Bloodmaiden

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Bloodmaiden

Post by Chasmira on Thu Nov 26, 2009 10:13 pm

This is part of a book I hope to publish, so please respond if you read. ^_^

In Sulaiman, four kingdoms stretching to the four corners of that vast land were ruled and guarded by the four dragon dynasties. To the East, upon an island hovering in the ocean not far from the coast was the Zale Dynasty, where the blue, serpent-like dragons slithered through the pure ocean waters or visited the fields, slipping so silently through the grass it looked like a gentle wind swaying the tall reeds. They were the most playful of the four dragon families, the gentlest of the four dragon rulers. They caught fish in the oceans and rabbits in the fields for the people of the island. The Zale dragons spent much time in meditation and in studies of peace and charity towards all. Thus they taught their people, and thus they required from the humans the lightest of the four tributes required by each dynasty. In exchange for their care and protection, the Zale Dragons obliged from the people only an annual feast which both human and dragon would share.
To the West lay the rocky, treacherous, harshly windy Valther Mountains, on top of which stood the grand Gauthier Dynasty. Unlike the elegant golden palaces of the east, the Gauthier Dragons lived in a sturdy, stone fortress. They were the fiercest of the four dynasties, a warring family. They did not war needlessly, though if the humans of their land were threatened, they would’ve brutally defended them until death. They had used their strength many a time to protect the people from wild mountain beasts, and they used their thick, leathery, wings to fight snow and ice storms, finding those humans who lost their way. With their brute strength they not only protected the people of the mountains but also quarried great rocks, minerals, and precious gems which architects used to build and blacksmiths used to forge into great armor and weapons and all sorts of fine things. Thus, the tribute that the Gauthier dragons required every year was some of their jewelers’ most finely crafted gems as well as their blacksmiths’ most excellently crafted armor and weaponry.
Vardon lay to the south in a deep and evergreen valley, a place of farmers; both the Vardon Dragons and the human races inhabiting that place possessed a gift in making things grow. The dragons bore scales which, when rubbed from their bodies and into the earth, would fertilize the dirt with rich nutrients, helping the crops grow strong, tall, lush, full. The tribute they required was an annual portion of their bountiful harvest.
These three dynasties—they all sound like something out of an ancient oriental legend, myth, or fairy tale. The concept of humans and dragons helping each other, living in harmony with one another, without fear. To me, that’s exactly what they are. A distant dream, a story of a magical, peaceful place only read of, told of secretly, quietly yearned for.
I live in Tynan, the fourth, southernmost dynasty, whose dragons do provide much protection, and there is much need of it, for our dynasty is set in the northern mountains where wild animals and avalanches are ever constant. But the tribute they require in return is so horrible, no one speaks of it. I cannot even utter it here, now, on paper. In fact, I will soon have to lay down my pen because my fingers tremble, scrawling the words in nervous, illegible scribbles across the pages of my last days. I will have to lay down the pen because the unspoken truth is all the more real and close and unbearably frightening for me.
For, you see, I am the new Quelda of Tynan.
I look up abruptly, the pen clattering on the desk as someone knocks in the door. Then they open it with a gentle creak, slowly, as if the person wishes to grant me a few more precious moments before my life changes forever, before I become no longer Crisilin, but the Quelda. All must forget I am Crisilin, for it will soon be blasphemy to speak my name.
The person steps in. It is one of the Tynan Dragons’ servants. It is a woman. I know this by her long, grey cape and hood which conceal her entire body. I know too she is my aunt because she’s the tallest servant in the palace. She cannot reveal herself during the ceremony—I must see no one’s eyes from the gold-spinning until the time I meet my husband—but I know it is her. She cannot speak to me either, but she lowers the hooded head in what I understand as a nod, and I nod back, following her.
We traverse several corridors. I glance out the arched windows we pass. It is a black night, as is every night on this mountain. The blackness always seems appropriate, but now more than ever. However, tonight, the bright, white stars shine in the blackness, both reflecting what should be a glorious, pure experience yet mocking with their joy, their almost tangible laughter. I don’t even know the man chosen for me, yet he too must share the Quelda’s fate.
A blue ribbon ties back my curls, matching my dress—blue and white, both for purity. We climb a stair and walk noiselessly down another hall. A silence, not like peace but like death, breathes loudly in the complete hush. We reach the end of the hall and the arched, red doors accented elaborately with gold carvings. Before them stands one of the dragon’s priests—he bears white robes and humbly lowered head, though his bald head is again hidden by the hood of his robe.
My aunt turns and slips quietly down the hall. I turn to the priest. He waits a moment, as if assuring we are alone. Then he performs the ritual, the lighting of the incense, showering me with white rose petals and sprinkling sweet waters. He does these things to bless my purity. Another priest somewhere does the same to my husband even now. My heart beats faster as he slides too quickly through the rituals which bless our marriage and join us together in that perfect union.
At last, he steps aside, holding his hand towards the doors.
Sickness swirls in my stomach along with the fear. The doors loom large and red like a wall of blood or fire. I don’t know what I fear more, whether what the ceremony signifies—the beginning of the end of my freedom, my life as I know it, my childhood—or the ceremony itself. Now, in this moment, the fear of the former passes away as the latter, the last step of the ceremony, this step, looms closer, so close that it is now, my dreadful, terrifying, unknown now.
I realize why this part is the hardest. I must open the door. I must reach out and grab the cold handle that will grant my right of passage into the life I must both face and detest. I suddenly feel small, shy, and weak, as though the blood-red door and its brightness grow, its fire ensnaring, consuming me with hopelessness. I feel so alone, yet I suddenly yearn for that young man I will meet on the other side, wishing for someone to cling to. I suddenly want him to at least like me, be kind to me, hold me, love me even, just as much as I suddenly want to do all these things to him, whoever he is. This part is hardest for the Quelda, yet also the easiest, because all I want to do is both step away from that door, turn, and run, and yet, knowing I can’t, open it and run to him…
I reach out, clutch the handle firmly, pull, and slip through. The door echoes my loneliness as it shuts. I’m in the final stretch, the hall with the blood-red carpet. Red is not a very pure color. Perhaps it is meant to encourage the passion which cannot exist between two people who don’t even know each other. Of course, fear even now encourages some sort of passion within.
I force myself to walk down the hall, heart pounding, panic gripping so hard it is hard to breathe, hard to see. I need to hold on to someone, something, but there is nothing until I reach the final red and gold door.
Stumbling to a stop, I grasp the handle. I take in a final, deep breath. This is it. This is where I lose my childhood. This is where I must become someone else, where I now must transform. Where I must struggle to survive, to hold on to what might remain of myself. Where I must hope that my soon-to-be-known husband will show gentleness and kindness and mercy, share my fear, hope, and longing...
I open the door. He sits on the edge of the bed, wringing his hands. A small connection races between us, his fright an instant part of mine. My first small sign of hope. The second comes as he stands to face me, the light of the fireplace illuminating his face, handsome curls, sparkling but troubled eyes. I gasp, the sickness in my stomach changing to that of both relief, wonder, and horror as I breathe:
“Chalom.”
“Crisilin.”
I rush to sit beside him, Chalom, my best friend, my betrothed. He slips his arms around me.
“How?”
“Please don’t be angry, love.” His eyes glint guiltily. “But when I knew you were meant to be Quelda...I had to find some way to be with you...”
My eyes scold him, though lovingly. I cannot help being comforted by his presence, but is there no nobler way for us to be together?
That night we fall asleep in each other’s arms though we do not make love. Such a sacred act would be too marred by the shadow of tomorrow's looming ever closer, even as sleep is marred by the nightmares of that morrow’s coming.
* * *
I wake, still snuggled in Chalom’s arms. I wonder if it is morning; there are no windows in this room. I stir and he hugs me close, announcing he too is awake.
A knock raps too loudly on the door like thunder, and a voice declares too emptily, “It is time. Rise and prepare yourselves for the ceremony.”
Thick silence drowns us again, and I half wish for the drawling voice to return, for any sign of human life to cling to, because suddenly, even his own arms around me aren’t enough. Even they cannot symbolize life but death. Death, not life, not today. Death only. Everything is death.
I shudder, suddenly cold as if death already ensnares me in long, curled claws. I hug Chalom tighter, closing my eyes like a child trying to shut out a bad dream, but he whispers those inevitable words in my ear: “We have to get up, love, we have to get ready.”
Even his own voice is too devoid of emotion, of meaning. But perhaps that is how all voices are bound to sound today. Perhaps it makes everything easier. I rise to obey.
* * *
The goldenrods sway proud and tall in the Field of Sunlit Gold.
I sit within a Coliseum-like building encircling a wide field. I stare at that field, blocking out the hundreds pressed closely about me in their seats, talking, laughing too frivolously. For a moment, I even shut out Chalom and his touch, except for his warmth on my hand which is like the warmth of the golden fields I have only ever heard of. Its grass stretches before me now short, brown, and dead. Yet, although I’ve only ever heard tales, I’ve hoped in and imagined them so vividly their image is set in my mind more clearly, more real, than the one I now view but don’t want to. The dragons, their ice white scales gleaming cruelly in the vainly shining sun, slither onto the field...
This is the only field in all Sulaiman that bears golden soil. The Tynan Dragons breathe their magic breath upon the soil, giving the life needed to grow the goldenrods blanketing the field like a solid sheet of waving, glinting sun. Their petals are made of pure, real gold.
The people use the gold of the flowers to trade with the other dynasties and to create beautiful things and healing powders. The people pay annual tribute to the dragons each family offering some precious gift crafted from the precious gold.
The previous Quelda and her husband, who reigned for a year, whose reign must end with the coming of my own and Chalom’s, walk onto the field behind the dragons. The Quelda is shaking and sobbing violently; her tormenting cries wrench at my heart, make me suddenly want to vomit. We sit so close I can see her maddened eyes. She tries to run, but her husband—does anyone remember or know their real names?— holds her close, trying to console her or at least make the awful thing as easy for her as possible.
I want to close my eyes but am suddenly unable, knowing they deserve someone to watch, to be there, to share their last moments, someone who truly understands. No one could possibly ever understand besides me and Chalom and those who’ve gone before. So, despite the hundreds gathered, some sorrowfully, some to enjoy the show, we are all who are left in their world.
The golden fields sway, petals clinking together, almost singing in the breeze; there is more than enough gold for all, both dragons and humans, enough to care for all of Sulaiman and many worlds beside...
The Coliseum is built, the old traditions give way to those both new and yet ancient, hideously ancient.
Shouldn’t we be past such things, shouldn’t someone try to stop this?
The flowers die, drowned in the shedding of blood. The next Quelda is forced to weave straw into gold to appease what has grown into the dragons’ unquenchable lust, greed, desire for more and more. The humans of Tynan themselves will not see, touch, use any of the gold spun by the Quelda, they will be forced into poverty and a struggle to survive.
A pain of rage and hatred grips me powerfully again as I remember how I was forced to stand before them as they breathed their tainted breath, endowing their gift to spin the straw into gold, that gift they are not deserving of. They deserve no gift but the horrors they now force upon this young couple, and, in a year’s time—or less than that, if we do not produce a child—Chalom and I.
It is just as well none see the new gold spun by the Queldas—had they seen the new gold, it would have broken their hearts. It is not nearly as glorious, as pure, as that grown from the soil in peaceful times.
Now the gold, our lives, everything, is marred by the rubies.
They lay the Quelda beside her husband, binding her because she writhes like someone possessed. And she is, not of a demon, but of terror, anguish, fear, unbearable torture. Her screams slice through the air like a thousand knives, as if threatening to burst open the heavens with some storm of vengeance. I tremble all over, contorting with each scream, sharp knives slicing all over my body, searing at my heart with each agonizing cry. I wonder how she could be in any greater pain although I know she is. Chalom squeezes my hand, but I am numb now to all feeling except her excruciating torture.
And then, as the dragons bear down upon her with their bloodthirsty snarls, claws gleaming like cruel swords, they silence her, and him as well, for even her husband has lost his nerve, crying out. And the last awful sound is that of the baby’s pleading cry quieted too abruptly. Because the dragons of Tynan no longer require a sacrifice of gold.
The Field of Sunlit Gold has become the Field of Rubies.
* * *
I lay in Chalom’s arms. He drifted to sleep holding me close. I wavered in and out of uneasy fits of slumber. I couldn’t shake them from my mind—flashes of blood, ghost-like screams of unimaginable torture, dragons so mercilessly ripping the innocent bodies to shreds. I wished I hadn’t watched or listened, rendered too stunned to look away. I would've preferred suddenly going blind and deaf and now wished my mind could turn numb to their pain.
As I slipped into yet another uneasy sleep, her eyes glittered, vividly staring straight at me with intense pain and pleading for help. As if my being the next Quelda somehow gave me a larger power than she herself bore in her own short reign. As if I could somehow stop the dragons and spare her. Then, the dragon hovering over her, swiping his long, gleaming claws towards her neck—
The vision changed in a flash, so quickly my body flinched. Then I lay very still as if the approaching dreams wanted me to focus solely on them.
And the visions came.
At first I saw myself racing through the fields of the mountains, twisting between rocky paths with my closest friends, laughing, skipping, chasing, and tagging each other. Chalom wasn’t there, but all was peaceful. I was with my friends. I was a child again.
Then I saw myself in Chalom’s arms as if my spirit traveled outside my body to hover over my sleeping self. The bed gradually faded until we lay on the softest, greenest grass. Or so it looked, but try as I might, I could not reach out to touch it. My dream self, the one lying in Chalom’s arms, looked up at me gravely then, eyes flashing sharply, determinedly, pleading to share some message. What ignited such intense passion? As her eyes scrolled to the side, I followed her gaze.
I took in a small gasp and stared. A third me ran laughing between tall, thin, brightly green fields illuminated with heavenly sunlight. A salty-sweet breeze wafted dreamily. My laugh danced lightly, care-free, as in the vision of my childhood. And behind me, laughing too, was a small child. She grasped at the folds of my white, almost fairy-like gown and I turned, scooping her up, holding her close, twirling her around then hugging her again, pressing her cheek against mine—
The child looked at me.
I suddenly wanted to cry. I suddenly couldn’t breathe. I suddenly wanted to run to the child more than anything else in the world. Because her eyes were Chalom’s, her curls were my own. She was our child. Those eyes that were Chalom’s gazed more vividly real than the eyes of any child I ever saw. I knew she was real. Or she would be, if I heeded the solemnly pleading spheres. They urged me to do something, anything, to spare her from her fate...
The vision faded to black, and I gradually became aware of Chalom shaking me gently.
“Crisilin? Crisilin, are you alright? What is it? Did you have another nightmare?”
“I saw her.”
I wanted to sob yet was too breathless, too overcome, shaking too badly to even do that.
“I saw her, Chalom...”
“Saw who, sweet heart?”
“Our daughter, I saw our daughter...”
“Shh, sweet heart, shh...it’s okay...”
But it wasn’t okay, not anymore. It was never really okay, but I at least accepted the morbid thing for what it was, resigning myself to my fate not long after being chosen as the new Quelda.
Before now.
Before this needless yet fearfully unstoppable, accepted horror involved my Chalom. Before it involved the baby we would create together, my baby, our baby, our child. These reasons all suddenly made my fate, our fate, necessarily, possibly, and desperately stoppable.
“I can’t do this.”
I trembled as he held me with such excruciatingly tense muscles it was hard to even shake with the sobs filling me, wanting so desperately to grant release. “If it had been someone else...but I love you, Chalom. I can’t let them kill us, kill our child—”
“Then don’t,” said a woman firmly, and looking up, I gasped.
“Aunt Simone?”
The tall woman stood clad in a simple purple robe, the hood thrown back to reveal sharp, set eyes and fashionably spiky though graying blue-white hair. I wondered how long she’d been here. Then I remembered guards patrolled every hour to make certain the Quelda and her husband were yet safe in their beds.
“Yes, child, it is I.” She moved to stand right next to our bed though she would not sit. A familiar, urgent glint in her eyes revealed deep anxiousness.
“I came to you on my watch for I have been considering what would be better—spending a year together loving each other or risking your lives in escape only to have them ended cruelly and even more prematurely than the Quelda’s curse deems.”
“My good lady,” Chalom said, eyes sparkling with sincere warmth and determination, “I assure you we would not want to live together for one more year this way. This is not the life we want. Even if we perish, the risk would be far worth it.”
He glanced with searching eyes to ascertain I felt the same way though the look didn't really question. He knew me too well.
“Very well.” Aunt Simone's hushed voice floated swiftly. “I will take you from the palace grounds. But beyond that, I cannot lead you safely. You must travel on your own, from the city, down the mountain, and across the lake.”
Even as she spoke, Chalom scrambled from bed and I hurried after. He helped me with my coat and he began pulling on thick, warm pants and boots.
“And where will we go?” he asked.
“Anywhere,” she said, “Beyond Tynan’s borders, they will not search for you. You will be considered tainted, and they will choose a new Quelda.”
My heart sickened at this thought. Our escape would mean others' deaths. But then my aunt gave the last bit of hope I would need to start out,
“It may be if you seek the emperors of the other three dynasties, they may listen to you. You will be the only Quelda and her husband ever to survive and escape. Maybe they will listen if you tell them yourself of the horrors of Tynan. Maybe the next Quelda can be spared. Maybe there will be no more Quelda.”
No more Quelda. The words echoed like a hopeful song. Sixty-six years had passed, sixty-six Queldas. Incredibly more than enough torment. If I could spare the sixty-seventh and assure there would not be a sixty-eighth...
“But remember,” my aunt said gravely, “you must pass beyond Tynan’s borders. You must clear the Lake.”
My heart fell again. I was suddenly unaware of Chalom wrapping my legs in warm socks, leggings, and boots as this reality loomed ever closer, realer, graver. The lake, miles wide, was the last stretch between us and freedom. And the deadliest. The water would be well below freezing now, and the patches of ice creeping towards its center would become less trustworthy as we traversed it. A desert of ice. Mountain cliffs rose up on either side of the lake's edges so there was no way around, only across.
Chalom echoed my dread, “And how am I to get her safely across the lake? You know the stories of all those who perished years ago, trying to escape. Without a boat, it’s impossible, and even more so in winter.”
“Then you must pray for a boat,” my aunt said firmly, but her eyes glanced skeptically, as if a part of her felt she’d already sentenced us to our deaths. I looked at Chalom’s own eyes, sincerely troubled, deeply concerned, though still determined. If we had to die, at least we should get to choose how.
My aunt’s expression softened as she studied first my face then Chalom’s. “I have heard myths of sprites who guard the Ever-White Lake. Perhaps, if such tales be true, they will aid, guide, and protect you.”
I hoped yet wondered why the sprites never tried to help anyone before now.
She placed both large, strong hands upon my cheeks and bent down to kiss my forehead. She looked deeply into my eyes, her own glossed with the haze of approaching old age yet filled with an ancient wisdom and love as she whispered, “Remember that Usamah, the Lion of the Heavens, is always watching you, my child. May He protect you, and may you keep His hope and courage in your heart. Usamah bless you, my child.”
I studied her eyes a few moments longer until tears began to creep into mine and hers both. Then she forced herself away and said, “Come, we must hurry. Make no noise, and should we run into any human, bow your heads and feign normality.”
“And if we run into the dragons?” Chalom asked.
She paused before answering, “Pray that Usamah will be so merciful as to grant you invisibility.”
She cast him a final, grave look, and he nodded. In his eyes, it was better to be sure of what would come, good or bad, than to bury oneself from the truth.
Turning and casting a final glance at me, tying my scarf more securely and nodding satisfaction, Chalom took my hand and we slipped from the room after my aunt.
We walked noiselessly, but I feared my heart pounded so ardently the keen dragons would certainly detect the sound of their precious Quelda betraying them, slipping between their claws into forbidden freedom. They would certainly sense the rich blood pulsing so vibrantly beneath my skin.
But the halls remained surprisingly quiet, devoid of any signs of life besides our own presence. I expected loads of guards. After all, was the Quelda not sacred? Wouldn’t they want to prevent our escape at all costs?
Then I thought of my aunt. It was her watch, she was meant to be my guard. I’d heard stories of guards physically fighting the Queldas they found outside their rooms, maddened by the thought of the Quelda escaping under their watch. What horror it would mean for her if my intensely beating heart truly trapped and brought us to our downfall. I shuddered, not wanting to imagine what unimaginable consequences would befall, might still befall her. After all, we escaped on her watch. Certainly that was impossible without her helping us?
But I forced the thoughts from my mind. I could not think them. My aunt could never be convinced to let us stay here now. I must focus on the task before us, what she gave us, not what they would take from her.
Corridors, stair cases, all remained motionless, lifeless. Passing one of the tall, arched windows, we stepped around the betraying light of the moon. It was only half-full but bright enough that our concealing cloaks would prove vain if we stepped under its glow. Chalom and I must be extra careful once outside.
At last we graced the bottom of a staircase where my aunt turned and whispered so faintly I couldn’t even catch all the words,
“...silent...outer wall...guards...along the top...”
I snatched enough words to understand. We prepared to slip inside the outer wall of the outer courtyard. This was the one place where guards would definitely be stationed, marching along the top of the wall itself. We must be certain to make no noise.
More silently than even before—save my beating heart which I still felt certain would echo up the walls to the guards’ ears—we slipped through the narrow passage, carefully turning a corner, walking further until my aunt stopped. I burrowed close to Chalom who held me tightly. My aunt crept slowly as a snail up to the wall. Then, so cautiously we could barely see her move though at some point her body had shifted, head leaning over, she placed her ear to the wall, listening. I wondered what she listened for until I heard the faint thump of footsteps overhead.
They passed from my ears quickly, but still she listened, pressed close to the wall. After what seemed an eternity, she drew back and motioned us forward.
She then pointed to a door set by the corner, eyes flashing urgently. I gave her a longing look, wanting to hug her, tell her I loved her, beg her to come with us, knowing I might never see her again. But any slight sound was now most dangerous, far too risky.
Chalom drew me towards the door, opening it slowly and just enough for us to squeeze through. All the while I looked over my shoulder at my aunt who stood tall and proud, eyes pleading my swift and safe escape. Tears betrayed her sadness in her aloneness, a fear we might not make it yet a hope that we would. Too soon, Chalom led me from the wall. The door closed on her tormented face, suddenly small in the black shadows as she breathed, “I love you, child.”
I forced the sob catching in my throat to remain silent as Chalom hurried me away from the wall, down the small hill towards the city. We must hurry because we were in plain view. The moon shone bright, following us like some snitch intent on capturing and turning us in. We’d have to reach a hiding place before the guards reversed their patterns.
Slipping around a building, hiding in its shadows, we looked back. The guards had just turned, heading towards the corner we fled from. We sighed relief, thanking Usamah. Yet, as if fearful the traitorous moon would somehow catch the glint of our eyes and reveal us, Chalom pulled me away, hurrying us into the city.
For a few moments, my mind could rest and think more clearly. Mostly everyone should be safe in their homes. If anyone was about, we’d have to avoid them. No one liked the Quelda’s sacrificial position, but some existed who would turn her in for extra food, clothing, or better shelter. I glanced up at the dilapidating stone houses. I wouldn’t blame anyone who did such a thing. But, unless we encountered such a person, we were safe until we reached the outer city wall. The top would surely be lined with guards, the final stretch illuminated by that wretched moon.
As we slipped down one of the narrow alleys, I froze, gripping his hand so hard he was forced to stop beside me. I stared at her—a young woman, ragged rags pulled closely around her, cuddling in frail arms a small bundle, a sweet, sleeping thing, a baby, an infant. The moon reflected the baby’s soft, blue skin, a breeze wafting the baby’s scent to my nostrils. Lavender. The child was a girl. I watched as the mother gently snuggled the baby, singing a quiet lullaby broken by soft sobs. I knew what she was going to do. Chalom knew too. He tried to pull me away. But, even as tears crept into my eyes, I felt compelled to watch. Watch as she laid the baby on the ground and gently draped the swaddling over the infant’s mouth, pressing, only releasing the cloth and her sobs when certain the baby had taken her last breath.
She looked up then, too sorrow-stricken to be shocked or horrified someone had seen her. No judgment shone in my eyes, only anger, hurt, pity, a longing to comfort this woman I could not comfort. Because she had not killed the infant simply because she was too poor to care for her. Clearly she loved the baby. This mother did what so many other fearful, helpless mothers did before her. Sacrifice their firstborn child to spare her the possibility of being sacrificed as the future Quelda.
Terrible as it was, watching that woman only renewed my strength and confirmed my desire to help my people, to bring this awful ritual to an end.
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Chasmira
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