Eluisa couldn’t have picked better weather for her party. The sun, the birds… it seemed that spring had finally come in full force to Lake Valley. She could only hope that the pleasant weather was a good omen for her mission. Spring was supposed to be a time for new beginnings, wasn’t it?
She interrupted her own musings by checking out the windows again. The five children all came into sight around the curve in the road, and she dashed once more to the back window. Satisfied that all was in place there, she hurried out the front door to greet her guests.
“Come on, urchins,” Aranel said, not bothering to look back at the gaggle of children following her. “Don’t you want to see Aunt Eluisa’s beach?”
“We’re not urchins!” Elirand protested, “I’m going to be a teen in a matter of days!”
“Actually, all three of us are going to transition next rotation,” Calanthe corrected him.
“You’re still a squirt today, so just deal with it,” Aranel replied, her smile invisible to them. Truth be told, she was just happy to get out of the house after being grounded for so long, even if it meant that she was responsible for the lot of them.
Elirand just smirked. “Come to my birthday party and call me a squirt then,” he challenged her, “I dare you. I’m gonna be taller than you!”
Calla rolled her eyes. “We’re all going to be the same height,” she corrected him.
“Yeah, whatever. That’s what you think. I’ll be taller -”
“Only because of your fat head.” Calla put in. Elirand spluttered while Achenar laughed.
Anariel smiled a little to herself as she trailed behind them.
At that moment, Eluisa came down the walk with open arms and a big smile.
“Ungrounded, I take it?” she asked Aranel.
“Only for today, unfortunately,” she replied.
“Have you got a high-five for me?” Eluisa asked.
“Of course!” Achenar replied.
“Psych!” Elirand called, as he snatched his hand out of the way of his high-five, “So sorry, too slow.” He grinned up at Eluisa. “Gotcha, didn’t I?”
“Rascal,” Eluisa replied fondly, shooing him along.
“Thank you for having us over,” Calla said politely, making sure to give Eluisa a real hug, unlike her twin’s fake high-five.
“Did you have a good day at school yesterday, Ana?” Eluisa asked her youngest visitor quietly.
Ana scuffed the ground with her toe. “Sort of.”
“What do you mean, ‘Sort of?’ Didn’t you have fun?”
Anariel shrugged. “I guess. It wasn’t bad… but all the townie kids already have friends, and I don’t have any.”
“Well, we’re just going to have to change that, aren’t we?” Eluisa replied. Then, seeing Anariel’s questioning look, she amended, “Give it time.”
“Okay,” Anariel agreed, clearly not believing it.
“Everyone just head on through the house to the back,” Eluisa said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “You can probably get some swimming in before I make lunch.”
“Last one down the stairs is a rotten egg!” Achenar yelled, and the four children tore through the kitchen, across the porch, and down towards the shore where the waves smashed against the sand, shrieking. Aranel remained behind.
“What about you?” Eluisa asked the teen lurking behind her near the door, “Don’t you want to go swimming?”
“Actually,” Aranel replied, “There’s something I want to talk to you about.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Rotten egg!” Calla shouted triumphantly as she and Achenar barely managed to keep upright as they barreled off the last steps, leaving Elirand behind. Ana was still a few steps above them, but they had long since ceased to notice.
“Last one in gets eaten by the sea serpent!” Elirand shouted, eager to ditch the title of ‘rotten egg,’ and all three of them tore off towards the waves without a backwards glance.
“Sea serpent?” Anariel asked worriedly, but they were already gone. “There isn’t really a sea serpent, is there?”
“Do you actually think auntie Elu would let us get eaten by a sea serpent?” asked a voice nearby. Ana turned to see a brown-haired girl in a blue striped swimsuit get up from where she had been building a sandcastle behind the bushes and dust off her knees. “I think those boys were just making it up.”
“Really?” Anariel asked, cautiously.
“Pretty sure. My auntie says that sometimes boys say stupid things just to make other people pay attention to them.” The girl paused for a minute. “You know, you could play with me if you like,” she said, “Those three look a little busy.”
Judging from the amount of splashing coming from the shallow water, she was right.
“But… but I don’t know you,” Ana replied, shrinking away.
“That’s all right. I’m Lydia, and I’m six, and I like to draw. Now you know me. How about you?” She tilted her head at Ana.
“Why don’t you start with your name?”
“I’m Ana,” she said quietly.
“Ana?” Lydia repeated, not sure she’d heard it right.
“It’s really Anariel… but that’s too long. I’m six – I don’t know what I like.”
Lydia laughed, “Well, you can’t know if you like something or not until you’ve tried it, can you? Would you like to try making a sand castle?”
“I guess so.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“…So, the problem is that I’m still grounded, and I’m missing out on everything that Nymea gets to do with the other girls from school. I don’t really even know the other girls that well, since I’m new and I only ever get to see them at school.” Aranel finished, wrapping up the whole story after filling her favorite ‘aunt’ in on exactly why she’d gotten grounded in the first place. “Also, Ana’s not talking to me, and that was great for a couple days, but it’s getting kind of weird now.”
“Have you tried apologizing?”
“To mom? Yeah, sure… well, kind of. It definitely didn’t get me ungrounded.”
“I meant to Anariel.” Judging by the look on Aranel’s face, the thought hadn’t even occurred to her. “She’s only just transitioned to childhood,” Eluisa continued, “You can’t expect her to do things the way one of your teenage friends, or even Achenar would.”
“Telling Mom and Dad was still a rotten thing to do, though.” Aranel replied sulkily.
“Did you tell her not to tell them?”
“If I’d told her I was sneaking out, she’d never have kept her blabber shut.” Aranel protested instantly.
“And you know that how?” Eluisa asked pointedly. “Look. All I’m saying is that the only way you’re going to get Ana to give you a second chance is if you give her a second chance.”
There was a moment of silence while Aranel picked at her sleeve. “I guess that makes sense,” she finally admitted.
“And it will definitely make it easier to stay in the house until you get un-grounded. Oh, and for the record – I don’t approve of sneaking out.”
She shook her finger at Aranel, but Ara could see the smile that she was fighting back.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Anariel, still on the beach, was all smiles. Somehow, the conversation had gone from simple statements like “Do you think we should get some shells for this?” to a discussion of everything and anything under the sun. To her surprise, she found that Lydia really was very easy to talk to, in part because she listened so well. She didn’t just bowl you over by talking too fast and interrupting, but she could fill the silence when she needed to.
In the space of an hour, Anariel knew more about Lydia than any of the kids she knew at school. Lydia had a little brother, her house wasn’t very big, and the neighbors were really loud. In return, Anariel told her everything. Well, everything she could think of at the moment.
“My mommy’s principal,” she explained, when the conversation turned to parents, “but at the school in Bluewater, not the school I go to. My dad’s a surgeon – at least I think so, he keeps talking about doing research, whatever that is, so maybe he got a promotion already. What do your parents do?”
Lydia shrugged. “Mom looks after Orion and looks for a job. She hasn’t found one yet.”
“Oh,” Anariel had never heard of someone not being able to find a job before. “What does your daddy do?”
“I don’t have a daddy,” Lydia replied, “but Makir works at a store. He paints all the time when he’s home, unless he’s cleaning up or playing with Orion and me. He was really proud when I got an A on my project in art class yesterday.”
Anariel frowned for a moment. “But everyone has a mommy and a daddy,” she protested.
“Well, I don’t.” Lydia replied, “I’ve got a Mommy and a Makir.”
“Then Makir’s your daddy,” Ana deduced with a smile, “It’s just that you call him by his name instead.”
“I guess, maybe,” Lydia shrugged, seeming a little uncomfortable. “They’ve never said he is, though. Can we talk about something else?”
“Of course,” Ana wasn’t going to blow away her newfound friendship over something as stupid as parents. “We could talk about… um, school, or hobbies, or… something.”
“Sure,” Lydia agreed, “Do you think there’s such a thing as aliens?”
“Of course!” Anariel agreed readily, “And ghosts, too!”
“Ghosts?” Lydia asked, curiously.
From far off, they could hear Eluisa’s voice calling them. “Kids! Lunch!” There was some excited splashing from the lake as Achenar, Calla and Elirand all attempted to climb back up onto the beach and push each other back into the water simultaneously.
“Everyone does like Chinese, right?” Eluisa asked once they had a carton of noodles each.
“Yeah, of course,” Aranel replied as her noodle slipped between her chopsticks and fell to the ground. Everyone else looked awkwardly into their cartons or fiddled with their chopsticks.
“I’ve never had it before, Auntie Elu,” Lydia admitted, while the other children looked at her in shock, “But there’s a girl in my class at school who has it for lunch every day.”
“It smells good,” Calla offered hopefully, swirling one chopstick in the noodles and hoping it would snag something. Next to her, Elirand contemplated just tilting the carton and dumping the noodles into his mouth.
Eluisa cast an eye about at the children’s attempts to obtain their noodles.
“Here,” she said dryly, “I’ll show you. I don’t expect you to know how to use chopsticks right away, you know. One goes between your thumb and middle finger, and the other you pinch like a pencil. Just remember to hold the bottom chopstick still.”
Aranel attempted to imitate her and ended up, surprisingly, with a wad of noodle in between her chopsticks. Before long, everyone was pinching Chinese food up out of their cartons and into their mouths.
Eluisa was pleased to see that everyone started chattering amiably, though not about anything more consequential than the food.
“I like this bit,” Anariel said from where she leaned against the porch, lifting it up with her chopsticks for Lydia to see, “It’s crunchy.”
Aranel looked over at it. “It’s a water chestnut,” she informed her sister.
“Cool,” Lydia kicked the heels of her sneakers against the wall. “I found a mini ear of corn!”
She fished it out to show Ana, then both popped their vegetables into their mouths simultaneously. Next to them, Aranel discovered speed-eating the Chinese way, using her chopsticks as a shovel to pile the noodles, chicken and vegetables into her mouth.
On Aranel’s other side, Achenar, Calla and Elirand were deep in their own conversation as usual.
“…and what classes are we going to take?” Achenar asked the twins. “Ara says we get to pick when we age up.” He gestured towards his big sister, who nodded.
“Can we stop taking Simlish?” Elirand asked with his mouth full, “I hate writing essays.”
“No such luck,” Aranel informed them, “But you pick from a lot of electives anyway. There’s a couple different art classes, music, a few foreign languages, shop, technology, and a few others that I didn’t really consider signing up for. You’ve got to take gym, too, but after the first year you can pick which one.”
“Sounds like a lot of fun,” Calla observed. In another moment the three of them were happily debating the merits of taking technology versus languages versus art classes. None of the children were aware of Eluisa regarding them wistfully. Things had been so different where she had grown up, that she almost wished that she could do it all over again, and live the childhood whose endless opportunity she saw reflected in her young friends’ eyes.
Perhaps it wasn’t worth telling them after all. But then again, if she didn’t tell them, who would?
“Auntie Elu, what are we doing after lunch?” Elirand asked suddenly, earning the attention of almost everyone else.
Eluisa looked at her noodles for inspiration and found none.
“Well, it’s a pretty late lunch,” she began, “so as soon as I’ve cleaned this all up, I was thinking we could build up the campfire and roast smores.”
“Fire and Marshmallows sounds good,” Elirand replied, earning himself an elbow to the ribs apiece from Achenar and Calanthe. “Relax, guys, I was joking,” he defended himself quickly, “It’s not like I’d start them on fire on purpose or anything… Okay, maybe once to see what happened, but still!”
“We’ll just try not to burn anything besides the marshmallows,” Eluisa intervened before Calla or Achenar could say anything to the defensive Elirand. “And I promise that I’ll tell you a story too, but first I need to get this cleaned up, so finish up quick.”
“I’m done!” Lydia announced happily, sliding down from her seat on the porch, “Come on, Ana!”
“I’ve still got a couple bits…” Ana tilted her carton to decide what they were and if she really wanted to eat them, but Lydia had already taken off running.
Anariel sighed, picked up one last piece of baby corn, and discarded her nearly empty carton before following her new friend.
“Everything’s so pretty here,” Lydia said after they’d just hung out for a while, “at home everything’s grey. There aren’t very many trees in the city.”
“There’s a forest behind my house,” Ana replied, “Maybe you could come over some time and see it?”
“I’d like that.”
There was a long and comfortable silence. They watched as Eluisa brought firewood down from the pile behind the house with Ara lending a hand, and as Achenar and the twins drifted over, arguing amongst themselves about something. They were the last to get up and head towards the campfire.
When everyone had, to Eluisa’s estimation, settled in on the sand, she began.
“I hope everyone’s been having fun,” she said, pleating her skirt as she sat. She received a round of agreeing nods from the children, then stared out at the lake, unsure of how to continue. “I’m glad of that. But I had another reason for inviting you all out here today.”
There was silence, patient and anticipating, from the children seated on the sand. Aranel was watching her intently.
“You see,” Eluisa continued, “There is a story I want to tell you – one that I think you all have the right to hear.”
Everyone sat a little further forward. Achenar glanced at the fire, then up at Eluisa.
“What kind of story?”
“A true story,” she replied.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“I was born on a small farm in Antedilluvia, in a mountain town so tiny that it had no name, and the main road through town was a dusty goat track. For the first ten years of my life, I lived with my mother in what had once been a shepherd’s cottage, not very far from my grandparents’ land. Though we were not actually very far from our neighbors, we lived very much alone, living off of our land and the surrounding forest.
Those were happy days for me – my mother and I would head deep into the woods, where she taught me of all the plants and animals that lived there. I worked beside her in our field and home, and never worried about why things were or what they might someday be. We swam, we fished, we tracked the beasts of the forest, and at night by the fire she told me stories that set my mind free to wander amidst the stars. She trained daily with the sword as I looked on. All that I knew, I learned from her. Later, when I grew old enough, she taught me archery, navigation by the stars, and to find places of power and pay my respects to them accordingly.
Not a day went by that I did not spend with my mother. My father I never knew, though once I grew old enough to ask, my mother told me that he had been a magician. I never was able to get her to tell me what had happened to him, though.
“Once you’re older,” she always said, and though I was always older than I had been the last time I had asked, I was never old enough, and then it was too late.
That didn’t stop me from investigating on my own whenever I could, however. Mother only brought me into town when it became absolutely necessary, and as soon as I was old enough to run off and play while she made her reports and purchased necessary items, I did. I wanted, desperately, to be friends with the children of the village – and to some extent, I suppose I succeeded – but the times that I saw them were few and far between, and the other children had known each other since birth, and I was never close to any of them, my cousins included. Much of the time I ended up listening quietly to adult conversations until they noticed and shooed me away.
It was in this way that I first heard of the rumors of war between Antedilluvia and Sargon, the nearest elven kingdom. Some said that the border disputes would never amount to anything: others claimed that the army would be called out within the year. Others said that the war was just a beginning – that other forces were stirring both within the mountains and among the lowlands.
Nevertheless, I didn’t worry about it. In the stories that my mother told me, wars were fought by heroes – the noble, the brave, and the fated – who triumphed in the end, regardless of the darkness that they faced. A war against Sargon, even if such a thing actually did happen, was nothing more than another story. We would win, and then all would be peaceful again. Someday, when I was old enough, all my questions would be answered, and until then I had all the time in the world.
Even as the rumors grew with the telling – that the king of Sargon had five thousand horsemen waiting to cross the river Andalafel, that our queen had once more been recruiting scores of young elves for the guard, or that the king of Sargon had sold his immortality and his soul to a demonic Gozmur captain – I doubted that anyone truly believed them. Besides, at the age of nine, I believed firmly in the invincibility and inevitability of my somewhat boring life. Even when my mother began to teach me the art of swordplay, I did not suspect the truth behind the rumors. Nothing more interesting than a swarm of bees could possibly have made it to town.
I was barely ten when the messenger came to town, riding hard and only stopping to tell us that the forces of king Sargon had crossed the Adalafel and taken the border city of Essilnae before he galloped down the dirt road towards the next small town. The war had come, and the townsfolk brought swords out of cellars and attics, and armed their children with slings and arrows. Suddenly, my mother and I were always in town, as she conferred with the elders upon battle plans, and I practiced my archery with the other children. For a while we all waited, on the razor’s edge, convinced that the invading army would come marching up the road at any time, while the rumors flew about ominously.
Then, for a time, all was quiet.
The great battle that we were all prepared for never came to pass. Instead, a troupe of bandits – deserters searching for plunder – seized upon our town as a likely target. They overestimated their own strength, and were soon driven away, but not without death on both sides.
There was nothing that the town healer could do for my mother’s wounds. I sat with her that whole night, waiting for her fever to break, waiting for her smile.
Even in the early hours of the morning, that smile never came. I talked to her – begged her, pleaded with her to open her eyes and smile one last time – but it was no use.
Before the dawn, her fevered sleep slipped into the dream of death, and suddenly there was no more time.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I spent the rest of my childhood years in town, in the house where my mother had grown up, surrounded by my aunts, uncles and cousins, in the middle of the life that I had watched from afar. The war was over by then – nothing had been decided, no one, it seemed, had won – and the famous queen’s guard was kept busy patrolling the roads and dispatching the highwaymen that linger after every battle. But what did I care of war?
My kinsfolk were good people, but I was never entirely happy there. My mother had never finished teaching me to wield a sword, so I practiced my archery, clinging tightly to every skill that she had ever taught me, and waited, though I didn’t yet know what I was waiting for. I grew up, made some friends in the village. Towards my seventeenth year, it was suggested that I join the queen’s guard – a suggestion which I firmly refused. I wanted nothing to do with them. If they had been there when the bandits attacked, my mother would not have died.
One way and another, the years passed.
By the time that I was nineteen, fantastical rumors had begun to float about once more. There were wars, they said, scattered across the land of Elphemerea like so much cornmeal. The Melalai of the old forests were no longer communicating to humans or elvenkind. Deep underground, ancient blood-feuds between the shade-elves had morphed into a full-scale conflict, and monstrous creatures walked abroad under the daylight. The council of sages either had already met or was going to met, an occurrence that might happen once in a lifetime under normal circumstances.
The Gozmur, long just a fairy-tale used to scare elven children into obedience, had been spotted by any number of reliable, but comfortably distant witnesses – the best friend of a second cousin, the acquaintance of a passing traveler, unnamed scouts and guardsmen on the road – and to top it all off, down in Celion, an arch had appeared in the middle of the woods, through which one could view a landscape that most definitely did not belong in Celion.
Despite – or perhaps because of – all that, I had determined to leave for good. I had no clear idea of where I should go, but only knew that I must leave the town that I had known all my life. It wasn’t that I was unhappy, though I wasn’t happy either. It was because in some way, I was asleep, living life with no direction and no ambition. I needed to get out in order to wake up.
It was over our last dinner together that my aunt Ionia mentioned that I should head towards the capitol city, where the court of the elven queen was held.
“Why?” I asked, thinking that she was going to try once more to persuade me to join the Queen’s Guard.
It was quiet for a while, before she replied, “I thought maybe you might like to see the city where your mother was a captain in the Queen’s Guard, and where she lived for almost five years before you were born.”
I hadn’t known until then that my mother had been a part of the Queen’s Guard, much less a captain in it, but in hindsight it should have been obvious. How else did she learn to fight so well with a sword?
“I suppose so,” I replied.
It was after dinner, when the fireflies drifted between the trees, that my Grandmother took me out into the night to gaze at the stars and explain.
“When she was eighteen,” my grandmother began, “Anwyn, your mother, left our town to join the queen’s guard.
“My heart swelled with pride each time I received one of her letters – she was well, the capital city was a fine place, training was tough but fair, she was near the head of her class. To this day, I still do not know how or why everything went so wrong. Her letters slowed, then stopped coming entirely, save to tell us that she had graduated from training and become a fully fledged member of the guard. When she was promoted to captain, the letter she sent us was three lines long:
Dear mother, father, and Ionia,
I have just been promoted to captain of the guard. I may not come home for a while, but I hope everything is well there. I wish you could all be here.
“Three years later, she arrived home in the dead of night, five months heavy with child and riding a horse that, though once fine, was quite worn out. I can only assume that she had come straight from the capital, for it is only upon the queen’s way that a horse can be ridden so far and fast through the mountains.
“I wanted her to live with us, but she insisted against it. I did my best for her, but she was too proud, refusing much of our help, and eventually it was easiest just to let her live as she pleased. You were born, and she stubbornly insisted upon raising you on her own.”
My grandmother sighed. “You may not think you are like her at all, but you are. You’re both stubborn – you both want to see the world. Just know, before you go, that this place is your home, and you can always come back.”
In the morning, I departed early, after bidding goodbye to my grandmother and my aunt.
“Remember,” my grandmother told me as I walked out the door, “That your family is the people that you carry in your heart no matter how far they are away.”
I set out alone, passing out of the familiar landscape into the new quickly. Despite the fact that I hadn’t returned there in years, I felt no desire to visit the shepherd’s cottage where I grew up. Instead, I headed directly to the capital, following the queen’s road only sometimes and cutting through open country whenever I thought it would save me time and trouble. The fact that I traveled alone did not bother me, and nor did the fact that I was unsure of my purpose. The roads were safer than they had been since my earliest days of childhood, and the creatures of the wild had never scared me. The fact that I was following, nearly twenty-five years later, in the footsteps of my mother was good enough for the time being.
“But how could you leave your grandma, and your aunt, and everyone?” Anariel asked, “Weren’t you scared, being alone?”
Eluisa smiled at her as she knelt down to start the fire: evening had fallen as she had told her story. “My grandmother had just reminded me that family isn’t just being near someone,” she said, “A lot of it is the memories that you share. Besides, I wasn’t alone for long – I met plenty of good friends along the way, and a few even came with me here.”
“You mean like mom,” Achenar piped up eagerly
“Yes, Viridia was the first person who joined my journeys,” Eluisa replied.
“Did you meet her in the capitol?” Aranel asked from her seat just outside of the firelight.
“No, but very soon after,” Eluisa said, “First, however, I should tell you what I saw in the capitol…
“Throughout living memory, the city of Aesomena, called Aeris by some, had been the capitol of Antedilluvia, and for just as long it had been called the white city. It was at once everything that I had heard, and nothing that I had expected.
My mother had mentioned the capitol city to me once or twice as a child – she had ensured that I learned my country’s history – but she had never told me any stories that had given me any clear idea of what it would be like. That had been left to the other villagers, as well as the occasional bard, merchant, or messenger that traveled through. The stories began to take on a surreal quality that the original attempted, but was not quite able, to match.
Where I had been used to the wilderness of the woods that surrounded the village where I grew up, the trees in the capitol were trained and trimmed, with every dead or diseased branch removed, and no wilting flowers.
Though the wonders embroidered upon by the fairy-tales of my childhood, such as the altars of the breath and of the wave, were indeed present in the capitol, somehow they were smaller and less impressive than my imagined memory.
I spoke my mother’s name into the altar of the breath and watched as the fog that issued from the center of the bowl gently floated it away up into the air, finally disappearing into the blue sky. As I did so, I couldn’t help but picture the small, plain marker in the graveyard at the edge of the village.
Though I looked everywhere, I could see no shadow of my mother on the white walls of the monuments.
Nor was there an echo of her in the quiet sanctity of the temples.
If my mother had once left any mark on this pristine white city, it had long ago been erased. There was no way to recapture what had once been, especially when it had happened long before my time.
I left the city in the same manner as I came. Yet, instead of proceeding homewards, I headed east, towards the sea I had never seen.
Despite the ultimate futility of my voyage, I felt more awake than I had in years."
Memoria Part 2
~ ~ ~
Author's note: I am so not doing blog style again. (Well, except for the rest of this interlude.) This was intended for CreMo, which means you can expect a new chapter eventually... (after spring break... so probably, if all goes well, in April.)
I hope that's not too long to live with a mild cliffhanger.