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The Good Luck Song
by Betsy Vera (bentley@umich.edu)
25 Oct. 97

part 1 of 5:

First Saturday of the month. Giles and John had met for lunch at this cafe every month since shortly after graduation. The meetings hadn't been as frequent in the past couple of years, since John, an archeologist, was away often for months at a time at some dig or another. Giles came every month, whether John did or not. It was a pleasant, quiet place on Saturday mornings, and their breakfasts were quite good.

He sat at their regular table, absent-mindedly reading the newspaper. He was bored. Work had been slow, lately, and he needed a challenge. John knew about his interests and was always on the look-out for unusual books to bring back home with him. Giles glanced at his watch. It was getting on eleven, and still no sign of John. He sighed, and folded his newspaper. Suddenly, a large satchel was dropped on the table in front of him, startling him.

"Giles! Sorry I'm late."

A short, stocky man collapsed into the seat across from him. John Hiller, the next Indiana Jones, if he had anything to do with it, though he looked more like Jones' friend, the one who got lost in his own museum. He was sunburned, as he usually was after one of his expeditions, and out of breath.

"I hoped you'd still be here. Flew in yesterday morning, not used to the time change, yet. Do you mind if I eat? Thanks."

As John ate, they chatted. Somehow, they always found more to talk about than they had time for, and the mornings flew by. The mornings usually ended with John showing off his satchel full of goodies that he had brought for Giles.

"Nothing too interesting this time, I'm afraid. I didn't have much time to look for books over there. Too busy."

"Then what's in the bag?"

"Presents from the duty-free for my parents. Sorry. Oh wait!" He rummaged through the satchel. "I do have a small mystery for you. How bored are you?"

"Very."

"Good. This might interest you, then." He handed Giles a large, gaily-colored book.

Giles read the cover. "'A Children's Treasury of British Regional Tales?' I don't understand. What is so mysterious about a storybook?"

"The book in itself isn't mysterious. But there's a story there that I've never heard before until last week--and you know me, I know all the stories there are to know." That was true. John had the largest collection of storybooks Giles had ever seen. "The really strange part is where I heard the story first." He paused for effect.

"Yes?"

"A small valley in the middle of nowhere in the middle of Sumanistan."

"What, the same story?"

"Almost exactly. Benevolent godlike beings, protectors of some kind, looking over the well-being of the valley since time began."

"That doesn't sound too unusual."

"Is it usual for the story to be true?"

"True? How?"

"They say the people in that valley are 'lucky.' The weather's just a little bit better. The crops, a little bit taller. The children, a little bit healthier. In times of war, the main battles seem to avoid them and invading armies are not as destructive."

"Coincidence."

"Century after century?"

"What then?"

"I don't know. They believe it comes from being protected by these "guardians," these benevolent gods. In exchange, these gods don't ask to be worshipped, they don't ask for blood sacrifices, they don't ask for churches, or priesthoods, or any of the usual things."

"That is unusual, especially for ancient gods. What is it they ask for?"

"All they ask in exchange is for a ritual to be performed once a century or so. A few words, some chanting, some dried twigs thrown into the fire."

"That's all?" Giles looked skeptical.

"That's all. Strange, huh?"

"Very. How sure are you of this--about the story being true?"

"I lived there for four months. The effects of the...protection...are subtle. You have to know what you're looking for, but it's there, all right."

"Supposing you're right, where does 'A Children's Treasury of British Regional Tales?' come in?

"The same story is in it."

"John, you of all people know that many stories are universal. They crop up in culture after culture. There's nothing unusual in that."

John waved his comment aside. "I know all that. But, get this. The chant they use in Sumanistan is in a language even they don't recognize. I don't mean it's a dead or extinct language. It's a language no one has ever spoken there."

"And?"

John opened the storybook and handed it to Giles. "Read page 35. Start on the third paragraph."

"All right." Giles looked closely at the book.

"Out loud, Giles."

"Sorry." He cleared his throat. "'ouen aoh uega nlaywi etrdva...'" He broke off in confusion. "What is this?"

"It's the exact same chant they use in Sumanistan."

"That's impossible!"

"Of course it's impossible. You know that. I know that. But the man who collected the stories for that book, doesn't seem to know that."

"But..."

"That's what I said, too. I found the book last night at my sister's. She was reading it to her six-year-old, and she let me borrow it."

Giles was leafing through the book, looking for the beginning of the story. "It says the story goes back to before written records were kept, and is specific to a village called Little Lower Newington. Where is that?"

"About seventy miles northwest of here."

"And you expect me to believe that the local inhabitants of Little Lower Newington are speaking ancient Sumanistandi?"

"Giles, you're not listening. It's not ancient Sumanistandi. It's not ancient anything. It's not even vaguely related to ancient Sumanistandi."

"What is it, then?"

"I don't know. That's one of the mysteries I'm handing you. What language is it in, where does it come from, and what does it mean."

******************

The Good Luck Song
by Betsy Vera (bentley@umich.edu)
25 Oct. 97

part 2 of 5:

"Any luck?"

"Pardon?"

"Hello, Giles? Earth to Giles. Come in, Giles." John took the notebook that so interested Giles. "I asked, did you have any luck? The song, remember?"

Giles took the notebook back. All his notes about this project were in it, and he felt rather protective of them. Since they'd last met, a month ago, Giles had worked on the puzzle, and he felt rather proud of himself.

"As a matter of fact, I have had great luck."

"You know what language it's in?"

"Well...no, not exactly. However," he continued before John could interrupt, "I have found out a lot about the ceremony itself."

"Do tell."

Giles had found many references to the ritual in local histories and journals. It was practiced once a century and was the highlight of the local harvest festival. It was also not unlike rituals practiced the world over. A little flash, a little noise, a few words, a bit of singing. However, two things made the Lower Little Newington ritual different: the song, and the herbs.

"The herbs?"

Giles ignored the interruption and continued. He had tried to research the song, but had been unable to find anything further. The local histories had little to say about it, beyond noting that it had a haunting tune. Even the Harris Song Collection (vols. 1-4), the depository of every song ever sung in the British Isles, had nothing about it.

"All right, no luck with the song. What about the herbs?"

"The local histories are very specific on that topic. You said that the Sumanistandi...guardians? for lack of a better word...asked for dried twigs as burnt offerings. Here, they want dried herbs and some powders that flash when burnt. They have to be thrown into the ceremonial fire in a specific order, and during specific verses of the song. I have managed to gather the list and order of the herbs and flash powders. In fact," he said as he patted the cover the notebook, "I have here the entire ceremony."

"That's wonderful! Congratulations, Giles. Not exactly the puzzle I set for you, but very good work, nonetheless."

Giles had an odd look on his face.

"Giles? Is there something you're not telling me?"

Giles took a deep breath before replying. "Throughout history, Little Lower Newington has been a "lucky" town."

"Like Sumanistan."

"Exactly. Agriculture, weather, economy...everything was always a little better than the neighboring villages," he agreed. "That is, until a century ago."

John hazarded a guess. "No more festival?"

"No more festival. When the festival merged with the Little Upper Newington harvest fair in 1894, the ritual was dropped. Little Lower Newington hasn't been "lucky" since."

John stared at him for a long minute. He had known Giles since their first year at university. Some thought him a cold fish, but John knew how to read him. It was all in the eyes. And those eyes were twinkling.

"Giles. Giles, Giles, Giles. I can tell what you're thinking." John started to pace, but stopped when he remembered he was still in the cafe. He sat down. "Giles, you want to do the ritual, don't you?"

"Don't you? Aren't you curious? I know everything there is to know about it. We can get all the materials easily enough. I checked." Giles leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially. "Between the two of us, we can do it. We could make Little Lower Newington lucky again."

"That's crazy!"

"No, it's not. Listen."

Giles outlined his plan.

******************

The Good Luck Song
by Betsy Vera (bentley@umich.edu)
25 Oct. 97

part 3 of 5:

They were ready.

Giles was readier than John, but John wasn't about to admit it. It hadn't taken much for Giles to talk him into this. Sure, John had presented objections, but that'd been mostly for form's sake. He was just as excited about this as Giles was. He just wasn't sure he believed the story about the guardians. Giles had countered with, "You don't have to believe. If you're right, and the guardians are not real, then the worst that will happen is that we'll have spent a night outdoors."

So, here they were, in the middle of the woods outside Little Lower Newington, in the dark, sitting around a campfire. John felt slightly ridiculous. Giles was too busy reviewing his script to notice.

"Shall we start?"

The both took several deep breaths, smiled self-consciously, and began. John started first, dropping a handful of some sparkly powder into the flames. The fire flared, startling them both. The flash of light was to get the Guardians' attention.

Giles read--intoned--the greeting to whatever Guardians were listening. This part was in regular English and sounded rather like the opening remarks at a fund-raising banquet--thanking them for their past generosity, hoping for more of the same, et cetera, et cetera.

John threw another handful of powder into the fire as Giles launched into the chant. They'd debated about how to sing it, and Giles had settled for a combination of Gregorian chanting and something out of a movie-style secret society rite. Giles had a beautiful [baritone, tenor, what?] voice which carried the strange words deep into the night.

John noticed it first. As he threw a handful of dried herbs from the second pouch into the campfire, he felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. The air felt...strange. It seemed to change around them. Giles caught his eye. He'd felt it, too.

*Something* was watching them.

No, not something. *Everything.*

John fought a brief moment of panic. When he'd agreed to go along with this, he hadn't really expected it to work. Yet, here he was. And The World was paying attention. Yikes.

Giles also was shaken by the strange feeling. The trees and the air had turned their attention on him, and him alone. He felt like a seven-year-old at his first piano recital.

He finished the introductory verses and took a deep breath before launching into the first main section. There were three main sections, then a very short epilogue. So far, so good. Despite the eerie feeling, Giles was pleased.

The World was not.

The air changed again. Expectation had turned to disappointment, verging on hostility. Giles was puzzled. He knew the words by heart. John was burning the offerings in the proper order and amount. What was wrong?

Whatever it was, it was starting to anger whatever it was that was listening. Giles pulled his notes from his pocket, double-checking the words as he sang them. The seven-year-old at the piano saw the disapproval in his teacher's eyes, and his heart filled with hurt. He was doing everything right; why were the trees angry? Why?

He glanced at John, hoping for answers, but John looked as confused and panicked as he felt. The welcoming breeze that had accompanied the introductory verses had turned into a chilly wind. Unseen, dark clouds were gathering.

Hoping he wasn't making the worst mistake of his life, Giles began the second section. His singing was more tentative, now, not as powerful as it had been at the beginning.

On the second stanza, the wind picked up, and the tree branches around them rustled ominously.

"I don't think they liked that," John muttered shakily.

Giles was about to agree when sudden lightning lit up the woods harshly, followed immediately by deafening thunder. Rain and hail pounded them from the sky and the wind whipped the branches into a frenzy.

The two men ran for their lives.

******************

The Good Luck Song
by Betsy Vera (bentley@umich.edu)
25 Oct. 97

part 4 of 5:

It had been six months since the night the ritual had come to such a disastrous end, and Giles was no closer to finding the answer.

Well, he was a bit closer. At least now he knew what he had done wrong. What he couldn't find was the means of correcting his mistake. Yes, *his* mistake. John may have been involved, but as far as Giles was concerned, all the responsibility rested on his shoulders alone.

What ever possessed him to play around with something so dangerous? He'd been berating himself for six months, but it hadn't made him feel any better. Especially when he read the newspaper headlines. That sudden storm the night of the ceremony had been only the first of many in a series of unseasonable and destructive storms, all centered over Little Lower Newington.

Giles had gone over every bit of his research carefully. The ritual, the words, the setting, the burnt offerings. Everything had checked out. All that was left was the one thing he had improvised: the song.

He had learned more about music in the past few months than he would've thought possible. History, musical theory, mythology, uses of music in healing, religion, weather prognostication, even plant lore. If it involved a musical note, he had read about it.

Nothing. Oh, he found the words, all right, but he already had those. He still couldn't find the music. After all these months, he had decided it had to be the music.

John had left for darkest unreachable-by-phone Sumanistan the day after that awful night and had only returned home a month ago for a short stay. He was going back in a week, and had promised to question the villagers there about the song.

Today, Giles had other worries.

Because of his far-ranging research into the ceremony, he had managed to accumulate an even wider than usual assortment of books in his office. Lately, colleagues from other sections of the library had been making noises about wanting the books he'd borrowed from the stacks, and there had been a regular parade of people trooping through his office to collect them.

Giles had tried to talk to all the people coming by, hoping to get some tidbit of information he could use. Today, however, he was too busy for that. Work had picked up lately--when he least had time for it, of course--and yet another visitor was due in soon. Not a colleague, but an outside researcher, coming to pick up the local histories of the general Newington area.

"Excuse me, Mr. Giles? I'm Mark Evans. I've come for the Newington histories?"

Giles looked up from his reading to find a young man standing at the door to his office. Mark Evans was probably five years younger than he, tall, good-looking in an unthreatening way, and had a pleasant smile. Giles invited him in.

After introductions were made, Giles reluctantly handed him the books he needed as Mark checked them off against his list. Though he hadn't had any luck so far with the others, Giles engaged him in conversation, hoping for some helpful information.

"If I may ask, what did you hope to find in these histories?"

"I'm researching the historical background for some old British songs."

Giles sat up, startled. "Songs?"

"Hmm," Mark replied absent-mindedly. His list had become confused. "Okay, here it is." He looked up again. "Have you heard of the Harris Song Collection?"

"Y-yes. I have a copy of all four volumes here...somewhere."

"Well, when Harris died back in '28, he had been working on Volume 5, but no one could find his notes. His grandson found most of them in an old trunk in an attic a couple of years ago. The trunk had been unopened all this time because the family thought they were full of old relics from some relative nobody liked. Are you sure you're interested in this?"

"Yes, very. Please continue."

"Thanks. Fortunately, the grandson had enough sense to recognize what he had found. The short of it is, Volume 5 is going to come out, finally, maybe in a couple of years. If you'll remember, the Song Collection includes every possible detail about each song, including lyrics, notes, any oddities, and historical background. The notes found in the attic were about one-third incomplete. My job is to do some of the historical background research."

"And these songs you're researching are from Newington?"

"Only one song. Something called 'Fortune and Prosperity.'"

Giles was having a hard time keeping his voice steady. "This 'Fortune and Prosperity,' by any chance was it also known as the 'Good Luck Song'?"

"Ye-es. You know it?"

"And is this one of the songs that you have the music for?"

"Yeah... Why?"

******************

The Good Luck Song
by Betsy Vera (bentley@umich.edu)
25 Oct. 97

part 5 of 5:

This was not exactly what Mark thought he'd hear as an answer. An ancient ritual in the woods in the middle of the night? Yet here he was, two days later, with Giles and someone he'd introduced as John, sitting around a campfire outside Little Lower Newington.

Too weird.

Giles had explained about the ceremony and their previous--failed--attempt at bringing back the Guardians. Mark wasn't entirely sure he believed in the Guardians, but he'd been persuaded to help. Giles had seemed to desperate, how could he turn him down?

Mark had spent the past two days coaching Giles in the strange melody of the "Good Luck Song." Fortunately, when Harris did his research back in '28, he had found an old man whose father had been at the last ceremony and had taught him the song as a child. The tune was unlike anything either had heard before. This made learning it as difficult as learning a new language. They would've welcomed more time to prepare, but John was leaving for Sumanistan the next afternoon.

John had questioned why, since Mark was familiar with the song, he didn't do the song himself. After much discussion, they'd decided, since Giles knew the ceremony, and had--apparently--performed that part to the Guardians' satisfaction, that they should not change anything more than necessary. The song seemed to be the only thing that had angered the Guardians, so the song was the only thing they would change.

"Ready?"

All three double-checked their scripts and supplies--John had his pouches, Mark held a drum to help keep time--and nodded.

At Giles's signal, John selected the first of the powder pouches and emptied it into the flames. The fire flared. There was no going back now.

The greeting to the Guardians went by quickly and uneventfully. Then Mark started tapping the drum slowly and Giles began to sing.

This time, Giles noticed the change first. It came during the first stanza. The air changing, the trees turning their attention towards him, the breeze coming to a still. The feeling of expectation was even stronger than it had been the first time.

The whole world, millions of eyes, had stopped what it was doing and was looking at him. All watching, noting, waiting..for what? For him to mess up again? To do it right, finally? The attention was smothering. It took more effort to breathe, to move, to remember what came next. The Guardians had waited over two centuries to hear the ceremony again, to feel needed, to feel real. They *wanted* this, and they wanted it done right.

Once, Mark's drumming faltered, throwing Giles off rhythm, but they found their way back soon. All three felt as if they were in way over their heads, but stopping would've been impossible, even if they'd wanted to. The world was listening so hard, disappointment it was unthinkable.

They weren't looking at their scripts anymore. They *knew* what needed to be done. The air was telling them. The ground was telling them. The flame was telling them. Their very cells knew what to do, and they followed. The words were echoed in their bones, in the trees, in the grass, in the air.

Giles finished the third stanza and began the conclusion. Impossibly, the air became thicker, harder to breathe. Giles faltered, gasping. The world relented, slightly, and Giles took a deep breath, then another. He would've welcomed more of a rest, but the song tugged at him. It wanted to be finished. It hadn't been sung in too long. It wanted to be free. Giles heard its plea and couldn't resist. He gathered strength from the air and resumed the song.

This time, the world joined the song. It welcomed the song into the world. The song rejoiced in its freedom, hoped for the return of the Guardians. The world joined in this hope with every blade of grass and dew drop.

John emptied the last pouch of powder into the fire as Giles sung the last note. The fire flared brightly, momentarily blinding them.

And the world came to a halt.

******************

Sitting around the dying fire, the three men felt very small and alone. The air of expectation was gone. The only light came reddily from the glowing embers. The only sounds, the occasional crackle of flame and the ragged breathing of the three exhausted men. The world had shifted its attention away from them.

They waited.

******************

"What now?" A whisper.

"They're thinking it over?"

"Who?"

"The Guardians."

"Oh."

"How long--"

"Shh! Listen!"

A slight breeze started to blow across the clearing. The night insects, quiet since the ritual, started their loud chirping again. The air smelled of...contentment?

Giles took a deep, shuddering breath, and let it out.

"I think that's a Yes."

THE END


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