It was after midnight. In her chamber, formed by the great buttress roots of an enormous tree, Brillar woke from the nightmare with a start, sitting upright in bed drenched and trembling, clutching a blanket. Elden was at the doorway at once, pulling the draperies apart, silhouetted by the moonlight. The undead. That something could rise after it had been killed was beyond comprehension. The thought of them, the idea that she could have been reached by one before she was able to drop it with an arrow sickened her, continued to echo in her nights. She knew now that an arrow only meant a momentary pause in the attack, that the thing would reform and attack again. She had killed three times and the deaths didn’t trouble her; she could face an attack by the living. But the undead? She feared very little but the thought of the undead terrified her.
“Apprentice?” Elden called softly.
“It’s alright, I’m alright,” she answered but he was at her bedside, his hand on hers, feeling its ice. He pulled the light blanket around her and held her close. She was trembling but his closeness soothed her. He didn’t speak until the trembling ceased.
“Definitely not alright. Another nightmare?” She nodded and leaned against him. “The undead?” Her shudder was the only answer he needed. He pushed her away slightly and looked at her pale face then softly brushed away damp hair.
“In the morning, you see the healer and no arguments. How’s a man to get a good night’s sleep with you wakeful?” He was scolding, jesting, and it settled her. She nodded and pushed further away to lay back down knowing that he would wait, as he had for the last few nights, until she was asleep.
Yes,’ she thought as she drifted back to sleep comforted by Elden’s presence, ‘definitely time to see a healer.’
It had been five days since the ceremony; five days since they had each been gifted with the name Ǣlfainfriend by Lord Ǣlethee. They had been quiet days, days to swim in the pool in the clearing where the guest rooms were located, days spent in rest and refreshment with plenty of Ǣlfain visitors who all seemed to want to meet these strangers from the world outside the great forest that was Ǣlfainhome. There had been music and laughter and food, always food that their guests brought with them and shared, watching with delight as they tried one new thing after another.
But, while the days were easy, the nights were increasingly disturbed. Now, with little to do, no deserts to cross, no challenges to face, Brillar was unable to shake off her thoughts of the undead. In her dreams, her night terrors, they wouldn’t fall to her arrows. Instead, they reached her, touched her with cold decaying hands. In her dreams, she could almost smell their decay, their putrefaction, and she woke in terror.
She had resisted the idea of a healer when he first suggested it, thinking their new quiet routine would lay her dread to rest. She had been invited to archery practice daily. Elden was sometimes with them, laughing at his own skills, but he had preferred to spend his days looking over old maps and hearing stories of exploration from elders. Her new bow gave her a range as great as that of her brother’s longbow and was accurate at distance. For speed, however, ǣlfec couldn’t be matched. She had given a bundle of gwinth feathers to the fastest and most accurate of the archers who won an impromptu contest. She had laughed with ǣlfic, those bright children who often came to swim with them, and played games with them. Sat with ǣlfenic to share stories of their travels through the Wild and gathered flowers with them. But no matter how peaceful her days, the dreams continued.
In the morning, after that final nightmare, she woke to find that Elden had already gone to find Uthalef and locate a healer. As she was dressing her hand touched the shining white necklace and charm around her throat and she stopped. Ǣlfainfriend.
To be an Ǣlfainfriend, Elden had told her after the ceremony, was one of the greatest honors that could be bestowed on anyone at any time and a rare occurrence. No gift from kings was greater. No tribute approached it in dignity. This thing around her neck was fixed, permanent and could never be removed. Now that it was hers, only death could separate them; at her death it would melt into the air.
“Or so I’m told,” Elden had said as they sat beside their pool in the forest after the ceremony and feasting. He spoke quietly, almost sadly, or so it seemed to her.
“But we did so little. Only what honor would have us do once we heard about Ǣdhahren.” She had touched the charm with wonder.
“Honor.” He had replied with great seriousness. “Ǣlfain take great account of those who act with honor. We could have left them to search and gone on with our explorations.” He raised an eyebrow at his apprentice already knowing her answer.
“Impossible! Not after we heard about the K’ish and the blood-letting.” The K’ish was gone; Elden had cleansed the cavern with fire.
“We couldn’t leave them to search alone; others might have been able to. Between us and those others stands honor; that we could do nothing else but help them is the reason we have been commended with what we wear and the name we bear. We are trusted by Ǣlfain. A distinction and a burden.”
She had tilted her head at him. “I don’t feel a burden, I’m only glad that we could help, that we did help, and that Ǣdhahren has been returned to his home and family.”
Elden had been silent beside her in the darkness lit only by fern root. He understood the demands of honor and the consequences of dishonor better than he hoped she would ever need to. Yet, and he was still puzzling over this, when had she ever acted in any other way? So young, he kept thinking, yet so sophisticated? No, he thought, that wasn’t the right word for this youngling. “Someday it will come to me.” He smiled at the thought then lost the smile. He had dark memories of his own.
She was shaken from her reverie by the sound of ǣlfic laughter and left her room to find a dozen ǣlfic splashing in the pool. Their laughter was infectious and she forgot her nightmares. Elden was there as well already returned from his meeting with Uthalef.
“I brought you breakfast,” called an ǣlfen on the bank, pointing, “then the young ones arrived and threw themselves into the pool.”
Looking at Elden and laughing, Brillar pulled off her over-shirt and leggings and waded into the pool with the ǣlfic. Her necklace gleamed as she splashed them and was splashed in return. Elden sat on the bank and picked up a piece of fruit.
It was impossible to remember her fears when ǣlfic were laughing and she glanced at Elden, relaxed and chatting with the ǣlfen. She turned to the ǣlfic.
“Once again my lord Garnelden would rather eat than swim,” she said playfully and whispered to one of them. Elden had let one of his feet dangle near the pool, and now two ǣlfic grabbed it and pulled him into the water.
“A fine way to begin the day, m’lord,” she laughed and made for the bank as he sputtered. Then he was engulfed by laughing ǣlfic and found himself enjoying the morning and the water. There was another round of splashing, then looking up, he found Uthalef laughing at him from the bank. The ǣlfen clapped her hands and the ǣlfic scattered to the shallows, out of the water and disappeared into the forest, still laughing.
The ǣlfen bowed to Uthalef and took her leave while Elden joined Brillar on the bank.
“I have known few of your kind,” Uthalef said, looking Elden over, “but have never heard that you bathed in your clothes.”
Elden just laughed, cast a quick spell and was dry.
“This, I think, was her doing. Conspiring with ǣlfic to douse her Master. A disgrace. And put your clothes on, apprentice. To think that you could stand there in front of an Ǣlfain lord in your scants!”
Brillar hurried back to her room and dressed quickly, joining them for breakfast. She was still chuckling at her prank and seemed to have cast off her dark dreams. Elden knew better but kept his tone light.
“I’m not sure,” Elden said to Uthalef, “that a disobedient apprentice deserves such a fine breakfast.”
“I will certainly eat, m’lord,” was the mischievous reply “or would you like another dunking?”
Elden bowed graciously. “Then be seated and dine.” She was reaching for fruit when he spoke again.
“Apprentice?” he asked softly, “you, I think, have something to ask Uthalef?”
“We have been waiting for the question,” Uthalef’s eyes were steady on hers, but she flushed, embarrassed and ducked her head. Elden answered for her.
“My apprentice is troubled by thoughts of the undead. Nightmares.” Uthalef nodded his understanding.
“You are not the only one who has been troubled,” his voice was soft, soothing. Brillar raised her head and he smiled. “Faliara has been quite busy.” His hand was on hers, warm and reassuring. “An hour and I will send her to you.” He stood, turned quickly and was away.
Elden was handing her a warm bowl. “Healing takes strength. Eat something before she comes.”
“I feel foolish, disturbing their healer,” she told him while she ate, feeling the cereal warm her and knowing he was right. Elden only shook his head and handed her another of the fruits she loved.
Faliara’s arrival with Uthalef was preceded by stillness and they could both feel her before she stepped into the clearing. Taller than Elden, willowy, dressed in pale yellow, she had long silver hair and wide grey eyes set in an oval face. Her lips curved in a smile as Brillar and Elden rose. Elden bowed to them both, and left with Uthalef.
“Ǣlfainfriend, how may I help you?” Her voice was soothing and she took Brillar’s hand in hers; both sank down on a hummock beside the pond. Brillar was held by the warmth, the understanding, in those wide eyes and began to speak, haltingly, without details.
“When we first saw them, fought them, they filled me with disgust. Elden took them down with fire and stone fists but when he called on me… He needed to draw in mana and I was frozen. Even when I faced my first threat, when I was little more than a child, I have never felt…” She stopped, confused. “We cleared them and crossed the stream. Elden told me of a story, that they would rise again, so I loosed an arrow and they did rise. Dead and they rose! Then they came at us when we fought for Ǣdhahren. Came at us with dark spells.” She shuddered and looked into the healer’s calm eyes. “Farendai died in my arms from one of those spells.” She shook her head, eyes glistening.
“That I knew, but I sense that this is not your trouble.” Faliara’s gaze was steady and Brillar dropped her eyes.
“I walked alone in the settled lands. Elden and I walked the Wilds. He told me…he said that the undead rose from those that died on battlefields. Died unburied. They had no words spoken over them. No Light to bless them.” She faltered and stopped, choking.
“You may speak your fear. Others have the same fear; you are not alone.” At the kindness, the caring in the voice, Brillar looked up in anguish.
“The Savic control the undead. If… To die alone, without words of Light… I fear it, becoming one of them, one of the undead, killed by one of them and then controlled by the Savic, never finding the Light. What if Farendai…” She bent her head into her hands and wept as Faliara arms went around her, gathering her until the tears ceased and her shoulders relaxed.
“Others have the same fear. That is why Nywella was glad that her husband didn’t die alone. Just your presence was a blessing of the Light and Farendai is at peace in the Light.” She put her hand under Brillar’s chin, lifting her head gently. “We fear to die alone. But understand that the undead were never people of the Light. Our old records and stories speak of the undead as evil men and women, mercenaries, people who sold themselves into Darkness. When a person walks in the Light, they do not rise again.” She dropped her hand and sat quietly for a moment. Finally, she looked at Brillar, a question in her eyes until she began again, in a flood, retelling the story with all the details she could remember. Faliara listened, questioned, responded. The morning went by and the early afternoon. When Faliara finally stood, Brillar was peacefully asleep on a hummock next to the pool.
Elden had been fretting in Uthalef’s company and was surprised by Faliara’s hand on his shoulder. He jumped up, but the healer only smiled at him. “All is well. I left her asleep by the pool.” Relieved, he hesitated, but she inclined her head toward the path. “Food is coming. You should go to her now.” She inclined her head to him then to Uthalef and left quietly.
Elden followed the path to the clearing and the pool quickly then stopped in shock. His apprentice was folded in sleep, nestled in greenery, her face calm - calm and beautiful. He suddenly felt dazed. That she was beautiful he knew; now other feelings, feelings he had buried, his growing love for her, struck him like a storm as he watched her, knowing that he was powerless. He wanted to rush to her, take her up in his arms, speak his heart, his love, but he did none of those things. Instead he shut his eyes tightly, clenched his jaw and buried his feelings. The bond between Master and apprentice was one of honor; any further relationship, initiated by the Master, was forbidden. There was nothing he could do, she was beyond his reach. No touch of his, no question was possible. If there was to be a choice, that choice was hers. He bit his lip, tasting blood, and looked down. Now he could only wait.
As he stood in silence, an ǣlfen came up behind him with a basket and pressed it into his hand. When he turned to thank her, she was already gone. In the clearing Brillar stirred, sat up, stretched and turned toward him with a smile.
“Is that food?” she called to him and he laughed, smothering his emotions.
“A basked piled high,” he strode toward her. “It’s late afternoon and Faliara said you’d be hungry.” He kept his tone light, hiding his tension.
“Starving.” He settled himself near her and opened the basket. Savory meats, steaming vegetables, bread still warm from the oven, honey cakes. They ate by the pool and drank ǣlfair wine. Now, under the tall trees that were the home of the Ǣlfain, hidden in the thick fresh bracken ferns, everything seemed at peace to them both. That night the forest floor held no hint of the breeze that stirred the upper branches of the massive trees and there were no terrors to disturb her sleep.
In the morning, Uthalef came with food, ate with them and asked Elden to hunt with them later in the day.
“Not everyone believes,” he said, with a conspiratorial smile, “that you can call an animal to be hunted. Cothelia, a healer and herbalist, would like your company, Brillar, so that she can show you our herbs and be shown what you carry.”
“Well, I hate to miss a hunt, but since ǣlfec can let loose three or more arrows to my one, I think I discussing medicinal herbs a fine way to spend the day. After another of these fruits; we don’t have them in the north.” Brillar was struggling with the ǣlfair language, but the word ǣlfec was easy on the tongue.
Uthalef led them both to Cothelia’s chamber then left with Elden for the hunt.
Cothelia was an elder and greatly revered. Her skin was slightly wrinkled, especially around her dark grey eyes. Her hair, like Faliara’s, was more silver than the pale yellow of many Ǣlfain. Most telling of all were the prominent veins on the backs of her hands; something often seen in those of great age. Still, the ǣlfen moved with easy grace and had none of the joint ill of elders in the north. She smiled often and laughed at small things. Birds came to sit at her chamber at the base of a great tree.
“Once I had a home above us in this tree. Too many steps for me now.” Her laugh was like silver rain. Above them and around the tree were the stairs that led to personal chambers. The Ǣlfain used such only for sleeping, dining and for holding items of importance to them: bows, clothing, objects they treasured. The rest of their time they spent in the forest below where some were skilled smiths, potters, weavers, herbalists; all the crafts were represented.
Brillar spent her time with Cothelia easily, opening her foldbox and bringing out the herbs she carried, explaining their names, how they grew and how they were used. When she saw Cothelia’s delight at the gwinth feathers, she made her a present of one of the bundles.
Many of the herbs Cothelia knew as well, because they grew in the south as well as the north, and some were new. Many of Cothelia’s herbs were new to Brillar and the two women spent an enjoyable day reviewing and discussing them. Of spells, Cothelia knew nothing. Without herbs, she had only time and the natural power of Ǣlfain to resist illnesses and even heal themselves.
“Sometimes someone is brought wounded and heals with little more than a few soothing cups of tea.” She showed Brillar how the teas were prepared. “For great ills, for Darkness, there is Clearwater, a special pool. Those with serious wounds can be healed there. But there is no time for that today. Much too far away. And, of course, you know Faliara’s skill.”
Brillar flushed and nodded. Shaking herself, she went on: “When I was working with the wounded at the battle against the K’ish, there was one thing I couldn’t heal, couldn’t stop,” she closed her eyes at the memory.
“Yes, Uthalef told me about the battle and what you did; how you helped the wounded and eased the passing of one of our own.”
Brillar lowered her head, nearly in tears, still remembering the death of Farendai.
“No, no. You have met his wife and his son. They hold you in high esteem.” Cothelia’s face showed her concern.
“Esteem? I did nothing! I only watched him die.” Now there were tears.
“You are new to our ways but Faliara must have told you of our customs.” Cothelia’s voice was kind, gentle. “For one of us to die alone is something to be dreaded. That you were there, that he was in no pain; that is a great comfort.” Cothelia reached out and brushed the tears from her cheek. Brillar pressed the hand with hers and released it.
“One thing only now,” Cothelia asked, “is the spell that was used? What can you tell me about it?”
Sighing, Brillar closed her eyes and thought back to that killing spell.
“I would have said it was like acid, eating away at flesh,” she opened her eyes, “but acid doesn’t grow. This spell was of something dark. Where it touched, it seemed to grow instead of…” she stopped. “Black fire? Eating where it struck but then growing as if flesh was food? The other ǣlfe who was struck by the spell - it only hit his hand but I could see it traveling upward. Black fire. There was only one way to keep it from killing him. When I reached Farendai the damage was already too massive, too high for amputation. Nothing stopped it, not spells, not healing, not brews.” She shook her head.
“A fitting name then; black fire. We make records of such things although many of them are old and faded. Knowing what the spell was and how to combat it will be part of our records now. Something else to thank you for.” Cothelia smiled at her and turned the chat back to simple things. “These feathers are amazing. I think our artisans will find wonderful uses for them. We may,” she leaned forward conspiratorially, “have to send out hunters for more. Now, some food and an herbal tea?”
Elden, out with Uthalef and a dozen ǣlfec new to him, had an easy time hunting. Local deer, which, if left unchecked, would strip the land of anything green, responded quickly to Elden’s call.
“They line up for us!” said one ǣlfe. “This is not a hunt, this is like gathering sheep.”
“Brillar and Wa’olle have said much the same,” Elden said, laughing. “They called it ‘unsporting’ but asked me to call in animals when we needed them. It can be a hard thing to keep a company of Ǣlfain and men fed.”
The hunt was over so quickly that the group had time for other things. Some went back with the meat while Uthalef and two others took Elden to see parts of the forest near the edge of its growth. The four of them were lost in the immensity of the forest. Ferns nodded everywhere and Elden knew he would be lost without guides. Catching his expression, Uthalef laughed.
“Our children run through these paths, learning their way easily. And of course, there is always someone watching over them.” His face clouded a bit as he remembered the failure of one watcher that led to Ǣdhahren’s abduction and he fell silent. As they continued, the trees thinned. After the huge trees in the deep forest, they looked stunted and Elden realized he was walking through new growth. Finally, Uthalef stopped and pointed.
“Soomalan,” Uthalef said gesturing to an elder ǣlfe at the edge of the forest. “Let me introduce you.” Elden was urged forward to where the ǣlfe was planting a tree no bigger than a short bow. He was sitting in the dirt and his hands were brown with it.
“I have tended this forest for a very long time,” Soomalan said to his visitors without looking up; his sharp ears had heard them approach. “Some of these,” he waved a hand at the trees behind him, “I planted, yes and tended for…how long has it been Uthalef?”
“Nearly three thousand years now.” Uthalef was smiling quietly.
“That’s it, nearly three thousand years. Planted and tended and brought them forward. Someday the hard land will be gone and the dunes as well. It will all yield to my trees.” He patted the earth around the new planting. “Don’t worry my little one. I will bring you water and tend you and you will grow strong.” The tree seemed to vibrate where it stood. “Grow strong,” the elder sounded sleepy and appeared to nod over his sapling.
Uthalef pulled Elden away. “Best to leave him now.”
“Three thousand years? I knew your kind was long lived, but so long?” Elden was wonderstruck but Uthalef simply smiled.
“You were fortunate. Some of his days are not as clear as this. Only the trees are forever.”
“The trees? The forest? How old are they?” Elden asked as they went back into the forest by another path.
“Even Soomalan doesn’t remember ever hearing of a time without the trees, without the forest, not even in stories he said he heard as a boy. There are records, or were, although some may still exist if they were stone-carved. I’ve never seen them. Most of us care little about such things although we have plenty of foresters. Ah, Soomalan used to tell the most wonderful stories when I was a boy.”
Elden could only shake his head and marvel. They were returning to the center of the forest now and passed through a small clearing full of flowers and the flattened trunk of a great tree.
“Even the mighty can fall,” Uthalef remarked. “This one was struck by lightning. You can see the burn mark there on the trunk. Still, it took time for it to fall. Most of the wood we cut for stair and platform comes from trees like this. We fell none, only take what has fallen.”
The trunk of the fallen tree was well above Elden’s head. “Will you cut more of it?” He ran his hand along the coarse bark of the tree in wonder.
“Perhaps. Soomalan or one of the other foresters will come and plant a new tree here. For now, we enjoy the sunlight and flowers.” Other ǣlfe were already there picking flowers to take back with them. As Uthalef joined them, he called for Elden to gather some for Brillar.
“It will make up for her missing the hunt,” he said, laughing. “She must be anxious to try her bow against something other than a target.”
Bemused, still trying to take in the age and immensity of it all, Elden began to pick flowers, admiring their scent. Uthalef guided him back to his chamber unerringly although Elden would never have found it. He put water into a cup left by the pool and added the flowers.
“Dine with us tonight in the trees?” Uthalef asked. “After you’ve changed? I will come for you when we’re ready.” Here in their own forests, Ǣlfain seldom wore the clothing they wore on the scrublands. Here there were colors everywhere, most in the pastels, others in deep blues and greens but never in red. When he asked about it, Uthalef shook his head. “We see darkness in red,” was all he would answer.
“After we’ve changed?” he thought taking the flowers to Brillar’s room and stopped. On the bed was a dress, one he had never seen. He set the flowers down and went to his own room. On his bed was a new set of clothes, a collarless tunic, pale green, embroidered with deep blue stitching and the crest of the Brotherhood. It had long sleeves that would button halfway from hand to elbow and could easily be slipped over his head. Deep blue trousers completed the clothing.
Elden was casting a cleansing spell on himself when he heard Brillar’s laughing approach and heard her call out a goodbye to someone. He stepped out to greet her.
“What a day, Elden, what a day,” her green eyes sparkled with delight. “What a rare folk these are.” He smiled at her, thinking about the new dress.
“We’re called to dinner with Uthalef. You should hurry and change,” and he waited pointing to her room and waiting as she went in.
“What’s this? Wonderful! And flowers?” Elden chuckled as he began to change.
When Uthalef and his wife, Paraitha, called for them, they had changed into their new clothing. Her gown matched Elden’s tunic, light green at the top, blending to a deep blue at the hem. It was embroidered with the mark of the Sisterhood and flowed nearly to her ankles.
The Ǣlfain lord stopped to take them in. “I will have to tell our seamstresses that all was well done and fits beautifully. Shall we see if you can climb stairs in that gown?” He offered Brillar his arm, Elden took Paraitha’s and they set off for the stairs to a great tree. Paraitha laughed at Elden when they arrived at the stairway and stared at steps that went winding hundreds of feet up a tree.
“M’lord Garnelden, a few steps won’t weary you?” she asked.
“Lady, if I may be so ungallant as to walk next to the trunk?” Ahead of him, he could see that Brillar had chosen that path.
Paraitha only laughed again and let him walk on her left. “I have heard that heights can be dizzying for some unused to them, or so Uthalef tells me. The forest is my world and I have no wish to walk out among other folk. Although, perhaps I would if all were honorable.”
“Then keep to the forest. There are many people in the world who would disappoint you,” Elden replied and he kept his hand on the trunk of the tree.
“So my husband has said. Do heights trouble you?” She looked at him with concern and stopped a moment.
“I don’t know, I’ve never been this far from the ground,” Elden replied. He could hear laughter from Brillar.
The heights, Elden found, did trouble him and he was happy to move from steps to a multi-level platform surrounded by branches and leaves. He found that if he concentrated he could nearly make himself believe he was on the ground. The platforms had a half-wall and were roofed, adding to his sense of security.
“So lovely, and so high yet it’s as if we were near the ground. Elden, come look down,” Brillar called him as Paraitha pointed out long ropes trailing toward the ground; slings stood near them. She conferred quietly with Brillar and was rewarded with a quick laugh.
Instead of going to view their how high they were above the forest floor, Elden followed their host to a large round table and took a seat on a plump cushion embroidered with flowers and runes. Uthalef handed him a small glass of blue liquid, “To fortify you,” he said with a knowing smile.
One sip and Elden was fortified - or at least relaxed - and able to look around him with less uneasiness. Paraitha was with Brillar, pointing out bird nests close to the dwelling and others further away. The ǣlfen put out her hand and one of the birds, bright in orange, yellow and blue, came to sit on her hand. Brillar sent out a wave of soothing and was delighted when it hopped onto hers then walked up to her shoulder to nibble at her cheek with a curved beak.
“Elden, look,” a breathless whisper. She transferred the bird back to her hand and walked slowly to the table.
“Shumrai they are called. Always a friendly bird,” Paraitha joined them and sat down, patting a cushion next to her for Brillar.
“Beautiful,” Elden responded, leaning forward.
As if his word had broken a spell, the shumrai flicked from Brillar’s hand to a platter of fruit, took a small piece and made off to a branch to dine, trailed by laughter.
Fruit and ciders, platters of meats and vegetables, small cakes came in an endless stream. Over the evening, more folk drifted in and out of the dwelling, some stopping for a brief word of greeting, some staying and joining the diners.
Finally, Uthalef stood and raised his hand against the chatter.
“Friends, the hour grows late and one of our guests has asked to try a sky chair instead of going down our long stairway.” This announcement was met with cheers and Brillar stood.
“Sky chair,” Elden asked, confused.
“A way to avoid all those steps. A rope, a sling, and a long gentle ride to the ground. It’s used all the time. I wonder why we never noticed them,” Brillar replied. She pulled Elden up and led him to the slings. “Paraitha’s told me how to use them.” She gathered her skirt, stepped into the sling and slid away into the darkness, laughter trailing her.
“NO. No, not for me I think,” Elden said backing away to the amusement of the company. Uthalef clapped him on the shoulder.
“Then I will escort you down the stair. Mind you, it seems steeper when you’re going down than when you are climbing up. A long stair down or a quick slide and all over at once?” His amusement was obvious.
It took some more encouragement and the blue liquor to get Elden into the sling, and even more encouragement for him to climb to the starting point. Once there, he nodded to the company, tight lipped, eyes closed and let go of the structure.
The trip was quick; he was at a landing platform in just a few seconds and into the grasp of a waiting ǣlfe who helped him out of the sling and onto a chair.
Brillar was waiting for him, eying him worriedly. “Not a wonderful way to travel for you, I’m sorry I urged it Elden.” Elden only shook his head but had to rest before he could trust himself to stand and be guided back to their chambers. They sat pensively beside the pool.
“I think,” she began quietly, “that the party was our farewell.” She trailed her hand in the water.
Elden inclined his head toward her. “You’re anxious to be gone?”
“Not anxious, though we’ve seen nothing of the south but this. You told me the land here is vast, full of strange things.” She put her hand back into the pool where a moon was reflected, sending out ripples. “As wonderful as they are, these aren’t our people.”
Elden stood and stared at the sky. “I’m for bed. I fear that my apprentice will take us where there will only be straw and rocks for a bed.”
Her laughter followed him.
Uthalef was waiting for them at the pool with a tray the next morning. He only smiled and nodded when he saw they were dressed for travel.
“We were coming to say goodbye…” began Elden and was stopped by a wave of Uthalef’s hand.
“You need to be gone, back to your travels. We understand. Your lives are as short as ours are long and there is so much more to see.” Song began in the forest around them, continued a moment and was stilled.
“A farewell for you although we have one last gift for each.” They gathered their packs and followed him through a long path to the edge of a meadow where Lord Ǣlethee met them. He gestured at the meadow where several dozen horses grazed.
“Walk out into the meadow. Keep your heads down, watch the grass at your feet. You will know.” He waved them forward.
Brillar and Elden stepped out into the sun and the meadow, watching the ground, wandering here and there. They could feel horses around them, moving quietly, grazing. Brillar bent to pick a flower and felt a gentle nudge. Looking up, she met the warm eyes of a dun mare with a small white blaze and was held, motionless. Then, dazed, she stroked the long face and was nudged again. Looking around for Elden, she saw him with a sorrel gelding looking startled and as amazed as she felt. He was rubbing the gelding’s ears.
“Come back, then, you’ve been chosen,” Uthalef called to them. Lord Ǣlethee was gone when the pairs joined him and Uthalef was smiling at their expressions. “The gelding is Chauk, the mare, Suoma.” Someone had come forward with saddles and hackamores. “You are entrusted with their care.”
Overwhelmed, Brillar embraced Uthalef as the animals were saddled.
“Nah thay arenic sé andu talef tí wa’oll,” she said, having learned the traditional words of parting, ‘May your days be long under the sky’ in Ǣlfair. She kissed Uthalef’s cheek and her own were wet with tears.
“Nah thay arenic sé andu talef tí wa’oll,” he responded and Elden echoed the words.
The horses were ready and they mounted quickly. Uthalef and the others melted into the forest leaving them alone.
“Apprentice? Where are we headed?” asked Elden.
“South, master, I have not yet seen the sea.” There was quiet excitement in her voice.
As they moved off, only Elden looked at back Ǣlfainhome.