The Worldkeeper’s Circlet

by Arwen Spicer

Have you heard the tale of the Worldkeeper’s Circlet, my daughters and my sons? Of course you have. Well, I’ll remind you of it, shall I?

Long ago, the world of Onáda was kept by an aged lady called Aféya Lelfeylénta, whose only child was dead. So she was required to choose an heir before retiring into hermitage.

And yet, she thought, I must not choose in haste but be certain as bedrock that she who follows me will be the worthiest of keepers for Onáda-world .

So she announced to all that world a contest: whoever would follow her as worldkeeper must journey to the most ancient of tech-centers, the one in gargantuan Melnar-city, and bring to the Lady Aféya the most precious thing it contained.

Now in Crabgrassplains-town, far away in the east, there dwelt twin sisters alike in looks yet unalike. It was said one sister’s hair shone black as space, the other’s black as wet earth. That was the very shade of the difference. So, in mind, the two girls differed, Sómanel gazing ever at books and Érynel ever down into the grass.

“I will go to the tech-center,” said Sómanel. “I have been schooled at the great university at Melnar and know much of the worlds and history. Surely, I would make a fine worldkeeper.”

Érynel watched a slug trail over a stone. Sómanel must be right, she thought. She is wise and learned. Yet it seems to me a worldkeeper should want first to keep the world. Sómanel loves her books so much — perhaps I have more love left over to give the living-land than she.

Aloud, she said, “Sister, I think I’ll go with you, since the contest is open to all.”

Sómanel smiled like a knowing lady. “Then come, my sister. I have nothing to lose and would gladly gain the pleasure of your company.”

Upon their friend-horse, Korer, they rode westward to the ocean. There they crossed in a watership to Tánsien-continent, and thence, rode again across the grasslands, until they came to the metropolis of Melnar.

Its buildings, like massive termites’ nests, stretched up from grass to sky. There, Érynel beheld more people than she had ever guessed there could be in one place. They teemed in streets and farmed in the fields, as many as fifteen thousands! Inside the buildings, so Sómanel said, they acquired great learning as she had done. At the outskirts of the city lay the spaceport with its vast landing entrance, covered over with grass, that could open to let spaceships from the far worlds land.

At the far end of this landing entrance stood a square, gray building, the oldest on Onáda, where Sómanel now led Érynel, leaving Korer to graze on the yellow plains. On its tall steel doors, words were written in the old letters, those words repeated on every tech-center door, but this was the first, and so in the old letters:

“Let die,” it said.

Érynel shuddered to see them; she did not understand. Sitting below these words was a woman with hair as gray as the steel behind her.

“You have come for the contest.” She did not look up, as if she had no need to see them.

“Yes, Lady,” answered Sómanel. “Will you give us permission to enter?”

“You know well you must answer my questions first,” said the Lady with a smile. “Tell me, what is a tech-center?”

Sómanel answered without hesitation. “It’s a place where the old machines are kept, with the knowledge of how to use them.”

The lady smiled wider, though she never once looked up. “And why do we keep tech-centers?”

Érynel felt she should speak also, since she too wished to enter. Though she was sure Sómanel could speak better, she stammered, “Be-because we need to keep the machines separate from the living-lands, so that we can’t use them to destroy this world as the Old Ones destroyed the Old Home: Daughter.”

“One last question,” the lady said. “Why was the old world called Daughter?”

Érynel glanced at Sómanel, who hesitated only a moment, then said, “All worlds are the daughters of space.”

The lady looked up with green eyes laughing. “That is not the right answer, child, but as your words are not untrue, I cannot bar you from passing.”

With these words, the aged Lady made a sweep with her hand, and the door swung in behind her with a buzz like a bee, only lower.

“I thank you, Lady.” Sómanel bowed and strode past her.

Érynel paused. “What is the right answer, Lady?” she asked.

That you may learn, Earth-child … if you venture on.”

Érynel thanked the lady, as her sister had done, and followed Sómanel into the white-lit gloom. They beheld a vast hall, surrounded by cedar tables. On the tables lay piles of things the like of which Érynel had never imagined.

The old woman stood behind them. “This is the contest. There are no tricks. All that you are permitted to see in this place is here before you. Choose the object most precious.”

Then, Érynel knew that she had lost. How could she choose the most precious of objects, if she didn’t even comprehend what any of them was for? Sómanel was scrutinizing each, one by one. Érynel could only sigh and glance over the array, not to find the most precious now but simply to see what was there: a box, a square, a vial, a glass shard, a piece of twisted metal. How could these objects have any value at all?

Then, in the midst of the dull, white room, a flash of color flamed in her eye: an oval, like a glob of honey but hard and cool as a stone to her fingers. In its center was a spot radiating fine lines, a crack from within. Érynel held up the stone and gazed into it: suspended in the honey-glow was a large mosquito. A mosquito stuck in pitch: that was exactly what it looked like.

“I will take this,” Érynel thought. “I am sure it is not the most precious of objects, but it is the most precious to me.”

She placed the stone in her pocket.

“I am ready to go,” said Sómanel. She was holding a small, gray rectangle.

The old woman nodded and ushered them out and closed the door behind them.

The sisters rode, then, far to the north upon Korer. When they came to the sea, the three of them crossed on a watership to Lénien-continent.

They came, finally, to the woodland of Kórfyntan, where the Worldkeeper has ever dwelt. Through a parting of oaks gleamed the white and gold hall of the Lady Aféya, its domed roof blazing moonlike with the fire of the day-star. Beholding the hall, shining high on the crest of a gradual slope, each sister marveled that any dared dwell in a house so unhidden. Such is the burden of Worldkeeping: to be forever watched and watching, and it was to claim this burden the sisters had come.

When they rapped the high-arched door, a serving man answered and bade them follow through dark corridors, until they came to a room with a semi-circle wall and a window looking out brightly on the woods.

There they sat and waited, until an aged lady came, and the lady was Aféya. They didn’t know this from her deep-lined face, no likeness of which they had ever seen, but from glittering of finely ground crystals on the Worldkeeper’s gown, in the hues of autumn leaves.

She sat before them. “You are not the first to come, but no other has fulfilled what I demanded. Let us see if you are different.”

“Lady,” said Érynel, speaking up shyly, “I am sure I’ve not brought the most precious of things but, before my sister claims the prize, I would show you what I found while you have eyes to spare for me.”

Aféya nodded, and Érynel held out her golden mosquito stone.

“It’s pretty, is it not?” she said.

Silence stretched for several moments. Then Aféya murmured, “Pretty? Is that why you brought this thing to me?”

Érynel feared she’d made some grave mistake. “Forgive me. I brought it because it was the only object I understood: the mosquito was once a living thing, and that in itself is precious.”

The Worldkeeper smiled stiffly and turned to Sómanel, but Érynel’s sister was looking away, her head bowed close over the piece of the metal she had brought as her own solution. “Child?” At the Worldkeeper’s voice, Sómanel started and stared. “And what have you brought to match the choice of your sister?”

Sómanel opened her mouth and closed it. “I cannot match it,” she stammered. “Érynel holds the most precious thing that a tech-center might present us.”

“Truly? And why do you say so?”

“Because it is of the … Mother-world,” answered Sómanel. She hesitated just like that over the word.

“The Mother-world? What is that?” asked Érynel. “I’ve only ever heard of the world called Daughter.”

“I hardly know,” said Sómanel. “I myself have only heard of it now.”

“How,” Érynel was saying, “could you have learned such a thing just now, sitting here?”

Somanel raised her square of metal. “From this databook,” she said. “I looked up insects in pitch, and it tells me. . . it tells me they come of Mother.”

“It speaks the truth.” Aféya’s eyes glinted. “Now, Sómanel, read for us what you have read.”

Sómanel gazed down at the square, which, Érynel now saw, flickered with light like the evening sky through fog. She read, “When our ancestors colonized Daughter-world, they brought with them relics from the Mother-world before. Among these relics were the preserved remains of various organisms that were part of the evolutionary lineage of that world. Among the best-preserved were certain insects suspended in hardened pitch called amber. Some of these insects were as much as 400 million standard years old.”

“Four hundred million years!” gasped Érynel. “Why our whole history is no more than some ten thousands!”

“Then,” Sómanel said softly, “this insect you hold, Sister, is older than the oldest of our race. It was born on the world of our evolution. It is a natural-born child of our lost Home.”

Érynel held the golden ball in her hand with the care of one trying to capture a snowflake, and whispered, “A child whose eyes saw the world that made us, the world on which we belonged.”

“Quite so,” said Aféya. “Nobody knows what became of that world, or why our ancestors fled it for Daughter. Each world we’ve gardened since, we have sown with the children of the children of Mother. Yet, to each of these worlds, the living-land clings like lichen on a sunburnt rock, threatening to curl and die. Onáda, this world’s name, means home, but we don’t belong here. Home is a place we will never know, a place we can never go, but Érynel, you speak the truth.” Aféya pointed at the mosquito in her hand. “This one saw it; this one was of it. This child is our last piece of our Mother. There is no object in any tech-center more precious.”

“Sister,” whispered Sómanel, “I must kneel to you, who will be Worldkeeper.” She moved to kneel.

“Wait.” Aféya raised a purple-veined hand. “I’ve called this insect most precious, but an object is precious in two different ways. It’s precious for what it is and for what we think about it. Érynel, who loves life, recognized this dead creature’s worth, but it was Sómanel, who loves knowledge, who could teach us the meaning behind that worth.”

“You are right, Lady,” said Érynel. “It is Sómanel who should keep us.”

Aféya shook her head. “The one cannot keep the world without the other. Love of the living-land and love of learning: both are needed. So, you both must rule together, taking counsel of each other.”

So they did. The mosquito in amber was set inside a silver circlet. Each sister, in turn, wore the circlet on her brow upon days of high honor. So it has been with the Worldkeepers of Onáda, even up to our own day — or nearly.

You are smiling, my children. “What a quaint, old tale,” you say. Is it the truth? Of course it isn’t. It’s a folk tale to teach children why our amber circlet is the proudest of our relics.

Érynel and Sómanel (“Earth-woman” and “Space-woman”) were not the names of real Worldkeepers. You who have examined the histories, you know that they were not. The amber, well, it was probably found by someone in some unimportant year and quite unceremoniously delivered to Kórfyntan as a curio. Probably some unsung scholar from the University — much later — figured out that it had somehow been floating around in the universe for all those millions of years since the little insect’s sticky death on Mother.

That’s probably what happened . . . but what would you say if I were to tell you that the amber circlet never existed?

Your smiles are faltering a little.

“Of course, it existed,” you say. You’ve heard tales of Worldkeepers — real ones in real times — who wore it. Yes, tales, as we know, make for reliable accounts.

But, you say, you’ve seen paintings of Worldkeepers who were wearing. . .? Oh yes, paintings. . . and paintings, of course, always tell the truth.

You think I’m teasing, and with a joke in bad taste. It’s not a joke, my children. There is not one fragment of evidence that any such object was ever found on any of our worlds. In fact, the tale I’ve retold here — a tale very like it has been found in manuscript in the works of Anlla of Hollowbrook, who was the sister, by the way, of Ponéva of Hollowbrook, who wrote the Lament for Mother, which I’m sure you will own is a poem of very similar sensibilities.

Your smiles have faded.

Why so? Does it truly matter, my daughters and sons? None of us have ever seen the thing; does it matter if it never was? If there is no child of Mother left, nothing but the far-flung tendrils of her children’s children’s children to tell us that Mother herself ever truly was?

An object is precious in two different ways: For what we think it is. For what it is.

Do you feel yourself drifting?

Do you feel stranded in space?

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