|Art by Jereme Peabody|
“The Song of Black Mountain” by Darrell Schweitzer (3807 words)
No Spoilers: Valas is a young minstrel. Well, kind of. He’s conscripted by his older brother, Altheric, on a heroic quest. A quest that Altheric gets the jump on, to journey to a mountain where a sorcerer was once killed by a great hero, and where once again dragons have gathered. Valas is young and not exactly good at the whole adventuring thing, but Altheric seems born to it, quickly advancing through challenge after challenge, carrying Valas like so much luggage, expecting his young brother to craft the journey into a worthy story. As they push deeper into Black Mountain, though, Valas begins to hear a different song at work—one that works into him as well. It’s a piece that takes on classic adventuring with a dark twist, and maintains a rather fun feel and tone through to an ending that is ominous and chilling.
Keywords: Music, Quests, Heroes, Ghosts, Dragons, Siblings
Review: I like how this story approaches the idea of stories and quests, from the beginning showing Altheric as both a heroic cliche (he’s buff, he’s decisive, he knows how to harness magic) and as something of a cheat. He gets the jump on the quest, leaving before it’s even been declared, because he wants to be the one to win. He also doesn’t give Valas a choice in coming with, grabbing him and carrying him roughly when needed. It sets him up as a hero in name only, ambitious and very much wanting the fame and glory of being a champion and not really averse to getting his hands dirty, but not pure in thought or deed. He’s easily tempted by power and by money, and has no problem with pretending that he’s better than he is. That’s Valas’ job, really, to tell the story in a way that will make Altheric look good, that will erase his sins and highlight his virtues. Which Valas says he’ll do, only the story itself is his song, is his legacy, and he doesn’t erase his brother’s failings. They are present for all to see, and it makes for a more complex view of the “hero.” Indeed, for me, this piece is a lot about narratives, about how they shape meaning by what they include. Here is the story of Valas, but even that isn’t necessarily the story of What Actually Happened. After all (and I love this), the story hints that Valas might have had his own less than noble reasons for doing what he does. But once he commits himself and acts, he’s the only one left to tell the story. And that gives him power. Not to create, but rather to shape the narrative and how it’s formed. To be able to wrap the truth in a layer of self-interest. And the story seems to me to point to the way that the story is eternal, is something that never ends, because it is constantly being taken up and passed along, Valas becoming inheritor to its power and magic in a rather literal way but also figuratively, as one more storyteller in an unbroken chain. It’s a strange but rather interesting piece, charmingly told and fun throughout and deepening in the end with all the suddenness of being pushed out a window and into the open air, falling away into darkness. Definitely worth checking out!