A simple tale, that ranges from the origins of humankind, to the desolation of eternal creatures. Even great givers of life can be confounded by the simplest of gifts.
Echoes | A Gift
Once, she had been festooned with golden tresses, her clothes and fingers adorned with rubies, sapphires and diamonds. Now, set into the rock, she faced out into the valleys from her time-ruined home, stilled and waiting for the promise to be fulfilled. She would wait for all eternity.
She had been born into the Mountain Dynasty of the Huang He region. When she was young, so many thousands of years ago, she remembered first waking to the light of the stars that flooded into the high caves, wafting across the curtains of her home in the Bayan Har Mountains. The pains in her back, and across her shoulders, had long gone and she had been given, alongside her sisters, instruction in her tasks, to hold dominion over the peoples and the organisms of the new territories.
As the eons passed, her family had reigned without malice; their demeanor was kind, and joyful. They were not driven by greed or jealousy, for they were eternal. Over time, because of their longevity they acquired great wealth, and comforts beyond imagination. In time, she had become the Queen, a task she accepted with grace, for it set her part from her sisters.
And so after many centuries they allowed their authority to dwindle, for it mattered little to them. Great tribes, city states, then civilizations populated the wide plains and played out their rhythms of life and death. Variously, great warlords, governments, communities held sway, but the Mountain Dynasty remained a steady influence throughout hundreds then thousands years, as their vast mountain range, with its arched columns of basalt, gazed across the lands and was reflected in the great rivers that sought down to the seas.
Images of the dynasty were spread by river boats and trading caravans, with delicate sculptures and paintings illuminating the tales of this tall, ancient family, even as humanity sought beyond the dying embers of the local sun, into the planets and star systems beyond.
But all the while, the Queen and her princesses, as her sisters came to be known, remained in their mountain kingdom, with only the occasional sojourn from the towering home, where from afar they could only be seen as ghosts from the past.
The truth is, these creatures of light and air who became the Mountain Dynasty were not born in this realm. They had arrived out of sheer curiosity to watch the planets burst from the sun. They played with the cooling rocks that spun crazily in their first few first billion years. But catastrophe struck and the creatures crashed into the earth, breaking their wings, shattering their memories. They lay for a thousand years on top of the mountains of Bayan Har, their blood leaking down into the river, mixing with the minerals in the silt, creating the first people of the earth.
When they awoke the the creatures of light and air recuperated, and observed the growing populations along the rivers. Sometimes they would wander unnoticed amongst the people, and tend to their needs, herding them into safe places, protecting them from storms and floods.
And, in time, this close proximity to the earthly forms caused their ephemeral state to gather substance, so that even when their wings returned to full health, the Mountain Dynasty could fly no longer. So they reconciled themselves to an eternal life amongst, at least alongside, humankind. They meandered through their great arched chambers, moved between the domains of time, swept through their skies, wingless, but still floating, and created magnificent art within the ceilings and the domes, of orchids and peaches, lilies and cherries. Their minds were full of yearning, and dreamy threads of regret.
One hot summer day an audacious young man arrived at the main entrance of the mountain-top palace. He was poorly dressed, with only a long staff to aid him on his journey from the plains to the top of world. He possessed no malevolence but was afflicted by the quick wit and reckless guile of unblemished youth. He had heard his mother’s stories of the mountain kingdom, and was determined to see it for himself.
“Please,” he paused, struggling to think what he could say, to persuade them, “let me in.” and he blurted, “I have a gift.”
Perhaps it was out of boredom, or amusement that they allowed this one in. There had been many before him, begging, pleading, offering bribes and unimaginable riches, but none had intrigued the Dynasty before.
“Enter.” The great doors unlocked themselves and whispered an intricate greeting of tiny chimes, and subtle echoes.
The young man had recalled the tales of the beauty and majesty of the realm within, but nothing had prepared him for its scale. As the doors closed slowly behind him, a wind brushed across the long corridors, picking at the leaves of the trees and the flowers that hung from huge baskets, and globes, like clouds drifting slowly across his vision, cascaded with cherry blossom. For a moment he stood so still he could feel his eyelashes sway in the gentle breezes.
“Is it Spring here?” He spoke breathlessly to himself.
A voice manifested softly above his head. “It is always Spring within these walls, for we live in hope, and cast our minds to the eternal.”
The young man made himself breathe. He wasn’t used to such fancy talk. He faltered slightly
“What on earth am I doing here?” He groaned to himself
“You are not really on earth young man, not here.” The floating voice curled around his head.
A flurry of air brought five flowing shapes: they were beautiful princesses of the realm, powerful and playful, their hands flicking at the air, their bodies turning sideways and disappearing, their laughter cast across the pathways, while their bodies landed softly near the young man.
“So you have a gift.” One giggled, the others followed in a wave of laughter like tinkling chimes in the wind.
The young man, stammered, “Uh, yes.”
“We so love gifts.” The princesses swirled around him, their rippling, gossamer capes unfurling pinks and purples, greys and teals, that caressed the air and danced slowly around each other. “So, are you going to give it to us?”
He stared at these dazzling creatures and wondered what to do. They were so enchanting, and yet so demanding. Something made him hold back.
“Well, that I should render it so swiftly, it would hardly be a gift, but a paltry trade.” He surprised himself with his bravado, but held his chin high.
The princesses giggled again, and disappeared.
“So, I’ll keep on.” Cautiously he strolled along the pathway, quickly emerged into a wide sweep of marble floors, with alabaster columns and whirls of pearl clustering mightily like a forest around him.
And soon he arrived at a huge chamber, that held a single, vaulting throne at the back. The seat was embedded within the rock of the mountain, luxurious and golden, with the tiny carvings of animals set within its arms and a back that reared high before folding its scrolled edges into the rough-hewn rock.
As he looked around he noticed, for the first time, a feast was laid out on long, curved tables, in front of the throne. Food from every corner of the world fell cross silver platters, copper bowls, with wine and juices and effervescent mead in jars at every station.
“Is it just me here?” He spoke into the air, assuming the presence of hidden ears in the silence.
“Oh no.” A weazly voice appeared from behind him, forcing him spin round, to find nobody there. “But you cannot see us, for we inhabit a different space, a world that sits alongside your own.
“But the princesses…”
“…are so delightful, are they not? Yes, they like to flit between the worlds.” The voice moved towards the table and the young man noticed that food and the drink was reducing, as though a horde of other guests were sweeping through the banquet.
“Eat!” A gust of voices welled around him. So he sat, and consumed, for what seemed an age.
“Sleep!” And soon he felt himself carried to a bed.
He awoke, eventually, rubbing his eyes and yawning with great exaggeration. He realised that he was not alone, for on the throne, opposite, sat a magnificent creature, the Queen herself.
“So, we have entertained you. And you have entertained us. We thank you.” The young man stared at her flowing gowns, of white and gold, made of silk that reflected the subtle starlight from the roof above.
“Have I entertained you?”
“Indeed, for none has dared to dine with us before.” The queen smiled graciously, beautifully. “But now you must go, for if you remain much longer you will not be able to leave, and not being one of us, you will become so lonely, you will surely die even sooner than your given years.”
“But must I go?” His mouth was dry, and he found his limbs a little slower than usual.
“Yes, but our thanks again.” A silence stretched.
“You mentioned a gift.” The wizened, weasly voice emerged again from behind the young man.
“Oh!” The young man swallowed. He had hoped this might been forgotten. The silence plucked at the panic in his eyes. He caught sight of the staff by his bed.
“Er, I brought you something that will remind you of your people below, something so simple, you could not imagine its power. ” he paused, choosing his words. “And you must wait for the ultimate surprise to reveal itself.”
With a studied subservience he approached the throne, held out the staff, and knelt.
The resplendent figure on the throne, the Queen of the Mountain Dynasty of Huang He, reached out. She who had everything, whose sisters, their companions and consorts could ask for anything they wished, was intrigued by the rude simplicity of the offering.
And she touched its earth-hewn surface, drawing it towards her. She gripped it and dwelt on the lack of elegance, absorbed by the promise of a puzzle within, of something as yet unattained.
As she sat back into the golden throne the young man saw her determined intention. He retreated, the winds of his return chasing at his heels, the front gates opened and he fled down the mountain side.
Indeed the Queen did not let go. From that moment on she did not move from her throne. She was ever-hopeful of a surprise from this simple staff. She would wait for as long as it would take, ignoring all around her as, in time, all was worn away. The years, the centuries, the millennia passed by, the lives of the people below passed so swiftly through their patterns of life to death, so too though, eventually her sisters and their children faded into the winds and the sand.
But she endured, sinking back into the rock of the Mountain, exposed to the bright light of day and sharp cold of night, as the basalt wore down around her, leaving her to face into the skies, gripping, forever, the simple staff, waiting for the gift of its surprise.
And still, she waits, in the Mountains of Huang He.[ends]
Text, image, audio © 2014 Jake Jackson, thesefantasticworlds.com. Thanks to Frances Bodiam, Logic Pro, the Twisted Wave Recorder App, Apogee Condenser microphone, Rotring pens and inks, and Alfons Schmidt’s fantastic Notebook for Mac app.
Part of a new series of micro-fiction stories, published on Wattpad, released as These Fantastic Worlds SF & Fantasy Fiction Podcast on iTunes and elsewhere, and on this blog.
More next week…
There are a few more stories in this series:
Here’s a related post, 5 Steps to the SF and Fantasy Podcasts