On her way to the wall, Dismé made up an enchantment:
"Old wall, old wall,
defender of the Spared
lift me up into your tower,
and let me see the morning."
In the solitude of the alley no one could hear her, so she sang the words, a whisper that barely broke the hush. All the schoolchildren in Bastion were taught the elements of sorcery, and Dismé often imagined what might happen if she suddenly got The Art and said some marvelous enchantment by accident!
She began to embellish the tune, only to be stopped by a sound like a tough fingernail flicking against a wineglass. Only a ping, but pings did not stay only! Dismé turned her face away and hurried, pretending she had not heard it. No use. Before her eyes, the dark air spun into a steely vortex of whirling light with a vacancy at the center which was the ping itself. It made her head hurt to look at it, and she averted her eyes as a voice from nowhere asked, "What are you thinking?"
If she lied, it would ask again, more loudly, and then more loudly yet until she answered truthfully or someone came to fetch her. Since being out alone in the dark was forbidden, being fetched by anyone was a bad idea. She had to tell the truth. If she could decide what it was!
"I was thinking about my father..." she ventured. She thought she had been thinking of him, though the ping had driven all thoughts away for the moment.
"What about him?"
"About...about his book." It was true! She had thought of it, not long ago.
"What book is that?" asked the ping.
"One written by his ancestor."
"What does it say?"
"I don't know. I haven't read it."
A long pause while the air swirled and the ping regarded her. "Did our father say anything about it?"
Dismé dug into her memory. "He said his ancestress wrote about the time before the Happening and the voice from the sky smelled like something I forget. But the prayers smelled purple, going up."
The ping said, "Thank you," in an ungrateful voice, pulled its continuing resonance into the hole after it, and vanished.
Nobody could explain pings, and Dismé didn't like them poking at her. Now all her pleasure was sullied! She tramped on, pouting, until she reached the wall where she could fulfill her own magic: arms reaching precisely, fingers gripping just so into this crack, around that protruding knob, feet finding the right niches between the stones. Up she went, clambering a stair of fractured blocks into her own high place, her only inheritance from True Mother.
The ping forgotten, she crouched quiet. The dawn was pecking away at its egg in the east and night's skirts were withdrawing westward, dark hems snagging at the roots of trees to leave draggled shreds of shadow striping the morning meadows. The air was a clear pool of expectation into which, inevitably, one bird dropped a single, seed-crystal note. Growing like frost, this note begot two, ten, a thousand, to become a dawn chorus of ice-gemmed sound, a crystalline tree thrusting upward to touch a lone high-hawk, hovering upon the forehead of the morning.
Birds were everywhere: forest birds on the hills, field birds in the furrows, water birds among the reeds around Lake Forget - a thirsty throat that sucked the little rivers down from the heights and spewed them into a thousand wandering ditches among the fields. White skeletons of drowned trees surveyed the marshes; hunched hills approached the banks to toe the lapping wavelets. Adrift in music, Dismé watched herons unfolding from bony branches, covens of crows convening amid the stubble, bright flocks volleying from dry woods to the water's edge. In that moment, her private world was unaccountably joyous, infinitely comforting.
This morning, however, the world's wake-song was marred by a discordant and unfamiliar shriek, a protest from below her, metal against wood against stone. Dismé leaned forward, peering down the outside of the wall into a well of shadow where a barely discernable darkness gaped. A door? Yes, people emerging. No! People didn't have horns like that! They had to be demons: ten, a dozen of them, shoulders blanket-cloaked against the early chill (demons were used to hotter realms), head cloths wrapped into tall turbans halfway up their lyre-curved horns.
Copyright 2002 Sherri S Tepper. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher HarperCollins.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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