12.3 – Songs of the Way
As the curtains part, the hall grows dark. Brittle wonders how, but that thought soon leaves her, as she is confronted with a true spectacle. It looks like the night sky, but the stars are weirdly-shaped and mostly too big. Then she realizes that the faintly glowing shapes are, in fact, yet another iteration of the symbolic pattern portrayed on the curtains and the doors. Here as light on dark. Not a sound. Not a creak, not a yawn, not a whistle. Just pure anticipation.
Brittle inhales. Exhales. And a face appears in the darkness. Pale, like a shy moon. A long, graceful, swan-like neck follows suit. They seem to emerge from the embossed darkness like a swimmer breaking water’s crest. Two arms, long, thin and pearly white, are next in line. Though the dark vertical surface hide the rest of the tale singer’s form, making her head and appendages seem disconnected. Her right hand picks gently at the dark fabric surrounding her, pulling at a piece of it. Some of the blackness appear beween her fingers, and at that precise moment Brittle understands. The darkness. It’s her hair. Spread wide in all directions. The tale singer plucks her chosen strands, and a clear note reverberates throughout the hall.
It’s the strings, child.
The words appear. It’s as if the tale singer draws their essence from the filled emptiness of the air and transforms it into a song that has been sung a thousand times and only once.
„I speak to you of the forest, dark of green and hidden of life.
I speak to you of its heart, bargained, asked for, won and lost.
I speak to you as its emissary, here, in spark-changed chamber.
I speak to you, remade, reformed, regained, restored.
I speak to you, dear traveller, my voice is heard by you alone.
I speak to you, for if I do not, then all is lost.
Come listen to the stories of the Way.“
She is silent. Expectant. Callum (sporting a red face with at least two obvious causes) pipes up from across the hall, through his drunkenness and his shame:
„Giv’us the story off th’City, from whence the Way begins an’ends!“
One of the greater five-fingered flowers of light in the hairy nightscape flares up. The tale singer bend both her arms behind her, reaching for two sizable quantities of hair strings (what else to call them?, thinks Brittle) and with a mighty tug, a dissonant blare crashes through the room like a mighty wave.
Brittle’s ears ring for a flutter of wing. Did the tale singer respond to Callum’s request with anger? Looking around her, the smiling and rapt faces of the traders she can see nearby seem to suggest otherwise. This must be how this tale begins, a story these travelfolk are familiar with, like a favoured midsummer song. And so it is. The tale singer’s face rises against the black canopy, though no other parts of her body than her arms are still to be seen. With the aftershock of the bugle-like sound still visible as expanding rings in Brittle’s frost nettle tea, the enigmatic teller starts a rhythmic chant, the five fingers of her right hand dancing and contracting in a fluid and mesmerizing fashion, as if momentarily forgetting the existence of joints, while her left hand plays a dark, forceful and repetitive hair string trill.
„You ask me of the City,“
The audience, Broth included, all reply in unison:
„The City with no name.“
„You wish to know its heartbeat,“
„its thunder and its shame.“
„The hearth of living crystals,“
„and meat sacks mixed with Stone.“
„the bedrock of striata,“
„enriched with ancient bone.“
and here she pauses both movement, song and drone,
„you folk in Deepheart’s depths know all too well:
you shan’t recall nor fathom…“
Even Brittle joins in on this last response, though she’s sure she’s never heard it before:
„naught of what I tell.“
I? Thinks Brittle, and is suddenly lost in a wonderful story, telling of the City and its amazing origins. She has never heard its like, for sure. And that’s just the beginning of it, when the story is done, other people cry out, asking the tale singer to tell this tale, and this one, and that one.
She hears the raucous story of the stag o’the plains and the meek skerry doe, the comical ditty of the first doe milker (Broth requested that one), the poignant and impossible romance of Kylene and Ceardh, born as they were on opposite sides of the Trade Wars, the recital of the famous poem that ended this apparently legendary string of conflicts between the City and some obtuse rural alliance (“beware the battering of rams against the bulwarks of our hearts“), and a strange little fable of a fox, a badger and a cerulean bird, which makes no sense at all to Brittle.
Every time a new story is to be told, another symbol shining on the surface of the tale singer’s splayed out locks shines even brighter. In some cases, a five fingered flower. In others, a stag or a doe. And yet others, some shapes and forms that have no clear meaning. There, a mound. There, some squiggles. There, pin points of light arranged in an irregular fashion.
„You should try it too, my dear,“ nudges Broth in a moment of silence. Yes, of course. Kerrick had told her to ask about the story of the munrads, their proud, prancing forms crowning the stylized display. She inhales and the tale singer’s face immediately fixes on her, a half smile waiting for her ask. And she is going to ask about the munrads, really she is, that is her intent, that is her intent, but at that moment, a slight burning in her chest reminds her of her troubling passenger, and her gaze drops slightly, taking in that serpent, seemingly connecting all. When looking at the door, she had thought it to be feathered, like a fanciful mix of bird and snake. But now, seeing its form as light against dark, the sharp contrasts make her realise they are not actually feathers, just feather-like.
Ice runs down her back.
„They’re fearrows,“ she whispers. The tale singer furrows her brow, though she couldn’t possibly have heard what Brittle had said. Could she? „Tell me…“ says Brittle, raising her voice, „Tell me….“. Closing her eyes, she can feel the second heartbone thrumming, close to her Deepheart. It knows something. She knows something. And a faint glimmer of memory wedges itself into her mind. The story of the City. The one the taler singer told. Just now. She can’t really remember it. Just fuzzy edges and that magical finger dance.
And there it is. Opening her eyes she says in a clear voice: „Tell me the story of the Bloodweaver.“
A look of confusion mars the exquisite features of the tale singer. „Blood…weaver?“
„Yes,“ Brittle replies with confidence, „she who exhumed the City.“ The silence would be uncomfortable if Brittle had had time to think about it, but she is like a starfisher, unflinchingly locked on its prey. „You know, the one from whence the Way begins and ends.“
The tale singer’s gaze grows incredibly cold. Her face loses all expression. The hands freeze. Finally, after what feels like an interminable wait, the white mask speaks. And it says:
The face and arms sink away into the black-locked sea. The curtains are pulled shut. Light returns to the hall. People start talking again. Excitedly. About the performance and their favourite pieces. About the glorious opening. About new trade routes opening up. About the quality of the milk. Broth looks at Brittle smilingly and says: „So, my increasingly travel-smart niece, what do you think?“ Brittle doesn’t understand his, or anyone’s, lack of reaction to that abrupt ending, but her sense of lostness lasts nary a moment. This is all too familiar to her. The Echoes of the Great Forgetting resonate in many ways, it would seem. But why has the tale singer, too, that trait? She is no formless thing, no wound. Realising that Broth has been waiting forever and an age for a response, she quickly smiles back at him: „Wonderful! I’ll just get some water to clean this mess“ while gesturing to the stained front of her travel dress. „Certainly,“ says Broth, „I’ll locate my friend in the meantime and see what he has to offer that would fit you.“ „You do that, uncle dear,“ says Brittle, giving him her most practiced Kerrick grin.
She walks briskly over to the counter close to the curtains. Then, with a flit and a skip and a soft step, she slides behind the thick curtains and vaults silently on top of the elevated platform behind.