ut Mother, I want to go with you! I'm tired of staying in the Isle all the time! I want to go outside!"
The older elf smiled ruefully down at her small daughter. "And I'd like to have you along, my little sprite. But that's not the way of the Isle. When you're old enough and skilled enough, then you'll go."
"But that will be years!" I want to go now!" Sendings whispered up from the Lake. Stepping to the railing, the dark-haired elf looked down. Barely visible in the island's shadow, the narrow-hulled boat bobbed gently as it waited for its last passenger. **I'll be down as soon as I convince the kitling to stay--she wants to go with us.**
Soft chuckles drifted upwards. **Getting impatient, is she? Just like all the others--time for Vaerrain to tell her story again.**
Burying a sigh, she turned back to her daughter. She was growing up so fast! "Kitling." She knelt to be on the same level with the child. "You can't come with us. That's the way life is--and ha s been for a very long time. Everyone has to wait. There are reasons for it, and if you go talk to Vaerrain, she'll tell you all about it."
The pout disappeared as the eyes widened. "Vaerrain? But she--she's an Elder!"
"And is that such a terrible thing, little kit?" A voice rippling with laughter behind her caused the child to jump with a squeak. Whirling, she looked up--and up--at the tall, slender elf who had stolen up so silently behind her. The child edged backward until she bumped into her mother's legs. Vaerrain laughed again, her hair dappled with silver from the leaf-shrouded moonlight. "I have an idea--how would you like to go gliding with me, before we settle down for my story? I'll take you way up above the Isle..."
"Oh ... yes!" The child edged forward, then craned her head around. "May I, mother? Puh-lease?" Like all children, her gliding--or attempts at gliding-- was restricted to the larger rooms within the island stronghold.
Her mother laughed. "Of course, kitling!" She reached down to tousle her daughter's bright head. "Now, you listen to everything the Elder tells you, and in the morning, you should be able to tell your father all about your flight. All right?"
The girl heaved a sigh. "I guess." The pout started to return, but then, the little girl leapt into her mother's arms. "Don't be long, mother?" she whispered as they embraced. "Please? I miss you..."
"I'll be back before Little Moon dark, and don't forget to ask Farseeker, and he'll help us far-talk." Hugging her daughter once more, she set her down and vaulted over the railing.
he pain of separation was forgotten as the child clung to Vaerrain's hand, half in terror, half in awe. The Isle was so small she could have covered it with one hand. The Lake was black and silver, reflecting the moons, brighter than the surrounding land, and she could see almost all of it with a single glance. Her mother's boat was a tiny water-bug skittering towards the shore.
"So what do you think, youngling?"
She peered up at the Elder. "It's kind of scary. Being up so high. What would happen if you suddenly couldn't glide?"
"I suspect we'd find out how fast everyone in the Isle could respond to our screams," Vaerrain replied with a grin. "But I don't think it's going to happen. You want to go back in now, or listen to a story?"
The girl looked around again, and felt very, very small. And very cold. "Could we -- go in?" she said in a very small voice. "It's all--the world's so--so big--"
Vaerrain gathered her into her arms. "Whichever you want, kitling. Fast, or slow?"
Silky fabric wrinkled in her clenched fists. "Um--fast?"
Vaerrain chuckled. "Hold on then -- here we go!"
he felt much better with a honey-glazed pastry to nibble on, and the high side of a solid chair next to her back. Finger-combing her hair, Vaerrain asked her if she was ready for a story.
"I thought you were going to tell me why I can't go ashore," she replied.
"And so I shall, kitling." Vaerrain's eyes danced. "Now." She stroked her hand along the armrest, along the top of the animal figure shaped into the stone. "Do you know what animal this is?"
"It's a small-pond builder. Mother and father told me all about them--they make little isles and lakes just like we do."
"True--except it is not they who are like us, but rather we who have mimicked them. Which is why you have your problem, child. You see, a long, long time ago, we did not live in the Isle. Shortly after I was born, we settled in this valley, in some caves on the eastern shore. I grew up there, the first child of this valley, though soon followed by others. The threat of winter starvation and wild beasts did not worry me--I loved life, and knew little but joy.
"I fear I was a great trouble to my mother, always running away to explore ... oh, yes, I ran away many times--much easier to do from a series of caves, than from an island, I must admit. I remember what it was like to be your age, kitling. If I'd been confined to an island then, when there was an entire world to experience, I would have protested just as much as you do. Perhaps you envy me? Ah, but you should rather wonder how I survived those years -- or how my poor mother survived the worry I caused her.
"We had been in the valley for perhaps an eight-eight of years. The adults searched far and wide, but found no trace of humans. Most of my elders slowly began to believe that perhaps--just perhaps!-- this valley might truly be unknown and unvisited by the feared and hated ones. We youngsters, not truly understanding our parents' fear, were of course quite sure of our safety. I, myself, was quite sure. Once I learned fully my gliding skills, and proved I could hunt, it became impossible to keep me within the caves during the warm moons.
"But all that changed one year. It was a year with a mild winter and an early spring--the earliest we had ever experienced in the Valley. We thought nothing of it then, except to rejoice in the thought of a longer warm season. I was my usual, thoughtless self, wandering far. One fateful day, in early summer, I was drawn to a beaver pond, far south of the caves. I had been there many times, fascinated by animals that could build such structures. I had intended to watch them at work, repairing the dam from the spring flooding, and hoping to catch a glimpse of the youngsters born earlier that year within the hollow island-mound. But the day was quite warm, and I had been awake all the last two nights and the day between. I never fought the sleep that stole over me...
"Do you know what it is to be suddenly awakened, my kitling? With the catch in your throat, and the small tingle of surprise and fear? But, imagine, now, that you woke to find your arm held in a bone-crushing grip. And that the bodies leaning over you--so large and heavy--are not those of your kin, but those from your worst nightmares! Imagine abruptly knowing that all the terrible stories of your parents weren't just stories, but real! Even your nose is choked by their heavy stench. You are captive--by humans! Humans with tiny eyes and heavy brows, and thick, five-fingered hands. They are those who have killed your kind; killed the High Ones who came from the stars, who killed your parents' parents and their kin. They are those who tortured Tinar and gave him those horrible scars -- which you have never seen my child, and be grateful. They are killers, and you are in their hands.
"Do I frighten you? Imagine how frightened I was! Terrified! And regretting that I had not heeded all of my mother's and uncle's warnings. I had been careless. I was out of sending range. No one knew where I was. I was going to be hurt, and die, and no one would ever know until far too late! They might never know what happened--"
"But you escaped!" the girl interrupted. "You're here! What happened?!"
Vaerrain's smile was small and sad. "I was fortunate. You see, those humans did not know who or what I was. They were not ready to deal with one such as me. When I recovered from my first shock , I did the only thing I could think of--glided straight up with all my strength. That would probably have not been enough, except that the human was so surprised that he lost his grip and fell back. I flew upwards, crashing through the branches overhead, eyes closed and arms over my head. Their shouts rose behind me, but I was free of them. Still terrified, thinking only of escape, I glided above the trees straight for the caves at my best speed.
"My dear mother was outside when I landed, exhausted, bruised and bleeding from the branches I had broken through. Rarely did I feel as safe as I did that moment when her arms tightened around me. She sent to Vrayl -- my uncle and our leader -- to call him and the others back. Maka and Diirla, at that time both heavy with child, came out to help him inside the cave. There, they cleaned my wounds, content that it be Vrayl to ask the hard questions.
"He came in ... ah, he loved me, the daughter of his sister, but you would not have known it that day. He knew the cause of my condition before he spoke. And never, before or since, did I see him so angry -- or so afraid. When I had told my story, he showed me how it was even worse than I knew. In my panic, gliding straight, I had almost surely given our location away! They would not be humans, did they not seek us, out of curiosity, if not fear and hate! And how could we fight, with Therin and Taiva both yet limping from wintertime accidents, and two more far advanced in pregnancy?! We could try, of course, but how many humans were there? Were they a hunting party, or a tribe on the move? Vrayl sent Aerva and Morthrek to find the answer. But what could we do? We couldn't flee --and no one wanted to. We could defend the caves, if only by shaping the entrances closed. But what if the humans stayed just outside, waiting for hunger to drive us forth? Perhaps another entrance might be made, away from the humans. But what if they found that entrance, also? If only there was somewhere truly safe, yet which could not be cut off from food!
"The others were arguing all of this amongst themselves. I was sitting to one side, feeling sorry for myself, wishing mightily that I had some way to make it up to them all. My foolishness, my mistake! If only I could come up with the answer! But nothing came to mind.
"Then, I thought of the small-pond builders. I envied them. They were not entirely safe from predators--ourselves found their fur most desirable, if their meat rather less so. But when they detected danger, they would flee to their small made-islands. And, in winter, as I had discovered, they did not have to leave the pond to forage for food, for they had a supply already laid aside. In those little havens, they were as safe as perhaps any animal could be. I imaged ourselves the same way--"
"And then you lead everyone to the island in the lake, and were all safe!"
"Oh, not that easily, child. There was argument -- oh, yes, back and forth, all in silent sending. How could the pregnant elves get there--they couldn't be exposed to that frigid water. I suggested that I could carry them to the Isle through the air, but Vrayl doubted my strength and refused. I remembered that wood floated --- perhaps, if enough wood were tied together, the wood would still float with elves on top. But how could the wood be guided? The small-pond-builders pushed their wood by swimming along; we could do that. Or, perhaps pieces of wood pushed through the water would move it. But how could it possibly be safe? The humans could make their own kind of crossing. But it we hid, they might now know we were there, and they would be exposed to our weapons if they did try. And we would have water all around us, and fish, and the plants on the island itself. We talked, and as we talked and argued, I began to image the island as it could be--rock walls, to fend off our enemies, yet covered with the green-growing things so many of us love. Pieces of wood, perhaps cleverly shaped, could get us back and forth between the shore. We could learn to store food, so that we had no need to venture out in winter. And, as our shapers became more skilled, we could build up the island, perhaps create tunnels underneath the lake for an ultimate escape way. And those of us most vulnerable, whether to storm or beast or humans, could be protected. Perhaps, even, someday, we could re-create a faint shadow of the glories of the lost Palace. We might manage that with the caves. But an island--!--in its way, apart from the world, yet still joined to it, a visible refuge, there when we need it...
"Young as I was, and inexperienced, in the end, the elders listened to my imaginings. The two elves reported back. The humans were a hunting party of nearly six hands, and headed straight towards us. Quickly, then, we gathered our few supplies and fled to the lake-shore. When it grew dark and we were far enough away not to be heard, we began to fell trees and twine them together for a raft -- our first, very primitive boat. It was Maka who noticed that the water tended to flow in one direction, and, by going to the end of the lake, we were able to use that flow. By morning--after a few mishaps--we were all safely on the island, and hidden."
"And what happened to the humans? Did you have to fight them?"
"No. They were there to hunt, we learned eventually, observing them over the moons they were there. The valley was many generations known to their kind, but not often visited, because of distance. They wondered about the strange being some of them had met, but we were very careful not to show ourselves. They left, eventually, with loads of dried meat and skins, and a story to tell. It was some years later before we clashed with them. By then, we had made the island our home, as it has been ever since."
The girl scowled, picking a few last crumbs of pastry out of her lap. "But that doesn't explain why I have to wait until I'm big," she complained, looking up. "And if the humans didn't know about elves before they met you, why do they hate us?"
"That, child, is another story--and not a pleasant one." The girl startled and twisted around to see the Eldests in the middle of the small room. Tinar watched her with near-black eyes, the right side of his head covered, as always, with a length of material. "As for why you -- or any other child -- may not go ashore," he continued, "that was said, but you did not hear. We chose long ago not to risk our children, our pregnant elves, and the injured, if there was no need. If you went ashore now, someone would have to watch you, lest out of ignorance or lack of skill, you stumbled into danger. And not necessarily danger from humans. Before you venture ashore, you will have proven that you have the knowledge and the skill to protect yourself. We cannot prevent carelessness--as Vaerrain proved that time. But we do what we can to limit that possibility."
She twisted to peer up at Vaerrain. "Everyone waits?"
Vaerrain nodded. "Everyone born on the Isle has waited."
The girl pouted a little, then sighed in resignation. "So what do I have to do?"
Tinar answered her. "You must be able to use the knife, and your choice of spear-thrower, bow or sling. You must be able to swim the length of the underwater tunnels. You must be able to send accurately and know how to tend injuries. You must know which plants are safe to eat, and know how to make fire, weapons, and how to cure hides. Once you have that, you will be allowed ashore with two elves. When they are both satisfied that you are capable, then you will be granted shore-freedom."
"That's an awful lot of things to learn." Looking thoughtful, the girl slid off Vaerrain's lap. Hands clasped behind her back, she sidled towards the frost-haired Elder. "When can I start?"
The three Elders burst into laughter. Tinar picked her up and hugged her, grinning with delight. "Any time you want, my child, any time at all!"
"If that's what you want?"
She hesitated, nibbling her lower lip. "Well ... maybe I should wait 'til father gets back? I mean, uncle's going to come looking for me to put me to bed, and father might scold if I stayed up all night -- but can I start tomorrow?"
"Of course you can!" Tinar grinned at her, and brushed her chin with one hand. "And don't worry--you'll be shore-side before you know it."
"With always a haven to return to."