You will never be happy.
The trunk of the elk tree was furrowed and rough. It was quiet on the sheltered clearing that overlooked the plain. As she was sprawled under the pronged treetop, far from the curious eyes, Nera closed her eyes and welcomed the pulsations of the ancient elk under which her mother lay.
The sound of the bristly leaves rustling carried on a tune, trying to overpower the rattling of the branches that vibrated through the trunk and into the ground.
You will never be happy.
Her resonant voice echoed in her skull. The tall figure of Alma Bellgrove with her golden locks and glistening white teeth filled the darkness inside her eyelids. Her wrinkles sniggered, but there was nothing joyful in her mother’s words. Their poisonous blade stung too often and never missed its mark. Trying to shake off that damn voice that wetted her eyelashes, Nera opened her eyes as if waking up from a bad dream and wiped her sweaty palms against the train of her skirt.
It had been a whole year since she had buried her mother on that clearing. Yet it barely felt like only three hundred and sixty something days had passed. She led an isolated life since her passing, burdened with guilt and loathing directed mostly to herself.
And what have you accomplished in the past year since you had me killed, little missy?, she heard her again, raising her voice from the depth of Nera’s mind.
Imagining idle conversations with her mother was not how she would spend the day, she decided in an instant. She spent enough time pondering on her mother’s grave all alone. Kai should have been there. Her grandchildren. Perhaps someone would have said something nice about her, something other than memories of what a cruel and vengeful mother Alma Bellgrove had been.
Out of all the strokes of bad luck that Nera lived through in her young life, she had always secretly wished to have been able to choose a better parent for herself. If she could, she would have chosen Kai’s.
Leaning over her both palms, Nera slowly raised herself from the ground. Her fingers brushed the bottom of her skirt. A few golden leaves rustled at her touch and feel back onto the bed of dried, yellow grass that grew into the tree. Beneath her feet, hundreds of meters down the mountain, lay the Northern Plain.
The endless plains stretched towards the south, intersected with a thick web of roads, wood fences and colorful rooftops of old farmhouses. The mountain in the north closed in on the plains and suspended the further sprawling of arable soil. It was clothed now in the autumn’s most sensual fabrics of yellow and rust.
That is a splendid view, she thought as she caught glimpses of it through the thickness of the trees.
It would take her half an hour to climb down and find her way to the city under the mountain.
Her long coat flapped unbuttoned at her chest with a moss green wooly shawl loosely hanging down her neck. Beads of sticky sweat dampened the back of her shirt, as her palms grew warmer and stickier. She dried them against her train as she stepped lightly between the trees, soundlessly like a fallow, treading through the serpentine of dirty beaten tracks. She knew every rock and tree by heart. The song of the thrushes and blue tits accompanied her on her path, disturbed only by a random raven croaking from above.
A light leather satchel hanged from her shoulder, kicking her softly on the left thigh with every step.
The forest led her to the Lake Road, paved with cobblestones four meters wide and polished by the feet and hooves worth thousands of years. At the other side lies Huron, an ancient city under the mountain. They called it the architectural jewel of the Northern Plains. Robbed of its warmth, shaded by the snow-peaked massif that towered over it protectively, the city surely was a jewel. A cold, colorless jewel that glimmered in the sun radiating nothing but deadness.
Winter is a good month away, yet the nights are already becoming colder and darker in the city. Nera was always baffled with the peculiar fact that the city had an independent climate. The temperature inside the walls were always a few degrees lower than the valley’s. It was the stone that was responsible for keeping Huron cool and raw.
She never minded the coldness that came from the stone, or the darkness of the forest in which she lived. It was nothing compared to the hearts of the people of Huron. The frigidity must have rubbed off over the course of thousands of years of dwelling in such a gloomy place.
The outer city walls were a gloomy-looking structure made entirely of stone. Ghastly, brimmed with coal-black, gleaming metal and decorated with spikes and chains, they were designed to intimidate and send away ill-bringers. The downside of it was that it intimidated everyone else, too.
Having approached the gates for the first time ever, Nera’d wished to turn back her horse and gallop back south. She had been only eleven when she came to Huron, hoping to find her family, but at the entrance of the city she met with the diabolical.
Yet the locals were utterly proud of it. The walls had been standing the test of time for nearly a thousand years. The intimidating factor worked.
She raised her eyes towards the defenses. Her dark blue irises, ever-watchful, scrutinized the high stone walls that stood between the city and the vast network of crop fields and orchards.
The sentinels in the watchtower on the Eastern Gate gawked sullenly at her as she entered through the wide metal gate. Their faces turned dark at the sight of her but as soon as she hurriedly went on her way, the two men clothed in furs carried on their conversation. Nera was accustomed to that sort of greetings. Some days, they wouldn’t even spot her from in the crowd of busy peasants. On other less blessed days, they weren’t strangers to being insolent and vulgar, but she nonetheless kept her head down, the hood of her coat lowered over her forehead.
Only in Huron they found it particularly funny to cast spiteful words and evil stares at her.
After she passed the long rows of military buildings, Nera turned right through the alley of low houses on top of which heavy roof tiles hung. She was headed for her favorite place in the city, the main city market.
Through the motley grey streets, the road swerved right to the second grand gate that separated the first level from the second. The market lay snuggled among the tall buildings and low street stalls in the east part of the first, oldest level, the city core. Above her stood the sky-high fort, the hefty symbol of Huron.
The city under the mountain houses nearly twenty thousand souls. Surrounding hamlets and isolated farmhouses beyond the walls add to that numbers in winter when they all retreat to the inner gates. The impassable hillsides protect the both rears of the ancient settlement, tucked safely in the arms of the nameless mountain like a newborn on its mother’s bosom, and the walls stand guard over the frontal part. Buildings carved into the very mountain, made of stone, wood and metal, nearly touch the clouds. Their peaks melt away in the heavy fog. There is always the signal fire burning in them and watching over the city.
Once she passed the rows of housing structures and entered the city, there was a considerable drop in temperature.
The hood of her autumn coat was perched low on her forehead. It allowed her to wriggle past the endless lurid march of farmers and workers in the streets. A pretty, tall girl with children under her bony arms, housewives providing for their families, strapping lumberjacks and miners with filthy, sweaty faces, a blacksmith with his blistered, black hands passed by. She dodged a pushcart and then another one packed with what seemed to be sacks of powdery flour. A scruffy boy pushed it reluctantly, occasionally wiping his wet forehead and grunting as he struggled to push it up the street.
A busy day at the main market. Buyers, visitors and curious eyes strolled up and down the wooden stalls where the spectrum of goods was displayed. The vendors exhibited the very best of their merchandise, be that sweet or savory treats, colorful beads, decorative arrow heads, or fine pieces of clothing. There wasn’t a thing you couldn’t find at Huron’s main market.
Two hefty vendors argued just up ahead. She heard their cuss words and angry shouts before she lay eyes on them. In an effort to avoid them and all the people that gathered around, she nearly bumped into an old man with a crutch. She apologized, bowed her head even lower, and carried on. The man simply grunted at her, too bothered to accept her apology.
With her face hid under the hood, it was an impossible task to try to see everything. Her fingers itched to touch this knick and that knack here and there. It was her favorite pass time, to search for new, fascinating, yet equally useless bagatelle to buy. Her cabin had already been filled with an array of junk but, as always, Nera needed more, and surprisingly, she could find a place for every new purchase she brought home.
Just as she walked through the grand stone arch that served as the main entrance to the market, the noise drew her in. It was earsplittingly loud. A vendor shouted at people to come closer and take a good look at their stall, assuring the customers they would like and buy everything he had to offer. Another vendor screamed from the top of his lungs that his pans and pots were the best cookware for cooking a duck, boiling a chicken, or preparing a delicious rabbit stew, swearing on the honor of his maiden wife, the mother of his four children. Nera enjoyed every second of it, taking it all in like a desperately dry sponge. Everybody on that market had a story to tell, and she particularly loved good stories of the past.
People here don’t live well enough to think about the past, missy, her mother used to say.
She was right in saying it, yet the tone of her voice made her hate every word coming out of her arrogant mouth. Her nose had once found its way to the heights of heaven and decided to make it a home. Caring about the past especially the one before her birth had not, by any means, been what Alma Bellgrove had on her mind.
A long stall covered in all sorts of wooden ornaments appeared before her. It offered delicately carved door pieces, small bird houses with red rooftops, and fascinating candle holders with details barely discernable to the naked eye. Nera approached one of the pieces hanging from a thread, engraved with lilies and marigolds. There was a touch of paint on the flowers’ petals, just enough to stand out, but the rest of the bird house was the plain color of mahogany with the exception of the dark-red roof.
Her first reaction to it was to touch it. Her fingers were restless to explore the furrowed surface of the bird house. Her second reaction was to buy it. In the privacy of her cabin Nera could feel every ridge, every crease carved meticulously into the wood.
It would fit lovely into her display of improvised bird houses on her back porch. However, she quickly ruled against it. The birds kept her company only in the short summertime, and having another – tenth – birdhouse hanging above her head would be daft.
Brie would like it, she thought. Her mother, not so much. Perhaps she could find another fancy trinket for her niece, one that could fit perfectly in her satchel.
Just as her thoughts turned to coming up with a suitable gift for a little girl, something shiny caught her eye.
It wasn’t a big stand, barely her arms’ length, but jam-packed with precious stones, pieces of corals and a myriad of curious pebbles. She stepped forward and stretched her hand out. Her fingers playfully touched one, then another, then another, all different shapes and sizes. Some she recognized instantly, remembering vaguely of their origin and names. Only a handful were completely unfamiliar. The colors of larger rocks resembling meteorites and ores on the left varied from ink black to sapphire. Shining bright lines permeated their skin. Nera picked one and inspected the light green veins sparkling on the daylight. It felt like a piece of magic of the sky fell into her hands.
Another rock lying right next to it could barely cover the palm of her hand, but the network of shimmering veins was striking. For a moment there, she suspected it was changing color and intensity – as if it was a living, breathing organism whose lungs inflated and shrunk right there under her fingers. It was going to burst into a shiny supernova any moment now, she was sure.
The vendor standing behind the stall chuckled at her curious expression.
“Nothing to fear, sweet lady. It is very old, found in a hole as big as sky! See here, it changes color when you put it under sun.”
Nera looked at the man, then glared up. Barely any sun reached the market, hidden by the multitude of intersected bars and cloths hanging from the top of the stalls in a fashion of improvised rooftop, but she had no reason not to believe him.
“You want?” he asked. His heavy accent tickled her ears. Wherever his home was it was far from the Northern Plains.
“I was just looking.”
Her answer did not please him. He had hoped coins would rattle from the customers’ purses, leaving theirs and blissfully acquiring a new home within his pockets. However, his discontent disappeared the moment his eyes met hers under the hood of her coat.
“Blessed be the gods,” he murmured softly, his obsidian eyes fixated on her. “Amara!”
His skin was pure bronze and his round, almond-shaped eyes beautifully encircled by dark lines. He was dressed for warmth and comfort, as local people usually were, but underneath his coat peeked layers of soft antelope leather imprinted with tribal seals.
“Amara!” he repeated. The man left his post behind the stall and coming to the front. She knew his excitement would draw attention, especially if he wanted to receive a blessing from her. Everyone minded their own business, and no one cared what a foreign-looking little man was up to.
The man took her hands placing his right palm on top of hers, and she mirrored the same gesture with her left. Then, he whispered a prayer and Nera responded with a blessing. He was at peace, closing his eyes and concentrating on the touch of her hands, as he took time to pray in silence. Then, he let go. His fingers floated in air just above her palms, afraid that if he touched them they would break.
The prayer was finished with wishing for blessings from the gods, protection in life and guidance in death.
“Thank you, thank you for your blessing, girl.”
“May the gods protect you,” she whispered in response. The vendor gently pressed her hands together until her palms met, and lowered his head so his forehead could touch them. Her benedictions were in place now. The ritual was over.
The joy in his heart was immeasurable.
“Here!” he shouted. “Come, I give you something.”
He immediately returned to his post behind the stall, rummaging underneath it. Then he took out a strange object, holding it with one hand and pointing to it with the other.
Its shape was exquisite – a circle decorated with colorful braids, beads and owl feathers. Inside of it was a network of thin spider web, forming another small circle within it. Down the wooden loop long strings of beads hung with feathers and beautifully woven braids. She spotted a small copper arrowhead hanging from one of the strings, wobbling in the man’s hand.
“What is it?”
“It is dreamcatcher,” he replied delightfully. “You catch bad dreams like this, see,” then he pointed to the small circle made of the delicate strings inside the loop, “and good dreams stay, yes?”
A dreamcatcher. Nera had never heard of it, but the notion of inviting good dreams to stay and banishing bad ones sounded awfully familiar. If only she had a foolproof method of keeping the nightmares out. She thanked the kind man for his peculiar gift, offering to give him some money in return. The vendor, almost offended at her offer, waved his hand high above his head.
“No, no, you take it. It is gift, yes? You take it.”
So, she took it.
He wrapped the delicate thing in a piece of cloth and placed clumsily into Nera’s hand. She put it in her bag and was just about to wave goodbye to the vendor, her eyes locked on another attractive item on display. She approached a small wooden box on the other side of the stall whose insides were furbished with dark corduroy.
The box contained a single rock, similar to the others she had previously inspected, not bigger than a copper coin, yet its texture and color exhibited an unearthly quality. The prevailing shade of onyx was intersected with barely visible strokes that bled through the rock. These peculiar cracks in the rock allowed a strange light to shine through.
One amateur look and it was evident the rock did not belong to this world. How it found its way to the vendor’s stand was an altogether strange matter. It was alive, breathing and beating among all the other dead rocks.
“What kind of rock is this?”
The vendor waved his hand and answered dully.
“It is just rock. It came from sky.”
“What does it do?”
“Do? What do rocks do, huh? It do nothing. It falls from the sky thousands of years ago. Very old.”
But Nera knew better. It wasn’t just a rock that fell from the sky. Many of those she saw on that man’s stand were in fact of celestial, other-planetary origin and upon entering the earth’s atmosphere and reached the ground, they turned into a pretty, useless rock.
Not this one. There was something intense about this very old rock that did nothing. That sit undisturbed in an ornate box on the upper border of the Northern Plains.
There was something intense about this very old rock that did nothing. She reached out for it, but faltered before touching it. Dare she touch it? She hesitated. Her curiosity fought fear deep inside. It wasn’t until she placed her fingertips on the rock that she regretted bitterly. A new rival joined the fight.
A dark, forgotten magic gave life to that stone. She sensed it through her skin, the faint murmurs of life inside it. A strong voice called out her name, as the market faded into silence. The only thing she could hear now was her own name, whispered through the teeth of an unseen force that had lived in it for eternity.
Nera. Nera. Nera.
It screeched in her eardrums like shards of broken glass. It played with her name and carried it around the passageways like a feather in the breeze. It drilled into her brain, turning all her weaknesses and fears inside out.
You will never be happy.
The owner of the name pulled her hand back swiftly, stepping away from the stand. The man gawked at her, but once the whispers stopped, Nera managed a few short words out, thanked him for the gift once more, and left in a pressing urge to escape. She wasn’t about to explain to the confused man how she heard her mother’s vengeful voice coming from a millennia old rock.
Merci pour la lecture!