Read The Voice Online

Authors: Anne Bishop

Tags: #Fantasy

The Voice (5 page)

BOOK: The Voice
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“Good boy,” I whispered. “You’re a brave, strong boy. Step along. That’s it. Good boy.”

Clip-clop. Clip-clop.
That was the only sound besides the rattle of the cart’s wheels. No other sounds disturbed our village’s silence.

Two days’ journey to Vision in a coach with a team of horses that could maintain a trot for miles at a time. How many days with a half-starved horse who could do no better than a steady walk?

We had gotten out of the village, had left the last house behind us, and I was just starting to breathe easy when we heard
clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop
coming toward us.

I kept walking, kept up my whispered encouragement to the horse. Kobrah darted to the far side of the cart and hunched over to avoid being seen, while Tahnee remained near the back of the cart.

The man rode toward us, leading another horse. He seemed vaguely familiar, but it wasn’t until Tahnee let out a stifled cry of joy that I recognized him as the young man at the bazaar whom Tahnee had haggled with and flirted with.

And fallen in love with?

I doubt he knew who I was—or cared. He dismounted, shoved reins into my open hand, and leaped at Tahnee, snatching her off her feet as he held her tight.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry. You must have thought I failed you, that I wasn’t coming. The world . . . There were delays. I . . .”

Kobrah came around the side of the cart, her eyes on the horses.

“Do you need both horses?” she asked, and there was something in her voice, something in the way she moved that made us all tense.

“I . . .” He looked back at his horses, then looked at Kobrah—and then tried to shift Tahnee behind him without being too obvious about what he was doing . . . or why.

We’ve lost her,
I thought.
If we don’t let her go, she’ll destroy us.

I think Tahnee realized that too, because she looked at her lover and asked, “Could we ride double?”

We didn’t know what we were asking of him, didn’t know what the loss of a horse would mean to him or his family. But he knew, and he still went back to his horses, untied the second one, and walked it over to where Kobrah waited. Handing her the reins, he said, “Take the horse.”

After she mounted, she looked down at him and said, “May the gods and goddesses of fate and fortune shower your life with golden days.”

Then she rode back to the village. I didn’t know what she intended to do, but I knew the rest of us needed to get as far away as we could.

“You two go on ahead,” I said. “Tahnee’s travel bag is too big to carry on horseback. If I bring it to your family’s booth at the bazaar, will it get to her?”

“It will.” He looked in the direction of the village. “But that will leave you—”

“We got this far by working together,” I said, cutting him off. “Now we have to separate.” Thinking about the sign before the bridge leading to Vision, I looked at Tahnee. “Now we have to let our hearts choose our destination.”

Tahnee hugged me. Her lover studied my face, as if memorizing it, then said, “Travel lightly.”

He mounted his horse and pulled Tahnee up behind him, and the two of them cantered down the road, heading for Vision . . . and freedom.

I stood there, feeling so alone. More so because I wasn’t alone. But I couldn’t look at her just then, couldn’t offer any promises or comfort. I would save us—or I would fail.

“Come on, boy,” I said softly. “Come on. We’ve got a ways to go.”

The horse leaned into the harness, straining to take that first step.

One step. Another. And step by plodding step, we got a little closer to a dream.

6.

 

I have since heard that Ephemera takes the measure of a human heart and helps or hinders what that heart desires. I don’t know if that is true or not. I do know the horse shouldn’t have made it up the hills I remembered as being so steep. But he did make it. Sometimes I thought he’d break under the strain if he had to take another step up an incline, but somehow the hill always leveled out before that last step, and the descents were gentler than I recalled. I’m sure someone would tell me my mind had exaggerated some things on that first journey in order to make it a grander adventure.

I don’t think I exaggerated anything. The world changed itself just enough to give us a chance. Just as I believe the world changed itself that first afternoon when I spotted riders in the distance and knew they were men from the village, looking for us. We kept walking, and my prayer became a chant:
Please don’t let them find us.

They should have found us, should have caught us. They never did.

Several days after leaving the village, in the hushed hour before the real dawn, I stopped the exhausted horse in front of the Temple of Sorrow. Standing on tiptoes, I peeked over the side of the cart, not wanting to stand at the back. The Voice looked at me, a question in her eyes.

“We made it,” I said. “I’ll get help.”

She couldn’t get out of the cart. For anything. I realized we had a problem the first time I smelled excrement. But when I went around to the back of the cart, dithering about what to do, the plea in her eyes was more eloquent than words. Every minute I spent caring for her was the minute that might make the difference between getting to Vision or getting caught. So I made my heart as hard and cold as I could make it, and I kept us moving until I saw the bridge and felt numbed by the knowledge that we had reached the city.

I hurried up the broad steps of the temple and rang the bell. Rang and rang and rang.

“There is someone on duty,” a voice grumbled as the door opened. “You don’t have to wake up the whole tem—”

The moment he saw me, the Shaman stopped his complaint.

“Please,” I said, feeling the tears well up now that I didn’t have to be hard and cold. “Please help us. She’s in the cart. She can’t . . . I can’t . . . Please.”

He touched my arm, giving the warmth of comfort. Then he went down the stairs. The sky had lightened enough that I could see his face go blank with shock when he looked inside the cart.

He ran back up the stairs and disappeared inside the temple, leaving me standing there while something savage raked its claws inside me until I thought I would bleed to death without anyone seeing a drop spilled.

Now that I wasn’t hard and cold, I couldn’t think, couldn’t move, didn’t know what to do.

The Shaman returned, rushing past me with six others in his wake, two of them women. One woman, the last out the door, stopped and touched my face gently.

“Do you know where to go?” she asked. “Which door leads to the room for sorrow?”

I nodded.

“Then go in. Find your place.”

I felt sluggish, dull. I looked toward the cart. “Horse.”

“We’ll take care of him. Go in now.”

Even at that early hour, there were five other people in the room. I chose a place that spared me from sitting next to anyone else. I smelled of horse and sweat and exhaustion. The cushions were soft, and the minute I sat down, my legs and feet began to throb. The last time I had rested had been unintentional. I had leaned against the horse, too tired to stand on my own, and woke up sometime later to discover that the horse, too, had fallen asleep, his head resting on my shoulder.

Voices rose and fell. Gongs sounded and faded. I drifted.

Then the doors opened and the Shamans walked in leading The Voice. I thought they would take her to a room where she could be cleaned or at least change her out of the filth-encrusted clothes. They had done none of those things, just led her to a spot and helped her lower herself to the mound of cushions.

The voices of the other people in the room sputtered into shocked silence. All through the journey, I had seen without seeing. The Voice wasn’t wearing her hood. The scars on her neck were clearly visible.

The Shaman picked up the mallet, struck the gong in front of The Voice, then slipped the mallet into her hand. The gong’s deep sound filled the room. The Voice rocked back and forth, clearly in pain.

Then another gong sounded, and a male voice, low but clear, sounded a note. Another gong and another voice rose to fill the room. Another. Another. Another.

A sixth gong and a sixth voice, raw and keening.

Mine.

She had no voice, so we gave her ours, singing the sorrows until finally, in one of those moments when the sound was hushed and spent, the Shaman said, “That is enough for now.”

Those five people stood up, looked at The Voice . . . and bowed. Then they left the room, and the Shamans came forward to help her stand.

After they led her away, one Shaman remained.

“You must be tired and hungry. If you want, I will show you to one of our guest rooms right now. But if you can wait a little while longer, I would like you to come with me.”

I followed him to a room that, at first glance, contained little more than a small table and two chairs and yet felt so restful to heart and mind, there was no need for anything else.

On the table was a pot and two cups. We sat, and the Shaman poured the tea. I stared out the window, watching bright-colored birds flit around a tiny courtyard where miniature trees were growing in stone pots.

“Now,” the Shaman said after a silence during which we had done nothing but watch the birds and drink tea. “Can you tell me how this happened?”

I told him about our village. I told him about the saying we learned in school. I told him about that awful day when I was ten and first began to understand the truth about The Voice. I told him everything, even the things I had done that shamed me. All through the telling, he kept his hands loosely wrapped around the teacup and his eyes on his hands.

I finished my story at the moment when I rang the bell that morning, looking for help.

Those beautiful eyes remained lowered for a moment longer. Then he looked at me.

He wasn’t human. Not like me. He was the fury of storms and the laughter of a cool stream on a hot summer’s day. He was flood and drought and slow, soft rains that woke up the crops and gave us an abundant harvest.

He was the voice of the world—and the world would do his bidding.

In that moment, I understood why the Shamans walked the streets of the city and why they were respected—and, sometimes, feared. In that moment, I feared for the people in the village I had left behind, especially my family.

“A strong will and loving heart,” he said quietly. He pushed back his chair and stood. “Come. It is time for you to rest.”

The luxury of a tub full of hot, scented water, where I soaked and washed until I felt clean. The pleasure of a clean bed in a simply furnished room that made no demands on body or heart or mind. And if, in the moments before sleep, I found myself yearning for someone who wasn’t quite a Shaman, there was no harm in that.

For the rest of that day, I floated among gentle dreams.

For two more days, I remained in the Temple of Sorrow. Sometimes I sat in the sorrows room to purge myself. Other times I, and the others who happened to be in the room, would raise our voices on behalf of The Voice. Her pain was huge, and because I felt some responsibility for causing it, her pain was killing me.

I suppose that was why the Shaman was waiting for me when I came out of the sorrows room that last evening.

“You did a good thing bringing her here,” he said. “Now you must take the next step in the journey.”

“I don’t understand.”

“She needs to stay. You need to go. Tomorrow.”

I hadn’t thought beyond reaching here, hadn’t considered what it would mean if I couldn’t stay at the temple.

The Shaman smiled. “There is a community in the northern part of the city. It is a full day’s journey from here, nestled in the foothills. Beautiful land. Good people. Artistic in many different ways. I have family up there. You will be welcomed.”

“I could find work there?”

“I think that someone with your heart could find a great many things.”

For a moment, I thought a blush stained his cheeks, but the sun was setting, so it must have been a trick of the light.

Which is how I ended up driving the cart, which had been scrubbed and freshly painted, to the northern part of Vision and the community of people who were not Shamans but understood more about the world than I had ever imagined.

7.

 

For the first six months, news about the village trickled in to me. After that, I never heard about the village or its people again.

The night we ran away, the Elders’ Hall was set on fire, and while the caretaker managed to get out unharmed, the building itself burned to the ground. The other building that burned that night was Chayne’s house.

As for Chayne, he screamed himself awake for a week. Then he stood in front of the ruins of the Elders’ Hall and confessed his offenses against all living things. He disappeared shortly after that, but Dariden claimed to have seen him behind the orphan’s house, looking bloated and hobbling around as if crippled while the caretakers watched him. Dariden also claimed Chayne must have been in a horrific accident that no one wanted to talk about, because in that moment before the caretakers noticed him and hurried to block his view, Dariden saw terrible scars on Chayne’s neck.

Tahnee and her lover reached Vision. While his parents were not pleased to have a son make a hasty marriage to a girl who feared being found by her own family, they stood witness at the marriage and helped the young couple set up housekeeping.

I haven’t seen Tahnee since the night we ran away. Despite having mutual friends, our paths never cross. Maybe we aren’t meant to meet. At least, not yet.

I don’t know what became of Kobrah. I don’t know if she reached Vision or even tried. The horse, however, was returned to the merchant’s booth in the bazaar by a grateful young man who had needed a ride in order to reach the city. By all accounts, the horse had been handed over to several riders during those months, each person needing a mount for a little while—and each one promising to assist in getting the horse back to its owner in Vision.

I sent one letter to my parents, assuring them that I was safe and well but not telling them enough that they would be able to find me. I cannot change the customs of our village because our village does not want to change. Until the magic dies that allows one person to become the well of sorrow for so many, the village will look away while the Elders maim someone in order to make that person’s flesh a vessel.

I cannot change the village. But I saved the people I could.

BOOK: The Voice
13.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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