“Come with me,” said the stranger. His voice was deep brown, coffee and corduroy, with a rasp at the edges.
“I do not yodel,” I informed the door that had suddenly, sharply, closed in my face, and turned to stare at him. Pale, with stubble-shadow on his jaw, tired eyes, a glimpse of light-colored hair from beneath his hood. Last I had seen him, he was fast asleep beside the stone highway marker, his mule grazing nearby, a couple miles from this miserable little village.
He smiled, a smile that did not quite reach his eyes. “You heard the innkeeper.” He jerked his chin towards the shut door. “They don’t welcome musicians hereabouts. And it’s going to rain.”
“Wonderful,” I muttered, trying not to think of the way his voice sent shivers down my back. Water had hung in the air all week long, condensing on my face and clinging damply to my clothes. I was tired of always being wet, of sleeping on the ground, of not having enough money for a decent bowl of soup.
Of spilling out my guts to strangers in song, and having them shove past with no thought of me.
“They will not appreciate you here,” he said, as though he had read my mind. And just like that, he crossed the line from being someone I did not know to someone who I could one day, perhaps, call friend. “But I know where you will receive shelter and welcome. Your voice is all gold and red, like a war banner’s.”
I started. Did he know...?
No, there was no slyness, no hidden meaning in his sad tired eyes. His voice was that of a forest god’s, dark browns and deep greens, full of wet earth and hidden pools. A voice to drown oneself in. I blinked condensation from my eyes. My exhaustion was turning me into a sentimental fool.
“Where is this safe haven of yours?” I asked.
“The castle.” I followed his pointing finger to the edifice topping a hill outside the village. It figured that I would have an uphill walk. “I am Tabor, by the way.”
I hesitated just an instant. “Marla,” I said, settling on the first name that came to mind, that of a former classmate and old rival at bardic college. I wondered how she did, whether she liked being a house bard. I had scorned her once, but now look at me—disgraced War Bard hiding from the Duke, taking the long circuitous way back to Astaria. I hoped that the Duke would’ve forgotten all about me by the time I reached home, or else be too busy sneering at the court and stamping about to pay me much attention. “Who lives up there, by the by?”
I grimaced, but understood. I had once been Family myself. “Are you their bard?”
A mirthless smile curved his lips. “I... buy and sell for them. In other markets, farther away.”
“Bolts of silk, glazed pottery, out-of-season fruits, that sort of thing?”
“Among other things. You seem surprised?”
For a tired man, he was certainly quick to read my mind. Did I wear my feelings on my face that obviously? No wonder the Duke had quickly lost warmth for me. I certainly had for him. “I rather thought you were a musician, a singer, like me. You have such a”—my tongue tripped on all the words I wanted to use like bittersweet and chocolate, and I finished with the lame—“lovely voice.”
“Ah.” That sadness rising to the surface again. “No, I do not sing. I’m just a middleman.”
“Let’s say you work in procurement. It sounds much better, don’t you agree?” Heavens, I was babbling. It had been so long since someone had just talked to me as if I were a person, so long since I had heard a language that I understood in an accent that was almost normal.
So long since I had heard a voice that made my spine tingle and my head light.
“Shall we go, then?” I asked. We had an entire walk ahead of us, plenty of time to talk of weather and markets, plenty of time to listen to that voice and feel alive again. “Look, the sun’s coming out!” Golden light poured out through a break in the cloud, illuminated the castle. It was a sign. A sign that I would be all right.
The respite from the dreary weather was brief. By the time I reached the hilltop, alone since Tabor had to stable the mule, twilight shrouded the architectural monstrosity ahead of me. Its designer had obviously belonged to the More is Better school of thought. Arched nooks nudged gargoyles into the corners; an off-center rose window competed with several arches for dominance and the whole façade was riddled with cutwork.
I had known musicians like that. I smiled, remembering Arkady and his epic pastoral tragicomedy.
A wind picked up, cutting through my cloak, and the sky shed frigid tears upon my head. I slipped between the gates, rusted half-open in a permanent gape.
Stones turned under my feet, and the vegetation had long since broken out of bounds and ran rampant over the walkway. Long whippy branches grabbed my ankles and snagged my clothes. I struggled up to the porch as pea-sized raindrops splattered all over the steps.
Judging from the disrepair, it seemed unlikely that the occupants would be able to pay me beyond a sleeping place and soup, but as long as dinner was hot and the pallet without fleas, I’d be happy. No doubt they were the type of aristocratic family that would rather eat rats and let their homes fall into ruin than vacate the ancestral abode. I knew that type rather well actually, having come from such stock myself.
I reached for the brass knocker—held in the mouth of some snooty sneering creature who seemed unaware that its masters’ fortunes had changed—but the door swung open just as my fingers brushed it.
The man in the doorway was probably a steward grown old in service; his skin was parchment-pale, thin and translucent, his eyes a watered grey.
“You’re late.” His voice was flat, without inflection.
“Um.” I looked around, expecting to see Tabor, but I was alone with the relic. “I didn’t think...” My voice faltered. He reminded me of my old Etiquette teacher, and I felt like a scrubbed-knees schoolgirl again. “I’m sorry.”
He stood aside without a word and, after a quick glance around, I stepped across the threshold.
A few lamps illuminated the foyer, revealing dusty tapestries and a floor that had not been cleaned in a while. Up near the high ceiling, I made out balustrades surrounding the room.
The steward was at the far door already. I hadn’t seen or heard him move. One of those servitors. My family had had a few of those—still had as far as I knew.
I raised my nose and sailed through the doorway, pretending that invisible skirts swept around me, and stopped, blinking.
Hundreds of candles blazed in a lacy chandelier made of a thousand drops of glass, light refracting and reflecting to create a small sun hanging overhead. An insectile hum filled the room. Ladies peered at me from over their fans. Men stared, caught in the act of taking snuff or sipping wine. All eyes gleamed like the hard carapaces of beetles, clothes sighed like the flutter of many moths.
I had walked into a party.
A man—the host, I presumed—emerged from the whispering crowd. He was running to fat and dressed in clothes of yesteryear; long buttoned waistcoat, loose breeches, an enormous wig. “Welcome, my dear!” A sickly-sweet smell emanated from him, as if he had tried to disguise the lingering reek of his dinner with perfume. “It has been too long for us without music, has it not, Euphemia?”
A small woman with an elaborate wig containing a broken clock and a stuffed bird edged out from behind him. “Indeed it has, Sylvester,” she lisped. “We have been deprived since early this afternoon!” Her kohl-outlined eyes grew wide.
I turned my giggle into a snort. Euphemia waved her fan and minced closer to me. “What is your name, child?” She tilted her head in a confiding way. The bird in her wig shifted, until it leaned drunkenly against the clock.
“Marla, ma’am,” I said. She nodded, face creased in seriousness, while her bird repeated her movements two feet above her head. It had lost many of its feathers and it smelled. When had Euphemia last washed her hair?
On second thought, I didn’t want to know.
“What a pretty name. I hope you do better than our last musician. Ungrateful girl just abandoned us! And we were so good to her, too.” Euphemia held out her hand. The lace on her cuffs was torn and yellowed, and the red silk of her sleeve stained. I bowed low, took her fingertips lightly in my hand—they felt old and dry, like bones—and kissed the air above them.
“I will be honored to sing for you tonight.” I stressed the last word, hoping that my hosts would not think me a replacement for the pet musician they had lost. Even in my current unemployed state, I was not about to go into domestic service.
“Wonderful.” Euphemia’s hand tightened. Her fingers were strong, and her nails long and scratchy. She released me. “Sing for us.”
Abrupt, but I had sung above the clash of armies, I had sung for my captors while thirsty and exhausted.
I could sing for a party.
I took a few calming breaths, let my muscles relax, closed my eyes briefly as I let myself into that secret place—whether inside me, or outside, I never could tell—from which I drew my music.
The chandelier was a blur of light and crystal, and I chose Ariana’s Love Song in its honor, a piece full of sharp bright longing, like shards of glass. My voice rose strong and pure. I admired it as if I stood outside my own body, commenting on my own singing. My gaze flicked towards my audience.
They watched me, faces pale as moons, eyes dark and unblinking, mouths slightly open, leaning forward. I had never seen an audience so wholly enthralled, so still and poised, like snakes waiting for the strike.
Was I doing this? Had I let the power slip into my song, were my notes shimmering with magic? I tried to rein in my voice, hit one false note. As one, my audience flinched. Euphemia shielded her eyes and shook her head.
Heat rose in my cheeks. The chandelier was no longer a great golden smear right across my vision; darkness nibbled at the edges of sight, the lights dimmed. The party-goers seemed to be closer, though no one had moved. My head throbbed, my eyes burned, my limbs felt cold and numb, but my voice continued to be drawn out from me, like a fish on a line. Sylvester licked his lips, Euphemia put down her hand and trembled in some kind of ecstasy, the others swayed, or closed their eyes in various degrees of satiation. I had never had an audience so rapt.
They like me. They want me.
I sang and sang and sang, my voice leaping higher, like a deer on a mountaintop, reaching towards the great golden sun. Voices, angelic voices, rang out and I yearned to join my song to theirs. I made one last jump, and was suddenly dizzy.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I think I’m going to be...” Darkness surged across the room like a tide and dragged me under.
I woke once, roused by the voices.
“She is strong, her voice is pure.”
“Yes, we can feast on such music for months to come! The Finder has done well.”
A snort. “And saved himself.”
The voices moved away, and I fell back into dreamlessness, barely aware that I was horizontal and that the sheets I clutched in my fists were silk.
Watery sunlight trickled through several layers of draperies and came to me like a ghost might, touching my eyes with fingers that were no longer warm. The room smelled of mold and mustiness, and the sheets against my skin were damp and blotched. I threw them off as if they were dead rats, and scrambled to my feet.
Or tried to. My knees gave and I landed with an inelegant thump, pitched forward and ended with my forehead pressed against carpet that smelled of cats.
Yuck. I pushed myself back up, using a carven bedpost as a support. The sheets looked even worse from this perspective; stained and smelling of sweat and urine. Didn’t these people wash their bed linen between guests?
I remembered little of last night after I had started singing. No, there was that giddy golden feeling, the sensation that I was about to fly, to leap into the sun. I must’ve collapsed; I remembered the world wavering. Someone had carried me in here, dumped me on the bed—I was fully clothed, still cloaked and booted—and left.
I made my way over to the door and tugged at the handle.
Tabor! I cursed myself for a fool, to fall prey to a beautiful voice and an air of mystery. Finder, was he? Procurer of pet musicians for the Family, was he? I’d do something terrible to him. I’d sing at him. Turn his bones to jelly and his muscles to lead. Once I got out of this room. I sang at the door and my voice came out a squeak. The muscles in my throat hurt; my vocal chords grumbled, rolled over and went back to sleep.
All right, then. Time for a more direct approach.
I hammered, I yelled, I rattled and kicked, but no one came. At my feet were a jug of water and a plate of cold food; moldy bread and cheese, raw potatoes that were growing. Food left on the floor, as one might do for a pet.
By the time the meager sunlight withdrew from my window (panes small and thick, held in frames of black metal, distance to the ground uncertain, but bound to be long), I had exhausted all possibilities of gaining an exit from the room. I slumped on an old wooden chair (part of the back gave when I sat down) and conserved my strength.
The steward let me out after the light in the room had faded from gold to the bleached grey of twilight. I didn’t say anything to him—he was just a lackey. Tabor, I wanted words with, but that would have to wait. I followed the steward down the marble stairway I didn’t remember coming up on. It was cobwebby and dusty and when I tripped and held the banister, my fingers came away sticky. I rubbed my hand against my thigh.
“They are waiting for you in the ballroom,” said the steward at the bottom of the stairs. The doors to the ballroom were closed, the foyer empty.
“Thanks,” I said, and kicked him behind the knees.
He went down like a dropped bull and I ran for the front door. It might be locked, but I had seen windows on either side last night. A quick punch through the glass, cover my face and smash through the rest of the window, through the jungle, down the hill, stopping only to yell an obscenity or two at Tabor if I saw him, and probably the village as well, and I’d be gone from this place.
Something fluttered overheard, drawing my gaze for a moment. When I looked forward again, Euphemia stood in front of the door.
“Now, now,” she said. “Don’t be in such a hurry to leave. You just got here.” Gone was the drooping little lady of last night. Her eyes gleamed weirdly, her red-painted lips were slightly open to reveal teeth that were a little too long and little too sharp to be human.
Shadows came to life all around me. My feet took a little longer than my head to assess my situation, but I stopped before I careened into the ring of what I strongly suspected were nonhuman creatures with unholy desires.
Desires that I was not going to inflame by throwing myself into their arms.
“I’m not very good eating, you know,” I said, conversationally. “My blood is thin and cold, or so say my parents, my former employers, and my enemies. It comes with the red hair. Probably give you indigestion.”
“Don’t be so crude, dear,” said Euphemia, with a delicate shudder. “We are civilized.” I rolled my eyes, half-expecting her to pull some worm-eaten fan and shake it agitatedly at my gauche behavior.
Sylvester stepped forward, no longer fat and pathetic, but bloated and repulsive. His eyes held a fanatical red light. “It’s not your body we want, nor the fluids that cycle through it. We want your song.” He said song the way he might’ve said soul. My skin prickled.
I folded my arms. “Well, you won’t get it.”
“Too late.” Sylvester showed teeth. “You’ve already given it to us.”
They crowded around me, rustling, pressing. My head was light and fuzzy again. Voices, soft and sweet and pleading, whispered, Sing for us! The performer in me could never turn down a begging audience. The treacherous song rose in me. I clamped my lips, but my shoulders and knees sagged, and the music gently opened my mouth and—came out.
Their faces, greedy, intent, enraptured, drew the song from me, gave it wings and sent it up. I wafted in golden light again, headed for the sun. There were rainbow shimmers and glimpses of awesome creatures; a curve of a wing, an arch of a neck, and above all, heavenly voices. I was being lifted up to glory...
No. Those were just illusions. I closed my eyes from the gilded sights and threw myself down, back into my body. In the half-ruined foyer, they sucked my song from my bones and blood, leached it from my life. When their longing turned to satiation, they slipped away, one by one, and left me on my knees, shuddering with chills, staring at the reddish stains in the wood.
Reddish stains. Blood stains right were a body might land if it fell—or jumped—through a gap in the balustrade above.
Someone else before me had taken that last desperate plunge to escape the slower death.
I did not hear his approach, did not know he was coming, until brown boots and the hem of a cloak entered my blurred vision.
“Bastard,” I said. It came out a croak.
A pause of several heartbeats. Rough warm fabric fell upon my shoulders. My traitorous fingers clenched at it.
“Don’t fight it.” Tabor squatted down beside me. He must’ve known that I was too weak to punch him in the face. “It will go easier for you if you don’t.”
Like a lamb to the slaughter, eh? I couldn’t get the words out. It was too dark and too cold and spasms shook my whole body. I had no strength to protest when Tabor lifted me to my feet, when he put his arms around my waist, and led me gently, solicitously upstairs to my prison.
That night I tossed among the sheets, haunted by visions of gold. I could not get warm enough.
When morning came, I was gritty-eyed, every nerve rubbed raw, my skin hot and tender to touch, like one big throbbing lump. My surroundings were so dismal and grim that I put the sheets over my head and stayed there until the steward came.
“You give us song, we give you dreams,” they whispered. “A fair exchange, don’t you think? The purer your song, the more you see. These visions, they are nice, are they not?”
They were. My parents, the Duke, my rivals at bardic school, all smiling and pleased to see me. The King and his court grown magically nobler, kinder, more courageous and caring. Brian, alive again.
Illusions. Hollow illusions. I threw the bardic power at them, poison in my song, notes of stabbing, scales of crushing. They lapped it all up, absorbed the power, laughed at me.
What kind of creatures were these? Did they have no hearts to stop, no blood to boil?
“The others were weak. They hid from the light and could not sustain their song. You are strong, you will see what others feared to.”
I fought them, but more than that I fought myself. I hunched my shoulders, tensed my face, tried to cut off my breath from my song, but to no avail. My throat ached, my vocal cords strained and a haunting feeling came over me that my body would break long before my song could be stoppered.
During the daytime, the dreaming time, I lay in the cold bed and shivered, drifting in and out of visions of gold and visions of gloom.
A splash of cold water, burning against my skin. I sat up and rubbed at my damp face.
“You’re killing your voice, fighting like this.” Tabor flung aside the water-jug. It rolled until it hit the wall. “They still feed upon you and whatever cursed power you throw at them, and grow ever stronger.”
I gaped at him, groggy. Anger began to rise from deep inside me. “What? Are you afraid that you’re going to have to turn out in the rain and dark to find another singer? Or maybe that you’ll have to sing for them yourself, Finder?”
“I’ve paid a price, too, and I don’t regret the exchange of my life for this... work. But, still.” He stared at me; his shadow on the wall was that of an angry giant, feet planted apart, hands clenched at his sides. “I hate to see that voice broken.” He spun on his heel and left so fast that one moment he was there, the next the door slammed shut and I was alone once more.
Alone as I whispered, “I think it’s already too late.”
I had to fight free before there was no voice left to fight with.
I preceded the steward into the ballroom, head held high. I had scrubbed my face with stale water and a sliver of soap left cracked and forgotten in my room. My unbrushed hair had been wrestled into a rough braid. I had even cleaned my boots with the end of a bed sheet, even though my hands shook as I did so.
My throat still hurt.
“I trust there will be no more of this dreary resistance tonight?” said Euphemia, as she always did. Her bird had gotten turned so that it seemed to be glaring at me from its empty left eye socket. “You know, my dear, last night’s performance lacked a little luster. I will send you up a poultice. I’m afraid you might be catching a bit of a cold.”
I couldn’t help a little half-sob, half-laugh.
“Begin,” commanded Sylvester.
I took a deep breath and launched into Freya’s Lament. The first verses were pure and sweet, full of happy words and happier thoughts. The soulsuckers leaned in as they pulled my music out. I sang of leave-taking, of saying goodbye, not only to loved ones, but home and soil. Freya had written the song for Skaris, but I saw Astaria in my mind, my mountains grown purple and blue in the distance, cloud shadows pooled on their shoulders; the crisp apple-and-smoke-scented autumn days; lilacs in spring; winter sunlight striking the white towers of the King’s City. One or two of the creatures had faraway gazes, as if they, too, remembered a world outside this house, a world almost lost for them.
I almost pitied them.
Then my voice broke.
It was a mere catch at first, a note hit half a second too late, barely discernable to anyone who did not know the song as well as I did. But I knew that something was wrong, very wrong. My tense and knotted muscles, my voice wrung out and raw from days—or weeks?—of fighting the soulsuckers’ magic; they had given out on me. There was no bardic power to draw on, without the honed weapon of my voice. What good is all the fighting skill in the world when your weapon is dull and rusted, all but broken? I stumbled over the notes. My breath came in short sharp gasps. The soulsuckers came back to themselves, recoiling. Sylvester let out a loud gusty sigh of annoyance.
“Oh my dear,” said Euphemia, soft and piteous. “You had better stop and rest.”
So that they could suck me dry another day? Suck me to a husk?
I had no power left to fight them, nothing to resist them with, no voice to enrapture them.
So, I gave them myself.
As I sang, I grasped and held my worst memories; the first time I saw a battle-broken body, the first child—a drummer boy—who died in my charge, an arrow in his throat, eyes wide in surprise. I thought of the horses I had lost, my sweet Aria, friends who would never speak with me again. I gave myself up to the loss.
The soulsuckers flinched; some hissed, Euphemia crooked her fingers into claws. I moved to pain more physical; the snap of bone, the fiery trail of an arrow nicking my shoulder. Of being kicked and stoned. I sang of fatigue and thirst and hunger like a stone in the belly; Sylvester doubled over clutching his stomach.
“Stop,” murmured Euphemia. “Stop.” She started forward, but I sang of my blistered travel-weary feet, and she stumbled.
They wanted my life? Well, let them have it. My throat strained and my voice cracked. It wasn’t pretty, but it was full of all that I could give, my life written in notes of pain and blood.
They couldn’t break the thrall, no matter how they moaned and winced and swayed, like wind in the trees, like empty clothes on the line.
One by one, they started to fall, thrashing, kicking. At the last, only Euphemia remained standing, clenching fistfuls of dirty silk dress. The candles burned down, leaving only a pale glow near the windows.
I stepped past dark heaps, still singing. One by one, I tugged at the draperies, which came down with a tearing sound and plenty of dust and debris. Sunlight, almost incredulous at the invitation, crept in slowly. Not what I had hoped for, but it would be enough. One last blow: I sang of almost dying; of fever burning, of water in the lungs, of blackened vision, and my voice, my once-beautiful valiant voice, gave out, finally after that long night. Maybe forever.
Euphemia crumpled. Her bird flopped next to her, her clock tumbled out with a squeak of springs.
I left the sunlight to finish the rest of the work.
In the still-dark foyer there was movement.
“Tabor.” My voice was a tortured whisper. It hurt even to speak, even to swallow.
He stood in darkness, arms folded. “Go now. You’re free.”
“So are you,” I managed. I had no strength left to be angry.
“No.” He shook his head. “I’ve bound myself to this place. Everyone knows of my bargain. There is no life for me outside these walls.”
I half-sighed, half-laughed. I was a disgrace to my family, a traitor to my country, stripped of all my dreams and hopes. I wasn’t hiding, though. “Coward.”
I went to the door. Unlocked.
Outside, sunlight showered down in greeting and even the wilderness looked almost harmless. The gate was half-open, not half-shut.
Maybe later I would regret the price I had paid, but not now. Not now, with those first breaths of sweet air sliding down my ruined throat.
I ran down the driveway and through the gap.
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Copyright 2009, Rabia Gale. All rights reserved.
Rabia Gale's work has appeared in "The Sword Review" and "OG's Speculative Fiction". She lives in Vermont with her husband and three children. Her virtual home can be found at http://www.rabiagale.com.