WEST OF THE SAND PASS, DEFALK
dozen musicians sit on stools under the oblong white silk awning held in place by four sturdy poles, each pole anchored by heavy cords to a pair of stakes. The silk flutters slightly in the almost still air that carries the scent of dust and horses.
The brown-and-red mountains that loom in the east above the pass entrance waver in the summer heat, and sweat drips down the faces of the musicians. All wear faded blue cotton tunics and trousers, with boots of a matching blue leather. Occasionally, one blots a forehead or cheek, but not one of the musicians speaks. Dark sweat stains mark the tunics of the heavier men. The three horn players exchange glances, not quite those of worry, then look toward the two men standing in the midday sun beyond the silk awning.
The bigger man, wearing leathers and a hand-and-a-half blade in a scabbard worn across his shoulders, puts a hand on the saddle of his warhorse. A good fifty paces to the east wait a squad of mounted troopers wearing the purple of Defalk. Their black sabres are sheathed in scabbards at their waists. Half carry black horn bows and quivers, and half bear long spear-lances with identical, leaf-shaped steel blades.
“You’re sure these walls will stand against even the Dark Monks?” drawls the bulky, broad-faced man. His hooded eyes give his face a sleepy-looking cast.
“What I raise will be standing when you and I are long gone, Lord Barjim,” affirms the resonant baritone voice of the slender and balding man in blue silks.
“That’ll be a long time, Brill,” laughs the Lord of Defalk. “You look the same as when I was Jimbob’s age.”
“They’ll stand that long or longer.”
“Aye, and they should for all the silver I’m paying.”
“It’s far less than bringing in masons from Nordwei.”
“Not that much. Not in these times.” Barjim pauses, as if waiting for a response, then finally continues. “Too bad you couldn’t bring us rain. Need that worse than the fort, except we need both, with the dark ones on the move.” He looks down at the shorter lord. “I still don’t see why you can’t bring rain. It’s not as though you’ve avoided darksong. We both know that.”
“That’s too dark, and I’ve explained why before,” Brill answers patiently.
“You have an answer for everything,” points out Barjim.
“That’s why you’re a sorcerer.”
“No,” responds Brill. “That’s why I’ve survived as a sorcerer.”
“Cold iron is more sure.”
“That is true, lord,” says Brill, his tone light, not quite mocking. “Unless you consider the Dark Monks.”
“Someday.” Barjim shakes his head. “I’ll leave you to your task, master sorcerer. I’ll be back to inspect your work later, and, of course, pay you.”
“Of course, lord.” Brill bows deeply.
Lord Barjim snorts and turns, swinging up onto his mount. As he rides toward his troopers, they straighten in their identical purpled leather saddles.
Once the troopers pass the outcropping of dark stone on the south side of the valley, they turn due west, back toward Mencha, away from the Sand Pass that leads to Ebra. When the sound of hoofs on the paved highway echoes back uphill, Lord Brill lets a smile cross his lips. He glances toward the representative piles of stone and brick, the dry powdered mortar, and the tubs of water, then steps under the silk sunshade and wipes his forehead. After he takes a long sip from the goblet on the portable table, his brown-flecked green eyes drop to the two-part drawing of the walled fortification fastened with leather thongs to the drafting board. The right-hand side of the drawing illustrates the foundation outline, the left-hand side a frontal view as if seen from a
tall oak, though Brill stands in the middle of a depression between the hills, empty except for the sorcerer and his players, and the heaps of stone on the south side. Beside the drawing are the spells, with the proper accents marked. The softness in Brill’s eyes vanishes as he faces the musicians.
“The ground-sorting tune,” he orders. “Run through it once.” He lifts his right hand and began the count, marking the time deftly. “One, two …” With his nod, the musicians begin the sonorous tones, the brass horns low and urgent, the woodwinds pantherlike, the strings whispering like shifting sands.
“No! Jaegal, you must emphasize the downbeats more, especially the first.” Brill’s hands stop the players, and his eyes flash.
Not one of the musicians looks up, although one of the horn players scowls, his face averted from Brill. In the last part of the string section, a black-haired youth takes a clean gray cloth and blots his forehead quickly before replacing the cloth and repositioning his bow.
“Again!” Brill demands.
As the musicians play, the ground beyond the bricks and mortar and water appears to shiver.
The sorcerer nods. “Good. Take a moment. Some water. Wipe your foreheads.” Without looking at the seven men and three women, he turns the drafting board so that he can direct the musicians, see the drawing and the spell, and the ground where the fort is to rise.
Brill waits. The silk awning above ripples in the hint of a breeze, and the only sounds are soft and muted as the musicians drink and blot foreheads, necks, and fingers.
“Places,” the sorcerer finally announces.
The ten players reseat themselves on their stools and take up their instruments. The last to lift an instrument is the black-haired young man in the back with the viola.
“Now … one … two …”
Brill’s resonant baritone wraps around the notes the musicians play.
“ … cleave the ground, even, straight, and true,
More cleanly than the diggers do.
Scour the stones both smooth and flat … .”
The sorcerer sings; the musicians play; and a silver haze settles onto the hilltop where the soil shifts, and the ground parts. The air stills completely, and the awning hangs limply in the heat, and even the scents of parched grass, dust, and horses seem to vanish.
At the end of the songspell, Brill’s hand slashes for silence, and the songhaze vanishes. The silk awning flutters.
“You have a few moments,” the sorcerer says. He takes the spotless white cloth from his pocket and wipes, then blots, his steaming forehead, before lifting his iron-tipped staff and walking out into the full sun and toward the sets of trenches that had appeared on the hilltop after the songhaze lifted.
The sorcerer walks the trenches, and the staff taps the lines of exposed stone, stone remelted into the foundation pattern.
Under the awning, the players stretch and stand, except for the woodwind player whose braided white-and-red hair betray her age far more than her creamy skin. Her cold eyes follow the sorcerer until he begins his return, when she looks down and takes a quick sip from her water bottle, then moistens her lips and her reed.
“The foundation is solid.” Brill blots his forehead a last time before folding the cloth and slipping it back into his pocket. “Places.”
With a soft shuffling the musicians square themselves on their stools and lift their instruments in response to the sorcerer’s hands. Their notes follow his tempo, and his voice.
“ … replicate the bricks and stones.
Place them in their proper zones …
“Set the blocks, and set them square
set them to their pattern there … .”
The hilltop shimmers, as do the bricks and stones, and the heaps of mortar, and the tubs of water tremble. Dull crackings whisper through the haze from the south side of the valley.
When the silver haze lifts, Brill turns toward the structure that looms there—newly built. Stone-based brick walls rise the height of four tall men and stretch across the floor of the valley, almost joining the two hills. The dark stone outcropping to the southwest of the fort has almost vanished, two-thirds of its bulk sliced away.
“Behold Lord Barjim’s new stronghold against the Dark Monks of Ebra.” Lord Brill frowns, then whirls toward the players. “Someone was humming.” Brill’s eyes scan the musicians. “Someone was humming. And look! Look at that gate wall!” His hand jabs westward.
The left-hand side of the arched gate is crooked, out of true.
The sorcerer reaches for his goblet and drains it, setting it on the small table with a thud. “Gero!”
A thin youth runs from the wagon and the tethered horses to the west. “Yes, Lord Brill.”
“More water.” Brill grasps the staff and carries it as he walks across the trampled sun-parched grasses and onto the paved road that resumes a dozen yards from the magically built fort’s gate, beyond the bricked and dry moat. He keeps tapping the iron-tipped staff as he continues through the open brick archway, across the brick-paved courtyard to the low brick-walled building that stands roofless in the afternoon sun. The staff raps against walls, against stone and paving stone, against mortar and brick for a long time before he slowly walks back under the white silk awning that scarcely flutters in the still air.
“The gate, thank the powers of song, is the only flaw.” His now dark-circled eyes sweep the musicians. “I should starve you all.” His eyes lighten. “Refresh yourselves, and then, then we will use the symmetry spell to repair the gate.”
Brill limps, ever so slightly, to the drafting board, where
he studies the spell, and begins to murmur to himself. After a time, he takes a markstick from the wallet on his belt and begins to write out a revised similarity spell below the others.
Under the back section of the awning, the black-haired young man glances nervously toward the white-haired violino player in the front row, but the older man sips from his water bottle without acknowledging the scrutiny.
With a last slash across the yellow paper on the drafting board, the sorcerer turns and straightens. “Places.” Brill takes a deep breath. “Similarity one, please. No humming. Fast tempo.” His hands begin marking the time, and his sharp nod cues the musicians as the music rises.
“ … set true and straight
both sides of the gate …”
This time, the spell is short, and the songhaze lingers only over the gate for what seems to be instants.
The sorcerer slashes the music to a halt, staggers, before taking another deep breath, then a gulp of water from the goblet on the small table. Only then does he turn and walk back toward the gate. A dozen paces are sufficient to confirm his handiwork. The gate is straight, with no sign of deformity.
With a quick nod to himself, he studies the gate for a time. His steps are stronger as he heads back through the hot, still afternoon to the shade of the awning.
The musicians wait, silently.
“Culain—you hummed again!”
“No, ser. No!” protests the white-haired man who clutches the violino. “I did not.”
“I will not have lying, and I will not have carelessness jeopardize me or those around you! Once is an accident. Twice is arrogant disregard.”
Brill’s eyes turn hard as jade as his mouth opens in song, as Culain backs away, out from under the lightly fluttering silk awning and into pitiless afternoon sun.
“Once a man is not always a man,
lower than dust, softer than …”
As the songhaze rolls across Culain, shrouding him, tears well up in the eyes of the black-haired young man. The woodwind player’s eyes remain cold, and dry.