Chapter 5 — The High Elder

As soon as she was old enough to turn the latch on a door, Lew would often let herself into Father’s study. It was the only place to find him at home — at his desk, pondering over musty old papers. On her first visit, she demanded his attention, and before he could even look up, her stepmother swooped in and whisked her away for punishment. The second time, she took a seat a pace away and watched. It was a strange sensation, as if she were utterly invisible. As long as she made no noise, she could watch her father for hours, turning pages, dipping his feather into his inkwell, writing letters on paper. She would bring one of her story books that stepmother would read to her and hunch over it behind him, tracing lines on the pages like he did. Sometimes he would frown in consternation, and little Lewellyn would scowl at the fantastical rats and gryphons in her picture book. Other, rarer times, the slightest grin would curl his wan lips, and Lew would want to leap from her chair and throw her book in the air for joy. But she did not. Never could there be a sound besides the scratching of a feather or the whispering of Pando’s leaves.

Now Lew thought of how miserable her father must be, as she found herself trapped at her desk reading old documents written in bizarre, archaic prose by shaky hands. She opened and closed her right hand, hoping that she would be able to memorize just the right details of An Annotated History of Pando to spare her knuckles Kallen’s wrath. The chronicle changed as she passed through the centuries depending on who was writing it. At first, on rough brown bark paper, it told heroic tales of wars fought and won, one good Pandoan triumphing over another evil one. Once the tale was done, the handwriting would change and Lew would be reading another tale of the evil Pandoan’s son taking his revenge against the good one, except the son was the new hero, and the good one had inexplicably become evil. These tales of victory lasted a hundred years, evolving into wars where whole families and then whole villages would nobly fight and kill each other. 

Once great bands of villages joined forces to attack each other, the tales of valor came to an abrupt end, and she found herself reading one meandering legal document after another. Rules for war, followed by rules against war. After that, the book became a centuries-long legal record. Who married whom, property and who owned it, the proper circumstances to earn a surname, crimes committed and adjudicated. Somewhere along the way the paper became smoother and lighter, but no easier to read. It felt pointless. For one thing, she had another century to read through before the Greenwarden’s staves would even exist. It didn’t help that she’d forgotten to fill her sun jar, and the last bit of light pooled at the bottom, hardly enough to see in front of her face.

Lew dropped her head before the musty book and shut her eyes. The words from last night replayed in her mind. “The last forest in all the realm.” What did that mean? There couldn’t be just one forest left. That, or there couldn’t be anything but one forest. Lew tried to imagine a realm without any forests, but she couldn’t even conjure a realm outside Pando. All that came to mind was a brown dirt floor surrounded by blank space.

“Lewellyn,” came Stepmother Aerith’s voice. “Lewellyn, may I come in?”

Aerith was as Pandoan as a woman could be. She could trace her lineage back to the first recorded names in Candon. Even her own name seemed torn from the pages of the ancient tales of valor. Some man always seemed to be rescuing an Aerith or avenging an Aerith whose honor had been sullied. She knew the expectations of Pando society inside and out and she expected her stepdaughter to learn the same. Nevertheless, every once in a long while, in stretches of the hallway palace where there were no windows, she would wrap her arms around Lew, pinning the girl’s own arms to her sides. Then just as suddenly, she’d let go. Lew would stand and stare, hands still at her sides, flushing with the heat of her not-mother’s surprise affection. Aerith brushed off her dress, checked her hair, and continued on her way without another word.

“Why is it so dark in here? You remember I told you your father was having dinner with us tonight, Lew, dear?” she asked now, a quaver in her voice.

“Oh!” Lew gasped, putting a hand to her hair hanging in ragged frizzes down to her shoulders. “I shall draw a bath. There is no time to heat it if you shall braid after, so you shall have to tolerate the cold,” said Aerith. Lew nodded vigorously.

The bath wasn’t as cold as it could have been. The part of The Candor that flowed through the village must have gotten a lot of natural sunfall this morning. Lewellyn brushed the nats and tangles from her hair and set to work braiding it while it was still wet. She arranged her braids to form a little crown on top of her head and wove some wildflowers through it like Melaani Greenwarden. She thought it made her look old, like Melaani, but Father had remarked once that she might look good in it. Stepmother Aerith had made sure that Lewellyn knew what a remark from Father meant.

The table was set when Lew arrived. Her hair tugged at her scalp, but she had learned to ignore it. She stood behind the chair at the side of the table opposite from her stepmother. Another plate was set next to hers. When Aerith entered the room, as if she had read Lew’s mind, she said, “Father invited your rat friend to dinner tonight. Francis, was it? He should be arriving shortly.”

When Francis arrived, he seemed as unsure what he was doing there as Lew. Lew helped Francis onto the table and he sat in front of his plate. She shook her head and indicated that he should stand up, so he did. Not knowing exactly why, they did all this without speaking. Aerith continued the silence when she arrived. She made two trips to the kitchen to bring out the food, a roast chicken with wild mushrooms and a mashed cassava salad, and did not ask Lewellyn to help her.

Father let himself in the back door and came through the kitchen to the dining room. Everything about him was long and thin. He had to stoop to get through the doorway, his robes hanging forward almost as if there was nothing under them. His gray-blonde hair was tied back in a tight bun.

Father took his seat and Lewellyn, Aerith, and Francis sat down with him. Then the table joined hands. Lewellyn took Francis’s left hand in hers, and Aerith took his right. He sat on his haunches as Father said Grace. “Let me thank The Great Forest Pando for providing us this meal, the river for providing our drink, and both for my wife and child whom they have nourished from birth. Let me also thank Pando for our friend who is with us today and who also has been raised at her bosom.”

After grace, Father did not speak for a great while, and no one spoke before him. Aerith dealt out the portions, and Lew cut Francis’s food into pieces small enough that he could lift them in his hands to eat them rather than nibble directly from the plate like an animal. 

The chicken was half-gone before Father raised his voice. “Francis, I hear that you have been helping Lewellyn to teach Reyol Chichu,” Father’s pronunciation of “Chichu” was perfect as always. Lewellyn had never seen him speak the language itself, however. Francis looked up from a mushroom he was holding nearly as big as his head and chittered awkwardly, “uh, yes, it is my pleasure… High Elder.”

Father showed no reaction. He bit a small portion of chicken off of an untouched leg and chewed in silence. He turned to Aerith and said, “Excellent chicken, Aerith.” Then he returned to Francis, “I don’t suppose you know anything about some comments your kin have made? Something about a half-wit?” Francis dropped his mushroom, and it was all the response Father needed. 

“If you’ve had enough food, Francis, would you mind letting your friends know that there shall be no more talk of Reyol among rats who wish to remain welcome in this village?”

Francis stared at Father, and then turned to Lew, black marble eyes wide in confusion. “Go,” Lew chittered, waving him away. Francis scrambled off the table and under the door frame that led to the kitchen. “You should provide a better example for that rat.” said Father, “He looks to you for guidance,” How is this my fault? Wondered Lewellyn. He always acts like he’s my guide. Father was not done speaking. “As for Reyol, it is clear that we have begun too late. New languages are not so easy to learn once one has reached a certain age. I will deliver the bad news to his family, and we shall not speak of it again.”

Then Father changed the subject. “Lewellyn. I hear that you are learning the history of our people.”

“Yes, Father,” said Lew, carefully enunciating her words.

“Kallen High Greenwarden tells me you fled from him at the hippogriff pen.”

“Yes, Father,” the blood rose to Lew’s face. She looked down at her food.

“Look at me, Lewellyn Greenwarden. It is not befitting your position to behave so childishly. You’re a woman now, and a venerated protector of Pando, and you have been acting like neither.”

This isn’t fair. Lewellyn tried to keep her voice steady, “Father, I was busy. I was trying to feed the hippogriffs and get back to work when he-” Father placed his fork roughly on the table. “I know what you were doing. Do you think your duties as a member of the village come at the exclusion of your duties as Greenwarden?”

Lewellyn felt tears coming to her eyes again – another mark of her childish ineptitude, “Father,” she began, struggling to keep her voice down, “I’ve been keepin’ – keeping – up with all my duties, challenge that it’s been. Shall it be one of my duties to stand and listen to Kallen whenever he feels like taking a captive audience?” 

Father placed his hands in front of him on the table, and without making a sound, pushed himself up from his chair.  “Alis, honey?” asked Aerith nervously, but Father did not respond as he made his way around the table. Lewellyn stared stubbornly at her father, moving slowly but steadily towards her. After what seemed like an interminable several seconds, Father walked past Lewellyn to a window where two glossy black birds sat on a branch, pretending to clean their feathers. He pulled the curtains shut.

Alisair returned to his seat in the same fashion. He reached his head under the table and Lew followed him. Checking a room for rats was standard practice before saying something you don’t want repeated. 

Placing his hands together in front of him, Father spoke so softly that Lew and Aerith both leaned in.  “Lewellyn, I know that the task of Greenwarden seems overwhelming to you. Nevertheless, I want you to understand that Kallen is the best teacher that you could possibly have. He is the only living Pandoan who knows Crackaw, making him a font of knowledge regarding the dangerous world outside Pando. I hope that he may someday deem you ready to learn the language before you are too old to learn another. He taught three of the four other Greenwardens, Osyris, Lyris, and Lemuel everything they know. He’s old enough to remember the Great War. He was there at the sacking of Pando Hill. He and I both want you to succeed, but he needs to see you acting like an adult, or he shall never trust you with the secrets of your staff.”

Father stared at Lewellyn, slicing into her soul with stone-brown eyes. 

“Father, what did Kallen mean when he said that we’re the Last Forest? Are there really no other forests left?”

A strange look took Father. Lew looked from him to Aerith, who also stared in his direction, a piece of chicken skewered on a fork still in her hand. Father spoke even more slowly than before, “even Kallen can make mistakes, child. There’s a reason only those deemed ready may learn Crackaw. Crows are wise animals, but they have their own agenda, and distinguishing truth from lies is more important than any vocabulary or syntax.”

“So it’s a lie?” Lew asked. “Kallen has been fooled?”

With a sharp look, Father halted that line of inquiry. Lew tried a different question, “Why is he always telling me that the Gryphons are our protectors and Pando is vulnerable?”

Father huffed, “Kallen is entitled to his opinions. You have my permission to ask him to get back to work teaching you if he indulges too far in his endless complaining.”

“But-”

“It’s not important, dear,” Aerith reached out to take Lewellyn’s hand,” You have a bright future ahead. Just keep up your studies and you’ll be well prepared for whatever path Pando chooses for you.”

Before Lew could open her mouth to ask more questions, Father stood. “Thank you for dinner, Aerith. I must go now. Lewellyn, you shall work hard and make sure to treat Kallen with the respect he is due. Goodbye.”

In a moment, Father was gone. Aerith looked pityingly at Lew, who felt again like she would cry, although she wasn’t sure why.


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By Sam Munk

Science fiction and Fantasy author with a focus on philosophical inquiry and character-driven drama.

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