The Curve of Rising Action
People think of the Elf as graceful, tree-dwelling nature folk, in tune with the world and themselves, capable of amazing feats of strength and willpower, wrapped in serenity and mystery. People are, as usual, dead wrong. Elf have the capacity to be clumsy bastards and loud-mouthed blaggards as much as anyone else, although they did try to cultivate the idea of them as being some kind of superior race. Not this one, though.
Melamira, last child of a forgotten house that had once been venerable, opulent and imperial, gazing proudly from its stoic perch above the city of Amethseryne, was currently trying to outrun several very angry pigs while going “Buggerbuggerbuggerbuggerbugger--” in a distinctly inelegant and non-mysterious way, her dirty boots thudding non-serenely between the trees. Sure, she was fast in a way most people could only aspire to be, and her ability to dodge branches and thickets was not easily matched.
But angry wild pigs don’t really care about that sort of thing, and had no trouble keeping up with her. She vaulted over a falling log and landed in a roll. It would have looked cooler if someone half as tall hadn’t crashed into her immediately as she was rising.
“Oof,” the little shape said, before scrambling to its feet.
“Tilly!” Melamira shouted as she got up. The pigs were approaching quickly, and she didn’t have a lot of time to admonish the little Kobold. “Where were you?! What are you doing? Run!” She took off running, Tilly’s small form having no trouble keeping up with her.
“I’m helping, Mellie,” Tilly said. “Left!” Melamira rolled her eyes, kicked off one tree, then the other, did a pirouette in the air and continued running in the direction Tilly had indicated. The Kobold Tilly had been a companion of hers for years, although once upon a time she’d been a lot taller and a lot more gruff. For some, it seemed, a more affirming body included being a lot shorter and scalier. It had never occurred to Melamira to question it. She’d known her old friend was more of a Tilly even before the transformation.
All that said, right now her old friend had also left Melamira with a nasty bruise right on her ego. She hoped that whatever plan the critter had come up with would be worth it. Tilly steered them towards a clearing, and then jumped, a lot higher than her short stature seemed like it would be able to. Trusting her friend, Melamira jumped too, and saw the pitfall, hastily covered with snow, underneath them. Even before they landed, Melamira heard the noise of breaking wood behind her, and then a lot of angry oinking as a pile of panicked pigs piled up at the bottom of the hole Tilly had apparently been digging.
“Well,” Melamira said, “that explains where you’ve been.” She dusted herself off as she walked to the edge of the hole. The creatures at the bottom seemed to have landed fairly softly, considering how deep… “Tilly, how long have you been digging this hole?!”
“Two days,” Tilly said proudly, putting her hands on her hips, licking her own eyeball.
“We were supposed to be guarding the shore!” Melamira said as she began to walk back downhill towards the river. “You’ve just been digging here for two days?”
“Never know when you’ll need a good hole, Mels,” Tilly said, then pointed at the hole. “Case in point!” Melamira had to admit that she was making a degree of sense. Still, it made her feel kind of dumb for traipsing through the woods looking for threats these past few days.
“I guess you’re not wrong,” Melamira said, “but still.”
“‘Still’ nothing,” Tilly said with a self-satisfied grin. “I caught them and you didn’t.”
“It was just a few pigs, Tilly. Hardly a great challenge.” They reached the river’s edge, and started to follow it upstream. The floating Mangrove they’d been staying at was just a little further. “Still, Serana will be pleased, I suppose.”
“Yeh,” Tilly said, a bounce in her step. They’d been hunting the herd for a little while, but they’d made themselves annoying to track, and Melamira tried not to stray too far from Serana’s mangrove. The young floating arcology was still trying to find its bearings, in both a literal and figurative sense, captained by its leader, the River Princess Serana, who had once roamed the world as the barely-living Morgana Windwalker. Her quest for vengeance hadn’t so much come to an end as it had fizzled out, and reparations were still being made to make up for the destruction of her homeland and people.
While technically, Serana and Melamira belonged to the same ‘species’, more than a thousand years of history separated them, and both of them were doing a lot of learning. Melamira had heritage to discover, and Serana was still a bit of a fish out of water. But a new Princess on the Long River had still drawn attention, and the new mangrove -- without a name so far, but that would change -- already had a substantial population traveling alongside it. The nomadic band would travel along the river, stopping where the floating mangrove did, patiently waiting for it to grow large enough to sustain more people.
It was coming into view, moored not far from a small fishing village. Large not-quite-sentient trees, grown to have natural hollows inside them, roots entwining to form a natural flotilla, were currently rooted to the riverbank. The sight never failed to make an impression on Melamira. Something about the sight of a slowly growing city floating on the river was so inherently impossible to her, no matter how wide the river. She looked to the distant shore.
“Do you think the caravans of the wastes are ever coming back?” Tilly asked. She’d been looking in the same direction.
“I don’t know. I’m not too worried,” Melamira said, reassuring herself more than anything. “It’s been a year. They’ve been gone for longer.”
“If you say so.” Tilly’s apprehension was a reflection of Melamira’s own. The caravans had once been a popular sight among travelers, and news of their current location would travel up and down this side of the river. The other side belonged to the caravan.
The two walked in silence for a bit, Tilly humming a tune to herself. She never used to be this cheery, up until five years ago when they’d met the “Demon Dragon Queen” and her best friend had died. After he’d turned out to be okay, and the Dragon Queen had turned out to be Liz, Tilly had turned out to be Tilly. It had been a wild ride. Since then, her and Mellie had been adventuring together. Without imminent threats, the nation of Wydonia hadn’t really had a need for a standing army or police force, and local communities hired adventurers -- a fancy word for mercenary -- to deal with wild animals and monsters.
Serana was already visible from a small distance discussing something with a man from the fishing village. It was hard not to notice her. She had the statuesque height that was typical of her race, but rather than the usual dark skin and hair that came with it, her skin was light, her hair a light reddish-blonde. She struck an imposing figure, not helped by the fact that she didn’t ever really speak above a whisper. When she saw Mellie and Tilly approach, she shook the man’s hand and waved the two of them over.
“Tilly is looking smug,” she said with her trademark breathiness. “I take it you were successful then?”
“Yup!” Tilly beamed. “Your vegetable thieves were approximately thirty to fifty feral--”
“It was a bunch of pigs,” Melamira interrupted. “They’re in a hole not far downriver.”
“My hole,” the little Kobold said, not letting her hard work go unrecognized. “I don’t know how you lot do with domestication and pig meat, but that’s good eating.”
Serana nodded. “Thank you both. We’ll pickle it and sell it upstream. Fishing has been hard for…” She paused seeming to look for a diplomatic way to put things, and then realized there weren’t any other listeners. “Humans,” she concluded. Melamira chuckled.
“You’d think they’d have gotten better over the past few centuries,” she said, looking over at the fishing village.
“They survive,” Serena said, shrugging. “Come.” She hesitated, as if trying to remember something. “Um. Please.”
“You’ll get there,” Tilly said, happily hopping over to the bridge between the riverbank and the floating city, humming something to herself. She knew where to go. After five years, to say Serena had become their friend was still not quite accurate, but they’d gone through some nonsense together.
“How does she stay so chipper?” Serena whispered to herself as she followed the little creature. Melamira joined her.
“Honestly,” she said, “I have no idea. She keeps things interesting and lively, though.”
“I can imagine.” The River Princess was quiet as they climbed the stair-like roots to her quarters, Tilly now audibly singing to herself. Even in the cold, the mangrove was quite busy with Elf tending to the trees and coming back from fishing trips. When the trees were this young, they needed careful attention to stay afloat, and the practice had been virtually lost over the centuries, until Serana had rejoined the land of the living.
“You look worried,” Melamira said as the path up leveled out. “More so than usual.”
“I am,” Serana said quietly. From up here, hundreds of feet up from the riverbed, they could see a lot further, but the mangrove was dwarfed by the giant trees of the nearby Redwood Forest, and even more so by the Deepwood beyond it. “We’re close to where we escaped the forest,” she said.
“I noticed,” Mellie said. It wasn’t much more remarkable than any other part of the river, but her sense of direction was as good as Serana’s. This was close to where they’d escaped the people who had been hunting them through the Redwood, five years ago. Where Sabine had died. “But that’s not just it, isn’t it?”
“It isn’t,” Serana said darkly. “There’s something stirring, Melamira. Something is upsetting the old ones between the trees.” They’d met some of them, last time. Ancient beings, some older than than the forest itself, now living forever in the shadows and darkness of the Redwood. Ancient spirits from a time before, when the world was full of wild, chaotic magic. It had been a harrowing, awe-inspiring experience.
Melamira looked at her, and then out at the Redwood, a wall of wood that marked this side of Wydonia as much as the wide river did. “Intruders, you mean?”
Serana shook her head. “No. Something else. They whisper loudly at night.” She paused. Serana was older than almost anyone alive, by virtue of having been dead for centuries. She remembered things that civilization didn’t. “Old gods are stirring,” she said, as she stepped inside the room grown into the tree. Her quarters weren’t very opulent. To call Serana’s lifestyle ‘sparse’ was understatement. She’d probably live off tree bark if she could. “Let’s hope they find peace again soon.”
Tilly was already idling around the room. In other towns, this is where she’d fiddle with things, annoying whoever had invited them into their office. Her small stature allowed her to get away with a lot of nonsense, and Melamira’s calm demeanour, by contrast, tended to put people on the back foot. It was an unorthodox negotiation tactic, but it had worked out for the duo. But they knew Serana, and she was good for it.
“Your payment,” Serana said, opening a panel in the wall and tossing them a bag of silver. Melamira caught it deftly and passed it to Tilly, who shuffled it away into a hidden pocket.
“Thank you, your highness,” Melamira said, a little more theatrically than she should, and it elicited a smirk from Serana.
“None of that,” the Princess said. “Or I will dig up any titles belonging to your family.”
“You wouldn’t,” Melamira said with mock shock.
“Try me.” They both chuckled, right up until there was a loud boom and the room shook. There was a moment of silence as everyone looked at each other. Then the tree lurched wildly, swayed, and Tilly was bounced out the window.