Chapter 1 - Raines
If I could harness the stars, I would cast off among them, into their sea of brilliance, and remain in this moment forever.
My fingers tingle pleasantly as the music, warm and honey-like, fills me up from the inside out. The golden light of torches chases away midnight gloom in our clearing of trees.
Hundreds of us - the entire Caerinian elvish tribe - has turned out for the Natur Celebration. I draw closer to the modest stage, eyes drifting over the dancers. Their limber bodies flow by me. I stumble as a stout woman pushes by to reach the stage. She smells of mead and is tripping over herself. I smile.
The music swells and hundreds of voices rise with it. My chest vibrates, lungs full of unsung words. Tentatively, I open my mouth and join everyone until the last heavy drumbeat soars through me.
Silence. The voices have more or less ceased, excluding a few drunk men, the dancers are frozen in their final position. The stars are holding their breath.
We explode into glorious cheers. The dancers leap offstage and begin to mingle, at last, accepting goblets of mead and tureens of wheat cakes.
“‘Ere, son! Take it an’ drink like it’s yer last, my boy!” An exceptionally tall fellow brandishes a goblet at me. “You look like you haven’t had a drop to drink this eve! No one’ll be leavin’ the Natur festival sober!” He laughs grandly and stumbles off through the crowd.
I stare at the cup in my hand, grinning. Forever my favorite night of the year, this celebration. I raise the cup to my lips and indulge. It sears my tongue before bolting down my throat, leaving me lightheaded and happy. And eager for more. I wonder, aimless, through the crowd. The music has resumed, upbeat. The bright gold-and-white costumes of the dancers flash by me occasionally as the performers let down from their rigorous training schedules at last.
The next three days are times of rest for us all.
I’m about to slip away into the woods for my own little ritual when a hand snakes out of the crowd and snares my shoulder. I find myself right next to the stage with a group of dancers and their admirers.
“Look at you! You’re quite handsome!”
The dancer is young - my age. His hair is in three dragon braids, the traditional style of all ceremonial dancers. His jade eyes are clouded with drink. I smile and let out an almost exasperated sigh. It wouldn’t be a Caerinian festival without mead.
“Your performance was incredible,” I tell them.
“Was it, really?” the elf’s eyes are clear momentarily. “That’s good to hear. We’ve been training twenty hours a day.”
My eyebrows raise and my mouth hangs slightly ajar. But before I come back to my senses and speak, he is overcome by mead once again.
“Well, you keep your good looks about you! I could do with a pretty sight after our next performance, too.”
I slink away, happily but embarrassed. I am desperately in love with the dancers. In a few moments, the trees begin to thin. My feet ache and my brain whirls from overstimulation, but the second I reach the clearing, all my energy escapes in a flurry. The air smells of sweet grass. I stand at the edge of my trees and gaze across the Fields. Moonlight shimmers over the lush budding crops. Wind whistles over leaves and caresses my body. I take a slow, large gulp of air, releasing it in the mutter of my own Natur prayer of thanks. A healthy year is on the horizon.
I lay down on a swath of moss that has become my bed, gazing soulfully at the stars above. My breathing steadies out, and I become one with the night.
In the distance, the druids’ songs begin, cheerful and full of life. It’s beautiful and haunting. I manage to comprehend only a few words of the ancient Gaelic phrases; it is a thanks to the natural spirits for a healthy year and the humble wish for another.
Perhaps, one day, I will be able to feel energies as the druid priests claim to. I’ve never quite been able to sense the wood nymphs or water spirits.
Enchanted by their song, I slip into dreams. The drunken dancer from the party - his face swims among the stars in my mind.
The early morning dawns in hues of pale gold. I breathe in the dew-laden air and gaze across our shimmering fields. Those of the Caerini Tribe who farm are just beginning to poke out of their cabins. The farmers live among their crops, in small stone shelters dotting the Fields.
Turning away from the view, I flinch slightly, involuntarily.
“Persie,” I mumble. She is sprawled next to me, dark hair fanning out from her head. “Persephone!” She sighs audibly, lips turning up slightly at the corners. Propping myself up on an elbow, I lean over and place a kiss on her forehead. She mumbles. Exasperatedly, I let her pull my head to her mouth and she kisses me right between the eyebrows.
“Someone got very drunk last night,” I comment teasingly. She smiles reluctantly.
“You get drunk, too,” Persie says, opening bright eyes that sweep my face. “You just get drunk on stars.”
I smile. “It’s good to see you,” I say, reflecting on her two-moon absence.
“It’s good to see you, too.” For a brief moment, we lay in peaceful silence. My eyes follow a few kids as they sprint happily across the Fields. Laughter bubbles into the sky.
“How did you find me?” I ask at last.
“Raines, I can always find you.” Persie stands and I join her.
“Look at you!” I smile. “Look at how much progress you’ve made.” I take in her softening features, her chest showing a hint of curves. She glances down, self-conscious.
“Thanks. It’s been…. Well, you know it’s been a long road.” She absent-mindedly reaches for her jaw, uncomfortably rubbing the hint of stubble there.
“I’m proud of you.”
Persie reaches out and squeezes my hand. “You’re thin,” she says. I am suddenly aware of my hollow cheeks and bony frame. I shrug. “You haven’t been eating, have you?”
“I’ve been busy. Helping the druids prepare for the Natur Celebration. And I was worried about you.”
Persie shakes her head, smiling. “I’m going to change out of these lovelies,” she gestures to her festival garments almost wistfully, “and rest a bit in my hut. Reacclimate, I guess. Will you join me tonight? We’ll go listen to the panpipes.”
“Sure. Take care of yourself.” I watch her sway into the trees, fingering her skirt and skipping every other step.
I am relieved by her presence. Although I was incredibly happy for her, my thoughts were frequently uneasy during her absence. I thought of her two-day boat ride across the Simlin Sea and into Estlin Bay. The bay is the most frequented trading post for the northern tribes.
I picture Persie now, walking up the dock surrounded by dozens of different languages. I think about her abnormally dark skin, typical of southern tribes, but that stands out the second she speaks Caerinian. I think of the weeks she spent with Ordovicians.
She’s safe and feeling better. I’m happy for her.
We’ve been at peace for quite some time now - the tribes. Meaning in part, aside from a functioning society, that the Warrior Dance Team has been allowed precious more free time. Now that the Ceremonial Dancers have finished the Natur performance, they may receive similar leisure time.
A vague memory stirs in my head. Persie used to be a dancer. She never made either team simply due to inexperience. I don’t like to remember her that way. Short hair, dark tunic. Lumped in with the other boys. Only a few moons later, she quit of her own volition (or so she tells me). It’s the boys and men who dance.
My stomach whines with hunger. Moss bouncing underfoot, I walk through the woods. I reach the quiet heart of Caerini a few short minutes later. No scrap of wood is left in the firepit. Otherwise, it appears as if nothing unusual had happened last night.
I turn. The drunken dancer from the festival. He peers shyly at me from his lounging position against a tree.
“Hei.” I step in his direction. Green eyes pierce my chest.
“I owe you an apology,” he says smoothly, Long pale hair, wavy from the ceremony’s braids, ripples about his face and shoulders. “I feel I may have embarrassed you last night. I’m sorry.”
“Mead will do funny things,” I return, and he releases a brief chuckle. Pause. I smile at him because he is smiling at me. I smile at him because he is beautiful. I smile at him because I feel as if his heart is already beating in my chest. He lets out a huge sigh.
“I haven’t been down to Caerini in weeks.” He looks around. “Dance is….it’s wonderful, but it’s tiring. I miss walking in the trees.”
“Join us for the panpipes tonight,” I offer. A warm smile spreads across his impish face. I touch his shoulder in the formal greeting. “I am Raines.”
A shiver of sparks snaps through my body when his hand lands on my shoulder. “Calix.”
“I’ll come find you - near here - at dusk.”
He smiles. “Thanks, Raines.”
Self-consciously, I walk away in the direction of Persie’s hut.
She’s wearing a loose, soft brown dress. Suddenly, I am rushing forward, hugging her tight. My throat chokes and I can’t say a word. I don’t know why a searing pain has just scorched my heart. Perhaps her absence, or seeing her return changed and happier? Her energy pulses through me. I pull back, at last, staring up into her eyes, which swim in crystal tears unshed.
“I really missed you,” I get out, and a single tear streaks down my face.
“I missed you incredibly.” She kisses my forehead. Inside, we settle on the floor, leaning against the wall. Our energies shift and play with the other’s. Not a word is exchanged. I am a quickly-intensifying jumble of emotions. Confusion most prominent. I know something has changed, yet I have no idea if I’m supposed to run towards it or hide from it.