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The Sleepers of Saint Garfir


by josephinefarine

--------

Hours dragged on. Beyond the grimy windows of the bus, the sky was awash in striking summer shades. Crimson and orange. Miphie tried as best she could to relax into the scratchy upholstery. The landscape ambled by in miles of golden patchwork. Field, orchard, field, orchard, field, and so on. Outside Altador’s capital, the scenery quickly became rural, and the further they erred from the coast, the denser this quilt of farmland grew. Miphie could see the beginnings of a shadowy forest in the distant hills. They were inching towards Saint Garfir.

     “The first trees to grow sick were deep in the forest,” said Vaso, seated beside her. “Farmer Elio was the one who brought it up at the town hall meeting this past spring. From up in the hills, he could see that one or two of the taller oaks in the woods were steadily becoming ashy, losing their normal red and yellow colours. We figured that it was just a tree reaching the end of its life, but then, a few weeks later, we began noticing more, all near those original sick trees.”

     “The epicentre of the disease?” asked Miphie.

     “That’s what I was thinking, and it makes sense, but the problem was that we couldn’t step foot into the woods to see what was happening.” The Gelert paused and stretched his leg to the bench across the aisle. The bus was totally empty, and Miphie wondered if those outside Saint Garfir had any notion as to what was happening. “Then… around the same time, we saw more trees start to become that ashy colour, some of the people living closest to the woods became very tired.”

     “Tired?”

     “That’s… not quite the best word to describe it. An odd, spell-like sleepiness. I heard it felt like sinking into a cold stream. Becoming really tired and lethargic, and then having a difficult time staying awake before inevitably falling into a… corpse-like slumber.”

     Miphie felt the blood drain from her cheeks. She couldn’t bring herself to form the question resting like a stone at the tip of her tongue.

     “Twenty-two, so far,” Vaso whispered hoarsely, who knew her too well, who realized what she was trying to, but could not, utter. “Twenty-two asleep, more fighting for lucidity. People are afraid to fall asleep. Even me: it’s ridiculous, but for weeks I’ve been forcing back my yawns because… My… my grandma also caught it.”

     Miphie heard herself make a shuddering “oh” sound. Vaso’s shoulders were hunched with tension, the bags under his eyes revealing violet undertones. She wanted to comfort him. She placed an awkward hand on his shoulder and dropped it again.

     Since moving to Altador and becoming a full-time magic student, she hadn’t seen much of Vaso, let alone her father or her hometown. Barring the briefest visits during winter and summer breaks, the Draik had slipped out from the safety and community which had made up her childhood. Fondly, she remembered the afternoons Vaso had spent with her, helping around Augusto’s inn, fishing at Meadow Lake, or going on adventures together, pretending to be pirates or heroes from Meridell. He had always been family. The thought lit a soft, quiet sadness in her chest. Now, he had inherited his family’s babaa shepherding practice: and had accepted his established role in the village.

     And, there was something else, too, after Miphie had been accepted into Academia. A cooling down of affection, a distance, growing millimetre by millimetre every time she came home. A scent of envy in the air, that she should have been so lucky to move to the capital, and that he should stay behind. But he had his part to play in Saint Garfir, and not for the first time, Miphie wondered if she still belonged there too.

     But if she didn’t quite fit into Saint Garfir, and if she didn’t quite belong at Academia Magika, then where did that leave her?

     “I think the magic in the forest is out of sorts, and because you’ve always been so good with plants…” Vaso let the suggestions hover in the air. Suffocating. Miphie turned away from him. She pressed her forehead against the cool of the window.

     ⁂ ⁂ ⁂

     Away from the ocean and its sea breeze, inland Altador was an oven set to broil. The sun had nearly completed its vibrant tableau by the time they came to a halt on the outskirts of Saint Garfir. The night was slow to fall in the summer. The heat lingered, reluctant to dissipate even hours after the sun had settled beyond the horizon. Miphie hopped off the bus, and the hot, dry air instantly clung to her clothes and parched her scales. Vaso followed behind.

     Silhouetted in this twilight, Saint Garfir was still. The bus stop at the top of the hill was a short distance from the town square, and Miphie could hear the faint burbling of a fountain. Further away, narrow cobbled roads snaked in this or that direction, taking its travellers to the local farms and fields that skirted the hamlet’s edges. Two blocks from the town square, a three-story building cast an inviting glow from its windows. Even from their vantage point on the hill, Miphie could pick out the smell of warm bread in the air. And all around, acting as a barricade cutting the village off from the rest of the world, was the forest. Its shadow loomed behind every home, creating a near-perfect circle confining Saint Garfir.

     Observing the scene below, a weight seemed to settle at the bottom of her lungs. Miphie was disquieted. After months spent in the capital, the sudden silence that permeates provincial life felt strange and dreamlike. She would have liked to return home under more optimistic conditions.

     While Vaso went to fetch his bags from the bus, Miphie adjusted her own satchel, still heavy with her textbooks, and set out for the town square. Her footsteps resonated distantly on the cobblestones. Miphie did not remember Saint Garfir ever being this dormant, much less on such a pleasant summer evening. The houses emitted soft light from their windows, but she saw no one outside. A couple of shadows shifted behind curtains as she moved past.

     “Mostly everyone has stayed inside for the last few weeks,” said Vaso. He followed closely behind her, but Miphie had trouble finding his gaze in the approaching darkness. “To stop the spread.”

     “Is it contagious?”

     “The doctors aren’t sure yet. Best to be safe.”

     Miphie had the unnerving impression of being a foreigner travelling along unfamiliar roads. But then, Miphie supposed she really hadn’t seen Saint Garfir since late summer of the previous year, before the start of her third year at school. A storm had blown over Altador that winter, preventing her from returning home during the Month of Celebrating school break.

     If main street left her feeling unbalanced, then arriving in the town square produced outright vertigo. Last year, Augusto had thrown a party here on the eve of her departure back to Academia to celebrate her matriculation into the ranks of magi. The entire hamlet had gathered that night. Young neopians had splashed in the fountain, and the warm night air had been filled with fiddle music and the honey-sweet scent of fresh baklava. She and Vaso had climbed onto the roof of the municipal centre, laughing at the revelry below and gazing at the constellations above. Here was the hub of town, lively early in the morning and late into the night. The weekly market gathered around the fountain on Saturdays. Local accordion players filled the air with music on summer afternoons, and at night, paper lanterns were hung around the plaza to celebrate the coming harvest festivals.

     Tonight, beneath the moon’s glow, the fountain was abandoned. A lone draphly fluttered around the only lamppost in the square.

     Miphie pressed on. They passed the municipal centre—locked up and dark—and hurried towards the Sleepy Aroota Inn.

     When they pushed through the inn’s large, arching doorway, Miphie and Vaso were greeted by a dark foyer and warm, tepid summer air. Usually alight with people and music, Miphie had never seen this place so void of life.

     She didn't bother feeling for a lightswitch. The kitchen entrance was tucked behind the stout wooden stage at the back of the tavern, and the Draik went directly towards it, skirting between rustic pinewood tables and simple stools, so unchanged from her childhood. She felt Vaso close behind.

     Past the door, the kitchen was aglow with light from the wood oven. A tray of steaming olive loaves rested atop the kitchen’s broad pinewood table, central in the space. Amid the scent of fresh bread and warm wood, a wrought-iron chandelier adorned with candles cast an inviting glow against the walls. The earthenware dishes, the jars of preserved food, the woven baskets and hanging bundles of dried herbs and garlic all seemed frozen in time, a permanent fixture since childhood. Miphie had spent most of her young life here, at the heart of the inn, with Augusto. This place, at least, was exactly as she had left it last summer. She ran her hand along the rough stone on the walls, and felt the uneven terracotta floor beneath her feet.

     At Academia Magika, everything was grand and elegant. The school’s pale stone fixtures, ornate archways, and soaring ceilings oozed with a rich history. They all made her feel so small. The legacy built into the school was greater than the permanence of any of its students. But here, in Augusto’s kitchen, the stone walls were not cold, but warm, imbued with a sense of laughter and community. There was a return to simplicity. To practicality.

     And here was Augusto, slumped over the table.

     “Augusto!” Her voice was raw in her throat. Her breath caught in her lungs. “PAPÀ!” Augusto was a Silver Kougra, with a luxurious grey beard and equally luxurious eyebrows. He was built like a barge, and the solid heart and soul of Saint Garphir.

     She had never seen him like this. Sallow, thin, his beard white in places, he was unrecognizable. He could have been napping if not for the unusual and uncomfortable-looking manner in which he was sprawled out on the table. It looked as though he had suddenly, and without much forethought, passed out.

     So this was the curse. She touched his brow: it was ice cold. Miphie felt a flutter of panic throughout her body. This was what it looked like, to have one’s life force sucked from them. She hit and shook his sleeping form with increasing urgency. Vaso, ever the resourceful one, had the foresight to fill a carafe with water from the tap and dump its contents directly onto the Kougra.

     Finally, Augusto opened a single glazed, green eye, and calmly considered the Draik shaking his broad shoulders.

     “Most of them are like this,” said Vaso, “lethargic. And, there’s this.” He gestured at something small and green growing from the table. Miphie hadn’t noticed them before: delicate sprouts with frost-green leaves and spindly stems emerged from the woodwork. From far away, she might have mistaken the growth for moss. Miphie counted only a handful at first, but as her perception widened, she realized the kitchen was teaming with them. Anything made of wood seemed to be affected by this blight. A good many appeared to be gathering around Augusto.

     Miphie covered her nose and mouth with her sleeve and took a closer look. In her herbology class, her professor had warned his students not to breathe the air around unidentified plants or fungi so as not to inhale any spores or pollen. Yet Miphie did not see any pollen in the air, nor could she identify any flowers. The shoots were too freshly sprouted to carry any identifiable features. Everything about these little plants was unremarkable.

     Bright fear closed around her ribcage.

     “Well, this growth is definitely connected to the disease,” she said, attempting to inject some confidence into her voice. Vaso had asked for her help, hoping that her expertise in botany might find the cure. The truth was, Miphie did not have the first idea of what these plants were or how they were causing this languor. She felt she was already letting everyone down.

     She gathered samples of the plant in a kitchen towel anyway. That seemed like the professional thing to do. She tried not to look at her father.

     Vaso gave a small cough and Miphie grit her teeth. She knew what he would ask.

     “Is there… Do you think there’s anything you can do? For him?”

     Miphie stopped gathering her plants. She made herself turn, slowly, to face Augusto, whom Vaso was helping to sit up.

     “I don’t—” she began to say. Wait. Wasn’t there…? Surely it couldn’t work, surely she hadn’t thought to… The Draik hurried towards her shoulder bag, which she had dropped onto a bench near the entrance to the kitchen. Surely not. She reached into the side pocket, feeling for what she was certain not to have possibly brought with her: and then she felt it. Her hand closed delicately around the prize.

     “You have medicine?” said Vaso, rising from his seat.

     “No. I mean, not yet. Maybe. I have a mushroom.” Yesterday, mere hours before Presentation Day, she had plucked an Earth Faerie Mushroom from the school courtyard. In her hand, the fungus was a little worse for wear—a little dried up—but it still appeared relatively fresh.

     An odd silence draped itself like a blanket over the kitchen. Miphie began rummaging through the cupboards and cabinets, feeling Vaso and Augusto’s eyes on her back. Eventually, she found a stone mortar and pestle behind a stack of measuring cups. With shaking hands, the Draik pulled the cap from its stem. She had not brought her Herbology notes with her. Still, she remembered that Earth Faerie Mushroom caps carried a potent amount of caffeine, and she knew that they were inedible. Hopefully, her surface knowledge would be enough.

     Adding a little bit of water to the mortar, Miphie ground the mushroom into a clotted paste, and the heavy stillness which had settled in the room was punctured by the light scraping of stone against stone. The resulting puree was greyish-brownish with an earthy odour. It needed something more. “Vaso, can you make some tea?”

     Obediently, Vaso did as he was told. He plucked a canister of green tea from the pantry and put the kettle on the stove. When the tea was ready, she added a teaspoon to her mushroom paste.

     Everyone held their breath. Miphie gingerly applied the pomade to the area under Augusto’s eyes.

     “The mushroom is very high in caffeine,” she explained. “And the green tea should hopefully lengthen its effects.” The unvarnished truth was that Miphie had no idea if this makeshift cream would work, or if it could even be absorbed. She was operating on guesswork alone. Her throat suddenly felt very tight.

     But Augusto’s eyes, which had been so dewy and so lost, regained a flicker of light. His breathing, deep and slow moments ago, became lighter. A small smile tickled the corners of his lips.

     “You’re here.”

     His voice was so small. Miphie’s breath hitched in her throat. His voice had lost all of its strength, but its warmth, its rolling, earthy, musical quality, so deep, so emblematic of Southern Altador, was still there.

     His voice was Home.

     Before she realized what was happening, Miphie was in his arms, hiccuping, tears bubbling up from her eyes in great heaving sobs.

     Home, home, home.

     ⁂ ⁂ ⁂

     When the tears were all dried up and the breathing even, Miphie lingered in his hug, reluctant to let go. “I’m here,” she said. She was relieved to feel the gradual return of his strength, first in his breathing, then in the grip of his arms embracing her.

     “Why didn’t you stay in the city? Did you receive my letter?” he finally asked.

     Vaso, who had been lingering in a state of quasi-relief and self-consciousness by the fireplace, pulled the beanie from his head. His pointed, speckled ears sprang up like two blades of grass. The gesture looked rather sheepish.

     “I asked her to come back,” he said. “It seemed like the only thing I could do.”

     The Silver Kougra shifted to look down at Miphie. “But school, your final exams…”

     “It’s alright,” said Miphie, “they know what happened.” Her life as a student had been doomed from the moment she’d stepped onto that bus. She might as well have destroyed every plant in the school conservatory and burned every book in a great bonfire outside the library, the repercussions would have been no less severe. And Miphie had made her decision. And her decision quivered, but she held fast. All this, her father must never know.

To be continued…

 
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