Authorial self-inserts, fear and worship, and intriguing hints of other elves ahead!  As always, you can read along at http://elfquest.com/.

Elfquest #8 – Hands of the Symbol Maker

Issue #8 opens with the title placed over a paneled grid of human hands holding a stone paint-pot and using a crude brush made from a stick with a frayed end along with fingers to create a simple silhouette image — a figure with pointed ears and a spear riding on a large bird.

In the Sun Village, Ember is Impressing meeting the cub who will be her first wolf-friend. Leetah misses Cutter, but Moonshade castigates her for not leaving her children – for a chief’s children belong to the whole tribe and they will all parent them – and following Cutter, as lifemates should remain together, which is the Way. Nightfall and Leetah talk alone, and Leetah confesses that pride and fear kept her home, pride in her healing skills that keep the tribefolk alive, and fear of things she cannot control.

Elsewhere, Cutter and Skywise use their troll-made fetters as bolas, and capture a couple of ponies to carry them. The wolves are exhausted and tender-footed from traveling, unable to bear the elves’ weight, and Nightrunner is growing old. They travel for months without finding more forest or more elves until one day they see trees arising in the distance, a swampy wood, and release the ponies.

Cutter, giddy with delight at seeing woods again, tries to rescue a small drowning squirrel, which promptly bites him, and then he falls into the fetid water of the swamp. As they travel over the next couple of days, they start feeling faint psychic traces of elves from long ago. Wary of pockets of old magic like that which created Madcoil (issue #4), they take to the forest canopy for travel over the next few days. Cutter sickens from infection of his bite wound, and Skywise leaves him to search for plants that the former Wolfrider healer, Rain, used to treat such things.

Alone that night, Cutter sees a vision of his parents on their wolves and follows it, falling into a clearing in which a human woman tends a fire. She picks him up and is attacked by Nightrunner. A human male scares Nightrunner off by hitting his face with a flaming brand. The woman, Nonna, takes Cutter into a cave where he wakes up and tries to escape, but he is too weak and Adar, the human man, takes him back in.  Strangely, instead of killing him, the humans tend Cutter, which confuses him.

Elsewhere, Nightrunner finds Skywise, who’s just gotten the plants he needs.  He rides to the human dwelling and bursts in, attempting to kill the humans. Cutter, sick as he is, stops him.  Skywise gives Cutter the plants, which he eats. Cutter goes outside to purge while Skywise, untrustful of the humans, guards them and remembers the atrocities committed on his tribe by humans, including the capture of his mother, taken and never seen again, when he was very young.

Nonna calls the elves “bird spirits” and honors, almost worships, them, but Adar tells Nonna, in their language, that he will attack them if he has to. Cutter returns, having seen Nightrunner’s injury, and asks the humans in their language if they did it. Adar explains that Nightrunner was attacking to kill, and Cutter accepts that.  Behind the humans, Cutter sees a back room of the cave with symbols painted on the walls, walls that look as if they were altered by rock-shaping magic long ago.  Nonna gives them a tour of her painted gallery, showing them a picture and asking if they recognize their mountain, which she has painted surrounded by pointy-eared bird-spirits riding on giant birds. She worries that Cutter and Skywise have come to take her back to the mountain, without Adar. Cutter reassures her, saying they’ve been away for so long they hardly remember what their folk are like, and Nonna explains that they are taller.  Cutter determines to go to this mountain to meet the elves that are there.

Interspersed with these panels, we see panels of Savah, back in Sorrow’s End, psychically searching and jerking upright, her eyes wide open.

The next scene is in Sorrow’s End, where it is discovered that Savah “went out” today, but is trapped somewhere, and her spirit can’t return. Her handmaiden Ahdri says that just before Savah went out, she mentioned touching something evil that Cutter must not find, and she was returning to find out what it was. Suntop psychically touches Savah, but the information he returns with is jumbled, and he can only communicate it to Cutter mind-to-mind, and begs to be taken to him.

Elfquest #9 – The Lodestone

#9 opens with the Wolfriders preparing to travel, trying on their new leather traveling clothes made by Moonshade.  The villagers are terrified of their healer and their new protectors leaving, but Dart, son of Strongbow and Moonshade, declares he will stay behind and teach them how to defend themselves. Strongbow gives grudging permission, saying he doesn’t approve but it’s Dart’s decision. Rainsong, who is staying behind with her family, tells Leetah that she senses that the powers of her healer father, Rain, flow in the child she is bearing so that the village will not be without a healer for long. The Wolfriders and Leetah leave the village, in a bittersweet moment.

Back in the forest, Nonna tells Cutter that she and Adar are exiles from their tribes.  Adar confronts Skywise, demanding to know if he worships the bird spirits, will they arrange matters so that they can return to their tribe, as Nonna is lonely with other people. Later on, Cutter says he and Skywise should help them, because the humans know things that can be useful for their quest. Skywise muses that Cutter is different from the past Wolfrider chieftains – he has the ability to imagine a different future and a new way of life, when they didn’t.

Elsewhere, the Wolfriders and Leetah follow Suntop’s directions through the desert with their wolves and zwoots.

Cutter and Skywise lead Nonna and Adar through the forest with the help of Skywise’s lodestone. Adar happily says that the Bone Woman, his tribe’s shaman, should now see that they’re under the protection of the bird spirits and let them back. She had convinced Olbar, the chief, that Adar had brought bad magic into the village when he married Nonna, and convinced him to exile them.

Eventually, they reach the human village. Nonna and Adar enter it without the Wolfriders, and the Bone Woman demand they be killed.  Olbar agrees to hear out Nonna and Adar, but is about to command they be executed when Cutter and Skywise enter from the forest, riding their wolves, with a deer carcass trussed to a carrying-pole.  Cutter speaks to the humans in their language, saying that Nonna and Adar have the spirits’ favor, and that if the village accepts them, it will have good fortune and if not, the spirits will take revenge, giving them the deer as a gesture of good faith.  The Bone Woman does not believe them, but Olbar agrees to their demand and asks they stay for a feast the next day.  Cutter agrees, much to Skywise’s chagrin.

In the desert, the travelers have come to the wall of cliffs that separate the desert from the Wolfriders’ former home, a different part than where the Tunnel of Golden Light is.  Ember finds a small cave that contains elven bones. Suntop announces that the rocks were moved by magic, and Leetah realizes that Rayek could move rocks by magic, and grieves for her former friend and lover.  The troupe finds a break in the cliffs that leads to the land of humans.

Cutter and Skywise occupy seats of honor at the feast.  Watching the humans, they realize that when interacting with each other, humans are much the same as elves – smiling, laughing, loving.  Olbar is fascinated by the elves, which the Bone Woman interprets as being under their spell. She tells an associate named Thief that the stone around Skywise’s neck is magic, and that she could work wonders with it, offering to restore his warrior name if he brings it to her. She gives him a potion that will eradicate his odor as he follows the elves and their wolves.

As the elves leave, Thief sneaks up and reaches for the lodestone. Skywise catches a glimpse of movement, and slashes with his sword, cutting off Thief’s thumb. Olbar curses Thief — who was once his brother — and Cutter warns him not to trust the Bone Woman, who is lurking nearby, eavesdropping.

Nonna and Adar see the elves off at the river, giving them vine ropes and pointing the way.  The Bone Woman feeds Thief a narcotic root, commanding him to kill the elves. He agrees, if she will make him chief in Olbar’s place.

Cutter, Skywise, and the wolves reach a waterfall, the cliff beside which they plan to descend with the help of the vine ropes.. Cutter tells Nightrunner to take the long way around and meet them at the foot, but Nightrunner snaps at him, and Cutter realizes that his wolf is old and will no longer follow them. He takes some time to say farewell to Nightrunner, scratching him and breathing in his familiar scent. Nightrunner leaves, followed by Starjumper, Skywise’s wolf, who will take care of him until the end. The elves accept events with sadness but aplomb, as this is The Way, the natural order of events.

Thief lurks in the shadows, seeing the elves now unguarded, and prepares to attack.

Elsewhere, in a grassy valley, the Wolfriders and Leetah pause to rest.  They see a large bird circling in the sky far above them and, hungry, decide it will make a good dinner. Suntop cries out that they cannot kill that bird.

Thief releases a stone from his sling at Skywise, standing on the cliff’s edge, as Strongbow releases his arrow in the valley. Cutter attacks Thief over Skywise’s unconscious body, stabbing him. Thief loses his balance and goes over the edge of the cliff, with a desperate grab at the lodestone around Skywise’s neck. He drags Skywise over with him.  They fall, and Thief plunges into the river below as Skywise grabs a root sticking out from the cliff with one hand.  He’s broken his other arm, so cannot climb up. Cutter uses the vine rope to descend to him, but is astonished to discover someone is pulling them both up.

Olbar pulls them up, having disobeyed and followed them.  He asks a favor in return for saving them – some time back his daughter fled the village with her lover, into a place called The Forbidden Grove. When he and his warriors pursued, they were repelled by small, winged spirits. He wants to know what became of her, and points the way to the grove.

The elves howl a final farewell to Nightrunner and Starjumper, then continue.  Some distance away, in the valley where the travelers paused to rest, there is a scene of devastation – wolves sniffing around sadly, a dead zwoot, dropped weapons and items of clothing.  No elves are evident.

DISCUSSION

I think this might be the only place in the story arc where Cutter’s decision about trusting or not trusting someone is correct – so far he’s trusted the trolls to keep their word and guide them to a new Holt, ending in disaster, and not trusted the Sun Villagers to give them aid, which could have ended disastrously but luckily didn’t. We shall see what Cutter’s future decisions produce.

These two issues tend to feel like place-fillers to me. They’re mostly full of the characters collecting plot coupons and giving them reasons to go one way or another so they’ll all end up back together again before the next segment of the plotline begins. I also tend to find the humans of the World of Two Moons pretty simplistic. We see humans here who don’t automatically fear and hate elves, but they still consider them special, otherworldly beings instead of fellow sentient creatures. (Okay, maybe that’s a bit of foreshadowing, as if the four fingers in a world of five-fingered creatures haven’t got you knowing that already. Well, that and the entire prologue to issue #1.) At any rate, I’ve got a background in anthropology and it bugs me when Neolithic-level humans are depicted as simple – we’ve got enough evidence to realize their social lives and culture were just about as complex as any other culture out there, even if their level of technology was simpler.  So the “fear them or worship them” theme is fairly annoying.

These issues introduce hints of former elven occupation in the whiffs of magic around the forest and the hints about the Forbidden Grove. We also see that Nonna’s tribe worship tall elves who ride birds and who live in a great mountain, but a hint that all may not be well as the Wolfriders and Leetah vanish after killing a large bird.

I do tend to feel that Rainsong’s forthcoming child bearing healing powers is a bit of an authorial cop-out as regards the Sun Village, but I can see why they did that – the story lies elsewhere, not in the Sun Village, and leaving them in the lurch without their accustomed healer would mean that to tie the story’s loose ends up by the end, the Sun Village’s response to that situation would have to be considered, and the majority of the story lies elsewhere.

With Nonna and her husband Adar we get our authorial self-inserts. The character designs are based on Wendy and Richard Pini, although the don’t fall into the Mary Sue trap of having them be perfect – Adar is brusque and hotheaded, while Nonna can’t see that her “bird spirits” might be anything other than good.

I really enjoy the illustration of life cycles involved with Cutter’s farewell to Nightrunner. It shows that elves are longer-lived than their wolf companions, but that they the Wolfriders see death as part of the natural order of things. Cutter is beginning to wake up to a new possibility, that death perhaps isn’t part of the natural order for elves. He may be the first Wolfrider in a long, long time to see that, as Skywise muses. Cutter has somehow gained the ability to envision the world in a different way from the Way, as symbolized best by Strongbow and Moonshade. Those two are the most wolfy of the Wolfriders, unafraid to challenge their chief or others in the tribe when they think it necessary, but willing to accept what the chief says they  must do for the good of the tribe. This tension between tradition and change is one of the ongoing themes of Elfquest.

I’ll also point out that in issue #9, there’s a page that Wendy Pini draws in classic time-slowing-down style, using the panel grid to slow the action down, such that events that occur within a couple of seconds – Thief reaching for the lodestone, and Skywise seeing the movement and slicing off Thief’s thumb – take a full page.

It’s also a great example of violence without goriness – we can feel the shock and pain that Thief does when the sword hits his hand, but it’s not drawn out in detail.  Frankly, a shot of a thumb flying through the air as it’s parted from the hand would be ludicrous.  Also, later on, the action has dire consequences – Skywise is badly hurt and almost dies because of Thief’s desire for revenge.

There’s also a bit of a theme of partings and endings running through these two issues.  Cutter says farewell to Nightrunner, Leetah mourns Rayek, the travelers leave the Sun Village, Savah is trapped beyond recall.  This is reversed in the next issues, as we have reunions and meetings between various groups.

Next time:  reunions and meetings.  And if I manage to get it read in time, the next Elfquest novel, The Quest Begins.

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