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King of Harps

King of Harps
by Sandi Leibowitz

King Sourd hated noise. He shuddered when the blacksmith’s hammer banged upon the anvil. He dreaded when the soldiers drilled in the courtyard. He even winced when the cooks’ spoons scraped against the saucepans. Music offended him most of all. It shoes no horses, he thought, wins no battles, feeds no kings. It will not survive the ages, like a well-bound book, but dies upon the air in an instant.

That was the lie Sourd told himself. In truth, he’d hated music ever since he was a lad and the nurse told him how his mother had sickened, just after the cathedral bells tolled his birth, while people still danced in the streets.

“Your father held her hand while the rest of us waited for the inevitable,” the nurse had said. “A thrush landed on the casement and began to sing. Your mother turned her head to hear it; at that instant she died.”

Sourd had barely met his father, who’d walled himself away with his grief. Secretly, Sourd hated him, too. According to the nurse, his father had refused to christen or even see the infant prince till the chancellors insisted.

“Since I may never again hear the voice of my beloved,” the king had said,” from this day forward I am deaf to all humanity. My son should learn to be the same. Call him Sourd—deaf one.”

No one thought to find the prince a playmate. He spent his days with his tutor or alone in the library. When his father died, the boy barely felt a twinge of loss. He was sadder (though he didn’t shed a tear) when he’d outgrown his nurse, and she left to care for other children.

When he achieved his majority, Sourd assumed the throne. The young king never laughed away a summer’s day with friends or danced with a young lady or went out riding. Every morning, he spent an hour in his council chambers, offering his chancellors hasty solutions to the kingdom’s problems before he retreated to his books. He built a large new library at the back of the palace, with one small window that let in just enough light to read by.

One day, King Sourd attempted to wade through volume six of Glue Through the Ages. A traveling minstrel wandered into the courtyard beneath the library, plinking and plunking his lute, his lusty tenor bellowing the refrain “Love, Sweet Love.” The monarch screamed for his guards to clap the man in irons.

“From this day forward,” the king announced the next morning, “music is forbidden. Banish the musicians. Burn all the instruments.”

Young ladies wept as their duty-bound parents tossed their harpsichords onto the bonfires. Even the children’s toy trumpets and drums were fed to the flames. The cathedral bells were smothered in cloths. Tea-kettles could not whistle, cows could not be belled, hunters could not summon the hounds with their horns.

Many secretly disobeyed the ban. Mothers whispered forbidden lullabies to their babies. Young couples sang each other love songs on remote hillsides. Sometimes someone simply forgot. When Sourd caught his old tutor humming a jig, he banished him at once. Years passed in the kingdom without music.

* * *

“The hour is up.” King Sourd rose to go.

“But Majesty,” cried one chancellor, “what shall we do about the raids upon our southern borders?”

“Sire!” another called after him, “What about the poor starving in the city?”

The king retreated to his sanctuary. He opened a large volume on salt mining and began to read. Soon he simply stared at the pages.

Perhaps if he switched books. He picked up Minoan Accounting Practices. Still his attention wandered. He tried A Practical Guide to Taxidermy, How to Get a Great Tan: Working with Leather and Armillary Spheres and You. His books no longer brought him pleasure. Why?

A sound flashed like a sunbeam upon the king’s dark thoughts.

“Who dares to make music in my presence?” he demanded.

There was no answer, only the ongoing swell of song.

The king stuck his head out the window. The criminal was a bird perched on a tree outside the library wall. All the native songbirds had fled the glum kingdom but this one, no doubt a traveler from some far country, poured her glad heart into her music.

“Stop your noise at once!”

The bird continued singing. King Sourd ran out of the library, down the stairs, and through the palace doors. He peered up into the tree’s foliage.

“I am the king and I command you!” He shook the tree until it rained down leaves. The bird flew off.

“You cannot escape me so easily!” The monarch hurried after her into the city.

Breathless and sweaty, he jostled the passersby in the capital he’d never seen before. He ran down stately avenues where fashionable nobles strolled, through bustling streets crowded with shops selling silks and sables, quills and quinces, pearls and hair pomade. He ran through narrow alleyways where bone-thin cats and ragged children picked through the refuse for scraps.

Onward flew the bird and onward ran the king, out of the city and into a small village. The bird alighted on the roof of the town hall, which overlooked the main square. A cobbler sat outside her shop, hammering a new heel onto a shoe. Laughter issued from an inn’s open door, where friends swapped jokes over tankards of ale. How can they have so much to laugh about? he wondered.

The bird took flight again, into the countryside. The sky is more brilliant than the lapis lazuli illuminations in my most precious manuscripts, King Sourd thought. How beautiful those red poppies! But, he remembered, they serve no useful purpose and live barely a day. The songbird rested on the branch of an ancient oak and resumed her song.

Why, she’s a thrush, Sourd realized. Like the one that heralded my mother’s death.

He walked around the oak, searching for a good foothold. But Sourd had sat too long in his library and never climbed a tree; he wasn’t agile enough to reach the lowest limb. He picked up a stone and threw it at the bird; he missed. The thrush flew away again, the king following, over hill and down dale.

He did not notice when night fell. He had strayed to the part of his kingdom marked on maps Beware, for strange goings-on had been known to happen there. Not caring for the outside world, Sourd hadn’t studied the maps and didn’t know what any peasant’s child did: that he should turn back.

The thrush, unconcerned with maps and boundaries, flew into the woods. The king followed.

A rival sound drowned out the thrush’s song. While Sourd tromped through the brush to investigate, the thrush flew off, lost to him forever. He pulled aside the screening branches of some pines and entered a large clearing. The full moon revealed a troupe of folk clad in fine brocades and velvets. They reveled to the wild music of harp and drum and pipe and fiddle.

“Cease that racket!” he bellowed.

The drum stopped thumping, the fiddle whined its dissent, the pipe screeched its protest, and the harp strings reverberated moodily.

“And who are you to demand we stop our music?” asked a tall man of unearthly beauty. His golden locks tumbled down his green damask doublet like sunlight athwart a mossy bank.

“I am King Sourd! My word is law!”

All the finely dressed folk laughed.

“King is it? Well, I am King of Faery, and you are in my lands. Here, my word is law. Let the music resume!” The musicians obeyed.

“There’s no such thing as faeries!” Sourd yelled above the din. “And music is forbidden!”

The musicians stopped playing again, all except the drummer, who kept up an eerie thrumming like the sound of a rabbit’s heart when the fox is at its heels.

“How dare you presume to command in my realm!” the King of Faery thundered. He snapped his fingers and Sourd found himself unable to speak. He rushed forward, aiming to throttle his opponent. But the King of Faery snapped his fingers again. Sourd could no longer move.

“What poor manners!”

“And, perhaps worse, no respect for music,” said the woman who had been the faery king’s dancing partner. Where the king was dressed in green and wore a golden crown (Sourd now noticed), she wore a gown of dusky blue velvet shot with silver, like starshine on a river. A silver crown sat upon her moonlight-colored hair.

“You are absolutely right, my love,” the faery king said. “And that is the form your lesson will take, King of the Land Beyond the Woods.” He snapped his fingers again.

Sourd quaked and quivered. His torso shrank till it was straight and thin, and hardened into alder-wood. His arms bowed and bent and hardened too. A handful of his hairs fell out, lengthened and straightened and attached themselves to what had been his trunk and his right arm. His head shriveled, eyes still widened in horror, mouth still shut by spell, the hair on his head still bedraggled by his wild run, including a leaf that had tangled in it, now all made of carved alder. The faery king had turned Sourd into a harp.

The elven folk laughed and clapped their hands. “Well done, Majesty!” they crowed, all but a melancholy maiden who stood in the back as if she didn’t want anyone to notice her. They formed a circle and danced around the enchanted king, all but the musicians, who struck up their tunes louder and even livelier than before. Hours and hours the fay folk danced, never tiring. Sourd kept still, as he could do nothing else. Sometimes the breeze picked up and made his strings vibrate. Then some member of the faery band would shout at him, “Hush, King Sourd! No music!” and the fay would laugh.

The moon moved eastward in her courses. Soon, Sourd thought, the spell will break and I shall be free.

“The sun rises soon!” the queen cried. “The moon’s time is done!”

The faery band dropped hands and ceased their dancing. The instruments stilled. The faery king whistled and dozens of fine steeds galloped into the clearing, stopping before their masters and mistresses. The troupe mounted and cantered off, but not before the piper hauled up the enchanted harp and slung it over his shoulder.

Through the forest they rode, Sourd-the-harp banging against the horse’s flanks. The piper’s horse neighed in annoyance, and turned around to snap at the nuisance. Its teeth sank into the top of the wooden frame. Even ensorcelled as he was, Sourd felt the pain of the bite. The spell that sealed his lips prevented him from crying out.

“Don’t spoil my harp, Thistle!” the faery king admonished. The piper held the harp across his lap and gripped it tightly so it no longer jostled.

They entered a cave, horses and all. The faeries dismounted. The king whistled the steeds away. It was like no place Sourd had seen in any book—part natural cavern and part palace. Tables carved from slabs of rock crystal and seats of amethyst were set between columns of stalagmites and stalactites. Jardinieres overflowed with blossoming trees and plants, although no sunlight reached them. The hall was lit with silver chandeliers, their arms draped in artful cobwebs spangled with unmelting dewdrops, which sparkled like diamonds. Rich carpets covered the floors. Tapestries finer than those in Sourd’s own castle showed scenes of elven romances, lush gardens and faery hunts.

“Welcome to my hall, King-that-Was!” the faery king announced. He commanded Thistle to set Sourd in a corner where he could observe everything.

Servants entered carrying silver trays spilling over with peaches, grapes, strawberries and flowers. Golden chalices overflowed with ruby wine. Apparently the faery host had hunted before their dance, and killed a stag. It was already dressed and roasted and now served to the company. Delicious aromas assaulted Sourd’s wooden nostrils.

“Musicians, play!” the King of Faery commanded.

New musicians took their place before the high table, as those who had attended on the king during the revels now feasted. Sourd had no choice but to listen. Fiddle, drum and flute played reels and corantos so lively the chandeliers jangled along in time. A woman played an air on a gemshorn that sounded like the weeping of the wind. Singers wound strange threads of songs around the counterpoint of cornetto and vielle. Best of all was the music played by the harper—the melancholy maiden Sourd had noticed earlier. His strings fairly trembled to hear it. Was it because he himself was now a harp that he felt an affinity with the instrument? Perhaps I acted too hastily with my ban. Music isn’t useless; it speaks to something deep within the soul. The courtiers applauded.

“Now that’s what you should learn to do, King Ban-the-Music,” said the harper who’d played during the forest revels. He tweaked three of Sourd’s strings.

“Ow!” the faeries cried. They cringed and cowered, covering their ears. “He’s horrible!”

“Begad, he’s untuned!” the harper exclaimed.

“Well, tune him, Harebell,” the queen commanded.

“How can I?” Harebell said. “This is a mortal harp. As well you know, Your Grace, the harps of faery never need tuning, but sound sweet from the moment of their crafting till the end of time. I would not know how to tune a harp if you commanded me, Majesties, nor would any harper of Faery.”

“Then Sourd is useless,” said the king.

“He stinks of mortality!” Harebell wrinkled his nose.

“He is utterly unbeautiful,” the Queen declared.

For the rest of the feast, no one paid any attention to Sourd. They went on with their dining, to the strains of music or the bards’ recitations of stories or poems.

The faery king began to yawn. Many of his courtiers had already fallen asleep at their tables or indeed under them.

“’Tis time for our repose,” he said. “Light us to bed.”

Thousands of fireflies appeared and lit the faeries’ egress from the hall through the many passageways. When the last member of the court departed, the chalices, plates and salvers wafted themselves down a set of stairs, where Sourd surmised the faery kitchens were located. Every candle snuffed out at once.

Sourd-the-Harp could not close his eyes, nor could he sleep. He could only keep silent watch in the dark hall.

At last, the candles blazed to life. The faeries returned. They’ll probably release me today, Sourd thought. Or perhaps when three days have passed, no more than that. But he was wrong.

Long he stayed a silent harp, witness to the faeries’ feasts. It was difficult for him to judge the passing of time. The tapers always remained as new as they’d been on his first night, not a drop of wax dripping down their slender columns. Sometimes it seemed days before the faeries’ return. Sourd guessed that they arrived to sup each night, but what if the host sometimes dined in some other hall, or in their gardens or their unseen chambers? He missed his books, his palace, his body, even the presence of his chancellors and servants. He waited out the long, dark hours, longing to hear the conversations and music, to at least see something of life stirring about him, despite the faeries’ taunting.

“Sir Dissonance,” and “Mare-Chomp” (for the bite the horse had given him on the night of his transformation, which still marred the harp’s neck), and worse names they called him.

The name that stuck was “King of Harps.” The fay liked this best because it didn’t just remind Sourd of what he was now but also of what he once had been.

Only one other creature was reviled in the faery hall, and that was the melancholy maiden, whose name was Thornblossom. Although the courtiers tolerated her harp-playing (which Sourd found the sweetest of all), they treated her meanly because she’d been begotten by her faery sire upon a mortal woman. The mother had died birthing her; for that too Sourd felt sympathy for the one the fay called Half-breed, Woman’s Get and Stink-Wench.

“The moon is full,” the faery king announced one night. “‘Tis time to dance in the clearing that touches the mortal realms.” He whistled for his horses and the host clattered away. That was how Sourd learned that a month had passed.

More months came and went. Sourd could not beg for his freedom, for he had no voice. He could not pen a plea or make a silent entreaty with gesture or facial expression. He could only experience loneliness and sorrow.

* * *

Six years passed, by Sourd’s reckoning. One full-moon night, when the fay were out reveling, Sourd heard footsteps approaching. Down a far passageway, a single firefly lit someone’s way to the hall.

It was the maiden Thornblossom. “I’ve brought you something,” she said. Sourd wondered whom she was addressing.

“How you must suffer in your wooden prison, King of Harps. I wondered if your torture might be eased if you could be played. So I stole into the mortal lands and brought you this.” She held up something silvery black, folded in a silken cloth.

“It’s a tuning key. It’s made of iron, so full-blooded fay would never be able to touch it. I sang for a mortal harper, and let him dance with me, in exchange for it and lessons in how to tune.”

She brought over a wooden stool and sat before the King of Harps, drawing him to her shoulder. She played his highest string, which twanged like an ill-tempered tom. Then she put the key to its brass peg and began to turn it.

“Oh!” she cried. “It burns!” But she kept turning till the string sang true. One by one she tuned the strings, till all their sour turned to sweet. She blew on her poor hands, which were covered with blisters. Then she wrapped the key back in the silk cloth and stuffed it in the purse that hung from her waist.

Thornblossom placed her blistered fingers on the harp and began to play. The melody was different from the tunes of the full-blooded fay. It had a melancholy sound, some depth of pain and passion only mortal folk might know. Had Sourd been possessed of human eyes, he would have wept. Even when he had been a man and a king, he had never felt such fulfillment of purpose. An instrument was meant to be played, and he’d been silent all the years he’d been reduced to wood and gut and brass.

“I hope that brought you comfort, King of Harps,” Thornblossom said. From her lips, the name was a term of praise. She walked from the hall on quiet steps, the firefly lighting her way, till the enchanted harp was left again in silence and darkness.

The passage of time tormented Sourd even more now than it had before. He longed for the sight of Thornblossom, her touch, the music she had conjured from his strings.

At last the court returned to feast. After they’d supped, the half-blood made a presentation to the queen.

“Your Grace,” she said, “I offer you this gift. It is a mantle fashioned of cloth I wove myself; a full year went into its weaving. The weft was made of moonbeams and the warp of butterfly-wing-silk, and it was hemmed with thread spun from the dreams of nightingales.” She handed the cloak to the queen. It shimmered and gleamed in the candlelight, its colors shifting like schools of merfolk glimpsed undersea through moonlight. The court sighed and moaned at its beauty.

“This pleases me well, Thornblossom,” said the queen. “In thanks for which, I grant thee a boon. Tell us your desire.”

“I ask nothing more than to play the King of Harps in the hall while we feast, every night for a year.”

The Queen of Faery sighed. “Would that you had asked for something else, half-breed, but I must grant it.”

The elven crowd roared and raged but they could do nothing about it, not even the king.

Thornblossom brought a stool before Sourd-the-Harp. She removed the key from her pouch and tuned each string. The faeries yowled and howled and growled and hissed. It took a long time, for the brass pegs, untouched so long, kept slipping. At last the strings kept their tuning. Sourd saw how the iron key burned Thornblossom’s hand anew, the old blisters opening and weeping. The maiden played a joyful reel, her elven fingers fleet upon his strings despite their wounds. The tune then changed into the melancholy air she’d played when they had been alone together in the hall.

When she was done, the court was silent. That is the faeries’ deepest response to music well played. Then all rose from their seats and bowed to Thornblossom. Even the king and queen rose and dipped their heads in royal fashion.

“’Tis seldom that the granting of a boon gives equal pleasure to the giver as to the taker,” said the queen. “Who would have guessed the King of Harps could make such music?”

Each night from then on, Thornblossom regaled the faery host with her playing. Sourd’s heart leapt at her touch. But how he hated to see the iron key bite into the poor halfling’s flesh. If there were only a way I could spare her that pain, he thought.

So one day, when the host departed, Sourd attempted to tune himself. He strained and strained. Eventually he managed to sound the first string. Long listening to fine music had given him an ear—albeit made of alder—that could detect a true note from a false. The next problem was how to turn the brass pegs with neither key nor hand. He concentrated very hard and after a few hours of striving, there, the peg moved ever so slightly. He kept at it. At last the first string was tuned. Sourd bent his will to tuning all his strings. He finished just before the court returned.

When Thornblossom sat down to play, Sourd let his lowest string sound, to alert her that the tuning key would not be necessary.

“Oh!” she exclaimed. She opened the pouch at her waist just the same, to remove the loathsome bit of iron.

Sourd forced himself to play more notes—each string painstakingly sounded. All were still in tune.

“Well, then,” Thornblossom said. “You no longer need someone to pluck your strings. You may make your own music.”

Sourd was astonished. He hadn’t wanted that. He had wanted to rest his soundboard on Thornblossom’s shoulder so he could feel the drumming of her heart, to feel the touch of her fingers on his strings. He made two discordant notes ring out high and fast to signal his displeasure.

Thornblossom laughed but not in mockery. “Perhaps another night, King of Harps. It’s time you contributed something to the elven court.”

Sourd felt angry. And then he felt hurt. And then he wondered if he could indeed summon a song to his strings. He wanted to give something not to the host, but to Thornblossom. But perhaps even more, he wanted to discover if his soul had any music in it.

Tentatively he played a scale. Then an arpeggio.

The faery court applauded but they also cackled.

“The King of Harps is stuttering his alphabet!” Thistle hooted.

The pain of their taunting, after all his efforts, reminded Sourd of all his other hurts.

A wild tune burst from him like a thunderstorm, giving sound to his anger. Tender glissandos sang of his loneliness, jarring dissonances told of his alienation. His highest strings plucked out a simple, haunting tune, the song of a lonely child who wanted only to be loved. And also to love, Sourd realized. And with that realization, the very lowest bass strings stirred, framing a passionate counterpoint to the childish melody, notes that sang of pain so deep, and buried so long, they seemed to come from leagues beneath the sea.

The hall was silent. The faery folk bowed to Sourd—even the king and queen.

“And now we must indeed name you King of Harps,” the faery king said. “For such a gift of music as that, you must be rewarded; I hereby release you.” The king snapped his fingers.

Sourd’s strings twanged and burst free. His soundboard cracked and expanded, turning to soft flesh. The harp’s neck and pillar relaxed into two arms. The carven hair became free-flowing locks. Sourd’s lips parted as he inhaled for the first time in seven years.

“Come, feast with us tonight, Harp-That-Was,” the queen invited. “Tomorrow the moon is full. When we go riding, we will return you to the world of men.”

Sourd bowed stiffly. He could not yet remember how to speak. He joined the king and queen at the royal dais. He dipped faery flowers into their exotic sauces and ate. He tasted faery fruits and drank faery wine. All the time he marveled at the sensations of having hands and feet that moved and lungs that breathed. That night he was led outside the hall to one of the faery chambers, and lay upon a bed of moss and moth-down. He slept long into the next day.

That night, true to the faery king’s promise, when he whistled for the horses, a steed appeared for Sourd to ride. For the first time in seven years, he emerged from the cave, into the light and air. He breathed in the sweet pine scent of the forest.

The faery court reached the clearing where Sourd had first seen them.

“Before you leave us,” the King of Faery said, “join us in our revels. Dance with us.”

So while Harebell and Thistle and all the king’s favorite musicians played, Sourd joined the fay and danced, despite his stiff and aching limbs. He danced most of all with Thornblossom, holding her hands gently so he wouldn’t hurt her wounds.

The moon grew dim. Pale dawn crept upon the company.

“I took from thee seven years, Harp-that-Was,” said the king. “I owe you a wish. What can I give you to speed you back into the world of men?”

Sourd did not know what had happened to his kingdom in the time that he was gone. But he’d long ago realized how bad a king he’d been. He didn’t think the realm would wish him back. But what labors was he fit for?

“I would beg of you, Majesty, a good harp—it need only be a mortal harp, for I deserve no better—and if you could spare Lady Thornblossom to school me in musicianship, so that I may earn my living as a harper, I would be most grateful.” Sourd bowed to the faery king in the best elven fashion.

“Well asked, King of Harps!” The queen clapped her dainty hands.

The faery king smiled and nodded. He snapped his fingers, and branches from a nearby willow crashed to the ground. He snapped again, and the branches formed themselves into the frame of a harp, and the long-hanging leaves into gut strings.

“You will need this, Sourd.” Thornblossom handed him the pouch that held the tuning key.

“Thank you,” he said, and meant for more than just the key. He bowed more humbly to her than he had to the king.

Sourd strapped the new-made harp to his back, bade farewell to the faery court and disappeared through the fringe of trees. He heard the king whistle for his steeds. The faery host galloped away, back to their own lands, all but Thornblossom, who remained to tutor the harp-that-had-been.

* * *

It took Sourd a year to learn to play his harp well enough to earn his bread. Before then, he needed to rely on the charity of strangers. Many took pity on him for, with the lines etched in his brow and his brown hair prematurely grey, he looked like a man who had undergone some catastrophe. With his ragged finery, they guessed him a noble dispossessed of his lands and wealth, and the lovely lady who accompanied him, whose brocades were yet unfaded, a bride stolen away from parents unhappy at an uneven love-match. Sourd always offered to repay his benefactors by helping to do simple jobs like chopping wood, although he wasn’t very good at any of them. Their best reward was when the lady harped and sang.

The kingdom indeed did not miss Sourd. When he had disappeared, a distant cousin was summoned from the provinces to occupy the throne. She ruled wisely and well, eliminating the wars and poverty that had burdened the land for so long. And of course, she repealed the ban on music. No one would have wanted the former king to return.

Sourd, who had changed his name to Alder, became a renowned harper. His jigs and reels sounded wild as faery tunes, people claimed, but it was his lamentations that went straight to one’s heart. And so one day it came to pass that Alder the Harper, once Faery’s King of Harps, King Sourd-that-Was, returned to the palace of his birth to play before the queen.

No one, not a single servant or any of the chancellors, recognized him. The harper paused before the portraits of the old king and queen who’d died long ago. The tunes he played were marvelously sad, so lovely that the queen handed him a purse full of gold coins as his reward.

Just before he departed, he broke into a strange and lively tune that left everyone in the castle smiling for hours afterwards.

“What do you call that tune, harper?” asked the queen.

“‘Larkspur and Thornblossom,’” he replied. Alder had named it for the wife and infant daughter who awaited him at home, a tune that sounded like sunlight and freedom, redemption and joy, but most of all like love.
* * *

Sandi Leibowitz lives in a raven’s wood, next door to bogles, in New York City. After a variety of jobs (including ghostwriting for a monsignor and working behind one of the caribou dioramas at the Museum of Natural History), she’s now an elementary-school librarian. She also sings classical and early music. Her speculative fiction and poems may be found in Mithila Review, Through the Gate, Liminality, Mythic Delirium, Kaleidotrope and other magazines and anthologies. Her poetry has won second and third place Dwarf Stars, and been nominated for the Rhysling, Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net awards.

What advice do you have for other writers?

Persist.  I originally wrote this story for children many years ago, in a very different format.  There was no love story and no fairies.  I looked at it again, and realized, yes, the ending was too syrupy, and I decided to give it new life.  The life of a writer—or any kind of artist—requires a lot of persistence.  You have to persist in improving your craft.  Persist in submitting your work (or auditioning, if you’re a performing artist).  Persist in finding time in your life to earn your living yet also pursue what you love.