The Wrong War - Prequel.

Buying Time

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

World-Building.

I     Syaunan climbed the path to the Dragon’s Eye, familiar with the trail from previous usage, noting not at all the world around him. Haukan said “yes” last night; this morning he needed to tell someone. He had selected his sister, an attendant to the Goddess’ Chair, as the appropriate audience for his astounding news. The Goddess’ Chair and his sister were in the Dragon’s Eye.

     Living his entire life in this area, the fact he had walked this trail a hundred times before, bred a nonchalance with respect to his surroundings. Another Elph from another Shade might make this trek in total awe accompanied by a little nervousness at the rock formations surrounding him. Sandstone needles of varying height rose on both sides of the path, most balancing great boulders at their tips, a tribute either to centuries of grinding wind or the Earth God’s sense of humor. A visitor’s nervousness derived from the needles with no boulders at their tips but great masses of rock around their base, strewn to some length, presumably from the explosion that must occur when the boulders fall from their perch. In these days, Syaunan knew it to be a rare event that a boulder fell but rare was not a very reassuring concept when visitors passed through this sandstone forest.

     For Syaunan, the rock did not exist, the sea hammering the coast just a few miles south did not exist, his village just off the road in the foothills below the Dragon’s Eye did not exist. All that Syaunan could see was a vision in brown, Haukan, his own Elph mate. Well, Elph mate-to-be after last night.
     Above him another thousand yards and a hundred feet in elevation glared the opening in the sheer wall that formed the Dragon’s left eye, his goal on this journey. The path wound in switchbacks easing some of the strain of the ascent but lengthened the journey, a fact that annoyed Syaunan so eager was he to tell his news. Unable to contain himself any longer, he shouted at the rocks around him. “She said yes! She said yes!” The rocks ignored him.
      Devout Elph ascended the same path Syaunan now traveled, entered the Eye, prostrated themselves before the chair and silently asked the Goddess the question that drove them here. They made their prayer by the confidence in their goddess that produced their willingness to journey to seek her guidance. Whether the goddess answered or not often seemed whimsical to those who considered these issues. Brown Elph Elders, White Elph Society Heads, Black Elph matriarchs, none found a common thread to which question would be answered and which would not. There seemed to be no observable time schedule between answers. They could detect no average number of supplicants per answer. They could find no pattern in the types of questions answered. The goddess answered as she chose. For the faithful, that would have to do.
     Syaunan’s sister, Syaumei, served the Goddess’ Chair, one of twenty young women from all the Shades of Elph performing such service. Their duty consisted more often than not of housekeeping in the Eye chamber and, more significantly, of occupying the Goddess’ Chair, there to provide a voice for the Goddess to respond to her supplicants. Each week, perhaps a dozen Elph came to ask the Goddess for guidance. They arrived at all hours of the day and night, most seeking the Goddess’ Chair as soon as they arrived in the vicinity. When their goddess deigned to answer, she used the young women seated in her chair to voice her response. An Oracle’s eyes would glass over, her voice would gain timber and resonance, words would come from her mouth that, afterwards, the young woman so used did not remember saying.
 It had not happened to Syaumei. Through the nearly 2000 times she had occupied this seat, two hours at a time, three times a day, five days a week, nothing had happened. She’d lost count of the number of times a supplicant entered the chamber to lie prostrate before her, the number of times she had tensed anticipating this time the goddess would use her, the number of times she had released her breath in disappointment as well as some relief. As with most attendants, at this point in her service, she paid little attention to supplicants, concentrated instead on some gossip or mystery in the village, her plans for next days off, the kinds of thoughts Elph performing boring, rote tasks do to get themselves through.
     Talking to attendants who the goddess had used produced no satisfactory description of what happened. Not one of them retained a single memory of what occurred, what they had said, or even the awareness of being used. It made for a very unsatisfactory state of affairs for the attendants but, this was a matter of faith. The fact remained that the goddess did use attendants to speak and she needed their service to do so. Who among them would dare complain?
     When Syaunan entered the Eye, Syaumei was on shift as he expected she would be. Syaunan knew there were no specific rules about talking to the woman who would be Oracle, only rules describing supplication to the goddess. He was not a supplicant; there were no supplicants in the Eye at the moment, so Syaumei was free to talk if she chose. Of course, he understood that should a supplicant appear, all conversation must cease.
     From her regal position in the room, Syaumei watched Syaunan enter, confirm her own presence, and listened to him blurt: “She said        ‘yes’!.” Syaumei half expected him to begin cartwheels across the Eye’s chamber.
     “Course, she did. What else you expect?”
     That brought Syaunan up short. Syaunan turned from his celebratory dance to consider his sister, his face fully exposing the sudden suspicions running through his mind. “Did Syaumei already know? Did she talk to her? Did Haukan tell her what she’d say?” Syaunan estimated the probability his sister could have known before he did. Haukan also attended the Goddess’ Chair. All the attendants lived in Syaunan’s village. Haukan and Syaumei were acquaintances if not friends. They could have talked.
 While he considered, Syaumei laughed, the sound of her laughter filling the chamber, her joy in her brother’s happiness seemingly complete. Still, ancient habits are difficult to break and Syaunan knew too well how she enjoyed teasing him. “What else she goin’ to do?” he heard her ask. “ Her time here at the Eye ends in the Fall; she needs to do somethin’ with her life. Marryin’ you counts as something to do, don’t it?”
     Syaunan grinned, accepting that his sister must continue to be his sister no matter what the circumstances of their life. “You can’t make this sour, Syaumei. Try as you might, Haukan said ‘yes’, and that is the truth in this world. The most beautiful Elph ever created, the smartest, most cleverest, most talented, most….beautiful Elph in the world said ‘yes.’ To me, she said it. She’s goin’ to be my wife.” With that Syaunan danced another jig, circling, laughing, caught in the joy of his moment. His celebration carried him back across the Eye, his own eye watching the floor so that he did not trip and make an even bigger fool of himself. Mostly, he did not care how he looked but there were limits to foolishness, even now. Still, he relished the moment and the feeling. “Could the world be any better?” he asked, his question resounding in the Eye.
     Silence answered his question, a sudden total silence that brought him to a stop, spinning to search the cavern for its source as if some physical presence had filled the chamber, his gaze finally reaching his sister. No longer just his sister, the Oracle sat rigid, hands gripping the arm rests, eyes glazed over. A voice not his sister’s began to issue from her throat, knocking all enthusiasm from Syaunan, filling him with sudden terror. His legs sank beneath him bringing him to the floor where he stretched in awe and submission before his Goddess.
     “My Shades are my children;
     Other deities make other children.
     But, Chance is a god greater than us all.
     From Chance a new deity rises
     With new children, each a threat to mine.
     Can my Shades avert their fall?”
     Syaunan didn’t think about the words. Instead, he repeated the words to himself till he was certain he would recall them precisely as he heard them. He could understand their obvious meaning but the deeper implications he could not see. It was a warning, certainly, for all the Elph. But he could feel within the words the goddess trying to tell her Elph something the words did not explicitly state. What that might be Syaunan did not try to understand, deciding in that first moment he was merely a messenger and not an agent. He would take this message to the eldest Brown Elph. What that one would do he could not guess. Then, it occurred to him that maybe there was a reason he had heard the message. Maybe the goddess had plans for him as well. Ewa could tell him, he was certain.
     “What are you doing?” he heard Syaumei ask. When he looked up at her, the frown on her face suggested the suspicion behind her question. “Why’re you on the floor when not more than a second ago you were cavortin’ all over the hall?’ She did not wait for his answer.    

“The goddess spoke through me?” she asked and again did not wait for an answer. “Why else you suddenly sprawled on the floor before me and me not rememberin’ how you got there. What’d she say?” Syaunan sensed she was really asking herself “what do I remember?” He couldn’t answer her internal question so he answered the one she had voiced: “It was a message. I think for all the Shades but I’m not certain of that. I’ll take it to Ewa. He’ll know.”
     “What did she say?” Syaumei asked again so that Syaunan repeated the goddess’ words, as much to confirm he remembered them as to satisfy Syaumei’s curiosity. When he finished, brother and sister stared at each other for a long minute as if the meaning of it all could be found in the other’s face. It could not.
     “You’d better go,” Syaumei finally said wondering when her shift would be complete, when the next attendant would take her place and she could return to the village to discover what this meant. She had spoken for the goddess and yet she felt no pride. She felt…alarmed.
     Syaunan nodded at her suggestion, turned, and walked from the Eye, all thought of Haukan saying ‘yes’ temporarily banished from his mind. Now, he concentrated on the goddess’ words as he steadily increased his pace back down the path to his village. Soon he was trotting and then running down that path, covering the ground quicker than a prudent Elph would attempt.
     Out of breath when he reached Ewa’s home. he stood outside the gral laboring to recover breath and to calm himself. Ewa lived in a typical gral so this standing outside was more courtesy than useful as Ewa watched the entire display from the center of his home. Grals consist of a floor mat raised several feet off the ground, fastened to four corner poles that also support an arched, thatched roof above the floor. In one corner, Brown Elph kept blankets to be strung when the weather demanded but, for the most part, the blankets were rarely used, a combination of a very dry climate though near the sea and individual Brown Elph temperament.
     Breath caught, composure regained, Syaunan bowed to Ewa who invited the young Elph into the gral. When he was seated, Ewa’s wife offered him drink that Syaunan accepted, his throat dry from the run. Amenities observed, Ewa’s raised eyebrow initiated the discussion.
     “The goddess spoke to me,” Syaunan began.
     “Did she, now?” Ewa said.
     “She did.”
     “Do you know the woman acting as Oracle?” Ewa asked, assuming from the run and the opening statement Syaunan had arrived from the Eye.
     “Syaumei,” Syaunan said. “I went to tell her that last night Haukan accepted me. While I was tellin’ her my story, she suddenly became an Oracle and I heard the goddess speak.”
     “You’re certain Syaumei wasn’t teasin’ you? You two does that, you know?”
     “I don’t b’lieve she was, Ewa. Her eyes glazed when she spoke and she says she can’t remember sayin’ nothin’.”
     “I’ll ask her myself,” Ewa said, “but let’s assume you have the right of it, that the goddess spoke to you. What did she say?” Syaunan told him.
     “And, now, I b’lieve you. Syaumei couldn’t have made up such a thing as that. I’ll still check with her to be certain but I b’lieve you’re correct; the goddess spoke to you.”
     “What should I do?” Syaunan asked.
     “Marry Haukan and get on with your life.”
     “But, the message. Surely the goddess expects me to do somethin’.”
     “She spected you to deliver the message. You did. Your job for the goddess in that respect is almost complete. I want you to take the message to the other Elders. Then you are back to accomplishin’ the things our goddess expects all us Brown Elph to accomplish. All rather ord’nary, ain’t it?” Ewa grinned at the young man’s disbelief.
     “That’s it?” Syaunan asked, frustration creeping in, “that’s it? Then, why me?”
     “Syaunan, you ever figure an answer to that one, you be sure to tell me, okay?” Ewa’s eyes still sparkled. “Well, what happens now?”
     “Now, we gather folks from all the Shades of Elph to discuss what it is the goddess is tellin’ us and what it is we should do ‘bout it. Tell me the words again so that I have them firm. Go tell the other Elders. Then, tell Syaumei till she has them. Then tell everyone you meet till they have it. We mustn’t lose these words.”
     Spreading the news to other Shades could take considerable time if the communication traveled on foot or horseback and arrived word of mouth. It could be lightning fast travelling by thought from one adept to another adept within the same Shade. The trouble was that not all the Shades maintained an adept waiting at the Eye just in case the Goddess chose to speak. Since the goddess more often answered individual supplicants than she provided news to the entire Elph race, most Shades saw little point in keeping an adept stationed at the Eye. Only the most devout of the Shades did so and they would be pleased to remind you that they did so and why. Because they did, the White Elph High Warden received the news of the goddess warning within hours. For the other four Shades, even the Browns who maintained the Eye, several days to several weeks passed before the message could be fully disseminated. Once disseminated, the Shades needed time to ponder its meaning and the action they must take. From the day Syaunan heard the message, six weeks passed before the representatives of the Shades met at the village below the Eye.


 ***


     On the day after Syaunan heard the Oracle speak, Arrow, lean, wiry, of average height for his White Elph kin, arrived first at the White Pine Hall. For over a thousand years, this White Pine Hall had reigned supreme in the foot hills of the northeastern reaches of the Dragonback mountains, the segment of that massive range known as the Dragon's Tail. Walking from the left rear of the hall forward, Arrow admired the trees around him. Each stood over a hundred feet tall, their solid mass forming walls and roof, the White Pine Hall not so much a building as a glade protected by the overhanging branches, branches perpetually snow covered.
     As he walked to the north, Arrow once again marveled at the skill of the White Elph weather wards and grovers who negotiated this state through persistence and an eye for detail. This tiny plot, alone in the known world, maintained a persistent winter-like climate so that snow always dressed the pines that formed the hall, giving physical justification to the title the White Elph apply to their council chamber. The White Elph had developed and maintained the hall in gradual increments over centuries so that on this day as on all days their pride stood triumphantly resplendent.
     Achieving the perpetual snow required weather wards but maintaining the hall itself required the combined skills of weather wards and tree shepherds to seed replacement trees, nurture, and tend them, growing them in regular cycles to replenish trees grown old and dying. The timing of the re-growth, the sunlight, and the nourishment to foster the re-growth was an art; the honor of maintaining the White Pine Hall assigned to only the very best practitioners of the art.
     As leader of the Hunter Clan, Arrow accepted that what the White Elph are, what they can be, what they will be was determined within these walls and radiated outward to imbue all White Elph with common purpose. Shivering at the cold on this summer morn, he laughed at the frigidity of the White Pine Hall. Here was the source for the belief of the other races of the world that the explanation for the White Elph character, its disposition and temperament, can be traced to this Council Hall. Like the White Elph who meet here, the White Pine Hall was cold and forbidding.
     The White Pine Hall was arranged in a rectangle running four hundred feet lengthwise with the width at an average of fifty feet, the floor of the open-air gathering place gently sloping from north to south. Perhaps, when the hall was first constructed, the entire White Elph nation could have gathered within its walls. If once true, it was no longer possible. While all White Elph may wander the Hall during most times, when the Council was in session, only the heads of the various Societies actually convened.
     The leaders of the one hundred seventy one White Elph societies would convene today as they had regularly convened for as long as White Elph could remember, each society head carrying equal voice in the proceedings.. To the north, on the elevated height of the Hall, Arrow would stand, the High Warder, Head of the Hunter Society, by common consent the moderator for these councils.
     One hundred seventy one voices to discuss the goddess’ instructions, he thought. One hundred seventy one opinions on a matter so clear as to seem to preclude any interpretation save one. Yet, Arrow knew in his heart that there would be more than one opinion, more than one interpretation. Convinced though he may be of the certainty of his own position, he could not rule the gathering; he must moderate. At least, he consoled himself, he would get first voice.
     Behind him now, the others began to arrive. Arrow quickened his step so as to be in position, standing above the crowd, looking down, taking full advantage of the psychology of the arrangement. He would try to build the illusion they were coming to him for wisdom from on high, that from his elevated stand he might more clearly hear the goddess’ wishes.
     From his ceremonial height he turned to watch the White Elph leaders assemble. He caught the faces of friends and political opponents as they took seats on the cold ground, smiled, acknowledged slight head bows with slight bows of his own. At last, the rustling diminished although one or two latecomers came running in to take places at the rear of the assembly. Satisfied that all who should be here were, Arrow opened the council.
     “We meet this morning to discuss our goddess’ warning to us and to begin formulation of an appropriate response. I present to you that I believe the message to be a warning, that a new god arises in the pantheon and that this new god has creations of its own, just as our goddess created we Elph. The new creations are an enemy to Elph that we must deal with on our own; the gods and goddesses will take action neither against the new god nor against its creations..
     “I see several courses of action but it is too soon for me to broach that topic. First, we must agree that the sense of her message is as I have just portrayed it.” Arrow opened his arms as if opening his mind to debate. “What are your thoughts?” he invited.
     Around the assembly many stood to be recognized. This control Arrow could exercise, selecting who would talk in what order. Based on his assessment of support or dissent, he called first two who he believed would agree with his interpretation. Then, he called two who he assumed would dissent. He kept to this pattern, two pros, two cons, until all who stood had made their case.
     When they were done, Arrow suggested that one from each point of view should be selected to continue the debate before the assembly. This would make argument more efficient and hint at the possibility of agreement sometime within their lifetimes. The crowd laughed at his humor and assented. Arrow selected the debaters. From the Smiths, a society he knew to be disgruntled with the world as it was, he asked Forge to speak for those who believed the warning to describe a real threat, well known to all. From the Mindspeakers, he asked Cloud to represent those who believe the message a warning of a new threat in the world. Last, from the Judges, he asked Balance to present the idea that the threat was not physical but cultural, a temptation to depart from the values that made Elph to be Elph. He asked the assembly, then, if another point of view not represented by these three should be made. None rose to offer another alternative.
     The Elph selected joined Arrow on the high ground so all could see and hear their debate. By fortunate happenstance, Forge had placed himself nearest to Arrow making it seem natural that he be first selected to present his case. Arrow tapped his shoulder and offered him the stage.
     Forge stood less tall than most White Elph but much broader, his shoulders advertising his trade. Strength emanated from the Elph, strength earned from years at the forge for which he was named as well as years on the Council. When he spoke, his voice carried the assurance of one who has done this before, spoken, been heard, carried the day with his arguments. His manner suggested he expected no less on this day.
     “A new god arises, her message says. We smiths find this important. We find the world to be as it has been for all the time Elph have walked this world. When we Elph think we have discovered a new thing in our world, it is not new to the world. It has been here all along; it is just that, till now, we Elph had never noticed. So, too, with gods and goddesses. We believe the goddess tells us of a god we already knew existed has now moved to be better viewed by Elph through his creations. The sense, then, is that this previously lesser god is now a major god in our world and needs to be accepted as such.
     “Her message next tells us that this god has creations in the world. We know this to be true. The Newborn are now in the world taking lands that once belonged to others. Surely some god created them and, just as surely, it was a god we do not know. Now, our own goddess draws attention to the fact the creations exist; their god exists, and, then, she warns us they are a threat to Elph.
     “How could these Newborn be a threat to Elph? They breed and expand. Even now they have moved into the hills where we find our copper. They are building a village there. Villages require resources that the surrounding hills must produce. They remove trees, divert water, hunt food, accumulate waste. Do they require us to move on? No, they generously pass us by but they take land where there is surely copper we would have found and used. Where are we smiths to find copper when our mines play out? The Newborn will be living on top what is left. How do we mine beneath them?
     “That is one threat, perhaps selfishly seen from smith eyes, but it is just one threat. They need food as we need food. How long before Arrow and his hunters compete with Newborn hunters to remove all the beasts from this world? That threat is not specific to smiths nor is it specific to we White Elph. It applies to all the Shades of Elph just as our goddess’s message warns.
     “We smiths believe our goddess warns of a real threat, one we can see, and she warns us to take some action.” Forge stopped then, looked towards the upper branches as if they could tell him whether he had omitted any important point. When the branches made no movement, he bowed his head to the crowd and stepped back. Supporters applauded his words; dissenters sat mute. Arrow thought that he counted more of the former and was pleased that the smith had made the argument so plainly yet so powerfully.
     Next, he turned to Cloud wanting to get the most formidable argument out of the way. Then, Arrow thought, the least probable argument could dilute Cloud’s argument and he could summarize for the Council. He thought his strategy worthy considering the response he had observed to Forge’s argument.
     Cloud was a Mindspeaker, an adept capable of sending and receiving thoughts to other White Elph adepts of whom there were very few, maybe two dozen. Mindspeaking seemed to be a native talent, born in the Elph or not, and not discovered until puberty arrived and passed. The society interpreted this state of affairs as the goddess’ will since sharing thoughts took strong minds and strong personalities. Physical stature had little to do with the ability while strength of identity had everything to do with it.
     Cloud stood before the assembly a confident, capable speaker. Yet, he was aware that he did not seem to his audience as impressive as his message deserved. Mindspeakers’ attention came and went, thoughts from other adepts interfering with their concentration causing sudden, almost instantaneous but still noticeable diverting of their attention from the words they spoke. Cloud assumed this was the reason Arrow, already committed to the council for an opposing point of view, had selected him to represent this side of the argument. It was not unethical; it was good politics. Cloud hoped that if he could see through so obvious a ploy, then so could his fellow council members. Hopefully, they would not consider the strength of his argument on its delivery but on its merits thereby defeating Arrow’s maneuvering. Mentally shrugging the circumstance, Cloud began his argument, his voice carrying softly but clearly across the assembly.
     “A new god arises, her message says. We Mindspeakers accept our goddess at her word. If she tells us there is a new god, we find that not so difficult to believe. As Forge pointed out, the Newborn came into our world unexpectedly. So, too, can another race come into our world. We see no need to invent ideas other than what our goddess presents to us. A new god arises? So be it.
     “The new god has new creations that are a threat to Elph. Our goddess does not say that they are threat to White Elph smiths or a threat to White Elph hunters.” Cloud’s flow of words stopped. The outward indication that his mind has been drawn from the council was this almost unnoticeable pause in his speech. Immediately, the pause wais over and his words flowed again.
     “She says they are a threat to Elph, all the Shades of Elph. The Newborn live on either side of our river but further south than most of us are accustomed to travel. They roam the Dragonback unsettling and annoying the Coblan who live there but the goddess does not call this new threat a threat to the Coblans. She calls it a threat to Elph.” Another almost insignificant pause before Cloud continues. “Perhaps, her concern for us overrides her concern for Coblans.
     “There are no Newborn communities west of the Dragonback mountains where our kin, the Black, the Green and the Red live. The Empty Plains know no Newborn. Yet, our goddess warns of a threat to these Shades as well as ourselves.
     “A new god and a new creation…” Cloud is gone again and then returns….”seem to us exactly that. We need to look outside our world to find this threat. Perhaps on the Black Elph river or its further shore. We Elph know…..again Cloud’s mind was called away….nothing of the other side of that river. For that matter, we know little or nothing of the Great Barrier mountains to our east.
     “There is more than enough world we do not know to contain gods and creatures we have not met. Mindspeakers believe the goddess’ message warns us to look outwards to find the threat.”
     As Cloud stepped back, predictable applause supported his argument. Watching the assembly, Arrow was gratified the number applauding seems less than supported the smith. It was a significant but manageable number for which Arrow thanked the goddess. He called Balance forward.
     Balance represented a unique society among the White Elph, comprised neither of Elph born with a specific talent nor Elph recruited by the society. The society functioned as peacekeeper within the Shade hearing disputes too rancorous for amenable settlement between the parties. The judges listened and decided, the parties agreeing beforehand to accept whatever judgment came. Membership in the Judges came from voice of the council. When the Judges lost a member, the council nominated Elph willing to be considered, voted, and selected the replacement. Judges, therefore, come from all the societies but were allegiant to none but the Judges.
     When Balance stood before the council, he acquired a respect not given to other Elph. This was an Elph with no axe to grind, an Elph dedicated to looking for the best answer to difficult problems, not the right answer or the popular answer but the best answer. When Balance spoke, all were ready to consider his argument as viable though not necessarily the argument that best fit the White Elph need. His voice was as softly penetrating as Cloud’s had been delivering his message in simple terms, building a logic impossible to refute.
     “Her message says each of these creations is a threat to Elph. We Judges find no creation of which we are aware where each member of the species can be a threat to all the Elph. In the nature of the world around us, we can find species where each member of the species is a threat to all Elph but not every Elph. A viper is a potential threat to all Elph who cross its path but not every Elph in the world will cross its path. So, we believe the threat is not a species such as the viper.
     "Perhaps, then, the threat is a disease. Diseases threaten all Elph yet every disease the Elph have ever known have failed to infect every Elph. Perhaps such a disease can exist and is now arising but, based on Elph history, we Judges find that unlikely. We find it unlikely because we do not consider disease consisting of individual members. Perhaps they are; perhaps that is what the goddess is telling us but we Judges think she would have used different language if that were the case. She did not use different language; she used this language.
     “Since the Judges can find no physical threat where every member can be threat to all Elph, we believe the statement “each of these creations is a threat” becomes a warning for a threat other than physical. What could such a threat be? An idea. A temptation to divert Elph from the values that make us Elph. We Judges wonder, as you more practical Elph do not, where ideas come from and how they affect us when they arrive. We wonder how a wife begins to suspect her husband’s unfaithfulness and how that idea, once settled, sabotages a once successful bond. We know that it happens; we have all seen it.
     “We have all seen rumor sweep through the Elph even as this message from our goddess’ sweeps through us now. We hear the differing ideas the message produces presented here today. We Judges wonder how this happen.
     “An answer we have proposed among ourselves is that the gods create ideas to seed in their creations to watch them grow, to watch the ideas influence behavior, to make their creations better or, maybe, to make them different. Perhaps, they do so just to watch what happens. We Judges do not presume to understand the motivation of the gods.
     “But, we Judges believe this message might in itself be an idea being spread that can change the Elph. We also believe it might be a warning of an idea that we are about to learn that can change the Elph. Either way, the message warns us not of physical threats but of new ideas, new values, and their danger to Elph.”
     Balance bowed and stepped back. Arrow resumed his place forward as Master of Ceremonies. He bowed to the trio and gestured they should take their places in the assembly, kept himself still until they managed to do so. Then, Arrow addressed his fellow society leads, summarizing, beginning with the last first.
     “The arguments, then, are these: First, it may be that our goddess warns of new ideas that contaminate Elph, make them less than or even no longer Elph. Second, our goddess warns of a new and unknown physical threat coming from the world beyond that which she has given to us to live. Third, she warns of us a new but known physical threat in the person of the Newborn race. I must say the Hunters believe this latter to be true but, having said that, I ask for any other comment that we have not yet considered.”
     The Assembly produced folk who wished to be heard but none contributed a new issue to be considered; all wanted to expand or clarify or refute the arguments already under consideration. Arrow let the passion run its course knowing any attempt to cut it short would undermine his influence. All these voices were equal; none, including Arrow’s, carried precedence. At length, the Assembly policed itself with muttered comments and sharp elbows. The time came when no leader stood to be recognized.
     Arrow reiterated the arguments to be considered. Next, he asked Balance to second his count as the show of hands progressed. Finally, he asked the members indicate their view as to how the White Elph should interpret the goddess’ warning.
     “Fellow council members,” he began, “we look now for consensus. We start with those who feel the threat is real but intangible as Balance so ably presented the argument. Please, raise your hands.” The argument’s supporters raised their hands; Balance and Arrow counted, compared numbers, and agreed. “Twenty-three leaders support this argument,” Arrow announced.
     “Now, those who believe the threat is real, physical, coming from outside the world we know, please, raise your hands.” Again, Arrow and Balance counted. Their comparison revealed a discrepancy between them of two so they recounted. This time their count agreed.            “Thirty-six members support this position,” Arrow announced and Balance nodded his head in agreement.
     “Finally, those who believe the goddess warns of a threat from the Newborn, please raise your hands.” A multitude of hands rose from the assembly almost causing Arrow to smile in victory but he was too experienced in his role to make that mistake. He and Balance patiently performed their counts. Comparing notes, they agreed.
     “One hundred nine leaders support this proposition,” Arrow announced but before he could proceed Forge stood, yelling: “That doesn’t add up, Arrow. There are three votes missing.” Arrow and Balance looked at each other as if believing the other held this answer to this puzzle. Suddenly, Balance grinned and turned to announce to the crowd. “Arrow and I forgot to vote” producing a wave of laughter through the assembly. Another leader in the rear of the crowd stood to report that Society of Linguists had felt a sudden need to accommodate his bladder and had rushed out of the meeting. Another wave of laughter of swept the White Pine Hall.
     When the laughter at last subsided, Arrow said: “We have a clear majority supporting the proposition that our goddess has warned us that the Newborn comprise the threat to Elph. I ask for consensus. Those wishing to oppose this motion for consensus please stand and present your case.”
     The assembly members looked around for someone willing to perform such an act. There was a power that moves in a crowd when the majority expresses its will. Those of differing minds began to wonder if these Elph might be correct. How can an individual Elph believe he understands the goddess’ will better than all his kinfolk? Who had such hubris?
     Among those who had supported the opposing propositions, none stood. Arrow announced the matter decided by consensus. Tomorrow, he proposed, the council would take up the matter of how the Elph should respond to this threat their goddess had made plain.
 

***


     The goddess’ message arrived in the marsh lands favored by the Black Elph by courier four days after its receipt in the Eye. Moss, one of the four Black Elph attendants to the Goddess Chair, carried the message to her matriarch and then immediately returned to her duty at the Dragon’s Eye.
     Moss’s matriarch was named Sunset by her own mother because she chose that time to enter the world and the light reflecting off the new Elph baby seemed to glow like the sunset around her. She was Sunset until she named her profession and then she had been known formally as ReedWeaverKan. Now, as matriarch, she could be Sunset again. Yes, her husbands had used the name in their private lives but custom demanded formal names in public. Only children and matriarchs dispensed with custom.
     When Sunset received the goddess’ message she was in her 16th decade, newly made head of her family with her mother’s recent death. She accepted the rightness of Moss bringing the message to her but she wished it had been another young woman carrying the message so that another matriarch could deal with the problem. She reminded herself of the Black Elph creed and vowed to see to this problem carried to resolution. Knowing the creed and being happy about it were not necessarily the same sand painting.
     “When you know who your maker is, it isn’t smart to offend her,” the creed advised and Sunset believed that truism with all her heart. She also revered her goddess with all her heart. She had also loved her first husband with all her heart but he had still found ways to annoy her.
     After pondering the message to her own satisfaction, Sunset summoned her eldest son, an Elph of thirteen decades, who these days assisted Sunset with family administration, such that it was. Tracking lineage, recording births, deaths, marriages, officiating at family ceremonies as lead man, these were his duties, as well as providing advice to Sunset.
     “Carp,” she began, Carp the familiar form of the CarpHarvestBhau that her son carried around as a real name but was more than Sunset usually cared to utter, “tell me your impression. What is the Lady trying to tell us?”
     “She isn’t trying, mother. She’s stating flatly we have a problem and she doesn’t know how we are going to handle it.”
     “Sure of that, are you?” Sunset’s eyebrow emphasized her skepticism.
     “As sure as I know I’m your son,” he laughed.
     “Sure of that, are you?” but Sunset laughed as well. “I’m not so sure it’s all quite that simple. The Old Lady never does things in the way we’d expect and I see no reason to believe she has this time, either.”
     “What’s your thought, then?”
     “I’m thinking it’s been a while since we Elph have been tested and she may be wondering whether we still know the lay of the land.”
     “Tested? When did she test us?”
     “Don’t be dense, Carp. When the Newborn came into the world, do you believe for a minute she wasn’t watching to see what the Elph would do? We’re all pretty convinced we’re special, that our goddess knew what she was doing when she made us, and isn’t it a pity the poor Duorph and Coblans god didn’t do a better job with them? That’s been our attitude, hasn’t it?”
     “Well,” the answer cam grudgingly, “yeah, that’s true. But, only because it’s true; we are pretty much the best there is.” His smile was as broad as always.
     “But, the test was there and the lesson was that we aren’t the only fish in the delta and our goddess ain’t the only goddess in the sea. Has to be some cooperation, some give and take all around. That’s the lesson I got.”
     “So, you think this another test to see if we learned that lesson. But, what about the threat part?”
     “That’s troublesome; I agree. Maybe it means that any new creation is a threat if we don’t handle it properly.”
     “But, you’re guessing, right?”
     “Am I the goddess? Of course, I’m guessing. So are you. So will all the other matriarchs. Any of us believes we know how the goddess thinks is more ready for a short walk off a long drop than giving advice to our people.”
     “You want me to sound the horns?”
     Yeah, Carp, we got no choice. We need to get “em all together and talk this out. Go do it, please.”
 

***


     Throughout the delta, the horns sounded, each boat picking up the call and sending it on. The delta stretched more than a hundred miles where the river stopped and the sea began. If the two sides of the delta were straight lines, they’d have run seventy miles back up river. The Black Elph boats wandered all over the huge area, the Black Elph spread far and wide at any given time. Summoning the matriarchs for a meeting happened but more often they simply held an annual get together, each towing their families in their wake. But, as they each knew, times came when they needed to meet in a hurry so each boat carried its horn to pass the call.
     Sunset sent grandsons in small boats out to meet the matriarchs on their way in. She didn’t want to catch any by surprise with this message, wanted each to have time to think and talk with her family so that when they did meet, they’d be able to get something done. She set grand daughters to cleaning the meeting house. They’d bring their own blankets and flatware, cooking pots and such, but Sunset was not about to let them think she had been neglectful in her preparations.
     The matriarchs arrived, twenty-four of them, each resplendent in colorful pants and cloaks. Summer time in the delta seemed to be no excuse for presenting oneself in proper fashion. They bowed to one another, laughed, told jokes, speculated on suitability of matches between the next generation, all fairly routine and normal, as they proceeded to the meeting place.
     Sunset waited for them in the middle of the metz, the largest building the Black Elph had ever constructed. It had the traditional four corner posts but it had four more posts on the outer walls, centered on each span, and one center post. This center post was a favorite point of discussion with the matriarchs as they wondered who had been stupid enough to think of placing a post in the center of this fine building. They ignored the fact supporting the roof of such a large building, it ran forty feet from one corner to adjacent corner, would be problematic without the center pole. Instead, they concentrated on the idea that they would sit in a circle to conduct their business. This meant to see the matriarch across from one, that one had to lean to the side to look around the pole.
     Sunset arranged it so that she would be sitting on west side of the circle, her back to the afternoon sun. She could do this because she was there waiting for the others to arrive and no one would think to shove her aside. It was also a dirty pleasure that she constantly apologized to the goddess for indulging in to watch the other matriarchs gracefully, courteously jockey for position so as not to be sitting on the eastern side staring into the afternoon sun. These seats usually fell to the younger, least experienced matriarchs. Sunset’s mother had warned her of the practice and instructed her how to defeat it.
     On this day, another new matriarch made her first appearance in the council. Coral assumed lead in her family just the preceding week replacing a matriarch caught in a deadly accident, dragged from her boat by a fouled line into the middle of cottonmouth nest. But Coral had known her time would come and spent many hours at her mother’s feet studying the politics. She came prepared.
     As the matriarchs began the political dance that would find them seats, Coral turned and accepted a package from one of her sons. Opening the package, she withdrew a gauzy sheet of a material not seen in the delta, dense enough to reduce sunlight to harmlessness but thin enough to be practically weightless. With her son’s help she tied the sheet to the east wall. The shadow spread across the entire floor. Thanking her son for his assistance, Coral walked back across the room and took the seat on the eastern side of the circle she was destined to occupy anyway. She took her seat and smiled up at the other matriarchs.
     Sunset began the applause, slow clapping that built to a raucous tumult as women laughed and laughed at the simple brilliant obviousness of Coral’s action. They all sat in a mood much lightened and much better prepared to handle the task before them.
     “When I was serving as attendant to the Goddess’ Chair,” Coral explained to the many questions, “a Red Elph had a veil of such, made from reeds found growing near our river but far north of here. I liked it as a decoration at first but then I discovered its properties as a shade. I asked a cousin visiting the Red to bring as much as he could find and carry back with him. He did. It hangs there now.” The recording of this information in twenty-three matriarchs’ memory indicated a run on gauze in the next few months.
     The laughter subsided, though, and the women looked around the circle wondering who would start. No formal leader had ever been appointed for this council. Traditionally, the woman calling the meeting started things rolling. But, Sunset had sent the message out to these others so all knew why they were gathered; now it was a matter of who felt prepared to take a position.
     Finally, Crine spoke. She was among the oldest present, she counted 189 years behind her, and she was at her time when age began to show. Elph do not age in a straight line with wrinkles appearing and hair graying or disappearing. They tend to remain in the state of early adulthood until they are old. When they agree they are old, their bodies feel permitted to reflect their true age. Crine knew she was old.
     Crine was named for a tree lizard, fond of crawling around Black Elph houses despite the pitch put on the poles to discourage them. Crine didn’t climb the poles, they dove down from the branches about the house. They were brightly colored, chirped loud and long at imagined insults, but kept the Black Elph house free of other insects. They were more than tolerated, they were treated as family.
     When Crine spoke, her voice cracked and rasped. Some in the circle suspected this a pose to add weight to her statements but most accepted this would happen to all of them sooner or later. Crine said to the group: “Our goddess is unusually direct with her message, isn’t she? Direct but vague forcing us to meet here and to try to decipher her meaning. I’d wish that just once the old biddy would just say what’s on her mind.”
     The younger matriarchs smiled at the familiarity this elder invoked. Treating the goddess like one of the family, and you could only call one of your own family “an old biddy,” could not offend the deity but it could express the frustration one could legitimately feel with one’s goddess.
     Another of the ancients, Phweet, named after a parakeet common in the delta country, responded. Her voice cracked as well though she had a mere 181 years of experience. Phweet had a breathing problem, though, that allowed her to utter just a few words at a time. “But, Crine,…you said…she was direct…an’ I agree. There’s a threat rising…and we’re supposed…to do something about it.”
     Murmured agreement spread around the ring, till a younger matriarch jumped in, her voice clear and controlled. “But, when is the issue, isn’t it? The Lady didn’t bother to fill us in on that little detail, did she?”
     Coral disagreed. “She said there’s a new god rising, didn’t she? Rising seems pretty immediate to me.”
     Getting back in, Crine said: “Of course, it’s immediate; it’s happening now, somewhere. But it takes time for new creations to build themselves into a credible force. Look at the Newborn. They’ve been around a while now and still don’t have the numbers to go charging after folk even if they were so inclined. The threat is rising now but it may not appear in our life times.”
     Another jumped in, agreeing with Crine, adding: “If we wanted to go charging after someone, it’d take us time, a long time, to build the numbers necessary to make an army. In the families, we got maybe two thousand folk, women, men, and children?”
     “None of the Shades have the resources for an Army,” another agreed.
     “Nor do the Coblans; nor do the Duorph,” another said bringing a giggle from Sunset. “Can you imagine a Coblan army? Can you imagine even two Coblans working together?”
     “I don’t want to imagine that,” Crine answered. “I don’t want to even think about what could make such an unlikely circumstance happen.” She did not smile.
     “Back to our problem,” Phweet said. “Who do we…think this new threat…could be?”
     “We don’t know,” Sunset said, “and we haven’t thought about how to find out.”
     “Maybe it isn’t someone,” Coral offered. “Maybe it’s some thing, some event, some disaster. Maybe it’s a powerful storm or a terrible flood.”
     “Each member,” a matriarch said, her words refuting Coral’s suggestion
     “We can go on…like this…for a long time. Can we…at least agree…the threat is physical…a people or a…animal or an insect?”
     “What if it isn’t one of those?” a matriarch objected.
     “Then we can spend from now through the next six lives we don’t have speculating about it,” Crine said. “Let’s get to it, eh?”
     The circle agreed, heads nodding, women muttering assent.
     “There’s a threat rising; it’s rising now, and we have no clue what it is. That about cover it?”
     All the matriarchs nodded. “So, the next thing is to decide what to do about it. Any ideas?”
     “We should talk to the other Shades and see what they come up with.”
     “Yes, of course, but first we decide what the Black Elph believe.”
     “We wait…and see what…the nature of threat is.”
     Coral immediately objected: “Too passive by far. The goddess warned us so we would do something. Now!”
     “Slow down, young lady,” Crine laughed. Coral blushed.
     “Waiting and seeing can have many meanings, Coral,” Sunset said. “We Elph can be alert to the world, send scouts, watch for what develops. That is waiting and seeing.”
     “But what if we need an army to counter the threat? How do we breed an instantaneous army?”
     “We don’t know we’ll need an army. There’s nothing in the message that says “start building an army.” Are you suggesting we command our daughters to start bearing more children? How many should each bear? What is the punishment for those who refuse? How do we feed those we make? Are you prepared to deal with those issues now on the basis of a warning we all admit we do not understand completely?”
     Crine delivered the words in steady, patient tones, powerful nonetheless in the images they invoked. After a minute, Coral responded: “No, I am not prepared to do those things or answer those questions. I apologize to you all for my outburst. I am caught up in a need to do something. Our Lady warns us and that means – to me- to do something. Still, I see the wisdom of your words and I know doing something should be doing something right. I agree we must discover the threat before we can decide what to do about it. That is what we should do: discover the threat.”
     “In sum,” Sunset said, “we Black Elph believe we must devote ourselves to first identifying the threat. We do that by scouting and watching and listening to the world around us. Is that fair?”
     The council agreed.
     “Who wishes to represent the Black Elph at the meeting at the Dragon’s Eye.”
     “I will go,” Crine offered but she was talked down. She deserved to rest, not travel four days and argue for how many days after that. A younger matriarch must go.
     “I will represent the Black Elph,” Sunset volunteered. There was no objection. Instead, the women rose from their places, some congratulating and encouraging Sunset, most heading to the gauze curtain to examine its details.
 

***


     The message came by Green Elph rider, an attendant at the Goddess Chair, to Lady Pi×on, current Leader of the Convocation. Pi×on was more impressive than her namesake, tall and broad, strong from decades of practicing her craft, Tree Shepherd. Moving trees, plants, and animals to optimum growing locations often required as much brute strength as it required sensitivity to living things. Years of digging, un-planting and replanting medium and large trees built the muscle mass she carried. She didn’t think it made her look less Elph nor did it seem to discourage interest in her company by serious suitors. Pi×on judged that she had thus far led a fairly normal life in that respect.
     She was Lead for the convocation because of that strength and the enormous patience accompanying her strength. Plants take days to tell you whether things are good with them. You can’t rush them, can’t put your hand to their bark and feel their state, can’t hear them cough or moan. You must watch their color, watch their growth or lack thereof and then draw your conclusions. Pi×on laughed at those rumors that plants could talk as if language were native to all living things. Plants do not talk; animals do not talk; but they communicate and Pi×on exemplified the fact that Elph can learn to participate in the communication.
     She received the goddess’ message with little alarm, thought for a bit, then began to spread the goddess’ news to all the Green, male and female, parent and child. All the Green would meet in Convocation in three days time, she sent. The goddess expects something, the Green would decide how to comply.
     Over the three days, Elph spoke to each other offering ideas and opinions and suggestions. They talked to Pi×on as much as they talked to anyone else so that, when the Convocation arrived, Pi×on sensed no ground swell consensus.
     She took her place on the dais in the tiny valley used for Convocations. Before her, spread around the natural amphitheater sat nearly two thousand Green Elph, all who could make this event. Some there were whose duties kept them away but none who felt strongly the need to participate in the debate. These had found substitutes willing to take over their work so they could attend. A gentle breeze gave moral support to those gathered, cooling brows, rustling hair and clothing. Not strong enough to move Pinion’s braids, the breeze rippled her sea green hair as if anxious to be under way doing something, anything.
     “Well begin at the beginning,” she announced, then proceeded to read the goddess’ message. ““My Shades are my children; Other deities make other children. But, Chance is a god greater than us all.
     From Chance a new deity rises With new children, each a threat to mine. Can my Shades avert their fall?”
     And so it began. Elph after Elph rose to state a view, argue an opinion, venture a suggestion. For Pi×on, minutes stacked themselves into an hour, then two, and still she saw no progress towards any kind of decision at all. Exercising her role, she stepped back into the conversational flow.
     “It seems there are only two problems that must be resolved,” she said. “First, what does the message mean and, second, what should we do about it. Logic tells me if we can decide one then the other will follow more easily. I propose we concentrate now what the message means.”
     A male, Ivy, immediately rose to be recognized. “I further suggest we find folk to represent major possibilities and the rest of us should try to let them bang it out.” A general murmur of assent based on years of experience in Convocations rolled across the crowd. “Very well,” Pi×on said, “Volunteers?”
     A dozen Elph rose. Working from her left, Pi×on called on each.
     First, a lady Elph, Leafsparkle, volunteered to take a position that the message was cryptic. “Our Lady Goddess rarely speaks bluntly, perhaps fearing her children cannot handle too much direct guidance or perhaps, as most believe, perhaps because she allows us to make our own mistakes. We are not puppets but Elph and we must decide for ourselves what we do and why. If this view is proper, then the message is clear but shrouded, a paradox we must resolve. I will represent this view.” When she finished, two of the standing Elph sat, mute recognition she had expressed the view they wished to espouse.
     The next speaker, Agave, took the position that the message should be accepted at face value. “A new god with a new threat to Elph seems clear to me. We know this world of ours, know the current threats, Elphbane for example. We are steadily removing that threat from our world. When we find others, we’ll do that, too. What the message tells us is that there is one we should be looking for so that we can deal with it. If we don’t, we won’t survive.” Many Elph voiced their agreement in the low voices appropriate to a debate as opposed to the shouts of approval that a theatrical performance might earn. Again, when he finished, a few more Elph sat down.
     Treeblood volunteered to defend the position that the message was more a call to faith, that the fall of Elph did not necessarily mean the end of their kind but a distancing from their goddess. She was calling the Elph back to her, asking they mend their ways, become more devoted to following her will.
     “How does that differ from Leafsparkle’s position,” Pi×on asked.
     “I head no call to faith in her words,” Treeblood said, “but if that is her position, I will defer to her.”
     All looked to Leafsparkle for reply. “I’m not certain such would be my position,” she said. “I suppose that message could be buried in the goddess’ words but I am thinking the message is more specific to real world actions.”
     “Following the goddess is a real word action,” Treeblood argued.
     “Slow down, Treeblood,” Pi×on interjected. “You’re assuming meaning that might not be there. Let’s talk this out a little more. Leafsparkle, tell us what veiled threat there might be that differs from Agave’s view the threat must be discovered.”
     “Suppose the threat was something that could change us from being Elph. Suppose the threat were a magic that altered who an Elph might be, turn us into changelings. The goddess says each of the new god’s creations is a threat to all Elph. A race of magicians would fill that description.
     “We know there is magic this world. We have our time riders and weather wards. We have our tree shepherds.” She bowed to Pi×on with this assertion. “Magic is real.
     “We know the Brown Elph have shape shifter magic, the ability to alter their own form. Suppose a race arose that could perform a changeling magic on other races, would this not be a fall?”
     “That is different from what I defend,” Agave said. “My position is the threat is real and physical as is Elphbane or vipers.”
     “It is different from what I defend, as well,” Treeblood agreed. “My position is that the threat is to our way of life as laid down in the goddess’ word to us. When we stray from that path, we fall from the grace of Elph.”
     Around the amphitheater, no other Elph stood to be recognized. Waiting a few moments for second thoughts, Pi×on finally announced these were the three who would present their arguments. She tried to decide who should go first but found no logic in memory that could help her. She did not wish to be seen as supporting one view or another and selecting the order of speech would do that. Searching the sea of faces before her, her attention was drawn to a child, a girl, sitting on her father’s lap, her face scrunched in concentration, her eyes traveling from one presenter to the next. Her intensity brought a smile to Pi×on’s face. “Waterblossom, tell us who you would hear first.”
     Waterblossom blushed and, at first, hid her face in her father’s chest but his reassuring pat turned her back to regard Pi×on. The smile of encouragement she found there brought her to her feet. Solemnly, the girl regarded first Agave, then Treeblood, and finally Leafsparkle. Satisfied, she turned to Pi×on. “Treeblood, please,” she said in a voice strong enough to carry around the amphitheater. Pi×on bowed; Agave and Leafsparkle took their seats.
     “Treeblood, you have our ear.”
     The man stood for a moment gathering his thoughts. His yellow-green hair tossed in the breeze, Treeblood electing not braid it this day. His eyes closed whether in concentration or prayer not clear. When they opened, he lifted his head, gazed skyward, nodded, and then turned away from Pi×on to face his audience. His voice was clear, deep, and unemotional.
     “In our days, the goddess has spoken to us, given us our Book telling us what it means to be Elph. Her rules are simple and complex and, mostly, we all agree what they are and follow them.
     “Over time, and we have had much time in this world, we tend to not focus as clearly as we once did. Let me give you an example. The goddess told us that an admirable Elph is an honest Elph. Clear, straightforward, seemingly admitting of little discussion. Yet, we know that honesty is never simple. A child caught up in nightmare cries in the night and we tell that child there is nothing to fear. Of course there are things to fear in this world but we tell that child there is nothing to fear. Have we lied? Most of us would say that we did not lie, that our reassurance carried the unspoken thought that there was nothing to fear at this instant we said the words. Tomorrow or the next day, there would be things to fear but at that moment, with the child in our arms, she had nothing to fear.
     “Say that I wake in the morning with a pain from an accident. I can barely concentrate on the world around us so great is the agony. I rise and go out into the world to accomplish the things I must and the first Elph I meet smiles and says ‘good day.” I smile in return and say ‘good day.’ But, it isn’t a good day and I have lied. I can tell myself it is merely courtesy, merely expression of a wish to not burden this other with a burden that is mine to carry. And this is true. And it is also a lie. It precludes that Elph from an opportunity to assist me. When she discovers later that I lied, she will not think of my courtesy but the fact I didn’t care enough about her to be truthful.
     “Over the years, the little necessary social amenities, the lies become habit. We no longer think about them. They are part of our nature; part of being Elph. It becomes easier to develop new little lies, new little means of avoiding truth. In this day’s debate, I think you are wrong but I will not say that I think you are wrong because that would be unwelcome intrusion in your life. I will present my viewpoint but I will not comment on your inability to see the truth as I see it. But, didn’t the goddess call me to be truthful?
     “You will quickly point out that our Goddess book also requires the admirable Elph to treat others with courtesy. In a debate such as this, we interpret courtesy to mean that we do not dismiss another point of view, do not insult the Elph when we disagree with the Elph’s ideas. But, where is the honesty? It is repressed under courtesy.
     “The further down this path we go, the further we are from our goddess’ admonition: the admirable Elph is an honest Elph. In effect, we have created a new god to replace our goddess’ creations. We have become the new god’s creations following our own best intentions rather than following our goddess’ instructions. Each of us claiming to be living according to the Book but failing to measure up to the standards the Book suggests, is a threat to all Elph. If it is satisfactory for me to not live as I should, then it is satisfactory for all Elph to not live as they should.
         “I am not proposing we have sunk into evil. I do not believe that. I believe we are sliding, ever so slowly, down a path away from where our goddess calls us to be. I believe her message is a renewal of her call. I believe the message is a plea that we not fall from the Elph she created us to be.”
 Treeblood stopped. Sweeping the arena, he engaged any who were willing in direct contact, challenging them to deny his thought. Some refused to meet his challenge, looked down or away. Some looked into his challenge and nodded in agreement. Most looked into his eyes and nodded acknowledgement of his words but he knew that acknowledgement and agreement are far from equal terms. He had made his case as best as he knew how. He sat.
     Thank you, Treeblood,” Pi×on said to his now seated form, offering no other expression. She turned back to Waterblossom. “Who is next?” she asked. The little girl stood, looked at Leafsparkle and then Agave. Uncertain, she looked to her father for guidance but that one merely smiled. “Your choice,” he said. Waterblossom turned again to consider Leafsparkle and Agave. Turning to Pi×on, she said: “I think I want to hear Agave.” Selection announced, she sat in her father’s lap, trembling slightly from the pressure of making such a decision.
     Agave, stood and bowed to Waterblossom, smiling. He turned next to the crowd around him, he standing down front, close to Pi×on’s dais.
     “I believe,” his words came swiftly, perhaps driven by nervousness or, perhaps, merely a function of his driven personality, “the goddess understood exactly what she was doing, how we would receive her words, and made it as plain as she possibly could. A new god rises. This has happened before and will undoubtedly happen again. Change is constant in this world; why shouldn’t it be so with the deities? Gods create; it’s what they do. Gods and goddess may be mysterious to us but there nothing magical or mysterious in those words. A new god rises.
     “In a finished world as in a finished garden, new creations impose on old creations. Unless the gardener takes steps to avert disaster, one plant drives out another. Our Gardener has taken steps: she warns us of the danger. A new creation threatens the old creation. We are the old creation. Simple, straightforward. Nothing mysterious or magical.” Agave nodded his head to Treeblood. “ A threat arises and we must deal with it to avert our fall.” He turned then to look across the arena at Leafsparkle as he continued.
     “In our hypothetical garden, rain and sunshine are magical things. Without them, the garden cannot thrive; with them there is growth. Growth is change. From seed to plant to husk, growth is change. They are magical yet out of our control. Warned that they are coming or leaving, we can possibly find new sources of water, build dams and levies to keep water out but what can we do about too much or too little sunlight ? When we deal with the magical qualities of our garden, what we can do to protect it seems very close to nothing. Why would our goddess warn us of a danger over which we have no control?”
     His gaze now swept the entire arena, his eyes lighting on individual Elph and moving on.
     “In our hypothetical garden, there will be mites and rabbits and such. We can hunt the rabbits, build fences, brush off the mites. We can take steps to protect our garden from physical threats.
     “The goddess tells us our garden is threatened. Her message suggests we can do something, must do something. “Can my Elph avert their fall?’ she asks and we must respond that we will try. We must take steps to preserve the garden.”
     When he finished, Agave looked at his audience, shrugged as if to say that’s all there is to it, and resumed his seat. Pi×on turned to Leafsparkle, nodded permission, and the lady Elph rose. From her position at Pi×on’s far left, she turned to view her audience, some above her, some below, all spreading out into a gentle arc away from her. She had the thought her words would be like a wave spreading across a pond and she held the image in her mind. When she spoke, her contralto made an aria delivered with the passion of belief, the melody as convincing as her voice could make it be.
     “Our goddess respects her creation and rarely interferes in our activity. She gave us the Book but she did not give us a supplement to tell us what the Book means. As Treeblood pointed out, she leaves it to us to decide for ourselves what honesty means in our lives.” As Agave had, she nodded to Treeblood.
     “Now, she sends us a warning and she is typically vague about the nature of the threat. It isn’t that she wants to hide from us a real danger we must confront. It is that she wants us to decide what it is that threatens us. She gives us clues as she always does but the clues are vague and subject to interpretation as they always are.
     “Each member is a threat. Those words are more than suggestive. They are as close to blunt as we have ever heard from the Lady but still they are open to interpretation. As you heard me say, I believe the interpretation is that the threat is magical. Defending ourselves from a magical threat is possible. One can provide an umbrella when there is too much sun and a fire for heat when there is too little. Will the defenses be as powerful as the magic? Maybe not but they can still be effective. We wield magic, understand its use, can prepare to counter a magic that threatens us.
     “Can we avert a fall? Those are her words. A fall can be destruction but it can also be a change in the way we live, the Elph we are. A fall can be an alteration into something we were not intended to be. Again, a magical threat could cause this to happen.
     “If it were a fall from her grace that she warns of us, would she state that each member is a threat? Would she say that a new god rises with new creations? Each Elph can be interpreted as a threat to all Elph faith, I admit, but I find it unnecessarily complicated to discover in her words that we are creating this new god, that we are becoming its creations. Elph do not create gods; our goddess created us.
     “Our Lady speaks in cryptic terms but not obtuse terms. Am I a threat to your character? I could be but only if you allow it. You can threaten who I am only if I allow it. Each member of the new creation is a threat
     “Each member of this new creation is a threat drives my thinking. A magical threat satisfies this criteria. I see no means for a physical threat to do the same.
     “I believe the threat to be real but not physical.”
     Leafsparkle immediately sat, turning her face to Pi×on, not wanting to see how the crowd around her reacted to her words. She believed what she had said; she hoped her the strength of her belief would carry the argument.
     Pi×on looked out on her audience letting Leafsparkle’s words settle. She took a time to smile at Waterblossom and then was struck by sudden inspiration. Still smiling, in a voice to carry over the crowd noise, she asked Waterblossom: “Would you care to tell us what you think of these arguments, Waterblossom?” The crowd instantly hushed, most struck by the brilliance of Pi×on’s ploy. Who would deny a child’s right to express their opinion? Perhaps, it might even be instructive but, at the very least, it ought to be entertaining, a refreshing break from the seriousness of the discussion.
     Waterblossom was on her feet in an instant, obviously willing to share her thoughts. Her voice was high as little girl’s voices are but it was strong and it was certain. Just 4 feet high, skinny as bamboo, she wore her 13 years with the dignity that suddenly important young Elph always seem to find.
     “I know our Lady Goddess talks to us; I’ve been taught the Book as well as any my age, and I understand her messages, I think. At least when I tell adults what I think she said, you all seem to think I have it right, or so you tell me. Unless you are acting like Treeblood talked about, then I can understand our goddess.”
     She waited, a little discomfited that it appeared, but knew she must allow the murmured laughter come and gp before she started again.
     “Well, you’re not saying I’m wrong so I must not be wrong. So, here’s what I think.
     “I think Treeblood said some good things and I’m going to think about them but I don’t think that is what this message means. If you ask me why, then I’ll have to say that the goddess already told us what she wants: she gave us the Book. I think if she was worried about that, she’d say “go read my Book,” ‘cause that’s what my folks would do. They’d tell me to go read the Book and think about what I’m doing.
     “They do that a lot already.”
     More laughter but this time it cut short. Elph were beginning to realize this young Elph had something to say that was worth their listening.
     “Then, when I think about what Leafsparkle said, I think I like that a lot. I’m just beginning to learn magic but from what I know, it makes sense to me there could be danger there. In fact, all my teachers warn me there is danger in magic so why are not all my teachers standing up to agree with Leafsparkle?
     “Because parents don’t just wake up every morning shouting warnings to their children. My parents only warn me about things when I’m about to do something stupid. They never sit me down for two hours of letting me know all the dangers in the world. They take them as they come so that, when they are real and right in front of my nose, they can say that’s dangerous and I’ll recognize what they’re telling me.
     “I think that’s what Agave said, that our goddess is telling us something that is real, right in front of our noses if we look at it, and that makes sense to me. The goddess message says we are her children and that’s how my parents treat this child. I think Agave is right.”
     Waterblossom stopped talking then, sat down in her father’s lap, and looked at him for approval. His approval came with a massive hug. Up on the dais, still smiling, Pi×on looked out her audience. “Anyone else?” she asked. No one rose to speak. “Lacking dissent, I say this Convocation agrees that our goddess is warning us of a real, physical threat.” Pi×on waited for dissent that did not come. When it didn’t, she moved on.
     “Then, our next problem is how do we determine what the threat is?”
     As with the first problem earlier in the Convocation, this question brought a myriad of responses. Again, Pi×on let them come, denying no Elph the opportunity to speak. As before, a time came when the crowd lost its enthusiasm for the unique and different and began to stir itself to get down to business. Fewer Elph stood to express opinions. When those opinions produced murmured disapproval from neighbors, fewer still stood to talk. At last, Pi×on threw out her suggestion they proceed as before, allowing a few to represent the opinions to be discussed.
     Ivy stood again, a rueful grin on his face. “Since you co-opted my recommendation, let me try to simplify this. One possibility is the threat is out there now waiting for us to turn over a rock and see it. Another possibility is that the threat is out there now but it’s not yet obvious, won’t be for awhile, but we’d still best keep our eyes open. To me, it don’t matter which it is, it still means we keep our eyes open till we have it spotted; then we can decide how to deal with it. I think that sums up but I’m perfectly willing for another child to show me the error of my ways.” He grinned broadly at Waterblossom as he sat down.
     “Any debate?”
     No one stood to challenge Ivy’s take. “Last problem, then,” Pi×on announced. “Who wants to represent we Green Elph to the other Shades?”
     Agave jumped to his feet ahead of any others and Pi×on acknowledged the successful presenter. “You all might think I want to go to represent us but I don’t. I’m standing here to say that I think, from what we learned today, the best thing we can do is send a party to Dragon’s Eye and I propose that party be Waterblossom and her parents, Lily and Birch. What that meeting is going to need is someone who knows how a child should treat her parent and understands first-hand how parents treat their children.”
     The Convocation of the Green came to its feet in raucous applause, folk dancing and laughing at the rightness of Agave’s thought. It took Pi×on a while to get them settled long enough to ask Birch if his family was willing to take on the challenge. The crowd reached new heights of pandemonium when Birch turned to Waterblossom to ask what she thought and the little girl, beaming with pride, simply nodded her head “yes.” “Guess we’re going, then,” Birch announced.

 

***

The Brown Elph, living as they did close to the Dragon’s Eye, tended to move with the seasons even so. Just 30 miles south of the Eye, the ocean crashed against the base of the Dragonback mountains. That base met the sea for a 20 mile expanse, cliffs and small canyon beaches holding back the tides. On either side of this granite rise, foot hills provided the Brown Elph lots of variety for their homes. Most tended towards one in the south for the summer, just above the shore line; one in the eastern hills during fall and the western hills during winter and spring. In contrast, the settlement below the Dragon’s Eye was populated years round but that was because of the Eye.
     The message arrived in summer finding the majority of the Brown Elph in the ocean village. Ewa had sent Syaunan there to repeat to the Elders what he had heard the goddess say. Including Ewa, there were five Brown Elph considered Elder, three men, two women, each having celebrated their 190th birthday. That was the yard stick, 190 years experience. A Brown Elph who reached that mark automatically entered the ranks of Elders expected to confer the benefit of their accumulated wisdom to the good of all Brown Elph.
     Syaunan found the women, Ching and Zhong, sharing an afternoon drink, their usual administrative chores behind them. They invited the young man to sit and drink with them, poured him a cup, refused to listen to anything he had to say till he had accommodated their wishes.
     Syaunan protested that he must deliver the message to the male elders but Ching dismissed his concern with “they’re fishing. They’s no way you’ll get a message to them out on de reefs. Jes’ sit here and share _kai_ with us and then tell us about this thing you so excited about.”
 Syaunan sat unwillingly, looking about the hut for an excuse to be up and gone. Finding none, he accepted the cup Zhong offered, sipped the _kai_, tried to compose himself. Hearing the goddess’ message described as “this thin’ you so excited about” astounded him. “Not a thing I’m ecited about, Elders. Well, yes, I’m excited about it but that’s because it’s a message from the goddess.”
     “She finally got ‘round to talkin’ to us, has she?” Zhong asked.
     “High time, I’d say,” Ching said.
     Syaunan did not catch the winks his Elders exchanged.
     “How’s that _kai_? Taste alright to you? Maybe it needs more lemon; you want more lemon, boy?”
     Young but not stupid, Syaunan finally got the message. He gathered his composure, sipped the _kai_, and kept silent to listen to the women chat.
     “You know, Ching, this boy is about the age to go a’courtin’; don’ you think?”
     “I b’lieve you’re right, Zhong. Din’t I hear somet’in’ bout some brown-skinned beauty up at the Eye having her eyes peeled fer him?”
     “Yes, yes, I b’lieve you did. I spect I heard that, too. You think she’ll get ‘round to tellin’ this one soon?”
     As intended, this conversation gained all Syaunan’s attention. Some brown-skinned beauty thought he was worth catching? Who would that be? Up at the Eye. Haukan was up at the Eye but who else was?
     “I dunno. These young womens like to make the fella b’lieve it was his idea, you know? Gives ‘em de upper hand in future negotiations. Not like when we was girls. We’d just take a boy to bed and let that speak fer itself.”
     “You don’t think she’s taken him to her bed yet? My! My! Things have changed, ain’t they?”
     “What’d you say her name was?’
     “Lemme see. This old memory ain’t what it was, you know. Floozy, I think. Somet’in like dat.”
     “You mean ‘Haukan’?” Ching said and then moved surprisingly fast to get herself out of the way of the spitting Syaunan. They thought Haukan had already set her eye on him? That she had taken him to her bed?
     “Somet’in wrong with that _kai_, boy?” Ching asked.
     “Ah, Ching, les’ we want to be doused with his sputtering – don’t seem the boy knows how to proper drink _kai_ – we’d best let him tell his business. Go ‘head, boy. Tell us with the Lady got ‘round to sayin’ to us poor Elph children.”
     Still thinking about Haukan’s bed, it took a few seconds for Syaunan to remember why he was sitting in the presence of these Elders, a lapse he had never before experienced. Memory returned, though, and he excitedly relayed the goddess’ message. He watched both women’s faces as he said the words but could detect no reaction in either face.
     “Let me see I got it right, boy,” Zhong said and then repeated the words back to Syaunan. He agreed she had them exactly as he remembered them.
     “Then you better get back to de Eye, boy, afore that girl Haukan decides to take some other boy to her bed. She’s at that time, you know, and probly don’t have a lot of patience.”
     Syaunan took the time to thank the ladies for the _kai_ before leaping to his feet, bowing, and rushing from the gral, moving now in a steady jog that would cover those thirty miles to the Eye in good time.
     “We are evil womens, Ching,” Zhong said, laughing as she watched the boy hurry off.
     “You think we said somet’in’ wrong?” Ching asked.
     “Not a minute of it but that girl ain’t gonna be so appreciative of our efforts to help her love life.”
     “Ha, she’ll bed him and feed him and have him under her thumb for two decades at least. You mark my words.”
     “Jes’ like you and Ewa, eh?”
     “That was two and a haff decades an’ you know it. Don’t be making short with my accomplishments, girl.”
     “So, what about dis message?”
     “When Mau and Kafei get back, we’ll tell “em and then we’ all go up an’ meet with Ewa. Them other Shades will be here afore you know it and we’d best know what the Browns want to do.”
     “That’s a pure fact,” Zhong agreed.
 

***


     The five Elders sat in Ewa’s gral, each with a large mug of _kai_, letting the alcoholic content settle their spirits. All the Brown Elph were now aware of the goddess’ message and all awaited word from the Elders what it meant and what they were to do. All the Brown Elph had opinions, to be sure, but they were accustomed to letting the Elders make policy. The system worked well, limited social strife, simplified the Brown Elph approach to life.
     Three of these five had been together for more than five years. Mau had been an Elder for three and Kafei had just achieved the rank last month. But they all knew each other from as far back as they could remember. In a community of no more than 80 families, everyone knew everyone.
     “We each recognize the possibilities, do we not?” Ewa began but was cut off by Ching. “Ewa, you pomp, we ain’t sittin’ with the other Shades. This is us; let’s talk like us.”
     Ewa smiled ruefully. “Ching, you know I’ve been working on my speech. I get’s so tired of dem other Shades lookin’ at me like I crawled out from under some rock jes’ acause my language is a mite more lazy than they’s.”
     “Thass better,” Ching grinned. “Now, what do you say dem possimabilities might be? Let’s get “em all on de table so we can sort them good an’ proper.”
     “Well, there’s the idea the Old Women spoke it like it is. And there’s the other idea that she’s foolin’ ‘round like she usually does. And, then, there’s the idée she’s not only foolin’ around, she’s bein’ a bitch on top of it.”
     “My, my,” Zhong said, “you is so disrespectful.” But they all laughed. Ewa laughed as well. When he finished, he turned to Kafei.     “You’re new at this stuff, boy, so you go first. That way we won’t ‘timidate you.”
     “In all your sorry life, you ain’t never intimidated me an’ you know it well as I do. But I’ll go first acause I’m probably right as I always am.” The other four laughed at this assertion but only Zhong responded: “Like you was right about them apple dumplings we swiped from that Red Elph cooking fire?” To the groans and stomach clutching of his four companions, Kafei allowed as how that had nothin’ to do with this important subject and could they all jes’ stick to the topic at hand, please?
     “I think the Old Lady is tellin’ us good and proper that things is fixin’ to change and we’d best get our butts ready for it.”
     “Dragon bones, you got the obvious down pat, brother!” Mau said, “but you tell me what kind of change she’s talkin’ about.”
     “I ain’t you brother. At best, I’m your better cousin and I don’t have a clue. Figured all you older and wiser brains would have that answer.”
     “I don’t have it,” Ching said, provoking a round of “me neithers.”
     “So how do we figure that out?” Ewa asked.
     “We could wait and see what the other Shades come up with,” Kafei offered.
     “And be considered the simpletons in the great Elph family…again? I don’t think so,” Mau said. “I think we need a position and it better be a good one.”
     “We could ask the goddess,” Zhong offered.
     “Did that right away,” Ewa said. “She didn’t bother to answer.”
     “We’d best keep trying, though,” Ching said.
     “Yeah, we’ll take turns. Once a day, one of us is up there tryin’ to get the Old Lady talkin’ but I’m not putting a lot of hope in that approach.”
     “I got an idée.”
     “Let’s hear it, woman. We need somethin’ even if it’s from you. If I remember the last idée you had, we all spent a decade or two trying to get everybody to forget we followed your brilliance.”
     “How was I sposed to know those White Elph would be running around the forest lookin’ fer us? I thought we’d scare “em so bad they’d take a day or two to figure out what to do next.”
     “Well, you miscalculated “em.”
     “I ain’t ever gonna miscalculate them ghosts again, I’ll tell you that.”
     “Well, what’s your idée?”
     “We get dem Red Elph spirit walkers to go lookin’ for de threat. If anybody can do it, they can.”
     “They only got one or two. What makes you think they’ll stop what they’re doing to go find out what’s threatening us?”
     “Cause they’re Elph, too. The message applies to them as well as it do to us.”
 Yeah,” Mau said, “then, when we know what it is, we can put our young uns to work fixing it all up.”
     “That’s a plan, alright,” Ewa agreed. “We gonna send out to the Reds to tell them what we got in mind or wait till they get here and ask “em then?”
     “They’re probably on they way already. They don’t waste time bickering over stuff the way the rest of us do. “
     “So, we wait. We ready to tell our folk?”
     They agreed they were and set to doing so.
 

***


     A Spiritwalker delivered the goddess’ message to her Red Elph home. He spiritwalked then to the other Red Elph villages. Quickly all the Spiritwalkers were directed to the other Shades of Elph to discover what the sentiment might be, what the other Shades would do in response to the goddess’ warning. By the time the Red Elph rider from the Eye arrived, the Red Elph were well on their way to establishing their course of action.
     In the week of the goddess’ message, the Eye’s Spiritwalker’s home was located in the foot hills west of the northern Dragonback range. In the next month, it would be at least forty miles south and maybe twenty miles west, into the Empty Plains. All Red Elph villages, there were eight, moved with regularity throughout the northwestern reaches of the world, an expression of concern to not expend the resources of the land as well as a suspicion of everyone not Red Elph.
     The latter trait formed the basis of their Spiritwalker magic. Dealing with suspicions required knowledge of what folk were up to, knowledge that could be gained by visiting and talking to those folk but how could you know they were not simply putting on a show for the Red Elph visitors? Better, the Red Elph believed, to know for certain. A Spiritwalker moving among them undetected could discover truth and report that truth back to the Red Elph nation. The other Shades were aware of the Spiritwalker ability but few had any idea why the talent had been developed, how it was used, or any of its limitations. The Red Elph did not offer explanations.
     The problem for Spiritwalkers was they could not travel to a place they had not already visited. They were not explorers of new lands; they were historians for existing lands. Potential Spiritwalkers made a circuit of the world in their early years, visiting every community of Elph, Coblan, and Duorph. Even the Newborn towns had been recently added to the grand tour.
     Additional problems for Spiritwalkers consisted in the need for someone to maintain their real bodies while they were walking. They would be gone for a days at a time – history occurs in real time - return home for a week of real life, and then be off again. It was a demanding trade, exhausting physically and mentally. No Elph could perform the duties for more than two decades without risking either insanity or a physical debilitation regime impossible to curb. As a result, there were rarely more than eight Spiritwalkers available. Each had their own support system, their home village.
     As a rule, Spiritwalkers reported what they learned to the veteran Spiritwalkers residing in their village. These veterans in conjunctions with the entire company of Spiritwalkers then formulated the survival policies and practices applicable for all Red Elph. With the Book and their intelligence net, they crafted a nomadic existence that interfered with no one and brooked no interference. They planned their lives so that no known enemy could approach without their knowledge. The Red Elph would be gone before the enemy could arrive.
     Circumstances change over time. The veterans knew this and tried to plan accordingly. When the Spiritwalker from the Eye reported in with the goddess’ message and the gist of the Brown Elph plan, they had passed the news to the other seven villages. Each village sent a veteran to the hill country village to discuss strategy. Now, eight former Spiritwalkers, the senior veterans from each village, met around a campfire in the early summer evening, waving gnats from their brows, arguing their cases, building a new survival strategy.
     Eagle represented the hill country; Wolf, Cat, Hawk, Vulture, Snake, Mosquito, and Wasp sat for their villages. They carried the names of the village, names taken for the time they spoke for the community and relinquished at other times. These eight and no others attended the campfire. These eight and no others decided the fate of the Red Elph.
     Camp beasts wandered the campground, dogs, fowl, cats. These stayed close to the fire and the Elph, instinctively aware that outside the fire the rules changed, their protection broke down, and they would be on their own against whatever predators wandered the night. They nudged each other, complained at each other, selected one of their number and pestered it more than the others, barking, growling, snarling, till Mosquito yelled for them to quiet down.
     “If they knew our limitations, the Brown would not have made their plan,” Eagle said.
     “But, they are correct. Scouts need be deployed.” That was Mosquito, the eldest veteran attending the meet.
     “We don’t agree with the White Elph, then, that the Newborn are the threat?” It was a question but Snake believed it to be rhetorical, voicing it just so that deliberations would not miss any important point.
     Wolf responded, though. “The Whites have their own agenda, as usual. They see what they want to see.”
     “Don’t we all?” Eagle asked and the group laughed with him.
     “The other Shades seem very close to agreeing that the threat must be discovered,” Cat offered.
 “The majority,” Eagle agreed, “will go that way. So must we.”
     “Spiritwalkers are not explorers,” Vulture stated the obvious.
     Exasperation filled Wolf’s voice. She was the youngest of the veterans here gathered, a mere thirteen decades, and known for her impatience with foolishness. “Not all Red Elph walk the spirit world. We hunt; we scout new camp grounds. We have the skills to scout an enemy in the read world.”
     Another female, Hawk, supported her position but Mosquito did not. “We have enough people to guard and tend our spirit walkers. We have young folk who must make their journey so to be ready to take their place as the next Spiritwalkers. Who do you suggest we send on these scouting missions? Why not let the other Shades scout and then use our Spiritwalkers to track what they find?”
     “Undoubtedly, a good idea, Mosquito,” Eagle said, shaking his head so that his faded red hair moved on and off his shoulders. Eagle was close to Mosquito in age and they were friends from childhood. “But, we have this other issue that threatens our way of life even before the threat the goddess’ warns of ever appears.”
     “The Brown Elph,” Snake agreed.
     “The Brown Elph,” Eagle confirmed. “The Shapeshifters want to use us to scout for them. If we decline, what are they to think? Do we not come close to telling the Shades of our limits and that is knowledge they do not need.”
     “Why not simply tell them to do their own scouting?” Vulture asked.
     “Are we not a Shade of Elph?” Wasp asked. “When our goddess warns her Elph a danger arises, does she mean only to one Shade and not all? If she means all, is there not a hint within that message that all need to work to avert the fall of all?”
     “We certainly do not want to alienate the other Shades by compounding our already distant relations. Alienation means suspicion which increases any threat to we Red Elph.” The group pondered Snake’s words for a moment, the crackling of the fire mirroring the crackle of analyses in each Elph’s mind.
     “Then, we must scout,” Mosquito conceded.
     “But we must do so without changing who the Red Elph are. Mosquito is right in that respect; we cannot afford to commit our young people to scouting. They must be prepared to assume their turn walking the spirit world.” Cat said. “How do we do both?”
     “The answer is obvious yet we all seek to avoid it.” Hawk stood as if her words spurred action. Pacing round the fire, she did not look at any one Elph but all of them. And she looked at the ground her steps moved over. “We must use veterans for the scouting. Knowing that to be our only option, we also know the tremendous price such scouts may pay. Are we willing to ask that of our veterans, any of our veterans?” Hawk continued to pace while the others considered her question. Her body, save for the continuous walk around the fire, was rigid. It seemed Hawk knew what the answer must be and dreaded that someone would voice it, her body defensive against the time they would, the time they must.
     A tired voice finally rose into the night, resigned, frustrated, weary. Eagle spoke. His words brought Hawk to stop across the fire from him, Hawk’s eyes stabbing through the blaze to capture Eagle’s. “I will go,” Eagle said. “I am old, expendable. My village has younger more capable veterans to fill my shoes. I will go find this enemy.”
     “Where will you go?” Hawk demanded. “Have you thought this through at all? Where will you find this new threat? Is there something in the goddess’ message that all the Shades of Elph missed but you have discovered?”
     “Peace, Hawk,” Mosquito said. “Your feelings are strong as are all our feelings strong. We know what Eagle risks as well as you yet someone must go. Who should it be? Do we ask others to do what we will not? I, too, will scout for the enemy.”
     “Still, Mosquito, Hawk has a point,” Cat said. “Where will you scout.”
     “There are only three choices,” Vulture said. “We can scout north in the cold reaches, west to the Black Elph’s river and beyond, or East into and across the Great Barrier Mountains. We cannot search the south since we cannot walk on the sea. Everywhere in-between people we know, animals we know, life we know abounds. Despite what the ghosts think, the threat is not likely to arise within known lands. That leaves the unknown.”
     “There are the caves under the Dragonback mountains,” Wasp objected.
     “Known to the Brown Elph and maybe to the Coblans,” Cat countered.
     “True,” Wasp said.
     Hawk resumed her pacing while the others discussed where to scout. When she had circled the fire three more times, she finally took her place again, seated, staring into the fire. “Three directions,” she said, “but only two volunteers. I will go north. I have followed the road north and around and the Dragonback mountains. I am at least that familiar with the country there. And I am young enough that my old bones will not protest the cold.” With that she grinned at Mosquito.
     “East is mine,” said Vulture. “Always wanted to see those mountains.”
     “Likewise; so we two will go east.” Wasp smiled at Vulture sitting next to her, slapped his back.
     “You two are way past amorous liaisons,” Eagle laughed.
     “Speak for yourself, old Elph,” Vulture said, laughing as well.
     Snake offered to join Hawk in the north if she’d have him. Hawk was elated someone would be willing to enter the cold country with her.
     “Guess that means you and me are heading west, old Elph,” Eagle said to Mosquito across the fire.
     “I’m three weeks older than you, Eagle. You have no right to refer to me as ‘old Elph’. I can out-walk you any day of the year.”
     “We’re about to find out, aren’t we?” Eagle laughed.
     “But, before we do,” Mosquito began, suddenly all business again, “some other things to sort. We leave behind Wolf and Cat who must keep us informed. The only way that happens is for us to Spiritwalk back to their villages. We do that once every five days at first. If things get happening, we can increase the frequency but that isn’t likely for a while.”
     “And we keep watch on the other Shades, as well.” Wolf said. “We’ll need to keep abreast of what they do or plan to do.”
     “We do no alter anything more of who we are to get this done,” Eagle said. “Red Elph life continues as it always has. Spiritwalker perform as they always have. For now, the only thing that changes is that we old bastards are out of your hair.”

     “Agreed,” Cat said.
     The conversation deteriorated then to plans for the scouting mission, when they would leave, what they would need, how long they thought they’d be gone. All agreed to delay departure until after the Shades met at the Dragon’s Eye. They’d send Cat south for the meeting, she’d communicate back through the Spiritwalker assigned duty at the Eye.
     Agreed on their course, of action, the friends settled for the night. They’d return to their villages on the morrow.
     A while later a dog stood, stretched, moved off into the night as if to relieve itself somewhere away from the camp. Its departure ignited the clamor of the other beasts, the barking, snarling, whooping that lasted until Mosquito yelled into the night that they should all shut up or he would have them for breakfast.
     The dog not only moved into the night, it kept moving, gained speed, trotted in a distance consuming pace, heading south.
 

***


     The first order of business at the Eye when all the representatives of all the Shades finally arrived, was to decide where to meet. Over the objections of the Brown Elph representatives, Ewa and Zhong, the White Elph Warden, Arrow, led them all up the trail to the Dragon’s Eye.
     “What better place to work Our Lady’s will than under her protective vision. We meet in the cavern of the Eye.”
     “Her vision is sufficient to the entire world, Elph.” Zhong said. “What of the young attendant on the Goddess’s Chair and what of those who have journeyed here to make supplication?”
     “Their supplications are less important than this historic meeting of the Shades of Elph. The attendant will be dismissed.”
     “You have been chosen to order events at the Goddess’ Chair?” Who elected you king of Elph?”
     That came from Sunset, Black Elph, bristling at the attitude the White Elph used as a weapon. “We Black Elph do not recognize a king, Arrow, so you’d best settle down and treat with us as plain, ordinary Elph or this meeting is over before it begins.”
     “Amen to that, brother,” Cat chimed in.
     Arrow slowed his pace, stopped, turned to regard his companions and fellow leaders of the Shades of Elph. “I apologize,” he said though Waterblossom told her father it didn’t sound as if he was apologizing. “The seriousness of the times and my own habits from the White Pine Hall overrode my good manners. Let me re-phrase things.
     “The Eye has the most convenient space to conduct a meeting away from prying eyes. We will be in the goddess’ holy place and that will lend authority to our deliberations. It just makes sense to me to conduct our business in that place.”
     “We have something’ to hide?” Zhong asked.
     “We may find a need for discretion, yes,” Arrow answered.
     “Somet’in’ the attendant shouldn’t hear? How will the goddess’ let us know if she needs to correct our thinkin?” Ewa asked.
     “The goddess has already told me what she wants us to know,” Arrow replied, turning away from the group and continuing up the path.
     “She speaks to him personally these days,” Sunset said. “My. My. What an important Elph he must be.”
     The companions followed Arrow up the path.
     In the Eye, they wandered around a bit, examining the place for suitability. Stone floor, no chairs except the Goddess Chair, a Red Elph currently in attendance thereon.
     “You’re dismissed,” Arrow said to her, waving dismissal, shocking the young lady into open-mouthed astonishment.
     “No, she is not dismissed,” Ewa said, his words chosen with care and spoken with no trace of dialect. “She will maintain her post as she has always done; this sanctuary will function as it has always done. She will be relieved on schedule and she will depart the chair then, and only then.” He moved directly in front of Arrow, challenging him face to face. “Any other directions you care to attempt you can give to yourself because this Brown Elph will not participate in desecration of Our Lady’s place.” He did not move after that, simply stared into Arrow’s eyes, forcing the White Elph to back away and turn to the others. “Do you all feel this way?”
     The other Elph smiled pleasantly at the White Elph. “Yes,” Lily said. “We apparently do.”
     “Very well, then, she can stay but she must be sworn to secrecy.”
     Ewa asked the attendant if she could refrain from talking about whatever she might hear during the meeting to take place. Still unsettled by events, the young Elph thought for moment, looked at Cat for guidance. When Cat nodded, the attendant looked back at Ewa. “I can refrain from talking about this, yes.”
     “Good, then please do so.” Ewa turned back to Arrow as if the matter were settled.
     “She didn’t swear,” Arrow said.
     “And she won’t. Her word is good enough for me. Is a Red Elph’s word not good enough for you, Arrow?”
     Cat moved to a position similar to that Ewa had occupied while confronting the White Elph. “Are you suggesting the word of a Red Elph has no value?”
     “No, no, of course not,” Arrow answered but he did not meet her eyes. Instead, he looked around the group his attention finally centered on Waterblossom. He looked at her but directed his words to her parents. “Surely you are not going to inflict this business on a child. Shouldn’t she be back in the village with the other children while we meet?”
     Birch started an angry response that Lily cut short with laughter. “You are so certain of yourself, Arrow, that you know everything? This young lady happens to be the Green Elph’s representative to this meeting. We are merely here for support.”
     “The Green Elph believe this to be child’s play? How typical of them! How totally detached from the world and its necessities you Greens are!”
     “We gonna get to the tradin’ insults early then?” Zhong asked. “Don’t we usually wait an hour or two till we know what the disagreements are and have something good an’ juicy to rant about? Why we startin’ so early this time?”
     Amazed, Arrow asked Zhong: “You can’t truly be willing to discuss the goddess’ business with a child. You can’t, can you?” the horror of the realization that, yes, she was so willing draining the blood from his already chalky face. “Is there no Shade but White devoted enough to our Lady to be willing to do her will, to discuss that will intelligently and deliberately?” he asked.
     “You about to start acting intelligently, are you?” Ewa responded. Before the White Elph could answer, Zhong jumped back in: “Didn’t you hear me chide him for tradin’ insults too soon in this meetin’? Didn’t you? What makes you think it’s okay for you start?”
     Ewa backed down. “You’re right, Zhong. You’re right.” But, he did not apologize to Arrow.
     Sunset took the floor.
     “We have some serious talking to do so we ought to get to it. I’m certain we each bring a particular point of view and we need to be able to hear each other. Let’s just sit for a moment, remember we’re at the feet of the Goddess’ Chair, and then let’s get to business.”
     The Elph sat. Arrow took a seat in front of the Goddess’ Chair and the others smiled at the thought he believed this might lend him an air of authority. Cat indulged in a whimsy that the goddess would decide to join the conversation. The attendant legs going rigid, perhaps sweeping upwards, ought to catch Arrow squarely in the back of the head, maybe kicking some sense into him.
     To Arrows’s right, Sunset sat. On his left, Cat. Ewa and Zhong sat to the left of Cat and the Green Elph family completed the circle, Waterblossom sitting between her parents. After a few minutes, while the others were still comfortable in their prayers, Arrow began to speak.
     “Now that the goddess has told us the Newborn are a threat, we White Elph have begun to turn ourselves into her army. We have asked our women to bear more children so that we will have the numbers necessary to prosecute such a war. We have called for development of new societies, warriors, magical weapons masters, the talents war requires. We plan to be ready to launch the war in fifty years.
     “I want to leave this meeting knowing how many warriors and of what kinds we can expect from each of the other Shades We ought to define organization, who commands where, that kind of thing. It will be a busy time with much to accomplish.”
     Arrow did not notice the stunned disbelief his words produced. So busy rushing his wisdom into the open, so certain of its acceptance, it did not occur him that the other Shades might have reached a different conclusion. His first intimation came when Waterblossom raised her hand to be recognized.
     “This isn’t a classroom, child,” Sunset said. “You want to ask a question or express an opinion, you just open your mouth and let the words flow.”
     Over the frustrated squirming and barely controlled anger from the White Elph, Waterblossom looked first at Arrow and then at each of the other Elph around her. “When did the Newborn become our enemy?”
     “Good question, child,” Cat said. She looked at Arrow. “Tell us all just when it was decided the Newborn are our enemy.”
     “The goddess’ told us. It’s in her message. “A new threat arises” That’s what she told us; that’s what White Elph accept. The Newborn are newly risen and they are a threat. That is as plain as the snow on the White Pine Hall branches.”
     “But the Newborn have been around as long as I’ve been alive,” Waterblossom complained. “Probably longer since I am so young. If they are now a threat, why wouldn’t our Lady say so?”
     Exasperated, the White Elph answered Waterblossom in slow, simple words, uttered as if explaining the ways of the world to an idiot. “She did. In her message. Any Elph can see that, even one as young as you.”
     Waterblossom scrunched her eyes in frustration but she was saved having to answer Arrow; Zhong did that for her. “Not jes’ any Elph can see that. This Elph cannot see that. No matter how I study her message they’s no way I come up with the Newborn as a new threat risin’.”
     “This Elph has great difficulty coming to that conclusion as well,” Sunset added.
     “Don’t you see it? I’ve been praying to the goddess all my life to show me some way of dealing with these Newborn. Finally, she tells me what to do and you don’t see it. The White Elph see it. We are ready to hear and obey our goddess. We are ready to commit ourselves to a war that risks many Elph lives. We are ready to commit ourselves to a war to save your lives. Why can you not see it?”
     “So,” Birch asked, “the message was addressed to you and the White Elph?”
     “Of course not. It was to all of us. The Newborn threaten all of us. For now, they are breeding and filling lands we White Elph formerly roamed. But the time will come when they have so many they will expand into your lands as well.”
     “Our lands. Your lands. Does the message also say the goddess wants us to divide the world into your land and our land? Where did you find that?”
     “You Browns live by the sea. The Blacks live in the Delta. The Greens in their Dell. The Reds over there in the west. And we live along our river. That’s as it has always been.”
     “So, you’re saying we Black Elph are confined to the Delta country? What happens if we choose to move?”
     “I like swimmin’ in the sea; that’s true. But what if I develop a taste for visitin’ snow, maybe livin’ there for a while. Do I need someone’s permission to leave my place?” Ewa seemed genuinely bemused by the possibility.
     “You are all purposely missing my point. We all have our favorite places, our places. If the Newborn population keeps growing, they will soon take all our places. It’s inevitable. That’s what our goddess is trying to tell us”
     “I’m sorry, Arrow. We Black Elph just do not see that in her words.”
     “Are you saying that you Black Elph are going to ignore her warning, do nothing?”
     “Arrow, you have an amazing ability there, to hear words that people do not say. You do it with the goddess’ message and now you do it with my simple statement. Let me make it as clear as I can. The Black Elph do not interpret our goddess’ message to refer – in any manner – to the Newborn. We believe it refers to a new, as-yet-unidentified threat. We believe that and we will act on that. We will not go to war with Newborn based on your interpretation.”
     “We could have expected as much. Cut off as you are, stagnating down in your delta, avoiding the world as it is, we should have known you would again isolate yourselves.”
     “Gettin’ to the insults, again?”
     “Well, look at her. Selfish and stupid, typical of all her Shade. Unable to have the faith our goddess knows what she’s doing. Unable to work up the energy to our goddess bidding. What else can I say?”
     “For starters, you can figure the kind of insult you want to apply to we Red Elph. Because you know what? We think just like the Black Elph. There is a threat arising but we don’t yet know what it is. In the meantime, we won’t be joining your little war either. So, have at us. What’s your best insult for Red Elph?”
     “Wait! Wait a minute. Let’s save time and give him a chance to get us all at once.” Zhong grinned at the group; then turned to Arrow. “You gonna have to pull from your stock of Brown Elph insults, as well, Arrow. We probly gonna take a stand with the other Shades and we definitely ain’t going to fight no war with the Newborn. So what you gonna call us, hey?”
     Stunned, Arrow looked from Elph to Elph finding only confirmation of the opinions just expressed. At last. his attention centered on Waterblossom. He examined her for a moment, noticed she did not flinch from his gaze. “And you? You represent the childish Green Elph. Are the children strong enough to obey our goddess?”
     “Mr. Arrow, there is an Elph in my town about my age that I don’t like. She is loud and prissy and mean. We cannot stand each other. I truly wish she lived in another place. But can you imagine what would happen to me if I decided to get her out of my life by killing her? Can you imagine our goddess telling me to kill her? I can’t. That’s why I don’t believe the goddess is telling us to fight the Newborn.
     “If I’m representing right what the Green Elph wanted me to say, then, no, sir, we Green Elph are not to join a war against the Newborn.” She looked to her parents for a confirmation that she received immediately.
     “You know, Mr. Arrow. When I’m sure I’m right and the rest of my family and all my friends and neighbors are wrong, my mother tells me to sleep on it for a night or two and see what I think when I’m not so upset. I think maybe that might help you, maybe sleep here in the Eye. Maybe our goddess will really talk to you.”
     Over the knowing smiles of the other Elph, Arrow stood, snarling.
     “I need no instruction in how to live my faith from children. I am High Warder for the White Elph and I did not get to that position because the White Elph think me stupid or dense or cowardly. I am High Warden by reason of my faith and my willingness to sacrifice for the White Elph, my willingness to the bidding of my people and my goddess. If the Shades are so blind they cannot understand a simple directive from our goddess’, then the Shades can stand back and watch the White Elph demonstrate their faith.
     “Stand back and stand away. Do not take side with our enemy lest you, too, become our enemy.”
     Arrow stormed from the cave, never looking back.
     The others considered his departure, stood and made to depart themselves.
     “Five Shades of Elph,” Sunset said to no one in particular. “If one falls, do we all fall? How do we avert that while we try to find out what the real danger is?”
     “We need to talk about that,” Zhong said. “Tomorrow?”
     They all agreed tomorrow would be soon enough.
 

***


     The remaining Shade representatives met the next day in Ewa’s gral. Cat did ask if anyone felt the need to climb to the Goddess’ Chair but her grin indicated her question was more a comment on the White Elph High Warder than a serious suggestion.
     “Our goddess seems quite capable of monitoring our actions no matter where in the world we try to hide,” Sunset said. “No need to find a special place.”
     “Besides,” Cat grinned, “here we can have our _kai_ and the food to go with it.”
     The group took its time over the amenities striving hard to be cordial, to make friends, to get to know these Elph. They had serious work before them and serious work always gets done quicker when friends cooperate at the task. In time, they sat to begin that work.
     “The White Elph will make war; that we know for certain.”
     “Is there no way to change his mind?” Waterblossom asked. “If folk talk to me long enough, soon enough I must pay attention to what they say. It’s easier than trying to ignore them forever.”
     Zhong replied. “You are right, little Elph, we need to keep talking to the White Elph, trying to change their minds. But there is very little chance we can succeed. They are a stubborn Elph, and prideful. They will not easily admit error. Our best chance is to discover what the true threat is. Then, they will find it more difficult to continue their chosen path.”
     “Where do we look?”
     Sunset was first to respond. “We Black will take our river and scout north along its banks. With small boats we can maintain a continuous search. We’ll send a boat with four Elph up river to its headwaters. When they return, the next boat will go. We think it unlikely that much can happen quicker then the few weeks these trips will take.”
     “We will send Spiritwalkers north, east, and west.” Cat said. Ewa and Zhong nodded at her words as if in encouragement. “They will go to lands we have never seen and report back what they find. Threat or no threat, their scouting will greatly increase our knowledge of the world we live in.”
     “How many can you send?” Zhong asked. “You have so few.”
     The question startled Cat. She knew the Red Elph kept Spiritwalker information very close. The other Shades knew Spiritwalkers existed, that they traveled about unseen and unheard exploring this world’s mysteries. That’s all that Red Elph admitted. But, now the Brown Elph indicated awareness of the number of Spiritwalkers available.
     “You know how many Spiritwalkers we have?” Cat asked, unable to hide her astonishment that this might be so.
     “No, you Red Elph never mention that fact. Still, it must be a limited number. If every Red Elph were out walking the spirit world, who would tend the cook fires? Or can you hunt and cook while Spiritwalking?” The question interested all the Shades; their representatives looked expectantly to Cat to provide an answer.
     “Of course not,” she laughed. “There is no food to sustain physical bodies in the spirit world. A Spiritwalker must return to her body to eat, sleep, do all the normal things.”
     “I would guess that that limits how long an Elph can walk the spirit world?” Lily said but it was more question than statement.
     “It would, yes.” Cat said. A pause followed that was filled by Ewa’s next question. “Then, how many can you send?”
     “Six,” Cat answered, feeling herself back on comfortable ground. “Two in each direction.”
     “And how soon before you hear back from them? Spiritwalkin’ covers long distances very quick, doesn’t it?”
     Startled again, Cat searched Ewa’s face for hidden meaning, for knowledge he should not have. “As with all magic, there are limitations to what a Spiritwalker can do and accomplish. To search for new enemies, the tasks involved may well take as long as Sunset’s Black Elph boats traveling their river.”
     “That’s disappointin’,” Zhong said. “We hoped to know sooner than that. Can they take Mindspeakers with them? That could speed the information flow? No, I guess not. Spiritwalking is a singular magic, isn’t it? One person walking his own path in the spirit world. But then, why send two in each direction?”
     “They could but it would be little gain. The Spiritwalkers themselves can report back almost as quickly as Mindspeakers could.”
     “Such a mystery you make of this Spiritwalking,” Sunset said.
     “No more a mystery than our kin the Brown Elph make of their shapeshifting. What do you Black Elph know of that?”
     Sunset laughed. “Why, Cat, just as you know, we know they use their forms to spy on other folk, to keep themselves abreast of what’s going on in the world. They have what they call a ‘natural curiosity” about things and they are not shy about satisfying that curiosity.” Sunset laughed even harder at the apparent discomfort her words produced in Ewa and Zhong. “Oh, I’m sorry, Ewa. I wasn’t supposed to know that, was I?”
     “You spy on other Elph?” Cat asked. It did not occur to her that her question might seem hypocritical to the Brown Elph.
     “Shocking, isn’t it?” Sunset said.
         “Why would you do that?” Cat asked.
 “As Sunset said, curiosity. Nothing more. Occasionally, though, we discover things we had not suspected but find good to know. What is it you said your Spiritwalkers do, explore the world around us?”
     “Yes, that’s what I said.”
     “Interesting concept, that: the world around us. That would include this village and the Dragon’s Eye, the Coblan reaches, the Duorph weiks, the Black Elph boats, All these make up the world around us, do they not? And this is what your Spiritwalkers explore; is that what you said.”
     “It’s not what I meant,” Cat said.
     “No, you meant us to believe in the scientific pursuits of a nomadic people. Are we so much less clever than the Red Elph that we cannot observe and understand the things we discover?”
     Cat thought about that for a while. The others seemed to content to wait for her answer. After a while she shrugged.
     “Our goddess’ message tells us a new threat arises, a threat to all of us. Such a threat requires us to work together to understand our peril. There should be few secrets among us; we are all Shades of Elph under our goddess’ protection. I cannot do less than be as open as we Red Elph need you to be.”
     Cat took the time to explain Spiritwalking, its limitation, its dangers, and why the veterans had elected to perform the scouting mission.
     “Why are you afraid of us? All we do is tend plants.” Waterblossom asked.
     “We are not afraid of you, young Elph. We are afraid of everyone. And, now, we are afraid of a terror our goddess tells us we cannot yet see.”
     “Fear is a healthy thing,” Zhong said. “Fear makes you careful, attentive, alert. In itself, fear makes good sense. When it grabs you and becomes your whole reason for livin’, then maybe it ain’t so useful anymore.
     “Have another cup of _kai_, Cat,” Zhong said. “You’ll see the world looks better. It won’t look safer but it will sure look better.”
     Sunset smiled at the thought but her grin took on a bite as she addressed Zhong. “That was nicely done, you Brown Elph politicians. But let us not let you off the hook so quickly. Your shapeshifters can be quite a nuisance, you know. All the barking and yelping, hooting and cackling our other beasts raise when one of you is about quite jangles the nerves. Can you do something about that?”
     Ewa laughed. “Not really! Our magic don’t seem to alter our smell. The beasts know that our forms are untrustworthy but they don’t seem to unnerstan’ what the significance of that difference is. So, they complain. We’ve searched for ways to change our scent but, so far, unsuccessful. Sorry!” And then he laughed again. “Oh, I see what you mean: can we stop the nosin’ around? That’s it, right? We can do that, I suppose, at least for the time bein’, til we get this new threat under control. Will that work?”
     His feigned innocence brought the room to laughter.
     “So, the Red Elph scout new lands; the Black Elph their river. We Brown Elph will go under the Dragonback mountains to the caves there an’ there are many. Hidden things grow, some magical. They bear watchin’.”
     “And we will all watch White Elph developments. It’s best we know what they plan.”
     “Are we going to fight the White Elph?” Waterblossom asked.
     “What makes you ask that, child?”
     “That Arrow said we could be their enemy. Enemies fight each other, don’t they?”
     “Not always, child. Sometimes enemies jes’ let each other be. This time, tho’, I spect that won’t be possible.”
     “We’ll have to fight them,” Waterblossom said.
     “Let’s not jump to that conclusion, jes’ yet.”
     Her father asked: “But, don’t we have to warn the Newborn? We can’t let them go along unaware of the danger the White Elph present. They need time to prepare just as much as the White Elph do. They have no army.”
     Sunset answered Birch. “We ought not to be the ones who warn the Newborn. The White Elph are part of us and we should not be quick to betray them. Things could change; their war may not be fought. It would be better if we could say that we did not betray their intentions.”
     Lily asked if that meant the Newborn would receive no warning. Sunset laughed an evil laugh. “I did not say that, Elph. I said ‘we’ should not betray their intentions.”
     “Who, then?” Birch asked.
     “The Duorph pride themselves on the ability of their Seers, do they not?”
     Zhong took Sunset’s observation to its logical conclusion. “We simply steer them Seers in the direction they need to see.”
     “But the Duorph live between the White Elph and the Newborn. Won’t they side with the White Elph?”
     “The Duorph are their own side in most things. Maybe this time they’ll go with the White Elph; we can’t know. But if we share our goddess’ message with them, they will reach a Duorph conclusion. I’d bet it will be to warn the Newborn. If not, we can cross that bridge then.”
     “The message we take back to our people then is that the Elph will scout for the new threat and wait out the White Elph plan to make war on the Newborn?”
     “And we all meet here in three months time?”
     “Yes, we all meet here. We need to keep talking.”
     With no dissent, the group turned to the food now being delivered. Telling the truth, it seemed, was hard work; an Elph could work up quite an appetite.
 

***


     Syaunan found himself frustrated. He’d thought the excitement and romance of preparing for his wedding would remove this distraction. He still loved Haukan; she still loved him; they were still certain that marriage was what they wanted and they spent their days assuring that event would happen.
     Nights were not so positive. Nights found Syaunan tossing and turning, the memory of his goddess’ warning in his mind, her words sounding over and over.
     Why him? That was the real question. Why would she select him out of all the Elph who sought her advice? He hadn’t even sought her advice! He’d been crowing about Haukan; he hadn’t been thinking of the goddess. It made no sense.
     Yes, Ewas and the Elders reminded him a reasonable Elph did not look for cause and effect when thinking of their goddess. How could an Elph comprehend a goddess’ motivation? Not possible; an Elph should not even try. Yet, Syaunan could not let it alone.
     He talked to Haukan; he talked Syaumei; he even tried to talk to the Elders but the Elders dismissed him. They had more important things to worry over than to wonder why the goddess spoke to Syaunan. Haukan and Syaumei sympathized but even they – in time – became irritated with his fixation on the unanswerable.
     “If you are so tied up over this, you know what you must do; it’s obvious.” That was Syaumei.
     “Your sister is right,” Haukan said when Syaunan told her what his sister had said.
     “But, why would she talk to me now? Why would she explain now, this goddess who never explains anything.?”
     “Who else can explain for her?”
     “There is that, isn’t there?” he said.
     In the end, he did that. He walked briskly back up the trail, entered the Eye, and through himself on the floor in supplication. A White Elph sat in the Goddess Chair, they were too pious to remove their delegation despite their anger at the other Shades. This attendant paid no more attention to him as a supplicant than she did any other.
     Now that he was here, laying on the hard rock floor, the absurdity of his action began to realize in his imagination. In his entire life, young though he might be, he had never questioned the goddess. He had mastered the Book along with his peers, asked his Elders questions about the implementation of her instructions found in the Book, but never had he asked why she said to do this and not to do that. Those were givens, her will, and the wise Elph followed her will.
     Did Syaunan truly wish to question that will?
     Yes, he decided; yes, he did wish to question her. Why did she use him as a messenger and have no other task for him? Was he such a poor Elph that that was all he was good for? Or was there another reason? Was she trying to get his attention so that he could do greater things in her service? Didn’t that make sense? Could that not be a reasonable explanation?
     It would certainly explain why he could not sleep at night: she was making certain he paid attention to her message and that he returned to the Eye to receive his instruction. Otherwise, why would he and no other Elph toss and turn over a message intended for all Elph? In the middle of his internal debate, her voice filled the eye, unmistakable for an Elph who had heard it before.
     “The wall in the Vale will not stand forever nor will the heroes who build the wall.
     Of the three by three who forge the wall, and those others, two thousand more,
     Two must be saved to avert the end of all Elph, two not Elph at all,
     But they will die as the defenders die unless someone minds the store.”
     Silence again ruled the Eye broken only by Syaunan’s gasping breath. The White Elph sat as she had sat, bored, maybe counting the time till her relief arrived, not interested in this Brown Elph who came up off the floor as if kicked into action. Syaunan examined her face, convinced there should be some reaction to be found but there was none. This Elph was as oblivious to the message she relayed as Syaumei had been.
     This time he walked down the path to his village. This time he pondered the import knowing this message was not destined for all Elph; this message was his alone. Well, his and Haukan’s. Their lives had taken a turn not expected. It wasn’t a bad turn; it was just a turn. They could refuse their goddess; they could decide this task could not be meant for them and find another to do the job. Such an interpretation was easily made.
     But Syaunan knew better. He had gone to ask why him? and he had been given an explanation. Not what he expected but an explanation just the same.
     He dismissed the debate of whether to fulfill his goddess challenge; he put his mind instead to how to obey his goddess’ wishes. In a Shade of Shapeshifters, he and Haukan were no better and no worse at the skill than any other Brown Elph. That meant they were good enough to fool Newborn senses for as long as they might choose. From what the White Elph had said, that could be as little as 50 years and could just as easily be their entire lives. Not the latter, not with the words of the goddess in his mind. There was a specific task to perform, likely in his lifetime, and it was his if he took it on.
     Haukan heard the words with excitement. Being singled out by their goddess’ to accomplish something important to all Elph exceeded any expectation she had made for their lives. Living among the Newborn as Newborn made perfect sense and a perfect challenge. Easy to fool Newborn senses, draining on Brown Elph bodies. They could change back to Brown Elph at night or when traveling but when any possibility of observation existed, they would be Newborn. It would take time off their lives, extended physical exertion always carried that risk, but their lives would be meaningful. They would accomplish something for their goddess and for their people.
     A week after the wedding, Syaunan visited Ewa a last time to tell him of their departure.
     “May one ask where you is headed?”
     “This one may not answer, Elder,” Syaunan said. “But I can tell you that I sought answers to my questions from the goddess and she answered me.”
     “That is truly rare,” Ewa said. “She also answered Haukan’s questions?”
     “Haukan agrees to help me fulfill the task the goddess set; she has made it hers as well.”
     “Can others join in this task?”
     “It doesn’t feel that others should, Elder. I may be interpreting wrong, I am no expert on the goddess’ words but they seemed directed at me and they seemed limited in possibilities.”
     “I have spent my life interpreting her words. Since she has not struck me down for blasphemy, I expect she is generally satisfied with my success.” Ewa grinned. “Would you like me to try with this new message she gave to you?”
     “Elder, I mean no disrespect but I believe what Haukan and I must do is best not known to others.”
     “I keep secrets as well as I interpret the goddess’ words, young Elph. What if there other actions that must be taken to assure your actions are successful? We workin’ for all Elph here and must be careful that we do not risk all Elph on a simple mistake.”
     Syaunan succumbed to the argument, relating the message as the goddess gave it to him. When he finished, Ewa sat silent for long moments, his head bowed in thought.
     “I b’lieve you’re right, young Elph. This task is yours and Haukan’s. Your secret will not pass my lips. You’d best go mind the store.”
     Syaunan and Haukan slipped out of town a few nights later, riding hill ponies with a pack horse in tow, all their worldly possessions following them as they road north to this Vale. They were Brown Elph for the first two days but then they were Newborn. They were Newborn when they rode into Bounty.

 

 
 - End -

 

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