Blessings Of A Curse - 2012 USA Edition - chunk 05
“My betrothed, your chariot awaits!” she announced with a giggle and a sweeping gesture of presentation. “We will keep it at this height above the ground, and start at walking speed, increasing speed only as you get used to it, and as you learn to trust it.”
“All right.” Mark agreed with a grin as he tested it with his foot. It didn’t move at all under his weight, so he sat down sideways in the chair, swung his legs onto the leg rest, and leaned back. The chair was severely reclined, though the headrest supported his head in a vertical position so it was easy to watch where they were going. He was gratified to find that he could get a good grip on the armrests, and that the footboard was positioned against his soles so he could brace himself solidly with his feet and his shoulders. “Wow! It’s very comfortable!” he said as he settled in. “I think this could really be fun, as long as we stay low like this!”
“Ah. One more detail.” Alilia nodded, and Summoned a wooden trunk of a similar style to the platform from her distant home. She placed it on the platform behind the chair, and she concentrated again as she cast spells to attach it solidly to the platform, and to recolor it slightly to match.
“Good thinking!” Nemia laughed, and she loaded Mark’s possessions as well as her own barbering and tailoring supplies into the trunk, and Talia settled into Mark’s lap with her back to him.
“And if the rest of you would allow me?” Alilia asked as she rose a foot into the air.
The others nodded their agreement, and they all rose a foot into the air, though they stood as if on solid ground.
“And we’re off!” Talia gaily announced, and pointed her finger forward. The platform smoothly accelerated to the speed of a brisk walk, and the others faced forward as they floated along, maintaining their same formation close around the platform.
As they reached the path leading up to the pass, Mark announced; “This is fine! You can go faster if you want!”
“All right. I will gradually accelerate to the speed of a galloping horse. Just tell me if you want to slow down.”
Soon they were flying up the path fast enough to make Mark’s heart race, his hair and beard blowing behind. The platform remained level front to rear despite the increasing slope, it’s front remaining one foot above the path at the closest, it’s rear higher, and Talia skillfully tilted it from side to side at the curves in the path, so they didn’t slide sideways in the seat.
Mark let out a wordless shout of exhilaration, and released his grip on the armrests so he could hug Talia around her tummy, and she promptly laid her arms along his huge fore-arms and squeezed them tight.
“You like this?” she teased with a giggle.
“Yes, a lot! I’d have thought there’d be more wind!”
“I’m deflecting most of it, though a bit of it is fun! Would you care to try the pace of a falcon on a long flight? I assure you it’s perfectly safe.”
“Sure!” he laughed in joyous excitement, and they smoothly accelerated again. “Oh Wow! Oh wow!” he called as the ground flashed past.
“I must admit,” Yazadril commented with a thrill in his voice, “I’ve often flown faster, but doing so this close to the ground is very exciting!”
“So it is!” Theramin laughed.
In only moments they were above the tree line, then moving over bare rock as the slope reached it’s steepest.
“The Sentries know we’re coming.” Dilimon calmly informed them. “They won’t be in the way. They tell me that the path is clear as far as Nemion’s garden.”
“We’ll have to be higher for a few moments after we crest the pass.” Talia told Mark. “At this speed, if we followed the ground, you’d be thrown out of the chair.”
“What? Talia!” Mark exclaimed, re-gripping the armrests as they speeded to the top of the pass. “TALIAAAAAAAA!!!”
The Sentries’ towers and emplacements flashed by on either side, and they shot up and over the lip of the pass and high into open air, before gently arcing down to smoothly align with the path running down slope, only now the back of the platform was a foot from the ground and the front was higher.
“Sweet mother preserve me, girl!” he stammered as his heart pounded in his ears. “You almost scared the life out of me!”
Talia giggled contritely. “I’m sorry. I was hoping you would find it fun! And it would be best if you could get used to flying.”
“Well, it was fun, in a terrifying way, now that it’s over!” he admitted. “Only next time, warn me sooner!”
He bowed his head and nuzzled the side of her neck, and kissed her ear.
She turned her head sideways and up so she could murmur private words to him. “Now you are arousing me! Which would be fine if I were not piloting this craft! The distraction could be dangerous!”
She chuckled as he suddenly stopped, and she faced forward again.
“That’s a good point, but you still owe me one for the scare back there!” he laughed, and in a moment of spontaneous, mischievous temptation, he slid his hands up her torso, under the top row of gauze strips, to cup her small but perky and beautifully shaped breasts with his fingers.
“Ahh, that is nice.” she crooned, leaning into his hands a bit as her nipples hardened. “You can hold me like that, but do not caress me there, or we will crash for sure!”
He enjoyed the sensation for a moment, then slid his hands back to her tummy before the other elves noticed. “I’m sorry, that was not the act of a gentleman.” he rumbled contritely.
“Among my people it is!” she gaily assured him, but he kept his hands where they were.
“My! This valley is perfectly round!” he exclaimed.
“All of The Nine Valleys are round.” she informed him. “They were formed by the impact of a falling star that broke into nine pieces before it struck the ground, many millennia ago. Their bowl shape, and the material of the fallen stars, gives The Nine Valleys the most powerful magical fields in the world. That is why my people claimed them for their own as soon as they had cooled, and why we have defended them vigorously since then.”
“These valleys were the very first place permanently settled by elves, in the dawn of our race, over two hundred and thirty-six thousand years ago.” Yazadril added proudly. “Before then, we were secretive and nomadic, for we had found no place that was both worth defending, and defensible by our then-meager numbers. The world was very dangerous then.
“You know, two human wizards have intruded as far as the first sentry line near the top of the pass. But to my certain knowledge, they never saw over the edge. In almost a quarter of a million years, you are the very first human to see any part of The Nine Valleys. Most certainly the very first, ever, who has passed within!”
“I’m, uh, humbled by the honor… Thank you!” Mark stammered.
“Ah, he is a treasure!” Nemia laughed at his boyish manner.
“No. I’m the one who’s found the treasure.” Mark chuckled, smiling down at Talia. “If even my being here is unique, how much more rare and special is it that I should marry a princess of the mountain elves? I tell you, my mind is becoming completely boggled by the incredibleness of everything that’s happened! Six months ago I was just an ordinary forest ranger. And now, Princess Talia of The Nine Valleys will be my wife! Why, I’d bet I’m the first man who’s ever even touched an elven princess, anywhere, ever!”
“You may be right about that.” Hilsith agreed with a smile. “What’s more, to my knowledge, with ten thousand in attendance, it will be the greatest wedding ever held!”
“Ahh, so romantic!” Talia sighed. “But I’m not a princess. Among elves, such things as leadership and royalty are not hereditary.”
“Then how is it decided?” Mark asked.
“Generally, if most everyone thinks you can do the job, then you’re stuck with it, whether you like it or not!” Yazadril chuckled.
“Ha! Exactly that!” Alilia snorted.
“We were simply called ‘Leader’, long ago.” Yazadril continued. “But human monarchs consider it beneath them to negotiate on matters of diplomacy with those who are not royalty. So now we are called ‘Prince’ or ‘Princess’, which were chosen because to call us king or queen would be an overstatement of our authority. Elves are not so liege-bound as humans.”
“Well, among my people, it would not matter whether you will inherit leadership or title.” Mark told Talia. “As long as your father is the reigning Prince, you would be considered a princess, and you would be treated and addressed as such. Not so, Yazadril?”
“True.” he admitted.
“And to me, you will always be my princess.” Mark finished.
“That is so nice!” Talia smiled. “Human stories and songs with princesses are always very romantic.”
“Events are escalating.” Alilia stated bitterly, changing the subject. “Even among those of us who do not dwell here, The Nine Valleys are considered inviolate; sacrosanct and sacred. His presence here will cause an uproar among all elvenkind everywhere. As it is my doing, I will be reviled, particularly by those of the conservative faction. Who knows what this wedding may lead to? Be they beneficial or harmful, there are going to be huge repercussions from all of this.”
“Well then!” Yazadril smiled. “It’s up to us to see that they’re beneficial, isn’t it?”
“It is.” Alilia was forced to agree.
They had passed below the tree line moments ago, and it seemed to Mark that every tree they passed was much larger than the one before. Now they were a hundred and fifty feet tall, and as wide as a house at the base of the trunk. Looking ahead, he saw that the trees there grew larger yet, and more widely spaced, with more undergrowth. With a start, he realized that some of the undergrowth was higher than the biggest tree in Shinosa Valley!
“This forest is incredible!” he exclaimed in amazement. “How big do these trees get?!!”
“Here in First Valley, the tallest is about twelve hundred feet.” Theramin estimated. “About eight to ten times as high as these here. The very tallest are those that encircle the wedding chapel in Laylas Valley, which are twice as tall as that at about twenty-four hundred feet. As Talia said, a special place. Those are over two hundred thousand years old, but though they are tallest, even they are not the oldest.
“I am the custodian of all the trees in The Nine Valleys.” he added proudly. “As senior horticultural wizard, their well-being is my responsibility.”
“Well, it seems you’re doing a grand job of it!” Mark marveled. “They’re incredible, and beautiful!”
Now they had reached the flat of the valley floor, and there were many broad, open spaces between the trees, most of which were between four and seven hundred feet tall here.
“Now we are into the settled areas of the valley, for these trees are homes, and there will be people walking about.” Talia told him “For safety’s sake, I must either slow to walking speed, or fly at least ten feet above the ground.”
“Well, as you thought, I am getting used to it. Ten feet should be okay.” Mark ventured.
Talia nodded, and as they smoothly rose to that height, Mark began to notice stairways and catwalks on the trees, and the openings of doors and windows in the trunks and greater branches. The works of the elves seemed so tiny in comparison to the mighty trees. Too, he began to notice a few other elves about, going to and from their homes or simply enjoying the sun and the summer breeze. Some strolled or lounged on benches, others flew. Of the flyers, some flew while standing as the rest of their party did, some sat on chairs or cushions, some lounged on blankets or carpets, and the fastest of them lay forward with their arms out, like soaring birds. They passed a shouting pack of elves engaged in some sport, running around on a marked circular field and throwing three balls about, though they were past before Mark could discern the method of their play.
“There would generally be many more about on such a beautiful day.” Talia quietly remarked as they turned off the main path. “Some prepare for the wedding. Others attend the Council Hall, where Dalia and Bezedil lie in state, until their final rites and internment in three weeks.”
She swallowed hard at the lump in her throat, and continued on. “There, you see that great oak tree there? You see how the stairway winds about it? At the top of that stairway, on the far side of the trunk, is my… My parents’ home. We can climb the steps, or we can ride up on a railed lifting platform, or I can just fly us up.”
“Well, you might as well fly us up, I guess.”
“Do you really think so?” Talia giggled. “I think you’re just trying to be brave and gallant.”
“Ha! I guess I am, but I also don’t want to climb that many stairs!” Mark laughed. “And I don’t see much difference between this and a railed lifting platform, except that this is more comfortable. Although I have to admit that I would sure prefer you to slow down some, before we go up there.”
“Quite understandable.” Talia smiled as she slowed to a hover at the base of the great tree, then slowly ascended vertically. She tried not to think about the ground on the far side of the trunk, and what had happened there yesterday.
When they were halfway to their goal, Mark marveled; “What a view! Now I see why you live so high up!”
“That’s part of it, but mostly it’s the growth of the tree!” Yazadril laughed. “This home has always been about one third of the way up the trunk, yet when it was first made, it was only seventy feet from the ground!”
“Bring us around to the balcony, Dear.” Nemia instructed. “Your intended might find our doors and hallways to be a bit restricting.”
“Yes, Mother.” Talia laughed. She followed the curve of the tree, and waited while the others alighted on the balcony and moved indoors to leave room for her to land Mark’s conveyance.
When she had done so, aligning the chair to face into the central room, Alilia pointed to the side of the chair.
“That handle there is part of a mechanism, and if you pull on it while sitting up, the chair will… Damn this simple language! It will de-recline. It will bend to a more vertical position. Yes, like that.”
As Mark followed her instruction, the chair had indeed assumed the shape of a conventional armchair. “Thanks so much again, Alilia! This is the first time I’ve sat in a chair that truly fit me since I was fourteen!”
“I deserve no thanks. And after you have had to fulfill the curse a few times, you will not think so either.” Alilia moped.
“Enough self-recrimination for one day, Alilia!” Talia told her firmly. “It is my wedding day, a joyous occasion, and I ask you to share that sentiment as much as you are able.”
“I will try.” Alilia muttered, before turning into the central room on her way to the kitchen.
“It’s so strange. I’ve never seen this place before, yet it seems familiar because I saw it in Talia’s vision.” Mark mused, leaning forward to peer within. He stood and hunched down enough to enter the central room, then shuffled over to the hallway.
“Her Reading, actually. A Vision is another thing entirely.” Yazadril informed him thoughtfully.
Mark showed no sign he’d heard. He stared intently within for many moments, then pointed down the hall without looking away. “Can I go down there please? To Dalia’s room?” he asked quietly. “I won’t touch anything.”
Yazadril looked to Nemia, who gave him a tearful shrug. “All right.” he answered.
Mark had to sidle sideways down the hall, where he stared for minutes at the spot on the floor where Talia had lay curled and crying. Then he considered Dalia’s door. Finally he delicately grasped the doorknob between thumb and fingertip, turned it, and slowly swung the door open. He went to one knee and stared within a few minutes, then closed the door and awkwardly returned to his chair, still deep in thought.
Unnerved a bit by this display, Yazadril turned to Theramin. “I think I should make my home a bit more comfortable for my soon-to-be son-in-law. Perhaps you could raise the ceiling in this room to ten feet, enlarge the balcony doors, and double the area of the balcony?”
“Certainly.” Theramin nodded, looking about “I’ll cast it now, and it should be finished in about half an hour. And I’ll raise the balcony railing a foot as well, though it still won’t be very safe for one of his height if he gets a few ales in him.”
“Thank you. I’m sure he’ll be careful.”
Talia sat patiently with Mark, perched on the arm of his chair, waiting for his thoughts to run their course.
Nemia waited for that as well, her basket of barbering supplies in hand, sensing something was amiss, and missing Dalia with all her heart.
Gradually catching this mood, Dilimon and Hilsith ceased preparing to take their leave, then Yazadril, and finally Theramin when he finished casting his spell, all stood silently watching Mark, none of them sure why.
The moment was broken when Alilia bustled out of the kitchen. “I have made tea, and cast the thousands of invitations, and arranged for the feast, though that took some doing…” she stated briskly before noticing the silent scene. “What is it?” she asked.
“I’m not sure.” Mark admitted, his eyes still unfocused in deep thought. “I keep thinking about the Reading, and it sure seems that there’s something subtly wrong about it all… I mean, I know I’m no expert on elves or anything, and I sure don’t want to seem insensitive to your loss, but still… The way everyone acted doesn’t quite ring true. Every little event in it seems subtly wrong…
“The first one. Three times before, when Talia thought someone was her destined love, Dalia had waited until Talia knew one way or another, before Dalia approached the fellow herself. Yet this time, when Talia was sure, Dalia would not wait. Not that unusual, perhaps, yet unusual enough that Talia was surprised by it. And Dalia had to know that Talia would be hurt by it. Would she really do that normally?
“The second one. I realize that you elves are more, uh, uninhibited, than my people, and Dalia and Bezedil were both young, very attractive, and I think a bit more promiscuous than the norm, even for elves. And that Bezedil thought that Dalia was his destined love. Still, they met, exchanged barely a dozen words, and bedded each other barely a minute after they met! Doesn’t that seem unusual to you?
“The third one. It makes sense that Talia was hurt by what they did. Yet you are not a sexually monogamous people, and as Dalia pointed out, Bezedil was obviously no virgin. Talia knew that she was Bezedil’s destined love, and she had to know that under normal circumstances he would soon realize it as well, and then they would be together. So it makes sense that Talia was hurt, but it doesn’t seem right that she was so completely devastated by it as she was.
“The fourth one. I can see how a human who is completely distraught might suicide by jumping from a high place, for our lives are short, and once we’re falling, there’s nothing we can do about it anyway. But for an elf to throw away thousands of years of life by doing so seems incredible! And once you’re falling, I mean really falling, no matter who you are, the survival instinct should be undeniable! It seems impossible to me that anyone could choose to not save themselves then, if they had the means available, by flying or healing or disappearing or something! Yazadril has said that a few elves have committed suicide, but how many of them did it by jumping from a high place? Not many, I’d bet, or none.
“And the fifth one, and this is what really made me think that there was something wrong. Why did Dalia jump?!! After she did, it makes a little sense that Bezedil did, because he thought he’d lost his destined love. It makes even more sense that Talia jumped, because she had lost her twin sister, and her destined love. But Dalia must have known that Talia and Bezedil were destined lovers! It shouldn’t have shocked her or hurt her that much to see them together! I know she was very pleased with Bezedil’s love-making, and perhaps in that one hour she had even fallen in love with him a little. But even from the little I saw of her, it seems impossible that Dalia would commit suicide for so little provocation! That for every second of that fall, she could continue to choose to let herself impact and die because she had been jilted by her new lover!”
There was a long silence, broken by Alilia. “What are you implying?!” she grimly demanded, tears streaming down as she was forced to re-live yesterday’s horror.
Mark, still deep in thought, took no offense. “I don’t know. It’s like everyone was somewhat drunk, just enough to make them more emotional. Could you all have been drugged? Or perhaps bewitched in some way?”
The rest were all shaken by the possibility.
Talia gave a choked laugh. “Perhaps we are all cursed!” she bitterly surmised.
There was another long silence.
“I think you jest, my daughter, yet perhaps you should not!” Yazadril stated grimly, his brows knotted in anger. “Mark has raised some valid points, though we could not see it because we were too close to the situation. Combine them with Alilia’s earlier observations about major repercussions from these events, and the possibility of some kind of covert interference becomes all too real!
“By all the silent gods! Dalia’s death by youthful foolishness is horrible enough! If someone has maliciously caused her death or contributed to it, whether it was by drug or spell or curse, I swear it will not remain hidden from me!
“All of you, please stay exactly where you are! If there is evidence, it has likely been much disturbed already, no need to make it worse!”
With a flurry of hummed notes and gestures, Yazadril began casting and loosing many different information-seeking and analyzing spells, one after the other, for six minutes or more. Then they all waited silently, watching him closely, while he concentrated fiercely.
“There… is something…” he murmured. “But it is faint… So old and faint…”
He concentrated until he was shaking from it, then struck his fists to his forehead in frustration. “Blazing source above, I will not be denied!” he cried. “Alilia, give me power! As much as you can without burning me out!”
Alilia sternly stepped to him, grasped his head with both hands, pressed her own forehead hard against his, and began pouring power into him. He also grasped her head in his hands and held it tight to his.
Mark had to look away from the brightness they were generating, though he was only seeing Yazadril’s half of it.
Yazadril shook harder and harder, until he was shuddering head to toe and fell to one knee. Alilia released him, but he would not release her in return. “Almost there!” he quaveringly growled, and held on for another four seconds.
“Have it!” he hoarsely cried, and Nemia helped Alilia support him as he slowly collapsed to the floor, panting and shaking.
They waited while he recovered, until Alilia’s patience ran out. “Out with it if you can, Yazadril! What did you find?!”
Yazadril sat up, wincing and gasping, and waved her to silence. Finally he spoke, sounding completely dejected. “Talia was right. We were cursed. You and I, Alilia, we two specifically were cursed, over one hundred and twenty years ago. By a human wizard, who at that time was located some six hundred leagues to the east, and about thirty leagues north. The Empire of Thon, or the Kingdom of Yazzak. Not a very powerful curse, for even I could have put more power into one, but that’s what made it so hard to trace. No doubt our foe was pleased enough with it. And, it was eventually effective.
“Our children were murdered, Alilia, for we were cursed that our children would slay one another. I could learn no more, though I was desperate to learn the identity of the caster.”
“Our children were killed to strike at us?!!” Alilia screeched as she stood, clenched and shaking in rage.
“But… I mean in a way, that makes some of what’s happened understandable, but in some ways, things are only more confusing!” Nemia sobbed in grieved bewilderment. “Why would anyone do such a thing? Yazadril, neither you nor Alilia even had any living children one hundred and twenty years ago!”
“It is all too completely understandable, since our enemy is obviously one who takes the long view to his goals.” Alilia stated bitterly. “The patience of it is chilling. We did eventually have children, and the curse struck at the first opportunity, subtly altering reality just enough to accomplish it’s evil end. If we had never had children, our enemy would have wasted little in the effort. And knowing that it quite likely may have been a wasted effort, our unknown enemy no doubt has other schemes afoot to accomplish the same ends. I doubt that his purpose was to hurt us personally, to break our hearts by killing our children. We know for certain that the only ones who had reason to personally hate us that much are long dead, centuries before the curse was cast. And to hurt us, one would curse our children to die young, horribly perhaps, but not to slay one another! Nor to do so by such a relatively quick and painless method! To fulfill it’s requirements, the curse had to wait an extra twenty-nine years, when it could have simply slain them as babes!
“No. This curse, that our children would slay one another, was cast to cause enmity between Yazadril and I. To break our friendship. To break the alliance between our peoples. To cause war between The High People and The People of Life!
“And look how close it came to accomplishing that! I was a hair’s breadth away from killing Talia and Nemia, and then Yazadril would have killed me! When my people learned that my son and I had both been killed here by Yazadril and his family, they would have declared war, and their greater numbers clashing against the defenses of The Nine Valleys would have meant annihilation for all!”
“You think Father could have killed you?” Talia asked in astonishment.
“Don’t be naïve! Of course he would have!” Alilia snapped impatiently. “I have hundreds of times his power, but I am not too proud to realize that he is still twice the wizard I will ever be! If he wanted to match me power for power, all he would need to do is to tap the power of the nearest thousand elves, and he is very good at doing that very quickly under battle conditions! He could tap the nearest hundred thousand and overwhelm me completely, but that is not his way! He would have some tiny spell with less force than a falling pebble that would pass unnoticed through my defenses and block the veins in my brain, or something else of similar style!
“Do not be fooled by his humbleness or his lack of raw power, child, for your father is the greatest wizard alive! His strength may only be average for one of The High People, but that is nothing to disregard, for The High People are mightiest in magic as individuals! With his knowledge and skill, that is enough to make him invincible! And between us, we will find the worm spawn who have killed our children and threatened our nations, and we will make them burn in hell forever!!!”
Alilia was almost screaming in rage when she finished, and she took a moment to try to control her emotions.
“Great source!” Theramin breathed. “To think that only Yazadril’s appeal to your long friendship saved our peoples from war!”
“It did not.” Alilia spat, somewhat calmer. “For I was going to kill Talia anyway, and cared not of the consequences. A horrible truth, but there it is.”
She pointed to Mark. “He saved us from war. His presence was the wild card, the random factor our hidden enemy could not have foreseen. I had not thought of the ordeal of Yzandra in five hundred years, and if I had not just been discussing Mark, I would still not have thought of it! And even if I had thought of it, I would not have cursed Talia with it if he had not been handy to be the instrument of my vengeance!
“But he was there, and so at the very last instant, rather than blasting Talia to dust with a blow as I had planned, I thought of the ordeal of Yzandra, and I cursed Talia with it. At least thousands more will not die in a needless war!”
Talia spoke, and there was unexpected steel in her voice. “When you find those who did this, and the time comes to deal with them, I will claim my right to take part in the retribution.”
Then her hard determination faded, to be replaced by weariness from so much pain. “But today is my wedding day! Tomorrow will be soon enough to begin hunting them! Please, if I have to deal with even one more unhappy thought, I’m sure I will break down completely!”
Nemia wiped away her tears, and bravely pasted a smile on her face. “She’s right, we have a wedding to prepare for, and only about two hours remain before we should leave for Laylas Valley! There is much to do, so while I prepare Mark and Talia and myself, the rest of you can divide and delegate the rest that needs to be done.”
“As I said, the invitations are sent, and the feast arranged for.” Alilia said, glad for this distraction from her ire. “With your permission Talia, Mark, I will extend invitations to another fifteen. With ten thousand and more already, I’m sure we can fit them in somewhere.”
“I don’t see why not. May I ask who they are?” Talia inquired in puzzlement.
“They are the leaders of our peoples, the Princes and Princesses of all the elven nations of the world, for I intend to call them to High Council immediately after your wedding, to warn them that someone may be seeking to cause war among the elves. This cannot wait until tomorrow, for if our enemy has a way of monitoring events here, he already knows that his curse has acted successfully, yet failed to cause war, or even to break my friendship with Yazadril. Thus he may even now be setting new schemes in motion.”
“Certainly! I would love to have the royalty of the elven world attend my wedding!” Talia laughed, deliberately ignoring the unpleasant aspects of what Alilia had said.
“Good. Then I am off to my embassy. I will meet you at the chapel.” Alilia stated brusquely, and with that, she was simply gone.
“I’m glad she arranged for the feast.” Theramin grinned. “Her people have the kitchen capacity to produce one for ten thousand on short notice, while ours do not. Still, there are many other preparations to be made at the chapel, and that falls to me and my staff.
“Nemia, if you will tell me what you wish in the way of lighting and decoration, I will see to it. I know you would rather give that your personal attention, but as you say, time is pressing.”
“Thank you Theramin.” Nemia smiled. She produced a scroll from thin air and handed it to him. “Shall I hurry you there?”
“Please.” Theramin nodded, and waved to the rest. “I will see you there!” he called.
Nemia closed her eyes and hummed a beautiful liquid trill, and Theramin disappeared, leaving a slight swirl of air too minor to make a sound.
“Damn, that is so spooky!” Mark breathed. “It makes me doubt the reality around me!”
“Courage, my big, beautiful male. You’ll get used to us.” Talia chuckled. “You can get used to anything, after a while.”
“Nemia, Talia asked you to find the eleven most powerful guests of each gender to be bridesmaids and groomsmen.” Dilimon reminded her. “Yet that was before an additional eight thousand guests were considered. With your permission, the off-duty sentries and I will attend to this task. It is certain that all the attendees will be present in the chapel at least thirty minutes before the ceremony begins. At that point, the scouts and I will be able to survey the crowd and pick out the most powerful, using detuned Detect Power spells. We will invite them to join the wedding party as bridesmaids and groomsmen, and it is certain that few would refuse, if for no other reason than the close view of the proceedings that the opportunity affords! It should be easy to have them in place before the podium at least fifteen minutes before the ceremony commences.”
“Thank you Dilimon, that is most kind!”
“Then I’m off. Excuse me Mark, Talia. I’ll see you at the chapel!” Dilimon smiled as he sidled past them to step atop the balcony rail. He leaped up and out and accelerated in a second to an amazing speed, flying up like an arrow loosed from a bow, his arms held tight to his sides and his toes pointed behind. In seconds he was above the tops of the tallest trees, and he leveled out, banked to the west a bit, and was gone from sight.
“What a show off!” Talia giggled.
“I have things to do, Love.” Yazadril said as he kissed Nemia’s cheek. “After you’ve prepared the bride and groom, send them down to my workshop, and I’ll keep them occupied while you dress.”
“Yes Dear. I’ll get your things out for you. Your council robes, I think.”
“Of course, of course…” Yazadril muttered as he turned to go, his mind already on other matters.
“Well, here I am, the first to say farewell, yet the last still with you!” Hilsith chuckled. “And I think there is a place for me here, for I think Mark’s mind truly is becoming a bit boggled from all he has seen and experienced recently! So, with your permission I will stay, and while you make ready I will brew some soothing herbal tea, and sing some peaceful songs from the human lands, and play the harp.”
“Thank you.” Mark sighed. “I thought my heart was going to choke me when Dilimon jumped off like that! I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to it!”
“As I thought.” Hilsith nodded, and turned for the kitchen while checking in her pouch for herbs.
“And… I haven’t eaten for a while…” he hesitantly called after her.
“I’ll find you a snack to tide you over till the feast!” Hilsith chuckled over her shoulder as she left the room.
Nemia unfolded the white cloth she had used for the light screen earlier, and prepared to drape it around him from the neck down, to catch falling hair clippings. “Now then Mark, be seated in your big new chair, and tell me how you would like to be barbered.”
“Well, I like my hair just long enough to tie it together in the back, and I don’t like my beard at all, so you can shave it all off.” Mark told her. “Frankly, I didn’t like it when I got all hairy the year before last. I mean, a little is fine, but this is ridiculous! But I can’t shave it all down to my toes, or the stubble itch would drive me crazy!”
“All right, I’ll do your hair while Talia shaves you.” Nemia decided. “We often do this with spells, and few of our males shave anyway, or even need to. Still, our people enjoy physically grooming one another, and so we have the skills.
“But first, let’s get you clean. Spells may not affect you, perhaps not even your hair, but the dirt upon you is another matter.”
Nemia stood on the trunk behind his chair, placed her hands on his head, and hummed a complex lilt.
“Wow! That felt wonderful all over!” he enthused.
“And now you’re clean.” Nemia said, and tucked the edge of the sheet around his neck.
She brushed all the knots out of his mane of black hair and applied a bit of lotion that made it lay down shiny and smooth, then brushed it all back to the nape of his neck, secured it with a plain gold clasp, and cut it off evenly three inches below the clasp.
While she did so, Talia stood between his spread knees on the seat of the chair and cut off his beard to within a quarter inch of his skin with shears, then worked a lotion into what was left.
Then she brought out the straight razor, and he eyed it a bit apprehensively.
“You might need to strop it. My beard’s pretty coarse, and I’ve given myself some nasty razor burn before.” he cautioned.
She giggled and replied; “It won’t get dull before it’s been used for another three centuries at least! Now hold very still.”
He did, and she carefully shaved him.
She and Nemia worked quickly, and were soon finished.
“There you go!” Talia brightly smiled, and she and Nemia stepped down to replace the barbering tools in their cases, while he stood and stretched, and rubbed his bare face for the first time in months.
Hilsith emerged from the kitchen with a tray in her hands, covered with bread, cheese, jam, cups, and a steaming teapot.
He picked up a mirror from the barbering kit and inspected himself. “Hey, that’s not too bad at all! I look a lot different since I last saw myself freshly barbered. Maturing, I guess. Thanks! Thanks a lot! What do you think?”
He lowered the mirror, and looked to the three elven women.
They were staring at him. Hilsith with her tray was grinning, Nemia looked bemused, and Talia looked mesmerized.
“What? Am I funny looking?” he asked, feeling a bit uncomfortable with the intensity with which they were gazing at him.
Talia tried to explain. “You’re… I mean, you have that over-masculinity that human males have from the strong facial bones, but with a boyish youthfulness that’s… It’s, uh, hard to find the words in this language… “
“Well, I guess I am a bit funny looking to elf girls…” he said with chagrin.
“What my daughter is trying to tell you,” Nemia patiently explained, smiling at his fluster, “Is that you are without a doubt, and by far, the most handsome human male any of us have ever seen.”
“Yes indeed.” Hilsith added. “It’s quite amazing what a transformation a barbering has made of you.”
“Oh yes!” Talia sincerely agreed. “You are beautiful! With your amazing size, you look like a god!”
“Oh come now!” he protested. “You’re teasing me, right? I mean, I know I’m not ugly or anything, but I sure wouldn’t go that far!”
The three elfesses looked at each other, and burst out giggling like schoolgirls.
“Of course we’re teasing you!” Nemia laughed as she opened her tailor’s basket. “How could anyone look like a god in the clothes you’re wearing? Now, are you a virgin?”
“Wha? What?”! He sputtered indignantly. “What kind of question is that to ask a fellow?!”
Hilsith and Talia giggled even harder.
“Hush you two! It’s a very important question, Mark. Male or female, virgins must wear white when they stand upon the podium of the wedding chapel to be joined in matrimony, and only virgins may wear it there. And so we must know. Talia will wear white. Will you?”
He became so mortified that he stared at his feet and blushed crimson.
Talia and Hilsith felt so much for his embarrassment that they stopped giggling.
“Yes. I’ll wear white.” he whispered, barely able to get the words out. He flinched in anticipation of another round of feminine giggling, but it never came.
Instead there was a pause, followed by Talia sighing; “Oh, that is so sweet!”
He actually heaved a sigh of relief that they hadn’t laughed at him.
“Here, have some tea and something to eat.” Hilsith said as she poured him a cup. “This tea is not magic, but the herbs are a mild drug. It will help you feel relaxed and centered, and refreshed.”
“All right, you will both wear white.” Nemia continued briskly. “Other than that, how would you like your clothing styled?”
“Something with a kilt. Something the other elves won’t think looks strange, and that goes with what Talia will be wearing. Other than that, I’ll leave it up to you to decide.”
“Very wisely said.” Nemia nodded as she laid out needles, scissors and such. “I have just the thing in mind, and I noted your measurements earlier, when Alilia got them from Yazadril so she could enlarge your chair.”
While Mark ate and drank, Nemia quickly made him a fine white silk kilt with a gold pin to secure it and a one inch wide band of gold trim magically attached along the hem, as well as a matching white shirt with gold trim along the bottom edge, at the sleeves and around the neck line. Sometimes she used scissors and needle and thread, and sometimes she cut or joined with magic, humming as she slid the material between pinched fingertips. Mark wondered why she sometimes chose one method and sometimes another, but his mind was already so filled with newness and explanations that he refrained from asking.
Hilsith reclined on the couch and sang sweet love songs from the human lands to the north-east, and though Mark had never heard any of them before and the words were in a language he didn’t understand, they did help greatly to soothe his mind.
Talia sat perched on the arm of his chair with her feet on the seat between his knees and her chin in her hands, smiling and watching him.
“I saw a girl with that expression once. She had just been given a new pony.” Mark chuckled, quiet and rumbling.
Talia just smiled a little wider.
“You know, I could swear that I can almost see that wall move!” he remarked.
“You can.” Talia giggled. “Theramin cast it for my father. You were thinking hard then, and you missed it. See, wood is slowly flowing from the ceiling, leaving it higher, down the walls beside the door and into the balcony, which is growing larger. And the door is getting larger, and the railing is getting higher. Though it’s not finished yet, I think you can stand comfortably in there now, and there’s room on the balcony for about ten elves to join you when you have your chair here.”
“Wow, that’s right! It’s so slow I didn’t even notice it!”
“This is almost finished, Mark.” Nemia told him as she held it up. “Come in here, and we’ll see how it looks on you.
He stood, and the doorway was an inch over his head, and when he stepped inside the ceiling was clear of his height by a foot.
“This is much better!” he laughed.
Nemia floated up four feet, holding the shirt by the shoulders, and held it against Mark. She had to reach so wide to reach his shoulders that her bosom almost touched his chest, and he thrilled for a moment at her nearness and her scent, then blushed crimson again.
Talia giggled uncontrollably, though she was trying to suppress it.
Nemia was oblivious to all of that. “Yes, that should do nicely.” she commented as she handed the shirt to him and settled back to the floor, then handed him the kilt as well. “Try it on.”
“Pardon me?” Nemia blinked.
Hilsith would have giggled had she not been engaged in song.
“Where should I go to try it on?” he asked patiently.
Nemia looked baffled. “Where… would you like to go to try it on?”
Now his eyebrows rose in surprise, then lowered in consternation. “I’m… really not familiar with your home, Nemia. I’m sure wherever you choose would be fine.”
“Oh. About one pace to your left would be nice. You would be within the sunbeam coming through the doorway.”
At Mark’s expression, Hilsith was so struck with mirth that she could no longer sing or play, and had to stop to laugh aloud.
“Ahh, you are still such a young elf, Nemia!” she chuckled as she set her harp aside and poured more tea. “I think you have never been beyond The Nine Valleys! His people have a strong nudity taboo, and he would like to change his clothing in a private place.”
“Oh.” Nemia stated in surprise. “Well, I have been beyond to visit Alilia in the forest lands with Yazadril, and I knew of the taboo. I didn’t think it applied to us here, as you are his Healer, and I am his tailor, and how could we do these things without seeing him naked? I thought exceptions were made for such things.”
“There was no offense given.” Mark explained patiently. “I’ll just change in another room.
“I must go with you.” Talia softly told him. “I was given to you, and Alilia said that she pictured me being with you as you went about your life. Now I’m terrified that if I leave your side, it will trigger the curse. Beyond what it would make us do, simply feeling it active within me is horrible.”
Mark went to one knee and gently hugged her. “That’s okay. Here’s what we’ll do. One of you amazing wizards will shake the hair out of that big white cloth and hang it in a circle. I’ll stand in it and change my clothes. You can be close enough to touch me. All right?”
“Thank you. That is very considerate.” Talia mumbled into the side of his neck.
“And very practical, since the other rooms are still a foot too low for you to stand up in.” Nemia pointed out with a smile as she collected the clippings with a gestured spell and tucked them into a small cloth bag, which she handed to Talia. “I’m sure it would be difficult to tell how well your new things fit you if you were hunched over like that.”
Soon the cloth was hung and he changed into his new clothes. “There’s no buttons in the front of the shirt.” he commented.
Nemia slid a two-inch wide gold mesh belt under the edge of the hanging cloth. “Wrap the front of the shirt around, one side over the other, and hold it in place with this belt around your waist.”
He considered his under-breeks, which were tattered but spotlessly clean, thanks to Nemia’s spell. He slid them under the edge of the cloth. “Could you make me a new pair of these? Those are about worn out.”
In only moments she passed him a new, white pair, and he drew them on under the kilt. They were tighter, and made of very thin, supple material, and only covered half as much of him as his old pair. “Hey! These are… different!” he protested.
“If they were like your old ones, they would spoil the line of your new clothing.” Nemia explained, and he had no response to that. “Are they uncomfortable?”
“No… Actually, they’re very comfortable!” he marveled.
He stepped out when he was ready, and while Hilsith played and Talia grinned, Nemia adjusted the hang a bit to eliminate folds under the belt. “There!” she declared. “Now just a few touches to finish it off.”
She handed him a pair of soft white leather sandals that laced halfway up his calves. When he had them on and tied, she floated up to him holding a diamond. “Hold still a moment. I’m going to set this in your hair-clasp.”
“Hey! Could I see that first?”
She handed him the glinting stone. It was a clear, fire-brilliant diamond as big as the tip of her ring finger.
“Great spirits of sun and moon!” he breathed. “If this is real, I could buy a mansion with it!”
“Perhaps, though it has a bit of a flaw, there, see? And I have many of them.” Nemia shrugged, and plucked it from his palm to resume her task.
“You have the good fortune to be marrying into a very wealthy family, Mark.” Hilsith chuckled as she set her harp aside and joined Talia and Nemia in looking him up and down.
“Do I look okay? I mean, will I look okay to all those Princes and Princesses?” he asked worriedly.
With a wave of her arm and a whistled trill, Talia summoned a full-length mirror from her room. “Here, let’s all stand in the sunlight together.” she quietly requested, and when they stood together she set and angled the mirror at a distance that allowed them all to see themselves in it.
Even Mark was surprised by his appearance. The cloth was glossy white and luxuriously smooth, the gold shining, contrasting with his black hair and blue eyes. The kilt was a bit shorter than he was used to, it’s gold hem above his knees. The shirt’s gold-trimmed bottom edge was even with the top of his hips, gathered at his waist by the gold belt, and it covered the waistband of the kilt. Their proportions perfectly accentuated his powerful legs and muscular build.
Too, he was unprepared for how tiny the three beauties with him looked, or how gigantic he looked by comparison, as the tallest of the three was barely more than half his height.
“You are so beautiful.” Talia told him quietly. “Even you must admit, you look like a god.”
He was saved from having to reply by the return of Yazadril. “Well done, my loves, well done indeed!” he commended. “He is magnificent! He would brighten any court in the world!”
“Thank you.” Nemia smiled as she stepped to his side for a hug.
“Now, if you could finish preparing Talia, I could show them something I’m eager for them to see!”
“Talia will not take long, only a few moments.” Nemia told him with a smile and a kiss on the cheek. She went down the hall to her and Yazadril’s bedroom, and returned with a package wrapped in fine red paper, tied with a red ribbon. Her face beaming with pride, she handed it to her daughter, who reverently received it, and stepped within the hanging cloth for Mark’s sake.
“Like all mothers and daughters, they have dreamt of this day for years.” Yazadril told Mark with quiet pride. “They have considered a thousand plans before deciding, and Nemia has labored for countless hours over Talia’s wedding dress.”
Mark could almost feel the words that Yazadril did not speak, that the same was true of Dalia. He felt humbled by the old elf’s courage and fortitude, and that of his family; that they could carry on so well only one day after their tragic loss.
Then Talia stepped from behind the curtain with a shy smile, and it was Mark’s turn to gape. Her dress was also white, with similar gold trim around the floor-length hem and the cuffs of the sleeves, and he could readily believe that Nemia had labored many hours to produce such perfect simplicity. The sleeves flared from snug around her shoulders to swirling gracefully about her hands, as the dress flared from snug around mid-thigh to swirling loosely at the hem. From shoulder down to mid-thigh the soft, supple cloth clung to her skin, hugging her slim curves in a way that was hypnotic. Depending on how she moved and the angle of the light, it seemed to vary from covering her modestly to concealing no more than a light dusting of flour. The neckline came to a point between her breasts, framing a large teardrop diamond on a gold chain. Her waves of light golden-blond hair cascaded down her back, with the tops of her delicately pointed ears peeking through. Her tiny feet were shod in white satin slippers, with white ribbons that twined to the top of her ankle.
She waited with her eyes down for long moments, and finally raised her gaze to his. The naked hope for his approval in her expression brought a lump to his throat. “My Talia, you are beautiful beyond measure.” he breathed in wonder.
“He’s right, Love.” Yazadril proudly smiled. “You are as beautiful as it is possible for a girl to be.”
“Exquisite work, Nemia.” Hilsith congratulated. “It truly accentuates her to perfection.”
“Talia long ago decided on the white and gold theme, which is carried on in the decorations at the chapel.” Nemia revealed as she moved the mirror so Talia could see herself. “Too, she decided that she would contrast herself from the assembled finery with a dress of studied simplicity. I think I did rather well with it, for she looks beautiful, and Mark’s ensemble was derived from it. Males are so much easier to dress.”
“Oh Mother, it’s wonderful!” Talia quietly exclaimed, turning side to side as she watched herself, enjoying the swirl of the cloth.
Mark went to one knee beside her, and she laid her arm across his shoulder as they smiled at their reflection. Soon Mark was grinning widely. “Wow! We really look great!” he laughed, and then the room seemed to shine with gaiety.
“Off with you now, then, while I get prepared!” Nemia said as she took down the hanging cloth. “And Yazadril, show them what you have to show, then come up to change. The more I think of it, the more I think it would be wise to arrive early.”
“No doubt you’re right, my dear.” he agreed thoughtfully. “And I’ve changed my mind about what I’ll wear. I think I’ll wear the, ah, more traditional outfit.”
“I see.” Nemia nodded with a thoughtful look. “Good choice. It will better match the theme.”
“Yes, that too. Come you two.” Yazadril chuckled, as he led the way to a door just off the kitchen, and down a set of spiral stairs within the wood, lit by glowing spheres set at intervals overhead. Mark carefully sidled down the tight passage behind Yazadril and Talia for thirty feet, to a chamber that was completely enclosed in the heart of the tree. “My workshop. Safer if it’s separate from the rest of the home.” Yazadril explained to Mark as he unlatched and opened a very thick wood door, and led them within. The room was round and twenty feet wide, and the domed ceiling was just high enough near the center for Mark to stand up straight. Curved work benches of elven size lined the walls, below racks and shelves of neatly arrayed tools, implements and materials, the nature of most of which was a complete mystery to Mark.
“I’ve always loved this place.” Talia smiled as she looked around.