Tuesday, September 1, 2015

BLACK POWDER - Meredith Burton




                The Dara sang, their voices weaving in syncopated arches of melody and harmony.  Their song caressed the young boy’s heart, and a tapestry of beauty unfurled before him.  Yet the Dara’s song, as intoxicating as it was, offered mere accompaniment to the greater Song that soared around him.  Won’t you follow me, Jovann?
                Jovann’s heart pounded, though either from fear or anticipation he did not know.  Trembling, he stepped beyond himself, feeling the solid reality of the mortal world melt away.
                The Wood watched the mortal’s progress, both intrigued and indifferent.  Mortals were such frail creatures, so enmeshed in Time.  They tread upon gossamer threads of existence, heedless of any misstep that could fell them.  Yet this boy was somehow different.  The Wood never quite understood the difference, but it knew that the One who had set its boundaries called this boy to him.  Therefore, the Wood did not dare make mischief.
                Jovann followed the Song, occasionally hearing the curious whisperings of trees as he passed them by.  Soon, he approached the towering tree he knew so well, an ancient Grandmother.  She rustled her branches in kind salutation.  Jovann bowed his head with respect.  “Good evening, Grandmother,” he said.
                A trill of birdsong filled the air, and Jovann smiled as he shifted his gaze to the topmost branch.  A brown-speckled thrush fluttered to a branch just at Jovann’s eye level.  He trilled his silver notes of greeting.
                “Hello, my Lord,” Jovann said.
                “My child.  Welcome.  Your sleep took long in coming tonight.  Won’t you tell me what troubles you?”
                Jovann bowed his head.  “He never plays with me.  He never talks to me.  I-I cannot help who I am, can I?”
                The thrush fluttered from the tree and alighted upon Jovann’s right shoulder.  Warm comfort seeped into the boy’s heart, and he tentatively raised his left hand.  “Might I pet you?” he asked, shocked at his daring.
                The thrush sang, and within the song, Jovann heard happy consent.  He stroked the bird’s wings and back, delighting in the feel of the silken plumage.  The thrush’s gentle words surrounded him.  “Your brother is trapped, my son, trapped within himself.  It is not your fault.  A person’s parentage is not as important as the life before him.  Yet circumstances seek to blind, and the Greater Dark lies in wait.  One day, you will understand as will he.  You must trust me.  Now, will you see the future?”
                Jovann hesitated.  The visions always brought pain.  Yet times with the songbird were so precious.  Slowly, he nodded.
                The Grandmother tree’s branches rustled, although there was not the faintest stirring of a breeze.  A picture rose before Jovann’s eyes.  He saw a girl with a familiar face sitting beneath a katturah tree.  It was midday, and Anwar shone overhead, caressing the tree with his translucent fingers.  He beamed upon the girl, his kind eyes reflected in the tree’s branches.  A panther crouched some distance away, and it was obvious from her indifferent pose that the girl did not see it.  Then the creature was running, screaming in high-pitched glee.  The girl bolted to her feet and fled, gasping in terror as the creature increased its speed.  Then the panther collided with the girl, sending her sprawling in the dirt.
                Jovann flinched, closing his eyes against the hated sight.  The vision faded, and the thrush’s gentle song filled his mind.  “Your sister leaves in a week’s time for the festival.  Danger awaits her there.  You must warn her.”
                Jovann swallowed.  His eyes swam with tears.  “She won’t believe me.  No one believes my visions.”
                “Will you try regardless?”
                Jovann shuddered but nodded.  “Yes, my Lord.”
                “Know that whatever path she takes, I will be with her.  Your sister will be under my care.  Do you understand?”
                “Yes,” Jovann whispered.  He turned from the tree, suddenly wanting to awaken.
                “It is lovely here.” A soft voice stole onto Jovann’s ears, and he whirled around, blinking in surprise when he saw a young girl.  She was so very beautiful, but her face was oddly expressionless.  “I come here sometimes,” she continued in a strange voice, a voice resembling leaves that trembled upon autumn boughs before falling.  “When he comes to me.”
                Jovann blinked in confusion.  Where had the girl come from? She seemed to have materialized from nowhere.  “Who are you?” he asked.
                The girl’s impassive mask did not alter.  She resembled a statue of some kind.  No.  That description is inadequate, for a statue is oddly animated.  A stone carver immortalizes a person’s expression for all time.  This girl’s visage was impenetrable.  Jovann felt an odd stirring within him, a whisper of compassion.  He extended his hand, his fingers closing over the girl’s own.  Yet even as he clasped the girl’s hand, Jovann realized that her touch was insubstantial.  He looked closer and saw that her outline wavered.  She was not truly present in this place.  So, was she in fact another vision? She stood tstill, but her eyes were in constant motion as if they sought a place he could not see.  “Who comes to you?” Jovann asked gently.  “What’s your name?”
                The girl lowered her head, and when she spoke, her voice was barely audible.  “My father.  When he comes, it is best if I do not think.  I simply empty myself.  Then I hear singing, and I come here.  It’s beautiful.  I’ve never seen you here before.  I won’t tell you my name.  I won’t give you power over me.”
                Jovann frowned.  What did she mean? Feeling the need to defend himself, he said, “I come when the songbird calls me.  I have no powers.”
                The girl said nothing for a long moment, but then she whispered, “I hear the stars sing.  They’re so very high, so very strong.  Nothing can touch them.  They have so much, and I do not.  Do you know the priests will come to my clan one day, seeking tribute? I will go with them.  I’ll make sure they notice me.“ She abruptly ceased talking, but her mask had slipped.  Jovann gasped to see a twisted visage of pain and fury.  Then, just as quickly, the mask was replaced.  “There is a shrine to Hulan in my mother’s garden, you know.  I speak to the goddess everyday, and she ignores me.  One day, I’ll ascend to the stars.  I will ask them why things must be the way they are.  If they do not answer me, I will force them to do so.  Then I’ll be great.” The girl spoke these words with conviction, but her voice had once again assumed a strangely fragile quality.  She stared at Jovann for a long moment.  “A songbird calls to you, you say? That’s such a small thing to hear.  You’d do well to listen harder.  Other voices are much stronger than that.” Then she turned and melted into the darkness of the night.
                Jovann stared after the girl’s fading form.  His mind reeled with sadness.  Above him, he heard the songbird’s continuous melody.  He heard the pain in the bird’s song, and he also heard the undercurrent of truth.  A small thing to hear? Why, this bird’s song was so large that the boy could never truly understand it.  He could only listen.  Yet what if the girl was right? “My Lord, do I not hear enough?” he asked suddenly.
                “You hear me, Jovann.  That is enough.  Continue to listen.  Know that the Path will be very hard.  Tonight, you have seen one who has her own journey to take.  The Paths you travel will converge one day.  When you meet her again, you’ll not remember this night.  Yet for this brief moment, know that you have met one who will be a part of your destiny.  Come now.  I will lead you home.”

                “You go tomorrow?” Sunan accepted the crude bowl Dianoah proffered, grimacing at the soup within.  Little more than buffalo jerk and water, the concoction would have to suffice, he supposed.  Slowly, he sipped it, trying to school his features into a smile of thanks.
                His sister laughed and grinned.  Her burnished skin gleamed, and Sunan thought yet again of Uncle Dok-Kasemsan’s lavish home, of its splendor and beauty.  It was insufferable that Dianoah had to dwell in this dung heap.  She should be treated like royalty.  Instead, she worked like a drudge alongside Mother.  The injustice of it all! Yet Dianoah laughed.  How was that possible?
                “I know you dislike my cooking, Sunan,” Dianoah said.  “But, the soup’s hot, isn’t it? And, after you eat it, I’ll have a surprise for you.”
                Sunan smiled despite himself.  “You mean those flatcakes I saw when I returned today?”
                Dianoah frowned in mock severity.  “You’re not supposed to peek,” she reprimanded, “and, it’s not only that.”
                Sunan tousled his sister’s hair affectionately.  To the men of the camp, Dianoah did not exist.  She was a mere serving girl, an inconvenience to be tolerated.  Yet to Sunan, she was everything.  “So, I suppose Jovann gets the choicest cakes?” he asked.  His features hardened.  “You know what happened the last time Father caught you bringing me one of the Chhayan prince’s cakes.” The last words were spoken with contempt.
                Diannoah sighed.  Involuntarily, her mind traversed the familiar ground, and she saw the upraised hand of a warrior, the hand that had struck her face.  She shook her head vehemently to clear it of the memory.  “Jovann told me to give the cakes to you, Sunan.  For Hulan’s sake, it’s not his fault that Father overreacted.  Anyhow, don’t you think I’d have done it anyway? Your soup’s getting cold.” She turned to leave.  “I’ll go see to the others and bring you your surprise.”
                Sunan felt guilt pummel him, and he lifted the bowl of soup to his lips.  Soon, Dianoah returned.  His eyes widened when he saw what she brought.  His sister proffered a plate, presenting her offering as if to a king.  Two flat cakes reposed in a lake of honey.  Sunan’s mouth watered, and the disgusting soup was forgotten.  “Surprise,” Dianoah said with a grin.  “Mother and I discovered a hive today.  I got stung once, but it was worth it.”
                Sunan sat to with a will, licking the sweetness from his fingers.  He savored the honey and allowed himself to truly relax for the first time that night.  “So, you’re really going tomorrow?” he finally asked.
                Dianoah nodded, practically jumping up and down with excitement.  “The visiting Pen-Chans are sending a litter for me.  I don’t even know what a litter is, Sunan.”
                He laughed.  “It’s something upon which queen’s and lady’s of distinction ride.  They are carried about by servants.  Uncle Dok-Kasemsan rides in a litter occasionally.”
                Dianoah nodded.  “I still can’t believe Father’s letting me go.  I never see girls of my own age.  I wonder what it’ll be like?”
                Sunan smiled again.  “They’ll talk of things all girls talk about, I suppose.  Just be yourself, Dianoah.  You’re as much Pen-Chan as they are.”
                Dianoah’s smile wavered.  “I’m Chhayan too, Sunan.  What if I make a fool of myself?”
                “Don’t say that.”
                The girl bowed her head.  “I’m excited to see the girl’s, but I don’t want to see that man who came here to the camp.  When he came here, he stared at me and did not speak.  I don’t like his looks.”
                Sunan smiled reassuringly.  “You won’t see him.  It’s purely a woman’s banquet.  It’s a festival for Hulan, and they invited you as an offer of friendship.  You’ll enjoy yourself.”
                Dianoah did not speak for a long moment.  At last she murmured, “He told me I shouldn’t go.  He said I was in danger.”
                Sunan frowned.  “Who?”
                “Jovann.  He said he saw—“
                “Anwar’s elbow! You’re listening to that dreamer again? Why do you even talk with him?”
                “You’re horrid sometimes, Sunan,” Dianoah snapped.  “You’re gone from sun-up to sun-down, and you never take the time to even play one game with him.  He’s kinder than you think.” Sighing, she turned away.  “I’m leaving early tomorrow.  I’d go despite all the warnings in the world.  It’ll be so nice to get away from you men for a little while.  Who would have thought that a Gruung examination would bring Pen-Chans here of all places?” This last was said flippantly, and Sunan allowed himself to smile at her tone.  In order to pass the extensive exam, Pen-Chans had to familiarize themselves with all peoples and customs.  Sunan had never dreamed that such an opportunity would present itself to Dianoah.  She deserved this outing.
                “Anwar guide you,” he said.

                Dianoah sat in the spacious pavilion, the scent of jasmine surrounding her.  Her stomach grumbled as it worked to digest the magnificent meal she’d eaten.  Her ears rang with the lovely music she’d heard, so different from the caterwauling and crude instruments of her clan.  She thought of the kindness of the Pen-Chan women.  All the stories she’d heard seemed wrong somehow.  Yet Father’s mantra whirled round her mind, “We Chhayans were robbed of our land, of our dignity.  The usurpers are little more than dung.”
                Movement arrested Dianoah’s attention.  A man approached her, his head held high and his bearing regal.  He was dressed in elaborate robes.  A smile was on his face, but she saw no smile in his eyes.  She recognized the young man who had come bearing gifts to her father.  Surprisingly, Father had accepted the gifts.
                “I trust the banquet was to your liking? It must be fine fare when compared to your usual meals.” The man’s voice broke into Dianoah’s thoughts.  He sat beside her and smiled condescendingly.  Dianoah felt her stomach clinch, and she averted her gaze from his flushed face.
                “I was told to wait here,” she said stiffly.  “I was given to understand—“
                “That servingwomen would bear you back to your hovel of a home?” The man shook his head pityingly.  “I arranged that little ruse myself.  You see, I think it best if you remain here with me.”
                Dianoah bolted to her feet, her cheeks flaming.  “This was a trap.”
                The man’s look became glacial.  “Your father seeks to play me for a fool, but I won’t allow it.  Do you think I didn’t notice the company of men hiding outside these walls?”
                Dianoah frowned in confusion.  “I don’t understand.”
                He nodded.  “Of course you wouldn’t.  But, I think I’ll keep you here for the time being.  We’ll see what your father values most, vengeance or his daughter.” He reached toward Dianoah’s hand, his smile broadening.  “Meanwhile, there is much more to a Hulan festival than food and music.  You’ll dance with me, and—“
                Dianoah began to run, little knowing or caring where she went.  Behind her, she heard the man’s laugh of derision, and when she reached the pavilion entrance, it was obvious why he hadn’t pursued her.  Two burly men materialized, blocking her path.  They held shackles in their hands, and leers were etched upon their faces.  “What’s your hurry, wench?” one of them rasped.  Dianoah gasped as she felt the cold iron of the shackles bite into her wrists.  She heard measured footsteps as her captor approached.  “No need to worry,” he said.  “You’ll be treated like a queen.” He addressed the guards in cold tones.  “Is all well?”
The guards nodded.  “They put up quite a fight, but they each felt our blades,” one of the guards said.  “I made certain to send one of them back with a message.”
The man nodded.  “He’ll do nothing tonight, at least.” He turned to Dianoah.  “If your father comes here, I’ll slit your throat myself, just as his pathetic messenger can verify.  I didn’t spare his guards, so why should I spare you? While we await word from him, we might as well spend some time together, wouldn’t you agree?” He addressed his servants.  “Take her to my chamber.”
The guards obeyed, paying no heed to Dianoah’s desperate struggles.  The man stared after them and smiled.
“Another of your conquests, Nalman? She’s quite lovely.”
Nalman started violently and spun around.  His features relaxed as he saw a man slide into view.  The man moved oddly, as if he undulated from shadow to shadow.  The man smiled and extended his hand.  “Marvelous banquet, I must say.  And, the prospect of afterward shines in your eyes.  A nice diversion from your studies.”
Nalman flinched but smiled.  “Father need not know,” he said, suddenly feeling unaccountably weary.  “Come, my friend.  Let’s return to the celebration, shall we? The quicker the formalities are seen too, the quicker the real fun can begin.  Even a prospective scholar deserves a bit of fun.”
The other man nodded.  “Quite right, lad.  But, before we go back to the feast, I think I have something that might interest you.” He proffered his other hand, and Nalman gasped when he beheld the scroll the man held.  “I’ll give you what you long for,” the man said.  “For a price, of course.  I’m a businessman, you know.”
Nalman blinked in wonder.  He thought of the upcoming exam, and he saw his father’s expectant face.  “Your offer comes with assurance? I’ll not be questioned? The searchers will not entrap me?” Nalman’s voice trembled with apprehension.
The man laughed.  “Naturally not, boy! What do you take me for?”
Nalman stared at the man, one his family had known for years.  Finally, he nodded.  “What is your price?” he asked.
The man smiled.  “The fee can wait.  It’s a feast day, is it not? Let us drink first.”
Nalman led the man to a table in the center of the pavilion.  Perhaps all would work out in the end.

                Sunan gritted his teeth as he stood before the hated gurta.  The painted tiger upon the conveyance’s side sneered at him, its horrid teeth bared in contempt.  Sunan tried to glare at the emblem with equal fierceness but knew that he couldn’t manage the feat.  His innards roiled, and his heart quaked.  “Hulan guide me,” he hissed, the prayer more a curse than anything else.  He bent and peered into the tent.  Yes, he was within.
                Sunan entered his father’s tent.  The warlord rose as the tent flap moved.  His face, though heavily painted in garish red, sagged with weariness.  “What’s the reason for this disturbance, Sunan?” he growled.
                Sunan fidgeted, lowering his eyes from Father’s face.  “I—I need to speak to you about Dianoah,” he said.
                Juong-Khla swore.  “Why?”
                “It’s late.  She hasn’t returned.”
                Juong-Khla nodded.  “I’m aware of this.”
                Sunan swallowed the burning anger, feeling it scorch his throat.  “Shouldn’t you mount a search? What if something’s amiss?”
                “She’s fourteen moons in age,” Juong-Khla said, “moreover, these festivals last for days.”
                “What of the danger posed by other clans? There could have been bandits along the way, or—”
                “Leave me in peace, Sunan!” Juong-Khla roared, turning his flushed face fully onto his son.  Sunan cowered before him.  “I’ve enough problems without you adding to them.  Dianoah will return home.  We need only wait a little longer.  Go now.”
                Sunan blinked, realization bursting upon him.  Suddenly, the stillness around camp made sense.  Several of his father’s warriors were absent.  Sunan now understood why.  “You wanted her to go to the festival in order to attack them.  It was a trap.  You took no interest in her welfare.”
                Juong-Khla glared.  “Sacrifices have to be made, boy.  That’s the way of the world.”
                Sunan turned and fled the tent, unable to bare another moment in his father’s presence.  Fear and fury pummeled him.  What if—
                “Sunan?” Sunan started at the familiar voice and blinked at Jovann’s face.  The boy stood with his head bowed, a look of concern within his eyes.  “Dianoah.  She’s well.”
                Sunan glared.  “I don’t know if she’s well or not, and obviously Father doesn’t care to find out.  Why are you out here skulking like a rat? Shouldn’t you be abed by now? We don’t want the privileged son to forego his beauty sleep.”
                Jovann flinched but stood his ground.  “She’s well, Sunan.  I saw it.”
                There was a long pause.  Then, like a springing panther, Sunan lunged, his hand striking Jovann’s face.  “Why, Chhayan rat? Why must you torment me? She is my sister, do you hear? I should be the one to protect her! I should be the one who sees visions pertaining to her life, not you.  I should have gone with her to—“ Then he was weeping uncontrollably.  He realized even as he wept that he resembled the Chhayan dogs he so despised.  He was, in fact, as much Chhayan as Pen-Chan, and in this moment of debasement, he knew this was a fact he could not deny.
                Someone embraced him, and Sunan heard weeping.  For a moment, he thought he was imagining this, but he looked into Jovann’s face and saw the tears.  He felt his brother’s arms around his waist.  Sunan wrenched himself from Jovann’s grasp.  “What did you see?” he asked harshly.
                “She was in an upper room.  It resembled a cage of some kind.  Someone stood behind her, a hulking shadow that reached out to embrace her.  Then I saw a small figure thrust itself between Dianoah and this shadow.  Below the cage, there was a sunlit pavilion, and two men were drinking tea.  Both men were smiling, and they held scrolls in their hands.  The men exchanged the scrolls they held.  As I watched, one of the men fell forward onto the table.  He screamed in pain.  The second man smiled and retrieved the scroll he’d given to the first man.”
                Sunan frowned.  “You saw this in that world of dreams, I suppose?”
                Jovann nodded.  “The songbird showed me.“
                “Where is she then? If she’s safe, why doesn’t she come home?”
                “I don’t know.  But, I’m positive she’s all right.” Jovann stood before his half-brother for another moment.  When Sunan said nothing, Jovann trudged away.  Before vanishing from sight, Sunan heard Jovann whisper, “She’s my sister, too.”  Then he was gone.
Sunan stood alone for a moment.  Then he turned toward his tent.  He knew what he had to do.

                Dianoah stared around the glittering chamber.  Many trinkets sparkled, but the sight of such beauty repulsed her.  This place was a prison.  What a fool she was! Only one item caught the girl’s eye.  A gilded cage swung within the window of the room, and within it, a lone dove sang.  The song brought soothing comfort.
Dianoah sank onto the soft bed, trying to think clearly.  She had been here so long behind bolted doors.  Thank Anwar the man had not come to her.  Yet he could come any time.  Servants had seen to her every need.  The man had not lied in regard to one thing.  She was treated like a queen.  Yet she was utterly alone.
                After a moment, Dianoah rose and approached the cage.  The dove fluttered upon her perch, continuing to sing.  “You sing even when locked away,” Dianoah whispered.  “Do you ever long to be free?”
                “Her wings are clipped.” A voice spoke behind Dianoah, a voice tinged with amusement.  The voice, though soft, crackled with fire.
                Dianoah slowly turned around, her heart momentarily stopping as she beheld a towering man.  How had he entered her room? She’d not heard the door open.  She’d never seen anyone this tall.  His skin was skull-like and whiter than leprous flesh.  Yet the man’s eyes smoldered with unquenchable heat.  Dianoah knew that this thing before her was not a man.  “What are you?” she whispered.
                The monster made no reply but reached behind Dianoah to the cage.  Unlatching it with a taloned finger, he prepared to reach inside.  “She’s quite pretty,” he murmured, “as pretty as you, my sweet.  She was captured only last week, did you know? The young man likes pretty things as you can see.” His taloned finger stroked the air in a circular motion.  Heat seemed to radiate from the limb, refracting in diamond facets that were strangely beautiful.  He stroked the air repeatedly, his hand snaking closer and closer to the cage.
                Dianoah didn’t think.  She simply acted.  She thrust her hand into the cage, and she drew the dove out.  The monster’s talons sliced into her wrist, and piercing pain shot up her arm.  Dianoah gasped but didn’t cry out.  She felt the bird’s heart fluttering in terror, and she clutched it protectively.  “Leave her alone,” she said, surprised that her voice did not shake.
                “Or you’ll do what?” The monster laughed.  “Do you realize how insignificant you are? You’re a prisoner here, a mere possession to be used for a man’s pleasure.  Your father will never send liberation.  You’re alone, unworthy of any savior.  Yet I can make you great.” He leant forward, the fire in his eyes even more pronounced.  Dianoah suddenly knew what this creature was.  He was a Dragon.  “I provide a home for the friendless, a place where brothers and sisters can be certain that insignificance never cloaks them in anonymity.  Have you not always longed for recognition? Your father seeks the Pen-Chan secret of black powder, the ‘Long fire,’ as he calls it.  I can make it possible for you to give him what he wants.  Thus you will receive notice from him for the first time in your pathetic life.  Moreover, I can make you so strong that nothing can harm you.  In return for my help, you will serve me.”
                The Dragon’s words burned themselves into Dianoah’s mind.  She saw her father’s indifference.  She saw the life of drudgery before her, a life in which she’d never be seen as anything other than a half-breed.  What if she could soar? What if she could gain mastery over any situation?
                The Dragon’s face drew even closer to hers.  “Let me kiss you,” he breathed.
                The dove fluttered feverishly against Dianoah’s hand, jerking her from her trance.  Warm blood trickled down Dianoah’s wrist, and she suddenly remembered the talons that had sliced into her skin.  She looked at the Dragon.  Then she stared at the pitiful creature she held.  Something about the bird’s eyes arrested her attention.  They were intelligent, far more intelligent than any mere bird’s eyes should be.  And, what was that clamped about the bird’s neck? A collar of some kind? The collar was silken, and rubies and diamonds adorned the silk.  Yet beneath the lavish trappings, it was a mere circlet of iron.  Dianoah couldn’t bear to see that hideous collar entwined about the poor creature’s neck.  The constricting device reminded her too much of this place, glittering without and rotted within.  Trembling, Dianoah raised her hand and unfastened the collar, flinging it to the floor in disgust.
                Then the bird vanished.  A strange shuddering sensation filled Dianoah as she beheld a thin, white-robed woman.  The woman stood before her, an indefinable expression in her eyes.  The woman addressed the Dragon.  “Death-in-Life, you will leave at once,” she said.
                The Dragon stared at the woman, the fire within his eyes blazing so hotly that Dianoah felt her heart constrict in terror.  Heat seemed to fill the chamber.  “You,” the Dragon hissed.  “Traitor.”
                The woman positioned herself between Dianoah and the towering Dragon.  She was so slight, so insubstantial in appearance, it seemed as if the Dragon could crush her with one blow.  Yet he made no attempt to approach her.  “I was yours once,” the woman said, her voice small but strong.  “Yet my master rescued me.  This child is not yours.  Leave here, or I’ll call my master’s name.  I’m sure you don’t want to see him.”
                The Dragon’s expression of contempt did not falter, but if an observer had looked closely, they would have discerned the merest shudder course through his body.  He smiled at Dianoah, his eyes filled with hatred.  “You’re family is ripe for harvest, half-breed.  I’ll set upon them all, and they’ll know pain beyond measure.  Your father will be mine as will your brother.  Fire smolders within their souls, and I’ll fan it to an inferno.” With these words, the Dragon vanished.  As he did, his eyes lingered on the woman for the briefest moment.  Dianoah read a vow within those eyes; a vow for vengeance.  “Curse you, Knight of Farthest Shore,” he hissed.  “Curse you and all your kin.”
                After the Dragon had vanished, the room was silent.  Dianoah stared in wonder at the woman before her.  “Have no fear, mortal,” the woman said, “I’ll take you to my master.  He’ll make certain you are safe.”
                Dianoah swallowed.  “Wh-Who are you?”
                “Kulap’s my name, young one.  I’m one of the cousin’s of Great Bebo, Faerie Queen of the Merry Folk.” She laughed, her laugh as lilting as a thrush’s song.  “Mind you, I’m not as well-known as my other cousin, Gleamdren Gormlaith.  You’ve heard of her, of course?”
                Dianoah frowned.  “No.”
                Kulap laughed once more.  “I won’t enlighten her to that fact.  She believes all have heard of her.”
                “That monster called you traitor,” Dianoah said.  “What did he mean?”
                Kulap bowed her head.  “I loved a Faerie once, a servant in the courts of Cren Cru, the Faerie demesne of Queen Meadhbh.  A queen of beauty, she was, but with a heart so black! She delighted in bringing Faeries to ruin with parlor games of glittering delights.  The games always housed murder at their core.  My love was murdered by her hand.” Kulap shuddered, and tears flowed down her cheeks.  “I vowed vengeance, and the Dragon found me.  He offered to help me, and I accepted his kiss.  Queen Bebo came to me one day, for although my new state prevented me from entering the Halls of Red and Green, I could never fully forget my home.  I lurked just beyond the lake.  Bebo told me to listen for a song, a song sung by a humble bird.  You’ve heard that song, have you not, mortal?”
                Dianoah blinked in confusion.  “Song? What song?“ Then her mind shifted to nights beside the firepit with her brother and mother.  On those nights, when the sky was clear and her father’s stories of bloodlust were stilled in favor of sleep, she often thought she heard a thread of melody weaving around her.  She knew that Jovann heard this melody much more clearly than she, but she had heard it as well.  “Yes,” she whispered.  “I think I know what song you mean.”
                Kulap smiled.  “The singer of that song found me one day, and he offered to help me.  I was nothing then but a roiling flame, and the pain was unendurable.  The Dragon says your father seeks black powder, a fire that can destroy all in its path.  Yet the fire within me burned far greater than that substance ever will.  I wanted freedom from that pain, so I allowed the Song Giver to liberate me.  How that liberation hurt, for his mighty sword is a fire as well, able to pierce through pretense to the truth.  He cleaved me in two, but when I emerged from that pain, I was whole once more.”
                Dianoah frowned.  “But, you were locked in that cage there,” she gestured to the prison that had housed the dove.  “How were you captured?”
                Kulap smiled.  “I could not have been captured unless I’d allowed it.  You needed my song.  It’s a paltry imitation of my master’s to be sure, but it sustained you, did it not? My master charged me to protect you.”
                Dianoah gasped, and tears filled her eyes.  She stared at the woman before her, seeing for the first time the garish burn marks around the Faerie’s neck.  She also saw that the woman’s hands bore wounds.  The tips of two fingers were gone. The Dragon’s words filled her mind, ‘Her wings are clipped’ Did that mean that this Faerie could no longer fly? “You allowed yourself to be captured for me? You don’t even know me! I’m nothing.”
                Kulap frowned.  “You are something in my master’s eyes, a girl of courage.  Not many would think of others when tempted by the Dragon, but you saw my plight and sought to remedy it.  Come with me.  I’ll take you to my master, and he’ll keep you safe.”
                Dianoah nodded and held out her hand.  Kulap’s hand closed over her own, and the two of them vanished from the chamber.

                Sunan trudged along the dirt path, inhaling the pungent odor of buffalo.  He gritted his teeth as his mind traversed many possibilities.  Even if he found Dianoah, what could he do? There were certain to be guards.
                “Rather late to be roaming, aren’t you?”
                Sunan blinked in surprise and smiled at the familiar voice, one he had heard infrequently but one he knew well.  “Uncle Dok-Kasemsan?”
                A man materialized from the shadows, a smile upon his lips.  He was dressed in a simple traveling cloak, but its finery could not be hidden.  “Well, my boy, I must say it’s rather odd seeing you away from camp.  And, incidentally, you’re not adept at stealth.”
                Sunan flushed.  “I had to find Dianoah, uncle.  She never returned to camp, and—“
                “Ah, yes.  Your mother sent word to me pertaining to your sister.” Dok-Kasemsan smiled enigmatically.  “She was invited to a festival for Hulan, was she not? Pen-Chan’s extended the invitation.  Oddly, your father encouraged her to go.  Your mother was averse to it, but she cannot defy that Chhayan dog.” He sneered with contempt.  “I was invited to the festival myself as Nalman’s family has known me for years.  Your father would use any means to obtain what he seeks.”
                Sunan nodded.  “Vengeance,” he said.
                “Precisely.  He’s sought vengeance upon our race for quite some time.  As if we Pen-Chan would be intimidated by a band of rabbles.” He smiled yet again.  Then his face grew solemn.  “Dianoah was unharmed, Sunan.  Your mother might not defy your father to his face, but she summoned me, pleading that I help her.  The cover of darkness is essential for spiriting someone away, you understand, so I had to wait until tonight to fetch her.”
                Sunan’s heart pounded.  “Y-You came to rescue her?”
                Dok-Kasemsan nodded.  “I arranged for her employment as a servant in a prestigious Pen-Chan household.  She’ll be safe there.  An entourage traveled with me, and they have taken her away.” He smiled.  Had Sunan known how to read his uncle’s fathomless gaze, he’d have seen numerous secrets behind that smile.  First and foremost, he would have seen his uncle’s confusion.  Dok-Kasemsan had indeed returned to Nalman’s temporary residence, fully intending to send the girl away with the small group of servants accompanying him.  Yet Nalman’s chamber had been empty, and not a trace of the girl could be found.  His sister would have his head if she knew of this, so Dok-Kasemsan resolved that she never know.
The plan had been quite simple.  Dok-Kasemsan had proposed a trade to Nalman; answers to the Gruung examination in exchange for the black powder formula.  He knew that Nalman’s family guarded the secret ferociously, but he also knew Nalman’s weakness.  A scholar in the Center of Learning was a position to be coveted.  Many had given their lives in pursuit of that goal.  Moreover, as someone who was a friend of Nalman’s family, Dok-Kasemsan knew Nalman’s father drove his son mercilessly.  The prospective scholar would suffer greatly if he failed the exam.
Nalman had agreed to the exchange and handed him the scroll that contained his family’s most cherished secret.  Naturally, Dok-Kasemsan had no intention of keeping the bargain.  It had been such a pleasure to watch as Nalman’s hopeful expression crumpled into pain.  Nalman would soon be dead.  Dok-Kasemsan’s niece was avenged, and his sister was satisfied.  That was all that mattered.  And, he’d procured a secret he’d always longed to possess.
                “So, Sunan, if you were planning a covert mission of some sort, (something I’d advise against), there is no need.  All is well.” Dok-Kasemsan smiled as he saw his nephew’s taut features sag in relief.  “Now, I’ll tell you another reason I’m here.  I’ve come to offer you a choice.”
                Sunan blinked.  “A choice?”
                Dok-Kesemsan nodded.  “You’re Pen-Chan, and I can help you discover the delights of your heritage.  You may return home with me.  I’ll care for you and place you on the road to a grand future.  Or, you may stay here.  The choice is yours.”
                Sunan’s heart leapt.  Escape lay before him.  Yet even as he thought this, he saw the concerned face of a young boy.  Swallowing, Sunan said, “Did you arrange for Dianoah’s release, uncle?  Did you drink tea with someone and—” His voice trailed away as Sunan realized how ridiculous he was sounding.
                Dok-Kasemsan laughed.  “I offer you the opportunity of a lifetime, boy, and you’re asking me if I took time to drink tea?” He blinked, suddenly startled as Sunan’s words sank into his mind.  For a moment, his hand flexed, and he longed to examine his palm.  The packet of gold leaf poison had been disposed of, naturally, but—No.  He was being a fool.  “If I’d stopped to drink anything, I’d have drunk wine.  I’m a wine drinker, myself.  Can’t abide the taste of tea.”
                “So, all is well?”
                Dok-Kesemsan nodded impatiently.  “Yes, as I said before.  You must make your decision, boy. Don’t forget your sister, Sunan.  Her Pen-Chan relatives fought for her, and her Chhayan relatives did not.  Don’t forget where your loyalties should lie.  Now, will you give me your decision? We can leave immediately if you’re willing.”
                Sunan hesitated yet again.  Deep within the recesses of his heart, he knew that his uncle lied.  A Chayan did care for his sister.  Jovann cared.  He had seen this truth in the boy’s eyes.  And, what of Jovann’s vision? Who were the two men in the pavilion? As Sunan pondered these questions, he also thought of lonely nights, nights when he sat by a separate fire, nights when he stood before a painted tent but did not enter it.  No.  He would not suffer the loneliness anymore.  If his uncle lied, then so be it.  In that moment, Sunan knew the decision he would make.  He smiled at his uncle.  “I’d be honored to come with you,” he said.
                Dok-Kasemsan shook Sunan’s hand and grinned.  “Excellent choice,” he said.

                Juong-Khla sat within his tent.  He caressed the crudely-painted dagger that lay before him.  The plan had been so simple.  Send the girl to the festival and send a convoy of clansmen to follow her.  Dianoah had been expected to return that first day.  The clansmen would, of course, remain behind out of sight.  They’d been instructed to wait until the guests were befuddled with wine and then strike.  Yet the trap had been discovered.  The message rang in Juong-Khla’s mind: If you or any of your Chhayan filth return here, I’ll slit your daughter’s throat myself.  I’ll keep her for a week and, at the end of that time, if you’ve made no move to attack, she’ll be returned to you.  I have black powder at my disposal and am not afraid to use it.
                Juong-Khla clutched the dagger tighter.  The dagger’s blade pierced his palm.  He cursed, but not from pain.  Lowering his head, he wept, startled that he was even capable of tears.
                “You love her, don’t you?”
                Juong-Khla’s head snapped upward, and he bolted to his feet.  The tall figure behind him grinned mockingly.  “It’s quite degrading, really.  You mortals never cease to disgust me.  This show of grief does not become you, warrior.”
                “Who are you?” Juong-Khla hissed the question.
                The figure laughed.  “The question you should be asking is what took me so long to arrive.  You know who I am.  I haunt your dreams and your every waking moment.”
                “What do you want?”
                “Your allegiance, mortal man.”
                Juong-Khla stared at the black-cloaked figure.  The stranger’s eyes fastened onto his own, and the warlord gasped in fascination.  Fire, a fire that could destroy nations, smoldered within the stranger’s gaze.  “You will liberate us.  You will help us reclaim our—“
                The blow came suddenly, and Juong-Khla had no time to react.  A taloned hand slammed into his cheek, and he felt the unmistakable gushing of his own blood.  “Don’t presume to command me, man,” the Dragon spat.  “I could crush you in an instant.  However, I shall help you if you consent to help me.”
                Juong-Khla’s heart pounded.  For two hundred years, his people had suffered under Kitar rule, and for generations, the cry for freedom had permeated the very soil of their land.  “What must I do?” he asked.  In that moment, lesser concerns were forgotten.
                The Dragon smiled.  “Gather your clansmen and other tribes.  Tell them that their savior has come.  I’ll return in a week’s time.” He turned away and then said as if only just remembering, “And, the secret you seek? You are aware that it resides in your very midst, are you not?” He laughed and vanished, leaving the head of the Tiger Clan alone.  Juong-Khla snarled and rushed from the tent.
                “What are you saying to me?” he roared, realizing the idiocy of this question even as he asked it.  The Greater Dark delighted in equivocal remarks.
                A soft shuffling behind him arrested Juong-Khla’s attention.  He grimaced as his Pen-Chan wife’s beautiful face appeared before him.  Was it his imagination, or was there a slight smile on her lips? “If you’ve come to inquire about your daughter, I have nothing else to say on the subject,” Juong-Khla growled.
                The woman bowed her head submissively.  “I just wanted to inform you that my brother has sent me a message and that Sunan is missing,” she said.
                “What of it?”
                “My brother has taken Sunan away, Honored Husband,” she said, proffering a scroll.  “Would you—Ah, yes.  You cannot read.  Would you like me to read the message he sent?” She lifted her head, her smile broadening.
                Juong-Khla gritted his teeth.  The woman was infuriating! “Why should I care what he’s written?”
                “Because he bears news of Dianoah.  I know you want to hear this news, husband, even if you deny it.  I had to send word to him, and he took action when you would not.” She unfurled the scroll and read aloud:

My Sister,
                Dianoah is safe.  She resides with a Pen-Chan family who will protect her.  In exchange, she will work as a servant in their household.
                I have taken Sunan away, for he chose to accompany me.  He will live in my house and pursue studies to enable him to become a scholar in the Center of Learning.  I will not write for quite some time, for I have pressing business to attend to, but I wanted to let you know that all is well.

                Juong-Khla listened to the message with furrowed brow.  His features did not betray the feelings coursing through him, feelings of relief.  It repulsed him that he even had feelings for the girl.  He would not reveal these thoughts.  A warrior did what had to be done, and sacrifices had to be made.  “You waste my time with frivolous words,” he snarled.  “Leave me now.”
                The woman nodded and obeyed.  She looked down at the scroll, at the message that brought her pain and relief at once.  Thank Anwar and Hulan for their intervention! Dianoah was well, and Sunan would discover his true roots.  Furtively, she placed the scroll within the folds of her robe and withdrew another.
                I have been dabbling in poetry of late, sister, and thought you might enjoy this new poem I have composed.  Do not bother reading this aloud, for it is for your eyes only.  It is a joke, you see, for we Pen-Chan are not fatalistic.  Yet it was such fun to compose, I just had to share it.

I feel that life is long,
Sorrowful and unbearable
But
I cannot flee away
Since I am not a bird
And I have not the wings
To fly.

                The woman smiled and reread the poem again.  Later, in her tent, she reread the poem a third time.  Then, removing some well-concealed ink and a brush, she wrote upon the scroll:

Sulfur.
Charcoal.
Saltpeter.

                Reading these words filled the woman with giddy delight, but even as she read them, she determined to dispose of the secret.  Anwar and Hulan were kind, and they had rescued her daughter.  The walls of hatred she had erected in order to protect herself seemed to tremble for the briefest moment.  There had been so much pain.  She determined not to inflict more.  Just knowing the secret was enough.  She placed the scroll in the fire and watched the secret burn to ashes.  A strange sound stole upon her, a sound she may have heard in the past but had determined to ignore.  The woman thought she heard singing, the soft song of a thrush.

                Will you follow me, Jovann?
                The boy passed through the entwining gate of trees before him into the arms of the Wood.  The songbird had not called to him for some time, and Jovann was eager to see his friend once more.
                The Grandmother Tree called her cheerful greeting as Jovann approached.  He smiled at her and looked for the thrush.  “Good evening, my Lord.”
                “Welcome, my child.” The thrush sang gently, his voice filling the boy’s heart with joy.  “Is all well?”
                Jovann’s smile faded.  “Father’s acting strangely.  He never prays anymore, and he’s insisting I hunt with him tomorrow.”
                “Yes,” the thrush said sadly.  “Great changes are coming, Jovann.  I will be with you.  Will you see the future?”
                Jovann swallowed and nodded.  “Yes, my Lord.”
                “I have a vision tonight that is a good one,” the thrush said.  “I think you will like it.”
                Jovann waited as the Grandmother’s branches rustled.  The songbird fluttered from the tree and alighted on the boy’s shoulder.  A picture unfurled before Jovann’s eyes.

                Lunthea Maly teemed with people from every race and culture.  Along the docks, merchandise was being unloaded from many ships.  Vendors called to passersby, and the air was redolent with many scents.
                In a house by the sea, a young woman bent over a cradle.  The woman smiled as she rocked the cradle to and fro.  The woman’s young son slept peacefully, but still the mother sang:

“Go to sleep, go to sleep.
My good boy, go to sleep.”

                The door of the house opened, and a man entered.  His clothes stank of brine, and his face was weathered from weeks of travel.  Yet to the woman’s eyes, he was the handsomest of men.  She hurried to her husband’s side, and they embraced.  “How was the voyage?” the woman asked.
                The man smiled.  “The Dara guided us well, my love.” He sighed with contentment and hurried to the cradle.  The sailor bent and placed a kiss on his son’s forehead.  “He’s growing so quickly, isn’t he?”
                The woman nodded.  “Supper’s nearly ready,” she said.  “I made ginger dumplings.”
                “Ah, my favorite!” He grinned.

                The picture faded, and Jovann gasped in wonder.  The woman’s face was older, but he knew who she was.  “Dianoah,” he whispered.
                The songbird sang in delight.  “She is well, my child.  I took her to Lunthea Maly, and she is staying with a ship’s captain and his wife.  She helps the wife prepare dumplings to sell at market.  One day, Dianoah will marry, and her descendants will be great indeed.  One of her progeny will be a Chhayan sailor who will wed a Pen-Chan lady.  The son they bear will be a boy of tremendous courage.”
                Jovann smiled.  “Will I ever see her again?” he asked.
                “Your paths are different,” the thrush said, “yet one day you will see her.  That day might be long in coming, but know that she is well.  Now I have one more vision to show you.” As the thrush spoke, another picture materialized before Jovann’s eyes.
                The boy saw a humble ship.  The ship was a merchant vessel, and etched onto its prow was the name, Kulap Kanya.  A familiar figure stood at the helm of the ship.  “Sunan,” Jovann said.
                The bird sang gentle acknowledgement.  “You must go now, Jovann,” he said, “but I will see you soon.”
                The boy nodded and turned toward home.  As he walked through the Wood, he heard the song following close behind.  He knew that the future was vast, that many paths entwined.  He knew that he did not understand all, yet the thrush sang his never-ceasing Song, and that Song was an ever-present guide.  Many would ignore the Song, but it would never die.  This fact was the only one that mattered.


AUTHOR'S NOTE: The brief vision that Jovann sees at the beginning of the story is meant to reflect my ideas about Lady Hariawan.  Based on this characters catatonic indifference to the pain of others and the scene with the Dragon and with Sunan, I believe she might have suffered abuse in her childhood.  Please note that my opinion is simply that—an opinion that is most probably wrong.  Hariawan is a fascinating and heartbreaking character that I loved including, however briefly, in my story.
Those of you familiar with Genesis Chapter 34 will undoubtedly know who Dianoah’s character is very loosely based upon.  For the sake of storytelling, I chose to have Dianoah be rescued.  The girl in Scripture experiences much pain, and Scripture does not sugarcoat her experience.  My story is not meant to belittle the real heroine who inspired my character.
The character of Kulap sprang to my mind after reading the horrifying scene in Golden Daughter that features the Dragon and Tenuk.  She is not meant to be that Kulap, of course, but I felt such sorrow for that unfortunate bird that I wanted to create a Kulap that is able to fight.
 


VOTING: If you would like to vote on this or any of the other fan fiction submissions, send me a list of your top three favorite POEMS and your top three favorite STORIES. (aestengl@gmail.com) Voting is for fans of the Goldstone Wood series only.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm absolutely in love with this story! Very well done :D

-Sarah Grace

Ants and Epic said...

Oooohhh!!!!! This was so elegant and well done!!

Hannah said...

OH, masterful work, Meredith! Your stories are always filled with such power! I was delighted to see all the tie-ins with the original stories! Eep! And Kulap has a very interesting backstory indeed!

Kayla Austin said...

Beautiful story. I feel as though you've caught up the original personalities of the characters, which seems well nigh impossible to do when they were first written by someone else.

Sarah said...

Very nice work! I like how you decided to take a look at Sunan and Jovann and what their life might've been like before Sunan left. And I like how you tied in all the other characters. :D

Melanie J. said...

Wow, Meredith, this was so beautiful!! Your diction is so elegant and witty, as if the very words you chose to use were an art form! I came across quite a few lines that were so fantastic whose awesomeness I was going to mention until I lost count of all of them! This was such a beautiful story and I really loved how you developed Sunan and Jovann's backstories. (It was also so fantastic to me to see Jovann again, he's a personal fave. ;) )

Wonderful story! Great job!

-Melanie

Susan said...

You certainly have a way with words! The way your sentences flowed together so beautifully and effortlessly was breathtaking! Lovely story!

Becky said...

You did an amazing job of tying together the story of so many characters, even Munny! And the peace the thrush gave to Jovann...sigh. Very beautiful, indeed, Meredith! Thank you.