Here are the first three chapters from Chameleon’s Morrow, a work of Fantasy Fiction by Sid Prise:
Chapter the First: From the Cradle . . .
Agirl was born without a name.
This was only proper, for who can name anyone? Many peoples in the world, the dwarves, the humans, the orcs and the goblin folk, the wee folk called florets and their gnomish cousins, called tinkers, the trolls and the titans and the giants, the satyrs and the sylphs and the merfolk, and all the obscurer, hidden races of legend—all the peoples of T’luria, well known and lesser known—all name their children at birth, or shortly thereafter. Most cultures consider it the duty, right, and pleasure of the old to name the young. But the Elves of the Great Western Forests do not name their children at birth. Rather, they call them “elflings” or “little ones” or “blood of future times”—terms of love, of respect, but none of them anything like a specific or proper “name.”
A personality forms only gradually for elves, just as for all the creatures of the world. In the elfish ken, issuing a name to a child before she has a chance to develop her own personality is naught short of an invitation to bad luck. The dwarves, opposite the elves in so many ways, assign their children names at birth, names not unique to them, but rather names handed down from darkest antiquity, then reused over and over in subsequent generations in a precise and endless cycling. The clan patriarch or matriarch assigns this name, judges whether the child remains worthy of it, and may sometimes decide to revoke it—the greatest disgrace among the many meted out in the shame-ridden dwarfish culture to those who cannot or will not conform to its demands.
Other races, such as the florets, or the humans, are not quite so formal as the dwarves with their names. But the principle—the “assigning” of names, without any thought to an individual’s personality, much less her right to name herself—is the same.
As an elfchild grows, she comes to have many informal names—“pet” names—given her by her intimates. But these pet names are, like the first euphemisms, only temporary, “working titles.” A person’s true name, the one which becomes hers for life, must eventually be chosen by the person herself. The first real ceremony of her life, one which sets the course of all the ceremonies she will ever celebrate, is that in which she chooses her adult name, proclaims it to her elfin community, and to all the world beyond. After this Declaration Ceremony, the elfin adult can choose whether and when she responds to the pet names of the hundred-odd years of her childhood. Sometimes, good friends might call her by a nickname for the rest of her life, as an expression of the special bond between them. Other times, a nickname might be used to mock her, a reminder that people knew her “way back when,” to cut her down to size if she acts in ways they deem pretentious. But her chosen name is considered her “true” name, an integral part of how she relates to everything else—her spirituality, her politics, her magick-use, her relationship style, the way she makes love.
An elf must choose. The freedom to choose, and the duty to choose, is finally what makes an elf an elf.
The namelessness of an elf reflects the Namelessness of the Universe, the mystery elves and other folk round the Sphere of T’luria call pa’aan. Pa’aan was there before all things, yet it is the stuff that is in all things. Before there was a universe at all, there was Pa’aan, the Formless, the Nameless, the Unnamable, the Unspeakable. From Pa’aan came Dream, and the Realm of Dream; from Dream came Fancy, and from Fancy came Form. In the transmogrification from Formlessness to Dream to Fancy to Form, Pa’aan’s essence was lost. Yet it remains, the shadow behind the substance, existing and not existing with it; like a lover the Real has forgotten, yet whose scent is in every lust that follows.
Pa’aan, the elves say, gave birth to the urge to contemplate it, a spiraling infinity of contemplations, e’er just beyond conclusion. From this need to know the unknowable came Madness into the cosmos, called by elves and their many sister cultures X’pa’aan’oughk. But this name, the most cursed of names, is always whispered. For in it is the power to derange matter itself, all the Spheres, Time and Space, the perversion of all Thought. It can make one one’s own enemy. It can unleash forces much worse than death. Over the myriad millennia, X’pa’aan’oughk has made Itself a God. And all creatures—even the very Gods—fear and loathe It. If e’er It gained ascendancy in the Spheres, the very Web that binds the universes together would be undone. Only the most accursed and tortured of mystics have ever gazed upon the nightmare that would follow.
Pa’aan gave birth also to the resolution of contemplation, the letting go of the spirals, the fusion of the Self with All, the negation of the difference between. This leads to Liberation. It is described in many tongues, but is praised by all who long for it—elves and orcs, dwarves and humans, florets and tinkers, dragons and faeries—all sentient beings who feel its need and pray for its Day. Many have heard tell of the Liberation, but few have heard its proper name, and fewer still can pronounce it. It is said softer than a whisper, for its name is hated by all tyrants, from the least petty chieftain of the orcish tundra, to the great lords of the continental empires.
The name is the tyrants’ curse, promising revolt against their injustice, and the toppling of their order. A secret name, well guarded—its origin has the mystery of Pa’aan in its syllables, just as Madness does. As Madness is a spiral which spirals out and is ne’er complete; just so, Liberation is Returning. Returning is the prerogative and pleasure of every being, sentient and insentient, alive and dead and undead. All of us crave the Return, the cycle complete. For those of us who are lucky, and brave, and honest, and humble, Returning can come to us, a welcoming formlessness that resolves our endless strivings of ego, the transcendent contemplation of the Womb.
So, at least, say the Elves, as they spin their tales and sing their songs and fuck their transcendences in their endless, moonlit forest nights. They call this Pa’aan “the Unseen,” and they mark it in the namelessness which predates every Name. From Pa’aan comes the consciousness of each elfchild’s self; to Pa’aan each shall return when seven or eight centuries of life have passed like a summer eve into the ether. Each sentience is a universe, the only universe the self can be absolutely sure exists. When the fire of sentience dwindles and dies, so dies the universe for that soul. At least, none have come back to tell tales from wherever whence it goes.
Madness comes, they say, from loneliness, the certainty of self the only certainty. In contemplation of it, alone, there is no comfort. Yet Liberation comes when one realizes there is no loneliness, not even in the self alone. For the self and the universe are indeed One. Both swirl within the Unseen. For who knows the secret fears, the secret lusts, that dwell in each of us, in me, in thee? What is the self but shadow, almost all, as the infinite universe is mostly shadow? And who can say where one ends and the other starts?
The Unseen defies all our words, creates without creativeness, generates without generativity. The Unseen is. The order in the chaos, and the chaotic nullification of all ordered things. It is that which says I AM; that, and that only. The Elfish “aa,” which is amongst a child’s first sounds, how an elfchild names herself before names—for it means but “I” or “me.” This is the root of Pa’aan. It was there before the Great Gods; it shall be there when They have ceased, and all this Great and Unknowable Cosmos dissolves into ruin, the very ruins of the ruins turning to stardust, losing form, melting back into the Realm of Dream.
The girl at birth did not therefore have a name. And this was only proper. She lived her first thirty-five years in the Great Western Forest, the Elfish Forest, near an oblong circle of naturally camouflaged treehouses called Rasil’yon. The thorp of less than two hundred souls lay in a flattened land, the bottom of a valley between rising shoulders that become small mountains to the north, with as many names as there are elfish communities round them, as there are elves within those communities. To the south and to the east is a river of many fathoms width and at least those fathoms deep, a softly, slowly, strongly moving river that smells of sulfur and limestone and mossy mud, the rocks all along and under its course yellowing and rusting its blue. It is called “the Rainbow Flow” by those elves who live near its banks, for the yellows of sulfur and the deep blues of limestone swirl in currents amidst the greens and browns and blacks and reds of the fecund, delicious mud. The fish are of delicious variety, and grow fat on the mineral nutrients of the Rainbow Flow, and the Gods and Goddesses of their lineages are generous, persuading them gently, oft and always, to give themselves to the elves’ laziest silken nets. The flora on the banks of the river is lush, yielding much and varied fruit, and the riparian lushness extends many furlongs into the forest on either side. Thus, between forest and flow, the valley of Rasil’yon is blest with much good viands from many sources, the smells and tastes of forest and stream reminding one of the yolk of a world-sized egg, e’er nourishing a people who live as securely as if they’d not yet been bothered to be born. To the west of the village, the valley goes on, endlessly it seems; for many days’ travel would leave you in the same forest of deciduous trees, temperate and changing with the five seasons, the mild winters with their thin dustings of frost, the wet spring and the dry spring, the blazing summers and the wondrous, magical autumns of a thousand fiery colors.
The valley of Rasil’yon is a gentle, calm place to grow older, and the girl grew both quickly and slowly there. Bright and precocious in temperament, she mastered early the complexities of the elfish tongue, all its many voices and tenses and subtly nuanced inflections.
Indeed, she early on displayed a facility for languages generally, and her attentive elders encouraged her to study the other tongues they knew, ranging from the delicate relative of the Ordinary of the Elfish, known as the High dialect, reserved for prayers and ancient epics and deepest love, as well as the Deep Woods dialects of the southerly elfish folk, guttural and lilting and deeply metaphoric. Too, they taught her what they knew of the harsher, grimly practical parlance of Continental Demotic (the blending of several key humanish tongues), and the still harsher grammars and cadences of the dwarves. She learnt a smattering of the rambling dialect of the Deep, or Dark Demotic, that variant spoken in the subterranean realms of eternal night called “The Catacombs,” a hybrid of the Continental tongue and the Dwarfish. She learnt other blendings of tongues, as well, those between the great influences of the Elfish West and the Dwarfish East—including the patois of the Wee Folk of the Heartland Midlands, the northerly dialects of those wee folk who had traveled and left their ancestral homes to (among other things) become the main gadget-crafters of the Dwarfish Protectorate—the Tinkers, as these gnomish folk are called. And the southerly dialects, too, more humanish and elfish than dwarfish, of those wee folk who are of late more settled, and live as farmers and herders and merchants of the wares of the farms and the herds, those wee folk known as the Florets.
These heartland languages were more “cants,” more syllabies of “jargon” than languages outright; yet the girl learnt these cants and jargons also, and with as much diligence and enthusiasm, as much as the wandering merchants and goliards of those wee folk could teach her, passing through her country, trading their words for hers. The girl even studied, as much as “study” could be used to term it, the roughly drawn-together grunts and growls of the Orcs—considered by most elves to be barely even a language, so harsh and simple it is. The growing girl saw patterns in the different languages, families and trees, which she sketched to the amazement of her elders with a stylus of a twig or branch of kindling in the dust and the embers of campfires under the nightly moons, dazzling even the linguists and lore-masters among her community with her insight. Her skill at reckoning the interrelations of the hominine tongues gave her a knack of relating to any of them very quickly, sensing their nuances and structures so well that within scarcely a moon’s time, she could figure a new tongue well enough to parlay it competently. It was almost as if she were a chameleon, and could adopt the mind, the very colors of a foreigner, as easily as her own.
Yet the lass was slow and awkward in developing her body, learning to speak long before she could walk, learning to read and write before she’d mastered swimming or climbing or dancing. Though she would one day become quite proficient in the elfish arts of archery and swordsmanship, as well as in the unarmed elfin martial arts, her first attempts in these areas were dubious and faltering. In these first years, it was the cerebral rather than the physical which marked her. This led to the first pet name she ever carried after the generic “elfling” or “little one.” This was Ha’aad, which means something loosely translatable as “thinking energy” or “the energy of the head/mind.” (Ha’aad is oft nuanced as negative, as in “thinking too much.”) But this name didn’t stick much past her fortieth year, when she began to interact with playmates beyond her parents and caretakers. As she spoke more, and too, learned to dance, Ha’aad came to have other nicknames. And soon thereafter, well before she’d reached her first half-century, she’d begun to ponder in earnest the name she would someday choose for herself.
Her child names were to be as varied and numerous as a tinker’s by her sixties and seventies, half a dozen if one, but none of them would she really like. Il’y’ama was the one she would like best, the elfish word for “flower” or “blossom,” with a subtle syllabic play on yil’y, which means “blood”; the name akin, thus, to “blood-flower.” It was the only one of her pet names she would keep when she fashioned her chosen name decades later. Her playmate Tariil would start to call her Tlalaa around her eightieth year, which means something between “teasing” and “enslaving”—a synonym in elfish for the alluring but most often denying water-nymphs rumored to live deep in the forest, living to taunt and torment hapless boys and girls in the woodlands, making fools of them by eliciting and then cruelly ridiculing their unrequited attractions. Another playmate, who early on took the name Aristraana, would call her Kyiir’a, meaning something akin to “precious gemstone,” from the hue in her eyes her friend reckoned alike to jade. Her father and mother usually referred to her as Ss’taar-shuul’vu—the opening line of a famous prayer. It connoted at once their prayer for her health and wellbeing, their prayer of thanksgiving to the Moon-God Uur’yeelvyan and the Forest-Goddess Y’str’aak’lyaa for the gift of her life, as well as their prayer to save her from her recklessness and irresponsibility—a kind of playful admonishment. This name, saddled on her early, the girl liked the least.
She’d told her Uncle Aurel of the name she wanted to take during one of his infrequent but much anticipated visits. It was a feminization of his own name—Aurelia—and he early on granted her the respect of calling her by it, even when she was barely in her fifties and it would be almost half a century more before she’d reach her majority and officially claim it as her own. Aurel was by far her favorite relative, indeed her favorite person in all the world. A dashing elfish dandy, attired always in a deep olive frockcoat, with tufts of pink lace round his neck and cuffs, wine-red deerskin britches snaking down to shiny, sable pointed thigh-boots, brandishing a perennial elfish rapier and a dwarfish one-shot sidearm pistol, dangling gracefully from a wide, platinum-embroidered crimson sash, a walkingstick that had once been the staff of an evil wizard always in his hand—Aurel was a great adventurer. His style was cosmopolitan, combining raiment from many places, many races and traditions—far richer and more complex than the simple homespun silks of the isolated thorp, the sarongs and doublets and lacy scarves the folk of Rasil’yon wore. Despite his eccentric, even delicate appearance, Aurel had fiercely battled against the most ferocious monsters living, as well as many that were undead, over the fantastic course of his five-century career. He’d traveled far from the Rasil’yon of his birth, far from the Elfish Forests, which he told her as a small child was but a tiny corner of a much vaster Continent. T’luria—the name the elves give to the World—was much more than the woods around them, more even than the vast Continent beyond. A whole other hemisphere was awash in Ocean, with a hundred-odd archipelagos each with a thousand-odd islands. Aurel had traveled to many, many of these, too, along with his trekking round the various climes and cultures of the Continent, all the while penetrating the most forbidding labyrinths in search of the rarest hidden treasures, meeting many different kinds of people, learning their many tongues, and coming to know their many Gods.
Aurelia came to be raised more by Aurel and his tales of adventure than by her own staid parent-mentors or any of the homebody elders of her tiny elfin thorp. It was in her conversations with him, shared whilst sitting girlishly on his knee in the parlor of her parents’ treehouse over the half-century of her childhood, that the growing girl learnt what the world outside her village really was, and who she wanted to be in relation to it. When Aurel was reported lost to the world, disappearing into the wilds of the Orcish Tundra in the far northlands, into an uncharted region known as “The Bleak Sierra,” following his last, ill-fated quest to locate an artifact he called the Codex, she vowed solemnly to take her name in his honor, and one day complete his quest.
She would find and secure the Great Book, read and learn its spells, and thus “emancipate Creation from its Creators, and the Creators from Themselves” (as far as she could reckon what her uncle’s cryptic words meant). The half-formed, half-remembered words she’d heard from Aurel’s lips, all his tales, all the legends of bygone times and exotic places, remained in Aurelia’s consciousness as she grew into adulthood. But it would be many, many years till she put it all together, let alone attain the insights his mysterious words foretold.
As early as her fifties, when the girl was fully conscious and coming into her own as an individual, and even before, during those years where things were intensely present, but soon thereafter forgotten, Ha’aad had tried her hand at many artistic things. For elves, such things are named spithra’iil, or “the craft of the spithras”—and a spithra weaves her magick into any craft, from the most aesthetic to the most practical. For all things an elf does has art in it, even if a dwarfish or a humanish soul would see the craft as purely mundane, or even menial; elves see no craft as devoid of beauty.
The girl was taught by her aunt-mentors and uncle-mentors the crafts of weaving silks, which the elves had long developed into brilliant tapestries, in which the myths of their race came visible, gods and goddesses, ancestors and spirits and fey, dancing in gold thread and silver thread and the threads of spun crystals in the crimson and cerulean and viridian silks amidst stars and sun and moon, grand trees and great rivers. But she’d had no skill with the loom, and could not even properly gather the silks from the worms they fostered and raised amidst the mulberry trees and bushes. She could not either weave the heavy nets the hunters and fisher-folk made to ensnare game, nor yet the lighter nets, fine as spider’s webs, that the weaponsmiths and armorers among the village made to gather the shards of shadow-silver—dark energies from the ethereal and astral spheres beyond the obvious existential world, dust motes which could be enticed with magick and prayer and fires of silvery woods and silvery crystals into the arrow-heads and scimitars and rapiers and suits of silver-leaf armor that kept their people safe from foreign threats, here in their Forest. She’d listened intently to the witch-healers and herbalists among the village, too, years she’d listened; but she could never keep track of which nectar of which flower, what pollen and what petal meant what in the mixtures she’d made under their eye. Indeed! The one time she’d seriously attempted concocting an elixir, the fumes that arose from it had nearly knocked her and several of her teachers unconscious—and the phial that contained it had exploded in their faces! In a related vein, the food she’d tried to prepare made putrid and disgusting all the good things she’d originally put in the pot over the fire.
And, most alluring of the elfin arts, the girl had tried her hand at the weaving of sound, tried to play the lyre, the pan-flute, the crystal-chimes. But no music came out, just jumbled noises which displeased all round her, and surely herself. Her dancing, too, was stilted and rhythmless. And her singing—the paramount gift of her people—came slow and faltering to her, cacophonous and shrill, till she ne’er tried it anymore. All the ways in which her culture celebrated beauty—each and every one—the poor, misfit girl could not live up to.
And thus a dirge of self-hate sang in her soul amidst her growing awareness of self.
Of this pervasive quandary, she told no one; none and never, saved once: to her Uncle Aurel. She saw him of an afternoon, whilst many others of the elves slept through the hottest parts of the day, so they could dance all night under their cool, silver moon. He was meditating the way the elves had always meditated, playing simple, basic rhythms and melodies on his lyre, chanting nonsense which was less about communication as expression. The girl watched him silently, in awe, wondering at him, and when he was away, she, childlike and innocent, not knowing what she was doing, took up his lyre and strummed it, chanting to herself in words that made no sense, yet satisfying something primal in her deepest soul. She tried for the beauty of his droning chants, circling round the antlers of the lyre and the many clusters of silken strings strung like spider’s webs round the branching tines, reaching further than her voice and her strokes to the peace that shone in his grey face in the midst of playing. She wandered from thought to thought, letting them pass into the ether when she could, but often getting stuck in them. She deplored herself then, thinking herself the ugliest of elves, unable even to sing sweetly to herself—let alone to any other! She forced herself onward, though—croaking and cracking her way through a semblance of a cycle, a progression of tones which found its end note, the same one with which she’d begun.
She opened her eyes to find Aurel quietly sitting, gazing on her.
“What?!” she demanded. “Why do you sit so, gawking at me, uncle?! D’you do it to mock me?!”
“Why should I mock you, blood-of-my-blood?” he asked aghast.
She threw down the lyre, and held her head in her hands.
“Because, I am—I am poorly,” she spat at herself. “Poorly of song, poorly of play—wretched in my thoughts! I am—I am a failure! I am—ugly!”
“No! No, young one, no! Why say you such things?”
The girl was in tears.
“I am . . . not beautiful. Our people are—but I—I am not! I am wretched. I sing no sonorously than an—than an—an orc!”
“Oh, dear one! Come to me.”
And he held the child, crying into his shoulder.
“Child,” he whispered, “Aurelia. You are truly beautiful, you know? Your heart is big, and kind, and you honor me with your chosen name, and in that I shall live long after my body ceases, and my ashes scatter. That is beauty, Aurelia. Naught else. When you play your lyre, and pray—communing with the goddess inside you—the way we elfish folk pray—not as the humanish or the dwarfish, who pray always to a stranger—but alone, and to ourselves—when you sing-pray, Aurelia, it matters not what sounds you make in this world, this Existential Sphere. It matters more where you dance. Deep in yourself, you dance—as the shooting stars and the planets dance, round and round the Spheres and the Ether. . . . I tell thee, verily, Aurelia, blood-of-my-blood: thou shalt dance further and more wondrously than e’er I have danced, or e’er I shall dance in any afterlife. Thy beauty shall shine forth from this mortal coil to far, far beyond the Stars.”
And she did not understand him, then. Yet her tears dried, and she smiled.
The girl’s life went on for years in the vale of Rasil’yon in a happy enough manner, but most times a lonely one. There were no children quite her age in the thorp, most ten or twenty years younger, or that much older, and at her mid-century and in the years just following, that meant that most of the twenty and thirty-year-olds were hardly more than infants, and those who had attained their seventies or eighties were well into their adolescence and had little time for the youngster they deemed her. In those lonely years, Ha’aad of the sundry other callings developed a world for herself, legends, religions, and quests that were her own and no one else’s.
She’d go down to the part of the Rainbow Flow that flowed down from the northern hills and formed the eastern boundaries of the territory of her thorp, a smaller tributary of the great river she early decided was her Elder Sister. She spoke often to its splashing, sparkling waterfall, to the cool pool of water that gathered in a basin beneath it before spilling over the twisting knots of wood and moss and rocks that separated the pool from the flowing of the stream southward. Many hours she spent there alone, dreaming of friends she did not have, of lovers who were phantoms she conjured from the shadows and the sexy, earthy scents of the muddy stream.
She dreamed of thickly-featured human girls bathing there who she might catch, or who might catch her, gazing in wonder and jealousy that became her flavor of attraction. She dreamed, too, of strong men, or soft ones, who would lilt their way into her affections, take her somewhere she did not yet know, but wanted to be taken to more than anything in the world. She discovered herself, the curves and crevices of her body with her long, spider-fingers, wading, dreaming in that pool, opening herself to the slapping, splashing waterfall, lying naked on the rocks beside the pool in the golden sunlight and the silver moonlight, waiting, just waiting . . .
She never quite knew for what.
When she did play with other children, it was in mummery of the epics she was told, that she told herself. Stories such as in the eldest epic known to elfinkind, called The Origin, creation stories, and stories of early heroes and heroines whose quests and misadventures delighted her, and taught her what her culture knew of the gods and the peoples of the world here, and in the worlds beyond. Another favorite epic, of latter days than the ancient times of Origin, was one called The Lives of Love, an epic mingling adventure with lust and devotion, piqueing her curiosity about her body and the bodies of others around her, putting flesh and blood on the phantoms she’d dreamt alone by her Elder Sister stream.
And many a night, whilst the other elves danced, she would sit near the eldest elders round the campfires of smokeless rainbow-flames of thauma and crystals and dead wood, the elders who, like her, did not dance. She would listen to them tell their stories, sing their songs, and she would spin yarns of her own, from her own wanderings alone through the forest and through her mind. The elders were kindly, and though she could not sing her stories, nor dance them well, they made her feel her storytelling was not unliked. It made her feel a little better about herself; though still, the feeling haunted her, that she was ugly, that she was less than what she should be.
The angst she’d felt thus far over her first half-century was an easy angst, all told, in the pleasant valley of Rasil’yon, her sadnesses swallowed in an intense and never-ending daydream, of melancholy joy, a sharp and quiet ecstasy. But, something began to happen to the girl round her sixtieth year that would change the course of this idyllic if lonely life forever. A rising anxiety began to fill her, making her pant, making her sweat—a stirring of something primal, and obscure. At first, her elder-mentors thought her simply more of the Ha’aad, a queer accentuation of her already-apparent tendency to think too much, to become lost in the world of thoughts. But it became soon apparent she was a child haunted. Fires would start round her, the sky round her would darken even in the brightest midmorning. She had terrible nightmares, in which she found herself changing forms, to become gross and monstrous things, growing and growing until the very redwoods and even the mountains and the clouds and the stars and the celestial spheres themselves seemed nothing beside her. Like a Goddess in apotheosis, she was—but a Goddess trapped in Her own sphere—a sphere of Hell. The contemplation of this dreamworld, more real than waking, was breaking her apart, as if she were a silkworm in a cocoon that could no longer hold her. But unlike the silkworms which feasted on the mulberries in her elfin forests, whom the elves persuaded to remain children for many seasons in order to harvest their silks for their clothing, who would emerge at last from their yard-long cocoons as raptor-sized moths during the joyous Unbinding Festivals of the Golden, Harvest Moon, blest by all their elfish caretakers and beneficiaries, who danced the health of the sacred creatures as sisters to the elves—unlike such a moth-sister who would succeed in emerging, but rather as one who would die ere the Unbinding, Aurelia felt stuck and stifled in her chrysalis, destined to rot within.
Many elder-mentors took special interest in the tortured child, particularly the eldest ones of the elders of the village. Aust’zyiil Aristovyx, the eldest of the elders in the Elder House in the central tree of the village, taught her much lore in these years, nursing her on the milk of epics and histories of elfin peoples past. And one even elder to him, the hermit shaman and Sibylline priestess Valera, who lived far to the west in the deepest woods, sensed the energies round the girl during her wanderings near the village, and further, heard the beseeching prayer-spell Aristovyx sent her, inviting her to confer with him over the tortured soul of the elfin girl. The old hermit met the eldest several of the village elders, and weighed her intuitive knowledge against the knowledge of Aust’zyiil’s and his several sister eldresses’ many elfin scrolls—all the wisdom knotted into long, silken threads of many coded colors, that had been passed down to Aust’zyiil and all the rest from their own elders, now long dead and dust.
These two old, wise souls, hermit-mystic and scribe-scholar, and all their fellow elders in and round Rasil’yon, concluded that what was happening to their Ha’aad was the germination of Tla’spithra’iil—Sorcery. They saw that a glitch in the Web of Pa’aan, the Web of Thauma (Magick), had warped round the girl’s soul, and laced round her soul’s energy in broken matrix. An imperfection, like the dust mote that made a diamond form—that forced it to form. The unraveling of the web, and its jagged filigree, created both the potential and the compulsion in such a soul to weave it into more complex patterns—if only to save the sanity, the very life, of the soul thus entangled. A sorceress of great power the girl was destined to be, perhaps the greatest sorceress in generations—such a mad power she had—fell, frightening, dangerous to all—even to the girl herself. She must learn to harness the forces of the Web of Pa’aan welling up within her, and not get entangled within its invisible, burning, deathly-strong fibers. She must make sense of this imperfection, this unraveling, and reknot it in her own, reintegrated image. Otherwise, she would be destroyed. And a part of the world might well be destroyed with her . . .
“What caused this ‘glitch,’ Abt’i Aust’zyiil?” she asked the elder in the same tone as she addressed her Uncle Aurel—a title too filled with childish trust and affection for mere respect to be conveyed by it. The old man looked blindly up from the knotted cord in which he felt for the calligraphy woven into its knots—a fine scroll it was, nigh a hundred feet long and very ancient, almost from the Elder Times. He felt for the knowledge, twisting the knots, the coiling threads hither and thither, reading the meanings this way and that; but he could not quite find what he sought.
“It could be,” he said, feeling this warp, that weft, tracing the colors of gold and saffron yielding to chartreuse and then to mossy and cyan and viridian tendrils in the knots, tasting the colors with the second-sight of his nigh-blind eyes, feeling through the coarsenesses and the smoothnesses and the little bits of glass and stone knotted in, “many things. It could be that some life beyond our mortal sphere is intruding upon your soul-space. Perhaps it has been doing so long before you were born, or perhaps it is yet waiting there, in your coming years—or yet in the void beyond your death. Perhaps something dire, fell—or maybe even lovely!—wondrous!!—who knows? Something more than you is trying to push itself into the world through you. But I . . . cannot say . . . for certain.”
She asked the Sybil Valera, too—many times as she meditated in the stone circle in the mossy marshes by her hut of dead sticks, far from the village, where the old hermit took her to stay for nights and fortnights. The ancient would look at her in a stare that seemed old as the sun and moon—but darker, far darker than either thing. The young, tortured elfchild would ask what caused the “glitch”—the knot in her thaumic web that had been knotted so tight, it had rent it—leaving this fraying place where she, wrongly-woven, floated precariously—as if her soul would fall through the hole, into a void less than nothingness. And the old one would say:
“’Tis only thee, girl, who canst answer such a query. It shall be thy quest, I believe—whether thou welcome it or no—to find such an answer in thine own woven, jagged filigrees of the Web, round thine own warp in it all. But if thou canst endeavor, and persevere in thy endeavor, I believe thou shalt find it in thy past and in thy future—as a wyvern, coiling round itself—a serpentine dragon, which eateth its own tail . . .”
And that image haunted her for many phases of the moon thereafter, as she camped and cried in the stone circle, and nursed on the healing tisanes of rot and wonder the eldress gave her.
Her Uncle Aurel found her in her self-imposed exile from the village, and camped with her for many days and nights, on and off for the better part of a season; the last season he’d ever spend with her before he left this world. At first, he spoke very little to her, just quietly taking over from the Sybil the task of feeding his niece, giving her to drink and making sure her fire stayed lit. After a time, Aurelia noticed him there, and embraced him tearily, with an almost passion. When she fell away, she shivered so badly and looked so ill that Aurel was moved to embrace her again.
They spoke all night, huddling together against the largest of the circle of stones in a ramshackle lean-to of dead twigs and dead leaves through a rain storm, Aurel using survival skills he’d learnt through trial and error over hundreds of years of adventuring to keep a paltry fire lit. Aurelia found her voice too hollow for tears by the darkest of the eve, and related to her best and oldest friend the dark wasteland of the spirit she’d been wandering through, horrible dreams when she could manage sleep, and a mania when waking that could lead her to hallucinations after days and nights without rest. She spoke of the “glitch” the Elder Aust’zyiil had spoken of, and spoke, too, of the Sybil Valera’s image of a wyvern, eating its tail. And how that image, particularly, had haunted her.
“I feel like I’m the only creature in the universe, Abt’i,” she said hollowly, “that I am this serpentine thing, eating its tail. That all my pain—and all my pleasure, too!—is naught but illusion—my own blood trailing off into the nether-ness—gnawed by my own, perverse mouth! I am frightened, Abt’i—terribly, terribly frightened! I sometimes think that all the ones I know—even you!—are naught but—but—but my—”
“—But your imagination, elfchild?” Aurel smiled gently.
“Aye, Abt’i! Aye!! What can I do?!”
“Breathe, child. Breathe. That is the first thing. If you breathe, you will start to regain connection with the world outside yourself. For how else could you breathe, if all there was was you? Something is outside—even if it be but the atoms of the air—their smells, their tastes. Then, feel the earth beneath you—our Mother Forest. Feel Her moist earth, feel Her gentle streams—Her lymph and blood and spittle and Her mother’s milk to you. Feel all your fellow creatures—from the ferns and grasses—the ‘hair’ of our Mother—or however you view them—perhaps view them flower by flower, each in itself. Aye, perhaps that is best. All these trees, of course, and the mites and bugs and birds who fly round them, and the mosses and lichens and mushrooms growing from their skins of bark. Burst yourself out of yourself by concentrating on so many things that must be beyond you—for you cannot keep track of them all—can ye? Ye cannot conceive of every single lichen, every flitting moth—and yet, look at them, then away, then look on them again—and they are still there! Aye? Even with the best knowledge of the ancient spithras’ song-lines—knowing the path hither, the path yon—still there is so much you cannot know. So many paths through our vale that ye cannot keep in your mind’s eye—and yet, doubling back, they remain in the same wise as ye passed them, yes? If this be true—aye, then, darling one, ye must have quite an imagination, eh? To think of so much that you cannot keep in your head?”
Aurelia laughed at the profound silliness of her uncle’s words. She calmed, and lay her head on his breast.
“’Tis interesting, though,” he said softly, after a time, his hand stroking her hair, “to think on wyverns and serpentine dragons, and such. For there were indeed instances where I had dealings with such creatures. Grand—magnificent they were! And, fell. One of them attacked and killed most of my party, on an adventure in the Far Southlands—the Great Dragon Deserts, they still call those climes, I believe. This dragon was a Crystal Dragon—the most beautiful, and prideful of the dragon races. And this one was amongst the most powerful of that Crystal breed. A Ruby Dragon, what some folk call a ‘Garnet,’ what the humanish, particularly, will call a ‘Bloodstone,’ for it is as the hue in their veins when blood they shed. The humanish have crimson blood, and not the greens of ours, as I’ve told you, darling. . . . This dragon waylaid my mostly elfish party, and danced with us in the form of a beautiful maiden, her skin so red and glistering, her race was uncertain—perhaps humanish, perhaps elfish, perhaps something more reptilian, or feline. In any wise, she succeeded in seducing several of my comrades—including, I’ll admit to ye, myself. . . . At the point when she came closest to losing herself in my arms, she became other than what she was. She began to wrestle me, and bite me—and for a time I thought it simply this maid’s way with the dance of love. But it came clear that she meant to kill me! And I roused myself and tried to rouse my comrades—but I found all but one—my Dwarfish brother, a man who had lost his name for turning on his own race and becoming an adventurer with Elfish folk like me—this one the dragon-lady had not succeeded in wooing. ‘Twas only he and me against this creature—and then the creature assumed its full form . . .”
As Aurel desribed perhaps the most frightening night of his life, some century or more in the past, Aurelia began to get the oddest feeling of knowledge of this dragon. The way she’d moved, danced, made love. It made her see herself, dancing there, reddishly glowing in the desert moon’s silver light. Even as the dragon assumed a masculine form in the heat of battle—still, Aurelia saw herself in the dance of life and death the dragon danced with her uncle . . .
She shook away this thought as Aurel concluded his welcome tale of adventure—fighting bravely, and magickally repelling this blood-red crystal dragon, almost mortally wounding it with his last comrade by his side. It was hard to believe he and his single comrade had triumphed—and she thought there might be something else to this tale—something he wasn’t telling her, that had tipped the balance of the battle into his and his comrade’s favor. But dismissing her doubts of the tall tale, she smiled gratefully, and put her head on his breast again, letting her long, black hair hang down over his grey, naked chest.
“I always thought,” the uncle said toward the dawn, when Aurelia’s spare energies sustained the fire through one last gale, making him regard her in renewed awe, “there was something of that dragon that got into me that night. Some part that—well, that impregnated me. But its seed hath lain in my gut for fivescore years now, and more. Yet, I was never quite the same after that night. It was as if I had another spirit, or perhaps several—a many-headed hydra—swimming in my soul. Characters haunt my dreams, sometimes, as if they were visiting me from times out of time, from the beyond. . . .Perhaps, blood-of-my-blood, it influenced your conception—that it has somehow been passed onto thee . . .”
Aurel said nothing more than this, and Aurelia was disinclined to ask more. Such a strange thought it was, breathed from his sleepy lips to her sleepier ears, like a flash of dream that passes amidst a montage of many others. But she found the thought haunting her for a long, long time. They slept together through that day, and into the following night, and sipped a good deal of wine the uncle had brought. They slept very close, for the next night was cold. And the smell of his warm flesh and soft, wine-sotted breath was a world to her as she curled beside him. And then, then, just as they awoke together, in each other’s arms, then . . .
Then Aurel went away. The next she heard tell of him, it was when a party of old, gnomish tinkerfolk came into the circle of the village, seeking out Aurelia and her parent-mentors, and told them that Aurel of Rasil’yon was dead.
“He lost himself,” an elderly tinker, world-weary and hardened over a lifetime of questing in a perilous world, said in a voice too old to be male or female, “in the wastes of the Bleak Sierra. We’d been on the trail of our prize, the Codex, of which ye may have heard tell. After the centuries of searching we shared with Aurel, in expeditions round that country, we’d tracked down the Tome’s aura, finally, amidst those low and misty tors. We’d just repelled a fierce band of orcs, carrying on their shields the sigil of some foul god we could not reckon. But their magick was powerful, and we lost half our party. Aurel was brave; he scouted ahead of our party, into the shadowy vale that seemed whither our prize lay. A vale of shadow, that seemed a crack in time, in space. . . . He did not return. We found traces of him in a low crag between the tors, bits of his long hair caught in the thorny tussocks, the prints of his boots in the mud. . . . We followed his trail for a night and a day, to find . . . a misty place, a . . . an unnatural fog. We . . . we . . .”
“—We made a scrying spell,” explained another of the tinkerfolk, a wee woman no taller than Aurelia’s navel, long hair braided and slicked back under a thin, tight helm emblazoned with magickal symbols; the youngest of the party of magick-wielding warriors, who appeared the androgyne’s lover, or closest friend. She went on, faltering, too, “We saw thy kinsman’s face, in the mists. It was . . . frozen. Undead, undying, caught between worlds . . . A fate worse than death, to be caught between the ether and the existential sphere. Orcish war-magi magick, in a wise entwined with something far more fell. Something bleaker than anything ere we’d seen in that bleak country, where we’d lost a brace of comrades already. We saw his visage—twisted in pain, in horror—unable to live or to die. . . . So we . . . we cut the strands. We cut the cords binding his thauma to ours, and . . . we allowed him rest. . . .”
Aurelia’s parent-mentors bowed their heads, and wept softly. They knew enough from their kinsman’s tales that to be lost between the worlds was a fate far worse than death, as they knew also from the haunting tales of grim fate in the Eldest Epics, which sang and wove of despair that would never end, and the curse of immortality. They knew their kinsman’s companions had been merciful.
But Aurelia reacted violently.
“You—you killed him!” she roared—“You cursed, cursed traitors to his name! CURSE ye!—curse ye ALL!! IN THIS LIFE—AND ALL THY LIVES TO COME!!!”
And she ran crying away from them as they all wept for the loss of the best friend any of them had ever had.
She spent the next nights deep in mourning, huddling naked and shivering and unsheltered in the bitter, pelting sleet of the first, faltering nights of a spring that had not yet shed the winter. She refused a fire, refused sustenance or sleep, and wailed like a lost soul in the nights that would not end. Any elf would feel a rupture in the web of energy round them when someone dear no longer connected her to it, the same as the loss of a loved one will make a human’s heart feel hollow. But a spithra of the web of thauma, or one who might be, a sorceress who by her nature feels even more of the web of life and death than less thaumic elves can know or would want to, Aurelia felt as a spider might feel when some lumbering, monstrous beast gallops through the web between the trees it has spent half its lifetime weaving—and now has lost all its work, its means of life, as well as its best measure of beauty. Aurelia no longer knew nor cared if ever she’d weave her life together again.
She shivered and shrunk, losing much in stone and moonstone duskiness to grow sickly wan enough to glow, like a specter, like some star-crossed creature between the worlds her uncle would have become, but for the cruel kindness of his comrades. Nothing seemed real anymore. She cared not if she drifted from this sphere into the long wandering of a wraith, lost to the worlds. She almost wished such a fate upon herself; for deep in herself, she found guilt and blame for her uncle’s leaving, as well as simple sorrow. She felt she’d loved him wrongly, that last night she’d spent with him, the feeling of his bare chest beneath her head, her silky hair, the winy-warm scent of his skin . . .
It was a punishment, she felt—insane now with grief. A punishment, for them both . . .
When sleep finally came, after endless nights of mourning, she found the same evil spirits she’d always feared coming for her in nightmare. She saw the eightfold arms of the greatest power she could reckon, the Power in the Web of the Universe—the One she’d seen so many times before in dreams, and shrunk from rather than endure Her fearful embrace. But then, no longer caring if the Great Power devoured her—almost longing for it now, a fitting end to a terrible life in this lifeless terror—she faced Her—
The Spider-Maid, called by the elfin peoples Tz’lee’naan’tsi, the Mother of Spithras, the Weaver of the Cosmic Web. Aurelia offered her softness to Her, her vulnerability, ready to be stabbed by Her fearsome mandibles, to be sucked dry of her life and spirit. But, Tz’lee’naan’tsi did not kill the poor, mourning girl. Nay, the Spider-Maid loved her, with Her eight legs She embraced her, with Her piercing fangs she kissed her, and entered her soul. It was a visiting of the lass’ most horrid fear—that of parasitism, of being devoured from the inside. But after that dark night, and the nights and the nights after, the dreams sweetened to joy, to rapture—till when Tz’lee’naan’tsi reached Her eight arms to embrace her in the dawn of the next full moon, her own arms and legs outstretched in welcome, in gratitude.
The difference between a sorceress and a madwoman is naught but this: the latter is drowning, whilst the former has learnt to swim. Nigh drowned by grief and madness, Aurelia finally learnt a key lesson: she must surrender to the water. When at last she did this—when death seemed a welcome thing, and drowning an embrace—it was then that she learnt the water and she were not opposites, nor less antagonists. Life must go on—out of the well of death. She had a purpose now. She must learn her uncle’s fate, and complete the quest that took him from this life. She could not die now, for her uncle must be avenged. And the quest that he died for, was left to her to live for: to hold that Codex one day in her hands, and know the fullest measure of Aurel’s truth. She would learn to swim—aye, to soar through the water! And, praying to her gods and spirits and ancestors, learning to direct part of that prayer to herself, as those nebulous beings’ mortal incarnation, Aurelia began slowly, painfully, to master the energies coursing through her, to direct them and to channel them.
She would build her web again . . .
By her late sixties, Aurelia had begun to fashion spells and cast them, taking Tz’lee’naan’tsi’s skill with the Web of the Pa’aan as her own, and bending and breathing the threads entwining into the chaotic order of the cosmos, into shapes of her own choosing. Unlike other Spithras, other weavers of magick who would follow set, learned patterns passed down from elder teachers or from the winding, knotted scrolls woven by teachers past—the witch-healers and witch-herbalists, the lore-masters and the goliards, the necromancers and the war-magi and all—Aurelia found she did not so much choose whether to channel and weave the Web, but had to do so, from time to time, if only to relieve the pressures welling up inside her. The drive to create weaves in the Web, the burning, irrational passion to do it, was more akin to an art than a skill. And the art of sorcery became Aurelia’s only true art. Her talent mingled with addiction, insanity. Whether she were good or bad at weaving her art, she was compelled to do it regardless, whether it brought her praise or mockery, love or hatred.
Her playmates in the thorp were few, but very dear to her. Most of the playmates that she had won before had been frightened away by her decade of haunting, and as she came into her own, she resented their abandonment as surely as they yet feared her. Elves are sparing with their spawning, deeply concerned not to tax too dearly their environs with too swelling a population. Though much of their lives are spent in the care and cultivation of love and lust, most elfin sexuality is not geared to procreation. In a population of two hundred elfin souls, like Rasil’yon, less than five or ten might be of any one age group, any generation over the seven hundred or more years of the lifespan of an elf living there. Aurelia had few children near her in age, even to begin with, most of them decades younger or decades older; and most of these now she shunned, or shunned her. Of the few friends who had stayed with her through her crisis and its resolution, Aristraana and Tariil were perhaps her dearest.
At first, it was Aristraana who was the closer. Aristraana took her name from the Elfish Aristraa, the dark star which most hominines could not see in the southwestern sky, but the tribe of Aristraana’s ancestors had worshiped instead of the Moon. She took this name because as she grew, a birthmark round her left eye began to resemble the star, its shadow ringed by starry light on the southwestern horizon, or at least how the ancient tapestries stylized it.
Elves of the northern parts of the Great Forest tend toward pallor in their complexion, greys and whites and eggshell hues, and slenderness in their build. But Aristraana’s blood carried some of the southerly and westerly traits, mingling in the way elves’ appearances show the traits of ancestral blood. Where humanish folk tend to be of one color, taking a mixture of the colors of their parents into their own, unified hue, elves of mixture are most often dappled, whites and blacks, blues, greens, browns and reds, swirling undiluted within the same skin. Aristraana’s distant lineage had traces of darkness, and it showed in her body in a two-toned pattern: parts of her skin were ivory white, whilst other parts were jet-black—a comely unity which swirled round her flesh. Her face was pale, except for a significant part round her left eye, which spidered into stripes of black dominating that part of her face. The rest of her body swirled in nigh equal parts of black and white, forming stripes here, dappled splashes there, from her swan neck to her shapely feet. Such a thing might strike a humanish observer as odd, even freakish, and in many of their cultures, those who have differing colors in the same flesh are seen as something other than comely; but to elves of nigh every community in the vast Forest, such markings are seen as the epitome of a rare and wondrous beauty.
Aurelia loved Aristraana at first like a younger sister, though their families were far from blood-related. Whilst Aurelia’s lineage could be traced back some ten elfin generations to Rasil’yon’s shifting and meandering locale, making ever-widening circles round the ring of trees where it stood today, Aristraana’s family had been in residence but a thousand years or so, which to the elves made them newcomers. Some ten years Aurelia’s junior, Aristraana was early on even more beautiful than she was. Both girls had by then long, luxurious raven hair flowing far past their shoulders; both girls had the swiftness and deftness and willowy sinews which would define their elfin adulthood; both had eyes of the most brilliant elfin green, their pupils sexy feline slits, their irises glistering, almost glowing. But Aristraana was fuller, rounder than Aurelia’s sharp and angular features. Her body was curvy, generously and perfectly proportioned, whilst Aurelia’s breasts always seemed too large for her otherwise gaunt body, her hands too large, her feet too tiny. Aurelia’s face was sharply crafted, almost mask-like in contrast to Aristraana’s generous, gentle oval. Aristraana’s eyes were dazzling, with flecks of gold and crimson fire along the edges of her verdant irises. Aurelia’s eyes were of a less lustrous quality, a purer green, alike to the grasses and leaves and mosses round them, more like the earth. Whilst both girls were certainly the prettiest by far of their generation in Rasil’yon, and all their peers and elders anticipated their growing into adults of the most arresting beauty, Aurelia had a more grounded, more ordinary beauty than her younger companion. Aristraana, in contrast, seemed otherworldly. It was reflected in the haunting timbre of her voice, in the cloudlike billowiness of her curvy features, in the dazzling swirls of light and darkness in her skin, in the spectral iridescence of her eyes.
Aristraana’s otherworldliness tantalized Aurelia, made her feel a queer longing, a strange possessiveness, even an envy. The frisson was as a spider would feel when some prey creature would twist and turn, caught in its web—yet, when it comes closer to the source of the tugging, its hunger a torment soon to be slaked—it would find naught but a dewdrop there, jeweled in the morning sun, and soon dissolving into mist. Aristraana early on sensed this, this quandary in her friend, though she did not understand it. It flattered her, though, this obsessive affection, this almost hero-worship, and as the years passed it made her feel a vanity in dealing with her once-sisterly friend. She grinned with youthful, wispy cruelty at Aurelia when they talked, touching her arm, her hand, her cheek—then playfully pulling away. When Aurelia touched her back, Aristraana would smile coyly, and coyly demand why. She knew she was wanted, sensed her friend’s burning, amusing desire. As the years passed, she even toyed with the idea of letting herself be had. But she always pulled away, just shy of consummation.
By the time Aurelia had reached seventy and somewhat more, and Aristraana was well past sixty, the two friends began to play what they called their “pain-games.” They began as rather innocent games, contests of will, where one put the other through tests, teases and torments. They grew from their attractions, but denied them also. In their pain-games, they punished each other for the intimacy they both desired, but would never admit.
The day it all began, they’d been sitting under the dense, leafless branches of a long-dead tree they called Grandfather, a great, gnarled trunk stripped of bark in many places amid the knots and hollows, alive in death with soft and lacelike mosses, colonies of lichens the color of rainsoaked copper, and myriad, tiny mushroom caps. Close by, a swiftly splashing stream Aristraana called now her Elder Sister, after her older friend’s fancy, flowed down over outcroppings of rocks in a rise in the earth, all cobalt and fissured and speckled with green and rusty mosses and the fossils of impossibly ancient creatures the two elfin lasses oft played games of guessing at, what lost epochs the creatures had dwelt in, what their forms enfleshed had been like, and what forces had extinguished their lives so long ago. The Elder Sister’s wellspring was a waterfall whose steady hiss they could hear just beyond their sight, a wondrous, singing hiss that Aristraana, who had early the elfin gift of imitative singing, could call back in times they were away.
The smell of those falls, mingling foul and fair, entranced them and stirred their sexes, though they’d not yet learnt what this stirring meant. This place, secret in its hollow, was an hour’s walk from the settlement down a secret, meandering path, at first cleared like all elfin trails through the elfish arts of bonza’iil, that delicate persuasion of plants to move aside of their own accord, that which enables the elves to fashion their treehouses of creepers and vines and wayward branches, without once cutting into the wood or fashioning it against its will—a grave sacrilege to elfinkind. But by the time their path led them here, it was overgrown with thickets and roots and mucky leaflitter, and for all their elders knew, the trail never reached here. This was the place where Aristraana and her Kyiir’a had sat together as very young children to tell each other their secrets. Now, there would be new secrets; but they were not the kind to be told.
It was a hot, sticky afternoon, high summer in the forest, and both of them were sticky with beading sweat. Aurelia perspired more than Aristraana, who seemed rather to glow. Aristraana was an elf of Uur’yeelvyan, airy and ethereal, like the cool, pale moon in a crystal, cloudless sky. Aurelia was an elf of Y’str’aak’lyaa, earthy, grounded in the forest’s steamy reality, with all its heavy, inescapable heat, all its thick, dank smells of rot and clay mingling with the flowery aromas wafting through the breezes. Aurelia smelled of pepper, an alluring, acrid spice, her sweaty scent hanging round her like a preternatural aura. Aristraana’s scent was barely detectable in contrast, no matter how much moisture soaked her brow. She felt herself a celestial angel, pristine and perfect, not even her sweat able to ruin her airy beauty. She chuckled at Aurelia, and asked if she were human.
“Why?” Aurelia demanded.
“You smell like Tariil!” Aristraana teased. “That half-human, greasy boy!”
Aurelia pulled away, angrily; but then, Aristraana kissed her.
Worlds opened up in that kiss. Aurelia tasted a savor she’d never known, and felt her aura mingling with her tormentor, her idol—the boundaries between them evaporating. Aristraana enjoyed the taste, too, breathed in Aurelia’s peppery essence, and though she would not admit it to her, found it as entrancing as the bouquet of Elfin Wine. She pulled away and chuckled icily.
“Have you ever kissed anyone before, Kyiir’a?”
“Well . . . no.”
“Oh, yes! I kissed the Tlalaa.”
“Yes. Just a fortnight ago. After the Solstice Festival—the Briefest, Sweetest Night. I wandered away from the elders, having a little more than my share of my great auntie’s wine—she makes it from scratch, you know.”
“Yes, I know. I’ve had many a glass—years before you, elfling.”
“Yes, yes. I wandered off, into the deep woods—just some paces from this very spot—and I heard the Tlalaa singing!”
Aurelia squinted in something between jealousy and fear.
“What did it sound like?”
“The singing? Like what a million shards of magickal glass, crashing crystalline though the vortex, would sound like if they were singing. Chiming. Breaking. Like my heart.”
Aristraana chuckled gaily at herself.
“Well, Kyiir’a, I followed that beautiful, frightening sound. I forded the stream—this stream, our Elder Sister—and struck even deeper into the forest. I thought I’d get lost. I know that’s one of the Tlalaa’s games—to lure you deep into the woods, so you’ll lose your way. And then when you realize you’re lost, and that wave of panic comes over you—then, Tlalaa’s laughter rings from the Fey’s dimension, and you’re left there, a helpless fool!”
“But, you didn’t get lost.”
“No. I was clever—cleverer than Tlalaa! I dropped seeds as I went, so I could follow the trail back to Rasil’yon whenever I chose. . . . I came upon the little pond where Tlalaa’s portal merges with this sphere—and I saw who was singing!”
“What did the Tlalaa look like?”
“Oh, just what you’d expect, Kyiir’a. Tlalaa is—beautiful. . .”
Aurelia listened with envy as Aristraana described Tlalaa’s perfect, delicate, androgynous body, with golden, shimmering skin, dappled in every hue, eyes of brilliant crimson fire, hair of foresty greens mingling into sky blues, with all the entrancing beauty of a perfect girl, a perfect boy, mingling with subtlest nuances of a dozen other unknowable genders. The body of the Tlalaa shifted by the second, becoming full and luscious, then slender, then thickly sinuous, at one time tall as a small tree, then diminutive as the petal of a flower. Aristraana found the Tlalaa laying invitingly on a lily pad, which hovered on a cloud of mist, the shimmering, chiming music almost visible, almost palpable, all mingling deliciously in an aromatic fog. Tlalaa’s golden leg was stretched above Tlalaa’s luxuriously reclining body, and in Tlalaa’s toes was a bunch of ruby-red grapes. Somehow, Tlalaa could bend so that the grapes would fall, one by one, into lips and tongue Aristraana could almost taste. Aristraana came upon Tlalaa before Tlalaa knew she approached; and this is when she stole a kiss from those perfect lips, tasted that warm, winy tongue.
“What did the Tlalaa do?!” Aurelia asked aghast.
Aristraana beamed with pride.
“Tlalaa,” she grinned, “was not pleased. Tlalaa most always decides when and if Tlalaa will be kissed—and as all the epics tell us, Tlalaa only lets you kiss those lips if it somehow can be twisted round to amuse Tlalaa. But I kissed the Tlalaa, and then I laughed! Tlalaa tried to get me to reach for a bite of the grapes, so they could be pulled away from me and I’d end up splashing down into the pond as Tlalaa disappeared—my clothes drenched and soiled and ruined!—but I just traipsed off, following my seed-trail back to my own warm, dry, silky feather-hammock. Ha ha!!”
Aurelia shared in the triumph. Suddenly, her own envy, her own longing and frustration—none of it mattered. She sublimated it all by sharing a laugh at the temptress and trickster, who had been made to feel all her own unrequited, foolish frustrations—being made an utter fool by a mere elfchild! She found herself loving Aristraana, as if for the first time.
But the lusty, dizzy nausea returned again and again, that thing some call being “spellbound”—the anger, the frustration, the hopeless fantasies—and the weird enjoyment of it all. Aurelia wanted Aristraana. And Aristraana, too, wanted Aurelia. They went out of a midnight, when the moon hung full and pale and hazy as the silvers of their skin, glistering in the dappled shadows of the trees, the summer heat lingering despite the night breezes. They came to their place, near the banks of their stream, under their dead tree, and they played with pain.
Aurelia began it all by massaging her friend’s naked back after a dip in the stream, first with fingertips, then with fingernails. She breathed a magickal incantation, felt the force of the Web entwining into every atom of reality—and wished for a little blob of reversal of all the hot world around her. In her hand, a small ball of ice materialized.
“Can you take it, little elfchild?” she challenged, and traced her sister’s spine with the sphere of ice, watching with relish as she shivered, and struggled to fight the shivering and hold still.
“You won’t take it,” Aurelia whispered, taunting her. “You’ll give in. You’ll squirm, like a little worm. You’ll fail to endure my torments.”
Aristraana rasped defiantly—“NEVER!”
“We’ll see . . .”
She willed more ice to form, crystallizing Aristraana’s beads of sweat into sharp little snowflakes, till her wan skin yielded pinkish splotches, and the stripes of ebony bruised purple, which made Aurelia chuckle. She kneaded her flesh in a rough grasp, then slapped her, driving the ice crystals like little sharp glass shards to redden what had been pink.
“How do you make the ice?” Aristraana demanded.
“It is in my power,” laughed Aurelia. “Why should I tell you how it’s done?”
“Is it your sorcery?”
“Why won’t you share it with me?!”
“Tell you what, elfchild. If you can survive my game tonight—if you can take it, take whatever I choose to give you—I’ll show you my secret.”
“Very well. I consent.”
Aurelia grinned ear to ear. She made tongues of fire shoot from her fingers next, aiming them cruelly at the crystallized sweat beads, till she made of them fluid once more, first searing hot, then sharply chill. She slapped and scratched the pinkish and purplish flesh, bent down to nip at her, bruising her artfully from her slender neck slowly, exquisitely down to the small of her back, drawing beads of green blood and raising tiny purplish welts, the midpoint between green arteries and red veins, forcing her to be her canvas, her own blood the paint. She delighted in the beauty of the ebonies and the alabasters of her swirling skin, with bruises that dappled through the stripes becoming nigh iridescent with their hues, beads and then streaks of vibrant green welling up and flowing from whence she’d pierced her flesh, delighting also in the gasps and grunts she made as she painted and sculpted her as she wanted, delighting in the strained winces, the elfin lass’ pain in trying to swallow them and endure. She contrasted the pain with pleasure, then—her moist, warm tongue dazzling Aristraana, defying her to remain still, not to cry out, nor even to sigh. Nothing more than shudders, and sharp breaths, were to be tolerated; all else would be conceding defeat.
Giddy with her power, and the closeness she was stealing with it, Aurelia licked Aristraana’s ears, nipping at their points, bringing her body close to hers, her breasts against her back, her tingling sex against her rounded ass. She hugged her close, feeling the heat of her soul through her skin, melting into her own, then breathed a tickly, hot breath against the back of her neck, nuzzling her nose against her sweaty hair. She mouthed, then bit at the contours of her neck, the curvy slopes of her shoulders, their blades, every undulating vertebrae dipping down her perfect, downward-arching back, then paused at its copious rise to trill her unlovely voice, ever the inferior to Aristraana’s perfect singing, in a buzzing that swept all through her body, making the skin ripple and the sinews quiver. Still, her pretty dupe held on, refusing to give in, to react. At last she parted her fool’s tender ass and tasted her most secret places. Using the tip of her tongue, Aurelia shot jolts of fire into those places, relishing her victim’s body tensing up with an involuntary squeal that pierced the forest night—then falling limp when she realized she’d failed—she’d reacted. Before she could say anything, Aurelia’s tongue spat streams of ice to fill her ass, her hairless slit, where just before it was a flash of flame. She jerked away to laugh derisively, mocking Aristraana in just the way she herself had mocked the Tlalaa. She’d gotten close to her, tasting her every essence. Yet, she’d withheld the very means by which she’d gotten close. Aristraana had shifted, had squirmed, had squealed. She’d thus lost the right to be told Aurelia’s secrets.
They teased each other like this for many seasons as one neared eighty and the other seventy, Aurelia holding the pleasure of her secret knowledge just beyond Aristraana’s reach. And all the time, Aurelia got what she wanted. To touch, to taste. And, to master.
But eventually, Aristraana rose to challenge Aurelia, daring her to submit in turn, to survive her own authored torments. She demanded again and again to know her secrets, and got her to promise them to her if she failed her ordeal. But Aristraana by this time knew well that Aurelia’s sorcery would never, could never be imparted to her. Sorcery is a natural talent, a curse and blessing one is born to, for good or ill. Aurelia could no more explain it than a poet could explain how to compose, or a tree could explain how to be tall.
Aristraana’s motivation for switching roles with her friend and almost-lover was darker. It was tinged with revenge.
Aristraana talked much about her growing relationship with the Tlalaa, who had appeared to her again and again in their place by the pond beyond the Elder Sister. She described the scrumptious body of her faerie lover, the shifting shapes of the Tlalaa, at once thick and curvy, then thin and crafted, described her own sensuous curves and scents and tastes entwining with the Tlalaa, knowing well she was stirring up all Aurelia’s jealousies and the longings she would never admit. In the autumnal nocturnes that followed the sticky summers, Aristraana led Aurelia to the pond where Tlalaa hovered in the moonlight, and made her watch as she danced with the dazzling golden pixie. Aurelia watched, and wanted. Aristraana had done what so many elfin boys and girls had desired in vain for aeons in the enchanted wood—to take Tlalaa as a true lover, and with Tlalaa to love still others, enshrouded in the nymph’s tantalizing power Aristraana drew round herself. Tlalaa had seen Aurelia, had fancied her. Tlalaa and Aristraana agreed to love her, too—according to their own cruelest pleasure . . .
The two, elf and nymph, seduced their fool as autumns passed into winters over many nights. They tied her to a dead, knotty old tree, elder and taller to their Grandfather Tree on the worldly side of the Elder Sister, yet they called him by the same name. They bound her upon it in the Tlalaa’s own magickally-tinged tether, her arms and legs spread out so her naked body was open to anything they might choose to do to her. But once bound, they chose to do nothing, just leaving her there like that, to shiver helplessly, foolishly, forced to watch Aristraana and the Tlalaa’s erotic dance as the most impotent voyeur. Aristraana danced deep in the mist round Tlalaa, floating with the devilish sprite on a cloudy lily pad, the erotic details of their dance obscured by the preternatural fog. Then, Aristraana’s form would sharpen again as she left Tlalaa’s misty portal and returned to Aurelia’s side.
“You won’t tell me,” she whispered tickly hot in Aurelia’s ear, “your secrets, eh my Kyiir’a? You won’t tell me how to make the fire, or the ice. You leave me with nothing but what is natural and mundane. You laugh at me, Kyiir’a. I’ve heard your laughter—cruel, mocking laughter you laugh! Well, then, my darling little elfchild; I shall make due with what is natural and mundane. I don’t need your magick, Kyiir’a, to make the ice and snow. I let Uur’yeelvyan and Y’str’aak’lyaa make it for me, just like every other mundane, mortal simpleton in the world. Here, my love—experience the magic of the common dirt!”
Aristraana took a handful of snow from the ground beneath Aurelia’s own naked, dirty feet, and stuffed it roughly into her mouth.
“Taste it, girl—taste the dirt beneath your toes, your own unmagical, filthy essence . . .”
Aurelia revolted at it, but knew she could not reject it. She was compelled by her pact with her tormentor to endure. She held the filthy snow in her mouth till it melted, streams of it trickling down her cheeks with her spittle and frosting there, desperately trying not to swallow the filth soiling her tongue. Aristraana just chuckled gaily. She took another scoopful of snow in her hand, and traced the length of her fool’s body from her dribbling, freezing chin down her swan neck down the quivering, sharply-crowned hills of her breasts, then down, down, raising goosey bumps Aurelia felt shame for as Aristraana nicked at them carelessly with her thumbnail. The snow in Aurelia’s mouth melted to dirty water, which she was finally forced to taste and to swallow, the dirt of her own soles, the imperfection of her own soul, remaining as stoic as she could despite the humiliation, when Aristraana had reached her middle. She cackled and sneered, reached for yet another handful of snow.
“You still won’t tell me, Kyiir’a?” she taunted.
Aurelia said nothing. She just shook her head, deliberately, slowly. Aristraana then touched the icy snow to her victim’s pussy, rasping laughter as Aurelia tried not to show her desire and her discomfort, one and the same. The icy cold sent a shockwave through Aurelia’s body, and it increased exponentially as Aristraana held her hand there, teasing her clit with cruel, icy fingers, half-pleasing, half-torturing, all the time reminding her that it was Aristraana, not she, who had gotten to kiss, to dance, to make love with the Tlalaa—so, who was really powerful, magickal—eh? She desired to break Aurelia, to make her admit she was but Aristraana’s equal. Admit it!—admit it!! she demanded. But Aurelia endured. Aurelia realized that all the envy and resentment was not entirely on her own side. Aristraana felt it for her, too. And knowing this, Aurelia took renewed strength, sneering at her tormentor in a superior defiance, as Aristraana seethed in the knowledge that even in her domination, she was bested.
Spitting an orcish curse, Aristraana left Aurelia there, with her body tied spread-eagle on the dead tree with the snow stuffed up her like an apple in the mouth of a slaughtered boar. She returned to Tlalaa, and Aurelia was left longing for her once again.
Five, six, seven years of such seasons passed thusly, the tantalizing menage of the elfish lasses and their faerie temptress, tormenting both elf-girls in turn. But by the seventh year’s end, the heat between Aristraana and Aurelia abruptly cooled. Without falling out of love (their love actually grew deeper after those wintry trysts faded into more distant memory), they began to fall out of lust. They’d gone as far as they were likely to go with one another. They were both too leery of crossing a line to true consummation to make love comfortably, easily, as they would later discover it as adults. Aurelia came to view her friend again as a younger sister, coming full circle in her affections for her. She lost the whole complex of love and hate that had tormented her, the feelings drifting away as suddenly and inexplicably as they’d come, and instead broadened into a more real, more unselfish sympathy for her—the sympathy of true and maturing friendship.
Aristraana, having enjoyed her honeymoon with the Tlalaa, found herself falling now into a deeper, more hopeless feeling for the pixie. Tlalaa was beginning to turn the tables on Aristraana. Tlalaa was starting, finally, to win.
“I don’t want to be Tlalaa’s fool,” Aristraana confessed to Aurelia on a late spring evening, in their place in the deep woods.
“There is something alluring,” Aurelia smiled, kicking her tiny feet in the cool torrent of their babbling stream, “in being someone’s fool, though, eh?”
Aristraana smiled back, recalling. But then, she frowned again.
“Tlalaa is not just a playmate for me, now, Kyiir’a,” she mused. “Tlalaa is becoming something . . . more to me.”
“Oh, elfchild—I’m so sorry!”
“Aye, Kyiir’a. I’m losing more than just a momentary battle. I’m losing the whole war. It’s no longer just fun and games. Tlalaa is becoming someone I find myself dreaming about, fantasizing about not only sexually, but emotionally, relationally. I wish to . . . to live with Tlalaa, Kyiir’a.”
“But, you cannot, my sister! Don’t you know what that means? The Faerie Spheres can rob a mortal of her soul! You’ll be utterly destroyed!”
And nothing more was said.
Lovesickness is the most horrible spiritual disease, Aurelia concluded over the next seasons. It is part of the paradox called Life, making the most heady ecstasy into the most diabolic torture—the same feeling, the same continuum, a drunkenness which poisons as it frees. Aristraana was stricken with it, and there was nothing she, nor anyone else, could do. Aurelia, for all the unrequited affections of her past, was grateful that she was not enslaved now. Aurelia had the good fortune never to have had the teasing knife-play that tormented and titillated her for an era of her youth leave deep or lasting scars as she grew to maturity. Aristraana’s scars were infected now, almost gangrenous. She needed to break with the Tlalaa. Either that, or die of a broken heart.
Aristraana drifted away from Aurelia, then, taking to long walks alone in the woods, to camping out by herself to contemplate and meditate and pray. She wandered far off the beaten paths, far past the last stretches where the bonza’iil had cleared them, into thickets of briars and brambles, stretches of poison oak and poison ivy into which she stumbled, pursuing her dazzling faerie-love. The Tlalaa would tease her mercilessly now, playing at hiding as she desperately sought, reappearing just to blow kisses at her and stick a tongue out at her and laugh in cruel delight as Aristraana found herself in poisoned mire, tripping into it with creeper vines that grabbed at her feet like long fingers, falling into stinking puddles of mucky, long-standing water. Their dance together, all its heat and hope and humiliation, Aristraana kept secret from all in Rasil’yon; and her parent-mentors could only shrug and wonder, and wait for the lass to come back home.
Aurelia missed her friend deeply as she drifted away, as deeply as she had when she’d been so smitten with her, when her heart was Aristraana’s prize, the younger lass’ ill-used toy. Perhaps she missed her more now, truly, for she loved her better, her heart now her own that she gave to Aristraana freely. So long they’d danced cruelly, hotly, teasing one another, that it might have been a relief to be absent from one another. But now, she wished the slow dance of true, loving friendship, kinder, cooler, gentler; and just as she’d cultivated the taste of those cooler, sweeter kisses, Aristraana had drifted away.
But an elf respects another’s path—even when the other’s absence pains her. It is a deeply-held virtue to hold another loosely in your arms, and even when you are moved to squeeze tightly, you must always be willing to let go. As much as it pained Aurelia, as much as it pained Aristraana’s other friends, her parent-mentors and the other elder-mentors of the village, all realized they must let their child dance her own dance, as far out from their circle as she chose, or was drawn, to do. There was naught to do, but wait, and pray, and hope.
In the absence of her once inseparable bosom friend, Aurelia found herself spending more time with her other best friend, the young Tariil. Even years ago, when he was but a young boy of eight or twelve, he had been a good friend, going with her into the woods to talk for endless hours of the evening’s twilight, staying out as late into the night as his parents would allow him. Like most everyone in their thorp, he had not understood the pain and terrors she’d been going through during her emerging into sorcery; but he had always been a good listener, a warm and patient confidant. A half-human (what the humans call a “half-elf”), Tariil had grown from a toddler to a near adult in the swift span of but two decades. Aurelia had been already a decade more than half a century in the world when a pretty older elfin woman and her young human husband settled into a treehouse on the outer periphery of Rasil’yon and parented Tariil. But by the time Tariil had reached his nineteenth year, he seemed older than Aurelia, a confusing and at times amusing situation. Like most half-elves raised amongst elfinkind, Tariil was awkward and strained in his dealings with his neighbors and peers as he came into his adolescence, and tended as he came into his teenage years to keep away from Aurelia and his other once-peers in the community. He was a little rough around the edges, his command of the complex elfish tongue always a little rudimentary, a little too much like his rather boorish human father, who was aging at an uncannily rapid rate, and yet still was unable to speak well or write with any literacy. Tariil was ashamed of his father, ashamed of himself. And whilst the elfish culture is a kindly culture, it is also a haughty culture—one which has yet to learn the virtue of inclusiveness. Tariil was becoming a stranger in his own community, despite his having lived there all his life. And this only increased as he came to an early, confusing puberty.
Tariil was a pretty boy by his half-human adolescence, with long, sandy-brown hair flowing down almost to his waist, a face crafted like Aurelia’s, a sharp yet gentle point to his little ears. But there was something hard to quantify, yet definitely amiss in his appearance, something harsh about his frame, his face, despite his often elflike beauty. His eyes were not the elfin green or gold, but had a touch of a human brown in them, and their pupils were a humanish circle in the center instead of an elfish slit. His body was bigger than seemed natural, taller, stockier. His face broke out into pimply acne early on, then into an increasingly dense beard which took him years to learn to properly trim and style. And, most telling, Tariil was uncomfortably advanced in his sexual appetite compared to his playmates who, though twice his age and more, were still almost children compared to the nigh adult he now was. He lacked finesse or experience in love, having no opportunities to gain them. With no outlet for all this pent up sexual energy, Tariil early found the solace of self-love. And it was happening upon him thus that Aurelia first experienced sexuality outside of her own private fantasies, or the half-consummated teasing of Aristraana’s pain-games.
She found him doing—something. What exactly, she could not be entirely sure. He seemed in a tizzy, self-absorbed, unaware of her approach, out somewhere far out from the settlement in the deep woods. He’d come here before, many, many times, when he thought nobody else was looking. Though the elfish culture is a very free and open one, and shame is not an emotion well known, still Tariil hid what he did from everyone else. Aurelia could sense his desperation, his aura shimmering with anger and abasement amidst the quest for pleasure. She watched him a while, as he squirmed and grunted and panted, working himself into a feverishness which seemed not to value the experience for its journey, but merely for its strained and abbreviated conclusion. As she watched him, she felt her own sexual energy flowering inside her, her hand finding her center, and she tried for communion with his act in the bushes beside the little hollow. The touch of her fingers on her softest places brought waves of pleasure all over, and she thought she could explore herself for hours thus, as if she were a blossom, deliciously milked for her nectar by a honeybee, or a hummingbird. The same could hold true for her young, old friend, she thought. Yet, he jerked and worked, panted and squirmed, and when he ended it all, it was but a sneeze, the merest hiccup. She could not help but laugh.
“What?!” he shouted, cringing from the laughter, his hazel-brown eyes darting to and fro, searching for who could be laughing at his shame. “Who’s there?!”
“Me,” she emerged from the bushes, her hand still resting on her sex which, unlike his, was still safely enlaced by her silken skirts of earthy green. He was half-naked, his rough leather trousers cast aside, the part of him she’d never seen before that moment wet and milky with something she could not identify. His face was reddening in shame and anger. He seemed unable to decide whether to cry, shout, or run away.
“How—? How long were you—how long were you sitting there—watching?!”
“Just a moment, Tariil.”
“Why were you watching me?”
“I was . . . curious.”
“Well, it’s not fair! I don’t go sneaking around when you wanna be—private! I never went leering at you when you were with Aristraana! Eavesdropping, and spying—that’s not funny, Il’y’ama!!”
“I’m sorry, Tariil! I meant no—no disrespect for you! There’s nothing to feel bad about.”
“Well, I think there is! It makes me feel all—all icky, now. You think I’m ugly, and foolish, and—”
“—No, I don’t!”
“Oh, you lie! All you elves are so . . . well, you all seem so comfortable with yourselves, y’know? So cool, so assured. I’m weird here! I’m awkward, and strange, and I don’t fit!! This thing I do I do because there’s no other way to—to feel good! And you—you, Il’y’ama. You laughed at me.”
Aurelia found herself feeling an unfamiliar emotion, one she sensed in her friend, and now shared. Shame. She felt icky, too. She’d seen something she wasn’t supposed to see. It was as if she’d come in on his prayer-song sung horrid and ugly and off-key, and laughed at his ugliness. Both of them looked to each other, and thought the same thought: Will it ever be the same between us?
Then, as if in answer, an answer to a prayer, Aurelia found herself drawn forward. There was a way out of shame. The way out was sharing. She came forward, and stood close before her friend.
“Do you—?” she whispered softly.
“Do I what?!”
“Do you—think I’m—pretty?”
This floored him. His eyes bugged out, then were downcast. It was as if she’d asked what he’d always wanted her to ask. He’d found his libidinous thoughts revolving round her precocious form often and often over the last few years. When he did what he did, it was not uncommon for him to think on her. And this dirty secret was the real reason for all his shame and anger at having been caught by her, of all people.
“Y—yes,” he admitted, his face blushing further.
She smiled wide.
“I think you’re pretty, too, you know.”
He glared up at her.
“Are you—teasing me, Il’y’ama?”
“Yes. You know. Tlalaa. What we call that pixie I saw once, sunning herself on a lily pad, in that pond east of here. Tlalaa. That nymph kissed me, you know. She kissed me, and when I kissed her back, she pulled away—and she laughed.”
“Did you—did you like it? When she laughed?”
His eyes squinted curiously.
“Yes, Tariil. I dreamt a little while ago of a dryad—a tree nymph, y’know? He had visited me before, in dreams. As before, he was kissing me, and I was hugging him, writhing and dancing against his warm muscles. As I squeezed him harder, he left me. I found myself hugging a tree, my mouth sucking its trunk. My mouth was full of sappy bark, tasting horrid—and I felt so stupid and tricked. And the dryad’s voice was laughing at me as I awoke—that foul, bitter taste still thick on my tongue. Just as every time I’ve dreamt of him.”
Tariil’s curious eyes went dull with a bored and bitter disdain.
“It’s a game to you,” the half-human boy said, “isn’t it? To all you elves, these things are games. Passion, longing, lust. You feel them, but only as you might feel the pleasantness of silken raiment upon your breast, or the bitterness of a chance draught you spit out and forget. You taste life, in all its terror and beauty, but only as you taste a good wine, or a bad one, savoring it as a pleasure, or an unpleasantness, a mere experience—and thereafter, it is just a memory for you, something you just ‘did once.’ It affects you all nary more. I am an alien here—just as my foolish father is. We humanish take life too seriously, Il’yama—to taste it as you elves do, to find in it pleasure, or curiosity, or a passing, forgettable vintage in ‘bad taste’—and nothing more. We are—too boorish, I suppose—to get the joke you elves all tell.”
Tariil turned away from her, and began to pull his trousers back on.
She was stung by his words. Was this half-human child right about what he said, a wisdom beyond his paltry years? Was he really just a toy to her? Was everyone? Aristraana? Tlalaa? Where were her true passions, her real, deep feelings about any of them? Did she not secretly cherish the pain she’d caused Aristraana over the years they’d dueled in love—but neither of them daring once to admit the hurt? Was not Tlalaa’s game her own, and Aristraana’s, and all these elflings’ in these forests? Was she as an elf so superior, so removed, that the frustrations of her young friend here, now, were naught but an amusement—and did not bespeak a passion that was driving him nigh to tears? Could she really be so cruel?
She bit her lip down to suppress a tear forming in her eye. Then she reached down, and stopped him from tightening his trousers.
“What?” he almost roared at her, as her hand held his back at the fastening.
“Kiss me,” she said.
“Kiss me, Tariil. Kiss me, and let me—hold you.”
His eyes widened. Before he could say anything else, she’d pushed into him, her lips finding his, her tongue parting them. Her long, slender hand caressed him, pushing into his trousers and finding his softened, dangling parts, holding them inexpertly. He winced, and she loosened her grip, feeling him relax. With her other hand, she pushed one of his into her silky blouse, onto her breast. She kissed him deeper, then, forcing him to taste her, to breathe her breath, rubbing gentle circles round his midsection, pressing softly, then firmer, willing warmth from her hands into his flesh, dissolving his tensions with an only slightly thaumic enhancement of the warmth any boy or girl would feel, savoring the sticky, still warm feel of the stuff down there in her fingers.
He kissed her back. She felt something she hadn’t really felt before, a kind of dizzy tingling round the web of her perceptions, twining into what she could feel of his, the mingling of myriad, vibrating strands intensely welcoming. The feeling was not as her pain-games with Aristraana, which were hot—or cold—intense, but entirely foreign to everyday reality. There was not the sharp tug of her heart-strings about to snap—the danger of being rent and unraveled. This was a merging, a strengthening of strand with strand, sinew with sinew—as if her web was being made more than it had been before the sistering of fibers. Touching, tasting Tariil was warm, calming, just a heightening of what she’d always felt about him. She breathed in the deep and gentle intensity, enjoying the moment with no cares, no hurry, as if it could and should last like this forever. Then, gradually, she pushed still deeper into him. Nothing could stop this connection, this warm fusing of soul with soul, endlessly, forever . . .
Tariil too felt warm—but warm turning hot—a boiling!—and all at once he pulled at her blouse with a roughness that startled her—the fibers of her web ripping with the silky fabric of her blouse—a sharp rasp that brought her out of her trance like a slap! She stumbled back—pushing him away.
“Why do you push me, Il’y’ama?!” he said, confused, frustrated.
“I don’t know! You’re so—so forceful all of a sudden! Forceful, and forced. Can’t we—can’t we take our time?”
He looked at what he’d done to her shirt, and shook his head swiftly, frustrated, ashamed, angry at himself, but a little with her, too.
He collapsed at her feet. She sat beside him.
“I feel so—hungry, Il’y’ama. I’m not even sure what I hunger for. But it burns in me. I—I want you.”
“I—I want you, too.”
“Then let’s do it!”
“I—I don’t know really. But I want to—I want to have you. Get inside you. Explode in you—then melt. I want to melt inside you—and have you melt inside me.”
“That’s beautiful, Tariil. Let’s do that. But, I want to see it all—see everything. Feel everything. I looked into your aura when I came first upon you, when you were doing—what you were just doing—and it seemed like you were forcing it, y’know? I don’t want to force it. I want to let it bloom, blossom. I want it to ripen, and fall off the tree—into our waiting mouths, all warm and moist and sweet, to suckle us and fill us. Do you know what I mean?”
He smiled at her then, somewhat a sneer, somewhat grateful.
“You’re more alluring than that water nymph,” he smiled, as if delighted suddenly by what frustrated him. “I shall call you Tlalaa, from now on.”
“I’m not Tlalaa!”
“That’s what I’ll call you. Until—until you’re not.”
For a moment, Aurelia felt anger. Then, she too felt something more like frustration. Finally, she felt a warmth in the frustration, something almost embarrassing, but good. Very well. Tlalaa. She would tease him, deny him, and in so doing tease and deny herself. This would make it last longer. This would make the eventual reward worth the wait.
They came to play a version of the pain-games Aurelia had played with Aristraana, with the fire and the ice, the sharp and the feathery. Aurelia teased Tariil in the hidden hollows of their forest, amidst the poison ivy and the poison oak, making beds of grass and flowers in which she hid a sprig or two of the noisome weeds, so that he’d itch for days thereafter, so that her little tickly teases would last beyond their lovemaking. He’d return this trick, from time to time, as he teased and tickled her in turn, and she delighted in hating him for it.
They teased one another with love for several seasons before they finally lay openly in one another’s arms, and their laughter told the joys of lust it took them seasons more to phrase.
Tariil came to be closer to her than her other lover had come. Tariil was more available to her, more mundane, more like the earth. Their spirits were kindred, two elfish children of Y’str’aak’lyaa. In Tariil, Aurelia realized her own ordinariness, and rather than attempt to distance herself from it, to cultivate artifice and strive for the airiness of Aristraana, Aurelia realized that there was nothing wrong in being ordinary. A part of that arrogance she’d had for so many years, that pride both wounded and reasserted, lost and won and lost again in her dance with Aristraana, came now to dissipate as she came to know Tariil’s humanish sweaty sinews, his grounded, natural passions, as akin to her own. She learned to love his smell, earthy, even a little dirty at times, but in that stimulating, stirring down deep, a tremor in her sex alluring despite any pretensions of cleanliness and decorum. And she came to cherish her own smell, mingling into it.
She learnt with Tariil hot feelings, too, along with the warm. He was often faster than she would have liked, more eager to get—somewhere. (Where exactly, he only partially seemed to know—though he pursued it as if it would be lost if he didn’t get there with all haste.) For a time, Aurelia resisted this heat, her vulnerability to it, which reminded her uncannily of Aristraana, and her long lovesickness for her, the intimacy she never quite knew with her, amidst all the lashing humiliations. She tried to teach her new lover what she herself did not know: how to sustain this heady warmth and milk it gradually into something more. But then, Aurelia decided to surrender to the heat of Tariil, let him do what he wanted to her, and see where that would go.
It ended up being a good flavor among the many she would taste with him—though at first it almost choked her. When Tariil thrust himself into her, bursting through her as if frantically searching for some treasure deep inside when there was only her darkness, she surrendered to it entirely. Flashes of helplessness on the Grandfather Trees, with Aristraana and Tlalaa dancing lasciviously round her, poking and prodding her, and the explosions within her as she yielded to their use and abuse—straining the limits of her consent—these emerged from her buried memories as Tariil became a beast, frenzied and ravenous, his eyes clouding over as she became but a fleshy means to his selfish end. But, as before with Aristraana, when she’d subjected Aurelia to her will for hours and hours and whole nights of tasty torture, Aurelia found herself relishing this bestial madness of Tariil, craving the sensation of being split open—ruined by him, as if he were some orcish invader breaking into and desecrating a shrine to Mother Y’str’aak’lyaa, kicking over the altar, pulling down the tapestries—all looking for the elusive inner sanctum to plunder all its hidden treasures.
She found herself lying next to him after he’d pulled away, and wanting him to do it all over again.
“Why do you do it?” she asked him later, basking in the afterglow of several hours of“fucking”—that orcish word that was the only word that fit.
“Why do I do what?” Tariil asked lazily, curling into her arm.
“Why do you—fuck me the way you do?”
“Well, I . . .”
“I . . . don’t know, Tlalaa. It’s a harsh word you use for it.”
“Come, now. What other word could be used?”
“Well, I . . . I mean, it’s . . . love. Lovemaking.”
Aurelia cackled, raining ridicule down on the half-human boy for using the delicate, High Elfish word.
“It’s fucking, Tariil. Admit it—admit what you do.”
Tariil looked away. He mused for a while, coming to realize she didn’t mind it, that she liked the fucking as much as he did. It was not elfish, this fucking. It made him think of his human blood, which he’d always been taught was something beneath him, or at least beneath what he should be.
“I guess,” he mused, “it’s something really—really primal. When I’m horny for you” [he used another orcish word] “I just want to—I want to . . .”
“Aye, Tariil? Just say what’s on your mind—the first thing that pops into it.”
“I want . . . to destroy you.”
There was a silence after his words, a pregnant, uncomfortable silence.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“No. No, no. I don’t mind, Tariil. You want to ‘destroy’ me, then? You want to—you want to devour me, maybe?”
His brownish eyes met hers.
Aurelia tittered then, not a laugh of ridicule, rather one that felt something satisfied, something kindred.
“You see Beauty,” she surmised, smiling almost a sneer, “and you want to ruin it.”
“Well, I don’t know, Tlalaa.”
“You want to rape me,” she went further, risking his repulsion, perhaps even his rejection. But, she felt it to be a truth.
Tariil looked to her as if she were forcing him to admit the unadmittable. Angrily, he spat:
“Does that make me a monster, Tlalaa? Does that make me some rude, coarse, ugly human, then?”
“No, Tariil. It makes you an orc.”
“Fuck you, Tlalaa!”
He sprang up, suddenly very much awake, and began to storm off.
“Where are you going?”
“Oh, come back, Tariil! I wasn’t insulting you!”
“Oh, yes? What the devil were you doing, then??”
“I was—I was being an orc myself. I was doing verbally what you just did to me physically. Ha ha! C’mon, my pretty elfling boy—all of us elves have a little orcishness in us, eh? It’s not like I’m not entranced by you, Tariil, for all your beautiful, ugly beauty.”
He stopped. He gazed on her a moment. He returned, slowly, to her side.
“And,” she whispered, when he finally let his ear rest again near her lips, “it’s not like I myself cannot share the feeling.”
Tariil regarded her curiously.
“Aye, Tariil. Tell me, what would you say to my raping you?”
Tariil looked at her, then looked away. Something stirred in him, deep within, so deep he’d not acknowledged it before. The stirring manifested in an unwilling twinge in his most tender place, which Aurelia noted with sardonic glee.
“Part of you,” she smiled, touching his rising tenderness, “evidently doesn’t mind the idea.”
“How,” he asked quietly, “would you do it?”
“I have . . . ideas.”
Their next rendezvous in their hollow, a few nights later, Aurelia was prepared. She’d gone far out to the southwest of Rasil’yon’s central clearing, more than an hour’s hike, where the land came marshy and still, by a dark bend of the sulfurous river, to the place of the sibylline priestess Valera. She had not been near her place in the marshlands since she was a girl of sixty, haunted and tortured, twenty years before. Then, as now, Valera was a crone so ancient her face and body had begun to disintegrate into the ether. Her lips were nary more than thick wrinkles, and her lower canines protruded slightly now, yellowed fangs contrasting with the dappled silver of her skin. Her eyes were so dark now they seemed rent of their elfin green, her hair naught but long, spare silver wisps over a skull of purplish liverspots and sheen. Her nose had grown sunken into her face, hardly larger than a convex depression round her nostrils. The ancient hereditary connexion between the elfish people and the orcish races was almost tangible in such a figure, this priestess of quite a many years more than seven and a half centuries in the ancient wood. Yet, for all her fierceness and ugliness, it was Valera whom Aurelia looked toward to help her know better the arts of lust and love.
Valera was of the Sibylline discipline, a rare and secret sisterhood, a heritage older, it was said, than even the Elfish race. (The discipline was said originally to be the province of the Dragons.) Though much of it owed its power to a natural magick, an intuited talent for the weaving of the web of thauma, like Aurelia’s tla’spithra’iil—it was equally a learned discipline, a dra’spithra’iil, which involved not simply years, but centuries to learn all its inner workings and arcane knowledge. The coded language of Sibylline was said to have as many as thrice the number of calligraphic characters as High Elfin—itself a script that took decades to master—one of the reasons it took an elf a hundred years to claim adulthood, literacy and fluency so elusive. And for each character of the Sibylline Script, a hundred secrets were said to be crystallized.
Valera ate no meat—not the flesh of animalkind, nor yet the flesh of any flora. She’d long ago perfected the technique of reopening her green arteries to the life-giving energies of the sun. The green of elfish blood is akin to the leaves of the plants for a reason, and the highest Sibyls knew it: the synthesizing of nutrients from the sun’s rays is a potential in both. When Aurelia came to the crone’s little cabin of dead sticks and leaves and brambles, open and humble and beseeching, Valera had not let a morsel of living flesh pass through her lips in twice the time the younger elf had been alive. The priestess Valera, keeping to herself in her hut in the dense forest of the southwest, by a stone circle older than the eldest epics, who was said to make love to satyrs and centaurs and even wild animals, who knew the darkest mysteries of the deepest forest—Nature’s Dark Heart, which even most of the forest-loving, nature-worshiping elves turn from in fear; the Sibylline priestess Valera was the person Aurelia turned to now by instinct to actualize her fantasy. The wise one knew before she’d even approached her hut what her little sister needed.
“Take this, girl,” the ancient witch beckoned her, her fiercely wise eyes black in the nebulous twilight, handing her the magickal amulet she’d come for.
Tariil shivered in their hollow that night, not knowing what his lover had planned. Her charm was not worn round her neck; where it was, and what it was, she would not say. The anticipation, the fear of the unknown, added to Tariil’s shivering, along with what he already knew she meant to do to him.
“Lay down, boy,” she commanded, and quivering in just an instant’s hesitation, he obeyed her. She pushed him down on the forest floor, feeling the power of the amulet above her center augmenting a lust already burning in her. Aurelia knew what it was to have such lust unleashed on her, what it was to feel split open, helplessly penetrated till all she could do to survive it was to accept and become one with it, in all its terror and agony. It was then that she found joy in it. She wanted Tariil to know this joy also.
His sinuous flesh resisted her at first, involuntarily tensing up as she mounted him and spread him with her thigh. She caressed the curves of his body, telling him to relax, not to be afraid; she meant not to hurt him; she wanted to open him to another possibility of relating to her, to himself, to accept her into him, to take it as she’d taken it—and to love her for it. It frightened him. Admitting to her that he desired her ruin, her ravishment and destruction—that he raged into her with naught but this burning, blinding lust in his heart, pushing out all else—and to know now that she would feel the same thing for him, and act upon it—this made him almost cringe. But what was even more scary was to face that he might actually want it . . .
Though, like all that ever passed between them, like all that ever passed between Aurelia and any of her lovers, mutual consent was sacrosanct; in this experience, she did not plan to take no for an answer. She ripped his undershirt with her hunting knife, cutting down the length of his chest in a motion, the halves of his garment dropping like useless rags at his sides. Then in another motion, she flipped his sinuous body, which she saw now in all its elegant, curvy delicacy, determined to rip his flesh as she’d rent his clothing, and held her blade against his throat.
“Now, little boy,” she rasped in his ear, “you’re gonna give me what I want—and you’re gonna like it. Yes?”
He breathed, and tensed; but he offered no resistance.
“Yes??” she repeated, harsher now. “Tell me, boy, that you consent to me.”
Tariil, feeling frightened, feeling brave—trusting her, breathed: “I consent.”
“D’ye mean it, boy? D’ye give me this consent honestly?—and without coercion??”
“Aye, Tlalaa. Aye. I do not know what thou wouldst do with me—and I would lie to ye if I said I had no fear of it. But I—I want it—I want you—more than my fear.”
“Then I command ye, now, boy: Give me your vow that you shall tell me to stop—if ever it be thy will for me to stop—at any point your fear outweighs your pleasure!—vow to me that ye shall! SWEAR IT TO ME!!”
“Aye, Tlalaa! AYE! I swear it!!”
She roared in triumph, her thigh shoved against his ass, shoving twice again for good measure. Still holding his throat with her blade with one firm hand, her other parted her skirts and grabbed onto the amulet, cultivating a surge of thauma, a beam of blackly glowing power, jutting from her rock-hard clit six, seven inches straight out—six or seven inches and rising. Then she pulled his pantaloons down over the supple, fat cheeks of his ass, and thrust her way inside.
His head threw back even further than she was holding it with her knife, and he let out a groan between pleasure and pain—a deep, animal groan. She delighted in it, and roared again, feeling all the sensuous folds of her moistening pussy as one with the growing shaft of black light, till she dug deep into him and felt him from the inside. She resolved to feel every fold inside him, every hot, hidden place—the universe of darkness inside his ass—wondering how deep she could go before she split him asunder. She willed her mystic cock to grow, to thicken, feeling his ass muscles fight the invasion so he’d have to be taught what it was to open. She pushed deeper still, then pulled out, relishing the hot friction, feeling the natural lubrication of his shit and sweat and blood—the filthy allurement at his very core—then pushed back in, and out, and in and out in a deliciously sloppy, artful rhythm. She made him dance. She called to him that this is what she was doing—commanded him to dance for her—and kept roaring her order till his bulging asscheeks matched her rhythmic thrusts, till his hips swiveled as he had to to suit her time, till he fucked the ground as she fucked the ground, his flesh mere cushioning for her raging urge to rape the World.
She understood! She understood it all now! The earth, the wood, the light and heavy air, the soft, slimy sinews of her conquered lover—all of it was now a mere hole for her to use and please herself and leave her mark.
“YOU WET, HOT HOLE!!” she growled as she fucked him—“OPEN TO ME, SLUT!! OPEN TO ME—ME—MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!”
And all she could hear was herself, roaring her name before names—the first word she ever used to say herself, to thrust her consciousness on the world—all reduced to a tiny pronoun which now was just a grunt—a single, guttural syllable, disconnected from anything more complex in her complex tongue—the most basic of all sounds! She roared it long and loud till it, too, lost all meaning, and all was the bestial noises not even the beasts know they’re making. Primal, carnal—
. . . She awoke, hours later, laying beside him. She felt peace. And he, still on his belly, his face kissing dirt, was smiling.
The elves have no god or goddess of Love. In the elfish way, it is not to a god or goddess, but to the loved one alone that you give your worship. Thus, through all her trials and tribulations, Aurelia never prayed or besought any Cosmic Lover for help or understanding of Aristraana or Tariil or the others in the community she fell into deep attractions for. No word exists in Elfish, be it the High or the Ordinary, in any of the dialects round the vast Western Forests, that is simply “lover” or “beloved” in the way those words exist in the Demotic tongue. The term “azhuura,” which personified is the god or goddess of love in such pantheons as the human and the floret, is unintelligible if not connected with other words, at best a slang term of bastardized, Ordinary Elfish which those unfamiliar with the tongue might sometimes mistakenly employ. You speak properly of a lover always in conjunction with her name, with the implication that no “lover” or “beloved” is ever the same as another. The individual loved one, and your relation to her, is utterly unique—never having been before, and never to occur again.
“Aristraana” and “Tariil” came to be inflected in the subtlest lilt by Aurelia over the course of the seasons to reflect the many different concepts that hung on those names, those persons, in her passionate, ever-changing relationship with them. These inflections are too subtle to be conveyed in the alphabetic lettering of Demotic, or indeed in the runic glyphs of the Dwarves, the gnomish Tinkers, or (certainly) the Orcs. The closest such graphologies come to expressing such inflective subtleties is by employing symbols outside their lexicons. So, the best that can be said here is that, over the course of the seasons of Aurelia’s passions for Aristraana, then later Tariil, she called them A’ristra’ana, and then Aristr’aan’a, while Tariil she called T’ariil, but only much later Ta’riil—and certainly never with him did she say Tarii’l. Tarii’l was inconceivable; and for this, Aurelia was forever glad. The last lilt round the final vowel of Aristraana, which she never used with Tariil’s last consonant, was the source of much pain, frustration, even at times despair. It was something that Aurelia hated her friend for at times. And it would only be many years later that those hatreds could be sublimated with the greater availability and maturity of their adult connection. Only then could that final inflection be forever forgotten, and Aristraana become A’ristraana in truth.
The meaning of that lilt in the name of the object of love is one that may confuse a person who was not born and raised in an elfish community. For many of the differing cultures of the humanish, the intensity of love, the thing that would mandate changes in title, perhaps even demanding particular rites of bonding or consecration to deities, has to do with the level of intimacy, of sharing between the lover and their loved one. Many human cultures sanctify the pair-bonding of two persons, inviting family alliances, even sealing treaties between nations, based on the relation of the couple in question. Humans as a rule are rather formal with such things. And the longing for love, the level of distance mingling with the desire for closeness, has fueled many a humanish poem, song, and epic tale. Though formal with their love, and very serious, even the humanish cannot come close to the staid formality of dwarfish love, in which the conjugal relations of two people have very little to do with their affection for one another, but are about the alliances between clans, and the augury their priests and priestesses make in their domestic shrines to determine the will of the ancestors. How the dead, especially the long-dead, will the future generations, have much to do with how dwarves make their marriages. Dwarves, with their mindsets on long histories in which they individually are but a small part, but a word or sentence in the great volumes of clan and kind, will plan not just the generations of the living, but the generations to come—two, three, sometimes ten generations hence—and make their marriage contracts, their “agreements,” with the far future in mind. To most humans, and to all but the queerest, most outcasted dwarves, the free and ever-changing affections the elves live and love by would be difficult to understand.
Elves do not measure the intensity of love based on intimacy exactly, nor do they subsume their changing loves and lusts to any idea of future or past. Their perennial search for drama and meaning and epic emotion make them think of love as they think of spiritual ecstasy, or the journeys through elixirs and magick and art that lead one to vision—to beauty, truth, or even the risk of death—to live more fully. Love is part of the web of experience elves sense as no other mortal people. And in that sense, both a lilt in the beginnings of a beloved’s name, and those toward the end, each signify a subtle, untranslatable value to the relationship. Each is valued, in different ways; but perhaps the earlier wisps in tongue make for the better friend, whilst the latter wisps make for the more thrilling affair. Epics are not oft writ for the companions of the earlier lilts; but poetry is oft the only way one ever can hope to enjoy the maddening worship of one to whom one lilts last.
Tariil remained for Aurelia someone she could touch, and worshiped only in the most general sense. Aristraana, meanwhile, Aurelia had worshiped with the distance of the moon, after whose blood she no doubt traced her elusive, otherworldly spirit. As she loved her, her perceptions of her remained of one beneath, far, far beneath, as herself looking to the heavens. It was only after she’d grown much older and wiser, and gentler too, that Aurelia ever began to touch her in the way she’d long touched Tariil.
The object of love is never so simply stated as “love-object” in the Elfish. Always, the changing affections, the hatreds and the lusts, the possessiveness and the compersion, and finally the mature, selfless giving and grateful receiving—these can only be truly conveyed in the Name. The Name is the best way any sentient of any language can hope to grasp the inner mystery of an entity that is not oneself. And Elfish, perhaps the most human language (to use the bastardized generality that word connotes in the Demotic tongue), is unparalleled by any other in helping with the movement of tongue and teeth and breath to reach for that unnamable truth the many changing Names but reflect. That unnamable can never be said, or even understood. Beyond logic, beyond words, it can only ever be felt, and known.
By the time her eighty-fifth year rolled around, Aurelia had nearly forgotten about Aristraana, engulfed in the rapture of Tariil. So, it was almost startling when she returned unexpectedly to the circle of the settlement one dusky twilit summer evening, and hailed Aurelia as if no time at all had passed.
“Where have you been, sister?” Aurelia asked her.
Aristraana smiled a calm, contemplative smile, one of peace.
“I’ve been purging myself, my Kyiir’a,” she said. “Purging myself of my curse.”
“The same. I’ve been claiming my own over these last years, Kyiir’a. I’ve been coming to a victory in our war of love and hate.”
“Aristr’aana, don’t you think you’d be better off just forgetting that creature? Your life has been halted, your growth arrested. That creature is just a trap for you. Your pursuit of it—win or lose—is a slavery. You’re becoming one of those characters out of our legends. A star-crossed, lovesick fool, ever pining for some sparkly specter that is ever just beyond your reach.”
“I know. I know, my Kyiir’a. But, tonight I—I—will you come with me tonight?”
“Come with you where?”
“To the pond. To the portal. I plan to make my break with the Tlalaa, this night—once and for all time.”
“If you didn’t go to the pond anymore, you’d have made your break with that trickster temptress long ago.”
“Yes. Yes, indeed. . . . But, will you come?”
Aurelia breathed. She looked across the clearing, to the assembled elves beginning to share their lyric songs and their epic tales, reciting together the poetry of their people, with wine and dancing and carefree laughter round rainbow-colored, magickal flames—as elves have always spent their evenings, from the time when these great and ancient trees were the merest saplings—Y’str’aak’lyaa’s seedling garden of auld. Tariil had drunk a tankard of potent barley-wine, a gift of some visiting tinkerish goliards who had come to trade their tales and wares with the elves of Rasil’yon, and he lay fast asleep under a shade tree.
“Very well,” she promised. “Just this one last time.”
“Oh, thank you! Thank you, my Kyiir’a’a!! You’re my true sister!!”
And she kissed her, as when they were the youngest children, sisterly on the forehead.
Aristraana danced with the Tlalaa for hours that night, as she’d danced with the daemon every night alone for better part of the past decade, Aurelia watching her fade into mist and then return, only to fade once again. The Tlalaa was as misty, more beautiful than any being Aurelia or Aristraana had ever seen. The nymph, androgynous, elegant, held the same allure for these elfin lasses that they themselves would have held for awkward, boorish human boys and girls; just as elves are seen as almost supernatural in their beauty by non-elves, so Tlalaa was as spectral to them. Tlalaa shimmered; Tlalaa teased; Tlalaa beckoned and faded. Aurelia worried for her friend, knowing the Tlalaa was just toying with her, fearing Tlalaa would steal away her heart, and then laughingly break it right in front of her dazzled eyes. Aristraana’s plan, whatever it was, seemed a fool’s errand. Aurelia began to feel sorry she’d come.
The dance did not fade till the dawn, the earliest, twilit time of dawn, when the moon’s crescent was still etched in the sky along with the morning sun’s first rays, when the borders between the worlds were their most porous. Though she’d been at the periphery, too proud, too frightened to dance with what she knew was but a trickster, Aurelia heard the shimmering crystals of the Tlalaa’s music, heard Tlalaa laughing, heard Aristraana’s giggles, tickly and delighted. She knew the two were talking, but she could not hear them speak. Was it now? or now?? When would Tlalaa finally and utterly ruin the illusion, and leave Aristraana dancing foolish and naked in the dawn dew, breathy, hopeless and spent from the almost lovemaking Tlalaa had so long teased at? Surely, it was almost now. . . . But then, suddenly, Aristraana turned decidedly away. Was she to reject the Tlalaa?? Was she finally to break the illusion, leaving the pixie to weep alone in the portal, as the legends said was the only way to really triumph over such Fey? They would laugh for many years on this, if this were to be the fate of the moment!
Sure enough, Aristraana was coming out of the fog, the pixie spinning in place on the floating lily cloud. Aurelia smiled at her friend’s approach, and prepared to join her in a hearty laugh of triumph over the heartbreaker. But when Aristraana came close, her beautiful face, more striking and perfect even than Aurelia’s, was still deep in wonderment. She smiled, then, deeply at her friend, as if she meant her to remember the smile, as if it would be aeons before she would see her smile again.
“I love thee, Kyiir’a’zhuur’a’Rasil’yon,” she called to her as if from a great distance, though she stood right there before her.
“I love thee!” she returned, bemused. Aristraana kissed her on her forehead, like a sister. Then, just like that, she, Tlalaa, the mist, the music—all vanished into the ether. Aurelia cried out for Aristraana, cried and cried. Then, she realized.
Tlalaa had taken her precious friend into the Beyond.
She’d never see her young, star-struck friend again.
Time passed, seasons becoming years, years becoming a decade, then halfway through another. Aurelia had come to the pond of the Tlalaa often after Aristraana disappeared, the following evening, and the evening after that—for fortnights and moons she kept a nightly vigil there. She searched the minds of her elders and all the knotted scrolls in every elfin library in the circle of Rasil’yon for the magick that could bring her love back from the beyond. And she spent long nights searching through her own web of thauma and thought for the warps and wefts she might pull tighter, or loosen, in order to sense in it the presence of Aristraana, somewhere in the furthest reaches of her fibers and filigrees. But nary could she find even the shadow of her friend, or the shadow of a prayer of getting her back. Only in dreams, nightmares of searching for her, and never finding her, did Aurelia even conceive the image of Aristraana in her mind’s eye—and then, only as an image which, try as she might, she could not see beyond the e’er-twilit mists. At last, after nearly a fiveyear of waiting and mourning, Aurelia came to accept that, like her uncle before her, Aristraana was gone to the world. And so, she tried to weave round the hole her love’s loss had made in her reticulum; and gradually, painfully, she managed to make her web whole again.
Aurelia came to reach and then pass her hundredth birthday, and the forces welling up within her felt like a blossom bursting its bulb. The cycles of blood had come to her, her full maturity as an elfin woman, which connected her in a way she’d always dreamt to the mysteries of Uur’yeelvyan’s monthly waxing and waning, His loving her in the way the Moon-Lover loved—opening her to the possibility of His seed, in the form of an earthly father she might join with in His Fatherly Name, allowing herself to be an earthly mother just as Her Mother, the Forest-Lover, Y’str’aak’lyaa. The time had come for declaring herself Herself to all the world. She declared her intention to conduct the Declaration Ceremony, telling her parents, the elders, all her neighbors and peers. After this informal declaration, the time to wait was merely the few nights it took before the moon again shone full.
Tariil was happy to witness his friend and lover’s declaration of selfhood. A half-human, named by his parents, he was not required (nor, by custom, allowed) to name himself as the full-blooded elves did. He was growing older, with all the rapid aging of people with human lineage. A mere thirty-nine years old, his hair was beginning already to thin in parts, parts even greying, his face already hinting of wrinkling and world-weariness. A lifespan of not centuries, but a mere century and a half awaited him. He was restless, Aurelia knew. He’d spent most of his life waiting for her to declare herself an adult, so she might accompany him on a quest beyond this secluded village, beyond the homey woods of their youth. He wanted adventure. So did she.
They’d spoken much about her need to quest after the Codex, to fulfill her uncle’s mission, to avenge his death. They’d spoken of little else, especially in the last few seasons. Tariil’s father had grown sickly and aged, the curse of humanity’s fleeting relation to Time. Though decades younger than Aurelia herself, the old man was ancient now, closer and closer to death. He’d come to reject in his dotage the religions of the elves he’d adopted when he’d married Tariil’s elfin mother, returning instead to the devotions of the humanish Gods—particularly the Sun-God, Raathor, and the Father-of-Time, Krun’aar. For Raathor, the old withered man arose before dawn to trudge to a clearing on a hill west of the village, and knelt contemplating the sun all day long, staring straight into it for minutes on end, over and over as it slowly passed over him, not returning till nightfall. For Krun’aar, he begged the sands of the Cosmic Hourglass to move just a little less swiftly, praying sometimes through the night, eyes dead-fixed on the sands of his own little hourglass in the sitting room of his and his elfin wife’s low treehouse, vainly willing slowness into the inexorably falling grains. He even scratched into his own flesh the mark of Krun’aar’s favored—this selfsame hourglass, dyed by his own red, human blood, with the dulled and painful carving of an athame he’d once prayed with in his youth—in desperate hopes of gaining the God’s mercy as the grains of his own life spilled inexorably into oblivion.
Raathor was the God of Fire, Guardian of that Element. It is said among the Humanish folk that they among the hominines were the first to tame and use fire—a dubious claim considering the youth of the race. Elves had been in the world for tens of thousands of years ere the first Humans walked upright, and Dwarves also, and even the Floretish, themselves a younger race, are thought elder cousins to the Humanish. Most humans acknowledge their late-coming to their Telluria, yet still over their many cultures, scattered throughout the Continent and over the Islands of the Ocean, this claim of fire is found.
The Dwarves, the humans say, had recourse to the Catacombs’ phosphorescent fungi to give them light. The Elves, they say, had their magick. And anyway, could not the eyes of these races see better in darkness anyway? Human eyes are among the weakest of the hominine races, one of the reasons they’ve traditionally been a diurnal people, working through the night only in the modern metropolis of Gavinton and her rival city-states in the Islands, and only in the latest centuries of this modern era. Fire has always been the humans’ companion and benefactor. Without Fire, the humans say, we’d be nary more than dumb and helpless beasts.
The evolution of Raathor from Fire-God to Sun-God took many centuries to ripen, and in many places is yet to be complete. Though Gavinton science has isolated and identified many elements beyond the traditional five once acknowledged, fire, earth, air, water, and the energy of thauma (the stuff of magick), the Element of Fire remains a powerful symbol in the Humans’ many cultures, and comes close to a universal amongst them. Fire is both good and bad, benevolent and destructive. Much as the Human gods are, much as are the Humans themselves. Some human islander creation myths, Aurel told Aurelia during their long years together during his visits to her parent-mentors’ treehouse, place fire in humans’ veins at the Beginning of Time, as Earth is in the veins of the Dwarves, Air in the blood of the Elves, Water in the Merfolk, and so on. Humans are fiery—their cultures so quickly change, and often violently. Their peoples are quick to war, even amongst each other. And the carbon in their sinews burns quickly, making them age and die at a time when a dwarf has barely passed beyond adolescence, when an elf is still a child. How else would a myth-making race (and humans tell more and varied myths than any other race—even the poetic elves, many daresay) explain it all?
Humans, creatures of the daylight, hot-blooded and fast-burning to ash, have long loved the Sun, and the draw of Tariil’s father as his own body came embers was to abandon the Elfish Moon and all the culture He protects, and make his last, desperate devotions to the Raathor of his childhood catechisms, as well as the Master-of-Time, Krun’aar, Whom he somehow thought might give him another year, another season, another cycle or two of the moon. ‘Tis easy for the longer-lived races to ignore Krun’aar, and Time in general, for there shall always be another year, another century. The elements of these races, the Air of the Elves, the Earth of the Dwarves, the Water of the Merfolk, the Thauma of the Fey—all of these things are long-lived things, things that remain. The quality of air might change, but air it remains. Earth, too, seems an immortal, unchanging thing—even though at earth’s heart, things are molten and changing (the intercourse with Fire, the Humanish say). Fire, of all the elements, and the elemental spirits, is the most affected by the passage of Time; another godlike symbol, entwining into the first. For the short-lived humanish, burning like their patron elemental Fire, the God of Time is a God most powerful, and His favor is begged with prostrations and tears. It was sad for Tariil to see, and more than a little frightening. Was he, too, destined for superstitious madness when his hair turned silvery and then fell from his head? Was this human blood in half his veins a curse on his line, destined to haunt him like Furies from the nether regions as he slid slowly but inexorably toward an early death?
Fortunately, Tariil’s father’s agony was brief. The old man expired within the season, found frozen in kneeling before his once-and-again Father-Sun at the noontide hour, his dead eyes fixed into the blazing, faceless face of that brightest star. He was a mere eighty-one years old.
Aurelia gathered her friends, her neighbors, and her relatives together in the clearing in the center of Rasil’yon, in the silvery light of fullest moonrise, and with the music of lyres and flutes and chiming crystals, and the wordless singing of the most ancient elfin chants, haunting melodies that had been sung since before words existed, dazzling with the birdcalls and the croaking trills of insects and the sounds of the wind and the streams and the rain that elfish nature-singers had long mastered amid more common melodic lilts, Aurelia danced in a circle. All elves have danced before declaring their Names, from the very dawn of history. But each person’s dance is always self-taught, improvised on a theme chosen with meditations on her Name, but then left to chance, the weather, and the inspiration of the moment. Each person must find her own steps, the first steps on a lifelong journey uniquely her own.
Aurelia danced in a wide arc, which became a circle, counterclockwise. Then, she turned, and danced her dance backward, clockwise. This, she said in her own poetry, was her dance, for it was the full circle that her life had thus far been, and would always be. She was destined, she declared, to always leave her home, to go on farther and farther journeys—only to find herself one day returning, as if for the first time. This dance, she intoned, would take her to places she could not even conceive then, and she called on Uur’yeelvyan to grant her the gift, and allow her to fulfill the duty, of Discovery. However frightening, however foreign, she vowed and begged to experience everything, to know things no elf yet knew. And she vowed, and besought, to return someday, many years hence, to share her wisdom with all her countrymen.
Then, in the center of her circle, she stripped herself of all the layers she’d been dressed in over her years—every frock, every outfit she’d ever worn, swaths of which had been saved by her parent-mentors just for this occasion—till she stood naked and new in the crisp autumnal moonlight. Innocent, and wise, she raised her voice to the heavens:
[This means, as rendered in the Demotic: Hail Uur’yeelvyan! Hail Y’str’aak’lyaa! May thou grant me, by thy grace—to be Aurelia Il’y’ama’Rasil’yon!!—Aurel’s Child, Rasil’yon’s Flower!!!]
With that, Aurelia dispensed with a century of pet names. Her parents would no longer call her “Prayer.” Her neighbors would no longer call her “Flower-Blossom.” Tariil would not again compare her to a tempting, enslaving pixie. Aristraana—wherever she now was—should refer to her no longer as her “Jade-Girl.” From now till the end of time, she was Aurelia of Rasil’yon. And as such, she immediately prepared to leave Rasil’yon and her old life behind, and embark on a lifelong quest for adventure, glory, wisdom, and the gods. Tariil vowed to remain always at her side.
Before she embarked on the odyssey of her life, Aurelia Il’y’ama’Rasil’yon took a few days to wander the elfin woods, saying goodbye to every tree, every flower, every rock and tuft of grass that had been her intimates for over a century. She came to the bushes by the dark hollow whence she’d spied Tariil in his juvenile self-loving, and introduced him and herself to the joys of loving another. She came to the dead tree by the flowing stream where Aristraana and she had talked years before as sisters, then as near-lovers, then again as sisters, before Aristraana was stolen away by the Tlalaa. She forded the stream, and traversed the grassy, mossy, brambly distance to the pond where the Tlalaa had tempted her, and there sat down against the cool and fuzzy dead twin of her Grandfather Tree, feeling the imperfections of the dead stump behind her, the roughness and the hairiness and the rot, tokens of the forest’s life even in death and the beauty of imperfect things, thinking on everything she’d ever known, and weeping for all she’d lost.
The inner life is something every elf—everyone—must cultivate for herself. There are no guidelines, no maps or charts, for the exploration of that frontier. Some cultures do much to attempt to settle, even to colonize, that wilderness. The Laws of the Dwarves, the Religions of the Humans, the Endless Warfare of the Orcish peoples—these are offered by those cultures to define and to explain what Life is meant to be. For Elves, though, such “shortcuts” are thought dishonest, false, even silly. No one can tell another what the inner journey means. Further, to do so would be to cheat the individual of a holy birthright—to know for oneself, to define for oneself, to live for oneself the life one alone must experience.
Aurelia sat and meditated alone. She wondered what her life had meant, and what it was fated to mean. Opening to the universe around her, she vowed only to open more. For when you lose yourself, make yourself a hollow vessel for the Gods to fill as only They can choose, this is when you really find yourself. Aurelia, just named, was most “Aurelia” when she was lost and nameless. This was how she’d learnt to use her magick, to stand aside within herself and allow the forces of the cosmos to flow fiery, freely through her—to stop feeling herself a spithra, a spinner of her web, and begin to be naught but the Web Itself. This is how she’d learnt to truly love Aristraana, Tariil, and the others she’d tasted. When she was trying to hold them, to possess them, she thought only of herself, and could not hope to truly know them; but when she let go of her ego and its selfishness, she found the flow of Love, like Magick, passed through her unobstructed, till all she was was the Love Itself.
Thinking on this, feeling it, Aurelia felt a transcendence there under the tree that was like a hundred orgasms. It was, she realized, her first taste of the Divine.
Where had it come from? What was it? How could she put it into words?
At that point, she lost it.
She fell asleep under the tree, and drifted into a thrilling dreamscape. There, she saw dragons and deities, heavens and hells. There she saw herself in the body of a chameleon, changing hues rapidly and insanely, from leaf to leaf, stand of foliage to stand of foliage, leaping from color to color till all the colors of the earth, the spectrum she could see and the spectrum beyond her eyes, was all she was. Many lives, many loves she would have—many worlds and dimensions she would travel, she learnt there in her dreaming. There, too, she saw Aurel, raised from the dead, holding a glowing tome in his hands, and handing it to her.
The Codex. What truths were inscribed in its millennia-old pages of faerie skin, illuminated in gilded faerie blood?
These things faded, and she saw something she never thought she’d see again.
Aristraana’s face . . .
“Aristraan’a?” she called after her. But between them stood the Tlalaa, ancient and terrible. And the Tlalaa was beautiful—more beautiful than Aurelia, more beautiful even than Aristraana. Tlalaa was Beauty Itself. And it made Aurelia wish to strike it and destroy it.
The Tlalaa laughed.
“Dost thou wish thy sister to come back thither unto thee?” Tlalaa asked in lilting, Highest Elfin.
“Aye!” she exclaimed. “Bring her hence to me!!”
“I shall bring her back to thee,” Tlalaa promised, “but only if thou agrees to suffer.”
Aurelia prepared herself, and declared in a harsh and gutsy low tongue—“I’ll do anything I have to, to get me friend back!!”
“I shall love thee, Aurel-ia Il’y’ama’Rasil’yon, as I shall love thee. A cruel love—the way the Gods love, the way Life loves. We shall dance together, from this point onward. Thou shalt see the signs. Thou shalt know my love, and thou shalt submit to me. But if thou art brave, and thou taketh the stripes of my flails and the sting of my kisses, thou shalt live to know my Truth.”
“I just want my Aristraan’a back!”
“Oh, that is but the first of my gifts, Child-of-Aurel, Flower-of-Rasil’yon. Before we both shall die, thou shalt receiveth many more. But in each gift, there is a curse. . . .”
Aurelia did not understand then. She did not care. All this was just double-talk, nonsense and madness. She knew the source of her anger at the Tlalaa. It was its Beauty, a beauty which seemed to eclipse her own. In its glare, she felt empty, worthless. But this was just the Tlalaa’s magic, she told herself, just one of the nymph’s illusions, like the tinkerish illusionists who could make pebbles dance in the air, fuzzy lights fall from the sky, disguise their faces into shapes which, after the illusion faded, were simply their ordinary, mundane countenances, unremarkably themselves. Tlalaa, too, would lose her strength, his magic someday fade. And then it would not be so beautiful anymore. This was Aurelia’s great hope.
Tlalaa laughed again, a triumphant cackle.
And suddenly, Aurelia was wide awake. She felt she’d done something, come to some triumphal insight, which had defeated the Tlalaa. She’d bested the creature at its own game. But what the insight actually was, she could not remember. It was lost in her dream. Her sex was wet and fragrant, the aftermath of orgasm.
Aristraana stood before her suddenly, for the first time in nigh on twenty years, Tlalaa’s defeat winning her back. Aurelia laughed triumphantly and heard Aristraana’s laughter returning as she faded fully back into the Existential Sphere. But the laughter was drowned in Tlalaa’s laughter, ringing through the wood, echoing like shimmering glass, myriad shards, crashing through the vortex. Aurelia did not understand. Why would Tlalaa laugh—when it was Tlalaa who had lost?
Aristraana’s laughter morphed into something different, something strained, hoarse, raspy. Aurelia saw her friend and lover engulfed in shadow, curling over, falling into fits of spasmodic coughing and wheezing. Aurelia ran to her, splashing knee-deep in the brackish pond water, her arms outstretched to catch her as she fell through the portal, materializing fully into the forest. Her bones felt like brittle sticks in a rice paper wrapping. That was Aurelia’s first feeling, before she’d really looked at her. Then, she noticed her hair, as her face lay buried in her breast, struggling for breath. It was almost completely white.
Lifting Aristraana’s face to meet hers, she saw the effect of perhaps six or seven centuries creasing and scarring and rendering it the stark greys of a specter. Her whiteness had darkened, her blackness had paled. Grey was Aristraana now. Aristraana had been kept but ten and some-odd years from Aurelia, in the Existential Sphere’s time. But frozen in the Sphere of the Fey, the Tlalaa had stolen nearly all the centuries of her life away.
This was why the Tlalaa laughed.
Aurelia brought Aristraana to the elders of Rasil’yon, the small cluster of low-perched treehouses in the central, most ancient tree of the oblong circle of the thorp. The elders did not “rule” Rasil’yon; no one did. But their wisdom was valued, just as Aurelia and Tariil and (until tonight) Aristraana were valued for their youthful vibrancy and grace. The elfin community has a place for all within it, the young, the old, all between. But the elders seemed to Aurelia this midnight to be the only ones to turn to in the community. If anyone knew how to deal with Aristraana’s condition, if possible to reverse the aging (which Aurelia hoped and prayed was merely the effect of the Tlalaa’s magic—a trick, an illusion, which could be dispelled), then it was the elders who would know how to do it.
The eldest of the elders in the Elder Tree remained Aust’zyiil, called Aristovyx, as well as other names. He had survived several generations of lovers, young men, middle-aged women, and a range of other-gendered people of various ages and races, and for more than two elfin generations had had the honor of being the eldest living elf in Rasil’yon (only the hermit Valera, who no longer lived in Rasil’yon’s circle, could claim a more advanced age—and she by but a scant forty or fifty years—but a few, passing seasons to the elfish). Aust’zyiil Aristovyx Ne’Rasil’yon had been alive when even the other elders were young, had watched some of them grow from infants, had been to them all an older brother, uncle, lover, mentor, friend. Unlike many of the other elders, who kept one another company in the lower treehouses of the Elder Tree, Aristovyx of late preferred to stay alone in the highest treetop, keeping company with his many books and scrolls and knotted cords of knowledge, his silk-stringed lyre, his silken weaving—as well as the many birds and other forest folk who flew or climbed or crept to his door.
His little house near the treetop was all shadow and debris—not kept well, allowed somewhat to return to the forest round it, just as he was gradually preparing to do. Vines, ivy, spider’s webs, bird’s nests, all made the shadowy inner sanctum fuzzy at the edges. A great, glassless skylight allowed the light of Uur’yeelvyan’s Moon to illuminate what his flickering candles could not, and let in all the myriad winged creatures of the forest night. A pocket of light dwelt round the old man only, his old feather-stuffed, living-leaf-embroidered armchair, his little side table fashioned of living branches where sat a humanish tallow candle, a neglected bit of fabric he’d been knitting, a cup and saucer of bone-china from the Islands, and an old tome bound in reddish-brown dragonhide. Aust’zyiil was a gentle, friendly man, but also a trifle irascible if interrupted from his studies. Aurelia had caught him at just such a moment.
“Yes? Well? What is it, then?”
His clipped words preceded Aurelia’s entering, sensing someone at his threshold. Aust’zyiil was blind, or nearly, having to strain close to do his reading. But he had a well-developed “second sight,” which could taste the colors and hear the heat of a person’s aura even many yards away. It was he, of all the elders, who had most nurtured Aurelia’s own sixth and seventh senses, nurtured her sense of the Web of Life and Thauma, along with the Sibyl Valera, advising her on how best to cultivate her sorcery when it began to develop in her more than forty years ago.
“Two of you? Well, then? What is it? It’s very late, you know. You children should be asleep, dreaming of pretty satyrs to tempt and seduce, eh? Not bothering an old man.”
“My apologies, my lord,” Aurelia panted. Aristraana, dazed, leaned against her in the doorframe. “But I—”
“You do seem tired, Shuul’vu—that is who it is, yes? Tired, winded. Haven’t slept at all, eh?—not for days and nights most probably.”
“My apologies, my Lord Aust’zyiil. But I—I—I need your help!”
For the first time, the elder elf looked up from his book.
Aurelia’s eyes were wide in fear and pleading, their green paling almost to gold, their pupils dilating. The nigh-blind, glassy blue of his squinted with his second sight, his bald and wrinkled pate wrinkling further as he finally saw her. His face became at once kindly and concerned.
“Oh, dear one. What’s wrong with your friend? Her aura is—very strange, now. I don’t recognize—wait, then! Is it? Who—? No!”
“Yes, my lord! It’s Aristraana! She’s returned!! But, she’s—she’s—”
He dropped his reading and sprang up to help her. He was spry and agile, moving silently as a shadow amidst the shadows.
“Let’s get her to a chair, Shuul’vu, m’dear. Here. There we are . . . I’ll make her some strong tea. It feels to me as if she’s been through quite a lot of late. As have you.”
Aristovyx Ne’Rasil’yon set his kettle to a soft boil on a low, magickal flame, giving less light than heat, momentarily returning carrying a silver tray with three bowls of tea. He’d evidently forgotten he had one already on his end table.
The three sat in their stuffed armchairs, Aurelia pensive, wanting to spill everything in a splashing flood at her elder’s feet, all her fears, her theories, her longings—all the different thoughts of Aristraana, who seemed too dazed even to respond to her or the old man, even though she was right there. It was the first time in more than a decade that Aurelia had felt her flesh or heard her breathing. But now that flesh was withered, that breath shallow and labored. Where should she begin?
“Just, drink your tea, my dear,” Aust’zyiil told Aurelia. “Drink, my lady, slowly. Take a deep, clearing breath. And then . . . begin at the beginning, eh?”
Aurelia explained to her elder everything, from that vision years ago of Aristraana disappearing into the mists, through her own odd feelings of connection to her and to the Tlalaa, her dreams and nightmares over the years, to what had happened just that night. Aust’zyiil weighed the situation very carefully. A running theme in the songs and epics of the elves, going back many thousands of years, is the fine line between what is thrilling and what is perilous in love. The Tlalaa is among the many characters that recur throughout these lyric and epic stories, the name derived from a distant language older even than the Highest Elfin—itself a language many cultures acknowledge as the eldest spoken by hominines (only the Draconic speech of the dragonish races is said to be older). Tlalaa’s charms are notorious, the siren call of the wildest, most uncontrollable passions. Tlalaa’s temptations are thought of as the one great tragic flaw of the Elfish people, the embodiment of the risk of slavery and destruction that goes with all that is alluring and rewarding in passion and lust.
After consulting some scrolls and tomes, whose elfish script, knotted and wound along long cords of well-preserved silk, could speak their meaning to the touch of his fingers as much as to his nigh-blinded eyes—taking his time referencing both the real and the mythic in regard to the Fey, Aust’zyiil concluded something about the nature of the spheres and the nature of time.
“My dear ones, such fates as yours are the price we pay for magick in the cosmos. The Tlalaa, like all the Fey, exists in a relation to cosmic time which is almost independent of its flow; the Tlalaa comes close to being Immortal. Of course, Tlalaa’s lovers are not. Time in different planes proceeds according to different, but parallel streams of progression. A person from the Existential Sphere, from our world of T’luria, can spend time in such dimensions as the Fey’s Realm for but a split second—and return centuries later to our world, having not aged at all. But in that timeless realm, a person can also spend centuries of living, not aging at all in that sphere. But when she returns to our world and time, the years she’s spent in that realm catch up to her all at once.
“Aristraana now has weathered the passage of years, taxing her frame, her heart, her blood, the energies of her aura. This is why she is so dazed now, Shuul’vu.” Aristraana was now fast asleep in the armchair, her breathing normalizing in depth and pace. “Let her stay here with me for the next few days and nights. I shall attempt to heal her, wait on her needs, help her ease into her new, elderly body. I shall sing her healing songs, dyed and knotted in some of my ancient scrolls, play her soothing, magickal melodies on my lyre. . . . She shall come to comfort and equilibrium, Shuul’vu—this I vow to you. But, I’m afraid the passage of her years is irreversible. She is old, now. And, so she shall be, until her body fails and her spirit returns to the Isles of the Blest.”
“Why can’t you reverse the aging, my lord?”
“Because, my lady, Aristraana has lived her life—a whole lifetime in the Spheres of the Fey. The Tlalaa did not ‘steal’ her years. She lived them all, to the fullest, presumably in the body of a youthful maiden in the misty Faerie Realm; as Tlalaa’s lover. What I shall be doing over the course of the next days and nights with her is to help her remember it all, to take the broken, blurring memories of her last six hundred years, and help her piece together a coherent narrative. Her story, her myth, shall be hers to discover and appreciate. And it shall help her reclaim her years, filling them with meaning, and thus lead her to value the life she’s lived. The Tlalaa is cruel, a temptress and a trickster. But there must be aeons of adventure Aristraana lived at the Tlalaa’s side. Recalling them, making them her own, will win back what was apparently stolen—and allow Aristraana to benefit from the wisdom of her years, which, we all must accept, Shuul’vu, have passed inevitably away.”
Aurelia bowed her head in a deep nod. She accepted the fate of her friend and lover, and accepted her own fate at her side. Even though she could neither understand nor agree with these entwining fates.
Aristovyx Ne’Rasil’yon nursed Aristraana for the next week and a half, singing to her, praying over her, invoking the airy spirit of the moon and the earthy spirit of the forest to channel their energies into his blessings upon her. Also, he talked with her for hours and hours, encouraging her to share her last six hundred years of experience in the Spheres of the Fey. Gradually, Aristraana came to accept and even to cherish her memories, her centuries-long love affair with her Tlala’a, torrid and turbulent. Good, very good memories they were.
By the time Aurelia came to call on Aust’zyiil and Aristraana, she found the two of them had explored more than just verbal and magickal spheres of communication; they’d also learnt to be lovers. As if infused with sexual thauma, a glow in her aura that Aurelia could see, taste, smell—Aristraana radiated a new sexiness and beauty. Aurelia did not see her old friend, her little sister lover anymore. Now she saw a spice that was vast and rich, something titillating her despite her lack of any experience with more aged lovers. Something of the Tlalaa resonated in Aristraana’s voice, wisped in her flowing gown, scented her thighs that danced even as she lay back on Aristovyx’s bed.
“So, my Kyiir’a—if I may be permitted still to use such an intimacy,” she smiled to her friend seductively from Aristovyx’s bed sheets, lilting sex with every inflection of her neck, her wrists, her ankles, her toes and fingers, swerving in radiant circles, drawing Aurelia into her center. Every movement had a grace Aurelia had never known, something beyond any of her childhood loves, something more akin to the serpentine streams and snaky breezes teasing the contours of her flesh in the timeless, sensuous life of her forest. It was as if, in her cronehood, Aristraana’s spirit had grown to embrace the spirit of the forest, of the stars, to fuse with them into One Beauty. Aristraana had not lost herself by losing her youth. She’d gained a whole new character, a fuller, broader spectrum of flavors, scents, and light. Aurelia pondered her new, old friend, and accepted the way she said her name.
“My Lady A’ristraana,” Aurelia smiled, bowing slightly, desiring to fawn on her friend, longing to serve her as she’d never allowed herself before, though the desire had always been there. “May I—?”
“No, Kyiir’a, my pretty young darling; may I?”
The crafted, wizened features of her elder, seeming old as the earth, as powerful, as unspeakably beautiful, held Aurelia spellbound. She submitted to Aristraana’s service, her shower of kisses, her moist and massaging tongue that melted all the tensions in her body, a firmness yielding to softness Aurelia had never known was possible. Aristraana had indeed not wasted her last centuries in the Lands of the Fey. She’d learnt much, many epochs of lovemaking, from her love-hate lust with the Tlalaa and the Tlalaa’s many other lovers. Aristraana regaled her young lover with lurid tales of being gang-loved by no less than a dozen of Tlalaa’s faerie cohorts, a great, wet confluence of thrilling sensations, thrustings and envelopments. Every orifice, physical and spiritual, was rammed and swallowed in delicious violation, leaving Aristraana spent, exulted, full. No earthly fucking could ever touch what she’d known then. She told her young friend that a single experience seemed to last fifty or seventy years.
All Aristraana had learnt, she gave back now to her glistering gemstone, her deep, warm, rarest jade—her Kyiir’a. And as Aurelia was wafted to realms so distant from earthly T’luria she wondered whether Aristraana’s fucking had ripped open a portal to another sphere in her frenzied, devouring explorations, Aurelia came by the end of it to learn to return it all. The night faded into daylight, then passed again into night by the time Aurelia recovered herself. She’d made love to Aristraana for nearly twenty-four hours before she fell to grateful exhaustion beside her and drifted into triumphant dreaming. Aurelia saw Aristraana, both young and old, ageless in shining, stellar firelight. She spoke to her in a language beyond elfish, beyond any earthly tongue. She told her secrets in those dreams, taught her how to love, taught her how to channel her lust into an energy beyond selfishness or serving. In the elegant language of the body and the soul, Aristraana spoke to Aurelia of six centuries of discovery, six centuries of transcendence. And when Aurelia awoke beside her ancient lover three days and nights later, they spoke of it all again . . .
Aurelia had tasted of Love over the first century of her life; all her self-discovery, all her beauty, had stemmed from her experience of love. The next era of her life, the era that goes on to this very day, was one in which she would taste love’s opposite.
Aurelia Il’y’ama’Rasil’yon was about to taste of War.
Chapter the Second: Embarking
The Orcs had raided some of the northerly settlements of the Elfish Forest.
In response, a sovyiil had been called amongst the frontier communities, organizing an elf militia to deal with the incursions. A sovyiil, or “council,” is no official body, but is called on the spur of the moment, and only on those occasions when they are absolutely necessary. Elves for countless centuries have been loath to centralize power under any “government.” Surely, there is Trefaldwyn, the greatest of elf cities, and the El-Rhon’yiin Dynasty there has been calling itself “emperors” for the last few millennia or so, their name taken from an ancient Elfin Warrior-King to whom they are not generally thought related. But to Elves, two or three millennia is still but recent history, just two or three generations from living memory, and there are many, in fact the vast majority of elves in the Great Forest, who still refuse fealty to Trefaldwyn. Mostly, elves deal with their defenses community by community, coordination between them of an autonomous, confederated nature. The sovyiil is merely a temporary means of coordinating these efforts across a vast area, the many affected communities along the Frontier.
News had reached Rasil’yon only in the last week of the need for warriors to aid their brethren along the frontier. Volunteers formed themselves into small parties who began to travel up there on foot, on the backs of centaur and pegasus allies, or on small skiffs up the rivers. There were a few voices in the southerly thorps who called for a more general army to be formed, even talk of conscription. (The Emperor El-Rhon’yiin VI for his part had issued a call for such conscription, his edicts posted in webs of machine-stitched lace, tied to trees throughout the Forest, the threads glistering with strange and artificial materials that made them stand out even from far away. Too, there were slate and wooden placards, nailed to the trees—with exhortations in Demotic and Satiric and Centaur-Equine and Griffin and other race’s languages, other “subjects” of “his” forest empire.)
But mostly, these voices were ignored. Elves value their freedom above all things. Not even a threat to their lives can coax them from their independence. Besides, the highly developed and highly successful elfish arts of war, which have kept the Great Western Forests Elfish for over a hundred thousand years, excels not in marching, standing-army, pitched-battle warfare, but rather in small-squad guerrilla tactics. And though some of the northern communities were rumored to have chosen temporary “leaders” (electing them from amongst the rank-and-file villagers) with the power of fielding and commanding columns of soldiers, most of the volunteers based their strategy on their traditional small-group, hit-and-run strike forces, based not a top-down leadership, however elected or temporary, but on mutual consensus and individual action.
As Aurelia and Tariil were planning on striking out for the Northern Tundra anyway, to find the long-lost Bleak Sierra and the Towne of Promise rumored to be either in or near it—the place where the Codex was rumored to lay hidden, the place Aurel had quested after with his party, the region he’d last been seen—they took the opportunity to form themselves into an affinity-group of nine people, to lend their efforts to the fight.
Aristraana, now silvery and venerable, having spent centuries in the Spheres of the Fey, was now accepted as an elder in the Rasil’yon community. She was too old, now, to join the war. So, with gentle kisses and embraces, she bade Aurelia and Tariil and their seven friends the luck of Trv’yaiil-sol, Goddess of Travelers, God of the Crossroads, Bringer of Luck at the Lintel and the Coming and Goings, and told them she would keep a rainbow-flamed lantern in her treehouse in the Elder Tree, burning with the thauma of their memory, awaiting their return.
Aurelia wanted to stay by her side. She’d loved her once as a younger sister; she loved her now as a grandmother. And of course, there was always their relation as tender lovers, tender comrades, something which now transcended the centuries. But duty called, and Aurelia’s duty was to the North. For the pride of Elves, for the love of the Forest and Mother Y’str’aak’lyaa, and for the honor of Father Uur’yeelvyan and all Elfish culture—as well as for the hatred of the Orcs and the memory of Aurel and his quest, which they may well have thwarted, slaying him and scattering his atoms to the ether—for all these reasons, Aurelia had to go. So, with one last deep and passionate kiss, she left Aristraana, and set out with Tariil and their elfin and half-elfin crew of nine to their rendezvous in the Frontier.
As they traveled through the Forest over the weeks that followed, they saw the trees change from deciduous to coniferous as the latitude and altitude rose into the beginnings of the Arctic Ridge Range. They braced themselves as the air grew colder and blustery, seeing heavy snow drifts amidst the trees for the first time in their lives. Aurelia decided she was no fan of the cold, her traveler’s gear packed most impractically, her clothing scant and spare. Her long, black boots went up almost to her thighs, and though they were worn for aesthetic reasons more than practical ones, they soon proved the most sensible thing she’d brought (besides her yew shortbow and thauma-tipped quiver of shadow-silver arrows). Most of the things she’d packed were books and scrolls she could not read for the fading light or feel with her frost-numbed fingertips, delicacies too light to fill her, Floretish and Tinkerish tobaccos she smoked too quickly and grew too high upon, and five bottles of choicest Elfin wine which quite nearly froze in the glass. They came upon other bands of elves, gathering from all corners of the vast Forest over those days, making common camps with them as the weary winter twilights gave way to long, bitter nights. But so far, they’d seen no fighting.
Even in what other races would consider dire and somber situations, like being in a military encampment on the eve of war, Elves always have time for song, for poetry, for love. Aurelia shared all these things with the relish of youthful adventure. She drained all five bottles of her wine in the camps, long before she got to the villages on the Frontier—two in a single night! The last bottle was shared on the last night, when they were less than twenty miles from the front. There, in the dying embers of the evening’s deadwood fire, when the waning crescent moon was risen to its fullest prominence but an hour before the dawn, a goliard was still singing for a few sleepy listeners, half-singing, half-whispering an epic passed down from the Elder Times, with a listener or two singing sleepy verses along with her, passages long known to them from elfin folklore. Aurelia had recited a verse or two earlier in the evening, laughingly joining her voice to the goliard’s and a score of others—laughing because of how horrendous her singing voice sounded to her. She could not carry a tune to save her life! Even when she’d sung her own name in Declaration but a moon’s waning before, she’d sung softly, belting out only her own name above a normal speaking voice.
But she’d wanted to share the poetry that evening, for the epic was hers as much as anyone else’s, as much as the goliard’s or her lyre-playing floret accompanist or even its unknown authors, lost in antiquity. Every recitation from the most ancient epochs till the present moment had been differently sung, changed ever so slightly by each goliard who ever sang it, and added to by every hearer who joined in its singing. Aurelia’s cracked, off-key rendering of an inexpertly remembered verse had changed it forever. For in the elfish way, a “poem”—even an epic like this one, which existed in written form in elfish communities throughout the Continent—was not considered words alone. The elves have many words, of course, for “poem” and “poetry,” as they have many words for everything—especially for matters of the arts. But no word for “poem” or “poetry” means simply poem as it is denoted in the commonly-spoken, Demotic tongue. Every word for it, in every context, in any of the many categories of the vast wealth of literature of the Elfin races, means words in conjunction with activity. There are poems which are sung, poems which are performed, poems which are “woven” on the spot collectively, by however many people have gathered to share them. A poem, at the very least, must be said aloud by the reader in order to be truly realized as a poem. On the ink-marked paper, or the crystal-carved tablet, or in the dyed and knotted silk, it is nothing, no matter how beautiful or important, naught more than the threads and parchments and plates of the tome itself. Poetry is the act of reciting it, or performing it, or creating it.
This is why a great poem is said by the elves to be a living thing, alive with the life of all who engage in it.
The same principle applies to all the elfish arts, from the arts of poetry and music and tapestry, to the arts of war and the arts of love. Ideally, it applies to everything an elf does, in matters great and matters small, throughout her long life.
Only dwarves write for the sake of writing—and it was no wonder, Aurelia thought, that dwarves are so stodgy and uncreative. They strive not for living art, but for the dead, unchanging “art” of stone tablets, hidden underground for a hundred thousand years. They excel not in poetry, but in long, dry histories, in ponderous biographies of their great heroes, and in lifeless technical manuals. These last have been the preferred form of late, and using the same systematic, schematic style, they subject all things in life to the same exacting methodology, from engineering and architecture to etiquette and ritual to the arts (or “sciences”) of magick.
Even sexuality is treated in this dry, dead way. The elves discover sexuality as a sensuous vision, and pursue it as they choose, changing genders and behaviors and relational forms joyfully throughout their lives. It is a laughingstock amongst them to learn that dwarfish children are given “how-to” books on sex when they come to puberty, so they might learn what is “acceptable” and what is not. And it is truly mystifying to the elves that dwarfish couplings, when they are allowed, are mired in structure and formality, the sexuality an afterthought in the many, ponderous duties to the clans joined in the “marriage agreement,” in the duties to the ancestors, in whose cast the dwarves’ very names are predetermined, fitting themselves into an endless, cyclical history, of which they as individuals are the smallest part. Elves conceive of sexuality as the complex, e’er-changing silken filigrees of a spider’s web, bending easily in the wind, yet sustained by great strength, and catching the light differently after every rainstorm, in every succeeding moment of the day’s light, of the moon and stars.
Dwarves treat sexuality and affection as but bricks in their temples—of purely practical use to the overall structure, and meant to stay in place forever, nary to deviate from the will of the builder. Gender amongst the dwarves is said to be a set binary—with heterosexual, monogamous, lifelong “marriage” the form of sexuality mandated in nearly every case. Such lifeless, joyless strictures might have frightened the fluidly free elves; but mostly, they just made them laugh and pity.
Dwarf histories, biographies, and manuals change very little over the generations. Dwarves are known to copy out old tomes word for word, letter for letter, chiseling their meanings into the stone and crystal tablets that make their books, changing nothing. It is said that the arts of “copying” are more respected even than the arts of composition, with the long line of copiers of the runic, glyphic texts recorded beside the name of the original author—many times in larger script. A tome comes to be respected not so much for its content or quality, but for its age. A truly good volume is said by the dwarves to be one of at least five “littorbruuns”—a dwarfish word meaning, roughly, “editions.” Such obedience to tradition for tradition’s sake is the dwarves’ most notorious cultural trait. Their ancestors are more than remembered, it was said over the elfin campfire that night; their dead weight is actually a palpable presence in their lives, as if their will is considered equal, or even superior, to the will of the living.
Whilst most elfish communities venerate ancestors as well as more nebulous, numinous spirits in the course of their spiritual lives, it is generally known that these spirits are, in a sense, dead. Their will is consulted, by shamans, by augurs and sibyls and mediums; but it is not feared. Their blessings—but especially their curses—are only as powerful as the living allow them to be. When an elf dies, all her effects besides the few her community finds useful are burnt, and the ashes are scattered to the winds.
Dwarves, on the other hand, cast their ancestors’ faces in hard stone and harder metal, and there is said to be a very real sense amongst them that these manikins can actually “see” them go about their daily lives, can judge them—and can even curse them if there is a will to. The dead, for the dwarves, do not die; if anything, they are more powerful once they leave the Spheres of Existence—demanding homage, influencing fates, shaping the destiny of clans and country. And this attitude of a living, heavy past influences all of Dwarfish culture, its weighted present, and all the foreseeable potentials of its future. With every aspect of their lives, the dwarves strive to be as stone statues, unchanging, enduring.
And a dwarf goliard? A spithra who sings, and dances, and spins new silk from their genius and the inspiration of the moment? The thought is a jest!
‘Twas no wonder, Aurelia thought, the dwarves have been the ones to develop “science” and “technology” so far in the last few centuries, building their iron roads of rails crisscrossing the Continent, constructing their steam-powered locomotives that could drag hundreds of tons of cargo thousands of miles over the land. Dwarf genius is in the practical, creative only in the most dead, mechanical ways. Aurelia heard talk of them that last night in the camp, their slow but deliberate expansion across the Continent, which many elves found increasingly threatening. Would they go to war one day against the elves? And with their admittedly powerful (the elves dared not say “superior”) weaponry, would they not one day overrun the elves—burning down their Great Forests, reducing the survivors to ignominious slavery?
But they were many years from reaching the Western Forests with their rails, the conversations chuckled in renewed confidence as the last of the potent Elfin Wine was passed round. This was true, even if some elves in Trefaldwyn were rumored to be engaging in business dealings with the dwarves, profiting from “sales” of elfish lands to their railroad companies. Vast acreage of the Forest were being cleared in the south, some said round the fire that night, to build a railway to Trefaldwyn all the way from the Dwarfish capitol of Kharahdjo in the far easterly Kharahd Mountains. Surely, the collaboration of some of their own countrymen in Trefaldwyn was angering and frightening, and for the better part of an hour, the conversations of the elves round the campfire revolved round debate and condemnation of these quislings, and a renewed hatred for dwarvenkind in general.
But the dwarves were mostly mentioned that night to laugh at them for the former reasons, and it was in this mocking spirit that the fears were eventually dismissed. Elves loved living—loved living arts and living love. If the Dwarves ever marched against them, in their rigid columns, those columns would be utterly routed as soon as they dared enter the Forest—picked off like ducks in a row by skillful elfin archers, hidden in the brush and the treetops. Small group, guerrilla-style, anarchic warfare was superior to the dumb, follow-the-leader plodding along of their potential enemies from the East. The Elves were superior to the Dwarves, in all that really mattered.
This is what the elves all agreed that night.
Of course, even the dwarves were vastly superior to the orcs, whose filthy legions the elves faced on the morrow. Dwarves had a boring, lifeless, terrible culture. But orcs did not have a culture at all! Dwarves did not read poetry, but at least they could read. Orcs had no literature beyond the terse profanities they occasionally and haphazardly scrawled in runic, glyphic graffiti—even the chiseled glyphs borrowed from the dwarves, mingling them with their own crude, carved pictographs, as they had no proper script of their own. The orcs had no music besides their shrill war whistles and bone rattlers, had no prayers besides chants of revenge. They had no kindness, no beauty. They culled any who showed kindness or beauty from their ranks at birth, or shortly thereafter. The very beasts had more culture than they! For who could tell whether a badger, or a bird, or a bumblebee did not secretly sing to its young, think its thoughts, honor its gods and goddesses, display its loveliness to others to attract a mate? Orcs had a language, but they only expressed hate and cruelty with it. Orcs had a religion, but it was only to worship ugliness, glorying in rape and bloodshed, spurring them always to conquest and atrocity. Dwarves might have been opposite the elves in many ways, but the orcs were actually a degeneration of the elves. A line of elfish thought actually saw elves and orcs as having a common ancestor, way back before the most ancient of the Ancient Times, and for whatever evil reasons, the line that became the orcs had been corrupted into the monstrous things they were today.
This was the kernel of the part of the epic that was sung that night in a far corner of the camp, the recounting of the wars between the races, going back before earthly memory. The Origin, attributed to a group of poets who lived before the ancient treetop city of Trefaldwyn had even risen, whose own grandparents probably hailed from the long lost Isles of the Blessed beyond the Western Sea. A group of warriors and poetesses, each of both callings, as well as many other callings, as the well-rounded, dynamic elves have always been. They spoke of the primal battle before the beginning of time, between the aboriginal elf and the aboriginal orc, who became the immortal gods of these races. Uur’yeelvyan, who became the Elfin God of the Moon, repelled the attack of Maarg-AR’k, his ugly, malformed elder brother, who so lusted for power that He became this lust, ascending to the pantheon as the Orcish God of War. Maarg-AR’k, jealous of Uur’yeelvyan’s beauty, sliced at Him with his evilly magical war-axe (though some legends say it was a bone or tooth of some lost dinosaur creature or long-extinct dragon, and some others say He used His own tooth, or claw). The attack claimed the elf-god’s right eye, and Maarg-AR’k was thrilled that he’d disfigured Uur’yeelvyan so. But the Unseen, that force which existed before there were the gods we know, elevated the eye from the filthy claws of Maarg-AR’k, and set it amidst the firmament as the brightest of all the beauties of the night. From the cries of Uur’yeelvyan when Maarg-AR’k claimed his eye, crystallized moonbeams poured down from the Sky-land where they fought.
These moonbeams mingled with the soil and flora and humus of the woodlands they fell upon. The warm, comforting lust of Y’str’aak’lyaa, Mother-Spirit of the Woodlands, Who took the wounded Uur’yeelvyan in Her vast, leafy arms, the arms of a True Lover, balmed His pain, in sympathy and adoration for His loss; from this union came the first elves.
The elves thus created, the children of cries and comfort, the moonbeams and the dark, lusty humus, the high, airy ethereal weaving into the sensuous glory of the earth, the Forests, were all as beautiful as Uur’yeelvyan and Y’str’aak’lyaa. The elves birthed Them and were birthed by Them, worshiping Them forever. Uur’yeelvyan, strengthened by the balming love of His Forest-Goddess Consort, grappled again with Maarg-AR’k in the Sky-country, this time besting him in single combat—and claimed in turn His ugly brother’s right eye with His elegant elfish rapier.
But without a consort, without a love—owing not (as some elves say) to his ugliness, but rather to his cruelty—raping and murdering the consorts He might have had—Maarg-AR’k’s wound went forever unbalmed, and the orb thus cast out fell through the firmament, past the crusts and layers of the earth, into the dark and fiery core of the sphere of T’luria, festering and boiling over with the hate of the evil God to spew hateful magma from the core of the globe, punishing the earth with volcanic blasts and lava flows for all time to come. Half-blind forever, and hating his cousin, who had been freed of pain through the Merciful Power of the Unseen, Maarg-AR’k ran far away to the very edge of the world, the inhospitable Northern Tundra, where the ugliest, cruelest, most degenerated of the elves were exiled many centuries later by those who still retained their beauty, their kindness, their compassion, their bravery. These degenerate elves live there to this very day, worshiping their ugly, mean and cowardly Master.
The goliard was tiring, and all but one of her audience had drifted to slumber. Her lyrist had long turned in. Such epics as she told could take many nights to tell in their entirety, and a good goliard would know at least a few of the great epics—each of which would take volumes to pen down, or coils of silk-cords hundreds of cubits long—entirely by heart. Most goliards were self-taught, those souls who as children took to reading, then reciting, then eventually adding their own verses to the epics, which thereafter became part of the Elfish Canon. Truly gifted goliards also would write lyric poetry, songs and ballads, which took the hearts of many hominines even beyond the Elfish Forests, making the music of the Continent and the Islands beyond. And as they grew into their prime, these goliards even composed full-scale epics all their own.
The Epic Age is still very much alive in the Elfish Forests. The goliard who sang that night was in fact penning her own, her sleepy aqua eyes focusing on the long cord-scroll she held before her, if only in her imagination, her eyes following the winding, flowery script of myriad-colored silk-threads, the Old High Elfin she spun and knotted into imaginary, ethereal convolutions in the last hour of waking.
“What d’you call it, my lady?” Aurelia asked her, snuggling against her warmth under a common blanket after the last of her audience finally turned in, and she’d breathed her prayer of conclusion. She was an older elfin lady, not ancient as Aristraana, but more than in the prime of her middle age. Her hair had traces of silver amidst the black, her aqua eyes seeming to grey in the same manner. Her figure was long and lean, handsome more than pretty, her breasts very small and flattened as if in a bodice, though she wore loosely flowing garments, a gown of pastel blues inlaid with sapphires. Her skin had a bluish hue, mingling with ivory-silver, a mark of coming age and a memory of the westerly elves by the coast whence she no doubt traced her ancestry. Aurelia thought she would give the gift of her youth to this woman, old enough to be her mother. She smelled faintly of lilacs, mingling with vanilla, and Aurelia breathed her own peppery scent into hers as their bodies entwined.
“Me poem?” she smiled to the pretty lass curling beside her. “Me epic?”
She had a coastal accent, something humanish in the style of her inflections, a rustic, yet seafaring tone. “’Tis called The Ending.”
“Why do you call it such?”
“’Methinks ’tis me thoughts on it, m’lady. The End of all this.”
“The end of the world?”
“Ha ha! Thee catch’d it! ‘Tis a poem of Vision, and of Hope. But ’tis, too, a song of Fear.”
Aurelia boldly lay her head on the older woman’s breast, her tongue flittering a little at a worn seam. “Tell me,” she smiled in gentle daring, “of the fear.”
“Ha! Alright, me elfchild. Just, promise me you shan’t cry for ‘mommy,’ eh?”
And she laid out her Vision of the future, and the not so distant one. Inspired by the fears in the Forests of late—the possible war with the Dwarves, the actual war with the Orcs, the increasingly unsettling machinations of Trefaldwyn, the courtly intrigues of the great rival noble houses and the bolder and bolder designs of the El-Rhon’yiins on tyranny—this poetess had authored an apocalypse. The Gods, she smiled, would one day go mad; their peoples would be maddened in turn; the madness would compel them—all the sentient races of the world—into a Final War; and no one—not god, not mortal, not a single tree in the vast Elfish Forest—would be left standing by its End.
After singing Aurelia a long progression of heroic and elegiac quatrains, and more than a few stinging couplets, all searing with doomed eloquence and terrifying imagery, she cackled like an old witch, and regarded her young friend, wondering in proud indifference if she’d scared away the chance of love that night. Aurelia looked up at her, and saw something weirdly demonic in her face, the sharp black slants of her eyebrows, the saber-like beak of her nose, the cruel curl of her lips as she cackled. The way the last light of the fire’s dying embers cast her visage heightened the effect, to the point where Aurelia was momentarily afraid of her. She moved instinctively away, but the woman pulled her face to hers and shot a violent tongue in her mouth. The tongue was long and pointed—choking her with a repulsive, ashy, brimstone taste.
Aurelia pulled away from the creature, struggling to break free of her, but was compelled to remain in the burning kiss—her hair locked in a steely grip. After what seemed many, many seconds—an eternity of gagging poisons—the poetess released her, smiling cryptically.
“You still want these old bones, little girl?” she cackled, and seemed impossibly old, ancient as the burning pits of Hell.
Before Aurelia could say anything, the woman vanished, leaving behind nothing but a faint tang of sulfur. Aurelia cast off the blanket, and ran across the clearing. Tariil and the others slept soundly. The fire was nearly dead. Nothing stirred but the wind and the wintry birdcalls of dawn. She looked up at the moon. It was bloody-gold in color as its crescent set into the horizon. Everything felt eerie, macabre.
She looked at the lyrist, the little floret fellow who wore elfin greens and a sash of crimson. He was sleeping soundly, a long pipe still dangling from his sleepy grip. Aurelia thought to wake him then, to query where this goliard had come from, how long he’d been traveling with her, where they’d met. But it all seemed absurd. Still out of sorts, her head reeling from the wine and the floret-herb and the tinker-snuff and the entrancing, maddening stanzas still ringing in her ears, that tongue which had bent them, and bent her, leaving an unsettling, ashy taste in her mouth she could not spit away, she curled beside Tariil and another half-human boy, and tried to sleep.
Chapter the Third: The First Battle
Aurelia, Tariil, and the seven others in their party came at last to a village.
‘Twas the first of the circle of villages along the Frontier—and they found it a smoldering ruin. No trace of the sovyiil was to be seen, no elfish army, no elves at all left alive. The clearing that had been the village’s center was scorched earth, and all the surrounding trees had been rent from the ground and left charred and dead. All the treehouses were ashes, a few of the creepers and vines and branches of their frames still glowing red under the embers. Worst of all—a great circle of pikes surrounded what had been the village center. Impaled upon each was the rotting head of every warrior, man and woman and androgyne and neuter, who had died defending this ground—left as a warning to all those who passed this way.
“Those bastards!” Tariil and others rasped, gritting their teeth, their rage too great to employ orcish curse words, as was the custom of many peoples over the Continent. None from Rasil’yon remembered such sights, such rage against their kind. No orcs had ever penetrated the Forest down that far south in ages, and these young people were not veterans of any such wars to the north. Ancient hatreds welled up in their green blood, then, ancient fears kindling which burned despite the rage. There is something inexpressible about seeing one’s own countryman—one’s brother, one’s sister—decapitated, rotting on a pike. In the stench of death mingling with the surreally pastoral scents of the wintry air, the frosted earth and the pine needles, another odor hung heavy here.
“You smell that?” Tariil sniffed fiercely. “It is the stink of the orcs . . . !”
Aurelia cupped her nose and nearly wretched. Why would they do this? Why would anyone? Could anybody really hate that much? For the first time in her life, Aurelia really knew what it was to be despised. And, swallowing, she resolved to despise in return.
“Let us go,” she said softly, bitterly, “and show those degenerated mongrels what is meant by Elf Vengeance.”
“Aye!” called a few, and the rest called “AYE!!”
Intoning a prayer to Uur’yeelvyan, who was their God not only for music and dancing and poetry, but for the fiercest arts of War, and drawing strength from Y’str’aak’lyaa and from the Spirit of Her Forest—the elves split apart into phalanxes of two or three, and stalked through the woods as if on the trail of some beast of prey. But not as on the Trya’iil, the Dance of the Hunt, in which elves would dance with their quarry, feel them dance, make themselves one with their energy, and strike as but a final coda in the Song of the Chase, thereafter to offer a banquet of the venison to the fallen deer as if to the most honored guest. No. Now there was no love for the prey, no honoring of its beauty, nor less any gratitude to be felt for letting the hunters kill it. Now, there was only icy hate, a bloodlust that denied their quarry any soul, as if the dirt beneath their stalking feet had more honor, more love in their eyes. Aurelia wanted to pay the monsters back for their hatreds of her, for their unspeakable crimes against her kind—not only just now, but all the crimes these monsters’ fathers had ever committed against her mothers—going back since the two lines split. Tariil and not a few others saw visions of the orcs’ own ugly heads impaled on pikes, though elves never performed such ugly dismemberment of their enemies. Tariil told a comrade or two of his vision, and there was hot assent: Let us leave the orcs’ ugly heads on rotten sharpened sticks—to freeze into perennial grimaces of agony on their own tundra plain! All wanted to see black blood everywhere, the filthy humor of corruption incarnate, the blood of He Who Wounded Uur’yeelvyan—from time immemorial, their bloods had burned with this lust to see the other’s spilt.
Aurelia relished, cherished this hatred, feeling it an energy previously unknown to her, yet imbibing it deep like some deliciously burning soma. She liked it—she loved it! She would rip out the right eye of every orc bastard she could slay, making of those ugly, dead faces mocking tribute to their hateful God!
Other villages in the Frontier circle were similarly horrific. Smoldering ruins, rotting, tortured elfish visages, impaled and swarming with rasping tundra-flies. Their green blood burned verdant in the cold as if the sun-baked forest canopy in highest summer. At each ruined village, they found other elves arriving on the scene as repulsed and enraged as they were, shared with them prayers to Uur’yeelvyan and Y’str’aak’lyaa and all their warrior ancestors for revenge, and consigned the remains of the fallen to a decent if hasty bonfire burial.
When they crossed over the Frontier, coming out of the Forest for the first time in their lives, they saw a ponderous mountain range rising between them and the white-capped plateau of the tundra looming hazy beyond. Between those mountains’ shadow, and the shadow of their forest behind them, hundreds converged till they were thickly thousands—the Elves an Army in truth. There was no singing or dancing, now. But there were embraces, kisses, and shared tears of rage. Bonding as Elves, invoking the old tradition of drawing drops of their green blood into common moonstone chalices from which they then drank together, in toast to elfin bravery and elfin pride, they drew strength from their common sanguine life.
The great army scattered once again into phalanxes, and within hours parties had scouted ahead, finding and fording a quarter-mile-wide, ice-strewn river. Cutting through a mountain pass, one of the only breaks in the virtual wall the impenetrable mountains formed, the river veered westward to the ocean beyond the horizon, and northward to points unknown. Wading through the shallows under a sky awash in dramatic, competing streaks of icy cirrus clouds, little party by little party, the Elfish Army followed the river for a day and a night through the mountain pass, till they’d crossed finally into the Tundra proper.
For another day and night, the elves trekked north, seeing no barbarians to dispatch amidst the rocks and arid grasslands and stands of taiga forest and snowy, silent glacial valleys. The sun was waning earlier and earlier as they penetrated further, till at last it seemed but a murky twilight always. Some older elves had been on expeditions up into the Tundra before, during the Elf-Orc Wars of generations past, and informed their younger comrades that T’luria was indeed a sphere—the “Sphere of Existence” amongst the Celestial Spheres, the Inner and the Outer, not just a metaphor of the epic poetesses, but a material, manifest reality. T’luria was a small sphere in the reckoning of the cosmos, and it floated in a black void along with the sun and moon and stars. This orb drew one further from the sun as one ascended it. So, going north to the point where there was no more “north” to go, would lead eventually to a place where the sun was always present—or, never so. There would come a time, an elderly, martial man in the tight olive tunic of the Trefaldwyn Elite Corps said, when all would be night, all darkness—for well nigh a year!
But that time was months away. And this expedition would be over long before then. In hindsight, thinking it would ever be possible to know which orc bands had done the crimes against their villages, to punish the true culprits and not exact revenge upon the innocent, was dubious at best. There were those orc bands which rarely or never attacked the elves unless they themselves were attacked, many, many of them wandering these frozen plains. But the elves in this army did not concern themselves with such distinctions. There was no way of knowing which orcs they ought to slaughter; so, they looked for any—and slaughtered them all with the same genocidal gusto!
Emerging from the last of the taiga forests into an icy, barren flatness that extended from horizon to horizon under an eerie, ocherous sky, the army agreed to move in three, loose columns, each separated by at least a half-mile, barely in sight of one another on the twilit, windswept plain. The middle column was the thickest, with the majority of the elves’ force deployed there. The point of their formation was to come upon orc settlements or wandering orc bands in between the columns, then to close in like pincers—annihilating all between.
Orcish children’s fate was debated, even on the march. Some said strident things about how we should not, in fighting orcs, become them—thus we cannot kill the truly innocent along with the guilty. But what should we do with these little orclings? others queried with equal stridency. We elves do not take slaves, and we cannot raise them as our own. And what are they, anyway, but little degenerated mongrels, who, if left alive, shall only grow up to take the lives of our children when they come to their early majority? Leave them to die in the tundra, and we would be crueler than the orcs. Better to dispatch them quickly then, painlessly. Then we shall have stayed true to our honorable Elfish Way.
Besides, did not these monsters slaughter little ones, too? Ours—and their own?
People knew, or at least suspected, that not every villager in the frontier circle had been decapitated and impaled on a pike. A simple count had sufficed against that notion, and the elves who hailed from villages nearby had been able to recognize the faces, and known some were missing. Most heads had belonged to warriors, men, women, and others of fighting age. The old people, too, had been slaughtered thusly. A segment, though, were missing. Had they escaped into the woods? Had they been dragged away as slaves? Did the monsters feast upon them—as if they were merest mutton to fill their bellies??
No one knew. But when the first hapless, barbaric orcs were found wandering the tundra—justice was sharp and swift. Flotillas of arrows from longbows and crossbows crisscrossed the plain between the columns, leaving many for dead. Those who lingered were charged and assaulted hand-to-hand, the clash of well-forged elfin scimitars and rapiers against mere sticks and stone-headed morningstars and crudest maces keeping the battles going for no more than an hour. In the end, the elves prevailed with very few losses.
And the foray continued.
Aurelia’s expertise with the shortbow, unequaled by any in her small party and a match for all but the most veteran of the columns, had slain at least fifteen orcs in the first skirmishes. She found it a cold fire she shot at them, watching them fall from a distance, delighting particularly in one young orc warrior she got right through the neck. She watched him stagger and struggle to pull her bolt from his neck, his black blood splattering everywhere, and chuckled at how foolish he looked as he finally fell—like a ragdoll, she giggled, trying to be a stick-puppet! But the cold fire warmed to a queerer feeling after the battle, when she contemplated it in camp the third night on the tundra in a scant stretch of taiga forest, in the shelter of a ring of petrified conifers round their fires. A paranoia took her thoughts: had this cold, evil feeling, relishing the coldness, the evil, been implanted in her with the sharp intrusion of that demon’s brimstone tongue in her mouth? Had that evil woman implanted this lust for black blood—a lust she’d never known before, but now reveled in? Her tongue which had raped hers, which had before then raped the air round them with her ugliest poesy of the coming racist wars that would follow the madness of the gods? Surely, Aurelia knew someday she would fight, and kill, and that horrid sight in the first village she’d come to more than justified the drama she enacted now. But the coldness, the relishing of it—this she’d never suspected in herself. She’d always thought herself a pacific soul, one shrinking from war even as she excelled in its arts. The Orcs, she knew from her studies, personified the blood-lust she felt now as their hateful God TraG’ARsh, one of their principal deities, just beneath Maarg-AR’k in their pantheon.
Had these foreign climes invaded her elfin soul with the lusts of strange gods, making her in a sense an ugly, bloodthirsty orc herself? Or, perhaps this lust for battle was akin to the lust of the Tlalaa, that forbidden but tantalizing lust which made Aristraana want to punish the Tlalaa for tricking her, for humiliating her and stealing most of her life away. And the pain-games Aurelia had elfishly played, coyly, cruelly teasing Tariil and Aristraana and the others she’d teased before she’d grown into a greater maturity and simply gave herself to love; was this cold, controlling lust so dissimilar?
Aurelia laughed. She roared with laughter! And she was not alone. Killing in battle was akin to losing one’s virginity. And now, as then, she found the more adult lust far more satisfying than all the childish playacting preceding it. She cared not finally whence all this lust for black blood came, the pure, fiery quivering in the fibers of her web, bending with the string of her bow, humming tingly and tight—and then snapping in a jolt of release, with every shadow-silver arrow she let fly—a release that felt akin to orgasm. She hated these orcish creatures! She hated them as surely as they hated her. She would see them suffer . . .
After nearly half a moon on the tundra, with very little but the most hapless victims for their war-lusts, the elves decided the point had been made. Their supplies were running thin, and the cold clime had already delivered more than a few to sickness. Cutting their losses, which were few, they decided to trek back to their Forests, to celebrate a victory—some five or seven hundred orcish bodies lay dead, cold-rotting on the tundra; less than three dozen elves of two or three thousand had fallen. They marched back toward the mountain pass, singing elfish songs of victory, penning new verses to the age-old epics of eternal battle.
This is when they understood the orcs were not as stupid as they had thought . . .
When they were in sight of the mountain pass, heading back home, the elves saw something which made their green blood run thin. There, from one wall of the mountain pass to the other—blocking the river entirely—was a force of at least thrice their number! Orcs, half-orcs, and a scattering of orclike humans of some allied barbaric bands—seven or nine thousand if one!
Where had they all come from?! Had they been behind them all along??!
There was no time to wonder on this further. From the valley, and from the foothills of the mountains on both sides, volleys upon volleys of spears came raining down on the elfish forces, which scattered into confusion. There was nowhere to go, though, but back into the forbidding tundra. A grim realization came upon them as they ran helter-skelter, desperately fighting for their lives: they had been let in, allowed to pass those four or five weeks ago—all this, just so that they could be trapped here, now . . .
The hapless victims of the elves’ rage had been left like bait for a trap. The orcs did not value life so dearly as their adversaries. Their chieftains, who made a rough, temporary alliance to reap the plunder of the northern elves, had left a few isolated bands of their own to die—outcasts of their old and their young and their sick, left in sacrifice to the elfish advance—just so the elves would come back, weakened, hungry, and prematurely satisfied.
How could we have been so blind?!
Out of their element, in foreign, hostile terrain, and mostly utterly inexperienced in actual warfare—the young elves and half-elves rallied valiantly to save themselves. But that old man of the Trefaldwyn Elite Corps had a point, if appreciated far, far too late: the elves’ style of fighting might well have worked in the Forest, with cover, in familiar terrain—but here, organization was sadly lacking. The orcs, even the youngest and least experienced, knew war as their breath and life. The Tundra was a perennial battlefield. War was as great a constant in their lives as the Holy Moon or the Holy Forest was to the elves. This is why ’twas not moon or forest, nor any natural thing, but War Itself that was their most holy deity. In the gentle forests of Y’str’aak’lyaa, with its song, and its wine, and its idyllic sensuality, such battles were unknown. How could an untested force, hardly knowing war, prevail against a cruel and war-scarred army of vastly superior numbers—on their own ground—even if the latter had but the most primitive weapons in comparison to their adversaries?
Aurelia lost most of her party in seconds, diving behind some thick tufts of long grass, and expertly picking off orcish positions in the foothills above. Tariil she heard, but could not see. It was every elf for herself, now—a battle which the elves, after all, more than preferred to fight. The battle raged on till nightfall, and the elves repelled many thrusts of orcish columns. But the main force of the orcs were prepared simply to stand in the shallow, speeding river, their motley furs and buckskins tightened against the chill of the current, and wait. The elves would eventually starve, freeze, or die of thirst. Either that, or they would have to plunge headlong into the horde, to meet their certain doom.
Or, they would have to surrender . . .
The cold fire in Aurelia’s blood burned for hours. She dodged many spears and javelins, tipped with poison, tipped with fire. But eventually, even the tufts of grass of her cover on the little shoulder of earth had burnt away, some group of orcish bastards on a hill behind a rock targeting her particularly. She did not want to die! She had just begun to live! The Codex, Aurel’s legacy, lay somewhere not so very far away. She knew she might never find it now. That weighed her down even more than the fear of death itself. The very purpose she’d chosen, that her whole family line and fate itself seemed to have chosen for her, was going to go forever unrealized. She had to fight this despair, along with the animal fear of death, along with the waning of her strength as she grew tired and hungry and a new snowstorm darkened the horizon.
O Uur’yeelvyan! O Y’str’aak’lyaa! Let me survive this!! Let me live to see the morrow!!!
Then, everything began to fade. She’d been hit! A poison dart in her leg as she’d run from her lost cover to a new position! As she strained in the hail of spears to remove it, she realized with sick dread that it was a sleepy poison. She would be left to die.
Or, worse . . . to be captured . . .