Mila tied the unicorn to the tree and walked away, pacing out exactly nine steps and turning widdershins three times before seating herself cross-legged on the ground beneath the sacred triple elm with the setting crossed moons behind her.
She’d travelled exactly the ninety-nine leagues beyond the Crystal Castle in the direction of the first moonrise, just as laid out in the instructions her grandfather, Pape, had left. She had traversed the Silver Plains, and passed beneath the Rock of Entwined Lovers. Her steed was a unicorn born exactly one year before the start of her journey; the entire trek was accomplished while the third moon was in the eclipse of the second. She had set out on the day of the first blooming, in her twentieth year. All this was exactly as she had been instructed.
But this was where the instructions stopped.
Here, apparently, she was supposed to receive some kind of mystical sign, a talisman that would guide her steps through the rest of her life; determine both who she was and what she was. This totem would forever shape her prospects and control her destiny.
If only she could believe in it.
She knew for a fact that she would see something, if only because the entire journey had taken place as part of a greater fast, and she was somewhat delusional from hunger, not to mention the hallucinogenic spores of the grasses that made the plains silver and the effects that the tidal forces of having one of the moons eclipsed by another for an entire week would have on her body and hormonal levels. And, of course, the well-documented narcotic effects of extended solitude, all combined with a strongly ingrained awareness of the spirituality of the pilgrimage, guaranteed that there would most definitely be a sighting of some kind, although the veracity and applicability of said sighting was highly suspect.
Mila had long believed that the visions experienced by her ancestors on these little trips of theirs were highly exaggerated, especially by the younger men who undertook the task, in an effort to assign some importance to themselves that they did not, in fact, merit.
She sat restlessly, occasionally muttering to herself, fully aware that she should be attempting to achieve calmness and serenity so that she would be open to receiving her “gift from the great ones”. The problem was, she had seen for herself what that “gift” had done to her Pape, and she knew that she had grown up motherless because of this ritual. To be perfectly truly honest, she wanted no part of this “blessing” that had cursed her entire family. These archaic practices had no place in the modern order of the tribe, and she knew full well that all her peers referred to her grandfather as “the Relic” when they were being charitable, and “the crazy old madman” when they weren’t. Much as she loved him, Mila had to admit that deep down inside, she agreed with them. The power in the tribe no longer lay with the Magician – it lay fully and squarely with the Moot, and they were elected by the people, not nominated by blood and old gods. In times past the Magician had been, if not Mootchief, at the very least his (or her) most highly regarded adviser. But those times were well and truly past, and Mila believed that they were never coming back. The power would never again lie with her family, unless she brought it into the family by being voted into the Moot, and there would not be an open seat for another year at least.
Mila wanted power. She knew exactly how she would use it, and who among the tribe could best be used where to make the tribe the first among all tribes, the most highly regarded and powerful of all tribes once again, just as they had been before.
She had tried explaining this to her grandfather, tried to rationally point out that politics was the path to the future, not superstition. Her point of view had not been well received, to put it mildly. The silent disappointment that had oozed from her grandfather’s every pore had made his part of the argument far more vehemently than any of his rhetoric on maintaining the family traditions and the importance of the spiritual quest in attaining true maturity.
“Mila, you will go. There is no argument. There is no debate. There is just the simple fact that you WILL go.”
“But why? There is no point or sense to it!”
“There is no need for sense, only senses. No need for a point, only need for a point of faith. You are the last of the family. You are the only hope that we have to ensure that a vital part of what makes us a tribe is not lost as so much has been lost. I had hoped that you would have a man and children by now, you’re well past the age that your mother was when you were bor –“
“Stop. Right there. I’ve told you time and time and time again: none of the BOYS in the tribe want the motherless scion of the local madman as a wife. Not that I want any of them anyway.”
“You have a moral obligation to breed, Mila,” her grandfather said, every word clearly spoken and laden with duty. “What about Ruben? He is no boy, like those that you so scorn. He’s been serving this community for many years and is a highly gifted blacksmith.”
“He’s old.” Her grandfather’s wrinkled brow lifted.
“I must be truly ancient, then, since Ruben is fully forty years younger than me.”
“Oh Pape, you know what I mean. He’s nearly twenty years older than me. And besides, I heard that he’s walking out with Sondjya.”
“I would listen less to the gossip of the village twits if I were you.”
“Don’t call them that! Those twits are my friends!”
“You do not have the luxury of friends. You know that. Your purpose is so much greater than theirs. And your duty so much clearer. You must carry on the bloodline so that the magic will continue to the next generation. We will crumble to dust if you do not.”
“I WANT children – I want to get married. But I will NOT marry and pop out babies just so that I can promulgate some archaic and ludicrous myth! When, if, I marry and or bear children, it will be for me – no one else!”
“You do not have that luxury either, child. I wish you did.”
“I AM NOT A CHILD. You just can’t see that, can you? How ironic. You want me to be a mother but treat me like I’m still a babe!” Mila took a deep breath to fuel her rant.
“I am not going on the Wandering. I don’t believe in it and I’m not going!”
Her grandfather sat silently, his rheumy eyes never leaving hers, until at last she was the one who broke the contact. Then he spoke, softly, without raising his voice, but with an authority that laid the law down with no room for argument.
“You will go. This is the time. It will not come again for another nine years, and by that time I will be gone. This is the only chance that I will have to train you. And you will be trained. After the Wandering you will believe.”
“I’m sorry, Pape, but I won’t. There’s nothing to believe in. There might have been once, but no longer.”
“You are mistaken, child. And while you act like a child, I will treat you like a child. Your Wandering begins as the first rays of the moons hit the Castle tomorrow night. Go to bed.”
Only when she was nearly asleep did Mila realise that she had obeyed as though compelled by a will not her own, without question or demur.
And now here she sat, waiting who knew how long for who knew what, while deep inside she knew that she had hurt her Pape deeply – far more deeply than he had shown – and that there was no guarantee that she would ever be able to make it right. She loved the old fool, despite his delusions and unwanted ambitions. He was her only family, and the only one who actually cared for her at all. She knew that none of the other young people in the tribe would even notice if she failed as her mother had, and never came back from this Wandering. She often wondered if her mother hadn’t simply kept wandering, abandoning both the ritual and her daughter to escape the unbearable loneliness of being a destined Magician.
To be honest, it was a large part of why she had always been so reluctant to bear children. She wouldn’t even have had to marry, really. As the magician-to-be she was exempt from the normally harsh tribal laws and moral mores that censured unwed parents. But Mila knew that if she’d had a child she would never have been able to contemplate just walking away from her whole life, into the wilds where she could easily survive by herself or to another tribe that would no doubt quickly take in a willing worker. If she went far enough she should be able to find a tribe that had never heard of the magicians and their destinies.
Mila shifted her seat again. The moons were setting behind her – she could feel their pull lessening as they sank in unison beneath the far mountains. According to the tradition she should remain seated in this exact position – not moving nor eating nor sleeping – until the vision was attained. If no vision came by the end of the Crossing of the Moons – 3 nights from now – it would be known that she had displeased the great ones, and that the tribe would dissolve like a dust devil in an opposing gust. Of course, if she hadn’t seen anything by tomorrow morning at the latest, Mila had already decided that she would use the journey home to concoct a suitably impressive tale of visions and epiphanies. Impressive but believable of course – she had no need to prove her virility to anyone.
With an exasperated sigh, Mila tried again to reach the pure calmness required for a meditative trance. She regulated her breathing and concentrated on her limbs one by one, slowly allowing each to sink down into a state of complete relaxation until she was a whirling mind above a heap of soft, yielding flesh. Her thoughts, however, still caromed out of control across all sorts of topics, mostly along the lines of “this is stupid”.
At last she had managed to completely relax her physical body, and her mind also began to drift off – largely due to the extreme exhaustion of long days journeying without food and very little sleep. She sank deeper and deeper and deeper beneath the surface of herself. With the darkness of unconsciousness came a few sparks of memory, flashes of the time when she had believed her grandfather’s stories and trusted his judgement implicitly.
“Mila mine, why must you learn these things?” Laughter and sunshine had floated into their cramped little hut, inviting Mila to leave the lessons she had only half begun and join in the game that the other children were enjoying. Her distraction had led to her to forget the answer to a relatively simple question, prompting Pape to put on his most disappointed tone.
“So that I can guide the tribe one day, Pape.” Mila’s tone was full of the boredom and longing for freedom that she could not openly express to her grandfather.
“That’s right. So you can guide the tribe. If you don’t learn, you won’t know what to do when the beasts fall ill, or when the planting omens appear, or if the wind is telling you that the harvest will fail and the hunters will have to work through the winter to keep the food stores high enough. You won’t know where to find the fattest fish, or if the water has gone bad. You won’t be able to ease births and aid the mothers who weep after their child is apart from them. These are all part of your duties, and there is so much more that you still don’t know about. One day you will stand between the tribe and the darkness. One day you will face the abyss and lead our people over it. One day you will have to soar higher than the clouds and bring back word of the far off places that march to war. Yours will be the days of great change, and you must know where you stand, so that you can know where it will be safe to walk. You must learn!”
“Yes, Pape. I will learn.” But it was then that the seed of rebellion took hold and wormed into Mila’s heart; that day when she learned that she would never laugh with other children.
She sank lower into the trance, a faint echo of distant laughter in her ears and sun beyond the red of her eyelids. As she sank so sank the sun in front of her, replaced by the first moon and then the conjoined moons dancing behind it in their anti-solar orbit. By the time that the second and the hidden third moon had cleared the horizon Mila was fully submerged beneath her own subconscious. She swam languidly in an empty ocean, fully relinquishing all her ties to her body and releasing all of its discomforts that seemed so far away from being part of her.
The moons reached the zenith of their combined orbit, the silvery light that emanated from them seeming doubled rather than halved by their eclipse. Mila’s motionless form was seated directly beneath the brightest of the lunar rays, and she seemed suspended in a mercury pool. The ground even seemed to take on a liquid-like ripple as she inhaled and exhaled. After the longest breath, Mila realised that she was viewing the scene, herself in it, from a vantage point removed from the almost-corpse on the cliff’s edge. She felt ephemeral, and gently allowed herself to be turned by her own breath as she surveyed the panorama before her. Never before had she seen that the land lived. She had never noticed its breath, never heard its heartbeat. Never before had she noticed how deeply the trees were rooted within the being that was the earth, never understood how they acted as its pores, releasing the poisons of the day into the night. And now she saw truly how the beasts were intruders, and none more so than the people who claimed that they owned the land which merely gave them grace to survive for a season.
Mila breathed more deeply, drawing the light of the moons and the stars into herself, drinking it like wine, bathing in it like cream. And then the owl swifted over her divorced body on its silent wings and hovered before her self. And the owl, the creature not tied to the ground, the hunter that needed no spear, bowed before her and offered her the use of its wings. Without thought Mila ghosted into the flesh of the fowl and saw with a jolt through his eyes. The world became red; all was either danger or meal. The owl shuddered, and she let it go, thanking it silently as it went.
A deer came next, infinitely connected to all the life that surrounded her, through the cud that she chewed and the life of the fawn at her side. She, too, allowed Mila within, and showed the awareness that every wild beast has of the infinite cycle that births life from death.
The predator came, and the prey, and over all the light played, and Mila laughed with the stars.
The moons began to lower themselves once more towards their daytime beds, and Mila again felt their pull on her body, but this time she welcomed it, and, rejoining her physical self, she followed it. Still filled with the light she rose from her seated position and sprang lightly off the spar of the cliff, allowing herself to float to the embrace of the waves beneath, her toes kissing their tips at the exact moment that, on the horizon, the moons did the same.
Sinking both physically and metaphysically this time, Mila dropped to the floor of the ocean, where the powdered white sand had caught the moons’ rays over uncounted eons and flooded the whiteness across the ocean bottom. Taking no thought for breath, Mila walked beneath the waves, knowing that while the moon’s light was in her and around her, she was not part of the world nor ruled by its laws and could therefore in no way be harmed by any part of it.
She walked on the ocean’s floor as she would across the green at home. A dim, distant part of her observed cynically all that she did; disdainful and unbelieving even as she embraced the miracle of who and what she was. Mila could hear her own scepticism in the back of her mind, and she accepted that part of herself as well: the part that would always question and seek and thereby speed her growth and help her to stay in touch with the rest of the tribe, those who had the same outlook as that currently-distant piece of herself.
Very soon she came to the base of the rocky outcrop that jutted up as an islet in the bay formed by the cliffs. As if following a very detailed map, Mila made her way to the cleft that she knew lay on the far side. Without thought of darkness or danger, still entranced and led by knowledge much older than herself, Mila swam up the length of the tunnel to the cave which occupied the entire internal volume of the islet.
Mila erupted out of the water into the air pocket held with the islet’s heart. The atmosphere was lit by the cold fire of thousands of phosphorescent creatures and plants; a concave moon that would never see the sky. A rim of pristine white sand edged the water that she trod, the ripples of her emergence still fluttering the glow of the agitated plankton. With a stroke as measured as her breathing she made her way to widest part of the snowy beach.
Still weightless and unconstrained by physical conventions, she ascended from the water with the same weightlessness that she had experienced when she descended from the cliffs. Mila herself was glowing with the light of the organisms which clung to her as she dried, and she seamlessly joined with the radiance that reflected and refracted around and through her.
She lay motionless within the land-locked, ocean-encircled lunar replica. Mila was physically aware of the ebbing and rising tides and the passage of time that they presaged. She was minutely aware of every passing moment, each of which both stretched out to infinity and passed so swiftly as to barely register as time at all. And she heard it all. The cavern echoed ceaselessly with the history of her people, her family, and her heritage. She became one with the entire passage of the tribe through time as seen through the eyes of its Magicians. When evening fell and moonrise was imminent, Mila knelt upon the shore with bowed head and began to speak.
“I’m ready. I see now that everything, everyone, that has gone before has merely paved the way for me. I see, I understand, and I fear. I know that I will stand between the tribe and the darkness. That I will face the abyss and lead our people over it. Please let me have the strength to be able to face the burden that will lie on me, and enable me to see my way clearly. There will be changes that will not be welcomed by the aged and traditions that will be scorned by the youth, but without both past and future the present is nothing but an empty space without meaning. I know what I must do and I am afraid. I can see what awaits me at home, and I weep. I see how my mother was never strong enough for this burden, and I mourn for her and for the life I should have had. But I am ready, and I will do what I must. And my child will return, and his after him. This I swear by the light of the moon that pulses through me. The ways will not be lost and the people will not stray.
I’m sorry. I am so very sorry for the disregard I have had for the ways that make us, that make me, who I am. Please forgive me.
Light my path.”
The light within the chamber pulsed to blinding brightness just once, eliminating all shadows and blasting through Mila. She knelt still with her eyes shut, allowing the glow to flow through her and fill each crevice of her being with the light that is hope. She knelt like that until the moons had set once more, the penultimate night of the Crossing. When she could feel that they were fully set, she slipped silently into the water, not once turning back, resolutely facing the path before her.
Once again she traversed the sea floor. Upon reaching the foot of the cliff she saw, outlined clearly against the white sand floor and white rock wall, the dark yawning opening of a cave. Without hesitation or doubt she entered the cave and followed it upwards as it mirrored the path of the tunnel into the islet. Eventually it led her out of the water and into an adit terminating beneath the triple elm where the unicorn was still tied, patiently munching the bark it had stripped from the sacred tree with its horn and waiting for her.
A restless urgency was in her now. She knew that the unicorn would only bear her until the moons set tonight, and she wanted to be as far along the journey as possible, since it was still a long, long way back to the tribe and she would be walking most of it. Digging her heels into the unicorn’s flanks, she goaded it to a gallop across the dimly dawn-lit plains towards the Crystal Castle, knowing that she would be lucky to cross even a tenth of the distance before the following moonset.
The Silver Plains sped beneath the beating hooves, spooling out behind her in and endless sea of earthbound moonlight that glowed even now at noon. As she travelled this ground that she had traversed but a few days before, she was newly aware of how she and her people were tied to the land, how much they were are a part of it and it a part of them. She could see so clearly how their unique bond with the moons had led them to settle here so many many centuries before, and how abandoning this country would only weaken and scatter the tribe until they were no more. The fates of the land and the people were so entwined that they should never be separated, as both land and people would dissolve and fade if no longer joined. Although man was indeed an interloper and passing stranger on this earth, this land had welcomed her people, only her people, and allowed them refuge.
Her mind began to sift through her experiences and see how they would affect, not just her, but the entire tribe. So many of the Moot thought that the time was coming for them to leave this place and make a permanent home near one of the larger cities that seemed to be springing up all around them. Until this trek, Mila herself had thought that this would be the only possible path for her people to take if they were to survive. Now she could see oh so clearly how much the opposite was true. If they left this land they would die. Not them as individuals, but their ways, everything that made them a people, would be lost. It would dissolve in the noise of the world and the world would be poorer for it. It would be almost impossibly hard to hold onto their truth while facing the encroaching world, but it was vitally important that they did, and that they clung to this land that was theirs. They would probably have to fight for the right to retain their claim, but the land would fight with them, as long as she or someone from her family could maintain the ties by following the hidden moon to the moon within the sea.
She would also have to ensure that her line continued, and so would have to take a mate. But she could see him clearly in her mind’s eye, and knew exactly where to find him.
The sun was westering before her, its golden light mingling with the silver of the grasses and almost blinding her, but still she rode. The unicorn, strengthened and rested by its time beneath the elm, raced swiftly over the plains. It was only as the dusk settled around her that Mila fully appreciated exactly how fast the beast was carrying her. The ninety nine leagues of the Silver Plains were behind her, a journey that had taken her a week of full-day riding in the other direction, and before her rose the reflective walls of the Crystal Castle. She reached its moat just as the moons rose on their very last night of the Crossing. She pulled up her steed and dismounted.
With complete confidence she approached the wide portal and passed within the whisper-thin walls. This castle was a legacy of a long-ago era, infused with magic that ensured that this fragile-seeming structure would still stand when all the mountains had eroded into the plains and the seas had dried. Knowing now that she could be back with her tribe within a matter of hours, even on foot, Mila wandered at leisure through the crystalline hallways that rang with the echo of her steps.
Part of her vision the night before had shown her that this castle was both her past and her future. Her ancestors had built it, raising it from the sands of the Plains with their combined will and the power of the hidden moon. And here was where she would establish her seat, the symbol of the power of her people. She would reign from here, with the man that she would meet …. Now.
“I almost thought you weren’t coming.” His voice was deep, calm and beautiful; the rolling of a gentle ocean against a calm beach. He stood very close behind her, but Mila did not turn.
“I very nearly didn’t.”
“I’m glad you did. I’ve watched you, you know. For the longest time. You almost weren’t ready. So much stubbornness in one so young! But, of course, that is a family trait. The old man was mule-headed to the point of deafness if he was told something he did not want to hear.”
“I am stubborn. I will always be stubborn. Can you handle me as well as you do the forge?”
Ruben heard the catch in her voice and turned Mila round so that she faced him. He could clearly see the tears glistening in the moons’ light.
“You know why I waited here for you.” He did not need to ask, he could see the silent grief that she could not speak. He had not lied when he’d said that he had watched her. The old man had told him many years ago that he had been chosen for Mila, and Ruben had trusted the old ways enough to believe Pape. But he had also decided that if she did not want him, or if she did not appeal to him, that he would not allow either of their fates to be determined for them. And so he had watched, and he had learned her. He had known for a long time that when she was ready she would come to him, because their destinies were indeed tied so closely together that the bonds were nearly palpably visible. He had come to love her for her stubbornness, for her immense will and vibrant mind. And now, filled as she was with the power of the Wandering, her beauty blew through him and filled him as well, with a desire to support her against the unbearable weight of the task that faced her.
Mila leaned into him and allowed herself to be comforted by his size and strength. She had seen in the cave the exact moment when Pape has passed beyond this world, and had known that she was riding back to take over the duties that she had so long neglected and belittled. She was humbled by the task before her, and deeply, purely, grateful that she could know that Ruben would be there by her side.