“Eltava... was someone who spent most of her life with me, and I loved her very deeply... I first saw her when she was a few weeks old, and I didn’t stop loving her from that day till the day I laid a very old woman to rest.”
These were the first words I wrote about Eltava, wanderer, swordswoman and companion to the Traveller. They’re from Chapter Fourteen of At An Uncertain Hour, when the Traveller tells Sharf the story of how he and Eltava had, long ago, fought and escaped from the mountain-ghouls of Purwe.
Eltava’s grandparents appear earlier in the novel, as children, and I already had the idea that I’d like a later member of their family to be a companion of the Traveller. I chose this particular story for him to tell for two main reasons. Firstly, he’s trying to illustrate to Sharf how listening to your fear, far from being cowardice, can be an essential survival skill. Secondly, I’d realised that I’d tended to make the Traveller’s relationships in the novel rather negative – either they turned bad or they came to a bad end. I wanted to show him in a relationship about which he has no regrets.
And that was supposed to be that. Eltava was one of many characters in that novel who cameoed in one chapter and then were gone; but she had other ideas. Eltava insisted that she had to have a series of her own, and you don’t argue with a girl wielding a sword and willing to use it.
The first Eltava story was The Golden Serpent (recently published in Icarus) which was initially written in response to a challenge to reverse a fantasy cliché – I wrote about an action heroine rescuing a beautiful prince from an enchanted tower. This was followed by Just Deserts (published in Quantum Muse), Heirloom (Afterburn SF) and two stories in which Eltava and the Traveller shared centre stage – Ancestral Voices (nanobison) and The Singer and the Song (Aoife’s Kiss).
All of these stories featured Eltava in her prime, ranging from early twenties to early thirties. With female action characters, even more than male, the stereotype is to portray them as young, vibrant and beautiful, but as the opening quote suggests, there’s more than that to Eltava. The next story I wrote about her, which has just been published in Shelter of Daylight, was The Eternal Sorceress, featuring Eltava approaching fifty, at a time when she faces the knowledge that her strength was still undiminished, and her skill was greater than it had been in her youth, but she’d grow weaker in the end, till she could do nothing but sit around telling stories of the old times.
This story also, as had Ancestral Voices, features a brief flashback to Eltava as a young child, here in a scene with her Grandma Rivil – last seen in At An Uncertain Hour at the age of thirteen. This made me interested in exploring her early life too, and the most recent story I completed, Witch, centres on a fourteen-year-old Eltava’s relationship with the Traveller. Witch is still unpublished but under consideration (fingers crossed) and I have a beginning and a vague outline for a story where she’s in her sixties. I’ve a feeling she’s going to be every bit as fun at that age as at every other.
Two things in particular make Eltava different from traditional fantasy heroes of either sex, though perhaps rather less unusual now: her ethnicity and her sexuality. Her grandparents, Rivil and Jikralt, are most like Chinese in real-world terms, while her mother is of a race not unlike Native American. I’ve always imagined Eltava as looking somewhat like a female version of the bandit chief from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Although by no means a persecuted minority, Eltava is something of an outsider everywhere she goes.
The Traveller is very much the love of Eltava’s life, but she’s by no means monogamous. In Ancestral Voices, she reflects that she needed danger too, conquest and heartache, and the wonder of someone who could feel swept away by her strength and mystery. How could she have that from a man who had cleaned her up as a baby and played with her as a child?
Like the Traveller, Eltava is bisexual, and most of the affairs she’s shown having are with women. In the scene quoted at the beginning, the Traveller speculates that maybe she found them easier to distinguish from me. Then again, her background and her experiences with the Traveller have left Eltava with scant regard for custom and an inexhaustible appetite for all that life has to offer. Perhaps it’s easier for her to acknowledge her desires that it would be for many.
An issue that comes to the fore in The Eternal Sorceress is she’s a mortal who’s both companion and lover to a man who never ages and will never die unless he’s killed violently. The Traveller learns to take the good as well as the bad from this, but it’s harder for Eltava. As the story opens, she’s finally accepted that she’s now a middle-aged woman with a young man, and eventually she’ll be an old woman with a young man. It’s as she’s struggling with this fact that a solution presents itself. Or does it?
Eltava’s life is full of incident, and the seven stories I’ve written about her have only scratched the surface. I love working with her. Though far from immoral (or even amoral) she’s less concerned than the Traveller with doing the right thing and more concerned with having fun. When Sharf comments that she sounds perfect, the Traveller responds, Perfect, no. She had a vile temper at times, and she could be rather more predatory in her affairs than I’d have liked. Still... She was glorious, and I’d have trusted her with my life. I did, quite often.
Yes, we’re both in love with her.