The new starts with an interesting photo from Hubby's Pinterest board that Jake chose. I struggled a bit with this one for some reason, even though I love the picture. Such fascinating design details! Read on to find out where we all went with it...
““This child? This human child? It is expected to help us? To reclaim our lands for us?” Malonne spat, looking down upon the small human before her. The child before them with the porcelain skin and birthmark in the shape of a handprint. The child before them with its unexplained appearance in their wood. Some of the riverwatchers or skyreaders believed its appearance a gift from Brynn on high. Some kind of savior to aid them in reclaiming their hands from the invading humans. The hand mark, a divine sign, a mark burned into its skin, the power of Brynn capsulated into its forehead. Malonne could only see the irony in their thinking. A human child? To save us from its own kin? To help reclaim rightful elven lands? Preposterous.
Galeron didn’t seem to agree with her, however. She couldn’t see his expression beyond the wooden mask he typically wore, his own paltry symbol of his status as a pureblood elder, as if his own oaken skin wasn’t enough. It was even adorned with a pair of horns from a beast he didn’t even participate in the hunt of. Just another piece of costume he added to make himself seem more important.
His eyes didn’t see the child with the same open contempt as Malonne did. Perhaps he listened too much to the others, losing his own common sense. The others were dreamers, hopefuls, fools as Malonne would say. The Woad Monarch would never send a human child to aid us in our hours of need. Malonne almost thought the very idea was a slap in the face, but the others seemed to believe it for now, so she would hold her tongue further to avoid a conflict with her own.
Galeron knelt to one knee before the child who was unnaturally calm, quiet - it just…watched. Galeron looked up to Malonne, the lianas growing from her tear ducts ran closely down her cheeks, disappearing beneath her cloak. A small, red flower was even blooming from the one on the left side near her chin.
“Our people seem to believe so,” he answered. “Their belief in this one is strong, despite its human blood.” He slowly reached out a single finger towards the child, assessing how it would react. It simply looked at it and beyond that, nothing more. “If the Woad Monarch did send it, they certainly chose a strange location to drop it," he mused, looking around at the small, uninteresting swamp around them. Their clan, the Vae’Kolm, set up a little ways away, more in the forested part of the area than the vast sticky glob that made its way across most of the ground here. Interestingly, the child was safe atop a small island, Galeron noted.
The trackers had simply found the child here, quiet, uninterested in its surroundings and uninterested in them or their arrival. They kept a keen watch as they approached it. If they didn’t know any better, the humans could’ve made their way further into Serenity than they had ever come before, and this child was a decoy for a quick ambush from the trees on the edges of the marsh. But, no. There was no ambush, no other humans, A silver lining, Malonne thought, just a single human child, with unnaturally white skin and a hand mark indented on its forehead. A very curious case indeed, thought Galeron.
“Let’s take it with us and we’ll decide as a clan what to do from then.”
Malonne wanted to argue, but she knew she was unlikely to win against Galeron and she would come out looking even worse to the ever-hopeful members of their clan. Galeron slowly reached out its hands to grasp around the child’s waist, covered by a ragged blanket. Another curiosity, Galeron thought. To Galeron, there were many signs pointing out this child’s uniqueness. Too many little curiosities. There was something special about this child. Galeron just wasn’t sure if it was as everyone else believed. A human child touched by Brynn? A seemingly human child sent to elvenkind in a time of need when humanity encroaches on our lands for our wood and animals. Galeron almost wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it but seeing his fellow clanspeople talk about this child with such elation, such hope pushed the laugh to the back of his mind. If it was good enough for them, it would be good enough for him to at least try to believe.
Malonne had no such thoughts. Her own cynicism long took her over. Galeron could see the open irritation in her eyes as she peered down upon the child. Galeron grasped the child, who put up no struggle, and slowly and gently picked it up as he also stood.
“Come on. Let’s get this over with,” Malonne grunted, turning to head towards their horses they had kept at the edge between the forest and swamp. Galeron gently rocked the child in hopes of garnering a reaction, but none was made from the wide-eyed child. It simply kept looking around, staring curiously at everything around it. “Don’t dawdle.”
Malonne mounted up first, waiting for Galeron to follow. He walked up next to her horse instead, “Would you hold the child while I ready myself?” Malonne narrowed her eyes at him. She hesitated a moment before quickly grabbing the child’s waist. “Not so hard,” Galeron grumbled. She kept the child at half an arm’s length as Galeron mounted up. Once he did, she quickly handed the child back as their horses began their slow, bumpy trek to the clan’s temporary gardengrounds.
Malonne almost wanted to have hope. Maybe once they got back, the hope of the people would infect her, but nothing quelled the bitter feeling at the bottom of her gut, not at this cruel twist of irony that they believed to have been “blessed” with by the Woad Monarch. Someone must remain cautious, Malonne thought, side-eyeing Galeron and the child. Someone must keep it from being our undoing.
Wifey's Rambling Sketch:
Plodding on under the deep blue sky, I wonder - who is he?
Who is this small human child with the white, white skin and the marking for coming death on his head? He rides so still and quiet. I can barely feel his weight on my back as we journey through the Fire Lands, and I wonder.
What else have I to do but wonder? My Rider has been silent often lately, as well, and I wonder.
* * * * *
My mount whickers, shaking his mane. I pat his neck gently to quiet him. No doubt he is nervous after our recent sojourn, the sojourn that brought the gift I have in front of me. The ceremonial beads on my wrist give a muted clack - clack. The child that I clutch gently doesn’t move at the sound. He has not moved since I took him from that place. What will he mean for our people? I don’t know. But I know he is a gift, meant for us.
* * * * *
The stars are hiding. Day hides them. Usually they speak to me through the day. Today they are not speaking. I do not know why. Perhaps it has to do with the waves in the air. Or the heaviness of what these people are thinking. The movement of the great beast under my legs one moment jostles my thoughts, making them fall heavy, and the next moment gives me greater clarity. I think curiosity at times, which skitters around me because it goes unanswered, unexplained. I do not believe these people can ignore my thoughts much longer though; they are getting rambunctious as they remain unsatisfied. One cannot push away thoughts once they become too determined, and my thoughts were always the most ambitious in my village. The waves grow heavier and darker in the air as I remember my village, and the people I think of so lightly now, who ride with me now…who brought me out, through the fire.
* * * * * *
Once upon a time, in a thinly treed area where the fires burned easily and were also easily doused, a company of Tejorak rode silently back to their village. They rode in a circular formation, surrounding the tallest of their company, whose horns were aged long and honorable. Her right hand held a staff comfortably, and her left clutched the reins to her proud, elderly gelding while also holding securely to her chest a child, wrapped in a blanket and bearing the red mark of the four-fingered marauders. He was the only survivor and miraculously unwounded and unmarked, save for the handprint on his forehead. The whole company rode silently; even the horses seemed to be stepping as quietly as possible on the charred ground. The Tejorak knew the signs, and they had followed the pulling call to the village, out of the way of their normal route, and had found the child standing amongst the embers. He had come without resistance, without speaking, and the Tejorak, also a quiet people, were impressed. That they were meant to find him was clear. What they were to do with him was not. But they were a patient people, inclined to wait instead of rushing for explanations.
* * * * * * *
I felt it first, I’m proud to say. I felt it before my Rider even, and she is the most honorable of them all. The other horses never felt anything, but I felt it. At first it was like a fly on my withers, biting insistently, then flying away. Swishing my tail did nothing, even when I swished as I felt the bite. Then it started burrowing, and I was worried. I swung my head around, startling my Rider, and that’s when it hit me. The Thoughts.
Curiosity. Pain. Images of a fire, quickly drawn back and replaced with what sounded like singing, but singing unlike I’ve ever heard before - and certainly not singing by the Riders. Their voices are much too hard, too scratchy, for that melodious, unearthly song. I stopped in my tracks, startling my Rider again and turned my head. For the first time since we started our travel, the child moved. I felt his hand touch my back, and with that touch, I knew.
* * * * * * * *
My good horse is who made me realize the reason for the stillness of the child. Having never met his people, we didn’t know. We hadn’t even heard tales of his kind, but there will be tales now for certain. Learning to speak with him will be a challenge - for now I only can receive his thoughts, and they are the thoughts of a child; like the ramblings of a child, they can be difficult to follow, to interpret. Our young are quiet, like us, so this flood of images and words and feelings overwhelms me. At the same time, I cannot suppress my excitement. Oh yes, there will be tales told about this one!
* * * * * * * *
They are no longer ignoring my thoughts, even though they do not speak to me. I feel their excitement and welcome now, and bit by bit, the stars have begun to sing to me again. They tell me I must teach these people what I know because my people are gone, and I am the only one who knows the secrets we held. It is strange what the stars tell me: that others do not know Thought Direction or Star Speak or Wave Reading, but if the stars think it important for me to share this, I will do it. I did not always obey Mother and Father, but I always obey the stars.
The first thing that caught K'bau's attention was the smell. In the dessert, there aren't many aromas. There is sand, air, and the sky. But this, this was the smell of flesh and death. Something K'bau had not smelled in a long, long time.
She bent over low on the back of her horse, hugging close to its mane and whispered a command. The beast gradually slowed to a stop near the peak of a sand dune. The wind was slow and dry and carried the stench of decay from ahead of K'bau's position.
"Thank the Stars, we are downwind!" She offered up a small prayer and gestured to the heavens.
K'bau slowly shifted her weight and slid silently to the ground beside her horse and lowered herself onto her hands and feet. The bark-like calouses covering her skin kept her well protected from the burning sands as she crept the last hundred feet to the top of the dune. Carefully, she lifted her head above the dune's apex unsure of what she would find.
Had it been the body of one of the great Qehsed beasts, she would have been grateful. Her village could make use of the massive footpads and fat pockets lining its spine. If perhaps it was another traveller, they might have some equipment on them that she could make use of or sell at the bazaar by the southern oasis. If a pack of wild Neyelli had died, she could gather the pelts and roast their tongues to provide as an offering upon her return home. But what she saw, she did not expect or fully understand.
Two dozen bodies lay strewn about in a small gap between dunes. Their bodies were stripped of all clothing, leaving their bone-white skin exposed to the sun. The bodies were still somewhat fresh. K'bau knew the pale skins only traversed the badlands at night, but these bodies had died before this past night. Two days at least?
K'bau had heard of the pale people far to the east, but had never seen one before. To see so many in one place, and in such a condition...
Something in the center of the group of bodies moved.
K'bau dropped low into the sand. Her breathing slowed as she kept her eyes wide watching for any other movement. The small eye-holes in her mask showed just enough for her to keep the entire area ahead of her in view.
There is was again.
Something seemed to be between, or perhaps under two of the bodies near the center.
Several thoughts all ran through K'bau's mind all at once. Was it a survivor? Is it the thing responsible for killing them? Was it a scavenger falcon? Is it a threat? Has it seen me?
But again, something happened K'bau did not expect. Whatever the thing was under the bodies started to cry. It was a soft cry, a tired, hungry cry, but a cry none the less.
Drawn out of a strange sense of pity and curiosity, K'bau slowly worked her way down the side of the dune and approached the shifting, crying thing. As she had thought, there seemed to be something stuck under two of the bodies. Gently, cautiously, K'bau took the arm of one of the corpses and pulled it aside being careful to keep her distance. As soon as the body shifted, the crying stopped. K'bau could just make out two small eyes peering at her from under the torso of the other body.
It was small.
K'bau locked eyes with the thing and continued pulling at the body until it fell to the side. A small, white hand reached out and pushed aside the body that still held it down. The thing did what it could to scurry out, but it was too clumsy and the body still too heavy. Finally, K'bau was able to get a good look at it.
It couldn't be more than four or five summers old. K'bau stood astonished staring at the child who tried desperately to get away.
Finally, the child freed itself and got to its feet. It stood there in confusion wearing nothing but sack cloth pants staring at K'bau for a moment before darting to the side. It only took a few steps before it tripped over the leg of another fallen white body. The child fell heavily to the sand, tried to pull itself up, but gave up and resorted to exhausted sobs.
K'bau felt a pull, and urge to help the child. How long had it been out here by itself? Could she feed it? How had it survived? She had to do something. Seeing her shadow out of the corner of her eye she realized she must appear a rather imposing figure. She knelt down and tried to get about the size of the child. It was difficult, for she was easily nearly three times the length of the child. She approached the weeping child with one hand outstretched, palm faceing skyward.
"Do you hurt?" She asked as calm as she could manage. The child did not respond. "Do you know my words?" Still nothing. The child remained face down in the sand sobbing pitifully.
With a little hesitation, K'bau reached out and gently touched the child on its shoulder. The child jumped and pulled back, but did not run.
"It is well," K'bau tried to use a reasuring tone thinking the child could not truly understand her. She reached out again, "It is well."
She laid her hand on the child's shoulder and it flinched. She pulled away, but stayed close. Once more, she touched the poor thing. This time it seemed to consent.
"It is well, it is well," she repeated almost chanting as she began stroking the child's bare back soothingly. It was quivering under her hand. Her heart swelled with sorrow for this lonely child left alone in the badlands surrounded by the bodies of its kin.
"Yes, I have a thought to take you back," she said out loud, mostly to herself. The child peered at her from under one of its arms. It had been crying for too long. Dust and sand were smeared down its cheeks, but they had been long dry. "First, let us cover you."
K'bau reached back and removed one of the several layers of thin cloth she used to stay out of the sun and set it before the child. He looked between the cloth and K'bau unsure of what to make of the gift. K'bau gestured to the cloth, then to her own shoulders. Either the child understood or it figured it out on its own. The child took up the cloth and huddled under it. A small bit of relief came to its ruddy face.
The look in the child's eyes slowly shifted from fear to wonder as it stared at K'bau. She had no love of squatting in the desert, but the child needed her and she was content to let it grow accustomed to her. After several minutes of staring in silence, the child scooted through the sand a little closer to K'bau. And then again closer still. K'bau sat perfectly still and waited patiently. Finally, the child was less than an arm's length from her. Its eyes grew wide as it reached up toward her mask and pulled it back ever so slightly. She peaked at him from under it, but fear returned immediately to the child. It gave a yelp and tumbled over itself to regain some distance between it and her.
K'bau adjusted the mask back in place and raised her arms peacfully. "It is well!"
This phrase seemed to trigger something in the child. It took two more steps back but became visually calmer. K'bau sat up straight and tried to think of the best course of action. The child could not survive much longer in the sands on its own, but it did not seem to fully trust her yet.
She stood to her full height and backed a comfortable distance away from the child. The child watched, but did not react. K'bau did what she could to explain knowing it would do no good. "I belong to a village. I rest on the other side of the sands. I have a thought that you are with me to the village. Yes?" As expected, the child did not respond. K'bau pointed to the top of the dune behind her. "The horse of mine is just there. He will take us and you will be at my village. Yes?" The child's fear had subsided, but it was clearly not comprehending her meaning. K'bau turned and had not taken two steps before she hear a small concerned whine from behind. She looked back and saw the child on on the verge of collapsing. His legs were weak and his eye pleading, but also unsure.
"It is well" K'bau waved her hand for the child to follow her. She turned back and started again for the dune. This time there was no wimper, but instead tiny, rapid footsteps followed her. She took a dozen long strides and looked back. The child stood perfectly still but was not any farther away than he had been. By the time they reached K'bau's horse, the child seemed largely over his trepidation and had replaced it with wonder and awe. It became quickly aparent that the child had had little, or perhaps no previous experience with horses.
It took almost an hour, but eventually K'bau was able to coax the child to sit with her atop the horse. She found herself saying "It is well" almost as a reaction when nothing else was being said just to make sure the child was calm. K'bau was able to feed the child some dry meats and give it drinks from her waterskin on their travel. The child seemed in good spirits and was nodding off just before the sun set. with the last light of the sun K'bau was able to see the ground grow hard and just make out the tops of the dry malhaiel trees that grew on the very edge of the badlands. That put them just one more day from her village.
What would the Elder have to say about the child?
That night, K'bau dabbed the edge of her sun robes in her waterskin and tried to wash some of the dried filth from the child's face and arms. Its skin was even more white than she had originally thought.
"Where are you from?" She muttered to herself under her breath.
The child's head was completely bald. K'bau could not tell if this was a trait of its people or if it had perhaps been shaved. She wondered this as she cleaned its nose, cheeks, forehead...
There, on the middle of the child's brow, was a blood red mark in the shape of a four fingered hand.
K'bau almost dropped the child in shock. It stirred slightly, but remained asleep. K'bau stared long and hard at the mark as if trying to convince herself it was more grime or some trick of the sun. But the sun had gone down and the child's face was now clean. The mark itself was not blood, but rather was more like a birthmark. But this mark was the color of blood and had the exact likeness of a hand, but a hand that was designed with one fewer finger than that of K'bau or the child.
"You have been marked," K'bau mused in awe and fear.
The sun was still far from rising, and the child needed to sleep, but there was no time to lose. K'bau packed up her things and lifted the child onto the horse. The Elder needed to see the child. Finding a child of any people with a mark of the gods was always an omen, and K'bau needed to know whether this was for good or ill.
The air was sharp with the cold; the sky dim and clouded. The taste of snow hung in the air, bitter and metallic on my tongue. We needed to ride quickly if we were going to make it to Willow’s Bend before Winter ensnared the land with its icy fingers. The rest of the journey would not be easy, as recent events had already proven.
I cursed under my breath at the thought of facing the Earth Mother. She would not be pleased with all that had transpired and it was going to be my unpleasant task to relay all that had come to pass upon arriving home. “Home.” I did not realize I had spoken until the word was on the wind and I breathed the word in letting it rest upon my tongue and enslave my mind. To be home again after so many months had passed would be...what? Peaceful, surely? Surrounded once again by the coven. Well-rested and well-fed again. Or would it still be home? Certainly a different home than the one I had left. Or was it the home that would be different...or just me?
The child I held tightly against me squirmed to life. It had awoken again from its enchantment (the third I had cast today) and I would not be able to recast it again for at least an hour. This child was indeed powerful, far more powerful than had been foretold, and I wondered if my simple magic would be enough to contain it until we reached the coven. I pulled the child closer with my arm and whispered a small blessing to it. Why, I wasn’t sure. But it had been my habit to do so every time it awoke; and my pleasure.
The child turned its head to me, displaying the bloodied print the Priestess had marked him with. It was customary in the village of Kadmarya to mark their yearlings with the blood of their parents, a symbol of pride that would remain until it wore off from the elements, though the pride would never wear off. It saddened me to think that the coven would remove it when we arrived. The last remembrance of his parents wiped away, much like they themselves had been wiped away from the cleansing of Kadmarya by the religious officials of the neighboring village of Bathnir. The thought still made my stomach reel in disgust. It was fortunate that I had been there, not only to procure the child for the coven, but also, as it turned out, to rescue it from harm. It was pertinent that we make haste on the final leg of our journey. Who knew if the Bathnirians would be looking for the child?
I urged our horse to a quicker pace as the child stared at me with piercing eyes. It uneased me to think that perhaps he could see and understand far more than a yearling should. I pulled my wooden mask more securely over my face to obscure it from view. Much like the print on his forehead, my mask was a symbol of who I was and where I belonged. Carved by the coven upon my induction ceremony, it was never to be removed except for bathing and never outside of the safety of Willow’s Bend. It had, in so many ways, become who I was and it was an honor to wear it. But a burden. The Earth Mother alone determined a member worthy to wear her mask and if ever the Earth Mother was displeased, a member would be excommunicated, her mask removed and she sent into the wilderness alone with nothing; no weapon and no power to ensure her safety. A chill rushed through my body at this fear and the child raised a hand to my chest, filling me instantly with warmth. I lowered my face to his and whispered a word of thanks.
Night began to fall as we entered a large grove of dead, branchless trees. The area was desolate as far as the eye could see and quiet as the fallen. A slow fog rose from the ground. I dismounted and lifted the child off of our mount. I scanned the area carefully and determined that it would be safe for the night. Working quickly, I placed several enchantments around us to ensure we would not be heard or seen. I watered and fed the horse from the few small provisions I still had and hoped we would reach our destination soon. Then, I set to work on the child, feeding him and casting another sleep enchantment, whispering a prayer that it would hold for the night. I ate what I thought I could spare and laid my head down for a restless slumber.
As I slept, I dreamed. It was the Winter Solstice. I was home, clean, and clothed once again in fine garments, finer still because of the Solstice Celebration. A white gown of flowing silk hugged my form as I sat facing a gilded mirror and took in my appearance. My brown eyes were bright, my skin fresh, the green of my scales shining from the pale light they reflected. I felt beautiful and excited for the festivities we would experience. Quickly, I fastened my mask over my face and rushed to the grand hall. I bowed to the Earth Mother as I entered the chamber. As she nodded back to me in approval, I took my seat at the table surrounded by my sisters.
Once we were all seated, the Earth Mother rose from her throne. “Sisters,” she said, “we have been greatly blessed this year. The coven is strong and more powerful than we have ever been. We have much to be thankful for.” The coven was full of cheers and claps.
“But,” she continued, “in order to ensure our coven’s security, sacrifices must be made.” As she said this, the four elders of the coven entered carrying in the child she had rescued. He was placed at the center of the room and encircled by the elders. “Trapped,” I thought. The Earth Mother slowly descended from her throne and approached the child. Reaching the child, she lifted a small knife. “For the coven.” And she plunged the knife down.
I gasped awake and quickly glanced at the boy to make sure he was still asleep. I was thankful to find that he had not stirred. I sighed a deep breath and recalled the dream. Surely, it wasn’t true. The coven couldn’t possibly want him for a sacrifice. Surely, he was to be one of the fostered as so many other children had been before him. The coven needed him. Needed his power.
No, it couldn’t be true, I thought. And I laid my head back down to try to sleep once more.