Scales of War
In which the bard Nissa confronts shadows of past, present, and future.
(Eothel’s house. Nissa is in the bedroom she occupied as a child. It’s late, and she’s preparing for sleep.)
Alone, you stare at the comfortable wood panelling of your room as you prepare yourself for sleep. Your eye suddenly rests on the guitar gathering dust at the foot of your bed. Eothel bought it for you many years ago, before you had decided on the drum as your chosen instrument. A slightly self-conscious smile plays over your lips as you recall your early attempts to master it.
Still, despite your rather rueful thoughts, you find yourself picking up the guitar, dusting it off, running your fingers across the strings. It’s quite out of tune. On impulse, you bound out of bed and rummage around your closet until you find an old tuning peg. You spend the next few minutes meticulously tuning the guitar until it sounds true. As true as it can sound with strings that haven’t been changed in a decade, at any rate.
Gingerly, you strum a few open chords, enjoying the velvety richness of the tones. You’d forgotten what a nice instrument it is. “Certainly too good for a child,” you say aloud with a chuckle. Then, as your fingers regain their muscle memory, you start to pluck out the melody of an old travellers’ song you learned as a child. What were the lyrics again? Oh, yes.
By this heaven, I wonder greatly how I live
For I can scarce sleep at all, day or night
I have so many an idle fantasy only for lack of sleep,
That, by my troth, I heed naught, how it comes or goes,
And naught is either sweet or bitter to me.
All is alike—joy or sorrow, whatever it be, for I have no feeling
But am, as it were, a thing stunned, ever in point to fall down;
For sorry fantasies are wholly in my mind.
You come to yourself with a start and a shiver. You have no idea where these words came from. Too much ale, you decide with a wry shrug, as you put away the guitar, blow out the candle, and lay your head down on the pillow.
(Nissa is asleep, a few hours later.)
Your eyes snap open. The room is stone cold. Outside, the wind howls, punctuated by the insistent rattle of a tree-branch against the windowpane. Steadily, remorselessly, it beats its disquieting drum-tap as the seconds fall soundlessly into the darkness.
The longer you sit upright in bed, listening to the murmur of the tree-branch, the more you feel an urge to open the window, snap off that vexing branch, and get a good night’s sleep.
You reach out to seize the importunate branch, but instead your fingers close on a little ice-cold hand! The hand clings to you, and you hear a faint voice sobbing, “Let me in! Let me in!”
Behind you, a sibilant voice whispers:
You well know it were against nature to live in this wise
For nature would not suffer any earthly creature
To abide this long without sleep, and to be in sorrow.
As the voice finishes speaking, the hand vanishes. You spin around to find three figures standing in a row. All three wear finely crafted masks of spun gold. The first figure bears a green guitar, while the second is dressed in splendid, fur-trimmed white robes. The third figure carries a red wand at the waist.
“Such a sickness suffered these long years, and yet the remedy is never the nigher,” intones the first figure.
“There is but one physician that can call forth healing,” says the second figure.
The first and second figures turn to the third figure, who points the red wand at you with a sweeping, commanding gesture. “Let the body speak even as it was wont to speak whilst it was alive,” the figure says. “It summoned us from its own thought. What does it want?”
(Nissa faces the three figures in a strange dream.)
The woman with the green guitar
Her demeanour is mournful and slightly crazed, as if from long years of solitary confinement. She speaks in clipped, bizarrely accented sentences and seems fixated on the perceptual recall of physical objects, words, and actions.
His hands were deserts — aeonian, silent.
Left eye like a cat. He hunches as if his back were broken.
He said, “It is a mathematical certainty. You led with the king of clubs and—” (chokes) It was in the cards. Why was it in the cards?
Who will journey through the echoing dark?
The chair he sat in, like a burnished throne, glowed on the marble.
At my back in a cold blast I hear the rattle of the bones.
The woman in fur-trimmed white robes
Her words come uncertainly, accompanied by much hand-wringing. She dwells on the emotional and psychological implications of actions and events, minimizing sensory detail in favour of lengthy descriptions of thoughts, feelings, and fears.
Old debts paid with new coin. Shall the daughter pay for the father’s defiance?
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact.
Speech is the twin of my vision, it is unequal to measure itself.
My health to sickness unto death.
This helpless smoke of words does me no right.
I meet with things dying and things newborn.
The woman with the red wand
Her stance is loose, her cadences forceful and penetrating, and her tone brimming with confidence.
Serve not with one hand, but take with both.
Fortune favours the bold.
Affection is my captain, and he leads. Where his martial banner displays, the coward fights without dismay.
In one self-born hour, I will plant and overwhelm all custom.
Let those who oppose me have time against themselves to rave.
Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.
Finally, all three figures intone in a terrible monotone:
Even thus the king met his death, his blade passing to one who will wield it in better cause.