No, I don't mind, sit down, don't worry, I won't bite. Mine host must like the look of you: he has done you a favour in putting you here. Will you be my guest? No, don’t say no: a poor student like you should know when to let his pride run free and when to tell it be silent. Believe me, I know…
If it makes you feel easier: I won’t be paying for you. I have an arrangement with mine host: dinner and drinks on the house for me and one guest. In moderation, of course. He wanted to deny me the guest, but I showed him how much I was worth to him, and he relented. In the end. I had to write it all down and give him a day to read it and check the addition. And the multiplication and division. Since then I think he is a little afraid of me: he can see by looking that I am capable of killing. But that a man like me is capable of accountancy? That can only be Devil’s work.
Oh yes, I can write and reckon. And read and sing. And kill, of course. In these times of peace there is no bread in killing, so I earn the bread that lets me read by singing. You are new in the town, are you not? Have you heard yet of the warrior who sings in the Tavern at the Sign of the Goat? You will. And if your ears are not of leather you will speak of him, too. But I see from your fingers that you are a musician as well as a scholar. No doubt mine host saw that too, and that is why he placed you here: to eat, and drink, and hear, and wonder, and then spread the word among the new students.
You see how mine host prospers? His food is good, his beer is better, but I'd wager a quarter of the people you see here would not be here if I were not. Although they do not know for sure that I will sing. They come in hope, and eat, and drink, and pay. And if I sing, they stay longer, and drink some more. That, too, is a reason to put you here: he knows I sing more often if I have a guest, especially a fresh young student of music like you. No, don’t worry: I am not after your arse. Only your ears, if they are open. If they are not, then all the scholarship this town has to offer will not help you: you should leave at once, and by foot if there is no coach. And if they are, you have come to the right place, and I say that despite what it did to me.
What a place like this can do to a man like me? Not much, or I would not be here. But I was not always a man like me. I once was a man like you: first a student, and then a scholar. Only later did I become a soldier. Ah! But you hide your horror well, young man! For that you deserve another beer. You are thinking: 'My gods! How could a man first rise so high, then sink so low, then tell the tale without shame?’ Well let me tell you that I have my shame, but not for what I have been or what I am.
Yes, do take some more. 'Moderation’ will reach a little further, I think. Especially if I am minded to sing, and I think that I am. Mine host serves up the second-best meat in town. The best is only to be had in the halls of the Academy, and not by the likes of you. Or the likes of me, of course, since I changed my likes. A student should eat when he can, drink when he must, and love every hour the gods give him. And if there is no woman to give him her love, then he must give his love to his studies. This is why no women are admitted to the Academy: without the love-starved finding solace in their books, where would be the next generation of the learned? Don’t believe all that rubbish about a woman’s intelligence being lesser or different, or the danger that study may make them infertile. Arrogant nonsense from ignorant fools who wouldn’t know which end of a woman to address if they found her in their bed by mistake.
Not that study can’t be unhealthy, if you sink too deep. It was that that was my downfall, in a way. The weakness of the body. If I read the direction of your gaze correctly, you are trying to imagine weakness while looking at these arms, and finding it a challenge. Your mind will face harder tests if you take your studies seriously, don’t worry. And if you don’t take them seriously, then get back to your farm and feed the goats. But no, it was the very strength of this body that was its weakness. I grew up in the highlands, and when I was not learning from my tutor I spent the greater part of my days walking, or riding, or climbing, or helping our labourers. We weren’t so rich that we could leave all the work to them, and I enjoyed being strong and tested my strength with ever greater loads. When I came here I was stronger than any of them, a great docile tree-trunk of a lad. And then I sat this body down and let my mind sink into the joy of learning. The furthest I walked was the hundred paces from my rooms to the Academy, all I climbed was the two flights of stairs from the door back up to my rooms, all I carried was my notes. I had no reason to ride, had not even a horse. Three months found me, pale and worried, in a physician’s practice. I ached all over, I could not sleep, and was tired all the time. He told me my life was out of balance, and to exercise my body as much as my mind.
No, no more beer for me. A cup of mead now, to oil my voice.
Balance. It is easily said. But where are the mountains, and where are the fields, and where is heavy work for the hands of a scholar in this town in a swamp in the midst of the plains? I walked around the streets and I walked around the walls, covering miles in circles like a prisoner in his cell.
There is not a street in this town that I do not know by heart, places you never will have reason to go, and places you will do well to stay clear of. And one day by chance I found the second Academy that this town can boast of: the Academy of the Arts of the Sword, the School of Swordsmanship by name. A smaller Academy than the one that you know, and less fine, but by no means inferior in quality of teaching.
You may wonder why there should be such an Academy here, so far from the borders and the garrison towns. The reason was as simple and unexpected as the school itself: the inconsiderate longevity of a retired Sergeant’s mother. The school was here because the Sergeant was here, and the Sergeant was here because his mother was here. They’re both dead now. And because he had too much time on his hands, and because his pension was small, he gave lessons in swordsmanship to the few who wanted them: young lads who wanted to see the world and thought the army would take them further if they brought some skill, older lads of murky motivation, some of whom may now be making a living by the wilder roads of this realm, and a handful of students like me. Or rather, not like me: they were from the Sworded gentry, and there because a Gentleman should know how to wield the Sign of his Rank. They looked down on me as a yokel clod, although I was a match for the lot of them in disputation, and after a couple of years of training a match for any two of them at once with the sword. The Sergeant my teacher said I was a rare blend of strength of arm, speed of body, speed of mind, and strength of concentration. I dare say he knew what he was talking about.
Sword practice gave me the balance I needed. I was healthy and content, successful in my studies, popular among the students and the unwiser of the town girls, envied by all and loved by most. Until I threw it all away for the truth.
When my studies were finished I was invited to stay as a Scholar at the Adademy. Such an invitation is the first step on the long road to becoming a Professor. I was not sure I wanted that, but found the idea of a few more years of the scholarly life an attractive one. I chose to study a neglected corner of the History of Music: the influence of courtly music on other genres. The subject was neglected for two reasons: firstly, the centre of interest in musical theory is always the cultivated music of the court. And secondly, and because of that, there is little documentation of other music. But those very two reasons were reasons to approve of a lowly Scholar addressing the subject: it expressed a suitable humility, and the paucity of the literature meant that I could expect to finish the project in three or four years at most.
I may have mentioned that I was no slow student. I finished off the available literature – transcriptions of folk songs and the like – in less than two years. There was enough material to produce a reasonably interesting monograph, but I was ambitious. I wanted more. As luck would have it, that was the time of the Uprising, and a battalion of troops was garrisoned in the town. Soldiers' songs were not well documented in the literature, and I took the opportunity to collect a couple of hundred of them. That gave me more material for my project, and also gave me a very interesting problem: how to date the songs. Since I wanted to draw conclusions about the influence of courtly music, I could not do that by looking at the music: that would be to argue in circles. I looked instead at the language. I reasoned that the older the language used in the lyrics, the older he song was likely to be. The lyrics would change over time, but those changes were most likely to modernise them, so the language of a song could give at suggest a minimum age.
I spent six months sorting my songs into the centuries, and another six months trying to correct the results. I failed, and published my interesting monograph without the soldiers' songs. I was offered a post as a Reader, and accepted. I had originally thought to go home and marry, but now I wanted first to solve the mystery of my songs, and find out why I had got the dates wrong. It was clear that I had done so: you will already have a good grounding in musical theory, I imagine, so you will be aware that the most significant development in music of the past thousand years was the invention of ambiguous mode, which allowed composition to escape the bounds of simple song-writing and gave birth to the glorious variety of forms we can choose from today. And you will be aware that this was the greatest achievement of courtly music.
In the end, I gave up trying to find my mistake, and published the truth. Ambiguous mode was present in soldiers' songs at least a full century before it made its entry into courtly music.
I had expected that to be the end of my academic career, and I was not wrong. What I did not expect was the insults. In an unguarded moment I returned an insult. The Professor was a member of the Sworded Gentry. He decided to take the opportunity to finish off this upstart heretic. I pleaded with him to accept my apologies, but he saw only cowardice where I was offering him life. The duel lasted over twenty heartbeats, so reluctant was I to kill him.
I had killed a Professor of the Realm. I could not stay and study and I could not go home and farm. I had only one other skill, and I decided to use it: a foreign campaign was just beginning; I followed the army and joined it. A week later I was in a foreign country, missing everything I had known, and convinced that my destiny was to be miserable.
For a little while I was. Until I found I took joy in the killing. After my first battle, as the blood of my enemies dried on my face and the exaltation of the slaughter left me, I saw in myself a man I had never known and I asked myself what it could mean. And this is what I think: the gods in their wisdom made men to enjoy the things they must do. We must eat, or we starve, and so we take joy in eating. There must be children to care for us in our aging and so we take joy in love. A man alone is as weak as the grass, and so the gods made us to take joy in friendship. And they made men to take joy in fighting, too, for those who will not fight will be overcome by those who will. They even made men to take joy in killing, for sometimes they must kill to live. And even there there is no shame. The shame was different, and it came to me through a woman.
She was an archer. Oh yes, there are women who fight. They cannot join the regular troops, but there are women in the ranks of many of the mercenary companies that join the army on campaign. She was strong and joyful and full of life, and I loved her more than life itself. Then one day she was dead. I saw her killed and the man who did it and I swore revenge. The war gave me my chance only two months later. I found him on the battlefield and cut off his legs, then watched him bleed.
This was not the joy of fighting. This was something else. I cannot see why the gods should give a man such joy. Such great joy. It was the greatest joy I have ever known. Greater than the joy of the love I was avenging. Since then I have not known love. The greatest joy that can come from love is for my love to be killed, that I may take revenge. How can I love knowing that? Singing is the greatest joy I allow myself now.
And now I think I should like to sing.