That Lady Rune’s workshop was seldom visited was both unusual and expected. Why anyone would not want to study runes and their application seemed unbelievable. The cryptic alphabet bestowed power upon the inanimate, making wonders out of the ordinary that even the simplest fool could wield with confidence and power.

Rune work was also one of the few positions in the Circle of Bel Haven where one could actually make a living. Most areas of study were based in theory, or personal accomplishment in the practice. One couldn’t actually make money with their paper describing the theory of vibrational dissonance of glottal consonants, despite Zibnizik insisting there was application to his studies. One can simply sell the physical better than pretty words.

So why did Lady Rune have time to watch a young kid struggle over a dim candle while he traced the rune for cold? Why was her workshop, originally constructed for two dozen, laying empty save her and the young ward?

A number of reasons. First, rune work was not exciting for wizards. The study for the most part did not involve the flash and sizzle that attracted many to magic. Rune work required an attention to detail at every step, with mistakes being either embarrassing or catastrophic. And almost every single piece of rune work was designed to empower someone else.

This dedication did not describe most of the residents of the Circle. They preferred smoke-filled rooms, or vaulted ceilings. Meditation beneath waterfalls, or in the bend of a river by a favorite oak tree. The idea of slaving over a piece of bronze, fitting the right rune in a forge and workshop was anathema, and boring.

What excitement there was to be had would cause most to run even faster. Lady Rune’s eyes scanned the boy’s work, looking for any slightest deviation. She was quick with her criticism, even quicker to boot a moderate offender of her rules and standards out the door. The dwarf Runemaster demanded perfection of all her students, which helped explain the lack of applicants.

She did have students, to be sure. Even with all the hardships, the dwarf still taught classes that were filled up with the young, restless, and earth-oriented. Gnomes, dwarves and a plethora of other races did find her work to hold merit. Several even focused on runes, with promising careers in the field awaiting them outside the Circle.

But no one wanted to join her for regular moonlit work.

Lady Rune took a sip of coffee. The moon was three-quarters full, and waxing. The shrinking darkness cast a slight pall, but the great orb shone bright on them through the great skylight. Her student’s work glittered. She had chosen silver for him to work on, both to reflect the cold and soak in the beams that shared a hue with the precious metal. He consulted from a book before returning to his stencils.

Lady Rune found moonlit work the most relaxing of her days. It was quiet, even in Bel Haven. The taverns were far enough away that their racket did not reach her ears, and many apprentices were too exhausted to cause a ruckus. And the moonlight reminded her more of home than the harsh light of day.

Her students gave several excuses for begging out of joining her. Early morning classes, prior engagements. Their particular interests did not include moon work. Each excuse more infuriatingly pedantic and polite than the lost.

No one would admit that they just despised Bin Tract.

The half-ogre wiped his brow, and looked down at his work. It looked hard, the rough corners of the cooling enchantment he was looking for. Stenciled in underneath the moon rather than the heat of a forge. But was he striking deep enough into the metal? He consulted the book again, unsure.

Bin knew what the others at the Circle thought of him. Many were cowed by Raemillin, an elf who saw Bin as a dangerous distraction to his “inevitable” goals. To associate with the ogre was to invite possible retribution from a very powerful elf, and possibly even some of the Masters. Others resented that a child so young was admitted at all into such a prestigious Circle. This strange mixture of fear and disgust coalesced into the fact that Bin never had to worry about finding a group of friends to meet with.

Did he care about this? Did Bin wake up in the middle of the night, resolutely alone save for a single gnome that was forced to be his roommate? Was he aware of the crushing solitude that would have sent great lights into the shadows of despair?

Of course. But right now he was busy. He returned to his work.

The eleven year old was rushing. Rune could see that from her position. He may be consulting the book, and making the right notes, but he was rushing all the same. Bin tried to flow from one movement to the next seamlessly. He would make a mark, then look at the book while trying to move his hand towards the next position.

Lady Rune let it continue for two more strokes. She snatched the tool out of his hand, and set aside.

“Are you just an overeager child,” She asked. “Or stupid?”

“I’m not stupid,” Bin started.

“Overeager it is, then.” Rune pointed at one corner. “That mark is too shallow, and you see the curve where your hand wavered. And because you’ve been rushing, shavings have been collecting in your groovings.”

“They’re not!” Bin said. He clamped a hand over his mouth, blocking a curse.

Rune ran a finger over his work. The digit sparkled when she lifted it up, a faint wink at his failure.

“Do you have any idea how these will react to the invocation?” she asked.

Bin hung his head, ashamed.

“That’s right. We don’t.” Rune picked up a polishing rag and began to wipe excess dust away. “Particles are not invoked in the spell, but they are a part of the original material. A bond that is broken and ignored is dangerous, unpredictable. If you don’t wipe away all traces, it shall return in ways that could never be predicted.”

“So these pieces of dust could be good?” Bin asked.

“In theory.” Lady Rune said. “But we do not inscribe a rune poorly just on the off-chance it might not be disastrous.”

Bin hung his head. He had rushed his work. Again. And Rune had once again caught him.

“Get up,” Rune sad.

Bin stood up. She picked up his work, and shoved it in his face.

“I should melt this down,” She hissed. “If only in case someone more fool than you were to chance upon this work and seek to invoke it.”

The words cut at him like a knife. Rune could see that he knew she was right. What was going on with this boy? He should know that she found this sort of rushing to be repugnant. And yet here he was, one eye turned towards the clock as another tracked his hands.

“I can make it better, I promise.”

“No.” She’d have to remove any trace of the moon in the metal. If any properties had soaked in and set, the entire piece would be wasted. An entire night, wasted.

“Really, if I just…”

“Out!” Rune shouted. Bin tore from the room. His footsteps clattered on the stairs as he made his escape from the dwarf. She glared at the entrance, almost daring him to reappear. Let him risk her wrath, Rune would be sure to let him live to tell the tale.

The moments ticked on. Rune’s fury seethed, higher even. He was waiting for her to turn her back, to become complacent. Did he think her incapable of rage? That her wrath could be subdued with time?

If so, he was right. As the moments became minutes, Rune had to turn back to her work. She kindled a fire, and set to breaking the magic from the silver.

Idiot boy. To act so sloppily. To even attempt such, in her presence, no less! The dwarf Runemaster almost marveled at his stupidity. It seemed inconceivable.

Still…she sighed. Rune placed the metal in the forge, and began to work the flames. It didn’t take too long for blue sparks to come up out of the silver. In seconds the blue sparks had washed out of the worked metal. The dwarf took out the metal, and placed it back on the work table.

The silver itself was barely warm. Moon magic in its earliest stages was extremely susceptible to fire, and Rune had never wanted to truly damage his work. She traced her hands over it, concerned.

She knew the boy had passion. And purpose, after a fashion. But she couldn’t saddle her time and that of her forge with someone who truly did not give his all to the craft.

Move away. Rune went back to her own work. She had several projects that could be resumed. Do not think about the ogre boy. The dwarf finally had some peace and quiet to continue her own work.

Yet her gaze kept going back to the half-worked silver. Rune toyed with the half-finished work, before standing up in a huff. She couldn’t think, much less focus on her own work.

She needed a drink. And perhaps a song.

 

The Circle considered itself the most important structure in Bel Haven, and quite possibly all of Northern Europa. For those who sought new secrets in magic, or required spells at the time, this seemed to be true. Certainly none could speak ill of the Circle’s effect on the economy and prestige. This was without question.

But as night fell, and shops shuttered their windows, the port city became known for not its sights, or its spells, but its sounds. Bel Haven: if you could perform there, you could anywhere.

Rune walked through the crowded streets. Well past the midnight hour, and travelers from all across Europa were still roaming the tight cobbled streets. Mouths open, the more foolish closing their eyes and they passed one tavern and another. The melodies and songs filtered their way out the door and into the public forum. The songs tangled together in something that was not quite what anyone expected, but no one would tell a singer to stop in Bel Haven. Not until they were truly awful. Then they never played again.

Rune didn’t walk up and down Melody Way. Far too crowded, and too loud. Several of the Masters would be at the more popular taverns, listening to favorite shanties from three different continents. Even two streets over, Rune could have sworn she heard Book’s squawking along to a drinking song she knew was one of his favorites. Class would be interesting tomorrow for the sphinx. Certainly it would be short.

No, Rune preferred her establishments in Counterpoint. Tucked away from the tourists, and a well-kept secret for good measure. So well-kept that if one didn’t know it was there, they’d walk straight on by, convinced that the little cul de sac never existed. This was done through a small part of illusion, clever construction work, and above all else, quiet. Passerby had no interest in sampling the calmer aspect of Bel Haven’s music scene. Not when there was spectacle just half a mile away.

Rune slipped past the buggies and wagons. Picked her way around the red oak trees. And finally sent a good coin to the troll that was guarding the entrance, unsuccessfully pretending to be asleep. He rolled over, and looked at the dwarf with bloodshot eyes. She wondered if being drunk was a requirement for guard duty in Counterpoint, or if it were merely a bonus.

“Runemaster,” He rasped. He struggled to a sitting position, thought better of it, and collapsed back to his belly. “So nice to see you again.”

Rune nodded. “Anyone that demands my attentions?”

The troll shrugged. “There’s Yuva, down at Resting Lute.”

“Yuva?” Again? That girl was going to tire herself out. Studying both the lute from the streets, and illusions from the Circle, Rune knew for a fact that the elf was in the midst of several examinations. What could she be thinking, performing at a time like this?

The dwarf walked over to the Resting Lute. Her boots clacked against the cobblestones. If music could travel out to the rest of Counterpoint, the musician was obviously in the wrong place. Even as small a place as the Resting Lute, a tall stone building slid in between a bakery and a second tavern, remained silent. Its lights were on, the door closed.

Rune walked in, and looked around. Silent mutters throughout the half-full tavern. It seemed more packed, given the layout. A good third of the open space was raised for a stage. A necessity; many of the performances were full acoustic bands with accompanying spell casters.

Rune ordered a mead, and walked to her usual table just to the left of the stage. She nodded to a few regulars she knew, ignored others she knew better. She looked up to the second floor, no more than an extended balcony to view the stage, had a few patrons. But no sign of Yuva. The elf must have been behind the stage, going over final rehearsals. When she should have been studying.

Kids today. All of them, from those Bin’s age to those in their first few decades. They wanted to discover the mysteries of the universe by sundown, and then spend the night carousing. There was no effort at work, no determination for real study. If it wasn’t achieved instantly, then what was the point to it all?

The assessment didn’t seem fair. And Yuva was constantly praised by Book and Master Shade as studious. But Rune knew she had passed several students on a weeknight. This was not how it was supposed to be.

Rune remembered those days. They may have been centuries ago, but she remembered. Crouched over the crafting table, hands trembling as she tapped the runes into wooden blocks before moving on to any metal. Reading the various tables of elements and their properties until her eyes threatened to spin from her head. An exam meant not sleeping for three days, because that’s what it took.

In the early days as a student, it was like there was nothing outside the Circle. The rest of Bel Haven may as well not exist, nor should it. There were fundamentals that needed to be understood, equations and thought processes to be hammered into that thick skull. It was the only way real learning was to be done.

Not Bin’s way.

Rune’s groan echoed through her drink. A few patrons turned her way, concerned. The dwarf ignored them, embarrassed. She was here to escape those thoughts, not dwell on them. But why did the kid grate on her so? He studied. She had seen him, falling asleep in the hallways with several books scattered about him. Bin was trying to catch up in so many different ways, almost pushing time backwards in his efforts. In that way, he was a perfect student.

But his methods were so scattered. The boy’s eyes were never in one place long. His nature, no matter how studious, was spread over whatever held his interests at the moment. This happened with Book, with herself, with most of his classes.

The only one that could hold his attention, surprise surprise, was Hilt. A boy enraptured by combat, how unusual.

“Um, hi.”

Rune looked up. Seated on a high stool was Yuva. She sat in the center of the stage, almost dwarfed by the space. Barely thirty years old, she was quite young for an elf. If her talents in illusion had been an issue, the Circle may not have accepted her for a while. But hard work (and a strong recommendation from several family members with no small amount of influence) had given her admittance. Still, she was young, with mousy brown hair, small ears even given the point, and dark eyes that tried to hide under her hair.

The hair…Rune’s eyes widened. Yuva had taken a single lock of her brown hair, and made it pink. Pink. It hung across her face, demanding attention from everyone present.

Rune tried not to stare. Dying hair was not unusual. For humans, gnomes, ogres. Elves considered such things crass and degrading, marking the body in a way that did not give honor to the earth. If…no, when the elves found out, Yuva was in trouble. Perhaps even disinherited.

“My name is Yuva’na Naelprinist.” The elf said. “I’m, I’m here for something a bit different.”

Rune traced a communication rune on the table. It glowed once, and a presence knocked on the table. Book must have felt the sending and tried to excuse himself from Melody Way.

<What is it?> Book’s efficient and tidy scrawl glowed on the table, softly. Rune kept an eye on Yuva as the girl set up, while the dwarf tried to scribble out her response.

<I have Yuva here. She is performing at the Resting Lute.>

<Now? She has an exam with…>

<I know. There’s more. Her hair is pink.>

Rune waited a beat while the sphinx gathered his thoughts. A quick survey confirmed her fears. Everyone was staring at the performer, stunned. An elf was walking out the door as Book finally wrote back.

<All of it?>

<Just a lock. But an elf was here, and just left in a huff.> Yuva finished tuning her lute, and turned to face the crowd.

Rune grimaced. <Do I  stop her performing?>

<No.> Book wrote. <But stay. We need to know more. Talk with her afterwards.>

Talk. Rune had to talk with a girl about fashion and societal norms. Things truly were desperate.

To the outside world, this may seem trivial. Certainly if even a dwarf had come in with his beard braided, or even clean-shaven, it would raise eyebrows. But elves considered themselves elite, a race apart from even the rest of the Fae. They held themselves to a higher standard, because they considered themselves above all else. For one of their own to be so crass, and one that had shown such promise…Rune didn’t even know if she was treating this seriously enough.

“This is a new song, called Spell’s Requiem.” Yuva said. “I hope you like it.”

She set about to play. A minor key, lilting, slow. It tried to soothe at Rune’s mind, promising a calm setting unto night. She shook it off, and tried to stay focused. She knew Yuva was a talented lute player. But what was the audience response?

For the most part, boredom. The song was fine, but it didn’t seem to be anything that hadn’t been done before. Slow progressions of thirds in a minor key, with occasional sighs from a waif-like girl. It was par for the course.

Perhaps she’d be too boring to take note of. Certainly there were those returning to their glasses. She might as well enjoy it. Rune settled back into her seat, and watched the performance.

The first movement went by without a hitch. A wonderful change for Rune, from the clanging and banging in her workshop and at clan meetings. Yet for all its simplicity, Yuva’s eyes were clenched shut. She muttered under her breath, fingers just barely depressing the right fingerings. This song was simple. Why was she finding it so difficult?

Yuva moved on to an interlude. She strummed a chord. It vibrated, and the strings darkened. The elf sighed, and strummed it again. Light poured out of the strings, surrounding her.

Rune and several other patrons stood up. Rose light, flecked with cerulean. It ran like a river around Yuva as she resumed. Slower, in a lower octave, still silent enough for Counterpoint. The light swirled on the floor. Her fingers plucked the strings, low but insistent. The spell coiled around itself, and waited.

Yuva sprang out of her chair, spinning on one heel. The light flowed around her like a veil. Rune could only stare in awe. The spell was not just magic. It moved and reacted like a partner.

The elf tapped a beat on the lute. She stepped in time, and each time her heel struck the floor, sparks flashed around her heels. Yuva twirled with her magic, both seemingly lost in a dance that was only for them.

Still the song played on. The more Rune thought about the music, the more she marveled at it. Caught up in dance, in the performance of it all, it almost seemed expected for the music to become fast, frantic. Loud. But it wasn’t. There was joy, there was great joy in Yuva’s song. But it was not glee, or triumph. She had captured contentment. Everyday happiness, side by side with her.

It was apparent on her face as she finished. She didn’t scream, or call out. The girl gave one last spin, letting her notes trail off. She bowed to the fading light, and smiled to the crowd.

The Resting Lute erupted into applause. No one who had heard this, had seen it, could do otherwise. Rune knew of Spellsongs. Great bards and traveling musicians that were accomplished enough in magic to weave pretty lights and soft illusions to make their performance a little more spectacular. Yuva being able to accomplish such, at her age, and her dedication to both crafts?

This was not a diversion. This was her examination to advance to higher magics. If she performed even half as well tomorrow as she had tonight, her acceptance was guaranteed.

Yuva curtseyed to the room, the smile still on her face. Her eyes flicked one way and another, searching for someone. As she trailed upwards, her smile widened, and she waved at someone on the second floor.

Rune tilted her head, and caught Bin Tract waving right back at her.

He was here. After being chewed out, and thrown out of the forge, he came here. The pieces clicked into place.

Rune sat at the table, fuming. She considered so many options. Screams, curses, runes that could level the tavern. Instead, she waved at Yuva, and beckoned the elf forward.

Yuva frowned, and brightened as she recognized the Master. “Lady Rune!” She hugged the dwarf. “I can’t believe you found out about this. Did you like it?”

Rune nodded, and then saw Bin trying to slip down the stairs unnoticed. A quick nod of her head sent him to the bar, waiting for further instructions. She let the two stew for a moment, unsure of their Master’s reputation for biting words.

Lady Rune finally allowed herself to smile. “I think this is one of the greatest pieces of craftsmanship that I have witnessed in at least three years.”

Yuva almost cried. She hugged the dwarf again. “I was so terrified. And Master Shade, what was he going to think of something like this? But, but if you liked it then just maybe he might…”

“He will.” Rune said. “And I assume Bin’s been helping you?”

“Yes!” Yuva said. She stopped, and realized what she had said. “But if you could keep that between us. He was so nice to help, but he is still…you know…the half-human mage kid.”

“That matters?” apparently some elf prejudice had found its way into even her head.

“No! He knows magic, and is just the nicest boy ever. He was the one who thought I’d be better at performing magic than just studying both separately. I couldn’t possibly have done this without him.”

She trailed off, and looked at the floor. “It’s just, you know, people wouldn’t understand.”

“Doubtless.” Rune agreed. Her eyes once again focused on the hair. “Was, that, a suggestion from Bin?”

Yuva smiled, and nodded. “Bin thought I was a bit too uptight. That this might help me loosen up.”

“And it worked?” Rune asked.

“I think so.” Yuva said. She frowned, processing the questions. Her eyes widened. “Am I in trouble?”

Rune tried to find the right words to answer the question. “There was an elf here.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know.”

Yuva chilled. “If, if they saw me, with this…”

Rune nodded to the bartender. “He’ll have some shears. We’ll call it an illusion.”

Yuva nodded, and saw Bin relaxing at the counter. She turned back to Rune.

“He didn’t know, Lady Rune. I swear, I did this all myself.”

“Go get the shears, Yuva.”

“Master, he’s only a child…”

“Now.”

Rune stood up and walked out of the tavern. Bin ran after, frowning.

“What did you say to Yuva?” he asked.

“That she needed to cut her hair.” Rune said.

“But she liked it that way!” Bin protested. “And it was a great color.”

“She is cutting it off.”

“You can’t just make her…”

“Insolent boy!” Rune shouted. “Do you ever think before you speak?”

Bin cowered. The dwarf was a head shorter than him, and yet she towered.

“Thanks to your antics, Yuva may be at risk with her people. For all her skill and accomplishments, the only part of this night that will be remembered is her deviance.”

“De…”

“Do not pretend to think you can interrupt me, boy.” Rune snarled. “There was so much more of this night that came to pass than your simple mind could comprehend. You have risked her entire livelihood and reputation for a single night of fun. If this is not handled with the utmost care, Yuva may be forced to excuse herself from the Circle in apology to her race.”

Bin stood, silent. “It’s just a bunch of hair.”

“It is the elf legacy and reputation. Something that you simply cannot understand.”

Rune could feel the stares on them. All of Counterpoint was looking at the disturbance, confused. Who would break the lull? Who would dare?

“Being a mage is not just wanting to understand spells, Bin. And being good does not just entail doing the right things. You must have some sort of understanding of the world around you. Something I fear you will never achieve.”

“I’m sorry.” Bin said.

“Do you know why?” Rune asked.

The ogre mage shook his head no. He really didn’t. All he was trying to do was help someone out. She had looked so sad, before. Studying without success, her illusions spluttering and uninspired. He just suggested she change her hair.

“Of course you don’t.” Rune sighed. “I cannot force understanding upon you. But I can mitigate your damage.”

She looked at the secret eyes trying to remain innocuous. “If this boy ever shows his face in Counterpoint again, let him know that he is no longer welcome at the Circle. We are not in the habit of supporting ignorant fools who thumb their nose at the elves’ glorious traditions.”

The eyes disappeared back into their taverns, and pretended they did not hear. But that declaration would reach the elves faster than any rumor about their prized pupil’s hair color. Perhaps it would be enough to stop any sort of action.

Rune looked at the boy. Bin was turned away from the street, trying not to cry. It wasn’t fair. It never was fair.

“Can I go back to the Circle tonight?” he asked.

“Of course.” Rune said.

“And the workshop? Am I banned from there too?”

Rune’s heart ached at the words. He may have understood more than it appeared.

“When you prove that you can live in society.” Rune said.

She did not run from the boy. But she could not just walk away. It hurt so.

A tapping on her leg. Book must be trying to contact her. She turned off a side alley, and traced the rune.

<Are we still in trouble?> Book asked.

<No.> Rune wrote back. <It’s been taken care of.>

<Thank you, Rune.> Book’s words stung at her. <You always know what to do.>

Rune looked back at the boy. He balled up his fists, and ran for the Circle.

<Not always. But maybe tonight.>

Maybe.

Rune sighed. “Idiot boy. Try to fix the world in one night, and all you will get is ruined.”

She turned from the alley, to find her bed. After all, she’d have students to see to in the morning.

copyright 2017 Jack Holder