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The Violinist's Journal
A short story of 3,600 words entered into a student contest earlier this year. I was inspired by the cover photo.
I’ve begun a journal. It is the happiest day of my life—but I am utterly bewildered. First of all, I’ve haven’t the faintest idea who I am or where I came from. I feel like I’ve been drugged or knocked out or something and I’ve only just become conscious again.
I do remember foggy bits; doors and corridors and men standing watch, and then I was talking to the King.
He is the kindest person I’ve ever met. First he asked me where I came from, and I stammered that I didn’t know, feeling dull and stupid, and then I started to panic because I was sure I was going to be thrown out or imprisoned or executed or something. But he smiled at me and took my arm and told me something I don’t recall, but I remember calming down.
Then we were in a room with a long table and all sorts of odd things were hanging on the walls and lying about, and he asked me if I recognized anything. There were twisted bits of metal and wood and stone things that didn’t look as if they had any particular use at all. I was starting to feel sick with anxiety again when I saw it…
I didn’t know the name of it, but somehow I knew what it was meant for. I picked it up and set it onto my shoulder, and I felt as if a warm blanket had settled onto my cold neck. Wonderingly, I pressed my cheek against it and hummed to it softly, and it hummed back.
“A violin,” nodded the King, and he looked delighted.
I picked up the bow and drew it across the strings slowly… reverently…
There was a leap in my heart—this I recognized! I couldn’t stop my fingers; they moved on their own. A melody faintly rose from the strings, and the two of us melded into one seamless existence, rising above the stone ceiling and dancing with ecstasy among the things above that are bright and happy and perfectly peaceful.
When I blinked and lowered the violin some time later, the King was smiling even more broadly, and he clapped me on the shoulder. “You will play for me,” he said, and I would not have refused if it had been a request.
Then the King dismissed me, and I was halfway down the hallway before I realized that I did not know where I might be staying.
Someone caught up to me in the hall and directed me into a large room, where I am now. I am filled with such great joy to know that I am in the service of the King, despite this unexplainable fogginess in the back of my mind.
Later in the day (I had gone to sleep on the four-poster bed in my room), I was summoned to play for the King once more. He was eating his evening meal with his courtiers in a long brick hall with lanterns hung along the wall, and he seemed pleased to see me again.
The men with him, however, stared at me as if I were a rare species of bird in a cage. I tried to ignore them and lifted the violin to my chin.
The string squeaked, and my hand trembled for an instant, but then I was back among the clouds and rising higher, higher into the sunset. Then I realized what I was playing, and my heart gave a sharp jolt of pain. Memories moved faintly across my mind’s eye; a glowing fireside, warm cinnamon, and the touch of my mother’s cool fingers on my cheek.
Sweet, sweet home…
There's no place like home…
There's no place like—
There were tears on my cheeks. The bow dragged off the strings and fell, clutched in my limp, sweaty hand. I looked up—the King was frowning. The courtiers were glancing at each other.
I was going to be dismissed, I thought, feeling sick again. I had displeased the King…
Dashing my sleeve across my eyes and squaring my shoulders, I lifted the bow and played again. I played anything I could think of, improvising up and down the scales, major and minor, trying to bow out a tune.
“That will be all,” said the King, and I was back in the hallway before I could glance at his face to see if he was angry with me.
Now I am in the darkness of my room, writing. I need someone to talk to. You, journal, aren’t a very good companion.
There are no windows. Why are there no windows?
I found my way up to the tallest tower’s balcony so I could look out over the kingdom, but it doesn’t look like a kingdom at all. This huge castle made of worn black granite blocks, painted with moss in places, stands alone here. No trees, gardens or fields lie around the stone walls…there aren’t even any houses. The ground seems to border only around the very edge of the castle, and from that point drops into space.
I saw a long granite bridge curving round from the castle wall and across the gulley to the other side. Mist blanketed it so thickly, I could barely pick it out. I also couldn’t see much beyond the gulley; just bits of different shades of green. I found myself strangely happy to see that something was growing and living, even if it was so far away.
The King did not call me today. I’m worried that he doesn’t want me anymore. I still can’t remember who I am. I’m afraid I never will. It makes me feel sick inside, as if someone I loved has just died and left an empty hole in my heart.
I have nightmares.
The King called me today, but instead of having me play my violin for him, we had tea together. It was a very strange tea. When I had sat down at the table, which was empty at first, he clapped his hands, and the tea things appeared on the table, as quick as thought.
I must have looked very shocked, because the King threw back his head and laughed such a beautiful, contagious laugh I laughed along with him, though I was a little embarrassed.
He motioned for me to take a sip from the brimming teacup in front of me, and sat back, pressing his fingertips together.
“You are a young man, and your life is before you,” he began, smiling. “You will soon learn of the workings of this time and age. First of all, I am the Lord and King of Magical Arts, and the world is my throne.”
I choked on my tea.
“Yes, magic,” he repeated cheerfully. “I do not need farmers to plow and harvest my bread for me, nor herders to supply me my meat when I can conjure it with a glance and a thought.”
I had opened my mouth to speak, but he shook his head slightly. “Do not ask me how, for I will not tell you how I can do this. It simply is.”
Nothing would have aroused my curiosity so much as this did, and the questions I had planned to ask him were forgotten in my disappointment that he would not explain any further.
After I had drained my cup and bit my lip, I remembered and asked hastily, “How did I get here? I don’t remember.”
“That… is a difficult question to answer,” the King said slowly. “Have you seen the Mists that flow over the bridge crossing the canyon?”
“They guard this refuge from those who would assassinate me,” he said, and smiled wryly at me. “My enemies inhabit the land across the gorge, and I was forced to place a… ‘discouragement’ between my people and theirs. The poisonous Mists strip a man of his senses, leaving him vulnerable and weak. I do not like to use such dangerous forms of protection, but those people had become…” he sighed a strained huff of air, “…unreasonable.”
“Why do they want to kill you?” I asked.
“They do not want a man who can use magic as their King,” said he. “They believe in appointing conquerable judges and mortal rulers. They are afraid—” he tapped the handle of his teacup lightly—“that they will not be able to overthrow me if they decide I need overthrowing. So they resist.”
I didn’t know what to think. “But isn’t it useless to fight you if you are so much more powerful than them? How could they possibly defeat you?”
“Exactly,” the King said, his smile returning. “But they want to test their boundaries, like little children trying to see how much they can get away with. They are not yet convinced that I am undefeatable.”
“What do you want with me?” I asked hoarsely.
The King laughed his rich laugh again. “I don’t want anything from you! You please me, and I am happy to have you here. If they—” he gestured vaguely over my shoulder—“only did the same, then we would not have to continue this pointless war.”
“But how did I get here?” I repeated desperately.
“You were found disoriented in the Mists, wandering round the bridge,” murmured the King. “I am glad that you recovered, though.”
“I was one of your enemies?” I gasped, scooting my chair backward an inch.
The King shrugged. “That is likely. Would you…return to them?”
“No,” I said quickly. But I wasn’t sure.
The King soon dismissed me. I went up into the tower and gazed out over the Mists. They crept slowly across the black stone bridge like hunters stalking their prey.
I don’t even know who I am anymore.
I have seen something that disturbs me.
I was playing my violin in the tallest tower and gazing out toward the Other Side when I heard footsteps coming up the stairs. Suddenly feeling guilty because I hadn’t exactly asked permission to be up there, I slid down behind some boxes and tucked my violin under my coat.
Two men appeared at the top of the stairs. They wore black capes and each held a small glass bottle in one hand. As one’s cape swirled in the breeze, I saw a belt of knives on the one closest to me.
They stepped over to the balcony, threw one leg over, turned round, and disappeared. At first I thought it had been magic, but when I was sure they were well gone, I looked down the sheer black wall and found niches cut into it as hand- and foot-holds. Nearly a hundred feet down lay the wide black bridge, at which’s entrance the men stood, gazing out into the Mists. Finally one made a motion with his hand, stepped out onto the bridge and walked into the Mists. The second one followed a moment after.
The King seemed reluctant to answer my questions later that evening. I had waited till after his evening meal to hesitantly ask for a minute of his time. When I told him that I had seen the men cross the bridge, his brow furrowed and he did not answer for some time.
“I told you that my enemies were still causing me much trouble,” he finally said. “I have to send men of my own to try and restore what peace there is left between us.”
“But how could they cross the Mists?” I asked. “Is it magic?”
“Yes and no. There are certain potions that I have supplied my men that will dissuade the effects of the Mists. But I would appreciate it if you stayed away from the tallest tower from now on.”
That was all, and I left.
Now that there is a way to cross the Mists, I have found myself longing to see the Other Side. Maybe it is because it is green.
I cannot play my violin. Things are too grey and dismal.
I don’t think it wants to be played either. I was in the middle of playing some melody for the king when the tune gradually changed into a dirge. All the courtiers were cross with me.
I went back up to the tallest tower. I don’t care if the King wants me to stay away. I want to see the greenness for myself. I don’t want to forget that things grow and bloom.
I asked the King if he’d let me go across the bridge to see the Other Side, maybe as a bodyguard for one of his men. His eyes snapped fiercely, and he actually slapped me across the cheek.
There were tears in my eyes, and I turned to leave, but he called me back.
“You are acting like a rebellious child!” he exclaimed. “Stay. Away. From the Mists. Is that clear enough?”
My cheek is still stinging.
I want a potion.
I want to leave this place. My stomach hurts as if with hunger.
The two men haven’t come back yet, as far as I know. I’ve watched the bridge as often as I can. I don’t know how I’m going to get a potion, but I know I’ve got to.
This evening I climbed down the wall for the first time. The bridge was dark and empty, and the Mists moved menacingly across its stones. A strange power was driving the Mists, and I was afraid.
I hope I wasn’t seen climbing back up to the tower. The King’s men seem to be following me wherever I go.
I killed a man. I killed him and it’s my fault and I wish I hadn’t done it. I needed the potion but I wish I hadn’t done it—I feel so sick inside.
The men returned today, and I saw them coming and waited till they were passing me. As one of them was climbing up the wall, I stepped up behind the second one and tried to reach into his cloak.
He turned, and I stabbed him with my violin bow. It was as quick as thought; he was on the ground, twitching… the other man had disappeared…I tore through his cloak and found a small glass bottle with a stopper. I pulled his cloak over my shoulders. Then I pushed the body over the bridge and into the canyon.
There is blood on my bowstrings. It won’t come off. I can’t wipe the stain off the horsehair. What have I done?
I buried my violin in the dirt next to the bridge at the edge of the wall. I will bury this journal with it.
I must go; I can hear men coming down after me.
June the 18th, apparently
I’ve begun a journal. They say it’ll help me sort out my thoughts. My ribs hurt, and my fingers are so wrapped with bandages I can hardly scrawl straight letters.
What has happened to me? My mind is blank. I don’t even know how I am able to write this. How did I learn?
I’m in a bed… my ribs are hurting, and my hand throbs. There was glass in it, they say. They had to dig an arrow out of my chest, so that’s bound up too.
According to the people here, my name is Daniel, and I am married to Emmaline, and I was mistaken for an assassin and was shot by some refugees escaping a king who can use magic.
Now I’m laughing.
This is so absurd I feel that I will wake up soon and find it’s been a ridiculous nightmare.
At any rate, I was found near a bridge with a smashed bottle clutched in my fingers. They say I went through the Fog of Forgetfulness, whatever rubbish that is, and that they were expecting me to wave my hands and set them all on fire. Apparently people in cloaks like mine have done that before. So they shot me, and they were dragging me away to bury or something, but Emmaline saw my face and recognized me.
Well there was a great to-do about me, because I was supposed to be some brave young man who volunteered to cross the bridge and kill this King. And they haven’t seen me for a week or so and they decided I was dead.
Emmaline burst into tears when she was told that I would live… but when she saw that I didn’t recognize her, she went into hysterics. Why don’t I know her? God, why don’t I know her?
A group of men came to see me today. They stood so gravely around me that they looked like parsons by a deathbed. They asked me all sorts of questions about where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing for the last week.
I wish they hadn’t. It hurts enough to know I’ve lost my memory without having to be interrogated about it. What’s worse, they were especially interested in my black cloak, which they said belonged to the King’s assassins who had been coming through the towns killing their leaders and threatening the residents. They had posted groups of men in select places to shoot these men, preferably before they started using magic.
So that leaves the question: Who am I? Who was I? Was I one of the King’s assassins? Have I killed someone? I hope not.
Emmaline keeps coming to see me. She is much more cheerful now. She says my memory will return. I don’t know if it will. I think I might be going mad.
The refugees are leaving.
They say the King’s men have become too deadly. Some important people were killed yesterday, and they’ve decided that they cannot stay here any longer. They’re moving north, into the mountains, and they plan to take me along.
I don’t want to go anywhere. I don’t want to do anything. I wish they’d just leave me alone.
Emmaline keeps visiting me and bringing me things. She’s a nice person. I understand why I might have married her. But I still hate to be around her. She’s ingratiatingly sweet. “Come have some soup, dear…” “Try this bread, dear…” “Are you feeling better, dear?”
The last straw was the violin. “This was yours, dear…”
I don’t know why I snapped. Something about that violin made my heart hurt like it hadn’t until that point. I threw it back into her face and yelled for her to leave.
She was crying in the hallway. I felt like a monster.
I don’t want to live anymore.
The men want me to stay behind.
I was prepared to argue with them that I would only be a hindrance to them since I can’t walk very fast due to my ribs. Also I don’t want to go and I’d rather go down fighting on my own.
So when they gathered around my bed again this morning and told me solemnly that they didn’t want me to join the group that is leaving tonight, I was shocked into speechlessness.
“The King must be stopped now,” one man declared. “We are losing too many and his strength is unmatched. We need to attempt an assassination once again.”
Emmaline was changing the bandages on my right hand, kneeling by the bed. At this point she gave a gasp of horror.
“My dear lady,” the man continued, “Your husband has the best chance of reaching the King than any other person at this point. The King recognizes him as one of his own men.” He gestured to the black cloak folded on the dresser. “We can give him some poisoned tea leaves to give as a gift to the King. If all goes well, the King will die, his men will be left without a leader, and our men will have a much better chance of defeating them.”
“Not. Daniel.” Emmaline’s voice was strained and trembling. “Haven’t you done enough to him already? His first mission was a disaster! He nearly died!”
“What do you think, Daniel?” said another man slowly, turning to gaze at me.
I stammered something about my hand and chest.
“We cannot wait until you are better fit to go. We have to strike now or our Cause. Is. Lost. Please. Do you understand, Daniel?”
Emmaline stared at me. I glanced at her and the men.
“I’ll… go…” I said. Then I lurched forward to catch Emmaline.
I’m leaving. I’m leaving and I might not come back. Emmaline stays in bed, staring vacantly into the distance. I’ve broken her. I’ve broken myself. I have to leave.
The tea leaves are in the pocket of my cloak, bound up with a note so that if I do lose my memory again, I’ll see it and know who it’s for.
My stomach is clenched so hard I can’t eat or drink anything. I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to cross that bridge again. It’s like staring into the face of death and walking directly into it.
I don’t know if I’ll be coming back.
When I’ve finished this sentence, I’m going to put on my cloak, throw this journal into the fire, and leave this place.
The King is wonderful.
I’ve begun this journal because I think by writing I might be able to remember something. I’m at a castle, and I was brought to the King, and he acted like he knew me but I’ve never seen him before.
We had tea a few minutes ago, because he wanted to try some special tea I brought with me for him. I don’t know if he liked it, it was so bitter; but I drank it with him to be polite. He says he’ll get me a vio