Elasia wiggled her fingers in the water, daring a fish to come take a nip. The grownups had expanded the dome to give the town more room, but the fact remained that the dark sky pressed in from all sides, and she longed to run freely through the forest she knew to be up there. She’d seen it once, when she was small, with the bright blue sky and that blinding sun. Vashaeda, the storyteller, told great tales of a world where the land stretched on and on. Not Elasia’s world, though. Her’s was topped and rimmed by dark water. It was lamps that provided light.
Elasia sighed and withdrew her hand. The fish weren’t being interesting today and her fingers were getting wrinkly and pale. She ran to Vashaeda’s house, hoping for a story, but the storyteller wasn’t home. Next on her list was old Ygarl. Ygarl had been a soldier once, though now he was an old man who walked bent over. Elasia didn’t exactly know what a soldier was, except that it was everybody’s explanation for the scars that covered Ygarl’s head and neck. He’d gotten them in the war, though she didn’t know what that was, either, except that something had endangered her father’s life, because Ygarl had saved him. Nobody wanted to talk about the war, though. Whatever it was, it had left a seed of sadness in all of the grownups. The war had happened up there.
Ygarl called Elasia Princess. It made her feel pretty, and special. Her father disapproved, so Ygarl only said it when he wasn’t around. Ygarl wasn’t the only one, either. Most of the townsfolk called her Princess when they thought her father couldn’t hear. A nickname, of sorts. She didn’t understand why it made father so angry.
“Good morning, Princess,” greeted Ygarl when she hopped through his door. “Hungry?”
“No,” said Elasia, folding herself into a deep windowsill. “I’m bored. Tell me a story.”
“Story, eh?” said Ygarl, wrestling with his stove. His hands looked like knots of wood layered upon each other, and his thick fingers shook around the knobs. “Vashaeda not in?”
Elasia shook her head. “Tell me about the blue sky,” she prompted.
“You’ve seen it,” he said through a groan as he eased down onto a chair beside the stove.
“But I had to be perfectly quiet, and it was only for a few minutes, to wave goodbye to Alsiamba when she went to die,” said Elasia. “You’ve seen the sky a lot more than I have.” Ygarl was reluctant to tell stories, and nobody told them like Vashaeda, but there was always a note of confession in Ygarl’s simple style that Elasia loved. “Please?”
Ygarl gazed at her warmly. His skin was sagging around his old frame, and he moved as if he were on the outside of the dome, in the water, but his eyes had the sharp alertness of a young man. “It isn’t always blue,” he said.
Elasia sat up straight. “What other colors can it do?” she asked. Images of the color prism splashed through her mind.
“On cloudy days, it’s gray. Sometimes dark, sometimes light; so light that it looks white. And twice a day, when the sun rises and sets, the sky turns red and orange and purple. At night, it’s black, like here, but there are millions of stars, and a moon.”
“Oh,” Elasia breathed, trying to imagine so many colors on the dome up there. “I’d like to see that.”
Ygarl studied her with a hint of sadness. “It is our shame that you’ve had to grow up like this,” he said. “No friends your age, in hiding… no sky.”
“In hiding?” Elasia frowned. She was well aware of being the only child in her town. It had always been that way. She didn’t question it. She’d never heard anyone say anything about hiding, though.
Ygarl’s face went slack for a moment. “Don’t listen to the ramblings of an old man,” he said, chuckling, but Elasia wasn’t fooled.
“What are we hiding from?” she asked. “Ygarl? Ygarl, I know you can hear me. What are we hiding from?”
The old man was tending to his breakfast as if it were the only thing that existed.
“Mreg,” he said at last, so faintly that she nearly didn’t hear.
“What’s Mreg?” she asked, lowering her voice as well.
The sorrow in Ygarl’s eyes when he looked at her nearly made her weep. “They can hear everything, up there,” he said quietly. “That’s why we couldn’t speak when we went up to bid Alsiamba farewell. Those who took her to her resting place made the journey in silence, so they could deliver her to her ancestors in peace.” He eased back in his chair with a low groan. “It will soon be time for my journey.”
“May I come?” asked Elasia.
Ygarl laughed. “How long is the longest you’ve ever been silent?”
Elasia began to practice silence right away. She skulked around town like a shadow, avoiding her usual sources of conversation.
“What’s gotten into you?” her father asked at last. “I don’t think you’ve said a word for days.”
“I’m practicing being quiet so I can come when Ygarl goes to join his ancestors,” answered Elasia.
Her mother dropped a dish, and her father looked as if he’d just been struck. “You will do no such thing!” he bellowed. “What has Ygarl been filling into your head?”
Elasia blinked at her father, fighting back tears and trying to figure out what she’d done wrong.
“I’d be perfectly quiet,” she said meekly.
“You have no idea how long a journey that is,” he snapped. “Keeping you quiet for that long is like asking the sun not to shine.”
“Is that difficult?” she asked. “May I see it?”
Something shifted then in her father’s eyes. A softening. Remorse. Tenderness.
“I’m sorry, Elasia,” he said gently, “but the answer is no. The world above is dangerous. If you want a sun and sky, I’ll see what I can do about that.”
The next day, a blazing ball of fire hovered at the top of the dome, and at night it went out, revealing a silver disc. Elasia knew her father meant well, but she wanted more. She wanted to breathe the air that smelled like trees and other exotic things. She wanted to see a bird again, the fish of the sky up there. She knew how to do it, too.
That night, she crept into her parents’ chamber and stole her father’s silver flute. He’d worked hard to keep his use of the flute a secret, but she knew that it was the flute that held back the water. It had probably created the disc of fire as well. She used it to create a tunnel through the water, up to the surface.
The sky wasn’t any different than down below, and she frowned at the shadowed trees. There were no lamps to light her way. Ygarl had never lied to her before. Where was his moon? Where were the stars? Above was only black. A few steps into the trees, and she was utterly lost. She fought against tears, but lost. A small sob escaped her lips.
She heard movement nearby. Something approached. It was large, and moving slowly, but it was headed straight for her. From behind, she heard something else, coming at her swiftly. She covered her mouth to keep from making another sound, but it was too late. She had no idea where to run.
A sliver of light shot down through the trees, and above she saw a bright disc for a moment, peeking through a hole in what looked like a huge blanket overhead. Ygarl had talked about clouds before. Was that the reason for the darkness? She saw movement in the moonlight, and white teeth, and something that shone blindingly for a second, slashing downward. Then the moonlight had passed, and she was left to guess what had made that thudding sound at her feet.
Another sliver of moonlight answered her question. Ygarl stood beside her, a long thin sword in his hands. On the ground was what remained of a beast, its lips still pulled back in a snarl. Trembling, she took Ygarl’s hand. But he didn’t lead her back to the water. In fact, he led her deeper into the forest. They walked all night.
Morning brought the white sky Ygarl had spoken of. It was painful to look at for too long, though she tried often. It was magical. Magnificent creatures filled the woods with busy movement and sounds. They slept for a while, and once rested, walked on. Elasia was careful not to say a word. She recognized that she’d be in trouble for the rest of her life once Ygarl took her back, but for now he was showing her the world she longed to see. And it did stretch on forever.
There were hills, and streams, and cliffs… great ponds and waterfalls… and then there was a morning lit by a blazing sun. The sky was a shade of blue she’d never imagined.
“Oh,” she gasped, and quickly clasped her hands over her mouth.
Rather than anger at her lapse, though, Ygarl merely chuckled and wagged a finger. His eyes glistened at the view. He seemed to strengthen as their journey stretched from days to weeks. He taught Elasia to forage for food along the forest floor. Soon the tree trunks grew larger, and Elasia began to feel something strange. A pressure between her shoulder blades. Every time she scratched at it, she caught Ygarl smiling at her slyly. She wished desperately that she could ask him about it, but she was careful to keep her mouth closed tight.
One day they encountered the ruins of what had been a large stone building. Ygarl considered it sadly for some time before moving on. Soon there were more like it. The air smelled familiar to Elasia, though she couldn’t say why. It was comforting. The tall trees swaying overhead seemed to whisper soothing things. Ygarl stopped before one, studying its thinning leaves so far above. With more than a few grunts and groans, he eased down against its bark. Elasia wanted to comment on the fact that the bark looked very much like his skin, but she remained carefully silent. After several weeks, the silence came naturally now. Hearing Ygarl speak was jarring.
“I have a story,” he said, easing back against the tree. “It’s about a city, and a flute handed down from one generation to the next. King to king. It’s about the ancestors nourishing those who came after. And about a princess, discovering her heritage, and her wings.” He gave her that sly grin again.
Ygarl’s skin was looking more like the bark behind him every minute and Elasia was beginning to worry. She opened her mouth to speak but Ygarl held up his hand.
“A great city once stood not far from here. For millennia two species ruled it. The Ean and the Mreg. The Ean were of the trees,” he said, gazing up at the leaves falling from the tree overhead. “The Mreg of the earth. The last Ean king… King Ygatherl…”
Elasia gasped at her father’s name. Ygarl nodded.
“He made a mistake that has haunted him ever since. The city was under siege, and he turned on the Mreg, thinking them spies. He…” Ygarl paused with a fit of coughing. “He was wrong about who was his enemy. The city fell. His kingdom no more, and having made enemies of his oldest allies, he fled for his life.” Ygarl’s hand brushed lightly against the scar that stretched across his forehead.
“He hasn’t taught the old ways,” Ygarl continued, nestling deeper into the folds of the tree. Or was the tree growing around him? “The Ean can fly, did you know that?” He smiled as Elasia reached back to the pressure between her shoulder blades. Her hands found nothing but there was something there that she couldn’t define. A feeling like she had extra arms that had been folded up too long and ached to extend. “I’m nearly home,” said Ygarl, and his voice sounded far away. The tree seemed to be absorbing him, or he was turning into it, or something in between.
“Ygarl…” gasped Elasia.
At the mention of his name, movement seemed to be everywhere. They were not alone anymore. A ring of giant spiders encircled them.
“Don’t be afraid,” Ygarl instructed, though his voice was scant more than a whisper. He was barely visible. “These are Mreg. It is right that they are here to witness my homecoming.”
A shower of leaves from above distracted her for a moment, and when she looked back, Ygarl was gone. One by one, the Mreg faded away, until she stood alone in the old wood. And then she felt it. The unfurling. The call of the air, and the sky. The beautiful, blue sky, and its dazzling sun. She would return to her home someday. She would return the flute, and apologize, but for right now she was surrounded by the whispering voices of the kin who came before her, coaxing her into the air. For right now, she was free.
Written by W. C. McClure www.wcmcclure.com. This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. Comments are welcome at www.farsideofdreams.com. Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends about this short story blog – and pick up a copy of “The Statues of Azminan” by W. C. McClure. Thanks!