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Chapter 3: Stormbird

It took the better part of a month to get everything ready.  There were so many annoying details to attend to: talking with James Pearce and having him talk with the people who could talk with the people who could talk with the people who could arrange everything on the Fae side, booking passage on a trading ship, retrieving my lute–the last known surviving work of an ancient elven master–from Amber String Camp, and finding some way to track down the elven bard Nulaera and get in touch with her.

We had met only briefly, both of us by chance staying in the same inn on the same night, and we’d ended up playing and singing together.  We parted ways the next morning, but she had made quite an impression on me, with her powerful voice.  The way she poured out her heart when she sang mournfully of her longing for her home in Ìludar made me think she would welcome the opportunity to return.

I probably should have first considered why she was here and not there in the first place.

“You wish for me to accompany you to Ìludar?” she asked in an incredulous tone when I raised the subject.

“If it is possible, yes,” I replied. “Aylwyn and I have important business there, and a guide familiar with the realm would be a great help to us.”

She frowned. “That would be awkward for me.”

“Why?”

Aylwyn gave me one of her “this is one of those things you were never taught” looks, and I quieted down before I embarrassed myself any worse.

“You are what they call a dark elf, are you not?”

Nulaera nodded, not saying anything.

Could have fooled me; her skin was as fair as my own. “I once heard it said that dark elves live in caves beneath the earth and have dark skin,” I ventured. “But that doesn’t sound like you.”

“Where did you hear such ridiculous lore?” the bard scoffed. “Everyone knows that dark skin comes from living where there is a great deal of sun. People living below ground would be pale.”

I nodded. “I suppose I was misinformed. What does the term mean?”

She scowled. “It means the forest elves of Ìludar delight in ignorance. We call ourselves ‘enlightened elves,’ but Queen Alasea and her court have little love for those who do not hold to the ancient traditions, and they claim we walk in darkness.”

Oh, lovely. Had I just stepped in some sort of ideological conflict?

And then, because I’m me, I just had to ask. “What is it that you disagree with them about?”

“As I said, we believe in learning and progress, and they in ignorance.”

Yup, ideological dispute. Nobody believes in ignorance; that’s a classic smear. But as I was opening my mouth, Aylwyn gave me a warning look and a little shake of her head. “The enlightened elves… believe that there are things of value to be learned from other peoples, while the traditional elves see their own ways as superior, and believe that mixing external elements into their culture would detract from it. Is that an accurate account of your differences?”

Nulaera frowned. “That is a very simple explanation of it, missing a great deal of detail and understanding, but I suppose that an outsider could see our dispute in such terms,” she finally admitted, a bit grudgingly.

I wondered what the details were, but so far it was hard not to sympathize with the “dark elf” point of view. “There was in the days of my grandparents and their grandparents a kingdom whose royal line believed in purity,” I said. “They would not have their blood mixed with that of commoners, believing that it would diminish them. Over many years and generations, they even stopped mixing with the nobility, instead marrying each king with a cousin or even a sister, until the new generations began to be born deformed and stupid, and it was not long until they were overthrown. Their own fear of being diminished led to them being diminished far below ordinary commoners.”

I looked at Nulaera. “I believe that ideas are much the same. Try too hard to keep them pure and unmixed for too long, and they end up stagnant and worthless.”

She scowled at my choice of words. “I will try to understand that as you intended it, and not as a declaration that the culture of my people is worthless, deformed and stupid.”

I gaped at her. “That’s not what I meant at all!”

“I know. And yet you said it. This is why I can not accompany you, Peter Parker. You mean well, but you are too brash and incautious with your words. Do you know why elves have the reputation as the most polite of all peoples?”

“Why?”

“Because it is not wise to insult someone, even accidentally, who has both a long life and a long memory, who may well live into the days of your grandchildren’s grandchildren.”

Now that was an ugly thing to say. “That almost sounds like a threat.”

She nodded.  “It almost is one. I bear you no ill will, but those who are not enlightened will not be so forgiving of outsiders.”

“Then I hope to have you along to help out with such matters.”

She shook her head. “As much as I long to return, I cannot.”

“Wouldn’t coming with us support your claims? You traveled to other lands and found something of great value.”

“A lost piece of Elven heritage? How would that support my argument?”

When she put it that way, I didn’t really have any good answer, which sucked.

After a few moments of awkward silence, she nodded.  “I cannot accompany you, nor do I believe you will have an easy time of finding another who would wish to.  You will find that nearly every elf in the human kingdoms is of the enlightened, and would see as I do on this matter.”

Figures.

It might have gone differently if I had known her better, but we were really just acquaintances, and there weren’t any other elves I knew even that well. They were called the human kingdoms for a reason, afterall. So we ended up not having any elven escort for our trip. Ordinarily I might think of this as the point where things first started to go wrong, but given how this trip ended up, I honestly don’t see how it would have made any difference.

* * *

Gerald made one last attempt to try to get us to not go, this time by taking to Aylwyn and trying to persuade her to prevail upon me to change my mind. She simply told him that I was doing exactly what I had said: when faced with a thing I didn’t understand, I decided to try and take it apart to see how it works. When he expressed concern over the Twist “taking apart” the Fae Realm, she reminded him that I was bringing along a small fortune in charged gemstones, and admonished him to have more faith in his own workmanship.

I’m a very lucky guy.

(In my some things, at least. I discovered that I’m decidedly unlucky in other aspects after we got underway, but that’s getting ahead of things.)

Finally the day came. We had arranged to travel on a trading ship bound for Ìludar, the Silver Wave by name. We made it to the port in the the city of Warm Bay, built on a natural harbor in the south of Trent, and boarded the ship without much trouble. It was a decent-sized ship, with 3 masts adorned with all sorts of sails and ropes in what looked like very complicated patterns. The sails were furled, of course, but I could tell they would probably look very impressive once we got out into the open ocean.

They were loading the ship with cargo when we arrived. You would think it would be done by carrying stuff on board, but they actually had rigged a wooden platform onto the end of the crossbeam on the main mast (is that called the yardarm? I suck at nautical terms) supported by ropes and a block-and-tackle, and were using it as essentially a crane to help lift heavy cargo aboard from the pier. They even had some sort of mechanism set up to slide the whole thing back and forth along the yardarm: out to the end (which had a big iron bolt driven through it to keep it from slipping off the end) to load cargo, then in again to the center to drop it off on deck. The engineer in me wanted to examine the whole thing and see how it worked.

When we stepped up to the gangplank, though, everyone stopped and stared. I heard a few of the sailors mention the word “Stormbird” to one another. After a few moments, a short man came walking up. “What’s got everyone stopped?” he demanded. Then he got a good look at Aylwyn. “Well! Nobody told us we were taking on a Stormbird as a passenger!”

“Captain Jeresh?” Aylwyn asked.

“Yes, Lady?” he asked respectfully.

The captain, like all his men, was dark-skinned, very muscular, and shirtless, their chests and upper arms covered in intricate tattoos in bright red and yellow ink that showed up well against dark skin. Most of them were pretty tall, but the captain stood barely over 5 feet, which meant that Aylwyn towered over him.

“Why are people calling me Stormbird? I hope that no one fears my presence will bring storms upon our voyage.”

“You have not heard?” The captain looked surprised. “No, no, it is not what you fear at all. I thought everybody knows this thing. To have a Stormb–an angel–aboard is the greatest of luck, for they will keep you safe through even the worst of storms! You have not heard this?”

She shook her head. “I’m afraid I have no power over the waves or the winds, but I am happy to be welcomed by your crew.”

The captain just laughed it off. “You are a Stormbird. You will see.” He bowed very respectfully to her, called for a deckhand to see “the Stormbird and her companion” to their quarters, and then immediately started yelling at the rest of the crew to stop gawking and get back to work.

When we got belowdecks, Aylwyn seemed a bit upset by their attitude.  I learned a new Silva word that day: superstition.  “I do not wish to be honored for something false, simply because they believe some silly thing about my people that is not true.  What if they fail to avoid a storm, because they believe I will somehow bring them luck to pass through it, and then I cannot?”  She snorted.  “If I had known they would expect me to be able to calm the elements, I would have brought Sarah along!”

Huh.  I hadn’t really thought of it, but now that she mentioned Sarah, it was a bit odd that she hadn’t shown up to see us off.

Despite her misgivings, Aylwyn ended up fitting in quite well on board the Silver Wave once we got underway.  Her stature and strength meant she could help out quite a bit with the ordinary tasks aboard ship, and in her free time she enjoyed climbing up the mainmast, then taking running leaps off the yardarm, spreading her wings and soaring all around the ship.  With physics against her, jumping from a high place was about the only way for her to get airborne, so she didn’t get the opportunity very often, and I knew she enjoyed it.  And the crew definitely seemed to enjoy watching the “Stormbird” fly.

About the only person who wasn’t enjoying it was me.  I was too busy being queasy.  Ugh, stupid floor not staying where I left it!  It was a few weeks of pure hell for me.  My days were filled with nausea and occasional bouts of vomiting; my nights were spent clinging tight to Aylwyn, trying to sleep, which was always difficult despite her comforting embrace.  Which, needless to say, not only sucks due to all the physical discomfort, but on top of that it has a real way of killing any sort of romantic mood, so that sucked even more!

During the times when I was feeling less queasy than usual, I spent a lot of time hanging out with the navigator, a guy by the name of Karr. When I was first introduced to him, the first thing that went through my mind was, “Karr? Dude’s built more like a truck!”  The guy was huge, rivaling Aylwyn in height and so solidly built that I wondered if he might not actually be able to hold his own against her in a fight.  Not that I’d want them to; he was a pretty great guy.

I had always sort of thought that the navigator was the guy on the ship who took the wheel, but it turns out that’s something completely different, the helmsman.  The helmsman’s job is to be a really strong guy who can keep a course and hold the wheel steady no matter what the ocean is trying to do to the rudder, even in bad weather.  The navigator, on the other hand, is a scholar.  He’s the one who maintains the maps, figures out where the ship is, and sets the course for the helmsman to follow.

Karr just happened to be a scholar who was 6’4″ and 250 pounds of pure muscle.  He was one of the few crew members who had a cabin to himself.  It was a bit odd in that it had a hammock stretched between two walls, where most of the sailors had bunks.  I asked him why, and he said a bed took up too much space, which made sense; most of his cabin was full of papers.  He had a massive writing desk taking up most of the far wall, with boxes of books, scrolls and papers scattered all over and pinned to the walls, along with navigational instruments of all sorts.

He even showed me a few things about his craft.  His main tool for navigation was what he called an “angle”, a device made of a metal arc, marked at the end with gradation markings much like a protractor from Geometry class back home.  Like the protractor, it had a movable arm on it, but this arm held a mirror mounted on it, and there was a second mirror mounted at one end of the arc, so they would face each other.  By sighting down the fixed mirror and moving the arm, he could line up the sun or a star with the horizon, and then read the angular reading off the protractor markings to see how high it was above the horizon, which he used to determine latitude.

“But what about longitude?” I asked one time.  I remembered hearing that determining longitude at sea was a major problem during the Age of Sail back home.

He just laughed and said, “oh, we don’t need to worry about that.  We just keep heading eastward at the right latitude, and we’ll find our way to Ìludar soon enough.”

That sounded a bit ominous.  “What do you mean?  As I understand it, it’s an island small enough that it could be missed without too much trouble.”

Karr grinned.  “Only to one who does not know the stars.  All the stars in the heavens circle around in their own course, but the Northern Twins, the Southern Dagger, and the Elfstar.”

I frowned.  “The Elfstar?”

He nodded.  “One of the brightest stars in the sky, a vivid blue-green in color, and it holds course directly over Ìludar, like a beacon.”

He seemed to just accept that as a given, but to me, the implications were a little bit staggering.  I still wasn’t sure about Gerald’s geocentric system–there were just too many things that didn’t make sense, too much science that would break down entirely, including the speed of light–and I may not be much of an astronomer, but there was one thing I did know:  you can’t have fixed stars that aren’t over the poles.

The only way to have a light in the sky that holds steady anywhere else is to have it be something other than a star, in geosynchronous orbit around the planet.  And to accomplish that, you need the theory of gravity, not to mention either a rocket or some magic powerful enough to serve the same purpose!

“So once we can navigate by the Elfstar, it’s easy to get there?”

“Easy enough to get to the island,” Karr replied.  “Getting to your destination, now that’s another question entirely.  For that, we need the books.”

“Which books?”

He grinned and pointed to one of the larger boxes.  “Those books.  All of them.”

“Why?”

“Because the island of Ìludar, she is no ordinary island, my friend.  She is a great world all folded up into one little bit of land stuck in our seas.  Great magics do this folding, and wherever we arrive, it will not be where we wish to go.  Those books contain the maps, the charts and the tables that show how to make our way from the point we find to the point we wish to be.

“You wish to arrive at Tyla Harbor.  Let us say we instead sight the Dagger Cliffs.  To do that, we must circle the island exactly twice, anti-shadewise, in under two days, and we will find Tyla near the same point on the circle of the island at which we found the cliffs, but five degrees further on.  There are many such paths.  Some require circling one way, some the other.  For some, we must circle and then turn back.  It is enough to drive a poor navigator to madness if he had to remember it all.  Therefore… books.”

Wow.  No one ever told me about that.  It made me worry a little if there might not be something to Gerald’s worries about the Twist interacting poorly with the Fae realm.  But on the other hand, I had actually been there before, and there hadn’t been any harm done, so how bad could it be?

The next few weeks passed more or less like that, with me mostly incapacitated to one degree or another, and learning some things about math and navigation from Karr when I felt up to it.  But then we ran into a big storm.

* * *

They had been nervous all evening, ever since we got a vivid red sunset.  I vaguely remembered hearing something back home, “Red sky in morning, sailor take warning; red sky at night, sailor’s delight.”  But Captain Jeresh said that we were near the equator, where it was the other way around: red skies at evening meant trouble.

“I should not tell passengers this, but I am very concerned,” he told the two of us, but mostly Aylwyn. “Normally Resspeh, our weather wizard, would push the storm to the side of us, but he has been in poor health this entire voyage, nearly as bad as Mister Stark, and he says that using magic lately hurts his head and it often fails anyway. But he can still listen to the waves and the winds, and they tell him there is a strong storm headed straight for us.”

Aylwyn and I shared alarmed looks. They had a wizard on board, and never told us?

Though in all fairness, it’s not like they had been warned they had someone aboard who broke magic.

He continued, an imploring look in his eyes. “I must ask you, Stormbird, see us safely through this storm.”

She shook her head. “I am sorry, Captain, but I am no wizard. Our safety is in the hands of you and your most skilled crew, and I trust you will see us all safely through the storm.” After a moment’s thought, she added, “but perhaps I can see to Resspeh? I do have some knowledge of the healing arts.”

“As you wish, Stormbird.”

We went below, but she didn’t head straight for the wizard’s cabin.  Instead, she dragged me off to ours, looking very worried.  “I should have seen this.”

“What do you mean?”

“Even were you not my husband, it is my duty as a paladin to see to the safety of my companions.  I have failed in that duty, by not taking any precautions against wizards whose power would interact badly with your presence, and now everyone aboard is in danger because of me.”

I couldn’t accept that.  “What would you have done if you had known?  I’ve been wearing my ring most of the time anyway, but we all know it’s not perfect.  Some chaos is going to interfere no matter what, and apparently it’s just enough to throw off his wizardry.”  I waved my hand at her.  “Go, see to the wizard.  I’ll stay here and… try not to Twist anything, I suppose.”

She headed off to minister to him, but she really didn’t have long enough to make much of a difference.  Within the hour, a nasty storm had blown in, full of wind and clouds and driving rain and chaos, pitch blackness occasionally punctuated by a vicious flash of lightning and an explosive crack of thunder.  My stomach lurched every which way as the deck tilted and leaned.  Gah! Floors were simply not supposed to do that, and my poor sense of balance complained at me strenuously with every little movement.

As the winds started blowing louder and louder, I heard huge waves crashing on deck above me, and even saw some water flowing in from the door to the main deck.  That was not good!  Then it got worse, the ship leaning far enough that it was tricky to stay standing.

I started feeling queasier by the minute, like I might throw up even though I hadn’t actually eaten much of anything recently.  Then suddenly I heard a massive crack from above as one of the masts broke!

Then I heard feet.  Aylwyn emerged from Resspeh’s cabin, and she headed for the main deck door.

“Aylwyn,” I asked.  “What are you doing?”

“I have to help,” she said.

“What will you do?”  I asked, but she just ignored me, climbed the stairs, and pushed the door open.  Even with her strength, it was a struggle to force it open against the wind, and when she got it far enough, the wind caught the door and banged it wide open against the bulkhead.

I staggered after her as best I could.  Somehow she had no trouble keeping her footing on the tilting deck.  She ran to the helmsman, shouted something at him I couldn’t hear… and then took a running leap overboard, spreading her wings wide.

Her body lit up like a beacon as she caught the wild winds of the storm, flapping and fighting for altitude, flying higher into the sky.  I stared up at her, me and most of the crew, really, watching in amazement as she navigated the winds.

She had told me in the past that her wings were very sensitive.  Since being married, I had even verified this experimentally (what kind of scientist would I be if I didn’t?) to our mutual delight.  But it wasn’t until this moment that I understood why.  She seemed to have an instinctual knowledge of the winds, like she could feel what was coming and adapt before it had a chance to blow her around.  It was wild and chaotic, seeing her fly like that, struggling for every second, shifting between fighting against the fury of nature and flying in harmony with it.

It was perhaps the most amazing, captivating, beautiful thing I had ever seen!

The helmsman struggled with the wheel, turning the ship to follow the shining light in the sky that was my wife, as she used her high vantage point and her sense of the winds to find a path of minimal turbulence through the storm.  I just stared all the while, my queasiness forgotten as I watched her.

It took more than an hour, and there were some truly nerve-wracking moments, but eventually we emerged into gentle winds and lighter rain, and after a minute or two of that, one angel in a completely drenched robe alighted on deck, grabbing ahold of the railing and panting heavily for breath.

She had saved us.

At least the helmsman stayed at his post, but everyone else gathered around her.  The captain knelt before her, and then so did the rest of the crew, with a chorus of “Stormbird”.

After a few moments, she managed to regain her breath, and she stood up tall again.  “I need to rest,” she announced.

“Yes, Stormbird,” the captain said, waving to his men to part and give her room.

I noticed she didn’t bother protesting the title this time.

Comments (5)

  1. bobfrank

    Well that was interesting. There are dark elves here, but they’re not of the traditional “Drow” variety, and for all the pretense of being more friendly to other cultures, you still get the impression that Nulaera thinks they’re still better than everyone else.

    The ship part had me kind and worried, wondering if this was going to be some horrible story about silly superstitious black people and then Paul ends up enlightened them and teaching them something important. But then it ended the being true afterall, when he and Aylwyn both thought there was nothing to the whole Stormbird thing.

    Of course, that just raises its own new question: if that’s a thing angels can do, why did Aylwyn not know about it all along?

    • Well, I’m always happy to subvert your expectations. That’s kind of a big theme of the stories, afterall. 🙂

      As for why Aylwyn didn’t know about “the whole Stormbird thing”… read on. I was actually already planning to address that somewhere in the next few chapters.

  2. Vwyx

    Someone should probably tell Nulaera that very dark – as in drow – skin makes very nice camouflage when you live in a cave.

    • Assuming you’re seeing in the visible spectrum, yes. But I would imagine that in low-light environments, the importance of ordinary sight would diminish. (Isn’t that why D&D drow traditionally rely on magical darkvision instead?)

      Speaking of which, Paul keeps thinking about this world in D&D terms. Maybe that’s why he gets disoriented so easily by weird stuff that happens. I mean, just look at it. He’s in a world experiencing an awakening in which magic and technology will begin to interact freely. He gets sent on quests by people who have hidden agendas and are frequently setting him up, and lurking in the background are quasi-omnipotent dragons, manipulating everything, far too powerful to be properly killed by any normal means.

      Clearly, he’s actually in a Shadowrun world, not a D&D one. 😛

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