First off, for extra reading pleasure, here's a poem you might recognize a certain line or two. You don't have to read it, but it's a very nice/sad/weird poem.
people .virginia .edu /~ sfr / enam 312 /prufrock .html (without spaces, because FF really hates links).
This was originally a oneshot! But it ran away from me and never looked back. So now I'm dividing it into four chapters. I planned ahead! For once! And while I tried to make everything consistent, there might be a few canon errors, so, um, there's that. (It's hard to keep track!) Also, tons of headcanon, and interpretation of characters that are only barely mentioned in the books. But luckily, it's all about Alfred, who is a precious flower. :)
Also, I really like that poem, but am no expert, so don't hurt me, poetry experts ahhh.
Yesterday had been Coren's name day. Nineteen cycles come and gone, marked by a small, if slightly somber celebration, and shared with few friends and fewer family members. A day marked by the giving of his name -a common name- but one that his father had liked and wanted to give unto his son. His presents consisted of a few books, most of them copies from the Sartan library that he could now add to his own growing collection. Simple little things for him, for that was all he really desired.
For the most part.
So it might've been seen as strange that Coren would still go to the library tonight, late enough so that no other Sartan would be lurking around the shelves or be seated at one of the many tables. And it might've been strange that, even though the presents he had gotten were with him still, their covers intact, their pages crisp and perfect, he had left them on one of the tables, giving his attention instead to other tomes; older, close to falling apart, the magic preserving them not having been maintained well enough.
Yet it was not just the young Sartan that was an oddity. A crack ran along the right wall, a globe of light hung suspended in midair that was now more faded than the rest, close to dimming completely. Even some of the sigla traced along the shelves, the tables, the walls, the ceiling- some were half-erased, their soft blue light no longer as pronounced, their commands no longer as, well, commanding.
But that's what they were- little things that one could pass by, that one could forget entirely. Except there were so many, and all they did was remind Coren of what was happening, of what could be done. If anything could.
A cousin of his had just passed away this very morning. She had been younger than him, bold, possessing magic with a certain vigor that had made her future very promising. And now she was dead.
She and Coren had been the same age.
Hefting a particular heavy book, this one much older than the rest, he lifted it from its resting place, humming soft melodies for the words on the pages to stay clear, for the cover to stay intact. He had found it in the back of the library, wedged in between other, newer tomes, and behind even more, so much so that he had to whisk away the others with a quick spell just to reach the old book.
It had been forgotten by the elders, an old relic containing histories of the ancient world. Usually such things were well-cared for, especially remnants of the worlds that had been one before the Sundering. But then, the library itself used to be better maintained, and now there were books in the wrong sections, papers on the floor. The remains of past frantic searches for answers, too preoccupied to put everything back in perfect order. At the very least, much of the library was clean now, for Coren had been the only one to even bother with such a mundane task.
But now he was doing his own research, and unlike other Sartan that had visited throughout the day, he didn't trip over his robes frantically, or drop the fragile book from his hands. His even steps took him to the table, gently laying the book down. There was not even a ruffle from the pages throughout his entire movement.
It was an old, useless thing. That was why it had been pushed to the back, why no one else in their search had bothered with this book. Because what use could anyone have, in these silent times of crisis, with a book of forgotten poetry?
He wasn't really sure himself why he wanted it.
"You are always in a book now," his mother had said a few days ago. He noted how weary her voice had been of late, and how her steps moved just a bit slower. She was still healthy and not at all old. "More so than usual, Coren."
"Oh. Well… there are just so many interesting subjects." His answer had sounded just as weak to his own ears, and the images they brought faltered. They were of crowds of white-robed Sartan that filled the streets, of each face rapidly disintegrating one by one until only a handful remained. An exaggeration, of course, but still his imagination could get the best of him. It wasn't like he really believed it.
She had smiled then, but not like when he had been a child, when his father was alive. There was a lot about her that was sad now. It suffused their home, the streets surrounding it, and would grow even stronger when he passed by other, older Sartan with the same expression. It made him feel incredibly guilty, but leaving his home under the shadows of the Lords of Night, when all slept- it allowed him to breathe.
To be truthful, he was not sure what he could have told his mother. Books about past Sartan history, about details of the other sundered worlds, or even about their ancestors and the famous Council- such things would provide advice, maybe even answers. And his recent fascination with incredibly ancient mensch poetry was a comfort at best.
And maybe that was all he wanted.
So he turned to a certain page, penned by a certain author, filled with a certain verse. And he read, and re-read as much as he pleased.
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky,
Like a patient etherized upon a table.
There would be time later for the other books, he told himself.
"You stayed longer than usual tonight."
He found Lya seated by the lake, far away from civilization, the forests of the hargast trees seen from the distance. Her knees were folded beneath her, her white robe pillowing out upon the ground. Her hood was down, showing off her tangled, white hair, for the sky was dark, and they were alone.
Coren allowed himself a self-deprecating smile. "Sorry I kept you waiting. I, um… got distracted."
Lya raised her head, grinning in turn. "Yes, I know how that is."
She held nothing in her hands this time. A rare occurrence, for the metal scraps she carried around were her own strange fascination, yet the treasures of her Drevlin home were nowhere to be seen. Coren, in comparison, carried five thick books in his thin arms, their weight only lessened by the magic he had cast over them. A rune flickered pleasantly on one of the covers.
Lya's gaze flitted over to them, taking inventory of their details like she would with her brass metal cogs and pipes. "You haven't even opened them yet."
He sighed, taking a spot next to her on the grass. He carefully set the books aside. "It's not that I don't appreciate…"
"I know." She slipped her hand onto his own, her fingers slightly chilled from the night air. "Was there anyone there?"
"No. So I really thought I would be able to read them if I was by myself. But there was a bit of a mess there, and, well, I didn't want to leave it like that-"
"So you got distracted."
Her voice was warm in her jest. It made him laugh a little, made the breeze feel pleasant against his skin.
Other Sartan didn't come out this far, past the tall spires of the center of civilization, and certainly not past the houses for the human mensch living under their care in their own section of the cities. It wasn't really part of custom to keep such secret places from other people, but they were young, and these times were troubling, and why couldn't they have just a place for them both? So they would meet with each other here after the day, before the vast lake that stretched out before them in perfection, and ignore the fact that council meetings were being frequently called, that even the mensch walked around the grounds with worry.
Neither said anything for a little while. Lya leaned against him. He circled an arm around her, his heart beating slightly faster. He closed his eyes, feeling incredibly relaxed, though trying his best not to fall asleep. (That had happened once before with both of them, and the resulting day after had been filled with hurried excuses and some embarrassment). But he must have dozed off still, for Lya's voice broke through suddenly, making him wonder at the rippling lake before them.
"I don't think you cleaned up at the library for three hours straight. What else did you do?"
He blinked, then stammered a little. "O- Oh! Was it really that long?"
Lya smiled wider. She leaned in to give him a quick kiss on the cheek. "Really."
The feel of her warmth and the night's cold air made him a little dizzy. "You didn't have to wait such a long time for me…"
"Don't worry. Ivor was spying on you before, so that's how I know."
Her words were full of amusement, dispelling away any guilt he might have felt before. He grasped her hand tighter, remembering how dim the light globes of the library had been.
"I was reading something else," he said, his voice low. "I've been reading it for a while, to be honest."
"What is it about?"
"It's nothing much." But images floated at the sound of his voice, portraying strange words on a page, arranged in a specific verse, detailing a rhythm not so different from a song.
Lya saw, instantly understood. "I was never one for poetry myself," she admitted. "And mensch poetry goes over my head completely."
"I don't really understand it much either, but… I guess I like it." Maybe it was the strange play of words, or the images they created- but it made him calmer, as if the world was easier to go through. It was hard to say it aloud, but Lya read his thoughts easily and the magic still running from the memory of his voice, the language portraying everything between them with a still clearness.
"Perhaps you should show it to me another time," she suggested.
Coren had actually thought about making a copy of the book. It would've been a simple, easy spell to perform. But he had told himself he didn't need to. He could not allow himself to be that selfish. "Maybe tomorrow," he finally said.
"What is the poem called?"
"Oh, it was… um…" For some reason, he couldn't remember the title. He would always skip right ahead to the verse. "The Love Song, I think."
"The whole title?" she asked, for she had seen the images, recalled the imprint of words, even if Coren could not.
He furrowed his brow in thought. "The Love Song of…Alfred?" He smiled with embarrassment. "I just started reading this particular poem a couple of days ago."
"Alfred," Lya said softly. She smiled, brushing up against his arm. "I don't know about the poem, but I do like the name."
Eventually, Coren's days of reading had to be cut short. It was a particular incident, a Sartan dropping dead at the feet of a wide-eyed human male, that made the demigods tasks even more hectic. It was then decided by the elders that, due to current circumstances, the mensch would have to leave the High Realms.
So it was up to many of the young Sartan -including Coren- to deal with their angry, weeping, frightened worshippers. Dozens of faces, composed of many humans and a smattering of elves, filled with the same confusion. He had never felt so helpless then, especially as one young woman had dared to clutch at his arms as she begged for mercy, all the while questioning how he could be so cruel to force her from what she now considered her very home, and knew that he should not have felt such a thing at all.
It had lasted no more than a couple of days, but Coren felt like he had aged decades until the last remaining mensch was transported back to the Mid Realms. He had been tempted more than once to tell them just why all of the Sartan were moving them away, that they were fewer now, that events were not going according to plan as expected.
But instead he told them, "There is much more room down back in the Mid Realms for you all. With your magic, you can now help each other, you can all live in peace." They were echoes of his elders instructing him on what to say. And soon, he had said the same phrases so many times to so many faces over so many hours, that he no longer even knew what the words meant anymore.
"It is because they fear us," he had overhead one man say to another, one of the few human wizards who had learned to control the quicksilver dragons. "We do not have to suffer this. We live here as well!"
For a short, still moment, he thought the mensch would fight back. That the elves and humans, with their people skilled in their own magics, would challenge the Sartan, despite their lack of knowledge of the runes. And it was in that moment that he was afraid, for the elders had not told him what to do should such a thing happen. How could anyone anticipate that?
But his worries were for nothing, for by the fourth day, all of the mensch had left the High Realms, the very last one disappearing from the floating isle of Shegra. He tried to ignore the fact that the humans and elves pointedly self-segregated themselves from the other. Surely even the mensch knew that war would lead to nothing good.
The streets grew quieter then. Even when he was in the Sartan parts of the city, he could recall raucous voices in the breeze, the cry of children, as well as the bitter arguments between the races. Now there was nothing.
He was sure the mensch could come back some day though. There would be time for that, and wasn't time all that the Sartan really needed?
Still, no one was sorrier to see the mensch go than Ivor.
After their departure, one of Coren's new duties was to clean up the mess the mensch had left behind. Trash littered the wide cobbled streets, and some doors of their houses were left half open. Sometimes he would even find spare furniture just lying on their side on the pavement. He was not sure why this was so, since the mensch knew that the Sartan could have transported all of their belongings with ease. And then he saw the remnants of a chair dangling out of a broken window, remembering how angry the mensch had been.
Sighing, he went inside the house, preparing himself to find broken plates and crockery to brush away. Instead, he found another Sartan man around his own age, sitting cross-legged on the living room floor, looking at something in his hands. Coren instantly recognized the tied-up knot that held up the other's long white hair.
"Ivor? What are you doing here? You weren't assigned for this."
The other whirled his head around, at first looking a little surprised to find another soul with him.
"Oh! Uh, nothing bad. Promise." He laughed a little nervously, pointedly keeping the object in his hands hidden.
"I wish I could believe that," Coren said flatly. "I really do."
"That's a little hurtful." Ivor turned himself around, still sitting. "I just wanted to get something from here. To remember her by."
"Who are you talking about?"
"Kyra. The human girl that used to live here." At this, Ivor sighed happily. He held up a bright red ribbon in his hands, the kind that some girls wore to tie up their hair. "She was really beautiful. I was going to introduce her to you and Lya, but then all this happened and well…"
Coren hid his exasperation well. It had been several weeks since Ivor had fallen in love with another mensch girl. Despite being older than Coren by a few cycles, Ivor certainly didn't let minor issues like rules and inappropriate conduct ever get in the way of his never ending romances.
"Heh, it was getting harder to sneak over here lately, let me tell you-"
"I, um, would rather if you didn't," Coren said quickly. Ivor didn't know when to stop giving out details about his… activities.
Although… Ivor did look a little stranger today, more thoughtful. He was once again looking down at the ribbon in his hands, idly wrapping one end of it around his finger.
"It's going to be way more dull without them now."
Coren took a moment to answer. "It was for the best, Ivor." They couldn't risk another Sartan dying in front of the mensch's eyes. "Besides, it's time for them to be live on their own, without us. At least, for now."
"I suppose. But should we really let our children go out there alone like this?"
That was what the Sartan elders termed their mensch charges. And Coren, for some reason, had never felt comfortable with it. "But they're not our children. I think you would know that more than anyone."
Ivor blinked, then grinned. "That's true." His words were brief, but images leaked out from them all the same- images that should have been private. Coren instantly waved them away, knowing just what they would entail.
"Can you please not do that?"
"You were the one that reminded me of it," Ivor said, deflecting the blame.
Coren rubbed his temples. "Never mind. Just… I have some work to do."
"Okay, okay." Ivor stood up, the ribbon now firmly tied around his right hand. He was not a short man by any means, but he still only came up to Coren's shoulder. "Oh, that reminds me. Selyse didn't live too far away from here. I wonder if she left something of hers behind as well."
Coren was a little sad to find how unsurprised he was by Ivor's statement. "Sounds like you have a full day ahead of you."
He was already calculating how long it would take to clean the mess off the floor. He noted some spare clothing draped across the chairs, a wooden bowl off to the side, and some utensils scattered. He had to take inventory as well which, despite his magic, was still a rather tedious task. He also had a suspicion that some of this mess Ivor had helped make, but at the very least it gave him something to do today besides contemplating.
Ivor was already leaving the house as Coren whispered the runes aloud. A quarter of the floor was already being cleared away, until he was interrupted.
"Hey, Coren?" Ivor called out from the doorway. "Do you have any idea what's happening?"
Coren lowered his hand, the spell forgotten.
"I'm asking because, well, you're always reading now and maybe if you found something-"
The words to the poem floated through his head, but he suppressed the image easily enough. "I only know as much as you do."
There was a short silence, which Ivor easily filled with amusement. "Maybe it's the ancient Patryns come to wage war on us again."
Coren shivered. "D- don't even joke about that."
"Who can know for certain though? They might be hiding under our beds right now, sharpening their claws and ready to pick the marrow of our bones clean."
Coren stared at him blankly. "I think you're confusing Patryns for cougars."
Ivor laughed, running a hand through his hair. "It was just a theory."
If anyone could make light of a bad situation, it would be Ivor. Coren did appreciate it a little, knowing that the other had lost an uncle only a couple of weeks ago.
"Even as a theory, I probably wouldn't suggest it to the elders, claws and all."
The older Sartan smiled good-naturedly. "True. I guess I'll leave you to it then." He quickly uttered the magic, a transportation spell, the melody of it pleasant. Runes shimmered in the air. "Farewell, Brother," he said, finally using the formal phrase.
"Farewell," Coren answered in turn.
Ivor waved as his body started to disappear. His smile turned into a grin. "Make sure to check your closet tonight also."
Coren made sure to frown disapprovingly, but not before the other was already gone.
How many months had passed, Coren wasn't entirely too sure. But with the days came more and more tasks, slowly laying on his shoulders until he finally noticed the weight. The Sartan had convened on many meetings much more frequently now. They couldn't spare much people to help supervise the mensch in their new homes, needing all their magics to support the shield of the High Realms. Only a very few handful volunteered to keep up their duties there, like Ivor, despite the suspicious glances his way.
There had also been talk of random skirmishes between the races, of clan wars being fought between the humans. Coren had certainly not expected that the humans would fight against each other, but the elders has assured him along with his other brethren that times of difficulty was to be expected.
Yet still, more of the Sartan were dying. Including his own mother.
At the time, he wasn't sure how to deal with it. He had found her himself, walking into the house and seeing her lying there on the floor, her robes tangled around her form. A chair was overturned by her side.
There had been a funeral, one of several that month. But he couldn't stay for much too long, and had left soon after to go the library. He picked out that same book of poems, and re-read that particular page until he could recite it by heart.
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time.
It didn't seem to comfort him as much anymore.
He must have stayed at the library for hours, for when he looked out the windows, the sky was already very dark. He blinked, his back feeling very stiff.
He didn't want to go back home. It would be too empty, too quiet. And suddenly, he remembered how he had avoided his house for a long time before, unable to take his mother's sorrow. Guilt took hold of him, hard and unbearable. She had died alone because…
He made for the double doors, leaving the book on the table. He couldn't really see where he was going. Everything was suddenly too blurry and distorted. He felt the breeze hit his face once he made it outside, but the darkness overwhelmed him, so he just stood there. Waiting, waiting.
A hand grasped his wrist, making him flinch. But he recognized the touch, soft as it was.
Lya stood by his side, her hood over her face. "I'm sorry."
He knew then what he wanted. Her arms, her face, her voice. She embraced him tightly, and he buried his head in the crook of her neck. He no longer bothered trying to hold back his tears.
They walked out of the Sartan city soon after, passing through the abandoned mensch towns, going to nowhere in particular. Coren would've liked to have gone to the lake, but it was dried up now, an empty hole in the ground.
Lya was holding his hand, leading him during their stroll. When she spoke, it was a pleasant intrusion, for their time before had been filled only with silence. "I think that we will be moving soon."
He swallowed, his throat feeling a little dry. "Moving?"
"I… overheard some of the council members talking," she said in a guilty whisper. "I never meant to, but I was seated by the wall, busy with my machines, so they didn't notice me."
The image of her, sitting on the floor, her eyes so intent on her work, made him smile. The ache in his chest dwindled.
"There are still so many things to finish with the great machine," she said, then stopped, realizing she was getting ahead of herself. "They suggested that we all move to Drevlin. To the Low Realms." Pictures floated before her, of twisting tunnels, of constantly moving valves and cogs, and of dark, rumbling storm clouds. He could feel her fondness for it all, a homesickness that she had always before kept in check.
He hadn't been to the Low Realms for a long time- not ever since he had first seen Lya there, a small girl trailing behind a white-robed crowd. Part of him hungered to go. The strange sickness afflicting the Sartan hadn't lessened on Drevlin either from what Lya had told him before, but maybe it would be different still. Because the streets here suddenly felt too wide and empty, and its inhabitants too few. The days were so quiet, with only one or two children playing in the grass. He knew there had been way more before, he was certain.
To move all of their people was a heavy decision, just like with the mensch, and he knew it was more than just a need for a change of scenery.
"It is because of the shield failing, isn't it?" Because how could they protect the mensch and themselves? When they couldn't even the stop the green trees from wilting away?
Lya tightened her fingers around his hand. "It is probably only for a little while. Once we finish with the machine, things will change."
There were already too many changes going on. But Coren held in such words, as well as his thoughts. It couldn't hurt to hope. "I'm not so good with technical things," he said instead.
"I'm sure we'll find a place for even a bookworm like you," Lya teased.
He still had his smile. It was hard to put it away, especially when she was near, when she seemed to somehow make things easier.
"I don't really care where we go," he admitted, staring at her, swallowing away his fear. "As long as you're with me."
So when she smiled back, he was convinced everything would be okay. It would, he told himself. It would.