In The Valley Of Our Yesteryear
An old man bent, stooped amidst the passing crowd as the summer day wore on, and the heat along with it. The park had a pleasant breeze rolling in from the north to stave off the sun’s blazing glare. He stared at a tall oak tree that took residence in the park’s nexus. Here, sidewalks met and detoured along their own trails. This one tree, the center of everything.
And the old man’s humble beginnings.
His frame leaned heavy upon his wooden staff as he ventured toward the oak. Blue eyes afire. An added energy to his step. A bench seated beneath the tree’s leafy canopy, and there he took respite. Fatigue came so quickly in his waning years, in the twilight of his life.
He looked out at people milling to and fro. Memory unfolded into the present. The scenery wiped away, replaced by one small boy with dark hair sitting at the foot of the oak. He munched on an apple, chewing slow. The old man smiled regarding the remembrance with a fondness. The boy was he, and he the boy. A lowly street urchin was doing what he could to survive.
At the sound of his name, the boy tore away from his thoughts. Without hesitation, he tossed the apple aside and scrambled to stand. The clothes he wore were ragged and dirtied, dust from his long travels coating every inch of him. His hair was disheveled and greasy. He could smell himself, a mixture that included feces and dried sweat.
The man that called on him walked long strides in his direction. He was girthy, built sturdy as a steel house. A grey beard nearly concealed his lips. Soft green eyes carried a heat in them, hot as rage, ready to burn. And they were locked onto Arlen. The boy doubled back a few steps.
“Master Lieno, sir,” greeted the boy, his words meek. Master Lieno donned a striped shirt. The sleeves rolled to just beneath his elbow. The shirt tucked into muddied pants, filthy black and brown, as were his hands. He pointed at Arlen.
“Got into my stables again, boy?” he asked, none too quietly.
“I did, Master. But –”
Lieno made as if to backhand Arlen, stepping forward to do so, but hesitated and looked away as if ashamed. His tone dripped with less acid. Anger giving way to compassion, if only a little. “Drop the excuses, boy. I’ll not have it. Those dandies there are meant for the horses. Not for the likes of you.”
Arlen lowered his head. “Yes, sir.”
Lieno tucked a hand under Arlen’s chin, a smile ever so small wrinkling his face.
“Earn it, Arlen. Work for me.”
“Come be my other hand. I’m getting too old to care for all the breed myself.”
The years carried on. When Arlen matured into a man, Master Lieno sent him off to the Wardenvell, to be a ranger of the forest. They needed scouts beyond the walls of the city, to fend off the monsters that inhabited the deep wood. Vile, violent creatures that became known as Elves. Humanoids that bore teeth as sharp as any knife; their golden eyes wreathed like a flickering flame. Or so the stories had told, whispers among a frightened few that spread as a plague would.
Arlen knew these tales as nothing more than a fabrication. For an elf had shaped his life, from the moment she saved it. On his first mission into the Wilds, he lost track of his two companions. His ranger’s cloak soaked from an earlier rain. His quiver ran low on arrows. He slowed, listening, intent on the ambiance: bird songs adrift, insects and their rising chitter, and beneath them all, muffled voices broke through.
He paused and crouched close to his knees, hiding in the brush. Two figures crossed his view, both clothed in white fabric tapered with gold. One had brunette hair the length of their back, not quite touching the ground. It shined even in the dim light. The other a blonde, golden locks snipped short and mussed. Only when they turned around did he realize that the brunette was a woman, and her friend a man. To him, they seemed so similar, very much like twins. Their pale skin radiated a glow, like the silver of the moon. Their cheekbones angled high and sharp. The woman’s lips drew a thin line as they spoke.
“Orelia, we cannot tarry here for long. Rangers are about. We cannot risk you.”
The woman, Orelia as she was named, let out a sigh. “I am not asking you to risk anything, Malenor. Simply trust I know what I am doing.” Her stare motioned toward Arlen, peered as though she knew he was there, and he noted her eyes were not gold but a lush green.
“You know I carry all the faith in the world…”
She focused her attention once again on Malenor. “Then why do you question me always?”
Quiet, then. Not another word uttered. They moved off, closed in by the dense trees, and Arlen rose from his spot. An expansive oak grew in this meadow, a titan among the rest. In the summer days, its leaves changed to the color of a luminous mint. It captivated him, subdued by its beauty enough to where his senses dulled.
He did not see nor hear the creature stalk behind him and leap. A roar was all he registered before its claws buried into his back, and he cried out. His bow knocked from his grasp. Something pierced into his legs, then wrenched. He screamed, the pain so severe he could see shadows dance across his vision. Blurred by tears. Then the creature released him. It roared twice in succession, then a third.
“My Lady, no! Leave him be!”
Sounds of dying, weak, guttural sounds, entered his mind as he slipped into the safety-net of dreams.
When he woke, night had fallen. Dark as pitch save for the small fire beside which he laid. Its orange light marked two packs, and on the fringes, two pairs of eyes that reflected that light. Whispers traded. Then louder: “You’ll find your belongings tucked away in one of those packs.” A man’s voice. Malenor. “I suggest you be on your way.”
Slow so as not to alarm them, Arlen sat upright. His legs burned fierce, and his head throbbed with every heartbeat. He found it rather difficult to concentrate.
“Mind yourself, Malenor,” Orelia chided. “He is our guest, and you will treat him as such. Am I understood?”
“Fully, My Lady.”
She stepped into the firelight, smiling. “Are you well, Ranger?”
Arlen lost his grip on language, and while his mouth opened to speak, he said not a peep. Her beauty was beyond measure. Sculpted, he thought, perhaps by the gods themselves. Living, breathing, emphasized wholly by her unfettered kindness. Kindness toward a Ranger, nonetheless, a sworn enemy.
“Are you well?” She neared, taking her time, making certain that her choice would not be a mistake. Fear still held her back as it did for him.
“I’ll not harm you, Ranger. I seek only to help you.”
“Why?” The question burst forth before he could bite his tongue.
“Good begets good, and your soul has not been tainted. Not yet, at the least. You do not believe as the others believe. That much I can tell.”
“How do you know?” He shifted, trying to see if he could climb to his feet.
“You would have killed Malenor and I when you saw us earlier.”
Arlen grunted, finding purchase but struggling to rise to his full height. He gasped as the burning in his legs coursed through him like a terrible fire. She grabbed his arm, gentle-like, and with her aid, he maintained his balance. She smelled of vanilla and the world after it rains.
“We must leave, My Lady. The Liege will send out a searching party soon,” said Malenor, still preferring the shadows.
“He comes with us, then. He’ll not make it on his own.”
“Do as I command.” Her tone leadened with a certain venom. Malenor offered no further protest. Before they could venture out, however, Orelia stopped in her tracks. Arlen felt her stiffen, like an animal bristling when danger comes.
“What is it, My Lady?”
“Rangers,” she hissed. Urgency pressed them deep into the trees, away from the fire, into the black. Arlen could see several flickering lights about them, circling their position. Torches.
“They’re onto us. You have to let me go, or they’ll kill you,” he said. Orelia did not loosen her hand from his arm.
She released him and hurried away. “Tell them all the truth of us,” he heard her say as she vanished into the thick of night. The Rangers came and tended to his wounds. He told them of the attack, but not of the Elves. The time was not right. Maybe there never would be. They raided the tiny camp, scanning for whatever provisions that may have been left behind. Arlen kept the extra pack, wondering what secrets it held. Placed there for a purpose, for him to find, to secure. That is what he believed to be true.
He did not regale his tale to anyone. And the Elves paid the dearest price. The great forest destroyed, and in its place arrived industry.
Sorrow took hold of the old man, and he wept, in grief and in regret. He glimpsed then for a moment, a tall brunette smiling at him. And next to her a man, blonde hair lengthier now, nodded to Arlen as a sign of respect. Respect, he wondered if he did not deserve.
More of their ilk appeared, all smiling. In their hands, metal objects flashed in the summer light.
“Watch Commander,” said a familiar voice beside him. “Will you join us?”
Arlen grinned. A pack slung across his body, and he opened it. Pages upon pages, notes upon notes. Some detailed locations of their hideouts and weapon caches, others denoted political machinations like moving pieces on a board. Plans needed to spark a revolution.
He waited as a single cloud passed over their heads. Then he gave his answer: “Yes, My Lady Orelia.”