"And it was said that Nada Kuya raised the fang of dragonkin into the air and cried, 'Let this be known as a triumph over our enemies, a victory for the sanctuary of Caer Pelyn and for the grace of womanhood!'" - Excerpt from Nada Kuya, One Voice
The sense of oneness, of gentle peace, settled low over the valleys and rises of the Caern countryside. The village sat in a generous mountain valley, the trails leading up and down the mountainsides, through stretches of green mountain grass and gray mountain gravel. Heading down the trails, women with cloth wrapped around their bodies and jars clutched in their hands walked to the stream winding below. Gray crossroads of haphazardly-strewn gravel and clods of dirt presented themselves at the well-traversed trails. All the little, appropriately-placed dwellings were made of sturdy wood from the forests, hardened clay, and plant stalks bent to their use. Every single thing here was efficiently present, and nothing stayed here without some greater purpose behind it.
The village was quiet. There were men; mages, sages, warriors, woolgatherers gathering wool, woolgatherers lost in reverie, hunters. There were women: the water-gatherers, the mothers with their children slung in leather and wool over their shoulder in front of them, often tugging greedily at their mothers' breasts for sustenance. Then, the washer women and the female shamans doing the daily chores, saying their rites; then, the "second hunters", the women who join the hunt last for security purposes. Any job left over, the men took on their shoulders.
The day was a bitter overcast, the sun just barely peering through an ample blanketing of clouds. The village was an amalgam of dim gray, filtered yellow light, and the natural turning of colors wafting through the sky. The clouds stood poised, threatening the calm little commune with visions of a future drowned in water. Here, the day was normal, and the normal preparations applied: the preparation of rain-gatherers, the slinging of waterproof fur skins over one's back, the scurrying and scuffling of the Caer mothers looking for one place of many, many to shelter their children from the gods' tears.
Then, the village came to bustling, and scoffing, and it brought about its own little sense of calm chaos. Garrulous shrews scurried about. Humorously, gluttons for easy living trundled around, self-sustained in their girth, savoring the last juices of the hala vera leaves and feeling that little brain-push they lived to consume. Worker bees scuffled, and kicked dry clouds of dirt, clods of freshly-dewed glass, and tiny flecks of pebbles, rocks from the path sent high into the air, ones that failed to land before the busy folk were far, far away. Down in the valley, the hunters chased the scents of the prey and felt the wood and strings and iron of their weapons as they brought them down on sight. They would always turn the beast over, feeling the realness of the fur before ultimately skinning them, taking the meat, and filing the bone into a glorified tool or a spiritual ornament.
Soon the village would be quiet, empty, and the rains would come. Those gluttons for the good life sat inside and chewed hala vera, bubbled and bobbed and paddled in a smoky cloud of their own gluttony; everyone else- the wise, the realistic, the pensive- sat inside. Children and the young of heart watched the rain.
The bitter smell of melancholy purpose- everyday living- lingered. Everyone here just was.
In one house, the modest house closet to the shrine of the Great Dragon, Ala'Huya'Alai, voices murmured from within, in hushed tones that could not be heard even by peekers at the windows, or by those who pressed their ears against the wood and straw and listened. Here was a place cut off, a quiet sanctuary- a circle of sense to ward off the nonsensical. Here dwelled a man with the most solemn of purposes, the quiet one with the tremendous task, and his guest. One woman- the guest of sorts- sat within, legs crossed, arms folded over her chest, eyelids sheathing the bright pupils of her birthright. The man dwelling here sat as though he had sat this way millions of times before, in millions of lives before. He sat beside her, on a mat of straw and fallen stars and crudely efficient processed dreams.
Her mind could not explain the unexplainable: she saw the world coalescing in front of her and flying out and stopping like a star burning through the sky. There were the physical manifestations of all the greed, lust, envy, hate, chaos, disorder; then, the manifestations of love, caring, acceptance, peace, altruism all swirling around her. That Saleh could even come close to explaining this was something world-moving itself. There was one light, a wish there, that existed but didn't exist, and when the light faded there was blackness, but a memory left. A memory, and a memory of a memory, and a memory of that memory, of the memory of the unexplainable explained poorly. She wished, and when she stopped wishing, the memory of the wish would burn like a flame in her mind.
The man learned to explain the unexplainable by letting it merely go unexplained.
The woman sought to explain, but set it aside and simply breathed and saw.
The man let out a sigh that was like the exhalation of an entire world condensed into one week. He opened his eyes slowly, his body still feeling the trance, still working to get itself up to speed.
He wouldn't have noticed. The only indication he and the woman would have had about the world ending was the realization they slipped: slipped from one dream into the next.
The woman let out a sigh that was like the exhalation of the entire universe condensed into a single title: a title called Princess, a title called- mayhap?- Queen, a title called savior of a battered kingdom. She briefly considered drawing another breath and exhaling it all over again. She opened her eyes and peered out a window. The pitter-patter of the rain was relaxing.
"So it does. It's so peaceful here when it rains…"
"Have you found enlightenment?"
Eirika laughed. It was a rhetorical question, and the placeholder response was always the same.
Saleh rose and strode over to the window. The window readily accepted him. Eirika rose as well and stood beside him at the window. The window readily accepted her.
"You have been wishing for peace and tranquility in Renais, correct?"
"That is true, Master Saleh," she replied, running a hand through her hair. Her mind was both empty, void; and, it was full of wishes, of hopes, of idealism for a better future.
"How goes your success?"
Eirika sighed again. This sigh was firmly rooted in the world.
"There are many things that must be done. Above all, the people, the buildings…all must be restored to their former glory. We have faced enemies around us, and now we must protect ourselves from challenges within."
Pitter-patter. Rain, more of it, gently. The room was a dark shade, a mist of readily circulating air that bred calm and quiet. They had wished in a gentle darkness, sustaining them in a stasis of a mind and a nighttime quiet that fed their innermost balances. It was dark, almost night. Still, the very art of Valega shone light where there was none before.
"Ahhhh…well, there will always be challenges. It is the very basis on which humanity is built."
"I suppose so. But it is frustrating sometimes. The things people are supposed to do simply because of how they were born. I suppose these things are only tests for us."
"Tests indeed- challenges which we must triumph over. I want to ask, do your people of Renais assume you to be a certain way?"
Eirika sighed and looked away with a heavy heart. Pitter-patter. Rain, more of it, gently. The room remained a dark shade.
"Not necessarily I, Master Saleh," explained she, returning to the window. In the darkness, she seemed to gravitate closer toward him. "In Renais, many people consider people of certain castes and statuses to be capable only of certain things. Women are no different: we are expected to act differently than men, to do certain things. It saddens me to believe it."
Saleh let out a sigh. This one was firmly rooted in the world. He looked out the window. The rain was lessening; even now, children had begun to make their way outside, to peer into the sky, where the sun now peered out and cast a dim rainbow across the sky.
The hunters began to survey the land, looking to see what creatures would make easy prey. Shamans and magic men stepped into the dew-soaked air and into the "little blessing", fog, mist; they knelt and closed their eyes and received the blessing by acknowledging it. The builders set to seek any damages, expecting none, and taking their tools at their belt and looking around for a place to strike their worth and do well. The gluttons for easy living hustled their girth, devoured large chunks of meat, and looked for hala leaves to scrape the last droplets of glittering dew from, to rake the old teeth across and exhume the last little bits of body-chilling indulgence from.
The women stayed inside.
Saleh saw reality and eventuality in these social roles. He saw the inherent masculinity of a wood-strung bow, the saturated manliness in a keen blade, in the iron of a hunter's axe, and the manhood present in a back slung with furs and animal pelts. He saw the lack of emotion, the lack of feeling, the lack of sensitivity in a man's way and could feel inside that wasn't real truth, but an oft-taken persona.
Saleh saw the femininity in the eyes of the children, they who kicked up puddles and munched on eating-straw and laughed and chuckled at rainbows and butterflies. He saw the womanhood in childbirth, in a timid face blushing, in the reality of a mate, a mother, the "woman" in "man of woman" spoken of so often.
What was it, then? There were the obvious daughters of Nada Kuya, the women who slung bows over their shoulders and loosed their arrows into the hillsides. Then, there was everyone else. There were the sisters of her mother, the great mother of Nada Kuya, the gentle woman who gave birth to a warrior who called herself woman. And, the great Mother Dragon. The "mother". The weak and lost always called for mother, and mother was always there.
Located there, in the one true wish, everyone was just light, and space was vast, and every living thing was just a random construction of matter, of matter! Even beneath the bone, the muscles, the blood, the skin, was something so simple as to be trivial. Every little piece of being was unseen, unheard, unfelt, tasteless, odorless; all constructed in different ways by natural process, in different pieces, into different people, and from different people into different genders, and into different species, onto different words, in different portraits of different realities in different dimensions in individual minds. And they were all the same. They were all no different. But that? That was a notion worthy of a heretic- a heretic with no mind, a mindless villager disconnected from the gravity of royal court, or structured living. Disjointed minds connected by a miscalculation of reality.
Saleh often found himself lost in the trances of Valega, encased in one true, pure wish. In this one wish, he saw the world as a caged truth trying to escape, and banish all falsehood and lies. He saw one world where truth ran free, where woman sought their hearts' desires, including the notching of arrows into the bow, the slinging of pelts, the construction of homes, the forging of blades. He saw one world where truth ran free, where men cried and released the binds of their heart, and admitted their weaknesses and wrongdoing, and held empathy where once such empathy was considered weak and lowly. Either way, truth was individual, but he hoped he himself could find it many, many times for many, many different, similar people.
"Master Saleh!" Eirika said suddenly, turning from the window to the sage and clasping his hands in one of hers. Her voice was one of quiet, restrained outrage. "Oh, what are we to do? I wish so strongly for a good future, for a peaceful end to all the world's suffering. I cannot bear to see such saddened faces…it pains me deeply inside.
And -yet!-…we are expected to do so little! And royalty…we are supposed to be uncaring and cold and hold ourselves to a higher standard- so much so that when I ask to walk onto the streets and help rebuild the city with my own hands, my retainers stop me! My people think we are uncaring, and the nobles think the people are undeserving. Why is it that the world is so foolishly considered to come to a single end, through single means? I-I don't understand, Master Saleh."
"I have no true answers, Princess," Saleh admitted, giving Eirika the courtesy of looking her square in the eye. "Only more questions and pondering- pondering that would be an insult to your integrity. You deserve answers, Princess, ones I do not possess. I am a grain of sand on a vast beach. I can't claim to know anything."
Eirika sighed and turned back to the window. It still rained, just a bit. Skies knew nothing of social roles, of gender roles, or of castes. Yet, each individual part of nature played its own role. They were all bound to what they could do, set into a certain way and never set to deviate. A cloud could not move a mountain or sustain the growth of foliage; a rainstorm could not feed the children of the earth or give them breath. But humans are so much more, she thought, even though she had one sinking feeling she was deluding herself.
"Saleh…as long as I am here, I want to be treated as though I were just another Caer Pelyn woman. This is a place of escape for me. Please…"
"Saleh…sometimes I wish it were…that I were not a princess. That I were someone else, a simple woman living a life here, where I could do as I please without being judged as I would be in Renais."
Saleh turned to her and sighed. He resisted the urge he had to smile at the childish words that were so true. "I am sorry, Princess. Though, even here, there is no escaping such things as certain social roles. From birth, there are the gatherers, and the hunters, and the herders. Our parents were, and so were we. My family was of sages, and attendants to the Great Dragon, just as I am. For us, there is no deviating. Perhaps we do not wish to. Even if there were some deviating from the path at hand, it would be of no help for those grieving in Renais. There would be no hope left. But there is always hope left, Princess- is there not?"
"Master Saleh…" The young woman stopped herself and looked back at him. In his eyes were glimpses of premature age. He was an old man. "You are right. I would never leave my people. I'm sorry. I spoke foolishly."
"We are all entitled to do so," he replied, and his heart ached at the guilt and the confusion in her words. "Eirika, whenever you wish to come here and seek sanctuary, Caer Pelyn will welcome you with open arms. The entire world is open to you. Yet…still, stay in Renais, and help your people in their time of need, against the better wishes of those who think they know better."
She took a moment, to think, and a moment of pause, and a moment to look downward and up again. "Thank you, Master Saleh," she answered, tears beginning to well in her eyes. She opened her own arms and wrapped them around him.
"Much like Nada Kuya, you are," he said, stroking her head gently. He mumbled, and stared out the window with a flat expression, and a pure wish in his mind. "Not reluctant to show weakness, and in that weakness you show strength. Princess, is it your wish to triumph over preconceptions?"
"I share that wish. I too can see a better future, simply because it would be too simple to merely ignore it. Then, I will aid you, and do all I can to redefine what it means to be human. I will do all I can to help the people you love and return your homeland to glory."
Eirika's eyes shone a brilliant teal. "Master Saleh…I thank you."
"That is my role, it would seem, daughter of Nada Kuya." He embraced her tightly, as a father would his daughter. It went against all logic and personas that a princess would be seen in the arms of a simple sage from a mountain village. Still, it was as it was, it was truth, and it proved one thing obvious.
"You have a tremendous amount of inner strength, Eirika. And…your mind's eye sees where many cannot- or perhaps they choose not to see. Let nothing hold you back." He released her.
"From now on," Saleh continued, as he looked off into the vast sky, "you are one of us, too. Here, prove yourself to be one of us- however you wish." The young woman beside him leaned on his shoulder and looked off into the sky with him. He broke a smile.