by David McLeod
The Elves of Solimoes
Phillip and Argon pushed their way through fern and vines until they were a hundred yards into the jungle. It was only mid-afternoon, but they had been struggling over loosely packed sand since morning, and both were tired. The dense roots of a toppled tree provided a shelter, of sorts. It was cool in the shade of the jungle, and they both put on their blue jeans and cotton shirts. They spread their blankets and prepared to eat. Phillip continued a practice he'd initiated when they had lived in Chaco. On one day, they spoke nothing but Argon's mother tongue, which didn't seem to have a name. On the next day, they spoke nothing but the almost-German of the lodge; on the third day, they spoke lingua Latina. Today was a Latin day. Phillip had found that he was more proficient in that language than was Argon.
"Argon," he said, "you speak three languages. The language of the lodge, your mother tongue, and this one, which is like the Latin of my home. With whom do you speak this language?"
"This one is the language of the Lucernae. I had to learn it because we trade with them."
"Lucernae?" Phillip asked. "That means the same as lux (light), or, rather it means a thing that makes light. . . a lamp or a lantern. Who or what are the Lucernae?"
"They are a race of people with pointed ears and eyes. They are tall, thin, and beautiful," Argon replied.
"Pointed ears and eyes? Are they humans?" Phillip asked.
"No, well, except for their ears and eyes they're like humans. Oh, and their hair. It's sometimes different colors, like blue and green.
"A different race, with pointed eyes and pointed ears? Tall and thin?" Phillip said. "Sounds like what we'd call Elves. Where do the Lucernae live? What are they like? Do you see them often?"
A voice from the trees answered with a question. "Who does not know the Elves and speaks their tongue so strangely?" Phillip could not see who spoke.
Phillip and Argon scrambled to stand up. "Who are you?" Phillip asked.
A figure from a dream stepped out of the green shadows of the jungle. He was Phillip's height, but slender. Silver hair dropped to his shoulders. Bright green irises shone from almond-shaped eyes. . . and he has pointed ears! Phillip thought. This must be an Elf.
"I am Japura, and it is I who asks who you are," the figure said.
Moving his hands slowly, Phillip formed the hailing sign of the Builders Lodge. None of the boys reacted in any way he could discern. He then found Argon's hand and squeezed it. "I am Phillip Windrider, called Spartus, of the Athabascan Nation. This is Argon. He is under my protection."
"I do not know the Athabascan Nation," Japura said. "Where is it, and why are you on our island?"
As he spoke, Phillip became aware of several more figures among the trees. They–and Japura–wore no more clothing than Phillip and Argon wore when walking on the beach. Rather than breechclouts, the Elves wore something resembling a fundoshi. Rather than moccasins, they wore short boots or sandals. Most carried what appeared to be short broadswords. Several had longbows and quivers of arrows. Two of the Elves had nocked arrows–arrows that were now pointed at Phillip and Argon. Oh, shit. I've got to be careful.
"Japura," Phillip began, "my home is so far away from here that the light from my sun will be too dim to see before it reaches this world. I do not know how else to tell you–"
"I told you I heard magic," a voice came from the trees. Another figure stepped into the light. "I heard it just before the volcano."
Other boys began talking, until the babble became so confusing that Phillip could no longer understand what they were saying. I guess my command of their language isn't all I thought it was.
The problem wasn't entirely Phillip's command of the language, for Japura held up his hand. "Silence. Please."
When the voices of his companions stilled, Japura addressed Phillip. "How did you come here? Was it by magic?"
"It was," Phillip answered.
"Did you come here knowingly?" Japura asked.
"We knew we were coming to Argon's world; we did not know where on that world we would arrive. We thought we would be closer to Argon's home. He lives on the large island to the east. That is where we are trying to go. Um, I guess that's what you mean," Phillip replied.
Japura ignored the whispers of the other boys, looked closely at Phillip, and then said, "As you are a tween, you are accountable for your actions."
"I don't know that word," Phillip responded. "What is tween?" He looked at Argon, but the boy's command of Latin was not enough to keep up with the rapid exchange.
"How many years are you?" Japura demanded.
"Huh?" Phillip sputtered. He shrugged, and then answered. "Twenty. Well, in a month. What does it matter?"
"You have the appearance of a tween. You are quite self-assured," Japura replied. "Yet if you are only twenty years, you are not a tween. Your friend is obviously a boy. What does it matter? It matters that you are not accountable for violating our territory, since boys–and you are certainly a boy despite your appearance–are not accountable in such matters.
"Your master or masters are, however. Where might we find them?" Japura asked.
"I do not believe you can," Phillip replied, "unless you can re-open the portal to my world. Besides, neither they nor we meant harm, nor have we done harm. No harm, no foul, as they say."
"What does a chicken have to do with this?" One of Japura's companions asked.
Oh, Phillip thought. Foul and fowl aren't homonyms in Latin.
Before Phillip could explain, Japura held up his hand. "I understand. No harm done, do no harm. Perhaps you are right, but it will be for my father to decide. You will come with us."
Phillip looked again at the broadswords and bows the boys were carrying, and acceded.
The village of Japura's people was nestled in a bowl that Phillip thought might be the caldera of an extinct volcano. It looked very much like the Valles Caldera near Jimez Springs in his own world. The sides of the bowl were terraced fields through which narrow paths ran. The boys walked along one of these toward the village. Over the hedgerows that lined the fields, Phillip recognized maize, wheat and other cereal grains, and orchards of fruit and nut trees. The boy who had asserted that he'd heard the magic when the portal open had introduced himself as Jurua, and had become quite talkative.
"Jurua," Phillip asked, "what are these trees?"
"We grow mali (apples), pirus (pears), prunus insititia (damson plums), altilis (breadfruit), aurantium (oranges), limon (lemons), and carya (nuts)," the boy replied.
The conversation was not nearly that simple, and Phillip had to ask for clarification several times.
"Who tends the fields?" Phillip asked.
"Everyone takes a time," Jurua replied. "But we have little to do, however, except during planting and harvest."
"Isn't it warm all the time, here?" Phillip asked. "Do you not have planting and harvest all the time?"
Jurua seemed surprised at that question, and puzzled over it for several minutes before replying. "I believe we could," he said. You are right that the sun shines all the time; the rains come throughout the year; the streams flow always. However, we still plant during the first month after the equinox. I do not know why."
Tradition, Phillip thought. And that suggests they're not originally from around here. I wonder if that means anything.
Japura interrupted Phillip's thoughts. "My father is headman of the village," he said. "He is in the fields. We will bathe before you see him." The boy looked closely at Phillip and Argon. "I do not believe you are Evil, or that you will do harm, but I must ask your parole. Will you swear to do no harm to our people or our world?"
Phillip thought the requested oath was both overly narrow and overly broad, but agreed. Argon followed Phillip's lead.
Phillip and Argon had been bathing in the salty water of the ocean, and looked forward to a real bath. The boys' bath did not disappoint them. The water in the shower was hot. Jurua injected himself between Phillip and Argon, and began washing Phillip's back. Another of the Elven boys offered to wash Argon, who looked at Phillip and received a shrug that Argon interpreted as approval. Japura washed himself quickly, and then left the bathhouse.
"I have never shared magic with a Human before," Jurua said. "Will you share with me? Of course, Japura's father must agree that you are not enemies, but I am sure he will do that."
Phillip looked helplessly at Argon. "What should I say?" he asked in the secret language of the lodge.
"Jah, naturlich (Yes, of course)," Argon replied in the same language.
"What did you just say?" Jurua asked.
"I asked Argon what I should do," Phillip said. "He said I should say yes.
"Why do you ask him?" Jurua asked. "Are you heart-bound? You're both too young for that, I think." Jurua continued his questions–and washing–leaving Phillip neither time nor inclination to answer any of the boy's questions.
Phillip washed Jurua. Then the entire troop of boys entered a huge, hot soak. The sexual banter caused Phillip to blush, at first. Despite Argon's explanations, Phillip was still unaccustomed to the reality of a world where all the boys were gay.
Japura returned to the bathhouse. "My father will see you, now," he said.
Phillip and Argon donned the blue jeans and boots in which they'd left the kiva for this world. Given the heat, Phillip opted to wear the beaded buckskin vest over bare skin. Argon followed his lead. Phillip was secretly pleased that he was nearly as tall as the tallest of the Elven boys, and despite his trim build, was noticeably more muscular than most of them.
Japura's father sat on a wicker bench in front of a stone house. Like the other homes of the village, this one faced a central plaza in which children played and adults gathered in groups of two to seven to talk and relax at the end of the day. A fountain bubbled gently in the center of the plaza. Its waters flowed into a stone bowl before spilling from a spout into a drain set in the flagstones of the plaza. At one side of the fountain was a low stone platform.
The boys were invited to sit on woven mats that covered the ground in front of Japura's house. Japura indicated that Phillip and Argon should sit directly in front of his father.
"Japura said you were called Spartus," Japura's father said, without any preamble. "Who gave you that name?"
Again, Phillip formed the Builders Lodge hailing sign, but saw no reaction from the man. Perhaps the Lodge isn't in this place, Phillip thought. Perhaps it isn't in this time! I'd not thought of that.
"A shaman–a wise man of my people–gave me that name when he acknowledged that my spirit guide was a dragon. The Sparti were soldiers who sprang from the soil after one of our heroes, Cadmus planted the teeth of a dragon–" Phillip began.
Japura's father interrupted. "You are from another world, according to Jurua. Yet our legends and heroes are the same. At least," he paused in thought, "at least Cadmus and the Spartus. So, you are a dragon rider?"
Dragon rider! Phillip thought. "No. Except during my vision quest, I have never seen a dragon, and the one I saw was in a dream."
"Tell us about the vision quest and the dream," the man said.
Phillip thought furiously. Was this some sort of test? Some believe the vision quest is merely a superstition, that spirit guides are imaginary. Will these people laugh or think me insane? Nevertheless, he spoke firmly, and with conviction.
"It is a belief and custom among our people that at the age of 12 years, a boy spend some time alone in the desert without food or water or sleep. It is during that time that a spirit guide in the form of an animal may appear. We believe that the spirit guide shows the boy his nature: a bear might mean strength; a fox might mean cunning; an owl, wisdom; a raven, trickery. We believe that the spirit guide will also tell the boy how to live a good life, if the boy will listen.
"Not everyone believes this. I do. I saw–or dreamed–a dragon. My Shaman told me I had seen only an eagle with a snake in its mouth because I was not yet ready to have a dragon spirit guide. Dragons, of course, are mythological creatures. It was only–"
"Myth? Only myth?" Japura's father said to no one in particular. "If we needed proof that he is from another world, this is sufficient." He turned his attention once more on Phillip. "On this world dragons are not myth, boy."
"My son said you wish to go to the eastern continent–this boy's home," the man continued. "Is that correct?"
"It is," Phillip said. "Argon was brought unwilling to my world; I have promised to help him return to his home."
"Let me understand," Japura's father said. "The boy, Argon, is from this world? And from the continent to the east of us? Do you know this to be true? How do you know?" He held up his hand when Phillip took a breath to speak, and then continued his questions. "How did Argon go to your world and how did you and he return to this one? Why do you accompany him?"
Phillip struggled to explain how Argon and he had met; how he had learned language from Argon; how the Shaman and an assembly of his people had sent Argon and himself to this world. "We believed–as did those who sent us–that we would be returned to a place where we would be in concordia–harmony, or unity with that world," he concluded.
Japura's father was silent for a long time. The boys of Japura's cohort, who had followed them from the bath house, waited, respectfully and quietly. At last, Japura's father spoke.
"I believe that you believe what you have said. I believe that you want what you have said to be true. But I know it is not entirely true; and so do you. What have you not told me?"
Phillip sighed. "We are on Argon's world. We know that, because the stars told us. But we are not in Argon's time. The stars told us that, too." He reached for Argon's hand, and told Japura's father what Argon had seen in the stars, and his interpretation.
Again, Japura's father was silent for a long time. "We wish someone ill fortune by saying to him, May you live in interesting times. It has long been a joke," he added. "Our people seek to live in harmony–with the world and with other peoples. It is not always possible. I believe that you have brought interesting times to us." He smiled to take any censure from his words.
"We know of the eastern continent. Fishers from the northern tip of our island have been blown there by storms. Those who return tell of a barren land inhabited only by strange beasts. That is why I questioned your story. I accept your reluctance to tell all the truth.
"That is enough for today. My son said you had given your parole." When Phillip replied in the affirmative, the man continued. "Will you stay with us–as guests, not prisoners–for a tenday while I think on this?"
Phillip agreed readily. "We have been walking for, oh, more than ten days. It would be good to rest for a while." And, he thought, perhaps learn more about this world. . . perhaps learn a way to return Argon to his own time!
"We will speak more, later. For now," he turned to Japura, "bring them into our home. See that they have what they need. Watch over them. They are your responsibility."
"What did your father mean when he said we were your responsibility?" Phillip asked Japura after that boy's father had left.
"It is an honor he has given me," Japura replied. "It is also a conundrum. I am accountable for your actions. Since you are boys, you are not accountable. On the other hand, since you are guests of my father, I have no authority over you. My father knows I understand this, and expects me to deal with the dilemma."
The boy's eyes shone with pride. "Thank you, Phillip and Argon," he said. "I hope that you will. . . well, help me show my father that I am worthy of his trust."
"I understand," Phillip said. "And I understand why you say that. By telling us how important this is to you, you have placed us under obligation to you."
Japura furrowed his brow. He squinted and looked at Phillip. "I had not thought that, truly. But, you are right. You see far more deeply than I do. Are you sure you are only 20 years?"
Japura brought Phillip and Argon into his father's house. The temperature dropped when they entered. The stone walls were several feet thick. The ceiling was high; the roof appeared to be covered with slate. A large room was furnished with a low table surrounded by mats. Tatami mats, Phillip thought. Like that Oriental restaurant the coach took us to when we won the match in Las Vegas. Several chests, adaptable for both storage and seating, were pushed against the walls. Light came only from horizontal slits just below the roof. Across the back of the room, several doors suggested individual rooms.
"Mother," Japura said, "this is Phillip and this is Argon. They will stay with us for a while."
"Yes, I heard your father," the woman replied. She turned to the two boys from Earth. "Be you welcome into our home," she said. "May you and we enjoy concordia (harmony) during your stay."
"May you, also, walk in harmony," Phillip said. "That is the greeting of my people, and I am happy to hear it, here."
Phillip had spent the morning talking with Japura. By noon, Japura was forced to admit he had no more answers for Phillip. "What you are asking is important to you, but it is not something that is important to me. Therefore, I know little. You must speak to Jurua. He understands such things."
That night, after an afternoon spent with Jurua, Phillip wrote into his journal.
All the boys in the village belong to one of two cohorts. Japura leads one group. It includes eight tweens (teenagers) and a dozen boys. He is like a military leader. Jurua is like a librarian. He knows things like history and culture. I suspect that other boys have roles, too. A second group of boys is about the same size and composition. A redheaded tween named Padraig leads it. His name is pronounced almost like Patrick. It's as if he were Anglo-Irish.
I do not understand the interactions between the two groups. They are both competitive and cooperative. They bathe at different times but they go to the river to swim together. They compete in games for tokens that are symbolic, but which seem to be extremely important. Japura said that membership in the groups is determined by birth. But it is not social standing, rather when a boy is weaned, he is assigned to a cohort to be nurtured by the older boys. A boy is assigned to Japura's cohort, the next boy is assigned to Padraig's, the next to Japura's, and so on.
The next day, Phillip again sought out Jurua. "When we first met, Japura asked if I were a tween, and said that I was not old enough to be one. No one seems to understand that Argon is under my protection. I think these two things are related."
"You are correct," Jurua replied. "If you are a boy, then another boy cannot be in fief to you, nor can you be his guardian or liege."
"Argon and I love each other," Phillip said. I wasn't sure I could say it to this boy, he thought to himself. "What is more," he continued, "I have promised Argon that I would take care of him. That promise and our love bind me. I am his protector. Your people, and others we will meet, must acknowledge this. Therefore, I must become a tween according to the customs of this world. How can I do that?"
Jurua thought for a moment. "A tween is a boy who has grown past boyhood. This bump in the throat forms." Jurua touched Phillip's Adam's apple, and then continued. "His voice deepens. The waist shrinks and the shoulders become broader. He grows taller–sometimes very quickly. It almost never happens before your 500th year, which is why Japura was sure you were still a boy."
Jurua ran his finger down Phillip's chest, tracing the outlines of the muscles. Phillip's abdomen tensed involuntarily, further defining his abs. "Although," Jurua said, "anyone who sees you naked must believe otherwise."
Five hundredth year? Phillip gasped. How long is a year– But Jurua kept talking, and Phillip pushed aside the thought.
"More important," Jurua continued, "a tween is a boy who is old enough to make his own way in the world, and to make his own decisions. The headman of the village, or the Cleric, will examine a boy and declare him a tween." The finger that had been traveling down Phillip's stomach reached that boy's pubis.
Phillip gasped, and put his hand over Jurua's. "In a minute, Jurua. Please. What do you mean by 500 years? How long do you live?"
Phillip sat on the wall of the fountain watching Argon and a group of Elven boys kicking a ball in a game that resembled soccer. Rather, his head faced the boys, and his eyes were open, but he saw only the thoughts buzzing throughout his head. Elves live five thousand years–more, even. These Elves don't see many humans, and Jurua wasn't sure, but he thought humans live more than 500 years. And, a year is about 400 days long. He had to work on that question. He said they plant and harvest by the equinoxes and the stars–just like the Athabasca. They hold festivals at the equinoxes and at the solstices, and a market at the new moon. But other than that, they don't seem to have a calendar. He understood "month" but they don't even have names for the months! And they live five thousand years!
Phillip's concentration was broken when Argon sat beside him. The boy put his arm around Phillip and kissed him. It was a serious kiss.
"Amo te, Phillip," the boy said, perhaps louder than was necessary.
"Amo te, Argon," Phillip said.
"Did you enjoy Jurua? How did you–" Argon began, and then abruptly stopped speaking.
Is he jealous? But he said I should. . . Phillip thought. He looked hard at Argon's face. No, he's not jealous. He's merely asserting–advertising–that we are. . . what did Jurua call it? Heart-bound.
Phillip pulled the younger boy to him and kissed him. "I do love you so much," he said. "You told me you were 18 years old. That was before we could speak well to one another. Are you really 18 years old?"
Argon nodded. "The numbers are easy. Eighteen years. My name day was on the spring equinox before the summer I. . . I was. . . I came to your world. It's spring, again, now. I guess I'm still eighteen."
"And you're a boy. . . I mean, not just male, but, well. . . just what does that mean?"
Argon looked around. "I guess I forgot that you don't have the same mysteries we have. I don't know if ours are the same as the Elves. They're supposed to be secret, but I guess you can know."
The Elven boys had left the square. Phillip and Argon were alone. Argon recited, in the same singsong way he recited the Builders rites, the mysteries.
A boy's testicles normally descend when he's 18 or a little older, Phillip thought, trying to summarize what Argon had said. There's a ceremony. No, first is an initiation. Like Johnny Two-Horses initiated me, except that here they know what's going to happen. It's a boy's first sexual experience. And it's usually an older brother, perhaps a cousin, sometimes a close family friend. Then a ceremony. The child. . . now, a boy. . . swears an oath to the local ruler and through him to the king. If his father is in a guild, he'll swear an oath to the Guildmaster and enter the guild–an Apprentice. That's what Argon meant that he was an Apprentice. He's in the Sailors Guild. Argon's a boy, but he's only been a boy for six months or so. Phillip thought long and deeply, pausing occasionally to ask Argon a question. He was still pondering what he'd learn when Japura came to invite them to bathe before the evening meal.
Japura's father gestured for Phillip to speak. Phillip had sought the man out; now they sat on the edge of the fountain.
"By my people's law and custom, I am a tween," Phillip asserted. He knew, from additional talks with Jurua, that he could not claim adult status. "I have undergone public circumcision and been declared in public ceremony no longer a boy. I have been initiated into a Lodge that does not accept boys. I have been admitted to mysteries that are reserved for those who are not boys. I can speak as a citizen in the tribal council. It is important–essential–for me to be declared a tween. I ask that you examine me, and–if I pass–make that declaration."
Japura's father thought for some time while Phillip sat, patiently. Is this part of the test? he wondered.
When at last Japura's father spoke, he surprised Phillip. "Your circumcision–it was public? It was a rite of passage?"
"Um, yes," Phillip said. "I know that isn't true in all societies, but it is one of our customs. A boy shows bravery by not crying out. Further, his transition from boyhood is witnessed by the community."
Japura's father's next questions were considerably more penetrating, and Phillip was sweating by the time the man appeared to have finished.
"Though you are young, even for a Human, to be declared a tween, you certainly have both the physical and mental maturity for that state," Japura's father said. "A tween must be able to support himself through a craft or trade. If you are to be Argon's guardian, you must also be able to support and defend him. Two more things must be considered. First, do you have a craft or trade? Second, can you defend yourself and Argon in combat?"
"I can read and write," Phillip said, "and I understand that most people cannot. I might find work as a scribe or amanuensis. I am also a silversmith."
When Japura's father understood that Phillip had made the belts he and Argon wore, Japura was sent to invite the village Smith to examine them.
"These are the work of a competent Journeyman," the Smith said. "Did you also make the bracelet you wear?" When Phillip nodded, the Smith asked, "May I see it?"
The Smith peered closely at the bracelet. "What are these runes? Are they your language? Did you create them?"
"The first and then every second symbol after are, well, I guess runes is your word for them. We call them pictographs. They are ancient symbols used by my people to represent the sun, the earth, rain, growing things, our First People, and powerful teachers and ideas from our past. The symbols that link the runes are my own. The bracelet tells the story of light and water and soil, and inspiration and hard work bringing life to a barren world. It is the story of my people's early days on their world."
At the Smith's request, Phillip told the story, pointing to the symbols one by one.
"If a Journeyman made this, I would declare it his masterpiece," the Smith said. "Did you also make the water jugs you carry?"
"No," Phillip said. "They were forged in a factory."
"May I see one, in any case?" the Smith asked. "I am curious about the workmanship."
Phillip pulled a canteen from its canvas pouch. The canteen, itself, sat in a drinking cup, molded so that the canteen fit tightly into the cup. A handle folded under the cup. He handed the canteen to the Smith.
The Smith gasped. He tapped the canteen. "Do you know what metal this is?"
"Aluminum," Phillip said. "It's a soft metal, but easily shaped–"
"This is mithral," the Smith said. "You and the boy, you have four like this?"
"Keep them safe," the Smith said. "They are worth a great deal."