Friday, March 20, 2020

Legends of Voraniss: Áthalyn the Otter

by Renee "Kindrianna" Booke

When the cold of winter is finally cast off, all of Voraniss comes alive with whispers of color and sound. The birds remember how to sing, clearing their voices as they hop from branch to branch; using the Ancient Ones as perches from which they might glimpse the face of the dawning season. Grass sprouts from between the diminished ice and snow, slipping through the cracks of the void undeterred; while the sky creeps from cloudy gray to beryl toned beauty. This is the time when Voranians prepare for one of their beloved traditions, the Ritual of Renewal. But few of them know how this practice came to be.

It was the year 757, the same year that Osag led the first migratory humans through the area. “Lake” Irvan, the inland sea, had just witnessed the Storm of the Cleansing Tide and there was terrible flooding all along the coasts and rivers. Where there used to be earthen paths of dirt, stone, and roots, mud and murky ankle-deep water that kept the secrets of the storm had triumphed. It was hard to traverse this terrain, and travel, even by foot, became a cumbersome burden.

 The Druids of Calandia, following in their late King’s footsteps, turned to the Ancient Ones for aid. Surely the Treants had weathered storms such as these before, or better yet, knew of potent nature magic that could cleanse their verdant forests of this lingering disaster. Their favored advisor, Autumn-Elm, had only grim news for his beloved Elves. This weather, he explained, was an anomaly. Nothing like it had ever been seen in Voraniss before, and certainly not spoken of in all the stories passed from root to crown. “In nature, storms such as these take great energy and power,” he cautioned, “Mother Gaia must be trying to communicate.” His voice softened with reverence when he spoke of his beloved Mother, feeling her warmth and strength within every aged branch. “You must go to the shores of the inland sea and call her name three times,” he instructed. “When you have done this, you must then throw a silver shell displaced by the flood back into the sea.”

The Druids did not question Autumn-Elm on this task, even if his instructions were very particular. They waded through standing water and persistent mud for days, trying to find a shell worthy of their ritual. When they finally found it, they gathered on the shores of the inland sea as Autumn-Elm had told them to do, chanting Mother Gaia’s name into the wind three times.

The water’s surface, like a mirror to another realm, began to stir; ripples cutting through the unnatural stillness. Expecting Mother Gaia, the Elves began to kneel in worship and prayer, averting their eyes out of respect for her potent majesty. There was a faint splash, and the pitter-patter of tiny feet drew closer to them. One Elf dared to peek, both afraid and driven by curiosity, when he noticed that their guest was but an Otter standing alert upon the beach, their ritual shell clasped tightly in its little hands. “M-mother Gaia?” the Elf whispered, confused.

The creature emitted a playful squeak and spoke in a voice so soft and warm that it reminded them of the twinkling stars in the nighttime sky, gems of glittering brilliance in the deepest darkness of the universe. “I am not she,” the Otter lamented. “I am Áthalyn, and I speak for the children of the waters.”

The Elves felt comfortable raising their eyes now that a formal introduction had been established, and one by one they made their greetings and pleasantries. “Great Áthalyn,” they pleaded, “these lands need your aid. They suffer under the blight of darkened waters flooding their livelihood. Autumn-Elm, the oldest tree that dwells within these lands did send us here, saying that we should speak with Mother Gaia and learn her mind.”

Áthalyn scurried along the shore, drawing closer to the Elves. Her little black eyes were not full of pity, hiding instead some mixture of curiosity and intrigue. “I can help you, for I know the way of water. It is not Mother Gaia you should speak to, but her children, hidden within the depths of the sea. Long they have been forgotten and secondary to your love of the trees, and this storm is their hurt, pain, and loneliness.” She brought the shell to her mouth, nibbling on it to look for any trace of a tasty morsel. “Mother Gaia has sent me to help you make peace with them.”

The Elves stood aghast. How could they have forgotten the waters and their inhabitants? It was so large a blunder that they were brought great shame and embarrassment, standing wordless upon the shores of the sea. They stood in silence contemplating what they should do, shuffling idly from side to side as their cheeks and the tips of their ears burned with self-awareness.

Áthalyn broke the silence with another squeak, hopping back into the water and diving below the surface. She came back a few minutes later, breaking the crest of the water like a popping bubble. “It is not your silence the children require, silly Elves. Come and know us, let us share in your journeys, your joys, and your struggles.” She rubbed a paw against her face, cleaning the length of her glistening whiskers.

“But how do we do that?” one of the Elves asked, his gaze still focused on his feet instead of the water. It brought him great pain to know that he had wounded nature in this way. “Elves may not swim the depths the way a fish can. Surely there is some other way to communicate and enjoy one another.”

Áthalyn tilted her head at the question and ensuing statements. She let out a giggle and crawled from the water again, pushing the offered shell with her nose. “This was a good start! Just look within yourselves and send us your wishes and hopes. That will connect us to all that you do and are.”

The Elves gathered to speak on Áthalyn’s counsel, contemplating the path they would take to redemption. One Elf was struck with an idea. “Well,” he explained, “We may not be able to swim like fish, but we do know how to sail. Maybe we could make boats!”

“What are the children of the water going to do with boats?” another questioned. “Unless we place our offerings upon them and sail them into the water, still, that is a lot of work to find and build so many boats” his voice trailed off, deep in contemplation.

Another Elf sat beside the shoreline heavy with thought, fidgeting with a piece of wood that had washed up upon the rocks. With a wistful sigh, she tossed the broken timber to the waves. When it did not sink, her eyes widened with epiphany. “I have an idea!” she exclaimed without warning, and all the eyes of her Elven brethren were suddenly upon her.

“What idea?” they asked, “Tell us, Sister.”

“We make small vessels from bark and wood and float them into the water with our offerings,” she said happily, gesturing to the water as she spoke.

“A good idea!” the others agreed, “perhaps we can personalize them with small decoration,” they added.

Having arrived at a consensus, the Elves set to work on building their miniature crafts. Many of them found use in samples of bark still buoyant enough to sail, while others lashed together sticks for small rafts. Putting their ingenuity to the test they proved each vessel had the strength to hold their offerings of moss, shells, and stones. A few added flowers to theirs, a spot of color in a sea of earthen tones. Laughing, they compared and discussed what they had each created, playfully showing off in the dying light of the day.

When twilight set upon them like a blanket covering the earth, they returned to the shores where Áthalyn had spoken to them. One Elf handed out small pieces of parchment and candles that he had gone to fetch. “We should write them messages,” he explained. “Áthalyn was very clear that the children of the water wanted to know our journeys and struggles. I intend to tell them of myself, and one thing I wish to change in the spirit of the season of renewal.” The Elf took his prepared parchment and rolled it up, setting it upon his vessel. Next, he added one of the small candles and lit it with a modest spark of magic.

The other Elves followed his example, scratching out their messages and adding them to their creations. Soon the gentle orange glow of more than a dozen candles bathed the coast in tender light, and the Elves sent their vessels into the sea. Standing together they watched until those twinkling lights disappeared far beyond the horizon, hoping that maybe all would be right in the world again.

It was a late night, and by the time they awoke the next morning, they found to their delight and relief that the waters of the great flood had begun to recede. The land was healing, and hope had been restored. The group of Elves shared their tale with all who would listen, and that evening more of Calandia’s residents flocked to the edge of the sea to partake of the ritual. The Elves vowed then and there to continue this tradition every Spring so that they could maintain and strengthen their bond with the children of the water lest they be reprimanded by another magical tempest.

Over the years the Ritual of Renewal has taken many forms. For Voranians who must leave their homes and adventure for the sake of what they hold dear, it is nigh impossible to stand upon the shores of “Lake” Irvan. These Voranians instead content themselves with telling their traveling companions what they wish to renew or change for the coming year while gathered around the warmth of a bonfire. In the small, rural village of Woodhaerst which is far from the water, the locals celebrate with the Festival of Flowers, hanging their secrets and desire for change within paper flowers that they drape from the trees. The Elves of Calandia, however, have never strayed from the holiday’s original practices; and for more than two hundred years have continued their pilgrimage to those very same shores to enjoy the company of Áthalyn and her kin.

Some Voranians believe this is why the shells whisper back when they put their ears to them. The sounds of the ocean are Áthalyn whispering advice and secrets to those who wish to hear. Others believe it is the joyous song of the children of the water. We may never know the truth of these things, but it is fun to have something to believe in one way or another.