5. Midsummer Festivities:
The atmosphere on Linuina’s streets throbbed with increased excitement while the sun dwindled to make way for twilight. Soon the festive rituals would begin, hosted by none other than King Melchior himself.
Adrianna looked up to the heavens to find magenta and gold streaks saluting her eyes. The colours stained the sky like pigments on pale cloth.
Like blood, blotching the bandages of wounded warriors…
Before the haunting memory seized her into its midst, she was brought back to the present by Cain tugging on her arm, drawing her closer in the thickening crowd. The pair made for the barbican gates, while above them the passionate sunset hues faded to inky darkness. The stars were yet to twinkle alight, but guards held flaming torches to illuminate the surroundings, lining the street and forming a wall between the citizens and the coming procession.
Adrianna drew closer to Cain as a cool wind stirred her hair and teased her flesh. He took her hand and she felt his fingers sweaty with anticipation. They could already hear the parade in the distance: the tinkling of saddle bells, shouts of jubilant citizens, and trumpets announcing the royals.
The drum of hooves on cobbles grew louder, and she strained her neck above the bobbing heads of the throng. She spotted the royal guards clothed in regal navy blue, riding atop stallions white as frosted fields.
Then King Melchior and his son appeared. Adrianna flung the bouquet she had bought at the market, and it joined a storm of other flowers pouncing through the air. Petals swirled in a vivid shower, and through the colourful curtain she watched Prince Fredrik turn her way.
Despite the mayhem, serenity settled upon her. She stared into the mystical depths of the prince’s eyes, which reflected back her own crystalline blue. Within her distant spirit, a spark of emotion ignited. But she could not put her finger on its source.
Her vision blurred and she remained oblivious to everything, save those chips of azure so clear and certain, penetrating a sensitive place deep inside. Then the parade carried him away, abruptly cutting their gaze.
Closing her eyes, Adrianna concentrated and tried to bring the feeling back. But no clarity emerged: there was nothing except a faint prickling on the edges of her conscience.
She thought of the prince, courageous like a hero from one of her stories. But a whisper of envy tainted her thoughts. Despite the pressures on his shoulders, at least he didn’t have to worry about shelter or sustenance. At least he could sleep at night, without fear of robbery or whether he would even eat breakfast the next morning.
Once again, it was Cain who startled Adrianna from her reverie, pulling her in the direction of the valley. She realised that other nobles had already passed by, along with earth-scientists and robed priests who would conduct the sacred rites. The commoners were flooding after the parade, and she grasped Cain’s hand tighter so as not to lose him in the sea of bodies.
They proceeded through the gates, and a momentary thinning in the crowd gave her a chance to admire the view. On her right flowed the River of Rena, sweeping in a graceful ark down from the northeast. Extending into the south, it embraced the western wall of the fortress in glistening arms. Then it branched into the east, leaving a small grassy region between the southern side of the main city and the waters.
Three bridges radiated over the river as it curled, constructed of precious white marble transported from the north. The central one was a private palace entrance that led straight into the fort, protected by a wooden drawbridge that lifted during siege. The peripheral two were for the commoners, wide highways connecting the trade routes of east and west, north and south. On the outer bend of the river and opposite from the main city lay a small haven, harbouring the boats of wealthy merchants.
Cain flashed her a smile as they descended into the valley. They walked down the gentle slope, until the terrain levelled at the riverbank where the ceremonies would occur. Near the southern bridge, nobles and priests assembled behind a ring of guards, and beside a massive pile of rubbish.
The Linuinans had spent their week bringing old, broken items out to this pile, which would soon become a bonfire. At the end of the night, the ashes would be cast into the river to signify the old year ending, and a release of the past.
Adrianna gazed at the pile, meaningless in any other place. Yet here it symbolised rebirth, and perhaps the New Year would be a joyous one. Maybe the Gods would aid them to heal further, after so much war.
She watched the priests prepare the bonfire, and then King Melchior came forward to address the people. Just one man in a huge valley, somehow his voice nevertheless boomed out to reach the ears of the farthest person. As though amplified by the Gods.
“Fellow people of Linuina! I call you here, on this Midsummer Night, to celebrate the Gods of Earth, Sea and Sky. In their name, we unite to face whatever future awaits us. In our hearts, we remember the values of the Triangle: Justice, Faith, and Love. And never shall we steer from these!
“As the New Year arrives, we call to the Gods to give us strength against darkness; to keep the light of Faith aflame in our hearts. May you all be blessed with the powers of Nature, and the Elements aid us in our cause. And may everyone heed my words tonight, and the words of the Gods. They speak to us every day, and they alone will guide us!”
A cheer sprang up through the crowd, a deafening chorus that grew in volume and evolved to become a chant praising the king. And in the heat and passion of that cheering, Prince Fredrik took the burning branch of a tree from the hands of a priest, and flung it atop the pile. It caught alight in an instant, flames spreading across the heap. Within minutes the peak was burning ferociously, and fire leapt up like a signal to the heavens. It symbolised unity of the elemental gods, and the energy in those flames cried out just as loud as the chanting people.
Close as she was standing, heat tickled Adrianna’s eyes and sparkling drops of moisture appeared on her cheeks. The glow of orange beckoned her spirit, fuelling that inner desire to restore the glory of her world. Brightness of flames became lustre of soul: a true radiance within her that she had long subdued through disguise.
Suddenly, looking into the inferno, she saw licking fire tendrils writhe and twist into the shape of a human form. It was a woman wrapped in white robes, her figure slender and graceful as a young birch, her silver hair streaming in the scorching breeze.
The woman called to Adrianna, arousing something within her that started to pulse and glow like a second heart. But instead of pumping blood, it pumped hope and courage and strength to every extremity of her body.
The fire overwhelmed the starlight sprinkling the heavens, and the rubbish continued burning as if it would do so forever. She did not know how long everyone stood captivated: in that moment time seemed to lose all meaning. Perhaps they all sensed a divine presence.
The minutes drew on, and gradually the multitude broke from its trance. Shouts of joy and musical notes swallowed the silence, as men and women of all ranks began to dance.
Adrianna smiled and squeezed Cain’s hand, and he drew her close before spinning her out in a twirl. Their feet beat against the ground to the rhythm of drumming minstrels, her skirts swishing about. Oh! It was worth it, to dress as a girl again.
If her revelation to Cain caused any problems, she would deal with them later. She just needed this tonight, to refresh her. Odours of sweaty bodies mingled with wafts of stale perfume, but caught in her blissful mood, Adrianna smelt only the fresh river breeze.
Sounds of revelry clashed, entwining in a hideous but vibrant cacophony. People with revived spirits cheered, and rowdy ruptures of drunken song entwined with the pure voices of bards.
As she was among the dancers closer to the bonfire, occasionally Adrianna caught glimpses of King Melchior and Prince Fredrik. Like everyone else they were forgetting their fears, though they were still separated from the commoners by a ring of guards.
Hours passed, but all that measured time for Adrianna was the dimming bonfire and subsiding heat. Her world wheeled; excitement and endless dancing disorienting her in a wild spin.
Flashes of light and bursts of sound existed like a new dimension above reality. It was all a blur that came as an assault to the senses, as if humans were incapable of experiencing such depth to life.
And then, from out of chaos that rivalled the universe’s creation, she met his pure eyes before her.
6. Black Pearl Tears:
Rope jerked the chain, pulling her forward again. Harder. Taalin stifled another cry as the open wounds on her wrists dripped blood upon the earth.
But they were stopping.
The soldier in charge of her approached, and she fought the fear gnawing in her gut. Strong. Be strong.
His hot breath blew into her face. Stinking, vile, putrid. She gulped, keeping down the bile that surged up her throat. Water. She needed water. And air, fresh air.
But there was only the Earth, soil choking her lungs.
* * *
Blue calm; fill my hollow, empty soul.
There is a crater in my heart, a void in my memory, and a cavity in my spirit.
Fill me up, so that I know how to feel, how to think, how to be…
But please don’t use me.
I just want to find myself.
* * *
Like a spirit, she glided fluidly over the lush valley grass. In a white silk robe, she looked like an angel of peace, moving with such ease and grace.
Then she came to an abrupt halt at the sight of a girl, hunched on the edge of a tranquil pond.
A girl. No older than her.
She approached slowly now, lacking the freedom of before. Feet sank heavily into the grass, as though the sight of the child was weighing her down. It hurt to move, because every muscle in her body shuddered as if ropes restrained her.
But she kept pushing herself forward. She needed to get closer, so that she could see the child’s reflection in the smooth water of the pond.
And she saw tears, glistening on the child’s cheeks with the paradoxical dark brightness of black pearls. Brought by a grief that no child should ever experience.
These were the tears of an ancient sorrow, belonging to a wounded land.
But as the moisture streamed down the child’s face and landed in the pond, no distortion appeared on the water. Not a ripple, not a mark, as though these tears were insignificant to the forces of nature. The Gods didn’t seem to care.
She had to take their place. She had to hold this child.
With a touch, she could share the burden of grief.
Torment surged through her and she cried out for this other soul. A squeezing sensation overcame her heart, and it beat rapidly, frantically, filled with compulsion to save the child from darkness.
The feeling coursed through her blood, and her heart throbbed with a passionate rhythm. Desire erupted in her veins: a desire to save the world from all its evils so that no child would ever cry again.
But though she called out, though her voice echoed down the valley, the girl did not move. In desperation, she tried to touch her.
And fingers clawed to no avail through thick, polluted air.