In the aftermath of the devastation, none of the Great Halls remained.
Stone, marble, fine cloth, weapons, and instruments from around the known world lay in smoking, shattered heaps, among lumps of broken bone and shredded flesh, littering the valley, and the smoke, still thick, roiled back on itself and grew larger, like a confused stampeding crowd. Sprawling across the cloud-strewn sky, it hid the bodies from the view of carrion birds, and small fires, safe from the coming spring rain, still burned in protected places, unchecked, but unable to do anymore damage.
Singers Hall was completely destroyed.
Lorelei woke up, her throat raw from the smoke, her eyes bleary and bloodshot, her clothes torn, and her thoughts rambling. Her book wasn’t far from her, but it was singed.
Gingerly, she picked it up, lifting with her fingertips; bits of charred paper fell off and flew away, but only from the edges. The book itself was sound, its pages untouched by fire, still readable, with all of her notes in the margins.
That, and the clothes on her back, were all she had.
She was able to stand, and slowly got to her feet, not wanting to be prone in case whoever did this was searching the rubble to kill the wounded.
She took a look around, and tears not born of smoke filled her eyes…
That was good, because it caused her not to focus.
There was a general impression of carnage, of blood, of bodies broken and torn, but she didn’t look at anyone’s face, didn’t allow herself to recognize, and remember, because she’d be paralyzed by fear and grief, and there was no telling who was coming.
So she waited, and collected her thoughts, as the soft spring rain began to fall.
Footsteps crunched over stone.
A fallen pillar hid her from view, but hiding didn’t occur to her.
She wanted to see if whoever it was had been responsible for what happened; what she would do then, she didn’t know.
Her throat, however, was still raw from smoke and dust, so a canticle of binding was out of the question. She had her training, but no weapons, so with the only recourse left to her, she picked up a sharpened piece of the fallen pillar.
There would only be one chance.
A boy stood on the fallen pillar, but above her.
Shielding his eyes against the rain with his hand, he scanned the remains of Singers Hall, and Lorelei used the time to observe him.
He was brown, all over, from his skin to his clothing, to the small harp in a brown case strapped to his back. She could see the burnished scrollwork at the end poking out of a corner of the case. He was a stranger in these lands, but if he’d made Musicians Hall here, he was indeed talented.
She looked some more.
He was bald, almost hairless to the point of babyhood, and had a dark gleam about him, brimming with some unknown power, but he seemed whole, and strong, and about her age; he wouldn’t need looking after then, but she was still reluctant to reveal herself.
Seeing nothing, he turned to go.
If he leaves, you’ll be traveling alone, for who knows how long, facing who knows what?
“Wait!” She stepped out from hiding.
He turned, surprised, but wary.
She scrambled up the pillar, put herself on level with him, and they stood, taking each other in.
“You survived,” he finally said.
“So did you. Did you see anything?”
“Bodies, ruin, and fire, not much else. You?”
“The same. None of the Halls are intact. I thought they might be walking around to kill the wounded, so I got up.”
“I don’t think they needed to; they were pretty efficient. And it might not have been wise for you to get up, since they would’ve killed you for real.”
“I’m no good at pretending to be dead if I’m not.”
“No,” he smiled, “me neither.”
He walked back toward her, but didn’t offer his hand.
She didn’t take offense; the Musicians never offered their hands, which they held as transporters of their craft to enter this world from the next, so they were sacrosanct, and kept untainted.
“Now there’s a name for a Singer.”
She smiled, pointed to his back.
“Among other things, none of which survived; this will have to do for now.”
The rain fell harder.
“Let’s find shelter, and we’ll figure it out from there.”
“We already have shelter.”
He looked at her.
“We can stay right here, under this pillar, and wait out the rain.”
“You could do that? Your friends’ corpses lay here, your teachers…”
“None of whom would mind. Is there any point to blundering about in the rain, not knowing where we are, or where we’re going?”
Besides, I’ve already mourned, in secret, where no one could see.
He opened his mouth to say something, but couldn’t argue the validity.
She was already scrambling back underneath the pillar.
Intrigued by her practicality, if surprised at the hardness of her decision, he followed.
The rain continued falling, steady, after dark, and they went hungry that night, though they managed to make a fire.
In the morning, the sun came out, the smoke cleared, and a herald crow sounded the breakfast bell.
They left, still dampened in clothes and spirit, and began to try to find a path out.
As they searched, she thought back to her first day.
Her teacher was a walking willow stick; everything about her was wispy, like the pink, fluffy candy of country fairs, sweetness without substance, but that was only on the surface.
“You have been chosen as Singers; you are above the pale and beyond the norm, and this is now your home. Everything, and I mean everything, you need, or ever will need, is here.
“There is no need to go skulking about in the woods, like trolls and brigands. The sacrifice of your voice in offering replaces what is left of your life. You no longer have families, or friends, or lovers, save those you meet here.
“You are given no outside indulgences to detract from your training, for while you are superior, you are not yet fully formed.
“And it is I who will form you, from now on.”
The days were grueling, the nights sometimes more so.
Willow, for that is what Lorelei called her, was relentless, merciless, and sometimes cruel.
Lorelei had been at turns beaten, starved, made to sleep standing up, and a few things in between, but last month, at the end of her fourth year, Willow had given her the book, Blessed Canticles. Her own copy, signed with Willow’s own hand.
“To Lorelei, you have been blessed beyond your worth, but you have earned it, and done well.”
She later found out, when she went to see what Willow had written for the others, that hers was the only book signed.
Gradually, they’d fallen off, wondering what she’d done to gain such favor, when they had all been equally punished and rewarded, seemingly solely based on Willow’s whims.
The imposed shunning hurt, the exile to a table of her own as they left at her approach even more so, but there it was.
“And now, I’m all that’s left…”
“Nothing. Nothing, Devon, just thinking out loud.”
“We’ve flushed her out into the open, Lord Karis; she travels with a bard.”
“A bard? Indeed, two for the price of one. I’m pleased, Jahrin.”
Jahrin smiled; he didn’t like when Karis wasn’t pleased.
“May I ask a question, Lord Karis?”
“What do you want with the Singer?”
Karis looked out the window, distracted, but he’d heard the question.
“I will answer you, Jahrin. If I hear it on the lips of anyone else, your tongue is forfeit. Have I made myself clear?”
“Yes, Lord Karis.”
Karis sighed, and walked over to a table, where he took a book of white and gold, and placed it before Jahrin.
“I…I can’t read, Lord…”
“I know, Jahrin.”
Karis walked away, and began to sing, a minor key, that sounded something like a dirge, slow, sonorous, and foreign sounding, and Jahrin closed his eyes, shuddering in his seat, held by something that frightened him beyond words.
His teeth chattered, and tears leaked copiously from his eyes, and when the song ended, and he was finally released, he slumped forward.
The cover was bleary in his vision, and he clumsily wiped his eyes with an overlarge hand, breathing hard.
And the cover said,
The Canticles of War
“Lord Karis…Lord Karis…I…I can..”
“I know, Jahrin.”
Jahrin remained speechless, reading the words over and over again, wanting to hug the book to him; he dared not touch it, and ran to the shelves, pulling things at random, reading, books and parchments gathering around him like sand.
Karis, enjoying his servant’s excited mood, stopped on his way out to give him a look.
Jahrin’s eyes were bright with happy tears.
“Now imagine what I could do, Jahrin, if I had her power.”
He thought about taking the words from Jahrin, leaving him illiterate again, but that would be cruel, even for him.
This might be actually prove to be useful, later.
He could hear Jahrin’s laughter echo in the hall, and the crash of more books falling off the shelves.
Quite useful, indeed.