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The Sombre Season

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The first Tom knew about the bonfire was when Seb appeared in his room, begging for fuel. Tom was struggling through a Beethoven cello sonata, and he ducked his head over his cello and kept playing until Seb started poking around in Tom's sheet music.

"Stop that," Tom said, holding his bow above the strings and the note he'd been playing suspended in his mind.

Seb was a sturdy kid, with clutching fingers and an ingratiating smile. "It's bad luck not to give something to be burned," he said eagerly, as if he were doing Tom a favor, looking out for him. "Do you want to come cut wood with me?"

Tom willed those clutching fingers to let loose of his Brahms. "I've got better things to do," he said shortly. "Bonfires are childish."

For a second, Tom thought Seb looked entirely crushed, and he felt a stab of regret that he was never nicer to poor Seb. It wasn't the kid's fault he was the only kid in a large household of adults. Tom was the nearest to him in age, and Tom was almost ready to leave school. There really was no comparison with an eight year old.

"Your cello would burn nicely," the brat said, and all thoughts of niceness evaporated. Tom rose up wrathfully to throw him out. Seb dashed out before Tom could get to him, and Tom followed to shut the door. "Go ask your father," he called down the hallway, meaning it as a peace gesture. Seb scampered away even faster.

"Morton is with Laurel on this," someone said from the other direction. Ana, Seb's mother, approaching with a tray full of some kind of goodies. Ana was always cooking the most delectable treats, and she had the most energetic disposition Tom had ever known. "Would you like something?"

"Laurel?" Tom asked with sudden interest. "She's going to be at the bonfire?" It was hard to imagine beautiful, sophisticated Laurel attending a rustic bonfire, but that just made the picture more appealing.

"No, it was my idea," Ana said. She pushed the tray closer to Tom and he automatically took a frosted cake shaped like a stylized boy. Head, torso, arms, legs, and a good deal of icing for the hair and clothing. It looked delectable. "Laurel doesn't approve of celebrations that weren't her idea."

"What are we celebrating?" Tom asked agreeably.

"Elimination of baleful influences," Ana said, so cheerfully that Tom just nodded along. "It's an old tradition. You should come. I've been watching you -- all work and no play, except for that cello of yours. You need more pure fun in your life. There will be dancing, and music, and joy and laughter. I promise if you come you'll enjoy yourself, and people like us need every moment of joy we can manage, don't you think?"

Tom nodded and opened his mouth to say something, balanced between easy agreement and vague confusion: people like us? Tom often felt like the odd one out, the orphan among the rich and powerful, but Laurel told him not to mind that. "You can't possibly think you don't belong here if I tell you differently," she said.

It was almost like magic that Laurel appeared as he was thinking about her, a cloud of sleek, colorless hair and a pained smile. "I don't think we have a lot in common, you and I," he said to Ana, his eyes on Laurel. Her nod of approval was all the reward he needed.

She moved past Ana and took the cake out of his hand. Tom felt a faint pang of regret, but he was sure Laurel was right to do it. "My dear Ana," Laurel said, twirling gracefully to face her adversary. "It's of no earthly use trying to pry Tom away from his cello. Especially to round out your your little Seb's party." By this Tom could tell that Laurel not only didn't want him at the bonfire, she hated the very idea of the bonfire, and he felt guilty for ever even thinking about agreeing to go.

"We're being very indulgent of dear Ana," Laurel told Tom, forgiving him. Ana, though--

Laurel crumbled the cake in her hand and brushed the crumbs onto Ana's tray. "Ana, I must ask," she said, her eyes catching Ana up like the hypnotic eyes of a snake. Her voice was no less terrible for its silky sweetness.

Tom ducked his head and slipped away, closing the door of his room softly behind him. Laurel didn't need his support, and he had Beethoven to work on.

He was often glad that Laurel approved of Beethoven.

 

Tom had dinner with Laurel that evening, just the two of them, served at the tiny table in Laurel's private parlor. Soft candlelight and piquant sauces and a dozen tiny courses. The very opposite of rustic.

Laurel asked Tom about his music, and Tom tried to explain, but he couldn't quite put into words the quest for the true meaning of the sonata. "Every time I play it, it's like...a different journey," he tried. "It's like...an invocation, but I don't know what the music is yearning for."

Laurel joined into it as a game. Laurel was far more articulate than Tom; everything Laurel suggested sounded good -- but it wasn't quite right either. Not "motion evoking emotion" (though there was something in that). Definitely not "imposition of the emotional truth to be found in musical symmetry" (he wasn't entirely sure what that would mean, but he was sure that imposition was too hard a word). But each suggestion sparked more discussion, and Tom liked the feeling of being at the center of Laurel's attention.

Even if he did suspect she was only trying to distract herself from the spectre of the bonfire.

When he returned to his own room, Tom found that he was too restless to practice the same sonata again. He tried, but he kept getting distracted from the total awareness that the music required. His thoughts got tangled, repeating words and phrases that would make Laurel understand each instant in time, and then the instant was gone, and all the instants that followed -- it was hopeless.

He went to the window and leaned against the frame. The sun was setting over the ocean, and the thick Cornish hills were shadows of rock and vegetation. Laurel owned many houses, and she and her entire household travelled between them in patterns that Tom only vaguely understood; this Cornish cottage was popular in the spring and summer, Tom had noticed over the years. The sound of the ocean appealed to Tom when he was feeling restless.

After a while, Tom noticed that the glow from the lower windows was disappearing, darkness moving across the gardens until the last light was coming from Tom's own window. Self-consciously, he extinguished his light and returned to the window. A crowd moved up the road away from the house. Tom could only see one curve of the road, but that gave him one glimpse of each person, some bent under loads of fuel, some dancing lightly along as if the music had already started. When the crackle of the fire and the music of a simple flute drifted along on the evening air, Tom couldn't resist any longer.

He wouldn't go to the bonfire, but he knew where he could get a better view.

He'd discovered the way out the window and across the roof when he was younger, but it took long limbs and a good head for heights to step into the branches of the oak tree, past the broad trunk and onto another thick branch that led to the roof of the stable. The stone building had once been the main house; the roof was steeply pitched but not too difficult to climb. From the peak of the roof, Tom could see the bonfire.

He climbed onto the other side of the roof and lay down, the roof tilting his head at the perfect angle.

As he watched the shadows of dancers and revellers pass across the flame, Tom wondered what kind of baleful influences the fire was meant to combat. He didn't think it was meant to combat discouragement, but he did feel a little heartened, watching the fire reaching toward the sky. And when the dancers started throwing disks of fire into the air, dark and light in a wild pattern like a giant juggling, he felt his lips stretch into an unexpected smile.

"I can't believe she'd dare!" Laurel's voice came from so close that Tom startled, but then he realized that she was standing in the stable yard just below him. He couldn't see her, not without moving, and she wouldn't be able to see him lying on the roof as long as he stayed still.

Tom stayed very still.

"Why can't you just put a stop to it, if you don't like it?" That was Morton Leroy, Ana's husband. He was Laurel's ally more often than not. Ana deserved better, Tom thought -- and then repressed the thought almost as soon as he thought it.

"She's entitled to her perks," Laurel said. "But if she goes much further, I will have to act. I have my own interests, and I have the right to act if she impinges on my work of transformation with her paltry fire. Daft woman, she can't possibly know what she's doing, twisting things this way."

"I'll go talk to her," Morton said.

"Tell her--" Laurel broke off, and on the roof Tom stared at what she was surely staring at. Something had been added to the fire, something large and shadowy and when it burst into flames Tom had to squint against the brightness.

"Tell her it's too late, if you can get there before I do," Laurel said grimly. She rushed into the stable and Tom could hear her shouting for the stable boy. Morton cursed and sprinted -- surprisingly fast for a heavy man -- up the road toward the hilltop.

Tom waited, not sure what was going on, not even daring to move. The bonfire was shaped like a human figure. A woman, if he squinted and used his imagination. Was it Laurel? Was that why she was so upset? He was frozen by dread, and by the knowledge that there was nothing he could do. Morton was already running to tell Ana--

A horse left the stable at a gallop, Laurel on its back, moving with it, urging it on. Even in the dark of night, the horse glowed golden: Laurel's darling, Laurel's pride and joy, unmistakable eager head and flowing tail. In sunlight, the colt was the color of honey; in the darkness, its light color faded in and out, sometimes shadowed, sometimes catching the light of the fire. As it neared the fire, it stood out from the shadows like a spirit of vengeance, darker than sunlight, lighter than death.

The dancers dodged away from the assault, all except one. Laurel's colt headed toward the fire, swerving around the insufficient obstacle of a single human body. The fire itself was a bigger obstacle; the colt gathered itself and leapt, and on its back Laurel swung as if she were playing polo, and the fiery figure fell over.

Again and again, Laurel pointed the colt at the fire, until the figure in the flames was broken up and the colt was swaying so that even Tom, so far away, could see its exhaustion.

But Laurel put it at the flame again, urging it into yet another leap.

The colt mistimed its steps, stumbled, and fell.

For a moment, Tom couldn't believe it. Then he let himself down from the roof into the courtyard and from there he ran, ignoring the road, straight up the hill. His only thought was for Laurel.

 

When Tom reached the top of the hill, he was panting almost as hard as the colt. It was standing wearily, head hung low, one hind foot held off of the ground. Burns crossed its flank and stretched along its hind leg, blistered flesh leaking fluid in places, darker than its hide. Laurel, unharmed, was holding its head up with her arms.

"A damn shame," Morton Leroy said from somewhere in the crowd ringing this tableau. "But you can't blame Ana for this. You'll have to put him down, Laurel."

"I will not," Laurel said. "Send for the vet, Morton, and the rest of you, put out the remains of that cursed fire. I'll make sure he's ready to be treated when the vet arrives."

Then her eyes fell on Tom and she smiled, a soft, vulnerable smile. "Tom will help me," she said. "Won't you, Tom?"

Tom felt a lump in this throat under Laurel's soft gaze. "I don't know what I can do," he stammered.

"I'll tell you what to do," Laurel said persuasively. "You only need to listen to me and do what I say. Can you do that for me, Tom?"

Tom nodded, hoping that he could.

"Come over here," Laurel said. "Don't touch him where he's injured, pat his head, get to know him. You're going to be giving him a gift, you need to know him and he needs to know you."

Tom had always left the horses to Laurel; he approached nervously. The horse shuffled and then its head came up with teeth bared, nostrils flaring. But Laurel had control of the reins and she pulled him just enough to get his attention, and released him and rubbed him on the forehead until his head drooped again.

"He's not bad, he's frightened and in pain, just frightened," she said in a low, calm voice.

Tom admired her so much.

"Do you remember what I was saying at dinner about music and life?" Laurel said. Tom couldn't remember her mentioning that exact combination, but he nodded anyway. Close enough. "Music calls to life," Laurel said. "Call to him. Don't let him go."

And someone handed Tom his cello and someone brought him a chair -- one of the Louis XVI dining chairs, delicate legs set down on the dirt. And all of the household gathered round, tall shadows taller than they ought to be, until there wasn't a hint of light except the glint of starlight on metal strings and the ghostly glow of the rosin marking the horsehair of the bow.

Motion and emotion, Tom thought. Two signs of life. Does life call to life? He didn't think what Laurel was asking was possible, but the horse moved uncomfortably nearby and he thought that he would try.

Laurel touched him on the shoulder, and with the light touch of her fingertips he could feel that Laurel was vibrating with tension. Intensity.

"Think of the sun," she said, and Tom began. In the darkness, the music seemed stark and unadorned, and in the open air, every note disappeared almost as soon as it sounded. Thin, pale, and unprofitable, Tom thought. He could do better than that.

"Think of energy and growth," Laurel whispered, closer than he expected. Tom turned his head and her hair brushed against his cheek. He tilted his head back and she leaned forward and Tom felt it like a shock, his eyes meeting hers in the darkness, like a streak of light sizzling between him and her. When he looked into her eyes, he saw the world, dancing, spinning, light and dark in stately movement, drawing him in and promising him everything.

Tom began again, ponderously, as if he were moving that whole world of Laurel's eyes with his bow.

Laurel moved in time with the music; he couldn't see her any more, but he could feel her moving, and it helped. Resonance, symmetry, he thought. And the feel of Laurel pressing against him, and moving away, only to return, like a impish flirt, like the sun in the springtime, always returning after the rain.

Motion, Tom thought, and the weight of the world lessened. He played faster and faster. He didn't want to stop. He played until his bow was hot in his hand and the friction of the bow against the strings seemed like it must create sparks. He felt breathless.

Like anything could happen.

And then his bow burst into flame, and Laurel snatched it away from him and as he stared after her he realized that he had nothing left.

 

He woke up with the morning sunlight on his face, a diffused golden glow, soft where his dreams had all been harsh and fiery. But that memory faded as he stretched.

"How do you feel?" someone asked, and for a moment, squinting into the sunlight streaming through the window, Tom hoped it was Laurel, but it was Ana instead, with a tray holding a silver-covered platter of bacon and eggs. The smell when she removed the silver lid was glorious.

"Hungry," Tom said. He also felt strangely drained, muscles limp and unresponsive, but he managed to sit up enough to eat.

"What happened to my cello?" he asked abruptly, half way through his breakfast. "My bow? Is it..."

But it was in the corner, where it always was, and the bow was unsinged, as if nothing had happened. "The colt?" Tom asked.

"Laurel's horse survived the night," Ana said. "No thanks to Laurel. She pushed him too hard." Her scorn was as harsh as fire.

Tom thought of the colt, thought about fire, and the possibility of getting burned. "She expects the best," he said slowly.

Ana looked at him, and after a moment in which nothing made sense, Tom identified her expression as pity. He thought about Laurel, about what he'd seen in her eyes, a world of promises, and laughed, full and free, because that pity was the least appropriate thing he'd ever seen.

"Where's my cello?" Tom said. "I need to play."

If Ana was waiting for something, that was not it. "I'll be back for the tray," she said, and left him alone.

Once Tom was up and dressed and seated with his cello between his knees, nerves set in. His muscles were sore. His brain buzzed. How could anything match the memory of the music he'd played the night before?

But as soon as he started playing, it was like his fingers had learned a lesson he could barely remember, like his mind had found the path it had been looking for, the one the music hinted at. The bow felt lighter in his hand. His fingers flew across the strings.

Laurel peeked in and he playfully interposed the music of Laurel dancing into the midst of the movement; she raised an eyebrow, but she was smiling. He saluted her with his bow and kept on playing as she walked lightly, gravely down the hall is time with the music he gave her.

In good time, he set his cello down on its side and ate the rest of his breakfast. When Ana returned for the tray, he was ready to return to the music.

"It is beautiful," Ana said. Tom turned to her eagerly. "I only wish my Seb had the ability to take the good like you do," she said. "But do you realize how dangerous it is?"

"Dangerous?" Tom asked. "Let me play for you, I've never played better than I've played this morning. How can that be dangerous?"

"Did she tell you that?" Ana pulsed with animosity. She raised her hand and pointed one finger at Tom, melodramatically. "Laurel thinks she knows everything, she thinks she's all powerful, but she has her limits and I know what they are. And she has no idea what I can know, or what I can do to save myself."

"You tried to hurt Laurel last night," Tom said. "You did this."

There was a bandage on the palm of Ana's hand; she twitched it aside. The burn was red and ugly, darker around the edges. She seemed a little proud, a little matter-of-fact. This is what happens when you play with fire, her casual posture conveyed, until she closed her fingers over the evidence.

"They want the fire for themselves. They don't want to be burned, but they don't care who else gets burned," Ana said.

The burn on Ana's hand wasn't as bad as the burn on the colt last night, but in the light of day it looked uglier. More raw. "What happened?" Tom asked.

"Laurel," Ana said.

Tom opened his mouth to protest, but the memory of Laurel running down one of the figures around the bonfire last night stopped him. Ana's expression softened. "I'm not your enemy, whatever Laurel might tell you. But I've been in this household for a long time, and I know how similar Morton and Laurel are. If you give, they will take. And if you let them lead you, they will take you in one direction only."

Tom only understood that she was arguing against his musical breakthrough. "It's mine," he said. "But music belongs to everyone. I don't mind sharing my music."

Ana shook her head. "You don't understand," she said. She looked at Tom closely, and then seemed to decide that she'd said enough already. Her open expression turned inward. "I have plans," she said. "Laurel knows that much. Morton too. But they don't know everything. You should remember that, if you ever decide that you need to have plans too."

"I'll remember," Tom said. It seemed the easiest way.

After Ana had left, Tom tried to play again, but thoughts of what Ana had said troubled his mind and distracted him from the moment and the notes he was playing.

Could Ana be right? Tom thought. But Ana hated Laurel, and that might explain what she said. It might just be the blindness of whatever rivalry Ana and Laurel were involved in. There were two sides to every story, and Tom hadn't heard Laurel's.

He shuddered at the thought of asking Laurel about it. That wasn't a good idea at all.

But deep in his heart, Tom believed that there was another side to Laurel's story. There was a reason for her actions, a good reason. He didn't have to know what it was. He just had to believe that it was there.

Eventually the worries faded into the past, as he bent over his cello and the music pulled him into a world that had been the same for centuries. Constant movement, phrase by phrase, every line new when he played it, but also the same as the day Beethoven wrote it. If the music could stay the same, then...

The music was what mattered, Tom thought. Not the musician. Laurel approved of Beethoven, he remembered with relief. That was what mattered.