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The Minstrel’s Dream
by Aelric Nyann

The old minstrel sat and rubbed his aching hands. They were knarled and bony, showing the signs of long years of playing. For he was old now, even by the standards of men; his beard was long and gray, and his face betrayed years of mirth and sadness with deep lines, yet his eyes remained bright and clear. Beside him lay his only friend, his mandolin, looking as old and shoddy as the man himself. Weather-stained it was now, and in places it could be seen that patches had been laid, but even those were loose and broken. The two seemed made for each other. He had in fact played for the king when he was young, but times change with the wind, as they say, and hard were the times upon him now. Even the king had grown old and it seemed he had forgotten his once-beloved minstrel.

The man let out a deep sigh and closed his eyes. He sought for a memory from his past and a smile stretched itself across his creased face as he found it. He could remember it all so clearly. The sun glinting off the Great River, Anduin. The smell of the horses. The roar of the men as the king led the heroes to the great throne and sat them under the banners blowing in the warm breeze: the Silver Swan of Dol Amroth, the White Horse of Rohan, and the White Tree of his own land, of Gondor, and the great hope it brought to them all. He had been summoned by the king himself and was asked to play the tale of the heroes for all to hear. What joy was in his heart then! And while all those present fell silent, he had played and his song brought the entire company to tears of joy and sorrow and laughter that welled up from their hearts. Never had he played so well; he had been one with his music for the first time in his life.

But that day had long since passed like so many others, and his fame had passed with it. He had enjoyed his good fortune for some time, but, like all things, it dwindled, flickered and went out. Now he sat beside Anduin and his surroundings matched his mood. For he had come to the old ruins of Osgiliath where he paused to rest on the once-great bridge that had been broken down during the last age. He almost felt that he was that old as well, broken and left to waste away. Of course other bridges had been built since then; this one had been left in honor of those who had fallen there, and as a reminder of what they had been fighting for. He had traveled with no clear purpose other than to be alone and away from the city, and his feet had brought him here. Sitting there, he could feel the great history that surrounded him, penetrating his very being. He shuddered, and sighed again.

The sun was westering now and its level rays played among the broken pillars, changing the gray of the stones about him to a soft glow of orange. Presently, the beams moved and shone across his mandolin. He reached down and picked it up. "Well, old friend, it seems we have come to the end of our days." His voice was clear as he spoke, a remnant of his youth and talent. "What shall we do now, eh? Play for the ghosts, I suppose? We are not much more than that ourselves. Come, we shall have a last lay." His hands moved with the same skill as ever before and a sweet melody soon filled the place. Soft was the tune and melancholy, but pure in its sound; it mingled with the soft voice of Anduin flowing ever beside him. He closed his eyes and let his mind wander with the tune; and it seemed to him that the bridge was now rebuilt and the towers stood anew, basking in the glory of years long past. The weeds that crawled over stone and between every crack, retreated into the ground, and flowers and plants once again bloomed in their beds. The mists and fog were gently blown away by a warm breeze coming from the West. He smiled and continued to play.

And there, in his mind’s eye, a figure of a man appeared before him. Tall he was as he stood there, young as a man of middle years, but sad as if he bore upon himself a heavy burden. He was wrapped in a deep gray cloak and a great sword hung upon his belt; upon his head he wore a silver circlet with the wings of a sea eagle upon each side. Indeed, the minstrel fancied he heard the distant cries of sea birds and the smells and sounds of the ocean borne upon the breeze. The man’s face was grave but there was a light in his gray eyes that spoke of the West. The old man almost stopped his song, but the man held up his hand, palm out, and, shaking his head, smiled.

"Do not stop thy song, happy minstrel. ‘Tis a sweet sound to mine ear that I have not heard in long years." His voice spoke more to the minstrel’s mind than to his ears, as an echo that plays along a valley’s sides. "Be not afraid, but continue."

The old man did not stop, and bowed to the man. "But this song is almost over, lord, and it was to be my last, I’m afraid."

The man smiled again. "I would that you play another for me, if you will." And the grave look came back to his face like a wave of pain.

"What would you have me play, lord?" asked the minstrel, seeing the hurt in the man eyes. "I am but an old man, my talents all but used up, but I will play for you. What do you wish to hear?" His song ended, but the vision remained.

"A tale of valour and great deeds. Of sadness and joy…" A light then flashed in the man’s eyes, "Of broken oaths and ill-fated vows. And of redemption." He paused and looked kindly at the old man. "Have you a lay such as this?"

A shiver ran down the minstrel’s spine as he met the man’s gaze, and his voice wavered as he spoke. "Yes, lord, I do know of a song such as the one you wish. It has been some time since I played it, not since I played for the king." At that he let out a low gasp and wonder came to his eyes, for there, above the man’s head, shone pale and ghostly the sign of the king, just as it was upon the high standard of Minas Tirith.

The man looked down at him and smiled, "It is for a king that you would play again now."

The old minstrel bowed, and without a word, took up his pick and began to play.

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