The rain hadn´t stopped in days and with the rain came the cold that stretched its icy fingers out to everyone in reach, forced them to wrap themselves in several layers of clothing that almost always felt damp. The hard rain drummed on the roofs like the war drums they played when they were attacked. And as with the warning of the drums, the rain made all women and children gather in the big hall that was farthest away from the protective walls, hidden within a maze of halls and doors, deep in the mountain that stood motionlessly behind the castle and that was both unconquerable and deadly and was the best protection they had besides their thick walls and their unerring archers.
Today, the hall was buzzing with the noise over fifty people made, the murmur of conversations that sounded like a bee hive, the clanging of those that prepared food over by the fireplace, the constant clicking of knitting needles that worked quickly to produce new items of clothing the guard needed. The guard stood on the watch tower and near the castle gate looking into the grey darkness. Their eyes were attuned to the sight that lay in front of them, to the grey and dark green savanna of dry earth and cold land, to the dead trees and the rotten plants and to every sight of strange attackers that were clearly visible in the vastness of the land.
While they were on the outlook for inveterate foes, the women and children gathered in the big hall. They didn´t mind spending days in the big hall, but at some point, the children would get too loud. They ran through the hall, not paying attention to people in their way. They would jump over chairs and climb underneath tables and toss over the baskets holding wool and linen. Their little feed would make a ruckus that echoed off the walls and multiplied endlessly. With nothing to occupy their little minds other than the old games they could play, the board games with fading colors and the game of marbles that bore a danger in itself, the women resorted to storytelling.
With all the stories of famous legends and beloved warriors, there was one story the children loved the most; a story that had to be told exactly the same way, with the same words and the same plot. The children played close attention to the words and they were unhappy should the storyteller decide to paraphrase. Obviously, the children liked some parts of the story better than other parts, but there was general consensus that this story was the best story they had ever heard. In every child grew the wish to be one of the protagonists, because the story told the tale of the genesis of their culture and touched upon the mystery of its secrets and told the tale of the last Guardian and her Protector.
When the oldest woman in the hall put aside her knitting and watch the children gather at her feet, she felt restless. She knew that the story would put an end to the endless crying and bickering, the constant noise level and disruptions and would make the days in the big hall less unnerving and arduous, but it also forced her to relive days she wished had never happened, dark days that had clouded the lives of so many people, a terrible fate that would inevitably and irreversibly influence these innocent children´s lives.
She wished there was another way of calming the children, but she knew that nothing worked like the magic of the story. The story always sends the children into their own fantasy world; they imagined vivid days and colorful lives that were so much different from the lives they were living. So she sighed and put aside her worries as easily as she had put aside her knitting. She had learned to blind out her own feelings attached to the story, because she knew how troublesome it was to drown in lost emotions and dead dreams. The children, however, knew nothing of her emotional predicament and saw the story as what it should be; just a story, a tale to be told on rainy days.
“We cannot remember the first days”, the old woman started the story, “we do not have written transcript of the birth of our culture, but we all know the legend and the mystery attached to it. Our culture is proud to have birthed a society of strong warriors, especially archers that never miss their target. We are fighters. We have always been fighters. We know that our strength lies in our willpower and the support we find in our brothers and sisters. We have learned to trust the carefully woven threads that connect us all. We have learned to believe in the impenetrable fabric of brotherhood that protects us all. But in the beginning of our culture, there was a much stronger shield protecting our ancestors, an ancient fate on whose fulfillment our culture´s existence and its future happiness depended.”
She looked into the eager faces of the children gathered at her feet. They were hanging on every word she said. It fascinated her that even thought they had heard the story numerous times they were still hooked so easily, mesmerized by the words speaking of the fate of their ancestors. She wished she could see the story through the eyes of a child, she wished she could see the beauty that was portrayed in the tale, she wished she were able to dismiss the bitter fate as unimportant regarding her own life and the lives of her children. But she knew that the fate, an inevitable obligation that hadn´t been fulfilled in over a hundred years, was the reason why the land was dry, the weather unchangingly monotonous, and why the twelve children at her feet were the only ones that had survived their early childhood. Just enough to keep the tribe going, to save it from extinction, but not enough new blood to ensure the culture´s definite continuation.
“This story is about the last Guardian and her Protector. It is a tale of love; sweet, pure love that cast a shadow over all of us. And it is also about the closest thing to a deity we know. We understand the Guardian´s sacrifice and secretly admire that she made this decision knowing that it would not only condemn all that were to come after her, but that her decision would have a murky influence on her afterlife as well.
“As you know, we do not think that life ends after our death. After we die, we will be reunited with everyone we hold dear, every person that has crossed our path and has had an influence on us. We will see our grandparents again and we will be able to hug our parents who died too soon. But most importantly, we will be reunited with our love, the one real partner we had in life, the soul mate that completes us. We do not mourn the death of a close friend, a relative or our partner, because we know that we will be together in death.
“The Guardian is born on a dark and gloomy day, when it rains heavily and a thunderstorm is roaring so loudly you cannot hear the screams of the parturient. As is tradition, the father will select a protector for the guardian child, a brave warrior that should protect the child while it grows up, one man to make sure that the guardian child will fulfill its bitter fate. It usually is a greatly esteemed member of the guard and the few transcripts we have tell us that he has to be older than thirty years and must have paid his dues. It so happened that when the last guardian child was born, a dark-haired girl with big blue eyes, war had killed most members of the guard and only one man of the guard could fulfill the duties of the Protector.
“He was a strong, brave man, but with only 14 years, he hadn´t yet paid his dues. You know that you will be trained for combat once you turn 11, so the last Protector had only 3 years of training, but was already assigned a highly important role. He knew he had big shoes to fill, so he tried his best to protect the little girl as she grew up. She, the last Guardian, whose name we don´t know, grew up to be a beautiful girl with a clever mind and a very open-minded perspective on life. She grew up at a time during with our folks still believed in the merry reunion. She did not mourn when a beloved person passed, but she celebrated death, because she knew that all people who had died before would wait for the late member of the tribe on the other side.
“She poured her heart into everything she did, her education, her friendships, her duties in the castle. She was a well-behaved girl who did as her parents told her, a loyal friend to all, good at gardening and housekeeping, and as she grew up, she was the most beautiful girl that had ever walked these very halls. It had never happened before, but the man who had sworn to protect her fell in love with her. Usually, the Protector is much older than the Guardian and it had never happened before that they were so relatively close in age, but in that unique case, the Guardian was 17 when she learned of the Protector´s feelings toward her and she accepted his love, even though he was much older. By that time, he had become one of the most talented archers that had ever lived among us and her father saw no reason why they shouldn´t be together.
“But as you know, the Guardian has to, at some point, accept the fate laid upon us after a fight that happened thousands of years and that is tightly woven into our culture´s history. When our culture was still in its infancy, the gods fought over who was to become the deity for us. The god-brother and his god-sister fought like animals. Both wanted to be our deity, because they had looked ahead and had seen our bright future. As they were both very competitive, they knew that being our deity would benefit them in the future. Because they couldn´t come to an agreement and tried to kill each other, their father banned both of them from their realm. He blamed us humans for his children´s misbehavior and forced a terrible fate on us.
“In every generation, a guardian child is born, one whose sacrifice will ensure our future happiness. With the sacrifice, we placate the god-father, who in return does not meddle with our lives and grants us the merry reunion after death. As the powerful god that he is, he rules both over life and death, and our ancestors feared what he might do, so they agreed to this bittersweet fate. At first, the god-father took only beauty and health from the guardian child, but soon he grew blood-thirsty. He watched our lives and he saw how much we loved our children. He knew that the only bond stronger than the one connecting humans to their deity, was the bond connecting a mother to its child. Having lost both his children, he loathed all mothers and their motherly feelings and his jealousy for what they had and he hadn´t turned into raging anger and soon he began to demand the life of the guardian child. He called them Guardians; Guardians of the tribe´s future happiness, a sacrifice child guarding its family from the demoniac fury of the god-father.
“The last Guardian knew of her fate and she was certain she would die gladly to fulfill her guarding duty. When her mother had been in labor, she heard the thunderstorm outside and she knew that the god-father had forced the bitter fate on the child she was about to deliver. She knew what would be asked of her child and as its mother, she couldn´t bear the thought. When she held her little girl in her arms, she thought it even less possible to subject her daughter to such a brutal fate. To protect her child, she went to see a magic woman who cast a spell on the mother. She left her body and projected her aura onto the Guardian child to give the girl enough willpower to fight her fate. As the god-father noticed her attempts, he clouded her sight so that she couldn´t return to her body. Her soul could not survive without the body, so the Guardian´s mother died trying to protect her child.
“The Guardian grew up without her mother, but with the Protector at her side, she never experienced fear and worry, and seeing that the people respected her, she thought that she´d gladly die to protect them. But when she fell in love with the Protector, she saw less and less sense in her sacrifice. She began to rail against her fate and the older she grew, the more she wanted to live. The Protector and the Guardian were together all day and all night long as was the rule and when they fell in love with each other, they spent their time together in blissful harmony.
“Every day after they woke, they would walk on the guarding walls and look upon the rich soil that stretched out in front of them. The Guardian could name all the plants that grew on the land and the Protector told her of the fascinating world far away from the walls, the overwhelming places and the colorful riches of the nature the Protector had seen on his voyage. The memories were so clear in his mind that he could paint a clear picture for the Guardian and she loved to hear him talk of all the places he had seen.
At night, they slept together in one chamber and they whispered sweet words to each other, enjoying the others presence more than anyone knew. The Protector held the Guardian at night, woke her when her sleep was clouded by nightmares, wrapped the blanket tightly around her should she shiver in her sleep and he whispered words in her ear that he was sure would lighten up her dreams, would make her dream only of beautiful things, wonderful places and happy stories.
“Close to her eighteenth birthday, the rain started and soon the thunderstorm followed and the festivities began. The eighteenth birthday marked the day of the sacrifice and in the intense ceremony the Guardian would be clothed in white linen, a blue ribbon would be woven into her hair and she would dance and laugh and be merry. With the weapon of his choice, the Protector would pierce her heart and would thus fulfill the last and most important duty of the Protector. Taking the Guardian´s life meant protecting her from the fury of the god-father and all Protectors before had willingly fulfilled this one last task, because they knew that he would be reunited with the Guardian in their afterlife.
“The last Guardian feared that moment greatly, and so did the Protector. Their love had grown strong and they couldn´t bear being separated, even if they might be reunited in death. The night before her eighteenth birthday, the Guardian and the Protector spent the night together and as they lost themselves in their love, he whispered soothing words and she spoke of the live they could have but wouldn´t. Every so often, they both went quiet and he reached out to put his hand on her stomach, where their love had worked its magic and had honored them with a child of their own, and both separately came to the decision that they wouldn´t give up on their love. When the festivities reached their climax on the following day, the Protected pulled out his bow and arrow and aimed at the Guardian´s heart. She was crying silently and so was he and when he released the arrow, he tapped it only a little bit and it went past the Guardian and into the wall behind her.
“A murmur went through the crowd, when the Guardian leaped into her Protector´s arms and kissed him. The people begged for the Protector to fulfill his duties, but he couldn´t. So they begged for the Guardian to accept her fate and leave this world, but she told them about their beloved child and the people went quiet. No one could deny these two lovers their love and now they saw how unreasonable it was to ask of the Protector to kill the Guardian. Love only sparkles this brightly in life. In death, everything seems less vivid, less colorful and less intense and the people knew it would break their hearts to have the Protector kill the mother of his child, and it seemed only a poor consolation that they would be reunited in death. As they had before, the people accepted their new fate.
“The god-father was furious and raged for years, throwing lightning down onto the earth. He killed the trees and plants, he drained the land and rivers, and he took away the colorful riches of nature, robbed the people of the nourishing earth and killed all life he could lay his hands upon. The people realized that even though he was the god-father himself, he could not harm them. He raged and rioted, he clouded the sky and blinded the sun, but his lightning never hit any person, his hail never killed anyone and even though he let it rain for months, no one died. Soon, the people began to rebel against their deity and they found flaws in the god-father, realizing that he had been using them. They began to mourn the Guardians that had died in vain, cursed the god-father for making them agree to the execution of helpless children, who had all died believing that those that were still among the living would lead better lives, happier lives if only they agreed to be killed.
“The people threw their fists in the air, cursing the god-father and turned to the Guardian and her Protector instead. It was in their love that they found consolation for the dark days and even darker nights, the constant rain, the dead land and the fear of having forfeited the chance to have a merry reunion. It was their love that made them see the silver lining in their lives. They found it in the laughter of a child, in a sweet whisper between lovers, in a brave plant weaving its way through the dry soil. When the Guardian delivered her child, the people danced and sang the whole night long, celebrating the beginning of a new era, the marking of a change in their lives, in their traditions, praying that no god would ever meddle with their lives again.
“And no god did. The god-father continued to rage and riot, but the people only understood this as their new fate and soon learned to live with it. When the last Guardian died, her child had had children already. They were at her side and when the Guardian passed away, she whispered that they would soon talk again. She was followed two days later by her Protector, and as the story goes, they were reunited in death, finding the other in the blurred haze of the death world, where they met the god-father himself, who shook hands with them and let them be together in death.”
The children were smiling now, imagining the Guardian and her Protector reunited in death, living an eternal life of blissful happiness, indulging in their love and waiting for the others to join them. The old woman felt the pain aching in her body, the wish for a better life, a richer nature and happier days, but she knew that it was pointless to dream of better days. She sighed and in that sigh she voiced all her worries and doubts, all her memories and recollections, everything good and bad that had happened in her life. And though she felt helpless against the rage of the god-father that even kept nature from healing itself, she smiled when she remembered her mother and father, the feeling of security he conveyed and the loving glance from her mother´s sparkling blue eyes and her soft words whispered right before she passed away: “I will see you on the other side, my beloved child.”