Chapter I

This book of tales, I dedicate to the prince: a man I never met in life, and a man I failed in death. Had he lived, I believe he’d take a keen interest in these stories. With what little power I command over the written word, I pray to draw these threads of legend and history together, and so bring him some small measure of the peace he was denied. Alexi – long live the prince.

Thanks is due to the high council of Ælfal. Though their laws have left me prisoner within the holy city, they also gave me leave to use their great library – a gift too wonderous for this simple farmer. Alék (a student of history) and his teacher Clyf (the master of such studies) are due my gratitude as well; if they’d not opened their long ears to my tales, I doubt I’d ever have left my cell, much less appeared before the lords of the higher race. For that (and the many cups of caffa), my unending thanks.

Last and least (and let him remember, should he read these pages), I thank Magellus: overseer of my captivity. It was his censorial eye on my journal which saw my cold loneliness beneath the foundations of the city and sent Alék as my companion. He is, in a round-about way, the one responsible for this text. Perhaps I should pen this book in his honor rather than Alexi’s. The prince is certainly worthy of all accolades, but he might not want to claim this one.

My old priest, a man called Obris (to whom I also owe an incalculable debt), had a saying he was wont to use. As I made my first clumsy attempts at writing stories, he often reminded me to start at the start and end at the end. Simple as that advice was, I must admit I had difficulty following it. I still do. I’ve always struggled (grappled, even) with the words I claim to love, trying (and failing) to bend them to my purpose. Yet I press on, hoping as mortals only can to grow better with practice. That said, I must make the same apology I made at the start of my first, long-lost journal; forgive me my inevitable lapses in discipline… and spelling. These harrowing months have not improved the latter. Even so, in the course of my journey from Capital keep to Ælfali cell, I discovered a third rule; one which Obris neglected to mention. Try not to get lost in the middle.

That journey has some bearing upon these tales, but I haven’t the space to write it here. It needs a book unto itself, and well I know it – I wrote that book, then lost it in Shellingor. To try again would be a waste of ink and paper: age is a friend to no tale-teller, and the first week of my journey feels like part of another life. Perhaps I’ll try and make sense of how my life fits into the machinations of gods, kings, monsters, and heroes later. ’til then, all you need to know is this: I served my king better than most, and ended in a dungeon for my trouble. Perhaps I deserve no less. I failed him in the end.

Best as I can remember, I heard first the name “World-Serpent” in a common room in Gillerhern; an old, dwarfish town just north of the Capital. It’s not a dwarfish tale – all the tales of the dragon I’ve heard (or found within this library) are the stories of men. When Alék first visited my cell, he asked me a question: “What is the heart of man?” I fear these stories might hold the answer. Or perhaps they just raise more questions. I shan’t know for sure until this volume is complete.

That dusty bar was called the Mackerel. For a place named after a fish, it was as far from the damp, slimy tavern one might imagine as possible. Fellowship and comradeship held twinned rulership of the commons, little regarding the station, stance, or species of their subjects so long as they could pay the bill. To any student of the Vale, I’d say that there’s no better place to make a study of this great wide world than here. You may imagine (and I would hardly blame you) that this great grand library might offer more. Perhaps you’re right. But after weeks of breathless running between its shelves while Clyf chased behind me (constantly reminding me that ‘tis’n-ot a’race, yüng man), none of the manuscripts have sat me down to tell their story across a pint of ale.

That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the library – especially when its masters will read over everything I write. Far from it! In fact, I intend to start with a tale I first found on its shelves, once this blathering introduction is over. I meant to start from the start; not the start of my story, but the start of the Serpent’s – a time beyond all living memory. Kirlinder, my dear departed teacher, once told me a story just as old as we traversed the depths of the great Rift stone. I only half believed it; how could anyone be sure of history so long past? When he asked, he said it was faith. I didn’t believe that at all.

As his words rolled over in my memory in the weeks which followed, I found my own answer. These stories are strange, true; but they fit together too neatly to be anything less than a whole. Either it’s all true, or it’s all a lie. I can’t be sure which; not unless I find myself face to face with the beast. I’d only be sure for a few moments, but still…

Until a few days ago, I might’ve welcomed such a deadly meeting. It would mean escape from the madding loneliness of my cell… not to mention the food. No offense, but unless ælfen tastes differ terribly from men’s, you really must learn to cook. I laid awake in the night (or what I imagined to be night by the sound of hour-chimes in the hall), remembering my missing journals and lost companions. To pass the time, I’d taken to screaming at random; I loved to see the stiff-necked guards look flustered and annoyed. But that morning, I began to scream without meaning to. I wasn’t able to stop until the guards dragged me out into the hall. Something within me had broken, and had the World-Serpent slithered into my cell that night, I would’ve smiled back at him. Company at last.

I met Alék the next day. He knocked timid on my door the next morning, a mug of caffa in one hand and a question on his mind. I nearly wept to see both. He asked his question as I gulped greedily at the dark brew. It warmed, but did not bite. Prisoners can’t be picky, I suppose, but the cold north makes many lovers of the vivifying potion, and even more critics. Still, I begrudged it not: it gave me the boldness to tell my tale.

I explained nothing. I drew no conclusions. I even doubted if the story was wholly true: the man who told it lied about everything, including his name. Alék listened closely, carefully, and, when tale and caffa had both run dry, left my cell with a quiet thanks.

I worried that I’d frightened him away. Why had I chosen the warden’s tale? I could think of no earthly reason, and I still can’t. But I had no answer to his question, despite of all the years I’ve spent with the creatures he asked about. Between seasons of work, famine, and hardship, I’ve not had the time to form any meaningful conclusions about them. I had some notions… notions which have faced a hard check in the last few weeks. But even those which stood were hard to put in words. In that moment, asked to stand for my species before a student of its history, I felt that a story was the only answer which sufficed.

He must have agreed: he returned the next day with his teacher in tow. Alék left my cell with questions burning in his mind, and when he asked them of Clyf, the old ælf fell short trying to answer them. I grinned when the door opened to reveal the pair; they’d brought me a fresh cup of caffa. My tale-telling was finally bearing fruit.

I told the story again, and a second one besides. I might’ve moved on to a third, if I hadn’t run out of caffa. I think I called ale my muse in one of my old journals, but I was mistaken: caffa has proved better at moving my pen and quickening my tongue. Lords of the high race, I know our heady, bitter brew does not affect you in the same way, but even so, you must try it at least once in your long lives. If you can, seek out Cullins, at the inn of Raligstae. The town may be a winding trap, and the stones beyond a nightmare of arcana, but I would die contented if I could taste his caffa one last time.

The next morning, I stood before the council, escorted thither by Clyf, Alék, and a cadre of ælfen priests. After all, it was heretical honor to bring a low human before the holy highbourne; they needed to make sure all the proper protocols were observed. Clyf had taken my story to the Ælfali, and they, in turn, had asked to hear it for themselves. He explained as much to me in my cell, then added Faith and Græce, nodding. Græce and Faith, the priests replied, then turned to me. Alék jabbed me in the ribs. Grahss and Fah-th, I mumbled sleepily.

I was blindfolded again – yes, again. But the bag they put over my head was clean and fresh, and it wasn’t guards who hauled me out of the cell, but soft-palmed priests and scholars. When the streets of Ælfal opened before us, I heard (rather than saw) the bustle of people and animals, loud as the Capital at Autumnal. The street felt warm underfoot after weeks in my cell, despite being hidden from the sun behind the walls. Whispers chased the priests and their decidedly un-ælfen captive. Could that be… several voices wondered, before we vanished behind yet another gate. I only wished the journey was longer; I was hardly able to move my legs in the cell, and they cried for joy as we walked.

Clyf made the introductions (far-mér, gräzí-landér, and all that), and a feminine voice (that of the lady Istráda, I learned) replied from an unseen chair high above. Then she turned to me; a human, and humble even for that race. With a clear, quiet, level word, she bid me tell my story.

Beneath the bag, I couldn’t help another grin. I bowed, then obeyed her command… somewhat too literally. I told my pair of Serpent-tales (better for practice than I had before), then did exactly what the lady asked: told my story. From Hallistoc to Ellingston, Capital to Ælfal, I laid my life before them.

As I spoke, I realized with wonder that it wasn’t so separate from the other tales as I believed; that I’d wandered through my days blind to the fact that they were part of a larger story… one even bigger than the beast, drawing in every man, ælf, and dwarfish in the Vale. Perhaps all tales are Serpent-tales. If so, this book might end up being rather long… but for now, I’ll try to limit it to the stories I’ve heard, read, and lived.

The lords and ladies didn’t seem to mind my ramblings on, not even when I started talking about myself; having never left the city, the life of a Gräzland farmer must seem strange and wonderful to them. The tale-telling went over a treat – or, at the very least, I kept their attention. The applause which followed was sharp and sudden and over as quick as it began, but for Ælfs, I’m sure it was a standing ovation.

The next day saw their favor further. A hale breakfast (by ælfen standards) and another cup of caffa were delivered to my cell, before my illustrious companions returned. Clyf invited me to accept another unheard-of invitation: access to the Ælfali library. Of course, I agreed.

I was blindfolded, of course, but once we climbed the stairs, crossed the road, and passed through a door which clicked shut behind us, the bag was removed. Then I was blinded anew. A brilliant splendor overtook the all-too-familiar dark; not the cold light of ælf-torches, but the warm, homely radiance of a bright sun above. I shut my eyes against the blessed rays, basking in the heat I had so dearly missed. When the pain faded, only pleasure remained. When I finally opened them, I saw I was not standing beneath the open sky, as I’d foolishly dared to hope. What I did see, however, was no less wondrous.

Above, a great round window looked out from the great white wall of Ælfal. A lacework of metal held the glass in place; from where I stood, it looked like the glittering web of some great, steel spider. The windowpanes nestled in each doubled, twisted strand of silver were bright and clear as frozen air. Golden daylight lanced between them, casting patterned shadows through the dusty air. When I finally tore my tear-filled eyes away from the window, I found a sight which convinced me that I’d left my life behind for some happy corner of the Dreamlands. The gentle dome of the ceiling, aglow with morning light, curved down from the skylight to the tops of tall bookshelves, where grim, carven faces of white stone (old ælf scholars, I guessed) stared down in haughty disapproval. They all seemed more or less identical, but I didn’t look at them for too long. No: my gaze (and indeed, my whole being) was drawn instead to what they guarded.

Books. Books of tales. Books of history. Books of poetry (never my favorite) and blessed books of prose. Books of every shape and size and color, written in every language of the Vale and more than a few beyond. More books than I could read in twelve ælf-lives. More books, I fear, than I knew what to do with.

I haven’t read more than a half-a-dozen books in all my life, if that. My battered old copy of Tarwa Iv had almost shed its binding for rereading, but still, I counted it my most prized possession. Needless to say, my jaw down hung to my navel at the sight. Alék turned back to me and laughed, the sharp, boyish sound echoing from between shelves taller than my farmhouse. Clyf whirled with a look in his eyes which cut him short. Silence, it seemed, was sacred in this hallowed hall. He vanished a few minutes later; I didn’t see him again until the end of the day.

And what a day it was! The library was emptied before I arrived, so I felt no compunction about running up and down the aisles, pulling down books whose titles caught my fancy. Clyf adopted the soft brown smock of a librarian, running after me as best he could. He noted my choices in a small notebook, returned the ones I finished, and watched, waiting, for the question he knew would come.

The library is the only place in all of ælfdom where haste is not a virtue. Another day passed… and then another. By the fourth day I began to slow, bloated on my book-feast. An entire world buzzed between my ears, desperate for release. Clyf stood off in the shadows as always, a ways distant from the little three-walled cubby I’d selected for privacy. I was readying a transcript of The Tragedy of Selanna, a play I’d always heard of, but never bothered to see. I set it aside, overwrought. Tragedy, indeed. I reached for the caffa mug, only to find it empty; Clyf had refilled it at least four times already. It sat beside a stack of ancient, scrawling texts, drawn from every backwater between here and the Guardians. I let my fingers run idly over them.

I barely heard Clyf’s footsteps as he crossed the floor, treading on the white-black seal of the holy city carved into the stone. Despite the fact we were alone, his voice didn’t rise above a whisper when he asked if I was finished– it never did.

I leaned back in my chair, looking up through the window. Night had fallen on the world beyond. A band of stars wound between the panes of glass, bright as a second moon in the endless dark. I found myself remembering another night, not-so-long ago and not-so-far away. It didn’t feel like a memory – more like a tale half-read and half-forgotten, in a book that time had lost. I turned to Clyf. He looked anxious – at least, more anxious than usual. Finally, with a voice no louder than his, I asked the question he was waiting for. Did he have any books about the World-Serpent?

He smiled, and scurried off with uncharacteristic speed. I heard a shuffling a ways off; not from the direction of the shelves, but rather, his desk. In less than a minute, he reappeared around the corner with a stack of books under his arm. Even from where I sat, I saw that one was emblazoned with a twisting, winged snake, while the other…

My heart leapt at the sight of the other volume in his steady hands. It was wrapped in clean, white leather, and its hundred pages were untouched by pencil, quill, or the yellow of age. The council, he said, had been so impressed by my stories that they wanted a written copy for the library – if I had time to write one, of course. I almost laughed aloud; time was the one thing the ælfs had left me. With grim, stoic seriousness, I nodded, gravely accepted the book. I only kept myself from dancing by some unknown force of will.

After so much reading, I was more excited by the journal than the other texts; but eventually, I opened the first volume in the stack. It was a corpus of legends from the days before the king; strange, barbaric tales the scholars of Ælfal translated in ages past. It’s with one of these that I begin this volume. I don’t mean to copy it down; to take it word-for-word out of that singular text would be to steal a part of the library’s magyk. Not that I’d want to, anyways: it’s a long, dry poem which doesn’t rhyme… not in Valeian, at any rate. Besides, the ælfs don’t need another scribe. I’d be a poor one if I tried. Instead, I’ll put it in my own words, roundabout as they may be. I mean to do the same with all the other tales I heard along the road; those who told them had their chance to weave their stories. Now, it’s my turn.

That winding prelude brings us to where I now sit, in that same nook of that same library while snow gathers on the window high above. But there’s one more dedication I wish to make before I begin: one I forgot at first, but one I’d be remiss to leave out.

This book of tales, I dedicated to my beloved beauty, my shining maid of fire, Senaia of Ellingston – and to Jayceson, the son who bears my name forward in the world I’ll never see. Though you may seem humble next to Alexi, Clyf, and the council of Ælfal, I write this book for you most of all. I’ll never see you again, but should capricious Fortune turn her wheel a kinder way, perhaps this volume will one day reach you. I pray that you read it… for if you do, my son, that means that you’ve learned your letters and begun to love them as I do.

And so begins the tale of the World-Serpent…

~the library at ælfal was once considered the repository of all knowledge in the vale. many rare and forbidden volumes were once held safely behind its walls~

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