Fruit from a Poisonous Tree
Disclaimer: I don't own ElfQuest and I make no profit with this work of fiction.
This new forest is rich with fire and water. The air carries water in the form if tattered wisps and the promise of rain later that day, the sun is as white-hot as above the Sun Village, yet more generous here. There is nothing between Timmain's skin and the air but her own hair and she basks in this new wild; it has been millennia and still this world has new gifts, new wonders to present her. But the unexplored land can't quite soothe her heart now because Rayek is standing before her, his eyes hooded with pain. Behind those eyes hides her dark little sister, Winnowill. She's asleep for now but who can tell how long she will remain so?
"I must leave. I'm no fit company for anybody. I wouldn't even take Ekuar, but he won't…" Rayek's voice fades away into frustrated growl. Timmain touches his forehead, startling him.
"Do not look down on a gift freely offered. You have set your feet on a hard path." Rayek doesn't answer to her. There is nothing to add, nothing to deny and only the howls of the Wolfriders sound in their ears. They are howling for him and the song is both heartbreakingly fierce in its sorrow and cautery, cleansing. The spirits of the Palace behind her back sing with the Wolfriders, even the ones who among their numbers in life. Today, the Wolfriders will grieve him. Tomorrow they will rejoice in their new home, yet their grief is no less honest, not diminished by the joy. They simply won't gather it to their bosom, let it fester there. This is the Now of the wolf thought.
Savah is called the Mother of Memory, but she is not the first to be so. Timmain herself was the Memory of her companions, the library of her mind stretching across eons, across planets even before they landed on this one. She remembers them all, the planet that once gave birth to her race, Sillan with its snow-covered mountains and grasslands where red and purple hay and reeds reached towards the sky. Graceful spire cities still appear in her mind as though they might at any time launch themselves to the air and fly. She remembers Beujedeel, the planet of blue oceans and jewel-like islands, beautiful yet harsh Belussa with its salt plains that glittered white under the sun and the glaciers even whiter, with a few green and golden oases here and there, and many other worlds besides. Timmain of the Memory remembers much, but she also forgets many things. She does so on purpose. This is the harsh nature of immortality, she knows: no mind can bear everything of forever.
"Pain comes so easily for them, doesn't it?" Rayek speaks as though he had read her thoughts. Timmain acknowledges his words with a nod.
"They respect pain because to be able to feel pain is to be alive. They don't carry it with them wherever they go for that would be foolish." Rayek must carry this pain for a long, long time, but it is not of his own making. The wrongness of it tastes like rotten meat in Timmain's mouth, Winnowill's one last cruelty. Rayek turns as though to move away, but then he looks back up, his face carefully expressionless.
"Why? She should have been so great, the brightest among us! Why she turned out so… twisted and rotten?" His voice shakes towards the end.
Poor Rayek, Timmain thinks. This ordeal is of Winnowill's making, but Rayek is well accomplished in bringing pain to himself. First there was Leetah, lovely and strong-willed, the most beautiful rose in the garden, the brightest star in the night. Rayek couldn't get over her, not even when he fell in love with another, even more unsuitable.
Leetah was one thing, Timmain knows, for Rayek couldn't know she was meant for another. But he should have known better than to love Winnowill.
"You know already we aren't of this world. We were the foundlings taken grudgingly in and she didn't know what to make of us. I made a covenant with this world and the Rootless Ones made their peace when they founded the Sun Village and were rootless no more. The Gliders made a different choice," she tells him. Lord Voll of the Gliders had let the weight of his memories trap him in apathy darker and crueler than worldly sleep and his people had followed suit. Timmain understands how heavy immortality can be to bear in a world that is mortal, but she also knows this truth: one must not forget all pain or they will never learn from past mistakes. But wallow in it and it will collect within the soul, rot there like an infected wound. Timmain wasn't surprised when she learned that a monster like Winnowill existed. There is no excuse for what she became, but there is a story, a reason.
Let me tell you a story, Son of the Sun, of where they Gliders came, she sends to him. His mind is fever-hot and she soothes it with the calm of a winter morning and the coolness of desert rain. I do not believe you have yet seen this from the Scrolls.
A moment's hesitation, and then: Do it.
Timmain calls her memories and they come, fluttering past in their well-worn glory. Gibra had left with her son Voll in her arms to search for Haken. He would not see a lonely woman with a child a threat, she told them, Sefra, Kalil and Aerth, Kaslen and her own mate Deir who wanted to follow her. For the longest time Timmain didn't know if she had found him or what had become of her.
She had become restless, those days. She isn't sure how much time had passed since Gibra had left them, but she supposes it must have been longer than a thousand years and Deir had long since followed her steps. Timmain was a great-grandmother several times over and her tribe had become strong and flourishing under the leadership of Prey-Pancer. Sefra, Aerth and Kaslen were dead, fallen to the dangers of the World of Two Moons, and Kalil was old like her kind wasn't meant to be. Timmain was afraid that he might succumb to loneliness and grief and simply cease to live and so she thought to find Gibra and Deir for him if they were still alive to be found.
She was more wolf than elf those days even when she stood as an elf and Kalil avoided her. Sad though she was, she understood she didn't have to give what he wanted. Still, she did her best for him.
She wandered to the south, at sedate pace. She would often stop to rest when she found a good den and hunting grounds. She didn't feel hurry for she lived in the Now and she had no clear destination. She was but one person and the world was wide. It took her two years and even then it was luck more than anything else that allowed her to find the Village of Glass Blowers. Luck and the sun that glittered of the city's domes like the snow had been set on fire.
The Village of the Glass Blowers had been built on a high mountain, at snow's edge. Above the rock face that towered over it there was a glacier that never melted. The village saw summer every year, though it was short and cold, Timmain tells Rayek and lets him see the place through her eyes – smell in through her nose. There was fire under the cover of the snow, deep within the stone and from the crack on the mountain rose white steam that smelled like eggs gone bad. At ties the mountain would rumble under her paws and she doubted the wisdom of these elves for living in such a place.
The village itself was beautiful. The huts were made of two layers of glass an inch thick, a small insulating layer between them. The glass was made clear, but it was misty with steam from the inside so that it couldn't really be seen through. Inside every hut was a hot spring, like a hearth of nature they had been built around. The villagers couldn't grow food out in the cold so they kept huge tinted glass jars inside. They grew tall bean plants that climbed the walls and sweet, yellow roots, small trees that bore blood-red or golden fruit hanging from clustered branches and reeds. But they didn't grow enough.
They were a small tribe, Voll the eldest of them, but the chieftain was his younger sister Citlalmina. Gibra and Deir had both become Haken's lifemates and I learned they had indeed soothed his savage hatred. They were dead now, no more above death than anyone even when they were so high above the rest of the world. Timmain's sorrow is like an old wound that aches when the wind blows from the north and Rayek reaches towards her, soothes her even in his own confusion and fear. Gibra and Deir died when an avalanche crushed their hut. Haken was the only one who dug himself from the remains and later he wandered out into the winter night, alone and without clothes. He couldn't bear to be alone.
The three of them had four children: Voll, Citlalmina, Hama and Isillan. Citlalmina had Recognized her half-brother Hama and from this small root had been born a tribe of fifteen. This is the way it has been with all elf tribes. From five elves came forth the sun village of over fifty elves, Rayek's birth. When times are dire, recognition doesn't look into shared blood, but Recognition also sees to it that the children born out of it are whole and healthy.
Timmain remembers Citlalmina well. She had Haken's dark hair, so long that it reached down to her ankles. Her eyes were her mother's, brightest green, and she had passed her hair on to her youngest daughter, if not those eyes. Her daughter's name was Winnowill.
"Winnowill had a mother!" Rayek shouts, then flushes with embarrassment. But Timmain can feel what he feels and she shares the sentiment. Winnowill has made such a monster of herself, an ever-present shadow, almost a force of nature if nature could ever be so cruel; it is hard to imagine her as anything as normal as being born from a woman. But woman-born she is and her mother's name was Citlalmina.
They accepted me gladly, even when they could feel I was different from them, but the way they were… I couldn't accept it. They created much beauty, but they… tormented themselves. Oh, this is a painful story to tell. This Timmain doesn't lay at Haken's feet. He was passionate, too passionate in the end, but he loved living, he loved his body. He wouldn't have done this to himself, wouldn't have done this to his children. Now Rayek sees what Timmain saw then and his shock is sharp and sudden like the first lightning of a storm, his horror like a hundred insects crawling over bare skin. The Sun Village has known drought and hunger, but even during the harshest time no-one was so ravaged.
Citlalmina had her father's hair and her mother's eyes, but it was hard to say which one her build came from because her body was all sharp angles and skin stretched over bone. Just gazing her wrists and ankles had made Timmain sick. Her hair was still long and thick, but it had lost its life and lustre, hanging sadly down her back like a bundle of tangled deerhair. The whole tribe was the same, the delicate build of an elven face sharpened into bony triangles and too-sharp noses, their moves slow and fragile. They had even become too weak work their craft anymore, for the intense heat of a glass forge would cause them to faint. A scent of death hung over the tribe, hiding under the sharp, tingling tang of the hot water that permeated everything, but forever-present regardless. Clearly they still had some last vestiges of good sense because the children were the best-fed of them. At first Timmain offered to hunt for them, believing them simply foolish. They lived much too high on the mountain to be farming people. They should learn to hunt or move down to the fertile plains, she told them.
Then she learned the terrible truth.
"They did that to themselves on purpose!"
Yes. Timmain doesn't lay this at Haken's feet. Maybe the self-starving had its roots in gentle Gibra's yearning of times past, before the palace crashed onto this world ten thousand years before its intended time. But had she known what would come of her daughter, her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren after her death, she would have been horrified. Maybe the Gliders never had a fighting chance in the first place, for origins like this. They were fruit from a poisonous tree.
They didn't wish to be part of this world. They had already made their home as high as they could, to keep most of it below, apart. They took to glass blowing to create other-worldly beauty. Many of them learned to fly and they would fly so high they could barely breathe and their skin turned purple from the cold. There is anger now, hint of blood on Timmain's tongue and Rayek shares it with grim satisfaction. Immortal as we can be, even we still have to eat. And this Citlalmina resented bitterly. She had somehow convinced them all to follow her example, to "purge" the dirty, mortal world from their bodies by fasting continuously.
Meat to be wasted! This is Rayek, startling even himself, but the Wolfrider curse has never fit better, never been more ironic.
She hadn't let them simply be, though Citlalmina cursed her harshly the first time she returned to the village with a mountain goat. These people were fellow elves and she couldn't allow them to starve themselves to death. She cooked the meat so its scent would reach the dull sense of smell of these elves, and they started to give in to the temptation, to the demand of their own bodies. The children came first, Winnowill the first to boldly chew on a piece of jerked meat in front of her angry mother. Citlalmina had slapped her own child then, and no-one was more surprised than she when Winnowill slapped back. Many of the adults followed suit, though they fought themselves longer.
Life won. In the end Citlalmina had only four followers left, among them her lifemate-brother Hama and her brother Voll. Timmain shows Rayek younger, kinder Winnowill, begging on her knees in front of Voll. You are the eldest brother, she says, please! Eat this! She holds a bowl of rich broth in her hands, another full of mashed roots lays at her feet. Voll shakes his head, but his face is pale like the snow outside. You don't want to die, do you, Winnowill asks with tears in her voice. It takes our kind a long time, but we will die eventually and then we'll be spirits with no flesh, is that what you want? You are the eldest child, take over!
It is curious that Winnowill didn't beg her father to give life a chance, but Voll. Later they would become lovers; maybe she loved him even back then, when her breasts were merely budding and her hips were still child-lean.
This is a painful truth: no-one is born a monster. Winnowill was a good person once, a long time ago. Citlalmina didn't start out the way she ended up either, though Timmain never found out what went wrong with her. But she knows how it all ended. Voll ate and Citlalmina snapped for good.
She hadn't known to expect it. She knew that Haken had tried to kill her when their friends chose her way over his, but now she thought more like a wolf than an elf and bitterness wasn't something she fully comprehended, hatred and revenge even less. When she forgot herself she crouched down in the hut she shared with a glider-woman named Ahuili and walked on all fours until she noticed the strange looks from her host. Fire made her flinch back and she escaped the madness of the village to the hunting trips that became longer and longer. When Citlalmina tried to kill her, she almost succeeded simply because it came as a complete surprise to Timmain.
Had she been stronger things might have gone differently, but she had starved herself too weak to strike me dead. She jumped off a cliff later, and three others followed. The tribe abandoned the village later, some by feet, those flying who could. The Glass Blowers are no more.
When their minds separate it's dizzying. The story tore at an old scar, but Rayek deserved this much at least, an answer. It isn't an excuse, but it is a reason. When Voll later sequestered his tribe within Blue Mountain, Winnowill probably saw the same malady in him that had taken her parents, sent them falling to their deaths. So she sent off the preservers that they couldn't find the palace and she hurt people so she could heal them. Lord Voll fell prey to apathy, Winnowill to the sort of hunger that has a snake eating its own tail. The Gliders chose to not escape from the crumbling mountain, to become spirits rather than remain part of this world. And Winnowill chose to become a monster.
Timmain had taught the Glass Blowers to eat again, but she hadn't saved them – at least not those who later became the Gliders. They were fruit from a poisonous tree and she can only hope that the walkers among them fared better.
"There must be some good left in her. Even if it takes me another ten thousand years, the time will become when she's no longer the bane of our race," Rayek swears. She called him Son of the Sun, but maybe Desert Son would have been more appropriate. His will is like the harsh sun beating on dry sands, his future like a desert path stretching into the horizon. He has had his own brushes with the dark side of their race, has tried to force others to his will, has caused great pain… but he has risen above it, or so she believes. Maybe he truly can help Winnowill.
Savah approaches them, her fine veils rustling in the playful wind. Timmain can't hear Leetah at all, so good a forest dweller she has become, but she smells her, one of the sun-kissed. Rayek follows her look and stiffens. She's sure that he cannot bear pity now and pity Leetah would offer. This is why she simply gestures Ekuar to follow Rayek. Kind Ekuar who wandered over and waited patiently without a sound until their conversation was over – she doesn't know the tribe he is from. Maybe he's a descendant of the Glass Blowers as well. Timmain would like to think so.
She contemplates Winnowill as Rayek walks away from the Palace, never turning to look back even when Leetah shouts after him. They are so similar in so many ways. Both of them made a covenant with this world, wished to be part of its seasons, its ebbs and flows. Both of them made a child with this world: Timmain's son Timmorn Yellow-Eye the half-wolf, Winnowill's Two-Edge the half-troll. (Of course, the trolls aren't really from this world either, but Timmain doubts Winnowill had known it. And they are mortal.) Winnowill had been on the cusp of the same epiphany she had found the night she pressed Adya's lifeless, bloody body to her chest, the night she sang her sorrow with a distant wolf.
The Wolfriders are singing now and she sings with them, for a lesson not learned and pain never let go.
AN: I made the rating so high because of the incest mentions. The Word of God has never outright spelled it out, but the truth is that the Sun Village was founded by five elves, that (according to Savah) the Wolfriders were the first tribe they ever came in contact with and that the whole founding population of the World of Two Moons was, what, sixteen? No more survivors have been mentioned even in subordinate clauses. And since nine of those survivors weren't even part of Timmain's group that founded the Wolfriders and Haken and Gibra left it later...
I can only assume the Recognition makes sure that any children born are healthy.