Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Bellweather

“I like this place not,” said Spar.

“I can’t imagine why,” said Gorlen. “It looks like a gargoyle’s graveyard.”

They had struggled for days through a wasteland of broken rock, high in the mountains, on their way through a pass that maps had indicated would take them to a country of promise. The first of the rocks were chipped and quarried, and showed signs of having been worked by artisans as much as by nature. But after a time, the unfashioned stone gave way to broken figures. The general impression was that a nation of statues, its entire populace, had been carried to the heavens and then dropped, so that all were shattered. Fractured heads and torsos, truncated limbs, toes and fingers of every size, from gnomic to gigantic, lay strewn from peak to peak, as if spread across the high mountain valleys by glacial action. For two travelers on foot, it was rough going, and Gorlen sensed that his gargoyle companion found the terrain unnerving—his sense of uneasiness redoubling as they neared the far edge of the plateau and saw sky instead of mountains before them. They should have been gladdened by the promise of a descent, but as the sky opened up, the ominous atmosphere solidified into a tangible form:

A wall of hands, palms turned toward them, ran along the mountain crest as far as they could see. Stone hands, severed (or simply snapped) at the wrists, hands of all sizes packed together to form a barrier as solid as a reef. It was not, perhaps, as unnerving as if the hands had all been formed of skeletal human remains, and yet as possessor of a gargoyle hand himself, Gorlen found it more than menacing.

Directly ahead of them, the hands knit more closely, forming a kind of finished border around an opening, an archway through which a reasonably large trade caravan might have passed.

“Is that where our path leads?” he asked.

Spar needed to consult no map to verify this.

“And what do you make of this warning?”

“I am not certain it is meant to intimidate. It may simply be that these were the most appropriate building materials.”

“Hands?” Gorlen said. “Why the total absence of toes or elbows, for instance?”

“It is worth considering whether we should keep to our original track. Perhaps there is another way around. This can hardly be the only route down from the mountains.”

They stood and surveyed the terrain. Far off among the chipped heads and bent limbs, Gorlen thought he saw movement and heard a distant tinkling. They had seen little sign of life on the plateau—the occasional nomad encampment, distant roaming figures quickly lost in the jagged horizons. Suddenly, he felt lonely and exposed. The sooner they made their way down from this altitude, to warmer and greener lands, the sooner he would feel at ease. And yet, it was impossible to mistake the warning here.

“Perhaps we’d best push on,” he said. “We can always come back if we don’t find another route.”

Spar agreed, and they started off, keeping the grotesque wall to one side. The going was slow and grew harder almost immediately, for once they left the track that led to the gate of hands, they found the terrain between the stones had changed from earth to water, a cold flood of snowmelt from the encircling peaks. Without a flat dry path, they were forced to scramble and jump from one shard to the next. If they slipped or found a gap too great to jump, ice-cold water awaited them. On the surface it appeared clear and still, but the first moment Gorlen stepped into it—and that first moment was quite inadvertent—he felt a strong current tugging and trying to further unbalance him. Spar, being made of stone, was indifferent to the chill, and did his best to help Gorlen make the precarious leaps without getting soaked. Gorlen explained in some detail what would happen should he soak himself in such cold weather. As for fires, or any other means of warming himself and drying his clothes, the plateau was entirely devoid of sticks, trees, leaves—anything, in fact, that might be burned, apart from the wooden instrument that was his livelihood. Gorlen said, “Had we known this route would be so miserable, I might have recommended avoiding it altogether. The land on the far side of the pass is as likely as anyplace else to disappoint us. I forget now why it seemed critical to get there. I only—hold on, what’s that?”

Gorlen cut off and listened, and after a moment, very faint in the sound of chuckling silvery waters, they heard a tinkling of bells. It sounded like a number of them, tiny peals, almost lost in the water sounds.

“Herders,” he said. “I think I saw them back by the gate.”

Suddenly, a louder bell pealed—a single bright chime that cut through the afternoon. Gorlen’s spirits lit up instantly at the thought that they were drawing closer to companionship.

At that moment, the sun went dark. A veil of ice-flecked mist closed around them, as if drawn up from the frigid pools of the flooded plain.

“What is this?” Gorlen cried, indignant, as snow blinded him. He groped for Spar, unable to see him in the sudden frost. “There were people out there somewhere. We should find them.”

“What if it was only animals? Shouldn’t we wait here?”

“We can’t wait!”

The single pure bell note sounded again, muffled by the snow but cutting through until it faded to the edge of audibility, where it hung for a very long time.

“Back to the gate, then,” Gorlen said. “At least we can start our descent on the other side, and get below this.”

“As you say,” Spar agreed.

In the blinding weather, the wall was a fixture to be prized—a sole bit of solidity when Gorlen’s senses failed to offer much in the way of reliable information. Reversing course, they kept it to their side as they retreated to the gate of hands, and this time passed through, once more taking up their original track. But although Gorlen had hoped for a quick descent, and better weather, conditions only degraded on the far side. The wall was somewhere behind them, and soon they lost the track as well. Underfoot, the boulders had iced over, glazed in a slippery transparent shell. Gorlen took an uncertain step and knew halfway through that it would end in disaster.

The water was shallow, but still deep enough to drench him straight through, cold enough to stab him to the marrow, like knives floating in his bloodstream. He hoped Spar was paying attention. He threw himself into a small place where he could perch between two larger boulders, and sat slowly freezing to death, shivering violently. Spar dug into Gorlen’s pack and pulled out his eduldamer, and began plucking the silver strings with one of his quickstone fingers. The instrument rang out like a bell itself, calling to the others. Gorlen thought that was a fine idea, worthy of the wise goyle, and he heartily approved. He clamped his jaws to keep from shivering too hard. A gargoyle of course had no dry clothes in which to wrap him, and though Gorlen had known Spar to strike a spark by snapping his fingers, there was no tinder here, either. But all reason was soon lost in the ice fog. He shut his eyes, losing track of his companion, numb and senseless, hardly hearing the tinkle of little bells coming closer as Spar jangled at the eduldamer.

Then, in his delirium, Gorlen had a vision as strange as any he had ever dreamed. The snowfall wavered and parted, and a clear hole opened in the mist. It widened steadily, perfectly round, clearing away all the snowflakes in an area centered on a hooded figure dressed in furs. A nomad—a herder. He carried a bell held out ahead of him, sounding it steadily; the ringing seemed to generate, all around the bell, a bubble of warm dry air. This warm pocket followed the bell through the blizzard, moving to surround Gorlen and Spar. The nomad leapt up onto an immense stone knee and looked down on Gorlen, huddled shivering below. Gorlen tried to see the man’s face, but his vision was darkening: The cold had grown too great, the warmth barely registered. The figure said something he didn’t hear, for he was falling into white darkness, falling like the snow.

***

The ringing of a bell had followed him into darkness; a different bell led him out of it. The sound was inseparable from deep warmth, a rising, subtle flush of heat that flowed in with the tone, low, almost below his ability to hear—although he felt it in his blood, his bone, his skin.

His eyes came open slowly into grey smoky light. Now he smelled woodsmoke, and saw it curling in the dark upper corners of the room where he lay nestled in soft bedding. Above him stood a young man, with thick black hair and skin that seemed smudged with the smoke of the room. The man was leaning over him, dangling a flat silver bell several inches across. Looking up into it from below, Gorlen saw himself warped but bright in the reflective surface. The young man struck the bell with a small rod of ivory, and again the warmth flooded through him with the sound.

Seeing that Gorlen was awake, the man spoke quietly to someone nearby. A child rushed past at the edge of his vision, darting outside, and a moment later Spar appeared.

“He appears well,” Spar said. “Are you, Gorlen?”

Gorlen sat up, took a look around him. “Where are we?”

“I am Chamsin. This is our home. Your friend called us to you in the storm.”

“I remember . . . I was very cold.”

“Yes. We have your clothes drying. Rest a bit longer. I have hot tea for you, but you cannot drink it till you are warm enough. So for now, just rest. The bell of warming has done most of the work already, but it still takes patience.”

Chamsin went to one side of the little room and carefully hung the bell on a dowel, alongside a dozen or so of different sizes, shapes, and colors. Also hanging there was a skin cloak with a loose cowl that he recognized from his last moments of consciousness in the snowstorm. It did not seem to be storming now. The hut was open to the world at one side, a doorway with no door in it, or even a hanging hide. Beyond was the grey light of the plain and the sea of broken rock extending into the distance. Closer to hand was life: a child peering into the hut from outside, and the movement of herd animals roaming past the entry. After a moment, one child became two, as well as a skinny older boy; they crowded around the opening and then came in to see Gorlen. They were fascinated by his eduldamer, which he promised to play for them once he was rested—and Chamsin tried sending them off, but Gorlen reassured him all was well. As a bard, Gorlen was used to such curious attention wherever he went. The younger two children dropped down around him, and he realized he must have been lying in one of their beds. These were several shallow troughs dug out of the earth and lined with varieties of moss, furs laid over that, all close to a small central fire. The hut was small, crowded, smoky—but also cozy. And compared to the vast plain of rubble, this was home indeed.

Where Chamsin failed to get his children to leave Gorlen alone, his wife soon succeeded at least in getting them to quiet down. She came in from outside, an infant strapped sleeping to her back with blankets and colored bindings. A round-faced woman with flushed cheeks, raw from snow and sun, she crouched down smiling and thrust a bowl of steaming milk at him. It was warm from whatever beast had given it—and given the tinkling sound of herd bells all around the hut, he didn’t think she’d had to carry it far.

Her name was Smaia. The infant had not yet found his name (as they put it), and the two other young children didn’t sit still long enough for him to keep them straight. The older boy was called Aial, and he eventually went off to tend to chores outside.

The milk—and slices of dark, waxy cheese—soon had Gorlen feeling revivified, and as soon as he could rise from the sleeping niche, Chamsin threw his stiff, warm clothes to him. Moments later, Gorlen stepped, blinking, into the afternoon.

The rocks and broken statuary spread out before him, but the storm was gone as if it had never been—not even a cloud embellished the deep surface of the sky. The hut sat on a slight elevation, a flattened little knoll formed or built out of mud and bryophytes, either congested in this spot by the elements or collected by Chamsin’s kin over many years. This spot was all the humans needed: The beasts, called draaks, appeared happy enough among boulders and the ruined limbs of giants. Long-legged to the point of absurdity, they resembled insects, loosely draped in patchy fur, udders swinging as they stilt-walked over the boulders and then lowered themselves to drink and graze in the deceptively still pools between the stones. They came up with mouthfuls of mud and moss dripping from bearded jaws, a placid and serene look in their dark eyes as they chewed their spongy cud.

Aial was out among them now, chivvying them closer to the hut. They wore the bells that Gorlen had heard tinkling, and the boy too carried a bell, hung from the top of a stout walking staff that he used for various purposes—balancing, poking the beasts, stirring up mud, and pushing aside small rocks to release bubbling moss from around the base so his herd might feed. They were a skinny lot of beasts, but judging from the milk and cheese he had eaten, and the furs Chamsin’s family wore, they provided a living. The camp also had its guardians: two enormous shaggy black beasts that gave the impression of being an abstraction of fur and fangs. They had taken a liking to Spar, apparently, or else out of mistrust they were following him around, flanking him. The goyle being completely devoid of scent and nearly silent, Gorlen was not sure what they found interesting about him. But when Spar settled himself up on an enormous convex stone that might once have been a giant’s shield or elbow, they sank down on either side of him and Gorlen instantly sensed a deep inherent kinship. All three were guardians—they recognized, in the spirit that animated the quickstone, an essence that went deeper than flesh and mineral differences.

“We’ve come away from the pass,” Spar said. “It was necessary to keep you alive.”

“As you may recall, I have no particular attachment to this route,” Gorlen said. “Another mountain pass, another high plateau, new twists on the same old hardships—blizzards, ice, fog, cold, blisters, deprivation—it no longer matters to me that the scenery constantly changes. This is the same as it ever was.”

He held out his quickstone hand, and gave a soft thump to Spar’s flesh counterpart. The shaggy beasts sniffed the hand of flesh with wet black noses and flicked out pink proboscises to test the skin. Gorlen saw a glimmer of fangs in a long feeding tube; it seemed like overkill.

He recuperated there on the domed rock, like a wan flower drinking in sunlight. His ribs ached from the act of straining hard for air in the thin atmosphere of the mountains, and he envied the ease with which Aial leapt after the flock. Smaia too sprang lightly from one jagged, precarious stone to another, her babe nodding and dozing all the while. The stilt-legged draaks lowered themselves over the pools, thrust feeding tubes deep into the mud, speared soft-shell leeches and chitins that lived in the silt, pulled them squirming into their mouths. Omnivores, then. Gorlen retrospectively thought he could identify a faint smack of leech in the milk he had drunk. It was no doubt an acquired taste.

The sun sank abruptly, and here was more reason to be grateful for the rescue from the rocky terrain. The lack of level dry ground would have meant a great deal of hazardous stumbling over tilted hard surfaces where sleep would be impossible to come by. The herders brought Gorlen and Spar back inside, where they discovered that somehow Smaia had assembled a feast in their honor.

“It is traditional to begin the feast with the foremost part of the draak.” And here Chamsin held out a plate of braised draak tongue. Gorlen determined early on not to scrutinize the offerings, but to eat everything offered without reservation. This all went well until the end of the meal, when, with great ceremony, Chamsin said, “It is traditional to end the feast with the hindmost part of the draak.” At which moment Gorlen recalled with a start that the draak possessed no tail. He was soon thinking back with great longing for the inoffensive savor of leech. Fortunately, after a certain point, even the spiced and fermented buttermilk of the draak began to lose some of its objectionable properties, and he found it useful for washing down the final course . . . which admittedly he ate in a manner that redefined the word “sparingly.”

With so much alcoholic milk imbibed, Gorlen found it hard to play his eduldamer with true dexterity. If the children found his playing of interest, they did not show it. In fact, they were all soon asleep. Smaia brewed a salty mud-colored tea from silty water. Chamsin promised to show them a safe track out of the mountains in the morning. He performed a very quiet and solemn tune, tapping several of the family’s precious bells, and then insisted Gorlen take the largest and most comfortably lined sleeping niche, while he and Smaia curled up in one together, with the infant between them.

With the lovely music of the bells still fading in his ears, like a note sustained far beyond hearing but still entirely present, Gorlen drifted off to sleep.

***

Bells . . .

Bells . . .

Always his sleep was haunted with bells.

And which was this? He had not heard it before. It was nothing like the shepherd bells; there was nothing domestic or comforting about it. It began like a nightmare, and only worsened. Instead of starting with a strike and then attenuating into silence, this one welled up from the deep quiet of sleep, building and building as if climbing toward some future in which it would eventually be struck. In dread of that moment, he woke into paralysis and terror. His eyes sprang open, but he could move nothing else. A prisoner in his body, in this state between waking and dreaming, he was forced to watch what transpired without the ability to affect events in any way.

As the ringing increased, it was accompanied by a weak light that seemed an expression of the sound, a light that grew in brightness as the ringing intensified. Colors clotted in the air, a pale spherical shape above a blur of darker violet tones that shifted cloudily and then settled into folds of velvety shadow. The pallid sphere became a head, and then the head developed features: a face, remote and expressionless but exuding malevolence that was inseparable from the sound of the bell. It was as if he could hear a soul’s essence, and this was a terrible soul indeed.

In the violet folds he saw a pale, clawed hand, from whose fingers hung a small violet bell that gleamed like glass. The thin, keening waves of sound and the eerie light alike poured out of the bell. The malevolent figure did not ring it, merely held it lightly from an embroidered cord and let it sing.

Still paralyzed, Gorlen watched in awe as the bell-ringer, now fully formed and physically, wholly present in the hut, stepped forward in the sphere of ringing light that followed the violet bell. He stood gazing down at Gorlen, but saw nothing of interest there and drifted over to the sleeping niche where Chamsin and Smaia slept.

Gorlen could not turn his head, and so could not see what the bell-ringer did next, only that for a moment he dipped out of sight. When he straightened, he was carrying something small and squirming, but his robes quickly closed over it.

And then came the high, thin voice of the bell itself, an evil ringing tone shaped into words, matched to the movement of the man’s lipless mouth:

“Chamsin, you violated your vow. You intruded on the sacred grounds. Thus we exact the penalty, which we are sure you will agree, though painful, is fair. We will tolerate no protest. The bells have spoken.”

With that, he snapped the cord from which the violet bell dangled. It jerked up several inches and he caught it in his fingers, pinching it—and in that instant of muting the bell, the eerie light died, the sound went out, the hut flooded with its natural midnight darkness—

And Smaia began to scream.

Gorlen sprang up. Chamsin and Smaia leapt to their feet. The younger children and the eldest son woke with a start, but it was obvious to Gorlen that the adults had been awake but helpless through the whole visitation.

“He was here, he was here! He took our baby!” Smaia wailed, inconsolable, and Chamsin, pale, held her close with a rigid, determined expression.

“It was Lek. He summoned the storm,” Chamsin said in a grim voice. “He sensed travelers, lost, within a few steps of the temple’s land—and by imperiling them he knew I would come to their aid. It was a trap all along.”

Spar stepped in from outside, puzzled by the commotion. “But I have been guarding the door,” he said, “sitting with your watchers. We saw nothing, heard nothing, nothing stirred.”

“Lek rides the bellsong,” Chamsin said, “and not all may hear it. He goes where he casts his mind. It is an art taught at the Temple of the Bells. He is the abbot there.”

Spar asked, “And by taking a child—what cause, what right did he think he had?”

Chamsin sank to his knees, holding his wife, who clutched her two young, terrified children. Aial stood near the entry, looking bravely out at the night, but casting heartbroken looks at his parents.

“I was a monk there,” Chamsin said. “From boyhood—my parents sent me to the temple, to whom they owed a son. I was the abbot’s own boy, but I hated it there, and as soon as I was of an age, I chose to leave. He could not prevent me, so instead he put an exile’s vow upon me. If ever I set foot within the temple’s domain, he would collect the debt he says I owe—the same my own parents once supplied because they were too fearful to defy him. I was brave for myself, but now . . . for my family . . . What have I done?” He began to shake, struggling with tears.

“But clearly he tricked you,” Spar said.

“He hates me—hates that I was strong enough to leave. I learned enough bell magic to ward him off—but he is ancient, implacable, and patient. How long he must have waited for travelers through his lands, and a moment when I was close enough to respond.”

Smaia looked up at them. Gorlen tensed against recrimination, but there was only grief and pleading in her eyes.

“What will we do?” she asked.

“We will do all we can to help you,” Spar said, without a glance at Gorlen. “If you can point out the route to this Temple of Bells, we will address ourselves to this abbot Lek and entreat him to return the child. Perhaps we can provide something else he desires. Perhaps it is time his influence be curtailed.”

Gorlen said nothing, but he wondered what Spar was getting them into. Chamsin seemed to share his concern.

“Lek is very powerful,” he said. “He will not take well to being confronted by strangers. No, this is my problem—his argument is with me.”

“We are the most immediate cause of your troubles,” Spar said. “And he has used us as instruments against you. This is unjust. As a gargoyle, I cannot let this stand.”

“Many gargoyles, in my experience, would,” Gorlen said dryly.

“My race is much reduced in nobility, in these late days,” said Spar.

“You would not know it to look at you.”

Spar gave a slight bow of acknowledgment.

***

Even before dawn had flooded the grey waste of broken statuary, Chamsin and Smaia were embracing and saying words of parting. Chamsin had wrapped himself in furs and selected several bells from his collection, as well as a heavy-looking dagger with a cylindrical, tapering needlelike blade. Gorlen had not thought their perils would hinge on a knife fight, and the sight of the weapon made him even more apprehensive. Leaving Aial to take full responsibility for the spindly-legged flock, and with the other children somewhat confused, they took their departure, and were stumbling over stones when the sun rose. Well, except for Chamsin, who stepped lightly from boulder to shard like a bit of flower fluff, leaving them to follow more clumsily.

“We are retracing ground we covered yesterday,” Spar informed Gorlen. “Chamsin must have known he took a risk venturing close to the area of his exile.”

“Will this take us far off our track?” Gorlen asked.

“I thought that was of no concern to you.”

“I did wonder at the alacrity with which you involved us in a quarrel to which we are not parties.”

“It is likely Chamsin is in this strait because of us.”

“If not us then some other traveler. The abbot was waiting for an opportunity to trick him.”

“You do not seem grateful to the man who saved your life.”

“He only had to save it because another man he has an argument with used me as bait.”

“Then I will amend my comments: You do not seem angry enough with the man who endangered your life.”

“He is nothing to me, and I would be content to leave it that way.”

They walked in silence for a time; Gorlen feeling by turns sullen and resentful, then embarrassed by his smallness of spirit. How readily Spar jumped to aid these near strangers. And yet the goyle was unreadable. Was he annoyed by Gorlen? Did he expect apologies? On his glossy black visage, one could read almost any subtle configuration of emotions—but the likeliest explanation was that he intended no judgment.

“Let me ask you,” he said, just when Gorlen had convinced himself that absolutely nothing was going on behind those impenetrable features. “When the rogue priest of Nardath wished to force your obedience to his geas—when he set you on the quest to save the world and whatever else that entailed—why do you think he did so with the graft of a gargoyle finger?”

Gorlen looked down at his black stone hand. It was hard to remember now when only the one index finger had been made of gargoyle stone. Every time he strayed from his duty, or went against what he knew in his heart was right, the stone spread, grew, infecting him. And he had strayed repeatedly—one finger at a time was eventually claimed, and then his whole hand, and for a time it had advanced far past his wrist and up his forearm. He knew that were it to reach beyond his arm—were it to touch his lungs, let alone his heart—that would mean his death. Yet he found it almost impossible to follow unwaveringly the path of his quest. The stone flesh retracted very gradually after his successful fulfillment of his obligation, but it still claimed his entire hand. In the time since he and Spar had joined forces, it no longer grew or shrank. It was as if between them there was equilibrium. Spar, he realized, it might be the cause of that . . . of keeping them on track. At the thought, Gorlen stopped in his tracks and nearly tumbled off a precarious slab.

“A gargoyle’s essence is to guard and protect, to serve, to offer solace and succor,” Spar said. “We are all but indestructible compared to the weak soft creatures of flesh. We love you not, in any unconditional sense, yet our spirit is bound to yours by ancient pacts and powers we none of us understand. The gargoyle finger was not merely a reminder of your duty: It was duty’s embodiment. A gargoyle cannot defy its nature. You could deny and defy a finger, but it is much harder to defy a hand. As for me . . . I have little idea of what it must be like to shirk and not serve. I barely feel this weak part of myself—”

He held up his white flesh hand, which had begun as Gorlen’s pale, callused index finger.

“—a tiny nagging voice urging me to think only of myself. Is this the opposite of what you feel, Gorlen? For you, is it merely the tiniest of voices wondering whether you might be untrue to yourself and your nature?”

Gorlen simply stared at him, then clapped Spar on the shoulder, stone to stone. “You are wise, my friend. Take care of my weak nagging hand, and I pray you’ll soon be rid of it, and reunited with this proud grip.”

He raised Spar’s hand in a showy salute, but his mood was solemn in spite of that.

“Chamsin waits on us,” Gorlen noted. “We must not let him down.”

***

The wall of hands came into sight suddenly, for the rubble of broken statues hid it until they were almost upon it. This time they passed through with Chamsin at their side.

Unlike their earlier traversal of this route, no blinding snow obscured the path. But the descent began quickly, taking them toward lands that a swirling layer of lower clouds kept mysterious.

“Most monks are taken from the lands below,” Chamsin said. “A few like myself, nomad children, are more prized. The monks believe we have a closer communion with the bells, but I have no reason to think that is the case.”

“By monks, I assume you mean there are no women in the temple,” Gorlen said. “And thus . . . no children? They must find new recruits outside their own walls?”

“It is worse than that,” Chamsin said with a smoldering anger. “At a certain age, the monks, the men . . . are castrated. It was at such an age that I left.”

Gorlen shuddered. “As would anyone.”

Chamsin shook his head. “Lek casts such a spell, few resist. He is so feared that once in his influence, it is hard to see any other way of life. He channels such power from the bells. But here . . . you can hear them now.”

And indeed, the wind was filling up with deep notes that seemed to rise from the mountain itself; strange harmonics surged in and out of audibility. As they proceeded, the tones came and went, some deep and sonorous and seeming to vibrate in his bones, others so high that he scarcely heard them, though his skin and small hairs prickled, as if sensing the proximity of danger.

Finally, through shreds of mist, they saw the temple, the source of all the bells. From every tower, every wall, hung a bell—sometimes many. Large metal bells caught the sun, small bells of duller substances clacked in the mountain wind. From this distance, the monks moving along the walls were small busy figures, brightly garbed. They were playing the bells, keeping them alive, hitting the larger ones with suspended timbers, tapping the others with fine ivory wands like the one Chamsin used to play his weather bell. But many of the bells had no players—they rang in sympathy with the other bells or were so sensitive that they sang in response to the wind passing over them. It was an eerie ambience, partly natural, as if the mountain itself gave off this song—and partly artificial, in the control of the attending monks. And the tenor of the song changed completely when Chamsin and his companions came into sight.

A sharp cry went up—not a monk’s voice, but a bell, shrill and grating. That bell continued, and others joined it in warning. The monks atop the walls peered out at them, faces alert and frightened, as if the three of them could pose any threat to a compound of such size. The temple was built like a fort, and they were being greeted like an approaching army. As the monks beat the alarm bells, another darker tone crept in.

A new bell rang out emphatically, and the world changed around them. Waves of light, brown and ocher, seemed to scorch the air and cover the rocky slope with soot. The stuff of matter lay down like reeds before a strong wind. Gorlen could see the sound moving through the air, the earth, through himself. A foul, burning reek pervaded his senses and then grew barbs. His skin prickled as if hooks were being driven into him. The edges of the rock grew sharp and bent; the ground underfoot stabbed up through his soles and grabbed at his flesh. It was a gnashing, nauseating sensation. The whole mountainside had become a twisted black landscape of needles and snags, poison-tipped—the rocks alive and malicious—the air unbreathable. And all of the evil emanated from the temple, carried over and through them by the sound of a particular bell that was inseparable from its other dire qualities.

“Stay close,” Chamsin said, an utterly unnecessary warning. He took a small round bell from his pouch—a golden sphere, like a round cage, with a bright blue gem suspended inside. He tapped it lightly, with a fingernail, and instantly a tone arose that smoothed the snags, sweetened the air, restored light and color to the world. Each light tap dispelled the effect of the temple’s threat-bell.

Monks scurried on the parapet, clanging every bell more furiously, but Chamsin’s simple pure tone persisted, and they could not pervert its spell. Among them, a taller monk appeared, wrapped in dark lustrous robes; Gorlen knew him from the night’s visitation. It was he of the evil light—the abductor.

“Lek!” Chamsin said, and the name contained a lifetime of hate, contempt, disgust, anger . . . and more than anything else, fear.

The abbot held his arms wide and in an instant every bell was silenced. Only the wind blowing through the stones of the pass could be heard. And then the creaking of the temple’s immense wooden gate opening to admit the travelers.

“This is the man who took your child?” Spar asked, as if insensible to the aura of sinister importance that surrounded the abbot. When Chamsin and Gorlen confirmed, Spar clucked softly to himself.

“There is something different about him,” he said. “He has a quality I have not seen in other men.”

“His powers are great,” Chamsin said. “He has contemplated the bells for so long that he has almost become one himself. You perceive his essence, perhaps.”

Lek had now taken a distinct interest in Spar, and as they approached the gate, the abbot leaned out, scowling at the gargoyle. He appeared about to speak, but Spar spoke first.

“I cannot enter this place,” he said.

Gorlen stumbled. “What?”

“It has guardians already. I am not permitted past the threshold. I do not know their type, but the restriction is clear and unavoidable.”

“I wish you had known when you volunteered for this task,” said Gorlen.

“I will wait out here,” Spar said. “Should he come outside, I may be able to intervene directly, but I would not count on any such lapse. He seems highly aware of the invisible boundaries.”

Lek, seeing Spar step back, straightened and gave a satisfied smirk. Then he vanished from the wall.

Gorlen said, “Spar, without you—”

“You can speak for us both.”

“It is my child he keeps,” Chamsin said. “None of this is your obligation.”

“No—I will come with you,” Gorlen said. “Of course I will. You saved my life . . . and this Abbot imperiled it.”

Inside the temple, the grounds were paved with grey stone flags; monks gathered above the brightly painted walls, lining every walkway and clustering on the steps that joined the doorways of the inner buildings. Every monk carried a bell, which he was busy ringing. Only Lek, who seemed to float down a flight of stairs to the center of the courtyard, did not come armed with a bell.

“I have come for my son,” Chamsin said. “You have taken him by deception.”

“Your son,” said Lek, in a cool, high voice, “has been taken by the temple, to which he belongs. You gave up your place—he will fill it. Unless, of course, you wish to take up your former position. Truthfully, I am not at all certain I would grant such a request, were you to make it. I am no longer sure you can be trusted.”

“There is nothing right in this,” Gorlen said. “You gained an advantage by putting my life in danger—a stranger to you and your temple. By that deceit, you should forfeit what you’ve claimed as yours, and pay a penalty besides. But I’m not here to administer punishments—only to see to justice. Your transgression, which I witnessed, was extraordinary. Return this man’s child to him immediately and I will recommend the local authorities consider your acquiescence and treat you with some forbearance.”

“Local authorities?” Lek laughed. “We are alone here, bard, and the law of this land is the law of the bells. I speak with their voice, I ring with their song, I am one with their resonance. You bring a dull, flat note to our discourse, which I find surprising from one who assumes the appearance of a musical creature.”

“I play many notes, not the same one over and over. Yours is quickly becoming monotonous.”

“Truth is one sound, and it is eternal. I think you do not pay it proper respect.”

Lek lifted a finger and blew sharply on it, and his flesh began to ring. The sound was clear, piercing, and when he pointed the finger at Gorlen, he felt a sympathetic tingling in his chest, as if a tuning rod had been pressed against his breastbone. The tingling spread through him, rendering him numb. Again the paralysis of the night crept over Gorlen—but this time something rolled it back. He held up his own black stone hand. It was unaffected by the bell tone. He clung to that sense of being outside its influence, unaffected. It was only his hand, but the more he let the quickstone act for him, the more he felt the rest of himself working free.

Lek’s visage turned angry at Gorlen’s defiance. “Any act of aggression shall be paid for by the child,” he said.

“Where is my son?” Chamsin asked.

“This is a hopeless situation for you,” Lek said. “We will not take you to the child, and I will not bargain with you in any respect. I will provide nothing you ask. The boy’s life belongs to the bells. We have a chance, in him, to groom a successor, to perhaps regain some of what we lost when you, Chamsin, betrayed the bells.”

“I betrayed no one worthy of my loyalty. To say I betrayed you is like saying I betrayed the snake when I pulled its fangs from my flesh. But I believe you will bargain with me, Lek. You still lack the sound-dagger, after all.”

“You are mistaken if you think I require these physical appurtenances, these trappings. The bells have taught me well; I am nearly one of them. My soundform is stronger than my flesh at this point.”

“But can you confer it on another, or does it die with you?”

“You don’t understand, Chamsin. The sound of my existence is in resonance with the tone of eternity. I am immortal.”

“Then what need have you for a successor?”

Lek waved a hand dismissively. “Enough of this. I wish to be rid of him.”

Suddenly, the monks who had stood by observing the exchange between Chamsin and their master imposed themselves between them. Three descended from the wall, traversed the broad steps past Lek, and entered the courtyard. From their robes, they drew long, gleaming blades, iridescent, reflecting the sun—shimmering violet, blue, and orange. Holding the long knives aloft, they clanged them together, and the bellblades began to sing.

Waves of visible sound flowed from the weapons, and as with the sentry bell that had rung out at their approach, the air and earth altered where the sound poured through it. The monks moved in flattened bubbles of light and tone—and within these shells of influence, time seemed to slow—except for the monks, who moved with heightened speed. The motes that had been stirred up in the courtyard air hung as if painted there, but the monks spun and whirled their blades and sliced the motes clean through.

Each bubble of sound centered on one knife, but there were three such shells, and the monks moved to keep them merged, which seemed to heighten the effect, as if the bellblades were harmonizing.

As they moved in on Chamsin, he drew his own blade. Freed from his robes, the blade began to ring sympathetically. He held it up so it caught the light, and Gorlen saw its influence merge with the monks’ blades.

They were caught by surprise—his dagger’s appearance might have been expected by Lek, but the young fighters were caught out and they faltered. Lek gave a high-pitched shout, and they set on Chamsin with ferocious speed and skill.

The instant Chamsin’s blade clashed with one of theirs, the tone of the battle changed. Fear robbed them of confidence. The vision of speed and clarity, summoned by their blades, was shattered as Chamsin’s blade sent out a radiant sound of its own. With the first clashing note, the entire temple courtyard was transported. They stood suddenly on a plain of glass, Chamsin and Gorlen and the fighting monks—all those within the immediate influence of the ringing blades. A rippled green surface, faintly undulant beneath their feet, as if they stood on an ocean that was bottomless, empty, and perfectly still. There was no sky, but the green surface rose up and met above, containing them. In the midst of battle, Gorlen felt utterly safe—but only for a moment. A thin note of black sound worked its way in and levered the green calm apart; the green sphere shattered into jagged, splintered notes. Chamsin moved quickly over the courtyard stones and, with a spiraling move of his dagger, sent a monk’s blade flying.

The other two closed in over Chamsin’s head, scissoring down on him. Chamsin met these blades with the point of his dagger, bisecting the angle where they met, and suddenly they stood on an ancient forested slope. Gorlen felt he recognized the place despite the lack of any familiar signs—as if it was contiguous with the slope of the Temple of Bells, but separated by time or some dreamlike quality of nature not to be readily measured or named. Towering trees of impossible age covered them all in deep shadow; they fought on a deep carpet of mulch and mushrooms, and among the immense trunks Gorlen was aware of huge faces, high up among the branches, gazing down on them impassively. The giants moved slowly among the trees, far back in the distant reaches of the forest. Something in their noble faces, the tilt of their features, reminded him of the ruined statuary of the plateau. As if that had not yet become their graveyard, for somehow the dagger had carried them back to a day when they had still lived.

Then this vision too succumbed to Lek’s denial. A shrill warbling note rose, penetrating the sylvan vision. The shaggy trees stopped swaying and grew cold and brittle; they became lustrous and dark, leafless, shedding branches in storms of twigs and needles. Then they began to topple, and he saw they were turning to stone, petrified by the abbot’s music. The huge columns fell, shattered, and as they died the giants fled—but even the giants were dying, caught by the hardening effect of the bells. They froze in midflight—fell heavily—shattered. And as the shards exploded around them, Chamsin disarmed the second monk and bore in, calm yet relentless, on the remaining fighter.

The two blades smashed into each other and it seemed impossible that one of them did not fly into splinters. The light grew pale and diffuse, like a grey dust that lay upon everything. Sound was muffled. He could hear no bells, no blades, nothing.

Then out of the grey muffling haze, three new figures emerged. They left Chamsin and the monk suspended in mid-clash. Lek still moved—he seemed alarmed by their presence, and discomfited to note Gorlen was an aware and active presence in this new tableau.

The three shimmered brightly into existence, forming themselves from the dusty light as if condensing out of it. They were round and radiant shapes like sea-stars—like bells themselves—and their voices were subtle modulations of the bell notes, such that Gorlen could not tell which of them spoke. Perhaps the sound was a blend of all three:

“There has been a violation of the guardianship,” the voices said. “One has come knowingly among you and thus cedes the dissolution of our ancient contract. “

Lek began to beam, a pure channel for a sound that twinged in Gorlen’s ears. It was a sound beyond physical hearing. Lek was far from the pure entity that these guardian shapes represented—flesh and a deeper essence wrestled within him—and in his face, they warred.

“There has been no violation on our part!” he said. “It is among the guardians that these agreements are observed. If you have broken them, then it is you who must suffer the consequences.”

“Nonetheless, we must investigate. Your analysis of the subtleties of the pact are necessarily limited by your impure form. Among you is a guardian essence and it must now explain itself.”

Gorlen felt his quickstone hand responding—rising up before his face. It glowed with a sullen light in this strange realm.

“I—I believe you speak of this,” Gorlen said, all too aware that the attention of these beings was not something he wished to attract. All minds were upon him—it would be insufficient to say all eyes. “I came among you unaware of any agreement—and as to violations—”

“But this is only an agent of the real power,” the bell voice said. “Let the true guardian appear.”

Spar stepped into visibility, as if shaken from a fold of space.

“The fault is mine,” Spar said. “I obeyed the stricture but did not realize a partial violation would result from Gorlen’s presence. The human carries my hand unwillingly.”

“Nonetheless he has brought it into the temple and our pact is explicitly broken. Let us be clearly understood on this point, so that as we proceed, there will be no further misunderstanding.”

“Very well,” said Lek. “Your ancient authority prevails in all matters. Please proceed.”

“This we shall do,” said the voice.

Lek stiffened in the middle of his obsequious bow, straightened abruptly, and began to emit sheets of piercing sound. In the realm of dust, the sound was visible as rays and ribbons swirling through the stuff. His arms jerked stiffly to either side, his fingers splayed, his mouth gaped. Very swiftly did he vibrate, his face becoming a blur, and then all irregularities were blasted away. A shining smooth visage, golden and apparently hollow, his head now rang like a gong. Arms clapped to his sides violently sent another twinned note ringing, but this time it blasted away the dust and they found themselves in the courtyard again.

“The impurities in this one required his total transmutation,” the guardians informed all watchers. “We were unable to take such steps while the pact held sway—for technically, to purify Lek required his destruction.”

The radiant sound pouring from the monk had not ceased—and in fact, the walls of the temple were beginning to flake and crumble.

“Is that not sufficient?” Spar asked.

”We have only begun. The entire area is rife with impurity.”

Lek began to ring even louder.

“My son!” shouted Chamsin.

Gorlen spun toward the temple interior, but the place was not only a maze but a disintegrating maze. The monks, who moments before had leapt to do Lek’s bidding, now stared in terror at their faceless, invisibly vibrating abbot. Gorlen felt as if his bones were going to crumble into sand, but he thrust himself in front of the monks and jabbed one with his quickstone hand, to startle the man by stifling the ringing with a blunt stab of his stiff fingers.

“You! Where’s the child?” he said. “Take us there!”

But the monk merely stammered and pointed at the walls, which seemed to be on the verge of collapsing and floating away into motes.

“I beseech you,” Spar said to the bell guardians, “give us a moment to find something the impure one stole—an unjust act. You must know the importance of remedy and redress.”

“This is no concern of ours. The purification will run its course.”

Spar then found himself addressing emptiness. The bell spirits were gone. But the effect continued to intensify. The myriad bells and chimes on the walls, and hanging in the towers, joined into the song, sliding into frequencies unimaginable.

Spar said, “Chamsin, Gorlen, go and find the child. I will do what I can to mute this. I do not know how effective this will be.”

With that, Spar walked straight up to the ringing abbot Lek and embraced him. Instantly the shrill tone muted, as if Spar had grabbed a buzzing insect and clamped its wings—though without completely silencing it. The sound and its effects remained, but it was possible to function now.

For a moment, Gorlen stared at the gargoyle, his attention arrested by a faint flecking of black dust that formed a cloud like an aura around Spar. But the goyle said, “Go,” and Gorlen rushed into the temple on Chamsin’s heels.

Most of the temple’s residents must have come out to watch the confrontation, or had fled as soon as the place began to rattle. The shaking halls were full of cracks—the smooth plaster chipping off in scaly patches, gravel and stones tumbling free, the vast rooms and labyrinthine halls full of choking dust. Long cylindrical gongs tore from overhead beams and crashed down around them like logs loosed in a siege. Ancient pots and ceramic vases shattered where they sat on carved pedestals. The belling drew painful aches from deep in Gorlen’s teeth; his eyes rolled upward, flashing him with twinges of agony. But somehow through the overwhelming noise and discomfort, he heard a baby crying.

Chamsin had already found the child; he held him cradled, safe, and rushed up the steps past Gorlen, calling him to follow. Gorlen hesitated, hearing a noise that was not of the bells. Whimpering from an adjacent cell. Looking in, he saw a young monk bound to a platform, sharp shining knives rattling and dancing around him, dashed onto the floor by the shaking of the temple. The boy was partially undressed, and suddenly Gorlen remembered Chamsin’s words about the procedure monks endured at a certain age. He grabbed one of the knives from the floor, and though its blade had chipped, he quickly sawed through the bonds and helped the boy to his feet. The monk was dazed, holding his head at the drilling pain of the bell sound, but Gorlen hauled him along, hoping he would soon be better when they were away from the ringing.

Outside, Chamsin rushed for the temple gate. There were no others in sight, apart from Spar and Lek, and these two formed an ominous configuration. Gorlen pushed the young monk after Chamsin, then rushed to his friend and pulled him away.

“Spar—we can go now! Spar!”

With his hand of stone, Gorlen pushed Lek back, and at the touch he understood what Spar had been enduring all this time. In direct contact with the abbot, he felt a purifying tone that was tantamount to a destructive force. He felt the very essence of his hand struggling to hold itself together. The black stone was instantly riddled with fine cracks, and gave off a splintering glaze of thin shards, as if shedding stone skin. With his smooth stone hand now pitted and scarred, crazed with cracks, he levered Spar away from Lek and let the abbot ring. They fled to the mountainside beyond the gate.

Spar’s face had gone white. He was completely covered with a fine glittering powder that was his own flesh, pulverized. Gorlen had never seen the goyle so visibly affected by anything. He moved cautiously toward his friend, and wiped the quickstone with a finger.

It was black underneath, glossy and black, but chipped as if worked over with a stonemason’s tools. Pocks and scars, like irregular scales, left their mark.

“Are you . . . ?”

“I am whole,” Spar said. “Made of stronger stuff than these temple walls.”

And even as he spoke, the abbot gave his last ringing cry, and the temple and all of its bells were blown into dust. Of the abbot himself, nothing remained—only the monks staring after him and the temple that had ceased to exist.

***

Outside the hut of Smaia and Chamsin, the sounds of laughter could be heard. The young children were delighted to have their baby brother home; and Aial and the young monk behaved as if they had been friends since their earliest childhood. The draak bells’ homely tinkling chilled Gorlen, but he believed Chamsin when he said it was nothing that could not be channeled and controlled, like music.

As Gorlen watched Spar communing silently with the great guard beasts, apparently bidding them an affectionate farewell, something occurred to him.

“These creatures—also guardians, are they?”

“We share that essential nature, yes.”

“And before you visited the Temple of Bells, did you . . . commune with them on this matter?”

“To some extent I knew what to expect.”

“And so when you remained without, observing the letter of the pact . . .”

“I allowed you to enter, in violation of its spirit. Yes. Among guardians, certain observances exist to be broken. There is a pride we take in testing these ancient strictures. After eons, even the fair ones can begin to chafe.”

The family, along with their new adopted son, accompanied them out of the broken statuary to where a plain track resumed. It was not the destination they had sought when they began crossing the plateau, but much had changed, and the new direction seemed as promising as the old. The guardian beasts licked Spar’s scarred stone hand and bounded off. Chamsin presented them with a small draak bell, to lead them where they wished to go. Smaia gave kisses, as did the children; and from the infant, a milky burp. They had declined a farewell feast. Gorlen did not care to sample either end of a draak.

As they found their footing on a slope that grew grassy below, Gorlen took out his eduldamer and tested the strings, and watched the calm, impassive gargoyle—sometimes ahead of him, sometimes behind—but when the path permitted, always at his side.

“It is a strange thing,” Gorlen said. “As a bard, I have always felt myself at the mercy of hosts and their requests, simply playing whatever songs and tunes I acquired along the road. From time to time I have wished to be more like the mythical elders, the authors of the old songs. But the thing they all possessed was something I felt I lacked. It never seemed sufficient to me to simply compose idylls on the blue of the sky or the violet of the moon. These are things everyone knows, and certainly they are bottomless—but I have no particular insight into them. But at last I feel that something has come my way. Something worth capturing in the bardic manner—in music and in verse.”

“Are you saying,” Spar said, “that you have found your subject?”

“Indeed!” Gorlen said, twanging a string. “That is precisely it! I have found a subject worthy of a bard—and not just any bard. A subject uniquely my own, to follow and study and capture in song.”

“Do you intend to keep this mystery to yourself, perhaps until your works are revealed posthumously, or do you intend to share your findings while there is still some light in the day?”

“Nothing could be more obvious. To anyone but you, that is.”

Spar stopped then, and fixed him with a finely crazed eye. “Gorlen Vizenfirthe . . .”

“No, not me. You, Spar. You.”

—For Gabe

© 2013 by Marc Laidlaw.

Marc Laidlaw

Marc-LaidlawMarc Laidlaw is best known as one of the creators and lead writer on the Half-Life videogame series, but he initially got that gig on the strength of his short stories and novels of fantasy, horror and science fiction. His novel The 37th Mandala won the International Horror Guild Award for Best Novel. A writer at Valve since 1997 (currently working on for the online game, Dota 2), his short stories continue to appear in various magazines and online venues.