The river thrummed in its bed, its song played into the bones of the world. The bridge groaned as it swayed in time. The hooves of horses clopped against stone.
The lead rider murmured an ancient hymn through travel-darkened lips. Her hood, weathered to a dull colour like old dirt, slumped low over her face, which was covered by an ornately carved and painted half-mask. Her feet, ensconced in worn brown boots, tapped a rhythm against the sides of her black and white stallion, and the horse trod the counter-rhythm, seeming almost to dance to his rider’s mouthed melody. The woman sat straight-backed in her saddle. A slight belly puffed out her jerkin above the belt. Her hands were deeply tanned and thick with callouses, but they moved the reins with precision and grace.
The thin fellow following her also held himself upright, but his head was uncovered. Behind his half-mask the fellow’s eyes shone a cold clear gray, and his cheeks, though tanned, were hollow. He gazed not ahead but to one side, down the length of the valley before them, towards distant hills and the mountains behind them. He had tied his reins in place, and rhythmically rapped the knots tied in its length against his saddlehorn. His mount shimmied nervously as he tapped, a step right and then one left, stamping then stepping forward. A dog of middling size and no particular breed padded behind them, its nose twitching as it sniffed unfamiliar air.
Bringing up the rear there came a fine fat fellow whose half-mask did nothing to dim his glowing smile. He leaned his body far from upright, gazing at the river below. The bridge groaned and his huge horse bowed, but both bore him without breaking. He rumbled out a song in a bass voice that was bright and deep, a voice that carried into the river valley and resounded and rode the breeze towards the town ahead, its shape that of contentment no matter the day’s troubles.
In the town people were clustered in the commons, muttering together about the weather, wondering if the sun might hold long enough to allow them a lazy Song-Day. No whisper had yet reached these ears regarding the approaching strangers. Children were playing on the well, screeching the winch back and forth while parents tried to shout them away to other pursuits.
The strangers left the music of the river behind and rode over the rise. They slowed their horses and gazed down into the valley on the other side.
Low cottages with terraced gardens lined the hills below them, and on the horizon matching sets climbed the far side. In the broad plain of the valley, tiny rivulets and creeks glittered between regular blocks of farmland. Thin streams of smoke rose from hearths already fired for the evening meal.
The lady and the thin fellow caught a little of their fat friend’s mirth at the sight. Some long-neglected thing within them responded. They had seen the wide world, had weathered its troubles, but being awash in that place steadied them for a moment.
The moment, alas, did not last. They spurred their horses onwards, the slow clopping turning into heavy, uneven thumps as they descended. The fat fellow gave up his steady travel-song and began to bellow a homecoming. The lady joined, and then the thin fellow, harmonies swirling rough and loose through the old hymnal.
All come home now,
Thrum in the river
All come home now,
Thrum in my heart
All come home now,
Thrum in thy body
All come home now,
Thrum in my heart
In the town, the people in the square turned to watch their approach. The susurrus of gossip climbed into a clatter of questions. Riders crossing, by itself, was not entirely strange, but these riders were singing a song that these folk knew for their own. As the threesome came close, the fat man fixed one woman with his gaze. Mary of Balenn returned the gaze a moment before she recognized him and shrieked delightedly “William of Parsh, is that you?” She ran towards the riders.
“It is, Mary,” said the fat fellow, laughter in his voice.
The square buzzed now over the native son come home. William of Parsh had been gone long enough for those present to wonder where he had been, but not long enough for them to have lost his face to memory. He was a welcome figure, and chatter intertwined with wry noises as stories were recounted of the man’s younger days.
Mary slapped William’s knee as he pulled his horse up short beside her. “Where’d the likes of you get such a fine tall horse, Will?”
The big man darted uneasy eyes at the lady beside him, who offered the merest shake of her head. “That tale’s for a different time, sweet Mary of Balenn. Today we come with news, and to speak to your mother and father.”
The people in the commons clustered tighter around the horsemen now, wondering what message might have brought them back across the river. The lady and the thin man stared into the faces of those pressing close to their mounts, mostly children who had lost their interest in the well.
“After supper we’ll give tidings,” said William. He did not look happy to say these words, and he made a few noises as if he would say more. Those nearby waited, but with no further news forthcoming they soon backed away, Mary of Balenn excepted.
“Will you be visiting with me this even, Will?” said Mary.
“That I will,” said the big man with a grin. “May I invite my choir-mates as well?”
“Do as you will, Will, I’ll not stop you from leaning on our kindness your first night home.”
The three followed the girl named Mary across the commons and down the lane to a farmhouse surrounded by healthy fields full of corn and wheat. The scent of horse cakes filled up the barn as they unsaddled and stabled their mounts.
“Will you be staying for supper then, Will?” asked Mary.
“Aye Mary, if we are welcome.”
“’Tis not up to me, but I would say that you were, if I were of the betting sort.” Mary grinned slyly at Will.
“Oh, you’ve given that up then have you?” He laughed when the girl struck his hand and reddened. “I don’t mean anything by that, dear Mary, you know yourself. She’s as good as a song,” he said to his companions.
“She always was.” The lady’s voice was sharp like tall grass and cut a thin line through the joy, leaving a small hurt silence in its place. Mary waited a moment, but the lady said no more.
Mary showed her visitors into the front of the house and went back to fetch her da from the field.
“Da,” she shouted, “Will’s home!”
Mary’s da rustled through the corn, a line of waving stalks quickly approaching the house. He sang the harvest in a strong voice as he approached.
“Have you come to Test, then, Will?” called the man as he emerged from the corn. He stopped a ways from the trio, and his hands clenched so tightly that the big, work-hardened joints popped a chorus in the air.
“We come Calling for you and yours,” said the lady.
“I gave up my chance at the Thrum. Called but never tested, the land was all that ever seemed to speak to me.” James’s eyes were hard.
“And your wife refused at the Source,” said the lady, “yet we come to call you once more.”
“You seem familiar. Are you a bridge-crosser?” asked James.
“My father was known to you as Alan of Sorle.”
“Little Eliza, is it? I’ve wondered whether I’d live to see you return.”
James turned to the grey-eyed man.
“If these two well-bred bridge-crossers have taken company with you, then you’re either a lucky man or a crosser yourself. I’d bet the latter. Let me see if I can at least get the family right – are you of Hasheen?”
The grey-eyed man stilled for a moment and looked away, then began tapping his reins with considerably more vigor.
“Oh no need of that, man. It’s no trouble at all to know a grey-eyed man must be from one of a few people, and I knew your father. What do they call you besides your father’s name?”
“I prefer Verick today, though my father would not know the name,” said the grey-eyed man, holding his reins steady once more. “I would appreciate it if you knew me as of Harlen instead; my father was not a man to make friends and I am not one to take on his enemies.”
“It’s a long-lost and sober lot of ye coming home tonight, Will,” Mary said, laughing. “If you’ve come to Test, let’s start with a supper at least. My score shan’t be higher than your first mouthful, I’d wager.”
“That,” said William, “is as fine an idea as we’ve had these last twenty days. Time for Testing later, James. For now, share your hearth with us and we’ll share something of the Crosslands with you and your chorus.”
“William, son of Parsh, son of Milner,” came a voice from behind them, “turn round, or I’ll take offense.”
The speaker was a well-built woman with fine red hair and a figure shaped by child birth and hard work. Her hands tapped without rhythm against her skirts, though she fixed a steady, bright gaze on William’s face.
“Anna!” he tried, and when she failed to respond, “I’m just to supper now, lass, but I’ll be down to see you shortly.”
“Too long already, William of Parsh. You will come now and explain to my poor father where it is you’ve been and why I am promised but not paired these eight long years, and why you’ve come to discharge this duty before the one you owe to me.”
William was silent then, his eyes on her waist, his face tight. The silence hung about them, offset by small sounds from the back of the house and the drum-drum-drumming of the new arrival’s fingers on her thick, stiff skirts. His eyes finally lifted and he took a breath, but the woman cut him off with a bright, beautiful laugh.
“Ah, William, you’ve never had the stones for a serious joke, have you?”
“I see you’ve changed, girl – was it the bearing day itself, the last time?”
“My stench! Go have a long wash before you talk! We’ll hear you at supper before you leave. I don’t recall ever having much trouble convincing you, and I see it’s still your habit to never turn down a meal.”
“Speak of your own waist, you miserable wench! I’ve been to the Crosslands, and a man must eat there, or die.”
“You must be wanted for several murders by now then, you filthy fat craven!”
“I’ll give you filth!” said the big man and lurched towards the woman, who dropped into a wrestler’s stance. They circled and feinted and lunged and soon both lay in the grass, laughter ringing in the air.
Silence returned, and they found themselves alone. William sat a moment, his eyes fixed on Anna’s, then groaned to his feet and brushed off his tunic.
“It’s good to see you, girl, but we’ve come to Test, and so I must join my companions,” he said.
“Far be it from me to keep you from your duty, William.” Her voice had a small sharpness in it.
“You’ve a better man than I, Anna, and it was all I could give you. Testing is not meant to be easy for anyone.”
“A better man would have Tested, but thank you for saying so.” The sharpness was gone now, though her shoulders sagged and her smile did not reach her eyes.
“Testing shows certain qualities only. It is not for the best, but for the most suited. I fear I am too well suited a singer and too poorly suited a man, or I would have given you that thick waist myself.”
“Supper tomorrow, William. Do not leave without seeing my father. Nor Saul, though he may not wish to hear you.”
She rounded the corner and disappeared behind the tall corn. William looked a moment longer, then turned, walked to the house, and knocked the Visitor softly before he turned the latch and went inside.
Supper was laid out on clean linen draped over a large, lovingly crafted table. Atop warm, fresh crusted-bread platters lay strips of cured meat redolent with spices. Around these, a ring of fragrant roasted vegetables. Beside the platters sat bowls of broth with pungent steam curling up from them.
The travellers sat quietly as the family made their blessings. The three shared glances as the round was made. Even the littlest child, a girl who could not have been in the world more than half a dozen harvests, sang in a high, clear voice. It was clearly a new song, for even the singers did not know all the words. In the way of practiced singers, however, they kept the tune even when the words failed them, and let themselves laugh together once they’d finished.
“Your chorus is a fine one, James of Kent,” said Eliza after a respectful moment of silence. “Would that we could let it go at that. But instead I must ask you to Test, and I cannot spare much time for you to make right all that you might wish to. The need for new voices is great. The Crosslands grow wilder with every day that passes.”
“And what of our daughters?” asked Balenn of Meiram.
“A chorus is Tested together, but not every member needs answer the same Call. When you have been Tested you may understand better why they so often do,” said Verick. Then, glancing at his companions, “Though you may find a better chorus in the wilds, as I have.”
“As we all have,” said William.
“If we are honest, however, this chorus will be hard to find in the wilds.” Eliza’s eyes were hard, but her hands were clasped tightly enough to whiten the knuckles. “It is one of the reasons we came to you. As you have no doubt seen, we are not the only crossers returning.”
“You are the first we’ve seen,” said James.
The trio shared a moment’s glance. William was the first to speak.
“If that is so, then we are none too soon, James.”
“What of the little one, then?” asked Balenn.
Eliza cut in. “The child has taken the song, Balenn. I would not take her otherwise.”
“She is still Unseven,” said Balenn, one hand gripping her youngest child’s tiny forearm.
“Be that as it may, she is part of the chorus, and you shall have need of her voice.”
“We can refuse the Test.”
William placed a hand over his companion’s, staying her response.
“Let us take our meal, Balenn. Afterwards we have news, and not just for you. There are things happening in the Crosslands that threaten the Homelands; all the Lands, in fact. You should know what it is you refuse before you make choices for yourself and your family.”
The tension slackened, and the three visitors reached for their plates. They were interrupted by a strangled noise from their hosts.
“Have you been away so long, William of Parsh, that you forget the Guest’s Price?” asked Balenn, a smile hovering behind her lips.
William laughed. “You know I have, Balenn of Meiram. What is it – for my companion’s sake, of course.”
“One verse for a man of the town, or one work for those whose sevening was not the song,” said Balenn, “And one more for forgetting. And be glad your mother isn’t here, for she’d have had your tongue!”
“One verse, is it? I believe I have that many in my pocket, and your one more besides. As mine is the song, I’ll have my friends make their own prices first.”
Verick drew a knife from a hidden pocket and before anyone at the table could react he began his work. He quick-stepped his way around the table, tending to platters one after another. His hands kept a steady rhythm, now chopping and arranging with two oft-sharpened knives, now reaching into a belt pouch to sprinkle pinches of powder over each dish. In short order each eight-bread held a daintily constructed figure at its centre. He saved his best for the Unseven girl, for whom he formed a tiny vegetable sculpture of a Mish-Mash as they were described in the old songs.
“Take some, James,” encouraged William of Parsh. “Be sure to fill an eighth. You as well, Mary, Balenn, and…” He trailed off as he got to the little one.
“Emma,” the small voice supplied.
“Emma Unseven, then. I believe that great big orange nose is the tastiest part on your particular plate.” William shot a grin at his fellow traveler.
The four broke an eighth of their crust and covered them with the thin fellow’s constructions.
“Oh! I hardly know my own table!” said Balenn.
“This is better even than the harvest feast,” said Mary.
“He’s a handy man to know when you’re short of supplies,” stated William. The reminder of what was to come shook their good mood for a moment, but then the woman, Eliza, stood and flashed a look at her companions. William of Parsh, his eyes glowing above a broad smile, began to stamp and drum. Verick joined in, his knife rapping on the table, whistles and yips punctuating the rhythm. The lady stepped away and began to move. Her feet cocked up and slammed back down, shuffled, shook the boards until the floor thrummed in resonance. The two men ceased their accompaniment.
Her hands became viperous, carving strange shapes in the air and snapping quick strikes on her body, punctuating the bass vibration of the floor, recreating the men’s rhythm before turning it into something wholly new and delightful. Emma Unseven stood up and stumbled about for a moment in imitation. Eliza put one arm around the girl’s waist and picked her up, swinging her about, eliciting a squeal. With her other hand she kept up a steady rhythm.
They twirled around the table. Emma slapped a few strikes against her own small breast as they went. Balenn laughed, then, and Mary shouted for her small sister, who wore a peerless grin. Eliza turned more and more quickly as they made their way around, and soon Emma shrieked with delighted fear. Eliza hugged the girl tightly against her, leapt into the air, and slammed her feet against the floor with a bang.
Woman and child collapsed onto their chairs laughing and smiling at one another.
William’s voice broke in before the laughter had died away. He began on a high, sweet note nearly unimaginable to anyone who might have heard his earlier travel-song and arched into a slow, steady folk’s march.
Four to battle came,
Too rah, too rye, too ray
Four of common name,
Too rah, too rye, too ray
Four sang clear,
Too rah ray
Four fell here
Too rye ay
The smile left his face then and he dropped deep into his rumbly bass.
Wildness filled the sky
Too rah, too rye, too ray
Wildness in his eyes
Too rah too rye too ray
Wild his sin
Too rah ray
Wild in him
Too rye aye
The song’s grim message was not lost on the hosts. The guests, having paid their prices, took their meals in silence.