Pride is the weakness of the elves.
– The Proverbs of Shedey’uwr
Celeborn Elaéyadar, formerly of the Outer Guard of the Elven Court, friend to Princess Vaella Lashrael, the heir apparent, and comrade-in-arms to her younger brother, Dakath Lashrael, fitfully waved a hand in the air in a vain effort to keep the trail dust out of his face. If not for the bandanna a Biqah woman had shown him how to fashion from a kerchief, he’d have eaten his own weight in grit and dust by now. Riding guard at the rear of a human caravan crisscrossing the prairie with wagon loads of nothing more interesting than mercantile goods was quite a come down from his once exalted state and it galled him to no end. Worse yet, it was apparently the only thing he was fit to do in the world outside of Tôb ´Ôr Ya´ar, the Pleasing Shining Forest, which in the common tongue was called Shimmerwood.
Upon leaving his people he’d discovered his knowledge of royal etiquette and the rules of polite society were of less value than a broken knife. Thinking to save time by taking a straight route across the Biqah to Nahor, he’d quickly been disabused of the notion it was the quickest way. If not for encountering the caravan he was now working for, he’d probably still be wandering around lost and likely starving. When he offered to trade his vast knowledge of all things elven for food, water, and directions, the Wagon Master, a coarse man named Rogar, burst out laughing.
“Son, that kinda learning ain’t worth a broken knife out here, but I could use a rear guard. Are you any good with that bow?” He pointed at the powerful weapon over Celeborn’s shoulder.
Celeborn stiffened with wounded pride. “I have tied with his royal highness, Dakath Lashrael sixteen years in a row at the annual –”
“Yes or no?” the man asked impatiently.
Celeborn was shocked at the man’s brusque manner but he managed to recover. “Yes, of course.” Surely so uncouth a man couldn’t be leading a caravan this size. There were over a hundred wagons in it, there had to be somebody in authority over him, there had to be.
“Prove it.” That was too much! “I’ve given you my word,” Celeborn gritted, feeling an unaccustomed anger growing inside him. “You wouldn’t dare accuse a member of the royal court of lying.”
Rogar gave him a crooked grin. “Nope. I got ways of discerning liars from them who tell the truth and you’re telling it.” Celeborn allowed himself a faint smile but the gruff human wasn’t finished. “At least you think you are.” Rogar smiled humorlessly at Celeborn’s stunned expression. “The problem with crazy people is they don’t know they’re crazy, so we’ll set up some targets and make sure you’re not one of ‘em.”
Too shocked to protest, he’d let himself be brow beat into proving his self-evident prowess with a bow. After some satisfyingly surprised exclamations from the humans over his archery skills, he was immediately hired as rear guard, a position which turned out to be quite different than what he was accustomed to in the green wood of his forest home.
The eastern shore of the Wolfhead River, when they reached it two months later, had more trees than anywhere he’d seen on the Biqah Prairie but it still couldn’t compare to the ancient growth in his forest home. There, the trees were old and hoary, heavy with memories of days gone by, their branches thick and gnarled, with strong roots that ran deep into the soil, some said even as far down as the basement rock of the world. Many of them had their own voices if you but took time to listen.
Here – he looked around in disdain – trees were just trees.
Not for the first time he wondered if he’d made the right decision to leave the Outer Guard. The growing darkness in Dakath’s heart couldn’t be hidden much longer, his overpowering jealousy that his sister was next in line for the throne instead of him ate away at him day by day. He hated to use Rogar’s expression, but in Dakath’s case it was true, he was slowly going crazy and didn’t know it was happening. Celeborn had tried valiantly help his friend turn back to the light but Dakath was more than his friend, he was also his guard commander by virtue of his place in the royal family and the bonds of friendship could only push the chain of command so far before Dakath ordered him to cease. But if friendship counseled him to help a friend, and obedience commanded him to be silent, what did duty to king and country require?
Dakath’s heart was becoming dark. If the process wasn’t stopped, soon he would become one of the dark elves, the Darael, pronounced Dar-ā-el´. Unlike humans or dwarves, when an elf gave in to evil it couldn’t be hidden; their gold or silver hair became black as ink, their fair skin turned dark, and their eyes shone red with anger and hatred. When that happened, those who owed allegiance to the Elven Court were honor bound to slay them.
Celeborn’s duty was clear; if Dakath turned, he was required to slay him, no matter the cost. But how could he kill the only brother of the woman he loved? He doubted Vaella knew of his feelings or would return them if she did, although he believed he might win her eventually. As long as she remained unmarried there was hope, but if he killed Dakath she would never trust him again and any chance for love would be lost forever. Even if she would, officially, as heir to the throne, commend him for doing his duty to protect the Court by slaying a Darael, in the privacy of her heart she would never forgive him for killing her beloved brother. So, in an effort to avoid an impossible dilemma, he relinquished his position in the Outer Guard and left the Shimmerwood. It was better for her to consider him a fool than a kin-slayer.
But the world outside the Shimmerwood was both less, and more, than he’d bargained for. Although legend said elves, dwarves, and humans were all descended from the same stock until they were divided at The Sundering, he felt no sense of kinship with any of the humans he’d met since leaving his people. They were brutish, harsh, filthy, rude, uncouth, smelly, and ignorant. They had no sense of decorum as was befitting an orderly society, their music was atrocious, their food half-cooked, unseasoned, and barely edible. Their customs made no sense, they still bowed to the mad gods who’d nearly destroyed the world, they ignored the past, and offered no reverence for their elders, who, if he was honest, were little more than slobbering wretches who soiled themselves in their dotage instead of commanding the respect brought by years of accumulated wisdom. Merely associating with humans made him feel dirty, as if in desperate need of a bath.
Moreover, their hearts ruled them in ways no elf, aside from a Darael, would ever permit. Take the Biqah woman who’d ridden with them while the caravan wended its way south along the Lake Road on the eastern shore of Namak Lake. She was weighted down with such sorrow it was a wonder she could stand up beneath it, yet she was determined to fulfill her father’s demand that she find a barbarian named Storm and bring him back to her people. She was uncommonly beautiful and it hurt his soul to see such an exquisite example of womanhood so heavily burdened and full of pain. Lorelei, whose name meant Child of Heaven, had left the caravan when it turned west around the southern end of Namak Lake toward Sairaw, and he told himself it would be a wonder if her heartache left her alive by year’s end. He shook his head sorrowfully for she was but one example of the way humans let their hearts and emotions drive them like horses under the lash. Others were ridden by anger, jealousy, fear, lust, greed, and seething hatred. It was a wonder their chests didn’t explode from all the surging emotions boiling inside them. No elf could ever live like that and he wasn’t sure he could live among people who did live like that.
We are more mature than they, he told himself proudly, and certainly cleaner, he added, waving a hand before him again. Trail dust didn’t exist in the Shimmerwood where everything was soft, green, and moist, where dappled sunlight was a joy instead of a scorching heat that baked everything dry.
But if the world outside Shimmerwood was less cultured, less refined, less tidy, and less orderly than his, it was also far more multifaceted than he could have possibly imagined. The sheer size and variety of the outside world staggered the imagination. He was already further away from Shimmerwood than twice its entire length from north to south and the caravan still had over a hundred leagues to go before it reached Sairaw, known to the people there as the City of the Winds. In his 89 years of young life he’d seen the entire perimeter of Shimmerwood a dozen times over and much of the interior more than that. If he made it to the age of 100 without succumbing to the temptations of anger and hate which turned an elf into a Darael, he’d be allowed to drink the Elixir of Life, which would extend his life another four centuries past that. By the end of his extended life he’d know Shimmerwood backwards and forwards, but this world outside it; the sheer scope of it convinced him a dozen times that much life wouldn’t be enough to see it all. It was huge!
He’d once seen a map of all Gaia and hadn’t believed it. The scale was simply too vast to be real.
He believed it now.
The multitude of animals, plants, and yes, monsters, was more than he’d ever thought it would be too. There were clothing styles past counting, armor designs he’d never heard of, bewildering customs which baffled him, mountains taller than anything that could be seen from his homeland, lakes which dwarfed the largest bodies of water in Shimmerwood – Namak Lake wasn’t a lake! It was a landlocked ocean! – delicious foods that tantalized his taste buds, and accents and languages he’d never conceived of.
The awe inspiring extent of the outside world had shattered his preconceptions, reduced his proud homeland from the center of the universe to a mere afterthought, and called into question everything he thought he knew. Moreover, it obliterated all the goals he thought he could accomplish by leaving Shimmerwood. He was planning to use his superior knowledge, training, and wisdom to become great in the outside world, bidding his time until Dakath either turned or recovered, then return in triumph as a mighty king on equal footing with Vaella, whereupon she would surrender her heart to him forevermore.
All his vast knowledge wasn’t worth a broken knife and there were so many competitors for every position he’d have to shout at the top of his lungs just to be heard. Where once he’d assumed he would quickly rise to rule the great city of Nahor, now he’d be lucky to take over Rogar’s position as Wagon Master. A dark depression had settled over him at the magnitude of the world facing him, until someone chanced to mention how sparsely populated the Midbar Desert was.
On that long-ago map, the Midbar was a huge blank spot twice the size of Shimmerwood with little more on it than the name. If it was truly as empty as both the map and stories held it to be, his chances of making a mighty name for himself were significantly better there than anywhere else. He made careful inquiries among the guardsmen who claimed to have been there and all their stories were similar; vast stretches of empty sand interspersed with tiny settlements, usually around the infrequent oases dotting the otherwise barren landscape. There was only one river of note in the whole desert, the Sebeth, or River of Sorrows, with small settlements scattered up and down its length.
Such sparse conditions sounded perfect for his needs. He would arrive in obscurity, quickly be seen for the treasure he was, rise like the sun, and assume power over all the disparate tribes, uniting them into a single people. He smiled to himself beneath his bandanna. He would ride with the caravan as far as Sairaw, collect his pay, then book passage on one of the legendary sky ships that sailed back and forth over the world. According to Rogar there were only three such ships in the world and all of them visited Sairaw on a regular basis.
Descending from the sky to the land he was going to save from itself was an image that tickled his fancy and his smile broadened beneath his face-covering bandanna.