Orb and Arrow, Book I: Exploration

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*** 5 ***

That night around the fire, Uthalef stood and everyone fell silent. “Ǣdhahren is well enough to travel. In the morning, we’ll fix slings for those who are unable to walk and a basket chair for him. It is time for all of us, all,” and he looked at Brillar and Elden, “to go Home.” He sat down to cheers.

The next morning bustled with activity. Meat for the journey, slings and a chair made and long branches cut for them. Ǣlfec were assigned to carry the burdens in relays. Only two hours after dawn and everything was ready. A sure-path for Ǣlfainhome was taken from Uthalef’s belt pouch and sent upwards and the group move out to the southeast.

“We could,” Elden had told her quietly the night before, “leave them now, continue our travels?”

“And miss the opportunity to see Ǣlfainhome?” She was answered, as she knew she would be, by his chuckle.

“Few are invited as we have been. No, that will be something to see and something for tales around many a hearth.”

The ǣlfain pace was slow for although they were used to going lightly there were the injured and those who needed to be carried. Brillar stayed close to those with injuries making sure that healing bones where not shaken too badly by the journey. Elden was often out with a hunting party coming back with deer and gwinth. Herbal tea with honey had become something of a favorite at night and the supply of honey dwindled quickly.

It was Elden who solved that problem, using far-sight to find a bee hive as the group went through a field of flowers sprung up where several streams ran together. It was the ǣlfec who, they said, ‘sang the bees to sleep’ and took several combs. Elden watched from a safe distance not sure he could trust their ‘singing.’ Still, it was effective and bits of comb were passed around with most of the honey saved for the tea. Water was no trouble for them as they moved; streams were everywhere flowing from the mountains.

In the afternoon, there was a joyful meeting. Runners from Ǣlfainhome met them and were greeted with enthusiasm. They carried ǣlfa brews, breads, dried fruits, herbs, and nuts which were shared with everyone. If they were surprised to see two humans in the company, they said nothing. There was a joyous reunion for Ǣdhahren as his brother, Oubren, was among the runners. Ǣdhahren was scooped up and tossed into the air to much laughter before he could be quieted so he brother could go into discussion with Uthalef; then he sought out Brillar and Elden.

The pair was sitting by a stream bare toes dangling in the water. When he approached they scrambled to their feet.

“You are well met,” he greeted them with a bow. “Many thanks for your help in rescuing my brother. I will see you again at Ǣlfainhome.” With another bow, he turned and went back to the company getting ready to take his brother home at once.

They looked at each other in puzzlement. “A quick greeting,” Elden remarked and they sat down, feet once again in the cool water. As they watched, four of the ǣlfec, Oubren with Ǣdhahren in a pack on his back, set off at a run toward Ǣlfainhome. Their rest was brief; all were ready for home now.

That night, Uthalef stood once again at the fire. “In the morning we collect as much water as we can carry. We soon reach the low dunes where there is no water.”

Brillar and Elden opened foldboxes in the morning, storing water in flasks. Whenever the foldboxes were opened, they collected a small crowd.

Finally, it was too much and Wa’olle asked, “How can you carry so much weight? So much…everything.”

Elden smiled at the question. “These boxes are magic-made and take months or years in the making with Item magic. I hold a First in Item but the making of these is a much more specialized skill. Actually, I have never completely understood what goes into their making. Where the weight goes, for example, I am unable to explain. Where the space goes was explained but I’m not sure that I understand it. Brillar?”

“My mother also holds a First, but she was helped and guided when she made my foldbox and never explained it.”

The ǣlfec waited patiently.

“Well, then,” Elden began, “what we see is in three forms. The line, the flat and the height.” He drew the first two on the ground then added an upright stick for the last. “These are what we can see. For a mage, there are other things we can’t see. Mana has an unseen form, for example. It’s everywhere, always being made. A mage, can feel and gather it, store it, use it for spells. The foldbox finds other forms, other spaces that we can’t see and puts our belongings there. Wherever the belongings are, perhaps the full weight is with them. The one I carry would be a little heavier if I added rocks to it but it would still be easy to carry.” Seeing puzzled looks, he smiled again. “As I said, I don’t truly understand it either.”

Uthalef came over to the group. “We’re ready now.” All the ‘students’ disbursed to their places and the group started out at a quick pace. Wa’olle come up alongside them with a smile. “I am to tell Uthalef when you tire, and we will stop.” Both resolved to continue with spells to strengthen and replenish and to take sips of ǣlfa brew when needed.

As they traveled, grass began to thin and streams disappeared. First, the country took on the look of northern scrubland, dry and harsh; then they began to encounter dusty sandy soil that puffed up around their feet, then true sand. Vegetation grew in short tufts then vanished. Ahead of them was a small rise entirely of sand. The wind blew it toward them making eyes water. At the top of the first dune, greater dunes spread out in front of them. Then the heat stuck them in full force making them gasp. Wa’olle shouted in Ǣlfair and they all stopped. The ǣlfec had already wrapped cloth around their faces and provided extra for Elden and Brillar showing them how they should be fastened.

“Wear the cloaks you were given,” Wa’olle advised. “They will protect you from the heat as our clothing protects us. We all need to drink plenty of water or we will fall ill.”

The cloaks were protection cooling them where before they had been warming. “Ǣlfa weave is a mystery to me,” Elden remarked but she just nodded. He sent a spell for strength to her and could feel her welcome it.

There were more spells before the ǣlfec stopped.

“Are you well,” Uthalef asked them as they ate and drank and they nodded. He looked around at the dunes. “We are anxious to return home. We often cross this expanse only at night, and we will begin again after we have eaten to take advantage of the coolness. Can you be ready?”

“We can,” Elden answered for both. As Uthalef left them, he cast waves of strength and replenishment at both of them. Then Brillar cast healing and pain relief at their sore legs and feet after saying, “Mine are on fire.” Finished, she went to check on the injured and the ǣlfec who carried the slings.

A brief rest then Uthalef sent the sure-path home aloft and they set out. The dunes were difficult to navigate. Ǣlfain go lightly but human feet tended to sink into the sand. Twice Brillar slid down a dune, laughing at the bottom. “Much easier than walking,” she said and she brushed away sand. Elden was constantly sinking to his knees and being pulled out by Wa’olle. They were slowing the group, but there were only smiles from them from the ǣlfec.

Dawn found them still in the dunes and Uthalef pushed them onward. It was nearly noon when they slid down the last of the dunes and came to a flat desolate expanse. A halt was called and the ǣlfec took jointed sticks from packs to make short shelters from the sun. Wa’olle and Yarell showed them how it was done and they threw themselves onto the ground under one to sleep. When they woke a fire had been started and they joined the assembled ǣlfec. Packed meat was roasting and Brillar and Elden were rewarded with the first of the cooked pieces, then dried fruit, nuts, breads and more ǣlfa brew. By the end of the meal, the pair was feeling as if they had been on a quiet walk in the forest.

After they finished, one of the ǣlfec began to sing softly and was joined by others. To Brillar, it sounded like a quiet wind in the trees and the splashing of bright water over rocks. When the song stopped, she shook herself to release the spell. Around her, the sun-shelters had been taken down packs were being readied. She made a quick check of the injured making sure that no one was in pain from the journey or the sun. She paid particular attention to the smashed arm and found that it was healing faster than she expected.

In the cool of the night the group pushed on with a brief stop for sleep. In the morning, what had been a quiet gathering was suddenly full of sound, ǣlfec voices in the ǣlfair tongue, bright and happy, laughing. She was pulled to her feet by Yarell who insisted on brushing sand from her. “Today we will be home,” he said joyfully. “Ǣlfainhome is ahead and only a few hours away.”

The day seemed brighter to everyone. The sure-path was used but barely needed and they all stepped forward lightly. There was what seemed to be good-natured joking in ǣlfair all around the humans with laughter and even some winks and pointing.

“What’s all this about,” Elden asked their companion.

“You will know when it happens,” Wa’olle said, and spoke in ǣlfair to those around them to much laughter.

“It seems we will know when ‘it’ whatever it is, happens,” Brillar said laughing.

Two hours later, they went up a small hill. As Brillar and Elden reached the top, they stopped abruptly, to more ǣlfain laughter.

Ahead of them, down the hill and across a green meadow, were trees, titans among trees, colossi among trees. They gaped at them; trunks as wide as houses but houses stretched toward the sky; each tree with branches as great as a forest. Flocks of birds were lost in them. They stretch upwards like massifs. Even from a distance, heads had to tilt backwards to take them in. The pair stood still, agape in wonder, spellbound by the sight.

Around them there was more laughter. “And now you know,” Yarell laughed and pulled at them. “If you don’t move, we’ll never reach them.” He grabbed Brillar’s hand tugging her down the hill and into a run.

Shouts in ǣlfair, then, “They come,” Yarell shouted.

Across the field, running toward them were hundreds of ǣlfain singing, all carrying flowers, foods. They were engulfed by ǣlfa who laid flowers on the necks of all who were returning. Ǣlfen fell into the arms of their returning ǣlfec and the unwed ǣlfec were welcomed by ǣlfen. Each time the pair tried to speak their thanks, food was offered. Ǣlfic tugged at their hands. They were nearly dragged across the field then onto a bridge over rushing water and into the shade of the trees, greater in their nearness than they had been in the distance. Still the laughter and song was around them as they walked and gazed in wonder. Ǣlfainhome.

Had it not been for the throng around them, it might have been hushed under the trees where ferns grew tall along the paths. Now the very air seemed to vibrate with the joy of the homecoming. Ǣlfec had gone out on search and then into battle and now had returned. As they surged ahead, they glimpsed one ǣlfen walking apart but with them, carrying no flowers. Seeing where they looked, Yarell said, “Her husband was the man who fell.” There was no time for more as they walked on for miles. Side paths joined theirs and more ǣlfain watched from them and waved them on.

Finally the path widened and became a road laid with tiles in greens and blues. Laughter and song continued but more quietly. Finally the path opened onto a wide plaza filled set among trees and filled with ǣlfain. An ǣlfe, tall and stately, dressed in white that was trimmed with silver, stepped forward and all fell silent.

“Welcome home to each and all.” There was brief cheering and he held up his hand. “Our guests must be tired. Places have been prepared for you,” he said, nodding to Elden and Brillar, “with food and drink.” He smiled at them sadly. “Tonight is for ǣlfain speech and ǣlfain grief.”

Yarell came for them and led them away from the crowd with ǣlfic still following until they were shooed away. Away from the crowd, they felt the hush of the forest around them and the still air. They were led through leafy paths to a clearing where the roots of two great trees formed something like chambers. Draperies over the entrances provided some privacy. Before the rooms was a wide pool suited for swimming at least a few strokes. It was formed by a brook that ran through the clearing. Twisted roots curled here and there and the air itself was like food and drink.

“You may swim if you like,” Yarell said, “then take your rest.” Bowing slightly, he left by the same path.

Brillar sat on the bank of the pool and dipped in her hand. “Cool but not cold, another wonder in a day of wonders.”

Elden came from a chamber with a handful of fruit. Brillar stood and cast a cleansing spell on herself and her clothes then stripped down to her scants.

“You clean before you bathe?” Elden asked laughing.

“It would be a horror to sully such a pool with the dust of the trail,” she replied, and splashed in finding the pool nearly to her chest. Reaching up, she unbraided her hair, letting it float free and began to swim. Elden lay down on the bank, one hand trailing in the water. He popped a small fruit into his mouth.

“I think I’d rather eat these than swim,” he said, and found himself splashed.

“What is it with you and water,” he asked, and dried himself with a spell.

She pulled herself onto the bank next to him, dripping and wringing out her hair.

“There are places near Laurenfell that I imagined were perfection.” She found herself suddenly dry. “They were only shadows; dreams of perfection.”

“Someone comes,” Elden said. Brillar answered by slipping back into the pool.

Uthalef called a quiet greeting before coming into the glade and was welcomed. He smiled at Brillar who had seated herself on an underwater rock. Now she came out and found herself dry again. “She drips,” Elden smiled at Uthalef as she dressed and seated herself.

“You have questions,” he smiled again.

“She always has questions,” Elden answered before she could speak.

“Only a few. In the K’ish chamber, he asked for a trade, an ǣlfain child for an ǣlfe lord?”

“I am counted as one,” Uthalef replied.

Brillar blushed, completely flustered.

“I think what my apprentice means, what we both mean, is that if we have ever treated you rudely….” Uthalef waved a hand still smiling.

“I was one of the company; a leader, but one among many. There were other ǣlfain lords with us also unnamed. All is well.”

“You would have traded yourself for Ǣdhahren then?”

“I would. As I recall, I tried to and was interrupted by lightning.”

Now it was Elden’s turn to be flustered and Uthalef laughed, then sobered. “I never really thought that he meant to keep his word. Nor did I think that any of us would leave that place alive. We owe you a great debt, all of us.” He was silent for a moment, looking at the pool and the trees.

“All is well. Tonight you will remain here in this glade. Nothing, I think, is lacking. Tomorrow is for the dawn. Oh, Elden, one question. I have your name but where were you born? Lord Ǣlethee has requested it.” The question answered, he stood, bowed slightly, and left as quietly as he had come.

The day was already fading they were so deep in the trees. “An ǣlfain lord among us. I could feel his anger, his fear when he mentioned the K’ish.” She shook her head and was silent, then, “Now, m’lord mage, will you swim or do I push you in.”

Elden swam. They brought food out beside the pool and Brillar put her hair back in a braid. As night fell, growths on the trees began to glow giving them exactly the light they needed.

“Ferns,” Brillar said examining one great trunk. “They grow in the bark and the roots are glowing. Another marvel.”

From the direction of the plaza they could hear ǣlfain song, this time mournful.

“Sad but still so beautiful.” She stayed with him, almost afraid to move, until the song stopped and everything was quiet except the night birds and chirping insects then went to her bed. She left him lying on his back on the streambank, staring through the branches waiting for stars in the darkling sky.

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