The Windmaker's Daughter

LLMap.jpeg

 

ρ. The Sad-Eyed Prophet

                

 To construct a perfect windmill, one must be in full accord with the nature of the wind—a matter of upmost importance, being that the wind’s chaotic pattern tends to remain lost on even the craftiest of masons. An architecturally brilliant towermill would most certainly go to waste if assembled on ground that scarcely saw the wind. And few understand the wind. Its lawless ways are now a long-forgotten practice, and have been so since before the global wars. Of all who remain its followers, none are more in tune with the wind’s madness than the man known as The Windmaker.      

A highly respected stonemason and the most skillful in all The Lowlands, The Windmaker not only could conceive and shape a mill of impeccable standing, but he could also masterfully determine where exactly the structure should be erected. By order of a mysterious engineer known as The Priest, The Windmaker had been tasked with building, maintaining, and improving each of the stone windmills that surrounded their village. Of the three, The Windmaker’s masterpiece was the first that he’d built, a mill that had been coined “The Zephyr.” Recognized for its superbly designed granite tower, and magnificent five wooden sails—the only one that sported five instead of four—The Zephyr stood upon a hill roughly a kilometer south of the village. And no hill in The Lowlands caught the breeze like the one housed in The Zephyr.     

It was said that The Zephyr was always in motion, and that the wind never stilled on that location. For this reason alone, The Zephyr stood consummate in its greatness. Had it been built, for example, twenty meters from where it currently stood; then it would not be the perfect windmill. It would not have been christened The Zephyr. And the man named Emain would not be known as The Windmaker…

                                                                                                                               *  *  *

 The late-spring sun descended beyond the western cliff and the clock tower chimed. The Windmaker, oblivious to the sound, continued with his tireless labor on the upper floor of his favorite mill. With his back resting on the floorboards, he casually fiddled with a device near the slow spinning windshaft. Beyond the nearby window, the five bamboo sails were calmly circling to the evening draft, emanating a low creaking that provided him further comfort. Like any who truly loved his profession, Emain operated with a deep focus and care, to an extent that time would cease and the absence of light would go unnoticed until well after the sun’s disappearance. Such was the case on the current evening. Yet once he became aware of the growing darkness, The Windmaker set down his tools, wiped his weathered face, brushed the sawdust from his sand-colored hair, and then stood to face the window.

“Johanna!” he bellowed resolutely.   

It was a call that went unheard, causing The Windmaker to chuckle. He then pulled a small string that hung near the windshaft, triggering the blare of a steam-powered pneumatic horn. Minutes later, a green-eyed girl of thirteen with strawberry blonde hair arrived within The Zephyr. She scampered past the hay bundles and ascended the tall wooden ladder to where her father patiently awaited. Upon reaching the upper floor, the girl found The Windmaker sitting on the mill’s wooden planks in the lotus position, grinning.  

“Having fun with the fireflies again, are ya?” asked the craftsman.

His voice was deep, and his accent was that of the old tongue.

The girl smiled.

“They’re so bright tonight!” she replied, beaming. “Like the moon jellyfish from the sea.”     

Although tasked with aiding her father as he worked, the girl’s youthful energy would often lead her astray. So whenever the man’s attention drifted from his daughter—a frequent occurrence—Johanna would escape and run free throughout the surrounding fields. There she would pick flowers to re-plant around the windmills, or gather stones and sticks that would be used to fashion dream catchers, or lay by the river during lazy afternoons. At night, she would chase the large, luminous fireflies that populated the valley during the warm seasons. Despite his daughter’s carefree nature regarding chores, The Windmaker rarely allowed himself to become annoyed. Instead, he found comfort in seeing his daughter’s happiness. In all, Emain was quite proud to call himself her father. Johanna, much like The Windmaker, owned an endless curiosity, and was shrewd beyond her age. She was graceful in exhibiting both her thoughts and movement, for each was shepherded by compassion. “A gifted child,” is what her aunt called her.

  “Its past nightfall,” Emain said firmly. “Meaning its time for you to return to the village. Aunt Aoife is cooking supper tonight, and you know how grumpy she gets when we arrive late.”

The girl watched her father return to his tools.

“Aren’t you coming too?” she asked hopefully.

The Windmaker sighed, his expression solemn.

“Alas, I wish I were my dear, but there is work that remains unfinished. I’m afraid that it requires my attention for the night. And it will do no good to upset The Priest, for he demands that my task be finished in a timely manner.”

   Hearing this, the girl was overcome with worry. The last thing Johanna wanted was for her father to disappoint The Priest.

“Ok…” she mumbled, her head dropping.

The Windmaker smiled, and then affectionately ruffled his daughter’s hair. 

“Now run along!” he said cheerfully. “You don’t want to keep your Aunt waiting.”

The girl’s smile returned. She gave her father a quick hug and then jumped—much to his disapproval—from the plank and into the large hay pile below them. Bouncing to her feet, she emerged from the straw and took leave of The Zephyr.

The sky had settled into its usual dark blue and the stars grew bright. Johanna casually trotted the thin dirt path that led through the hayfields to the village. The jubilant long grass swayed beyond both edges of the trail as it snaked over the rippling pasture. Within the weeds, the constant choir of crickets chirped their unbroken song for the rising moon. Above her, the abundance of slow moving fireflies formed an ever-changing constellation of pale green flecks. It was on nights like these when Johanna enjoyed the ritual of external sleep, allowing for the pull of the cosmos to influence her dreams. In this regard, she was unlike many of the village youth, who often viewed the peaceful ambiance of The Lowlands as their birthright, not as the chance blessing that it was. Needless to say, The Windmaker’s Daughter knew better…

A horse was galloping down the path towards Johanna. It belonged to The Priest, yet it was not The Priest who rode it. This was odd considering the village possessed only the one mare, and it was not to be shared. The horse was travelling with much speed; yet Johanna, as she stepped from the path, was able to catch a glimpse of the young male rider. Her heart butterflied within her chest as they locked eyes. Tobias was leaving the village, and seemed to Johanna as if he were departing for good.

He then rounded the hillside and was gone. Following his disappearance, a fell noise from the village abruptly shattered the night’s harmony. The clock tower had struck an uncanny chime, leaving Johanna frozen in her tracks. The melody was not that of its usual chime—meaning the nightly lullaby heard at the time of sundown—but rather an eerie combination of notes that brought about a penetrating unease. This truly was the case for Johanna, who had never before heard such dark, harrowing chords emitted from the clock tower. The sound quickly dimmed to an echo and faded away, leaving none but tension in its wake. The girl, now frightened, made a swift dash for home.

Upon reaching a hillside’s crest, Johanna’s eyes fell to the village. There she could see fire burning, and hear a growing commotion that indicated the town had been taken by disorder. The smell from the sea was now touched with smoke and ash. And just a few meters down the way, the peculiar old man named Amon sat upon a boulder in deep distress. He was an elderly hermit who possessed a strange, yet foretelling wisdom, and lived in a secluded stone cottage roughly a half-kilometer from the village. Prone to incoherent, though at times predictive, rants and ramblings, Amon had acquired the nickname The Prophet—much to the dismay of The Priest—and had been called such for many decades. The Prophet was especially beloved by the village children. Rarely would they pass an opportunity to hear his stories. Come evenings they would listen in groups, wide-eyed and fully attentive as he spun his tales of adventure and fantastical machinery, as well as chilling predictions of times yet to come. Johanna felt a dash of relief upon seeing the man. She had always felt safe within the presence of the hermit.

As her soft footfalls found his ears, The Prophet raised his head to meet the girl. And as he did, the pathos in his face deepened, as did the wrinkles above his gaunt cheekbones. He began to sob.  

“He is gone…” the old man stuttered, his body gently rocking atop the giant stone. “The one who saw true has left us. The four awaken. No man comes for you my child. No man comes...”

His eyes had rolled into his forehead, showing as milky white orbs. His body shook violently and dripped in sweat, and the color from his skin had vanished like a shadow at noon. The startling sight rendered Johanna motionless. She remained as such until a loud cry echoed from the village, restoring her focus. Much as the girl wanted to help the ailing Prophet, there was nothing she could do but send for the village healer. The safety of her Aunt and pets were now her foremost concern.

Johanna raced down the lengthy hillside that led to the arched bridge—the stone bypass that served as the village entrance. A large group of villagers could be seen assembling on its far bank. A few held freshly lit torches, and strutted about as if their presence were actually needed. The rest of the villagers stayed huddled in a worried confusion, hoping above all else that the commotion would not result in bloodshed. A raging fire was crackling atop the large stone temple known as The Ark. The southern face of the clock tower had an abnormal glow, and appeared to vibrate with a low humming. The illusion of a ticking third hand flashed into view and then disappeared. Unnoticed in the commotion were the three robed figures travelling south with great speed, each dashing away from the village towards the heart of The Lowlands.

 As Johanna stepped foot on the bridge, two figures walked menacingly towards her from the other side. Their approach rendered her motionless. The ceaseless wind came to a sudden, unusual standstill. And now the hairs on Johanna’s neck stood frozen above the goose bumps that held them.

The figure on the right was one the girl had never before seen. It was wrapped in a large black robe with the hood pulled high above its head. A spectral mask was shielding its face. Tribal in origin, the guise resembled an ornate humanoid skull of elongated proportions. Below the mask came the slow repetition of high-pitched wheezing, a bone chilling sound that caused Johanna to break out in a cold sweat.

It was the tall man on the left, however, who was the source of her true fear, a man whose name had become synonymous with fear itself. He was clothed in a dark grey robe that was frayed at the cuffs and edges, and leaned heavily on a spectacular staff hewn from ancient wood. The man had a long rectangular face with many lines and shadows, where hooded grey eyes sat piercing below deep furrowing eyebrows. His thinning grey hair and cold hardened gaze shone of the absence of reluctance. The long fingers that held the staff were wrinkled and ring covered. His gnarled skin featured an array of cryptic tattoos, consisting mostly of gears and foreign symbols.  Around his neck hung a large glimmering medallion on a silver chain, a charm that bestowed immediate discomfort when gazed upon. Below the medallion rested the man’s other hand, which gripped firmly on the ribs of his right side as if being used to apply pressure to a wound. With blood seeping from his robes and onto the man’s fingers, Johanna confirmed her suspicion to be correct. In addition, the mystery of the town’s turmoil had been revealed. There had been an attack on The Priest.

The Priest gripped the masked specter tightly on its shoulder. The blood from The Priest’s hand stained the figure’s dark robes, but the figure cared not.

“Bring me that hoodlum, and bring him to me alive,” The Priest demanded in a soft, chant-like voice.

The figure nodded. The Priest then turned to walk back towards the village where the majority of its inhabitants awaited tensely. Upon receiving its master’s order, the masked servant swiftly crossed the channel, halting briefly to fix Johanna with a terrifying stare. The girl looked deep into the figure’s haunting mask and began to tremble. A flicker of pale blue flashed from behind the bone veil. Mesmerized by the ghastly breathing of the specter, Johanna found it difficult to remove her eyes, as if the slow, icy pulse had cast a paralyzing spell upon her. Then the figure broke its gaze and departed the village. It quickly grew small in the distance, consumed by the long-grass.

Still as a statue, Johanna watched with caution while the figure disappeared from sight. She then jumped from surprise when an unexpected hand touched her shoulder, pulling her from the bridge and back towards the village. Glancing up, Johanna recognized the hand as belonging to her Aunt Aoife.

“Come child,” she said. “Its best we get inside, especially on a troubled night such as this.”

With her arm firmly around her niece, the woman swiftly led the pair down the stone road towards The Windmaker’s cottage. The weary villagers were returning to their homes and the commotion had settled. The fire above The Ark had been extinguished, and The Priest now resided within the quarters of Savanni, the village healer.    

It was certainly a troubled night, more so than any the village had seen since its creation. However, Johanna’s concerns lay not with The Priest’s health, but rather with Tobias’ unexpected departure, and with the foreboding words of Amon The Prophet—who at this moment lay dead beside his giant stone…

                                                                                                                                   * * *

Village009.jpg

 

1. The Village by the sea

 

And many moons have come and passed…

 Waves.

The crashing of distant waves on shale cliffs found her ears, as did the call of grey and white gulls with wrinkled pink feet. The briny smell from the sea, along with the slightest hint of greenery found her nose, as did the soothing fragrance of nearby summer flowers. Her body stirred, awakening from a deep dream of beautiful sadness—a dream of such allure, and such melancholy, that the overwhelming sensation would undoubtedly stay with her until a few hours had passed in time. And with the opening of eyes came the pacifying sight of rich, majestic cumulous clouds in a cyan blue sky.

 A willowy young woman with jade-green eyes arose from the long-grass. She had long, sleek, reddish-blonde locks that flowed to above her breasts, where, on a string, rested a ridged white seashell that caught the light. On days such as this one when the sun shone unblocked, its bright, yet tender rays would bring freckles to her porcelain skin, and to the gentle features of her oval face. She wore a snowy linen dress that swayed along with the breeze. A lone amaryllis flaunting pearly white pedals lay nestled within her hair, and was complimented by a feather-braid. Her feet were bare, and stood firmly pressed against the long-grass—not the type of grass that was coarse and caused irritation, but rather the kind that was soft to the touch and produced no redness, making it the perfect bed for a late afternoon nap when one’s chores had been finished. And just like the previous summer, and the summer before that, this late afternoon rest had become a daily practice for the graceful Johanna, who often arose with the sunrise to tend to her flourishing gardens.

She stretched her arms to the sky to relieve the tension from her muscles. Then this elegant woman glided from the hill on which she stood, making her way to where the river met the village. The increase in wind formed ripples throughout the fields, causing color fluctuations between the long grassy strands and spots of goldenrod—which, were in a way, waves in their own right. Roughly a hundred meters to Johanna’s left sat the dormant construction site of the village’s fourth windmill. It was due for completion in about one year’s time, and was set to be The Windmaker’s next masterpiece. On either side of the fields rose the massive formations of the eastern and western cliffs. There they spanned from the sea to the forest, fully entrapping the gorge of small green hills that was The Lowlands.

Upon crossing the arched bridge, Johanna arrived within the cluster of stone cottages that housed the village inhabitants. Thin whispers of smoke could be seen rising from the narrow chimneys as fresh fires now crackled within hearths, while the smell of slow-cooked food over burning wood announced the evening’s coming. From the open windows came the offbeat choir of improvised singing, featuring lovely voices devoid of anything resembling pitch or tune. Many of the stone huts included garden beds of native flowers. These gardens tended to be planted clumsily, and usually sprawled near the front or along the side of the huts. However, because certain residents preferred a garden put together using skill and care, Johanna, out of request, had lent her hand in the creation of a few. The results were visibly apparent.  

Behind the cottages were her Aunt Aoife’s chicken coops where lived about fifty hens and six roosters. They were fed seeds from Johanna’s garden and were kept only for eggs. Every now and then, one of the village rascals would unlock the wire cages to release the chickens, resulting in their having to be re-gathered by frustrated villagers. Past the pens rose a fenced-in hillside that had been converted into a small graveyard, housing the village dead. Wooden crosses, of assorted sizes, were scattered throughout the bone yard—not for religious purposes, but because the populace had taken a liking to the shape. Near the tattered wooden gate to the yard stood a small shack of the same timber. In the shack lived a man who was called Wrench, the gaunt, yet friendly caretaker who selflessly tidied the graves and the grounds, all the while mumbling under his breath in a soft, incomprehensible dialect.

Like most communities, it was all hands on deck at any given time of any given day. Anyone with a particularly advanced skillset grew accustomed to long hours and little rest. Those who lacked such skills generally played the role of assistant, or silent observer. By doing so, their capabilities and prowess would then increase, as would their usefulness. Since the village lacked a school, math was taught through masonry. Science was taught by The Priest, though none besides The Windmaker could comprehend his intricate lessons. Aoife taught those who sought to learn language to read and write—more of a novelty than a skill in such times. Fitness and nutrition were now mandatory teachings. History was to be forgotten, and the learning of it forbidden; the future was all-important, and remembrances of the past could derail that ideal. All actions were to be deemed in benefit of the “greater good,” a mandate sanctioned by The Priest. Very few possessed the courage to contradict. Fortunately for Johanna, her talents fell in line with what she loved and lived for…

After walking the cobblestone promenade that ran from the bridge through the huts, Johanna arrived in the town square—the center of activity for the seaside community. If the village were to ever adopt a form of currency, the town square could rename itself as the center of commerce. The square’s western half was solely an array of wooden booths—the food market. By law, each household was entitled to a select portion of rations each day. The daily intake consisted of a half-loaf of brown soda-bread, six eggs from the coops, a fish per person, and an assortment of various vegetables. The village had only six cows, and so milk was an exceptionally rare commodity. In The Lowlands, the taste of beef was unknown to all but the old, as was the taste of chicken. Only a third of the village was able to receive milk come the mornings. At first, during the town’s founding stages, the policy regarding milk was first-come-first-serve. This method proved to be an instant failure, as it habitually led to fist fights and the breaking of reusable glass bottles. But, since glass was a scarcer commodity than milk, a system of rotation was set into place to quell the chaos, and to preserve the precious glass. 

On the square’s eastern side was the tavern—the lone source of nightlife in the placid Lowlands. Within this languid dwelling, elderly patrons would play their slow, sleepy songs on low-pitched harmonicas and smoke hemp with tobacco out of carved oak pipes. Or, to the pleasure of most, the younger, more ambitious instrumentalist would play their indigenous jigs and reels with great skill—their preferred instruments being acoustic guitars, old-fashion wooden accordions, whittled flutes, and time-weathered fiddles. On these not-so-uncommon occasions, one of the older patrons would consume an excessive amount of drink and audaciously recount tales from The Last Migration—the two-year, northbound exodus that followed the ruinous wars. The Last Migration was a journey that yielded few survivors, many of whom were those who followed The Priest to the village. For the telling of such outlawed stories, Johanna would attend the tavern come evenings. She took much interest in the subject, and was often disappointed that so few among her age held similar fascination.  

In the heart of the town square was the clock tower. The mysterious, gold-hued metallic spire stood upwards of fifty meters in height, and featured four unique facades. Each face had two glowing hands; its time could be read with ease by any who worked the windmills and hayfields, as well as those who spent their days at sea. It was without a pendulum, yet was continuously motorized by an unidentified source. As the only village structure conceived by The Priest—yet designed using The Windmaker’s mathematics—it was infused with a powerful technology that focused on the manipulation of sound, using ultrasonic frequencies that were altered for communication purposes. It was said that The Priest was still in contact with the far-away settlements, a connection he maintained to receive news of potential invaders. In The Priest’s experience, outsiders tended to be hostile; yet none had ever reached as far as The Lowlands. The clock tower was also in perfect sync with the sun, as well as the planetary alignments of the solar system. How this aligning was achieved, neither Johanna, her father, nor any villager for that matter could comprehend. The Windmaker expressed his distaste for the clock tower on a frequent basis. He resented his role in its creation, and would mutter phrases along the lines of “monstrosity,” or “gives me nightmares,” and most notably, “such a frequency could bend stone or shatter flesh.” Yet Johanna, at times, would find herself drawn to the cryptic pillar. On many occasions throughout her youth, she had climbed its spiral staircase to rest on the balcony below its southern face. There, next to the ever-spinning gears, she would look down on the village in all its activity, or inactivity. She had wasted countless hours observing the other children at play, watching them scamper about in a manner that could only manifest from lack of maturity. After a tussle broke out, she would watch as the guilty culprit was dragged away by the ear, usually by his or her mother to be properly scolded. Or, when the village failed to satisfy her interest, Johanna would allow her gaze to extend beyond The Zephyr, far beyond the pastures to where the ruins of Dun Farraige stood eternal before The Great Forest…

Passing the clock tower, Johanna crossed a second stone bridge that sat north of the town center. Adjacent to this bridge was a moderately sized bungalow equipped with a large wooden watermill. In this abode lives Cainen, the town blacksmith. Fortunately for the village, an abundant coalmine was discovered below the eastern cliff; and so Cainen put forth his talents forging the tools used to cut stone, the hooks and anchors required for fishing, the knives and skillets needed to cook, along with the nails, screws, and saws used for carpentry. Due to their shared fascination for steam-technology, Cainen was very close to The Priest, and would often assist him in the creation of his bizarre inventions.

North of the blacksmith’s bungalow, the river formed a straightaway until it ended at the sea. There a wharf extended thirty meters into the tides. A pair of steam-powered fishing boats sat moored along its western side. Across the jetty, two more of the slow-moving vessels were currently docking with the days catch. Considering the minute population of remaining humans, an abundance of marine life made its home beyond the shores. Magnificent species of pike, salmon, cod, and sea bass were all ripe for the taking. And while most of the fisherman used large nets—a technique for those of lesser age and experience—the veteran anglers preferred the old fashion method of using three-pronged hooks and lures. In turn, they would catch the larger, deeper sea dwellers. In fact, the aquatic life was so plentiful that the fisherman were ordered not to catch too many, for a great deal would most certainly go to waste.

And just as they did in olden times, the village had a temple in which dwelt those of the upmost standing. That temple was a large, water-eroded step-pyramid fashioned entirely from an ancient grey stone—an architectural feat that left The Windmaker in awe. It rested below the crags of the eastern cliff and was known as The Ark. It was found uninhabited when the refugees first arrived at the river’s end. Naturally, The Priest deemed it to be his own, and was so fascinated by the ziggurat that he declared the village be constructed in its wake. If the villagers were to climb its steps and pass through the main entrance they would find themselves in the auditorium, an impressive chamber with walls decorated by runes of the old language. The villagers gathered within The Ark every seventh day to maintain and preserve their unity. But the sermons delivered by The Priest and his disciples were intended to spread fear and to fear, and were uttered to prevent those villagers who considered leaving from doing so.   

At the far end of the auditorium rose a platform with an altar. Beyond the altar was a staircase that led to the upper floor where The Priest, his malignant son, and his disciples resided. To the left of the auditorium was an inviting chamber where Savanni, the wise and warmhearted healer, benevolently tended to the sick and wounded. And just below the altar lay a trapdoor that opened into a hidden staircase, leading down into The Ark’s catacombs. At the bottom of this passage stood a door that was forever locked. It was marked by a ghostly symbol, a rune bearing resemblance to a human skull. Access into this chamber was forbidden at all costs. Although prohibited from entry, the villagers held their suspicions of what lay concealed beyond the portal. So they avoided the door, gladly…

After reaching the western most part of the village, Johanna, at long last, arrived at her destination—a terraced hillside of raised soil-beds that faced the rising sun. This was her pride and home.

The cold weather crops made up the bottom beds, on which the lettuce, spinach, kale, and other greens had been germinating since early spring. On the mid-level beds grew the peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, pumpkins, and tomato plants bound to wooden stakes. Cultivation of these began mid-spring, what in times past would have been known as the month of May. The perennials grew on the topmost beds. One side held the berry bushes. The other beds held the herbs. Both were self-seeding if let grow to flower. Several wooden arbors stood erected near the perennials. Each arbor played host to a tangle of green and red grape vines that, by demand of the villagers, were to be used for wine instead of food. Behind the arbors were two apple trees—a special request by The Windmaker.

With the help of Fianna, a girl of seventeen, Johanna would tend to the gardens on a morning basis. Fianna found much enjoyment in working the plots, so Johanna was more than happy to share with the girl her horticultural knowledge and insight, all the while appreciating the extra hand. Using water from the river, the two would feed the vegetables before light to prevent the sun’s heat from causing evaporation. Little troughs were dug pre-germination, allowing each plant an allotted area for growth. Sitting near the apple trees was a pile of compost that was used for amending soil. It had been accumulated from the collection of vegetable scraps, along with stems and leaves that hadn’t gone to seed.      

 A thin dirt path led up the hillside, sectioning the garden into halves. At the path’s end sat a beautiful stone cottage ensconced within a sea of amaryllises. A bamboo wind-chime and a fastened metal lantern hung from the cottage’s tiny porch. On the porch sat a shabby wooden rocking chair. A slender white cat hopped from his rocking chair to greet the woman that approached him. Johanna lifted the cat firmly into her arms and stroked his fur. She then entered the cottage…

 

2. Alone in Paradise

 

The Windmaker’s cottage was as restful of a place as one could live in. Its wind-water aesthetics bestowed comfort upon all who stepped inside, with its stained oak floors, intimate nooks and alcoves, delightful stone fireplace, and intricate placement of plants and furniture. The cottage’s many-shaded stone frame, however, was indisputably its finest quality. A display of hand-sculpted talismans, stone-carved animals, and mind-interpreted pre-historic fossils were arranged throughout the cottage, for even the diligent Windmaker was able to bargain time for self-expression. A sleeping loft had been installed above the area left of the front door. A limestone wind shrine was mounted near the foot of the loft. The Windmaker meditated before the shrine at every sunrise—offering homage to the wind, the monks who taught him, and the deceased. About a dozen ornamental dream catchers hung suspended from the ceiling. Johanna had crafted each during her childhood. They were fashioned from the binding of sticks and twine, and were imbued with gull feathers and colored gems from the river…

Flames sputtered from the fireplace as Johanna entered the room carrying her cat. At the sound of the whistle from the large copper kettle hanging over the fireplace, the cat jumped from her arms. Johanna grabbed the heatproof mittens that dangled near the hearth and removed the kettle from its hook. She then transferred the hot water to a ceramic teapot where a handful of jasmine tealeaves awaited patiently to be scalded. After placing the kettle back on its hook, she proceeded to pour freshly filtered tea into two ceramic mugs. The floral aroma arose with the steam to her nostrils as the draught from the open back door windswept her hair on approach. Beyond the door sat a tiny patio with a table and two stilted chairs. In one sat The Windmaker who fidgeted upon her arrival, as if pulled by a string from deep pondering. Taking her seat in the other chair, Johanna placed a mug on the table and held the second. She then peacefully observed her father, whose stare had yet to grace her. His face was distraught, his eyes devoid of focus.

“Your mind is troubled,” said the intuitive Johanna, taking a sip from her tea. “Am I the reason?”

Her father didn’t answer. Nor did he react to the question. The man’s jittery fingers were massaging his forehead in a slow, semi-relaxed fashion. The acupressure continued for a full minute, and then The Windmaker issued a deep sigh and faced Johanna.

“You’re to be married,” he said solemnly, his palms hurriedly returning to his face.   

Johanna was taken by surprise, and now stared curiously at her father with an eyebrow raised, for it was the last thing that she had been expecting to hear. The Windmaker had always respected her desire not to be married. Had a sudden change in his thoughts occurred? One brought about by yet another proposal, from yet another self-satisfied suitor. She certainly hoped that was not the case. Or was this the makings of something different, something unexpected. Johanna smiled.

“And who am I to marry?” she laughed jokingly, before taking another sip.

“This isn’t a laughing matter,” grumbled The Windmaker, his fingers recommencing their uneasy tremble.

And upon further glance, Johanna read the extent of her father’s pain and her smile began to fade. The Windmaker’s demeanor held none of its usual calm. His body was not the least bit steady, rather it was restless in the most uncharacteristic of ways. Nor had he even touched his tea. It was apparent that the man was in true distress. The hurt in his eyes was one that Johanna hadn’t seen since she was a child.

“I’ve just returned from The Ark,” continued Emain, “where The Priest and I had a long, unpleasant discussion. As I’ve recently been made aware, Jonas comes of age on the morrow, and has selected you to be his wife. And The Priest demands that you comply. He says that your womb must not be wasted in such depopulated times. Yet despite my tireless pleading, and offerings of unwavering servitude, I was unable to sway the man. I am afraid that neither The Priest nor his son will have it any other way. I am sorry.”

Johanna heard the news and grew faint. Her almond eyes widened and then shut, and her teacup nearly slipped to the ground. She remained silent in disbelief for some time.

“You can’t possibly expect me to marry him,” she eventually shuddered. “Do you?”

The Windmaker shook his head.

“I do not,” he replied with the utmost sincerity, “nor would I ever. But if you’re to refuse, I’m afraid that your only option will be to run. And if you choose to do so, then your safety and fate will become your own, for I can only protect you as far as The Zephyr. Nonetheless, I will accept all consequences bestowed in the event of your absence.” 

At her father’s words, Johanna was overcome by internal conflict. For over two decades, The Windmaker had ceaselessly set her welfare above his own. It was the recurring theme of Johanna’s life. And now he was willing to defy The Priest to protect her. She couldn’t help but smile to the gesture.

“No,” said Johanna, setting her teacup to the table. “No need to continue your sacrifices on my behalf, I owe you enough as it is. I’ll face The Priest, you shouldn’t have to risk your life.”

The Windmaker shook his head once more. Only now, a fire shone within his eyes.  

  “My decision in this is not yours to make, just as your decision is not mine. If you seek The Priest, he will surely hold you captive.”

His tone softened.

“And it is I who am indebted to you, for you gave me life in a time when all was taken.”

The two sat in silence. Unable to muster words, Johanna rose to her feet and stood before her father with her arms extended. The Windmaker obliged. It was an embrace that provided much relief. Then Johanna loosened her grip and looked to his face, gasped, and placed her hand on his cheek. For a single tear had rolled from the man’s eye. And never before had she seen, or would she again see The Windmaker cry.

“Now I must go,” he confessed, wiping away the tear. “If there is one thing I lack the courage to do, it is to watch you leave. Again, I am sorry.”

The Windmaker released Johanna and walked towards the cottage door; but then stopped with his hand firmly gripping the handle.  

“Follow the river to the forest. Venture deep until you become lost,” he said, turning to face his daughter. “And you must hurry, The Priest will call upon you at midnight.”

He grimaced.

“And now I bid you farewell.”

Upon uttering his last word, The Windmaker bowed his head and stepped inside. The door closed with a flash and a rustle of wind; and Johanna knew that if she were to follow she would find the cottage empty.

“Slán,” she whispered to the breeze.

Then Johanna stood frozen on the patio, unable to budge, unable to cry. With her father’s departure came the departure of her courage, her faith in self, along with her ability to rationalize. She felt weak, as if her knees were to give at any moment. They held firm, however, and suddenly Johanna found herself on the move. Her feet dragged below her in a sort of mindless, involuntary trudge, leading her down the path between the gardens, then across the blacksmith’s bridge and up the river towards the sea. But before reaching the docks she veered east, and then cautiously maneuvered past The Ark to where a steam-powered elevator was built within the eastern cliff. After stepping inside the lift, Johanna rotated its stone dial until the arrow faced upward, and then pulled the lever below it… 

 

Beyond the western cliff, the sun hovered above the sea by a narrow margin, its stalwart reflection bringing about a shimmer on the dimming tides. From the yonder sky came expiring rays of light from the pink sunset, where colors so vast, yet so timid, could do naught but welcome the impending darkness with open arms. Stretching above the water was the cape of the eastern cliff, which at this precise moment caught the final breaths of daylight. A stone lighthouse stood near the edge of the cape. It was painted white with red trim. Its constant beam was safely guiding the village fisherman, as well as those who lived to explore the endless blue. Beyond the lighthouse stood Johanna; her hair and dress rippling from the wind, her gaze due north upon the world’s end…

It was as if her solitude had become her undoing, a secluded path that led to unforeseen ruin. Now she was to wed Jonas, The Priest’s sadist of a son, and the least desirable of all who dwelt within the village. Malevolent by nature, Jonas possessed the insecurity and aggression of a bully, and was frequently the tormentor of others, even those who were older and more able-bodied. He also enjoyed killing small animals for pleasure, which to Johanna was his greatest sin. But alas, none owned the courage to confront Jonas. The entire village lived in fear of The Priest, and in fear of The Priest’s Henchmen—whose existence was debatable, as they were never seen. Johanna, unlike most however, had in fact laid eyes on the ghastly servants, and she had been plagued by the memory ever since.

And with the thought came another memory from the same distant night.

In her mind rung the finals words of Amon, whose life had come to an unexpected end after uttering the phrase “no man comes.” It seemed The Prophet’s curse was still upon her.  Throughout her years, Johanna had only found disinterest when regarding the village males. Most of these youths were stubborn, condescending, and held little respect for nature. At the same time, they were cursed with the disease of ambition, or the blind desire to fight for some desperate cause—for which little blame could be placed, being that many had lost their fathers before birth and sought revenge. These youths would also leave in search of Tyrus, the fabled community that was said to have survived the wars—a toxic rumor according to The Priest. Only one had ever captured her fascination, a boy named Tobias Sayne who was a few years her elder. Tobias, like Johanna, was dissimilar from the rest, was very fond of nature, was quite crafty, and was often alone. But unlike her, he was rebellious, and enjoyed committing thievery and other types of mischief. He was an introverted youth with few friends and had paid little mind to his peers; yet he had always showed kindness and affection towards Johanna. Although not a disciple, Tobias had been allowed to live within The Ark due to his friendship with The Priest. That is until he stabbed The Priest and was forced to run. The Henchmen were said to have killed him, leaving his body to decompose within The Great Forest. Johanna had cried upon hearing the news, and remained saddened by his death for much of her adolescence.

But if Johanna were to run, what would become of The Windmaker?

Her thoughts returned to her childhood. During The Last Migration, The Windmaker had carried his infant daughter across war-torn land and sea, successfully leading them from the ravaged southern continent. He was forced to remain strong after enduring the death of his wife, alongside countless others. It was a sacrifice that could never be truly repaid. On the contrary, Johanna’s abyss of debt continued to widen with The Windmaker set to claim responsibility for her departure. Would The Priest choose to kill his most valued servant? Her father was indeed The Windmaker, but a servant nonetheless.

Johanna felt a surge of anger manifesting towards The Priest, towards the world, as well as towards herself for spawning such a predicament. Then came the smug laugh of Jonas within her head. She strained not to think of his sneering face, or of his terrible smile fixed on her naked form. Yet the image was unavoidable and his jeering grew louder. And then Johanna no longer wished to live. Staying true to her family, she stepped forward and placed both heels on the cliff’s edge, allowing for the wind to decide her fate.

  The sun fell below sea level. Its disappearance coincided with a soothing melodic chime from the clock tower, signaling the arrival of nightfall—yet the northern continent did not experience true night during summer, but rather a permanent state of twilight. Following the lulling notes, an exceptionally large wave shattered along the rocks below. It hit with a thundering crash, triggering a heavy draught that threw Johanna to the grass near the lighthouse. Unshaken, she arose to her feet and swept the strands of red hair from her face. She then looked to the sea and gasped.

A horned puffin was suspended in the air beyond the ledge. Its wings fluttered at a speed Johanna couldn’t follow. Before she could raise an arm it descended, vanishing as quickly as it had appeared. According to The Windmaker, an ancient family belief was that the sight of a puffin was an event to be revered, and that the bird was deemed as sacred. Johanna felt her strength returning at once, along with her wits. If to run were her only option then run she must. If death were to catch The Windmaker then his soul would find peace, and the spirit of her mother would no longer wander alone. Johanna, on the other hand, was unlikely to be killed if she were caught, only returned to the village where she would face punishment. But from that she would recover, and bide her time until the precise moment arose to run again, and then again if she must.

Johanna retuned to the elevator, pulled the lever, and looked down to the village for one last time. A cloud of steam belched from the blastpipe with a sharp hiss, and then the sound of clinks, shakes, and slow-turning cogs announced her descent…  

 

3. The Stones are watching

 

I saw a young child with blood on his hands…

 Back in The Windmaker’s cottage, Johanna gathered all that was needed for the road with swiftness and drive. The increasing darkness had kindled her sense of urgency. Her need for adventure had awakened after an epoch of dormancy. She was now overcome by a child-like determination and couldn’t help but feel the wisp of excitement. Johanna placed a fresh loaf of soda bread, two apples, and her canteen into a small linen bag, before donning a deep grey cloak. Its hue was like that of a wet stone, allowing her to blend with the absence of color that nightfall carried. The fire in the hearth had dwindled, with all but a few embers having lost its glow. Beyond the door, the low-pitched jangle of the wind chime remained constant.

However, with family, certain qualities tend to differ only as far as the apple falls. So it was natural that an unconscious wave of precaution led Johanna to the loft, where The Windmaker kept a sheathed kukri upon the wall above a sword. Neither blade had been drawn since The Last Migration. Johanna knew that the kukri would serve her needs more than her father’s, and that its absence would be viewed as reassuring: so after slipping the curved dagger into the belt round her waist, the woman dropped from the loft and landed adjacent to the shrine. She then straightened herself and moved for the door, yet was halted by a sullen mew from the cat, whose slender form now brushed along her ankles. Johanna felt a rush of sadness as she looked into his lake-like eyes, in which her reflection shone as it would within a pond without current. She stroked his fur for one last time and shed a few tears. The rich aroma of the wooden interior grew exceptionally conspicuous. To Johanna it was the smell of comfort, as if the cottage was pleading for her to stay. Yet The Great Forest was a quarter day’s journey south. It was best she not further delay. Removing her saddened gaze from the cat, Johanna slung her bag round her shoulder. She then tucked in her hair and pulled the cloak above her head, as is the way of the traveller…

The village was drifting into slumber, yet Johanna proceeded as if every chalet wore a pair of eyes, like those in a portrait with a following gaze. Forever light on her feet, she slipped through the gardens and over the second crossing unseen, arriving in the deserted town square. All went well until a glimmer of flame and the pitter-patter of footfalls caught her attention, compelling her to slip within the shadow of the clock tower.

From behind the tavern and into the square came the skeletal form of Wrench, who carried a small flickering lantern. Now pressed firmly against the tower, Johanna watched as the mumbling hermit teetered up the cobblestones and disappeared within the cottages. When the repetition of his footsteps faded, she emerged from the shadows and made a dash for the arched bridge, dancing between patches of darkness until the stone crossing was safely behind her. She then ascended the long hillside on which she had slept only hours before. Upon arriving at its crest, Johanna spun and faced the dwindling village where all but a few cottages had gone dark. The horizon line had vanished, for the sea and sky had merged into one. Bowing her head in farewell, the departing woman broke for the winding southward path and was gone.

The moon was rising in the south and gave luminescence to the sprawling hayfields. Coverings of wispy cirrus clouds hovered across the pale night sky, barring the stars from attaining peak visibility. A low-lying mist was seeping from the river. It crept beyond the tall grass and onto the trail where Johanna fled with great haste. To the east was the old cottage of Amon, and before it, the large stone on which he had died. The Zephyr stood immediately beyond the bend. Its extraordinary silhouette was etched against the moonlight; its whirling shadow cast upon the hillside above Johanna, who couldn’t help but give a lengthy, farewell gaze. She then continued her flight, for midnight was soon to come, and when the hour struck, her disappearance would no longer go unnoticed. In short time, The Zephyr had faded from Johanna’s sights and the boundaries of familiarity were crossed. Now none but the unknown lay stretched before her.   

As the village grew further distant, the long grass increased in height and the lane grew narrow, making it difficult for Johanna to maintain her proximity to the river. The mist had grown thick within the fields and proved to be troublesome for navigation. The bulbous fireflies had been aroused and were now twinkling throughout the nighttime haze. With them came the chirp of crickets and the caw of crows. Still the resilient moon served as a loyal compass in the southern sky.

As the trickle of running water found her ears, Johanna saw that she had come to a narrow stream; the path had strayed from the river. A small crossing of tattered wooden planks sat directly above the creek, near where an indigenous stone totem protruded outwards from the swaying long grass. A crow was resting atop the totem’s head, and stared listlessly at Johanna with beady black eyes. The sight of the talisman abruptly triggered memories of The Windmaker, whose own carvings bore similar resemblance, as if their styles had been derived from a common origin. An identically carved totem stood twenty meters up the way, and well beyond it, the dim outline of another, as if she had stumbled upon a trail of stone breadcrumbs. Johanna followed the totems for an hour until the path slimmed down to a half-meter in width. Stunted walls erected from loosely stacked stones had become prevalent in each field. Most ran divergent to the trail and had to be climbed over. As Johanna passed each totem, their long, solemn expressions seemed to never face away. And from their eyes grew faint whispers that were unlikely to be imaginary.           

At long last, the trail widened with the breaking of the mist and Johanna stood above a small basin. Within the dale laid the remnants of an old village. The meandering river sat just beyond the ruins, much to her relief. And once again she could see the cliffs.

After trotting down the hillside, Johanna removed the canteen from her bag, refilled it with river water, and then drank her fill directly from the source. She had never tasted anything as revitalizing. As the elders would say, “none was as pure as the river of The Lowlands.” The riverbed played host to an assortment of gems and minerals, the latter serving as natural purifiers. Cupping her hands, Johanna splashed the sweat from her brow and took rest upon a large stone near the ruined village. A gentle breeze was sweeping throughout the valley and rustled her now exposed hair. She then observed her surroundings. Between the crumpled cottages was a man-made mound of weathered tombstones that gave semblance of a small catacomb. About a dozen of the solemn-faced totems were spread throughout the dune. Atop the mound stood a peculiar ancient structure comprised of two monoliths below a large, horizontal capstone—a dolmen of old. A gathering of crows sat perched on the dolmen’s crown. Carved in each monolith was a rune of the old tongue—a language known only by Johanna, her Aunt Aoife, and The Windmaker.

Very little was known about the past history of The Lowlands, and even less so regarding the mysteriously advanced tribe that had once inhabited the area. Not a single trace of their bones had been found, only their architecture. When the refugees first arrived nineteen years ago, they discovered a forsaken valley of stones and mystery. To them it was paradise. Yet the vale, at times, seemed to be haunted by earthbound spirits, as if the ghosts of the fallen had been doomed to stay. And while most would shy away from such heretical beliefs, The Windmaker embraced them, and had written interpretations of his own. He had often expressed to Johanna his adoration for The Lowlands, and was certain that their family had, after one thousand years estranged, ultimately returned to the kingdom of their ancestors…   

A ghost, or memory, is knotted to earth by the forming of stone depictions. There they mimic the living, and the trials of one’s experience; of which they serve as reminders of quarrels long past, or as symbols of unspoken tragedy, condemned to stand until it’s none but dust. Since the olden times, they have been fashioned as markers for the fallen, as beacons of the final sleep, shining for those who welcome it or have felt its touch. And though some may be identical in aspect, no two are ever the same. Be it the type of stone that is used, the shape of its molding, the angle to the ground from which it leans, or the slant of the earth on which it stands. All varying components must be taken for consideration. The positioning of the moon and stars when the rocks are hewn. The subject of its representation. The mason. Whether the marker is eponymous or anonymous it needn’t matter; even those that are faceless still hold expressions. Their gaze is constant, yet carries no judgment...”

“The stones are the ghosts,” her father would say. “And the stones watch us…”  

It was then that it happened. The wind increased its vigor, and carried upon it was a harrowing toll from the north that froze the blood within Johanna’s veins. The clock tower had struck again, echoing into the night a chime of inharmonious chords that were wicked in nature, the same eerie pattern that had sounded when Tobias departed. A wave of terror swept through Johanna. Her canteen slipped from her grasp and landed atop the soil. In her mind flashed a vision of a skull-like mask. The Henchmen had awakened, and would soon be on her trail.

The chime faded into the chatter of crows and crickets who conversed as if all was well. Johanna stood with her canteen back in her pouch and set off at a restless gallop. Within minutes, the barren village had dwindled to a patch of texture below a vastly shrinking hillside. Then the hillside fused with its counterparts, and, like the village, became a small mark upon an otherwise broader backdrop…  

The hours passed swiftly and were gone in short notice. Having made only a few stops for rest, Johanna’s body ached from wear and fatigue. Yet her mind remained an open circuit, fuelling the immense fear that powered her fuming engine. It appeared she had undervalued her own importance, for The Henchmen’s chime came as most unexpected. Her unanticipated disappearance must have struck The Priest directly in his ego, and Jonas was sure to be furious as well. With such a thought in mind, Johanna did her best to increase her dwindling pace.

The forest drew nearer, now sitting less than a kilometer away. Fireflies resembling glowing green bubbles now dominated the fields, and with them floated large, yellow-eyed lunar moths of the same color. Star-faced flowers decorated the long grass; but in darkness the hue of their petals could only be guessed. If one were to sit atop the cliff-side she would view a vast illustration of The Henchmen pursuing their prey, each guided by the moon at its zenith across a swaying, shadowy landscape.

After climbing a long, gradual ascent, Johanna arrived at the crest of a large hillside that towered high above the others. In all her waking memory, she had never witnessed a more breathtaking panorama.

The western cliff ended exactly where the trees began. To the southwest, the sprawling Great Forest stretched to remote lands and over the swallowed mountains beyond them. The extent of the forest’s expansiveness was a welcoming sight. On the other side of the breaking Lowlands, the river and the eastern cliff veered to the southeast. They continued to do so until the cliff merged into a range of steep, grassy mountains with their peaks shrouded in mist. The indigo sky had cleared and was now bejeweled with mammoth constellations. Below them danced the kaleidoscopic lights of the aurora, an indication that the summer solstice had arrived. In a distant field west of the river arose three colossal statues from an assemblage of surrounding pyramids—Dun Farraige, the megalithic monuments. Two of the massive stone women held their arms at their side, as would a soldier in line. The arms of the third, and center stature, lay crossed upon its chest like one who lay still within a coffin. A pale blue tint was radiating from off the stone titans, and with it grew the sad undertone of an ancient hymn. Many yarns and folktales of the fabled necropolis had arisen over the years. They were usually the last stories told during bedtime readings, and were often the most dazzling.

Johanna was overwhelmed by curiosity as she locked gazes with the great statues. As explained by her father, the technology required to raise such a structure was quite unfathomable, let alone the genius needed to conceive it. And so Johanna’s mind instinctively drifted to the village clock tower and the secretive power within it. The thought of the hellish clock returned her focus to where it was needed, for she remembered that The Henchmen were nigh on her tail and approaching fast.

With the wind to her back, Johanna gathered her dying strength and broke for The Great Forest. Before long, the wayward grass had parted, and then a path emerged that led to a sizeable gap between two shrunken trees. Johanna faced The Lowlands when the shadow of the woods fell behind her, and in the faraway fields grew the glooms of four cloaked silhouettes…

VIllains.jpg

After an exhausting amount of time spent navigating down winding, root-covered trails, Johanna had lost all sense of direction. The groaning forest and all its sounds were amplified due to her ever-growing fatigue. At times, its many hums had become indistinguishable from audio hallucinations. The knots and scars of the trees showed as haunting faces along the path as it weaved and dipped between patches of dense shrubbery. Moonlight shone through and against the treetops, and on their trunks fell the crooked shadows of skeletal branches. Johanna couldn’t say if the moving shapes beyond the outlying bushes were watchers or illusions. Her feet were blistered; her legs were jelly and her stomach cramped. Johanna hadn’t the faintest clue of who or what she sought but the idea of decelerating her trek seemed foolish.

The slanted path leveled out and Johanna found herself in a sort of hollow. After reaching a fork in the trail, she chose the one to the left without consideration of where it might lead. In short time, the forage of the underwood became condensed and the broader trees stretched to greater heights. By now, the only source of light came from the fireflies and other fluorescent bugs; yet her vision had long adjusted to the darkness. Much to Johanna’s dissatisfaction, she was forced to slow her trot.           She was unsure if it was paranoia, or fatigue-related trickery, but Johanna was certain that a dark, obscure mass had been tailing her for the past half-kilometer. Each time the trail proved straight enough for an elongated glance behind, Johanna would catch a glimpse of a deeper darkness gliding in her wake. It moved as she did and was eerily man-sized. The figure drew nearer, and soon it became clear that it was no illusion. She was being followed. So after passing a steep, obstructing bend, Johanna leapt from the trail and into the thicket beyond it. Making minimal noise, she crept through the undergrowth and into a nook below the massive roots of an ancient tree. Then Johanna lay quietly within its shadows, pressed firmly to the ground.

And that’s when she heard it.

A high-pitched wheeze grew progressively from the path, not thirty meters from where she lay hidden. It was slow, raspy, repetitive, and accompanied by dull footsteps that were paced at the same interval. Johanna was overcome with terror, for the ghastly breathing was as unsettling now as it was when she had heard it last.

The rhythm of footsteps ceased; the Henchman had come to a sudden halt. Lying beneath the roots, Johanna could only guess the creature’s movements. Each deathly wheeze pulled her deeper into trance, her attention slipping downward into memory and away from life. The breathing grew louder; and with it came the uncertainty of whether or not the growth in volume was illusory. Her body shook from terror and lay frozen to the earth. Returning briefly to her senses, Johanna slipped her hand to the handle of the kukri and unsheathed it without sound.

She waited.

Then the footsteps recommenced; the ends of a heavy robe dragged behind them. The wheezing grew distant as the Henchman disappeared along the trail; yet the sound remained as an echo until drowned by the bustle of the woods. Johanna released a heavy sight of relief, but not the blade…

Many minutes then passed. Upon further inspection, Johanna discovered that the burrow ran deep and spanned the width of the tree. In certain areas she could even stand in a hunched position. The smell of the hidden den was musky from the condensed air and reeked of time. A pack of wolves howled in the distance. In the branches above, a large barn owl was making his presence known to all. An odd blue spider was spinning a web of incandescent threads between two large roots. Patches of spotted toadstools were everywhere. Life flourished within the hollow. The trees were old, wide, and filled with personality that could only emerge in a twilight age. The wind was sweeping, and so they creaked at the trunk like loose floorboards while blanketing the sky like a shivering quilt. Johanna listened to the night’s banter through vigilant ears from within her shelter of roots. Her body was beaten from wear and could no longer travel, so she decided it safe to rest.

The minutes blended together and the pull of sleep became unyielding. Johanna was reluctant to succumb with The Henchmen wandering about. Yet her heavy eyelids played the devil on her shoulder, as did the cushiony soil beneath her. Twice she had drifted into a light slumber only to reawaken a short time later. The kukri never left her grasp. But the white noise of the wood and muffled breeze had the unrelenting gift of persuasion; against it her will stood little chance. Her muscles gave way and her head drooped to the ground. The blade slipped from her hand. The forest faded…

Johanna skimmed the surface of unconsciousness and jumped between blurry dreams that were sure to be forgotten. Currently she stood within a muddled world of alternate reality. Distorted shapes and backgrounds hovered and morphed along the edges of her peripherals. The colors were grey tones. They danced and shimmered from all directions. Then all went still.

A speck of light pierced the air in front of her. Within seconds the puncture had become a rift, before expanding into a gaping portal. A four-legged creature emerged through the gateway. It stretched its muscles and slinked its way towards Johanna, whose body had become a mass of immovable flesh. The creature gave a low growl and exposed its jagged teeth…   

Johanna awoke to find a grey wolf prowling in circles around her at a slow pace. His size and appearance indicated that he was young and famished. Saliva dripped from the fangs on both sides of his hanging jaws. The dim sockets above his nose held rabid eyes. He growled from a relentless hunger.  

She immediately sat up and grabbed the kukri; her eyes locked to the encircling beast. Her instincts had taken a firm hold, for the abrupt awakening had disallowed the entry of fear. In one swift motion, Johanna sprung to her feet and danced the blade towards the wolf. He snapped his head in retaliation. Neither dared to break gaze; and hers had become as animalistic as his.

The wolf leapt at Johanna in an attempt to sink his teeth into her ribs. He partially succeeded. One of his fangs pierced the flesh of her side while the rest latched onto her cloak. Johanna gritted her teeth in agony as the wolf dragged her across the burrow. With each tug, the tear in her shawl grew bigger until it was eventually ripped away, freeing her. She hopped to her feet as the wolf lunged again. Only this time she swung the kukri in a lateral motion and slashed the inside of his mouth. The wolf howled in pain, his tail falling to between his legs. Blood dripped from his jowls. He gave the young woman a spiteful, timid look, and then swiftly disappeared.

Johanna slunk to the ground with her heart pounding from adrenaline. Her bloody cloak sat nearby in tattered pieces. Her dress was stained red from her wound; a moderate gash ran the side of her ribcage and was in need of dressing. Using the shredded cloak as a bandage, Johanna wound the garment tightly around her chest for applied pressure. But as she tied the sleeves, a pair of luminous eyes appeared near the far end of the burrow, followed by another. Two more pairs materialized alongside them.

Four wolves emerged from the shadows and slinked their way towards Johanna. They, like their brother, were young and feral.

Johanna returned to her feet with the blade back in hand before the situation could even register. She crept backwards towards the hole in the roots as the wolves drew close. Her stare never left the snarling animals. Then she ran.

Johanna darted back to the winding path at her maximum speed. The wolves followed. First they flanked her on either side to occasionally nip at her legs, hampering her quickness. At each try, she would turn and swing the kukri to keep them honest. Then, after a failed attempt at landing the blade, an overly ambitious wolf pounced onto her back and sunk his teeth deep into her scapula. Johanna cried out in pain, yet continued her adrenaline fueled run. Using all her strength, she hurled the young beast from her shoulders and fled deeper into the woods.           

But the wolves abruptly slowed their course after Johanna turned a sharp corner. She failed to notice them screech to a halt and scamper in the opposite direction. When Johanna finally realized that the wolves had vanished, they were a long ways away. Slowing to a canter, the tired, wounded woman turned to face the shadowy path. And there, standing directly before her, was a huddled mass of dark robes. The figure spun after sensing her presence, and Johanna became eye-level with a tribal, skull-like mask. A pale-blue glow was emanating from behind its eye sockets.

Surprisingly, the sight of The Henchman caused Johanna very little fear.

Moving unconsciously, she swung the kukri diagonally and thrust it deep within the hooded figure’s ribs, driving it firmly into its heart. She then removed it with equal force.

Alas, it had no heart to stab; for the blade showed an absence of blood. The slow breathing Henchman stared ominously at Johanna and tilted its head leisurely to the side, as if astounded by her violent assault. It then straightened itself and stood motionless.

Johanna switched her gaze in disbelief from the bloodless kukri to The Henchman. The only sound in the hollow came from behind the mask. It was a ghastly, soul-piercing resonance. Suddenly Johanna felt scared and powerless. She took a step backwards and nearly tripped on a root that protruded outward from the ground, and then she bolted; and by doing so, Johanna failed to see The Henchman draw a blade of its own.

The chase was on. Yet no matter how fast Johanna sprinted she was unable to shake the robed servant. The Henchman treated the hunt like a sport, for the figure toyed with the woman and seemed hesitant to catch her. Perhaps the other three were nearby and waiting.

The trail snaked its way up a sizeable hillside that was dense with trees. By the time Johanna had reached the top, her breath was gone and her strength had faded. Her wounds throbbed and stung. A few meters down the way, The Henchman had slowed to a walk and was nonchalantly approaching. The outline of its blade shone from the reflecting moonlight. Johanna still held the kukri, but her grip had become slick and her arm trembled. It was the end of the line. The Henchman ceased its movement and raised its blade, as if to challenge her.

Johanna felt ready to yield, for she no longer possessed the will to fight. Beaten, she threw the kukri to the ground near The Henchman’s planted feet. It punctured the soil when it landed.  To her astonishment, the creature did not attack. Instead it motioned with a gloved hand for Johanna to follow it. And that’s when she remembered The Priest. She remembered what lay in store for her fate should she return to the village.

A wave of strength washed over her, and with it came the desire to push onward. She looked to her left and saw the hillside drop to a gully below. From what she gathered, the way down didn’t seem horribly obstructed. Johanna faced The Henchman once more and saw that the creature was again walking. It thrust its sword into the earth mid-stride. By then she had already jumped.

Other than sustaining a few scratches, Johanna slid down the upper half of the hillside without issue. Midway down, the angle of the slope vertically increased, as did her velocity. She ricocheted off a small tree and felt the bones break in her left wrist, and then barreled over heavy shrubs before crashing into flat ground. The blow to her chest knocked the wind from her while a lesser one to the head left her dazed. Johanna’s wrist was broken. Her dress was shredded and hung by the threads on one shoulder, exposing her breasts. In addition to the wounds inflicted by the wolves, her body lay covered in scratches and minor cuts.

Above the treetops, the sky had gone from the night’s indigo to morning’s gold. When Johanna returned to her feet, she was uncertain of how long she had laid stunned. She found it difficult to stand, for her balance and vision had become impaired by vertigo. The bushes and trees showed blurry with their edges undulating, fluctuating in size and shape as she attempted to focus her gaze. She tried to walk but was only able to manage a step a second. Then she stopped.

A silhouette had materialized from beyond the tree line and was now drifting in Johanna’s direction. The shape was that of a cloaked figure. It walked with little noise; its face was hidden within the hood.

The figure stopped when it reached the battered woman, who stood broken, bleeding, and scarcely clothed. She succumbed to exhaustion in its wake; her knees gave in and she fell to the ground beside its shadow.

Johanna stared upwards at the silhouette and then burst into a fit of hysterics. The figure slowly tilted its head. She embraced the budding darkness as the scene faded into dream. Her laughter ceased, and was replaced by the mourning doves lamenting in the trees…

 

4. The Burning of midnight oil

 

A girl stood on wet sands, her green eyes never wandered, for a restless young heart came astir.

To the clapping of thunder as clouds swirl but yonder, though all barring locks held as firm.

From the sea grew the tide to form one with the heavens, in the jade grew the roll from the storm.

Till the tow pulled the sands to form casts round her ankles and the crashing of skies drowned the shore…

 Waves…

The tide and its infinite roll had found Johanna’s ears once again.

But the sound was not that of the wayward sea, rather the sway of the outmost leaves on the upmost branches as they kissed their neighbors with affection. The smell that filled her nose was not brackish but flowery, like that of a primrose or a blue bell. When she opened her eyes all was fuzzy and white. Then her vision regained its focus and the canopy above her grew sharp, revealing a splendid picture of speckled branches below a sea of emerald leaves. In addition to the foliage she saw a child. Facing downward, he stared through primeval eyes into her leaky green puddles.  

Resting atop a thin mattress, Johanna lay feverish beneath a blanket made from the pelts of a giant bear. She shivered while dripping in sweat due to her ever-fluctuating body temperature. Upon seeing Johanna awaken, the child straightened his posture and fled the room; the sound of light footsteps across a creaky wooden bridge followed after.

Johanna found herself in a small woody abode that lacked a roof and a door. It was furnished with only the bed and a small table. Intentional gaps in the structure’s wall planks allowed for the wind to trickle through. Each plank was accompanied by a wooden shutter, which allowed the gaps to be sealed during harsher weather. Expecting to be back in the village, Johanna was not certain that she had actually awakened, for it seemed as if one dream had passed into another. But the tides had fallen and sleep never follows…  

As a result of her extensive injuries, Johanna found the task of removing herself from the bed a strenuous affair. A delicately wrapped splint now bound her broken left wrist. It had the makings of improvisation but was quite the efficient brace. Her wolf wounds had been stitched and patched, and were healing astonishingly fast. As for her numerous scratches and minor cuts, most had gone to scab or had already healed naturally. Still she remained dizzy and weak from a high fever and was in desperate need of water. Johanna pulled the fur blanket tightly around her, arose to her feet, and then staggered through the open doorway.  

For a brief moment, she considered herself mistaken about not being asleep.

The wooden abode was in fact a small tree house that rested within the branches of a large oak. Johanna stood on its balcony near where a hemp-rope ladder hung for eight meters before brushing the ground. Directly in front of her was a thin, rickety bridge with rope railings that led to a larger house in a taller tree, which sat connected to a third (and smaller) tree house by means of another bridge. The surrounding forest was plush with beech trees, oaks, and smaller maples, and each played home to a plethora of singing birds. As the wind rustled the leaves, rays of sunlight skipped from the green surfaces and into Johanna’s dilated pupils, forcing her to maintain a permanent squint.

Johanna walked the bridge with a hand on the ropes, while her other hand clutched the blanket near her chest to keep it tightly wound. A man and two women sat below her, and were eating around a fire pit made from a collection of stones. The folks briefly paused to watch Johanna cross the bridge, but then continued to eat. A few meters from the pit was a rusty metal pump that drew water from the well dug beneath it. Bunches of colorful flowers grew from the footings of each tree. They snuggled between the roots and crept along them into the campsite. Her vision impaired by malaise, Johanna was unsure of their species; yet she could tell by their growth patterns that the flowers were wild and not from planted seeds.  

Upon entering the larger house, Johanna joined a company of three—the child as well as two adults who were sitting on opposite ends of a large wooden table. The adult closest to Johanna was a middle-aged woman in a thin robe who sat with a plate of freshly cooked food. Her lengthy brown hair had been tied into a bun, and her deep-set brown eyes were fixed upon the boy. The child gripped the sleeve of the woman’s robe and regarded Johanna with apprehension, peering from behind her shoulder as if reluctant to show his face. On the far side of the table, a man in a weathered grey cloak sat sharpening a spear at a slow, even pace. He wore his hood above his head and sat angled to the side, making it difficult to see his face. Seeing Johanna up and walking, the woman smiled and beckoned for her to join them.          

 “Ah, you’ve awakened, excellent!” she said enthusiastically. “For a moment we thought you were going to sleep forever.”

The woman poured water from a clay jug into a tall glass and slid it towards Johanna, who took her seat in the chair nearest to the woman.

“I’m Minerva, and this is my son, Caleb,” she continued, gesturing towards the boy. “I’ve tended to your wounds as best I could, and you should make a full recovery. But alas, I’m afraid that many scars will remain for good.”

As the woman spoke, Johanna avidly drank from the glass and felt her parched throat instantly relieved. After consuming every last drop, she reached for the jug with trembling arms. Minerva assisted her by steadily refilling the glass. Finished, Johanna set down the glass and observed the interior of the house with increased curiosity, and then asked.

“Where exactly are we?”

Minerva smiled.

“Deep in the forest, in the land of no man, woman, or child.  Other than the seven of us who live here,” she replied, giving Johanna a sly grin. “Don’t worry, you are quite safe. We are far from the reach of those cloaked creatures, or whatever those frightful things were. I do wonder.”

A gruff retort came from the corner of the room.

“Servants,” the cloaked man uttered through gritted teeth. “They’re only servants. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Minerva began to chuckle.

“Forgive us,” she said to Johanna. “Heaven knows how long it’s been since this one here owned a sense of humor.”  

Minerva continued to laugh as she gestured towards the cloaked man, who didn’t seem as amused. She then slid the plate of food towards Johanna, along with a pair of sharp wooden utensils.

“You must be starving,” she said, waving aside Johanna’s refusal. “By all means, eat, surely you’re in more need than I.”

The smell from the charred meat prompted Johanna’s unsettled stomach to gurgle. Still she stared uneasily at the blackened chunk of pink flesh as it sat alongside boiled vegetables. As for the meat’s origin Johanna couldn’t say, but she assumed by the color that it was some form of poultry. Johanna shifted her conflicted gaze to Minerva. She was unable to express her distrust for the foreign nutrients, yet she feared a refusal would demonstrate impoliteness. It was Johanna’s trepidation, however, that brought a smile to the cloaked man.

“I take it you Lowlanders still only eat fish,” he said, chortling. “Don’t worry, the chicken won’t bite you.”

  He enjoyed a short laugh as Johanna returned her eyes to the plate. Annoyed by his attempt to poke fun, she quickly grabbed the knife and cut the charred slab against the grain. It was tougher than fish, but still showed little resistance to the wooden blade. After spearing a small chunk with her fork, Johanna held it before her eyes and observed its smooth pink texture. She then placed it between her teeth and slowly bit down; and as she did, her glands immediately began to salivate.  Despite requiring a more forceful bite than seafood, the chicken was tender, juicy, seasoned with thyme, and complimented perfectly by the well-cooked vegetables. In fact, Johanna had never eaten anything so hearty, and so comforting. As she ate, the brewing conversation between Minerva and the cloaked man—regarding the “peculiar” dietary habits of the Lowlanders—served as background to her mean. Satisfied, Johanna put down her knife and fork with a small piece of chicken remaining on the plate. Her fever-weakened stomach prevented her from further consumption.

“Now, pressing onward,” chimed Minerva, returning her focus to Johanna. “I’ve heard interesting tales over the years about The Lowlands, and about your village. Stories that tend to lead to further questions rather than answers. In particular, the talk of a priest with unthinkable powers, the rumors of a mason who is said to control the wind, the story of a prophet, and, of course, your infamous pescatarian ways.”

Minerva grinned again as she handed the half-eaten plate of chicken to Caleb, who continued to regard Johanna with skepticism.

“Luckily for us, the finest hunter in all The Great Forest, lives here,” she continued, pointing to the cloaked man. “Tobias’ dedication is such that it is quite common for him to venture farther, and for a longer duration than what is required. As a result, we stay exceptionally well fed. In fact, it is very fortunate for you that he does, otherwise he might never have found you.”

Johanna felt as if she had been struck by lighting. Then a tingle in her stomach brought redness to her cheeks.  

“Tobias…” she stuttered, her speechless look falling to the hooded man. “Tobias Sayne?”

“The very same,” he replied, pulling back his hood to face Johanna. “And I guess that makes you The Windmaker’s daughter.”

Johanna’s blush deepened. The combination of her seeing his face and him remembering her name was truly unsettling. What surprised her most was that the years seemed to treat him kindly, as far as his looks were concerned. Apart from the turning of his hair from a light to a darker brown, Tobias looked the same to Johanna. Only now, his handsome face and cerulean eyes bore the permanent mark of survival.  

“As I recall,” he went on. “I seem to remember Emain as the only man of integrity that the village possessed, and that the two of you cared for each other very much. I wouldn’t have expected you, Johanna, to run like the others.”

Johanna immediately grew sad at the mention of her father’s name, but was struck to the point of irritation by Tobias’ tone and accusation.

“If I had stayed, as you assume that I should have, then I would currently be Jonas’ wife,” she replied, rising to her feet. “Might I add that the two of you shared a roof, so I’m sure you’ve retained many fond memories of that boy.”   

Tobias saw the fire in Johanna as she stood, along with a strength and passion that was not to be understood by men. Her scars and wounds now shone to him in a different light. A newfound admiration for Johanna was born within the hunter, accompanied by a newfound humility. Tobias lowered his head and stared ashamedly at the floor.

After giving Minerva a nod of thanks, Johanna, still shivering, pulled the fur blanket tight and left the tree house. Prior to the mention of her father, Johanna had yet to remember the family she had left behind. Were they to be punished as a result of her actions? The answer was in the wind.

Johanna began to weep as her foot found the bridge. Back in the tree house, Minerva could be heard scolding Tobias with a firm voice. Then as Johanna reached the bridge’s midpoint, she heard an apologetic voice.

“Johanna!”

Tobias had left the house and was now trotting across to meet her.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured, stopping less than a meter from where she stood. “It wasn’t my place to speak on your father, nor to question your intentions. I hope you can forgive me.”  

And as Tobias stared into her tear-filled eyes, a look of despair grew on his face—the look of a man who was about to make a grave decision. He gently placed his hand onto her shoulder.

“My house is yours,” he said kindly. “You can live here as long as you wish.”

Johanna nodded and thanked him.

Then Tobias returned to Minerva in the tree house, only to reemerge a moment later with his spear in hand. Johanna watched as her rescuer descended the rope ladder and hit the ground with steady footing. Her eyes followed him as he vanished from the campsite along a southbound trail. By then he had already been forgiven…

                                                                                                                                        *

The hidden refuge was built on a tract of elevated land that hugged the base of a mid-sized mountain. It was nestled so deep within the confines of uneven topography that one would have great difficulty in pinpointing the exact location. In addition to Minerva and Tobias, the refuge was home to Gareth, Caleb, Owen, Chloe, and Alaine. To assure their survival, each denizen contributed a variety of odd skills, and used them as appropriately as they could. There were few rules and even fewer infractions, for those who committed them were met with a just punishment.

Minerva, the medicine woman, served as de-facto leader in times of indecision and confusion. She was wise, clever, and often the provider of rationality. Her knowledge of plant-based medicine was profound, possibly even more advanced than that of the village’s own healer, Savanni. Beyond her curative prowess, Minerva was quite adept at needlework, and had sewn each article of clothing currently in use by the refugees. She was also a talented cellist. Like many musicians, Minerva had refused to abandon her instrument during The Last Migration. Instead she carried it—her only possession—for many hard miles. Chloe, a violinist, had done the same. Versed in a wide array of traditional music, the pair would often perform duets near the fire pit following suppertime. Now, after two decades of collaboration, their harmony had become fluid and they could improvise at will, following and leading the other by distinct cues, enchanting all that listened.

Gareth, Minerva’s husband, was a skilled hunter like Tobias, and had learned the ways of tracking and trapping from his long-deceased father. The two hunters were highly efficient, and for years had been heavily relied on as the sole source of meat. In return, they were given freedom to roam during bountiful times; and Tobias was granted leniency when it came to unpredictability. But unlike Tobias, Gareth often chose to remain at camp to help Minerva raise their autistic son, Caleb, who—according to his mother—possessed the gift of foresight. Caleb was also prone to fits that were sometimes followed by weird phenomena. The boy made Tobias weary but he hid it well, though on occasion he would call the boy Amon. Johanna needed no convincing, for she had seen Caleb as special from the very moment she’d first awakened in the refuge. Since that day, however, Caleb had not once warmed to Johanna’s presence. For that she was sorry.

Owen was a soldier in the army before the ranks fell into chaos. He, along with a small party of wanderers, stumbled upon The Last Migration during its formation, back when the exodus held upwards of a thousand migrants. It was there that he met his wife, Chloe. But such a growing number was unsustainable and the migrating refugees, like the military, descended into bedlam, forcing Owen and Chloe to break from the cluster. They travelled north for two years until their daughter Alaine was born in the shadow of The Great Forest. By then, they had met Minerva and Gareth, and their shelter in the trees had been plotted and built. Owen was also a skilled craftsman, who took it upon himself to keep the woodwork of the houses and bridges preserved, and did so with passion.

Chloe and Alaine were gatherers. Whereas Tobias and Gareth’s job was to supply the refuge with meat, their job was to supply it with everything else. Each morning they would scour the woods and then return with berries and fruits, or herbs for Minerva, or sticks for firewood, or stones for arrowheads, or even salvaged blades that were refurbished. They would also assist Owen in his woodwork.

Because the work roles were set, and had been so for many years, Johanna, once fully healed, contributed by assisting whoever needed it most. And by doing so, she vastly improved her efficacy. From Minerva she learned to sew, along with the basics of herbal medicine. Johanna greatly enjoyed Minerva’s company, for the healer’s cunning was excellent and her humor even more so. The two bonded early due to their shared affinity for plants.  

From Owen she learned the ways of the sword, and in short time had exceeded the skill of all but the former soldier. Johanna discovered that her combination of speed, grace, coordination, and patience, made for an enviable set of natural abilities. Starting in late afternoon they would train until supper. At times they would go until dark, for Owen enjoyed the sport as much as she.  

With Tobias she learned the art of tracking, and learned quickly, for her eyes and ears were keen like honed steel. There, deep in the wild, he taught her the track patterns specific to each animal, and the patches of broken vegetation that were used as trails. She also learned how to recognize a lay, and how shed feathers, feces, gnawed roots, and the removal of bark were all details to be observed. And so pheasant, turkey, rabbit, squirrel, and venison were all added to her diet. However, Johanna was unwilling to kill due to her love for animals. Tobias understood, and he would relieve her of the duty, yet stressed that a day might come when she would be forced to break her resolve.

In the wake of her good fortune, Johanna felt obliged to add her own contribution to the refuge. And so she began to plot a small garden in one of the nearby clearings. The glade received good light, and sat only meters from the stream where the refugees bathed. It made for an ideal site in an otherwise shaded region. Although germinating season had ended, Johanna began to gather seeds for next year’s cycle. She was excited to test her horticultural prowess in the woods. Life had never felt as sacred to Johanna, nor had time ever seemed of less importance. In the refuge, the passing of a day was viewed as a victory, and rightfully so. A peaceful coexistence was all that could be wished for, an idea shared by all who lived in the woodlands. Despite its vastness, the forest held only a few inhabitants and interactions between tribes were minimal. Dealings were met with caution. Comings and goings were elusive and tended to be conducted in secrecy. Very little social structure existed. All remained weary of man’s hostile nature yet abstained from living in fear of it. Fear had gripped their lives for far too long. In turn, they became bound to life’s cradle, returned to nature’s breast, living lost without a desire of being found. They slept under the stars and thought not of the future, the same as when Johanna was young…

The summer progressed. When in full blossom, the forest, in all its colors, sounds, and scents, held a profound influence over the moods and behavior of its dwellers. On mornings when the air was light and the smell was damp, senses were sharpened. Thus came the resurgence of one’s aboriginal instincts. But in the late afternoon the haze grew thick, and from the trees came the drone of locusts. The flowers bloomed and sprung their hex fragrance. The woods became dreamlike, possessed by an undying sleepiness. Days blended together and were forgotten…

                                                                                                                              *

The twilight embers of the sun slipped from the forest as the refugees gathered around the fire pit. Little was said among them. The wood crackled and split from the shimmering flames as they danced within their circle of grey stones. Minerva, after settling in her chair, twiddled the tuning pegs on her cello and hummed a tender hymn that was soon to be performed. Chloe, having tuned her fiddle, assisted Gareth in his troubles as he adjusted the pegs of his large, standing wooden bass. The remaining five exiles stood watch as the three musicians readied themselves for what was to be another transcendental recital.

The tune commenced with Minerva striking up a weighty melody similar to what she had been humming. The progression was stirring and cantabile, though not a soul among them dared to sing. A bow appeared in Chloe’s hand, and suddenly the wafting tune of fiddle veiled the sensuous tenor notes. Gareth crept into the fray a moment later with an unhurried pattern of resonant bass strokes. The trio sat rigidly in their seats with upright posture, their instruments ablaze; their shadows twirled and quivered against the flickering orange tree trunks.

Johanna was unable to pull her gaze from Minerva as the woman conducted her witchcraft. Her tightly wound hair coming undone, the cellist effortlessly led Chloe and Gareth over the delicate peaks and vales of her melody. As always, the pair gladly subjected themselves to her will. The three resonances wove together into a spiral of untamed harmony. The spiral soured and dipped between the rustling overhead oak leaves, then crept earthbound and nestled deep within the soul of each listener. Goose bumps prickled on slowly bobbing necks and crossed forearms. Shivers trickled down erect spinal columns in direction of unkempt, tempo-tapping feet.

The rhythm increased.

It felt to Johanna like she had been lifted from her body and transformed to an observing spirit. Her gaze met the myriad flames. Its reflection frolicked in each iris as she stared it down to the cavernous depths. An image grew from the abyss and centered itself within the glistening inferno. The image was that of Johanna. She looked neither young nor old nor innocent, but showed a once gentle face now marred by melancholy. A zephyr caught the flames and the hallucination sputtered away with a crimson flash. The song had reached its climax. The spiral of harmony crashed upon the refugees and then dissipated into the primal night. Johanna was returned to her body like a foot to its favorite slipper. Chloe and Gareth put their instruments aside and exchanged a pair of accomplished smiles. A beaming Alaine gracefully applauded her mother and companions for their stalwart effort. As did Owen, who stared lovingly at his wife with tear-filled eyes. For Minerva’s tune was a bringer of nostalgia, and it had brought to Owen memories of his time before the wars, a time he had long-since forgotten. Chloe joined her husband with a smile and the two went off to their tree house. Gareth shuffled over to Caleb and sat beside him on the soil. The pair then watched the fire until it was naught but glowing embers. Minerva continued on with her sonorous melody to the delight of her husband and child. The woman seemed incapable of removing the cello from her grasp. Her hair flowed like a wild brown river as she played. Although her skill was pristine, she played not in the fashion of kings and queens, but in a manner that common folk have kept preserved for centuries. As expected, Minerva was the last to leave the campsite that night.

Johanna looked past the flames and freed a silent gasp of pleasure that, out of coyness, gave way to a rosy smile. Tobias had his gaze on her. It had been fixed on the red-haired woman since Minerva began her tune. Separated only by fire, the two keenly exchanged eyes for an abrupt, unveiling moment. Then Tobias lowered his gaze and clambered to his feet. He slipped beyond the tree line and away from visibility. Johanna felt a tinge of sadness upon his disappearance, yet her blushing smile remained. For Johanna saw in him both the ache of his soul and his yearn for her love, all in the brief moment their eyes met…   

                                                                                                                                *

“We had been lost for weeks and the canyon temperatures were sweltering, so no longer were we to travel by day.  

It was a cloudy morning. The sky was blanketed. The sun had only just risen, yet we’d been on the move for many hours. Our feet were battered, our bodies fatigued, our sanity teetering on the edge. A scout had recently returned, who informed the elders that we were approaching a sizeable enough river to bathe in. The word came with much relief. It had been days since we’d last found shelter from the sun and our water supply was dwindling. In that time, two had perished from fever.

  My mother, who kept her wits, remained thankful for our survival, and emphasized for my sister and I not to worry. But my father had broken. His behavior had become erratic and irrepressible, and then one day we awoke and he was gone. I was five years old.

The canyon widened into a basin. There the rock formations were extraordinary. They stood like mountainous red statues and towering archways. I recall thinking it a land shaped by giants. The heat was bending the light, and all that was far seemed obscured and undulating. But as we grew close the rippling solidified, revealing that a serpentine river sat before us. The party erupted into cheer, and many, including myself, made a run for the river, though it was against my mother’s wishes that I did. It was then that it happened.

The sky began to rumble, much like thunder only less dynamic; yet far more consistent, for the sound was constant and hovered within the air. I froze when I heard it; and, like the rest of us, I turned my head to greet the sky. Then a beast came through the clouds.

 It was the shape of an ellipsoid, at least three hundred meters long with four massive tailfins on the end. Its grey frame was either metal or wood, and blemished with dark patches from having been scorched by fire. A trio of gondolas hung below its belly, where a dozen giant propellers sat attached and sputtering. It was demonic. I remember its smokestacks continuously billowing, and that the vessel was engulfed in a haze of pollution. I swear I’ll never forget that noise. It was the first time that many of us had seen one of the airships, so we stood awestruck, when in fact we should have been terrified. We watched, hypnotized, while cylindrical canisters were dropped from each gondola. The last of it I remember was an explosion, not ten meters from where I stood…”

 “When I came to, I found myself laying on rocks and sand, concussed. My vision was fuzzy, my ears rang and bled, and my memory had yet to return. But when it did I was back on my feet, scouring the carnage for my mother and sister.

The airship was gone. Of the twenty or so in our party, about half lay dead from the explosions. To me, their lives were of little importance. All I wanted was to find my family, so I was able to numb myself from the dead. I had seen death before.

I was unable to find them. At first their absence came as a relief, as it indicated their survival. But then I became scared. I was alone. The canyon seemed to grow about me, whereas I felt like I was shrinking. I needed to find them, so I began to follow a set of footprints that led away from the carnage. The tracks led me in the direction of the river. For that I was grateful. The clouds had parted and the sun shone heavy on the canyon’s red floor. I had begun to wheeze. My throat was parched, my brow dripping with sweat.

But the river never grew close. In fact, the more I pursued it the more it seemed to fade. I soon realized that the only tracks around me were my own, and that the river was a mirage. I fell to the ground in tears. By then the sun was blinding. I could taste the heat burning my chest. I stared upwards at the sky with my back to the rocks, begging for death, waiting impatiently for his call.

He answered.

I heard footsteps. Next thing I knew, the flickering outline of a man stood above me. For a moment I thought that he too was a mirage, until he bent to the ground to offer me water. As I drank, my vision returned, and the image of the man became clear. I saw that he was tall and shirtless, with greying hair and a face marred with lines. His body was covered in tattoos, and around his neck hung a mesmerizing medallion. He went on to tell me how he’d recently escaped execution, although his family had lacked the fortune of doing the same. He looked to be in grave distress. I then told him about the airship, and that I now searched for my family. The man found my story to be troubling; he proceeded to scan the skies in all directions before hastily beckoning for me to come with him. I was reluctant, to which he replied,

“Your family is gone, my son. Come with me if you’re to live.”

He recommenced in walking and grew distant, exposing the decision to be mine.

And so I followed…”

                                                                                                                                          *

It was on a late-summer night when Johanna awoke to a mysterious tune, one that blended with the forest’s resonance and was gone by the time she’d aroused. The rootless wind was twirling about the tree house, and removed from Johanna the desire to return to sleep. So she arose from the bed and draped herself in a linen robe, obliging the night’s calling.  

The moon was full and hung suspended in the cloudless sky above the canopy. Being that it was late season, activity in the forest was at its zenith, showing a collage of ecosystems as a singular collective pulse.

A spot of moonlight fell to the balcony. There stood Johanna who gazed upon illuminated trees with peaceful eyes, listening without thought as the nightingales sang their psalms of love. Here the fireflies lived in abundance, and sparkled throughout the refuge like glowing green snowflakes.

Again came the mysterious tune. It was carried down from the mountain by means of the wind. The hymn was somber, yet arousing, and sounded to be the notes of a wooden flute. As the melody progressed, the more it resembled an old ballad that was sung in the village, “The Burning of Midnight Oil.” Johanna smiled, for she now knew the source of the tune.

After descending the rope ladder, the spellbound woman strode up the southern path that ascended the mountain. There she followed the melody until the refuge sat well below. Alongside the trail ran the stream, which cascaded down the hillside in a series of small waterfalls. The song led her to a sizeable flume that streamed a mere meter from the path. The entrance to a small cavern sat behind it. Unwilling to defy her curiosity, Johanna ducked behind the waterfall and sidled into the grotto, continuing onward in darkness for ten meters before reaching the other end.

 Upon exiting the cavern, Johanna arrived within a beautiful glade, one encircled by willow trees and filled with exotic flowers. At the center of the glade was a shimmering pond, which illuminated the clearing by reflecting the moon and stars. Sitting near the pond was Tobias, who, upon seeing his visitor, lowered his flute and grew red in the face.

“So this is where you sleep,” smiled Johanna, settling beside him near a patch of flowers.  

“Only when I’m forced to be a gentleman,” he replied wittily, greeting her smile with his own.

The remark lifted Johanna’s eyebrows into her forehead, yet her smile held firm.

“I can always return to the village if you’d like,” she quipped, giving Tobias a friendly shove with her hand. “I’m sure Jonas would be more than happy to share his roof.” 

“Oh really?”   

The two enjoyed a laugh and the mood was pleasant. A calming breeze was sweeping throughout the glade. It danced along their skin like a ripple atop the surface of a lake. Tobias looked to Johanna with unwavering eyes as she watched the swaying willows, her porcelain skin and seashell necklace illumed by the moon.

“It doesn’t surprise me that The Priest wanted you for his son,” he said, breaking the silence.

Struck by curiosity, along with a dash of excitement, Johanna removed her gaze from the willows.

“Enlighten me!”

Tobias’ sighed, and carefully gathered his words.

“When I lived with The Priest we would talk a great deal,” he eventually divulged. “Or I should say, he would talk while I listened. The memory is elusive, but I recall hearing a peculiar tale about your family. Apparently, you, your father, and your aunt, are the last three descendants of an ancient tribe of builders, a tribe thought to have been extinct for millennia. I imagine The Priest was quite intrigued by the knowledge.”   

Johanna lowered her eyes to the pond, her face flushed. She had not expected to hear her family’s secret, and was especially shocked to hear it spoken by Tobias. After all, The Windmaker had never been one to speak freely about their lineage.

“How could The Priest know this of us?” Johanna mused to her undulant reflection.

Tobias chuckled.

“What The Priest knows, shouldn’t be known,” he admitted. “That man has tapped well into his brain, and has ventured far too deep.”

He paused, and then sighed again.

“There are times when I think about returning to the village to make amends. The Priest has suffered more than the rest of us; and, in hindsight, I’ve come to realize that to attack him was selfish. He certainly deserves to be punished for his tyranny, but not by me. As of late, I’ve been venturing closer and closer to The Lowlands, but I can never make it past the forest’s edge. That’s how I found you.”

The idea led him to deep thought, his gaze landing on the mirror-like water. The glade fell silent, minus the occasional frog or nightingale. And then Johanna asked the question that had long been on her mind.  

“How did you and The Priest get to be so close?”

Tobias gave Johanna a saddened look. He debated on what to say; but then, after gathering his courage, told her his somber tale about when fire rained from the heavens…

The tale soon ended and much became understood. For the first time since their reunion, Johanna saw the Tobias of her youth, only shielded within the confines of a haunted man. She was dismayed by the image. But when she reached for his hand to grab it he pulled his away, and no longer faced her, distancing himself from affection. Johanna was saddened by the gesture and lowered her head, defeated. But then spoke.

“Have you ever dreamed so deeply, where one whom you loved that has died, returns to you?” she asked tenderly. “It’s beautiful. But there is always distance, like a rift that can never be healed. You remain aware of the disconnection, aware that something is amiss, yet unaware that the dream is broken. You ask them where they’ve been and receive no answer, no closure. Then you awaken and wear the sadness. That’s what I feel Tobias, every time you turn me away. That’s what you do to me.”  

Tobias lifted his head and again faced Johanna. Her powerful, compassionate words had definitely stirred him. He looked deep into her almond eyes, past where the moonlight swam within the jade crystals, and felt weak, crippled by her elegance.

“I’m not a good man,” he muttered softly, his face wrought with anguish.

Johanna saw his pain, and that he believed his words to be true. It was a punishment she considered unjust. So she gently placed her hand on his cheek and kissed him.

It began with the warmth of her hand. Then with the softness of her lips came the awakening of a long-suppressed urge; and no longer could Tobias resist her. He took Johanna within his arms and returned the kiss, doing both with the utmost tenderness. He then laid her upon the grass and gently ran his fingers through her silky red hair. She smiled as he did. Before long they were both naked in the flowers, legs intertwined, the fireflies twinkling above. Time had ceased, and two were as one…

 

5. glitch

 

Should I lead them by your gate…

 Autumn had arrived within The Great Forest. With it came changes. Many of the ground animals had begun their journey to the forest’s southern reaches. There the weather remained temperate. Those that stayed were active in building shelters and burrows, all the while stockpiling nutrients for the upcoming winter. Flocks of migrating birds traversed the sky in bizarre traffic patterns. They remained mostly unseen, yet their wings and calls could be heard above the canopy come evening. Symbolically, it was transition in its purest form. For the refugees, it was a season of nostalgia for the aging body, a time of contemplation for the maturing mind…

It was a cool, clammy dawn, yet Johanna awoke with a shiver and a smile; her naked body huddled in a circle beneath the old pelt blanket. Giggling, she stretched her arms and slunk further within the furs. As of late, the morning had become a time of happiness for the freed woman. Much could be credited to her newfound ability to sleep without disturbance. Her dreams had settled, for ghosts and tidal waves no longer marred them. At first Johanna was sad for their absence, being that she had grown used to the powerful visions. But after pondering it, she figured it best that the dreams leave her be.

She reached for Tobias, only to find the hunter missing, her arm instead landing atop his imprint on the mattress. Frowning, Johanna slipped from the bed and into her white linen dress. She then wrapped herself in a freshly sewn cloak that had been gifted to her by Minerva. It was silver in color and soft to the touch yet hefty enough to bear the cold. Beyond wooden walls, the trees and shrubs sat glistening from the season’s first frost. The beeches and oaks had turned a shade of pale gold. Their gilded leaves huddled together and still from the cold. Whereas the maples had deepened to a rich crimson, and stood vibrant and burgeoning against their taller counterparts.

 Johanna stepped to the balcony and discovered an empty refuge. The tree houses were uncharacteristically vacant and no one was in the campsite. However, a small fire was ablaze in the pit, and several people could be heard conversing near the northern outskirts. Now alerted and curious, Johanna grabbed her sword from where it leaned beside the mattress, and then quickly descended the rope ladder. Stepping over acorns and scattered dead leaves, she crossed the campsite to the northern trail where Owen, Chloe, and Alaine stood muttering in a circle. Each was staring disconcertedly at the ground.    

“What could this mean?” asked Chloe, who seemed unsure of whether or not she should be worried.

“Hmmm…” answered Owen, frowning, his arms folded together across his chest.  

“Johanna!” called Chloe, seeing the approaching woman. “What do you make of this?”

After joining the three, Johanna looked to the ground where they all stared, and then gasped from shock.

A small patch of grass had been stripped down to soil. Atop the exposed dirt sat a collection of grey stones that had been configured into an elongated skull shape. A single, wilted bluebell was resting in each eye socket.

“Who did this?” Johanna worriedly asked Chloe, before returning her frightened gaze to the skull.  

“It was Caleb who arranged the stones,” muttered Owen, somberly. “And, when finished, he went into one of his fits. Minerva attempted to calm him but the boy was inconsolable.”

Owen hurriedly surveyed the campsite with concerned eyes.

“She then followed him as he ran from the refuge. It happened quickly, and only minutes ago. Unfortunately, none of us saw the direction they headed in. It’s a shame that neither of our trackers have yet to return.”

Johanna’s heart fell to her stomach upon hearing the boy’s name.

“They’ve found us…”

She thought of Tobias and Gareth who had yet to return and grew scared. Her eyes flitted to the shadowy areas beyond the frosty tree trunks, scanning for any sign of movement or abnormality. Oddly enough, the forest was notably absent of wind. The stillness, and quietness of the branches made for an eerie void.

“We need to find the others, and then we must leave this place at once!” Johanna urged to the three, who each reacted in their own respective manner.

Owen, bearing a look of discontent, remained silent in attempt to gain grip on her words. Chloe, being the least inclined to hesitate, darted back to the refuge to grab swords for the rest. Yet Alaine, now heavily confused, remained apprehensive of Johanna, and was far from shy in voicing her opinion on the matter.  

“Why should we listen to her?” Alaine warily asked her father. “And why must we leave after living here for so long? This is absurd.”

“Please!” Johanna pleaded to Alaine. “You must believe me. The Henchmen are coming, and grow closer with each moment that we delay. We have to flee the refuge!”  

To this, Owen stirred from his silence.

“I agree with Johanna,” he said resolutely, much to Alaine’s disappointment.

“Alaine,” he continued. “Take the southern trail with your mother and see if Tobias is up on the mountain. Johanna, you take the western trail and search for Minerva and Caleb. I’ll go north and do the same. Time is of the essence so we mustn’t stray too far, and we must hurry!”    

The group dispersed. 

Johanna set off down the western trail at a jog, her mind running faster than her legs. She feared immensely for the missing. Considering the appearance of the skull in the refuge, Tobias and Gareth’s simultaneous absence could not be coincidental. It seemed Johanna had brought upon them a world of trouble. For that she felt terrible. But with lives at stake, she pushed the thought from her head and kept moving.

The trail twisted to the north after a downward bend, beginning a gradual descent that spilled out from the mountain’s foothills. The forest grew dense with busty trees and kraken roots that obstructed the path. Although she was yet to find anyone, Johanna had discovered two sets of recent footprints and vigorously pursued them. Her ears were acute, and actively listened for any whisper of ghastly breathing. The narrow path leveled out after rounding a second bend. It ran straight for many meters and was exceptionally dark, much like a tunnel; the thick branches above were woven together like interlocked fingers. Johanna sighed from relief as she entered the wooded passage. She saw Caleb, who stood facing the other direction about halfway down the lane. The child remained eerily still after Johanna called his name. So she approached him.

A rustle of wind hit the sylvan underpass and suddenly the condensed air was filled with shriveled leaves. Caleb perked his ears upon hearing her footsteps, yet failed to turn his head. When Johanna reached the boy, she placed her hand on his shoulder to no reaction.

“Caleb!” she said again, before gasping with fear.   

The child was bleeding from the eyes. His pupils had rolled inward and were shuddering below his eyelids. Johanna could feel him shaking below her grasp, though not a muscle in his body moved or flexed. Most notably, she saw that his hands were covered in blood, and that the boy had no wounds. He then uttered a string of unsettling words that were incomprehensible.  

“How?” Johanna muttered.

 She shifted her gaze to the ground in search of blood. Sure enough, and furthering her horror, she saw that a stream of drying blood had stained the trail. It started at Caleb’s feet and ended at a pair of legs that were protruding onto the path from the undergrowth.

“No!”

Johanna ran to the body, instinctively, yet entirely unprepared for what she was to find. It was Minerva, who lay dead in the weeds within a pool of her own blood. A sizeable sword wound was visible above her abdomen and still flowed. Johanna, now dizzy and weak, was devastated at the sight of her friend, and had to place a hand on the nearest tree to stop from collapsing. She was no stranger to death. However, it was the first time that Johanna had seen murder, so she remained in shock for many minutes until her gaze returned to the body. She wondered who was capable of unleashing such violence on someone as kind as Minerva. The thought filled Johanna with hatred, her hand unconsciously finding her sword handle. She unsheathed the blade to a sharp humming, yet her ears already rang so she failed to hear it. Nor did she hear the cold breathing that was coming from the trail behind. 

Sword in hand, Johanna turned and saw a shadow approaching from beyond where Caleb stood on the path. This time, however, the Henchman was oddly hunched, and appeared to be teetering as it walked. Its characteristic raspy wheeze was pulsing at an unusually rapid rate, and sounded even higher in pitch. Its glimmering sword was unsheathed and covered in blood that was still dripping. The figure walked swiftly past Caleb with an uneven gait in Johanna’s direction. It ignored the child as if he weren’t there, yet the boy’s pupil-less eyes never strayed from the Henchman. Both of these details went unnoticed.

In a fit of rage, the speedy Johanna launched herself at the robed figure and unleashed upon it a flurry of attacks with her sword. All were parried but the last and most decisive stroke, which opened a bloodless gash in the Henchman’s chest. The assault knocked the creature from its guard, and so Johanna maneuvered around it to shield Caleb.

“Run!” she yelled to the boy, but again he didn’t listen.

 The Henchman had spun around, and was now chaotically swinging its sword at Johanna. Its movements were mechanical, seeming to be forced and entirely unnatural, as if the creature had suddenly become faulty. Yet it swung with much strength, and showed order from within it’s chaos, and Johanna, despite what she had learned from Owen, found difficulty in parrying the harsh attacks. The Henchman lunged at the woman and swung hard, now with two gloved hands on its sword. Johanna shielded the blow using all her might but was thrown from her feet into Caleb, knocking them both to the ground. The boy shuddered when he hit the dirt. Johanna saw that, upon impact, Caleb’s eyes had returned to normal, and that he seemed confused as to his whereabouts.

“Run!” she emphasized again.

Only now she didn’t need to, for the boy had seen the Henchman and become terrified. He sprang to his feet and scampered from the passageway without even the slightest glance behind, heading away from his mother’s body and back towards the refuge. After regaining her footing, Johanna was surprised to see that the Henchman had ceased all motion. Its posture had straightened, for it now stood in a defensive stance with its sword pointing at her. Its breathing had slowed to its usual hypnotic pace and remained steady.  

Johanna leapt at the figure with her sword raised, again releasing a quick burst of attacks that seemed a blur. Yet the Henchman, reacting smoothly and fixed, deflected each blow with ease. It then swung its blade in a whirling arc, shattering Johanna’s sword with a loud clang. The Henchman pivoted and swung again, horizontally, with the path of its sword aimed directly between her head and shoulders. Johanna saw the blade in slow motion, and recognized that her end had come. She was then taken by a hallucination—a memory of herself as an infant within the arms of a woman who no longer lived. The woman had flowing auburn hair and freckled pale skin, and was beaming at her baby daughter while singing a lullaby. The vision became truer as the sword drew close. Johanna smiled and shut her gaze, awaiting its arrival.  

                     She never felt the blade…    

The hallucination dispersed.

Johanna, dismayed, reopened her eyes to see the sword point hovering a centimeter from her throat, held firmly in place by the Henchman. Then came an ethereal, hypnotizing voice from within her mind. 

Walk…”  

And Johanna knew that she was to oblige the voice’s every demand. She was unsure as to why. But the idea of “why” soon became of little concern and was forgotten; slipping from her mind like it had been pushed away. Johanna dropped her broken blade and began to trot in the direction from which she came, leaving Minerva where she lay. The Henchman followed a short ways behind, guiding the numbed woman along the path with its sword.  

The pair arrived at the refuge to what was truly a devastating scene. Johanna saw that Owen had been slain by the Henchmen. His body, bearing a mortal sword wound to the chest, had been forcefully dragged to the fire pit. Gareth, who had also been killed and dragged, lay beside him. Their blood formed in a puddle atop the crinkled leaves and continued to trickle towards the pit. Standing beyond the dead were the remaining three Henchmen, now upright and motionless with their bloodstained blades having already been sheathed. The one nearest the bodies had yet to remove Owen’s sword from its chest. The fourth then sheathed its weapon and joined its brethren in stillness. They breathed as one. Fortunately, Caleb, Chloe, and Alaine had all managed to escape the threat and remained scattered about the woods…    

Johanna cried from despair upon seeing the dead. Nor was she the only one to do so. Tobias had returned as well; yet something was amiss. His wrists were held together as if tied, but were bound by no restraints; and he seemed to lack command of his legs. The hunter fell to his knees at the sight of the carnage, and then cursed upwards at the man who held him shackled.

“You bastard!” Tobias shouted to The Priest. “I’ll kill you. I’ll…”

His grief rendered him unable to continue.

The Priest wasn’t listening to him; nor did he care to. The old man was clearly in disbelief, and seemed incapable of removing his gaze from the dead. When he finally turned his head, it was to give his Henchmen a look of disgust. Then The Priest looked to Tobias, who was still on his knees spewing threats and curses. The man’s expression of revulsion became one of sadness and regret. It was now a certainty that the two would never reconcile.

“And now it must be done…” he muttered gravely, the furrow of his eyebrows deepening.

The Priest walked to the nearest Henchman and withdrew its sword, and then sauntered back to Tobias with the blade outstretched. Johanna’s heart plummeted.

“No!” she screamed.

Displaying a blaze of agility, Johanna pulled the Henchman’s sword from behind her and made a dash for The Priest. His medallion flashed as he turned his head, and Johanna looked directly into his shadowy gaze. A few of his tattoos were glowing. The gears on his arms were spinning, and doing so at varying speeds. Again came the ethereal voice.

Stop…”

The word stripped Johanna of her bodily control and her legs were immobilized. The sword slipped from her grasp and became lodged in the ground beside her. Johanna’s eyes fell to Tobias, who tearfully returned his lover’s gaze. He bore the look of a man who had made a grave decision. And finally Johanna understood.

The Priest raised his sword as Tobias lowered his head. Johanna slumped to the ground in tears and covered her face.

The Priest let the sword fall, and two lives were killed as one. Then he, along with his Henchmen, led the sad-eyed lady from the hidden sanctuary, where three lay dead on the autumn forest floor…

 

ε. The Fourth Time Around

 

I stood by the road near the fork and the sign,

To trick the traveller who held belief there was fortune to find,

Don’t forgive me...

 It was a pale spring morning. A rolling fog was blanketing The Lowlands when the sun first crept above the eastern cliff. The villagers awoke to the roosters, the caw of seagulls, and to a fishing vessels’ steam-whistle as it departed from the shoreline. An hour passed. Then the wind increased as the sun grew bright and the overlaying fog was swept asea…

The dew was glistening and the long grass sparkled from the condensation. Pink flowers, also shining, were fresh in blossom, and gave the valley a pleasurable aroma on this most pleasant of spring mornings. A small group of villagers were assembling on a hillside directly west of the arched bridge. All were joyous, and each villager who subsequently arrived was met with the same merriment. The gathering marked the completion of The Windmaker’s fourth windmill; and it was surely a day to be celebrated, for it was one that symbolized a new era of progress.  

Another hour passed. The sun shone high on a clock tower that no longer breathed. The colossal timepiece hadn’t chimed in four months. It now stood as a reminder of what not to repeat, and as a visual representation of history—a subject taught by Aoife at her newly opened school. After twenty years of rule, the village had undergone a much-needed transformation. One could call it an unbinding—or more specifically, an adjustment of footing in a newfound shoe of freedom. Good spirits were aplenty like never before. Days of mindless enjoyment were now habitual for those that had been habitually denied rest. Apart from Cainen inheriting the role of chief engineer and Fianna taking indefinite control of the gardens, the work roles remained unchanged and none complained.

The revolution was triggered by an event that happened upon the previous summer solstice. A woman had fled the village unseen. Her departure was unexpected, and, considering the woman in question, the action left many in shock and disappointment. One in particular was furious. He demanded to his father that she be returned at once. And so, following a failed first attempt, the father and his servants trekked to The Great Forest in search of the runaway. The months that ensued were tense but uneventful. Then, on a brisk autumn morning, the five re-arrived at the arched stone bridge and were accompanied by a sixth. The woman that ran had been returned to the village. Only now she bore scars and a story.

Her tale was met with outrage and disbelief, the latter being the initial popular opinion among villagers. Then, with her dignity in tatters, the grieving woman vacated the village and sought isolation within The Zephyr. None resisted. The commotion died quickly as it always did; yet it left a foul taste that many were unable to discard. A lie had been exposed, and a fragment of The Priest’s illusion had been revealed. Discontent plagued the village like a slow spreading disease. But several of the more dignified residents, Aoife and Savanni in particular, had stood up for the downtrodden Johanna from the beginning. The healer abandoned her quarters in The Ark to live alongside civilians, and made frequent visits to The Zephyr. The Priest cared little. The man had become withdrawn since his return and refused to vacate The Ark. He didn’t once dispute a claim made against him, and stood idol as Aoife and The Windmaker stirred their community into rebellion. It was on a mild winter night when a queer smoke was seen rising from The Ark’s catacombs. It smelled of death and decay. The Priest awoke the next morning to find a communal gathering on the steps of The Ark. There The Windmaker stood before each man, woman, and unknowing child, and spoke on those that were slain in the woods. He then challenged The Priest to do the same to the village and destroy all they had built; and stated that if The Priest were to refuse then he must leave The Lowlands for good. The villagers stood firmly behind The Windmaker and seconded his challenge. To the surprise of all, The Priest agreed to leave without conflict; but he did not leave without spectacle. Guided by his staff, the man descended from The Ark to face The Windmaker. With apathetic confidence, The Priest declared that he had never once ordered The Henchmen to kill. Instead he insisted that an “anomaly” had occurred in the woods. However, The Priest did confess to losing control of his servants to another; and sounded as though the incident still confounded him. The Priest then planted his staff into The Ark with force, causing the gears on his arms to spin, and for the clock tower to chime like it had never done before. A single harmonious chord was released from the spire that echoed between the cliffs. It was a calming sound that brought about an unprecedented occurrence: the wind disappeared entirely from The Lowlands; the windmills ceased to spin, marking the first time that The Zephyr had truly stilled. It was in that moment when the hands on the clock tower froze, and it has showed the time of three-thirty ever since. The villagers were entranced by the phenomenon and so they failed to notice that The Priest had vanished—not by apparition, but by walking past them unseen. The occurrence taught The Windmaker an unlikely truth: that it was in fact the windmills that powered the clock tower. With the epiphany came an unexpected showing of vanity, for Emain became saddened that the clock tower would no longer chime. The revolt taught the village a valuable lesson: they discovered the power of unity, and through it, the ability to comprehend power. As for The Priest, he was to embark on a journey of revenge and now sought the airship known as Tyrus. Jonas followed him, as did several of his disciples. The disciples that stayed were welcomed with forgiveness, although they themselves were the most unforgiving of their sins…

And now we return to the windmill celebration.

The noontime sun was shining when The Windmaker, to festive applause, finally freed the windshaft. He observed through the window as the five wooden sails began their cycle, and then he smiled. The Fourth was an undeniably fine windmill, much like the near-identical Zephyr. The Windmaker was proud of his work and so he stayed behind to marvel. The remaining villagers vacated the hillside for The Ark, which, after several key changes, had replaced the tavern as the nighttime hostelry. Now any who wished to sleep there could do so, and their stay would be met with song and dance.

However, during their first inspection of The Ark’s catacombs, the villagers discovered a barren chamber with scorched walls. Ashes littered the floor, on which sat four spectral masks…

A villager was missing from the festivities, yet was forgiven for her absence.

A red-haired damsel was relaxing on her porch, singing quietly in rhyme and gently swaying in her rocking chair. A slender white cat was nestled below her feet. A bamboo wind chime jangled above her head. The woman’s jade eyes were beaming, and remained fixed on her greatest task of all. Since her return, she had been in the midst of mending her shattered spirit. Her efforts were aided by a spontaneous development, an unforeseen happening that stemmed from her traumatic journey.

Now she was home at her father’s cottage. And so Johanna dreamed of her mother once again. And again dreamed of a thousand years ago when a tidal wave struck The Lowlands, drowning all but the few that had been banished. Johanna still wore an amaryllis in her feather-braid in homage to her ancestors; and still wore the pearly shell above her breast to honor herself. And though her gaze was still compassionate, her face bore permanent sadness, consequently increasing her magnificence. Beneath her snowy dress were the scars of wolves. Within her chest was a heart that had stayed warm despite grief and guilt. Very few possessed the power to turn it cold. The Priest was gone. And now the child of the hoodlum slept soundly within her arms. With the child came untold happiness; and for that Johanna was grateful…

                                                                                                                      * * * * * * * * *

Zephyr.jpg