They had ventured a bit far from the Feywoods settlement, further than was prudent. But that did not matter since the youths prided themselves on being skilled hunters, far more cunning than their contemporary peers. Together they had stalked deer, hunted wolves, even trapped the odd bear. They were inseparable, and often acted in complete synchrony. Then again, twins usually do. Of course their mother warned them "do not stray close to the Moors lest Yeenoghu's Brood prey upon you", but whether elf, human, dwarf or halfling, children will be children, and children will always go their own ways. So what if those ways take you to Gerdamish Moor; for Renneleth and Hanneleth that meant proving themselves against the Gnolls, proving themselves as hunters without peers.
* * * *
"Hann?" Renn said. A cloud had passed over the moon, and the woods around him were a maze of shadows. Hanneleth's voice had drawn him away from the impromptu campfire, but each time he called, it seemed to come from a new direction; he just couldn't pin it down. "Hann, man'na raice? What's wrong?"
"Renn, I need you."
Hanneleth's voice. His voice was weak, rough - it was clear he was in pain. "Teli'si. Help me." A pause that seemed to stretch for eternity. "Please, help me." He was straight ahead of him. Renn pressed forward, thrashing his way through briers and vines. Then his foot caught on something and he stumbled, falling across a soft and wet mass—a lithe body with skin cold to the touch and blood matting his hair. It was Hann's corpse. There was no denying it; the same dark hair, the same dark eyes that once held such vibrancy and vigor - now forever extinguished. "I need you." It was Hann's voice, rough and pained, but it wasn't Hanneleth who spoke. The speaker towered over Renn, a bloody axe clutched in one hand. Sharp teeth gleamed as the gnoll burst into laughter - a mocking, fluting cry that was quickly echoed on all sides as others stepped out of the woods. The moon broke through the clouds just in time to catch the blade of the gnoll's axe as it rose and fell to silencing Renn's cries.
Two boys were playing in the woods. But that night, only one boy came back, injured in body and heart. That boy was forever changed.
"Amin n'rangwa edanea. I do not understand these humans."
Today I left the familiar hunting grounds of the forest to walk upon human roads. I feel like a poacher, encroaching on foreign soil. It is astounding how dissimilar their lands are to ours. The trees, the birds, the wind; they are the same, yet they speak with a different voice. Ostracized, somehow. This does not surprise me. The people of these lands are themselves ostracized. They tread the same green carpet as we of the forest do, breathe in the same wind, yet they share no communion with the earth that gives them sustenance. Ed' i'ear ar' elenea, even an Elven child is less negligent of the world around them.
Watching the people of Webster's Landing, a small harbor town where I spent a few nights, I cannot revoke the feeling of stomping boots and crude hands, farmers and hunters who do not tend and nurture, but exploit and tame for the sake of gain and profit. A young girl came up to me this morning and pleaded that I find and rescue her lost pet. Sometime later a herder asked I examine his sick cow, that given my Elven nature I might, somehow magically, discern the symptoms behind the malady. What to say when human ears have ever been deaf to the truth – that the pet has not run off by accident, but that it wished to be free of human coercion; that the cow had fallen ill for the simple reason its blind obedience is rewarded with confinement and a crack of cane? Humans, always seeking to mold everything in their own image; to be master and ruler rather than submerge themselves in the greater harmony of life. Of course, you cannot teach a blind man to see.
I have often blamed my own kin for being too soft and too tentative in mind, heart and action, but perhaps it is I who has yet to acknowledge the wisdom of Elven temperance? Having left the sanctity of the forest, it is now I who feel like a bewildered animal, unable to accommodate. I wonder if I myself shall become ostracized the longer I linger out of reach of the song of the forest.
I have related how I left the forest to walk upon human lands, but I have not related the why of it. I have told my brothers and sisters in the Taur'otharie that I mean to investigate our borders and the lands outside to discern any potential threat to the forest, but this is not why I leave. My reasons are much more personal. Truth be told, I could not care less about the lands outside my beloved forest. I am Elf-kind and I remember Vongottstein when she still stood, and Karistad before she got razed to cinders. I did not care for these human settlements then, and I much less care for Steinkreis and the degenerate cesspit that is Raven's Watch. Only humans can wallow in such flaunting debauchery.
I leave out of guilt and shame; a shame and guilt that resides deep within me and is reinforced every time I look my parents in the eye. They know. They know that my brother died senselessly, and they know that even if the instrument of his death was the gnoll axe that tore into his body, the symptoms lie elsewhere. Hanneleth remembered well the lessons taught to us by our father, to steer clear of the Moors, but I wouldn't be deterred. Not I, not Renneleth. I instilled impetuosity in him so he would follow along, I instilled courage in him when rather I should have brokered wisdom, and ultimately I led him to the Moors to meet a most untimely demise. "You, Renneleth, you killed him." These words have never been voiced out loud, but they need not be for I see the words form on my mother's lips every time she speaks, and I see the sorrow in my father's eyes every time he picks up Hanneleth's old bow. I am sorry, brother, I would give the world to go back to that moment to change the course of my folly, but I am denied this and so I carry my guilt like a heavy chain I can never unlock.
As I write this, I spend my time in the homestead of Qui Vive, an honest place where honest men and women carve out a simple living in a peaceful frame of mind. I need not say how foreign I feel among these centered beings -- I whose thoughts are everything but settled. Yet I cannot deny the peace here, the relief of committing myself to simple tasks and simple thoughts. Peace has eluded me for a long age, but perhaps it is I who has eluded it, denied it to myself because my guilt has become a favored coat I wear, a coat I feel I deserve. Perhaps I do. But perhaps I can move forward regardless.
Sometimes, wisdom is gleaned from ponderous reflection, and yet sometimes the deepest wisdom is bared in few words. I was tasked with recovering an ancient goblet from the Qui Vive crypts today. After tedious trial and error, I managed to outwit and outbattle the four elemental guardians that each held parts of a key to unlock the final seal. I retrieved the goblet and brought it to my master. When I entered the master's chamber, I presented him my reward and he unceremoniously poured water into it, and drank from it. He explained to me that the cup is very precious. I agreed, and the master asked, "Why do you think this cup is so precious?" I recalled the effort it took to retrieve the goblet, so I reasoned the cup was of immense value. I suggested it was the color and size of the cup and the slender quality of its handle. The master agreed that all of these aspects make it an attractive cup, but these are not its most precious properties. I proposed the goblet must somehow be magical, given its ancient origins and the fact it was guarded by elder elementals. The master shook his head and sighed, at which point I became confused and asked the master to answer his own question. He looked up and smiled: "It is most precious because it is broken and yet it has held so many cups of water."
It took me a while to understand the significance of these words, but their meaning is inescapably clear to me now. Every heart is scarred and broken at some point, and yet it is capable of holding love and committing valorous deeds. I have let myself be defined by the scars of my past to such an extent that I relived it, relive it, religiously. But perhaps it is time to finally move beyond that, to accept those scars for what they are, but let go of the anger and guilt which have marred my waking mind.
I confess I thought my time at Qui Vive would be spent in futility, but now I only regret I cannot prolong my stay. My duties bid me return to the forest, but I will keep Qui Vive and the teachings I have learned here in my heart. Aa'lasser en lle coia orn n'omenta gurtha. May the leaves of this little homestead never turn brown.
A most unnatural thing occurred today, so much so that I am not able to relate what, exactly, happened with complete lucidity. I was patrolling the eastern borders of the woods when I heard the whispers, barely audible and carried so gently on the wind it seemed more like an echo of thought than voiced words. I cannot repeat the words, for they were hummed as if someone, somewhere, a myriad of voices, were humming in unison. I felt a tug and pull at my mind, an allure that retrained my steps from the usual path I patrol and led me into unknown depths of the forest. I am unsure how long I strayed into these dark corners of the forest, more swaggering than walking, my ears deaf to any other sound than the lilting hum. Finally I saw it. A shadow cast by a large oak, and yet it was not a shadow as we understand them; this was a moving thing, shifting and coiling even when the branches of the tree were still. The impression was of something liquid, a dark thing oozing like a pit of tar, extending its wispy tentacles toward me as if in greeting. I do not know why I stepped toward it, into it; perhaps my steps were not my own, or perhaps I was too curious not to try, but I let it embrace me and swallow me whole in all its black pervasiveness. At that point, the world as I knew it ceased to be. I was, for lack of apt words, transported into a world of blackness, a world where sound was not sound, the air was not air, and all around me I was submerged in a sea of shadow, lost and unable to navigate its currents. I do not know how long I fumbled in that dark realm, struggling to understand, to cope, to maneuver, yet feeling myself drown with every effort of limb. I only remember waking up beside that great oak, only this time there was no shadow except that which was cast by the sun. For all I know, I could have hit my head and dreamt it all up. Perhaps I did. And yet... I feel that no small part of that living shadow suffused my skin somehow, crept inside me. I can feel it when I close my eyes. Even now.
Too long have I gazed upon my reflected visage in the mirror and shunned what I saw. A face unmade; that which was once whole and symmetrical utterly and forever distorted. Every day I begin a careful ritual of enwrapment, adjusting my cowl just so, obscuring that which puts every Elven heart at unease: the hideous, the monstrous, the ugly. Some people carry their scars on their soul, anchored in a past marred by tragedy and pain. Yet I carry mine on my face as well, visible for all to see. I will not say I was undeserving of the pain, and I will not say I am deserving of finding means to erase that which is so crudely etched upon my face. It is a reminder of past mistakes, the price for which I deem to have paid cheaply, even. I touch my face and I am reminded of those mistakes, and this is good; it is a steering compass, the horrible trenches of disfigurement serving as guiding lines for decisions to come. In those cuts, running my fingers across and along the grooves of a shattered face, I find wisdom. But also shame.
Should I, though? The study of the body, the face, as a boundary has been long debated. Some describe bodily transformations, including scarification, as rites of passage. The body is then a surface waiting for the imprintation of culture; a social skin where culture is constructed and expressed through individual scarring. Inscribed skin highlights the question of boundaries between the individual and society, between societies, and between representation and experiences. In ancient times, my kin found aesthetic, religious and social reasons for scarification. Scarification was widely used, is used, by many forest-dwelling tribes to mark milestone stages in both men and women's lives, such as puberty and marriage. It is also used to transmit complex messages about identity. Are scars, brands, and piercings, when voluntarily acquired, ways of showing a person's autobiography on the surface of the body to the world? Is my face displaying mine, and what story do I bare for others to read?
Is it a story about bravery, survival and mettle? Or is it one of shame, anguish and error?
I have finally attached a name and description to that which I hunt, or, rather, she who I hunt. Cathe Redsteel, Elfbane and Elfslayer. I confess this is dire news. In a sense I would have preferred hunting in the dark, pursuing the obscure and intangible, hunting for shadows and wraiths. Now that I know the name of my quarry, I cannot shake off shivers down my spine, even as I sit and write this entry. I have only caught a glimpse of the shadow Cathe leaves in her wake, but I know enough about her to fill out a tome. All Feywood Elves do. I do not know what she is, who she is, human or Elf, or neither, but I know her work, and it is oppressively villainous. Many brave and innocent kinsmen have left this world to her wickedness. There is no obvious pattern, no describable motive, only a lust for blood driven by mad caprice -- for surely no-one indulges in such wanton carnage for a reason? Is she with Syann's Order? Doubtful, they would not be so bold as to send agents into Feywood's proper, and certainly not to target civilian men and women. Or so at least I hope; that they at least retain a meager vestige of Elven respect for life. Perhaps Cathe is merely driven mad by the forces she manipulates: shadows and darkness? There is no doubt she is a shadowwalker, and by all account the most terrible one to have ever walked on Thain. I have seen her handiwork up close, seen shadows and darkness bend and dance to her will. I, too, once, was able to hear the whisper of shadow, to use it as a second cloak, but Cathe, it would seem, has become one with it, indistinguishable from that which she sought to harness. Have the shadows suffused her skin, permeated her bones, grown roots in her mind? In any event, I care not what she was, what she has become, and for what reasons, I only seek her capture and death. Too long has she prowled our woods with impunity, and unchallenged. That must changes. There are at least two hunters in Feywoods now, and only one of us will walk our alive.
I'narr en gothrim glinuva nuin I'anor, the bones of our foes will gleam in the sun!
"I'quelin Mori'Quessier naa ba Mori'Quessir – The best Drow is a dead Drow."
Or is it? I have recently stumbled upon a character that has caused me much vexation. His name is Cael'am, and by all exterior signs, he is Drow. Given our history with our dark kin, my immediate compulsion was to shoot him on sight, and the only thing that stayed my arrow was that he was surrounded by people that seemed to tolerate his presence, in an environment that was equally accepting of his origins, the Watch. I determined to suspend my wrath, to wait for the opportune moment when he would be alone and vulnerable. I pondered, very briefly, why certain people found friendship in his company, but in this instance I defer to prejudice and bias, for there can be spared no other thought for a Drow. Our history is too bloody for it.
But then I met with Kellenri. We patrolled the Northern Feywoods and paused briefly to admire the work on some Seldarine statues being carved there. Mostly it’s just plinths or a roughly-etched head and torso, but even in their partial form, I find comfort and solace in the presence of our Gods. In my hunts I always pause there to whisper a prayer or collect my thoughts, and often have I considered who the artist might be. That artist, Kellenri told me, is no other than Cael'am. The very thought was absurd, that a Drow would be honoring our Elven pantheon with, no less, such delicate craftsmanship. I inquired the why of it, and Kellenri related to me Cael'am's story, the story of an Elf who was cursed to walk in the body of a Drow. I cannot even begin to comprehend the torment such a curse must have born, to be remade into that which is so opposed to everything that we are and believe; to have tasted the vibrancy of life through Elven senses, only to have it taken from you in the cruelest manner imaginable. Death, I think, would be preferable.
As I write these closing lines, I am at a crossroads of mind. All that I am, all that I believe, compels me to strike down this creature. And yet, even if there is the slightest semblance of truth to Cael'am's story, does he not deserve our understanding, our compassion, our unconditional help? I have too many questions, and too few answers. I should like to speak to Cael'am, alone. At least I know where to find him.
They ask me, when I leave the forest, what I do? I tell them that I am Taur'otharie, child of Feywoods and a hunter of her woods. They ask me, then, how many beasts I have tracked and felled, and how I track my prey and deploy my snares? I do not answer. The men outside the forest do not understand our way; they do not share our bond with this earth, our love for the world we dwell in. They expect, I imagine, that I boast of the bears and wolves and felines I kill, that I let my arrows whisper through the air only for the purpose of finding a target, and felling it; that I disrobe my kills and wear their skin as a proud coat. Gagl echileth, human foolishness. Do they even understand what it means to hunt, to be a hunter? Do they understand that there is more to it, so much more, than picking up a bow or setting a snare? Do they understand that a hunter is not a killer, he is the reverse: he is Nature's chosen son, her guardian and protector.
Next time they ask of me what I do, I will explain. I will tell them that I do not tread on ground to advance my step; I do so because I am moved by a greater will, my boot gracefully guided by the song of earth, tree and sky. I will tell them that I do not ruffle the forest floor so I can pick up the scent of my kill; I do so because I am bid by Mother Earth to share in her secrets, to feel her leaves on outstretched fingers and smell her skin on a dewy ground. I will tell them I do not shoot my prey so I can wear their tusks for trophies, or garb myself in their hides; I do so because the forest invites me to enjoy in her bounty, not taking by force and with blind eyes, but letting my arrows fell that which I am guided to shoot, and only when Mother Earth permits me to do so. I will tell them, finally, that I am not a trapper, a tamer, a beastfeller or bounty hunter; I am Renneleth, I am Taur'otharie, I am he who watches and protects, and he who whispers his appreciation to the forest for every step I take on her sacred ground.
He goes by the name of Galberk Hagero, and he is Dwarf-kind. Hadhod, Gornhod, stone-born and just as rock-stubborn as the mountain in which he dwells. In every way, he, like all of his kin, is so much different from my people, from how we think, feel and view this world in which we live. We Elvhenon are soft and temperate like flowing water, and it is not so difficult to grasp the nature of our philosophical feud with the Dwarf-kind as water and rock do not mesh well. After all, they, children of the rock, learn to stand firm and stalwart, while we know to bend and lean like a newborn sapling in the wind. And yet I found myself swallowing my pride and better judgement to ask help from Galberk.
I have fought often enough at his side to realize I would be remiss not to acknowledge Galberk's impossible prowess at battle and strategy. It was his shield that warded us from hordes of infernal assailtants at the battle in the Plane of Mists; it was his axe that felled a demonic wyrm in a single blow at the battle at Hamley, and it was his relentless stamina that saw to our victory against the Chosen of Bane. I may never trust a Dwarf, let alone begin to understand one, but in this one instance, in my pursuit of Cathe Redsteel, I can think of no greater ally than he whom we have dubbed Hadhod Min-Hen, the One-Eyed Dwarf. As I write this my mind cautions me to be wary, to remember that we of the forest should solve our own battles, and never involve outsiders; yet I have experienced, and executed, enough of Elven self-reliance to understand that not all battles can be fought and won alone. Sometimes we need to reach out, beyond our forests, to put aside our pride and bare ourselves to the aid of others. And so I bared myself to Galberk.
I told him the simple truth of things. I told him that alone, me and my kin were grasping at straws in our hunt for Cathe. I told him that we had lost too many lives to her blades, hoping that he, in his own love and fealty toward his people, would understand our suffering. He did. Of course, I recognize his motives are not wholly without ulterior design. I know, for one, that hunting down Cathe is another opportunity for Galberk to show the island he is the greatest warrior in present history, and that the pursuit of glory, to him, is more appetizing than helping out forestfolk. It matters not to me. Whichever his incentive, I only care for bringing justice to my people, and Galberk is as much a means to an end to me as I am, no doubt, to him. It is a delicate alliance, born on uneven ground, but one which I will respect nonetheless.
Promises were made to Galberk, promises that I, personally, will have to keep to him and his personal crusade. But I am unwilling to ponder the ramifications of that just yet. First, there is Cathe. Everything else comes second.