by Gregory Weir
Brea sat on the back of the wagon, watching the dusty road roll away behind the caravan. As he rode, he blew idly into his recorder. Pure tones drifted behind the wagon train in a swirling path. He paused in his playing when he felt something odd. Brea looked up at the sky and saw the part in the clouds, almost perpendicular to the road. They were about to cross a leyline.
“Look sharp,” called the mistress from the front of the caravan. Her voice was barely audible from where Brea sat. “We’re gonna pass through the flow. It’ll be five, ten minutes before we’re out.” All up the length of the wagon train, swords shone in the sun and bows were strung.
Brea smiled to himself as he slid off of the back of the wagon. If weapons were needed, it meant a crossing had already gone wrong. It was better to keep them sheathed at the start. He strolled with a broad, steady gait along the length of the caravan, passing wagons full of food, magic supplies, and trade goods.
Carr and Tally leaned over the side of their wagon to look at Brea. The orcs were two of the managers of the caravan, and they were as used to these crossings as the young human.
“Time for some of your bard’s luck,” Carr said. He showed a fang in an orcish smile.
Tally clapped Carr on the shoulder. “Aye, the boy will just part the leyline with a lullaby, will he?” Tally asked, then chuckled.
Brea flashed them a crooked grin. “I’ll do my best,” he said. Caravan folklore said it was good luck to have a musician along. Spirits could be soothed with music, or so the stories told, and so people who could play the lute or the fiddle or some other instrument always had a place. Brea earned his keep with hard work, of course, but he was always given loose enough rein to relax once in a while, thanks to his musical talent.
The orc managers returned to their seats in the wagon in unison, and Brea continued onward. He tucked his recorder away into his jacket and hopped up onto the running board of the first wagon so that his head was even with the caravan mistress’s shoulder. “How’s it look?” he asked.
The caravan mistress looked down at him. “Something in the road ahead,” she said. Mistress Mrah was a halfling, and had the sharpest eyes of anyone in the caravan. She stood on the footrest, only four feet tall to Brea’s nearly six feet, but her position granted her more height.
Brea peered down the road. Ahead, he could see the ridges in the road where the leyline had shaped the dirt. A line of trees grew slightly taller in the small wood to one side of the road. Past travellers had planted stakes with charms attached along the edge of the road here to placate the magics of the flow. Animal skulls, silk ribbons, and tiny silver beads dangled in the wind beside the road. And there was indeed something up ahead.
Two somethings. People, by the look of it, although one could never be sure at a crossing. As the caravan drew closer, Brea could see more and more clearly. The two stood still, face-to-face, a mere hands-breadth apart. They were tall and thin, with angular faces and long, pointed ears. The one on the left had tiny multicolored wings on its back.
“Elves,” Brea said, and Mrah nodded.
“Standing in the middle of the damn leyline,” she said, “and right in our way.” The caravan mistress hopped up and grabbed the canvas of her wagon cover, then pulled herself onto its roof. She took a simple blowing horn from her belt and lifted it to her mouth. A flatulent tone echoed over the caravan. “Halt!” Mrah cried out, and the line of wagons shuffled to a stop.
Mrah slid down off of her wagon to the ground. “Not gonna lead the caravan in there until I know what the hell’s going on,” she muttered, and stalked off toward the pair of elves with her rapier swinging at her belt. “Keep up, Brea,” she called over her shoulder, without looking back to see if he was coming. “You’ve played for elves, right?”
Brea shook his head in bemusement and followed. He’d played for elves, yes. But that didn’t mean he understood them. He hadn’t even seen any younger than a century. In his time at the elven commune at Tower Falls, half of the elves never looked him in the eye. The other half would speak to him, but usually of each other: asking if he had noticed what so-and-so was wearing, or how many glasses of wine someone had put down. If it wasn’t for the incident that ended his time there, he would have thought none of the elves knew his name at all.
As Mrah and Brea entered the leyline, Brea felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. He felt the mana flowing past him, echoing with his heartbeat. It was like silent song, rippling over him without ruffling a fiber of his clothing. He closed one hand into a loose fist to avoid drumming a beat on his side. The leyline was calm. For now.
Mrah reached the pair of elves with Brea close behind. The elf with the wings was a woman, her face free of lines. She wore flowing white travelling robes and a small, neat turban over her hair. The other was a man with wrinkles at his eyes. His clothes were gray: a pair of loose linen trousers and a simple shirt. He was a few years from shedding, Brea estimated. The two stared into each other’s eyes, and stood so still that he almost thought they had somehow died standing up. But, no, they were breathing.
“Look here,” Mrah demanded. “Why’re you standing in the middle of the damn road?” The elves didn’t respond. A few seconds later, they blinked. In unison. Afterward, they were motionless again.
“It’s the Game,” Brea said. “Got to be.” He stepped forward and scratched at the back of his neck. “Ah, how does it go…?” He cleared his throat. “Esteemed gentlefolk, a… uh, an outsider wishes to call a break to speak to you.”
The two elves turned their heads to look at him. “Provisionally accepted,” the woman said.
“Accepted,” said the man. “Ten minutes?” he asked without looking at his counterpart.
“Please serve as timekeeper,” she replied, still looking at Brea. He opened his mouth to reply, but closed it again when he noticed the man nod agreement. Apparently, the elf man would be keeping time. In his head.
Mrah looked from one elf to the other, then paced in a tiny circle. “Are they gonna talk to me now, Brea?” she asked with a tense edge to her voice.
Brea glanced at Mrah, then looked at the elves again. “Ah, yeah. I think they were dueling. Are dueling.”
“We are,” the woman said. “My informal name is Tethys.”
“And mine is Sortha,” the man said. They looked down at Mrah. “You had a question?” he asked. The irises of his eyes glittered with tiny compound cells, like those of all elves.
Mrah put the tip of her index finger to her mouth and bit it. Brea seldom saw her quite this annoyed. “Yes, I do,” she replied, once her finger was out of the way. “Would you mind moving out of the way? I’d like to get my caravan through here as quickly as I can.” There was the faintest hint of sing-song sarcasm in her voice.
“I’m afraid that’s out of the question,” Tethys said. “To move before the duel is resolved would be a major faux pas.” Brea snuck a glance at Sortha. The man showed no sign of counting in his head, but Brea had no doubt that he would be able to judge the ten minutes to the second.
Mrah twitched. She reached up with a hand and began to toy with the thin pigtail that fell in front of her ear. “And how long will that be taking?” she asked, with politeness forced through her teeth.
“Who could say?” mused Sortha. “It has been a day so far. Until one of us moves her feet, we will continue to duel.” Her feet. There was a subtle jab in that choice of words.
Mrah tapped her toes several times, then turned on one foot and stepped a few feet away. Brea moved beside her and squatted slightly to bring their heads level. “What is going on?” Mrah whispered.
“They’re dueling,” Brea responded in a similar tone. “It’s part of the Game. When two elves are at an impasse, with regard to social standing, I mean, they have a direct competition. Evidently this one is a standing competition. They’re probably in a leyline on purpose. Makes it more challenging.”
Mrah bit her lip. “How do we get them to move?” she asked. “Shove one of them over, to make them lose?”
Brea shook his head. “Bad idea,” he said. “Even assuming you could do it, the other one would be honor-bound to defend the one you shoved. With force. And most elves have either magical education or master weapons training. They’ve got time to learn, you see.”
Mrah swore. “Well, I’m not taking the caravan off the path, not at a crossing,” she said, and shot a wary glare at the countryside along the leyline. “And it doesn’t seem right to just run ’em down with the lead horses, no matter how badly I’m tempted.”
Brea shrugged one shoulder. “Maybe they’re almost done,” he offered. “The man said they’d been going a day already. That’s a long time to stand still.”
The mistress looked skeptical, but sighed and turned back to the elves. “How about this? We’ll wait for an hour, and if you’re…”
Sortha cut her off. “Ten minutes have elapsed,” he said curtly. The two elves turned their heads to look at each other again in silence.
Mrah stared for several moments with her mouth ajar. Then her hand trembled, dropped to her waist, and closed around the hilt of her rapier. Her head slowly turned to look at Brea. “I’m gonna stab ’em, kid,” she said with a trembling voice. “I really am. They can’t…” She stopped.
Wind was rustling the trees. But only along the leyline.
“The flow’s stirring,” Brea murmured. There was a crescendo of whispers, followed by giggling notes that echoed over the small group. The tune parted at the charms lining the road like a stream passing through a fishing weir, each voice taking its own path before rejoining again into one harmony as it swept past him, the mistress, and the two unstirring elves.
Mrah could hear none of this, of course, but she could see the air rippling along the leyline. “Brea…” she said, her voice barely higher than a whisper. She had a good decade on the young man, and seldom spoke to him in any tone but a stern one. Right then, she had the tone of a student. “You know about leylines. Don’t know how, but you’ve always had a nose for ’em. Do we… do we run?”
Brea’s mouth was a thin line. “Only if you want to be chased,” he said. His eyes were locked on something approaching. For once, he had spotted it first, but Mrah followed his gaze. A swirling cloud of misty air was approaching.
“Is that… a faerie?” Mrah asked with horror.
“No, thank the gods,” Brea said, then paused. “Then again, they might be worse. They’re sylphs.” And the spirits arrived. They paused outside the line of charms, to look at the group of people. There were three sylphs, each one smaller than a human and floating in midair. They were all swirling lines of fog and rippling air, each curve overlapping with the next in the semblance of a person-like form. The surface of their body was impossibly complex; the closer you looked, the more detail you saw, like staring into the center of a sunflower. They each had a face, but only barely. Their mouths were ragged holes into an inner world of whirling air, and their eyes spun in hurricane spirals.
Sylphs were elementals: creatures from the faerie world that embodied the element of air. Brea had encountered an undine once – a creature of water – and had barely lived to tell the tale. Gnomes, earth elementals, he knew they could deal with, and salamanders, beings of fire, he dreaded. But he’d never seen a sylph. He slowly took his recorder from his jacket pocket and held it at his side.
The sylphs explored the charm barrier, chuckling to each other in fugues of wind. They stopped as if stymied and then, in unison, shot up into the air and flew over the row of charms. They swirled down from above and circled the elves, inches away. Brea could hear them whispering to the elves, but couldn’t make out the words. The elves’ hair tumbled around their faces, but the elementals received no more courtesy than he and Mrah had gotten. They made a few more orbits, then swept over to the other pair.
The misty figures surrounded Mrah and Brea, and wind buffeted their clothing. The effect was dizzying; Brea couldn’t see how the elves had stood still in the face of such an onslaught. It was all he could do to cover a few key finger holes in sequence on his instrument. Reedy tones drifted out, and the sylphs suddenly withdrew to observe the pair from a slight distance.
“Hello, singer(hello, counter),” the sylphs breathed in three-part harmony. They spoke the trade tongue with an alien accent. “What do you do(what do they do)?”
Mrah stared in panic, half-crouched, as she slowly lowered the arm that had been shielding her face. Her other hand still gripped her sword. Brea glanced down at the weapon, then stepped in front of Mrah. He addressed the sylphs. “They’re duelling,” he said. “Competing to see who can stand still the longest. We’re waiting for them to finish.” He added subtle tones to his words: one note here, another there. Not enough for Mrah to notice, but enough for the sylphs to be swayed by his song.
The sylphs drew together into one large cloud and conferred. Brea could hear their speech, in a way; airy notes that crossed and leapt and spun. “What are they doing?” Mrah asked. She couldn’t hear the private speech.
“Talking, I think,” Brea responded. Explaining what he heard would be awkward.
After another few seconds of gaseous whispers, the sylphs split apart again. One went to each of the elves, and the other remained with Brea and Mrah. “We will duel as well,” the lone one said, again in the tongue of people. Its voice was now a solo. “Those two will duel with each other to see who is the best at stopping stillness, and this one will duel with you to see who is the best at being.”
Brea and Mrah looked at each other. “The best at being?” Mrah asked Brea. “Being what?”
Brea licked his lips. They had suddenly become dry. “Alive,” he replied.
The sylph dove toward Mrah, and she was shoved back by the force of its winds. It flowed right around her body and skimmed along the ground. Dust and sand and pebbles were swept into its whirlwind. Mrah regained her balance, and looked up at Brea with a wild-eyed snarl. “This is the part where I cut some bastards, right?” she asked, and drew her rapier.
Out of the corner of his eye, Brae could see the elves being attacked. Their bodies swayed in stiff winds, their clothing tore, and tiny scratches began to form from the bits of sand and rock that the other sylphs had also picked up. “Yeah,” Brea said. “Cut away.”
Mrah gave a chuckle of satisfaction and drew her rapier. Its song at being released from its scabbard was swallowed up in another roar as the sylph charged at her again. She dodged to one side and thrust at it, but the blade passed right through the elemental without effect.
“Uhh, Brea,” she asked nervously as the sylph banked around for another pass. “Don’t you need cold iron to hurt faerie creatures? This sword’s steel.”
“Keep trying,” Brea replied. He lifted his recorder to his lips and began to play. His notes spoke of charcoal and silvery hematite, of spongy iron bloom, of furnaces and glowing red metal hammers and anvils and finally the hiss of the dousing bucket as the final product cooled. Here in the leyline, the effect was visible: cold steam drifted off of Mrah’s blade as she thrust again.
This time, the blow struck. The enhanced blade tore a ragged hole in the sylph’s cloudy exterior, and it writhed with pain before ripping itself off of the sword. Its face swept around, looking for the source of the magic that had hurt it, and settled on Brea. He kept playing as it rushed toward him, but spun his body into a forceful kick that shoved the sylph back toward Mrah.
Mrah put her free hand on the pommel of her sword and thrust forward with all of her strength at the creature that flew toward her. The sword sliced straight through its head, and Brea could see the point glittering from inside the elemental’s mouth. Mrah growled and heaved her sword up and back. The top of the sylph’s head tore in two and the entire being dissolved into mist.
Brea returned his attention to the two elves. They each lay in a heap on the ground with blood streaming from their exposed skin. The other two sylphs continued to harry and batter their semiconscious bodies. Brea took a step forward and modulated his playing. A high lance of a note shot through the air and the sylphs froze. They lifted up from the elves and gave Brea a long look, then shot off down the leyline and away.
Sortha, the male elf, lifted himself shakily on one hand and wiped blood from his eyes. “I humbly apologize,” he said to Brea. “I was not aware that you knew the High Song.”
The other elf, Tethys, drew herself to her feet. Her robes were tattered and her turban had unraveled and was lost on the wind. “We are both sorry for our rudeness.”
Sortha rose, wobbled once, and began walking down the road away from them. Tethys turned and headed in the opposite direction, back toward the caravan.
Mrah looked at Brea with a curious expression, then stepped away and cupped her hands in front of her mouth. “Hey!” she shouted at Sortha. “Who won the duel?” There was no response. She turned to shout at Tethys. “Which one of you won, damnit?!”
Brea rode beside Mrah at the front of the caravan as it emerged from the leyline crossing. The rest of the process had gone smoothly: one guard had suddenly begun speaking in tongues, and an entire sack of grain had been replaced with small pebbles without ever being opened. No lasting harm.
Mrah turned to look at Brea with the reins in her hands. He was reclining in his seat and cleaning out the dust and grit from his recorder. “How’d you do that?” she asked. “How’d you make my sword work against that thing, and scare the other two off?”
Brea shrugged. “They say spirits can be soothed with music,” he replied. He reassembled his recorder and blew an experimental arpeggio.
Mrah snorted. “That’s a load of crap,” she said, and turned back to watch the road ahead. After a few minutes of silence, she spoke again. “Play us something, Brea.”
Brea put his instrument to his lips and played. A wash of music flowed over the caravan, calming its passengers and speeding their travel down the dusty road.