< Return to Balls Part 6
When it comes to the last portion of this story, I’m left with a difficult task of trying to figure out the bets way to split it. I hope this works.
If Derrek felt entertaining a crowd in a tavern was difficult, then this was perhaps the most nerve-wracking, soul-wrenching experience he had ever endured. He was more accustomed to friends and a small campfires – a captive audience if ever there was any. But here, with so many eyes on him, the pressure to perform was like being struck by an enormous wave and dragged out to sea.
For the first challenge, Laara produced her harp and let loose her tremendous musical skills. It was a moving piece; her instrument produced such clear and enchanting notes. Derrek recognized the composition as that of The Unicorn’s Last Folly. So evocative was her talent that Derrek could almost hear the narration echoing the tale like some ghostly spectre falling upon the hall. He was transported away to those hidden glades and the remorseful loss of the unicorn as it was driven over the cliff by the great bull. With the last pluck of her strings reverberating about the hall, Derrek could almost feel himself turning into the white surf of the ocean along with the fabled creature.
Unfortunately, Alec was called next. Perhaps it was the judges punishment for Derrek breaking the rules as the administrator gave him an almost condescending grin as Alec took the stage.
Derrek had played with Alec when he attended the College, and the man was a fairly accomplished musician in his own right. He was very good at picking up compositions and learning older songs. His biggest weakness was in the creation itself. He could reproduce, but his original work always fell short.
And there was no way that Alec could follow Laara’s symphonic performance.
The fat man strolled to the front stage and immediately demanded a person in the front row give up their seat. Once he was handed a chair, he sat down, taking his lute in hand and strumming a simple cord.
Then he began his oral delivery.
He wasn’t going to play at all. It was a beat telling of a tale with the lute used to accentuate his delivery. And Alec began to tell the story of the Defence of Balearis. Word for word, it was an accurate retelling of the kingdom’s stand against the Lich Lord’s forces and the betrayal of the Priestess of Treachery. The only details that were altered were the roles that Derrek, Kait, Keirn and Jeremiah had played. They were replaced for fictitious creations of Alec’s each delivered with convincing accents in the tale. It was, begrudgingly a most compelling delivery and a seamless blend of acoustic and oral components.
The applause erupted at the conclusion and Alec smiled triumphantly as he tossed the chair recklessly off the stage before returning to Derrek’s side.
Derrek stepped forward, his mind racing for what he would do. There were other tales he could tell but his whole style had been stolen! Even if the events were different the telling would be too similar and Derrek’s performance would be too derivative. Alec didn’t need to use all of Derrek’s material to sabotage him. He just needed to steal the soul of it.
He looked out over the crowd. That sea of faces stared back expectantly. It was an unsettling silence, where the lone cough would echo hollowly in the great space. Derrek just stood there, his mind unmoving as if all thought had froze within his brain. He didn’t know what he was going to do. He didn’t know what he could do.
He needed his muse now more than ever. He closed his eyes, silently pleading for her to come to his aid. He needed something, anything at this point. He couldn’t be known as the man that stood. This was his big moment and he was blowing it.
A soft tingle crept into his foot. At first, he thought it was just falling asleep. But then he was possessed by the curious sensation to tap it. Tentatively, as if he were lifting a naked toe towards some unknown pool, he lifted his foot and dropped it.
The sound beat back the deafening silence.
He tapped his foot again.
An otherworldly beat swelled within his chest. His second foot began to enter the fray. It was as if some alien force possessed his body, causing his limbs to strike out on their own. They moved in no determined fashion. This was not a jig or a waltz. His feet carried him across the stage in a pattern completely contrary to any folk dance or court saunter. His feet beat against the wood of the stage, creating their own tempo and orchestra to carry him along.
He lifted his hands, unsure what to do with them. He felt he should do something with them, leaving them dangling at his sides like two dead fish just didn’t seem appropriate. He reached for his lute to begin an accompaniment, but his fingers balked at the touch of the instrument. Instead, they took control themselves, spinning in great circles about his body.
Faster and faster he moved across the stage. His muse was in full control now and he didn’t question or resist. The audience sat in rapt silence, watching the young man as he writhed his way in front of them. A soft rumble began to reverberate within his throat, and Derrek opened his mouth to release the unearthly howl.
Faster and faster he spun in some discordant patter of feet and warbling voice. His arms were like thin branches of a willow tree, flapping violently in a tumultuous storm. The hall began to spin and blend before him, turning from concrete shapes into a haphazard mess of colours and contours before his spinning eyes.
And still he turned until the winds of whatever demonic force propelled him filled his ears and made him deaf to all other sounds. The constantly turning of his body covered his skin with an all-encompassing tingling that distorted the sensations of hot and cold. The sights before him melded into one single painting of great streaks and splotches.
And just when he thought he would be lost within those muted sensations, he suddenly stopped. His arms fell limp by his side, his voice seemed to crack and give way while his feet took root and refused to move.
He just stood there, staring dumbly at the crowd.
The crowd stared dumbly back.
Seconds seemed to stretch into an eternity before at long last some distance person began to clap. A few more added their slapping hands. Feeling as if they had missed something but not wanting to show it, a whole chorus of applause broke from the audience.
The judges stared at Derrek. The young man gave a short bow and quickly hurried back to the other three.
“Wha-the hells was that?” Alec whispered.
The administrator slowly took to the stage, calming the audience once more.
“Well that was… quite the display of talent and ingenuity on the part of our competitors. However, traditional… and non-traditional… entertainment is not the sole purview of an accomplished minstrel. One must also be a well-spring of information and knowledge. They must carry the news of distant lands and be experts on foreign customs and rituals. A minstrel is akin to a walking encyclopaedia and to that end we enter the second portion of the Bard’s Challenge. Trivia!
“If all three competitors would come to the front please.”
It was clear that this was going to be a head to head competition.
“To the smartest goes the spoils,” Alec smiled.
“First Question!” the administrator barked. “Name the capital of the Akshari Empire!”
“What is Quarre,” Derrek said immediately.
“How did you know that?!” Alec sputtered.
“We spent a short stint in its jail. Long story.”
“That is correct. Though, you really don’t have to phrase your answer in the form of a question,” the administrator said. “Next question! What is the name of the elongated zink otherwise called the Lizard!”
“A tenor cornett,” Laara said, her voice like the soft ringing of a dinner bell.
“I’ve got this next one,” Alec said.
“Next Question! What people would you find in the blasted far north, renown for their slavery and pit-“
“Baatez,” Derrek said. “Travelled with one. But you wouldn’t know that.”
“Next question! This instrument is typically made from the horn of chamois or goat.”
“Gemshorn,” Laara replied.
“Next question! What common ingredient is used to prepare the herbs in remedial salves and poultices?”
“Pig’s intestines!” Derrek shouted. “You never think how important it is until you don’t have any and
substitutes are a… tricky proposition.”
“Next question! This partsong consists of vocal musical composition and –“
“Madrigal!” Derrek and Laara shouted in unison. Derrek eyed Laara suspiciously.
“How do you people know these things?” Alec cried.
It was clear where the real competition for this section lay and the two squared off. Derrek had the upperhand on the esoteric questions that left the sheltered Laara scratching her head. But she had clearly spent most of her time studying the musical theory and history during her training. If Derrek wanted to edge her out, he was going to have to beat her to the answers on those questions.
The two of them began to answer so fast that the judges were shouting out the next question before the previous one was even answered. Back and forth they went, like a rapid match of Ulama. Alec was left staring dumbfounded, his head snapping between the two players as if they were swatting his eyes between his ears.
Laara and Derrek’s voices began to rise so loud that it drowned out the questions being asked until at last the administrator stood.
“Final question! Name the famous beverage brewed in the Hills of Barrowfold which gave rise to this peculiar brand of music from its distinct tankards.”
Derrek and Laara looked at each other. Each one wanted to shout the answer, worried the other knew it, but hesitation held them back. Derrek aped three responses before he stopped to consider the question. Strangely, he didn’t actually know the answer.
A tentative voice rose.
“What is grog?”
“Correct. And you don’t need to phrase your answer in the form of a question, Alec.”
Carver smiled broadly as he nudged Derrek in the side.
“See that, I told you I’d get one.”
Continue to Balls Part 8 >
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