Juun Mountain Path | Eastern Bolba
Hanya moved quickly down the mountain path that lead to the monastery. It was fully autumn now, and the fallen leaves had covered the road in a crunchy layer of brown-gold. Fall rain would soon come, and the leaves would soon flatten, break down, and become slick, rendering the path impassable to all but the monks.
Not that the monastery received any visitors. Bolba village was the only other settlement on the island, and when they needed assistance they always sent a messenger gull.
Hanya re-read the letter. The villager was a girl, barely an adult, stabbed, though by who had not been mentioned. This concerned her. The monks were often called to administer justice if a crime had been committed that the villagers could't handle on their own, but she didn't want to become involved in their affairs. It was a hume village, and Master Ilyon said there was still some distrust of Felids there.
She just wanted to make it to the village, heal the girl, practice the new technique she'd learned, and perhaps watch the men work on the beach, with their rippling muscles, sweat glistening on their bodies, clothes wet and clinging...
Hanya shook her head. Maybe if the girl could be helped there would be time for indulgences later. It wouldn't reflect well on the monastery if she showed up, bedded a handsome young man, and then failed to achieve anything with her mantra.
Inland Forest | Central Bolba
HANYA: You there!
A man in a ragged robe on the path ahead of her turned around as she approached. He was dark of skin, his grey hair dangling heavily in dreadlocks over his shoulders. She couldn't tell if the robe concealed a tail, but she didn't see tufted ears.
???: Didn't think I'd see an Ao monk so far down the mountain.
HANYA: I didn't expect to encounter the island hermit. Isn't your home a ways north of here, uh...
AZAKIR: Azakir. And yes, it is. But I'm going to the village. There's some work I gotta do there.
HANYA: Do you need an escort? I'm afraid I'm in a hurry.
The man drew the blade she hadn't even seen in a flash, cutting cleanly through a falling seedpod. Hanya watched the two halves fall onto the ground.
AZAKIR: These bones, they're old, but they ain't feeble. I'll make it there in my own time, but I gotta say, I'd turn back if I were you.
Hanya studied him carefully. He was old, but not as old as Master Ilyon. His robe was a style apart from what they wore in the village, and it was threadbare around the elbows and sleeves. Everyone knew of the island hermit, but he caught his own fish and tended his own crops, and that made him a rarely seen figure.
HANYA: Turn back? Why? There's a girl who needs my help.
He sheathed his single-edged blade with single smooth motion.
AZAKIR: Shouldn't talk of it. It's bad luck, s'pose. Could be nothin'. Go on ahead, help your girl. If I'm wrong, maybe we'll see each other there.
HANYA: Well, Azakir, I hope everything works out alright and I see you in the village. Stay safe!
She gave a small wave and walked on a bit before breaking out into a jog again.
Makrus Gorge | Central Bolba
Hanya blew out her breath and kicked a rock over the edge. It took several seconds for it to reach the river below. Hanya scowled.
The Makrus Gorge cut the island more or less in half. She'd made such good time so far, only to discover that the summer storms had taken their toll on an over-long oak branch, which had dropped directly on the only bridge for miles. The abundant part of the bridge itself dangled off the far side, still attached to the far supports, but the broken planks at the end twisting in the wind. The smaller part was on her side, mere ropes left.
Hanya paced back and forth, considering her options.
It was too far to leap across, obviously. She didn't have the expertise or tools to repair the bridge. The rapids far below were too dangerous to cross even if she scaled down the side of the gorge, an already dangerous feat. Following the gorge to the shore and crossing there would add days to her journey - days that the wounded girl likely didn't have.
If there was a solution here, she wasn't seeing it. She sat down, cross-legged, and closed her eyes.
Despite her training, she'd always found meditation difficult. Stillness was not a virtue she possessed. She considered the environment. The gorge was a break in the forest treetops, exposing a cloudy gray sky. The air was cool but damp with the mist from the raging waters below. The smell of mossy tree trunks, bark, pitch, mud...
Her eyes snapped open at the greeting. The old man couldn't have caught up already, she thought. But sure enough, he ambled easily down the path.
HANYA: You know the Ao greeting?
AZAKIR: Learned it years ago, I reckon. I just didn't want to catch you off guard. Odd spot to meditate in, gotta say.
HANYA: The bridge is out.
He closed the gap between them and looked at the frayed ropes trailing from the near supports. He pushed on the supports to see if they were stable, peered down into the gorge, and then looked up towards the remainder of the broken branch. He grunted.
HANYA: Any ideas?
Azakir set down his pack and rummaged through it. He pulled out a long coil of rope with a metal hook at one end.
AZAKIR: How's your throwing arm?
HANYA: You... just happened to have a grapnel?
AZAKIR: S'called experience. Comes with bein' old. I highly recommend it.
HANYA: Experience, or being old?
AZAKIR: You figure out how to get the former without the latter comin' along, you let me know.
He handed her the hook.
AZAKIR: Can you walk a tightrope, or do you want to go hand over hand?
HANYA: You can see my tail, right?
AZAKIR: Didn't want to assume. Once you're on the other side, you throw this back, and we can hoist the bridge back up. It won't be perfect but it'll do for now.
True to her word and species, Hanya easily crossed the gorge on the rope. The next half hour she spent tying knots at Azakir's instruction, and before long, they managed to thread the rope around the eastern supports and back and forth through the remaining slats.
Azakir tested his work cautiously before stepping across the hole in the bridge. If he had any fear of heights, he didn't show it, but he did hurry across with grim determination on his face.
AZAKIR: Looks like we're travel partners after all.
HANYA: Seems like it. Never thought I'd be walking with the island hermit.
AZAKIR: I don't mind a little company now and then. It's a lonely life, being a goddessbane...
Hanya's jaw dropped.
HANYA: Goddessbane...? Aren't the goddesses all dead?
Azakir scratched his cheek with a fingernail idly as they walked through the woods together.
AZAKIR: That's the trouble with the divine, I s'pose. They don't stay dead.
HANYA: Huh. I guess I don't know much about them.
AZAKIR: Doesn't surprise me. The last Goddess War was well before your time.
HANYA: The "Goddess War"?
AZAKIR: Yeah. Let's see, where to begin... How about you tell me what you know? I'll fill in the gaps.
Hanya stepped over an exposed tree root and continued walking.
HANYA: The goddesses came from another realm and grant the wishes of their worshippers, right? But they're not around anymore.
AZAKIR: Is that what they taught you at the monastery?
HANYA: I wouldn't say taught. That's just what I've heard from the other monks.
AZAKIR: As for where they came from, I can't rightly say. But they sure don't grant their worshippers wishes. They grant the wishes of their captors, and their strength is based on the worshippers' zeal.
AZAKIR: The goddesses are bound to relics. Every now and then someone finds one, and it always seems to wind up in the hands of a chieftain or king.
AZAKIR: Dunno if it's magic or just something 'bout how people are. But it's always the kinda person who wants to control others. And goddesses ain't too picky.
HANYA: Could they refuse?
AZAKIR: What always ends up happening is that someone who's got a goddess on their side grows their nation, their tribe, their whatever. My people try to put a stop to things before they run into someone else who's doing the same thing.
HANYA: That's a Goddess War, then.
AZAKIR: Ayup. My ancestors figured out how to kill a goddess way back when, started training what people call goddessbanes. Hard on a person, though. Usually only one or two people a generation ever figure it out. Yer lookin' at one.
HANYA: Wow. I had no idea. Are there others alive today?
AZAKIR: I hope so! I ain't gonna be kickin' around too much longer. You don't go back home once you leave the homeland though. But, uh, sometimes there ain't enough of us.
HANYA: Wait, the Three Nation War on the mainland, was that...?
Azakir let out a heavy breath and scratched his face again.
AZAKIR: Yeah. It was real bad business. Three goddesses living at once on the same landmass. Only two banes. Just me, an... well...
He seemed lost in thought.
AZAKIR: Sorry, still some painful memories there. But hey, like you said, there ain't none floating around right now.
HANYA: And if there were, they're sure not on a tiny island in the middle of nowhere!
Azakir let the conversation fall into silence as they continued along the path.
Eventually the faint sound of the ocean reached their ears. They were getting close to the village, but the sky had faded from the orange and red sky of sunset to the purple-blue gradient of dusk, and night would quickly chase even that faint light away. Hanya helped Azakir gather wood for a fire, and when it was set she climbed the pine overhead and settled in to take her own ease, reflecting on their earlier conversation. It wasn't terribly important, she supposed. She ought to have been focusing on her healing mantra, but there was something she had meant to ask Azakir...
Hanya descended from the tree the next morning, stretched her arms and legs, and looked around. Azakir was nowhere to be seen. Had he awoken early and gone to the village alone? She was a light sleeper, it was hard to imagine he was so quiet that his departure escaped her notice. And yet, the campfire was cold, and he was nowhere to be seen.
She waited for a few minutes for any sound of his approach, in case he'd simply taken a morning walk, but when she heard nothing other than the morning birds' songs and the scuttle of forest critters, she gathered her pack and set her heels to the path.
Outskirts | Bolba Village
The forest path eventually yielded to a packed-earth road that led into the center of the village. She stopped at one of the outermost huts, where a middle-aged man was hanging laundry out to dry.
HANYA: Adana, besman!
Besman was the greeting for non-monks. She didn't know if this man would know that, but he looked past the damp tunics and trousers, saw her temple garb, and waved back.
MAN: The hermit and a monk in the same morning. What a strange day!
So he had departed for the village ahead of her. She wondered why, but her main concern now was the girl.
HANYA: The Ao have sent me to do what I can for a wounded girl. Do you know where I might find her?
MAN: That would be Saoirse. You'll want to follow this road down to the village square. Ask anyone down that way, they'll get you the rest of the way there.
Hanya nodded, waved, and continued on the road.
Town Square | Bolba Village
She arrived to find the town square in commotion. A crowd had gathered, although she couldn't see why. She tapped one of the bystanders on the shoulder. Hopefully she could avoid becoming involved in whatever was happening her, though a nagging voice in her head told her that was unlikely.
HANYA: Adana, besman. Can you tell me where to find a girl named Saoirse?
The woman, wizened by years in the sun, pointed to the center of the crowd. Hanya tried to smile as she offered her thanks, hoping it was convincing.
She pushed her way through the crowd. At the center, Azakir and an old woman were arguing with a red-haired young woman in a blue tunic. An even younger girl, perhaps not even ten years old, with similar hair and features, stood behind the other girl. Sisters, then? She had her arms wrapped around the girl in blue's leg.
OLD WOMAN: Saoirse, you must let Azakir take the girl. It is for the good of the village.
SAOIRSE: I won't, grimma! She's scared of him, look!
True enough, the girl was hiding her face. She looked different, somehow, than the rest of the villagers, though Hanya couldn't put her finger on why.
AZAKIR: Don't be difficult, girl. The child belongs with me.
His voice was different. Gone was the affectation of a solitary mountain man's lazy speech. He held himself straighter, just as when she'd seen him demonstrate his sword skill.
AZAKIR: Hanya - say nothing. Leave this to me.
SAOIRSE: I won't turn her over to a stranger! She needs a home with other people, not to be whisked away to live on a mountain with a creepy old man!Whisked away to live on a mountain?
A young man in red stepped past the edge of the crowd, followed by his senior. Hanya recognized the elder's staff - so this was the chieftain and his son.
SAOIRSE: Parzeval! The hermit is trying to take Isla!
The boy raised his hands, quieting the crowd.
CHIEFTAIN: This is not a matter to be decided here and now. We will go to the town hall after lunch. Everyone else, back to your duties.
The crowd lingered. There was some movement, but somehow no one actually left. The red clad boy took the staff from his father and waved it overhead.
PARZEVAL: Go home before I bring the rainclouds down on your heads! Don't you have work to do?
There were murmurs and grumbles as the crowd began to disperse. Hanya watched the people leave until only she and the small party involved in the argument remained.
The chieftain calmly took the staff back from Parzeval, and patted him on the back. He approached Hanya. She cursed her luck internally, outwardly trying to maintain a placid expression.
CHIEFTAIN: Adana, Ao. As you can see, things have changed somewhat since we wrote the monastery. Perhaps you will still come with us and hear the story?Absolutely not, she thought to herself, which were not the words she said out loud.
HANYA: Adana, besman-do. Of course.
CHIEFTAIN: Par, take Saoirse and Isla, get something to eat and meet us in the hall in an hour. Akazir, Ciara, sister Ao, please come with me.
Hanya looked at the older of the red haired girls, and caught her pleading eyes. A short distance away, Azakir and the old woman stood, hard eyed and stoop-shouldered respectively, but unified in purpose. The younger girl... she couldn't possibly be a goddess, right? She was the furthest thing from a goddess Hanya could have imagined.
Elder's House | Bolba Village
Hanya sat at the Elder's table, flanked by Azakir and the old woman the elder had called Ciara.
AZAKIR: Glevarn, is it wise to leave the child in her care?
The elder put a teapot on the stove and fed a log into the firebox.
GLEVARN: Saoirse will be fine. She's not going anywhere.
AZAKIR: My concern is for the village at large.
Hanya leaned forward.
HANYA: I'm sorry, I'm lost. Azakir, what's going on with that girl? Isn't she the one that was injured?
GLEVARN: The fault is mine. I have not even asked your name.
HANYA: Hanya, disciple of Ilyon.
GLEVARN: Well, Hanya, it seems that Bolba is now host to a recently reborn goddess.
CIARA: And it has imprinted on my granddaughter, Saoirse.
GLEVARN: She seems to attract the strange. Months ago she discovered a flying machine from the mainland that had crashed here. She fixed it up and has been riding it around the village.
GLEVARN: A few days ago, she rode it into a cave down by the beach. She was missing for hours before we figured out where she'd gone. When my son Parzeval found her, she'd been severely wounded. Stabbed, somehow, by the sword she now carries everywhere. Par brought her back to the village, and that's when we sent the letter to Ao.
CIARA: I went to the cave the next day. Saorise was mumbling about Branford, the aeroframe. It's a kingdom machine - which is to say it's got a personality, and she didn't want it left down in the dark. She was restless and agitated, and I thought if I could bring Branford back to the surface she'd focus on getting better.
CIARA: When I eventually got it back to the village, there was a girl I'd never seen before in Saoirse's house. She looked like Saoirse, but younger. Saoirse's fever had broken, and her wounds no longer pained her.
HANYA: A goddess...
AZAKIR: One of limited power, it seems. Which means that my job should be much easier. But Saoirse is entranced, and she wants to protect her. That's how they work.
Hanya considered the implications. The goddess had the appearance and behavior of a young girl. It turned her stomach to imagine her head on the chopping block.
HANYA: You want to take her into the woods and execute her there?
AZAKIR: Not only that. I have to destroy her relic. I believe it's the sword Saoirse carries.
CIARA: You don't know my granddaughter. She's stubborn to a fault, and she doesn't trust you. She'll never hand either over willingly.
AZAKIR: I don't need anyone's help. I'm only here to declare my intent. I would prefer to do this peacefully, but leaving a goddess in the care of the village is not something I will abide.
CIARA: Watch yourself, Azakir. That sounded very close to a threat. If you harm Saorise, you'll never see a friendly face in this village again.
HANYA: Will a goddess still gain strength without worshippers? Does she still know she's a goddess?
AZAKIR: I told Saoirse that the child could live a normal life away from others, that's why I told you not to say anything, Hanya. She may not know the truth about herself now, but the goddess will eventually find out what she is.
Hanya felt very put out. It was clear that her presence wasn't necessary here, but Azakir's plan didn't sit right with her. But the danger a goddess posed couldn't be ignored. What would Master Ilyon do?