A Tale of the Glass Singers of Albermarle
A fantasy novel by Lynette Hill
Grandpa snagged a pair of spyglasses from a closet, then led a delighted Half note up the outside stairs to the balcony that bordered the three-story glassworks’ slate roof. Half note loved every moment she spent up here. The glassworks, built into and on top of several limestone caverns on the peak of Viridian Mountain, rose above every other building in the city of Albermarle – higher even than the Council Hall. Only the mountain’s summit, a rocky promontory called Piasa’s Perch after the dragon mother, loomed overhead on the left. A footpath zigzagged up the side of the granite rock. At night astronomers climbed it to take their readings with telescopes made by Verre House. During the day, Albermarles’s signal corps stood on the perch and used mirrors to send and receive messages from towns all across the plains below. Of course Verre House made their mirrors as well.
From the balcony, Half note thought, it seemed as if she could see across nearly all the way to the sea itself; certainly all the way south across the farms and pastures and woods of the neighboring kingdom of Aethelstan. The trip by river to the great seaport of Tulum could take three months or more on her parents’ raft. East lay the low hills and vineyards of Malmesbury. North and west the view ran smack into the tooth-like Gauri Sankar; the range of impassable mountains so tall that most never lost their white caps, not even during the hottest summers. Half note took a deep breath, enjoying the tang of pine trees and the scent of cooking. She was mildly surprised to find it not quite mid-afternoon. Octavia’s test had begun promptly at one, just after the mid-day meal.
Grandma often brought Half note and other apprentices up here for lessons in listening.
“Sit quietly,” Grandma would tell them, “and listen.”
“Listen to what?” Half note asked that first afternoon.
“Everything,” Grandma said. She smiled. “Just relax. Take a deep breath and let it out. How does it sound? Feel the sun and the breeze on your face. Can you hear them? Breathe again and listen to each sound around you. How many different noises can you catch? What do they tell you?”
Now Half note automatically closed her eyes and opened her ears to take in the sounds. Of the great waterfall at the city’s western edge she could hear little more than a faint hisss. Closer by, iron shod hooves clop-clop-clopped up the cobblestone road; the rattling and creaking of a wooden conveyance followed just after. Carriage or cart, Grandma would have asked. Carriage, Half note decided. Wheels on carts usually gave off a deeper squeal against the granite road stones because of the greater weight of their loads. The horse snorted and huffed in response to the calls and whistles of the driver as they made their way up the steep lane just outside the glassworks’ walls. Somewhere nearby children played, their high-pitched voices echoing off stone walls. Families of thrushes nesting in the cliff face gossiped and chirruped incessantly. Locust thrummed and vibrated, rising to a great crescendo. The sound faded for a moment, then expanded. A shadow crossed Half note’s upturned face and the shrill chorus fell silent. Half note opened her eyes in time to see an enormous river eagle glide across the sky above. The brown raptor hung a moment above Albermarle’s red and green slate rooftops, then folded its wings and dropped like a stone toward Lake Kerguelen. Near to the shoreline the eagle caught a rising air current and, stretching out its wings, floated effortlessly upwards again.
The wind, a relief after the heat of the making room, teased Half note’s tight auburn braids and even dared to fluff Grandpa’s grey braids and neatly trimmed grey beard.
Half note’s brown eyes automatically turned past the jumble of rooftops and walled gardens to the banks of the deep-running Khelana River. The river, (spawned, Papa said, from the mouth of the great ice dragon who lived in the far north) tumbled rough and cold down through rocky highlands before racing past sprawling Albermarle and flinging itself over the precipice into
Lake Kerguelen three thousand feet below. From there, perhaps stunned by its great fall, the river meandered demurely through the southern plains of Aethelstan all the way to the seaport of Tulum.
Half note closed her eyes and took in a big gulp of air, hoping to catch the distinctive scent of the river that had once been her home. Of course Mama and Papa came by every few days as their trade allowed, but Half note loved best the days when she got to rejoin them on the raft. She did enjoy her life in the glassworks with Grandma and Grandpa and Octavia, Half note thought, but she did also miss the scents and rhythms of life on the Khelana. She wondered if Octavia missed the Khelana. Mama always said that Octavia’s talents as a glass singer had been obvious from her first cry. Octavia’s apprenticeship began two years before Half note’s birth and Half note could not bring to mind any image of her sister on the river. Half note had never actually considered joining Octavia at Verre House until … well, until the day that she actually did. Now, of course, cousin Mischa and the baby, Cadie, traveled with Mama and Papa as they traded goods up and down the river.
Grandpa’s cough brought Half note back to the present. She smiled up at him. He smiled back and handed her a spy glass – her favorite. If you spun the etched copper casing quickly enough it looked as if a hunter chased a wolf that stalked a deer that startled a pheasant that flew after the hunter ….
“Half note, I know you’ll be careful with that,” Grandpa said. He peered through his own spyglass across the fields and hills of the south. Half note flushed and focused on the upper river. The wooden rafts of Khelani traders and the circular leather-skinned boats of the mountain miners called Gorani dotted the deceptively serene surface like so many water flies. Brightly colored banners declared the clan loyalty of each trader raft. Half note picked out three banners for Clan Breydon but the rafts were too far away to identify the occupants.
“What do you see?” Grandpa asked. “Anything unusual?”
“No, Gra … I mean, Master Verre. Everything looks fine.”
“Yes, it does,” Grandpa murmured. He frowned and leaned against the parapet to consider the wide southern horizon. “There’s no smoke in the forest, no disturbance in any town, no building storm. The river traffic moves about as calmly as it ever does.”
“Is it always bad, when glass screams?” Half note asked.
Footsteps clattered up the stairs. Octavia, still in her sweat-stained making dress, hurried toward them. Her once tight black braids, now free of their leather fire ward, hung limp and undone about her shoulders.
“Master Verre,” Octavia demanded, “Why did the glasses scream? Was it me? Was it something I did in the test?”
“Was it because I disobeyed you and used the counterclockwise swirl?”
“Of course not,” Grandpa said in a calming tone. He put a reassuring hand on Octavia’s shoulder but she pulled away from him. Half note looked for a discrete way to squirm free, but she was trapped between them and the balcony.
“Are you sure?” Octavia’s hands, rock still during the test, now trembled visibly. A muscle in her sweat-covered cheek twitched, then twitched again.
Grandpa nodded. “Quite sure. The cry of the glass is always a warning of imminent disaster. Your test was a great triumph and certainly no catastrophe,” he added with a smile.
Octavia refused to smile back. “But why during my test?”
Grandpa shrugged. “Because that happened to be the moment when the spirit of the glass became aware of the danger.”
“You should not take it personally, Octavia,” Grandpa said. “I am certain it is simply coincidence. This is the fourth time I have heard the warning cry. The first two times the glasses warned of forest fire. The glasses screamed in the middle of the night that first time. They cried out, as near as we could tell later, at the moment when a lightning bolt struck a tree and so gave birth to the blaze; the second time the glasses cried their warning as the flames neared the city boundaries. The third time,” he hesitated and glanced at Half note, “The third time you heard it yourself. The glasses heralded the great floods of two years ago. As you know, they cried out early in the morning, as the rains began upriver. The flooding did not actually occur until late that night. Whatever the trouble, I am quite certain that, even with your considerable talent, you are not its spark.”
Octavia glared at Grandpa suspiciously.
“You don’t have to laugh at me,” she said. “You told me to make something simple and I made something complex instead. But how will anyone know what I can do if I don’t show them?” she cried out suddenly. “Even Half note can make a flower and she’s only just begun. I’m good, Grandfather, I’m really, really good. I just want people to see that. Why do you hold me back?”
Something unreadable flashed across Grandpa’s face. “Octavia,” he said gravely, “you have amazing talent and I am incredibly proud of you. It is true that I wanted you to do something simple for the test. I feared you would seek to fly too high and fail by daring too much. There is so much more I want to teach you. To lose you now to simple pride …” Grandpa took a deep breath and shook his head. “It is clear that I have underestimated your abilities. Obviously we must find you some greater challenge.” He shook his head ruefully and smiled again. Half note knew that smile. She always liked it when Grandpa sent it in her direction.
“You have certainly set a precedent for yourself, Octavia. Everyone will be watching you now. They’ll expect great things.”
“They should,” Octavia said tartly. “I won’t let you down.”
“I know you won’t,” Grandpa said. Octavia’s eyes narrowed. “Perhaps,” he added gently, “One day you’ll even learn to trust me. Now, enough of this. Clean up and rest so you can enjoy your celebration tonight. You’ve earned it.”
Octavia peered intently into Grandpa’s face for a moment as if searching for something. Then she whirled and clattered down the stairs as junior master Geoffrey pounded up them. Half note stepped quickly away from the balcony edge before Geoffrey could trap her there as well.
Geoffrey with his dark, heavy eyebrows and bushy hair always looked angry to Half note, even when he smiled. He carried the wide, muscular shouldersHalf note normally expected to see on a blacksmith. Lorraine, Verre House’s other junior master and Geoffrey’s diminutive wife, hurried up behind him. Lorraine smiled sympathetically after Octavia as they passed.
“See anything?” Geoffrey panted to Grandpa.
Grandpa shook his head. “You sent a messenger to the Council Hall?”
“And to the river wardens and foresters,” Lorraine added.
“Good,” Grandpa said. “Check all of our supplies, especially the foodstuffs and medicines. And the cistern and well, of course. Make sure the fire buckets are full. Top off everything. And post two apprentices up here to watch for anything unusual.”
“Hallooo up there,” a cheerful voice called from the street, the way one Khelani rafter might greet another on the river.
“Papa!” Half note cried joyfully and rushed over to greet him. She leaned over the banister and waved energetically. There in the middle of the cobblestone road by the ivy-covered wall stood Papa and gangly cousin Mischa. Both automatically stood with their long legs widespread, knees flexed, balancing as if they still stood on a bobbing river raft. Mischa held baby Cadie comfortably in the crook of one muscular arm. They waved cheerfully back, Papa’s white teeth flashing in a wide grin of greeting. Fast-growing Mischa stood nearly as tall as Papa now and Papa was, well, not quite as tall as Grandpa. Mischa and Papa both wore their black hair in the shoulder-length queues traditional to the Khelani. Instead of the river traders’ usual knee-length breeches and bare feet, however, today they wore townsman’s trousers, woolen shirts and leather boots. Half note winced in sympathy for Mischa. He hated shoes, even in town.
“Is the test over already?” Papa called.
“Yes, Papa,” Half note called down excitedly. “And Octavia was wonderful. Her pieces were perfect, the judge said so, even though the glass screamed and …”
“The glass screamed?” Papa said, his brown eyes suddenly intent. “What ….”
“Come inside,” Grandpa called down. He leaned over the parapet beside Half note. “Ring the bell for Alma and come in. We don’t want to bore the whole neighborhood with our gossip.” The lines around his coal-black eyes tightened as he looked down at Papa and Mischa. Half note wondered why her stomach always seemed to hurt when Papa and Grandpa got together. Half note glanced nervously at Papa, but he stood already at the gate, ringing the visitor’s bell. The bell’s clear, high-pitched ping cut easily through the other noises of the neighborhood. Alma, Verre House’s portly cook, bustled out of the kitchen door and across the front garden to open the gate. Her slippers scuffed noisily across the tiny rocks of the gravel path.
Half note turned to go but Grandpa called her back.
“Half note,” he said, his voice solemn. “Octavia isn’t the only one who has set a precedent for herself today.”
“What do you mean, G… Master Verre?” Half note asked, her voice small. Her shoulders hunched up and her head dropped. She knew what he meant.
“You know you should not have seen the test.”
“Yes, Master Verre.”
“You have created trouble for yourself, I’m afraid, by seeing it. The masters who test you will use a different method, now, when your turn comes. Your test will be much harder.”
Half note’s eyebrows quirked up in surprise at the thought of her own test. Of course she knew that at some point she would take it, but that moment seemed entirely too far away in the future to consider.
“Yes, Master Verre,” she said dutifully. She couldn’t think of anything else to say. But how could it be more difficult, she wondered, than Octavia’s test? Could the masters make the glasses scream again?
They stood together for a moment in awkward silence, then Grandpa’s eyes warmed a bit and he patted her on the shoulder.
“Come on,” he said. “We’re needed inside.”
They found junior master Lorraine still waiting at the top of the stairs. Blonde Lorraine, barely taller than Half note herself, smiled a greeting but then her expression turned serious.
“Master Verre,” Lorraine said. She tucked a stray blonde hair back behind one ear. “I don’t understand. I just wanted to ask …. The glasses screamed. It’s a warning, yes, but of what? What’s going to happen?”
Grandpa shook his head, his eyes grim. “I don’t know.”