The Secrets of the Tower, Part One
"Tan!" Her father's shout from across the field made her jump. He was leaning on his hoe, glaring at her. "Quit your day-dreaming and get back to work."
"Sorry, paipai," she called back. She hefted the hoe and brought it back down into the dark red soil with a satisfying thunk. Her paipai was correct, of course. There was no point in daydreaming when they had work to do. If they didn't get the crop of calina seeds into the fields before the rains began, there would be no crops to harvest by the autumn and no food to tide them over for the winter.
Tan was not yet old enough to hunting with her brothers, so she was stuck on field duty with her father and the other farm hands. if she was lucky, she'd get a year, maybe two of hunting before her mother would bring her into the farmhouse, stick her in the kitchen and then they'd find her a husband and pack her off to another farmhouse where she would have children and run a house until it was her time to pass beyond the veil and meet the Great Goddess Shanter in the afterlife.
She bubbled with resentment but also despair. What else could she do? What was there? This was life. And yet... she kept hoeing, but risked a glance out of the corner of her eye at the Tower in the distance.
All of them dwelt within sight of the Tower. The Baron would sometimes talk about building an even grander palace for himself, but everyone knew it was just talk. No one knew what the Tower was made of, but it wasn't stone. No one wanted to get close enough to find out for sure. And it as high. Impossibly high. No one could see the top of it.
People did their best to ignore it. Most just assumed it was an enchanted tower and got one with life. The Tower, whether it was magic or not, had yet to grow a single calina seed and people needed to eat. No one could afford to go climbing all over The Tower to figure out what secrets it held. It had always been there and it would always be there.
Tan soon fell into the rhythm of her work and forgot about The Tower. Soon, the suns were dipping toward the horizon and her mother was ringing the bell for supper and they were all riding the wagon back across the fields in the gathering dark. Her brothers had returned from the hunt, she saw as she reached the house. That meant there would be plenty of meat on the table tonight.
"Tanala!" Her mother called to her from the kitchen. "You get yourself cleaned up and then you come back down here. I need your help peeling jorlaja root for dinner."
"Yes, maimai," Tan replied and she trudged up the stairs toward the washroom. She scrubbed her hands and her face before stepping into her room and changing out of her coverall into a simple dress, this one a deep shade of violet that was almost the same color as serenda flowers, her favorite. She headed back downstairs to the kitchen and her mother pointed at the two pots on the sturdy wooden table, one full of jorlaja root, the other empty and waiting for the peels. Wordlessly, her mother handed her the peeler and she set to work.
Soon enough they were all sitting down at the long table in the main hall. Her father, her mother, her brothers, all the farm hands and maids and other house servants. As soon as the last tray was placed on the table, her father stood and spread his hands for silence. Heads bowed as he began the blessing:
"Great Goddess Shanter, we thank you for the fruits of our labors here on the table. We ask for your blessings in the planting season ahead and we thank you for all of us being here around this table. In Shanter's name,"
And they all said, "Kalfi."
Then, a cacophony erupted as platters were passed around. Slices of restrier were being placed on plates next to the mashed jorlaja root. Hasperat gravy was passed around and then all had food and were tucking their meals at long last. Then, Tan did what she always did: made herself as inconspicuous as possible so she could pick up as much gossip as she could.
"We met Bran out on the hunt," her eldest brother Varga said. "He said some Priest in the village was warning people that the Time of Choosing was at hand."
"That old nonsense," her father snorted. "The Priests must be running low on new material if they're trotting that out."
"It wasn't just Bran," her other brother Mitrokh added. "Farmer Weir, from over yonder said he saw lights on the Tower two nights ago."
"What's the Time of Choosing?" The words were out of Tan's mouth before she could stop them and her father's stern glare made her quail. Not many things would make him truly, genuinely angry, but eavesdropping was one of them. Thankfully, her mother, who was deft at defusing his emotions before an explosion, diverted him with a gentle touch on the arm and bent her head so her mouth was close to his ear and began speaking to him in a low voice. That just left her brothers to deal with:
"Well, Tan," Varga said. "The Priests say that once every century, the Goddess sends down beams of light from the Tower and some are chosen to be taken into paradise to serve her. No one who is chosen ever returns."
"That's what they say," Mitrokh said. "Whether it's true or not, no one can say for sure, I mean, Priests talk a lot of shite, especially when you get enough hooch in them."
"Mitrokh," his mother said, now apparently done diverting her father. "Be respectful."
Mitrokh looked like he was about to reply when a stern glance from his father quelled him. "Sorry, mother."
Then the talk turned to other, more mundane things, but Tan paid no attention. She ate her food and helped her mother clean up after dinner. Then she washed, brushed her teeth, dressed in her nightgown and made the expected pujas toward the family alter of the Grea Goddess Shanter before bidding her parents good-night and heading up the long staircase to her room.
It took her a long time to fall asleep: her mind was racing. What if the Time of Choosing was at hand? What would it be like to be chosen? What an honor and adventure it would be to be taken to serve the Great Goddess Shanter herself! If Tan longed for anything in this life, it was an adventure.
Eventually, she fell asleep, but woke just once in the very early hours of the morning. Her window had become unlatched and a cool breeze was filtering into the room, the gentle wind making the shutters knock against the window pane. With a sigh, she flung aside her covers and padded across her bedroom to the window. Sleepily, she pulled one shutter and was about to close the other and latch then when she froze. In the distance, the Tower gleamed silver in the moonlight, and there, at the very top of the Tower, was a light.
Tan froze. She stared at the light for a long moment, squinting, wondering if it was a trick of the moonlight or her imagination and then it vanished. Tan shook her head and closed the other shutter, making sure the latch was secure this time and then turned back to her bed.
Morning came early and Tan almost overslept. It took her mother threatening to send her father up to her room to really get her moving and as a result, she forgot about closing her windows the night before. She wolfed down an egg and a sausage and ran out of the door, ignoring her mother's remonstrances for being so rushed and unladylike. She was being unladylike, she knew, but her mother's scolding was far better than facing her father's wrath for being late.
Thankfully, the wagon was still int he yard in front of the house and her brother Mitrokh extended a hand to help her into the back.
"Cutting it a little close, aren't you Tan?"
"That's not like you," Mitrokh noted. "Normally you're the first one out here."
Tan shook her head. "Had trouble sleeping last night. My windows blew open and-" She stopped, remembering the single, solitary light she had seen on top of the Tower. That was a dream right?
"And what?" Mitrokh asked.
"I just couldn't get back to sleep after that," Tan said.
Then her father arrived and pulled himself up onto the front of the wagon. After a brief, searching glance making sure that everyone who was supposed to be on field duty was on the cart, he nodded his approval and turned back, taking the reins and urging the destriers forward as they started the wagon ride out to the calina fields.
It was nearly lunchtime when they first heard the screams. Tan ignored them at first. Hunger was gnawing at her bellt and she wanted to finish this row so that her father would let them break for lunch. But then, a couple of rows ahead of her, she saw Mitrokh stand up and look around and the other hands were glancing around too. Tan pushed some of the red dirt onto the calina seed she had just dropped into the ground and then she stood up.
"Mitrokh, what is it?"
"Can't you hear?"
Tan cocked her head. "Is that-"
"Everyone back in the wagon, now," her father came running from the far side fot he field. "Leave the equipment, hurry." Tan had never seen him move so fast and when she turned to look at the direction he had come from she saw why.
In the distance, The Tower was... pulsing. A line of white fire ran down it's length and every so often it would send an orb of incandescent fire racing across the ground looking for something...
Or someone. Tan thought. Then she was running with everyone else, hands were grabbing her and throwing her into the wagon and her father was turning the wagon for home, frantically whipping the destriers. Behind them, The Tower pulsed again and another orb of incandescent white fire came racing across the ground, this time heading in their direction. Tan heard Mitrokh shout a warning to her father and his whipping of the destriers increased. It was going too fast, Tan realized. Her father tried to change direction, heading for the woods- hoping that maybe it wouldn't follow them in there, but it turned with them, closing the gap with lightning speed.
It was the Time of Choosing. It had to be, Tan realized. There was no other reason for The Tower to suddenly come alive. If the Great Goddess Shanter wanted someone to choose, to take onto the next plane of existence, let it be her. All she had ever wanted was an adventure and maybe this was death, maybe this was something else. But either way, serving the Great Goddess herself-- that would be better than a boring life on a farm, planting calina seeds.
Tan thought about her brothers, her mother and her family. It all raced through her brain in a heartbeat and then she made her decision. People around her were starting to jump and Mitrokh was urging her to jump with him, but balancing carefully, Tan stood up and as the orb came closer and closer, she ran forward, her arms outstretched and jumped off of the wagon and into the incandescent white fire.