As vigil, the stone

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Valonia
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Joined: Mon Jan 25, 2021 9:19 pm

As vigil, the stone

Post by Valonia »

“The nation of all the Gauls is extremely devoted to superstitious rites... and employ the Druids as the performers of those sacrifices... Their funerals… are magnificent and costly; and they cast into the fire all things... which they suppose to have been dear to them when alive.” -Julius Caesar, The Gallic Wars

“Tread the stairs in the realm above,
Beyond the threshold worthy of love
Capture to brace, with steps to humble
From there endure the palace castle.
Far at end, beneath the light of lights,
Golden hues covet the blackest nights.
As vigil the stone and timeless like fire,
A Throne persist the Man that sire.” – Unknown, Youtube comment


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From beneath its jagged antler crown, the hollow sockets of the elk skull seemed to stare at Valonia as she approached.

The presence of the antlers meant this animal had likely died before the mating season. Elk shed their antlers after rut was over, and this one still had them. So it marked his time of death roughly two to three months previous. But cause of death was a little harder to determine, as the body had both seen decay and had clearly been eaten.

The woman glanced at the area around the elk to find more answers, mostly out of curiosity than out of any particular need to know.

The body of the animal was partially covered, half beneath the boughs of a tree. Mostly composed, rather than in pieces, and the rib area had been cracked. Cat behavior, Val suspected. Wolves and coyotes travelled in packs and usually tore their kills apart. Bears were less methodical as a whole, though they tended to drag their kills further, leave them in the open, and saw little need to crack the bones apart given they were able to eat the abdomen area organs and the contents within (as they were omnivorous). That the body of the elk was mostly intact, and the ribs were cracked hinted more strongly toward a mountain lion, given that the cats of this area tended to eat the chest-area organs first. In this case, however, the cat that killed this elk had cracked one of the femurs, probably having fed on some of the hindquarters as well. And gauging by what marrow Val could see in the broken femur, the animal had been in good health when it died. The white, chalky texture meant it had not had any manner of chronic illness or condition.

Those were simply the facts of the situation, neutral and objective.

But the part of her mind that cared less for facts and sought more for symbols found it foreboding. It had been a healthy animal struck down in its prime. That was simply the way of nature, of course, but it felt like a bad sign to see it here. It almost seemed like a warning. Elk held meaning for her. So to see these bones here of all places…?

“Seems a little ominous,” Valonia quietly mused, then turned to her satchel. “What do you think, bun?”

The rabbit had poked its head out of the bag at her side, and the little dark eyes watched quietly. Its ears were poised, alert, a surprisingly useful little sentinel. But it had not seen or heard sign of anything of note, not even any normal beasts that might prey on rabbits. As its senses were far more keen than her own, Valonia trusted that she and rabbit both were safe for the time being… or as safe as one could be at the entrance to one of the great dungeons.

But still Val could not help pondering the elk skull: Was her mission here one of rescue? Or had it become one of retrieval?

She turned from the hollow sockets of the elk to the hollow socket in the rock face that served as Covetous’ entrance. Though she was nowhere an expert on the great dungeons (and far from being any sort of learned sage), Val had some general knowledge of the history of it. In most recent times, it was a mine for blackrock and gemstones. It had been such for many years. In less recent times, over the course of several ages, it had possessed magical artifacts that the Avatar used in his quests. In times even further back, in the days when the Avatar was merely the Stranger, Covetous had been the burial chamber for the rulers of an area of land encompassing what was now Minoc.

So what had Althaia hoped to find? Surely she had not been drawn to whatever riches were supposedly harbored within. The older druid would not have been motivated by such things any more than Valonia herself was. And while examining the past might have been a plausible goal, Valonia was under the impression that whatever remained of the burial chambers were flooded. Both with actual water, and with undead. Any research seemed like a dead end… no pun intended. Scholarly pursuits did not seem worth that manner of risk, especially when there was little likelihood of finding something.

Even Valonia’s own investigations would be met with difficulty, and she had clear cause to be here. The Cult of Tyball was still a threat, and though Val had heard from others that no sign of the black-robed mages lay within, she had not verified anything herself. Really, she was not entirely certain that she could make it past whatever defenses this place had -- or face off against the mages if they had gathered here.

But Val needed to know what had befallen her mentor. So she nodded politely to the elk skull. It might have been foolish superstition, she knew. But it still felt appropriate. It still served as a warning, regardless of whether it was just here by happenstance or accident.

“Warning understood,” she said, even if she couldn’t let herself be warded off by it. She turned back to the entrance of the place.

She knew that the chances of finding Althaia alive were slim. But there was really no choice about it. Only the destination was clear. If Althaia had encountered trouble, Valonia could not simply ignore it and hope for the best. And if the older druid had met her end… well… Val couldn’t leave her here regardless.

So she drew her bow, drew in a deep breath, and entered.

----

While Althaia had not been very big, the weight of an unmoving body was still a struggle. In order to carry it back, Valonia had taken the longer piece of the older woman’s broken staff, crossed it with her own, bound them together with leather cordage, and stretched her cloak across the two in a makeshift travois. Althaia’s cloak, however, she left bound around the woman’s silent body.

The rabbit turned out to be a useful companion rather than a hindrance to take care of. Its keen senses helped Valonia find paths around the worst of the threats, though she still had fights to best and obstacles to face. Even now that she returned to Britain, there were obstacles, though far fewer in number than the depths of the Covetous. Mostly, the challenge involved Valonia trying to pull her travois over the cobblestone, then onto soft unpaved footpaths. Fortunately, she lived on the edge of town. If anyone saw a druid pulling a wrapped burden toward the forest, no one bothered to question her. She wasn’t entirely sure what she would have said if they had.

The sun was beginning to set as Val dragged her cargo toward the lake north of the city, away from the bustle of town and toward the shore. She wasn’t entirely sure whether Althaia would have appreciated burning, but Valonia did not know any better way. She was not privy to any of the old rites. And it had been an unfortunately common experience in her life that she’d had to deal with the bodies of people she’d known, and she’d always ended up burning them. For the safety of everyone else, she couldn’t leave the woman unburned no more than she could have left her to the dungeon to possibly rise as undead. And for the safety of everyone else, she didn’t want to burn the body without access to water.

Wood was easy enough to find in this area. And though she did not get any joy from the knowledge, she knew roughly how much wood it took (anywhere from 75 to 90 stone, depending on the conditions and the body)[1], and how long it took a body to burn (roughly 6 hours)[2]. When she finally collected enough wood and arranged the woman’s body upon it, it was already night.

Valonia retrieved some of the older druid’s belongings, sparing them from the pyre at least for the time being. As respectful as Val was trying to be, she still needed to know what had happened and investigating the other woman’s writings was a place to start. So Val collected up the woman’s satchel and belt pouches, ensuring any journals and scrolls were intact.

On a sudden whim, she took from the woman’s finger a small ring carved from elk’s horn, and slipped it onto the third finger of her own hand. The ring wouldn’t have held any monetary value to anyone, but it felt meaningful to Val. It felt slightly wrong to take it… but at the same time, it did no one any good being cast into the fire.

Finally, Valonia placed Althaia’s broken staff atop her body, and wrapped the woman’s still arms around it.

Ash, hers had been. Ash was harder than most oak, Val noted numbly. Harder, but lighter and more flexible. That wasn’t something Valonia had learned from the druids. Rather, Val had learned it from someone whose parents had been craftsmen, shipbuilders, and worked with various woods. But those qualities still seemed true enough in a symbolic sense, both of the wood itself and of the woman who had carried it. Harder, but yet more flexible.

Perhaps that was partly why Althaia had stayed, Valonia mused. Those qualities. Somehow, Althaia had found a way to reconcile within herself the actions of the Court, and being able to serve them with some semblance of Justice. Somehow, the older woman had worked within a system she did not entirely agree with, but stayed to ensure that she could have influence to make it right.

Was that worse, though? Did that say something about her character? That she was willing to go along with things, even when she knew they were wrong? Valonia was still unsure. But she knew that if Althaia hadn’t been there, hadn’t done what she had done, more people would have died to the Courts or to Wrong. Val herself was one of them. And she knew that the older druid had saved many others, both before Valonia’s apprenticeship and after.

But what was the better path? To do the wrong things for the right reasons? Or to hold fast to one’s principles, even if others suffered for it?

“I always wondered what side you were on,” she mused aloud to the dead woman. “Whether you were hiding the people you saved, whether you had let anyone know. Whether the Courts actually knew. Whether the Circle actually knew. I still do not know whether to admire your actions or not… but I think I understand.”

It had only been a year ago since the Shrines had been cleansed, one year since the Avatar had sacrificed himself. And yet it felt like forever. Before then, the world had been steeped in wrong. What lies had the older woman told? What compromises had she made? Even Valonia still didn’t know. Valonia couldn’t speculate as to the extent of the influence the polluted Shrines had on the general population… but at least in the case of her mentor, she decided she was willing to understand.

Perhaps there wasn’t a ‘right’ answer sometimes.

Valonia pulled some reagents from her pouch, turning them within her fingers for a moment. Though she knew the syllables, they still slipped within her mind. Exhaustion made it hard to concentrate. Besides, she wasn’t really at a point that this came easily to her. It took her several tries. (She also found a new appreciation for her uncle’s abilities, given how tired he must have been, but yet somehow able to find the focus and will to cast in the midst of a storm.)

For a moment, she considered just striking flint to tinder. But she had not come this far to simply give up now. And she wanted to do this properly. Or at least as properly as she knew.

“Kal Vas Flam,” she murmured, and at last, the fire finally appeared.

With that, Valonia sat down on the banks of the lake, exhausted, bruised, and tired. The rabbit sat next to her, its small body pressed to the side of her leg for comfort.

She rubbed its head between its ears, grateful for the company as she watched the fire before her. The wind was soft this night, blowing toward the water and away from the forest. The sky was clear. And the water of the lake behind them was calm. While this was not something Valonia had wanted to do, it was a good night for it.

There was some kind of symbolism too, sitting on the ground between fire and water. Destruction versus restoration. The will versus the subconscious. With balance (earth) between.

As she watched the ash staff burn, scraps of information she’d heard came to mind. Ash could not be used for the types of ships they built, Brand’s parents had said. It wasn’t as resistant to water, as it bent too easily. Nor was it resistant to fire. It burned too well. Perhaps there was some meaning that could be ascribed to that as well. Althaia had taken the path of least resistance, perhaps. Had bent rather than fought. Had allowed the threat of flame and the pressure of her circumstances to change her actions.

Turning aside from her thoughts, Val turned instead to study the other woman’s satchel at her side. Within contained the notes Althaia had written, rubbings of marks upon stone, a warning. There was a roughly sketched map containing a throne room and prison. And the newer notes Valonia had made regarding the woman’s death. She knew she would have to put aside some time to go through it. Sort through not only that, but the complicated feelings it brought up. But it was unavoidable. There were too many questions that needed answering. Too many things that needed addressing.

Valonia was without a mentor now. And she was only a journeyman. To progress on her path, to learn any of the rites the druids harbored secretly, required her to speak with the Circle, talk with the grayhoods, defend her decisions and actions up to this point. Perhaps they would decide whether everything she had done so far meant she could continue as a druid of their Order, maybe assign her a new mentor. Or perhaps she would be asked to leave.

But here as she sat by the fire, Valonia felt anger rising in herself as well. Maybe they had a few things to answer for as well. She had extended some understanding to her mentor, but how had the Circle let everything happen? How had so many died to Wrong? Had they stood aside and let it all happen? Had they supported it? Had they bent when they should have fought? Had they perpetrated it?

And even for those that left, like her grandfather. Had they withheld Justice when they should have ensured it for the sake of the people they had sworn to preserve and protect? Had they thought that they could withhold such things and not have consequences? As much as Valonia respected her grandfather, he had stood aside.

The symbolism of earth was meant to be stability, strength, growth, and protection. How did it serve anyone sit passively aside like a stone, doing nothing?

She rubbed her face, feeling angry, and raw, and conflicted. Perhaps weariness and grief were coloring her views too much. What understanding she had given her mentor was hard to sustain with the sheer amount of… everything.

But she knew she would have to return to Yew. There was no avoiding it, even if she had tried.
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