The storm had passed, washing over Beldatz with sudden fury, washing the streets off the blood that had stained it during the Maehvindra elves’ ill-fated hunt for the half-elf girl, Niriko.
It had failed to wash the leaden weight off a young elf-witch’s heart.
Deeta was shivering. She was standing over the northern cliffs, staring at the waves clashing against the rock and further in, against the juts of wrought stone and natural reefs of the Maze of Entry. She had walked all night, slinking away from her brother and the others in their company, climbing the Stag Steps that carried her past a monastery where she heard a soft bell humming.
And now she stared at the sea, the mythic origin of her people. It was said that all elves look longingly upon the sea, but as the sun hinted of its presence over the horizon, Deeta did not feel it. She felt nothing but a horrible void in her chest, and she felt the anguished pull of the cliff’s edge.
She felt like giving in and surrender to that pull.
“No suicides over my cliffs.” A soft, husky voice startled the elf witch. She had heard no one approach, but she was not alone any more. She turned around and saw nothing, then she felt the spray of water sprinkle over the skin at her back. No wave would reach this high, unless…
“Sea witch…” Deeta said, her voice a monotone. Indeed, between herself and the sea stood another elf woman, but not a Maehvindra, for the newcomer’s skin was tanned, the color of wood and clay, her impossibly long hair thick, wavy and green, her deep eyes the color of the deep sea. “Viryuni.”
“You are the one who called upon the power of the storm.” The sea witch took a step, the flimsy rags that half-covered her floating upon the morning breeze, held in place by the fishing net the woman wore as if it was an overskirt.”That lightning was not yours to take; you are in my grove.”
“I… I’m sorry.” Deeta let her head sink. All antagonism had fled her when she looked into the eyes of the man she had once loved, and found only hatred and disdain.
“Eh?” The Viryuni woman blinked, her accusing tone changed into confusion. “I expected some sort of rebuke from a proud wood witch.”
“I have no pride left.” Deeta sighed. What remained of her golden hair clung against her skin, cold, wet and shapeless, hiding her face from the coming sunrise.
“My, my… and here I was expecting a good shouting match.” The other elf strode and stood before Deeta. She was slightly taller, fuller in body and in spirit. “I’m Bah’riinivashnati.”
“Deeta.” The younger elf answered.
“That’s an awfully short name for a witch who can already command lightning.” Bah’riini blinked.
“The rest of my name was taken from me.” Deeta answered. “I am even forbidden to use my clan name.”
“Dear Dragon, you Maehvindra really don’t take well to unplanned births, do you?”
Deeta snapped her head upwards, frozen with both shame and fright. The budding sunlight was painting the other elf’s skin a rich bronze color, and Deeta was not sure if what those deep eyes reflected at her was wisdom or pity.
“You… you know…?”
“I’ve been a friend to Gaizco Zarranz for a couple of decades.” Bah’riini said, serious. “I’ve watched from afar as his half-elf child grew into a very fine young lady.”
“Are you here to mock me, then?” Deeta scowled. “Or are you the instrument of revenge? You should have come later, I was about to do your work for you.”
“Aye… I saw.” Bah’riini nodded slowly. “But killing yourself will not do anyone any good. You, specially. You will go into the Ollin a broken soul, the Wheel would cast you back in a lesser form.”
“Why do you care?” Deeta found some strength and defiance in the heaps of self-loathing she had gathered over the years. “You said you are Gaizco’s friend; you’d like to see me suffer for what… I… I was going to do.”
“I seek to understand.” Bah’riini sighed. “That is the core of a witch’s power, to understand, to become, to be one with the Ollin, the movement of the world and heavens. I want to understand what would make a mother want to kill her own child.”
Deeta gritted her teeth and fell to her knees. She had thought she had cried her heart raw and no more tears would come, but she was wrong.
“I had no choice.” She said between sobs. “They left me no choice!”
“Who?” The sea witch knelt in front of Deeta. “Your family?”
“My family, my elders, my whole clan!” Deeta said.
“A witch is her own self.” Bah’riini said. “Why did you not defy them? Many a witch from both our tribes has broken with tradition and traveled abroad. Eventually, all return to enrich our people’s understanding of the world.”
“A full-ranked witch, perhaps.” Deeta croaked, looking up from under her brow with a great deal of envy. “I was stripped of my rank even after I entered the first Circle.”
“Only the first?” Bah’riini blinked in surprise. “Just how old are you?”
“I’m thirty-nine.” Deeta answered, her voice barely audible.
“Dear gods…!” The Viryuni woman gasped. “You’re barely into womanhood… But Niriko is fifteen now, that means…”
“I was a child in our people’s eyes when I met Gaizco.” Deeta completed the thought, her lips pursed. “My brother was escorting me into my rite of passage when we joined the band of humans Gaizco led to kill Lazuti the Demon Bandit. We thought that defeating a demon would be the perfect chance to prove my power as a witch, and for him to gain glory.”
“Did Gaizco know?” Deeta asked softly, a hand reaching slowly towards Deeta. “He’s an honorable man, he would not have wooed you if he…”
“I wooed him.” Deeta chuckled, a dry, ugly sound. “I told him my age. Of course I didn’t tell him what it meant for elves. I knew he would not have taken me had he known… and I had to have him… the first time I saw him… I felt the fire in his heart, it was so intoxicating being with him! He was dire in his joy and in his sorrow! Intense in every word an gesture! I could not feel a height to his love and… and now… now… there is no depth to his hatred…”
“You know him well.” Bah’riini sighed. “You know he will never forgive you now.”
“I know.” Deeta sobbed and recoiled as she felt the warm touch of the Viryuni’s hand. “I can’t forgive myself, I wouldn’t expect him to.”
“Ah, but forgive yourself for what?” Bah’riini kept her hand hovering by the younger elf’s shoulder.
“For betraying him.” Deeta shook her head. She didn’t understand why she was pouring her heart out towards the other witch.
“Wrong answer.” The Viryuni sighed sadly. “Tell me… you feel no shame for wanting your daughter dead?”
“She was dead to me a long time ago.” Deeta hugged herself. “I purged her from my heart so she would stop hurting me…”
Bah’riini said nothing. She drew her hand back, and Deeta felt a mixture of relief and fear rising. She looked up at the sea witch and saw her, sitting cross-legged, her palms facing the sky as they rested on her knees, eyes closed and waves of hair flying wildly, tossed by a non-existent wind.
Deeta panicked, she could feel the power being summoned around her, but she was paralyzed.
“What are you doing…?” Deeta’s voice was small and broken.
“Becoming.” Bah’riini answered, her voice the thunder of the waves.
“No… no! Get out of my heart!” Deeta tried to raise a defense. She could now feel the fingers of Bah’riini’s power inching around her soul. The power of a witch lay in her ability to become, to tune her soul and body to her surroundings, merging in order to understand, to connect… to control…
Deeta was helpless. She had not yet recovered from the battle with that horrible human swordswoman, all the protection she could muster was a pathetic whimper before her spirit left her body led by the ritual of the far more experienced witch. Deeta could feel the soul of the other woman flying with her. They were speeding into the Dreamlands, flying past the dreams of the land and plunging into the dreams of time itself. The Maehvindra realized the sea witch’s intent… they were going to the past, to explore her shameful memories.
— o —
“Sister… you don’t feel well.” Dalit’s voice was full with concern. Even behind his fearsome mask he was so easy to read for Deeta. Easy to fool as well.
“I’m just tired.” She said, holding a hand to her belly. She had been sick the whole day, and she was dreading the possible cause for it. She needed to stop and perform a divination to be sure, but she couldn’t do it around her brother. “And confused.”
“Confused?” Dalit stopped for her sake. They had been running through the marshlands since morning. “We carry the tusks of Zaluti, felled by your magic and my knives, glory and honor await us back home, what is there to be…? Ah. The human.”
Deeta blushed. She was easy to read for Dalit as well, although not as much as he believed.
“Forget him.” Dalit said, shrugging. “He’s a good man, as humans go, and I will remember him as a brother, but you know that it is most likely that if we ever met again, he will be an old man.”
“We… should have said good bye.” She said softly. She had longed for another night between his arms, but the stirring in her body had replaced that longing with fear.
“Maybe… but it’s better this way.” Dalit said. “You left him your necklace, I left him my skinning knife. He will remember us, and we will remember him as we tell of how he helped us defeat the demon.”
“Help?” Deeta shook her head. “He and his men bore the brunt of the assault… if at all, it was we who helped him.”
“Mine was the killing blow, yours the magic that denied its infernal defenses.” Dalit shrugged. “In any case, the humans will sing a different song.”
“Perhaps.” Deeta said, then frowned. “Brother, I cannot go with you yet.”
“Eh?” Dalit removed his mask, his stern but beautiful features looking at her with puzzlement. “Why is that? Surely you do not plan to return with the humans.”
“Of course not.” Deeta shook her head again. “But I must commune with the mountains. I am not sure we rid the land of the demon’s power.”
“Then I will go with you.” Dalit nodded, unflinching.
“No! I mean… it’s not necessary. I just want to make sure… I will hurry home if I find out otherwise so it is our people who take the glory of cleansing the mountains, and thus claim them as our own.”
“Hm… good idea.” Dalit nodded, the talk of glory and conquest drowning any suspicion he might have had. “You are a woman now, sister; the clan has yet to formalize your rite, but in my eyes you are an adult fit to make your own choices.”
“Thank you, brother.” Deeta smiled, hiding the feeling of revulsion she felt for lying to her beloved sibling, and hiding the fear that she had become a woman in more ways than one.
“Stop this.” Deeta whimpered, struggling to block the probing spirit of the sea witch. “I don’t want to see this!”
“You don’t understand yourself.” Bah’riini’s voice replied. “Let us understand together.”
She had lost herself in the woodlands, having spirits hide her presence and her tracks. She had to be gone from her people, she had to do this alone.
It had been terrifying, painful, and yet it was wonderful as Deeta clipped the cord. Her guardian, the tree spirit Vasjitandi, had assisted her, just as Deeta herself had assisted older witches in delivering children into the world.
The baby cried loudly, filling Deeta with an overwhelming sense of happiness. All the fear she had felt before faded into nothing, and nothing now existed beside her and her child. She feared not what her people would think, not what Gaizco would say when she presented their daughter to him.
She waited for the baby to grow stronger and healthier before she started her journey. Deeta did not know where to go yet, lost as she was caring for the child.
Until the day she opened her eyes, and violet orbs stared back at Deeta’s amber ones. Violet eyes, a witch’s eyes. Deeta’s heart clenched tight with fear. An elven child with violet eyes was a very rare thing, once in a generation even… for the spirits to touch thus a half-human, half-elven spawn… the implications scared Deeta witless.
And just as she contemplated them, Vasjitandi warned her of intruders into the little grove she had cultivated for the sole purpose of giving birth. Deeta was too distracted to react and flee. She heard soft steps and the only thing her confused mind was able to come up with was to hide the baby under a tree’s roots.
She stood just in time to greet a hunting party. No… not hunters. Scouts.
“Deeta!” Her brother shot from the ranks of elven scouts to trap her in a fierce hug. “At last! What happened! We’ve been searching for months!”
“I… I…” Deeta tried to clear her head. “The mountains… I was…. in meditation…”
“Such dutiful devotion for one not yet crowned with the stag’s horns.” An older woman entered the clearing, and Deeta’s heart froze again.
“Elder Varleetash offered to come with us.” Dalit explained, bowing his head at the elder witch that was now looking at them with probing eyes. Hers were violet eyes as well, the last known elf to bear the spirits’ mark.
“Your guardian has grown strong.” The elder witch nodded with approval towards the tree spirit that remained hidden in the Dreamlands. “And I sense a power about you that is rarely earned amongst witches.”
“I… am honored.” Deeta gulped. There was no way she could hide her motherhood from Elder Varleetash.
“Yet the coven misses you.” The witch smiled slightly. “You must return for your achievements to be recognized.”
“I… will, but…” Deeta’s mind raced. She could not abandon her baby in the woods like this, yet she didn’t know if she should…
A wail broke the tense silence, and Deeta’s heart sank.
As she had feared, the Nine Hells seemed to break loose upon the woods when the elder witch fished the baby from her hiding place. There was outrage, there was accusation. Dalit was speechless, his face white as facts and memories came together in his mind.
The elder ordered Deeta to kill the child right there and then. She even surrendered her own ritual knife for the deed. Deeta was scared and confused. Her maternal instincts rebelled against the orders, but tradition and fear clamped down on them. How could she, a mere woman-child, defy an elder?
Deeta held the knife over the baby’s chest, her hands trembling. All the elves surrounding her stared, accusingly. She stole a glance towards her brother, but his face was hidden by his mask, his eyes, for the first time since she was born, unreadable.
“You couldn’t do it.” Bah’riini whispered.
“How could I?” Deeta cried. “She was my daughter! She was so beautiful… she was my flesh and Gaizco’s blood! I held the knife… I was going to do it but… she reached up, her little hands… they played with the blade and she… smiled at me…”
“How did you save her?”
“I remembered the legend about the mother’s life force going into the child… I quoted it… claiming the sacrifice had to happen during an equinox, at a sacred site, or the power I had invested in her would be lost rather than returned to me… The elder bought it, and she exiled me until I returned without the child.”
“You had little time to find Gaizco.” Bah’riini said.
“He wasn’t hard to find.” Deeta chuckled softly. “Gaizco the Skullbane… He claimed Zaluti’s head as a trophy just as I had taken the tusks. I followed the tavern brawls until I found him in a small town by the same mountains where we met. I… wanted to see him again, but the baby… My people had spurned me for birthing a half-spawn… I couldn’t bear the thought of him scorning me and tossing me and our child on the street.”
“How could you think that of him?” The Viryuni sighed. “Of all the humans I have met, no better father would I be able to name than him.”
“I was too scared… I was alone, and the baby only grew heavier with each step. I started to hate her for what she’d done to me…”
“You did not name her.”
“I did not want to… to name her would mean to tie her existence into my heart.”
“I followed him home.” Deeta continued, the Dreamlands conjuring the images from her memory. “He was drunk, so he didn’t notice me. I placed the baby on his threshold and knocked the door, then hid around a corner, skulking in the shadows. He is a wise man… when he noticed the baby’s features he started calling my name… hearing my name on his lips again hurt so much…”
“Why did you not go to him?” Bah’riini asked. “He would have taken you in… you were already exiled, you could have built a life together.”
“And what? Be the elven outcast in a human town, mother to a half-human monster? Even if I wasn’t torn and frozen, the choice was taken from me. Dalit had followed me, and he jumped from the roofs screaming bloody murder at Gaizco.”
“It was horrible…” Deeta tried to avert her eyes from the scene replaying in front of her spirit.”I did nothing as I watched the men I loved the most try to kill each other… Dalit was faster, but Gaizco was the better warrior. Even while holding the baby in his arm he broke Dalit’s mask with a swing from his sword, cutting deep into his face… Dalit’s last swing before he fell shattered Gaizco’s knee. I pulled my brother back when Gaizco staggered away to get help.”
“And you convinced your brother to leave them alone?”
“I made him sleep for the days it took me to drag him into the woods.” Deeta shook her head. “By that time, Gaizco had fled town and lost himself in the human roads. Dalit agreed to hide the fact the baby was still alive… the terms of my exile stated I had to return without her, and that I did.”
“Why are you here then?” Bah’riini let the ritual end gently, their spirits returning to their bodies just as the sun broke from the horizon and launched into the sky. “If your clan believed Niriko to be dead, why now, after all this time?”
“My life was hell.” Deeta sobbed, the memories clinging to her eyes with all the pain the carried. “I was pariah, near untouchable. My rank was restored officially, but in the eyes of my people I was scum for letting a human touch me, for bearing his seed. All the promise I had shown during my training was wasted… I would never rise in rank from the first Circle.”
“And you blamed…”
“My child? Yes.” Deeta clenched her teeth. “Who else was to blame? I still loved Gaizco, even as I loathed him for not being there for me when I needed him… Even if I knew it had been me who left him.”
“You did not answer.” The Viryuni witch insisted, sternly. Deeta knew this was important for her.
“A human sorcerer contacted my elders.” Deeta sighed. “I have no idea how he found out Niriko was my child, or how to get in touch with my clan. He revealed my shame, and in return for his help in finally getting rid of her, he asked for a handful of seeds from one of our sentry trees.”
“It was cruel of your elders, to make you come once more and do their dirty work.” Bah’riini frowned.
“I volunteered.” Deeta turned away, feeling the Viryuni’s shocked and outraged eyes on her. “You don’t understand… over the years… everybody treated me like garbage. I would discover dung among my ritual components, my place in ritual circles would be unexpectedly occupied… I was constantly ignored… every little slight was a reminder of who was at fault, even if everyone thought she was dead. When the elders found out she was still alive, I knew things would only get worse in ways I could not even imagine… so I stepped forward…”
“You…” The Viryuni shook her head and stood.
“When I saw her come of her own free will..” Deeta was now hugging herself. “She was… so beautiful… she had grown so much… I could see the strength of her father in her eyes… from me she had only received her appearance… and each step she took towards me brought back the memories of my humiliation, days that compounded into weeks, months… years… and I hated her… I hated her because I knew she was so much stronger than I could ever be… because of what I had endured for her sake…”
“You immature, self-absorbed brat….” Bah’riini scowled. “You don’t think she suffered too? I saw her hide from the cruelty of children mocking her ears, calling her horrible names. I saw her as she weathered the humiliating practical jokes with a smile, hiding her tears behind a sunny attitude… she forced herself to pay no heed to the looks of fear she attracted with every step on the streets. Tell me, Maehvindra, how is her pain less than yours, you who even in shame lived amongst peers, while she had none?”
Deeta was stunned. In all these years the only thoughts she gave to her abandoned child were of resentment. She had never stopped to think how life was treating her.
The haunted eyes on the girl after Deeta had tried to excuse herself to Gaizco, voicing the bile that had grown inside her heart and made her wish she had never given birth, they stared at Deeta from inside her memories, accusing.
“It’s true… then…” Deeta covered her face. “What my people thinks… I am scum…”
“What will you do now?” The Viryuni witch asked softly.
“I can’t go back home… if life was unbearable then…” The younger elf wiped her eyes. “I can’t stay… I can’t face Gaizco… or… or her…”
“You should say her name.” Bah’riini knelt again, and this time Deeta didn’t recoil when the dark-skinned hands rested on her shoulders.
“Niriko…” Deeta’s voice broke. “I’m sorry… I’m so sorry…”
“She may forgive you, in time.” The Viryuni nodded. “But not today.”
Deeta sobbed, contemplating for the first time the brutality she had committed against her own child, how all these years apart had been a huge mistake that she could not undo even if she wanted to. The two witches knelt together while the sun rose behind them.
“Come with us.” Bah’riini said suddenly, making Deeta blink some tears away and look up in confusion. “The Whimsy Cloud sails today. You don’t have to go back to a people that hate you; you’ve had enough hate in you already and you need to see the world outside the woods.”
“But… I’ve never…”
“Sailed?” Bah’riini smiled. “You are a witch, you don’t have to do the hard work… you will help me summon the winds and keep the ship happy. I will teach you what you need to learn, and the Coven of the Reefs will promote your rank if you prove yourself.”
“Why… are you doing this for me?” Deeta blinked. “I thought you…”
“I don’t think very highly of you, true.” The Viryuni sighed. “But the cycle of loathing is one that is not worth keeping. And I’m doing this as much for you as for Gaizco and Niriko. They deserve an apology from a woman who truly understands what she did and is truly sorry for it, not from a mewling child who can’t decide what she should hate the most.”
Deeta hung her head, knowing full well the other witch was right. She didn’t resist when the Viryuni lifted her softly and whispered a few words of encouragement, the kindest words Deeta had heard in a decade and a half.
They both jumped off the cliff, and soon, cut against the flaming sky of dawn, a great albatross glided, followed by a small sparrowhawk, leaving land behind, along the jagged and painful memories it held.