Tale of Choosing (book)

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The Tale of Choosing

(A teaching tale of the Wind Elves relayed by Matron Aberiskan Zelandoran and interpreted into the common tongue by Simon J. Bright)

Turning upon turning of the seasons, the Elvenkind of the Winds had kept the ancient traditions of the people, although our hearts soared in freedom unknown to other Elvenkind. We were the wind unrestrained on the backs of our sisters, the mares of the plains. We were the dance of the air with the keen eye of our birds of prey. Yet still, we followed the way of Ocean and the path the Two had blazed with full honor and tradition.

When the evil darkness enslaved our kin into the chains of those most befouled and hideous Dwarves and stole the sun from them, still did we march on with our traditions, although we remembered and mourned the loss of our blood kin. When Morganae rose up from the ashes of slavery with the blood of conspiracy dark staining her left arm in an obscene tattoo of our ways, and the head of the despot Dwarven King of the Mountains impaled on the pike held firm in her right hand, celebrations ran riot in joyous celebration about high bonfires of victory.

Yet, to our chagrin, our kin were much changed.

As the eldest sibling, we watched, as our hearts grew heavy with sorrow when we observed our mountain kin grow as cold as the diamonds they shape with their clear voices. We saw the mantle of tradition wrapped hard about them in a brittle armor as the ancient forms of the rituals were observed with the care of fanatics.

As the history of the bloodline unfolded, we witnessed with horror Sidhlot plotting against his liege and sister as he attempted to steal the torch of life and hope, only to sunder from the mountain those disenchanted elves who now march a death-in-life attendance upon him and his twisted plans. As we watched his dance forming those called Bone, we shuddered aghast and turned our sight away as the traditions of the blood were warped to extremes of sacrifice and honor.

Some of us kept our eyes on the clouds and the far distances of the plains, but already the seeds of change were contained within us, for our sight was tainted by seeing the fate befallen upon our blood kin. Despite the dark path they have taken from us, they are still the fruit of our bellies and blood. It is the fate of all Elvenkind that a hurt taken to the smallest of us may fester to infect all.

We tell the tragic tale of Bellastar and her beloved Klrast so we may know once again never to blindly hold to the ways of tradition and never allow it to cripple us to unnecessary folly. It is said he-who-is-never-named in the tale still walks among us, fated to spend time beyond measure attempting to make retribution for the crime visited upon Kree'laid'en, or those considered soul bound. We shall allow you, visitor to our hearth fire, to discern the wisdom of these words.

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Bellastar was the darling of her bloodline, first-born daughter of an ancient family honored not only for their strong, fearless warriors but also for the way they cherished the finer traditions of family. The fine cashmere of Bellastar was as snow, her graceful fingers forming the fine weavings with a clarity that delighted the eye and soothed the restless wanderlust that so oft inflicts us. Her soft songs accented her beauty, her long, naturally pale hair flying free in silken flight as she danced in the rituals of the year's turning.

In the ancient way of our kind, Bellastar's fate had been dictated at birth when the elders of her family sought the most auspicious mating for her. Well pleased they were to acquire the promise of mate of the shaman of a neighboring clan, his own scars of honor of those feted to him darkening most of his arm. This mating promise was achievement indeed and coup for Bellastar's blood, for not only was the bride price the shaman's bloodline paid astounding in its richness, but the clan would benefit by the honor of acquiring an astute and revered shaman into its midst. As always, our traditions dictate the mate of the bride shall be received with full honor and blessing into the fold of the family of his wife.

Alas for the plans of the wise elders! Bellastar had the beauty and heedlessness of youth. Her blood ran hot and searing within her veins, and when she gazed upon the face of her betrothed, she saw not the many years of wisdom and experience that had made him beloved of his allies. She saw not the revered shaman who stepped astutely among his gods in vision trance. Nay, she saw only an old man.

She stamped her foot with vexation as her relatives cooed over her good fortune in acquiring such a mature and experienced male as her mate. However, since such emotional displays are frowned upon after the years of youth pass, she found little sympathy among her bloodline, and none at all from her mother.

"You should fall upon your knees and give thanks to the powers that be that a bloodline suitable for you has been found!" Her mother would exclaim with complete exasperation, flinging her hands wide into the wind. "Think of your future children! Consider how well we have wrought for you!"

However, Bellastar's thoughts were regretfully less mindful of how appreciative she should be of the efforts her elders had expended on her behalf and more particular of her personal distaste and horror at the thought of the old man touching her. Long were the nights she would lie shivering with revulsion on her sleeping mat after her kin were long asleep, her tears of self-pity at her upcoming fate staining the fine wool of her pallet.

Craidyn, third daughter of a lesser bloodline, was always ready to listen with grave seriousness to Bellastar's outpourings of outrage and unhappiness. Some speculate she hoarded a malicious heart and secretly despised Bellastar's grace and beauty while she held the mask of friendship over her own scarred features. It has been said her bloodline was closely related to the clan of the lost Bone Elves, and the vat of boiling lye she had fallen into as a child had not only twisted her body into a contorted, painful crouch and mocked her face with livid scars the pulled her mouth into a perpetual snarl, but seared her spirit as black as their own. Yet others, perhaps more forgiving of nature, accused her of nothing more than sympathy towards her childhood friend and seeing the romantic tradition of many of the old tales as a way out of her dilemma.

Regardless of motive, she was quite adept at encouraging Bellastar in her tantrum against her fate. She reminded her that there would be many visitors of fine station at the clan holdings, for the time for the ritual of the Blessing of the Foals was near. She urged Bellastar to choose for herself the most handsome of these strangers and spread her wiles to capture his heart and perhaps an offer of a mate. Craidyn observed with some alacrity that Bellastar was unlikely to be successful in any deception she might attempt and decorum would not be upheld when she were discovered. The shame of being discarded in favor of a young man made it unlikely the shaman would wish the embarrassment of burdening himself with her, particularly if she were most fortunate and the Mother of all Foals granted her a new life to carry beneath her heart.

As has been said before, Bellastar was young and heedless of the wisdom in the actions of her elders. She immediately saw this foolish play as the answer to her prayers and was ecstatic. Confident of her beauty, she laid out her most beautiful snow pelts and cashmere veils as light as a summer cloud in preparation. She braided thick plumes of glossy feathers dyed rich colors throughout the fine veil of her pale hair, and painted intricate and marvelous designs upon her face and slender arms.

In the circle at the celebration of the Blessing of the Foals, her feet flickered in the dance like the spring zephyr, her slender frame a willow shaped by the caress of the wind. Many were the admiring gazes lingering upon her as a low murmur of male appreciation swelled from the outer circle, lending counterpoint to the flashing feet of the dancers. Proud stood her shaman among the watchers with complacent possessiveness wreathing his features as he watched her graceful swaying among the other dancers.

She was like a star blazing in the midnight harvest sky, compelling all to gaze upon her beauty. Her heart swelled with pride at how easily they were stunned into staring at her with rapt fascination. Or at least, these were her thoughts as she swirled into a high pirouette ...and fate took a hand.

The blazing star was transfixed, fallen to mundane reality by the smoldering gaze of a young man with eyes as dark as twilight falling on the desert sands in the cold season, blazing forth to her with a yearning that astounded her with his need and bring her heart to a sudden, lurching shock of recognition as it reverberated through her, her breath catching almost painfully as the full force of his gaze filled her being and brought her dance to an awkward, stumbling stop. Her plans of seduction were shredded to the chaos of the fates around her as surely as the desert wind rends the flesh from the bones of the dead.

Bellastar, daughter of the free winds, and Klrast, son of the fiery sands, now gazed upon each other with the startled recognition of the soul calling from across the eons of time to its mate. In this gaze their fates were sealed and the rest of the story written, for they were more surely mated at that moment than most marriages bound with full force of the law and bindings.

This was disaster indeed! Klrast came of desert nobility and was claimed in a handfast arrangement to another maiden of the sands, with a child already of the union. Elves of the sand have little use for romance, and none at all for what they derisively refer to as "star sickness". His female relatives huddled about him protectively the moment they observed the star sickness fall upon him. Surrounded by the protection of the dusky sand of their softly slinking robes, they hustled him with soft cries and endearments back to the sanctuary of the family tent. The night was rent by the sisters' shrill cries, frantic for the healer of the family to come and attend to this calamitous disability, demanding their young brother be offered ease for his suffering, if not healing from the infatuation that now caused his heart to gape wide in yearning.

Stricken by desire and loss, Bellastar sought out her friend and poured out the whole tale of what had befallen. Craidyn listened, barely breathing in her excitement as the tale unfolded. Emphatically, she swore her assistance to aid the lovers in eloping from their families, alternately reassuring the weeping Bellastar that all was possible and she would be in the arms of her beloved before another full day had passed.

Leaving Bellastar to pack up her belongings in secret, she thought deeply of how best to proceed. She garbed herself in the black veil of the seer, secreting about her person a hastily penned message for Klrast. Then, determination evident with every painful limp of her crippled leg, she flung the hood of her cloak over her head and adjusted it so the shadows emphasized rather than concealed the ruin of her face and hastened to the family tent of the Sand Elf Visitors.

Craidyn knew the superstition of the Sand Elves regarding those pathetic creatures crippled beyond reasonable expectation of survival in their harsh desert lands. With a view towards her own survival should she ever find herself lost upon the desert, and indulgence of her theatrical nature, she had studied intently their practice of denying any share of precious water unless it was believed they had been touched by the finger of one of the gods. With this in mind, she allowed her gaze to become unfocused on the shard of crystal she carried protectively in the crook of her arm and hobbled to their tent with demands she must sift the grains of the future to see the young man's fate. His sisters drew back superstitiously, casting their eyes to the dirt beneath their feet and made no attempt to bar her entrance as she hobbled painfully to the center fires where Klrast sat, staring listlessly into the flames.

Craidyn murmured as many nonsensical, yet mystical sounding phrases as she could recall and then snatched his hand to peer down at the lines crisscrossing his palm. Around her, the hiss of indrawn breath was like the cobra in anticipation, to be released slowly as she proclaimed long life filled with his heart's desire before him. As she released his hand, she pressed the hard lump of a note folded to the size of a pebble into the center of his palm, a curt nod of approval answering his sudden startled look as his fingers closed snugly over his palm. Her mission accomplished, she tarried not but hobbled from their midst, ignoring the sisters' pleas to take refreshment and her ease.

That night, under the concealing eye of Katamba in her dim light, Bellastar and Klrast crept from the confines of their family tents and met above the ashes of the bonfires. They took the two swiftest horses and eloped towards the far western mountains and in the shadows of those mountains the moons and stars above them gave witness to their mating as they became soul bound, relinquishing the honors of their past lives to transform into a new creature within one another. It is said their joy was unsurpassed by even the raptures of the gods as they had this time alone to drown within each other's gaze.

It is not to be supposed they were released from their kin without consequence. When the elopement was discovered, not only were the horror of the families at their audacity immense, but also the outrage and fury of the shaman promised Bellastar's hand was without bounds. In white hot fury, he called for the full council to meet and demanded restitution for not only the astounding bride price paid with full interest over the years for Bellastar, but also demanded restitution for the years of patience he had spent waiting for his bride to attain physical maturity.

In vain did the bloodline plead for mercy, for they could no more successfully meet his demands than one could fill a bucket with sunshine. How is one to count the value of patience? Undeterred, the shaman demanded, as was his right under tradition, for either his rights to be returned or for his vengeance to be felt. And yet again, the family answered they had no way of meeting his demands, for they knew not how to count them.

And so the Shaman rose before full council, his features an evil dark with the malevolence that oft overcomes a spurned suitor. Raising his hands high to the heavens, he called with terrible words upon the gods, cursing the soul bound mates and those who may have aided them in their dishonor to take upon themselves the form of beasts that best suited their inner soul.

Ripples of horror tore through the assembly as the crippled Craidyn screamed, tearing at her throat as her body was further assaulted by the curse of the Shaman upon her. Twisting in tormented transformation, a huge insect-like creature rose, fuming with angry hisses and clicks before it flew off. In other stories it is said she fulfilled her destiny by forming the dynasties of creatures that occupy the mountain fastness known as the Hive to travelers in these lands.

As for Bellastar and Klrast - the vengeance of the Shaman upon them twisted in its cruelty. They were soul-bound and thus the curse could not sunder them, nor could it remove their awareness of their bond from them. Yet, although their binding held, it could not shield them from the full effects of the curse. It could only cause it to warp into a most macabre fashioning to cause the finest degree of torment.

In the midst of taking their evening meal, Bellastar fell to the ground, her large jeweled eyes widening as her mouth opened to scream in agony. However, what emerged was the shriek of the snow owl as her feathers ruffled around her new form. Klrast beat upon his breast and swore vengeance to all the gods, only to discover come the dawning that the form of his mate returned to her Elven beauty as his own form shuddered and thickened to become that of the yeerhar of the desert.

And so they became lovers unable to love, for when one was under the shape changing of curse, the other held Elven form. At times, they can still be seen on the outskirts of civilization in the borderlands where the mountain ranges meet the desert lands, for he cannot be far from the heat of the sands, and she must be able to fly to the coolness of the forests. The man stalks the forested mountains with the shadow of the snow owl flying above him, while the slender woman rides the back of her desert beast during the heat of the day, forever restless and unfulfilled.

Upon hearing the dark curse fall from lips of the shaman, the council rose as one, their wise eyes furious at this misuse of power for personal vengeance. Their wills joined as the eldest of them pronounced the Shaman's actions despicable before sorrowfully commending him to his gods since he had demonstrated he was no longer fit to be counted among the Elvenkind. Almost as one, each of the members of the circle of elders swirled away from the Shaman, invoking the Rite of Hinizen as the Shaman screamed out in despair, his name and history forever forgotten from the annals of our history.

Such would have been his fate, and this tale would never have been told except for a slim hope offered by the youngest of the council. Starlieneia was but a girl-child and newly seated in the circle of council, but the blood in her veins was that of Leyu, a family well known for wisdom and thoughtfulness across the multitude of time and lives they had held seat in the circle.

As the other elders of the council turned their backs to the Shaman with a great swirling of cloaks, she stood still and watched his dismayed visage. Her keen eyes deciphered every line upon his face, every subtle expression as she carefully sifted truth from pain and evil. She nodded to herself before lifting her trained voice in a myth song of antiquity relating a tale of the tides of love overcoming the young and warping their judgment, and of the families with the wisdom to forgive and compromise. However, as she sang the song, she began to subtly weave the tale of lass who danced like the wind who was trapped in the hot gaze of a desert man and it was soon obvious to all she sang not of the past, but pointed out the strong similarities between tragedies of the past and what had befallen Bellastar and Klrast.

As her soft voice continued to sing of damages done by love and forgiveness for impulsive actions, her clear eyes sought the head of each family in attendance, deftly gaining their agreement with her sung argument before flitting to the next, her voice growing stronger and more compelling with each ally.

As she finished her song, a hush fell among the council circle. She paused for a few moments before speaking, her eyes compelling upon them all.

"Elves of the Wind, of all the traditions of Elvenkind we alone understand the value of freedom. Where would we be without our horses beneath us on the wide plains and our birds above us in the clear blue sky? I say this tragedy is of our own making, for we cannot dictate the heart's choosing. We should guard and cherish our daughters, that they may reach their full dance of life. We must not allow such horrors to overcome our daughters and lose them to such tragedy. Let us take lesson from what has transpired.

"I say that from this day forward, we sunder ourselves from the old ways of promising our daughters for mate without their consent. The family may test and guide, but they will no longer sell their daughters into a loveless servitude to the highest bidder, be it in material possessions, coin, or allegiance. Let our children choose their own mates."

She gazed at the bowed head of the shaman. "Ghost walker, I speak to you only this one time before I also turn my back upon you and forget your face forever. I could have felt sympathy for your plight, for by the law you were indeed cheated of your bride and paid dowry for naught. Yet, your reactions to this loss were no less than reprehensible and cannot be tolerated and you shall indeed lose the right to call yourself one of the Elvenkind.

"Upon head I will lay my own curse. You may not choose to cease to exist until you have cleared your own foul misdoings from this plane of life and repaired the binding of the two Elvenkind you have so befouled this day. If you succeed in this and earn their forgiveness, it is possible they may recall your name and allow you to depart this plane of Abiding with honor." So speaking, she nodded sharply as her flattened palm described an intricate arabesque of confirmation before she also spun around to present her back and complete the full curse of the Hinizen.

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So it has been since that day. We may test our young men to insure they may bring no disease or weakness into our bloodlines, but no longer do we of the clan plot for advantage with matings. We may suggest, but we may not dictate who joins our hearth fires with our precious daughters. No other among the Elvenkind allows their daughters the freedom to choose.

Bellastar and Klrast still wander in their half-lives at the edges of the desert. The Elves of the Sands have their own legends of them, and many the tale I have heard of youths gone out for their first vision quest seeing either the man with the snow owl upon his shoulder in the distance, or the woman riding upon the back of her mate. Travelers have also reported becoming lost in dust storms, only to be rescued by the couple leading them to safety. They are known by the deep pain in their eyes and by the silence of their existence, for no one has ever heard either of them utter a word. It is considered an uneasy sign from the gods to see them, for those who do quite often meet their own fate soon after in ways they had never imagined.

If you are most unfortunate, at times during the half light of the dawns and the dusks, you may see the ghost of the man-who-is-never-named skulking about the edges of the encampment, still seeking a way to rectify his actions of the past. Turn your eyes from him immediately should you see him, lest the ill fortune of his gaze contaminate your own future and happiness.