Photo credit: Kazuhisa Otsubo
I know you were raised in the southlands, so I can only imagine what you’ve heard about Jhillos from those heretics. Sit beside me at the fire and listen, and I’ll tell you the truth.
Now, even the Layorans know that Jhillos loves all that is beautiful—art, dance, food, wine, anything that brings pleasure. Especially storytelling, I’d like to think. But then, I’m the temple tale-master. Still, even I will admit that what Jhillos loves above all else is music, and the myriad ways it moves both the body and the heart.
Your mother tells me you are getting pretty good at sculpture. That’s a fine talent, my girl. Don’t you let anyone tell you any different.
Where was I? Ah, the lute.
Once, very long ago, Jhillos looked down upon the world. He heard a young man named Abaero singing beside a river, playing an old lute. Jhillos was immediately captivated by Abaero’s voice, so fine and clear, and his playing, so sublime. The only thing that marred the experience was the poor quality of his instrument.
Jhillos touched the lute with one finger, and it became an amazing magical instrument—perfectly tuned, indestructible, shining gold in the sunlight.
In Abaero’s hands, the lute rang forth with silvery tones, exquisitely matching his voice. Soon, word spread of Abaero’s skill. Everyone wanted to be close to this favored son of Jhillos. People came from all over the world to hear Abaero sing and play. Humans of every race, north and south and islander. Halflings and gnomes. Elves from across the sea. Even fairies! They gathered on hillsides and listened for hours, mesmerized, knowing it was the closest they would ever get to hearing Jhillos himself perform.
At first, Abaero played only the known hymns and epics, the standard dances and love songs. He added his own stylistic twists, but everyone recognized them. Then he began writing his own songs. They were gorgeous—uplifting or heartbreaking, romantic or comedic, he could do it all. Everyone clamored for more.
From far away, Jhillos watched, content to listen to the beauty that he had helped create. He did not see how Abaero’s heart was changing.
For Abaero himself clamored for more. More variety, more freedom, more expression. With each challenge he met, each crowd who cheered until they were hoarse, he became increasingly certain he could succeed at anything. Abaero longed to try things nobody had ever done. As famous as he was, it was not enough. He wanted to be forever known for creating something entirely new.
Abaero hid away, experimenting with his music. When he emerged, the waiting crowd gathered, breathless, to hear his creation. But instead of being enthralled, they were shocked. All we have is our ancestors’ words, passed down through generations, to understand what Abaero did that day. They say only that it was dissonant and angry. By its very nature it attacked the audience’s sense of beauty and self and pleasure. It made them cringe and cry out in anger and confusion.
When Jhillos heard this abomination, he manifested on the mortal plane, appearing in front of everyone there. The people bowed down in reverence. All except Abaero, who continued playing in the silence.
Jhillos said to Abaero, “You must stop this blasphemy against me. This is ugliness and hatred. This is not why I gave you the lute.”
Abaero sneered—yes, sneered!—at Jhillos. “You only dislike this because it is new and different, and you are old and scared.”
Jhillos was angry then, as you can imagine. He said, “Yes I am old. I am ancient beyond your understanding. And beauty and ugliness have not changed in all that time. You will honor me, and you will respect me, or I will take your gift from you.”
Abaero refused to back down. “My gift is in my heart, and in my mind. You cannot take it.”
Jhillos said, “I can take back my lute. Better still, I will curse it.”
At a flick of the god’s fingers, the lute burst into flames. Everyone gasped. Abaero dropped it to the ground, lest he be burned. He expected to see it destroyed but no, it was not consumed by the flames. Nor did the flames die down. He looked up at Jhillos in confusion, and Jhillos smiled.
“You can break the curse of the lute by playing the correct song upon it. A soothing song to chill the flames. Then it will be yours again, with my blessing.”
At that, Jhillos disappeared.
For weeks, Abaero pondered how to break the spell. He asked clerics and wizards and witchers if they knew how, but he got no help from them. If they could break it, they would not go against a god to do it. Abaero thought about all the songs he knew, and about writing a new song that might be better. He was scared, knowing that if he played the wrong song, he would die.
He considered simply leaving the lute where it was, burning. But after playing it for so long, and creating such dazzling music with it, he could not resist.
Finally, Abaero selected a song he thought would work. We don’t know what song it was, except that it was a song of cold and ice, of snowy nights and chill winds and frozen waterfalls, chosen to cool the fires of the lute.
Gathering his courage, Abaero grasped the burning lute. He played, even as it reddened his skin and singed his hair. After a few lines of the song, the flames began receding. By the first chorus, they were almost gone. Abaero stopped before the end, and grinned. “Of course I could best him. Why did I ever doubt myself?”
At that moment, the flames of the lute flared up, high as a tree, engulfing Abaero. He screamed once. Then he was a tower of ash, collapsing onto the ground. The wind blew, and soon nothing remained of the favored son of Jhillos.
Now, here is where our story departs from what you have probably heard. The southlanders say the lute was also destroyed. That all that was left was burnt wood, the magic dead and gone. They say they took the burned lute to their temple as a sacred relic, to remind them of their devotion to Jhillos, and of their acquiescence to his taste on all matters of beauty and style.
Our people say that the lute kept burning. That Jhillos is a hopeful god, and wanted his gift to be used. If not Abaero, perhaps someone else would rescue the golden lute from its fate, and make magnificent music with it again.
Others tried. Like Abaero, they were drawn to the lute, staring at it through the never-ending flames. They devised new strategies, chose different songs, but none of them worked. One by one, everyone who was tempted by the lute died in its flames.
Yes, we ask ourselves why Jhillos did not prevent these deaths, why he did not remove the flaming curse. The gods are not all-powerful, we know. Perhaps even Jhillos could not reverse his spell, once he set it in motion. Perhaps he had other reasons. These are questions for elders and scholars, though, not for you and I to solve here, my child.
The temple clerics eventually forbade anyone from trying the lute. Alas, many people disobeyed, so intense was their yearning to touch the flaming lute, their craving to become the next Abaero. So the clerics placed the lute in a series of flame-proof chests and hid it away.
We don’t know exactly where this happened, or when. Somewhere in Medowin, back when it was still Pyann, perhaps even earlier. It must have been hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Over the centuries, the chest with the flaming lute inside was moved, and hidden again, and moved again, and finally lost.
Since then, our scholars have debated what song Abaero played, and what song he should have played. The first, they cannot agree upon. The second, they think they know. They believe that Jhillos wanted an apology. A sign that Abaero was repentant—that is the soothing song that chills the flame. Instead, Abaero held to his arrogance, rejecting his benefactor, and died for it. That is the lesson we must remember.
Now, in Layor, most people look down upon Jhillos as a wayward child of Sambar, weak and spoiled on pleasure. The Jhillosi there hold the burned lute as a sign of strength, that their god can punish disloyalty as harshly as any other. They obsess over finding the burned lute, hoarding any sliver they believe is sacred. A dozen temples have whole lutes they claim to be authentic, each temple at odds with every other. Every generation, it seems, someone finds yet another lute, or another piece of one, to argue over. It tears them apart.
For us, the burning lute is a sign that beauty is inviolable. Jhillos showed us that true beauty is worth any sacrifice. We do not search for the flaming lute. That gift, and that curse, was between Jhillos and Abaero. Even if I had the lute, I could not become Abaero. Nor would I want to. I cannot apologize to Jhillos on behalf of Abaero, or sing Abaero’s song. Each of us needs to find our own way of honoring Jhillos, by creating beauty and pleasure. Me with stories, you with sculpture, using the gifts that we are given.
Of course, there are those—you may have heard them—who argue that there never was a flaming lute. They say it is a parable. Merely a story.
I say that stories are the most powerful art that we have. That a parable may have more truth in it than what I can see with my own eyes. That the flaming lute lives in my heart whether Abaero ever lived or not.
But then, I am a tale-master. You must take my words as you will.
This legend was inspired by this week’s Flash Fiction for Aspiring Writers flash fiction challenge, but as you can see, this was not a 175-word story. So instead I wrote a short story related to this legend, that happened in Layor. Go read it here: Burnt Bridges.