Bart the Bard
Bart was a bard and was known as Bart the Bard. He wasn’t a very good bard, actually. His rhyming was terrible and his singing so out of tune that his audiences always ran screaming in the opposite direction. Bart loved singing; he just wasn’t very good at it. Many a time he sat in the rain singing at the top of his lungs and strumming along on his guitar, getting soaked to the skin in his green tunic and hat. His only friend in the world was his grey-and-white cat named Wilbur, who was old and slightly deaf and, therefore, wasn’t bothered much by Bart’s caterwauling.
On a dreary evening, Bart was busy writing a song in praise of one of the king’s best knights when a puff of magenta smoke announced the arrival of Charlie the Wizard, the most powerful magician in the land. Bart had sung many songs about him (none had been successful).
“Hello, Bart,” Charlie greeted.
“Hello, Charlie,” Bart returned. “Do you need a song?”
“No, but I need something else,” the wizard replied. “I need you to go on a quest.”
“I don’t go on quests,” Bart informed.
“What if I say you get money if you successfully complete it?”
“I still say I don’t go on quests.”
At this, Wilbur opened one eye.
“Listen to the wizard, Bart,” he advised. “You have no marketable talent—even my deaf ears can hear your tone-deafness—and you haven’t been paid in months. My hunting skills can’t feed us forever. Don’t be stupid; go on his quest.”
Bart tugged nervously at his collar. “I don’t know, Wilbur. A quest sounds so…dangerous.”
“It’s a simple quest, really,” Charlie assured. “Deep in the mountains in a hidden cave is a sword. This sword gives unbelievable power, power not even I can begin to understand. It is being sought by my enemy, Marvin the Maligned. He mustn’t get it, Bart.”
“If it’s being sought by your enemy, why don’t you go?” Bart asked.
“Because it wouldn’t be as exciting a saga, that’s why.”
Bart sighed. “Okay, you win. Come on, Wilbur.”
“Here’s a map,” Charlie offered. “Good luck.”
Swinging his guitar over his shoulder, Bart strode off. That was the one bad thing about arguing with wizards—they always won.
* * *
Soon Bart and Wilbur came to a river. It was a wide, deep river, and neither one knew how to swim.
“What does the map say?” Wilbur asked.
Bart scrutinized the map carefully in the dim light. The only way to stay on course is to keep going straight through this river,” he observed. “I suppose we’d better make a raft or something.”
“There’s more than one way to cross a river,” a new voice spoke up.
Bart whirled around. At first he couldn’t see anybody. Wary, he drew his knife (the only weapon he owned, and he never used it for fighting—just for skinning food). That’s when he saw the speaker was a woman, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She was clad in a brown dress, which explained why Bart couldn’t see her right away.
“I can help you,” the woman stated. “I know every inch of these woods, and I also know there’s a bridge half a mile upstream.”
“Really?” Bart consulted his map. “I don’t see a bridge on the map.”
“Then the cartographer was lousy,” the woman laughed. “Everyone around here knows about the bridge. I’ll show you.”
Bart didn’t stop to think about who this woman was, where she came from, or why she was so anxious to help them. He was under the spell of her voice. Wilbur wasn’t exactly sure what was going on (the woman spoke so softly he could barely hear her), but he followed his master as he always did.
The woman guided them expertly through the thick underbrush; in fact, the overhanging branches and assorted shrubbery barely touched her skin and dress while they tore at Bart’s already badly-patched tunic. Wilbur avoided a fair number of injuries by threading his way through narrow gaps between the branches, but he was highly suspicious of their guide. It didn’t surprise him that Bart accepted her help without question. Part of the reason he had entered the wandering minstrel business was the idea that bards could have any woman they wanted—a fact which Bart had learned was, along with many other illusions about his career choice, grossly exaggerated.
Whether she was trustworthy or not, the woman had been right about the bridge. It stood its solemn guard over the opposing banks but looked as if it would fall apart if anything breathed on it.
“Are you sure it’s safe?” Bart questioned nervously. He had never seen a bridge in such a pathetic, dilapidated condition before, and he couldn’t help but think how upset Charlie would be with him if he got himself killed on this quest.
“Absolutely,” she laughed. “I use it all the time. Watch.”
As lightly as a fairy she leaped onto its boards and ran to the other side. She turned to smile and wave encouragingly, beckoning to Bart and Wilbur to follow her.
“What do you think, Wilbur?” Bart whispered to his cat who had jumped onto his back and settled himself comfortably around his shoulders.
“It certainly seems safe enough,” Wilbur allowed, “but frankly, I don’t trust her. Why should she help us? And why isn’t this bridge on Charlie’s map?”
“Maybe it’s an old map, and the bridge was constructed after it was drawn.”
Wilbur gave his owner a disgusted look. “A wizard is not going to give you a map that will not help you complete his quest.”
“Charlie doesn’t know everything,” Bart argued as he stepped onto the bridge. Immediately the board broke beneath his weight, and he had to grab the sides to avoid splashing into the river. Wilbur yowled his displeasure at the bumpy ride.
“It’s never done that before!” their guide called unhelpfully. “Try going slower.”
Shakily Bart raised himself back onto the bridge and cautiously placed one foot on the next board. It groaned and cracked dangerously yet miraculously remained in one piece. Inch by inch he crept across the bridge, not daring to look down. Although he had no particular fear of heights, the rickety connection between the two banks was enough to make him start.
“I knew you’d be safe,” their guide beamed as soon as they had rejoined her.
Bart tried to hide his annoyance. “Yes, well, no real harm done, Miss”—
“Bertha,” she supplied, grinning radiantly.
“Miss Bertha,” Bart finished. “Well, we’ll be going now. Come on, Wilbur.”
Bard and cat both turned away and started down the shady road, but Bertha followed them.
“Where are you going?” she wondered.
“Why do you want to know?” Wilbur countered.
“We don’t get many travelers in this part of the kingdom,” Bertha shrugged, “and it’s been months since a bard has passed through. You wouldn’t be willing to come to my village and perform, would you?”
Bart consulted the map. “I don’t see any villages close to us.”
Bertha leaned over his shoulder to examine the map for herself. “Where’d you get this map?”
“Charlie the Wizard,” Bart answered proudly. “I’m on a quest for him.”
“Really?” Bertha’s green eyes rounded with the appropriate awe. Wilbur found this suspicious.
Warmed by her admiring approval, Bart’s chest swelled with self-importance, and he continued, “Yes. I’m supposed to find a magic sword, a sword that gives unbelievable power. His enemy, Marvin the Maligned, is also looking for the sword, and he must not be the first to find it.”
“But if Marvin the Maligned is looking for the sword, too, why did Charlie send you to find it?” Bertha questioned, her brow furrowed in confusion.
Bart shrugged, “He said something about how it wouldn’t be as exciting a saga. I’m not sure I understand.”
“No one understands wizards,” Bertha offered sympathetically. “I should know; my uncle is one.”
“Really? Which one?”
She smiled like a shark, her eyes glimmering evil satisfaction. “Marvin the Maligned, you dolt. He told me to look for the same sword you are, and since you have so kindly provided me with the map”—here she plucked it deftly out of Bart’s hands—“I bid you good day, sir.”
“Not so fast!” Bart began to fight her for it, but she merely raised her hand and sent him flying. His head smacked against a tree trunk, and he slumped down, unconscious.
Wilbur screeched and leapt for Bertha’s face, but a flash of blue from her fingers topped him quite unexpectedly. Smiling in malignant satisfaction, she sauntered off.
Since she had her back to her victims, she failed to notice a puff of magenta smoke materialize where she had just been standing.
* * *
“Ooh, my head,” Bart groaned as he slowly regained consciousness. He blinked painfully and looked up to see Charlie the Wizard leaning over him.
“I’m not going on any more quests for you.”
“Oh, quit being a baby.” Charlie rested his hand on the large bump swelling on the bard’s head. The bump warmed suddenly and then disappeared. “I am sorry that Bertha got to you, but I didn’t think Marvin would send her on this quest.”
Wilbur licked his paw and rubbed it behind his left ear. “Who is she, besides Marvin’s niece?”
“That’s pretty much it,” Charlie shrugged. “Marvin wanted an apprentice, so he’s been training her since she was six. She’s not as powerful as he is, but she’s growing.”
“If her power’s on that level, I’d hate to see what Marvin’s like,” Bart grumbled as he heaved himself off the ground. “I still think you should be on this quest.”
Charlie shook his head. “I can’t get involved, Bart. I’m sorry, but I told you it wouldn’t be as exciting a saga. We have to think of entertaining future generations, and a down-on-his-luck bard overcoming astronomical odds to prevent a sorcerer from obtaining a power source makes for a much more exciting tale than if I were to simply go for the sword myself. You’re in the storytelling business; you understand where I’m coming from.”
Bart looked at his fist and wondered what would happen to him if he punched a wizard in the nose. Such a thing had never been attempted before.
Wilbur guessed what he was thinking and spoke, “Let it go, Bart. No one can win an argument with a wizard. Although”—he turned to face Charlie—“some protection would be nice in case we run into Bertha again.”
“There’s no point in it now,” Charlie confessed. “Bertha’s already made it to cave and claimed the sword for her uncle. Your only chance is to infiltrate Marvin’s stronghold and get the sword back.”
“And how am I supposed to infiltrate this evil wizard’s stronghold?” Bart demanded.
“Easy—you’re a bard.”
“If Bertha’s there, she’ll recognize me.”
“She’ll be in the laboratory working to harness the power. Marvin tends to put her in charge of boring stuff like that. You’ll be perfectly safe.”
Bart looked skeptical.
Charlie stretched his arms in front of him. “I’ll have to use magic to transport you there. It’s too far for you and Wilbur to travel on foot with the time limits we have now that Marvin has the sword. Wilbur, get on Bart’s shoulders.”
Wilbur prepared himself for a leap and sprung deftly onto his master’s shoulders. “How rough will this be?” he wanted to know.
“If everything goes well, you won’t feel anything.” Stretching his arms again, a burst of magenta smoke enveloped Bart and Wilbur. When everything cleared, they were standing in front of a large fortress.
“What do you know? He was right that time,” Bart observed. He raised his fist and banged on the door.
A view hole opened slightly above eye level, and a deep voice enquired menacingly, “Who goes there?”
Bart immediately assumed his wandering minstrel mien. Unslinging his guitar from his shoulder, he announced, “I am Bart the Bard; I have traveled far and braved many dangers to perform at the renowned court of Marvin the Wizard. Not many wizards can boast holding their own stronghold as they usually rely on some noble lord for funding and land. Not so for Marvin the Glorious.”
“Laying it on a little thick, aren’t you?” Wilbur whispered.
Before Bart had a chance to answer, the door creaked open. The guard stared at the travelers impassively.
“Hopefully your tongue has not used all its sweetness on persuading me to let you in. Lord Marvin gave strict orders to not be disturbed today, but his ego always needs soothing after he has a bad day at work.”
Bart bowed grandly, offering Wilbur a chance to leap off his shoulders. “I am honored to be given this opportunity of a lifetime. Is there a place I could wait and tune my guitar until my performance at supper?”
“Mistress Wilma can handle that.” The guard gestured to an elderly woman making her way over to where they currently stood.
“So we have guests now, do we? Lord Marvin asked that he and his niece not be disturbed today; can’t you follow orders?” She turned her accusatory blue eyes on the guard.
“He is a bard. I thought Lord Marvin would enjoy some music after his work.”
“Oh, a bard! Well, that’s different. Come with me, sir; I know a good room for you to rehearse until supper, and you’ll have lots of time to rehearse since Lord Marvin always works late when he has a pressing project.”
Bart merely nodded and tried to look an intelligent bard while Wilma chattered on about life in Marvin the Maligned’s stronghold. Despite living under the rule of an evil wizard, they seemed genuinely happy, not the forced happiness people would adopt if they were afraid of what would happen to them if word got out about how they really felt. He remarked on this to Wilbur once they were alone.
“Marvin probably learned the lesson very few evil overlords ever grasped—namely that if you treat the people well, they will have no cause to complain and will be a perfectly happy and peaceful lot. That can be useful; if you’re trying to take over the world, it helps if you don’t have to take time out to squash local rebellions on your quest for world domination.”
“You sound experienced at this,” Bart remarked in surprise.
Wilbur gave a feline shrug. “I’m a cat. Every cat thinks about world domination at some point in his life.”
“Have any ever tried it?” Bart wanted to know, amazed at this admission.
“A few, but they usually decide that having one human enslaved is quite enough.”
“Enslaved? Wilbur, what”—
“Which direction do you want to go to search, left or right?” Wilbur interrupted.
“Left,” Bart answered without knowing how the subject got changed so quickly.
“Okay. Let’s go.” Wilbur raised himself on his hind legs and rested his forelegs against the wooden door, going back down after Bart opened the door.
“Let’s meet back here after an hour,” he suggested.
Wilbur signaled his agreement with a flick of his tail as he departed down the right side of the hallway. Squaring his shoulders, the bard marched down the left side.
As he kept a sharp lookout for anything that might hint as to where Marvin’s laboratory was, he did his best to not show how scared he really was and to assume an air that suggested he had every right to be there. It worked; no one accosted him as he roamed the hallways. Perhaps they were too busy with their own tasks to pay much attention to a stray bard, but whatever the reason, Bart was grateful. He was also getting quite lost. Finally he just decided to ask for directions since people seemed so accepting of his presence.
“Just go down this hall, pull the arm of the armor suit standing on your right, and go down the stairs from the passage that opens in the wall,” one servant directed.
Bart expressed his thanks and went in search of said suit of armor, and it was not hard to find especially since it was the only suit of armor in the hallway. Cautiously he began to pull down the arm triumphantly waving a sword in the air. The door to the secret tunnel began creaking open before he even touched the arm, though, and he did his best to hide behind the armor and see who was approaching.
As he had suspected and feared, Bertha was ascending from the dungeon laboratory. Too scared even to breathe, Bart darted to the side and tried his best to hide beside the suit of armor. His limbs were shaking so badly that he was convinced they would knock over the armor and reveal his location.
I never should have agreed go on this quest, he thought miserably. I’m not a warrior; I’m a bard—and not even a good bard, either.
He was so busy with his scared, depressed thoughts that he almost didn’t notice when Bertha finally came up the stairs and closed the door behind her, but the door made enough noise that he realized what was happening and slipped through the slowly-shrinking gap before it sealed him off from the laboratory completely. When it did close, however, it also sealed him off from the light.
Trapped in the dark without so much as match for light, Bart knew he would have to be careful in his descent. That didn’t allay his dread, though; he hated walking in the dark and avoided it whenever possible. And it certainly didn’t help that the walls felt sticky with some unknown substance. Bart wasn’t entirely certain he wanted to know what made the walls sticky anyway.
Fortunately for him, torches seemed to be flickering in the laboratory itself, and he could dimly discern the shapes of all sorts of mysterious laboratory equipment, and although he wasn’t sure what half of the equipment was supposed to do (science had never been his strong point), he could at least see where the sword was suspended between two wires that held it elevated above the table. Sitting underneath the sword, though, was a fishbowl that contained a solitary goldfish. The goldfish itself exuded a moody air as it swam back and forth—to Bart, it almost seemed sullen, and he had never heard of a sullen goldfish before.
“What’s the matter, fishy?” he asked sympathetically, moving closer to peer into the fishbowl.
What happened next was entirely unexpected. “Don’t you fishy me, peasant!”
Bart leapt backwards, knocking over several trays in the process. “What the—you can talk!?”
Its voice was garbled and distorted by the water, but the goldfish was definitely talking. “Of course I can talk! I’m not really a goldfish!”
“You’re not—then what”—Bart was finding it increasingly difficult to formulate a coherent sentence.
The goldfish drew itself up as best it could and announced, “I am Gregory the Terrible! By the way your face is blanching, I can tell you have heard of me. That’s some comfort, anyway, knowing I wasn’t completely forgotten.”
“But—but—but all the stories say you were destroyed!” Bart eventually sputtered. The tale of the final battle between Gregory the Terrible, who in his prime was ten times more horrible than Marvin the Maligned, and Eric the Wizard, Charlie’s predecessor, was one of Bart’s favorites; it had been the first story he had mastered as a bard. He knew that story backwards and forwards, and nowhere did it say anything about Gregory’s turning into a goldfish.
“You can destroy someone without killing them,” Gregory snorted, “and that is precisely what Eric did to me. But Marvin has been looking after me for all of these years, and thanks to his diligent research, he and his niece will be able to use the power that sword contains to turn me back human. In a few paltry hours, Gregory the Terrible will return to exact his vengeance!”
“Sorry, fishy; I don’t think so.” With that, Bart pulled the sword free and made a dash for the surface, steeling himself for the encounters that would result from the alarm that clanged altogether too loudly when he grabbed the sword.
As he approached the top of the passageway, he could dimly hear Bertha ordering, “End it as quickly as possible, but don’t damage the sword. If it gets even the slightest of dings, I will execute all of you myself.”
Bart’s heart sank, but he was desperate to stay alive. He lowered the blade and charged straight into the oncoming pile of soldiers. This unlikely tactic worked to surprise everyone into letting him through, but they soon recovered and set out to capture him.
Bart was actually quite pleased with himself up until he ran into an invisible wall. Frantically he scrabbled against it, but invisibility did not mean the wall was weak.
His heart all the way in his boots, Bart turned to face Bertha as she approached him. A man was with her—tall, dark, neatly dressed, but with an undeniable gleam of malice in his blue eyes.
“Well done, Bertha,” he praised.
Bart squared his shoulders and tried to act much braver than he felt. “I suppose you must be Marvin the Maligned.”
“There’s no point in acting brave, bard; you’re just sounding stupid. Stick to your stories and leave the witty quips to those who—AUUUUUGGGGGHHHHHH!” A grey-and-white blur leapt from nowhere, landed squarely on Marvin’s head, and began clawing furiously.
“Wilbur!” Bart shouted joyously.
“Don’t just stand there; run!” Wilbur yelled, moving about on the evil wizard’s head so Bertha couldn’t pull him off.
Inspiration suddenly struck Bart, and he lifted the magic sword and hacked at the invisible wall. He could feel something give way, so he took that as a sign to continue hacking. In no time at all he was free, and freedom never felt so delicious.
“Come on, Wilbur!” he called.
Wilbur hopped down from Marvin’s head and streaked past the guards, running so fast that Bart could scarcely keep pace. Neither of them was worried about Marvin or Bertha following them—Marvin’s face was so badly scratched that he could barely see, but for the moment he seemed more concerned about Bertha, who had reacted to Bart’s hacking as if it was an assault upon her own person, flinching and wincing each time the sword cut through another portion of her wall.
“Well done, Bart; I’m proud of you.”
Bart skidded to a halt and gaped in astonishment at the figure who stood casually in one of the side doorways. “Charlie!? You were here all the time!?”
Charlie chuckled. “Of course I was. I wouldn’t really have made you face Marvin on your own; I was here in case I had to step in at the last minute and save you.”
“Then do you know there’s a psycho goldfish wizard in the basement?”
“I’ve known about Gregory for years. He’s harmless now, but that’s why I needed someone to get the sword from Marvin. Marvin had worked out that the sword contained enough power to turn Gregory back into a human.” Charlie glanced down the hallway as the sounds of rampaging soldiers came closer. “I think we’ve overstayed our welcome.” With an impressive cloud of magenta smoke, Charlie, Bart, and Wilbur were all transported miles away from the castle.
“What will happen to Marvin and Bertha?” Bart asked.
“I intend on paying them a little visit that will more than likely end with my stripping them of their powers,” Charlie mused. “They’ll be a lot less harmless as ordinary mortals.”
Wilbur pawed at Charlie’s leg. “Where’s this money you promised Bart?” he demanded.
Charlie let loose another puff of magenta smoke. Sitting in its midst was a medium-sized wheelbarrow filled with sacks of gold, which Wilbur promptly started to use as a bed.
“And you won’t need to worry about being robbed; I’ve given it an enchantment that will make it look like a pile of mud bricks to whomever tries to steal from you,” Charlie reassured him.
“Actually, Charlie, I was wondering if I might receive another gift instead,” Bart hedged.
Wilbur sat up. “I know my ears are bad, but I thought I heard you say you wanted something other than the money.”
“Well, what would you like, Bart?” Charlie wanted to know. “You’ve more than likely earned it.”
“I want a better voice,” Bart stated plainly. “I know I’m a failure as a bard because I can’t sing…but if I could sing, maybe I could finally be the bard I’ve always wanted to be.”
“Well, I’m certainly not going to just give you a better voice,” Charlie told him. “Most people train for years and years to achieve their sublime sound; I’m not going to just give you a good singing voice; it wouldn’t be fair to them.” On seeing Bart’s crestfallen expression, he added, “But you can use the money to pay for singing lessons. If you’re looking for a teacher, I recommend Fiona Featherly, the court musician of Duke Anselm the Pale. She’s half siren on her mother’s side. If she can’t teach you to sing, no one can.”
This news brightened Bart’s spirits considerably. The chance to finally become a proper bard was finally coming within his grasp.
(Read more of Emerald’s works at My Turn to Talk)