#7 Full Moon in Ásterle
Ásterle. At long last, Ásterle. It’s been too long since I last visited these graveyards. The ribcage stones surrounding the town, the drizzle curtain over the tall grass, the tranquil folk, the peaceful tune farmers whistle, the leaves dancing in the wind.
It is too idyllic to believe that, in three days, Ásterle will be overrun by beasts.
“Hold up, old man!”
Ah, and the bard. She hurries behind me as I’m about to shut the door of the only inn in town.
“Hurry up”, I retort as she adjusts her hat and prepares to enter with her broadest smile. “Save the act, there’s nobody else here.”
“There’s always the innkeeper”, she says with a smirk. “Hi!”
Too eager. I can read the innkeeper’s expression, somewhere between confused and suspicious. He serves Aiga as much tea as she asks for and starts preparing a steak on a flat stone. There’s a Heat rune on the stone’s surface.
The smell of meat makes me realise how hungry I am, and I approach the counter, trying to recall how many ræ I have in my pouch. I finally settle for some bread and cheese, and a glass of reasonably clean water.
I notice a fireplace in the middle of the room, but no fire. It is obvious the innkeeper wasn’t expecting guests.
“So, uh…” The innkeeper breaks the silence, trying to make some conversation. “I assume you’re not here to help with the monsters.”
Aiga can’t help it. Sometimes I wonder if she’s been kept in a bubble for the greater part of her short life, unaware of the perils of the world.
“You never heard?”
I feel Aiga’s piercing eyes on me as I pretend to be very much focused on my bread and cheese. Perhaps it’s best if she hears the story from me and not the innkeeper.
“We’ll be leaving before the full moon”, I say, sitting back and folding my arms. Aiga mimics every single one of my gestures. “I’ll tell you the story but we can’t stay here, alright? I’ll visit my friend, and then we’re headed to Aucel.”
“I think she’s old enough to make her own decisions, old man”, the innkeeper mumbles.
“Dying in Ásterle wouldn’t be a wise decision.” I bite my tongue. Sometimes dealing with bored innkeepers leads to pointless arguments.
“I used to be protective of my daughter too”, the man begins. To my surprise, Aiga halts him with a polite gesture.
“Can we hear the story now?”, she pleads.
I sigh as I accept an apologetic glass of water from the innkeeper.
“Will you leave before the full moon, though?”, I ask her.
“I’ll decide once I’ve heard the story.” She winks at me.
Very well Aiga. I’ll do my best to portrait Ásterle as it truly is.
Full Moon in Ásterle
Weddings. What is not to love about them? The company, the food, the merriment, the celebration of true love between two people, the music, the sparks of light between one and the other. Sometimes this love is arranged, others it is a love born of mutual interest. But it really cannot be called a wedding without some form of love.
Melinor and Merlenir were the first kind of lovers. There has never been a truer love on the face of Alor, a bond that words cannot make justice to, for it was a love of the soul, the mind, the spirit, and the flesh. A love not even death could tear apart.
They decided to celebrate their union in a remote place, away from the crowded temples, the hills, the prairies, the sights they had grown so very accustomed to. They looked for a long time until they finally found a small town named Ásterle.
Rather than a town, one could say Ásterle was a timeless gem in the world. It was surrounded by Narivian graveyards, those stone ribs that emerge from the entrails of the earth, where the masks of the dead are hung.
Despite most wouldn’t have dared walk past those graveyards, Melinor and Merlenir were the very first to be welcome into Ásterle since they had their last visitor centuries ago.
The town was so old they used tools and gadgets no longer seen at the time. There was also a curious flower that only grew in that region, white and golden, a rarity among rarities. The people spoke a language of old and were shorter than the average Narivii.
“It is so very enigmatic”, said Melinor.
“It is beyond what I could have hoped for”, agreed Merlenir.
The couple was quick to arrange their union for the coming Spring. They called a priestess to wed them and invited two hundred guests. They would get married atop of the only bell tower in town.
On the day of the wedding, there was merriment as far as the eye could see. The children cheered, guests came from all over Alor in their finest clothes, food and drink abounded, and the white and golden flowers had blossomed everywhere.
It rained during the day, and Melinor and Merlenir decided to postpone the ceremony until the evening, in the hopes the sky would clear. Though there were no inns in town, the people of Ásterle had welcomed them into their homes and had prepared meals only historians would have found in books. For a modest fee, of course. It was an unforgettable experience.
The skies had smiled upon them as sunset approached and graced them with views words cannot even begin to describe. The flowers opened with a faint glow and the last rays of sunlight waved everybody good-bye as they crawled behind the endless hills.
The evening bell tolled and the ceremony began.
“Beloved family and friends, those who have come from afar and those who are here in spirit”, the priestess said, her eyes shining with excitement. “We have gathered here today to witness the beginning of a lifelong journey together. A journey of two souls united as one.”
As the priestess continued, screams reached the tower from the heart of town.
“Help us!”, the voices cried.
The guards they had hired. The cooks. The merchants who had travelled with them in the hopes of earning coin. They were all running away from what one could only describe as abominations.
Gigantic spiders with human heads. Two-headed wolves. Six-legged rams with horns as wide as an arm. A centipede the size of a house and the face of a woman. A bearlike monster with faces emerging from its ribs.
The guests fled in all directions. Melinor and Merlenir fell into each other’s arms and begged the priestess to unite their souls before the eyes of the gods, so that they may walk together in their next life as one soul.
As the people below the tower were massacred, as horror made flesh crawled in the lovers’ direction, as a lake of blood formed below their feet, Melinor and Merlenir wed.
The priestess placed the end of her ceremonial staff against the heart of one and then the other.
“May death be the continuation of your journey together as one”, the priestess finished. "And may the gods have mercy", she added, and tossed them the staff and a beautiful knife engraved with holy runes. "Please save yourselves."
The priestess dashed downstairs, never to be seen again.
The newlyweds embraced each other for a brief moment as the tower was surrounded by the monstrosities.
“A single soul”, Melinor said.
“A bond death cannot break”, Merlenir responded.
One of the monsters crawled atop the tower. Neither Melinor nor Merlenir had inherited powerful mahrym, nor were they versed in shapeshifting the bone in their arms into weapons. Yet they were filled with inexplicable strength and courage.
Merlenir broke one of the spider monstrosity’s legs. Melinor dug the priestess’ staff into one of its many heads. They tore its large belly open with a ceremonial knife and pulled its entrails out with their bare hands. The monstrosity fell to the ground as it delivered one final blow into the air, niftily dodged by Melinor.
The monsters below cried and screeched, and one by one, they climbed the small tower and threw themselves against the lovers. Melinor and Merlenir pushed one of the atrocities over the balustrade, they held the door shut so no more could climb up the staircase. Barely armed, they forced the bone out of their arms and shapeshifted it into weapons of old. They bashed the fliers, they protected each other’s back.
For an instant that felt like an eternity, they looked at each other and smiled. The couple fought valiantly together, their attacks perfectly coordinated. Every move, every word, every breath, and glance, almost as if they were one soul in two different bodies indeed.
But alas, the power of love cannot prevent an inevitable fate.
The monstrosities took the door down. More fliers landed on the balustrade. They tore Melinor and Merlenir apart, limb by limb, and feasted on their entrails and flesh. Nothing but their faces of bone remained.
Their deaths bought time for the priestess to escape. She was the only survivor.
The morning after there was only silence. Silence as the villagers cleaned the blood and the corpses. Silence as the villagers carried the masks of the dead to the graveyards and hung them on the stones. Silence as they prayed for an end to their curse.
“A curse?”, Aiga asks. Her eyes dart up in curiosity.
“A curse”, I confirm, backed by the innkeeper who limits his contribution to a nod.
“I assume it was the priestess the one to share the story”, she says, rejecting the bowl of dried fruit the innkeeper is offering her. “How old is this tale, anyway?”
“Old enough to have been proven true”, I retort. “I strongly suggest we leave this place tomorrow and head to Aucel in the morning.”
“But”, Aiga interrupts me, “haven’t they lifted the curse after all this time? What causes it? Why do the villagers turn into monsters? Why hasn’t the Council destroyed the village? Is there something running in the villagers’ blood?”
I fold my arms. Sometimes I forget she’s so full of questions, energy, and life. As I open my mouth to respond, she interrupts me once again, her eyes wide open in sudden realisation.
“Could it be the flowers? If we get rid of all of them…”
“It isn’t the flowers”, I cut her short. “They’ve been studied for centuries, all they do is strengthen certain bonds between two people. And they’re very, very expensive.”
Aiga’s ears perk slightly up in interest.
“Bonds?”, she repeats.
“Yes, Aiga, bonds. The not-of-the-soul bonds.”
I cover my face in shame as she starts explaining absurd stories she must’ve heard elsewhere, including anecdotes about bonds gone wrong.
“I have to visit my friend”, I say, and I stand up, my bones crackling as rain hits the roof and the windows again.
Aiga stretches her legs under the table and yawns. “I’m really exhausted. Aren’t you?”, she says without expecting an answer.
I frown and shake my head. The rain hits my face as I make my way outside the small town, walk past several graveyards until I finally find the one I’m looking for.
Covered with moss, I feel the empty eyes of the masks looking in my direction. Judging me. Studying my every move. Deeming if I’m worthy of walking among them, there and then.
I kneel in front of one of the stone ribs and I look at two masks hung together side by side. Their expression is almost heroic, a song without lyrics, a poem without letters. They tell so much without saying anything.
I put one of my hands across my chest in prayer and the other on the ground, and I mutter: “Forgive me, Merlenir. Forgive me too, Melinor, though we were never close. I have nothing to offer you but words and an apology. I hope you are taking care of each other, wherever you are.”
As I stand up, I feel a presence behind me.
There is a confused look on her face. She may ask a lot of questions, but she’s not one to pry into my life. I hope this isn’t the first time.
“Just a quick prayer”, I say before she can open her mouth. “I thought you were staying at the inn.”
“I thought you were visiting a friend”, she retorts. “It seems to be a really, really old friend.”
The bard looks at the mossy rocks and the masks, the symbols on them, the flowers growing all over the place. She’s making a very conscious effort not to ask a question.
“Well, what is it?” I break the silence before it becomes too awkward for both of us.
I have several answers ready, depending on what she asks. The flowers? They earn everyone good money and are used all around Alor. Visitors? Not many, too much of a hassle to travel all the way here. The curse? Certainly, it only affects those originally from the village, though nobody knows how it originated. The villagers cannot even leave town. The Council? Oh, they better keep this place untouched if they want to keep their seats up there in Falkor.
“How did Melinor and Merlenir fall in love?”, she finally asks.
“What?”, I blurt out. “Love? Why do you want to know about love?”
We’re heading back to the inn. The bard’s eyes are shining defiantly against yet another rainy day.
“I was just wondering how their love came to be, that’s all. What was their first conversation like? Were they friends, or did a matchmaker introduce them? From the way you described it…”
“…it’s how the story is worded…”
“…I figured they must have been in some form of love beyond my comprehension. I want to understand it. No, I want to experience such kind of bond.”
Perhaps she’s daydreaming of that boy she met several days ago, a boy I’m positive she will never cross paths with again.
“Have you ever felt a love this strong for anyone, storyteller?”, she asks. We’re about to enter the inn and the rain seems to have
My heart sinks for a moment.
“I suppose that’s to be expected from an old man like me”, I reply as she holds the door open.
“But have you?”
Incisive as ever. I signal the innkeeper for a warm cup of milk.
“I have”, I admit as the innkeeper disappears inside the small stone kitchen.
“And you still do? Love this person, I mean”, she insists.
“Very much so”, I want to reply, but I feel a lump in my throat. I decide to cough instead and keep a stoic face.
Instead, I say: “It was a very long time ago.”
“Oh”, the bard says, disappointed. “I was hoping for stories of love beyond death.” She stands up and heads to her room for the night. She turns around just as she’s reaching the stairs. “Someday I’ll find a love as strong as that of Melinor and Merlenir.”
As night falls and I lay in bed, I repeatedly toss and turn to check the moon and the muddy streets over and over again, afraid to see monsters clawing their way out of the houses. Tearing Aiga apart, limb by limb.
My body is so exhausted I cannot keep watch for long. The tingling sensation embraces me like a warm bedsheet, just as a cloud covers the close-to-full moon.
If I’m not alive by morning, at least I will have had a well-deserved sleep.