Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Keeper of Memories: Chapter 3: The Calling

Keeper of Memories

Chapter 3:  The Calling

"You must understand," continued the Mayor of River City, as he got up from his desk.  "There was, no doubt, a time when being the Keeper's Wolfhound was a dangerous post."  The mayor walked around his desk and stopped in front of the large window on one side of his office.  He stood with his chest thrust out, conveying the importance of his position in his stature.  "A time when people were angry with the Keepers, with magic in general."
"Now of course," he turned to face the new recruit, "It's merely frippery. Ceremonial.  For show."  He drew out the last few words as he looked the soldier standing before him up and down.  "By the Tree this man was old," he thought to himself.  "Normally a soldier of this age would be retired, or dead!  Maybe the military is shoving him off in my direction because they can't get him to quit peaceably.  And those scars!  What was he, dropped in acid or something"

Out loud he continued: "That being said, I still expect proper decorum.  No showing up inebriated, no shoddy behaviour, or dirty uniforms.  All spit and polish as they say, eh?  What was your name again man?"

"Kelyn, sir," the soldier replied, with a touch of disdain in the last word that didn't seem to register with the mayor.
"Kelyn.  Sounds like a NorthEasterner.  You from the Woods?"
"Yes, sir," stated Kelyn calmly, not volunteering to elaborate.
"Ah well, honest folk from up there.  My wife's brother-in-law came from that way.  Not the brightest, mind you.  But honest as a day's work."  The mayor chose not to notice the soldier's slight flush at being called an imbecile.

"So you have your orders; any questions?  No?  Good, then repeat to me what you are to do, and when." demanded the mayor.

"I'm to show up tomorrow morning at sunrise.  I'm to be in good health and high spirits.  I'm to look every inch the reliable Guard that I can.  The Keeper's Wolfhound."  Suddenly a thought crossed his mind.  "Sir?"

The mayor looked up from the paper he had been reading instead of listening to the soldier.
"Is one guard really enough?  I understand you say there is little danger, but perhaps reinforcements should at least be at the ready.." his voice trailed off at the outrage on the mayor's face.

"No!  No reinforcements!  I tell you there is NO danger.  Every 10 years they have insisted there be a guard.  Every ten years I have provided the best of the best.  But no more.  This city simply cannot afford to waste precious resources on unnecessary finery."

"But, if magic has truly returned..."

"Nonsense!" the mayor was practically shouting now.  "Rumors flung about like dung by brigands and hooligans!  Only looking to line their pockets with my coin.  I tell you there is no danger, no magic, nothing to warrant more than an old unwanted captain from the league's guard."  Realizing he had just insulted the armed man in front of him, the mayor huffed a weak apology.
"Really, Captain.  Tomorrow will go smoothly, then you can enjoy your leisure here for the next ten years.  Nothing easier.  Would you like a scotch?"

Kelyn refused and strode out of the room.  He seethed internally, and not just at the man's impertinence.  The truth was that  he wasn't far from the mark.  Kelyn had been mandated to this post by his superiors, though not for the reason the mayor suspected.  The men at the top of the food chain knew what most did not.
That magic had indeed returned.
That it was not friendly.
That all who came into contact with it, in the remote edges of the land had died, save for one:
Kelyn Cooper of the NorthEastern Woodsmen.

Elyana woke early the next morning, energy rushing through her at the excitement of seeing the City again.  She dressed carefully and ate cheerfully.  As she made her way to the Tree, she allowed herself a few moments to breathe in the morning air and be thankful for how good life was.  She saw the ladies standing by the Tree, ready to catch a glimpse of the Northern shore.  The Keepers were each there, with a chosen apprentice.  Off to one side were the bundles of goods to be bartered.  Though the Valley met most of their needs, a few items were needed from beyond.  Metal, in particular was something the Valley did not provide, at least not that she was aware of.  Metal, and the ability to shape it.  In the past, the Tree had provided the numbers that were necessary:
250 needles, 50 hoes, 25 cauldrons, etc.  The paths she traveled were dirt, so horseshoes weren't necessary, though Elyana retained a vague memory of making them at her father's forge when she was but a wee thing.

This time, as she crossed to the Tree, nodding in return to the Keepers, she laid her hands on the Tree and gasped in surprise.  The Tree had only one instruction for her.
"Bring Alima to the City," it burned into her brain.  Confused and dazed, Elyana pulled her hands away.  The others gathered round at her sounds of dismay.  Their inquiries fell on deaf ears as Elyana quieted herself.
"Bring Alima here please," she requested.  Sensing there was more, she tentatively placed her hand on the Tree again.  This time, in the more usual way, a list followed of purchases she must make. Initially she was relieved as the familiar listing delved into her consciousness: spoons, forks, knives, etc.  But then she noticed a listing that surely didn't belong there.  Then another and another.  She was shaking now, wondering what it could possibly mean.   She reached out to the Tree.  "What does this mean?  This can't be right!  What are you saying?"
The Tree responded as she knew it would:  "These are the necessary item to be acquired from the City."
Elyana removed her hands when the Tree had finished, knowing she would receive no more information.  She looked round at the concerned faces, struggling with how much to tell them.  In the end, she decided to wait and see.  If something was coming, then the Tree was simply preparing them for the worst.  If these items- these weapons- went unused, well perhaps they could be bartered away next time...

Just then Alima came running out to the island in the center of the lake.  She was dressed as though she expected the summons.  "Yes Keeper?" she answered breathlessly.
"It would appear that you are to accompany me into the City today."  Elyana explained cautiously, ignoring the gasps from the other Keepers.  Never before had anyone other than the Keeper of Memories ventured into the city.  Much less a simple apprentice.  Murmers of dissent began among the other women, so Elyana cut them off by saying: "The Tree has commanded it.  Come, it is almost time."  As she spoke, the sun began rising through the mouth of the Valley in the North.  Quickly, the fog dispersed.
For the first time, in all her memories, the Keeper felt a sense of foreboding as the fog lifted.  "What if," she suddenly thought, "we didn't have the fog to protect us?  What would happen to our Valley then?"  Elyana looked around at the faces next to her and saw that they all showed feelings of excitement, awe, and reverence.  She chided herself for being melancholy and told herself firmly that it most certainly was time to get an apprentice of her own.
Perhaps the Tree would provide one this year in the Choosing.  She set her chin high, and began to walk across the long bridge leading to the City, glancing back briefly to confirm that Alima was indeed following her.  She meant to have words with the child once this day was over, but now was not the time for it.  Not now, when the Keepers were at their back, and the City's Guard was waiting there, shining in the sun at the mouth of the river.

Elyana crossed the bridge between the island and River City.  She marveled once again at its construction.  The mountains surrounding the Valley split open at this end in the North.  A passage about 30 metres long led between the great peaks. Steep Stone cliffs rose high on either side; it was certainly intimidating, as it was meant to be.  The bridge was a foot or so above the flow of water leading into the city, its flow could be clearly heard in the morning quiet.  On either side of the elaborately craved stone bridge, between the walls and the bridge itself was emptiness, a drop into the waters.  Every few feet though, the bridge connected, presumably for support, into the mountains that guarded the path.  No nails, support beams, or any other man made materials were to be seen in the construction of the bridge; it had sprung into being (or so legend told) along with the Tree, and the entire Valley itself.
Elyana strode cautiously, trusting Alima had the sense of mind to do the same.

At the head of the regiment she saw a man dressed in the uniform belonging to the Keeper's WolfPack.  At first glance nothing unusual about that.  But then she noticed that the others behind him weren't wearing the same colors.  They wore the colors of River City - Green and Blue, not the Blue and White belonging to the Keepers.  She wondered at the diminished size of her guard, but said nothing other than "Greetings, Wolfhound.  Peace be to you."
"Keeper," came the gruff reply.  As she neared him, she was shocked to see his age.  Living with practically eternal youth made one forget how time could ravage the appearance.  She quickly made calculations in her head to try to determine her guardsman's age, but came up with a number that was most unlikely.  Sure anyone in his sixties would no longer be on active duty.  His scars though were another matter.  Stretching across the left side of his face and neck, showing on his hands, and most likely all the skin covered by the uniform, was a pattern that could only have been left by fire - a very hot one at that.  She felt no residual pain radiating from him, and marveled at how well his body had managed to heal from what must have been such a horrendous event.  She wondered at the number of surprises this day had brought and her brow began to furrow with concern.

"My Lady," interrupted the Wolfhound, "My orders were to escort one Keeper, not two?"
"Yes, this is one of our apprentices.  She will be accompanying me today."  She didn't refuse to answer his obvious query deliberately, but she honestly had no more of an answer than he.   In any case, the schedule she kept would remain the same, and, she suspected, that was really all that mattered to her guard.

Stiffly, Kelyn nodded his head, then turned on his heel and barked an order to the others waiting. They dispersed quickly, but efficiently.  Kelyn waited until the Keeper caught up to him before confirming their destination.
"Your Imminence, the House of Healing is ready for your arrival.  Shall we proceed?"
Elyana groaned inwardly at the title, she had forgotten how this mayor seemed to thrive on accolades and pomp.
"Yes, please.  I have been looking forward to seeing the city.  Have you been stationed here long?"
"No, Ma'am.  Just brought in last week."
At that confession, Elyana glanced at him through the corner of her eye.  Was he brought in as a reward for extraordinary conduct?  Surely not as punishment!  What was the mayor trying to accomplish by sending this aged, scarred WolfHound alone?  Quickly she made calculations and attempted to guess at the machinations the mayor might have in place.  In the end, she had to give up.  She was no master of politics.  Her talents, as the Tree had known, were only for facts and numbers.

Kelyn heard her frustrated sigh and quickened his step.  He was uncomfortable being an emissary.  He kept his senses open for any hint of danger, but the truth was that the mayor was most likely correct.  In the past hundreds, or thousands of years (no one really knew how many exactly), there had never been a serious threat to the Keeper.  Still, being complacent was not in his repertoire.

Alima craned her neck at the building towering over the streets.  She had, of course, seen the City when she came, last Calling.  But she had been weak with fatigue and hunger.  Her eyes had only been for the Tree and the possibility of the life that awaited her in the Valley. Now though, she looked not only with the eyes of one seeing such wonders for the first time, but also with an air of caution.  She knew that her beloved was somewhere out there waiting for her.  His instructions had been clear.  She didn't know how he had managed to convince the Tree to let her join the Keeper; maybe he was right, and his love was truly stronger than any magic known to this world.
In any case, understanding how these people lived might become a necessity for her one day, so she drank in every detail she could.

The Keeper's retinue arrived at the House of Healing as the sun broke through the alleys between the houses and stores across the street.  The House, with its marbled columns and ornate reliefs, was bathed in the orange glow of morning.  Elyana caught her breath as she approached, not at its beauty, though it certainly was wondrous, but at the group of women arranged at the bottom of the stairs leading to the House's interior.  Never before, as far as she could recall, had there been so many.  It was not unusual for the Calling to bring 20 or 30 women to the City, but that had to be closer to one hundred!  How, in heaven's name, would the Valley be able to support such a number?!  Still, all that were Called were not necessarily Chosen.  Perhaps the number would be culled sufficiently so, that it would not be such a hardship.

Elyana stepped forward and spoke in a clear voice:
"Welcome, Sisters.  You have heard the Calling and have come.  Today will be the last you see of the outside world for some time.  Before we being, any who have doubts that the Calling was true, or that have anguish for those left behind, please take a moment to step forward.  I will council you now, so you may decide whether to continue."
Not one single person moved.  Not entirely unheard of, still Elyana was surprised that not even a few had doubts.
"Very well," she nodded, "In that case, follow me into the House of Healing.  Your first lesson commences immediately.  As a Sister of the Valley, our first duty is serving.  Serving in any way needed, though you will be given duties, assigned by the Tree, according to your abilities and preferences.  Today, we will begin by healing those that are in pain.  I will speak with the Mother of the House and we will do what needs to be done."
She hesitated, then continued: "If following orders makes you uncomfortable, or you find the work in any way tedious, you may want to consider if your future does indeed lie in servitude."
That last part was not one of her usual speeches, but she felt that surely some of the women had romantic dreams that could only be dashed by the cold, hard truths that only a house of sickness could bring.  Better they discovered that now, than tomorrow morning when they awoke , for all intents and purposes, trapped in the Valley.
Even as she finished speaking, she wondered at her own audacity.  Until recently, she had never felt concerned about weeding the newcomers out before they reached the Tree.  She had never felt that it was her responsibility.  She wondered if she was overstepping her role, or if she had simply been too lax in the past.

The House of Healing was a place of refuge for any who were ill enough to receive care, but poor enough to be unable to pay for a doctor.  No doubt, the coming of the Keeper made it an especially popular place one every ten years.  It was usually filled to the brim with riffraff fresh of the street. Occasionally a merchant or nobleman, was willing to brave the stench accompanied by the common man, if he had an illness that was otherwise untreatable.  In the past, sisters were kept busy indeed doing such monotonous (and disgusting) chores as changing bedpans, bedsheets, cleaning spills and boiling mountains of linen.  This time, it was different.

Normally, beds lined each wall, and were crammed side by side, as many as could be fit and still allow a nurse passage between.  Today, the were scarcely 30 beds in the main hall.  Patients either sat or lay peacefully upon the beds, and the smells and sounds that normally accompanied the sick was absent.
The Mother of the House walked slowly and calmly to the Keeper (again quite a contrast from the frenzied scurrying that accompanied the workers in the past) and welcomed the Keeper.
"Thank you for coming, Mistress," the Mother announced.
"Peace be to you," replied Elyana, mentally noting the lack of her title "Keeper" in the greeting.
"I don't recognize you from my last venture into the City, is Mother Harriot no longer working here?"
The Mother started at her predecessor's name but corrected herself quickly.
"Of course, Mistress" she responded, "Mother Harriot ...left us quite some time ago.  I trust you'll find that I am running the house with smooth efficiency.  Truth be told, Mistress," the Mother spread her hands as she gestured to the (true, meticulously clean) appearance of the Main Hall, "I'm not entirely certain your presence is needed here.  As you can see, we have things well in hand.  Perhaps you would prefer simply attending the rest of your duties.  I can see you will have your hands full," she indicated with her hand the group of women who had come into the Main Hall.

Elyana looked around.  Yet one more complication.  One more broken tradition.  What could it mean?  She stretched out her senses and felt the patients around the room.  All were minor complaints, almost as though they had been brought in solely for this purpose.  To be put on show.  She approached the man sitting nearest and spoke briefly to him.  As she questioned him, she paid no attention to his words, instead noticing the lack of calluses on his hands.  the lack of dirt under his fingernails.  The beginnings of gout caused by too much heavy organ meat.  Instantly she knew what was wrong with this picture.
"It would seem," she spoke out loud as she turned to her WolfHound, "that a Keeper's" slight inflection to remind this Mother of her true status, "presence is indeed unnecessary here.  Let us adjourn to the Market Square.  Perhaps we will find some way to pass the time until our next appointment, which is..." she let her voice trail off and looked at Kelyn closely.  Was he part of this masquerade?  Obviously the people in the House were wealthy.  People who had been unaccustomed to work.  Where then, were the poor?  The ones who truly suffered?  That is where she and her Sisters belonged.  Offering aid to those in need.  Not here, joining in some kind of pageantry for the sake of tradition.
"Nothing until Luncheon at Midday," the WolfsHound replied.

Kelyn kept his face impassive as always.  Truth was, he had not an inkling of what was going on.  He could tell from the expressions and body language that something wasn't as it should be, but it was not his place to find a solution.  His place was to protect the Keeper.  Breifly, he wondered if it was also his duty to protect the hundred or so gaggle of women that followed her, but he dismissed that idea.  No, the Keeper, and possibly her assistant, were his responsibility.  He had mixed feelings about the crowd that followed him to the Market Square.  On one hand, so many people were a ridiculous distraction for what was supposed to have been simply guard duty.
On the other hand, these women would provide good cover, should anyone attempt to do the Keeper harm.  He could tell that none of the women were armed, dressed as they were in their white tunics - ones that were close matches to the Keeper's.  His "sixth sense" would alert him should there be any movement that seemed even slightly hostile.  So far, the girls had all been as compliant and calm as a herd of sheep.

"Let it not be said," Elyana was speaking to the Potentials now, "that we did not heal those that needed it when we came to this great city."  She strained to force her voice across the ocean of white in front of her.  "I am going to ask you to do something unprecedented.  Normally, we would remain in the Houe of Healing and the injured and ill would come to us.  For some reason, that has not been the case.  I ask you now, Sisters, to go out into the city.  Find any who is in need of healing and bring them here.  I cannot ask you this in good conscience without a warning.  Large cities, even those as beautiful as this, have an underside that is murky.  There may be danger in turning certain corners.  I can only tell you this:  Use your good sense, avoid places that seem treacherous.  Your place in the Valley is in no way guaranteed or prevented by the number of needy you bring to me.  I ask you to do this out of the goodness of your heart.  Out of the desire to heal and serve, which is the heart of all that we believe.  Go now, and return here by midday."

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Keeper of Memories: Chapter 2: Keeper of Sweets

Keeper of Memories

Chapter 2:  Keeper of Sweets

Several months later, Elyana walked alone through the woods, lost in thought.  She was on the highest, and coldest part of the Valley  The Valley was, in effect, a giant crater.  With steep sides facing the outside world, and gentle slopes inside.  If one were to start in the morning at the highest peak of the crater, they would reach the lowest part of the Valley- the lake, at sundown.  The temperature rose degree by degree as one neared the lake.  Now, in the winter, the peak had received a cold snap last night.  She noticed some frost built up on the tops of the maples here and there.
Elyana came into a clearing and saw a group of 5 women standing around a cauldron.
"Is it running smoothly?" she called out.
A short, pink-faced lady scurried over to her side.
"Oh yes!" she exclaimed, "This year is going to be the best yet!"
"I am pleased to hear it, Keeper.  I admit that I have a fondness for the maple bars you and your girls make." began Elyana.  "Have you had a chance to look into the other matter we discussed last week?" she pried.
Keeper Ashlyn, Keeper of the Sweets (Officially it was Keeper of Confections, but this Keeper was so gentle and loving in nature, an apprentice had given her the nickname and it had stuck) bowed her head and whispered conspiratorally: "Indeed I have, Keeper.  I am surprised and sad to say you were correct!  Someone has been filching them!"  She gasped after that last sentence and covered her mouth with mittened hands.  "I mean, I suppose it could be a practical joke?  Or maybe I just miscounted... again.." Ashlynn let her words hang there in the frozen air.
Elyana knew this must be a conflict in the other Keeper's heart.  Ashlynn was as meticulous as she was forgiving.  She would, no doubt rather accept the blame herself, than think that another of the Valley residents could possibly have taken some of the sweetbread.

Elyana lifted her chin as the sun broke through the clouds.  She felt the warmth spread across her cheeks and opened her eyes to see the mottled design as the light shone through the leaves.  "There's a pattern here," she muttered to herself, "I'm just not looking from the right place to see it."
Then louder, she replied: "Don't worry yourself over it, my dear.  Remember, it's my job to find the discrepencies and correct them."
"But, it's never happened before, not in my Keeping."  Ashlynn's voice asking a question she didn't want the answer to.
"It's your job," Elyana continued as though she hadn't heard her, "to ensure that there is enough syrup for all the wonderful desserts you make, that add inches to our waist, so the Keeper of Vestments doesn't get bored!"  Elyana forced a smile into her voice, refusing to burden Ashlynn with her concerns.
Seeing that she hadn't completely distracted the Keeper, she went on: "Have you tried the honey from the apiaries on the western shore?  Did we succeed in getting it to taste like lavender?"
The Keeper of Sweets eyes lit up at this question: "Oh, I think you will be well pleased!  I have sent the first batch to the Keeper of Kitchens.  I asked her to make a batch of cookies, with no other flavorings, and for them to be sent to you directly!"
"Then I'll be sure to invite you up for tea when they arrive, Keeper.  Thank you for humoring an old woman!"  Elyana squeezed Ashlynn's shoulder.
"Old Woman!  You don't look a day over 30!  The ages haven't left a mark on you!  Many a man would turn his head if you walked by, Keeper!"  Ashlynn gushed.
Elyana turned her head so her wince wouldn't be seen.  It wasn't Ashlynn's fault.  She was naturally boisterous, and a large vocabulary that begged to be used... often.
With a sigh, Elyana countered: "I wish I still felt thirty.  I know the Tree keeps us young in body, but lately, I feel like things are slipping.  Perhaps it's time to appoint a junior Keeper to assist me and train..."  her voice wandered away.  The birds were singing their pleasure at the sun's greeting this morning.  It was so tempting to allow herself to think that it was only her imagination.  That life would continue the way it always had.  But only a fool would ignore the troublesome accounts she had been receiving over the past few months.  A few sweetbreads here, some chicken feed there, a blanket or cloak.  Rope, firewood, and other tools as well.  She may not be able to read the pattern yet, but that didn't mean she couldn't recognize there was one.

Realizing her toes were starting to tingle, Elyana thanked the Keeper of Sweets and turned back through the forest.  She mounted her horse and followed the track down the mountain back to the Keeper's Hall.  It lay halfway between the lake and the peak.  The Keepers slept with their apprentices in houses at various intervals across the Valley, depending on wherever it was most convenient to pursue their work.  But their offices were in the Hall.  Each Keeper had a wing.  It was filled with scrolls.  The scrolls themselves were filled with explanations, diagrams, warning, etc.  Everything needed to pass on information from generation to generation.  Occasionally, new information was added, like when a new type of lavender popped up one year on the side of the western shore.  It had reminded Elyana of home.  A home from when she was young and carefree.  Not the home of a battered woman who had come to seek refuge, as much for the Calling, as for a way to extricate herself from a bad situation.

Elyana walked with purposeful steps into the Memories Wing.  She pulled out the scrolls that had discrepencies and laid them out before her.  She was staring still, when an hour later, one of the apprentices from the Kitchen brought her a tray with a dozen cookies and some tea.  Elyana's mouth watered as she realized she had skipped breakfast.  It was the 3rd morning in a row that they hadn't had enough eggs.  At the time, she had politely declined, saying she wasn't hungry.  The truth was she didn't want to alarm anyone else that the number was dwindling.  She noticed some rumbling around the table as women who would normally eat eggs were reaching instead for the jam pot.  She knew she would have to say something to the others soon.
After thanking the apprentice, and asking her to fetch the Keeper of Sweets, Elyana cleared the table.  There were more urgent matters now than a few missing eggs.  It was time for another Choosing.

Once every ten years, the Tree sent out its Call.  It was heard by women the world round (presumably, though that did not account for the lack of desert girls).  Over the next few months, girls would begin showing up at River City across the lake from The Valley.  The Northern half of the lake was obscured by a mystical fog.  Nothing and nobody ever came through the fog.  It protected the Valley from outsiders.  Once every ten years, the fog lifted.  It revealed the other shore of the Valley.  High, rocky peaks surrounded the lake on the other side of the lake.  Such treacherous terrain as could never be crossed by man or beast.  The lake was fed from an underwater spring, which became a small river leading out of the only exit of the Valley to the North.  A stone bridge was built over the river crossing from the north shore (following right on top of the river) straight down to the southern shore.  In the middle of the lake was a small island.  Big enough for a pathway around its centerpiece.  A beautiful, and magical Tree.  It was from the Tree that the magical energies would flow.  The energy that kept all the inhabitants of the Valley alive and young for centuries.  The magical energy that the kept half the lake shrouded in fog for ten years.  The magical energies that sent out the Call, and would eventually help in the Choosing.  This Tree was the lifeblood of the Valley.  Its purpose was to sustain life, to heal, to grow.

The Keeper of Memories was intimately familiar with the Tree.  Her job, though it could be seen as menial to the others, required direct contact with the Tree.  At heart, her job was crunching numbers. An accountant, no more, no less.  Every morning, she would leave her cottage and make her way across the ornately carved stone bridge to the central island.  There, she would place her hands on the trunk of the Tree, in a place long since worn smooth by her hands, as well as other Memory Keepers.  When flesh met living wood, her essence was absorbed by the Tree.  It read and recorded every memory she had experienced.  The first time had been painful and frightening, but performing the ritual every day had become a pleasant habit.  She looked forward to sharing her worries and joys.  In return, the Tree gave her instructions.  It spoke to her, no sang to her in her heart. It sang of weather patterns and seasons, of planting and clearing of weeds.  It added a harmony of sheep to be sheared and bees to be fed. A thousand other ideas worked together to help the Song of the Valley take shape. Elyana provided the information, the raw notes.  The Tree somehow knew how to weave them into a glorious symphony.  The truth was that she hadn't wanted a junior apprentice, because she didn't want to miss out on this performance.  She knew that one day she wouldn't be able to provide the Tree with what it needed, and wouldn't be able to hear the song in return, but she was determined to be a part of, and aware of this masterpiece for as long as she could.
Perhaps knowing the frailty of a human mind, the Tree also provided a scroll each morning with instructions and queries to be attended to that day.  The Keeper of Memories would then go and gather the numbers, recording them on the parchment.  She would pass on advice given by the tree (don't plant the cucumber on the second plot, the weevils have grown too quickly, and their numbers need to stabilize first).  Elyana often wondered how it was that the Tree knew so much about what was going on in the Valley.  Occasionally, when the Keeper of Gardens was digging deep to clear a rock, she claimed that she saw a sparkling root that disappeared from view almost as soon as it was revealed.  The Keeper of Gardens claimed it was part of the root of the Tree, growing far across the bottom of the lake on up into the mountains.  Elyana didn't know if that was the truth, but it would explain some of what the Tree knew.  Of course, it didn't account for the Calling.  How it was that the Tree knew which girls were suitable for life in the Valley, she had no idea.  Until recently, it had never bothered her.  With Alima's apparent reluctance to adhere to the flock's feed policy, and the lack of eggs that followed, Elyana wondered again if a mistake had been made.

The Keeper of Sweets swept into The Memory Wing, followed by two other Keepers.  The Keeper of Candles and the Keeper of Lye.  Both Keepers were younger than Elyana -though in truth they nearly all were, Keeper of Flocks excepting.  They giggled nervously whenever in her presence, though they were every bit as adept at their jobs as she was at hers.  She wasn't certain if it was the added years, or the apparent glory given to someone in her position, and close daily contact with the Tree, that accounted for their nerves.
"Oh good," Elyana nodded at the tray of cookies, "I was afraid I would have to somehow refrain from eating them all myself."
"Ohhhh," in a rush of fabric (they were wearing cloaks now due to the colder weather), the girls claimed a cookie or two and sat in quiet contemplation.
"Well?"  Ahlynn inquired.
"Very nice," Elyana replied with her mouth full of cookie.  She picked a few crumbs off the table with a finger and stuck them in her mouth.  "Just the way Mama made them," she added with a sigh.  She finished her last cookie, drank her tea and set the cup back on the saucer.
"Now Keepers," she began.
Immediately, the other Keepers set down their cups and sat up straight.  They could tell from her voice that tea time was over.  It was on to business.
"Are the candles packed and ready to go?" Elyana asked facing the Keeper.
"Yes Ma'am," nodded the Keeper of Candles.  "All 50 are on the island by the Tree."  She said the last word in a hushed whisper of reverence.
Elyana turned to the other Keeper.  "And the Soap?"
"Lavender, rose and lemon.  All wrapped in cloth provided by the Keeper of Linens."  Before Elyana could nod her acceptance, the Keeper of Lye quickly added: "She even had her apprentices embroider little pictures on them so we could tell which was which without unwrapping them.  Might bring in a few extra pennies for the decorations."  Elyana was pleased with this idea, wondering whether it was the Keeper of Linen's idea or the Keeper of Lye's.
"Excellent, thank you for your enthusiasm."
Elyana watched as the Keeper's face beamed with pride.
"The sweetbreads are all ready to go," joined the Keeper of Sweets.  "I've even included a few extras for yourself, should you be stuck at a meal you can't eat again."

Elyana thanked her for her foresight. The women in the Valley didn't eat animal flesh.  Indeed, the animals lived as long here as the humans, thanks to the Tree.  The chickens were kept for their eggs. The sheep for their wool.  The horses for mounts.
Other animals, such as squirrels and mice, as well as insects were kept down to a minimum thanks to the careful design of the Tree.  According to lore, it only took a few times ignoring the Tree's instructions for the Keepers to follow them closely.  The resulting rabbit infestation and subsequent lack of vegetables for their soup was enough to convince anyone.

The last time Elyana had visited the City, the mayor had held a grand feast.  Featuring every kind of meat they could imagine.  With meat based gravy covering everything else.  Even the desserts were baked with animal fats.  Elyana had taken one bite and been sick immediately.  She had excused herself and cut the evening meal short.  She had actually been out wandering around looking for something not made with animal bits when she noticed how beautiful the City truly was.  She had chalked up her wistful feelings to eating food that didn't agree with her at the time, but looking back now, she realized that as good as life was, there would always be something appealing to her about the new, the unrecognized, maybe the undocumented?  She was, after all a recorder of memories. She needed memories to record, now didn't she?

Elyana, Keeper of Memories thanked the ladies for their service and headed to the wardrobe as she picked out her ceremonial attire for the following day.  The day when she would visit the city again.  The day when they would welcome new sisters to the Valley.  The day of the Calling.

Keeper of Memories: Chapter 1: Keeper of Flocks

Keeper of Memories

Chapter 1:  Keeper of Flocks

"So what are you going to do about it?"  a shrill voice interrupted Elyana's thoughts.  She firmly massaged her temple with one hand and gripped the scroll with her other.
"Melinda, you know that Alima is your apprentice, so there nothing I CAN do," Elyana sighed.
Melinda pursed her lips and turned away to shoo one of the chickens away from her legs.
"I know THAT much, but it's your job to ensure that everything flows smoothly here in the Valley."
Elyana put up her hand to forestall the rant she knew was coming; it was one heard by every Keeper of Memories since the first Calling.
"Then you know it's only my job to record information.  I am not responsible for what is done with it."
Melinda grunted and bent down near one of the coops to reach farther in for the purposes of retrieving something, an egg Elyana presumed.
"True enough, that."  Melinda consented.  "But, "she continued after a deep breath, "having all that information at your fingertips gives you a better picture of what is going on.  Even you must admit that it's becoming a problem!"
Elyana let her gaze fall across the large yard.  She saw an expanse of various grasses, all grown to the specifications given to her.  No doubt for the ultimate production of eggs the Valley consumed every morning.  She watched the chickens peck the grass lazily, occasionally hurrying over to one of the brood leaders, hoping for some hidden treasure in the greenery.
She looked over at the small group of apprentices.  The girls were smiling and laughing quietly as they observed the chickens' behaviour.  The sun was shining, as it always did during the day here.  Then, off to the side in the shadow of a tree, stood a lone apprentice.  She was dressed in white, as were the others.  A long tunic over sturdy brown breeches.  Her sash was brown; the standard of all apprentices.  During the yearly promotional ceremony, students who were ready to advance were given the red sash of Keeper; the same that circled Elyana's own waist.
Elyana saw Alima sigh as she leaned against the trunk of the massive oak.  Not the oldest tree in the valley, that honor belonged to The Tree.  Still, this beautiful specimen was in good health, and had spread its long branches as far as it reasonably could.

"I'll speak to her," nodded Elyana, "though I'm not sure it will do her much good."
Melinda reappeared from the bowels of the chicken coop, not with an egg but with a tiny chick.  "There you are little one!" she cooed. "It's all right, I've got you now."  She patted it gently as it struggled furtively against her grasp.  She sang a soft song, low and sweet.  The chick immediately calmed and she lowered her hands gently to rest them against her well padded abdomen.  The red sash on Melinda's waist stood out in stark contrast to the bright yellow of the small creature.
"That's all I ask Keeper," replied Melinda in thanks.  "Sometimes the truth is easier to hear from those not responsible for your actions."
Elyana cocked her head to one side and gave an innocent look "Speaking from experience, Keeper?"
Melinda gave a chuckle "Now you know we've left that old life behind.  Memories better left forgotten!  Off with you, you're scaring the little one here."  She shooed her hands again, this time at Elyana.
Elyana gave a quick smile and turned toward the tree.  She thought about how Melinda had come to The Valley later than she, by many years.  Yet she was in all respects, a true Keeper of the Flock.  She treated all women here in the Valley as her little chicks.  It was rare that an apprentice didn't come to see her as the mother hen she was.  Alima was, apparently, one such case.

From the time Alima joined them, Elyana had had some misgivings.  She was one of the Desert People, for one.  There hadn't been a girl from the Desert in several centuries.  She didn't know why.  She had asked the Tree once, but hadn't received a reply.  She knew the desert dwellers had a different attitude towards women than the one she had been used to.  They were hidden away, rarely allowed to leave their homes.  And then, only when escorted.  The freedoms they enjoyed here in the Valley must have seemed strange to Alima.  Yet, she had been Called.  Called and then Chosen.  There could be no mistake.  Still, a quiet voice called up to her from the pit of her stomach.  "Maybe the Tree was wrong!" it whispered.  "Maybe things aren't as prefect as they seem!"  Quickly she pushed these thoughts aside as she neared the girl.

Alima had sat down and leaned against the trunk.  As Elyana approached, she looked up quickly and stood up, brushing the back of her tunic off with her hands.
"No, sit.  Sit!"  Elyana commanded.  "You have the right of it.  Today is a good day for sitting in the shade."
Alima sat and placed her hands demurely into her lap.  Elyana glanced over and wondered if that had been practiced.  Looking submissive was no doubt important in a society governed by force.
"Alima," Elyana began, "you are bright enough to know why I'm here enjoying the cool breeze with you."
Alima shrugged her shoulders.  When Elyana didn't respond, Alima began plucking at unseen dirt on her tunic.  Finally, she responded. "Melinda says that I've been feeding the hens too much.  She's angry that the numbers aren't balanced the way she wants them to be, and is looking to blame me," Alima blurted out, then laid her head back against the trunk.
Elyana saw the beginning of tears in her eyes.  She decided a soft touch would be preferable.
Carefully, she took one of Alima's hand in hers.
"Keeper Melinda," Elyana corrected gently, "is worried that we won't have enough feed for the chickens to last until the next harvest.  If the chickens starve, then we go without breakfast.  And nobody wants that, do they?"  She squeezed the limp hand in hers quickly, hoping for a smile.  Instead, she was rewarded with a long sigh.  Not a sigh of contentment, as was usually heard in the Valley, but something else.  Longings unmet, dreams unfulfilled?  That got Elyana's attention.  "Could it have been a mistake to bring her here after all?" she wondered internally.

Elyana refused to give voice to that thought.  Indeed, even if it HAD been a mistake, there was no going back now.  Leaving the Valley simply wasn't an option.  Once every ten years, the Keeper of Memories would venture into the city that had sprung up at the mouth of the river.  Well past the Valley's boundary.  It seemed to be a prosperous city, from what she had seen during her trip last time.  The streets had been cleaned, children smiled, women sang as they did the wash, and men laughed heartily as they gathered in the square.  Of course, it was possible that was all show for The Keeper's visit, but still.  It felt genuine.  Truth be told, she had been sad to see the last of it when it was time to return to the Valley.  That feeling had actually surprised her.  Never before had she given thought to the wonders outside the Valley, at least, not since joining during the Calling.
Elyana shook her head and reminded herself she wasn't there to gather wool.
"Would you like me to help you go over the numbers?  That happens to be something I'm not too bad at, you know." she smiled at her own joke.
Alima quickly looked up at her face.  "No, no it's fine.  I'll do better, I promise."  Then she stood up quickly and turning back to face Elyana added: "I'll go see about it right now.  No time like the present!"  and loped off, leaving Elyana with a look of puzzlement on her face.
"Well!" thought Elyana with wonder, "I guess I'm better at this than I thought!"
Glancing over at Keeper Melinda, Elyana decided against telling her about the little talk she just had with Alima; after all, she wasn't eager to get roped into cleaning the coops... again.

Alima sat at the desk by her bed.  She had her own room.  It was small, but clean.  She pulled out the quill and dipped it in the inkwell.  As she watched the ink drops fall from the feather, she thought about how remarkable it was that The Valley had ink at all.  The women here were all passionate about making everything themselves.  She knew this particular ink came from a mixture of berries grown in the garden.  Probably blue, red and maybe some green, she thought to herself.  "This really is the most wonderful place I've ever been," she mused sadly, "It's such a shame that I'll have to leave.  Even if it is to be with my beloved."  She took her time crafting each letter just so, imbuing it with a lover's care.  She needed to warn him that people were becoming suspicious.  The extra feed she had been giving the pigeons, to help them grow strong enough to make the journey, had been discovered.  Last time he wrote, he mentioned that it was almost time; that he was getting closer.  She hoped it would be soon enough.  She had never heard of any punishment being given to an apprentice.  There was never any reason to.  But she narrowed her eyes as she thought of Melinda's voice as it rose in frustration.  "I wonder if corporal punishment is on the table here, as it would be at home?"
When she had completed putting her thoughts on parchment, Alima tied the tiny scroll to the leg of a pigeon she had been training for the last 10 years.  Ten years.  Ten years since she had hugged her mother.  Since she had heard her papa's laugh.  True, at the time she had been eager to leave.  The life that waited her there held no promise for Alima.  She had been frightened initially when she heard the Calling.  The voices had begun at night.  The elders had warned her Papa that she was cursed, and should be stoned.  Her mother stood up to all of them and insisted that it was a magical Calling.  In the past, girls from her tribe had gone to join the Valley when they heard it.  Soft whispers that spoke of life and love and joy and green fields.  Alima had watched them argue and fight about her destiny with a passive demeanor.  The truth was that she was too caught up in the beauty of the song to voice her opinion.  Not that it would have mattered.  Each individual's destiny was decided by the tribe; the way it had always been.

Since before she had been born, her Papa had been leader of the Tribe.  Many times her Mama had recounted his appointment as leader, and the new laws he had instated.  The others had trusted his wisdom, and though no man would admit it, his compassion.  Her papa had done away with many of the old tribal rules.  "They served us well when we were a struggling people," he convinced the elders, "but now, we are part of this land.  We know when to travel, and when to stay.  We know the patterns of the desert birds.  We know how many an oasis can support, and have taken preventative measures," he nodded at one of the more proliferous elders there, receiving a chuckle from him and others in the circle.  "It is now time for laws that help us maintain this balance, and punishments that are firm enough to dissuade disobedience, no more."  He paused, stroking his beard, making eye contact with each one.  "We must also remember that though this way of life was once forced upon us, it is now a choice.  If we expect the young ones to follow our lead, to embrace this harsh life, with all its wonders, then we must acknowledge that they have a choice.  The towns and villages encroach further and further into the desert.  It would be a simple 2 day's journey now to abandon the tribe and seek their fortune with the outsiders."
Grumbling came fro the throats of the men sitting in the tent.  "So, I say this:  Let us do away with the death penalty.  Let us refrain from inflicting bodily harm as punishment.  Remember that there are other ways, less costly ways to convince a man of his duty.  Punishment is a sign that the battle for a man's heart is lost."  Alima's papa strode over to his wife, Alima's mother, the only female in the tent, and plucked a flower from the wreath she had made that morning.  "Let us remind them of the beauty of the desert.  Let us remind them of the majesty of the stars.  Let us use words to woo them as we would a lover.  If we fail in this, I tell you now, those who are not content will leave us and the tribe will be no more."
According to Mama, the speech went over extremely well.  Though it would take years to convince some that obedience is still possible without harsh consequences, they all complied.  At least in public.  Alima shook her head in disgust as her thought began to wander to dangerous, painful grounds.
In the end, her Papa had sought a compromise.  She had been given leave to heed the Call, but without an escort, and only enough provision for the 2 day journey across the desert.  No blood would be spilled, but if the desert wanted her, the desert would take her.

As she watched the pigeon disappear from view, she plead a silent prayer.  A prayer for delivery.