If there was one thing elves practiced above beauty, it was comfort, and fortunately, they excelled at both.
In her first few months in her new home, Tellie had been surprised to learn that Aselvians did not spend their days stiff and regal as portrait paintings. No, elves lived a long time, and as such, they learned how to live well. That meant they took all the time they needed to craft things with both elegance and practicality.
Today, that meant she faced the difficulty of choosing between several different dresses for the second day of the autumn festival.
Yesterday, her adopted mother, Casara, had helped her choose a dress since they were appearing alongside the king for the ushering in of the season, but now that royal expectations were out of the way, she could wear whatever she wanted.
In terms of comfort, it did not matter whether she dressed royally or simply. Each dress was a perfect fit, not too long at the hem or sleeve, snug but not too tight, never scratchy, the inner fabric soft as down feathers.
At last, she pounced on the dark red one, the same ripe hue as winter berries and cast over with a darker gossamer veil all etched with exquisite embroidery. She slipped into it with ease (it did not even need buttons or laces!) and pulled her hair into a quick side braid. Then she hurried out of her room, calling a hello to her new mother and father who were taking their breakfast in the tea room. No doubt, they would come down to the festival later, but they were in no hurry.
Tellie, on the other hand, couldn’t wait. This was her first autumn festival, and she’d hardly slept in the past few nights thanks to her overwhelming excitement.
She could hardly believe it, this life that suddenly belonged to her. Her, once an orphan human girl, adopted by the steward and princess of Aselvia, the mysterious kingdom of elves? And that her best friend, Kelm, should live nearby, meaning she got to see him most every day. Not just him, but other friends she’d gained along the way. Tryss, the chema healer, who often felt like another mother or maybe an older sister. The Daisha, a winged beast that legends had said passed into extinction. And Errance. Errance, the new king of Aselvia. Who in her heart was her brother and now by adoption was actually her cousin.
It was all too good to be true, and yet it was.
It was a brand new day, and the festival awaited.
The world was beginning to wrap itself in a dawnlight glow, warm colors returning to the leaves and ferns. A few birds had already been stubbornly singing, but now a whole chorus of them was rising to greet the new day. Their song, far and near, echoed up and down the mountainside.
Errance paused on the slope to peer back through the trees and saw the green meadows below him begin to brighten. At this rate, it would take him a while to get back. Well, people were less likely to notice today as they’d either be sleeping off the activities of yesterday or already caught up in a new adventure this morning.
A small growl from his stomach issued its complaint. He didn’t usually notice such a thing, but the stillness of the forest bade him to pause and glance about for anything to munch on. It didn’t take long before he found shiitake mushrooms in a fallen log, and he broke a few off. He’d been hearing the trickle of a spring for some time now, somewhere to his left, and he set off in search of it. He found the stream, small and fresh, so the source was nearby. It took only a few minutes following it up till he reached where it bubbled out from the rocks. Kneeling down, he washed the mushrooms off, flipped out his knife, and began slicing it into chewable pieces.
A rush of wind crackled through the treetops, too remote and too strong to be anything caused by the gentle weather. He kept working on his mushrooms, listening to the sound of a heavy impact in a nearby clearing, and then the rustle of something very large approaching through the bracken.
Most people would be alarmed at the sight of the enormous beast crawling across the logs, thick grey-furred, long limbed, and with wings tucked against her haunches and long tail. For Errance, the sight was perhaps the most reassuring comfort in the world.
“I thought that was your scent,” The Daisha said, finally reaching his side and bumping his shoulder with her elegant snout. “Rather far out in the mountains aren’t you? Did you sleep at all, or did you just take an all-night venture to the woods? You really don’t know anything about self-care, do you?”
“I’m eating breakfast,” he said, pointing to the mushrooms stacked in a small pile next to him.
“Huzzah for you,” she said, unimpressed. “I hope you know they’re better cooked.”
“Like you eat anything cooked.” Errance rolled his eyes.
Ignoring the jab, The Daisha looked back towards the lower lands. “It would have taken you to midday to return to the Autumn Festival if I hadn’t shown up. What, were you planning on skipping it?”
“You know, welcoming autumn was more enjoyable when Daava was doing it.”
“What a surprise,” she said. “You did do it when you were eighteen, you know. I remember.”
“But he was there,” Errance murmured. “Everything was….better when he was here.”
Instead of answering, The Daisha gave him another nuzzle, her velvety muzzle tickling his ear. “I miss him too,” she said, after a few moments. “But there are more than a few people down there who are going to miss you if we don’t get you down there soon. So how about a little morning flight?”
The amber glow of dawn was the gentlest invitation to wake and greet the day. It had never been like that in the jungle. The jungle stayed dark until the sun had risen more fully overhead. Instead, Tryss had always woken early because it was impossible to sleep late in a house with over a dozen people. Her mother would almost always be up first, rekindling the fire and preparing breakfast. Tryss would help her until the younger siblings began to stir, and then she’d do her best to make sure they were dressed for the day and kept in line before setting them loose upon the rest of the village.
Even now, as her lashes slowly fluttered open, Tryss expected to hear the wheezing snores, the patter of feet, and the crackle of a fire.
Instead, she lay in her own large, down bed, embroidered blankets snuggled about her body, listening to an almost perfect silence. Perfect because you could hear the things you normally couldn’t hear above the noise. The song of morning birds, the scratch of tree branches against the window, and very breath of the air, rising and falling in swells.
The difference between what she had then and what she had now was stark, and she couldn’t deny that the contrast felt both bitter and sweet. She missed her old home even as she loved the new one, and the tug set a strain on her heart.
Hence why she couldn’t just lay in bed thinking about it.
She was in Aselvia, and the day was ahead.
Bare feet padding upon the smooth wood floor, she dressed herself in a simple autumn green gown, twined her hair into a loose side-braid down her shoulder, painted a few leaf designs onto her cheeks with a few strokes of a brush, and headed outside and downstairs, one hand sliding against the twisting rail.
When she’d first arrived in Aselvia, she’d been given a guest suite in the palace to live in. But it hadn’t taken long for her to find a kindred spirit in Dahlya, a midwife and healer.
Tryss, all too glad to continue her practice in healing, happily accepted the invitation to live in one of the rooms of the Healing House. It was one of the rooms kept for patients with minor injury recovery who could rest upstairs in a tiny house tucked amid the branches. She was no stranger to clambering around trees and found it a familiar comfort to step out onto a leaf-tousled porch and dance down the stairs to the main house.
The Healing House was not far from the palace but it was apart from the small city that climbed up the palace hill. Instead, it nested in the forest beyond in a green glade, large beech and oaks spreading their branches overhead to sieve the sun into bright, golden shafts of light.
Stepping through the door into the main chambers, Tryss found Dahyla flitting from table to table, inspecting the carefully packed crates of pretty glass jars and vases.
“There you are, Tryss,” Dahlya said, relief washing over her face. “The wagon is ready outside, I was just about to see if I could find Ahspen to help me carry this out, but I think the two of us can manage it.”
“I’m sorry, Dah, if it wasn’t for me, you would have had your shop set up last night.”
“Don’t ever apologize for enjoying a wonderful time,” Dahlya said, shaking a hand in her direction. “Helping a friend welcome in autumn was far more important than setting up shop early. Now, we shall have just as splendid a second day presuming we can get there in time. I am fairly certain—” she paused, uncapping one of the jars and taking a deep whiff, “—that this is everything.” She held out the jar to Tryss for her to take an appreciative sniff.
For the last few months they had spent time mixing different scents into beeswax and pouring them into candles. It was a favorite pastime of Dahlya’s, shared in part by her sister-in-law, Jelere, though the latter might be helping one moment and then tucked away in a corner working on her new story idea the next.
The two of them carried the crates of candles out to the small wagon, and once it was all loaded, they climbed up to the seat, Dahlya flicking the reins with a light cluck to the mare, and headed out for the festival grounds. They took the main road through the forest, as it was still early enough not to have significant crowds, and made straight for the market which was already tingling with excitement, delicious scent, and happy chatter.
Dahya’s candle stall had already been set up by her father and brother earlier in the week, so it was simply a matter of setting the candles up on their wooden stands and arranging branches of berries and leaves among them to set the visuals to their finest. Lighting a few candles to finish off the look, Dahyla blew out the match and faced Tryss.
“Today, I stick close to my shop and talk with my clientele. It is quite enjoyable for me, but not a way for you to spend your first festival. So go on, go find your friends.” She fluttered her hands to shoo Tryss away. “Go delight in the food, the drink, the music. Speaking of music, there is often spontaneous dancing during this celebration. So who knows, maybe you will be swept away by a handsome elf or two.” She winked, muffling one of her contagious giggles behind her fingers.
Tryss flushed, but only because, outrageously, the only elf that popped into her mind was Errance, as if he would even consider spontaneous dancing.
The craftsmen and vendors were among the first to the festival that morning, making sure their trade and wares were ready to represent their hard-won work.
Kelm, no stranger to waking early, made sure he was among them, and now he stood in the tent, adjusting his carved wooden figures for the umpteenth time, counting down the time till people would start to arrive. There was a chance, probably a slim chance, that somebody would wish to buy or trade for one of his items, and while he already had a teacher in Aselvia, he by no means would refuse a second one if someone wished to take him under their wing.
Oh, but he hated waiting.
He circled the tent yet another time, looking over the other wooden carvings, some impossibly small and delicate, others incredibly enormous and elaborate. Perhaps, if he studied them enough, some measure of their skill would seep into his fingertips.
“This is yours?”
Kelm turned to see someone inspecting one of his wooden models, but not just any someone, no, it was Lady Maril, Commander of the Aselvian armies. A small wheeze escaped him. That wasn’t an answer, no, it wasn’t. “Yes,” he managed on the second attempt.
“It’s very fine,” she said, turning it over in her hands.
He studied her critical eye and had the courage to ask, “Do you carve wood? Or something of the like?”
“I do,” she answered with a smile. “I am no professional craftsman, but you may have noticed the need for soldiers is often relatively low around here, so I do other things to stay busy. My brother, Reyin, was a great craftsman, though with metal.” Her smile turned a bit sad, and she set the model back down. “So, young Kelm, do you plan to take your practice into the world beyond?”
“You will need certification from the Art Guild of Korince if you are to be hired by any of the noblemen or businessmen in West Orim. That name will carry weight even in the Eastern cities.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said again, heart sinking a little bit at the sound of that prestigious city of art. A guild with so high a standard that his original teacher had never passed certification and been forced instead work as a merchant selling wares in small towns.
“Though with skill like this,” Maril went on, “that will hardly be a problem.”
“Oh.” Kelm could actually feel himself rise two inches off the ground. “Oh, thank you, ma’am!”
“Kelm?” Tellie’s singsong call drifted in from somewhere beyond the tent, and Kelm was very tempted to nearly shout back at her, but yelling right now seemed hardly dignified. Fortunately, he didn’t need to. She came skipping inside to look for him, skidding to a slight stop and eyes going wide at the sight of Maril, the tallest woman in Aselvia and probably the strongest.
Maril smiled at her and took her leave with a bow and a slight murmur of “princess” that made Tellie go red as a beet, and made Kelm marvel all over again at the vast fortune that had befallen the orphan girl who had once scrubbed inn chamber pots for a couple of masters who did not love her.
“I just got here,” Tellie said, trying to recover from the unexpected encounter and reminder of her new rank. “I haven’t seen much. Can you come with me or….” she glanced about the tent, “…or are you going to be here for a while?”
Before he could answer, before his heart could even sink, the merchant assigned watch over the woodcarver’s tent spoke up.
“Go on, Kelm,” the man said. “I will take the name of any elf who wishes to buy or trade for your work, and you can discuss the exchange with them later. It’s your very first festival; you shouldn’t spend it standing in a tent. Go and enjoy the day with your friend.”
“Thanks, sir!” Kelm said, breaking into a grin. “Thank you very much!” He grabbed Tellie’s hand, tugging her along. “Come on, Tel! There are supposed to be a lot of games and competitions today!”
Wooden beams, intricately carved, lined the pathways, high arms spread out like branches. Woodland boughs and garlands draped between them, hung with berries and sparkling light. The light, Tellie had been told, was yet another lasting gift from Rendar. From a time when his inner light had seemed immeasurable, and he had filled many things with it, from sharp blades to these tiny crystals. They shone so bright they were hard to look directly at, and they reflected off hundreds of normal crystals woven into the garland so that there seemed to be even more of them.
Both she and Kelm strolled along the trails, mingling with the growing number of elves, and following any sound or sight that excited them. Amber rich tones of roasted hazelnut drew them to a small goat drawn cart where little brown bags tied off with string sat lined up in perfect rows.
“Two bags, please,” Kelm said, starting to dig into his pouch, but the seller raised his hand to stay him.
“I saw your woodwork first thing this morning,” he said. “I should like to buy the set of woodland creature measuring spoons, and asked the merchant to hold them aside for me. May I begin trade with offering free fare from my cart for you and your friend for the rest of the festival week?”
“Oh golly!” Kelm’s mouth dropped open. “I would say that covers the spoons!” He grabbed two bags, handing one to Tellie. “Thank you very much!”
Tellie took a deep appreciative sniff before popping a single hazelnut into her mouth. Salt and sweetness burst into flavor, the richness of the nut crunching between her teeth a moment later. “You roasted them in sugar and salt, didn’t you?” she said, delighted. “They’re delicious.”
“I’ll have a cart of dried berries later, so keep an eye out and tell your friends,” the waresman said with a friendly smile, tugging the goat forward into leading the cart onward again.
“Look at you,” Tellie said, shaking her head at her friend as they walked on, munching on their snack. “Getting all famous already.”
He’d been blushing a lot lately. Maybe he always had. Maybe she was just noticing more. Maybe she’d started noticing more ever since Errance had teased her. It wasn’t as if people hadn’t teased the two of them before, but it had hit her different when Errance had turned match-making against her. She couldn’t even quite deny the suggestion. They really were just friends, but well…he was her very best friend, and she knew by now that he liked her even more than that.
She couldn’t deny that she liked him too.
The Daisha landed in a small clearing amid a birch grove not far from the main entrance to the festival. Sounds of music and laughter frolicked on the light breeze towards them, beckoning them further in. Still, Errance hesitated, one hand on The Daisha’s shoulder for support. He wasn’t used to this. He wasn’t used to being safe. Seeing people happy. Having a reason to be happy. It was such a confusing thing, it could almost cripple him.
“Don’t get lost,” The Daisha ordered, all mock sternness, moving away from his hand and forcing him to stand on his own. “I can’t spend my entire day chasing you around.”
“You have something better to do?” he said, attempting a smile.
“I do, indeed, fine sir. In fact, there is a family with a little child who would like a flight this fine autumn day, and I must go and honor my word.”
“Funny thing, but I distinctly remember you telling me once how you wouldn’t be ridden.”
“Well, if there was a whole army of the little hellions, you wouldn’t see me volunteering. But there are so few little elves, I suppose I have the compassion to spare,” she grumbled.
“How good of you.” He shook his head with a smile. “Don’t let me delay you.”
With a final pointed stare to remind him to behave, she rambled off, tail and wing tips rustling the leaves.
Errance remained where he stood for a few more minutes, glancing about. Where to next? It felt strange to walk alone in a crowd. He could wander into the wilderness by himself without hesitation, but to wander among other people, practical strangers, he wished for some kind of back-up. Yesterday had been formal, but at least Leoren and Casara had been with him the entire time.
No help for it. He just had to walk down the festival paths and either find some place to sit quietly or run into someone he knew. So he started down the grassy trail, keeping to the side, nodding slightly at the people who bowed at him as they went past. Part of him had hoped he wouldn’t be recognized in plain clothes, after all, it wasn’t as if the entire kingdom had seen him up close in a long time, at least out of finery. But no luck, they all seemed to know exactly who he was, even if a few of them did a double take. However it was his luck that everyone seemed focused on their own thing, even if that thing was just strolling about and enjoying the scenery. Nobody was trying to stop him and talk. Perhaps, they didn’t know where they stood with him as he did not know where he stood with them. Or perhaps, he was overthinking things like he usually did, and they simply each had their purpose and were not wandering lost.
Except for that blonde-braided maiden over there who was glancing about with the same bewildered uncertainty he was feeling.
A moment later, she saw him too.
“Errance!” A relieved smile washing across her face, Tryss hurried over. “I was just thinking of heading back to Dahyla’s shop if I didn’t see a friend soon. I feel ridiculous for not just enjoying how beautiful and relaxing everything is, but….there is so much to explore, I feel I’d be lost without someone.”
“Oh,” he said, not daring to admit he was in the exact same predicament. But then, why not? Why shouldn’t he tell her? “Here I was hoping you would be my guide.”
She threw him a look. “This is your kingdom, Your Majesty, I would think you’d be the one to guide me.”
“Bold of you to assume I’ve left the palace much in these past months.”
She looked down at his feet and pointed to the mud on his boots. “I don’t think that came from walking on tile.”
The sound of Tellie’s happy squeal saved him from having to find a response. Both she and Kelm came charging down the path toward them, hair loose and wild from a morning already lived to its fullest.
“There you are, there you are!” the girl cried, her warm energy as heartening as birdsong. “I wondered if you would be about yet!”
“I’m looking for the challenges,” Kelm said, looking at Errance as if he would be the one to know all about that. “The ones with prizes, you understand.”
“I passed a pond earlier that looked as if some sort of competition was happening,” Tryss said.
“People were throwing little rocks across the water.”
“They have competitions for rock skipping?” Kelm all but hollered. “I could win something in that! Where is it?”
“Down that path about five minutes, I think,” she began, and they were off like a shot before she was finished. They were soon out of sight, their laughter lost amid the music of a few violinists perched in nearby trees, and the little wooden chimes strung from branches.
Aselvia, usually so serene and stirred only by birdsong, thrummed with heart-woven sound, and the energy of it was doing something to his soul. It was no longer sending him ducking for silence and darkness. After all, hadn’t he spent enough time there? In complete honesty, when he really thought about it, as a youth he had always sought the center of excitement in Aselvia. The crowds, the laughter, the challenges sparking back and forth. And maybe on most days he wasn’t ready for all that again, but right now, whether it be the weather, his mood, the company—
No, stop that, he was overthinking again.
He closed his eyes and just enjoyed the moment, soaking in the warmth of the harvest sun. When he opened them again, a kaleidoscope of orange and gold danced in front of his vision. A small covered cart rambled by, its racks hung with crowns of woven branches and bejeweled with maple leaves and elderberries.
He waved a hand at the merchant, who paused the white deer pulling the cart, and handed him a coin, then selected a crown from the wares. Before he could second-guess himself, he pivoted to Tryss and hung it from his hand. “For you.”
She paused, in the midst of taking a sip from the berry cider, only her eyes visible over the rim. Eyes that widened ever so large. With a nervous laugh, she accepted it, thankfully before the warmth in his face had colored his cheeks. She adjusted it on her brow, the strands of her flaxen hair catching on the twigs. “Shouldn’t you be wearing one?”
“To my relief, Leoren agreed I should be casually dressed today. Apparently only at the beginning and end of the festival am I supposed to appear grand.”
“What a trial for you.”
“It is a little out of my comfort zone, but comfort isn’t something I’m accustomed to, is it?”
With another of those small laughs—he wasn’t quite sure what they meant—she tucked loose hair behind her tiny, folded ears.
He blinked and looked away.
They meandered like that for perhaps half an hour, just wandering from shop to shop, tasting littles bits of food, observing a painter’s progress on an enormous canvas. It wasn’t long until Kelm and Tellie came racing back to find them, this time with a bouquet of flowers in Tellie’s grasp.
“It wasn’t just rock skipping,” Kelm chattered, “You had to skip the rock through as many hoops as you could.”
“I still think that getting them all through on your first try was luck,” Tellie said, raising a dubious brow.
“I’d like to think a little bit of skill contributed,” Kelm protested, pressing a hand to his heart with an air of offense. “Anyway, we won apples dipped in caramel, and then we watched an illusion performer and he gave Tellie those flowers, and there were a lot of other things to see, but we came running back, because we thought who better to win a challenge than you, Errance!”
“Hold on,” Errance raised his hand to stop the rattling stampede of words. “I’ve had my fill of challenge, thank you.”
“Not fun ones, fun ones are different,” the boy insisted.
“Fun for you to watch, maybe.”
It was his misfortune that they’d kept walking while talking and thus came upon a crowd gathering about a long cedar table bare of anything save enormous wooden flagons. Chairs lined the opposite side of the crowd, some already occupied, some still open.
“A drinking competition!” Kelm said, triumphant. “Somehow I didn’t think you elves would have one of those. Things tend to get a bit messy.” He laughed aloud at that, especially when seeing Tellie’s look of nausea.
“Unless things have changed, which I doubt,” Errance replied, “I believe the point of this one is not how much you can drink but how quickly you can drink it.”
“That’s definitely safer,” Tryss said, nodding her approval.
“Not as much fun,” Kelm grumbled.
“Oh, it has its own difficulty,” Errance said. “If I recall correctly the cider was heavily spiced with ginger, pepper, exotic cloves and cinnamon to the point that it’s almost unpalatable.”
“Did you ever win it?” Tellie asked, tilting her head.
“Stars, I don’t know that I ever entered it. I was probably too busy in more physical competitions.”
“Oh, then you must!” She said, delighted, grabbing his arm and pushing him towards the crowd.
“Did you hear the part about almost unpalatable?” He dug in his feet, not giving an inch.
“As if that would bother you!”
“She has a point,” Tryss said, folding her arms and looking a bit smug.
Errance looked between the two of them and then over at Kelm, who was no help with his wide, encouraging grin, and then he heaved a sigh of disbelief. “Fine. Fine. If this is one you think I all need to try, then I suppose it could be worse.”
He edged through the gathering, hoping not to be noticed, although that was a futile hope once he’d be up at the table for everyone to stare at. A line of elegant elves, male and female, already sat along the length of the table, but there was one notable exception in the company, and that was an old man, weathered and grey-bearded. Just because he was trim and clean now couldn’t disguise that he had lived his entire life in struggle. Jorn Olime, a human man Errance once had known only as the old miner who had shared in his former captivity.
“Ah,” Jorn said, hastening to rise and bow as Errance pulled out the chair next to him. “Ah, Your Majesty.”
“Don’t bother,” Errance said, gently holding him down in his chair with a hand to the shoulder. “You’ll just have to sit back down again. I was wondering if I would see you around today. I’m glad you came out to enjoy the festivities.”
“It is hard to move around still,” Jorn admitted. “And I’m always tired. But—” He looked about at the happy faces, head tilted to hear the sounds of laughter and music. “But I think, perhaps, that this place is the nearest to heaven I have ever been. I did not believe such a place existed in this world. All my life, I believed misery was the only form of existence. Yet here, there is a reverence for all that is holy and a grace for that which is not. I see now why you were different than the rest of us.”
“I was as lost as the rest of you,” Errance muttered under his breath.
“Your foundation was different,” the miner insisted. “And you were brought back to it.”
When Errance didn’t answer, the man cleared his throat and said in a lighter tone, “I hear this challenge has been won by the same elf for five years straight and he has won it several times before that. Have you heard which elf it is?”
“Me,” Leoren said, sitting down in the empty chair on Errance’s other side.
“You?” Errance gave his uncle a look of complete incredulity.
Leoren laughed. “Please, you almost insult me by giving me so little faith.”
“I don’t remember you ever winning it before.”
“That’s because Reyin was always winning it before,” Leoren said grimly. “But I daresay these days I could even give Reyin a run for the prize. I have built up a proud tolerance to the spice. This is one thing, my dear nephew, that I do not believe your celestial light will help you with.”
“Well,” Errance said, cocking a brow. “We’ll just see about that. I don’t suppose it will be so very strong.”
Two elves came from either side of the table, pitchers in hand, filling each enormous flagon set before the contestants. Errance could smell the heat of the cider as the golden liquid rushed to fill his carved cup. Once each cup was filled, the waiters stepped away, and the competition judge came in front, a fair enough distance back to see the length of them. She lifted her hand, calling, “Raise your cups to the king.”
Wait, but he was participating, could they have chosen somebody else to raise the cup to??? Had that always been a part of the ceremony?
Never mind, never mind, he’d just raise it to his father, a far better king than he was.