Others joined us. They came up quietly, but my senses were on high alert. First there were eight, and then ten, and then an indeterminate more; that turned out to be about the limit of my ability. They were all quietly muttering, though, and they didn’t sound happy.
Finally I found enough air in my lungs to speak. “My father—will rescue me,” I promised. No, that never seems to be the right thing to say in action movies, but it was the only thing that came to mind.
A muted bark of laughter came from the same older woman who’d pronounced my identity. “Rescue you? From what?”
“You said I was captured. Everybody else seems to want to capture me, and now you have succeeded. Congratulations. But—”
“So why were you chasing young Ilya?”
“I….” It was a good question, one I wasn’t sure whether to answer honestly. After a moment I decided it really couldn’t get much worse. “I was curious. I wasn’t expecting anyone to be out in the woods tonight, and she’s—you’re—”
“Groendu.” The older woman completed my thought. Black-skinned. So it was as obvious to them as it was to me.
I tried to nod and was happy that my bonds allowed it. With what I hoped was a winning smile, I said, “Yes, that is correct. I have not seen anyone else here who is black-skinned.”
“You have not been raised to fear us.” It was more of a statement than a question, but I still nodded.
“I was raised in a land called Mississippi, where light-skinned and dark-skinned people all live in peace and harmony.” Okay, so that was a huge lie, but I doubted these elves had access to CNN.
She snorted. “The light-skinned people have not yet subjugated the dark-skinned people in your world? I cannot believe that.” Apparently nobody else could believe it either, as they all laughed.
“No! They…” I let my voice trail off. Why was I bothering to lie to these elves? “Okay, so they have, in places, and during times in the past. And there is tension now, according to the realm-wide news-runners.” So, you try communicating the concept of national TV broadcasts in a several-thousand-year-old elf language. “But I, personally, have stood for equality,” I continued, realizing that I was stretching the truth once again but feeling like it needed to be said. “Why—why are you all laughing?”
“Because, Princess, the idea of one of your type bragging to us about standing for equality is like the hunter facing the mighty grizzly saying he has stood for vegetarianism.”
“Look, I didn’t even know your people existed until tonight. I don’t even know your people’s story. I’d love to learn it, though, if you would just let me get up on my own. And on that I must insist. Either let me up, or just kill me now, for this is undignified.”
I was pretty certain, based on the conversation we’d had so far, that they wouldn’t choose the latter option. I was, after all, the crown princess, and they knew it, and they seemed to place at least a little importance on that. I wasn’t sure if they’d let me have the former option, but the call to dignity was my best guess.
It worked. Suddenly the weight holding my limbs to the ground disappeared, and a dark-skinned hand was thrust from the other side, away from the older woman, to assist me to my feet.
I took the assistance and thanked my helper with a flourish that, in elf custom, indicated equality. He snorted.
“We do not play by silly court rules here, Princess,” the older woman sniped.
“Well, those are all that I know,” I shot back at her. “I would be happy to learn your rules for showing appreciation for assistance.”
“Like this, Princess,” the man who’d helped me up said, and then he launched into an elaborate process of what would be called patty-cake on Earth. I paid as much attention as I could, but was glad to finally be able to read the mood of those around me once again, and thus I picked up on the joke.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said.
“Perhaps a simple shake of the hands?” he offered and held his right hand out to me. I took it, and he pulled me in for a bear hug. Beside my ear I could hear his deep voice chortling, while similar laughter sounded around us. It seemed I was the butt of a very funny joke. Funny, to them, anyway. But then again, I was alive and probably going to remain that way, and so I didn’t mind the joke much at all.
“So,” I said after detaching myself from the fairly strong grip, “tell me about what has happened to your people.”
Apparently, accepting the bear hug was what I needed to do to win over their trust, because they led me a few miles at a light jog to their little campsite. It barely qualified as that, with a few primitive lean-tos built into the side of a hill so that they would be virtually invisible from any distance whatsoever. Even their campfire was shielded by a pile of stacked logs and branches. I had no idea we had arrived till we stopped.
“Artfully hidden, but wouldn’t the king’s rangers know right where it is?” I asked the older woman, who shook her head.
“I don’t see anything. That’s what was so impressive.”
She shook her head more aggressively, the motion accentuated in the flickering light of the fire. “No. Look, but not with your eyes. Or are the rumors that have reached us untrue?”
The comment about rumors clued me in. I reached up and touched Draignerthol, a move that drew gasps from everyone nearby. I peered around, looking through the eye of the magical pendant, and suddenly I was nearly giddy from what I’d seen.
“You—you shielded your camp from the rangers. And then—you shielded the shielding?” I asked, not entirely willing to believe what I’d seen. “You—you use magic.”
“It is Gaia’s gift to her children,” she explained in the same tone I’d use to explain to a child that the sky is blue or that a rock is hard. “We must not squander.”
Flabbergasted, I turned to face her directly. “Gaia?” I’d heard of Gaia before, of course. She was some sort of—weird sort of deity that New Agers worshiped on Earth, I thought. The Earth Mother, Sarah had read when we’d discovered a book about it in the library. But that was in Mississippi, and in English, and we were speaking elf here in Kiirajanna, and she’d plainly said Gaia.
She just smiled, and I shook my head to clear it. Sternyface had taught me absolutely nothing of true religion, mainly because the elves didn’t have one. The titles priest and priestess had even come to have no religious context at all; instead, her minions were teachers, healers, scribes, and acolytes. Worship just wasn’t done.
I’d never been particularly religious, myself, so I hadn’t bothered probing about it. There were plenty of opportunities the past summer to read histories in the smaller library at Cysegredig, and I’d loved them, but nothing I read had held mention of any sort of religion, one way or another.
“Who—who is this Gaia?” I finally found myself asking.
The older lady had been anticipating my question, and now she nodded eagerly. “Yes, yes. I am not surprised that you have not heard of the Mother. It is good, though, and right, for our Dragon Queen to hear of it. Come, let us sit by the fire, where we may talk comfortably.”
“I am not the Dragon Queen yet,” I argued as she led me to the center of the camp. We sat on plain logs laid out about the warmth of the bonfire, and I was once again amazed at how hidden the sizable and well-tended fire was hidden from outside of the little ring.
“Perhaps not yet, but you will be. Sooner than you think, I believe, if I am hearing the Mother’s voice correctly.”
“You can hear her?”
“Yes! Yes, of course, and you can, too, if you know what you are listening for. Sit for a moment, silently. Be at peace, and let your breathing slow. Listen. Listen closely, for the whisper of the moon and the gentle breeze. Do you hear it?”
I did as she instructed, sitting for long enough that my butt started to hurt from the roughness of the log. Soon, though, I could sense what she referred to. “Yes, I think I do.”
“What is she saying to you, my young princess?”
“I—I don’t know. All I hear—sense—feel—is a presence. It’s like it’s moving, but it’s not.”
She nodded again, her face brightening into a huge smile. “Yes! Yes, that is Gaia. I am glad you did not make anything up, because hearing anything specific the first time is quite impossible. You will come to know what she is telling you, the longer that you listen to her. And I am hearing her say that you are worthy to receive our greatest gift.”
“Your greatest gift?” I looked suspiciously; it sounded too much like an infomercial on Earth’s TV stations.
“Yes, absolutely. Our greatest gift. Our lore. Are you prepared to receive it?”
It hit me what she was about to do, and I gasped. “I would be honored to receive it.”
She nodded, once, and closed her eyes. Slowly, softly, she began to croon a song that spun itself into a tale of beginnings.
The Pobl’pridd were not of this land
But we were of a land
And we were of all the land
And the land was within us
I looked into her now-open eyes to see a vast pool of emotions. She was proud of her people, the Pobl’pridd, which is elf for People of the Soil. It also means people of the dirt, depending on how you want to interpret it, but I’m sure that all the pride she pumped into her voice when she said it implies the nicer meaning. She also seemed glad to be telling me the tale, one that clearly sank to the center of her being and then wrapped that being around the entire audience of its telling.
The song continued in a slow, minor key for a long time. First it told of a faraway island where elves, beasts, and plants lived in harmony. Then they heard of neighbors to the west who needed them desperately—heard through Gaia, apparently, but the how part was glossed over. I thought briefly about all the other “…and God talked to us” stories I’d heard, wondering if Gaia had spoken with the Pobl’pridd through a burning bush, or maybe a serpent. But then I realized the story was moving too fast for me to start thinking such silly stuff, so I pulled my focus back to follow her lovely alto voice.
The journey across the sea was difficult, thanks to the other, opposing, deity, whose name I had missed while thinking about burning bushes. He was a pretty wicked guy, though, tossing up storm after storm to prevent the People of the Soil from doing Gaia’s wishes by journeying to Kiirajanna. The people were strong, and they were strong in Gaia’s gift, which I took to mean magical power, though, so they made it. Their boats didn’t do so well, though, crashing into the cliffs on the eastern side of the continent.
The tenor of the song changed a little at that point. What had been a slow, moving minor key quickened and brightened slightly as she sang of meeting the elf princes, of being shown into the high courts of the land. This was back before Cysegredig existed, and what it had replaced was, according to the song, a flowing, tall building sculpted of stunningly white rock that had been sung from the depths of Gaia herself.
The land was at war, though, which was why the pace of the song picked up. Battles were raging across the land even while the people were meeting the greatest of elf queens, Rhiannon. Attuned to Gaia’s body as they were, the people could sense the tumult, and many wept openly even in front of the queen herself. It made an impact, apparently; she accepted them immediately into her highest rank of guardians, soldiers, and even advisors.
It did not go well, the song recounted as it slipped back into a slow, mournful key. Rhiannon’s forces were besieged, attacked from all sides, by armies that had joined together against them in response to the arrival of the dark elves. Every attempt to broker peace was met with silence, derision, or worse, deceit. Queen Aleah’la, the last ruler ever anointed by the Pobl’pridd, gave her own life defending Rhiannon from an assassin’s spell at what became an abrupt ending to a white binding forgiveness ritual. The people of the soil mourned, and they fought, for at that point it was as much about vengeance as any thought of peace on the land.
Aleah’la was strong, and she was kind, and she was filled to effervescence with Gaia’s gifts, and so on went the dirge, but I tried to pay close attention regardless. It seemed like she was building up to something.
Finally the pace of the song picked back up, taking on a staccato quality. I could hear the drums of war in her voice as she spoke of a decade more of battles, of this elf clan and another bonding together against Rhiannon’s forces and then, upon the eve of victory, turning and battling each other. Gaia’s hand was felt more than once, as both dark elf and light and even the queen herself celebrated the noble goddess’s intervention. In one battle a company of unicorns joined in, using their magic and their horns to get effect. They were, the song explained, not creatures who could use Gaia’s gift, but rather creatures wholly created of Gaia’s gift, and there was no killing one without intervention of the Dark One himself.
She told of one battle that floored me. Rhiannon’s forces were on the verge of being defeated by dark sorcery and powerful weapons when suddenly a flight of wyverns appeared. I barely held back from interrupting her lyric tale as she spoke of the majestic and intelligent creatures who swooped in and vigorously protected the elf queen. My own experience with a wyvern had left me with the sense that they were fairly evil creatures, though, so I had a hard time matching up her beautiful words with the terrifying images in my head.
They won—slowly. The song hit a martial stretch in which she recanted each of the enemy elves’ names as they surrendered their forces to the queen. Each time, the song made a point of telling us how graciously the queen handled their defeat, how they all received their lives and lands back with only one promise, made over a binding relic. The oath they took was that never again would their tribes practice the art of magic against fellow elves.
As the surrenders continued and the land returned to peace, the Pobl’prinn became worried. Their foes were willing to give up magic, to walk away from Gaia’s gift, and the people of the soil started to sense what might come next. It was not surprising, then, that after the last tribe had laid down its arms and vowed to leave their powers unused, the queen turned to the council of elders who had taken up leadership after Aleah’la’s death.
“Come with me,” she requested, urging them to join her in a self-imposed banishment on Earth, away from the lure and temptation of magical energy. They could not, though; the song repeated its initial verse about them being of the land, and the land being in them, and then it repeated again. That drove the point home. But the price of their unwillingness to turn their own backs on Gaia was banishment, and they accepted the judgment without resistance. Their elders’ last act among their light-skinned brethren was to assist Rhiannon in breaking all the relics save one—the one I wore around my neck—and then helping her seal off the portals behind her.
The song went back to dirge then, its people cast out and wandering alone and their favorite queens dead and gone. There were several more verses about the split-up, and the work they’d done in the thousands of years since, but the singer seemed as uninterested in performing those as I was in listening to them.
My heart was broken, and not just for the Pobl’prinn. The loss to my own people, those I would be ruling soon enough, was tremendous. I couldn’t begin to imagine all that they had missed out on, in spite of what I could see now as efforts to circumvent the ancient oath by using “earth energy” to heal and to work with the land, and refusing to call it magic.
That understanding didn’t make it any easier to face, though, I realized as the post-song silence stretched out. In being the one to bring back magic, I was going to force many of them to break a whole lot of oaths.
I didn’t see where I had much choice, though.
Part of that would be positive, I figured. High Priestess Sternyface’s minions had included just a little bit of religious theory from their own standpoint over the past summer, more as a historical lesson than anything else. There were no single causes to any of the great elven wars of previous epochs, of course, but religion seemed to play a central role in all of them, and the priests had made it their mission to show me how. Thus, they were proud to be priests over a somewhat atheistic order, if that makes any sense—it didn’t, at the time, and it still doesn’t. Atheist—anffyddiwr—was the word they’d used, anyway, but agnostic is closer to the truth. They’re fully willing to acknowledge that their power over the forces of nature—not magic!—comes from somewhere or someone, but they don’t really want to talk about where, or who, that somewhere or someone might be.
In other words, my people are so scared of warfare that they’re willing to walk away from their god—or gods, actually—to prevent it. That made me ashamed. And I would end that shame, bring back Gaia to a people who needed her the most.
“Wow,” I breathed as the enormity of the task ahead of me finally hit.
That broke the spell of silence, anyway. At that point everyone crowded around, insisting on seeing and, in a couple of brave cases, even touching the relic that I now wore on a chain around my neck. Their reactions, the faces lit with happiness, made me feel a bit like a hero in spite of the initial intercultural standoffishness.
“How many of you are there?”
“Thousands. Scores of thousands. We are spread out across the continent, keeping to little camps of no more than what you see here.”
“Of course. You do not?”
“Probably not the same way you do.”
“We let the dragons carry our messages to other camps,” the bear-hugger volunteered from beside me.
“Dragons?” I asked. “That’s funny. I haven’t seen a dragon since I’ve been here, and I can’t imagine you could hide something that big.”
“Elaithim is joking, young one,” the old woman answered me, using the maternal version of the term for a child, while sending him a glare. “There have been no dragons since what the history you have studied calls the Third Epoch.”
“The history I studied didn’t mention dragons in any epoch, actually.” My interest shot up. “I’ve been told that the Cult of the Wyrm, the group which is attacking me, is named after dragons, but that dragons haven’t existed in a long while, that they were all killed off. And there’s nothing about dragons written in the histories I’ve read so far.”
“That is probably for the best, Alyssa. You have met wyverns, if what I have heard is correct?”
“Wyvern. Just one. It was quite scary, though.”
“Indeed. A young dragon is ten times larger than a typical wyvern, and will double in size every century or so of its incredibly long life, but that is not the scariest part. Gaia gave them the same gift she gave us, in her eternal wisdom, and so a dragon can perform any feat you can attempt, and likely any feat you can imagine, using its arcane ability. It is said that during the third epoch they controlled the minds of some of the rulers. Your people slipped back into the use of magic, in fact, to protect themselves from such powerful beings.”
“Interesting. I was told it was in pursuit of power and wealth that they started using magic again.”
“Well, there is some truth to that, to be certain. But when your only chance for survival is to embrace the powers within you, then you — make compromises.”
“Do dragons still exist, then?”
She shrugged, a gesture I realized I could see too well in the glimmering morning light. “What evidence do you have that they do not?”
“There haven’t been any attacks in centuries.”
“So because there have been no attacks, there must be no dragons, because a dragon would have attacked by now. Yes? That is supposition, not evidence. My ancestors fought and killed the last known dragon several centuries ago, but if that dragon managed to lay an egg, and that egg hatched, the offspring would just now be reaching mature state.”
“And where would it be, to have hidden from your people all this time?”
She shrugged. “That is a good point. Still, we remain vigilant.”
I looked up and noticed the fact that I could see the trees and the structures a lot more clearly. Panic hit first, but then I relaxed back into the sense of ease that the camp created. “Speaking of vigilant, it is now daylight. I must get back to the castle.”
“Yes. You must. Thank you for listening to the tale of my people. It gives me both great honor and a glimmer of hope for the future that you have now heard it.”
“It was—it was my pleasure. I will try to come back again, if I am welcome.”
“You will not find us, Princess. We must continue as we have for centuries, and you should rejoin your own tribe. We are pleased at the connection, and hopeful at the future your openness promises, but we remain wary nonetheless. No matter how popular you may be among your own, not even a queen can erase centuries of prejudice.”
“I will try, nonetheless.” I promised, and then took off toward Cysegredig at a lope. A couple of hundred yards away I stopped, briefly, and turned around to see nothing. There was a slight hill, but of the lean-tos, and the fire, and any life form, nothing was visible.
Shaking my head in baffled wonderment, I returned to my home.