The Singer's Man

by M. R. R. Arcega

This song is one I have never sung. This song, I sing from my heart.

I was the Singer's man. In my youth I was known as Derezn. That name signified nothing, was nothing, until the Singer came to our tribe.

She was a stranger to us, and in the way of the Harun, we kept her at a distance. Wherever she walked, there would be at least a circle an armstretch wide between herself and the nearest of us, as is the Harun way.

The Singer was tall, like the rock tribe, but slender, like the silian tree. She walked on two legs, like the rest of us. But it was clear she was a stranger; the whole of her was like nothing that walked on this earth.

She sang her greeting in the language of the Lowlands, "I have come. I crave your welcoming." Her lips made the words seem strange.

She asked if we had ever seen one like her - a man, tall and slender and pale like herself, but with hair the color of rulgit leaves. We said we didn't. She thanked us all and made a request of us.

"I need to cross the Plains. I need a guide." She said these simple words awkwardly, so new was she to the Harun tongue. The elders listened. Then they summoned me, still in my childhood years, and they said to me: "You shall be her ears and eyes."

Like the Harun, the Singer had two hands, but hers were soft and the fingers were long and cool and thin like mist.

I was Derezn, signifying nothing, being nothing, until I took her hand.

***

While she was distrusted among the Harun, she was not hated. And when she sang our songs back to us, her otherworldly voice had a pleasing sound.

She meant not to stay among us. She learned our language and our songs, then it was time for her to go. The first thing she told me was that she had been roaming the world for two years, by Gandaran reckoning. This meant eight full years by the Harun way.

I was no stranger to the journey across the Plains, but she walked carefully, as if she had never been in another place in the world like it.

The Singer was not an easy ward. She did not yet know all our gestures, and sometimes she thought "danger" meant "come," or "stay away" meant "time to eat." Yet I dared not call her foolish.

Of course I knew of her, I had heard the legends of the Singer. But I loved her not, because her way was change, and change was not the way of the Harun. She knew even more than the wind-folk, or the monks of Halam, or even the citizens of Idevat, of change. She knew songs from many distant tongues, and though I did not know the words, I listened.

The Singer slept at night. She was like the Black Flower folk, who needed to sleep when the sun was not in the sky. It was then that I could be alone with my thoughts.

The Singer was known in Harun lore as a frightening thing, a creature of magnificence and great magical power. And yet, this strange thing I accompanied seemed nothing like that. She was thin and frail and strange. The only thing about her that rhymed with the legends was that she was unafraid.

***

She said that she was searching for someone. She said that someone had been very special to her. "Sibling of the heart," she said in the Harun tongue.

But among the Harun the only siblings are the siblings you have from your birth-father, or your birth-mother. There is no other sort of sibling. So I asked her to explain.

She sang, "I shall tell you a secret. I came from another place," and she swept her hand across the stars, "very far away." She sang to me of her people. She sang that her people could change the world by music. They fashioned instruments that could control the wind, make the green things grow and the clouds part. Everyone cared about everything, for if you had power over everything, everything was your responsibility.

Only children didn't care, she said. Only children sang as if there was no consequence.

And she sang to me of a boy whom she had known since he was born. While the other children went to school and honed their musical talents in all earnest, the Singer and this boy played together, dreamt together, sang together. They made things move and made things grow and made things die and adults hated them for it; they said the two children were bound to grow up careless.

He must be grown up by now, she sang to herself.

One day, he said he wanted to explore other worlds. For they were aware of other worlds but they were never allowed to wander into them. The adults of their world knew that in other worlds their songs would be powerless, and that some worlds were dark and dangerous, not like their own. But the Singer's sibling took her by the hand and told her not to be afraid, and singing together they opened a door.

She continued to sing that where she came from, there were people born of different sets of parents, but were of the same mind about everything. They sometimes found each other, then they never let each other go. They were more than siblings, she sang, they were more than lovers, they were more than two different people. She needed to find the sibling of her heart, because without him she would not be complete.

But she had tried to use the Harun words and Harun words were not enough to explain her.

"I shall tell you a secret," she sang softly on the eighth day of our journey, "I see him in my dreams. In my dreams we are children, and he says he will find me soon."

***

I helped her cross the Plain. She was not made of hardy stuff like the Harun and the journey made her ill. "Let us rest," she said.

We came to a forest by the plain, and there we sought shelter. The Singer was pale and silent. I had done my part by the Harun way and I was ready to come home, but I did not wish to leave her.

I had never explored this forest, though I had crossed the Plain alone many times. This was known as the woods of Ogyu among the Harun. And in those days we believed that if you strayed from the path that crossed it and ended at the domain of the Black Flower people, you would be captured by the savage folk of the woods, and you would never come home.

But there was no one on the path through the woods. And I thought I heard sounds of a village from afar, so I left the Singer and strayed from the path.

I was found by two savage hunters who had been watching the Singer and myself. I said in the words of the Lowlands that we needed help.

They said nothing. When they did not attack me, I walked back to where the Singer was. The hunters followed me. They silently observed her, and when they decided she was no threat, they unfurled their long limbs and twisted them together into a bed. Cradling the Singer between themselves, they walked, and I followed.

***

The Singer and I were treated well in the hunters' village. When she had her voice again she walked to the edge of our pit-cage and sang "I have come. I crave your welcoming" in many tongues. It was only when she used the Black Flower tongue that we were set free.

They were nowhere like the Black Flower kin, these kind and quiet savages. Their skin was thick like bark, and leafy like the wood in which they lived. The children like to surprise us by jumping up from the green and winding round our bodies.

And they were all fascinated by the Singer, whose limbs would not twist and unfurl... and they found me amusing, because I was small and covered with hair and my limbs were only as short as the bone pipes their elders smoked.

They had never seen one like the Singer, and no man with hair the color of rulgit leaves had passed through.

The Singer decided to stay for many days in that village, learning the songs of the savages. I was free to leave as I pleased, but I had no wish to leave.

I learned the songs of the savages as well; I learned that their name for themselves was Gomergin, and that they were slaves of the Black Flower people.

They showed us the holes on their hands as they sang: the Black Flower folk came every year and gathered the children who reached a certain age. They marked the children by boring into their hands and bringing home a piece of each of their bodies. Then they kept those pieces as proof that they were owned and could be taken away at any time.

Sometimes they took the children away. Sometimes the children died from the marking. The Singer was angered to hear this.

When she was done hearing she started to sing, "I shall tell you a secret." Then she sang of a better life, of freedom and peace and living well unto old age - of places where children who had no holes on their hands sang as if there was no consequence.

The Gomergin heard her, for she sang in their language in an otherworldly voice, of change. Like the Harun, change was not a familiar thing to the Gomergin. But the Singer sang on and on and it seemed the leaves froze and the wind hushed and the whole world - even the cold and cruel Black Flower nobles asleep in their high chambers - sat still and listened.

In a few days, the Singer was ready to leave for the Black Flower lands. The Gomergin warriors took up their swords and spears. "They will follow us," I said to her.

"I know," she answered.

"They will follow us to their deaths," I said.

She said nothing back.

***

In the long while that followed, I was with the Singer. We witnessed worse things than the gruesome death of a handful of Gomergin warriors - we saw cities burn, temples crumble, gods weep and demons cry out in fear.

But we saw births. We saw new kingdoms built. We saw change.

I knew this was why the Singer was feared, sometimes even hunted. Her singing changed the world, even if she claimed that in this world, her singing had no power.

Long before she was sought by the Black Flower people for singing songs of freedom to their slaves, who were scattered across the continent, she was wanted by the Inbred of the South, a fallen tyranny that was not without its machineries, or its madness. Their mercenaries had caught up to us once, but we were hidden by the Northern Kildrin, who had heard of us - of a high, thin creature that walked on two legs, and the small hair-covered companion always at her heels.

The Singer wept, often and long - for her sibling, for the Gomergin, for the Einyu and the Dallarel and the many other races who heard her songs and sought her out and wanted to know...

What else is there, besides this world? What could they look forward to? What secrets did she have for them?

I once came across a man who boasted that the Singer was not long for this earth. The Black Flower Wizard was searching for her, he said. And the Black Flower Wizard was responsible for all the clan's victories. I chose not to challenge those words then, for we were among untrustworthy folk and I could not have revealed myself.

For I was the Singer's Man, her ears and eyes. I was her protector; I braved places we should not have been able to enter; I gathered things and knowledge that were helpful to us. When she was in danger, I rescued her or sent for help. I found food for her and kept her safe and watched her while she slept.

Soon only she called me by my infant-name, Derezn. The rest of the world knew me only as the Singer's Man.

***

One day she asked me why I had not gone home.

I answered, "I wish to learn your songs. All of them."

She smiled at me. "There isn't a way to learn all of anyone's songs. Not unless that person is the sibling of your heart."

She had said once, that if someone was a sibling of your heart, you would know if that someone was still dead or alive, and while that person was alive, you would have songs to sing.

I did not wish to come home. Though I wanted very much to see family and friends and familiar things, I knew that if I came home then, I would be a stranger to my own people. I would talk in song, in different tongues and in strange music. The way I counted time, the way I walked and the way I could meet the gaze of strangers, were different. I would crave the open road. I would wonder what had become of the Singer.

The Harun would never take kindly to that. Change is not part of the old way, and I had changed.

***

And for so many years, there was no one like her, tall and slender, with hair the color of rulgit leaves.

Before my eyes she grew older and wearier and less strong. Because of a lasting illness her sight became weak, and she needed to hold my hand when we walked while the sun was not in the sky.

She had long stopped counting time, and were it not for me she would not know that we had been abroad for four Gandaran years. "So long," she sang to herself.

We were sought by the Black Flower Wizard, we knew, so we hid and fled from the clan's dark-clad hunters as if we were nowhere near the end of the world. When we reached the Mistlands at the border of the Black Flower territory, she said she wanted to go in, though she knew there was nothing beyond it.

The sun did not live in the skies over the Mistlands, so it never left, but still she held my hand. Strange sounds and shadows flew by us at every turn, but while we were together, nothing happened to us.

We seemed to walk on and on for many, many days. I began to be afraid. I said we might not be able to return home if we continued walking - for I remembered the way out of the Mists, but my memory could only go so far. She said she would understand if I left, but she could not follow me back.

I did not leave.

One day while she slept I heard someone approaching from within the Mists. She woke, and we faced the footsteps, until they turned into a shadow, then into a shape.

It was a man, slender like the Singer - taller and healthier, though they may have been the same age. His hair was not the color of rulgit leaves, though it may have been once. The Singer stood and showed recognition.

"I have come," she started to sing.

"You'll get no welcoming from me," the young man said in the Black Flower tongue, gathering his wizard's robes about him. "Whoever you are, you've caused me a great deal of trouble."

She said a name. He said, "I know no one who answers to that." His otherworldly voice, like hers, had a pleasing sound. "Go home. Go back to where you came from. You came here on your own - I know you can return."

"We came here together," she soon answered. "We sang the door to life, and we came here together, and now the door is gone."

"Sing it back," he said to her sharply. "I know you can. Go now, or you will not leave here alive."

He looked at me, and there was hate in his eyes. "Get her out of here," he said to me. Then he turned, and walked quickly back into the Mists.

She tried to follow him.

She ran on and on, until she could run no longer. I was able to track her down by the sound of her voice. For she was singing out his name until her voice was hoarse and she could no longer speak.

I stayed by her and watched over her while she sat silent in the Mist. I tried to give her food and water, but she would not eat or drink. When she was tired I helped her lay down to rest.

Later, in a daze, she rose, and walked off into the Mist. I was able to follow her for a short distance. But she had lost her voice, and all her songs, and when I called she did not answer.

***

It took me two Gandaran years, four Spirit and four Star by Harun reckoning, to travel back to my village. If I were the Harun I had been, the many changed paths would have baffled me... for in the four Gandaran years that the Singer and I spent roaming the world, so many new roads had been created and old ones destroyed.

This was all the work of the Singer. The power of the Black Flower tribe's Wizard was failing, and the tribe's control over the peoples of the continent had started to falter. All were busy building and rebuilding, joining and splitting, creating in a time of destruction and blood and war.

I came home with my new name, the Singer's Man. And with this I traveled to many different places, places I had never been, toward the other ends of the world. I sang the songs I was taught and the songs I created, and most often I sang of the tall and slender Singer, whose secrets the world still craved to know.

They came to know me in some places as a bringer of change, of new ways of thinking. And then I came home for the last time, because I was old, and I was done with change.

I knew I would not outlive the Singer's war.

This song, I sing from my heart. It is when I fall silent that I dream. She has left me her songs, and within them the many pieces of her.

And in my dreams, I listen to the wind. I hear her singing, I shall tell you a secret.

end

First printed in Philippine Speculative Fiction 3, edited by Dean and Nikki Alfar, 2007.

MRR Arcega

Graduated from UP Diliman in 1998 with a degree in Journalism. Has published short stories and feature articles in Filipino and English. Won 2nd place in the Screenplay category of the 2001 Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature. Has been an editorial assistant, a junior PR executive, a copywriter, a proofreader, an online content developer, an online English tutor, and a guitarist for a pop/rock band. Is now an offshore accounts manager. Still writes freelance.