04 March 2007

Novel excerpt

In the afternoon, Faen sits on the deck watching the light change as intricately shaded, solid-looking clouds roll past the sun. Every so often he picks up his flute and strings half a dozen notes together.

The deck of Harmon’s Inn affords a view down most of the Reach, blocked here and there by houses, and amid the workers coming home, he sees a lot of activity down the Reach and to the north. From the gathering crowd down the mountain, a low, flat note claps out over Gunnan: a funeral gong. The massing people stretch out in a line and make their way through the streets, gong-bearer and striker in front, then two litters, each borne by six men. As the procession draws nearer, Faengun can see that Tud’s and Fay’s fathers are among the bearers, as is Fay’s brother. Behind the litters walk the mothers, aunts, uncles, cousins and close friends, all leaning on each other, followed by a line of Gunna walking four and five abreast with bowed heads. As they move up the mountain on the main road, buildings block Faen’s view, but the sounds reach him. Between claps of the gong, he hears both wailing and softer, steady sobbing mingling with the muffled crowd noise.

Two men come out of the Inn, having come after work for a beer, and listening to the sound of the gong and the crowd, they step down into the street and head toward the main road. Faen listens a moment more, then sheaths his flute, slips it over his shoulder, and follows.
Reaching the main road, he joins the tail of the procession as it turns south on the road running parallel to the city wall. As they move along, a head or two peers down from the wall, and a few curses rise to meet them from some of the Reachfolk. Looking up from his burden, Fay’s father stumbles and halts, pausing the procession.

“Murderers!” he shouts at the Cityfolk on the wall, his voice breaking on the last syllable, and again, even more raggedly, “Murderers.”

A rock flies from the crowd, causing the heads on the wall to pull back. Farther along the wall, a man holding a rifle makes himself very visible. A murmur moves through the crowd, and they all stand quite still. Faen sees someone bending for another rock, then the gong sounds and they’re all moving again, and no one throws any more rocks or shouts any more curses, but a new note of anger emerges from the chorus of grief.

They march along the wall to the river Fee, the same river that plunges down the mountain feeding the hydroelectric plant that provides power to the Inner City and a few spots in the Reach, such as Harmon’s Inn. They cross the long stone bridge there, then turn west along the river. In the distance, the gong is answered by a deep bass horn blast and, as they draw nearer, the slow, uneven rhythm of several drums. They reach a low, rocky hill overlooking the river, and climb up, the gong, horns, and drums now joining in a jarring, otherworldly rhythm, seemingly arhythmic, yet consistently repeating and bringing the mourners under its influence.

The gong-bearer and striker continue up the hill and take a place in the center of a line of six drummers, flanked by two long, curving horns. The litter bearers move to either side of the gong and continue to the top of the hill, where a crosshatching of dry wood and kindling is piled almost to a man’s height. They lay their shrouded burdens side by side atop the bier, then file to the irregular rhythm of the funeral song back down the mountain, taking a place in the front row of mourners fanned out along the hillside. Behind the family and close friends stand half a dozen young men who were already there when the procession arrived: the pyre-builders, Linthun Nowel among them.

The musicians continue as people find their places, and from around the hill a group of monks arrive from the monastery outside of town and seat themselves on the ground to one side, so they are facing both the crowd and the pyre. As the musicians lay aside their instruments and join the mourners, the monks begin a chant that is generally believed to guide the dead into a peaceful state from which they can begin their next life, though Master Ennil once told Faengun that the chant’s main purpose is “to convince the living to release the dead.”

Guidance Durra takes a place near the top of the hill, facing the crowd of Gunna. She wears an unadorned, ankle-length gown of soft yellow with a deep red and an orange stole draped down the front, standing out from both the monks and the Reachmen. Guidance is the name given to those who have trained with the monks and undertaken a study of human history and ethics, returning to the community to aid the laypeople, offer advice, and officiate over difficult or momentous occasions such as the one at hand. Faengun attends her Guidance Hall adresses every few months, when the mood strikes him. Unlike some Guidances in Gunnan, she never levels veiled threats or open condemnations at his mother’s vocation, or his own origins.

She begins with a reflection on the Chopals’ lives. “I never thought,” she says in the midst of it, “when I saw these two wed, that I would see them move on so soon. They pass untimely from our lives, and as always when we lose those we love so young, it stirs our passions.
“Remember in this troubled time your love for Fay and Tud. Don’t deny the pain of their passing, nor seek to stamp it out through destructive acts. Conquerors inherit only rubble, and avengers snuff out nothing but their own hearts. I offer to Tud and Fay Chopal a remembrance of their lives, rather than their deaths.”

Guidance Durra returns to the crowd, and Fay’s father takes her place. Looking around, Faengun sees that the crowd has swollen with mine workers and other Gunna. He guesses there must be at least a thousand people on the hillside, those in back getting reports from the front of the crowd.

Fay’s father stands with his head down, composing himself. His first words are lost, too quiet to make out, then he clears his throat. “I want to thank Guidance Durra for her... for her kind words,” he says, and pauses. “My daughter... my... my daughter...”
Faengun feels a tightening in his chest as the bereaved father’s eyes fill with tears and the man unravels in front of them all.

“My daughter...was taken,” he howls. “She was murdered by those...greedy...those demons. Stepping on our necks, with their guns.”

Murmurs shake the crowd, some angry, some sad, some pleading. Fay’s mother steps forward, sobbing, and leads her husband back into the crowd. Tud’s father, an older man but still quite strong, steps forward.

“Please,” he calls out, “please,” and the crowd quiets. “This time is...so hard, for all of us. I don’t want more killing, more violence in my son’s name. Some kind of justice, yes...”
A few more people speak, tugging the crowd this way and that. Linthun Nowel gets up with Fay’s brother, speaking for him. “It might be your sister strung from the next lamppost.”

Finally all who would speak have spoken, and the pyre-builders move among the family distributing torches. The musicians resume their playing, and the torches are lowered to the fuel, which ignites easily. Everyone stands watching the fire climb amid the jangling funeral music. The late afternoon sky has clouded over, leaving a backdrop of white and blue-gray for the dance of flames. The deceased are just visible atop the heap, white shrouds curling in the heat. Faengun tries to keep an eye on the bodies, but their human profile is visible for only an instant before all is obscured in a pillar of flame.

Drummers will play in shifts for as long as the fire burns, well into the evening, joined at times by other musicians, and the pyre-builders will stay on hand to see the fire through to a safe end, and clean up. The mourners now break off into groups, many sitting now in circles on the hillside, their voices rising over the beat of drums. Horns and gong are cleared away, and casks of wine brought from around the hill. Some of the mourners return home for the evening, others going to prepare a feast and return in a couple of hours.

The monks remain seated, chanting, and apart from them, at the edge of the crowd, Faengun sees Master Ennil, rarely found so close to town, chanting also, with Drayr at his side. Fifty yards along the hillside, he sees Mother Finn holding court among a half dozen Gunna, while up the hill a bit Linthun and his fellows have found the wine, and talk among themselves with cups in hand. Even Sern is here, frowning and nodding in sympathy as two vendors from the market express their woes with emphatic gestures and intense expressions. Feeling at once caught up in the event and closed out of the circles forming on every side, Faen turns back to the fire, listening to the way conversation takes its rhythm from the drums, watching the flames lick at the dimming sky. He moves up the hillside, taking a place just downhill and to one side of the drummers.

The funeral song has transformed a bit with the end of the ceremonial portion of the affair, taking on a more even, if still irregular rhythm. Faen draws his flute from it’s hempen sheath and holds it a moment, feeling the heat of the fire on his back and facing out at the crowd, watching the slow turn from grief and anger to desparate gaiety. The families are still on hand, bravely accepting condolences in a loose receiving line. They form a somber eye amidst the increasing activity on the hillside. Faengun had not attended many funerals, but he felt certain this was the largest turnout for any in his lifetime, if not in Gunnan’s history. The only thing absent is a single soul from behind the city wall: no sign of Tud’s mining supervisor or any of the businessmen who would normally make an appearance. While their presence might have been met with suspicion or outright hostility, their absence would surely be taken as a sign that they sided with the judgement that the Chopals were criminals.

Taking in the conflicts and contradictory moods swirling through the crowd like uneasy weather, Faengun lifts the flute to his lips and begins softly to play. He starts slow and low, building on top of the drummers’ rhythms with a standard accompaniment to funeral song, weaving a melody amidst the sights and sounds around him. Using the traditional tune as a base for improvisation, he explores the various moods of the assembly, taking a soothing, melancholy tone for the families, spiking into anger here and there, and a kind of blind rush for those moving from circle to circle with cup in hand, already swaying a bit. Delving back into the notes of the funeral song, he seeks the heart of it, finding not only the sorrow of parting, but also a greeting to death, and acknowledgement of death, and a turning away, back into life. As light seeps out of the day, he sees the affair as a foray into the territory of death, a movement through dusk into a wild, dark territory of night.

As in his sessions with Master Ennil, Faen doesn’t dwell on the thoughts, but translates them to music and releases them into the air, all the while tending toward a unity with his surroundings.
Coming out of a wild flight into the dark, Faen comes back to himself a bit and glances over to the six drummers, to find several of them watching him with broad grins. The nearest gives him a nod, and two of the others dive into their drumming while Faen turns to a more basic melody, and then rests the flute in his lap. A small group of bystanders nearest the musicians clap their hands, and someone whistles, though the majority of the crowd is intent on their own activities. Faen has the impression that things have evened out a bit, the crowd become more unified, and he wonders, as he often has before, how much his song has to do with it.

He had the impression that night had fallen while he played, but now the sun, close to the horizon, breaks from the clouds, bringing new light. Surveying the crowd, Faen sees that the families have gone. The monks have risen and are on their way out, and there’s no sign of Master Ennil. Faen sheaths his flute, looking back at the fire. It still burns strong, though it has banked from its initial blaze. Shouldering his flute-sheath, Faen turns to find Sern with a cup in each hand.

“Another fine tune, lad: magical. I believe I owe you a drink,” says Sern, extending a paper cup brimming purple-red with wine. The man is quite coherent and steady on his feet, but beginning to show the flush of drink. Plenty of Gunna are far ahead of him in that regard, stumbling and dancing around the drummers. People are returning from the Reach now with tables, benches and food.

Faen takes the cup and sips, pursing a bit at the sting of alcohol; he rarely indulges, and can count on one hand how many times he’s been drunk. Still, it’s fairly sweet, and he realizes he hasn’t had anything to eat or drink since leaving the inn.

He and Sern take a seat at table amidst some of the vendors Sern has met today. They greet him warmly, all but ignoring Faen; Sern obviously kept busy today. The food is plentiful and hearty, and tastes great on his empty stomach, though he’s used to better fare at the inn. When the meal is done, it’s full dark. Some of the revellers are just getting started, other musicians sitting in with the drummers, playing strings and horns or their own drums, but Faen decides to take his leave with the wave now heading back to Gunnan.

He walks with about a dozen men and women back to the bridge and along Wall Street. City guards patrol both the wall and the streets, and the more drunk among Faen’s cohort shout obscenities at them, remarking on where the City folk keep their rifles, where they should stick them, and so forth. One man drops his pants and waves his genitals at a pair of guards, one of whom steps forward aggressively but stops when his partner grips his shoulder.

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