Many ages ago, a great realm lay between the mountains and the sea, once ruling much of the world but now mostly forgotten. During the years leading to its decline, a curious affliction spread to many of its people. Fine, filthy fumes drifted across much of the land, becoming a slow poison in men’s eyes and throats. This was the doing of some wizards in the moors; they were releasing the foulness, most out of careless folly more than wickedness, from the furnaces and cauldrons where they performed their secret labors. But the people were to blame as well, for they made no effort to protect themselves. Instead, they simply coughed and blinked and went on as before.
In time, they became so accustomed to these fumes that they no longer knew anything different. They thought nothing of the bitterness they breathed, or the dull, ugly sights coming through their marred eyes. Many forgot that air could be sweeter, light stronger, colors brighter. Some, noticing the change, fled to remote regions where the air was less sullied, but they were few.
On the land’s western border, in the mountain forests, the Elves observed this evil from their own realm. No corruption could come near their dwelling places, but they saw and grieved over the sufferings of the foolish men. Thus it came, one day, that the Elven-king called his messengers to him.
“The harm that has begun shall not be easily undone,” he told them. “We will go to these wizards and seek to stop their madness. But since the poisons are now abroad, men must also choose to defend themselves from it.” He then opened a great carved chest, filled with many beautiful and strange things. “These treasures have long been kept for some time of need. They may now be of great use to the afflicted.”
The King then entrusted the gifts, one by one, to his messengers, to give to those among men who would use them well. He told each messenger signs by which to know the one who should receive the gift. When at last only a single treasure remained in the chest, he turned to one more messenger and said: “The final gift is for one who has not suffered the fumes’ infections. You will find this one lowly and small, with the children of men but not of their company.” So saying, he held out the final gift, a golden instrument, shaped like a wedge, with small keys all along its wide end and a sun-like hole near the tip.
Having listened carefully, the messenger bowed and took his leave.
The sun was rising as the King’s servants rode out with the gifts, taking various roads as he had directed them. As they descended from their mountains, the air around them grew polluted, but the power belonging to all their kind shielded them. The one carrying the golden instrument made his way east and a little to the north.
On his way, he rode through several towns and villages, but saw none who fit the King’s signs. Many were small, and some were lowly in appearance, but any who were with others seemed very much of their company; and all were plainly infected by the fouled air. Someone was coughing at almost every moment, and many moved slowly and weakly, but no one seemed troubled about this. They stared ahead with dull eyes as they went about, unable to see and delight in the blue, white and gold sky shining above, or the brightness of flowers and fruits in their fields. Hardly any even took notice of the Elven-King’s messenger, though his raiment of silver-grey and white steed nearly glowed in the sun. Men in earlier years had hailed Elves at once simply for the noble bearing that marked their race.
Sunset was fading into twilight when the messenger came upon a party of little children, playing in a field. He paused there, observing, for these were the happiest of any he had yet passed. They looked as if the poison had begun its work in them, but had not yet gone far.
Then his keen eye descried a movement just beyond them. Another child, a girl perhaps four years of age, was standing a stone’s throw from the group, kicking at dandelions. She watched the seeds drift away from one, then aimed a lively blow at another, missing several times before striking her mark.
The messenger observed her intently. Here was one doubtlessly small and lowly, and with the children of men but, it seemed, not of their company. Watching closely, he could detect no sign of the fumes’ corruption in her. Her cheeks were rosy, her eyes bright, her little body full of life and vigor.
So determining, he dismounted and approached her across the grass. As she saw him nearing, her eyes widened and she stood very still, gazing in wonder. Though she had never seen an Elf, without understanding she sensed a great presence.
“Little one, what is your name?” he asked softly.
“Ili,” she whispered.
“Ili, the Elven-King sends me to bring you this gift,” the messenger declared, holding out the golden instrument. “Guard it well and use it generously, for he gives it not only for yourself but for all your people.” So saying, he handed the instrument to the child, who stared silently as she took it. She was still gazing at the gift when the messenger turned and departed as silently as he had come. She looked up only when she heard the horse’s hooves clattering away.
After watching her mysterious visitor disappear into the dusk, Ili looked again at her strange new present. Never had she seen anything like it, nor could she imagine what it might be. Turning it over and over, she smiled at its brilliant luster and the tiny patterns carved all around it. Lightly she touched the keys, and caught her breath, for they made a ringing sound like the finest bells.
Laughing, Ili ran her fingers all along the keys, delighting in the jumble of sweet notes that spilled out in response. Forgetting both the other children and the dandelions, she scampered away over the grass toward her home, still playing the instrument.
Now that field was in a flat region near a wide river, where strong winds kept the poisons at bay. The other children were from a city, the sons and daughters of merchants traveling through that region; but Ili and her family dwelt in a cottage near that field, amid a grove of oak trees. She had seen the children from her window and thought to join their game, but when she came near, could hardly speak. She was a shy child, not accustomed to speak to any outside her home.
When Ili came into her house with the tinkling instrument, her mother turned in surprise and asked, “What is that thing? Where did it come from?” Happily the little one told all about the strange person who had come to her and all that he had said. The mother listened, amazed, until her daughter had finished, then bent down to her and said solemnly, “This means you are very lucky, my Ili, and also that you will have some great tasks to do. Take good care of this gift. One day you will discover how you must use it.”
Ili still did not understand why her gift should be for anything more than making lovely noises, but she understood that it was precious and promised to be very good with it.
In the days that followed, the little girl was nearly always playing with her instrument. Its chimes rang all around the cottage, the garden and the fields. Her brothers paid little heed to their sister’s new toy, supposing it to be a trinket she had found by some roadside. Their mother told the story only to the father, who wondered with her at the strange graciousness of the Elven-King.
Then one day, perhaps two months after the messenger’s visit, Ili learned more of her gift. She was sitting on the grass, picking out notes to make a simple tune, and singing softly. As she went, from the hole near the instrument’s end, there suddenly burst a tiny white fire. Its size would have done for a small candle flame, but it shone with the piercing brilliance of a star.
Ili froze, staring in amazement at this new surprise. Never had she suspected her instrument of such a power. As her first alarm faded, she gazed in fascination and a strange joy at the light. It was brighter, purer and lovelier than any flame she had seen before. Its beauty, however, was short-lived, for the wind soon rose and blew it out.
That day marked the beginning of a change. No longer did Ili simply tap the keys for joy of the sounds. Now she was always watching, hoping to see the light appear again as she played, wondering how it had come before. She spoke of the white flame to no one, pondering it quietly within herself.
For all her efforts, she did not see the white flame again for nearly another month. Autumn had come, and her father and brothers were gathering vegetables and singing a harvesting song. Ili sat nearby on the grass, listening. She began to try to play the song. Though she could not copy it closely, the charm of the tune she played bore a simple resemblance.
She was not even thinking about the white fire when it sprang out before her, as splendid as before. Again, she was instantly enraptured, and simply watched it glow and quiver, thrilled at her success. She put one little hand beside the flame to guard it from the wind. This time, however, one of her brothers looked up and cried, “Ili, are you playing with fire?”
Startled, the little girl jumped up, and in so doing dropped her instrument. As it tumbled, the light vanished. “No fire,” she answered, now more in regret than defense.
From that time, however, Ili understood that the beautiful light would come if she played well. The golden instrument ceased being simply a toy; she now played carefully and practiced often, seeking to produce songs rather than jumbles of notes. Whenever she heard music, she would listen attentively to better her own skills.
As the months grew into years, Ili’s childish tunes slowly became surer, lovelier melodies. The white fire came more often and grew larger, and her family grew accustomed to its appearance. By the time she was twelve years of age, it would often be as high as a torch’s flame. Her mother and father noted that its radiance made all things around it appear brighter and fairer, so that they saw their humble cottage clothed in fresh color and splendor.
Ili loved the light that arose from her music, but she always regretted that it had to disappear, until one day a new thought came to her. She was playing alone in her room when the fire came again. As she looked about at the glow it cast, her eye fell on a small stone basin in the corner, wherein lay a few dry leaves that had blown in through the window. Looking at them, she wondered if the fire’s beauty might be preserved after all. She went to the basin, took one of the leaves, and placed its tip in the flame. The fire climbed onto the leaf, and was unchanged there.
Delighted, she replaced the leaf in the basin, so that the other leaves might catch alight also, and set the basin on a stand. After that, she always kept the fire burning there, feeding it with bits of wood, so that its loveliness always lit her room. She made more such lights for her family, setting them in other parts of the house, but none remained constantly burning save the one in her room.
When Ili reached fourteen years of age, hard changes came to her. She was now the only child remaining at home; her brothers had married and gone away. Though she rejoiced for them, she regretted their absence, and had more work now as well. Then her family’s land yielded them little that year, so her parents sent her to glean in the fields of the region’s lord. Between these fields and helping in her home, Ili had little time now to play her instrument or see its fire. But though this grieved her at times, she found that the white glow seemed to have sunk into her eyes and her mind. She had grown so accustomed to seeing things as the white flame showed them that she could now look at things, see their beauty, and rejoice in them at any time.
And indeed, she found that she had much to see. Other families in that region also sent their sons and daughters to glean in the rich man’s fields. Until now, Ili had hardly ever spoken with any outside her home. Now she began to meet other youths, many from families like hers that kept away from the poisonous fumes. After work, they would often gather under some tree, talking, laughing, perhaps telling stories. Silent and hesitant at first, Ili found enough kind smiles there to quiet her shyness, and began to take joy in their company. For the first time, she had friends.
For a long time afterwards, her days were full of work, but this troubled her less and less. She was rich in love, the love of her parents at home and the love of friends in the neighboring farms, and this lit her heart and face like a magical flame. She grew to delight in her work, whether gleaning in the wide fields or bending over her mother’s garden or wash basket. Her parents, now approaching the edge of old age, rejoiced greatly in their youngest child’s energy and warm heart, in her sweet and merry smile that always lit their home when she was there. Amid all that was happening, she nearly forgot about the Elven-King’s gift.
But after four years’ passing, another day came to bring change, a day when Ili’s cheerfulness turned to tears. One of her young comrades, one of the oldest and dearest of her friends, had quarreled with her and ended by turning against her. No pleading would induce the other girl to listen again. To Ili, it was like the death of a sister, or worse. She ran home, to her bed, and wept freely for more than an hour. She had no desire even for supper.
When at last she looked up, the sun had nearly set and its light left her room. But the place was not dark, for there still shone the white fire in the stone basin, the light she had kindled six years ago. From habit she had kept it burning, yet scarcely given it thought until now. Now she remembered the gift that had given her so much joy from her childhood, and suddenly wished to hear its sweet chimes again.
Ili rose and took the instrument from a little chest where it had been safely stowed. Sitting again, she began to play, a quiet, gentle melody. Though she had not played in so long, the old practice returned as easily as if her hands and the keys were old friends. The sweet music seemed to spring straight from her heart, yet also to return there, soothing and strengthening her wounded spirit. She began to smile, her heart lightening and floating on the river of notes.
All at once a new light was in the room. For a moment Ili, gasping and blinking, thought that many flames had emerged at once. Looking again, she saw a single fire, but one greater than any her instrument had yet produced. It stood perhaps half as tall as her own height when standing. Its light now was also more powerful. If the flames before had seemed to endow things with a fresh beauty, this one transfigured them: the air was crystal-bright, and the room’s walls and humble furnishings had taken on a glory and wonder as of another world. They still remained themselves, but Ili felt that only now was she able to see their true nature, hidden till now by their plain appearance.
When her first surprise began to fade, she considered that such a great light wanted a wider scope than her room, and more eyes than her own. She would not keep such marvelous beauty for herself. Carefully she rose and walked out toward the cottage door. Her parents, sitting by the fire, cried out in astoundment as the penetrating white fire moved past them. Ili stopped at the door and turned to them. “Should we not share this?” she exclaimed.
Ili’s father was a man of wise instincts. He did not understand what the flame was, but he remembered that the instrument came from the Elven-King, and he sensed that the transforming light might do greater wonders yet. After a long moment of silence, he nodded and said, “Yes, we will take it to the lord’s palace. He will know how best to share it.”
Ili agreed. Before, she would never have wished to enter the lord’s magnificent home or have him glance at her. Now a new power seemed to have entered into her, giving her fresh courage. For this light, she felt she could go there.
Though it was dark, the two set out for the lord’s home, knowing that he and his household would not retire for some time. They rode one of their cart-horses, slowly, Ili sitting before her father, holding out the instrument beside her. As they went, the flame cast its light all about them, so that they traveled through a countryside of silver-emerald grass, trees breathing majesty, and cottages with no less grace and sweetness than small elven-castles. Some of the countryfolk saw the light from their windows and rushed out, staring after it in astonishment, or even hurrying after those who bore such wondrous fire.
Now the lord of the region had that night received several other lords from the regions nearby, who had gathered for a council in his palace. He was at table with them when Ili and her father arrived. Had they come in any other fashion, the doorwardens would have bidden them go home and return another day. As it was, they hardly had to speak. They were still approaching the gate when the servants stared and gaped at the pillar of star-fire nearing them. Ili’s father had only begun to ask for entry when they ran like madmen to tell their master what had come.
When these servants had burst into the hall and told their tale, the guests wondered and whispered to each other, while the lord listened, surprised but quiet. In the end he said only, “Two peasants, say you? Bring them in, that we may see.”
When Ili and her father entered the hall, many things happened in a few moments. The visiting lords and those who accompanied them had come from regions that suffered more from the foul fumes. Even the lord of that place, and his servants, had business at times in such places, and had suffered to a smaller degree. Their eyes were not prepared for such a powerful light. Even the light of the sun had been dimmed for them, but this light seemed to blaze through the filthy skins of their eyes and straight into their darkened heads.
They did not all respond in like manner. Some only flung their hands over their faces, shielding their burning eyes and crying, “Ugh! What is this dreadful fire? Take it away!” Others, looking on, found that their eyes began to sting, and rubbed them as the tears ran. Many of these found dirt beginning to wash out from their eyes even then. One man was heard to say, “Ah! How long has it been? Such light . . .” Others again stared in rapture, the joy growing in them, as they found again beauty such as they had longed for but believed to be lost to the world.
Now the lord of that place was an old man, and could remember from his childhood the days when men had not been so accustomed to living in sickness. Looking on at the fire blazing above Ili’s instrument, he found that it gave him some pain, but the pain came to him with a strange sweetness. He had never lived in such dimness as many of his countrymen, but among so many who believed themselves to live in a grey, bitter world, he had nearly forgotten at times how much lovelier he knew it to be. Now he began to remember a time when it was easy and natural to rejoice in morning skies, ripe fields, running water, and gentle faces.
“Whence comes this fire, lass?” he said at length.
“From this,” Ili replied, holding up the golden instrument, “that came to me from the Elven-King.” She marveled at the behavior of these men, so different from anything she had expected or seen before, and wondered if this was part of what her gift was meant to do. Their shouting unnerved her, but she was not the timid child she had been, and she stood firm.
More murmurs arose all round the room. “The Elven-King,” the lord repeated. “The Elves, too . . . it seemed we saw them more before all this began. When we knew how to see aright. I thought perchance they had forgotten us.”
Only then did Ili begin to understand how much her gift was needed. She had heard of the suffering of her countrymen, but looking about at them now, she saw for the first time how much they had lost. She also saw that some of them could perhaps find again what they had lost.
“We came here,” she said, “to share the light . . . we hoped that you would help us share it with many people.”
For a moment the lord only looked on in silence. Then, all at once, a great smile lit his face. He rose, took a stick from a woodpile near the hearth, and thrust it into the white blaze. At once the flame took hold of the wood, springing up hearty and bright from its top.
The lord looked from the fire above Ili’s instrument to that in his own hand, and grinned. “So shall it be! Indeed this light shall be shared with whomever will see. Your gift, maid, could be the saving of many.” Turning to his servants, who had all gathered in the hall to see the strange visitors, he directed, “Kindle lights from this fire, and let them be set in the tower and every high window. Let the fires not go out in the night.” To Ili and her father he said, “Will you come again on the morrow?”
The two looked at each other and nodded together. “We will!”
“It is well! Tomorrow we will decide what we must do.” He looked up at Ili’s fire with a glad sigh. “If we may . . . we will send this light to all our people.”
As Ili rode homeward with her father, a deep peace ran through her heart. She had not lost her sorrow for her friend, but she was consoled, for now at last she understood what the Elven-King, by his messenger, had done for her so long ago. She had always lived amidst beauty and joy and wonder, amid the good things that she knew her people could no longer see. Now she could help others, if they would, regain what she had never lost.
After Ili and her mother and father had conferred with their lord, they determined what they would do. Traveling long roads with the flames still alight was a difficult task, so Ili would journey among the towns and cities, playing her music and making more fires in each one. The lord would send her with his men to protect her, and would see to it that her parents wanted for nothing in her absence. In every place where she went, folk might kindle their own lights from Ili’s instrument and set these lights all about the town.
But the journey did not begin at once. Ili’s mother feared for her child, who had never left their own region, to travel through places filled with the poisonous fumes. After some talk, her father said, “It was the Elven-King who gave her this gift and this task. Perhaps he will give her protection as well.”
So before undertaking journeys through the country, Ili made ready, with a joy she did not fully understand, to make the journey toward the western mountains where the Elves were said to dwell. Two of the lord’s men brought her, passing as swiftly as they might through the most affected regions. The sun was setting when at last they began to ascend the green slopes of the mountains. The air changed as they went—“sweet, but a wee bit thin,” one man said. But Ili felt that she was breathing the air her lungs were always made for.
Soon they had entered the forest. The warm light of sunset made the leaves glow green-gold.
to be continued