A Woeful Melody
Silver hair shining,
Maiden singing to the stars.
Awestruck, I stood still
A song of woeful melody,
Rhyme belittled and embittered,
Powerful despite its sorrow.
I couldn’t look away
My eyes caught in a melancholic embrace.
She opens her eyes and I realize how far from the trees I’ve wandered. She doesn't seem embarrassed in the slightest, as she stares at me.
I meet her eyes. They’re a dark green, a striking color unlike anything I’ve seen before. They’re slightly downcast at the edges, giving her an almost permanent expression of melancholy. My heart beats quicker in my chest. Her hair is caught in a light breeze and floats about her head like a halo. I stand silently, afraid to move and too heartbroken by her song to speak. What can I say after such a forlorn demonstration?
"I am Gwynn," she states, her soft voice carrying across the clearing, steady and strong. Without another word she turns and walks away. I watch her disappear into the forest, my eyes tracing her luminous hair until it’s fully engulfed by the shadows. A few minutes after her departure, I‘m still standing in the glade, until the sound of animals rustling through the undergrowth rouses me. Quickly, I make my way back through the forest, not knowing how far I ventured from the safety of the barrier. All the while, my thoughts keep repeating her name, Gwynn. Gwynn. Gwynn.
It isn’t a name I’ve heard before, but still, it seems familiar somehow. After realizing that attempting to remember anything is futile, I simply push the name aside. The better question is: Where did she come from, and why?
She definitely didn’t live in the village, but then how was she alive? The barrier is the only protection from the monsters that roam the countryside, and only church leaders can travel between villages. My thoughts are occupied completely, and I realize with a start that I’m already at the edge of the forest. I keep to the outskirts of the village, circling to the east.
Eventually I see the church, made of stone and rising four stories into the sky. The entrance is an enormous double door of wood, ten feet tall and eight feet across, reinforced with iron bands. It dwarfs all the other wooden structures that serve as homes to the majority of people. I walk along the outside of the church, until I see a squat wooden house, made of roughly hewn logs. The fact that it’s still standing is a miracle in itself.
Entering through the doorway, my master is sitting upright on his bed of hay. He is a balding man of later years, his hair thin and white. He wears his plain brown robe like usual, tied with a piece of twine around his waist. He looks up sharply, and seeing it’s me, rises to greet me with a stern expression.
“Where in Loriana’s blessed name did you go? I thought you were just collecting berries? You almost missed curfew.” His tone is intended to be sharp, but it ends up sounding worried more than anything.
“Sorry, Tef. I ended up lost.” Close enough to the truth. He sighs deeply, then smiles.
“At least you made it back alright.” I give him a small smile in return. Tef is the best type of person. Gentle, thoughtful, and above all else, kind and generous. Though it is forbidden, he always finds a way to sneak out some of his food from the church dining hall to give to hungry families. It worries me that he’s getting thinner all the time, but I never say anything because when he gets back from delivering the food, he always has a large grin plastered on his face. He had told me once that it was his greatest joy in his life to give to others.
“We have to do a lot of copying for the church records tomorrow, so make sure to get to sleep soon,” Tef says as he lies back down on his bed. The room is barely big enough for both of us to sleep in, but there’s a roof over our heads and something soft to sleep on, which is more than can be said for everyone.
“Yes sir,” I say as I lay down onto the hay. It’s fully night by now, and in the darkness I lay awake, my mind still occupied by Gwynn. I look over to where Tef is, but can’t make out much in the darkness.
“Hey, Tef? You awake still?” I ask quietly.
“Yes. What is it?” He replies after a breath.
“Is there truly nothing beyond the barrier?” There is a period of silence, long enough that I begin to wonder if he’s fallen asleep or is politely ignoring me.
“Yes...all there is outside the barrier is danger. Why do you ask?”
“I was just wondering why I’ve never seen a demon before.” I lie. And why there was a woman whom I’ve never met before.
“That’s because the wards are doing their job, thanks to the blessing of the Church and our patron saint Loriana. That’s all you need to know, so just be happy that you’re alive and safe.” That was the response that I expected. I’ve asked the question before, and always gotten the same answer.
“You’re right Tef. Thanks for reminding me.”
“Good, now get to sleep and talk no more about this.” I turn onto my side and close my eyes. In my head, I keep running over the image of the woman. Her song filled my head and made my heart ache in remembrance of it. Why was she so sad? Is it because she lives outside the village and isn’t protected like we are? That’s all I can think it could be. It doesn’t make sense though. My thoughts eventually quiet down enough so sleep can take me. As I’m drifting away, I hear the woman’s voice again, but this time in a brighter, more cheerful tone.
“Diqan. Diqan. Wake up.” The sound of Tef’s voice calling me, wakes me up. I open my eyes and see him stretching out the kinks from sleep. Dawn light streams into the room from the one window, it’s shutters opened wide to allow it passage. Was that a dream, or a memory? The thought excites me, as I haven’t been able to remember anything before I woke up in the church infirmary.
“What’s got you smiling so early in the morning?” Tef asks. I realize that I am indeed smiling. I suppress it for now.
“No reason. Just happy to be alive and safe another day.” Tef smiles.
“True enough. Now let’s say our prayers.” We hold each other’s hands and close our eyes.
“Loriana, great protector and holy saint , continue to watch over us and keep us safe from all the evils in this world. We thank you for the blessing that you have granted us, and we will work each and every day to further your cause and proclaim your name on high for all the world to see.”
“Uten.” We say it together, as we do every day. Once finished, we walk to the church. It’s doors are wide open now and we enter, bowing our heads at the shrine just inside the entryway. The main room is the congregation room, where all the services are held. Wooden benches line the room front to back, with one aisle in the center and one on each side next to the walls. At the far end, the floor rises into stairs, with a lectern sitting on the top, far above the benches. There is an enormous window taking up most of the wall, made of colored glass. It depicts Loriana as a beautiful, black-haired woman wearing a white robe, watching over the village, covered in a dome stretching from the holy wards.
Just seeing it brings to mind all the lectures that the Head Priest gives from the lectern about the evils of the world beyond the wards. He reinforces again and again that only death awaits us beyond the protection of Loriana. If that’s true, then how is that woman still alive?
The thought hits me unexpectedly, and it strikes me that it is sacrilegious to question the preaching of the church. I turn to say something to Tef, when I realize that he isn’t beside me anymore. I look around, but don’t see him anywhere.
“Hello, Diqan.” I turn to the voice and see Ferron. He has just turned eighteen, the same age as me, but he still looks fourteen. He’s short, with a boyishly round face, long black hair, and almost feminine facial features. He’s wearing the dark blue robes that identify him as an aide to the Grand Amon.
“Hello, Ferron.” I say politely. “Have you seen Tef?”
“I haven’t. And I haven’t come to simply say hello. You’re to accompany me to the Grand Amon’s chambers.”
“Really? Me? Do you know why?” I ask, concerned. I can’t bring to mind a single time the Grand Amon has requested to see anyone, especially someone at such a low standing as me.
“Sorry, I was only told to fetch you.”
“Okay.” I say meekly, already praying to Loriana that this won’t be as bad as it seems. Ferron leads the way up a set of stairs. Up three sets of stairs, everything is normal, but there is a pair of guards blocking our way up the fourth. They wear suits of chainmail, have metal helmets, and carry short swords on their waists. As we approach they give Ferron a nod and move aside for us to pass through. I can’t help but stare. Isn’t this a bit overboard? Who would attack the Grand Amon? As we walk past, I notice the guards giving me sympathetic looks, which only aides to further my concerns.
There’s a marked difference upon reaching the fourth floor. In the lower floors, where the walls were modestly decorated with the crest of Loriana, now hang masterful paintings depicting Loriana and her followers, slaying beasts as large as buildings. In addition, thick rugs cover the stone floor, and evenly spaced through the hallway are windows with yellow glass. Sunlight filtering through tints everything in a soft yellow light, similar to the horizon at dawn. There is only one doorway at the end of the hall, which we walk towards. I brace myself for what awaits me beyond it. Loriana, patron saint of protection, thank you for your blessing, and please watch over me in these troubling times.
Ferron opens the door and motions me inside. I take a deep breath before walking in with my head bowed. I keep my eyes on the carpet and wait patiently to be acknowledged.
“Raise your head.” It’s a woman’s voice, firm but gentle. The Grand Amon is a woman? I look up at the command. The Grand Amon has long hair as black as coal, and piercing yellow eyes. She is sitting in an ornate wooden seat behind an enormous desk. She looks younger than I ever could have imagined, with only a few wrinkles around her eyes. Her robe is the traditional dark blue, though hers is adorned with white beads along the seams. She smiles kindly at me.
“I’m assuming this came as a surprise? Few ever see me and none ever expect to find a woman.” I remain silent, not sure if I have permission to speak. “Don’t be so timid. Feel free to speak your mind.” She folds her hands on her desk, and waits.
“I thank you for blessing me with your presence,” I say quickly and bow my head again. What does she want me for? She sighs.
“Oh well, I suppose we should discuss why you were summoned here.” Her smile falters and her eyes harden. “I was woken last night by a signal from the north ward. It seems someone had left the protection of the barrier.” My breath catches and my hands begin to tremble. I clasp them together to try and hide their shaking. “Usually, this would be seen as a crime punishable by stoning; however,” she smiles again, though it seems brittle compared to the previous one, “I know how hard you work at the library, and I understand that you must have made a mistake, so I’ll let this transgression go for now.” I feel a weight lift from my shoulders, and my breath comes easier.
“Thank you so much, your holiness.” I say, truly grateful for her kindness.
“I only have two more questions before you go, Diqan.” She stands up and walks around the desk to where I’m standing. She is tall, taller than me by half a foot. She puts a hand on my chin and tilts my head up to look her in the eyes. “What did you see out there?” She asks, not letting go of my face. Her yellow eyes, lupine in nature pins me in place, so that I can’t move nor speak.
“So you did see something,” she muses aloud. She lets go of my face and takes a step back, eying me critically. “How’s your head?” Her voice is filled with concern. As she mentions it, I feel my head get heavy, and nausea overcomes me. The room begins to spin, then my vision fades to darkness, and I hear a voice. I can’t understand what is says, but the tone is sharp like an icicle snapping.