Clearly, my lack of regular posts means I have not quite gotten back into the swing of things with the start of the new semester. I won’t bore you with all the details, but know I am sitting down to write every day, as often as I can. I hope you are enjoying The Tale of Two Mountains so far, and you keep coming back to read, even though I have yet to get my groove back.
There is a lot of pressure in trying to turn out a finalized, publishing-ready chapter every-other-week or so. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad I undertook this project, even with the stress involved, because it is hard, as an author of YA Fantasy, to know exactly what to blog about, to capture the attention of the young adult audience (especially in this age of electrons, where attention spans can only be measured by the speed of neutrinos, and most people would rather listen to a podcast or watch a video than read a book), so I figured the best way to increase interest would be to show my work. When I began writing this story a few months ago, I hoped it would help bring in readers of fantasy, which, let’s face it, are the people authors of fantasy need most. It is working, but while I intend to continue writing Isabella and Noel’s story, I think it would make posting more regularly a bit easier (and take off some of the pressure to produce biweekly solid chapters of a lore story that is integral to The Eleventh Age, which is nearly impossible without a thousand other things going on), if I wrote more often about other things. Posting more often would mean putting myself out there more regularly, building the fan-base, but again I am back to the original struggle of what readers want to read about when not… er… reading.
This website has recently celebrated its first anniversary, so it is time to start asking for your feedback as fans. If you are a young adult fantasy reader and are enjoying The Tale of Two Mountains, or have already read and loved The Eleventh Age, and are waiting patiently for the second book, I’d like you to tell me what I can do better on this site. Feel free to comment below, letting me know what else you might be interested in reading about on this blog. Do you want to hear more about my family life (Fast Girls and Rock Stars, What I’ve Learned About Experience…)? Are you interested in knowing more about my writing process (A Fate More Than Metaphors, Nature of Evil…)? Do you enjoy random articles about things I find interesting or curious (Love Stories, The Moral of the Story…)? What do you think I should write about, to attract more readers like you? Let me know, and thanks in advance for your input! But before you run off, enjoy the latest installment of The Tale of Two Mountains.
“The wanderer lives,” she whispered, clutching the collar of Harvey’s shirt, still trying to catch her breath. “He lives.”
“I know,” he answered, heavy brow casting a dark shadow over his eyes as he laid Isabella down on the thin reed mat, unfolded the musty blanket there beside it and tossed it over her, tucking it around her trembling frame. He had carried her up a long hallway, following in the old mother’s wake as she flicked her wrist, lighting candles that appeared out of nowhere for Harvey’s sake. The room at the end of the hall was dark and sparse and reeked of mouldering herbs and diseased feet. “You will be all right, Issa,” Harvey whispered. “I promise, we will find a way.”
“The wanderer lives,” she pleaded with him.
Harvey looked desperate as he pressed his hand to her forehead, kneeling there beside her, whispering, “I know. I know,” before adding to the room at large, “Are you going to help her?”
“You should leave us now, Young Harvey. We will tend our daughter,” the eldest mother answered from the corner, where she mended the little mother’s broken hand. Shivering, Isabella looked down at the deep bruises covering her own arm. Though she knew something else had been in control of her when it happened, she could not help but feel guilty for crushing the little Felo’s bones. The pain, when Moag took hold of her, had been unlike any she had ever known. It felt as though the fabric of her very soul was being stretched across the entire span of time, through all she had ever been, all she might have become, and slowly her ends began to fray and the weave of herself became nothing. Her physical body had given up the fight rather quickly, back in the dining chamber, but for some reason, like the wanderer, Fate did not take her when she died. “We do not know what will happen during this transition or how the rest of us will be affected,” the old woman was saying, “especially those with empathic traits. I understand your sorrow, but you should say your goodbyes, while enough of your friend’s senses remain to understand you, and take your leave.”
Isabella knew the old mother was right. Harvey should not be there.
“I will stay,” Harvey answered sharply, then swallowed as he took Isabella’s blackened fingers in his, being careful not to hurt her. He need not have taken such care. No feeling remained in her hand, and she could no longer move her fingers. It was as though it did not even belong to her.
“H-Harvey,” Isabella stammered.
He gave a brokenhearted smile and raised her dead fingers to his lips, kissing the backs of them, the tears in his eyes so startling to her that she forgot to tell him he had to leave. For a moment, he looked as though he might do as their mother said and say a thousand words he had never had to say before, a thousand words neither of them had ever considered, their lives having long been dictated by their mutual commitment to the Mdonyatra, but at the sound of footsteps in the hall, Harvey looked over his shoulder then hurried to his feet, as Isabella’s father rushed through the door, followed closely by the middle mother and the rest of the Mdrai.
“Issa,” her father whispered, taking Harvey’s place by her side, kneeling over her, pulling her up into his arms to hold her close, kissing her cheeks as he had not done since she was small. “Sweet, gentle Issa.” There were tears in his eyes as well.
“He lives,” she warned. As her father blinked, his tears fell, and for a brief moment, Isabella saw herself reflected there in him. She looked frail and broken, and her body shook lightly in his arms. She expected him to have the answers, to tell her what they intended to do, but soon his eyes changed, alarmed by her words, and he laid her back on the ground. “The wanderer lives,” she said as her father glanced back at Harvey, who shook his head. He had not understood her. No one understood.
“What is happening to her?” Omdra Yang asked as the little mother, her arm dressed with bandages, came to sit on her knees, at Isabella’s other side.
Her eyes were gentle, despite all that had happened. Unbothered by the events of earlier, she took Isabella’s morbid hand, examining it once more, running her fingers over the necrotic contusions that ran from the tips of her fingers up past her elbow, death still spreading. “Moag will finish the work it began in her last night,” she answered simply.
“But she escaped,” Isabella’s father said, his voice as cold and lifeless as his daughter’s arm. “Everyone told me it was impossible, but she came back. She is here, so why is this happening?”
“Why now, not before?” Omdra Wallace clarified, sharing a concerned glance with the other Mdrai gathered there, looking down at Isabella, with dismay, even disgust, none of them bothering to conceal their sense of shame at what had become of her.
The eldest mother joined them in their circle now, resting a hand on Zo Asan’s shoulder. “After receiving his discipline, Young Harvey retrieved your daughter for us. We have many questions, as many as you must have, but they will likely go unanswered, and we must accept this. We do not understand how she managed to survive her first encounter in the tunnels, and she did not have time to tell us much of her endeavor before she was overwhelmed by Moag once again, right there in front of us. Young Harvey was there and can confirm, the moment elf entered one of the forbidden tunnels, Young Isabella was wrenching around on the floor in agony. As you can see, her right arm is the source, and she has already begun to deteriorate.
In the darkness, those who come in contact with Moag experience something like a dream state as they are consumed,” she continued, “but out here, our daughter is forced to endure every moment of her unfurling fully conscious of what is happening to her. For a brief time I believed she would receive some mercy and the physical end would come quickly for her, but for some reason, the wanderer awoke from his dreams, as Young Isabella did this morning, Moag released them both, at least for a time, and the child was miraculously revived. We were all very surprised she lived, none as surprised as Young Harvey, I believe.”
“She died in my arms,” Harvey said, shaking his head as the others looked back at him, where he stood behind Isabella’s father. “She was dead, but suddenly, she gasped for air, choking up sputum and sand.”
“Sand?” Omdra Yang said curiously.
“It is as I told you this morning when she managed to escape,” the elderly woman answered softly. “A part of our daughter still lingers in Moag. It is only a matter of time before she is lost to us forever. We called you here so that you would see for yourself what Moag does to those it touches. Now that you have seen how she suffers, you should go, and allow us to attend to her in what time she remains in this world.”
“How long will she be forced to endure this?” Omdra Vega asked, his voice hoarse in his throat.
“Minutes… Days… That is entirely up to the wanderer,” the youngest mother said, repressing a sigh, her blind eyes locked on Isabella’s father as she spoke, as though she peered inside of him. Isabella looked over to find her father’s jaw was clenched tight, his brow drawn so low he was barely recognizable. Without a word, the young mother began untying Isabella’s Omdet Filim, but her Omdra stopped the little Felo and took over the job himself, his motions automatic, his eyes careful not to gaze upon Isabella’s face as he removed the vestment from his aspirant. The others watched in silence as he got to his feet, gingerly folded the garment, as done in the ceremony of passing, then crossed the room, stopping short of the door, as Omdra Wallace asked the little mother why it would be up to the wanderer. Isabella pleaded in her head for her father to turn around while he hesitated to hear the little mother answer, “We believe the longer the wanderer survives Moag, the longer Isabella will remain in this state, fully aware as she is devoured by Moag.”
With that, Isabella’s father left her, carrying her robes away, not once glancing back– not in anguish, not in sympathy, not in pity or despair. Not even in love. Though it was strange to her that she might want all of those things now.
“Pati,” Isabella cried, choking out the word, as he turned the corner into the hall, but the cry was stifled as the torment inside of her returned, swelling with so many ideas she had never felt before, because there was no need to feel them here in their mountain, where life was simple, their duties apparent, where the Felimi had a saying for everything and the Mdrai administered to Fate and their people with unyielding faith. Until now.
“Is there nothing we can do?” Omdra Wallace asked, turning his head away as the blackness crept up Isabella’s veins and tears spilled down her cheeks, as she fought the rising current inside her, pushing her feet against the ground, her back arching as the little mother struggled to hold her still. She had been betrayed, abandoned. She was lost.
“There is nothing,” the elder mother answered, her pensive smile little consolation to anyone. “The rest of you should go and let the rains wash away this travesty from your minds. Our child’s struggle with Moag is a burden we mothers alone should bear.”
Harvey had remained silent as the Felimi and Mdrai discussed what would happen, no doubt faithful they would find an answer that would save Isabella, but now, as the others began to turn away from her, his reserve broke. “Wait! Issa made it out of the tunnels alive,” he insisted as Omdra Vega took him by the elbow to lead out of the room. “She died, yet as with the wanderer, Fate did not take her.” He pulled his arm free and hurried back to Isabella, with Vega on his heels. “Perhaps the wanderer will make it through the tunnels as well, and she will be safe. Can you not see there is still hope?” Vega caught him just as Omdra Yang took his other arm, and the two men tugged at him as he dug his heels into the ground, calling out, “No! Issa! I will stay! Issa!” as they dragged him away. Finally Omdra Wallace, who was quite a bit larger than the rest, picked him up from behind and carried him out the door, hushing him in a gruff voice as they went, reminding him of his place, his duty as a Child of Danguin, and the lashes he had already received.
“Harvey,” Isabella sobbed, as their voices carried off down the hall and the Mardraim, who had remained away from the group, came forward, his hands clasped easily in front of him.
“You should go with the others, Young Edward. The child’s death will not be easy for any of us,” the eldest mother said, crouching down at Isabella’s side as the convulsions began.
The Mardraim laughed quietly, “Admittedly, I have not lived as many lives as you, nor do I remember them quite so well, but I am hardly young, and certainly I am not afraid to witness what will happen to the girl. As Mardraim, it is important I know what she experiences, especially since no previous Mardraim recorded any information about Moag for future generations. What are these words she repeats? He lives? Do you know their meaning?”
“She speaks nonsense,” the youngest mother answered softly, shaking her head. “Surely you can sense her mind is not whole.”
“I can. I wonder, though, if it could be the wanderer’s language?” the man asked, bending down next to the elderly woman, using the sleeve of his robe to wipe the saliva from Isabella’s face and neck.
“This is a curious question,” the young mother said, letting go of Isabella’s shoulders, sitting back on her knees.
“These are curious circumstances, would you not agree?”
“Of course. Unfortunately, we will never know what she is saying,” the elder mother offered.
“Or perhaps we will,” the Mardraim frowned. “Would it not be better for the child if we do what we can to ease her pain? And it seems to me her arm would be simple enough to heal.”
“Healing her would only prolong her agony, Young Edward,” the little mother whispered, unable to conceal her impatience. “Our daughter’s pain will be gone in due time. Moag will see to it. You need to leave, Young Edward.”
The Mardraim sighed, brushed a tear from Isabella’s cheek with the backs of his fingers, then stood, folding his hands in front of him once more, watching the floor. Isabella thought he would go, like the others, but he only paced a few steps before speaking in a voice that was heavy with burden. “I am afraid Young Harvey is right, my Felimi. I believe I know why the girl suffers now and how she managed to escape the tunnels this morning.”
The elderly mother’s smile broadened unpleasantly, even as the little mother’s eyes widened. All this time, the middle mother stood in the far corner of the room, out of sight of Isabella and away from the rest of the group. She had remained silent since her arrival, but now she came forward into the dim light spilling in through the door and said, a bitter chill in her voice, “Your aspirant is mistaken. He does not understand the will of Fate. Was this matter not resolved?”
“I have information he kept from you, in an attempt to protect Young Isabella, because he believed he was to blame for taking the girl with him to help rescue the wanderer. Now I am afraid he will carry that blame with him for the rest of his life, given the circumstances. I am certain, if he had known this would happen to her as a result, he would have taken her place.”
“He told you, yet you chose not to divulge this information to us as well?” the eldest mother scowled, all pretense gone.
“I believed he was correct in accepting the blame,” the Mardraim answered. “Now I am not so certain anyone can be blamed. Are you not interested in what I have to tell you? It might save the girl’s life.”
“Save her life? After all that has happened, our Mardraim speaks of intentionally violating the Mdonyatra?” the middle mother scoffed. She looked frightening standing there in front of the door, much of her face hidden in shadow. “Even if you had brought us the truth in the beginning, allowed us to judge what was correct and not correct in Young Harvey’s actions, as is the duty of the Felimi, the child’s end would be certain, but the longer you waited to come forward, the more lost she has become, the weaker she grows, and now, after seeing her pain, you want to save her? Young Edward, our failures, once done, cannot be undone, only used as examples not to be repeated by others who follow along behind us. This is a lesson I myself taught you in another life, when you were just a boy. It seems you have yet to learn, as for the sake of saving this child, you wish to repeat the very mistake she made that brought her to this place. We do not interfere in the way of Fate. No. We do not wish to hear your opinions as to how the girl escaped the tunnels or what might save her life, when she belongs to Moag.”
At this, the old man returned to Isabella’s side, kneeling down next to the elderly mother, bending very near Isabella’s ear and said quietly, even as the tremors inside her intensified, and she could feel death spreading inside her, “Issa, I believe Fate is guiding the wanderer to us, as Harvey said. He told me what you did to save the wanderer. I believe that somehow, when you brought him back to life, you became entangled in whatever force is driving him to us. You were not alone in feeling the desperate need to save him. Your father felt it. Harvey felt it. You acted on it and became enjoined with the elf’s purpose. Fate is guiding you both now, that is how you escaped the tunnels, but as Harvey says, it is doing so against its own will.”
“Fate has no will in the here and now, Young Edward,” the youngest mother said. “The order of things was set on a path long ago. You know this to be true.”
“Yes, until this morning, I believed that was the case. I believed the design of Fate was predetermined at the very birth of our universe. I believed the messages we receive from the Well of Fate were reflections of ripples, waves of turbulence created by the weaker forces born of Fate as destinies collided, that chance and our own choices can affect the patterns of predetermination, but rarely do so with profound effect, and that our duty, as those who bear witness to the Veils, is to record these messages from Fate, and above all, to preserve the destiny we are shown, never interfering, only observing, lest we become the authors of chaos. Until last night, I had no idea that the abysmal darkness that lurks in the belly of our home is itself Fate, or that the all-consuming end of time is just as strong as her beginning, when it comes creating these ripples in the Divine Waters we drink. Until this morning, when Young Isabella escaped that inevitable end, I believed there could never be anything greater than Fate. But this child did escape, which means that there is some other force acting upon us even now, one that can eradicate whole destinies and give ordinary people the power to withstand the ultimate end that is inevitable to all.”
“What do you mean, ‘Eradicate whole destinies?’” the eldest mother asked, the apathy in her voice unchecked.
“Young Isabella’s book of prophecy can no longer be read,” the Mardraim answered. “The order of things was set on a path long ago, yet clearly today, it is no longer the order of things. The wanderer has changed everything, as Harvey said he would. Now your daughter wanders through the darkness with him.”
“He lives,” Isabella whispered, stammering out the words, though she knew no one understood her. She only hoped the Mardraim might know that as she lay there, her body writhing against the ground, she understood him, even though the mothers believed her mind was addled and her fate was sealed. “The wanderer lives,” she repeated, the young mother shushing her. “He lives.”
“What are your intentions?” the middle mother asked, hands on her hips, her anger clear in the starkness of her voice.
The Mardraim turned to her and replied, “If our duty is in fact to Fate, as stated in the Mdonyatra, then in order to restore Fate’s balance, and end the girl’s suffering, the wanderer must die. We must kill him.”
Those words– those unthinkable words– caught up in Isabella’s head, igniting a blaze of frenzy inside her. “Kill him,” Moag had spoken in her ear in the voice of her Mardraim. This was not possible. The Mardraim was a father to all of their people. He was a good and gentle man, who lived his life by the tenets of the Mdonyatra and the Ftdonya as an example to everyone. Even in the nightmare she lived up in the tunnels, Isabella had known the Mardraim would never speak those words, let alone consider acting on them, yet here he stood saying those impossible words to the Felimi. He would never kill another person, not even to put them out of their misery, not even to save another life—not even to restore Fate. She was still dreaming, she thought, her body tensing then concussing against the floor as Moag overtook her completely once more. She was still somewhere up in those tunnels, trapped in the nightmare, being ripped apart.
“Noel!” she screamed, fingers tearing at the smooth stone beneath her as she tried to hold herself down, squeezing her eyes tight, hoping to force herself awake as her body shook, beating against the hard ground. “It’s not real! It’s not real!”
The middle mother’s voice rose in fury above her cries, “Leave this mountain now, Edward Frank, and do not return! You are no longer the Mardraim. You are unfit to guide our people.”
“I will stay with Issa,” she heard the Mardraim answer.
“Wake up!” Isabella cried, a torturous fist ripping at the core of her.
“We must silence her,” the young mother said, a hint of fear in he words.
“Leave here, Edward Frank! Forget about the girl!” the middle mother demanded.
“But we must—”
“We must allow her to pass into Moag,” the eldest mother said quietly. “Do not be afraid.”
“Forget about the wanderer! Moag will end this! Now go!”
“There is nothing any of us can do to help them!” the middle mother shrieked in rage.
Isabella clung to the sound of the woman’s voice, like a beacon of light piercing the darkness inside her. “We are dreaming,” she panted.
“Edward suspects,” the little mother whispered as the heavy door slammed shut, the echo thundering through Isabella.
“Not yet,” the elderly woman answered.
“We are dreaming, and we are going to die dreaming, Noel, tied together with frazzled threads.”
“It will not be long now,” the middle mother hissed, her own breathing heavy. “I saw her.”
“Bound together with threads knotted with thistles, unless you wake up!”
“How did she do it?” the young wise one asked.
“I do not know, but I cannot sit by any longer, nurturing her agony,” the eldest mother said. Isabella felt her stand, a wave of air sweeping into the very soul of her, passing through every molecule of her, into Moag. “I am sorry, Young Isabella. We will leave you now to Moag. May you find peace quickly, knowing no one will ever know what you’ve done.”
“May you find peace,” the little one whispered, pressing her hot lips against Isabella’s forehead, and Isabella felt the sting of her flesh coursing through every atom– through Moag.
Through the wanderer.
Noel shuddered in the darkness. He was not alone.