Elf passed back and forth in this nervous twitch human witnessed many times before, each time before some dangerous stunt his group of rebels tried to pull off. And while they succeeded most of the times, casualties would drive him crazy. Lad often thought that this might be why his people called him by elvish word "dyaebl", meaning "the devil". His own elves tho called him other names, sometimes those names were familiar, heard in legends, myths, but lad never dared to ask.
He himself was one of the younger commanders of human army-groups, but maybe it was indeed his youth that got him captured so easily. Dyaebl often joked that were he twenty years older, he wouldn't be walking on his fours now, instead would lay dead with some dignity left in him. He'd call him Quickling, as in Quick-to-Live-and-Perish. And while lad only spent two months in company of elves, he already had strong doubts on their true nature.
In army they were taught to kill elves on sight, to not give them a chance of any sort. They were painted as the devils who'll make flutes out of your bones if you're not careful, the archers who'll pin you to your bed in a fortress, if you leave a single tree for them to hide in a radius of hundreds of miles.
Dyaebl stopped and turned to lad. He'd call him "boy" often, reminding their age difference, even if they looked practically the same. Elf spoke with him plenty, unlike most of his people, he didn't seem to hate humans as much either, even if he could never find any justification for them, for humans, to act as they did, he clearly thought that not all can be as terrible as these who were killing his brothers, his children, his elders. Thus he captured this Quickling and brought him back to their camp, causing susurrus among elves - such a dangerous act committed – human! He put a dog's collar on him and never released the chain for the first three weeks. He gave him a little more freedom when boy got used to the elves more, explaining first, that the first wrong step will definitely be the last, for there are more arrows at all times pointed at him than he could possibly see. He'd force the lad to his knees, making him walk on all fours, like a dog. But when he scraped his palms to raw meat, elf gave him thin leather gloves as his archers used. They were sturdy and comfortable.
"Do you understand this whole commotion, boy?" – he asked, as he approached and crouched down in front of the lad, not letting him stand ever, unless there was a really good reason to it.
"You're showing your people that we're but dogs? That we can be tamed and held as pets? Harmless, thus not a treat, too weak to ever be?"
"You make good points, Quickling, but that is not it. I am well aware your people call me 'the crazy elf', 'the devil, dyaebl'. And maybe I am, not even my people would deny all of the rumors blindly. But hate for me is like poison. If I wanted you all dead or tamed as pets, I would not drink the poison myself, instead I would give it to you, like you give it to us. What do your people say? Kill the pointy-eared ones on sight? Male, female, children, just kill them, the only good elf is a dead elf! I heard you all, we heard you all. And that's the poison you drink and share with us. That is why I took you, that is why I put a collar on you and forced you into a position of a dog. You are an example, but not to my people. By nature my people are gentle, they care for each other and care to create, not to destroy, unlike you, human. You'll be an example to your kind. To know your place is the first step. You can kill us, because you can't tame us. And we don't have to kill you, for we can bend you, break you. And if you push us harder – we will. The elves you saw were but a fraction of those living closest to your domains. But there are more out there, in the hills, in the forests you wouldn't even dare to enter and if you did – you most likely would never come out. Do you understand, boy?"
Lad was taught by Dyaebl himself that he should look into elven eyes no matter the terror their alien eyes caused in his heart. Only then you'll be considered worth talking to. Thus he looked, into a single fit eye, large and blue as southern sea. The other eye was missing, in it's place there was a round or more oval piece of moonstone. Lad could swear he sometimes saw light shine right out of it.
"I do understand that you bear no hate towards me or my kind, elf. But that will not stop you from killing us."
"I kill you, because otherwise you will kill my own. And if I could stop this war by tearing each and single one of you apart with my own hands, if a mountain of your hearts would ease the hearts of my harmed kin, Creators see me swear, I would start right here and continue until there's not a single round ear to hear a whisper."
He stood, turned and walked few steps away. Then lifted his head up to listen. Behind the arrow-slit windows rain was pouring heavier and heavier. Room filled with humidity, warm, but making it difficult to breath.
"A hundred years ago I still had both my eyes that I was born with. It was raining over the Dark Forest of the Southern Valleys. Humans now call it the Golden Crown forest, for they do not know what terrors lye beneath it. But I know. I stood there in the rain that felt like boiling droplets on my fear-struck cold skin, as shapes of purest darkness rose up. I heard humans behind me and in front I saw demons from the depths of my nightmares. I chose to run at them, than risk meeting humans, for then we were still hoping for peace and were not allowed to prove your kin right when labeling us – abominations and a curse of your kind. Your kind had already killed my eldest brother, dismembering him and scattering across the forest. It took me three days to collect him so that I could burn him and bury him as proper. And still I chose demons over humans. It most likely saved my life, for even thought the group I traveled with fought well, humans were overwhelming, there were simply too many of you. I stumbled over a corpse and fell and they approached. A man with probably every single tooth rotten in his gap smiled wickedly, shouting to his mates, that, oy, an elfling is here! Apparently his wife loved elven eyes, considering them a rather beautiful jewelry, thus needing a new one each time the old began to wither. Out of his pocket this man produced a spoon, rusty, with roughly sharpened edges. Took him two of his mates to pin me down, never the less one I knocked out. Still, soon I found my head in tight grip and rusty spoon dug into my skull. The pain was extraordinary. And yet not as terrible as the one I felt when I found the head of my brother, with his eyes wide open as if in a question."
Lad shivered. Elf turned to him as if sensing the terror. His stone-like face hid something inhuman behind it. Different. Terrible.
"I was saved by a witch. She pushed this thing into my empty eye socket, cracking bones, damaging whatever tissue there was left. But she gave me full sight again. And she was human. If you'd ever meet her, I suggest you fall on your knees and kiss her feet, for I would be as insane as they think I am, were she not there to sooth the darkness your kin planted in me. She said I screamed non stop for almost whole night, yelling and cursing into the darkness, shuffling and waving my arms to defend myself from the demons hovering over me, nearing in delight of the rage, the terror, the hate I radiated. So she gave me sight to see into the hearts of all things living and then judge whether death is truly the answer, whether vengeance is the best price. And when I saw your young pale face among those seasoned war-men, I laughed. Your heart was full of stories, lies and bullshit. Thus I ordered my archers to kill all but you. I claimed you as a war trophy. Many of my people take trophies home, war-horns, rough human jewelry, preferably with insignia, sigils, heraldry. They did not approve of me taking a whole human at first, some suggested getting your head, making me a necklace out of your finger bones and teeth. But I cared getting you alive and showing your people the different side of their stories."
Out of his bag he took out a bottle of cold herbal tea and offered it to lad. Boy was glad to sooth his throat with cool honeyed drink. This elf was the only one who would drink from same bottle or same cup as a human. And maybe this boy was the only one to share a cup or a bottle with an elf. He could have believed that.
"Today I am glad to be alive, only missing an eye. But today I worry more than ever that one of mine will not return. And I would give my life to lengthen either of theirs without another thought to it. Not your people, Quickling. You saw them, you heard them. They care to kill us and they do not care how you will end. You seek victory at any price. We seek life at any price."
Elf sat down, on the dusty floor in front of the boy, keeping some distance as always. He looked at the loose shackles on his legs and wrist, at the collar, with eight short and not too sharp studs always pressing against lad's throat. At the chain that lay beside him, not held by anything.
"You never tried to run away."
"You'd hunt me down quicker than I'd make three steps outside the camp."
"That's not always the truth. There are gaps even in our circles. Even now, I am the only elf left in this falling fortress of yours. Honestly, humans are the worst masons ever. We don't build much, but this is just terrible."
"Where would I go?"
"I don't know. Home? To your kin?"
"They're my kin, true. But there's no home among them. I saw how you take in elves from anywhere as your own brothers and sisters, they become one of the people the second your hands touch to greet each other and all will be glad to help them, for it is considered helping yourself. You are all like one. But we aren't. Human is alien to another human. I could go back to nearest human city, but I'd sleep on street and they'd be afraid to hire me too, for I was a soldier who fought against elves and was released for no real reason. They'd be afraid you'll come after me."
"Don't blame us for you being cold-hearted towards each other. Not only all elves are one. We consider you and us also – as one. Come to us baring no hate in your heart and we'll take you in as our own true-born brother for helping you will be equal of helping ourselves. You will have shelter, you will be fed and if you will so please, you'll be given work for common good. It is you, humans, who shove us away as different. But tell me now, how are we different? My ears are pointy, my irises are larger and I may be slimmer than your male kin is used to. But other than that here you drink same drink as I and neither of us chokes on it. You was fed with elven food and I don't see you dying from it. Here I breath in and so do you. If I cut my finger, it bleeds just like yours and if you tell me I'm a bad fiddler I'll be same offended as you would be were I to call you bad swordsman. Answer me, human, show me our differences, for I am losing my mind in this hellish war."
"I don't know, elf. I was afraid of you, awaiting torture day after day, awaiting death. But instead of a knife, you shoved me a spoon, full of porridge just like the one my granny used to make. Instead of torture I was first asked to walk on my fours and now I think, were I to agree easier back then, I wouldn't be forced to it with a kick and a punch. But that's the worst you did to me. I truly experienced no more harm than three bruises and few blows to my dignity. And the more I hear you all speak, the more I am ashamed of my kin. But unlike you, one man in the sea of humans is as invisible as a single fish in the sea."
"Were I to take off your shackles now, human, would you go? The door is open."
"I would. So that I could return when your people are back and ask to take me in and let me be your brother."
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