Alys of the Red Monks

M. T. Ingoldby

To the north of Mt. Be’seda lay a village whose removal from the rest of human life was absolute. This settlement, which even in its native tongue had no name (or need of one), occupied a temperate zone between the jungle at the foot of the mountain and the cold rocky outcrops above. No more than fifty people lived there at a time, farming the slopes and tending the flock till their final day when their spirits joined the deep susurration in the earth and drew smoke from the mountain’s peak. Be’seda was their god, and rituals blossomed in her honor; in the New Season these could take up whole days.

No soul ever left the idyll, or came there, save one: A blind pilgrim named Otto (some said he was immortal) who arrived there at a time no-one could remember and was treated with a wary deference, though more for his habit of muttering and smiling at the moon than for his unusual origin.

One season it so happened that a villager gave birth to a daughter whose father she refused to name, calling it a gift of the mountain. From the outset, the child was noticeably odd, play-fighting with the livestock and spending more time with Otto than was good for her. Rarely was she clean, or quiet, and she rode any creature she could reach hold of. Parenting was carried out by the community, and all noted her resemblance to the blind old man; out loud, however, they called her ‘Alys,’ which means ‘child of the mountain.’

Now we must be content to skip forward many years, to find Alys aged fifteen, standing on the grazing slope beside Otto, her mentor, and the villagers approaching. Three goats have disappeared. Such a thing is almost unheard of; the livestock here did not wander off, for they were treated kindly. Raik, the shaman and Keeper of Stories, declared it a judgment of the mountain; and although no-one was convinced, it was a reason to move past the matter. (By no coincidence is the native word for “crime” the same as their word for “chaos” - unexplained events were an affront to them.)

But only two nights later they awoke to the smell of flames; saw giant beasts ridden by men; heard them scorch the air with howling; watched in helpless horror as the horde laid waste to their shelters and ransacked their reserves and rode off laughing into the jungle.

The people of the village had no enemies in nature; they were vulnerable as children in the face of the attack. An emergency summit was held. All spoke at once; at last Elder Raik knocked his staff on a Be’ka root and called for calm. The horror was over–Be’seda had spoken. Tomorrow they would put aside their normal tasks and carry out the Rite of Mercy. Be’amo, the oldest Elder, nodded his consent, and so it was decided.

The next night, the mood in the village was such that even Otto was affected. He took Alys to a high spot where he could feel the wind, and there he told her, “Raik is a fool. They will come again, now they know we are defenseless. There is a world, Alys, bigger than you can imagine. It has found us at last.” Then he sighed. “Once I could have saved us, driven back those men. Now I am too old.”

Alys said fervently, “You can teach me.”

“It will do more harm than good. A blind man cannot teach you to fight. Not as I once could...

“Long before you were born, I was trained by the Red Monks beyond the mountain, to the south, in a place called Sion. A Red Monk can face down a hundred men without giving a su-leaf of ground. I escaped, but not before I lost my sight.” At this memory, the old man drifted off, and Alys led him down to the village in his daze, which she knew could last for hours. But she would not forget his words.

Two nights later he was proved correct. They came from high up, wielding bright swords, and all the force of an avalanche tore the village into scraps of timber. Not a hut withstood, and pools of blood showed quivering moons before blackening the soil. The hooting receded, became laughter, and again the night was silent.

A figure lay face down in the soil, a stone - his makeshift weapon - still clutched in his hand. It was, of course, the body of old Otto, who was mortal after all.

Alys wept till she was dry. Some tried half-heartedly to move her from Otto’s side but soon gave up. An awning was thrown across a few branches, giving shelter for the night; thus occupied, no one saw Alys creep beyond the confines of the village, breaking precedent with every step, and vanish into the unknown.

***

The journey Alys made, the perils she faced, could fill a thousand pages - I won’t do her the disservice of describing them here. The least of it is she travelled south, around the mountain, climbing trees at the slightest growl or hiss, then rafted down the stream to a river - where she glimpsed her first town, and was not, as is tempting to assume, overcome with shock, but instead filled with wonder; though she mustn't be waylaid, no matter how tempted she was. She would find Sion and enlist the Red Monks, who would remember Otto and be saddened by his death, to avenge him and to save the village from the riders.

One day her raft drew aside a rowboat in which a man was fishing. She asked him the way to Sion. To her relief, he spoke a language similar to her own (although closer to the way Otto spoke it) and pointed to a hill on the horizon, as distant as Be’seda was behind her. She thanked him and pushed off.

The river curved east, so she continued south on foot. The hill was narrower and colder than her home, with lines of white snow marbling the summit. Alys was exhausted before she began the ascent, but her resolve was never firmer.

Perched with ludicrous precarity against a high sheer rock face, half-hidden by blue-white mists, she saw Sion at last: A cluster of wood cabins that were stitched to the cliff by an elaborate system of ropes and pulleys. As she watched a small cubicle dropped swiftly to the ground, no slower than if it had fallen. A guard in scarlet robes stepped out and addressed her. She had her answer rehearsed, highlighting the length of her journey and mentioning Otto’s name twice.

The guard brought her into his box and winched them up to the highest room in the swaying nest. There she was met by a hunched figure whose robes were a deeper shade of red, and whose hair was tied in a long frond that bumped at his ankles when he walked. It was Father Omin himself. He regarded her for a long time before speaking.

“You have come to ask us to defend your village. The Red Monks are not mercenaries. Our ambition is to become ideal warriors, to transcend fear and our physical limits, but not to use that power to an end. It is a spiritual path.”

“And what about loyalty?” said Alys boldly. “Otto of the Red Monks has been killed, and—”

“Loyalty, indeed.” Omin interrupted. “The Order does not forget a traitor, nor forgive one. Your relation to him is plain; it does not count in your favor.” He appeared to consider something beyond what he said next. “Nonetheless you are young, at a good age to begin training, and determined - your journey proves that. You might become one of us.”

“And learn to fight?” said Alys, who spoke the word with reverence.

“And learn not to. A Red Monk would not deign to hurt another person any more than you would trample on an orchid. Anger won’t help you, only dedication, disavowal. Can you accept that?”

Throughout her quest a vision had congealed in her mind’s eye: the riders open-mouthed in fear, crying, toppled from their beasts by a might that resembled less a stranger’s than her own. At once she answered, “Yes.”

***

With no further ceremony, she was initiated into the Order. Her sarong was replaced with the orange robes of a novice, then her regimen began. In the scree-filled basin below the swinging shelters was a training ground ringing twenty-four hours a day with the clap and thud of monks dodging, parrying and spinning their staffs against a variety of moving obstacles, and the endless hum of others deep in grueling meditations, balanced on fingers or hanging by their toes like fruit bats from the rock face. Her fellow monks were not unfriendly, but frightening in their devotion. Some wore masks made of tree bark, and she had no way of knowing if the same monks wore them each time.

Sparring left her bruised from head to foot, which only made her more determined; every blow she countered was a rider’s sword, every blow that landed brought to mind her family, and how they must be suffering. Her reflexes quickened, her skin grew tougher to the touch, and she noted with steely pride that her blows had more power and landed more often, and the thought of herself at home, or on the raft, was like the memory of a dream of an old childhood friend.

In time, she was invited to back to Father Omin’s chamber. She entered at sundown; Omin was inside, and another man, extremely dirty, dressed (if that is the appropriate word) in rags, and fighting hoarsely with the gag across his mouth. He looked to have been beaten. Omin said to Alys “Kill him.”

Frozen to the spot, she asked why. The Father stayed silent. She refused; now Omin asked why. “I cannot kill a man,” she said, “who I do not hate.”

Omin sighed, without anger. “You are still afraid. This I foresaw. Please, drink.” Here he proffered a vial of clear liquid. “Sleep now. Continue your training at sunrise.”

She drank and was immediately drowsy. The bunk was soft, and when she awoke all was darkness, and she screamed.

***

Far away to the north, times were changing fast. The riders had now tasted the Be’ka root (which grew in only three other parts of the world) and saw in it the makings of their fortune.

In exchange for ‘protection,’ the villagers were obliged to focus all their efforts on harvesting as much Be’ka root as possible. Failure to provide sufficient numbers would result in further persecution. Raik and many others devoted themselves to the task, ordaining it the will and judgment of the mother mountain. But a few recognized a day would come when the region was picked clean, and in the Old Season none more would grow.

One of these people was Iga, Alys’ mother, who covertly roused support for the idea, vague as yet, of a rebellion. Simm the carpenter, who had once disturbed the cubs of a sleeping jaguar, was one of the first to join her. He demonstrated in a secret lesson how he’d fended off the beast, and those who watched him practiced the gesture, doubtfully at first, but with mounting confidence. Before long, preparations were made for an unprecedented act of resistance.

***

It was clear now why Otto fled, but Alys wouldn’t echo his escape. Without her sight, she was more vulnerable than ever - no use at all against rider or beast. The other Monks at Sion were instructed (or so it seemed) to target her with newfound cruelty. Time and again her feet were swept up from under her, and she felt a staff’s end on her throat. All that stood against abject despair was the faith that her sight if it could be stolen, could also be restored.

Eventually, her chance came. At midnight, she was summoned once again to Father Omin’s chamber. “The Order is not without enemies,” he told her there. “Today we have discovered their hideout. You must go there at once, leave no-one alive, and your eyes will be returned to you.” Alys thanked him and bowed. “This time you will not hesitate,” said Omin.

An eyeless mask was lent her for the mission, then she was tied into a harness, lying face down. A rush of speed, the wind in her robes, then she sensed a sudden great distance below her, heard the taut fabric above her snatch a current. In calmer air, she sensed, or thought she did, another craft like hers in the wind behind her.

After a night and a day, her transport swooped and settled in the branches of a small tree. No sooner had her feet reached the earth that an arm knocked against her, weakly but with plain intent. She swung - her blade unsheathed in that motion - felt the figure drop without a sound. Then more blows followed like the first, all earning the same fate. Her lethal jabs and pirouettes were second nature; behind the mask, she thought of nothing, saw only red, until at last, she heard nothing but the soft stirrings of nature. As her breathing slowed, a voice by her ear said, “You have done well. Drink this.”

Alys removed her mask and drank the vial that was put into her hand. At once her vision cleared, and she recognized the light, the air, the dappled earth, and many of the bodies now stretched upon it - all of them dead. Some were riders, most were not. The voice of Father Omin whispered to her,

“Now you are free. All greatness lies ahead of you. Welcome, child of the mountain, to the Order of the Red Monks.”


About the Author

M. T. Ingoldby works as a copywriter in the UK. His stories have appeared in Litro, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Lowestoft Chronicle, The Next Review, Existere, Octavius Magazine, Crimson Streets, Story and Grit, and one or two anthologies, working his way up to a novel. He is an active member of the Waterloo Theatre Group and a keen runner. He currently lives in London.