Finn rounded the corner of the keep wall at the normal speed for a young boy: a dead run. The path he followed was narrow and not used much, but the boy neither noticed nor cared about the sharp rocks and steep falls around him. Like all young boys, he was immortal and invulnerable, and on a very important mission: getting around the corner of the wall.
Captain Koren, on the other hand, was in no hurry at all. His normal watch would keep him at the main gate of the keep for another dozen menes or so, regardless of what did or did not happen. Years given in service had tempered him like a well-used maul. He seemed somewhat ageless: not old, not young, but very competent and very aware. At that moment, in fact, Koren was aware of a small group of brown-robed figures pulling three hand-drawn carts toward him, or at least toward the keep gate behind him. In the lead was a single, brown-robed figure, one with no apparent cart-pulling duties. This figure stepped up to Koren while the carts and their pullers stopped.
Simon Salamagundi was also watching the brown-robed men approach. He had come to the keep on a few long-neglected errands, and was now headed back toward the causeway and his more customary and profitable market: the docks. Most of his years were now spent, and his time was used in cooking fish and spinning tales. Simon paused to shake a tiny pebble from his shoe. From his shoulder Simon’s pet monkey Skeebo screeched at the change of posture. Simon straightened and stood a moment, stroking Skeebo and eavesdropping on the incipient conversation.
“Are you the captain of the town watch?”
Koren studied the face that was asking the question, and detected no guile in it. It seemed to belong to a man of about thirty-five or forty, not terribly different from many faces Koren saw in the course of an average day’s work.
“I am,” Koren replied.
“My fellows and I seek permission to make a musical offering this evening at the gate of your castle.”
Koren ignored the minor flattery and considered. He had the authority to grant permission for minor events, and had learned over the years that while many things were not what they first appeared to be, many more things, in fact, were. Still, it never hurt to ask a few questions.
“What sort of music will you be playing?” Koren asked, staring pointedly at the carts.
“A musical tribute to the One who holds us all in loving hands,” came the reverent reply. Koren stepped over to the lead cart.
“And which one would that happen to be?” he asked, tapping the tarp on the cart with a finger. “And what’s in these carts?”
“The only God, whom Stevene spoke of,” came the sonorous reply. The monk made a complex series of gestures to his fellows, and two silent monks untied the tarp and twitched it aside. Koren glanced into the tightly trussed bundle and saw the burnished wood and taut leather of drums.
“And you want to do this at the gate, tonight?”
Finn ran up, glancing in the cart with honest curiosity. The silent monks smiled kindly at him, allowing his uninvited inspection for a moment before re-tying the canvas. Simon also ambled over, and he and Skeebo could see some larger instruments in the dim depths of the cart before the tarp covered them over again.
“Yes, we wish to play for the glory of God, and the greater edification of those who hear us,” intoned the spokesman. Koren looked over the other monks, who stood impassively and watched while he considered.
“Seems harmless enough. I’ll pass the word that you’re to be allowed to play here tonight.” He turned and walked through the keep doors.
“Thank you, captain,” the spokesman called after him, and turned to his fellows. He again made a series of complex gestures, and they began turning their carts around.
“Why did you do that?” asked Finn. The man didn’t seem to hear the boy, and continued to gesture.
“They’re deaf, aren’t they?” Simon said loudly when the man turned back around and looked at his audience of two, man and boy. The spokesman nodded.
“They have devoted their lives and their hearing to the glory of God. Ours is a life of service, beasts of burden in the herd of God. We have no need of ears now, for God can speak directly to our hearts.”
“So are you gonna play here tonight?” Finn asked immediately, displaying youth’s intuitive grasp of the obvious. Only when he gestured at the other monks did the spokesman look down at him. After a moment the brown-clad figure nodded.
“Yes, young man. Tell all your friends to come tonight, and hear us play for God’s glory, and for the town’s entertainment.”
“That’s gonna be fun,” Finn said, “just like those pipers that came from Shireton. Those guys were lots of fun!” He glanced over at Simon, adding as an aside, “I liked it when the fat one dropped his music.”
“If I may ask,” Simon asked, focusing on the spokesman, “where are you men from?”
“We have come from near Magnus, from the Sanctuary of Praise.” He rolled his eyes heavenward, and Simon knew the man was now addressing a larger, higher audience than merely Simon and Finn. “We have devoted our lives to sounding forth the praise of the Highest, and the continuation of Stevene’s ministry on Cherisk, so that all men may hear and know the greatness of our God and Maker.”
“I’ve heard of the Sanctuary of Praise,” commented Simon. “You’re Tympanium, aren’t you?” Simon glanced past the monk, studying the men and the carts.
“Our service is known by that name, yes,” smiled the monk, apparently somewhat pleased that Simon had heard of them. Simon in turn nodded.
“I heard some of your sect play once, in a field outside of Magnus. Well outside of Magnus,” he added, glancing back into the keep’s open gate, one eyebrow cocked slightly. “Yes, that was a very interesting concert.” He shook his head slowly, his eyes not focused on anything nearby, or recent. “Yes, that was a very interesting year.” In his memory’s eye Simon could see himself, so much younger, and a friend from those long past days as they ran laughing toward a field on a summer’s night, long ago. He smiled sadly, his shoulders drooping and the creases in his forehead deepening. Then he was standing tall again — or as tall as he ever stood these days — and the mischievous twinkle was back in his eye. “Well, I shall look forward to hearing you play tonight. Go well!”
The monks headed down to make camp at the base of the outcropping, and Simon and Skeebo headed down the path too. Finn followed.
“Where are you going, Simon?” Finn asked.
“Back down to the docks. Want to come?”
“But I thought you said you wanted to stay and listen to them play,” Finn protested. “You won’t make it back in time … it’ll be dark in a bell!”
Simon smiled to himself.
“Oh, don’t worry. I’ll be able to hear the music just fine from the docks. Maybe you should come with me.”
“No, I want to stay here and listen,” Finn replied.
Simon smiled, his eyebrows arching just a hair. He nodded and began to walk back down the road. As he headed back toward the causeway and the other side of the river, he again cast his thoughts back through the years. How long had it been? Had it been his first or second visit to Magnus? And how had he met her? Roanna had been her name, but Simon had called her Raven, to tease her about her flaming red hair. He thought of that hair, and of red, and his smile faded.
Finn was back as dusk was falling. He joined the small crowd of townsfolk who came to the keep gate on the spoken advertisement of the coming concert. From the wall Koren glanced down as he passed by on business. Several of the guards were watching the gathering with professional interest.
“Let me know if anything strange happens,” Koren advised them, “but don’t bother them otherwise.” The gate was closed and barred for the night, so a few musicians didn’t worry Koren.
Finn settled onto an old, discarded building stone and watched while the musicians prepared. His breath puffed out in the chill spring night air, but he had managed to make it back to his home for a heavy coat and permission before nightfall. He chewed some stale fruitcake while the monks set up their instruments. Though the night was cold, the monks stripped down to bare loincloths as they worked in pairs to carry large, shrouded objects from the carts and arrange them before the closed gate doors.
Down at the docks the daylight was leaving, and taking paying customers with it. Many folk feared the dark areas by the piers after nightfall, but Simon had a working relationship with the docks. The area could be traversed safely, if one knew where not to go, and what not to do, and if one had a fire in the eyes like old, sharp iron. Simon found himself a sheltered spot against a storehouse shed with a view to the south, and unfolded his three-legged stool. He lowered himself into it, and bent down for a mug of wine he had brought from home. With his cart safely stowed by his small house and Skeebo tucked in for the night Simon was ready for a pleasant diversion. He settled back and pulled his cloak tight to his shoulders. He drank, and waited for the familiar heat to filter out from the liquor. He thought back to a warm summer afternoon, to a similar concert, and of a hurried conversation afterward.
“Let them be, Raven,” he muttered under his breath. “Let them be. Not ours to interfere.” His lips tightened into thin lines, and he blinked once, and again, as if someone had flicked something in his face. His hands clenched on the handle of the old stein, as if gripping something much heavier, as if preparing to fight.
“Is there room for two?”
Finn looked up from his stony seat at a wizened face.
“Yes, ma’am,” he remarked, moving aside to share his seat with the woman. He recognized her from the market, but didn’t know her name. She sat down beside him and wrapped herself a bit tighter in her long, tasseled shawl. She pulled out some bread and broke off a small piece. Rather than biting into it, she instead offered it to Finn.
“Here. Growing boys are always hungry.”
Knowing the truth when he heard it, Finn took the offered food and bit it. It was cold but sweet — milkbread from the taste and texture. As he chewed he pointed at the monks, who were nearly ready to play.
“I’m surprised they aren’t cold,” Finn remarked between bites. “Why aren’t they wearing their robes?”
“Maybe those things are very heavy,” the woman answered. They watched as the monks settled the last of the objects in place and whisked the tarps off. There was a moment of reverent silence, broken by Finn.
“My, that’s a big drum,” he said, staring as one of the monks took the cover off a set of chimes, or at least he assumed they were chimes. He had never seen chimes that were as thick as his hand and taller than his head. Other tarps were coming off now, and Finn was duly impressed, as the size of the instruments seemed to get bigger with each revelation. When the canvas came off the last set, he let out a long, low, appreciative whistle. The monks now positioned themselves by various instruments. Each one seemed to be hefting a stout club, each staff bound with bands of iron. The spokesman approached the crowd with a small chime in his hand and tapped it once, twice, and again for attention. Around Finn the small patter died away, and the monk spoke.
“Tonight we offer up to the heavens a sound of praise, so that each of you may know, if not the actual power of God, at least a hint of it.” He turned back to the musicians. They were now laying their clubs on the ground as one of their number passed among them, handing out wide goblets of dull metal. As he passed he poured a small amount of liquid into each goblet from a jug. Soon he was finished, and as one each musician withdrew a tiny dagger from an unseen sheath concealed by his loincloth.
“But first,” the spokesman said, holding up his own goblet and knife, “we celebrate the coming of the Stevene, and we again pledge our lives to his God, and our God.” So saying he pricked his bare arm with the dagger. Finn gasped.
“Why did he do that? He’s bleeding!”
Each monk held up the goblet and the knife, and chanted in unison, with one voice.
“Life given is gained, blood spilled is life. Glory to God.”
Finn and the woman watched as each man resheathed his knife and drank from the cup. Beside Finn the woman stirred.
“Heretics,” she muttered angrily, standing up. “Wash it off first!” she hollered, and some in the crowd spoke their agreement. The musicians didn’t seem to hear. Finn turned to look at her, but she gathered up her skirt and bustled away. He was about to get up and follow her, to ask what this was all about, but he saw the players taking up their clubs again, and decided to watch instead.
“And now,” the spokesman said, then turned to the band and raised his hands.
On the wall, Koren was again passing on an errand. He glanced down in time to see each player raise their clubs over their heads in a double-handed grip. His practiced eye swept across the assembly, and saw the massive drums, the titanic chimes and gongs, and the musician’s rippling muscles. Only then did he remember the hand signals required by the players.
“Oh my, what have I done … ” he said, half to himself, and the players struck.
From the first blast of sound Finn sat paralyzed with ecstasy, his prepubescent male mind transported into a world where the loudest noise one could imagine was music, and each child a player. So smooth and seamless was the beat that even though the people around him continued to talk, and even shout, Finn couldn’t hear a single word. He wasn’t listening, in any case. He knew what Stevenism was, and he had heard the glory of Stevene’s God preached many times before, but suddenly he could feel in his chest and bowels the need, the urgent need, to give his life for a cause, for any cause. He wanted to serve, he wanted to belong. For as long as they played, Finn was transported.
Across the water, Simon sat on his stool with a drink in his hand and stars in his eyes as the music played, loud as a roll of thunder. With part of his mind he could imagine Captain Koren frantically trying to get the gate raised so he could rescind the order to allow the band to play. That part of his mind wondered idly how long the concert would last. But mostly his thoughts were of a day years before when he had first heard the Tympanium play.
Raven had been Stevenic. Simon had not been, but she had been persuasive as well as beautiful, and Simon’s ship didn’t sail for two days. He had enjoyed her company. They had spent many a bell in the city discussing the life of Stevene with the philosophers and bards. She had taught him the sacrament of the knife and wine. He had taught her a few things of a more intimate nature. He had spoken of the sea, and she had talked of the life in the king’s court. They had run through the streets of Magnus — two new friends, free and alive. Simon smiled as he remembered how they had sat through the concert, far enough away to still talk to each other, close enough that they couldn’t tell their heavy heartbeats from the sound of the drumming, hidden in the shadows of the night. Simon had wanted to stay in those shadows after the drumming stopped, but her heart had quickened in ways different from his. She dragged him up from their nest to greet the players.
Raven had felt the same call to devotion that young Finn would later hear, and she was a passionate woman. In fact, the music had roused the passions of many that night, but not all the listeners had the same appreciation for the power of the drums. The two lovers had reached the musicians at the same moment that the drunks from the closest tavern had arrived. The drunken mob had spoken first, and had struck first. As popular as the doomed man’s cult was in the capitol, not all loved the religion of Stevene. Simon had gone down fast, as yet unaccustomed to a brawl. Some of the musicians had fought too, but most believed in the softer response. Raven had stepped in to shield one of them from the wine-maddened thugs. She probably never saw who wielded the iron-banded staff. The last Simon saw of her was of her hair, her beautiful hair , now red with blood, as she lay face down in the field.
Across the river the music stopped. Whether it began again was irrelevant — the message had been preached. The call had gone out to surrender, to yield to the higher cause. Slowly, Simon set aside his cup of wine and reached into the folds of his cloak and withdrew a very thin and very sharp blade. He cradled it gently in his right hand, rubbing his left wrist with his rough knuckles. He too had felt the pull, now as an old man, then as a young man. He pushed up the fabric of his left sleeve, exposing wrinkled skin. With a precise and easy motion he pricked the exposed forearm and watched a few drops of blood ooze up. He wiped them onto the blade and regarded them critically. Life in the blood: a life to give, or keep. He took his glass and stirred the wine with the crimson edge. He pulled the now-clean knife from the liquid and raised the mug almost to his lips, then paused as if to reconsider. All served in the end, as cooks or as cattle. And he was a cook. His lips moving almost silently, he carefully and deliberately poured the red fluid out onto the ground.
“… bloody god …”