With his belly full of meat and his body tucked into a vine hammock, Raulin should have drifted off to sleep quickly. If it wasn’t for his racing mind, it might have happened, but his anxiety made him feel very exposed. He hadn’t realized how many of them carried knives and he had been trained to notice things like that.
So, he definitely wasn’t asleep when he heard Anla whisper, “Raulin? Are you awake?”
“I don’t think I could sleep even if I had a pillow pressed to my face for half a day.”
“Do you want to take a walk? There’s something I want to see.”
“Give me a moment.” Hammocks were things Raulin never considered a vehicle for a graceful exit. The best he could do was rock to the side and fall out, catching himself with his leg and arm, then hoist himself up to standing in a movement that might be considered seamless to outsiders. To Raulin, though, he was a clumsy mess that Anla thankfully said nothing about.
She led him down the path from the tree’s branches to the ground, gracefully and silently in the dark. Raulin, at least, didn’t make any mistakes that caused him to fall to the ground and wake up half the tribe. For that he was happy; not only would he hate to fall down, but also to wake up the people who had been ready to slice his throat mere hours ago.
He didn’t want to ask where a man in a loincloth carried a knife.
The fire in the middle of the clearing still burned, though at this hour it was untended and there was no meat cooking. The smell of smoke and vegetation seemed overwhelming when Raulin vision was clouded by the light.
“Why do I get to be the lucky one tonight?” he asked Anla.
“I thought your mask’s ability to see in the dark would come in handy.”
“Oh,” he said with disappointment.
She playfully nudged his arm and pointed ahead of them to the almost full moon rising between the trees. “I can see perfectly well without you. ”
“Oh. No, I knew that. I was thinking about taking my mask off anyway. It’s a nice night.”
Raulin gritting his teeth at his stupidity, changing the subject to take his mind off his gaff. “Who did we meet today? The man with the hunting party seemed familiar with you. Is he…a childhood friend? A lover or betrothed?”
“Gitsayeth?” she asked, giving him a strange look. “He’s my uncle, my mother’s sister’s husband. My cousins were playing around, his wife was in the crowd. My grandmother was the older woman who spoke loudly, with good reason. It was her daughter that was killed.”
“Oh,” he said. “I’m sorry. You looked very familiar with him.”
“We were close. I liked hearing the stories about his tribe, the Nwayldin. They’re from Aviz, near the ocean, and were very different than our own.”
“How did he meet your aunt?”
“There are gatherings every few years of the elves. They discuss politics and strategy, but it’s also a place for trade and for young elves to find mates. Sometimes elves in outer villages find lovers that they’re not related to, but often they go to other outer villages or even other lands. Men leave their homes for a wife.”
They took the trail they had earlier that day almost back to the road before she stepped off to a small, overgrown path. Some two or three hundred feet down was a small, brick building.
“This seems like an unusual house,” Raulin said.
“Not if you’re an Arvonnese man trying to find a happy medium for your family.”
“This was your home.”
She stepped closer, resting her hand on the jamb of the only entrance to the house. Raulin could see that it had been curated some years ago, with flowers boxes on the eaves of the now broken panes of the windows, a fallow garden, and a tiled roof with a few pieces broken or missing. Anla sighed, opened the door, and stepped through.
Raulin didn’t need to duck, but the top of his head almost scraped against the frame. The house was too dark to see anything, so he unclipped the bottom part of his mask, which was tied to his belt, and gave it to Anla. “Here. Hold this below your eyes.”
She did and gasped lightly. “So this is what you see in the night. How does it work?”
“The bottom metal, the darker gray part that rests against my skin, is some rare material that allows us to see in the dark more than a normal man can.” He stepped on something that crunched below his boot and hoped it wasn’t something valuable. “It’s why my order pays fifty gold for a returned trirec mask and they don’t ask questions about what happened.”
She moved the mask part away and picked up something on the mantle. “It’s our feet,” she explained. “My mother took clay and pressed our foot into it when we were newborns.” She picked up one that was broken in two pieces. “This one’s Sildet’s.”
Anla moved over to a rocking chair and sat. It creaked but held her as she let her body melt into it. “My father bought this for my mother when I was about four or five. She thought it was a queer contraption and didn’t touch it, but once she got used to it, she loved it. She did all her sewing here by the fire and sometimes rocked us to sleep.”
The chair creaked a few more times before she stood and walked to the rear of the house. There were two doors to two bedrooms, each with a four-poster bed. “The tribe always thought this was a strange place. They had seen beds and fireplaces in the cities, of course, but not in the Ghenian style. Occasionally someone would stop by just to look at our things.”
“I noticed this house is a bit far away from the village,” Raulin said.
“My father was never fully accepted, I don’t think. Even though he wasn’t Ghenian, he was still a kilik, an enemy. They let him stay here, especially when he poured a lot of money and resources into the tribe, but he was always on the fringes and not allowed to do or be in certain places.”
“How did he feel about that?”
“I don’t know. It never seemed to bother him. He was away for weeks or months at a time and he didn’t marry my mother to join the elves. He just happened to love someone who wasn’t human.”
“And you and your siblings?”
“Being half-elven was enough for the tribe. There were definitely some issues with certain people, and we were teased because of my father, but for the most part they accepted us.”
“Pardon if I sound a bit biased, but they don’t seem like accepting people.”
“Things have been tense between the Abedhi and the Ghenians. And this is also one of the outside villages; things are different the farther in you go.”
“You’ll see tomorrow,” she said. She walked to the front door and stopped to pick up something off the ground. In the moonlight Raulin could see it was a small, wooden trumpet with two long metal arms that curved in at the ends. He’d seen doctors carry one before to listen to breathing and heartbeats.
“I knew this was going to be hard,” she said. He moved next to her and invited her into a hug, which she did, dropping the stethoscope to the ground. She didn’t cry, but her breathing grew heavy and pained.
“I need to move on,” she whispered, her head against his chest. “It hurts too much to think about them.”
“No. Never move on.”
“How do you deal with the pain?”
“My parents were killed. That’s unchangeable. Do I want more? Do I want them and my siblings alive? Every damn day. But I know I can’t have that, so I remember them as they were. I think of happy times and I understand that they are the graves of them in my mind.”
“Graves in your mind?” she said, moving her head away.
“Places I visit the dead,” he said, looking down at her. “It was a hard thing to reconcile, but eventually I had to brutally accept that company, conversations, and events are repeatable with many, but not with some. I had to preserve what memories I had of them and build a shrine…and leave. I had to force myself to understand that they had ended and nothing could change that. When I was ready, I returned to my shrines and paid my respects, but I made sure to leave again.”
She nodded, then whispered, “Thank you,” then moved away towards the door, leading him back to the village.
* * *
One of the patrols was gearing up when the five of them left west for deeper elven country. “That was one of the satellite villages,” she explained. “The poorer elves without land live there, though some elves prefer a life that’s more…primitive. They hunt and gather, fight to protect the borders, and live closer to nature.”
“Your mother was one?” Raulin asked.
“She was from one of the agrarian villages we’ll be traveling to, actually. My grandfather was killed in a raid when my mother and her twin were twelve and my grandmother uprooted the family to move closer to family here. The satellite villages are supposed to stop those things from happening, but they can’t protect everything. Here it goes villages on the outside protect the farmlands and the farmlands protect the cities.”
“Mmm,” Sakilei said, breathing out slowly. “This was how my tribe was, though our central city was against the side of a mountain, so the villages were in a half-moon shape around it, not in a circle.”
“When I was younger, I thought the Dreelands were perfectly symmetrical and equidistant. I doubt that they are; there have to be natural features that interfere. And I’m sure they’ve had to move farther in due to Ghenian influence.”
It took them an hour to reach the first farm, people dotted in the fields of short and root vegetables and apple trees. One man stood up and wiped his brow, watching the five of them walk past. There was no way to tell even at a few hundred feet of distance that he was an elf. Another hour and a half of walking brought them to the gate of a fortified wall that stretched as far as they could see.
After Anla spoke quickly with one of the guards (who wore a stylized helmet, but chain mail and plate armor, not bark), the gate was raised and one of them stepped forward, his hand outstretched. “Raulin, they agreed to let you keep your mask on, but you have to surrender your knives once you past the wall.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, he unholstered his two fighting knives at his hip, then pulled out the two extra he had put in his boots. The guard took the four, sized him up, then quickly patted him down as Raulin calmly stood with his hands laced behind his head. He was approved and the five were allowed to continue through the gate.
“Did he miss one?” Anla asked quietly.
“You didn’t seem upset he took your weapons.”
“Rock,” he said, pointing to a hand-sized rock nearby on the ground. “Pike, sword, branch. There are at least four other weapons I can use within twenty feet of either guard. It’s ‘my knives are nothing without me’, not ‘I’m nothing without my knives’.”
The village had a wider cleared road that ran perpendicular to the gate. Across from the wall was one building with several shops, a sign hanging over each one with a picture and intricate writing. This was hardly the most interesting thing about the shop, though. While the lines matched the profile of a building, the place seemed to meld into the earth, folds rippling into the ground. It took Raulin a few moments to realize it had probably once been two large, close-knit trees that had been sculpted into the majority of the building’s footprint.
“What do we do?” Raulin asked.
“I need to ask around. If either Sildet or Garlin came back recently, they would have passed through this village, or they would have likely heard about them.”
“And if they came back a while ago?”
She met his gaze and bit her lip. “Then we may need to travel to one of the cities. It might take some time. I’m sorry, Raulin.”
He shrugged. “As I said to Tel, we need to beat the cold weather. If we can keep ahead of it, and we’re not waylaid for a long stretch of time, then I’m all right with you searching for your siblings.”
“Thank you,” she said, smiling. A momentary thought that he couldn’t have said “no” to her anyway passed through his mind.
“Actually, I’d be pretty pleased with a brief tour of the Dreelands. We have a rather robust interest in elves in my homeland. There aren’t any in Noh Amair, so they’re treated almost as mythological people. I’m sure it’s different for Ghenians,” he said, looking at Al, “but I’m interested in your culture.”
“I’d be willing to listen,” Al said. “I doubt I could get a better source of information than from the people themselves.”
“Okay,” she said brightly. “A tour. Um, this is one of the outside agrarian villages, as I said. Dikewess, if I remember correctly, which means something like ‘place of growth’.”
“Just ‘farming village’,” Sakilei corrected, “though you’d get the sense that this one has a focus on community.”
“Yes. They hold dances here for the younger elves to mingle.” She pointed out the building in front of them. “This is the main building of Dikewess. People bring their crops here to trade for goods.”
“I noticed the farms were on the outside of the wall. Why is that?” Raulin asked, lobbing her an easy question.
“The hunting villages are responsible for patrolling the perimeter of the lands and protecting the farms, which pay the hunting villages in crops. The wall acts as a last defense for the inner villages, should there be a breach.”
“Ah, I see. That’s clever,” he said, though most Noh Amairian towns worked on the same premise, since although the Accords had abolished war, it couldn’t abolish skirmishes.
“Wait here. I’ll go inside and ask about my brother and sister.”
As she disappeared inside the building, Al asked, “Why didn’t we go in and get supplies?”
“She said they only barter here,” Raulin answered. “Unless you want to haggle your ax for some broccoli, I think it would be better if we tried some place back out on the Route of the Woods.”
“Oh,” he said with a resigned and thoughtful look on his face.
When Anla returned, she didn’t seem happy. “They haven’t heard about any half-elven children, but they admitted they might not have heard anything. They suggested we travel farther to one of the cities.”
“How long?” Raulin asked.
“It will be a good portion of a day. If I remember correctly, Yavath is the closest.”
He sighed and nodded, rewarded only by her smile.
They traveled north along the ring-road that connected the inner agrarian villages and reached the next one in the glow of a golden-orange, pink, and purple striped sunset predicted with eerie accuracy by Telbarisk. There were sleeping cubbies in the main shop that one of the owners rented to the five for an extra needle, some thread, and chalk from Al’s pack. While it seemed like Anla had gotten a good deal, in fact the cubbies were only used when a fire or flood destroyed a farmer’s house and the family had nowhere else to go. They were often empty.
After the shop tenders had gone to their homes for the night, the five ate dinner and headed to bed shortly thereafter. Raulin, tucked away under blankets, his belly full, felt comfortable, peaceful, almost at home in the nook. It was quite a difference from the night before.
He could see the fire burning in the middle of the room, hear the crackling and popping, feel the heat radiating. He was almost asleep when the light was blocked. “Raulin?” she whispered.
He moved closer to the wall and opened the blankets. She crawled in. He draped the comforter over her, then his arm. She sighed. There, that was home.
* * *
After tea and breakfast, the five set out towards Yavath. The path to the city was noticeably different that the one between the first two villages; the fields were smaller, almost subsistence-farming in size, the houses had more sections to them, and each lot was closer together. There were still more trees and vegetation than was found in Ghenian towns.
Anla and Sakilei both began grabbing fruit from the trees planted along the road. They filled their sacks with figs, grapes, apples, and pears. “This seems like stealing,” Raulin said.
“It’s not,” Anla said, throwing him a fig. “These are fine to pick and are here for anyone.”
“Why doesn’t Gheny do that?” Al asked.
“Why doesn’t Gheny do a lot of things like that?” Raulin questioned in return.
“Because why would Gheny plant trees for the poor to eat when someone would take the opportunity to harvest and sell it anyway?” Sakilei asked, turning to walk backwards. “Ghenians do not take care of their own. They would rather one less mouth to feed then have to share their food.”
“Gheny has shelters, orphanages, and work houses,” Al said.
“…that come with the sacrifice of your freedom. The conditions are often worse than the street.”
Al wanted to argue with this, but he realized that he didn’t know enough about that situation. Home to school to Whitney, he had never had to live in one of those places, had never depended on kindness and charity.
Anla turned and stopped. “He’s right. It’s why the group that took us in didn’t go to any of the orphanages. The choice was either lean on each other or take what little you could get, never full or warm enough.
“If I knew where the Dreelands were and if I’d had enough money, I would have traveled here a long time ago. They’d always accept me and they’d never turn away someone with elven blood.”
Sakilei stared at her for a few moments, before nodding slowly and turning to continue his walk towards Yavath.
Instead of walls and gates, Yavath seamlessly blended from surrounding houses to thickly settled blocks in just a few miles. The streets were unpaved, but meticulously kept like country lanes with flowers planted alongside and a smooth, traffic-worn center. Moss and ivy grew everywhere. Buildings wrapped themselves around trees and incorporated gardens into their footprints. Streets were therefore not uniformly straight, but close.
Raulin could count in his travels at least twenty-five different lands he’d been to, but he’d never seen architecture so finely detailed and exquisite. He could praise the glass work of Aviz in western Gheny or the intricate doors of Caiyuzet, but both places’ charms ended with their fortes. In Yavath, each entire house was a work of art. Smooth semi-circle and tall rectangle shapes folded over paned glass that was twisted with grilles in gold, green, and black. Trees trained in swirls became columns supporting verandas and the balconies above them. Sculpted stone in varied colors snaked along the quoins creating reliefs of flowers, trees, or geometric shapes. Each house, either in the wood or stone material, or in its decorations, had something gold that glinted in the afternoon sun.
“Gorgeous,” Raulin said. He didn’t care about the heights of the buildings nor the streets nor the elven people giving him curious looks. He liked this city.
“Welcome to the Gold City,” Anla said. “If we take this road we’ll make it to the business buildings. I’m sure I can ask someone there about Sildet and Garlin.”
“Tell me they take Ghenian money,” Raulin said. “I want to buy things.”
“You can try,” she said.
He stopped in several shops as Anla continued ahead. Unfortunately, he spoke no Elvish and the shopkeepers didn’t speak any language he knew. The communication tended to break down as several owners tried to buy his mask from him. He gave up.
A soft double helix of a building with wide feet and a lacquered tiled roof swept up from the earth. It was surrounded in windows with gold grilles and small panes of colored glass. The main doorway, double-wide and a story-and-a-half tall, was a splendid tale of some kind with elven people carved in the wood and a border of gemstones as large as a man’s fist.
Inside was more verdant than the surrounding outside, an arboretum with butterflies and birds fluttering around. A fall poured water into a pond that curved around the room and fed back to a waterwheel that kept the cascade supplied. They crossed a small bridge to reach the center of the open room and sat on benches as Anla spoke to a woman who was seated near several bookcases.
After some time, Sakilei grew bored and began speaking with various people in the room. Raulin lost track of Tel. He amused himself by watching the people in the room and guessing what they were doing. He didn’t notice when someone sat next to him until they spoke in Ghenian. “Enjoying your time here?”
“Your city is beautiful,” Raulin answered, turning to face him.
“Thank you,” he said. Although he was a young-looking elf, he moved with a purposeful slowness. His hair was cut shorter than most elves he’d seen, but was braided back out of his face. “Might I ask what your purpose here is?”
“We’re trying to find my…charge’s brother and sister. They were outside the Dreelands when her parents died and she was separated from her siblings. She’s been looking for them ever since. She hoped they had returned here and that they were being cared for, especially since they were children.”
“Good,” he said. “I know of your kind and was worried you were here for other reasons.”
“I have no contracts in the Dreelands or against any elves.”
He patted Raulin affectionately on the shoulder. “That’s what I wanted to hear. Where is your charge?”
He pointed to Anla and the man stood and walked to her. She was still speaking to the woman when he got her attention. “You are looking for your siblings?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, turning to look at him. “Oh, Radpa, you honor me.”
“I’d wait to make that judgment,” he said with a sad smile. “I happen to know the answer to your question. There was a council meeting recently on the half-humans we have here in our lands, about whether we should shield them from the kilik laws or cooperate with any of them who visit us. We decided the former, but it was determined that we should have a census of those under our protection. None were under the age of fifteen.”
Anla’s shoulders slumped and she nodded her head. “Thank you, Radpa. You’ve saved me time that is better spent looking for my brother and sister.”
“I’m sorry, my dear. I’m sure you’ll find them soon.” He opened his arms for a hug and she gave him a quick kiss on his cheeks. He patted her head affectionately before saying goodbye.
The five left the building and began their walk back to the village they had slept in the night before. “We might be able to make it back to Rathewess before the shops close,” Anla said.
“Who was that man who spoke to me?” Raulin asked.
“Radpa. He’s one of the…spirits, I guess you’d call him.”
“Spirit? Like, he’s not alive?”
“No, he’s definitely alive. We believe that there are spirits that inhabit certain people. Each tribe always has a Mother, a Father, a Grandmother, and Grandfather, and a Child. He was Grandfather, Radpa, and he’s the embodiment of the tribe’s grandfather. He holds that position and offers advice, maintaining a spiritual balance for us. We met Mother a few days ago in my village.”
“Grandfather was younger than Mother, though.”
“Yes, that happens often. He has been Grandfather since the last one died, whenever he took on the spirit. That can happen at any point in our lives.”
Raulin was about to ask another question when Sakilei cleared his throat. The four turned and saw him standing in the road leading east with a resolute look on his face. “I’ve decided to stay.”
“Are you sure?” Anla asked after a few moments of contemplative silence from the quartet.
“I am. I cannot live in Gheny, I’ve decided. I don’t belong there. And I’ve spent enough time in the wilderness. That leaves the elven lands. I’ve been speaking with people and I think they’ll accept me here, even though I’m a half-breed.”
Raulin stepped close to him and shook his hand. “I think, in your shoes, I’d make the same choice. I hope you find happiness here.”
“Thank you,” he said.
Anla gave him a hug and Al shook his hand with an awkward, embarrassed look before mumbling a final apology. Sakilei turned and wrapped his arms around Tel’s waist and hugged him as hard as he could, his head resting against the grivven’s lower rib cage. “I’ll miss you the most, big guy.”
Tel hugged him back with deep sigh. “This is sad for me, but it feels like the right way for you. I think you’ve found kouriya.”
The walk back to the village was quiet, each having something to think about, Anla more than the others. She had really hoped to find her little brother and sister here, though she knew it had been a long shot they would be here. She had picked up Garlin’s voice a few times in the southern parts of Hanala leading south, as she had for Raidet in the north, but she had never heard Sildet’s after she had disappeared. A part of her was losing hope that she was still alive. And she felt guilty that she hadn’t done more for Raidet. She had made her choice and Anla had to respect that, but maybe she should have tried a little harder. Would she have left her husband and children on the meager promise from her younger sister?
And though Sakilei and she had never really attained a friendship, she had liked him and had appreciated what he had taught her. She was going to miss him.
They made it a few minutes before the shop in Rathewess was going to close. The owner that had rented the beds before waved off any barter, saying he trusted them not to steal and that he made the stew with surplus. Raulin took the same bed he’d slept in before, wanting to just collapse into the down mattress from all the walking they’d done. He took the risk and removed his mask and shirt, turning towards the wall and closing his eyes.
He was about to drift off when he felt pressure on the bed and turned to see Anla crouched down. Again, he opened the covers and let her in. Before he turned back to the wall, though, she placed her hand on his chest, feeling his heartbeat. He was about to say something when her hand slid up his chest, along the side of his neck, to his cheek then his hair. She pulled his head towards her and kissed him.
It was very trying for Raulin to remember the promise he had made to himself, that he wouldn’t push for anything more than what she gave. Instead, he combed his fingers through her hair, cradling her head as he kissed her back. A few times she stopped for a few moments, as if considering him or something else, but continued again.
Raulin couldn’t and hadn’t wanted to count the moments, but he could be sure that it had been several minutes by the time she pulled away. He said nothing, waiting for her. She said nothing, placing her head on his chest until she fell asleep.
He sighed internally. It was better than nothing, but so far from where he wanted to be with her.