King's Host - Book One

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Chapter 6: Age-old bonds

“Valan!” A child’s voice reached his mind like an echo.

He raised his head, squinting his eyes to pierce the deep black of the forest, but there was nothing but trees, countless trees wherever he looked. The sun was shining on his face, yet the forest was dark and impenetrable. His body hurt and his breath was difficult. Somebody was rummaging through his things, but he only saw a large back. No, two. A coarse laugh. A swear. He cried at the backs to leave his things alone, but no sound came out of the swollen lips. His limbs were limp. A shadow loomed above his head.


He was watching him with a disapproving look—‘what did you leave home for?’ his eyes were asking.

“Valan!” A man’s voice. Where was it coming from?

Countless stars spangled an inky sky, flickering like candles in the wind. But they were not really in the sky and not really stars; their cold light had turned golden and they were swarming all around him. He was alone, but did not feel so. He thought the trees were moving, closing in about him.

“Valan!” Keryon shook him gently, startling him awake.

“What? Oh!” He blinked confused, rubbing bleary eyes. “I must have fallen asleep.” With sluggish moves, he pushed himself to the feet.

The sun had moved lower, dappling the forest floor with golden light, and all the colours had taken warmer tones, as if they were soaked in honey. A couple of dead birds, similar to fowl, only larger and with a dark plumage, were lying on the ground. Keryon’s hand clasped a slender bow and the quiver on his back had a couple of arrows. On the trail behind him Kiri held in his arms some sort of small hawk. It appeared dead, the way it sat still with its eyes closed, but the chest was slowly heaving.

“What happened to it?”

“She broke a wing,” said Kiri, very serious.

“Poor creature.”

“It’s not that bad. You, on the other hand, should not sleep here,” said Keryon.

“Funny you should say that.” Valan smothered a yawn. “I came to look for some wood sorrel, but the abundance of species around here is quite distracting. Then I noticed these.”

He pointed to the vines that were creeping on the ground and up the tree he had slept against. Hidden under the bright green leaves, tiny flowers adorned the long shoots like jewels. They were not conspicuous among so many others growing on both sides of the trail, yet the brilliant purple of their petals had caught Valan’s eye.

“I know the vines, but I’m not familiar with the flowers, so I wanted to take a better look. I guess the peacefulness of this place is sleep inducing,” he joked, smiling embarrassed by that poor attempt at an excuse.

“Not the place,” said Keryon, kneeling to look at the flowers. “These are not real flowers. We call them orife. They make you sleepy and feed on your dreams.”

“They do what?” Valan thought he had not heard well. His eyes moved from the flowers to Keryon and Kiri. The child was idly stroking the wounded bird with his small fingers, completely unimpressed.

Keryon waved him closer and pushed aside a leaf that was hiding one of the star-shaped flowers. “See how it sits? It does not grow from the vine, it is attached to it.”

Valan leaned in to look, suppressing a sudden urge to yawn. The flower stood on a delicate stalk that twined around the vine’s stem like a tendril. It was a parasite. “What are these?” he asked in wonder, feeling his eyelids drooping again.

Keryon stood, pulling him up and away from the tree and the sleepiness faded. “Feya. Neither plants, nor animals, but living creatures nonetheless. They are visitors to our world.”

Valan made no reply. He considered himself an open-minded person, but even to him this sounded a bit far-fetched.

Keryon smiled, guessing his thoughts. “Has no one told you about them?”—Valan shook his head and his eyes narrowed with suspicion—“I think you will like this. You may not know it, but you have already seen other feya.”—Valan’s brows twitched—“Let’s go back, it’s growing late. There is much to say about them and where they come from. And my parents know more of the old stories than me.” He picked up the birds he had hunted. “Come, Kiri! We must take care of her wing.”

“She’s hurting,” said the child with a feeble voice, edging on a whimper.

“I know. We will help her. Come, Valan! Tonight we have wonderful stories for you.”

“So, you met the orife,” said Talian, without much surprise, after Valan finished his narrative. “Beautiful little creatures they are.”

There was an odd sense of relief in his tone—one that Valan noticed in everyone—as if they had been waiting for him to make the discovery on his own. Or maybe he was imagining it. Supper was over—Yunal had cooked a wonderful meal from one of the birds her son had brought home—and they moved into the main room.

Talian was Keryon’s father and, like his wife, looked younger and stronger than the equivalent of his age in Laeden. How does a really old Eina look like? wondered Valan. Two hundred and something years was a lifespan he could not wrap his mind around. Just as it was impossible to fathom the way their bodies and minds grew and matured. On their first encounter he had correctly assumed Kiri was nine or ten, which meant a yanee grew as fast as his Man counterpart. But he knew Arryn’s age was a little more than twice that which he would have thought, had she been of his own kin, and Yunal looked much younger than Man women half her age. The same applied to men. It was a very strange dynamic and the only answer they could provide was that such was the way they were made.

Talian and Keryon lit the lanterns hanging on the walls. The room brightened and soon a sweet, slightly minty scent teased their nostrils. A familiar sensation of calm and relief spread through Valan’s body. He had felt it every evening, the soothing effect of the herbal oil in those lanterns. It was an amazing remedy against weariness at the end of the day and one of the little things he knew he will miss, for the leaves from which the fragrant oil was extracted did not grow in his land.

Everyone gathered around the hearth, sitting cross-legged on soft pillows on the floor. Valan had yet to see a fire burning in that hearth; during the warm seasons there was no need to make one. He could not say why, but he felt it would look different than back home, so he hoped he would stay there long enough to see it.

Through the opening in the roof came sounds of leaves rustling in the evening breeze. Fresh air poured in through the dining room windows, stirring the scents, twirling them around the room and then lifting them to the roof, where they wrestled the cool current before escaping into the forest. The main room was the place where the family assembled to spend time together, sharing news, teaching each other or simply telling stories for their entertainment. It was also the place where they received guests.

The women brought cups and filled them with a hot, sapid tea. Herbal brew had never been a particular favourite of Valan’s—at home he rarely consumed it, unless he was sick—but in the last couple of months he had grown fond of it. As always, for a time they just sipped from the tea in silence, letting it sink into the body and caress their senses. In the hazy light of the orb lamps, that place had almost a mystical feel.

Fenna ya edesti, or feya,” said Talian, staring absently into the hearth, “means beings between worlds. Feya are living creatures, much like the ones in our world, yet different in the sense that, although they may look like plants, or insects, or little animals, they are none of those. They are not sentient—not in a way that we can tell, at least—nor do they possess the complexity of the others. In fact feya are so simple the only two things they do is mimic the shape of other things and feed. The mimicry is a form of preservation. They can go as far as imitating inanimate things if that helps them survive and get food.”

He emptied his cup and placed it beside him on the floor. His gaze focused on Valan—wise and kind under the thick, arched brows—in the same way a teacher watches his pupil, making sure he pays attention. It had a depth no Man eyes could ever boast. “You find that hard to believe,” he said in an even voice, but to Valan it sounded a little disappointed. Perhaps.

“No. Well...” He lowered his eyes. “Yes. I mean, I know creatures sometimes pretend to be something they are not, but still… feed on dreams? What plant does that?” He looked the old Eina in the eyes. “More important, what do you mean between worlds?”

“Aah! That is what intrigues you the most. I don’t blame you, the Man seem reluctant to accept the things they cannot perceive.”

“I would not say that.”

“Oh? Am I mistaken?”

“No. Well, not entirely. People are reluctant to accept foreign beliefs, but only because they are foreign, I think. Not because there is no proof, or because they are too extraordinary, for, if so, what real proof does Man’s belief in those almighty wills have? Fates, Gods—whatever they call them—old as the world itself and powerful beyond measure… has anyone ever seen them? Yet you find them in every land, in every language, because nothing else can explain the many things beyond our understanding or control, other than them being a manifestation of a higher will.” Valan’s cheeks were burning. “But I’m certain you already knew that.”

“And is this also your belief?”

“I…” He hesitated. What was his belief? He had conferred about the Fates a few times, with one of his teachers, but had never truly asked himself this question before. “I believe… our own bodies are miniature worlds, and we own and use them without fully understanding their complexity. How can we… expect to understand an infinitely large world, composed of uncountable different elements? Or imagine that what we perceive is everything there is, that nothing can exist outside our limited senses?” He was not trying to impress them, but they were listening with such interest he suddenly feared he might come across as pretentious. “Even so,” he added quickly, “I think everything has a natural explanation, and I have seen no clear evidence that the Fates exist. But that does not mean they don’t, so… I suppose I’m neither accepting, nor denying them.”

“Those are sensible words,” said Talian. That sent more blood to Valan’s face. “Would proof make you more inclined to accept?”

“Probably… it depends on proof.” The exchanges of looks and smiles did not escape his notice. Something seemed to amuse his hosts, though not in a derisive sort of way. Valan watched them uncertain. “Did I say something strange?”

“Forgive us,” said Arryn. “It is just that, concerning our story, you already had proof, but until today you didn’t notice it.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Keryon told you about the orife, but you seem to doubt their nature, even though you saw them with your own eyes and felt their influence. Those vines do not flower, as you probably know if you are familiar with them.”

“I thought perhaps I never happened upon one during blooming season.”

“Very well. But there are feya living on your window sill ever since you came here. We put them there, to make the room quieter.”

“So it was not just me… I thought it strange that the sounds in my room were softer than the ones throughout the rest of the house. Even with the window open.”

“When Keryon brought you, I placed a small colony of nerife on the sill, to eat some of the noise coming from outside. We never removed them.”

“I feel incredibly tempted to go and see,” said Valan, fidgeting on his cushion.

“If it helps, please do,” Arryn replied kindly. “But they will still be there when you will retire to sleep.”

Of course, he thought, realizing that such impulsive behaviour was discourteous towards his hosts. After all, this conversation was for him. “No, you are right. I can wait… What do they look like?”

“Like a cluster of spindle-shaped eggs. Or, rather, shells. Tiny shells.”

“I cannot believe I didn’t see them,” he mumbled. “And they feed on sound?”—Everyone nodded—“Are there other, um, feya I have seen but not noticed?”

Fuuri,” remembered Kiri. “The fireflies by the water.”

Valan’s jaw dropped. “Those were not fireflies?”

Kiri shook his head firmly, solemn as a grownup. “Not the silvery ones.”

“Don’t tell me they eat… light?”


“Moisture, to be precise,” said Keryon.

“Let’s take things one at a time, shall we?” proposed Yunal. They were digressing already. “You were right to ask about the worlds, it is where we should begin. Our stories are old, far older than the arrival of the Man, but you will not find them in any books. Man have taught us to read and write, but our memory has not faded and we have kept the custom of passing on the Eina knowledge and beliefs through spoken word. It is in our nature to remember them. If you wish to listen, you are most welcome. And even if what you hear may sound inconceivable, fear not, we will not take it to heart if it does not convince you. For much of it is so old, we have no proof but our own conviction and traditions. What you choose to accept or not is up to your own heart.”

Valan nodded and sat himself comfortably on the cushion. Yunal refilled the cups with tea and handed her husband one, with a silent invitation to speak.

“It is an ancient Eina belief that there is another world besides ours,” began Talian in a deep, gentle voice, in the fashion of the great storytellers.

Once upon a time… echoed Valan’s mind and the memory of an old feeling warmed his heart.

Edesil, the World of Radiance, exists in the same place and time as our world, yet they are distinct and hidden from each other. They touch, however, in certain places. Places like Aye-tere, our Blessed Grounds, but there must be others spread throughout the lands, even in your homeland. It is through those that feya drift into our world, thus the name between worlds. Edesil is a realm of pure radiance, or life force, and every creature inhabiting it is made of radiance as well. We call them silfen. Feya are the simplest of silfen and it is for that reason, we assume, that they are able to cross into our world and back.”

Valan’s lips moved in silence and Talian bade him to ask his question.

“Has any of you seen this world? Or the silfen?”

“No. We cannot cross into Edesil.”

“Then how do you know it’s there?”

“We cannot cross, but sometimes the Eina are granted ways to see it.” Talian raised a hand to prevent another digression. “During our long history there have been a few, a very few, chosen ones that have. But we will get to that.”

Valan’s shoulders dropped and he relaxed back, only his cheeks warming up a little. It was embarrassing how the excitement made him act like a child whose curiosity is greater than his patience to listen. Except that he was an educated adult and ought to know better.

“Although they are separate, our world and Edesil exist in a mutually beneficial relationship. They depend on each other in such way that the decline of one would affect the other. The balance between them is what preserves the natural order of things, Madara.

“Edesil is the source of sidaar, growth radiance, that is the energy that makes things come to life and grow. We would not be without it. Sidaar flows freely into our world the same way as feya, bestowing life upon and nourishing it. As a result sidaar changes into sivha, a form of radiance which the silfen feed on. Feya, for example, gather it from dreams, emotions, warmth, sound and such, for all of them carry sivha and—I see you are confused,” said Talian.

“I confess I am.”

“It’s the naming that makes Man’s heads spin every time, dear,” said Yunal, placing a gentle hand on her husband’s. “You are always very scrupulous about them.”

“The names come with the story and that is how it ought to be told,” argued Talian.

“Of course. But for a person unfamiliar with our tongue, it complicates the narrative. Valan, what you must understand is that the relationship between these worlds rests upon the constant flow of radiance between them. It is a cycle. Sidaar, the growth radiance, effuses from Edesil into our world, feeding it, and changes into sivha, new radiance, which flows out, back to Edesil. The silfen feed upon sivha and change it back to sidaar.”

“I think I understand, thank you. But I will write down the names tomorrow if someone will help me. Eli-Talian is right, they are part of the story.”—The old Eina nodded pleased—“But if sivha flows back, why do feya cross into our world? It seems unnecessary.”

“Feya do not make sidaar. We think every silfen was once feya and that feeding at the source helps them grow and mature, until they reach the stage when they can transform radiance.”

“I see… What kind of world is Edesil? Is it in any way like ours?”

“No,” said Talian, “not from what we know. It does not seem to have the same complexity of structure, nor such variety of forms. Although it would be more appropriate to assume it is because of our limited senses that we think it so simple. We do not really know… What we know is that silfen are conscious and communicate with each other, mind to mind. There is no language. They seem to possess a mixture of individual and collective consciousness, sometimes behaving like a single body, sometimes acting on their own.

“There is a silfen who rules or… looks after them. Sireei, their king. His consciousness is so vast and complex it is beyond our comprehension. The Sireei lives about two thousand years and his power and knowledge alone can keep the balance between our worlds.”

“What is the purpose of the silfen, then?”

“Sireei is a powerful creature on his own, but he would not reach his utmost potency without the silfen. Collectively they grow his power. The stronger the king, the stronger the balance and his ability to protect Edesil. Silfen flourish when the balance is strong, so they make sure their king is powerful enough to keep it.”

“Edesil seems almost like a hive,” observed Valan.

Talian nodded. “In some ways, yes, though it is much more. Before a Sireei’s life comes to an end,” he resumed the story, “a new king is born, the Vhareei. The timing is such that the new king has a chance to grow some of his strength before the old one dies, so that the natural order is not endangered.”

“What would happen if the new king would be weak before the death of the old one? Or would die as well?” was Valan curious.

“We do not know, as our lore—as far in the past as it goes—does not mention such an event. But without a Sireei, we think Madara would fall apart. That would harm both worlds.”

“In what sense?”

“Natural disasters, sickness, death. Sooner or later the flow of radiance would stop. Without Sidaar nothing would be born or grow.”

Valan shuddered at the picture. “That would be terrifying.”

“I doubt we would live to see the worst of it,” said the old Eina.

The silence which fell on the room seemed longer and heavier than before. The implications were colossal. Had he thought the answer would be so grim, perhaps he would not have asked that question.

“I’m sorry,” blurted out Valan, with a lump in his throat.

But the eyes watching him, though not smiling anymore, were not afraid. There was peace and acceptance in them.

“Don’t be,” said Talian. “Do not imagine the Eina have never contemplated that, but events of such enormity are beyond anyone’s power to prevent. Everything that is has a beginning and an end. Why would worlds be any different?”

“But, since nothing is everlasting,” added Yunal, “then neither is the end. So the end of something is always the beginning of something new, even if not for us. It’s not so bad if you look at it this way.”

Valan nodded and took a sip of tea, and that calmed him a little. It was then that he realized how much Talian’s storytelling had pulled him in and that, to his surprise, what his mind was dismissing as absurd, his heart was now beginning—or, at least, willing—to accept as possibility. “I interrupted you again,” he apologized.

“It was a pertinent question,” said Talian, “I’m glad you asked it. But you should not worry too much about it. The lore says there have been many Sireei and, if you consider their lifespan compared to ours, you realize the likelihood of such an event is insignificant. Let’s get back to our story.

“The peculiarity of the Vhareei is that, besides the feya, he is the only one who can cross between worlds. In truth we don’t know how or where he comes to life, but it is quite possible that it happens in our world. Because we know he needs to stay here while he grows his power, to replace the old Sireei. It is part of his… learning, if you wish, of building his Reeyun, the bond of the king, that which will help him maintain the flow of radiance and the balance.

“Earlier you asked if we have ever seen Edesil. A few of us have. While in our world, the Vhareei is vulnerable and needs a host, someone akin to a mother, though not entirely the same. Like a baby in his mother’s womb, Vhareei feeds on the sivha of his host and grows—in strength, not size—sheltered and undisturbed. He gets a sense of our world through his host’s senses, emotions, experiences and knowledge. He grows together with his host, building his bond. Unlike the baby, he is aware of his needs and his consciousness expands very fast. He chooses his host. And, although vulnerable outside, inside he has the power to protect her, because thus he protects himself and his future. The future of both worlds.”

“Are you saying the host is… a person?”

“Throughout our history several Eina have hosted Vhareei, yes. It is how we learned what I told you so far.”

Valan stared agape. It was the most extraordinary thing he had ever heard. The whole story was mind blowing, but this last bit… there was no tangible proof, yet somehow it sounded… true, his heart whispered. His gaze passed from one face to another, looking for a sign, a hint that maybe this was just a wonderfully imaginative legend, but all he could see was conviction. Not the kind Man had about those higher wills which they could not see—Fates, Gods or whatever names they gave them—but the kind he saw in scholars when they brought evidence one could not argue against. The same confidence. His mouth opened and closed soundlessly. He wanted to speak, but had no idea what to say.

“We know it is hard for you to believe, so don’t force yourself for our sakes,” said Yunal, understanding his trouble. “We are sharing our knowledge, not trying to convince you, and whether you believe or not does not change anything for us. But we appreciate honesty more than forced civility. Don’t forget we can tell what is in your heart even if you don’t say it.”

“That… that’s the problem. My mind says this is not possible, none of it. It’s your belief, and I respect it, but it is no different from claiming that last year’s yield was good because some superior entity felt particularly benevolent towards those who worked hard and paid their due respect… But my heart…” Valan trailed off, with a helpless gesture.

“Your heart tells you it is true,” said Yunal for him. “We can sense that. And it cannot reconcile with your mind. Don’t push yourself, it does no good to be conflicted. Give yourself time, so whatever the conclusion, it will be your own and will give you peace of mind.”

“It is late, anyway,” said Arryn, cradling Kiri, who was struggling to stay awake. The child cuddled in her arms.

Valan raised his eyes to the roof. Against the warmly lit timber, the patch of forest revealed by the opening was ink black and he thought he spotted a few twinkling stars. Or did he?

“We said enough for one day,” agreed Talian, following his gaze. “Do not let your mind linger on it, get some sleep. Tomorrow you will feel better.”

That was easier said than done. Once in his room, Valan went straight to the window and pushed the curtain aside, looking for the elusive creatures that had been living with him for so long without his knowledge. And there they were: tiny spindle-shaped shells, no longer than the nail of his little finger, covering the wood like a fungus, borrowing its colour. No wonder he had not noticed them, they were blending perfectly with the window sill.

He hesitantly touched the crust, fearing it might react perhaps, but nothing happened. It felt just as it looked, hard and rugged, and nothing indicated that it was alive. He snuffed the lamp, a little disappointed, and lay on the bed, not knowing what to believe and fearing that sleep will not come to him because too many thoughts hummed in his head like bees in a hive. But he had underestimated the qualities of the Eina’s herbs, because soon his eyelids closed and he sank into a deep, dreamless sleep.

The next morning, after breakfast, Valan went to sit in the animals’ glade with Kiri. On a trip with Keryon to Maelifeld he had bought paper, ink and charcoal, so he could write down what he learned from the Eina: medicine recipes, plant names and benefits, how to identify, preserve and prepare them, and all sorts of useful things. Stories, too, for Eina were fond of their lore and he felt he could never grow tired of listening to them. He was much more comfortable with the language, now that he spoke it every day, and his speech had improved significantly through storytelling and nightly debates with Talian and Keryon. His wounds had long since healed, so every day he worked alongside his hosts, who shared the earnings with him.

Money was useless inside the tribe, but helpful when dealing with Asturans, for not everything could be bartered. Valan spent as little as possible outside his share, saving the money for the return journey. His friends—for they were not treating him as just a guest anymore—had reassured him repeatedly that he was most welcome to stay as long as he wished, but he knew he will have to go home one day. Not yet, though, there was still much to learn from them and he did not feel ready to give up the happiness of that simple living, nor eager to return to his former life which, although more crowded and diverse, now felt dull and needlessly complicated.

Leaning his back against a tree, he took out the paper and started making notes about the conversation from the previous evening. Kiri had joined him to help with the names, though it suddenly occurred to Valan that maybe the child did not know how to spell them. In what language? Do Eina have a writing system? No, no, they must use Asturan for that. Yunal had said it was the Man who taught them to read and write.

“Why do you have to write things?” asked Kiri, sitting cross-legged on the grass, beside him.

“I don’t want to forget what I learn here. Especially something as interesting as last night’s story.”

“Can you not remember?”

“Usually I can, but there is just too much to learn in such a short time. Do your parents not write recipes or notes?”

“No. If we pay attention, we remember.”

“Hmm… So you never forget?” Valan’s eyebrows arched slightly.

Kiri frowned, disconcerted. “I do… but I ask Manee and she tells me.”

“When I go home, there will not be anyone for me to ask, will there?”


Valan chuckled, amused by the child’s candour. He had never been one for marriage and offspring, he disliked being tied to a place and had little patience with these small versions of people, whom he found difficult to handle and crying or screaming too much. But one like Kiri, he realized, he could live with. And indeed be quite pleased with it. He smiled at the strangeness of that thought and returned to his notes, while his little companion patiently watched him scribble.

“What was the name for the Blessed Grounds?”


Valan paused. “I don’t suppose you know how to write that?”—Kiri shook his head—“Never mind, I will ask your grandfather later… Do you—no, never mind,” he said again and he wrote the word as it sounded.

“Is that your language?” asked Kiri.

“Laedan, yes.”

“Is it very different?”

Valan thought for a moment. Kiri was very young and probably knew too little, if anything, about the history of the Man.

“Quite different, yes.”

“Was it hard to learn Asturan?”

“Um, not really. Though I am not the most talented person with languages. Other people learn much faster and some learn very slow.”

“Can you write in Asturan?”

“Yes. Do your parents?”

Kiri nodded. “Can you teach me?”

“Would you like to?”

“Yes.” Kiri’s face brightened.

“Very well, I will.”

“And Laedan?”

“If you wish,” agreed Valan. “But first, will you help me finish these notes?”

“Yes.” Kiri drew himself closer.

Later on, when they were in the kitchen sorting the dried plants for storage, Valan told Arryn about his conversation with her child.

“You should not have promised him,” she said, with a playful look. “Now he won’t let you off the hook.”

“I don’t mind that, as long as you don’t. I’m sure I can find time for it.”

“Then I see no problem. He never seemed that interested in writing, but then he doesn’t see anyone use it. I guess it’s because he watched you take notes in the last weeks. Such a curious child.”

“I think he is delightful, and I’m not particularly, um, inclined towards children.”

“You mean you don’t like them much,” said the woman, bluntly. She seemed diverted rather than offended. “No one who has seen you with Kiri would believe that, though.”

“Well… I don’t dislike them, but I would rather watch them from afar,” admitted Valan.

“Keryon will be pleased. Even if it isn’t our tradition, he believes reading and writing are some of the best things we learned from your kin. He would like to see Kiri read books, though we don’t have many.”

Valan remembered the bookshops from Ardaena and a fond smile spread across his lips. “It will be my pleasure to teach him… I don’t mean to be rude, but why has Keryon not taken him to Maelifeld? There is a small bookshop, I think the keeper would not refuse to help. People who sell books are bookworms themselves. Always happy to convert a humble mortal to their kind.” All those he knew were like that.

Arryn giggled at such phrasing. “I would agree with you if Kiri were not a yanee.”

“Oh, I forgot about that.” It was not hard to, Kiri was no different than any other child.

“After Becoming there will be no trouble in taking him to town. We will find him a teacher. It’s how we all learned.”


“The Becoming Ritual. Berethis. We have not talked about it, have we?” realized Arryn, seeing Valan’s confusion.

“No. Please do,” he said eagerly.

“You know the Eina are born without gender.”—Valan nodded—“To us it is natural, because we have always been like this, even though none of the other creatures are. Such a child is called a yanee, which means a person between genders. In truth, a yanee is a person with both genders in a latent state. This… stage in our growth lasts until the age of fifteen.”

“That’s quite a long time.”

“Not compared to our years.”

“Of course.”

“Man find it very disturbing and it took many Eina lifespans for them to… reconcile with it. Almost. So we keep the yanee away from Man and their children until after Becoming.”

Valan’s heart stung. How was it possible that these wonderful, kind people were so inclined to love and accept what the Man were so quick to fear and sentence—that is, whatever was unlike them? He felt so ashamed for the smallness of their hearts, he almost apologized. But he did not, because it would have been pointless. Moreover, the Eina did not seem to resent the Man for their prejudiced minds. Still, it was saddening to realize the difference of character.

“I pained you,” noticed Arryn.

“No. Not you.”

“Your own people. But don’t judge them. We are each made our way. Don’t let it trouble you.”

“It’s unfair. Kiri is a normal child. He is sweet, intelligent and well behaved. How can anyone see him any other way?”

“They don’t, not in Maelifeld anyway. But they know what he is and that unsettles them. Don’t imagine they chase yanee away, though, nothing like that. It just makes them apprehensive and reserved. It would be distressing to send Kiri to a teacher every week. Both for him and the people from the town. That doesn’t mean he has never been there.”

“I see…”

Arryn took a kettle from the hearth and poured both some tea. Among the flavours Valan recognized the sweet, slightly apple-like chamomile.

“There are a few more bundles in the main room, can you bring them here? Only the ones who dried completely.”

Valan returned with four bundles of plants. One of them was so strongly scented, it invaded his nostrils with a sharp, bitter-sweet smell when they crushed its leaves and small flowers, making him sneeze.

“The bitter thousand-leaf,” said Arryn.

“Is this not yarrow?”

“A variety.”

Valan grimaced. “They are all bitter.”

“This one beats them all. It tastes awful, but it is very potent. It can bring down the strongest of fevers and relieves all sorts of pain, among other things. We gave you some when you were sick.”

“Really? Good thing I was not aware, then.” They both laughed at that. “You were saying about the Becoming Ritual.”

“We call it so, but, really, it is not like any other. It does not involve other tribe members, only the family. When a yanee is in his fifteenth year, his parents take him to one of the Aye-tere.”

“The Blessed Grounds.”

“Yes. There are only a few of them and the trip to the closest one takes several days. Once there, the yanee must be by himself for seven days. His parents cannot stay with him, but they usually spend that time a day or two away from Aye-tere.”

“You leave the child alone for a whole week? Isn’t that dangerous?”

“Why would it be? It is probably the safest place in the whole land, for it is right where our world meets Edesil. The sidaar protects and nourishes him. No creature harms him. It is a place of harmony and powerful radiance.”

“Have you and Keryon been through that?”

“Yes. Every Eina has. It is our way.”

“And no one was harmed?”

“No one.”

“What happens there?”

Arryn’s hands paused. “It’s difficult to say, because we don’t remember much. It is…” Her eyes stared blankly, as if she were looking inwardly, searching through memories. “I remember feeling like being in a cocoon. A warm, safe cocoon… dreaming… I think. I remember peacefulness.” She blinked, returning to the present. “That is all.”

“It’s like a beautiful dream you just cannot remember,” came Keryon’s voice from the next room, startling Valan. He was standing in the opening towards the dining room, holding a bucket of milk. He placed it gently on the floor and came to their table, picking a few leaves and sniffing them with visible pleasure. “You were talking about Berethis?”

“Yes,” said Arryn, lifting a fistful of crushed flowers to her husband’s nose, who smelled them and smiled. “I was telling Valan we don’t really know what happens during that week.”

“True. Only emotions come to mind, and even those are just a memory of the emotions of a child. They are quite difficult to put into words. In many ways it is akin to a week-long sleep. Time flows differently: for the parents it is a week of waiting, for the child it feels like a moment. A wonderful moment… Think about how it is when you wake up from a deep, resting sleep, as if you’ve just closed your eyes and it’s already morning.”—Valan nodded, understanding—“Only it’s more powerful than that. Like a second birth.”

“That sounds… amazing!”

“It is,” agreed Arryn. “After seven days the parents return to find a boy or a girl. And they go home.”

“Just like that?”

“Did you expect some kind of ceremony?” guessed Keryon.

“More or less, yes. You call it a ritual.”

“It is, for the yanee. He is transfigured, reborn, like a butterfly. Physically and emotionally.” Keryon brought a chair and sat, untying another bundle and starting to pluck the dry leaves off their stems. “A Man’s child is a small, immature version of an adult, but everything is already there, waiting to grow and bloom. From a young age he or she grows identifying with one gender. You do not realize the full extent to which this influences the emotional and mental growth until you see the opposite.

“A yanee is incomplete. Until Becoming he lacks gender identity. He knows Manee and Danaa are different, but he cannot identify with either of them. Having no gender or just the potential to be any of them, without actually being one, is the same. The ritual completes a yanee, that’s why we call it a Second Birth. For Eina it is just as important as the first one.”

“Incredible,” was all Valan could mutter.

His fingers were idly crushing the herbs in front of him, but his mind was struggling to understand, to imagine what it meant to be a yanee. And it just could not. He had always known he was a man, well, a boy who would become a man. That had given him a place, right from the start, in the… what was the Eina word? Madara? Yes. The natural order. It was a fact that creatures were either male or female.

“I’d heard the Eina were born without gender before I came here, but I didn’t imagine… it never crossed my mind… I didn’t wonder even for a moment what that really means. Now I can see why you keep them away from Man. Our minds could not grasp this.”

“You seem to,” said Arryn.

“No, I don’t think so. I can understand the implications are deeper than I would have thought but… to me Kiri is still a sweet little boy. In fact I realize I have always seen him that way. I don’t think I can change that.”

“That is only because we refer to Kiri as a him. But I told you, it’s just a convention.”

“It doesn’t matter. If you called a yanee she, I would see her as a girl, and if you called a yanee it, I would probably feel compelled to choose a gender myself. Is this not the very reason for your convention?” Valan sighed. “I cannot imagine how Kiri feels about this.”

“You have not realized yet it is only you who sees it as a difficulty. We have always been like this.”

“I know. Forgive me, but I cannot help it. This challenges an age-old fact… state of things. Intrinsic to us.”

“It seems to me you think it is a sad thing for us,” said Keryon, serious. “It is not. The Eina were here long before the coming of Vhana, the new people. That is, the Man. You.” There was no condescension in his attitude, he was simply stating a fact. “Until then we never thought about this difference between us and the other creatures. We are different in many ways, after all. We live longer, we have no fur or feathers, nor fangs or claws. We walk on two legs instead of four and don’t have wings. Why would it be unusual that we are born without gender?

“When Vhana arrived, they were the first ones like us in more ways than any other being. Then we learned they live shorter lives, they give birth to boys and girls and are more impulsive and less connected to the living world than us. Our ancestors thought it very strange in the beginning. But all creatures are different and beautiful, why would we see Man otherwise?”

“I see what you mean… Then how do you know about gender identity at young ages?”

“Observation. We watched how Man children grow. And felt their hearts.”

Ah, yes, thought Valan, the Eina bond with living things—Kiyun, the bond of the heart. He would have described it as a sort of affinity, an ability to sense the emotions of others, though it was much more than that. It was as if they were able to enter the very heart of a creature and see what happens there. And talk to it. And it seemed that creatures were able to feel them and talk back. Talian had said that Eina had always had that ability, and that it was probably an effect of the strong sidaar flowing in through Aye-tere.

“It crossed my mind, just now, that I have not seen gender roles in the tribe. Is this in any way connected to the way you are born?”

“That is well noticed,” said Keryon. “Eina children grow and learn just as fast as Man children of the same age. Since they have no gender identity and no one knows the outcome of Becoming, they are not restricted to certain roles, or forced into patterns through a deliberate, established education. They are all equal. It is something that impresses deeply into their characters, because it happens at a very young age. It is the same as with Man children, only the foundation is the opposite.”

“Physical aspects aside, I feel more inclined towards your way of thinking,” said Valan. “Gender roles, like any other predetermined roles, regardless of origin—social status, family tradition and such—often ruin the greatest potential in a person. Unlike other creatures—and I hope I am not offending any, just because I don’t understand their tongue—we are rational beings, that is, we have the faculty of reasoning. It is our best and most distinctive quality and we should encourage it, not suppress it by forcing us into ill-suited moulds.”

His cheeks heated when he looked up and saw that their hands had stopped and they were watching him. Were his claims too bold, perhaps? After all he was half their age and could not equal their understanding.

But their eyes were smiling.

“Spoken like a wise man.” Arryn’s words only made the heat in the cheeks spread to the whole of Valan’s face. She turned her eyes back to the herbs. “Did you find the nerife?”

Oh, understood Valan. He had not been aware of the tension slowly building in his body. “I did. They blend so perfectly it is no wonder I missed them. I still cannot believe they are not what they seem.”

“Tonight there might be a storm. A thunderstorm,” stressed Keryon, with a tone of anticipation. “If so, you will see something beautiful.”

“Val!” Kiri’s voice came through the dining room’s windows. “Val, come see what I found!”

His parents exchanged amused looks.

Valan relaxed in his chair and smiled. And though he was not certain about those higher powers, he thanked the Fates—or whatever their names—and the creatures of radiance with their king, and whoever else might be listening, for being there, in the midst of the most wonderful people he had ever met.

“I’m coming!”

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