Iccari opened his eyes to see the sky above him framed by towering trees. It was late fall now, and the young elftail knew well that the first snow was not far off. Already the cold winds from the north had begun to pick up, and many of the trees had already shed their leaves. They did not turn bright colors of yellow, orange, and red in the Northlands. Instead they merely faded to brown, shriveled up, and dropped off. Perhaps that is why he liked the evergreen trees the best, the ones that would keep their leaves all winter and didn't look like they were dying miserable deaths each year.
Iccari sat up and stretched, holding his arms straight up above his head. He did not remember falling asleep here and knew that his friends would be sore if they found out. He scratched one of the fox-like ears on top of his blond-haired head and began looking around to make sure they were not nearby. He stretched again, then leaned forward and pushed himself up to his feet. A large deerskin pouch lay nearby, and he crouched down to pick it up. He undid the thin drawstring and looked inside. His job was to gather wild berries and various kinds of nuts, like all the other children of his clan. The berries could be dried and, along with the nuts, would keep well during the long winter months of the Northlands. Their winter food supply also consisted dried venison, rabbit, raccoon, opossum and such, but hunting was the job of the men, and Iccari was only twelve and too young to join them.
Looking into the pouch, Iccari was dismayed to realize how little he had gathered so far. He knew he would be in trouble if he didn't hurry up and get back to work. He shut the pouch back up by pulling on the drawstring and slung the whole thing over his shoulder so that it rested against his back, then walked along the lush forest floor, his bare feet delighted by the feeling of the soft soil and thick undergrowth.
Before he had gone very far, he came across a brown-haired boy very much like himself, dressed in coarse animal skins, with fox-like ears, a slender tail with a tuft of hair at the end, and tiny fangs peaking out between his lips. Other than this--and their unfortunate curse--they were practically indistinguishable from humans.
The boy noticed Iccari was there and stopped what he was doing.
“Iccari!” the boy called, looking up at him, “the day's not even over yet, and I've almost filled my pouch!” He held his own deerskin pouch out to show he was telling the truth. It was so full of fruit and nuts that it would soon be difficult to pull the drawstring closed. Iccari frowned. They had to spend the whole day scavenging, but if they filled their pouch it meant they could quit early.
“What's wrong?” asked the other boy. “How much have you found so far?”
Iccari did not want to show him. “A lot so far,” he fibbed. “But not as much as you.”
“How much?” the boy asked again. “Let me see!” He reached out to grab Iccari's deerskin pouch.
“Turi, Stop!” Iccari exclaimed, trying to shove his friend away.
“I knew it!” Turi replied with a nod. “You fell asleep again!”
“It didn't happen on purpose!”
“I'm going to tell Marus on you, and then you'll be in trouble!”
Iccari pouted, knowing that Marus would be disappointed with him. Both of the boys looked up to Marus, and his opinion meant a lot to both of them.
“Please give me some of yours, Turi!” Iccari pleaded. “I don't want to get in trouble!”
“Then you shouldn't have fallen asleep!” Turi snapped back. “It's your own fault, and I'm glad you're going to get in trouble!” He stuck his tongue out at Iccari, and Iccari shot forward and tackled him in retaliation. The two rolled around a bit in the undergrowth wrestling and laughing.
“Do you two want a hunter to find you?”
Iccari and Turi stopped and looked up to see Namko, a boy a few years older than the two of them. His face had a wide, distinctive scar cut across it, but appeared calm as always.
“We weren't doing anything wrong,” Turi insisted.
“We're a long way from the clan,” Namko countered, never raising his voice. “If a person were to come by and hear you, there'd be no one to call for help. You realize that, right?”
“I'm not afraid of the hunters,” Turi insisted. “I can run faster than any of them!”
“You can't outrun their arrows,” Namko warned. His scar was a testament to the danger their kind faced. When he was young, he had wandered off together with his older brother and the two were found by a hunter. Despite their youth the hunter had no pity for them, and Namko barely escaped with a deep cut across his face. His brother was not so lucky and died at the hunter's hands.
Namko turned to face Iccari. “How are you coming?” he asked.
Iccari looked away and scratched his head. “Not very well,” he admitted, holding out his pouch to show how little he'd accomplished thus far.
Namko sighed. “You're only making it harder for everyone else.”
“He fell asleep again!” said Turi.
“I didn't mean to!” Iccari argued.
“Well you better hurry and catch up!” Turi shot back.
“Knock it off, Turi,” Namko cut in. “He's not that far behind. Anyway, Marus is looking for you two.”
“He is?” asked Iccari. “What for?”
Namko shrugged. “He wouldn't tell me. He just said to meet him down at the river, then left.”
“He must have found something good!” said Iccari.
“I'll get there first!” shouted Turi, sticking his pouch in his mouth and running off on all four limbs across the forest floor. Iccari and Namko set out after him in the same way. Near to the ground like this, the elftails could outrun any human. Their speed and stealth were the keys to their kind's continued survival, and the children honed these skills from the day of their birth.
The three arrived at the river soon enough where, to Turi's dismay, Namko won the race. Marus was waiting for them, an older boy sitting on a rock near the wide, clear-watered river with his own pouch setting beside him, stuffed beyond its limits.
“You're done already!” Turi exclaimed.
“Of course! He always finishes first,” noted Namko. “He was done a long time ago.”
Marus looked over his shoulder at them. “You don't have to talk about me like I'm not here,” he joked with an upbeat smile. “Here's what I wanted to give you.” He reached down and picked up three pears, tossing one to each of his friends.
Iccari looked down at the pear in his hands a moment, its green surface scratched and speckled with streaks of brown and yellow, then held it up to sniff at it. It smelled so good! He didn't hesitate much longer before holding to his mouth and taking a bite. The mildly sweet flavor and unique texture in his mouth made pears Iccari's favorite treat, and he smiled in satisfaction as he chewed with his mouth open, allowing the juice to escape and dribble down his lips and tickle his chin.
“Where did you find these?” asked Turi with his own mouth full.
“A tree not far off that way,” Marus answered. “Those three were the only ones left in the branches. Everything else had already fallen to the ground and been claimed by rats or wasps.”
“You're really good at finding things!” said Iccari, wiping his mouth with the back of his wrist. “I wish I was as good a tracker as you.”
“You don't track pears, Iccari,” laughed Marus.
“You know what I mean!” Iccari replied.
“He's serious, Marus,” said Namko. “You're fifteen and you're already a better tracker than most of the adults. You should be out hunting with them, not stuck here with us.”
Marus shook his head. “I like it here better. Besides, they've never asked me to join them, and I'd rather be with my friends anyway.” He began walking down to the river bank. “But enough of that, though,” he said, stepping into the water. “Let's take a break.”
“You're going for a swim?” asked Turi. “It's too cold for that! It's no fun when it's cold!”
“No swimming today,” Marus replied, “just getting into the water far enough to get your feet wet. It's cold, but it still feels good.”
Turi followed him down and put one foot in the water, only to jerk it back and shiver. “No it doesn't!” he snapped. “It hurts!”
“I think it feels good!” said Iccari, splashing his way out to stand beside Marus. “It feels better when it's hot outside, though.” He looked down at his feet, distorted by the gently rippling water that flowed across the smooth stone riverbed, then turned to look up at Marus. “Can you teach me how to be a good tracker?”
“You can't teach that in one day,” said Namko.
“I know that,” said Iccari, “I just want to know enough to get better! I don't have anyone to show me.”
Marus shrugged. “I don't know what to say,” he said. “I don't remember learning to track, and it's not something I can I think I can teach or explain. It's like I just feel where things are.” He paused and held his head up. His ears twitched from side to side and his gaze was locked at some point on the opposite side of the river.
“What is it?” whispered Namko. “I don't smell anything.”
Marus didn't reply at first. “Drat!” he exclaimed after a few more moments of tense silence, clicking his tongue. He hunched down and gave a shrill, high-pitched shriek, a unique characteristic of the elftails that alerted any others of their kind nearby to conceal themselves--a second shriek before the danger had cleared would signal every elftail within earshot to make a mad dash for their lives. The four of them shot like bolts of lightning into the forest for cover, snatching their things up with them.
Once safe within the foliage, they looked back to see that Marus's instincts were as clear as ever. Two human boys no older than themselves appeared on the other side of the river, talking to each other and horsing around the same way the four of them had been just moments before. Marus nodded to his friends and they all turned and fled into the woods without a single sound.
“If I were a person,” Turi growled once he felt they were well out of earshot, “I'd beat them up for ruining our day!”
“Don't talk so loud,” ordered Namko. “They might hear you.”
Their pace slowed and they stopped a moment to catch their breath.
“They were on the other side,” said Iccari weakly. “Maybe they wouldn't have bothered us.”
“It doesn't work that way,” said Namko. “You know that.”
“But they didn't have any swords or bows!” Iccari argued. “They couldn't have done anything to us!”
“Come on now, Iccari,” said Marus, “you're old enough to understand the way the world works. The humans want to get rid of us, that's why they hunt us down. If those two boys had spotted us, it doesn't matter if they could hurt us or not. They would have told someone where we were, and then they would have sent hunters to find our clan. Humans and elftails simply can't exist together.”
Iccari hung his head and let his fox-like ears fall back. “I hate being an elftail. I hate my curse. I hate being stuck like this!”
“That's just the way things are, Iccari,” Marus replied.
“Do we tell someone about what we saw?” asked Turi.
Namko nodded. “We have to.”
* * *
The sun began to set behind the trees, casting an orange glow across the tight-knit dell where Iccari's clan lived. Cramped burrows had been dug between the rocks, roots, and weeds, mostly hidden from sight in the brush. It was primitive at best, but it was all Iccari had ever known. The young elftail sat and watched as the adults who were gathered some distance away held a council, speaking in whispers of the things he and his friends had reported. Iccari could never join in when they did this. He was too young they still told him. Namko and Marus were allowed to sit in the circle with the adults to listen and observe, though even they were not yet allowed to speak or have a say in anything.
Iccari felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to look into his older sister's face. She was the one that had taken care of him these past few years since their parents had died; his mother of a terrible illness, and his father by means of the hunters.
“You're not listening,” she said with a smile.
Iccari looked over to see an old woman, the clan's storyteller, surrounded by little children as she told her tales. It was her calling to pass the stories and legends of their clan on to each new generation. But Iccari had no interest in the story the old woman was telling now, the tale of how the elftails' ancestors had once been human, but were cursed by their enemies to transform into what they were now, unable to wield any sword or lift any metal, and destined to lose in any battle against an opponent who could. Iccari made a face. He hated this story. Besides, he thought himself far too old to be listening to children's stories. He turned back and looked at the council being held. He'd much rather be listening to them.
“Will we have to move?” he asked his sister. “The first snow will be coming soon! What if we can't find a new home before the cold comes?”
His sister put her arm around him and pulled him close. “Don't worry about that stuff,” she whispered. “It's difficult, but it's part of life. Besides, we don't even know if it's going to happen yet. There's no reason to be anxious over something you can't control.” She began to rub the back of his head to annoy him.
“Nanno!” he objected, pulling away from her.
A young elftail girl, no more than seven years old with a beaming smile, scurried up to them and squeezed in between Iccari and Nanno. “The story's almost over!” she noted. “I hope she tells the story about the old woman and the imp next! You know, the one where she pours salt on it to drive it away! That's my favorite story. I want to hear it tonight!”
“I don't like that story,” said Iccari. “That one's just made-up anyway. It's only for little kids!”
“It is not!” the girl argued.
“Cut it out you two,” Nanno ordered. “Iccari, be nice to your sister. Milla, don't pick fights.”
“So what story do you want to hear, Iccari?” asked Milla.
Iccari shrugged. “I don't want to hear any of them. I'm too old for these stories.”
“Is that so, Iccari?” the old storyteller called up to him. Iccari blushed, having been singled out. He hadn't even noticed that she'd already finished her story. “These stories are our heritage, young elftail,” she explained with a tender voice, “the last remnants of our culture. Certainly there is at least one that you would like to hear.”
Iccari shrugged. “Well, maybe the story about the big tree,” he admitted. “That story's okay.”
“Ah, you mean the story about the life tree and the Children!” the storyteller replied. She closed her eyes and began to stroke her chin. “Yes, that is an important story that every elftail should know!”
The children all began shouting at once, some begging her to tell the story, others calling for a different story.
“Now, now,” she began, motioning for everyone to be silent and listen. “This story is quite possibly the most important of all! I know every one of you can remember the first time you heard it from me, or perhaps from your parents, or your older brothers and sisters, or your friends.” The children gathered around her all nodded in agreement. “Yes, even I remember the first time, long ago when I was a little girl, sitting before the old storyteller who came before before me.”
She began to motion with her hands as if conjuring the scene with an invisible brush. “Long ago, when the world was still young and there were not yet humans or elves on the face of the earth, the Spirits descended from the sky. They found a world teeming with life, filled with grass and trees and water and beasts and birds. They were amazed at what they saw, for in all their travels they had never seen anything like it. But there was nothing in this world like them, nothing that could speak or listen or learn. And this made them sad, for above all else they desired to learn new things and pass their great knowledge on to others.
“But then, dear children, after they had searched the whole world from one side to the other, in its most distant corner they found a seed unlike any other they had ever seen. They did not know what to do with it at first, but they knew it was very special! So they watched and waited and saw how so many other things in the world took root in the ground as seeds and grew into all sorts of living things. Knowing that this seed was more special than any other they had seen, they took it and planted it in the ground like the humans now do. The seed sprouted, and grew larger and larger until it had become a tree so great that its branches--” She held her arms out. “--they stretched like this from one side of the sky to the other! Can you believe it? And nestled in the leaves of the tree were two creatures, neither bird nor beast, human nor elf, not even elftails!”
“What were they?” the children all asked, even though they had heard the story so many times before that they already knew the answer by heart.
“They were called The Children, just like you!” the storyteller laughed. “But they were fast asleep! So the Spirits watched over them and cared for them, believing that something special would happen. But nothing ever did. It was as if the Children were incomplete, waiting for something. And can you imagine what happened next?”
“Tell us! Tell us!” the children pleaded.
The storyteller waved her shriveled hand until the children stopped to listen again. “Seven of the Spirits came forward to add what they thought the Children needed to be complete. Nabala the Mariner gave them the gift of hearing, so that they could be still and listen to the song of the crashing waves. Utgora the Trickster gave them the gift of voices to communicate their thoughts and feelings. Vashur the Hunter gave them the gift of sight so that they could hunt in the forests and plains and seek out all the world's mysteries. Thethra'lir the Great Warrior gave them the gift of strength in their arms and legs and shoulders so that they might explore and tame this world. Kalene the Fair gave them the gift of perception, that they might sit and enjoy the sight and scent of the flowers that grew around them. Kosis the Wise Sage gave them the gift of memory, that they would remember the wisdom and knowledge passed on to them. Zherneboh the Traitor gave them the gift of reason, that they might think and act for themselves. Only when these seven gifts had been given did the Children awake. And do you know the first thing they did?”
“The cried!” all the children shouted at once, several of them mimicking the action jokingly.
“Yes, yes!” the storyteller continued. “They were scared of the Spirits! The Spirits didn't know what to do. They had never seen anything like this! Zherneboh the Traitor became so furious by the sight, thinking them useless and wasted trinkets, that he abandoned them then and there.”
The children booed.
“But Kalene took up a form like the Childrens' and came down to comfort them like a mother and dry their tears. 'What are your names?' she asked them. They told her, 'we don't have names.' This made Kalene very sad, so she gave them each a name: Argo and Selene. The Spirits and the Children formed a bond that day. Over time, the Children began to multiply and spread throughout the world. But though they grew older, they did not grow up like you or I. They were like children forever, and never died. And yet there are no Children like them today. Do you know what happened to them?”
“Tell us! Tell us!”
She laughed heartily. “Of course I will tell you! One day Zherneboh learned that the other Spirits had grown attached to the Children, and that all the Children hated him for abandoning Argo and Selene. His anger grew and grew inside him until it spilled over! He believed that the Children were all foolish and meaningless, so he created many evil monsters with no feelings, no souls, and no free wills. The monsters washed over the land like a tide, sweeping the Children away. The Children were frail and simple-minded and did not know how to defend themselves.”
The storyteller sighed, shaking her head as a hush fell over the children.
“Before the other Spirits knew what had happened, nearly all the Children were dead. The other Spirits fought Zherneboh with all their might, but he was so powerful that they could not prevail, and soon there were no more Children at all. He even destroyed the great tree, to ensure that the Children would never return.”
The elftail children remained quiet, fixated on the old storyteller's tale. She smiled and continued. “But all was not lost, little ones. Kalene wept over the Children, and surrendered her own immortality to revive the seed of the tree. The seed only grew for a short time, and did not become very big at all, but it survived just long enough to give birth to the humans and elves that now live in this world. The Spirits took them far away and hid them until they could teach them how to defend themselves, so that the fate of the Children would never be repeated. Some even say that when the seed was revived, Argo and Selene themselves came back to life!”
Different children shouted out at once, voicing their own opinions over whether this last part was true or not. The storyteller cackled in laughter to hear their thoughts. She motioned for them to hush and continued her story.
“Yet eventually, without her immortality, Kalene died and her body rose up into the sky and became the moon to shine in the darkness and give hope to the new humans and elves. The moon formed a great barrier around the world so that the Spirits could never again appear to the humans or the elves and harm them. Now they can only speak in whispers and appear as shadows.”
“But storyteller!” one of the youngest children called, “The moon doesn't give us hope! The moon is scary! The hunters can find us in its light.”
“Yes,” the storyteller agreed, nodding her head. “But remember, the full moon gives humans and elves hope, not elftails. That is why humans and elves await the coming of the full moon, while we elftails await the coming of the dark moon. It is why they say the the elftails live under a different moon.”
As the story came to a close and the children all began to shout out which one they wanted to hear next, the storyteller looked up to see Iccari sitting beside his sisters. Although Nanno and Milla had been listening intently, Iccari sat watching the distant council. The storyteller shook her head and smiled. He was just like his father.
Here's another preview from Under a Different Moon, this time the entire first chapter so you can get a feel of the beginning. This preview doesn't have anything edited out like the chapter 8 preview; everything that's meant to be there is there.
The story itself is finished, but I'm not quite sure what to make of it.
The story itself is finished, but I'm not quite sure what to make of it.