My master had not eaten or slept in three days. His hands shook as he gave me the small harp.
"My apprentice must go with you," he told the soldier standing at the door of our hut. "A newborn harp needs much care. He will need to work on it on the road."
The soldier nodded. "Quickly," the man said.
My master gave me the tuning key from his own neck, a flask of finishing oil, the patches of leather I used to buff the sides of his finished harps, and a fine polishing cloth. Then a larger piece of oiled leather to protect the harp. He clasped my hand once, weakly, and the soldier put a hand on my shoulder and led me out the door.
It is impossible to tune and polish a harp on the back of a galloping horse. Luckily, the hourse could not run all the way to the king’s town. When we slowed or stopped to rest I took out the new-made instrument and tightened the strings, carefully, for this was not an ordinary harp. My master had carved it not from one of the seasoned logs that cure in our hut by the fire for over a year, but from the living heart of a young tree I had cut myself when the commission had come from the king, four days ago. I knew that no harp made from such green wood could last, but the king had made the order on pain of death, and we had to obey.
The king's town was a somber place as we galloped in through the big wooden gates at sunset. The people seemed oppressed with some great sorrow. I feared the king’s young son had already died, and my master’s labors of the past three days and nights had been in vain.
The soldier feared it to. “Does the prince yet live?” he asked the first guard we met.
“Yes, but he’s doing poorly,” the guard said. “Do you have the harp?” He glanced at me curiously.
I nodded, clutching the leather bundle in my arms.
I had thought that perhaps I would play the harp. In spite of its being made from green wood, it had a pure, sweet tone. Like nothing I had ever heard. I wanted to be the one to play it, but instead, after I tuned it one last time, it was given to the king’s bard. The man intimidated me, with his wild dark eyes and fierce white mane. He stroked the harp strings, then with a look of discontent he tuned it again before following the king into the chamber where his son lay.
No one told me not to, so I followed as well. The king’s house was rather like having an entire village under one roof. So many people! Other than that, it was not so different as I had expected. The king was just a man. His son lay on a bed that perhaps had more fine furs than others did, but it was still a bed, and the boy was sick with a fever, tossing this way and that in pain, just as I had seen others do. He was not too different in age from me. Perhaps if he had been born in my village and not in a castle, we could be friends.
The bard struck the strings of my master’s new-made harp and a hush fell over the room. The sound of the music had a wild quality, as if the harp itself were about to burst for the joy of living. At first the prince seemed no different, but then he lay more quietly, and at last very still. I was afraid he had died, and that perhaps the king would be angry, and my head would be on a pike at the front gate by tomorrow at dawn.
The queen laid her hand against the princes’ cheek. “His fever is broken,” she whispered. “Oh, my boy,” she picked him up and held him tight to her. His eyes fluttered open and he looked about in a daze.
The king gave me a small bag of gold. He smiled and thanked me over and over, told me to thank and praise my master, and then sent me home.
I wanted to ask if someone could take me home, as the soldier had brought me here. There were thieves in the woods who would slit my throat for my ragged boots, not to mention the gold in my pocket, but I was more afraid of the king than of the thieves. Before I went home, I did buy a new set of carving tools for my master. Perhaps he would give me his old ones, and I could finally begin my training.
When I reached my hut, it was empty. The neighbors wife stood in her garden when I came out, and from the look on her face I knew before she told me. My master was dead.
This story later became part of another tale. Read the first part, or if you were in the middle of it when you came here, read the next part.