It had been raining constantly for the past month, and, driven by hunger to hunt, I was out in it. It was dark, the heavy storm clouds further darkening the land around me. I was soaked to the bone, my cloak offering no protection, and I felt foolish for attempting to hunt on a night when all the animals were in burrows or in caves, or otherwise sheltering from the storm. Reaching into my ruckah, I pulled out a chunk of Vor tree pulp. I chewed on it for the nutrients it provided, though it was also good for cleaning my teeth. Unfortunately, it was all I had with which to nourish me. I squelched through the thick, black mud, feeling it suck at my boots. I headed for higher ground, toward the rockier hills, hoping for at least some animal dumb enough to be out in such horrible weather so that I could go home and warm myself by my fire. However, all of my stores had run bare, the food gone, and my garden had been crushed and drowned by the torrential downpour.
I spat out the remains of the Vor pulp, having gotten as much as I could from it, and scrambled up a hill, adjusting my cloak, which clung to me, peering out into the darkness, shivering, feeling miserable, and wondering if I would survive. With no food, and no trader in their right minds braving the storm, there seemed no chance for me. I had been alone ever since I was twelve years of age, ever since my father had died of injuries he received by brigands while defending our home. Once, before I had been more than three years of age, my father had been a shop keeper, selling his famed wood carvings. Then, my mother died of a blood disease, and my father turned to drink, his shop suffered, and, due to some event he would never speak of to me, he was run out of the village, and we were forced to make our home in the eastern woods, south of Gyreal Mountain, in a small cabin that he built. There, he made his new profession as a woodsman, chopping down great oaks and Gnoll, selling through traders that made their paths just south of the woods to any who desired it. Much of what he learned, he had passed on to me, including tanning hides, carving wood, and hunting or trapping the animals that lived in the woods.
I carried my bow, one of my most treasured possessions, on my shoulder. It was something my father had also passed onto me. He had told me that it had belonged to a celestial elf from Hirincith, their homeland, and he had won it from the elf in a game of chance. It was made of a very light, very durable wood that I'd never seen before, and I assumed that the tree it was made of only grew in Hirincith. All along the sides of the bow were tiny, intricate symbols of which might be elven writing, though I wasn't sure. Any arrow loosed from this bow flew true, and always seemed to find its mark. It was only about half a jug in weight, quite a bit lighter than any bow I had ever used. It must have been quite a treasure, and I always wondered why any elf, celestial or otherwise, would bet it in a game of chance.
As I ascended the hill, not far off, a bolt of lightning cracked the night and flicked a rock, sparks flying, and I ducked, startled, and, in the flash of light from the lightning, I glimpsed a figure hurrying along, wrapped in a dark cloak. I quickly grew curious, wondering what sort of activity the figure was engaged in. The figure headed into the hills, and I followed. The rain pounded down, but, whoever the figure was, it seemed largely unaffected by it, its cloak infused with a weird blue glow. Could it be enchanted? At this point, a cloak like that would be quite useful. The figure ducked around large boulders perched precariously along the ground, having been deposited by glaciers during a time, I had been told, when most of the world had been covered in thick sheets of ice. I eased around the boulders, slipping on more patches of mud as I followed the figure. Then, suddenly, it was gone. I whirled around, looking for it, but it had disappeared.
It was a lucky slip, I decided, that saved my life. Even as I almost went down, l glimpsed something silvery flipping toward me. Before I could react, it hit me, sinking into my left shoulder. I cried out and fell to the ground, scrambling backward, but before I could get far, the figure suddenly stood above me, a long spear aimed right at me. It spoke in a foreign language that I did not know, though I did only really know high and low Common, and a few choice curses in Dwarvish, thanks to a few of the traders I bartered with. I could feel blood coursing from the wound, warm fluid on cold flesh, and I felt suddenly weak.
"I meant... you no harm," I gasped, feeling the roaring pain radiating out from the wound.
"Those who mean no harm," spoke the figure in a high, whispery, matter-of-fact voice, while taking my bow away from me, "Do not hunt those whom they mean no harm."
"Wasn't... I wasn't... hunting you."
The figure considered this, and my shivers intensified as I felt impossibly cold.
Speaking harshly in what I assumed were curses in its own language, the figure moved the spear and reached out with one thin, long-fingered hand. I grabbed the hand offered, and it helped me up.
"Lean upon my shoulder, I know a place that will be safe."
I was forced to lean heavily on the figure, though it made no complaint, leading on, through a giant, cracked boulder, down a narrow path that had been carved into rock, and to the small mouth of a hidden cave. Having to duck to enter, we continued inside, and then I was told to sit, though I fell more than sat, grunting out in pain, too weak to do more than that. The figure went further into the cave, out of my line of sight, and then returned with firewood, which it dumped into a shallow impression on the cave floor that showed evidence of past fires. Soon, a fire crackled, and the cave became warmer, though I shivered as much as ever. The figure crouched before me, grasped the handle of an ornate dagger, and yanked it loose. Despite my weakness, I found a cry for this.
"We will need to treat this wound, or you will perish before morning," the figure flung the hood of its cloak back, revealing the face of a dark elf. Her skin was the normal hue of a dark elf, a dark blue-gray, and her eyes were blacker than onyx, bright and glittering with fierce intelligence. I had expected the features of the face of a dark elf to be sharper, more severe, but hers were much softer, more pleasant to behold. Her ears were slender, pointed, her silver hair long, braided with dark green ribbons, and her mouth was small, but with full, dark lips.
"Your wound?" she reminded me, "Are you a dullard?"
"Sorry... just... not what I... expected. Sharp dagger..."
"Yes, and you are fortunate to have slipped right then, or it would have been your end. Now, lie still."
She knelt next to me, helped me remove my cloak, ripped my shirt to gain access to the wound, and reached into her cloak, withdrawing a small, green pouch festooned with silver-threaded designs. She reached three fingers inside the pouch, and then spread a gritty, gray powder around the edges of the dagger wound. Within a few moments, the pain seemed to fade to a distant burning sensation. She produced a thin, sharp bone needle and some silky black thread. She threaded the needle quickly, and began stitching the edges of the wound together, working with a confidence that spoke of experience. Once the last stitch was in place, she knotted the thread, and cut the needle loose.
"You are quite skilled," I praised, my voice barely above a whisper, "I barely felt a tug."
"Mostly, it was the medicine I applied before I started," she replied, and then she opened a small jar of salve. She smeared it on and around the stitched wound, and then leaned back.
"It should heal just fine," she put her things away, back under her cloak, and then pulled out a bundle wrapped in a thin hide. She unwrapped it, revealing two small wheels of a white cheese.
She gave me one wheel, "I do not have much for food, but you are welcome to it."
I used a small knife to cut into the cheese, to find that it had been covered in a thin layer of wax. The cheese underneath the wax layer was a little more reddish. I cut the wheel in half. If this was all she had, just those two wheels of cheese, I could not deprive her of all of it, in the event that she might need it for herself. So I gave her one half.
"This will be plenty," I explained, "All I've had is Vor pulp for the past few days, so I would not be able to eat much."
I peeled the wax from the cheese, setting it aside, and took a small bite. I was pleasantly surprised at the slightly sweet, but sharp tang of it. I spoke of my surprise.
"Our goats were fed sweet grasses, and the cheese was smoked for days after being made," she explained, "One of the elders is well known in my clan for these cheeses."
"I don't know much about your people," I admitted, "I have heard a bit, talk from traders that dark elves live underground, and that humans and dark elves have been mortal foes for hundreds of years."
"Longer than that," she corrected, "And perhaps you have also heard that we weave webs like spiders and lure in prey to kill and eat."
I shook my head, smiling weakly, "I had not heard that one."
"There is no truth to it. Yes, we are subterranean dwellers, living in cities under the mountains, driven from the surface centuries ago, after the Risyral War, by a human and wood elf alliance. My kind has harbored a hatred for your kind ever since."
"If your kind hates humans so much, then why did you save me from death?"
She looked into the flames of the fire, answering, "I suppose I could have finished you off, at that, except that I wanted to know more about the bow you were carrying. Where did you get it?"
She picked the bow up, her finger tracing along the symbols etched on the sides, much like I did on occasion.
"My father told me that he won it from a celestial elf in a game of chance," I explained.
"Is that true?"
"I do not know. It is just what he told me. Do you know different?"
"This bow belonged to a wood elf named Kinilike, a hunter of my kind. We suspected he was paid by a human master for each dark elf head he brought back, as the heads of his victims were always missing when we found them. If your father came to possess it as he said, then perhaps Kinilike is dead."
"Then, now that you know this," I worked myself laboriously into a sitting position, "I am not long for this world?"
She picked up her dagger, checking the blade, wiping it of my blood, and then answered, "If I were to kill you now, all the effort expended to mend you would have been wasted, would it not? No... I will let you live. You do not seem to possess any ill will toward me, which I find contrary to every account given by the elders. Can this be true?"
"I have lived most of my life alone in the eastern woods, so perhaps I have not come to develop the prejudices that others possess. I know little of your people, except that I, being human, am supposed to be your enemy. Yet, I cannot, and will not hate you simply because I am supposed to."
"Then it would not do for me to end you."
For a while, she bade me sleep, and, exhausted from my ordeal, I did, though fitfully. While I slept, she mended my shirt, and then rested herself. I woke hours later to find her sleeping, leaning against one rough wall. My cloak was mostly dry now, so I rolled it up into a wad. I found that I was already feeling much better, though still sore and stiff. I approached her, got within an arm's length, and then her eyes were open and I felt the edge of her dagger at my throat.
"Be easy, please," I showed her my rolled up cloak, "That wall looks difficult for sleeping. Here, I offer my cloak."
She assessed me sharply, and then her dagger withdrew, "If you offer, then I accept, and am grateful."
She took my cloak and rested her head on it. I returned to where I had been resting, and sat, staring at the fire, enjoying the warmth.
"You are an odd one," she spoke, her eyes still closed, "And I imagine that other humans would see you as a betrayer of your own kind."
I thought about this, and then responded, "Perhaps I am odd, as you say. Still, you have shown me kindness, and I am only responding in kind."
"Need I remind you that it was I that wounded you?"
I laughed, "You had no idea who I was when you threw your dagger. Who did you think I might be?"
"I saw your bow first. I thought you were Kinilike."
"So you threw your dagger at Kinilike. Once you knew it was not he, you brought me here and saved my life."
She smiled slightly, her dagger disappearing under her cloak, "I never would have fathomed that I would save a human's life when I set out a day ago."
I asked, "Do you spend a lot of time on the surface?"
"More time than the elders would allow were they to know," she smiled a little wider, "And, since it so happens that you were not hunting me, what were you doing out in the storm?"
"Food has been scarce, all animals driven to hide, and so I was searching out there for game."
"Do you not live in the woods? I would think that game should be plenty within."
"My traps turned up none, and my search within the woods was fruitless."
"You are quite far from the eastern woods."
I nodded, "I am two days' travel."
She sighed, "Then you should not have too much trouble making it home. I can give you a little medicine to help with the pain if it gets too much."
"It sounds like you plan to take your leave."
"I must. I need to get back soon, before someone is sent to collect me."
"May I know your name?" I asked.
"I am Raina, of the Moonlock clan."
"I am Cuthbert, last of the Woodsides."
She left the next morning, just before first light, settling her hood back onto her head, staring out at the continuing downpour from the mouth of the cave.
"Will you be okay out there?" I asked her, "Do you have far to travel?"
"North a ways, almost a day's travel, but I will have no trouble. I must say, your concern for my safety is refreshing."
"We are well met, I hope. If you are ever in the eastern woods, and are in need of shelter, I pray you consider my home as an option."
"I believe we may be well met, Cuthbert," she smiled beatifically, "May we meet again under pleasant skies."
"May we ever," I responded, and I watched as she made her way up the path and out of sight.
I returned to the fire, thinking about everything that had taken place. I looked over at my bow, wondering if my father had been speaking truthfully about where he had gotten it. Perhaps it had happened just as he had said, and the celestial elf had slain Kinilike, claiming the bow as his prize. It might be possible. Still, where it came from no longer mattered. It was now my bow, and it would not spill dark elf blood unless it was justified, and hatred was not justified.
I remained in the cave for two more days, using the wood available to keep the fire going. There, I allowed my wound to heal more before going back out into the rain. As I went back toward the mouth of the cave I saw something on a narrow ledge nearby. As I went for a closer look, I saw that it was a small bundle of something, wrapped in thin hide. I unwrapped it, and smiled. Raina had left me the other wheel of cheese, having left it without me knowing. Perhaps she still felt responsible for my injuries. I took it, since she had been kind enough to leave it. It might seem disrespectful not to. On the third morning, I shouldered my bow, donned my cloak, and left for my cabin.
My left shoulder was stiff, but not too bad. I started up the narrow path, through the cracked boulder, and, across the hills, keeping Gyreal Mountain ahead of me and slightly to the left. I left the hills behind me by the end of the day, and, with no possible shelter for the night, I was forced to keep moving, slogging through the mud, the burning in my shoulder beginning to increase. I took occasional rests, huddled in the rain, shivering, nibbling at the cheese Raina had left me, wondering if I would ever see her again, deciding that the possibility, however possible, was very unlikely. I would probably never cross paths with her again, which was a shame.
I made it to the woods by midday on the second day, my legs burning with exhaustion, and took an hour of rest, my back against a Gnoll tree, massaging the muscles of my sore legs. It was still raining, but the thick, large leaves and long branches helped to shelter me from much of it. From there, it would only be another five or six hours until I would reach my cabin. And then I could rest some more, maybe let my wound finish healing, and... I was still in the same dilemma in which I had started out. Without food, I would still die. I left the cover of the Gnoll tree and continued walking. My shoulder was soon on fire, and it was all I could do to keep from moving it excessively, though every little step sent a bolt of pain through my body. Six hours later, deep into the night, I finally reached the cabin, and I dragged myself inside, started a fire, and collapsed on the floor before it. Tossing my drenched cloak aside, I covered myself with my bear pelt, and fell into an exhausted sleep.
Waking up a little at a time, the first thing I was aware of was a burning pain in my shoulder that throbbed with every beat of my heart. Gradually, I realized that I had slept on the floor, wrapped up in the bear pelt, and that my entire body was sore and stiff. I extracted myself from the pelt, dragged myself to my feet, taking care not to use my injured shoulder. It was still raining outside, and a there were a few spots where water had seeped through the roof. I would have to repair them before they got too bad, but first I needed to work the stiffness from my tired muscles. As I stretched my muscles, I moved my injured shoulder and received a bolt of agony that brought me to my knees. In my ruckah, I found the small piece of hide with string tied around it, and untied it. Inside were a few pinches of the gritty, gray substance. I slowly removed my shirt, wincing, gasping, cursing, and then applied a pinch of the medicine to my wound, rubbing it in. Within about five minutes, the pain abated. I tied the hide back up for later, and put on a fresh shirt. With the pain dulled down, I could exercise my injured shoulder, though slowly and carefully. It would still take some time to heal.
I grabbed a few bowls and put them under the leaks for the time being, added some wood to the fire in the hearth, which was mostly cinders, and nibbled on the remains of the wheel of cheese, ignoring the protestations of my stomach as it demanded more. From there, I ended up at my workbench, where I worked on my carvings. I had a few new carvings to add to the other finished pieces, and one I was halfway through with. I used knives with very small blades of my own making, leaning forward over the carving, and began working the piece, little grooves here, more detail there, one wing freed, the other still trapped in the wood, little by little extracting it from the rest of the wood. Wings outstretched, frozen in mid-flap, long, narrow, slightly down-curved beak fully detailed now, feathers forming bit by bit under my steady hand. I used two small, black river pebbles, polished until they gleamed, for the eyes, inserting them into the eye sockets. The tiny feet were positioned as they would be in flight, retracted and held close to the body, the tail pointed down. Finally, after turning the hummingbird, which was about half the size of an apple, over and over, inspecting each area to ensure its completion, I set it with the other finished carvings.
I had passed about four hours on the hummingbird, and I figured that I would wheel the covered cart that I used to transport my hides and carvings out to the edge of the woods, because there was nothing else that I could do that my shoulder would not prevent. I loaded the cart with the remaining hides I had finished, and my finished carvings... all except for the hummingbird. For some reason, I couldn't stand to part with it just yet, so I set it back on the shelf. I grabbed my bow and quiver, and went out. I had to pull the cart, rolling it over roots, small brush, and saplings, carefully as to not knock around the carvings, and made my way to the southern edge of the woods. There, I let the cart sit and waited under the canopy of a Gnoll, hoping to see a trader determined enough to weather the storm. The sky was gray, ashen, but there was still light. It was difficult to pinpoint the time without sunlight, and the time dragged by like oak sap. I occupied myself with thoughts of Raina, who had hopefully made it back to her home in one piece. She had seemed so surprised to find that I, being human, bore her no hatred, and I supposed that living around so many of her kind who loathed humans with a passion would color her opinion over time. After all, living underground must be a constant reminder of all they had lost.