The Lorelei Signal
The Last Song
Written by Laura J Underwood / Artwork by Marge Simon
Maggie Stonethrower reached to shutter the last window of the Stone’s Throw Inn when Tinkerson the Bard charged into her domain. Oh, Bother! she thought. She was just about to shut the place down for the night and toss out the last of the locals too. Like as not, Tinkerson was looking for a free pint--his favorite quest whenever he stopped in at the crossroads tavern that Maggie had inherited from her father Baldmount Stonethrower.
“I’ve found it, Maggie!” Tinkerson cried and tripped over the threshold so that he did a dance across the reed-strewn floor. To her surprise, he did not land on his face, but managed to catch the edge of a table and right himself. The few remaining patrons chuckled in amusement. “I found it!”
“Found what, Tinkerson?” she asked, though she was certain she didn’t really want to know. And hoping that he would see the disinterest in her face, she walked around behind the bar, stepped up on the running platform that allowed her to reach the top and started polishing the wood with her usual vigor. As one of the Stone Folk, Maggie was short, but it didn’t stop her from quelling the noisiest and drunkest of her clients when they got out of hand. It just meant she had to do things a little different from the tall folk.
Tinkerson reached into his traveling pouch and pulled out something wrapped in linen and plunked it down on the bar. It made a clunking sound.
“The Last Song!” Tinkerson said proudly.
Maggie stopped scrubbing and glowered across the wood at Tinkerson’s delighted smile. He leaned his lanky frame on the bar and lowered his head to meet her gaze of disbelief.
“The Last Song?” she repeated.
“Aye,” Tinkerson said. “The very Last Song anyone would ever want to hear.”
Maggie cocked an eyebrow. As one of the Stone Folk who had fled from the Haxon kingdoms after being driven out by the Great Cataclysm and entered the realms of Ard-Taebh , when she was just a child, she was not unfamiliar with the tale--a song that was the last song of all songs in the world. She wasn’t sure if it was a story or not, but it was not a tale she liked.
“The Last Song,” she repeated. “As I recall it is said to be the Last Song anyone hears in their life, should they hear it at all.”
“The very one,” he said and played with the covering of his package as though it were a lady he was about to disrobe.
“And just where did you find it?” she asked.
“Ah, that is the beauty of it,” Tinkerson said. “I didn’t just find it so much as it found me.”
Now there was a conundrum, Maggie was won’t to admit. Why anything would want to find this inebriated sot of a mageborn bard was beyond her understanding. There were times she thought Tinkerson’s given name should have been “calamity.” Ill luck seemed to haunt him. For something to find him made her a little uneasy.
“What do you mean?” Maggie asked. “It just wandered up and said, ‘Here I am, sir, the Last Song?”‘
Tinkerson gave her a puzzled look, and then he laughed as though realizing the joke. “Oh, no, nothing like that,” he said. “No, I was on the road passing through the Bloodwood, and I spied this package and runes scratched into its surface that said, “This is the final resting place of the Last Song.”
Maggie scratched the end of her bulbous nose in thought. “And that didn’t make you wonder?” she asked.
“Why in the name of the Mother Stone anyone would leave the Last Song just lying about for anyone to find.”
“I mean, if I was going to hide the Last Song, I would have placed it in something that no one would ever find,” she added. “Not leave it lying in the middle of the road for some cluck to trip over.”
“I didn’t exactly trip over it,” Tinkerson said defensively. “I actually sat on it when I was trying to get a rock out of my shoe.”
Maggie opened her mouth then shut it. She took a deep breath and reached across and pulled Tinkerson’s face closer so she could sniff his breath. The faintest fumes of heather ale touched her senses. “How much ale have you had?”
Tinkerson jerked back with a snarl. “If you are implying that I am not sober, you are mistaken. I had one lousy ale in Diggerwold as that was all they would give me.”
“Wait a minute,” Maggie said. “Diggerwold is to the north and Bloodwood is to the east. How did you get to either of them without passing the crossroads here?”
“I took the goat’s path over Fanniesback from Bloodwood to Diggerswold,” he said.
“Why? Even Stone Folk avoid that path for fear of breaking their necks.”
“The stone told me to go that way,” Tinkerson said.
“The stone? What stone?”
Tinkerson unveiled his treasure by drawing back the corners of linen. In the middle lay a stone, crudely carved into the shape of a box complete with a keyhole. Its lid was carved with the aforementioned runes, and Maggie could not help but frown. The work was crude by Stone Folk standards. The only way a Stone Master would have made it like that would have been if the Master was in a hurry. This box looked more like something a troll would have done, and she knew there were no trolls in Ard Taebh. At least none she had seen.
The box itself was not much bigger than her two meaty fists laid side by side. She reached out with one thick finger to poke it and frowned. Because even as her finger approached the box, two crudely carved knobs on the lid opened to reveal eyes.
“Touch me not, Stone Blood,” the box said curtly. The voice was deep and disturbingly cultured for its crude appearance. “I am not for you.”
Maggie felt her own jaw drop as at least half her patrons charged for the door while the other half pulled daggers and lifted work hammers in their own defense. She waved her hands to assure them everything was fine. Some of them reluctantly returned to their chairs. Others decided it was time to leave and beat a path for the exit.
“So who are you?” Maggie asked, realizing it must have looked strange for her to be speaking to a box of stone.
“I am the Guardian of the Last Song,” it said. “And it is not for you.”
Maggie arched an eyebrow. “So who is it for? Tinkerson here?”
“I am not for him,” the box replied.
Tinkerson hiccupped nervously. “Uh, eh, you said I could have the Last Song before,” he said.
“I said you could carry the Last Song to the Keeper of the Key,” the box replied.
“And just who is this Keeper of the Key?” Maggie dared to ask.
“The one who locked the Last Song within me. The one for whom the Last Song was intended.”
“And just who might that be?” she insisted.
“The Bard of the Wind,” the box replied.
One could have heard a pin drop into a pile of straw at that point. Maggie looked into Tinkerson’s eyes.
“I think you are in big trouble,” she said.
Tinkerson nodded, going pale as he grabbed a stool to sit on. He had good reason to be afraid, in Maggie’s opinion.
The Bard of the Wind was an Old One, and from what Maggie knew of him, he was not the most approachable sort.
~ * ~
“I swear to you by the Code of the Bards, I didn’t steal it,” Tinkerson wailed.
Maggie busied herself driving the last of her patrons out of the bar. She looked out to make certain that no one was coming and was not pleased to see that the wind had picked up enough to lift her graying hair. It had the feel of an ill wind--the sort of wind the Bard of the Wind would conjure to take revenge.
“Fine, so you didn’t steal it,” Maggie said. “Doesn’t explain how it got there on the road.”
She pulled the door shut and barred it for good measure, then hurried around blowing out all but one candle. The stone box had closed its eyes and though she had presented it with several more questions, it had refused to answer her, except to say, “He is coming.”
“Maybe it fell off a passing cart?” Tinkerson suggested.
“But that would mean someone else had been carrying it,” she said.
“So, did you ask it how it came to be on the road?
“Why would I ask it that?”
Maggie rolled her eyes.
“Did you try using magic to scry it?” she asked.
“It gave me a headache,” Tinkerson said.
“And just why did it want you to take it to Diggerwold?”
“I’m not really sure.” Tinkerson frowned. “That was when it said something about me carrying it to the Keeper of the Key, I think. But when we got there, it said I was to come here, and so I did.”
Which meant the Bard of the Wind must have known it was coming to him? Maggie’s brows crossed in thought as she rubbed her chin. If the Bard of the Wind was trying to avoid the Last Song, why would it know he was coming here? Or how?
“All right, then,” she said and put her hands on her hips and glanced around. “What I would suggest is that you take that bloody box out to the Blackbud Loch and toss it into the deepest parts and be rid of it.”
“What?” Tinkerson nearly fell over as he stood up. “That would be madness. This is a valuable artifact! I could sell it to the highest bidder. I could take it to the Mageborn of Dun Gealach and they would gladly add it to the treasury there. I could be rich and...”
The eyes on the box reappeared quite suddenly, and the runes over them angled as though it were cross. “Throw me not in the waters of the loch,” it said, “or terrible things will happen to you.”
“What terrible things?” Maggie challenged, putting her hands on the counter on either side of the box and meeting its stare with a glare of her own. “Tell me now, or I’ll get me hammer and smash you into chips and still toss you into the loch.”
The box hesitated, looking left and right as though seeking a way to avoid answering her at all. “But then the Last Song would be heard by those for whom it was not meant,” it said.
“I’ll stuff me ears with mutton,” she said and pointed to Tinkerson. “And his, though I am convinced he already has mutton for brains.”
The eyes went back and forth frantically as though the box were debating what to do next. Maggie let her expression soften and leaned on the counter
“Look, box,” she said. “I know you are meant for the Bard of the Wind, but we need to know why before we consider turning you over to him.”
“I never agreed...” Tinkerson began, and Maggie shoved a hand over his mouth to still his words.
“The Last Song was a gift from the Lord of the Mountain of Shadows whom the Bard of the Wind defeated when Balance of the World was upset,” the box said. “But the Bard of the Wind was clever enough to use the magic of the Stone Bloods to make this box and trap the Last Song inside. I have carried the song through the time of the Shadow Lords and the ages before. I had been buried in a mountain where no one would find me, but the shaking of the world set me free. And now I am bound by the runes that are on me to gift the Last Song on the Bard of the Wind.”
“How many cycles have passed, box?” Maggie asked. She let go of Tinkerson and pushed him back. “Go help yourself to an ale, Tinkerson,” she added.
The bard’s eyes practically lit up like candlewicks at the offer. Maggie had never allowed him to tap the ale himself, knowing he would drain the barrels dry in a single night and still thirst for more.
“Three cycles have passed,” the box replied, “since I was made to hold the Last Song.”
“And you’re still holding a grudge?” Maggie asked.
“I do not hold grudges,” the box said, sounding puzzled. “I hold the Last Song.”
“Yes, I know that.” Maggie waved a hand. “But the Lord of the Mountain of Shadows died at the last battle of the dragons when the Great Cataclysm shook the world apart if I remember correctly, so any curse he may have laid is likely worthless.”
“No curse is worthless,” the box replied.
“Says who?” Maggie insisted. “I remember a man once inflicted with the Curse of The Long Wind, and it turned out to be a lot of hot air coming out of his arse and nothing more.”
The box hesitated as though trying to equate what she had said with its own dilemma. “I do not carry a worthless curse. The Bard of the Wind upset the Balance when he destroyed the Bard of Shadows, who was the son of the Lord of the Mountain of Shadows.”
“Yes, I remember hearing about that,” Tinkerson said. “The Bards went to war on the fields of battle. Some sided with the Mother of Shadows and others sided with the powers of Light, and so it was that the Bard of the Wind met the Bard of Shadows on the field of conflict and there they did begin their battle by the strumming of harps and the chanting of spells and...”
“Yes, Tinkerson, we know the story,” Maggie snarled. “Go get another ale.”
Tinkerson looked momentarily offended, but he traipsed over to the barrel and drew another ale with a smile of delight. And drained it so swiftly, she could not help wondering how he managed to breathe.
“I think there is something you are forgetting,” Maggie said to the box. “You, Mr. Box of Stone, were not created by the Lord of the Mountain of Shadows. You were created by the Bard of the Wind with the aid of Stone Folk like me, and that means you were meant to do good. By carrying the Last Song, you are keeping it safe so that it does no harm.”
Once more the box hesitated. “But the curse...it is written upon me that the Last Song shall be released by the one who is the Keeper of the Key. The Bard of the Wind is the Keeper of the Key, so until he opens me, this curse will continue to writhe within me.”
There was a sadness to the way the box said that. Maggie leaned one elbow on the counter. Stone Folk had an affinity for stone, and they knew that its nature was wearing and patient.
“You can hear the Last Song inside you, can’t you,” she said.
If the box could have nodded, she suspected it would have done so.
“I am not ordinary stone,” the box said. “I am one of the Sons of Clachan, and I am Living Stone.”
“Ah, then the song pains you as well,” Maggie said.
“Yes,” the box said. “Which is why I want the Bard of the Wind to open me and let the Last Song free. Else wise, I will die.”
Maggie blinked. She had been raised to respect stone. All stone was sacred to the Dvergar of the Old Haxon realms, and she still carried that love of stone inside her. The Stonethrow Inn was built from stone, and there were times, she heard it whispering to her. When old Baldmount built the place, he had selected only the most special stones to fill its walls and stand as its foundations, and even now, she heard its friendly thrum. The whole world thrums with power and life and essence, and only the Old Ones and the Mageborn and the Stone Folk and the Hidden Folk can hear the song.
“Well then,” she said. “There’s naught to do but wait for the Bard of the Wind to arrive and see about getting that song out of you, eh?”
The box looked up at her, and Maggie saw a tear leaking from under one of the knobs. She took the rag she used on the bar and wiped it away, and the box seemed to smile.
“I would be most grateful,” the box said.
Maggie nodded, but in her head she was already wondering how she was going to convince the Bard of the Wind to release the Last Song.
~ * ~
It was close to the dark hour when Maggie noticed the wind picking up once more. Tinkerson had fallen asleep in one corner near the fire. His drunken snores were so loud they rattled the shutters, but they did not stop her from being aware of the world outside. The wind moaned around the eaves of the Stone’s Throw Inn and sang a dirge frightening enough make most men cringe in terror. Maggie had heard the sound most of her life. Still, she was aware of some ambience to the wind was not natural. Like someone was singing a song.
And it was getting closer so the words were clear.
”The day will come when men shall fear,
The hours passing away,
For the dragons shall rise to war again,
And Shadows will rule for a day, oh,
The Shadows will rule for a day.
“That’s an old song,” she muttered. She had not heard it since before the Great Cataclysm, and even now it sent a soft shiver racing down her spine.
“He comes,” the sonorous voice of stone said from its place under the bar where she had placed the box after Tinkerson went to sleep. Out of sight, she decided, might be the best place for it until she worked out what was to be done.
“Tinkerson, you’d best wake up,” Maggie called. “We’re about to have company.”
Tinkerson snored on, and for a moment, Maggie contemplated just letting him sleep, but she did not want to face the Bard of the Wind alone. For good measure, she picked up the wooden mug she had been sipping tea from and tossed it across the chamber. It hit the fireplace mantle and bounced with a clatter. Tinkerson shot up as though someone had poked him with a hot spear.
“Wha, whuh, waa,” he sputtered.
“Time to get up,” Maggie said.
“I don’t see the sun,” he said, rubbing his head.
“Not time for the sun,” Maggie said.
The wind howled and it rattled the shutters with more vehemence than Tinkerson’s snores has managed. She looked up at the rafters and wondered how well the thatch would hold when a fist thumped the door so hard, but she and Tinkerson jumped.
“Open up,” a strong voice shouted.
“Hold your horses,” Maggie shouted back, slipping out of her tall chair and ambling across the floor towards the door. She glanced over in time to see Tinkerson nip behind the bar. “Coward,” she muttered under her breath, then shouted once more, “Who’s there?”
“I have no name that has been spoken by men for a long time,” the voice replied.
“Then you are not coming in,” Maggie said. “I don’t open the door to just any old stranger unless I know his name.”
“Men know me as Bard of the Wind.”
“I rather figured that part out,” Maggie said. “But unless you tell me your name, you’re not coming in. I know the rules and so do you. There be wardings in the stones of my foundations that don’t allow none to enter unless I allows it, and until I know your name, you’re not coming in.”
There was an audible sigh from the other side of the wood.
“Very well, woman. Men once knew me as Gaothach.”
Maggie arched an eyebrow. “That means windy,” she said. “So Windy be your name then? Kinda girly, isn’t it?”
Another sigh. “I would prefer you called me Gaothach, if you must.”
Maggie shook her head and lifted the bar. She heard Tinkerson whimper as she pushed it aside. Wind struck the door, but she was stone folk, and strong enough to hold against it as she let it open gently.
Standing on the step was a tall figure wrapped in white and blue. His hair was pale as moonlight, and his eyes would have been the envy of a summer sky. He wore his beard long and braided in a manner she used to see many a Dvergar warrior seek to perfect in the old days. The wind was whipping his clothes and hair so he looked like some ancient fury.
“Hello, Windy,” Maggie said, and watched his thick white brows draw into a single line over his nose. “Come on in.”
Gaothach looked puzzled by her lack of fear. But he sighed and stepped over the threshold.
“Stone folk,” he muttered. “I should have known.”
Maggie merely smiled. “So what brings you out on a night like this, Windy?”
“I heard the call of an ancient rune being disturbed from its rest,” Gaothach said, looking resigned to his new name. “Where lies the artifact?”
“Of what artifact are ye speaking, Windy?” Maggie said as she industriously began to close the door and settle the bar back into place. Gaothach watched her, not looking amused.
“You know perfectly well why I am here, Stone Blood,” Gaothach said. “An item of mine that has been hidden for ages has come to light, and I want it back. Now where is it?”
“You will have to be more specific,” Maggie said. “And I don’t like long shanks who take that tone with me. I may be Stone Blood and short, but I can still wallop you into the middle of the next age. And I will if you keep vexing me.”
“Oh, this is a waste of my precious time,” Gaothach said testily. “Where is the stone box that contains the Last Song?”
“I put it away,” Maggie said. “Can’t have something like that just lying about for any old drunken bard to discover.”
“Hey,” Tinkerson said.
“No offense, Tinkerson,” Maggie said. “Go help yourself to another ale.”
His expression as he peered over the bar changed from angry to absolute delight. Without another word, Tinkerson ducked under the counter long enough to seize one of the mugs Maggie stored there. A moment later, she heard the squeak of a tap twisted and the gurgle of ale being canted into the mug.
“Might I also have a draught?” Gaothach asked. “It has been several ages since I tasted the Dvergar brew.”
Maggie looked at him hard for a moment. “There is a price for ale in this house. I don’t just give it away, you know.”
“But you just gave it to him,” Gaothach said.
“Aye, well, he’s a bit of a sot and it keeps him quiet,” she said. “Now where were we?”
Gaothach crossed his arms and glowered at her. “Woman, I don’t believe you understand the gravity of your flippancy. You do know who I am.”
“Yes, Windy, I know who you are,” Maggie said. “But a bard is a bard as far as I am concerned. If you want an ale, it will be two copper sgillinns. You want your box, there’s a bigger price.”
Gaothach reared back as though unable to believe what he had heard. But then he muttered contemptuously and reached into his scrip and came forth with a pair of copper coins. He tossed them onto the counter.
“Fine,” he growled. “If that is how it is to be, then one ale please, and then we will bargain for my box, though why I should pay any sort of price for something I own to begin with...”
Maggie strolled around the end of the counter and clambered up her stairs so that she was nearly as tall as Gaothach. She drew out a mug marked with runes--one her father had told her to never use except for special moment, like when one was likely to be ending a fight between unruly patrons--and put it under a tap. As she drew the brew into its depths, she watched three runes inside the mug glow briefly and then go dark. Good, the blessed thing is still working. Smiling, she turned back and sat the brew on the counter before Gaothach, and then pocketed the coppers before he could change his mind.
He glanced suspiciously into the depths of the mug at first, and she wondered if he knew what she had done. Then he stuck one finger into the brew, stirred it, and licked the brew from the finger. His expression lightened considerably.
“This is the good stuff,” he said.
“I never serve anything that isn’t,” Maggie assured him. “Go on. Drink up.” She pulled out another mug and filled it for herself and came back. “Then we can get down to the real business.”
Gaothach arched an eyebrow as she downed her mug with practiced speed. It took a good deal of brew to make a Dvergar drunk. Gaothach raised both eyebrows in astonishment, and then saluted her with the mug before taking a deep draw of the brew. His face lit up even more, though she wondered if it was the winking of the runes in the mug that added the ruddy glow.
“Fine stuff, indeed,” he said and smiled as he leaned elbows on the counter. “So tell me, how did you come to possess my little box?”
“Actually, Tinkerson found it on the side of the road.”
“Impossible. I left it buried in the Black Mountains of Haleglen.”
“Well, according to the box, there was a quake that set it free, after which, it traveled a bit--we assume by some means other than magic or legs,” Maggie said, noticing that at the mentioning of his name, the mageborn bard had suddenly slipped under her walking plank to hide. “Anyway, Tinkerson found it on the road in Bloodwood and took it first to Diggerswold to look for you, but when he did not find you, he brought it here to me.”
“How would he have known to look for me?”
“Because the box told him to,” Maggie said.
Gaothach shook his head. “How could the box tell him anything? It is just a box.”
“You didn’t know?” Maggie asked.
“You used Stone Blood magic to fashion the thing from Living Stone, and you didn’t know it was alive?”
Gaothach hitched back. “Alive?” He blinked in puzzlement. “But the stone smith who sold me the darned thing swore it was just ordinary mountain stone. I know all about Living Stone, and it is not something that even the Bard of the Wind dares to tamper with.”
“But you did,” Maggie said, “and therein lies the whole problem. The Last Song is hurting the box. It needs to be set free, or else wise it will drive the box absolutely insane.”
“But I cannot set the Last Song free,” Gaothach said and shook his head. “Don’t you realize that whoever sets it free will die when they hear it?”
Maggie rolled her eyes. “Of course, I do,” she said. “But I am Stone Folk, born of the Stone Blood, and we don’t cotton to folk causing pain to Living Stone. You are the Keeper of the Key. You have to set it free.”
“Absolutely not!” Gaothach said and pushed at his chest, and as he did, she got just a glimpse of the loop of leather around his neck and the shape of a key. “I am not so foolish as to believe that the song will not kill me as it was intended.”
“Then give me the key,” Maggie said. “I will do the deed.”
Both Gaothach and Tinkerson responded with a hearty, “No!”
“Why not?” she asked.
Tinkerson had risen and was now glaring blearily at the Bard of the Wind.
“It would kill you, Maggie,” Tinkerson said. “As surely as it would kill this man or me.”
Maggie shook her head. “You know. You are both men of magic, and yet like most men, you cannot see an inch past your egos to stop and realize what must be done.”
“We don’t follow you,” Gaothach said. “At least I don’t.”
“Don’t tell me neither of ye knows about the Silent Stones.”
She saw Gaothach’s eyes narrow. “You know where the Silent Stones stand?”
“Wouldn’t be much of a Stone Blood if I didn’t,” she said and crossed her arms.
“Mageborn and bards alike have been searching for those stones for ages,” Gaothach said. “If we cannot find them, I seriously doubt you can.”
“Aye, well Dvergar know what greedy nobs would do with that sort of power, which is why we have never shared the knowledge with long shanks of any ilk. The stones negate all sound, and that means a spell can be cast and not heard until it is too late because the stones absorb the noise. Seems to me if the stones are capable of doing so, then surely they can absorb the Last Song so no man ever hears it.”
“True,” Gaothach said, glancing thoughtfully at Tinkerson. “So, would you take me to this place?”
“Are you hard of hearing?” Maggie retorted. “I said we never share the knowledge of where Silent Stones stand. It’s a vow we took to preserve the Balance of All Things. Which is why you must give _me_ the key. I will take the box to the Silent Stones and set the Last Song free. That way, no one will be hurt, and the Living Stone of the box will be relieved of its burden.”
“And what can I expect in exchange?” Gaothach asked.
“Your freedom from the Shadow Lord’s curse. Never having to worry that anyone else will ever open the box and put you at risk.”
“Seems fair enough,” Gaothach said and reached beneath his beard. “Very well, Mistress of Stone. Here.”
He drew out the key and laid it on the counter. Maggie picked it up and slipped it into her apron pocket. She then reached under the counter and drew forth the box. It looked up at her with anxious eyes, and Gaothach frowned.
“Living Stone, you say,” he muttered and reached for the box with just a hint of greed in his eyes.
But Maggie drew it out of his reach, trotting down to the end of the plank and ambling down to the level of the ground. There, she snagged her cloak and her walking stick and a travel sack. She slipped the box into the latter and headed for the door. Gaothach and Tinkerson started to follow, but she stopped at the door and turned to face them.
“By the way,” she said. “Just to make sure you don’t follow me, the spell that allows you to enter this place will not allow you to leave unless I say so.”
“What?” Gaothach said.
“It is part of the stone,” Maggie added and glanced at Tinkerson. “Only those who know how to pass it may enter and leave, and ordinary folks are not affected by it. Just mageborn and bards.”
“Well that is totally unfair,” Gaothach said. “You never told me I could not leave.”
“You can leave when I get back,” she said.
Turning for the door, she flipped open the bar and latch, and then went on out into the night, closing it behind her.
Through the wood, she heard Gaothach asking Tinkerson,”So how is it you can enter and leave at will?”
“She told me I could,” Tinkerson replied.
“So you know the spell?”
Maggie hurried on, knowing that Tinkerson would do what she expected.
His predictability was part of his charm.
~ * ~
The wind whistled and groaned through the trees as Maggie traveled the path through the wood. The music of it would have made most folks want to stay indoors. Maggie was comfortable with the sounds, for she had grown up with her father telling her what they meant. Most were just natural things that she could ignore. The ones she should pay attention to, he taught her as well. For the time being, none of the sounds one should worry about were coming to her ears.
She did stop by the brook and take a candle out of her travel sack and light it. She let the box sit beside her as she collected the drippings of the wax and let the water cool them. Then she warmed them with her hands and poked them into her ears. The box gave her a curious look.
“For just in case,” she said. “If I should accidentally drop you and break you crossing the creek, this way, I won’t be the victim of the song.”
The box thrummed when she laid a hand on it, and in her head, she heard it speak. “Stone Blood is wise,” the box said.
“We can only hope,” she said. “By the way, box, I meant to ask if what old Windy said was true. Did the stone smith who fashioned you fail to mention you were living stone?”
“He was the one who made me,” the box replied. “In that, he lied.”
“So he knew you lived?”
“That, I cannot say. He did not seem to care. He only wanted the hardest stone when he used his magic to cut me out of the mountain that was my mother. I know I cried out when he worked me as he did because he had no real skill at it. But he never answered to my words when I spoke to him. Perhaps he was deaf to my voice.”
“Not likely,” Maggie said and sighed. “As I recall, the Bard of the Wind was not one of the nice ones when the days of darkness came. He was said to have switched sides according to whim. Nothing She who Sits at the Center of All Things said or did was sacred to him, but neither did the Dark Mother’s whims please him when she started to lose the battle.”
“I know nothing of these things,” the box said.
“Ah, probably before your time, box,” Maggie said. “Well, we best get going and get on with this.”
Picking the box back up, she returned it to the sack, and using her staff to find the shallowest point of the stream, she carefully picked her way across. Her boots were of a sturdy enough leather that the wetting would not give her cold feet as long as she didn’t linger.
At length, she reached the other side and started on up into the woods. Just beyond was a clearing, and there stood a circle of walking stones standing there since ancient days. For a moment, she stopped and stared at them.
Six stones stood around a central block of stone. The outer ring represented the six places of the world that surrounded the Center of All Things, and each stone was marked with the element of its nature. Air, Fire, Earth, Water, Sky and Stone formed a ring around the middle.
Maggie walked around the edge of the circle. Her father used to bring her here to play. The ground around it still bore the marks of where he had mined the stones of the Stone’s Throw Inn’s foundations. The very stones gave her inn the power to resist the ways of darkness and to keep evil at bay. Even as she passed around the edge of the circle, she could feel the power burning here. Though burning was not how it felt to her. Stone thrummed with a song that no mortal man could hear, and even some mageborn were deaf to. It was the song of her blood, the song of a people born from the bones of the world. The song no Dvergar was ever allowed to forget. Maggie let it fill her and took a deep breath and stepped through the circle of stones. She approached the broad center stone that served some as an altar and others as a place of gathering power. The wax in her ears might have taken away her ability to hear the sounds of the world at night, but it never took away the song buried in the stones.
Smiling, she stopped beside the altar and pulled out the box. She settled it on the center stone and drew forth the key.
It did not surprise her when Maggie felt the wind shift. Still holding the key in one hand, she grabbed the box and stepped aside, and just in time. A staff fell with great force, striking the center stone at the spot where she had stood. She dashed around it, glancing over her shoulder just long enough to see that Gaothach stood there cursing--at least, she assumed he was cursing because his mouth was moving and his expression was unfriendly. His very presence told her either Tinkerson had played his part and spilled the beans, or Gaothach had figured out a way to get past the door wards to the inn. In either case, she had expected he would follow.
Gaothach shouted, and she saw his lips move to say, “Give me that box!”
“Gladly,” she replied. “What is in it is yours anyway.”
His expression changed as she inserted the key and turned it. At first, he looked as though he expected nothing, but then he stopped and stared at her.
Faintly, through the depths of wax in her ears, she perceived an ancient keening sound. The Bard of the Wind seemed to freeze where he stood, his staff upraised to strike again. He dropped his staff and put his hands over his ears. Blood began to seep through his fingers, and his face contorted with pain. Then he dropped like a stone, forming a puddle-like heap of cloth and human remains at the edge of the center stone.
Still clutching the box, Maggie crept around the stone for a better look.
The Bard of the Wind was no more. Even the wind that had been whipping around him had died to a strange stillness.
“These were not the Silent Stones,” the box’s voice thrummed in her head.
“No, they were not,” she said. “But apparently, old Windy didn’t know that which was what I was hoping.”
“You set the curse free,” the box said. “And the Bard of the Wind has paid for his follies.”
“As he should have long ago,” Maggie said. “Tinkerson probably did exactly what I expected him to do and let old Windy out of the inn. And I knew the old rotter would probably come here thinking I really was heading for the Silent Stones.”
“But these are not the Silent Stones,” the box said.
“Of course, not,” she said and smiled. “The Silent Stones are nowhere near this place. On the other hand, I suspected the Bard of the Wind was greedy enough to think I would lead him to the stones. Fortunate for me, he didn’t notice the wax in my ears.”
“Fortunate, indeed,” the box said.
“Well, box, what now? Shall I leave you here with the ancient circle?”
“No,” the box said. “Take me back to your inn.”
“It seemed a nice enough place,” the box replied. “And now that I am no longer pained by the curse of the Last Song, I think it would be a find place for me to rest. I can even have the company of the stones in your foundation to make me feel welcome.”
“Fair enough,” she said.
Gathering her things, Maggie started out of the circle. She dug the wax out of her ears with one chubby finger as she lumbered along the path, tossing the bits off into the trees. She had most of it out by the time she reached the stream
“By the way, box,” she said as she picked her way across the flow of the stream. “I cannot keep calling you box. Do you actually have a name?”
“I am a son of Clachan. My name in the grinding of stones, the movements of the bones of the earth. Not even Dvergar who are kin to stone can speak it.”
“Very well, then I shall have to come up with a name for you,” she said. “I will call you Grinder. How’s that?”
“Grinder is a good name,” the box replied.
“Good,” she said and smiled. ‘Now, I better get back to the Stone’s Throw before Tinkerson empties every cask of ale in the place.”
The thought of which was more than enough to encourage Maggie to quicken her pace.
Laura J. Underwood has been selling her writing since she was a teenager. She has too many stories and books in print to keep track, but her latest is ANGELS OF MERCY, an urban fantasy of dark elves in East Tennessee. Having retired from 48 years as a librarian, she now has more time to write, as well as indulge in her many hobbies.