Song of the Knave(full story)
This is the fourth draft of my original story. I've changed character names, edited to the best of my ability, and tweaked the plot a bit. But now it's up to you guys to tell what you think.
Song of the Knave
The chickens scattered. A forty-something man dressed in a filthy tunic stumbled into the street, catching himself before fell to the ground. The sound of shouting followed from behind. The man steadied himself, and then fell to his knees, pleading with the angry merchant who had been chasing him.
“Please Monsieur, will you not let me work with you for food?” he said. “I will not steal.”
“Out with you, wretched knave!” The merchant said. “I will have you thrown back in the dungeon if you do not go away.”
The man got up off his knees, and walked away with his head down. This final rejection amounted to a total of twenty since his return from the dungeons yesterday. Having been a successful burglar in years past, he had gained a reputation among the towns nearby. “Renard the robber.” That was his famous title. Unluckily for him, most of the townsfolk had heard about his devious past, and all seemed to recognize his name, if not his face.
At the end of the street sat an old minstrel. He was by no means a man of means. His tunic had holes in places, some of them gaping. The minstrel plucked at a small harp, playing a melancholy tune. It sounded vaguely familiar to Renard; eerie, haunting, and solemn. He approached the minstrel, making his way across the muddy, filth-ridden streets. A smile crept onto his face; a smile which hadn’t graced his lips since the last time that he had listened to the song. The minstrel smiled too.
Renard stepped forward to talk to the minstrel, but the meeting was interrupted by the fair daughter of a nobleman.
“You had better hide your instrument, dear minstrel, if you wish to keep it.” She said from the balcony of the merchant’s shop. The minstrel looked up.
“Have no fear for me, Mademoiselle.” He said smiling politely. “The only sorrow that would besiege me would be if the man who stole it did not play it, and enjoy it as I have.”
“Steal it, he will. A dog such as the robber, hmph! He has no place among the righteous.”
Renard stood and listened to their exchange. It appeared that he had gained a friend and an enemy all at once, and he was by no means short of enemies. The former criminal decided that the time had come to make conversation with the minstrel, after seeing the young lady disappear behind a door.
“My good man, what is the name of the song that you were plucking on the harp?” he asked. The minstrel chuckled.
“Tis odd that you should ask such a thing.” He said with a sideways grin. “That same question I have been asking other men of my craft for years, yet none of them can recognize it.”
“Well then, it must be very old!”
“No. Not very old.”
“How do you know?”
“It started circulating when I was still a lad. I had barely learned to play the flute.” The minstrel leaned forward. “And whether you believe me or not, twas a woman who taught me to play it. A woman!”
“A woman, you say?” Renard said.
“Oh yes, and that is no fool’s jest. To make this tale even stranger, she was a peasant woman, at that.”
Renard’s face gave a suspicious expression. At the word ‘tale’, he realized that this minstrel was likely to be doubling as a storyteller for extra wages.
“Is what you are a saying really true, minstrel?” Renard put his hands on his hips, and looked unconvinced. “Or is this a story for my pleasure?”
The two argued for a few moments. Eventually, the conversation returned to the song.
“Twas a woman who taught me that song too.” Renard said.
“Now that is a jest!” The minstrel exclaimed.
“You are wrong, Monsieur. Oh, my beautiful mother! She would lay me in my bed at night, and sit beside me playing the harp as you were. But not quite.”
“She played the song differently, you say?”
“Yes. She played it faster, with more excitement.”
The minstrel looked surprised.
“Twas the same way that my woman tutor taught me, but my speed has worn down over the years.” He said.
“Ah, what a pity.” Renard said. “I should very much like to hear it done the old way.”
Talking ceased for a few moments.
“I wish you could have seen my mother play the harp. Even after a hard day’s work in the field, she could pluck with the speed of a fresh stallion!” Renard said.
“Did your mother live here, in this parish?” The minstrel asked.
The minstrel’s countenance had changed. He walked slow circles around Renard, looking him up and down.
“And did she have golden hair?” he asked. Renard yelped.
“Yes, yes! That is true.” He replied.
“What was her name?”
“Drat my memory! I do not remember, she died when I was but a little one.”
Renard trembled. He looked his newfound friend in the eyes, astounded at this new revelation. The minstrel blew out a sigh and smiled.
“My dear monsieur, would you like to know what her name was?” he said. Renard’s eyes opened wide.
“No, it cannot be!” Renard said. “Twas my mother that taught you to play the song?”
“Yes. Your mother used her free time after a hard day of laboring to instruct me. Her name was Emeline.”
Renard shook his head, chuckled, and paced back and forth. It was a bit too much surprise for him to take in at once. The once-great burglar asked his friend many things about his mother, Emeline. He never ran out of questions, desiring to know everything about her; from where she was born to how many siblings she had.. Both Renard and the minstrel talked like this for some time on the street corner, making a spectacle for passersby.
Eventually, the conversation turned its focus to the harp itself, when Renard received an offer that both excited and frightened him.
“Did not you say that Emeline had taught you to play this instrument?” said the minstrel with a wide smile. “I would gladly let you strum it.”
“Are you mad?” Renard exclaimed under his breath.
“Please, I beg it of you!”
“Do you not know what I am?”
“What does it matter?”
Renard raised clinched fists to his face, gritting his teeth.
“I am a thief! A burglar!” He said.
“No you are not, Renard.” The minstrel said. “What you are is a kind soul who has made a lonely musician feel appreciated in his old age.”
“But, but, you cannot trust me with your precious harp. What if I took it from you?”
“Renard! Why ever would do such a thing?”
“Because I am an evil man!” Renard covered his face. “I do bad things.”
“Do not be foolish. Why, you have shown me more kindness than all of the sou-kissers in this entire town.”
The argument between these kindred spirits decreased in volume as a few of the local lord’s guards rode by on horseback. They were thugs with swords, not knights. But the town feared them very much. Renard breathed out a sigh of relief after the men passed by without stopping. On went the conversation.
“I am a thief, and that is why the townsfolk stay away from me. The young woman warned you well! I am a thieving knave who should not be among good people.” Renard said with hands on his eyes.
“We are all thieves in the eyes of God, Monsieur, and yet he forgives us.” The minstrel said. “Cannot I do the same?”
Renard had no answer.
“Please, my friend. Will you not strum this harp?” said the minstrel.
Reluctantly, Renard lifted his hands to receive the instrument. He held it, and it made him shake. The minstrel smiled, and gestured for him to play the harp. Slowly but surely, Renard plucked a string here and a string there, picking out a tune in no time. All of his mother’s lessons returned to him at once in a flood of memory. Renard played beautifully.
“I am glad you like it, Monsieur.” He said. “It is yours.”
“Mine?” Renard exclaimed.
Yes, my fingers are getting old and I have no use for instruments of string anymore. Please take it, and enjoy it.”
Renard exploded with joy and surprise, bestowing upon the minstrel more thanks and blessings than he cared to receive. After saying an unexpected farewell, the minstrel disappeared, playing a flute that he had drawn from his person. Renard found himself alone once again. He played the harp even more, getting better and better until he had mastered the instrument. It was at this moment that Renard decided to give this minstrel business a try. What harm could come of it? However, he would have to conceal his face, for the townsfolk would recognize it and throw mud at him.
The town bakery was typical of those medieval years. Hot, stuffy, and smelling of fresh cooked loaves. But in spite of the baker’s profession, he did not enjoy a position of popularity around the village. He held a sour view of life, and constantly reminded the customers of how much he hated his life and work. No laughter, no smiling, no joy, and absolutely no music were to be found in the grim kitchen. Ever since the baker had lost his wife, a black cloud hovered over his place of business.
It just so happened that Celestine, daughter of the local lord, was in the bakery that very day, purchasing a loaf of her choosing. She had her coins out and ready to pay, when all of the sudden the baker froze in place, directing his eyes to the window. Celestine tried to get his attention. She could not perceive what had come over the baker, but soon understood what had captivated him so. It was a noise. No, not a noise, but a beautiful sound coming from outside the window. It rang like church bells through the air, and could have been accompanied by a choir of heaven.
Soon after recovering from their original surprise, Celestine and the baker recognized a song. A familiar song, but played unlike they had ever heard it before. Rather than dragging out, the musical notes galloped along with gracefulness that sounded other-worldly. The baker spoke after gasping.
“Such a glorious sound! Where could it be coming from?” he said, rushing toward the window.
Celestine had never seen the baker so moved. Nothing ever excited him, nothing ever brought out his enthusiasm, but this beautiful song had transformed him into a man who had died long ago. The man he buried with his wife.
“Is this song not the same that our minstrel plays?” Celestine asked. The baker shook his head.
“No minstrel could ever be capable of this.” He threw off his apron and ran outside. “I must find the one who is playing this music!”
Now just a stone’s throw down the street, a hooded man walked through the town with a harp in his hands. Townsfolk stopped to watch him. They gasped and awed at the way he moved his fingers, gracefully plucking at a rhythm that would put drummers to shame. It was the same song that the minstrel had played, but at the speed at which this man plucked the harp, new notes were added to it, much to the pleasure of those who could hear. Oh what a tragedy it would have been to be deaf at such a moment! Never had a sweeter sound been heard in the town before or since.
Peddlers halted their carts on the street, simply to watch this mysterious musician who had appeared in town only minutes ago. Instantly they knew that they were witnesses of something beautiful. However, in spite of the, these magical moments did not last. The baker had to know who this man was.
“You, the harp player.” he shouted from down the street. “Take off that hood!”
The harp player did not know what to make of this. He stopped, and backed away frightened. But the townsfolk along the street joined the baker in his demands. They chanted, taunted, and yelled at the harp player until he almost felt offended. He did not give in. He still wore the hood and was not going to take it off. However, the baker’s intentions were not to embarrass or scold him, he wanted to give this wandering musician anything he wanted, if he would just play the song a few more times. The baker walked up to the harp player.
“Your playing.” He said. “It does my heart good.”
The harp player seemed nervous. In his hand he felt a bag of coins, which had been placed there by the baker.
“Please, I beg you to play more.” The baker said. “Do it anywhere you wish; in front of my shop, all throughout the town, just as long as my ears can hear it!”
“You are very generous, monsieur.” The harp player said.
The townsfolk had been moved by this change in the baker, and stepped from behind the walls of their shops and homes to watch. A smile, a tear, and an expression of hope all appeared on this widower’s face, animating him to the point where people wondered if he was the same man. As soon as the baker turned to go back to his shop, he whipped around like a viper, and yanked the hood off of the harp player, revealing his face to the town. It was Renard the robber.
After the town recovered from the surprise, they noticed that the Lord’s daughter, Celestine, had made her way to the scene. She carried fine loaves in her arms, which had not been paid for, though her dishonesty remained unknown to the baker. The guards of Celestine’s father rode alongside her as she walked down the street, keeping a watchful eye on the townsfolk as they rode through the crowd. These common people, knowing what was good for them, went back inside their shops and went about usual business. Only the baker and Renard remained.
“Where have you acquired the harp, Monsieur?” Celestine asked. “I thought that you had not a sou since father released you.”
Renard was at a loss for words. He always felt nervous in the lady’s presence.
“I haven’t, Mademoiselle.” Renard said. Celestine looked at her guards, and motioned for them to get in front of her.
“Oh, How strange!” she said. The baker spoke.
“He has need of a better one.” He said, shaking a pointed finger in the air. “A fine minstrel such as this man should be playing in royal courts, not a sow’s pen like this.”
Though Celestine had been thrown off balance by the insult to her father’s town, she still could not draw her attention away from the musical instrument.
“I remember our old minstrel strumming a harp such as this,” she said, handing the loaves to a guard. “Tis very strange indeed that you should be playing it now.”
Renard’s face turned very pale.
“Mademoiselle! You are wrong to say such things, for the minstrel gave it to me as a gift.” He said. Celestine put her hands on her hips and smiled.
“Then where has he gone?” she asked.
“I do not know.” Renard gripped the harp with sweating palms. “He left the village, only a moment ago”
The terrified man persisted in his story, despite the lack of evidence to support his claim of innocence. Both guards in front of Celestine laughed at his groveling, and grabbed him by the arms. He pleaded, he begged, he cried out for mercy, but none was extended. During the days of the early middle ages, compassion was indeed a rare thing.
As one would expect, the baker, who had suddenly grown fond of Renard, gave quite a bit of protest. He yelled at the guards to release the poor man; an order that went completely ignored. He defended the robber’s claim of innocence, even to the point of violence. A shaking of his fist drew a gasp from Celestine. However, the baker’s coup did not last long. One can do only so much against armed guards in the service of a local Lord.
They set Renard on his knees, and took the harp away from him. It was then handed to Celestine. She held it in her hands, strummed it, and commented on its beauty.
“Did you wish to have this instrument, dear thief?” she asked. “Is that why you stole it from the minstrel?” The accused man looked up at her.
“Please have mercy, Mademoiselle.” he said. “I am a bad man, but I did not steal the minstrel’s harp. He gave it to me!”
Celestine held the instrument high in the air, and then broke it over Renard’s head, with the frame hanging around his neck like a collar. The guards enjoyed a hearty laugh from this.
“What shall we do with him, Mademoiselle?” One of them asked half-chuckling.
“Bring him back to the dungeons?”
Celestine smiled, and thought about it for a moment.
“There are more entertaining ways to punish thieves,” she said. “Chain him to the stocks at near the marketplace.”
The guards dragged Renard off of the ground. Meanwhile the townsfolk, who had watched these things happen from behind their windows, knew what the lord’s daughter had in mind. They welcomed it as entertainment. Public punishment of criminals gave them something to break up the monotony of everyday life.
Clamp! Clamp! Renard’s hands were placed in iron cuffs. Rather than slipping them inside the stocks, they chained them, and set them on top with his fingers against the wood. One of the guards drew out a sword. Being an ignorant peasant, who had been locked away in a dungeon for the last ten years, Renard had no idea what fate awaited him. But he was not alone in his ignorance. The guard still awaited Celestine’s orders.
“What shall I remove, Mademoiselle?” he asked. She did not pause in her response
“Take your sword and cut off this knave’s fingers.” Celestine said. “Make certain that he will never strum the harp again.”
Renard’s hopes and dreams shattered into pieces.
“You cannot do this to me, I have not stolen!” he screamed. Celestine leaned close to his face.
“And by what proof do you claim this?” She said laughing. “Stop obstructing our fun; it has been a long while since the town has had a thief to punish. You must repay these poor folk for all the things you stole from them; entertaining them is the least you can do.”
“Oh, but you must leave my fingers for playing the harp. It is all that I have to make me happy!”
Celestine looked up at the guards.
“Begin, now.” She said.
The sword came down with a whack. Blood spattered everywhere, followed by a finger that fell on the ground. Renard screamed, his heart exploding with terror. This was a nightmare. The townsfolk laughed from behind their windows. It made them happy to see their thief being de-fingered, cutting off his ability to steal from them. But the punishment was not over. The guard raised his sword again, and struck the stock so hard that it echoed for miles. Whack! More blood and screaming came erupting out of the prisoner, making the guards wonder how such an average sized man could hold so much inside him. This continued until every appendage of Renard’s hands were removed.
Celestine, after enjoying a hysterical bout of laughter, ordered the guards give him a good lashing, and then parade him through town with the harp hanging round his neck. This they did with great enthusiasm and pleasure, drawing more laughs and jeers from the townsfolk. They tied Renard to a post and beat him mercilessly with a whip, barely keeping him alive. After this further punishment was finished, the prisoner was released into the countryside where he disappeared, never to be seen again.
However, rumors of this great robber turned harp player spread about far and wide, and some folks claimed even to have seen him begging in various towns nearby. Men without fingers could not earn a decent living in those days.
As for the minstrel, he quit his traveling circuit, and joined a monastic order where he lived out the rest of his life. No one had ever told him what happened to his friend, Renard. But that was for the better. If the poor old minstrel would have known, he would have suffered unbearable misery.
There is not much to say regarding the baker. He simply hanged himself.
After a period of ten years, Celestine had married a young Lord from another part of the country, and she hadn’t changed one bit, except for the weight that she had gained. The young lady still remained as cruel, cold, and calculating as ever; taking joy in degrading her servants and inferiors. One night, her husband decided to have a feast in the chateau, and they invited all friends and family to join them. Including the King.
Much to Celestine’s chagrin, the King had sent a messenger, saying that although his majesty could not attend, he had sent his favorite minstrel. This entertainer was supposedly the finest harpist that money could buy, and frequently performed for the King himself. Celestine looked forward to the feast very much.
Evening came, and the friends of this young noble couple arrived in bunches as the party was about to begin. They talked, they laughed, they embraced, and they wondered what was taking the minstrel so long to arrive. But they were not to be disappointed. After an hour, the minstrel’s horse came galloping to the stables.
Inside the ballroom (if it could be called such), Celestine heard a noise. It sounded vaguely like music. She told her friends to hush their incessant talking, and listen. They heard it too. As the music approached, Celestine recognized the song. It had remained stored in her memory, even after all these years. Beautiful, solemn, and moving was the sound. Her friends erupted with praise for the minstrel, even though he had not entered yet.
Across the room by the open door, steps could be heard. The King’s minstrel had arrived. Celestine shivered at the thought of meeting this dignified gentleman. What a fine man he must be, to entertain the courts of his majesty! She thought. But all of her lofty dreams crumbled to pieces, when in through the door came a harp player. A harp player with no fingers.
He had nothing but mere stubs on his hands. But that did not matter. In spite of his handicap, the harp player plucked with the grace and beauty of his fingered days, leaving no doubt as to the King’s boasts. Such a minstrel was a thing of legend. The music he played brought tears to all of the guests, who applauded him for quite some time. Except for Celestine.
The woman of the house went to her room crying. None of her friends noticed of course, because everyone else at the feast wiped numerous tears from their eyes. They had never heard music so touching, so haunting, and beautifully played on a stringed instrument. A stringed instrument played by a man without fingers!
Celestine slammed her bedroom door, and refused to come out for the rest of the party. She sobbed, she screamed, she threw her possessions across the chamber. Renard the robber: a thief, a peasant, a fool, and an all-around knave; inferior to her in every way, was now revered by even the King himself. Even without his fingers, this wretch had found his way back to the blessing of God, which was his musical talent.
“No!” she said. “This cannot be.”