Palo Alto Weekly 22nd Annual Short Story
WATERS OF MIRATHA
Perched on the pinnacles of the Eastern Tower, a girl ducked behind the waving red flag. Regal and tall stood the citadel in the mountain cliffs, constructed by the few mortals who had sailed to Galthar in their ships. The girl could see the dragons gliding in the air and the selkies and Merfolk's silvery bodies rippling like watered silk in the sea. Raen leaned back as a patrolling guard for the iron fortress passed beneath her.
Around her from her place on the Eastern Tower, she could see the entire castle. The four towers facing the north, south, east, and west were situated in a perfect square, large yet stable. Large red pennants streamed from the tops of the towers, overlooking thick iron walls connecting each tower to the other. Buildings of brick and stone were built at the base of each wall, where they encircled a central courtyard.
From her position, the girl could easily scan the terrain about her as well. Looming above were the heights of the Gray Mountains, their jagged peaks tearing open the cloud-smeared sky. The foothills at the base were capped in stately trees, standing proud in the shade of the mountains. The Gray Mountains opened up into flowering valleys and budding hollows below, where the beautiful lake, Dragonheart, could be seen glimmering like a thousand-faceted jewel in the sun. The crash of waves could be heard farther south, near the sandy beaches, where the serpent-headed prows of the humans' ships rocked dreamily in the water. And Raen knew, in the unfathomable reaches below the crust, was the pure underground stream of Miratha, the Life-Giving Waters.
Raen, the tree spirit, ran her pale hands through her long dark hair, which cascaded down to her waist and was tightly twisted into a braid. Her large eyes were deep blue, and her body slim. She smiled to herself as she touched her rather pointed ears, shaped like that of the elves. She needed her own cunning and strength for this mission. Around her fluttered the leaves of her dwelling: that of a beautiful, slender birch, on a nameless wind.
Then came the signal -- two flashes from the Western Tower -- and immediately, Raen bounded up -- arms stretching behind her, fingers spread, her feet still in a mid-leaping position -- borne lightly like a windblown leaf upon the cerulean sky. Her leaves rustled about her as she swiftly descended to the Southern Tower, and then the Western. She was barely panting, and nobody caught her lithe movements.
Kiria, her friend, emerged from behind the banner of the Western Tower. "It's about time," she scowled.
"I was waiting for the right moment." Answered Raen, her eyes going to Kiria's hands, where a naked dagger hewn of black stone and embedded with a blade of crystal glittered mysteriously. Kiria had obviously used the weapon as a reflector to signal Raen to the tower.
The two friends paused to look down below.
"This is our time," said Kiria softly. "We need to go and retrieve it, the Waters of Miratha." Her red maple leaves drifted around her, mingling with Raen's birch leaves in an elaborate dance.
Raen leaned back and her eyes squeezed shut, as she pictured the Mother Tree, dying. It was the Mother Tree that had sprinkled the seeds of the sacred trees upon the ground, who had borne the spirits that guarded the sacred saplings. They -- Kiria and Raen -- were but two of the Chosen spirits for the consecrated trees. Only they could help the Mother Tree, who was now shriveling up from the poison in the ground.
It was the mortals who had brought the poison. They had farmed the land, disturbing the natural balance of things by bringing strange vapors and pellets and liquids that they used on their crop. Those unidentified things were deadly to the forest ... especially to the Mother Tree.
"The humans ... they have the Waters of Miratha. Just a cupful of the precious liquid ..." said Kiria, clenching her fists.
Raen looked sympathetically into those large, burning gold eyes. Kiria's hair danced like flames in the sunlight, fiery red like that of the maple tree, matching the leaves about her. Kiria was a fierce looking tree spirit, her eyes bright as her hair ... and her temper.
"Let's review the plan," said Raen, brushing away a wisp of her hair. "As soon as the sun touches the peaks of the Gray Mountains, the mortals will switch their guards. So this citadel will be temporarily unguarded." Her eyes scanned stronghold that lay high up on a lower cliff in the Gray Mountains. "That is when we will go and claim it," she added with a small smile.
Kiria's eyes narrowed as the shadows slowly receded and the sun sank lower and lower. They watched the guards on the wall glance up at the sun and tramp across the walls to the threshold of the Eastern Tower. From there, they followed a series of chiseled stone steps down to the central courtyard. "Now," she hissed, jamming her dagger into her belt.
They leapt down, flying into the shadows, while a wind from the mountains carried them into the courtyard. They watched the humans huddled up in their fur robes inside of their brick structures, though no snow was upon the ground, and only the wind echoed in those lonely forgotten corners around the silent bastion.
The courtyard was a beautiful garden. There were lovely, yet spiritless, trees growing amidst the thickets and rosebushes. Green grass layered the ground and the earth was paved over with smooth, glossy stone.
But the thing they sought was in a fountain of marble, standing in the center of the courtyard. In a large circular bowl wrought with white phoenixes around the rim, the waters of Miratha bubbled up, cool clear, and sweet from the purest springs of the underground river. It was the humans who had brought the water up to the surface through their wondrous technology.
Raen watched the tinkling water slide from its spout into the bowl, awash in music and light. She gazed, captivated, as the crystalline liquid brimmed over in the bowl and spilled out into an earthen ring around the fountain, where it sank back into the ground, wasted.
She took one step forward, then another, and another. Within seconds she was before the Waters of Miratha, and she cupped her hands so that the water rushed to fill it. She drank the water, and felt a bubbling of mirth and joy and serenity fill her. The air around her was sweeter, and she felt Kiria brush her as she sipped some tentatively.
"Hurry! We must bring some to the Mother Tree," said Kiria hurriedly.
Raen nodded and she took out a hollow cup made out of chipped stone. It was crudely cut, and in a rather oblong shape, but it served their purpose. They filled the cup to the brim with the precious water.
"Right, let's go." Said Kiria hurriedly.
And at that moment, the watch on the wall turned and saw them. Raen saw his mouth form an O, and then he gave a great shout. The guards on the walls and in the courtyard all turned and looked.
"Go!" shrieked Kiria.
Raen needed no further bidding. One hand was clasped over the cup and the other held it close to her heart as she ran swiftly, the leaves behind her whirling in a storm, scratching the faces of the guards who dared to chase a tree spirit.
Kiria came after her, panting a bit. With one soaring spring, they were aloft, and flying upon the strength of the mountain wind, which carried them over the stone walls. The great iron gates of the castle had opened and guards spilled out on horseback. Kiria and Raen watched the frantic riders from above.
"They can't catch us," said Kiria, amused.
"Yes they can." Replied Raen grimly.
The humans had taken out their crossbows and were aiming at them. "We can't go faster. The wind takes us where it wants like it does with the autumn leaves." She continued calmly. "When the wind stills, we shall drop to the ground."
Kiria shook. "The Mother Tree..."
The wind slowly lowered them farther ahead into the dense undergrowth of the foothills. The instant their feet touched the ground, they had pushed off, their bare feet skimming lightly like a dragonfly, the hem of their dresses fluttered behind them.
Raen ran so fast, she felt the Waters of Miratha slap her hand with an icy chill. Some of the precious liquid trickled down the front of her dress. But she sprinted ahead, her feet a haze, her eyes could barely see the road ahead, for the sunlight was dim as it filtered through the treetops. She jumped instinctively over roots and branches, and she felt the sacred trees stir in anger, their roots rippling and stretching out to take the human invaders pursuing them.
An arrow struck the branch of a tree close to Raen's ear. Kiria shrieked, as Raen tripped and sprawled, but she was up again, taking the cup, which had rolled from her fingers to the ground. She winced as a sudden jolt of pang stabbed her leg.
Slipping and dodging, they heard the sound of their hunters fade. Raen and Kiria sprung over a few more roots and dodged boulders and thickets before they dared to stop. They halted and gasped for air, coughing and sputtering all the while. Kiria glanced up and murmured. "Oh look ..."
There before them was the Mother Tree, grand even though her once smooth creamy bark was now dark and twisted with lines of age. They heard the rasp of her breath as the wind went through her leaves -- the faceless and voiceless Mother Tree, whose tree spirit had never been perceived. A misty ethereal light from the dusk wrapped around the twisted branches of the Mother Tree. Raen went forward uncertainly, and laid one hand onto the bark. She felt the unsteady pulse of the tree's heart.
Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom.
The sound was slow and deliberate.
"The water," whispered Kiria in a hoarse voice. "The water."
Raen took out the cup, and she gave a strangled cry.
The cup was empty.
Kiria noticed, and her eyes turned glassy with tears. "We are done for. The Mother Tree shall die and we will be nothing but the phantoms of those sacred trees."
Raen looked into the cup, and her eyes blurred over. The sky darkened and a faint silvery glow of starlight caught the cup in an iridescent web, and she saw a faint glimmer in the bottom of the cup.
Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom.
"There are still some drops left!" Raen exclaimed. She raced over to the roots of the Tree.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
"Hurry, Raen!" urged Kiria as Raen began to pour the last drops of the liquid and even squeezed some from the front of her dress.
Boom. Boom ...
The Tree trembled slightly as a wind stirred it. The roots were absorbing the liquid. And even then, Raen knew it was not enough.
It's over, thought Raen. They had gone so far ... and failed.
Raen bowed her head. In her pride she would not cry. Kiria's breath however was torn in ragged sobs. Raen said nothing. Her heart ached.
There was utter silence around them. The branches of the Mother Tree were still. The wind no longer stirred those faded leaves. She seemed utterly lifeless in the gathering darkness.
Kiria raised her tear-streaked face. "We did what we could, Raen." She laid a trembling hand on her shoulder. But Raen could not speak. She only watched the shadows play on the outline of the tree's once-beautiful wood, still lustrous in the silvery moonlight.
Slowly, Raen straightened. She had to accept these things.
She knew she should leave, that there was nothing more she could do there, nothing more to see. But Raen stood there anyway, staring blankly before her, her mind not believing.
The old Mother Tree stood there, solitary and grand. The wind caressed it lovingly, though it seemed dead.
How long they stood there, they did not know. But neither of them could bring themselves to leave. It was a silent night, filled with memories and heartache and tears that would not fall. Dawn approached slowly, and Kiria resolutely turned to go.
At that moment, the Tree seemed to quiver a bit and raise its branches higher, its trunk straighter than before. It seemed momentarily to vibrate in the twilight.
Boom ... Boom ... BOOM.
"It lives," whispered Kiria. They felt the soft breeze whisk up the leaves of the Mother Tree, the old withered leaves growing young and green right before their eyes, as the Waters of Miratha cured the ancient tree. Within moments, the Mother Tree had untwisted its gnarled branches and roots, and stood tall and proud. Only the scars on its trunk showed that any harm had ever scathed it.
Stunned, Raen and Kiria looked at the Mother Tree, and they felt her very breath upon their faces. The sun was rising behind the hills, and the stars were winking out, one by one, like flickering flames on a candle.
"We did it," muttered Kiria, bemused and astonished.
Raen laughed quietly. "It's over. The Waters of Miratha -- no matter how small the quantity -- has more healing powers than even we can understand."
Kiria smiled, the traces of anxiety erased from her brow. The Mother Tree was well again, and the forests of Galthar were safe. The Mother Tree had given the sacred trees of Galthar's forests their life source ... and their guardians. The Mother Tree was here to stay, to provide the trees with their lifeblood.
Kiria and Raen slowly turned and disappeared into the undergrowth, and like vaporous mists in the heat of a cloudless sky, were swallowed up by the shadows. The Mother Tree stood alone, and the sound of its heartbeat echoed through all of Galthar.
Boom. Boom. Boom ...