The Bell Singers
by LB Benton
At first, there were only a few.
On that day, strange winged creatures appeared near the lower end of the valley and settled here and there in the trees and on high points of rocks up the sides of nearby ravines. They came first as individuals, then in twos and threes, cawing coarse and ragged messages among themselves.
All of this was observed by our watchmen, who judged the visitors to be merely passing through and so sent a message of greeting as is our custom. News of the strangers’ arrival was relayed from watchman to watchman until it reached the lower villages, just waking up to a new day of work with our crops and animals. The notice was received with interest and vigilance but largely ignored; we went about our business as usual.
This was, however, the terrible day our misfortunes began, though we didn’t know it at the time. Later, the great tragedy that befell us changed our people and our way of life forever. But at the beginning, in our innocence and because of our peaceful nature, we thought little of the visitors, for all who come here are welcomed.
Our life in the valley is unhurried and idyllic; a gentle stream of pleasant days lived in harmony with nature. We grow our crops, maintain flocks and herds, and join together as one to sing songs, which are known among us as the songs of the bells.
But on that particular day, even with unrecognized and unimaginable catastrophe looming over us, warm sunlight, with its expected regularity, once again found its way over the tops of the Jagged Mountains and fanned across our villages and fields. Soft breezes pushed along the river banks, animating the tall bushes and water grasses, and clear currents bubbled lugubriously over rocks and swirled into small pools of foam.
Villagers tending the herds of gobels moved them from the pens to the grazing fields. Even the animals sounded agreeable and content, barking with pleasant anticipation of the pastures just ahead.
The closeclaws and sharptails, clacking and chattering, were moved to their feeding stalls, scurrying here and there as villagers ran to keep the flocks together. A soft, pungent dust swirled up from their hooves and claws, sparkling golden in the rays of sunlight.
Beyond the lower entrance to the valley, our most remote watchman observed a far distant black cloud slowly moving across the face of the sun, silently turning in the direction of our homes. As the dark shadow approached, growing larger, the watchman signaled increasing concern to others nearby. The guards watched carefully as the cloud approached.
Near our villages, work was beginning in the growing fields as well, with tribe members tending the azor-root shrubs across the river. Working slowly along waist high green foliage, the plant groomers moved methodically down the long rows, singing in the manner of our tribe, creating the sounds of bells and wind chimes, filling the air with soothing silver whispers.
Our voices, when we speak or sing, resemble the jangling of a cluster of fragile and delicate bells shaken and brought alive by the motion of the breeze. Thus, on that morning, the pleasant noise of villagers singing songs of the bells, a sound much like the tinkling silver of melodic chimes, drifted over the fields and river. The pace was slow and unhurried, workers moving deliberately and with purpose. Nothing, on that early morning, foretold what lay ahead.
Suddenly, new and frightful alarms from the watchmen sounded, this time signaling immediate danger from the air. The warnings were piercing and urgent. Workers, herd-tenders, children, life itself, stopped and looked skyward.
Appearing suddenly from the lower end of the valley, a mass of dark, snarling beasts filled the air overhead, sights we had never seen and sounds we had never known, mysterious beings casting shadows in strange forms across our villages and fields.
At the sight of the beasts, workers cried out with metallic, jangling voices, a mixture of surprise, wonder, and alarm. Startled, we ran for the safety of the villages. The creatures descended on our communities, dropping nimbly from the sky. They settled in the azor fields, flattening the bright green stalks. They lighted on the banks of the river, waddled through the waters, and muddied the usually clear flows. Their numbers were so large that they overran our lower valley with a singular, artist-like precision.
Confused, the plant groomers ran for their lives, but the beasts were too fast and too powerful. Everywhere there were cries like the rapid clanging of black iron; alarmed and confused villagers ran in all directions. Our members tried to fight with their talons and the blades in their forearms, tools used only for plant-tending and hunting, but the effort was of little use. The scales that cover our backs offered no protection against the creatures’ sharp talons.
There were screams of fear and terror, like massive rusted gongs, frantically echoing in the lower valley. The beasts searched for our people everywhere, collapsing many buildings, including our great house, and flushing out of hiding those who had sought refuge. In the same way that wild sharptails hunt ground lizards, flocks of these creatures encircled our members, forcing them into tighter and tighter groups and then slaughtered them.
Cries echoed through the valley and our runners, swift as gobels, ran like the wind to the distant villages and spread alarm and fear. I, too ran, as quickly as possible, darting between trees and behind giant rocks to stay hidden. One of the huge beasts saw me and swooped close with talons outstretched, missing me only at the last moment as I ducked under a fallen tree.
We ran, everyone ran. Some called out, “To the caves”; some, “Run,” stumbling and falling, crashing through brush and leaping over rocks. “This way to the caves,” the cry rang from one to another as the sound of evil reverberated across our land. The horrid cawing and sounds of beating wings, like the rush of waterfalls, drove us faster and faster.
A few of us from below and those farther up the valley ran to the caverns in the crags and crevices of the Jagged Mountains. Here, at the upper end of the valley, there are many hidden caves where we gathered, huddled in fear, praying to our gods that the beasts would not find us, would not come to these hiding places.
We waited until the noise of murder and death subsided. A terrible silence slowly enveloped the valley, interrupted only now and then by frantic cries of fear and desperation, a panicked clanging of black iron, as the hiding places of one villager after another were discovered.
Helpless, we waited with fear and trembling, huddled together, cold, though it was not cold, and dreading what we did not understand. We thought that a great plague had come upon us, we understood that many of our brothers and sisters had been taken and that all seemed lost in an instant.
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That night, the two moons set, the giant red and the lesser yellow. An eerie peace disguised the awful scene far below. The night was still. Fog quietly slid down the draws and curled over sharp rock escarpments, conspiring with the darkness to hide the murders and soften any further cries. But we knew, and we remained still, huddled together: even the strongest of our hunters.
Gathered in the caves and clinging to one another, we passed the hours in tremulous vigilance. Only one tiny fire was lit, and few slept. The old shaman had sunk into a deep, sad reflection and, rocking back and forth, made low humming sounds far back in the cave, his face softly illuminated by the dim, yellow glow of a tiny fire. No one dared approach him. Our chief, Lord King Melk, was moved to a more remote cave, deeper in the crags, and safer. There he wept for our lost kin and could not be consoled.
In the darkness, a herd of wild buckspurs, gripped by the same fears that held us far back in the caves, crashed through the forest farther down the slope. Usually silent, the clattering of overturned rocks and breaking tree limbs betrayed their panic as they rushed to safety. They too were escaping the valley and moving to the dense and more secure thickets above us in the mountains.
We did not see them, but we heard them, bleating, terror-stricken, clamoring through brush, their hooves, normally surefooted, grasping for any firm ground to carry them up the side of the mountain. The noises sent fear through our people who were sure the winged beasts were approaching.
I sat far back in the cave, near the old shaman, and trembled in concert with my brothers and sisters. In this way we waited, wondering what horrible fate had befallen us and dreading what our end might be. The serenity of our quiet lives had been torn in two, and I wondered whether our people would ever again experience the happiness of the untroubled lives we had known or share the joy of bell singing.
We had lived in peace and tranquility in our homes for generations. Our valley is well hidden and protected from other parts of the wild and desolate lands by dense forests and rugged mountains. In our isolation, we have never known any way other than harmony and equality. The history of our singing, what is known among us as bell singing, identifies our people and is an integral part of our village life.
Sitting in the darkness and fear of the cave, I thought about the origin of our bell singing. The beasts had forever stripped away the grace and beauty of our quiet lives, and I wondered what remnant of our tribe the caves now held, whether few or many. And, should the beasts leave, I wondered what imprint they would leave behind on our people.
Leaning my head back against the cold rock of the cave’s wall, I recalled the stories the elders told of our community and the beginning of the bell singing.
In our village in the lower valley, there was a great house used for tribal meetings and gatherings. Attached to a corner of the roof, near the entrance, hung a cluster of bells of various sizes and shapes, dangling from lengths of dried vines. Made of precious materials: silver, brass, tin, fired clays, and heavy bronzes, these bells were a source of great joy to our quiet community.
The exact history of the bells is lost in a forgotten and remote past, though various opinions of their origin survive. Some say they were acquired years ago from traders passing through the valley. It is said that gobel and closeclaw meat along with azor root flour were exchanged for the instruments. Others say a single tribal member crafted the bells using special clays and metals he had dug from mines. Tribal elders who hold this view explain that, in a hidden workshop located far up in the mountains, this lone artisan fashioned the bells and then left them on the chief’s doorstep during the night. What the true story is no one knows.
In the dark of the cave, our people huddled and whispered. Few words were spoken for fear of alerting the beasts to our location. Stories of escape and horror were exchanged and questions circulated as to the nature and character of the creatures. All wondered where the savage monsters had come from and when, if ever, they would leave. I watched and listened to the villagers while the pleasant memory of our singing weighed on my thoughts. A great sadness grew within me.
According to our history, from the day of the bells’ appearance, they have hung outside the great house and, with every breeze or shift in the wind, they moved and called out their soft, silver symphony. The gentle dancing of the bells brought forth clear, beautiful chimes, music like the falling together of silver pieces.
Our whole people have always been intrigued by the crystalline sounds of the shining instruments, mysterious in their origin and even more mysterious in their effect. Copying the sound of the bells, we learned to sing and in so doing, we came to believe that singing was the language of the universe.
Years later, our people gathered in circles around the bells. With our faces turned skyward, we stood motionless for hours and sang. Our voices chiming like crystal, tinkling, jingling, resonating in harmony with the bells. Villagers stood still, three and four deep, as though transfixed by some magic, softly singing with joyful emotion. It was subdued and beautiful; a ringing, almost exultant petition to the gods beyond the stars. Now, sitting in the dark shadows of the cave, I wondered with a heavy heart, if it would ever be again.
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Copyright © 2016 by LB Benton