He was a clumsy bard, inept at the complex fingerings that made eduldamer strings hum so sweetly in a master musician’s hands. His musical deficiency owed much to the fact that his right hand was made entirely out of polished black stone, carved in perfect replication of a human hand, so detailed that one could see the slight reliefwork of veins and moles, the knolls of knuckles, even peeling cuticles captured in the hard glossy rock. Most of the fine hairs had snapped from the delicately rendered diamond-shaped pores, but you could feel where they had been, like adamantine stubble. His left hand was more dexterous than most, and his calloused fingers hammered the strings as best they could to make up for the other hand’s disability; but his rock-solid right hand was good for nothing more than brutal strumming and whacking. He couldn’t pinch a plectrum. The soundbox was scarred and showed the signs of much abuse, the thin wood having been patched many times over.
“It’s a gargoyle affliction,” he said to most who asked. “Comes and goes. I’m looking for the treacherous slab who did it to me and disappeared before he could undo it.”
If you asked why he didn’t learn to play a different instrument in the meantime, one more suited to his handicap, the bard’s face went hard and dark and stony as his hand. “Once I was proficient enough,” he’d say. “The eduldamer spoiled me for anything else. It still suits my voice. And besides, what else could I play one-handed? What bard accompanies himself on sticks or spoons? I can’t exactly sing while I blow ullala pipes. . . .”
He was right about his voice. Though his stone thumb grated on the strings, his voice was strong. The conflict of these sounds – one harsh and scarcely in control, the other pure and deliberate – made the bard’s performances more than merely bearable. Wherever he went, he was a curiosity. If asked why he didn’t find a musical companion, one who could play an instrument while he sang accompaniment, the bard scoffed sadly. “I travel alone,” he said. “I wouldn’t wish my ill fortune on anyone else.”
One gathered that this had not always been the case.
The name of this sulking, sarcastic, stone-fingered, honey-tongued loner was Gorlen Vizenfirthe.
Gorlen stumbled into Dankden in a torrential rain, a phenomenon apparently so common in this climate that the mud-flooded streets of the mud-colored town were lined with patterned stepping stones of the sort usually found at stream crossings. Hand-pull rope-and-raft ferries operated at intersections, deep in the street canyons between the sagging, slouching shops and houses. Having spied an inn with a lamplit marquee across the street, during his customary search of the rooflines for anything resembling a gargoyle, Gorlen stepped onto the slimy planks of one such raft and began to pull himself against the muddy current.
He had taken no more than three strong pulls – a lurching mode of progress made more difficult by the fact that he had but one hand to clench with – when he heard a cry from the sidewalk (or bank) he had just deserted. Turning, he saw a woman and a boy, both wrapped in shiny dark cloaks, only their white faces visible. The woman beckoned for him to return.
Something more than courtesy compelled him to obey: his one flesh palm was already blistering. At this rate, he would be unable to play the eduldamer by the time he reached the far row of stepping stones, and thus unable to earn a living. He stepped aside to let the pair aboard; the woman gave him a smile and her thanks. The rain and chill had brought a flush to her cheeks; her eyes were dark and gleaming, reflecting some source of light invisible to him in the gloomy afternoon. She looked too young to be the boy’s mother, for which, seeing her beauty, he was suddenly glad.
As they crowded past him into a corner of the raft, Gorlen realized that he was expected to haul them. His spirits felt as sodden as his underwear, the strength drenched out of him, but making a show of it, he grasped the rope once more and yanked them out into the mudflow, turning his face into his dripping sleeve to hide the grimaces he made with every painful draw.
The short voyage must have gone more slowly than the Dankden woman was used to. Gorlen’s palms were barely burning before he felt her beside him and saw her gloved hands reaching up to grasp the rope. The palms of her gloves were heavily reinforced, and with good reason. She pulled with such strong and practiced strokes that the rope was nearly torn from his hand. The raft scudded over the street in a dozen pulls, to which Gorlen made only a token contribution.
At the far bank, somewhat chastened, he tipped his hat, spilling a small flood of rainwater down his front, and thanked the woman. He caught her staring at his right hand; embarrassed, she looked away.
“What happened to your hand?” the boy said sharply.
The woman turned on him with a cry – “Jezzle! Please don’t mind my brother, sir.”
“That’s all right,” said Gorlen, offering his flesh hand to her as she stepped onto the stone landing. “Children always say what’s in their minds. When do we lose that innocence, I wonder?”
“It’s none of his business,” she said, “that’s all.”
“I’ll tell you, though,” he said. “I got in trouble with the priests of Nardath a few years back. They laid a task on me – and one of their pet gargoyles turned my pinky to stone as a reminder. Every time I dawdled on my errand, or deliberately headed in the wrong direction, the blackness spread. Finger by finger, it swallowed my hand. As you can see, I was reluctant to do exactly as the priests asked, even at the cost of my dexterity.”
The boy rapped on Gorlen’s hand and jerked back smarting knuckles. “I guess you did what they wanted, or you’d be rock all over.”
“Lucky for you I did, too. In spite of myself, I saved the world. Some would even say, the universe.”
Jezzle gazed at him coolly. “Wish I had one like that.”
Gorlen smiled up at the woman, and was startled to see her expression. “You don’t have to lie to him,” she said as his grin died. “He’s a child, not an idiot.”
She seized the boy’s hand and pulled him away before Gorlen could say another word, in his defense or otherwise.
That’ll teach me, he thought as he watched them pick their way over the stones. Hauling out my heroic credentials to impress a lady. Of course she considers me a fool. Who wouldn’t?
I’m going to start saying it’s artificial.
Letting the pair precede him some distance into the murk, he finally followed in the same direction until he reached the inn he’d spotted from across the street.
The place was called the Drydock. Tilted signs, hand-lettered in bright orange paint and nailed to the facade, proclaimed the merits of the inn: “Come in & dry off!” “A snug harbor!” “Completely dry inside!” “Boot-warmers available!” “Heat in every room!” “Dry beds & sheets!” “Your comfort cheerfully guaranteed!” A huge stone hearth was pictured on the wall; he could almost feel the heat of the painted flames.
Gorlen grinned and pushed open the door, expecting gusts of warm air. He was met instead by a clammy draft reeking of mildew. He couldn’t be sure whether it was his soaked boots or the spongy mass of carpet that squelched underfoot as he stepped into a grotto dim and dank as a frog’s den. Scattered lamps glowed with a weak, watery light, their chimneys all rippled with droplets. The interior echoed with a steady streaming drizzle; louder than the muffled sizzle of the rain, it was the sound of countless leaks, of water pouring into tin pails and teetering saucers. Makeshift gutters lined the walls, carrying run off to a row of windows at the rear of the high-roofed room. Tiny cataracts cascaded from the ceiling, vanishing through holes they had worn in the floor. Spray from the myriad fountains peppered his face and hands. Mossy stairs rose on either side to an opposing pair of lofts; above were rows of open doors, all so badly warped that probably they would never close again.
Across the room, behind a countertop, cloaked in the bright yellow skin of some no doubt toxic local amphibian, stood a man whom it would have been charitable (and an insult to toads) to dub “toadlike.” Gray-cheeked, with bulging eyes in a lumpy face, he patiently mopped his countertop with alternate strokes of a rubber knife and a sponge. Water flew to the floor in sheets; he wrung the sponge into a bucket. The counter was instantly soaked again, and the bucket would soon need emptying. He interrupted this futile procedure for a moment when Gorlen entered, then went back to it.
Gorlen should have left immediately; there was no real point in staying or stoking the bartender’s immediate, obvious hostility. But the blatant fraud, the howling misrepresentations of the lurid signs outside, spurred both his indignation and his sense of the absurd. He found the combination irresistible.
Striding across the soft planks, he called on the yellow-clad proprietor: “You, there! Sir – if I may call you that? What is the meaning of your bold and boldly false inducements? I have never seen such a bare-faced bait and switch, which fools an eager customer for perhaps one hundredth of a second, and gains you nothing but their ill will in record time.”
The innkeeper, if such he was, looked sidelong at a collection of mushroom growths clustered at the far end of the counter, gray puffs rising on rust-colored stalks. Gorlen saw suddenly that they were customers, several blobby souls wrapped in wrinkled gray mold-colored cloaks, hunched on spindly iron stools and sipping liquor from tall glasses which they guarded with cupped hands from the more unpredictable leaks. Gorlen sensed that they had heard such objections before; although they made no sound, from the quivering of their oddly similar bulks he felt certain they were laughing.
“We’re under new management,” the toad-man croaked, and at that the laughter rang outright. “I can’t be held responsible for the claims of the previous owner.”
“Very good,” Gorlen said, joining with them in laughter. “I see the merit of your argument. But what would you say if I were to bring your claims more in line with reality?”
“What d’ye mean by that?”
“I mean I would happily volunteer to remove the signs from your establishment, which surely serve only to bring unhappy and deluded customers through your door. The name itself, of course, must remain. I’m sure you paid plenty of auris for its ironic properties alone, which I cannot help but admire.”
“Take down my signs?” the keeper said, glowering at his customers to shut them up.
“I thought you said they were the previous owner’s signs, and not yours at all.”
“I paid for ‘em, that makes ’em mine.”
“Then I’ll bring them straight in, out of harm’s way, and even suggest a few places where you might put them.” Gorlen turned and walked out the way he had come in. The saturated air, which had seemed oppressive before, now tasted fresh and invigorating; at least it was not thick with mold spores striving to establish green colonies in his nasal passages. On the porch outside the Drydock, he wrenched at the nearest of the ludicrous signs, finding that the swollen wood splintered and crumbled in his hands. He set what remained of it carefully beside the door, and was starting on a second when, in a flash of slick yellow, the innkeeper sprang upon him.
Gorlen had only an instant to brace himself; it was not enough. Broad fat hands grabbed and shoved him, first onto his butt and then across the scummy planks. He’d been carrying his eduldamer case slung over one shoulder, and he felt its strap catch on a porch post, along with his travelsack. He wished heartily that he could have stayed there with them, but the upright toad had given him a good push, and did not neglect to follow through. Gorlen hit the edge of the porch and awkwardly tumbled between the stepping stones, sprawling into the muddy stream. Thrashing for purchase, he began to sink. He kicked out, his eyes full of mud, mud in his mouth, and no bottom beneath him. This was no street – it was a river!
Once he had been as fine a swimmer as he’d been a musician. The gargoyle had robbed him of both skills with one move. Nor had he ever swum in such a rich mixture of mud, which did nothing to buoy him up like friendly water. It was a miracle that he managed to stay afloat for more than a few seconds in the current; a miracle, also, that guided him toward another of the raft landings, where even now someone was moving out across the flooded street and shouting at him – words he couldn’t hear through the mud in his ears – as they tried to pull the raft into his path.
He hit it hard and blind, throwing his arms over the deck, clambering aboard with assistance from his rescuer. He sprawled as if dead, then struggled to his knees, choking into the face of a woman.
“Well, well, if it isn’t the savior of the universe,” said his rescuer blithely, hauling the raft back toward the stone landing where her brother Jezzle waited.
“At your service,” Gorlen replied, and promptly vomited copious quantities of dilute brown gritty muck at her feet.