Another branch crashes loudly through the canopy to the earth, a wake of birds already fleeing startled. The runner makes no pretense of stealth, which Asoka has given up on as well.
The half-elf, running at top speed, fires another arrow up into the trees, and again misses his quarry. That damn protection from arrows spell! He curses in his head, not wasting the breath as he maintains pursuit. The other half-elf, running, jumps from branch to branch, satchel swinging from his body as he darts overhead.
I’ve got to ground him, but how? Asoka draws an arrow, not taking eyes off of his target, trusting his elven blood to secure his footing in the shady and uneven ancient woods. Putting the arrow to his lips he dares to whisper a spell into its shaft, knowing each breath is precious in the chase. The spell complete, he notches the now-glowing missile into his bowstring, and takes aim.
The pursued takes another daring leap into the air, one leg behind and fully outstretched, the other bent at the knee. A sturdy branch in front and below of him is the obvious platform to land. Asoka looses the arrow, which flies true to the branch, turning it insubstantial, winking out of phase with the material world. The jumping half-elf falls through its ghostly image, but does not crash, landing cat-like at the edge of a shallow stream, a gentle ripple moving across the water from the impact. He takes a moment to land so gently, but it is enough for Asoka to close most of the gap.
Asoka, smirking, gambling, drops his bow mid-stride and quickly draws one of his swords. He throws it at the other half-elf, who has drawn his own light blade to parry the attack. But he could not run full-out to do that, and he and Asoka enter a fierce and swift melee. With a disarm, a trip, and a grapple, the prey is caught.
After a tense minute of exhausting struggle beneath the phantom tree branch that has returned, Asoka asks, “Why, Aladuin? Why did you steal it?”
Aladuin says nothing, facing the ground. He can see both their reflections in the barely disturbed stream – Asoka’s youthful face and elf-like features, and his own battle scars and human-like visage.
Asoka sighs, and in a motion shifts to slice Aladuin’s ankle – they can talk now, since he cannot be outrun anymore, and both know it. Asoka releases the embrace. “Brother, –”
“You are no brother of mine!” Aladuin retorts. “Save your speech of elven fraternity, I have seen a century of it, and we are in no family.”
“So that is why you stole the book? Because you like humans better?”
“They at least will treat us like people, or if not as equals, then their betters.”
“You took national secrets – secrets needed to learn the path of the elven archer, to sell to the humans so that, what, they would exalt you? Make you their king?”
“I can give them something of value. Knowledge! Power! And in exchange the humans can give me what I, what we half-elf bastard sons, have always craved: a place in society – a high one.”
Aladuin stands with hunched shoulders, defensive, hand clutching the satchel with the book inside behind him. Asoka holds his blade in hand, loosely, but ready. Each half-elf is locked in the other’s gaze.
“You have a place in society – you’re an elven archer, one of the most prestigious warriors in our lands …” Asoka began.
“No, in your society, theirs – not mine”. Aladuin scowls. “I’ve never been accepted as one of them. My father always saw me as a bastard. Oh, daddy loved me, of course, I won’t say ‘he never did’, but it was always with the knowledge that I was imperfect, that he would live long enough to see me old and dead, like a human. That I could never be like him, a pure-blooded elf. You’re a half-elf, by Elysium – you never felt outcast?”
Asoka’s face, hearing the question, moves from neutral to the mask of a light smile, looking away and about the woods at the world. “Of course I’ve been an outcast – in human lands. They thought me a foreigner: ‘he’ll never learn our ways,’ ‘thinks he’s a better breed than us ’cause his mom’s one of the Fair Folk’ … Oh, I’ve been an outcast before.”
“So you’re comparing my hundred years of solitude in elvan lands to your two decades in a close-minded human town?”
“Oh, I’ve felt an outsider at home, too,” Asoka replies. “And I know that doesn’t make sense to say. But maybe that’s the point. If you’re not liked at home, and you’re not liked abroad, where do you make yourself?” he says with a knowing smile.
Philosophy? thinks Aladuin. He was a patrol guard, a warrior, and even among elves, scholars as they are, the academics of identity and self were not his line of study or his job. “I have a chance to be someone with the humans, someone of importance. That prestige you speak of doesn’t mean anything if there a dozen pure-blooded elves a century my senior who are better than I.”
“So you choose to be half-human? You’re missing the point.”
“And what’s that?”
Asoka looks Aladuin in the eyes. “You’re half-human and half-elf,” he says.
Aladuin scoffs. “And accepted nowhere.”
“What use is your acceptance if its yearning causes you misery, and its acquisition requires betrayal?”
Aladuin makes no answer. Asoka cannot read his expression, his thoughts. Aladuin pictures in his mind the gifting of elven secrets to the city’s leader. The reception of accolades and rank in the military. The admission from his father, humbled, of his realized greatness.
The “yes,” of the human woman he came to know and adore.
“This is my path,” he says. “It is what I’ve found as my way through the uncaring world.”
Asoka’s smile disappears, knowing the job has turned ugly. He looks down at his sword. “This can only end one of two ways. You try to take the secrets, and I kill you. Or you surrender, and you can face the crime of your theft.” When he feels his tone of voice conveys the seriousness of his meaning, he looks up and, with a face of parley, of love for one’s fellow man, he says, “Please, choose to live.”
Aladuin and Asoka stand motionless for some time.
In the evening, two elven guards spot Asoka from the shadows, carrying a satchel with a book inside. They greet him, recognizing him from personal correspondence. “Welcome home.”
“Well met, guardsmen,” he says, hailing in response. “I return to you with good news. Aladuin has returned to stand trial, and the book is secure.” Asoka gestures to the bound figure, walking with a limp, trailing behind him, face grim, and silent.
“He shall be tried as a human traitor,” one of the guards says.
“It is my hope,” Asoka answers, “that he will be tried as the son of an elf as well as a human.”