The Holden Stone

Reflections of a Fantasy Writer

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Home Novels Singer of Norgondy Chapter 1 & 2 Singer of Norgondy

Chapter 1 & 2 Singer of Norgondy

Singer of Norgondy

by

Susan Shell Winston

 

The Blazing Star

Threatening the world with Famine, Plague, and War:

To Princes, Death!...

To Sailors, Storms;

To Cities, Civil Treasons!

 

De cometis

by John Gadbury, London, 1665

 

 

Chapter One

The Naming Dream

 

Smoke teared Horl's eyes and stung through his chest. He added two hands of powdered numbstool to the fire in the giant clam shell, chanting as he worked. The new moon was entering the year's window and would soon stretch from base stone to top stone and the naming would then begin. Horl waved the thick yellow smoke into his face four times, humming and swaying to stay awake, to keep his concentration.

The ancient cypress door creaked open. The glow from the lighthouse below flooded the stone hut, brightening the smoke to a lemon haze and blurring the silhouette of the first dreamer to come.

"Enter, boy, and return a man," cawed the Pelican. The bird’s spirit stood guard outside the door. Beneath its heavy mask and feathers was Jornal, the village cooper, but this was a secret a nameless boy was not man enough yet to know.

The door closed and the boy stood alone before Horl. His newly made man's tunic, much too long for a seven-year old, still dripped from his initiation dunking.

Horl sat unblinking as the boy--it was Orul's son, Yaris, it looked like--stared down at him. It was the first time Yaris would've seen Horl's head unturbaned. The web of circles, waves and spirals tattooed into his shaven skull, each line a dangerous thread of the whale’s dream from which true men had sprung, was highlighted tonight by the vicious black and gold god-paint on Horl's face. He had stained his teeth blood red, and he bared them as he lifted a bony finger and pointed to the dreaming mat.

Yaris lay face up, his hands clenched at his sides, his breath raspy. It would not be long before the smoke overtook him, as young as he was, and as scared.

Horl waved the smoke into his face and closed his eyes. Then...through dark and icy cold he walked, unbodied, unskinned. The air was smoke that stung him, lifted him, passed through him. Seeking, he found the one other flicker of flame. He held it up in his hand and stepped into it. And he saw with Yaris his dream.

The stark shape of a great black iron hood against soot-gray bricks. Sweat-stained muscular arms glistening red with forge fire. Hammering, the constant sharp sound of hammering.

The great sigh of bellows; and a scythe blade being tempered. The blade, brought bright red from the fire, lay hissing in water. The blade was refired until the colors graded down, light straw to blue to brown to a bee's-wing color. When the long curved blade was held up with tongs in front of the forge, its hammered edge sparked war-blood red.

Horl walked out of Yaris's dream.

"Awaken, young man of the village. You shall be called Yarisol. True brother of the whale. True son of the blacksmith. Walk in his path."

Excitement and relief shone in Yarisol's face. He had inherited his father’s soul and would become a smith as his father was before him. Horl nodded and allowed a smile.

"Send in your year-mates," he said kindly.

Stal's twins came in together. Their mother had died seven years ago giving them birth. It was a rare, blessed thing for an Islander village to have twins. The village had paid for them dearly with her death.

The twins lay down together. One, young Cray, would paddle his goat-hide coracle out into the bay as their father had before him, throwing nets and emptying baskettrap after baskettrap of salmon into his small bobbing boat to feed the village. The other, young Cree, whom Horl's wife had suckled at Horl's hearth along with their own infant son, dreamed of pots, and tins, and tinkering, and of a small tinker wagon rattling down the road from town to town, and of ...

sharpening a scythe blade. Wiping it clean of war-blood. Swinging it like an axe at a guardsman on an iced-covered river. The guardsman struck back. His sword, long and bright, flashed an instant in Cree's face. Then it cleaved into Cree's side.

The dream vision swirled into a whirlpool of black, and red, and smoke.

Horl opened his eyes and stared at the lad. What ever would a fisher's son have to do with fighting a guardsman of the mainland?

The Village Father called the twins awake.

"Rise, Crayl, true son of the fisher. And Crel..." The lad stood up in the smoke-filled hut looking across at him with a solemnity in his dark amber eyes beyond his years, looking as if he too could remember the dream. Horl's throat constricted over the taste of thick smoke. "You shall walk the path of a tinker."

Horl's head pounded by the time his own son stood in the doorway of the stone hut.  The sickle moon had long passed beyond the year's window and was entering the small smoke hole overhead. His son was the last of the only seven boys to live through the week of ordeals, and the timing of the moon was propitious.

"Enter, Ver, and return, a man," cawed the Pelican.

As the door closed behind him, Ver stood in the smoke in his still-dripping black tunic and watched Horl with clear black eyes, noting every flick of movement his father made. There was no fear in the boy; he had seen his father unturbaned and god-painted before, although he would have never spoken of it to his year-mates.

As Horl tossed another hand of numbstool into the fire, Ver studied the weaving of his fingers. Ver had already shown much talent in the making of the small magics, starting a fire with a song on his stick, clouding the vision of his year-mates and hiding as he stood in front of them, casting his voice into the leaves of a tree behind them as he laughed at them spinning around to search for him.

Horl pointed to the dreaming mat, careful to control his own emotions. He had high expectations his son would become a great Village Father after him.

Horl closed his eyes to step into Ver's dream. As soon as he found the small white flame, Ver's presence stood inside it, waiting for him. His son plunged with him into the dream.

...Fingers, long and skilled, shaped smoke into circles. Fire under the smoke rose through the seven circles into a flower bud, its seven long pointed petals blooming into a golden-orange starflower. The smoke thickened, began smelling of lemon and meadowlands. The fingers closed through the smoke upon the glistening strings of a lute, and rippled through them fast, certain, gentle. Its music rose like smoke into flowers. Golden starflowers showered down upon the uplifted faces of a sea of listeners. One face--

One face, entranced, melted everything into it. Pained and bloodied, a deep wound in his side, a long farmer's scythe blade lay on the ice beside him, tainted war-blood red. Ver's long gentle fingers lifted his friend up, crying. The grown-up face of Crel lay in his arms, dying.

Horl stepped abruptly out of his son's dream. Ver, awakening on his own, stood up in the smoke-filled hut before him. His eyes, too young for what he had seen, beseeched his father for an explanation.

It took all of Horl's training to stay calm. "You shall be called Verl. You shall be a healer and a great harpist someday."

The boy stood waiting for Horl to say more. When Horl did not, the boy's face fell. He would not become his father's heir.

"It is not a dream to be ashamed of," his father said. "Your music shall fall like flowers to us on that day."

The boy's eyes lit suddenly with the vision again of the dream, of the golden starflowers falling upon a sea of listeners; and one of those rare, quick, unguarded smiles, still full of his son's innocence and youth, broke toothily across Verl's face.

The smile vanished when Horl added, "Go tell your mother that you shall leave on the merchant ship tomorrow. You’ll be sold into apprenticeship to the great Singerhalle in Norgarth by week's end. It is the only place left to learn to walk the path of such a dream."

Horl closed his eyes and listened until the door was pulled shut.

Then, slowly, he began gathering up his bags of numbstool and reeds, and, chanting, quenched the fire. But his hands paused when he heard a loud sharp wail of grief coming from the longhouse in the village below. His wife had heard his son's news. Horl had hoped to give his village an heir in Verl. Instead, by this time tomorrow, Verl’s name would be struck from the village records and never be spoken again.

Horl closed the stone hut behind him and walked down the hill to the village. Before the sun rose, he would take a new wife into his house tonight, and this time, make for his village a true son.

Chapter Two

Last Chance

By the light of the fire, Verl scratched charcoal across the rough surface of a hearthstone. Paper was a luxury no apprentice at Singerhalle could afford. At least, not to waste on idle drawings.

Some of the circles and spiral paths he remembered vividly. The web of guilt, the song of gifts, the edge of sorrow, the path of right were etched into four of the five corners on the pentagon he had drawn, but Verl could never remember seeing the spiral of forgetfulness tattooed among the twenty-five mysteries on his father's skull. If he had seen it, it was only as one of the many intricate spirals he had never learned to recognize in his short failed life as his father's heir.

Many times over the past twelve years since the night of his naming dream, he had filled in the empty corner with a spiral of his own design, hoping he knew the path to forgetfulness without knowing he did. It would be bliss, he often thought, to forget.

But tonight, he left the fifth corner empty and began scrawling the dream inside the pentagon, well aware that, unbounded, he was in danger of more easily letting the dream escape.

It mattered little. His dream always escaped him.

First, the gull, his own device, no more than oval wings, an open beak, and a circle for a head. It was the one sign he had never changed from his first crude drawings in his childhood. This time, tonight, for pure malice perhaps, or in grim hopefulness, he etched a meadow starflower hanging from its beak. He took great care to make each detail of the flower right. The seven petals opened half-way up and spread out to seven points perfectly. The long slender leaves along the stem escaped in a cluster from the gull's beak. Verl took a fresh, harder piece of charcoal from the fire's edge and drew in the tiny twelve tendrils of the stamen in the flower's center. He counted each tendril aloud, then he stepped towards their spiral and saw them clearly, smelled the crowd of lemony flowers in the meadow around him, heard the wind blow--

"More witchdoctoring?"

Verl tensed, then he pulled back into himself, out of the dream. He stumbled a second over his first quick reaction to fight or run before he could control his old embarrassment at being caught practicing his father's forbidden arts. When he was younger, he had been called before the masters daily, it seemed, for striking out at the other apprentices who had called him 'the witchdoctor.' But most of those apprentices, his old friends he had once drilled with, had long since earned their chains of mastery and had gone off journeying on their own. None of the newer apprentices, the oldest one, three years younger than he, dared tease him to his face for what few Islander beliefs he still held.

The voice above him, though, was not someone Verl had heard speak to him in the last two years. The corner of his lips pulled upwards into a faint smile.

He rose quickly and dropped a slight bow, then sat back down on the hearth, covering his scrawlings with his hand. "I did not hear you come in, Eleidice, forgive me."

She looked down at him. Her stiff black curls tumbled from both sides of her white cowled hood, framing her dark-skinned face. She wore the sable-trimmed azure robe of a Singer, and on her chest, the gold links of a master's chain reflected the firelight. She had matured considerably in the last two years, he realized, filling out and curving in. She was taller too, as statuesque as everyone in the countess-side of her family. He remembered when she had first come to Singerhalle when he was ten. Two years younger than he, she had been put in his care then, to teach her the first five fingerings. She had earned her master's chain two years ago, and he had only seen her from a distance since.

She sat down on the hearth and lifted his hand from his drawings. She tilted her head at them, trying to understand them. The charcoal had smudged and little detail was left.

"You promised once you'd show me what these meant."

He crooked a smile. It felt odd to acknowledge his drawings, especially to someone who was not teasing him for doing them. "Years ago, Lady." He met her eyes. "We were younger then."

Her black bright eyes caught the spark of the fire behind him. "And have your drawings lost their meaning since then?"

Verl dropped his hand back over them. "I did not think anyone would be coming to the Hall tonight."

She glanced around the darkened recesses of the vast room. No candle or lantern was left burning, aside from the candle she herself had brought in. "I saw the fire was still high. You don't sleep among the cinders in here these days, do you?"

"I finished everything in here an hour or so ago. But I hadn't quenched the fire yet." Truth be known, he had fed it. Wood was expensive to keep more than one log in all of Singerhalle burning throughout the night. And that one log was in the masters' private wing.

Eleidice darted her eyes back at him. "You're not still on the scrunging team, are you?"

He gave her a twisted grin. "Pays my keep still." His father, he remembered suddenly, and oddly--having just been thinking of him and that night, he guessed--his father had expected to be paid for selling his son into apprenticeship. But Singerhalle didn't work that way. And when neither envoy nor collector could convince his village to pay for his training or else take him back, Verl had spent as many hours during his long years here hand-scrubbing the flagstone floors and polishing the silver wine trays of the masters, as he had learning to play the lute. Few apprentices past twelve stayed on the scrunge team. But then, far fewer apprentices were still apprentices at Verl's age.

"Is everything in here polished down to the last leaf and curl for tomorrow?" she asked, grinning wickedly. The silver barrel of the telescope at the bay window was notorious among the apprentices for its ornate engravings.

Verl tightened when she mentioned tomorrow. Hoping she had not noticed, he changed back to the safer subject. "My father, Lady, would have been insulted that you had dared to look at my drawings."

"Your father?"

"You," he explained. "It'd be taboo. You're a woman... Now."

Her lips parted slightly. "Ah. And in the Eller Islands, women have no rights?"

"Different rights. The women own all the land, but the men own all rights to knowledge and dreams of the soul–" She cocked her high brows at him. "Or so they believe," he amended softly. "Will you be judging me tomorrow--?" He kicked himself. He had not wanted to blurt that out.

She lifted his hand off the drawing, spread open his long slender fingers. "You always had more talent than any of us."

He stared off into the dark merciful room. Talent had taken him nowhere.

She went on in his silence. Singerhalle training kept her voice soft, soothing. "Three masters from Abirne, Sherd, and Dallet shall sit in tomorrow as your guest judges, plus all six of our high masters at the Hall, of course; and as for the journeymasters--" he turned to her, and she met his eyes, "Edex and Juliard shall sit in for us. Everyone else left when the war began. But, if I can, I will be here in the Hall too, watching and counting on you, Verl. You can always be sure of that."

Verl shifted his eyes away again, said nothing.

Eleidice rose and went to the far corner of the fireplace. There, half in shadow, a soft velvet pouch leaned against the wall. She took it back to Verl, pulling his lute out of its pouch as she did so.

"Have you named her yet?" she asked as she handed the lute down to him.

He took it, then quirked a grin up at her. "Leidel."

She gave a start, recognizing Leidel to be what her name would be in the far-away Eller Islands.

He shrugged, motioned her to sit back down. "Perhaps it will inspire her to sing as well as her namesake can someday."

Eleidice traced a leaf carving on the lute's soundboard. "You did beautiful work on her," she said.

He lay his arm over his lute protectively and settled it across his lap, almost hiding it. "Perhaps I should have apprenticed to a woodcutter instead."

"Verl--"

He shook his head at himself. "Do you see this?" He pointed down to his smudged charcoal drawing. "It's supposed to be a seagull. I saw one once, as a boy. That’s when I believed in omens. I had a puppy. You could see his whole life in his eyes, and in his excited stubby tail. I climbed a cliff above the sea. My puppy didn't make it, he slipped on the loose rocks, fell, and broke his neck. Before I got down to him, a gull stood on his head, pecking his eyes out."

"--Verl!"

He gripped the neck of his lute tighter. "I've drawn a gull eating my dreams ever since."

Her dark gentle hand closed over his stiffened fingers. "You could pass easily tomorrow. You could play anything else--"

"No! " He stood up. "No. There is only one song I was sent here to play. The song I swore out loud I would play when I first came here. The song that ended who I was to become."

"Verl! No one expects you to play a song that can actually make someone see flowers--"

"I do." He met her eyes, then softened his voice. "I have to."

Verl took his pouch from her, slid away his lute, and, with a stiff brief bow to a master, left the room.

* * *

Pulling a peasant shawl around her baby’s face and her own, Ailil shoved through the crowd to the king'a execution. Perhaps she should have walked unseen, it would be safer now. But she had always promised Henrik she would never create an illusion here, not in his city. And his son deserved to see his father look down on him one last time.

She pushed through to the front of the crowd just in time. Henrik lifted his head a fraction of an inch and met her eyes, then not saying a word to reveal their presence, he lowered his head to the stone. One last testament to his honor and courage she had always loved in him.

Queen Felain stood on the dias in the sunlight. No shawl covered her head. Her son, Jerard’s half-brother, hid his face in his mother’s skirt as the executioner raised the axe. Felain gripped the boy’s shoulder, turned him back around to watch his father be beheaded in the street.

Ailil uncovered Jerard’s face a moment to let him see too, and remember, always.

Felain’s high priest circled Henrik’s body, shaking his belled staff over him. He bent down and lifted up Henrik’s head by his blood-soaked hair and shouted, "Glory to the Winged One!" He tossed the head into a waiting cauldron to be boiled and preserved for later display.

As Henrik was being quartered, arms, legs, shoulders, hips, Ailil merged farther back into the crowd. Little Jerard closed his hand around her finger. Ailil touched his cheek softly and wiped a speck of blood off his eyelash. Then she covered the shawl back over them both.

Shaking the belled staff, the priest approached the boy on the dias and bowed before him. He placed Henrik’s crown on the boy’s head. "Long live King Laird!" he shouted to the people.

All around Ailil, the crowd threw up holy feathers, hats, and roses. "Long live the King!" they shouted, as riverlets of kingly blood flowed beneath their feet.

Felain’s face glowed triumphant in the sun.

Hidden behind her shawl, Ailil whispered a few words. The queen blanched and glanced quickly behind her.

Ailil left the square in grim determination. Somehow, someday, she and Jerard would make Felain and Laird pay for what they had done. But until that day came, let Felain go mad hearing Henrik’s voice calling her name in every crowd.

* * *

Light from the three high stained-glass windows in Singers’ Hall splashed across the polished flagstones. As Verl listened to young Kirt play before the masters, he watched the faint quick flashes of the colored lights on the floor in front of him. As always, he saw the different colors rise, brighten, and fade in time to the changing notes of the music.

From somewhere outside in the distant streets, a crowd started cheering. Verl kept his head lowered and tried to listen only to young Kirt.

Like harp strings the notes played, streaks of yellow light shimmered into gold on the stone in front of Verl's left boot. The music softened and Verl saw instead quivering streaks of green and blue grow brighter. Then red splashed discordantly back onto the next stone as Kirt played the fast strident calls of the war horns ripping the peace of the countryside in Aarik's Shepherd's War. Undertone, Verl heard the crowd shouting again.

Luckily, despite the interference from outside, Kirt didn’t falter. Any other day of the year, all the Master Singers would rush outside and record in song and story whatever was happening.

They would still have to send someone in their stead, Verl knew. Even today.

He glanced around. Eleidice was gone.

Yes, of course. Verl quirked his lip in a twinge of disappointment. She was the only Master Singer left in Singerhalle, she had said, who was not sitting as a judge today. She was the only one free who could go.

The shouting came again. It was the prince’s birthday this week, he knew that of course. Laird was turning seven. But this was louder, closer than the palace. Perhaps people were celebrating in the streets an end to the recent fighting. He hoped so. He’d heard a week ago, the old king had been captured. He’d heard nothing since, third stage apprentices had been kept in seclusion over the past week to prepare for today.  ...Counting on you, she had said last night. The words twisted. He wondered if she had known then she would be gone today. He stiffened, and acknowledged the likelihood; then he lowered his head to the lights again, listened only to Kirt . Within a minute, there was no noise left coming in from outside.

Throughout it all, the lad had kept playing his required piece well. Shepherd’s War was a song noted for quick scales and sudden changes of chords and tempo. Yet after long afternoons of Verl's tutoring, Kirt was skillful enough to be sure of his fingering. He was concentrating instead on playing with emotion, a true talent of the lad that would set him above the other apprentices in the room today, in Verl's proud estimation.

Verl listened to the crescendo of the battle scene: red, purple, blue streaks of light on the floor, red, red, blue -- orange. Verl's breath stopped. Then he closed his eyes and gripped the lute at his side. He prayed that the masters seated in judgment would not count the one slipped fingering too much against the lad.

But Kirt had noted his error as well, and his playing from then on grew hesitant. That was a worse mistake.

Six new chains of mastery had already been awarded this morning. But Kirt, failing this year, returned to the apprentice circle beside Verl. Bravely, the lad gave Verl an encouraging nod when the Lord Master called Verl's name.

The lights on the floor went with him. Blue, yellow, softly blurred splashes of rose spread around him and moved before him, as rainbows in the waves moved when he was a child on the beach trying to catch them. Verl stopped in the center of Singer’s Hall, in the center of the fall of lights from the highest stained-glass window, and bowed before the masters.

He played the scales, the studies, the required pieces expertly, with a surety and feeling many masters twice his age would never achieve. With the lute in his hand, his Leidel, it was music that played him, he always felt. The music and the lights. He was music's conduit only, he took no credit for it. The lights, the colors on the stones welled up through him, from the tight tingling in his toes, through the tense strained feeling in his legs, up through the swelling in his chest, and then stretched out into his fingers onto the strings. He translated light into song, until each shining string became a note, a color on the floor before him.

"And now," the Lord Master said, "your masterpiece."

Verl looked up at the Lord Master, at the high withered cheekbones sharpened by age. At the wisps left of the white flowing hair, at the stern cracked lips that still sung evening chants like a deep-throated loon. At the kindness in the Lord Master's eyes, and at the sad smile in them.

Verl glanced across at the other masters seated with the Lord Master. He saw the rapture on the faces of the three guest masters who had never heard him play before. You could pass easily, Eleidice had said last night. You could play anything else.

Verl flexed his fingers, then bowed to the Lord Master. "‘The Song of the Meadowflowers’ by Dellet the Younger," he announced. "My own variation," he added softly, knowing it would happen to him again.

He entered the song well, controlling the music, quelling the lights inside him, playing the notes precisely as they were written. Then, softly, he let his fingers play the wind blowing across the meadow, the sun shining on the golden flowers. On one golden starflower. He closed his eyes to the music, saw the lights shining on the flower, outlining it petal by petal, redrawing it in his mind as he had with the charcoal last night. Each stamen, each vein of petal and leaf, precise, exact, forming a flower out of song and light to rise and shower down upon him in the light from the stained-glass window, as his music someday, his father had promised, would fall like flowers upon a sea of listeners.

But the flower was in his mind only, his fingers making music, touching strings--only. He had to make it true, had to make others see the flower, see the music as he saw it. He felt the power, the rapture within him from his father's blood flowing through him to make the vision real, the need to translate the song back into light.

He played, he forced the music louder, stronger, note upon note, petal after petal, redrawing the flower, making it form out of shimmering lights.

Then he snapped his eyes open to see.

His Leidel, his lute was in his hands only. No flower, no music was a shining substance in the air before him. No flower was there for anyone else to see.

He had done it to himself again, lied to himself again.

Lights shone down from the rose windows above him, broke apart into colors, their circle of light trapping him back into reality, into his inadequacy to make a flower, mocking him for believing he and his music could be more than he was, for believing he could still one day be his father's heir. The splashes of color spiraled away from him, escaping from him as his dreams ever did from the corner he left open in his father's drawings.

There was no note left for him to play that could come from within. His song was unfinished, and there was no easy way now to slide back into the notes of Dellet's ‘Song of the Meadowflowers’ as it was written.

Verl ended the song as he had begun it, precise, exact, fluid notes, the music controlled, and inadequate. Unfinished, and sounding unfinished, after what he had done to it.

He lowered his head a moment, then he stiffened his shoulders and looked up, awaiting the judgment of the masters.

"You play beautifully," said one of the guest masters.

"With the touch of a great artist," said another.

"But your song was not ready to be played yet, was it?" challenged the third.

"What is your answer to that, Verl?" asked the Lord Master.

Verl met his eyes, then spoke the truth. "It is not finished yet, lord."

The sad smile pulled at the corners of the old man's lips. "A masterpiece cannot be judged as a masterpiece until it is ready to be heard. You have been told this in years past, Verl. Too many years past. You have been apprentice here longer than anyone, twelve years as I recall. We have kept you because you have the talent to be better than any of us someday. But talent alone can never earn you a chain of mastery from our guild. You must learn to control your music first. In twelve years, you have not. It is beautiful, but it is wild--not finished yet, as you say."

Verl's fingers closed tighter around the neck of his lute. He nodded mutely and started to turn back to the apprentice circle.

"Wait, Verl," said the Lord Master.

Verl looked back up at him.

"As I said, you have been apprentice here longer than anyone. You will be twenty within the next year, is that not so?... Then, Verl, we have discussed this and decided. Today was your last chance."

Verl froze. He heard the master's words fall to him one by one like dead notes echoing around him in a well.

"You can no longer be an apprentice here, Verl...you are too old...I'm sorry...you will come to me tomorrow...I will have your papers made ready for you to go."

Numbly, as the words echoed around him, Verl stood motionless in the circle of lights falling around him from the rose windows above. Then, his lips twitching with irony, he bowed to the judgment of the masters. His hand clenched around his lute.

"This is not the end, Verl," the lord master went on. "This is not the last we hope to see of you." Kneeling in the light, dark words falling to him, Verl barely heard them. "You must go, but you may come back to us in a year from now to try again. Or in two years from that. Or every ten years after that--however long it takes you, son, to play your song for us and to earn your chain of mastery. You will play it someday, Verl. You must," the old man said, looking down at him sadly. Verl never looked up, barely heard him. "But you can never, apparently, learn to play it here."