Horn-Song

'It is good to hear the trumpets sounding again, Cottia.'
The Eagle of the Ninth, Rosemary Sutcliff

Side by side, in fawn-brown and peat-coloured corduroy, we sat on the bare hill slope, watching as from a god’s vantage—and with a god’s detachment—the movements down below us. The tawny flanks of the hills were covered in long mottling patterns by the creeping scarlet pimpernel, which gave the hills a grotesque bloody cast; I sat with a shock of the humble wayside flower in my hand, twisting it absentmindedly around my fingers while the little spark of russet bloom faded in and out of my far-seeing vision. We had been speaking a moment before, my companion and I—about what, I don’t remember—and we had fallen silent again. The big upland emptiness around us discouraged conversation. So we sat in the windy quiet, I tailor-fashion, he with his knees up-drawn to his chest and his arms draped over them.

From far below, thin and angry and defiant, came up the sound of a war-horn baying, breaking up the quiet.

My companion did not move, but I saw his eyes flicker sidewise, southward, as if he could follow the sound of the horn’s song. I watched him carefully, but no other betraying shadow chanced across his features.

“Does it do anything to you?” I asked of a sudden, rather surprising myself with my own question.

He, too, looked faintly surprised; I could see the odd-shaped dove-coloured reflection of my image in his quizzical eyes.

“The horn-song.”

“Ah.” He turned back to the far-down chess-board view below us, but the dark thought had come into his face and I knew he was not seeing what was before him anymore than I was seeing the red jig of my scarlet bloom. Funny odd thing that, now that I thought of it: the horn-song was much the same colour as my bloom.

“Do you mean past-ward or forward?”

His question, in turn, surprised me and I said, “Well, both, I suppose!” with an awkward laugh that I did not mean and regretted the moment I made it.

My companion unlinked his arms from around his knees and ran his fingers soothingly through his hair, which the wind had taken and ruffled, which the wind took and ruffled again as soon as he put his arms back down. “I always thought them mocking, especially the brass-throated horns—these are bull-toned beasts that they have here. When they are the church-bells of your people, a people of a religion of annihilation, they sound fair mocking to the discerning ear. I had a strange and loathing love for them, for long and long.”

He reached over and took from me my shock of scarlet pimpernel, as if there were not enough around us for him to pick his own, and began twisting it as I had been twisting it, idly, staring at it without really seeing it, his brows drawn close to darkness over his eyes.

“For long and long,” I prompted, “but not forever long?”

He flashed a smile at me which did not turn up the corners of his mouth. “For long and long, but not forever long. But they conjure an altogether different feeling in me now, when I hear them.”

From a thick stand of beech below us came the yelp of another horn just then, silvery and collared in scarlet, as it seemed all horns had a veining of scarlet in their voices, and it sent a strange longing shiver down my spine.

“It calls up something in the blood, doesn’t it?” asked my companion, as if I had said something by my shiver. “Sometimes I think it is a sunset—the last sunset—calling out to me…” His voice had grown soft and far-off, then with a sudden intake of breath and hardness to his tone he said to me, “Do you remember that book of yours of when hell was at large in middle earth?”

“Yes.” I took back my flower. “I remember.”

“And do you remember that scene in which the champion of hell broke through the citadel gates, and he and the hero stood at odds with one another, waiting to see who would move first, and you did not know who would win or if the dice were loaded—”

“And then a cock crowed,” I said, and said it through a sudden tightness in my throat.

“And then a cock crowed.” He smiled mirthlessly.

I said, “Funny odd thing, isn’t it, that it is always a cock-crow?”

He nodded, and for a moment we were both thoughtful-silent, waiting for him to find his thoughts enough to go on. Presently he did so, arms across his knees once more, staring down unseeing and unblinking into the land below us, eyes a little wide as if in a kind of fixed horror at what he did see. “And then a cock crowed, as it seems it is their lot to crow at such a moment, mockingly—did I not say they had a mocking sound?—mockingly for hell does not know, as a simple dung-hill rooster knows, that dawn is breaking.”

“I am thinking it is not the colour of a sunset after all,” I said in a kind of rush, staring at him as he stared out at the valley, “but of sunrise.”

A madman’s light flashed upward into his eyes. “A dung-hill rooster crowing, crowing up the dawn, and then the horns!—horns! horns! horns! The vanguard of the ally come to turn the tide. That is what horns do to me—church-bells do it to you: they catch me looking for heaven’s vanguard to come through the mountains of the clouds and aid us—and outstrip us—in turning back the enemy tide. It grows weary fighting here, and long times between hearing our own rallying call, long times hearing the mockery of hell-horns; but the funny odd thing is that our mortal horns break through that, though far less powerful than the trumpets of either heaven or hell…”

His voice drifted away, broken off by a sudden confusion as if he had got lost in his own spate of words. I was looking now at my poor crumpled flower: crumpled, and yet the scarlet of it still burned against my palm.

“It is as though heaven calls out through our mortal horns, saying to hold fast, not long now…”

“Yes,” he said. “It is like that.”

And we were silent for some minutes after that, sitting in the tawny and scarlet of the hill’s slope, looking down at the movements below, hearing from time to time the bark and scream of the smaller horns calling out the movements. It was a funny odd thing… I caught it, too, the half-checked straining to hear if one of those horns had a voice you have never heard before, but have always known. I had always thought the horn would call us home, and maybe that is the part of it, but only the part of it. I thought now, seated by my companion in the blowing emptiness of the uplands, that perhaps it would be a horn calling us to the last charge; the Battle of Death, I thought I would call it—or the Battle of Life, I was not sure. Either way, something in me ached with a raw and uncovered aching to hear that horn.

With a heavy sigh my companion unfolded, climbing to his feet and holding out his hand to me. “There’s a moral somewhere in that,” he sniffed, “if you like morals.”

I let him pull me to my feet, and in the standing open the wind hit us full, feeling as if it would pull us clear away, blowing us into fawn-brown and peat-colour on the high blue of the moorland skyline.

“And I think he knew so,” I called down the wind: “the man who wrote that book of mine.”

The smothered thunder of a headlong fight boomed up to us on the wind. We began walking away, but the horns kept calling after us—scarlet, tell-tale, faintly mocking.

7 ripostes:

  1. I just came across your lovely blog! I love writing that goes good and deep, and yours does that. I'm rather curious, is the above portion of writing just a sketch, or is it from one of your books, or from another's book altogether? It is quite captivating and I would love to know more of their story.

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  2. Ah yes, yes, YES! THANK you.
    I just completed a happy-dance in the college computer lab, and the young woman across the table was looking at me like I'm crazy. Who cares.

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  3. I'm deeply flattered, Colleen Elizabeth! The portion you have just read is a mere sketch, a peek into the way my mind really works. You will, no doubt, hear more from these two (they converse very often) and you can read a little more about them in Dante's Wood and After the World's Last Night.

    I'm glad you enjoyed this enough to cut a jig, Lilly, and I hope it was as fun to read for you as it was fun for me to write.

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  4. “It is as though heaven calls out through our mortal horns, saying to hold fast, not long now…”

    Don't mind me. I shall just have to sit and blubber in this wee corner for awhile. I'll be alright presently.

    ... straining to hear if one of those horns had a voice you have never heard before, but have always known.

    Or perhaps I'll have to stay here, and make a dive for the Kleenex...

    Either way, something in me ached with a raw and uncovered aching to hear that horn.

    I love you, Jenny. Thank you.

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  5. I love you too, Katie. You're welcome. You're most heartily welcome.

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  6. This is beautiful, Jenny. Thank you so much for sharing these sketches, I enjoy them very much! :)

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  7. Oh, I hope it was as fun for you to write as it was for me to read. :)

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