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Stories from the Verse
For Better or Verse
Chapter 84: Brown 80
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Previous chapter: Chapter 83: Slade 76
Derek was surprised to discover that, as the sprites did, the elves lived in trees. That is, they lived inside hollow trees. These were huge trees, known to the elves as Seiorna trees. Derek asked quite a few questions about how they were able to create homes inside these great trees. Apparently the Seiorna grew very large, both wide and tall, and did so by growing hollow with internal braces, which in Derek's understanding were like beams, usually running straight across the center, and sometimes widening out as a solid disk within. When a tree was perhaps half a century old, a young elf would select it for his home, and then encourage and direct the growth of the tree such that these support structures would grow in useful patterns, as floors at intervals and spiraling stairs between them. When elf and tree both reached two and a half centuries, the tree was large enough to be a home, and then over the centuries to come the house would become larger accommodating the elf's family. Even the decorations on the walls were the result of the natural growth of the tree guided by the care and preferences of the elf, so each home was a reflection of the life of its owner.
His companions were apparently boys, like himself. In elf terms, that seemed to mean they were not yet half a century old; but despite their years they still had certain marks of youthfulness, not in their appearance (for which Derek couldn't say) but in their attitudes. They were not so serious about things as were most adults he had known, seeming always to be in the midst of some sort of play, frequently laughing. Derek couldn't follow the jokes, largely because he couldn’t understand the language, but also because what he could pick up by telepathy seemed to be mostly inside jokes, references to friends and ideas that the group shared, the common reference points of a group of teenaged boys whose laughter was inspired by things that would not be funny to others even if explained but were automatically a source of mirth within the group. Derek remembered how he and his friends had several phrases from movies and television shows which they would quote, in what they mistakenly thought were clever impersonations of the characters, at odd moments, always agreeing that these were funny. It seemed much the same thing here.
His friend, whose name was Thalaoniri, had a small herbalism lab on one side of one of the lower floors of his tree. When the group entered, he first went down below the floor into what was quite aptly called the root cellar in the ground beneath the tree, returning with some leaves and seeds before ascending the spiral ladder inside. Derek could see that the ladder was not something he would be easily able to negotiate; but he was able to fly up inside the cavernous interior more swiftly than his companions could vault up the steps, and so was sitting on the top step when they arrived. He waited for them to pass into the next chamber, not wanting to surprise someone who might be there, particularly as he did not know what adult elves might think about his people. This floor was empty, that is, there was no one in it, but the lab was on the next floor, so again Derek rose to the top step. The boys made a race of it, and nearly caught him, but he was able to land and smile at them as they reached the top step. Getting into the spirit of playing with them, he telepathically said to Thalaoniri, What kept you?
The boy laughed, and thought back, You're pretty fast, little bug.
Derek wasn't particularly happy with being called a bug; but since he didn't think it was intended as an insult and he wasn't at all certain what the idea conveyed to the speaker, he didn't press it. Well, I'm a good flyer even for a sprite; but I'd be faster if I wasn't carrying this package.
Now you're asking for a head start? No way--you've beaten me twice, I'm not handicapping you. They both laughed, and entered the next floor together.
The sleep draught was surprisingly simple. A single seed and a single leaf had to be crushed until the seed was powder and the leaf mush. It took some effort to smash the fibers and threads out of the leaf, but not more than a minute or so with the mortar and pestle on the table. This mixture was then put in a pot along with a dab of cooking fat, and the whole heated until a drop of water sizzled off the surface. Thalaoniri then carefully poured it into a container and set it aside to cool.
Once that's cooled, he sent, you just dip needles in it--well, we use needles and darts, but they're not much smaller, really, than your arrows. One will knock out a wolf, although a bear will sometimes require two or three. I've never tried it on a man.
How much is too much? Derek asked. I don't want to kill anyone.
Thalaoniri conferred with his friends on this, as if wanting to be sure of his answer. I've never seen anything die from this. I've seen a sparrow take a dozen hits and a fox take thirty, and although they were asleep for a long time, they eventually did wake up.
Thanks, Derek replied. This is going to be a huge help.
So, what are you going to do next?
I've got a long trip home, and my parents are probably worried about me.
I hear that. Here you are, perfectly fine and having a good time, and they're home thinking something terrible must have happened to you. Well, I was thinking you might like to stay the night, meet my parents--I don't think either of them have ever seen a real sprite.
It passed through Derek's head that he, alone of all the sprites in the world, had the power to call his parents and let them know he was all right. He hesitated to do so. After all, what would he say? Hi, Mom, it's me, I'm all right; I'm staying with our ancient enemy oppressors the elves for the night? It hardly sounded like a way to encourage her.
It also reminded him that he didn't know how adult elves might react. He thought that human children probably thought fairies delightful playmates, but adults feared them. Thalaoniri and his friends were not children, but they were not adults, either. Of course, he could be worried over nothing.
Are you sure your parents are going to be all right with a sprite staying the night? After all, humans seem to think of us like mice or cockroaches or something, and send out exterminators to get rid of us.
Thalaoniri seemed generally surprised by this idea, but did give it consideration. No, he responded, somewhat hesitantly, I think it would be all right. Anyway, when they ask what I did today I'd like to be able to tell them I did something very different and met a sprite. I think they wouldn't believe me if I couldn't show them the sprite.
Just as long as they don't decide I'd make a good side dish or something, Derek answered.
I promise, Thalaoniri sent, although Derek wondered for an instant whether promise meant quite the same thing in both minds.
After that, the elf took the sprite outside and found examples of the plants from which the seeds and leaves came. The seeds, he observed, were not yet ripe, but should be ready in a week or so and were still good generally until after the first snow. They worked better given a couple weeks to dry before crushing, and as far as he knew would keep for years. The leaves were easier to mash if they were detached from the tree for a week, but if you were going to keep them more than a month they had to be stored in oil to keep them from losing potency. Derek recognized both the tree and the bush as common to the forests of home (unlike the Seiorna, the like of which he had never seen, although he wondered whether the trees in which sprites found so many hollows in which to live were a related variety). He took a couple of leaves from the torando tree and some from the barber plant just to be certain they matched, but he was confident that he had his answer.
Dinner with the parents was a very strange experience. It must have started with the introduction, all in elvish and all while he waited in an adjoining room, which Derek imagined going something like this. "Mom, Dad, I met someone today who is really different from anyone I've ever known before. He's a traveler passing through our lands on a sort of quest, and he doesn't speak much elfish--" no, that was overstating it; it would be "he doesn't speak elfish, but we managed to communicate. I offered him a place to stay for tonight, if that's all right with you. His name is Theian Toreinu Morach, and he's a sprite." At any rate, Derek had agreed to enter when he heard his name called, and so he did. The elfish parents were suitably aghast, but remarkably composed. They several times both began speaking at once, interrupting themselves, and starting again.
What are they saying? Derek asked Thalaoniri.
I don't think they know yet, he answered. But don't worry. My folks are cool. They'll let you stay.
Indeed, in a few minutes, particularly when it was obvious that Derek couldn't understand much at all of what they said, they indicated that he should sit (although he actually wound up standing on a pillow on a chair) and join them for dinner. He was, of course, rather excluded from the dinner conversation, although it was apparent that they were talking about him. He couldn't blame them for this. They couldn't ask him about himself, and he was clearly the most interesting thing that had happened to any of them for a long time. At times Thalaoniri became a bit more animated, and his father got a familiar look to which Derek attached the label stern, but in the main it was an interesting show.
Suddenly, Derek realized that Thalaoniri was talking to him. He had let the link drop while he was eating; it was not something he could maintain constantly, and as his mind had wandered it had lost the connection. He put it back up, although he was not as sure of it this time as he had been before.
I'm sorry, he sent. I lost the link. What were you saying?
Thalaoniri laughed aloud before answering. They were just asking me how it was that you and I could communicate, and suddenly we couldn't. That's funny. Anyway, I don't know how to explain it to them.
Derek did see the humor in it; he didn't see how it could be easily answered. Did you want me to try?
Could you do that?
Well, yes; but I can only talk to one person at a time, so I would have to switch to one of them. And it doesn't always work. But if you tell me which one to try first, I'll see what I can do.
Try my dad. He's the skeptical one.
That actually made sense. Of course, Derek wasn't sure whether skepticism was an impediment to communication. He remembered long ago having trouble making his first contact with his own father, who was rather skeptical, and this after having read the man's mind many times. But it was worth a try. He disconnected from Thalaoniri's mind, and turned to face his dad.
Derek had looked at these people before, when he'd been introduced. He had not given much attention to them. As he focused now on the face of the elf he was attempting to contact, he saw much more clearly a face that was neither quite human nor exactly spritish, eyes that had an unearthly touch of lavender to them, skin with a golden hue that glowed like a rich tan yet was pale in the undertones, a sharpness of features that was both angular and graceful, and streaks of silver in the black hair that was not at all gray nor even like gray. He reminded himself that to do this he would have to see past the face and into the mind. The elder elf stared back at him; Derek heard Thalaoniri speaking, no doubt explaining what was about to happen, and he reached for the right feel, the right frequency, the right color or pitch of thought, to find the new mind.
Suddenly it was there.
This is hard to explain, he thought, and the eyebrows on the face before him quietly spoke volumes. I have the ability to send my thoughts into the minds of others, and to hear the thoughts they wish to send to me.
Do you mean that you can control what I'm thinking? There was real concern in the thought, and Derek realized that this was something Lauren could do that he had never tried.
No, it's not at all like that. It's like talking, only there isn't any sound.
Thalaoniri's father seemed to be thinking about this.
All Sprites can do this? he asked.
No. I was born with it, and I've never met any other sprite who had the same gift.
The father found this phrasing interesting. Do you mean that sprites have other gifts?
Ah, I see what you mean. Not in that sense. All sprites have individual gifts, as I'm sure all elves do. I know a girl who can fly on her back more gracefully than any I've ever seen, and a guy who can powerdive faster than I can shoot an arrow. There's one who can read spritish from the page quite well, and another whose vocabulary is better probably than my grandmom's, and she spoke spritish as a child. But telepathy seems to be something different, like a magical gift. Sprites aren't magical in that way. There are things about us that other people might think magical, but I'm sure there are things about elves that we would think magical which seem quite ordinary to you. For example, Thalaoniri explained to me how you coax these trees into becoming these wonderful homes you live in. We live in trees, too, but we never talk to them or get them to grow a particular way. We only find places in the trees that suit our needs and move into them. On the other hand, we all glow in the dark, and I've never met another people who does, at least, not to the same degree. Humans, at least, would think that magical; and maybe it is. But it's not magical to sprites. It's just what we are.
The elf listened carefully to this explanation, and nodded as it was nearing the end. He obviously was thinking very carefully about it, and did not respond for a moment.
So, what brings you here?
Derek was not sure how to respond. He didn't know how much Thalaoniri had told his father, and he didn't know whether the whole truth would upset him. He tried to keep it simple.
A long time ago, I was given something, and then I lost it. Somehow it ended up here, in a tree not far from here. I came to get it.
How did you know it was there?
This would be more trouble; but Derek went for the smallest amount of truth that would answer the question. I have more than one gift. I'm able to know where to look for my things when they are lost. I really don't know how it works, but it always works. I'll set out in the direction I feel I have to go, and eventually it will lead me to something that belongs to me.
The elf smiled. That is probably the most useful gift I've ever heard of. I wish I had such a gift.
Derek remembered something Lauren had taught him long ago. It's not particularly useful to wish for someone else's gifts. The King has made things so that people who will face greater problems have greater gifts. To wish for someone else's gift is to wish for their trouble, and we were each made for our own trouble.
The elf was clearly pondering this, and then smiled. Are all sprites so wise? he asked.
Derek laughed. I don't know all sprites, he said, but some are very foolish. Anyway, I don't know that I'm so wise as all that. I wandered into the lands of the elves, an ancient people about whom we sprites know only ancient tales, and didn't even know it until I saw your son.
I understand. Our stories of sprites are not so flattering, either. Most of us believe that the stories are folk tales and that sprites don't exist. I had not considered before now that sprites could exist but all our stories about them be wrong. That is, it seems that those of us who don't believe the stories disbelieve them for the wrong reason. It isn't that sprites don't exist, but that they aren't really like the stories say.
Those stories, Derek offered, must be thousands, even tens of thousands, of years old by now. Who can say that elves and sprites weren't very different then than they are now? Worlds change, people change. What we each know of the other's ancestors wouldn't fill a thimble, and most of it has nothing to do with who we are today.
The woman of the house spoke, and the surprise broke the link. Derek had become so involved in this conversation that he had forgotten there were people present who not only could not understand what was said but could not hear that it was continuing. Apparently Thalaoniri's father had also been lost in their mutual thought. He started, and turned toward his wife to see what she was saying. She was carrying what looked to be some sort of fruit crisp, and the words that came from her might have been a question. In a moment they were serving this, and offering some to Derek. He'd already wrestled with managing small portions of their rather large dinner foods (he was grateful that he'd brought his own tableware), but did help himself to a bit of this desert. After dinner, he carried his own saucer to the washboard, as well as several pieces of the serving utensils, before following Thalaoniri up to another level on which was his bedroom. Derek selected a likely spot where he would not be stepped on, and spread out his blanket.
There is a behind-the-writings look at the thoughts, influences, and ideas of this chapter, along with ten other sequential chapters of this novel, in mark Joseph "young" web log entry #191: Versers Travel. Given a moment, this link should take you directly to the section relevant to this chapter. It may contain spoilers of upcoming chapters.
As to the old stories that have long been here: