OF THE BARDS
nce upon a time I happened to pass by the city of Bardavos, which lies south of the great Narfost Plain, near Occen's Lake. I did not plan to stop by the city; but as my supplies run short, I had better get new ones, rather than starve and freeze. My stay should not have been long; I needed only food, and maybe some coins - to ensure my journey for a while. And since the School of the Quill, the part of Bardavos dedicated to poets and writers, greatly welcomes tales from the northern lands, I figured to have a fair chance at getting my supplies there.
Once inside the city, I asked around and thus was directed to the aforementioned School. Indeed it was not hard to find, and soon I reached my destination. As the weather was rather ugly at this time, because winter was battling the arising spring, it felt good to come inside the school, and sit down by the fire. Not knowing much about the school, nor the ways of the bards, I decided to sit down and listen for a while, rather than opening my mouth. For it is an old line of wisdom that refers to speech as silver, yet silence as gold, in certain situations.
After listening to various stories for a while in one of the public rooms of the School, there was one conversation that caught my attention from the cozy corner I was occupying. Two young, but without any doubt talented bards were talking among themselves. Their conversation was going on for a while, and did not catch my ear until they started to talk about wisdom. As wisdom is not a light matter, and a matter valued by any mage, I centered my attention, listening closely to their conversation. The main issue was how one could acquire wisdom, and what one could see as wisdom. However, as the bards talked, they reached no agreement, and their dialogue became slightly more heated. Little time passed, and the two were arguing among themselves, about who was the cleverest of them. Soon, they began to wonder how they could measure it. As competition attracts listeners, there was a small crowd forming around the two bards, watching their eloquent debate with great intensity.
Figuring that this could be a rather interesting conversation, as well as a gaining one, I rose from my cozy corner, walking closer to the two arguing bards.
“The ways of wisdom and knowledge are a rather interesting subject”, I said, smiling in my thoughts. “One can argue for all it is worth, yet, I propose a diversion, that can both prove enlightening, and entertaining”, I continued, as both the bards and the people around them turned their attention towards me.
“Who are you, stranger?” one of the bards inquired me. “A lonely traveller, running out of supplies, and thus stopping at this city”, I replied. “And since your conversation proves rather interesting, and my pockets at the moment are as empty as my stomach, I propose the following: Each of us can tell a tale, and inside the tale, each should place a riddle. Once the tales are told, we will try to figure out each other’s riddles. The quality of the tale, as well as the riddle inside, can then be a measure of our knowledge and wisdom.”
“Yet”, I continued, “As I am in need of supplies, I also propose that if you like my tale, and cannot solve the riddle within, then you let me stay for the night, as well as give me some food - to aid my journey."
"And if we do solve your riddle, traveller?” – one of the bards curiously inquired . “If that happens, you are still welcome to let me stay for the night, however, in return I will tell you a tale or two, if you wish. You see, I have travelled here all the way down from Ximax, and I picked up quite a lot of stories on my journey. Either way, we will all be at win – you will hear and tell a tale, as that is a bard’s liking, and I, in return, will also hear and tell some tales, as well as have a good night’s sleep if my tale falls to your taste.”
“A rather interesting concept, traveller”, the second bard spoke up. The first one looked at him, then, as if reaching some understanding, they both spoke up: “We agree. As you pointed out, there is no more delight for a bard than to listen and be listened to.”
“Very well”, I said. “Yet, before we start, can I have at least something to still my hunger? Otherwise, I fear my tale might be unheard under the rumbling of my stomach.” The bards smiled, and got me some food. While I ate, the bards waited, no doubt preparing their stories. After finishing the simply delicious Bardavossian bread accompanied by some Bard's Own, I spoke up: “Who will begin?”
One of the bards sat back against the wall by the roaring fire.
"Hmm... something tells me I've seen your face before, Master Ergless." He spoke in a lilting tone, the accent that of the Green Hills just beyond the Ximaxian Plateau. "I think I may've seen your face about the Shimmering Spires, yes, the Yellow Tower, if I'm not mistaken. And if you are from the Magic City, it's all the more fitting that my tale's of me and a magical man..."
He took a drink from his mug, and then began...
"I was walking through the forest one day...
Where, you ask? Ah, a literal mind my friend has. 'Twere the Quallion, land of
the elven Lords, and a disputed ground for wizards. For 'tis there that the
wizardleaf grows, a blossom with sorcerous powers to fool the eyes, trick the
ears, and bring through to the world illusions great and powerful. But I'm
afraid my tongue wanders. The story begins with me walking through that forest,
enjoying a fine early summer's day, when I came across an entire field of the
mage's bouquet. Nearly as far as the eye could see, 'twas nothing but the mystic
herb covering the ground, even some growing on the sides of the great trees.
Well, I don't mind telling you, I sat down and started to pick some for myself,
saying to myself as I went, 'Nilifus, you'll be getting yourself a fine few
meals out of this, and no mistake, because there's not a wizard for strals about
who wouldn't pay through the nose for some nice healthy leaves like this!'
But then I said to myself, 'You know, Twitter, that there's bound to be one of the magic ones about. After all, isn't it said that they can smell leaf from a league away, and be taking it into their pouches in a minute?'
I argued with myself for a while, picking leaf while I sat there, talking to myself. 'T must have been a strange sight, a man sitting in the middle of a field of magical herb, mutterin' to hisself... but then the story got interestin'.
As I was talkin' to meself, I said 'Y'know, Nilifus, it's strange none of the robies have shown up yet,' and then there he suddenly was. Those robes were such a shade of violet y'coulda fallen asleep just lookin' at 'em. I looked at the robes, and I looked at the face ('Twas one of the oldish ones. The ones who've got the grey hair and the wrinkled faces but can still catch you across the knuckles if y' try to go to sleep.) and I said to myself, 'Well, here's a right problem.'
And then came the funny bit. The roby smiled a bit, and said 'Indeed it is, for this is my ground, Master Bard, and I think you may be disturbing my crop.' I remember thinkin' he looked like the type who'd be completely polite even as he was choppin' fingers off.
Well, I said to him, I says, 'Now now, Master Wizard, there's no reason to be pokin' around in Twitter's mind, is there? I'm willin' to talk a bit more without you knowing what I'm going to ask you before I opens my mouth.'
He smiled a bit more, and he said with a smirk you could practically taste, 'Wasn't that much pokin' to do, Nilifus Bunglefoot.' And that was a nasty thing to say, 'coz that was the name all the kids back at home had for me back whenever we'd be playing... I wasn't botherin' to try not to think the names the roby bastard deserved.
Well, I says to him, 'How's this for a deal, Master Wizard? I asks you a question, and you has to answer it. If you answers it, you gets to do whatever y' please with me, and I won't have to toss this fireseed-' Coz' while he'd been having a look-see in my head, I'd been holdin' on real tight to the fireseed I'd grabbed from me pack when roby'd showed up '-into your crop here. If I stumps you, you let the poor bard go with what he's got. Not goin'a ask y' to not poke around my poor head for it, and if I can't answer it either, then you'll still win.' And I knows he'll accept, coz' if he don't, he'll be out his crop, and he'll have a bard's death curse on him, and that isn't the thing a wizard's likely to take lightly, no.
Then I thought, but in his voice, kind of, 'Very well, Bard. You may pick whatever riddle you can think of.'
So I sits, and I thinks. I thinks "Twitter, you'd better think good, 'coz if you wants to get another meal again, you'll have to know the answer to the riddle, but not let yourself know it. 'Tis a right problem, and no mistake.'
So eventually, me, sweating all over, asks him, 'What's the downfall of tyrants, makes the best into the lowest, brings fools their fortune, and lights the worst life?'
Well, he sits, and he thinks, and I does my best not to think. And I can feel im' messin' around in my head. Something like a headache, only in the way your thinkin', it'd be all over. More like he was givin' me little headaches, one at a time. And eventually he sits back and says 'Damn you, bard! It's not in your head at all! You have no idea what you meant, you just heard it somewhere before and couldn't figure it out! I still win, and now you are going to pay!'
I says, still tryin' not to think, 'Well, I'm not to begrudge you a guess, Master Wizard.'
Well, he thinks, and this time there's not a headache to bother me. So I'm thinkin', and suddenly there's a headache, and he bursts out with "LUCK! I have you, Bard!"
'Now, I can't finish the story without one of you fine gentlemen figuring out
the riddle, coz' what I did next was the answer.' Nilifus Outwitter took another
swig of his ale. 'But I will say that was how I earned those first two letters,
and I ain't talkin' about the N and the I.'
As the first bard finished his story, and after the spell of the words left me, I noticed, that all of the crowd were watching us. There was no talk – the story had spellbound them all. Yet, a riddle needs a reply, and after thinking for a while, I spoke up. Meanwhile, Nilifus watched me with a slight smile on his lips.
“A brilliant story, Master Nilifus. And the riddle strikes me as one a man accustomed to magic would make. And you may be right, I have spent some time in the Magic City, so you might very well have seen my face there. Yet, I am getting off our track. Your riddle is clever, Master Outwitter; yet, I believe Ignorance is the downfall of tyrants. Ignorance makes the best into the lowest, fools make their fortunes by it, and it lightens even the worst of lives. And what you did, Master Nilifus? Several possibilities, but you sure said “No”, I believe...”
Nilifus grinned. "Hah. Seems my poor mind had a better grasp of riddle than I thought... I chose my words with not a thought to back them up, and it seems I managed to make my little tale that much sweeter with one word... Sorry, Master Wizard, but 't looks like I may have to change my last to Magefooler. But, bein' the wondrous kind man that I am, you can have another try if you want..."
I pondered, then decided to give my own story for consideration: Well, anyway, since you seem to be finished, I will tell you my own tale, and then we can see. My tale is also about a man of magic, you see... for they are true to the ways of knowledge, yet can it be called wisdom?”
Taking a sip from the wine I was offered, I began the tale:
“In a land far beyond the Narfost Plain, even
beyond the sea, there is a mountain, known to some as Coór’efér, the Flame of
Darkness. It is a remarkable mountain peak; tall, and rumoured to be the
dwelling place of a dragon from ancient times. Few dare to venture up the peak;
fewer still dare to explore it. Those who have, never lived to tell the tale –
those who returned were shaking of fear, and could not speak a word. Lost their
mind, as the local townsfolk used to say. But my tale is not about them, no. My
tale is about a young mage, named Eljas, with the nickname he earned, the
Curious. For he was, as any mage, curious, yet, he was more curious than most of
his kind. And of course, once he heard the story of the peak, he simply had to
explore it. So one day, when the weather was nice, and the Injèrá was just
rising from the horizon, Eljas packed food, water and some other things, that
are not important enough for me to tell you about, into his backpack, grabbed a
simple staff of durable wood, and headed off, to explore the secrets of the
I was interrupted by one of the bards, who asked: “If Eljas was a mage, would he rather not have a staff of magic as well?” Smiling, I sipped to my wine, and replied: “My friend, magic is not contained in staves, hats, necklaces, or any other piece of rubble. It comes from the mage, and whether the aforementioned mage has a simple wooden staff or a masterpiece of artwork, is completely irrelevant. However, as my tale is not about staves, but about a mage named Eljas, let me continue.”
Eljas knew, that after walking a while, the path he followed would cut off, as no one had gone farther in a long time. But still, he knew, that this was far too interesting to let be. Thus, he continued his journey.
Yet, the ways of Grothar are treacherous, and the once fine morning turned soon gave way to a rainy day. Dark clouds gathered on the sky, and the rain fell vehemently to the ground. Eljas was accustomed to travelling, and knew that he should look for shelter, to get less soaked and rest a bit.
As Eljas searched for a shelter, he came across a cave opening, leading into the mountain. As the rain started to get even more and more dense, and his curiosity also lead him to explore the cave, he went inside, to have a look around and dry himself. Once inside, Eljas made a small fire, by the aid of a little magic, since wet wood does not burn easily.
After drying a little, and eating some, he took out a small crystal from his backpack, and put it on top of his staff. Speaking the words of a spell, he made the crystal glow with a dim light, just enough to go deeper into the cave, yet not bright enough to awaken whatever might be inside.
And when he looked up from the spell, he saw to his horror, not a dragon, but a creature of magic - a frightening demon. Eljas wanted to run, yet, the demon spoke in a voice most horrible: “Greetings, little mage. Have you come to be my dinner?” The voice was like an icy touch: It crawled on the skin, and into the mind. Truly terrible, it was.
Eljas was frightened. Yet, he knew some about demons: They were always seeking diversion, and liked to play with their food before they ate it. Figuring this to be the only chance of survival he had, Eljas mustered his nerve, and replied: ”No, great Demon, I have come to seek shelter in your cave. I hope I am not trespassing?” The demon was amused by such a question, and laughed: “Not a bit of it. I so seldom receive visitors; you seem like pleasant company.”
Now, it should be known that demons tend to be of different kinds. This one, as it seemed, was not one of rage and terror, but rather one liking to be challenged.
So Eljas, shaking with fear, replied: “If so is, I propose a d-d-diversion, mighty Demon.” The demon flashed a smile, and it was a sight truly terrible. “Amusing, little mage. I am almost intrigued. What do you propose?”
Eljas figured that here was his chance for running, and escaping the Demon. “I propose a game of riddles. Since you are eternal, and must be much, much wiser than little me, ask me a riddle. If I can solve it, you will let me go. If I can’t, I am still in your custody.”
“Puny mage! Do you think, that you will be able to solve my riddle? But indeed, this is a sound diversion. I will ask you this:
I once came to a forest. In the middle of the forest, I saw a mighty oak, the king of the forest. And, due to my nature, I could also see a tiny worm, eating away on the inside of the oak. I was in this forest for many days, and everyday, the worm ate at the oak. One day, an errant breeze, despite it once being a powerful tree, toppled the oak. Yet, puny mage, the oak in my tale represents Truth. So comes my question: What does the breeze represent?”
I stopped, taking a sip of my wine. “Eljas came out of the cave alive, gentlemen. For he understood the riddle, and solved it. And despite how much the Demon wanted to eat him, once a challenge is posed, a Demon is bound by its terms, and must abide by them. Yet, can you solve the riddle, Master Nilifus?”
"Hmmm... if the oak is truth, the worm is one of the deathly flaws. 'Tis too bad I can't discover which. I'd guess Corruption, but 'tis too simple for a wizard's mind to come up with. No, Nilifus'll let another try to uncover your riddle first." Outwitter took a pipe out of his pocket, lit it with a flourish, and started to puff contentedly as one of the bards stirred...
Sholtar walked casually over to the quickly expanding group
of people, the conversation catching his attention. Listening to each of the
riddles and puzzling out their meaning, he recalled a story he had used to
puzzle a group similar to this, a long time ago. As the last story is told by
one of the bards, Sholtar pulled a chair up to the table, and remarked: "I
hear there is a game of riddles going on? If I may, I can tell a story of my
The bards nodded their approval, and Sholtar continued: "However, before I start, I do believe that I know the answer to the riddle that good Master Traveler just posed. I love to think metaphorically, Master Traveler, and this riddle strikes me as a perfect metaphor itself. For if the oak is Truth, the worm eating away on it must represent Falsehood, doesn't it? And once your truth has been weakened by Falsehood, the smallest of Doubts can bring it down. Is that correct, Master Traveler?"
The man smiles, yet says nothing. But a silence gets boring; everyone is waiting for the next story. Figuring this to be a good start, Sholtar begins: "I will now tell you my own story, gentlemen. Note that I say story, not riddle. This is a story, but it has a deeper meaning, and if you think about it the right way, then you can see its meaning is a riddle at its heart. Hopefully one of you can see it...
It was a fine day in Horth, the sun high in the sky, and not a cloud to be seen. A local man was walking down the street to the market, a full purse in his hand. The was no ordinary man, however. This man had never told a lie in his entire life. He was trusted by everyone in Horth, and always gave an honest opinion, be it good or bad. As this honest man walked down this street, a cutpurse jumped out of the shadows. As the honest man resisted and tried to fight back, the thief slit his throat, taking his purse and leaving the body at the side of the street.
The entire town mourned his death, and there was a tremendous memorial ceremony and burial. Everyone was searching for the thief and murderer, but unfortunately, the criminal was not found. The man left behind a faithful lover; one who loved him with such faith that she would never leave him, no matter what he did. She questioned his death, not understanding why such an honest man would die. While others continued with their lives, her undying faith to this man left her questioning.
So she went to others, looking for insight, and they questioned as well, again and again, not understanding why such a honest, good man needed to die. One day, the honest man’s faithful lover went to a cleric. This cleric questioned his God, Armeros, the God of Justice, hoping for an answer, or even better, an action. A short while later, the thief and murderer was found, and he was killed when trying to escape. At the same instant it is said that the honest man was resurrected, and he and his faithful lover remained living and in love for the rest of their lives.”
After this, Sholtar leaned back in his chair, enjoying the puzzled stares of many in the crowd.
She sat in the
corner, a distance from the gathered bards and muses, dark eyes closed, her
fingers laced across her lap and a smirk upon her face. She was never one for
riddles, for she found them a waste of time most often - she preferred true
knowledge as opposed to clever wording. She let her dark eyes open slowly, and
looked to the group that pondered over the young man's story. Her dark brows
knitted, and she raised her voice so that all could hear it.
"Quite the demand, man there that tells stories instead of riddles. You come to play the game and change the rules. You demand for others to look deeper than the surface in a story when my own kind struggles from cradle to grave because people refuse to do the same in real life!"
She rose from her seat and stepped forward. As she approached the group, those that did not recognize her appearance were awed, those that did were in shock. Her pallid skin glowed like the moon and her dark hair cascaded from her head like the ink spilled from its well. Her eyes sang dirges to those that got lost within their depths, and her thin lips looked ready to consume a man alive.
Few had seen a drow from the Paelelon, and those that had were surprised that one had been in their presence for so long without detection.
"When you all are finished looking upon me, I will begin."
Eyes dropped and murmurs ensued. She smirked, it seemed an odd concoction of amusement and disgust.
"Many generations ago, but not far from the land we stand upon, Or so the story goes where-ever it is told, lay a township. It was not a bustling metropolis like Voldar or Bardavos, but a meek little village of barely more than a few generations of several humble human families and their needs; goats,sheep, cows and taenish, and several hounds for keeping the livestock in and predators out. Again, not much in terms of commerce, but very rich in friendship and trust.
One evening in Maáh'valannía, just as the Injérà prepared to rest, a weary old woman wandered into the township. She looked as if she had been travelling alone for some time, as her clothes were filled with the dust of the road and were beaten quite well anong the hems. Several of the women came to her aid, and brought her to the Inn, where ergs were given to the tender to be sure that the elderly woman was fed.
The lady was queried as she ate, of her lineage and of her travels. She answered each statement with some sense of both accuracy and yet insecurity. It seemed apparent she came from a well-to-do family from the north, but who they were or from where even she was unsure. But she was sure of one thing, as she stated it every time she answered a question.
'I am but a visitor tonight. - My sister shall reside here soon.'
Soon queries rose about this cryptic sister, and the old, weary woman's face lit up. She smiled wide and stopped eating, and looked each person in the eye as she spoke of her sibling they would all meet.
'Oh, my sister is eternal perfection. She will make all the women choke with envy, and all the men will fall at her feet. Dogs will beg to receive a touch of her hand. When she comes to town you will know it, and your lives will never be the same.' She smiled sweetly and patted a young girl on the head, who nodded sleepily and smiled.
'Now you all should go on to your homes. I have work to do tonight. And I must be done before my sister arrives - she dislikes it when I fall behind!'
The people nodded as they realized they were tired. Chouruses of yawns and the rubbing of eyes were the actions of the people as they wandered toward the humble homes. The children were eager to meet the old woman's sister, but could not keep awake.
And so, in each home the hearth-fires were extinguished and the babes tucked in. There was nary a peep as they slept soundlessly through the night.
The next morning, it was as if the Injèrá had shaken the town awake. Every man, woman and child arose with the break of the sun. Everyone was excited to see the old woman's sister, and they scurried to the tavern to see if she was there. When they arrived, all was cleaned, and the innkeeper had not noted her even sleeping in her room. Sad sounds were emitted by the folk, they didn't even have the chance to say good-bye.
But their spirits soared as they heard off in the distance a great caravan making an approach. It was as if merry-folk had come to carnival in their town. They went to the main road and watched as the dark, long procession approached. And as it entereed the township, harlequins and clowns entertained the people as great monstrosities were ridden and pulled through town. Some were afraid- the way the folk dressed was different that other carnivals - leathers and furs of all sorts, with silver and gold adornments, not the bright flashy colors as they were used to.
And finally, the largest carriage rolled into town. As big as a house it was, with silver and gold strewn about it. The most elaborate clowns swung from its supports, and the most elegant animals were painted upon it. Black and white leathers made a festive tapestry that dropped before the door of the carriage.
The townsfolk oohed and ahhed at the marvelous and beautiful parade and the Carriage was the most splendid piece of all. "Could it be... her sister?" Murmurs were exchanged and a consensus came to. "It must be!" Not just any caravan like this came to a small town with no warning! The Old woman was just a messenger, to protect the most beautiful creature they thought existed!
Except they hadn't seen her yet.
One jester leapt to the door of the daravan, and held the handle.
'Do you wish to see her?!' He cried in a singsong voice, a smirk upon his masked face.
The crowd cheered.
'And so you shall!' And he pulled open the door.
The woman that emerged was the most gorgeous creature they had ever seen. Skin like milk, hair the color of a river in Exhón'almár. She was perfect in every way. She seemed eternal...
And the women choked, and the men fell to the ground, and the hounds pawed at her to touch them. Every beast seemed to kneel toward the earth upon recieving her gaze... - And never arose.
The drow woman raised her head confidently as she let the tale sink in. "And so, my friends. Who are the Sisters?"
After listening to the remarks of
the drow, Sholtar nearly raised
with a retort, but decided to wait and listen to what
she said first. Puzzling over her story a few moments,
he decided that now would be the proper time to
"You scorn me for telling a story as opposed to riddle, but then you tell a story yourself? I have asked as good a question as you, the true question is are you wise enough to see it? My riddle was merely 'What is the meaning of this story?' Yours is alike, the riddle being to discover the identities of the two sisters. If you do not appreciate the telling of my story, to put it simply, I do not care. We are in a contest of wisdom, and it is a mark of wisdom to discover the question as well as the answer, don't you think?"
Hoping he was not too outspoken, Sholtar leaned back again into his chair, habitually checking to make sure that his hood covered his forehead.
As the drow finishes the story, I took anohter sip of my wine, thinking a little. Then I spoke up: "Surely, the last sister is Death. And her 'younger' sister would be...Disease, maybe? But so on that; my riddle by the way, I admit, was carefully guessed by our young companion here - for indeed, the worm is Falsehood, and the wind is Doubt. Once the strong Truth is weakened by Falsehood, the smallest of Doubts will topple it and turn it to dust."
Outwitter grinned, and took his
pipe from his mouth. "Ahh, the folly of youth... and the follies of mind.
Sholtar, my friend, while your story has a great truth at its heart, y've still
to learn a great deal of tale-telling. And you, madame-" Nilifus bowed at
the waist. "An excellent tale, though I do wonder why all your kind seem so
infatuated with the Dark Lady... 'twould do the feared Hunter-Clerics good to
have a smile now and again. And for those who wonder what my riddle might be...
here's the end of my tale."
Nilifus laughed. He noticed the confused looks on the faces of those around him, and elaborated.
"'Tis like so many things... so simple once you know it. Laughter's the downfall of tyrants: a joke cannot last as king. The highest are brought the lowest by it... the tournament champion becomes a mockery. You've seen it before. Of course, laughter lights the worst life... there's some here, among which myself, who can attest to that. And of course, how else could a fool such as me make his fortune?"
Outwitter grinned, and for a split second the assembled could see the viciously wise man who lurked behind the rustic mask.
"So, I immortilized a wizard for the price of some leaf, and that leaf got poor ol' Nilifus enough gold in his pockets to worm his way into this very Hall. All's well that ends well, they say... suppose that's why all's been well since!"
She darted her eyes to Sholtar,
her brows furrowed. But she shook it off and looked to Silfer as he explained
his riddle. His was a good one. She was quite confused by his
- so many options, so many ways to choose. Now that the answer had been
told of his, she nodded and smiled confidently. A tasteful one indeed. She could
not have come up with a better one.
The teller of the second tale spoke good words in all directions, and presented his answer to the riddle. Simple laughter... While she should have known it, again she had not thought in that direction.
Perhaps not only did these folk need to learn of her... but she of them as well.
Perhaps that was the drow's folly - ...another riddle to unravel.
"Well, Riddlers. Silfer had come close to the answer to mine. Yes, Death surrounds us - we seem to like it that way. And mind you, Master Nilifus, we Eophyrhim do smile... just about different things...
The sister of Death, whose touch quiets all in a smaller way, is Sleep. Sleep comes in the night to visit, and departs with the Morn. Or so it goes to those outside the Paelelon."
She smirked, then looked to the young man who told the story. "Well, we have told the Answers to our Riddles. Will you grace us with the answer to yours?"
After thinking awhile on the answer to the drow's riddle, and then shaking off a small discrepancy, Sholtar replied, "Indeed I will. The riddle itself, as I have said, was simply to discover what the meaning of the story was. As I have before said, I enjoy metaphors, and that is exactly what my story was. The honest man, as some of you have surely figured out, was an embodiment of truth and honesty. His faithful lover was faith itself. The thief was a lie, appearing to cut down the truth. The faith of his lover questioned the lie, and then the cleric took action against the lie. When the lie was struck down, truth rose up once again. The meaning is simple. Lies can tear down the truths of the world, but if there is remaining faith in those truths, enough to take action against the lies, then the lies will fade away and the truths will resurface." Sholtar then sat back, watching the reactions of those around him.
Nilifus stroked his thin beard as
he grinned good-naturedly.
"Ah, good riddlers all. Master Ergless, your tale is a good one, and your riddle fine because of the wisdom of your audience. 'Twere we a bunch of half-wits, you'd've not found such easy victory! Mistress Elf, your story weaves the same aura as you yourself... strange, dark, and despairing. For all I dislike the message, your taleweaving skills are truly wondrous, and your riddle another like mine... so very simple, once you have the benefit of knowing it. And I meant not the smile of a predator, the one your people always seem to wear. 'Tis not a smile, 'tis just showing teeth. But a smile, a good-natured smile... that I'd give a year of my life to see between those pointy ears."
Nilifus spoke the last lines almost longingly, and seemed like he would have stopped, but he soon recalled the last riddler.
"Ah, yes, and Sholtar. 'Tis a fine truth you tell, if a bit..." The bard reached for words. "... Idealistic. Faith can be used for truth or falsehood just as easily, am I not right, Mistress Elf? The heavens must know of the crimes done in their names, no? But asides from that, I'll tell you what I should have told you first, Master Sholtar. Y've a talent for song and for story... but even the ripest fruit starts off as a flower: easy on the eyes, but not as easy on the stomach. Practice makes perfect, though."
And so the bards riddled on into the night. And as hour faded into hour, more and more of the school's riddlers were drawn to the common room. From the bawdy to the mythic, from the silly to the noble, tales of all kinds flew through the pipesmoke-darkened room. When, at long last, the sun shone through the Hall's windows, the first few riddlers still sat in their chairs, along with the Masterbard Dariset Threestrings, who had joined the group late in the night.
"You know, my fellow tale-weavers," said Threestrings, his words slurred by sleepiness and drink, "I could never have gotten this many of my students into such a debate. My thanks to you, wizard."
"Now, don't be giving him all the credit; 'twas me who gave him the first response, neh?" Nilifus' body gave all the indications of being asleep, but somehow his mind hadn't yet succumbed to fatigue.
The Drow woman still sat as if in an iron-cast seat, all right angles and alertness. "Without your assistance, Masterbard, the tales would not have flowed for long after our first ones. You are more responsible than any of us."
I grinned for a second before I spoke. "Hah. And I've certainly picked up more than enough stories to help me around any of the campfires I'll be sitting around soon." I rubbed the upholstry of my plush chair with a longing look. "Sadly, I can't say I'll be glad to be on the road again."
Sholtar looked as though he had finally submitted to sleep, and for the first time that day, the little group noticed the porters who had been kindly bringing the collapsed bards back to their beds.
"My friends," Dariset said to the porters, "how is it that you know where to place them?"
"Easy enough, Masterbard," replied one of the porters. "We listen. They sleep deeper as they get closer to their own beds."
"Hmm. I wonder why." Dariset stroked his beard once or twice, contemplatively.
"'Tis one of those other riddles, Masterbard. One of those-" Nilifus rose from his chair and stretched. "-that's best pondered in the morning, or afternoon, or whenever I'm to wake up..." The bone-tired bard's voice degenerated into a mutter as he shuffled off to his room.
Dariset, lost in thought, didn't notice. "Hrm. Here we are, riddling for amusement, and there's all the other riddles that-" The bard paused to yawn. "-we'll never know the answers to. Maybe it's not us who are wise... maybe it's just those who seek all the unanswerable ones..."
In mid-sentence, Dariset's head dropped, and he started to snore lightly.
The Drow woman grinned, softly, and walked out, picking up the one knapsack in the room that hadn't been opened sometime during the night. As she left, I thought I heard her say "Perhaps that is the true wisdom after all..."
I stayed in Bardavos for another week before I set off once more, but that night, swapping tales with bards and learning wisdom from servants in that smoky room, is one I will not forget for centuries...