Once per century, when the mysterious comet know as the Eye takes the sky for her own, the veil between Elyria and the realm of the dead beyond is at its thinnest. This is the time when the lost return home, and the wandering seek refuge. While the Al'tifali rekindle their relationship with the Two-Fold Queen, others draw together to tell stories of their past, and to look toward the future and the coming of spring. It is thus a time for remembrance, and the festivals thrown in this pursuit can be a welcome respite to the rigors of a hard world. While there are those that spend this time in drear preparation or grave solemnity, others choose to stoke the hearth and pour an ale for those who have gone on ahead. For these folks, it is customary to throw handfuls of spice into their ciders and meads, and to serve them piping hot, and in good company.
Certainly many tell of the lost souls, and of the hungry ones, pursuing the living on those eerie nights while the Eye enjoys her place of privilege in the heavens above. Yet there are others who know that, on those same evenings beneath the shining gaze of The Eye, the spirits of those whose Akashic record has concluded may return to visit loved ones, to give counsel, or to help family through difficult times. For these, the rise of The Eye can be warm, nostalgic, and even hopeful.
Mikah pulled his cloak from a hook on the wall. The simple woolen-grey stood out among the more colorful silk, leather, and flannel styles it had hung beside. Fastening it at his throat, he pushed open the door to the tavern’s wide decking, built around the larger boles of the trees comprising this small glade. Above him in the spreading branches, a thick network of hanging walkways, homes, and boardwalks kept those at ground level from seeing through to the top of the Pyqish settlement that filled the grove. The hue and cry spilling from the tavern windows above implied that the party had not ebbed when he had slipped out.
He let the thick, ironwood door swing quietly shut behind him. It was an artifact, obviously brought here from a far-off ironwood forest, and likely gleaned from a deadfall. The Kypiq would never have felled such a thing, but the closeness of the engraving implied Pyqish hands had done the work. The engraved slab of old-growth rode on a clever mechanism that both helped the Kypiq proprietors shift the Neran-sized closure, and kept unruly patrons from slamming the heavy thing shut. This inn served the traders that were passing through the small settlement from beyond the great forests, and required room and board suited to their larger size. Mikah, a Neran himself, had wandered into this far-flung Pyqish town only a few days earlier and would have forgotten about the seasonal holiday, were it not now being so vigorously celebrated inside.
Mikah enjoyed a party as much as anyone, but the past few days of steady drinking had left his head thick, and no amount of cut fruit nor Pyqish tidbit would touch his hunger. What he wouldn’t give for a meatball! After two days of Pyqish fare, Mikah felt like he could eat a whole platter.
The celebration, still-underway, that he had just stepped away from had actually begun earlier that afternoon. At first with more revelry, but a vigil had started in earnest at some point along the way. Now, a couple hours of maudlin hyperbole later, Mikah was in need of a quiet moment to himself.
He walked out onto the deck a bit further and pulled his sturdy pipe from a well-worn pouch. A few moments later he had filled it and was drawing an ember down into a bed of brown leaf. Here, from the railing surrounding the broad porch, he could see to the edge of the meadow and beyond, where the sun was just setting behind the mountains. The stars would soon be out and, chief among them, would rise the grand comet called by most The Eye. Mikah was not superstitious. He didn’t really believe half of the stories people told about this time, nor any of the nonsense about hungry disembodied spirits that might eat him alive. He had been walking the length of the roads of this kingdom for a few years now and had yet to see a ghost. He had slept at crossroads and in graveyards, harassed more by wildlife than wayward spirits. Still, it had been hard to miss the comet’s slow rise amongst the stars of the familiar night sky, tonight it would ride high.
A loud refrain echoed from an open window, telling him that the long-winded vigil had finally wound down. That was good. Mikah had hoped to find some distraction at this far-thrown trade post and the poignant remembrances had jarred him out of his festive state of mind. He had seen quite enough of such observances already at the recent observances of the Festival of Passage, and really had just wanted a comfortable place to comfortably forget any of the things that had brought him here to where he now stood, outside a raucous Pyqish tavern in a remote corner of the northern kingdoms, alone.
A tavern boy had come out and was pushing a little, rolling step ladder from lamp to lamp around the deck, lighting each with a fat candle. Soon the platform where Mikah ruminated was a golden pool in the surrounding gloom.
Mikah watched as the shadows at the edge of the meadow grew and played in the thorny margin. A figure was just visible there, pushing through the bramble. Mikah wondered why they hadn’t used the path. Moving into the open meadow, the figure began to move steadily across the fields toward the short, wide stair at the front of the porch where he stood.
The traveler looked as though they might have been on the road for some while, perhaps a long while. The clothes were patched and road worn, the hem of the cloak spattered with mud. They walked slightly hunched over, and leaned on a stick. From the traveler's stature, he assumed another outsider, like him, but more was hard to tell for the traveler’s head was obscured by a mantle, and Mikah couldn’t make out much detail beneath it in the evening dim. As this person drew nigh, though, it became clear that they wore a mask with an exaggerated animal’s face. A cat? No, this was a foxcelot. The long ears were obvious despite the hood, and big, dark eyes were painted with a glaze that caught the dwindling light and held it. The traveler was here for the party then.
A breeze swept the meadow, Mikah felt an unexpected chill, and pulled his cloak a bit tighter around his shoulders. He nodded in greeting as the traveler mounted the last step. The carven mask nodded back. A woman’s voice floated out from beneath it, in the Neran tongue. “Good evening, young man.”
Mikah smiled. He hadn’t felt young in a long time. “And to you ma’am. Here for the festivities?”
The masked face dipped, “I never miss them.”
Mikah puffed on his pipe, “I came here a lot when I was growing up, but it’s been a long while.”
“And pray, why is that?” came her reply.
He considered the question. “Well, when I was a child, I came here with my grandmother. She brought me to festivals out here because she loved these people. She’d been coming since before I was born, but my parents couldn’t take the, uh, energy that these folks sometimes have.” The woman tittered at this, and Mikah went on. “So, I came out with Grammy, just the two of us.” He gestured with the pipe at the canopy overhead, “She had friends here. I could sometimes even go up into the trees with the local kids, ride the ziplines.” He chuckled, “Don’t suppose I could do that now.”
“I suppose not,” sighed the woman through the foxcelot mask, “though we can’t stay children forever.”
Mikah murmured, “If only we could.”
The woman laughed, her mirth light and reedy, but not at all mocking. “But that we could,” she agreed. “But really child, would you give up your years so readily? What lessons would you trade away for the blithe spirit of your youth?”
Mikah drew on his pipe to find it cold. He spat into the gloom. “Hey, my childhood wasn’t much to write a ballad about. My brothers thought I was a weakling and to my sisters I was merely the butt of pranks. My family could be cruel.”
“And you would welcome that life again?” the lady chided.
“No, it isn’t them that I miss,” Mikah began and then, after a moment, “it’s my Grammy.”
“Ah, did she pass then?” asked the lady, gently. She had drawn closer as they spoke and was maybe an arm’s length from Mikah now. Her step was quite light. He hadn’t even heard her cane on the wooden deck. "On a night like this, the passed can draw nigh, you know."
Mikah kicked at the decking desultorily, “That’s just it though – no one knows! Everyone blames me and they’re right. I should have been there.” He looked at his boots and, when he raised his eyes, the lady stood next to him at the rail.
“So you feel responsible.” The lacquered mask dipped and the lamp light played across it, catching in the deep eyes.
“Aren’t I?” Mikah began, petulant, but the woman in the mask wouldn’t let him go on.
“You said yourself that you don't know what happened to your grandmother,” she said. “why do you punish yourself dreaming that she is gone? What else could have happened?”
Mikah was getting annoyed. “What else could have happened? She left and she never came back.” Mikah spat, “It was a harvest festival, late in the year, and I was supposed to go with her.” Again he kicked the deck.
“And why didn’t you?” the woman asked patiently, leading him to go on from behind the impassive mask.
Shame burned in Mikah’s eyes. He hoped the gloom hid it. “I – I was performing,” he finally confessed. “I had gotten a chance to play in the city. Of course I wouldn’t be allowed to go. My parents thought so little of me. But I thought maybe. Maybe I could make my fortune in the city and show them all up.” He scoffed at his own foolishness, “But I had never been into the city.”
“I ran away the week before we were to leave and, when I got there, I found I was just one of so many.” Mikah tapped his pipe out on the rail and began to absentmindedly fill it again. “I came home a failure, and she had gone on without me.”
Mikah snorted and lit the pipe. He puffed deeply for a moment then spoke, smoke choking his voice, “Of course, my family blamed me when she didn’t return.”
“And you blamed yourself as well.” The mask, expressionless.
Mikah nodded dumbly.
“I think your Grammy made it to her party, boy,” said the woman, matter of fact.
“Then why didn’t she come home?” he retorted, cross.
“If her favorite had left the nest, perhaps she felt it was time for her to move on as well.” The mask turned to scan the horizon, settling at last on a point in the low horizon, where the stars were just beginning to shine. “Are you sure she would have wanted you to return home so readily? Surely she knew how you got on with your siblings…,“ The voice trailed off.
“What are you saying?” Mikah felt like the woman was trying to lead him to some realization that his mead-addled mind was holding just out of reach. “Should I have stayed in the city, singing for pennies? My family was right. I’m a failure.” Then, after a moment, “I think I want a drink.”
The carved, wooden visage turned back to him, “I’m just an old woman, but I think your Grammy would have wanted you to follow your dreams, boy. That’s all that I would have wanted for my own.”
The sun had gone behind the treeline. The darkness gathered around them and the wind picked up. It had gotten cold quickly once the sun had gone. Mikah shivered, gesturing toward the door, he offered, “Would you like me to get the door for you ma'am? It’s getting dark.”
The figure's head rocked side to side in gentle dissent, “No, Sweet Child, I want to watch the Eye rise tonight. Would you do us a kindness and fetch a warm pot of nut mead? The brew here is my favorite.”
Mikah was already moving toward the door. “Sure ma’am, I’ll be right back.”
Something was shouting at the back of Mikah’s mind but it wasn’t until the barkeep pushed the two small mugs into his hands that, shaken by the aroma rising from the cups, he remembered.
Warmed Pyqish nut mead was Grammy’s favorite. This very brew, in fact. Mikah inhaled. The warm, spiced brew was redolent with autumn spice. He hadn’t smelled this particular draught since she and he were sitting out front on the deck, years before, watching the stars rise. “This is where I want to watch the Eye rise, when next it flies o’er head, Sweet Child,” she had said then.
“Sweet Child.” That’s what the woman outside had called him. Mikah’s blood ran cold. He bolted, stumbling, as he almost ran to the front and didn’t even bother with his cloak, bursting through the front door, nut mead splashing down his front. “Grammy?!” he called.
But she was gone. He stood alone on the deck. Where he had spoken with the mysterious woman just moments before, there was now no one. At least that’s what Mikah saw at first. As he approached the place at the rail where they had stood, he scanned the meadow beyond for a retreating figure and found none. Then, his eye fell at last upon the carven foxcelot mask resting upon the rail.
Mikah sipped his mead from the small, Pyqish cup, lost in thought. After a moment he turned his eyes upward.
The sun had long set and there, in the gathering dark, shone bright the Eye, hanging high above in the deep, clear sky. The pit at the center seemed to be watching him, as though waiting to see what he would do next. Mikah nodded and turned back to the tavern’s worn, ironwood door.
In the warmth of the low-ceilinged bar, he ordered another draught of warmed nut mead and, this in hand, moved to the center of the room. He pulled on the foxcelot mask, mounted a chair, and raised the cup high. “I would like to sing a vigil…,” he toasted.
So remember Elyrians, if all seems a little too dark, or the breeze blows a bit chilly, pull your cloaks a little tighter and hang on. Someone could be looking out for you, even when you can't see it. Just keep your back to the wind, put one foot in front of the other, and you'll be sitting by the fire with a nice, warming draught soon enough. Until the next time...