The Giant’s Barrel, a rough-and-tumble pub in the worst part of Halftown, was exactly what you’d expect it to be. The proprietor, Grim Harstaff, saw to it that was the case: he personally sloshed beer onto the half-rotted straw strewn across the floor. He’d put several of the nicks and notches on the bartop himself with an old dagger from some ancient war campaign he’d fought in a lifetime ago. The place was kept dimly-lit, smelled of stale sweat and beer, and had air the general consistency of a thin gruel. Certain qualities were expected, he said, and he wanted to provide the right ambiance to his clientele.
Valeria liked the Giant’s Barrel. The beer was cheap, most of the men drinking there didn’t try to ogle her, and Grim would occasionally let her play her lute on the makeshift stage Grim and Garric would erect with a few planks over a couple of barrels at one end of the bar’s great room.
Not that Valeria ever understood why anyone wanted to ogle her. She was a barbarian from the great northern tribes, where they bred their men and women for heartiness, not loveliness. Her chest was better described as pecs rather than breasts, and she had broader shoulders than almost all of the pub’s regulars. And, as the Giant’s Barrel was the watering hole for mercenaries and soldiers of fortune, adventurers and treasure hunters, this was saying something significant.
She kept her hair cropped short; she usually cut it herself with her dagger, the same blade that she cut her meat and stabbed her foes with. Valeria was not picky about her appearance. She had no interest in attracting a mate or even a brief romantic partner. Valeria would rather learn a new tune than bed someone. Yes, she’d had her dalliances as a young woman; she’d taken men and women to bed, searching for that spark that so many others described when engaging in bedroom shenanigans. But she’d never felt it, and had accepted that it just wasn’t for her and moved on to more important things.
Most important was her music. Her instrument was meant for delicate, gently-plucked melodies, but she’d always hammered on the strings like they were slabs of metal hot from the smith’s forge. Valeria’s maestro when she was a young woman – a small, bald old man with nearly-useless eyes and the sharpest hearing imaginable – lamented her wasted talent. “You could play any song you set your mind to,” he said, “but you always choose these old drinking songs and tavern sing-a-longs.” And then he’d mutter to himself for the rest of her lesson.
Valeria was also unique in her ability to turn her tunes into magic spells. The bardic spellcasting skill was virtually unheard of among her tribe; not that there were many bards in her tribe to begin with. She’d been destined for training as a berserker. She was certainly built for it, and no one excelled in shield biting like Valeria. But she loved music more, and snuck away from her martial tutors and made for the city of Melorica, where she found the best musicians she could and started learning everything possible about playing. Within a few years, she had a reputation as a daring interpreter of existing compositions and a lyrical, innovative composer in her own right. The fact that she liked to write drinking songs for the common man was a source of some embarrassment among the musical intelligencia, but Valeria did not care even a little. She loved what she played, and she found a way to turn her music into supportive spells for her allies in battle.
And Valeria was finding herself drawn to battle. Yes, she’d abandoned her studies with the tribal war master, Carrouk, years earlier, but she still had the blood of the Hoursmooth tribe flowing in her veins, and she still felt the need for glorious battle.
So she’d taken up with the dwarf, Garric, and started adventuring. And it fulfilled a need she’d forgotten she had, sated a desire that she’d thought she’d buried years ago. That she got to combine her desire for battle and her love of music to become the world’s only barbarian bard was just icing on the proverbial cake.
Occasionally, though, Valeria felt the need to just play music for the sake of playing music. On those occasions, she would head to the Giant’s Barrel, have Garric and Grim assemble the makeshift stage, and sit on the stage for hours at a time strumming and plucking the strings of her lute. She played familiar folk tunes, drinking songs passed down for generations that everyone knew the words to, and original compositions of her own. The crowds were always appreciative, clapping and hooting and singing drunkenly along.
There was one song, though, that Valeria never played at the pub. One song that she kept to herself, only played when she was alone. It was a sad song, a song full of longing and nostalgia and sentiment. Anyone who knew Valeria would have been surprised she had an ounce of sentimentality in her soul; barbarians were not well-known for their pathos. It was a song about home, about growing apart from everything you knew, about loneliness and the desire for amiable companionship. Not about love, not exactly, but about something akin to it, like friendship only deeper. Someone to share things with. Garric came close, Valeria would admit, but he wasn’t quite it.
So the song was for herself, and no one else. Maybe someday, someone else would get to hear it. Maybe she’d even share it with Garric, if the time was right. But for now, it was hers alone, and she would sit and play it for herself on quiet nights when no one was around.