My Youth, and the Realm of the Elves
My name is Warren. I have attained the age of 36 parallels, or 12 years. My mother is dead. My father is human, but as faceless in my mind as stone. I am told my mother was a Sphinx, a being that somewhat resembles a cougar that walks upright. All that my dead mother, Maya, has left me is her copper velvet fur, a pink sphinx nose, two large, rotating ears, and a little tail.
I am a half-breed, neither sphinx nor human. My only option is to shut myself within a sanctuary with the Elves along with my foster mother and sister. Together we are a family, a community of Unwanteds. Outcasts.
I suppose I cannot complain, for my foster mother, Ramona, and her daughter, Melani, are the last Wolves in existence. They are not actually wolves, not the kind that you are thinking of, anyway, but neither are they human. It is an interesting species, I think, for they are both wolf and human, able to change from one form to the other at will. And for that, the humans hate them above all other beings . I don't understand why humans hate them so much, but I am still young and am frequently told there is much about the world I don't understand yet.
You would think my world would be very easy to understand, considering it is only 3 miles long and 1 mile wide. Perhaps this does not make much sense. Let me tell you about my home, the Realm of the Elves:
The Elves, like all other humanoids, were forced into the shadows of the world when the humans came into power. They spread like a plague, men astride horses whipped into insanity, men with fire and swords, men with whole rivers and forests at their command. Our world descended into fire and death, forcing us into dark holes and to dart among shadows like terror-struck rabbits.
Elves chose to create their sanctuary beneath the waves in a sort of giant bubble resting on the ocean floor. The sea was one of the few things Men had left untouched, partly because the deities of the ocean would never stand for men intruding their domain, and because it never had much to offer. Beneath a giant force field the elves created their oasis; planting land trees, cultivating wildlife, and crafting some of their beautiful architecture into the sea floor. Some of the original structures remains today, although crumbling, and wreathed in overgrowth. Instead of clouds and blue skies, waves break over the force field and waterfalls eternally cascade down it's walls. The waves scatter flickering, dancing light over everything; the trees, the humble stone houses, and ripples over the few horses as they run. It is all very beautiful, but it is a cage.
Everything we could ever need or want is kept and carefully cultivated. An enormous treasure trove of knowledge and history is held in the underground library, where elves carved an enormous cavern with tiers uniting into arches and laden with shelves beyond count. everyone of them dated back to at least 150 years; it seems that the elves lost their inspiration to write after they settled in the oasis. Sometimes I'll spend hours just cradling one in my hands, wiping of the dust and breathing in the musty scent just to feel the weight of knowledge in my hands.
The Elves are kind and generous, if rather strange. I have family, food, and all the knowledge I could ever desire at my disposal, and I love this place, in it's timeless beauty, but I can't stand it.
The Elves don't mind, I think they like the security of this cage, so long as it's pretty. However, I am not an Elf. On the days when I feel the human blood coursing through my veins, and my desire to break free reaches it's peak, I just want to . . . I don't know. I have no choice. Even if there was a way to escape, to break through, to swim to shore and fly away, I know I would not be welcomed into the human world. So, I stay. I force myself to be content, and life goes on.
One day, I sat perched upon a boulder, copying a passage about the history of centaurs into my leather-bound journal. I wondered idly if I could go to live with the centaurs; maybe update some of our history scrolls on centaur lifestyle. Just then, my friend. Roann, came scrambling up the rocks to speak to me. He was an elf, about the same age as I, and as he spoke to me, I looked at his head and thought to myself for the thousandth time how odd elves looked. Roann, like all other elves, had not a single hair on his body, not on his head, or otherwise. The only thing adorning his head were two long, slender ears. His eyes were a brilliant blue, his skin pale and oddly luminous. We were both clothed in the customary elvish attire: loose cream-colored shirt, long sleeves tied at the wrists, rough undershirt peeking out from the wide collar, and knee-high boots thoroughly scrubbed with brown polish.
Roann however was not like all the others, not exactly. He alone shared my desire to one day escape from this place, and because of that, he had been shunned by the other elvish boys. Consequently, we had been friends as long as I could remember. A gold chain dangled from his neck, a small sign of his rebellion to the common thinking, as jewelry was never worn by elves. The elders let him be, in the hopes he would grow out of his rebellious stage, and one day become 'normal'.
"Warren, if you sit here much longer you'll make us late for our lessons."
"Well, let's get going." I sighed, closed my journal and leaped lightly from the boulder, and trotted alongside my friend.
'Lessons' were required studies for elvish children. Rather like school, only different. I guess the only real difference is that elves love to learn. They need it, it's like their oxygen, and they soak it up like a sponge in a wash bucket. I am not an Elf, so I do not learn as easily as they. However, I am required to be at the same level as my piers, so I must learn just as much as them. I study and study, but things just keep on bouncing off, like rubber balls. I'll try adhering the lessons to my brain, but a mere breeze whists them away, never to be found again. I try pounding facts into my head with a hammer, but my skull threatens to crack.
Roann and I entered the stone lesson house, and Roann shut the squeaky door gingerly. Fourteen elven boys sat cross-legged on the mat floor, journals in hand, ears erect, faces attentive. We took our places in the back. I peered over the pale, bald heads to watch our instructor stride into the room. His voice was clear and smooth, and washed over me like water. I twisted my head around to see fifteen charcoal sticks begin scratching away at their journals. 'They're already taking notes?' I panicked. What if the Instructor had said something important? I tried very hard to pay attention, but my ears kept swiveling about, focusing on things unrelated to the lesson.
Fortunately, We were never graded on our work, it was only required that we learn. And with the rest of our lives to spend on this island, with nothing to do but learn and live, the elders were not terribly concerned for me.
Besides history, and written knowledge kept in aged books and scrolls, we were taught weaponry. Everything from daggers to scythes from crossbows to chains, we learned their usage, composition, and of course, it's history. It was the one thing that I excelled in, even though sphinxes are never known to handle swords, or any weapon for that matter.
Roann and I strolled along the emerald fields, in-between the boulders strewn across it's face, while Roann explained the lesson to me. Apparently it had been about a centaur war and the Great Civil Pact that had resolved it. We passed a class of girls practicing with bows. They looked rather awkward, but perhaps it was their first time holding them. Elvish girls were instructed in the usage of short bows, and single-handed swords, or in other words, 'civil' weaponry. But after that, their training in that field would be discontinued.
As we crossed the ancient crimson bridge, I watched a flower dragon prance from lily to lily in the pond. It flittered it's tiny dragon wings, and nosed about the blossoms with a minuscule snout. It's yellow eyes flashed at me, and it perched itself briefly on a lily, flicking it's slender, frilled tail. It was so small, it was difficult to imagine what a full sized dragon would look like. There were thousands of species of dragons roaming the world above, and I yearned to see them, to see them fly, run, spit fire. They must be beautiful.
The flower dragon flitted to a gnarled oak where red flowers clambered up it's roots, and then, satisfied, it flew away.
I shook my head, and drew my consciousness back to the present day, where another lesson was rapidly drawing closer.
"The Two-Handed Sword." The weapons instructor drew out an enormous sword with a flourish. The sword whistled as it sliced through air, and as the instructor held it respectfully in his hands; it winked and glimmered expectantly.
"Blade shaft: 57 inches, width: 2.4,handle:10.1." Our weapons instructor never wasted words.
"You will learn it inside, outside and upside down, beginning now." He had my full attention this time. This was advanced weaponry, and everyone in the room was excited by the sword's presence. Just as I felt the excitement balloon up within me, he laid the sword back on it's pedestal on the wall. I groaned inwardly. Of course, before he would let us anywhere near it, we would spend weeks on it's history, the wars it started and resolved, it's creation, and it's composition.
Two weeks passed, and we were given wooden practice swords to practice with. In another week, we were each in turn allowed to use the real thing. A month passed, then a parallel of moons, and then we began long studies in the art of sword smithing. Before I knew it, a year had galloped past, and I remained in my flower-strewn prison. However, I had a new companion in this new year. For after months of study, we were allowed to attempt sword smithing ourselves. I had worked late into the evening at the smithy, Roann faithfully working the bellows alongside me. Finally, after innumerable mistakes and recycled scrap metal, we had each created a sword for ourselves.
I named mine Iulidane, after a famous dragon who been an alai to the sphinxes and rocs in a long-past war. I had decided to make it a two-handed sword, because I had loved the grace and power of the one we had practiced with. The blade shaft was 48 inches, the width, 2 at it's apex, and the handle shaft was 8.5 inches long. In total, it much shorter than I was, but I knew I had a great deal of growing to do in the near future, and I had managed to make it fairly light, something that required a fair bit of skill to do.
Roann's was a single-handed sword, because he believed two-handeds were far too large and unwieldy. His was medium in length and slender in the usual elvish fashion, and he had named it Odonata, or Dragonfly. Honestly, I hadn't the foggiest idea what a dragonfly is, and I thought the name was a little silly, but Roann insisted it was an appropriate name. It was extremely maneuverable and much more portable than mine, but I knew as soon I caught up to my sword in size and strength, we could be a powerful team.
With our new companions, we practiced every free moment we had together. I felt life surge through me with new, vibrant meaning. This was what I was born to do, to fight seamlessly with a sword. It felt exhilarating to channel all my frustration and pain into the blade of a sword and succeed brilliantly at it. At times like these, I wondered if I would be as talented if my father had been a sphinx. . .
After a long, vigorous practice and a few new cuts now adorning our arms, we slumped onto the ground breathlessly and gazed into the boundless sea. It was dusk, but I could never actually see the sun and it's supposed wreath of golden fire that enveloped the sky during sunset. You could always tell it was dusk when there was a great light shining through the murky waters, and the sea serpents migrated to the surface to hunt in the approaching darkness.
"Roann?" Roann made a grunting noise in response.
"What do you think a sunset looks like? You know, a real one?" Roann did not speak at first, but gazed indefinitely into sea.
"I suppose, it would look like it does in the scroll illustrations. But, I can't fathom how it would feel to watch one. Scrolls and tomes can record every fact, every bit of information in perfect detail, but they never bother to tell of anything emotional or put in any feelings. Nothing important. Just facts." I looked at him for a long moment, but he continued staring into the rapidly vanishing sunlight.
I treaded the beaten path to my dwelling that night with my head bent and brow furrowed in thought. I felt like I had aged a year that day, like I was a hundred years old, and for all I knew I really was. Time had almost no significance, past and present melted together and stumbled hand-in-hand into the future. I contemplated my future, wondered what it might hold. But it was faceless, the same as my father.
The house was still and placid as I stepped inside, the only sounds were of the rustling of trees, and my mother and sister's steady breathing. A large basket-like bed waited for me in the corner, and I cast myself into the blankets and furs. Sleep overpowered me, and all thoughts slipped away into dreams of a hazy future.
Four years later, I found myself with brush in hand, diligently grooming a colt. He was only three, but already showed great promise. His body was beautifully proportioned and his hard muscles rippled beneath his gleaming red coat. I spent ages washing and combing his mane and tail until it slid through my fingers like water. Elves believe horses get their strength from their mane and tail, so they keep them as long and healthy as possible. Usually they like to keep their coats gleaming too, just for good measure. Where they got this belief, is a mystery to me, seeing as they have no hair of their own.
Summerset tossed his well-formed head and flashed his long, black mane.
"Hey, I'm not done yet! Be patient just a little longer, friend." I said playfully as I held his leather halter steady. Colts were very rarely bred down here, and the herd was only about twenty horses strong, but what fine horses they were. Few breeders could boast so highly of themselves as the Elves. Or at least that was how it was several centuries ago when they lived on the surface.
I had long been an accomplished rider, so the Elders charged me with breaking Blaze. I mean, Summerset. Summerset is the official name the Elders bestowed upon him at birth, but I had thought it was too long and cumbersome. So I called him Blaze for the striking white flare that descends his face.
After I tacked him with the light elvish rigging, I mounted gingerly and gently eased my weight upon his back. He did not flinch; he was used to this part.
"Alright, let's see if you'll work for me." I murmured as my brow furrowed in concentration. I eased him through the exercises, and he did remarkably well. I pushed him further and further, and he kept on giving. I galloped him through the stone field and along the beach, and soon we had completed a circle all the way around the island. He had done beautifully, and I tried hard to bury a growing disappointment as I cooled and un-tacked him. In the back of my mind something was whispering 'dead end, dead end, it's another dead end."
Blaze deserved more than the couple square miles of his home. I tried not to think of what I thought I 'deserved'.
Two days ago I had turned seventeen. It was the age that, in human cultures, a youth officially reached adulthood. However, Elves aren't considered adults until the age of twenty-five. Most of the time they try to forget that I'm a pseudo-human, not an elf, and ignore anything that sets me apart from them. I had been a man for two days, and no one had noticed or cared. I had been educated along with all the elves my age in human and sphinx cultures; normally there was a great celebration and a week of feasting if you were rich. I had attempted to celebrate with myself by taking Blaze out for a joy ride, but it had been late, and he had been in no mood to celebrate. Melani, my younger sister, who was now fifteen and rapidly approaching womanhood, had left me a flower on my bed that evening. It's petals were gold, trimmed with crimson, it's stem studded with thorns and tiny leaves. I hung it up to dry so I could keep it forever.
Why did I care so much? If I was a man now, I shouldn't get all worked up over petty things like that, I told myself. Telling myself that sort of thing did not help much.
I had grown into my sword just as I had hoped, and frequently gave Roann a whipping. It wasn't much fun practicing anymore. Elves just aren't as naturally intuitive with swordsmanship as men, not Roann anyway. Somehow we still managed to be friends despite the evidence of many slashings that had accumulated on his body. Roann was working with a horse as well, a gorgeous dapple-grey mare. She was skittish and whimsical, so Roann had been charged with re-training her. He seemed to be doing a fair job.
After Blaze was stabled and comfortable for the night, I ambled over to the force-field so I could stare at it accusingly. Light swam across it's surface, and it glowed enchantingly, even seductively. I wanted to throw myself into the ocean and swim to the surface. Or maybe just drown. I didn't care. I could've died and I wouldn't have cared. Suddenly, without thinking, I plunged my sword into the barrier, as though attempting to stab its heart out. Fire leaped through the blade where it had touched the light and white flame consumed my hands. I screamed inwardly, and sank to my knees, releasing the pain in a low hiss.
"Before you end up killing yourself, I would like to have a word with you." A calm female voice wafted over my brain. I spun around to find my foster mother, Ramona looking down at me.
"What are you doing here? It's late." I said through a throat cracked with swallowed tears.
"Just what I was going to ask you, Warren." She knelt down and helped me to my feet.
"But let's head home. There are some things I need to talk to you about. Important things, that perhaps, I should have told you a long time ago."
I will never forget that night. It was the night when everything turned upside down. It was as if my life was a table laden with all sorts of good things to eat, but I could never reach the table. Then someone turned the table over, and everything crashed to the floor.
We sat at the delicate wooden table in our home, Mother pouring us cups of mead while I dressed my burned hands. Mother sat down across from me, looking me directly in the eyes, clutching the delicate porcelain a little too hard.
"First, I am very sorry about your Coming of Age ceremony, but it was impossible to have that kind of celebration. For what it counts, I think you did brilliantly anyway. Now we can say for sure it's not the length or size of feast that makes the man, is it?" She smiled in a very maternal way.
" I want to tell you about your mother. Your real mother." Her smile faded, and her pretense became serious once again. She leaned back in her chair, and her eyes became distant as she plunged into a long buried memory.
"I remember, I met her in an inn near the capital city, this pregnant mother shunned from her family, and completely alone in the world. I took her in, and cared for her, and attempted to befriend her. She was very bitter at first, but came to trust me in time. I took her back to my village, the last wolf village in existence. Back when I had a home to share, and love to give, when I had a family, a community of my kindred. Something Melani will never know." Mother cringed and shuddered; we were touching on sacred ground. I held my breath.
"Well, she was very scared, I can tell you that. She had never been away from her family community before, and I wondered what horrible thing she could have done to be exiled like that. Well, finally, she told me." She paused, and breathed deeply for a moment.
"She had gone out on a trip for supplies out in the South Lands, when she was staying in a little villiage, and a man, not knowing she was a sphinx, raped her."She closed her eyes and waited for my response. I felt myself wretch. I wanted to vomit, but there was nothing substantial in my stomach, so my muscles seized upon each other instead.
"Believe me, I had no idea human and sphinx were compatible in that way, but apparently. . ." When she saw how green I was, she did not continue. I merely gripped my cup of mead as though I was trying to crush it. I tried not to think, and my head swam as she continued.
"She was in a sorry state. But she fought so hard. . . I never would have thought. . ." She held her head in her hands so she could wipe her tears unobtrusively.
"She died in childbirth, and I swore to take care of you. Soon afterwards, the men came and destroyed our villiage, my husband and I were the only ones who escaped. We lived in the wilderness for some time, and I had Melani, but one day, he left to go hunting. . .and never came back. . ." Tears were now streaming down her face, and she could no longer contain herself. She broke down and wept. I took her and held her in my arms, and clutched her shuddering body, as though I might be able to take her pain away if I held her tight enough, and I rocked her back and forth, like she used to rock me when I was a very small child.
We said nothing for a long time, but sipped our mead and waited for the emotions to settle down. Mother gave a shuddering sigh, and looked at me sincerely once again. Oh, great. What now?
"I had always hoped," She began quietly, carefully. "You might find a home in this place, and that you might learn just as easily as the elves, make some friends, and grow up to love a foster mother and sister. And you have. You have done everything I could have ever asked of you. And, no matter how much I wanted for you to be content, I knew in my heart, you would have to leave someday." I stared silently into my empty cup. I didn't know what to say.
"You must leave. Before you do something dreadfully foolish." She smiled and reached to grasp my bandaged hand. I looked back at her, but could not smile.
"Now? You want me to leave tonight?" I croaked
"As soon as you're ready." She squeezed my hand gently, and I felt a stabbing pain surge through my arm.
"Woah, wait. You mean there's a way out? Roann and I have been searching for years and we never found anything." Mother stood up and motioned for me to follow.
"Well, you never thought to look anywhere sensible, that's all." She led the way around the back of our dwelling where there was the enormous cellar door built into the ground.
"But this is the cellar, Mum." I said blankly.
"Yes, but have you ever been inside?" She knew I hadn't, but asked anyway. I hated when she did that.
"No, it's always locked." At this, she produced a small, silver key and twiddled it around in the lock until it clicked open.
She heaved the doors open, revealing a yawning, gaping tunnel descending into the earth. The ceiling was only about eight feet from the crumbling stone floor, but it was just wide enough for a person and a horse to walk alongside. I looked at it for a long moment. For so long, I had yearned to find a way out; I had searched every corner, every drawer, lusted after it for years and years, and here was my escape, waiting at my feet, and I didn't want to go. I knew Mother was right, I was going truly insane, but I was afraid, afraid not only for myself, but for my mother and sister being left all alone.
"The tunnel leads into the heart of Coumb Deep forest, and there are torches that light up along the way." I embraced her for a long time.
"Good heavens, Warren, you look like you're dressed for battle." Roann said casually from his horse's stall. He poked his bald head out of the stall door to get a better look and as he did so, Araldan, the dapple-grey, poked her head out as well.
"Roann. What are you doing here?" This was hard enough as it is. I had hoped to leave without Roann knowing, but now he would have to know everything. Well, maybe I could still leave without him noticing anything funny.
"I often take Ara out for a night time exercise; it's cooler at night. But you've already turned Summerset in. What the blazes are you doing? And what, why are you in full armor and everything? What. . .what's going on?" I looked away from him. It wasn't actually armor, but that's what we called the complete outfitting. Elvish 'armor' was completely hard leather rather than iron because it's lightweight and pliable. I was dressed in the usual traveling gear for elves: arm guards extending from finger joints to elbow, shoulder guards, a wide dragon-hide belt, knee-high boots, my bow and quiver, and my sword, Iulidane resting at my hip. I had come to the stables to fetch Blaze and outfit him for the journey. I sighed, but did not look at Roann.
"I'm leaving, Roann." He gaped at me incredulously.
"I don't believe it. Warren, you would never leave. . .without me?" I lifted my gaze to his, and stared him square in the eye.
"I can't take you. You belong here, with the Elves."
"Come off it. You know that's not true and you know it. I mean, we always agreed-" he was beginning to get red in the face, and I knew it was awful, but it had to be this way.
"Roann, you're an elf! I can't take you because if anyone sees you, well you know! I at least look mostly human, and I have, my life up there, my family." I had wanted so very much to avoid this. Couldn't he just let me go?
"Look, in case you hadn't noticed, I'm not like all the other elves. I've been going just as mad as you have, and I really don't care if someone chops my head off for being an elf just so long as I could see the stars, and the sunset before I go. . .'cause, that's what we wanted, wasn't it? Just to, see the stars glimmer, and feel the sunset. . .Do you really want to watch the sunset alone?" He paused for breath at this time and then continued his assault.
"Look, if you don't take me with you, I'll just have to stuff myself into one of your saddlebags or something. Maybe I could document the things we see, so I could be productive at least. And maybe you'll get into trouble and you'll need help, what will you do then?!" Roann was ranting at this point, animating his speech with flamboyant arm gestures. Somewhere along the line, it began to sink in. It would be treachery to leave him, he could actually be useful, and if I didn't bring him along, he might take some sort of drastic action. But most importantly, he was my best friend and I needed him to be with me. What choice did I have? I smiled reluctantly, and raised a hand telling him I'd heard enough.
"Alright, alright. I guess I have no choice." Roann paused in mid-sentence, mouth still open, and with his arms raised in the middle of a climatic gesticulation.
"Yeah, you're right. I don't know what I was thinking."
"Oh. Well, give me a few minutes to get outfitted. And, you wouldn't mind telling me where this secret entrance is and how it's managed to escape our detection for the past ten years?"
"We'll meet at my mother's house. I'll explain there." With that, I swung my leg over Blaze's saddle, gave him a cluck-cluck, and he cantered solemnly into the shadow-world of night. I felt my body move in time to Blaze's strides, allowing myself to be rocked away, my mind drifting as though in a dream. And through the rocking-horse dream echoed one thought: we are leaving.
I bade Melani and my mother final goodbyes. They were strong, and Melani could take care of Mother. Mum drew me aside and I knew at once she had some important words of wisdom to give me. But to my surprise, it was not words, but an object she wanted to present to me.
"I have something to give you, Warren." She produced something small and flat wrapped in a velvet linen.
"Maya wanted you to have this when you had come of age. Don't ask me where she got it, though." I took it and carefully unwrapped a large, bronze coin-like object. It was difficult to see in the poor light, but I was quite sure I knew what it was. It was a family crest. And it was undeniably human.
"This was my father's?" I asked quietly, unsure wether to hold it with respect, or disgust. My mother nodded.
"I thought it might leave some clue as to his whereabouts or identity. But for now, I think you should go to see the sphinxes, and learn what you can about your family." She put her hands on my shoulders and looked up into my eyes. I looked back at her, at her once lovely face eroded by time and misery, her flowing black hair that she had past on to her daughter, and her eyes pleading, imploring me to be safe, to come back in one piece.
"I'm sorry I have nothing more to leave you with." I said, and I hugged them both tight one last time, and headed into the dark tunnel, Blaze at my side, Roann just behind me leading Araldan. And I just hoped, with all my heart, I wasn't making the biggest mistake of my life.