The Minstrel
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It came to pass that one day the lady and leader of the Madrone Company held a great feast for all her followers within her hall. They came in their dozens and their hundreds, and each brought along guests, partners, and attendants as he or she would, and so the staircases and towers and ballrooms, the bowers and the alcoves and even the private rooms were filled to bursting. Their laughter and merriment spilled throughout all the halls and through the window lattice-panes and out into the streets beyond.

But the lady was not pleased. She passed by all the conversations and found them boring; she tasted of all the varied dishes and found them but ashen-flavoured; even she drew out her own lute and made music there for her company, for her skill in that area was very great, but even this gave her no pleasure. She found the songs boring and the dancing predictable.

And the lady - oh, but we ought at least to use the more familiar terms, ought we not? After all, there are many among us who have had dealings with her in the past. - Madder, we shall call her, for the prints of finger and paw, claw and tentacle along her hems, those being all that now remain of her past quarries. Lady Madder pouted to herself, considering how she might revitalize her pleasure in her company. The celebration went on about her, and yet she sat in her alcove amongst her many hanging trophies, ruby and marble and mother-of-pearl, and did not partake.

But the thought came to Lady Madder that, just as a single drop of dye may stain many fathoms of silken fabric, perhaps a new addition to her company - another toy for her to play with - might give her the excitement she so craved. So she resolved to herself that she and her company should array themselves, and should go out into the mortal realms on a hunt, and seek for themselves new servants, lovers, or fellows-at-arms.

And so Lady Madder stood up, and made this announcement to all her company - a hunt, to be mustered on the morrow and to depart at first preparation! And they cried with excitement and did her gratitude, and there were many among them who departed straightaway to sharpen their weapons and saddle their horses. (The Madrone Company does well to conceal it, this uncivility beneath their surface lacquer. That some of their members would willingly put aside the pleasures of the party and the ball to stomp in the muck and get scraped by branches and eat meat without cookery or spices - it bewilders the mind to imagine. But, ah, everyone has their own preferences, and it would be a boring world were we all the same. I try not to judge.)

In any case, the hunt departed, and they passed through their doorways and out onto the moors of the mortal realm. Now they had come at the time the mortals call night, when their sky blackens and they, overcome with lethargy, must still themselves and wait long hours until they can again take up any activity. Very few were out and about at this time, but this did not bother the lady or her followers much - it meant that they could harvest their fill of venison, beef, and mutton, without their panicking possessors getting underfoot. And those of the mortals that were out were stymied by the darkness, and fled from the chase blindly and panicked. Their captures were easy, and each member of the company could take as much as they wanted, and all were proud with their new acquisitions, and looked forwards to their return to Alagadda in triumph.

As the company joined forces again, and prepared to return through their doorway, their path flooded down between two of the thin fences the mortals establish across their lands, and before them there appeared the form of another figure on horseback - this one not so finely-groomed as the Madrone Company’s, but rather a swaybacked old nag with overgrown hooves and worn tack. But it remained spry enough to spook when their hoofbeats thundered along the road in its pursuit, and it bucked and flung off the small pale figure of its rider, and bolted into the fields. And Lady Madder and her company slowed, and they circled the fallen mortal upon their mounts, grinning at this unlooked-for pleasure - already they had had much sport tonight, and the opportunity for yet more made their mouths flood with water and their lips curl to capture every particle of the scent wafting off the creature.

And the mortal claimed that one of Lady Madder’s new acquisitions was indeed its betrothed, and demanded its return. A great tremor ran through the company at this, as their mirth overwhelmed them - heads were flung back in laughter, hands clasped in mounts’ manes so that their owners might not fall to the ground with the riotousness thereof. Oh fool! To think that one such as it might make so much as a request of the lady, let alone a demand!

But the lady was in fine humour that night - indeed, better than fine, for the richness of their hunting - and so she thought to herself that she might take a different kind of sport from this mortal, and taunt it with what it desired. For sweeter than misery and sharper than crystal is hope nearly-grasped and then lost again, the escape-route closed off just before it is taken. And the lady had seen that this mortal bore upon its back a clumsy lute, hewn from the carcass of a tree and strung with the offal of their livestock, indicating that it were some form of minstrel, and before she were to slay it she desired to make mockery of its minstrelsy as well.

So she smiled at the mortal from where she sat upon her mount, and bade it draw nearer, and to her startlement it did so, being of abnormal bravery or curiosity. And Lady Madder told the mortal that it might have its betrothed returned to it, should it be capable of besting her in a contest of music.

And her thinking was thus: should the mortal realize how low its skill stood against that of the lady, and should it yield without contest, she might return to Alagadda with her prize in satisfaction. Should the mortal be too fool as to realize this, and should it yet attempt to contest her, her company might thus depart with not only their quarry but with a laughable memory of its ignorance. And lastly, she knew the temptation that the songs of Alagadda had for mortal creatures, and should this minstrel be enthralled by it and follow her company back, she would have gained herself two pretty trinkets for the price of one. There was naught that the lady might lose, in this betting.

So Lady Madder set her hands upon her strings, and the dark and clumsy mortal night was filled with our music. In confidence the lady played for her company the corrante and the volta, and all together they laughed and sang, delighting when the mortal flinched at every stomp and at every snap of teeth.

When the lady’s song was completed, she lowered her lute and stretched out her hands, and the hems of her gown swirled out like the waves upon the shore, and she bid the mortal to outdo her, if it could.

She thought it would acquiesce without challenge, so low it hung its head, so limp its arms! But despite her expectations the mortal lifted its lute, and laid its hands upon it, and began to play.

And the company listened, and perforce - and against their desire, and against all their expectation - they found themselves entranced as surely as though they gazed upon the ripples of pure water in a silver reflecting pool. This was no clumsy imitation of our waltzes! This was no coarse penny-whistle tune! From out the soundholes of the lute spread a clear, tidy music, like the strathspey and yet unlike it, and indeed unlike to any that the company had previously known.

That there are those who understand the natures of death and living is well-known. Indeed, from this skill do our allies in Adytum draw much of their fame: that they might put blood into the bodies, clarify the eyes, and raise up the dead.

But that any so mundane as this one should be capable of restoring those voices -! The horses tossed their heads in anxiety, and the riders closed their hands more tightly upon the reins, when the tree-carcass opened its throat and made song. And even more amazed were they that it spoke not of its death, this great and treacherous sea-change which it once underwent. In the mortal lands, it said, the air grows cold and the skies turn to opal, not our own familiar yellows. In this time the trees shed their branches, and sway naked among the winds. But ah! cried the lute under the mortal’s nimble fingers. Ah! In the mortal lands there is change unending, and the sap floods up from the ground, bringing with it the breath of life, and in these times it spake a mortal maid and mortal man who met beneath the moon. It spake the warmth of the fire kindled in their hearth, the poor pot thereon, and the joy both had in but these simple things. It spake of torn clothes clumsily mended but donned with gratitude still, and a wind that shook the eavestroughs and deposited rime upon the people within. It sang of but minute joy among the change unending, and yet of joy still, deeper and harsher than pleasure.

The company watched in wonder, half-bound in mortal dreams, and were weakened enough to blink and shudder when the mortal dropped its lute, and all their eyes turned to Lady Madder. And within them she saw this consensus: that the music of the mortal was greater and fairer than hers.

Before the sight of her entire company she could not well lie, and thus constrained she was forced to release her acquisitions to the mortal minstrel, and return to Alagadda much diminished in conceit and in the respect of her followers. Several of the Madrone were slain thereafter by circumstance, though, and her esteem has returned though gradually. But the lady had learned, as I now advise you, that the mortal creatures should be thought upon with care. Though they be weak, and easily bewildered by the myriad of worlds unfamiliar to them, still there is a power and a fascination to them, and oft might the overconfident bring themselves low upon strings they laid out without understanding the trap they set.

A final word of warning, dear reader: should you ever speak to the Lady Madder, and if you value your life, do not mention this to her; if you value mine, do not let her know that it was I who recounted unto you this tale.

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