Sweet Tuesday evening to you, everybody!
Did you know that upwards of 150 wallabies roam the wild forests near Paris due to a jailbreak zoo-escape in the 70’s? Definitely in the running for most adorable jailbreak in history
Hopping straight into it, tonight’s tale is another of the Amwren Origins series. This one introduces Cerlina, a young half-elven girl, born into poverty and strife, but she holds her head high through it all and emerges as something…different.
Also, if you’re sensitive to foul language and racist attitudes…I mean, maybe just read over those parts.
(And in case you missed it, check out Revan’s origin story here:
May I present:
Cerlina, Student of the Dawn
Born to an elven mother and a father unknown, Cerlina spent her early years enduring the cold gazes of man and elf alike. She and her mother, a woman fit of body but of waning mind, lived with Cerlina’s aunt, Maydene, in a communal living circle on the outskirts of the small town of Zylast. The circle was primarily composed of elderly women and their husbands who were, like Maydene, though a widow, practiced spinsters and herbalists. Cerlina’s childhood was but a glimpse as at age six, old enough to carry a pail, she worked tirelessly about the community, doing chores that the elderly could not and caring for her mother to the best of her ability.
This was the life she knew until her early teenage years when there came an unusually harsh winter. The cold air bit one’s skin, killed what few crops could manage the earth, and even hearth fires faltered, lashed by the chill. Inspired by the danger it proved to the old and frail, Cerlina made the march to Lomas, two day’s journey with a caravan, and appealed to the local baron. Despite his people’s stores of plenty, the man haughtily denied Cerlina’s call for aid and dismissed the poor peasant girl. That night, she found herself wandering the paved Lomas streets, kneading in her mind how she would word her disappointment to her aunt and her mother.
“Hey, half-breed!” she heard called out from a group of boys by the town’s central well. “Oi! You ‘ear me? I called to ya, ye prick-ear’d bitch!”
Resolute not to provoke any conflict or to make a scene, knowing Fenrici prejudices against elven kind, Cerlina quickened her pace. She soon heard several pairs of shoes smacking the ground behind her in pursuit and so she broke into full flight. She rounded a corner and squeezed down a tight alleyway, leaping over piles of refuse and sidestepping stray beams. She broke out the other side as footfalls echoed off the walls behind her. Making the mistake to look back, Cerlina’s breath escaped her as she was tackled from her blindside. From there, her memory of the clash was blurred.
The sound of approaching shoes.
The cold, stone street against her cheek.
The taste of blood in her mouth.
The next clear memory Cerlina had left her always with a strange blend of gnawing regret and anxious pride. She looked down after the frantic scramble at three boys laying in the street, bloodied and moaning, while two others fled so quickly the wind removed their hats and neither stopped to catch it. “Animal! Bloody she-devil!” they called behind them as they ran. Cerlina suppressed an embarrassed smile and looked back to the squirming bullies. The flash of a ring caught her eye and her pride turned to fear. She recognized the crest as the Halwin family sigil, the ruling family in Lomas. Fearing reprisal and punishment, Cerlina couldn’t wait until the morning caravan and instead set immediately to the dark night road alone, to Zylast. In two day’s time, she sat by the fire with her aunt and mother, relaying the news of the unhelpful baron.
“Well,” sighed Maydene after a long moment’s pause, “it may be time, if only too soon, to recognize what we must do.”
“I’m confused, Aunt May,” Cerlina said softly. “We already appealed in Lomas, the wood’s running out and our axe is broken. At this rate…”
“We won’t last the winter, I know, dear. We’ll be fine.” She smiled sweetly and looked into Cerlina’s eyes for a long moment before continuing. “What I was talking about was you. We planned this quite some time ago, but we wanted you to grow and, well, we still needed the help. But now is as good a time as any, and when opportunity knocks, you don’t turn her away. Those bruises you came home with are evidence enough that you’re ready.”
“I still don’t know what you’re-”
“We’re giving you to the temple of Idun, dear. Perhaps there, you might learn the healing arts, escape this life, and maybe one day…” Maydene’s voice trailed as her eyes moved to her sister sitting voicelessly by the fire. “Well, one day you might find us again and show us all what you’ve learned.”
Against her initial protests, Cerlina was taken to Tallin, the City of Temples. Once there, she was greeted by the head priestess with a knowing smile and quickly inducted into the order. Her beginning weeks were full of learning. She was set to rigorous study under the head priestess herself, Ana Salde, and in that time she spent long hours in the central cloister learning the basics in the proper use of herbs, natural remedies, and the rudimentary beginnings of spellcraft; though it was not to last.
After three weeks with the priestesses of Idun, Cerlina lay in her room, modestly furnished with only a small cot to sleep, a candlelit desk, and small stool, looking out her window at the passing clouds. Her wandering thoughts were interrupted by calls of commotion and protest from the cloister. She moved to investigate the sounds but was met by three armed men at her door as her feet touched the stone floor.
“Ah, there you are,” spoke the first, his comrades behind him holding back Cerlina’s classmates. “Took us a lil’ long to find you. Now,” he produced a scroll and read from it with mock elegance. “Under the authority of Lord Hammel Halwin his’self, Baron of Lomas, we’re to bring you in for the mistreatment of Lord Halwin’s firstborn heir, Ulfric Halwin.” The man rolled the scroll back up and smiled at her nastily. After a long moment’s pause, Cerlina quieted her peers and accompanied the soldiers with no more than a scornful frown.
Four years and untold lashings later, Cerlina sat in the corner of her cell. She was listening to the soft, familiar drip coming from a crack in her ceiling when she heard the clack of approaching boots. She slowly rose and stood up straight with her chin high. The years had been hard, but it had been a test for the resolve her aunt had taught her. “Don’t forget where you come from, child,” Aunt May had instructed. “People will scorn you, mock you, try to hurt you for your lineage. Never, never fall prey to their low thinking.” The jailer rattled his keys in search of the correct one and, upon finding it, opened the heavy door with the dull thud and grind of iron.
“Today’s your lucky day, little fairy. Free to go. Go’on, get out.”
Cerlina said nothing. Eyes closed, she emptied her lungs and then filled them with a strong breath before gracefully stepping forward and out of her cell. Her footsteps fell silently as she walked the hall toward the exit.
“What the…” muttered the jailer as he inspected the inside of the cell. What had been at one time a small, featureless, stone cell now had a bed of thick moss and was framed by a modest hanging gardens with bulbs in the beginning stages of bloom, all lush green despite there being no sunlight.
Cerlina sat in the shade of a grove on the outskirts of the city. She held in her lap the belongings she received upon leaving the prison, and among them was a package of letters. They were dated through the years of her stay. The first was a pardon from Lord Halwin for the “mistreatment” of his heir. She scoffed to herself and folded it behind the others. The rest were from her family in Zylast. In them, she read of her relatives’ lament for what had become of her, the close of the harsh winter which had taken her there, the success and failure of crops, various celebrations that had been held in town, as well as other general news.
As she read, kissed by the gentle southern breeze, Cerlina would smile, laugh at tales told by the page, until finally she came to the last letter, dated by eight months. It told of her once-widowed aunt remarrying a well-off man from a far away land whom her healing herbs had saved from sickness, stating his wishes that she and those close to her move with him to the city of Hallendren.
While she wished with all her heart the best for her aunt, Cerlina could not deny the pang of loss that she felt and of renewed loneliness, even now free from her cell. She made her way home to the community where she’d lived and toiled, finding her aunt’s now vacant cabin. Inspecting the outside of the cottage, it seemed everything was in place and as she remembered it.
“There were looters,” said one of her neighbors, a beanpole of a man whom Cerlina recognized as one of the younger husbands in the circle. “But we chased ’em off. We figured you was comin’ back some day and, well, wouldn’t feel right to let it happen. All you’s done for us, that is.”
“Thank you,” Cerlina replied sincerely, a soft smile adorning her lips.
The man bunched up his lips and offered an embarrassed nod before resuming his work.
She laid her hand on the door’s handle and left it there for a lingering moment before finally pulling it open. The inside of the cottage was not as she’d expected it. All the furniture and family possessions were as they were when she’d left, but beyond that, the cottage felt lived in, not abandoned. There was a fire in the hearth and she was surprised she hadn’t noticed smoke from the chimney. Her eyes eventually fell upon her mother’s chair and she gasped silently.
“You there,” she announced. “What are you doing here?”
The man stirred, as if from a gentle nap.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he yawned looking over his shoulder at her. “I had wished to be awake and ready to receive you but it appears I dosed off.”
“What are you doing in my home?” she repeated.
“Looking after her, of course.” He stood and now Cerlina saw that he was not a vagrant but some manner of priest, as indicated by his lavender robes. As she came slowly closer, she heard the scratching of dull claws on the wooden floor and she saw a large dog rising also to its feet. “She came here seeking shelter once your family had gone. I thought it only right to take care of her until you returned.”
“No, wait. How did you know I was coming back, or even gone, for that matter? Who are you?”
He smiled warmly. “I am from the Order of Bokonon, in Tallin. That is who I am and why I know you, Cerlina. I trust Ana prepared you properly, despite your time with those of Idun being short?”
“Are you why I was accepted?”
He gave a soft nod. “We did so because you’re needed, Cerlina.”
“Needed for what?”
“There is coming a time of great strife, a time you’re to play a role in guiding. Come to the Temple of Bokonon in a week’s time at dusk.” With that, he nodded and moved gently by her to the door. “Please, gather what you need and I hope to see you then.”
“Wait,” she called.
“What about your dog?”
“Her? She isn’t mine.”
“But,” Cerlina looked down to the dog who was looking back at her with large, gentle eyes. “Then who does she belong to?” she asked, but when she returned her gaze to the man in lavender, he was gone.
“Well,” she sighed to herself, looking to the dog again. “What do we call you, hmm?”
The dog cocked her head to Cerlina’s words and barked.
“What about ‘Alma’?”
She clacked her paws against the wooden floor and wagged her tail.
“Great! Alma it is, then.”
Cerlina and Alma spent one more night in the house they’d both known to call home and, rising with the morning sun, gathered what provisions they each might need. Together, they put step to path and journeyed out, returning to the City of Temples.
The Take: Much like Revan, I really like Cerlina. She’s born into a pretty crappy hand of cards, but uses what she’s given to the best of her ability, does what needs to be done, and doesn’t complain while enduring the world’s prejudices. Even though she’s treated unfairly, she doesn’t mire in that. She’s hardened, but she isn’t stern – a virtue I think resonates with a lot of us, because it’s such a difficult balance to strike: strong enough to steel against hardship, but not so jaded by that one’s guard never lowers.
Also like with Revan’s story, you might notice some similarities. They both start a little impoverished and they both also wind up speaking to a man in lavender robes – that’s a theme that will continue through the origin stories; albeit, in various forms and for various reasons.
Anyway, see ya Thursday!
Interested in more? Like knee-slappers and chin-scratchers? Check out my first published work in the Third Flatiron’s “Hidden Histories” anthology here (and tell ’em Evan sent ya!):