Read an Excerpt
By Alan Dean Foster
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 Thranx, Inc.
All rights reserved.
IT STARTED IN L'BOR. Or perhaps it was Lynchbany. In any case the occurrence certainly was singular as opposed to simultaneous. Which is to say there was only one of whatever it was. It shifted from place to place, revealing itself with distinction and imprinting itself on the memories of all who encountered it. Trailing bemused contentment, it wandered aimlessly through the Bellwoods, leaving those whose path it momentarily crossed smiling to themselves without quite knowing why.
As benign phenomena don't have quite the same impact or occasion quite as much gossip as the kind that bring death and destruction, word of the manifestation traveled slowly at best. Since it caused no trouble, no one bothered to follow up tales of its appearance, to seek explanation or deeper meaning. At best it was a momentary source of curiosity and conversation to those who crossed its path—a brief diversion from the daily grind. Something to chat about when comfortably resnuggled back in one's house or cave or lair or den.
Flagyr the badger and his friend Invez the serval were neither working nor engaged in any sort of activity that might be called serious when they happened upon the phenomenon. Or rather, when it happened upon them.
In point of fact they were seated side by side upon a grassy shore bordering one of the most modest tributaries of the River Tailaroam, on a bright and altogether salubrious summer morning. Their fishing poles were cocked over the water in the time-honored fashion of fisherfolk everywhere. This undertaking they were pursuing with single-minded dedication and unusual forethought, which is to say that they actually had put bait on their lines.
Flagyr was leaning back against an obliging tree, the large, floppy-brimmed hat he favored on warm mornings tipped down to cover most of his face. He lay with paws folded across his chest and one leg over the other, his brown canvas shorts bunched up at the knee.
In an astonishing display of activity, Invez actually had one hand wrapped loosely around the shaft of his pole, easing it back and forth so that the line would bob in the placid water. One eye focused on the glassy surface while its companion slumbered.
This late in the morning few fish were jumping. Depending on one's point of view, this made it either the worst or best of times to be out fishing. The intent of such an expedition wasn't to actually catch fish. That was merely the time-honored excuse fisherfolk employed for going fishing. Contrary to what some might think, the process of fishing was not a means to an end. It was the end.
Save for the nearby canvas hamper which contained food and drink, they were quite alone. The serval took a lazy swat at a bee determined to mistake a tall, pointed ear for a place in which to set up housekeeping. Agitated, the insect fled, only to have its place in the aural spectrum taken by something which caused Invez to blink and sit up slightly.
The badger didn't bother to push back his hat and look up. "I hear it. Be something on the road."
Invez frowned, his long whiskers dipping. The road which roughly paralleled the course of the tributary lay some way back through the woods, and this new sound rather closer.
"I don't think so. There it is again!" He sat up straighter, forgetting his pole and allowing the end to dip into the stream. Both eyes were open now.
"Whatever it is, it's pretty," noted Flagyr, listening. His sole physical response was to shift his legs, crossing the left over the right. He hoped that was the sum of physical activity which would immediately be required of him, unless some fish was so impolite as to actually take his bait. "But back on the road, I think. Has to be."
"Some kind of music," Invez declared. "I don't recognize the instruments involved."
Forced to cogitate, the distracted badger let out a resigned sigh and for the first time concentrated on listening with something more than general indifference.
"Carillon flutes," he finally proclaimed. "With accompanying chimes. More than one instrument, certainly."
"Agreed." Invez was staring to his left. "But it doesn't look like any of those."
Beneath the cool shadow of the wide-brimmed hat, Flagyr frowned. "Look? You can see who is playing?"
"That's just it. I can't see who's playing. I can't see anyone at all."
"Then what are you seeing?"
"The music," Invez told him. "I've never actually seen music before."
"What are you talking about?" The badger struggled to sit up.
"Careful," Invez warned him. "It's very close now and you'll bump right into it."
"Urrr ... bump into what ?" The glare off the river caused the thoroughly irritated Flagyr to blink as his eyes sought to readjust.
"I told you: the music."
And just as Invez said, there it was. Flagyr found himself gaping at the glistening, translucent, slightly reflective armful of music. It hovered lazily in the warm air of morning not an arm's length from his face. Each time it resounded, flecks of golden iridescence exploded softly in midair, only to vanish as the music faded, like mist rising off a lake on a frosty morning. As the badger gawked, the pinkish cloud chimed several times in succession.
Invez was right. Not only was no performer present, neither was there any sign of an instrument. Instead, there was only the music itself, pure and shimmering, pealing insistently before their astonished faces. Whether it consisted of motes or notes, he couldn't truly tell.
Though they had no way of knowing it, the lyrical encounter had been repeated many times previously, in L'bor, Lynchbany, and elsewhere. Not everyone actually saw the music; some only heard it. But unlike many who had experienced the encounter before, the badger knew enough to propound a possible source.
"There's a wizard working around here somewhere," he declared decisively. Gently he reached toward the drifting notes.
Like glittering gnats they swirled ebulliently around his probing forefinger, singing softly. Then they backed off, the cloud cluster re-forming, to regard him with a querulous arpeggio.
The serval was on his feet, peering into the woods. "I don't see anyone."
"A practical joke," murmured Flagyr. "Perhaps a practice practical joke. Wizards!" he snorted, settling back down against his tree.
"It seems harmless enough." Invez took a couple of steps toward the notes, pausing when they swirled around him in an eager allegro. After a moment they darted away.
"The tempo and volume changes," he remarked, "but it's always the same tune. It's an odd sort of music. I don't recognize it. I wish I'd had some musical training."
"I've had a little." Flagyr did not look up.
Invez eyed his friend in surprise. "You never mentioned this."
"I'm not what you'd call a professional," the badger mumbled. "Not one, am I, to brag about something I'm not very good at." He gestured up at the soft singing. "I'd wager there's something wrong with that series of notes, and I don't mean from a musical standpoint."
"Wrong?" The serval's whiskers twitched.
The badger squinted up at the jittering notes. "It sounds unresolved, like something's missing. Both at the start and at the conclusion. It's not like a complete composition but more like a piece of one, cast off like a bad tooth." He shrugged. "But then, what do I know? Is there anything else?"
Invez peered up and down the stream. "These are the only notes I see."
"An unresolved, incomplete musical statement." Flagyr was quite sure of himself. "And too dissonant by half for my taste."
As if in response, the music concluded a complete and decidedly mournful restatement of its principal theme before it began to drift away, pacing itself to the flow of the stream. Invez followed until it vanished, still chiming softly to itself, into the woods.
"I had the distinct impression that it was looking for something," Flagyr added from somewhere beneath his hat.
Invez resumed his seat and fiddled with his pole. "What could that be? What would a piece of music be looking for?"
"How should I know?" The badger snuffled softly. "The rest of itself, I should imagine. If I were a part of a song or a symphony, I wouldn't want to go through the rest of eternity incomplete. I'd think that would invalidate my existence."
"Actually I never thought much about it," Invez murmured.
Flagyr tugged his hat fully down over his face, slid lower against the smooth-barked tree, and crossed his arms across his broad chest, wrinkling his brown vest. "I doubt anyone ever has. You're right about one thing, though."
"What's that?" The serval snuggled himself into the grass.
"The underlying melody was a nice one."
"I wonder," Invez mused. "If the tone had been more somber, would it have appeared darker? Does attitude affect the appearance of music?"
"What I think is that I've expended far too much thinking on it already." With that the badger rolled over and turned away from his loquacious friend. Invez started to comment further, hesitated, then shrugged and contented himself with concentrating on the tip of his pole.
By no means were that particular serval and that persnickety badger the only ones out fishing on that specific morning. A yawn and a stretch downstream, on the west bank of the larger concourse into which the tributary flowed, two friends of long standing were similarly engaged in the time-honored sport of killing time by attempting to catch fish.
One was human, tall and limber. He wore short pants and a favorite old shirt that was now badly weathered and torn. The long hair which fell to his shoulders was thinning conspicuously in front and his skin had been browned by long years of exposure to the sun. The wooden shaft of his fishing gear was firmly jammed into the earth and braced with several rocks, while the line drifted amiably downstream with the current.
He lay flat on his back, hands behind his head. The bank on which he reclined was sloped just enough toward the water to enable him to occasionally tilt his head up and study the moving stream.
On his left, exhibiting a degree of repose the most relaxed human could never have matched, was a very large otter. He was similarly attired save for the feathered cap that rested rakishly on his head. In his utter lack of activity he was being perfectly otterish, individuals of the species to which he belonged seeming to exist always in a state of either consummate immobility or uncontrolled frenzy.
At the moment the subatomic particles which comprised the essence of his form seemed to have ceased all movement. He was content to treat his pole and the water with equal disdain. Quicker than any fish, he could have acquired a full meal simply by leaping into the river and nosing about for ten minutes. But that would have been hunting as much as angling. In contrast, pole fishing required a degree of resignation and commitment.
Also, this way one didn't have to move very much.
"You know," Jon-Tom observed conversationally, as he crossed his bare legs, "I'm really proud of Buncan. Sure Talea and I were mad at him for running off like that with your kids, but they got back alive and in one piece, and you have to admit he made his point. If he wants to be a spellsinger that badly, I'm sure he'll find some way to make a success of it."
Mudge glanced across at his friend, peering out from beneath the brim of his feathered cap. "Oi, 'ow's the little bugger doin' at Sorcerer's Vocational?"
"I'm afraid his grades aren't the best," Jon-Tom confessed, "but the instructors praise his enthusiasm. They still can't do anything about his voice, but his fingering just keeps getting better and better. Sadly, he also seems subject to the same difficulties that used to plague me. Which is to say that his musical inventions don't always result in what he's trying to magick."
With an agile digit the otter instigated a lazy exploration of one black nostril. "What do you mean, 'used to'?"
Jon-Tom ignored the obligatory dig. "How are Nocter and Squill doing? Buncan doesn't tell us a lot about his friends."
The otter chirped thoughtfully. "Doin' the opposite o' your boy, I fears. They sing like angels an' play like drunks. Seems we may be destined, mate, to 'ave sired a spellsingin' trio that can never split up. That is, unless me blessed offspring get a tickle up their butts an' decide to 'ave a go at somethin' else. You know 'ow 'ard it is for any otter to commit to anythin' for more than 'alf an 'our."
Jon-Tom was nodding at Mudge's line. "I think you may have a nibble there."
"Might I?" The otter considered his twitching pole.
"Could be. Maybe I'll 'ave a go, if 'tis still there in a few minutes. Got to give the fish a sportin' chance, don't you know."
"I'll never understand why you just don't jump in and grab it."
"Like I said—wouldn't be sportin'." He leaned back, his spine as supple as a snake's, and contentedly regarded the cerulean sky. "At the moment I'd rather feed me soul than me belly."
Jon-Tom returned his attention to his own line. "I was thinking how fortunate we are in having understanding mates, who don't object when we want to get off by ourselves for a day or two."
The otter emitted a sardonic bark. "Understandin'? Mate, that's just so Weegee an' Talea can run off to town an' do wotever it is they do when we ain't around."
His companion grinned. "Actually, I think all females have secret access to an entirely separate universe, to which they commute freely when no males are about. Occasionally and by accident we get a brief glimpse of it. The consequent confusion gives rise to questions, but the replies always seem to consist of dress sizes or detailed descriptions of medical problems. Being both incomprehensible and boring, this inevitably results in the cessation of our inquiries by subtly inducing in our unsuspecting minds a common medical condition best described as terminal bafflement."
"Funny—that's 'ow I've always thought of you, mate. Bobbin' through life in a sort o' drifting, permanent fog."
"An observation rendered inherently invalid by the limited mental powers of the individual making it."
"Oi! Did I ever claim to be otherwise? I ain't no bloomin' wizard nor spellsinger. All I ever wanted to be were a decent cutpurse an' thief who were good at 'is craft an' didn't 'urt 'is marks no more than were absolutely necessary." He jiggled the pole, the tip of which continued to dance.
"'Course, 'tis been some time since I engaged in any o' the controversial activities which define me chosen profession. Ain't fast enough anymore. I'd get caught too often to make a go of it. No, mate, this sedate family life suits me."
"Yeah, me too." Leaning back and resting his head on his arms, Jon-Tom stared at the water. "It's a good life."
Ten inconsequential minutes melted away, whereupon he looked to his left and inquired, "Does this mean that you're as bored as I am?"
"More so, mate. Infinitely more so." With a quick twist of his hips the otter sat up straight and gazed sharply at his friend. "Which ain't to say that I'm ready to take off with you on one o' your notoriously crack-brained an' life-threatenin' attempts to save the world. I got a family to look after now, I do."
"I wasn't suggesting anything," Jon-Tom demurred. "I was just saying that I was bored, and you agreed with me."
Mudge relaxed but remained wary. "That's right. Just bored. Not newly suicidal." Several more minutes went the way of their immediate predecessors. "You, uh, you ain't by chance been plannin' somethin', 'ave you?"
"Of course not."
"Certainly I'm sure."
"Glad to 'ear it." The otter resumed his resting position.
"You know," Jon-Tom avowed after more time had passed, "you're getting white around your muzzle."
The otter snorted at him even as he reached up reflexively to feel of his whiskery snout. "Wot d'you mean, white? Least I don't 'ave to worry about losing wot remainin' fur I've got."
Jon-Tom felt of his thinning forehead which, like a retreating glacier, had begun shrinking back several years ago.
"What are you saying? Is it getting worse?"
"I don't figure it, mate. If it bothers you so much, why not just throw together a simple spellsong an' restore yourself to your favored condition o' juvenile hirsuteness?"
The spellsinger turned sullen. "Don't you think I've tried? There are plenty of songs that deal with hair, but neither traditional lyrics nor inventions of my own do any good. Receding hair seems to be one of the few things that's utterly resistant to sorcery. There's a lesson to be learned there, I'm sure, but for the life of me I can't figure out what it is.
"Though he decried the triviality of it, even Clothahump gave it a shot, and failed. It's a fine twist of fate in a cruel universe."
"One that don't trouble me," the otter remarked. "I'm quite indifferent to such matters, I am." White? His muzzle couldn't be turning white!
"It's not like the old days," Jon-Tom sighed. "Responsibilities, respectability "
"Watch your language, mate."
Excerpted from Chorus Skating by Alan Dean Foster. Copyright © 1994 Thranx, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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