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This is what happens when you're homesick and reading missionary biographies all day... (actually, so far I've only read 2 this year...)
Anyway, basic intention was to "draw a picture": simply give a sketch of a fantasy setting (the city of Yariban), as well as the culture, people etc. - and of course a religious background. Now this is influenced quite a bit by my own experience - some descriptions are slightly fantasy-ised versions of things I saw in Taiwan or China, and except for the royalty cult the religious things are similar too (though only to an extent). I sort of wanted to write about Taiwan while at the same time wanting to write something for Elfwood and so I ended up mixing it all together... hopefully it works (I wrote it all in one go and haven't actually re-read it, since it's past midnight and I haven't had decent sleep for about a week...)
12. July 2009
Sunrise over the quiet city: crystal spires and towers all aglitter, the wind hissing through the trees. Another day like all the others. Already long grubby lines of peasants from the countryside, pulling donkeys or carts laden with vegetables, poultry and other produce for the market, were forming before the four tall gates, coughing and grumbling, gossiping and trying to bribe the guards into opening up ahead of time. Shadows slowly crept into the corners and side-streets, giving way to the spreading light – but deep inside, everyone knew they never really left.
Ayra opened the kitchen window, shivering in the cold morning air. She gave a short, awkward bow in the general direction of the royal palace – marked by an elaborate golden circle on the wall –, more out of habit than anything else, then grabbed a rag and set to polishing the little house altar. She picked up each of the five little statues in turn, brushing off the dust while humming a tune that would keep the evil spirits away. The miniature Firegod glared up at her as she set him back on the shelf, the Lady of the Moon gazed serenely ahead, while the Golden Twins smiled silently and the Lord of the Oceans stood in his permanent frozen dance. Ayra rubbed the two little mirrors on each side of the altar extra hard – they were meant to keep the spirits away, protect the gods. She finished with a low bow and a murmured prayer: "Oh keep this house safe, protect us from danger, bless the Royal King and give us health."
Health, yes, health. She sighed as she looked towards her room – the door was slightly ajar, and she could see him lying there, his hands quiet but tense, the blankets rising and falling with his staggering breaths. Maybe if she'd had more to give to them, the gods would have done more for him. Why had they abandoned her? No explaining would do – even when she waved the empty rice pot right under their noses, they remained persistent and did nothing. No matter how hard she prayed, no matter what she promised, they stared on, quiet and cold, intent on their price: You give us our just portion of rice, and we restore your husband. Nothing else, it seemed, would do.
Maybe it was because she had taken them so far away. Maybe they didn"t agree with the move from Alcasa to Yariban – maybe that was why Ayra"s husband was now dying. Was this the punishment of the gods? But why? Anyone would agree that they could not have gone on in war-ridden Alcasa. Even the gods should understand. But apparently they didn"t.
Sunlight poured in through the arched window, throwing patterns against the wall. Ayra heard her husband cough hoarsely. She looked out towards the light, wishing some of it could enter her soul, warm her heart, comfort her... but no. Cold stone eyes watched her and watched the house. How could she interfere with her fate? How could she escape the punishment for her sins and those of her husband, even her forefathers? She closed her eyes and swallowed the tears. If only help could come...
The peasants at the gate were growing uneasy. "Oy, when's this thing going to open, midnight?" one yelled towards the guards.
"I've been here every day since I could walk," protested a knobbly old grandmother with a back bent almost double, "and as true as your soldier's oath I know it's never opened this late before!"
Suddenly, a loud noise interrupted the argument: a heavy gong rang from the tallest tower of the palace, four times, echoing across the city, a sound like the howls of a widow. And immediately, everything changed. Hats had left heads before the sound had finished; glares had turned to tears or grimaces of fear. No one dared to say it, though everyone knew. The King was dead.
A single ray of sun pierced the dark green curtains covering the tall royal windows, brushing his cold, pale face as he lay quiet as stone on his bed. The surrounding courtiers did not know what to say or feel. The ground seemed to have been pulled out from under their feet, suddenly, abruptly, throwing them over into a deep black Nothing. The King was dead. His eyes were still open, staring ahead, full of a fear that should not have been there, in the face of a god. The royal family was the incarnation of the forest gods – worshipped, feared, admired by the population. Now the line was ended – the King had no children. What now? What now, when Yariban was no longer under their protection? What now? How could the spirits of the forest be kept at bay, when the gods had abandoned Yariban like this?
Someone brave stepped forward and with a trembling hand quickly shut the King's eyes.
Finally, the city gates were opened, and the peasants streamed in, quieter than usual, many deep in thought. Old gossips quickly found each other and, spreading out their mats with potatoes and hand-knitted jackets close to each other, immediately huddled together and in loud whispers discussed what the King"s death could mean.
"I say it makes no difference – not for us, leastways," old Maya with the crooked teeth proclaimed. "The Royal Kings always cared mainly for the City, and us outside were left to rot. I think it's just them city people that need to watch out. We"re as unsafe as always, so who cares!"
"I wouldn't say that if I were you," Mii said nervously over her knitting. "The spirits may hear. And I don"t care what you think; even though the Royal Kings always lived in the city, that didn't make them any less the protectors of Yariban as a whole!"
"I never believed in the Royal Kings being from the gods anyway," Kay shrugged. "I never even saw one of them – who knows whether they existed at all? I say the Royal Kings were an invention to keep us quiet – and now they must've invented this dying out of them just to get us all worried."
"You don't even know what you're saying! I was right here sitting at this spot when the Royal King passed by – the last one as was this one's father." The others leaned in closer to listen to Maya's story. "Beautiful as an elf, he was – golden hair and golden beard, and my what shiny teeth! Only gods could keep it that clean, if you ask me. They say the first of them came from the forest one day and so impressed our forefathers with their wisdom that everyone simply knew they were from the gods."
"Doesn't mean they were," Kay interjected. "Some people will call anything more interesting than them a god. Just look at my husband and you know!" They all chuckled. Kay's husband was known to worship anyone who got a better harvest than him, had a more beautiful wife than his, had more children than him, and had more chickens than him. He also got very upset when people worse off than him refused to worship him.
"Bad argument," Maya stated. "It's not the same."
A loud clanging and crashing interrupted their conversation for a while and they looked up. A procession was passing by – a group of Hiuenian priests in their long white robes, taking their gods for a walk in a fancy white sedan chair. Elaborate embroidery – white on white, hardly visible – decorated the hangings. The heavy, sickly sweet smell of burning goldstone pervaded the air, making it hard to breathe. Mii reached for a few of her nicest potatoes and handed it to one of the priests.
"What you do that for?" asked Maya once the clashing noise had receded into the next side street.
"Just being safe! It's better to get all of them on your side – I thought you'd realised that by now, with the Royal King dead and all!"
A quiet cough brought them out of their bickering. Mii saw a pair of shoes – looking strangely as though they had been fashioned from leaves – and a pair of long legs. She looked up. "Potatoes, sir?" she asked.
The elf threw down a dusty brown bag to her. "As many as fill that bag," he murmured, in a voice so heavily accented that it was impossible not to know where he was from. Maya and Kay immediately fixed him with their stares.
"That will be four Goldstars, sir," Mii said. He took a long time to find the money. But he was very polite and said "good day" as he left.
Maren slung the bag of potatoes over his shoulder as he walked on through the city. Morning now dominated the sky, the sun shining down bright and warm. Sounds and life reverberated on the walls of tall buildings. Windows opened and closed, children banged doors and rushed hurriedly down stairs and up roads to get to school in time, and in a courtyard a group of housewives was busily hanging up the washing, chattering all the while.
New sights and sounds and smells opened themselves to Maren at every corner. A man with a little cart selling spicy puffs for breakfast, raising the price higher the nearer he came to the rich city centre – an old grandfather trying to get a little boy's pet firebird disentangled from a tree – a girl practising complex calligraphy in the middle of the road using water that dried up immediately, making the artwork quickly disappear – a funeral procession with the whole family finely dressed, the pale corpse wearing its best and accompanied by the loudest howling imaginable from a pair of huge mountain flutes – two boys playing with dirty water, one with a flea-ridden dog in his arms – an elderly lady smoking strange-smelling herbs and advertising, in a voice as hoarse as could be, the twenty identical idols she was selling – a row of dragon heads hanging from a butcher stand, right beside a bouquet of wild starflowers...
They passed him by, all the many people, some giving him strange stares for his ears, others nodding towards him in greeting. People of different tribes – the Alcasans, the Hiuenians, the Acitils from the mountains –, many in their tribal dress, the women with elaborate headgear sporting quills and shells and brightly coloured feathers. Maren could see in their eyes that for all of them, something was missing. Brown eyes, green eyes, grey eyes – one after the other they passed by, dark and brooding. Some were full of resignation, some were full of fear. Some looked confused, others simply empty. Even when they laughed, even when they smiled, a shadow remained.
Maren knew what that shadow was. He had carried himself, countless years, that load on his back which no one saw, which some even denied. His people were proud – they believed they knew everything. They knew how the earth was begun, they knew how the forest and all its inhabitants became. They knew how the trees grew, they knew why the stars shone. But none knew how to be set free from their pain.
Until word came, from over the hills, of a name and a word, and a deed that shook the world, and Maren learned that all that he did would never be enough – that all the good deeds of the world would never save him, and only one path would lead him to the light.
He had found that light, and it now shone inside him. But all around him, the world was still dark.
And out of that dark came a silent cry, stifled by goldstone fumes and hidden behind ornate temples and protective mirrors. They lay in the dark, searching and groping for a light.
Who would bring it to them?
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