This is the continuation of 'Laughter in the Mountains'
ALOFT IN THE SPREADING BRANCHES OF A DYING OAK TREE, A LANKY, brown-haired youth with stormy grey eyes reflected moodily on the recent happenings in his village, Leirta. It was two months month since his nineteenth naming-day celebration, and what a disappointment that had been. That was the first day he had had any food more than was necessary to survive in what seemed like half of his lifetime.
It hadn’t always been like this, of course. Small as it was, Leirta was famed for its intricate wooden sculptures, which seemed almost like living things rather than carved wooden objects. Of course, they were actually grown more than carved. For most of his life, the people of Leirta had tended to their plants, drawing on power from the forests to keep them alive and healthy, providing bountiful supplies of food, and yet keeping in accordance with agreements made long ago, binding the people to the land, and the land to the people. They were nearly one it had seemed back then. When a person fell sick, half of the village would gather together to heal and comfort him, while the other half would tend to his plants, giving them strength and vitality. It had always been that way, as long as he or his mother or even her mother could remember. Not that it didn’t chafe sometimes, of course. Like every other youth, he had his dreams of becoming more than a simple attendant to a plant. He had his share of fantasies of going off and becoming a hero, fighting off the Ash’Kar from the coast, and falling in love with a beautiful princess. Maybe even becoming a Dancer of the Swords, performing for courts throughout the lands, only his prowess keeping him alive. But of course, the adults always quelled those thoughts as soon as they knew of them. Far better to become a farmer, tending to his trees and flowers, his vegetables and fruits, letting them flourish under his watchful eye, they would say, than to fend off raiders, in the service of a lord whom he’d never met, and to be buried in an unmarked grave. That’s what they said every time he spoke those thoughts aloud near someone else. Besides the tongue lashing, he somehow found himself hauling compost or washing dishes for the rest of the day as well.
It was just in the past year, in fact, that things had begun to go wrong; The well dried up, the plants began to wither despite all the efforts of the people to encourage them to live, and people began to fall ill as well, some dying. That in and of itself would be enough to occasion comment. Only very rarely was there a disease the people could not heal, that the plants could not remedy. This disease was the worst of those. It had begun slowly at first, and people thought it was just old age, and nothing could heal old age. Old Garal would suddenly start to laugh for no reason. Only for a few moments, but some people were reminded eerily of a nightmare they had awoken from twelve years ago. The laughter grew worse, though, and it was very rare that he was able to speak coherently, even then not making much sense, babbling strange warnings.
Then the fever came. He was bed-ridden by that time, and when it came, nothing they could do would break it. It grew worse, until they were afraid to let children near him, lest they catch it. His plants were withering, dying of dehydration and heat, despite the cool spring showers that came nearly every day. Anyone who felt the leaves without seeing them would have sworn that they were old pieces of parchment, glued together in a cruel mockery of a plant.
And then it ended. One rainy day, the fever grew beyond anything they had ever imagined. It seemed that his blood must be boiling in his veins, when his plants suddenly ignited in a huge sheet of flame, throwing ash over the entire village. At the same time, within his house, the people there saw him burst into flame and quickly burn to a cinder. There was nothing but ashes to bury, and those had nothing to left in them to fertilize the ground. The village was very quiet for the next few days.
Seran shivered, remembering that day. It had been the first, but not the last. Fifteen people had died in the past few months, enough people that families moved in together, helping each other with the growing, and ignoring their own. Enough that there were no longer enough people to tend to their plants. And so some of the plants withered, and more people died, and more plants withered or burst into flames. Seran sighed. It was a long time until dinner, and the small amount of food he had had for breakfast was long gone, leaving nothing but a stomach gnawing on itself in hunger.
He clambered down to the lowest branch, ten feet off the ground, and then swung himself out of the tree, hurtling to the ground. No more soft grass to land in, either. All of the grass had died early, and even though it should be the middle of summer, the ground was covered in dry leaves and pine needles. He glanced up at the tree, one final farewell before he went about his chores, and his face grew taut with concern. All around him were the stark outlines of trees, with no leaves to cover their naked branches. Yesterday’s windstorm had taken care of that, ripping off even the needles of the firs.
He hurried over to the vines climbing the wall of his house; they were mostly dead, but it was still his job to help them grow. He ran his fingers along the dry tendrils, softly uttering words, encouraging them. Under his touch, the vines seemed to perk up, have more of a will to live. Not many could save plants this far gone, and Seran took every chance he got to remind his friends of that. Finished with these, he hurried over to the well, and began parting the vines, weeding out the ones that were obstructing other, healthier, plants. In other years, he would have kept them under control by his will alone, but some recently began to be unwilling even to sacrifice a part of themselves, and those must be removed.
While doing this, he began to speculate on the villages at the foot of the mountain. Always before, they had been willing, even eager, to trade, and even give without thought of payment, what was needed. It worked both ways. In general, whenever the villages below fell short on food, there was enough in Leirta to give freely, and when Leirta had a bad year, the villages below would help them out. It had always been that way, but recently, the other settlements began to grow distrustful, asking for payment even before food was delivered. The tension grew, until one of the people of Leirta accused the villagers below of being responsible for the calamities which had been striking Leirta. There had nearly been an outbreak of violence, something unheard of, until the Councils had settled everyone down.
As Seran was thinking about this, his fingers absentmindedly threading through the plants, he felt something catch his finger, and draw blood. Strange, because none of the plants ever dared prick him; they needed him too much to survive. He parted the dry leaves, and noticed a rune cut deeply into the rough grey stone of the well. He didn’t recognize its purpose, but its appearance, straight, cruel lines, slashing wildly, looked none too pleasant. Wondering what they were, why they were there, something tickled the back of his mind, and he remembered something he had always thought to be a dream.
Seran sat up in his bed, waking suddenly. His mother had just sent him to bed a few hours ago after a spanking, and he had fallen asleep soon after. It wasn’t his fault that Urel had fallen out of the tree, chasing him. He looked around, wondering why he had awoke, when he hear the well bucket screeching. Strange, he thought to himself, who could be getting water at this hour? He opened the shutters by his bed, and searched to see who it was, but there was nothing out there. The crank was turning, however, and the bucket rising, as if an unseen person was turning the crank. Watching closely he saw something by the well burst briefly into flames, and then disappear. When he told his mother about it in the morning, however, she didn’t believe him, and set him to beating rugs outside as well, to teach him about lying.
He shook his head to clear the memory- old memories popped up at the oddest times- and stopped. It all fell into place, then. He remembered lessons from Garal before he died, lessons about runes. He had taught them some; the runes for holding a door or window, those for fertilizing the ground, those of warding, and he had said something else, too, something about an evil type of rune, one that should never be used, one that’s cost to the person who created it was more dire than to those it would affect...
He jerked away from the rune, and set off at a run towards the meeting hall, when a voice cracked like a whip at him, stopping him as surely as a brick wall.
"Seran Galdrïis, you stop right there, young man!" Seran winced. Hobbling across the square was an old woman with a cane, who, when he was younger, had been the bane of his carefree existence. "Running away from your duties to go dream about adventure, eh? I thought you outgrew that years ago. Besides, you never could hide from me. Back to that well, I still see weeds there."
"But Tiaryn, there’s something I must tell Master Istel. It’s urgent!" Replied Seran.
"Of course you can tell him. Once you finish with the well, that is. And then tend to the plants on the west wall of the meeting hall. And it’s Mistress Tiaryn to you!"
"But look! There’s a rune hidden on this well! It must have something to do with everything that’s happened!" Seran pushed the dying vines out of the way and pointed to the rune, gesticulating wildly.
"Yes, of course, Seran, and the Ash’Kar have just landed on the mountain with their flying magical ships and you have to be excused from your chores to defend everyone. It’s been a long day, Seran. Please don’t bother me with any more of your wild fantasies." Tiaryn continued explaining to Seran that she was fed up with his incessant fantasizing, and that if he didn’t finish that well as soon as possible, then by Zohal he was going to feel the sole of her boot, see if he didn’t.
"Back to work! Now!" Tiaryn shook her cane in his direction and began hobbling across the dying grass towards a house, no doubt to lecture someone else on all of the evils of idleness, while managing to do nothing at all herself. Seran grinned in spite of himself; at least some things never changed.
His humor quickly ceased, though, as he turned back to look at the withering plants; Tiaryn was right, the plants needed tending to, and there was nothing so urgent that a few hours would make a difference.
(To be continued)
(This message has been edited by moderator (edited 03-31-2003).)