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This is part of Jane's series of "Twelve Days of Stories" for Xmas 2007/2008.

Twelve drummers drumming

The tent-flap closed behind the last to enter, heavy ox-hide creaking, and the circle was complete. Arren, as the youngest, the junior, and the nominal host, pushed the sick tension in his stomach down below his conscious awareness, and handed the drum to the next most junior Teller with a formal bow before resuming his seat. Matteas had drilled him on the ritual aspects of this, which to be honest were simple enough, but had also made it clear that this, the ceremony that ended his apprenticeship, was also one of the greatest opportunities to learn he would ever get."They'll all use the Telling space and the drum their own way, bring out its strengths as they need them and find them. You listen, you can learn all those tricks." Matteus sat behind him now, taking no part. His work was done - they hoped.

The first man, the oldest there, turned the drum in his hands, nodded approvingly, started a steady beat, in time with the heart. A simple trick, but it had to be done well, to gather them together at the start, bring all their breaths together and make them one. He might be the junior, only recently become a Teller, but he knew his work well.

"I am Engorn, who was of Hereward's Legion. Now, I am an initiate of the Speaking God, and I am a man of the chief of this camp." His voice was deep, resonant. "I call upon the Lady of Inspiration to sit within me, and the Six Winds to fill this space with the truth of this tale of how the world was made."

Arren was watching his technique so intently that he almost missed the content of the tale. A battle story, as one might expect from an ex-Humakti. The drum-beat stayed steady, simple, but the volume varied, quieter and quieter as the number in his group diminished, until he was tapping with a single finger. A pause, then the drum became the troll enemy with a different beat, then, suddenly silent as they froze. Froze? Arren replayed the last few sentences in his mind, seeing them from a different viewpoint. Surely the man must know of the geas laid on Karrg's Sons, that they never interrupt music? Maybe not... this wasn't the time to tell him, he knew that much.

The tale ended, the drum was passed on. This time it was a Sartarite who took it, and an introduction that listed his clan, his tribe, and his ancestors for six generations, all to the drum beat: a repeated phrase for each new “son of”. A tale of the founding of his tribe, and how his own ancestors would have won the Corvid Wars and been kings, until a magical valley was opened up on the battlelines. Again, he was using just his fingers to play the drum, but nails, not pads, scratching the skin to produce the calls of the Crow and the Raven. It ws an effective tale, and Arren made a mental note to ask him for more details of the genealogies involved, later. Anything to do with the present Queen of the Kheldon made a good story, and one told from the opposite side was unusual.

Next was one of the few women here, and a more formal summoning of the guardians of the Six Directions, the final one, that of Below, being given unusual emphasis. A tale of famine, and the dreadful sacrifices demanded by the Earth – her drum-beat had an unusual tone to it, and eventually he realised why – she was using a pebble to beat it.

The next teller used an unusual beater, too: a bone, held reversed to give a light, complex beat. A comic tale, this, of a magical cow that gave more milk than the clan knew what to do with, and he laughed with the rest at them at the floods, improvised buckets, and eventual persuasion of the embarrassing beast to depart.

He was less impressed with the next, a fairly standard tale of a magical wife won by stealing her swan robe. Then there was another comic tale, this time of geese trying to avoid the attentions of a fox. The introduction was less formal here: you couldn't describe this as a tale of “how the world was made” and keep a straight face. A pseudo military drumbeat showed the clumsy geese trying to march in step, and failing.

Then they were back to the more serious tales, that really were of how the world was made. “The Sons of Umath”: and again the invocation was of the Six Winds, not the Six Guardians. More serious yet – a Humakti praise-song for the dead, the drum a solemn knell for the deceased Sword and an affirmation of his dedication to his god.

More contrast now, as the next storyteller tried to cap an earlier tale. This, too, was of a fox trying to steal birds – chickens, this time. The drum was barely used, this Teller relied on his voice. A better-balanced tale, Arren thought. Three was the right number of attempts, though the moral at the end seemed forced. Still, the technique was excellent, with different voices for each of the three hens.

It was getting close to his turn now, and that sick tension started to rise again. The next tale distracted him from it for a while – a gentle romance, with a soft repetitive, muffled beat on the drum. It was a while before he realised that he was hearing the rhythm of a turtle-dove's call. Interesting: the Teller was one of the most experienced here, and had laid the drum on the ground, using both hands to beat, and with the drum tensioned unevenly, so the hands played a duet, low and high notes answering each other.

The final tale, from the senior Teller: an enigmatic man who Arren feared for some reason he did not understand. Perhaps because he was such a very good Teller: with each tale, he became the characters, and Arren was left wondering who the real Teller was, if there was anyone at all behind the masks. He was looking directly at Arren as he made his introduction and invocation: his due as the host, true, but this was almost a challenge. He realised why as soon as the tale began. It was of an apprentice. An apprentice who was too clever, who challenged and angered his master, and who met a dreadful and horribly appropriate fate as a result.

And he was next. Eleven of the best Tellers in the land had performed here, least to greatest, so that the last was never overshadowed by what had come before, but topped it. And he had to follow – that. Without, as had just been made painfully clear, using gimmicks.

He took the drum. His drum. Despite all the people who had shown him things it could do that would never have occurred to him, it was still his drum, and could never be anyone else's, for one very simple reason.

He started the beat: simple, at standard pulse rate, a little slower than his own right now. “I am Arren, son of Jotisan, apprentice to Matteas. I am an initiate of the Speaking God, and I am a man of the chief of this camp.” He felt the significance of that word as his own invocation picked up the power already here: this was not simply a tent erected incongruously in a city, this was Issaries' Camp, defended by his magic against any hostile act. “I call on the Keepers of the Six Stories to wake, and to fill me with this tale. I call upon the Lady of Inspiration to sit within me, and to tell the story of how this drum was made.”

Because he had. He had made it himself. He stopped the beat, held the drum up, ran a finger around the edge. “This rim came from the wood of an ash tree, beloved of spear-makers for its fine, straight, grain. I asked the spirits of the wood to show me the tree that would make my drum, and sang to them as they demanded. They led me to a tree of many centuries of growth, old, scarred by lightning and by fire, battered by winds, yet still alive. They asked that I take it, and let its story continue in my own tales. And so I did. With a copper axe, I cut that tree, and with wedges, I split it into planks, taking the best to be bent over fire and water into this, the rim of my drum.”

A soft beat here, filling the silence between the parts of his story: but on the rim, not the skin. As yet, his tale had not given it a skin.

“You can use sheepskin, for the head of a drum. You can use buffalo hide, though that gives a heavier tone, or any other beast that a man may herd. I wanted a skin that would tell a story. I fasted for a day, then took my spears and went into the forest. With my sharpest spear, I gave blood to Odayla, asking that he would give me blood on my spear in return. And I went deeper in, seeking out the game trails, until I found the herd I was looking for.” He stopped, spread his hands self-deprecatingly. “I am no hunter, except this once. The herd heard me, and saw me, and most likely smelt me. Most fled, the stags driving the others. Some fawns were left behind: an easy target even for me. But one doe stayed, between my spears and her young, facing me, daring me to harm them. And so: I did not. That was the climax of her tale, and a tale of a hero among red deer, as she died protecting her young. This, the head of my drum, is her hide, and it may tell many such stories in the future.

“But a frame, and a hide, do not make a drum until they are together. That means rope to bind them, and to bring the hide to the tension where it can sing. He stopped again, lowered the drum. “Have you ever made rope? It's a long, slow, boring business, as each strand is twisted, and twisted, you and your partner one at each end of the walk, turning it steadily and never allowing it to knot. Then the strands go into the next walk, and twisted together the other way, three binding together, then the three threes together again. The rope-makers sing as they work, keeping the rhythm of the twisting steady.” He tapped the drum in the rope-makers beat, then added a triple flourish to each bar, humming the melody. “It took time, to have enough rope for my drum. I learnt many songs, I worked with many people, binding together that which wold eventually bind my drum into one single instrument.

“So, here it is. Age and experience, youth and courage, and the knowledge that all must join together to produce anything of value. That is my drum. That will be my tale, in the future, if the Lady of Inspiration wills it.”

The applause took him by surprise, even though it was what he had wanted, and aimed for. Success – the approval of his peers. Even the Master Teller was smiling. He had done it. He had his drum. He was a Storyteller.