Aisa had a song inside her. It didn’t dwell in her head, where melodies and words dance as quiet thoughts. It bubbled up from somewhere deep within, deeper than her heart, where passions burn or melancholies drift. It was in her soul, filling her very being with its cadences. It was becoming her.
Or perhaps, she was becoming the song.
She didn’t know, and right now, in front of an audience of hundreds, she didn’t want to think about it. She sang the song, her voice ringing through its endless verses before a sea of awed eyes and hands raised in beatific praise. But she knew the souls listening to her song weren’t worshipping her. Their bliss belonged to the song, and the song didn’t belong to her.
The song was the forest’s. From somewhere within its deep, dark depths, the forest had sent its melodic tendrils out, and Aisa had been the one they’d caught.
And so, she now sang, giving voice to the forest’s secrets, sharing them with any who would hear them, so that their hearts might rejoice in its beauty, so that their souls might, too, harbor its song.
And many had listened. The first were those in her village. Many of them left, then, to elsewhere, where they spread word of the forest’s song and the one who sang it. More came to listen to her, and she’d sung to them every evening, at the end of the day’s toil, when weary feet trudged from fields and ploughs, shovels, axes, and picks were put away.
But the forest’s song had grown stronger, and those who wanted to listen to it had become so many her village’s square could no longer hold them all.
So she’d called them all to the forest, where they could sit amidst boughs of cool greenness, lounge beneath mossy overhangs, and rest against ancient bark as they listened to her.
There, she’d climbed atop the massive stump of what was once an ancient tree, and she’d begun to sing. With every passing note, she’d felt the song filling her soul even more fully. Within the forest, so close to its birthplace, she’d never been so grasped by its melodies before.
And it was the same for her audience. It was almost as if she could see them being filled by the song, too, by its crescendos of joy and valleys of dark delights, by its whisperings of feelings ancient and unknown, that called for dance and revel.
And her listeners did. Some threw their hands up, man and woman, young and old, and gyrated their bodies to the rhythms falling from her lips. Others sang along.
But one didn’t.
Her song nearly faltered in her throat as her gaze fell over him, a large man amidst the crowd, towering over those around him. He wore a ragged traveling robe of somber blue, and one of its sleeves had been torn off, revealing an upper arm swollen with muscle and lined with old scars. Beneath an unkempt mess of black hair, a surprisingly youthful face sat upon his thick, muscular neck, and it wore an open, appreciative smile and dark, delighted eyes.
But his soul wasn’t receiving the forest’s song. He was merely enjoying the sound of her voice. Wherever he would have otherwise chosen to be, he was here now for her, rather than for the forest.
It made her smile. She met his gaze, and he returned it, though his brow rose in seeming surprise. The forest might have chosen her to sing its majesty, but Aisa was a miller’s daughter who’d only just seen her nineteenth year. His bold regard made her blush and look away.
And with that, the forest’s song began to ebb from her soul, its need for voice satiated for now. She brought it to a close with its falling notes, and as the final melody echoed into oblivion, thunderous applause rose from her audience.
Aisa bowed before their adulation, before hopping off her stage. She was immediately surrounded by a throng of admirers. Most of them wore their work clothes: farmers, laborers, smiths, and more.
“…never heard anything like it…”
“When will you sing again?”
Smiling, she shook what hands she could and told any who would listen that she’d sing again tomorrow evening. They cheered and broke off to spread the word. Some turned away, chatting among themselves and pulling out food and drink from their knapsacks. Others lingered, offering further congratulations and praise, but she barely registered their words as she walked away, pushing through the crowd.
She wanted to find the man in the blue robe, and she did so, easily. He was speaking to a pie peddler, who was trying to convince him to choose one of the two pastries on a wooden tray. The robed man placed a copper coin on the tray and took both. The peddler nodded and laughed, before turning to his hand-cart, where more pastries were undoubtedly stored beneath waxen cloth.
“Hello there!” Aisa called, walking up the robed man. As she got closer, she noticed that he wore a sword at his belt. It was curved, its sheathed blade longer than her torso, and its hilt was some kind of glossy wood. The sight made her halt in her tracks, but the man had already heard her greeting and turned to face her.
“Hello,” he said. “I really enjoyed your singing. You have a wonderful voice.”
Aisa smiled. So what if he did wear a sword? That simply meant he wasn’t a serf, unlike almost everyone who’d come to listen to her. It only made her want to find out more about him. “Thank you! What’s your name?”
“I’m Raksha,” he said, returning her smile. “What’s yours?”
“Aisa.” She took two more steps forward, so that she was standing before him. The top of her head barely reached his chest, so she had to look up to meet his gaze. “My name is Aisa.”
“Pleased to meet you.” Raksha handed her one of the pastries he’d just bought. “Here. You must be hungry after all that singing.”
“Raspberry! My favorite!” she cried and took an eager bite.
“Oh, yours has red filling.” Raksha had taken a bite of the other pastry. “Mine has blue. Haven’t had this before, but it’s nice.”
“Blueberry’s nice too!” Aisa held up her pastry in one hand and pointed to Raksha’s with the other. “I’ll trade a bite of this for a bite of that.”
“Done.” Raksha handed over the blueberry pie.
Swapping a few more times, the two of them polished off the pastries. Aisa sat down, leaned against a tree, and sighed in satisfaction. All around them, people were seated in small groups, chatting eating. The sun had almost set, so some of them had broken out oil lanterns or started small campfires.
“Well, it was very nice to meet you, Aisa,” Raksha said. “I hope to hear you sing again.”
“Wait. Are you leaving already?” she asked.
“What? No!” Aisa protested. She didn’t want him to go yet. Who was he, this man wearing a sword whose soul did not open up to the forest’s song? Was he some kind of soldier? Or perhaps one of those Chevaliers from the stories?
Raksha laughed, and Aisa was suddenly aware that she’d voiced her thoughts out loud.
“No, I’m not a Chevalier. I think those only exist in the romance tracts peddlers sell,” he said.
“Oh yes, I read many of them. Our village’s barber has a whole collection.” Aisa gestured to the space beside her. “Come on, sit down.”
Shaking his head, Raksha complied and eased his massive frame down beside her. She immediately noticed that he was very hot.
“Excuse me?” he said.
Aisa slapped her forehead. She’d thought aloud again. “No, I mean, you’re giving off heat. Beside you, it’s like I’m sitting near one of those campfires and feeling the heat from the flames.”
“Oh, that’s my aegis.” Raksha shrugged. The heat radiating from him lessened slightly. “Better?”
“Aegis?” Aisa felt her eyes go wide. “What’s that?”
“Oh.” Raksha scratched the back of his head. “Let’s just say it’s just something that comes with being a martial scientist.”
“You’re a martial scientist?” Aisa asked. “Like, from the stories?”
“Not sure what stories you’re referring to, so I don’t know.”
“Warriors who can fly and outrun horses? Break stones with their bare hands? Never grow old and live forever? Occasional dashing Chevaliers who take beautiful Damoiselles in their arms and…”
“I can’t fly, but yes, outrunning horses is easy,” Raksha interrupted her just as she was getting to the good part. “Breaking stone isn’t so difficult. And yes, most of us do live several centuries, if we aren’t killed in battle before that.”
“…and the taking-in-arms part?”
“Aww.” Aisa tucked her knees to her chest and rested her chin on them. Stray locks of her brown hair fell from the bun atop her head and drifted across her knees. “Why brings you here, Raksha the martial scientist?”
“I’m on my warrior’s pilgrimage, and I just happened to pass by and see the crowd. Decided to take a closer look, and I’m glad I did.” Raksha smiled. “Good singing and a pretty face. Evenings don’t get much better than this!”
“Ooh! You called me pretty!” Aisa put a hand on his forearm and leaned forward, before whispering in his ear. “You do know you have to marry me now, right?”
“Village rules. Can’t be helped. Babies are next. I’m not letting you give them swords until they’re at least two years old, though.”
“…you’re messing with me.”
“Drat! Can’t keep a straight face to save my life.” Aisa laughed. “But you should have seen yours! Priceless.”
Raksha chuckled. “Eh, not sure if I’d mind, if the babies had your singing voice.”
Aisa felt heat crawling up her face, and she turned away before Raksha could see her blush. “Shut up!”
This time, it was his turn to laugh, and before long, Aisa joined in as well. Several moments passed before they regained their composure.
“Are you in a hurry to go somewhere?” Aisa asked.
“No, not really.”
“Stay, then. I’m singing tomorrow night, same time, same place.”
“Sure, why not?”
“Aisa!” Her father’s voice called, reaching her through the general din of several hundred people chatting and eating and drinking. She looked into the crowd and spotted him, clad in his work apron and overalls, making his way toward her.
She sprang to her feet and turned to Raksha. “I’m going to go talk to my dad. See you later?”
Raksha nodded. “I’ll be around.”
“Bye for now!” Aisa walked away, frowning at the strange feeling deep within her soul. The forest’s song, which had been oddly muted while she’d been talking to Raksha, seemed to start building inside once more.
Soon, it would need release again.
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