Monthly Archives: November 2007

Winter Rose


     The wind echoed down through the winding tunnels, but her taper barely flickered.  The scrolls, this library, was hidden within the temple labyrinth.  Magda smiled to herself here, within the deeps of her monastery.  She could relax; yoga was superfluous at the center of her monastery, for the monastery was her body, and in its heart she was at peace along with the trove of hidden lore, the rice scrolls, neatly tucked into their stone niches in her ancient walls. 

     She laughed at her own arrogance.  The scrolls themselves taught how the outer world was an illusion, shaped by the inner world’s eye.  Many monks had worshipped at this monastery, claiming it as theirs.  But the temple had been born from the earth, and was linked closer to its parent than to the few passing travellers who had dwelled within her over the ages.  Magda shrugged; her thoughts were becoming an annoyance.  How many times had she read within the scrolls that forms were illusion, that this temple was so grandiose because of her love for it.  Magda nodded and summoned a light with her sorcery; the Will with the wisp came easily at her command; her meditation had supported her sorcery, had bulwarked her inner peace: Thoughts shaped the world.

     Magda selected a scroll of winter poetry; the still imagery within that delicate scroll pleased her.  A low, sonorous moan filtered down from far above her.  Magda replaced the scroll.  She shivered at the sound.  It was the warning, the ancient tubular bell above the steaming pool.  She wanted to run to the pool; fear clutched at her, but she chastised herself.  Had all her meditations been for naught? to lose her balance against the oh, so dreadful unknown?  She walked briskly, acknowledging the danger, but not yielding to it.

     Steam clouds billowed up through the hollow, metallic tube.  Five cubits across, the pool was clear and serene, save for the center, where the steam curled up to wet the warning bell, bringing an ancient sorcery to life and sound.  Magda sat on the granite lip of the pool and gazed into the still waters.  She did not have to augur for long.

     A man, so pale Magda thought she had augured a ghost, appeared within the black waters.  His face was tattooed with foreign letters, as if he wanted all to see his thoughts before he could speak them.  But it yielded her nothing more than his garish nature, for the language was strange to her.  He covered his body in animal skins: Lions had died for a testimony to this man’s strength.

     As a sorcerer, he showed knowledge, speaking in her native tongue: "Who are you?"

     "Magda."  A simple enough question.

     "Sorceress Magda, my liege comes through your valley.  Shall you seek to bar his way, cast curses with his name, set wards against the passing of his troops, summon goblins to harry his sleep, or poison his food with witchery?"

     He was angry, but full of fears.  Magda replied, "I didn’t know I could do so many things.  If you do not bother me, I shall not perform such fell magics upon your liege or his troops.  What care I if you tramp through a desolate valley?"

     His lips creased to a frown.  "Your monastery is known to me, sorceress.  I shall lead my liege to it.  We have elephants; we can raze your temple.  Choose."

     "What more would you have me say?"

     "Others have wisely chosen to join: shamans from the west, wizards of Salia, and, yes, even the witches of greenland have sworn their fealty to Samurkai."

     Magda had never heard of these names.  She asked, "Samurkai?"

     The sorcerer’s face grew crimson.  "You act the jester.  Lord Samurkai is ruler of all cultured lands west of your valley.  You cannot defend the valley.  Choose."

     "I shall stay in my home.  Spread your liege’s glory: war’s famine, violence’s pestilence.  It does not concern me."

     The sorcerer bowed his head.  "You have been graciously warned."

     The steam dissipated; the image vanished, but Magda sat, thinking.  Something troubled her.  Two thousand feet below, ten armies could have passed through her valley and she would have neither noticed nor cared.  The sorcerer would have augured that, even if he had only had a bull’s liver to read.  Why should he seek to warn her about their passing?  Why should she care?

     Magda dragged her finger across the surface of the pool.  The water shimmered; green invaded the black: trees, huts–a village.  Life had come to her valley while she had cloistered herself within the temple amid the eternal snow.  Had it been so long?  Her valley had given birth to children, a village, bright and prosperous in the midst of spring.  This was what the sorcerer had known.

     The impetus of the ripples flagged; the image faded; the water calmed, leaving only a murky reflection.  Magda ran her hand across her neck–so many lines of age.  Yet she felt strong, vibrant.  The age was true, but magic still sang sweetly through her; her arts, her temple scrolls, had taught her how to merge with the cold stones, the eternal mountain snows.

     So, spring had come below her, had touched her with the presage of violence.  Magda did not know if her magics would still work beyond the mountain; she had turned her arts inward toward serenity. 

     Life below her temple was sun warmed, green shoots, sowing and harvesting, peace and war.  That last, she would deny, if she could, if her magics could still flow outward.  She did not know anymore.  Fear would test her sorcery, could crush her resolve.  Magda cherished few illusions about her courage beyond the bounds of the temple.

     Caressing the water again, Magda searched for this Samurkai’s threat.  She disdained the use of animals, the crude augurs drawn from the table scraps of a monarch.  Cooling flesh possessed no mirror to the outer world that could compare with the agelessness of her temple pools: Calm earth water made the clearest slate for divination, coalescing into a line of men, rows of soldiers, filling the mouth of the valley.  The grass and trees fell before the appetites of great grey mammoths and ranks of tethered horses.  War.

     After donning a brown robe, Magda pulled open the large oak door of her monastery, walked toward the ice sculptures of doves and unicorns and sylphs, carved from ice before she had arrived, perhaps before she had been born.  She ran her hand across the clear wings of the ice dove, frozen in flight.  Her fingers didn’t notice the chill.  The quiet, the ice, this dove shared her serenity.  Looking at the sculptures, she drew their quiescent strength into her and sang to it with her magic, drawing out her own peace, captured from the years spent among the temple, within the rice scrolls, beside the sculptures.

     She left the monastery, then, but some of it remained within her.  The snow crunched under her feet; her shoes were only a thin leather, but again the cold did not bother her.  She trudged for two hours before the snows thinned to a line of rocks and frozen ground.  Something awaited her at the snow line.

     Hooded in brown leathers and grey furs, that pale face watched her intently, but did not move until she had crossed to the frozen ground.  Then, he spoke, "You were given warning.  Did you think me a fool?  I am Samurkai’s greatest sorcerer.  Yield.  Return to your frozen temple.  Here, it is spring and men must struggle.  We need not contend.  Sorcerers should be above such petty bickering.  Come, come, relent.  You must have augured Samurkai’s soldiers.  You know the forces arrayed against you."

     Magda said nothing.  What was there to say?

     The sorcerer shook his tattooed face from side to side.  "As you wish."

     His left hand came out from his jacket; a bright orange dye stained his fingers.  He gestured.  A tiger appeared; glowing orange stripes rippled like fire across the beast’s hide.

     Magda passed her hand over the tiger and the glow faded, flickered, took on a blue sheen, then white, then crystal ice.  Magda looked at the sorcerous beast.  It would have made a fine edition to the sculptures at the temple, but it was much too heavy and cumbersome to carry up the mountainside.

     The tattooed sorcerer did not share her artistic appreciation.  His eyes bulged and he showed her his crooked teeth as he spoke with an angry growl, "I had hoped to spare you my sorcery, Magda.  You are old, but not without skill, I admit.  Samurkai needs that village’s rice and wheat.  He shall not turn back.  Relent.  Truth, I would fain not duel with you.  I offer you escape."

     Magda remained motionless throughout his anger.  She simply locked eyes with him.

     The mountain vanished, replaced by an ebony blanket.  A shadowy seed appeared, sprouted; leaves burst forth through the darkness.

     A fire flickered next to the leaves, threatened to consume the green with orange tendrils.  The fires swirled, shifted to a foreign letter.  A glowing symbol brightly lit the dark world.

     A bud broke from the plant, sprouted into a blue rose, crystalline in shape, chilling the flame.  Ice crystals laced outward from the soft blue petals.

     The fiery symbols burned against the delicate ice that weaved its cold threads throughout the darkness.

     Another fire symbol appeared, three horizontal lines with a white fire dash connecting the two symbols.

     But the ice covered lace was everywhere now.  It grew from the rose, not toward the fire: It spread throughout the darkness as glimmering lines of soft blue.  The ice weave touched the fire with one line, then another, then another, remaining true to the original rose pattern.

     The fire letters flickered from orange to deep crimson to brown, ending as frozen letters incorporated into Magda’s weave.

     "I yield!" He shouted and turned his head aside.

     Magda looked toward his feet.  A blue rose of ice bloomed there, thrust upward from the frozen ground.  She smiled.  This sculpture, she could carry back to her temple.

     The sorcerer’s orange fingers were tucked deep within the folds of his furs.  His tattooed face had a deeper blue to it.   His teeth chattered.  "Wh-what will you do to me?"

     Magda wasn’t sure what to do with him.  She had no means for prisoners.  From his shivering she knew the temple was too cold for him.  She said, "Go home."

     He stared at her, his mouth agape.  He nodded once.  Finding his tongue, he asked, "You will not compel me?"

     Her eyes answered him.

     He bowed, then, and said, "What magics will stop Samurkai?  What secrets do you possess?  He shall come.  You cannot stare down a thousand troops."  He knew her then; she intended to die, to throw her cold against the sinews of Samurkai’s legions, though a thousand arrows would pierce her.  "Gods," he muttered.

     He turned and began slowly walking down the mountain.  Ten paces from her, he stopped and looked back.  "I would have killed you.  You know that, don’t you?  Samurkai’s subjects are not schooled in mercy."

     She bent down and plucked the rose from the frozen ground.  An outer petal shattered under her touch.  She hadn’t meant to be so careless.  Etched within her rose were two orange symbols, foreign, but a part of her sorcery now.  She said to the sorcerer, "You did not entirely fail."

     He shrugged and swiftly showed her his retreating back.  It came to his mind that she might revoke her mercy.

     The village that caused her so much grief lived in peaceful ignorance.  A clear lake at the far end of the valley fed rice paddies for their food.  Stalks of wheat swayed just beyond the village square.  Magda walked through the gathering of homes and smelled animal dung, smith fires, and meats simmering in cooking pots.  Several people stared at her as she walked, but none approached the silent woman.  It was a healthy village, but not large enough for war.  And she wanted to preserve their peace, their harvests and their celebrations.

     The mouth of the valley opened into a wide plain of wild grasslands.  Samurkai’s legions were beyond her sight, but she did not doubt his coming.  Magda sat and began her wait, fasting and meditating on the quiet temple, trying to forget the fear of war.  But the sorcerer’s fiery letters did not leave her thoughts.

     On the first day of her meditation, Magda’s eyes opened to see new snow blanketing the mouth of the valley, except for a patch of spring grass in front of her, shaped as the sorcerer’s letters, no larger than her hand.  It disturbed her.  Magda knew she would need all her strength.  She lapsed into meditation throughout the second day.

     She lifted her eyes to see the ice sculptures, multitudes of doves and unicorns gracing the frozen mouth of the valley in fanciful poses.  But each had the sorcerer’s brand etched into their frozen silhouettes.

     She could no longer deny the truth: The sorcerer’s fire had affected her.  The temple’s allure was not quite so strong as it had been.  Something had changed with the advance of war and fiery sorcery.  She wanted to shout, to cry, to rage.  But the scrolls of rice paper quietly whispered to her, reminding her of the cold that numbed her hands.

     Just as she had seen in the temple pool, a line of soldiers and beasts appeared along the horizon.

     She commenced her final sorcery, but now she was unsure; thoughts shaped the world, the scrolls stated.  But her thoughts of her mountain temple were no longer pure; she had left to defend the village; she was neither still as the ancient stones nor serene as the carved ice sculptures.  Magda tried to put aside her fears, to reach the still center within her.  She forged inward, but no longer did she feel the eternal serenity of the temple snows, rather warmth invaded her.  She fought to dispel it, to retrieve the cold calm.  Yet she only succeeded in summoning the temple to her thoughts, the temple that was now warmed by her fears and desires, her struggles against foreign sorcery.

     Magda meditated until she heard the footfalls of the plodding mammoths with their curved tusks.  She left her meditations, her sorcery, to see their advancing line.  Her robe was soaked with her sweat and the suddenly cold air chilled her.  Looking at the sculptures, she knew she had failed.  The temple surrounded her; she had failed to banish her fears.  Her desire and her sorcery had whisked her to the safety of her home, to hide from the approach of war.

     Another blue rose bloomed at her feet, and the snow had been burned away in a clear path down the mountainside.  True to the tattooed sorcerer’s word, Samurkai’s banner approached, billowing above that new path.

     Her limbs shivered in the cold.  Sorcery seemed beyond her.  They would crush the temple.  Magda bent down to look at the blue rose before her.  It was no ice sculpture.  It was a true flower.  Magda started to pluck it, but hesitated.  What good were the lessons of the rice scrolls if she could not venture forth to save this one flower or one village?  The ice rose had shattered, like her, too delicate to survive the fires of war.

     She touched the blue rose.  The petals bent at her touch.  She caught a sweet scent from the flower, and the petals resumed their shape when she withdrew her hand.  If she had changed like this flower, then so be it.  They shall not easily pass her, shall not burn her scrolls, raze her temple.  Magda stood and felt her sorcery sing hotly within her.

     Samurkai stood before her with a rank of ten soldiers, arrayed as he, outfitted in cold steel and sharp blades, colorful banners of gold and black.

     Shivering, she shouted at the conqueror, "Where are your sorcerers?"

     His voice was low and rough, but soft.  "My lady, they did fear to meet you.  So, I have come to parley a truce.  I ask that you allow my army to leave in peace.  I beg of you not to crush us.  There are children among the supply wagons, and, as you well know, none could survive such a falling of stone."

     In the horizon, Magda saw the truth, then.  Thoughts shaped the world.  Her temple surrounded her, but she had brought the eternal snows to her, to the mouth of the valley that was no more, filled by her mountain, drawn by her new warmth, her desire.  She gave Samurkai safe leave.

     He took it gladly–and quickly.

     The rice scrolls still had value to her.  The cool calm in her meditations gave her peace, but fire also had awakened in time of need.  She would write her own scrolls to add to the temple library.  Magda caressed the blue petals of the flower that marked the beginning of her new path.

     It would be good to bring apprentices to her temple.  They would come upon hearing of her sorcery to learn what her temple held within its library.  After an age of solitude, the rice scrolls and her meditations would now live and grow, like the winter rose.