The Harp’s Call

Turdas (Thursday)

 “Cari, come on!” insisted Leyda.  “It’ll be time to leave soon, and we still want to get some souvenirs.”  Leyda gently tugged the sleeve of Cari’s uniform while Anisa tapped her foot impatiently.  “Are you going to gawp at that old building all afternoon?”

“Just another minute,” said Cari.  Truth be told, Cari certainly could gawp at that old building all afternoon.  The Bard’s College in Solitude was more than a thousand years old.  Ten centuries of music, poetry, storytelling and art – Cari tried to imagine what had echoed through the gray stone halls over the ages.  It wasn’t hard; history had always affected her like that, even if, at twelve years old, she had to admit she had very little history herself!

Young Cari’s school photo

But Cari loved visiting Solitude’s historic district, and had looked forward to this class field trip for weeks.  She’d been several times already, with Papa, her favorite Aunt Teri, and more than once with her class.  She thought it was strange that some people like her, who’d lived all their lives in Greater Solitude, hadn’t visited even once, while tourists came from all over the continent to view the ruins of the Blue Palace, the massive museums, and other extraordinary attractions.  It was all right here, almost begging you to look and listen.

Cari stood on the Bard’s College porch, which was perpendicular to the street and wound around the building into a sort of small, terraced amphitheater.  Across the street was the grassy lawn, punctuated here and there by excavated foundations of buildings from centuries past, where Cari’s class ate their sack lunches.  Sadly, the building, which loomed three gray stories above her, was locked up tight that day.  Still, Cari stepped up to the door, and stood on tiptoe to peer through a window, while Leyda and Anisa waited behind her, fidgeting.

The mighty Bard’s College, still standing after more than ten centuries

Cari could see nothing.  It was too bright outside to see any of the college’s dim interior, even if she squinted.  But almost as if nature had sensed her disappointment, she suddenly found herself in the shade, making the inside of the college visible.

Including the face looking back at her!  Cari stumbled back, startled, and nearly fell.  She turned, expecting to see her Leyda and Anisa laughing at her, but they were nowhere to be seen.  They got tired of waiting for me, she thought.  They’ve left without me.  Cari turned back toward the street; maybe she could still catch up with her girlfriends.  Then she stopped – were those buildings there before?  Didn’t we just eat lunch over there?  No, the lawn must be further down!  The narrow stone houses across the street were new to her.  Looking left, she couldn’t even find the lawn; it was buildings all the way down to the Blue Palace gate.  In fact, everything seemed a little, well, off-kilter.  She saw no crowds of schoolchildren or tourists.  What people she saw were all dressed in old-time clothes, like those historical reenactors.

And the smell!  Gone was the familiar Solitude city smell, which was mostly vehicle exhaust.  Now she was assaulted by a variety aromas, almost all of them unpleasant:  raw sewage, manure, and smoke from at least a dozen fires.  Cari couldn’t tell what was burning, but it sure wasn’t wood.  Not all of it, anyway.

She noticed something else:  While no motor traffic was allowed inside the historic area, you could always hear the dull roar of the city beyond.  But that noise was missing.  All she heard were footsteps, the occasional shout, or the sound of hoof beats.  What is this place, Cari wondered.  How did I get here?  How did I manage to wander so far away?  It wasn’t right – none of this was right!  So I’m a little absent-minded, Cari thought.  Everyone says so.  I must have wandered off without thinking!  I’ll just ask somebody for directions.

Buildings all the way down!

“Excuse me?”  Cari called to a pair of women approaching with a young boy between them.  “Excuse me?  Can you tell me where –“  She stopped speaking abruptly.  The women looked her over with the most puzzled expressions, as if they’d never seen anything like her, while the little boy eyed her with wide-eyed wonder.   Further, all three of them seemed a little out of focus, as if Cari’s eyes were watering.

Which they soon were.  As the women and the little boy hurried up the street, Cari began to succumb to panic.  What’s happening to me?  Where am I?  She looked right and left, desperately hoping to find a landmark, but found nothing familiar to guide her.  Turning back around, she again found herself staring at the Bard’s College.  Cari began to sob.  I know where I am, but it’s not like it should be!  She tried to make sense of what she was experiencing, but could find no explanation.  I just want to find my friends!  I just want to go home!

It was then she heard the music.  Someone, a woman, singing with a harp – the sound seemed to come from inside the College.  She stepped closer, and she heard it more clearly.  Whoever was singing must have been just inside the door.  She couldn’t quite make out what the woman was singing; it sounded like something she should understand, but the words were just beyond recognition.  In any case, it was the most beautiful song Cari had ever heard—slow, mournful, as if somebody had condensed the most profound heartbreak into music.

Oddly, Cari felt her panic dissipate somewhat.  The song pulled at her.  She found herself humming along with the melody, and she had to hear more.  Slowly, she made her way to the door, and pulled gently at the latch.  Surprisingly, the felt the door give.  It was unlocked after all.  If nothing else, maybe whoever was singing could at least explain what was going on!  She pulled harder, and the door swung open.

Ahead of her loomed the college’s main floor, cavernous and dim.  She heard the music even more clearly now, and picked up, here and there, a word or a phrase of the lyrics:  something about soldiers marching off to war, while home and hearth were left alone.  She couldn’t make it out exactly.  Nor could she quite identify the music’s source. It seemed to be coming from her left.  As her eyes accustomed themselves to the dim light, she walked toward the sound.

In the moonlight of haust hast thou vanished

Skjöldur og sverð by your side

This was starting to get scary!

Cari heard the music perfectly now, and could even see its maker, a very slender young woman seated a short distance in front of her, looking to Cari’s left, facing a window.  The light seemed to make her pale blue gown glow somehow.  Cari couldn’t see her face clearly, but was stricken by her icy white hair the fell past her shoulders.  The woman’s thin hands seemed to brush almost casually over the harp strings, although Cari could tell she played skillfully.  The young woman sang on.

Again Cari stood silently while the woman sang and played, but after a moment passed, she wanted to join in the song, even if she couldn’t understand all the words.  Taking a deep breath, she gave it her best try, hitting the notes exactly, even if she could only sing meaningless syllables.  I wonder if she heard me, thought Cari.  Then the woman turned to face her, and Cari’s panic returned fourfold.

Go to Part II

A note about the illustrations: The pictures of Cari and the other characters are screenshots taken while playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.  The shots were then manipulated using The following user mods were used for this story: