The Mirror of Aelitz
Ellen Terris Brenner
Is true wisdom a knowledge of the outside world, or of the world within one's self?
The tale comes to us from the Younger Days of a small but prosperous kingdom, nestled in a valley of the Cloud Mountains, and bearing the name Aelitz. Its people were strong, and its rulers wise; but the true source of Aelitz's prosperity (so all the countries around them believed) was a magical mirror of great antiquity.
Many tales coalesced around this mirror. It was said that it had fallen like a star from the skies in the Dawn Days, when the Earth was new; when the First Woman found it, she was so moved by what she saw in it that the tears she shed became all the lakes and rivers and seas of the world. It was also told that when the Second Woman stole the mirror for her own, what she then saw therein caused her to tear open her throat with her own hands, birthing all the animals of the air and the earth from her blood.
And many other such tales were told about this mirror, some of which held more truth than their tellers realized. But only the monks, who kept the mirror safe in their abbey overlooking Aelitz, were allowed to look in it. And whenever they were asked about the mirror, they only smiled.
King Jeil of the neighboring country of Rigad envied the success of Aelitz. His people were diligent, and he considered himself an accomplished warrior and ruler, but his country remained poor and struggling. So Jeil swore to get the secret of the mirror of Aelitz for himself, one way or another.
He dressed in pilgrim's garb, put plain harness on his best traveling steed, and rode with a small retinue to the monastery of Aelitz. There he beat on the great oaken door with the stone club he found standing by the doorpost, and waited impatiently.
The monk who opened the door looked at him with ancient eyes that were not in the least surprised to see him. "All hail, King Jeil of Rigad," she greeted him, "and blessings on the land over which you rule."
"All hail, Your Holiness," replied Jeil, annoyed that the monk had recognized him. "I have come to learn wisdom of the mirror in your possession."
"Nobody possesses the mirror," said the monk, smiling. "We are merely its guardians. And as such, I fear we must turn down your request."
"I am willing to undergo the proper initiation," stammered the king, unused to being refused anything.
"It would be no use for you to do that," said the monk, "for your intention is wrong."
"My intention is to improve the lot of my people," said Jeil, growing angry.
The monk smiled again, not unkindly. "The instrument with which you beat on our door is not meant as a door-knocker, but is a pestle with which we grind spices for our ritual incense." And Jeil looked, and was mortified to see brown resins clinging to the stone pestle, and smeared on the door where he had struck it.
"Why do you wish to look into ancient mysteries," asked the monk, "when you have yet to learn to look at the world around you?"
"How can I hope to learn if you will not teach me?" shouted King Jeil, but the monk had already closed the door.
Enraged, the king took his retinue away from that place and hid them in the wild woods of the mountainside. At midnight he rode back to the monastery, his horse's hooves and harness muffled in strips of cloth. Nobody stirred to stop him as he scaled the monastery walls, crept amongst the sleeping huts, and slipped inside the chapel. There in an alcove hung the mirror, a mere two hands' breadth wide, covered by a dense dark cloth. For a second he hesitated, surprised to find himself questioning his resolve. Then he shook off his doubt, seized the mirror and thrust it in his satchel. He was away and over the wall and spurring his horse before he could think one more thought about his deed.
His retinue joined him at their appointed rendezvous, and together they thundered for the border, looking over their shoulder all the while for signs of pursuit.
Meanwhile the monks, all of whom had been awake the whole time, rose ten minutes after Jeil's trespass and rang the great bell in the midst of their compound. The sound of it filled the entire valley of Aelitz. Every mother's child of that kingdom, from the smallest gooseherd to the aged King bolted out of bed, crying "The mirror! The gods save the mirror!"
The King's champion, Fatila, also leapt out of bed. Cursing, she ran to the stables with her long dark hair streaming unbound behind her, clutching sword in one hand, boots in the other. The yard teemed with still-awakening creatures -- soldiers, stablehands, and horses -- all stomping and crying after their kind, as the great bell continued to toll.
Fatila mounted her great war steed with a heavy heart. She had won many glories in war and in sword duels, and defied death many times. But for the past three moons she had been plagued with dreams of disaster, and she wondered now if this was not her death come at last. Her gloom only increased when a runner came from the monastery saying it was Jeil of Rigad who had brazenly stolen the treasure of Aelitz. She needed no mirror to tell her that many lives would be lost before one such as Jeil would admit defeat.
Fatila led the first pursuit party, with more horsetroops following swiftly behind. All of them knew the narrow mountain roads like the faces of their father and mother.
But so did Jeil and his band, and with their slim lead they stayed ahead of their pursuit, arriving safely at the great stone walls of their home city by dawn.
No sooner was Jeil's party within the city gate than the king wheeled on his sweat-drenched mount and cried out: "Close and bolt all the gates! Prepare for battle!" Soldiers stumbled out of barracks to the sound of trumpets and drums, and lined the walls with the implements of war. When Fatila crested the hill overlooking the great main gate of Rigad, her heart sank within her to see the walled city-state already primed for siege. There was nothing more she could do but wait for the rest of her troops to arrive, and prepare for a long bitter struggle.
Within the walls of Rigad, word quickly spread that their king had successfully captured the pride of Aelitz. Every soul, whether soldier or citizen, was alight with exultation. "The mirror! Glory to the mirror!" was the cry from battlement and square. Meanwhile, King Jeil had gone straight to his chambers and locked himself in alone with the mirror.
Many times during his flight had he thought to doubt his impetuous action. Aelitz, after all, was mighty in war and had a great champion in Fatila, and his country, being poor, might come to great harm in a siege. But then he would slide a hand down to feel the prize in his satchel, and all his doubts would scatter like the gravel under his horse's hooves. The mirror would make all right. The mirror would show him what to do.
Now he hung the mirror on the wall of his chamber, paused a moment to catch his breath, and then snatched away the relic's protective cloth. He was startled to see how plain it was. Its frame was unpainted wood, smoothed in the manner of driftwood from the far oceans. The reflective surface seemed neither glass nor metal but some other, darker substance he could not name. Images swirled below that surface. The images drew him closer.
He looked in.
He saw the birth of this world, and the worlds that lived and died before this one. He saw the nativities of the gods; he saw the nests that hatched the stars. He saw First and Second Woman arise from the mud in which the gods had sown them, to join in their primal sororal struggles at the Dawn of our world. He saw their blood and tears intermingle to give rise to all living creatures, and their wombs (alive and dead) give birth to the tribes of humanity and of the spirit world. He saw the human generations rise, one after another, loving and fighting, mating and killing, all unconscious of the consequences of their actions. And he saw the gods walking among them, sometimes recognized but more often completely unknown, and his heart quailed within him to imagine what the Eternal Ones must think of these sad, unmindful lives. And then it was as if the mirror were an eye looking back into his eyes, into his own soul, and he had no excuse to offer its implacable gaze.
When at last he looked away, he was surprised to see the morning sun still shining into his chamber.
He walked to the window, feeling very much older, and with a pang looked down on the hundreds of soldiers, his own and those of Aelitz, which his folly had summoned here to kill each other. War songs celebrating the mirror rose from his troops on the clear morning air, full of the spirit of conquest. War songs of righteous anger rose in response from the troops outside the walls. And there, on the ridge overlooking the Great Gate, rode a woman with long dark hair like a flag on the wind -- Fatila, who never turned away.
He saw that there was no longer any way to capitulate without sparking either a rout or a riot. There was only one way left at this point, and he had brought it on himself.
Fatila was conferring with her generals over the reports from their scouts when a shout drew her attention to the Great Gate. The portals had opened a crack to let someone slip out: an unarmed youth in green, the color of parley. He stepped forward and handed a scroll to an Aelitzian captain, who came quickly riding up the hill with it to Fatila. She felt her generals' eyes bore into her as she read it, even as the words likewise stabbed into her soul. Finally she spoke:
"Jeil proposes a fair fight. He and I. To the death. Winner to take the mirror, loser's side to withdraw unharmed."
"It's a trick. He's learned arcane fighting skills from the mirror," said one general.
"You cannot learn such things from the mirror," said another.
"How do you know?" snapped Fatila. "Do any of you know what the mirror's powers are in the first place?" The generals fell silent. She stared at them all, realizing that this question had been boiling up in her for some hours now.
"Just so," she spoke more gently, so that her generals now stared at her in turn. "None of us know. Strange, that our homeland had held this object sacred for all these years, and yet nobody has a blessed idea what it means. Even we, who lead our people to die for it."
"Blasphemy--" muttered one general.
"Enough." Fatila's voice grew hard again. "As I said, we do not know what Jeil could or could not have learned from the mirror. There are only two things we do know for certain. One, that a siege would be the ruin of both kingdoms. And two, that a duel might be the salvation of at least one."
She spurred her horse, then, and left her generals gaping as she rode down to the gate. The two armies on either side of their wall sent up terrible battle shouts as heralds cried out the terms of the fair fight.
When Jeil rode out from the gate, Fatila barely recognized him -- he looked like a man who had awakened from a fever dream. Without a word, he dismounted and strode to a nearby tree; over a branch he slung a satchel that sagged with the weight it carried. He stepped away, and waited.
Fatila gestured, and from amongst her soldiers emerged one of the monks from the monastery. Calmly he approached the tree, opened the satchel, and looked under the cloth shrouding the object within. "It is the mirror," he announced in a clear voice. His smile seemed to strike Jeil like a blow.
The armies grew silent as the two combatants faced each other, swords drawn, bodies still. Something in Jeil's eyes made Fatila catch her breath: this was a man who had seen premonitions of his death, just as she had seen foreshadowings of her own.
Then with a whirl and clash of steel on steel, it was begun.
The armies found their voices again and made the mountains ring with their cries. Back and forth on the grass the swordfighters strode, matching each other move for move. It seemed they were more perfectly matched than any two warriors had ever been. Wherever one swung or thrust, the other's blade was there to meet it, and neither was succeeding in getting so much as a nick on the other's armor. The armies shouted again and again; never had anyone seen its like, and each onlooker began to feel even a grudging admiration for their enemy's champion, so wonderful was the fighting.
But as the minutes wore on, and grew to an hour, and then two, the cries of the onlookers faded again, replaced by mutterings of dread. No normal warriors could carry on a fight this long, and still move with such grace and ferocity.
Fatila heard the mutterings as if from very far away. In every duel she had ever fought, she had reached a brief peak of transport, in which she and her sword were one, singing through the air, a perfect balance of forces striking home. In every previous duel that peak had lasted at most a few minutes, more often only seconds, before she and her blade found their opponent's heart. Now the transport was continuing for unimaginable lengths of time. In fact, she had lost track of time. All she knew was the singing blades, his and hers, and his eyes that had lost all fear of death, and her heart whose fear had likewise vanished. She felt that she might take a blade in her own breast this time and bless it for a worthy death.
But then, she felt herself transcending even this heightened battle transport. As their blades continued to dance, she thought she could hear the singing of gods and stars as they had sung at the moment of their birth. As their feet trampled the sward to dust, she felt them moving in the primal dance of love and hate between First and Second Woman. As she looked deep into her adversary's eyes she could see all the sorrow of the ages for the forgetful generations of humanity. And his eyes looked deep into her own also, and she could not hide her soul from him.
Three full hours they fought, neither gaining the advantage, and then at last they paused, facing each other. Their mortal fatigue was finally overwhelming whatever power had borne the both of them this long. At this point, the duel would no longer be decided by the most skillful play of sword, but by the blunderings of exhaustion.
Then, breaking into a frightening smile, Jeil planted his sword point-first into the now-dusty ground, and knelt beside it in concession.
As the Aelitzian army broke out in cheers and the Rigadians in wails of grief, Fatila looked on the surrendering king with sorrow such as she had never felt before.
"I cannot kill you," she said.
"But you must." He looked up at her, still smiling that terrible smile, eyes flooded with tears. "I beg you."
"Forfeit his life to us."
They both turned, startled, to find themselves looking into the serene countenance of the monk. He already wore the satchel over his shoulder. "It was us he wronged," said the monk. "It is we who should decide how best to dispose of him."
Fatila nodded, incapable of speech.
In short order Jeil was mounted on a horse with his wrists bound to the pommel. Fatila watched as he rode away, led by the monk and a detachment of soldiers back to the monastery. He looked back at her once. And then he was gone.
There followed much conferring of emissaries and diplomats, and many careful and tactful speeches, until eventually Rigad was left in the charge of Jeil's younger sister and a regent. Both armies withdrew without further incident, and so ended the war -- but not our tale.
When the party accompanying Jeil arrived at the monastery, the monk dismissed the soldiers and led Jeil in alone. He then dismounted from his own horse, took a knife from his belt, and cut the ropes that bound the vanquished king.
Jeil gaped at him. "What do you mean by this?"
"I am disposing of you. Your old life is hereby over and dead. You are now a monk of this order."
"But I violated every aspect of your order."
"I will admit," smiled the monk, "that yours was not the usual way of initiation into the use of the mirror. But then, as one of us told you, we do not possess the mirror, we are only its guardians. This is neither the first nor the last time that it has chosen its own initiates, in its own way and time."
It was only a day later that the monastery received another visitor: Fatila, also seeking initiation. She too was told she had already been initiated by the mirror, having seen its reflection in Jeil's eyes. Eventually Jeil and Fatila became the abbot and abbess of the monastery, and the prosperity of both their homelands became the stuff of legends.
But as to the mirror, it is now lost to us, as is so much of the wisdom of the Younger Days.
Ellen Terris Brenner (email@example.com) is (in no particular order of importance) a writer, computer geek, les/bi/gay/trans community activist, Unitarian minister, singer, Clarion West alumna, and newbie air-cooled VW camper enthusiast. She lives in Seattle with an obstreperous cat named Jimmy Dean, the Rebel Without a Clue.
InterText stories written by Ellen Terris Brenner: "Home" (v4n1), "Gone" (v6n2), "The Mirror of Aelitz" (v7n2).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 7, Number 2 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1997 Ellen Terris Brenner.