Song of Isonei
An Illumidar Short Story
by Narcisse Navarre
City of Reyza
Brindi, Fourth of Sund’im, 444 A’A’diel
At dusk, the young poet Irilio descended from his family’s forlorn villa perched high in the hills of Gavalene and entered the city’s only park. Cleared of courtiers and merchants by the late hour, the expanse of woods with its enchanting nooks was an oasis of tranquility, but Irilio felt no peace. His father’s tirade of the merits of marriage and news of his betrothal to the dullest woman in Laremlis ruined his day, and possibly his life.
Feeling powerless, the courtier walked through the verdant lanes and lashed out at the clusters of dark shrubbery. He smacked the bushes with his walking stick; poked the marble pedestals of nymphs and shouted his displeasure to the moons. Above the trees, loomed the Temple of Zezen where couples seeking happiness tossed jewels into the goddess’ well. The pavilion’s golden dome shone brightly against the serrated silhouettes of needle pines—a stark reminder of his future.
Irilio bent down and picked up a rock. He weighed the object in his hand, and upon finding it too light, threw it aside. He jogged along the gravel path to a crumbled statue and rummaged through the rubble. The merry nymph’s head, cleaved in two by time and moisture proved a heavy chunk of marble.
“Perfect!” he mused, holding her broken face to the moonlight. “You, dear girl, are prettier than my future bride, and likely more intelligent. Thus, I impose the cow’s name on you with great chagrin. You are hereby known as Lynyah.”
The poet tucked the decrepit head under his arm and made for the temple. His footsteps crunched on the path as he whistled a bawdy tune. He had a year and a half to enjoy the pleasures of bachelorhood before the yoke of marriage slammed down on dalliance. He would start by showing his disgust with the marital institution by dumping his bride’s proxy into the sacred well. No jewels, nor wishes for happiness with Lynyah would be forthcoming.
Irilio entered the building through the columned portico. The walls rose to a frescoed rotunda depicting joyful Akadian scenes. The light of elemental orbs illuminated carvings of nymphs and satyrs. Winged addonels blessed the bucolic figures with garlands and summer fruit. Inside, a soothing sillage of burnt resin and crushed petals suffused the air. Beams of moonlight filtered through the oculus high above, bathing the steaming font in brilliant light.
Irilio spread his arms in mockery of the welcoming effigy and smiled at the multi-breasted goddess. He set down his cane on the lip of the well and held the stone head over the water. “I come with an offering; my future wife’s head!”
“Most unwise,” came a masculine voice.
Startled, Irilio lost his grip. The statue’s head tumbled from his hands and splashed into the black waters of the pool. Whipping around, the poet scrabbled for his dagger. “Who goes?”
Mailled footsteps echoed in the pavilion as a guard wearing the palace livery stepped forward. The man, whose face betrayed forty seasons, held his helmet under his arm. His graying hair was slicked back and his eyes filled with pathos. His pauldrons and vambraces glinted in the flamelight as he approached. “At ease, I am no foe.”
Irilio sheathed his blade and smoothed his tunic. He gave the rippling water a cursory glance before addressing the man. “I did not see you when I came in.”
“I was sitting in the shadows.”
“Praying for a sweetheart?”
The semblance of a smile crossed the soldier’s face. “Something like that.”
The young courtier extended his hand. “Irilio.”
“I know who you are.” The man shook his hand. “Name’s Matello.”
“What you witnessed; let’s keep it between us, yes?”
Matello gazed longingly at the pool. “I will hold my tongue, but I doubt the underdweller will forgive you.”
“You believe that nonsense?” Irilio scoffed.
“Aye. The spirit of the water calls herself Isonei.” The guard sighed. “This was once a place which delighted me as a boy.”
Intrigued, the courtier sat on the ledge. “There is no fitter place for a poet to dream of love and commune with the beings of his imagination, but you do not strike me as one, sir.”
The soldier chuckled. “Indeed, I am no rimer, but I tell you, I have been very happy here, in the company of this pool and its watery dweller.”
“Tell me your story then.”
Matello set his helmet down and joined Irilio. He sat at the edge of the basin and stretched his legs. “I shall but only if you promise to pen a ballad.”
“Since I cannot vouch for my own happiness, I will rejoice in yours. You have my word.”
“I grew up in a family of means and as a boy, I often played here. One autumn evening I heard a beautiful song. I followed the melody through the wood and wandered past the arcade. I was five or six at the time; not allowed near the temple. My parents were afraid I would drown.”
“A female voice, I presume?” asked Irilio.
“Aye, an addonel’s voice, sweet and sublime.” Matello stared into the flickering darkness for a moment before unhooking his wineskin. He uncorked it and took a sip, then handed the bladder to Irilio.
The poet took a swig and grimaced at the watered down ale. “Gratitude,” he said handing it back. “Please, continue.”
“The sound led me to this very place where I beheld a sparkle. I climbed up over there for a better look,” he said pointing to the base of the statue.
“What did you see?”
“Hundreds of tiny glints, like a school of silverfish moving beneath the water. At the time, I was too young to realize I had seen her tails. As I grew older, and our meetings became more intimate, I began to make sense of her mysteries.”
“What man can make sense of any woman, sir? Even a character as fictitious as your friend is unknowable.”
The passionate outburst inspired a hearty laugh from the soldier. “You misunderstand my meaning.”
“Wild legends have the most powerful charm when least artfully told.”
“I will try not to insult you with my paean, laureate Irilio.”
“I am far from grievance. Elucidate me.”
Matello corked the wineskin. “From the moment I saw her, I loved her. She was a fresh, cool, dewy thing, sunny and shadowy, full of pleasant little mischiefs, fitful and changeable with the whim of the occasion, yet as constant as her native pool.” Matello took another sip. “She ruled my thoughts day and night. At first, we were playmates. I would sneak away to meet her, and we would race around this room. Some evenings she would tell me stories of her kin and worlds beyond ours. Other nights we frolicked in the trees. She taught me how to call her from her balmy source, and we spent many a happy hour together in the enthusiasm of summer days. Often as I sat waiting for her, she would summon a shower of sunny raindrops and a rainbow, and soak me to the bone. She was as frolicsome as the breeze and would dazzle me for the sake of my laughter, which she loved to hear.”
“So she had legs?”
“Oh yes, beautiful, long, slender legs when on land. Her skin was as pale as spun sugar and her hair the color of the shallows. Lovely,” he said, his voice trailing off.
“Did anyone else see her?”
“Our meetings were secretive. As I grew older, I came later and later and avoided the cutpurses that lurked in the wood. The Thicket is dangerous after dusk.”
Irilio’s hackles rose as he considered his companion. The man wore the colors of the palace, but his livery could be a ruse. What better way to ambush a courtier then in the guise of a royal soldier? The man could steal his purse and backhand him into Zezen’s well before he could defend himself. “Then I am glad to be in your company. Who did you say was your commanding officer?”
“I did not say, but if you must know, I serve under Captain Arinda.”
“Ah, Jarle Rigo’s personal guard. Prestigious.”
The soldier crossed his arms and nodded.
Relieved, Irilio audibly exhaled. “Please, sir, continue. I suspect we have yet to reach the crux of your tale.”
“Kind maiden that she was, she transformed stifling summer nights into cool and deliciously fragrant occasions. Even the water of this sweltering reservoir became cold when I bent down to drink. Often, a pair of rosy lips came up out of the depths and touched mine. I still smile when I think of the dewy bliss.”
“Sounds delightful,” observed Irilio, “but the deportment of your watery lady must have had a chilling influence in midwinter. Very literally, a cold reception!”
“In winter the air bent to her will and caressed us with the joys of summer. The coldest days were the most carefree. I would join her in her balmy waters, and we would make love under the stars. Sometimes we would swim to the bottom and languish in her lair until dawn. She slept among the glittering treasures lovers cast into the well. Hers is the domain of purity and innocence; each jewel holds a special memory. She told me once she could sense intention in every object. I believe she, not the goddess, curses dishonest unions.”
“Here I thought the well was a cleverly derived custom to fatten the city’s coffers.” Irilio shook his head. “Come now; surely the palace collects the baubles.”
“Not so. My beloved spirit guards over them.”
Irilio listened as Matello went on to relate, that for a long while, he found infinite pleasure and comfort in the arms of the naera. In his merriest hours, she gladdened him with her wit and quenched his lust with her body. If ever he was annoyed with earthly trouble, she laid her moist hand upon his brow and charmed the fret and fever entirely away. But one fatal night the young soldier came rushing with quick and irregular steps to the pool. He called the spirit; but—no doubt because there was something unusual and frightful in his tone—she did not answer him.
Sensing his companion’s melancholy, Irilio placed a hand on his shoulder. “What happened?”
“I flung myself down, and washed my hands and bathed my feverish brow in the cool, pure water, but the water shrank away leaving me as feverish as before. Then a mournful sound resounded in the wood. Perhaps it was my lover’s voice or maybe the sighing of the wind. But I heard it still.”
Matello came to a dead pause.
“Why did the water shrink?” inquired the poet.
“Because blood stained my hands!” the soldier said, in a horror-stricken whisper.
Matello looked down at his hands. “My family procured a position for me in the illustrious Ca’Dezer, and I became a cavalryman. That summer I squashed a revolt in The Tangles and trampled a child. Even if my beautiful naera could comfort my sorrow, she could not cleanse my conscience.”
Irilio slid to the edge of the basin. “Did you ever see her again?”
“Once, years ago,” replied his companion. “Isonei appeared as a reflection in the pool turned red from my guilt. I mourn her absence still and come here to make peace. Since that day, my hands have claimed more lives. Such is the burden of a soldier.”
Irilio found a certain charm to the legend. Whether intended or not, he understood the guard’s confession as an apologue. The soothing effects of intercourse with nature in all ordinary cares and griefs were vast, but such mild influences fell short on ruder passions and became altogether powerless against the deadly chill of guilt.
A long time passed in silence as they sat listening to the quiet bubbling of the pool. When at last Irilio spoke, he did so quietly. “I suppose she will curse me for my ill-begotten offering.”
The soldier picked up his helm and stood. He clapped the poet in the back and nodded. “We curse ourselves with bad choices. Please, allow me to escort you. I wouldn’t want you to meet ill before you have had the chance to pen my story.”
The two men walked away from the pool. Outside the temple, Irilio looked back. The Song of Isonei had a nice ring to it.
Isaiah, one of our readers, wrote the actual words of the ballad, and…it’s amazing! I’m humbled, thank you.
SONG OF ISONEI
by Isaiah Joel Oakley Le Istya
A child in a golden wood hears a song,
and listens to the peaceful melody.
Thither then he follows the voice leading
to the Temple of Zezen, and further,
to the blessed well of fairest Isonei,
Naera of the troth, whose kind voice, as rare
as an addonel’s, sweet and beguiling,
Remanded parental rule and beckoned!
Drawing e’er closer, the boy saw her tail
like endless links o’ fine glittering maille,
And though he knew it not, young Matello,
met his eternal love and truest friend.
At first, they were no more than close playmates,
frolicking in the crystal clear, small pool.
But as the nights turned to more than laughter,
He fell in love with her pure heart and soul!
She loved him back with innocent intent,
They clung to each other from Spring till frost;
Embracing, kissing, laughing–unabashed;
two uniting as one in the blessed font.
She taught him how to call her from the well,
and showered him with cool sparkling dewdrops.
She changed the water as per his liking,
cool in the summer, in the winter, warm.
They made love beneath the tranquil surface,
a refuge deep in winter’s coldest blight
And those “freezing nights” were the most carefree!
Under the paleness of the soft starlight,
she guarded young lovers’ cast-in wishes.
and in each shining bauble sensed intent.
“‘Tis she who curses dishonest unions,”
maidens cried, when they tossed jewels into her lair.
“Bring me luck! Bring me joy! May love be fair!”
Heed our wishes, kind Lady of the Well.
But all good things cannot last forever,
and the long days of bliss came to an end
Or so discovered older Matello,
After he killed an innocent by chance;
a child, trampled to death beneath his horse.
The once smooth water shrank now from his sight.
Despite the great power Isonei had,
she could not cleanse his conscience of the blood.
Softly then, she moaned and withdrew her trust,
gods know what she felt in her broken heart,
when he washed his guilty blood in her font,
Sundering the purity that bound them.
He saw her once more after his misdeed,
on a night o’ so many years ago,
a sad reflection in the blood-stained pool,
His stigma holds them forever apart,
no more would the lovers embrace and laugh,
In Zeren’s temple, the red aftermath,
of soldier’s task, of Matello’s grief,
from which no fair naera can find relief.
But still Matello comes to make his peace,
hoping to, from his guilt, find sweet release.
He waits for Isonei in the shadows,
but will never again see her frolic,
Such is the price of blood on mortal hands.