I. AND ONCE UPON A TIME…
… There were stories told to children before bedtime, in warm summer nights or by the stove, while winter would lovingly knit overflowing snowflakes into a delicate attire that would cover the whole land, moving the genuine hearts with the painting of a dreamy landscape.
And there were also sound ears that listened carefully and voices that passed on, generation after generation, the predecessors’ stories, until they reached those who would give real and authentic meaning to them, matching the thoughts and feelings they would have at that time.
And, oh, there was… a time when leaves alone would travel freely in the wind, from one district to the next one, to finally rest on the rich land; the intersecting roads would come and go into nearly all directions, connecting most of the settlements, known and unknown places separated by borders that would divide the lands among four great peoples and kingdoms, from the south to the north and from the east to the west.
These peoples appeared in times out of memory; we don’t know from where they came, but in the apparent beginnings of history, everything would come down do a single map that described a large continent surrounded by the waters of the endless seas.
On the continent, the kingdoms were separated by the courses of the four rivers freely springing from the Central Mountains – seated in the highest area of the continent, right at the heart of it – and flowing slowly through deep valleys, getting lost in the swirling waters of the seas surrounding the vast piece of land. And these rivers marked the boundaries of the kingdoms, dividing the land into equal territories: to the north, Isbynorr, the eternally frozen and snowy realm, to the east, Narzomand, with the most fruitful fields, to the south, Salgornu, wide deserts under a burning sun, and to the west, Zendovir, colorful gardens, balm for the soul. The same-name towns could be found in the areas at the highest altitude; they all spoke the same language but had different traditions.
Even though history stubbornly left no information about the beginnings of these places, a story passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation would continue to circulate and be often in high demand in the crowded inns.
This is the “Legend of the Four Sons” and it tells us very clearly, for each of us to understand what each of us hears, that, once upon a time, two powerful kings waged a magnificent war against each other. A very different war, a war that did not require weapons and did not mean the loss of human lives, a war of attrition between the Kingdom of the Dry Land and the Kingdom of the Seas, two immense expanses that would clash frequently and would prevent each other’s evolution. The King of the Dry Land wanted to conquer new territories and expand his kingdom, while the Lord of the Seas wanted to flood the enemy land, at all costs. None had access to the other’s territory.
The stories of that age also say that women in the kingdom of the Dry Land were not allowed to cry, lest they summon the forces of the Seas; on the other side, no ship that was built and launched would float, because it would be sunk immediately by the whirling waters.
Weary of the same unending failures, the king of the Dry Land gathered his four sons and forced them to leave their parents’ house in the Central Mountains and become messengers of peace to the kingdom of the Seas. Before they left, he swore to them that, if they managed to bring peace between the kingdoms, he would allow them to rule over the whole kingdom, in turn, four years each, from the eldest to the youngest. The decision to banish the young men was made, and this would change for good the future of those places…
Burdened by sadness, each of the four men left alone, taking different roads, leaving behind a grief-stricken mother who knew she would lose for life those souls she held so dear. The suffering caused her to shed bitter tears, which gave rise to four warm springs that followed the footsteps of her sons, and when they caught up with them they turned them into deep rivers lost quickly and forever in the sea.
With the curse broken by the mother’s tears, the four boys established a bridge between the two kingdoms, between dry land and sea, and their names were also the names of the rivers flowing from one cardinal point to another. They then became borders, forming four new kingdoms: River Nor’r separated Zendovir from Isbynorr, Zom’a had Isbynorr on one bank and Narzomand on the other, Gor’n had Narzomand to the left and Salgornu to the right; the last river, Dov’i, separated Salgornu from Zendovir.
The legend doesn’t mention whether peace was established between the kingdom of the Dry Land and the kingdom of the Seas, but one thing is certain: the pain of the four sons banished from home led to the appearance of these four new kingdoms and, every four years, they seemed to want to return home… to the plateau of the Central Mountains, as promised by their own father, “for each to rule in turn over the whole kingdom”.
Whether true or not, “The Legend of the Four Sons” is now a mere illusion of times gone by, every so often recollected by the elderly or whenever a contemporary event matches flawlessly the magical story.
A time when alliances would be made and broken, during peace or war, they would prosper and fall, would covet or flatter; the friend you had today would become you foe tomorrow. This is the earliest description of a long-gone world, painted in the tones of each civilization, but forgotten over the years in the mists of time, just like a good wine, which, once brought to light, heats up and delights the senses of those who taste it.
Ehhhh, such troubled times! Nature alone would continue to tend to its affairs, helplessly and bitterly watching the slaughter brought about by the battles of conquest, which sullied its neat garments; it hoped, however, that the time would come when it would rule to its liking, seeking its justice.
But, until then, the fights for supremacy would be a normal thing, as it had been for ages... Hunter and game, sage and savage, rich and poor, these were and would continue to be the constants.
Each of the four kingdoms had something that made it weak in front of the enemy; it always seemed to have two enemies and an ally, but they were never the same. And this whole madness could not go on forever.
The main target was Isbynorr, the eternally snowy kingdom in the north, which, unwillingly, had the iron deposits so laboriously extracted from the Iron Glacier Mountain, in the north of the kingdom, thus ensuring the raw material for the forging of weapons: winding swords, sharp spears and quick-tempered arrows. It was disturbingly ironic that such a white, cold and quiet land could give birth to a spring of warm red blood that would fill even the most peaceful settlements across the land.
Crowned and noble heads everywhere would also purchase from here their wild animal furs for their exclusive garments. The regular soul could not afford to wear immaculate white clothes, skillfully tailored by the seamsters of that time.
Narzomand, too, had something coveted by the others: the most fertile land in the world; here, they grew the finest grain, carefully cared for by hardworking farmers, known as true saviors of the land from under the waters, by using sturdy levees that protected safely the latest agricultural lands. Animal farming was also quite developed, all of which gave the whole kingdom a gastronomic reputation that was hard to match.
It’s just that this wasn’t necessarily a good thing for its people, especially in times of war, when entire armies need to be fed. And from here to turning Narzomand into a main target only one more step was required. Thus, and they were aware of this, whether it was war or peace, they offered supplies to all the four kingdoms, and had a saying: “On an empty stomach you can neither fight, nor fall in love.”
The Western Kingdom identified with its main settlement, Zendovir, a town that drew the elite, the intellectuals, the better sort, who were set in their own select ways, who indulged in what they had known to build: green, grandiose gardens, with terraces on which many colorful flowers would rest in the sunlight, allowing sweet rose, lavender and jasmine fragrances to be carried by the wind; others had cooling fountains, to the everlasting joy of the travelers. This was a bohemian kingdom where the artists of the time would find easily their lost inspiration, abandoning themselves to the fragrance of the blossoms in the lemon and orange trees spreading across the vast citrus groves.
Zendovirians were thirsty for knowledge and, in order to have constant contact with new things, they had developed advanced navigational techniques, and their ships would cross the seas, mapping each piece of dry land which would then be exploited down to the tiniest speck of dust.
In the Southern Kingdom, the aspect of the land was something that no other kingdom would want; the soil was barren, vast sand expanses were covering the whole territory, in the form of larger or smaller wastelands. Here and there you could find oases filled with bright blue waters surrounded by high palm trees guarding puny shades, which would offer a place for rest and chill to thirsty travelers; however, they were not the things that made the kingdom vulnerable in front of the enemies…
At its southern end there were old and dusty mountains worn by winds and by time, rich in gemstones that would shine bright in the eyes of every dreamer; around the world, they were known as the “Salgornu stones” that captivated not only the eyes, but also the souls of the weaker ones.
The habit of wearing these stones had also been adopted by the royal courts where they were in high demand for the adornments worn by the kings and queens, but, most importantly, they had become the equivalent of supreme power and those who had many of them could easily influence and change the rules and laws at their own whim.
What’s mine is not yours! What’s yours does not belong to any of us and the mere idea of a one-of-a-kind item that you did not own would make you take all the measures to strengthen your supremacy, a lurid game with an uncertain ending.
The battles were for the long term and, before they reached the target-territory, the attackers had to take an extremely important exam: the conquest of the Central Mountains, a collection of compact cliffs ending in a high plateau, barely accessible because of the steep terrain, surrounded by towering peaks that seemed to create a natural defense fortress.
The plateau was the continent’s watch tower and it had immense strategic significance, being coveted by each of the peoples and by any self-respecting army. Numerous battles began and ended at the foot of this plateau, but most often the odds of success were almost null, which is why the lucky ones managed to take it over for four full years. And I don’t know how, but no matter how much they fought against it or how much they tried, every four years, the Central Mountains plateau would have another master, in turn… “from the eldest to the youngest”. After they conquered it, they would build quietly fortresses supplied with food and weapons, offered as permanent duty to a precise number of some of the most experienced soldiers.
The various written documents of that age told of stories according to which the army that conquered the Central Mountains received the honorary title of armed power of that period, and such an acknowledgement seemed to pour lead onto the enemies’ morale.
From the plateau you could see any move into the distance, and when the weather was favorable, a good eye could glimpse without too much trouble almost every settlement, which, in fact, was a positive thing for the kingdom owning this plateau and a true challenge for those who wanted to reconquer it.
Many centuries ever since have witnessed a somber repeated play in which the tired actors, caught in the spell of time, would offer the same sad lines, would breathe and live the same futureless routine.
But there was a moment when someone appeared suddenly and stirred even more the waters of life. Nature itself started to demand the silence stolen from it by the creatures who called themselves humans.
The olden rivers of Nor’r, Zom’a, Gor’n and Dov’i dried out, leaving behind deep valleys with steep walls, while constant earthquakes shook the dry land and brought the water of the seas to the feet of the Central Mountains. This was also the birth of the new seas that kept the names of the old rivers. And since this was only the beginning, the dry land went downwards slowly, but definitely, swallowed up by the turbid waters of the bordering seas.
The former glorious dry expanse changed periodically, until all that was left from the four kingdoms was a plethora of islands and islets on which whole families were stuck. The largest ones were also those where the towns of the four kingdoms could be found: Isbynorr, Zendovir, Narzomand, and Salgornu, which, unwillingly, had become port-towns. The more that the dry lands would fall prey to the waters, the more the ships would navigate to the distant horizons.
And the olden battles had become unpleasant memories, also because no kingdom had developed a military fleet to allow it to sail to their eternal rivals. To what use, at any rate, given that everything was now under water? In time, words like “attack”, “invasion”, “conflict”, “battle” would be increasingly less used, until when the army no longer had a purpose, because they no longer had anyone against whom they could march. Only a few military units were left, and finally only a few soldiers meant to keep the peace.
And even if the workmanship needed for boats and ships was known and developed, more in Zendovir, the absence of the raw material often made the craftsmen’s skill useless; the craftsmen, lacking large quantities of wood, were content even with the making of a fisherman’s boat… occasionally.
But this happened once upon a time. The world is different now. It is so different that you can barely recognize the people and the places, and the past cannot be retrieved even from the dusty books, because life goes on, flowing between the hard times and the good times, finally reaching absolute maturity...