A.C. (After the Cataclysm) 258

The infant’s cry was not the cry of an elven child.

Eld Ailea, ancient even in the eyes of the long-lived elves, cast a sympathetic eye on the infant as she wrapped him in swaddling clothes of silvery linen. The firelight reflected off the rose quartz walls of the midwife’s Qualinost home, bathing the angry newborn in a peach-colored glow as he wailed, small chest shuddering as he drew in gulps of air. A breeze entered from a window overlooking a Qualinost lane, freshening air redolent with sweat, blood, and sorrow.

“Such passion,” Eld Ailea whispered. “Even with your first breaths, you reveal your parentage.” As if to give lie to her murmuring, the baby, arms swaddled against his chest, ceased his cries, yawned, and fell asleep. His ruddy face eased into repose.

The midwife gathered the tiny bundle to her and stepped to a rocking chair placed before the fire. The chair, nearly as old as Eld Ailea herself, contrasted with the living rock walls much as a well-worn pair of slippers offset a new-sewn robe. The chair, its wood burnished with centuries of use, creaked comfortably as Eld Ailea settled into it, lay the infant on her green skirt, and traced a finger around one baby ear.

“Not so pointy as a full elf’s ear, yet clearly no round human ear, either,” Eld Ailea told the infant, who opened one eye, squinted in the firelight, and shut it again. Her words were like music, the song of a wooden flute that had been polished a thousand thousand times. She bent toward the infant and, like a ritual, breathed in the smell of a newly bathed infant; she never tired of this moment.

The human blood in his veins warmed his sluggish elven heart with its fire, she thought. “Oh, yes, small one,” she whispered fiercely, eyes glowing like hazel agates. “You will need that passion. The life of a half-elf is not easy in these times, in Qualinost.”

Beyond her pleasure that the boy waxed robust, the moment held little joy for the elderly midwife. Slowing her rocking, she glanced at the bed nested in an alcove, out of the firelight. She’d extinguished the lamp that had burned for seemingly countless hours at the foot of that pallet; upon the bed lay a figure shrouded in dimness, the face peaceful after hours of exhausting fight.

Eld Ailea was tiny for an elf and displayed the round hazel eyes so rare in Qualinesti, the eyes that showed that she herself carried human blood from generations back. Nonetheless, she also displayed the pointed ears, slender build, and long fingers of her own elven mother.

She’d lived so long among the Qualinesti elves that they could not remember a time when Eld Ailea had not dwelt among them, delivering their few, precious children. She was a familiar sight, striding among the treelike, rose-hued dwellings of the city of Qualinost with her midwife’s satchel swinging at her side; most of the city’s inhabitants—certainly every elven woman who’d had a difficult pregnancy—overlooked the old nurse’s mixed elven-human blood. She was experienced in herbal lore that had soothed the way of many a laboring mother, and, while no mage, she knew enough of magic to ease all but the deepest pains.

Nevertheless, she had lacked the skill to save Elansa.

Unconsciously, Eld Ailea’s arms tightened around the orphaned baby until he awakened and squawked. She quickened the pace of the rocker and stroked his tiny forehead, his cheeks, the bridge of his nose until his eyelids drooped and he slept again.

Suddenly, faint music reached her ears—the sound of bells tied to the harness of a horse, or several horses, by the sound of it. Soon, she heard the alto tones of her servant in the anteroom below, followed by footsteps on the stone stairs that wound to the second level of her towerlike home. She nestled the infant against her shoulder as the wooden door, detailed with etchings of aspen leaves, swung open.

The Speaker of the Sun, Lord of Qualinesti, stood in the doorway, his face lined with concern. Firelight glittered off one side of his golden-threaded robe; the other side was bathed in the light of the silver moon, Solinari, which streamed through a window to one side of the door. Red tinged the beams where they struck the floor, like a few drops of blood; Lunitari, Krynn’s crimson moon, was on the rise as well.

Eld Ailea’s gaze shifted to the figure on the bed. The Speaker’s eyes followed. “She sleeps?” he asked softly. Another breeze wafted through the open window, and the sound of laughter drifted up from the street below. Eld Ailea shook her head once and swung her wrinkled face toward the sleeping baby, watching out of the corner of her eye as the Speaker walked slowly to the woman’s body. His hand trembled as he reached out to touch Elansa, the widow of his dead brother, but then his arm halted and the hand fell limply to his side.

He swallowed. “You, Ailea, with all your skill … If you could not save her, no one could.”

The midwife shook her head gently. “She was too weak, Solostaran. She stayed until the babe was born, and she nursed him once, but then she let herself go.”

The Speaker of the Sun stared at her. He seemed unaware that she had used his true name and not the title he had taken when he ascended the rostrum in the Tower of the Sun to rule the elves of Qualinesti more than a century ago. A flicker of pain shuddered across his hawklike face. “She let herself go …,” he repeated softly. To elves, life was sacred, and the willful ending of it, blasphemy.

“The child …?” he asked.

The midwife’s lips parted in an odd smile, neither joyful nor sorrowful; briefly, she remembered the night Solostaran himself was born, so long ago. How different the surroundings then, how opulent the chambers, blazing bright with torchlight. How reverent the retainers who crouched in the shadows beyond the birthing suite. It was all a far cry from the quarters of a mixed-blood midwife, even the best midwife in Qualinesti. Elansa could have borne her baby at the court, but she had chosen to come to Eld Ailea’s rooms instead.

Eld Ailea held the baby so the Speaker could see him. Solostaran kneeled and examined the child for barely a moment and then dipped his head. “So,” he said coolly. “It is as we feared.”

No, Eld Ailea almost said, it is as you feared. But she held her tongue. Kethrenan, the Speaker’s younger brother, had been slain when ambushed by a band of rogue humans upon the road to the fortress of Pax Tharkas, to the south of Qualinesti. Although the elven and human races had once—thousands of years ago—been close, such human raiding bands had become all too common since the destruction of the Cataclysm. The band had raped Kethrenan’s wife, Elansa, and left her for dead, lying in the mud of the road. For the last months, she had lived much as one who was dead, her eyes empty. She had eaten only enough to sustain the life growing within her; quith-pa, nutritious elven bread, and clear wine formed the basis of her diet. The infant could have been Kethrenan’s or the human rapist’s, and Elansa had waited to confirm the answer she had already suspected.

“The child is half-man,” Solostaran said, still kneeling, his hand on the arm of the rocker.

“He is half-elf as well.”

Solostaran said nothing for a time, but then Eld Ailea saw the proud mask crumble, and the Speaker shook his head. The baby still slept. Gently the Speaker touched one of the tiny hands; reflexively, like a sensitive blossom, the hand opened and closed, clasping the Speaker’s finger. Eld Ailea heard Solostaran catch his breath, saw kindness grow in his eyes. “What sort of life can there be for one who is half of two things and all of nothing?” the Speaker asked. But Eld Ailea had no answer for him, and the silence that followed stretched long. The gaze of the midwife stayed steady.

For a moment, an expression of anguish showed in the Speaker’s aspen-leaf-green eyes. Then the proud visage returned. “He is the son of my brother’s wife, and he will come with me. He will be raised in the manner of a true Qualinesti elf.” Eld Ailea sighed, touching the newborn’s cheeks and kissing his forehead, and handed the bundle wordlessly to the Speaker. “Does the little one have a name yet?” Solostaran asked, seeming to avoid looking at the still form in the corner bed. “Did Elansa name him?”

“Yes,” the midwife whispered after a pause. She faltered over the lie. “She named him ‘Tanthalas.’ ” Eld Ailea smoothed the wool of her skirt, not daring to meet the Speaker’s eyes lest he guess the truth. But her gift to the child would be something lasting—a name. “Ever strong,” the name meant in the human dialect Eld Ailea had learned as a child.

Solostaran merely nodded. He stepped to the doorway, holding the baby with the ease of an experienced father; his firstborn son, Porthios, was only fifty years old, only a youth. Eld Ailea pushed her suddenly weary body out of the chair and followed him. They paused in the night air at the window; it carried the freshness of spring, catching his golden hair and blowing it back from his brow. A gold circlet rested there, glimmering silver and scarlet in the light from the moons above.

“I fear I do him no favor, taking him to the court,” the Speaker said. “I doubt he will find much peace there in his life. But he is my kin, and so I must.”

Solostaran pulled the linen up around the infant’s face, protecting him from the damp, and midwife and Speaker tarried before the window. Just then, a streak of silver flashed across the sky. A falling star, the light of the heavens come to Krynn, sped northward as it flung its fiery tail out behind. The Speaker appeared mindless of the omen, but Eld Ailea pressed hopeful fingers against the amulet that the dying Elansa had forced into her hand; to the midwife’s people, a shooting star portended good fellowship. She hoped the star soared for the child sleeping against the Speaker’s shoulder; a half-elf would need good friends.

“I will send others to see to Elansa,” Solostaran said, his voice brittle for a moment. Then he left, taking the baby with him. Eld Ailea stayed at the window until the jingling of bells and the muffled beat of hooves on the tiled streets receded into the distance.

Far to the north, a small town slept in the darkness. It was a town of wooden houses, most tucked high among the embracing branches of ancient, towering trees, joined by footbridges high above the ground. In one of the few houses that stood upon the ground—and the only one with a dim light still glowing between the open shutters of its windows—a figure sat alone. He was short, a human child’s height, but thick-limbed and broad-shouldered, and coarse whiskers curled down his chest. He sat at a table, turning a piece of wood over and over in his hands. He worked at it with a small knife, removing flakes of wood with precision despite his stubby fingers. Soon a smooth and delicate shape emerged from the soft wood: the image of a single aspen leaf. Only once had he seen an aspen, and that had been far away to the south, near the homeland he had left not so very long ago to seek his fortune in the wide world. The tree had stood, pale and slender, at the summit of a high pass, leading—or so his father had told him—toward the land of the elves beyond. Perhaps the Qualinesti elves had planted it there as a reminder of their forest home should they have occasion to travel that way. He had thought the tree one of the loveliest sights he had seen, the leaves as green and shiny as emeralds on one side, all frosted with silver on the other. Maybe one day he might have the fortune to see an aspen tree again. But for now, the wooden leaf would have to do.

Finally, the dwarf grew weary and, standing, blew out the candle on the table. As he passed the window on his way to his bed, a flash to the south caught his eye. It burned for a long second as it streaked across the darkened sky, and then it was gone.

“Reorx! I’ve never seen such a shooting star!” he muttered, shivering though the spring night was not chilly at all. And then, unsure why he stood gaping out the window like some whelp who’d never seen such a sight, he shook his head, closed the shutters, and trudged off to dream of aspen trees.

Kindred Spirits