Read an Excerpt
SONG OF THE MORNING
She was just a child, but in the dream she was a woman, beautiful, in a bridal gown, walking down a long aisle on the arm of a man she couldn’t quite see.
But the dream was split-screen, and the other part showed the great globe of the world. That was her, too, in the strange way the dream had of making it seem real. But the world was mostly dead; no human beings remained on it.
Somehow she knew that these were two aspects of her future, and that one of them would come to pass. Marriage—or destruction. But which one? Why? It wasn’t frightening, just mysterious.
Then music swelled. It was a lovely, mysterious melody. She woke, afraid it would fade away along with the rest of the dream, but it remained, coming from outside.
She scrambled out of bed, leaving her sister Luna sleeping. Well, Luna wasn’t exactly her sister, but it was complicated to fathom, so that was good enough. Let her sleep for the moment; this shouldn’t take long.
She shoved her toes into her slippers and scurried across the floor in her nightie. Lured by the melody, she scrambled down the stairs, along the hall, and reached the door. She put both hands up on the solid knob and turned it, and after a brief struggle got the door open.
The summer dawn was cool but not cold. Orb hurried out, intent on the melody, not caring what time or temperature it was. The landscape seemed preternaturally bright, better than real life; this was fun!
She paused before the house, reorienting on the sound. The farm backed onto a forest, and the sound was from the forest. She ran across the field, scattering chickens, and reached the edge of the wood, panting. She was four years old, and this was a good-sized trek for her to accomplish alone. She wasn’t supposed to come here without an adult, and that gave her a bad twinge of unease, but the music was fading, and she knew she had to catch it right away.
The forest loomed thick and dark, and it was girt with monstrous spider webs and mean brambles and other awful things, so she scouted along the edge, hoping for a way through. The music was becoming quite faint, making her desperate.
She found a path! She ran down it, into the depths of the wood. But the music was now fading out entirely, to her horror. She stopped to listen for it, but it was gone.
Except—there was another sound, not the same, but possessed of its own melody. Maybe that would do. It was ahead and, as she continued along the path, it grew louder.
The path debouched at the river. Orb had encountered the river before, but not at this spot. Here it was trippling merrily over rocks, making its music. She strained to hear the tune of it behind the rushing noise of water, and it came clearer, but imperfect.
She made her way along its irregular bank, guided more by her ears than her eyes. Now she heard another sound, neither the first melody nor the second, but a kind of tittering laughter. It was coming from a swirling pool a little downstream.
Then she spied the source of the mirth. Girls were playing in the pool! Lovely, lithe, bare girls with long tresses. They were swimming and splashing and diving and having a terrific amount of fun, and their trilling laughter made the last melody she had heard.
One of the nymphs spied Orb and called out to her. “Hello, child of man! Come join us!” The others laughed anew at this.
Orb pondered briefly, then decided to do it. She drew off her nightie and stepped out of her slippers. Naked, she went down to the pool.
“She heard me!” the nymph exclaimed, astonished.
Orb paused. “Did I do something wrong?”
The nymphs looked at each other. “You see us, child of man?”
“Yes. Don’t you want me to splash with you?”
Again they exchanged glances. “Of course we do!” the first nymph said. “But do you know how to swim?”
“But then you might drown!”
Orb hadn’t thought of that. She was sure that drowning would be very uncomfortable. “Then why did you ask me to join you?”
“We didn’t think you would hear us,” the nymph explained.
“Or see us,” another added. “We were only teasing, the way we do.”
“Because we are water sprites,” a third said. “The children of men aren’t usually aware of us.”
Orb was perplexed. “Why?”
Several sprites shrugged. “We don’t exactly know. It just is so.”
There was an instant flowering of laughter. “Oh, you rhymed!” another cried.
The others splashed wildly at the one who had rhymed, giggling. Orb really wanted to join in, but she realized that she would have to learn to swim first.
“Why didn’t I hear you or see you when I saw the river before?” she asked.
The sprites looked at each other, perplexed. “Why didn’t she?” one repeated. “We have seen her before, and she was oblivious.”
Orb didn’t know what the big word meant, but judged that it meant what it was supposed to. “Yes, why?”
“Maybe she changed,” one suggested. “Did you change recently, little girl?”
“This morning I heard a song I never heard before. It woke me up. I was looking for it.”
Again the sprites exchanged glances. “She changed,” they agreed. “Now she can join us.”
“How?” Orb asked, eager to participate.
“There’s an inner tube someone’s forgotten,” one of the sprites informed her, perceiving her dilemma.
“Oh, I can float in that!” Orb agreed. “Bring it to me!”
The nymph shook her head. “Alas, we can not,” she said sadly.
“We can not touch the things of the children of man. At least, not to affect them. Only mortal creatures can do that.”
Orb accepted that. “Then tell me where it is, and I’ll fetch it myself.”
“Gladly!” The sprite led her downstream a short distance. There, hung up on a dead branch, was an inflated inner tube.
Orb waded into the shallow water, her legs tingling with the chill of it, and hauled on the tube. “Oh, it’s heavy,” she complained. “Can’t you help me?”
“I don’t think so,” the sprite said sadly. “I really can’t touch you or it.” She demonstrated by reaching out to touch Orb, and her hand passed through Orb’s arm without sensation.
“Oh, you’re a ghost!” Orb exclaimed, not certain whether to be pleased or frightened.
“No, just a sprite. I can touch natural things like water, but not unnatural things like the children of man.”
Orb decided it was time for introductions. “I’m Orb,” she announced. “Who are you?”
“I’m—” The sprite paused, concentrating. “Oh, I don’t think I have a name! I never realized.”
“Oh, that’s very sad!” Orb said. “I must give you a name.”
“Oh, would you?” the sprite asked, pleased.
Orb concentrated, trying to think of a name. Beads of water trailed down the tube as she continued to tug at it. “Waterbead!” she exclaimed.
The sprite clapped her little hands. She was not much larger than Orb, though formed as an adult or nearly adult woman. “Oh, thank you!” Then, focusing on the tube: “Maybe if you lifted it a little, instead of just pulling …”
Orb lifted—and abruptly the tube came free. She clambered into it, and in a moment was floating.
“If you paddle with your hands …” Waterbead suggested.
Orb paddled, and the tube began to move. Soon she was out in the pool, moving splashily. The sprites laughed and splashed back at her. The droplets of water did touch her; they were natural. This was indeed fun, despite the cold.
Waterbead swam out ahead, making little whirlpools in the water. Then the other sprites joined in, fashioning a larger whirlpool. Orb’s tube spun around in it, making her laugh giddily. Oh, yes, this was fun!
They were now at the lower side of the pool, and the current was picking up, carrying Orb on down the river. “Maybe you should paddle upstream,” Waterbead said.
“Why?” Orb was enjoying the ride.
The sprites suffered one of their little pauses. “We can’t go too far that way,” one explained. “The water goes bad.”
Orb didn’t like bad water, so she paddled. But now the current was too strong for her. She made no headway, and soon her arms were tired, and the tube picked up speed downstream.
“We can’t follow!” a sprite cried. One by one they dropped back, returning to the quieter pool, until only Waterbead remained.
“Maybe you should go to shore,” Waterbead suggested.
“Because the bad sprites are downstream. If you go to the shore, you can stop before you reach them.”
Orb tried to paddle for shore, but the current fought her, and she could not reach it.