Song Cycle

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A fable inspired by the Danish illustrator, Kay Nielsen


In an age before this, and the one before that, when time was an infant and dawn dews were diamonds, there lived a worthy knight who performed many deeds of valour to keep marauders from raiding the shores of his homeland. He was a torch-bearer and his name was Lucius, for that means 'bringer of light'.

His task it was, whenever strife was over and victory won, to kindle a beacon which signalled peace. When flames could be seen from the far distant hills, another was lit, and a third and a fourth, until a fiery garland stretched into the blue mists of yonder, proclaiming a new era of concord and putting a song in the heart of every maiden in the realm.

One evening, as a dragon’s tongue sunset faded, Ianthe was out on the hillside, tending her father's sheep, for he was old and infirm. The frost had got into his bones last winter so that he could no longer venture out on the steeps. She was bending to pick a nosegay of violets for him, just as their petals closed with the day, a song as limpid as that of any nightingale issuing from her throat.

Suddenly, she started from her reverie. The earth had begun to shudder and shake and she could hear the whinny of an approaching beast. Looking up, she was confronted by a fine cavalier on a mettlesome white stallion. His eyes were the blue of the flax meadow quivering behind the cottage where she lived.

"That is the purest melody I ever heard," the young man said by way of greeting, "even more beautiful than the spring cascading into the valley after the April rains. What can be the fount of so unique a sound?"

 "Why, sir, have you not heard? Noble Lucius has done sterling battle to drive the tyrant away."

 "And this is his reward? Well, then, he must never cease from his endeavours. Come, we will gather the sheep into the fold together and I will carry you home before nightfall."

 So saying, he dismounted and beckoned the flock. Ianthe marvelled at his sure touch. The creatures came bleating from every corner and crevice. Usually, they straggled and strayed, ran amok at the sight of her crook, for her tone, at such times, was sooner fretful than persuasive.

 At last, when the gate was closed, the young man lifted Ianthe onto his horse and galloped over rugged terrain, she clinging to his waist for dear life, and set her down lightly by the cottage door. There, he bent his head and kissed her with such a prolonged and tender passion that her blood and his rushed with the tide, one and the same. Then their hearts became twined as with tendrils of ivy which has sent forth its fibre into the dark of the earth.

 "And now I must bid you farewell," the youth said. "I must away to other climes, for duty heralds across the seas."

 And the rising moon reflected upon the sea was like burnished metal and the waves echoed with the clash of steel.

 With no more ado, he mounted his steed and blew her a kiss. Then, turning aside, rode off into the wind, humming the borrowed strain of Ianthe's song.

Thus, the song forsook Ianthe's heart. Her spirit was torn and her flesh was full of tears and, glancing behind, she saw no sign of him. He might have been a passing dream, an apparition turned to vapour. But if that were so, why did her heart ache with longing?

As she stepped indoors, her father stirred on his couch. A shadowy gloom suffused the cottage interior. His lone candle had burned down and the embers of his fire were growing cold.

"What's that? Who's there?" he muttered.

"Why, tis Ianthe come home, Father. The sheep are safe in the fold."

"I heard another footfall on the path, a thud of hooves as set the beams a-tremble!"

"Twas but a stranger, lost. I sent him on his way."

"You've no call to go consorting wi' strangers. If I've told ye once, I've told ye a dozen times."

"He wasn't like a stranger. I thought I recognised his voice, just as the newborn lambs do yours and mine."

"Ah, a sure sign o' danger!"

"Twas nothing!"

Ianthe's throat seemed to seize and close. Had she not betrayed her fond paladin and all that was good in herself?

"Tis way past time ye took the yeoman Ulric's hand," the old man said. "He'll not wait till Kingdom Come."

"No, Father."

"Then this sack of bones, the millstone round thy neck, can loose its tether freely. I'm bidding for the grave and you the cradle."

Later, when Ianthe peered from the window above her narrow pallet, the night was cauldron-black.


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Scarcely had the fragrance of the nosegay faded and the blossom creamed along the hawthorn bough, than the old shepherd heaved a shuddering sigh and went to the final fold, just as he had predicted.

His daughter wept and wondered where to turn. By now, the yeoman Ulric, tired of waiting, was handfast to the mason's widow who was a skilful needlewoman and an even better cook. But Ianthe did not care a fig for that. The yeoman's sights were set on tilling soil and binding sheaves. How would he know where to find the song that had escaped her heart?

The sun grew big and bright and dusk and dawn were close companions. Saplings burst afresh among the Castle ruins on the summit of the cliff. Passing that way, one sultry eve, Ianthe heard the nightingale serenade his love and the sound of it pierced her pall of grief.

Next day, she sold her father's sheep, then took up her bundle and abandoned the cottage and the flax meadow, which shimmered blue as the eyes of the gallant knight, and set out to seek what she had lost.

The hermit, who made his abode in rude caves glittering with prismatic quartz, saw her hurrying past and called to her: "What ails thee, damsel? Whither so pale?"

"I have lost the song that was in my heart and I know not where to find it."

The mystic's beard was white as washed fleeced laid out on the hedgerow to dry. This he stroked over and over, the focus of his gaze faraway, and then directed upon Ianthe. "There are songs a-plenty in other lands and the Music of the Spheres above the ether, but were ye to search the far side of forever, there's none but the song of the shore hereabouts."

Ianthe went away sadly.

And following a track through some woods, she discerned distant music from fiddle and lute, panpipes and tambourines. The exuberant strains grew louder as she came to a clearing and there espied an encampment of gypsies, brightly-garbed and barefoot, carousing and throwing back their throats to the open sky.

When they realised. they were being observed and that a stranger borrowed warmth from their fire, they cried: "Hola! What ails thee, wench? Whither so pale?"

"I have lost the song that was in my heart and I know not where to find it," Ianthe told them.

Quick as a flash, they invited her to join them. "But our songs are vagabond songs," they said, "telling of the roads we have travelled and the crusts we have earned and were ye to trip lightly to the far side of forever, ye cannot tread our measure."

And Ianthe went on her way sadly.

At last, growing footsore and weary, she came to a valley and, crossing a ford, encountered a band of pilgrims on their way to a sanctuary. "What ails thee, pale, wandering maid?" they asked. "What dost thou seek in the wilderness?"

"I have lost the song that was in my heart and I know not where to find it," Ianthe replied. "I have traversed hill and vale but its echo is gone."

"Then come with us," they besought her. "Come to our shrine and there you will find peace for your soul until the far side of forever, though the song that was in your heart be sung no more."

And Ianthe did as she was bidden.


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Aeons passed. The earth turned on its axis. Stars changed their courses and civilisations waxed and waned.

And still, Ianthe, reborn again and again, roamed the world, combing every nook and cranny for something important that had once been hers in an age of gold, at the dawn of time, when wounds bled rubies and ladies wept pearls. Like a captured slave, taken into exile, who loses the dream of returning to his native land and becomes eternally severed from his roots, Ianthe forgot the where-and-when of her quest, only knew the impulse to keep searching, possessed of an overriding conviction that the way forward was the way back.

At the intersecting of many paths, she met companions who were seeking their own rainbow's end. One was a man in a princely mask - it might have been at the Carnevale in Venice she met him, where murky alleys offer hiding, where dark waters run deep and lustrous decay enthrals. Draco was as crafty as he was overripe, and he seduced the girl with well-rehearsed blandishments, taking her promptly to wife in order to gain the legacy promised him when he should marry for the sake of an heir.

But when he had won her, the mask began to crack and she grieved in her deepest heart that he did not love her, only wanted the fine texture and appearance of things. Not even for the son she bore him was he capable of affection. Nevertheless, she held to the vows she had made at the altar, misguidedly believing that enough devotion would win the day for all of them. The song that had once been in her heart was now dead and buried, for Draco had no ear for music and scorned the inspiration she sought from it. He could not comprehend that it had been the breath of Ianthe's life and, in any case, he did not care.

After a while, a troupe of strolling players came to town and the airs of other times and places, long wreathed in mist, began to torment Ianthe's heart. Draco panicked that her head was turned by mysterious harmonies and squandered the wealth he had both inherited and accrued at the expense of his fellows. At once, the cord snapped and the mask came away and his wife and son knew him to be a liegeman of Hecate. They saw just how ugly he was, how devious his charm.

So when the boy was full-grown, Ianthe declared: "Enough of this!" and upped and left Draco, though she was all but destitute. And the pair of them, mother and son, began to prosper. Then, in turn, the lad's heart was made glad by a damsel's crooning. When the first May dew sparkled, he hugged his mother goodbye and made tracks to pursue his own destiny.

By and by, Gawain, the minstrel, ran across Ianthe's path and fell in love with her sorely, and she with him. Suddenly, as in a revisited dream, she called to mind a snatch of something long forgotten.

"I will conjure up the voice you have lost," he vowed, for he had taught many gifted people the art of singing. "I will put a new song in your heart." And he coaxed the first halting phrases out of her and she quickened shakily, for all the world as though she were Coppelius' Doll or Pygmalion's Statue. If she could stay attuned to him, perhaps she would even recover the vanished song.

Just then, the axe fell. One day, he poured out a tale of woe, striking dissonant chords on the lyre. He confessed that he had a wife, nigh on a generation older than himself, and that she had been mortally sick for years. He had nursed her back from the brink of death several times and had essayed a tissue of lies in order to spare her sorrow while keeping his trysts with Ianthe.

But it need make no difference, he promised, they could continue to be together.

Ianthe was appalled. The song choked in her throat. She understood why the air beneath her feet was littered with broken promises. But she had very great compassion for Gawain and forgave him, though her pain was intense. Her breast was pinioned to the past with immovable darts. When she looked into his eyes now, she saw that his countenance was fragmented, as if it were reflected in a mirror through a cobweb of splintered glass.

"No good can come of such duplicity," she said. "She will know by a thousand little treacheries, but cannot afford to own that she knows. We are trading on her silence. My heart is cloven, your heart is cloven, and so is hers."

So Ianthe summoned the will to turn her face from Gawain, the deceiver, towards a different future, robbed of the voice her lover had begun to resurrect.

"Even if fate should supply him the lamp-oil," Ianthe vowed, "it is too late to come to the feast. The door is closed and bolted fast."

That was many moons ago and they have not seen each other from that day to this.


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Then Ianthe was left to wander the world alone.

She crossed foothills and plains and met all manner of folk in winding lanes and crowded markets. And always and forever, she was searching for a particular face, whose image she had mislaid in an era gone to dust, but whose spirit kept brushing against hers like a listing breeze. She thought, just thought, that sometimes she caught a glimpse of him in the curve of a brow, the timbre of a phrase, the glint of an eye, the gesture of a hand, and her pulse leapt with shock.

But neither for a day nor an hour, did the Tantalus materialise into a whole person before her.

Eventually, she stumbled upon a derelict cottage, overlooking the sea, which seemed vaguely familiar. It welcomed her tenancy and its flagstones were firm underfoot. She had had enough Sturm Und Drang to last a constellation of lifetimes, and hoarded herself up there in peace and tranquillity, numb to the song that was gone from her heart. Its meadow Ianthe sowed with flax, and went out to pick fleece off thorn and briar and the razor-edged crags. Vacating the downstairs rooms, she passed her days up in the attic, spinning yarns and weaving tapestries from all the dreams she had dreamed.

And always and forever, she was scanning the horizon for her ship coming in, not a vessel laden with silks and perfumes and caskets of ivory, but one which would bring him homeward bound whose image had been enshrined in the locked chamber of her heart from the dawn of time.

Presently, she began to scent a new atmosphere about the room, a new force in the wind, that she recognised and she didn't, and when she looked out from the upper window, it was as if the scene had changed. It was no longer charged with the day-to-day sameness she had taken for granted. It was somewhere else.

One afternoon, a storm began to brew. Thor went about his business with gusto and the foundations of the cottage trembled. Lightning flickered over the boiling tide, made dim by a wall of rain.

"What can it mean? What does it portend?" Ianthe asked herself. "The past is gone and I do not know where I belong, though I can touch all four walls and am safe in my haven. The storm is outside my door."

As darkness came down, the tempest abated. The mantle of cloud ragged apart in the sky, revealing a sliver of crescent moon which promised new things.

Ianthe started. Was that a sound down below? Or had she imagined it? Glancing out into the gloom, she saw a shaft of light shed on the path from a downstairs window. Joy streaked through her limbs, though she did not know why, and a spiritual warmth glowed in her solar plexus like a golden draft of mead.

Descending the staircase cautiously, she opened the parlour door and was greeted by a cloaked figure who had gained access without the use of a key. He was carrying a hurricane lamp. Its searching beam put every last trace of darkness to flight.

She knew, in the blood and the bone, who he was.

His gaze turned upon her, limpid blue as the flax in early flower, and it was profoundly sweet and sad. "Ianthe!" he whispered.

Oh, where have you been?" she scolded like a fishwife. "I have searched high and low, in tavern and marketplace, on the sands of the sea and the woods where the gypsies roam."

Did you not know, did you not understand," said the errant knight tenderly, "that I had a mission to execute in another country?"

You have been gone an eternity!”

"All that time I have been in purgatory! It was your own dear song, sequestered in my heart, that gave me iron. And now I am come to restore it to you, enriched with airs that are mine."


The air was filled with choirs of angels rejoicing, and St Cecilia herself, and the couple were caught up in exquisite concord.

Tears were coursing down Ianthe's cheeks, for she saw that he had suffered too, out there in the wide, wild world. She reached up and gently took his head between her hands and drew it towards her, planting kisses of piercing sweetness upon his dear, kind face. Then he enfolded her in the lithe of his bosom and Ianthe could hear the beating of his heart in perfect counterpoint with her own and she loved him as no other.

Thereafter, a bright new canticle was coined and they are still singing it to this day....

But, alas, all their children are deaf.

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©RosyCole 2008,2015