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The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan

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Monthly Short Story Winner: Music

muiscal stitches by Antonio Iacobelli (detail)

Music plays a huge part in our lives and so it’s no wonder that it has its part in fantasy too. There are countless ways in which to include it. As a song to set the mood or as a part of your worldbuilding. As the integral theme of the story (and its magic) like in Pratchett’s Soul Music. As something your MC is very good at like Kvothe in The Name of the Wind, or many other ways, small or story defining.

This month our entrants wrote a short stories in which music played a significant part worldbuilding, the character’s life, or plot.


1. This must be prose or poetry.
2. The story must contain some kind of musical element.
3. Prose must be 500-1500 words long.
4. Poetry must be 100-500 words long.

This month’s winning story was by Carter, with “Echoes of the First Refrain”.

Congrats on your win, Carter!

You can find all our entries here.

And now on with the story:

– – –

“Echoes of the First Refrain”
by Carter

Prison bars stare at me. Blank staves confine me to my stool. They taunt me with fleeting glimpses of a beginning, terrifying me with the suggestion of a clef, a time signature, a crass note. My fingers clench around the quill, edging nib towards paper. A dribble of ink drips, a blot elongating into an erratic, misplaced crotchet.

I jerk the nib away. Anger surges. The page is ruined, the hopes of perfection ruined by a shaky, over-eager hand. With deliberate finality I tear the sheet away; a discordant coda to marred potential. I cast it away, my eyes tracking it as it falls with the grace of a glissando.

It ought not be this difficult. For others, I know it is elegant simplicity, a mere vocation. Not a calling. Not based on my all too intimate understanding of the music that drives the world. I can see it even now; the pianissimo of the faintest breath, the soft unfurling of the paper, the light chasing shadows of a symphony across the room. I clench my eyes shut and thrust the balls of my hands into my eyes. Blessed darkness explodes across my vision, granting ephemeral relief.

With the aching speed of a largo things shift. Patterns emerge to dance a volta beneath my palms. Snatches of a beat pulsing through darkened veins.

Part of me yearns for release. Without being able to find an outlet for the broiling talent, it festers, cannibalises. Unless I can find a way for the notes to cascade from my fingertips, I fear it will consume me.

Once, just once, have I achieved such clarity, such brilliance. Still they talk of it. Still musicians strive to perfect it, to be worthy of it and dare to try and surpass it. And fail. Even as I fail.

Such was the accursed bargain.

One masterpiece. A solitary, unsurpassable piece of music that will enrapture and enchant all who heard it. The demon has kept his side of the deal in a terrible, deliberate manner. I wrote the world into four movements; nuance and exuberance combined in delicate harmony. And as promised, he tore it from me, leaving me with the ability to see the music on which the world turns but not the ability to transcribe it.

I snarl at the page before me, base and animalistic, tuneless and crass. The closest I have come to true music in an age. Somehow even this is perfect; an encapsulation of my confinement and my frustration let loose into the world.

I dip my quill into the now viscous ink, determined to pull it from my brain, to spread brilliant discord across the staves. In the space of a single quaver, drive deserts me. It fades to memory, to longing. Despondency settles once more and my arm sags, never reaching the virginal parchment. My fingers become lax, the quill slipping onto the table with a percussive rattle. It jolts something within me, the blockage shifting. A note of music slides through the gap, gloriously, deliciously effervescent, it bubbles within me.

I tear my eyes away from the paper, searching again for my faithless quill. I frown. There is pile of dirty plates and dishes scattered across the various surfaces around the room. I suddenly become aware of the stench of rotten meat and congealed porridge, of stagnant water and stale wine. It is everywhere, pervasive and repugnant. I retch, the dry, hacking sound echoing around the room. My eyes dance, tracking the acoustics even as part of my mind marvels at how easily I can disregard my servants’ blatant disregard for my hygiene and safety.

When the music fades my hand is no nearer my quill. I can no longer recall the emotions, no longer recapture the desperate drive to write a note before it left me, faded like the final note of a funeral dirge. I turn my anger outwards. How could I hope to write in such filth? How dare Alec and the rest of his staff leave me like this?

I open my mouth to bellow for someone to attend me as my mind roils. Hazy memories tumble through my brain. Of raised voices and angry gestures, like a conductor rousing a sluggish orchestra. Of a familiar face struggling to retain its usual impassivity.

Of shadowy figures sneaking into my chambers, disturbing my peace, aggravating the silence I needed. Of plates cascading like a falling scale to crash like cymbals onto the floor, wrecking the careful note I had struggled so long to write.

I close my mouth, allowing only a whisper through; a sorrowful minim of self-realisation. And then, deep, deep within, I sense something stirring. It is in the arrhythmic beating of my heart, in the rasp of a single breath, written amidst the refuse of a life lost to a terrible bargain and a temperamental talent. A mournful requiem seeks release and finally, finally I can see the shape of it, hear the echoes of voices whispering sombre harmonies.

My fingers scrabble for the quill, my nails scratching the melody against the wood. I hardly recognise the twisted, skeletal thing as a hand; a parody of a clef. I wonder at how it opens the score written in the risen veins, tendons and muscles of my arms. The music is bubbling against my skin, desperate for release. My hand shakes as fingers curl, shaking a vibrato as I grasp the quill and prod it into the solidified ink. The nib bends. Breaks. Shattered hopes splinter in a sharp, sweet, bass drum crack.

I try to roar out my frustration. Nothing emerges but another dry breath.

A final note fades into the night.

– – –

Congratulations again to Carter! If you’d like to enter our monthly writing contest, check out our forum for more information.

Happy Writing!

Title image by Antonio Iacobelli.


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