The pilgrims Plenth had been hired to entertain crossed the desert of Hoogalloor in caravans made of enormous dried-out caterpillars, tossed about the lightly ribbed interior with an assortment of carpets and cushions, peering out at passing cacti through portholes that had once been breathing spiracles. Other vehicles, more utilitarian and less appointed for comfort, had been fashioned from different stages of the same species’ life cycle. These included a pupal land-barge full of cookware and supplies, from which the cook emerged each evening and prepared a variety of dishes according to the complicated dietary regimes of the travelers; and a wingless chrysalis which the caravan’s guardians used as a mobile barracks, filling it with the racks of insect integument they’d fashioned into armor and arms. The beasts that pulled these hollowed-out vehicles of glossy chitin and dull husk were themselves a type of large, docile beetle, referred to as “Garden Variety” by Sister Quills, assistant to the caravan’s Drover-Abbess. Plenth had nightmares concerning the nature of that garden, from which she woke feeling thankful that her route across the arid northwestern wastes would take her nowhere near the humid southern quarters where such creatures freely swarmed. Quills, who spoke with a southern accent, retained the customs of her birthplace, which included smashing the flies that constantly beset the caravan and sucking them off her fingers with an ecstatic expression, confiding to Plenth, “The little ones are sweet!” Plenth understood that in this harsh environment, one must exploit every resource to survive; but one didn’t have to act so delighted about it. Thankfully Plenth had brought along her own food, which she ate sparingly that it might last until they reached Wumnal Wells.
Sunset and dawn were marked with swarms of small insects streaking to and fro against the sapphire and violet sky as the land went from black to flame to a drab color containing every possible shade of beige. The flightless mammoth beetles were fond of a giant spiked succulent that lined the road and at night were staked out to graze. In the cold mornings, somnolent and overfull, they warmed to activity slowly while their smaller cousins flitted furiously about, as if to make the dray-beetles jealous of their freedom. Plenth normally loved the open air and would have been outside to share in the caravan’s activities, but prior days of travel had taught her wariness: there were too many blood-sucking insects, too many thorny shrubs, and too many insufferable questions from the pilgrims.
The caravan sisters, including Quills, did not bother her, but the pilgrims were boors. She had stopped talking to nearly all of them, tired of deflecting their less-than-well-meaning attempts to make conversation along such judgmental themes as, “Who’s the father?”, “Where’s the father?” or “What does the father think of you off here in the middle of nowhere by your lonesome?” She was required by the terms of her contract to play for the travelers at every stop, but this she did from a curtained alcove at the rear of the caterpillar—what had once been an exit of sorts. Plenth also strummed and sang as they wobbled along the road, since that kept casual conversation to a minimum. She editorialized with many a ballad about strong solitary women, including mothers who happily adventured on their own, but invariably either the point was lost on her audience or they took unexpected morals from the rollicking tunes. She began to compose unflattering lyrical portraits of her companions, to be played at some point in the future for the amusement of some very different crowds.
It was ridiculous, she thought, that those who styled themselves devout could spend so much time looking down their spiritually inclined noses at her, especially when they had taken this journey to peer into the sky. The crepuscular swarms of small insects were, after all, merely a foreglimpse of the sacred nights to come, when she and the rest of these travelers would behold the seventh-year nuptial swarming of the Philosopher Moths. It was the one thing that connected them, barely. Where the pilgrims sought cosmic insight, Plenth sought mundane guidance. Ideally, she hoped for a map. She wasn’t sure which was more absurd: the pilgrims’ dream of finding the answer to life’s mysteries, or the fact they believed they’d get their answer from a species of telepathic moth.
The thought that insects held answers made her think twice before swatting the shiny black signats or dust-colored runemoths. She studied with interest the winged flits that clouded the camp’s lamps at night, wondering if they shared any kinship with the enormous creatures supposedly slumbering beneath the crumbling sands of Hoogalloor. The runemoths had intricately patterned wings, and each fuzzy thorax bore a sigil that might have been printed there by a scribe. Whenever they settled, they locked wings around the lights, forming apparent word-swarms and even whole sentences that tantalized with their semblance of legibility. Entire schools of philosophy had arisen around the attempt to transcribe and interpret these patterns, but to Plenth that seemed beside the point. The runemoths reeked of meaning, but only to themselves. Why should they speak to her or any other species of creature?
Yet, in a more expansive mood, she believed that nature spoke across all boundaries. Something about the weird light and topography of the desert, with its horizons that looked like heat-shimmer fixed in stone, put her in a strange, numb state where she felt she could accept almost anything—even the wisdom of a moth. She gazed out through the nearest porthole, with its border of perfectly spaced pores, strumming the strings of her eduldamer, mumbling instantly forgotten songs, and watched the procession of barbed and spiny cactus towers that looked like figures praying along the roadside. They appeared to move and merge with one another.
Monotony had made her so accustomed to unquestioning acceptance of heat-visions that it struck her as unremarkable when two of the grotesque plants separated from the others, rushed out into the road, and nearly dashed themselves beneath the caterpillar caravan’s wheels. The pair were partially obscured by a cloud of insects, a chittering mass of mandibles and agitated wings. Adding to her sense of torpid hallucination was the delusion that one of these unlikely figures was a being of crazed black stone, while the other had the face of a former lover.
The Abbess, at the reins of the caterpillar, called a halt. The giant beetles stopped abruptly but the carriage rolled a few more feet and bumped into their armored abdomens. Pillows and pilgrims went tumbling.
Plenth backed away from the window in a panic, awake now, convinced that what she had seen was no dazed dream—but reality.
“Quickly, Quills!” the Abbess cried. “The fumigant!”
Sister Quills grabbed a contraption from its hook near the caravan’s entry—a canister wrapped in a fibrous hose. She slung it over her back, unwinding the tubing, and leapt out into the road, already pumping the canister to douse the swarm with repellent mist. Plenth returned to the porthole, more collected now, watching Quills fill the air with silvery spray that downed the foremost of the flying pests and sent the rest recoiling.
The black stone figure, a gargoyle, endured the treatment patiently and with no alteration of his stern, glassy expression. The insects had been troubling him only by association with the human, now on his knees with hands over his eyes as the fumigant settled.
With wracking coughs and much sputtering, the kneeling man waited out the retreat of the swarm, then slowly uncovered his face. His brow, his cheeks, and one of his hands were covered with welts. The other hand was of black stone, gargoyle stuff.
The goyle meanwhile scratched absently at his one pale, flesh hand—the only bit of the stonewight vulnerable to meat-seeking vermin.
The duo now identified, Plenth fell away from the window, collapsed into cushions, and drew a patterned weave over her face.
She had not seen the man in more than ten years, but there was no mistaking him. The gargoyle’s name she had never known, but his companion was—could only be—Gorlen Vizenfirthe.
“I thought I told you to step lightly,” Gorlen said through swollen eyelids as the ministering matron of some order whose emblem he did not recognize swabbed salves into them.
“My feet,” Spar replied, “are stone. Once I was capable of flight, but never could I tiptoe.”
The sister snorted. “Sadly, I’ve nothing here for goyles,” she muttered sidelong to the stonewight. “What you really need is a good once-over with a polishing cloth.”
“His finish was once quite lustrous,” Gorlen said. “As was mine.”
The sister handed him the pot of quivering green unguent. “You can apply the rest yourself when the burning starts up. You’re lucky you stepped on that gnaggot nest in daylight, when most of ’em are out gathering carrion. At dusk, you’d have had ’em in your mouth and throat. They taste all right, a few at a time, but in such numbers they make breathing difficult.”
“It never entered my mind to eat my way through the swarm!”
“Might give it a try next time,” she said with a shrug.
Gorlen wiped the excess salve from his lids and scanned the dim interior of the hollow, beetle-drawn caterpillar. It was crowded and clamorous enough already that their arrival had left little lasting impression on the pilgrims. As for his impression of pilgrims in general, it could hardly have been lower after their trek across Hoogalloor. They had traveled several days with a penitent cabal, before the priests’ abuse of Spar became intolerable. “Rocks should stay in the dirt where they belong,” one sage had muttered, and Gorlen agreed it was best to part ways before he finally delivered a rejoinder involving “this rock” and “your tonsured pate.”
After walking some days on their own, the pair had gradually overtaken what turned out to be an order not of mutes or brothers sworn to silence, but of voluntary deafs: two dozen unshaven men with corkroots plugging their ears. Gorlen derived some pleasure from pantomiming a number of obscene songs but it was fleeting . . . and they soon fled.
For another two days they let a variety of pilgrim processions pass them by. They slept under stars that could scarcely be seen beyond the noctilucent insect swarms, let alone the faintly glowing vapors of the desert night’s sky. They told themselves they were content to travel the rest of the way to Wumnal Wells on foot, so long as they arrived in time for the swarming of the Philosopher Moths.
“Excuse me, Sister—”
“Quills,” she said.
“Do you know what night the nuptials begin? I fear I’ve lost track.”
“We’ll be in Wumnal Wells tomorrow. The swarming isn’t done by any calendar but the moths’, but it lasts a good few nights and hasn’t started yet or we’d’ve heard. Let’s hope it holds off till we’re settled.”
“Indeed. And is there room for us aboard this or another of your wagons? I don’t take up much space, but perhaps your passengers have vowed to avoid the presence of unbathed initiates such as myself.”
“We’re nondenominational,” she said. “Only eclectics. Caters to all sorts, the Drover-Abbess does, long as you pay your fare. There’s no restriction on stonewights.”
“I won’t be riding,” Spar clarified. “I prefer to walk and keep watch.”
“Vigilance is a habit with him,” Gorlen said, “and many’s the time I’ve been grateful for it. He’ll be an asset to your caravan’s security. I, on the other hand, as far as fare goes—”
“I can see you’re a bard, no shame in it, but I’m afraid we’ve already got one. If you’re hoping to trade entertainment for passage, you’ll have to work out an understanding with her . . . Now, where did she get to?”
Quills picked her way between scattered cushions and lolling pilgrims, finally straightening as she spied a figure at the puckered rear portal of the caterpillar, silhouetted in the blaze of outer desert light. “That’s her there. You should have a word. Or not. Might be other services you can offer the road-weary. It’s a long and lonely journey.” Her wink’s implications could scarcely be misconstrued.
“A lascivious sect, these drovers,” Gorlen said quietly to Spar as Quills went forward to help the Abbess drive the dray-beetles. “Let us speak with this musical competitor of ours. I don’t wish to horn in, but perhaps there’s some arrangement waiting to be arrived at, of benefit to us all.”
They made their way through tumbled passengers, finding small gaps where the rugose floor was visible. “Excuse me, madam. Sir, I beg your pardon. All, I do apologize for my friend’s leaden foot. Pardon us. Now then, mistress bard, if you don’t mind—”
They had reached the rear of the caterpillar, where a bench was fit into a kind of fleshy alcove, and where the other bard sat facing the rising dust of their wake. He saw that she held an eduldamer, which meant his own arrival would add no novelty or variety to the entertainment; and yet a duet was also a beautiful thing, and he rarely had the chance to . . . the chance to . . .
She had turned and was gazing at him—or glaring, with mixed amusement and anger and more emotions than he generally saw at first glance in a stranger’s face. But of course she was not a stranger at all, and in an instant it grew impossible to fathom how he had managed to see her there, even as a silhouette, without recognizing her instantly.
“Plenth,” he said.
“Gorlen.” Her nails did something on the strings of her eduldamer, sounding out a perfect embodiment of the emotions he was feeling at that moment—as if she were feeling the very same thing, as if she were the author of that note. Years fell away, and yet the fullness of those years was contained in the moment. Passion, poignancy, bitterness, hope, and regret; lust and anger, disappointment and despair; too much to be silenced, it spilled out into the sound. He looked back through the caravan, wondering that it hadn’t overwhelmed the passengers. But the pilgrims dozed or jabbered on, vibrating with the roughness of the road, oblivious.
“And you,” she said to Spar. “I remember you but I don’t know you. I thought you two were enemies, yet here you are, traveling companions.”
“Here we all are,” Spar said. “Greetings to you, Lady Plenth. It is a pleasure to finally introduce myself under more felicitous circumstances than ever we met before. I am Spar.”
“Spar,” she repeated, staring at him as if grateful for an excuse to take her eyes off Gorlen. Gorlen was grateful to have the opportunity to study her without being studied in return. “And are they? More felicitous, I mean?”
“The lack of a priest placing curses on us feels like a distinct improvement,” Gorlen said, and her violet eyes swerved back to him. “Although Spar and I still suffer the curse’s effect, there’s a certain lack of urgency now that we’ve both grown accustomed to our reversed limbs. That’s why, when at last we met, we joined forces: to track the itinerant mage who tangled up our fates. That’s why we’re on the road to Wumnal Wells, in fact. First, there is the hope these famous Philosopher Moths might reveal his whereabouts. But it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the priest himself might be in Wumnal for the rare event.”
“And what of you?” Spar asked. “May we infer you, too, seek answers or insights on the night of nuptial swarming?”
“I do,” said Plenth. “Although one of my questions has just been answered.”
“Your pardon,” said a deep, somewhat nasal voice. Gorlen turned to see behind them an elderly woman he guessed must be the Abbess. Presumably she had entrusted the reins and the beetles to Quills. “I wonder if I might ask a favor of you three, since it appears you are all acquainted.”
“I am at your service,” Spar said. “I cannot speak for Gorlen or Plenth.”
“What is it you need?” Gorlen asked.
“Apart from an overabundance of eduldamers,” Plenth added.
“Tomorrow we will reach Hoogalloor,” the Abbess said. She was a tall, thin woman and carried herself with such great poise that she scarcely swayed while the wagon juddered and jounced. “I have not been there myself in seven years, but I understand there have been big changes since the last nuptial swarming. It appears the event, once a rarely witnessed phenomenon, has become something of a fad. The traffic is astonishing this year, and this road is but one spoke on the hub of Wumnal Wells. I fear when we arrive there will be . . . disappointment? Consternation? Among so many unrealistic pilgrims, some sort of disillusion-driven backlash seems inevitable. I have sung the virtues—so to speak—of the event, accentuating its spare and soaring spiritual values. But even so, I now dread an angry reaction, through no fault of my own.”
“I fail to see our part in this,” Gorlen said. “Plenth?”
She shrugged, a small sign of casual complicity, but it struck him that it ran very deep indeed, evoking other shrugs, other moments when the two of them had been in close partnership.
“Can you change the tenor of your selections?” the Abbess asked. “If you could emphasize lyrics that prepare one for quiet acceptance, a stoical surrender to the unavoidable degradation of mundane expectations? Do you know such songs?”
“There are many in the repertoire,” Gorlen admitted.
“Truly,” Plenth said. “I’ve avoided them in favor of optimistic spirituals so far, but I would be gratified to play some pieces more aligned to my actual experience.”
“I would be much obliged,” the Abbess said. “In return, I will extend our contract beyond our arrival. You will be welcome to stay with the caravan when we reach the encampment. You may find it a reliable alternative to lodgings of exceedingly temporary nature and no reputation.”
“If Plenth agrees, we will devise a list of disappointing tunes,” Gorlen said. “I see no reason why we can’t come up with a catalog of songs that will resign your pilgrims to crushed dreams, realigned expectations, and the desire to drown themselves in the local spirit, which I believe is another great attraction of the festival. What do they call it? Chulk?”
“Shu’ulk,” the Abbess said, carefully emphasizing the glottal stop. “A very good point. I have already made arrangements with one local distillery as exclusive distributor of their liquor. You might have noted that several of my wagons are empty. While today I import ecstatics, in the form of pilgrims, my future plans involve export of intoxicants.”
“If there’s anything I can do to lower expectations, please let me know,” Spar said.
“Just be yourself,” said the Abbess, and made her way to the front of the wagon.
“Well,” said Plenth, “you might as well join me.”
She moved to clear space for Gorlen on the little ledge, and as she shifted, he saw that she was unmistakably pregnant. She carried it lightly; the swell of her belly was distinct but slight. If anything, she was more slender and sinewy than when he had seen her last—and certainly more so than when they had first met and impetuously dallied in one of Nardath’s temple gardens, a youthful union that landed them both in trouble they never entirely got out of.
A dozen years of life on the road, living the wandering bard’s existence, appeared to have suited her. She was tanned and lightly weathered. He had to look twice, and then again, to catch flashes of the much younger Plenth, the unworldly girl he had known, sneaking peeks at him from the eyes of this cagey, wiser woman. It helped that, as eyes went, hers were easier than most to gaze into.
Gorlen felt as if he, too, had just received an answer to one of the questions he had meant to bring to the Philosopher Moths. Information as to the whereabouts of the missing priest was only part of what he sought. He had less well-formed queries about what else he ought to be doing with his life. It was possible (were he honest with himself) that he had been hoping for some knowledge of Plenth’s fate.
“I see you kept up with your playing,” he said, gesturing at her eduldamer.
“I had a good teacher,” she said, and looked pleased when he blushed. “I kept hearing rumors of a bard with a stone hand, even met a few who heard you play. Apparently you have developed a technique to compensate for your handicap.”
“You’ll hear it soon,” he said, “although I admit, I hope never to hear it again. I would happily sound exactly like every other eduldamer player if it meant Spar could have his stone hand back and I could have mine of flesh restored.”
“Ten years and you still haven’t recovered your hand,” she said. “I assumed you left to track him down and I see that I was right. You weren’t exactly forthcoming before you disappeared.”
A different sort of blush crept over him now. “Well, I—”
“The priest, we feel, is aware of our pursuit at this point and engaged in deliberate evasion,” said Spar. “His disappearance is too complete to be a matter of chance. Had he died, there would be a grave I could trace, even if only in some carnivore’s den. This leads me to believe we worry him—although for what reason, I cannot guess. We want nothing but a restoration.”
The wagon lurched abruptly and the Abbess called a halt.
“The noon repast,” Plenth said. “The pilgrims will expect a performance now.”
“But we’ve yet to discuss possible tunes,” Gorlen said.
“Oh, don’t worry,” she said. “You’ve just come off the road. Catch some rest, feed yourself, gather your strength. I’ve got the perfect song in mind—one of youthful fancies dashed, of innocence leavened by disappointment, one of . . . well, abandonment.”
Gorlen helped Plenth to her feet, unable to keep his eyes from her belly. It looked a heavy weight but she moved gracefully. “Which ballad is this? ‘The Salandrine Pip’? ‘The Master-Mix of Malverstix’?”
“You won’t know this one just yet, though I will be happy to teach you every glide and glissando.”
“In other words,” he said with a teacher’s prideful pang, “it’s one of your own making.”
She graced him with a perfectly innocent smile, one worthy of the mischievous girl he no doubt misremembered. “So to speak.”