Mehli's Prologue

    Why do these stories always start in an Inn?  Always in some random town, usually by the sea where people are coming and going from the docks.  So everyone goes to the Inn.  Where they meet some dark mysterious guy in the corner who tells them of a vast treasure if they'll just do this little quest.
    Perhaps I'm that mysterious guy in the corner this time.  Heck, I'll even sell you an ancient treasure map.  Just give me a minute, a pen and some parchment and I got your gen-u-wine ancient treasure map right here.  I'll even tell you I'd go myself but I have to look after my sick mother.  Or a crippled child.  Which is right about where I can't keep a straight face any longer and you get up in disgust without even buying me a drink.
    But no.  I'm not in a dark corner, and my shore clothes don't leave anything much a mystery.  Except why a girl like me is sitting in an Inn in Miragliano, some godsforsaken Tilean town where the river from the Empire hits the sea.
    The answer to that is sitting at the dock.  Not really the answer, but another question.  What the heck was I doing on Mucho Bene in the first place?  Don't ask me, I don't know.  Nothing special about this boat.  I may not even have the name right, Macho Bene, Multo Bene, something like that.  Whatever.  It's headed for Luccini in a week and I'll be on it.  After that, who knows, so why remember the name?  I know where it's docked, and I can find my way to my boat even blind drunk and rolling in any city in the world.

    Don't sound much like a Sea Elf, do I?  Glorious elven crusaders keeping the sea lanes safe for honest innocent merchants!  Well, show me just one honest innocent merchant and I might start to care.  Yeah, that'll be the day.  The day I give up drinking with lowlife drunks and take orders from fancy-assed elves who think they're the only thing between civilization and Chaos on the seas.  Not going to happen, not the taking orders part for sure.  The human sea dogs here started out calling me the Sea Witch, you know, because Sea Elves are known for magic and all that.  Well, they don't quite call me the Sea Witch anymore, and it's not because I don't use magic.  But I'm getting ahead of myself here, and there's some local idiot coming over to my table.  Same thing happens in every port since I signed on Multo Benito.  Let me deal with this and I'll get back to you.

    "Yeah, hello yourself.  Mine's Mehli.  Yes, Molly is a pretty name, who's Molly?  Let me guess, some guy on the ship told you Molly the Sea Witch was going to the Inn to pick up guys, right?  And you thought you'd get in on the Hot Elf Action?  To be fair, they do call me Molly, they can't handle the elvish name in Tilea.  But Mario wasn't quite honest.
    What they really call me is Molly the Sea Bitch, and the only "lucky" you're "getting" tonight is to walk out of here with your eyeballs in their sockets instead of impaled on my rapier.
    Aw, don't look so bad.  Don't take it out on Mario, he was just having some fun at my expense.  You don't get to touch, but you can sit across the table and look all you want, and I'll even smile so your friends think you're putting the charm on some elf chick so you don't lose face.  Just keep the wine flowing and some food that's almost all land animal meat and I'll even tell you stories to knock your tights off.  But when we stagger out of here at the end of the night, I'm going to my boat and you aren't coming with me, got it?  I hope so, I hate to have to clean my rapier when I'm drunk."

    Molly the Sea Bitch.  Yeah, they do really call me that.  Word gets around, too, which suits me fine because I don't want the men on board hitting on me.  I'll answer to Molly.  But the name is Mehli, Mehli Tashonai, and once upon a time I sailed with the Sea Elves.

    It was clear pretty early on that I wasn't the most ideal little girl on the schooldeck.  Attempts to interest me in magic really didn't take well.  About the only thing I learned in school was dancing, but even that didn't do me well in Sea Elf society.  You know how dance classes are, the only boys there at that age are ones who are too clumsy for the macho stuff.  So I learned to dance lead really well.  Like I said, didn't do me any good in society, but I'd be lying if I said I hadn't made good use of it since.  Worked great in Tilea.
    But that's getting way ahead again.  You want to know what the heck I'm doing here in the Inn in Miragliano, signed on to a Tilean ship whose name I can't remember.  And I'll have to go way back there, back to the unpleasantness off the Kingdoms of Ind.

    You wouldn't tell it from wot like I talk 'ere aboard ship, but back when I was with the Sea Elves I was the eldest daughter in a noble family.  I didn't know it growing up, but they had me planned out for an arranged marriage to a guy in the Grefara family, a couple of years older than me, a boy called Kevion.  Played as kids, fenced with each other, every time ashore we'd be off exploring, great chap.  Best friends forever.  Our parents figured it was a natural match, rubbing their hands with glee wondering whether he or I would pop the question first.
    Well, of course it was the last thing on our minds.  Shooting birds out of the treetops, cleaning them and cooking them over an open fire was more our kind of fun than sneaking sideways glances at a formal occasion.  Actually, we talked about it from time to time.  I wasn't his type, bit short in the chest department if you get my drift.  And we had way too much fun being friends to break that up with any stupid attempt at romance.
    But that wasn't directly the problem.  Our parents were patient enough about it, didn't put much pressure on, but were starting to drop some hints.  They even primed Kevion's sister, Alathea, to invite me to sleepovers and talk girlie stuff to me, get my ovaries calling and my thoughts turning to husbands.  Many a night the two of us would spend in her cabin, listening to the waves splash against the hull, and talking about all sorts of things.  We even talked about Kevion sometimes, and how he was my best friend and how I just didn't think of him that way.  I guess it was when I let slip that he'd make a good brother-in-law that Alathea realized that I did have my private fantasies, they just weren't of her brother.  We giggled about that and then, well...
    And fifteen minutes or so later my brother came in to fetch us for some family card game we'd forgotten about.
    So after my family not so quietly disowned me for unspecified misbehavior, I volunteered to stay behind at the next port.  We all agreed that Alathea was completely innocent and shouldn't be dragged into a public scandal.  And that I shouldn't sail with the Sea Elves anymore, at least not until everything had blown over.  Perhaps another 10-15 years or so.  If I turn up with a noble husband that would help.

    So there I was, in a port somewhere in the Kingdoms of Ind.  Of course I started out doing just what Kevion and I used to do, headed out into the jungle for a while.  Out there I started thinking about where life was going to lead now I was free.  Sure, I'd miss Kevion and I'd certainly miss Alathea, but you couldn't deny I went out with a bang.  I closed that chapter off without lingering baggage.  Being out from under the expectations of society and the demands of noble life felt awfully liberating.  The more I thought about it, the more I decided this was going to be good.

    Good got better.  Lots of High Elves in Ind, although in Western Ind I was a long way from the Tower of the Stars.  I didn't expect to run into any of them, though -- that was kind of the idea of going on walkabout for a while.  Technically I didn't, as he wasn't a High Elf, but Brathien "One-shot" Farithia ran into me and followed me around for a couple of days without me knowing it, trying to figure out what the heck a Sea Elf girl was doing this far inland.
    I guess I must have been talking to myself.  Settling down to dinner one night, to my great surprise a Wood Elf kind of just melted into sight (you had to be there), sat down next to me and asked me what I wanted out of life now I'd left life behind.
    We talked.  And we talked.  And we talked.  By the time he was done, I'd talked myself into realizing what I wanted to do next, and -- kind of unrelated -- he'd offered to teach me all about the Wood Elf longbow.
    Me, I was going to head west and see the world.  I'd stick to the small ships and generally smaller ports so I'd have a week or so to be somewhere while they loaded and unloaded.  And if I found it too interesting and missed the ship, I'd just get another one.  When I'd gone far enough west, I'd turn around and come back east.  By the time I got east to Cathay and Nippon -- somewhere I'd only heard stories about -- I'd have the entire western world to put it into perspective.
    That sounded easy enough.  I'd had enough training in the rapier to fight pirates, especially humans, as the Sea Elves traditionally did.  I also was blessfully without that Sea Elf doctrine precise line between good and evil, open-minded enough to live in the grey areas between the two without turning to the Chaos Taint.  I figured I'd do all right.

    Not so easy was the longbow.  Brathien insisted he teach me everything.  I learned to make my own arrows, and even pick the right tree and make my own longbow.  How to select the string, how to treat it, how to make sure my bow was always ready.  How to handle the arrows so I could flick one from my quiver and nock it in a blink of the eye.
    All that was before I'd even fired one shot or pulled back the bow.  After a month he taught me to draw the bow, how we elves use our muscles and the leverage from our long bodies to store the astral energy of our souls into the bow.  Each shot, he said, carried a part of the collective elven spirit energy with it, guiding it and driving the arrow into the target.  So I should always draw the bow with confidence and surety, knowing what went into each pull, and do so with reverence and awe.
    Every shot was a shot from the soul, not to be wasted.  Even when loosing volleys of arrows in area fire from massed formations, Elves were sending arcs of essence into the rain of death, creating a pure shower of wood in the image of a pure shower of rain.  I was to remember that should I need to keep up rapid fire alone, that I was not shooting a wooden bow but creating a rain shower so small and fine that it needed no cloud in the sky for it to fall.
    A hunting shot, on the other hand, was a delivery of fate from the gods themselves.  I was to whisper to the spirit of my prey before firing, so that I could deliver it cleanly into the ether with a fast strike.
    And to fire against one man, to strike him down or to wound him at my choice and not fate's, I had to hold firm the knowledge that it was right to do so.  I should never draw the bow unless I knew that right.  That knowledge of right, that would spring the arrow from my hand to his body.  I would be reaching out with the astral energy of the bow and arrow and personally striking him down.  I was never to forget that, that distance did not change matters: I was personally striking down a man as surely as if I had pierced him with my rapier.
    That was what separated the Wood Elves from the High Elves, Brathien said.  The High Elves -- and Dark Elves, and Sea Elves with now one exception -- treated a bow like a shoe or chair.  They made their fancy composite bows without knowing the tree that put its heart into it.  They handed bows around like they were loaves of bread, and wasted countless arrows on target practice like they were chaff in the wind.  They tried to achieve through blind repetition what could only be reached through philosophy.

    And then he taught me the One Shot that gave him his nickname.  We stalked a deer through the jungle, and sat and watched it graze for several minutes, over a hundred yards away.  He then had me blindfold him.  He whispered notice to its spirit, stood, nocked an arrow and drew his bow. Without a sound or any cue, the deer lifted its head, and he made One Shot that struck the deer through the eye, killing it instantly.

    He then apologized for the parlor theatrics of the blindfold, and taught me how he did it.  While we sat there, as I thought just idly watching, he was opening himself up to the world around him.  He felt the breeze on his face, watched how the grass moved as the wind by the deer rippled it, feeling the rhythm between the wind there and the wind here until he could see the grass move a hundred yards away and know exactly when and how he would feel its consequences here.  He perceived himself as the deer, feeling the rhythm of the body, the dips to eat, the lifts of the head to sniff the air, the way he-the-deer reacted to all around him.  He did that until he knew the exact moment the deer lifted its head, every time.  He knew the motion of the deer before the deer itself knew it.
    He then pictured -- no, more intimate than that, lived -- through the whole sequence: asking for the blindfold, my surprised reaction and compliance, the exact way he moved to he feet, where the arrow was in the quiver, the feel of that exact arrow, the texture of the flights, the motion and feel of nocking it, the pull of the bow and how the astral energy flowed into it as he put his soul into the shot.  Finally, how he waited until he knew the exact moment the deer would raise its head, where its eye would be, the time taken to position his body so the flight would be true, the sound and feel of the bow as it poured its essence into the arrow, the sound of the arrow in the air, and the sound of the arrow striking the eye.  Then the sound of the deer as it fell and died, my surprise, and the scent of the kill following that up on the breeze.

    That was the One Shot.  A single shot that could achieve the seemingly impossible, but not truly impossible because he had foreseen every aspect of the shot and knew it would happen because he had seen it, felt it, and lived it already.
    The other Elves would never learn it, because to them an arrow shot was just a physical thing to be fired, and if by chance they missed the first time they'd fire again.  But they can't fire a shot that can only happen once, the shot where there is no chance only certainty, to drop a single guard so that no other defenders notice (you must even visualize how and where he will fall, he told me, so you know he will fall unseen).  And then, having fired the One Shot that changes the course of history, melt away with no other clues to whence it was fired, because a single arrow does not tell enough about its source, even though it carries part of the archer's soul.

    Brathien told me how once he spent a whole week crawling across a field to get into position to make One Shot go through the eye slot of the helm of an ogre general reviewing troops in his encampment.
    I am not nearly that good, not at making the shot and definitely not at the stealth required to get into position.  But on the high seas in the dead of night I can drop a sailor from a pirate crow's nest before the ship reaches us, leaving the pirate captain alive to order his crew to turn around before the next shot he fears will take his own life.
    Little does he know that it will never come.  I have just One Shot -- once it has been made, I cannot know how they will react and so cannot visualize another.  It is a mere bluff, a bluff that takes one life to avoid a true battle.
    It has never failed.

    I'm getting distracted again, I know, but that story tells a lot about how I got here.  It is all part of why I'm in this Inn in Miragliano.  Philosophy instead of rules and learning by rote.  Freedom instead of restrictions.  Let me get back to the tale and you'll see the change it made to my life.

    One day, Brathien simply melted away as confoundingly as he had arrived.  He clearly thought it was time for me to move on.
    I headed generally south or west, I'm not sure exactly, until I reached the sea.  I then walked along the coast until I found a small town.  I shunned the High Elves in their fine mansions, and instead took a room in the Inn with the seafaring humans.  Starting out with sign language, I soon picked up just enough of the language of Ind to make it known I wanted to work passage west.
    The second night I stood watch was my first One Shot in public.  As the pirates retreated, any potential unwelcome attentions from the crew vanished into the night as well.  They already didn't trust an Elf, and I just got exotic in whole new ways involving sudden death.  When we attacked pirates ourselves, I'd swing from the rigging of our ship to the other, dropping to the deck amidst a mass of sailors who soon found themselves not taking an easy capture but instead running from my rapier.
    From then on, the last ship's crew would tell the next, and I'd be as safe from the crew on board as I'd been from servants when I was growing up.
    That ship took me to Araby, and at stops along the way I walked in grasslands, climbed mountains, and hunted in jungles.  And I drank to excess in Inns, punched a few noses, and my rapier stuck a few hands headed where I didn't want them to go.  The first night always drew those xenophiles looking for Hot Elf Action (a phrase I now know colloquially in languages from lands I have never heard of, heck I can tell it just from the tone of voice), but who soon learned to put those thoughts aside.  After that, I was one of the seafaring buddies and could relax and look for some Hot Elf Action of my own.
    Not that I ever found any, and while my passes were often brushed off as a joke or some weird Sea Witch thing, the attempts did get me run out of several towns along the way.  In that case I'd just make my way along the coast to the next port, hoping to catch up with my ship there.

    From the southern shores of Araby, I took a short trip on a Nipponese silk trader north to the land bridge that splits the southern sea from the north.  It was an unfriendly crew, who mostly ignored me and spoke a complex and difficult language.  I picked up a little, but I think it's the only language where I've never heard the annoying phrase I know in so many others.  I left that ship at the next port, striking out overland across the desert to the southern shores of this middle sea.
    That's when I picked up first of many Tilean ships, and I've been hopping them along the shores here ever since.  I like the food and especially the wine, and the crews are as good natured to me as any human has been.  They have their pet name for me, even if it would be a mortal insult if said the wrong way.
    And the men in Tilea like to think they can dance, but they can't dance like a Sea Elf who learned courtly dancing.  Who learned to dance lead as a child, and now steals dances with all their girlfriends while the men get drunk together and laugh at me.  What strange ways the Sea Witches have, where the women dance lead and the men must surely therefore dance follow!
    Far be it from me to explain the truth to them.  Then they'd just be jealous, and I'd be walking to the next town again rather than spending the evening gazing down from a perfumed balcony, sharing a fine bottle of wine with a giggling Maria or Gina.

    Life is good.  Soon, it'll be time to head east again, back through the Tilean ports I enjoyed on the way here, and then perhaps all the way to see what delights Cathay offers.  And the structured life of the Sea Elves back home can go shove itself up its own far too tight bodily orifice, if there's room in there with the stick.

    Which brings me to why I'm in this Inn in Miragliano.  I'm enjoying myself, and that's reason enough.

    Want to buy an ancient treasure map?