a short story by Nikki Bollman
The ruins sat atop the tall hill and were almost buried by the years and the creeping forest. Red stones crumbled and fell from the walls, and wood ceilings had long since rotted away. Arches carved with flowers and vines had become mostly obscured by real vines and flowers, and trees had grown up within the walls of the once magnificent castle.
Mély first came upon the vagrant woman while she was hunting rabbits near the ruins. She had stopped to collect berries from among the brambles that had grown around the toppled walls. As she balanced on a large stone and picked her way through the thorns, a sound startled her. Instantly, she had her bow in hand and an arrow ready, surveying the space across the ruins. A rock the size of her fist tumbled down a hill of rubble from the upper floor and came to a rest on another pile of rocks. Mély relaxed her bow but scanned the upper wall. It must have been a bird or a squirrel that had loosened the rock. No floors remained in the upper levels of the ruins, only stone ledges that had once held the heavy wooden beams.
Keeping her eye out for game, Mély slung her bow back onto her back and tucked the arrow into her quiver before she returned to foraging fo berries. She clambered over the low wall to follow the clusters of berries that she spied just out of reach.
Then she saw them. Clothes, laid out across the stones in a sunny spot in the middle of what Mély thought of as the Great Hall. They had been pinned down by heavier rocks on the corners. A patchwork blanket fluttered softly in the warm breeze that drifted gently through.
Now Mély’s hand went to her bow again, and she scanned the corners of the Great Hall, stepping carefully now to make as little sound as possible. There had been tales in town of robber bands living in the hills and preying on travelers on the north road, but that was miles off from here. Nobody came here; Mély always had these hunting trails to herself.
Mély circled the Great Hall slowly, quietly. She saw nothing except the pile of clothes and linens. As she approached the far side of the hall, opposite her berry brambles, she caught a movement through one of the remaining windows. There she was, a tall, dark woman striding confidently up the hillside from the stream, holding another armful of clothes. Mély ducked behind the wall and peered carefully through the window.
Though she walked confidently and seemed assured that no others were around, Mély noted that the woman cast frequent, surveying glances around her. Mély nodded in approval; she too kept an awareness of her surroundings.
As the woman neared, Mély quietly crept to the wall of the Great Hall and snuck over it. She picked her way through the trees and found a vantage point of the ruins in the brush.
The woman entered through what had once been the large doors of the Great Hall. As she did, a hare burst from the cover of some rocks and dashed across the open space. By instinct, Mély had her bow and arrow in hand, but the hare fell before it reached its next hiding place. Mély squinted at the woman, who tucked a leather sling back into her belt.
Mély watched for a bit and then crept away, back down the hill, leaving the woman as she skinned the rabbit and started her cook fire. Mély would have to find a different hunting ground today.
A few days passed before Mély was able to visit the ruins again. She’d caught eight rabbits that day and the whole farm ate well. Along with smoking the extra meat and curing the furs, Mély was kept busy on the farm with other tasks. Her mother set her to tending the chickens and milking the goats while her brother was away down in the village.
All the while, Mély watched the trees at the crest of that hill, as if she’d be able to see something from down there. She couldn’t even see the ruins. Nobody but her knew about the ruins, not even her brother. They were her secret place. But now this woman was there, invading them.
When she finally could venture away from the farm again, Mély thought the woman would probably be gone. She was a vagrant, a wanderer, and the ruins had probably just been a convenient shelter for her before she went on her way.
But it was strange, Mély knew, for a woman to travel on her own, and with not even a knife for protection. Just that sling, which admittedly she was quite skilled with.
And she hadn’t struck Mély as a vagrant in her dress or manner. How often did vagrants wash their clothing? Maybe they did, but the ones in town that Mély had seen before had always seemed dingy and smelled worse.
Before she entered the ruins, Mély fit an arrow to her bow. She approached along the taller part of the wall that bordered on the thick forest, and peered through a chink in the wall. The Great Hall appeared empty.
Still keeping her bow ready, Mély rose up and stepped gingerly onto the wall. She paused for a moment to scan the area, then hopped down softly. Across the Great Hall she saw the remains of the woman’s cookfire. The floor around the Great Hall also seemed clearer than before. She must have used the dry brush from the piles to fuel her fire. Otherwise, the place seemed empty.
Mély relaxed her grip on her bow and strode more easily toward the fire remains. She realized her mistake when she heard a twig snap behind her, but it was too late. An arm wrapped around her from behind and she felt a cold, sharp blade brush her throat. So the woman did have a knife.
“Who are you and what are you doing in my home? Who sent you?” hissed a deep, strong voice.
“Your home?” Mély answered, and felt the woman’s grip tighten. “I’m Mély, nobody sent me!” she answered quickly. “I live on the farm down the way. I was just hunting for rabbits.”
“You were stalking me. I saw your traces four days ago. Why were you looking for me?”
“I wasn’t! I mean, today I wanted to see if you were still here, because nobody comes here. I don’t think anybody else knows this place is here, but me.”
“You told noone where you were going?”
“My ma and brother know I’m up in the hills hunting.” Mély shrugged.
“Foolish move,” said the woman, but she relaxed her grip from Mély’s arms and lowered her knife. “Sit,” she said.
The woman sighed and sheathed her knife, but Mély saw how she kept a hand near the sling at her waist. Mély didn’t move. She wasn’t about to find out of the woman was willing to use it on a young girl.
Mély’s stomach growled. It had been hours since she left the farm that morning. She thought of the bread, cheese, and apples she had in her pack, but didn’t risk moving under the watchful eye of this woman. Truthfully, she realized she’d been thinking the woman would be gone, and that she could eat here once she scanned the area.
“I really thought you would be gone. I thought you were a vagrant passing through,” Mély said.
The woman’s nostrils flared a little at the word “vagrant.” She continued to pace back and forth, glowering at Mély.
“Actually, I was going to have my lunch here,” Mély continued. “The farm’s a few hours walk, and I’m hungry. I have enough to share, if you like.” Mély slowly reached for her pack, keeping an eye on the woman, whose hand went to the hilt of her knife. When Mély pulled out her loaf of bread and cheese, she saw the woman’s eyes soften and take on a look of longing. Mély had guessed right–the woman had been traveling alone, away from towns, long enough that she missed things like bread and cheese.
Mély broke the bread in half and held a piece out. The woman hesitated, but then her shoulders relaxed and she stepped forward and took the offered piece of bread. She sat down on a nearby stone and took a bite. A smile grew on her face as she chewed it.
“Thank you,” she said when she had swallowed. “Meat and forage get tiresome, after awhile.”
“I told you my name. So what’s yours?” Mély asked. “And what brings you here?” She held out half the cheese.
“My name is Cirena, and this is my house,” she said simply, taking a bite of the cheese.
“What do you mean, your house?” Mély said around a mouthful of bread and cheese. “Nobody has lived here in ages!” she cried.
“It was my family’s. I’ve been searching for it, and now I’ve found it,” said Cirena.
“How do you know?” said Mély. She looked at Cirena now with a new eye, trying to find traces of noble features, even though she had never seen anyone noble up close before.
“I’ll show you, but let’s finish eating this delicious meal first.”
Mély nodded and pulled two apples out of her pack as well, handing one to Cirena. Cirena delighted as much in the large, perfect apple as she had in the bread and cheese.
“There are apples around here, you know,” Mély said. “An overgrown orchard just down that way.”
Cirena smiled and nodded as she chewed her apple. “My orchard, too. I hadn’t found it yet, but I knew I would. I’ll be glad for your help.”
Mély frowned but tried to hide it from Cirena. She didn’t like the way she seemed so confident that everything was hers. It was Mély who had roamed these hills for almost as long as she could walk. Well, what would Cirena do if Mély wouldn’t help her find the orchard? How did Cirena expect to claim these ruins as a home, anyway?
A small bird landed on a branch nearby and chirruped sweetly. Answering bird calls came from the woods. Involuntarily, Mély sighed as she ate the last bite of her cheese. Cirena brushed crumbs from her skirts and scattered them in the grass in the direction of the bird.
“Here you go, birdies,” she said, then stood. “Come with me, I’ll show you,” she said.
Mély followed her across the flat ground of the Great Hall to the cumbling doorway into what Mély had always guessed used to be the kithcens and buttery. Above these were where the upper rooms used to be, before the wood had rotted away. Some remnants of large wood beams still remained across the top, but Mély would never trust her life on walking over them.
Mély gasped when she saw the change in the place. To the left, all the way back, one of the stone walls had been rebuilt, if not completely, nearly so. A roof had been laid over it comprised of twigs and grasses from the surrounding forest and the meadows leading down to the river. A door made of boughs lashed together and the chinks filled with mud covered the opening in the wall. Two windows were covered inside with cloth that drifted slightly in the breeze.
“But it’s only been a few days since you’ve been here!”
Cirena only smiled in response, and beckoned for Mély to follow her into the house. She opened the door, which swung open silently on its hinges, and Mély ran her hands over the stones of the wall, admiring how closely they fit together.
Inside it was dim. Cirena pulled open the curtains so that patches of sunlight spilled through the windows and brightened the space.
The house was small, one room, but clean and comfortable. Again, Mély was astonished by how much work had been accomplished in only a few days. A pallet lay in the back corner diagonal to the door, and a small wooden table stood near the windows with two stools. Mély looked for a cookstove, but remembered she saw a built up fire pit outside. A broom made of twigs stood behind the door, and next to the pallet lay Cirena’s pack and some pots stacked neatly beside it.
Cirena went to her pack and untied some straps near the bottom, opening a smaller pocket separate from the large top pocket of the pack. From it, she pulled a bundle wrapped in felt and tied with leather cord. She unwrapped it. Inside lay a worn leather book that looked as if it had withstood many years and travel. Along with it lay a folded, yellowed piece of parchment. Cirena picked this up and gently unfolded it. It was a map.
She spread the map across the table and smoothed it with her hand. Mély stood over the table to look. She had briefly seen maps before, but had never understood all the lines and symbols. On the farm, she had never had need to know how to read more than the basics, much less how to read a map. She didn’t say anything, not wanting to let on to Cirena that she didn’t know.
“Here,” said Cirena, planting her finger firmly on one of the symbols in the middle of the page. “Our family’s home, the Minasere, above the banks of the Lemma river. My ancestor’s journal describes the place well,” she added, lifting the tattered book in one hand.
“What is this?” Mély asked, pointing to a drawing of a creature on the map near where Cirena had said the ruins were.
“A dragon. This place used to be an outpost. My family were dragon hosts.”
Mély stared. “But dragons…” She didn’t know what to say. She wanted to call Cirena crazy and leave this place right now.
“Dragons are gone, but they are real,” Cirena said softly. She was watching Mély’s face closely.
Mély snorted. She couldn’t help it. “Dragons are just a children’s tale, meant to scare them,” she said.
Cirena shook her head. “They’re not. They’re gone, but they’re real,” she said again. “It’s all in my ancestor’s journal here.” She held out the book and spread its pages open. “She was a dragonrider.” She pointed to some of the words on the page and looked at Mély, as if imploring her to read the words.
Mély sighed and shook her head. Now that she was arguing about dragons, it didn’t seem to matter if this woman knew she couldn’t read. “I can’t read. I only know how to read a little bit. To sell things in town from the farm, you know.”
“Oh.” Cirena withdrew the book. “I could teach you.”
“What use do I have for reading?” said Mély. “It’s no good on the farm.”
“It’s good for many things, but if you’ve no interest…” Cirena shrugged.
“I have a question,” Mély said.
Cirena raised an eyebrow.
“How did you do all of this so quickly?” She waved her hand so that her gesture encompassed the whole house. “You’ve only been here a few days.”
Cirena smiled and stood, folding the map. “Perhaps if you come back, to learn to read, or to help me, I’ll show you.” She returned the map and the book to their wrapping and tied them back up. Mély followed her out the door into the bright sunlight.
Mély left as Cirena began to build a fire in the fire pit outside her little house. As she left the encircling wall of the ruins, she readied her bow and arrow. It would not do to return to the farm empty-handed.
Obviously the woman was crazy, Mély told herself. The descendant of some lost noble family coming to claim a pile of rocks. And claiming they used to host dragons there!
Still, she could not help thinking of it all the while. She told herself she would not go up there again. Leave the ruins to the crazy lady. It wasn’t as if anyone else wanted them. And she didn’t seem to be a threat. Of course, eventually she would need to come to town for something. Mély laughed to herself when she imagined the townsfolk’s reaction to this strange woman, traveling alone, appearing out of the forest.
As she worked around the farm and as she hunted, Mély couldn’t help but reminisce about all of the stories she had heard about dragons as a child. How the old King used dragons to enslave the country with his army of riders, and the mages had stopped them by killing all of the dragons. They’d made it safe, they said. But that was so long ago, it was just a tale. Dragons didn’t really exist. As for the mages, they were far away in their city, Areth, in the southern mountains. They hardly seemed real to Mély either, though sometimes a boy would leave town to seek out the fabled mage school.
But dragons… Mély tried to imagine what one might look like, flying over the farm toward the ruins in the mountains. And she imagined the ruins not ruined anymore, but built up tall and grand in the reddish stone, sun shining warmly on the walls around the castle, a dragon perched atop a ledge, watching over the farms and villages below.
One day, Mély was interrupted from her musings and imaginings by voices from around the house. She was on her knees pulling weeds from the garden. They were men’s voices, and she heard her brother’s voice, too. She pushed herself up from the ground and brushed the loose dirt off of her hands wiping them on her apron.
“No, we’re about the last folk around up this way,” said her brother Alond. “Unless you’re counting some of those bandits and robbers who’ve taken to hiding in the hills up by the north road. Is that who you’re looking for?”
Mély crept closer along the side of the house, then when she knew they could see her she headed busily to the chicken coop, humming to herself. She did not look at them or appear to take any notice of their presence, hoping they would be the type of men who ignored women and left them to their business. They waited until she was inside the chicken coop to answer Alond’s question.
“We’re looking for a woman, traveling on her own.” They described her, and Mély knew they were looking for Cirena.
Mély was glad she had not told Alond, or anyone, about her meeting with the woman in the ruins. Alond furrowed his brow and shook his head. She knew he would have told them, if he knew.
“There’s nobody we’ve heard about out here. Not even a road up in the hills to speak of, except the rubble of some old castle I used to play in as a kid.”
Mély cursed under her breath as she saw the interest on the men’s faces. Just at that moment, a chicken next to her let out a loud whoop as it layed an egg. All this time Mély had thought she was the only one who knew about the ruins, but of course Alond would have explored when he was as young as her, too.
The two men finished talking to Alond and stepped away form the door. Mély watched them as they conferred with one another. Both were tall, and had features almost as dark as Cirena’s. One was more muscular than the other. They wore simple traveling clothes, but Mély could tell they were made of finer fabrics than what most people around here had ever seen. The bigger one pointed up the hill toward the ruins, said something, and they both nodded.
Mély left the eggs in the chicken coop and ran to the house for her pack and weapons, then ran to the woods. Instead of the trail she usually took, which was where the men had gone, she dove forward onto another, seldom-used deer trail. She would follow it as far as she could until she could cut over to the trail that ran near the river. Then she could approach the ruins from the other side. She hoped she could get there in time to warn Cirena.
Before she reached the ruins, Mély could smell the smoke, and her heart sank. She came out of the woods on a rise above the river halfway down from the ruins to the bank. Now she could see it, too, a thick plume of black smoke rising from the center of the ruins. She ran quickly across the open space on the hill to reach the forest on the top side of the ruins, where she had watched Cirena when she first saw her.
Mély crept as close as she dared, and peered through the brush at the fire that engulfed the inside sof the ruins.
The two men stood just inside the Great Hall, arms crossed and surveying the scene. The big one bore a satisfied smirk on his face, and the smaller one’s mouth was set in a grim line.
Mély scanned the area for signs of Cirena. Was she in there? A few moments later, Mély caught the acrid scent of burning flesh on the breeze and her heart sank. As the men turned away, the small one clutched a felt-wrapped package, the one Cirena had carried in her pack, and tucked it into his own pack.
Sudeenly, Mély stood up from her concealed spot in the bushes and fitted an arrow to her bow. She took a step foward and sighted it at the big man’s smirky grin. Just as she was about to release the arrow, a soft voice from behind her stilled her hand.
“You don’t want to do that,” said Cirena, breathing in Mély’s ear.
Mély whirled around and found herself face to face with the woman she’d thought was dead. Then she glanced back and the retreating men and sank back into the underbrush, grateful they hadn’t seen her.
“I thought you were in there!” Mély hissed, throwing an arm out at the burning ruins.
“So do they,” Cirena said, an amused smile dancing at the corners of her lips and eyes. “Just watch, and wait awhile.”
They waited in the trees for long after the men disappeared down the mountain slope. Cirena climbed a tree and watched for a long while. The sun had begun to sink in the sky by the time she returned to the ground.
“They’ve made it back to your farm,” she said, then stepped out of the brush toward the ruins.
To Mély’s surpsise, the fire had remained contained to the inside of the ruins, even though sparks and embers were being carried up by the soft wind.
Cirena strode toward the fire, and Mély ran after her, though her instinct was to flee.
“What are you doing? The fire could jump the wall at any moment!” she said.
But all Cirena did was shake her head, a small smile on her lips. She raised her hands into the air and held them palms out toward the fire. Her eyes focused on the fire, but her gaze seemed faraway to Mély. Gradually, the smoke dissipated and the fire shrunk down to glowing embers in the grass. They walked through the Great Hall and Mély was surprised that it didn’t even feel hot. Only the grasses seemed to have burned; plants and rocks seemed intact and unstained by smoke.
Through the Great Hall and into the room where Cirena’s house had stood they went. Mély gasped when she saw it: the house stood perfectly undamaged, grass roof and all. Cirena smiled at Mély, who simply stood open-mouthed.
“They think their magic is so powerful, they don’t even suspect another kind at work,” said Cirena.
“Magic?” Mély managed to croak, though it was plain Cirena was telling the truth. Nothing else could have explained the house still standing after the flames that Mély had seen billowing out of the ruins just moments ago. It explained her earlier questions, too.
“They thought the fire was theirs, but I took the energy they used and created my own illusion,” she said, again with a smug smile. “I knew they would come here soon enough.”
“Who were they?” Mély asked, hoping to confirm her suspicion from before.
“Mages from Areth,” said Cirena, now looking much more grim. “They are enemies of my family, and my mission.”
Mély thought that she wouldn’t want to have the likes of the Arethian mages as her enemy, but seeing how easily Cirena had fooled them and defeated their fire, she wouldn’t want Cirena or her family as her enemy, either.
Cirena began to mill about the yard, piling up loose sticks near her little cabin and moving loose rocks into a larger pile. Mély followed.
“What is your mission?”
“To see to the return of the dragons,” Cirena’s eyes flashed as she said it, and Mély felt a chill travel down her spine. In that moment, the dragons and the possibility of their return seemed like the most real thing to Mély.
“How will you do that?”
Cirena swept her arms out in front of her. “By building them a home.”
At once, Mély’s gaze traveled around to the crumbling stones of the ruins, the dilapidated walls. But she didn’t see the disrepair. She saw the castle as it must have been once, with strong, tall walls, sturdy parapets, and bright flags flying. It was how she had imagined the ruins when she first discovered them as a child.
Now she saw dragons too, soaring overhead with outstretched wings outlined sharply against the blue sky and white clouds. They dripped and dived through the air and trumpeted in joy. Then, from the group of dragons in the sky, one swooped down low, glided so close over Mély’s head that her heair stirred in the breeze it made. It landed ahead of her and looked back with what was unmistakably a grin. Mély grinned back.
She shook her head and blinked her eyes. All she saw now was Cirena, surrounded by the ruins, staring at her questioningly.
“Did you see it too?” Cirena said.
Mély nodded slowly, still stunned by how real it had felt, the vision that had overtaken her moments ago.
“I’ll help you,” she said.
Cirena cocked her head to the side.
“I’ll help you build the dragons a home,” said Mély.
Cirena smiled as she bent to pick up another stone. Mély returned the smile and bent to pick up a red stone with both hands. Its sharp broken edges dug into her palms and she felt the heft of it as she carried it over and added it to the pile.
“The Ruins” copyright © 2014 by Nikki Bollman