The guests had listened politely throughout his performance. As soon as he finished the final ballad the serving girls immediately entered and placed platters on the long table. Gaddy noticed the food was carefully arranged to give the appearance of great bounty. The king’s guests served themselves sparingly, yet the platters barely fed the entire table. The talk at the table was low and stilted.
He wrapped his harp and retrieved his cloak, then Gaddy took a moment to look out a window at the courtyard below. Figures in tattered cloaks and dirty blankets huddled around small campfires, leaning close to one another against cold. Women doled out bits of bread to solemn faced children, then shared what was left with their men.
“They came for my protection.”
Gaddy turned, startled by the voice and its owner, he made a deep bow as he spoke, “Sire.”
The old king answered, “Stand up lad, I’m not above you, nor those gathered below. I have failed them. He leaned on the stone casement, staring at the crowded courtyard.
Gaddy stood silently next to his king, an old man struggling with a war not of making and the impact it was having on the people he’d sworn to protect. He could see tears in the king’s eyes, the droop of shoulders not strong enough to bear the pain.
“Go play for them, Harper. Play them songs of courage and strength. Of hopes fulfilled.” The king turned to Gaddy, “Give them a tiny time of enchantment to pass the night. Make them believe tomorrow will be better.”
“Will it be better, your Majesty?”
“Perhaps if they believe…it will be.”
Gaddy wrapped his cloak about his shoulders and made his way to the courtyard. He walked among the people noting hollow eyes and mournful faces. A small girl with her thumb stuck into her mouth followed his progress with a curious gaze. He gave her a small smile and sat a few yards away. He unwrapped the harp and plucked a string. The tone attracted the attention of the closest groups.
The little girl stared at him, her thumb still tucked securely between her lips. He plucked a second note, an infant chortled in reply from another huddle of folk, quickly hushed by its mother. Gaddy pulled another string encouraging the babe to answer. When it did, he played another.
The little girl removed her thumb and laughed at the game, her mother allowed herself a small smile. Gaddy strummed across the harp causing more heads to turn and scattered giggles to surface. As the children moved closer he picked out a tune and stomped his foot. With the next notes the children stomped along. Men loosened their frowns and clapped in time. Mothers holding children swayed in rhythm.
An old man in a patched cloak, hat pulled low over his face, sat down next to Gaddy with a small drum. As the song progressed the drummer kept time, more of the folk clapped cold hands or stomped tired feet. Laughter became the lyrics as the children danced in circles with each other.
Music rang through the courtyard and warmth pushed away the chill of evening. The drummer stood and invited Gaddy to join him as he walked a path toward the castle doors. Gaddy hesitated; his fellow lifted the brim of his hat and winked. Gaddy nodded and followed, motioning the folk to come along. As they approached the steps the doors swung wide and the musicians and their parade danced into the hall.
Gaddy saw the table had been refilled with breads and bruised fruit. The king’s guard attended, handing out the fare as Gaddy and his drummer led the folk around them. He played every spring and summer tune he knew and when he had played them all, he started over.
Children raced each other from one end of the hall to the other, women and men gathered at the edges laughing and cheering them on. As night fell, Gaddy slowed his fingers bringing toddlers back to their parents. Families gathered in groups as serving women delivered blankets from the great bedrooms of the castle.
The drummer set his instrument aside as Gaddy played lullabies and watched children nod into sleep with smiles still on their faces. When the harp finally silenced, the only sound was the breath of those sleeping
Gaddy turned to the drummer whose eyes were drooping into slumber, “Good night…your Majesty,” he whispered.