(A note from the author:
When I write these stories, I often get an image or two, a scene, in my mind, and flesh it out from there. Sabina’s burial and reawakening. Zaduk in the vampire’s crypt. My stories are usually just fun flights of fancy, to bring the character to life. It’s rare that I introduce topical or contemporary concerns into my stories.
Belith, however, has been in the back of my mind for weeks, and this is the story she wanted me to tell.
I won’t lie, it was difficult to write and it might be difficult to read.
Thank you to all the readers of my Empires and Puzzles stories, I hope you are genuinely enjoying them.
Sunlight dappled through springtime forest leaves as the young wood elf dashed along a barely-visible path. She hopped from tree root to stone to branch, dancing easily through the tangled branches. Far ahead, a bluish glow in a clearing seemed a welcoming beacon. This was going to be a very good day.
Belith slowed her pace as she approached, keeping an eye for forest spiders and trolls. Even in her home forest, she knew to be wary of unseen dangers. Her mother had taught her well. She stepped through a vine-wrapped gateway into a large clearing, illuminated by magical blue fire dancing in mid-air.
"…and we have another young face joining us. Welcome!" The bearded human bowed and made a sweeping gesture for Belith to enter. She walked toward the blue flame, hoping to seem calm and relaxed even though her heart was pounding. As she approached, she recognized a few of the other students - Kajimar was a High Elf girl who always tried to push Belith around just because she was a wood elf, someone who wanted to learn new things!!
“I understand you know Kajimar and Forimas,” the human said warmly, “and let me introduce Helika and Saphira, and Fanis.” Belith gave Kajimar and Forimas, High Elf sister and brother, a curt nod, and barely glanced as Helika or Saphira. Like the other High Elves, they were slender, beautiful and arrogant. She nodded to Fanis, a Wood Elf boy who gave her a shy smile.
“And may we all know your name, my dear? Tell us a little about yourself?”
"My – " she intentionally looked away from Kajimar, whose piercing gaze was calculated to make the young girl stumble over her words. “My name is Belith, I’ve lived in Larith’lien my whole life, and my hope is to see the world.”
“Welcome Belith!” the human said benignly, “my name is Nadro and I’m a traveling teacher. Lianna asked me to stop by and share some of my experiemces, and I was delighted to oblige. And - Belith, I’m sorry, I must know, those - are those horns? I’ve never seen horns on a Wood Elf before?”
“My father is a Wood Elf. My mother is a dryad. My hair is more like wheat flax, than hair, and these are more like wood than horns like a ram would have.”
"That is delightful! Kajimar, what do you think of Belith’s wooden horns?"
The High Elf gave Belith a quick, cruel glare and immediately turned to Nadro with a demure smile. “They make her look like a pretty little forest creature,” she said sweetly.
“Yes, I suppose they do. Belith, I’ve met many people in my journey, and I can officially say I met a wood, Elf.” He laughed politely at his little joke and opened his traveling case.
“Now students, I know you know that this is Larith’lien, the forest home of the Elves, but how many of us know the true history of this land?” Belith leaned forward fascinated, while Kajimar and her friends ran their fingers through their hair and looked bored and disinterested.
"Larith’lien, many centuries ago, was part of the Great Forest that covered much of the land. During the Azir’Akul, the war between the Titans and the Orc Giants, great fires tore through much of the Great Forest. The Titans were driven off and the Orc Giants slain - many of the Orcs we meet today are much shorter - some as short as men are tall - than the Giants of old.
“Now, Larith’lien - who can tell me what that means?”
“Spirit Call,” Belith said eagerly, “the land calls to our spirit, no matter where we go.”
"Very good! Yes, that’s quite correct. And as time passed and Larith’lien grew, the Elves developed into two clans - the High Elves, Larith’Varlen, and the Wood Elves, Larith’Elden. The Larith’Varlen were the protectors of the Forest, building towns at ground level, and the Larith’Elden were the stewards of the Forest. They built communities and villages of tree houses up in the branches, joined together by rope and wooden bridges.
“The Larith’Varlen learned to shape tree branches into elegant structures, to work with wood and Crystal and stone, and High Elf craftsmen developed artifacts that are valued all over the world. The Larith’Elden, meanwhile, learned the ways of the trees and natural magic, and their knowledge and skills are valued from coast to coast. So you see? Both High Elves and Wood Elves have something to be proud of.”
“Nadro, a question?”
“Yes, Belith, always.”
“If Wood Elves live high up in the trees, why aren’t they called the High Elves?” Kajimar rolled her eyes and nudged Saphira, but Nadro gave the question a good-natured chuckle.
“Because the Larith’Varlen are taller, you see. Stand side by side and Kajimar would be a hand or more taller.” He motioned for Kajimar to stand, but she glared at Belith and shook her head.
“As you wish,” Nadro said quietly. He gave Belith a quick, sympathetic glance.
Nadro’s teaching continued for an hour longer, during which he discussed plant lore, different types of Titans, and how to string a bow. Belith was enraptured and didn’t want to the class to end, but eventually Nadro stretched and stood up, and closed up his case.
"I want to thank you all for being such good students, and I should be back along this road in about two weeks. I hope to see you all again then."
Belith thanked her teacher profusely, while Kajimar and the other High Elves hung back with sullen expressions. Fanis waved to Belith and went on his way.
After he had left, Kajimar and her friends stood blocking the only way out of the clearing.
“You know what I think, little Wood Elf?” she said in a scornful tone, “I think the only reason your Daddy mated with a dryad is because no self respecting Elf would have him!” The other High Elves laughed at her jibe, throwing stern glances at the smaller girl.
“Half dryad. You’re a freak, you should never have been born. If your Daddy had any brains - but he’s only a Wood Elf so you can’t expect much - he should have killed you as soon as he saw your putrid face. Look, Saphira, horns. Made of wood!” She grabbed one of Belith’s horns and yanked it violently, making the small girl shout in pain. "Have you ever seen anything so hideous? It’s not even a real Elf, it’s a freak! Come on, let’s go. If I have to look at this freak any more I may lose my appetite."
Kajimar tugged one last time on Belith’s horns, and pulled some flaxen hair out before she and her friends turned and stalked off without another word. Belith sat looking at the place where Nadro had filled her mind with knowledge and wonder, and wished the world would just leave her alone.
Over the next several days, Kajimar and her friends managed to confront Belith several times a day, always when she was alone.
“Look, there goes the freak!”
“You think those horns make her look pretty? I think they’re just disgusting.”
“If I looked like that I’d be ashamed to show my face in public.”
“Gods, look how fat her thighs are! No wonder she’s so sickening to look at, fat and bloated like that.”
“Hey Belith! I found some moss over there. Did you forget to shave your fat legs and some of the fuzz rubbed off?”
“Oh look it’s that freak again. Fat like that, those disgusting horns, she’ll never find a mate. Good thing too, we dont need any more ugly little freaks like her running around OUR forest.”
Beith tried to ignore it and keep on about her business, but she found herself repeating some of Kajimar’s insults, which kept swimming around in her mind. ‘Disgusting freak’, ‘fat thighs’, ‘never find a mate’, ‘she should just kill herself!’ The young Elf’s demeanor became more and more depressed and despondent, and she found herself walking alone through a part of the Forest she didn’t usually visit.
She stumbled over a tree root and slipped to her knee, and looked up to see a large man with a scarred, unfriendly face in a dark green leather surcoat, holding a long, jagged knife. He looked as if he were waiting for someone and Belith had interrupted his wait. He scowled at her and glanced down at the creature by his side. It resembled a large spider, as big as a barrel with six long legs. It had four front legs - pincers? claws? - raised up and moving in a threatening manner, and its unusually large eyes studied her with a look of tired malevolence.
As she stood up, Belith suddenly regretted not looking where she was going The man approached swinging his knife left and right. The spider creature followed him, clicking at the air.
"Well now, look what a pretty thing we have here! It’s nothing bad we want, eh Loba? We just want to play a few friendly games. Right Loba?"
Loba the spider scuttled ahead and brushed Belith with a foreleg, while the man took his time walking toward the frightened girl. Belith winced at the spider’s touch and shrank back.
“Now girly, ain’t nothing to fear.” His voice was scratchy and full of phlegm. "Just let us play nice, we’ll be right as rain."
Belith saw two sharp, shiny black fangs extend between the spider’s jaws.
“I don’t - I don’t want to --” she stammered.
The cruel man reached out and grabbed three of her fingers in one large, sweaty hand.
"You know, resisting us is only going to make Loba mad. I don’t even like Loba when he’s mad."
The feel of his clammy, sweaty hand on her skin made Belith want to withdraw back into herself.
The thought of falling victim to - whatever this man and his pet spider wanted, along with the constant emotional turmoil she felt from Kajimar and her friends, and her growing state of self-doubt, all suddenly came crashing down on the young woodland girl. Her hands started to shake and she fell to her knees. Belith thought she was going to faint - her vision clouded over, she saw nothing but green mist. She had the briefest sensation of the feel of warm loam under her fingertips, and then it felt like a small, soft seed pod pushing up through the loam and spreading new shoots. In her state of turmoil Belith was relieved to have something comforting to relate to, and she let the image of the tiny, growing shoots fill her mind. She imagined the bright green leaves unfurling and yearning for cool water and nourishing sunlight. She felt warm mist tingling her skin, like the dampness in the air after a summer shower. And through it all she felt the comforting brush across the back of her mind, the feel of a mother’s kiss on a child’s forehead.
And just as quickly the warm, welcoming sensation passed, and Belith was standing on an unfamiliar path in an unfamiliar part of Larith’lien, facing an uninviting man and a giant spider.
The Wood Elf opened her eyes to see the man looking distinctly less threatening - he had sheathed his knife and had his hands to defend himself.
“I’m, listen, I’m sorry miss, we didn’t mean nuth’n. Me and Loba, we best be getting on.” He turned and walked away with a forcibly casual stride, the unusual spider chittering at his side.
Belith turned around and quickly walked back the way she came, not stopping until she was on more familiar turf, her mind whirling. What happened back there? Why did that man and his pet - spider?! - suddenly become so meek? Did I do something? I was just, my mind went to green earth and…
She turned the event over and over in her mind, but couldn’t find any answers, so she reminded herself to ask her mother about it next Solstice.
Back in her home part of Larith’lien, Kajimar’s bullying and verbal abuse toward Belith were relentless over the next few days, so much that it started becoming normal to feel depressed and resent everyone around her. The wood-horned Wood Elf was usually excited about learning new things at school, but knowing that Kajimar and her friends would be there, just made Belith dread the thought of even going.
On the next day of school, Nadro seemed as ebullient as ever and welcomed everyone equally. He gave Belith a brief, worried look when the girl only grunted in response, but continued unabated. He talked about the rise of Necromancy, how the seasons chase each other around the year, and which forest plants are safe to eat.
Kajimar and her friends wore their usual attitude of being bored and disinterested, which Nadro politely ignored. Belith wanted to enjoy the teaching, but she knew she’d get even more harassment, bullying and abuse if she expressed interest in anything.
“Belith?” Nadro said politely, "I noticed you didn’t seem as interested in my lessons as you did last time. Is anything the matter?"
The young girl was about to answer him when she caught a brief glimpse of Kajimar out of the corner of her eye. The High Elf gave her a piercing, destructive glare and Belith just shook her head. “No, it’s alright,” she said hollowly, her voice barely above a whisper, “I’m alright.”
"If you need anything, you know you can ask me, okay?"
Belith just nodded quietly and went back to wishing she was anywhere but here.
“You think you’re special, think you need special attention?” Kajimar’s relentless assault on Belith resumed as soon as Nadro had left. “Look, Saphira, the ugly little freak thinks she deserves special treatment. Nobody would give anyone as hideous as that any special attention!” Kajimar kicked at Belith’s shin, leaving a welt that she knew would bruise.
“Why do you have to do this?” Belith begged, “why do you have to be so mean?”
"You don’t get to ask questions, little freak. You don’t have the right. You’re lucky the Parliament of Larith’lien doesn’t just exile you anyway! You don’t belong here. You don’t belong anywhere!"
Belith fell to her knees and closed her eyes, tears welling up on her cheeks. She hated Kajimar, and she never wanted to hate anyone. She hated how much the High Elf’s words had gotten under her skin, making her question everything she thought was right. She hated how she looked, with her funny wooden dryad-horns. She hated… She hated being alive.
Belith opened her eyes and stared at the ground. She could hear Kajimar and her friends, but their voices sounded so far away, like they were talking through a fog. She heard the mockery and the laughter, but couldn’t hear the words. Someone kicked her while she knelt on the forest floor, but she didn’t react. She was kicked again, and had to put a hand out to steady herself.
Belith wished she knew what she had done when she was confronted by the man and the spider. She’d felt a tiny seed grow, and saw fog, or maybe mist, and she’d blanked out. When she had opened her eyes the man was backing away from her, looking scared. What had she done? Could she do it again? Whatever it was she needed that power now!
“…don’t get to ignore me!” Kajimar’s voice came back into focus. Belith’s shoulder ached, and the bruise on her leg was getting worse. “Look at me, you disgusting little half breed freak. Look at your superior. The High Elves will always be better than you miserable little Wood Elves. You should crawl like the insects you are. Crawl, insect!!” Someone pushed her, and Belith fell sprawling to the ground. Someone kicked her stomach. She blacked out.
Green mist, and a tiny seed bursting through the soil.
Shoots opening like little arms, and a puff of mist from the stamen.
The mist growing into a cloud.
The leaves of the tiny plant growing stronger.
Roots growing through a stone, the stone cracking.
Trees, their canopy far, far overhead, beckoning the tiny plant to grow, despite the odds.
A circle of trees surrounding the little, growing plant.
Mist, a puff of vapor.
A man with an axe.
He swings his axe.
The puff of vapor, and the man loses his strength.
He drops the axe and backs away.
The pain subsides, cool water and green mist flow through the wound.
Surrounded by trees, urging her to grow.
Trees, strong, loving, noble.
She is lifted up in the branches.
A spirit dancing through the branches and canopies of the trees.
She looks down on the man with the axe.
He backs away, weakened.
Sunlight warms the welcoming leaves.
Belith opened her eyes, to see Kajimar and Saphira looking at her with odd expressions. They had backed away and regarded her with a look of apprehension and fear. Kajimar’s expression changed when she saw Belith try to sit up, and she grabbed a stone and flung it at the Wood Elf.
“What did you DO??! You don’t have that kind of power!! You’re nothing, you’re a stupid, ugly little fr–”
"Kajimar! That is ENOUGH!"
The High Elves turned as one to see a tall, slender figure in green armor and helm standing before them. Her voice was melodic, but firm; there was no denying the severity of her words.
“You disgrace us, Kajimar. We are sworn to protect Larith’lien, not tear it apart through abuse and childish behavior!”
“But look --”
"You. Will. Be. Silent."
Kadilen turned to a graceful Wood Elf, who was kneeling over Belith. “Lianna, is she–”
“Hurt, but resolute.” Between the two they got Belith to sit up, and Lianna crouched by her side.
"Little one, can you see me?"
Belith croaked an answer, then found her voice.
“Yes, I - yes.” She recognized Lianna and Kadilen, and briefly glanced at Kajimar who had the look of a child caught doing something very naughty.
“You know who this is.” Lianna’s statement was directed at Kajimar, who tried to shrug nonchalantly.
"She’s a Wood Elf. Worse than that, she’s an ugly little fr-- "
“No. Kajimar, listen to me. Listen carefully.” Kadilen stood tall and seemed to tower over the younger High Elf.
“Larith’lien is our home. Spirit Call. It is our ancestral Forest. Among the Parliament of Trees - from whom we derive out own Parliament - are the First Walkers. Ma’rhia Vethia. Many call them Dryads. The Dryads are the ancient mothers of Larith’lien. Our friend Belith, here, is half Dryad - see the horns? - she has more Elven nobility in her little finger than you have in your whole BODY!” She spat the word out, visibly shaken. "And you treat her like THIS? You are banished - Larith’lien turns her back on you."
Belith looked from Kadilen to Lianna and back, but she didn’t want to look at Kajimar.
“What is --” she tried to ask. "Banished? Where will she - they- go…?"
Kadilen stood up and looked at Belith’s tormenter.
“Kajimar. Have you wielded a flail before?” The younger High Elf gave her a blank stare, so Kadilen placed a heavy, chained weapon in her hand. The chains hung limp and Kajimar looked blankly at the older Elf.
“You swing it. You’ll need to. Because you will be defending a pass in the Cloudloft mountains.”
“But,” Kajimar’s voice sounded hollow and scared, and Belith wished hearing that made her feel something.
“But,” Kajimar cried, “what if people, you know, see me?”
"They won’t. You’ll be invisible. All they’ll see is the flail. Nobody will see you, or remember you. In a decade we’ll see if you’ve learned anything about respect."
There was a flare of light, Kajimar and Saphira both vanished, and Lianna, Kadilen and Belith were left standing alone in Larith’lien.
“And as for our dryad-borne little friend,” Lianna said, “you showed something when we intervened, that --” she paused and looked at Kadilen, who regarded Belith with a patient, reverent expression. "She is Larith’Elden, but she has a gift we could use at the Stronghold! Belith, would you like to see what your mist-ability can really do?"
The young Wood Elf only blinked and nodded, tears streaming down her cheeks. Lianna held one hand and Kadilen the other, and as they left the clearing, Belith turned her head up to feel the warmth of sunlight on her cheeks.
This was going to be a very good day.