Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Quests Episode 1: Training With the Elders

And now I am proud to present episode one of Quests! You can read the series prologue here.

Please note that I will only add back links to the prologue and the previous episode at the beginning of each new episode. I will also forward link to the next episode at the bottom of each post so you can continue reading if you go back to read a previous episode.

Part One

Episode One: Training With the Elders

One spring day in the elves’ kingdom, Wilderlah, the young elvin princess, Beritta, ran up the rocky, pine covered slopes to her favorite quiet spot. The long points of her ears stuck out past locks of dark blond hair, shining like gold thread in the brilliant sunlight. Her quiet spot was a slanting stone in the shade of a tall pine tree. Beritta climbed onto it, sat down and tucked her long legs against her chest. She turned her bright blue eyes to the tall rock face to the north, looming high above one of the gaps, which were the easiest way to enter the city. On this rock face stood elvin guards, ready to shoot down any enemies who passed below them. Beritta wondered if anything ever took the guards by surprise. Just down the hill from Beritta’s rock, the edge of a lake poked out from behind a grove of evergreens, mirroring the sky. Beritta sat for a while, drinking in the warmth of the sun and the beauty and peace of the forested hills.

A voice broke the silence. “Nice day isn’t it?”

Beritta jumped in surprise and nearly fell off the rock. She turned to see her best friend Faralasa grinning at her, laughter dancing in her warm brown eyes. All elves were light on their feet, and could move quickly and quietly through the woods. Faralasa was especially good at it, making almost no noise at all. Her dark complexion, shoulder length black hair and the earthy brown tunics she favored wearing helped her blend with shadows.

“Don’t scare me like that!” Beritta snapped.

Faralasa laughed, “You make it far too easy sitting there lost in thought like that.”

Beritta scowled.

“Don’t be mad,” Faralasa pleaded. “I came to ask you if you want to come to the elders’ training session with me today. They want us to review the fighting skills they taught us. I guessed I’d find you here.”

“Oh, all right, I do want to come,” Beritta admitted stepping off her rock and smoothing her pale blue tunic.

“Race you to the northern lake!” Faralasa shouted and rushed down the wooded hillside.

Beritta dashed after her and the two sprinted downhill, dodging trees, boulders, and fallen logs. They reached the edge of the lake at the same time, a perfect tie. The surface of the lake rippled in the breeze. Glittering specks reflected off the water, turning it pale green like an emerald. The elves’ capital city was located between this lake and another, the Sapphire Lake to the south. Faralasa picked up a rock and skipped it across the water to the opposite shore.

The girls skirted the edge of the lake and headed into the center of the city. Around them the capital spread across the valleys and meadows surrounding the lakes and climbed the forested hills which sloped up to meet high protective walls of rock. On all sides were many large huts made from the interlocking roots and branches of living plants. Tree houses hung overhead formed by pine boughs tied into nests by vines. Beritta’s family inhabited the largest hut, since they were royalty. Faralasa’s family lived in one of the tree houses. All the houses blended so well with the natural world, they were nearly invisible. Beritta remembered many times when human explorers walked right through the elvin city without noticing it was there. The elves themselves were rarely seen unless they wished to be. They had ways of making themselves invisible to most eyes.

The city bustled with a colorful array of people going about their business. Many waved at the girls as they passed. It was easy to tell the rank of each elf by their looks, height and the clothes they wore. The tallest elves stood between five and six feet tall, had long points to their ears, and wore fine cloth in bright hues. They were High Elves, warriors and leaders of the creatures of Light. Both Beritta and Faralasa came from High Elvish families. Several Wood Elves balanced on branches overhead. Wood Elves were five feet tall, wore clothes which changed colors with the seasons like leaves on trees, and had slanting eyes which gave them a wild appearance. They had the job of caring for the plants and animals of all Irowasan forests. A few one foot tall tan Brownie Elves wearing simple leather garments moved through the streets running errands for the taller people. Only a few tiny elves lived in the city since most had jobs secretly helping humans in other parts of the world.

Beritta and Faralasa entered a wide open meadow and gave a respectful nod to a group of white haired elves in long robes trimmed with silver threads. These figures watched the girls with eyes filled with the wisdom of centuries. They were the elders, advisers to the elf king and administrators of law and knowledge to elves of every rank. The elders also had the high honor of teaching each new generation the skills they needed to perform the work of Light. Beritta and Faralasa attended the elders’ classes with the other elf children from the capital several times a week.

A large number of children were already in the meadow when the girls arrived. Faralasa smiled and raised her hand to someone on the opposite side of the field. Beritta followed her gaze. Unable to distinguish who had drawn her friend’s attention, she asked, “Lasa, to whom are you waving?”

“I was waving at Oakley,” Faralasa replied.

Beritta frowned in confusion. “Who?”

“The boy we always see in forest near the northern lake.”

“You mean that Wood Elf who’s always surrounded by animals?”

“That’s the one.”

The boy in question dropped his sorrowful brown eyes and ran a pale hand through his short brown curls as Beritta glanced at him.

“I didn’t know you were friends with him,” Beritta commented. “He always seemed really shy to me.”

Faralasa shrugged. “He takes a while to warm up to people but he’s alright once you get to know him.”

Just then one of the elders announced, “We will now begin today’s session. The other elders and I will split everyone into pairs. You will then demonstrate your comprehension of the fighting skills in which we have instructed you over the past few weeks.”

The elders walked around the meadow finding every child a fighting partner. Faralasa was paired with a squinty eyed red-head girl, and Beritta was paired with Oakley. Beritta made a disgusted face as Oakley moved to stand beside her. As one of the highest of High Elves, she was expected to be an expert warrior, since she would some day lead other elves in battle. Turning her back on Oakley, Beritta followed one of the elders until they were out of Oakley’s earshot.

“Excuse me,” she said tugging on the elder’s robe. When he turned to face her she continued, “I think there’s been a mistake. You see the elf you partnered me with is a Wood Elf.”

“It’s not a mistake,” the elder replied. “I’d like you to work with Oakley.”

“But you know I’m one of the best fighters in the city,” Beritta argued. “I’ll beat him in no time and it won’t even be a challenge! You should find me a different partner, one who will put up a good fight.”

“I will not cater to your pride, princess,” said the elder. “If he is below your level you can help him improve.”

Beritta grudgingly returned to Oakley, secretly vowing to go easy on him. She sized up his skinny body with an inward sigh. This would be far too easy.“We’ll start with swords,” Beritta announced with a toss of her long hair.

Oakley nodded and picked a thin curved sword from the weapons the elders provided. Beritta walked among the weapon racks for a minute until she found her favorite practice sword. It was curved, like Oakley’s but with a small blade a few inches longer than her forearm. She swung it through the air experimentally, enjoying the whistling sound this made. Oakley stretched and sliced the air in front of him before moving into a ready position with his blade pointed straight in front of him. Beritta also took a ready stance.

Once all the pairs stood ready, an elder signaled them to begin. Beritta swung her sword forward but Oakley moved at the same moment, blocking her attack. The blades met with a metallic ring, sending up a shower of silver sparks like pixie dust. They pulled back and circled each other until Oakley jumped forward, forcing Beritta to block his blow. Beritta retaliated with a series of stabbing motions which Oakley parried, swinging his sword from side to side in a quick motion and starting the fight in earnest.

They wove in to deal blows and out to avoid the other’s weapon. Their movements were quick and graceful like a dance. Beritta loved the feel of the smooth motions and the fire in her blood which made her powerful. Usually she was faster and stronger than any elf she skirmished, but that day she found her opponent’s skill greater than she expected. Oakley was just as good as she was, moving his sword smoothly through the air in time with her.

As Oakley forced her to yield ground through a fierce attack, Beritta took back on her promise to go easy on him. With a two handed sweep of her sword, Beritta chopped at Oakley’s legs. He jumped back, giving her the space she needed to push herself into an offensive leap. Yelling, Beritta extended her sword, intending to smash the flat down on Oakley’s head, ending the fight. Positioning himself in a crouch, Oakley sliced upward using the force of Beritta’s leap to send her flying backward. Beritta felt the wind knocked out of her as she hit the ground and slid, raising a cloud of dust and pine needles.

By this time most of the other pairs stopped sparing and gathered to watch Beritta and Oakley. Beritta got to her feet and rubbed her sore scratched back. She glared at Oakley who held his sword in front of him with a calm air. With a shout Beritta charged. As she neared him, Oakley swung out his sword, slapping Beritta’s hand with the flat of the blade then swinging it beneath her weapon, disarming her. Beritta stared at Oakley, red faced and humiliated. She, Beritta, princess of elves had been beaten by a Wood Elf. An elder standing nearby raised an eyebrow then clapped. Beritta and Oakley both turned in surprise. A mighty cheer went up from the watching elf children.

Exasperated, Beritta faced Oakley again and yelled, “All right, I admit it, you’re better than I am! I QUIT!”

She stormed off leaving Oakley confused and partnerless.

Several days later, Faralasa found Beritta once again sitting in her quiet spot.

“I noticed you haven’t been at the elders’ class lately,” said Lasa perching on the edge of the rock. Beritta scooted back a little to give her room. “They’re boring without you. Where have you been?”

“I can’t bear to face the others yet,” Beritta replied. She stared at a patch of moss in front of her as she asked, “Are they still talking about how I was beaten by a Wood Elf?”

“That’s old news,” Faralasa reassured her with a wave of her hand. “Right now everyone is talking about the ability tests.”

The ability tests were held every few years by elders around Irowasa. They determined the rank of each elf, what jobs best suited them, and how the elves had improved since the last test. These tests also reviewed everything the children learned in the elders’ classes.

“The elders will begin the tests next week,” Lasa continued. “You should come back for them. It could be your chance to redeem yourself. Besides, I heard that the elders will give those with the best scores a higher training and eventually send them on quests for the clans. Believe me; you don’t want to miss this opportunity!”

“Do you think I can get a high enough score to be chosen for the quests?” asked Beritta, excitement creeping into her voice.

“I know you can,” Lasa replied.

The next week Beritta and Faralasa went together to take the tests. Many other elves were already gathered in wide meadows between the lakes by the time they arrived. Here in the tall grass the elves would complete the tests, guarded by dark pines which stood like sentinels on the edges of the clearings. One of the elders explained the rules to the youngest elves who were taking the tests for the first time.

“You must listen to all directions the elders give you and perform each task to the best of your abilities. Remember, it’s all right if you’re not very good at some of the tasks. The point of these tests is to determine what your strong points are and what jobs you should begin training for. Everyone will have different jobs but every job is important. Now, let us begin.”

The elves split into several groups, each group led by one of the elders. The elder in charge of Beritta and Faralasa’s group led them to one end of the meadow.

“Begin by stretching,” the elder instructed. “Then you will each come forward separately and perform the series of physical exercises I give you.”

Beritta came forward first. The elders made her twist in every direction, doing back bends, cartwheels and flips to test her agility. She felt alive and strong as she stretched muscles she hardly knew she had without harming or even truly exerting herself. The elder marked points for the amount of skill she showed as well as the skill of those who came after her. In the end he added these points up to discover each elf’s total score. When her turn came, Faralasa moved through the exercises quicker than any other elf. She ended with a few complicated flips of her own, bowing to the elder with a flourish. Beritta giggled, then covered her mouth seeing the elder’s disapproving frown. He shook his head as he marked down Lasa’s score.

He probably thinks she’s just a show-off, thought Beritta.

Once the last elf under his charge finished the agility test, the elder announced, “You will now race around the edge of the meadow to demonstrate your speed. Run three laps but be aware of those around you. I will be watching closely. You will lose points for interfering with fellow runners or the tests of other groups. Take your places!”

The children scrambled to form a line.The elder shouted, “Go!” and they were off, skirting the perimeter of the clearing at top speed. Beritta’s feet pounded out a crude rhythm and her hair streamed behind her like a banner. Just when she thought she outdistanced the other elves, a figure moved into view. Beritta sped up but it did no good. Faralasa passed her with a couple long smooth strides. Winking at Beritta, Lasa moved into the lead. Beritta noticed the graceful ease with which her friend ran. It was like Lasa was born to move fast. They completed the next two laps with Faralasa in the lead and Beritta bringing up a close second. They were far enough ahead of the others to have time to catch their breath and enjoy the end of the race. As the last elf child passed him, the elder sniffed and jotted down a few last notes.“Show me what skills you have with plants,” he said once he finished.

He motioned to the flowers and mushrooms scattered throughout the grass at the children’s feet. They all bent and touched the plants, reaching out to them with their senses. Beritta placed her fingertips on a wild lily. She could feel everything the flower felt, from the soil in its roots to the sun bathing its leaves and petals. Noticing a sharp pain in the flower’s side, Beritta removed a grasshopper who had stripped several leaves to tattered ruins. Beritta channeled some of her magic into the plant to help it recover, then straitened, breaking the connection with the lily. She stretched, watching the other elves as they focused on their own plants. With a mischievous grin Beritta extended her senses to a cloud overhead. The elves cried out in surprise and jumped to their feet as a thin rain sprinkled them. Frowning, the elder turned to Beritta.

“Did you just…” he began but she interrupted him.

“The plants needed to be watered,” she said, giving him her most innocent expression.

Faralasa went into a coughing fit to hide her laughter and the elder’s frown deepened.“We will move on to fighting skills,” he snapped.

The elder called to an elf on the edge of the meadow, telling him to bring weapons. The assistant obeyed, distributing practice swords to each elf child in turn until all were armed.

“Take a partner,” the elder commanded. “You will dual your opponent for several minutes. On my signal you will switch partners. You will continue fighting and switching partners until I tell you to stop. You may begin.”

They broke into pairs as they had when practicing several weeks earlier. Beritta charged a boy with long black hair and almond eyes. He brought his sword up to block her. The ring of weapons echoed off the hills and the boy staggered backward from the force of Beritta’s attack. She bore down on him, pressing her advantage through hard rapid blows until the boy stumbled over a tuft of grass. He flung out his sword arm in a desperate attempt to fend off Beritta. This threw off what was left of his balance and he fell flat on his back. Raising her sword and holding it to the side, Beritta held out her left hand and helped him to his feet.

“Come on, get up and keep going,” she said.

Just then the elder called, “Switch partners!”

The almond eyed boy looked relieved as he ran to find a new partner.

The rest of the fighting test passed in a blur of action, bruises, and disappointed faces as each opponent swept past Beritta in defeat. Only once did the pattern change, and that was when she faced Faralasa. As a small girl moved away, rubbing a sore arm, Beritta turned to find her next victim. Lasa was also scanning the field to see who was available. Their eyes locked. Lasa smirked and Beritta’s eyebrows met in concentration. Unlike most other elves, Faralasa didn’t wait for Beritta to attack first, but charged full force. Beritta also moved forward and they crashed into each other, blades first. All the muscles in their arms screamed in pain as they collided. They pulled apart to circle each other and regain their focus. After recovering from the shock of impact, they closed in again to trade blows. Blades flashed and connected, never reaching skin, as they predicted each other’s moves. Beritta swung at Lasa’s head. Lasa blocked and they stood with swords locked, each waiting for the other to break. They were still standing like that when the elder called for them to switch partners. They pushed away from each other panting a little. Lasa smiled and raised her sword in a salute. Beritta nodded, also raising her sword, and they danced around each other and on to other rivals.

After making the children complete a couple quick rounds of archery and spear throwing, the elder moved them on to basic skills. All around the meadow elves blended with shadows of evergreens, rendering them invisible. Some shot water droplets at each other while friends sent each other secrets on the breeze. When she tired of these exercises, Beritta gathered a few loose sparks floating in the air and formed a tiny ball of flame the size of her palm. Turning, she located Faralasa moving out of the shade of a spruce. With a grin Beritta mouthed, catch, and tossed the fireball to Lasa. Faralasa caught it on the tips of her fingers then tossed it on to the next elf, who also passed it on, turning the exercise into a game of hot potato. The ball was halfway around the meadow when a small elf girl yelped in pain, dropping it and setting a patch of grass on fire. Rolling her eyes, Beritta called to the rain clouds again, convincing them to put out the blaze.

“We will conclude today’s tests with animal care,” said the elder as the last sparks fizzled out.

They moved into the woods, reaching out with their senses to the squirrels in the branches, the foxes and badgers in their dens and the deer grazing in quiet corners. It was similar to calling out to plants save that the animals’ minds were more complex than the vegetation. If the elves’ thoughts were gentle enough, the animals came to them, allowing them to touch them and remove burrs and thorns from their fur. Beritta held out a hand to a faun. The baby came forward, sniffing all the while. Out of the corner of her eye, Beritta saw a large deer bond away, spooked by a quick motion made by a younger elf. The faun stared after the older deer for a minute before turning back to Beritta. Beritta sent out reassuring thoughts until the faun came forward again, nibbled at her hand and lay down at her feet. Beritta sat in the mixture of grass and moss beside the faun and stroked her head. Glancing up, Beritta saw Faralasa leaning against a tree with her arms crossed as a squirrel climbed her neck and perched on her head. Lasa tried not to laugh at the ticklish feel of its claws. Beritta smiled down on the faun who was falling asleep.

“Good work all of you,” said the elder, breaking the calm drowsy spell the children were falling under. “We will return to the meadow now where I will add up your points and give you your scores.”

Sighing, the children detached themselves from the animals and drifted back to the clearing, forming a line moving toward their group’s elder. Faralasa fell behind Beritta.

Leaning closer to Beritta’s ear she whispered, “How do you think we did?”

Beritta shrugged. “I felt pretty good about the tests this time. They all seemed easy.”

“I thought so too.”

When they reached him, the elder handed them their score tablets with a smile. “You girls should be very proud of yourselves. You have two of the highest scores today. In a week’s time I want you to report back to me for a special assignment.”

Moving out of the way of the other children, Beritta and Faralasa looked over their points, grinning at the results.

“We must have two of the best scores in the city!” said Beritta.

“For now,” agreed Lasa. “Don’t forget it will take several more days for everyone from the capital to take the tests.”

“I still think we should celebrate,” said Beritta.“You get some honey cakes and I’ll get a bottle of nectar juice.”

“Sounds good to me,” Faralasa agreed.

“We’ll meet back here once we have them,” said Beritta.

They split up, found what they wanted, and rushed back. Beritta ran the last few feet smiling with excitement. Her smile faded when she saw Faralasa discussing the test scores with Oakley. They turned their attention to Beritta as she approached.

“Hi,” said Oakley.

She just stared at him coldly.

“Look Princess Beritta, about the other day,” Oakley began. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you, I just got carried away.”

Still Beritta said nothing.

“Maybe it will make you feel better to know that you got a higher score than I did today.”

“I did?” asked Beritta, speaking in spite of herself. “How do you know?”

“I told him our scores, he told me his,” Lasa chimed in. “We did so well today I couldn’t help bragging a little.”

“I was so nervous,” said Oakley, “that I made a lot of mistakes.”

“Your score wasn’t that bad!” said Faralasa with a dramatic roll of her eyes. “Say, Beritta and I were going to have a little party celebrating our scores. Want to join us?”

Beritta glared at her but Lasa paid no attention. Oakley didn’t seem to notice Beritta’s anger for he smiled and said, “All right, I’ll join you.”

Faralasa tossed her short black hair triumphantly and led the others farther up the hillside to a place where they could be alone. As they ate the cakes and drank the nectar, Lasa announced, “I got the most points for speed and agility. What did you two get the most points for?”

“Basic and fighting skills,” said Beritta.

“Animal care,” said Oakley.

“I’ve seen all your forest friends," Faralasa said with a grin, “It makes sense that you’re good with animals.”

“That’s not all he’s good at,” observed Beritta giving Oakley a pointed sideways glare.

“I’m sorry I beat you,” said Oakley. “Can’t we just forget about it and move on?”

Beritta sighed.

“You have to admit, it was kind of funny,” said Faralasa. “I can’t decide which looked more silly, your face, Beritta, when it turned bright red, or you, Oakley, standing there with that bewildered look after she left!”

She laughed at the memory. Beritta was still embarrassed by the thought of the incident, but realized with surprise that her anger was fading. She noticed that Oakley looked just as embarrassed as she did. Perhaps, she thought, we have some things in common after all. She resolved to be a little nicer to Oakley, though it would take time before she could truly call him her friend.

Continue to episode 2

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