Learning with Father (Papi)
Selli’s Bow was poised, her eyes fixed, her lips curled back in anticipation. She gently aimed at the target, sighed, exhaled and took the shot. It hit its target and she swung round and rolled onto the soft ground behind the tree. There, she hid and took another shot without flinching. She did this four times, hitting the bullseye every time. “That’s my girl,” her father smiled. “You are doing so well.” “You are a good teacher, Papi,” Selli laughed, swinging herself up a tree to take her fifth and final shot, bow poised, taking a piece of fruit as she did and crunching into it, laughing. She rolled forward and landed just at her papi’s feet. She had practised stealthing and shadow meld and played a game of hide and seek with her father for an hour. She laughed when he couldn’t find her – he was an excellent Samúð himself, but Selli had an ability to shadow meld into anything she wished, as long as the conditions were right. If she was in “battle mode” or being chased it didn’t work, but it was something she had been working on in secret, training alone – a lot more than just with her father. ““Ok, you win, Selli,” he said when he gave up trying to home in on her signal to find her. His stomach was also grumbling so his concentration was off. Well, that was his excuse anyway. “Don’t I know it,” laughed Selli. When they arrived home, the sun was getting ready to shift and set. Selli was exhausted after a day of training with her father, but that wasn’t why she headed to bed so early after supper. It was the noises. She could hear them louder than ever this evening – a piercing wail in her brain, as if a creature from the depths of Nepolite had crept in there and was determined to torture her. It had been a steady throb in her head every time she was in a quiet state of mind, the agonising wail or screech creeping up on her and making her jump. She hadn’t even been to Nepolite before, and had no idea what this could be. She had heard stories of this dangerous Enclave. There were more creatures than Nepolites there – flying, shuffling, whizzing, oozing, and angry beasts with teeth as sharp as broken glass, winged, disease-carrying dots that could end a life in a second and everything in between: spooks, limbos, dragons – you name it! The place was riddled, and only a death wish would take a sensible Thrudorian through its gates. “And …” her father had begun to explain many years ago, with wide, excited eyes when she was just a tiny girl, learning about the four ancient Enclaves, sitting on his knee, every word nourishing her soul and exciting her senses, “… the sun never goes down there.” “So the Nepolites can sunbathe and play whenever they want to?” Her papi laughed. He was a wise elf, even as a younger Thrudorian, with hair that had been greying since Selli opened her eyes for the first time and saw him, always with a plait long down his back that her mami did for him, tied with a special knot. His ears had white hair on their tips, and he had deep green eyes, the colour of the forest, of nature and of all things beautiful in the world. He was always so patient with her, taking all the time needed to mould his young child into the elf she was today. Never a cross word or angry action was used, and patience was taught as much as power. There was always so much to teach her. Time was a thief if you hesitated, though. He loved teaching his “baby girl”. Falling asleep in his arms while he stroked her long elf ears was something she loved – being nestled and snuggled as a small elf, listening to the wondrous tales her papi related to her. Oh boy, there were many! In their house hung the scent of lavender, the delicate blooms in one of her mother’s old jam jars. The perfume brought out the subtle purple hue in the walls – the very same shade of spring forget-me-nots in the morning light. Selli never aspired for a large home, preferring cosy and friendly instead. Their home was the perfect space for her needs and many of her wants. It was furnished with everything rustic and many shelves with old books – a stage for new creations: a new painting daubed on perfect squares of canvass. Her own room was simple too. “The Nepolites live a dangerous life.” Her papi lowered his voice and narrowed his eyes to show his seriousness. “The sun is so hot that they wouldn’t survive more than a few minutes under its rays. They live underground, away from the heat and the dangerous creatures that lurk above the ground. We could only ever go there with their security.” “But we’re Samúðs. We can go anywhere.” He held her gaze, maintaining his serious expression. “Just because we can go anywhere, Selli, it doesn’t mean that we should. We will never go to Nepolite unless we have to, and when we have a guide. I have been there once and almost lost my life. What must we never do?” He smiled with his hands on his hips, waiting for her answer. “Go to Nepolite unless we have a guide,” she groaned. He always made her repeat his lessons back, especially if they were serious. “And what must you never do?” She didn’t even need to think before answering. “Travel to any of the other Enclaves alone.” Her voice had almost a sing-song tone, but was not disrespectful. Her papi had made her repeat this over and over ever since she was a tiny elven child first learning the ways of the Samúð. She had travelled to the other two Enclaves with him, but had never ventured out alone. Taiga wasn’t too different to Thrudore. Most of Thrudore was a carpet of greenery and deep, never-ending forests. It reverberated with energy as if the whole forest were alive. An abundance of eucalyptus and pine scents spread around the woods, with creatures that needed to be seen to be believed. There were pools of water, which tasted of peppermint, and waterfalls cascading from trees that shed raspberries, poppleberries, chucklenuts and other succulent fruits and nuts. If you were clever, you could stand under a tree with your mouth open and feed yourself without moving a muscle! You needed to be careful with the chucklenuts – they were a chocolate-flavoured fruit that made you giggle when eating them! If you ate too many you would get a tummy ache and laugh your head off! There was a warning etched on every tree. You would never grow hungry in the Enclave of Thrudore, especially if you loved fruit! The weather was always just so, neither warm nor cold. Thrudore was nicknamed “Lagom” – just perfect for all inhabitants. The biggest difference that she could see between the two Enclaves was that the Taigans had a subtle greenness to their skin and hair so dark that it almost took on the appearance of liquid. It also boasted plants, trees and creatures that she had never seen before, and she adored making trips there with her papi to explore. Selli had also loved the fourth Enclave – Smillia – a bright, snowy haven where she had drunk the best hot chocolate ever. She had been there a few times with her papi and had even visited The City with him, which, he had told her, wasn’t strictly a part of Haltasia – it wasn’t even an Enclave, having emerged independently in recent years. No one knew how or why. In contrast, The City was a strange, concrete-filled land – loud, mechanical and full of beings who were too busy to be nice to each other or look after each other. People sat in doorways begging for scraps of food, while others strolled around with expensive clothes on, ignoring the ones who had nothing! The sound of cars racing by and the noise of the hustle and bustle of people ruled The City of humans. Its loud, brash concrete jungle was not for the faint-hearted. Selli sometimes disliked human cities. They were like living machines spread over once-green land. The roads ran in a predictable grid pattern, and the lights of the shops, restaurants and places of vice shone neon into the night. The areas of countryside, which were few and far between in the human realms, were nice. But none of it matched her home in the Enclave. The City had massive companies that seemed to suck the life out of it and just discard their waste without a thought for their environment – all in the name of profit! Humans are a strange bunch, Selli had often said. They claim to care about others, and yet take few steps to show it. They have people who are hungry and uneducated. Technology is advancing and cities are growing. They spend all their wealth on wars to give them a peace they can never attain with weapons. They build upon every scrap of ground they can find. They will run out of space at some point. A strange place indeed… Fairy rings had been spotted in the human world and, sure enough, sometimes came into this world – at their peril! One minute in this land was time lost in the human world – so it was rarely achieved by humans. Or so the story goes! Selli had so much fun with all her everyday adventures. Even walking back home became an adventure. Even a life so ordinary – for an elf at least – was hers and hers alone because she made it special. As the baker turned flour and water to bread, she turned the mundane into fascination and love. That was enough for Selli at first, when she was a very young elf, but her thirst for adventure could no longer be satisfied by the small Enclave where she lived. Unfortunately, the Enclave itself offered very little in terms of adventure. To wander out into other realms and dimensions was a passion and became a habit for her too. Life had a way of bringing up the unexpected. For the Dwellers, or humans as they were, well, only the round-the-night-fire tales of ages old told of humans disappearing for a while. Upon their return, their families had grown up. Yet the poor unfortunates only went to the bakers. Did these people happen upon a fairy ring? It would only take some deep magic or blessing for this not to happen to any human visiting the Fae realms. The fairy kings of long ago would sometimes grant a special visit by a musician – they loved violinists, especially as then they could play all day and night. They would dance until the sun came up and down and up again. Midsummer was the time to see the green fairy kingdoms open up. At the stroke of midnight, a green mound in the forest would slowly open and a charge of miniature horses would run and run. No sooner had it opened, after the last fairy was out, it would close again. Elves were usually similar in appearance to humans. Still, the Samúðs could change their appearance by a mirror image without being distinguished by pointed ears and bright, light-coloured eyes as well as pointed teeth and a difference in skin colour. They possessed strength, agility and reflexes superior to those of humans. They were also highly resilient to injury and pain. This was probably why there was a historical mistrust on the part of many humans. The humans also thought that they were vermin because of the shape change they sometimes did to gather different types of food. Humans saw them as rats! Many witch hunts were led against the elves, forcing them to retreat into their Enclaves, so they did prefer the safer Enclaves. The City did have its beautiful places, but not many – you could count them on one hand. In Thrudore Enclave, an almost divine sighing can be heard. As if the forest sings praises to Mother Nature. As if it hummed with life. Something to marvel! It was home – her home. But the cities, on the other hand! Oh my! Life in the Enclave was much slower than in the cities. Elves were never hasty. They took their time because they had plenty of it. Time wasn’t a thing that could be spent then lost – it was something to be treasured. Selli had been everywhere except Nepolite, but she understood that she could only go if she was with her papi. She had promised him. The Samúðs were few in number, especially since the Rebellions. They were unique in their ability to travel between the Enclaves freely. Her Papi had spent many years teaching Selli how to achieve this, and, at fifteen years old, she was now almost as accomplished as he was. He had spent just as long drilling messages of caution into her brain, but as she lay in bed now with the screaming in her head almost moving her to tears, she knew that she was going to have to break her promise tonight. She sat up, holding her head, feeling almost dizzy from the piercing, relentless scream. She lived a simple life with her family – her bedroom consisted only of an oak bedframe that her Aunt Samara had carved, with delicate flower and sun carvings of different depths and shapes, covering the whole of the bed head, a comfortable and cosy hay mattress, her books lining the walls and the forest bounty that she brought into the house from her training and exploration. The leaf that she had found in Taiga was bigger than her head – her room was also home to gnarled branches that twisted so beautifully that she created stories around them: the most mesmerising examples of art that nature had to offer. But she could see none of it now in the evening gloom as her vision blurred and bled the colour and texture from her treasures, leaving only the scream. She could hear it as clearly as if it were in the room, but she knew it was in her head. She could also feel it in her heart as if the pain of the scream was her pain. She wasn’t screaming, but the emotion was as deep as if she were grieving or lost or her life was about to end. She had been hearing the scream for almost a year. It had been quiet at first, a dim cry that sometimes made her jump. Sometimes she didn’t hear it for weeks at a time, and then it would return, dragging deep emotion into the pit of her stomach. It had never been as loud and agonising as tonight. She had put herself to bed just after supper, hoping to sleep it away, but it had become louder and more intense by the minute. As she pulled on her lime-green leggings and the long, yellow shirt that was favoured by girls of her age, the sound eased a little, so she tried to lay down again, but it came back, more ferocious than ever. She sat up and it relented just a little again. It was calmer still when she threw on her oversized green hoodie. She loved her hoodies. They covered her ears and saved her energy she would need to merge or hide unnoticed. She wore the most basic and plain-coloured hoodie she could find. It had a logo on the back – “Elf yourself” – that always made her smile: that knowing smile of who she was, but hidden in plain sight. She slipped her feet into her shoes and tied her long, nut-brown hair behind her. Whatever was going on in her head, it wanted her to move. It rewarded her with peace when she readied herself to leave the house and squawked punishing screams that split her ears and stirred her stomach when she showed signs of stopping. It wanted her to do something – it always had, and tonight was the night. No question about that. Outside her room, Selli forced her back against the wall beside the open doorway, which glowed orange into the hall. Selli pictured her mami and papi in there, sharing stories of their day, laughing, as they did so often together, in front of the flames of a small but cosy open fire. Sometimes they read to each other or played music, but their chatter was unmistakeable tonight. She didn’t dare peek in. Her papi would see her for sure. His Samúð senses were sharp. As her mother was a non-Samúð, she didn’t have to worry about her and only hoped that she could hold his attention as she slipped by. She held her breath and looked up to the branches woven into the ceiling. There was never going to be a perfect time. She just had to do it, although fear was getting the better of her, and now the scream was a little quieter, so she considered turning back and trying to sleep again. But the scream was not going to accept any kind of retreat. Before the thought was even fully formed, the most piercing, stomach-curling squeal like a lightning bolt went off in her head. There were no words, but the yelp took shape, and she could almost hear the plea for help attached to it. None of it made any sense. It almost pushed her forward with every cry! Why could only she hear it, and how could it even be happening? She had asked herself these questions endlessly over the last year and come up with no good answers. She simply had to accept that it was happening she was being called to action. Something or someone needed her. As soon as the screech receded, she dashed across the glowing threshold and pushed herself against the wall on the other side. She waited for either of her parents to rush out and ask what she was doing lingering in the hallway at this time of night, but nothing happened. Half of her wanted to be caught by her papi – for him to stop her and keep her safe. Or maybe she could just speak to him – but there was something about the scream that was so private that she almost couldn’t verbalise it. It was just for her – this, she instinctively knew. So she kept going, and her parents continued chattering. Nothing happened as she edged her way towards the door, so she kept going, opened it, and took a final look back as she crept through and deposited herself into the night. She walked with her head held low and at a fast pace. Nuttal Glade was so different at night. She could barely see the blue cornflowers that her mother had planted in the front garden, and the familiar blue, chipped paint of the house, like the sky after a storm, was black and unwelcoming. The soft clinking of wood chimes was louder than ever. It usually reminded her of the long summer afternoons, but it sounded a little sinister against the silence. Everything was just a little less friendly and unrecognisable when the sun was gone and this noise was in her head! She crept away from the house, looking over her shoulder and listening out for her parents, and, when it was far enough behind her, she began to run out of Nuttal Glade and into the forest, dried leaves and dead wood cracking underfoot and the call for help appeased by her action. Yes, it was telling her through its sorrowful whimpers. This is the way. Even in the darkness, she was able to navigate through the forest, which was as much a home to her as the house. She knew every tree, every hard, rising root and textured twist of bark, every sweet, earthy fragrance and leafy, life-affirming rustle. The darkness was powerless against senses that were so sharp that she could make it to her clearing in a blindfold. When she got there, however, she simply stopped and listened with her hand on her heart, as if the pain was contained there and she was soothing it, willing it to instruct her of her next move. She and her father had found her clearing when she was ten. Every Samúð has a special place, and hers was a circle of earth, as wide as Selli was tall, surrounded by towering pine trees. Neither pine needles nor leaves covered the circle, which remained moist, deep-brown earth, like a freshly turned patch of garden awaiting seeds. Even when Selli and her father were knee-deep in the shedding fruits of the surrounding trees, the circle remained clear. The moment Selli saw it, when she was exploring the forest alone, she felt compelled to curl up in it and sleep. She dreamt of an ancient man in rags with a twisted nose and chin, nursing his equally ancient wife on her death bed. “Strike me down! Take me instead!” he was crying, and when Selli woke up, she sobbed – for the man, for his wife, although they existed only in her dreams, and for the love they felt for each other. It was an intensity of love that she had never seen or felt before, even with her mother and father, whose love she thought could never be topped. When she ran home and told her papi about the clearing, he lifted her onto his shoulders. “You’ve found it! You’ve found it!” As he spun her around, she tried to ask what on Haltasia he was so excited about. “This is your place,” he beamed as he lowered her to the ground. “Until now, I merely hoped that the Samúð blood would run through your veins, but this has confirmed it. This is your place, Selli. Now you will be able to join me and travel between the Enclaves.” Selli’s face lit up. He had told her about the different Enclaves since before she could remember. “Am I really going to be able to go to these places?” “You are my child. But now that it is confirmed, now that you are a Samúð, I must explain the responsibilities. I have told you about the Rebellion, about how I fought with Uncle Victus to restore peace across the Enclaves when leaders tried to take what wasn’t theirs and instil hatred into their peoples to fight wars based on greed.” Selli had nodded her tiny head. She wasn’t sure how much she understood about big subjects like war and rebellion, but her papi looked so serious so it had to be important. The Rebellion had exploded many years before she was born when her papi and Uncle Victus were little more than boys, but he talked of it often. “At the end of the Rebellion, a Haltasian council was formed that no longer exists today. The greatest minds from all four Enclaves came together to make sure that there could be no more wars. That’s how we got the Big Sinks.” Selli had heard of the Big Sinks before. Everyone in Haltasia had heard of the Big Sinks. She knew that, at the touch of a button, a whole Enclave could be sunk by another, completely disappearing into the ground, taking every living being with it, never to be seen again. They had played games about it at school, lying in the mud, pretending to be sucked up, although she had no idea what they were for and if they were even real. “It’s a clever idea,” her father had told her. “If every monarch has the power to destroy every other Enclave at the touch of a button, it acts as a deterrent to war.” Selli scratched her head. “Why?” “Because you don’t pick a fight with someone who could destroy your whole Enclave.” “But the monarchs could press them at any time. That’s dangerous, Papidy.” This made her father smile. “See, this is the clever bit. There is a delay after the button is pushed. If Lady T’Serra pushed Empress Burns’ button, for example, and tried to wipe out Nepolite, Empress Burns would have time to push her own button. Trying to destroy someone else just leads to self-destruction.” “It still sounds really dangerous.” Again, her papi smiled. “Well, it is, so it’s our responsibility to maintain the peace and make sure it doesn’t come to that, to travel between the realms and do whatever it takes, because we are the only ones who can do so freely. It is dangerous work, but it is our life’s calling. You are a Samúð now for life.” The smile beamed on Selli’s face. “So I’m just like you, Papidy?” Her papi reached out and fussed her hair. “Yup. You’re just like me.” Selli lowered herself and sat in the clearing. She raked her fingers through the cold, moist earth and closed her eyes. Those old conversations with her papi were the last thing on her mind now. She couldn’t think about him. All she had ever wanted to do was be like him and please him, and she was about to defy him. But she had to shut it all out and concentrate on what she was about to do. She had done it a thousand times before, but never without knowing that her papi would be on the other side waiting for her. For a split second she wavered, but the ever-present scream wouldn’t let her back away. She grabbed two handfuls of soil and held them to her heart, then she lay back in the clearing with nothing in her mind other than travelling to Taiga. She didn’t know how she knew where she needed to go – she just knew. With the destination fixed, the moment her back touched the moist soil, it softened and parted, lowering her into its depths, sucking her into the earth, and spiriting her away on her forbidden adventure.