Song of the Sorrowing Harp

a Cornish tale as told by v’Ar

A young lord came courting. Quite properly, he paid formal addresses to the elder sister, but his eyes always strayed to the younger. He rode by her at the hunt, he danced with her in the hall. And all the while, the dark gaze of the elder sister followed him. She made no complaint, biding her time. Early one morning, the elder maiden asked her sister to walk by the seashore. As they strolled, the fair sister spoke guilelessly about the dashing visitor. The elder said little, but at a place where the waves beat against massive rocks, she acted. With a swift blow, she knocked her sister off balance and into the foaming sea.

The waves closed over the fair maidens’ head and clawed at her hair with icy fingers. She rose gasping to the surface and screamed to her sister, but there was no response. She heard only the roaring of the waters and the sharp cry of gulls as they wheeled in the sky above. The dark sister stood above on the shore rocks, motionless as a carved statue. With a steady, unperturbed gaze, she watched her sisters hopeless struggle. The young maiden sank, rose again for a moment and cried out pitifully, then sank again beneath the surging skirts of foam.

The dark one kept her vigil there for a time, observing the violence of the waves with satisfaction. Then she ran home to her fathers hall and, weeping, told a false tale, saying how her sister had slipped on the rocks and drowned. The people searched the shore for her, but they could not find her body. They made great mourning in the months that followed. Afterward, the young lord, bereft of the fair sister, sought consolation with the dark, and this was gladly given.

But the fair sisters body, drawn by wind and tide and cradled in the killing waves, drifted along the Cornish coast and into a calm estuary, far to the east of her fathers lands. A tavern owner at the rivers edge spied the golden hair stirring beneath the surface and gently pulled the body from the water.

It happened that a wandering minstrel named Cad’or – a bard famed throughout the land – was staying at the inn. He helped the man to give her burial, and moved by her beauty cut three strands of the golden hair and strung them into his harp.

The bard continued his travels, going from village to town and from hall to castle to sing and play where he might. In the months that followed the harp played for the minstrel with a tenderness that brought tears to the eyes of its listeners, and the harper grew to cherish the golden strings. At length he came to the stronghold of the maidens’ father, although he did not know it for what it was. The minstrel was welcomed and feasted, as is the custom. In the evening, when the fires were lit and the flames cast flickering shadows in the hall, the man drew out his harp and set it before him, making ready to play. The dark sister settled on a bench to listen, flanked by her father and the young lord she had murdered for and planned to marry.

But before the bard could touch them, the golden strings shimmered in the firelight, they trembled of their own accord. A sweet familiar voice eddied around the company, and when the dark sister recognised the voice and the words it sang, her face grew pale and tight. Her fate was coming and well she knew it.

“Farewell to the lord my father”, sang the harp softly. “Farewell to my lady mother and woe to my sister who murdered me!” The hall was silent for a moment and all turned to face the sister. She stilled her trembling, stood and faced her family, ” Will no one defend me from this lying harp that is so obviously haunted by an evil spirit?” The bard stepped forward and gestured for another harp to be brought. He said “Then take three strands of your hair and let them speak to your defence”. She reached backwards and carefully cut three lengths of her hair. She strung the first and tightened it too much and it snapped. The second caught round a button and parted. As the third broke on the harp so did her courage and she turned and fled. Into the darkness and straight off the cliff. She plunged to her death taking her guilt with her.