It was a miserable day, Anla could admit, but she was on her tiptoes with a hushed excitement. This part of the Route of the Woods felt familiar, some tucked away memory bursting forth around the edges. Under the hood of her woolen cloak she saw trunks that curved in ways she remembered, tree stumps that took shapes she had dreamed of on sodden doorsteps in Hanala. She said nothing, waiting, until with a shock she saw the signpost.
It hadn’t changed much in the five years since she’d seen it. Maybe a bit dirtier and harder to read, but it still pointed north to Kikiyan, south to Ekistol, and east to Sharka. The one change was the thick arrow pointing west, marked only with three Xs.
She walked ahead of Raulin and placed her hand gently, almost serenely, on the post, studying it for details of her past. Did she remember the chip in the paint? Had the word “Ekistol” always been spelled wrong, with an a before the l instead of an o? Was it always leaning a little to the northeast?
“Anla?” Raulin asked.
“Could we what?”
To answer, she just pointed west and looked at him. She felt that she was just waiting his response while Raulin felt she was pleading with her eyes. “For just a few miles. What’s down that way?”
She answered by biting her lip and smiling before bounding down the path. “Anla, wait!” he cried out. It took them several minutes to catch up to her, the trees growing thicker and the trail waning down to a poorly tended path. “Where are we going?”
Sakilei tilted his head to the side as he walked. “I think…maybe I know. Waiting and seeing would be the best, now.”
“Because we’re likely going to have some company soon.”
“Would one of you two give me a straight answer? I’d like to know if I need to prepare us for something big or…”
Anla and Sakilei had both stopped and laced their fingers behind their head. Raulin turned to see that Telbarisk had also raised his hands high. “What are you doing?” he asked him.
“They’re here and there are more of them than us.”
Just then he turned back and saw several figures standing along the edge of the road, dark creatures with bows and spears raised at them. He raised his hands just as he saw Al do the same out of the corner of his eye and waited for his heart to stop racing. There was something sinister about them, a sudden introductory flash of shadow and sharp points, of something feral and claw and death. As he peered at them, he realized they were not phantoms nor predators but people armored in bark with jaggedly pointed epaulets and helmets that swept back in twisted gnarls. Each had glints of metal, several kinds of knives, at their hips and metallic points on their knuckles, elbows, and heels.
One of them barked a command or question. Anla turned towards him and answered softly in a tongue that wasn’t Arvonnese or Ghenian. The return was still hostile but less so. Her tone remained the same. They exchanged a conversation where the tone of the leader became less aggressive and more curious. Finally, one of the men pulled off his helmet and said in an awed tone, “Ahnee-dehm?”
“Gitsayeth?” she asked.
He dropped his bow and arrow to the ground as the rest of the group lowered theirs. She ran and hugged him, somehow managing to sneak past his defenses and embrace him without being cut or stabbed. His fingers slipped out from his gloves and pulled her towards his chest, his chin resting on top of her head.
As his head turned, Raulin saw that his long, dark hair was held back in intricate braids that exposed his pointed ears. They were longer than Anla’s slight point, extending two inches beyond a human’s helix, though they rested against his head like most Ghenians’ ears would. His skin was darker than her dusky, whipped chocolate skin, though not nearly as dark as Al’s. His features were strikingly feral and elongated, though one could consider his uptilted eyes to be alert instead of primal.
“I think I get the gist of it,” Raulin said to Telbarisk, “but a quick translation?”
“We stumbled upon an elven hunting-protection patrol. They were rather keen to kill us and be on their way to return their spoils to their village, but Anla convinced them otherwise.’
“Thank you. Anla? Are we…good?” he asked.
She moved away from Gitsayeth and acknowledged Raulin’s question with a nod before she began to rapidly speak with the group. They looked at her and back at the remaining four, the tenseness of the situation draining by the moment. Finally, one stepped forward, the man who had spoken in the beginning. He gestured for them to follow as he led them farther west.
It was several miles ’til they suddenly turned from the path into thick, untended woods, then a few more before Raulin could smell food cooking over a fire. All the while, Anla spoke with the elf who had taken off his helmet. At some point she must have told him the sad news of her past because his excited smile dropped and his tone became sad.
They finally came to a section of the woods that Raulin took a while to realize was their village. The cooking fire in the center was the only give away; the “houses” that encircled it were partially camouflaged and partially made with natural building materials that didn’t conform to anything Raulin had ever seen. Vines crept thickly around trunks, forming walls or even hammocks for the elves to sleep. Moss-covered rocks created wild ladders for them to climb into their houses. The whole place had an uncultivated feel to it that he found fascinating.
The elves that had game, two deer, a paw-paw, and a cougar, laid their prey on a large, stained rock near the fire. A dozen or so elves converged on the animals with knives, slicing the skin and flesh with precise motions. The hunters began to strip off their armor and place them in a pile to one side. Raulin was surprised to see that, other than leggings and loincloths, most of the hunters wore only strips of hide to protect their skin from chaffing against the armor. Even the women.
Other than the children, no one in the tribe gave the new arrivals a second glance. Gitsayeth left and returned a few minutes later with several people running to the center. “Ahnee-dehm!” yelled several women and men, including one aging woman with graying hair. They encircled her and touched her, alternately embracing her and trying to get her attention. Raulin was burning with questions, but he felt that anything he did at this point would be an intrusion.
Sakilei struck up a conversation with a nearby hunter, removing his hat and putting it in his bag. Telbarisk became something of a celebrity, his height and command of the elvish tongue fascinating to some of the younger elves. And Raulin and Al were left alone. He supposed it could have been worse.
“You’ve been awfully quiet,” he said to the wizard.
“I’ve been observing.”
“And what have you observed in the last hour or so?”
“Being an outsider feels lonesome.”
“I’ll have to agree with you here, Wizard.”
Raulin thought they’d stand in silence for a while and was surprised when Al asked, “Did you really meet a to’ken?”
He turned. “Yes. I’ve talked about it a few times.”
“Can you tell me about it again?”
* * *
Her tribe didn’t even let her wait until the meat for dinner had been cooked. They wanted to know where she had been and where her family was and why they hadn’t returned from their strange, human trip five years ago. They gathered around her and brought out a log for her to sit on so that everyone could see her. And with over a hundred pairs of eyes watching her, waiting with a patience that would dissipate quickly, she realized this was going to be tricky. It was potentially a boiling pot.
How would she tell her already incensed family that the enemy had killed one of their own? How could she make them understand that her father took a risk every time he brought them off elven lands and that time had finally been one filled with enough mistakes to cost them their lives?
She spoke of the wonders of Analussia, of the ocean and the hot springs, neither things her tribe had ever seen before. She explained the law, she explained what a trial was and what being arrested meant. Then, glossing over all the painful details, of her mother crying, of her father’s legs shaking one last time, of being conned out of money and living on the streets of Hanala, of having to whore to eat and survive one more day, she told them she had been too far to return and that she had been trying to find her siblings every day since then.
Her eyes had been focused on the ground as she had spoken. She looked up as she asked, “Have either Garlin or Sildet returned? I saw Raidet with her husband and children, she’s safe, but…” She trailed off when she saw the looks on the faces of her tribe, stony at best, livid at worst.
Gitsayeth, moved next to her. He said nothing, though, since his position in the tribe wasn’t strong enough to sway an angry mob.
“They can’t do this to us!” someone yelled.
“They promised no more bloodshed!”
Anla’s grandmother, her long gray hair tied in intricate knots on her head, moved forward with a fluidity that most humans had lost by that age. “That was my daughter they killed! This we won’t stand for!”
“Radma,” she said above the growing murmur from the tribe. “I didn’t return to incite you to war. I came because I’ve missed you and I was hoping my siblings returned somehow.”
“It might have been best if you hadn’t,” Gitsayeth said. “This is just one of many problems we’ve had with the kilik this year alone.”
As people began angrily discussing her news, he spoke to her about all the issues they had seen. Aside from several natural disasters, they’d had a few run-ins with Ghenians, both minor and major, local and governmental. Poaching, seizures of imminent domain, a few missing children, fields “accidentally” burned by locals, and even a nearby noble looking to squeeze the elves off their land. “The anger is always on the surface,” he said. “We taste it in our food, now, and smell it in the air. We can’t take much more of this before…”
“Anla?” she heard from across the fire. She turned to see that several tribesmen had taken Sakilei, Raulin, and Al by the arms and forced them to their knees. She sucked in her breath and ran over to the spot. Why hadn’t she realized this might happen?
“No!” she said. “Not them!”
“Ghenians,” someone said.
“We make our own rules on our land. Let’s set an example by killing these Ghenians.”
“Please!” she yelled and quite a few of the elves stopped what they were doing. “Don’t hurt them! They saved me.”
Once she had their attention, she knelt next to Sakilei and put a possessive hand on his shoulder. “He is like me, half Abedhi. He was stolen as a young man and forced to work against his will. He hates the Ghenians more than anyone here.”
“Thanks,” he said lowly.
She moved to Raulin. “He is not Ghenian, but Noh Amairian, and holds no allegiance to Gheny. He’s saved me many times from terrible situations; I owe him my life.”
Finally, she walked to Al. “He is Ghenian, yes, but he helped pull me from my life on the streets of Hanala. He’s been a good and loyal friend for many months now.
“If you hurt any of these men, it will be as if you are killing me. Please, do not judge them based on how others treat us. These are good men.”
Those surrounding them hesitated, none willing to make the first move. “Who will pay?” someone asked, though the voice was quieter than the others had been.
“Does anyone need to pay?” she responded.
The crowd’s response wasn’t as enthusiastic, but still worryingly positive to violence. It was fortunate that an old woman stepped forward, her long, white hair twisted into coils that rested on her head. “Uch ka?” she said, loud enough to be heard but without force. She leaned on her cane patiently, waiting until the crowd recognized her and her question.
The elves parted so the woman was given a path to Anla and the rest of her group. Tel stood some distance away, obviously too strange looking to be a Ghenian, but the three other men were still on their knees and surrounded. Bare blades were suddenly snapped back into sheaths at her gaze.
“Mother,” Anla said, addressing the woman while bowing her head in deference.
“I remember you. You are the daughter of Nakeswa and the human, Martin.”
“Yes, Mother. I returned to see if my siblings had come home by chance. I didn’t understand how bad things have been between the Abedhi and the Ghenians. I’m sorry if I’ve caused any harm.”
She sniffed and looked at the elves closest to her friends. “Why are we so angry at these strangers?”
“Mother, they are kilik and might be the ones who have been stealing our cattle and burning our lands.”
“Might be,” she repeated. “Do any of you know for certain?” When no one spoke, she turned to Anla, “Do you speak for their good intentions towards our people?”
To the crowd, she asked, “And does anyone speak against them?”
No one did.
“There. That’s settled. Let the men up. So long as they are friendly towards us, we will return the kindness. Is this understood?”
There was grumbles of assent and nods as the crowd’s fury was extinguished as Al, Raulin, and Sakilei stood. “Now, child, come speak with me. What has happened? Where are your parents and their children?”
Anla had never bothered counting how many times she had told this story or of how many times she had dreamed it. She had ceased to wonder how many times she’d have to tell it before it stopped hurting. She knew it was never going to stop hurting.
“I think I understand what happened more clearly,” Mother said when she was finished. “This is not the first time I’ve had to talk them out of revenge. But what of you? Your parents were killed and your life has been hard since. No revenge for you?”
Her face hardened. “I’ve had enough of it, Mother. It turns my stomach. I’ll be weak in their eyes if that’s what I need to be.”
“Sometimes you must become something to others that you are not,” she said with a tone that Anla understood.
As if nothing had happened, large leaves of cooked meat were shoved into the confused and wary hands of Anla’s friends. When Telbarisk politely declined and communicated that grivven didn’t eat meat, someone found a bowl of recently picked root vegetables for his supper.
After her discussion with Awmaw, known to the tribe as Mother, she took her place next to them. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t realize this was a possibility.”
“This is why my order stresses looking before leaping,” Raulin said.
“It’s a wash,” Al said, chewing on what was probably cougar meat. “She got us into it, but she also got us out of it.”
Raulin tilted his head at Al before saying, “Well, I didn’t say I was mad at her over it. I think I would have liked to know ahead of time about their feelings towards outsiders.”
“Ghenians,” Anla corrected, “and it’s only because things have been worse between them. I should have told you where I was going, but I was so excited to see Garlin and Sildet that I let my enthusiasm take me. I apologize again.”
Raulin nodded in a wary way, his eyes still on the tribe. “Are they here?”
“I don’t know. This is only a small fraction of the tribe and just the eastern-most part of the Dreelands. There’s a lot of people to ask.” She paused and looked at the other four. “May we stay for a day or two while I look? You’re safe here; they won’t try anything again.”
Raulin sighed, looked at his companions, then nodded his head.