It was a hot day in an arid land during a time of dust and death. The air, which until a week ago had been stagnant and motionless, was now blowing in an untamed frenzy. It had started slowly one morning, with little ripples and eddies that were hardly discernible to the dozens of weary peasants as they went about their morning drudgery. By mid-afternoon, however, the wind was swirling, stirring up dust devils, causing everyone to take notice. As dusk set in, the welcome breeze of the morning had become a gale, driving sand and dirt before it, conspiring with the darkness to render the village blind.
     Dav, chief elder of the settlement of Vastok, spent every daylight hour during that week watching out the window of his house, willing the wind to stop before it had destroyed the summer's crops and left the village in its most dire predicament since its founding thirteen years ago. But with each passing day, his despair grew. Not even the heartiest plants could survive so long without tending in this weather, and though the men and women of Vastok would be able to plant again, what would they do for food between the sprouting of the first seeds and the harvest? As chief elder, it was his responsibility to answer that question, but he knew no solution. None, that is, except the unthinkable: abandon Vastok and return to one of the great cities.
     Fels, Merk, and Xert were nearby, and none would turn them away, but it had been to escape from urban decay and corruption that they had come to the Southern Plains. Theirs was an attempt to build a new life, away from the poverty and class struggles that punctuated city existence. Out here, the air was fresh and the smells were the products of nature, not man. Politics were alien and infighting rare. Yet now, they might lose it all and Dav wondered if any of them were capable of surviving in a city environment after being so long away from it.
     Then, as he contemplated the possible end of the place where he had established his life, an unexpected blow laid waste to his present and reduced to a shambles his prospects for the future. His wife Sya, pregnant with her third child, went into labor two months early. The healer was summoned, but there was little he could do. So, while the wind howled its loud lament outside, Sya and a baby boy breathed their last. A broken Dav was left alone with two young children.
     Two days later, the wind died a sudden death, blowing itself out in the early morning hours. As Dav had feared, the crops were ruined beyond hope of reclamation and, with barely enough food remaining to last through the end of the next week - not nearly long enough to begin rebuilding - Dav announced his decision to abandon Vastok. His voice breaking with emotion as he stood before the assembled sixty townspeople, he praised their initiative and courage before informing them of what he saw as their sole alternative. No voices were raised in protest. Some would stay on to the end, but everyone recognized how bleak the situation was.
     Following his last address as chief elder, Dav went to bid farewell to his wife and son before consigning their lifeless bodies to the pyre he had built behind his house, in what had once been his family's garden. With his two surviving children beside him, Dav bowed his head and blinked back tears as the flames consumed what they had been given.
     Those who had known Dav through the early years of Vastok would never have recognized him this day, nor any after. The death of Sya had sapped his willpower, transforming the process of living from an adventure to a chore. His blue eyes lost their luster. His shoulder-length chestnut hair, always neatly combed and drawn back into a ponytail, now hung unkempt and loose, framing a visage suddenly gaunt and pale. There was no spring in his step, his gait having become a shuffle, and his shoulders were stooped. It was only a matter of time before inactivity transformed the muscles of his chest, stomach, and arms into flab.
     During his wife's lifetime, Dav had changed his clothing regularly at her insistence. Since well water was rationed, she had devised a method to use sand to clean the rough cloth leggings and tunics worn by her husband and children. Three days after her death, however, Dav still wore the same brown garb he had donned the day before she went into labor. It was now stained with blood, sweat, tears, ash, and the memories of the past half-week, but Dav didn't notice or care.
     A day later, shortly after dawn, Dav gathered up his children and a small collection of belongings and left Vastok. He said farewell to no one, although more than half of the population remained. Unable to bear the idea of settling in one of Devforth's cities, Dav headed south, towards the Green Mountains. It was to a small settlement on the northern outskirts of the range that his sister had traveled when she left Fels with him those many years ago after the deaths of their parents. He had only heard from her once since then - and that had been nearly a decade ago - but he now hoped to locate her. Other than the twins, she was all that remained for him in this life. If, that is, she survived.
     Except for the fauna, which consisted largely of rabbits and other small mammals, Dav saw no traces of life, and certainly none of habitation, on his trek south. He found this odd, since it was rumored that several sizeable villages existed on the Southern Plains. However, if there was any basis in fact for those stories, there was no evidence of it. And Dav realized that the closer he got to the Green Mountains, the less likely he was to find a settlement. Except for the small groups that had become accustomed to living with the inherent perils of the range, few men and women ventured near there. The ancient legends alone were enough to keep people away, no matter how loudly they protested to not believe the "children's tales".
     Had Dav not been saddled with his offspring, he might have made the trek from Vastok to the northern fringes of the Greens in seven or eight hours. As things were, he recognized that it would take close to twice that time, which would place him near the foothills as dusk began to fall. That was not a pleasant notion. Unless he was fortuitous enough to stumble across his sister's settlement immediately, he and his children would have to spend the night unprotected in the open: an act of blatant stupidity. For that reason, he decided to make camp at suppertime, while he was more than a mile distant. That would give him the better part of the next day to search for signs of human life, and a chance for a safe haven tomorrow night.
     The twins, Reg and Eya by name, ate their evening meal in silence, forcing down the syrupy gruel Dav had prepared. Despite the unfamiliarity of their surroundings and the absence of their mother, they had borne up well during the day, perhaps sensing that their father wasn't able to offer them much comfort or support. Since Sya's death, Dav rarely spoke to his children and their upbringing, which had once been a relatively rewarding task for him, had become odious. He no longer wanted them, but neither could he abandon them. After all, they were not only his son and daughter, but Sya's as well. Her legacy.
     After eating, as the sun sank toward the western horizon, Reg and Eya curled up together and went to sleep, the fingers of his left hand intertwined with those of her right. Dav stared into the small fire he had built for cooking, conjuring images out of the flames, and then, after it had burned down to smouldering ashes, out of the cooling air around him. His mind peeled back the years like the skin of a fruit, glimpsing his life as it had once been. His meeting with Sya, a cute child of thirteen, at the founding ceremony of Vastok, and his subsequent courtship of her. Their marriage two years later and the birth of the twins six years after that. The day of his elevation to the leadership of Vastok and the proclamation he had made to mould the village from its then-precarious state to where it would become the paradise its citizens had been seeking.
     Now, his lofty aspirations lay in ruins. His wife was as dead as the village he had abandoned. Perhaps if he had only himself to consider, he might have stayed, fighting to the end to reclaim something of what had been lost. But the manacles of responsibility forced him to travel a different path. He couldn't put his children through the deprivations of hunger and starvation that would ensue. Their lives, after all, were as precious as his was worthless.
     Dav was only a dozen miles away from Vastok, but already he felt half a world distant. There was little difference in the plains here - the soil was much the same and the weeds were as plentiful - but there was nothing that bespoke of "home". In fact, there was nothing anywhere that was a home to Dav anymore. Fate had turned him into a nomad questing for a reunion with a woman he had not heard from in ten years and who might have been dead most of that time.
     Darkness came slowly to the plains, the blue of the day's sky gradually deepening into violet as the glow of the sun faded in the western sky. The stars began to appear one by one, the brightest first, while vestiges of twilight remained, then the dimmer ones later as the fulness of night descended. A crescent moon hung low to the northwest, rapidly following the sun's descent.
     As the chill in the air became apparent, Dav forced himself to gather some scrub and re-light the fire. It was curious how cool it could become at nights on the plains, especially considering the mid-day heat. The extremes in temperature were less noticeable from within a shelter, but out here, under the stars, they were obvious.
     He did not lie down or close his eyes. Sleep was far from him, farther than at any time since his wife's death. He checked on his children several times to make certain they were still breathing, then stared into the darkness, trying to discern shapes in a world lit only by the feeble twinkle of the stars. His ears picked out strange rustlings and twitterings, but nothing that sounded ominous or threatening.
     Around midnight, he lay on his back and gazed up at the canopy above. These were the same stars he and Sya had cuuddled under on the night when a summer storm had ripped the roof off their home. That had been the night, at least according to her, that the twins had been conceived. Could it really be six years ago? Had that much time passed?
     Even though it was late when the arms of morpheus embraced Dav, he was awake with the first glimmer of sunlight. The promise of the dawn was for another cloud-free day, for which he was relieved, having no desire to hunt for his sister's settlement, a place whose location he had little enough idea about, in the middle of a rainstorm.
     He let Reg and Eya sleep for a little longer, recognizing how tiring the previous day's trek had been for them. Although he had frequently carried them, their physical exertion had been enough to wear down children several years their senior. He felt a momentary rush of gratitude when he recalled how little they had complained.
     He observed them as they slept, their fingers interlaced. Even though one was a boy and the other a girl, they were nearly perfect images of each other, both with sun-bleached fair hair, dark skin, and delicate features. They had inherited their mother's frail build. In fact, there was little of Dav in them. Except the eyes. Their father knew that beneath the closed lids, both Reg and Eya possessed eyes of the purest blue - a blue to rival the sky and sea.
     By mid-morning, they were on their way again, Reg walking alongside Dav while Eya sat on his shoulders. Both children seemed fascinated by the growing bulk of the Green Mountains, which, from this distance, looked more gray than anything else. The ground was becoming less even as the flatness of the plains melded into the rugged terrain of the range.
     Dav began to angle his path, which had to this point been leading due south, toward the southwest. As the ground became less even, the children had more difficulty and the small group's slow speed was further reduced.
     The Green Mountains were so named because, unlike the ranges of the north - the Scarred Peaks and the Whitetops - the climate was mild enough and the soil healthy enough for a variety of plant life to thrive. The Green Mountains were not a safe place however, especially for humans, and the lush appearance of the land made the dangers more deceptive, because, on first glance, it looked not only safe, but pleasant.
     How many of the rumors about the range were true, Dav could not say, but he accepted old adage that where there was smoke, there was fire. Too many of the stories were too detailed to be fabrications. Men did not freely boast of cowardice, but those fleeing the Green Mountains spoke without shame of their flight.
     Vicious animals roaming through the mountains played little part in most of the tales, although those surely existed. Instead, most legends told of the creatures of the mountains: trolls and dwarves. It was said that the latter breed, a nasty and spiteful race, dwelt in abundance in the Greens and delighted in coming unawares upon humans and skinning them alive.
     The settlement Dav was searching for was not deep in the mountains, of that he was certain. So, before he and his children approached the taller peaks that represented the heart of the range, he turned eastward and began to trek along the edge of the mountains. Eventually, he was certain, he would come upon the village. As he remembered it, it was nestled in a valley, but was not hidden.
     The sun rose high in the sky, heating the foothills to an unpleasant temperature. Dav could feel his strength waning and noticed that his children were wilting as the afternoon wore on. Finally, mid-way between noon and dusk, he called a halt, took out a skin of water, and passed it around. The liquid was too warm to slake his thirst, but it at least wet his parched mouth and throat. They children appeared ready to go to sleep, but Dav roused them before they could lie down, and they started off again.
     As twilight approached, Dav grew concerned. He began to wonder if he had missed the settlement altogether, progressing too far east. He had counted on finding shelter before nightfall, realizing that he and his offspring might not survive a night here alone.
     As the sun sank below the highest peaks to the west, Dav did his best to quell a rising panic. Caught in the crux of indecision, he didn't know whether to direct his search inward or outward, or whether he should continue on or turn back. The goal that had seemed so simple out on the plains - locating a settlement he had once found with virtually no trouble - now seemed a dangerous unlikelihood.
     His children were no longer capable of walking on their own, and they were dozing as Dav carried them, his daughter in his arms and his son on his shoulders. Their added weight was wearing him down, as was dehydration from the long, hot afternoon. He didn't know how much longer he would be able to keep going, but was afraid that if he stopped, he would never get started again.
     Then, as twilight bled into darkness, and Dav's steps were beginning to falter, a voice spoke to him from out of the shadows ahead. "Stop," it said, a sibilant hiss that, despite its resemblance to the wind, was distinct. Dav thought he saw something move behind a patch of scrub. Fear clutched at his heart and a trickle of sweat made its way down his back. His heart felt like a hammer in his chest.
     "Put down the cubs," said the voice. It took a moment for Dav to understand, then, slowly and unthreateningly, he lowered his two drowsing children to the ground. Eya, momentarily awakened, murmured "Papa?" before closing her eyes and curling up on a patch of high, scorched grass.
     "Explain your presence." From something in the voice's timber, Dav realized he was being confronted by a creature that was not human, although its command of his language was superb, almost unaccented.
     "I...I'm a refugee from the plains," said Dav. "I seek shelter for myself and my children."
     "In the Green Mountains? Where humans are regarded as fodder for trolls and dwarves?" Dav thought he detected a note of incredulity in the speaker's tone.
     "My sister came to live in a settlement here some years ago. She was welcomed at the time."
     There was a lengthy pause. For a moment, Dav thought the creature had melted away into the night, but then he heard the faint scratching of something firm on loose stones. A form stood upright twenty feet in front of him, abandoning its concealment. In the near-darkness, Dav could not make out its features, but it was short - no taller than five feet - and thin, and appeared to be carrying a bow of some kind. It bore no resemblance to any descriptions he had heard of the shorter, stouter dwarves or the immense trolls.
     "Can you give this settlement a name?" asked the creature.
     Dav searched his memory, but, if he had known what the residents called their village, he couldn't remember it. He did, however, supply his sister's name.
     "Jey," repeated the voice. "It is a name I know. Come. I will escort you and your cubs to Heltala. It is dangerous for humans to be out here with anything less than a full armed party."
     Dav hesitated only for a moment, then picked up his children and followed the stranger who was already vanishing into the gloom. After all, he reasoned, if the creature intended him harm, it could have already accomplished its aims.
     The trip through the starlit mountain range was nightmarish for Dav, burdened as he was with Eya and Reg. Frequently, he lost sight of his guide and had to let his ears locate the stranger or wait for it to return to where Dav could find it.
     "We are here," said the voice.
     Dav blinked in surprise. Nothing seemed different. Of course, he couldn't see much - there could have been a house a dozen feet in front of him and he wouldn't have noticed it - but his ears heard none of the sounds he would have expected from a settlement, nor did his nose detect the homelike aromas of cooking, or recently cooked, food. Insects chirping produced the only noise, and the earthy smell of the mountains was the only scent.
     "Where?" asked Dav.
     "Heltala. The place your kind calls Haven."
     "Where is everyone?" Dav realized they were both whispering, although he suspected his escort always spoke like that.
     "This is a dangerous place. We must be like the ground at your feet by night. No light. No sound. Nothing. Now, quickly, accompany me. I will take you to Jey's home."
     The only way Dav could tell that they might be in a village was by the smooth, even surface under his boots, which he took to be a street. He was able to pick out occasional large, dark shapes to the left and right of the route along which he was being led. If they were houses, they were the strangest he had ever seen: tall and thin, almost like towers.
     Dav didn't notice that his guide had stopped until he almost walked into its back. Dav let out a muffled exclamation of surprise which provoked a rebuke. "Quiet! Noise is forbidden after night in Heltala."
     There was a jingling of metal and the sound of a key turning in a lock. Dav wondered why this creature had access to his sister's dwelling, but decided that things were strange enough here for anything to be possible. The guide ushered him across the threshold, then shut the door. Although it was dark outside, that was nothing to compare with what it was within. The blackness was complete, the roof shutting out even the faint illumination of the stars.
     The inside of whatever building they were in smelt of must and mildew, as if it had been closed up for a long time. Dav wrinkled his nose in distaste. This place needed some fresh air.
     A flame flickered to life on the tip of a candle held by the guide. The room was revealed to be a large, circular chamber with solid stone walls and no windows. The door was tightly shut, with no more than a hairsbreadth crack between its bottom and the packed dirt floor. There was no furniture, and, other than the main entrance, the only apparent way out of the room was a ladder in one corner that led to a square opening in the ceiling.
     After he had taken a moment to examine his surroundings, Dav turned his attention to the creature that had led him here. It was his first opportunity to see his guide's features and he tried not to let the surprise he felt register on his face. For, never in his twenty-nine years in Devforth had he seen a non-human.
     The creature was obviously a male elf, matching the legendary descriptions without exception: human-like in form and feature, but still obviously alien. Its face was just like its body: long and lean, with prominent cheekbones, thin lips, and an aquiline nose. Its skin was dusky, perhaps with an olive tint - it was difficult to tell in this light - and its eyes appeared to be opaque disks, without whites or irises. The ears were elongated and upswept, ending in points, with large lobes. Its hair was long, sleek, and black, drawn into a ponytail behind the ears. The garments it wore appeared much like a suit of leather armor, with a tightly-fitted vest of leather, and matching leggings and boots.
     "I am Niam, of the tribe of Machi, husband of Reth and father of Jana and Lora," said the elf, executing a bow that would not have been out of place in the finest king's court. "I bid you welcome."
     After gently lowering his children to the floor, Dav extended his hand tentatively, uncertain about what was going on. "My name's Dav. These are Reg and Eya."
     The elf accepted Dav's outstretched hand and shook it with a firm grip, exhibiting a familiarity with human customs.
     "I thought you said we were going to meet my sister," noted Dav.
     "No. If that was the impression I gave, then I apologize. We cannot meet your sister. Jey passed from this life four years past. This is her dwelling, where she once lived. According to the customs of Heltala, any home is to remain vacant for five years after the death of its occupant if there is none to claim it. After those five years, it goes to one of the village without a home to call their own. If you wish to claim it, this is your house."
     Dav was more surprised than saddened. It had been, after all, a long time since he and his sister had seen each other. Once, before the deaths of their parents, they had been close, but that was a lifetime ago. Her presence here had been a straw in the wind he had been clutching at after the disaster that had struck Vastok. Shelter and safety were l he needed. Now, apparently, he had them.
     "How many people live here?" asked Dav. To the best of his recollection, there were over two-hundred. But that had been years ago.
     "We number two-hundred and seventy-nine, not including you and your cubs. Several women are with young ones and may give birth any day, adding to our total."
     "How many of you are human?"
     The elf raised an eyebrow, perhaps finding the question odd, but answered nevertheless. "One-hundred sixty-three. The rest are elves or crosses between the two races."
     "What about dwarves or trolls? Don't they live in these mountains?"
     Niam pursed his lips in distaste. "Dwarves and trolls are not allowed in Heltala. We want them here no more than they wish to come."
     Dav gazed around at his surroundings again. Although he had never been in one, this room had the feel - and smell - of a dungeon. "No windows?" he asked.
     "Windows invite the danger of light. It is a risk that cannot be afforded. No dwelling in Heltala has windows or other cracks through which light can spill."
     "What's up there?" he pointed to the hole in the ceiling, a black square leading into darkness.
     "Another room like this."
     One thing that was missing occurred to Dav and he immediately voiced his concern. "Where do I light the fire?" There was nothing in sight that resembled a fireplace or fire pit, and no obvious means of ventilation. Dav thought it unlikely that such a thing would be located on the second level.
     "We do not light fires indoors. All cooking is done outside."
     ''But what about for warmth?"
     "You will find that it does not get as cool in the Green Mountains as it does on the plains. We never see snow and rarely does the water in the wells freeze. For those rare nights, there are many blankets available."
     That didn't sound appealing to Dav, but he recognized that his circumstances here, unexpectedly inheriting his sister's property, were better than they would be anywhere else in the world. He could roam far and wide before establishing himself this well in another place. And at least this meant he wouldn't be forced to return to a city. After all these years, the memories of what he had undergone after his parents' death still lingered, like a boil festering just beneath the surface. He couldn't return to urban life.
     "How did Jey die?" he asked.
     "She was careless while on a hunting expedition. A tribe of dwarves caught her party unawares. The entire group of humans was massacred, including your sister and her mate."
     "Her mate?" echoed Dav.
     "Von," replied the elf. "They had been bonded for nearly four years."
     Dav considered for a moment. At least his sister and her husband had perished together, eliminating the most devastating part of any death: the pain of separation. It was an experience Dav had not been spared. And, as he was beginning to discover, the more tightly two people are joined, the less possible it is to go on alone. The children were not enough; they could never replace his wife.
     But life, or at least a semblance of it, had to go on. "How do I claim this house?" he asked. "Are there documents that I have to sign?"
     Niam shook his head: a grave, stately gesture. "We live by what we say, not by scrawls on paper that too few of us understand anyway. There is nothing you must do. Because Jey was your sister, the house is yours. We would appreciate if you came before the council and introduced yourself at the next gathering, but that isn't a prerequisite."
     "How do you know that I'm really Jey's brother, though?" asked Dav. He found it disconcerting that anyone could walk into this village, claim to be a relative of his dead sister, and move into her house, without having to prove who he was. Then again, if it came down to proof, Dav didn't have any.
     Niam shrugged at the question, however. "We accept your word. Jey mentioned more than once that she had a brother named Dav, and is that not the name you gave me? As foreign as lies are to my race, we know that humans dissemble when it suits their purposes, yet none but the insane or the truthful would venture into the Green Mountains in search of the abode of a dead woman."
     Dav acknowledged that the elf had a point. People did not seek out places like Heltala unless they had a legitimate reason for doing so. Jey had come here because of her love for the untamed mountains, just as Dav had traveled to the plains to be part of forming a community in the open country. Most people were not driven by such needs and desires, however. In his experience, men and women craved safety and comfort above all else, and the Green Mountains were one of the last places in Devforth where those qualities could be found.
     After answering a few more simple questions, Niam bade them goodnight, saying that he had to return to his guard post before too much time passed. The danger of an attack was small, but posting guards was a prudent measure and a duty he could not ignore.
     Soon, Dav was alone. His children, lying on the hard-packed dirt floor, were sound asleep. He sat down with his back to one of the walls. The rough-hewn stone felt coarse against his back. He didn't like being closed in like this, in a house without windows where the air stank like a tomb. It was unnatural. Even in the city, when he and his sister and their parents had dwelt in a one-room hovel, there had been at least one window on each wall.
     He wondered what Heltala would be like during the day. At night, it was a place of silence, secrecy, and mystery. Dav was a straightforward man who eschewed intrigue. Yet this village seemed built upon it. Niam had said that it was necessary because of the threat of an attack, but Dav wondered if the inhabitants of this place didn't relish the sensation.
     Nevertheless, it appeared that this is where his family would remain, at least for the foreseeable future. Here, there was a ready-made community, something Reg and Eya would need as they grew up. A place like Vastok, where everyone was open and honest, and where there were only humans, would have been better, but Dav lacked the will and energy to search for such a place. He had gone as far as he was willing to go. Now, it was time to rest and lick his wounds - wounds that would probably never heal.
     He tried to think what advice Sya would have given him at this moment, but the only words he heard were the last ones she had spoken to him: "Care for the children." Maybe that's what she would say to him here and now, the creed by which she had lived the last five years of her life.
     It was too complicated trying to guess what might happen when daybreak came. Had their arrival gone relatively unnoticed, or had there been eyes spying in the night, eyes like Niam's that could penetrate the darkness? When morning dawned, would there be a crowd gathered outside the door or would the house continue to be treated like the vacant shell it had been since Jey's death?
     Dav closed his eyes and groped for the temporary solace of oblivion. But, as had been the case for days, it took a long time in coming, and when it finally arrived, it didn't stay for long.

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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