The morning after the festival ended, Gorlen woke with his arm around a beautiful tousled harpsicle player who turned out to be his own eduldamer wrapped in a ragged blanket. In truth, he was more relieved to see he had not mislaid his instrument than he was disappointed to discover that Mistress Funch had taken off sometime in the night. She had warned him as they bedded down that her troupe must be off early, their presence required at a wedding performance in the Glisters the following week. Had Gorlen’s own road not lain diametrically opposed to all things and places sublime, he might have been tempted to follow and see if they had room for one (or one more) eduldamer-strummer. Instead he sighed and sat up, thankful for dry weather, warm nights, eight days of good rowdy companionship with plentiful wine, hearty food, and ceaseless music.
Even now the music continued, although not in a way that brought pleasure to the ear or allayed the aching of his head. Haff, the rotund smokebag player, was squeezing noisy vapors from his oft-patched instrument, that he might pack it up with all its reeds and brazier-tubes and strap it to the side of his packmount.
Beyond Haff, the festival grounds were astir with similar endeavor as far as Gorlen could see. A mangy and sorrowful sight, far fallen from the firelit revelries and wine-soaked splendors of the previous evening. Each night of festival had been a wonder. But the coming dark would be quiet and comparatively drear as the gathered musicians, jugglers, clowns, poets, vendors, and enthusiasts dispersed to their homes or merely sought another paying gig. Last mornings were always depressing.
“Good Sir Vizenfirthe!” Haff cried out, with a final squeeze of the smokebag venting purple fumes mixed with a low flat note. “I hope I did not wake you. We agreed you looked so content, it would be a shame to rouse you early. Still, as you can see, a great many of our friends have wandered off…your goodliest friend Funch in particular.”
Haff tossed him a skin, and he was surprised to find himself swigging strong, bitter tea. It cut the clouds of drowsiness like thinner poured into paint.
“What of Spar?” Gorlen asked.
“The winged one? I always thought he found some unguarded gate to squat upon all through the night.”
“Sometimes he will hop on a post for old times’ sake, it’s true. I fear the charms of festival are lost on him. He has no special love for human music, despite his poet’s heart.”
“Speaking of poetry, Gorlen, if you have no better aim in mind than simply striking off, I should mention a location quite a few of us intend to visit next. Not three days from here, in Trusk, there is a stately manor belonging to a young lord—scion of a wealthy house known for its patronage of music. Why don’t you join us? We intend to form a company and continue the festival on the road, in our small way.”
“Many thanks, Haff. The fellowship alone would tempt me were it not that my path takes me far from Trusk. But—ah, here comes Spar.”
“Gargoyles at sunrise,” Haff said. “One never grows accustomed to the sight.”
“Give it more than eight days,” Gorlen said, and held up a hand so his stony black companion might more easily locate him.
“Bidding your many new friends farewell?” Gorlen asked the goyle when he was near enough.
“I have been inquiring as to their destinations, hoping to learn (as I always hope) the possible whereabouts of our priest.”
By this, Spar referred to that malign priest of Nardath who had arranged the exchange of their hands, so that Gorlen bore a hand of hard black quickstone, while Spar wore one of soft, easily injured flesh. The sooner they located the vagabond priest—and the world of Ique was full of such fellows—the sooner each might be able to pursue his own destiny. Until then, their fates were joined like interlaced fingers.
“You’ve spent the last few days interrogating everyone who would return your nod,” Gorlen said. “I’m surprised there is any new information to be gleaned.”
“Not here,” Spar said, “but I have learned of a great library three days hence, an archive of some renown, wherein it is possible we might find some clue to the customs of these itinerant priests, or perhaps a more direct method of restoring our limbs to their original owners.”
“A worthwhile detour?” Gorlen suggested, wishing that Haff’s detour could be justified to the gargoyle in some similar way.
“Quite a few residents of this camp are bound there, as it happens, for among the records in this library is an extensive collection of music. The young lord who owns the archive–”
Haff began to roar with laughter, making sounds he appeared to have learned from his wheezing yet melodious smokebag.
“Another peculiarity of musicians, I have noticed, is their tendency toward inexplicable outbursts.”
“Triggered in this case by you,” Gorlen said.
“Good goyle!” Haff chuckled, coming over to deliver what must have been for him a stinging slap on the gargoyle’s folded wings. “It appears we will be travelling together!” And with a good-natured wink to Gorlen: “To Trusk!”
Three days in high-spirited company, after years of solitary travel and the relatively short span he had spent adventuring with Spar, proved more of a pleasure than Gorlen had expected. Yet, despite the entire world that spread away all around them, he did at last begin to feel a bit hemmed in among the same set of faces morning to night. It was as delightful an assemblage as he could have hoped to journey with, but he felt more keenly than ever the deeper loneliness that set him apart. When he was alone he never noticed it so sharply; even the goyle did not stir such emotions. He was thus relieved when, near noon on the third day, they entered the district of Trusk and the lands belonging to Lord Ardentine Wollox of Wollox Hollow. It was a country of green rolling hills, clear streams with well-maintained bridges, and lakes where anyone could fish without fearing accusations of poaching. Young Wollox was a lord famed for great generosity and hospitality—especially toward musicians. Gorlen had heard much speculative praise of this lord along the road, and now it remained only for the stories to be immediately debunked.
His first view of Wollox Hollow, the ancestral manor, tended to confirm the tales of hospitality. Upon the grounds was encamped a smaller, fairer, slightly sparser version of the festival they had recently disbanded. The manor house itself was built on a circular plan, tapering toward a conical roof, so that it resembled a towering dessert shaped of gleaming white stone. Music of all sorts drifted over the greensward, along with the smoke of cooking. Judging from the size of the camp there should have been more smoke; but as he drew closer, Gorlen saw a steady stream of traffic between the cylindrical manor and the pitched tents and caravans of the camp. Grubby musicians wandered into the great house while manor staff meandered out with platters of meat and piles of produce. The grand golden doors were open wide, and music could be heard tumbling from unshuttered windows, parlors, and porches. The festival appeared to have spilled indoors. Gorlen had never seen anything like it.
At the fringe of the camp, Haff was hailed by a crew of old companions.
“I’ll see you inside,” he said to Gorlen. “I wouldn’t presume to set my bag up indoors uninvited.”
He snatched a roast quisle from a passing platter, along with several small potatoes that he proceeded to juggle as he went off to unpack.
Gorlen and Spar continued on through the fountains, old statuary of fantastical stone creatures (Spar commenting on their lack of convincing detail), and eventually arrived at the front door.
Gorlen had approached many a lordly manor in his day. In most cases he had been roundly chastised and told to seek a service entrance, but occasionally he had been welcomed in through the front portal with exaggerated formality, for a wealthy home’s ironic amusement. However, never had he seen such a door flung wide open, with no one to check his pockets or credentials.
Beyond the threshold were sounds of laughter, melodies plucked and strummed, songs sung loudly or softly, in harmonies as well as unaccompanied. Somehow it managed to not be a cacophony, but remained beautiful and sonorous, as if the acoustics of the house worked some strange magic of accommodation. Mellifluous, sublime. As a musician, Gorlen rarely had cause to appreciate music for its isolated merits. It was the sea in which he swam. But for a moment, it was as if he stood on the shore of that ocean of beautiful sound. Then someone bumped him from behind, more minstrels rushing into the manor, and he was in deep again.
“Once we have introduced ourselves to Ardentine Wollox, I will beg use of the library,” Spar said. “Where do you suppose we might find him?”
“I think we should follow our ears.”
The passages gave way on either side to high-ceilinged rooms where the visiting musicians sawed at strings, blew into tubes, thumped tympani. The setting was novel but the sounds were not. What struck Gorlen as new was the variety of fixed instruments: devices too heavy, delicate, or complicated for portability. His whole life in music had been spent on the road. He and his peers played only what they could stuff in a sack or throw over a shoulder. Haff’s smokebag was one of the more inconvenient sorts of traveling instrument, and its rarity meant Haff always attracted an audience, and would have done so even were his playing inferior. (It was not.) But the musical collection of Lord Wollox extended to ponderous mechanisms fashioned of stone; glass and metal contraptions; enormous cabinets of dense, dark woods that could have served as wardrobes for armies. In fact, it would have taken an army and all of its wagons to carry off the collection. Little wonder he appeared unconcerned about the light fingers of wandering bards.
The main corridor eventually culminated in a spacious room, perfectly round, although the room’s center was occluded by an enormous columnar structure of polished white stone that rose to the ceiling, where light poured down from an annular sundome and almost gave the feeling that they were outside again. The room was alive with people.
The central column was the room’s single most arresting sight, for up against its nearest curving face there sported a semicircle of stone figures carved of ancient pitted and lichenous stone, all female, fashioned with heads thrown back and mouths wide, portrayed in open-throated, spirited song.
These must be the eight muses of Wollox Hollow, whose virtues Gorlen had heard touted on the trail. He had not realized the muses were physical objects; he’d assumed they were mythic guardians of the old family. But more importantly, they appeared to be part of an immense instrument. Their lower torsos flowed together into the base of the single stone from which all had been carved. Into this lower deck of rock, an array of cylindrical holes had been drilled. The holes held bronze stoppers, leather plugs, a dazzling assemblage of tubes and levers, all connected to a console sporting hundreds of polished wooden keys, variously labeled with gold runes and symbols that looked alchemical, astrological, or otherwise arcane. Gorlen could read not a note of music, so the details were lost on him, but it was undeniably impressive. He was eager to hear what sort of sounds the muse-organ could produce.
The obvious master of this instrument, however, appeared at the moment not the least bit interested in playing it.
Young Lord Ardentine Wollox was seated with his back to the fingerboard, clapping his hands delightedly in time to a fast tune skirling and reeling out of the pipes and hand-cranked music-mills of a quintet performing near the base of the organ. There was no self-consciousness in Wollox. His figure was that of pure unhampered delight, beaming and merry, with lively eyes and uncombed hair beribboned in odd tufts, as if some valet had begun to dress and style the lord only to have young Wollox, hearing a snatch of distant melody, thrust aside the ministrations of his aide and rush half-dressed into the hall. He had the air of one who cared for nothing but this very moment’s amusements. His boundless wealth afforded him such caprices, Gorlen supposed.
As he and Spar entered, the young lord’s eyes fixed on them. A visiting gargoyle stood out in such a crowd. But he did not lose the beat of the tune which enraptured him, and once it had finished he took a few moments to compliment each of the five players individually before rising from the padded organ bench and crossing to Gorlen and Spar.
Gorlen bowed low. “My good Lord Wollox—”
“Please! My friends know me as Ardie, and we are all great friends here!”
“I am Gorlen Vizenfirthe, a bard, and this is my very dear friend Spar.”
“Friend and not protector? But then, I don’t see any castles or cathedrals on your back, sir, so what could he have to protect?” A high-pitched laugh. “Welcome to Wollox Hollow! I hope you brought tunes new and old with which to regale us, and that you will accept the freedom of the house and grounds in exchange for only a bit of your time. I have embarked on the great and worthy enterprise of collecting all the music of our day, to further the completion of my historical records.”
“As to those archives, Lord Wollox—”
Spar nodded and went on. “My people the goyles are completely innocent of musical gifts. While my talented friend plays and sings for your pleasure, I wonder if I might peruse the nonmusical sections of your renowned library.”
“By all means! A literate stonewight, this is too fantastic! Our catalogs and indices are at your disposal. Wander freely or request the services of an archivist, whichever you like.” He gestured generally toward the one door into the great room. “You will find the libraries commencing below the surface structures of the house, where the atmosphere is stable. There are many levels, for the collection is an ancestral one, and each heir must dig it deeper. My sister’s down there somewhere, doing her own digging. She will certainly steer you where you wish to go. You will find it possible to read for centuries, if that suits you. Are gargoyles swift readers, would you say?”
“I have no basis for comparison. Most do not read at all. Although we have sat upon mottoed lintels and porticos for millennia, few have a clue what writs and warnings they enforce. The curiosity of my kin is regrettably shallow.” Spar nodded to Gorlen. “Until later, then?”
“Good reading,” Gorlen said. “I expect I will bed down with Haff and his friends later, at the outskirts of the camp, if indeed I bed down at all.”
“I will look for you there.”
Spar was swallowed up in the merry crowd.
Gorlen brought out his eduldamer with a bit of reluctance, as it was far from the only one to be seen in the crowd. Apparently this was of little importance to Ardie Wollox. “Now, good Gorlen, you will have to tell me of all your wanderings, and to any extent possible, note the locations where you learned your tunes and any tales associated with them. Songs of your own composition are quite welcome, provided you can give proper provenance and none of my archivists can prove derivation from another in the catalog—which is not to say that variants are not welcome, for that is also an interesting aspect of our study.”
“Forgive me, my—Ardie, but do you not simply wish to hear and enjoy our offerings?”
“I am a passionate lover of music, Gorlen! It is all that I live for! But indeed, there is a greater work underway, larger than any one of us. To give all this work a context, a setting, a study of traditions and influences, to understand all the streams of music that flow more freely than any form of commerce, yet do so largely underground, from shared sources we have hardly begun to understand. If music is a currency, a kind of wealth, then I intend to create at Wollox Hollow a fabulous treasure-house. Not to stockpile like some sonic miser, greedy and stingy, but to share with the world—to safeguard for all time!”
“An undertaking of staggering scope,” Gorlen observed. “My own little compositions scarcely deserve such company.”
“All are welcome! All! False modesty—or even the true sort—are most out of place here, I assure you. We must simply have all the music we can, and more! Strain my listening to its limits!”
Wollox jumped down from his seat and capered madly to an unheard tune—or perhaps to all of them that rang through the round room simultaneously. His limbs were thin and jerked him about like a stick figure. Under his wealthy attire he looked brittle as an insect. But he moved with such vigor, and radiated so much energy and merriment, that it was nearly impossible to see (as Gorlen now glimpsed) that under his agitated, furiously busy exterior was a creature valiantly staving off illness, some sort of wasting disease. All the music, the dancing, the noise, were meant as distractions from this underlying solemnity, this note of dread. And the staggering undertaking, the endless work of cataloging and collecting all possible music, was also a way of defying the brevity of life, and what might have been a quickly approaching end.
Gorlen liked Wollox all the more when he saw how he celebrated in spite of the darkness within. His jig, and his good humor, proved infectious. Look how they had contaminated this whole crowd!
Soon out of breath, Wollox gasped, “I tire! I tire! But the earth begins to breathe—I sense the winds of inspiration rising. Let us play songs of the greatest possible energy—whatever may revive us!”
Throwing himself on the bench, he turned to the console. Gorlen realized with a thrill that the muses were about to sing.
Wollox spread his arms and then his fingers, whose reach Gorlen noticed was unusually wide–half again as wide as the span of his own (flesh) hand. He felt a moment’s jealousy, thinking what music he could have played with hands like those. There was a flurry of movement as Ardie repositioned stops and sliders exactly to his liking, then he threw back his head as if joining the muses in song and cried, “Sing!”
The hair on Gorlen’s neck prickled, his heart climbed into his throat, tears started from his eyes as an eerie, breathy note began to swell from deep within the chamber, like the inward essence of nature given voice; and it rose louder, higher, all while the young player simply sat poised as if entranced. Wollox waited until the single harmony of eight voices reached an unbearable peak, pouring from the mouths of the muses, vibrating the whole chamber, blowing at the conical dome overhead with such vigor that its transparent panels, proving cleverly hinged, opened to give the blast somewhere to go. And only then, quite suddenly, did young Wollox throw his hands down on the keys and let the muses sing.