Amina had never known what ponies meant when they said they were out of breath, until now. Not even the highest dune had made her feel this way. The stairs were steep, too steep, and for someother reason there was no air up here. She had to pause several times while the others kept going.
“We’re almost there, Amina! Keep it up!” Lis yelled from a bit further away. She was lingering behind now and forced her legs to climb another step, and another. She’d get there. Even if it took her hours longer than the others, she’d make it to the shrine. She had to. She had gotten this far, after all. She wouldn’t quit at the final part.
It was strange how seeing a Guardian had changed her outlook on things. She still didn’t quite understand, not even now. The eternal being hadn’t even looked at her. But there was more to this world than school and dunes and obeying her father. And seeing her made Amina lose her doubt. She could do this. She’d stay with the Keepers for half a year and learn all there was about the Guardians. Who knew what she’d do after.
Of course, it hadn’t been just the Guardian. During their journey she’d gotten to know Lis, the main Keeper’s personal apprentice. Truly, Amina didn’t quite get why the main Keeper’s apprentice was so clumsy and ignorant, while the other apprentices were so serious and eager to learn things. But Lis was friendly and always willing to help others, and help was something Amina had sorely needed. She cringed when she remembered the first night she’d been asked to light the fire.
Step by step Amina climbed, forcing herself not to look back and not to look down. The view from this high in the mountains was amazing, the Crown stretching out before her like a children’s toy landscape. She saw little houses, farms, mansions. Lis pointed out the hill on which the royal castle stood, but she hadn’t been able to see the castle itself. It was too far away.
She had never pictured the Crown to be this green. All her life, her world had been yellow and blue. Ocean and sand, city streets and houses. Who knew the rest of the world was a different color altogether? But no matter how lush the meadows had been, how cute the little inns or how beautiful the waterfall was that fell down from the mountains, nothing could have prepared her for the pure green of the Crown.
Here and there she saw patches of prana floating among the trees, in the valleys or above the river like a stubborn morning mist. It was dazzling. Her father had told her about the Crown, and she’d learned about it in school, but nobody had ever mentioned just how beautiful it is. Then again, she probably wouldn’t have believed them. Beauty such as this could not be captured in words.
And just like that, she reached the top of the stairs. One moment there was still a million steps to go and the next she was standing on what felt like the top of the world. A slim path led her deeper into the mountains, away from the magnificent view. The lanterns on the side of the path showed her the way, even if they were not lit now.
The shrine was nothing like she had imagined. She had thought it would be like the little shrine close to Iruld, with a statue and a pillar and that would be it. Now that she saw what it was really like, she couldn’t believe how naïve she’d been. Why had she never considered where the keepers slept? There was a large building with a blue roof which stood in the center and the door was made of wood carved with the most elaborate swirling patterns. In front of it lay an open space shaped like a circle. The circle was surrounded by a ring of trees so rich with prana that they were actually purple. Not a single green leaf was to be seen on them.
Outside of the circle stood several buildings of various sizes and shapes, surrounded by bushes and trees. Unlike the temple, they were made of wood, which struck Amina as odd. Apart from the circle there were barely any trees this high up in the mountains. Why bother pulling so many logs of wood up here if you could just as well build with stone, which was readily available?
“They’re made of wood to show that our world is fragile, but that of the Guardians is solid and everlasting, like stone is,” Lis said. She’d seen her gaze and Amina realized she wasn’t the first pony to be curious. She noticed the light yellow paths that led between the different buildings. Some of them led to the large stone building, and some led away from the houses to places Amina couldn’t see.
“Then why is the door made of wood?” Amina asked, pointing at the main building. Lis shrugged.
“I don’t know. To show that the Guardians are part of our fragile world as well? Or because stone doors are impractical?”
Amina laughed. For a group of ponies dedicated to ethereal beings, they were sure down to earth sometimes.
“Do you like it?” Lis asked as the two young ponies walked on.
“I do. It’s different from what I had expected. What’s in all the wooden houses?”
“Our living quarters, mostly. The kitchen is over there,” Lis said as she pointed to one of the smaller buildings, “and the storage room is next to it. The small building at the end is main Keeper Chanta’s house. She’s the only one who has her own house, although some of the older Keepers do have their own room in a separate house. The rest of us sleep together in a big hall.”
“You don’t have your own room?” Amina gasped. No private space? How did these ponies manage?
“No. There’s not enough space, and why would we need our own room? We don’t have work that requires such luxuries.”
She sighed. Yet another thing she had to give up for this strange adventure she’d gotten herself on. But somehow it didn’t feel as troublesome as it had the first few days. Now that she knew how to light a fire and even how to make a thin soup, Amina was sure she could handle sleeping in a large hall with others.
“And the stone building? What is it?”
“I’ll show you. Follow me, Amina!” Lis grinned and trotted off. Amina put her backpack on the ground, certain it wouldn’t get stolen here and rushed after her friend, wondering if she was allowed to run here. Nobody stopped her though, and she even heard some of the other Keepers laugh. The mountain wind played with her hair as she trotted over the open circle and for a small moment Amina felt freer than she ever had before.
She walked up the few steps towards the door and stood next to Lis, who had waited for her.
“Are you ready?” Lis asked, and Amina nodded, not sure what to expect now. Lis pushed the door open and allowed Amina to step inside first.
It smelled like old wood and stone and the burning of candles all mixed up. That was the first thing she noticed. The second was the gigantic statue in the middle of a rearing Guardian. Its horn was painted silver and its wings sparkled purple. Prana, Amina realized, although she had never seen it linger on stone like that. The statue was surrounded by four large candles whose flames flickered in the soft breeze that had accompanied them in.
On both sides of the large room stood a large bookcase filled with thick tomes and scrolls. The rest of the walls were decorated with six large paintings, one of each of the Guardians Amina guessed, as she recognized Rasa.
“Welcome to the shrine of the Crown, Amina. This is where we not only worship the Guardians but also keep our research and hold meetings.” It took Amina a moment to realize it wasn’t Lis that had spoken to her, but the main Keeper Chanta. She hadn’t even noticed the woman following them inside.
“It’s so beautiful,” Amina whispered.
“It really is, isn’t it? We take great pride in this building. When the high queen visits, we receive her here,” Chanta said as she pointed to two dark blue benches on the other side of the room.
“Does she visit often? The high queen?”
“Once a year. It’s part of her annual tour of the country. But only for a day. She’s a busy woman, the high queen Raena. Her mother used to visit us more often, back in the day. Nowadays, whenever there is something that we need to discuss, we go down to the castle to visit her,” Chanta explained.
“And the Guardians? Do they come here often?”
“It depends. When they have nothing to discuss, they don’t visit at all. Sometimes there’s years between their visits. But when something is up, they do visit regularly. Twenty years ago there was a disease that killed the trees in the south. It had something to do with the prana so they came here for an entire summer, coming up with a solution together with us and the High Queen. Nowadays though… Well, I think we might see a whole lot more of them soon.”
“Because of the missing plume?”
“Among other things. I suspect Aras has something on his mind as well. He wouldn’t ask for the plume otherwise. Now, Amina,” Chanta continued, “do you think you’ll be okay here for the next six months? Or do you still regret your decision?”
Amina tore her gaze from the statue and looked at the main Keeper, who was just smiling at her.
“Amina, everyone who looked at you those first few days knew. Your face said more than a thousand words ever could. But don’t worry, we don’t blame you. Leaving your home behind can be hard, and the journey wasn’t exactly pleasant. And you seem to have come around.”
“I have, my lady. I mean, it was hard. I didn’t expect to feel that way, so it overwhelmed me. But this is… I think I will be fine here. This place is beautiful, so much more so than I expected it to be. And you’ve all been kind to me, even though I wasn’t being very nice.” Amina smiled at Lis.
“Well then, how about we show you the rest of our shrine, and your bed? After all those stairs, I’m sure you’re up for some soup and a bath. Tomorrow the real work here starts, but Lis will tell you all about that.” Chanta winked at her apprentice, who beamed. She probably never had that much responsibility before, but Amina didn’t mind. She liked the girl.
“That sounds great,” she said, looking around the hall one more time before following the other keepers outside.