Spellsong Cycle (Volume 3)
Author: L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
1Anna readjusted her floppy brown hat and shifted her weight in the saddle. Beneath her, Farinelli, the big palomino gelding, continued his quick walk eastward along the dusty road that ran south of the Chean River toward the former ford at Sorprat. Anna glanced sideways at Himar, the sandy-haired captain—overcaptain now—whose mustache drooped more than usual—perhaps from the road dust…perhaps from sweat. Two of her personal guards flanked them—Rickel on her left, and beyond and slightly back of Himar, Lejun. An overcaptain, personal guards—sometimes it was still hard to believe that she was Regent and Sorceress of Defalk, and Lady of Mencha.Less than two years earlier, she had been Anna Marshall, struggling assistant professor of voice in Ames, Iowa, a divorcée mourning the death of her eldest daughter. Then, a spell sung in Defalk and her own ill-uttered wish to be anywhere but Ames had thrown her into the intrigues and battles of Liedwahr, both colored by the ever-present male chauvinism, a chauvinism that so often she seemed the only one to recognize, even after she'd survived three attempted rapes. Because the world of Erde was governed by the harmonies—and song magic that worked—those struggles she faced were more deadly than the faculty politics of Ames. But only slightly, Anna reflected as she thought of the fate of untenured and discarded junior faculty members at the universities where she had taught over the years.The late-summer sun had burned the back of her neck, despite her ever-present felt hat, and the sweat that oozed from her hair added to the stinging. In her green trousers and shirt, and floppy brown hat, she scarcely looked like a regent. Only the gold-trimmed purple vest betrayed the slightest indication of rank—that and her position at the head of the column that stretched a good hundred yards behind her.An older-looking woman with red hair liberally streaked with white rode up alongside Himar, clearing her throat to announce herself.Anna turned toward her chief player. "Yes, Liende?""Lady…the players are tired…especially young Delvor."Anna glanced at the road ahead, rising slowly to a crest perhaps a dek away—roughly a kilometer in earth terms—then back to Liende. "I suspect all the armsmen are tired, too," Anna temporized, blotting the sweat from her forehead. "Everyone can rest a little when we get to Sorprat. I mean, this side of the river. I think it should be only two or three deks from here.""Four at the most," added Himar."It won't be that long," Anna promised."As you say, lady." The woodwind player nodded, then let her mount drop back.The air was still, so hot that the browned grasses to the south of the road hung limply in the heat. Road dust coated the legs of the horses, and a finer film covered the riders' legs. Anna rubbed her nose, gently, wondering why she had ended up breathing so much road dust. Because there wasn't any other way?Himar eased his mount closer to Anna, his eyes on the pair of scouts nearing the rise in the road almost a dek ahead. "I will be glad when you have completed this task, lady," the overcaptain said in a low voice, "and you can return to Falcon."Anna nodded. Lord Jecks would also be glad when she returned, since the white-haired and still-young-faced lord of Elheld had questioned the need for her mission, even though he was the grandfather of young Jimbob, the heir to Defalk, for whom Anna ruled as Regent. Regent for a youth not always grateful. Yet you've used your sorcery for Jimbob when you can't even use it to see your own children.She swallowed, her throat even drier than from road dust alone. Would she ever be able to use the mirrors and her song magic to see Elizabetta again? Or Mario?"Lord Jecks was concerned about this task," Himar added, unnecessarily.The blond-haired Rickel—head of her personal guard—smiled, if briefly, before the professional indifference again masked his amusement at Himar's acknowledgment of Jecks' protectiveness of the sorceress.Anna hadn't realized how much she missed Jecks, but she'd insisted that he remain in Falcor to heal from his wounds. In their efforts to drive the Sturinnese out of Dumar, to save Anna he'd thrown himself into the enchanted javelin hurled by the Sea-Priest of Sturinn. She still wasn't sure that she would have been able to do something like that to save someone else—not the immediate and selfless way Jecks had done to save her. She moistened her lips at the memory.Jecks had not been happy with her decision to leave Falcor—especially for the ten days it would take, and he had been quite forceful. "I do not see why you insist on riding out to Sorprat…you do not need a ford there. Not this year. What crops there are come from the lower valley, and the peasants and farmers can use the bridge at Pamr. For another year or so, there will be little enough trade with Ebra. What there is can take the old road on the south side of the Chean River."Except that the old road adds almost two days travel to Mencha—and Ebra—and you may need those days all too soon. In fact, her own journey to repair the ford was on the old road, and even pushing, it would take a day more—but she knew she needed to be on the south side to see what she could do to undo the mess she'd made of the ford when she'd created a giant sinkhole to swallow the Ebran invaders. And she felt that repairing the ford was necessary. She ignored solid gut feelings at her own peril, and the ford's destruction had been nagging at her for well over a year.As she rode across the high bluff on the south side of the river, Anna glanced to her left, northward out across the river, across the green valley that—everywhere away from the irrigation ditches—had been brown and dusty little more than a year earlier. She did not look forward to revisiting the site of the battle with the Dark Monks of Ebra—except that it had been more of a slaughter than a battle. Even under the hot sun of late summer, she shivered, recalling the screams and the terrible grinding of the earth as her song-sorcery had churned the muddy waters of the Chean River over the trapped soldiers.The column crossed the low rise in the road and started on the gentle downgrade toward the point on the south bank of the river opposite the town of Sorprat—or what of it had been rebuilt after the destruction wrought by Anna's magic. It still astounded her that "good" or harmonic song magic-Clearsong—could create such massive destruction, often with not too great a side effect on Anna. Yet the smallest of Darksong spells—even those which would have obviated the need for destructive Clearsong—could prostrate her, possibly threaten her life. Another unfairness that you can do nothing about…because that's the way this world operates. Period. She put that thought aside and concentrated on the spell she would have to use shortly.Before long, she reined up Farinelli short of where the high grassland ended—abruptly. Himar gestured, and a trumpet signal echoed through the early afternoon. Behind them, the column slowed and halted. Anna patted Farinelli on the shoulder, and the gelding nodded ever so slightly as if to suggest that he indeed deserved some thanks.Where the plateau ended, what had once been a sinkhole was now a circular and placid lake, smaller than it had been, and cut off from the Chean River by a low muddy rise barely three yards above the lake's surface. The water was still brownish. Below the sorcery-cut bluffs, between the base of the bluffs and the water's edge, instead of beaches, mud slopes angled into the murky lake."It is peaceful now," said Himar quietly. "One would hardly know that thousands perished there."Anna nodded. Ten thousand Ebrans. Dark Monks, she added mentally. "We're close enough."Himar turned his mount and stood in the stirrups. "Stand down!"As she thought about the Ebrans, Anna almost wanted to shake her head. Hadrenn, the Ebran Lord of Synek, had beseeched her to accept his fealty. She had, and in making him one of the thirty-three lords of Defalk, thereby effectively added a quarter of Ebra to Defalk. And probably ensured another war in Ebra. One way or another there would have been war in Ebra, she reminded herself, between Hadrenn and Bertmynn, the noble who had taken the title of Lord of Dolov and sought to unite all Ebra under his rule. The difference was that Hadrenn had a legitimate claim to lands that had been seized from his father, and sought only those lands, while Bertmynn was willing to sell out to the Liedfuhr of Mansuur and the Sturinnese to rule all of Ebra. And the Sturinnese chain their women.Anna dismounted. For a moment, as she grasped the cantle of the saddle with one hand, she wasn't sure if her legs would hold. After she took the bottle that still held water, she drank slowly. She recorked the bottle and replaced it in the holder before walking slowly in the open road before Farinelli to stretch her legs. Next came the vocalises, to clear her cords of dust, and the mucus from allergies that Brill's youth spell had done nothing to remedy."Holly-lolly-pop.…"Behind her, horses sidestepped, and the armsmen murmured hi voices so low that the sound was more like locusts than men. She shook her head, then began another vocalise, hoping that getting her cords clear would not take forever."Quiet!" snapped Himar, and the murmuring died away.When Anna felt her cords were clear, she walked back to the gelding and extracted from the left saddlebag the sketch of the ford she had drawn from memory back in Falcor. Once she unrolled it, her eyes flicked from the drawing to the terrain before her and back to the drawing, comparing the two.The sketch showed almost a wide and flat stone shelflike structure that would spread the river into a shallow and wide expanse, similar to the clay flats and gravel shallows that had existed before Anna had destroyed the bend in her efforts to annihilate the Ebran forces. She'd also sketched out what amounted to a gradual spillway that would funnel the river back into the deeper channel that existed below where the ford had been.While she could have used sorcery to construct another bridge, the ford had worked before, and she was reluctant to change what had worked, especially since the northern side of the river was so much lower than the south and there was little enough stone beneath the bluffs.Finally, Anna lowered the scroll, turned, and motioned to Liende, who stood before the players. Anna waited until the red-and-white-haired woodwind player eased forward."If you would bring the players up here. Face them toward the river, not the…lake," the sorceress said. "We'll use the long building spell. Warm up and run through it a few times while I finish getting ready.""Players to position, here." Liende motioned for the others to gather in a semicircle.Anna walked forward a few steps, before stopping and looking at the sketch of the ford and attempting to reconcile it to the reality of crumbling bluffs and mudflats split by a turbid river perhaps thirty yards wide in a deep channel.While the falk-horn, the woodwinds, and the strings tuned behind her, she sang the notes of the spell, using "la" instead of real words, and worked at visualizing the ford."We stand ready," Liende announced.Anna turned to the chief player. "I'd like one run-through to fix the spell and words, please.""At my mark," Liende ordered. "Mark!"Anna tried to mesh the visual image, the words, and the melody, all without actually singing the spell itself. Halfway through, she stopped and shook her head. "I'm sorry. Could we try that again?"After the second run-through, Anna took another sip of water, squared her shoulders, and nodded once more at the chief player."The long building song—for the spell," commanded Liende. "At my mark.…Mark!"Anna concentrated on just the spell and the image of the stone-footed ford the spell was designed to form, ignoring the heat, ignoring the fivescore armsmen mounted and ranked behind the players, using full opera voice to set the spell.…replicate the blocks and stones.Place them in their proper zones.…Set them firm, and set them squareweld them to their pattern there.…Bring the rock and make it stone.…The bluff underfoot shivered, and kept shivering. Anna had to step sideways, but managed to keep her voice open, strong, and clear. The lightning marking her use of the harmonies, and unseen to any but her, or so it had seemed, flickered in the bright blue southern sky. The haze that formed would turn into clouds, clouds that would dissipate within a few hours— glasses, she corrected herself mentally.As the song ended and the shimmering haze lifted, Anna smiled raggedly. The bluff to her right had been trimmed into a stone-paved inclined road down to the river, and the murky waters of the Chean formed a glistening sheet nearly a hundred yards wide across the newly created stone ford. On the far side, a second stone causeway rose out of the ford to join the road through the dozen huts that represented the rebuilding of Sorprat."Most amazing, Lady Anna," offered Himar.Murmurs from the armsmen ranked behind the players were louder."See?""…not many others who can do that.""Not many, Nirweit? How about none?""…hope the peasants appreciate it."The dizziness that accompanied strenuous songspell-casting again left Anna light-headed, but she stood firmly on the ground that shifted under her. Every spell she cast—or so it seemed—left her weak, if for varying periods. That she had to eat like a glutton to maintain her strength was something she still had trouble accepting.Rickel handed her the water bottle and a hard biscuit.Anna took both, murmuring, "Thank you." Will you ever do a songspell without feeling drained? Her eyes blurred, and she grasped at the saddle to steady herself, holding on until the dizziness subsided.The near-dozen players stood drained, their shoulders drooping, as they also sought water and biscuits.Anna stepped toward them. "Thank you all." She had to make an extra effort to ensure her voice carried, that it was steady. She nodded to Liende, and offered a smile. "Everyone was together.""We have been practicing," Liende acknowledged, her eyes dark with fatigue."I can tell. Thank you."Liende bowed slightly, and Anna took another swallow from her water bottle.Even after drinking and eating several biscuits, she remained light-headed, and might until the next day. But she remounted Farinelli, offering a smile to Himar. "Shall we try the ford?""As you wish, Regent," responded the overcaptain gravely. "As you wish."Once the column was remounted, Anna urged Farinelli toward the stone causeway that sloped down to the Chean River, toward the ford only she thought was necessary. Was it really for faster travel to Mencha—and Ebra? Or because you destroyed the old ford? To redress the wrongs your sorcery has created?Her gut feeling remained that she had done the right thing, but the uncertainty as to why remained, long after the column had passed through Sorprat and the Chean River sheeted near silently over the newly wrought stones of the ford.Copyright © 1999 by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.