“I should not have to ask this,” Hoan mentioned as we were leaving, “but just to be sure, the two of you, neither are carrying any iron or steel?”
I nodded. “My ring is silver, the hinges and clasp on our chest are brass, and the objects inside, those that are metal, are made of other metals than iron. I do have one pouch filled with powder of rusted iron, but as I understand, it’s only harmful to your kind in metallic form?”
I’d been a bit surprised to learn that, though I guess it made some sense. It’s no weirder than some of the things the human body does, afterall! Chlorine gas and metallic sodium are both highly toxic substances that could kill a person very horribly very quickly, but combine the two chemically and you get something that is so vital to human life that we’ve got specialized taste buds whose only purpose is to entice us to consume the stuff by making it a pleasant experience! Go figure.
Hoan looked a bit surprised to hear me say that I had a pouch of rust in the trunk. “Well, yes, but why would you carry such a thing? Is it not considered as worthless to your people as it is to ours?”
I shrugged. “For research. I’m looking into the alchemical properties of various substances, seeking to find a newer, better way to harness the Force Electric, a source of energy that our engineers have been studying for the last several years.” It was a ridiculous lie, of course–I wouldn’t be capable of performing any meaningful battery research without a laboratory, for starters–but if he didn’t even have a solid grasp of what an engineer is, I figured he’d never know that, much less get to wondering about the real purpose for me carrying around iron oxide. And that was just fine with me!
Hoan accepted my answer, but Aylwyn frowned at the deception when he couldn’t see. I bore her disapproval with a silent shrug. What did she expect me to tell him? The truth? If I told him the details, it’s not like he would believe it anyway, and the more I said, the more fantastic it would sound. Aylwyn herself hadn’t believed what could be done with rust, after all, right up until I showed her, and to be perfectly honest I hadn’t truly been confident it would work either.
Hoan had four horses ready, and he courteously allowed me to take first pick. I saddled one and prepared its tack, but I don’t think Hoan even noticed; he was too busy gawking at Aylwyn as she called for her own mount, an act involving a lot of magical energy which made her body shine brighter than a stadium light.
When the light cleared, our guide’s eyes stayed just as wide at the sight of the enormous Wyntaf standing beside Aylwyn. “You are bound to an Itaria?” he asked, voice tinged with awe. “I had heard the legends, but to actually behold one with my own eyes…” He turned to me. “You are a very fortunate man.”
I sure was, though I wasn’t quite sure on exactly how the one point logically followed from the other. Aylwyn looked on silently, a slightly amused expression on her face as Hoan hesitantly held out a hand.
Wyntaf sniffed, then nuzzled at it gently before making a horsey snorting noise.
“Do you have a remount, Lady?”
Aylwyn shook her head as she mounted up. “I will not have need of one.”
Hoan shook his head slowly as he got on his own horse. “Had any other rider said that, I would think it foolish boasting, but a horse like that… it may just be true.”
“It is,” I grinned at him. “This isn’t my first time riding with her, and Wyntaf is a horse without equal.”
Hoan chewed on his lip. “Wyntaf. That does not sound like a name from any tongue I know of; what does it mean?”
“The summer’s breeze,” Aylwyn replied. “It is from a very obscure Celestial dialect; there are not more than a few hundred even among my own people who speak a dozen words of it. I’m not surprised you have no familiarity with it.”
He continued to talk with her as we began to ride, asking about her language. She said it had no real name other than “the Seven Winds tongue,” after the Seven Winds tribe that traditionally spoke it.
“And you speak this Seven Winds tongue?”
“Only a very few words,” Aylwyn said with a wry look.
* * *
After a day’s ride, I could sort of see why Hoan called the vast, featureless grassland a desert. It stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction, monotonous and endless. The only landmarks worthy of any note that we encountered all day were the river Tyla and the road that ran beside it.
“Is Aylwyn a Seven Winds name too?” I asked her that night after we made camp.
She nodded. “My father was a Loremaster.”
“And that means he was of the Seven Winds tribe?”
“Not always, but often enough that the idea is kalia among angels. He was one.”
“I don’t know that word. Kalia?”
“A common idea about groups of people,” she explained. “The great smiths and masons are dwarves. The great sailors and craftsmen are dark-skinned humans. The great farmers and merchants are fair-skinned humans. The great scholars and musicians are those of elvish blood, and so on.
“Among Celestials, those who travel, the Loremasters and Paladins and Seekers, are those whose wings are tugged this way and that way by the whims of the seven winds.”
I thought about that for a moment. Her father’s people were stereotyped as itinerant wanderers. “Only your father?”
She nodded. “It is not uncommon to marry outside the tribe, among the Seven Winds. It is actually considered a worthy act, a thing that expands the reach and influence of one’s people.”
“That actually explains a lot about you,” I grinned. “Both in general, and with me. After all, I’m a human, and not even from this world. That’s about as far outside as you can get!”
Aylwyn laughed sardonically. “Imagine the prestige!”
“You said most of the paladins are of the Seven Winds. But you also said the tribe is dying out. What’s happening?”
Aylwyn frowned. “I did not say that.”
“You said there are only a few hundred left.”
She shook her head. “I said there are only a few hundred left who speak the language well. As they have mixed more and more with other peoples of the Celestial Realm, it became more important to speak the tongues of those peoples, and particularly High Celestial, and less important to know a language that those around them do not speak.”
“High Celestial? Is that the language that sounds like singing?”
She cocked her head to the side a little. “Hmm… is that what it sounds like to you? I suppose it would.”
“What does it sound like to you?”
For some reason, that made me laugh. “I suppose. So what does ‘Aylwyn’ mean?”
She frowned at the question. “It means… me. I’m sure the word has some meaning in the Seven Winds tongue, but I don’t know what it is.” She looked at me thoughtfully. “What does ‘Paul’ mean?”
I had to admit, I didn’t really know either. “It’s the name of a man from two thousand years ago, a great leader and philosopher. I don’t know exactly where his name came from.” Or, for that matter, how to properly describe what he really did in a language that, as far as I knew, didn’t seem to even have a word for ‘religion.’
“You never talk about your homeland,” I said after a few moments of quiet.
“It’s difficult to speak of.”
“You have bad memories of living there?” I asked. “Is that why you spend all your time on this world?”
“What?” She gave me confused look for a moment, then comprehension dawned on her face. “No, not emotionally difficult. It is not easy to explain in a way that you will understand, as you lack a great deal of context.”
“Is it that different?”
“You once told me of the wonders of America, your nation of steel. I have always wondered, how can a place where they build buildings of steel produce a person such as yourself, who has always shown an appreciation for comfort, warmth and softness?”
I blinked. “Steel isn’t the only thing we build with,” I said. “It’s only for buildings that need to be very large and strong. Most houses are built with wood, and either way, rooms are furnished with chairs, couches and beds for comfort, and carpeted more often than not.”
Aylwyn nodded. “I thought that something like that would be the case. But now I am imagining you living in a wooden house such as is common for peasants in Cleron, alongside a river with a large wheel to produce the Force Electric which is so important to your life, though I know that that is likely very different from how your Americans truly live. There are thousands of details that you do not mention because they seem obvious to you, but I know nothing of.
“Thus it is also with the Celestial Realm. How could I speak of the mighty city of ♪♩♫, or the beauty of the Great Teeth mountains, or the Sea of Salshien and the Flight Masters who live upon its islands, in such a way that you could grasp their essence, and not simply think of other things you already know?”
I thought for a second as I unpacked my lute. “Well, first, we’d need a better name for the city, because I didn’t hear any speech at all when you mentioned it. Only this.” I plucked four notes, doing my best to approximate the pitch and cadence of what she had said.
“The very name confuses you,” she teased. “That is really the only name it has. If I had to translate the High Celestial concept…” she pondered for a moment, then said, “‘from strength, peace, from peace, strength.’ It’s a difficult thing to explain, a philosophical concept that some have spent entire human lifetimes pondering upon.”
“You name your cities after philosophy?”
“Some of them. The most important ones.”
“Most American cities are named after important people. Although, there is Philadelphia.” I had to laugh. “Its name means ‘city of brotherly love,’ and the people who live there are renowned for being rude and foul-tempered.”
She raised an eyebrow at that. “Really?”
I nodded. “Their most precious cultural artifact is a massive bell that can’t ring, because of the huge crack in it!”
“Your land is a place of contradictions.”
I closed my eyes, shaking my head slowly. “Oh, that’s not even the worst of it. Just a few hours north of Philadelphia by horseless carriage is the coastal city of New York. In the harbor is a small island bearing an enormous statue, taller than a tree, representing Lady Liberty, a great monument to freedom. That same city is the home of the darkest, most corrupt moneylenders in the entire world, people who abuse finance to bring millions into bondage.”
“If their location and their crimes are both known, why does your nation not punish them according to the law?”
“Oh, most of us would like nothing more than to see that. But they’re wealthy enough that they’ve corrupted the courts and the lawmakers. Just a few years ago, when a group of citizens came together to interfere with their work and expose the depth of their evil dealings to the world, the moneylenders called out the knights who enforce the law to disrupt them! They hold power and influence at all levels of society, to the point where those in charge of the laws will not charge them with crimes for fear of retaliation.”
She gave me a surprised look. After a few moments of thought, she asked, “are you certain that the only reason you returned to the fifth realm was to save me?”
Wow. I wasn’t expecting a question like that! “Yes, actually,” I said, almost immediately. I didn’t really have to think about it. “We have problems, some of them very serious, but finding solutions to problems is what America has always done best. I truly believe my homeland will overcome this corruption as we have so many other problems.”
“While you remain here to ensure that similar problems do not take hold in your new home?”
I grinned at her. “You know me too well. And the sooner we find the Zassi, the sooner we can get back to it.”
If only I had known!
* * *
It was late in the next morning when the land on the other side of the river we were following changed, the flat plains gradually giving way to woodlands.
I tried asking the obvious question–shouldn’t we cross over, as Hoan was more comfortable in forested areas than grasslands–but the he vetoed that right away.
“I am comfortable in friendly forests,” he said.
I looked across the river at the trees running parallel to us. “It doesn’t look unfriendly. It looks like…” I shrugged. “Like a forest. You know, like the woods are just trees, the trees are just wood.” The line just seemed to fit.
He shook his head. “That is exactly the sort of thing you should not say among my people, Mr. Stark. I know that humans have such an unhealthy attitude, but among elves… how would your wife feel if I referred to her glorious Itaria as ‘just bones and meat,’ friend?”
I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on, but this wasn’t the first time I’d noticed Hoan not addressing Aylwyn directly. He seemed to have a problem with that for some reason.
“I did don’t know; why not ask her?” I turned to face her. “Aylwyn, how would you feel if someone said that of Wyntaf?”
She gave me an inscrutable look. “I would feel that they were mistaken,” she said calmly. “They forgot to mention the skin and the hair.” Hoan gaped at that answer, and Aylwyn let the corners of her mouth turn upwards slightly. “I suspect Wyntaf might not take it kindly, though,” she deadpanned.
Hoan sighed when he realized she was making a bit of a joke at his expense. “And so it is,” he said. “The woods would not wish to be called such things.” He looked over at the forest, and I almost thought I saw a little shiver go through his lanky frame. “Particularly not these woods. This looks like Tedem Sìr, though why it has come so close to Summer lands today I know not.”
“Tedem Sìr?” I asked.
“‘Breath of Winter,'” Aylwyn said. “One of the largest and most prominent forests of the Winter lands.”
I frowned at Hoan. “And what do you mean, coming here today?”
He gave me a blank look. “It was not there a few days ago, when I came this way to meet you.” When he saw the disbelief on my face, he looked at me and shook his head. “You still do not understand. Our trees are not just wood! Our land is not just dirt and stone! They live, they make choices and they act! And that forest is one of the worst of all. We should stay well away from it, and find ourselves grateful that there is a river that it cannot cross between us and Tedem Sìr. We would find no help nor comfort within, and nothing good will come out.”
I wasn’t sure how much to believe all that, but either the forest was listening or we had the world’s most ridiculously precise luck, because it’s hard to imagine a more perfect cue than a line like that for a haggard-looking Elven woman to come running out of the woods directly across from us, stumbling as she dashed for the water, with a big brown wolf following close behind, snarling as it chased after her.