September 29, 2012

St'armra the Elf Lord, by Hercynius

Editor's note: Hercynius's fable combines magic, life in a simple village, fear of strangers, and warnings about human weakness to create a highly memorable story. EC is very pleased to be publishing this tale that offerings lingering mystery.
 
 nce there was a remote mountain village where all the families prided themselves greatly on how old their blood was. No one could remember when any new soul had come to the village—even for a visit. But then one mild summer day a poor, ragged, plain-faced stranger appeared in this insular village. He was, however, no ordinary stranger, but one of the Skälfar, an elven race, in disguise. His visit caused much gossip in the village as he seemed to do nothing but laze about the commons playing his curious harp, pausing only for meals, which he took at the the village's only inn. Odd too, was his surprising wealth, paying for his food and wine with shiny silver coins. Odder still was how he barely touched the food and drink. . . .

All of this made the villagers evermore suspicious. Soon the gossip grew to such intensity that a committee of the leading citizens was formed, tasked with questioning the stranger as to his purpose and business in their community.

But most disturbing about the stranger was his face, which seemed day by day to grow uglier and uglier. By the time the committee confronted him in the commons, he was a hideous sight to behold, so ugly that it was difficult for anyone to stand directly before him and treat with him. Finally, the Elbrat, a handsome, intelligent young man, stepped forward and exclaimed, “Be off! And not round about it, either!”

The ugly stranger jumped to his feet, bowed low, strummed a baleful chord on his harp, and in the next instant disappeared—surely too fast for a natural departing. The villagers were so relieved, however, that they thought no more on the matter, but returned to their usual bickering and quarreling over all their weighty matters.
  
About a month later another seemingly poor landsman came to the village. It was in fact the same elf lord, but this time he had not disguised himself with elven magic to be ugly, rather, he showed his very own handsome elf face. Again, he seemed to have no intentions, sitting under the giant oak in the commons and playing his harp all the day long. He also “took his meals” at the inn, not really eating, though—only staring at the food for a minute or two, then asking for the bill. This time he paid with gold, each coin worth far more than ten or even twenty such meals, but then not asking for any silver or copper in return. Again, the gossip in the village rose like a wind storm. However, this time the villagers could not see enough of him, for he seemed to grow in beauty with each passing day. Finally, they could stand it no longer, and so the Elbrat went to him with half the village behind him.

“Sir, we wish not to disturb your excellent harping, but you seem as some light being come among us poor mortals. We would respectfully wish to know what services we might offer you.”

At that, the elf lord laughed brightly, slung his harp on his back, and disappeared—again, really too fast for a natural leaving. Saddened by the beautiful stranger's abrupt departure, the villagers returned to their enmity and quarreling, which was solidly grounded in grudges and suspicions going back for generations.

About a month thereafter, another poor landsman came among them. Again, it was the same elf lord. This time, however, he had used his elven magic to appear perfectly nondescript, neither beautiful, nor plain. Again, he repaired to the large oak tree in the commons and played his harp. Again, he took his meals and the inn, but this time paying for each uneaten meal with a precious gem, each and every stone of far more worth than the inn and all its property. And again, there was a huge amount of gossip. Yet this time opinions were evenly divided between those who believed the stranger was good and those who thought he was some force for evil and malevolence. And although they could not fathom the connection, many compared this latest landsman to the two previous, noting especially how the new lad seemed not to change in appearance for better or worse as had the other two so readily.

As the days went by and the innkeeper's pile of gems grew, so did the heat of the debate over whether the man was for good or evil. The Elbrat finally decided to hold a meeting at the inn and take a vote as to what to do about the man. Unfortunately, speakers on both sides fanned the crowd into great passion. And since the newly rich innkeeper no longer bothered charging for his ale and spirits, the meeting became in no time a drunken frenzy. Grudges and suspicions bottled up for generations came forth in waves of harsh, hateful shouting. A vicious brawl broke out, and by the time it was finished only the Elbrat who had seen fit to climb into the rafters remained alive.

Deeply saddened, the young man left the inn and went to the stranger under the huge oak. “Sir, a question,” he said slowly and softly after a long bow.

“Why of course!” answered the stranger merrily.

“Who exactly are you?”

At that the elf lord laughed brightly. “Why, I am called St'armra.”

“Is that all?” said the young Elbrat. “Are you not in fact a light being of some sort?”

“Oh, but you are correct, sir. I am indeed of the Skälfar.” And at that St'armra threw off his landsman's rags to reveal luminous green and purplish-blue silken garments, followed by magicking his nondescript face back into his wondrous fair elven countenance.

“And why have you come, my lord?”

“Indeed, why?” St'armra the elf lord seemed to ponder this question for a moment. Finally, he answered, “Good sir, were you not visited two months before by a rather plain-faced beggar?” 

 “Yes. And I may guess that was you. And I might also guess the brilliant-faced beggar was also you, for you now resemble him greatly.”

“Indeed! In the same!” answered St'armra, his eyes twinkling.

“But why have you played this bit of elven trickery on us, your unwitting lessers?” asked the young Elbrat.

“To be sure, on my first visit I wanted to leave immediately. For you see, I have the peculiar ability to know exactly how others regard me simply by looking into a mirror or a still pool of water towards the end of each day.”

“How so, my lord?”

“Why, because my face reflects exactly what is thought and said of me, of course! If it has grown ugly, then people are saying ugly things about me. If it has grown more beautiful, then they are saying kind and loving things about me.”

“But why then did you stay?”

“Why?”

“Yes, when you saw your face getting uglier why did you not leave immediately?”

“Because I was truly fascinated by my ugliness, not to speak of the dire mood of my heart, as well as the unwholesome melodies coming from my harp! I have never been ugly, felt so dispirited, nor played so gruesomely before, and, yes, I wanted to see just how ugly and gruesome and sad you people would make me out!” At that he laughed high and clear. “And then on the second turn, I wanted to see how beautiful you would make me and my playing out. And finally, I wanted to know what you would do if I were neither nor, fair nor foul. I am very sorry how that turned out, you understand.” At that he made an exaggerated, almost mocking frown like a small child.

The Elbrat wanted to question him further, even upbraid him—but thought better of it. After all, this was an elf, and elven-folk and their ways were surely not easy to understand. Rather, he cast his eyes to the horizon and contemplated for a long while all that he had heard. “My lord,” he said at last, “can you teach me this trick of knowing what others truly think of me?”

“But of course, gladly!”

St'armra then performed the magic, and the young man felt a strange force move through him. “Now, my good sir, you will hearken to all manner of sign, innuendo, indication, and direction no matter how subtle, be they yet completely hidden from you, unheard, unseen by you, from everything and everyone around you out for some great distance. And, thence, you will be reformed in heart, mind, and especially body and face in the same instant of this secret knowing.” At that St'armra feigned exhaustion of breath for all he had just said.

“Reformed? Changed?” said the Elbrat astounded.” But—but my lord, I only want to know. Will I now change as you did if people begin to talk mean and viciously behind my back? Will I become uglier and uglier if they dislike me? Alas! Alas!” The Elbrat looked truly crestfallen.

The elf lord made as if to ponder this question. “Oh, but this is the usual effect,” he replied, feigning gravity. "But perhaps with great discipline you may be able to simply perceive and not act out or physically express what others think of you.” Again, he frowned, seemingly in deep concentration.

Alarmed now, the young man exclaimed, “But Lord St'armra, you yourself changed greatly, depending on what my fellow villagers thought of you. Why—oh my!—why, this is no good!”

“Indeed, I myself have never perfected this magic.” Again, he looked puzzled, but in an exaggerated, child-like manner.

The young man finally did lose his temper. He jumped to his feet and shouted, “You—you simply must take this magic back immediately! Immediately, I say!” 

St'armra the elf lord let go his high, ringing laugh again. “I should not take it back! My good man, you have a very powerful gift in this magic. You have one of the fundamental powers that we elves possess. Does that not comfort you?” 

 The young man pondered these words, but shot a suspicious look at the elf lord. “Explain yourself. How can this truly be of benefit if I may not control it?”

“Control it? Why, this is your freedom from control. Alas, young sir, so much of your suffering and sadness comes from always trying to control things, to order people and objects—verily, life itself—after some form or fashion of your fleeting fancy. You push and pull, then you pull and push—at all the people, all the things in your life in so desperate a manner! And now, this humble elf would ask you, What comes of all this incredible struggling? What comes of all your controlling and ordering? Indeed, I've always wondered after your race on this matter. But take heart, dear man, this bane is over! From now on you will be able to let everything around you order and direct itself, as well as flow magically through you! Is that not grand?” 

 “Oh, oh, grand—grand you say?! Why—why, this is a terrible curse!” exclaimed the young man, flustered. “Now I will be like a puppet, a simpleton. Anyone and everyone will be able to turn me and order me about as if I were the lowest, half-witted slave. And all my affairs will go to rack and ruin as well. Why, this is a disaster!”

Again, St'armra the elf lord made as if to ponder these words—and just to be more convincing, he scowled and furrowed his brow as if in deepest concentration. Finally, he sighed and said in a plaintive voice, “Yes, yes, I can see your point. For you see, I am elf-kind and do not have such concerns. I am either around my own kind—all of whom love me dearly and want only the best for me—or I am forth in the forest, which is essentially the same as my dear elf clan, only expansive to the point of the stars. I have given myself over so totally to all this loving and caring direction, for, in truth, I am not that wise and could never dream of all the boons my loving clan, as well as the forest and the waters and the heavens might well seek to bestow upon me. Alas, in coming here I have exposed myself as a rank beginner in the affairs of all you wise and knowing men. Again, I say alas.” . . . and again he seemed to fall into deep concentration. . . . But then he quickly sat up seemingly full of energy. He blinked repeatedly as if he were a simpleton and exclaimed, “I have it! I have it! You, dear man, can come with me! Your own village is no more, and you are quite right: You could not possibly go to another human settlement in this condition. Indeed! Gather up the orphaned children and you shall all come with me!”

The young man closed his eyes and pondered this offer with all his inherited Elbrat acumen, for indeed, he had inherited as a very young man the Elbrat title from a good and wise father died too young. And then like a lightning strike it came to him! The elf lord was no simpleton as he pretended to be. He had meant all along to come collect him and the children! “My—my lord,” he stammered, “am I to understand that you meant from the very beginning to take me with you?”

St'armra began to consider this question; but suddenly he jumped to his feet and stared in amazement up into the mighty old oak. For at that moment the wind had picked up, shaking all the leaves of the beloved oak. To this the elf lord began to laugh gleefully. He laughed and laughed as if he could not stop! He stood there with his head thrown back and laughed and laughed so merrily, so beautifully that the breezes truly seemed to be racing in answer evermore lustily. And soon all the surrounding plant-folk seemed to shake their leaves, blooms, and stems as if to share his wondrous mirth. Presently, the breezes died down and the elf lord, likewise, became calm again. He then turned to the young man and said, “Yes! Come!”


Note from Hercynius: The Skälfar elves speak a passable English and, of course, their own elven language, Skälfarish. One day Hercynius, a frequent guest, asked if he might learn Skälfarish. They said yes, but only after he had mastered classic Skälfarish. When Hercynius asked how he might learn that language, he was told of yet another elven language he would have to master before classic Skälfar. As it turned out, there was a chain of five intermediate "nature spirit" languages to learn--one after the other-- in order to finally speak and understand Skälfarish properly. At this time Hercynius is working on the first intermediate language--a vowel-less, gurgly-sounding water nymph tongue.

9 comments

  1. I like the idea behind St'armra's experiment--that he would let people's opinion of him mold him, for better or worse. It's an easy trap for people to fall into--letting other people dictate our self image. Very thought provoking--thanks for exploring that!

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  2. This well-written story (very true to old fairy tale form) speaks volumes about human nature and our proclivity to judge and fight. Thank you!

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  3. Enjoyable well-written tale.

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  4. This is a very interesting story that seems to have a lot of hidden messages. It makes a point about gossip and about the company we keep and how sometimes we are unwilling to let other people into our own circle of friends and family. It shows us that we judge people by their appearances and treat them differently according to how they look. It is also a story about controlling the things we can and letting go of the things we can’t control. The Serenity Prayer immediately came to mind when the elf lord was talking about letting everything around the Elbrat order and direct itself and flow magically through the man. The man thought this was a terrible curse and that everyone would walk all over him. However I think it would give him freedom to let go and let everything work in the way it should.
    Allison R.

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  5. Jake Crawford

    When I saw the world Elf in the title of this story I knew it would be one I could enjoy. I have always been interested elves and fantasy so I decided to read this short story and was not disappointed. The experiment the elf played on the people was very interesting and seemed somewhat cruel to me. The regular humans were so blinded by petty things and gossip to see the true nature of St’armra. They were so concerned about his appearance that they treated him poorly when he was ugly and wonderful when he was hansom that they never really treated him like a person deserves. What is so great about this story is it really shows the shortcoming of most people and how unimportant aspects in life can become so important because of how shallow people can be. I did think it was great at the end how the elf bestowed his power unto the last remaining human wise enough to figure out his plans all along though and offered him a new home.

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  6. I really enjoyed reading this tale. I thought it was interesting how all three of the elf's visits were connected to each other, each showing a different side of human nature. Since the Elf behaved the same way each visit, although appearing different on the outside, he was able to show the Elbrat that people receive unfair treatment, both good and bad, depending upon the way they look. Also, in his explanation to the Elbrat of what happened on each visit, the elf showed that the way people perceived him and spoke about him, even in private, had an effect on his external appearance. Although in the story the elf only gets uglier or more attractive on the outside, I believe that this shows how people can negatively or positively be affected by the way others treat them in public and in private. At the end of the story, it is revealed that the elf's intentions all along were to get the Elbrat and the children of the village to come with him. I believe the elf also wanted to teach the Elbrat the error of his villages superficial nature so the Elbrat and children would not fall victim to the same way of thinking.

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  7. I really enjoyed reading this tale. I thought it was interesting how all three of the elf's visits were connected to each other, each showing a different side of human nature. Since the Elf behaved the same way each visit, although appearing different on the outside, he was able to show the Elbrat that people receive unfair treatment, both good and bad, depending upon the way they look. Also, in his explanation to the Elbrat of what happened on each visit, the elf showed that the way people perceived him and spoke about him, even in private, had an effect on his external appearance. Although in the story the elf only gets uglier or more attractive on the outside, I believe that this shows how people can negatively or positively be affected by the way others treat them in public and in private. At the end of the story, it is revealed that the elf's intentions all along were to get the Elbrat and the children of the village to come with him. I believe the elf also wanted to teach the Elbrat the error of his villages superficial nature so the Elbrat and children would not fall victim to the same way of thinking.

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  8. When I first started reading this story the first thing I noticed that this was a village full of inbreeds, just by the comment of how long it has been sense someone new had entered the village. It kind of made how they were suspicious of the visitor make some sense. He started out normal and he never did anything to warrant such negative talk. At first glance he was an anorexic minstrel who paid his debts with silver coins, but then again this is coming from a village where there haven’t been any additions to the gene pool for generations. I then found it a little surprising that when they got another visitor they never questioned him on how he heard of their village or where the path to their village was sense again there have not been any visitors in generations other than the normal visitor who turned ugly. I still don't get why they thought so highly of visitor number two just because he was so much better looking and was richer. Then I was really confused when the third visitor came and he was just like visitor number one except richer and the village was split on the opinion of him. I have to say that all in all I do like the story.
    TJ

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  9. I'm not exactly sure if St'arma's gift is a blessing or a curse. It does seem to be a gift many people want to have. Knowing what people think of you may change how you think of yourself quite a bit. As a matter of fact, St'arma's transformations could be thought of as a metaphor for his changing self image. Knowing what others think of you can bring you down or raise your self esteem. I am really indifferent to others unless I know them personally and I wonder if this how most other people are as well. If this is true for most other people, then this gift has no real use. Of course, if you are among true friends, then you will see how fond they are of you. If you are among strangers, then you will see how indifferent they are of you, with a maybe a few first impressions thrown in. So the gift isn't telling you anything you don't already know. There are two practical uses I could see for this gift. For a megalomaniac bent on taking power and having control over people this gift could be used to determine loyalties. Another use is for determining first impressions for an interview or meeting someone for the first time because you could try to change how you present yourself to sway the meeting in your favor. So, I guess the gift of knowing is a blessing if you know when to pay attention to it and when not to. If you take in what every single person thinks of you, then this gift is definitely a curse.
    Adam B.

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