Chapter One

Submitted by aran on Thu, 11/01/2007 - 00:45

The last year of the Age begins in a forest.

The rain has ended only an hour ago, passing down from the mountainous east and onto the plains. Eventually, if it does not wear itself out over the grasslands, it will reach the faraway seacoast, where all water comes from and where it will all find its way. But here, the remains of its passing are hanging in the treetops, and water drips steadily from the leaves onto the soft moss below. Apart from a mild rustling of the breeze in the branches, there is no sound. The air has achieved a refreshing clarity, and smells of the beginning of spring. A crescent moon is shining through the leaves, and the sky is beginning to turn red. That is our stage: Endings are muddied and confused, straying off into the trivial, but beginnings are clean. The day is an empty page, and the quill has not yet finished its descent to make the first mark on it. We have not long to wait.

Sunrise is greeted not by the sound of nature, but that of humans. In the distance, a chorus of bells is beginning to ring; one deep bell begins its measured tone, and is joined within moments by others, until it seems that a dozen of them must be ringing at once. Some of them are far away, but the sound carries well. Though in disarray, sounding at different intervals and in different pitches, they form a uniform melody, singing their song of Order to announce a new cycle. In itself, time is a measureless stream, flowing from one moment to the next with no measure, but humans love to count. Here and now, time is no longer eternal and endless, but bound by heartbeats, by the endlessly repeating turns and movements of planets. Order has arisen. The bells, whose individual rhythms should be cacophonous in combination, are nonetheless clanging in harmony, measuring time, renewing cycles, more testament to what mankind wrought than anything else, save maybe language.

The concert of the new year has reached its full sway, passed it, and is already showing signs of fading when the first actor appears on the stage. Dramatis personae of all ages, shapes and sizes have been described as indistinct figures approaching while their inventor was still struggling with the concept of their identities, so it comes as no small surprise to see him just standing there. The first thing that comes to mind when you look at him is that he is wet. Drenched, in fact. Water is dripping down his hair and clothing quite like the trees around him, and his haggard appearance combines with the dripping water to produce the image that he has just narrowly escaped drowning in a river, rather than (which is more likely) that he was caught out in the rain while walking for the past few hours. The new year has just begun and spring will soon be in full bloom, but the nights are still cold. He must be clean out of his mind to be wandering outside at this hour and in this weather, especially in these clothes. A grey cloak, appearing to be hastily draped over what looks like a sleeping-gown, does not make adequate travel gear. Wet strands of unkempt hair, having grown too long, are sticking to his forehead. He looks around wildly.

He has only stopped to take in his surroundings for a moment; now he is lurching onward, tripping over the underbrush but managing to keep his balance. Running is inconvenient and dangerous in the woods with so many roots about, so he is trying to avoid running. Instead he walks in great haste, breaking into a stumbling jog every few moments and slowing down again. He is obviously in great haste, though what precisely he is racing against - one whom he is seeking, one who seeks him, or time itself - is not quite clear yet. Whichever it is, he doesn't look hopeful. He looks lost, and what drives him on must be either determination or sheer desperation.

He half-walks, half-stumbles on, and the strain is taking a toll on his obviously untrained stamina. His breath is now ragged and coming in gasps, but he is otherwise silent. It is only when he is out of sight from the edge of the wood that he dares to use his voice.

"Brael!"

His shout might as well be a whisper, because what with all the running he is so hoarse that you could ride his voice and reach the capital in three days. But he perseveres, clears his throat, ending in a coughing fit that forces him to stop and lean against a tree for a while. When he has regained his breath (and his voice), he tries again.

"Brael! Brael!"

His voice has gained some strength now, and the name carries clearly through the woods, but this does not seem to make a difference. Again and again he calls, but his calls remain unanswered. Who or whatever he is seeking is either out of earshot or not willing to come.

At length, his voice is marred by the shouting as much as it was by the running; now it is enough to supply mounts for at least one cavalry squad. Realizing that his strategy so far is not likely to be crowned by success and is in need of some revision, he sits down. At this point, there should be a conveniently dry rock or tree trunk lying around in the vicinity, but he has no such luck, for him it's the wet mossy ground of the forest. This is not very comfortable, but it beats standing or keeling over, his other two options.

The unnamed young man has reached into a pocket of the cloak and taken out a soggy piece of paper. Or it must have been paper a while ago. A light-engraving in monochrome is just recognizable on the surface, though who is depicted - likely the woman whose name he was calling just earlier - is not. He takes a good look at it, or what is left. His mind is wheeling slightly with despair, but all that boils to the surface is exasperation. He hesitates only for a moment before reaching out and hurling the remaining shreds of the picture far out into the bushes. There is little to do now but walk home feeling stupid and rather heart-broken, and extremely drenched, but he does so with aplomb. By the time he has reached the edge of the forest he has even begun to whistle, and is on the whole doing a good job of pretending to keep high spirits. After all, the year has only just begun.