This story is set about 6-700 years after ‘A boy and his dwarf’, highlighting the backstory of one of the characters in the main novel.
“I shall be glad to go,” her grandfather said into the brisk spring evening air.
Esefel leaned on the railing beside him, watching the river bubbling and sparkling around the barge. She thought about what he said. “Why? I will miss you.”
He turned and looked down at her, his crown of long white hair tugging in the breeze, and his smile of only kindness. His eyes, though, they were filled with dark night and distant stars.
She didn’t look up at him. She had seen the stars, and they made her shiver.
“I have lived so long I can’t even remember being so small as you,” he replied. He looked back up at the distant hills, the shaded grass shores, and the little town by the approaching waterfall. “I only remember the lake, the trees, the stars. I remember Her kiss of life. I remember…” He trailed off again.
Esefel could feel herself choking up. Grandfather had always been there. Always ready to tell tales of far off places, myths and legends, stories of strange beasts. He had taken her on walks deep into their forest home, picked out herbs and birds and trees. He had spoken of battles long forgotten, and invited her to touch the sun with fresh eyes every morning. He had kept her awake every night for a full cycle of the greater moon, seeing it change and change and change again. She had stayed awake for a full cycle of the lesser moon afterwards – just to see if it would be the same or different. He had smiled when he saw her notes.
His smile. She would miss that the most. The smile that had been fresh every day, even as he approached Gods knew how many centuries old. Because the smile saw her.
And now he had decided he had lived enough. Occasionally she shot furtive glances at the little boat tethered to the barge. It was empty, and would stay that way. Only grandfather Arvall would be in it, and when they reached the waterfall at Parsan, they would stay behind, and he would climb down with the little boat, and then he would sail onwards. Onwards down the river, through lands Esefel had never known and seen, to the port of Velkempar, where he would pass through the river delta, and out to the sea.
And then where?
“Grandfather,” she prompted.
“Where will you go? To the sea – but what then? Does it end somewhere?”
“There are many islands out there, or so the sailors say in Velkempar and Kent Lazpar and the Twin Cities, but there is only one place the elves desire to go, and that is not on the maps.” He was silent for a moment, before continuing. “I have told you of the Divine Lands, have I not?”
“Yes. How do you know you will go there?”
He chuckled. It was the sound of a nightingale. “If I should perish on the way, the great Saylese will carry me gently – and far quicker than the boat – to that same destination. No, sweet daughter of my daughter, it is the final secret for me. The final place to explore.”
“And it is time now, I am afraid.” Edberene, Esefel’s mother glided up to them, regal in her dress of purple and gold silk, matching the long golden hair cascading down her back and the indigo eyes. Eyes that flashed and jittered. Edberene was nervous, but Esefel had an inkling it was not the departure of grandfather that bothered her.
“I don’t want him to go,” Esefel mumbled.
“I know. Now go get your bag. We will be staying the night in the temple, I’m afraid.”
“Anything wrong with that,” smiled grandfather with a raised eyebrow.
Edberene’s lips tightened. “It is a place of war. Humans who fight and shed blood and… and revel in it!”
“Why can we not go home immediately after…” no, Esefel couldn’t say it yet. Home would be nice. She could visit all the places she had gone with grandfather.
“I’m sorry. The moons are both clear and bright, but the humans refuse to travel at night. They are so poor of sight. Go now.”
Grandfather took Esefel’s hand. “Come, we will go together and get your things, then I will be with you to the very end.”
Esefel choked back a lump in her throat and nodded.
The landing was a stone jetty into the river, secured with large oaken timbers, and covered with the first grass of the season. White and yellow flowers popped out between the rocks, growing vigorously under the river spray. A portal of yellow brick led from the landing to the town-and-temple of Parsan, and under the portal stood a rider and a handful of footed men.
The rider trotted forwards as the elves disembarked. Esefel stared at him in wonder. She had heard of the ritualised clothing of the horse clans, but never seen it before. He wore a full length white robe, shining in the evening sun as if it had never seen the grime of actual riding, but across his lower face was fastened a veil in deep blue. His belt and scabbard were the same summer night sky blue, and the hilt and scabbard were glimmering with a host of turquois and lapis stones. Golden tassels hung from each side of the veil and bound the scabbard to his belt.
“Deep blue?” Murmured grandfather. “He must belong to the Clan Mirr then.”
“Welcome!” Boomed the rider. “I am Vice-Pontiff Milmayd, Warleader of the temple of the most revered Asakir.”
Mother gave a curt nod and replied with some coldness, “we thank you.” Esefel saw mother’s eyes darting to the sword.
Many years ago, she had asked her mother why they did not live where the elves had first seen the light of day. It was grandfather who replied – like he always did when Edberene refused to know – that it was because of the demons, the Radwai, that had attacked them again and again. He explained that not all of the elves could bear to see blood and death every day of their lives, and so he, his family, and many others had left the Lake of White Swans and instead hid behind the enchantments of the Vengrand forest, far from the wars.
The Vice-Pontiff was still talking. “… appreciating and revering the great powers of the Gods’ first children…” “…laying down our swords at the friendship and alliance of the most wondrous enchanters and Gifted…” It went on for some time. Mother stood still and patiently with only the most polite of smiles. Grandfather nodded at suitable intervals, occasionally winking at Esefel, and otherwise smiling as if every compliment was his due.
When the Vice-Pontiff Milmayd seemed to have spent his words, grandfather Arvall bowed warmly. “We thank you for the exquisite welcome. I’m sorry I can’t really stay to enjoy it further. The gods are calling me on to my next meeting. Would your people be so kind?” He indicated the little rowing boat attached to the barge.
Milmayd pushed his horse to the side, grunting imperiously, and a handful of soldiers stomped forwards to pick up and carry the boat to the bottom of the Parsan falls. Arvall, Esefel and Edberene followed. Milmayd pranced beside them.
Esefel had spent her first years in a deep forest with trees tall as the sky. The open heavens above the little Parsan town was a wonder of distance and the town itself a wonder of busyness. Most of the town was temple. The God of War had claimed the hilloc as his own millennia ago, and from a stone block shrine the place of worship had grown, room by room, building by building, all over the hill. In tiers the pale brick houses twisted and turned over each other and into each other, with tiny passageways opening to the occasional broad paved street, and tight, steep stairways blending the layers and tiers. It was utterly bewildering. Esefel turned a corner to think there would be a road – but instead found a courtyard decked in flowers. Or she wondered at the Vice-Pontiff sneaking into a back alley – only to see it open on a foam sprayed walkway along the falls. The town held a curious beauty that tugged at her sense of wonder – yet repulsed her native desire for peace.
“Do you like it?” Muttered Arvall to her.
“I don’t know,” she answered honestly. “Always so much to see, so many people running around. And yet. So many humans. So fast, so young. At my age they are already approaching their final journeys. This is not the place to sit and muse at the stars and planets for months and years.”
Arvall nodded. “And yet. So much to see. Much to learn, too. What must it be like for them to see their final sights before our Kindred has barely seen our first?”
“Have you lived among humans, grandfather?”
The merry look took on a wistful gaze. “A short while as we count it. It was a little hectic for me. I sense you will take to it better than I.”
“Me?” She smiled. “I’m going home with mother, and breathing pine and oak for a decade after this!”
He smiled down at her. If she had looked up, she might have seen the love, but instead she saw the lower landing below the falls.
A pool of green and blue had been carved out of the hillside, protected from the furious river by a jetty of large rocks. Several barges and river boats were moored here, some small for those who would fish, some greater bound for Velkempar and the delta and the ocean bay.
The soldiers under Milmayd’s direction lowered the little rowing boat into the pool, and held it steady by the strong ropes of Vengrand forest. Arvall took a deep breath. Esefel could feel her eyes moisten – and not from the waterfall. Now she looked up at him – and she saw mother do the same. Saw his crown of moon white hair, his starry dark eyes seeking the unknown. Saw his smooth fingers restfully gathered as if in prayer.
Maybe he was praying.
Esefel suddenly felt she had nothing to say. Usually there was always something to talk with him about. She could have pointed out the river birds. Or the fishermen with their loads of salmon. Or the Kirtar mountains rising grim on the other side of the falls. But it all seemed very superficial. She bent her head and started blinking.
Grandfather’s hands cupped her cheeks. “My little one,” he murmured into her hair. “One day you will follow me. One day you will know the names of all the river birds, you will know the stories that the fishermen bring home – and you will have walked the Kirtar plateau from one end to another. My Gift was knowing. Yours will be in the telling, the hearing, the learning.” He pushed a scroll into her hands and kissed her forehead. “Keep your eyes fresh, and Moons bless you, my beautiful daughter of my beautiful daughter.” He straightened, kissed his daughter Edberene, too, and then turned and stepped down into the little boat.
Esefel saw them let the ropes go, saw him steer it out of the pool and into the great Green River, saw him disappear around the jetty and out of her life, out of this life, out of life. In her hands she clutched the scroll he had given her.
To be continued…