When Melody’s mother comes back to Auntie’s to get her, alone, without Father, there’s a shadow on her face that wasn’t there before.
She tries, through her breaking voice, to explain to Melody that Father won’t be coming back, that both she and Father made a mistake and that it’ll just be the two of them now. Melody, being three years old, doesn’t understand much, but she hears the tears in her mother’s words, sees the shadow on her face, and knows that she has a rough few months ahead of her.
Things change, certainly; Mother sleeps alone now in the big bed meant for two, and she keeps that little dagger in its scabbard on her hip all the time, not just when she travels. She travels less, too, staying home most of the time to take care of Melody. As the years go by, and Melody learns everything from Mother, Father occupies a smaller and dimmer place in her memory until, finally, she can’t remember him at all.
All she remembers of that day is the shadow on Mother’s face.
“Melody, I am so, so sorry. But something has to be done, and I’m the only one who can do it. I’ll be back as soon as I possibly can. I promise.”
The plague hits their village unpredictably. Sometimes it doesn’t return for five, or ten, or twenty years; sometimes it hits every summer, without fail, until there’s a smell of death in the street and people start to wonder about the anger of gods. Now is one of those times, and now Mother thinks she can do something about it.
Melody can tell how long Mother thinks a trip is going to be by how much she brings. For a short foray, just into the city to play a few tunes and kill a few rats for pocket change, she brings her dagger, her lute, and a little food and water, nothing more. Now, she has dagger, torch, backpack stuffed with bread and cheese and smoked ham, waterskin full to bursting, rope, coin purse, bedroll, leather armor on her chest and shoulders, and even a shovel. She leaves her lute propped against her bedside table.
Melody is sixteen, almost seventeen. There’s plenty of food left in the house, she can get water from the well, she has her own lute to play for money if she really needs to. She can take care of herself.
That doesn’t mean she wants to, though. That doesn’t mean that, after Mother stops in the doorway and turns back and says “I’m doing this for you, too” right before she heads into the unknown, Melody doesn’t stand there in the living room for a moment, letting her vision blur with tears.
She comes back.
She comes back, and she's carrying something out of fairytales: a lute whose entire surface is plated in gold. Melody swears she keeps seeing little flicks of purple around it, out of the corner of her eye, but whenever she looks at it straight they’re gone. Without a doubt, this is what Mother kept searching through old tomes for, kept reading about at the great library in the city long into the night. This is what she went to get.
And when she gives Melody an enormous bear hug and a kiss on the cheek and whispers in her ear, “We’re going to save them, you’ll see,” Melody knows that her worrying was all for naught, that everything really is going to be alright.
And for a few weeks, it is.
Melody takes care of their patients’ basic needs. She brings them water and hot soup, wipes their foreheads with a damp towel, plays quiet tunes on her own lute to help them sleep. Mother does the miraculous part, though: when she sits beside the bed to play the golden lute, Melody can see those odd wisps of purple light easily.
She can also see the purple spots on their patients’ skin, the hallmark lesions of the plague, disappearing with every chord, every single note. She can see their smiles spread as the magic mends whatever internal havoc the plague wreaked on them.
They thank Mother profusely. Sometimes they thank Melody too. Often they offer to pay Mother for the services, but she’ll only accept a little money, and only if their insisting matches her stubbornness in turning them down, which is quite difficult. And then they leave, cured- and it’s common knowledge that once you’ve had the plague, you don’t ever get it again.
However, Melody is not stupid. She knows that magic like this, so strong that it can heal a deadly disease with a song or two, always comes with a price. Always. She thinks Mother knows what that price might be; she’s warned Melody to never, ever play the golden lute, not even if a desperate patient comes in and Mother is otherwise occupied.
Whatever this mysterious price is, Melody has not seen hide or hair of it. Who knows? Maybe its effects won’t show for years, and by then Melody will be an adult in her own right, more than capable of helping Mother deal with it. For now, Melody certainly isn’t complaining. Everything is fine.
Everything is not fine.
It’s been a little over two months since Mother came home with the lute. Mother has slowly been getting more distant the whole time, almost as though she’s afraid of company, even her own daughter’s. Summer is almost over, and though the steady stream of patients has been tapering off, there have been some particularly bad cases lately. Like this one: Shantella has to be carried in by her husband Timothy, her breath already sounding like a death rattle. When Mother asks her where it hurts, she can’t even open her eyes, much less respond. Mother takes a deep breath, as if steeling herself for some enormous task, then starts to play.
Usually the tunes are gentle, a constant stream of soft, harmonious notes to soothe pain and purge the plague bit by bit. Now, the song is urgent. Faster. Minor key. Has an actual beat, a beat that Melody finds herself tapping her foot to. Melody realizes that Mother isn’t playing to heal. She’s playing to keep Shantella alive.
She plays all afternoon and long into the night. Melody stands in the doorway, mesmerized, because even though the sun has gone, the room is still lit with flickering purple. It seems to come from the lute, from Shantella lying motionless on the bed, from Mother herself. Finally, about an hour past midnight, the music switches to its usual gentle healing song. Melody breathes a sigh of relief. Mother does not.
When the music stops, leaving Shantella merely asleep instead of unconscious on her deathbed, Mother sits there for a minute, staring, her eyes focused on something a thousand years away. Melody notices for the first time that she’s not nearly as tired as she should be at two or three in the morning. “...Are you okay?” she asks Mother, hesitantly. Mother whips around to face her, and Melody sees something - rage? fear? a wicked smile? - flash across her face before she stands, clutching the neck of the lute so hard her knuckles are white. Stiffly, as if forcing herself to take every step, she walks over to the chest she keeps the lute in and locks the thing inside. The purple glow dissipates, though Melody notices that it lingers around Mother’s hands for a couple seconds. Then Mother runs headlong for the basement. Slams the door behind her. Locks it from inside.
Melody is left standing in the doorway to the living room, in a dark and empty house, only just now feeling the ache in her feet from standing so long.
And an ache in her heart, because she’ll be tucking herself into bed alone tonight.
The next day, Mother still hasn’t come up from the basement. Melody calls down to her, asking her questions: how did you sleep, did you sleep, can I use the last of this bread to make myself breakfast, do you want any, why are you down there anyway, can you tell me what’s going on, can’t I at least come down and talk to you? Please?
She only answers the last one. “No. Melody, I’m sorry. I - you can’t. It’s too - it’s too dangerous. I am too dangerous. Stay. Stay up there, stay away from me, for at least a little while. I can’t - oh god, I can’t - get it out of my head -”
“Mother? What - what do you mean?”
But she’s gone silent again.
Melody fields the first angry neighbor’s complaint alone, that afternoon.
It’s Harrow, the town drunkard who is absolutely not to be taken seriously, but it worries Melody nonetheless. “Filthy witches!” he screams at her as soon as she opens the door to ask if he needs anything. “Who gave ya that thing? That pretty shiny gold thing, yeah, who said you ‘ad ta go around savin’ people like...uh...who did it? Who says?!”
“Listen, sir, if you don’t-”
He spits at her feet and bangs the door shut in her face. Melody goes back to chores, wondering.
Mother comes back upstairs around twilight. She seems more reserved than ever, and she keeps shooting unreadable looks at the chest with the lute in it.
They try to go about their lives as normal, but there’s a chasm between them now. Melody has no idea what’s been making Mother act like this, like she has to protect Melody from...her. The only person left alive whom Melody has ever felt completely safe around.
Well, that’s not completely true. She has an idea. She has an idea that it’s got something to do with the lute. With the sharp-edged grin Mother gets while playing it sometimes. With the purple mist that curled around her hands that night.
And the rumors Harrow started? They don’t stop. They grow, they twist insidiously until who gave you the lute becomes who gave you the right to use it.
It’s powerful. And with power comes jealousy, with the haves come the envious have-nots.
It’s only a matter of time until the storm breaks.
Almost no one comes to them for healing anymore. Every time Melody goes to town for supplies, people look at her with a mixture of fury and fascination, or else righteous disgust. The lute stays locked away, but the longer it does, the more conflicted Mother seems.
Melody asks her about it. She tells Mother it seems almost like part of her never wants to play the lute again, but another part of her wants to pick it up and keep playing forever. Like it both entrances her, and scares her beyond belief.
Mother looks straight into Melody’s eyes, and tells her that’s perfectly true.
They show up on their door, all of them with rakes and torches and pitchforks, a week later.
It is sunset, a blood-red and purple one that would be spectacular if Mother and Melody weren’t more worried about not getting killed. As soon as Mother spots them coming up the lane through the window, she turns away, fists clenched at her sides, then runs upstairs and comes back down with the key to the lute chest. She unlocks it, and then - with what looks like a tremendous effort of will - hands the lute to Melody for the first time. “Don’t play it,” she warns. “Go in the back room and wait. I’ll answer the door, but if I can’t get them to go, come in here and...we’ll play it by ear, I guess.”
Melody doesn’t comment on the...interesting...wording. She just runs.
Hiding in the other room, listening to Mother and the leader of the town militia shout at each other, Melody examines the lute. It sits innocently in her lap, not a hint of purple mist to be seen, looking just like an ordinary lute except for the fact that it’s gold. Such an inert, innocuous thing to have turned her life upside-down in a single season.
The shouting from the front of the house gets louder. Cutting through it all, Melody hears one unmistakable sound: Mother’s dagger, her most prized possession second only to the lute, being slid from its sheath. And then a scuffle, many footsteps, even more shouts, a female cry, something small hitting the ground.
Melody dashes into the living room and out the front door, lute held at the ready in playing position (how did it get that way? She could swear she picked it up by the neck with only one hand), to find Mother standing at the center of a semicircle of pitchforks, her dagger at her feet. There’s no blood, but she’s massaging her right wrist with her other hand. She sees Melody, and her face turns unreadable again - relief, terror, resolve, and a kind of dark glee are all visible there, along with something fundamentally different, something Melody knows she’s seen before but can’t quite place.
“There it is!” someone shouts. “Get it!” shouts someone else. “Enough!!” shouts Mother. “I would surrender it gladly if I thought any one of you could use it! But in case you’ve forgotten, I am the bard here! Healing is not easy work! You know magic, Lyran, and you, Saika, but do you know music? Do you know enough music to heal as I do? Do you?!”
For a couple seconds, there is silence. Then someone - Lyran, maybe - says, “Maybe not. But the magic is what counts. And mark my words, Aria, we will get it. You’ve already shown yourself willing to fight. And now you are one unarmed old woman against all of us. Really, I’d advise you to give the Lute up quietly. What chance do you have?”
Mother’s face turns positively deadly.
She flicks a hand in Melody’s direction, and for a moment Melody thinks she’s going for her dagger. She doesn’t. Instead she makes a beckoning motion in the air with one finger- and the lute flies out of Melody’s hands to hover between them, levitating a few inches off the ground. Melody stares at Mother in shock.
“Oh, so I’m unarmed, am I?” Mother says, in an undertone a thousand times more cutting than her fallen dagger.
The crowd’s determination seems to waver. Apparently they hadn’t thought of this possibility, that Mother could use the lute for far more than healing.
Melody hadn’t thought of it either.
She does her best to put on a brave face, though it’s nothing next to Mother’s terrifying calm. There’s a standoff for a couple seconds as the villagers weigh this new threat, then seem to get their courage back. They heft their rakes, lift their torches a little higher. The murmuring swells.
Mother’s lips twitch upward in a smile, for just a split second, as if to say, You asked for this.
The world turns purple.
Melody doesn’t know whether the storm of violet light and thunderous noise actually does anything or if it’s just a show of force, but the crowd cuts and runs anyway. Melody can’t hear her own scream over...that’s music, she realizes. It sounds nothing like a lute, it sounds like nothing Melody's ever heard before, like Mother is somehow playing multiple strange instruments at once, all earth-shakingly loud. When it’s over, Melody opens her eyes and takes her hands off her ears to find herself alone with Mother.
Mother, who’s still standing there with her hands in white-knuckled fists and her entire body shaking slightly and her face even more different than before. The lute lies on the ground beside her, giving off purple smoke.
Without a word, Mother turns and envelops Melody in a hug.
They cry into each other’s clothing for the simple fact of not being dead, until the sunset has faded into dusk, and the dusk into blackest night.
“I have to get rid of it. I have to. This can’t go on.”
Mother packs all night. They’ve traveled together before, of course, but this trip isn’t for Melody, she can tell. Melody slips in and out of a fitful doze, falling asleep for ten or fifteen minutes in a random chair or slumped against a random wall, before jolting awake to a clench of terror in her chest.
In her heart, Melody knows Mother is right. This cannot go on. She beat them this once, but they will strike again when their greed overcomes their fear. And even this once took so much out of her...The lute is fast becoming a burden their little family cannot bear. It has to go. It has to go, tonight.
Melody knows this. And yet she cannot bring herself to admit it, because she’s recognized what is so different on Mother’s face.
There’s a shadow there, a shadow Melody hasn’t seen since she was three and Mother came home, alone.
She cannot bring herself to admit that now, it means Mother doesn’t expect to come home at all.
“Melody, I am so, so sorry. But something has to be done, and I’m the only one who can do it. I’ll be back as soon as I possibly can. I promise.”
The words are empty now. As empty as the lute chest, as empty as the obsidian sky with the stars clouded over and the moon long since set, as empty as the place in Melody’s heart that Mother once occupied. She’s here, but only in body, only in name, not in spirit or anything else that matters. Even her lips seem cold as she presses one last kiss to Melody’s numb forehead.
“Goodbye, my daughter. I love you.”
The answering I love you too sticks fast in Melody’s throat. She chokes on it as Mother turns to go, until it dissolves with the hot sting of tears on her cheeks, unbidden, heartfelt.
When her vision clears, Mother is gone, and there is only darkness.