Wednesday’s Short Story: May Her Name be Called Among the Root Middens

Zaran was the only female born and before the final son, as foretold by Treese, the Truth Speaker. So when the girl came into the world her parents, the Royal Clan rulers of Mabat, were apprised of her potential. But the truth was, the Speaker didn’t speak of all things known. Nor the entire truth of a thing if he felt it unwise. Her parents, then, were left to wonder over her–why she often stood apart, how she listened, what she saw when studying sky’s changes or forest grove shadows or water’s magic surfaces. They only knew she was theirs to raise, though she seemed often elsewhere and that was a problem they could not well solve. She also gave answers that belied her mortal age. Or as if she had anticipated their thoughts. That was a condition they sought to demolish. With little success. Still, Zaran was their only daughter, and she was theirs, and she would do their bidding eventually. It was designated as being so.

One doesn’t note crucial details unless one is willing to take risks, perhaps make errors and then perhaps lose one’s life, Treese reminded his own daughter, Ilyat. But she was absorbed that moment by scooping water from the pool for the leather bladder. There were miles to go. She knew what he said came as a warning from his love for her. And she believed him.

And she knew much about Zaran; who could ignore her? These seventeen years passing, they both knew what they were meant to be. As did all others. Royal Clan news was unchanged, as well: Zaran would soon sit at her mother’s side; her younger brother, Raze, would be soon at his father’s. It was Double Protection, tradition that never deviated. Their two older sons were off claiming more land and goods, peacefully or not, to add to family fortunes. This was their designation, and their calling and they did it well. They had been gone ten years except when their grandfather was dying, then dead. It was a brief, unsentimental visit though well intended, of course.

Ilyat was the apprentice to her father’s tenets of Truth Speaking. She was the fifth generation to become so and did not question it. It was in her marrow. She liked the travelling, liked her father’s company mostly, and the taste of subtle powers she had begun to experience was not unpleasant. She might one day take his place if Dominion Seats found her favorable. If not, she would be a Vagabond Speaker, a poorer and harder life– in some ways, yet still worthy. There was time to worry about that. Now, it was water they needed for the last twenty miles to the Mabat Dominion Compound and Fortress.

She saw her father resting with eyes closed while standing by the water. She didn’t bother him; he could sleep deeply like that for a good hour if needed. Ilyat had yet to master that skill, called wake-rest, and many others. He was careful with his training but lately he was teaching her faster and more, so that at times her thinking and being were spun about. She learned to right herself.

Ilyat knew more about Zaran, even if the knowing was not yet made clear. She understood things were not always as they seemed–and certainly not with that one. Zaran almost seemed more like Treese and herself than the Royal Clan. But there was no evidence, no certainty of such a blasphemous thing. Unless her father hid it, which was possible–another remarkable skill called scrimming. He’d intimated he had something to add to Zaran’s life story, but Ilyat had to be patient to discover it. Truth telling and receiving required that more than anything except courage. That was the primary thing. You did not shirk Truth Speaking, no matter what.

Ilyat’s visions pulsed at edges of her mind; she wondered about the end of their trip this time. She knew it was the Initiation Ceremony they were to attend, but nothing more–yet. Tension snarled her chest and throat. She drank of the sparkling green water until anxiety receded. And then she sat still, surrounded by forest music, at ease. Waiting for Treese, beloved father, to fully awaken. For this journey to come to a close.

******

In the far distance of his sleep, Treese felt the Root Middens watching them, and he greeted them.

They always watched, from the uppermost boughs, from lichen-laden stumps, from damp caves behind waterfalls and vast meadows strewn with innocent flowers and slinking beasts. In forests they waited more quietly. So many passed this way, under cover of the strong giant trees. They understood it. They came from the roots, underground; they lived off root blood. Under the earth they especially were able to hear life moving in ways others did not. This was their first home, but they tolerated the passing ones if they did not do harm to any being, or take nothing unneeded. They were First Guardians, every one knew it but many feared them. They had ways and means to make a passage arduous, chancy.

Treese and Ilyat were another matter. They were watched because they pointed the way into time and energy beyond their scope–as long as the Royal Ones were in power, the Highnesses Nine and Eight. As long as their own clan of Root Middens was bound to shadow living, half visible, they could not expand their works. Treese held a major key to change.

It was best to be unseen, though they knew for certain Treese could make out their quicksilver forms in any degree of light. Treese was their ally. He knew Root Middens waited to be set free of Nine and Eight, also. He labored to bring the Truths forward to all. There was no harm in that, but help.

But who did not want liberation? The Royals cared little for life’s collective value or its unique expressions. Its innate spiritual power. They practiced blind ignorance and self-aggrandizement as if they were fierce competitions they must and would always win. And it seemed as if they were right, so far. They accumulated authority as the powerless accumulated stones for soup and aching exhaustion for nightfall.

The Root Middens waved Treese and Ilyat on and they slipped away long before the travelers did, before Ilyat used even her wisening eyes to find them. There was time for that meeting. There was more to be done.

******

In the beginning, in the beginning...was the Royal Clan Supreme.

Must it always start and end like that? The Tutor never tired of it, the mind-numbing retelling of the story that had kept her family’s history intact for all the ages. Wasn’t it enough that she had had to put it down on parchment from memory?

Zaran sat on the edge of her chair by the wide open window. A kestrel hovered not far off, wings flapping, tail undulating, then glided and dipped but changed course for more favorable fields. She would like to follow the bird. She already knew the requisites– “Principles: Cardinal and Lesser Rights” and “Highest Doctrines of Critical Figures”– she needed to be expert in so she might sit by Eight’s place. Her mother. And Tutor knew it, too; he had been astonished by her prodigious memory from an early age. Raze also had finished his studies but by tedious rote work, and late. He was a year ahead of her but only now prepared for their Initiation Ceremony. And his place by Nine. Their father. Finally official. He’d had to wait for her, he complained, but they all knew it was more the other way– Zaran was found close to ready. She also had another month to complete the last part her Tutor determined necessary so she’d be offered proper Ceremony, too.

But she– unlike Raze who hung on every bit of approval from their parents–much to her annoyance and distress–was not excited to make the Two Royals an official Four. She dreaded it. It was not the path she desired, and was lucky no one had found her out.

It wasn’t that she didn’t like leading. She could do that with some pleasure. But Zaran from the start of her youth didn’t agree with their ways, the proscribed life and duties set for her and Raze. Tutor had spent years drumming into her the importance of her position and the strict disciplining of intellect, the suppression of emotion. Calculation and strategy, endurance in body and mind, and the lack of sympathy were key. But when he left her to herself, she dreamed of another life, even though she knew it wouldn’t be given to her. Not even Raze knew who she wished to be, despite their childhood closeness…then he began to separate from her for Royal doctrine. He’d once teased her that she was a wild runabout, not easily tamed. True, she’d admitted. Soon she could not find a way back to him, nor forgive his blind obedience, his lack of openness with her. His heart, once vibrant as her own, was tucked away from sight, thrummed to the signs of power. He was slowly becoming who he was born to become: a future overseer of the Royal Clan. A kingly dictator. With her or not, though he hoped she’d change her attitude. They were, after all, blood.

Could she follow her named designation? It seemed harder as each day passed by.

“Dismissed for today. You’re staring out the window again.”

Tutor was less annoyed than disconcerted by this habit. He picked up his boar skin gloves, slapped them against a thigh. Moved to the corner of the room out of dutiful respect, his lame foot catching on the rug. When she left, he would depart staying a distance behind her.

All he wanted for her was success–which sealed his own. Perhaps he could take time to himself then. Years and years of this tedious but vitally necessary teaching. Yet Zaran had always wanted to learn and was better at it than Raze–but she also yearned for knowledge far beyond her ken. He’d had to rein her in every time. It got exhausting, though she was not arrogant or disrespectful as Raze often was. It was her way to gently, persistently push him for broader and more profound learning. Sometimes he didn’t know the answers, to his shame, and he cut her off. Lately he had half a notion to toss out his orders and start anew with her–she’d learned crucial material long ago. What might he prefer to teach? But even that passing thought could get him executed, so he kept to his decreed path, as she must keep to hers.

Zaran was no fool; she sat with face turned away toward trees and sky. He wouldn’t catch her sadness and longing. She saw him out of the corner of her eye, shifting in place due to his old war wounded foot; she knew he worried. And she couldn’t have that. Not now. He had to announce her final and excellent grades. Then she would go on without him, do what she must–one way or another.

She stood and smoothed her pale silk pants and tunic, placed her fingers on her forehead with a tiny bend at her waist in friendly gesture to him, then stepped toward the arched opening to the terrace. Tutor followed reluctantly. She swiveled around then and his eyes looked to ground as required.

“Tutor Mesor.”

He startled at the sound of his name. It was impolite, it was even outrageous.

“Now that we’re almost done, I may use this name, may I not? I’m finally grown and you’re soon to leave us. Just once I would like to say I called you by name, and you, mine. Face to face. You have taught me well, have been good to me more often than not despite my parents’ harsh demands. I have respect for your work. I wish to use your name, in great thanks.”

He kept eyes to floor. This was a setup, or it was genuine–which? “Mistress, if you can suffer my refusal I would rather not…it is not safe.”

“But wait, Tutor Mesor, will you not also use my given name of Zaran one time? An exchange of respect.”

But he stood mute and far off, blinking as panic rose. If anyone heard them, if he dared say her name–

“Then you may leave me now, I regret causing discomfort for both of us,” she said, and turned away. Too much for him, she thought; she must never ask such a reckless thing again.

Tutor Mesor hesitated. Would he not be in real trouble either way? Had she required so much of him in all her life? She had, but he cared about her; she had surely been a challenging but considerate student. Nine and Eight would, though, have his neck.

Zaran always sought a different choice, another option. It would do her in one day. He feared for her. But he would not be led astray at this time in his career, with a wife ailing and a daughter soon to wed. He backed away, bowed, was gone. He didn’t know how many more times he would see his scholastic charge. The sound of her voice speaking his name stayed with him a long while.

Zaran sat on wide stone steps leading to the gardens and fields, The small acrobatic kestrel had returned. It spotted its prey and dove into the grasses. Zaran turned to the west as the sun lowered. She heard something. Not a palomino’s hooves, not a red bear foraging berries, not a scurrying blue skink. It was lighter, faster, sounds of language dancing in air, words whistling about in a symphony.

She closed her eyes, held both palms up to the fragrant season’s billowing wind and smiled widely. Her palms tingled, her mind vibrated. Ilyat and Treese were coming. She ran indoors to wash her tawny face and tidy her platinum silver braid. They were there to help her with her life once more. They were coming for the Ceremony, yes, but they’d meet up, find favor with one another. Angels of mercy, she called them, though she had been told time and again there was no such thing as that, and thank the mountain god Gatomasha no one believed in that rubbish, anymore.

She believed, anyway.

******

“Welcome to Dominion Compound and Fortress once more, please take the seats, eat, and give us the latest news.”

King Nine pointed to the usual spots in middle of the long teak dining table and put his bulk into his mammoth chair with a thud. Queen Eight, presiding at the other end from her husband, nodded her coiffed head around to all. She arranged the voluminous scarlet gown about her; her ruby encrusted tiara was laid upon a small pillow on the crown side table so she might eat. No one wore anything on their heads when eating, it was vulgar.

Treese and Ilyat knew the routine and waited for the Royals to begin their servings. They were ravenous since they’d arrived after three days travel with only wild berries, roots and mushrooms and water. Their mouths watered. The piled dishes were steaming hot. They emitted rich scents of meat and creamy vegetables, warm breads and sweet fruits; they fairly swirled about the high-ceilinged hall. No one spoke while they ate, despite the King’s earlier inclusion of news in his greeting. They all ate first, talked later. Heavy tableware clanked and rang out, their mouths chewing enthusiastically.

Zaran and Raze sat at either ends, brother by father and daughter by mother. Across from Treese and Illyat were two empty places, to be used by the grandmother and her third husband if they felt sociable and well– or by other guests, if not. Tonight, no one else was there or they ate in their rooms, or later, presumably.

Treese never quite got the procedures for everyone’s mealtimes, who had the right and who did not to sit there. Visitors varied widely form what he had seen, as did the Royals preferences in private life. He had been sharing evening meals with Royals for thirty years and it was often the quietest room unless ripened wine flowed. But it was a show of confidence that he and Ilyat were offered seats every time. It was the major part of his designation– to be of service to them. He never forgot. But things could change for his life, he reminded himself.

Ilyat looked at him then. She’d heard his thought; she brushed his hand when reaching for a roll.

Table talk when it came was heavy on trade and a few continued wars to the far north. The other princes were not seen lately but it was known that they were having success finding new sources for replenishing silk worms and purveyors of fine weaponry. No major storms yet, but very soon would begin in Fourth Season. The news, then, was brief.

“So you are here for the duration,” Queen Eight inquired, meaning until the Initiation Ceremony was completed. “Your rooms are prepared and we’re glad you honor your duty to gather the story and make greater Royal History come alive for the generations. This is what I’ve been waiting for, over eighteen years.” She lifted her blue and gold goblet to the King and smiled that winning smile that was easy for her despite ill or good will.

King Nine banged the table once with his fists and roared as was his way, “Yes, a great moment in history, a perfect moment for the Royal Clan–our Double Protection in place so our Kingdom of Mabat shall hold firm! Praise Gatomasha!” Raze banged in hearty accord.

“And so be praised!” the group answered in unison, though it was hard for some to say.

Ilyat listened and watched. She wasn’t expected to speak in public yet, nor even encouraged, but her wandering eyes found Raze’s, then Zaran’s. Raze nodded at her, lips curved in a way that imitated friendliness yet not quite. He felt her far beneath him, yet found her lovely, perhaps a bit sly, and lively in a restrained manner. The last few times they’d met he’d gotten ideas. She always looked down immediately as expected. She hoped he never got close to her. She might just shove him aside and say things she shouldn’t say. He was of no interest.

But she held Zaran with her eyes. They spoke to one another without speaking, and had done so for years, if only briefly. They knew they should not pass between them any knowledge of import, but did so because they could. And because they understood one another–simply as people. It rarely happened that Ilyat found another who knew her instinctively. But Zaran had even when they were children full of carefree play. They were kept from being friends–one girl a subject and servant, as well as her father, to King and Queen–and another girl an inheritor of Royal wealth and power one day. They had always wanted more time. Now things were about to alter all of them.

And that day was coming soon.

Zaran reached out first: I’m glad you have arrived. Meet me on my third floor balcony after midnight.

Just after midnight, Ilyat agreed. I thank you, Princess.

And you for coming with your father.

Treese was talking to Queen Eight but their words slipped by his mind and he turned ever so slightly to his daughter–she knew he heard. Ilyat studiously speared more venison and prairie greens with her fork. Zaran kept her attention on Treese and he, startled by her warm energy as he spoke of sheep and boar prices, almost paused mid-sentence.

Zaran patted her lips with a silk napkin, then excused herself and walked softly from the hall.

Nine thought her impetuous to leave during such a dinner but Eight understood women; they soon tired of the dreary table talk. However, very soon Zaran would follow all rules and stay in place as she was required to be present. There would be no more excuses tolerated, not for her royal right hand. And perhaps one day, more–if Raze did not prove himself better at all that Zaran managed extraordinarily well.

******

They stood against the outer wall of the balcony, cloaks pulled close against a sharp chill. The moon was a pale half circle; low clouds bunched and scudded past its soft illumination.

Ilyat leaned toward her, still a foot away. “My father is going to be unhappy we’re meeting in secret- and yours would explode– but I had to speak in person. Something has changed. I know you have the Initiation Ceremony in two weeks, but…”

“Yes?” Zaran moved closer to place a cool hand on Ilyat’s arm with urgent pressure. “Speak truth now.”

“I will wait for my father’s direction, but I can say you must be ready for unexpected things. I know you sense it, but I’m telling you now that the future is not what was decreed. That much I do know; Father stated so.”

Zaran let out a short breath and she studied the distance as the trees hid in the dark, when the Root Middens rested. That reassured her somehow. She released Ilyat. “I have been waiting.”

“We’ve all been waiting for history to no longer stagnate–to fail us again.”

“I’m more than ready,” Zaran said, thinking of Raze, thinking of her parents who saw her as one thing and he, another. But they had it reversed. “It is to my advantage, then?”

“To have seen you as different by the family? In one way or another. Now they are blinded. But later another viewpoint will come full circle. But I don’t know quite what that all entails yet…”

“I wait for more understanding.”

“Think less, intuit and sense more.” Ilyat sent a clearing energy to Zaran’s forehead; the young princess trembled then relaxed. “We are present. Time will reveal us to each other.”

Ilyat left so quickly and quietly that as Zara turned to gesture her a kind farewell–right hand to center chest–she saw only the gauzy blue curtain lift and flutter over the arched doorway. She shivered, pulled her cloak hood over her head, watched the stars shining, listened for their humming. Satisfied that all was safe–they were not likely found out– she started for bed, only to find her cheeks dampening and heart beating like frantic wings against her ribs.

She must keep faith. She must be prepared for whatever came.

******

The time passed rapidly, as it did when much needed to be done in the Dominion Compound and Fortress. Servants rushed about doing chores times ten. Clothiers, jewel keepers, chefs and design masters, carriage restorers and farmers, art restorers and horse herders and Dominion guards were kept busy for long hours at their taxing labors. The Fortress was abuzz with a high excitement not felt in decades.

The Initiation Ceremony was a once in a generation event. King Nine and Queen Eight were driven by all matters pertaining to it and its greater outcome. They expected their children to be thus melded with the Royal Clan, and succeed them even when married off. They would spend their declining years entirely secure.

Raze was taking a last time to enjoy his relative freedom, drinking too much and looking for female companionship (soon women would be carefully screened; there’d be formal engagements only). He’d lost track of his sister and she said little to him. They had taken different mental routes to the same place, and he still wondered what she was up to though she betrayed so little. Yet she knew what he thought; he was taking his blood-earned and studies-gained spot and little else mattered. He loved the surge of power that was his as he became an adult, felt at home as Royal. He hoped to be married with a smart and hearty wife within two years, a child or two and a throne sooner or later. That covered his greatest desires.

For Zaran, who knew? She was as mysterious as firelight in deep forest, as moonlight in mountains.

Their parents were full of pride and plans. They were further cementing clear control with formal addition of two scholarly, well trained children. Their other sons were providing greater wealth and reach of rule. And if too many raised their voices in complaint of all their methods–often brutal, frequently illegal, nearly always unchecked–no matter, that was how it was done. No mercy given. They had each carried out their jobs as Royal forbearers had. The Royal Nine and Eight had fulfilled ancient foretellings, and thus far met their goals well.

And yet. There were gaps in their lives though they could not identify them. There was the unease that unknowing provides. They retired the night before the Ceremony with an ache under their skins, a jumble in their minds, a congestion in their blood that would not stay cleared. It was a question unanswered that they hadn’t once said aloud to one another.

What–truly–would become of Zaran with her unorthodox thinking and secretive ways? What did that mean ultimately for the Kingdom of Mabat? They should have been harder on her, they thought with regret, but they would be harder on her now. She had no idea.

“All shall fare well, a goodly rest,” they intoned as they always did to one another, and turned down the hallway lights and closed their doors behind them.

******

It was this way:

Treese and Ilyat did not sleep. They barely dozed and when the moon was hidden beneath clouds heavy with rainfall they got up and went into Zaran’s room.

She was not sleeping either, and stood with clothes and boots on, cloak and bag tied around her waist. She’d long a go decided she was not going through with the Initiation. It was not going to be her life, obedient to darkness and dirty plans, servile to conniving behaviors or at the least so many empty, boring duties. It was not her right designation no matter what they said. Her calling was still not clear but it could not be the Royal Dominion life. She felt things and knew things she could not even describe. She wanted a different path, though she knew not what–yet.

The only way to avoid it and retrieve her life was to leave. She’d rehearsed that leave-taking for months, and tried to keep up enough courage. She’d lower herself over her balcony three stories up, then down the side of the Fortress with the rope from the stables when all were asleep. She was strong, she was fit, she excelled in self defense. She was resolved when it came to action needed. Zaran was not backing away from any chance at freedom, even if short lived.. even if Royal soldiers hunted her down…But she had long believed she’d have help.

And it came.

They said nothing aloud; they knew each other’s thoughts well enough. She showed them the rope and they followed her down it, clumsily at first with greater effort for Treese, and each trying to void the massive stone wall with its bruising glances, then they were more steady, careful, their energy high and concentrated. The guards did not keep to this area, being stationed at the front watchtower and gateway–especially now, when the Ceremony would bring many invited attendees and perhaps many rabble rousers. The even would be at seven in the evening followed by a feast of celebration long into the night.

They heard a horse whinnying, someone riding off –perhaps a servant who forgot a last task that was critical, or a soldier gone home–and that was all. Laughter bold coming from the tower gates. They waited a moment and heard then the plaintive hoots of a barn owl, a sleek flight of bats, a few crickets that fell silent. The night thickened with clouds and the heavy stillness that spread itself high and low before a storm.

When landing on the ground, they fast sought the private path that led to the family garden for private relaxation. Zara had easy access to keys for all doors, so capably unlocked the heavy wooden gate and in they went, through and about bushes, trees, flower beds, threading their way around small hillocks and thorny bushes with radiant moon flowers and on and on– until they reached the far gate that let them onto the wooded acreage, Middens’ Forest.

They ran. They could not help it. It had long been a lifelong, beautiful dream for Zaran, a prayer for Treese, a vague hope grown strong for Ilyat, each having their reasons. They ran until they could not manage to jump another branch, to skip over another rock, to avoid the tangles of vines and biting prickers and the sting of savvy insects. They were parched; intense adrenalin was leaving them finally exhausted.

An hour later they had to stop and so rested awhile in the ebony interior of the woods. Treese reached for Zaran’s smooth hands and she gave them to his rough, warm ones in relief. He held them as if in a prayerful mode, enclosed within his. She felt familiarity, as if she knew these ways of being.

“We have waited a long while for you to join us.”

She adjusted to the lack of light but saw him as if a candle was lit. His face seemed to gleam in the dark woods, and his body average and wiry, face holding no age. Her own countenance was calm though silvery hair was askew about her cheeks, her deep eyes weary but bright. “And I, you. Since childhood.”

“Since we met,” Ilyat agreed. “I knew you then.” She pushed her own platinum hair from brow and chin to tie it back and Zaran saw similarity, in the shape of her face and eyes, as well. She wondered who this one was. No matter, she had an overwhelming gratitude.

Zaran carefully touched each of their foreheads in care and respect, then her own. “My Truth Speaker sister, father.”

Treese bowed his head and they clasped each other’s hands. He spoke a prayer of sturdy life, of deep learning, of truthfulness, of strong compassion.

Not to Gatomasha of the mountains. To a Creator of Love for all.

Zaran stood under treetops and sky as rain began to fall. “Let’s begin forging a new reign, good Speakers.”

And they jumped up–she was yet a princess–and left behind the past, Zaran looking over her shoulder, a pain inside squeezing her mind and soul. Then she moved on, as she was meant to do. She was eager to work on a future they could all bear to inhabit, to find greater wisdom that could salvage Mabat. Her kingdom by tradition, but the peoples’ home. One day…when she was prepared to claim Truth and its every guiding Speaker. Embracing whatever her destiny was to become.

The Root Middens watched them pass as they always did. But this time they rejoiced in depths of Under/Earth while freshening rain nurtured the forbearing trees.

Zaran comes, they intoned. And it was so.

Monday’s (Imagined) Meander: Caves of the Mostly Brave (or Trying to Be)

Out of the belly of the earth arose exquisite contortions of rock and urgency of shadow, dampness that imbued spasms of light, the innards powerfully compacted and faintly acrid, and much was bright with echoes. But there were footholds to be found despite precarious twists and narrows.

It was a testament to primeval life, and we were foreigners who somehow knew to find our way unless we allowed defeat. We dug in our heels, squeezed through one cavern to find one more confoundment, a puzzle of clefts and tunnels, and we clawed our way as necessary to some distant denouement. The frightful possibility of newness, that exhilaration at the ends of somewhere else that told us: home again.

It had been there before–the wild abundance, the thrumming heart of the living, the aptitude for miracles. It could be discovered again, no matter the hunger and thirst, the dead and dying, misbegotten missions and twisted greed, the terrible paucity of compassion and the careful support without which the way can never be navigated well. One stumbles and falls, one needs hands to at least begin to stand.

Why was this all known to Symsha, the scout who scrambled ahead?

It was written in the cool brilliance of the vast pulsing of stars and the fiery core of deepest earth. In their own blood and bone. It was the code, the pass key, the gift that unlocked it all. From dis-ease to revelation, they could find their way if they’d only pay attention.

But if ever there was a need for a potent sign to hear, a saving word to hear, it was now. And Divine Love waited for all to still, empty of self interest. For the world to reconnect to its own wisdom and its people to wake and rebuild outward and upward once more. To understand: they were meant to exist even higher than the angels– but only if humbler than all else. That was one part, a necessary start to a victorious endeavor, a fight for true freedom.

And so on they crawled and groped and scraped from belly to mouth of the claustrophobic, mesmerizing caves.

There was more to this than they could imagine but Symsha knew it was well that they did not. Greatness was greatness only when unaware. And Symsha was only a guide.

The Convening, Part 2

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

It was foolish to expect the riverine deer to come after darkness blanketed both village and countryside, but Naliya looked for them amid a grove of great trees. Firelight flickered over  gnarled trunks and the leaves and grasses flushed with its color. A night bird called to another and another, then fell silent. Terl poked at the bursting flames coming from sticks and logs, and talked to it.

“Bring rapturous energy into this night, grant us heat as chill leaves resting earth. Bless us with your beauty and power. And don’t take too long, the weather is fickle again…” She rubbed her hands over it and then held them, palm side down, above the licking, swaying flames. They jumped up in response. She pulled away from the fire, satisfied, and rested her arms on drawn up knees.

“Why couldn’t we stay inside, Mama? Lightning flashes in the east.” Naliya pulled her thick shawl about her shoulders and finely woven green robe. “The birds are still.”

“We need to be here, with fire under the heavens.”

“I know.” She looked at the sky’s tiny starry jewels rapidly hiding behind clouds, and found small comfort as another shard of light carved it into two parts.

“We will stay until I am done. Don’t be afraid.”

Naliya glanced at her mother. “I’m not afraid. When have I been? I want to be prepared. I can’t ignore natural signs; they tell me things.”

Terl looked at her daughter while adding more wood and answered sharply, “Yes, they do speak to you. But I have things to tell you, as well, and it can guide and even save your life if you will listen.”

Naliya, chastised, drew closer to the fire. She was opposite her mother so they could see one another. Firelight illumined Terl the Mistress of Rites, a powerful woman who used well her mind and will, a woman who also had bountiful love for her daughter.

“Of course, please say the words you mean to say.”

Terl sat tall even when she was slumping from weariness but now her height seemed to rival the trees. She closed her eyes and smoothed her forehead and temples, then shoulders, arms, hands, and flicked off the energy she had gathered throughout the day, putting it into the fire pit. Naliya followed suit, then waited. The fire accepted it, grew hotter.

Terl held Naliya’s clear grey eyes with her own deep, wide and burning eyes, a mark of Mistress of Rites.

“The Grand Baraxas’ time may soon near its end. We are in need of retrieval from his poor ruling before another generation ends up with too little nourishment of the soul. Food is never enough to quell the need here. Gemstones are not enough to satisfy. A better dole house for every person would not solve the problem. It is an ongoing, mind-numbing resignation that sinks its poison deep within, a malaise they don’t even recognize as moving through mind and marrow. The Grand Baraxas has every one under his spell, under his ownership of land and the village with his punitive ways and heavy, dour energy. If he had been cruel from the start it would have been alarming enough to raise a good rebellion, but it has been a slow deception, an easy sway of one man and woman after another. Everyone has basic needs met except those who’ve grievously lost Baraxas’ favor. Now it is time to take charge with the Prism again, the sacred Light at our center. To wake up and see the truth and rejuvenate life.”

“Yes, so you have said, so I understand.”

“You understand so little, daughter.” Terl’s voice rang out into the night. Her beautiful face grew paler then darkly bright with manifestation of energies. “This is why we are here, in this place, in this time. You must take heed and learn, experience and discover before you can begin to barely understand.”

The fire leapt into low hanging tree limbs then fell back to a moderate burn. Naliya knew to be silent until she was asked to speak again. Terl looked far past the woods then returned her gaze to her daughter. Naliya was afraid to look though she felt a tug. She was rooted to her place, stilled by the desire to please her mother. And the truth that was coming her way.

“Our great-great-great grandmothers once ruled Quazama with generous equity, with daily lessons from the complexity of music and a fortifying diversity of story. The people knew how to live of their own accord, overall, with little harm to one another then. But in time such good station and its power was wrested from their hands. Many became greedy for a complete sovereignty of self. Not for the common good. The grandmothers thought it best to share more power and responsibility with others of the Prism: men, who had always been our help meets in one capacity or another. There have been such disputes that rendered the collective wisdom weaker. We have always found our way back to harmony. We’ve had just and good Grand leaders of both genders, but then the one Grand Baraxas took his position by force– despite Martram’s efforts to keep steady the trusted balance.”

She rustled her robes in irritation, pressed her white hair back from her temples. The trees rustled, whispered.

“There is always something to tempt human beings away from the peace of good will. It is a waste of vital energy to fight so hard and often for matters and things of so little value. I will never get used to it, never, though some find greed a mere minor flaw of life.” Her charged demeanor gave her a fierceness that caused Naliya to look down, but soon it was replaced by her usual calmness as she took a good breath. “The saga is tiresome, I know, dear one, but it bears remembering that much.” She rolled her shoulders back as thunder gouged the silence. “Now here’s the current situation. You know Martram and Baraxas are bitter enemies since youthful years. And Martram was banished to Rumsfeldt Barriers for grave interference–commanding a band of rebels to conspire against him. He could’ve been executed but the Convening Twelve voted for a banishment to save him. He cannot return legally. But he can yet return illegally with help. And has decided to do so, at last.” She feared her emotion would gain the upper hand, and pressed her lips tightly a moment to regain control.

Naliya saw this, was about to question her then she checked herself.

Terl opened her arms in an emphatic gesture. “You have been chosen by the convening council decision to be the new Messenger and must travel to Rumsfeldt Barriers. You will meet up with Martram and escort him safely back home. Then smuggle him into Quazama. With our help from here. You have the swift feet and legs. The strength and energy. You know how to disappear and how to be well seen for who you are. And you have the protection, it was ingrained in you in your beginnings. You are meant to do this work not just soon but for life. And I suspect you have known that awhile.”

“But, Mama, Rumsfeldt Barriers? That is at the ends of the earth.” Naliya frowned, shook her head so that her ivory and black hair rose and fell.

Terl chortled in spite of herself. “Not to the very ends of this time and place, Naliya! You will go farther… This journey is only two days away.”

“It will feel like a lifetime….and it’s forbidden territory for good reason, inhabited by Roamers, the nameless ones who live there. And how will I find Martram? How will we get out without Roamers creating problems for us, demanding we liberate them all or struggle and die with them? How will we get back into the village without terrible consequences?” She was overcome with throttling fear.

Terl stood, robes sweeping over the fire before settling around her tall, taut body. “A Roamer brought us the needed word; this is an extraordinary thing. You know less than I thought, only what the prejudiced natter on about. You now will need to learn for yourself. You will find the way because, daughter, you are chosen to find it. There is no other to fulfill this pressing need. Even the Grand Baraxas is in agreement with this–so he can defeat Martram, of course. But that must not, will not happen…”

Naliya stood, also, voluminous drifts of hair flaying from her face in the sinew-chilling rush of winds gathering up yet unseen wetness.

“What must I do, then?”

Her mother walked right over the fire to her. “You will engage in the Life Title Ceremony and then you will leave, in just one day. You will bring Martram to us, our truest leader and–”

She seemed to collapse a little under the last words, her body softening, eyes going glossy, arms suddenly enfolding her daughter.

“And..? Mama?”

But her mother said no more. They stood thus, Naliya’s gaze probing the denser spaces between the old trees for her deer. Her soul resounded with love but her mind was nipped and turned by the nuisance of lesser, loose spirits, their trickery meant to distract and confuse her, she well knew. She moved them away from herself but the winds were no longer just winds nor the dark a thing that would only protect and hide her. Changes were bubbling around her. Naliya would have to be far more watchful now.

The lightning sliced the skies into trembling slivers of luminescence and thunder skewed the air with barbarous shouts. The fire blazed hugely and as a torrent of rain descended, they remained dry under the creaking branches, close to the fire pit. Naliya wondered over her mother’s influence even upon a storm. As flames danced inside dry air they told the girl what she could not put into her own words yet: Beginnings and endings, the grand circle will out; journeys unfold, destinations divined. The orange-gold light slipped over her feet, hands, neck, face and her skin tingled, eyes filled with water and rolled off her rosy cheeks. How would any of this knowledge or any title help her? But trust arrived on small wings despite her anxiety.

Her mother led her back to their house, each leaning on the other, each awash in their own imaginings, reaching for different conclusions. And they arrived still dry except for their feet, which tracked in bits of mud.

The riverine deer did not appear. Having watched from the edges, they moved deeper and deeper until they bedded down amid twisty tree roots and the constancy of crickets and rumblings of thunder. They faithfully waited, for the rain to relent and for sunrise to grace a new day. For the girl Naliya to come into herself.

******

“That’s sure not what I’d want to do, so far better you then me! You’re pretty tough, Naliya, you know you’ll be okay.”

Zanz was weaving willow into a small bowl by the river bank and gave her a sideways glance. Naliya fingered the necklace her mother had given her the night before, the small pink tourmaline stone glowing about her neck.

“It’s not as if I asked for anything to do yet–much less being Messenger. I mean, I suspected it but I thought I had more time to choose what I wanted. Instead, I get chosen, like it or not…”

“And what would it be that you’d want?”

“Healer,” she said and realized until that moment she hadn’t been certain. But that was what her heart yearned to do. How could her mother not see it, too? Or had she?

Zanz eyed her with confusion, then with appreciation.”Oh, right, you mean the wild creatures, of course. Yes, I knew that, I guess, you are in love with the natural worlds. As am I, I suppose, but healing is not my gift or desire.”

“No, I think I mean…healing anyone, everything,” she said, coming to sit closer to him but not too close. “I feel strong feelings, as you tease me about.  Quazama needs a good refreshing to allow for more happiness. I could help with that, maybe.” She reached across the bank and dipped her fingers into blue wavelets that rose up, coursed over her skin. She thought the day was itself happier since the rainstorm gave of its life and then blew on to another place.

“Yeah, freedom from that rotten old GB. He just needs to walk into the bush and expire.” he made a noise and set his hands parallel to each other and chopped the air.

“Shush,” she hissed, her head swiveling to check for others nearby but he laughed at her.

“I can say what I think out here, with you. But I’m wondering how, when you get back from Rumsfeldt Barriers–” he gave an involuntary shudder–“how it will be. I mean, will I have to make a special request to talk with you? Will you be gone all the time running more messages to far-away places? Will I be forbidden to be your friend, even? Our old Messenger was housed in the Central Place with Sentries and cooks and all others, close to the GB and our little used temple.” He put down his basket-in-progress. “I hadn’t thought of that–but you and your mother might have to go there?”

“No, no, she never said that. We have our singular dole house, plenty good for us. I just have to always be available, that’s all, and train harder each day for long distance running. I think, anyway. I do have to run this morning, be sure all parts are working right. But, oh, I don’t know! All the talk of a clash again, Martram being found by me, no less, and brought face to face with the Grand Baraxas. Then the Living Trust brought forward… a strange thing to contemplate, you and I have never seen that! But this is the main thing so nothing else is being explained. Makes me foggy headed, the entire thing.” She got up, twirled around and away.

“I can’t believe you’re leaving tomorrow, just like that. I’ll be repairing the looms with my uncle and tending my brothers while you will be off having adventures! I could almost resent all this.”

Naliya stopped, soft purple robes grabbing her legs, then unfurling in the other direction. It was like watching a flower open, close and re-open, Zanz thought. Her two-toned hair was a mad nest, a snaggy, wavy cascade down her back. The way he liked it. His hands ached to touch it so he looked down at his handwork.

“I will be going into wilderness, alone…and yet they trust me and my journey. It will be so much more than I even imagine, won’t it? But it’s Rumsfeldt, Zanz! I’m terrified and can’t believe they’re sending only me. But then the worry passes. I’m more excited. It’s almost the same feeling but the second one is much better. Who would have thought, and so soon…”

Zanz was bent over the basket, his fingers pressing and pulling the green willow, working faster. It was to be for her. For dipping water and gathering things she needed along the way. To think of him. “It’s not the best place for your first journey, I agree… In  truth, I would refuse if I were you. I will worry.”

“You would not refuse, you’re as brave as they come when it gets down to the hardest parts. I only wish you could come with me.” She knelt in the grass and looked into his serious face as it was altered with surprise. “I really do. You know by now that two minds can accomplish more, make better harmony than one struggling to do much.”

“I know, yes.”

He wanted to say something more and important but instead, he smiled long and broadly at her and in this was his heart which had been given to her long ago. If she only saw it. If she did, it didn’t show itself as she turned back to the river and stepped into it. She walked deeper, even deeper until her body was submerged and only her black and ivory hair floated around her small, open, fearless face, the river lifting and carrying her into its violet blue currents of water magic. She heard a wolf calling her name but she didn’t answer. She would soon meet them on the path, she expected that if nothing else. They ran with her long after the riverine deer fell back, anxious and exhausted.

******

Quazama villagers’ gathering was now completed, in three circles. The Convening Twelve then circled closer about her as she stood in the center of the great room with its large skylight in the dome above. Her arms were out held out by her mother and grandfather, Sentry O. Before her feet was a magnificent white and yellow bouquet of river and forest flowers. She, too, was dressed in bold yellow; her magnificent hair was woven tightly into a long braid. To see her face so entirely revealed was a surprise to most who attended, for some of her mother’s strange beauty was visited upon it, the eyes very deep set, nose small, lips full but pale and now pressed together in a grim solemnity. It was her hair that drew others’ attention before, the wildness of it and the old clan’s coloration, which commanded respect. But they knew her as hard working, friendly with old and young, quick–minded, fleet-footed yet an otherwise as ordinary as any young girl.

This was about to change.

The Grand Baraxas waddled up to the three of one clan and was bemused. How was it that they had managed to survive all the eons? But here they were; now the youngest was to take her place among a gilded few. She barely knew what was ahead. He secretly wondered of her capability, had hoped she might fail the vote, but the convening had claimed her as Quazama’s own new– and first female in a very long while, certainly way before his time–Messenger.

She was to bring his enemy back. That was all that mattered to  him.And then– then they would all know for certain whose blood would rule and whose would flood the temple and courtyards and roads in and out.

“Here is the daughter of Terl, Mistress of Rites, and the granddaughter of Sentry O, the longest ever to hold such a place in my service. They bring us the convening choice, Naliya of Terl, of the fourteenth generation. A runner from soon after birth, she is willed here, and now chosen to be our new Messenger.”

Terl steeped into the center and turned her back on the viewers as she moved ina circle about Naliya. She raised her hands above her daughter’s head. The Grand Baraxas followed behind Terl.

“Triumph here and on the journey, eternal Light. Instill the peace of mastery within Naliya. The Messenger’s loyalty will be unyielding. Her health will be of first concern and her life will be well guarded. A Messenger flees not from trouble but challenges it with strength. A Messenger never fails to get up if fallen. A Messenger never fails to forgo the oath of truth telling. A Messenger never gives her life greater value as Quazama villagers’ safety and well-being is her first and last duty. Naliya’s word is now the trusted word, for she carries those words to us, for us, among us. Her Messenger instincts are to be well heeded. The Messenger’s presence will be honored for work well done .”

She lowered and bowed her head at her, touched the lance and lightning symbols on the Grand Baraxas’ scarlet robes. They both lay their right forefingers on each of Nalyia’s arms. And then upon her head.

She squelched discomfort at the Gran Baraxas’ touch, feeling instead the deep warmth of her mother’s hands.  The villagers were happy, her body pulsing with adrenaline, her chest heaving with anticipation.

“May Naliya forever carry true words and run far, fast and strong as the winds!” Terl called out.

The villagers and even the Grand Baraxas raised their hands, repeated the words. “May Naliya forever carry true words and run far, fast and strong as the winds!”

Naliya was grasped under each armpit by her grandfather and mother and they lifted her, walked around the circle as each person clapped their approval and then released her onto the floor. She knelt down, facing a view of sunset sky arrayed in luminous colors.

The Convening Twelve lay down, bodies arrayed in a circle around her, making her as the center of a multi-hued flower, they the colorful petals. They clasped hands; their heads were pointed toward her, feet toward the encircled crowd. And then they began to hum. The sound flowed softly, then grew: one note filled the air magnified energy until it split into four notes to create a echoing harmony, then it became seven notes, and the luxuriant chord rose up and filled the temple, flowed about Naliya and then each villager, sonorous and clear. There came peace and pleasure, the sound a sustained resonance, the sound round, rich, dense with meaning.

This was a remnant of the ancient ways. It stilled their hearts, evoked in them forgotten wonder.

The Grand Baraxas felt it as the turning of times, a potential mending of life worn out and broken down, but he told himself it was only a pretty excuse for music, it was the trappings of ceremony and perhaps Martram’s sly influence, still, which he must destroy for good. He also, in fact, ought to consider banning music making to keep everything strictly orderly, to ensure only activities essential to his station and his greater plans were carried out. Such music had a stirring effect and that led to some very wrong, perhaps even traitorous thinking.

Naliya’s body and mind were struck profoundly by the music. It was as if she was made an instrument of new meaning and value she didn’t understand but yearned to claim. She felt courage and faith flow into her, while devotion to her village, family and the Prism’s Light made its dwelling place within, for all the days and nights to come. It was power of a new sort that she felt, if only she knew this was what it was. For now, she only knew to let herself be led by it.

And then the music stopped. Naliya carefully stood up. She caught a glimpse of Zanz as he disappeared into the crowd and he seemed very distant, too far away. The villagers and conveners parted, an opening made. Then came the herd of riverine deer. They stopped before her, the crowd whispering their amazement at such behavior. Naliya followed them out of the great temple room, out of the village, to the forest.

Terl and her father lowered their eyes, fervently and silently prayed for daughter and granddaughter a new prayer.

Blessings on Naliya’s flesh and soul, and blessings on her mind and heart for the Changing is begun, the Changing is begun.

 

Note to Readers:

(This is Part 2 of “The Convening”; Part 1 was posted last week. I am not certain I will go on with it in the WordPress posts, but if there is interest, I may add Part 3 here, as there is much more to happen in the journey into the Rumsfeldt Barriers, it seems. It has been a fun story thus far for me to write, either way! Let me know if it seems worth continuing a bit.

Please do not share this story without express permission from this writer, as well as all other writing posted. It is copyrighted by this author as noted on blog. Thank you kindly.)

 

The Convening, Part 1

In the village of Quazama there came restless spirits, snatching gold, green and red leaves from mammoth branches and spinning them to earth, making the sweet air heavier with heat, and sending an urgency squalling about the temple to assure the Grand Baraxus was paying attention. The dole houses were abuzz with labors as usual, and the fields were weighed down by vegetation that would feed well the many and spare the rest–those unable to work– any grief of starvation. The Grand Baraxus surveyed his small kingdom and found it good, while his chief Sentry whispered in his ear that a convening was soon needed.

“It is yet early, no need to move fast,” he said with the usual barest smile that preceded impatient reproval. “Surely Martram cannot be plotting once more when he knows so well who holds all power. Mind your attitude, Sentry.”

This was all said with an arrogant satisfaction; the feelings rested on his visage much like the expectancy of a victorious hunt. Yes, much had been done to himself by that scheming miscreant but much more had been undone by himself in the last brutal Discord.

Sentry O stepped two feet to the side and waited. He knew better than to press the matter though written word had arrived to him only moments ago. Time should not be wasted. He fingered the packet in his short robe now and felt the terrible heat of Martram’s rebellion. Sentry O was loyal to The Grand Baraxus as that was his only job. He was tired of trying to convince the man he was not entirely invincible. He had weaknesses others could spot even if he could not. Six times Quazama had given rise to leaders who had wielded the heft of their power and also discovered where it stopped. Not so Baraxus. Useful, potent insights could be obscured, even blotted out by the sheer force of ignorance of one’s self. This, Sentry O knew well. He had served nearly his entire life and now that his knees were bony and his skin loosening, eyes failing and hair leaving his lumpy head he wished only to rest. Not to plot with a ruler who cared less for all his people than one more rapacious bug. But rule he did. Sentry O blinked his eyes to erase this repugnant awareness. If such thoughts were seen in his face, he wouldn’t have time to plan his funeral celebration as he’d be vanquished in an instant. He had his family to consider, and his legacy.

Beyond the temple terracing lay the village Sentry O was so fortunate to be born into. Greenery and light were ubiquitous. The foliage flushed the air with a perfume by turns bright and sweet or darkly sweeter, depending on temperature of the air–or a warning spiritual agitation that came from far away, no one knew from where anymore. There were fifty dole houses, another to soon  be added after his granddaughter came of age and chose her path. Although Sentry O felt her path was already chosen. He wanted to see what she might do before he failed to wake once and for all. Naliya knew her heart; her mind knew far more than she yet realized. But her good mother, Terl, was loathe to let her go. He turned back to Grand Braxas and waited to hear what was expected next, and loosened a shuddering sigh.

******

Crickets greeted her with a chorus of beautiful noise. River slipped through its banks in a surge of energetic melody. Light fed the water, Naliya thought as she filled the jugs, that was why it always shone. But today it was swift and cool and its blueness verged on purplish in its whorls and spouts. She frowned, looked upward. The sky was the same, open and brilliant. Her half-pale, half-inky hair flew above her head in a sudden gust and she pivoted to look all about. Three of the riverine deer were there as usual but only bobbed their fine heads at her, then reared up and dashed away. Naliya listened to the water, crickets, wind and heard a frenzy. She  hoisted the jugs on her sturdy shoulders and half-ran back to the house. Her mother had been waiting by the fire, her long-fingered hands folded. She now stood, and went to the earthen tub.

“Mama, there’s something happening.”

“Child, don’t go on about signs now. Please bring me the water. There’s to be a convening tonight and I don’t have time to discuss your far flung meanings now.” Terl poured the contents of a jug into the deep tub, then sprinkled on top a smattering of dried herbs and flowers. She slipped off her blue robe and stepped in, then leaned back. Her eyes closed. “The Grand Baraxus must have an itch to create chaos again. I wonder why he bothers to call us all in for counsel when he will needs his own way in the end…Not like when our blessed ancestors toiled for and lived the peace, joined life in the realm of the Prism.”

“Mama, listen, the deer left the river before coming to me. This isn’t right–you know they visit me every day. They didn’t even wait for my new honeyed berry treats.” She handed her mother two vials of scented oil.

“Thank you for the oils. Naliya, calm yourself. You may stay here or sit with your cousins or neighbors. It will likely last into eventide.” She put her face in the water, then came up for air and smoothed her arms and neck with oils.

Naliya had only that year been allowed to sit by herself and this thought helped alleviate her concerns. It meant she could visit Zanz, her best friend and maybe more, and her mother wouldn’t know. She knew that now she was thirteen summers she wasn’t supposed to visit him without a chaperone. But they always found a way.

“Alright, but my riverine deer don’t deceive…”

“Daughter, we will see what is to be seen. Patience.”

Naliya sat by the tub and idly dipped swished her fingers in the tepid swirling water, awaiting a turn if she wanted one. Her long hair was lifted from her shoulders by a blast of wind through the  open doorway and tossed it over her face. For a moment she was blinded by its mass. A darkening sweetness found her nose and she sneezed, then coughed, out of breath until her mother’s hand grabbed hers. Terl’s face might have betrayed her own fears but Naliya thought only of Zanz.

******

Their typical back and forth worked its way around the circle many times. The dissenting had been civil as well as time wasting and also thought provoking. Now their words had found a more comfortable balance.

Except for the Grand Baraxas’ declarations.

“If that idiot Martram feels he must try to usurp me once more and be humiliated by losing again, then let it be done. Isn’t the far banishment enough? This time, the outcome must be final!”

There was a murmuring about the circle. Twelve plus the Grand Baraxas sat about the emblematic bolt of lightning and lance inlaid on the floor. Their current ruler had designed and fashioned this from gemstones and finest made tiles when he came into power sixteen years prior. It had replaced the River, Sun, Tree and Star within the Four Directions Cross that had forever been Quazama’s symbols until then.

“When was he last heard from?” another of the Sentries inquired. “He has been gone for over nine seasons this time. I had imagined him quite dead already.” He barked an angry laugh.

There was silence at that; no one imagined anyone much less Martram dead unless he or she planned on killing him, it was a bad seed of an idea. Did he know, perhaps, Braxas’ hidden plan, fueled by his greatest desire?

Terl shifted and looked up at their ruler who in his orange splendid robes appeared more corpulent than ever. She barely smiled but patiently. “I heard from him once not so long after he left. When the storms came and went and he was out seeking sustenance. It was past the Highland hills; I was searching for pink tourmaline for a necklace for Naliya. I told this at the convening for harvest back then. He said his intention was one day return–you know this so surely the latest news is no shock.”

The Grand Baraxus smoothed his unruly grey beard, flicking bits of food onto the floor as he found them.

“When exactly was the recent information given us and had he a name?” asked a woman.

“Late last evening. A Roamer, hence no name known, stopped for a meal with Hiri and his family. He left at dawn, having completed his task and being fed and rested. No one we ever seen around here before, so said Hiri.”

“And he said he had just met with Martram for food, as well…repeat the message you received from Hiri, Sentry O.”

“The river belongs to no one but the people, amen, and to perfect facets of the Light, amen.” He turned to Terl who gave her full attention as she listened. “This be the prayer we’ve said so long, of course. Then: the people determine worth and need as taught by the Prism’s Heart alone.”

“He never trusted the Grand Baraxus’ knowledge and words. It cost Martram greatly as is the law, and so it has been done,” the First Sentry asserted, and stomped his feet to underscore the point.

“Who does?” someone whispered but only a few heard and ignored it.

The Grand Baraxus got up with difficulty as Sentry O helped him, then left the circle and stood with hands behind him, staring out at Quazama. He hadn’t expected this, not so soon, and now that he had taken ill with increasing frequency the last thing he wanted was more trouble than he could manage well. He rubbed his head with a large, soft hand and turned back to his three best Sentries who sat three in a row. The third appeared to be close to dozing, idiot, in response no doubt to the warmth in the chamber, making it close. He wished it was storm weather again so it would cool. He wished he could just drink a large goblet of wine, lie at peace with his woman.

“I am about out of patience,” he said and reclaimed his spot in the circle, touching the lightning and lance once each, then his chest, as was required when coming to or leaving a convening.

“We might vote on holding a village court to determine his worth, as before this was not done as was once our custom,” Sentry O said, his once-rich and strong voice now tremulous. He cleared his throat. “What is your say Terl, Mistress of Rites?”

They all turned to her. She sat tall, her white hair pulled into a braid at the nape of her neck, rain flowers woven in. Her rose and silver robe glimmered in shifting light cast by candles in wall sconces. She felt deeply calm, almost out of body,  despite her heart jumping at the thought of Martram coming to Quazama. She knew exactly what to do.

“We will at last bring out the Living Trust and see what is known of its truth. Martram and the Grand Baraxas will answer the questions that are posed by the last originals among us, Jedmin and Kristoz. This is my offering of justice: guidance of our oldest Quazama rites, the Living Trust left us from our best origins. ”

A gasp went up and then a silence so loud it nearly shook the room.

“I forbid this! I have governed all this time and we prosper in grain and fruit and gemstones! I have been more than fair, more than I should have been despite the unruliness of our people! I need not defend myself with a mere display of words in the open square!” He stood bellowing into the rafters; everyone had to resist the urge to disperse.

But convening members gathered their breath. They locked eyes one pair to the next pair each person around the circle; they began to hum in four tones, a harmony rich and steady, singular. Mighty. Inside the small chamber, the sounds merged and curled about the group and then the Grand Baraxas, to the ceiling, out the windows.

It was determined: meant to be. The Grand Braxas stood with fists at his side, but even he would be tampering with strong power if he rebelled against a convening. And so he left.

A member spoke up. “Now we need the Messenger to send for Martram, the sooner the better. Who is the fastest runner since our last poor soul lost his life to a jungle cat? We have waited too long to choose the next!”

“I have a name,” Sentry O leaned into the circle and looked at Terl.

She closed her eyes, folded her arms against her chest and prayed.

******

“That’s it,” Zanz said and gave Naliya his cup for another drink. “They’re done. Do you know what it’s all about?”

They had come to the river in hopes of spotting a glimpse of the three deer but they weren’t so far visible. They, like all villagers, knew a convening decision was announced by the resonant humming which spread across the village, filling each dole house and then sailing over fields and grasslands to dissipate before reaching the boundary of the highlands.

Naliya sat with knees pulled up to chin, her arms around them. “I could guess but would rather not. It’s not a good moment. No deer, no happiness. Mama knew it when I told her they left me earlier. But she won’t ever quite agree with me, as if I am not supposed to know.”

He turned from his front onto his back. “She’s right; you’re too young. Just be easy with life, let the elders worry!” He tickled her arm with a long flat blade of grass, then stuck it between his teeth, blew on it until it vibrated and made a harsh sound. He wanted to impress her even with  simple things but usually failed at this.

Naliya pushed him so the grass fell away, then put her face close to his. “I am not too young. I am ready to do things, know things!”

“Like what?” He felt the pleasant warmth of her breath on his lips and thought he could taste  berries.

She nudged his long nose with her short one, then sat back, legs splayed. “Something smart, something good….”

Zanz sat up and stretched. “You’ll soon have to sweat like I do every day, working the looms or tending sheep or helping your mother find gemstones. Or train as a warrior–you’re very fast on your feet, have good balance, are strong. I might do that later. You can do more after you learn a trade, like anyone who has a strong body, is a quick thinker. And that, I’m afraid, is more true of you than most anyone I know.”

He wanted to touch each color of her thick hair, the unusual ivory and blue-black strands lustrous in the dusky light. They marked her as part of grand rulers many lines back, which was why her mother was Mistress of Rites. But to meet her–any girl her age but even more so, her– was forbidden enough. He instead tossed a wildflower onto her head and she grabbed a handful of grasses with earth attached to roots and threw them at him until they were on their feet, laughing and shouting.

Naliya put her hands out in a sudden motion to stop their play.

“Mama will soon come looking, I must return home.” She stood still and let her eyes boldly roam over him, then looked away as her cheeks flushed. “Until next time.”

“Until next time,” Zanz said and they parted ways, he to the near valley and she to village center.

Terl waited on a stool at their dole house and told herself to be wise, be at ease with life and humble. She felt grateful for all the years they had made their home in lovely Quazama. It was a decent space, one that was comfortable, vibrant with hand woven fabrics she used to decorate, many gems she’d turned into mosaics and the voluptuous flowers her daughter planted last year and now tended in the side garden for their table. But even with much to appreciate and a future that seemed secure, she felt the fear race through her veins, as if someone had put in a taint of pulsing poison that sought only to ruin her or get out. She felt her mind expand, and in its dense center then illumine the hard truth. In her innermost being she begged for mercy. She tried to not weep but it was beginning. Now.

As Naliya came up to the door of the house, she stopped. She felt an involuntary shiver, willed the waning light shift into her sturdy body and wiry limbs. She looked up for the flock of birds she’d watched take wing, then dipped and turned away as she’d made her way through the grasslands. They were no longer there. Her riverine deer had left. Everything held its breath as before a great storm.

She stepped inside and found her mother seated on her stool, sunset’s graciousness spilling through the open skylight, onto her rose and silver garment. Naliya had such love for her but knew, too, the power she possessed even if she denied it, saying it was nothing, it was only beauty passed on and that vanished. Naliya knew otherwise. She knew her mother was one of the wise, just as her mother and the mother before them both had been. Her grandfather, Sentry O, remembered much more.

“Mama?”

The Mistress of Rites held a hand out to her long-legged strong child.

“Naliya. Little dove.” She lay her hands alongside her wind-and sun-burnished face, and looked deep into her unsettled face and still grey eyes. “It’s time. You are made the new Messenger. There is no turning away, no turning back.”

Naliya heard her but it was there is no turning away, no turning back that struck her to the core. She suspected she might become the Messenger as she was the fastest runner in the village and knew how to keep things safe. What else was her mother not saying aloud?

She knelt at her feet, accepted the strange blessing passed on from her very hands. And felt a terrifying courage rise up in her blood and bones, readying her for work to come as each fretful roving spirit tried to shake her. And soundly failed.

 

(Readers: Part 2 will be posted next Monday. The photographs are by this writer.)

Mapmaker Girl

COpurtesy Wikimeida Commons: 1823_darton_and_gardner_comparative_chart_of_world_mountains_and_rivers_-_geographicus_-_mountainsandrivers-darton-
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons: 1823, Darton and Gardner Comparative chart of world mountains and rivers

Suriya never planned on becoming a mapmaker. Her heart was set on architecture, creating place from wood and stone, glass and metals. It wasn’t only the imagining of an entire construction, it’s becoming an enlivened entity with breath made of those who dwelt within and without. Though as she held that in her central mind the idea astonished her. No, it was the work of it: conception of design, the measurements and rejection or acceptance of materials, every alteration to the plan. The blood heat of all that went on inside her thinking and being. The anticipation like fear that thrilled as the building was to be created.

She dreamed of this inside the small grey cinder block  house she shared with most of her family. It was a humble box lost among all the others built to withstand the winds and weather draped and dropped on their village, Milliad. She watched other, older Makers construct and erect the places she improved upon in her designing mind. Nearly cried out for a place among them. And tended to the work she was given and needs she perceived.

Except her father’s needs. Zel was a Traveler, and since it was an honor to be a trading man they endured his absence. But it was also inconvenient when a man had a wife and six children–to leave them to their own devices could be dangerous, as well. But they made do. Her mother, Aya, worked the water line from dawn to dusk, muscular arms hefting urns and pots in a sliding rhythm and managing the line when others grew slack. Her body’s sways and twists unleashed song; she was paid extra for it. Suriya’s older brother, Torn, corralled his siblings, getting them to the Community Classroom and collecting rocks to trade with the Stone Master for food passes. He yearned to one day leave as had their father, to see the world. To be free of the drudgery.

Torn charged Suriya with keeping track of their father’s voyages. Father drew them rough diagrams in the earth, acting as if it made little difference to them if he went north or east, south or west. But Torn was hungry for details and his sister knew how to capture them. Suriya could draw with such precision that at fourteen she already was being given jobs by the community, documenting people’s faces and possessions. Torn convinced their mother that she would bring more security and prestige to the family if she followed that path. Maybe they would even be allowed to move. Mapmaking would be useful to all. She should be apprenticed to Mapmaker Master Joss, who’d asked for her already.

Suriya went off to find and sign on with him, not unhappily. If she drew more she might gain skill for architectural blueprints, in time. She would also be out of the house. She would not carry water or pick rocks.

Joss was pleased to have her and the Tribune was relieved to have a new apprentice such as she. In very little time she caught on to the latitudinal and longitudinal manner of all Place, the bodies of earth and water, the divergence of many skies from endless horizon. She knew about the three moons and both fixed and unfixed stars from her father’s tales. She grasped directions, spacial orientation and markers before they were uttered. The Mapmaker Master found she had such a talent that he stood behind her watching over her tidy head with its small red scarf, following every line and mark with barely hidden awe. He gave her more complex measurements of various Travelers’ distances and topographical information and let her go to it. Joss encouraged her but gave faint, often no praise. He would know more as time went by. He would consult with the Tribune if needed but he suspected the truth and knew all would be revealed fully: Suriya could become Grand Mistress of Maps. But the longer she was not informed and not officially chosen, the better for Joss and the Tribune. He had separate work to get out of her first.

Suriya took home a pouch of small multi-colored orbs each week to exchange for household goods. Over time it came to mean more than she expected. Her mother was proud of her daughter’s fine skill and contribution and told her more than once. But Aya was well aware of her daughter’s passion for creating beautiful structures. She waited to see if Suriya would stay of her own accord. It was likely this child would bring something more than acclaim to their family but she didn’t yet know what. How much she might damage, how much illuminate. It frightened Aya but she kept the feeling wrapped up tight, tucked far away. Her husband expected her to work and live without probing for more than could be yet answered. It was safer that way.

Her son, Torn, on the other hand, always sought more despite the wisdom of patience. He fingered the smooth glass orbs and thought how much he would rather see a key to the gates and the route where his father roamed, for starters. Then he went to the trading place to obtain what was needed for his mother, wondering over the possibility of a life free of rocks and orbs and grains for the bread they ate to sustain them another day.

In the night’s lonely depth and width as the others slept, Suriya perched on the flat top of the rough roof, the part before it slanted downward. She pulled from her loose garment rough paper sheaves and a drawing charcoal, then drew the route she believed their father had taken this time.

Though without costly rich dyes to aid her, she knew in her mind what colored her sketches: black-blue and violet mountains, rust brown and grey for shorelines, wide expanses of flat land that had no color except for flecks of orange and green. The sweetness of red inside white for blossoms. The moist greeness of hollows where the animals roamed. There was no sound she could hear about her as there was none in the maps. The vivid silence was music to her and it reverberated within her, a cushioned thunder of great wings moving in soft air. She glimpsed feet running along steep, barren hillsides and then they were gone. Suriya drew until her hand cramped, stiffened, until night was frayed at the edges with tiny licks of light. Then she descended the ladder and crawled into her window and then into the loft’s bed swing. And slept deeply and briefly.

But even when the map appeared to succeed with its beauty, each intuitively discovered byway declared remarkable by an astonished Joss, Suriya could not tell if he was pleased. He seemed disconcerted, even dismayed in his stern, closed way.

“I think I’ve gotten very close to Father,” she told Torn as they washed after first meal. “In true fact, it is more that Father has gotten to me and my work.”

Torn took no care in keeping the water off the floor and her garment and he splashed his face another time. “You don’t want me to know, I’m sure. You’ve already figured out I want to leave, find and go with him. Then you’ll be stuck here with the others.”

Suriya dried her face on the tail of her frock. “It’s not that easy to go. It will take a miracle to get out of the gate until you are twenty years and even then, you have to be invited for a purpose as we know. No one does something without a purpose. That is our way.”

He roughed up his ebony black hair so it stuck out in small barbs. “That is your fate, not mine.”

“I didn’t say that–we can choose our own final fate once we’re called forth by the Tribune or the Highest Power. It may require sacrifice but… oh, why must you be contrary?” She drank from the cup of her palm then flung droplets at him.

Torn batted her away and she batted him back; it seemed like play until he gave her a small shove.

“You mean like Joss and soon the Tribune have called you forth- -and yet you have chosen well enough, have you?”

She stood with feet apart and hands on hips, then let out a rush of air  and shook her head. She brought her smooth strong hands together, one cupping the other before her chest. “Please don’t joke. Drawing chose me. The images chose me. You have always known that….You are not the same brother, Torn, as you were before Father was gone so much.”

Torn knit together his tanned, lined brow as he looked into her, then away. “I’m not a child anymore, that is all, well past your age. And soon you won’t be so childish, either. There are things you can’t imagine yet because your mind can’t hold them as real. They are too big– and bitter and simple. Not tender or complex like your sweet strange dreams, your mad fantasies.” He cackled as if he’d made a joke but she felt it as a sting.

“Come to the roof tonight,” she said, “and we’ll see what is and what isn’t.”

Torn considered her standing there, her hands now gathering her skirt. She could be so earnest and what did that even count in Milliad? He’d often asked her this. But her eyes had become luminous over the passing of time. Their color–dark blue with gold around the edges–startled him again as she refused to break her gaze from his. Her hair had fallen out of her scarf, unruly and thick, hence the scarf until she gave in and cut it chin length like the older girls. But her still, steeply planed face was inscrutable. They had once been told they favored one another. Torn didn’t know so much about her, anymore, he realized and she didn’t likely know about him.

Or did she? A chill twitched his shoulders as she smiled lightly, something more beneath its easiness.

“Help me with the children, it’s late,” he told her. “I’ll see you tonight.”

Together they rounded up the four young ones. The little ones had their pieces of fruit and bread and their woven bags. They pulled on soft-soled shoes. The six of them walked to the Community Classrooms, their older brother and sister so good to see when they looked back, then whispered among themselves. This was different, surprising, all of them leaving twelve footprints in the dusty paths, the wind hovering over them and then whisking away their tittering voices.

******

Suriya had had trouble at the Mapmaker Workshop and it followed her all the way home. It seemed Joss had wanted her to diverge from what made she’d drawn. He’d directed her to follow his mechanical compass as she worked on the paper flattened out on the work bench. Instinct told her he was wrong but how could she disagree? There were other Mapmakers who worked swiftly, quietly, but he was a Mapmaker Master held in great regard. She was young, had been there far less time than anyone else. But he had not disagreed with her renderings until this time.

Zel’s current trail was not as important now, Joss had told her, as were her findings of obscure passages, whether taken by others or none other yet. Could she see the off-shooting trails amid forests? The danger and mystery of distant mountains beckoning or did they recede from her mind? Could she feel where lesser rivers and tiny creeks turned or sudden rapids became impassable? And what about the towns they should record and visit or avoid? The hamlets that, like Milliad, meant something only to the inhabitants and thus, not to them at this time. He needed to find prosperous settlements that yielded greater profits. Zel was one among many and he had such irksome principles.

Joss knew how Suriya’s gift manifested by now: she made the maps come alive, each rendered from her interior visionary views, her sensations and sightings of place and energy. He didn’t know how it worked, only what it could likely do for them all; he’d have her proficiency honed into a power he could net and wield, too, one day. If she trusted him. But when she got too close to her father’s footsteps he urged her elsewhere. Joss had his own mission in that room with her, one that would be essential to Milliad’s growth,  more so for his status and security. But he knew he had to be watchful of all Suriya’s mapmaking skills could reveal lest he miss an important cue leading to those grander days.

Suriya walked home with a brisk pace, her hand trailing a stick in the dirt. The intrepid shadows at end of day greeted and cooled her as she blinked them out of her sight. They slowly melted into the golden hour. She needed to talk to Torn tonight, to unburden herself, to share with him her secret work. Was it even possible to speak the truth in this place where people said so little? Even then it was often obscured, layered in meanings. It was the Milliad way, born of harsh weather and tightly knit families and work that held them apart more than brought them together. The mill town kept people fed but also kept them exhausted in the vast fields and ancient large mill, quick to find privacy to rest, bodies limp, minds emptied. The Tribune wanted them to give their all to the community, not so to others. They were spokes of a wheel, yes, and those spokes did not touch but strengthened the wheel of Milliad.

The night fell upon Suriya without hesitation, twilight brief and darkness blurring the perplexing ways and means of humans while other creatures lay down and just slept.

“I can hear you, Torn. You think you’re so stealthy but your body resists the wind and gives you away.”

He unfolded himself at ladder’s top and came round to the flat spot near center, before the gradual slope of roof increased.

“A more sly four-legged I am not; I have to move as keeps me well alive.” He sat beside her. “Ah, too long since I have been up here.”

“I’ve always wanted to anchor a bench here,” she said. “The roof top is just a flattened length of stucco where we might even set up a small table. If we put a rail around it even the younger ones could join us–”

“That’s the point, right? This is not a children’s area; they belong inside until they’re old enough to climb safely.”

She shook her head and rolled her eyes. Her hair billowed out of the scarf as wind gusted; she held tightly her drawn-up knees. “Milliad’s ways, separating and dividing people except at school where we had to sit crunched side by side all day long in the stifling heat. I want to make more community spaces!”

She glanced at him but he was looking out over their village and beyond. The horizon brightened to opalescent then went black, crowded with starry bodies taking their places. He pulled his shoulders up high and let them drop, then leaned back on his hands.

“Out there….” Torn murmured, chin jutting toward the gate.

“…is what you hope to find…but also what you don’t want. Not all would be so wonderful. Father clarified that when Mother wanted to follow him, all of us like vagabonds.”

“No matter all that now. I know how to make my passage. I’m leaving soon. Don’t ask me how or when.”

Suriya felt a knot yank tight in her chest. “You can’t wait until you’re of age? Then just walk out safely?”

“There’s only so much time, sister. So many days I hate it here, the rules and cunning, the work designations and extra demands on families, the obedience to Tribunal methods. It is not a place to find more or better; everything is regulated, set to ancient law that needs amending. ”

“But what can you accomplish by running off?”

“I don’t know yet. It’s waiting to speak to me but I can almost hear the wisdom rising. I tell you this because you will find a way to understand…and you’ll forget to share it with others, am I right?”

She tapped his hand three times, their childhood signal of loyalty.

“Now what was it you wanted to tell me? Or are we to sit and gaze at the sky until we become stuporous?”

She turned sideways and placed her hands on his shoulders. “I know where father is going, brother.”

Torn grabbed her forearms and shook her a little.”You found him? How?”

Suriya reached into the middle pocket of her garment and pulled out four maps, then stopped his hands from snatching them.

“Because, Torn, I make the maps he follows.”

Torn released her and leaned back involuntarily, put his hand to his lips and gazed at her hard.

“I start out drawing what comes to my mind’s visual expanse. I feel directed in part by his thinking but that isn’t all.”

She said this as if she was explaining the way water erodes a riverbank, a thing common and expected.

“He directs you…?” Torn said, feeling scared but uncertain why.

“I just know where he wants to go, so I show him how to get there. I draw the maps for him here”–she held out the maps–“and he holds it in his mind while I work and finally when I’m done. And on he goes.”

Torn made a light snickering sound. “…and on he goes… Then how did he get places before, without your help?”

“He didn’t need my help then. Now he does. The Tribune and Joss have other plans; he has to be safe. He realizes I know things.”

Suriya turned away as he read her maps. She could hear the first moon rising, the second preparing to join it, or perhaps it was night birds lifting off from a faraway branch with a swoop. She wished she could stand up, leap out to follow, whatever the delicate ruffles of sound were. She wanted to do something unexpected, even to herself.

“These are amazing, Suriya, so detailed and beautifully made. And you believe he is headed this way?” Torn pointed to the upper edge of the second map.

“Yes. Tomorrow he crosses over a forgotten mountain here,” she said and moved her finger along lines she’d trailed in charcoal.

Her brother put his face close to the map to better see it in the deepening dark. He traced the way of her finger and let out a deep tremulous breath.

She smiled at him, knuckled his spiky hair. “They’re yours to keep. I have them in my memory. I figured you’d want them when you leave, which I suppose is quite soon. It seems the bitter, simple realities you’d mentioned revolve about people being greedy and selfish too often. They–Joss, the Tribune–want our father to bring back all he can forcibly take. But he isn’t that man. He’s a fine, hearty Traveler, a good trader, but fair and just. He knows much about many things and will not aggrieve others if he can avoid it…I so miss him. Now you will go…”

“Suriya, I can’t fathom that you’re giving me these powerful tools. Your work to help Father. You know I was to leave in three days time…? And now I will know where to go. Will you and I know each other’s ways, too? I don’t want us to get lost in all this change.”

She only nodded. Looked out into the tree branches that swayed against the elegant palette of nighttime, the stars winking at them as if they knew, too, their stories. At the rows and rows of pale squat homes lined up below, the people all ensconced inside their neat little house-prisons.

“I want to build such new places of worship, places of play, places of eating and talking and laughing. I want Mother to bring her dance and songs, bring us to our feet as she did when she was young. I want more happiness, Torn, and peace for Milliad. I ask you and Father to come back and help us. But for now you have been called, brother, so you must go.”

“Thank you, Suriya… from my soul. We will return home and we’ll find ways to make all kinds of changes.” Torn softly kissed her cheek, then left to further prepare.

Suriya stood tall, raised her arms into the enveloping darkness, then unknotted a small red scarf from her dark hair. It unfurled then floated away as wind blew the wavy strands from her gleaming blue-gold eyes envisioning even now the journey she’d soon map for her brother as well as their father. For perhaps their whole family. For where there would be new pathways there was need of the first lines made in dirt or on paper, of light to be cast ahead and a way to find and be found.