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Crowsinger

  • 2021-11-13 17:54

Chapter Thirteen

 

The Tale of the Silent Plains

 

In the froth of years, the cities rose

nations drenched in song

then smothered in a wreath of crows

now the Plains are silent

 

Poems of ten thousand years

The Anenseka sang

Then riptides of a million tears

And now the Plains are silent

 

Rishagi tribes, in joy they rode

with banners in the wind

Til grasses crawled the empty road

For now the Plains are silent

 

In Sarnishar, a jeweled king

They looked to him for hope

Too late they heard the raptor wing

And now the Plains are silent

 

* * * * *

 

As a girl, Safranin Alizar ran through the tall grass with eyes wide, laughing as if this new world were a gift to her and her alone. Only her father had survived the Crossing, and he was too busy with matters of survival to corral her into the camps of sobbing people holding themselves and rocking and hiding from the alien sky.

They paid little attention to the girl who ran laughing away from the camps and returned in the ebon dark with strange flowers in her hair, all of them shaped like ghosts with arms reaching to grasp the world.

Adults exhorted her to stay and work to help keep the settlement alive. The King commands we work, they said.

King,” she scoffed, wondering how blood and the bows of sycophants created kings out of arrogant men with bladed steel for arms.

And so she furrowed the plains of wheatgrass with outstretched arms, singing to the rose madder sky at dawn and communing with the voice of fire at dusk. At times she found small creatures, small plains mice that would freeze when she appeared, or a bird not quick enough to see or hear. These she took in her hands and pulled them apart: legs and arms and wings ripped from their bodies as if there were some secret to be gained from their disassembly.

And their panicked screams of pain kindled a fire in her heart that warmed her through the first winter.

Few bothered this insouciant urchin until the day one of the King’s guards took offense at her weaving in and out of the crowds while the King gave another of his endless speeches about carrying your weight and doing your part. When the guard grabbed her, a blast of arcane light pushed him back until he lay dazed and wounded on his back in the midst of the crowd.

The few human wizards who survived the Crossing took charge of her then. No more did she run free through the grass singing to the waking sun. Through the Building Years, as the somber, responsible elves came and did works of stone where the King desired a city, Safranin was kept a prisoner in the Wizard House, trained in the ways of magic, and taught to be a protector of humanity.

One of the few, they said. The Elect. Secret Keepers and painters with fire and ice and light.

They taught her to feel pride in her special abilities and arcane knowledge. They also taught her the responsibility to use these things to help her people.

Only one of those lessons did she take to heart.

 

* * * * *

 

In a northern mountain pass, the homes and villages and caverns of the North Tusk Orcs lay empty, and wind blew through the quiet paths. Three elves and a human walked now in this empty land, and the breath of early winter raked across them. Slumber took the length of wool wrapped around his neck and shoulders and pulled it up to cover his lower face.

They had acquired fur cloaks in an outpost many leagues to the south, and they offered some protection. Yet the wind flew down from the northern heights into their faces, so they walked with heads half down, yet raised enough to watch for threats in the woods around them.

As they traveled, Yonai and Slumber searched for materials for making new arrows. They found narrow shoots of wood in thickets and gathered some of the straighter ones for later, tying them into bundles for carrying. Avaresk shot down birds with ice bolts so that they could gather feathers for fletching.

The land rose as they journeyed deeper into the pass. Slumber watched Kymeret, worried. Kymeret had taken an arrow in their battle to the south, and though they had done what they could, his limp was getting worse. Slumber had found a sturdy walking stick for him, and it helped, yet still he watched in case he stumbled.

“Standing stones,” said Yonai.

Slumber looked up and saw the tall stones, three meters high, standing in the lee slope of a cliff-walled hollow. When they reached the stones, Slumber helped Kymeret to the ground, and they took shelter from the wind. Yonai and Slumber busied themselves gathering kindling from around the stones.

Avaresk studied carvings in the nearest stone.

“Can you read it?” asked Kymeret.

“No,” said the wizard, his voice filled with wonder. “This world has so many secrets.”

“That it does.”

Yonai and Slumber had made a pile of kindling ready for fire, and now they looked to the wizard expectantly. Avaresk raised a hand and whispered, forming a tiny sun above his palm. His fingers moved as if rotating a ball in his hand, and then he turned his hand over and pointed toward the kindling. The sun shot forward, then slowed above the kindling. It dissolved, sending gentle fingers of flame through the dry wood.

Soon they sat and warmed themselves around the fire. Slumber passed around some of the trail food he carried, and Yonai passed around a water bag. Then Slumber unwrapped Kymeret's wound. It wasn't looking good. Avaresk handed him a jar that contained a soft clay with medicinal herbs, and Slumber treated the wound as best he could, then wrapped it.

Everything was different with Aovyn so far away.

Avaresk sat looking up at the stars. After a long silence, he said, “Do you know what humans say about elves?”

Kymeret smiled slightly. “I expect they speak no end of gratitude for those elves who gave them food and plains yurts so they might survive that first harsh winter. Or those elves who helped build the walls of Havensong.”

Avaresk sighed. “Some do, yes. Many. Others speak of your strange fashions, the ash-white faces of your devout, the melodic syllables of your tongue. The mystery of your intentions, and magic they suspect you possess.” He looked down at the fire. “Difference is a thing of fear among my people. More than ever now.”

“You have been through terror, the end of your world. Anyone who lived through that would have been shaken.”

“You underestimate what the end of the world does to people. Humanity is still—there is no other way to put it—insane. I would not call Amensol a good man, but to have kept so many humans together, building, growing food… that I do admire.”

“Why did you leave?” asked Yonai. “Why did you join the Hidden Folk?”

Avaresk leaned back against his pack and pulled his fur cloak over him. Looking up again at the stars above his new world, he said “What year is it now?”

Yonai chuckled. “What wizard doesn’t know the year?”

“A wizard who does not care, most of the time.”

“It is late 477, according to the Tholen people. Everyone uses their reckoning of the years.”

“Of course. So my people have been in this world eighteen years. Eighteen.”

Kymeret said, “You must have been, forgive me for estimating your years, a young lad.”

“I was thirteen, and already being raised by wizards. So few of my teachers remained after the Crossing.”

“Surely,” said Yonai, “you had all the comforts the privileged of Havensong could enjoy.”

“I did indeed. People huddled in tattered cloth next to fires burning outside their tents. They looked at the well-dressed elves building their city wall with envy—and they looked at us the same. The King ensured we had the best food, and all we wanted. We were dressed in robes woven of elven cloth.”

“Wizards are well valued in Faerthale,” said Kymeret.

“Nearly priceless among humans now. But living among the wizards was not to my liking.”

“You had everything,” said Yonai, and Slumber heard a hint of envy in her voice. “What dissatisfied you?”

“Do you know what wizards do in Havensong? They serve at the King’s command. Oh, we lit tens of thousands of braziers in the early years, but now the people are expected to keep their own fires alight or help one another when a fire goes out. They do, sometimes.

“But the wizards of Havensong are training alongside the army that Amensol builds. There are wizard platoons, five dozen soldiers and a wizard. Squads take shifts prepared to give their lives to protect the wizard.”

“You did not want to be in the army protecting Havensong?”

“I spoke with elves whenever I could. I begged for stories, legends, anything I could of this world. Of course, most wizards gather such stories, but one subject held my attention: tales of the Hidden Folk. Every species in this world can be found among them, the stories said. They are no nation, have no king. They help people, know and trade secrets, work for the betterment of all…” he laughed, “and they are very, very hard to find.”

“So, all the other wizards are loyal soldiers, but you ran off and joined the Hidden Folk.”

“I was young and foolish. Now I am older and foolish, but I have no regrets.” The wizard’s smile faded. “Not all of them are loyal soldiers. There was one, a young woman whose power was discovered after the Collision. Safranin Alizar serves no one. Some have called her beautiful, but the glint of cruelty is never far from her eyes. She left before I did.”

“Where did she go?” asked Yonai.

“I have no idea, and I fear the answer.”

“We have wizards who leave,” said Kymeret. “Some who journey for research or study. Some who adventure—though that is rarer.”

“May I ask you a question, summoner?”

“Of course.”

Avaresk sat up again and looked at him. “What do you believe an Undine will give you?”

Kymeret smiled. “How can I describe the feeling that something is missing? That something doesn’t feel as it should, so that even the light of the sun grates against my skin? I am a man whose spirit is the lightness and swiftness of air, the hope and sensibility of water. Yet what did I call to me? The stolidness of stone, the fury of fire. So I began to look at myself and wonder, what in me called to this?

“So this is a personal quest. You feel that something is missing, and you yearn to be complete.”

Kymeret shook his head slightly. “Perhaps. All I know is that everything in this world is but a passing season. Who will survive the Night that comes? What can we hold on to when our ship breaks apart? I have a finite existence in this increasingly dark world, and I would reach for beauty and joy in what time I have.”

“Well spoken,” said Avaresk. “I have heard it said that Undines grant healing to those to whom they bond.”

Kymeret smiled. “Yes, there is that as well.” He nodded. “So I long to find this being, that we may face the darkness together.”

Slumber thumped his fist against his heart.

“And my brother Slumber will aid me in my quest!”

“Will you fight in this war?”

Kymeret sobered. “It seems I am already fighting in this war. But we are not part of an army. Whatever we must do, we will do as an iskele.”

Slumber nodded. He was working on arrow shafts while the others spoke. Someday, thought Slumber, I must find a way to tell Kymeret of my dream. It was a recurring dream of Sandoval, a mysterious elf they met in a dead city to the west. In the dream, Sandoval was not merely an elf.

But he knew not how to describe this dream without speech. He knew the dance and sway of elvish letters, could read the writings of others. But even with letters he had difficulty sifting his thoughts into language.

“You said this was orc territory,” said Yonai.

Avaresk nodded and took another sip of water.  “I was in this pass once, to scout with another of the Hidden Folk,” he said. “We had a contact among the orcs, someone who believes as we do.” He shook his head. “I hope he is still alive.”

Kymeret leaned forward. “And where, my friend, is Terefal Torn?”

Avaresk smiled. “We should reach it in a few days. After that, we shall see.”

 

* * * * *

 

477 IH, Sarnishar

 

Isonis leaned back against the rough wall of a building and watched people move past along the street. Sarnishar was more crowded than it had been when they arrived a few months ago. The gates were more heavily guarded now, and they seldom allowed anyone in from outside other than trading caravans, and those were few.

People found ways of climbing over the shoddier parts of the city wall. Guards were posted, but the people came through elsewhere.

If only food passed into the city as easily. The food vendors along the street had fewer goods for sale with every turn of the moons, and what they did have was dried fruit, grains with a hint of mold, and sometimes the gristly leavings of some butcher's work.

Crowdancer sat against the wall next to him and sang songs in Elvish and Ginto while playing a stringed instrument whose name Isonis couldn’t remember at the moment. As usual, she had an audience—people near the ends of despair who sought comfort, or at least a distraction from the day. They enjoyed her songs even if they did not understand them.

Isonis could feel the magic of her voice and her music thrumming along his spine, a feeling of being lifted out of some darkness into a bit of light. Every pluck of her fingers on the strings pulled something sweet from the air, a bell ringing from a brighter place than this.

Long ago, a lifetime ago, he had dismissed her abilities as a waste of time. She should have been training weapons, combat. She could fight, yes, but in difficult fights she was not worth as much as a ranger's swords and bow.

He had often been critical, even cruel, when they trained in Faerthale. At times it was difficult to remember the young man he had been so long ago.

Now he had seen what her magic could do, and better still if people looked at her and saw not a wizard, but a harmless musician. She could charm a wealthy man out of his silver with a song—and he had seen her do that more than once.

Isonis straightened as a well-dressed woman pushed her way through the gathered audience, accompanied by two men who moved like soldiers. All three were human, and the woman appeared to be in her mid-twenties as humans aged.

For a long time, she listened with a slight smile, then turned to Isonis.

“It is not often that one sees elves outside of Faerthale,” she said in Tradespeak.

Isonis nodded. “I haven’t seen a human in quite some time. It seems they stay close to Havensong in these times.”

“I have seen quite enough of Havensong to last a lifetime,” said the woman. “What brings you to Sarnishar?”

“Travelers.” Isonis shrugged. “Looking for a place to ride out the storm.”

She quirked a smile. “The storm. Yes, it seems many are here for the same reason.” She glanced down at Crowdancer, who had just finished a song and was listening to the conversation. “You have a lovely, powerful voice.”

Crowdancer bowed her head. “I thank you for the compliment.”

“Can I invite you to a hearty meal this evening? Better fare than you will find on the street.”

Aovyn leaned forward and began, “I’m not certain— “

“We would be delighted,” said Isonis. Aovyn glanced at him, but he kept his eyes on the humans.

“Excellent. A blue house in the merchant district, near to the spring. I shall expect you when the sun rests on the western wall.”

With a nod she turned away, followed closely by her bodyguards—for such they seemed to be.

“Forgive me,” said Isonis, and the woman turned. “I forgot to ask your name.”

She smiled and said, “Safranin Alizar.” Then she walked away.

“I have,” said Aovyn, “a very unpleasant sense about her.”

“Which is exactly why we need to get to know her. We’ve learned nothing new for weeks, except that trade is breaking down.”

“When we came to this city, you wanted me to do the talking. I was more diplomatic, or so you said several times.”

“And you are. And I apologize. But my instinct tells me this is a dinner we need to attend.”

 

* * * * *

 

They were greeted at the door by one of the dour bodyguards. A twist of his expression hinted at his opinion of the guests. When they were all inside and the door closed, the man said, “You will need to leave your weapons here, of course.”

“Of course,” said Aovyn. “You understand that we could not leave them in the inn.”

The guard did not search them, which Isonis found odd. He had expected the human to find the dagger he had kept hidden, which would lead to apology and possibly a confrontation—but the man didn’t seem to care.

The man also didn’t comment about the cloth wrapping his sword hilt. Isonis had found the sword far to the west, in the dead ruins of Nenufarn. The hilt was elaborate, beautiful, and a powerful elf named Sandoval had told him its name: Drinker of Night’s Breath. It rested now in a plain scabbard, and Isonis kept the hilt hidden so that it would not attract attention in the city.

Reluctantly he watched the guard place it on a weapon rack.

They were led to a room with a low table set with food. There were pickled vegetables, flatbreads with oil, and ribs of some animal cooked in sauce.

Isonis realized how long he had been suppressing hunger.

Safranin gestured for them to join her sitting on the floor around the table, and they took their places.

The guard who had showed them in remained by one door to the room.

“Is that,” said Aovyn, “a bottle of Oldstone wine from Faerthale?”

Safranin smiled and poured some into a small ceramic bowl the size of a tea cup. “It is indeed. I am fond of Elven wine.”

“As am I.” Aovyn reached for the bottle and poured some for himself. He sniffed, then took a large swallow—the signal that the shaman found no poison in the wine.

“No need to hold back,” Safranin said, and she forked a helping of meat onto her plate.

The others followed, and for several minutes there was only the sound of four people eating heartily.

After his hunger had abated somewhat, Isonis said, “How do you find all of this food? From all accounts, trade across the plains is more difficult by the year, and what little food comes into Sarnishar goes straight to the Tower, for the king and his court.”

Safranin savored the wine in her mouth, then swallowed. “I have friends in the court, and they allow me what simple foods you see at my table.”

“Simple,” said Crowdancer. “I haven’t had meat in weeks.”

“Then have all you like.”

“I can’t imagine what the refugees outside the city are eating,” said Aovyn.

“Yes, the migrants cling to the wall like mollusks. Perhaps they eat insects.”

Aovyn seemed to stop breathing for a moment. Then he said, “Why us? We are elves far from home trying to find a safe place while the world is in turmoil, and we have no powerful friends in this city. Perhaps we are refugees ourselves.”

“Why you indeed. Elves interest me. There were elves in the camps when I was little. Bringing supplies, then building walls of stone. Why did you do it?”

“I cannot speak for the Council, but elves have a long memory of our own collision. Perhaps they sympathized with another species enduring the same.”

Her expression suggested she was doubtful. “I see. In any case, your bard there is quite talented, and I haven’t heard good music in a long time.”

“I am grateful that you enjoyed it,” said Crowdancer.

“You sang a song in Ginto.”

Crowdancer blinked. “Yes, I did. We learned some of their language while traveling with the Ginto Remnant.”

Safranin laughed. “As yes, the so-called ’Remnant’. You traveled with them? What stories did they tell?”

Isonis said, “They told of the Ravaging Lord corrupting their species. They told of his intention to bring an endless Night to the world. They try to build a resistance to the forces of their dark fallen god.”

Safranin laughed again. “Dark fallen god. So you have drifted among small bands of aggrieved troublemakers, and you think you understand the Ginto? No matter.” She leaned forward. “Ittero is not here. He is not lord of this continent. Ossari is here. What do you know of him?”

Crowdancer said, “Will you not teach us what you know of Ossari?”

Okay, thought Isonis. That was good.

Safranin stared at her a moment, smiling, then said, “I would love nothing more.” She reached for the bottle, found it empty, and said loudly, “More wine!”

A servant came in from the back of the room—of a species Isonis could not identify—and opened another bottle, then poured some for Safranin.

“Good,” she said, and took a long draft. “I was a wizard, you know. I was taught that we must help defend humanity. People choose what they would do based on their abilitites. Some farm or do other manual labor, some become crafters or soldiers—and some become scholars, if they have the wit for it. But if fire dances with you, no, you must obey. You have a duty. To be told that your destiny, your only purpose, is to fight and die for your people… can you imagine?”

Isonis nodded and met her eyes. “Actually, we can imagine that quite well.”

Safranin stared at him, then smiled. “It seems I have found kindred spirits. That is good. I would not be placed in among soldiers as their pet wizard. I knew, I always knew, that I was meant for better things.”

She raised her right hand, and flame appeared within, floating as if on the surface of her palm. Then she closed her hand, and the flame extinguished. “A god gave me this power when I was just a girl. A god chose me!

When they had first sat at this table, Isonis suspected that Safranin had already had a drink or two. Now she seemed drunk with both power and wine.

She leaned back now, satisfied. “What could I do but answer? He asks so little and indulges so much.”

Isonis felt himself letting out a breath slowly. There was no way to rise swiftly from this table, with his legs crossed on the floor underneath it. They shared this dwelling with a wizard of unknown power who had no need to stand, and at least two well-armed guards. And most of their weapons were in another room—if they hadn’t been moved already.

Aovyn said quietly, “What does Ossari ask?”

“Well of course you must believe in his mission, what he intends. You must serve that end. But how you serve, well, the talented, the chosen may serve in whatever way seems best.” She spread her arms. “I am his emissary to the King of Sarnishar.”

“And the less talented?” asked Isonis.

“They can serve in his armies.”

“And what,” continued Aovyn, “is his mission?”

She looked at him a moment, then shook her head. “You wouldn’t understand. If you did, you would have already come to him. Perhaps you will in the end.”

“In that case,” said Isonis, “Since we have eaten at your table, and since we’ve had fine food and fine conversation with an emissary of Ossari, I must ask about me and my people. Are we safe here? In Sarnishar?”

Safranin leaned back and spread her arms. “That depends upon whether Sarnishar is in my lord’s way. What will the Sarnish king decide?” She smiled. “If you want to help, if you want to save this city, you could join me in pleading for the king’s acquiescence.”

Aovyn cleared his throat. “Acquiescence to what?”

She thought a moment. “Perhaps I should have said surrender.”