The Lady of The Gift

by The Moonmoth


Prologue

The day was a cold one for autumn, a sharp, biting wind driving down from the north and sending men scurrying home for the comfort of the hearth. The sun was just kissing the horizon when Bendric Goldentongue staggered down the deserted, icy street to the Queen's Dragon Inn, his breath steaming as he made his way towards the door with the creaking slate above it.

He heaved at the iron-studded oak with his shoulder, breaking the brittle seal the ice had made around the door, and shoved in. Inside, the room was dim to Ben's eyes, seared as they had been from the bright autumn sunlight reflecting from the frost outside. He stood for a moment, allowing his sight to adjust. As he did so, shapes began to appear from out of the darkness, human forms, though huddled down deep in their layers of wool and skins, most sitting slumped over a bench with flagons in hands. One man sat by the bar trying to tempt the inn's whore upstairs with him.

Catching sight of the inn's mistress, Ben called out to her, "A room for the night, sweet lady."

She eyed him for a moment, a singularly unfriendly expression. "Aye, and how will you be paying?" she said at last.

"Why," Ben said, producing his harp from the special pocket he had sewn on the inside of his bearskin cloak, "they call me Goldentongue for a reason."

The mistress spat into the rushes at Ben's feet. "Piss on that, looks like any other tongue to me. It's gold coins I'll have, or you'll be sleeping in the street with the other beggars."

These inn keepers, Ben reflected, all the same these days. A whole turn of the seasons since the war, and still counting beans like a Frey.

Before he could speak, however, the whore called out, "Let him give us a song at the least, Pol. Might be he'll melt even your cold heart."

Sensing his opportunity, Ben plucked a chord from his harp and hummed the first notes of Jenny of Oldstones, waggling his eyebrows at the mistress. She spat again and retired through a door to the kitchens but said nothing further, and so Ben seated himself by the bar and looked about for requests. Some of the lumpy human shapes at the trestle tables were stirring, turning to watch, drawn inextricably by the soft plucking of the harp.

"A song for my lady?" Ben asked the whore. She laughed at his courtesy, and her partner said, in a voice slurred by drink, "The Bear and the Maiden Fair."

Ben looked at him apologetically. "Alas, that is a song to be sung with drink in your belly, and I have none. I could not do it justice in my present state."

The man did not take his cue, merely grunted and went back to worrying the laces on the whore's bodice. She swatted at him indifferently, more interested in Ben now.

"You got any new songs? It's been nigh on a sixmonth since a singer last stopped by here, and I still couldn't listen to Her Silver Hair one more time without tearing me own hair out."

Ben stroked his harp and hummed, half in song and half in thought. "Indeed, there is a new song I learnt while travelling the northlands. The Lady of the Gift, they call it."

"Aye, and what's it about?"

"A beautiful lady, trapped by her foes and forced into servitude by a wicked prince, obliged to endure great suffering. She is rescued by a man she should not trust, and imprisoned again in a castle atop a mountain."

"Don't sound too cheerful," the whore said doubtfully.

"Ah, yes," Ben smiled, "but if it please my lady, that is only the beginning of the song." And he stroked his harp again, and began to sing.