The boy followed the old man into the east. Crossing the jagged spine of the Silent Mountains that cut the land of Hakaze in two they stepped into the Hidden Vale. An ordinary boy would have been turned back by the powers that dwelled there, but he was not an ordinary boy.
The wind blew strong and relentless as it did throughout Hakaze, driving them on across the grassy slopes to their destination. The boy had heard much about the Wind Gate, he had heard all the legends, poured over the story scrolls and listened attentively when the man he followed had spoken of it. But still he was not prepared for the sense of sheer awe he felt when he finally set eyes on the massive floating spire of rock. He wanted to ask his new Master how rock could fly, but found the spectacle had robbed him of his voice. The rock pinnacle turned slowly in the wind as it hovered above the bedrock. Beyond it, hidden in swirling cloud and vapour lay the abyss. He had heard tales of that too, he wished to look upon it, but knew that the strength of the winds would not let him approach. He had heard in legends that if you cast yourself into the abyss the tumbling, turning air currents would deposit you right back into the Land of the Winds. He wondered if it were true.
The old man cleared his throat to get the boy’s attention. A smile graced his kindly weather worn face he watched with pleasure at the boy’s wonderment, remembering it as his own.
They were close to the spire now, cloud swirled around it obscuring parts, revealing others. In the space of a single breath they ascended to the Wind Gate then climbed to a cavernous opening in the rock needle.The boy’s astonishment only increased. Here was the Wind Willow, ancient and gnarled beyond reckoning. Its long branches bent over caressing the waters of the Mirror Lake which surrounded it. The scene reflected with perfect clarity, tiny silver fish darted like birds among the image of the Willows leaves. It was all as the tale tellers had described it and even more wonderful. They skirted the lake’s shallow shore, out of the shadows the boy now saw the tiny house nestled among the Wind Willow’s writhing roots. Its wooden walls smoothed by wind and water and bleached by sun. The gracefully curving tile roof merging with the Willow’s trunk, covered with lush mosses. It seemed as if it had grown there, as part of the tree itself. He longed to enter that fantastical house, the house of the Windmaster and his apprentice, his house now, his new home, but the Master continued on along the lake shore.
From that sheltered haven the old man led the boy up twisting rock stair worn smooth by the tread of a thousand feet. The boy kept close now to his Master, afraid of the perilous drop below and of the magical and mysterious place that lay at the pinnacle’s summit above. He had heard little of their destination, few had ever seen it and it was beyond even the imagination of the tale tellers. The climb was hard but his aged Master stepped lightly ahead of him. They reached the peak, the boy stood breathless in awe as the cloud and mist swirled apart revealing the crown of jagged rocks thrusting from the summit. The air was cold and fresh against his hot face, purer and sweeter than any breeze he had ever tasted. He felt fear and joy and a thousand voices filled his mind making him giddy. He was here, at the place were the worlds merged, where the winds are born and to where they return, at the Castle of the Winds.
The mist gathered as he ascended, the rocky slopes became more and more obscured until he was hard-pressed to even see the rock beneath his feet among the swirling mist. His step was sure though, having trodden this path many times, he had no fear of tripping or stepping out over the precipice that he knew lay just a misstep away from him.
His breath came shorter as the steep climb and cold air left him breathless, I’m getting old, he thought to himself. Finally through the swirling mist he caught a glimpse of his goal and with a few more steps the rocks he sought came looming out of the gloom to greet him, like old friends they welcomed him into their embrace. In among the ragged spikes of rock the mist and cloud cleared and the wind dropped to a whisper. He sat in the centre, closed his eyes and prepared himself.
Glyder sat in meditation among the rocks that formed the Castle of the Winds, the rising wind rushed in again between the natural battlements and tugged playfully at his thick woollen coat and greying hair. Water droplets condensed on his clothes like sparkling jewels, his weathered bare feet braced against the familiar cold worn rock, he felt calm.
From all corners of the world the winds brought whispers to him.
He remembered long ago when he had first become the Master of the Wind Gate, how the experience of hearing the winds had been overwhelming, flooding all his senses with an endless stream of information, bringing sounds and scents and even tactile sensations from a thousand different places. Now though, he was long used to the constant stream of their voices and feelings and he let it flow through him as he sorted through the information for the thing he sought.
His time was almost done here, soon for a fraction of a moment, briefer than the blink of an eye, the winds of the Wind Gate would cease. Then would be his chance, he would cast himself into the abyss and finally become one with the winds, his reward for a lifetime of serving them, to fully return to them at last. He relished the thought of leaving his old creaking body and flying free as the wind.
However before that he had to pass on his task, someone must be Master of the Wind Gate, someone must be there to hear the winds whisper, to guide the Guardians and be guided by them, to link the worlds, so that the balance could be maintained.
Now, Glyder thought frowning, just where has that apprentice of mine got to? The thousand voices of the wind flowed through him, he grasped at some, bringing them into focus for a few moments before letting them go again, searching until he grasped one and instantly recognised it as the one he was looking for.
Far away to the west of the Wind Gate in the Silent City a young man walked through the high walled streets among the crowds and market stalls and street entertainers that filled the city. The Silent City was not the peaceful place its name suggested, stall holders shouted their wares and music played and children ran laughing through the narrow paved streets pushing and bumping against the bustle of people.
In fact the reason the Silent City was so called was because on certain days it was the only place in the entire land of Hakaze that you couldn’t hear the constant whistle, or howl, or any sound of the wind at all.
This was due to its location, built in the embrace of a huge mountain, the Silent Mountain, the highest peak in the whole range that ran from south to north along all Hakaze. The Silent Mountain was an extinct volcano and the city sat in its crater, the crumbling crater walls wrapped protectively round the city shielding it from the wind.
The city was built on many tiers, rising up to emulate the mountain that embraced it. High curving walls of interlocking stones surrounded the city, and walkways ran round these walls, and criss-crossed between them on solid stone bridges. The narrow city streets curved along below the towering walls lined with shops, their wooden façades open onto the street, their wares displayed to passers by. A fast flowing leat bubbled along the street, racing past on its way down the mountain, contained in its well worn stone channel with walls carpeted with thick green weed. Carrying the water from one of the many mountain springs safely down and away from the city. Off the curving main streets through narrow alleys, many small courtyards opened out with small shops and restaurants, inns and small theatres. At the centre of each courtyard a stone street-hearth sat silently, coldly waiting for the evening when its glow would give warmth and light.
Once the Silent City had been a defensive stronghold, in ancient times, times now lost to legend when Hakaze had been in upheaval during the wars between humankind and the Spirits, and in more recent history the city had seen the wars of men. But now times were peaceful and the gates to the Silent City were always open and welcoming.
It was through the massive open gates that Glyder’s young apprentice had found himself welcomed into the embrace of the Silent City.
He stood confident but unassuming amid the streams of people coming and going about their affairs. Like a rock in the middle of a river the people flowed around him barely even glancing at the stranger among many strangers.
A stranger was not unusual in a busy city like this, and especially not at this time of year when the festival was happening. People from all across the land flocked to the city to take in the sights and sounds of the Spring Rising Festival. Held yearly on the spring equinox, people all over Hakaze would be celebrating the change from winter to spring.
In the street before him festival goers milled about among a street market. Stalls holding special festival wares, sweet treats and brightly coloured trinkets, toys and charms of luck for the coming season filled the tables. Coloured flags and paper lanterns, as yet unlit, hung above the crowds heads. Between the stalls, and in the more open squares and courtyards troupes of entertainers kept the crowd in good spirits with tricks of magic, elegant dances and wonderful music. There was a good humour in the air, the sound of singing and laughter echoed through the busy streets. Overhead a skyship hummed quietly as it came into harbour carrying yet more visitors to the festival.
Ayr wandered aimlessly through the crowds enjoying the hustle and bustle, stopping here and there to admire a dancer or musician plying their trade to the enthusiastic crowd. He knew the city well; he’d been here many, many times. Now, without realising, he found he had been drawn to his favourite part of the city.
In a large square near the very centre of the city grew an enormous and ancient tree, rumoured to be as old as the legendary Wind Willow. Its mighty roots buckled the huge paving stones as if they were paper and it’s boughs spread wide across the roofs of the buildings surrounding the square. The square was constantly dappled with light and shade from it’s ever rustling foliage.
The timeworn tree had seen much in its lifetime. If only it could talk, the tales it would tell would have surprised even the best and most learned of tale tellers. The citizens of the Silent City were very proud of it.
Ayr remembered when it had been hardly more than a sapling, over the years he had watched it grow and prosper and now come into old age, its bark worn and cracked. Among it’s roots stood a small shrine laden with offerings to the tree’s Spirit Guardian and among the branches were tied strips of paper, many old and yellow and tattered, but many fresh white ones now fluttered in the breeze too, for spring was the time to ask wishes of the Spirits and many festival goers had already written their wishes and tied them to the tree’s branches.
Not surprisingly given the tree’s name, this was a popular spot for storytellers, some claimed even to channel the tree’s Guardian Spirit and tell its tales directly, others more modestly claimed no such thing, but it was a fine place to tell a tale in any case.
Today a wizened old storyteller sat on one of the tree’s gnarled roots, wispy white hair covered his head although he was balding on top and his long clean shaven face was wrinkled and gnarled like the tree roots he was sitting on. He was surrounded by children and old folk, the wealthy mingled with the less fortunate, all captivated by the tale he was weaving. His voice caught Ayr’s attention; a word of the tale caught here and there between the shouts of the people on the street beyond the square, drew him in closer to listen.
The storyteller radiated an excited warm energy as he weaved his tale and every person, old or young, who gathered round hung on his every word, enraptured. He was telling the creation myth, a story with which Ayr was very familiar, a story which is still being made, and one which he himself is a part of.
“Back in the beginning the world was whole and humans and Spirits lived in balance and harmony. But one day mankind and spiritkind noticed they were different from each other, and at the moment that they noticed the balance of the world was broken and the world itself cried out in pain as the world was torn in two.
The Spirits fled into the Haze, a world of incorporeal shadows, a trace of our own world, similar yet different beyond imagining. Humankind remained in this world; the Dust as it is known, a solid and tangiable place which is like a faded memory of the world before it was shattered.
When the world broke apart it didn’t separate completely, in places the Haze and the Dust still touched and merge together, where this happens you can pass from this world to the other. But you should beware for each of these gates between worlds is guarded by a Spirit Guardian specially tasked with guarding them.
After the breaking of the world mankind lost the ability to clearly see the Spirits. Fear and hatred of the different blinds us to them and the gateways where the worlds merge, but we can still feel them. Maybe you’ll walk into a place that seems all mixed up and confusing, or a place where magic seems to occur and strange sights can be seen, from time to time a man from this realm accidentally wanders into the other. Sometimes they return with incredible tales, and sometimes they are never seen again.
Many of these places where the realms merge are known and revered or feared by humans, we build temples and shrines near them, reaching out our hands in friendship to the Spirits through these places so that one day our differences can be set aside and the world will be rejoined as one.
Although the distance between us seems great, the broken worlds are still closely connected. The wind blows through both worlds; it takes energy from this one into the other and brings energy from the other into this in an eternal cycle.
If that wind ever stopped blowing the balance that holds the worlds together in a tenuous grip would be lost, and that will be the end of all things.”
The old teller paused a moment, he sat back looking grave, the audience sat patiently awaiting the rest of the tale, although all but the youngest must have heard it a thousand times before. Ayr shifted his weight, anticipating what he knew came next with a smile.
“Now you all know about the Wind Gate, the merging of the Haze and the Dust is greatest there, and there also the winds between the worlds blow strongest.”
“Tell us about the Barefoot Samurai!” a young voice piped up excitedly from the audience, interrupting the tale. The children around the questioner murmured and hushed the child but the old man was unperturbed by the interruption, he just chuckled and continued.
“I was just about to young sir! Now there is a delicate balance between the Haze and the Dust and keeping the harmony between realms is a sensitive matter. As such a Master is appointed to watch over and maintain the balance between the realms. This Master is known as the Windmaster, but some call him the Barefoot Samurai, he treads softly in this realm and the other and listens to both equally. It’s claimed he’s half human and half Spirit. Only by being both can he know and maintain the balance of both realms. It is said that Spirits are immortal but the Master of the Wind Gate being half human is not, though he certainly outlives many times a normal human’s lifespan. Yet if he were here today he might look as young as you youngsters, or as old as me.
But even the Windmaster must grow old and every ten thousand years a new Windmaster must come, so the ancient scrolls say. The changing of the Master is a time of great peril for the world, if a new Master is not ready when the old Master passes on, the balance will begin to break down and the worlds will start to pull apart. Throughout our history these have been times when great chaos and destruction swept this realm and the other.”
The crowd murmured amongst themselves as the teller took another break. Ayr stood at the back listening to snatches of conversation.
“He walks barefoot on the earth listening to all the ten thousand things, knowing all the ten thousand things,” a mother was telling her children.
“It’s said that he walks as silently as a Spirit and can vanish in an instant like one too. He can live a thousand years consuming nothing but the morning dew.”
“I’ve heard he carries a wooden bokken yet he’s never been bested in battle, they say his bokken can best a sword made by the finest sword smith from the purest metals.” one young man was telling his friends clearly eager to impress them with his knowledge.“Some stories paint him as a hero, a saviour, but in others he is the most evil villain. Many folk say he’s really a Kuei, an evil spirit.”
The young man leaned over to a group of girls who had turned to listen to him, “He might enchant you with his flute playing and steal you away into the other realm, showing you a mystical land of beauty and wonder at the price of your sanity.” the man said with glee, setting the girls all giggling.Ayr rolled his eyes at this, the teller began speaking again and the crowd hushed to hear him, but Ayr had heard enough. In any case he was distracted at this moment by the fierce growl of his stomach, reminding him of his current predicament. One of the children listening at the back of the crowd hearing his rumbling belly, turned to look, taking in the sight of the young man standing behind him, wearing the simple clothes of an apprentice, overalls over a simple cotton shirt, and a grey woollen short coat with wide sleeves, a bokken, a wooden practice sword was tucked through his belt but oddly his feet were bare for the time of year when frost still regularly covered the ground. He was a little on the short side but had strong arms, his black hair reached his shoulders and was unkempt, falling constantly across his eyes so he had to keep pushing it away. His face was young and unlined, but appearances can be deceiving, his features were indistinct, ordinary and forgettable, but his eyes were of piercing flowing hues of blue and grey. A playful light sparked in them as if at any moment he would burst into laughter, and yet they seemed the eyes of an old man, a deeper knowledge and sadness lay hidden in their depths. The child in his innocence saw nothing of this though. The child beamed a huge smile in Ayr’s direction, he grinned back before slipping away to attempt to satisfy his hunger, grumbling under his breath to himself.
“Surviving on dew for a thousand years, I wish that were possible.”
Glyder, far away, paid witness to the tale teller too, he chuckled silently to himself, yes, the Windmasters had built quite a legend over the years. Now Ayr had taken up the tale and already left quite a mark on it. The wind had brought whispers of Ayr’s exploits to him for thousands of years. He’d watched over the youngster from afar, he’d cried and laughed in equal measure as the youngster explored the world and his place in it. He’d made mistakes and learned lessons that had cost him dear, been in many a perilous scrape and made quite a tale for himself. Glyder’s own legend, still remembered in the more ancient stories, had been quite a tale in its time too, he thought nostalgically to himself.
Glyder let his mind drift away from the Silent City, satisfied with his apprentice’s progress. Ayr’s journey had been long, he had experienced pain and kindness, fear and hatred, the tale was nearing its conclusion, but he still had a lesson or two to learn, it wasn’t yet time.
Back in the Silent City, Ayr ducked under a worn curtain and entered a dimly lit but welcoming tea shop. His nose had led him here from half way across the city, drawn by a fabulous smell that had made his empty stomach ache even more as he’d navigated his way through the crowded, twisting streets. He’d found himself on the city outskirts before a cheerful looking little tea shop in an out of the way courtyard.
It was a small place, but a board outside proclaimed it served more than just tea. It had a wooden façade at the front and a rain porch which sheltered a couple of benches where several people were sitting chatting and sipping drinks in the shade of the building. Above the door on a worn sign ‘The Night Blossom Tea Shop’ was painted in faded characters. Over the wooden façade and up the stonework above an ancient vine of night flowering jasmine caressed the building lending it its name.
His eyes adjusted quickly from the outside glare to the dim interior as he entered. It wasn’t busy inside despite the city being full of revellers for the festival. A few people sat quietly enjoying a drink and partaking of the sweet dumplings that were a speciality of the Spring Rising Festival. There were plenty of tables free; it wasn’t exactly the peak time for business being the middle of the afternoon. Sitting down in an out of the way corner he sighed and drank in the delicious smell that had led him here, it wafted enticingly through a curtained doorway at the back of the dining area which no doubt led to the kitchen. An elderly woman appeared from the darkness at the back of the room and approached him bowing stiffly as she arrived at his table. He nodded his head in response and ordered a large bowl of whatever it was that smelt so good. The fact he didn’t have any money was merely a problem to be dealt with after he’d satisfied the ache in his belly.
The food arrived, a fabulous colourful dish of steamed spice grain with early spring vegetables and thin meat all swimming in a delicate liquor. It tasted as good as it had smelled. He polished off the first bowl and asked for another after which he ordered a plate of the sweet dumplings and a bottle of spice wine. He sat back against the wall and slowly sipped the wine and watched the other customers chatting.
Ayr sat there the whole afternoon watching people come and go, shadows slid across the courtyard outside as evening drew on. The place was getting livelier as people arrived for their dinner. He continued to put off the inevitable; he was just too comfortable sitting there in the snug tea shop his hunger satisfied. He could see the old lady eyeing him with increasing suspicion every time she passed him by to take an order or serve a meal. Then a middle aged woman popped her head out through the curtain at the back and whispered with the old lady, both cast furtive glances in his direction. He wasn’t especially hungry again yet, but in order to allay their suspicions for a little while he ordered another meal followed by several cups of tea. The older lady served him his meal suspiciously but said nothing.
It was late in the evening when most of the customers had left that Ayr knew the time to own up had come. The middle aged woman he had glimpsed before burst out of the kitchen, she strode across the room towards him. She was a formidable looking woman, large and strong, her hair was tied up tightly in a bun, she still wore her apron and her hands were dusted with flour. Her posture and attitude told him immediately she was a woman to be reckoned with. At times like these he wished the shadows would gather him up and hide him, but then, on the other hand he felt an exciting thrill of anticipation wondering how the situation might unfold. Either way there was no avoiding it.
The woman stopped before his table and laid the bill in front of him.He’d run up quite a tab having spent all afternoon and most of the evening enjoying the food and drink of the tiny tea shop.
“We’re closing soon,” the woman said, “You’d best settle up and be on your way.” Ayr consulted the bill and appeared to be engrossed in thought for a moment, then he laid the bill back on the table and sat back against the wall. Stealing all his courage before the imposing woman he announced. “The fact of the matter is I don’t actually have any money.” He kept his nerve and carefully observed the woman for reaction, a gathering storm spread across her features.
“Buntaro!” the storm broke with her terrible cry. Her fierce gaze remained on Ayr, as if she thought he might vanish into thin air if she stopped looking at him. Almost immediately a big, rather portly man appeared from behind the curtain that led into the kitchen.
Of course when Ayr said he had no money, that wasn’t strictly true, while he didn’t have any of the tokens used as coinage, he did have about him various stones that were coveted by humankind. Hard diamond, soft yellow gold, and most precious of all, delicate glowstones of rare hue sat concealed in his coat. They were plentiful in the gateways between the worlds; he had gathered them, played with them when he was a child at the Wind Gate. He could have paid for the meal many times over with just one of these precious gems.
However there was no interest in paying your way like that, you certainly didn’t gain anything by taking the easy way out, Ayr knew, he’d tried.In fact it’d been the very first thing he’d tried when he set out on his journey. After all if he were stuck in the human realm until his Sensei deemed him ready, he may as well have a comfortable time, he had thought. Also he had reasoned, since he was there to learn the hearts and minds of men, where better to start than from the position that all men aspired too. That of the rich man! But he had soon become bored of the lives of the rich. When everything you desire can be bought for a price, life becomes cheap and experience becomes false. Taking the easy life wasn’t as easy as it seemed.
He couldn’t understand why humans all seemed to desire and strive for the life of the rich. He eventually concluded that only after experiencing it could they realise how pointless it was, and once a human had achieved the goal of becoming rich, pride prevented any of them from revealing the truth of the matter to their fellow man, and so they lived their dull rich lives, and the secret was their burden alone, while every other man aspired to be them. Well, he thought, I suppose you’ve got to have something to aim for.
Since experiencing such a life, he’d never again taken the easy road, and although it had not always been pleasant, his life had certainly been rich in experience. Ayr chuckled at the irony of it all.
He was brought back to reality by the chilling shadow that passed over him as if the very sun itself had been eclipsed. The huge man named Buntaro crossed the room in barely three giant strides and stood in front of Ayr’s table, arms folded across his barrel of a chest.
“You find something funny?” the big man glowered at him.
Ayr smiled up at them with what he hoped as a placating smile. He wasn’t scared, after all what’s the worst that could happen? They’d throw him out, or put him to work, or maybe rough him up a bit.
“Not at all,” he said.
“How did you intend to pay the bill when you came in here filling your belly with our food?”
“Maybe, I could offer you some service in exchange for the cost of my bill?” Ayr said reasonably. The formidable woman raised a sceptical eyebrow.
“And what might you have to offer us young sir?” the big fellow enquired.
“I can wash dishes or clean tables!” Ayr announced cheerfully. Ayr noticed a minute change in Buntaro’s posture and in his eye caught the glimpse of something which gave him hope. Buntaro leaned across to the woman,
“We could do with a hand; after all you know how busy it gets during the festival.” he said surreptitiously out of the corner of his mouth. The woman rolled her eyes and contemplated Ayr again; Ayr tried to look like a model employee.
“Well, at least you didn’t just try and run off without paying,” she sighed, a long pause followed, with both Ayr and the giant man giving her hopeful looks.
“Fine!” she said throwing up her hands and turning on her heel. “But it’s only until he works off his debt and the festival is over!” she disappeared behind the curtain grumbling something about useless lazy oafs, the two men watching her go with relief. Ayr turned to look at Buntaro, the man’s face turned serious, clearly trying to impress some sort of authority over Ayr, but barely being able to hide his joy at getting a helper.
“Right, welcome to the Night Blossom, I’m Buntaro, that scary lady is my wife Heather,” he said cheerfully, “Let’s put you to work lad!”
Ayr spent the rest of the evening cheerfully washing a huge pile of pots and pans and cups and dishes while Buntaro supervised. It was late when he was done and Buntaro showed him where he could sleep and warned him in no uncertain terms what he would do to him if he found he’d run off in the morning.
As the dawn twilight filled the courtyard in front of the Night Blossom, Ayr danced across the smooth flagstones, his wooden bokken held in both hands whirling about him in an elaborate pattern. The movement of his feet and stroke of his sword in perfect harmony he had been there for most of the night, he didn’t sleep much, he didn’t need to. As the rays of the sun finally broke above the high city’s walls, chasing away the shadows of the night and the night flowering jasmine that covered the walls closed its delicate petals, he became aware of the city around him stirring from its slumber. Birds awoke and soon the air was filled with their morning song.
Buntaro emerged from the shop; he was somewhat surprised to see Ayr still there. Buntaro stretched and yawned and crossed to a stone sink full of water on the other side of the courtyard he plunged his head directly into the icy water and came up gasping, then turned and watched Ayr who was still engrossed in his sword practice.
“So you’re a Samurai are you lad?” said Buntaro, the icy water dripping from his untidy hair and bristly chin. Ayr stopped and greeted Buntaro with a bow.
“I know how to handle a sword myself y’know, and I used to be quite renowned for my skill,” Buntaro continued wistfully. “Of course these days there’s no call for a Samurai. Not that I’m complaining,” he added hastily.
Ayr considered the portly, unfit, unkempt form of Buntaro standing before him and tried to imagine the man wielding a sword. But it wasn’t just Buntaro’s gut that was of epic proportions, he was tall and well built too. No doubt he had power but Ayr found it hard to imagine the giant man had ever gracefully wielded the weapons of the Samurai. Ayr was roused from his contemplation by the roar of laughter; he looked up in surprise and could see from the look in Buntaro’s eye that he had read his thoughts. Buntaro strode up to Ayr and slapped him on the shoulder with a giant hand.
“I can’t deny I’ve let myself go a bit,” he said. “Well, you’ve tasted my wife’s cooking! Talking of which it’s about time for breakfast.” he said and strode off towards the kitchen, chuckling leaving Ayr alone in the courtyard, the light of the dawning day rising warm on his back.
All the festivals, and there were many throughout the year in Hakaze, were enthusiastically celebrated in the Silent City. The Spring Rising Festival was a celebration of the new life that spring would bring to the world and a farewell to the cold, dark days of winter. It began on the spring equinox when the fair winds began to blow from the south and the first fingers of warmth began to return to the land. The Festival lasted for two weeks after which the last of winter’s frosts would have passed and first planting would draw the people back to their homes down the terraced mountain sides and out across the great plain below. People gathered from near and far to enjoy the celebrations, the music and magic, the dancing and feasting and to hear the tellers tales, the entertainment came in many forms. They also came to trade goods and renew old friendships. It was an exciting and joyous time.
Ayr worked hard in the back of the Night Blossom, scrubbing pots, serving customers, fetching and carrying, he was a Jack of all trades and Heather soon warmed to him.
“You’re much more useful than that big fat lazy husband of mine,” she praised him often. “Maybe I should keep you and kick him out when the festival is over.” Buntaro stuck his head through the curtain into the kitchen.
“Oy! I heard that,” he said annoyed, but his wife just smiled at him and told him, “You big silly lug, you know I’d not be without you.” Ayr chuckled to see their banter and could sense the warmth in her words.
Occasionally when the work was done or business was slow Ayr took the chance to step out and enjoy glimpses of the festival. Of course he’d seen many festivals over the years but things changed constantly, new music and styles of dance, new tales and plays and styles of clothes, it was never boring even after all these years. When things were slow he took to telling a few tales and doing a few magic tricks himself to entertain the crowds.
On the final evening of the festival everyone paraded through the streets up to the highest point of the city, a large flat plaza where a giant carved glowstone stood. Ayr stood at the entrance to the small courtyard in which the Night Blossom was situated. He watched the parade of dancers and performers and musicians dressed in colourful clothing stream by between the crowds of onlookers. On either side of the street people jostled for a better view. The narrow road between the high walls was brimming with colour and sound.
Suddenly among them one girl in particular caught his eye. She was among a crowd of twirling dancers, but his attention was caught by her alone. He felt as though the jostling, noisy crowd around him vanished, and he was alone watching this girl, and this girl danced for him alone, the most graceful dance he’d ever seen.
She was dressed in simple flowing clothes with long streaming ribbons of shimmering gossamer fabric of all colours that seemed to drift after her and around her as if captured and weaved in a spell to follow her every exquisite movement. Her hair was deepest black and cut sharply to shoulder length, some was gathered in an off centre top knot held in place by strings of coloured beads and strung through with ribbons of subtle colour. Her face was not heavily made up like most of the performers, but what make-up she wore delicately accentuated her intelligent green eyes and shapely lips. Her eyes sparkled in the light of the paper glow-lanterns that hung in strings from the buildings all along the street. By chance her eyes caught his, he felt a spark as their eyes met in a moment that seemed like eternity and then it was gone, their gaze broken, blocked from each others view as the crowd surged and he realized he was back among the heaving crowds and the dancers were moving away down the street.
He was flustered almost tempted to push through the crowd and follow her but the thought was cut short when he realised Buntaro was calling for him, his deep voice carrying even across the noise of the crowd.
Ayr fought his way through the throngs of people and Buntaro set him back to work, but ever did his mind stray to the vision of beauty that had been that dancing girl.
The festival ended that night and over the following days the city gradually drained of people as they hurried home ready to prepare the first planting of the year. The troupes of entertainers lingered trying to catch the last trade before setting out to work at smaller local festivals around the land through the year.
The tea shop was still busy, being near the city outskirts many people stopped by for a meal there before they set out. Ayr was busy in the kitchen washing an endless stack of plates and bowls, cups and utensils, when Buntaro called for him to help take orders. He wiped his hands on his cloth apron and pushed through the curtain that separated the kitchen and dining area, the place was busy with every table packed full and noisy with diners talking of the highlights of the festival and making arrangements to meet again or striking last minute business deals.
Buntaro came up and handed him an order book.
“Tables five and nine have yet to order,” he said and disappeared into the kitchen to collect bowls of steaming food. Ayr approached the first table and stopped dead in his tracks, frozen. There she was, the girl, the dancing girl. His eyes saw only her and again he felt alone as all other sounds, but the beating of his own heart, faded. Then Buntaro was gripping him by the shoulders asking him what he was messing about at. He blinked and blushed and made to get on with the job. Pushing past the bemused Buntaro now brought to his senses he saw the girl was with the other dancers and musicians from that day in the street. They must be a troupe travelling together, he thought. They were still dressed brightly with ribbons of all colours in their hair. They were crammed into a table by the wall and all talking merrily together. That one girl, though she was a jewel among them, Ayr was captivated by her, she looked up at him and saw him staring at her, she smiled shyly under his attentions.
An older man also sitting at the table coughed conspicuously and Ayr brought his attention to the job at hand once again. Once the orders had been taken and he retreated to the kitchen he leant heavily against the door frame and sighed happily, so glad was he to have been able to glimpse such beauty once again.
Heather looked at him puzzled.
“What’s the matter with him?” she asked her husband who was laden with plates of food ready to be served.
“He’s in love!” said Buntaro with a huge cheeky grin all over his wide face. Ayr spluttered and started at this comment.
“I am not!” he protested and stormed off back to his chores, followed by the sound of Buntaro and Heather’s laughter. He threw himself into his task of washing dishes and tried not to think of the beautiful girl laughing with her friends just yards away from him.
That evening when all the work was done Ayr wandered the streets enjoying the company of the remaining festival goers still in high spirits.
Attracted by the sound of music he came across a large group of singers and dancers making merry about a big street-hearth. The light from the glowstone in the hearth cast soft blue light across the gathering. Under the stone’s smooth polished surface a blue luminescence flickered and swirled like fire, the dancers echoed it with their movements. There were few people giving audience to this performance, most of the onlookers were entertainers themselves. They played and danced not for the pleasure of others, but for their own love of doing so.
Ayr pulled his ryuuteki flute, a small side-blown flute of bamboo, out from where he always carried it in his robes and joined his own music to the tune and watched the dancers sweep past him in graceful swirls.
Suddenly whirling before his eyes was the girl again, her eyes met his and she smiled, his music faltered. Never before had he felt powerless and vulnerable as he did when her gaze was upon him. No other person was he afraid to look in the eye, but she, she stirred in him fear and excitement and emotions he had never before felt. She touched his heart to depths that he had never experienced in all his long human life. She took his breath away.
Another dance began and the girl stopped to watch and catch her breath Ayr was sitting surreptitiously watching the girl from a distance when she abruptly stood up and made straight for him. Surprised he immediately averted his gaze and tried to appear to be focused on something else.
“Excuse me!” she said, he glanced up acting surprised at being spoken too. “I noticed you looking at me” she said her anxious body language not quite matching the boldness of her words. Ayr swallowed hard and tried to form some coherent excuse.
“Well…” he stuttered over his words, “you dance so beautifully, it’s hard not to look!” He meant it and she blushed with pleasure at the compliment, her face lit up in a beautiful smile and some of her anxiousness fell away.
“I’m Ahen.” she stated
“Ayr,” Ayr replied bowing a little out of politeness.
“You play your flute very well Ayr,” she said.
“Would you maybe play a solo for me to dance to?” Ayr nearly choked at such a chance.
“Of course!” he declared without hesitation.
The music of the previous dance faded and with everyone else gathered quietly around the two of them Ahen danced to his music, and this time he knew for certain that despite the people around, she danced for him alone, and he played for her alone. They barely noticed the applause and wonder-filled compliments on their performance afterwards, as they were so caught up in each other, and they remained so for the rest of the evening.
It became true night and after all the dancing and singing and storytelling was done and the glow of the street-hearth faded down everyone wandered away to their own snug corners for the night, or went off to continue their merry making elsewhere. Ayr invited Ahen back to the empty Night Blossom for a drink and they sat at one of the tables in the corner sipping tea and talking. Ayr did a few magic tricks hoping to impress her. She wasn’t all that impressed by the tricks, but she was by Ayr himself, she found that despite their recent meeting she felt she had known him all her life, and soon felt completely at ease talking the night away with him.
As night drew on Buntaro emerged from the kitchen where he and Heather were still busy preparing food for tomorrow, he held a half eaten, fresh baked pie, still steaming, in one hand and a glass of ale in the other, he saw Ayr doing tricks and wandered over, always the first to delight in such illusions.
“Did he show you the one where he makes stuff disappear yet?” Buntaro asked taking a chug of ale and wiping froth from his mouth with his sleeve.
“I’ll make your pie disappear Buntaro!” Ayr grinned. As this was his favourite trick Buntaro eagerly handed over the remains of the pie without a second thought. Placing it on the table before him, Ayr said some magic sounding words and waved his hands about in an elaborate manner above the pie, then with a slight of hand he distracted Buntaro’s gaze while he shoved the half pie into his mouth with the other hand. Buntaro looked back at the table where the pie had been, not even realising he’d been distracted. The pie was gone and Buntaro’s face lit up in delight at the trick until he looked at Ayr to applaud him and saw the youngsters cheeks flushed and bulging with hot pie, piecrust crumbs were falling out the edges of his mouth as he tried to stifle the laughter bubbling up in him at the sight of Buntaro’s crestfallen face. Ahen beside him was also trying to stifle her laughter and hid her grin behind her hand, but tears of amusement were forming at the corners of her eyes.
“Oy!” Buntaro exclaimed. “That’s not fair! My pie!” he said solemnly. Behind him came the sound of raucous laughter and clapping hands from Heather, who had watched all this unfold from the kitchen door.
“Now that is some magic trick!” she exclaimed “I’ve never seen anyone who can separate my husband from his food before!” Ayr gurgled with renewed laughter and choked a little as he swallowed the pie. Buntaro admitted defeat and rubbing his head grinned at them all.
“Come on you big lug. Leave these youngsters to their tricks before you lose anything else and I’ll get you another pie,” Heather said shooing Buntaro back into the kitchen, leaving Ahen and Ayr alone once more.
They talked all that long night, but in the morning Ahen was gone, she left even before the first light of dawn broke. Ayr moped about doing his work without enthusiasm all morning. He couldn’t understand why he felt so miserable. Over his long life he had met and loved and been parted from many friends and lovers, but never had he felt an absence so deeply as that of Ahens. It was silly, he told himself over and over, he had known the girl for barely half a day, he knew next to nothing about her. Yet he could not get her out of his thoughts, or banish the feeling that something was missing now she had left. Buntaro and his wife exchanged knowing looks and left him alone until finally Heather couldn’t stand his brooding any longer and sent him out on an errand hoping the fresh air would clear his head.
It was after noon when he arrived back, Heather was busy tidying the shop, she looked up as he entered.
“Ah Ayr!” she exclaimed, rummaging in her apron pocket and pulling out a cord necklace with a carved blue glowstone pendant wrapped round with elegant swirls of wire on it. “I found this down the back of the seat where that girl and her troupe were sitting last night; one of them must have dropped it.” Ayr knew instantly that it belonged to Ahen; he felt a moment of elation to see even just one object that belonged to her. Heather held it out to him and he took it reverently with both hands and studied the shimmering blue stone, it was of rare quality, it’s colour almost that of aquamarine, the light that shone from it triggered by his touch was of a pure white light and the stone felt gently warm in his palm. It was carved in a delicate swirl that brought out all the best qualities of the stone and was polished to a fine finish.
“It’s Ahen’s,” he said.
“You’d best return it to her then,” Heather told him in a matter of fact manner.
“But she left this morning with her troupe,” Ayr replied, his heart sinking as he followed Heather through to the kitchen.
“I guess you’ll just have to go after her won’t you then,” she said winking at him. “And you can take that big lug with you!” she said hands on hips, she nodded towards Buntaro who had been eating spilled dust-sugar off the counter with his fingers and was now stopped, frozen in the act, looking at them both like a guilty child.
“Me!” he exclaimed, recovering himself and wiping dust-sugar off his hands and from his mouth. “Why have I got to go?”
“Because you could do with the exercise,” Heather told him firmly. “And I could do with the peace and quiet!”
“Whatever happened to you not being able to do without me?” Buntaro protested. “And who knows how long it’ll take to find her!”
“I’m sure I’ll manage somehow for a day or so.” she said rolling her eyes sarcastically.
“You’ll miss me though!” Buntaro mumbled glumly. She moved close to him, she was over a head shorter than him, she looked up at him seriously, no more bluff and joking.
“Aye, I will,” she said tenderly wiping a smudge of dust-sugar off his cheek. “But we can’t let the lad travel all that way alone can we now?”
“How far are we going?” Buntaro squeaked in alarm but he soon relented. “Aye okay,” Buntaro sighed, he knew he couldn’t refuse her, he never could. She smiled at him satisfied and stretched up to kiss him. Ayr rolled his eyes and slipped away.
Ayr had returned to the kitchen ready to leave within minutes only to find Heather still wiping sugar off her husbands chin.
“If we leave right away we can probably catch them by first thing tomorrow,” Ayr prompted, hoping to get moving. Buntaro rolled his eyes and groaned. “I haven’t had my lunch yet,” he complained, “and I’m not going without some provisions and things, especially if we have to rough it!” Ayr rolled his eyes, feeling a combination of exasperation and amusement.
Of course he didn’t need Buntaro to come with him, it certainly would have been easier and more convenient without him, however he was not inclined to deter him from coming either. These days Ayr liked to sit back passively and see how things developed around him rather than trying to influence them. He had seen that without doing hardly a thing, in fact just by being, by existing and by living he influenced the events and people around him, why go searching for experiences when if you just sat and waited they invariably came to you, he had discovered. So while he was eager to catch up with Ahen, he was also content to let events unfurl before him at their own pace. And besides, travelling alone was no fun.
They set to preparing for the trip immediately. It was quiet in the Night Blossom now, most of the festival goers had left and between taking care of the few customers that did stop by they packed food and other essentials for their trip.
At the back of the shop built into the thick walls that formed part of the city defences when it had originally been constructed as a fortress, was a small store room. It was crammed to bursting with objects, things that had been put away over the years, most never to see the light of day again. Buntaro had been noisily digging through this heap of junk all afternoon, casting items out through the door until the hall outside was barely passable.
“What is he doing in there?” Ayr complained to Heather as he stumbled into the kitchen hauling a fresh sack of spice-grain.
“He said he had to find something important,” Heather shrugged.
“We could have been on our way by now!” Ayr said barely containing his frustration behind gritted teeth. Now they were decided on going, he was eager to get started, eager to see Ahen once more. Heather sighed and dusting flour off her hands with her apron she strode purposefully towards the dark storeroom.
Pushing her way into the small space it took her eyes a moment to adjust from the bright spring sunlit kitchen outside to the dimness of the storeroom’s interior. She picked her way carefully through the heaps of precariously balanced items that Buntaro had moved aside in his quest. She found him sitting on the floor at the back of the dark and dusty space lost deep in thought looking at something in his hands.
“You’re not taking those with you?” Heather asked with wary respect seeing what her husband was holding. He looked up in surprise, unaware of her approach, then back to the katana sword in his hands, a short sword and a small knife lying before him on a dirty old cloth with faded patterning on it.
He tested the weight of the katana in his hand then slowly drew the sword from its sheath. The blade was still bright even after all these years and it reflected back sharply, focusing the little light that was in the room. Buntaro was captivated by its beauty and its deadliness. It was nearly ten years since he’d wielded the weapon but even after all that time it felt familiar in his hand, the weight and balance just as he remembered it. He’d hoped never to have to use it again. Heather was still standing behind him, her question unanswered
“I’d better take it just to be safe,” he said. “I’d feel safer if you didn’t take it.” He put the sword down on the cloth next to the other blades and stood to look at her.
“This might be a time of peace but we both know the world is not without its troubles still,” he reminded her. “I won’t draw it unless I have no other choice.” he reassured her. She stepped forward into his arms holding him tight against her and her to him.
“I know.” she said, but concern still tinged her voice.
Outside Ayr bustled past busily preparing for the trip and the moment was over, they stepped away from their embrace.
“Of course I could always stay here, then you wouldn’t have to worry.” Buntaro suggested jokingly as Heather stepped carefully out of the store room into the bright sunlight laughing. Serious once again Buntaro turned to the swords, he bent and rewrapped them in the cloth and carried them out into the light.
That evening Ayr was restless, eager to get going, everything was prepared but there was no point in setting out till the morning now. Buntaro sat out front on one of the benches in the courtyard carefully cleaning and sharpening his swords while Ayr burned off his frustration by practicing kata sword strikes with his bokken. Buntaro finished his cleaning and took up his own bokken which he had found in the store room alongside his swords; he limbered up and joined Ayr in his practice.
It had been a long time since he’d practiced, but just as the feel of the sword in his hand had felt familiar, so too were the motions that went with it, his body remembered and soon he was lost in the repetition of the kata.
After the kata practice Buntaro faced off against Ayr, wanting to test out the young man and also his own long untested skills. Buntaro found that he quickly fell back into the patterns he had learned in his youth, blocking, striking, stabbing, twisting away, he moved with a grace that was surprising for such a large man, and not so surprisingly he also had power behind his blows as Ayr had suspected. Ayr found himself surprised at Buntaro’s skill, maybe the tales of heroic deeds long past that Buntaro liked to tell sometimes were more than just bluff and exaggeration after all.
Buntaro too was impressed as they sparred, the youngster was skilled, not just in the standard fighting forms, but he could think and move and see opportunity too, he fought like a veteran, not like the wet round the ears youngster who’d never seen battle that his appearance and youth made him out to be. Buntaro felt a new kind of respect and curiosity about the strange young man.
They finished their practice, neither taking the opportunity to strike and win on this occasion, they bowed respectfully to each other and turned in to get a good nights rest.
The first two chapters of my novel Windmaster.
More info: http://shirotokuro-news.blogspot.com/2009/09/wi...
ps, I know my grammar isn’t perfect, I hope you can look past that and enjoy the story.