Darin watched in contented wonder as the soft, somber tones of his battered violin put his new wife to sleep. Arica looked so beautiful, so peaceful, her petite curves making a soft line against the worn linens. All in all, Darin thought, this was the perfect end to the perfect wedding day.
He pulled the old bow across the strings slowly to draw out the final note, savoring the melancholy sound. Although he’d been using them for nearly a year now, he was always amazed at the power of the melodies he’d bargained from Old Man Grastow.
“You’re a natural with that thing, kid,” Grastow told him once. “Your playing touches something deep inside of people, but it could do oh so much more.”
Darin set his violin and his bow down on the windowsill and snuck quietly out of his tiny house. Arica didn’t so much as stir at his passing. He gently closed the door behind him and took a few steps out into his tiny flower garden.
“The right melody can move a mountain,” Grastow had said mischievously. “A sonata in the proper key can turn water to wine. A dirge played just slightly askew can kill.”
Darin turned to examine his home in Diun’s pale silver glow. The quaint, one-room shack had been in his family for generations, with not a one of his ancestors monetarily equipped to make it something more. It languished in dull local stone as houses in the town proper were trimmed with northern marble and rare redwoods. He and Arica already had plans for a new cooking and eating area and a nursery for their children, all to be financed with her hefty dowry.
“But can music make someone fall in love?” he’d asked Old Man Grastow tentatively in response.
He shoved his hands into his pockets and wandered around the house to examine his meager field. Six measly rows of sickly potatoes greeted him. His tomatoes had died a few months back, and his corn hadn’t even sprouted. His stomach rumbled at the thought. There was plenty of room on his land for more, to be sure, and soon he’d be able to buy a proper horse and plow and fresh seeds and good fertilizer, and he could give up trapping in Easlinder’s dangerous forests and settle down to farm. And then he’d go to the tailor for a new pair of pants–no, three new pairs of pants– and a set of sandals that didn’t squeak mightily with every step. And maybe he’d splurge on a new hat. He sighed heavily, pleased that all of the things he’d ever wanted were finally within his grasp.
Then a familiar voice creaked through the night and destroyed his fantasy. “Just as easy as I said it would be, eh?”
Darin balled his fists and closed his eyes, but he didn’t turn around. “You’re supposed to be dead.”
“Ha!” Old Man Grastow cackled. “Don’t believe everything you hear, boy! I’ll tell you one thing, though: the supposedly deceased have a much easier time of things than the known-to-be-living!”
“So you’re back to collect your favor, then?” Darin asked.
“Aye, that’s the gist of it. Seeing as how I helped you make the prettiest, richest girl fall in love with you–”
“There was no ‘making!’” Darin shouted angrily, spinning on his heel to finally face Old Man Grastow. “The music helped Arica get to know me–but she came to love me on her own!”
The bent old man leaned heavily on his thick cane, just an arm’s length away. Grastow was a disgusting creature; his teeth were caked with years of rot, his left eye shrunken and yellowed and useless. The tattered shreds of colorful robes hung from his spare frame like feathers from a Thilan woman’s extravagant hat. He stroked his long white beard and shrugged. “Believe what you want and justify what you will. The truth is that I helped you, and now it’s time for you to help me.”
“‘A lifetime of servitude, but infinite knowledge,’” Darin quoted Grastow’s offer from long ago. “You’ve come to collect.”
“To collect, yes,” Grastow said with a heavy nod of his wrinkled head. “But also to further instruct. You’ll be a valuable piece, Darin. Whether you play or not, people are inclined to trust you. Not many of our number can pull that off.”
“You sound as if you speak from experience,” Darin replied irritably.
“Blonde, blue-eyed whippersnappers like yourself tend to be more popular than old coots like me,” Grastow replied. “And since I am an old coot, I must insist we move this bit of drama along. Can’t stay out as late as I used to, you know.”
Darin just shook his head. His worst fear was finally manifesting. Grastow was a terrible individual rumored to be responsible for all manner of ills in the area, from the death of the mayor’s infant son to the failure of Doc Luden’s prized roses. The thought of doing Grastow’s dirty work, whatever it turned out to be, was absolutely repulsive.
And any association with the local villain would destroy the social standing he’d earned in the community by marrying Arica.
“Your first task awaits, my student,” Grastow crowed. “There lives in this area an individual deeply in debt to my superiors. A brilliant trader with connections in the richest markets of Nefazo and Mana’Olai, and a man who may or may not have discovered an efficient route to the riches of the north.”
“Jales Elanick,” Darin said sadly, naming his new father-in-law. “How much?”
“Hmmm…” Grastow mused. “All of it. Every…last…coin. You’ve three days to make him sign his entire estate over to me–and doom Elanick to a lifetime of knowing his fortune was taken from him by the man her daughter loves.”
Darin’s heart sank. “All of it” included Arica’s dowry, and without that…
“You’ve a choice to make, Darin. The type of knowledge I’ve given you does not come cheap. Dedicate your music to the service of my cause, or I take it away completely.”
“You can’t do that,” he muttered, his voice cracking.
“Ha!” the old man cackled. “You’re not the first to tell me such a lie, and all of ‘em that didn’t fall in line can’t hum so much as a bar. Either you’re with the Guild, or we make sure you can’t possibly hurt us.”
In spite of himself, Darin took a step backwards and away from his antagonist. He didn’t doubt that Grastow could make good on his promises, or worse. His imagination wandered further than he would’ve liked in that regard.
“Don’t you dare threaten Arica.”
Instead of a cackle, Old Man Grastow responded with a deep, menacing chuckle. “Frankly, my boy, I don’t give a damn about your wife–mainly because I think you’d cut your losses and run off to con another without a second thought.”
“That’s not true!” Or, at least, Darin wanted to believe it wasn’t.
Grastow smiled wickedly. “You’ve seen how she reacts to the songs I’ve given you. You’ve watched her pupils dilate, her breathing and heart rate hasten, and no doubt you’ve attempted conversation during such times that she’s merely brushed away so that you’d focus on playing. Music can be a religious experience. Without the music, then, how long do you think it will take Arica to realize this was all a mistake?”
Though he tried to deny it, Darin could sense a hint of truth in Grastow’s words. The songs the old man had taught him certainly were powerful…
“You’re going to run, aren’t you?” Grastow asked. “It’s great sport when your kind try to get away.”
At that point, Darin decided his best chance would be to catch his opponent off guard. He stood silent and still, pretending to brood as he waited for Grastow to continue his verbal assault. Just as Grastow opened his mouth to speak, Darin lunged forward to tackle the old man and beat him down. But all he caught was air, a mouthful of grass, and a sharp blow across his lower back from Grastow’s cane.
“Runners usually try that first,” Grastow said casually as Darin spat out a wad of soil and pulled himself back to his feet. “Apparently I’m quicker than I look.”
And with that, Darin was off. It wasn’t far to the dense northern Easlinder forest that surrounded his property, and he’d soon torn through the first layer of brush and into the woods proper. He knew the area well, but the dark forest would confuse Grastow, and Darin was sure he could take him from behind.