An ongoing chronicle about Mara Ellias, an immortal sound elemental.
The metal is cold in my hand despite the warmth of the day, and the slight clicking of the keys draws my ear. Brushing the calluses on my nimble fingers, the open tone-holes of the flute resonate with bright sound as the air cascades through the chambers, and my eyes close to listen.
My most recent project, a light jig based on a northern folktale, is most definitely a work-in-progress; I have not even initiated the second half. At the moment, I am working on the countermelody in the flute line underneath the lyrics. It has to be perfect, or else the entire piece would be boring, to say the least. Luckily, flute is my absolute specialty.
I halt my playing, dragging the instrument from my lips reluctantly, and add the necessary notation on the parchment in front of me. I have to be careful, else the other sheets around me tumble to the floor from their precarious perch upon the table. The last thing I wish to do with the rest of my afternoon is tidy up; the condition of my home certainly reflects that sentiment.
After another half hour of experimentation, I finally have a rough outline of the countermelody, enough to work off. I glance at the clock and nod to myself.
"I've still got plenty of time," I utter, even though I am completely alone. I offer a quick laugh to myself; of course I have time. Time is one thing I have plenty of.
I transition to my lyre, the final component of this relatively simple composition. After adding a few chords to the mix, I find that I am not in the mood for that particular instrument. I instead decide to practice the shawm, neglected for too long because of a shortage of reeds. The next hour passes in a much similar fashion; my life is not exactly the most varied.
This time, instead of picking a different instrument, I organize the papers on the desk briefly, enough to prevent an avalanche in the near future, and grab my hat and list. I step outside into the light of the late afternoon sun, my eyes instinctively squinting against the glare. Skirting the edge of the garden, I set off into the woods at a brisk pace. My steps are sure; I have nothing to fear here.
These woods are well known to contain wolves, which prowl through the woods at night, and rumors speculate that creatures far more dangerous than any mortal beast wander these woods, creatures that can suck the soul from your very body, that can carve you up for a trophy, that can control your will like a showy puppet-master. They are right, of course. I live here, after all.
I made this forest my home for well over forty years, my isolation self-imposed. My tolerance for fools has only declined over the years, and the world is chock-full of them. I would like to think of myself as a patient woman, but that would be an obvious lie. Patience is relative, and I would rather not spend an eternity waiting.
I make good time, and soon the trees thin and grow into shrubbery and grasses. Amongst the hilly, bare terrain, one structure stands alone against the windy landscape. It is cylindrical at the bottom, made of red brick, with a wooden scaffold-like structure placed on top. Attached to the roof is a rope that continues all the way down into the depths in the center of it all.
The well has been here as long as I have, and it has been almost like a companion to me all these years. The brick is cracked and weathered, the hard edges beaten down by the harsh plains wind. The subtle howling is present even now, the eerie musicality appealing to me.
Upon reaching the well, I haul up the bucket from its long-dry bed, surprised at the lightness. Usually the action is more of a struggle, but this time I hardly expend any effort. When the bucket finally reaches surface-level, I understand why.
"What in the hell..." I trail off. The bucket is completely empty. Empty, vacant, hollow. Bewilderment flashes through me.
Not once have they forgotten me. Not once in forty years have they failed to deliver. My hand clenches around the handle, the knuckles flashing white.
"How dare they?" I swear, whipping around to head into the direction of the village. For half a second I contemplate how I should deal with them as the ungrateful children they are, but then my steps falter a short distance from the well and I slow to a stop.
I take a single inhalation to calm myself and to think rationally. There must have been some sort of issue, for them to fail me after this long. I have plenty of supplies left for another few days, and I can fend for myself in the meantime. There is no reason to ruin a beneficial deal after a single mistake.
Reticently, I head back home, wrinkles deep in my brow. The village has some credit with me and they have not gone back on their word, so I shall give them two more days. After that point, I cannot say where we will stand.
Every week, the town west of my cottage sends the supplies I cannot gather on my own into the well, to prevent scavenging, and I collect it that afternoon, replacing it with a list for the next week. There is no face-to-face interaction, no conflict, just a purely business transaction. Supplies in exchange for my leniency. Occasionally I will also send copies of my more mediocre works for them to do with as they will. Indeed, I had not spoken with a human being in years and that fact still comforts me.
The two days pass in a much similar manner as those before it. I have added another hand's breadth to my crochet project, but I soon run out of the light blue wool. I approach completion on my composition, now in the refining process, but the act feels hollow, somehow. Insignificant. Music has served as a litmus test for me in the past, expressing what emotions do not make it past to the surface. I am distracted, and I am very well aware of that fact.
My feet itch to make the journey to the town and appease the curiosity burning inside of me. In many ways, I feel more alive than I have felt in years, but also more alarmed.
Out in the garden, dirt coats my hands and knees as I pluck the tiny shoots that poke their way through the earth. The leafy greens are almost ready to harvest, but the fact brings me little joy. The same thing happens every year at the same time, like a formulaic pattern. With the proper conditions, these plants will always grow and mature and die, regardless if I am here or not.
With a little huff, I rise and brush myself off. I use more force than necessary to drive away such thoughts, the solid smack like a douse of water to the face. Of course I am necessary; the world would not dare to continue without me.
"Ridiculous," I grumble to myself, but I am not sure which notion my wayward mind is criticizing.
As I enter the house, my eyes immediately dart towards the clock hanging on the wall. Like so many of my household wares, I did not actually procure it. I sent a list and the village delivered. My yarn, crochet hooks, paper, ink, pots and pans, dishes, tools, and even most of my instruments were sent down that decrepit well on the gusty plains. It is difficult to believe that before I arrived, this was a simple hunting lodge, only fit to serve as a temporary shelter for a few nights.
I bathe in the stream behind my home, grateful that there is still some warmth left in the season. I sit on a rock to dry off before heading back inside. I dress quickly and practically, knowing that the walk to the village is much longer than the trip to the well. Even as I step out the door, some instinct coerces me to spin and pick out my flute from among the others. It is still in its case, its light presence soothing my mind and bringing a smile to my face despite myself.
There is no lock on the door, no way for me to make sure that my home remains safe. A thought comes to mind just then, and I clear my throat. Testing my voice a bit, I launch into the familiar feeling of song.
"Come to me, come to me wary creatures from afar
Your beaks yellow as gold, your feathers black as tar
Fly to my aid once more
Fly as fast as you can soar"
My voice is clear in the still air, and for a second I think that my trick did not work. Then a movement above alerts me to their presence. I crane my neck upwards and my gaze tracks the path of a black dot as it grows into a large raven, more joining it. Birds are always an excellent choice; they have a large communication network to hear from and attuned senses.
The first crow perches on the bit of overhang above the door, and soon an entire murder arrives. I hum a tune to them, giving them instructions in my absence. Words mean nothing to them, and besides, the music is the real power to begin with. The words merely allow me to focus in on a particular subject to address. They are to guard this residence at all times, but they may roam over my territory and do as they like, as long as they do not disturb anything inside or immediately outdoors.
With a caw, most of the birds fly off to continue the hunt, with a few remaining on guard by the entrance. Satisfied, I continue on my way into the trees.
The well is empty.
Alarm bells are ringing in my head as I stare down the shoot, hands braced on the frail wall. The dirt bottom smirks up at me in condescension.
"Damnit all!" I swear, kicking the side a few times in frustration until red dust coats my hem. I knew deep down two days ago that I would have to leave, but I had hoped that I would not have to spend a night in town. It is too long of a trip to make twice of in one day.
When I arrive, something will either be horribly wrong or swiftly become horribly wrong. I pick up the case, discarded from my little tirade, and head further east. The hills, while a beautiful landscape, do not lend themselves to easy travel, and the years of leisure spent in my cottage have not exactly made me athletic. I cannot afford a leisurely pace, since I only have about five or six hours of light left. There are no fireflies around to light my path for me, as I have done a few times before.
I hum a tune as I walk, careful not to direct it at any particular organism. My music is perfectly benign without a target, and I would prefer not to have an audience of birds and rodents for an audience now. A snort escapes me as I envision a little parade of mice and earthworms. Such a thing would not be without precedent.
I push black tendrils of hair back from my face only to have the wind blow them back into my eyes and mouth. Sputtering, I slap my hair into place, braiding it into submission. By the time I tie off with a ribbon, the length of it swings low, the jagged ends trailing into the small of my back. There is not much occasion to see a proper barber, so I have had to improvise.
When I crest a hill sometime later, I spot tiny dwellings on the adjacent rise. It is still another half a mile away, so I can only make out a rough outline in the dwindling daylight. The thought of a hot meal and soft bed rouses my tired feet and I pick up my pace slightly.
As I approach, however, the acrid tang of smoke fills my nostrils, carried downwind on the current. Too much to be a controlled fire, my blood runs cold and dread now permeates my body. Even before I lay eyes on the town, I know what I will find.
Nothing but ash remains, the skeletons of buildings and humans alike blackened beyond recognition. I only see a few bodies, so it looks as though the majority of them managed to escape, leaving behind the stragglers to be torched. So much for human solidarity.
I stride into what used to be the village square, my footsteps muted on the soft earth. The hair on my neck rises and I rub my arms up and down to subdue my goosebumps. Everything is still, holding a collective breath, and the dull mute of the environment seeps into the soles of my feet, up into my thighs, and drains right into my heart. It has been a long time since I have seen such wanton destruction and I call tell at once that the fire was not of natural cause. With a natural fire, people would have escaped or would have died in their homes not out in the open.
Someone set it.
Someone who meant to kill and had likely killed before. Likely a group. Likely young men. Likely living outside of the law.
I do not know who murdered these people, but I know the type and I know how to find them. Such a task would be easy, and my heart leaps at the opportunity. They have taken away my source of comfort, and for that they must pay. Dearly.
Two bodies, their charred skulls grinning, entwine together, one much smaller than the other. A mother or father with their unfortunate child. Unfamiliar feelings course through me at the sight as I stare down at their forms, but I brush them off. I did not know them, so there is no reason for me to feel sorry.
I had planned to sleep here for the night, but now I would rather sleep in my own grave than in this burnt out shell. If I return home, the same supply issue will greet me as soon as I walk in the door. A smile comes to my face, a wicked little grin that shows teeth.
"Oh, this will be fun, won't it?" I ask no one, my soft voice like a clap of thunder in a cloudless sky. I wince slightly, the confusing acoustics all at once silent and deafening.
Even as I leave this wretched town, even as I head on a path to blood, with nothing but a flute in my possession, I cannot help but glance back at those two poor clumps, cuddling until their bodies fade away into dust. In another life, one of them could have easily been me.
With that morbid statement, I set off to track the perpetrators. I could look for footprints and follow those, but to eliminate the possibility of time wasting, I decide to use other more direct methods. Setting my audience below my feet and into the rodent tunnels filled with scurrying creatures readying their hollows for dinner, I sing in an urgent crescendo:
Follow the crime, follow the crime,
Lead me so I may snatch their time.
Use the scent of blood to track the deed;
Of you, I have no greater need.
The lyrics flow from deep inside of my consciousness, more of an instinct rather than any particular fondness for rhyme. Acting as guiding framework, my tune summons my audience a pack of tiny field mice, who swarm my feet, their soft noses pinned to the ground and sniffing. The group shifts with a squeak of discovery and heads off at a run northeast, with me close behind. Despite their miniature size, they set quite a pace, and I occasionally have to jog to stay with them.
Scarlet streaks line the sky in dusky swaths, and the air seems to drop in temperature. Soon my breath puffs out in little clouds from my lips. After about an hour, a ripple passes through the nest of mice, an acknowledgement addressed at me. Their pace slows and I spot a light on the next hill over.
A campfire has been lit, no doubt to keep out the brisk chill now working its way into my bones, and I can see the outlines of possibly a couple dozen men silhouetted starkly against the darkening sky. They have made their tents on the banks of a major river, probably the Riuka, if my sense of direction is not completely mistaken.
I can feel the vibrations of their voices against the sensitive skin of my face, almost like a caress of recognition. Recoiling, I send the mice away with a low whistle. Disgust curls in my gut.
I kneel, plopping the case gently on the grass in front of me. I can barely see anything in the fading light, so I put together the three pieces of my flute by memory rather than sight. I clamp down on the notes that would finish them here and now; I want this to be a special occasion. The cold weather is an issue, but a bit of poor intonation would not be unforgivable.
Fastening the case to my shoulder, I head towards the light of the campfires. I do not hesitate to enter the small cluster of tents. They have clearly not set watch yet, hoping to finish off their rations before getting some sleep.
Head snap around, conversations hush, as my shouted greeting filters across the clearing. Hands instantly grasp for weapons, and I cannot help but smile. I hold my hands up placating, a symbol of surrender.
"Whoa, there!" I exclaim good-naturedly.
"Who are you? Identify yourself!" One of the men demands.
"No one important. Say, would you like to hear a song? I wrote it myself." I say, exuberance radiating from every pore. This is going better than I thought.
Murmurs move through the crowd as muscles relax and they realize that I am just another woman to take advantage of and no, my flute is not a weapon of war. Yet.
"You'd best move on. Go home," the apparent leader, or at least the most vocal, states.
"Come on, I know you'd like it." I reply suggestively, placing my hand on a generous hip to extenuate this fact. A couple of catcalls sound and I can see the leader's shoulders droop a bit in defeat.
"Very well, play your song."
Moving to the center of the ring, I play a few warmup notes. Letting out a single b-flat, I use the vibrations to soothe their minds and concerns, relaxing them into a state of complete mindlessness. I wrap their collective conscious into a single, malleable form I can mold and shape.
Like a puppeteer, I pull their strings up tightly and they jostle to their feet, warm and content smiles on their face. Initiating and cheerful, bouncy piece, I call them to attention and bid them march, march along in lines two-by-two, up to the bank of the river.
A laugh of pure joy escapes me; it has been too long since I have done this, using my art to my advantage. Tingles run along my spine at each wave of sound, each pulse of power that radiates from my fingertips.
I pop the fog clouding their awareness, but retain control of their limbs. I want them to be awake for this.
Line by line, I send them to their deaths, drowning them in the river like the drowned rats they are. Death by suffocation, while painful, is much less so than death by burning. I would know; I have suffered each before.
I leave the leader for last. He was the more intelligent one, and I am curious to know if tales of me still circulate. Before forming my deal with the town, I was on the run and I would like to remain hidden. I am in no rush to have my tongue cut out.
I loosen my hold on his mouth, "Tell me, do you know who I am?"
He squints up at me, but I know that the fire illuminates my face just fine. Terror and confusion are the only things clouding his vision.
"No," He speaks softly.
I toss my hair back in annoyance. Of course he would not recognize me, it has been forty years.
"Correction. Do you know what I am?" I command, my voice clear and deep in the night.
"You're the sound elemental?" He asks hesitantly, eyes darting from side to side in an obvious attempt to search for an escape.
"Yes, I am. And do you know why I am here?" I say, more softly this time.
He swallows a lump in his throat, "I don't know." The lie is a sad excuse for a deception.
"Really? A town a little south and west of here, near the forest, was recently burned down, several of the people scorched. You wouldn't have had anything to do with this, right?" I chirp.
He tries to shake his head, but only succeeds creating a silence while he discovers that it is futile. "No, I don't know anything about that." The pumps of his heart pick up rapidly, forcing the air around it into motion and to my ears. My lips curve into a grin.
"That's too bad. It means I've killed these men for nothing." I kneel down to him so that we are practically nose-to-nose. "What do you know of Mara Ellias?"
A gasp escapes him, "Ellias? Isn't she dead?" He asks, shock temporarily erasing his fear.
My grin slowly fades, despite the comfort the statement brings me. "No, she isn't. But you will be." I stand, turning my back on him. "For your cooperation, I'll make it painless."
"No, no pl-" he cuts off as I play a single c-sharp against the tone hole, stilling his heart before he finishes. I bring the flute down from my face, the exhilaration draining from my body as quickly as it came. Weariness drags on my limbs and for once in my long life, I feel old. I can almost touch the wrinkled skin dragging off my cheekbones, my eyes sunken into my eye sockets and my grizzled hair bleached white. Tracing a finger along my skin, I feel nothing but the taut surface of a youthful beauty.
Shoulders slumped, I head back into their camp and confiscate one of the bowls of soup left behind. It is still warm and surprisingly tasty, but I consume little. Curling beside the fire, I drift into a dose, the carried away on the current of my memories.
My fingernails are dirty. My feet, too. Mama is going to be mad because I just got out of the bath, but I wanted to work outside again. The sun hasn't even set, so I don't know why she pulled me inside so early. She's been doing that more and more lately, ever since I turned five. Apparently someone is coming over later, but I don't remember who.
My bottom lip sticks out as I think about the problem, hands on my hips. The flower is wilting and I can't figure out why. I've watered it and checked for bugs, but it still looks sick. It's my favorite since it's right by my window, so I really want it to live. I don't understand.
Maybe the soil is bad. If I move it, it might get better. Grabbing a trowel, I return and start digging. The sunflower is pretty tall, even though it is young, so I have to be very careful not to hurt the roots. If I do that, the plants will die.
"Laaa, lala dala to tumdumdum laaaa..." I intone as I work, helping me focus. Mama always tells me to be careful, to stop singing, but I like singing. Plus, she isn't here to catch me.
Thick squiggles pop out of the ground and I squeak in alarm. Not again! I drop my trowel in the dirt and wipe off my hands on my pink skirt. Worms are so gross!
Sometimes when I hum, things like this happen. I told Mama and she said that I was just imagining it. My hands clench into fists.
"I'm not a liar!" I declare. To prove her wrong, I open my mouth and belt out my song. Soon, birds and mice and lizards join me, scurrying around my toes and tickling my feet. The mice start burrowing around the roots of my sunflower and I catch it before it falls.
Suddenly, the lizards crawl up my legs and over my arms to the flower and I shriek. I try to pry them off me, dropping the plant, but they keep going. They carry the flower on their backs over to the far side of the patch, the area with the best sunlight and soil. The birds pick up the sunflower up while the mice and earthworms put the dirt back.
I can't breathe and my chest feels tight. I bend over, trying to breathe, but I can't. I can't. I can't.
I feel a hand on my shoulder, and I scrabble away on my hands and knees.
"Wait! Let me help," an adults voice says through the haze. I turn around and a really tall man kneels in front of me. The lump in my throat is going away, but it's still hard to breathe.
"Who are you?" I say but my voice hurts and I sound like my grandmother when she uses her pipe.
"I'm a friend." He says, and he looks nice. "What was going on out here?"
My Mama isn't here, and he is a stranger. Should I talk to him? He said he was my friend, so he must be.
"I wanted to help my sunflower, but then the animals came and scared me," I reply, pointing to the plant.
"Yes, I think I saw that. Do you know why they came?" He asks. He looks nice.
I can here Mama's warning in my head, but I like him. So I smile, "Cause I sang to them. I like to sing and they did what I wanted."
He smiles back at me, but now he doesn't look nearly as nice. There's something in his eyes I don't like anymore.
I stand up, "I have to go find my Mama now."
He stands as well, "Yes, let's go find your mother."
He doesn't look nice.
The light of the morning forces my eyes open, lashes flickering to clear the sleep from my clouded vision. An undignified groan escapes my lips as I sit up and survey the area. At first, I am confused, unsure of where I am and how I can to be there, but then realization dawns with the day. Images of ash, blood, and water reverberate through my mind, with less of the impulsivity from the previous evening.
I swear, recalling all of my actions, checking for any possible leaks, and reassessing my current situation. Even though there is no plausible way for my location to have been betrayed, I cannot help but to fear for the worst. Those men were too organized, too educated, to be mere bandits, as I had previously suspected. No, they were too well supplied. The only alternative is that they were state-sanctioned. I am not sure if the political boundaries and agreements changed in the last forty years. Indeed, they most likely had changed, considering the condition the country was in when I fled.
Several tents line the banks, with sleeping rolls, rations, and other assorted items for me to loot. Eagerly, I sort through the tents and collect a stack of supplies that may be useful. I find a compass, a couple sheets of blank paper, a serrated knife, and several hunks of bread and cheese, as well as a bag for carrying all of it back to the cottage. All of my thoughts come to a halt at this.
My cottage. There is no way for me to live as I am used to now. There will not be any paper to compose, no fresh bread to eat, no ink to document, no new clothes to wear. My minimal contact, it seems, was integral, perhaps more than I ever realized. Without the village, the villagers, I will be able to survive, but I will loathe every moment of that time.
The bag in my hand is only a temporary relief. In order to fix the situation, I must either move and find a new location or find the villagers and resume my agreement with them. Both of these options are less than convenient.
The townspeople provided every week for forty years without fail. I would not categorize my opinion as loyal, but rather appreciative of the consistency. Getting another town to cooperate would expose my existence to yet another group of humans and increase the chance of being caught.
Nodding to myself in agreement, I rise to my feet from where I was perched on the bank, dust off my skirt, and head back towards the direction I came from, beginning the search for the missing villagers.
Instead of heading back to the burnt out settlement, I head towards the tree line. I am going to need more than an instrument to travel for more than a few days, should it come to that. There are only so many times one can wear the same clothes before hygiene really comes into question.
The longest the townspeople could have travelled would be around nine days, but I doubt they would have moved too significant a distance away. I am not sure of the exact population count, but there had to be at least two hundred, even considering the ones they left behind. The group would not be expeditious, considering that the people may have offspring that have to be looked after.
But even after I find the humans, what then? Their home would need significant reconstruction that they are not capable of so far from the major cities. At what point would they be able to provide any amount of supplies to me? It could be months before they are prepared with any surplus. Suddenly my plan seems pointless.
A black speck draws my eye. A caw, carried on the wind, reaches my ears, and I catch the tone of urgency, of warning. My blood runs cold; something is wrong. Even before I can contemplate or think, I am flying across the grasslands, dust kicking up behind my heels. I know I cannot keep this pace for long and before I reach the trees my breaths come in ragged gulps and I slow to a jog. Pausing for a minute, I put a hand on the trunk next to me to steady myself before setting off at a manageable jog. I am not far now, but the distance seems to multiply before my eyes, a ravine of forest holding me captive.
The crow descends under the branches and glides from branch to branch, acting as an unnecessary guide. I know this forest like the back of my hand, for I have been here longer than most of its inhabitants.
Eventually I come across signs of intrusion, the broken twigs and disturbed tranquility of the forest evident from the hushed wildlife. The normal chirps and calls of the organisms are gone, replaced instead by a void that sends alarmed tingles down my spine.
More signs appear as I approach my home. Anger flashes through me and my light footsteps become heavy with feeling. How dare they, whoever they are, trespass in my woods? I will not tolerate it.
A familiar but long unheard sound penetrates the eerie quiet. A sound that I wish never to hear again.
The cry of a human child.
I stop in my tracks. A thousand thoughts cross my head. Back forty years ago, I was on the run and without a home. I fled into the woods, in hope of escape. Perhaps the villagers did the same.
Based on the location of the hushed voices and the thrice-be-damned child, who is still wailing like a banshee, they are located about one hundred paces of my doorstep, too convenient for my liking. No, they are here for a reason.
The crows have fulfilled their bidding faithfully, and I can see that they have left not a speck of droppings on my house, which pleases me more than it should. The birds are flustered and many, a downright unsettling sight. The humans must be very persistent.
As I step up to my cottage, the crows part and die down a bit. A mini settlement is parked on the embankment of the stream, dirty men, women and children fanned out for some distance. A lone woman, middle aged, turns to look at me and we make eye contact. Hers are sunken into her sockets and a dull brown. Her eyebrows lift in surprise and her arms reaches out and grabs the shoulder of the man next to her. When he spots me, he calls out to his companions, and eventually all gazes are firmly planted on me. For a second, no one dares move. Then, a weathered old man steps out of the crowds.
I scan his face, and I vaguely recognize the cut of his jaw and brows. His walking stick clacks against the rocks, and with his haggard appearance, his spry form seems much better suited for someone a decade younger. He advances toward towards me, his eyebrows lowered in consternation.
"It has been a long time," He rumbles, extending his hand for me to shake. I glance down at the gesture, but do not return it. He lowers it, no surprise showing on his countenance. Instead, he just lifts a brow, and in that single gesture, I remember his identity. I look past the years crinkling his face and wash the grey from his hair and beard, and instead of the grizzled old man in front of me, I see the young leader who offered a traitor a boon.
"Why are you here, Baylor?" I query, my discomfort at the intrusion displayed as irritation. The sight of people in my clearing is so out-of-place and unusual that I am not sure how to process it. The child is still crying, and the sound is like a needle in the back of my skull.
"You have not changed a bit, I see. Very well, I will get to the point," he states, adjusting his hold on the wood. "We need your help."