The stone amphitheater, draped in magical vines and drenched in sunshine, reverberates with the Song of Strength. Few citizens have come for the song today. Nashua finds it difficult to sing with her usual care, distracted by anticipation. There will be no evening songs today, just this last midday song. They will spend the rest of the day gathering, preparing, anticipating, celebrating. After centuries of waiting, there are only a few hours to go. The Phoenix is coming at last.
Her enchanted pewter horn necklace offers its last as Nashua finishes the song. The vibrating pulse of the amphitheater stills and the magic disappears into the air like a feathered whiff of smoke. It lingers in the heart of the listeners though. They slowly gather themselves and filter out of the opening to the rear. Nashua follows them into the cobbled courtyard. Citizens are filing out of the amphitheaters for the Song of Comfort, the Song of Patience, the Song of Openness, and all the rest. Nashua, like the other Chanters, stays by the entrance to her amphitheater while she waits for the courtyard to clear. People gradually make their way through the Great Gate, on their way back to their homes in the city or perhaps in the nearby hills. A few recognize one another and stop to visit quietly. Fountains and flowering bushes lend to the tranquility of this place.
Nashua usually enjoys this moment, watching the faces of their patrons and seeing the inner glow that comes from what they’ve just experienced. So unlike the heavy expressions frequently seen before the songs begin. This day is different however. This day she is in a hurry. She checks the sky. The sun is still rising but nearing its crest. How long the day has been! It seems the sun will never set. Perhaps she needs the Song of Patience herself.
Villaciti Cantori is a sprawling, walled compound which the city people call the “little village of songbirds.” The Chanters themselves are fond of this nickname. Visitors to the little village enter through the Great Gate, which opens directly onto the Courtyard of Songs and its magical amphitheaters. Some visitors have cause to go through the Courtyard and up the broad steps to Marion Hall where they find their business in one of the offices or the library or perhaps the Assembly Room where the Chanters gather morning and night. The Courtyard of Songs and, to a lesser degree, Marion Hall, are the public venues of the little village. The rear entrance of Marion Hall opens to the rest, the private part. Here are smaller courtyards, community gardens, many modest residences, and the slightly larger residences of the Head of the Cantori Branch and his Apprentices. Within the grounds they have a granary, a mill, a poultry shed, and a small pottery house. A few minor gates along the side and rear of the compound lead to the city or to the mountain road or to the Realm of the Phoenix.
Only a few people remain in the Courtyard of Songs. Nashua is tempted to hurry them along, but she stays in position, waiting with everyone else.
Apprentice Terridon comes down the front steps of Marion Hall and stands still. He meets her eyes, but instead of giving her the usual playful expression, he is sober. She gives him a questioning look. He shakes his head, Not now, and fixes his attention on the Courtyard. He is waiting for their guests to leave as well, but for a different reason.
Something is wrong.
* * *
The line of Chanters meanders out of the long building and curls around the circular courtyard, which buzzes with the speculative whispers of those waiting. Inside, Sage Mylas is rumored to be lying on his bed, sick and nearly dying. The Phoenix is bringing its egg of ash tonight. As Head of one of the seven branches of the Order, Sage Mylas must be at the Rock of Light to collect their share of ash for their branch. He should already be on his way. “Who will bring the ash?” a young Chanter nearby whispers. Apprentice Terridon, Nashua thinks. Someone nearby offers this same theory. Apprentice Terridon is a worthy candidate, but it should be Sage Mylas’ privilege. They are silent with the unfairness of it all.
From the front of the line a solitary voice begins to sing; the rest join in. Without fresh ash for their horns there is no magic in the song to carry it to the hearts and minds of the listeners, but it matters not. Music has a power all its own. The Chanters sing the Miller’s Ballad, which tells of the Miller’s daughter lying sick in her bed. Her mother nurses the delicate child as the father stands helplessly by, singing his daughter a song in hopes that it will heal her. The Miller’s Ballad ends without saying whether or not the child lives. It is a song for the sick. A beacon of hope for those who go on to get well. A tender farewell for those who slip to the other side.
Nashua’s throat tightens; her companions finish the song without her.
Lindall comes out of the building and his sober expression quiets the crowd. Nashua reaches toward him but stays in her place when he notices and joins her. Her husband is the first of the higher-ranking members she has seen since Apprentice Terridon first summoned them to Sage Mylas’ residence. Nashua is not the only one eager to hear news and several people form a circle around them.
Lindall looks at Nashua and takes a deep breath.
“Is he truly sick?” she asks.
Lindall nods. “Very, but he may yet recover. He is fighting. I think we can hope.”
She wants to hope but worries anyway. “Is he saying his goodbyes? Does he think it his time?”
“No. He is picking his delegate to the Rock of Light.”
Their little audience gasps.
“Apprentice Terridon,” Nashua says.
“It seems not to be.”
“It must be,” she insists.
“I am fairly certain it is not,” and his tone is the firm tone of her husband. Nashua answers with silence but a young Chanter speaks up.
“Not I,” Lindall replies. “Whatever I said, it was not what he was looking for.” Several people press him for more information at once and he stills them with his hand. “He will ask you a question and you will give your answer.”
“What is the question?” Nashua asks.
“I suspect it is different for each of us,” Lindall says.
This gets the little circle pondering and he walks on.