With the onset of evening, a fog settled into the village, making it hard to do much of anything. Maximilian ignored the merry ongoings of the rangers and wandered outside. He perched upon a random crate to puzzle over the words of the Elder.
The Elder had offered to house him for a time to be trained further. But to do so meant eventual separation from his troupe. He was not sure what the right thing was at this moment. His grandfather, the man who had influenced him for the majority of his life, wanted him to complete the journey to seek out the legendary Queen and place a letter into her hands. But his encounter with the unexpected made him question that directive.
Toryn discovered him there, scolding him for not sitting with the others.
“I can’t think while they’re all drinking spirits,” Maximilian responded tersely. “I know you’re all planning to leave soon and I have little time to decide what to do.”
His leader’s features relaxed slightly. “Is that what it is?” He pointed to one of the crates. “May I?”
Maximilian nodded and lapsed into a gloomy silence.
“I would not read too much into this, Wolfram.” Toryn looked up, fixing his attention on the scaffolding that circled the large trees. “It is the Elder’s job to counsel you as he would any of our own young ones. However, if you don’t take his advice, he will not be offended. It was his duty only to tell you what he knew, not to see to it that you took a certain action. We do not interfere in the way of the world like your kind might.”
“What do you think of the advice, though? As a ranger, would you keep going, would you not?”
“As a ranger,” his leader echoed, “I would. But it is my duty to keep going and to lead these men there. Your duty is to your grandfather and to yourself. If we separate, it is not a failure on your part. Nor would you be the only one leaving. Ridnar and Eldnar will be leaving us as well.”
It had become apparent that Eldnar was in need of rest. He was not sleeping well and, although would not admit it, was terrified of the dark woods. None of them were certain whether the young elf would be mentally up to the task of completing the journey. There were many woods to still walk through on the way to the lake and on the way back. The villagers had agreed to take the brothers downstream to one of the port cities instead, from which they could travel with another minstrel caravan back to the village.
Maximilian tapped his fingers against the crate. “They have every reason to stay and return home. What happened out there to Eldnar—“
“—Could happen to you,” the older man said brusquely. “The Unthings are a blight. To touch them is to know their darkness. He will live with this forever. There is no cure.”
“Even then, my duty is to go forward.” the young Wolfram set his mouth in a grim line. “Or rather, even if duty doesn’t compel me to do so, I want to go forward.” It would be cowardly to back away from an intangible and theoretical fear. He would not only fail his grandfather, he’d fail himself if he gave up now.
“A Wolfram, through and through,” Toryn nodded solemnly.
“Stubborn and foolish?” Maximilian gave him a weak smile.
“Something like that,” the older man reached out and ruffled his hair. “Your grandfather never listened to our elders either. “
He followed her as she worked, often picking out a spot on the side of a room as she made her rounds. It was obvious that he was not the only one paying close attention to her when she would move about the quarters, looking at the wounds of the various men from his troupe. He was certain that some of those looks were not borne of mere curiosity, but reflected desire or romantic interest towards the lady.
It was rather odd how often some of them would turn up at various times in random places with some pretext or another to speak to her. However, whenever she began lessons, the men dutifully disappeared . Toryn had warned them that Wolfram was specifically asked to train with the healer by the elders of this village. Unwilling to defy their hosts’ wishes and aware of the potential usefulness of Maximilian and his stone, they were more than willing to obey their leader on that point.
It was during one such training that she held out several stones to him. “Sometimes when you cannot use one, several will work together. I don’t fully understand the reasons, but try.”
As he took the offered stones, he was dismayed to see nothing happen. He hid his disappointment and returned them to her.
“Hm,” she wondered aloud. “It worked before. They are the same sort you used the other day.”
“Perhaps these are not enough,” he said to her. “Or maybe I just can’t use these at will.”
“It is too soon to give up,” she scolded him gently. “And you think too literally.” With that statement, she placed them, one by one, on his palm. “It’s not that more is better. It’s about complementation.”
He noticed a promising glow that immediately dimmed when she continued to add more stones to his palm. When she took a stone back, the light suddenly brightened. “See?”
“Now that makes absolutely no sense,” Maximilian blinked.
The healer laughed as she continued to experiment. “More is more, it seems to humans. But elves think differently. We look to balance the world. And that balance changes all the time. It is good we think this way. It keeps us in a state of peace — from waging wars that would unnecessarily disturb the equilibrium.”
“I do not think that the elves in our troupe are all that peaceful.” Maximilian shook his head.
“Being able to fight does not make them warlike,” L’lea responded wisely. “And your men are very kind. They have been helping our womenfolk with gathering herbs and such.”
“They’re restless,” Maximilian tried hard not to smirk. “A few of them quite like you and your womenfolk. Their village does not have many young elven women, I believe. Or if they do, I’ve not seen them.”
“Is that so?” She mused aloud. “We do not see the Wood elves that often, so we do not know some of their village customs.”
“Well,” Maximilian thought aloud. There were still elven children afoot there, so it was clear that female elves did exist. “I did not see many my age. There are far too many stories in their lore about human men running off with elven women.”
“Yes, that is true.” L’lea smiled. “One of our most famous wars had something to do with such a situation. One of your Kings of the East was determined to wed a Princess of the West. Things did not end well for the Princess already was spoken for.”
“Do you think that Princess would have agreed even if she wasn’t otherwise engaged?”
The woman thought for a moment, before she allowed herself a small laugh. “Elven women are quite particular about living far from home. Unless there’s some reason for it that was necessary, they do not stray far from what they know.”
“Unlike humans,” he noted.
“Yes,” she nodded, before she deftly turned the topic around. “Therefore, you who wander should learn the stones. Let’s start again,” she said more sternly. “This time, without stories.”
Maximilian’s training had not completed but he could no longer delay a decision whether to go or stay. He sought out the healer, hoping to show her his progress and seek what she thought he should do.
With a set of stones in his hand, he traveled up the ramp that led to the healing quarters.
To his surprise, he found Eldnar sitting there with a few of the older village folk.
Maximilian did not interrupt, instead listening to the toneless voice of Eldnar, reading aloud to the infirm. He was momentarily disconcerted by the young man’s expressionless face. And yet, Eldnar was still kind — quietly finding something to do while the other men readied themselves to leave.
Eldnar paused to acknowledge him, looking up from the letters that the others thrust at him to read. “The healer is out gathering herbs with her apprentices. She won’t be back until nightfall.”
“Ah, I see.” Maximilian could not help buy convey his disappointment.
“We’ll let her know that you came by,” Eldnar continued — his voice somewhat bland. “Will that suffice?”
The sudden shadow in Eldnar’s expression puzzled him. Wolfram nodded and instinctively backed out of the room.
“Are you certain?” Maximilian looked back at the boy with a small measure of doubt.
“You’re the only human ranger I can find,” the boy answered seriously, much to the amusement of the men about him. “You don’t have pointy ears,” he added somewhat offended by the laughter of the troupe.
“Alright,” Maximilian decided he had better simply give in and followed the boy out.
“She wants you to meet her outside the healer hall,” the boy looked back at him. Unabashedly he added, “It’s my dinner time and my sister said she’s not going to save me anything if I’m late, so you can find your way there, right?”
“Yes, it’s fine,” he waved the boy off.
He frowned as he tried to navigate through the fog. When he arrived at the healer hall, he saw no one outside. He looked inside and, finding no one, stood by the door for a quarter hour.
As he descended down one of the ramps, he spotted the familiar form of the healer in the distance. He waved at the white-haired woman, and she waved back, beckoning him to join her. As Maximilian followed the healer down the path, the fog swallowed him whole.