The cool white shroud lay like a benison over the sweltering city of Dargon. Though the fog seemed to crouch in every corner, as a hungry beast would lie in wait for its prey, the mist was welcomed by the inhabitants; it was gladly received as an interlude in the incessant heat of this long, unusually hot summer.
As the people relaxed in the early evening, a darker shadow clung to the wall encircling the city. Slowly — for the wall glistened with the moisture of the mist — this shadow crept yet closer to the top of the wall. It had almost reached the top when its hand, probing for a minute crack with which to pull the shadow further up, encountered an outthrusting of stone, placed there for the very purpose of deterring intruders.
The shadow hung there for a moment, head bowed, then reached its hand up once more. Its fingers pushed into the stone as though it were potter’s clay, and the shadow pulled itself around the stone barricade in this manner. When it had reached the top, the figure emitted a soft keening of shame.
A dog looked up curiously from the street, saw a human sitting atop the city wall, knees tucked under its chin. It wore little clothing, noted the dog, who never had understood why humans clothed themselves anyway. A cat’s piercing miaow drew the dog’s attention away, however, and it trotted off in the direction of the sound.
Drawing a slim cord from a pouch, the slender figure slipped out from the embrasure between two merlons and crouched on the archers’ platform. It waited until the moon was hidden behind a thick bank of clouds before descending, bracing itself against the support beam with the cord. At the bottom, the glow from a nearby window revealed the figure to be that of a young woman, barely clad in leather. Her long black hair shimmered in the yellow light, and her dark eyes gleamed as she scanned the streets and alleys.
She started as the sound of footsteps sounded at the door of the nearby house. As there was no cover near, she threw herself to the ground and rolled up against the city wall. As the chill stone pressed against her flesh, she prayed that the fog would offer her enough cover to escape detection. She shivered as the footsteps came closer, relaxed a bit as they went off to one side. They stopped, not ten feet from her head, and she heard the sound of fabric rustling. Something began splattering against the wall where the walker was, and an acrid stench wafted her way. Trying to keep from gagging, she held her breath and prayed that he would finish quickly. After a while, the splashing faded, and the walker breathed a heavy sigh of relief. He turned, finished refastening his clothes, and walked back to his house.
She released her pent-up breath, took three shaky, deep breaths, then stood and crept quickly and silently away. By following the alleyways and searching all of the trash heaps she could find, she procured enough clothing to cover herself in the manner of the people she had observed from the alleys. Noting the glow over one part of the city, and hearing the noises from that direction, she surmised that there she would find a market.
As she entered the market, she straightened up, seemed bolder in visage, and attempted to look nonchalant as she gathered in her surroundings. The babble going on around her was incomprehensible; among the aspirants and palatal consonants of her own language were harsher glottal and labial sounds.
Nevertheless, she could understand only too well the rumblings of her stomach, which worsened as she neared a baker’s stall. He was a big, burly man, face and neck bright red from long hours in the summer sun. At the moment, he was haggling with two young boys over the price of a sweetmeat. She could see that she would receive no help from him; from the looks of things, the boys had not eaten much recently, and had collected all of the money they could beg. It was apparently not enough to satisfy the vendor. As the man turned to a wealthier client, one of the boys stole a small loaf of bread.
Her eyes widened; she emitted a gasp of disbelief. She was not naive, and she had seen thieves before, but she was still unaccustomed to the idea of taking what one did not own.
As the vendor shouted for the guards, the two urchins sped from the booth — moving straight towards her. Still shocked, she did not think to move until it was too late. The first boy, still clutching the purloined bread, crashed into her. The back of her head hit something, and she lost consciousness.
When she awoke, she found herself in strange surroundings: a soft bed with a comfortable pillow under her throbbing head. The grey stone walls about her held no threat, and a washbasin was filled with inviting water. Her clothes were gone, but finer garments than she’d had were laid out on a chair against the far wall. A heavy oak door, closed, stood next to the chair. Sunlight streamed through a high window, bathing the room in a comfortable glow. Although the day outside was hot, and there was no air flow in the room, the staid stone walls kept the chamber comfortable.
When she had taken in all of her surroundings, she rose quickly and went to the door. The sudden motion brought a stab of pain to her head. Wishing that she had the healing talent like her brother had had, she opened the door a crack and peered out. She was at the end of a well-furnished hall with many other doors, most of which stood open. She closed her door again and moved — more slowly this time — back to her bed.
For a moment she felt fear: although she was not a prisoner, her surroundings reminded her all too much of her brother’s fate for her to relax. Almost without thinking, she caressed the cool stone wall by her bed, and began to apply the “dielaim”. Her grief expressed itself through her fingers, and she molded a small section of the wall into a sculpture of her brother’s face.
She studied it for a moment, adjusted a few rough edges, re-hardened the stone, then softened the section of wall directly below the face. Swiftly she molded his neck, paying careful attention to his marvelous throat, which had been the pride of her people. A wave of melancholy hit her; never again would she hear him sing in three voices at once. Before she could add the one feature lacking — the manner of his death — she heard someone approaching.
She began pressing the sculpture back into the wall, for she had not allowed the neck to re-harden. She hadn’t finished “erasing” his throat when she remembered her lack of clothing. Torn between the desire to cover herself and the need to hide her abilities, she wrapped the sheet around her torso and set her back against the sculpture. The nose pressed unforgivingly into her back.
When the door opened, she was surprised to see a young girl, perhaps seventeen or eighteen summers of age. Strawberry-blonde curls cascaded around the newcomer’s shoulders.
“I’m Tara,” stated the girl.
“I’m Sharin,” she responded, surprised. This girl, Tara, had an amazingly open mind. Among Sharin’s talents was the ability to learn language from those who were “open”. If Sharin heard a word, she could glean its meaning if the other person had a strong mind. That had been one talent which she and Relann — Oh, my brother! she thought — had shared.
“I saw what happened in the market,” commented Tara. “At first, the vendor wanted you arrested, but I convinced the guards that you had nothing to do with it. I think having an important uncle helps sometimes. No, Zed! Get out of here!”
Sharin looked at what Tara was talking to: a Shivaree with a torn ear. Sharin spoke to it: “Zed, lhi nielann yonne.” The Shivaree couldn’t understand the Lanoam tongue, of course, but it heard the meanings. It looked quizzically at Sharin, barked an apology, then started trotting out of the room.
“No, that’s all right, Zed, if she doesn’t mind you I guess you can stay. What language was that? You’re not from Dargon, are you?”
“No. That language was Lanoami.” Sharin wished she knew more of this language, but she was grateful that Tara was an easy talker. In an effort to learn more, she asked, “Zed?”
“Oh, he’s been my friend for years. I found him,” she said, and now her voice took on a tinge of ire, “in a hunter’s trap.” Her voice softened again. “I took him home and fed him, and he’s been with me ever since. He’s not really tame,” said Tara, obviously remembering a past event. Tara fondled the torn ear fondly. “He’ll give his life for me if I’m threatened, I know that. I really love him, at times he’s been my only friend.”
“He love you,” said Sharin, who knew that it was true. She felt a bond with this Tara, who also loved animals. Sharin wondered if any Lanoam blood was in Tara, for she obviously had a talent.
“Why do you say that?” asked Tara. “I mean, I know it, but how can you tell?”
Sharin didn’t know the words to express what she wanted to say, but she didn’t want to songweave, not until she knew this girl better. Songweave wouldn’t work on most non-Lanoam, but Sharin had a feeling that this girl could receive — after all, her bonding with a Shivaree was incredible. So she had to indicate with her hands and eyes that she didn’t know the words.
Frowning, Tara ventured, “You can’t speak my language, can you? You’re only using the words that I’ve said!”
Sadly, Sharin replied, “No, I can’t speak the language. You speak the words, I…” she pointed to her head.
“Learn?” asked Tara.
“I learn the words,” finished Sharin gratefully. Trying to glean the most important information as inconspicuously as possible, she asked, “Uncle?”
“This is my Uncle Glenn’s house. He’s known here as Adrunian Koren, the Captain of the Guards. I had to come here when my… when my parents were killed by bandits.” Zed nuzzled Tara’s hand, reacting to the strong emotions she was projecting. Sharin felt closer to Tara; she understood the loss of family. “Since then, I’ve begun learning how to defend myself. I’ve had cause to do so, though. I met a woman who looked exactly like me, but that’s where the resemblance ended. She was going to kill me, but Zed saved me. That’s how his ear got torn — she tried to kill him, but luckily she missed. I’m sorry, I’m just rambling.”
“No,” protested Sharin. “I learn.”
“No, I’ve completely forgotten my manners. Here you are, wrapped up in a sheet! Oh, I cleaned your wound — you took a nasty knock — then I gave you a bath. I hope you don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind,” said Sharin. She looked towards the clothes.
Tara took the hint. “All right, let me know when you’re dressed, I’ll be outside.” She went out the door, closed it behind her. Quickly Sharin turned and finished removing the traces of her brother’s throat. She was just ready to re-soften the face when the door opened again.
“Sorry, Zed’s still in here… How did you DO that?” Tara stood gaping at the sculpture.
Sharin was frozen in horror. For a fleeting moment she was angry at Tara for coming in without knocking, but it was overwhelmed at the fact that one of her talents had been discovered.
Tara came into the room. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you! How did you do that? It’s beautiful! Please, I’m sorry for barging in here. Why are you afraid?”
Sharin could feel that Tara really was sorry for what she had caused, so she decided to take a chance and trust Tara. She motioned for Tara to close the door and sit down, and sat on the bed herself.
When Tara was sitting, Sharin began the Songweave. Her throat opened, and the music of her story poured forth. Tara, already conditioned to be receptive to animals, heard the words of the Songweave as though they had been sung aloud, and to her surprise, she could understand them perfectly.
I am Sharin, daughter of Oriann and Niarda, of the Lanoam people. The song I weave is of my brother, Relann. He was beloved of the Lanoam, and with the voice of three Winds could he weave his tales. He was a healer, a master of the dielaim, and was born whole! None were needed at his birthing to assist his life, and all who saw him proclaimed that his place on the cliffs would be high!
For nineteen summers he grew, and with each passing summer he grew sadder. For among my people rare is the whole child. At the birthings are all too often needed the strongest healers, to correct the children’s bodies.
Relann said to the elders of my people, Alas! for we are too few, and with each generation the children grow weaker! We must find help, and others who will share our lives, that we pass not from the sight of the Sun!
But the elders listened not, for he was but a child then. On his eighteenth summer, he again petitioned them, saying, Alas! for now fewer are born alive than dead! We must have help, or perish utterly!
Yet again the elders would not hear him, and in the next summer he tried once more, saying, Alas! if you do nothing for the love of your children, grant to me at least the right of Quest! For other people have magics, which we cannot use, and mayhap I might find one who can aid us!
And to this the elders consented, for the children who had lived had been terrible to behold. All were now unblemished, but their visages at birth could rend the heart!
Thus in that summer he began his Quest. To far lands he ventured, finding none who would help him. Then, in the next spring, he found a noble who was willing to help my people, if he would receive aid in return. Relann showed him what he could do: sculpt beautiful works in stone; strengthen wooden bridges to the hardness of metals, so that they would not break; heal the sick and dying.
But the noble was black of heart, and forced Relann to use his talents in other ways. At first Relann refused, for to use talents for ill is contrary to all of the laws of my people! But the noble had naught but scorn for morals, and maimed Relann until he agreed to do the noble’s bidding.
Relann’s wonderful talents were used to work woe: rather than sculpt, he had to soften the stone defenses of the noble’s enemies; he was made to harden wooden weapons, that the noble could conquer less expensively; he was forced to heal only the noble’s soldiers.
Yet Relann could do nothing; he had to keep his life. One day he coaxed a sparrow to him, and told it to find me. When the sparrow found me, I left at once. Relann would not touch me, for he had become corrupt. He sang for me his Lifesong, as I watched him at his window. Then was the last of his three Winds sounded, for with a piece of glass he released them.
With a heavy heart I returned to my people, and sang his Lifesong. With only one voice, I could not express it as he did, and my heart nearly burst with grief. High on the cliffs I sculpted his death-mask. In the chasm that had been his throat nests now the sparrow, for it grieves with me.
When I had carved the mask, I continued his Quest. None yet have I found who could aid me, but I will not ask the nobles. I have used my talents shamefully — with dielaim have I entered cities unnoticed. I have corrupted myself, but I shall finish Relann’s Quest ere I sing my Lifesong. I thank you, my spirit-sister, for your hospitality, but now must I move on. May your Song be sung for Eternity!
When the song was ended, both had tears in their eyes. Rising, Sharin kissed Tara in the manner of her people. Startled, Tara resisted, but it was over. Quickly, Sharin dressed. Wordlessly, Tara showed her to the door, then hugged Sharin tightly. When Sharin had disappeared from view, Tara closed the door and went back to the guest room. She caressed the face in the stone for a long while, then went back to her own room.
That night, as the mist crept back into the streets of Dargon City, Tara n’ha Sansela began to sing.