, the barking of dogs and the clinking of money as it changed hands. A clarity of tone as fine as delicate crystal rung in the voice, enough to rend the heart of any who listened, yet it strove to compete with the babble of the market that blended into one solid sound, and with the apathy of those within.
A broad street, paved with rough cobblestones that had been worn smooth by the passage of countless feet, led into the broad expanse of the markets. Along it clattered carts and pack animals laden down with wares for sale, led by grasping merchants and watched over by surly guards in jerkins of hardened leather. Citizens in their togas and slaves in their grey tunics flowed along the street, headed to and fro from the markets.
Few paid little more than scant attention to the young boy who had positioned himself at the entrance to the markets, where the street ran into it. A scrawny child, unkempt and ill fed, he had long, thin limbs that were much stained with dirt, and wore a tattered toga, frayed at the edges and threadbare elsewhere. Once a dark blue in colour, it had faded away to a mottled array of hues, some almost bleached white in places. Pale eyes peered out from beneath a ragged mop of uncut, tangled dark hair, strands of which fell down across his long face. The eyes gazed upon the passing crowds and pleaded imploringly with unspoken words. At his dirt stained feet sat a straw hat, one almost more holes than substance. It held but a scant few copper coins of the smallest size, barely of any value.
Still the boy sang on, his song clear and bright, strong for one of such size and stature and with hunger pains knotting at his empty stomach. If he did not sing then he would starve. Yet for all his efforts and the beauty of his voice, the passing crowds acted as if he stood there invisible and inaudible. Those that called the city of Ardanium home, the traders and merchants, the scholars and sages and philosophers, cared for little bar for their own thoughts and profits and studies, for the newest of philosophies that had sprung up and taken hold in the northern Akuvian city-states was that each man was responsible only to themselves, to their way of life and to no others. Those that fell through the cracks were forced to fend for themselves, ignored and despised, as was meant to be according to the Philosophy of Self as espoused by Cratocles of Ardanium.
The clear sound of the song carried to a man who made his leisurely way through the throngs of the market, meandering on a path that took him in no particular direction, and with no destination in mind. Bald of head and grey of beard, his white toga was caught up over one arm. In the same hand he held a staff which he used to help himself walk with. He stopped upon catching sound of the boy singing, and there he stood a while, listening, his head held askew and a sense of wonder growing across his leathered face. All around him, the crowds continued on, ignorant as to the nature of what they heard, or plain uncaring, but not the elderly man. After a while he nodded to himself and set forth again, this time with a more purposeful step, the end of his staff rapping against the cobble stones in beat with the tune of the singer’s song.
His decisive steps led him across the marketplace, pushing through the crowds, always following the sound of the singer, to the street that entered the marketplace. There he found the boy who sung such sweet sounds. He stopped once more, simply watching the boy with intent, thoughtful eyes. His head and long beard nodded as the boy sung on, judging the tune more so than the boy. When at last the song came to its end, the man stepped in closer.
“You have a real talent there, boy,” he said.
The boy looked up, peering through the ragged fringe of hair that hung across his face. “Thank you, sir.”
“You can sing simple tunes, so you can,” mused the man, “But what of more complex ones. Have you heard the one called The Old Man of the River?”
The boy nodded, his hair flailing about, while a momentary flash of concern touched his face. Still, bold he answered. “I have, sir.”
“Then sing it to me, boy,” the man ordered, tapping the ground with his staff.
The boy took a deep breath, composing himself and running through the song in his mind, coming to grips with it. The task set for him had been no easy one, for the tune, of tricky composition, was difficult to sing, even for a truly gifted singer.
Then, putting all such thoughts out of his mind, the boy launched into the song, his voice climbing high in the intricate, delicate refrain, sending it soaring out above the ambivalent crowds that walked by. Here and there the tune wavered in parts, yet that was hardly of surprise given the age of the one attempting such a difficult task.
For long minutes he sung on, during which time one passing lady of severe appearance tossed him a sliver of a copper coin, one that would barely buy a meal at the best of times. Then the song wound down to its conclusion, descending once more into its final notes and then silence. The boy stood there once it was complete, eyes bright, breathing deeply.
“That is indeed a rare gift there,” the man noted, giving a nod of his head. “One wasted out here, for certain. You are an orphan, boy?”
The boy simply nodded in response.
“I had thought as much. Tis a shame indeed. How would it be for you to get off the streets, to make a real use of that talent which you possess? I can help you with that, give you a purpose in life that you currently lack. Well, what do you say to that, boy?” the man asked, one brow rising in question.
The young boy did not answer at first, his face contorting with the effort of deep thoughts, his mind churning as a desire for that offered waged with the inbred wariness of those who lived on the streets. He had heard tell stories whispered by others who came from the streets, tales of those who had disappeared in the uncaring city, never to be seen again, lured away by generous offers to be used in the infernal rites of secretive cults, or snatched up to sold into slavery, or worse. All that passed through his mind, weighed up against the hunger that gripped at him and the dangers of the street. Finally he came to a conclusion, that he had nothing really to loose, and nodded his head.
“That is good,” the man replied, favouring the boy with a fatherly smile. “Tell me, boy, by what name are you known?”
“Carse. It is a good name. I am called Athradies. Come with me, Carse. There is much to be done, and much to instruct you in.”