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The grand stage stood at the front of the hall, dominating the room. Labyrinthian halls stretched out beyond sight from every direction, with velvet curtains tied back at the side of each entrance.
Impeccably cut stones were set into the fluted pillars that lined the walls. The domed ceiling was a pure white, exquisitely engraved with finely detailed geometric patterns. At the head of the hall were three great carven statues. Precious gems glittered in the eyes of the marble figures, giving the impression that they were only moments away from leaping from their pedestals. The central figure stood taller than the rest, a sharp look in it’s eyes.
Barís stood in the mouth of the hallway, grasping the hand of another.
“Adad, I- I cannot I-”
A sharp squeeze of her hand came in reply.
She held the bow of a fiddle loosely between her fingers, tapping it against her leg repeatedly. Bombur laid a reassuring hand atop hers, calming the motion.
“Barís, don’t be silly, you’ll be fine. You’ve been practicing for weeks, haven’t you.”
“What if they don’t like me?” she asked quietly, “What if they don’t want me?”
“This is an audition. You’re not expected to be perfect nathith.”
Bombur looked around the empty hall for a moment before turning back to his daughter.
“Let’s take a walk. You don’t have to perform for a while anyway. It might help to take things off your mind. Nothing better than having a bit of an explore.”
Barís nodded slowly and laid her fiddle down in its case.
They walked through the hallway, Baris supporting her father as they went. The plain marble was a stark contrast to the intricately carved walls of the grand theater. Barís could hear faint music and muffled voices from almost every direction.
“Apparently all the great musical developments come from here,” Bombur said in a conversational tone. “I heard something about a group dedicated entirely to creating new instruments.” He paused slightly. “I’ve also heard that they have an entire room of drums, each one larger than the last!”
Barís groaned slightly.
“Oh Barís, If you’re not going to study percussion, at least let me go and have a look at them.”
Her father had been trying to convince her to take up the drums for years now. It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy percussion; it was just that nothing could compare to the sheer joy that filled her whenever she held a fiddle or gittern. The magic that sang in those strings.
Not that telling her father this had achieved any success in dissuading his eager recommendations of percussion training though.
Barís grudgingly nodded her assent.
“If you study here, you’ll eventually get to know this place like the back of your hand, Barís.” There was something unreadable and perhaps even sad in her father’s tone. “You’ll be showing your old Da’ around here in a few months!”
The first room that branched off from the marble hallway was, as her father had said, filled with almost every instrument imaginable. It looked to be something of a storeroom. Or to a musician, paradise.
“What do you suppose that is?” Bombur said, leaning down to look more closely at the odd instrument.
Barís looked at the strange contraption. It had a handle similar to the one on the music box uncle Bofur had made for her when she was a child. There were strings, yes but the strange boat shaped...instrument? looked more mechanical than musical.
She looked up to reply to her father, but he was already far off down the hall, inspecting the largest drum Baris had ever laid her eyes on. How had he moved so quickly?
It was wonderful to see her father so carefree; there had been something sad about him the last few weeks. Barís was concerned, of course, but she didn’t want to pry. It didn’t seem like something he would share anyway.
She walked through the room, examining some of the instruments as she went. Her fiddle tutor had told her about the research that went on at the school. Everything from experimental songcraft to even analysing elven music! It was exciting, but also terrifying.
Standing on that stage. Performing for the most celebrated songsmiths to have ever walked these halls? No scholarship could be worth that terror, could it?
Did she even belong here? Amongst these great musicians and scholars?
As she neared the hallway, the music that had been so faint before seemed to grow stronger. She stepped out into the open tunnel and started to follow the ghostly music as in a trance, running her hand along the smooth, cold marble wall. It was a pull from somewhere behind her chest, a yearning somewhere deep in a place that she had no name for yet.
It was a familiar melody, Barís realised as she approached the hall the music was emerging from. The haunting sound of strings vibrated deep inside her heart as she stepped into the room.
She bunched her plain smock around herself as she stared, enraptured. Four Dwarrowdams stood grouped in the centre of the hall of naturally formed rock. One sat off to the side, a cello held between her legs.
The tall Dwarrowdam at the head of the group looked up at Barís with a turn of her lips. She closed her eyes, and began to sing.
Away I must.
I can no longer lead you astray,
My heart aches for more, much more than just
waiting for dawn each new day.
I long for new skies stretching wide
and new halls buried deep.
As all must someday their own way find
So shall I now, do not weep.
Barís found herself swaying with the music. She didn’t quite know when she had started humming along with the song, but she found herself unable to stop. She was carried on wave after wave of melody. Each moment the tide grew stronger, until she could no longer hold back. The voice that burst forth from her was one she did not recognise.
For away! Away!
Away I go.
We all shall meet next Durin’s Day,
I’ll return with tales, all aglow
with memories stolen away.
Until my return, please do not mourn
Look instead to your dreams
For there on glit’ring clouds I’ll be borne.
We’ll meet, in night’s golden streams.
And Away! Away!
Away I go,
Please hear the words I’m trying to say.
Parting is sorrow, that I know,
But shed not a tear this day.
The silence echoed through the hall and Barís came back to herself with a start. The tall Dwarrowdam took a step forward; her fierce gaze pierced straight through Barís and left her feeling completely exposed.
“What is your name child?”
Before Barís could answer, her father came rushing in through the doorway, his walking staff clacking against the floor. He was red faced and puffing with exertion. He stopped suddenly appearing to take in the scene, before speaking hesitantly.
“What’s all this, Barís?”
The Dwarrowdam with the sparkling eyes looked at her, and the gaze was as sharp as cut glass.
“Barís? Oh, yes, I do believe we were due to hear your fiddle today, were we not?”
“Ah, yes, only that is-.”
“That will no longer be necessary.” the Dwarrowdam said, turning away from Barís, who still held her skirts clutched tightly in her hands.
“Now see here!” Bombur interjected, waving his hands indignantly. “We have travelled a good long way for this and-”
“It will not be necessary,” she said, each word carefully and slowly enunciated, “because she will be my new student.”
Barís’ eyes widened.
“You- What?” Bombur stuttered out.
“Of course, she will be trained in a number of different instruments, including the fiddle if she wishes. But I will oversee her training from here on. Is that agreeable to you, Barís?”
“Agreeable?” she asked breathlessly. “It is-”
“Wonderful, then it is settled,” the tall Dwarrowdam said with a sharp smile, fabric swirling as she bent to pick up a pile of notes. “Now, if you will excuse me, I have some auditions to conduct. Feel free to explore your new school, Barís.”
She picked up her finely embroidered skirts and left the room in a swirl of colour. The remaining musicians looked just as shocked as Barís felt.
Barís looked up at her father with wide eyes.
“That, is the first time the head of the guild has ever taken a student. This is, this is unheard of!” The cellist’s eyes were wide; the distinguished white streaks in her beard said that she knew the history she spoke of well.
“The head of-”
And then Barís remembered, the statue with the sharp gemstone gaze. The one that looked as if it was moments from springing to life.
Barís let out a small, disbelieving laugh and threw her arms around her father.
He squeezed back hard, and didn’t let go.