When Cantor was a child, it was said that he was descended from Orpheus, who made flowers bloom with his song, who inspired trees to bend toward the playing of his lyre, who soothed the hearts of beast so well, they forgot to hunt their prey. Even Cantor’s crying was so sweet to hear that his mother had to stuff wax and cloth in her ears and watch his expression to know he was in misery.
When he was just learning to walk, his mother would take him walking through the village. He would burble and laugh whenever he fell, and the old men and women sitting by their stoops would gasp and proclaim that the pain in their joints and their bones had vanished. It was not the false sweetness that grown folk show to children. It was truth. Cantor’s voice could soothe pain.
It was said, and this may not be true, that when Cantor was in the fifth year of his life, his father took him to the home of a friend whose crops had failed three years running. This friend had planned to take his own life and leave his family in the care of the gods.
Cantor said but three words. “Take heart, uncle.”
The man felt a surge of hope and resolution. He doubted and suffered no more. He was filled once again with a longing for life and cast off his longing for death. He begged and scraped to save his farm and his crops and care for his kin. His burdens grew heavier, but he bore them with calm. Always he claimed that it was Cantor’s words, his voice, so pure and strong, that saved him.
Cantor was loved. He was envied. He was sought out. He was honored.
That all changed when he began to enter manhood.
At first, the mishaps that befell villagers in Cantor’s presence seemed to be accidents. Life in the farming village of Tolkus was happy but not easy. There were many a broken bone from falling out of trees, maimed limbs from coming too close to the reaping blade. The villagers had hearty food and sturdy shelter, but roofs sometimes leaked, walls cracked, crops failed, trees became blighted. Such was the way of life for many generations before Cantor was born.
At first, folk only lamented the loss of Cantor’s sweet singing voice as it squeaked and cracked and deepened. There were jests that he would recover, that while his child-like voice soared in the air, his man-like voice would rumble upon the earth.
Cantor himself noticed what no one else could know. All his life, he felt his voice in ways no others felt their own voices. He did not realize this was so until he grew older and spoke to his friends. When he would sing as a child, it felt as if golden sunlight and honey were flowing out of his throat. When he laughed with his friends and his younger sisters, his voice felt green and fresh like grass and leaves. When he was angry with his father, his voice dripped blackness and tasted sour. But even then, it did no harm.
But as manhood approached and his voice changed all those sensations faded. Even the dark ones. The heavy blue weight of nervousness as he spoke to a girl he fancied was gone. The lemony pride that sparked his voice sometimes, as when he told his mother of the chair he had built for her, faded.
One day, he fell into an argument with his father about his future trade. Cantor turned away from his father and yelled in rage. He felt something break loose from his throat and spin out. A sudden crack split the wall that Cantor was facing. His throat felt raw and torn, and he could not speak again for many days.
Another time, Cantor answered a call for help when a child was stuck far up in an apple tree. It was a blustery day and when the wind gusted and the child clutched to a thin branch, many cried out in fear. Cantor was one of those many. He blinked but twice and the tree before him cracked in two. The child in its branches fell. Cantor ran forward and caught her. He fell to the ground. The child was rattled but safe. Cantor suffered a bruised back and a growing dread for his own voice. That day his throat felt as if it were on fire. For a fortnight, he doused his throat with cool water and potions of steeped herbs, and uttered no sounds, not even groans of pain.
No one spoke of it. Where once there were jests and appeals to hear Cantor speak, to hear him sing, now there was only silence, not just from Cantor, but from the villagers. No one spoke of sending him away. They were afraid, but they still loved him. So long as he remained silent as his father had promised, no one wanted to send him away. But no one spoke to him. Not the girls who had once fancied him. Not the men who had once asked him to join their trade. Even one of his sisters fled from the room when he entered.
His family and the villagers, did all they could not to trouble him, to make sure they did not inspire any feeling in him that would cause him to open his mouth and utter a sound.
There was one friend who still spoke to him, who tried to encourage him to be curious about his voice. She told him once that she believed he had two deities battling within him, one benevolent, one malevolent. The benevolent deity had dominated when he was an innocent child. But as he grew older and saw more of the world and more of its bitterness, the malevolent deity began to emerge.
All people possessed such battling deities within them, but only some were capable of letting loose the deities’ powers without harm to themselves. But Cantor was not truly descended from gods, as far as he knew. Even if he were, he wanted nothing to do with the strange power of his voice.
“I am not possessed by deities, but by demons,” Cantor told his friend.
“Deities or demons, they do not possess you. You possess them,” she replied. “You can direct them.”
“It is folly to think so,” Cantor kept his head faced to the ground, so that he would do his friend no harm.
“You don’t understand your own power.”
“I do. It is the power destruction.”
“It was not always so.”
“But it is so now. There is no denying it. No changing it.”
“No changing it? Are you certain?”
Cantor sighed. His heart was heavy with grief and guilt. His throat ached from speaking so much after remaining silent for so long. And it tickled as though something was trying to burst out.
“I am certain,” Cantor said. “But I thank you for your hope and your kindness.” With his last words to his friend, he felt the faint shadow of his old voice, full of flowing blue calm and vivid violet life. But it faded quickly, for it was only a shadow.
He had decided that he would retreat from the village and live as a hermit. There were bandits about on the roads sometimes. He fancied that perhaps in time, he could use his terrible voice to frighten the enemies of his beloved village.
It came to pass that the sovereign over the land, a distant king who lived hundreds of leagues away from the village, waged war on his enemy, a nation even farther away. This king needed soldiers for his army and he launched a campaign of conscription.
It came to pass that knowledge of Cantor’s voice, of its destructive powers, reached the high tribune, who was assembling the army in the region of the kingdom where Cantor’s little village lay.
Cantor’s father feared his son would be wanted in the forward ranks, carrying a spear in his hands and an even deadlier weapon in his throat. Though a villager, Cantor’s father had enough influence with the local leaders of the army to assure that Cantor would be placed in the rear ranks, and that his voice would be used only to destroy weapons, siege works, and the like, not to harm people. They were farmers, not soldiers. He feared that his son would die quickly in the forward ranks. The high tribune agreed.
Cantor was made to demonstrate his power. He could not refuse, for if he did, the king would seize the entire village. The village was neither poor nor prosperous under the rule of the high tribune, who was neither caring nor negligent. But if the village fell under the direct rule of the king, he would take their farms. The villagers would be left to stay and die or go to beg in the nearest great township.
There was a ruined brick wall in a place where a manor once stood. Several generations back, there was a legate who brought his servants and half his family to live in the countryside, away from the intrigues of court and the tribulations of a major township. It was the beginning of what would become the village that bore his name. The village of Tolkus.
Most of the wall that once surrounded the manor had been broken down and salvaged to build other houses. But a section of the wall still stood. As dread gripped and squeezed his heart so hard he could hardly take a breath, Cantor stood before the wall one foggy morning. He felt the eyes of his father, the tribune, and the tribune’s three guards on his back as he took a breath.
Cantor had never tried to destroy by will. He had tried to heal by his will when he was young, but had never quite succeeded.
He filled his mind with ill thoughts and directed them at the wall. He hoped he would fail. He hoped that the high tribune would laugh and decide that Cantor and the other men of the distant little village were unworthy of the king’s army. But he also hoped that he would succeed, for he knew better than to believe that the village would be spared either way.
Cantor rarely spoke. Even when he was alone, he rarely cried out in joy or sadness or rage. For he feared his own voice. He did not wish to harm others. But so too did he not wish to harm himself.
But now, he opened his mouth and he roared at the wall. At first, he felt only the relief, even the triumph, of crying out. But then he felt something cutting loose from his voice. Some force riding his voice out, out toward the wall.
The wall began to tremble. Dust and bits of mortar trickled down. Then chunks of brick cracked and tumbled down. Then a sound as of a thunderclap burst out from the wall just as a crack formed and spread. The wall collapsed in a pile of broken bricks.
A flame of agony erupted in Cantor’s throat. He grasped his throat and gestured for water. As a soldier brought him a water jug, his father explained to the high tribune the limits of the terrible power.
The high tribune was well-pleased.
Cantor feared he would be asked to bring down buildings with people still inside. He feared he would see slaughter and depravity in battle. But for many months, he only marched in silence.
He feared he would be asked to speak, to demonstrate the power of his voice, but none of the soldiers he marched with, none in the legion, even the leaders, mentioned his voice. None seemed to know about it. Few questioned his reason for remaining silent. They allowed him his grimness, as others were allowed their crudeness, their kindness, or even their levity.
There was one light-hearted fellow in particular, Linus, who always cheered the men. He would jest while they marched. When they made camp, he would tumble and recite speeches at meal times. At twilight, he would sing songs and play the lyre. Cantor watched wistfully. While he did not join in the singing, he gave in to Linus’s taunting one night and played the lyre far more sweetly and deftly than Linus ever had. The men around the dinner pot cheered and threw Linus’s taunts back him. They clapped Cantor on the back and praised him for putting the young jester in his place. Linus, surprised and shocked at first, expressed envy and admiration that stirred bittersweet memories within Cantor’s heart.
Still, Cantor did not forget why he was made to join the king’s army. He was glad that none of the men knew about his voice. But his fears remained. They grew, they changed, but they always remained.
He feared that the tribune would go back on his word to his father, that he would be brought to the front of the ranks and made to roar at the enemy, to break their bones, and tear their flesh, and make their bodies split and collapse into death as he had done to that wall of brick.
But none of those fears came to pass. He had not imagined the true purpose of his presence on the campaign.
The legion reached the borders of the enemy kingdom and made camp. Scouts passed between both sides, scouts that walked in the open, bearing standards, and those who crept about in the shadows after the fall of night.
After a few weeks, Cantor heard rumors that there was to be a meeting between the two sides to discuss a truce. Some of the soldiers were displeased by the rumor. They longed for battle, glory, and victory. Other soldiers held their tongues almost as tightly as Cantor did, but he could see in their eyes and their expressions that they held a desperate hope for such a meeting, for peace.
Cantor had not lost friends and brothers to the war as many of his fellow soldiers had. He had not lost limbs. He did not fear sleep for the nightmares it would bring. But he longed for the rumors to be true. For it they were, and if the statesmen could come to an accord, then there would be no need for his spear or his voice.
“Wake up, soldier. Your legate has need of you.”
Cantor woke quickly, as he was trained. He jumped out of his cot and snapped to attention before the man who had woken him. He recognized the man as the prefect of the camp.
“We have heard that you can play the lyre quite well,” the prefect said. “We have need of music to ease the mood of the accords, and I would that music be played by a soldier in case we have need of fighting.”
“Then you should take me, sir,” a voice spoke from out of the dark. A bold and yet soft voice. It was Linus. “I cannot play the lyre as well, but I am a better soldier.” Linus stepped into the light of the torch that the prefect was carrying. “Cantor here has done nothing but march. He keeps his spear sharp enough, but he’s never used it.”
Cantor heard chuckles from the soldiers around him who were pretending to be asleep. But an ill feeling twisted in the pit of his stomach.
“Our weapons will be taken from us before we enter, as will theirs,” the prefect said as they walked toward the commanders’ tent.
“Well, if they make trouble, we’ll still have our wits,” Linus said. He flexed his arms and winked at Cantor. “And our muscles.”
Inside the commanders’ tent, Cantor and Linus were stunned to find, stood the legate who commanded the whole army and the prince who was heir to the whole kingdom. The prince was attired in ceremonial armor.
The members of the delegation who would attend the accords were chosen. The prefect, the prince, the statesman who would do the true work, guards, and a few soldiers, including Cantor and Linus. The time and day of the accords had not been announced so that they could not be sabotaged.
As the delegation marched toward the neutral grounds upon which the accords would take place, the prince encouraged the statesmen and soldiers.
They walked out of sight of the camp and soon were within sight of a single white tent that stood in the midst of a wide field. There were men standing outside and quite some distance from the tent. There was a table upon which stood a chest. All weapons were to go within the chest. The keys were to be given to the prefect. The men who guarded the chest were likewise unarmed. The opposite side of the tent would have a similar table and chest for the enemy delegation. Both sides had brought spies and archers, but the field was so vast that none could do harm to those in the tent save those who were in the tent.
Linus was right. They might succumb to a fistfight, but there would be no swordplay or spears or arrows.
As Cantor watched and wondered, he noted that the prefect had come to walk beside him. The prefect raised his hand and made a gesture, and the guards and soldiers who were marching nearby dropped farther behind out of earshot.
“The high tribune of your land tells me you have a weapon that they will not find,” the prefect said.
Cantor’s heart froze.
“After we go into that tent and the accords have begun, I will give you a signal. Upon that signal, you are to use that weapon.”
Cantor’s throat tightened as if even his terrible voice refused to destroy unarmed and defenseless men. He had feared some vile use was in store for his voice. But he had not imagined the worse.
He was not to be a weapon of war. He was to be a weapon of murder.
“I can feel your reluctance, soldier,” the prefect said. “Remember what will become of your village if you refuse my order.”
For hours Cantor waited for the signal that the prefect had devised. There was refreshment, but he could not eat or drink. There was music, but though he played it, he could not hear it. Ever he watched for the sign from the prefect. The prefect had said it would only be one person. Perhaps that would not weigh so heavily on Cantor’s soul. But the accords would be ruined. War would rage. That was not worth the suffering of one village. His people would find a way to survive. He would warn them to flee. Cantor had decided he would not follow the prefect’s order.
At last, after hours of argument and little progress, the accords were called to an end for the day. All rose to give final greeting.
That was when the prefect signaled. Cantor saw the target he indicated…it was the prince.
The prince was shaking hands with the enemy delegation. Cantor understood at once. If the prince was struck down now, in the confusion that would follow, it would be thought that the enemy had struck him down. There were other kingdoms who were watching the war, wondering if they should chose a side. If the prince was struck down, Cantor’s kingdom would win much sympathy, and perhaps some allies in the war.
Cantor could not risk the accords. He could not kill his own prince.
The prefect leaned over his shoulder. “The prince is far too well-protected. I could never reach his cup. But your friend is not so hard to reach.”
Behind him, Cantor heard a cough, a clearing of the throat, and more coughing, from Linus.
“I will give him the antidote, if you do as I have commanded, before it is too late.”
Cantor stiffened. He could not kill his own prince. He could not let Linus die. He began to turn, but the prefect grasped his shoulder. Cantor watched the prince laugh and pull away from the last of the delegates.
Linus was coughing so loudly now that he was beginning to catch the attention of others. Cantor felt the hand upon his shoulder squeeze hard as the prince glanced in his direction. Cantor heard the coughing stop. He heard a thump that sounded like a large sack being dropped to the ground.
“He’s not the only one,” the prefect said. “I have your entire barracks. You can still save them. Do as I command. And I’ll send a flaming arrow into the air. My men will see it, and they will give your men the cure. Do as I command.”
Cantor winced and not from the pain of the prefect’s grip. He believed that the prefect had poisoned his whole barracks. He did not believe there was a cure. The churning in the pit of his stomach stopped.
He heard someone cry, “Treachery!” He saw the enemy delegates take hold of the prince and drag him away. He saw the guards from his side rush forth to defend their prince. He wrenched his shoulder free from the prefect’s grip. He turned and pushed the prefect back. He glanced down and saw the body of his friend lying on the packed earth. The prefect stumbled back and stepped on Linus’s belly. The young soldier’s eyes were open, and when they blinked, Cantor realized that Linus was still alive.
Cantor’s eyes widened. He glanced between the prefect, who had recovered and had launched himself at Cantor, and Linus, who blinked helplessly as he lay on the ground, blood and foam trickling from his mouth.
Cantor was filled at once with the stillest rage for the prefect and the most terrible compassion for Linus. He felt the prefect’s hands around his throat. But it was too late. Cantor opened his mouth and he roared. He dropped to his knees, pulling the prefect down with him.
Cantor roared. He stared into the prefect’s face. He could not see what his voice was doing behind the skin that shivered. Blood oozed from the prefect’s nostrils and leaked from the corners of his eyes. Cantor felt the hands around his throat drop away. He pushed the prefect back, away from the body of Linus.
Cantor looked down at his friend’s body and when he saw that some of the leather wrappings around Linus’s hands had been shredded, he realized that the young soldier had been caught in his roar.
Cantor clapped his hands to his mouth and squeezed shut his eyes. He knelt over Linus, whose body gave a jerk. Cantor sat up again. He glanced over at the still body of the prefect, then glanced back at Linus, whose shoulders shook in a cough.
Linus’s eyes opened. He coughed and looked up at Cantor.
“I felt it,” Linus said, in a croaking voice. He swallowed. “I felt your voice sweep through me like cool waters. Sweep it away.”
Cantor could only stare.
Linus propped himself on his elbows. “I am healed.” To prove it, he rose to his feet, and helped Cantor to his.
“How can the same voice that killed the tribune have healed you?” Cantor asked before he realized he had spoken aloud. He clapped a hand to his mouth, but nothing more than his words came out.
Linus’s eyes widened, both out of shock at what had happened and surprise at hearing his friend’s voice for the first time. “I don’t know, but it did.”
Cantor remembered then his friend from the village of his youth. The girl who had told him to cherish his voice, even when it turned from sweet to sour, from healing to destroying. She thought there were two deities warring within him. She thought that one deity was benevolent and used his voice to heal. The other was malevolent and used his voice to destroy. If she was right, perhaps both deities had cast out their powers to ride Cantor’s voice at the same time. The same voice had healed one man and killed another. Cantor had killed after all. He should have been devastated. Troubled at the least. He felt nothing.
He clutched his throat. It didn’t hurt. It should have been on fire. Or it should have felt as if it were pierced with nails and shards of glass.
Linus swept a gaze around the tent. “Treachery…all around us.”
“We will have to flee,” Cantor said, casting his voice to the side. “They will say that we betrayed the accords. They will say we killed the prefect.”
“He tried to kill us first.”
“They will say I betrayed our people.”
“They will say what they need to say to either save the accords or to end them,” Linus said. “Were we the only ones who actually came here hoping for peace?” He raised a brow. “The prince! We should…”
“We should look after ourselves.”
“How will we get past the archers? How have the guards outside not come in here to kill us yet?”
Cantor took a breath. He readied his voice. The voice that had destroyed the poison in his friend’s blood. The voice that had destroyed the treachery in his leader’s mind. He tried to think on how he had felt, how his voice had felt, when he last roared, but he was too scared, too confused.
Perhaps his voice could make flowers bloom and ease the pain of the old and suffering. Perhaps his voice could bend spears and shatter arrows. Perhaps it would do neither before he and his friend left the tent. Perhaps he would die on what was meant to be a field of peace.
The only way that Cantor could keep his voice from harming was to master it. The only way for Cantor to find out what his voice could do was to use it.
He glanced at Linus and stepped toward the opening of the tent.
“Follow me,” he said.
Copyright © 2016 Nila L. Patel