Chapter Three: The Question of the Wells
The third chapter of Other-Song, my serialized novel-in-progress
Other-Song is a serialized fantasy novel-in-progress. It’s a tale of disenchantment, of abusive technology, of heresy, and of a world hidden in plain sight. Most weekends, I’ll publish a new chapter until it is complete, along with a constantly-updated master page of chapter summaries.
This is the third chapter.
In the first chapter, “The Last Party, The Last Song,” Lurian, bastard son of the Hornynal family, serves as a party hosted in honor of his brother, Trendal, attended by the Queen’s nephew, along with many other nobles. The Fel’lal musician he hired for the evening, his friend Tri’aln, plays “the last song” on the instrument, which destroys it. Just before it is destroyed, the lights in the hall suddenly flash brightly and every glass in each guests hand shatters as Lurian looks at them. He is then ushered out by the queen’s nephew through the darkness, who speaks cryptically of a heretic.
In the second chapter, “A Bastard and a Heretic,” Lurian waits outside until all the guests have gone, and then sneaks back into the house to gather things in order to leave. Details of his life unfold: her mother had seduced her husband’s brother and then framed him for rape — a plot to gain control of Horynal manse. While packing for the journey, his mother yells at Lurian from the other side of the door, and then curses him as a “heretic.”
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Chapter Three: The Question of the Wells
Given to fantastic longings and wide-eyed dreaming, the idea of leaving home had always been enough. Staring east out his window across the forested hills of Coryl had sufficed, just seeing that there was an elsewhere to which he might one day flee. Elsewhere was always in his imagining, in his mind, in his dreams. And as long as it existed there, it never was an actual place until now, this moment, as he lay face-first in the slogging, muddy track where he’d just fallen.
Lurian had previously traveled a few times upon the old tracks, following their winding paths along the slopes, across the horse-pastures, and between the few surviving tenement farms in the hills of Coryl. In spring, the paths wound past overflowing streams; in summer they led through fallowed fields full of wildflowers. In the autumning, the older farmers drove their over-laden carts of pears, carrots, and grains along them to the tiny hamlets dotting the hills.
But in winter, no-one but the Fel'lal used the old tracks. And no one besides him, he was sure, ever used them at night without lighting a torch or a lamp.
Spitting mud through his clenched teeth, he stifled a scream, biting back the pain coursing through his ankle. The cold muck clung to his face, and his sleeves only smeared — rather than wiped away — the wet earth with each attempt. He got to his knees, cursing his earlier decision not to steal into the stables to get a torch. He pushed himself up carefully, crawling on one knee to the edge of the path, before sitting down on a cold rock.
The idea of leaving had, until tonight, always been enough for him. For all Tri’aln's chiding, for all the am’erl that he was, she always understood this. There was always elsewhere, always someplace else he could go.
Overly morose one evening, a few nights after Trendal's mantling as a wyrdwright, Lurian half-joked to her about killing himself.
“So too am’erl,” the red-haired minstrel had laughed. “Self song-end is for ones too am’erl to walk away.”
He had finally walked away — and had tripped.
Lurian laughed a little, darkly amused with himself. He imagined Tri’aln would also find it funny, as she always seemed to do no matter what form suffering tried to take. She often said she herself was a bit am’erl, because she spent more time in Coryl than in the Fel’lal camps, more time with the Thales than with her own people. She spoke better Thalish than most of the Fel’lal he’d met; that, along with her branding, was always enough to get herself out of any situation. And she had no qualms taking on occasional work in the Horynyl manse, whenever Lurian could track her down to ask.
He had really hoped to find her immediately once he left. He’d imagined she might guide him across the old tracks to one of the villages, where he could maybe stay for a few weeks. Perhaps she would teach him enough Fel’lal to get by in the free villages. And from there, maybe, he could travel with her east to Galn, or maybe even north to Arenhall. He wanted to see the ocean, waters vaster than the sluggish flow of the Thalyn cutting through the streets of Coryl.
But he didn't know where to find her.
She’d said only, “I find you after.” But where? When? He’d not asked, she’d not said. She’d probably not thought he’d even leave this time, just like all the other times she’d told him he should leave and he didn’t.
The chill of the night crept into his soul — he’d not thought this far. Elsewhere was always in his mind, and now he was going elsewhere but didn’t know where that was. Lurian shuddered, then yawned. He shifted on the rock a bit, flexing his foot to test the pain. It still hurt, though less when he didn't move it. He unlaced his boot, cringed as he pulled it off, and winced more when he removed his sock.
Thinking cold might ease the pain, he put his foot as deeply as he could into the mud. He then sloped his body against the rock, lying with one bare foot on the ground and the other bent slightly under him. He shivered, staring into the veil of stars above him, and fell asleep.
The stars had not changed their position much when he woke. Aching cold wracked his body, as if all its heat had drained into the stone below him. He sat up slowly, feeling every muscle and bone creak in protest. He would have to go on, or go back. He was too cold to stay here.
Lurian stood clumsily, shifting his weight to his good foot in response to the protest of the other. The pain wasn't unbearable, but just a brief attempt proved it would be impossible to put the boot back on. He tossed it aside, haphazardly, then remembered he might need it again.
Cursing, Lurian searched with muddy fingers for the stub of the candle he'd thrown into his pack. He found it, dried his hands on one of his shirts, and reached deeper for the foil-wrapped matches he had kept in the pocket of yesterday's trousers. He found them, a few of them with broken sulfur-heads, but a few were still usable. He struck one, burned his palm slightly while cupping the taper and the flame together, and then the light caught.
He found his discarded boot, tied its laces to a looped strap on his pack, and tortuously trudged along the track. He could only make out the vague forms of the sides of the path and a few distinct obstacles; the candle didn't illuminate more than that. He kept his loping gait slow to protect the flame, flinching every time the molten beeswax dripped onto the side of his hand.
When the candle, already short, had burned down half-way, he stopped to rest. He recognized where he was now, a copse of trees surrounding a Fel’lal well. He’d been here a few times, played nearby with Trendal when they were much younger, while their governess napped in the warm summering stormlight.
Trendal had claimed he knew everything about the wells. They were full of ghosts, the spirits of children the Fel’lal sacrificed every light-moon.
“Ten at a time,” his brother had said, “their throats slit and their heads dunked in the water to drown.”
“Ten children at each well?” Lurian had been a little dubious, his hand covering his neck in fear.
“At each well. And there are thousands of wells, all over! I've seen them do it, too.”
Even after only six years of life, Lurian had suspected Trendal’s additional two years had not given him nearly the epic weight of experience he claimed. “No, you didn’t.”
Trendal would hit him soon. “Yes I did. You were asleep.”
“Father wouldn't have let you.”
“Father took me to watch. And sometimes they take Thales, too. I saw one girl who was definitely a Thale, from the city. They slit her throat and she kept screaming and screaming but they only laughed at her.”
Balancing precariously between disbelief, jealousy, and horror, Lurian had answered with the only retort he could think of: “You're a liar!”
Trendal’s fist had ended the argument, but not Lurian’s curiosity about the wells and the sacrifices. He couldn't ask Suri, because to mention the well would give away to the governess where he and Trendal had been playing while she napped. He couldn't ask his father, just in case he had really taken Trendal along with him. It terrified Lurian he would have watched sacrifices without trying to stop them.
So Lurian had asked Mayna, the drunken cook. He wasn’t ever supposed to be them in the kitchen, “too close to the lower-classes ” his mother had warned — but Mayna sometimes gave him ends of liquor-soaked cakes.
“The wells?” Mayna had laughed. “Children? No. Peach-pits ’n round rocks and bits o’paper, but little ones? Bet your brother told ye’ they take lit’l Thalish'uns, too.”
Lurian had nodded, solemnly. “He said he saw them slit a girl's throat.”
“Maybe yer brother's got somethin’ in’im, what wanted t’see that. Go fetch me another bottle jus’ like this’un’ere.”
Many years later, the matter of the wells came up again. Mayna was by then gone, as were the governess and several other servants, all fired for stealing his mother’s jewellery. It had been Trendal who accused them; later, Lurian learned it had been Trendal who had done it.
The governess had been replaced by a tutor, Erol. He always looked a bit ridiculous, though Lurian adored him. The man’s spectacles were always slipping off his nose, falling off his face onto the book from which he read. He wore odd clothes — grey and brown wool in winter or summer, poorly patched, smelling of wood and too much nyra smoke. And Erol was always nervous, easily startled, like a skittish cat.
Because of Erol, though, Lurian and Trendal had for a little while enjoyed the same thing. But while his older brother ate ravenously at the troughs of knowledge, Lurian had been content merely to listen and, when the man departed for the day, read the books Erol left for them. They both read them, but Trendal read faster, skipping sections he found boring, often claiming he’d already known everything within a book. By then, Lurian rarely challenged Trendal — his brother's arrogance was so relentless it was easier just to ignore him.
But it did irk Lurian when Trendal completely denied his earlier account of the sacrifices at the Fel’lal wells. That day, Erol had been discussing the history of the nobles of Coryl, a subject the man also seemed to find boring. He had just finished listing the terms of the Uniform Natural Work Code, and then added, sighing, “that is why the free Fel’lal must brandings.”
Trendal interrupted, arrogantly. “And the Uniform Natural Work Code was adopted by the Council the next year” interrupted Trendal. “And then they sealed the wells.”
The image of a little girl screaming, with his brother and father watched, came back to Lurian at the mention of the wells. “Trendal says they sacrifice ten children at the wells every month.”
“Don't be absurd,” came the reply, not from Erol but from Trendal. “There would never be enough natural workers if they did.”
Lurian was angry, enraged by Trendal's alteration of his past position and his matter-of-fact declaration. More so, Lurian felt angry at himself for ever believing Trendal. He turned to Erol, and asked, “What do they really do with the wells, then?”
Erol didn’t answer. Instead, Trendal kept talking, repeating verbatim a Council edict against Fel’lal superstitions, until Erol changed the subject to the Council Elector lists.
Lurian learned nothing from that discussion, but he did learn more from Erol later. The man had asked Lurian to help him carry his books down to the Lower Road. An hour’s walk, and it was then late autumn, but Lurian hadn't hesitated. Trendal had just “become a man,” whatever that was supposed to mean, so he was to spend the rest of the day learning to ride.
Lurian wore a heavy coat, Erol was wrapped in a thread-bare woolen cloak. The tutor shivered as he talked, but Lurian guessed the timid man wasn't merely cold.
“I may not be your tutor much longer, Lurian.”
They were halfway across the Torgyn bridge, standing as close to the side as they could to avoid a passing carriage — Lady Anadora's. The woman always made a habit of gawking out the curtained windows at anyone using the same roads as her, sneering with upturned lips.
They lingered at the edge of the bridge even after she had passed, looking over the iron-work railing down into the deep ravine swollen with autumnal rains.
“What do you mean, Erol?”
“Your brother will be Examined next week, and if the Examiner has even half a wit, Trendal will get offered a place at the University.” Erol didn't look at Lurian when he said this, and when Lurian tried to read the man's voice, he thought he heard despair.
Lurian didn't see why this would change anything. “To be a wight? Mother's already certain he will be. But he's only thirteen, so he won't leave for another year or so. And I'm not going anywhere.”
Erol had turned, his shy face suddenly very kind and very, very old. “You shouldn't call them ‘wights,’ Lurian. Especially now.”
“Okay, wyrdwright. But what do you mean by ‘now’?”
“Your parents will not pay to have you taught. It's a cruel fate, you know, but there are worse. Still, I'm sorry.” Erol's words sounded like finality, but he hadn't moved away from the rail.
Lurian felt as if he'd been struck. “You can't just teach me anyway? It can't really cost all that much.”
Something had crossed his tutor's face, something like sadness but not quite. Maybe anger, though Lurian couldn't imagine the man ever being angry. Or perhaps, for people like Erol, anger was a kind of sadness.
“You are right, Lurian. They don't pay me much as it is, but it’s been almost enough to live on. Still, that will all end, and your life is about to come rather close to misery. I guess it wouldn't look like misery to anyone in Coryl. But nevermind that. I brought some books for you. I'll come back for them in a few weeks, but you mustn't give them to Trendal. They're yours to read.”
Honored, but still upset to lose his tutor, Lurian took the books Erol offered him and said nothing.
After a long pause, the man spoke again.
“Lurian — why didn't you think the Council edict accurately explained the nature of the Fel’lal wells?”
Lurian's mood brightened immediately. Erol was using his tutoring voice and his book words, as if continuing the lesson. Also, there was an edge to his question, an anticipation, like a cat waiting to spring upon some realization Lurian was about to find.
Thrilled, Lurian answered, “The edict doesn't actually say what it is they do, and it sounded like it was written by someone who’d never seen one.”
The smile across Erol's face warmed Lurian. He rarely smiled, rarely seemed genuinely pleased except in times like this, when his student had answered a question the way he was hoping he might.
“Good, man. And what conclusion might you make about other similar edicts about the Fel’lal?”
The light was beginning to dim across the hills, the air rapidly chilling further, but Lurian's body had trembled with heat. “They might also be wrong?”
But Erol's response was not what Lurian had expected. “Never say that to anyone. Not even me, Lurian. But think it anyway, if you can.”
The cold was sweeping across the road, a sharp wind cutting through the ravine and biting through his coat. Lurian could see Erol was even colder than he was, even without the iciness of the man’s words.
Still, Lurian’s question was unanswered. “But what about the wells?”
Erol had pulled his cloak tighter to himself before answering. “Ask someone who is there at the wells when they give them gifts, and when the wells give gifts in return. It is not mine to say.” And then he added, abruptly: “go home. I can walk from here.”
And without the usual good-bye, Erol turned and walked away, crossing the rest of the bridge with his hurried gait, out of hearing distance, before Lurian could even puzzle over what had passed between them.
Lurian found a low branch upon which he could hang his pack. He sat on the rough-stone wall of the spring, and set the still-burning candle in some dripped wax on the stone to stand it upright. Thirst had, for at least the last half-hour of walking, begun to overtake the cold of his body and the pain of his ankle.
He heard no voices, no sounds except the steady rush of water flowing out from some deep place through the rocks and into the well. Added to that sound was an even heavier one, water cascading out from the well into a small stone channel. A slight wind rustled the tops of the leafless trees above him, and through their branches he could still see the vast expanse of stars.
“So too am’erl," Tri'aln had said when he asked her about the wells, years after both Erol and Trendal were gone.
Lurian had met her at a Festifal, where she had been hawking glass-lanterns on the third-night, the night of the parade of lights. He’d looked at the lanterns, selected one, and then panicked when he couldn't find the small purse of money he’d been certain he’d had just a few minutes before.
“Oh, sorry. I guess my purse was stolen.” He started to hand her back the lamp, but the woman made quite clear he had no choice but to take it anyway.
“Not doing,” she'd said, suddenly grabbing his free hand and pulling him with her through the crowded lanes.
Tri’aln had adopted him that night, insisting, in between calling him ‘am’erl,’ that he be her Festifal-friend. From stall to stall he followed her, letting his will catch up several cups of hyra and three different honey-almond cakes later. He watched in awe as she seemed never to need to pay for the food and drink she foisted relentlessly on him.
His blood trilling from the hyra, they then moved on to beer, several different kinds, each following dangerously close on to the previous, until, just before the parade began, he found himself retching behind a canvas tent, begging for water.
“Water,” Tri'aln had answered, when he asked her about the wells later that year. They'd been Festifal-friends, and she’d explained that meant they would always have to be friends.
A little after that Festifal, Lurian had learned he was to be acting Steward of the Horynyl Manse, and she had offered to help him when he needed her. That particular evening, near mid-winter, Tri'aln had trekked up from the city to work scullery for him, and they were eating the left-overs from the large dinner party he’d just organized.
“Water?” Tri'aln rarely answered him directly about anything, but this answer seemed too simple for him. “That doesn't answer my question.”
“You ask, what Fel'lal do with wells. I tell you, am'erl. Water.”
Lurian had shaken his head, impatiently. “You water the wells? They're spring-fed, they already have water in them.”
“No, you are not so clear as water, Lurian-friend. You not understanding.” And with that, Tri'aln walked over to one of the half-full glass pitchers and filled a cup with it, putting it to her mouth. “What is this you say?”
“You drink the water? That's all?”
“Drinking, yes. But better drinking beer.”
It seemed completely unsatisfying, all these explanations. All the edicts against cavorting as the Fel'lal do around the wells on light-moon nights, all Trendal's insistence and Lurian's subsequent imaginings, Mayna's dismissive answer and Erol's poetic evasion: all for just some drinking water? He never got a further answer from Tri'aln, nor from anyone else.
Lurian cupped his hands into the water, seeing there reflected and then distorted through the ripples the flickering light of his candle. He was alone, tired, cold — and thirsty.
“They drink from them,” he mused aloud, and brought the cold water to his mouth.