Spar was distantly aware of a muted groaning that reminded him of sounds he had heard in certain deep passages of the earth during his early subterrene pilgrimages and peregrinations. At first he thought a temblor had commenced, but nothing shifted or tipped from the extensive shelves that lined the lower levels of the archives; and none of the archival staff appeared the least bit troubled. A few of them raised a finger appreciatively, cocked their head, smiled, and nodded along in time with what Spar only at that moment realized must be music. It was not like any he had known, but the human response was consistent if, to him, incomprehensible. As long as it did not distract those whose assistance he required, it mattered little to him; but the archivists appeared to be quite used to it, or its effects were so muted by distance and intervening matter that they were relatively untouched. Most humans seemed debilitated by the art of song; however pleasurable they found it, he had no doubt that it interfered with their ability to see things clearly. Only one form of music had ever affected Spar, and that was the melody of the songwood trees—of one tree in particular, Sprit by name, whom he missed very much. But a gargoyle, being a weighty entity, could dwell perpetually on any number of weighty matters without distraction. In this manner he approached his research in the Wollox archives.
Navigation was the first order of business. Any library must have an underlying organizational principle that should yield itself to close study; but more efficient would be to find an initiate to accelerate his understanding. Looking for a likely guide, he immediately spied a female garbed in the plain fawn robes that served as uniform for the archivists. Her pale sleeves were stained with ink. She was fixed in the position of poring over a large volume, which struck him as a promising sign.
“Are you a record keeper here, or a librarian?”
She took a moment to decompress from the depths of her research, her eyes bulging at him in a startling manner until she put aside a pair of highly curved spectacles. Her hair was mussed, her narrow features strikingly familiar, and Spar immediately identified her as a sibling, if not a twin, of Lord Wollox.
“I am the head archivist,” she said. “Curator of all collections save the music library, which is my brother’s affair. Any questions regarding that drivel, you must refer to him or his personal staff. I don’t read a note of it myself, any more than he reads letters…the dolt.”
Not wishing to take sides in what was clearly a long-running family conflict, Spar said merely, “I have no interest in music–”
“—my research is of a cultural nature–”
“—perhaps a matter of arcane lore. I have several clues to go by and as yet no particular direction in mind. But my companion and I have tried random wandering with little result, and I feel a more systematic method is in order. The world is too vast for two small wanderers to canvas. To the extent a library contains the world in a microcosmic space, I believe I can cover a deal more ground in far less time than on foot—and perhaps eliminate certain territories altogether. For instance, let us say the priests of Nardath are forbidden contact with ice. That would tend to rule out huge tracts of the world; we need never visit frigid realms. Or perhaps I will learn that they are required to conduct a decadic pilgrimage to the Fonts of Lacelle, which would send me in that direction myself. At the moment I have no sort of reliable information, or even rumors, on these or any other topics relating to itinerant mages. So I—I beg your pardon. This is more information than you require.”
“On the contrary, I could listen to you all day,” she said huskily. “What sort of stone did you say you were?”
Another festival morning-after…ugh…
Gorlen was beginning to think almost fondly of lonely wakings. They tended to be easier on his head. Today he felt a sour, dry emptiness; his ears rang from a half-remembered din. Too much music was not a thing he had ever thought possible, yet he had the feeling last night had come very close. It was little more than a niggle. He could remember very few specifics of the night’s presumably wild revels in the manse of Ardie Wollox.
Flinging back his dew-dampened blanket, he stretched, gazing deep into a sky faintly troubled by the underlit clouds of dawn. The lawns of Wollow Hollow were not as mobbed as when he had first seen them yesterday; the gathering was thinning out as the travelers took their fill of Wollox hospitality, shared their tunes, and then moved on.
At first he thought Haff must have been among the departed, for typically the portly fellow was up and about earlier than any of them. Gorlen was surprised to find him lying near the firepit’s dead embers, snoring and mumbling and making groaning noises, as if rehearsing smokebag tunes in his sleep. A dim memory returned to Gorlen: Ardie Wollox had invited Haff to play during the festivities, and the great round hall had filled with livid-hued smoke and sounds Gorlen associated with the tortured spirits of slowly slaughtered animals. To the extent that smokebags were fashioned of hides and bladders, it could be argued that the major part of the instrument’s peculiar sound was simply the ongoing protests and indignities of the instrument’s previous owner.
Haff must have left his smokebag installed in the manor; it was nowhere among his possessions. As if sensing Gorlen’s eyes on him, he woke with a wild, searching look that subsided into an exhausted daze when he realized his dreams were over.
“Tea?” Gorlen asked, fetching Haff’s own sack.
“I—I overslept,” Haff said, and sat up slowly. “I feel ill.”
“We played and drank and in all respects overindulged last night. Perhaps you played your bag in immoderation.”
“The Lord…young Wollox…” He gulped at his tea; winced. “He has an insatiable desire for new tunes…and…ecch…I feel compelled to share the ones I know in return for his gracious hospitality.”
“Well,” said Gorlen, looking at the hard, damp lawn on which they camped while thinking of the soft beds hid away in the manor. He decided to say no more, so as not to sound ungrateful. He had eaten and drunk more last night than in many years prior. Only lavish weddings usually fed him so well.
“You do look pale,” Gorlen said. “Fortunately, there’s no call for any of us to stir the breakfast coals. Already viands flow from Wollox Manor. Shall I bring you something? A salt roll? A battered egg?”
“I feel too uneasy to eat just yet. Go nourish yourself and I will gather my strength to the point where it can support basic digestion. Ardie had hoped for more tunes today, and I can hardly deny him.”
“I count myself lucky the eduldamer is such a common instrument, and much of my repertoire is hackneyed and overly familiar.”
“Don’t do yourself such a disservice! I know you for a steadfast demoter of your own talent. You’ve played many rare and original pieces in our time together! He will see your true worth soon, I warrant. The smokebag’s novelty will pall on him by the day’s end, without question, and within a day or two I shall feel compelled to move on.”
Gorlen grinned and gave him a good-natured kick. “Who’s doing himself a disservice now?”
Across the field, as the sun warmed and the grass gave off a damp exhalation, the camp was gathering around long banquet tables heaped with savories, towers of fruit, all manner of steaming brews. It appeared that a quarter or more of the previous day’s gathering had moved on—musicians who had already spent many days in Wollox Hollow, sharing their songs for the archival keepers. Most of those who had travelled to Trusk from the festival grounds were still in attendance and greeted him warmly. He saw no sign of Spar, but then he did not expect the goyle to break off his researches for something as meaningless as breakfast.
The company was muted this morning. No one had yet broken out their instruments to tune strings or pluck a dawn welcome, or even a traditional hangover lay. No fast-breaking ballads attended their meal. Very strange, Gorlen thought. They’d all had a bit too much of music last night.
After some concentration, he decided to take out his eduldamer and check it for dents, scratches, warps, or broken strings. The instrument was fine, but his one original technique—that of sliding his stone fingers along the strings as he strummed with his flesh hand—only made him feel wearily derivative, as if he had been plucking the same flat note forever. He needed something lively to get him going this morning.
Stuffing a crimpling in his mouth without tasting it, he headed up the steps into the circular manse.
Memories of the previous night’s revels returned in ragged vignettes as he picked his way across a polished floor strewn with clothing, empty bottles, gnawed fruit cores, and poultry bones. The staff was busy sweeping, mopping, scraping, and polishing. The odd thing was, he could not remember drinking heavily—certainly no more than usual. All recollection of the previous evening was lost in an impression of the din of numerous instruments playing simultaneously, and ever so many voices raised in song.
Arriving at the threshold of the centermost chamber, the Round Room, he felt it incumbent upon him to proceed on tiptoe. Over at the organ, beneath the stone muses, young Wollox lay sprawled on his bench, head on the console, his hair spread out around him in a tangled mop. The lord’s frail frame was racked with wet snores; he appeared as drained as anyone else by the night’s events.
Gorlen let him rest and padded around the room examining it, as he had not been able to when it was packed with players.
Ornate belled tapestries tinkled as he passed. Antique instruments had been shoved against the walls, out of the path of the night’s dancers; also on the walls were fragments of old musical texts in protective frames and other items of Wollox’s idiosyncratic music collection, serving as decorative motifs. And on the curved surface directly opposite the entry, but blocked from view by the central column, was a large painting which he found himself drawn to inspect with great care.
What a strange scene was portrayed. A rich and evocative depiction of twilight was what first drew him in: a sky of remarkable plum with an edge of moon in it like a thin slice of rind cut from the very same fruit and floating in a bowl of violet punch. Stars up high, but only a few, while at the horizon lingered an orange glow where lately the sun had rested. The majority of the painting depicted low, rolling lawns and hills he readily recognized as the ancestral Wollox grounds, for he had camped amid them only last night.
Other aspects of the painting, however, were anything but pastoral or lawnly. Ghastly is what they were. The image suggested that a battle had been fought and only recently concluded. The muddled grey shapes of dead soldiers were heaped all over. The image was painted with restraint, as tasteful as the rest of Wollox’s furnishings. It framed no blood or gore, but only a spectral sense of stillness.
In the center of the scene, on the highest of the low hills, a silhouetted figure sat at what had to be an instrument, judging from its intense posture. The image brought back a vivid memory of Ardie Wollox bent over the organ last night, playing feverishly, as if tearing cries of torment from the throats of his muses. Gorlen’s head began to vibrate with the half-remembered melody–something haunting, hard to recall, yet shrill to the edge of pain.
The memory sank without surfacing entirely. It could have had nothing to do with this painting, for there were no muses in it. The instrument played in the image resembled a wardrobe laid on its side; only dull, clumping notes could have come from such a coffin.
Looking closer, he saw one more inexplicable thing in the center of the painting.
A great black spot.
How had it escaped his notice? It was the mouth of a hole, perfectly round, open to a darkness unplumbed by the artist, untouched by the sky’s spectral light.
Just as his gaze was being swallowed up by that circular maw in the midst of the green lawn, a touch on his shoulder tore a gasp out of him.
“Gorlen Vizenfirthe, is it? The bard with the eduldamer?”
The young lord beamed at this evidence of easy informality and linked his arm with Gorlen’s.
“You see here the origin of the Wollox fortune, grim as it appears. That hole is in fact the Hollow for which Wollox Hollow was named.”
“A hole? And what was its nature?”
“Was? You mean, is. For it gapes at our very feet, although we see it not.” Ardie pulled Gorlen around and pointed at the cylindrical column in the center of the room. “It is there…and feeds into the organ. The winds that blow from below, I call them my winds of inspiration, for I can play only at their whim. There is no other source of power for the muse-organ!”
He began to stroll arm-in-arm with Gorlen, back toward the single door and the organ bench. Servants scuttered, pushing the scattered debris of last night’s party into little piles and then sweeping them away as if into invisibility. Gorlen noticed small vents in the base of the column, flapping on oiled hinges as garbage was swept through them. He had a glimpse of blackness beyond the little shutters, then the rubbish was gone: clothing, bones, broken dishes, all of it. With the garbage removed, the servants commenced scrubbing and polishing the floors to a sheen worthy of the day’s new flood of visitors.
“The elder Wollox,” Ardie said as they strolled, “my great-great-great-whateverish-greatfather, was a miner. Not highborn, nothing special, just a man with a pick and a spade and an eye for where to start digging. All manner of precious gems and minerals could have been his, yes, but he sought the still more precious ores that one would hardly give a second glance as jewelry. On such matter all manner of lucrative processes rely! He bought land that had been judged worthless and wrested wealth from it. With the income from one operation he formed three more, and soon had concerns all about. His fortune was secure. But in one spot, strange events underground made operations difficult. The miners baulked at what they called demonic noises, believing themselves in peril of some sinister visitation—”
Wollox stopped at the organ bench and rested one knee upon it, his fingers idly tapping out patterns on the silent keys.
“—until my ancestor, himself a pragmatic fellow, not at all given to dreads or unfounded fancies—until he descended, pick in one hand, lantern in the other, to the very spot they considered most ominous. Even he could not deny there was something strange in the mines. He was not an imaginative man, yet he heard something like a breath, a distant voice, a song calling, calling, calling him to dig. Because he could only imagine a rational explanation for such urges, he dug, of course! Alone, obsessed, determined, and unstoppable, he dug away at the walls of his mine until he had broken through.”
“Through to what?”
“To a shaft…a hollow…perfectly cylindrical, like the inside of a flute. An earthen pipe that went deeper than he could ever discover. From this hollow, at odd hours, the winds of the deep earth blew, and by some strange happenstance, the cavities opened by miners acted much like finger holes in a hornpipe. The wind played across the openings as it rushed out of the earth and in again. My greatish-father undertook to calculate the point directly overhead where the shaft ought to have broken through the earth and drilled down from above to meet it. Some say he rediscovered evidence of an earlier excavation, and found himself digging not through solid earth but through an amalgam installed by previous excavators. But of course they would say that! The urge to see the sinister in nature is powerful indeed.”
“Well.” Ardie, at the limit of his morning’s strength, finally seated himself. Gorlen relaxed…he had felt he might be called upon to support the young man if he stayed on his knee much longer.
“Once the hollow was open to the sky, it began to play its songs at all hours, unpredictably, whenever the capricious winds of underearth shifted. My great-whatever-he-was had never been a musical soul, but he heard in this music his calling. It was clearly a sacred spot for song. The very voice of the world, he felt. And so he ceased all mining and instead built his home here around the spot.”
Ardie pointed at the console, the bench, the stone muses looming over all.
“The plan for the organ came to him in a dream. He built a circular chamber directly above the hollow to harness the winds of earth, and then erected this room around that. The remainder of the house followed. The muses themselves were hauled from another site of ancient mystery, and no doubt they had legends of their own surrounding them at some point, but whoever carved them left not a single sigil of explanation. You can see they are of a stone not found in this region, but simply something he had come across in his excavations.
“Now the wind from below travels up through the organ, and when I play, I play the song of the earth. I am hardly Ardie Wollox at all when the inspiration strikes! We play as the muses desire. They sing through us. Such is the Wollox way!
“All the rest came later. The records, the music library, the gathering of songs from around the world. The tedious nonmusical archives that my sister curates…feh! But the collecting of songs is my own particular passion. Each Wollox adds to the enterprise, you see. Music has been central to my life. I have played this organ for longer than I can recall. My music lessons commenced when I was so young I cannot remember them.”
Gorlen felt a chill now, looking at the organ muses. They did indeed appear much older than any other artifact in sight, and too old to have been created by any Wollox ancestor. There was some greater mystery here, but it was increasingly one he wished to put behind him.
“Will you play?” he asked, wanting to confirm the eerie quality of his memory, recalling how those songs had sounded in the night.
“Not now, not right this moment. The winds have yet to stir, you see. Mornings are often breathless, while typically the pipes will sustain a breath throughout the night. But we can still have music! Come! Let us find more excellent players. The party is stirring. I hear harmonies from the lawn!”
Ardie’s brief repose seemed to have recharged him, for he rose from the bench and strode toward the door.
“Before we go,” Gorlen said, “the painting of the Hollow–what of the bodies? Was a battle fought here? It appears to be the scene of some great struggle.”
“I have always wondered about that,” Ardie said with a shrug. “Some of the family stories are lost to us, I’m afraid. It was a long time ago. I’ve no idea!”