Harmony tiptoed along the master’s corridor, the light of the setting sun flashing occasionally through the stained glass windows and sending pools of many colored light across the alabaster floor. Nervously she pulled her hands back into her mostly dry robe and ducked her head feeling the unease build in her stomach. True, Professor Sondaman had always seemed like a friendly sort, if you got past the constant chatter about tea, but what right had she, a farm girl from the back end of beyond to go disturbing a qualified professor at Altto academy. He already gave his time offering lectures on magical theory, even if about two thirds of each lecture was spent extolling the virtues of tea. Presta of course wouldn’t have a problem, she’d march up to Sondaman or any other professor in the academy and demand what she wanted, she’d even given that creepy professor Mezafort an ear full when he accused her of taking a valuable scroll of spell diagrams out of the library without permission. Harmony remembered another of her Da’s sayings, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
On the other hand Presta was right, in her own decidedly Presta way. It really was just the fire spell that was giving Harmony trouble. She really didn’t have much trouble with anything else she’d been given, indeed most of her test marks in other forms of audio had been extremely high, higher even than Presta’s if she was honest with herself.
The tall carved oak door loomed ahead of her, arching like the mouth of a cave. The ornate scrollwork and small carven vines and flowers which ringed the door seemed to move oddly in the dim light, Harmony wondered if Professor Sondaman could somehow already know who was on the outside, perhaps using some unimagined magical power, if he already knew she was standing there, watching with frosty disapproval.
“No Sondaman I tell you again, we do not have any!”
Harmony froze. She knew that voice, the academy’s herbologist, a stern older woman with hair drawn back into a severe bun, and a brusque no nonsense manner.
“what do you mean we don’t have any! Barsia I was counting on you, don’t let me down now, think of the tea!”
That reedy creaking voice was undoubtedly Professor Sondaman.
“I mean we don’t have any. Really Sondaman its hard enough keeping up with your demands. Sprig of this pinch of that! I can’t supply everything!”
“but you must have some. The Lemon balm is absolutely essential, the soft soothing blend accentuating the bight of the ginger, the slight peppery tinge of the sage tempering the earthy tones of the mushroom, even the unorthodox tang of those eastern plants, ---- I am assured it produces a blend of tea fit to die for! A true taste of heaven encapsulated into one tiny tea bag an unearthly tea experience the like of which--”
“Enough! Sondaman! We don’t have any lemon balm and that is final!”
There was the sound of agitated footsteps and Harmony could imagine the sturdy herbologist pacing the room, hands thrust into her belt, face like a thundercloud.
“If you ask me, this recipe was just an excuse for that merchant to get you to buy so much of his stock, those mushrooms look very suspicious. Really Sondaman why can’t you just drink something simple, like Earl grey.”
There was a pause.
“Earl grey! That bland stuff.”
“Well there was a famous captain who routinely drank hot earl grey on all his voyages.”
“and that’s why he voyaged so far.”
The senior wizard’s tone was as close to being a snap as Harmony had ever heard.
“to find something to make the Earl grey taste better. Really you’d need quite the blend, maybe some white rose to add sweetness, a little extra mint leaves for a sharp tang, ---- maybe a hint of peach. You always need a good contrast with tea, that is why the making and blending of tea is such a science. And that is why I simply must have that lemon-balm.”
There was a long drawn out sigh.
“I heard there was some growing around those ruins in the eastern forest. They’re studying some newly uncovered hieroglyphs out there. I’m not promising anything, but I can ask them to pick any plants they come across.”
“thank you dear lady. You know how invaluable you are to me, bringer of tea leaves, purveyor of the ingredients I need for the floral ambrosia that brews within my teapot. I do so appreciate your help Barsia, I promise to offer you some of this new recipe when I get the lemon balm to brew it with.”
There was another long suffering silence.
“Very well Sondaman, but really, you should spend less time on tea, and more time on your work as a wizard.”
“but tea is my work as a wizard!”
Sondaman’s voice was outraged.
“what better symbol for the pure fusion of audio elements than the perfect confluence of the blend I brew up every morning, and evening, --- and night, and afternoon, and midnight, and sunset, and sunrise, and moonrise, and at every full moon, and half-moon and quarter moon, and new moon, ---- and old moon as well. Plus of course occasionally between times when I just really need a cup. Actually I wouldn’t mind some right now. Would you care for a cup too Barsia?”
“No I would not! Really Sondaman your obsessed.”
The professor’s voice took on an injured tone.
“I am not obsessed. I just like a cup of tea now and again. What is wrong with that?”
There was a pained sigh from the Herbologist.
“I’ll try and remind them about the plants Professor. Now if you’ll excuse me?”
“Of course, of course dear lady. Good teevening to you. See what I did there? Ha!”
Harmony had only the warning of another volcanic sigh from the Herbologist before the doors swept open. Not looking to right or left Barsia exited just as Harmony had imagined, thumbs thrust firmly through her broad leather belt, earth spattered boots making a racket on the polished alabaster as she stumped off up the corridor, the grey bun of her hair jutting aggressively as the carved door slammed behind her.
Harmony flattened herself against the wall and listened to the retreating footsteps. From inside the study she heard a series of clunks and clatters, with occasional muttered comments such as .
“nice woman, but just does not appreciate her tea.”
What was she to do now. The professor would certainly not be in a good mood if he hadn’t got the plants he was looking for. Should she wait until he’d drunk his tea? But then maybe he would go to bed, and the last thing she wanted was to disturb him in the middle of the night. On the other hand, if she burst in on him in the middle of a cup of his cherished tea he wasn’t’ likely to thank her. If only Herbologist Barsia had had the lemon balm plants he was looking for, then professor Sondaman would certainly be in a good mood, likely good enough to not mind being interrupted with a request for some extra teaching. She paused, a sudden idea, a scary, duchess type idea striking her. She couldn’t. But what if she did?
She’d been to the eastern forest before, a small patch of woods about five miles away from the academy grounds peppered here and there with moss covered ancient ruins. Not a really huge forest where you’d find anything truly nasty like that cursed forest up north. Some apprentices went there on their days off, fishing in the small stream that ran through the woods, clambering around the ruins or climbing treas. And she knew lemon balm plants well. Straight delicate stems with small glossy leaves, and a sweet, citrusy scent. In his own way Sondaman was right, lemon balm tea with a little honey really was rather nice. Her mother had sometimes folded sprigs of lemon balm into the clothes chest with the clean laundry if they were out of lavender.
What was more, lemon balm grew like a weed, often they had to cut it back in the herb garden to give the other herbs room, and she’d found it growing wild everywhere. If she could get to the woods she could definitely find some. When was their next free day. She mentally reviewed the calendar and then sighed, not for a long while, and if she wasn’t at lectures or meals she’d be missed. Presta would probably kick up a fuss, and she’d get into terrible trouble. So what was the alternative. Go at night? Go now?
She thought of those warm summer evenings she’d spent in the woods, sometimes camping out under a bush, pretending that she was a forest ranger in a distant land or a fairy princess in her woodland realm, dancing in the clearing by moon and starlight, making sure to sneak back in by climbing the tree near her window well before sunrise and the morning’s milking.
True, this wouldn’t’ be the friendly, familiar little copse near her home, a copse barely an acre wide that she could always get out of by just walking five minutes in one direction. But there was that direction trick that Professor Sondaman had mentioned in his last lecture, hold up a piece of iron on a string and push a little lightning threw it and it’d always end up pointing north. That way she could keep her Barings even if the sky was hidden. She’d need to take a cloak of course and a sack to put the plants in, and an oil lantern and likely a spare flask of oil. She started down the corridor away from Sondaman’s study and was almost halfway down, just opposite the tapestry showing principle adagio battling the northern trolls when she suddenly realized she’d decided to go.
A little voice, a scared harvest mousy squeak of a voice started to draw in a breath as if to object, to assure her that she’d catch up, that she should stay quiet, not cause trouble, that she’d been lucky enough to be at Altto academy in the first place, she’d learn eventually wouldn’t she? Harmony choked the voice off, imagining just how smug Presta would look if she went meekly back to their room and admitted that she hadn’t dared to even see professor Sondaman. Undoubtedly she’d have something particularly cutting to say, and Harmony of course would have no response as usual.
Harmony raised her chin and ran fingers through her loose brown hair, idly noting that the only way to describe it was untidy. Her Da was right, here was a job she could do herself.
“Well here we are. You’re sure you won’t come inside. The misses makes a good cup of tea.”
Harmony winced a little at the mention of tea and shook her head, though the small log cottage on the edge of the woods, windows gleaming with firelight certainly looked inviting, especially in contrast to the mass of dark tangled trees which seemed to stretch out endlessly into the night.
“No thank you. This is really an urgent matter and I need ..”
She trailed off, trying to think of something portentously wizardy to say.
“I mean, I am obliged to conduct the business of Altto academy with uttermost urgency.”
Bariton looked down at her, eyebrows raised. Harmony felt as if she could almost read his mind. Tiny Young girl, huge dark forest. Were she a few years older he’d likely be wondering if she was sneaking out to meet a boy, though as it was she hoped the “mysterious apprentice wizard business” might work.
“I’ve never heard of prentices your age going off into the forest at this time of night.” Are you sure you know what you’re doing.”
Harmony looked up at the burley woodcutter, hoping she looked as guileless and out of her depth as she felt.
“”I’ll be honest. Professor Sondaman absolutely had, to have some plants, and had to have them now. And since I’m not exactly in his good graces at the moment.”
The woodsman gave a comprehending nod.
“that tea obsessed old stick! Sending young girls out after his damn tea leaves, he’s sunk to a new low.”
He glanced down at her again, smiling worriedly above his neatly trimmed black beard.
“I’ll be giving him a piece of my mind and no mistake, wizard or not.”
Harmony felt her heart sink. The last thing she wanted was to have an irate woodcutter battering down the Professor’s door.
“It’s alright, I chose to come now. I used to wander around the woods at night back home all the time and it won’t take me long to find what I need.”
“Well if you’re sure.”
Bariton jerked a broad thumb towards the cottage.
“If you get into trouble, you can always call. Can you do that trick with the string and the iron?”
Harmony nodded, not overly surprised that the man who supplied Altto academy with firewood knew a little something about wizardry.
“Well this cottage is at the northeast most part of the forest. The stream runs along the south western side, So you can always get back here by coming a little right of north. When you’re done, come and knock on the door, Nina and I will always be up late as its charcoal making season. Come inside and we’ll give you something hot to eat and you can sleep by the fire. I’ll run you back to the academy with the logs around dawn.”
“thank you Goodman Bariton”
Harmony felt genuinely grateful, and in truth running into Bariton had been a stroke of luck she hadn’t expected.
She new the woodsman by sight, and had often seen him hauling wagon loads of logs into the store near the kitchens. It had been pure chance when he asked her where she was off to, empty sack slung over one shoulder, oil lantern in hand. ON a hunch she’d admitted she was off to the woods, and Bariton explained that as this was the season for making charcoal, he and his wife were living in a small cabin on the edge of the woods, moving back into town during the winter. She’d been glad to accept the lift, hard though the front seats of the wagon were, it was certainly better than spending half the night slogging up and down the road.
She’d shyly asked if there was any magic he needed doing in return, and he’d presented her with a squashed Billy can which one of the horses had trodden on. For a second Harmony had felt a horrible sinking feeling in her stomach. Wizards commonly repaired household items, able to do with audio in second a job which might take a blacksmith an hour or so. On the other hand, heating iron required the fire spell and the last thing she wanted to do was set the man’s wagon ablaze by mistake. Then she’d had a sudden flash of inspiration. Taking the squashed can she placed it on the ground beside the road and gestured, summoning lightning into it in a steady stream. As the metal sparked it began to grow hotter and hotter, becoming the cheerful cherry red of metal on a black smith’s forge. AT that point it was easy enough to use earth to move two chunks of hard stone from beside the road to bash the softened metal back into shape, before quenching the hole thing with a hissing, steaming torrent of water.
Feeling a flush of pride she’d picked up the cooling can and handed it back to Bariton, who examined it critically, turning it over in his calloused hands before thanking her gravely and clicking with his tongue to the horses to move off again.
Harmony raised the lamp, casting a small circle of light on the leaves in front of her. Behind she saw Bariton wave a thick arm before moving off towards the cottage, his bulky figure in its leather jerkin outlined briefly against a warm rectangle of red light as the door opened. Resolutely, Harmony turned her back on the light, tossing her head to settle the long tale she’d tied her hair in against her shoulders. Around her the trees rose in murky ramparts, mounding dark and silent against the sky. Harmony glanced down at the track in front of her, looking at the leaf litter, small twigs and plants outlined in the steady yellow glow. The oil lamp was a little heavy, but she knew it should hold enough oil to burn for a few hours, and she had a spare flask along with flint and steel in her sack just in case. Her foot stumbled on an outlying tree route and the circle of light dipped and swayed. Harmony cursed silently, clutching the thin metal handle of the lamp with both hands, looking fearfully out into the dark heart of the wood. If the lamp smashed she’d be in deep trouble. There would be nothing to burn at that point. If only she could do the fire spell she might make a torch from a fallen branch, but there was no hope of that. She’d heard that some of the more senior wizards were experimenting with lights that stored lightning in strands of wire held in little glass containers shaped like the bulbs of plants. But even if these light roots did work she didn’t have one. She cast a quick glance upwards at the small patch of sky over the track, but other than an odd star or two there was nothing to be seen or to navigate by. She shivered slightly though the summer night was warm. She really might get lost.
There was a sudden flutter of wings and a warbling cry from up ahead. Harmony jumped, and the circle of light wavered wildly as her heart raced. Really, she was a mouse indeed if the sound of an owl was enough to frighten her. That voice, that little harvest mousy voice rose up again, reminding her of Bariton’s warm cottage not too far behind, a friendly seat beside the fire and a door between her and all this tree tangled night. Harmony didn’t choke the voice off this time but simply continued walking, hugging her cloak comfortingly around her with one hand, shining her lamp over last year’s dry leaves and small yellow flowers, seeing little rocks half buried in woodland litter and small pale mushrooms growing against snarled tree routes.
She didn’t listen to the voice as it reminded her of all the stories she’d ever heard of bad things in woods, bandits who seized young girls to do unspeakable things to them, wolves to tear out soft throats, lumbering bears. And still worse, goblins, or demons or trolls.
Harmony’s foot caught on something, a stone turning under her heal on the sandy pathway, and suddenly from behind she heard a rustle and snap, the sound of twigs breaking and leaves shifting under foot. She whirled, hand ready. She didn’t know the fire spell, but any bandits or demons were about to get the shock of their lives. She was halfway through the casting gesture for the lightning spell when she dropped her hand. What in the name of Sondview was she doing! This wasn’t some evil forest full of unknown danger, this was just a larger version of the copse near her farm. That crackling was likely no more than a fox out hunting for his dinner, and as for wolves and bears, well Harmony knew well that animals, even those with a fierce reputation rarely bothered travelers unless travelers bothered them first. Harmony forced herself to breathe slowly in and out for a few heartbeats and turned a deliberate circle. She tried to remember some of the focusing exercises she’d read about, feet on earth, head in the sky, water in the hands, fire in the heart, hear the audio and be still.
Gradually she relaxed, her breath returning to normal. Once again the wood was just a wood, a dark wood it was true, but a place where Harmony was essentially at home, far more at home than she’d sometimes felt in the grand academy with its rich tapestries and carven doors. She began walking once again, calmly, planting each foot firmly before her. She was on a sandy track that meandered its way in and out of a stand of oaks. That was likely why it was so dark. This was an oak forest, not the widely spaced beaches and elms she was used too, still she had her oil lamp and the path was mostly straight, or at least, casually zig zagging in one direction. She turned back the way the track pointed, leaning forward slightly. Was that a clearing up ahead. She hefted the lantern a little higher, feeling its heat close to her cheek, and caught a hint of lamplight on grey mossy stone, along with what looked like a knee high waving carpet of green.
Like a river rushing out between steep banks into a lake, The path opened into a shallow clearing rimmed with tall spreading oaks. Harmony glanced up and smiled in relief, there were some familiar stars and just a peep of the half moon through some high reaching branches, glancing grim pale highlights from the small heaps of stone that dotted the clearing here and there. More to the point, between the humps of weathered rock were little pockets of green growing shoots. Slowly Harmony picked her way across the clearing, bending occasionally to sniff or part plants with her hand.
She swore when one of the patches of plants proved to be stinging nettles, but fortunately the lamp’s light glanced off the broad soft leaves of a dock plant growing just beside the nettles near a stony overhang. It was as she bent to pluck one of the wide dock leaves that she smelled it, overlaying the cent of cold stone and summer growth, the familiar, citrusy tang she was looking for.
Hardly daring to breathe Harmony placed the lamp atop a flattish hump of stone and bent sniffing like a hunting hound questing for a scent. There, a few steps further on towards the far end of the clearing from the path, a patch of graceful stemmed plants with small frizzy leaves emitting that cool sharp aroma.
Ignoring the possible threat of more nettles Harmony grasped the plants and pulled, hardly daring to believe she’d found her goal so quickly. Yes. This was definitely lemon-balm.
She felt a sudden exultation, an urge to sing and shout, or pirouette around like Presta at her most gracefully jubilant. She’d found it. Against all odds she’d found it.
Bending, she unslung her sack and began grasping handfuls of the straggling stems, pulling the plants from the ground the way she’d pulled up beans back home and stuffing them into the sack. There wasn’t’ too much here of course, but likely more than enough to make a good amount of tea, especially if Professor Sondaman was blending the lemon balm leaves with something else.
Harmony continued bending and picking, loving the little catching sounds as each stem came free, ignoring the few thistles that gave her hands nasty surprises as she filled her sack, what did a few scratches matter. She’d done it, now let Presta call her a harvest mouse.
It was as she straightened from the plants and looked towards the far side of the clearing that the long, sandy scar caught her attention. To one side, between great ancient trees like pillars the land seemed to fall away, down into a maw of blackness from which came the steady trickle of water. Undoubtedly that was the stream Bariton had mentioned, the gentle little brook which Apprentice wizards so often fished in on their days off. Running down to the opening of that clearing was a wide soil filled cut, gouging a deep furrow into the bed of the wood, as though a giant spoon had taken a scoop out of the land. Tying the rope strap of her sack across her shoulder Harmony picked her way cautiously across the clearing towards the small gully. What had the Herbologist said about newly uncovered hieroglyphics? Presumably, a mud slide or some other upheaval had unearthed more of the ruins, exposing some ancient symbols to view. She had the plants, but as she was here, wouldn’t it be fascinating to see some new hieroglyphs? Something which neither Presta nor any of the other apprentices had seen. She’d have to be careful of course, sliding down the gully into the stream would be at the least unpleasant, if not fatal, but it wouldn’t hurt to just peer down and take a look would it, so long as she didn’t get too close to the edge.
Cautiously, the small figure in its trailing cloak and robes approached the edge of the slide, feeling carefully for loose soil with the toes of her boots, stopping a couple of feet shy of the edge. Crouching, she placed her lamp on some stones and looked down, irritably brushing back the long tale of brown hair along with the dangling plant sack. From what she could see, the slide seemed to drop three or four feet downwards onto a dry sandy floor. At this end the gradient of the slope looked shallow, only as it approached that yawning dark maw at the end did the gradient grow steep. But it was the inner side of the gap that interested harmony. What was that, amid the shapes of tree routes and impacted soil, was that a hint of something, the suggestion of light winking on stones that were not wan and weathered, but polished and hard, perhaps even a gleam or two of a brighter color, though she couldn’t be sure.
Supposed there was a mosaic down there, something beautiful, strange and ancient,. Something she could be the first to see in centuries, wouldn’t that just put Presta in her place.
But to see whatever it was she’d need to get down into the cutting, and that would need some thinking about. Harmony grasped the handle of her lamp and angled it, casting the light more firmly down into the gully, ignoring the way the metal of the handle bit a thistle scratch on her palm. She could certainly jump down to the bottom of the slide, but getting out would be difficult, especially when slipping could be so potentially disastrous. Were she a little taller of course she could just place hands on the surface and push herself upwards, but Harmony had no illusions about her height or the strength in her arms. Standing on the bottom of the gully, its lip would be at the level of her chin, and with a rim made of crumbling soil and possibly ancient stone.
She shuddered as she beheld an uncomfortable vision of herself, feet paddling the air like a landed fish half in and half out of the gully, steadily feeling soil slide away beneath her, scratched fingers losing their grip. That would not be a good position to be in.
Just as when she’d fixed Bariton’s kettle an idea struck her. Placing the lamp beside her Harmony got to her feet, brushing soil from her robes distractedly as she gazed around the clearing, gauging the size of some of the piled rocks. Soon enough she found what she needed, a hefty chunk of grey weathered stone, a foot or so thick and flattish on top and bottom.
It took all of her strength to pick it up, as well as more abrasions for her still abused palms, but Harmony was on a mission now and a few cuts and scrapes didn’t matter, she’d had worse than that hoeing weeds.
Panting, she staggered over to the lip of the gully, thick wedge of stone held out before her like an unusually heavy book, nearly tripping on the skirts of her robes. Bending she loosed her grip and let the chunk of stone drop into the gully, hearing the dull, soil padded thud as it struck the bottom. For a second Harmony feared it was going to slide right down to the bottom and out of the end, but no. As she straightened, holding up the lamp she saw that the stone had fallen just where she wanted it to fall, not too close to the base of the walls, but on the sandy floor of the gully within easy reach from the bottom.
Shaking her head to settle her hair, Harmony sat on the lip of the gully, placing the lantern close bye.
She felt soil and loose twigs sliding beneath her, skittering into the hole like stones before an avalanche,. Before she had a chance to think she pushed off like a child on a slide, her feet and legs disappearing into the hole ahead of her.
A second later, the souls of her boots struck the sandy bottom of the slide with a jolt that went right up her legs and into her hips. Instinctively, she clutched at the wall, fingers groping for balance, feeling lose soil catch beneath her finger nails, her hands slipping. Then she steadied herself, leaning her weight against the wall. Letting her breathing settle.
It was dark down here, dark with the lamp casting its light above her. True her head was still over the rim of the cut, but as she glanced around it seemed almost as if she’d been swallowed hole, like a person drowning neck deep in quicksand. She began to question herself again, was examining these hieroglyphics really such a good idea after all. Nervously she glanced over her shoulder, looking at how the slope fell away, a partly illuminated sandy drop, shallow at her end but getting progressively steeper as it fell down into darkness and the mocking chuckle and murmur of water,. She was down here now either way, so she might well see what there was to find.
Leaning carefully on the wall of the cut Harmony started probing around with her foot. She knew that rock had fallen around here somewhere, but she didn’t dare bend down to find it. From down here the floor’s slope seemed much more noticeable, and Harmony could feel the black drop, pulling on her with windy fingers. Her boot kicked something hard. There it was.
With the slow pressure of heal and toe she punted the rock to one side, pushing it firmly up against one of the gully walls and snugging it tightly in place with the pressure of her boot. Tentatively, she leaned her foot on the top of the rock and tentatively began to shift her weight. The top sloped a little, but to her relief the base seemed firmly planted in the sandy soil.
Moving carefully, she lifted her back foot and trusted her full wait to her rock step. There, now that was better, she was standing, foot on the rock, the lip of the gully at the level of her sternum. From here the clearing felt much more as it had been, and the little flutter of trapped panic inside her started to abate.
Now for the lamp.
As she had whilst picking apples in the orchard, harmony balanced her weight carefully, bending one knee and reaching out, taking the metal handle with one hand.
She was lucky it was an enclosed lantern, the kind with a glass filter that screwed on and would prevent the oil from spilling unless it actually shattered, though undoubtedly it was heavy to carry. Slowly, she picked up the lamp, feeling her arm twinge a little as it took the weight.
The stone shifted slightly beneath her, and instinctively Harmony stepped off, landing her weight back on her back foot, lamp held high and sack swinging.
she lowered the light, breathing heavily. feet on earth, head in the sky, water in the hands, fire in the heart, hear the audio and be still.
She was down here, but she was safe, she could always step out if she needed to, and what’s more, she reminded herself, she’d already found those plants for Sondaman, everything would be fine, she was exploring now, off out in the unknown like a real wizard.
The steady yellow light fell onto the wall of the gully, picking out lose soil, roots of plant and something else. Sure enough, as she’d seen from above there was something hard and solid down there, something that looked like stone, perhaps marble or even highly polished granite. Wrapping a fold of her already soil covered cloak around her hand, Harmony began to rub at the wall. Yes, there it was, behind a blanket of loose sandy soil, something decidedly hard, lined and waved with grooves , something that had to be brick or stone.
Harmony continued to rub excitedly, peering close. When the lamp grew too heavy for one hand, she swapped and began rubbing with the other hand. Though soon enough she had to rest, feeling her palms tingle with exertion beneath the scratches and gritty dry soil covering her skin.
Yes, it was definitely something artificial, a flat wall of stone, slightly greenish in places but undoubtedly still sound, embossed with flowing lines and grooves.
Harmony redoubled her efforts, feeling the joints of her wrists start to throb. She placed the lamp on the ground, wadded a thick fold of her cloak between both hands and rubbed vigorously (trying not to think of the time it’d take in the laundry to soak all this soil out of her cloak), scrubbing as she’d once scrubbed the pale pine top of her mother’s kitchen table. As she had then she counted as she rubbed, one rub rub rub, two rub rub rub, three rub rub rub. She carried on as her hands started to protest and little needles began creeping up her arms to press painfully into the crooks of her elbows. She would carry on until fifty she thought, then she’d have a look and if she hadn’t found anything that would be that. But she’d scarcely reached twenty eight when her resolve weakened. Thirty she temporized, holding on for another four rubs, then another four, then a final four before dropping her tingling hands, feeling the night air stinging against her soil crusted scrapes even as little teeth seemed to be gnashing at her fingers.
she breathed for a second, the counting fading before she bent to retrieve the lamp, trying to ignore the protest in her arm muscles. As she raised the light however, all pain was forgotten.
There on the wall in front of her at around chest Hight was the flat surface of stones she’d felt, and running across them was something unquestionably familiar. A circle, bisected with a single horizontal line picked out in some kind of dark red glaze or stain. More lines disappeared into the blanket of soil around the stones, but Harmony was transfixed by the symbol she’d uncovered. She knew this sign, had seen it a thousand times in books at the academy, in diagrams, even in the coat of arms hung over the academy doors with three other equally familiar symbols.
It was unquestionably the sign for earth. Earth, she remembered Presta telling her she was close to the soil, remembered the easy feel of rock and stone, the threads of audio dancing and interweaving as she moved her hand like a conductor. Earth had always been her specialty, of course she was bound to uncover a sign for earth.
But what did it mean. Was this some ancient academy, some store of lost knowledge and unknown audio, some vault buried and lost to the ages hiding so close to Altto academy that even the wise wizards didn’t realize it was there. Harmony imagined treasure caves like the ones in the stories, long underground halls heaped with gold and jewels, with velvet hangings and costly fabrics, tomes of magical lore, crowns and scepters, weapons beautiful and terrible made with ancient power.
And she, she had discovered them, she Harmony, the farm girl, the apprentice who couldn’t even get a fire spell right. Never mind the tea leaves, this would probably make her a master in her own right, professor Harmony, expert on antiquities. Her parents would be so proud of her, and Presta would be green with envy.
Softly she reached out one aching hand, her familiar hand with its bitten nails and slightly flattened finger tips, albeit a little scratched and dusty at the moment. She laid it palm first on the stone. Did she dare. But she’d come this far hadn’t she. She’d gone out into the woods, found the plants, climbed down into the gully, uncovered this sign. Just as before when, Presta had arrogantly shoed her from her room, there was only one thing she could do.
Harmony raised her other hand and made the long sweeping gesture, her mind focused on earth, spreading the waves of audio down her arm, through her palm and into the cool ridged stone. There was an instant answer. A rumble, a deep subterranean growling and groaning, a gritty, grinding sound that seemed to be pressing at harmonies knees like a large insistent animal.
Nervously she dropped her hand from the stone, fighting the urge to step back as the wall before her quaked and rattled, little bits of lose soil and small pebbles bouncing down its edge. She glanced over her shoulder, but other than the shaking nothing had changed, the wet dark maw still waited at the end of the sloping sandy tongue, though now the stomach was rumbling and it sounded hungry.
Snatching up her lamp, Harmony placed one foot on her rock step and boosted herself upwards, pushing furiously with her elbow at the quaking ground as around her the night grew noisy with the note of stone and dislodge soil. She pushed frantically, imagining the walls of the gully closing around her, closing like a mouth, swallowing her down like an oyster, tumbling her, tossing her like a lump of coal down a dark dusty shoot with bouncing rasping suffocating torrents of stones. But with one frantic heave she was out, pulling herself back onto the ground of the clearing, lamp in hand.
The noise continued, small gushes of exploding stones sounding like highlights atop the base rumbling. Harmony backed rapidly towards the track she’d come down, eyes still fixed on the trembling edges of the cutting. What had she done. What sort of terrible disaster had she caused. Why on Sondview did she have to channel earth straight into the symbol. She felt an urge to throw herself down on the shaking earth, to plead that she’d not meant to, to beg whatever it was to just go back to sleep. Tears stung her eyes and she brushed them away with one gritty hand. Should she run? Perhaps go and get help, perhaps Bariton knew about this sort of thing, after all there had been a mudslide or something in the forest before, something which had uncovered that blasted crack in the first place. The thought of that tall solid woodsman was suddenly an irresistible comfort, someone who could stand like a tower amid quaking darkness, someone with strong arms and a deep reassuring voice, someone like her Da she thought suddenly. But this was undoubtedly a magical problem, something ancient and stony and angry woken by her foolish spell, something beyond the talents of any woodsman.
Well if not Bariton, then surely the wizards at the academy would know how to fix this. That was what wizards did wasn’t it, fix problems. She’d be put out of the academy for sure, but at least she’d be alive. But what was happening. Other than a few small stones and bits of rock jouncing down the gully and off into the dark it didn’t seem like a real earthquake. Perhaps it was something that would settle down of itself, perhaps she could even stay at Altto academy. Maybe if she just waited within her pool of yellow light it’d subside, go to sleep, spend its anger in a single roar then be done.
She stood, half on one foot, glancing from the gully to the track, unsure whether to stay or go, a harvest mouse trying to guess from where the cat would spring.
It was then that the ground of the clearing ripped open in a long tearing roar. Harmony was sent staggering backwards, falling hard onto her behind, the lamp still clutched in one scratched hand, oil slopping around its closed interior.
Ignoring what might be insipient bruises Harmony struggled to her feet, looking in ore at something that seemed to be clawing its way up from below.
First came what looked like grey tentacles, thick as cables, gripping and pulling at the sandy soil with a savage brutal grip, grasping and darting and grasping again, lose sand trickling between them. Then a massive bulk rose, its upper parts thrashing ponderously, what looked like grey horns or antlers flaring from its crown as it rose higher and higher, giant limbs flailing like branches in a high wind, flogging the ground around it with massive stunning thumps. Then there was a single loud stony wrench as whatever it was seemed to bend low for an instant, and the shaking, grinding sound stopped, leaving behind a ringing silence punctuated by the bleeding of grit.
It stood, towering high into the murky air, fully three times Harmony’s Hight and broad as a forest tree. It didn’t look human, not even possessing the rudiments of humanity, its base section bulged out in a rounded bulk, a massing flexing pillar thick as a small shed.
Where the light caught it, its surface seemed mostly a dull stormy grey, patched here and there with brown and green, loose soil still cascading from its upper parts like flurries of snow.
Harmony didn’t hesitate, her hands moved in a blur, calling the audio to her. Not earth this time, but a pure strong burst of lightning, a flowing stream of blue purple sparks which arced across the clearing and caught the thing full in the chest.
There was a sad flash and sputter, and the lightning crawled down the creatures bulk to lose itself in the litter of the forest floor. Harmony quailed, this was an earth creature no doubt, and so immune to lightning. But the sudden flash of light had been enough to truly illuminate the titanic figure.
The creature resembled a statue, and a beautiful statue at that. The head which harmony had first thought horned was covered in an intricate set of curls, stone combs the size of dinner plates sticking up like crenulations on a castle wall. What Harmony had taken for a strangely inhuman torso, was simply a sweeping gown, its folds and delicate pleats masterfully worked in stone, the hem of its skirts sweeping stiffly above a pair of stone dancing shoes the size of small boats. The gown swayed, its rigid edges moving backwards and forwards, and Harmony knew that despite being made of stone the giant figure was absolutely complete, a real woman and her clothes worked in living, moving rock with the skill only powerful magic could achieve.
Just one thing was missing, beneath the cascading curls there was no face at all. No features pretty or plane, kind or cruel, old or young, just a blank mask of smooth untouched stone, a featureless oval with neither mouth nor nose nor eyes like the face of a chess piece.
As the figure raised hands that might have been slim and delicate but for each being nearly three feet long, harmony knew that that blank face, that unseen gaze was pointed squarely towards her.
Letting out a small scream she turned and ran, sack bouncing on her shoulder, lamp swinging wildly. Feet skidding in the mold and leaf litter she leapt for the mouth of the forest track, hearing the crashes and thuds of the creature behind her, feeling the earth tremble with each giant step of those stone feet.
Risking a look back she saw the monster crashing through the trees, folds of its stone gown smashing aside branches thicker than Harmony’s arm, its two great hands reaching forward, fingers, slim and pointed and shapely as any noble lady could wish, stretching out towards her like great rocky talons.
Harmony turned and tried to run faster, but her feet scudded and skidded, small branches turning beneath the heels of her boots. She knew that if she fell it was sure to have her, that she’d be torn and bloody pulp between those terrible stone hands in heartbeats.
Holding her lantern higher she leapt forward, looking ahead to where she would plant her boots, hearing the whipping and crashing combined with the oncoming thud, thud thud of stone feet upon the soil behind her, branches cracked and crackling as they broke against unyielding rock.
If only she knew the fire spell. This was undoubtedly an earth creature, and earth always gave way to fire, that was how elements worked. She briefly wondered if she might try, if somehow the extreme of her situation would give her strength to do what she’d never been able to before.
Then she imagined the summer dry trees around her catching alight, the crackling roar of a forest fire surrounding her. More likely to cut off her own escape than anything else.
But what could she do. She could never outrun this monster all the way to the edge of the forest, and even if she did, it would flatten bariton in a second and just keep on coming. Could she run the five miles to Altto academy with this horror on her heals, gouging a swathe of destruction across the country side.
Instinctively she dodged left, and a great stone hand smashed down into an oak tree inches to her right, shattering the thick trunk to matchwood.
Water was no good, neither was lightning, and what use was earth against a stone behemoth like this.
Then once again the idea struck her, seeming to simply be there as she reached for it, as easily as reaching a plate down from the shelf in her mother’s kitchen.
Harmony put on a burst of speed and jumped again, she’d need to be a little ahead of the creature. Half falling sideways against the trunk of an ancient oak she turned, lamp still clutched in one hand, throwing her other arm wide around the trunk to prevent herself falling full length. There in front of her was the giant stone woman, its gown rippling in stiff gritty folds, its huge feet pounding and splintering there way through the grounds, stone hands rushing down at her like battering rams, its faceless face turned down towards her as if relishing the moment.
Harmony didn’t think but simply gestured, a casual sweeping movement of one hand, the threads of audio quick to obey as it ever was. The ground beneath the creature’s feet simply vanished. The earth instantly moved by Harmony’s spell piled up in a massive cone to one side like a child’s spade full of sand. The stone creature flailed its way into the gap, hands scrabbling at the sides of the pit as Harmony had imagined her hands scraping at the sides of the gully, torrents of earth and soil gouged up by the massive fingers pattering and skittering into the trees. Harmony gestured again, willing the earth to move and the cone of dug earth began to deluge down around the monster, heavy clods falling in a constant stream, piling up around the creature’s waste and the bodice of its stone gown like quicksand, leaving its head and flailing arms exposed.
Harmony didn’t stop there, she knew just how much soil those huge stone hands could move, and undoubtedly whilst being suddenly dropped into a pit was inconvenient, a creature which could dig itself out from centuries of accumulated forest soil be so easily trapped.
She let go her grip around the tree and stood, taking a few steps backwards, making sure she was well out of the creature’s reach. Gesturing down at the soil trapping the monster she changed her audio, changed the focus of the spell, this time not trying to move earth, but to shape it. Stone on stone, soil on soil compressing and jamming together, squeezing like a vice, small pebbles met and joined, granules of sand becoming pebbles, pebbles becoming rocks and rocks pressing down like dough in a cake, each part pushing down upon all the others with irresistible force.
Within a few seconds the soil around the hole had changed to a thick sheath of pale brown sandstone, tough as bricks and mortar, hard and jagged and immovable. Harmony leaned forward one hand moving in sweeping motions as though painting, transforming layer on layer of soil to stone. Tree routes cracked as the earth around them suddenly hardened, and a few oaks fell with creaking crashes. Harmony was a little sorry about that, though undoubtedly having this creature smashing its way around the woods would cause far more destruction.
The stone woman strained and heaved. It remained silent, but Harmony was sure if it could speak it would be roaring. It thrashed as though in pain, whipping its huge head back and forth, its elaborately worked stone curls swaying but remining rigidly in place despite the violent motion. If she was to describe that hair style, she’d call it hard waring Harmony thought, and nearly giggled.
The huge stone hands beat and pushed at the earth, gouging out great clumps of soil, crashing and thudding into trees until they broke and fell, then simply lashing in the air, fists clenching and unclenching spasmodically. But no matter how much it struggled, it was caught, trapped like a fly in honey, its body in its long gown sunk in the earth and bound in bonds of rock. That would do until someone at the academy could deal with the thing more permanently.
Harmony dusted her hands off on her robe, and only then realized she was trembling, a fluttery sensation filling her belly as though she’d fallen from a tree, her knees feeling just as week as they had when the ground first started to rumble.
Harmony spun, the voice had come from behind her. Turning she saw two lights bobbing up the track towards her, not expensive oil lamps, but simple torches flickering red and friendly in the night.
“Miss are you alright? We heard the noise and thought you might need a hand.”
suddenly Bariton was there, seeming to fill the hole dark forest with his presence and the not unpleasant smell of his leather jerkin. Behind him, a tall olive skinned woman stood wrapped in a dun colored woolen shawl, torch in hand. The woodsman’s words trailed off. He glanced from Harmony, now all too aware of her heavily soiled cloak, her sandy scratched hands and slightly smudged face, to the incredible sight of the stone behemoth’s upper parts sticking up out of the ground amidst a wide circle of shattered trees, flailing at the air impotently with giant fists.
Harmony held her lamp in front of her, ducking her head slightly, all her old shyness settling around her like a sodden blanket. She’d longed for Bariton’s presence earlier, but now he was here, now someone could see what she had done, see her giant mistake thrashing in its rocky prison, see the huge amount of damage she’d caused.
“I didn’t mean to.”
Her voice was a little higher than usual.
“I’m sorry. I went into the slide, and it came out.”
Bariton’s tone sounded confused.
“I mean, it didn’t just come out.”
“I touched the symbol, and then it came out of the ground. There wasn’t anything I could do. It was going to kill me and I.”
Harmony gestured wordlessly at the creature. Bariton’s eyes widened.
“You mean you dealt with a golem that size, all by yourself?”
Harmony nodded miserably, feeling drained.
“I’m sorry. I know I should’ve used fire but I, ---- I’m not.”
she stopped, unable to continue.
“so you trapped it in earth.”
Bariton’s wife’s voice was a low pleasant alto tinged with a hint of interest.
“clever. And this means we’ll have one to study. I always knew there was more in those ruins, but an active golem.”
She trailed off, looking at the imprisoned creature with something like rapture.
“Sopranina. Really is this the time.”
Bariton strode close to Harmony and placed a large hand gently on her back.
“She looks ready to drop.”
Harmony didn’t know if it was Bariton’s sudden gentleness, or the fact that nobody seemed about to be angry with her, or just the fact that she did indeed feel ready to drop, but it was at this point, to her later absolute consternation that she burst into tears. Bariton reacted exactly as her Da would of done, he simply put his arms around her and held her face against his leather jerkin for a minute or two until her crying had run its course.
Harmony looked around Bariton’s cottage in slight confusion. True, the rush strewn floor, solidly built table, large bed piled high with woolen blankets, plane but serviceable cupboards and glowing banked fire were just as she might have imagined. But one entire wall of the cottage was devoted to nothing but shelves of tightly bound red leather scroll cases, each embossed with the crest of the university. Mezafort would likely have apoplexy if he thought this many rare and valuable library scrolls were outside the grounds, much less in a woodcutter’s cottage. Beneath the shelves of scrolls was what was unmistakably a work table, piled high with parchments and diagrams, ink bottles and quills, not to mention half burned candles, distractedly stuck to the tables top with plugs of wax...
“If I get the tub, a hot bath might be in order. If you wouldn’t mind Nina?”
“yes, of course. I do tend to forget these things Bariton.”
the olive skinned woman gestured, and a fire suddenly sprang to life in the hearth, crackling with the fervor and intensity that Harmony knew only came from magical flames. Bariton left and returned a moment later bearing a huge copper tub, which he placed before the hearth before retreating outside. Nina gestured again and the tub was suddenly brim full of water, which she heated with a simple wave of one hand.
“well get in while its hot, though of course it’d be easy enough to heat again, a very simple application.”
the woman’s voice trailed off distractedly. Harmony had the distinct impression that while her body might be here, her mind was still out in the woods meticulously examining the trapped golem from every angle.
Harmony shed her clothes gratefully before slipping into the tub, feeling the water first sting, then throb, then begin to course slowly over and through her muscles, making the scrapes on her hands smart a little, even as the aches began to ease.
“You’re a wizard.”
Sopranina had walked to the door where she was unwrapping her shawl, revealing a simple brown skirt and linen blouse, something any woodsman’s wife might have worn.
“Oh yes. I’m a wizard. It does make a few things so much easier, baths for instance, I really couldn’t live without baths.”
Harmony sat up, glancing around the cottage.
Sopranina sighed then began to speak quickly, obviously repeating a story she’d told far too many times before.
“I’ve always been more of an outdoors type, that was how I met Bariton, and I’ve never really been as interested in libraries.”
Harmony glanced towards the ranks of scrolls and wondered if that was because the woman just took her own library with her.
“We stay here, look after the forest and study the ruins. Bariton does a bit of wood cutting, as well as keeping an eye on any apprentices who wander down here.”
“You mean, other apprentices.”
Sopranina paced across the room, almost skidding on Harmony’s discarded cloak. she glanced down, her dark eyes slightly irritated.
“You’ll need something to ware I suppose. yes.”
She crossed to a cupboard and started to thumb through what appeared to be different items of clothing, mostly plane serviceable things Harmony noted, and not a pointy hat or hooded robe in sight.
“You were saying, about apprentices in the woods.”
“Yes I was. Well they do tend to o gravitate here, Staying in the woods for a dare. Investigating ruins.”
Sopranina glanced towards the closed door through which Bariton had disappeared with a fond smile, raising one thick dark eyebrow.
“Going for romantic moonlit walks.”
She turned triumphantly her arms full of decidedly ordinary looking garments.
“these should fit you when you’re ready, and Bariton will cook something. but while your relaxing.”
Her dark eyes narrowed with a suddenly hungry look.
“Please tell me about this golem. It looked female from what I saw, that is unusual. How tall was it?”
for the next half hour while the water cooled and her muscles unknotted, Harmony was given a complete and total grilling by Sopranina. The woman was gently, but implacably persistent, wanting to know everything about the golem and the symbol she’d touched, what the golem wore, how it moved, exactly what pressure of earth audio she’d exerted, how fast (in feet and inches), the golem had run. Undoubtedly this woman was a wizard, a wizard just as obsessed in her own way as Sondaman, but a wizard all the same, despite her homely cottage and seeming lack of grandeur. There was something comforting in that, harmony thought. Wizards out in the woods, wizards who took baths and chopped trees and wore simple clothes, but wizards who were still wizards.
perhaps for once her Da had been wrong, maybe there were some times when being a ponce in a pointy hat counted, especially when you dispensed with the pointy hat and just concentrated on the wizarding.
“Oh Harmony I was so worried!”
Harmony staggered slightly under Presta’s sudden, unexpected wait, her vision obscured by a mass of frantically bobbing curls, her ribs nearly breaking beneath the grip of two soft, but surprisingly strong arms.
Harmony’s voice was almost a gasp. Presta apologetically let Harmony go, then began patting at her, as though confirming she was really there.
“You didn’t come to bed all night. I knew because I absolutely couldn’t sleep. Well I slept for a bit, but then I ended up waking up and you still weren’t there.”
Presta wrung her hands tragically.
“And I thought, well I was the one who suggested you speak to Sondaman. But what if you had done something else and got yourself into trouble. Then I’d be in trouble.”
Presta looked at harmony her blue eyes innocent. Harmony sighed, unsure whether to be touched or irritated.
“well, I sort of did get in trouble.”
presta clasped her hands in a dramatic gesture of shock, like a maiden whose swain had just been eaten by a dragon.
“Lento was talking to one of the servants. And the servant said you were fighting a golem, you know a huge stone creature?”
Harmony mimicked Presta unconsciously, toying with the rope fastenings of the sack slung over her shoulder.
Presta plopped her behind onto the end of her bed, obviously preparing for a long recitation.
“well Lento said you fought off this golem and saved the servant and his wife, ---- the servant’s not Lento’s, I mean who’d want to marry Lento.”
“You did at one point.”
Presta stopped, rubbing her eyes as if she’d seen something unbelievable, then glancing around the small bedroom she shared with Harmony she simply continued.
“well he said you had a big battle with this golem and destroyed half the forest, only I said you couldn’t have because you can’t do a fire spell, and if it was a golem it was made of earth, then Lento said he was sure the servant was right, and told me I ought to listen to people for a change rather than just running my mouth, which was really rude!”
Harmony agreed, stretching herself back onto her own bed and yawning hugely. Presta eyed her suspiciously, this time definitely wondering if her little harvest mouse of a friend really was quite as meek as she’d always thought.
“so what did happen.”
Harmony sighed. She’d already spent a painful half hour being closely questioned by principle Rehtory, that on top of the probing Sopranina had already given her. She couldn’t fathom Rehtory. He’d been interested in the golem, but seemingly more interested in how she’d awoken it than in how it was made. He had at least excused her from lectures for the day, and while there was still a job she wanted to take care of that evening, for now she just wanted to sleep.
“Look Presta. Its lovely to see you, but I’m really tired, I’ve been up all night.”
Presta hopped off her bed suddenly looking mortified.
“Oh Harmony! of course your tired.”
Running over she made a solicitous, if rather over enthusiastic job of helping Harmony off with her clothes before pulling the blankets up and tucking them a little too firmly around her, then tiptoeing from the room with many an exaggeratedly whispered “pleasant dreams.”
Harmony rolled over onto her back. Presta wasn’t such a bad sort really; For a duchess.
Harmony strode down the master’s corridor, sack swinging from one hand. She’d woken feeling refreshed and surprisingly energetic. That was good, she had a job to do.
Her footsteps echoed on the marble floor with a knew ring. After all, why did she need to tiptoe around, she was as good a wizard as anyone, as good a wizard as Sopranina perhaps, she just needed a few pointers.
She walked up to the carved oak door, realizing with a rather amused smile that the stone around the door frame and lintel had been worked into the images of plants whose leaves were especially delicious in tea, chamomile, rose, mint, even a small familiar looking sprig of lemon-balm near the handle.
She rapped on the door twice, her knuckles making a dull sound against the wood. from inside a reedy, wavering but not unkindly voice rang out.
“Alright, alright I’m coming. Just give me a second, tea needs to steep before its drunk you know, just show a little patience.”
The door swung open and there was professor sondamann beaming down at her, with what she now saw was the distraction of a man who really really liked
Harmony took a deep breath.
“professor. I was wondering if I could please ask you for some help if you’re not too busy. It’s the fire spell. I just can’t get it.”
Feeling a sudden need to justify herself she held up the sack.
“I bought you some lemon-balm professor.”
“did you now.”
the old man’s eyes focused greedily on the sack.
“well then. You’d better come in. The fire spell you say, I’ve always been particularly fond of that brand of audio, its how I warm my tea, --- and dry the leaves, an invaluable contribution to the field of tea making. And you are?”
Sondaman took a step back into the room and gestured her forward.
“Ah yes, the girl with the golem. Great work there. So that was why you didn’t use a fire spell. Well no matter, no harm done. Come in and we’ll see what we can do, I’ll brew some tea while we work, can I offer you a cup? Nothing makes for learning audio better than a good cup of tea I always say. Then again I would, I am rather partial to a cup of tea you know.”
The heavy door swung closed behind the small girl and the old man, and from inside, came the pleasant whistle of a tea kettle being brought to the boil, and the unmistakable sound of audio being drawn, the worlds magic being harnessed by a new wizard, a wizard who was sure she had a long career of magic ahead of her, though she’d probably go easy on the tea.
With our dreaming and singing, Ceaseless and sorrowless we! The glory about us clinging Of the glorious futures we see,
Our souls with high music ringing; O men! It must ever be
That we dwell in our dreaming and singing, A little apart from ye. (Arthur O'Shaughnessy 1873.)