Thus ended my musical career.
But even though I can’t produce music, listening to it is important to me. It can give me energy, relieve boredom, get me in the proper frame of mind to tackle some task. I think music is important in fiction as well. It can tell us a lot about a character’s personality or mood. Is he listening to Rachmaninoff? Randy Travis? The Ramones? When Dylan Warner, the protagonist in my novel Good Bones, listens to the Decemberists and Pink Martini, we get the feeling he may not be the stereotypical werewolf. And when we find out that Chris Nock, the guy he lusts after, has a penchant for Molly Hatchet and Lynyrd Skynyrd, we can guess that the two of them may have a few differences to iron out.
In my novella Speechless, music is how Travis meets Drew. As Travis walks home from work every day, he passes Drew, sitting on his front steps and playing the guitar. And it’s also how the men communicate, because Drew suffers from aphasia and cannot speak or write. With hand gestures, facial expressions, and a few well-chosen tunes, Drew does a pretty good job of letting Travis know what’s on his mind.
Music is also important in my latest novel, Brute. We find this out in the very first paragraphs:
Music was his companion.
Brute sang about a love lost at sea as he settled the stone slab more comfortably on his massive shoulders and began to trudge uphill on the narrow path. He sang quietly, because with his very deep voice and inability to carry a tune, he knew he sounded terrible, and the other men would glare at him if he became too loud. Nobody was close enough to hear him if he kept his voice low, and the music made his burdens seem a little lighter, made the pathway a little less treacherous under his feet. He sang the bawdy songs that rumbled in the tavern under his room and the wistful ballads the women sang when they gathered around the well at dawn, and sometimes he even hummed the lullabies he half remembered someone crooning to him.
Brute’s life is about to change drastically. He’s going to rescue a prince, get seriously injured in the process, and end up with a job guarding a wretched and potentially dangerous prisoner named Gray Leynham. But even as Brute’s world shifts, music will remain important to him, serving to calm and heal—even if, like mine, poor Brute’s voice is enough to make small children angry.
Brute leads a lonely life in a world where magic is commonplace. He is seven and a half feet of ugly, and of disreputable descent. No one, including Brute, expects him to be more than a laborer. But heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and when he is maimed while rescuing a prince, Brute’s life changes abruptly. He is summoned to serve at the palace in Tellomer as a guard for a single prisoner. It sounds easy but turns out to be the challenge of his life.
Rumors say the prisoner, Gray Leynham, is a witch and a traitor. What is certain is that he has spent years in misery: blind, chained, and rendered nearly mute by an extreme stutter. And he dreams of people’s deaths—dreams that come true.
As Brute becomes accustomed to palace life and gets to know Gray, he discovers his own worth, first as a friend and a man and then as a lover. But Brute also learns heroes sometimes face difficult choices and that doing what is right can bring danger of its own.
His hips and legs had cramped a little as he sat, and he limped very badly as he followed her.
The far left door led to an office smelling of tea and crammed with books and papers. The woman went away and shut the door behind her, leaving Brute alone with a man who was a few years older than him. The man was dressed in rather plain clothes and was tiny—barely five feet tall and probably one-third Brute’s weight—but he managed to project an aura of such powerful authority that he was almost terrifying. He stood several feet away and looked Brute up and down slowly. “You have a letter?” he finally said.
“Um, yes sir.” Brute produced the paper from the folds of his cloak and held it out, but the man didn’t take it.
“You will address me as Lord Maudit. You may call me milord or Your Excellency as well, for variety’s sake.”
“Yes, Lord Maudit.”
Lord Maudit rolled his eyes and snatched the paper out of Brute’s hand. He tore open the seal without ceremony and scanned the contents. When he was finished, he considered Brute again, this time appraisingly. It reminded Brute of the way Darius would look over a mule he was considering buying.
“So you’re a hero?” he said at last.
“I—no. I mean, the prince, he—”
“Needed to be rescued from his own foolishness. Again. And rather dramatically, I understand.”
Brute didn’t know how to answer that. He licked his lips nervously and fought the urge to shift his feet. His bladder was full to bursting, and the glimpses of the sea he could catch through Lord Maudit’s window weren’t helping.
“Not very chatty, are you?” the lord said. “Good.” He folded the paper and slapped it against his thigh before tossing it onto his desk. “Wait here.”
Lord Maudit was nearly to the door when Brute blurted out his plea. The little man turned, eyebrow raised. “Yes?”
“I need to—is there an outhouse? Milord,” Brute added hastily.
“Garderobe’s through there,” the lord said, waving at a narrow door in the corner. Brute made what he hoped was a dignified dash for it while the other man left through the main door.
To reach the garderobe he had to climb a set of very narrow, winding stairs. The stairs dead-ended in a rounded little chamber with tiny slits for windows. The room contained a wooden seat with a hole in it and a small table bearing an earthen pitcher of water. Fumbling his laces open one-handed seemed to take forever, but eventually he managed to get his trousers undone. He emptied himself with a long groan of relief. At least he hadn’t lost his good hand, he reminded himself for the thousandth time. The gods only knew how he would have managed to get himself undressed then.
Lacing back up again was even more troublesome, but at least his need was no longer quite so urgent. He just wished he could have managed to find a way to pour the water in the pitcher over his hand to cleanse it.
Lord Maudit’s office was empty when Brute descended the stairs. Brute resisted the temptation to poke around—he had an eerie feeling that the man would somehow know—and instead admired the view from the windows and then a large painting of a hunting party chasing a stag.
“Hideous painting, isn’t it?”
Brute jumped at the voice and whirled around. Lord Maudit had returned, but it was his companion who had spoken: Prince Aldfrid, attired in riding clothes and smiling broadly. The prince showed no sign of limping as he crossed the room. “I’m glad you’ve recovered enough to make the journey,” he said to Brute. “How are you managing?” He seemed genuinely concerned.
Brute pulled his stump out of his cloak pocket, which made Lord Maudit’s eyes widen. Apparently the prince’s letter hadn’t mentioned that Brute was maimed. “Your Highness, are you certain—” the lord began.
“Yes,” the prince interrupted sharply. “Completely. He’s the man for the job.”
“The job, Your Highness?” Brute asked.
“That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? I could just give you a sack of gold and send you on your way—you’ve earned it—but I’m guessing you’re not that kind of man. You want to be… useful.” His laugh sounded a little sad. “More useful than a king’s fourth son.”
Brute took a moment to consider the prince’s words. A sack of gold. He’d never have to worry about his livelihood again. He could buy a little cottage somewhere, have some clothing made that actually fit. He could eat decent food every day. And then… what? Sit by himself and wait to grow old and die? “I would like to be useful,” he confirmed. “But I don’t know what I can do for you, sir, not like this. I’m sorry.”
“Have you any skills at all?” Lord Maudit asked. “I suppose it’s too much to ask that you know how to write.”
Brute hung his head, ashamed. “I wanted to. Had no money to pay the schoolmaster.” After his parents were dead, when his great-uncle would send him scurrying around the village to fetch this and carry that, Brute used to pass the little schoolhouse now and then, and he’d pause long enough to gaze at it enviously. Once he’d even dared to ask his great-uncle to send him—Brute had promised to work twice as much to pay for it—but his great-uncle had cuffed him hard enough to send him sprawling, then growled that Brute was too stupid to learn.
“Doesn’t matter,” said Prince Aldfrid, pulling Brute out of the bad memory. “I have something perfect for you.”
“Aldfrid, you’re taking an enormous risk.” Lord Maudit sounded irritated with the prince, but in a resigned sort of way, as if he were used to conversations like this.
“He’s the one, Maud.”
“But the king—”
“My father, if he notices at all, will see that a very large and not especially bright man—sorry, Brute; I know you’re no idiot—has been put in place. That’s all.”
Brute stood there mutely, slightly surprised at the obvious familiarity between the men and not having the vaguest clue what they were talking about. But then the prince clapped him on the arm and grinned.
“It’ll all work out. You won’t be seeing much of me, Brute, but if you need anything, just get word to Maud here and he’ll take care of it.” He smirked at Lord Maudit and sped out of the room.
Maudit briefly closed his eyes, as if he were in pain. “Scrambled your brains a bit more on those rocks, didn’t you, Friddy?” he muttered. Then he glared at Brute. “Follow me.”
It seemed that everyone was saying that to him today. But Brute shrugged and did as he was told.
He was led through another dizzying arrangement of corridors and stairways. Once he caught a glimpse of an enormous room—by far the largest he had ever seen—with a polished marble floor, gilded pillars, and a ceiling fresco considerably more elaborate than the one he’d been admiring while he waited. But he didn’t get a chance to enjoy it, because Maudit dragged him along at a pace surprising for a man with such short legs. Guards saluted when Lord Maudit passed, and various well-dressed functionaries and servants all tried to look more industrious. Maudit ignored them.
They eventually left the building—through a different door than the one by which Brute and the guard had entered—crossed an oblong grassy area where several women in colorful gowns sat and embroidered, and entered a narrow passageway between two buildings. The passageway dead-ended at a grim little building of dirty stone. The windows in the building were simply narrow vertical slits, and even those were covered by iron bars. The door was iron as well—arched and sporting a heavy bolt—with a bored-looking guard stationed outside. The guard snapped to attention when he saw them coming.
“Has everything been readied?” Lord Maudit snapped.
The guard nodded sharply. “Yes, milord. The maids just left.”
“Good. This is… well, Brute. Obviously. You’ve been told of his duties?”
“If he needs anything, make sure he gets it. I’ll be checking on him.”
The guard looked slightly horrified at the prospect but nodded again. Then he unlocked the door and waited for Maudit and Brute to enter.
This time, Brute found himself in a small hallway with a ceiling so low he almost had to stoop his head. The walls were rough plaster, dirty and cracked, interrupted now and then by doors made of thick dark timbers. The building smelled of damp and age, with a faint sickly sweet undertone, as if something had rotted long ago.
“What—” Brute began.
“In here.” Lord Maudit pressed the latch on one of the doors; the hinges squealed in protest. Brute stepped inside and saw, to his astonishment, a somewhat dim but comfortable-looking apartment. The ceiling was higher than that of the hallway, although he could still have brushed it with his fingertips. The room contained an oversized bed piled with quilts, a chest of drawers with an actual mirror on top, a solid table with two equally solid chairs, and a matching wardrobe and bookshelf. The window was tiny, of course, but the walls were hung with colorful tapestries that depicted scenes of beasts in the forest and creatures under the sea. A small stove with dark green tiles was tucked in one corner, but not lit today because the weather was far too warm.
And in one wall, over near another corner, was a door constructed of heavy iron bars, with only darkness visible behind it.
“Welcome to your new home,” said Lord Maudit from the doorway.
“His Highness has decided that you will be a very specialized sort of guard, with only a single prisoner to watch over.”
“Prisoner?” Brute’s eyes strayed back to the barred door.
Maudit twitched one shoulder. “See for yourself.”
With some degree of trepidation, Brute crossed the room.
The bars separated the apartment from a small cell. He had to squint to see inside—there was no window slit in the prisoner’s space—but there wasn’t much to see. Bare walls, bare floor, and in the corner, a dirty pile of rags. But as Brute stared, the rags shifted slightly and chains clanked, and a matted mass of hair appeared from under the edge of the fabric. A man, Brute realized. He was looking at a man huddled under a blanket. Chains sounded again, and Brute noted the metal collar around the man’s neck, manacles on his wrists, and shackled ankles fastened by chains to bolts in the floor. It was impossible to make out any details of the man past his rat’s nest of hair and tangled beard until the prisoner lifted his head slightly. Brute gasped at the man’s obvious blindness: eyelids closed over sunken, empty sockets.
Lord Maudit sighed. He still hadn’t actually entered the room. “Brute, meet Gray Leynham.”