“Leaving already, Ireulun?”
Brushing her sweaty black fringe from her forehead with the back of her dirty hand, Ireulun smiled at the matronly figure standing on the threshold of her bedroom. She got up from the floor she was crouching and dusted her hands on her thighs. She wanted badly to stretch her arms upward, to stretch her back, to pull at knotted muscles but Ireulun was quite tall for a woman and her knuckles would knock against the low beams of the ceiling.
“Not yet, Mrs. Marble. Maybe tomorrow or the day after tomorrow,” said Ireulun.
“Oh? By ship then?” asked Mrs. Marble.
Ireulun nodded. Her knees ached. She had been crouching in one position for too long, replacing the frayed straps on her backpack with strong new rope strings. Almost all her worldly possessions are in that backpack, including her map and her diary. The books she had studied - books all borrowed from the village library - were stacked neatly on the study table by the window.
Mrs. Marble too noticed that Ireulun was looking at her books and quipped, “If you still need them tonight, I can take the books back to town for you tomorrow.”
Ireulun shook her head.
“Thank you ma’am, but I shall do that myself. I have everything I need for my trip. I’m quite ready to take off from the island.”
A fissure of irritancy crept in Ireulun, but Mrs. Marble spoke in a sarcastic tone that evokes nothing more than a twitch in the corner of her lips.
Ireulun is a something like a guest of Mrs. Marble’s small farm. Ever since she found herself lost on Crosswind Isle, far from either home or her intended destination, the widowed Mrs. Marble took her in as a kitchen maid.
Mrs. Marble also took on a role as her steadfast duenna. She imposed strict curfews on her goings to town, watched her growing number of acquaintances and advised her to often write letters to home, to her family. Normally it irritates the devil out of Ireulun, to be led around as if she was a helpless little girl, but Mrs. Marble had been so kind and considerate that Ireulun decided that it was a worthy sacrifice.
Still, she didn’t need to be reminded on everything.
“Yes, everything, ma’am. Even the letters from the West,” said Ireulun, grinning.
Letters from the West are those of her family. Satisfied with the answer, Mrs. Marble beamed.
“Good, good. I take it you shall go to town this afternoon?”
Mrs. Marble narrowed her eyes at Ireulun and waved a soupspoon at her nose.
“I expect to see you back a full hour before sun down, little miss. Understand me, gel?”
Ireulun threw the plump old woman a mock-pout.
“Awww gee, Mrs. Marble. Will there be candy?”
Ireulun left the cottage amidst laughter and as much light-hearted bantering as between two good friends.
Fifteen minutes later, her feet touched the cobbled streets of Sandhurst town. Crosswind Isles is an island, or rather, a series of small islands clustered very close together, and Sandhurst is situated on the largest island. It is a market town where the local fishermen and small-farm owners converge to trade and exchange news.
It was also the place where, several months ago, Ireulun found herself getting off on the wrong ship port and had no idea how to get back home; proficient though she was in languages, the local dialect was as strange to her as hers was to them. Only Mrs. Marble, by sheer luck and good timing, understood what Ireulun was trying to say and rescued her from the authorities who thought her a possibly dangerous half-wit.
In those months, Ireulun managed to adapt well to the island life and languages. She learned a lot about its history as well, something her nature would not allow her to miss such opportunity.
After returning the library books and making a few new purchases, such as some day-old bread from the bakers’ for the night’s soup and a seashell necklace she had admired for some time, Ireulun realized that she was still a bit early from Mrs. Marble’s curfew. Her curiosity was piqued was refused to be suppressed any longer.
She decided to take the longer route home. The route that cuts alongside Balcony Park.
Soon after she got used to the island life, Ireulun began exploring. What she found not an hour’s walk from the market town and through the dense woodlands was a sight that knocked her breath out.
A lookout dais on a high rock cliff. It must have been a platform of sorts connected to a bridge somewhere to a very near, very large outcrop of a neighbouring island rock jutting out of the rough waves and biting winds. The dais itself was beautiful. A completely circular structure surrounded by stone arches on spiral pillar, topped by female statues. Every statue was the same; a female in a flowing robe and coronet hairstyle, each holding a shiny crystal ball in her hand.
And beyond Balcony Park were the domes and towers of one of the largest stone metropolis Ireulun had ever seen. A city at her feet and she can view it for miles toward the western sea from the cliffs.
The stone city and the stone dais were separated on by a short but very deep chasm of winds and waves, endlessly pounding against the jagged sea rocks. Erosion had weathered the bridge into a broken stump on both sides of land, yet Ireulun felt that if the chasm was not so deep and the winds would cease, she might cross it with a good swing on a strong vine.
A good swing and she would land her feet into the metropolis. Or more accurately, a necropolis.
The local islanders did not call the dais Ireulun now stood upon as Balcony Park; she gave it that name for lack of a better one. The dais, indeed the entire empty city, had no name. Or rather, its name and origins was forbidden to speak of amongst the people of Crosswind Isles.
Not for lack of trying. She consulted the library, the village hall, the small religious school and even the fisherfolk in a neighbouring community a good distance away. Not one can answer her inquisitive inquiries. But their faces held subtle contempt for her, as if her innocent questions were a violation of some unwritten code.
As an experienced traveller, she knew when not to step on beyond local bounds. But as an experienced traveller, she just could not let it go. Hence, Ireulun had broached the subject to Mrs Marble only some days after she discovered the stone city.
“A forbidden city?” she said with more awe than she intended. Mrs. Marble turned to her just in time to see Ireulun shut her gawping jaw.
“Yes, gel. And like the rest of us, you will do well to stay well away from that haunt,” said Mrs. Marble with a narrow look.
But Ireulun could not stop herself from asking why, but she managed to keep her expression to a mild inquest instead of the bubbling curiousity she was filled within.
“Because, gel. That city belongs to ghosts now. Just an eyesore of our islands’ past. The folks who lived in there are long gone and so let them rest in peace.”
She said it with such a finality in her voice that Ireulun’s concern for her landlady’s affections took over her desire to learn more about a city no one speaks of.
Now, as the sun’s red rays were disappearing behind the domes and towers of the city’s horizon, Ireulun packed her shopping basket of foodstuffs and headed back to the farm for her last night on the island. Her last night before the last passenger ship of the season sets sail for the sea.
Her last chance from discovering the city’s hidden secrets.
Darkness came quicker than she had expected due to the storm clouds that had gathered quickly across the sky. Far too quickly. Ireulun realized that these must be the first stirrings of the winter rains. The seas around the island are relatively calm during most of the year. But come wintertime and the winter storms, it was impossible - completely impossible - to navigate sea vessels of any size through the choppy waters, much less through the unforgiving rains.
Tomorrow Ireulun would depart for the mainlands in the far south. She had stalled her journey for many days now, but ever since she had that dream - her strange dream of a forest of silence - did she finally habor a real desire of leaving. She would leave soon, before the full blast of winter storms stopped her.
It did not rain when she finally returned to the Marble farmhouse, but with the last signs of daylight disappearing behind thick rolling clouds, Mrs Marble would have the place lit with candles and warm from the kitchen fire. And mostly likely waving her soupspoon in a very concern, maternally concerned, manner.
So when Ireulun noticed how dark the house was and that the front door was swinging open and close on its hinges by the strong winds, something was wrong. Even more so when between the swinging door, she saw an old shoe in the darkness, attached to a leg, lying on the floor. With the rest of the fallen body of an old woman.
Struck with fear, Ireulun ran into the farmhouse.
“Shh, Maggie. I’m here.”
“Maggie it’s alright now. Can you hear me?”
Mrs Marble - Maggie - opened her eyes for the first time since her fall to the floor. Ireulun heaved a sigh of relief. She turned to the bed table to fetch the cool compress she had been applying to Mrs. Marble forehead. But a firm hand with old fragile fingers held to her wrist.
“Don’t leave,” said Mrs. Marble, weakly.
“I’m not,” Ireulun said. She placed her other hand over the old woman’s grip on her wrist and squeezed gently, trying not to harm her.
But those fingers gripped even more tightly.
Ireulun next sigh came out more in a sense of exasperation.
“I’m not,” she repeated. Patiently, she gestured a hand to the bed table, “I’m just going to get a cool cloth, that’s all.”
Mrs. Marble blinked her old eyes at the bed table, topped with a bowl and strips of cloth.
Ireulun vaguely nodded.
“Maggie, you had a fall. The healer from the village had come to check on you.”
“Only... fall. Healer Marcus-“ she wheezed in a breath. “-just now?”
Actually, Mrs. Marble had suffered a stroke and fell to the floor because of it. And the village healer was at the farmhouse over a full day ago. The time was the evening on the day after.
“Yes, Maggie. Only a fall. Lie still.”
Ireulun reached far to fetch the compress and placed it on Mrs. Marble’s forehead. For the rest of the night, Ireulun kept watch over her, as protective as a parent to a child. Outside, the winter storms began its seasonal onslaught. No one would be out to sea in a very long time.
“Not a good protector, aren’t you gel?”
Ireulun woke up with a start from her resting place. The first thing she noticed was a stinging, cramped sensation on her neck and down her back. The second thing she noticed was that Mrs. Marble was sitting up straight from her bed. Wide awake and with a narrow gaze. And in full control of her wits.
“Mrs. M-mm-Marble?” Ireulun began.
“You have a trail of drool on your mouth, gel. My wooden table better not stain permanently.”
Beneath her still riding emotion of anxiety, Ireulun could help but mentally giggled. She rubbed her drool off with the edge of her sleeve.
“I was-“ her voice felt hoarse “I was just resting my eyes. A slow blink, that’s all.”
Mrs. Marble raised an eyebrow in disbelief and watched her far too disconcertingly. Even old, frail and in a ragged but serviceable nightgown, Mrs. Marble looked somewhat intimidating. As if she was waiting for something that was her due.
Ireulun felt the first stirrings of an uncomfortable silence. She got up from the desk she had been sleeping - resting her eyes – upon.
“Do you feel better now, Mrs. Marble? Shall I make some tea?”
She mentally blinked. “Maybe coffee or choco-“
“I don’t want anything to drink gel.”
Ireulun did not know what to say after that.
Sensing her young charge’s apprehension, Mrs. Marble extended a clawed hand and spoke more softly.
“Come here, Ireulun.”
Ireulun did as she was bid and sat on the coverlet on the old woman’s bed.
“Why are you here, child?” Mrs Marble asked. Hey eyes looked deep into hers but there was no predation in her constant gazing.
Ireulun cleared her throat before she said weakly, “I couldn’t just leave you, ma’am.”
To her relief, Mrs. Marble only smiled.
“You missed your ship, didn’t you?”
“Why didn’t you leave? You were ready days ago.”
“I,” she drew in a deep breath, “don’t want to leave you. You were ill. Someone has to take care of you and I want it to be me.”
She returned Mrs. Marble gaze, eye for an eye, and saw nothing but sincere gratitude flowing between them.
“You missed you family, do you, Ireulun?”
Ireulun only nodded.
Her family. A mother and a father. Her brothers and sisters. In the west.
Mrs. Marble continued.
“You didn’t have to stay with me you know. You don’t have to postpone your journey.”
“Nonsense! I can wait until the winter’s over. Or until you’ve fully-“
“I’m not going to recover, gel.”
Ireulun’s eyes went wide. Before she could speak, Mrs. Marble spoke first in tone that held deep meaning.
“I am never going to recover.”
The silence in the bedroom stretched. The only sounds that could be heard were the crackling of the fire in the bedroom fireplace and the light drone of the night’s rain as the early hours rendered it into a drizzle. Ireulun frowned and unconsciously mouthed a silent why.
Mrs. Marble’s face shone with a delicate glow.
“Child, I had not been quite truthful for all the time we’ve been together.”
She paused and then continued.
“I am dying, child. Not wait!” She held up a hand when Ireulun was about to interrupt. “Just listen.”
When Ireulun shut her mouth, she continued.
“I know I don’t look it, but child, I am dying. It wasn’t just a fall, wasn’t it, gel? I had another stroke, didn’t I?”
Knowing that the question was purely rhetorical, Ireulun kept mum.
“I had already seen a healer, the one before Healer Marcus took the job. I may not look like it but I do know that this winter,” she waved to the window, to the rains outside the farmhouse. “This will be my last winter.”
When she paused and closed her faded blue eyes, Ireulun had a sudden thought that the old woman might faint again and a small burst of panic grew in her chest. When Mrs. Marble only continued, her panic lessened, but did not disappear.
“Gel, I want you to leave. Soon”
Immediately, Ireulun’s panic was replaced with an uncomfortable mix of concern and irritation. She held to Mrs. Marble hand.
“I’m staying here. With you.”
She then raised her hand when Mrs. Marble poised to interrupt.
“It’s the right thing to do. I won’t leave you alone, in this old shack. If you won’t get better, I want to be next to you.”
Mrs. Marble stared at her with the same open frankness as Ireulun said her words. Then she added the obvious.
“Amongst other thing, Maggie, there’s no passenger ship left to take me off the island.”
Instead of accepting her sacrifice, an acceptance her help, Mrs. Marble shook her head briskly, her eyes twinkling.
“I didn’t mean by boat, gel. Did you think my stroke made me loose all my wits?”
That did occour in Ireulun’s mind but she knew the old woman’s pride too well to have mentioned it. But if not by sea, then...?
Mrs. Marble pointed to her cupboard and spoke to her again before she could formulate an assumption.
“Fetch that box, my dear.”
Ireulun blinked inwardly. She rose slowly, mindful and ever aware of Mrs. Marble’s fragile health. Crossing the room to the cupboard, Ireulun opened it. She hardly ever entered her landlady’s room, much less look into the cupboard. Between dusty coats and threadbare dresses, she did not know where to look first for... whatever it was that Mrs. Marble wanted her to find.
“Left side. Third drawer from the top.”
It took some strong tugging to get the drawer to open. Ireulun immediately knew what Mrs. Marble was referring to when she opened that tight drawer. There were silk scraves in that drawer of a design she had never seen before but it was what nestled in the middle of those scraves that drew her eye. It was the size of her fist. She knew without touching that if it was placed on her palm, it would fit snuggly.
“You know what it is don’t you gel? You seen something of its like every time you go to that dais you so loved to look out from.”
It was a crystal ball, an exact replica of the crystal balls held by the female statutes of Balcony Park. Round and clear, the crystal ball’s surface was smooth and unmarked. But inside the crystal ball were cracks that seem to grow outward from the centre. Altogether, it was like an unlit star frozen in time, frozen inside the crystal.
Ireulun turn to Mrs. Marble and held out the ball to her. It was surprisingly light but Mrs. Marble would not take it.
“Gel, that ball is for you now. I want you to have it,” said Mrs. Marble.
Ireulun let the questions in her mind show openly to her face, waiting for Mrs. Marble to explain more.
“If you take to the place you’ve always been wondering about for weeks, you will see.”
Slyly, with a teasing glint in her eye, she added, “And you will see it.”
“It will help me leave the islands?” asked Ireulun.
“What is it?”
For a dying old woman, Mrs. Marble had the gall to still be mysterious. Ireulun had a half-mind to childishly pout and stomp her foot but when Mrs. Marble’s expression blanked and turned towards the window. Outside, the world was in the darkest hour before dawn. The rains had lessened but it had not stop, a temporary respite before the winter storms returned to blast the islands again.
“You should leave. Soon. It only works at dawn,” said Mrs. Marble.
Ireulun never saw her look older than she ever did at that moment.
“Please. Mrs. Marble,”
She waited. It was not until Mrs. Marble turned to look at her than Ireulun asked her question.
“Mrs. Marble,” she started slowly. “How did you get this?”
Instinct, trust and understanding of character made Ireulun knew that the crystal ball was not a stolen artefact.
Like a secret unfolding ghostly wings, Mrs. Marble gave Ireulun a long sweeping assessment, a girl prior to the prime of her life as much as she was long past hers.
“That crystal ball, gel, is mine. Given to me by my family,” said Mrs. Marble.
When she did not say more, Ireulun could barely contain herself.
Mrs. Marble gave a genuine chortle but the act made her cough bitterly. Ireulun approached her in alarm but the garrulous woman waved aside her open arms with a, "Don’t worry me, gel, I must say this. It’s been too long and I can’t have it hanging over me before I depart.”
Ireulun waited in painful patience.
“My dear, Mr. Marble never knew of it. For all I had love him, the ball was only my secret. My burden to bear.
“You asked me before about the forbidden city, yes? Let me tell you why we - even I - never speak of it. Our memories of those citizens were never good. The people of this island were the lowest of the lower class. Fisher folk and farmers, they were the natives of this island but they were treated as if they owed the invaders their allegiance.
“Then came a time of trouble. A day of reckoning for the people of that city you saw. Like a plague it swept between the stones of the city, filling its domes and breaking its towers. Still, their arrogance made them blind. They would not leave. They died in that city.
“The people who had repented, including my family, had made plans to leave. To escape. We had a way. But we never had the chance.”
“You were discovered?” asked Ireulun.
“Discovered. Or betrayed. Who’s to say? I was the only survivor,” said Mrs. Marble. Sadness, an old pain, a long buried pain, coloured her tone.
“The device we made, it was on the very edge of the city, on the island’s mainland instead of the outcrop of rock we had made as home. The blind ones never knew what it was, except that it was something. They were afraid it was something that might be used against them.”
She paused, her breath ragged, her eyes shone with unshed tears. Ireulun sat by her side and held her hand. Whatever courage she had, whatever comfort she could give, she transferred them to Mrs. Marble, a refugee of the past.
“It was never anything offensive. Or aggressive. We - my family - we just want to leave the island safely.”
“But you didn’t.”
“They didn’t. I did.”
She turned to Ireulun and spoke quietly, barely a whisper, more a repercussion of old regret than old age.
“I should have died there, Ireulun. I should have died protecting my family,” said Mrs. Marble.
Ireulun did not turn away or gave pity. Only her understanding. It was Mrs. Marble’s pride that had helped her survive whatever cataclysm had been inflicted upon the stone city.
“So you roamed the streets of Sandhurst before you met and married Mr. Marble. Nobody knew who you were? Why didn’t you just leave?” asked Ireulun.
“Nobody cared. The failing of my people did nothing to improve what limited quality of life the natives of the island already had. They just shrugged and went on with their life, just no longer answering to a foreign authority,” said Mrs. Marble.
“As for leaving, where would I go? I have no one, no place. No one that it, until I met my husband and he had no desire to be more than the farmer he was.”
Cupping the crystal ball in her hands, she felt it absorb her warmth. A long silence passed before she felt the old woman’s gentle touch on her shoulder.
“Use it my dear. You may take your leave today.”
Ireulun was still absorbing the new revelations about the silent city. And of Mrs. Marble.
“What about you? No matter what, I still can’t leave you.”
A slow smile infused Mrs. Marble’s face, a smile of friends sharing trust and hope. Ireulun could not help but smile back.
“When I first met you, Ireulun, you told me you were a traveller. You took many journeys because you wanted to. Isn’t this just another leg in your journeys?”
“Journeys means little if not for those I meet.”
“Then take this from an old woman who never left the island.”
Squeezing Ireulun’s hand over the crystal ball, she raised her own gnarled hand to her smooth cheek.
“I plan... to go on a journey too. My family will be waiting for me, just where I left them,” said Mrs. Marble.
She paused, and then continued.
“I don’t want anyone to be left behind.”
Contrary to Mrs. Marble wishes, Ireulun stayed with her for the rest of her final hours. Perhaps Mrs. Marble had always known Ireulun’s steadfast desire to stay with those who needed other. She never mentioned or gave any allusion to the term ‘weak’ or ‘helpless’. No, it was Mrs. Marble’s strength, her desire to live, that kept her alive and Ireulun was proud to have known her.
In the back of her mind, she wished she could have done more to her landlady, her friend for many weeks. If Mrs. Marble had lived long enough to meet her mother, the two would have become good friends.
It was the third dawn after Mrs. Marble - now late Mrs. Marble - had had her stroke. Ireulun had left a message at the village healer’s notice and another at Mrs. Marble’s nephew in town. She had not stayed a minute longer than necessary. With her possessions and her sustenance for a long trip in her backpack, she took off without looking back.
Mrs. Marble is going on a journey.
Ireulun would start hers as well.
Well, if you insist gel. We will part in the heavens at dawn.
At dawn? Even at her deathbed, Mrs. Marble refused to explain more than she did, citing it was more fun when Ireulun should see for herself. Whatever it was that the lost people of the stone necropolis had made, Mrs. Marble was confident Ireulun would handle it.
The heavy winter rains, as always, slowed to a drizzle come dawn. It was the best time to be on the move, to cross familiar but muddy forest paths. Deep were her thoughts about the city, about the old woman’s past, about the biased natives of the island that the arches of Balcony Park loomed over her before she realized that she had arrived.
The stone structure had not changed in her eyes; it still looked the same as she had first seen it. The arches were standing tall, the slabs on the floor crooked as ever. The city without life hovered in view, filling her view.
But in her mind, coloured by new revelations, everything about the structure had changed. Ireulun did not know. She walked a little bit away from the dais and onto the broken bridge structure. What had caused the failing of the city? Why was the government so blind? Why, even years later, the natives refuse to speak about a dead city?
Who were the ladies who posed as female statutes for this balcony? The people who made these arches, were they members of the rebellion of supporters of the blind government? Or was it the natives who had been forced to work without pay to craft these sculptors?
Questions that perhaps will be revealed in time.
Or perhaps never.
In the heart of a student of history, that last part irked Ireulun’s heart. But she had other plans. Plans that preclude the mysteries of the stone city. Remembering her friend’s instructions, Ireulun reached an arm to her back and pulled out the crystal ball. The light of dawn was reflected in the spiky cracks, making the inner star glow.
Slowly, Ireulun took slow steps toward the middle of the circle, holding the ball with both hands and keeping it warm with her fingers. The reflected light grew and shone, until it was no longer reflected light but an inner light that glowed from the crystal ball.
In response, the other crystal balls - the crystal ball held by the surrounding statutes glowed in similar colour of less intensity. Then one of the statutes’ crystals, closest to Ireulun, burst into shards. She held up her arm in a jerked surprise, barely missing the shower of shards to her face.
But the shards were tiny and brittle as glass. They bounced off her arm harmlessly. Soon other crystal ball on the hands of the statutes burst as well. One by one, they pop and cracked and shattered until all that remained was Ireulun’s own, shining every brightly.
There was a moment of silence, a stretching stillness that Ireulun wondered if she had done the steps correctly. But then ground started to shake beneath her feet. Not an earthquake, more like a sudden weakness in the dais floor. Sand? The stone slabs of the crooked floor dissolved under her feet like melting sand.
She imagined that if she suddenly found herself in the top half of an hourglass, perhaps that was how the sand was falling under her feet. Ireulun quickly jumped out of the way of the moving, shifting sand, the stone slabs of the floor breaking into pieces, the slow sinking sand brought her ever deeper into the floor.
Her foot then struck something solid. Her initial thought was a hidden stone sculptor but as she tried to gain purchase on it, she realized that the structure had a smooth surface.
A metallic surface.
Curiosity grew greater than her caution. She rubbed the spot where she had landed. The surface was definitely metallic. One hand still holding the bright crystal, she swept the sands around her, bringing to light a more definite unveiling of the unknown object.
As sand continued to flow steadily under her feet, the hidden structure, the lost relic of the stone necropolis revealed itself under the glaring light of Ireulun’s crystal ball. What Ireulun found was beyond what she had been guessing and mussing about.
Far, far beyond her expectations.
“Mrs. Marble, you have got to be joking!” Ireulun exclaimed in disbelief.