I got two other projects out of the way yesterday. This gives me time to post more on this one.
“You will not speak the Old Tongue.” The old woman told her. “You will not think the Old Tongue. Our old words will bind you to this place. You will not speak at all, but you may think, think in the New Tongue of Men, that they call the Common Tongue because they are so common.”
“The glow of moonstone is fading.” The second old woman, with a voice more cracked and ancient than the first, spoke next. “We will unbind you. You will not move, for your limbs will be as those of the newborn doe. If you move, you will stumble and fall. You will scratch your tender skin. Breathe slowly. Think of how you moved before. Your muscles are as weak as a babe’s, but they will remember their purpose soon.”
What Elynir hated most was being unable to speak. She wanted to know how many years had passed since she’d first taken the Long Sleep, wondered if anyone in her family were still alive. And was she the first to wake, or the last? If there were six Sleepers, she would only know the first two, women before she, women like she, and she had heard of the fourth during a brief Wake, but not the rest because they’d come after her second Sleep. Who were they? What were they like? Elynir hated her silence, but she would respect it. She had vowed to follow the rules of her village, because it was supposed to bring the favor of their god back to her people. And yet, it was apparent that the Ritual of Sleep had failed, if they would awaken only to be sent into exile.
Elynir tried to hold back her tears a second time, but she found she could not.
A’ke-indu: the name of her people’s lands, meaning the place of A’ke-in. A’Ke-in the Tree Planter, who had created colossal trees so tall they pierced heaven, trees that gave the land life and vigor. The memories of Elynir’s people went back to the beginning, when A’Ke-in arrived to plant his tree and from it sprung every plant and animal and the great ancestors of her people. From it sprung every bird and fish and even water that was more pure than what had existed before. A’ke-in and his Great Tree had brought life to a place with no life.
In recent times, the tree was gone. No one knew how it had happened. As if one night the Great Tree had been seen, as it always was, with its huge trunk hiding half the sky from high to low, and its huge branches and giant leaves hiding another half, from left to right. Life had existed from the very bottom of the Great Tree to the top, with layers upon layers of life found in all its cracks and crevices. Entire villages could exist in the tree’s knots, and her people could travel days to visit another village in another knot. They lived and died, hunted and warred, had peace and livestock, and rivers and waterfalls, all in the ridges natural to the tree, or that they’d carved out for themselves with sharp rocks brought up from the ground far below.
And it was gone, vanished with no explanation, so strangely no one had seen it go. The legends were over a hundred years old. Some villagers from then claimed the tree had vanished two days ago, others said it was a week or longer, still others said it was there the night before. It was god’s will, the elders of that old time decided, that no one should know when the tree had gone, or when it would come back, if ever. Their god had created the confusion.
And the years passed, and no tree had come. It had become a plateau, with its truncated, uneven end only half a day’s climb above Elynir’s village. People before her time had traveled up to see what remained. They said the tree was beginning to die. Nothing grew at its flat edge, but the distance was too great for them to reach the center. What they saw from the edge gave them fear, the center of the tree was drying, becoming darker brown instead of its healthy color, and giant birds and other creatures would land on it and peck at its soft parts for nourishment. The legend arose that the beautifully plumed fowl ate of the rotten core, and they lost their great feathers, and their skin grew cold, clammy and scaled, and this is how dragons were born. True or not, the men who made that climb knew that death was coming to their lands and them, and they made plans to prevent the extinction of their people.
They chose the healthiest, most vibrant part of the tree wall, and they carved into it, creating the wooden altars on which Elynir and the others lay. The magic was still strong there, kept there by the power of the moonstones, a power that had to be constantly renewed or else the stones would fade and soon after the wooden chamber would also. The elders of that time decided that seven would enter the Long Sleep, because seven was the number of A’ke-in, and he would see what they had done and bestow his favor upon them. Her people know about the Short Sleep, because they used it for those who were badly injured or just after a woman gave birth, where the magic could be collected into the moonstones, and bind the magic of the tree, and the person would heal, slowly, but still heal and be healthy again, even if it took weeks or months.
The Long Sleep they had never tried before, but in desperation they did it then, over one hundred years ago, and Elynir was the third one chosen. If the plight diminished, the Seven Guardians would be awakened and all would be well. If the Seven were not awakened, and the peril for the survival of their people were too great, the elders of the present had to decide if it was time to awaken them and send them away from the tree, to start their line in a new place, and to forget their past because their god had forgotten them. That was their thought, that if the god A’Ke-in heard new voices calling to him from a new land, he might think these were not his cursed people but other people, and he would be happy to find new worshipers and grant them the blessings of the before-time.
They were seven at first, but they had not always been the same seven. For many reasons, the families of the Sleepers, or the elders, or some boon or omen would be deciphered, and some were awakened and others took their place. Elynir was third, and so she knew of the first two, but she was awakened after the fourth Sleeper, along with the first two, leaving the rest, the most recent in hibernation. After that single season, no one wanted to take their place. The villagers fought against it, the elders included, and so the first three were returned to their Sleep, with very few relatives still living to fight for them. And so, one hundred years had gone by, and now they were six and not Seven, the holy number beyond reach, and surely that signified an omen. Doom, it signified doom.
It was frightening to think about.