Hills of Silver Ruins

Chapter 20

4-6 Where does a life go when it ceases to be?

The man crouched down, this thought on his mind. Cast into shadows by the falling dusk, the silver branches of the tree before him reached out in what struck him as a modest and reserved manner. Buildings surrounded the small courtyard on all sides. The silver tree stood in the center.

He knelt beneath the branches that hung to the ground. Thin shards lay scattered around his knees.

That day until noon, a life had thrived within those shards, a new life bestowed by the silver tree. The riboku. A year before, a young couple tied a ribbon to the tree. He had allowed them to do so.

He was the superintendent of the town. Normally the position went to the most senior of the town’s elders. Far from an elder, he hadn’t yet turned thirty. But the previous superintendent died and he succeeded him. He’d grown up an orphan, after all, and had long had relied on the good offices of the rika.

The superintendent also administered the Rishi, and that included presiding over the riboku. At the same time, he was principal of the rika. Though young, he well understood the duties of the rika and Rishi here at the center of the town, having long served under the late superintendent.

The couple he’d allowed to petition for a child were old friends of his.

p. 233

It was a poor town, nestled in a narrow and desolate mountain valley. In recent years, rough and violent brigands had settled in the region. The brigands often descended from their dens in the mines and forced their way into the surrounding towns, where they shook down the people for goods and money. Any resistance was met with cruel reprisals. The previous superintendent stood his ground and lost his life as a result.

They’d sought assistance from the government on numerous occasions but no one rushed to the rescue. Rumors of the brigands colluding behind the scenes with government officials became increasingly hard to refute.

The young and able turned their backs on the town and left. This couple did not flee. Instead, they set out to begin a new life together. They prayed earnestly and the riboku blessed them with a child.

The ripening golden fruit hung from a silver branch. A new life dwelt within it.

Where did that life come from? he thought as he picked the shards off the white sand.

The tiny fruit, looking so much like a nugget of gold, grew and swelled over time. The husk that resembled gold leaf stretched and extended as it ripened, gradually growing thinner over time. The life it housed was the hope of the town. And as if in proof, a faint light glowed within the thinning husk.

That was about the time the mother was slain by the brigands.

p. 234

The fruit had grown large enough to fill two hands. The mother died before the child within was born. The father steeled his grief until it was large enough to hold in his arms—by which time the husk had stretch so thin as to resemble blown glass—and that was when he met the same fate as his wife and by the hands of those same brigands.

Having lost both its parents, the fruit fell to earth and tumbled onto the white sand. The husk cracked apart, spilling out the pale crimson water and the blackened remains of what could only be called a withered life.

That gestating life that until so recently had glowed with its own light. The only reason for living left to its father, it harbored the dreams of its parents and the hopes of the village. All waited impatiently for its birth. And yet—

Into what void did that light disappear?

“I am sorry that your father and mother could not protect you,” he apologized as he picked up the fragments of the husk. He buried the remains in the father’s grave. Now he retrieved the rest of the shards and replaced the rust-stained sand.

“I am so sorry.”

His tears spilled onto the thin slivers of gold in his hands.

A small campfire burned in the darkness. The kindling had already reduced to embers, the fire on the verge of dying out.

p. 235

“South of the castle we fought, north of the walls we died.”

A solitary figure sat beside the fire. The man wrapped his arms around his legs and rested his chin on his knees. Watching the dying fire, he sang the song in a small voice more like a murmur.

“Perished like dogs at the side of the road and ended up food for the crows.”

Please tell the crows on our behalf
To spare a moment before gobbling us down
And shed a tear like they truly care
Weathered and worn and without even a grave
How in the world might our rotten meat
Flee from the tip of your pointed beak?

“You sure have bad taste when it comes to music,” piped up a nearby voice.

He glanced over his shoulder. A young man stood there with an armful of firewood and a quizzical look on his face.

“Is it a popular song? You sure seem to like it, though it is on the creepy side.”

“An old folk song,” he replied. “An old drinking song.”

“Huh,” said the young man, tossing the wood onto the fire.

Camped out alongside the deserted road, the only shelter from the falling dew were the big branches of a cedar tree stretching out over their heads.

“It’s getting colder. None of the villages are offering us lodging of late. I can’t help feeling uneasy about how things are going.”

p. 236

“How about quitting the shipping business?” he asked with grin.

The young man sat down next to him. “Please, be serious. There is no way that is going to happen.”

“You mean the boss won’t let it happen,” he said, casting a glance in the direction the boss had taken off to relieve himself.

“That is not the problem,” the young man answered indignantly. He patted the hefty pack sitting on the ground next to him. “People are waiting for us to make these deliveries.”

“Yeah, they’re waiting but they won’t let us in.”

“Well, that’s life. Letting us in would make it all the harder to say no to the next traveler who happens by. We’re not in a position to make unreasonable demands either. Ultimately we’re all in this foundering boat together.”

“You’ve got a big heart.”

“Everybody knows what’s going on. The more difficult traveling becomes, the fewer travelers you’ll see on the road. But even knowing that won’t stop people from doing what they do. That’s how hard life is.”

p. 236

He hugged his knees all the tighter. “Tai is hurting everywhere. Especially Bun Province.”

“You can count on there being places worse off than here. Either way, all the complaining in the world won’t change a thing.”

A cold wind whipped around the campsite.

“Probably see some frost tonight.”


Snow would follow soon after, snow that would cover the north until spring. How many people would they lose this year? How many villages would sink beneath the drifts and never rise again?

No stars shone in the moonless sky above. The clouds had already moved in.

He drew his coat around his shoulders.

The day dawns
And full of life they set off for war
The night falls
And none of them have returned

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