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Stories from the Verse
For Better or Verse
Chapter 96: Brown 84
Table of Contents
Previous chapter: Chapter 95: Slade 80
Within a fortnight the world changed. Over a hundred sprites had learned to make the potion, and had applied it to arrows to use against humans. Many now carried two quivers, one for hunting the other for battle. Depending on which stories you believed, between four and a dozen humans had been put to sleep, their weapons taken and destroyed. It was no longer a matter of hiding from the guns. Sprites were fighting back.
Derek taught many himself; about twenty or twenty-five sprites were his students. He recognized, however, what he had learned from Lauren a couple lives before, that a teacher makes the most of his efforts by teaching others to teach. Some of his students were busily passing the knowledge to more and more sprites. By fall, a sprite thirteen years old who did not know the formula for the Morach sleep potion (for so they called it) would be the rare exception. Even girls were learning to make it, to prepare it for their husbands and to teach their sons and daughters.
It was in the midst of this that his parents returned to the question of his future, by which they meant marriage and family. It was an awkward subject, and he did not know how to answer, as there were parts of his life he did not himself understand and could not easily explain to them. Again he attempted to delay the matter.
"I don't yet know whether I have a future," he said.
His father frowned and took on a more serious look. "Morach," he said, "no one knows whether he has a future. Humans have been hunting us in these woods since before you were born, before I was born, since your grandparents were young. When my parents suggested I should marry your mother, none of us could say that we would both live to see the wedding. We have lived much longer than that, and brought you and your brother into the world, and hopefully may live long enough to have another child. You cannot plan your life based on expectations of the worst. Certainly you must be prepared for the worst, but you also must be prepared to live if the worst does not come."
There was truth to that, in general. Derek tried a different approach. "But, who would I marry? I mean, who would marry me?"
There was something of mirth in his father's response. "I would bet that there are by now hundreds of very pretty young sprite girls who would be thrilled at the idea of marrying Theian Toreinu Morach, the man who gave us the Morach sleeping potion. Would you like them to line up through the forest for you to see them?"
"Dad, I don't want to marry some girl who's in love with the idea of this hero who saved the sprites. For one thing, I could never be so wonderful as a husband as she would expect of a great hero. She'll think I'm Tonathel or something, and I can't live up to that."
"No husband can live up to his wife's dreams, and no wife meets the expectations of her husband. We are only sprites, not spirits. We do the best we can, and learn both to be better and to see the value in our partners instead of the failings."
"That's not the same thing, Dad. Mom never thought you would be Torenu or Narakketh or Dolomaria. I'm already supposed to be some great hero. I don't feel like a great hero, and I don't think that being a hero, if that's what I am, would make me a better husband. For that, I'll probably be a pretty bad husband. I still have to face the humans and tell them to stop their evil. Sprites are already looking at me to be some sort of wise leader and counselor. I'm going to be a disappointment to someone; it shouldn't be someone whose entire life is connected to mine."
Morani shifted in his seat. "Certainly your life is different. Everyone's life is different. But every bride expects her husband to be Torenu, and Narakketh, and Dolomaria, and her father and her brother and her uncle, and all the good men she has ever known or even ever heard. Just as every man expects his wife to be Selene, Parethenel, Neanda, Golnor, and his own mother. We can always be disappointed; or we can learn to see the wonders of those who have come into our lives, to embrace them as they are and love them. You can't refuse to marry because you're not perfect, any more than you can refuse because there are no perfect brides. Only the King is perfect."
Derek was running out of arguments. Still, this one had not yet failed. "I think," he said, "that if I'm going to marry someone, it should be someone who knew me and cared about me before I was this famous hero. It shouldn't be someone who only knows me because I'm famous."
Morani nodded. "That doesn't sound unreasonable." He rose. "I'll talk to your mother about it, and we'll see what we can do."
It was a time in which much was happening. Derek continued to teach, bringing his students up to half a hundred; yet in the same time knowledge of his potion spread to thousands. More humans invading the forest were stripped of their weapons. Even Derek had an opportunity to bring down another.
As he examined the fallen man, he remembered that he, too, had been a man once; or at least, he had been a boy expecting to be a man, even though in some sense he had never made it. These clothes were not unlike his clothes, this body not so different from his body, these weapons, although primitive, very like his weapons. He was, somewhere inside, still man. Yet he had come to hate and fear man, the creature he was and had been and might yet still be. How much more must the other sprites hate and fear man? How close were they to breaking their own moral codes and using their newfound advantage, the potion he had given them, to kill their enemies?
Thus far it had not happened; thus far it had not been necessary. If they could stop the killing of sprites quickly, before the sprites truly felt the power of the weapons they now wielded, perhaps they would never cross that line. Derek had crossed that line. He had killed a man, once, plunging his butcher knife into the gut of the murderer who, having buried one man alive and thrown another from a balcony, was at that moment shooting him. Then again, he had crossed it more than once. He had killed the lion-man who attacked Lauren. That beast had fought fiercely, and Lauren had been killed–well, versed out–in the fray; and Derek was one of many in that fight. He knew what it was to kill, first hand. Then, he remembered, it had been his idea, and his hand, that had killed an untold number of mutants in the lower levels of Cavalier, that ancient underground compound that had become the fortress of the Progressivists, who were determined to kill all of humanity. That had been less justified. In the other cases, he had fought those who attacked him, or who attacked those he loved. At that moment, he was killing creatures–he used that word too easily; it made it seem less of a crime. He was killing people, people he had never seen, who were not at that moment aware of his existence, about whose crimes he had no knowledge. He had become swept into the war, and found killing easy, too easy. They had become nameless and faceless enemies, destroyed by pushing a few buttons, in a sense less real to him than the images on the video game screens against which he had done mortal combat before he was a verser. It came into his mind that in computer jargon those images were called sprites. His years of study in computers had given him an understanding of the term, but until this moment he had not really recognized that it was the same word. He was a sprite, fighting against humans. He had learned to destroy sprites because they were not human–well, they were not real, then; it was a different kind of sprite. Since then, though, he had learned to destroy humans, and creatures who were as human as sprites. He had, through fear and self-preservation, become a killer. Now his new people, the sprites (and he had been a sprite now for nearly as long as he had been human, and grown to an older age as one), were being brought to the temptation to become what he was, killers. He could only hope that they would resist that temptation. Was that true? Was that all he could do?
He could do what he originally planned. He could speak to the humans, let them know that the sprites did not want war, but would not tolerate the acts of war the humans were committing against them. Perhaps he could still prevent the war, and so prevent the sprites from killing anyone. That was, it seemed, his mission.
Late in the summer, his parents told him that they wanted to see him the next day at lunch, so he should plan to be home. It was an unusual request, but not entirely out of the ordinary. Perhaps they wanted his help preparing their home for the winter, as it was always best to clean it out and refill it about this time of year. Perhaps they wanted to talk about hunting and foraging plans for the weeks ahead, so they could start stocking for the winter. It was not entirely impossible, he mused, that they were going to have another child–a bit early, by sprite standards, as Landi was not yet ten, but not, he thought, impossible. It wasn't as if he had appointments. He went to the school to study when he could, but at his age it was informal and voluntary, and generally only those truly interested in learning were there. He traveled toward the borders to watch for humans, but with all the sprites now armed with his potion he was redundant. Staying home for a day was not a problem.
Lunch came. He had been wandering the near woods, practicing his summoning of small animals, mice, foxes, even a deer, and realized that it was getting later. He rushed home.
"Sorry if I'm late," he said. "I was just sort of preoccupied."
"You're not late," Lelach said. "Sit down. We have company. I think you know the Borellens, and their daughter Condira."
Derek had not seen Borellen Terria Condira in several years. The image of the little girl who had always been so interested in him, whom he had found so attractive a decade before, danced in the air in his mind. The girl in front of him had grown more beautiful, with the grace that was then apparent amplified throughout her form, and the smile on her face not at all shy.
"Hi, Dearie. It's good to see you again," he said. "Good afternoon, sir, ma'am."
The elder sprites nodded, and Condira spoke, and smiled more broadly. "Hi, Rach."
"Derek," Morani said, "we'd like you to meet your bride."
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 #198: Verser Trials. 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: