The warm rays of an early winter afternoon light played over the small valley, lighting dusky-rose-colored walls of small stone cottages encircling the lake at the end. The sheer rock caught and held the light for a time, the perfect arch seeming to pen in the golden stuff, willing it to remain and save extras heat for the creatures huddled a small distance from its base.
As the last light escaped into the fir trees above the rise, intricate oil lamps lit ornate panes and illuminated hand-carved shutters. A good sized fire blazed on the earnest faces seated around the natural stone amphitheater that had been carved by a glacier moving past the village's location long, long ago. Atrus felt chilled, frustrated, and weary but he braced himself to yet another patient, friendly speech to bring the negotiations (hopefully) to a successful conclusion. The locals had not said “no” but they hadn't said “yes”
It had been a long day already. The local villagers seemed amenable to Atrus' requests for a study space on the wide ledge of a cliff wall near the village but gaining formal acceptance proved difficult. In fact, communication remained a problem generally.. Their language expressed many abstract and complex ideas in terms of ancestral traits and "spirits." As a result, all detailed/technical discussions sounded like the work-up to an exorcism. Yet it was important to Atrus that they understand exactly what he was doing before he began next spring, and what his limits were. (The last tribe had been very angry when he insisted on going home only a month after being declared an honorary member...) And every explanation seemed to start the process all over.
For their part, the Ciricans had never met someone who had such a constant need of the story of every ancestor, angel, and Myst-ical being ever known just to express himself. Atrus ran out of regular words every other sentence! Could he not do that which was simple? They liked him well enough, he seemed good-hearted, his extreme interest in them and their land was flattering, but his constant references to their families and their beliefs was a little....worrisome...
"And so, honored Leader, if I could have your spirit_of_grace to take the cottage, I would be glad to impart the spirit_of_understanding in the way R-gird (a famed inventor/teacher ancestor) and in the spirit_of_jeho, the wise..."
"The spirit_of_giving fills us and we would gladly walk in the path of Emmanos (the leader who was servant of all) but we are also swayed by the spirit_of_wondering what will come to our children because of your work?"
What will come? Atrus spread his hands to express his confusion. Elder Sirach responded by opening his own arms formally toward Atrus, attempting to express ~with decent distance~ his acceptance of the traveler's person, while leaving his concerns upon his face and eyes. Atrus looked uncomprehendingly at him for a moment then realized the arms were still reaching toward him. Atrus smiled and accepted the double armclasp. hmmm.......hands out? AHHH.......They wanted presents? Well, he wasn't surprised at the request. Many cultures expected an exchange of gifts. Apparently his training would be considered part of his privileges, rather than repayment of the favor of the use of the cottage & land for his experiments & observations. He could do as they asked. Happily there were a great many extra models, sketches, and design pieces that would make admirable toys and other gifts if required. Now he needed to know how much would prove his good intentions.
"I seek to bring only that which gladdens the Creator_spirit. Does the spirit_of_wondering cloud your heart and your grown folk as well? I could offer the burden of Magira too.....but I must keep the spirit_of_freedom......
The elder smiled and rubbed one of his unusually pointed ears. "Our clan is pleased with your heart, my friend. Only a few feel the spirit_of_worry/fear descend in large measure. Can you speak about what you will do up in the rocks? It is not good for crops or beasts and it is dangerous there alone in the cold season when the feather-water falls from above. We use it only as a watchtower."
"I am filled with the spirit of hope that I shall be ready soon, at least by spring. But may I use the cottage this winter?" Early observations on the Age would be helpful to establish a few baselines. "I would not be in it long"
"You should not be there at all. We offer the fires and food of our guest-home whenever you have need of it but the cliff cottage has nothing in it to keep you.. What do you seek here?"
Atrus sighed, then strained his memory for the correct references to describe his plans. This time when he had finished, everyone was longing for a conclusion.....and supper. The elder sensed this. Out of affection he had been attempting to lead Atrus to state his aims clearly, for Sirach sensed a misunderstanding building, but this had proved difficult, if not impossible. It was time to go on.
"What say you, my brothers?"
The villagers looked at each other, there was some whispering. Atrus' requests couldn't burden the village unduly. It had been a harder year than some but there was more than enough to spare if he needed help. Murmuring among themselves, they decided to allow him use of the high cottage, no one was using it anyway, and a portion of land away from the village to provide for himself in the coming year until it should be time for him to return to his own lands. However, some still doubted his motives.
At last another elder formally answered the Elder. "Let us see what he brings (with his studies and possibly heretic teachings) and then decide (if we will allow him to continue here)"
Atrus felt a moment of panic. "I am not yet ready to gi....."
Elder Sirach cut in, "You could not be ready yet. These are but the first days"
Even so, Atrus thought, I had better bring the presents soon to be sure of their goodwill. Unfortunately, he would need help moving them, and his usual helpers were unavailable.
It was decided that the brothers Elvandil, three huge youths towering between 6.5- 7 feet, would accompany him on the journey and assist him in his preparations. They had been chafing to go on a long hunt anyway (despite the winter weather closing in). Who knew, maybe they would see something new.
Atrus stood and bowed his gratitude. The council bowed in return, and all was companionable once they headed for the food their mates had prepared: flat spinach pancakes served with roast chicken and a special silvery bread. He had already been informed that their foods and spiced green teas were often herbal concoctions that could improve and even extend life, eyesight, hearing and more. As he sipped the tasty stuff in his cup, he asked after the plants involved but received no answer but grins. It was a graceful way of handling secrets, he supposed.
Atrus nodded off listening to their beautiful singing.
In the morning, Atrus found the brothers at his door clad in woolen hunting greens, with long knives and bows at the ready. Atrus protested that their gear was unnecessary, but they only looked at him pityingly, obviously wondering how he had survived so long. They knew what lived in the mountains that surrounded their home.
On the way up the cliff, Atrus was surprised at how agile the Elves (as they told him to call them) really were. They clung to the rocks as if they were part of the stone itself when the wind rose high and easily clambered past him on the rocks as he sailed upward from the ledge on his rappel ropes. He found them waiting to pull him up when he reached the top, grinning because they’d won the “race.”
“Honored traveler, which way is your home? We have traveled many ways on many journeys and can show you the best paths back to your land.”
“If you would follow me?” Atrus turned up the path that led to his link cave. Upon arrival he asked them to join hands with him, and walked into the cave, removing his goggles as he did so.
“You can see in the dark?” The eldest elf, Rodlig, watched Atrus’ face closely. If he were part dwarf this could be a trap. Happily it seemed Atrus was unaware that elves do not need to see to observe.
“Not in absolute dark but my people lived in caves for a long time”
“aaahhhhh. Yes, a few of my relatives have done the same. Most prefer the forests for their living place, but we all need trees near by”
Atrus nodded invisibly, or so he thought.
50 yards in the dark Atrus briefly uncovered the book and touched the panel. The brothers felt a sudden strange lurch and…..
They were outside. It was snowing heavily here. The four stood upon a bridge that extended over a partly frozen waterway. An attractively worked stone hut stood upon the snowy ledge some distance away. As they headed in, the brothers discussed sadly the lack of life on the land. The sea nearby sang in rhythm with its strange inhabitants, above the sky glowed with colored fire or sparkled in its wealth of star-diamonds, but the voice of Atrus’ mountain home was sharp, cold, metallic.
And they were far from home. None of them knew this place, or the stars above them. So Atrus was a wizard, that explained much. Many wizards had sought knowledge from the elves. Well, the first thing he needed to learn was that all men need living things about them. When asked, Atrus allowed that the sun shone here only rarely. So now they knew his sad tale. Even in winter, the watchman’s cottage with its little band of encircling firs was warmer than this place. Poor man. The least they good do was help him with his teaching and study tools and urge him to leave his hermitage soon. He would find their company healing for a time, but he would need his own kind ere long.
They followed Atrus through tunnels, caves and the tower, collecting first sacks, then the models of windmills, closed boats (to keep air inside, Atrus said), spinning wheels that wove the thread they made, and more. But Atrus wasn’t satisfied with what he found. Not all his models had all sharp edges sanded off, some had very small parts, and some were too delicate for young hands. But he could refine these and make more. There were plenty of materials. The elves volunteered to assist him. They had nothing better to do, but they needed a tree if they were to stay long. Too few living things made them weary, they explained. Atrus agreed and reappeared dragging a tall-ish cedar he’d cut. Despite the loss of roots, Rodlig determined that it was still alive and with the help of his fellows they encouraged it to live outside the hut, draping a string lights around its branches to give the evergreen exile light and warmth. Even Atrus seemed to brighten as he passed it each day, though he was puzzled as it grew and flourished in the icy soil. Once he thought he saw bare ground near the tree growing a little grass, but then a drift of snow covered the spot and Atrus went on, sure he must be mistaken.
The poor wizard had traveled far, he told the elves, and seen many places, peoples, and ~yes~ plants, but Rime was his place for putting things together. (It was usual for Atrus not to mention his family or real home until he had known his new friends awhile). As they hammered, painted, and sewed, the elves shook their heads sadly at one who spoke of changing worlds without green trees and fertile land to guide his ways. “You need to build a greenhouse, at least,” they insisted. Atrus considered it. Probably Catherine would enjoy a spot filled with small trees, ferns, and useful herbs. It would remind her of what Riven once was.
At last the gifts were finished. Atrus, Rodlig, and the others packed each sack with care. By now, they explained, the mountain sides would covered in snow and ice, only the valley floor would still be green.
Atrus wondered anew at the discrepancy between the climate, flora, and fauna inside the valley and outside. They might as well be in different Ages! He could have sworn he’d not written any special conditions into the linking area. It was best to discover the origin of the changes before he continued work on his home Age.
They had doubts about the warmth of Atrus’ Macintosh under those conditions and prevailed upon him to accept a red wool cape and suit, though the latter, meant for a large elf, did not fit him well without extra padding.
Returning with the toys proved more difficult than Atrus expected. The link cave was less than half a mile above the cottage but the only access was to rappel straight down toward the chimney end of the cottage on one side or follow a narrow, steep, icy, winding path for over a mile & a half the other way. The best way to deliver the toys would be to lower them directly into the cottage via chimney. With sinking heart, Atrus realized that a fire was lit in it. Atrus asked one of the Elves to go ahead and request the fire be damped.
Atrus stood for half an hour in the freezing gale before the smoke sputtered and died enough for him to give the order to begin the descent. By now the elves were worried for Atrus’ well being. Even the extra cloth over his chest and belly was rapidly becoming soaked. Once the toys were lowered to the roof, they insisted Atrus be the one follow them down. Then one elf joined him and lowered him into the snug cottage. Atrus tumbled out of the large fireplace covered in soot, much to the amusement of the band of elven children who awaited his arrival. But there was nothing but oooOOOooos when the Atrus opened the sacks that followed him and began handing out his unique models.
By the time he had finished, Sirach, the brothers, and the council of elders had entered quietly, waiting for the first lesson to begin.
But Atrus kept indicating with gestures that the strange mechanical things were theirs! The children diod not know what to say, some looked to their elders, the youngest played happily around Atrus, asking him many questions, holding his attention.
Sirach saw a scowl forming on the face nearest him and shoo-ed the men back outside to discuss their reply before Atrus should see the general reaction.
The first burst out in anger, though he kept his voice down.
“ Does he think we have nothing??!! It is WE who give, who guide…These things are but trifles, TOYS, they have no power and but little art compared with the poorest elven craftsman we have!”
Rodlig broke in, “He does not know how much we know. He thinks the spirit_of_ knowledge lives in machines,: in minerals and crystal. I think he seeks to share as we do. He has learned to live in barren lands and still he abides with the Spirit_of_Love. This must be well meant.”
“Then we should tell him it is not needed, not wanted! He should seek some poor human village!”
Sirach replied, “Even a poor human village may dwell under the spirit of judgement/suspicion. What would he learn from such an answer but that we are so poor in spirit that we cannot smile at kindness? Perhaps, we need his gifts after all”
Sirach sighed at the astonishment of those around him. “We need to be able to freely receive what is freely given.”
“Then we will be indebted to him. I do not like it”
“No price has been asked, save his welcome here. Nothing can be demanded we do not wish to give. But test him in this, if you will. See if he thinks we owe him our secrets.”
The first speaker nodded grudgingly. “If he doesn’t then we should simply thank him.” Everyone agreed.
“Smile, then, as you enter,” bade Sirach.
The elves filed back in behind Sirach who greeted Atrus warmly. “Friend, this was much more than we expected of you. Please do not hurt yourself on our behalf?”
“Not expected?” Atrus frowned, “ But surely I heard of other visitors who brought gifts when they stayed with you.
“It is the nature of a traveler to be a gift to those they visit from far away. Each has his own story. This was all that was meant.”
Atrus looked concerned. Were they offended by his generosity? These things were but trinkets meant to bring happiness….
“We are filled with the spirit_of_appreciation for your efforts.” Sirach smiled warmly” Thank you”
Atrus smiled back.
One of the others spoke up in a jesting manner, “I suppose we will have to show you how we make that tea you love then, eh?”
Atrus chuckled but he saw the trap, “Only if you really want to. I am overflowing with Nik’s spirit_of_blessing to be in such honorable company as this.”
Elder Sirach clapped Atrus on the back with enthusiasm, “I give you our new friend, Atrus, one filled with the true spirit_of_giving! Is he not like us? Hhmmm….. well perhaps after we pull your ears a bit.”
Everyone laughed heartily, disintegrating the tension. Rodlig, stirred up a tea and handed out cups. Atrus sought vainly to brush the soot off his clothes and red, windburned nose & cheeks.
And everyone watched the children play and the snow fall. It was a beautiful evening.