Hralf and the Bardic Voice

Another tale of Hralf, in which he is most horribly misunderstood. If you’ve not met Hralf, start with the first Hralf story “Hralf, Hewer of Sagas.”

Of course I remember Hralf, a darling boy—and so talented! Really, I’ve seldom seen such natural ability.

Why, yes, I assume we are speaking about the same individual. But just to be clear, my Hralf is lion-faced, about eight-feet tall, with retractable claws and intimidation for days, just days! Is this also your Hralf? I see from your face that it is.

Very well, then, now that that’s settled, what would you like to know?

How we met? Oh, now that was a day indeed.

I was still in the employ of the Wizard Dysphonius in those days, and on the day Hralf arrived I was processing a large influx of new clients. This was not at all unusual, I am afraid. People did insist on disturbing my master’s rest, and between us he was always the cranky sort. If they came onesie-twosie, he would deal with them himself, one, two, poof, and it’s all over but the cleaning. But larger groups made too much of a mess, so he said, and Our Dysphonius was a wizard who liked things just so, oh yes indeed. Rather than indulging his wrath in the moment, he would simply immobilize them and have the guards bring them down to me, so that I could indulge his wrath over a, shall we say, rather longer period of time.

So there I was, wiring a client into one of my instruments, when I heard the chamber door creak open, and I thought to myself, oh, no, not more of them, I don’t know how I shall get through all of them at this rate. But then I heard Dysphonius call my name, a most singular thing, for I may tell you that he rarely came to me in person.

“Chasm.”

“Yes, master?”

Dysphonius was on the landing just inside the chamber door, looking down at me, and he was accompanied by three clients, all festooned with chains and floating in the air in various amusing postures: a halfling in a frilly shirt and riding boots, looking for all the world like a half-sized hussar; a soiled looking elf in a defensive crouch and a disgruntled expression; and my Hralf, looming over the rest of them, huddled in dejection.

Dysphonius had a sour look on his craggy face, which was in no way unusual.

“I caught these three trying to make off with my Ring of Nibblements,” he said. “Right when it was time for my morning snack, too. You’d think they’d plan better than that.”

“With all due respect, we—” began the halfing, but Dysphonius raised a finger. The frilly fellow was outlined briefly in a shower of sparks, and subsequently chose not to finish his thought.

“There was a fourth, a golem of some sort, but it got away. I don’t imagine I’ll be seeing it again.” Dysphonius pursed his lips. “Ah, well, no matter. It wouldn’t have been susceptible to your skills anyway. Speaking of which, Chasm, you can use normal methods for the little one and the elf, but the big one will require special handling.”

“Special?” I said. “How so?”

I may say I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, Dysphonius rarely had special requests for me, and only for those who had particularly upset him, and so I rarely had the opportunity to truly stretch myself, to bring my art to the tip-top of perfection. But special handling required a larger investment of my time, and I simply didn’t have it to spare. One must watch one’s expenses, and keeping the feeding bill down to a manageable level requires one to maintain a certain minimum throughput, do you see? And this had grown to be quite the challenge of late, what with the economic situation and the number of adventurers out on the road. I was already having difficulty finding time to do a respectable job for each client without adding special fillips and filigree, and especially when it involved such a large subject as Hralf.

But then Dysphonius said, “Very special. In fact, I think you might wish to keep him.”

Well! You could have knocked me over with a red hot skewer.

“Really? Whatever for?”

Dysphonius chuckled. “Just have a word with him. You’ll see.”

“Yes, master.”

Well, I couldn’t keep him waiting. I mounted the steps to the landing, took three collars from the bin on the wall, and placed two neatly around the necks of the halfing and the elf. Then I looked up at the big one.

“Master, if you would be so kind—”

The wizard extended his left pinkie, and obligingly rotated Hralf in the air to bring his head within my reach.

“You are a big fellow, aren’t you?” I said, feeling for his neck under his bushy, bushy mane. “This collar simply won’t do, master; it’s too small. By your leave?” I dropped it back in the bin and then rummaged through it until I found my largest collar. “There we go,” I said, popping it round his neck.

Dysphonius nodded, and turned away. The three fell to the floor in his wake, with quite a loud thud in Hralf’s case.
“Stay,” I said, and left them for the moment. They say the client is always right, but in my domain clients must wait their turn, and I had others left to process.

And so I bustled about my little kingdom, escorting clients to their cages, attaching a pair of leg-chains here and a pair of manacles there, and doing a little triage—for some clients must be attended to promptly, you know, or they’ll spoil. Unprofessional, I call it.

I saw to the housing of the halfing and elf last of all; and then I returned and truly contemplated Hralf for the first time.

His countenance, his whole manner, was most unusual. I declare I had never seen anything like it before.

My clients are invariably wide-eyed, pallid, and agog at the contents of my vast chamber. The low and flickering light of the torches; the rough stones of the walls, delicately bedizened with moss and mold; the glow of the hot coals on the brazier; the complex and unusual variety of apparatus stationed here and there; the lines of cages; the rows of delicate instruments laid out so neatly on their trays; all of these sights have their attractions for my little birds, drawing their eyes, taking away their breath, and demanding all their attention. Even the Wizard’s guards had difficulty maintaining their stern and soldierly demeanor when they came to my halls, I do assure you.

But this one had eyes for none of it. I had kept him in sight as I went about my little rounds, and he had not moved since he had recovered from hitting the floor. He simply stood, staring at his feet; and he was so still he resembled an artist’s model, the subject, perhaps, for a work entitled “Portrait of a Leonine in Despair.”

What a picture of woe, he was! Oh, my yes, woe was he! My clients are seldom spritely and cheerful, do not misunderstand me, but this poor lad seemed absolutely crushed. Not even the piquant atmosphere, the deep putrid aroma I work so hard to maintain, was enough to so much as wrinkle his sad dejected nose.

I was both challenged and intrigued, as what artist would not be? It was with an unusual feeling of anticipation—for I so seldom come face to face with anything so new and fresh—that I settled in for a little heart-to-heart.

“Come with me,” I said, and led him down the steps and into the center of my chamber. I took my usual seat, and directed him to dispose himself comfortably on the floor before me.

“I am Chasm, and this is my chamber,” I said, pleasantly. “And who might you be?”

“I am Hralf, the Hewer of Sagas,” he said sadly, not looking up. “Last of the veldt-lords, master of memories, in singing my sagas their deeds I hold dear.”

“My word,” I said. “But tell me, dear one, why are you here?”

“The Wizard brought me.”

“Yes, that’s the usual way of things. He sends everyone here, those who survive meeting him. But what did you do to attract his particular attention?”

His head sank lower.

“I recited one of my sagas.”

“Did you?”

He nodded.

“About these veldt-lords? Who are all dead but you?”

He nodded. “Pox and plague took them, their deeds to diminish.”

“Well, yes, I suppose it would, and quite right, too. You may take it from me, for I am one who knows more than a little about diminishment. And then?”

“He listened. And then he brought me here.”

“But why?”

And then the poor fellow began to whimper so softly I could not make out the words, and big fat tears began to fall upon the muddy, bloody stones at my feet.

“Hralf!” I said sharply. “I require an answer.”

He sniffed, the most drawn out adorable sniff I have ever heard, and spoke.

“To be…to be…your…apprentice!

My apprentice!

At first I was outraged. I, a consummate professional of many years standing, a master who had never failed to give satisfaction when punishing even the most difficult client, was to be saddled with an apprentice? And moreover, one I had not chosen for myself!

But an artist must be patient, must never act in haste or in anger, for it spoils the work, you know. And moreover, there was no point in my complaining, for as I may have said, Dysphonius disliked being disturbed. And so I remained seated, and took several deep cleansing breaths, calming myself before I proceeded with my interrogation.

“Very well,” I said at last. “We have many new clients here today. Please show me what you can do.”

I may say, I had no great expectations, no anticipation whatsoever of the dark delights that were to come. I expected clumsiness; undue rush; unfamiliarity with the instruments; an appalling waste of material; and perhaps a touch of maniacal gibbering with it. Truly, some of the younger practitioners of my art do not know which end of the hot pincers is which!

But he did none of these things. Instead, still seated, he extracted a stone tablet from a sack on his right hip. He attempted to hand it to me, and when I didn’t take it he let it slip onto the floor, to lie there in the mud and the blood.

“I am Hralf,” he said, “and this is one of my sagas.” And then he started to chant in a tongue I didn’t know, a low bass chant with a pounding rhythm and an odd tearing screech, all compounded with a forlorn ululating wail, a sadness made manifest in vibration. Softly it began, and then louder and louder it grew as he rose to his feet, bellowing his distress in strict meter.

Dust began to fall from the ceiling.

Bits of mold began to peel from the wall and collapse in on themselves.

The shimmering air over the brazier took on new patterns.
The smoke of the torches roiled and writhed into fantastic shapes.

I began to feel an answering roar in my ears—a roar coming from the throats of all of my various clients, scattered as they were about my chamber. The rattling of chains made a pretty counterpoint as hands went to ears, and as the cacophony mounted I counted seven “Make it stops,” four retchings, and any number of piercing shrieks and high-pitched moans.

I listened, bemused, for quite some time.

It is such a lovely thing to make the kind of art that truly touches men’s hearts. How much more lovely was it to witness such a sublime, nay, such an etherial torment as this? For of course this Hralf had not yet touched them with so much as the tip of one retractable claw, and yet every client in the room was in such exquisite agony!

“Stop, please,” I said. He did so, and kneeling retrieved his tablet. He remained there, on his knees, head bowed.
“I see now why my master brought you to me,” I said. “What a beautiful thing, what a lovely gift! An apprentice? Bah! A helper, rather, a companion in time of trial! Do not be dejected, my Hralf, for a great future awaits you.”

I waved a hand, indicating the clients dispersed about the chamber. “You see all of these little ones? My time is short, and they are many; I have not been able to attend to them as I would like. But with your aid, my Hralf, with your song filling the dank and putrid air each day, I shall be able to take my time, and still provide each of my clients with the personal and loving excruciation each of them so patently deserves!”

Not only would I be able to ensure a professional standard of quality, I would also be able to maintain the throughput rate required to keep my expenses to an acceptable level. It was a brilliant, a shining, a dazzling vision.

He looked up at me, tears streaming down his face, leaving dark tracks in his tawny fur.

“Do you really think so?” he said.

“I do,” I said grandly.

I saw a welcome light of passion come into his eyes, and his face hardened.

“My song, my words about the glory of my ancestors, are detestable to you?”

“Yes, dear one, yes! Such pain, such trauma follows in their wake!”

He rose to his feet. “You find them…painful?”

“Most exquisitely so!”

He nodded, and appeared to gather his resolve. He raised his head, and there was pride in every line of his body.
“BLOOD AND BONES BROKEN!” he shouted.

“Yes, my boy, and more!” I cried.

And he approached me and began to chant again.

“Louder, please,” I said with joy. “And keep it up until I tell you to stop!”

And so he continued. After a time he began to alternate between his normal tongue and that which we now speak:
“Cheetahs they came then, lean in their lewdness, black were their blotches, their quickness a quandary. Our encampment enveloped, by kitties so crafty, we sprang up in shock, our attackers to end!”

And the moaning only grew louder, the shrieks only grew more piercing!

Truly, it was glorious. I may have gotten a little teary-eyed myself.

“My boy,” I said, “what a talented lad you are.” And I removed his chains.

You look quizzical.

Wasn’t I afraid of him?

No, of course not. The chains are mostly for show, you know; the clients do expect them, and it is important to meet one’s expectations, is it not? But Hralf was no client. And besides, he was wearing the Wizard’s collar.

We fell into a routine, he and I. Every morning, I would set him to chanting—with regular breaks, you know; I’m not heartless, and besides one mustn’t violate union regulations—and then I would pick the client seemingly least affected by it, and proceed with my handiwork. And Hralf, for his part, would follow me about like a faithful puppy, ever by my side as I worked.

Oh, he was most devoted to me, my darling Hralf! Always standing at my back, as though his song was for me alone! I was touched by it, truly I was. It nearly overwhelmed me! But fortunately I had my dwarven earplugs, specially made for me by the masters of the trade, the dwarves of the Schwermetallwerk under the Mountain of Knallhart. I had saved up for them my whole first year in the Wizard’s service, for you know that one cannot take too much care of one’s hearing, and they protected my ears while allowing me to hear every little nuance with great fidelity.

Why did I start with the least effected? Artistic integrity, my good sir! I would betray my skill if any client passed through my hands without the maximum degree of possible excruciation; but Hralf’s artistry was lost on some poor, tone-deaf souls. They required the utmost of effort from me, do you see?

And so we went on day by day, each day better than the day before. But it was, after all, too good to last.

A week, perhaps, before I was due to finish the last few members of this last influx—a motley remainder that included Hralf’s erstwhile companions, they being loudest in their moans—I received a new delivery, possibly the most difficult client I have ever had.

He bounced in, bright clothes on his body, hat in his hand, and a guard on each arm, and said, “Hail and well met, good fellow! What a lovely place you have here!” He bowed low. “I am Giacomo, king of jesters and jester to kings, come to enliven your days with my wit and drollery. A song! A dance, perhaps? What is your pleasure, good sir, for you see that I am entirely at your disposal!”

It was unthinkable.

It was unheard of.

It was insupportable.

It was intolerable, that this popinjay should pop into my chamber, and so disturb my clients.

I could see that I had my work cut out for me.

I chained him to one of my work tables, and swung it up and around and adjusted it to just the perfect angle so that he could see every bit of my technique as I attended to the day’s client. I always found this to be an effective way to reach the truly difficult ones.

“Hralf,” I said. “Come here. For today, you are to recite your sagas to him, and only to him. Do you understand?” I could tell, by his sullen growl, that he did. “Yes, yes, dear boy, I know you hate to give your best to anyone but me, but there’s no help for it.”

And so it went for the rest of the day, Hralf chanting in the popinjay’s ear and the popinjay commenting on my work.
“Remarkable! What precision! What delicacy! My word, I should not have thought that possible. Truly I am in the presence of a master!”

I was so unmanned by his continued praise of my technique, well-warranted though it was, by his continued cheeriness, and by his intolerable presence, that when I departed for my evening meal I commanded Hralf to maintain his post throughout the evening and as far into the night as he could manage. Surely the peacock would break by morning!

It was not to be.

When I returned to my work the following day, eschewing the light of the unwelcome winter sun, I found Hralf and the popinjay…chatting.

Yes, they were chatting, in some semblance of Hralf’s uncouth yet so effective tongue!

Not well, that was plain, not clearly, but with much laughter and merriment!

“What is the meaning of this!” I thundered.

“But listen, Master Torturer,” said the popinjay, “for your lion here has inspired me!” And he began to chant.
Deeply, gutturally, in a pounding rhythm not unmixed with screeching. His voice was not nearly so deep as Hralf’s, nor his tone so fierce, nor his screeches so cutting—and yet, there was an essential similarity, as even the most hardened of my clients could tell.

And then, to my wonder, Hralf joined in, two octaves below, and the room itself began to shake.

The air was dense with the dust falling from the ceiling.

The coals in the brazier burned blue.

Three of the torches went out altogether, the last wisps of smoke falling to the floor like bloody handkerchiefs.

One client’s ears began to bleed.

A hot poker overbalanced, falling out of the brazier where it had been placed, and melted into a viscous puddle on the floor.

I was speechless, dear sir, absolutely nonplussed. In all my days, I have never been faced with such a dilemma.
This popinjay, this Giacomo, was objectionable, absurd, intolerable (yes, I say it again), unspeakable, and seemingly unbreakable; and yet who could wish to terminate such poetry in motion?

To leave him be? Impossible! He was a client, and one for whom the Wizard had given me very precise and detailed instructions. And yet, the grandeur! The cacophony! The torment! How could I stop him?

What could I do?

What would you do, good sir?

I find that remark to be in the worst possible taste, sir. I begin to think you have no respect for my art.

In the end, though it pained me to do so, I left him to it.

And so it went, and with each hour Giacomo’s command of Hralf’s native tongue improved, and his interpretation of Hralf’s sagas grew more terrible and poignant; and with each minute the shrieks of the clients grew more pathetic and piercing; and with each moment the pain and the terror moved me to new heights in my art.

Truly, sir, I have never been so inspired!

And late that day, while I was poised over a plausible rogue who had thought to relieve the Wizard of his Amulet of Potent Discretion, I heard Giacomo say to Hralf, “And how was that, good Hralf? Do you think I have it now?”

And Hralf responded, “Blood and bones broken! Your words are most wonderful!”

“I think it it is time, then. Master Chasm, might I have your attention?”

“Not now,” I cried, for I was in the middle of a most delicate operation.

“Ah well,” he said, “I suppose all bad things must nevertheless come to an end.”

And the popinjay opened his mouth and his lungs and began to chant in Hralf’s tongue and a voice the likes of which I have never heard before or since. Each syllable was crystalline, heavy, weighed down with intent.

The brazier collapsed, spilling coals across the floor.

The chains on the clients shattered into fragments.

The bars of the cages slumped, then shivered into bits.

Manacles unrolled from wrists and fell away.

My earplugs dissolved into dribbles of goo and ran down my cheeks, and I cried out in pain.

I turned to Giacomo, just as the collars he and Hralf wore evaporated into dust, and as I collapsed I realized that somehow Giacomo was chanting not just in bass Leonine, but also at a higher pitch, in words I understood, as though he magically had two voices.

Pain to all punishers and torment to torturers,

Freedom to free men and mending to the maimed,

A weight on all wizards, a mass of much mangling,

Escape to the entrapped, bebothered no more!

I stared at him, writhing as I was on the ground.

And then he shrugged. “Not my best work, I know, but suitable for the idiom, don’t you think, good sir?”

I was given no time for critique, for with all alacrity Hralf bundled me into the sturdiest cage remaining, while Giacomo, the halfling, and the shopworn elf, all freed from their bonds, piled what heavy articles remained in front of and on top of it to keep me inside. I do believe they would also have chained or tied me up, but no useful materials for that purpose had survived.

And then, to my wonderment, the door on the landing burst asunder, and in came a walking suit of armor, an abomination most foul, devoid of that flesh on which my art depends. The unnatural creature was greeted by shouts from the halfling, and swiftly passed around the room, uttering spell after healing spell and so undoing all of my work, his voice utterly mechanical, with nothing like Hralf’s beautiful tone; and then all and sundry packed up and left, leaving me behind to face the Wizard’s wrath.

Shall I tell you what I felt, as I watched Hralf, that darling boy, walk out of my life forever?

Pride.

Oh, and a touch of wistfulness about how it had ended; but pride all the same. My boy was taking his gift out into the world!

I could have summoned the Wizard, you know; I could have kept them from leaving. But would that have been fair? Would that have been just?

I think not! Could I keep such a gift encaged, to be appreciated only by such as those who happened to stumble into the Wizard’s path? I could not.

The Wizard found me there shortly thereafter, alone in my chamber, bereft of Hralf and clients both, and with a wave of one boney hand freed me of the mass of detritus that had held me penned.

“You’re meant to summon me when things get out of hand, Chasm,” he said in the driest of tones.

“Yes, master, I know, but—”

“Oh, I understand,” he said. “You were smitten.” He raised an eyebrow and light from no obvious source filled the chamber. He gave it all a good long look. “Replacing all of this will be expensive, but no matter; it was the funniest thing I’ve seen this past century. I should have made more popcorn.”

I smiled uncertainly.

“As for you, Chasm, I’ll be sending you a new assistant. No, don’t object. You’re going to need him. After all, you’re not going to be walking anywhere.”

“Oh, but master, I assure you I am quite un–”

He wrinkled his lip, and I fell to the floor.

“Oh. Oh, yes, I see. Thank you master.”

Eventually it become too too burdensome to rely on others to shepherd my clients from cage to table, and I retired, as you now see me. Still, I have my memories to fall back on.
And what a darling, darling boy he was!

____

Photo by Stephen Hickman on Unsplash

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