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A Pixie For The Taking

 

Ralph and the Pixie

a novel by G S Monks

Ralph and the Pixie

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 The Hunting Party

Chapter 2 In The Hall Of Judges

Chapter 3 The Price Of Time

Chapter 4 Hidden Agenda

Chapter 5 All The Wind In A Bottle

Chapter 6 Banishment

Chapter 7 Dilemma

Chapter 8 Education

Chapter 9 Reality

Chapter 10 Iniiq

Chapter 11 The Dance of Life

Chapter 12 A Trip Into Town

Chapter 13 Mirrindale

Chapter 14 Pas de Deux

Chapter 15 Life Outside The Kingdom

Chapter 16 The Naiadi

Chapter 17 The Library of Nith

Chapter 18 Under Siege (Pt. 1)

Chapter 19 Into The Forest

Chapter 20 The Öht Nürn Aldhii

Chapter 21 The Past That Wouldn’t Go Away

Chapter 22 Under Siege (Pt. 2)

Chapter 23 Gathering in the Twilight

Chapter 24 The Thane Departs

Chapter 25 Flight From Nith

Chapter 26 Reflections

Chapter 27 Rumours

Chapter 28 False Hope

Chapter 29 The War Comes Home

Chapter 30 The Lore In Limbo

Chapter 31 To War

Chapter 32 A Promise Broken

Chapter 33 The Summoning of the Tsagoroth

Chapter 34 The Fruit of the Elf Lore

Chapter 35 An End To Hope

Chapter 36 Resolve

Chapter 37 Flight

Chapter 38 Immolation

Chapter 39 The Abandonment

Chapter 40 The Earth Mother

Chapter 41 The Final Hand

Chapter 42 Growing Together, Drifting Apart

Chapter 43 Changes

Chapter 44 The Road Home

Epilogue

Appendix 1

Appendix 2 Malina’s Song

Chapter 1

The Hunting Party

Many a young man becomes embittered upon discovering that, unlike his parents, the world at large makes no provision for his being, that it is a hard and uncaring place. Consequently, while attaining manhood, he may succumb, asserting himself with brutality and little conscience. Yet if he be made of sterner stuff, he ofttimes becomes the object of hatred and murderous envy.’

Artur Klaas

(1347-1401)

The young Elf man awoke to a curious admixture of feelings; of a life coming to its end and of another taking its first halting steps; of traditions kept and traditions broken; of promises kept and promises broken; of a tug-of-war between family responsibility and loyalty to his own person. The day itself felt both old and new; not the pivotal turning point he’d expected, but rather a disjointed lack of continuance between two mismatched segments of his life. The first segment was little more than an imaginary dreamworld, a cloying mould, concocted and foisted upon him by family and community. Until the dawn of this day he’d had no choice but to accommodate their illusions.

No longer! If not fulfilling their expectations meant betrayal to them, so be it! He was not about to spend the rest of his life living a lie.

The cool hardness of an object lying under his arm was reminiscent of the sense of purpose he wished for but did not feel. Sitting up, he shifted the weighty thing and laid it across his knees, considering it as he had done the previous night until his waking mind had drifted into slumber.

Soon growing impatient with the poor visibility within the small bedchamber, he got out of bed, stepped gingerly in his bare feet across the cold floor of packed earth, and opened the shutters to allow in the pale light of morning.

He could just barely see his breath in the cool morning air as it entered the room. Outside, beneath his window, was a unkempt-looking swath of field grass; a matter of yards beyond lay a barn which effectively blocked out the morning sun. The barn, like the house, was a rustic affair, constructed of mortared field-stone with thatched roof. Within, a few cows, sheep and goats lowed and bleated their impatience as they waited to be turned out into the fields to graze. To his right, fresh laundry hung from a line strung between a poplar tree and the back entrance of the house. Below the laundry was a vociferous and quarrelsome gathering of fowl that pecked as much at one another as at the seed and dry scraps that had been scattered only moments before by one of his younger siblings. To his left lay a few hundred feet of open pasture which ended at a split-rail fence; beyond this lay the forest in which the small farm resided like a tiny, remote island in a sea.

Returning his attention to the object, he drew the sword from its scabbard, sat on a wooden stool by the window, and began going over the falchion, ingraining every minute detail into his mind; the smooth-worn pattern of the bronze of the haft, the curious angular carving of the brass pommel, the writing and intricate design etched onto the gleaming, well-tended blade that recorded the sword’s lineage; the battered yet durable guards, and the finely tooled bronze leaf of the sheath.

His Grandfather’s sword. A tangible piece of history and family legend, now bequeathed to him. But where was his elation? Why did the sheer weight of it seem to erode his confidence? He had long imagined that simply having the thing in his possession would give him great clarity of purpose, that he would draw it forth and wield it like a champion. . . . but the truth, like the dead weight of the thing, dogged him with misgiving.

The heirloom had been passed on to him by his father the afternoon before during a long-awaited family ceremony, much to the jealous curiosity of his younger brothers and doubtful incomprehension of his sisters. All the while, during the ceremony, he had tried to ignore his father’s distant reserve, his mother’s averted-eyed resignation. He was not about to allow anything to stop or mar his coming into his own.

The occasion had been his eighteenth birthday, that age when he could leave home with or without his father’s legal consent. For the past seven years he and his father had argued bitterly whenever the subject arose. But for seven years he had steadfastly held to his purpose, until his father finally gave in with tired reluctance. A horse, too, had been given him; his father’s fastest and finest. He tried not to think about the fact that this gift was given only because his father’s honour rested upon giving the King his very best; his father conveyed in the sag of his shoulders that both himself and the steed were badly needed at home in the running of their small family farm. Today, however, he would not think of such things. Today he would set out, riding to the local barracks to be outfitted and trained as a soldier, gladly leaving behind family, community, and rural innocence and all. With a heavy heart and wishing he felt otherwise, he got dressed for the last time in his old room, took his few belongings which were packed and ready, and went to meet his family for one last breakfast together.

To his surprise and misgiving, he discovered that breakfast had been laid out for him but that his family was absent save for his father, who sat not in his usual place at the head of the table but across from him, smoking his pipe, looking at once older and smaller, less certain of himself; impermanent. ‘It’s better that I see you off myself,’ the father said quietly, and added, ‘It would be bad policy to begin with a head full of distraction. Your mother . . .’

This was followed by an embarrassed silence, during which the young man sat down and set himself to begin his last meal, wondering uncomfortably whether he would have to listen to whatever his father might say about the implications of his leaving, or face the dubious prospect of trying to make conversation. To date, words from his father had come mostly in the form of lectures, advice, questions and orders. He felt that, given where he was going and why, it was not his father’s place to teach him how to think and act, and that subsequently, until he acquired the attributes of manhood on his own, that his father would be intruding should he decide to have a last-minute talk. He hoped and assumed that it was only some piece of useful or crucially important advice that was forthcoming. As for the rest of his family, he found part of himself wanting to avoid thinking about them.

‘You’ll be wanting to leave soon, so get on with your breakfast, and I’ll talk in the meantime.’

It wasn’t just his father that appeared impermanent. It was everything: his father, the house, the farm, his entire family; even his own life. As his father resumed speaking, he wondered why this should be so.

‘Before you begin life as your own person, there are a few things that I think you should know . . . about what you’re getting yourself into . . . about what you can expect. I know only too well what that head of yours is full of right now, and little or nothing I can say will last ten minutes after you’ve walked out the front door, not even if I was stupid or selfish enough to ask for your word.

‘Your word . . .’ he said, his gaze inward, apparently searching for what he thought would be the appropriate thing to say. ‘Giving your word isn’t possible if you haven’t been tested. Being tested means learning what kind of a person you are. And until that happens . . . well . . . in truth, you have no word to give.

‘I’ve tried to teach all of my children a few things, like the value of hard work and honesty, and family honour. But the value of hard work and honesty and family honour means nothing once you’ve set foot off this property. There’s a wide world out there, full of people who don’t think like we do.’

He paused for a moment, and sighed. ‘I just want you to remember one thing above all else: that when you find yourself being tested, try to do the right thing. That’s all I ask of you. And don’t ask me or anyone else what the right thing is, or let anyone try to tell you. Find the answer in your own heart, or else it will lack any sort of weight or conviction.

‘That’s all I have to say. Now, finish and wash up. You have a long ride ahead of you.’

He listened patiently to his father’s thankfully run-of-the-mill bit of advice, and departed in high spirits. Do the right thing! The rural simplicity of his own people often grated on his nerves. As usual, the chosen subject was one not worth mentioning, and long-winded in the telling. ‘Ah, well,’ he thought, ‘the day is fine, the sun will be hot, and I am free at last!’

For some reason, he did not ride off his father’s property, but rather walked the horse along the winding trail to the gate. He turned to catch a last glimpse of his father, or of his other family members, but there was no one; the only movement was the slow drifting of smoke from the single stone chimney. The farm appeared at once lonely and abandoned, as though in leaving it, he was taking all life along with him, as though his family were nothing more than a waking dream that was now ended, leaving him entirely alone in the world. Impatiently shouldering aside doubt, trying to muster his resolve, he closed the gate, mounted, and turned his back on his former life.

The ride southeast to the barracks would take four days; it was a journey of some eighty miles as the crow flies, through a country of forest, hills, and grassy meads dotted by thick stands of copsewood. He met few travellers along the way, but there was much wildlife, and the clear air bore the tang of wildflowers, sap and wild grasses. At dusk of the second day, he shot a plump partridge for his supper, and by the time it was dark, and his supper was trussed up and roasting over a bright fire, he heard the sound of plodding hooves approaching from a single horse. As he expected, the rider approached the light and dismounted. It was thankfully a Man, one known to him, or rather, more to his father, riding upon a huge, shaggy dray horse. ‘Helmsmith!’ he exclaimed, ‘you’re just in time to enjoy a bit of fowl. What errand brings you hither?’ Moving unhurriedly, the big man tied the reins of his horse to the lower branch of a nearby tree, leaving enough slack to allow the animal to graze; untied his roll and saddlebags, brought them along to the fire, laid his blanket upon the ground, and stretched himself out, gratefully, before speaking.

‘I might ask the same of you. But as you well know, trade is ever my reason for travel. Here, I have a box of salt and some plates.’ The young Elf man carved up the bird liberally, and brought forth a skin of wine. With a grunt, the Man, Helmsmith, held up a waterskin. ‘A bit of meat will be enough. Left home, have you?’

The younger man nodded. ‘Finally. I’ve joined the army.’

With another grunt, the taciturn Helmsmith said between mouthfuls, in a non-committal tone, ‘The army. Following in your grandfather’s footsteps, I suppose. Well, it’s your decision to make. Can’t say that I envy you. The Elf army’s a confused business for the young these days. Not like during your grandfather’s time.’

The younger man eyed him warily. ‘How do you mean?’

Helmsmith shrugged. ‘You’ll find out. I don’t know much, but I can’t say that I like what I’ve sometimes seen or heard.’

‘And-?’

The older man gave him an unsettling look. ‘Dead Faeries. Women and children. Murdered.’

‘I know what Goblins are capable of,’ the younger man replied.

Goblins!’ the Man snorted. ‘Dark Elves, you mean, though your people will never admit to any kinship with such. But I’m not speaking of the work of your people’s darker half. I’m talking about the work of your own Elf soldiers. Some civilians, too.’

‘You’ve seen this happen?’ the younger man said, with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

‘I’ve seen the results.’

‘Then you haven’t actually seen Elves killing Faeries?’

Helmsmith smiled without humour. ‘I know Elf arrows when I see them, lad! And I know the sort of cut Elvish swords and knives make. Clean, like a razor; not jagged like the cuts made by the serrated blades that so-called Goblins use.’

The younger man swallowed. ‘Have you reported this to anyone?’

Quietly, Helmsmith replied, ‘For many years now, to certain people that I know I can trust. And now,’ he added pointedly, ‘I’m telling you.’

Digesting this in silence, the young Elf man shook his head. ‘I’ve heard a few things . . . indirectly . . . but they always seemed so remote-’

‘Yes, well, you’ll find yourself in the thick of it now,’ replied Helmsmith, ‘unless you’re lucky enough to find yourself with the right sort of people. People like yourself. People like your father, and his father before.’

The younger man huffed. ‘I’ve never before heard my father and grandfather spoken of in the same breath as being in any way alike. They were as different as night is to day.’

‘Their differences were personal, and as such were only on the surface,’ Helmsmith told him. ‘As men, they were more alike than either would ever have admitted. Both stubborn as mules, and pigheaded in their sense of values. Don’t forget, your grandfather was a soldier, and your father never forgave him for it. The old man may have doted on his grandchildren later in life when he had the time, especially you, in whom he saw himself, but he was no father! He left your grandmother to raise nine children, alone, on a soldier’s salary. When he finally returned from the wars up North, he came back to find her, old before her time, used up. She died shortly after-’

‘Helmsmith, I’ve heard this story until I’m sick of it,’ the younger man cut him off. In his own mind, his grandfather’s image remained as untarnished as the blade of the sword he now carried. He wished it to remain so, especially now. ‘Father knew that if it weren’t for soldiers like Grandfather, his little farm and his little family would live in constant terror of roving bands of Goblins, or roaming brigands, yet he could never accept his own father as being one of those soldiers.’

‘That,’ Helmsmith told him, ‘is all too common in sons of soldiers, and it is all too true, I’m afraid. But I’m speaking as your father’s friend; forgive me, but he and I are cut from the same cloth, so we share a similar outlook on life, one that neither of us will ever be able to share with yourself. No, you’re probably right; you’re going your own way as you were meant to. But ware! You’re in for some black times and some hard lessons ahead. Those as do the killing I’ve been witness to will be on you to fall in line with them and their ilk.’

That night, as he lay in his blankets, he pondered Helmsmith’s words, recognising the truth in them, but in some way not comprehending their import.

In the morning, they parted company, and he resumed his journey to the barracks.

Two days later he reached the garrison outpost of the Elves. His heart began to sink the moment he rode up to the barracks. Soldiers lazed about, some whittling wood, some playing a game with dice, some mending hose and oiling leather, some sleeping with their backs against the barracks or a bole of a tree. None paid him the least notice. None were doing anything that seemed the least bit soldierly, like practising sword-play or knife-throwing or archery. One fellow, who was sitting on a sawn section of log, leaning with his back against the stone barracks, whittling in a way that was somehow carelessly ominous, appraised him in a way that made his insides feel curdled. There was something sly about the man, and he had to resist the urge to instantly dislike and distrust him.

‘You’re the new one?’

He hesitated, wondering if there could be more than one, and gave his name, just to be sure.

‘Put your gear inside. Cot beside the door’s yours. You can start by putting your horse in the stable over there,’ he pointed with his knife towards a squat, sharp-angled stone building with a peaked roof, ‘and setting things in order.’

He stared in incomprehension. ‘Setting what things in order?’

Ten hours later, cursing as he hung the last of the freshly oiled leather tack back on its peg, he muttered, ‘Stablehand! Nothing but a bloody stablehand. If I’d known that life here would be the same as living at home, I’d never have come-’

‘Your station here is all a matter of trust.’

‘Excuse me?’

A boy of perhaps fourteen or fifteen years stood leaning against the nearest stall. He was short for his age, yet his bearing and build betrayed a blunt, rawboned strength, and somehow conveyed the illusion of greater stature than he possessed. He was dressed in fern-green buckskin; a woodsman’s garb, rather than the livery worn by the other soldiers. His hair and eyebrows were a thick, unruly shock of black, his features blunt in a manner that suggested unreason. Some hours before, this same boy had lighted the oil lanterns which illuminated the barn and other military facilities. Now he had returned, refilled skin in hand, to add more oil to the lanterns, which having four wicks each, though they gave a bright light, consumed much fuel.

‘The others aren’t sure they can rely on you yet. That’s why you’re out here.’

Mulling this over, he found that it didn’t entirely make sense. But he replied, ‘They want to know whether or not I’m a hard worker? Whether I’ll earn my keep or not? I’ll soon put that matter to rest.’

The boy gave him a disturbingly appraising look, a younger, less practised version of the soldier with whom he had first become acquainted.

‘It has nothing to do with work, hard or otherwise. You’ll soon learn that a good many soldiers around here do as little work as possible, and none if they can get away with it.’ He said this with a smirk typical of the sort that takes pleasure in shirking his responsibilities while watching others dutifully at work; his own as well as theirs.

Ired, the newcomer responded with some heat, ‘I have no intention of being used by a bunch of shiftless slackers!’

‘We do work enough when it is demanded of us,’ the boy said with a derisive sneer. ‘More than enough! You’ll find out all about that as soon as we’re out on campaign. You like hard work? When you’re out slogging through the hill country up North, setting up camp and digging into ground that’s mostly rock to set up pickets, you’ll change your tune soon enough.’

Feeling suddenly out of his depth, he said impatiently, ‘Then what is it you expect of me, if it isn’t work?’

Approaching closer in an artless manner of studied carelessness, the boy said, still warily appraising him, or something in him, ‘Around here we have a code-’

‘Oh, that! A soldier’s code-’

‘You miscomprehend me. This is a private code, one you will follow it if you wish to be a member of the hunting party.’

He stared. ‘That’s all? Why didn’t you just tell me? A code for a hunting party! Why must you try to make it sound like such a weighty matter?’

The boy eyed him suspiciously. ‘Have you ever been part of a hunting party before?’

What a daft question! Anyone living on a farm supplemented their meat with whatever they could catch, else they’d soon eat up all their own livestock.

‘I made my first kill when I was but eight years of age! I daresay I’ve done far more killing than you.’

‘And you have no argument with your conscience?’

Were all soldiers this naïve? he wondered. Or was this boy simply being obtuse? ‘What has my conscience to do with it? If you had lived on a farm like I have all my life, you’d know that you have to kill something almost every day, whether it’s for food to eat, or to rid the farm and surrounding area of vermin. The area I come from is wild, the forests as yet untamed. We kill less for food than to maintain what we have.’

Eyeing him narrowly, the boy then asked him a question in such a way that it carried a hidden importance. ‘Then you have hunted vermin for no other reason than the fact that you could?’

Becoming impatient with the boy’s apparently inane questions, yet wondering distantly and perhaps irrationally that he was committing himself to something elusive and disconcerting by replying without clarification, not yet realizing that his moral character was now at stake, he replied, simply, ‘In the beginning, to learn, one must of necessity kill for sport. After that, killing becomes a necessary routine.’

‘And you enjoy it?’

Weary of this line of talk, wishing to be rid of the fellow, whom he was now beginning to assume to be somewhat simple, he replied, stung by irritation into exaggerating a little, ‘Of course I enjoy the hunt! I enjoy nothing better than slaughtering helpless, unsuspecting creatures, for no other reason than I can, or that it gives me pleasure to do so.’

Their eyes locked, and for an uncomfortable moment he felt that he had missed something.

‘We understand each other, then. All right. Go to the sculleries and have your evening meal. Return here at midnight. Bring a hunting knife. Then we’ll give you a chance to show your true colours.’

Not used to keeping odd hours, he found himself feeling overwrought, running on nervous energy, too tired for sleep, even if he’d wanted it. As he approached the barn, he immediately became wary at the sight of the six, four armed with crossbows, that waited for him, and they watched him suspiciously in their turn. But after a moment, one of the six seemed to reach some sort of decision, detached himself from the others, and names were offered all round, his own included, as though sealing a pact. When this was done, the leader, watching him with that same disturbingly appraising look, said, ‘Let’s be off, then. When the time comes, the kill will be yours.’

‘With just a knife?’ he asked, perplexed, looking to those who carried crossbows. It was then that he noticed the strange-looking darts in their quivers. They were black, somehow sinister-looking, of a type he had never seen before.

The leader smiled. ‘Just you leave the catching to us. When the time comes, you will find your knife more than sufficient.’ As they left, stealing soundlessly into the forest as only Elves can, he ventured a question to the leader.

‘Why me?’

The leader only stared his incomprehension.

‘I mean, why should the kill be mine at all?’

‘Matter of honour, you might call it,’ the leader said.

This reply disturbed rather than reassured him. Every breath, every footstep, every heartbeat, was bringing him closer to some sort of meeting with something intangible he couldn’t put a name to. All seven of them were out of uniform, wearing dark, forest-green clothing, not of the type worn by frontiersmen, but rather by . . . the thought struck a chill down his spine . . . outlaws; cutthroats, thieves, and murderers. He ventured what he hoped was a surreptitious look at his companions. They looked a rough bunch. Not like his father or his uncle, or the men from the village nearest his home, who were fairly rustic, but more like the type of Elves his father and his father’s ilk shunned; the type that lived around the outskirts, who dwelt in shanty towns, mostly on their own, who loved their home-brewed liquor, who were uncouth, ignorant, disloyal, dishonest, unpredictable, and having a propensity to violence, but only when their prey was unarmed, outnumbered, and/or unable to offer any sort of resistance. If this were the case, he was now alone with them, far from aid, and even were he to somehow extricate himself from their presence, there would be no explaining his having been amongst them if they were caught.

Stop! He said to himself, to stifle what was almost certainly nothing more than a flight of fancy. They were stealing off to do a little night hunting, which would culminate in nothing worse than a little bonfire, over which they would roast a small feast; they would then return, tired and flushed with guilty daring. He smiled to himself. The worst that could happen would be that they could be caught; the severest punishment for such a venture, as far as he knew, meant cleaning out the stables for a few months, or shifting coal or ore for the blacksmith, or digging irrigation or drainage ditches. He laughed inwardly at the thought of this punishment. Unlike his companions, to his mind there was nothing bad to having a strong back and hard hands, gained by doing hard labour.

His thoughts were interrupted when his companions stopped. They were looking at something on the ground, and having a conference. Joining them, he overheard their subdued talk.

‘Aye, aye, these tracks and spoor are fresh . . . here, put your hand in it if you don’t believe me.’ Their leader did so himself as he said this. ‘Ah, I was right! Can’t be more than minutes old.’ He wiped his soiled hand on his own breeches, then indicated the trail. ‘We needn’t go this way. I know this trail; it wanders a fair piece until it comes to a deep ravine overhung with vine maples and choked with bramble and fern.’

‘That’s where that little stream comes from; the Feld, isn’t it?’ the boy asked.

‘Aye, and we all know what’s at the end of that ravine,’ said one of the others. ‘It comes to a blind end and a spring from whence the Feld’s waters flow. Come, lads! We take the other way, and we’ve got her!’

The other way turned out to be straighter, though sloping gently, almost imperceptibly uphill, until at last it crested, then fell again more steeply, whereupon they came in sight of the blind ravine whose end lay directly across their path. When they reached the top of the ravine, the newcomer saw that a path skirted the edge, and that it was concealed from the ravine by thick, high brambles, whether by chance or design. Looking down to the bottom of the ravine, he noticed that a spring, indeed, bubbled forth from the ground, fed by some subterranean source, forming a wide pool surrounded and overhung by thick ferns, out of which issued a tiny stream. Following the ravine to the left where it sloped gradually downhill, they came at last to a number of fallen logs which had been laid along the path’s edge and become overgrown with moss, fern, and bracken, as though to deliberately conceal the presence of someone watching the ravine. This was verified when his companions crouched down behind the logs for a moment. Seemingly satisfied, the leader then motioned him forward, indicating a narrow trail which wended its way to the floor of the ravine. They made their way down this until they stood at the bottom, which, other than the path, was choked with thick foliage.

‘All right,’ the leader told him. ‘Get in there amongst those ferns, and stay there until you’re called.’

‘This seems almost too easy,’ he muttered as he did what he was told. The others chuckled in response to this, and he found that he didn’t like the sound.

‘Not to worry,’ said the leader. ‘She’ll no doubt put up a fight. They always do. Getting her will be the easy part.’

He was about to ask what the leader thought would be the hard part when he was shushed to silence.

‘No noise now! Here they come.’

They? he thought, his heart suddenly pounding, wondering what it was he didn’t understand about all this. Had he heard wrong? Was there more than one deer? At last, with a brief surge of elation, he thought he had the answer. A hart! Of course! What else could it be?

In a moment, he had his answer, and his momentary elation turned to a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. Along the path they came, side by side, unaware of the danger. She laughed when the doe playfully nudged her hand, a clear, uninhibited sound; no hart, but a small, lithe figure, wearing nothing but a light, short gauzy dress which concealed little, with laughter in her dark-blue eyes, white-blonde hair like cornsilk . . .

At that moment, things happened so quickly that he didn’t have time to either think or react. His companions jumped from their cover, fell on the young woman . . . in a stupefied daze, he watched in horror as they tore off her dress, beat her to the ground, began raping her . . .

Without realizing how it had happened, he found himself sitting on the ground, stunned into immobility, his back to this sickening barbarity, trying not to listen to the young woman’s screams. At that moment, an image of his father came to mind. His father was trying to tell him something-

‘Here, you! It’s your turn- then you can finish her off! What are you doing over there? Playing with yourself?’

He got to his feet, and as he did so, he began to hear his father’s words, clearly, perhaps for the first time. When you find yourself being tested, try to do the right thing. That’s all I ask.

The young woman lay on the ground, curled up in a fetal position, sobbing and bloody. Hearing his approach, she lifted her head and looked at him, her eyes pleading.

His foot touched something. Looking down he saw a loaded crossbow and quiver of arrows. Before the others could react, he snatched them up, backed away a pace, and said in a voice that was surprisingly calm, ‘The first one of you that moves gets shot in the belly. I may not have a chance to get off a second shot, but I’ll carve up the first two or three that come at me.’ Speaking for the benefit of the girl, he said, ‘Get up off the ground and come stand behind me.’ She did so with some difficulty, but not before making a strangled noise as she discovered the tattered remnants of her dress, which had been scattered about. The others were not still. One tried to look to another, prompting him to react instantly. ‘None of that! No talking, and keep your eyes on me. Don’t move and don’t look to each other for signals.’ They obeyed, but with lethal tension in every line of their bodies. ‘You, girl,’ he said. ‘Unfasten the cloak from my shoulders and cover yourself. There’s no reason why these animals should get a chance to gloat over their handiwork.’ She did as he asked, and as she did so, he could feel her hands trembling as they undid the clasp. ‘Right. Now get their crossbows and quivers and place them on the ground before me.’ To his surprise, she shook her head adamantly. ‘Do it!’ he shouted, regretting the force he had to put into his voice to make her act. She acquiesced as though he had slapped her, handling the quivers as though they contained something too dangerous or too filthy to be touched, picking them up by their straps between thumb and forefinger, and dropping them at his feet. ‘Good. Now stand behind me.’ Watching the others carefully for any sign as he did this, he began stamping on crossbow and quiver alike, feeling their satisfying crunch beneath his heel. That done, he began backing away, drawing the girl with him. ‘Stay close to me. And you! You bunch of-’ words suddenly failed him, and he had to resist the urge to spit at their feet, ‘You will not follow me. You will return to the camp, but not until I’m gone. Do you understand me? If one of you so much as moves while we’re leaving, I’ll put his eye out.’ He began backing away towards the trail which led to the top of the ravine. The young woman followed without question. When they reached the top, he said, ‘Now, let’s get out of here. Can you run?’

She spoke for the first time. ‘I have little choice.’

Of course! he thought to himself, What am I thinking! She’s a Pixie. Without her Pixie dress, she’s all but powerless. ‘Right, well, let’s get out of here,’ he muttered.

It was hours before he began to wonder where they were going, and what he was going to do, either with his charge or with himself. He had no doubt that the entire garrison would soon be after them. So much for his career as a soldier! And his horse! And his grandfather’s sword! How was he going to retrieve them? ‘Look,’ he said, ‘do you know of any place safe around here? Someplace where we can hide for a few days?’

She looked at him as though he were mad. ‘Safe? There is no place of safety for such as myself, especially not without my Power.’

So Helmsmith had been right! he thought mordantly. Why didn’t I heed his words, or pay closer attention when it really mattered? ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘for what happened to you, and for being so ignorant-’ But she wasn’t listening to him. She was listening to something else entirely, her eyes wide.

‘They are returning! They have been tracking us!’

His heart seemed to skip several beats. ‘Then let’s get moving. They can’t get too far away from the garrison, not without landing themselves in serious trouble. They have to be back before daylight.’ They began running once more, but he became gradually aware of an uncomfortable feeling, a sense other than sound, that heightened his sense of fear. The girl was aware of it too, and halted.

‘They are ahead of us! And to either side!’

He tried not to respond to the panic he heard in her voice. Fighting to keep his own level, he said, ‘There’s only a few of them. If we’re careful, we should be able to slip right through their fingers-’

The girl made a sudden expostulative sound, an indescribable noise that was part agonized pain, part surprise, and part fear. At once, she fell to her knees.

‘What is it? What’s the matter?’ But even as he knelt beside her, he saw the blood, and heard her stertorous breathing. She collapsed to lay on her side, semiconscious. Abstractly, he noticed a nearby stump that was overgrown with moss, the deep brakes of fern, and the quiet forest. In any other circumstance, he would have found this a beautiful, cool, serene place; not the sort of place where one could imagine a murder.

Realizing that he had to act quickly, he began examining the girl. The dart had struck with such force that it had passed entirely through her body; a dark stain of blood matted her left breast and shoulder-blade. Moving quickly, he shifted her onto his shoulder, and began the task of evading his companions. But his companions had been at this game a long time, and they were expert trackers. He was soon running out of strength, and they were drawing ever closer, when finally the girl spoke.

‘Please . . . you must stop.’

‘They will kill you if I stop,’ he grated, hearing them, or thinking that he heard them, in the distance.

‘I am already dying,’ she told him, her voice weak. ‘Put me down. There is nothing that you can do.’

‘I don’t understand,’ he said, laying her gently on the ground. ‘The wound is bad, but it’s not life-threatening. You’re a Pixie, aren’t you? Why don’t you . . . can’t you heal yourself . . . even without your dress?’

She reached up, touched the tears on his face. ‘You don’t know, do you? The black darts used by your companions . . . they are poisoned.’

For a moment, he was overcome by grief and horror. ‘I’m sorry . . . I’m so sorry . . . I didn’t know what they were going to do, and things happened so fast that I couldn’t warn you. Isn’t there anything that can be done?’

Staring at him uncertainly, her features suffused with pain, she breathed, ‘There is one thing . . . you might do . . . if you truly wish to help me.’

He took her hand, which was becoming cold.

‘You have only to name it.’

Fixing him with her eyes, fighting for every last breath, blood trickling from the corner of her mouth, she said, ‘Please . . . save her.’

‘Save her? Save who?’

‘My little girl . . . please promise me that no harm will come to her.’

‘Where is she?’

She told him.

‘But that place is far from here, and I do not know the way,’ he told her. ‘Is there aught else that you can tell me?’

But she didn’t speak again. Breath ceased to stir within her breast; the life of a child of Nature and innocence was now extinguished forever, her unseeing gaze fixed on eternity.

He moved away only when he heard the others coming through the bush. He didn’t go far, but stopped to listen. He heard the leader cuff the boy on the head, a heavy blow.

‘I told you that one were a bad gamble! We’ll have to finish him off double-quick, or we’ll all be in for it!’

‘Don’t be so hard on the lad,’ said one of the others. ‘How was he to know? You had the chance yourself to keep the other shut out of our doings, didn’t you?’ They began arguing, and he used this as an opportunity to make his escape. Unfortunately, perhaps guided by some instinct, the others were soon in pursuit.

They changed their tactics, and he soon felt a metallic taste of fear in his mouth as they fanned out, covering all the side paths. Don’t run! he told himself, fighting for self-mastery. Move quickly, but don’t run! Moving in a crouch, stealing his way silently, listening, he thought he heard running feet for a moment, and then for a long time, silence. His sense of dread began to recede of its own accord, and he was about to believe that he had escaped, when he suddenly found himself on his back, his ears ringing. It was the boy, who had struck him a heavy blow to the head with a stick or rock; he could feel blood coursing from the wound.

‘Here!’ the boy yelled, ‘I’ve got him!’

In desperation, he crossed yet another line within himself, slamming his shin into the boy’s crotch. As his antagonist wretched in agony, he flung him off, regained his feet, and fled. Looking ahead through the trees, he began to see the grey light of dawn. They’ll be able to see soon, he thought, bleakly. And then, they’ll have me. He was nearing the edge of the forest now, and it became a footrace. Before long, his breathing was ragged, his heart felt like it would burst from exertion. Something whizzed past his head, slammed into an overhanging branch. He pushed himself even harder, resisting the urge to turn and face his assailants, fearing at any moment to feel something strike him squarely between the shoulder-blades.

Crashing through tall brambles, he was suddenly out of the forest . . .

. . . and standing on open grassland, facing an officer on horseback, and a ring of soldiers standing with bows drawn.

‘Come out of there! Now! All of you! Don’t try to hide! I know all of you by name. If I have to come in after you, you will regret it.’ Slowly, out of the wood, they came one by one, looking like criminals caught in the act. To the leader, the young officer said, ‘Put all your weapons over there, in a pile.’ This was quickly done. ‘Now, tell me, where were you, and what were you up to?’

Giving the young Elf man a cautioning glare, the leader said, ‘We were hunting. Thought we might get us some venison.’

‘Hunting,’ the officer muttered, and turned his gaze to the newcomer, whose neck, shoulder and hands were covered in blood, some of it obviously his own. ‘Let’s have your version. If there be any sort of quality in you, you will show it by telling the truth.’

‘They have committed murder!’ He was surprised by the defiant outrage he heard in his own voice, indelibly mixed with grief and despair. He was equally surprised by the young officer’s quiet response.

‘The rest of you are under arrest. You, the newcomer, will show me the evidence of this occurrence.’ He dismounted, selected four soldiers, and told him to lead the way to the body.

Along the way, the young officer plied him with questions, until he had the full story. At last, he said, ‘My name is Karras. From here on in, you will keep close to me, for your own safety. Our laws are such, nowadays, that my hands are tied in this matter, where meting out punishment for such a crime is concerned. I would like nothing better than to hang your companions; the boy, too, for his heart is as corrupt and wicked as theirs.’

They found the young woman’s body with some difficulty, and Karras, after staring silently at it for some time, had his soldiers arrange and bury her properly in the cloak the young Elf man had given her to cover herself with, while the young Elf man stood looking on, grief-stricken, feeling a great weight of guilt, shame, and utter failure descend upon his shoulders for not having found the means to circumvent the actions of his former companions. When the soldiers’ task was accomplished, to the newcomer’s surprise, Karras and his fellows dropped to one knee and lowered their heads. The newcomer followed suit in wonder. . .

‘Please forgive us,’ Karras said, ‘for this unspeakable transgression. Though it was not committed by our hand, still it was committed by Elvenkind. Though we cannot be in all places at all times, we ask for Your guidance, that we may protect the innocent-’

When they departed that place of tragedy, Karras sent the soldiers on ahead, and said, ‘This matter of the child . . . what is her name, and where is she?’ The newcomer told him what little the Pixie-woman had related. Karras sighed. ‘Finding her will be hard! As to aiding her . . . taking her in is out of the question. But I will enlist the aid of one or two that I can trust, besides ourselves; someone with influence, who is more or less outside the law.’

The newcomer ventured a question. ‘What you did at the graveside . . .’

Karras smiled. ‘Asking the Earth Mother for forgiveness? Yes, that is what we were doing, and yes, it is a deed punishable by death.’

The newcomer shook his head. ‘Nothing makes sense any more. What is happening in the world?’ He lowered his voice, and ventured cautiously, ‘It makes one question . . . whether the King . . . well . . .’

To his shock, Karras said, ‘The King is quite mad, and both He and His son are a pair of cowardly butchers. There, I’ve said it, and saved you the trouble. However, as luck or fortune would have it, I’ll be going north soon, to fight the Goblins, and you will be coming with me, as one of my aides. This is for your own good; you won’t last two days outside of my influence, now that you’ve made serious enemies. I say luck or fortune, because although the King is quite mad, His son, Prince Cir, is not. At least, not in the same way. Prince Cir, you will find, is a vicious lout, cut from similar cloth to that of your “friends,” but with far greater power and influence. Unlike your “friends,” however, Prince Cir is fearless to the point of utter recklessness. He will kill anything, for amusement’s sake, if for no other reason. But this matter of fighting Goblins intrigues me, therefore I go north to witness the event. Prince Cir has never experienced war, and seems to have no grasp of discipline or strategy. His way has always been that of stalking, ambushing, preying on the weak, and abusing the innocent. I know him to have been on many a “hunting party.” Goblins in a fair fight, though; that is another matter entirely; one cannot help but wonder what he is about.’

‘But you have a theory, judging by your tone,’ the newcomer said.

Karras’ smile was more a grimace. ‘I am unable to contrive a theory which explains Prince Cir’s actions. Part of me does not wish to comprehend the workings of such a mind! It is said that to truly understand a person, you must walk a league in that person’s shoes. But Cir is wont to tread the path of corruption and Evil. No, it is better simply to thwart his ambitions, rather than attempt a ruinous comprehension.

‘But enough of this for the present. Let us locate the Pixie woman’s daughter, before one tragedy becomes compounded by yet another.’

14 years later

Chapter 2

In The Hall of Judges

‘. . . do not speak to me of truth! It was during the occupation that I came to realize how dangerous truth can be.’

from the memoirs of a member of the French Resistance

The Elf boy, a lad of fifteen years, caught up with his father as he crossed the flagged courtyard, and offered him a number of scrolls.

‘As you can see,’ his father said with a smile that did little to conceal his inner anxiety, ‘my hands are full. Come, I will need your help today.’

They were walking towards a large building, a frowning stone edifice four storeys tall with uniform tall narrow windows, each topped by a pointed arch; it was by far the largest building in this small garrison town of Sormanen. Wincing inwardly at his father’s demeanour, the boy said, ‘What sort of case is it this time? I’ve never seen so much paperwork.’

‘One you are going to witness.’

The boy almost stopped, speechless. ‘I’m to be allowed-?’

‘Yes, yes, you’re to be allowed to witness a real trial in a real courtroom,’ his father said, angry not so much at having to be short with his son, but at what his son would learn this day. ‘This latest victim of our courts is a young woman of the Pixie race, who tried to evade capture and subsequent abuse at the hands of certain of our soldiers. She has been charged with attempting to flee, to protect her life and liberty.’ They entered the building and made their way to the older Elf’s chambers. Once there, he spread the scrolls out on a large drafting desk, and began studying the case.

‘But the sentence for fleeing the law doesn’t merit an expert in law,’ his son protested.

‘Why? because the sentence is always the same?’ his father replied, letting his son see his inner anger. ‘The sentence is “banishment.” You know what that means, don’t you?’

His son sighed. ‘I know what it means. But if there is no chance of changing the outcome, then what is the sense in trying?’

‘Because such a sentence is unjust,’ his father replied, ‘and because I am sworn to uphold the law, and the ideal of justice for all. And don’t give me that confused look! You have been taught that our Social Tenets are based upon what it is to be an Elf. But the girl in question is not an Elf. She is a Pixie. Such standards have nothing at all to do with her.’

‘But Pixies have no sense of law,’ his son protested. ‘They have no courts, no social order . . . they simply aren’t civilized.’

His father closed his eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, let it out slowly.

Civilized. Let me tell you something: they have no courts, nor laws, because left to themselves they have no crime. Crime exists for them only when and where we Elves show our faces, and impose our impossible standards and the barbaric, uncivilized face of our laws that applies to non-Elves.’

‘Why do you say “impossible?”’ asked his son.

‘I say “impossible,”’ his father replied, ‘because to say that we Elves are the standard of civilized society is an assumption not based on fact. We consider Dwarves and Humans to be civilized, do we not? Yet we do not compare them to ourselves, as we do with the Faerie creatures. Neither Humans nor Dwarves pass often through our courts, and when they do, it is only for the most serious of offenses. Even so, we do not punish them ourselves, but hand them over to their own people, trusting in their own people to mete out fitting punishment.’

His son frowned. ‘In school, we are taught that our courts are just, even where the Faerie Peoples are concerned. They even get something we don’t get . . . something called an adversary system, where their cases get argued out. That never happens in our courts. I mean, the most common complaint about our courts is that the law is almost secondary to all the influence peddling that goes on.’

‘That may be true, at least on the surface,’ his father said, ‘but you must ask yourself if anything is gained by their having this “adversary system.” Despite all the talk, and all the excitement, the outcome is virtually predetermined, before the trial begins, and the outcome is almost always the same.

‘We Elves, of course, have our own courts, which are non-adversarial because no Elf would be subjected to something as demeaning as cross-examination, seeing as how we are (within our own culture, at least) deemed “valuable citizens, citizens of means, assets to our communities, and well-respected persons,” and are therefore judged by different standards, if we are judged at all. In most cases we are considered above judgement, as judgement is reserved for those who “cannot help but act as they do, out of ignorance,” “ignorance” being a euphemism for being unaware of the laws concocted by we Elves.

‘Here in the Hall of Judges, you will find that trials involving the Faerie folk have judges, but no lawyers or jury. While one cannot stop Elves from testifying on behalf of our Faerie kindred, the practice is only for show. The only real help or hope our kindred have is to have people working on their behalf from within, and what are the chances of that happening, do you think?

‘The basic tenet studied by those few judges that have actually studied law is “the enforcement of standards.” Despite what they may have taught you in school, the standards referred to are really not standards at all; rather, they are descriptions of what it is to be an Elf, which in turn is judged to be the fundament of that part of our law which concerns our kindred.

‘The “first degree” of punishment, therefore, is based upon the perceived degree of un-Elf-like behaviour. This is punishment for ignorance. Such punishment, as you well know, is severe. The “second degree” is for evasion or attempted evasion of arrest. Our lesser Faerie kindred are, of course, arrested simply for being within the Elf Kingdom; arrest which involves much physical abuse, if not that form of murder known as “summary execution.” The “third degree” is for acting or plotting against the Elves. This charge carries with it the automatic penalty of torture, followed by death, referred to as “banishment.” The young Pixie woman is faced with “banishment” for thwarting a group of Elvish soldiers that were intent on abusing her, or worse. She was later caught, and would have met an unspeakable end, were it not for the presence of certain soldiers who forbade her rape, torture, and killing.

‘That particular Hall where our lesser Faerie kindred are normally tried is called the Hall of Standards. With very few exceptions, Elves that become Judges in the Hall of Standards are landowners that are considered to have some knowledge of Faeriekind. Of course, “being wise in the ways of Faeriekind” translates into seeing them as a nuisance and a threat.

‘There are, of course, those of us who would argue that a single standard should apply, that we Elves should treat and judge others as we treat and judge ourselves. In fact, there is an adversarial court called the Single Standard court, and it is currently at the center of bitter controversy. Applications are mired in red tape, prisoners’ sentences carried out before their cases come up (meaning they are put to death), trials are allowed to drag on interminably by corrupt judges that are in thick with the prosecutors. Instead of many judges, there are three. Instead of what we call defence lawyers, there are Advocates, that fight for the prisoners largely on strength of character, social standing, power, bribery (depending on the judges), threats (either when there is something to be had on a corrupt judge, or when a judge is of lower social standing than the Advocate), and very occasionally, the Thane’s personal veto, sparingly used because Prince Cir, too, has a veto, and often but not always uses it to cancel out the Thane’s. On occasion the Thane intercedes, but only when there is some evidence (the only time evidence of any sort is deemed relevant) to prove the innocence of the accused. The evidence is, of course, an Elven witness that will attest to direct personal knowledge which runs contrary to the basis of the accusation.

‘The downfall of the Single Standard court is that the three judges must be in full agreement for the sentence to be overturned or commuted. The accused is therefore guilty until proven innocent. Of course, by definition of Law, they are all of them guilty, simply for being what they are. There is always at least one judge amongst the three who is biased against our lesser kindred; this thanks to those that govern the judiciary. The other judges, unfortunately, are usually either well-meaning but gutless, and apt to go along with the judgement of the more ruthless (and out of court, far more dangerous) judges, who are placed by the judiciary to appease the Crown; or they are extremely biased against our kindred, in which case they are in every way as bad as those judges answering to the Crown.

‘In a few hours, I will be acting as an Advocate’s assistant, on behalf of the young woman I have mentioned.’ He paused to let the full import of his words strike home.

Eyeing him narrowly, his son said, ‘An Advocate’s assistant! This is such an important case? Why? What is going on?’

His father sat down and stared at the scrolls before him, unseeingly. ‘This particular Advocate was called in on this case by the Thane himself. There are powerful people involved. That is why you are here. I want you to have the opportunity to see for yourself what our courts are really all about. A chance like this comes up only rarely. For young students like yourself, the adversary system has great appeal, because you actually get to hear arguments and counter-arguments, and you generally get a good show. Normally, there is nothing at stake for those involved. Except, of course, for the accused whose life is on the line. But for those arguing the case, it is nothing to them but a day’s work.

‘In this case, however,’ he tapped his fingertips meaningfully on the tabletop, ‘more than mere words are at stake. The Advocate means to question the authority of the State in this matter. He and his friends acting behind the scenes will be risking life, limb, career and reputation on this case.’

His son was unimpressed. ‘Cases like this happen from time to time. We are taught about such things, you know. All cases like this are for is to show that the system works.’

His father grimaced. ‘Is that what you have been told? Well, you have been lied to, if that be the case.’

‘Lied to in what sense?’

‘In the sense that such cases are not really intended to reform our laws. That they haven’t done so yet doesn’t mean that you can infer that lack of success means lack of intent. Have they taught you what changes are being fought over?’

His son considered, before saying, ‘I always wondered about that. Our instructors are always pretty vague when it comes to specifics.’

His father nodded. ‘Let me give you a quick outline, then. The very structure and content of this trial will be a perfect example for you. To begin with, those acting for the prosecution are the State Accusors, the Crown Appointee, and the Interrogator. The State Accusors are experts in that branch of Elven Law which concerns our kindred. They also present the charges, speak for the witnesses if there are any, submit the hearsay that passes for evidence, and revile the defendant with accusing statements. The Interrogator asks questions immediately following the accusations of the State Accusors. Based on what the accused replies, if the Crown Appointee demands and is granted the right to interrogate (a condition on which the three judges must be in agreement), the accused is then taken away and tortured in the presence of the Interrogator, who asks the questions, and the Advocate, who is not allowed to intervene. If the accused “confesses,” the trial is over, and the sentence is immediately carried out. If the accused does not confess, then the accused returns to trial. Once the right to interrogate has been granted, however, the accused can be tortured virtually at whim.

‘The Crown Appointee, more powerful than the judges, represents the interests of the Crown. Dealing with his formidable presence is key to attacking the case against the accused. The Crown Appointee will seldom, if ever, speak to the accused, but instead will argue at great length with the Advocate over various points of law, in essence attacking the very case of the defence; something the Advocate is expressly forbidden to do. The only recourse the Advocate has at his disposal, therefore, is to attempt to attack the way in which the Law is implemented.

‘It is because of these often heated and potentially provocative exchanges that the Single Standard court is so appealing to those who come to spectate, and I am not here referring to students of law with a healthy academic interest. Many that come to watch do so because they are evil-minded vacuous fools and voyeurs; but there are also people that follow these cases because they are concerned for the plight of our kindred. Take a look about you, and you will be surprised not only by the variety, but by the type and intent of the people who have, or believe they have, a stake in this case. I say “believe,” for certain of the idle come to fuel their prejudices . . .’

His son, meanwhile, had sat down, looking sick. ‘We were taught all there was to know about “interrogation,” I thought. No one ever said anything about torture.’ He raised his eyes to appraise his father, warily. ‘If she is to be tortured, will I . . . I mean- ?’

‘Will you have to watch?’ his father said. ‘Yes, you will have to watch, but only in the sense that you will have to be present. You may look away, or close your eyes, if you wish. But in the event that she is tortured, I wish you to see that fact for yourself.’

‘But I wish to see no such thing!’ he protested. ‘Why are you doing this? I want to help these people, but I do not want to watch them be tortured!’

‘If you truly wish to help these people,’ his father said, ‘you must have no illusions about why they need our help. At the moment, your head is full of illusions. You can’t take illusions into court with you; not when someone’s life is hanging in the balance. Illusions are a distraction which the person you represent can ill afford, unless you deem your illusions more important than the life of the person you are representing.’

‘You know that I do not,’ his son said, angry, but with no heat. ‘You well know that you have raised me well, in that we share the same good values. You have always allowed me my own sovereignty as a person, as it were, without trying to mould my life, as many a father does. Don’t think for a moment that I don’t notice such things, or appreciate them! You have taught me to be both sceptical and observant, and have always encouraged me to know my own mind, and to know the minds of others. But I’ll not stand by and watch an innocent young woman be tortured. If I am forced to watch, then I will interfere-’

‘You will do no such thing,’ his father said in a quiet voice that brooked no contradiction. ‘You will watch, if it becomes necessary to do so, because only then will you know that such practices must be stopped! Only then will you care enough, and subsequently be willing enough, to fight for these people with every ounce of strength you possess. It is the only way I know of, short of being the victim of such torture yourself, to force you to find it within yourself to give all that you have to give, without reserve, to those innocents who need and deserve our help. Besides,’ he added in a tired, resigned voice, ‘if you yourself become a lawyer one day, you will see many people being tortured . . .

‘. . . and you will witness many, many unjust executions.’

That afternoon, they entered the Hall of Judges and made their way to the Single Standard Court. Once there, they began making their way down the aisle toward the Advocate’s Bench. Minding his father’s advice, the Elf boy began to survey the chamber. He spotted the Advocate seated to the left of the empty judges’ bench, his caped and wide-shouldered figure hunched over a number of documents, both elbows on the table, massive head resting on large and powerful hands. Some distance to his right, at the Crown’s Bench, stood the Interrogator, identified by his official robes, the three State Accusors, identified by their uniform-like attire, and sitting a little apart was a figure that could only have been the Crown Appointee. Like the Advocate, he appeared a silent, formidable figure. As they reached the Advocate’s bench, he and his father seated themselves as the Advocate poured over his notes, seemingly oblivious to their presence.

The boy took this opportunity to continue looking about the courtroom. People were still arriving, and he was surprised at the sight of many that he would not have suspected to have any interest in such a case. There were a number of soldiers and high-ranking civilians. There were the evil-minded, but they were few and to be expected, sitting at the back and talking loudly amongst themselves, looking about occasionally with the watchful eyes of thieves. There were a surprising number of Elven women here, from all walks of life. And there was one figure who stood out from all the rest, a fat, imposing-looking Merchant, a vast, bearded hulk of an Elf, who glowered like a thunderstorm. As his gaze passed around the room, his eyes found those of the boy, and though the lad tried to look away, found he couldn’t. To his relief, the eyes shifted, falling upon his father. He turned, surprised to see his father returning the gaze briefly, before nodding and turning back to his work. ‘That Merchant,’ said his father, without looking up, ‘is a person of no little importance. He may be sitting as an apparent spectator in the Gallery, but rest assured that his presence, his influence in this room, is and will be felt by all during the course of this case.’

At this, the Advocate turned and smiled. His face was composed of thick blunt slabs which looked like stiff clay. The boy felt his heart sink as he looked into eyes that made him feel insignificant, small and trivial; it was not as though the Advocate were unkind or ill-disposed towards him, but rather, that he simply had no business being here. ‘Let us hope,’ the Advocate said in a voice clear and resonant, the voice of a true orator, ‘that he can make his presence more than just felt.’ His tone was one of stern, humane compassion. As the Advocate turned his attention back to his work, the boy, momentary held against his will by the strength of the Advocate’s charismatic presence, tore his gaze away, only to have it trapped by another even more formidable individual. That of the Crown Appointee.

Where the Advocate’s hair was a mane of strong silver-grey, the Crown Appointee’s was a sort of colourless, graying, nondescript off-blonde, or what had once been a mousey light brown. His eyes, however, were of the sort of pale blue that stood out from across a room. Though the Crown Appointee’s face bore no discernable expression, the boy reacted with fear, starting from the nape of his neck, through his bowels which seemed to quiver in terror, down to the tips of his toes, at the sight of that merciless, unfeeling gaze.

‘All rise!’

As everyone got to their feet in anticipation of the arrival of the three judges, the Crown Appointee held his gaze a moment longer, as though heedless of court formality. Thankfully, however, as the judges entered, the Crown Appointee smiled; a cold, serpentine expression that had nothing to do with humour; got unhurriedly to his feet, and looked away. Shuddering at the aftereffect of that visage, which burned momentarily like a weal across his conscious mind, the boy pulled himself together and fairly jumped to his feet.

‘Be seated!’

The judges, after conferring a moment with each other, motioned to the bailiff.

‘Bring the prisoner!’

The boy sat with his heart in his mouth as an expectant murmur started up in the Gallery and subsided once more. The girl was brought in then; she was not much older than himself. Her neck and wrists were bound in iron. Her light Pixie dress was all she wore. But her appearance . . .

He had seen Pixies before, but never like this! Her white-blonde hair was matted and unkempt, as was her Pixie dress, which was soiled and torn in places. She was clearly overwrought and terrified, the pallor of her face expressing hunger and deprivation as clearly and eloquently as the abject fear which suffused her mien. She looked about, as though seeking help, her gaze pleading. She was taken to the prisoner’s box where she was made to stand, on display, for all to see. She was trying not to cry, and though she was obviously trying to control herself, couldn’t stop her knees from quaking. The boy had to struggle with himself not to weep in response.

‘State your name for the record!’ commanded the Bailiff in a tone of voice that made it clear to all that the girl’s interrogation had begun, even though officially the proceedings had not. Her voice shaking, she muttered something unintelligible.

‘You will state your name willingly, or suffer the consequences!’

‘Mä . . . Mäïnya-’

The judges shared an exasperated look. The one in the center, the highest of the three, threw down his quill in disgust and spoke.

‘Prior to these proceedings, it was my understanding that you have at least a marginal understanding of the Elvish tongue. Do you require an interpreter?’

Baffled, she replied, ‘But I do understand-’

‘Then you will give to this court a proper name,’ the judge intoned.

‘But I have given you my name-’

‘What you have given us,’ interrupted the judge impatiently, ‘is not a person’s name at all, but is rather a certain genus of flower, or to be more precise, what is by all accounts nothing more than a common weed.’

Gaping, the girl protested, ‘But it is my name-’

As though waiting for this cue, the Crown Appointee said, ‘Permission to interrogate.’

The boy went cold inside. The girl, too, had gone very pale, obviously knowing what this meant. The Advocate, however, spoke up instantly. ‘Objection, m’Lords. Point of order: the right to interrogate may not be granted until such time as courtroom proceedings have progressed beyond the opening formalities.’

‘Overruled!’ the highest judge intoned. ‘Permission to interrogate the defendant is hereby granted.’ The courtroom was immediately abuzz with an admixture of subdued emotive expostulations: outrage vied with corrupt anticipation; shock with resignation; anger with fear; hate with remorse.

The Advocate surged to his feet, outrage in every line of his bearing.

‘With all due respect, my Lord,’ he said, spitting out the words “my Lord” like chunks of rancid meat, ‘you cannot grant the right to interrogate at this time. It is forbidden! If you, sirs, do not abide by the Law in this matter, I, myself, will forbid this transgression!’

The High Judge was obviously one unused to having his authority questioned. But fear he couldn’t conceal twisted the lines of his thwarted venom, turning his visage into a mask of curdled outrage. Yet the Advocate’s bearing held him silent. He looked to the Crown Appointee, obviously seeking help there. Again, as though on cue, the Crown Appointee spoke. ‘I invoke the veto of Cir, our Prince.’ The courtroom was stunned into silence at these words.

But the Advocate was prepared for this transgression. Without hesitation, he responded. ‘That you cannot do.’

The High Judge stared at him as though he were mad. ‘You dare-’

‘No veto can be invoked during courtroom proceedings, as you well know,’ the Advocate said. ‘Not even if it come from Prince Cir, or the King Himself.’

The Crown Appointee, tapping a small scroll against his temple, said, ‘My Lords, that is no longer true. I have here a minor amendment to our laws governing this matter, that comes directly from Prince Cir Himself.’ He handed the scroll to a courtroom attendant, who then turned to make his way to the Judges Bench. Instead, he found himself facing the Advocate, who had left his bench to intercept the document, which he seized from the attendant’s hand. Ignoring the explosive outrage of the judges, indeed, ignoring all within the courtroom, save the Crown Appointee, the Advocate crushed the document, stuffed it in a pocket within his robes, placed his huge hands on the table of the Crown Appointee, and confronted the Crown’s representative directly. ‘Once again, I forbid this transgression! No change in law may be enacted during the course of a trial. You may think to subvert yon craven dotards,’ he said, indicating the judges, ‘but you will never enact such evil while you are in my presence.’

The Crown Appointee was making a show of examining his fingernails, a small smile upon his lips. Yet despite his apparent nonchalance, it was apparent to all that he was furious. ‘As you wish.’

The boy had to marvel at the remarkable calm and poise of the man, whatever else he might be feeling.

‘But rest assured, your charge will not escape custody. As Crown Appointee, I will invoke the right to begin a State Review the moment this trial is over, whereby our summary laws will come into effect.’

‘Should you do so,’ said the Advocate in tones thick with the promise of reciprocal violence, ‘you, personally, will greatly rue the day.’

The courtroom had become as silent as though it were empty.

‘You dare threaten me, Advocate?’ The Crown Appointee, too, had risen to his feet, and none could mistake the fact that this was a very dangerous man. The Advocate, however, smiled disarmingly. ‘I intend only to give you that which you so richly deserve, if ever the opportunity should arise. Yet well do I know that such a proposition may prove very difficult to enact, at best, seeing the way that you always seem to manage to evade genuine confrontation or justice, by hiding yourself even now beneath the hem of Prince Cir’s coattails.’

The boy’s father leaned close and spoke quietly into his son’s ear.

‘Do not for a moment be deceived by words and appearances. I fear that we have already lost this case. Prince Cir’s involvement renders all argument purely academic. The actions of the Advocate are intended only to spare the girl from torture during the course of this trial. In the same breath, however, I fear that her unhappy fate is sealed.’

‘But surely the Advocate bests the Crown Appointee,’ his son protested. ‘How can you say that the case is already lost?’

‘Prince Cir will quickly learn of the Advocate’s bravado,’ his father replied. ‘While the Advocate is more than a match for the Crown Appointee and his associates, and will wield the Law like a true champion within this courtroom, still you must remember that the Law exists only within this courtroom. Without, the Law is rendered meaningless by the legal limbo that our sovereigns have contrived for Faeriekind. Within that void resides an implicit and unspoken climate of licence: that is, a licence of violence, murder, persecution, violation, and defilement. Though the Advocate may win this case within the sanctity of these walls, his client’s life will undoubtedly be forfeit the moment she leaves here.’

‘Surely the Advocate will attempt some sort of reform, if he truly values the life of his client?’ his son said.

‘The Advocate strives for such every day,’ his father said. ‘But such reform involves not only our legal, but our social statutes, neither of which are on trial. To challenge our social codes is to directly challenge the rule of our Sovereigns, something for which no precedent exists.’

‘Then what is the point of all this?’ his son asked, perplexed.

‘The point,’ replied his father, ‘is to fight, to strive, for what is clearly right and just, regardless of the outcome. The alternative is to abandon justice in our hearts, regardless whether we can make that justice a reality or not. Should we lose the fight for justice in our souls, then we will become alike to yon enemies of truth and justice. That is the point, if there is any at all to be made in this matter.’

Chapter 3

The Price Of Time

Beware the man of one book.”

Ancient Roman proverb.

The Chief Loremaster bit down on the rising fear that his working against the machinations of his Sovereign had at last been discovered. ‘My King, it is all that we can do. As I have tried to tell you from the beginning, on the one hand it is like trying to pick yourself up by your own bootstraps; on the other it is like stretching too little butter over too much toast; eventually, something must fail.’

‘Not if that something is my life,’ the old King said. ‘You will find a way, at any cost, be that cost your worthless life. In that event, I will find others that will serve me, and serve me without question.’

The Chief Loremaster seemed to shrink within his robes, even as he took a deep breath. This was a nightmare! How did one reason with the insane? One did not, of course. But if one had no choice, and that mad person was the King Himself, what then? Ah, then one had to seem to go along, to pretend to be party to the madness, watching for any opportunity to thwart the deliberations of a deluded will.

But at what cost?

‘You have something to add?’ The King seemed impatient to get back to his scribbling. His tall desk was covered with it; it littered the floor all round, was stuffed into every nook and cranny. The Chief Loremaster glanced at the nearest, latest piece, the one the King had been working on when he entered His chambers, and shuddered. The King was not illiterate; far from it, for in his day he was known to have been somewhat of a scholar. Yet now that his mental faculties had deteriorated, for years now he had taken to incessantly writing illegible, unintelligible gibberish. Now . . . did He even know what He was doing, somewhere underneath, inside, in some dark corner or half-forgotten recess of His mind? The Chief Loremaster sincerely doubted it, in light of the King’s latest demands, which were becoming more erratic, dangerously, physically, morally, and . . .

Even as he tried to push the unpleasant thought away, the King seemed to speak it for him.

‘One of your colleagues has told my son that there is a way. He was reluctant to speak of the matter, curse his craven soul! But Prince Cir prised the information out of the disloyal wretch, at the cost of his life. Now, you will tell me, or you will find that reluctance in this matter carries a heavy price; all that you have to give, to put not too fine a point on it.’

The Chief Loremaster’s mouth went dry, not at the threat to his own life, but to the implications of what he had just heard. ‘My Lord! What way . . . what method do you speak of? I-’

‘It concerns the Book of Lore. The final illustration, to be precise.’

‘But-’ the Chief Loremaster bit his tongue to stop the words But this is madness! from escaping his lips. ‘Sire,’ he said, trying to gain some measure of control over the situation, ‘the final illustration has remained unfinished for many generations for good reason! The Lore, at that point, reaches a level of puissance beyond the strength of any mortal to control, be he equipped with the greatest of periapts imaginable! The Lore would be unleashed, the Balance violated briefly . . . and then the backlash of such an event, when the Earth Mother Herself reacts to what we’ve done . . .’

If She reacts,’ the King said, a half-smile on his lips, as he began scribbling once more.’

Leaning closer to emphasize his words, to try to force something of their import into the King’s mind, he said, as fiercely as he dared, enunciating each word, ‘She will react!’

Still smiling, the King said, ‘You do not know it, but others of your colleagues assure me that it will soon be in My power to deal with Her.’ Turning to the old Loremaster, he said, ‘And I will, deal . . . with . . . Her!’ He shouted these last words, and the veins on his temples stood out, briefly. ‘She has been the problem from the beginning, setting out the rules, cheating us! . . . cheating us! . . .’ He controlled his petulant tirade, but only briefly. ‘. . . while She goes on living forever! She gives the rest of us a mere taste of life, just enough to know that it is sweet, and dear, and so utterly precious . . . only to take it away once more, and in so doing, taking away all point in living. I have no doubt that She takes our lives to feed her own. A Vampire, that is what She truly is! Well, I shall drive a stake through this Vampire’s heart, and then I will be truly free . . . free to act, free to do what She has forever forbidden.’ Leaning closer, so that they were almost face-to-face, the King said, ‘Once I have Her, and I will have Her, shortly; then I will make sure that the final illustration is completed, and the full power of the Lore invoked, by myself! Do you not see the beauty of it? The Lore cannot destroy me, if I command the Lore to endow me with life everlasting!’

‘But the Lore will be unleashed . . .’ the old Loremaster tried to protest.

‘Aye, it will,’ the King said, sitting back in his chair, his gaze lost somewhere in his own imagination. ‘The Lore will be unleashed. Well, what of it? Let it do what it will. It will not be able to harm me. I will be safe. For ever. I . . . will live, forever. Free of doubt; free of care; free of worry; free from the ravages of angst-ridden mortality.’

‘But Sire! Your Kingdom . . . the rest of the World-’

‘They are worth the price,’ the King replied, an almost reverential expression on his face. ‘Think on it! Were you the wealthiest person alive, and your time came, you would pay anything, do anything, to buy more time, if you could.’

The old Loremaster sighed, and thought, No, I would not. Not if it had to be got at the expense of all else. He tried to imagine the implications of the Lore’s being unleashed, but found he couldn’t. A conflagration of unbridled power would be released, the Balance overthrown in the process, the Balance being that Force of Nature that regulated all excess or deficiency in the Grand Scale of things. But without the Balance! The consequences were unthinkable. And that was only the beginning. The Balance Itself was little more than a trigger, a warning to the Earth Mother, who would then act. But if She were somehow to be prevented from intervening . . .

Again he tried to imagine such an occurrence; found that such imaginings were quite beyond his scope. Could anyone know such a thing? he wondered. Or, as is more likely, and infinitely more merciful, would there be no one left to know? The Lore, if unleashed, would continue, of course. But like a solvent distilled from Chaos Incarnate, it would dissolve anything it touched, moulding all life, like living, melting clay that was worked by frenetic hands with no eye or mind to guide them. The Chief Loremaster closed his eyes and suppressed a shudder, while the King, apparently oblivious, went back to his scribbling.

Seeming to divine the old Loremaster’s shifting attention, the King frowned, and said, ‘When the invocation is complete, I shall have more time to work on my memoirs. With eternal life, it would become an eternal task, perhaps, but one well worth the labour. Yes, that has become my Great Question.’ He leaned back in his chair once more and contemplated the chaos of papers and scrolls which surrounded him. Gesturing, he said, ‘To find the hidden meaning in all this . . .’ He fixed the Loremaster with a menacing glare. ‘And there is meaning in all of this. There are patterns here, whatever you might think!’

‘Sire . . . I-’ The old Loremaster wanted to plead with the King, or at the least, to plead, somehow, with any vestige of sanity which might remain in the old King’s being, to rekindle a spark of light in His inner darkness, if only for a moment, so that the King could see what He was doing, or at the least that His eyes would open . . .

‘You don’t see the patterns here, do you.’ It was a statement.

Defeated, trying not to look at the sheet of paper in the King’s hand, and in His own hand, he could only shake his head.

The King smiled, an air of triumph in his mien, and shaking his head, went back to scribbling. ‘Loremasters! Great scholars and intellects! Get you gone. It is high time I had you replaced.’

Leaving the King’s chambers and making his way out of the castle, and stepping out into the light of day and the clear, brisk morning air, did nothing to improve his spirits. He was under no illusion that the King would fail to carry out his threat of replacement; a euphemism for murder. He was tempted to leave the King’s city of Valerian entirely, to cast aside his robes and go back to the outside world. But in the same breath he realized that such freedom was no longer attainable. Not for him. The knowledge of what he’d just heard had a claim on him. He may as well have been bound in chains. Which was probably the King’s intent. Mad though He may be, He was still crafty, intelligent, and skilfully, breathtakingly manipulative. The old Loremaster’s strings had thus been taken from his hands, without his knowledge or even a hint of suspicion on his part; they would shortly be divided up and placed in the hands of novices and scribes who couldn’t even guess what they had, let alone what they were dealing with! Each of them will have a piece of that deadly puzzle, he mused, finding that his feet had taken him to a nearby tavern, and not one of them will have the slightest idea of the nature of the overall picture. Several heads turned in surprise as he entered the dimly lighted, low-ceilinged room. A fire burned low in a hearth at the other end, and making his way towards this, he seated himself.

‘Is something the matter, sir? Has anyone done-?’

He glanced up at the serving-woman, a careworn, middle-aged Elf woman, who stared at him uncertainly, wringing her hands.

‘Wine,’ he said.

‘W-’ she stared and gaped in amazement.

‘Wine,’ he repeated. ‘Bring me a small cask. Black Strand, if you’ve got it.’

As she bustled hurriedly away, there was a general buzz from the other patrons, which he ignored. Presently, the woman returned, struggling with the cask, flagon dangling from a single finger of one hand. As she removed the bung and filled his flagon, he took a number of gold pieces from his purse and placed them on the table. The woman stared at them, and said in a timid voice, ‘This is only a poor tavern, sir. I haven’t any change for gold-’

‘You may keep the gold,’ he told her, and took a long draught of his wine. Wiping his mouth on the back of one sleeve, he added, ‘I doubt very much that I will be needing it.’ When she hesitated, he picked up the gold pieces, placed them in her hand, and closed her fingers around them. Too amazed even to consider her sudden good fortune, the woman left.

Before long, he was joined by an off-duty soldier who stood by his table. He winced, assuming that the soldier meant to cadge some of his wine. Instead, the soldier seated himself, placing his own flagon, which was quite full, and containing another sort of beverage entirely, on the table. ‘You are a Loremaster, aren’t you?’ asked the soldier. ‘I’ve seen you about. But I have never seen nor heard of a Loremaster hanging about with the likes of us plain folk.’

‘Perhaps I’m thinking seriously of quitting my profession,’ the old man said with the ghost of a smile. ‘Or perhaps my profession is seriously considering quitting me.’

The soldier eyed him narrowly. ‘To the best of my knowledge, a Loremaster can’t ever stop being a Loremaster, no more than any other body in the direct service of the King, unless he be a mere soldier who has grown too old or too lame to be useful.’

‘Well, you are certainly wrong on that count,’ said the old Loremaster, who drained his flagon in one long draught and refilled it once more a little unsteadily. ‘A Loremaster can stop being a Loremaster any time he wants, the same as anyone may leave the service of the King at any time, if he so chooses.’

‘You’re talking daft nonsense!’ the soldier said, annoyed but intrigued. ‘If people could leave the service of the King, then why don’t they do it? I’ve never heard of such a thing!’

‘There is a good reason why you’ve never heard of such a thing,’ the old Loremaster said, pouring himself another flagon. He was well on the way to being quite drunk by now. ‘It’s called fear. That’s what keeps everyone in their place; that’s what keeps the King in power, and everyone beneath him in line. Fear. It’s why you take orders, and why you wear that uniform. It’s why you kill when you’re told to; it’s why you get up at the crack of dawn every morning, even if you’re tired or sick. But without fear,’ he leered at the soldier conspiratorially, ‘nothing works, at least, not where the lines of that sort of power are concerned.’

‘What do you mean, that sort of power?’ the soldier asked, perplexed. ‘What are you on about? What other kind of power is there?’

The old man sighed, and listened, but thankfully heard nothing. Not yet. Not yet. ‘Benign power,’ he said. ‘Sane power. Compassionate power-’

‘Aye, and a life of feasting, dancing, merriment and song,’ finished the soldier contemptuously. ‘The sort of things old Gran’s tell their children’s children before the evening fire, about how things used to be long ago.’

‘You don’t believe things were ever like that?’ the old Loremaster asked him.

‘It’s not a question of whether I believe it or not,’ the soldier replied. ‘The point is (if there is a point), that we have to live in the world as it is today, and not try to live in a past which has got nothing to do with us. I mean, if we’ve never lived that way ourselves, then what’s it got to do with us? It’s not like we never do any of those things; we just never seem to have the time for them. Maybe we simply outgrew them. Those were simpler times, by all accounts.’

‘Yes, and these times are very, very complicated,’ the Loremaster agreed sadly, but for reasons of his own, as he stared at his flagon. And then, ‘Tell me, young man; what would you do, if you had a chance to get your hands on all the time in the world? How far would you go? What would you do to get it?’

The soldier was silent for a long moment, thinking. ‘If I understand you aright, you’re talking about more than just time enough to do what I want to do.’

‘Close,’ said the Loremaster. ‘What I’m talking about is eternal life. My question to you is this: you find out there’s a way to get eternal life, but it carries a heavy price. Would you pay it?’

‘Of course I’d pay it!’ the soldier said without hesitation. ‘Why not? I mean, if you were going to live forever, even if you had to borrow the money, you’d have forever to pay it back. As far as that goes, you’d only have to wait for your creditors to die off!’

The Loremaster poured himself another flagon, slopping a bit, while trying to gesture impatiently at the same time. ‘I’m not talking about that sort of price! We’re not talking about money here. We’re talking about consequences.’

‘Consequences? What sort of consequences?’ The soldier leaned forward, genuinely curious now.

Taking a long pull from his flagon, the old Loremaster sighed, relaxed now, his eyes glassy from drink. ‘Let’s just say that, for you to have eternal life, everyone else must either die, or suffer eternal torment. So tell me; would you still do it?’

The soldier swallowed, staring at the old Loremaster in fearful outrage. ‘That’s no choice at all!’ Then the full import of what the old Loremaster had said sank in, and he got to his feet, furious. ‘Is that what you people do in yon lofty towers all day? Sit about and plot such wickedness at the expense of simple folk like us?’

The old Loremaster sighed, sadly, listening. Ah, yes, they were coming now. He could hear them.

‘Chief Loremaster!’

While he still had the chance, he poured himself another flagon, and quickly drained it. They were standing right behind him now.

‘Chief Loremaster, by order of the King, you are under penalty of death, such sentence as to be carried out immediately. You will come with us.’

‘So,’ the soldier jeered, ‘you have been up to some wickedness! I hope they burn you alive!’

Getting unsteadily to his feet, facing the King’s Own Guard, he said, ‘We have all been up to some sort of wickedness or another. Some by complicity, others because they simply didn’t know any better, and many because they were given no choice in the matter. Here we have a group of soldiers about to commit murder on my person. So be it.’

As he was led away, he said to the young soldier, ‘I leave you with an important thought; remember what I told you about fear.’

‘Daft old fool!’ said the soldier as the King’s Own Guard left with the old Loremaster. Seating himself, he pulled the bung from the cask, and pouring himself a drink, muttered, ‘The only important thing he left behind was the wine.’

Chap. 4

Hidden Agenda

It is one of life’s sad ironies

where often the soul long outlasts

that which the heart can’t endure.’

Banishment!

Through hard experience she had learned the truth of such words as used by Elves. This one in particular was intended to hide a lie, and a terrible crime.

You’re to be banished for one year . . .

Malina well knew that people who were “banished” simply never returned, that they were in truth taken away to a remote place and murdered. Whom did the Elves think they were deceiving? The soldiers possessed first-hand knowledge of these atrocities, for it was they that carried out the executions. The magistrates knew, for it was they that issued the directives carried out by the soldiers. The magistrates in turn enacted the will of Prince Cir, and he, at least in theory, answered to the will of the King. Even the civilian population knew, for a few of their number were known to have committed atrocities on their own account, no doubt taking licence from the fact that such actions were quite obviously sanctioned by the Crown. And hadn’t other civilians acted on her behalf in the past, warning her of danger, and on more than one occasion intervening, defying the soldiers at great personal risk to themselves? What was the point of this game of deception if everyone knew the truth?

Pondering circumstances past and present, however, did nothing to alleviate her immediate discomfort; in any event, she was beyond being able to think clearly. Instead, she was reduced to shivering uncontrollably in a corner of her dank cell, hugging herself for warmth, shifting uncomfortably on her haunches which were cramped and sore, and leaning her stiff aching back against the wall. The damp stone beneath her bare feet was too cold and jagged to allow one to lay down on the floor and get some rest. The iron collar the Elves had clamped around her neck was cruelly tight, and she pried at it futilely with her fingers from time to time in an attempt to keep it off her throat. She was afraid even to lie down, for fear of strangling to death in her sleep. Feeling utterly wretched, moaning in helpless frustration, she hugged her sore belly which was cramped as much from fear and cold as from hunger, and wiped at the unpleasantly stiff feeling left on her cheeks from dried tears, and at her cold nose which wouldn’t stop running. Why didn’t they just kill her and get it over with, instead of dragging out her torment?

It was so utterly dark and silent in her cell that her eyes and ears ached, despite the quiet susurrus of her ragged breathing and the fearful thump of her heart. Seemingly drawn into that void created by the absence of sight and sound, like air drawn into a vacuum, bad memories came unbidden and unwelcome, goading her fear and her sense of hopelessness. One such was an incident which had occurred years before, when she was being hunted by some of Prince Cir’s soldiers. They had surrounded her home, and would have succeeded in trapping her if she hadn’t been forewarned of their coming and fled. For days they pursued her, until she was far from those places she knew and out of her reckoning, and at last exhaustion or reckless desperation threatened to make her an easy victim. In a final bid to save herself, she made for a copse dark and wild, dove headlong into some bushes and lay hidden, numb with fear, naïvely hoping they would simply give up and leave. Instead, to her horror, they began combing the area with relentless diligence until she began to despair, sensing that it was only a matter of time before she was discovered.

Suddenly, one of them called out, and they did begin to leave. At first she was elated! But as she overheard their talk, her elation turned to dread. A stone’s throw away, several soldiers stepped out of the forest into a clearing leading two captives, a Pixie mother and her daughter; the child was no more than three or four years old. As Malina lay carefully hidden, a wild fancy took hold, that she might see a chance to help them escape. She left her place of safety and began edging closer, stealing her way through the copse until the nearest soldier with his back to her was only an arm’s length away.

An unnatural stillness came over the soldiers then, and Malina had seen a sudden cold look, a silent signal, pass between the captors. Malina had seen the young mother’s face, knew that she had seen as well, and knew as the young mother did, with a feeling of cold shock, what the Elves were about to do. The anguished words the young mother had cried out to her daughter were burned into Malina’s memory, and even now they cried out to her clearly across an empty abyss of time and space, as though perhaps it was Malina the words were intended for . . .

She remembered with chilling clarity the sword drawn from its scabbard and upraised above the child’s head, the frightened youngster’s eyes upon her mother, oblivious.

Shut your eyes, sweetheart! Please, shut your eyes!

Malina had shut her eyes. But she had heard . . .

Her memory of the next several moments was vague; perhaps she had fainted. But when she became aware of her surroundings once more, the Elf soldiers were gone. She found the Pixie mother and her daughter laying not far from where they’d fallen. Despite her broken body, the young mother had somehow managed to crawl to her daughter’s side, had tried to drag the dying child to safety, leaving a trail of blood in the tall grass . . .

Sobbing, trying to shake off the horror of those memories and other terrible images, Malina thrust herself to her feet. Why are there no windows? Had she cried out in frustration? Or had she just thought those words? Why couldn’t she tell the difference? More than anything, she wanted to see, if only for a moment, the clear light of day. Why had the Elves put her in such a dark, evil place? She began pacing the cell, feeling the walls with her outstretched hands. Once again she found the smooth, cold iron of the door, and began feeling around it for any tiny opening . . .

Banishment! Only the Elves could conjure up such a nightmare from a single word. She had an overwhelming feeling of being caught in a vast, invisible web of senselessness, yet which was driven by a hidden, cold, utterly ruthless purposefulness. This was beyond dispute, for the Elves now controlled and owned all the wide lands. They knew what they were about. But why was their behaviour so incomprehensible? What had happened to make them become so violent and so evil towards their lesser Faerie kindred? At times the Elves did explain themselves. But their so-called explanations made as little sense as their behaviour. If one ate, then one was stealing food from the Elves. Wherever one lived, one was trespassing on the Elves’ property. To live free, to do as one pleased, and to go where one wished to go, was to risk being slain out of hand. And simply to live . . . to live was to do so at the Elves’ sufferance. Yet these same Elves were often overheard holding forth about their lofty social ideals, which included Equality, Freedom, and Justice for all. Any non-Elf who dared question this line of thinking was told that the answer was self-evident, and that failure to understand this was obvious proof that their Faerie kindred were mentally deficient. The one question that tormented the Elves’ kindred the most was simply, What do they want? Nothing seemed to appease or to satisfy the Elves, except the persecution and murder of their kindred; a matter that was beyond dispute, but which they denied in the face of all reason and common sense.

Why won’t they let me go home? What did I ever do to them? Her youthful optimism and trust in life crushed forever, she slumped down into a cold corner of her cell and wept.

She must have dozed! The loud boom of an iron door being slammed shut still rang in her ears, punctuated by the approaching sound, with its accompanying sharp echo, of hobnailed boots on a stone floor. With mounting terror, she listened as the footsteps drew ever louder and nearer. Then came the sound of a key fumbling its way into the lock, sending her scurrying from corner to corner of her cell like a wild, mad thing: though she well knew that her surroundings afforded no refuge, her overriding instinct was to seek it out nonetheless. Whose voice was that, gibbering with fear? Was it her own?

The door opened, groaning inward on massive iron hinges, admitting the light of torches which illuminated the stony faces and eyes of the Elf Guards that bore them. Sensing that her doom was nigh, her mind went blank, fear rearing itself over her being like a nightmare shadow, and she cowered where she was, transfixed, unable to move or think. How often had her kindred told her of the “Faces of Death” of the Elves? Their eyes seemed fixed on something unknown to her, and unseen, their faces revealing nothing except a grim fixation on some hidden purpose, to the exclusion of all else. It was as though she barely impinged upon their awareness. She could laugh or cry, beg piteously for her life or curse their heartlessness; it was all the same to them.

Two of the guards approached her, grabbing her roughly by the upper arms. Behind them came another holding a chain, the end of which he snapped to the collar around her neck with a rough jerk. Then, propelled as much by fear as by her captors, feeling as though she was swimming forward into quicksand-like dread, she was dragged choking from her cell.

She was led down a short torchlit hall lined with iron doors, each identical to that of her own cell. Coming to the end of the hall, they passed through the guard’s room, which was furnished only with a crude wooden table and chairs, and lighted by oil lamps mounted in four iron sconces, one affixed to each wall. At the far end of the guard-room was a latticed iron door, which was held open for them by an Elf gaoler wearing a large ring of keys on a wide leather belt. Through this they passed, and up a steep stair. It was not a large dungeon, and they were soon at the entrance, which opened into a high-walled courtyard with a port cullis at one end. In a clear moonless sky, the bright stars seemed to glitter as coldly and mercilessly as daggers. Waiting for them in the courtyard were thirteen Elf soldiers mounted on horseback. The sight of the Elf soldiers and what their presence meant was too much for Malina. She fell to her knees, mewling piteously in despair, unable to look upon their faces. The Advocate had told her that she would be spared! He had promised her! Instead, she was here, being yanked viciously to her feet, choking, compelled forward by an unbreakable grip of iron around her neck toward impending death.

Dimly, she was aware that one of the soldiers dismounted and approached.

‘I will take charge of the prisoner from here.’

She started at the sound of the voice, for it was a voice she knew; Pran, an Elf-soldier who lived near her home. She feared Pran, though he had always pretty much left her alone. Still, he was an Elf, and a soldier, and under orders. He would act out Prince Cir’s will as though it were his own.

When the gaoler holding her leash handed the end of it to Pran, the Elf soldier responded by unfastening the leash from the collar. To the gaoler, who was looking for a chance to cuff Malina as a parting gesture, Pran said quietly but firmly, ‘It is unlawful to gratuitously abuse prisoners. I suggest that you refrain from doing so.’ He proffered the leash. ‘And take this. I will not be needing it.’

Responding with anger and surprise, his face grotesquely contorted with corrupt rage, the gaoler reached towards Malina, thinking to abuse her despite the soldier’s words, but found his wrist bound in a grip of iron. Yanking himself free with some considerable difficulty, and in so doing realized that he was badly overmatched in strength, the gaoler tried instead to make a show of it by shouting in the soldier’s face, though it was plain to all that he did so fearfully, counting on the soldier’s restraint. ‘You’re one of those filthy little Nature Lovers, aren’t you, slinking about the woods and gathering posies! Nature Boy! You’re the type as gives soldiering a bad name!’

‘I do love Nature, if that’s what you mean. Only a fool would choose not to,’ replied the soldier mildly, a half-smile on his lips. This, of course, had its intended effect, and succeeded in agitating the gaoler even more.

‘Hah! No doubt you’re one of those who enjoys making it with her kind. I’ll bet once you leave here, you’re going straight out into the woods and do her, out in the woods and behind your wife’s back-’

At a subtle, curt gesture from the soldier, the gaoler was instantly silenced, as though he had been shot. ‘If you utter another such word, especially about my wife, it will be your last.’ Pran’s smile was replaced by an ominous expressionlessness, and his eyes glittered dangerously. For a long moment, the two Elves stared at each other, engaged in a contest of wills, the soldier’s mien all-too-deceptively calm, the gaoler shaking with fear, which he tried to disguise as apoplectic rage. At last, licking his lips and glancing uneasily at the mounted soldiers that watched him and his fellows in stony silence, the gaoler withdrew reluctantly and noisily, rudely snatching the leash from the soldier’s hand, and grumbling as he made his way back to the cells, an unmistakeable craven petulance in the set of his retreating shoulders.

Placing a hand on her shoulder, Pran guided Malina to his horse, where she stood, baffled, until he hoisted her into the air and placed her astride the saddle. She stared at the Elf riders, wide-eyed with fear, as Pran put his foot in the stirrup and mounted, seating himself behind her. His grim smile as he did so made her shudder involuntarily. At once they were underway, passing under the port cullis which was raised before them and lowered behind them by unseen hands. Within minutes they had gained the main road and passed the last lighted buildings of this garrison-town, which was a sort of eastern extension to the city of Sormanon and bearing the same name. At last, they were well out into the dark night and the open road. Presently, over the unhurried clop of the horse’s hooves, Pran spoke. His voice was tinged with subtle irony. ‘It is fortunate for you that it is I who must mete out your punishment. Another might have dragged you by the collar all the way to your place of sentencing.’

She writhed uncomfortably, trying to puzzle out whether or not he required some sort of answer from her. Yet she feared to speak, for he had as yet asked her no question. In the meantime, one of the soldiers had taken a packet of food from his saddlebag and began eating. Malina, unable not to stare, put a finger in her mouth.

Seeing this, Pran said in annoyance, ‘Were you not fed in prison?’

She flinched at his tone of voice, and quickly turned her gaze back to the unfathomable darkness ahead.

‘When have you last eaten?’ he persisted.

She swallowed, uncertain as to how she should respond. Why was he angry with her? Would he strike her if she told him the truth? Or if she said nothing? She flinched, hearing him reach into one of his saddlebags, wondering if the sound portended that he would do something to her. After a moment, to her incomprehension, he pushed a small cloth sack into her hands.

‘Well? Open it.’

Apprehensively, she did so. And stared. It was full of food!

‘Are you going to just sit there and look at it, or are you going to eat?’

Eat? Unable to help herself, instinctively fearing some cruel trick, that this small bounty would be taken from her, she pounced on the food and began cramming it into her mouth as fast as she could, dimly noticing that her hands were shaking uncontrollably from hunger.

‘Take your time! You’ll choke yourself. No one is going to take it from you. Here . . .’ he reached into another of the saddlebags and produced a skin, from which he removed the plug, ‘you might like to drink some of this.’

Wine! He was giving her wine and food! Despite his warning, she managed to choke herself a few times, slowing down only a little, hardly remembering to savour the simple tastes of meat and cheese, hard, heavy, dark bread and dried fruit, buttered biscuits and sweet red wine. When she had eaten all she could, she yawned, and found herself nodding. She was only dimly aware that he took the bundle and skin from her limp grasp and replaced them in his saddlebags, as she slid inexorably downwards into slumber.

She woke with a start, disoriented and only half-awake, her abject fear having receded to an ugly dull feeling in the pit of her stomach. Digging at the sleep in her eyes with the knuckles of one hand, she managed to open one heavy eye to get her bearings, and with a pang, realised that they were on the road which passed not a great distance from her home. Yet this same road leads also to Pran’s home, she thought, surmising this to be the Elf’s destination. With a sudden feeling of cold shock, she remembered that somewhere along the way, her sentence was to be carried out. For a time she did her best to weep quietly, fearing to draw attention to herself. Pran and his fellow soldiers spoke in low, half-heard voices as they rode through starlit, mist-shrouded farmland. It was some time before Malina realized that they were speaking in an unfamiliar tongue; evidently they were discussing something not meant for her ears. For no apparent reason, she found the quiet murmur of their voices calming, and gave her the impression that this was how Elves’ voices should sound, though she couldn’t have explained why this should be so.

Perhaps because of the collar around her neck, and the awkwardness and danger of her situation, or perhaps because the past several days had been such an ordeal that she was simply too emotionally and physically exhausted to care what they might do to her, she suddenly gasped aloud, and was soon racked with dry sobs that wouldn’t be held back. Pran immediately responded to her distress by placing a gentle hand on her head and murmuring inaudible words. At once, she felt herself falling as from a great height, tumbling ever downwards, back into the waiting arms of blessed and forgetful sleep.

A matter of days ago they had come for her in the dead of night, with their deadly arrows and weapons of steel, and their ferocious hunting dogs. Pixies fleeing from Elves at night well knew that trying to escape by transforming was quick suicide; a Pixie’s light shone like a beacon when in their tiny, wingèd form, and made them an excellent target for the sharp-eyed Elven archers. They ran her down like a pack of wolves, boxed her in and trapped her with ruthless efficiency, then bound her cruelly. Yet the worst was yet to come. The Elf captain then drew an iron collar from his raiment, found a key, and opened it. At the sight of the thing, she cried out in terror and began struggling wildly, but to no avail. The iron ring was clapped around her neck, closing with a loud metallic snap. Instantly, a sick feeling invaded her senses, and she retched dryly as it seemed to creep into her very being, invading her vitals. Then came an agonizing pain as the evil thing began silencing her Power with cold finality: it felt as though something fundamental within her was being ripped out by the roots. She began screaming in high adulation, calling upon her dead mother to save her, and for a giddy time knew no more, until she was revived by cold, fowled water thrown in her face. For some time afterward, though insensible and delirious, she writhed and gagged with revulsion from the sensation of that iron collar against the bare skin of her throat . . . the merest touch of it was like reaching blindly into a hole, to discover a black pit infested with snakes or earwigs. The black iron from which it had been uncannily fashioned was unadorned, black, smooth, and seemed much heavier than it appeared, though that may have been some sort of illusion; it made the limbs feel weak and awkward, it clouded the mind with feverish anxiety and evil unbidden imaginings, and it leached all hope from the body, as though the center of one’s chest was a gaping hole, rather than the buttressed enclosure of a warm, beating heart . . . In her sleep, she clutched at that gaping hole, and found a hand there, which she grabbed and held on to. It was a large and reassuring hand, warm and confident. It quickly dispelled her disturbing imaginings, and she slept comfortably for the first time since she could remember.

The bright early-morning sun, hanging huge and golden directly before them on the horizon, drew her into wakefulness. A cacophony of chirping and twittering came from small birds in the dense undergrowth beneath the trees to the left, their tiny brown shapes a guess amongst the closely interwoven branches. Rather than sound cheerful however, there was a stridency to their calls. Perhaps they were agitated on her behalf. Or what is more likely, she mused sleepily, is that they intend only to warn each other of the riders’ passing.

Perhaps.

Borne on the fresh breeze was a hint of the pungent scent of burning garden refuse. Somewhere in the distance a dog began barking; a door shut; cattle lowed; sheep bleated, their bells clanking dully as they were driven out to pasture.

Having been lulled by sleep into feeling safe and relaxed, Malina realized that she was slumped comfortably in Pran’s arms. She jerked upright with a gasp and tensed with fear immediately, remembering where she was, and where they were heading.

‘You slept long,’ he said. ‘Are you well?’

There was a hidden seriousness behind his question which made her uncertain as to how she should answer. Finally, unable to contain herself, she replied bitterly, ‘Why should that matter?’ At first, Pran seemed reluctant to answer her. She ventured a timid look at his companions, trying to make sense of their strange behaviour. Most were preoccupied, but a few of them regarded her gravely, their expressions devoid of the openly rabid contempt she had become accustomed to.

‘Things are not as most of us would wish,’ Pran told her. ‘Under the circumstances, it is just as well that you are leaving for a time-’

She flinched and went very pale at this remark, knowing full well how other’s banishment had gone. ‘I only ask-’ she choked back a sob, ‘I only ask that you don’t make me suffer . . .’

In an unreadable voice, he said, ‘So, you know that others of your kindred have been killed by Elves.’

‘I know,’ she replied brokenly. ‘And . . . I have seen . . .’ At her back, she heard some of the Elves muttering in their strange tongue. Though she couldn’t understand their words, about their tone she could not be mistaken. She heard anger, and was utterly wretched and dry-mouthed with fear, for those who spied on the Elves could expect to be tortured before they died.

To their left was a dense forest of tall deciduous trees, narrow, strong, smooth-stemmed with silver bark, and canopied overall with gold-green and yellow leaves. The border of this forest ran almost straight, standing like a high wall. To their right lay fallow rolling hills, meadows, farms, and in the far distance there arose a low range of mountains. Presently they came to a yellow river, perhaps a furlong wide, bordered by ancient weeping-willows whose leaves hissed in the light breeze. The slow-moving river originated from somewhere in the distant mountains to their right, meandered through a series of interconnected valleys between low hills until it crossed their path, disappearing into the forest to their left. An ancient bridge of worn stone crossed the river at this point, and on the far side of the river was an intersection; one limb of the road continued on as before, following the border of the wood, while the other branched to the right and followed the river. They crossed the bridge slowly and came to a stop. One member of the escort, Malina thought his name might be Dornal, approached Pran, and the two soldiers exchanged some brief words. Then, Dornal and the other Elves turned their mounts to the right and followed the river upstream in the direction of the distant mountains, leaving Malina and Pran alone at the crossroads. Pran watched in silence until the others were well on their way before clucking to his mount and resuming their journey once more. Malina watched the receding soldiers for some time, made curious because of her distinct impression that they were looking about with uncharacteristic nervousness. When they were finally out of sight, she turned her attention back to the road ahead. Taking a deep breath that inadvertently became a sigh, her nostrils caught the scent of the horse and its leather saddle and tack. Though afraid of Elves, she had always liked those things. Hoping Pran wasn’t noticing, she leaned forward fractionally and touched the horse’s mane-

‘Malina?’

‘Yes?’ she said, startled, snatching her hand back.

‘Please listen to me carefully,’ he said. ‘I am not going to kill you. However, I have no choice but to send you away, as the Prince has ordered. I will carry out the King’s Law to the letter.’

Not believing him, she stared ahead unhappily. ‘Couldn’t you just let me go?’

‘No. That I cannot do.’

‘Why?’

‘Because if I was simply to release you, you’d soon be recaptured by either the King’s or Prince Cir’s soldiers. Make no mistake; the next time they will kill you on sight. Even this time, if I hadn’t been informed by your Advocate as to your whereabouts and the danger you were in, I doubt very much that you’d be alive at this moment.’

Oblivious to, or perhaps ignoring his words, in either case being unable to believe that he had intervened on her behalf, she kicked her feet absently, feeling the cool morning breeze against the exposed skin of her arms and legs like a cruelly alluring caress of freedom. ‘What of this banishment? What are you going to do to me?’

In a low voice, as though not wanting to be overheard, he replied, ‘It is because of this matter that I have sent the others on to Mirrindale. There is danger in thwarting the will of Prince Cir, and I do not wish for the others to share this risk. While I have taken it upon myself to spare your life, still, you must understand that I have a family to protect as well. To accomplish both ends, I will enforce the Law as it was intended to be enforced. In so doing, I intend to circumvent Prince Cir’s wrath. Through my own limited Power, hidden from the view of the King’s Loremasters (or so I hope), my thoughts have been guided to a world for you that feels promising. You will not be able to use your magic there-’

‘Wha- why? How can I . . . how will I live?’

‘In this there is no choice,’ he told her. ‘Other worlds do not harbour the sort of magic which exists here. To do so would cause mortal harm to the wielder. The same would be true were someone from another world to come here and attempt to cast their own native magics, though in time they might come to learn ours. But, as I say, a world has been shown to me that speaks of promise.’

Incomprehension causing her to miss the full meaning of his words, she tried grasping for what little did make sense to her. ‘What sort of . . . promise?’

As though trying to gauge her inner mettle, he said, ‘I will not lie to you. I foresee some danger, and some hardship. But it seems to me to be a place where you may live by your wits, and perhaps do well if you apply yourself.’

She was quiet and sullen for some time. ‘So I’m to live out my life in some strange place where I know no one, without my Sisters or my Power to keep me-’

‘The sentence is but one year,’ he said again. ‘And one does not need magic to live.’

She sighed. ‘But what if I can’t remember exactly where . . . what if I get lost there?’

‘You needn’t worry about that,’ he told her. ‘At the end of your sentence, after the year has passed, regardless where you may find yourself, then I will come for you.’

Considering his words mistrustfully, looking down at the road ahead without seeing it, she said in a small voice, ‘You would do that? For me?’ She thought the tone of his reply a bit sad, though she very much doubted that his concern was genuine.

‘Yes, I would do that for you. You may not know it, but I, and others, have already gone to a great deal of trouble on your behalf-’ he lapsed into silence as she began weeping, quietly. Wondering if there was nothing he could do to comfort her distress, he said gently. ‘You don’t believe me, do you.’

No!’

He studied her tear-stained profile as she stared with heartbroken longing into the deep quiet of the forest; from within came the tantalizingly rich smells of renewal and decay that lay thick and close about it like invisible robes which concealed life’s hidden and subtle grandeur. Her home. And once the home of the Elves. He glanced at the forest, himself, and thought mordantly, We left You in search of Wisdom, only to find that there was no Wisdom in leaving You . . .

There was a matter which he had not told her of, where his search for a world to which he could send her in safety was concerned. Always, where Elven magic was concerned, the Earth Mother was aware of the wielder, and consequently the wielder aware of Her, that his actions were observed. There were many who believed that the Earth Mother was no more than an unfocused force of Nature, possessed of no true volition or awareness. But during his search, Pran had been very much aware that She scrutinized his actions closely, and he had felt that perhaps something more than he was aware of was taking place, that Her hand or Purpose was at work right alongside his own.

When he told Malina of the promise he had sensed, he hadn’t told her the whole truth; that the promise he spoke of might carry a greater, hidden meaning. But he had pushed such thoughts aside, deciding that if the Earth Mother was truly aware of his actions, Her concern, Her Purpose, was merely that Malina, child of Nature and Innocence, should come to no harm by his hand.

As they continued on, the farms became fewer, the road less well-travelled. They came presently to a cart trail on the right, and Pran turned his mount on to this. The trail was rutted and overgrown with wildflowers and thick, fragrant green grass, as tall as the horse’s chest. In its wake, the horse left a trail of scattered down from the wildflowers, which took unhurriedly to the languid breeze like children at play during summer. The scent of farms, of hay and broken earth and manure, were very strong in the air. ‘It is not far, now,’ he told her. ‘I suggest that you prepare yourself. You should eat and drink all you can. I would send you with ample provision, but the Law forbids.’ He handed her the sack of food and the wineskin once more.

She did as she was told with a growing sense of misgiving, wondered if there really would be no sudden and cruel end to her life. Though she tried to imagine the place Pran said he was sending her, nothing came to mind. Thinking that in itself might well portend the end to her short life, she tried to hold such thoughts at bay by talking. ‘What’s it like?’

‘H’m?’ Unnoticed by her, he was toying with the insignia he wore over his left breast, distractedly. On it were the words, in Elvish, Equality, Freedom, Justice.

‘This place you say you’re sending me. What sort of place is it?’

She found his answer disturbingly vague.

‘I am uncertain as to its appearance, if that’s what you mean. However, appearance was the least of my concerns. As I have already told you, the promise of this place was shown to me; that is, promise as far as you are concerned. What form that promise will take did not reveal itself to me, though that comes as no surprise. After all, it is a promise that speaks to your life, rather than mine.’ She was quiet after that. And, he thought, far too disheartened and sad for one so young.

The cart-trail traversed a wide arc, eventually coming round to face the forest once more. It wasn’t long before they came in sight of a familiar field, with a farmhouse fronted by bright flowers, the sweet scent of which was borne upon the light breeze. To the back and left of the house was a barn smelling strongly of hay and horses and sunshine, and further to the left were a few smaller dwellings and sheds of various sorts. They had reached Pran’s home. Malina hadn’t expected to come all the way here, and she certainly hadn’t expected to set foot on the Elf’s property. The sight of the Elven flowers fronting the house filled her with longing, for she liked Elven flowers; they were very beautiful. Having always seen this house from the wood, and therefore having seen it only from the back, their existence had remained ever hidden from her eyes. This revelation caused within her an odd stirring of emotions, that of things missed . . .

Pran turned away from the buildings once more in a wide arc, circled gradually to the right, skirted along the bottom of a low hill, and came to a stop at last in the middle of the meadow, directly south of the farm. It was a very quiet spot, low and concealed all around by small hills. The air was very still. Pran dismounted, picked Malina up lightly by the waist, and set her on her feet. He then gave the horse a light slap on its rump, sending it the rest of the way home on its own. She backed away a step, and considered the futility of running. The open meadow offered no place of concealment; he would be on her in a matter of a few strides. She never for a moment doubted that at the last he would kill her, that all his words, though spoken in kindness, were intended only to calm her fear.

‘We are come to it,’ he said at last. ‘Are you prepared?’

She didn’t answer, but stared up at him mutely, on the verge of tears.

He sighed. As if completing a sort of ritual, he produced a small key from his raiment and unfastened the collar from around her neck. No sooner was Malina free of it than she put a trembling hand to her throat, feeling that she could breath freely once more; though at once, as an after-effect, she felt giddy and chilled, and had to resist the urge to throw up. Despite the relief of the cool morning air tingling on her skin where the collar had just been, her neck now felt perilously exposed . . .

‘All right. It is time.’

As the Elf soldier placed a strange-looking object on the ground before her, an immobilizing fear gripped her heart which began to pound uncontrollably, painfully, as though it were trying desperately to burst out of the shell of her chest to freedom. At a gesture from the Elf, the object came to life, making the surrounding air feel charged; time seemed suddenly to stand still; it was as though her surroundings were imbued with a too-sharp permanence of being, while she was become a mere ephemeral awareness that was a few short moments from ending.

Not wishing to see the coming of the final, deadly blow, she closed her eyes tight, and stood panting shallowly with terror, fists clenched at her sides. Somehow resisting the futile urge to cover her throat, she found herself remembering words, but couldn’t recall who had said them. ‘If ever you are caught, it will go easier if you just bare your throat and pray that the sword is sharp. If it has a keen edge, you’ll hardly feel a thing . . .’

Pran placed a gentle hand on her head.

‘Do not fear, little one. Everything is going to be all right. I promise you.’

He made a thrusting gesture . . .

. . . and then, the glowing object he had placed on the ground began to fade, having burned itself out. The young Pixie was gone. As suddenly, the meadow had become a place too empty for words; a single cloud obscured the sun momentarily, like a veil being discreetly drawn over a dead body. On the face of it, little had changed, really; yet it was as though a palpable ache marked the place of her passing. He stood beneath the sun with his head bowed. It seemed to him as though that fiery fathomless orb were both mute witness to and silent judge of his actions. Would that it could speak! For a long time he stared unseeingly at the place where the young Pixie had been, wondering whether his actions had been guided by courage or by cowardice; but most of all, he wondered why he was unable to tell the difference.

Chapter 5

All the Wind in a Bottle

Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made

to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitude-

inously scratched in all directions; but place now against it

a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches

will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric

circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches

are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which

produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its

light falling with an exclusive optical selection.

Marian Evans (George Elliot)

Middlemarch

Two Loremasters, dressed in hooded black robes, waited nervously outside the door of the King’s chambers. Both were tired to the point of exhaustion. The King, sustained by his private Lore, slept seldom, and held his hapless minions hostage to his ruinous obsession. Feeling slightly giddy from having to stand, they took stock of their mean surroundings. There was little to see but the stone hallway, the torches burning in their sconces along the walls, and the heavy oak door. One of them began looking for patterns in the cracks between the stones at his feet, a habit he had adopted to keep his mind from wandering down more evil corridors. Ironically, an ancient arras hung from the wall behind them in plain view. There was something of the nature of this tapestry, however, which caused it to fail to elicit even the remotest interest. Its depiction was of a rustic nature, a representation of a simpler, happier world that was no more. The one Loremaster had, once upon a time, questioned this very observation, and had decided that, when speaking in the present tense, the times themselves are, for the most part, predisposed solely to objects or matters that speak to the casual onlooker in a manner of familiar concern. Through the long period of observation and consideration which had followed this initial observation, he had arrived at the conclusion that conditions must be just so for one’s curiosity to be irritated, that while there must be a necessary element of familiarity, familiarity is not enough, and in and of itself breeds that sort of contempt which is synonymous with premeditated ignorance. It must instead be combined with elements which heighten the senses, that evoke moods such as envy, desire, covetousness, and that peculiar sort of recognition which is associated with an equal admixture of surprise and inevitability, when viewing the depiction of new and novel trends, and that those trends themselves must contain equal elements of sociality and materialism; indeed, they must contain those base and superficial elements which give rise to the vice of consumerism.

Eventually, the two Loremasters heard the shuffle of feet approaching from the other side, followed by the sound of the locking mechanism being turned by clumsy, furtive fingers. The bolt withdrew with a sharp snick, and the door opened inwards with a barely audible protestation from its ancient but well-oiled hinges.

Sensing yet another ordeal at the hands of the King, each found himself suppressing his own identity and feelings as he crossed the threshold. It was dangerous to care about a life that was no longer your own, and lethal to forget that one fact.

The King’s private chamber was in perpetual darkness, save for the light of a single candle which burned in one corner, set in a sconce which was mounted over a tall oak desk. There, the King was seated, scribbling away with quill and ink, his large eyes liquid and luminous. There was no sign of whomever had opened the door: perhaps it had been the King himself? The room smelled of dust and disuse, was stuffy and close in a way that was stifling: both Loremasters felt a strong urge to throw open a window, to let some sunlight and fresh air into the musty enclosure. This cell has a stink somewhat like a lair or a tomb, one of them thought warily. Such places were never meant for people to live.

‘It is time,’ the King told them, without taking his eyes from his work. ‘Tell me how the invocation will work. Then leave me to perform it.’

One of the Loremasters stepped forward.

‘Sire, destroying the Earth Mother . . . it is not possible . . . even to attempt such an act might rend the very Firmament. If She were to raise Her hand in anger against us . . .

‘However, we may have discovered an alternative-’

‘There is no alternative!’ the King cut him off in an ominous, angry whisper. ‘Pray continue.’

Licking his lips nervously, the Loremaster said, ‘Sire, it may be possible . . . we are sure that we have the ability to . . . though of the consequences there are none who can see-’

‘Enough of your senseless prattle! Tell me, or I will dispense with both of you.’

Locking his knees in a vain attempt to quell their shaking, the Loremaster said, ‘While the Firmament will not tolerate Her destruction, as She is part of It, still we may cut Her off from Her creation, leaving Your Majesty free to act, unhindered.’

Intrigued, the King said, ‘Continue.’

‘I am told that the completion of the Book of Runes is imminent,’ he said. ‘When that occurs, it will pass not only beyond our ability to control it, but it will also pass beyond the constraints imposed upon it by the Earth Mother. As we have warned your Imminence in the past, the Earth Mother is vast, and will not brook such a transgression. The Elf Lore is powerful, yes, yet that power would be like a candle in a storm were the Earth Mother to be kindled to fury.

‘But we believe that we have found the means to deal with Her. The means is simple enough, though not as apparent as one might think. We need only cast a spell to block out Her voice, so that she cannot be heard. She would not be able to respond to this threat, as Her own creation would be deaf and blind to Her presence.’

Whether the King’s hands trembled from excitement or from age, the scribes were unable to tell. His tone was difficult to read as he asked, ‘And what of the other matter?’

The Loremaster was silent a moment, having hoped that the King would have forgotten, being satisfied with the ruin of the Earth Mother.

In a dry, empty voice, he replied quietly, ‘As we have told You, when the scribe at Nith completes the final illustration, the Lore will pass beyond all constraint. All will be chaos. No living being will be able to make further use of the Lore, or call back its power.’

‘Excellent,’ the King intoned. ‘Proceed. Leave me now. Your presence is a distraction to me.’

When the two had left, the aged monarch allowed himself a moment to gloat.

‘I have You at last,’ he said to the darkened, empty room. ‘They told me that trapping You would be like trying to trap all the winds of the world in a bottle. Well, I will not be trapped in this rotting shell for much longer. Instead it will be You Who is constrained, and left to rot.’

He went back to his scribbling.

‘At the last, there will be only You and I. And I will take great pleasure in watching You languish in my prison for all eternity!’

The two Loremasters made their way through darkened corridors and down several flights of stairs, until they reached the lowest recesses of the Keep of Valerian.

‘So it has come to this,’ the one said wearily, as they passed the guards and entered the Vault, the place where the King’s private theurgies were practised.

‘Are you surprised?’ said the other.

‘I suppose not,’ said the one. ‘We have been enacting such crimes with impunity for so long now that I find myself becoming unable to distinguish between right and wrong. It all seems the same to me somehow, yet I feel in my bones that we have come to merit a worse annihilation than that which our race has practiced upon our kindred.’

In a corner of the Vault was a large bulge draped in cloth, and before it a podium, upon which sat the King’s own private book of incantations, which had no name: to speak of it carried the penalty of death. The one went to the podium and opened the book, while the other removed the black cloth, revealing a spherical blue stone over two feet in diameter, set into an ornate stand of bronze. The one opened the book to the final entries, the spells that were just completed, while the other made an arcane gesture which brought the stone to life. Taking a deep breath, the one closed his eyes and muttered, ‘Mother, You need not curse us for what we are about to do, for we are already cursed.’

Then, he began to read.

The Forest Nymphs gathered in the Circle of Life, their young faces expectant. Already they could feel the surge of the Earth Mother’s Vyeddan as it moved from deep beneath the earth towards the surface. Holding hands, positioning themselves, they formed a perfect circle, and held their breath.

And the Vyeddan came, as it had for untold generations, as true as the rising and setting of the sun and moon, and the slow turning of the Seasons.

As the Vyeddan neared the surface, the center of the Circle began to glow with an eldritch green light, which sparkled with piercing rays of warmth and ecstasy.

To some elusive cue that was a hidden act of Nature, they began dancing in perfect unison, acknowledging the Earth Mother on a level as intimate as Mother and Daughter.

As the Vyeddan rose fully from the earth, they transformed as one into tiny gold-green balls of light, and began rising, swirling, coming together, merging into a single star-like cluster of unbearable beauty . . .

Then, suddenly, all was numb, disbelieving silence and darkness.

After several moments, there came a sound from out of that unnatural night . . . small and lost, and utterly heartbroken.

Chapter 6

Banishment

With broken wings

I lay to rest

Above I see

Clouds of tests

Above I see a ray of light

Stars are shining

But clouds are in sight

Linda Greer

Terrified, her mouth dry with fear, Malina stood for a long time with her eyes tightly closed, her face slightly averted, waiting for the final deadly blow that would send her into empty eternity. Yet part of her mind wondered, with a sort of detached curiosity, not just why the Elf soldier was toying with her in such a manner, but why she could sense or feel nothing. It was as though a consequence of shutting her eyes was that everything external had ceased to exist; that she was alone; that something had changed in some indefinable manner.

The touch of something cold and wet striking her cheek made her flinch reflexively, causing her to open her eyes with a jerk.

Rain?

Pran was nowhere to be seen. Looking in wonder at the spot where the Elf had just been standing moments before, she noticed that not only was the meadow not the same as before, but its boundaries seemed to have become extended. Turning slowly about, she gaped in wonder at the vast expanse which surrounded her on all sides. Pran’s house and small farm was gone, as was the forest! And the hills!

Another large drop of water struck her forearm. Alarmed, she stared as it turned into a tiny rivulet of water, working its way down her arm toward her wrist.

Rain?

But a moment ago there hadn’t been a cloud in the sky! The air, which was cool and damp, seemed to be sucking the very warmth from her body. Looking upward at the sky, turning slowly about once more, she stared in disbelief at the dark clouds which were forming.

‘What sort of weather is this? What sort of place is this? Why am I so cold . . . ?’

As if in response to that word, a cold, foreboding feeling hit the pit of her stomach, even as another large drop of water struck her body, and yet another, causing her to back up, as though by moving, she could avoid both her predicament, and the huge, startling drops of water that pelted her.

My Power!

She wailed in disbelief! What had Pran done to her?

Yet he had told her that this would be a consequence of her being sent to this world. Despite his words, however, it wasn’t until she was physically here that they seemed to convey any real meaning.

Now she understood what was wrong, why she was cold, and getting colder. Without her Power, she couldn’t warm herself. She couldn’t transform. She couldn’t . . .

A brilliant flash of light from behind made her gasp out loud, and she whirled about, suddenly terrified once more, looking for its source. But there was noth-

She felt the sudden, deafening noise as much as heard it. It seemed to strike her chest, and for a moment she thought her heart had stopped beating. Wide-eyed with terror, making frightened, incoherent noises, she began moving, weeping, fear taking her breath away.

Another bolt of lightening struck the ground, right in front of her, so close that there was no delay between the appearance of its blinding, arcane veinlike structure and the deafening concussion that left her ears ringing. She screamed, experiencing a terror like none she’d ever known, and began running wildly, aimlessly, wracked by broken sobs.

The towering clouds turned black, and to Malina it seemed as though day was turning to night before her very eyes; within moments, it was almost too dark to see. The rain, which had only been an occasional huge droplet of moisture, began to fall in slanting torrents, striking her with such force that it stung.

Another brilliant flash and concussion caused her to lose her balance, to fall headlong and slide on the wet grass. Feeling a sudden sense of unreality, as in a nightmare, soaked and shivering uncontrollably, she began screaming hysterically, got to her knees, found herself getting up slowly, feeling as though she were dreaming, as though something inside her was losing momentum.

Something inside of her, something fundamental, felt as though it were crumbling under pressures it wasn’t equipped to withstand. She stopped crying, her feelings shutting down seemingly of their own accord, turning inward until nothing was left of them but an indistinct, dull ache. Without volition, she slumped to the ground and simply watched this bizarre scene play itself out, her eyes registering that to which her soul was no longer able to respond. Tiny white pellets fell and rattled and stung her skin, but she watched such things from somewhere inside that observed incuriously . . .

Within an hour or so, the fury of the storm abated. The sun came out. Yet though it was high overhead, it appeared washed out, devoid of warmth, and seemed to imbue everything beneath its cheerless, baleful gaze with a bleak and unfriendly aspect. A chilly, persistent, mournful-sounding wind began hissing through the grass, causing it first to stand up once more as though it were tentatively, collectively, raising its head. By degrees it began to move in waves, giving this land the appearance of a vast, empty, unquiet sea.

She could never have imagined such a strange, terrible place. Looking upon this hypnotically undulating yellow sea of long grass that stretched forever from horizon to horizon under a pale blue sky, she wondered why Pran would spare her life, only to send her here.

Promise, he had told her.

She considered the word, and wondered that it evoked no feeling within her. It meant nothing.

As the sun and wind dried her, she sat, motionless, helplessly considering the unfamiliar emptiness that seemed to fill her very being.

There being nothing else that she could have done, she got up and began to walk, hugging herself against the chill, pausing occasionally to yank out a succulent segment of grass stem to chew on. The pithy ends, though sweet enough, were not at all what she was expecting; they were unlike similar grasses at home, and did little to quell the dull ache in her belly. In fact, they only served to make it worse.

She spent the remainder of the day walking halfway doubled over, her stomach aching dully. She kept moving well into the evening, trying to stay warm. At last, she stopped, feeling less tired than overwhelmed with a feeling that she could simply lay down and die. Exhausted and trembling, she lay down on the ground, curled up into a ball, and tried to lose herself in blessed slumber. Sleep was long in coming, however, and seemed to taunt her maddeningly throughout the night, and she moaned and tossed in frustration, racked by stomach cramps and bad dreams.

The following morning, she left the grass alone altogether.

To avoid travelling in circles, naïvely hoping for warmth, she decided to begin making her way south, towards the sun. After trudging along listlessly for some time, a distant rumble caught her attention. Alarmed, she looked about for the source. It sounded like the storm was returning, but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky! The noise grew louder and louder, until she could feel the very earth beneath her feet begin to tremble. Throwing herself prostrate upon the ground, covering her ears in a vain attempt to shut out the tumult, she cowered in fear, casting her furtive, panicked gaze about for the source of the dreadful din. At last, chancing to look directly above, she spotted something wondrous and terrible! A long, narrow, straight white line of cloud was forming before her very eyes. Her attention was drawn to a tiny, angular bit of black, behind which the cloud was forming, and it seemed to be this object that the terrifying, near-subterranean rumble emanated from. Evidently this was a world of great and powerful beings . . . and she was just a tiny, insignificant speck in a sea of yellow grass under a blue sky that stretched forever from horizon to horizon . . .

I sense promise . . .

Elves’ promises! Emptiness and lies!

She lay there on her back until the noise passed, watching in despair and awe as the white cloud slowly traced its arc across the heavens . . .

Several hours after getting to her feet once more and continuing on, she spotted a line of trees in the distance. Tired, hungry and footsore, she made her way toward them, an arduous task which seemed to take forever. Once there, she found that they lined a narrow winding river. Here she stopped for a time and bathed her aching, blistered feet. The water, though cool and soothing, was nevertheless brown and appeared unsuitable for drinking. Reddish-brown dragonflies and their smaller cousins, turquoise-coloured damsel-flies, skimmed the water in search of mosquitos, gnats, midges, and other prey. The dark shape of a frog shot beneath the surface, and noisy black birds with red and yellow on their upper wings vociferously berated her intrusion into their nesting area, flying at her head, until she moved on. Not much rested, propelled onward by hunger, she got painfully to her feet and instinctively began following the course of the river.

By late afternoon, she was rewarded with the appearance of some sort of dwellings in the distance, and she approached them hopefully. But by the time she drew near, she discovered that they were too dangerous to get near. Herds of lowing cattle roved the fields and moved towards her if she was unlucky enough to be seen. Then came a sound that made her gasp whitely in terror! Despite her aching feet and painful, broken blisters, she bolted back towards the open fields, casting fearful glances back over her shoulder. Looking back, retching for breath, she saw to her surprise and shuddering relief that the dogs came only to the edge of the property and no further.

That night, laying upon the open ground and shivering, watching the pale stars glittering in the sky like a mockery of hope, a black despair stole over her as she realized that she was probably going to die in this place, alone, forgotten, and far from home. ‘Perhaps I shall just lay here,’ she thought, ‘until my life ebbs away.’ Long past the point of useless tears or anger or caring, she tried willing herself to die. But her heart refused to stop beating, and try as she might, she could not simply hold her breath until oblivion overcame her. She fell asleep wondering how long it would take for death to claim her, simply by waiting for it.

The next morning, however, some deep-rooted stubbornness that seemed like it belonged to someone else, made her decide to continue. ‘For another day, at least,’ she told herself. That same day, the third, she finally found a house that looked promising.

Deprived of the use of her Power, Malina had no choice but to approach the house stealthily on foot, all the while painfully aware that the monotonous, tall yellow grass afforded her little or no cover as she edged towards her goal. Except for her experience in the Elven prison, she had seldom been cold or hungry before, and for the first time in her life she was desperate enough to steal. That is, if she could find anything to steal.

Without warning she felt faint, and had to sit down quite suddenly, seeing stars. Thankfully the episode was brief, and passed quickly. She got to her feet once more and moved in closer . . .

It was old, unpainted, its boards weather-beaten, grey, and beginning to sag; it was altogether a study in neglect. To the right of the house there was an enormous oak, the only tree to be seen for several miles. A rope hung from one of its lower branches, and at the end of this, dangling a few feet above the ground, was a large black circular thing that turned slowly, occasionally swaying to and fro on the end of its tether. The irrhythmic gusts of wind that hissed evilly through the grass, emanated from this thing, Malina thought, wondering if she was becoming delirious, and she fearfully kept her distance. Adjacent to this was the oddest cart she had ever seen. It was made of metal and painted red and yellow; it had glass windows like those in the homes of the wealthiest Elves, and its wheels bore a disturbing resemblance to the evil black thing hanging in the tree.

She was at the back of the house now. Inside was food and shelter, she hoped. The place certainly didn’t look lived in, but her Pixie nose detected a faint aftersmell of food. There was a door at the back of the house, but something large and too heavy was blocking it . . . sort of a white painted metal box. The entire front of this object appeared to be a door, but it bore an emblem, written upon with arcane symbols. Malina knew, from hard experience, when to leave well-enough alone.

Fine. There was always more than one entrance.

Sneaking around, she tried to peer into one of the side windows, but they were too high for her to see into. Approaching the front of the house, peering around the corner, she saw that it was fronted by a low porch, and that the door hung wide open, occasionally disturbed by the gusting wind.

She hesitated, heart pounding. What if there were dogs? Part of the previous day had been wasted waiting outside the fence of yet another farmhouse, hoping for a chance to raid the garden. And once again two large brutes, apparently trained for such duty, had chased her off the property, but no farther. They had watched her all too carefully as they lay in the dust, tongues lolling, panting in the hot mid-afternoon sun, as she had sidled around the wooden fence, a garden full of vegetables only an arm’s length away.

Well, there was no choice now but to have a look. Fixing the entrance with her eyes, glancing about occasionally for any sign of danger, she began making her way toward the entrance, stumbling, lightheaded.

She didn’t see the rake where it lay discarded in the grass. Nor did she have time to react when its tines bit into her foot. Her yelp of excruciating pain was abruptly cut off by a blur that came to hit her squarely between the eyes.

Inside the house, meanwhile, was a man named Ralph, who was dozing in an old armchair that had once belonged to his father. On a low table before him was a half-empty can of beer and an ashtray full of butts. His last cigarette lay draped over the edge, a long tube of ash. He often fell asleep leaving a cigarette going. Were he not in the habit of leaving the windows and the front door open for ventilation, the whole house would probably have reeked of ashtrays, cigarette smoke and stale beer. The inside of the house was as much a study in neglect as without. Faded linoleum of unguessable patterns covered every floor, high-traffic areas worn through to the floorboards and beyond in many places. The cupboards, walls, doors and bathroom had been carelessly painted at one time, metal fixtures and all; there were still ancient, long-dried splatters of paint on the narrow mirror over the fireplace and the one in the bathroom; they remained as they were like a lasting monument to neglect. As if to complement this feature, the furniture was suitably dilapidated, sagging, and threadbare.

Ralph, too, was a study in neglect. Though young and very big and strong, he was not in very good shape, and past the point of caring that he was developing a paunch. His brown hair was unkempt and badly in need of a trim. He needed a shave. He had been wearing the same underwear and t-shirt for the last two weeks. He had an interesting face, however; one that was deceptively thoughtful, patient, slow to anger should something provoke him.

Something got his attention, and he came awake with a jerk. Listening intently for a moment, he heard nothing at first. But eventually a new sound caught his attention. It sounded as though someone were crying. Stumbling out of his somnolence, he went to the front door to investigate. There, at the foot of the front stairs, he found what he thought at first was a child sitting on the front grass. But when he ran down and took a closer look, after a moment of squinting in the sun which seemed dazzlingly bright after the dark interior of the house, he saw what turned out to be a young woman wearing a short, gauzy dress that was torn in places. Both dress and girl were badly in need of cleaning. She stared at Ralph fearfully, poised to flee. From her bloody nose and foot, and the position of the rake, he guessed what had happened.

‘Geez!’ he exclaimed, hoping that he wasn’t somehow going to be blamed for leaving the rake out where someone could step on it, ‘you okay?’

She held on to her nose, trying to stop the flow of blood. What is he babbling? She tried to make him out through her tears. To her relief, she saw that he carried no weapon; not even a pitchfork; and it was evident from his tone and his obvious concern that he posed no immediate threat.

‘I’ll get a towel or something. Wait there.’ He left her and went back into the house.

‘Where is he going?’ With a sinking feeling, she realized that she didn’t even know the language he spoke. The pain in her foot was agonizing, and she had to fight the futile urge to scream. The human soon returned with a much soiled rag and proffered it. ‘Why is he offering me that filthy thing?’ she thought, staring in fearful confusion, if not revulsion. She tried getting up once more, afraid that other humans might come and drive her away or worse, but yelped in pain when she tried to stand on her injured foot. An ugly knot of despair began to grip her heart as it dawned on her that she had lost all control over her situation. She was hurt, unable to use her Power to heal herself, and no longer able to flee.

With a frustrated exhalation of breath, Ralph paused to consider the girl a moment. ‘I’m not being much help, am I.’

When the young woman didn’t reply, he considered her more closely still.

‘Do you understand anything I’m saying?’

Her look told him all he needed to know.

‘Great. This is all I need.’

Ralph was on pins and needles while he waited for Doc Wallace to show up. He hadn’t the first idea what to do for the girl in the meantime, and the fact that she couldn’t talk only made it worse. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before the doctor arrived, barrelling down the dirt road, his beat-up old blue station wagon streaming a long plume of dust. As luck would have it, the light breeze, what there was of it, was coming from the east, from behind Ralph and the girl, so that when the car turned into the driveway and came to a stop, the dust cloud began drifting away from them in slow-motion. Getting out of his car unhurriedly, bringing his black bag, the doctor approached without a word. Assessing her general condition at a glance, the doctor told Ralph to pick the girl up, carry her inside, and place her on the couch, which he did. Switching a bridge lamp on and moving it closer, and sitting down on a chair Ralph brought for him, the doctor tossed his battered and stained old fishing hat over on to the seat of Ralph’s armchair and began examining the young woman’s injuries.

‘She doesn’t speak any English,’ Ralph said, uncertain if this was really true. ‘You think she’s going to be okay?’

‘Oh . . . doesn’t appear too bad,’ the doctor replied with calculated mildness, though he could tell at a glance that the girl was slightly feverish and suffering from exposure. He began to examine her, noting with relief that she didn’t appear ill enough to require hospitalisation, but soon came to the girl’s eyes and ears.

‘I’ll be . . . damned!’

‘What is it?’ Ralph asked him.

‘Where did you say she comes from?’

‘I didn’t.’ It was then that Ralph noticed what had the doctor’s attention. The girl’s ears were slightly pointed, and her eyes were really strange, sort of purple or royal blue. There was something vaguely exotic about her features as well, that was difficult to put a finger on. She had a light dusting of tiny freckles across both her cheeks, and her small upturned nose, that under better circumstances would have given her an appealing, yet mischievous appearance. Unable not to stare, for some reason Ralph found himself saying, ‘Oh, she’s got those contacts. You know, like you can make your eyes another colour, except they look funny.’

‘And her ears?’

Ralph shrugged. ‘She was born that way.’

Doc Wallace gave him an odd, appraising look. ‘Well, if you say so.’ It was evident from his tone that he wasn’t convinced. But if the doctor harboured any suspicions, he kept them to himself.

Malina could not have explained how or why she knew that the old man was a healer. She had watched his cart arrive with more curiosity than fear, wondering what had become of its horses, and what the subdued rumbling noise emanating from it was. She could see that the old man’s demeanour was clearly non-threatening, as he stepped out of his cart and began moving towards her, and for some reason his general appearance, his thin white hair poking out at all angles from beneath an odd, shapeless sort of hat that looked as though he had jammed it on his head in haste, if not his thin arms and legs and thick torso, put her at ease. She was naturally wary of humans, and for good reason. But she didn’t object to his gentle ministrations as he cleansed and bandaged her foot, while she held her nose as he had indicated.

The old healer had in his possession some of the strangest magical devices Malina had ever seen, and she was entranced. His wrinkled eyes peered at her through flat pieces of some sort of transparent crystal which were held in place by frames made of a shiny, silver-coloured metal. He looked into her eyes and ears with a tiny magical light, and listened to her chest through pieces of rubber hose stuck in his ears.

When the doctor was done, he said to Ralph, ‘She’ll be fine, but make sure she takes it easy and doesn’t walk around on that foot for five days or so. I’ll just give her a tetanus shot before I go.’ When he made clear what he was going to do with the needle, however, Malina yelped in anticipated pain and chagrin, leaning away from him and clapping her hand over the spot on her shoulder where the doctor had been about to inject her.

‘Doesn’t like needles,’ winced Ralph, a sentiment he shared with the girl.

The doctor, amused by the wide-eyed way she watched the object in his hand, said to Ralph with a smile, ‘Show her that old picture on the mantle . . . you know . . . the little bitty one.’

Distracted, she watched Ralph as he made his way to the fireplace, and took from the mantle a small object she had eyed with some curiosity, and no little desire, before. As he handed it to her, she hardly noticed as Doc first swabbed her shoulder, then pricked her with the needle. Her only reaction was to glance at her shoulder, her eyebrows drawn together in momentary annoyance, which was soon forgotten as she lost herself in the tiny portrait of a young woman.

Repacking his bag and struggling to his feet with a wry smile, Doc said, ‘She’s got a slight fever, but nothing too serious. Keep an eye on her foot. If she gets really sick, or if her foot doesn’t heal properly, or if it gets infected, give me a call.’

Ralph thanked the doctor and showed him to the door awkwardly; it had been years since anyone had been shown to the door in this house . . . not since before his parents had died. The doctor paused a moment on the threshold, seemed about to turn back and say something, but shook his head and left instead.

The sort of visitors Ralph was used to having were the kind that smoked cigarettes, drank beer, and talked a lot. This one was altogether different. Soon after Doc left, she fell asleep, and he found himself doing something for her, more or less automatically, that he’d never done for anyone before: he took the afghan from the back of the couch and carefully, gently, spread it out over her small form. Frowning, he sat in the armchair opposite and watched her for some time. It vaguely occurred to him that he hadn’t experienced anything like tenderness for as long as he could remember.

As she slept fitfully on his couch, he considered what to do with her. It was apparent that she was going to have two black eyes . . . a fact which made him uncomfortable. If someone saw her like that, they might assume that he was the cause of her injuries. If it turned out that she really didn’t speak English, explaining her condition would be difficult, and could lead to an embarrassing misunderstanding.

Where did she come from? Her general appearance and her dress were like nothing he had ever seen before. She apparently didn’t have a car, and it was a half-hour drive to the nearest town. He doubted, somehow, that she had walked all that way with her bare feet, though they did appear pretty badly blistered. People living in this area were conscientious when it came to offering a lift to those on foot, especially when it came to attractive young women; so it was more probable to Ralph that someone had ditched her in the middle of nowhere. Maybe she was a mail-order bride from some far-off foreign country that some guy had sent for, only to decide that she was too much trouble, or had tired of her when the novelty wore off. Maybe she had hitch-hiked all the way here, from some loony-bin in one of the big cities far away, and got thrown out in the middle of nowhere. He had heard of things like that happening. Eventually, he shook his head ruefully at his own thoughts. ‘Bad habit to get into,’ he muttered to himself. ‘Like Granddad used to say, “When you don’t know something for sure, don’t start trying to make up your own answers.”’

Come suppertime, he got out his usual frozen pizza, put it in the oven, and set the timer. When it was ready, he carried it into the living-room, along with a six-pack of beer and a roll of paper towels that he used for everything from plates to napkins. He then placed everything on the coffee table which stood before the couch and drew himself up a chair. There was no need to wake the girl. She was sitting up and watching him, her features an admixture of fear and timid interest.

‘Pizza?’ he asked her, separating and handing her a slice on a piece of paper towel.

Hesitantly, her mouth watering, Malina took from the human what was obviously food of some kind. Watching his example, she tried the peet-sa. It was hot! She had never eaten hot food before. But it was good. She did manage to burn her tongue and the roof of her mouth a little, but she would live. Assuaging her hunger was, for the moment, of much greater importance.

The human then handed her a strange metal cylinder, saying beer? She took it, examining it closely. It felt as though some liquid was sloshing inside.

‘Hey! Don’t shake it. Here.’ He opened it for her.

She wasn’t sure whether she liked the taste of beer or not, but it cooled her mouth down as she ate the peet-sa.

After eating a few slices, fairly marvelling at her appetite, he said, ‘You don’t say much. Can you talk?’ Wolfing down all she was offered, and working on her second beer, she listened to him, wondering if he was really trying to communicate, or if he was just talking to hear his own voice. Eventually, frustrated, he pointed to himself and said, ‘Ralph.’

Finally, something that was clear and understandable! ‘Mäïnya.’ she responded with her mouth full.

Ralph was visibly relieved. Using his best approximation of her name, he said, ‘So, you can talk. You Malina, me Ralph.’

‘Raff,’ she responded.

‘Ralllph,’ he corrected.

‘Rowwwff,’ she said, wondering what she was doing wrong.

‘Can you say ‘l’? Elllllll.’

She made a few perfunctory attempts to copy him. This language was going to prove impossible! Disheartened, she gave up the effort. Pran had obviously lied to her!

‘Aw, c’mon. Please, stop looking so sad! Rowf will do for now. Okay? Rowf.’

‘Rowf.’ She muttered, non-committaly, wondering if the Human was becoming angry with her.

‘Yeah, sure. Rowf,’ he muttered resignedly. ‘I’ve been called worse, believe me.’

She brightened a little. At least the human was trying to be kind to her. His food didn’t seem to agree with her, though. Her stomach felt funny, like it was full of . . .

When the belch came, she was unable to stop it. She was so mortified that she would have liked to vanish right there on the spot. Rowf didn’t seem offended, though. In fact, he seemed to find her reaction quite funny. Patting his own belly, he said, ‘Feel better?’

There was no mistaking his meaning. With an embarrassed smile (brought on in part by Ralph’s infectious good-humour) she discovered that it did relieve the funny feeling inside of her. And after experimenting a little, she found she could burp almost silently. That felt even better. This was something that came entirely as a surprise; to have to learn an entirely new sort of etiquette.

Ralph left her momentarily while he went into the kitchen to heat another pizza. When he returned, Malina was well into her fourth beer.

‘Hey, slow down! You’re getting drunk.’

This was true. The pain in her nose and foot had subsided, and she felt a peculiar sort of glow all over. The only drawback was a slight lack of co-ordination that caused her to wear some of her peet-sa, and spill some of her beer, but for some reason she couldn’t have cared less.

It wasn’t long before the sun was low in the sky, and the house began to cool. Before coming to this world, Malina had seldom been cold in her life, and didn’t like the sensation at all. So after they’d eaten, when Ralph went to the fireplace and started a small blaze going, she got to her feet, beer in hand, and began hobbling towards the heat.

‘Hey! Doc said you’re supposed to stay off your feet!’ He scooped her up lightly, causing her to gasp in fright and surprise, and pushed the armchair around with his foot until it was right in front of the fire. Standing before the chair, he hesitated, realizing that there was only the one armchair, and for a moment he wondered whether he should give her the chair, and find something else for himself to sit on. With a shrug, realizing that there was nothing else besides the heavy couch that was as comfortable as the old armchair, he sat down with the girl in his lap.

For a moment, she seemed to be holding her breath, not looking at anything. To his surprise, she was trembling with fear. To put her at ease, he began talking quietly to her, making what he thought were reassuring noises.

Malina had thought the human big and slow and clumsy. This impression changed the instant he picked her up, however. He was neither slow nor clumsy, and she realized that he was very strong, and could be very dangerous if he chose to be. When he sat down with her in front of the fire, she was terrified at first, wondering what this enormous (to her eyes) human was going to do to her. It didn’t occur to her that his only intention was to sit before the fire, and for the longest time she waited, trembling with fear, struggling with the cold dread that gripped her heart. At last, lulled by his warmth and the fire and his quiet, comforting murmuring, she relaxed bit by bit, until her fear abated.

To her surprise, she found that she enjoyed sitting quietly with Rowf, sipping beer and listening to the vibration of his chest as he spoke nonsense to her. She was impressed with the little white tubes he burned in his mouth, although their pungent smell made her wrinkle her nose in displeasure. Noticing her interest in his cigarettes, he blew a few smoke-rings for her as she watched in fascination.

When it was very late, Rowf cleared his throat and said something, pointing to the couch. The fire had died down again, and the room had cooled once more. Rowf set her on the couch and left for a moment. When he returned, he was carrying several blankets and a pillow.

He started going from wall to wall, doing something to small brown rectangles set to one side of each doorway, that made loud clicking noises, which in turn somehow made the magic lights disappear; and then he went away, leaving her alone. It was early autumn, and the house, having little or no insulation, grew colder by the minute, she thought.

Retreating into the blankets, she tried to get warm and go to sleep. For the longest time, kept awake by her throbbing nose and foot, her thoughts turned to the strange Human. Why was he being so kind to her? She had meant to steal food from him, yet he had given her food and drink without question. He had called upon a Healer to see to her injuries. Now he was providing her with the most comfortable bed she had ever slept upon, and shelter.

Though she was very tired, for some time sleep eluded her. She found herself wishing that the big Human was nearby where she could see him, so that she could reassure herself of his presence. In truth, he was the only source of comfort she’d yet found in this world, and for some reason, she found his absence cause for anxiety.

With such new and unfamiliar thoughts chasing each other in unresolving circles, she drifted off into the first untroubled sleep she’d had for many days.

Ralph woke and got out of bed, wondering if the girl in his living room was still there. She was. Seeing her in repose, her features rendered angelic by slumber despite her injuries, Ralph rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, half-wondering if she was real. It was much earlier than he was used to getting up, though he slept far more than he needed. Malina’s white-blonde hair, which he remembered from last night had felt impossibly soft against his shoulder, was matted, and badly in need of cleaning. ‘Like the rest of her,’ he mused. For no apparent reason, as he gazed at her sleeping form, her presence created within him an unfamiliar ache which was almost indistinguishable from grief.

Malina stirred and sighed deeply. Remembering where she was, despite her sore foot and nose, she found it wonderful to lay on a soft bed beneath warm blankets, a luxury she had never experienced before. Feeling warm, protected and relaxed, was enough to meet all her present wants and needs. She lay quietly, and dozed without a care in the world.

In the meantime, Ralph busied himself preparing breakfast, something he seldom bothered with. Within several minutes, he returned to the living-room with two plates of sausage, eggs, fried potatoes, and two large glasses of orange juice. As he placed them on the low table before the couch, Malina stirred.

‘Breakfast,’ he announced, prompting her to open her eyes.

Sitting up, she stared uncertainly. It was apparent from the way Rowf was eating that the proper thing to do was use the shiny implements he had provided. But she had never used any sort of implements in her entire life. Not wanting to appear rude, she picked up the knife and fork and tried to copy Rowf.

Ralph frowned as he watched the girl’s studiously inexpert attempt to use her knife and fork. Seeing her difficulty, thinking that she might upset her plate, he set his own aside for a moment and took hers. To his embarrassment, her response was to look hurt and chagrined.

‘I’m not taking it away,’ he said, unrealistically wishing that she would somehow understand his words. ‘Look, I’m just cutting it up for you.’ He did so, and handed her back the plate, which she took from him uncertainly. She began eating, eyes downcast, looking guilty. To his relief, this mood quickly seemed to pass. Eating his own breakfast, watching her in silence, he wondered how anyone could not know how to use a knife and fork.

When they were done, Rowf went away for a time, and from a room down the hall there came the sound of running water. When he finally came back, his hair was damp, and he was dressed in clean clothes.

‘Bath time,’ he told her. Not surprisingly, she stared at him uncomprehendingly.

‘C’mon, stinky,’ he said, picking her up and carrying her to the bathroom. ‘You can use a good cleaning.’

The moment he sat her on the edge of the tub and moved to leave, an unpleasant and obvious revelation gave him pause. She looked as out of place as though she had never been in a bathroom before. Not trusting this observation, he took a washcloth, wet it in the bath, wrung the excess water out of it and handed it to her. Her reaction left him shaking his head in wonder. She felt the warm, wet cloth, staring at it as though she had no idea what it was for, but was pleased by the sensation. Scratching his head, Ralph took the cloth from her and wiped her face just enough to give her the idea.

Instead of getting the idea, she simply stared at him, wondering what he was doing to her.

‘I don’t believe this!’ he muttered to himself. Sensing that there was no choice in the matter, he began urging her out of her light dress.

At once, she did as he bade her to do, but out of fear of what he might do to her if she refused. What he did next made her cry out, and she almost decided to fight for her life, and try to get away from the big Human. She was afraid that he meant to drown her! But he didn’t act threateningly. Instead, he met her fear with quiet patience. At last, she was sitting up to her chest in very warm water, bandaged foot resting on the edge of the tub. To her surprise, as he gently bathed her and washed her hair, his mien seemed troubled by emotions she found herself unable to understand. From time to time he would mutter questions to himself, and shake his head, as though in response. At last, when she was clean, he plucked her from the tub, dried her with an enormous towel as she sat on the edge, pulled the plug from the bath, and went away for a moment. She began to use his absence as an opportunity to put her Pixie dress back on, but when he returned and saw what she was doing, he stopped her.

‘Don’t put that dirty thing back on,’ he said into her wide-eyed confusion. ‘Here . . . I’ve got something clean for you to wear.’

Malina had never been without her Pixie dress; not once in her life. Indeed, it was part of her. But in this world, it was nothing more than a torn bit of gauzy raiment. She could no more heal it than she could heal herself. Rowf then produced an enormous teal-blue sweatshirt, which he began pulling over her head. She gave a little yelp of pain and alarm.

‘Sorry! Did I catch your nose?’ With some difficulty, he got her arms into the sleeves, which he hitched up to free her hands. ‘Like dressing a kid,’ he though to himself in wonder.

Malina was unprepared for the sensation of wearing clothing that belonged to Rowf. It was bulky and soft and warm, and hung down to her knees. The feel of it sent a strange tingling thrill throughout her body, and she found herself staring up at him with the shy delight of some elusive discovery.

The sight of her like that, her clean appearance, and the effect the bulky shirt had on her pleasing form, prompted him to say, ‘Good God, but you’re a pretty little thing. I hope my girlfriend doesn’t get the wrong idea.’

Afterwards, he performed a strange ritual; affixed to the wall over a small cauldron mounted atop a pedestal which stood waist high, was a mirror. Malina had heard of such things being in the homes of Elves. Absolutely captivated, sitting on the edge of the big cauldron, she watched as Rowf wiped magic foam over his face, then, studying himself in the mirror, scraped off both the foam and his rough beard. When he was done, he wiped his face with a towel and smiled at her wryly. It occurred to her that he had gone through this ritual for some purpose, though she couldn’t imagine why he would do such a thing.

Pran had certainly been wrong about one thing; there was magic in this world, but it was of a sort she did not comprehend, and she found herself wondering if the Elf, too, would be surprised by some of the strange things she had so far seen in this world.

Later that morning, Rowf opened a closet by the front door. Inside were various types of garments hanging suspended by thin wooden triangles that were hung from a transverse pole by metal hooks. Selecting one, he removed it and got dressed in a baggy blue garment that covered his clothing from neck to ankle, and pulled an enormous pair of boots over his heavy woolen socks. He then got a pair of gloves, which he didn’t don, but instead stuffed into a back pocket of his covering garment, selected one of several odd-looking hats from the top shelf in the closet, and placed it on his head.

Seeing that Malina watched him with rapt curiosity, with a grin, he selected another such hat and placed it on her head. She pulled it off once more to have a look at it. It was a simple black cloth cap like a dome, with a stiff attachment shaped like an enormous thumbnail sewn to the front of it. How odd, she thought. The Elves often wore brimmed hats, but the brims went all the way around. She studied the arcane symbol on the front of the cap with some trepidation.

‘Whatsamatter? Don’t like the Yankees?’ Rowf asked her.

She had no idea what his words meant, but from his tone, she gathered that the hat had important powers; possibly it could protect her from danger? Hastily, she put it on once more.

‘Now,’ Rowf told her, ‘I need you to stay here while I go to work.’ He began to leave, moving towards the great wagon-thing that stood in the shade of the enormous oak tree. She gaped at him forlornly, realizing that he was going away. With a sinking feeling, she surmised that now that he’d fed, sheltered, and tended to her, he had just told her that she was once again on her own. Downcast, she began hobbling down the stairs, away from the house. Perhaps her luck would hold out, and she would find another.

Ralph had just got seated in the truck when he noticed the girl hobbling towards the open field. He watched her for a moment, wondering what the devil she was doing. Didn’t she realize that in the direction she was going, that there was nothing for at least sixty miles or more?

Taking a deep breath, letting it out slowly, and wondering what he was getting himself into, he got out of the truck and went after her. She stopped and faced him when she heard his voice, her mien fearful.

‘Hey!’ Ralph shouted at her, ‘You’re not supposed to walk on that foot.’ As he approached her, she began backing away, her eyes wide with fear. He stopped a couple of paces away, trying to decide what to do.

Could he even risk leaving her alone in the house? That was certainly the question. She might very well wander off again. Regardless, he would worry about her the entire time he was at work. With a sigh, moving towards her in what he hoped was a non-threatening way, he picked her up and began heading towards the truck.

Malina, wondering what she had done wrong, lay in his arms and stared in the direction the Human was taking her. With rising excitement and trepidation, she thought that perhaps he was going to take her for a ride in the wagon-thing. She liked wagons. There was a kindly old Elven merchant, a Pixie-friend, who used to pass near her home and let her ride with him. The old man (at least, he seemed old to her) always had a few sweetmeats and some wine that he would share with her.

When the big Human reached the wagon, he opened one of its doors and placed her on the seat, which was wide and comfortable; not like the wooden seats of Elven wagons. He then went round to the other side and got in. Mystified, she had fully expected him to leave for a bit and return with a team of horses, or some other beasts of burden. Instead, he reached down and did something, and some great beast came awake with a roar. Yelping in fear and surprise, she jumped up on the seat, where she stayed until she was sure that the beast wasn’t going to come through the floor. She hardly noticed that Rowf gaped at her reaction, before shaking his head, engaging the clutch, and set the wagon in motion.

Even through her abating fear, Malina was elated by this part of travelling on a wagon; the moment when it started moving. It made one feel as though one were beginning a great journey, though she had only travelled on one for very short periods at a time.

As the wagon lurched along, then turned left onto the dirt road, a strange-looking object slid along the front ledge. Rowf made a grab for it, but missed. Wondering if it would hurt her, Malina batted at it to keep the thing from sliding off the ledge altogether, then backed away and stared at it in fascination.

Once more, regarding her reaction with wonder, the big Human reached across to pick up the object, and with a smile, opened it up and tried to put it on her. When she backed away and put her hands up in surprise to fend him off, he made reassuring noises once more, until she let him put the object on her. At once, opening her eyes and looking through the thing, she stared around in rapt wonder and gasped. The world had suddenly become utterly transformed! Lowering the sunglasses from her eyes, the world became the same dull place it had been before. But put them back in place, and everything became clearer, sharper, heightened in some manner!

‘Like a kid,’ Ralph though to himself. ‘Or like she’s from some third-world country. Someplace poor, where there isn’t any sort of technology.’ He wondered where there could possibly be such a place, but soon gave up the effort, putting the solution down to his own lack of education. Absently, he reached down and turned on the radio. Though he was beginning to get used to the way the girl reacted to things, still he marvelled at her look of open-mouthed fear and astonishment. Thinking to keep her amused, he took her hand and placed in on the tuner knob, showing her how to flip through the channels. After several minutes of moving from station to station, he was just beginning to regret having shown her, when she finally settled on something that caught her interest and left it alone.

‘Good choice,’ he though wryly, listening to The first time ever I saw your face.

As the truck lurched and bumped along the dusty back roads, she sat now with her bandaged foot up on the dashboard. Rowf had made the magic music box play something he found more palatable to his own taste. The raucous noise coming from somewhere in the front of the strange wagon thing was somehow agreeable to her, though, and she found she liked Rowf’s awful attempts at singing along.

Her mood was much brighter than it had been for a long time. Feeling safe in Rowf’s home, she had slept well and deeply; not fitfully as she was used. When sleeping in the open, one had to be vigilant, even when asleep. But to sleep undisturbed for an entire night was something entirely new to her, and she found that to be awake, after being so well-rested, greatly sharpened the senses, like cleaning mud off the pretty stones she used to find along the stream near to her home. Once washed, and while still wet, they would appear like jewels for a time, until they dried once more and lost their lustre.

The strange wagon they were travelling in seemed to have some animal inside it that made the oddest noises of any beast she had ever heard.

Once past her initial fear, she thought at first that Rowf was abusing the poor creature, but soon realised that it wasn’t moaning in pain every time Rowf worked the levers. When she listened more closely, she found that the noises it made were a natural part of it.

As the day wore on, they began to approach a small group of houses that appeared in the distance, and Rowf drove the wagon to the rear of one of these. He then stopped the wagon and got out. Going to the window on his side, she watched as he went to the back of the wagon and unwound a long, black flexible tube which was rolled up on a big drum, and put the end of the tube into a big metal container at the rear of the house. He then returned to the rear of the wagon and pulled a lever, which made the strange animal whine loudly for a while. When this had gone on for some time, Rowf made the animal stop whining, detached the long black tube, and rolled it back up on the rear of the wagon.

Malina had to marvel at the great distances the wagon could travel without apparent need of food or water. It could also travel faster than any horse she had ever seen. This animal must be very large and powerful indeed!

She leaned out the window for a while, enjoying the rush of wind against her face and the roar in her ears, until she almost lost her hat. Sometime later, laying with her feet up, she rested the backs of her ankles on the bottom on the open window, feeling the air vacillate between tepid and chilly as it whipped between her bare toes.

After they had gone to the rear of a good many houses, when the sun was high overhead, Rowf took a road that was longer and straighter than the others. Eventually, this intersected with the strangest road Malina had ever seen. It was smooth beyond belief, its surface flat and black, with a pair of white stripes down its center. The wagon began gliding along as though it were floating.

Before they reached town, Malina sensed that this road must be very important, and probably led to the castle where the local King lived. A couple of times along the way, smaller wagons came hurtling down the road directly toward them. She was so certain that they were going to collide head-on with Ralph’s wagon that she climbed up on the seat, poised to jump out the window to safety. But each time, they passed harmlessly on the left with a rush of wind and a roar. One man casually waved to Rowf from his window, and Rowf casually waved back, a faint smile on his lips. She gathered from his ease that this was all perfectly natural, and she allowed herself to relax once more.

The town, which was very near now, looked very strange and depressing to Malina. There was no fair castle here; evidently the local King wasn’t doing well. Instead, there were a large number of squat brick shapes, most of which were only one or two storeys tall. Drab people moved unhurriedly about with no interest in their surroundings, though the place obviously deserved their lack of attention.

Instead of going directly into the town, however, Rowf skirted around the perimeter, at last coming to a stop at a very odd place. There were huge metal barrels here, and an assortment of bizarrely twisted pipes and other metal objects. Rowf drove the wagon under one of these, and a man wearing gloves did something to the top of the enormous barrel on the back of the wagon, and put a huge black hose into the top of the barrel.

So that’s what the awful smell was! He was filling the barrel with oil . . . she could hear it gushing in, and the smell was almost too much. She knew about oil, because driven by curiosity, she had once explored an unlighted and unattended Elven lamp to find out how it worked. But what could these humans possibly want with such enormous quantities of the foul-smelling liquid? When the barrel was full, the man on top slapped it twice, and Rowf drove on.

The next place they encountered was even stranger yet. There were many different kinds of wagons here, some larger than the one they were in, but most were smaller. Lifting her sunglasses, peeking over the edge of the door through the open window, Malina watched with her heart in her mouth as a man walked to the front of one of these and opened it, half-expecting to see some powerful animal poised to spring out. But there was no animal to be seen; just a small iron chest. She surmised that the animal must be inside this, for from the way it moved and vibrated she could tell that something was inside. The iron chest was obviously very thick and heavy. What kind of animal so small could possibly be so powerful? She found herself thinking that she would like to see this animal, but from a safe distance.

When Rowf came back to the wagon, he leaned inside and handed her what she thought was a narrow loaf of bread, but on closer examination found that it had been sliced in half, and filled with thinly sliced meats, vegetables and cheese. Rowf showed her by example that it was to be eaten whole. It was a little dry, but went down well with beer, and it was good and filling.

The attendant spotted Malina and said to Ralph, ‘Where’d you pick her up? She looks like she just got out of a scrap at Murph’s.’

Ralph had never liked Ian, and he didn’t like the dirty leer he was giving Malina now through Ralph’s open door.

‘She’s not the kind of girl who goes to Murphy’s,’ he said.

‘That can be fixed,’ said Ian with a dirty laugh. ‘Need some help breaking her in?’

Malina’s suspicion that Rowf could be big and dangerous was suddenly confirmed when Rowf picked the attendant up by the throat. To her surprise, and relief, Rowf didn’t kill the attendant, but merely said a few terse words to him, and dropped him to the ground. Obviously, for Rowf, demonstrating that he could easily kill the attendant was enough.

She found this an admirable quality, one that she hadn’t expected from the big, lumbering human.

When Rowf got back in the wagon and angrily got under way again, he sighed. Turning to Malina, he smiled and shrugged, as though to apologize for the incident.

But in his own mind, Ralph was troubled, wondering at the sudden fit of inexplicable rage he had just experienced. Such an emotion was as incongruous to his nature as a prizefighter being presented with a bouquet of flowers. Ralph found that for all of Malina’s lack of talk that he enjoyed her company. She wasn’t easily bored, and she never complained. She could be stubborn when she wanted something, but he found he liked that too. He had a hunch, though, that she couldn’t stay at his house for long. Especially not if he hung around with louts like Ian, and several others he had known for years who hung around Murphy’s. They were bad news where a naïve girl like Malina was concerned. To date, even with his girlfriend, he had never cared who he hung out with, so long as he had something to do. The girl sitting beside him didn’t fit into that mold, and this realisation caused him to experience strange unfamiliar feelings. For his whole life he had never given any thought to selecting who he spent his time with.

He was everybody’s friend.

As his workday came closer to ending, however, Ralph began to wonder what he would have to do about Malina when he went to see his girlfriend at Murphy’s. With a mental shrug, he decided to take the direct route, taking Malina along and introducing her to his girlfriend.

Malina recognised Murphy’s for what it was the moment Rowf drove the wagon into an area next to the tavern, where many other wagons were parked. She became excited, and a bit apprehensive. To the best of her knowledge, no Pixie had ever set foot in one of the Elves’ taverns. This was as close as the Elves ever came to mischief, and they shared their taverns only with Dwarves and Humans. Even Pixies knew that they lacked enough restraint to socialize in such close quarters with so many.

When Rowf carried her inside and set her on a couch before a glass-topped table, several of the humans there, male and female, hooted and whistled at them. Malina was almost oblivious to this, however. Her attention was mainly focused on a brightly lit dais where a beautiful young female was doing a primitive fertility dance. Mesmerised, she watched as the dancer played to the enthusiastic suitors who surrounded her on all sides. Which one will she choose? Malina wondered. To her disappointment, when her dance was done the woman left, apparently finding no suitor that interested her.

Rowf spoke with another woman, equally attractive, who glanced at Malina speculatively, then brought Rowf and Malina two bottles of brown glass. Testing the contents, Malina tasted a much superior beer, she thought, to the kind Rowf had given her earlier. Several people came and talked to Rowf, some obviously curious about Malina. One man came up to her and asked her something. Rowf shook his head, said some words, and pointed at Malina’s bandaged foot. Disappointed, and showing no concern for her foot, the man left.

Rowf said something that sounded like an oath.

To Malina’s surprise, the woman who had been dancing came unnoticed, sat beside Rowf, giving him an all-too-obviously restrained peck on the cheek, and pointedly asked him about Malina. She had removed her makeup, tied back her long chestnut hair into a pony-tail, and was wearing clothing that was much more conservative, obviously having tired of the game of mate-selection. Malina frowned. Or perhaps she was Rowf’s mate? From the way the young woman acted, it was obvious that some close bond existed between the two. A sister, perhaps? But the two did not look at all related. For no reason she could put into words, Malina felt her heart sink. And there was some other indefinable feeling, like disappointment mixed with subtle feelings of possessiveness and betrayal. But why should she feel things like that toward a Human? Noticing her look, the Human girl’s features hardened, making Malina feel very uncomfortable.

Though very young, there was an habitual hardness about Deborah that spoke of painful lessons learned in trust and betrayal; yet beneath her tough exterior, for those who knew her well, there lurked a timid vulnerability.

‘Malina,’ said Rowf, ‘Deborah.’ The dancer extended her hand to Malina, who wondered what the woman was doing. Though the dancer was uncomfortable with Malina’s presence, it was obvious that she was trying to put a good face on it.

‘She doesn’t speak any English,’ Ralph told her.

Deborah forced a smile and said, ‘Oh, a furriner.’ Taking Malina’s hand, she shook it, saying, ‘Welcome to Nowheresville, pardner.’ She was putting on an affected accent, making an effort to sound friendly to Malina. The other woman returned, bringing Deborah a beer as well.

‘Got yourself a mail-order bride, eh Ralph?’ said the dancer as she paid for her drink. She had immediately recognised the clothes the girl was wearing, and thought the reason all too obvious.

Ralph’s smile was more complex than the one Deborah was used to seeing. ‘Very funny. I found her on my property yesterday afternoon. I haven’t quite figured out what to do with her yet.’

Deborah’s expression abruptly changed however, and moving over to sit beside Malina, she reached up to remove the girl’s sunglasses. Mistaking her intent, Malina backed away, thinking the woman meant to take the sunglasses from her.

‘It’s okay, sweetie, I just want to have a look at you.’ Her tone reassured Malina that she meant no ill, though she didn’t know how to interpret the woman’s sudden change in attitude toward her. Malina let her remove the glasses.

Deborah sucked her breath in anger. Turning to Ralph, she demanded, ‘Did you do this to her?’

‘I found her like that,’ said Ralph, telling her only part of the truth. ‘Her foot too. When I did, I called Doc Wallace to come over and see to her. You can ask him if you like.’ Rather defensively, and not just referring to her injuries, he added, ‘I never laid a hand on her.’

‘What do you mean, you found her like that?’

Ralph told her how he had found the girl on his front “lawn.” ‘I think she just stepped on the rake,’ he added, not wanting to fuel Deborah’s suspicions further.

‘In a pig’s ear! Somebody’s gone and beat her up and ditched her. You should have called the police.’

‘Be my guest,’ said Ralph, lighting a cigarette, wishing Deborah’s volatile anger would subside, ‘but you’ll have to figure out what language she speaks before you do anything.’

‘Well,’ said Deborah doubtfully, ‘whoever did this and abandoned her is probably long gone by now anyway. What a damn shame! She’s such a pretty little thing.’ After a moment’s thought, she said, ‘Any idea what you’re going to do with her?’

Tiredly, Ralph replied, ‘I haven’t got the foggiest notion. I’d leave her with someone, but I can’t think of anyone I’d trust her with.’

Deborah heard something different in his reply than he had intended that made her smile, though without humour.

‘It is pretty much over between us,’ she told him, though she swallowed at the hurt she tried to conceal. ‘I mean, we’ve had an on-again, off-again thing for years, but I don’t think either of us thinks that it’s eventually going to end in matrimonial bliss, or anything like that. We never could seem to . . . well . . . get it together.’ Just to needle him, she added, ‘Maybe she’ll make a real man out ‘o you yet.’

This had been a standing joke between them from the beginning. They both well knew that Ralph did not have the means to resurrect his parent’s old farm, and the extinct way of life that went along with it. Before drinking himself to death out of despair, his father used to bitterly complain that he could no longer provide for his family like a “real” man, though to his credit he had managed to hold off the creditors by selling off all the equipment, the remaining money of which Ralph still used to hang on. Just as broken in her own way, Ralph’s mother soon followed. By some miracle, Ralph had always found the means, by driving the oil truck and working at odd jobs, to stay just one step ahead of the tax man and hang on to the family farm, though he had no illusions but that the day was coming when the nestegg his father had created by selling all of the farm’s equipment would finally run out.

Ralph, however, made a dismissing gesture. ‘You don’t understand. She’s not girlfriend material. I mean, you wouldn’t believe what she doesn’t know-’

‘Is she legal to be in here?’ Deborah cut him off, thinking naïvety and youth to be the same thing.

Sighing, Ralph said, as patiently as he could, ‘I’m talking technology. She was playing with the light switches and the radio like she’s never seen them before.’

Deborah frowned with concern, taking a fresh look at the girl. ‘Maybe she’s retarded or something. You’d better find out if she’s missing from a group home or a mental hospital.’

‘She’s not retarded,’ Ralph replied with conviction. ‘Remember Dave’s cousin Nicky, the way he was? Well, just watch this-’

Taking out his Zippo lighter, he proferred it to the girl with a meaningful nod. From the look of anticipation on his face, it was clear to her that he wanted her do demonstrate the trick he had shown her in the truck.

Taking the lighter, lips pursed with concentration, she took it between thumb and first two fingers, squeezed while flicking and turning her wrist, and-

Deborah stared at the burning lighter.

‘See?’ Ralph told her. ‘I can hardly ever do that. I mean, anyone can flip one open, but I’ve only seen a few people that can flip one open and light it at the same time, all the time. Remember how we and our friends used to practice doing it, back in school? She got it on the first go.’

‘You’re right,’ Deborah muttered. ‘Nicky could never have done something like that. He couldn’t even dress himself.’

During this last exchange, Malina noticed that the attendant Rowf had picked up by the throat was in the bar, sitting at the far side on a tall stool with his friends, watching Rowf over his shoulder with an unfriendly air. When he caught Rowf’s eye, however, he looked away.

Noticing this, Deborah said, ‘What’s up with him? Ian never sits ‘way over there.’

‘He does now,’ replied Ralph.

They left before closing time. Ralph could see that Malina was getting tired, and he found he didn’t like the way the men in the bar were eyeing her.

Having eaten in the bar, they went straight home and to bed. Ralph had gone to the trouble of putting the linen in the wash that morning, and as she lay on the couch, which Rowf had covered with fresh-smelling clean sheets, Malina’s head was full of the strange sights and sounds of this world as she drifted off to sleep. And a new realization stirred within her that she couldn’t put a name to. It was more a feeling than anything else, and it was most intense when she was near to Rowf ; or rather, it was intense, but in a peculiar sort of way, for in his presence, she found herself free from anxiety or care.

As she slept, she dreamt of her home in the Elven Kingdom. She was looking for someone she couldn’t find, and grief threatened to overwhelm her. But then, she heard Rowf speaking words, and a wonderful feeling enveloped her, as though he soothed her with his touch and his presence. She slept the rest of the night away, undisturbed.

Chapter 7

Dilemma

. . . it’s uncharted wilderness,

this vast landscape of the heart . . .”

Things settled more or less into a routine in the weeks and months that followed. Ralph had not taken Malina back to Murphy’s, and gave it not a thought. But, work being very slow at Murphy’s, Deborah came by often, and on those days Ralph went off to work alone, leaving Malina in her care.

From the outset, Deborah began teaching Malina about this strange world, taking her shopping, mostly with Ralph’s money, as she had little of her own, and teaching Malina about money, cooking, makeup and clothes. This last alone was in itself a whole new world for Malina, for in her own world, her only clothing had been her Pixie dress, her only adornment garlands of flowers. The late-autumn weather was turning colder, and in the early mornings Malina saw frost and ice for the first time. The cold didn’t bother her, now that she knew what it was, and was dressed for it. She particularly liked the way little ghosts came out of her mouth in the cold air, though the first time she had seen this phenomenon, she had been scared witless, thinking that her life’s essence was leaving her. Dumbfounded by Malina’s reaction to seeing her own breath, Deborah had laughed at first, until she realized the girl was genuinely frightened. Finally realising that some explanation was needed to help Malina cope with this, she showed her by example that she could make little ghosts with her own breath without taking any apparent harm.

For Deborah, having Malina around was like having a baby sister. She had to show Malina just about everything, including how to dress herself and how to speak English, which she was picking up with disconcerting rapidity. Deborah herself had taken French and Spanish in school, but had failed miserably in French, and only just got a passing grade in Spanish.

There were a few really embarrassing moments, like the first time she took Malina swimming at a heated indoor pool. Deborah had no sooner helped Malina into her brand-new bathing suit than Malina had doffed it on the edge of the pool. Malina had shown only bewilderment as Deborah, mortified by the open-mouthed stares of several bystanders, tried to convince Malina that going about naked was not a particularly desirable thing to do. It had taken a lengthy explanation to the lifeguard that Malina didn’t know any better, and he had threatened to kick them both out. Another similar incident occurred when they were shopping, before Malina came to understand the order in which one went to the change room, tried clothes on, decided if one liked them, changed back into the clothes worn previously, came out of the change room carrying the new clothes, and paid for them at the cash register. While Deborah was in another change room, she began to hear some sort of commotion, and hearing Malina call her name in alarm, went running out to investigate. Malina was standing half-dressed, holding a sweater, looking very frightened as an irate sales clerk and two security people hemmed her in, threateningly. Deborah had a difficult time bringing things under control. The store people thought Malina was trying to shoplift, and threatened to have her arrested. Malina started crying as the manager arrived, sensing that she had gotten herself and Deborah into serious trouble. Deborah had watched the arrival of the manager with misgiving. She appeared to be a no-nonsense type, middle-aged, hair severely tied back, dressed in a very conservative navy blue business suit. When the woman asked for an explanation, Deborah told her, not expecting to be believed, that Malina wasn’t clear on what change rooms were for, and that she wasn’t trying to steal anything. Taking in Malina’s demeanour and state of undress with a wry glance, the woman said to the clerk and security men, ‘You three should know better! The last thing shoplifters want is to draw attention to themselves. You people get back to work, and let me sort things out here.’ Deborah used this as an opportunity to begin helping Malina back into her clothes. ‘No, sweetie, not this one. We have to pay for it first. Here, put your arm . . . no, give me your arm . . .’

‘Malina make bad?’ Malina asked worriedly.

‘Don’t worry about it,’ Deborah told her, getting her pants on and doing them up. ‘Where’s your . . . Malina, what have you done with your wallet? You know, the thing I gave you to put money in?’

The Manager left them a moment, went over to some chairs, knelt down and picked something up off the floor, and brought it to Deborah. ‘You looking for this?’

Relieved, Deborah said gratefully, ‘Thanks. We seem to be having a little trouble getting organised today.’

‘She’s from the East Bloc, isn’t she?’ said the woman with conviction. ‘From one of those really poor countries.’

Deborah had suspected something of the sort herself, and replied, thinking she might be closer to the truth than even she herself thought, ‘She’s kind of a refugee.’

‘That’s what I thought,’ the woman said, and smiled at Malina. ‘Some of my family are from the East Bloc. I know exactly what she’s going through right now. New language. Doesn’t know what’s done and what’s not done. Feeling awkward all the time. Back in the Old Country, my mother’s family used to live all twelve of them in a one bedroom apartment. After she moved here, she embarrassed the hell out of my father one time when she started changing right in front of the in-laws.’ She smiled at Malina who was no longer crying. ‘All better?’

Malina looked to Deborah, still wondering what was going on.

‘Is everything okay now?’ Deborah asked the woman. ‘Can I take her home?’

‘Home?’ Malina echoed hopefully.

Despite such incidents, Deborah assumed that Malina was adjusting well to her new life, and that it was only a matter of time before she became like everyone else, becoming independent enough to be on her own, and generally fitting in.

One night after getting off work at Murphy’s, Deborah drove straight to Ralph’s house and got out of her car, purposefully, a wide, flat box under her arm. Ralph was half underneath the front end of his oil truck, working in the glaring radiance of an unfrosted utility lamp, surrounded on all sides by a scattering of tools and truck parts. ‘I’m taking Malina dancing,’ she told Ralph. ‘Want to come?’ She well knew Ralph hated dancing, but asked only out of politeness. In truth she hoped he wouldn’t come, but at the same time chided herself for not allowing herself to believe that Ralph told the truth when he said that nothing was going on between himself and Malina. Ralph had never once lied to her. Yeah, well, there’s always a first time for everything, said her insecure little inner voice, making her wince at her own thoughts.

‘Nope. Bye. Have fun,’ Ralph answered in a voice constricted with physical strain causing him to speak in short, punctated bursts, too engrossed in what he was doing to make conversation.

With a small shrug, and a feeling of guilty relief, Deborah muttered, ‘Just thought I’d ask,’ and went into the house in search of Malina.

She found the girl by following the sound of running water, then by stepping into it. ‘Malina! What the hell!’ Malina was in the bath with the water running, out and over the rim of the tub, oblivious. ‘How many times do I have to tell you?! When the tub is full, you turn the water off! What were you thinking?’

Looking for all the world like a child that doesn’t understand the nature or purpose of punishment, she said hopefully, ‘Rowf say “bath time,” so Malina do bath . . .’

Deborah was already gone, having turned off the taps and left in search of the mop. As she started on the floor, wringing the mop out into the toilet, she said, ‘Come on, get out and get dried off. I’ve left something for you on the couch. You know? The place where you sleep?’

Malina, as usual, heedless of her nudity, went out into the living-room as she was told. When Deborah came to collect her, the girl was already wearing ankle socks, bra and panties, but was holding the dress out before herself awkwardly, seemingly unable to make sense of it.

‘No, silly, you’ve got it backwards,’ Deborah told her, then helped her slip it on, stood back to appraise the effect, and muttered, ‘Wow! Just wait ‘til the guys get a load of you! Except for the ankle socks. Take ‘em off. You go barefoot in this dress. No, not literally! Put your beige sandals on.’ The dress was “virgin” white, tight, calf-length, backless, and provocatively split up one side from thigh to underarm, the open side held together by thin strips of fabric. Deborah wore a similar dress that was black. Unlike Malina, she wore black stiletto heels. Malina wore her usual sandals, seemingly unable to learn to walk wearing heels. With a wicked grin, taking Malina by the hand, Deborah said, ‘Let’s go have us some real fun.’

Malina had never been out late in the evening before in this strange world, and as they approached the town in Deborah’s car, she gasped in wonder, looking about excitedly. ‘Lights!’ She exclaimed, delightedly.

‘What? Oh, yeah, lots of lights,’ Deborah muttered, hoping Malina wasn’t going to say or do anything too embarrassing at the nightclub. ‘Street lights. Traffic lights. Headlights. Business signs. Whoop-de-doo.’ Noticing Malina’s hurt reaction, she bit her tongue and mentally kicked herself. ‘These lights are nothing,’ she told the girl conspiratorially. ‘Just wait ‘til you see the lights where we’re going!’

As they pulled into the parking lot, Malina felt a growing trepidation. Unlike Murphy’s, this tavern was in a more remote area, its massive grounds filled with wagons; not like Rowf’s, but more like Deborah’s, though almost all were newer and shinier. Many were built lower to the ground, without coverings to keep the wind and rain off. And parked in a knot beneath the neon sign were a large group of those noisy, frightening, two-wheeled vehicles! There was something about the Men who drove them, and their women, that made Malina uneasy. Their behaviour reminded her of the sort of Elves that took pleasure in hurting and abusing Pixies and other creatures. Taking her cue from Deborah, however, she walked past the two-wheeled things, trying to ignore the frank stares of several of the Men who stood amongst them, pausing in their conversation to scrutinize the two young women.

When they gained the entrance, Malina noticed with some relief that the tavern seemed to be full. She glanced up at Deborah hopefully, wondering if they could turn around and go back home. Instead, Deborah turned and smiled down at her. ‘This is great! The place is packed tonight.’

Malina swallowed, listening to the loud throb emanating from the inside of the building. She thought of asking Deborah what was causing the loud noise, but decided to wait for a more opportune moment, having discovered that when in public, the Human girl was often strangely reticent about answering her questions. At last, a Man wearing a shirt with writing on it, who stood barring the people at the front of the line, unfastened a thick rope which traversed the doorway at waist level, and let several people in. Everyone before them entered, but they were cut off, left standing at the front of the line. Malina suddenly felt her excitement rising. Now that they were nearer to the door, she could hear that what she thought was only a loud thump was only part of some strange sort of rhythmic music. The big, bearded, muscular Man standing at the door, whose head was shaved, stood with his arms crossed. Malina instinctively assumed that he was a person of some importance; probably the tavern owner. Seeing her scrutiny, apparently used to such things, he smiled benevolently at her and winked. ‘Won’t be too long,’ he said. ‘There’s a bunch of people from an office party that are starting to leave.’ As if on cue, a number of people began squeezing past the burly man as he unfastened the rope for them. The moment those exiting were out the door, he motioned for those in line to move forward.

As the two young women stepped into the foyer, Malina’s heart began pounding with fear as Deborah pulled her by the hand into the midst of the crush of people. Turning to the right, following a raised area which surrounded the dance floor, Deborah soon found a table with six empty barstools.

They were no sooner seated than four young men approached. ‘Mind if we sit here?’ the question was directed at Malina, who, not having understood, looked to Deborah. The men were big, and overconfident in a way that Malina found unsettling. But Deborah, apparently experienced in dealing with such people, smiled as though she’d known them all their lives. ‘Sure, go ahead. I’m Deborah. My friend here is Malina.’

‘I know who you are!’ the man replied, suddenly recognising Deborah. ‘You’re one of the dancers from Murphy’s. My name’s Glen, this fellow’s Jason, the one in the yellow shirt is Rory, and that quiet fellow there is Norman.’

The conversation shifted to occupations as they ordered and awaited the arrival of their drinks. When the beverages finally came, the conversation had gone around the table, until at last it was Malina’s turn. She found herself hoping to avoid this unwanted attention, and their order would, she hoped, be distraction enough to spare her from being put on the spot. As Deborah paid for her own drink and Malina’s, however, and as the waitress left, the one named Rory said to her, ‘So, Malina, just what do you do? And what kind of a name is Malina? That’s a new one on me. Do you have a boyfriend?’ Malina looked to Deborah in desperation, having understood little of what the man was saying to her. Deborah and Ralph had learned to accommodate her limitations by using the vocabulary she knew, and by speaking to her in a way that was at once slower and more clear, carefully separating each word from its neighbour while using facial expressions and body language (though unconsciously) to emphasize meaning. But when conversing with one another, or when other people spoke, she found their speech far too fast to follow; they had a peculiar habit of blurring their words together into a continuous stream, so that she couldn’t tell where one word ended and the next began.

To her relief, Deborah came to her rescue, though her apparent focus of interest was on the man named Glen. ‘Malina doesn’t speak much English,’ Deborah told them. ‘She’s from . . .’ she hesitated, wanting to avoid a long conversation on a subject of which she could provide no sure answers. Deciding instead on a white lie, she lowered her voice so that Malina couldn’t hear, and told the three men nearest her, ‘She’s a refugee who’s been through some horrible stuff, and doesn’t like talking about it.’ The three nodded, and the fourth, Norman, was informed by one of his friends who whispered in his ear. The one named Rory suddenly smiled, and said to Malina, ‘Wanna dance?’

That she understood. Malina looked to Deborah, who nodded. Deborah had shown Malina how to dance to her kind of music, and Malina had taken to it effortlessly. Taking Deborah’s nod as a yes, Rory grabbed Malina by the hand and began leading her to the dance floor. Unable to say no, unaware that refusal of this man’s wishes was an option, she followed.

She reached the threshold of the dance floor, and stopped. There were so many people! And the lights! Deborah was right; the lights on the way here were nothing compared to this!

‘Coming?’

With a shy smile, which had a strange effect on the Man, causing him to assert himself with greater authority, she allowed him to lead her onto the dance floor. At once, caught up in the pulse of the music, and the spectacle of lights like nothing she could ever have imagined, her confidence bolstered by the stiff drink she had consumed, she began dancing in the evocative way Deborah had shown her, a way that was just barely short of the primitive fertility dance Deborah performed at Murphy’s. When they left the dance floor to sit down one more, Rory refused to release her hand. This went unnoticed by Deborah, however, as she was deep in conversation with Glen. On the table were several more drinks. At Rory’s urging, Malina drank several tiny glasses of sweet-tasting liqueur, as did the others. She then downed another of the drinks like the one Deborah had ordered for her, and was immediately led back to the dance floor by Rory.

Flushed with feelings she had no understanding of, dancing with a Man who performed his own version of the fertility dance, overstimulated by all the lights and music and alcohol, she suddenly discovered that she was helpless to resist, nor did she have any desire to resist, when the Man suddenly put his arm around her waist, drew her to him, and gave her a lingering kiss that sent excited shivers throughout her body.

‘C’mon,’ he said, ‘Let’s get out of here.’

It was some time before Deborah realized that Malina was missing. ‘Glen,’ she said, ‘Have you seen Malina?’

He glanced around. ‘Isn’t she up on the dance floor?’

The observant Norman, who said little but had his eyes open, said, ‘She left with Rory, about twenty minutes ago.’

Deborah went white. ‘What do you mean, left? Where did they go?’

‘It’s all right,’ said Jason, ‘they probably just went back to his place.’

‘It’s not all right!’ Deborah blurted. ‘Where does your friend Rory live?’

‘For Pete’s sake!’ Jason said, ‘Your friend and Rory were all over each other. What did you expect?’

‘You don’t understand!’ Deborah said, afraid for Malina and angry now. ‘She doesn’t know what she’s doing, or what he wants to do with her. She’s like a kid. She’ll go along with anyone.’

Jason gave her a pained look. ‘Your friend is right where she wants to be. Why don’t you just leave it at that?’

‘How about I call the police,’ Deborah said in a low voice, ‘and we just leave it at that?’

‘I think,’ Glen said firmly, his eyes fixed on Jason, his expression unreadable, ‘that I’d better take you there myself. Rory can be a little hard to handle in these situations.’ Turning to Deborah, he said, ‘Did you drive here?’ Deborah nodded. ‘All right. Stay here and hold my seat, guys.’

To Deborah’s relief, ahead of her, Glen drove fast enough to demonstrate that he’d taken Deborah’s words seriously. They headed out of town, onto the highway for some distance, then turned right on to a grid road. Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, the brake-lights of Glen’s pickup lit up as he came to an abrupt halt. As Deborah stopped behind him, she could see Malina illuminated by the headlights of Glen’s truck, walking barefoot. She was followed by Rory, who kept trying to grab her, roughly, even as she in turn kept pulling away. She was weeping almost hysterically. With a sick feeling, Deborah noticed that her dress was torn. A few hundred feet away was a house with only the porch light on. As Deborah and Glen approached, Malina, white as a little ghost and trembling with shock, ran to Deborah, one hand to her face- her lip was cut and bleeding. Deborah wordlessly accepted her embrace as she would a frightened child. Before Deborah could say anything, Malina began crying hysterically, and wracked with sobs, blurted, ‘I want to go home now . . . please . . . I want to go home . . .’

Feeling sick inside, Deborah looked to Glen, who was watching Rory with an unreadable expression. Oblivious, slightly drunk, Rory tried moving towards Malina, but found his way barred by Glen.

‘Go up to the house,’ he told Deborah quietly. ‘Call the police.’ At this, Rory spat an obscenity and swung a fist at Glen. Glen deftly parried his blow and pushed him to the ground, where he sat, glowering defiance, but not getting up immediately, perhaps knowing what Glen would do to him if he carried the matter further.

‘We can’t call the police,’ Deborah choked, trying futilely to console the weeping girl. ‘She’s here illegally. They might throw her in jail, or deport her.’ At the sight of Rory’s gloating look, she wanted to scream, to kick him in the face, or certain other places.

Glen was very still for a long moment.

Go ! Get her the hell out of here, now, and take her home! Maybe take her to a doctor first, if you can- she might need that lip sewn up. In the future, I hope you damn-well learn to do a better job of taking care of her!’

It was almost three in the morning when Deborah brought Malina to Doc Wallace’s. Though he seemed put out at first at being disturbed at such an ungodly hour, when he heard what happened, he acted quickly. Some time later, when he was done tending to Malina, he came out of his medical room and took Deborah aside. He looked at once more tired and older than she could ever remember seeing him. ‘Here, take this card,’ he said quietly, but in a tone that brooked no compromise. ‘Call tomorrow afternoon. That’ll give me a chance to speak with the woman first. She’s a rape counsellor. There’ll be no questions asked.’

Momentarily stunned into speechlessness, gaping in shock, Deborah took the card, her hand trembling. At once, she put her hand to her mouth and started weeping. ‘He raped her? That bastard raped her? Oh my God! What have I done to her? This is all my fault.’

‘No, it’s not your fault,’ Doc said tiredly, his voice and manner understanding, but firm. ‘But you’re very lucky that Glen Dyck was there. Yes, I know him, and his family. Nice people. Not what I’d call religious, but they work hard, go to church; clean living bunch. Now . . . take Malina home, and if you can, stay with her for a few days. Don’t leave her alone for a minute. Do you think you can do that for her?’

Deborah nodded numbly, collected Malina, and bundled her into the car. Not once did the girl look at Deborah, or seem to register her surroundings. Instead, she leaned with her head against the passenger window, feet drawn up beneath her, staring at nothing. All the way to Ralph’s house, feeling that she herself had done something unspeakable to Malina, Deborah concentrated fighting with her own emotions long enough to get Malina safely home, and tried to think of various ways to explain what had happened. But the more she thought about it, the more she realized that she would just have to face the music. There was little doubt in her mind that she would see Ralph become furious for the first time since she had known him, and that he would tell her to leave and never come back.

When they arrived back at the house, Deborah saw that the porch light was on, but that all the inside lights were off, which meant that Ralph had gone to bed. When she got Malina inside, the girl went straight towards the couch, but Deborah forestalled her, got her a long nightshirt, and told her to go have a long bath. Like a sleepwalker, Malina did as she was told. The moment the girl was alone in the bathroom with the door shut, Deborah went to Ralph’s room, woke him, and told him what had happened. When she finished, he sighed, got out of bed, and she followed him out to the kitchen where he began making the two of them some instant coffee.

‘I’m sorry-’

He put a hand up to forestall her. ‘Don’t. Its done,’ he said in a toneless voice. ‘I know that Rory character. He and some of the guys he hangs around with are into “date rape,” so get it out of your head that Malina is some special case, that you could have prevented what happened. Believe me, Rory would have found some way; he’s an expert.’ His said this last in such a way that it conveyed more impact than if he had described Rory’s predations in the most vulgar terms imaginable. Ralph seldom used outright profanity, had always openly discouraged its use in his presence; this despite the fact that his father had been notoriously fowl-mouthed. Had Ralph known it, this was one of the many things that Deborah truly admired about him. ‘Doc was right about Glen,’ he continued. ‘He was a year behind me in school. Good football player. The type that puts sportsmanship ahead of competition. If I know him, he’ll try to find a way to get Rory charged. At the least, he’ll put the fear of God into him.’ He huffed. ‘Funny thing to say, when you consider that neither of us believes in such things.’ Changing the subject, he said, ‘Guess I’ll be sleeping on the couch. If you go looking for my sweats to sleep in, they’ll be hanging up in the closet, instead of in the drawer-’

They stopped suddenly, aware of an unaccustomed silence. Malina had finally remembered to turn off the water. Oddly, under the circumstances, Ralph and Deborah found themselves wondering sadly if this was a good thing.

There were thankfully no more such incidents, but they were enough to have had a sobering effect on Malina. They served to remind her that she could no longer live solely by her wits as she had always done, and that she had to rely on Ralph and Deborah in ways that went beyond simple trust. In a word, without them she was lost. For Malina, who had much time to reflect as she recovered from being raped, this was as frightening a realization as comprehending one’s impending death for the first time. The closest she could come to putting it into words was that this house was now her home, that Deborah was now her sister, and Rowf was . . . well, Rowf. But with this realization came a seed of doubt, for if her home was now here, then what had the Elf Kingdom become? Despite her concerns, and the aftereffects of having her unquestioning trust so badly abused, she made an effort to put a good face on it. After all, she had experienced as bad or worse treatment at the hands of the Elves.

To all outward appearances, she seemed to be adjusting well enough. But there were a few problems which had Ralph and Deborah concerned. Malina had no I.D., and either couldn’t or wouldn’t tell them where she was from. As well, it soon became abundantly clear, at least to Deborah, that Malina was falling in love with Ralph. But Ralph seemed utterly oblivious to the way the young woman reacted to his presence, or the lack of it. Deborah found herself watching helplessly as Malina became quiet, distracted and withdrawn.

‘Looks like you’ve got it bad,’ Deborah told her one day, when she found Malina sitting alone on a dilapidated wooden bench in the back yard, looking especially depressed. She was wearing a heavy woolen jacket, jeans, and hiking shoes; the weather was cloudy and cold, threatening wet snow. When Malina looked up at her with a quizzical expression, Deborah clarified what she had just said. ‘You’re feeling sad. Because of how you feel about Ralph.’

Looking hopeful, as though Deborah had all the answers to her problems, Malina said, ‘Deborah know how to make better?’

Groaning inwardly, sitting down beside her, Deborah muttered, ‘Not really. This is just one of those things that you’re going to have to muddle your way through, on your own.’

‘Maybe Doc to know?’ Malina said, her mien pleading, tears welling in her eyes.

Taking a deep breath, letting it out slowly, Deborah said, ‘Malina, there are only two people concerned when you’re feeling like you are right now; you and Ralph.’

Malina’s mood didn’t improve at the mention of Ralph’s name. Instead, her features suffused, she struggled to find words. ‘I want . . . I wish . . .’ she made a frustrated noise, and to Deborah’s embarrassment, started crying.

Ralph and Deborah didn’t know it, but from the beginning Malina had been trying to explain to them who and what she was, and where she was from. And then, the three of them were in a bookstore one day. Ralph had wandered off to look at some magazines while Deborah went hunting for a dictionary and a beginner’s book of English with Malina in tow. When Deborah was satisfied with what she’d found, she caught up with Ralph, and they made their way to the front counter. But when he and Deborah were about to stand in line, Malina was not with them. Going back, they found her staring at the covers of several paperbacks in the section marked Fantasy. When Malina spotted them, she pointed excitedly. ‘Found something you want?’ Deborah asked her with a smile. Elated, Malina pointed to a picture on the front of a book. ‘Me,’ she said. It was a picture of a mischievous little woman playing a prank on some Elves, whom she watched, covertly. This drew a smile from both Ralph and Deborah. ‘Yeah, she does look like a little pixie sometimes,’ laughed Ralph. Taking the book to buy it for her, they proceeded to the counter once more. But Malina, suddenly frustrated with their incomprehension, took the book from Ralph, shaking her head. She pointed at the cover adamantly. ‘That Malina!’ Ralph and Deborah were not laughing or smiling now. They knew what she meant, but were not prepared to take such a ridiculous claim on faith.

They drove home in silence, Ralph and Deborah concerned about Malina’s state of mind. When they arrived at the house, Malina was crestfallen, realising they wouldn’t believe her unless she showed them what little magic she was still capable of, and to do so was to risk her life! Making sure she had their undivided attention, she touched an unlit candle’s wick. It sparked and guttered into life a moment later. They were surprised, bit not convinced. Picking up a long-dead moth, she breathed on it. At the touch of her Pixie-breath, the moth stirred, then flew away. They were impressed, but still not convinced. She tried to vanish, but merely faded. She stopped when Deborah let out a small shriek of alarm, and Ralph began shouting at her. ‘For Chrissake! Malina! What the Hell?’ The effort of trying to disappear left her head spinning. ‘You convince it now?’ she said, before slumping senseless to the floor.

Ralph worriedly checked on Malina several times as she lay on the couch, to be sure that she was just sleeping. Unable to take his eyes off her or quell his anxiety, he muttered fearfully, ‘Oh, man! What are we going to do?’

Deborah stopped pacing the floor for a minute to stand over Malina and see if she was still breathing. When she was satisfied, she said, ‘We’ve gotta tell Doc Wallace. I can’t think who else can help her. You don’t think she’s going to die, do you?’

She had never seen Ralph behave so emotionally before. Running a hand through his hair, then leaning with his elbows on the back of the couch, watching Malina’s pale face and slow respiration, he said, ‘This is too much. I knew right off there was something really different about her, and I mean really different. But this is nuts!’ Malina stirred at the sound of their voices, and moaned. Moving around the couch to her side, Ralph took her hand, which worried him all the more because it was so cold and clammy. ‘This is no good,’ he muttered, feeling her damp forehead. ‘We’d better get her to the doctor.’

Opening her eyes, she stared at them in wonder, seeing their concern. ‘Malina make bad?’

‘Malina not make bad,’ Ralph said, an unfamiliar thickness gripping his throat. ‘Malina only manage to scare the bejesus out of us.’

As Deborah drove Malina and Ralph to Doc Wallace’s house in Roxy, her ‘69 navy-blue Cortina, Malina tried to get the hang of the kind of “l” that Ralph and Deborah used. She didn’t know this, but it had something to do with how the tongue was positioned. For example, the kind of “l” used in her language almost but not quite touched the back of the tongue to the roof of the mouth. While this sounded a bit like “l”, it didn’t work well with consonants immediately before or after, hence her difficulty in pronouncing “Ralph”. Most other words had given her no trouble whatsoever. Like peet-sa and beer and Deborah and so on. She often wondered that the first and most important word she had learned in this world should prove so difficult.

Doc Wallace lived on a small farm, known locally as a “hobby farm”, because he was able to grow much more than he would ever need, but not enough to sell produce for a living. He had a proper lawn that was short and well-tended, with shrubs and trees and flowers that were done for the year; a light dusting of snow now marked the onset of winter. Malina was entranced. Here was a dwelling she finally understood. This was how many of the Elves and Dwarves and Humans lived at home! Doc even had hanging baskets along the front of his veranda. ‘Hallo, hallo,’ called Doc, leaning out the window when he spotted them from inside his kitchen. ‘Care for some tea while I’m making some?’ They didn’t decline, although neither Ralph nor Deborah were tea-drinkers.

Doc Wallace was actually retired. His only practice these days was the odd house-call, which was a great boon locally because the nearest hospital was thirty-five miles away. ‘Well, then,’ he said when they had come inside and seated themselves in his living-room, ‘what seems to be the problem? Any . . . complications?’

There was an uncomfortable silence as Ralph considered whether he or Deborah (who was much better at explaining things) should tell the Doctor about what Malina had done. Taking the initiative for a change, realizing that the doctor wasn’t just referring to what had happened to the girl, he began; ‘It’s nothing to do with what happened before, Doc, but we’ve got a real problem here with Malina.’

‘I see. She doesn’t look sick, so I gather this has got nothing to do with her health.’

‘You’re right,’ Ralph said, ‘it’s not her health that’s the problem. At least not for now, anyway. The thing is, she’s not like . . . the rest of us.’

Something in the doctor’s look told him that Doc had suspected something of the sort from the last time he examined the girl. ‘What makes you say that?’

‘Maybe you should have a good look at her before we talk any more.’

When Ralph and Deborah came with Malina into Doc’s examination room, Doc shooed them away. ‘Don’t worry, I think I know what I’m doing. I work better without being distracted, and I’m sure the young lady doesn’t want an audience.’ Ralph and Deborah looked uncomfortable, like overprotective parents, if they had known it.

Once again, Malina didn’t object to anything the old Healer did to her. He was patient and gentle, and Rowf and Deborah seemed to trust him, though Malina was still a bit nervous. Seeing this, Deborah had told her a white lie, saying that the doctor needed to check up on her old injuries. The lie was successful, and she was, for the most part, relaxed and trusting with Doc Wallace. When Malina returned with the doctor, however, she went straight to Ralph and Deborah. ‘Well, Doc?’ Ralph said.

Pulling thoughtfully at his lower lip, the doctor said, ‘Her lip’s healed just fine . . . in another month the scar will be hardly noticeable. But as to the rest . . . let’s just sit down and talk about this.’

‘In some ways she’s not that much different,’ Doc said when they were seated in his living-room. ‘She’s not an alien from outer-space. However,’ he said, looking at them over his glasses, ‘her physiology is like nothing I’ve ever seen. And I’m not talking about just one little anomaly. Hell, everything about her anatomy is an anomaly.’

‘What do you mean?’ Deborah asked him.

‘I mean,’ he said, ‘that she has every human characteristic, but that every characteristic she possesses is wholly different from the rest of us. But not in a way that can be considered to be abnormal. If we were talking about abnormalities or defects, her health would suffer accordingly, and that just isn’t the case. My gut feeling is that she is normal. For her. Take her eyes for example. The tiny muscles of her iris are arranged in a way that simply never occurs. Her reproductive organs are underdeveloped, something I noticed from the last time I examined her. They have a . . . a vestigial appearance, almost as though they weren’t intended to be used.’

‘There’s something else, Doc,’ said Ralph. ‘She’s told us what she is; at least what she thinks she is.’

‘Oh? And what would that be?’

Ralph cleared his throat. ‘She said she’s a pixie.’

‘A pixie.’

‘Like in a fairy st-’

‘I know what a pixie is,’ said the doctor brusquely with a dismissing gesture.

‘Yeah,’ said Ralph intently, ‘except that she thinks she really is one.’

The doctor considered Malina for a moment, and it was evident that he was trying to conceal his obvious concern. ‘Has she claimed to possess any supernatural powers? Or said anything about hearing voices?’

‘She’s never said anything about voices,’ said Deborah. ‘But we’ve seen her use her magic. It hurts her to do it, for some reason.’

Looking pained, the doctor shook his head. ‘Look, it won’t help matters if you start buying into stories about magic and things supernatural. You’ll only compound the problem.’

‘I’m not talking about stories,’ Deborah told him. ‘We’ve seen what she can do.’

‘That’s nonsense!’ Doc said in irritation.

Exasperated, Deborah got up and went to the front window. She picked up a dead wasp that had been trapped inside and returned, proffering it to the doctor, who declined to accept it. ‘What do you make of this, Doc?’

The doctor huffed. ‘That yellow jacket’s been there for months. So I’m not the best housekeeper.’

‘It’s dead, right?’

‘It has been dead for a very long time.’

‘You sure it’s dead?’

The doctor plucked it from the palm of her hand by one stiff wing. ‘In-sect rig-or-mor-tis,’ he enunciated. ‘The wasp is dead. Defunct. Its innards are shrivelled up like a raisin. The only way it will ever fly again will be as a projectile, when I get around to tossing it out.’

Deborah extended her hand to the doctor, who gave her back the insect’s mummified exoskeleton. Then, sitting beside Malina, she said, ‘I know this is tough on you, honey, but do you think you can do one little bit of magic?’ More from Deborah’s tone of voice and from the situation than from Deborah’s words did Malina understand what was expected of her. With a sigh, she took the dead wasp and placed it on her open palm.

The doctor leaned forward, frowning, missing nothing.

Malina breathed lightly on the wasp. At the touch of her Pixie breath, which was plainly visible, the stiffness went out of it like a hard sponge soaking up water. With an angry buzz, the insect righted itself and flew straight at the living room window, striking it so hard that the glass resonated with a sound like being struck with a pea fired from a slingshot. Deborah got up and opened the one of the smaller side windows, letting the yellow jacket escape. ‘Shoot,’ she muttered to herself as an afterthought, ‘poor little critter won’t last an hour outside at this time of year.’ Malina, meanwhile, had turned very pale, and put a hand to her head, which was spinning.

Putting an arm around her protectively, Ralph said, ‘Don’t do like we did, Doc. We kept making her do stuff and it almost killed her.’

Slowly removing his glasses, the doctor stared at Malina intently and waved off Ralph’s warning. ‘How the hell did she do that?’ He was silent for a long moment, thinking. ‘You say you’ve seen her do things like this before?’

Defensively, afraid the doctor would demand to see more, Ralph replied, ‘We already told you she did-’

‘It’s a trick of some sort! It has to be!’ After a moment’s silence, he said, ‘Has she told you where she came from?’

Ralph told him as much as Malina had said, or made herself understood, including her banishment.

When he had finished, the doctor sighed and leaned back in his chair, thoughtfully. ‘How much English does she understand?’ Ralph and Deborah both shrugged. ‘A little.’

‘Malina,’ said the doctor, holding her with his eyes, ‘Where are you from?’

Uncomfortable with being put on the spot, leaning closer to Ralph, which Deborah noticed with a jealous pang, she replied, ‘From Eff Kingdom.’

‘I see. And how did you get here?’

Glancing uncertainly up at Rowf, she replied, ‘Tree munt ago?’

Shaking his head, Ralph said to her, gently, ‘How you get, not when you get.’

Malina’s eyes widened. ‘Pran, Eff . . .’ her hands fluttered as she tried unsuccessfully to find the words.

‘Pran, the elf, sent you?’ tried Deborah.

Malina nodded. ‘Pran Eff send Malina ‘way.’

‘How?’ the doctor persisted.

Malina knew what the doctor meant this time. She made the blowing gesture, indicating what she had done with the wasp, then put her hands up with a helpless expression to show that she could not explain further. The doctor leaned back in his chair and made a crookedly rueful face. ‘I should have expected that. She’ll just try to explain this thing in terms of itself.’

‘So you’re saying that you don’t believe her,’ Ralph said.

The doctor’s ambiguous mien belied the import of his words. ‘That’s not the point. The point is, she believes it, which means that her problem is going to be that much more difficult to treat. Look, I’m going to give her a referral to see-’

‘We can’t let anyone else in on this,’ Ralph cut him off. ‘Besides, she’s already getting counselling from Kathy Morrison. But that isn’t the kind of help I’m talking about.’

Doc frowned. ‘Then what are you saying? And what exactly do you want from me?’

Frustrated, Ralph said, ‘I- we just need to know what to do. I mean, Malina’s got no I.D., and besides being raped, she nearly got arrested at the mall a month ago. Like, what if the police got her, and they wanted to deport her or something? But the thing that really bothers us is that she says that after she’s been here for a year, she’ll be allowed to go back.’

The doctor raised his eyebrows. ‘Go back? You mean back home? Or back to where she says she came from?’

‘I mean, back to where she says she came from,’ replied Ralph, looking troubled. ‘The thing is, she doesn’t want to go back, and she’s afraid they might come and get her.’

‘They?’

‘Well, someone called Pran, anyway. She says that he’s an elf, and that he’s the one who sent her here.’

The doctor was silent for several moments, considering that the girl was in some sort of trouble, probably with immigration. That was the most likely explanation. Her story was probably a concoction intended to avoid facing or telling the truth about herself. But that didn’t explain her strange physiology, or the business with the wasp. Deciding on a course of action to get some answers, he said, ‘Why don’t we just play along for the moment, and pretend that this “elf” she mentioned really exists, and is going to come after her. Malina,’ he said to her, ‘when Pran come?’

Malina looked at her hands, counted nine fingers, and held them up, saying, ‘Nigh mutts.’

‘Nine months,’ echoed the doctor. ‘That should give us more than enough time.’

‘Enough time for what?’ asked Deborah.

‘Time to figure out what language she speaks, and where she’s from, and to figure out what kind of trouble she’s really in.’

‘Are you serious?’ Deborah asked him. ‘What if she really is in some kind of serious trouble? What if somebody dangerous comes looking for her? Shouldn’t we . . .’ She looked to Ralph apologetically. ‘Well . . . shouldn’t we really call the police or something? Maybe we could get her refugee status, or something.’

Doc Wallace smiled. ‘Come now! I don’t think she’s done anything really wrong, and if we call the police in on this, we might end up making more trouble for her than she’s already in, especially if she’s in trouble with immigration. I’ve had dealings with a few of their right-wing louts before. They’d probably ship her back to where she came from so fast it’d make her head swim. Just let me make a few discreet inquiries on her behalf, and I’ll find out for certain if she’s in some sort of trouble with the law. I don’t think her problem is psychiatric, so we’ll just set that one aside as a last resort.’ He smiled at Malina, who sat bewildered, trying to make sense of their conversation. ‘Well, young lady! Seems like you’ve got yourself and everyone else in a bit of a pickle.’

At this, she looked hopefully up at Ralph. ‘Pickle?’

Ralph and Deborah had to laugh sardonically. ‘Thanks a lot, Doc!’ Ralph said. ‘You just said the magic word.’

To Doc’s incomprehension, Deborah said, trying to keep a straight face, ‘She’s just discovered p-i-c-k-l-e-s. Cleaned out every single last one out of Ralph’s fridge and the cupboard and promptly threw up on the floor.’

‘Hmm,’ said the doctor. ‘Well, it’s almost five. I hope you’re staying for supper.’

Doc listened with some amusement to Ralph and Deborah’s accounts of Malina’s misadventures and her behaviour. But when they mentioned her reaction to technology, he stopped them.

‘I’m serious,’ Ralph said. ‘Like, the first time I took her for a ride in the truck, she just about jumped out of her skin when I started it up. We had to really watch her until she figured out how to use the stove. She used to turn the taps on, just to watch the water run. We used to catch her in the bath with the water running, pouring all over the floor.’

‘She didn’t even know how to use the toilet,’ Deborah put in. ‘I had to show her. She’d just go outside somewhere-’

Doc waved them to silence, nodding in Malina’s direction. She was watching the window. A small, grey furry creature had jumped up on the ledge. She turned to the others, her expression one of doubtful amazement. She watched as Doc got up from his chair, made his way to the window, and picked the creature up. When he began bringing the creature towards her, she jumped up, almost knocking her chair over, and backed away. The others quickly began trying to reassure her.

‘No, no, Malina, it’s only a kitty-cat,’ Deborah told her. ‘Look, see?’ she began petting the cat, which purred obligingly in Doc’s arms.

Malina moved closer, spellbound, her eyes wide. Tentatively she reached out and touched the animal, but quickly withdrew her hand.

‘This is just old Smoky,’ Doc told her with a bemused smile. ‘See? He won’t bite. Would you like to hold him?’

She put her hands behind her back and shook her head.

With a smile, Doc replaced the cat on his perch.

When they were seated again, Doc asked Malina, ‘Have you not seen animals before?’

She wasn’t sure if she understood him, or how to answer his question. Pixies in their diminutive form occasionally fell prey to felines and other predators, but this one presented no immediate threat, so she replied, ‘See bird. See horse. See deer. See di-no-sawr . . .’

Deborah smiled. ‘She saw that one on te- . . . the boob tube.’

‘Yes, and it scared the bejesus out of her,’ Ralph muttered. ‘She couldn’t understand why Deborah and I were just sitting there, watching. She wanted us to save those people. I tried explaining to her that it was just a story, but I don’t think she quite believes me.’ He and Malina regarded each other askance as he said this, and it was apparent that she still wasn’t convinced.

‘Well, anyway,’ Doc said, ‘back to the matter at hand . . .’

This was one time Malina was grateful to Deborah for teaching her to use a knife and fork. It made for an arduous task the last several times she tried eating with such awkward utensils. Often she would make a show of using them, but would surreptitiously use her fingers when she thought the others weren’t looking. But here in Doc Wallace’s spotless kitchen, their use made her feel less rustic and out of place. Afterwards, picking at the remainder of her meal with a fork, absently resting her chin in her other hand, elbow on the table, she began taking stock of Doc’s house, noting the shelves mounted over the stove that were filled with bric-a-brac, and the pictures on the walls. Trying to follow the other’s talk, she gathered from their conversation that they were planning what to do if Pran, or someone else called immigration tried to take her from her new home. She knew that Pran would have very limited power to take her back if she didn’t want to go. Nevertheless, his power, great or small, was far greater than hers in either world. It worried her that Rowf might try to fight Pran. Rowf was much bigger and stronger, but even a little magic could prove more than a match for main strength. Besides, Pran was a soldier, skilled in the arts of battle and killing, whereas Ralph was not. Immigration was another matter. From the others’ tone, she gathered that the less immigration knew of her presence, the better. She hoped to reason with Pran. He might just leave her alone if she asked him to. The Elf soldier had always been fair with her, and for some reason she suspected that he didn’t like the Prince or the King. Doc had avowed that he would call on a powerful friend called scattergun if anyone bad showed up, but his mention of this ally seemed to make Ralph and Deborah nervous. Evidently, they didn’t place the same trust in scattergun as Doc did.

Feeling better now, she relaxed and began to reflect on her life here. The magic in this world was so strange, like the lights and teevee and Deborah’s blow-dryer and music that came from wagons and boxes. The one called Doc had a cooking fire thing like Rowf’s that heated without flame. But all of this magic and much more was always contained in things, and not in people. Maybe that’s why this world was different. Maybe its magic was . . . external rather than internal. There was a thought!

Later, sitting in the living room, Ralph and Doc and Deborah talked long into the night, and Malina found herself getting very tired. Curling up in one of Doc’s armchairs, she fell asleep. When she woke again, she was being carried by Rowf. They were home, and heading for bed. To her surprise, Deborah was sleeping over once more, while Ralph was once again sleeping on the couch.

When they both got into Ralph’s bed, Deborah said quietly to Malina, ‘I think you should tell Ralph how you feel about him.’

Malina stared at her, taken aback. ‘Not thing to tell!’ she whispered, blushing.

‘Oh no? And why not?’ Deborah asked her.

Flustered, the young woman said, ‘I have dream . . . every night . . . that he come to Malina. But I not know what to do . . . and I afraid he hurt me, like other man.’

Deborah tried to swallow the responding ache in her throat. So there it was; the very thing that had kept herself and Ralph apart. No matter how well he had treated her when they were together, something in the back of her mind was always waiting for the other shoe to drop. It was a curse that forever kept her from forming a normal relationship with a man. But she said, ‘Oh, Malina! Ralph’s not like that other man! He’s kind, and gentle. He would always be very nice to you.’

Malina frowned. ‘I not to understand. Are you not . . . mate? to Rowf?’

Wondering how to explain to the girl, Deborah said, ‘Ralph and I . . . we just don’t have that sort of relationship. He needs a wife . . . a woman to be the mother of his children . . . but I’m just not wifey material. I like kids and all . . . but I’m not good in a long-term relationship . . . and I don’t really want kids of my own. Well… actually I do, but not with me the way I am now.’

At the mention of children, Malina paled. ‘I not . . . I cannot be wife!’

‘Why not?’

‘Not know how!’ Malina said. ‘Not know what to do. And to have Outcast baby . . . it is bad problem.’

Deborah stared. ‘What are you talking about? What is an outcast baby?’

It was Malina’s turn to stare. ‘Deborah not know? Outcast baby is of mixed blood. Baby and mother and father in big trouble, all their lives. Make to go far away.’

Deborah shook her head. ‘Malina! What the hell kind of place were you living in? I thought this world was getting past that kind of racist crap!’

Malina thought of telling Deborah about conditions in her world, or that she had come from another world, but thought better of it, knowing that Deborah and the others didn’t believe such things. Instead, intrigued, she said, ‘Rowf would make mixed baby?’

‘You’re living in North America now, kiddo,’ Deborah told her. ‘He wouldn’t even blink an eye.’

Malina frowned. ‘Why he would blink an eye?’

Deborah gave her a pained look, wondering as she sometimes did whether or not Malina was having it on with her. ‘I mean,’ she said, succinctly, ‘that it wouldn’t bother him in the least.’

‘Oh,’ Malina said. The two girls lay quiet for so long, that Deborah assumed Malina had fallen asleep. She was ready to doze off herself, when Malina asked her, ‘How . . . where does baby come from? I see baby before . . . but where do mother and father get them, if they not have magic?’

Deborah raised herself up on one elbow to stare at Malina incredulously. ‘You can’t possibly be serious!’ But the credulous manner in which Malina watched her said everything she was unable to put into words. ‘I don’t believe this!’ Deborah muttered. ‘Didn’t your mother ever tell you where babies come from? Didn’t anyone?’

Stung by Deborah’s words, tears welled up in Malina’s eyes. ‘My mother die . . . when I am very small! I to . . . I have always live alone, by myself, until Rowf to found me.’ She began weeping quietly. ‘Until I am here . . . I alone . . . I have no one . . . I have no one . . .’

Uncertain whether to believe her or not, Deborah put her arms around the girl, thinking only to quiet her down, so that she wouldn’t disturb Ralph. To her surprise, Malina flinched at her touch, the set of her shoulders becoming stiff. Somehow, in some manner conveyed to her by Malina’s body language, Deborah suddenly realized that the girl was telling the literal truth, that her mother really was dead. That she really was alone. ‘Sh-h. Just relax. Here, turn over with your back to me and I’ll put my arms around you. There, like this. Now, try to relax and go to sleep.’

Malina couldn’t remember being held by anyone before in her life, except for vague, half-forgotten memories of her mother. At Deborah’s touch, and by her close and comforting presence, years of fear and anxiety seemed to melt away, to be lifted from her small shoulders.

Perhaps not all magic here was as elusive as it seemed.

Chapter 8

Education

With true knowledge comes uncertainty.”

During the following weeks, Deborah found herself without a place to live. Business had gone from bad to worse at Murphy’s, and with little or no income, she was unable to pay for her room above the strip bar.

It was an unseasonable warm, wet stormy January. The temperature hovered around the freezing mark, and rain mixed with snow fell steadily. The roof of Ralph’s dilapidated house began to leak so badly that in places the ceiling was in danger of collapsing. The damp, drafty, musty-smelling dwelling was soon full of various incessant, irritably irrythmic plunks, plops and plinks of water dripping into assorted pots, pans, pails, and other miscellaneous containers.

At Doc Wallace’s suggestion, the three of them, Deborah, Ralph, and Malina, moved into his home. He certainly had room enough, and to do so was hardly a major undertaking as there was little besides clothing to transport. Deborah herself lived out of a suitcase, and Ralph did not want to bring anything out of the house that had belonged to his parents, with the exception of a few boxes of irreplaceable family photos.

Ralph too had heard that his job was in jeopardy. The company he worked for was considering selling out to a conglomerate with its own operation. The loss of his family farm now appeared inevitable, and his removal to Doc’s house only served to reinforce the impression that everything he owned was slipping through his fingers.

Doc was understandably concerned over their plight, having witnessed the demise of far too many small towns and the types of small businesses that were their life’s blood. In Deborah’s case, however, he thought it just as well; though she was able to eke out a living as a dancer, the money was sporadic, and hardly worth the sordid lifestyle that went along with it. Ralph, on the other hand, was now faced with selling his parents’ property, which at present was next to worthless. It would no doubt languish on the open market, only to be snapped up by some heartless, predatory real-estate type after the place had been foreclosed upon.

It was not long after Malina came to live under his roof that Doc found himself considering that he might be forced to reassess his ideas concerning her a full one-hundred-eighty degrees. A friend at the police station had run Malina’s fingerprints, and was told that as far as the local, national and international databases were concerned, the owner of the prints simply didn’t exist. Besides, they were the strangest set of prints his friend had ever laid eyes on. Doc’s friend had asked him if he was pulling her leg.

As to Malina’s language, Doc was told that if the words she spoke were truly a language, then it must have been one she’d made up herself, because no such language existed, or had ever existed.

Then there was her strange physiology. He received a worried call from the radiology clinic concerning several “abnormalities”. The radiologist had assumed from the patient’s “condition” that she must be at death’s door.

For several days, Doc found himself unable to make sense of the pieces of this puzzle. They only fit together if he took Malina at her word; something he was not prepared to do.

Eventually, he decided to try a different tack. It seemed to him that Malina’s language somehow lay at the heart of the matter. If her language was one that she’d made up, then it would fall apart under careful scrutiny, as would the rest of her story. The result of this line of thinking was that he immediately went to work figuring out Malina’s language. He set about the complex task (most would have said daunting) of organising her speech into sounds and letters first, then into words and phrases. Malina claimed to know several languages, but it soon turned out that there were two main languages that she used most often; what she claimed to be her Pixie tongue, and that which she claimed to be the Elven dialect spoken where she lived, having indicated to Doc that Humans and Dwarves who travelled to the Elf Kingdom usually spoke that same dialect, as it was widely known. He set aside the other languages for the time being.

When Doc had compiled a good part of both the Elven and Pixie languages, he sent them to a certain well-known linguist and old university chum. The reply he received was disquieting.

Dear James:

Good to hear from you, as always. I have sent along a list of corrections; your translation is not altogether accurate, though surprisingly good for an amateur. My previous appraisal of these languages (and I apologize for my abruptness in claiming otherwise) was also not altogether accurate.

Although neither language is known, it has become obvious to me that they are directly related to a number of ancient European languages which predate written history.

Having said that, I must ask you for news concerning the source of your discovery. The entire languages department has found this information invaluable, in that we are now able to infer a clearer picture of the movements, interactions and migrations of several groups of pre-historic Europeans . . .

Speechless, Doc set the letter down and considered Malina for several long moments. She lay on her chest in the middle of the living-room floor watching television. Smoky lay beside her, dozing. They had spent the better part of the morning playing “chase-the-pom-pom”.

He was beginning to share, however reluctantly, something of Ralph and Deborah’s concern for her. Despite appearances, she was not simply some lost little waif. She was neither sheltered nor naïve. She met the hard truths of life and death philosophically, and didn’t flinch from the facts. Like everyone, she was the product of whatever culture she had come from, and was dealing with her new life the best way she knew how.

‘Well, my dear,’ he said to himself, ‘it seems that it’s time we began taking you more seriously.’

Under Doc’s direction, Ralph and Deborah began helping Malina with her English vocabulary, and Doc showed Malina much that she was having difficulty with, like the “l” in Ralph, and the “th” in months. Doc owned an ancient roll-top desk made of oak which stood in a corner of his living room. He had fond memories from his childhood of that ancient over-carved leviathan, for it had been his great-grandmother’s, back in the days when penmanship meant something. For many years now it had been sitting off to one corner collecting dust. But with Malina’s presence it had once more become a vital part of the household.

Doc learned a great deal about Malina simply by watching her work. There was a reverence in her attitude, even in her movements, towards books and the written word. Her initial efforts were so much awkwardly childish scrawl; she had not the slightest trace of a writing callous, nor so much as a rudimentary understanding of how to apply pen to paper. But she learned quickly, with surprising diligence, as though making up for lost time.

There was a poignant moment when Malina discovered one of Doc’s long-forgotten attempts at writing what he called “bum poetry”, which in truth was really a form of prose. What touched him deeply was not so much the fact that she read it over and over many times, but that it meant so much to her that she committed it to memory.

Chiaroscuro

by James Irving Wallace

White silence has fallen, becoming the landscape all in itself.

Haloed by ice-crystals, the full moon hangs suspended in darkness above a frozen lake, its opaque reflection at once dreamlike; timeless.

Disturbed solely by the cracking of the land’s arthritic bones, the gelid night becomes a lens of ice, magnifying cold and bitter solitude. Through this invisible boundary of curved planes passes the light of stars; an unsteady flickering light, pale and hard, a light which illuminates nothing, except, perhaps, its own enigmatic purpose.

There is, on the horizon, the grey silhouette of a country church and its attendant graveyard. The church is a small, fragile wooden box with darkened windows, with doors locked and walls whitewashed against the stain of human need. It at once appears spectral, devoid of substance, as though its promise of eternal life were an empty one; yet the standing stones of the graveyard appear permanent, the smaller cousins of some ancient forgotten civilization

Dawn. A blush of colour, and a false promise of warmth.

Yellow stubble juts through its thin crust of snow; the open prairie is as tired, rough, and unshaven as its inhabitants.

From inside farmhouses with unpainted exteriors and sagging roofs come the muffled sounds of pots and pans, and dry kindling being split. Soon, grey-white smoke billows from chimneys, stoked by eternally tired and long-suffering women in print dresses and aprons. Within each house and without, eyes open. Movement begins. Before breakfast, old men, remembering days when their labour was useful, are outside shovelling a path through last night’s snow. In the barns and under shelters, livestock, huddled together for warmth, shake off quiet and sleep, and remember as they do every morning, that they are hungry.

Dawn passes. The illusion of warmth fades, revealing an ash-coloured sky. Fire crackles. Burning wood shifts in the belly of the stove. The kettle hisses like a tired old cat until lifted; shortly, hot water steams from its upraised elephantine snout into a bowl of dry cereal. Stumbling sleepy-eyed, woolly-socked, sweatered and denim-clad, issuing forth from the darkened tunnel that is the hallway, we gather in the grey light of the small kitchen, greeted by the smells of wood-smoke, bacon, coffee, and ancient worn linoleum. Half-noticed sounds punctuate the business at hand; the floor creaks; a chair shifts; a newspaper rustles; the percolator gurgles; the toaster springs; utensils occasionally clank or scrape against plates. A cup of coffee, stirred vigorously, rings like a porcelain bell before being carefully lifted towards cautious lips. Events of yesterday, half-forgotten, lay thick about, while in the living moment, anticipation and routine are one and the same.

Day has begun. As though concealing some hidden profound truth, all across the firmament, grey tattered clouds like the ragged sails of a shipwreck, part to reveal the presence of a pale blue sky, as smooth and round as a robin’s egg. Beneath our feet, like a hard reminder of the difference between truth and the sort of illusion that all-too-many call hope, the earth’s uneven black crust is hard and barren. Though the sun appears briefly, echoing through the storm-strewn heavens like a fanfare of trumpets, the only sounds that reach our ears are those of the prairie wind and the dull clanging of the church bell, which together, instead of instilling hope, serve as a reminder that each peal brings us a heartbeat closer to death and silent oblivion. We gather and listen to the words of the minister; words about damnation and redemption; about eternal life and reward for human suffering; about a just, magical, and powerful God; and though we would like to believe, to our ears, his words sound like those of a man falling into the abyss, as he promises to those above that he will catch them even as they fall. But he is a good and kind man, all the same, and when his sermon is over, we thank him, more for trying than anything else, I think.

Inevitably and all too soon, another brief day comes to a poignant end. As though trying to remember the imagined lost glory of youth, or simply because it is faced with impending death, the day expends its last moments in haunting, ephemeral images of heartbreaking beauty and innocence; cold ash-grey clouds stoke themselves into life once more, blazing like some would-be creator’s brand-new forge, for a time making the world look as it must have done when it was new; like a Baroque painting on a cathedral ceiling that has somehow, impossibly, come to life; only to burn itself out once more, this time forever; to fade by unmeasurable degrees until it merges with the growing and inexorable darkness.

The mercury plummets. Breath comes in frozen gasps. Cold bites. Brings tears. A cup of hot cocoa passes from hand to hand. Night falls once more. Above the church, darkness and the moon contemplate one other, two worlds forever separate. Alongside, however, the indivisible world of the little graveyard has somehow been carved from that same moonglow and darkness.

The world grows silent. Eyes close.

And all is dreaming. And all is dreaming.

Malina’s Pixie language was far more basic than the Elven tongue, and Doc soon suspected that Malina’s knowledge of the Elven tongue was far from complete. As his linguist friend had indicated, the “Pixie” tongue (Doc had wisely refrained from naming it in his correspondence) was undoubtedly the root language that the “Elven” tongue was derived from. Many Elven words had a Pixie word as their root, but split into many other forms and derivatives from there. For example, in Pixie, there was only one word for “love”, which was mio. There was no single Elven word for “love”. A love of life was miolis, and the love for a mate was mioli, and so on. Malina knew perhaps ten of these very general examples, so Doc knew there must be more.

Doc Wallace began to realize, as soon as he began tackling Malina’s language, that no one could fake the difficulties she had with English so consistently, and he soon discovered from examining her language why she had trouble with certain words. Neither Pixie nor Elvish used as many hard or closed consonants as appeared in English, and certainly neither language used consonants that were not separated by vowels. On the other hand, Malina’s “l” was very difficult and unnatural for the others to pronounce, having no English equivalent.

His doubt began to turn to misgiving. All attempts to identify Malina’s languages ended in utter failure, yet there was no possibility that they were clever fabrications. As well, in dealing with what he half-expected to be some sort of psychiatric problem, when applying his usual method of detection, which was to take whatever the patient told him at face value, all the while taking note of any obvious abnormalities in the form of dissociative behaviour or discrepancies in judgement as they made themselves apparent, there, too, he came up empty-handed.

Other than a little shyness, Malina’s mental health was apparently sound beyond question. And either she was a brilliant closet linguist or the languages she spoke were real. Doc was forced, albeit reluctantly, to dismiss the former possibility altogether. Linguists, he well knew, were, without exception, literate to an extreme.

‘Well, Sir Doyle,’ he muttered to himself in frustration, ‘you’re Holmsian axiom is really beginning to get under my skin.’

For a time, Malina became very reticent when she was in Ralph’s presence, her mien appearing almost sullen, though the truth was that she was trying to conceal her mortification, chagrin, and disbelief, after Deborah explained to her in full gory detail how babies were made. Still, Deborah often caught her glancing at Ralph covertly, her look timidly speculative.

Thinking that Ralph was oblivious to Malina’s feelings, Deborah one day decided to broach the subject. She caught up with him when he was outside shovelling the first good fall of dry snow from the walks. To her surprise, he hardly skipped a beat. His only reaction was a slight but unmistakeable hesitation in the rhythm of his work.

‘So, you finally noticed.’

‘Yes, well . . . aren’t you going to do something about it?’

‘Nope.’

‘Just like that? Nope?’

‘Nope.’

Annoyed, Deborah said, ‘Why not?’

‘She’s just a kid, for one thing-’

‘She is not! She’s about the same age I am!’

‘For another thing, she has a lot of personal problems. In my book, relationships are something you work on after sorting out your personal problems.’

Stung, she replied, ‘That never seemed to stop you where I was concerned.’

‘That was different, and you know it,’ he replied firmly. ‘In your case, we both know what your problems are, and we tried to work together to fix them, or at least work through them. But Malina . . . she’s like a little kid; she doesn’t know anything beyond the fact that “she wants something,” or “she needs something”.

‘For another thing, how can you be sure that you and I aren’t going to get back together? You keep breaking it off, saying “This is it,” then you turn around one day and it’s as though nothing’s changed between us. I know you, don’t forget. You can’t stand there and tell me that you can guarantee which way your feelings are going to go from one month or one week or even one day to the next. And don’t give me that hurt look! I’m not saying this stuff to be mean; I’m saying it because you and I both know that it’s true.’

‘Yeah, well, there’s one big difference this time,’ she said. ‘Stop, damn you! Just stand still for a minute and listen to me.’

He did so, leaning on the shovel, his breath steaming in the cold afternoon sun.

‘The difference,’ she told him, ‘is that she needs you. Don’t forget, I know you well too. Whether you realise it or not, you need her in your life.

‘Me, that’s another story. I can’t have a real relationship because I can’t get past my own problems. They’re the sort of problems that make me into a selfish person, because I’m always having to spend so much time trying to fix what’s wrong with me inside. When your life’s like that, things like relationships get pushed aside.

‘But Malina’s different from me that way. Her . . . focus, or whatever you want to call it, is not on what’s going on inside her; it’s on what’s going on outside.

‘The difference between us is that I need answers; she needs stability. She needs you.’

Ralph began shovelling once more, but said, ‘It’s never that simple. Look, you forget; I’ve got my hangups too. It’s hard for me to be around her. She makes me feel like a creep all the time. It’s like she’s too good to be true, and if I got involved, I’d only take something sweet and innocent and end up wrecking it without trying to. Look, if I’ve learned anything, it’s that there are more subtle and unintentional forms of doing harm than what that Rory character did to her. I’m afraid of hurting her without meaning to, which means I wouldn’t know I’d done it until it was too late.’

She looked away from him in hurt frustration as he said this. When he spoke this way, she felt acutely out of her emotional depth, recognising his maturity for what it was, but being utterly unable to comprehend or relate to it. She had missed entirely the note of self-reproach in his voice, which, if she had known it, was there on her behalf.

‘Besides,’ he added, his expression strained with conflicting emotions, ‘you know that I can’t stand instability. I can take it from you . . . well . . . because we’ve known each other for so long; I know where it comes from. But with Malina . . .’ he paused a moment to rest his back.

‘She doesn’t seem to know where to draw the line with people. How could you even think of encouraging me to have a relationship with someone who can’t trust herself not to jump in the sack with any guy who wants her?’

‘I don’t think it’s quite like that,’ Deborah muttered. ‘What happened last month . . . I think it happened because she didn’t know what was going on-’ Ralph’s pitying look almost caused her to burst into angry tears. It was the same look he had given her many times over the years, when confronted with the disastrous results of her own misguided feelings. ‘I’m serious!’ Deborah told him, not because she was, but rather because she couldn’t help responding to his certainty by making a lame, defensive effort to attempt to make him think that he “just didn’t get it”. ‘Look, she didn’t even know where babies came from until I told her. Now I wish I’d just kept my mouth shut. She was so freaked when I told her that she’s hardly said two words since.’

Ralph watched her speculatively as she spoke, then went back to shovelling.

‘If that’s true, then she needs someone to look after her,’ he replied quietly. ‘But that “someone” isn’t me. Hell, I can hardly look after myself!’ He stopped once more, gesturing. ‘I mean, look at us! Take a good look. This town, everything in it, and our lives, are falling apart, and here we are, living off Doc’s good graces in the bargain. If I’m going to have someone in my life, I need someone who can help me out, tow the line, hold her own, without me having to worry about how she’s making out all the time. That’s part of the reason that you and I were together. As screwed up as things got, I could always depend on you, at least to take care of yourself. Hell, I can’t even bloody go to work unless I know that someone’s around to look after her-’ He became silent. Deborah stood stiffly, arms folded, face averted, tears welling in her eyes. ‘C’mere, you,’ he muttered thickly, dropped the shovel, and took her in his arms. She pressed herself to him, clinging tightly, began weeping in earnest. ‘I know,’ he said softly. ‘Who the hell am I kidding? It used to be the same with you. The truth is, if things had worked out differently, if only I’d been able to afford it, you would have been able to stay at home, and I could have looked after you properly. I’m sorry . . . things just didn’t work out like they should have.’

As close as they were at that moment, they both knew that life’s experiences had created an abyss between them, an unbroachable gulf of lines crossed and compromises made. That there was no possible way of going back.

When Deborah had finally composed herself, she began making her way towards the house. ‘Well, Malina,’ she thought to herself, feeling unspeakably empty and old beyond her years, ‘I hope you end up being luckier than I am.’

During the following week, a neighbour called by in the middle of the night, explaining to Doc that the phones were out because of the weather, and that there was a young woman living out of town who was about to give birth.

It had been many years since Doc helped deliver a brand new life into the world. It brought to mind a good many forgotten feelings and memories, and with them came a very painful sense of loss. He was inadvertently forced to remember people that he had once cared very much about, who had either died, grown up and moved away, or who had simply moved on. Tied to this somehow was the feeling that he and his young friends were refugees from God alone knew what.

Thinking his young charges had far too much time on their hands, Doc made a project of drilling Ralph and Deborah in both languages until they thought they could recite Pixie or Elf in their sleep. Doc was surprisingly adept when it came to memorising all the vocabulary Malina could think of, and he was soon as fluent in the Elven tongue as she; more so, perhaps, because he was ready to probe into much that Malina did not know, that he knew must be there.

Ralph worked harder than he ever had in his life at learning her two languages. It was only fair, he reasoned. Besides, he had little enough to do, and this was the nearest thing available to him which made him feel as though he was earning his keep under Doc’s roof.

Deborah wasn’t sure why she was doing this. It wasn’t just out of friendship, and it certainly wasn’t because she believed that either language was real. She wasn’t even sure what she thought of Malina’s story, despite what she’d seen. Yet in a way, she felt caught up in something much larger than herself, something indefinable that she had to see her way through.

Deborah had been a dancer since she ran away from home at fourteen. Like many girls in her situation, she had managed to obtain fake I.D., and if the clubs she and her friends worked in knew her true age, they were silent about it. She was eighteen now, though she felt twice that age sometimes.

The girls her age seldom, if ever, spoke of their past. Perhaps equally significant was the unspoken jealous camaraderie which existed between them, often in spite of their reckless lifestyle, and the ugly social conflicts which were commonly experienced in their trade, whether it was a brush with a law that was not designed to serve and protect them, or an encounter with the predacious types who stalked such young women.

Deborah knew much about such predators, as did her sisters, as they often referred to each other. It was in avoiding and dealing with such people that girls like herself inadvertently came into contact with each other, banding together for their own protection. As often as not, these very men were the club owners the girls had to work for. Or they might be friends of the owner, who were often drug-dealers, pimps, and bikers.

In Deborah’s case, it was through her own parents that she had learned to be wary of such people. Her mother was a politician, her father a well-to-do businessman, and in their home they subjected Deborah to perverse ritualized parodies of that which they practiced on the general public during the course of their professional lives.

Their abuse had begun when she was ten; she could remember all of it in every minute detail, right down to smells, the weather, the temperature outside and the date. It was as immediate to her as though it had occurred only moments ago, and the pain of it was like a raw nerve which underlay everything she was, undermining her life in every imaginable way and at every turn, and dogging her feelings with the constant promise of irremediable pain, should ever she allow her thoughts to stray there, the way one’s tongue might inadvertently explore a sore tooth.

This was the true reason that she could never form a lasting relationship with Ralph. When they were first together, being with him had lulled her into feeling safe, comfortable, and secure. But the unresolved struggle taking place within her would then assert itself, opportunistically taking advantage the moment her guard was down, assaulting her senses with horrible memories and feelings that tainted and dogged every corner of her life at every turn. The price of her experiences was that she could not help but feel that her sense of safety and comfort automatically became a setup for betrayal, to lure her into letting her guard down. In this way, security became a subtle trap, where she would make a commitment to someone, only to find herself smothering from the lack of freedom that came with making commitments; not personal freedom, but rather freedom from the consequences of her own mangled feelings.

No, it was best to leave such things alone altogether. To not think about them. Better to party and dance and drink all night, before falling into an exhausted and dreamless slumber . . . a state of being where her personal demons, too, were rendered insensate.

This much she and her friends had in common. And though she and her friends never spoke directly about the things that had affected their lives, still they had a saying: Even cannibals don’t eat their own young.

Before Ralph, she had had two relationships; one with a truck driver nearly twenty years her senior, who, when they moved in together, had beat her senseless and terrorized her for half a year. The other had lasted only a couple of weeks. He was a smooth-talking type that tried getting her hooked on drugs, intending, she later found out, to turn her into a prostitute.

She had known Ralph since she was eight; her eldest brother and Ralph were in the same grade in school. They were not friends. Eddie used to beat up on Deborah, until he tried it in front of Ralph.

Ralph had not beat up on Eddie. He simply took Eddie aside, and said about three words to him. Eddie had turned very pale, and glared at Deborah as though he would have liked to kill her. But he never laid a hand on her again.

Life was full of strange little twists of fate. When Eddie quit high-school in grade ten he got married and went to work as a bouncer in a sleazy bar in a big city. He was killed three months later, trying to stop a fight between two patrons, one of them armed with a knife. His wife never attended his funeral, telling Deborah’s family that he had beat her, and that she was terrified of him.

Besides her sisters, it wasn’t until Deborah met Malina that she had any real friends besides Ralph. In truth, she loved Ralph, and had since she was a child. It was a lasting source of puzzlement and disappointment to her that, as good as things were between them, she could never seem to keep it together enough to stay with him. And yet . . . and yet, somewhere deep inside, that warm spot she had for him remained unchanged. It was funny in a way, because he had always complained that his life had never gone anywhere; “Stuck right here in the same old place,” he was often heard to say, resignedly. She, however, was glad of this, for the simple fact that he was always there. And she was terrified of losing him, for he had been her only anchor, her only source of comfort, like a single mote of clarity set in the middle of the otherwise confusing and distorted chaos of her life.

She had been so very lucky when Malina came into their life, for in Malina she had found someone who looked up to her, who needed her, who made her reach deep down inside for qualities she hadn’t dared hope would ever develop, given the emotionally stunted condition of her maimed spirit. There was even a hardness, an unwillingness to Malina’s trust where outsiders were concerned, which had somehow deepened the bond between them.

All of this had happened in spite of the fact that Deborah’s initial reaction to Malina’s presence, when she had first met her at Murphy’s, was to feel threatened, fearful, jealous, and bitter. This impression softened the instant she saw Malina’s wounded condition; for an instant their eyes had locked, and in that frozen moment of time, Deborah had a sudden insight, a sort of empathic look into Malina’s being. Malina, too, had suffered. Had endured. Had been tested beyond her limits. Had broken, yet somehow managed to survive, limping along through life like a bird with an irreparably broken wing; left to ponder her survival, unable to decide whether it was a curse that she must live as she did, or a miracle that she had survived at all. Deborah well knew that Malina, like her, found the distinction a fine one, and that she, too, in her way, was often left wondering if there was really any difference at all.

Deborah found that she loved Malina, all the more so because Malina had somehow brought her closer to Ralph, instead of coming between them. Maybe Malina couldn’t really do magic, but she had certainly brought a little magic into all their lives, Ralph’s, Doc, and Deborah’s, by bringing them all together, providing them with a sense of belonging, and dispelled the emptiness which had been dragging them down by unmeasurably slow but cumulative increments, each into their own private and barren solitude. To Deborah’s mind, it felt as though some evil force were sucking the life out of them, and she often wished that it could be made to manifest itself, so that she could fight back, or at the least evade its cloying presence.

It was August . . . one month before Malina expected Pran to come for her. She was sitting on a blanket in the back yard, watching a kaleidoscope of butterflies, hummingbirds and insects flit and dart about Doc’s flower-garden. She had just finished doing the laundry, which now billowed from the clothesline like sails in a steady breeze. The air smelled of bright summer sunshine, and clean white linen.

She was much changed from the mischievous little Pixie who lived in an obscure corner of the Elven Kingdom. Her heart was no longer wild nor free. She found that she dreaded Pran’s return more with each passing day. She felt it in her soul that the Elf Kingdom was no longer her home, and she wanted no connection with her past to interfere with her new life.

Yet she was deeply torn in this desire. Magic had been such a large part of her life . . . before coming to this world, she would have said that it was all of her life.

“One does not need magic to live,” Pran had told her.

At the time, she could not have imagined the truth in those words. But her present circumstances, and her torn feelings towards a Man she hardly knew told her otherwise.

As she sat there, an unbidden memory came to her; that of an old Elf-merchant named Finli, a Pixie-friend who passed by Malina’s home often, driving his brightly painted wagon drawn by its team of enormous dray horses. If she pulled some small prank on him (which he fully expected, knowing full-well where she lived), he would laugh and say, ‘All right, Malina, I know you’re there! Come and show yourself, or you’ll get nothing from me today.’ He always had a little wine and a few sweetmeats for her. They would sit together on the wagon’s bench and talk and laugh.

Oddly enough, she remembered one conversation in particular. It was shortly before her expulsion from the Elf Kingdom. She was sitting with Finli, being unusually quiet and thoughtful.

Finli had said, ‘What, something the matter miss?’

She had shrugged. ‘I’m not sure. It’s so beautiful here, with the sight and the sound and the smell of the forest all around us . . . but it feels so . . . so distant sometimes . . . or maybe it’s me, like I don’t really belong here.

‘I mean, I try to think about the Dance of Life, and having a Pixie daughter of my own some day . . . raising her here in the forest as my mother did me . . . but I find myself unable to imagine such things.’

At the time, she had blamed the Elves for these moods, thinking that their Lore had somehow damaged the Balance, or that they had caused the Earth Mother some mortal harm, putting and end to the Dance of Life, and all the other rites of Nature.

She had good reason to harbour such beliefs, as when she overheard the evil Prince Cir speaking with one of his captains as they rode at the head of a column of soldiers through the forest near her home. The Prince was suspicious of the captain, because this same captain had been known to consort with Pixies from time to time, and openly opposed any attempt to interfere with their lives.

‘. . . I think you had better rethink the matter, captain Birin. That is a serious admission.’

Smiling, to show he didn’t take the Prince seriously, the Captain replied, ‘As you well know, Pixies are not considered subjects of the Crown, and as such cannot be considered to be enlisted, nor can their conduct be seen as being representative of members of the Elf Kingdom. They cannot, therefore, be subject to punishment where duty is concerned, because they have none.

‘They care nothing for affairs of State, nor of the doings of Elves in general. To the best of my knowledge, they have always occupied these lands which we now call our own. I don’t see that they owe us any allegiance, nor do I think that we have the right to interfere with their lives to a greater extent than we do already.’

‘Circumstances have changed,’ the Prince replied. ‘The lands that are now Elf Kingdom are not as they once were, for we have changed them, shaped them to suit our wants, stopped the very Seasons in Their course, banishing winter and storm, and drought and famine. We have wrested from this place a world of our own making, suitable to our needs and our desires. Not theirs! Why do you not face the truth, captain Birin? Their world and their time upon this Earth is gone forever, at least where the Elf Kingdom is concerned. If they wish to remain on our land, then they must abide by our laws, or face the consequences.’

Birin, who was becoming angry, clenched his teeth and sighed. ‘You well know that they will not. They cannot be made to understand the need.’

‘Then they must die!’ the Prince said with quiet vehemence. ‘If they have no place in this world, then they should leave it, willingly or no.’

‘In other words, hunt them down and murder them,’ Birin muttered, unable to conceal his disgust. ‘It would seem, then, that there is some truth to the rumour of such atrocities.’

‘Only a traitor would think to thwart the will of the King in this matter,’ Cir told him. ‘It is His will that our lands be rid of these vermin.’

A dangerous silence came over Birin and his soldiers then.

‘Have a care whom you call a traitor!’ said Captain Birin. ‘I have served the King well and faithfully for over fifteen years. Many soldiers in this company could say as much. But even before my Sovereign, my allegiance is to Justice and to Reason, and as you well know, we have all sworn an oath to that effect. No mortal, not even if he be a King, is above justice, my Prince. We are all of us sworn to protect the innocent. Is this not so?’

‘The innocent!’ The Prince said, creasing his face in disgust. ‘Do not equate those vermin with-’

‘I can and I do,’ said Birin quietly. ‘I speak from certain knowledge and from experience. And I uphold the Law, to the letter.’

‘The Law, as you conceive it, will soon change,’ the Prince told him. ‘Soon you will serve the King only. And me.’

‘If you are suggesting,’ Birin replied, ‘that I be forced to choose between Justice and the King-’

‘You fail to understand me,’ the Prince told him with a condescending smirk which he must have fancied to be a smile. ‘You will be given no choice in the matter, except to serve your Sovereign, or accept the consequences.’

Birin went very pale. But not from fear. ‘If such a law is passed,’ he told the Prince, ‘both low and high alike will greatly rue the day.’

‘Those are empty words,’ said the Prince.

‘We shall see,’ Birin had replied.

Her reverie was broken by approaching heavy footsteps, and a large form that sat down near to her, causing her heart to quicken. Swallowing, she kept her gaze averted, though all of her attention was keenly attuned to that which she pretended to ignore.

At last, clearing his throat uncomfortably, he broke the silence.

‘Isn’t that Pran character supposed to be coming soon?’

She nodded, her face pale, prompting him to ask, ‘Is something the matter?’

Though the air was warm enough, she began trembling slightly. Trying to keep her voice steady, she said, ‘I afraid . . . of have to go back.’

‘I know. You’ve told us already.’

Thinking of how she felt about him, she sighed impatiently. ‘Rowf hear words . . . but not know. And back in my home, things getting . . . bad.’

He had to think about this a moment. ‘You mean, things back where you tell us you came from?’

She nodded. ‘Eff king. He getting bad things.’

Ralph mulled this over. ‘You mean doing bad things?’

She nodded again. ‘He making die Pixie. Making bad Eff.’

She felt him stiffen. ‘What do you mean, “killing pixies”? And what do you mean, “making bad elf”?’ For some reason, her words conveyed vague visions of some out-of-control regime in Eastern Europe and the atrocities of “ethnic cleansing” came unbidden to his mind.

Steeling herself, she replied, ‘Eff King not liking Pixie. Eff King not liking Eff who . . . Pixie friend. Eff King not liking . . . nice Eff.’

Mulling this over, trying to ask her questions without contradicting her story, he said, ‘Is Pran a bad elf or a nice elf?’

‘Pran nice,’ she said without hesitation.

‘But the King makes him do bad things?’

She shook her head. ‘Pran not do bad.’

‘But Pran may try to take you back.’

She shrugged. ‘Pran may take back, but . . . I do not think he make Pixie to die.’

‘Well, what if the Elf King told Pran to take you back and he didn’t?’

She wasn’t exactly sure if she understood him correctly. ‘Rowf mean if Pran . . . not do what King say?’

‘Yes.’

There was a note of fear in her voice as she replied, ‘Eff King make Pran to die, maybe?’

‘Maybe,’ said Ralph in a low voice, ‘Mr. Elf King should be made to die.’

Malina was shocked. ‘Rowf not making bad joke!’

Surprised at her reaction, he said, ‘Why not?’

Nearly in tears, she replied, ‘Malina not want Eff King to make Rowf to die. Rowf not understand. You one Rowf. Eff King have it big army.’

Though he had merely been attempting to humour her, something of the import of her words finally sank into his mind. Of course, for a King to be a King he had to have a Kingdom, and that meant . . . that the place Malina believed she was from would be like going to a strange country, with lots of strange people and strange customs. He had not pictured this clearly before. He had pictured Pran and the Elf King as individuals with whom he could deal.

He had a sinking feeling that maybe he and the others were out of their depth. Ralph didn’t share Doc’s certainty that Malina was suffering from some sort of delusion, or that she was simply a runaway from another country. He knew Malina too well to discount her story. And as far as “magic” was concerned . . . Ralph had seen magicians before. They used slight of hand, deceptions that were fairly obvious, and tricks that anyone could figure out and master if they put their mind to it. But what Malina had done could only be called real magic. Nothing was hidden from view, or cleverly substituted. Ralph found that, until proven otherwise, he was willing, at the least, to accept the possibility of truth in Malina’s story, whatever Doc’s reservations.

As they sat in the sun, he took note of what Deborah had told him many times, that Malina was very much attracted to him, and having a hard time dealing with her feelings. Most of the time he avoided the girl, hoping that her infatuation would pass. Instead, he could tell that, if anything, it was getting worse, was visibly wearing her down. Not liking the feeling that he was the cause, however unwittingly, of her emotional pain, he decided to try to come to some sort of understanding with her, which was why he was here with her now.

‘Malina, there’s something I feel we should discuss. Something that I’ve been putting off for some time.’ She didn’t react, except to become very still, staring ahead unseeingly, waiting for him to continue. ‘Deborah tells me that . . . well . . . she thinks you’re in love with me.’

Malina swallowed and went very pale. He could see that she trembled slightly, and suddenly realized it was not from their discussion of conditions in her homeland.

‘Deborah talk too much sometimes,’ she said with uncharacteristic sharpness, her voice shaking.

‘I just want to know if its true. If it is, you should tell me, instead of keeping your feelings bottled up. To be honest, I’m getting tired of seeing you hurt yourself this way.’

‘Is my hurt,’ she told him, defensively. Then, something in her seemed to wither, and she looked down and muttered, ‘What Deborah say is true. I want . . . but it is something I cannot help. I not sure if love is right word for what I to feel. But I hurt inside, all the time. I feel like . . . is big ache, where instead-’ She reddened at making this admission- ‘is empty inside, and though I not to understand, what I want is for you to be . . . inside and outside my . . . my being? And . . . I want you to feel for me . . . as I do for you.’

As he listened, he felt stung by guilt, pity and remorse. But when she finished, he said, ‘You know that Deborah and I . . . we have, or used to have, a relationship.’

‘She say is no more!’ Malina blurted, belying more raw emotion than reason.

Ralph sighed, frustrated. ‘Malina, Deborah doesn’t know that for sure! She has problems with her own feelings. Can you understand that? She likes to think that she’s in control, or that she’s made certain decisions that she’s going to live by, but it . . . well . . . in the end, it just never seems to work that way.

‘Look, it probably is over between Deborah and me. I think it has been for some time now. It could be that something will develop between you and me. All I’m saying is, give it time. Who knows?’ he added with a smile, ‘Maybe one day, something will happen to bring the two of us together, and we’ll live happily ever after.’

A matter of days ago, after Deborah had spoken to Ralph on Malina’s behalf, Malina had pressed her until she told the girl everything, including a criticism by Ralph that Malina had much growing to do. At present, on the surface as she listening to Ralph’s words, Malina didn’t react. He had given her much to think about where Deborah was concerned. But within, hope rekindled within her like joy. Now that she knew what to do! She would learn! She would give up everything that she was, do everything in her power to prepare herself for becoming . . . what?

This was always the point in her musings where things became hopelessly confusing. She wanted Rowf to accept her into his life. But what was she to be to him? At present, she was little more than a burden. Deborah had told her that Rowf was the sort of person who needed a mate and children and stability.

Deborah had told her that here, in this world, there were no Outcast babies and their ostracized parents. Mixed marriages were not uncommon. At the mall, more than once Deborah had pointed out such people and their children as evidence.

But the way that beings without magic made babies! The mere though sent an unpleasant tingle of fear and apprehension down her spine. All that touching, and when the time came, all that pain!

She shuddered.

The pain, at least, she could understand. But the touching! Pixies were sensitive to the touch of another in a way that went far beyond mere physical sensation. When the Man named Rory had taken her by the waist, from that instant she was unable to do anything but go where her feelings took her, feelings which at that moment were entirely in his hands. Refusal was neither an option nor a choice to be aware of or made under such circumstances.

If Deborah had known it, or had wished it, when the two girls lay together in bed, Deborah herself could pretty much have done anything she wanted to Malina.

With a sinking feeling, Malina realized that somehow this would have to change, that she would have to gain some measure of control over the way she reacted when coming close to people.

But when in Rowf’s presence, control was the furthest thing from her mind.

Doc Wallace had a well-earned reputation for being cautious and sceptical. He had also displayed an uncanny ability to diagnose, while still a young resident. His gut instinct, coupled with a tenacious drive to seek out the truth, had nearly landed him a career as a pathologist.

But the young James Irving Wallace had little use for city people and city life. As a child in a small farm town, born just before the Great Depression, he had experienced the shift from rural to city life. This experience convinced him that it was unnatural and destructive, to the point of becoming wholesale incest, meaning that people living in a city were concerned with city life to the exclusion of all else. And he felt himself being caught up in something he found unspeakably ugly . . . a place where the slow turning of the seasons had all but died, being hidden from view for no good reason. The land which should have been fertile and green was buried under concrete, the air choked with filth.

When he had completed his internship, he had returned to the small town where he was born, and went to work as a family practitioner instead.

To his lasting dismay, especially after the war, he began to feel the presence of the life he had left, stalking the rural life he pursued like an evil juggernaut. Small towns sickened and died, withering from the sickness that had spread from major metropolitan centers like a cancer. Small farms vanished, along with their familiar homes, and the faces of people he knew.

You could drive for miles now without ever seeing a farmhouse. The owners often lived hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles away. Instead of weather-beaten pickup trucks full of friendly familiar faces and dusty work clothes, one saw souped-up impractical vehicles driven by rude louts, pseudo-mafioso sunglasses, suits and car-phones, and phony-baloney “cowboy boots” made of exotic and expensive materials, with shiny steel-capped toes, that would never step in a cowpie, or become worn by a stirrup . . . boots that the pants were pulled over as a “fashion statement”, as useless and foolishly decorative as a necktie.

When Doc Wallace met Malina, and as he got to know her, his trust in his own instincts was taxed to the limit. He couldn’t explain why, but he knew that she was tied in to these same feelings somehow. But his ideas on the subject, and his suspicions, he kept to himself.

That evening at supper, when Ralph told Doc Wallace what Malina had said about the state of affairs in the Elf Kingdom, the doctor was silent for a long time. While he mulled things over, Deborah said, ‘I thought elves were supposed to be . . . like noble or something.’

‘According to Malina, that’s just in fairy tales,’ said Ralph with an ambiguous smile. ‘These are real elves we’re talking about.’

‘So why would they be killing pixies?’ she asked. ‘Malina, why didn’t you tell us this before?’

‘You did not ask,’ she replied, trying to unscrew the lid off the mint jelly the wrong way. ‘Just about things.’ Ralph was about to help her when she remembered, and twisted the top off with a triumphant smirk, making the others chuckle.

Doc had recently hit upon the theory that Malina was probably from a poor, isolated member of the East Bloc. That might very well account for both her physiology and her languages. Pran was probably a real person from whom she had escaped. She might very well have been a mail-order bride who had been abused. She might also have been brought over with other young women like herself as slave-labour. Until Pran showed up, however, he decided to humour her.

‘So the elves are killing people without reason?’ Doc said suddenly to Malina.

‘Oh, they make reason,’ she replied, chasing a cherry tomato around her plate with her fork, finally using the fingers of her other hand to trap the wayward fruit so that she could spear it. ‘But they not to make sense. Just to take everything. Like locusts.’ Though she still had difficulty pronouncing the letter “l”, she had gotten around this by using a sound that was somewhere between an “l” and a “y”.

Doc smiled. ‘It doesn’t sound like a very good place.’

Malina’s sudden guarded and noncommittal shrug, though quiet and subtle, got their attention more than if she had shouted at them. Growing uncomfortable under their scrutiny, avoiding eye-contact, she almost decided not to respond.

In the silence which followed, she had been about to start on her lemon-pudding dessert along with the others, but in the same moment deciding to break her silence.

‘It . . . good wrong word. But . . . is alive place. They all things have voice; maybe we not to understand, but to . . . to hear is enough to know things.’ She gestured in frustration. ‘This place, I hear no voices. Perhaps for other ears, maybe. But in my home, moon and stars, wind and sky, brook and pond and forest . . . all things . . . to be alive.’

Doc was lost in thought for a moment, then remarked on the similarity to local native beliefs.

Malina was intrigued by this. ‘They . . . they make magic?’

‘Not that I’ve ever seen,’ Doc told her. ‘For them, like us, it’s just the stuff of myth and legend. You know . . . very old stories.’

Malina looked disappointed, but said, ‘Maybe was not always so. Maybe they lose magic?’

‘I guess I’m just a born sceptic,’ Doc told her, ‘but I think that there never was any magic. Only stories.’

‘But what about the moth and the wasp?’ Deborah asked. ‘I mean, we watched her do it.’

‘Yes, well, if she managed it with an inanimate object, then I’d be more inclined to believe her,’ Doc said quietly.

At Doc’s remark, Malina looked up in alarm. Seeing that the others had noticed, she said, ‘Can make . . . not alive thing to alive. Elves sometimes to do this . . . but . . . is very bad thing to do.’

Deborah was fascinated by this line of talk. ‘Why is it a bad thing to do?’

Malina actually looked afraid as she replied, ‘Earth Mother make all things . . . to be what they are. But . . . no one understanding . . . for Her to make Eff, for they not listen to Her. Make trouble. Make big power. They to . . . look where eyes not meant to see.’ In a quiet, fearful voice, she added, ‘They sometimes to . . . to change themselves.’

There was something ominous which underlay what she was telling them.

‘How do you mean?’ Doc asked her.

For a long moment she was at a loss for words. Eventually, she decided to plunge ahead.

‘All things made to be . . . as they are. But some Eff not satisfied. Eff King want Big Power, but he is not wise like Earth Mother. Earth Mother do for everyone. But Eff King do only for . . . for himself and other Eff.’ Even as she said this, it was obvious that she doubted her own words. After a moment, she said slowly, ‘I think Eff King maybe do only for himself. Some say he . . . to find way to live forever.’ She shrugged. ‘Some Eff to say to little ones . . . of Eff who no believe. I think is of Eff King they say.’

Doc smiled. Ignoring these last words which seemed to make little or no sense, referring to the elf King’s quest for immortality, he said, ‘I see nothing wrong with that. People have always wanted eternal life.’

Malina frowned as if Doc had missed the point.

‘Life already eternal. But change is . . . part of to be alive. Eff King not liking change. Change mean that one day Big Power be gone. But Big Power is big problem. Big Power should not be. Earth Mother is Big Power too, but she to . . . to share with all living things. Eff King does not share. Malina knows this. Eff King is big thief who take everything. Even life.’

To Doc’s mind, what she said only reinforced his belief that she was from an impoverished country, probably a dictatorship with some form of caste society. Even Pran’s name reinforced this suspicion, because of the proximity of the East Bloc to the Orient, where Pran was a common name.

‘What story were you talking about?’ Deborah asked her, prompting Doc to do a double take, realising that he’d missed something.

Malina’s smile was that of an older child who is no longer taken in by magician’s tricks, who looks somewhat smugly at her more credulous companions, and tries subsequently to show adults that she is now fully grown up, oblivious to their rueful smiles.

‘They to say that, once was Eff who did not believe in things. He to not believe . . . made them to not be . . . to fade away.’

As was often the case, Deborah, finding herself having to work at figuring out what Malina was trying to say as she spoke, said, ‘You mean that, in the story, if he didn’t believe in something, then it would cease to exist?’

Malina, having her own difficulties with language, mulled over “exist” until she remembered its meaning, then nodded.

‘So? What happened?’ Deborah prompted.

‘Is long story,’ Malina replied diffidently, not enthused with the prospective task of making a prolonged speech. ‘And I am not good at telling.’ But this in such a way as to make it clear that she would continue, regardless. After a moment’s consideration, she said, ‘In . . . time? In time long past, was Eff who stop to believe in things, so they to disappear. But story is . . . is complicated. Is about ne- negect-’

‘Neglect?’ Deborah tried. After a moment’s consideration, Malina nodded.

‘Neglect,’ she said, with some difficulty. ‘Is also about . . . to betray, but not on purpose. Is also about . . . not one’s fault . . . to not believe. Sometimes cannot be help.’ She shrugged, frustrated with the language barrier, her inability to communicate ideas, or both. With a wry smile, she said, ‘My to explain, is to make your . . . to understand . . . more bad, each time I to say more.’

Doc mentioned reflectively that such themes were common in old fairy tales; even in a few old science-fiction stories he had once read. He gave a quick synopsis of one such tale, and when he finished, Malina was prompted to say, ‘So you have heard this tale before!’

To her incomprehension, Doc and the others were prompted to laughter by this.

They then discussed various matters that concerned them, coming last of all to Malina, who told them that, according to her, at least, Pran would be coming soon, within a few days. She assured Doc that Pran would be coming alone, but that he might be armed.

Doc advised Ralph and Deborah that he meant to be prepared for Pran’s arrival. The day was coming, he assured them, when they could finally put this matter to rest.

Chapter 9

Reality

There can be danger in dreams,

even for the innocent.’

It was early in the afternoon, on a day late in September. The sun was still high overhead, and white cumulous clouds drifted sedately across a clear blue sky, though the air in Doc’s back yard was incongruously still.

They were standing on the back lawn, facing south, waiting. Malina seemed confident of Pran’s arrival, and assured her companions that the elf would appear within the hour.

Deborah felt a bit foolish, noticing that the bunch of them looked as though they were waiting for the arrival of an imaginary bus, and said so. Malina smiled in response, but Ralph avoided her look, anticipating Malina’s possible humiliation if the person she expected didn’t show. Doc showed no reaction, his attention elsewhere. His eyes were on the road, watching for a telltale plume of dust. Resting in the crook of his arm was “Betsy”, his scattergun. Malina thought this the most awkward sort of club she had ever seen, and doubted that it would be much use against a sword, though she doubted that Pran would attack the old Healer.

At last, Malina told them that the appointed time was imminent. At her direction, they arranged themselves in a semicircle. In the center stood Malina, looking openly worried now, with Ralph and Doc to her left and Deborah to her right. The others began to feel something too, now; there was a charged expectancy in the air, like just before a thunderstorm . . .

A ripple appeared before them, as though the air was being folded in on itself. A vaguely coloured shape, reflected off invisible surfaces, looked as though it was moving towards them, though the ripple itself moved not at all. And then, suddenly growing distinct, a solid form stepped out from between the folds . . . the exact method was confusing to the senses. He was dressed in dark green hose and an earth-coloured brown jacket made of some sort of homespun material. Both were obviously designed for travel; they were of good quality, and much worn, as were his long boots of supple red-brown leather. He was nearly as tall as Ralph, though more slender of build. His short hair was a dark brown that was almost black, his eyes grey. He had a soldier’s face, if that could be said of someone. But his bearing was stern and commanding, without an overt attempt on his part to make it so, and he bore an air of easy and well-accustomed authority. It was difficult to judge his age . . . he may have been an old twenty or a young forty.

Ralph, Doc, and Deborah, could only hold their breath and gape. The Elf, apparently not expecting their presence, paused and gave each of them a gauging look in turn. When he came lastly to Malina, he said with gentle irony, in the Elvish tongue, ‘So, Malina, from appearances you seem to have fared not at all badly, though your choice of friends comes somewhat as a surprise to me.’

‘Pran,’ she pleaded, ‘please tell me I don’t have to go back.’

For an instant, the Elf was unable to conceal his surprise at her words, but said, sardonically, ‘I am almost tempted to stay here myself, for there has been much trouble. The Prince has long forgotten the matter of your sentencing; it was to him a small matter, to his mind not worth his continued notice. Nevertheless, I came because you were promised the choice to return if you wished; I would not be made a liar of, no matter what the Prince wills.’

For a giddy instant, when the elf made his appearance, Doc thought that he would faint. The incongruously amusing thought of a cartoon character rubbing his eyes in disbelief came unbidden to his mind, and he felt like doing the same, and had to stifle a nervous laugh. But no matter how he would like to rationalize, there was no denying the elf’s very real presence, or the manner of his sudden appearance.

Setting the gun down against the rail to the back stairs, stepping forward, and back into the moment, Doc said, in Elvish, ‘Are you Pran, the person Malina tells us sent her here?’

Pran raised an eyebrow in surprise. ‘Has Malina taught you this Elvish tongue?’

Doc nodded, noting Pran’s referral to his own language.

Pran gave Malina an appraising look. ‘When I sent you here, I confess that I greatly feared for your safety. You were rendered helpless, and you were hopelessly naïve. It gladdens me that good, rather than the intended ill, has come of your being exiled.

‘But to answer your question,’ he said, returning his attention to the doctor, ‘yes, my name is Pran, and I did send Malina to your world.’

‘May I ask why?’ Doc said.

The Elf took a moment to consider his words.

‘In truth, we who contrived to send her here, did so hoping that in so doing, her life would be spared. She was in imminent danger, as are many who oppose our King. However, as of late, many more are coming forward in open opposition to our Monarch, with the result that the Elf Kingdom is divided. For this reason, and for many others, there may soon be civil war. Many have died already, who should have lived out their lives in peace. Perhaps Malina has already told you of the persecution and murder of her kindred?

‘And, if this trouble was not sufficient, I believe that the Lore of my Elven kindred may be leading many far astray from exercising good judgement in these matters; though I very much doubt this conveys anything of the import of the matter to your mind. Having said that, might I enquire as to your interest?’

‘My interest?’ said the doctor. For a moment he was at a loss for words. This was not at all what he had been expecting. Trying to make sense of what he had seen, he said, ‘What did you just do? I mean, how did you just appear like that?’

‘Much time would pass before I could fully make explanation,’ the Elf told him. ‘Even so, I very much doubt that you would believe anything that I might tell you. The Laws of your world do not harbour the kind of magic that exists in mine.’

‘You’re telling me that you came here by magic?’ Doc said.

‘I am,’ Pran replied.

‘Can you prove it?’ Doc asked him.

The Elf raised an eyebrow. ‘What further proof other than my appearance do you require? If you doubt the existence of magic, then no proof will suffice.’

Ever the sceptic, Doc said, ‘There is one way. Take me to your world.’

The Elf appeared slightly amused. ‘In my world, you would find yourself much out of place, as Malina was in yours. There is no reason to concern yourself with my world.’

‘That isn’t true,’ Doc said, with a note of authority in his voice the others had never heard before. ‘We became concerned the moment you sent Malina here.’ He introduced himself, Deborah, and Ralph. ‘Malina survived here,’ he continued, ‘only because Ralph, Deborah, and I, made ourselves responsible for her welfare. As far as that goes, since Malina was eventually able to find her way in our world, I have no reason to believe that we would be unable to find our way in yours.’

Frowning, the Elf pondered Doc’s words a moment. ‘What you say is true,’ he said slowly, ‘but it seems to me that this is not the true reason you wish to come to my world. I sense something behind your words other than that which you are telling me. I would know what it is, before making a decision.’

Doc’s smile was complex. ‘All right. To put it succinctly, this is our world. Sending Malina here was both an ill-advised and illegal imposition. If Ralph hadn’t taken her in when he did, or if no one had found her, she would have died of exposure. As well, for the past year, the three of us have been keeping her presence hidden from the authorities. People living in this country must, by law, carry some form of identification, stating that they have a legal right to reside here, otherwise they are deported. There is not a country in this world where this law does not apply. In Malina’s case, if the authorities had got hold of her, she would have been in serious trouble.

‘To make matters worse, she is different from us. The medical people of this world would have discovered this, eventually, and she would have become the subject of study, both by them and by the government. If that had happened . . . you have no idea what a nightmare her life would have become!

‘Now, as far as the three of us are concerned, we have, with Malina, become something of an extended family. What affects her now very much concerns us.’

Looking surprised, perhaps even admonished, the Elf replied, ‘I must take a little time to consider. This is not an easy matter. And I should warn you about accompanying her; wanting a thing is not the same as having a thing. You little know what you ask.’

Pran bore little resemblance to what Deborah had pictured as an elf. Until he appeared to them, she really didn’t believe there was such a thing, or that he’d come at all. Her first impression of him was that he looked like a cop; an impression that automatically evoked in her feelings of distrust, fear, and hostility. But after reassessing her first impression, it became clear that his presence opened up a whole new world of possibilities for her.

He radiated self-possession, competence, self-assuredness, solidity, and a dozen other qualities she couldn’t put a name to. Yet there was nothing overbearing or condescending about him that she could detect, nor did he seem judgemental in the least, despite his appearance and his words. When he had glanced at her once or twice, she had felt as transparent as glass. Or like she had no clothes on, a fact that had brought out feelings of shame like she hadn’t felt since she was a little girl.

She knew now that she had to go to Malina’s world, if she could. Maybe Doc wanted to prove to himself that there really was such a thing as magic, but her needs were more personal. She desperately wanted back her sense of self-worth. She couldn’t explain why, but she knew that Malina’s world could give her back her life.

When Ralph saw Pran for the first time, his feelings became hopelessly tangled. Once he got past his initial surprise, he soon realised with certainty that they were all hopelessly out of their depth, and that Malina was much more than she appeared to be, though no one suspected this more than he. In the face of the Elf’s very real presence, he was forced to choke down pangs of misgiving and inadequacy. He could tell that Pran was not the type of person you could make demands of. He was either willing to help you or he wasn’t, and you had better just accept whatever answer he was willing to give.

All he knew with any certainty was that his friends were determined to go to Malina’s world, and that Malina was more than she appeared to be. At once, the sense that he owed it to the young woman to visit her world overrode all else.

‘Owe it to her?’ he thought to himself, trying to sort out his feelings. Laying there before him in plain sight amongst the chaotic scattering of intangibles was an unfamiliar emotion that he fully understood, and for a time, he found himself staring uncomprehendingly at his own feeling of responsibility towards the young woman, wondering how it came to be there, or what its existence might portend.

Pran had glanced at Ralph only once, and Ralph saw a look of approval in the Elf’s eyes that had touched parts of him he had thought gone with his childhood.

Pran came inside for a while, accepting Doc’s hospitality and noting the house’s appliances with some private amusement. But he spent the better part of the afternoon walking alone about Doc’s property, taking stock of the house, the garden, the small farm, and the emptiness that surrounded it. At one point he outstretched his hand, and a hummingbird lit on his finger. Stroking the tiny creature softly, speaking to it in a quiet voice, he approached the others where they sat now, on the back veranda.

‘What manner of bird is this?’ he asked them. ‘I have never seen its like.’

Not showing his surprise, Doc replied, ‘It’s what we call a hummingbird. Used to be thousands of them.’

Taking in Doc’s property with a gesture, Pran said, ‘You created this place for the benefit of such wildlife?’

‘Partly,’ Doc replied. ‘Mostly I do it in the hope that what little is left that’s good here doesn’t vanish entirely.’

Pran sent the hummingbird on its way with a movement of his hand that seemed almost formal. He then turned and looked squarely at Doc, apparently having reached a decision, and said, ‘I cannot refuse one who so values life, regardless of the cost to himself. But nor can I answer for the consequences if you accompany me, for I am not Master of the world I live in. Is it still your wish to accompany me?’

Doc didn’t hesitate. ‘It is.’

Turning to Deborah, Pran said, ‘You have conceived a desire to come as well. It may be that my world has the power to heal your spirit, but the risks are great. It would be useless to try to dissuade you, but be forewarned; you will not be able to recognize yourself with the passage of time.’

To Ralph, he smiled ruefully and said, ‘You have decided to come to my world to find something; but you may find that that something is here, now, overlooked.’ Ralph thought he referred to his relationship with Deborah, but wasn’t entirely certain.

Considering Malina, Pran said, ‘There is much that you could do for your kindred, Malina. Amongst the company of your present friends, the King can no longer pass judgement upon you.’ With a strange glint in his eyes he added, ‘For if the King was to wrong your new-found Human friends, the Men of our world would be full of wrath, and that is not something to be taken lightly. What is your will?’

Uncomfortably, she realised the others were waiting for her to answer. She could stay if she chose . . . and do what? Live here, alone? Yet it was safer for her to choose to stay behind. All she had to do was refuse. But Pixies were dying, and Pran had said that she could help them. How could she refuse to help them? Looking to the others for support, she saw that they would accept any answer she gave.

Yet she was silent for several long moments, torn. How could she go back to her old world, but avoid becoming what she was before?

She already knew the answer, but the prospect terrified her. At last, steeling herself, she said, ‘I will come if you ask it of me. I wish to remain here, but all Faeriekind is in danger. Elves, too, who have been my friends.’ She turned to Doc, Deborah and Ralph, torn. ‘But please understand . . . Pran speaks truly; you do not understand the risks.’

His expression a mixture of surprise and relief, Pran said in a less formal tone, ‘Their minds are set. I understand now why old Finli has long called you his friend. This past year he has greatly missed your presence as he journeys through the wood.’

Malina, close to tears, blurted, ‘Finli! I have missed him too. He was always so kind. I was so afraid he would be hurt because of me.’

Pran’s smile was kind, but behind it there was a hint of potential violence, like a sword that might be drawn in anger. ‘Finli is a friend, and those who would wish harm upon old Finli well know that it is wise not to harm my friends. Besides, he is more powerful than you know, and crafty. All his apparent risks are not without some element of contrivance on his part. Your concern, therefore, is worthy but needless, so on that score at least, you may put your mind at rest.’

They went inside and packed a few necessities. Later, each of them returned carrying a small backpack, Doc bringing his black medical bag as well. Meanwhile, Doc and Ralph had to make a few hasty preparations. Doc called a friend, telling her that he was going on vacation, and asked her to come by to water the plants and feed the cat, and Ralph called his job, telling the man he worked for that he had an urgent family matter to take care of. To his relief, his boss told him that there was no problem, that his son could take over for the time being.

Going to her room, Malina went to the dresser, opened the bottom drawer, and retrieved a carefully wrapped bundle. Inside was her Pixie dress. She opened the bundle briefly, taking a look at what had once been a part of her. ‘How odd,’ she thought, ‘that what was once so familiar to me has been rendered so utterly strange.’

Deliberately, painfully, she carefully rewrapped the dress and replaced it in the bottom of the drawer, feeling as every young woman does when she puts away the things of childhood for the last time.

When it came time to translate them to the other world, Pran stood at the point where he had made his entry, placed an odd-looking object upon the ground, stepped back, and made an arcane gesture.

‘Ware,’ he said, ‘this device, which I have procured at great risk from a Loremaster who is indebted to me, will enable us to pass through to my world but once. Until I am able to procure another, your stay in my world will be irrevocable.’

As before, a fold appeared in the air. Inclining his head to them, indicating that they were to follow him, he stepped into the fold and vanished. Doc followed on his heels, followed by Deborah, Ralph, and Malina. Once through, they found the fold has disappeared behind them, and that they were simply no longer in Doc’s back yard.

They found themselves standing in the middle of a wide meadow. If they had known to look, the sun had moved not at all; in fact, the sky and clouds were much the same. Wildflowers grew in abundance, and at their backs, to the north, rose a tall deciduous forest. The air was untainted by haze or pollution, the light breeze smelled clean and fresh, with a delicate hint of the scent of wildflowers and grass.

Beyond the fields to the south were rolling hills, and in the distance beyond, a low range of mountains which, despite their proximity, appeared as sharply outlined and clear as if they stood only a stone’s throw away.

Just north from where they stood, situated almost under the eaves of the forest, was a small farm, not much larger than Doc’s, towards which Pran began leading them. On the farm were a number of buildings; a barn, several sheds, a granary, a chicken-coop, and four houses. Two of these dwellings were very small and rustic-looking, built of mortared field-stone, with thatched roofs; the next was slightly larger, being made of hewn stone and having a curiously convoluted roof made from wooden shakes; and the last, too was built of hewn stone, though it was roofed with slate tiles, was shuttered, with two chimneys, the smaller of which issued white smoke, which looked strangely incongruous in this rustic setting, as though fire were a newly tamed phenomenon which hadn’t quite yet made its way into the normal scheme of things.

‘This isn’t possible,’ Doc said in an awed voice, speaking for all of them. Taking a long look around, he muttered, ‘It’s like the world was made new again.’ They were surrounded by colours and shapes and smells that appeared at once richer and deeper and more clearly defined than any they had ever known. The meadow about them was thick with many varieties of wildflowers that resembled poppies, columbine, sweet William, daisies, bachelor’s buttons, and snapdragons of every height, hue, and colour. Even the grasses had tiny blooms of lavender and ivory, magenta and turquoise . . .

There was a feeling of majesty about the forest which struck the senses in a way that could only be described as physical, and there was an aura of immediacy about it that left one watching in vain for something obvious to happen. The trees were very tall and straight, their bark a clean, smooth silver grey, their leaves a variegated bright yellow-green, which fluttered shimmeringly when the breeze came up in great waves, their hissing like rain, or a waterfall.

‘This has to be a dream,’ Deborah muttered. The Elf gave her an appraising look, both sharp and veiled, but he said nothing.

As they made their way towards the farm, Doc, Deborah and Ralph continued to look about in wonder. Everything looked simple and familiar enough, and yet seemed to possess an extra dimension; it screamed at the senses from all around them. It wasn’t something that could be put into words exactly; it was just that the place felt . . . well . . . somehow eldritch . . . magical. Everything was more than just alive; it was as though everything was part of a waking dream, being both alive and conscious as though they were one and the same thing on some level.

Malina, too, noticed this fact, as though for the first time. But instead of feeling as though she was returning home, to a place long familiar, she instinctively distrusted it, hanging back, hugging herself, and watching the other’s wonder as though this mood presented some form of danger. Her moment of distraction had caused her to fail to observe the direction they were travelling. When she did finally notice, she stopped dead in her tracks and blurted, ‘Pran, are you taking us to your home?’

Without stopping, the Elf said, ‘I am.’

Still hesitating, she said, ‘I cannot go there!’

‘But you must,’ Pran said. ‘You are going to find that much has changed since you left. And you will need my assistance, at least until your friends become familiar with this place. You especially will need to become reacquainted with our world, because you are . . . no longer equipped to deal with it.’

Finally running to catch up, she said, ‘Why do you say that?’

Eyeing her wryly, he replied, ‘You are not the same carefree Pixie who once had nothing better to do than tempt the wrath of the King’s servants. You are changed; neither your heart nor your spirit is free any longer.’ He didn’t elaborate on what else he thought to be the cause of the change in her. ‘That is not the way of a Pixie.’

To the others, he said, ‘My wife, Theuli, is awaiting my return. You shall be guests in our home.’

Malina blanched. ‘Theuli! She would rather have my head.’

Pran laughed at this. ‘What, for scattering her laundry as it hung out to dry? It was I who took the brunt of her wrath, and merely for finding the episode amusing. You will find that she is as capable of forgiveness.’

When they reached Pran’s house they were greeted by an Elf boy and girl who appeared about twelve and ten. The two children had come running from the animal pens, built in a row beside the house, momentarily neglecting their chores to stare at the strangers in open fascination.

‘This is Zuic, my nephew,’ Pran said, tousling the boys’s hair, ‘and Rani, my daughter,’ adding, with a slightly amused and affectionate expression, ‘They are betrothed by arrangement, and will be married when they come of age.’

The three newcomers were unable to conceal their surprise, but Doc said, ‘Long ago, our people used to marry very young, and often by arrangement. We do not do so any longer, but largely because our lives have become so very complicated.’

Pran nodded in comprehension. ‘Ah . . . in our cities, where there is more to learn, where lives are more complex, and greater duty interferes, the age for marriage is markedly higher. Often the parents do not see fit to consult with their children whether the arrangement is wanted or desirable, except where their own often purely selfish designs are concerned.’

‘That sounds all too familiar,’ Doc commented wryly.

Pran stopped to exchange some words with the children, who were obviously hoping for some excuse to stop what they were doing, but when he left them, they soon returned to their chores with good-natured disappointment. Deborah noticed, with a nebulous feeling of envy, that both children’s feet were bare, their garments simple, loose, and practical; something they could run, tumble, work, and play in, without a thought.

They found Theuli at the rear of the house beside the barn. She was just removing the saddle from a horse’s back. The horse was tan, with a straw-coloured tail and mane, and shook its head spiritedly, wishing to be rid of its bridle. ‘Don’t be so impatient!’ Theuli was saying, ‘I have only two hands.’ When she saw Pran with his guests, she stopped and gave them a measuring look before continuing with what she was doing. Pran went to help her, removing the horse’s bridle and giving it a swat on the rump, sending it off to do what it would.

Theuli deposited the saddle and bridle in the barn, and when she was done there, returned and approached her husband’s guests. She was taller than Deborah, and wore her dark-brown hair long and tied back. She wore what was unmistakeably a riding outfit of some sort, consisting of a quilted blouse, a thigh-length skirt made from overlapping, wide strips of leather, dark green hose, and a loose-fitting and worn pair of dark brown boots made of soft leather. Like Pran, there was a strength and solidity about her that made the others feel somehow diminished.

Malina stood with her heart in her mouth, hanging back, waiting for Theuli to berate her for various past misdeeds, both real and imagined. Instead, the Elf-woman suddenly smiled with unaffected delight. ‘Malina? I hardly recognised you standing there dressed in such strange attire. Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friends?’

Malina was now so used to wearing a comfortable pair of faded blue jeans, embroidered western-style shirt, and her favourite hiking shoes, that she hadn’t given a thought to her odd appearance. She introduced Doc, Deborah and Ralph to Theuli a little nervously.

To Malina’s surprise, Theuli considered the three newcomers with an approving look and said, ‘You are all most welcome in our home. I can’t tell you how relieved I am that this wanton Pixie came to no harm in your world. When Pran told me that the courts had forced her expulsion from the Elf Kingdom, I almost wished he had disobeyed. But come, bring your things and we will see to your lodging.’

Doc bowed to Theuli and replied, ‘You are most gracious. I hope we can repay you in some way.’

Theuli smiled in delight. ‘Malina has taught you our tongue? I would not have credited it! But not to worry, there is work aplenty to do in this household, if you have a will.’

To Malina’s surprise, Ralph asked Theuli, ‘Is that a blacksmith shop I see in the back of your barn?’

‘It was,’ Theuli replied, wondering at his curiosity, ‘but neither Pran nor I, nor any of our few households here know anything of smithing; we purchase such wares in town. I’m afraid the shop has lain idle since my father passed away, and that was several years ago.’

Ralph smiled broadly. ‘Would you mind if I tried making a few things?’

Theuli looked to Pran who asked, ‘Such as?’

Ralph pointed to an old sickle leaning against a fence with a blade that was bent and notched in several places. ‘I can fix things like that. Even make them from scratch if the materials are available. I used to love working in my grandfather’s blacksmith shop when I was younger.’

Ralph knew from the look that Pran and his wife exchanged that he was going to enjoy himself here.

From the outset, Deborah felt like a freeloader, and wondered at the vague sense of purpose she felt even now as she settled herself in.

The inside of the house came as a complete surprise to her, even as a bit of a shock. There were no individual rooms; there was no bathroom or bedrooms, no doors except for the front and back entrances, no separation into different chambers; indeed, there seemed to be no sense of privacy at all. As well, there was no plumbing, nothing that you could call a kitchen. In one corner, along the right side of the back wall to the north, and the north end of the east wall, were six pairs of cribs, one above the other, some of which were filled with clean straw, upon which lay carefully folded linen, blankets, and a pillow each; the beds, she supposed. In one corner of the room, near to an open range upon which sat four large iron kettles, were a number of objects she couldn’t guess the use of; one was a deep wooden tub, perhaps five feet long and two and a half feet deep, the other a chair with porcelain pot set into its base. Another was a stand of some sort, with mirror, large ceramic bowl and jug, and a low bench which stood before. There was also a sort of pedestal sink with hand pump near the range.

On the other side of the room was an ornately carved dressing table with mirror, a set of silver horse-hair brushes, a jewelry box, and low bench. It reminded her very much of a dressing-table her grandmother had owned, when she was very small.

Along the west side of the house was a window with shutters, which opened onto a wide view of the low hills and forest from the west side of the house. She noted that there was no glass in the window, nor in any of the windows for that matter; there was a continual breeze passing through the house, and she couldn’t help but notice that in this house, one didn’t feel disconnected from the outdoors, as one did in the sort of homes that she was used to. It was like being outside, but having a roof over one’s head, all at the same time. ‘It really does feel like a home,’ she thought, considering the heavy wooden beams, the rough wooden walls. The floors, though mostly wooden, were flagged in high-traffic areas with black stone, probably slate. The rest of the house, the walls and ceilings, were all crafted from rough, heavy, bluntly hewn wood, appearing at once practical and much used and lived in.

In the northwest corner of the dwelling was a large table surrounded by chairs, which she instinctively thought of as the “kitchen\dining room”, though there was no such physical distinction to justify referring to it as such. Against the wall to the left of this was a dining-room cabinet. Between that and the table was a brightly coloured carpet, and to the left a small tapestry hung from the west wall as well, over a small sofa-like piece of furniture. On it was a picture depicting some sort of winged Faerie, walking through the forest at night. She was enveloped in her own pale glow, which was caught by the grass she walked upon and the surrounding foliage and wildflowers; she appeared to be listening for something, or waiting . . .

Deborah found that the picture disturbed her. Not in a bad way, exactly, but in a way that made her search its surface wistfully for clues, though about what she couldn’t have said. After a while she gave up the effort, removed her backpack, sat down on the sofa, rose once more and placed her pack on a shelf near one of the cribs before going back to the dresser to look at a pair of objects that momentarily piqued her curiosity. The one, after picking it up and looking it over, turned out to be a brass oil lamp, or what she thought of as an “Aladdin’s Lamp”; the other a small but heavy engraved bronze box which, when she looked inside, found that it was lined with wood, and contained what appeared to be a pair of very ordinary-looking rocks. Some memory twigged as she picked up the irregular lumps, one a sort of stone and the other a piece of ore, from their bed of small sheets of linen, several of which were partially burnt, and with a grin of anticipation, struck the flint and iron a glancing blow, producing a tiny shower of sparks. A tinder box! No doubt for lighting the lamp.

This momentary diversion soon over, she immediately felt listless and useless again, and discovering that she was alone in the house, began to question her wisdom in coming here.

Doc was a doctor, and doctors were always needed. Malina was from this world, and Ralph’s knowledge of machines and tools would make him an asset wherever he should find himself. But what did she, Deborah, know that was of any use here? Well, she was here now, and she could always ask what needed to be done and do it. There was no shame in that. And she knew from the beginning that she would have to learn what she needed to know. She had already learned two languages in a short time. But she still felt at odds with herself. Studying herself in a small hand mirror which she had found on top of the dresser, she said to her reflection, ‘What am I going to do with you?’

To her complete surprise, the reflected image began dissolving into a kaleidoscope of colour. Another image began to form, imposing itself upon the first in a way that was at once violently invasive. It was a scene she recognised, that of a familiar-looking room and its sole occupant, a ten year old girl. The girl was clutching a teddy-bear and weeping, staring out her window and waiting for help that never came. The girl had just been raped by her own father. Deborah knew this because the young girl was herself.

She didn’t realize she had cried out until Theuli came quickly into the house, concerned. Theuli found Deborah shaken and weeping, staring into a small hand mirror.

‘Deborah, what has happened? Are you well?’

‘I saw . . .’ she sobbed, ‘I saw myself in your magic mirror, when I was ten . . .’

It was more than just the magic mirror. She had assumed, incorrectly, that for all these years, she had become hardened to these images, that such things could no longer hurt her. What had shaken her to the very core of her being was the realization that just the opposite was true, that she had learned no strength or defence to deal with such things, that she had instead walled them off within herself, hoping that the strength of the wall would never be contested. But the wall had proved itself to be all too fragile. Wailing in inarticulate agony, she had turned away and huddled miserably within herself like some wounded thing . . .

‘Magic mirror?’ Theuli sat down beside Deborah on the small sofa and looked into the glass. There was only the reflected room.

Deborah was aghast. ‘But I saw it! It was there in the mirror.’ A flood of memories, mostly feelings and a light-headed feeling of shock was catching up on her, making her feel cold and sweaty, her hands and her voice to shake. She put a hand to her face, feeling the urge to throw up.

‘This mirror has no magic properties,’ said Theuli. ‘Whatever you saw was your own doing.’

Stunned, Deborah almost shouted at her. ‘I didn’t choose to be raped!’

Theuli stared at her in shock. But she replied evenly, ‘That is not what I meant. It was only the act of seeing something in the glass that I was referring to. But,’ she finished with anger in her voice, ‘I would hear this tale of rape.’

When Deborah finished telling Theuli of her parent’s abuse, the Elf-woman shook her head, tears in her eyes. ‘How do you bear it? And why did no one help you.’

Deborah wiped a sleeve across her tears and said miserably, ‘Because I’ve never told anyone. I couldn’t.’

Theuli took her hands, drawing Deborah’s eyes to her own.

‘Whyever not?’

Deborah shrugged. ‘You’d have to have been there to understand . . . mostly I was afraid of what they’d do if they ever found out. I just waited until I was old enough, and then I ran away.’

Theuli gave her a shrewd look. ‘And your journey has brought you here.’

Deborah saw her own dawning realization reflected in Theuli’s eyes. ‘I never really thought about it that way, but . . . yes, I guess that’s true.’

‘Perhaps it is just as well,’ Theuli told her. ‘The Men of our world are not generally known for such behaviour.’

‘Right!’ Deborah replied bleakly. ‘With my luck, I’d find the one who was just like my father. At home, the two men I met when I was grown up weren’t any better than he was. There was Ralph, too, but . . . we just couldn’t seem to connect, somehow.’ She heaved a sigh that was part sob. ‘Sometimes I think my life must be cursed.’

‘That may be,’ Theuli replied with conviction, brushing a strand of hair from the girl’s face with a mother’s assurance and tenderness. ‘But you will find that in this World, there are ways that such a curse may be fought.’

Sitting on the bench in the back yard, Malina sat quietly, looking towards the forest, feeling cut off, a stranger to her own world, and her old life.

She jumped in surprise as Ralph settled his heavy bulk beside her; she hadn’t even heard his approach!

‘I thought you’d be glad to be home. How come you’re out here, crying?’

She wiped at her face, surprised that she had been too preoccupied to even notice.

He had addressed her in the Pixie tongue, so she replied in kind.

‘I do not wish to be here. This place is no longer my home.’

‘Malina, we talked about this before, remember? You could have stayed behind.’

She turned away from him, thinking “Not while you are here.”

Body language eloquently voicing the words she hadn’t uttered, he said contritely, ‘I’m sorry . . . it seems that every little thing I do or say only makes things worse.’

‘It is not your fault,’ she muttered. ‘It is mine, for not being able to control my own feelings.’

‘You can’t help that-’

Stung by the import of those words, she blurted defensively, ‘I must! If I am to be . . . to make myself something that you would want . . . then I must!’

Taken aback, speechless for a moment, Ralph considered his reply before saying, ‘Malina, being yourself is enough. If someday something happens between us- well, if it happens, it happens.’

‘Rowf not understand!’ she said in broken English, close to tears once more. ‘I do not want Man like Rory to hurt me again! I want to be able to tell him “No, leave me alone,” and to walk away when strangers push themselves on me. You think I am like Deborah, like Human woman. But I am Pixie, and such things . . . they are not the way I am made!’

The full import of what she said struck him, by increments, like a physical blow.

‘Are you telling me that despite this, you’re willing to try to make yourself over? For me?’

‘I try to tell you,’ she replied sullenly. ‘In your world, you not to believe. I come here, because I hope, then, maybe you can see.’

He took a deep breath, let it out slowly. Without looking at her, he rose, placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder, and left.

For a brief moment, she felt lambent at his touch. And for some time, stared in the direction he had gone, unable to decide whether she wished he had or hadn’t touched her.

Seated in a jade-green leather-upholstered chair, Doc was just checking over his medical instruments, spreading them out across the top of an adjoining end-table, when he noticed two pairs of curious eyes watching him. Zuic and Rani were fascinated by Doc’s glasses, and by the exotic appearance of the contents of his medical bag. Looking at them over his glasses produced the same shy laughter that he got from most children, and he invited them to explore (with care) the objects of their curiosity.

Zuic was a studious boy, similar in appearance and bearing to his uncle, and he immediately began asking Doc first what his tools were for, and how they worked. Doc had always greatly enjoyed the inquisitiveness of children, and told them anything they wanted to know. Rani, the spitting-image of her mother, was equally curious, and listened to all that was said in such wide-eyed wonder that Doc had to smile.

When Pran came to tell him that an afternoon meal awaited them, (it had been prepared on an outdoor grill, and was now being brought indoors by the three women) Pran waited until Rani and Zuic had left.

‘You are a Healer,’ Pran said, a note of respect in his voice, arms crossed, leaning against a thick wooden post.

‘I try to be,’ Doc replied dryly, carefully repacking his bag.

‘It may be,’ said Pran, ‘that your skills may be of use here after all. Our physicians’ knowledge is not so great or so broad as they would like. I am under the impression that they could learn much from you.’

Doc smiled. ‘There may be much they could show me as well. I know nothing of magic.’

‘There is no magic in the setting of broken bones, and such,’ Pran replied. ‘You will soon come to discover that what you term “magic” has its limits, and those limits will become painfully apparent when it comes to Healing.’

When Ralph and Malina came back inside and entered the area at the back of the house Deborah thought of as the kitchen, though it had only a table, cupboard, and cabinet, they found Theuli and Deborah getting the mid-afternoon meal ready. A moment later they were joined by Doc and Pran, with Zuic and Rani in tow. Automatically and without question, everyone began lending a hand, if only to fill the water jug or set everything out.

The table was just big enough for all eight of them, Pran and Theuli at either end, Ralph, Malina, and Deborah with their backs to the open kitchen window, and Doc, Zuic and Rani on the other side.

The fare was not altogether unfamiliar to the newcomers. There was a still-warm loaf of bread with a hard crust, a salad garnished with a variety of flower-petals, and made from a plant with crunchy blue-green leaves, with long slices of a yellow pepper-like plant mixed in; a large, yellow, squash-like plant that had been cooked and cut up into large sections, a thick meaty stew with chunks of white, green and yellow vegetables, and small pastries filled with fish and cheese.

When they were nearly finished, Pran and Theuli’s neighbours showed up at their kitchen window with several children, who evidently wanted to play with Rani and Zuic.

Deborah, Malina, Theuli, and the neighbour’s wives set to a quick cleanup of the kitchen, before everyone made their way to the living room. The neighbours had come, partly to introduce themselves to Pran and Theuli’s visitors, having observed their arrival, but mostly because they were in the habit of doing so. Pran and Theuli had the largest house in the area, and it had naturally become a local meeting-place.

As they seated themselves, a young Elf woman, Nevana, sat next to, and began speaking with Ralph. To say that she was striking would be an understatement; she was nearly as tall as Theuli, long and lithe, her hair an alluring mass of tight, dark curls; she moved with a feline grace, and was all-too-obviously interested in Ralph. Stung with fear and jealousy, Malina couldn’t keep her eyes off the girl, or notice the affect she was having on Ralph.

Theuli kindly tried to distract her, trying to draw her into conversation with the other women, who were curious, and began asking her about her experiences in the other world, evidently having had some knowledge of her plight, which surprised her. Everyone listened to her halting story with frank interest, and despite her shyness, she was able to answer their questions with something like confidence. But by degrees, her attention wandered off, and Deborah, to verify the extent of the young woman’s distraction, said to her, ‘Malina, are you going to eat that bowl of spiders with a fork or a spoon?’

When Malina turned to her blankly, Deborah and Theuli exchanged a knowing look. Oblivious once more, Malina continued to watch Ralph and Nevana conversing.

Later that day, needing a little time to herself, Malina went outside to explore. She especially wanted to see Theuli’s garden at the front of the house, which she had glimpsed only briefly, a little over a year ago.

The single most prominent feature of the garden was a large sundial fashioned from granite and bronze, which stood on an island in the center of a large, kidney-shaped pond. The island was reached by two small stone bridges, one from either side; the island itself was an intricate pattern of rock gardens, separated by winding paths flagged with white stone.

There were small stone and bronze statues hidden throughout the garden. Water issued from the mouths of some of these which were at the pond’s edge; the water for the pond was evidently provided by a natural underground spring. She noticed, too, that there was a small egress to the pond, which was little more than a shallow ditch which was overgrown with bluebells, snapdragons, crocuses, violets, and small varieties of coloured daisies. She guessed that this small rivulet led to a point somewhere out in the meadow beyond, no doubt feeding the grasses there.

There was one statue which especially caught Malina’s eye; that of a creature of Elven myth, a winged Elf-woman, standing lightly on the ball of one foot, poised as though in flight. By some unknown art, the bronze she was cast from was tinted with varying hues of green, red-browns, deep rich golds, and other nameless metallic colours. Unlike the wings of Faerie creatures, hers were depicted as being feathered, and her body was clothed in some diaphanous gown which concealed nothing, yet which gave her an air that was at once ethereal, sublime. ‘Like a Christmas angel,’ Malina thought to herself, thinking of a dusty, ancient angel that had topped the Christmas tree at Doc’s house.

The holiday season in Rowf’s world had been an especially troubling and baffling time for Malina, and for some reason, she had skimmed the experience as one would the incomprehensible contents of a foreign culture, and tried to think about it as little as possible. Yet, far from evoking any sort of religious sentiment, which by its very nature was utterly alien to her, she found that the bedraggled, woebegone, dust-stained old angel had greatly intrigued her, perhaps because beneath its faded antique exterior there persisted an untainted blush of youth, serenity and innocence, that had persisted despite the ravages of time.

Turning her attention to the pond, she saw that there were a wide variety of brightly-coloured salamanders, each being a piece of living jewelry. She had to smile, in spite of her wonder and delight. The creatures were obviously well-fed and spoiled, for they swam rapidly to her side of the pond the moment she approached, and hung about, hoping for a handout.

That evening found her sitting on the grass in front of the house, watching the sun getting low in the sky, studying the wide world around her, her mood drifting in a netherworld between serenity and melancholy.

She was startled from her reverie by a quiet voice. It was Theuli.

‘Malina?’ the Elf woman said, smiling.

Malina looked up at the Elf woman uncertainly.

‘You needn’t be so nervous in my presence,’ Theuli told her. ‘Come, let us sit over there under the old oak tree to the west of the barn and watch the sun set.’

When they had arranged themselves, Theuli said seriously, ‘Pran has been wondering, and I am asking, if I may; Malina, why have you not gone back to being the young Pixie that you were? Deborah told me that a Man had hurt you in their world. Has what he did done something to you?’

The young Pixie woman shook her head, but didn’t reply.

‘I am so sorry!’ Theuli said. ‘My husband and I were so hoping that you would be safe. But tell me, where is your dress? Why do you continue to wear that strange clothing, when you could be running about as you used, and flying, free?’

Malina tried to smile, but failed.

‘I am free no longer,’ she said. ‘Though it may not appear to be so.’

Mystified, Theuli said, ‘Pran tells me that you were full-willing to remain in your friends’ world, unable to cast so much as a spell. If I may ask, what has happened to cause such a change in you?’

This was an uncomfortable subject for Malina, and she took a long moment before answering. ‘For a year, I was alone and defenceless in a world where I could not use my power without causing myself mortal harm. Soon after arriving there, I was injured. So there I was, hurt, unable to transform and fly away, unable even to run or heal myself, and for the first time, unable to make my way in life without the help of others.

‘When I was injured . . . I had never been in pain before . . . at least, not like that. Before, I would simply have made it go away. Rowf found me near the entrance to his home, unable to flee.

‘To my surprise, instead of doing me harm, he was concerned only over my injuries. He sent a message to Doc, who came and tended to me. From the beginning, Rowf has been very kind to me, and though I was trespassing and trying to steal a little food that day, he was not angry and did not try to send me away. He fed me and cared for me, and took me with him when he had work to do.

Embarrassed, she continued. ‘From the start, I have felt . . . well . . . drawn to Rowf, in ways that I do not truly understand.

‘But I am Pixie, and he and Deborah are very close; on more than one occasion, they almost became mated to one another.

‘Deborah tells me that what was between them is over, that if Rowf will have me, she will not be angry.

‘But Rowf . . . both of us know that I do not understand my need for him. Yet I have come to realise that he is necessary to me, that my life is no longer my own. At night, I lay awake, having dreams that I am laying with him, in his arms, wanting to stay there forever and ever . . .

‘Until I came to be in Rowf’s world, I could never have imagined such a thing . . . how warm and safe he makes me feel inside. At least, when he pays attention to me,’ she added, abandoning her reverie and sighing. ‘I must have made such a fool of myself while he was speaking with that girl, Nevana. But I can’t help it! I want to be with him. I do not wish to be a Pixie any longer.’

‘Oh, Malina!’ Theuli muttered under her breath, ‘What have we done to you?’

Before Zuic and Rani went to bed, Deborah was vaguely surprised to learn that the two youngsters slept together in one of the cribs. She had heard that children used to be married off as soon as they reached puberty, and found that she envied their uncomplicated, straightforward lives. They even seemed well-suited to one another, she thought.

This brought home to her once again how her early life had been so senselessly mangled, and how her early experiences affected her to this very day. Theuli had said something about “such a curse may be fought,” and Pran had said something about “healing”.

Deborah desperately needed healing, and she wished she knew how to fight back, without further distorting her already damaged spirit.

She was in for a number of shocks that evening, however. Discreetly telling Theuli that she needed to use the washroom, the Elven woman pointed her in the direction of the commode, the chair with the ceramic bowl set into its base.

‘But,’ stammered Deborah, ‘isn’t there . . . at least a curtain . . . or something? The Elf woman stared at her in incomprehension, until Doc said to the young woman, ‘Deborah, if you’re looking for privacy while you do your business or bathe, you’re in the wrong place. What you should be asking is where the proper place to dispose of the contents of the commode is, and where it is properly taken and cleaned.’

At last, understanding setting in, the Elf woman shook her head in wonder. ‘Come along,’ she said to the girl, taking her by the hand. ‘Malina, you, too, come with me, and I will show you a few things.’

The contents of the commode, Deborah discovered, were tossed into a trough along with the pig’s filth, rancid carcass bones, and other debris, the smell of which made her gag. One of Zuic’s jobs, Theuli told her, was to toss the odd shovelful of dirt over this debris. Nearby was a rain-barrel, ewer, and earthenware pot, used to rinse the commode. On the ancient, rickety-looking wooden stand which held the ewer were horse-hair scrub-brushes, and a bar of caustic soap.

Later, before Rani and Zuic went to bed, their mother got the large open-range going, heated several kettles of water, which were filled from the hand pump, filled the wooden tub with steaming water, mixing hot and cold until the temperature was right. Then, both children simply went to the tub, doffed their clothes, as they had obviously done every evening, and got into the bath together.

It wasn’t so much their nudity, as a host of other images which crowded into Deborah’s semi-conscious mind; that of parents and siblings being intimately familiar with each other’s naked appearance . . .

‘Deborah?’

She raised her head, surprised that she had nodded off. To her surprise, the house, the room, for that is what it really was, was in semi-darkness. One candle dimly lighted the washing area; the rest of the room was an indistinct guess.

‘Yes?’

‘It’s your turn.’

She looked around, uncertainly. ‘But . . . what about the others?’

‘They have bathed already, and gone to bed. It is now your turn.’

She thought of simply refusing, but the Elf woman’s will seemed to supersede her own. She got up from the couch, and made her way to towards the bath. Turning her back to the Elven woman, looking about the room, trying to be sure that no one was watching, she stripped off her clothes, stepped into the tub, and sat down.

‘Lay back,’ Theuli instructed her, ‘so that I may wash your hair.’

As the Elven woman plied her with sweet-smelling soap and water, Deborah caught a whiff of the Elven woman’s tresses, and realized that she had already bathed, herself.

For a moment, Deborah began to feel wonderfully relaxed. Then, caught entirely off-guard, she began weeping, for some moments, unable to stop.

‘You will sleep with me, at least for the first few nights,’ Theuli told her softly. ‘Until your spirit learns that it is not utterly alone.’

As Malina lay drowsily in bed, waiting for sleep that wouldn’t come, there was a sudden pressure of a heavy body sitting next to her in her crib.

‘You still awake?’ it was Ralph, who spoke to her in a low voice, almost a whisper.

Turning onto her side facing the interior of the room, for a moment she couldn’t answer. But eventually, fearing that he would assume she was asleep, and leave once more, she said, timidly, ‘Yes.’ It was almost a question.

Settling himself, relaxing, he said, tentatively, ‘I’ve been meaning to ask you something, now that we’re back in your world.’

She sighed. ‘Ask.’

He took a deep breath, then plunged ahead. ‘After all that stuff you told me about Pixies and the way you used to be, ever since we got here, I’ve been expecting you to sprout wings and fly away or something.’

She was silent for so long that he wondered if she was going to answer, or if he had said something to upset her. But at last, she spoke. Laying with her chin on her hands, elbows propped up on her pillow, she said, ‘Is that what you want me to do?’

He stared at her blankly. ‘What has what I want got to do with it? I was just wondering why you’re living like the rest of us, instead of like you said you used to.’

Somewhat evasively, she replied, ‘I can’t make magic. Not like I used to.’

Surprised, concerned, he said, ‘What do you mean?’

Still avoiding his eye, she said, ‘I can still do little things, but . . . it is fading.’

‘But why? Malina, I’m sorry! Was it from something that happened to you in my world? Was it . . . does this have anything to do with what that Rory character did to you?’

Answering him indirectly, she said, ‘No, it has nothing to do with him. But living in your world has changed me. Or to be more truthful, being in your world has brought about changes in me.’ She shrugged. ‘Actually, I’m glad. I was afraid of becoming like I was before.’

‘What was that?’

Mimicking Theuli, she said, ‘A wanton little Pixie.’

He chuckled, quietly. ‘You are a wanton little Pixie.’

They both glanced at Deborah, who had just got naked out of the tub on the other side of the room, and was being dried by Theuli, oblivious to their watching eyes. Strange, Malina thought to herself; standing there like that, something of her posture, or of something I can’t define, she in some way reminds me of myself.

Studying the Human girl with mild curiosity, but looking disappointed at what Ralph had said, she said, ‘I do not want to be a Pixie, wanton or otherwise.’

He had come to know Malina well enough to know that if he stayed with her, she would soon doze off, whereas left on her own, she would lay awake until all hours. ‘Give poor Deborah some privacy and lay down,’ he told her. He noticed with a pang that she did so without question, like a child. He then drew the blankets up over her shoulders and began rubbing her back.

‘As far as your being a Pixie is concerned, I really don’t think it matters. I . . . we . . . I like you just the way you are.’

‘Rowf! You just saying that to make me sleep,’ she said irritably in English, knowing this game, that he had lulled her to sleep in this manner on several occasions in the past.

He smiled. ‘Yes, well, it is late, and you should have been asleep hours ago.’

‘Then why you not go to bed?’ she said.

‘Because I’m worried about you, and I’m not going to stop worrying until you go to sleep.’

Her look of sleepy delight stayed on her lips long after she had fallen asleep. For several minutes he sat watching her, torn by guilt and pity. He was very much attracted to Nevana, the young neighbour he had met earlier. She was an intelligent, mature young woman, who had no apparent hang-ups or problems, who knew what she wanted, and was very much interested in this stranger from another world. He realised, feeling guilty as he did so, that Nevana was everything Malina was not.

Later, unable to sleep, his thoughts chasing themselves like cats after phantom mice, Ralph noticed a light, that one of the oil lamps in the kitchen area was burning, and getting up out of his surprisingly comfortable crib, discovered Pran sitting at the table, sipping at a glass of yellow wine, looking tired and sated, as though at this late hour he had just finished a long day’s work. When he saw Ralph, he held the glass up inquiringly. With a tired nod, Ralph joined him. On the table before them was a plate of assorted meats, cheeses, crackers, and pickled vegetables.

Pran smiled, broadly. ‘Thoughts of Malina, or of Nevana, perhaps, keeping you awake?’

Looking tiredly at the Elf, Ralph muttered, ‘You a mind reader or something?’ Making himself a little sandwich of crackers, meat and cheese, he added, ‘To tell the truth, I’ve been thinking about them both, but it’s mostly Malina I’m concerned about. I feel like I can’t do anything that’s not going to end up hurting her.’

Pran winced in empathy, though he didn’t explain the source of his own feelings on the matter.

‘Nevana is very alluring young woman,’ Pran told him, ‘and much less likely to be a burden.’

Ralph almost responded with anger to this assessment, but the simple truth, and its accordance with his own thoughts stopped his voice momentarily.

‘I wish I could find it in myself to simply say to Malina, “Go and be a normal Pixie, or else find someone who’ll look after you,” but for some reason I can’t. It’s not the sort of thing you can trust another man to do, where a girl like her is concerned. But by putting it off and not saying anything, I just end up leading her on. For the past year, now, I’ve been sitting on the fence, dodging the inevitable, knowing that the longer I wait, the worse it’s going to be.’

Appraising him carefully, Pran said, ‘You care for her very deeply, don’t you?’

Ralph, thoughtfully, considering events over the past year or more as a whole, took a deep breath, let it out slowly. ‘Yes, I do. But I wish it was just as simple as that. It would be so much easier if she was just like any other girl. It’s like . . .’ he fumbled momentarily for a comparison. ‘It’s worse than having a young adolescent girl fall in love with you. At least with a teenager, you can explain things to her in a way she can understand. Even if you can’t explain everything verbally, there are taboos between children, or adolescents and adults, that don’t need explaining. I mean, if it was your daughter, for example-’

‘I do not need the analogy explained to me,’ the Elf said, with a father’s mixture of ire and automatic mental diversion from his daughter’s growing self-awareness. ‘But I think you mean to say that it is more than that; that not only is Malina very naïve, but she is at the mercy of urges which do not come naturally to her kind; that explanation will always fall short of the mark, and only experience will suffice.’

Ralph groaned inwardly. ‘I wish you hadn’t put it like that, but yes, that’s pretty much it. That sort of responsibility . . . and what if she can’t handle those sorts of experiences, even if she wants them, or thinks she does?’

Changing the subject, at least apparently, Pran said, ‘Nevana seems very much taken with you.’

Ralph found that, although considering Nevana in any way presented him with difficulties he didn’t want to face, the very thought of her seemed to clear the air, dispelling all doubt and misgiving.

‘Nevana is a girl I can understand. She’s straightforward, direct, knows what she wants . . . she’s very intelligent . . . yet somehow uncomplicated at the same time. From the little I gathered from speaking with her tonight, her life is pretty uncluttered.’

As though contradicting Ralph’s words, Pran said, ‘Nevana is looking for a husband, and stability, and now there’s an exciting new stranger in our midst; one with a trade, one whom her parents readily approve of, and most importantly, at least to her mind, is not embroiled in any sort of disruption. If civil war should strike, Nevana would opt to take the line of least resistance.’

‘Which is?’ Ralph asked him.

Pran raised his eyebrows. ‘Why, leave the Elf Kingdom, of course! Ah, but I forget, you are not knowledgeable about our world. Suffice it to say that outside our immediate borders, to the East, Southeast, and Southwest, are Kingdoms of Men and Dwarves. Should civil war strike, she would choose to depart to one of the Kingdoms of Men. Your presence here only reinforces that possibility in her mind. It would be wise,’ he added, ‘if she were to be kept in ignorance about your true origins, else she might become obsessed with having you take her there, forthwith!’

‘Why wouldn’t she want to stay here?’ Ralph asked him.

Pran appraised him speculatively. ‘I can only surmise, from what little I’ve seen of your world, and from the nature of your question, that you have never experienced war.’

Though the Elf said this in a tone of voice that was almost neutral, Ralph found himself going cold inside at his words.

‘No, you’re right. There have been wars in my world; it seems there always are, somewhere. But they never seem to happen in the place that I live, or if they have, they haven’t occurred during my lifetime.’

‘Then you are indeed fortunate,’ the Elf told him. ‘But consider; Nevana is a free-spirited young woman who has grown up in a society that places much importance on duty and social responsibility. The duty and social responsibility I refer to most often includes duties related to warfare; a matter in which Nevana, by her nature, wants no part. Perhaps that view will show you the young woman in a new light.’

‘You’re saying,’ Ralph said slowly, reading between the lines, ‘that she’s the sort of person who runs away from her responsibilities.’

‘Whereas Malina,’ the Elf said pointedly, ‘for all her problems, and for all her shortcomings, does not.’

‘Are you trying to give me some sort of indirect advice?’ Ralph asked him dryly.

Pran seemed to consider his words seriously for a long moment.

‘Suffice it to say,’ he said slowly, ‘that if I were you, I would take my time, and let events unfold at their own pace, and not let myself be rushed into anything, as things from where you stand are not necessarily what they seem. I am here referring to things that I can see much more clearly than yourself. And I should warn you: Nevana can be a very persuasive young woman. At least,’ he added with a disarming smile, ‘where a young, unattached man like yourself is concerned.’

Before going back to bed, Ralph first checked on Malina, finding to his relief that she was still fast asleep. He noticed with a pang that she was wearing a grey t-shirt he had given her for a night-dress; the sleeves were far too long, it was old and faded, but she refused to part with it, or wear another. He then went to check on Deborah, but to his surprise, found that she lay in a crib with Theuli, that they were speaking together in hushed voices. They did not notice his presence, so engrossed were they in their conversation. Stealing as silently as possible back to his own crib, the bare floor very cold under his bare feet, he found himself hoping that Theuli could somehow mend, or at least work some emotional balm on Deborah’s habitual emotional angst. He crawled gratefully back into his own crib, and tried to get used to sleeping in a strange bed.

He well knew that evenings were, for Deborah, a time when she had the greatest difficulty in dealing with her personal demons. Her usual habit was to lay awake for a long time, and if sleep wouldn’t overcome her, she would get up and go out somewhere, usually to Murphy’s or some other nightclub, would come back alone and intoxicated, throw herself prone into bed, and sleep like the dead until late morning or some time in the afternoon.

For the entire time he and Deborah had been together, he had observed this pattern of behaviour with helpless patience. It now occurred to him that, in this household, things would either have to change, or come to a head.

He fell asleep hoping that things were going to change for the better.

For all of them.

Chapter 10

Iniiq

Looking up, I saw mine enemy,

only to discover that he was nothing

more than mine own reflected image.’

Malina paused from her work to let her back rest a moment, and to check on the children. Here she was, kneeling in a stream, doing the washing like any Elf or Human woman! With a wry inner smile, she thought that this was perhaps Theuli’s way of settling an old score. Hitching up her peasant dress to her lap and wringing some of the water out of it, she then sat on a wide, flat boulder that was black and smooth, sun soaked and deliciously warm against her bare backside and the backs of her legs. The coolish water gurgling about her feet sounded as cheerfully effervescent as it felt, and she wriggled her toes, taking no small delight in this simple pleasure.

She looked up for a moment at the tall weeping-willows, hoary with moss and ancient, that shaded the stream, and listened to the wind hissing quietly through their variegated canopy of yellow-green leaves, watching their fine branches move irrhythmically as the light breeze caught at them. Beneath the trees grew thick aromatic beds of herbs which bloomed with tiny flowers of red, blue, white, yellow, lavender and pink. Here and there along the stream’s banks were thick beds of iris, peony, lily, crocus, daffodil and sweet William, bachelor’s buttons, snowdrops and bleeding hearts which thrived in more shady places, and myriad other wild flowers that may have had no name . . .

She had once been very much a part of this setting. Not long ago her home, located only a few short miles up this very stream, had been an old bird’s nest lined with feathers and thistledown, situated amongst the upper branches of an enormous oak tree, itself as hale and ancient as a well-maintained mansion that had survived untold generations of change. Her only real means of safety had been to make herself as small and inconspicuous as possible. Even then, her existence was often fraught with danger, for many deadly creatures such as hawks, owls and carnivorous arboreal reptilian and mammalian creatures preyed on small things which lived in trees. For a long time, her only true hope in life was that she might simply be overlooked.

To one side of her dwelling, concealed beneath a worn scrap of tooled leather, was her precious booty: a bit of brass chain, a few broken shards of brightly painted crockery, some pretty stones and snail shells, some smooth-worn pieces of coloured glass, a wooden clothes pin that someone had made into a little doll, that no doubt some child had lost. The thought of these things, once so dear to her, was enough to cause her eyes to mist, her throat to ache. She had played with that doll for untold hours, she playing the part of her own mother, trying to comfort herself in the form of the little doll, trying to explain over and over again why she had disappeared one day, never to return, to leave her young child so utterly alone in the world.

But there had been happier moments. There was a natural rhythm to living in the forest, and when one became attuned to it, participating in the endless unfolding of life itself, one became imbued with a deep sense of peace and belonging. Malina had been able to more than revel in this feeling, however, for her connectedness to this world had gone beyond a simple feeling. She had been physically able to merge with it, becoming invisible to any but those with a discerning eye, a breath of wind that was not a breath of wind, a living sense of watchful wonderment that was no less exhilarating than flying.

But Rowf had inadvertently changed all that for her. From the moment he had first scooped her up in his arms on his front lawn, that physical closeness and contact, something she had experienced only with her mother, had touched remote places in her being, evoking strong, unknown and unfamiliar feelings of longing and desire. But being a Pixie, there were no words or associations she could make, to explain or understand what she felt.

Irresistibly drawn to these new sensations, upon returning to her own world, she had been forced to make a choice; either to return to what she was, a Pixie, child of Nature and innocence, or to follow her feelings and try to become something else.

Well, now the choice was made, and already she was paying the price. All about her was magic; in the air, in the water, in the ground, in the trees . . . magic she could no longer touch. She was separate now, not only from her own world, but from her old life. She thought of her Pixie dress, where it lay a world away, safe and hidden at the bottom of a drawer. She did miss it, but like her childhood, it belonged where it was, a carefully preserved and happy memory.

Perhaps she was missing out on all those things that went with her old life: regardless, she was not going to risk going back to who and what she was, and losing all hope of ever being with Rowf. Leaving her Pixie dress behind was not so much a conscious decision, as it was an affirmation of who and what she was determined to become. As for what little remained of her Power, she found that it actually came as a relief. It meant that at the least, she belonged to herself now, and not to her old life.

A movement under the water caught her eye; a large, bluish crayfish was working its way along the stream bed. As it crawled slowly away from her, she sighed. At one time, the creature wouldn’t have even noticed her presence. Now, however . . .

But she smiled wistfully as she watched Rani and Zuic playing together. They seemed, in a way, to be a world and a lifetime away, laughing happily, at peace amongst the tall grasses, and green and yellow shadows, as timeless and ephemeral as the filtered sunlight which passed through the willow-trees.

Turning her attention back to her work, Malina pulled the last of the laundry into the water, and tried to sort out the disturbing undercurrents of emotion which tugged at her whenever she had a moment to reflect on the changes that had taken her so far from a life she thought she knew.

A while later, she was struggling with the laundry basket, with Rani in tow, and Zuic wandering further ahead up the trail. Despite the weight of the damp laundry, and having to toil up and down the winding path from the stream back to the farm, Malina found that she enjoyed this walk through the forest. This particular spot especially reminded her of the home she once had. The thought crossed her mind that she could easily visit her old home if she chose; but another part of her answered, some day, perhaps.

‘May I ask a question?’ Rani asked her, suddenly. ‘I mean, mother said it might be rude of me to ask, but I thought that you would tell me yourself if it was . . .’

‘If it is about babies, or anything like that, then you had better ask your mother,’ Malina replied with a smile.

‘Oh, no, it’s not that,’ Rani said quickly. ‘Mother has told me all about where babies come from. The Earth Mother Herself brings them to you, when She feels that you are ready to look after them.’

‘I see,’ Malina replied with a smile, admiring Theuli’s tact. ‘What is your question?’

‘It’s just that . . . it’s about the way you do things now,’ Rani said. ‘You walk everywhere, you don’t cast spells any more-’

‘Ask,’ Malina told her.

‘Well . . .’ Rani muttered, ‘I was just wondering why?’

Malina was several moments in considering her answer. It was one matter to keep such things to herself where adults were concerned, but children were another matter. Doing her best to emulate Theuli, she finally said, ‘Haven’t you ever done things so that you can fit in with your friends?’

Rani frowned. ‘You mean, getting mother to cut my hair cut the same way as the girls I know, or wearing my frilly dress?’

Malina smiled in response. ‘Something like that. Well, when I was sent away, I had no magic, and I had to learn to live as my new friends did.

‘But that is how they came to know me, and now that they’ve come here, I want things to remain the same between us.’

Rani pondered this over for several minutes. Or perhaps she’s simply bored, and thinking about something else, Malina mused.

At last, however, Rani said, ‘Does that mean you’re going to turn into a Human girl and marry Ralph?’

‘Whatever gave you that idea?’ Malina blurted in barely concealed chagrin and slight annoyance, wondering whose conversation the girl had overheard.

Rani shrugged. ‘Your crib’s right next to ours. I hear you talking in your sleep sometimes-’

Mortified, Malina almost stopped dead in her tracks, but kept going, hoping the girl hadn’t noticed.

‘I see. Well, you should not pay too much attention to what people say in their sleep. After all, they’re only dreaming.’

As they continued their journey, an echo of those same words seemed to mock her from the background of her thoughts.

When they finally reached the crest of the last hill before the farm, Malina hesitated when Rani tugged on her sleeve, making her turn around.

‘Malina!’ Rani whispered. ‘Look!’

They stopped walking. Looking about, Malina saw nothing, until Rani inclined her head at a spot further away in the forest amongst some tall ferns. She swallowed, fear and apprehension in her every line. Probing the area with her truncated Pixie senses, she relaxed a little. Only one! But what did she want?

‘If you’re trying not to be seen, you’re not doing a very good job of it,’ Malina said, setting the laundry basket down.

The figure separated itself from the foliage and approached them, cautiously, hesitantly. Malina’s fear and unease returned sharply when she realised that the creature was an Imp.

‘Rani,’ Malina said, trying to keep her voice steady, ‘stand behind me.’

‘Why?’ Rani asked, watching the creature with frank curiosity.

‘Do it!’ Malina hissed, making Rani’s eyes go wide with chagrin. At last realising that something was amiss, Rani sidled towards Malina and stood behind her, poised to run, watching the stranger carefully. When the Imp was within yards of them, Malina said, ‘Come no closer! What is it you want?’

The Imp’s dark skin made it difficult to tell where her leafy garment ended and her skin began. Her long, jet-black hair was tied back, and her black eyebrows arched upwards at the corners, giving her leaf-green eyes a predatory look.

‘A Pixie, and two Elf children,’ said the Imp, coming closer still. ‘What sort of riddle have we here?’

‘Do not come any closer,’ said Malina, watching the Imp’s every move.

Surprised, suspicious, the Imp said, ‘Ah-h, stranger still! A Pixie who wears strange clothing, who cleans garments in a stream like an Elf-woman, and who doesn’t transform and fly away in fear from an Imp! And I see you have lost your Power as well. Tell me, Pixie with no Power, why do you not run from me?’

‘I have little ones to protect,’ said Malina, trying to sound confident, ‘and make no mistake; protect them I will.’

The Imp hissed in surprise. ‘You would fight me?’

Malina didn’t hesitate. ‘I would.’ She found herself thinking, perhaps irrelevantly, that the Imp would have been very beautiful if her features weren’t marred by the treacherous intent that lurked within.

‘Then it is true,’ muttered the Imp, seemingly distracted by some thought.

‘What is true?’ Malina asked her cautiously.

The Imp fixed her with its gaze. ‘The Earth Mother has abandoned her Creation. All is chaos and ruin . . .’

Malina knew instinctively that the Imp’s presence represented danger, and that she should try to get the children away as quickly as possible, but she replied, ‘Why do you say that?’ There was something bleak in the Imp’s visage that sharpened Malina’s scrutiny of her.

‘I was to have been . . . I went to the Festival . . . but the Vedh-ahn failed to answer the Summoning. There are no daughters . . . no renewal.’

Malina could tell that there was truth in what the Imp was saying; her pain was obvious. But the Imp’s duplicity screamed at Malina’s senses, and she picked up the laundry in revulsion.

‘Stop! Where are you going?’ The Imp began following them, and Malina tried to ignore her. The Imp began to become increasingly agitated, until she physically tried to block their progress.

‘Get out of my way,’ said Malina in a low voice, ‘or I shall hit you.’ Despite the fact that her voice was shaking with fear, she found that she meant it. The Imp backed away in surprise. Once again, Malina and Rani began making their way towards the farm, and once again the Imp followed, becoming even more agitated, looking back towards the deep wood as though seeking assistance, and once again she tried to block their way, though they were nearly out of the wood and within hailing distance of the farm.

Then, Malina’s senses caught something, from further back in the forest. They were being followed, by more Imps, judging by the nature of their stealthy movements through the undergrowth.

‘So!’ Malina said, angry now, ‘You seek to detain us! In typical Imp fashion, your words are nothing more than lying deception!’ As she moved forward, the Imp tried to block her way again. Anger making her fearless, Malina pushed the Imp roughly to the ground and began walking hurriedly towards the farm, watching the forest cautiously, and making Rani walk in front of her. They hadn’t gone far when Malina heard running feet behind her. She yelled to Rani, ‘Run!’ dropped the basket, and met the Imp’s charge.

Malina had never once fought in her life, but as the two women tussled in the grass, she fought as though more than her own life depended on it. The Imp, however, was experienced and crafty, and soon had Malina pinned to the ground.

‘Now, damn you! You will help us find out what has become of the Festival, and the Earth Mother as well,’ the Imp shouted in her face.

‘Why should I help you?’ Malina retorted. ‘And why would you need me?’

The Imp, her face suffused with rage, screamed at her. ‘Your kind knows the Earth Mother hates us! She suffers us only because she must, to preserve the Balance. Without you, or one like you, we can do noth-’

The weight suddenly gone from her chest, Malina got to her knees, breathing hard, and stared as the Imp struggled wildly to escape Rowf’s grasp. He had her by the back of her garment, and she couldn’t break his grasp.

‘You okay?’

Malina got to her feet, a little shaken, but otherwise unhurt. ‘I am all right. But there are more of them, not far from here. Back in the forest.’

The Imp began yelling in her strange tongue to her companions. They came to the edge of the forest, but no further. Ralph was prepared to let the Imp go, but Malina forestalled him.

‘Don’t release her just yet! She and her friends are up to no good. They may try for one of the children. Or worse.’

Ralph raised his eyebrows in surprise. ‘What am I supposed to do with her, then?’

Malina retrieved the laundry basket and began walking towards the house. ‘Let’s bring her with us and let Pran have a word with her.’

At the mention of Pran’s name, the Imp became incoherent, and struggled wildly once more. As they neared the house, the others had all come to watch this strange spectacle. From the barn came Zuic and Pran leading Rani by the hand, followed by Theuli. It was difficult to read Pran’s disposition as he approached, but from his mien it was apparent that he was angry.

‘We were forewarned by Zuic of your predicament,’ Pran said quietly, to Malina’s surprise, gratitude and relief. ‘You may release her.’

Ralph did so. The Imp watched as Pran approached her, trying to appear defiant, though she was clearly frightened. To Malina, Pran said, ‘Zuic has told me that this Imp attacked you.’

Malina shrugged. ‘She has harmed neither the children nor me. But she did try to hold me against my will.’

Pran sighed, and held the Imp immobile with his eyes. ‘What is your name?’

She tried to tear her gaze from his, but he reached out, took her face in an iron grip, compelling her to look at him and give answer.

‘Your name!’

It was hard for the others to watch as he forced the name from her, as she suffered greatly from having to utter her own name in front of those not of her race. It was not his wish to be cruel, but in the end, he tore the name from her.

Iniiq!’

Once the name was uttered, she gasped as though in pain, and slumped to the ground, holding her knees miserably, not looking at them.

‘Iniiq,’ Pran said. She covered her ears reflexively at the sound of her own name.

Kneeling beside her, Pran said, ‘Iniiq, hear me.’

‘I-’ she hiccupped, ‘I hear you!’

‘Iniiq, I charge you by your name to tell us why you and your people are here, and to leave nothing unsaid.’

The others listened in anger and in pity as she told Pran her tale. This year, there had been no Festival. The Circle of Pa’an, an eldritch clearing deep in the forest where the Festival had been held since time immemorial, had been burnt and defiled. A Summoning was attempted, but in vain. In fear and desperation, (for their very survival depended on the continuance of the Festival), they had begun searching for one who could find and speak to the Earth Mother for them. Iniiq thought her hopes answered when she chanced upon Malina, thinking her the ideal choice because she was without her Power, and they surmised, therefore, that it might be possible to capture her.

‘Why didn’t you simply ask me?’ Malina said, her feelings a mixture of pity and disgust.

‘You would not have come,’ the Imp replied.

‘Wouldn’t a Goblin Loremaster have served you better?’ Theuli said, unable to contain her sarcasm because of the threat to the children, but regretted the jibe the instant it was uttered. Tears welled in the Imp’s eyes at this insult, and she stared incredulously. Lowering her head to the ground, she muttered, ‘Please, kill me and have done with it. I have told you all.’

The others started in anger and surprise. ‘Kill you?’ said Pran. ‘Why would you say such a thing?’

‘Because!’ she replied brokenly, ‘It was by Elven hands that the Festival was slain.’

To everyone’s surprise, Malina decided to accompany the Imp. In response, Pran nodded and said, ‘You will not go alone. I will accompany you.’

Deborah was looking straight at Theuli when he said this; watched her reaction. But the Elf-woman said nothing. That evening, as Theuli packed Pran’s saddlebags with a few days’ provisions, Deborah approached her as she went about the task, her movements wooden. The two men, thankfully, were outside somewhere, working late at some task.

‘You think this is a bad idea,’ Deborah said quietly, standing beside the table.

Theuli stopped for a moment without looking up. ‘I think,’ she muttered, ‘that my husband would not welcome my interference in this matter. And he would be right. What is the selfish foolishness of only one mother and wife, compared to the plight of a people we have so wronged.’

‘Was that true,’ Deborah asked tentatively, hoping she wasn’t being rude by asking, ‘what the . . . that Imp said . . . about the Elves . . . ?’

Theuli stopped what she was doing, her features grim and set in the yellow glow of candles which were set at each end of the table where she worked. ‘Yes.’ She sat down.

Uncomfortable standing over the Elf-woman, Deborah seated herself across from her.

‘I don’t think that I need remind you that the King and his soldiers are now openly bent on exterminating our Faerie kindred.’ Theuli told her.

‘Why? Are they some kind of threat? I heard one of the neighbours say something about the Imps that made me wonder-’

Theuli laughed bitterly. ‘No. Arlon was angry only because they had stolen some vegetables from his family’s household garden. At worst, they are a minor nuisance, and even then they are seldom so. Being a nomadic people, and without any physical magical properties to speak of, unlike others of Faeriekind, they will often turn on those who antagonise or attack them; but otherwise, any threat they represent is but a minor thing. Nevertheless, the King and his minions would destroy them, if ever they had free rein to do so. Many, like Pran my husband, resist the will of the King, though it is very dangerous to do so. If he was ever to be caught . . .’

Deborah thought this over, the two women sitting in silence a while. Then, ‘Do you think she’s still outside?’

Theuli craned her head as though listening. ‘She wanders near the barn, afraid to re-enter the forest.’

‘Why?’

Theuli turned a look of guilty pity towards her. ‘The telling of her name to outsiders will make things very difficult for her.’ In a lower voice, she added, ‘They may very well kill her.’

Shocked, Deborah said, ‘Then why did Pran force her?’

‘It was necessary,’ Theuli replied. ‘The fate of her people is that of the Pixie folk and all other Faerie creatures. That is no small thing. And make no mistake; the truth had to be forced from her. Where outsiders are concerned, Imp’s are deceitful, treacherous to the unwary, and often vengeful.’

‘Well . . . shouldn’t we at least offer her some food or something?’ Deborah asked. ‘And maybe a blanket?’

Not looking at her, Theuli nodded. ‘You may try, but I doubt that she will thank you for your patronage, however well-intended.’

Carrying a small oil lantern, Deborah spotted the Imp huddled on the ground, just inside the entrance to the barn. She was hugging her knees, staring miserably in the direction of the forest. When she saw that Deborah was coming in her direction, she fled into a dark corner of the barn.

‘I’ve just come to bring you something,’ Deborah said, placing her lantern and a bundle on top of a bale of straw. ‘There’s some food and blankets here, if you like.’

‘Your help is not wanted,’ came Iniiq’s sullen reply out of the darkness. ‘Nor do I ask for your pity.’

‘Look,’ Deborah told her, ‘I’m not from this world. I don’t understand what’s going on here, but I don’t like it, and neither do my friends. They came here to help.’

The Imp was silent a moment, possibly considering Deborah’s words. And then, she asked in a voice that sounded disturbingly disembodied in the darkness, ‘Why have you come here?’

Deborah had to think for a moment. Why had she come here? With a mental shrug, she decided to be as straightforward as she could.

‘I don’t know, exactly. It’s like there are things that have happened to me, and somehow there’s a pattern to them, and it leads here.’

‘What sort of things?’ Iniiq asked, approaching out of the darkness like dawning clarity, moving into the light of the lantern.

Bad things,’ Deborah replied quietly, and as she said those words, the darkness around her seemed to echo them menacingly.

Perhaps hearing more than Deborah’s words, Iniiq said, ‘Is foolish to try to fight magic when you have none. Or have you left your magic behind?’

‘There is no magic in my world,’ Deborah replied sadly. ‘It’s something that people like me . . .’ her throat constricted around an inexplicable pang of grief as she said this, ‘It’s something that people like me can only dream about.’

‘No magic?’ Iniiq breathed in disbelief. She asked, hesitantly, ‘Is this why Pixie inside has no Power? Did your world take it from her?’

‘I don’t know,’ Deborah replied, but the Imp’s question struck her with a pang of misgiving. ‘I’m not sure.’

But the Imp seemed all too sure. ‘Elves do very bad things to people. Even to each other.’ In a small, defeated voice, she added, ‘And to me.’

The next morning, Ralph, Deborah, Doc, and Theuli assembled to watch Pran and Malina mount a pair horses and leave for the forest. Theuli had to assist Malina onto the horse’s back. Once Malina had gained the saddle, she looked very nervous.

‘Just try to move with her,’ Theuli said reassuringly. ‘There is no need to worry; she won’t bolt, and she won’t let you fall.’ Malina tried to smile and appear confident, though she instinctively knew that she fooled no one.

Pran called Iniiq from where she was hiding in the barn. She came slowly, rubbing sleep out of her eyes, and stood uncertainly in the doorway.

‘Iniiq,’ Pran said quietly, ‘we are going in search of those places I know of nearby, where the Earth Mother has been known to show her presence. I require your assistance.’

Her fear of entering the forest showed plainly in her face. ‘My assistance? For what do you need this?’

‘To help me speak to your people. If I try to approach them without you, they will flee from my presence.’

She glared at the ground darkly. ‘If I enter the forest, my own people will most likely kill me, as you well know.’

‘You will ride with me, and therefore come to no harm, at least in my presence,’ he said. ‘Come.’

She approached, studying the ground, and stood beside his stirrup. ‘I will walk.’

‘I think not,’ he said, and leaning over, caught her under the arms and lifted her lightly, placing her sideways on the saddle before him.

Theuli approached them, and touched the Imp lightly on her bare leg. ‘I suggest that when you are done, that you leave the Elf Kingdom as others before you have done. Take heart, for I foresee you leading others away from this place. Tell any whom you meet upon the way to do the same, whichever of the Faerie Folk they may be, for there is a darkness descending upon the Elf Kingdom. Please, go in peace. Not all Elvenkind is your enemy.’

The Imp tried to muster what little dignity she possessed, and replied, ‘That may be. But I see less help for my sort than I see your own self-interest, you and your Elvenkind. I have felt the touch of this darkness you speak of, and know that it comes solely from your King and his lackeys.’

‘The King,’ said Pran in a tight voice, ‘will someday be made to answer for his actions, I assure you.’ The Imp turned to him, an angry retort on her lips. But Pran’s mien silenced anything she might have said. He clucked to his horse once and they left, the timeless forest seeming to absorb their very essence into itself the way rainwater vanishes into the sea.

Watching them go, Ralph found his feelings tangled with an unfamiliar anxiety.

‘I don’t believe it!’ he muttered to himself in wonder, unaware that Theuli listened at his shoulder. ‘I didn’t think she’d have that kind of nerve.’ Finally noticing Theuli’s presence, he said, ‘Does she have any kind of idea what she’s getting herself into?’

‘She does,’ the Elf woman replied distractedly, but she was thinking more of the danger to her husband and family than anything else.

Swallowing, biting down on his own conflicted feelings, Ralph left and began making his way towards the corner of the barn which was the blacksmith shop.

Chapter 11

The Dance Of Life

If Life is light,

and Death darkness,

then what be a life

lived in darkness?’

Artur Klaas

Ralph spent the entire morning and the better part of the afternoon experimenting with the old forge in the back of the barn. It was hard work pumping the bellows to keep the charcoal burning hot, while alternately working the metal. He was not in shape for such work, but pushed himself to do it all the same. Flushed and streaming perspiration from the radiant heat, shoulders, torso, and arms aching from prolonged exertion, he smiled with pleasure, enjoying the familiar fire-and-brimstone smell of the forge, and the almost magical glow of molten iron.

Guided by an innate feel for the craft, which may as well have been instinct, the hot metal seemed to come alive in his hands, so to speak. In no time he had forged a new blade for the sickle, hardening and sharpening it to a fine edge. He realised that it was a very average grade of iron he had fashioned; nevertheless, it was in every way superior to its predecessor, and would hold a fine edge for a much longer time.

Encouraged by this success, he began creating a number of other artifacts; horseshoes, nails, a draw-knife, and lastly, a long kitchen knife. This last he spent much time on. He had found a bit of metal which he thought to be nickel, and mixed it in with the molten steel, along with some carbon. Hoping to produce a higher grade of steel by working the carbon in and the impurities out, he first raised the forge’s temperature. He did this by mixing in with the charcoal what Pran had told him was a poor grade of coal that smoldered rather than burned, which Theuli’s father had long set aside. The result was a much higher heat, and soon his metal was close to being white-hot. He then began hammering the metal, folding it back on itself, hammering it out again, reheating it and hammering it once more, repeating the process for hours. When he was satisfied with the consistency of the metal, he shaped the blade, annealed it, and affixed to it a wooden handle.

It was late when he finished. Returning to the house, going in through the back door which opened near to the kitchen area, he found Theuli sitting at the table, mincing dried herbs with a paring knife and placing them in small glass jars, each sealed by a wooden stopper, which she kept in a rack on the inside of a cupboard door.

Smiling, she asked Ralph to sit down. ‘I have kept your supper warm. The others are helping some men a few miles down the road towards town.’ She got up and went to the stove. Ralph had to stifle an automatic impulse to follow and make himself useful.

Smiling to herself, thoughtfully, Theuli said, ‘My father, too, used to spend many hours over that forge, losing all track of time. I had almost forgotten.’

Before sitting down, Ralph presented the kitchen-knife to Theuli. ‘I heard you complaining about the one you were using,’ he explained.

She stared at the blade in wonder. ‘This is a fine piece of work! But what is it made of? It does not look like iron. Why is it possessed of such a sheen? It looks almost to be made of silver.’

‘Trade secret,’ replied Ralph with a smile as he reseated himself. ‘Give it a try.’

To her surprise, and his, she cut an apple on the cutting block, and the knife cut deeply into the wood almost effortlessly.

Scratching his head, he muttered, ‘Must be very soft wood.’

Lifting an eyebrow she said, ‘It is very hard wood. You see?’ she said, indicating, ‘I have never been able to make more than a scratch upon its surface.’

Ralph was apologetic. ‘I’m sorry! Maybe I should have tried it out on something first-’

She shook her head. ‘No apology is needed; I will just have to remember to use it with due caution. But I must ask you what metal this blade is fashioned from.’

‘I just mixed in some carbon, and a little of what I thought was nickel,’ he replied.

‘Nickel?’ she asked, turning to him, frowning. ‘I do not know this word. Would you show me.’

Taking a lantern from a peg where it hung near the brick stove, she lighted it and led the way outside to the barn, and to the corner where the forge, now growing cool, lay quiet and idle.

When she saw the metal he had added to the steel, her brow furrowed. ‘This is baromiéne.’ Seeing his incomprehension, she added, ‘They are rock crystals. I have never known them to be of any use, except perhaps as an ornament. Children find them amusing . . . these were no doubt left here by Rani and Zuic.’

‘Hm-m-m. They are probably made of mineral deposits with lots of nickel and chromium in them. That still wouldn’t explain why the blade was so sharp, though. I mean, it should have been a bit sharper, and held an edge a lot longer, but that’s all.’

‘I did not realize that you had such an exceeding knowledge of ironmongery,’ she said, a note of respect in her voice. ‘I would like Pran to see this when he returns, if you don’t mind.’

He shrugged. ‘Sure. But I’m not what you could call “knowledgeable.” This is nothing compared to what some people can do with metals, at least not where I come from.’

‘Ah-h,’ Theuli said in comprehension, ‘Pran has told me that although your people have no magic, they seem to have found other means to vie with the Natural World.’

‘Well . . .’ Ralph muttered thoughtfully. ‘When you say it like that, it doesn’t sound like such a good thing.’

‘Is it a good thing?’ she asked him seriously, as they tacitly began making their way back to the house.

They had made their way to the back door, and were entering the kitchen area, as Ralph considered his reply. ‘That’s a hard question to answer,’ he finally replied as he seated himself at the table.

Theuli got his supper ready, then made herself a cup of herbal tea with water from a large copper kettle which sat, perpetually hissing, on the back of the stove, and sat down across from him to listen.

Between mouthfuls, he said, ‘In the place I live, before my people came along, there was nothing but natural wilderness, and people, who lived like the animals did. I mean, not like animals, but they lived in the wild like they were part of it, without trying to change it like we did. Well, no, that’s not quite right. They changed it, but in ways that weren’t as damaging

‘Then, my people came, and kicked everyone and everything off their own land. I guess they thought they were better or something.

‘Anyway, the people who lived there before, since time immemorial, were forced into little areas called “reserves.” This was a really bad thing to do to many of them, because their way of life depended on being able to move around, following herds of animals. The ones living on “reserves” kept getting their land taken away from them, too, and they were forced to live in places where hardly anything would grow.

‘Over time the natural wilderness and the wildlife vanished. Gone forever. The best land, which was taken over by my ancestors was cleared for farms, roads were put in, and cities were built. The wildlife disappeared because we took all the land, and the animals had no place left to go.

‘At the same time, it’s not like my people were intentionally bad, or evil. They had immigrated, trying to get away from what they called the Old Country. I guess they wanted freedom, and a chance to own their own bit of land. Things were generally awful where they came from. And they were pretty ignorant in those days. I really don’t think that they had much, if any, idea of what they were doing. Even so, what they ended up doing was pretty horrible, when you think about it.

‘For a long time, everything seemed like it was going their way, and people like my granddad, and five or six generations before him, were about as happy and satisfied with life as people can be.

‘But they had left the Old Country because too few people had too much wealth and too much power, and there were just too many people. Eventually, in the place I live, which the people from the Old Country used to call the New World, the same thing started happening all over again. Too few people ended up getting too much wealth and too much power, and everything started to turn sour.

‘We have something called technology, which was supposed to make things cheaply, and make doing things easier. I guess that was true in the beginning. But as the people who made technology got better and better at it, things started getting worse, because as the population got bigger, fewer and fewer people were needed to do things. See, we make these things called machines, which do the same work people do. Except that one machine can do the work of hundreds, sometimes thousands of people.’

He sighed. ‘Except it’s much bigger and more complicated than that. Doc knows more about it than I do. He’s seen a lot more than I have, and he thinks about this stuff all the time. But I think he would agree with me that . . . people just don’t live right. For one thing, they’ve gotten too far away from Nature. And instead of trying to control their own lives, they leave the running of things in the hands of others, who can never do the right thing, because the people they represent have completely lost touch. Everyone seems to be lost in his own selfish little world. And nobody seems to be on the right track.’

Theuli seemed to be holding her breath.

‘Which is?’

Ralph finished his last bite, washed it down with a drink of water, putting his other arm up in a gesture of frustration. ‘How should I know?’ Setting his glass down again, he said, ‘Things have just gone too far. We can’t do away with the things that cause so much damage, because now we depend on them to survive. It’s like we’ve fixed things for ourselves so that we can’t go back.’

As he said this, they could hear the others returning. Doc came in the back door carrying his black bag, and took some instruments out of it wrapped in a bloody cloth. He took an old, little used pot from the bottom of one of the cupboards, filled it with water from the hand pump, and placed it on the stove. He then took the bloody cloth and its contents outside for a bit. When he returned, the cloth was damp, his implements clean. Nevertheless, he placed cloth and implements into the pot of water of the stove to boil. To the question in Ralph’s eyes, Doc smiled oddly and said, ‘Wish I had an autoclave right now. Seems my services came in quite handy after supper, while you were still out pounding metal in the barn.’

Deborah joined them, looking a little green. Rani and Zuic were with her, and seemed to find her demeanour amusing.

‘Why don’t you sit down?’ Theuli suggested.

As she did so, Deborah responded to the question in Ralph’s eyes, ‘Doc made me help him do a little surgery. Rani and Zuic ended up being more help.’

Rani giggled. ‘Deborah had to throw u-’

‘It’s past time for you two to be in bed. Go, get your bath ready,’ Theuli said quickly, and began preparing them a light bedtime meal.

‘May we help Doc again?’ Zuic asked, in all seriousness, reluctant to leave.

To Doc’s smile, she said, ‘Yes, if he requires it. Now go, both of you.’

The two left with reluctant alacrity.

‘So what happened?’ Ralph asked when they were gone.

‘Oh-h-h,’ Doc drawled, choosing his words, ‘some Men were trying to change a wheel on a wagon a couple of miles down the road. One of them got caught underneath when it slid off its blocks and turned over on him. Crushed his leg pretty badly. I had to set a couple of compound fractures, and fish out several splinters about yay long-’ he indicated a length of about two or three inches.

‘Ouch,’ Ralph winced. ‘How’s the guy doing?’

‘Well, if you go by the way he and his friends were acting when I finished, you’d think a miracle had been performed, and he was going to run the rest of the way to town.’ He chuckled, and pulled something out of his pocket. ‘The Man’s name was Arvann. He insisted on giving me a pair of enormous sacks full of vegetables for my trouble, which are sitting out on the back stoop. You can put them in the root cellar; I can hardly shift them, even with the kids’ help. Oh, yes, and he gave me this as well . . .’

He passed a small but heavy object to Ralph, who admired it uncomprehendingly. Its significance was not lost on Theuli, however.

‘That is a grom-ti!’ she said in pleased wonder. ‘Here, let me show you.’ The object resembled a top made of solid bronze, intricately carved with strange letters in rows upon its surface, as fine as filigree. She set the grom-ti on its point on the table, where it stood balanced, without spinning. While the others watched in surprise, she flicked it off balance with her fingers. It quickly righted itself.

‘What’s it for?’ Ralph asked her.

‘It is said to bring you aid when you most need it,’ she replied with a smile. ‘When aid is given, the custom is to pass it on to another; usually to the one who has helped you.’

‘I couldn’t help but overhear what the two of you were just talking about,’ Doc said.

Ralph shrugged. ‘So? What do you think?’

‘I think,’ Doc replied, ‘that people will wake up one day, at the last minute, when it may or may not be too late. In the meantime, I think that people like ourselves can only do the best we can, and watch and wait.’

The empathic look which passed between Doc and Theuli was not lost on the others.

The next morning, Deborah arose early to do the household laundry. She made her way to the stream as Malina had done. Never having washed clothes in a stream before, she hoped that Theuli’s instructions would prove useful.

As Theuli had warned her, it was hard work. She soaked the clothes, rubbed them with a soap bar which felt slightly caustic, and worked the dirt out on one of the smooth stones she had seen the Elf-woman use before.

Theuli didn’t like the idea of Deborah’s going off alone, especially not after Malina’s encounter with the Imp. But afterwards, the need for caution seemed unwarranted, so she allowed Deborah to begin the washing alone. Ever cautious, though, Theuli had said that she would join Deborah before too long, using the pretence that the Human girl would need help carrying the wet clothes back to the house.

Deborah paused as Malina had done, to rest her tired back and shoulders, and to take in the beautiful scene around her; the quiet, crystal-clear stream, the lazy willows, the quiet hiss of the wind in the trees, the grassy banks of the stream, dotted with beds of herbs and wildflowers . . . she found herself wishing that she could somehow take this benign tranquillity inside herself, and-

But such thoughts were ridiculous, unattainable, and tormenting to dwell upon. Turning her attention back to the task at hand, she soon found herself working automatically, lost in various rhythms, the irrhythmic sounds of nature, like the sounds of the breeze and the stream, working as counterpoint against the steady, periodic sloshing of laundry being soaped, dipped, scrubbed, wrung, soaped, dipped, scrubbed, wrung . . .

As she worked, she smiled to herself, suddenly. ‘Well, now I’ve seen everyone in their naked pelt, as my grandmother used to call being naked; or making embarrassing noises on the . . . what did Theuli say her mother used to call it . . . oh, yes! the thundermug.’ She almost laughed out loud at this apt but rude description of the commode. She found herself shaking her head, inwardly, amazed that one could get used to such things in so short a period. The women took turns doing the bathing, their rotation depending entirely on juggling other chores and duties. They would then finish by bathing each other . . .

It was a labour they all seemed to greatly enjoy; it brought all of them closer together, inviting harmless curiosity in some cases, forced more difficult curiosities to be dealt with. The first time Deborah had bathed Pran, something she had only been allowed to do, once the act of bathing others had become well-established as part of her routine, she’d had a difficult time not to stare. His body was solid, lithe, hard muscle, sharply defined, with not an ounce of extra fat anywhere. And he had so many scars!

Like a child, as she bathed him, she asked him about his various battle-marks. With a patient smile, as though giving her a tour of the map of his life, he had shown her most of them, telling her enthralling, amazing stories in the meantime, of how they’d been acquired.

The following day, Theuli had told her, as the two women prepared a meal in the kitchen, that Deborah was not to believe all that Pran had told her regarding his war-wounds.

‘He was,’ the Elf woman confided with a smile, ‘having a little fun at your expense. Most of those injuries he got working on the farm.’

Deborah had to smile; to her surprise, instead of feeling miffed, she felt closer to Pran, for his having had it on with her

‘Funny,’ she thought to herself, ‘that the men will wash the children, but will only wash the women in special cases, as Pran will with Theuli sometimes, at the end of a long day, when she’s really tired.’ She asked Theuli about this, and had received a thoughtful shrug in response.

‘I’d never really thought about it,’ the Elf woman told her. ‘But there is . . . a sort of unspoken taboo, I guess you might say. It is odd, though, when you think about it; that one can so easily accept a woman, any woman, giving a man his bath. But when the rôles are reversed, it seems to completely change the connotation . . .’

Deborah found herself agreeing for the most part, thinking it was a matter more of instinct than of . . . well . . . anything else-

The word instinct seemed to touch her in an almost piquant physical manner, and she shuddered, feeling an almost sexual thrill . . . as though she had been touched . . . though in some indefinable, oblique manner . . .

No, it was some sort of illusion! No one had actually physically touched her. But she found herself looking around, certain for no discernable reason that she was being watched, or that she had sensed . . . what? No, she had heard something . . . a sort of melody that sounded like the light breeze, as though they were one and the same. Pulling the wet clothes from the water, she set them on a flat rock so they wouldn’t wash away in the current. Then, gingerly crossing the stream, bare feet uncertain on the smooth boulders, coolish water lapping at her ankles, she began making her way towards the alluring sound or music, which affected her like staring at an impossible object composed entirely of light; an indefinable and emotionally breathtaking manifestation which only barely bordered on being comprehensible to her senses.

As she gained the far bank, there was a rustle as of fabric, and some nearby bushes were disturbed, but she saw nothing. The music was getting louder now. Or was it music? The harder she tried to listen, the more, yet less distinct the sound became. Finally, her way was barred by a hedge. Trying to move silently, she pushed her way through this, and stopped in wonder. The hedge formed a wide circle, perhaps fifty feet across. In the center, a group of small women, about the same height as Malina . . . yet very different . . . were dancing to the strange music, which seemed to be all around them. There were dozens of them, similar in dress and appearance. They were slight, lithe and graceful, and bathed in an eldritch presence that was either light or music, or both.

Deborah tried to straighten up a little, when a twig broke beneath her foot. The dancers stopped, in as perfect unison as when they had been dancing. For a heart-stopping moment, she was afraid the dancers would attack her or flee. Instead, one of them approached her.

‘You must help us finish the Dance,’ the small woman said in annoyance. ‘You have broken the Circle.’

‘But I do not know the dance,’ Deborah replied.

‘Have you not heard the music?’ the dancer asked her.

There was something odd in the timbre of the way the dancer said the word music that carried with it something elusive and alarming, but Deborah nodded, mutely.

‘Then you will know the Dance. But you are unlike us,’ she said, appraising Deborah in an unsettling way. ‘You must do it at the center of the Circle, else the Balance will be lost.’

Almost with a volition not her own, Deborah did as she was told, stepping into the center of the circle. At once, the dancers began moving together in perfect unison once more, as though she wasn’t there at all.

‘I know this,’ she thought, wondering how “knowing” such a thing was possible, for the dance and the music and the light, she soon discovered, were one and the same thing.

Something is going to happen! The thought was both frightening and exhilarating. She felt herself . . . sort of expanding . . . though that wasn’t really the right word for the strange sensation rising within her. Paradoxically, she felt herself being drawn deeper and deeper into the dance, and into the light. Suddenly, at one end of the hedge, she saw a tunnel open through the dense brush, down which leaves were falling, as though the mouth of the tunnel ran straight down into the ground, rather than parallel to it. The source of the warm light was moving towards them from somewhere beyond the end of the tunnel . . .

Something is going to-

Something crashed into her, even as the light enveloped the dancers, and she was pulled roughly from the circle, half-dragged through the hedge. What- ?

It was Theuli, watching Deborah with horror.

The hedge was gone, as was the light.

‘Where did they go? Where are the dancers?’

‘Deborah!’ Theuli shouted into her confusion, ‘Look at me.’ Deborah found herself somehow locked into the Elf-woman’s gaze, unable to look away. After a moment, however, Theuli relaxed, seemingly satisfied with what she saw.

‘That was foolish! What possessed you to join in the Circle?’

Feeling both baffled and ashamed, Deborah said, ‘I don’t know. I heard the music, and followed it here. When I got here, I interrupted the dance, and one of the dancers told me that I had to join them, so I did.’

Theuli breathed a shuddering sigh. ‘You were only moments away from being lost to us.’

Deborah’s look was a study in guilty incomprehension.

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Then learn!’ said Theuli intently. ‘Those dancers were Sprites, engaged in the Dance of Life. You almost . . . how can I say it? They were in the midst of a rite called the Joining.’

Deborah stared, still waiting for an explanation that made sense to her.

‘You do not understand,’ said Theuli, ‘but harken; you were almost lost, even to yourself. Come, let us finish the washing and return to the house. Malina and my husband should be returning soon.’

Pran and Malina returned two days after their departure, late in the evening. Iniiq was not with them. Rani and Zuic had gone to bed some hours before, and the others gathered at the table hear Pran’s tale. Theuli, with Deborah’s assistance, meanwhile went about making a late meal. Deborah sensed that Theuli needed the distraction, more than anything. There was some tension between the Elf-woman and her husband . . . or was it something else?

The three had journeyed northwards into the wood, directly toward the Imp tribe of which Iniiq was a member. They didn’t have to go far; the main group had been awaiting Iniiq’s possible return.

She had been right about their reaction to her transgression, and even when Pran explained to them that he had coerced Iniiq’s name from her, still they berated her and desired her death.

Pran then told their Elders of his intent to aid them, but threatened to withhold such aid if they didn’t recant. After much angry debate, they promised to uphold their judgement, until such time as the Search was over.

Again, Pran was meant to refuse, but Iniiq, speaking for herself, had said, ‘There is no use trying to dissuade them. If they promise to spare me, that promise would soon be broken, regardless. Let us get on with the matter at hand; this arguing is pointless.’

‘Not if your life is spared!’ Malina had said.

To that, Iniiq didn’t reply.

They followed a course north by northwest, along a trail which led to a tiny river called the Vassar. A small stone bridge crossed at this point, but they turned to the right, taking a trail that followed the river northeast. The ground was very rugged, with low, rocky hills, and birch and alder forest becoming interspersed with pine. There were several waterfalls here, and deep, narrow ravines, and everywhere there were ferns and mushrooms, toadstools and poisonous bleeding-hearts, devil’s club, and some sort of low evergreen shrub which bore fruit in every stage of development, starting out as a white berry which later turned red, then black as it ripened.

Malina Pixie senses, though stunted, as her powers were greatly diminished without her Pixie dress, were nevertheless far keener than Elf or Imp, and she guided them unerringly in their search of places where echoes of the Earth Mother’s presence could still be felt. Finally reaching such a spot, she was thankful when they stopped by a wide pool at the bottom of a waterfall. Her thighs were raw and very sore from riding. It wasn’t long before she noticed that the pool seemed almost perfectly circular. A cliff of rock at the north end, down which the water fell in a wide, transparent sheet, reminded her vaguely of the glass she’d seen in Rowf’s and Doc’s homes.

Pran dismounted, asking the others to remain where they were. He took a trail which led in behind the falls, where apparently there was a large cavern. To their surprise, when he returned, he was as dry as before he had entered. Their surprise turned to misgiving, however, as he addressed the group.

‘The Watersprites have not been here for some time. Where they have gone, I cannot guess, but it is clear that they have left. I do not think that they intend to return.’

One of the Elders, Olix, said, ‘Why do you believe this to be so?’

Pran held up a stone, roughly the size of his fist, which he had taken from the cave. At one time, it had been semi-transparent, veined with swirls of pale blues and ambers. The stone looked as though it had been burned. ‘This is an Ulssar Stone, used for communing with the Earth Mother, and for the Water sprite’s rituals. They are very rare; not all Water sprites possess them. They would not willingly leave this behind, and it has been destroyed. I fear there has been killing here. Do you not feel it?’

The Elder, Olix, approached him and took the stone. From her garment, she produced a short, twisted wand, made of some root, and touched the end of it to the Ulssar Stone. For a brief instant, there was a dull gleam from deep within the stone, and her aged hand trembled as she mumbled a quiet, eldritch song of power. When she was done, tears were coursing down her wrinkled face, her shoulders stooped with more than mere age.

‘Ah-h-h, my heart! Even the little ones. You . . . you . . .’ she faced Pran with inarticulate rage, her frail frame shaking.

For a moment, even Pran was numb with horror as he realised what had taken place here. Elves had raided this place. Elves had slain every Watersprite . . . even to the last child. Malina, however, betrayed surprisingly little expression; what little she did show could easily have been mistaken for tired resignation.

Everywhere it was the same. Every enclave had been systematically raided, the occupants either killed or driven off. What had once been a living, vibrant forest, full of Faerie creatures and magic, now felt as desolate and empty as a wilderland. The trees themselves seemed to clench the silence about them, as though they were appalled by the violence; or perhaps it was that their voices were stilled forever because the magic was gone.

That night, the Imps held a vigil around the ruined stone, the Elders performing some secret rite, away from the sight of Pran, Malina, and Iniiq. In the morning, Olix approached them, a glowing object in her withered hand.

In shape it appeared to be the Ulssar Stone. But this one was whole, unblemished.

‘Aye,’ said the Elder with a sad smile, ‘it has taken all my strength, but I have accomplished a mighty Healing.’ She approached Iniiq, and to the girl’s astonishment, handed her the stone.

‘We have determined your punishment. You shall seek out others for a time, using this stone. If you should chance to find any upon the way, you must warn them to leave the Elven Kingdom, for it is no longer our home.

‘We are leaving, to seek the Earth Mother elsewhere. Where your journey will take you, I cannot see, for my vision fails me. My time is coming to an end.’

Iniiq fell to the woman’s feet and wept.

‘Ah, daughter,’ the old woman said, stroking the girl’s head tenderly, ‘try to be brave. You have a long journey before you, and mine is nearly done. That is the way of things.’ The Elder’s tears belied her words however, and she shuffled off as though something fundamental within her was broken.

As Iniiq watched her go, she said so quietly that Pran and Malina scarcely heard her, ‘Twice now you have given me life . . . but what is my life without you?’

They went their separate ways then; the Imps on a journey out of the Elf Kingdom, Iniiq into the wilderness, alone, and Pran and Malina back to their family and friends.

Chapter 12

A Trip Into Town

By the pricking of my thumbs . . .’

As the household sat down to breakfast, Theuli quickly refilled the wall salt, a small wooden box with hinged lid that hung on the wall near to the stove, from which salt was meted out for cooking and preserving. Rani looked on guiltily as her mother did this, having repeatedly forgotten to perform this chore, even after being reminded a number of times. Her mother smiled, however, and said, ‘I know , you were busy,’ and towseled her daughter’s hair to show that she wasn’t put out. She then handed Pran the knife Ralph had made as she sat down beside her husband, telling him how unbelievably sharp it was, and what it had done to her prized cutting-board. He glanced only momentarily at the sheen of the blade, tested the keenness of its edge on his thumb, muttered something like “very nice,” but said nothing more about it, and set it down. However, as soon as breakfast was over, he took Ralph aside and quietly asked him to come out to the blacksmith shop and make something else- an arrowhead.

Mystified by the Elf’s request, Ralph obligingly began performing the task with Pran watching carefully over his shoulder. The work did not go quickly; getting the old forge set up for producing a much higher heat and firing it up, adding carbon and baromien to the molten iron in a small makeshift kiln, pouring a sand-cast bar of the alloy, allowing it to air-cool a few times, then reheating and hammering out the white-hot metal until the consistency was right, took much time.

There were shuttered windows on either side of the forge, and a pair of louvers in the roof directly above it, which Pran opened with a long pole as the heat came up. He opened wide the barn doors and those to the hay loft as well, bringing in a welcome draught of cool morning air. He noted wryly that Ralph seemed quite oblivious to the heat, apparently taking no notice at all. If anything, the big Human was enjoying himself immensely, immersed in his craft with the same tireless enthusiasm as Theuli’s late father.

At last, Ralph examined the metal closely and seemed satisfied with its consistency. Instead of reheating and folding the glowing alloy back on itself this time, he began shaping it on the anvil with a small but heavy hammer, pausing a couple of times to flex his left hand, which was cramped and tired from gripping the tongs. In no time at all, he deftly shaped the head, and finished up by cooling it off in a small cask of water. He then sharpened it to a keen edge on an ancient treadle-powered whetstone. Once this was accomplished, he grasped it with the tongs once more, placed it back in the forge and reheated it to a bright red, withdrew it from the heat and watched carefully for changes in colour as it air-cooled, then plunged it back into the water at just the right instant to anneal it.

Pran took the finished arrowhead from him and mounted it on a shaft. The two of them then went outside, blinking for a moment in the bright sunshine. With Ralph watching at his side, wondering how his handiwork would perform, Pran strung the bow he had brought, nocked the arrow, drew, and released the shaft at a thick oak tree which grew beside the barn. With a sound like “thup”, the arrow vanished into the trunk. Moving almost at a run, they went to see what the arrow had done. Peering into the hole where the arrow had gone, they could see a diamond-shaped slit of daylight. The arrow had gone through three feet of solid oak! They found it lying on the grass nearly fifty feet away.

Picking up the arrow and examining it, Pran was unable to conceal either his surprise or his excitement. ‘Do you realize what this means?’ he said, intently. ‘I used only enough force to drive the head part way into the wood.’

‘That we’ve just murdered a tree?’ Ralph offered.

‘Hardly,’ replied Pran with a smile of irritated tolerance at Ralph’s taking the matter lightly. ‘In all seriousness, though, I can see that you are no warrior. That will have to change. You are going to have to learn how to use a bow and sword, the sooner the better.’

‘Why?’ Ralph said, feeling a tight knot of apprehension and reluctance in his belly in response to the Elf’s words that caught him entirely off-guard. Were he presented with having to learn archery or fencing as a sport, as would be the case in his own world, the prospect would have conveyed little to his mind besides boredom. Confronted with these same tools as implements of war whose purpose was to kill, however, changed his feelings towards them diametrically.

‘Because,’ Pran replied, his tone conveying both the import of his words and the personal experience that lay behind them, ‘that is the way of things in this world. Such skills are as necessary as hunting and tilling the soil, should you value your life, your property, your personal sovereignty, and your livelihood. Simply making your way in this world and being accepted by your peers, depends in part on your own self-sufficiency in these areas.’

This revelation, too, came somewhat as a shock; that in this world, as in the feudal past, of which his knowledge was scanty at best, one literally had to be prepared to fight to keep what one owned, to earn respect from both friends and enemies, and to work or conduct and protect one’s business affairs. He realized at the same time that, though this place was not lawless by any means, life was far more precarious. With respect to friends and enemies, he was able to see, instantly, the way in which the strong and just would band together to keep their enemies at bay, and the cold-blooded way that an enemy would exploit any weakness. Such a prospect would be like living at the complete mercy of a school bully. There would be no one to put him in his place except yourself, if you were able. Even your own home would not be sanctuary, should you be too weak to deal with the threat of a strong, evil-minded adversary. As well, people could only exercise their overt behaviour, good or bad, by seeking each other out, banding together for strength. What was the old saying? Safety in numbers? In such light, a saying that conveyed little to the modern mind, became a matter of life-and-death importance, as did a host of other old sayings that came to him in a sudden rush, each seeming to vie for his immediate attention and consideration.

His mind reeling with such thoughts, suddenly reminded very strongly of his grandparents, he pushed such things roughly aside for later consideration, and said, ‘What about Doc?’

‘Doc is a Healer,’ Pran replied with patient certainty. ‘Besides, he is far too old to begin learning the rigours of battle.’

With a sinking feeling, thumbs in his back pockets, Ralph ventured look towards the house. As though she were a physical manifestation of his reservations, there stood Nevana. She smiled at Ralph as though Pran didn’t exist.

‘I have been looking for you.’

With a wry look that he knew went unnoticed, Pran left the two to return to the house.

Kicking idly at a small rock poking from the ground with the toe of his boot, trying unsuccessfully not to appear awkward or uncomfortable in this girl’s presence, Ralph said, ‘You might at least have acknowledged him.’

‘A lot you know!’ she said, with a vehemence that may or may not have been feigned. ‘He has no right to talk to you about soldiering, especially when he’s finally come to his senses and become wise enough to abandon such a disgusting craft. But for this past year, Rani has hardly known her father, and Theuli had been left to raise the children and look after the farm alone.’

Ralph’s look was a study in sudden comprehension. In his world, Malina had always referred to Pran as a soldier, yet in this world, the Elf had never been seen to wear anything but civilian garb.

‘So Pran is no longer a soldier. I didn’t know that.’

Wondering vaguely how this alluring young woman had taken control so easily, so naturally, he found himself walking at her side towards the path which led to the stream in the forest.

‘No, and I would be very displeased if you were to follow his advice. War mongering, in any form, is a self-fulfilling prophecy: it doesn’t prevent violence, it attracts it.’

For some reason, he found himself wanting to believe her words, more than he accepted them at face value. As if to reinforce his desire, to distract his reticence, she said, ‘I saw the kitchen knife you made. Your talent puts the craftsmen of Narvi to shame! You could make a good life for yourself here, Ralph.’ She said his name as though trying to impress it into her mind, make it her own.

Perhaps probing the degree of pressure she wished to exert on him, he said slowly, choosing his words with a care that on the surface seemed uncharacteristic of him, ‘Nevana, there are times when external issues force people to make decisions that are not in accordance with their wishes. That is a large part of what warfare is all about. I mean, when Pran tells me that I should learn about warfare, he’s not asking me to sign up and join your King’s army. He’s only saying that, if worse comes to worst, I should at least know how to fight. For example, if a big hairy Goblin came bursting out from that stand of bushes behind you, brandishing a sword, we’d both be in a lot of trouble.’

Instead of looking the least bit frightened, however, she smiled coyly and drew nearer.

‘You cannot frighten me with tales of Goblins in this area of the Elf Kingdom. Regardless, I would much rather you carry me off and take me to a place of comfort and safety than fight Goblins,’ she said, drawing very close. ‘And that tall bed of grass beneath the shade of yon arbour over there looks very comfortable . . . and secluded . . .’

‘You certainly are direct,’ he muttered as she reached up to place her arms around his neck. And stopped.

‘Pran wishes to speak with you, Rowf.’ It was Malina, who stood in the middle of the path. She had spoken in a small, constricted voice. Her features were very pale.

At once, Ralph disengaged himself as though a spell or Nevana’s control over him had been broken, and he immediately felt guilty, as though he had been caught betraying the young Pixie woman’s trust. Nevana said nothing, but left, but as she did so gave Malina a long, cold, lingering glare. Malina stared at the ground, or at nothing, unable to look the Elven girl in the eye.

When Nevana was gone, Ralph said apologetically, and somewhat untruthfully, ‘That wasn’t quite how it looked . . .’ At the same time, he felt a bifurcated surge of anger, both at Malina for intruding, and for Malina’s because of the Elven girl’s treatment of her, and for the way she had spoken of Pran as well.

As his thoughts cleared, he could see Malina’s hurt rising to the surface. Anticipating her, forestalling her fleeing from him, he approached her and took her firmly by the hand. Before she could say anything, he said quickly, ‘You just saved me from making a big mistake. Hell, I’m not even sure I’d ever want to live in this world, and she just about had me convinced that I was going to settle down here, become a blacksmith, and live happily ever after.’ His words came in a rush, and he only half-believed them himself, if at all. But he had to say something to avoid hurting Malina badly. She deserved better of him. Without thinking, he added, ‘She doesn’t seem to have much use for soldiers, or for soldiering in general.’

At this, Malina considered him, as though seeing something new in him that was completely unknown, even to himself.

‘If not for the soldiering of Pran, Nevana and her family would have no place to live,’ Malina told him. ‘They live on his good graces, and have done so for many years. She wants the good things in life without accepting that there are often risks and responsibilities in attaining them. She sometimes reminds me of the daughter of a Merchant.’

Not knowing what Malina meant by this last comment, Ralph said, ‘What do you think about soldiering? Pran thinks I should start learning-’

‘That is your own affair,’ she said, pulling away from him, heading back towards the house.

‘Why are you so suddenly in such a rush to get back?’ he asked her. It was more than just the fact that she was heading back towards the house; there was some underlying urgency in her demeanor.

Suddenly stopping, sullenly furious as she faced him, she blurted, ‘Don’t you know that, at least? According to Elves like Nevana, at this moment you are skulking out here in the woods, having your way with this bit of inconsequential Faerie trash-’

‘Malina!’ he didn’t know whether she was simply venting her hurt, anger, jealousy, or whether she was telling him the truth. Either way, he was not about to leave such a statement uncontested or unresolved. Confused, angry, on a sudden impulse that caught even himself completely by surprise, he reached for her, took her gently but firmly by the waist, drew her to him, and kissed her, briefly but thoroughly on the mouth. Unable to do otherwise, she responded, automatically, though she made a small sound of surprise. As quickly, he released her and stepped away, leaving her gaping up at him somewhat breathlessly.

‘Don’t ever let me hear you talk about yourself like that again,’ he told her, surprised at what he’d just done, baffled by the conflict of emotions that seemed like they half-belonged to someone else. With anger (or was it something else entirely?) clenching the set of his shoulders, he stalked off, leaving Malina to watch him go, unconsciously putting her fingers to her lips, wondering if Rowf’s kiss was merely conciliatory, or whether it represented anger, friendship, or admonishment of a sort that was outside of her present realm of experience.

Or . . . and the thought almost made her head spin . . . was it, could it be something else?

The following day was that day of the month when Pran often rode to the town of Narvi to purchase goods his small farm was unable to produce for itself, like cloths, oils, ironmongery, glassware, crockery, and such. While there was nothing they really needed at present, he used the excuse that Doc and Ralph would accompany him to town, so that they might become better acquainted with the general area and surrounding lands.

When it was came to leave, Pran put his fingers to his lips, producing a feeble venting of air. As he turned ruefully to the others, before he could make another attempt, Doc grinned broadly, put two fingers of each hand in each corner of his mouth, and gave a piercing, almost deafening whistle. ‘One of my few real talents,’ he said to Zuic and Rani, who, standing nearby, gaped at the old man in pleased awe. As they left to do their chores, they were trying the trick themselves, with mixed results.

‘I never could quite get the . . . what is that expression you use? the hang of it,’ Pran told him. Muttering and mulling the expression over to himself, he finally said, in comprehension that may or may not have been correct, ‘Ah, like a portrait that will not hang straight on a wall, no matter how often you try to set it aright . . .’

Within a few short moments, a group of six horses came galloping across the fields. Pran selected three of these, and began placing blanket, saddle, and bridle on each.

To Deborah, Malina and the neighbours who had come to watch their departure, he said, ‘I would prefer that all of you remain here for now.’ As he said this, Nevana pouted in disappointment. ‘Malina, you may encounter some untoward difficulty, and Deborah, you have no clear purpose as yet. And,’ he added, ‘if we were to run into any trouble upon the road, I would feel much freer to act, knowing that all of you were here, safe.’

Just as Ralph was about to mount, Pran handed him a very large broadsword and harness. ‘Please put this on. I doubt that you have need of it, but travellers are expected to be armed.’ Pran wore a sword, a long knife in his belt, and carried an ash bow and quiver of arrows as well.

It was with a deep sense of foreboding that Ralph awkwardly strapped on a heavy weapon he had no idea how to use. And when he mounted and took his place with Doc and Pran, he couldn’t help but notice Nevana’s reserved look, or the fear in Malina’s eyes.

As Pran began having a few quiet words with his wife, Nevana approached Ralph as he mounted his horse, standing at his stirrup. Touching his leg lightly, though the subtle act conveyed an unmistakable possessiveness for all to see, she whispered vehemently, ‘Did I not warn you?’ Ralph was distracted from Malina’s reaction or her presence by noticing the very real fear in the Elf girl’s eyes. ‘If the three of you are attacked, you will be a target, because you now carry a weapon. Please, do not do this! Tell him you will not bear arms. If your weapon does not act as a deterrent, then the fact that you carry it may cost you your life!’

Nevana’s mother, a dour, sour-faced woman, suddenly called sternly to her daughter. ‘Nevana, come away from there! Leave the men to their business. It is unbecoming for you to be an interfering distraction.’ Her father, a slight, wiry man who seldom spoke, watched Ralph approvingly, however, and said to his daughter, quietly, ‘If you do not learn to be supportive, the things you want in life may come tumbling down . . . under your own weight.’

The import of his words caused her to back away and bite her lip, like a child who, fascinated by a bright and pretty object, has broken it through the mere act of touching it. But as she glanced up at Ralph once more, their was a colour to her cheeks that hadn’t been there before, and a shyness he hadn’t expected to see.

At that same moment, Ralph happened to glance around and noticed that Malina was nowhere to be seen.

The middle-aged Elf, hooded and dressed in forest garb, watched the small farm as he had for the past several days, knowing that this was the day when Pran might make his way to Narvi, and if chances were in his favour, the former soldier might be foolish enough to make the trip alone. If so, then he could be waylaid and slain, as he and his companions had planned. But as Pran got himself ready, it appeared that no wagon would be going to Narvi. What was more, there were three . . . no, there were four strangers staying at the farm, two men, and two women.

But what was this? Shading his sharp eyes with a long hand, he took a harder look at the smaller of the two women.

A Pixie! But why was she here, on Pran’s farm, dressed in such strange attire? And who were these strange Humans. On of them was very large, a warrior by the look of him. And the other! A powerful Magi, judging by the arcane device of metal wire and crystal through which he viewed the world.

At once, the hooded Elf was tense with anxiety. Marauding war parties of Goblins had already been dispatched, their supposed purpose to blanket the area so that none would escape. But Goblins hunted and killed almost indiscriminately; he had limited control over them, and there was always a chance that they would turn on him, especially when they were so far away from their austere, mountainous home in the North; isolation in these strange southern climes made them cagey, superstitious, apt to panic and lash out at the least sign of danger.

‘Well, Pran, my old friend,’ he muttered, ‘it seems that we shall have to modify our plans somewhat.’

Returning from speaking with his wife, Pran joined Ralph and Doc, who were already mounted, and they set out, Pran setting a brusque pace. Riding abreast as they crossed the fields to the west, they soon struck the trail on the west side of the farm which ran northeast, soon reaching the eaves of the forest, under which lay the road which travelled east-west.

Damn you!’ the hooded figure muttered under his breath as he watched the three riders pass by his position. Two of the Goblins with him stared at the biggest one of the three riders warily. Though Ralph hadn’t the slightest idea how to use a sword, he rode well, and Pran had chosen for him a horse fit to be a destrier, large, swift, intelligent, and incredibly tough. Fortunately for himself, Pran, and Doc, those watching were daunted.

Thinking quickly, the hooded one thought of surrounding and capturing the women, to gain information. But, being in the company of Goblins, that left no Elf to follow Pran and his companions, to spy on their movements, and inform Prince Cir of what he had learned. Finally, making the only choice available, he said to the Goblin leader, ‘Wait until dusk, when the herds and the field hands are in; then move in, surround all of the dwellings, making certain that none escape, and slay everything that moves, including the livestock. When that is done, you may burn what remains and feast to your hearts’ content, but until then, be sure; let none escape!’

The Goblin leader nodded brusquely, said some quiet, businesslike words to his companions, and they left as a body, disappearing into the forest as though their apparent existence had in truth been nothing more than a subtle movement of foliage, seen out of the corner of one’s eye.

The hooded one took one last look, then went deeper into the forest, where his mount waited, far enough away from the Goblins that it wouldn’t bolt in panic. Heading out of the woods, he eschewed the road, choosing instead to travel cross-country, to make certain that he arrived in Narvi prior to Pran and his intriguing companions.

Though Ralph loved horseback-riding, and the weather was perfect, with a cool stiff breeze and hot sun, the air smelling of grasslands, sunshine, wildflowers and forest, he found his thoughts drawn irresistibly to a certain Elven girl. And Malina! He kicked himself mentally for not having said goodbye to her, or for not having made sure that she wasn’t left alone somewhere, nursing bruised feelings over what she had seen.

‘May I have your attention, Ralph?’ Pran asked him, making him aware that this was at least the second time the Elf had tried to gain his attention. From his mount on the other side of the Elf, Doc looked on with something between a mixture of annoyed pity and slight amusement, making Ralph all the more uncomfortable.

‘Sorry,’ Ralph muttered, reluctant to be drawn into the moment. ‘Okay, I’m listening.’

‘As I said, the ride into town will take several hours,’ Pran told him. ‘We will be returning some time after nightfall. However . . .

‘Now that we are alone together, there are a few questions I would like to ask the both of you. In return, if there is anything either of you would know from me, you have only to ask.’

The two Men nodded in their turn.

Satisfied, the Elf said, ‘I need to know whether or not you intend to return to your own world at some point. As I mentioned before, the means, while it is not beyond me, involves procurement of a periapt which facilitates travel between our two worlds. Such magical devices may be used only once; in the process of translation, the periapt becomes spent. In order to send Malina to your world, then later to go there myself to retrieve her, and finally to bring all of us here, three such periapts were required.

‘Such devices are purchased clandestinely, and are normally used by the unscrupulous for evil purposes. I had great difficulty in procuring the three, indirectly, from a rather unsavoury character, a Loremaster by the name of Cyphallus, who is in the service of the King.

‘This Loremaster does not yet know for whom the periapts were purchased; to obtain them, I was forced to seek the services of yet another unsavoury character, one that Cyphallus trusts, who uses such devices to wreak great harm.’

Unconsciously, in unison, both Doc and Ralph took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

‘I wish I could give you a quick and ready answer,’ Doc told him, ‘but I haven’t been here long enough to have given any thought to the matter. For the time being, however, I haven’t the slightest intention of going back.’

Ralph was silent for some time, considering. Malina had said that she did not wish to remain in this world. But if she went back, how the devil was she going to take care of herself? She needed someone to look out for her. The problem of her lack of I.D. had never been resolved, and she was simply not equipped to deal with such things herself.

But this would mean he would have to go back with her, in effect losing any chance he might have with Nevana. And Nevana . . . he could have a proper relationship with her, with no complications or past problems (that he knew of) to sabotage a comfortable, pleasant relationship. On the other hand, life with Malina . . . he found himself unable to envision such a prospect. Life with Malina would mean sacrificing everything for the sake of looking after a confused young woman with whom it was unlikely he would ever be able to build any sort of life.

But then, why the hell had he kissed her?

At last, Ralph said, ‘I don’t know. I have to stay. At least for now. I’ve got nothing to go back to . . . and there are things here that I have to see through.’

What those things might be, Pran did not intrude upon by questioning. Instead, he nodded, and they continued on for some time in silence.

It wasn’t long before they began crossing small stone bridges of remarkable workmanship. Doc and especially Ralph wanted to stop and marvel at some of these, but Pran seemed pressed for time. Besides, he assured them, there were a good many more along the way, passing over the innumerable shallow creeks in this area, and he assured them that they would gradually increase in size and number and quality of workmanship as they drew nearer to civilization, and the river Mirrow.

The trail soon became a road with obvious wheel ruts and hoof prints, and was spotted often with manure. Grass and flowers grew thick at the center and along the sides of the road because of the natural fertilizer deposited there by horses and other livestock.

As they passed the occasional dwelling, people would wave to them and stare curiously at Doc and Ralph, leaning on a hoe or rake while standing out in a field, or leaning out a window. Pran was hailed often, responding to every caller by name.

‘Not to seem nosy or anything,’ Doc asked suddenly, ‘but what is your relationship with the other families living on your property? Do they work for you, or are they part owners? I only ask because where Ralph and I come from, things are done quite differently. Everyone either owns their own property, or else rents houses or space in buildings.’

Seeming to welcome the distraction, Pran replied, ‘Those who share my farm do so to our mutual benefit. The farm is mine in title, but serves all of us equally. And,’ he added with a smile, ‘the others are most pleased with our latest additions. Ralph’s smithing has been a most welcome boon. For several years now I have endured listening to Arlon (Nevana’s father) and Durphel, as they work out in the fields, cursing whoever made the old plough they use, though until now there had been none better made. As well, the very presence of a Healer is a great source of comfort for those of us who have children, and those who risk injury every day. You have already spared a number of our neighbours and passers-by a long and inconvenient trip to Mirrindale to receive treatment.’

Doc smiled wryly. ‘That’s pretty much how I live back home. Out in a rural area where I’m still needed since my retirement. Gives me something useful to do. Gives the folks around me some piece of mind. Speaking of piece of mind,’ he said, drawling rhetorically, ‘it would ease my mind greatly if I knew what this civil war of yours was all about.’

‘There is no civil war as yet,’ Pran replied evasively.

‘That doesn’t tell me anything,’ Doc reminded him.

Pran was silent for several long moments, apparently considering his own reticence. Finally, he said slowly, ‘In some ways it would be better for me to say nothing, and for you to find out for yourselves what is happening in the Elf Kingdom. That way you will form your own opinions, which you will do regardless, despite whatever words I deem fit to say to you regarding the matter.

‘You must understand that until recently I was a soldier in the King’s Own Fourth Cavalry. I know only those things that a soldier knows. I have heard much conjecture, and the conjecture centring on those who lead us is that they are corrupt and disorganized, that this is so supposedly because the King has become capricious and erratic, vacillating between ignoring his office altogether, or sending forth his minions on some insane and often murderous venture. But I would remind you that conjecture is not certain, first-hand knowledge.

‘I know not how it is in your world, but the workings of State here are known only to those few who participate in the affairs of State. There is the King who rules from his city of Valerian, the King’s son, Prince Cir, who governs the city of Nith, at least in name, and the Thane who governs Mirrindale, and who also oversees the town of Narvi. To truly understand what is going on in the Elf Kingdom, or to have an idea of what is to come, you would have to stand in their shoes.

‘However, I can tell you that there are deep divisions within the Kingdom, which only the blind could miss. The Faerie Folk are being persecuted and murdered, as you know. But not by the Thane’s soldiers, and seldom on the lands he governs; he will not have it so. This I know, because I know the Thane personally. The King tolerates his rebellious attitude because most of the wealth of the Elf Kingdom lies within the heavily fortified walls of the Thane’s city of Mirrindale.

‘And there are a good many other matters, many of which I am simply not privy to. Then there is the Elf Lore, which plays an all-important part in this matter. But of the Lore I will not speak; at least, not at present. For there is nothing I could tell you about the Lore that would enlighten you in the least at this time; not until you learn more about this world, and about the nature of magic itself, which is a secret carried within by all of us; it is a matter, about which only personal experience may render enlightenment. Words from me, in that regard, would avail you nothing, and might later lead inadvertently to misperception and thwarted comprehension. Besides,’ he added wryly, ‘I know less about Lore than I do about affairs of State, so be forewarned! Anything I tell you on either subject may turn out to be so much . . . “hot air”, as you seem wont to call it.’

The road came at last to a low bridge straddling a shallow, slow-moving river, perhaps a furlong wide, which lay directly across their path. It flowed from the south, to their left, and disappeared into the forest to their right. Up to the point where it reached the forest, the river was lined on either side by huge, ancient-looking, hoary weeping-willow trees. The moss-covered stone of the bridge had a blunted, worn look, and the road they were presently on continued across this, under the eaves of the forest, until it turned gradually to the right and disappeared from view, as the eaves of the forest curved away northwards. On the near side, however, another road intersected which followed the river’s southerly course towards the distant mountains.

To Ralph, the forest looked ominous where the river entered it. Enormous deciduous trees of a shorter, darker sort leaned far out over the river from either bank, creating a dark tunnel which seemed heavy with a disquieting, oppressive stillness. The trees’ trunks and branches appeared rough and angular, their dense foliage shaggy and dark, creating a disturbing portrait of sinister watchfulness. Small leaves, motes of dust, and the down from long trailers which hung thickly from these trees’ outer branches, seemed to be perpetually falling, like a cloying cloud of debris which refused to settle. Noticing his look, Pran stopped momentarily and said, ‘This river is called the Mirrow. A terrible battle was fought here between Goblins and Elves, many a long age ago. I believe there may have been some Men and Dwarves involved as well. Old tales tell us that the river was full of the dead, and that for many years its waters ran black and foul. Now, although it runs as before, yellow with silt, this place still carries an evil memory of death and killing.’

Turning his horse to the left, he resumed their journey once more, and began following the river-road upstream towards their destination.

‘Where did the Goblins come from?’ Ralph asked him.

As if the question was more complex than it appeared on the surface, Pran was long considering his answer. Presently, he said, ‘North beyond the Elidh-Vragh mountains.’

‘How far north is that?’ Doc put in.

Pran thought for a moment. ‘At a hard pace, perhaps a fortnight’s ride or more. More than twice that time for them, for no horse will bear them.’

They were coming across bigger farms now, with more and larger houses and barns. And they began to meet travellers on the road as well. Several times they had to leave the road to the left to go around creaking ox carts both laden and empty. Some of the travellers were Men, who eyed Doc and Ralph speculatively as they passed. A few hailed Doc and Ralph, assuming the two would know their tongue. When Pran informed the Men otherwise, they stared in wonder, obviously burning with curiosity. After passing, Pran remarked with relief that the Men were not travelling in the same direction.

‘Where is all this north-bound traffic going?’ Doc asked Pran, suddenly, frowning. ‘So far we’ve seen over a dozen heavy wagons and twice than many riders and people on foot headed towards the middle of nowhere.’

Pran responded to this by lifting an eyebrow. ‘By this, I assume you refer to the fact that the amount of goods carried on those wagons is greatly disproportionate to the number of dwellings you have seen thus far. In this you are correct. But have you forgotten the bridge?’

‘I hadn’t,’ Doc replied, ‘but the road on the other side didn’t appear to me to be that well-used. The wheel-ruts are shallow, and it looked pretty much overgrown.’

‘Ah, of course,’ Pran said in comprehension. ‘Having lived here most of my life, I take such things for granted. That road is paved, beneath, and doesn’t show the passage of traffic. By whom, no one living knows. It is of the same workmanship as the bridge on the river Mirrow. If the workmanship is Elvish, then it is the work of forebears unknown or unrelated to us.’

The road and river began to wind as they got into hillier country, and many of the low hillsides were well cultivated. Flocks of sheep and herds of cows were more frequent, tended by hearders, usually children, carrying long switches, sometimes aided by two or three wolf-like dogs that seemed to miss nothing in their cavorting vigilance. Twice they had to stop as small children herded flocks of very large, orange-footed grey and white geese across the road, honking and strutting their indignance.

And there it was! As they came around a long left turn, the town appeared suddenly between the sides of the river valley.

‘That, as you can see, is the town of Narvi,’ Pran told them.

As they drew nearer, Ralph and Doc could see that five stone bridges of varying architecture spanned the river, and that the town lay more or less equally on both sides of these. There were no large structures. Most were smaller than Pran’s house, and there were no real streets or proper rows of buildings. The scene was a bit chaotic at first. There were several areas populated by brightly coloured tents with awnings, which were obviously the stalls of various outdoor markets. Even at this distance, Doc and Ralph’s senses were assailed by the smells of wood-smoke, refuse, cooking and livestock.

As they neared the town, with its throngs of people coming and going, Pran was hailed often by Elves, Dwarves, and Men, their aspect at once deferential; a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by his companions. As before, all eyed the newcomers with frank curiosity, no doubt guessing that their attire was that of some far-off country of Men. Doc and Ralph didn’t know it, but news of their presence had spread quickly, and many had now heard of the powerful Magi residing with Pran who had miraculous powers of healing. Of Ralph they knew little, but from his size and the fact that he was armed, they suspected that he was a well-travelled warrior of great renown.

They passed through part of the town, crossed the second of the stone bridges, and approached one of the few clusters of permanent structures, which lay roughly in the middle of the part of town on the far side of the river. Pran led Doc and Ralph directly to a whitewashed stone building which had black smoke wafting from both of its two chimneys. It was clearly a blacksmith’s shop.

Dismounting, Pran was about to show Ralph and Doc how to tie the horses up to a nearby hitching post before they entered the shop, but raised an eyebrow in mild surprise when he noticed that they obviously knew how to do so already. He said nothing, but led the way.

Once inside, Ralph was set to explore the wares hanging from the ceiling and walls, his face full of longing for the craft he loved, but Pran and Doc exchanged a wry look and steered him to the business at hand. The three almost bumped into a middle-aged, caped fellow, his hooded features averted. They scarcely registered the fellow’s presence, noticing only fleetingly that his attention was absorbed in some item which did not concern them. Politely, they walked around him.

The shop was owned and run by three brothers. They were Dwarves. When the largest of the three spotted Pran, his beard was split by a wide grin. To Doc and Ralph’s surprise, he bowed, as though such a thing came perfectly natural to him.

‘Pran, my friend, what is your pleasure?’

‘Barodan,’ Pran replied, bowing fractionally. ‘I would like to know,’ he said, removing something from his pocket, ‘if you have ever seen the like of these.’ It was Ralph’s arrowhead, and the knife he had made for Theuli, wrapped in soft leather.

Removing his leather forging-cap and gloves, and scratching his balding head, the Dwarf took the knife and arrowhead and studied them closely. ‘What metal is this? In weight it feels somewhat like iron, but there’s a luster . . . and a darkness to the metal. What is it? How has it been polished to such a sheen?’

Taking the point from him, Pran took out an arrow shaft and fitted the head onto it. Then, glancing around to make sure there were no witnesses, taking his bow and drawing it, he said, ‘Watch.’

He aimed at an oak block to which a great anvil was affixed. What Pran didn’t know was that there were great metal pins inside, which secured the anvil to the block. A trail of sparks followed the arrow out the other side, and the arrow lodged itself in a pile of metal debris. Unnoticed, the hooded stranger, there a moment ago, had disappeared.

The one named Barodan retrieved the arrow and studied the head in wonder. Speaking confidingly, intently, the Dwarf said, ‘Pran, my friend, I must ask how you came by this.’

Ralph began to answer, but Pran cut him off. ‘I know someone who makes these. He asked me about selling them here . . . but there is the problem of who is able to buy them. He is from far away, and does not seem to realize that there is no smithy, at least none that I know of within the Elf Kingdom, who is so mighty in craft.’

The Dwarf drew them off to a corner of the shop and spoke in a low voice. ‘You were very wise to tell me this. If the King’s own or Prince Cir’s began purchasing weapons such as these, there could be serious trouble, for all of us.’

Pran obviously expected this, but said, ‘Barodan, is there no one who possesses such craft? More importantly, if I were to introduce you to the craftsman who made these, would you, could you, aid him in turning them out in great number?’

Ralph, who stood by expectantly, was surprised and disappointed to see the Blacksmith’s shoulders sag fractionally.

‘This,’ he said, holding up the arrowhead between them like a talisman, ‘is more than mere craft, my friend. I am a smithy, not a magician.’

Pran, too, look crestfallen, disappointed. Then, a bleak smile touched his lips.

‘Since the death of Theuli, my wife’s, father, I have been coming to you for advice. What do you suggest I do?’

Barodan stared hard at nothing for a long moment, deep in thought, his lips compressed into a thin line. At last, he said, ‘The Thane can be trusted, as you well know. It is the King’s and Prince Cir’s spies who might be a problem. As well, the Thane’s position would be made very difficult if you were to tell him of this, for he would risk being caught between your friendship and the wrath of your less-than-exemplary Sovereigns (if I may be so bold!). The Thane has been a powerful ally to you only because, thus far, the King has had no reasonable or plausible excuse to do either of you harm. You must know that the King and Prince Cir would stop at nothing to get their hands on something like this.’

‘I fear you are right, Barodan. I thank you for your insight. Perhaps we should simply keep this trifle a secret between us, though it would have been of great aid. Good day to you.’

As they left the blacksmith’s shop, Doc said quietly, ‘If these things are so damned important, then why don’t you just have Ralph make them?’

His features set as they mounted, the Elf replied, ‘Ralph might make perhaps a dozen such arrowheads per day. A fully equipped army would require several thousand, and a steady supply of replacements. Swords . . . I would surmise that Ralph might be able to create one or two per day. Armour, perhaps a week for one man’s entire outfit. Shields . . . perhaps one or two per day. Then there are spearheads-’

‘I get the picture,’ Doc said, now understanding the Elf’s crushed elation. ‘You were hoping that it would be a simple matter of Ralph’s showing the blacksmith back there what he’d done.’

Pran sighed. ‘I wish I could make you understand how important this could have been, especially at this juncture in time. Many lives might have been saved, and an escalation of the atrocities curbed.’ He smiled without humour. ‘There is no harm done, though. At the least, the two of you have seen a bit of our fair countryside.’

But as they neared the forest, and the bridge came into sight, they saw that several riders were waiting there. From this distance, Doc and Ralph could not tell whether or not they were soldiers. There was, however, no doubt in Pran’s mind. Nor was there any doubt in his mind what they were about.

‘Let us turn, slowly, as though nothing were untoward, and begin riding unhurriedly across-country,’ he said. ‘There is something of the look of those soldiers that I do not trust.’

The moment they turned, however, the soldiers turned as well, and began to approach at a canter.

‘I do not like this!’ the Elf muttered. ‘We are going to have to make a run for it.’

‘I guess it’s a little late for fencing lessons,’ said Ralph, thinking of Nevana’s words.

Malina, from behind the curtain of one the west windows, had watched Rowf go with a nameless dread gripping her heart. She stared in the direction the three travellers had gone long after they were out of sight, hugging herself, stung by the after-image of seeing how close the Elven girl, Nevana, had been standing to Rowf, and how they had looked at each other.

Eventually, Theuli, with unspoken understanding, went to her and said, ‘They will be back by nightfall. Why don’t you come out with the others, instead of staying in here all by yourself? Deborah is beginning to wonder about you.’

Because Nevana is still here, Malina thought to herself, Nevana who is so pretty, who could have any young Elf man she wanted, who wants to take away the only thing in the world that’s worth having, to me.

And yet . . . and yet . . .

. . . and yet, there was something else . . .

‘Malina, why do you look so worried?’

Malina looking about, suddenly feeling trapped, said in a small voice, ‘I don’t know. I just feel like something bad is going to happen.’

Theuli was unnerved by this, and gazed herself out the window in the direction her husband had gone with some anxiety. A Pixie’s instincts, however diminished, were not to be taken lightly.

‘Do you think I should find a way to warn them?’

Malina was perplexed. ‘I don’t know. It feels like something bad is all around, like a noose.’

The Elf-woman looked around distrustfully. ‘Malina, is it around them, or around us?’

Malina’s eyes widened.

Wishing to avoid being trapped, Pran led Ralph and Doc through open country that was hilly, with concealing clumps of copsewood. A fear was growing upon him that he had to make his way home. Something was greatly amiss here, though he had no clear idea what that something might be.

His worst fears were confirmed when he saw the thinly stretched line of riders ahead of them, directly across their path. They were moving unhurriedly, and he knew then with cold dread that Prince Cir’s Elven soldiers were intent on murder.

‘Come!’ he shouted, wheeling his mount around, ‘we’ve got to get back to town.’ This decision tore at his heart, but there was no choice. Besides, he hoped, and it was a thin hope, that perhaps the soldiers were intent on the menfolk, and would leave the women and children alone.

The moment they turned and began riding away at a gallop towards the town of Narvi, a call went up from the soldiers, who immediately gave chase. Fortunately, Doc and Ralph had some prior experience with horses and knew how to ride with all possible speed. They gained the outskirts just after dark, and it looked as though the way to the town proper was clear. But when they reached the first buildings, their way was blocked by a line of archers. Wheeling their mounts about, they tried to make a run for it, but their retreat was suddenly cut off by a wall of soldiers bearing hunting bows and spears.

There was nowhere to go. They were trapped.

Standing beside the barn, Theuli whistled and called for the horses to come as her friends and neighbours anxiously looked on. She was answered with an ominous silence. Durus, who was Arlon’s wife and mother to Nevana and two younger siblings, a boy and girl of Zuic and Rani’s age, exchanged a look with Theuli, Mari and Durphel, who was Durus’ brother, who with Mari had four children, ranging in ages from six to thirteen. Durus said, with characteristic bluntness, ‘No offence, Theuli, but we would do well to leave this place, as soon as possible. You tell me a Pixie doesn’t trust what she scents in the air, and I say that diminished in Power or not, like the Old Wives’ Tales tell us, “A Pixie’s nose for trouble is best doubted from a safe distance.”’

‘I agree,’ said Durphel, who adamantly believed in old farm Lore where lonely farmers and Pixies were concerned. ‘We should leave for Narvi at once.’

Theuli, however, stood mired in anxiety and helpless frustration. ‘I cannot depart straightaway to Narvi. I fear for my brother-in-law, Io, his wife, Jan, and their children, Zuic’s brothers and sisters. Their farm lies east from here, away from Narvi; they must be forewarned. If they are not, I fear that something terrible may happen to them.’

‘We should stay together,’ Durus said, firmly.

‘Our first concern should be for the safety of the children,’ said Mari.

‘I think,’ said Theuli, in a tone that brooked no dissension, ‘that you should leave now, taking the children and my friends with you, and quickly, to seek safety in Narvi. I must leave immediately for Io’s farm.’

To Theuli’s surprise, as she went to leave, she found that Deborah and Malina had already conferred together, packed a few things, and were not only ready to leave immediately as quickly and quietly as possible, but were determined to accompany the Elven woman.

‘You cannot!’ Theuli said, shouldering her light pack and making her way towards the back door.

‘We can and we are!’ Deborah countered, with a stubbornness neither of the other women had ever witnessed in her before. ‘You are not going alone. Malina’s coming because she can sense danger better than any of us, and she thinks that it gets worse the farther east you get. She think’s you’re liable to run straight into it.’

Theuli visibly acquiesced, unable to argue with the sense in this. But then, she said to Deborah, ‘And why are you coming?’

For a moment, Deborah hesitated. But then, reluctantly, she said, ‘Because I had a dream last night. Something is going to happen . . . to me . . . something important. Theuli, please don’t look at me like that! It’s not like I’m going to die, or anything! It’s just that I have to go. It has something to do with the reason I’m here. I think it may very well be the reason I’m here.’

Staring at the Human girl with undisguised mistrust and apprehension, Theuli drew a stiff breath that may have been a mixture of anger and frustration.

‘Very well! But stay close to me! I do not believe that either of you are equipped to deal with what we may encounter.’

As they left the house, Theuli waited until the others were well on their way before setting out herself, with her two companions. Then, looking toward the meadow as though trying not to appear nervous, or make it obvious that she was looking for any sign of danger, she indicated with a curt nod that they were to begin their journey.

Selecting a wandering path between the low but concealing hills, she led the way to a hedge which bordered an irrigation ditch. On the other side was a continuous mound like an earthen dike, which had been made from the soil removed to form the irrigation channel. As they began following the hedge on the inside walking single-file, with Theuli leading and Deborah and Malina following her in tandem, the Elven woman said, ‘It is a good two hours’ walk to the house of my brother-in-law. This area, the Eastland Waik, is sparsely populated: there will be no aid for us if we are discovered.’

‘What does Waik mean,’ Deborah asked her.

‘It means,’ replied the Elven woman, in an unsettling tone, ‘“uncharted wilderness” in an archaic tongue of the Men who once attempted to populate these lands.’

‘Where did the Men go?’ Deborah asked her.

‘That particular race of Men is no more,’ Theuli replied, making the two younger women feel uneasy. ‘Twas they who made this irrigation channel and planted this hedge, in many ages long past.’

This knowledge only added to the unease of Deborah and Malina, who cast furtive looks at these vestigial relics of antiquity which bespoke of doomed hope. They seemed to hear, as if from a great distance, the bleat of sheep and the lowing of cattle. It seemed to them that they could feel in their very bones the wildness that had ultimately thwarted the hands and the civilizing will that wished to tame it, that Man’s inbred products of domesticity were left to wander forever, abandoned as dispossessed ghosts upon the empty grasslands.

After perhaps two hours into their journey, the dike and hedge came to a sudden end, and the three women found themselves in a transitional area; grasslands and meadows were giving way to marshes where tall rushes grew, interspersed with slightly raised areas covered by stiff, low scrub, that stood out like bald patches; and the tall deciduous forest was becoming replaced by a dense and endless copse-wood of some nondescript tree-like bush, some fifteen to twenty feet high, its canopy well above their heads. Many trails wound their way through this bush, mostly created by wild animals. At last they came to an intersection of several paths. Theuli paused before selecting one of these, turning to Malina for some sign. Without hesitation, the young Pixie woman nodded towards a wide side-trail. Looking down one of the side trails as they stood at this intersection, and which led diagonally to the left, they could clearly see the road, where it wended its way beneath the eaves of the forest.

As they went on, the trail became steadily narrower, and was crossed and re-crossed by many other small paths, which were obviously animal trails of various sorts. Their progress became steadily slower, brought on in part by a disturbing watchfulness which seemed to permeate this semi-wilderness. They stopped often to listen, for they could no longer see far ahead. The high bush and winding trails seemed to conspire to hide what lay just around each turn of the path. Deborah found herself starting to feel very claustrophobic. The air had become very stuffy and still, the trail very narrow, as though something unseen was closing in on them.

By the time they drew near to Io’s dwelling, they began to catch a faint whiff of smoke. But it was distinctly a burning smell, not like that of a cooking fire at all. Deborah and Malina looked to Theuli for some clue as to what this might mean, but the sight of the Elf-woman’s stricken look was far worse than anything she might have said.

Stopping abruptly, leading them off the trail and following a narrow animal trail where it ended in a convenient hollow in the midst of a dense thicket, she turned to the others and said, ‘Stay here! Be still and be silent! If I do not return within the hour, begin making your way to the town of Narvi, but stay out of sight of the main road.’ Without waiting for a reply, she withdrew a knife from her boot and began running in a hunter’s crouch, as though speed itself could somehow save Io’s family.

She didn’t have far to go. The concealing bush soon came to an abrupt end, the path turning sharply right as it passed along the outside of a wooden fence. Within the fence was Io’s farm, a series of low, cleared and cultivated hills, surrounded by forest.

All the buildings were gone.

What Theuli saw was enough to know that Jan and Io and their children were dead. The house had burned some time ago, and she saw the bodies of at least two of the children lying in the dirt like discarded bundles of rags. The livestock, too, were gone.

Gasping harshly, struggling to master herself, she tried to get her thoughts in order, to think about the safety of the others. Fighting for calm, and against a rising sense of panic, she tried not to flee blindly.

The welcome sight of her friends waiting for her in comparative safety, and her own pent-up need to unburden her grief, almost undid the last of her composure. But despite the giddy feeling of shock, she somehow managed to keep her wits about her.

‘They are not here,’ she told them. ‘They have left already. We must rejoin the others, as quickly as we may.’ Even as she spoke this rush of words, a peculiar light-headed feeling took hold. It wasn’t until she found herself looking into Deborah’s frightened eyes that she realized she’d almost fainted. Malina was at her side as well, her eyes wide. Groaning at her own weakness, Theuli forced herself to move.

‘Maybe you’d better rest until you’re-’ Deborah said.

‘No! We leave, now.’ Theuli replied, angry that she couldn’t control the fearful quaver in her voice. She was still white and trembling from shock, but her resolve was unshakable. The two young women stared, looking indecisive, but Theuli somehow seemed to be able to maintain a hold on their feelings as well as her own.

‘How will we do that without being seen?’ Malina asked.

‘We will cross the grasslands by night,’ Theuli replied. ‘It will be hard . . . but we must travel cross-country as swiftly as we may. I pray the others have managed to flee to safety.’

The archers surrounding Pran, Doc, and Ralph didn’t fire, but those soldiers on foot bearing spears began a chillingly professional, steady and orderly advance. As the soldiers hemmed the three in, one Elf, riding a horse and clearly not a soldier, separated himself from his companions and rode forward, as if both to assert his authority in the matter, and to demonstrate that the three prisoners could present him with no personal danger; to reinforce in the minds of all present that they were wholly under his control. Doc guessed at once that this was Prince Cir, not from any description of the Prince, as he’d heard none, but rather from the Elf’s careless authority, if not the fact that he alone wore no livery, which under the present circumstances attested that his station in life was clearly above and beyond that of the military.

The Prince was, at first glance, utterly lost within himself and drunk with arrogance. But a second look confirmed that his general appearance was otherwise very ordinary, especially when the self-indulgent luxuriance of his attire was ignored. He appeared dangerously average, if that may be said, for there was a hidden strength about him that spoke of a rabid, unbridled ferocity, when and where it could gain expression; from the shifty looks he cast about, it was obvious to all that seeking an outlet for his murderous ferocity consumed all of his attention. If the soldiers went along, the monster within the Prince would come out and show itself. If the soldiers did not, the monster would remain concealed, at least until another opportunity came along.

Doc groaned inwardly the moment the Prince began to speak. Some non-scientific instinct told him that the Elf before them was a psychopath: Doc had twice before met the acquaintance of serial-killers; one in a high-security mental facility, the other who had stalked a girl into a corner grocery store where a young James Irving Wallace was a customer. The killer was thwarted by Doc and the clerk, neither of whom had known what they were dealing with, until much later, when the killer had been caught and brought to trial.

Watching the Prince caused Doc’s comparative memory to bifurcate into two very disparate images; the obsequious prisoner and the rabid killer; the sight of the latter had quite literally made the hair on the back of Doc’s (and later, he learned, the store clerk’s) neck stand up.

Doc’s non-scientific, but unerringly accurate instinct told him also that Prince Cir was a sociopath, and what was more, a sociopath in an uncontestable position of authority.

Suddenly, much that was wrong with the Elf Kingdom, and with monarchies in general, became all-too-clear to Doc Wallace.

Not that he could articulate such things in so many words, Ralph knew instantly what they were in for the moment he laid eyes on the Prince: he had encountered his type twice before, in the person of Deborah’s brother, and her father. His kind were only tough when they’d caught a weaker person alone, or when they were surrounded by “friends”, the weak-willed and weak-minded types with little self-esteem and even less self-control, the type often found in gangs, who would either not interfere in, or would help with their bullying. When on the receiving end of the treatment meted out at the hands of such characters, Ralph well knew the best course of action was to do nothing; to say nothing; anything else would prompt such a character to act. Ralph’s grandfather, were he still alive, would have said “an excuse to act”, but Ralph instinctively knew better; that “excuse” implied intent.

Ralph knew that people like the one before him did not act with intent, that intent was for the most part beyond them. They acted more like machines made of meat, responding to stimuli; they were primitive-minded, wholly egocentric, apparently blind and heedless to the awareness and personal sovereignty of other living things; living in and for the moment, only for themselves.

The Prince’s attention was fixed primarily on Doc, whom he stared at uncertainly. He’d heard the rumours which circulated about his Powers of healing, but the arcane device the old man wore over his eyes bespoke of something else.

‘Well, Pran, you have finally demonstrated that you are indeed a traitor! Your attempt to conceal the presence of this Magi has failed, and though I deem him to be powerful, I very much doubt that he and his lone bodyguard will prevail against two score archers.’

‘I have concealed naught,’ Pran replied in a calm voice. ‘These two are travellers, new to the Elf Kingdom, and are guests in my home.’

‘If you have concealed naught,’ the Prince replied in a surly tone, ‘then why have they not been brought before Myself or the King?’

‘I was unaware,’ Pran replied levelly, ‘that Men travelling within and through the Elf Kingdom required Your leave. To the best of my knowledge, Men and Dwarves are free to come and go as they please.’

‘Not,’ the Prince said, his voice rising, ‘when their purpose is to conspire against My person or the King’s, or to abet those that participate in social discord.’

A crowd, comprised mostly of Men and Dwarves from the surrounding shops, had begun to gather at these words. Some of the Elven soldiers on foot attempted to dissuade these onlookers from gathering and listening, but were brushed aside. The onlookers made it plain that the words spoken here concerned them very much, and that they were going to stay and listen, come what may. The soldiers, looking uneasily at the Prince, let them be, but stood ready.

‘To what social discord do you refer?’ Pran said, in a quiet voice.

The import of the question was clear to all present, and was followed by a hushed silence. The Prince, however, remained surprisingly calm, and turned his attentions to Ralph.

‘Trafficking in weapons is common practice, and perfectly legal, but not when such weapons are powerful periapts designed to undermine the authority of our Elven armies. We know that this warrior is more than he appears, that he is a sorcerer as well as a smithy.

‘The three of you, and all of your associates, will pay dearly for this treason. You will be taken, forthwith, and all that you know extracted-’

‘What do you mean, “associates?”’ Doc inturrupted.

Referring to Pran, the Prince replied, ‘His family and friends, the Human woman who is your companion, and that Pixie vermin, the one that Pran and his associates have used to spy on his fellows . . . the one whose execution he was explicitly charged with carrying out, a little over one year ago . . . you see? there is nothing wrong with my memory.’ He said this last to Pran.

Gesturing carelessly to his soldiers, the Prince said, ‘Take them.’

No one moved.

Infuriated, the Prince cried, ‘Well? What are you waiting for? Do what I tell you! Take them! Or do the rest of you wish to suffer the same fate?’

Even as those words were uttered, there was momentary confusion as another group of soldiers approached on horse. The leader of this group stood in his stirrups as they drew near.

‘Hold! Hold in the name of the Thane.’

Some of this group were wearing the King’s livery, while others wore the Thane’s. Their leader rode straight up to the Prince with his sword drawn, and didn’t stop until he had the tip of his blade at the Prince’s throat.

‘Birin!’ shouted the Prince, ‘I’ll have your head-’

‘Have you or your friends been harmed,’ Birin asked Pran without taking his eyes from the Prince’s.

‘We have not,’ Pran replied, ‘but from the Prince’s words just now, I have cause to fear for my family and friends.’

This brought a glint from Birin’s eyes, and he pressed his blade firmly against the Prince’s throat. ‘Have you conspired to harm his family?’

Prince Cir smiled at this. ‘The fate of his family does not lie in my hands.’

‘Answer me!’ shouted Birin, nicking Cir’s neck and drawing blood this time. ‘Or I will strike your head from your body without benefit of trial.’

Fixing Birin with his insolent gaze, he said, ‘You wouldn’t dare.’

‘No?’ Birin said mildly. For a moment, it appeared as though he meant to put his sword up. But at the last moment, he brought it up hard, and with the flat of it caught the Prince full across the face. Crying out in pain and rage, the Prince fell awkwardly from his horse. With an animal noise, thick with the promise of violence, he got to his knees, glaring malevolently, a hand clutched to his face. Birin’s sword had cut him deeply along the entire length of his jaw; it oozed slightly- but it did not bleed.

‘Take this message to your King,’ said Birin to the Prince, who struggled to his feet, ‘for he is no longer my King.’

‘You will all die for this!’ shouted the Prince, clutching his face, holding closed his split face. ‘Before this day is out, I will have each and every one of you flayed-’

‘I find that very unlikely,’ Birin told him. ‘In the meantime, if you value your life, be silent! You will tell your King that the Thane no longer recognises his former Sovereign, and will strive for the good of all free peoples to unseat his former King. This former King will then be captured and brought to trial for crimes against certain free people, including his own, for which he will surely be put to death. Do you understand me?’

There was something very un-Elf-like about the Prince now as he licked at the blood on his hands. His smile was the mad grin of a ghoul as he glared back at them. ‘You have just signed the death-warrants of yourselves and your families,’ he hissed.

One of the soldiers rode forward, beseeching Birin. ‘Must we let this thing live?’ the soldier cried in dismay.

‘Let it live awhile longer yet,’ said Birin without taking his eyes off the Prince, ‘but mark my words, snake; at the last, when your King and those conspirators who abet his madness fall, and all his plans are thwarted and his insane works destroyed, at the last I myself will come for you, and you will suffer at my hands before you die.’

‘Your words are empty,’ hissed the Prince. ‘The King has many allies, and many, many soldiers.’ He fumbled his way to his horse and mounted. Turning to face them, laughing as though he had planned this moment himself and now relished it, he said, ‘Before, I had to be satisfied with spitting Faerie women and children. No longer. Now you will all die.’ He turned his mount and left at a gallop, his words hanging heavily in the air long after he left.

Birin, who himself was wearing the King’s livery, took stock of those around him. ‘Any of you who represent the King should depart, now.’

‘You will find no representatives of the King here,’ said one of the Elves who had ridden with the Prince. ‘But we do ask your leave to alert our friends and families. They will be in danger, and should know whether to seek safety or to join with us.

‘But captain Birin, tell us . . . what did his words mean? To what allies does the Prince refer, and to what soldiers? I can speak for most of those in the King’s own guard; most of them will leave His service, and Prince Cir’s and come to our aid. But Prince Cir clearly discounts this occurrence, or I am not a soldier of experience!’

‘I, too, am troubled by the Prince’s words,’ Birin told him, ‘especially so, since it seems he has planned for this moment! A nameless dread comes upon me when I consider that Prince Cir, in his younger days, was known to have made long forays into the far regions of the North, where the Goblins dwell. The Thane attempted to track the villain, and even now, certain words of the Thane’s come back to me; words that he may himself not have understood the import of; that tracking Prince Cir was always made difficult and dangerous by the number and threat of Goblins!’

‘Prince Cir has slain many Goblins,’ the soldier said, somewhat defensively, realizing at once the import of Birin’s words.

‘Prince Cir,’ Birin said carefully, ‘has murdered many people, of all races.’

Meeting his eye unwillingly, the soldier nodded. ‘That would be like Prince Cir. What better way to cover his tracks?’ Then, sudden awareness causing his eyes to widen with fear and anger, ‘He knows every track and trail through the Northland Waik; he knows our positions, our strengths, our weaknesses, that which is defended, and that which is not-’

‘He knows, too,’ Birin added, ‘that under the present circumstances, which we ourselves have just helped precipitate, that our Northern defences will shortly be in disarray, and will subsequently collapse.’

The soldier suddenly became grey with apprehension.

‘I had always feared civil war, had always assumed, even in my darkest dreams, that such was the worst that could possibly happen . . . but this! My captain, what has the Prince contrived to do to us?’

‘I fear,’ Birin replied, ‘that he gives us no choice but to partake of his madness.’

After issuing several orders in rapid succession, Birin then turned his attention to Pran, and said, ‘Quickly! What of this threat to your friends and family?’

‘Prince Cir’s soldiers were waiting for us near the old battle site on the Mirrow,’ Pran told him. ‘Others had come across the open field from the direction of my home. I fear they may have been waiting for me to leave my family undefended.’

‘Loriman! Dornal!’ shouted Birin. Two Elf soldiers came forward with alacrity. ‘Each of you form a unit of two score. Loriman, you will escort Pran to his home, and Dornal, you will continue east, and deal with any marauders. If you encounter Cir’s soldiers, slay them if you must, for they are not to be trusted. There has been enough mischief.’

A number of Men and Dwarves who had been standing about since the unpleasantries began, watched these proceedings with understandable concern. One large man stepped forward to address Birin.

‘Is it truly your wish that we should leave? I for one would aid you against these fools who so blithely destroy the peace.’

Birin bowed to the Man from his horse. ‘I thank you for your moral support, friend Helmsmith, but this is civil war, and your people should leave as soon as is possible, lest they become divided in loyalties as well.’

The Man laughed, and many Dwarves and Men about him smiled grimly. ‘We know where our loyalties lie,’ he said, ‘and it is not with your King or Prince Cir. We have long been friends of the Elven people, and there is not one of us who does not know of the barbarities committed against Faeriekind; though against our desire, we have remained forever silent and neutral in this matter, hoping it would become resolved.’

‘Nevertheless,’ replied Birin quietly, ‘if you stay, both your own and your families’ lives will be in jeopardy. Neither Prince Cir nor the King would scruple to murder your wives and children if you became involved. For the good of all, I suggest that you return to your homelands, and close your borders until this matter is resolved.’

‘Very well,’ replied Helmsmith in a way that was not altogether convincing. ‘We will leave. But we will be watching.’

Pran, Ralph, and Doc set out for Pran’s home once more, this time with forty Elf soldiers led by Dornal. The other forty, led by Loriman, had set out before them at a hard gallop. The sun was low in the sky now, and they set off at a quick pace.

‘Well, Doc, what do you think of this place now?’ asked Ralph, riding beside him. He was talking more in an attempt to choke down his own fear for the others, than to make conversation.

‘I think you’d better get busy with those arrowheads,’ Doc replied. ‘There’s something not right with that Prince Cir character.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Didn’t you notice anything strange about the blood on his face?’

Overhearing this, Pran slowed to ride beside them. ‘What is strange about Cir’s blood?’

‘He didn’t bleed enough, for one thing,’ said Doc. ‘For another thing, the injury itself didn’t look right.’

Ralph laughed humourlessly. ‘Well, how should it have looked?’

Not like a split grape,’ said Doc. ‘Look, I’ve seen every kind of wound there is. When skin is split open like that, you should be able to see fat and bone underneath, as well as muscle and tendon.’

‘And?’ asked Pran.

Turning to face the Elf, Doc said, ‘Either your friend has the strangest anatomy I’ve ever seen, or he’s not who or what he claims to be.’

Pran pondered this a moment in silence. However, instead of responding to Doc’s observations, he said, ‘My friends, I owe you an apology! I did not anticipate this turn of events; I will endeavour to make amends as soon as may be. Yet, in truth, I did make every attempt to avoid such an occurrence; as a soldier in the King’s armed forces, a service that by its nature carries certain attendant risks, I have ever been fearful for those close to me. I have, from time to time, speculated that my premises may have been watched, but I did not realize the extent to which I was being spied upon. It was my assumption that upon relinquishing my captaincy, any competitive interest in my person, or personal enmities incurred when executing my duties, would over the last year have waned and been quite forgotten. However,’ he added, ‘as Prince Cir has reminded me, such was not the case. I am sorry. I have erred.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ Doc muttered, gruffly. ‘Your Prince Cir is a dangerous and unpredictable lunatic. You’re not responsible for his actions.’

‘Ditto,’ Ralph said, though it was obvious the main focus of his thoughts was elsewhere. At last, he said, ‘Will Cir’s soldier’s have done anything, do you think?’ It was apparent from his tone of voice, as well as his visage, that he was visibly upset by what he was thinking. ‘I mean, they are soldiers. They will just take civilians prisoner, until they get further orders, won’t they?’

‘That,’ Pran said, his face pale with his own unspoken fears, ‘depends entirely on what they were initially ordered to do. Regardless, many of Prince Cir’s soldiers can’t be trusted to follow orders, and many take licence from the Prince’s actions.’ In a barely audible voice, he added, ‘There is no telling what his soldiers will do . . . or what they are capable of.’

Rani extracted her hand from Nevana’s impatiently, and walked ahead with Zuic and the other children. Arlon and Durphel walked in the lead to either side, Arlon carrying a rusty old sword that looked much too big for his thin arm to wield, and Durphel using his long-tined hay fork like a walking stick. In the rear, Mari and Durus, also bearing sharp farm-implements, were silent and watchful, though they acted as though they were merely taking a stroll in the country.

‘Nevana, leave the girl be! She is not a child. If you want someone to mollycoddle, carry Pitr for a while.’

Pitr, the youngest, overhearing this, had been lagging a bit, but quickly increased his pace until he walked safely in the midst of the other children. Seeing this, Mari smiled.

‘Poor, confused young thing,’ she teased, loud enough that Nevana could easily overhear, as she was meant to. ‘Can’t decide whether she wants to hold hands with a child, or a certain young man.’

Pouting at Rani’s rebuke, going very red at Mari’s teasing, Nevana walked alone in the middle, listlessly, looking as out of place in the group as she felt.

‘She knows, all right!’Durus said in a stern tone that was devoid of kindness. She was annoyed by what she perceived as the often impractical and rebellious convolutions of her daughter’s mind, a subject with her that was often cause for concern. Regardless, she egged the girl on because through her daughter she hoped to exercise her own proprietary interest in the stranger who was skilled at working metals, and even now she considered various means by which she herself could profit by his skills. ‘Nothing would make me happier than a union between my Nevana and that big foreigner, and to see her safely tied down with a swelling belly.’

‘Mother!’ Her features were scarlet as much from angry embarrassment as from an unfamiliar flush, a physical reaction which seemed to emanated responsively, maddeningly, from her belly, altogether without her volition.

The group suddenly stopped, faced by Arlon.

He was furious.

‘This is no walking party!’ he said in a harsh whisper. Except for Durphel, the others stared at him, fearful. The children suddenly huddled together, terrified by the quiet farmer’s sudden wrath; something they had never before witnessed. ‘Be silent! Keep a watch out! Listen carefully! I am not going to tell you twice! Is there a one of you who doesn’t understand this? Do you not recall Theuli’s words to us?’

Met with silence, he nodded approvingly.

They continued once more, the timbre of the group’s mood sullen in response to Arlon’s outburst. But, as if in answer to his warning, the late afternoon suddenly began to feel menacing; a feeling which only increased as skies darkened, becoming close and intense as the light of day failed altogether.

Walking alone in the middle of the group, feeling as though she were wading through the darkness, a sensation which, in her imagination, was how it would feel to walk under water, Nevana found herself feeling afraid, and wishing not only for Ralph’s comforting presence at her side, but for his strength, his protection. She wondered at this sudden image in her mind, of a tall warrior wielding a sword. Until now, she had loathed soldiers and their cruel weapons of war. To her wonder, she found herself welcoming the idea. ‘How odd,’ she thought, ‘that a change of heart can steal unbidden into one’s being, utterly without volition. I wonder;’ she mused, with a thrill and tingle of fear mixed indelibly with pleasure, ‘could he take my heart as easily as he has captured all my attention?’ The thought did not give her comfort. To love, like she loved her father and siblings, and to be affectionate: those were things she could understand. But the very notion of being in love . . . of being utterly at the mercy of her feelings, her passions . . . she shuddered, and thought to herself, That is the weakness of men, and the means by which we women are able to control them. And if it were not for that interfering little Faerie, I might have lured him into compromising me; then, I would tell my parents, they would make him marry me, and I could make him take me far away from this place, and live in peace, with a little house and garden of my own . . .

In a world of her own, like a bubble, her passage through the night seemed destined to be and remain untouched.

‘You’re certain?’ the soldier asked the masked one once again, as though he didn’t trust him. ‘You’re sure those were his very words?’

‘I will tell you this last time;’ the cowled figure replied, ‘it has begun! Every man, woman and child is to be slain on sight. No mercy, no exceptions. All livestock is to be taken, and if not, slaughtered, and fowled or burned so that it’s flesh cannot be consumed. All buildings are to be put to the torch, all wells filled with debris, all stores taken or burnt: you are to cut down every tree that bears fruit or nut, you are to burn every crop, and you are to despoil what you will.

‘As for me, I leave you now. There are many others to whom I must carry this message. Go now. Do as you have sworn to do.’

When the hooded figure had left, riding into the blackness at a gallop, bearing his message of doom, the soldier rejoined his waiting company.

‘He is gone?’

‘Yes.’

There was a long stillness, and silence, and more; and still the soldiers hadn’t moved.

‘You must realize this is madness! What he asks… if we accomplish what he desires us to do, we ourselves will be left with nothing but a dead wilderness.’

‘I am aware,’ the leader said, quietly, and muttered, ‘“. . . and borne upon the wynds of Estland Wayk were the sounds of ghosts of Man and beast alike . . . a host of wandering solitudes . . .”’

And as if in answer to The Laye Of Estland Wayk, they could see, in the distance, a small group of people; men, women, and children.

The three women had retraced their steps, returning through the transitional country, leaving behind trail and copse, arriving at last at the irrigation ditch and the hedge. It was now completely dark out; the night seemed to close in around them. Malina had the uncomfortable feeling that they were being followed, but was dogged by a maddening uncertainty. At last, Theuli snapped at her.

‘Malina, we can make much better time, travelling openly across-country! I cannot afford this dithering!’

Stung into silence and immobility, the young Pixie woman, too intimidated to even consider trying to reason with Theuli, wanted instead to please her, but couldn’t because of the risks. Deborah, fortunately, came to her defence.

‘She’s doing the best she can! Can’t you see that? I know you’re worried, but you’re just making things worse by bullying her!’

Theuli was silent for a long moment, her head bowed, and in the indistinct, silhouetted darkness, the two younger women wondered fearfully if she was angry or frustrated with them. But at last, she approached the two and put her arms around them, and they saw to their surprise that her cheeks were wet.

Putting a shaky hand to her face, she said, ‘I am sorry . . . I am sorry . . . but my sister, her husband, and their children, lie dead back there . . . I can think of nothing else.’

The two girls stared at her in shock.

‘Oh my God!’ Deborah put her hands to her face reflexively. ‘Oh, Theuli! I’m so sorry! I didn’t know-’

Any hint of indecisiveness in Malina’s mien vanished. Neither of the other two could see the hard set of her jaw and her small shoulders as she digested this news. Without hesitation, drawing the others with a will, she said curtly, ‘This way! Quietly! We will wade the ditch and run the distance along the outside of the mound, where the ground is firm and flat.’

Galvanized into action, they heeded her words. And they ran.

By the time they reached the end of the irrigation mound, they could see, in the distance behind them, the light of small fires in the distance, fires which bobbed and flickered and moved unnaturally.

Changing direction, they began wending their way between the low hills near to Pran’s farm. Theuli, who seemed to have recovered herself somewhat, did her best to keep their spirits up, but she was casting an uncertain eye over her shoulder with increasing frequency.

Malina didn’t need to look back to know that they were pursued, or that their pursuers were closing, rapidly.

The soldiers spread out in a line, as if to meet the group of travellers on foot. But something in their bearing caused Arlon and Durphel to slow their approach and tightly clutch the weapons they held inexpertly before them. Mari and Durus, too, sensed that something was amiss, and the children held back, keeping close to the two women.

Nevana, however, was all set to run ahead, relieved, when her father caught her roughly by the arm and drew her back.

A few of the soldiers bore torches, and in the dim light, two of them rode forward, appraising the Elven girl. At last, one of the soldiers spoke.

‘Come here, girl.’

Something in the soldier’s voice made her go cold inside, and she was suddenly terrified of him, or what he might do. She turned to her father for help, wide-eyed. Arlon’s look was hard, his sword raised.

‘There are women and children with us. Leave them be. You can take us menfolk, but leave our women and children alone.’

The soldiers hesitated. A few of their mounts champing impatiently, as though they knew or expected what was to come.

The one next to the soldier who had spoken, said impatiently, ‘What are we waiting for? You know the orders!’

‘I know the orders,’ said the soldier, and he began moving forward, slowly, as if willing himself to perform an act from which there was no turning back, an act which he knew, in every fibre of his being, would change him forever in his own eyes, and in the eyes of the watching world; that is, if the world was watching at all.

At once, as though pivoting, turning against his former life, he said, ‘There has been no order given for the sequence of events as we must enact them. I will have my way with this wench before I kill her. The rest of them . . . do what you will!’

As the three women ran crouched over through the tall marsh, Deborah half expected to hear or see something following them through the tall grass, and her instincts screamed at her to run flat out. They stopped dead in their tracks when Malina whispered, ‘Wait, stop, I hear something!’

They found a slight hollow like an old grass-filled ditch and hunkered down into it, listening intently. There was nothing to be heard but the breeze as it hissed faintly through the grasses, nor could anything be seen. Theuli and Deborah, lacking Malina’s instincts, were about to relax, when the sound of something far off caught their ears.

Voices.

Deborah didn’t recognize the language, but it had a distinctly unpleasant sound to it. Turning to Theuli to ask her what it was, she saw the Elf-woman listening in wide-eyed horror.

Theuli clutched her arm and mouthed the words, Goblins! Do not move or make a sound!

Deborah’s heart was pounding so loudly she thought it would give them away. So, it wasn’t Elves following them! The Goblins were still a fair distance off, but she could see them now, dark silhouettes in the distance, stooped over as if searching the ground.

With mounting horror, she realised the Goblins were tracking them. She tried shifting her position when her hand caught a hard object, a flat round rock about half the size of her palm. Picking it up, she turned it edgewise and threw it as hard as she could towards the direction of the forest. As she hoped, it landed rolling, and continued on for some distance.

Grunting in surprise, the Goblins froze, looking in the direction of the noise they heard. Barking orders in their brackish tongue, they began moving off. Theuli, watching Deborah with surprise, mouthed what now?

Let’s get out of here! They began crawling in the opposite direction. Malina was struggling, unused to this sort of exercise. Deborah caught up with her.

Malina! Come on! Don’t slow down. Here, lean on me if you have to. Malina shook her head emphatically, trying to catch her breath. Look, I can move a lot faster than you. Just do as I say. Seeing the sense in this, though with great reluctance, Malina gripped Deborah’s arm as though it were a lifeline.

Right! Deborah mouthed, Now let’s go!

They had gone maybe a furlong when they heard an angry cry. ‘They have found the rock,’ said Theuli, knowing silence was useless now. ‘We have to run! Malina, take my hand. Deborah, take her other hand. Go!’

Malina’s legs ached and her lungs were soon burning with exertion. The three stumbled along and almost fell several times as they stumbled through the darkness. Suddenly, they became aware of a whizzing sound in the air around them. It took a horrifying moment to realize the Goblins were loosing arrows at them.

Theuli made a short, sharp sound, a choking cry of pain. She had been hit in the back. Falling to her knees, her voice full of blood, she cried, ‘Run! Get yourselves away and run!’ Turning to go back and assist the Elven woman, Deborah felt something white-hot strike her in the thigh. Turning around, as though in slow-motion, she landed on her back. A strange feeling came over her and she felt wondrously calm and warm. Falling downwards into unconsciousness, staring up at the stars, feeling the cool night air against her face and wondering why she felt no pain, she thought she heard screaming.

In the distance, they began to see a flickering guess. The Elf soldiers stiffened.

Torches!’ Dornal shouted. ‘Loriman, take your archers and cover us.’

Pran, as though he were still a member of the cavalry, plunged after them, drawing his bow. Without thinking about what he was doing, Ralph rode at his side, having drawn a weapon he had never used. Pran seemed about to shout something to the big Human, but the sound of fighting drew all of his attention, and he spurred his mount into a hard gallop.

Ahead, besides the torches, something was burning; it looked to be a bonfire. All about it, milling in the red light and semi-darkness like demon-centaurs, were Elven soldiers

‘What the bloody hell?!’

Ralph almost drew his mount up short, unable to make sense of the fray; he could not tell friend from foe; they all seemed dressed alike. At last, however, one thing caught and held his attention, a slight form held upright, hair pulled back, throat bared, trying vainly to cover herself with what remained of her torn dress, even as the Elven soldier who held her threatened to cut her throat.

Ralph didn’t know the first thing about swordplay or killing. Instead, he relied instinctively on what he did know. Spurring his mount straight at the girl, at the last moment veering ever so slightly to the left, close enough to graze her, leaning over, sliding his left leg over the saddle at the last possible second, he let his size and momentum do for him what he lacked in finesse . . .

. . . and slammed headlong into the girl’s knife-wielding attacker like a battering-ram.

‘Football and calf-roping . . .’ he thought dazedly to himself as the stars cleared. ‘Who’d have thought!’

To his horror, looking at the result of what he’d done, he found the Elf man laying dead at his feet. Seeing Ralph coming at the last moment, the soldier had raised his blade reflexively, and the force of the big Man’s momentum had turned his wrist and driven the point of the knife at his neck, even as his head snapped back, driving the long dagger up to the hilts into his brain.

Numb with shock, feeling as though he were reeling in the midst of some horrific nightmare, his mind barely registered that the girl had thrown herself into his arms, weeping hysterically, crying something about her mother and father. In a daze, mechanically and hardly aware of what he was doing, he led Nevana to his horse, removed a blanket, wrapped her in it, and tried to take stock of what had happened to her. He was dimly aware that she was led away from him, to where Doc was working on the wounded.

Pran seemed to instinctively understand something, and drew Ralph away, saying words that only half-registered on his mind.

‘That was well done! But we have to find the others. They are not here. Do you understand me, Ralph? Malina, Deborah, my wife . . . they are not here.’

Swallowing, Ralph looked into the Elf’s eyes, saw an empathy there that made his own burn.

‘I didn’t mean to kill him! It was an accident!’

Pran nodded, his gaze wandering.

‘You prevented a murder, Ralph. And a rape. But the others are not here. We have to find them. They need us. They need you.’

Shaking his head, as though the act in itself would help gather his wits, Ralph suddenly remembered something, looking to the Elf apprehensively.

‘The dead here . . . they’re all soldiers. Nevana . . . she said something . . .’

In dry measured tones, Pran iterated, as though from a formal text long rehearsed, ‘Nevana’s father, Arlon, is badly injured. It is a miracle that the others have met with no harm. It would seem that some disagreement or reticence on the part of the soldiers prevented their committing murder.’

Ralph almost asked how they were doing, but decided that it was probably wiser for him not to. Instead, he said, ‘All right. What happens now?’

‘We wait until Doc is finished tending to the injured and the dying,’ Pran said, his gaze yearning towards his daughter, as if wishing to, but fearing to close the distance between them at this time, in this place. ‘Then, we will go. I suggest you take a meal, and prepare yourself for another hard ride.’

Standing before the Elf obstinately, Ralph replied, ‘I will if you will.’

Pran considered him blankly for a moment. But then, a bleak wintry look, almost a smile, touched his features.

Ralph was not sure whether he found this mood in his friend reassuring.

As they waited, a group of five returning riders came to Dornal to report.

Speaking apologetically, as he knew that Pran was listening nearby, the soldier said, ‘All of the buildings on that property owned by Pran are burned out, but there are no bodies, nor any sign of livestock. We found nothing of any note, save this- its contents scattered about-’

‘Doc’s medical bag!’ Ralph blurted. The doctor overheard and came forward to collect his bag, his mien a mixture of apprehension and hope. After a moment’s inspection, he said incredulously, ‘It’s all here! Nothing is damaged or stolen!’

‘No doubt they feared to defile or handle its contents,’ Pran told him. ‘It does, after all, have a rather arcane look . . . and they would not have understood its contents. Though there is no magic in them, as you have told me, still they would believe these things imbued with properties beyond their primitive Lore, and would therefore leave them be.’

‘We came across various trails made by both Elves and Goblins,’ the soldier continued. ‘I do not know whether the Elves’ were those led by Loriman, but the Goblins seem to comprise a number of roving bands, some of which were given battle, others of which seemed to be intermixed with those of Elves. Excluding those, some of my scouts are attempting to retrace Loriman’s direction of travel; a difficult task in the dead of night.’

Dornal nodded, then instructed his troops to fan out in a wide arc, leaving a few to tend to those who remained, and sending four more to locate a wain.

As the riders left that place, and began making their way east, Pran, Doc, and Ralph rode together, somewhat behind. It didn’t take Dornal’s scouts long to find both Loriman’s and the Goblin’s trail. They began moving at a greater pace, but Dornal suddenly called them to a halt.

‘One moment! Another trail crosses here.’ A scout dismounted, as did Dornal, and they began searching the ground for clues. They exchanged a long look.

‘Evidently, this trail leading towards Narvi is the fresher. But we do not know if it was made later by the same Goblins, or whether there is more than one war party.’

Dornal began walking to and fro across the Goblin’s trail. ‘It is the same war party. See, I would estimate their numbers at some twenty or thirty. They would not divide so small a force. But there are two sets of tracks, comprising three individuals; probably women. They leave in either direction.’

Reaching a decision, they began following the trail towards Narvi, which was fairly fresh, riding as though the night itself was beset with demons.

As soon as their prey stopped, the Goblins fanned out to prevent any from escaping. The largest Goblin brandished his black, serrated iron scimitar angrily. ‘What? No warriors? Only a few women?’ he laughed, brandishing his weapon at Malina who cowered, trying to cover Theuli with her body.

‘Ah-h, they are young!’ he hissed. ‘Tonight, we eat lads.’

Theuli tried to say something, a stream of blood coming from her mouth, her breathing a horrible, bloody, gurgling sound. The large Goblin caught her by the hair, baring her throat. As he raised his sword, Malina screamed. The Goblin kicked Malina in the stomach, knocking the wind out of her. Raising his sword over Theuli again, he yanked her head back viciously.

Ralph had decided to follow Pran’s advice, and stay out of the fighting this time. The Elf had been right; Ralph had been lucky that he’d not actually been involved in any sword-play. He tried not to think of the consequences . . . saw himself, in his own imagination, being cut down . . .

But these images seemed to mean little to him. Thinking of what he’d seen, of Nevana with a knife held to her throat, touched deep feelings within him; feelings that went deeper than self-preservation.

The sight of her, the feel of her, what had been done to her . . . the way she had come running to him . . .

Such things drove all else from his mind, the way a few months of summer will reduce the realities of winter to a vague memory of a bad dream.

But the dream was confused . . . something about it didn’t ring true, as though Nevana were part of a waking dream that so closely resembled reality, the two, to the untrained eye, were indistinguishable . . .

And the dream . . . or nightmare . . . was not yet over. He seemed to hear a scream, and almost stopped as he tried to decide; was it in his mind? or in the air? or-

Malina!’

Without realizing how it had happened, everything began moving forward in a mad rush. Without realizing how it had happened, he found that he had drawn his sword . . . vaguely he heard Pran’s warning . . . which was swiftly falling behind

There was some commotion that caught the Goblins’ attention, causing the big one’s sword-arm to falter in mid-stroke. The sound of the Elf-riders’ hooves was like thunder as they broke into a gallop. That pause was enough for Malina to yank up a turve, grab a double handful of dirt, and throw it into the Goblin’s eyes.

The moments its eyes were cleared of the stinging debris, the Goblin found itself staring into the battle-mad eyes of Ralph who swept down on the Goblin like an avalanche. With a savage yell, Ralph brought his own broadsword down on the Goblin’s, swinging it with both hands like a club. Their swords met in a shower of sparks, Ralph’s striking with such force that the Goblin was forced to retreat, holding its sword over its head to ward off Ralph’s blows, while trying to retain control over its companions. Seeing this, enraged, Ralph dismounted and attacked like a man possessed.

The Goblin soon began to realize that this Human, though utterly lacking in finesse, was not about to be defeated through brute force alone, and that, though possessed of far greater skill, all of its skill, indeed all of its attention, was needed merely to deflect the Human’s heavy broadsword.

Suddenly, Ralph levelled a blow which the Goblin parried badly; he could tell by the creature’s sudden grimace of pain that the shock of the blow had transferred itself fully to the Goblin’s arm, leaving it momentarily handicapped.

In desperation, the Goblin held up its serrated iron scimitar, but only managed hold enough to bring it up crossways. Seeing his chance, realizing that he might not get another, Ralph summoned every last reserve of strength, slamming his broadsword downwards with everything he could muster. With a sickening snap, the Goblin’s wrist was broken, its blade shattered to slivers.

Ralph could easily have killed the creature then, but even as it fell to its knees, crying out in agony and clutching its wrist, Ralph kicked it in the face, knocking it senseless.

Malina!’ Oblivious to everything else, he didn’t take stock of his surroundings until he was at her side.

She was bruised and sore, gaping as though she barely recognised him, but he could tell that she was otherwise unhurt. Theuli! Pran was holding her, calling her name. Deborah lay unconscious or dead.

‘Oh my God! Deborah!’

Checking Theuli first, Doc found that she had taken an arrow. From the way she was coughing up blood he knew at once that a lung had been pierced. ‘Pran!’ he shouted to get the Elf’s attention, ‘Pran! I need fire for sterilization, as much light as possible, and hot water. I have to get the arrow out and suture the wound.’

Deborah was not in any better shape. Though wounded only in the leg, and bleeding little, she lay deathly still and pale. As Doc began ministering to her, he felt a hand on his shoulder.

‘The arrow the young woman has taken is poisoned,’ an Elf soldier told him, in a tone of resigned compassion.

‘What sort of poison?’ Doc asked him brusquely.

The Elf looked at Deborah grimly. ‘I am no Healer. I know only that such inflictions of the enemy are always fatal. The woman will be dead soon.’

The light from fires and torches was poor, but Doc was sure of his tools, and himself. He gave Theuli a local anaesthetic and had Pran cut off her blouse. The Elves watched in wonder as he quickly removed the arrow and sterilized the wound. When he began suturing it, one muttered, ‘I had not thought skin could be sown like a garment.’

‘It’s not the best job,’ Doc said with unjust self-reproach. ‘I need a proper hospital. We can only hope for her lung to heal properly.’

Moving to Deborah, he had her pant leg cut away and began working to remove the arrow protruding from her thigh. He was distracted from his work by the soldier who had spoken before. ‘The girl will die whether you remove the arrow or no.’

‘Not if I can help it!’ he snapped. Ralph and Malina looked on, Ralph trying to comfort Malina who wept inconsolably, certain that Deborah was going to die.

When he had the arrow in hand, some innate instinct caused him to smell its head. It had an evil odour, but none that he could place. It seemed to glow with a faint, sickly green light. Removing his glasses, he stared hard at it. On the head and shaft of the arrow was a cloying substance that seemed almost alive. There was something odd about this that he couldn’t quite place. He concentrated harder, staring at the sickly green ooze. It seemed the more he concentrated, the more he saw . . .

What the Devil? Glancing at his hands, he saw a faint blue glow around them, like a penumbra. Intuitively, he put his hand on the green substance. The feel of it made his hand writhe, but he persisted, brought his concentration up to a higher pitch.

Then, he knew! Pitting his will against the substance, he strangled the life out of it, with a grim but satisfying will. When he removed his hand, the green was gone. A great calm seemed to spread through him, then, and using his hands, he pressed the healing blue aura into Deborah’s flesh. Within moments, some colour came back into her cheeks, and her breathing steadied.

Moving to Theuli, who was breathing in shallow gasps from the pain, he pressed his hands to her back. Pushing his concentration to the limit, he reached his senses inside to her injured lung, the torn ligaments and flesh, the severed nerves and blood vessels.

Pran, who could see none of this, said, ‘Doc, my wife . . . will she live?’

The moment he was done, however, Doc levered himself to the ground where he sat, oblivious, staring at his hands as though wondering how the life he thought he knew had slipped so effortlessly through his fingers.

Pran was startled out of his fear by Theuli’s gentle touch on his cheek. ‘Leave him be, my husband. He has succoured my life. It is enough. I will live.’ She managed to smile at him and closed her eyes. ‘Promise that you will not fear for me as I sleep. I’m very tired now.’

Pran looked to Doc in desperation, and found that the aged Healer was watching him, his gaze at once clear and lucid. ‘Please . . . I must know! Is she-?’

Doc glanced at Theuli’s peaceful, sleeping form, cradled tenderly and fearfully in her husband’s arms. ‘Oh, I think she’s in good hands,’ Doc told him, his characteristic disarming smile returning. ‘And since you obviously won’t be satisfied with anything less than clear, unambiguous language, yes, your lovely wife will be fine.’

Ralph had returned to the Goblin leader, whom he prodded into consciousness with the point of his sword.

‘Can anyone tell me what he’s saying?’

‘It is a corruption of an old Elvish tongue,’ said Loriman. ‘Why do you let it live?’

‘Ask it about Prince Cir,’ said Ralph, who had been thinking about Doc’s words, earlier. ‘About what he is.’

At the mention of the Prince’s name, the Goblin stared. Seeing this, Loriman spoke to the Goblin in its own brackish tongue. Despite its broken wrist, the Goblin began struggling wildly to escape, but Ralph pinned it down with his foot.

Several of the soldiers had come now to watch with growing curiosity. Loriman spoke to the Goblin again, this time with more threat in his voice. The Goblin said something that was obviously an obscenity. Dornal joined them, having overheard Ralph’s words.

Loriman stared at Ralph oddly, but did as he was asked. This time the Goblin thought carefully before it answered. Its reply, though only a few words, brought an angry response from the Elves.

‘What did he say?’ asked Ralph.

Dornal swallowed in a dry throat. ‘This vermin says it will tell us if we let it go.’

Ralph’s eyes were hard as he said, ‘Tell him we’ll let him live as a prisoner, but only if he tells us everything.’

Loriman did so.

The Goblin said three words, which Loriman translated as ‘Freedom or death.’ He looked to Dornal who nodded. As Loriman spoke with the Goblin, Dornal said to Ralph, ‘He is telling it we will grant its freedom for the information.’

‘Is that a good idea?’ Ralph asked him.

‘Is there a choice?’ Dornal responded.

Shortly before setting out, they were met by a squad of Elf soldiers who were but one of many that had been sent out to comb the surrounding countryside for marauding goblins and unscrupulous soldiers still loyal to the King and Prince Cir. The news was mixed. Some families living near Pran’s farm, and those living closer to Narvi, had been forewarned and reached safety, but many living to the east had been systematically and barbarically slaughtered.

As they waited, a wagon arrived, which had been located and brought to bear the wounded and their tenders. Once the group was under way, Pran approached Ralph silently, and they rode side by side. Eventually, Pran said, ‘You fought well. I could scarcely believe what I was seeing.’

Ralph looked uncomfortable. ‘I was going to apologize for what I did. I wasn’t thinking at all . . . it was just blind instinct taking over.’

Pran raised an eyebrow at this. ‘Your instincts seem to serve you well.’

Ralph didn’t respond at first. Eventually, he said, ‘What do you think about all of this? About what that Goblin said about Prince Cir? What do you suppose this means?’

Pran was silent for some time, lost in some distant memory. At last, he replied, ‘The Thane has long suspected that Prince Cir has been associating himself with some . . .’ he paused to search for words, ‘outside influence. Such as Goblins. We . . . the Thane was never able to prove his suspicions, but there was, and remains, a preponderance of evidence, however indirect, which points invariably to such a conclusion.

‘What is most worrisome is the fact that neither Prince Cir nor the King are so utterly careful, nor so skilful, as to think to conceal either their actions or their motives.’ He shook his head at his own thoughts. ‘Perhaps my mind searches for clues beyond the obvious, but which, to my eyes, are unrecognizable. After all, it could well be that it is not so much something in the King and his son that determines their actions, but rather, something that is lacking; and therefore would conveyance of their motives be utterly foiled.’

‘I think,’ Doc told him, thinking of psychopaths, serial-killers, and sociopaths, ‘that you may be right, but on both counts.’

‘Intangibles!’ muttered the Elf, tasting the bitter gall of old suspicions, doubts, and fears. ‘A soldier lives in the world of the concrete. I fear that the aim of the Prince is to carry the battle to ground that more suits him; an arena where the traditional skills of warfare will be rendered useless; or worse, will work against us. He is perhaps more skilled and resourceful than any would previously have deemed worthy of credit.’

‘Even so, I just don’t get it,’ Ralph said. ‘Why is he doing this? I can understand someone wanting to kill for the enjoyment of killing, and worse. We have that sort of people, too, back where Doc and I come from. But this thing of razing everything to the ground, and killing everyone; it just doesn’t make sense.

‘I mean, let me put it to you this way: when I was a kid in school, we had our share of bullies. I suppose, if they were allowed to go far enough, that they might actually have killed someone, but from what I’ve seen, it never goes that far, because they like to torment people, and you can’t torment someone who’s dead.

‘But even killers . . . back home, we have people who are called “serial killers”, who are people who go on killing sprees, who like to torture, dismember, and cannibalize their victims. But lots of these guys (almost all of them are men, for some reason) live dual lives, and live a normal existence, with wives and children. The point I’m trying to make is, they don’t destroy everything. They never go so far as to wipe out their own, and their everyday means of survival.’

Without looking at his companions, Pran suddenly looked very tired. ‘It could be,’ he said quietly, ‘that we Elves, as a people, have brought this upon ourselves, and that Prince Cir is the means of our destruction. The meddling of our Loremasters has made the Prince what he is . . . and their meddling was a serious transgression . . . where the Earth Mother is concerned.’

Doc looked non-plussed. ‘You’re not seriously telling us that this Earth Mother of yours is meting out Her vengeance, because of a few unscrupulous people, even on the innocent? That sounds too much like the Biblical crap I used to hear as a child, where it was said that the innocent would be punished along with the guilty, or words to that effect.’

‘I do not know what you mean by Biblical crap,’ Pran told him, frowning, ‘but I did not say that this is the Earth Mother’s doing. What I am trying to tell you is that this may be something that we, the Elven people, have done to ourselves. That is an important distinction. An apt analogy for this, and for affairs in general in the Elf Kingdom, would be something like this; and here I am quoting an old story: “There are a host of creatures that live in the water I drink. If I were of a mind to be rid of them, and if doing so meant poisoning my own drinking water, all that partook of that water would die-”’

‘“-and for that reason have I learned to share the water, taking only what I need . . .”’

Both Pran and Doc turned to Ralph in surprise. Ralph responded with a slow, thoughtful smile.

‘Rani showed me that old book of fables. She said it was one of her favourites, that it had belonged to her great-grandma. But she liked the one she wasn’t supposed to read, better . . . the one with all the scary pictures. Kind of reminded me of Grimm’s fairy tales; lots of blood and gore. It’s too bad they got lost in the fire.’

Pran sighed. ‘Yes, well at least books can be replaced. And good stories never die.’

As they moved off into the night, Pran rode apart somewhat; and gritting his teeth to contain his rising grief, considered the stars that glittered like motes in a killer’s eye. He well knew the meaning of the manner of his wife’s return and what it entailed for the fate of his brother Io, and Io’s wife and children.

Zuic! How shall I speak to you of this? How will you bear it?

His thoughts turned unwillingly to his younger brother Io, and to Io’s beautiful young wife. Dear, sweet-tempered, gentle Jan. Gone now- forever! With a physical effort of will, he wrenched his mind’s eye away from that dark corridor, down which lay the certain knowledge of how they had met their end, in unimaginable horror, hopelessness and agony!

Unbidden, as though to afford him a means to cope, there came to his mind the book Ralph had mistakenly refered to as a book of fables. In truth it was a very old book of songs, and in Elven fashion many of the songs contained within its pages were based upon true stories.

With a sick, cold feeling, like a pebble dropped down the stone throat of an eternally lightless well, Pran recollected Rani’s favourite, a song that had always left him feeling somewhat shaken. It was called Poor Bagaster, and was about an Elven-woman who had lived long ago. She had been murdered along with her children by her common-law husband, Orn, a local cobbler who had been a man of some importance in their tiny village.

It was a common epithet amongst Elves to refer to evil behaviour among their own as being Goblin-like, and down through the ages, this behaviour was sometimes spoken of in terms of being like certain Elves. Prince Cir and the King were often likened to Orn the Cobbler behind closed doors.

Her appeals were all in vain!

Orn, thy kindelun abused,

Left them dying in the rain,

False, thy leman thee accused!

O, she pleadeth on her life!

Save Bagaster, Cobbler-wife!

Were her good acts all in vain?

Fain, withhold thy skinning knife!

Blacken is thy soul, old Orn,

Even as the deed is done!

Poor Bagaster, Cobbler-wife;

Gone to join thy kindelun.

Chapter 13

Mirrindale

Perhaps the greatest courage of all

is that of the lone individual

who speaks out against an

existing climate of hate.’

Artur Klaas (1347-1401)

‘Where are we going, Rowf?’ Malina was tired and sore, her insides an ugly, anxious knot from having to ride in the company of Elf soldiers. It was a mixed consolation riding with the big Human; though reassuring, his presence was a distracting torment to her. The feel of his strong arms against her sides, made inevitable as is was he who held the reins, made her breath short with a physical excitement she had to struggle against. And yet she was glad that there had been no room for her in the wagon; though in torment, it was not a torment she would have chosen to avoid.

She gasped as Ralph gave her a gentle squeeze that sent a maddening thrill of unfulfilled anticipation throughout her body. Oblivious to her predicament, he replied to her question.

‘Sorry! Did I hurt you?’ When she didn’t answer, he said, ‘Pran told me we’re going all the way past Narvi to some place in the mountains called Mirrindale-’

Mirrindale!

The very sound of that word was enough to strike a chilling chord of fright throughout her being!

No, Rowf! I cannot go to Mirrindale! Let me down! I want to get off! Let go of me!’

Before he could grab hold of her, she quickly leaned forward, ducked beneath his arm and, twisting herself around, slipped from the saddle to the ground facing back the way they’d come, intending to make her way against the flow of traffic. Ralph reacted instantly, reaching down none too gently, though there was no alternative, catching hold of her collar and pulling her back onto the saddle, and out of the path of the team of huge dray horses that had come within inches of trampling her.

Pran, who was riding beside the wagon bearing his wife, the children and Deborah, witnessed Malina’s near-mishap and quickly rejoined them.

‘You cannot leave this cavalcade!’ he said to Malina with stern concern. ‘Not on foot, and not in this traffic. Besides, where would you go? Would you attempt the journey back to the forest, alone, and without your Power? Do you not understand that there is no longer a place for you there? Were you to leave our company, I fear that you would be slain by the first gang of ruffians to notice your presence; perhaps even by an unscrupulous soldier or civilian, for whom you would be easy prey.’

Struggling in Ralph’s grasp, choking back a sob, she retorted, as angry as she was frightened, ‘I will not fall prey to the predations of your courts again, nor will I spend another minute in one of your Elven prisons! I will end my life first! I will kill myself! Let go of me, Rowf!’

Ralph held Malina tightly, fearing to lose hold of her, but his eyes were on Pran. In his arms, Malina trembled with fear. In a low tone, devoid of emotion, he said, ‘What’s she talking about?’

To Malina’s surprise, for the first time she heard the undisguised threat of violence in Rowf’s voice; the same sort of tone Pran used, when there was a very real possibility that he might draw his sword, intending to use it.

Briefly, tersely, the Elf iterated all that had happened to Malina concerning her capture, torture, imprisonment, treatment at the hands of the Elven judicial system, and her subsequent banishment.

‘As well,’ Pran added, ‘there is going to be the problem of explaining her presence in Mirrindale. She fears to go there for good reason.’

‘Then I’ll give them an explanation,’ Ralph said without hesitation. ‘She’s with me.’

Pran shook his head as though Ralph’s words were incomprehensible.

‘With you? In what sense? If the uttering of such words sufficed, any one of us could say as much.

‘However,’ he said, ‘Malina, at least some of your fears are groundless. The Thane would have nothing to do with imprisoning you, or having you arrested, or ordering a continuance of that mockery of a trial you were subjected to. That was the doing of Prince Cir and his minions. It is the soldiery, the citizens, and the Merchants of Mirrindale who may present a problem. The Thane himself, in his way, is a Pixie friend, though he has never declared such openly. You see,’ he said to Ralph, ‘those of Faeriekind may be treated as any individual of Elvenkind sees fit, and with absolute impunity. Even though the Thane expressly forbids such behaviour, still, there is little that he can do under existing Elven law.

‘But-’ he added quickly, seeing Ralph’s reaction, ‘I will speak to Birin, and ask him in turn to speak with Loriman and Dornal, to make it clear to all that-’ he looked at Ralph levelly, ‘if anything were to happen to Malina, such a transgression would carry the gravest of consequences.’

When Ralph reluctantly acquiesced, Pran added, gauging them, ‘There is another matter, which might help assure Malina’s personal safety, and also carry some weight where Elven law is concerned.’

Malina and Ralph waited silently for him to continue.

‘Under Elven law,’ Pran told them, ‘for Malina to be taken seriously, indeed, to be acknowledged as a person, she must have some sort of official title; that is to say, the sort of title that is recognised under Elven law. For example, my former title was soldier, and is now landowner. My title carries over to my property and those who live upon it, my wife, and my children.

‘For those that are not landowners, title refers to their trades, however humble.’

‘And for those who don’t have a viable trade?’ Ralph asked, frowning.

Pran winced at this, ‘That is where Elven vagrancy laws apply. As you might guess, our vagrancy laws are never applied to Elvenkind. The most shiftless thief, cutthroat, and vagabond, is considered above those of Faeriekind. Excuses are made, and the most ludicrous of activities are labelled as “occupation” whenever such a wretch comes to trial.

‘The purpose of the vagrancy laws,’ he added bitterly, ‘is to facilitate the forceable and ruthless removal of Faeriekind from their own lands-

‘However, as to Malina’s title, I have given the matter some thought, and have conceived of a solution, though I thought I should first seek your approval, Malina, before uttering it.’

She looked at him doubtfully, waiting.

‘You shall be,’ he said, ‘an Emissary of Faeriekind, from Ralph’s world to our own. Since the title does not concern those of Elvenkind, it is unlikely that you will be questioned on the matter. As well, as Ralph’s world is a world of Men, such a title will carry weight, even with those not kindly disposed towards Faeriekind.’

‘But it is a lie!’ she protested. ‘And if I am called out on the matter, all will know it.’

‘Actually, it is not a lie; not if we use the Elven Law against itself,’ Pran told her with grim certitude. ‘As Ralph, here, is one of the few people from his world to visit ours, he can rightly claim that he speaks for his people. Under Elven law. That is his right and privilege.

‘Conversely, as you are the sole member of Faeriekind to have visited their world, while in their world, you were, whether you knew it or not, an Emissary of Faeriekind, because the laws of Elvenkind do not apply to their world.

‘In turn, because you now accompany Ralph, he has the right to uphold your title, regardless of the fact that you are now back within Elven jurisdiction.

‘Such a title, Malina, is yours for life, unless revoked by your peers; an occurrance which, under the present circumstances, I deem unlikely.’

She fidgeted, wanting an end to this conversation, wishing she could either escape the cavalcade or bury herself in Rowf’s protective embrace.

‘What will I have to do?’ she muttered, thinking of formal behaviour she had witnessed on a number of occasions, having found it unnatural, stiflingly stilted and rigid, frightening and incomprehensible.

‘Hopefully nothing,’ Pran told her. ‘Something unforseen may come up, but as yet I can think of nothing.’

She frowned. ‘So, that is all there is to it? That I am an Emissary of Faeriekind, who has visited another world, and that is my title, so I will be left alone?’ She said this slowly, as though memorizing, trying to keep things straight in her mind. The truth, however, was that she looked for hidden traps or flaws in these words.

‘Hopefully, yes,’ Pran replied.

Pran watched her for some sign, but she stared ahead unseeingly, considering. After some time, it occurred to him that she didn’t seem to realise that she had a choice in the matter. He was about to mention this to her but stopped himself, realising that doing so might only serve to confuse the matter in her mind, or weaken her resolve. With a nod to Ralph, he left to rejoin his wife and children.

‘Will you stop squirming like that? I can’t tell if you’re fidgeting, or just . . . itchy.’ He didn’t mention the kind of itchiness her movements conveyed, and wondered if she knew, herself. He doubted it. Hoping to distract her, he said, ‘Are you hungry?’

To his relief, her urge to flee seemed to have passed, and she nodded. As they shared a meal taken from the saddlebags, he noticed her intense discomfort at being in such close quarters with so many, especially the Elf soldiers, whom he knew from their past conversations and her reactions, evoked in her habitual feelings of suspicion, distrust, and fear. He remembered her mentioning that in the past, her very survival had always meant remaining safely hidden from their eyes. Riding now in their presence, Ralph could see, was a sore trial for her. But he could also see that, perhaps aided by the appearance of her strange attire, or perhaps because he accompanied her, the Elves seemed to accept her as Ralph’s companion, and paid little attention to her presence.

In the isolation of her own thoughts, Malina realised that Pran had been right about one thing: she was having to become reacquainted with her own world. In many ways it would be easier to deal with circumstances as they arose were she a total stranger: not her expectations, her surroundings, nor herself could be trusted any longer, for even as she had changed, so had her relationship to everything external to her own being. Where is this life taking me? I begin to wonder if I am still truly Pixie, she thought to herself, and without thinking about what she was doing, as though the act came perfectly natural to her, leaned back against Ralph tiredly. Mirrindale! The home of the Thane himself!

Suddenly remembering, she stiffened, then sat bolt upright once more. But she was tired to the point of exhaustion, giddy with lack of sleep, and occasionally she would nod, her head snapping up with a jerk. Wordlessly, Ralph, ignoring her feeble, sleepy protests, remedied her discomfort by removing a blanket from where it was tied above one of the saddlebags, wrapped it snugly around her, and drew her to him, comfortably. She fell asleep almost instantly.

As she slept, from time to time, Ralph ventured a worried look behind, trying to catch a glimpse of the wagon which bore Theuli, Deborah, and the children. But the wain was far behind now, and he could see little through the ranks of mounted Elf soldiers. He sighed, taking the cool night air deep into his lungs. Inadvertently, the clean smell of Malina’s hair filled his nostrils; he found that he was unable to ignore the almost impossible softness of her white-blonde hair and the feel of her cheek and her warm breath against his neck; shortly after falling asleep, he had shifted her crosswise so that she could lay more comfortably and securely against him.

Yet he found his thoughts drawn irresistably to Nevana, and found himself wishing guiltily that it was the Elven girl who rode asleep before him. Even as such thoughts intruded themselves, Malina’s very essence seemed to change from that of a desirable young woman to that of a young girl tagging along on a date, sent by her parents to act, without her knowledge, as chaperone.

Doc, who had been travelling in one of the wagons bearing wounded and children, climbed with some difficulty onto his horse, which was tied to and followed the wagon, and joined with Pran, who rode beside the wagon bearing his wife, Rani and Zuic, and riding together, they moved forward through the ranks to join Ralph and Malina. By this time, the banks on either side of the river were beginning to steepen and hem in both road and river. They had entered the narrow valley of the Mirrow, following the river upstream and uphill as it wound its way through the crumpled foothills of the Alandiin Mountains.

The exposed bones of the land showed several odd features here: the hills overall had a blunted, worn look, yet the travellers could see from the valley cut by the river that hard unbroken dark grey stone lay beneath; yet near the surface, and especially in those places where the road had been cut into the riverbank, the stone lay in broken layers, like brittle shards of broken crockery.

Few trees grew on the surrounding hills, save for the odd stunted pine, and a ground-clinging variety of juniper. Fireweed and other tenacious wildflowers seemed to thrive, though sparsely, in the rocky soil, however, creating an odd sort of illusion: when viewed from a distance, the landscape seemed to possess an etherial beauty; yet as one came near enough to see it closely, the illusion of beauty was gone, replaced by a few weeds growing out of bleached and dry-looking red gravel.

‘How far are we from Mirrindale?’ Ralph asked Pran.

Pran smiled tiredly in response. ‘You ask such odd questions sometimes, that I must remind myself that things must be done very differently in your world. We should arrive at the gates of Mirrindale in the morning, two days hence. The actual distance has never been reckoned, at least not to my knowledge. Were the road somewhat straighter, and the view ahead unobscured, I could make a guess as to how many leagues.’

Doc smiled at this exchange, was about to say something, when Ralph abruptly broke away and left them for a time. He returned shortly, alone. ‘I put her in the wagon with Theuli,’ he explained. ‘She goes so limp when she’s asleep that she’s difficult to keep hold of.’

He looked skyward and frowned. ‘There’s something else.’ Doc and Pran, to his right, looked at him, waiting for him to continue. He nodded skyward. The sky was black and crystal clear, and more full of stars than Ralph had ever seen.

‘Notice anything, Doc?’

Doc Wallace looked upward and frowned. ‘Beautiful night sky, if that’s what you mean. Lots of stars. There’s the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, Cassiopeia, Orion’s Belt . . . that’s Mars over there.’ He gestured to a glowing band which stretched across the heavens. ‘You can even see the Milky Way. Why, is there something unusual about that?’

‘Yes, there is,’ Ralph replied. ‘When we came here, I thought this was another world. But if these are the same stars and planets we have at home, then this is our home.’

Ralph and Doc both turned to Pran, expecting an explanation. But he said, ‘There is no point in asking me to make explanation when I can provide you with none. I used to ponder upon such things myself, and have never yet heard any given reason that rings truly in my ears, or satisfies my mind. For this, my friends, I have no answer.’

Doc then recalled a letter he had received from a certain linguist, concerning the two tongues spoken by Malina. And he wondered to himself whether he and his friends now walked in some forgotten avenue of the past, or whether this was in truth no world at all, but rather a dream, seemingly with no waking.

An hour or so later, the road cut sharply left and rose steeply, then turned right and levelled off once more. The perpetual roar of the river, as it tore through its constricted throat of rock, suddenly diminished as the road left it behind. The surrounding ambience, too, had changed, as the left bank had disappeared, replaced by a flat, wide open space. It was hard to tell in the dark, but the ground seemed entirely covered by thick grass, and around the perimeter of the cleared space, the shadow of an evergreen forest blocked out the starlight along the horizon.

They made camp then, setting out their tents and building fires in well-tended fire-pits; beside each was a good supply of wood and kindling. Lamps were lighted, and the weary travellers ate a hot meal, talking quietly in subdued voices. Ralph tried to wake Malina, to get her to eat something, but she was so deep in slumber that he feared waking the others. On a sudden unbidden impulse, he looked to the other end of the wagon, to where Nevana slept; but there was nothing to be seen except a tangle of bodies laying beneath various blankets and quilts, and the quiet susurrus of somnolent breathing. He left, reluctantly, taking his bedding, found a place by the nearest fire, threw himself upon the ground, and fell asleep asking himself uncomfortable questions for which there were no satisfyingly straightforward answers.

He awoke to the smell of wood-smoke and cooking and the laughter of children. The fire-pits had been allowed to burn themselves out with the coming of dawn, but to one end of the field there was an enormous open grill, surrounded by benches, and covered overall by a cedar-shingled roof supported by thick wooden posts. The grill smoked little, but heat-waves could be seen just over its surface. The smell of cooking made Ralph’s mouth water.

To the left of the cooking area was a gravelled patch. The line where the gravel ended and the grass began was lined with animal shelters, watering troughs, hay, and hitching posts to which the horses were tethered. The wagons remained where they had stopped the night before, on the gravelled area near to the road.

To his surprise, and with some relief, Ralph spotted Malina with three other young women, two of whom had babies and small children. They were seated at the table furthest from the stove, and on the grass near to them the older children played and ran about. Two older women nearby Ralph recognized as Pran’s neighbours, Durus and Mari, and realized that their group had been augmented by others during the night as he slept. A hand on his arm got his attention, and turning, he suddenly found himself looking down into the expectant eyes of Nevana. At once, he felt his heart leap; instinct told him that he could simply take this girl in his arms, and she would be his!

But thoughts of Malina, like a restraining hand on his heart, held him in check.

Nevana, however, had no such reservations. She moved toward him, moved against him in such a way that it seemed he had no choice but to accept her into his embrace.

‘You saved my life,’ she murmured happily. ‘You know what that means?’

Ralph thought of a number of answers, but for some reason held his tongue.

‘It means,’ she said, when he didn’t answer, ‘that I am yours. Mother and father will be so pleased-’

‘What do you mean, “you are mine”?’ Ralph asked her.

‘Why,’ she stammered, ‘I mean that, were you to ask me to marry you, I would readily give you my consent! You have already saved my life! What greater proof could I ask of you?’

‘Nevana,’ he said slowly, trying to think of excuses, though every fibre of his being cried out for him to say “yes” to this incredibly beautiful, alluring young woman, ‘where I come from . . . that is not the sort of reason people get married.’

Undaunted, unsuspecting, all too sure of herself, she said, ‘Well, then, what? Speak plainly! You were ready to take me that day in the woods, so don’t try to tell me that you do not desire me. What more is needed?’

‘Nevana,’ he said, patiently, ‘in my world, two people are drawn together, have physical relations together, and get married, because they fall in love with one another. It is more of an equal partnership- is something wrong?’

Nevana swallowed, trying to grasp the full import of his words, as though what she had thought of as her wildest dream had just turned out to be her worst nightmare. She felt suddenly smaller; her very being seemed to have shrunk in upon itself as she stared at the Man, who in her eyes, seemed suddenly larger, stronger, frightening in an exhilarating sort of way. But there! He had said the words she least expected, had always avoided, had always believed that she could evade, by cleverness, by manipulation, by pretending.

But he would remain forever unattainable unless she could give him something in return.

Love.

The very idea made her feel sick inside. It meant that she would have to learn to share of herself, something she was entirely unequipped to do. It meant that she would have to swallow her pride, admit to this man that she knew nothing . . . nothing at all beyond the carnal instincts of animals . . . and try to learn.

‘Nevana?’

She took a good look at him. Perhaps her first real look, unobstructed by her own preconceptions or designs. Seeing his concern, she forced herself to respond, though she wanted only to return to her parents, to show them the failure they’d created, the emotionally blind and stunted young woman they’d made.

Taking a deep breath, steeling herself, afraid but heedless of the consequences, she said, trying unsuccessfully to keep her voice steady, ‘I love you, Ralph,’ she almost choked on the lie. Or was is a lie? ‘I am yours. If you refuse me, I shall kill myself.’ Was it him she wanted? Or was it instead an overpowering urge to be removed from the cheerless sphere of her parents? Why was she unable to tell the difference?

For the longest moment, Ralph found that his mind was blank; that he could only answer her with silence.

‘Say you will marry me,’ she persisted, pressing herself to him, sensing how close he was to giving in. ‘Please! At least tell that me you love me.’

She began nuzzling him, when a familiar sound came to the rescue; that of Doc clearing his throat.

‘Excuse me, young lady. I need to have a word with Ralph here. Alone.’

She drew away reluctantly, crimson, but determined.

‘I shall tell my parents-’

‘Nevana! You and I both know that would not be a good idea,’ he told her.

Almost in tears, not looking at either of them, she left, first walking, then breaking into a run as her self-mastery failed altogether.

Watching the girl go with an annoyedly knowing expression, which he knew was lost on Ralph, Doc said, ‘We’ll be moving along right after breakfast, from what I hear. You should get something to eat, and be packed and ready to go.’

‘The neighbours made it out okay, I see,’ said Ralph. ‘But who are those other people?’

‘Various assorted relatives and close acquaintances; the people living near Pran’s home who managed to escape,’ Doc replied. ‘We didn’t see them before because they were searching the Eastland Waik area for survivors, before they were ordered out of there for their own good.’

‘How’re Deborah and Theuli?’ Ralph asked. ‘I thought that was you over by the wagon a little while ago.’

‘Theuli’s on the mend,’ Doc told him.

‘And Deborah?’ Doc’s worried look, so seldom seen, made Ralph go cold inside.

‘She’s still pretty much out of it.’ Then, sounding as though he was trying to convince himself as much as Ralph, he said, ‘She’s going to be one very sick young woman for a week or two. Maybe longer. In any event, she’s not getting any worse, so I’m taking that as a good sign, for now.’

Ralph nodded to the wagon. Deborah and Theuli were hidden from view by the sideboards, but Pran was clearly visible, kneeling over his wife. ‘Has she told him, and Zuic? About what happened?’

Doc gestured to Ralph to walk with him towards the cooking area. Moving at a slow walk, Doc said, ‘Pran has heard. But Zuic hasn’t yet. And he won’t until we get to Mirrindale, where he can be given Pran and Theuli’s undivided attention. Now let’s get some breakfast for the injured, and then for Pran and ourselves. I’ve been told that the sooner we head out the better, that if we head out later, the roads are going to be clogged with traffic. They tell me there’s a hospital of some sort in Mirrindale.’ Doc didn’t say so, but Ralph could tell that the old man’s concern for Deborah would hopefully be dealt with in Mirrindale.

They reached the Elven city the next day in the first pale light of dawn. Their progress had been greatly slowed by the comings and goings of companies along the road, and they had to stop often to allow soldiers to pass. Always it was the same; the visage of Elf soldiers bearing a heightened aspect which spoke of the imminence of war.

Malina couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that the atrocities committed against her people had only been a precursor to this moment. It seemed that from the beginning, the Elves had really been at war with themselves. Their lesser Faerie kindred had simply been caught in the middle. The Elves were divided between those whose who wished to impose themselves upon the world, and those who saw themselves as being part of it. To her eyes, it seemed as though those who imposed themselves were holding the entire world hostage to their beliefs . . .

Malina mentally shook her head as this revelation sank in, her features colouring. For the first time in her life, wondering at her own audacity, she began to think of the Elven King and Prince Cir in terms less than awe-inspired.

The road became increasingly narrow, and with increasing frequency they came upon narrow stone bridges of remarkable architecture spanning deep chasms, and tunnels carved through solid rock, for as the roadway followed the Mirrow deeper into the foothills of the mountains, the river valley gradually became a chasm, the roadway having been gouged out of its stone walls. As they neared the city, the road turned sharply left, then came to an abrupt end at a sheer cliff face. On the far side of the canyon was a high stone wall, over which a few rooftops could be seen, some with pennants flying from them.

They crossed a long drawbridge which, when withdrawn, acted as the city’s gate. The canyon it spanned was cut hundreds of feet deep by the river, and crossing the wooden drawbridge was an uncanny feeling; there were no railings to prevent a fall, or a rider being borne to his death by a panicked mount. As well, the drawbridge met the road at right angles, creating a bottleneck of slow-moving traffic, wheeling about to change direction. Ralph and the others were relieved by this design, however; Mirrindale appeared impregnable. At the very least it could not easily be taken by force.

Once across the bridge, they passed through the stone archway of the gate and found themselves facing a portcullis, which was raised for them immediately, the guard having given Loriman and Dornal a quick nod of recognition.

Doc and Ralph were very much impressed with the buildings lining the roadway, which were large and elaborate. All were made of close-fitting mortared stone, many having green roofs made of heavy sheets of copper, though most were of black slate. The average height of the buildings was three or four storeys, their general shape long and rectangular, though a few were round or square, and some were fronted with stone pillars and rotundas. For her part, Malina found herself fervently wishing that she was any place but inside the fortress city of the Elves.

Mirrindale was the antithesis of Narvi, in every sense. Where Narvi was chaotically laid out, Mirrindale was a study in order. Where Narvi was indefensible, Mirrindale was impregnable. And where Narvi was rustic, Mirrindale was, as the newcomers were soon to find, far more cultured and aristocratic.

Pran, Doc, Malina, and Ralph, were not given a chance to rest just yet. They were met by Birin, who now wore the Thane’s livery and rode with an armed escort. Approaching Pran, he said, including the newcomers, ‘I am sent to escort you to the Thane’s Hall of Office. The Pixie woman with you, meanwhile, is to be escorted-’

‘Malina is with us,’ Ralph said firmly, cutting him off. ‘She acted as emissary to our world for her people. So far, as she is the only Faerie person from your world to make contact with our own, her presence is required.’ He added this last himself, thinking it a good touch.

Birin lifted an eyebrow. ‘Malina did not go willingly to your world as Emissary. She was banished to your world, by our people, as punishment-’

‘Your laws do not apply in our world,’ Doc put in. ‘Any time there is a sole individual of a particular race or nation in out midst, that person is deemed to be a representative. In our world, in the country that Ralph and I come from, there are people, even the lowliest criminals, who would lay down their lives, rather than badly represent their countries.’

Birin gave Pran a look that may have concealed a smile, but Pran gave no sign. With a nod, Birin acquiesced, and began leading them further into the city.

Though not a large city by modern Human standards, Mirrindale nevertheless controlled Narvi and the surround lands for a good twenty miles in all directions, and was a city-state in its own right. The population of Mirrindale was swelling, however, augmented by rural folk from the surrounding lands, many of whom had never laid eyes upon any city, large or small. Many were quite overwhelmed by the, to their eyes, massive stone structures that gave their untrained eyes the impression of being great halls of learning, though in truth only a few buildings in the entire city could be referred to as such.

Mirrindale, was largely a center of trade, but unlike the town of Narvi, with its chaotic throngs of independent shop-owners, Mirrindale’s commerce was owned and controlled by its highly organized and wealthy Merchant class. And whereas Narvi’s stock in trade was local wares hocked by local farmers acting as artisans, tradesmen and craftsmen to augment their incomes, Mirrindale was a center of trade in a far broader sense. There was Dwarvish weaponry, jewelry, and exorbitantly expensive home crafts such as timepieces of Elven manufacture, which alone were rare and rarely-seen items; there were expensive Human silks, textiles, weaves, rugs, wood products, armour, weaponry, and tools such as spear shafts and farm implements made of ash, a wood unknown in the Elf Kingdom and much in demand.

The greater part of these goods were purchased by the rich, but many were purchased by property owners for the running of their own farms. As well, there were many specialty shops, or sections in many or most of the most expensive shops, where even the poorest soul could find some item within modest monetary means. Discount stores and clearance centers were by no means an unknown or new idea.

As they rode deeper into the city, Birin, in a formal tone, and as a courtesy, explained all of this to the newcomers, eventually prompting Doc to ask a question.

‘How is it that the Merchants have been kept from buying up or controlling Narvi?’ Thinking of the way that major chains of stores back home would move into quaint areas, set up shop, and drive all the small businesses out, wrecking such quaint areas for all, while other such businesses would worm their way in as well, and like taxidermists, keep the façade of the original quaintness, while underneath lurked the soulless juggernaut of large corporations.

Birin smiled as though he relished the answer.

‘The Thane,’ he said, ‘when he came into his Stewardship, continued the policy of the former Steward (also a Thane), which declared that no Merchant could traffic in home crafts, unless they were made wholly of materials which could not be got anywhere in the Elf Kingdom. Also, Narvi is designated solely for the commerce of the common Elven people. Those Dwarves and Men living in Narvi are bound by that same rule of commerce. You will find Dwarvish and Human Merchants only within the walls of Mirrindale.’

‘I think,’ Doc said, mulling his over, that there are people in my world who would very much like to see such a policy enacted.’

Her fear of the Elves quite forgotten for the moment, Malina stared at the noisy throngs milling about in the streets, her Pixie nose catching the spicy-sweet aroma of exotic foods, the crisp smell of brand-new fabrics and newly manufactured items of metal and wood. To their right, the tarpaulin had been removed from the top of a huge ox-drawn waggon, and she watched with longing as ornately carved wooden chests, fashioned from rich, dark woods and inlaid with opalescent nacre, were unloaded and taken into a nearby shop, along with huge urns of brass and bronze, packed together, for protection, with rolled and folded exotic rugs between them.

Looking up between the buildings, she could see flocks of pigeons wheeling about the city; there were coloured pennants hanging from beneath windows, and on the top floors of many buildings were high arched windows, taller and wider than any she had ever seen before. Here and there were tiny, ornate windows of all shapes, set deep in tiny alcoves, and had she still been able to transform into her tiny winged form, she would have longed to go up to them to explore.

And there were statues made of stone and bronze; statues of Elven men and women, none of whom she recognised. Most stood in some stilted, stylized pose; others rode on the backs of horses, stood upon pedestals, all of them frozen; profoundly gesticulating, enunciating, depicting, uttering . . . nothing . . . save eternal silence.

Malina’s reverie was suddenly broken. They had reached the center of the city, and came to a halt in front of a large building.

Compared to many of the others, this building was plain and unadorned. Birin once again asked that only Pran, Ralph and Doc accompany him, but Ralph was not about to allow Malina to be removed from his sight; not after what he’d learned.

Ralph was understandably torn in his decision. Malina was very tense and afraid, and neither Deborah nor Theuli were around to offer her comfort. Birin acquiesced when he saw that Ralph was adamant, but advised Ralph, not unkindly, that Malina would only be made more uncomfortable while in the Hall of the Thane.

Ralph looked to Doc, who in turn seemed to reach some sort of decision that didn’t sit well with him, and said to Birin, ‘Malina remains with us until such time as we can be absolutely certain of her safety. No offense, but her treatment at some of your people’s hands doesn’t exactly merit trust.’

Birin was about to protest the folly of their decision, but changed his mind with a shrug that said eloquently, On your own head be it. ‘As you wish.’

The four of them dismounted, their horses were led away, and they entered the comparative darkness of the building, stopping in the huge foyer a moment to allow their eyes time to adjust. Then, moving into the building proper, they ascended a short flight of stairs and passed through a pair of doors which were held open by armed guards. Immediately inside was a ‘T’ intersection, leading right, left, and center, and they took the one in the middle. Midway into the building were landings on both sides of the hall. An open stairwell rose four storeys with double staircases on either side. They followed their escort up several flights to the right until they reached the uppermost landing. They then turned left on the landing, followed it to the end, then turned right at a narrow doorway, passed through a hallway and cloakroom panelled with dark wood, passed through a small anteroom which had tall vertical windows at one end, finally passing through another doorway which brought them to the rear of a long hall.

Inside was a long narrow floor surrounded on all four sides by ascending tiers of seats. At the far end of this, seated at a table at floor level, was the Thane flanked on either side by several of his aides. To his right in the lower gallery sat a number of merchants. The rest of the hall was empty.

Their meeting with the Thane was thankfully informal, for he had long been a soldier, and had no interest in the trappings of state. At the moment, he and one of his aides were having a private conversation, discussing the contents of a document on the table before them. As Pran, Doc, Ralph and Malina reached the table, a few of the aides, and several merchants who sat in the gallery, stared at Malina coldly and muttered behind their hands to one another.

In response, Malina self-consciously tried to ignore them, and looked to Ralph and Doc, who flanked her on either side. She found that the acoustics of the room exaggerated every sound of those who muttered about her presence; she could hear their every word, and felt her heart sink down into her shoes.

Seeing her distress, Ralph took her hand, interlocking their fingers together firmly, and smiled at her, reassuringly. Immediately, she felt her spirits rise, though her sense of trepidation was no less than it had been. Unconsciously, she leaned against his shoulder for support.

The Thane was plainly dressed in the type of clothing Elf soldiers wore under their light armour. He wore no mantle or sign of office, and seemed indifferent to the aristocratic finery to his right. But when he finished what he was doing, and raised his hand for silence, the room was immediately quiet.

Without preamble, he said quietly, glancing at Malina’s and Ralph’s interlocked hands, ‘Young woman, I would begin these proceedings directly and without interruption, if I could, but a point of order has arisen concerning your status here, requiring that you read and sign a Writ of Proxy. Please understand, that when travellers act as Emissaries in our lands, they are, as a matter of course, obligated to sign the Writ.

‘The reason for this is simple: when an Emissary is not clearly elected to the task by his own people, there may come a time when that Emissary’s people will send us a person, or persons, who are, in fact, acting officially in that capacity.

‘If and when that should occur, the official Emissaries are questioned regarding the first person contacted. This is done,’ he told her, ‘because in the past, persons fleeing justice, who ventured into our lands, on occasion used the title of Emissary as pretence, until they were caught and turned over to their own people to receive justice.

‘In your case,’ he continued, ‘I would waive the matter altogether, if I could, as the social conditions I have just mentioned are not relevant.’ He said this last, turning his head slightly, indicating that these words were meant for a certain person, or persons, in the gallery, or nearby. Continuing, he said, ‘However, certain . . . persons . . . have seen fit to demand the enforcement of this point of law, so that I have no choice but to acquiesce; therefore you must sign the Writ.’ He shrugged. ‘It is just a formality, albeit an irritating one under the circumstances.

‘As well,’ he said, as though reluctant, and didn’t wish to utter words circumstances were forcing upon him, ‘there is the matter of the Emissary’s Address.’

At these words, the gallery became hushed, expectant. Several of those present bore a malicious, vindicated aspect.

Pran, however, was apparently prepared for this.

‘I will speak for her,’ he said. ‘Or one of her companions. She is unused to the pressures of public speaking-’

‘Unfortunately,’ the Thane said, cutting him off, ‘you cannot, nor can her companions. This is not a court of law, but an informal hearing, in my hall, concerning matters of State. Were she ignorant of our tongue and our culture, both interpreter and counsellor would be provided.’ Before Pran could protest, the Thane indicated the chairs before them, and said, ‘Please be seated.’ He said this in a formal way that made it clear that his directive was neither to be questioned nor ignored. They did so, Doc on the left, Ralph, Malina and Pran.

To Pran, the Thane said, ‘The news of the death of your brother and his family was made known to me a short while ago, as were the circumstances surrounding his death. I have also been informed as to the plot against yourself and your family, as well as all others living in the Eastland Waik area. It seems that these provocative events were orchestrated by Prince Cir, possibly at the urging of the King, though at present that is conjecture.

‘I understand also that you have inadvertently forced my hand where present circumstances are concerned, by making it known that you have access to weapons of some considerable importance. Since you have played a part in precipitating civil war, I am assuming that these weapons hold some decisive advantage.’

Pran said nothing at first, his gaze inward. Ralph glanced at him and almost groaned aloud. Pran was stricken with remorse for something he couldn’t have prevented, and by what he would have to tell the Thane.

The Thane leaned forward. ‘My friend, I do not wish to belittle your loss by ignoring your grief, but our need is urgent.’

Raising his eyes to the Thane’s, Pran said quietly, ‘It would not be fitting to air my grief here . . . but as to the weapons you speak of . . .

‘There is only the one. It was made at my request, and I had hoped that the technique used to fashion it could be taught to others, that they could be made in great quantity. In this I was mistaken. Also, I was spied upon . . . which is how knowledge of the weapon spread, and perhaps explains how present events became precipitated . . .’

The Thane leaned back in his chair, his features a mixture of anger, disappointment and understanding. But he took a deep breath and shook off his reaction. ‘Well, it is done, then. But I forget my manners. Will you not make introduction of your companions? From the strange attire of these Men, I can tell that they are strangers here. This young woman is obviously of the Pixie folk, and I would guess, unless by eyes deceive me, that she has adopted the sort of attire worn by her companions. Is it true that she was the one “banished” just prior to your resignation last year?’

Pran had wanted to avoid this, but said, ‘Yes, this Pixie is Malina, whom the Prince had exiled from our world. These Men are from the world to which she was exiled. They do not share the sentiments of Men or Elves from our world towards the Pixie race.

‘It was I who was forced to carry out the Prince’s sentence of banishment . . . a sentence he carried out in bad faith, as she was told that her sentence was for but a year. But at the end of that time, the Prince chose not to end her punishment. Ever.

‘Rather than be made a liar of, at the year’s end I returned to her place of banishment, intending to make good on the Prince’s word.

‘Malina, however, did not wish to return. She had a new life, and new friends. But she returned, regardless, because I asked it of her, telling her of the threat to her people.’

There was some amused tittering at this remark from the gallery, and even the Thane’s aides smiled.

His face blackening with outrage, Pran surged to his feet.

‘How dare you!’ There was shocked silence, as Pran angrily glared from eye to eye around the room. ‘It isn’t enough that you profit from their extinction, is it? You think that you can smugly condescend as well, from behind the safety of this city’s walls, and the Thane’s soldiers.’

Affronted, several of the Merchants and members of the gallery rose to leave, until the Thane raised his voice.

‘Remain seated!’

They did so with very poor grace, unnerved by the implicit threat in the Thane’s tone.

‘Please continue,’ the Thane said.

Gathering himself once more, considering his thoughts, Pran said, ‘I know what you are thinking! Pixie loyalty . . . who has ever heard of such a thing? Pixies are spiteful, untrustworthy creatures, who abduct the young, who steal small but valuable objects, who seduce young men in the guise of their lovers, and who are notorious for their pranks and their mischief.

‘Some of this is undoubtedly true, that they are vengeful and spiteful towards us. Small wonder, considering the atrocities we have committed against them! That they commit mischief and small pranks is certainly true, for I have seen these often, as have many of you. However, it should speak much for their character, that there is so little harm in their anger toward us.

‘But as to the rest . . .

‘When my daughter, Rani, was but four years old, she wandered off and was lost in the woods. After several days of frantic searching, my wife and I had given up all hope, and were beside ourselves with grief, certain that we would never see our little girl again.

‘That same evening, as we made ourselves ready for yet another sleepless vigil, there was a sound at our back door. To our astonishment and joy, it was Rani. She told us that someone had found her, several miles from our home, alone and lost and frightened. That same person gave her food, shelter, and comfort, and guided our daughter home, leaving before we could thank her. I knew from Rani’s description that the person in question was Malina.’

Malina was staring at him, open-mouthed. She had not known that Pran knew this about her, and had kept the incident secret, fearing that she would be blamed for luring the child away.

In a lower voice, he said, ‘How could she return here, under threat of death from our Sovereigns, to aid her people; and why would she risk coming here having relinquished her Power, unless motivated by powerful and higher urges, such as loyalty, responsibility, and,’ he said this last, looking at Ralph, who, caught off guard, was left pondering Pran’s words, specifically this last one- ‘fidelity?

‘How can any of you think to judge another’s loyalty, when most of you have been turning a blind eye to the senseless cruelty and brutality of our Sovereigns, some of you even aiding and abetting their schemes?’

There were few seated in the gallery who could look him in the eye as he said this. Into the uncomfortable silence that followed, he continued. ‘This Man, Ralph, is a smithy, mighty in craft, and maker of the weapon that has precipitated the present disturbance.

‘This Man, Doc, is a Healer of remarkable talent. Besides the wounded soldiers and civilians he tended, he healed Theuli, my wife, who was shot with a Goblin arrow, saving her from a wound that wound normally have been fatal. He also saved the life of Deborah, a woman from their world, who was shot with a arrow tipped with a substance so poisonous that to date none has ever survived.’

On an intuition, feeling the need for Deborah to have some sort of title, he added, ‘Though she is injured, and not with us at present, Deborah, the young woman of their world, possesses a unique talent with reflective surfaces such as mirrors. Using them, she can see things far off, or in other times and places.

‘It is because of Malina that these people are here to lend us their assistance. They, are here to help us, because there is a bond of friendship between this Pixie and these Men from a far place.’

The Thane obviously relished the disbelief and chastened discomfort of those seated with and behind him. Smiling wryly at Pran, he said, ‘I understand that you resigned your commission a year and some months ago. Would that have had anything to do with Malina’s banishment?’

Malina couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Pran?

With a dismissing gesture, the Thane said, ‘You do not have to answer that.’

‘I will answer, if I may,’ said Pran very quietly, seating himself once more. ‘The answer, which you obviously have suspected, is this; to test my loyalty, my instructions were to not only banish Malina, but to kill her, and to tell no one.’

There was a long moment of silence, not all of it guilty. Eventually, the Thane nodded. To the room in general he said, ‘Hear you? Have I not said, repeatedly, that it has ever been the most loyal, the most trusting, who are in the greatest danger of being misled and betrayed? You have only to commit one vile act, believing it to be merely a test of your loyalty or your friendship, and you are lost, both to yourselves and to your fellows. No true friend or Sovereign or deity would ever ask that you do such a thing.’ It was clear that the Thane spoke for the benefit of only a few persons in the room; several had appeared thwarted by Pran’s words, others guarded, as though their plans had either failed, or gone awry, and might possibly carry unforseen repercussions.

At that moment, a tall man in robes, hooded, perhaps middle-aged, judging by what little could be seen of his face, approached the Thane from the side, whispered something. He had a number of documents in his hands.

‘Yes, yes,’ the Thane said impatiently, ‘ it shall be done, without further delay. Young lady, ascend the podium to my left, please. It is time for you to sign the Writ of Proxy, and to deliver your Emissarial Address.’

She looked to Ralph, her eyes wild with fear.

‘Don’t worry,’ he told her firmly. ‘Doc and Pran and I are right here. Remember what the Thane said; you’re not in court; you’re not on trial.’

Pran pressed his hands to his temples, trying to disguise his worry, thinking, ‘Yes, but there are other dangers of which you do not guess . . .’

Doc shifted uncomfortably, his presence momentarily forgotten by the others. His eyes were locked on the hooded man, whom he watched, frowning.

‘Miss,’ the Thane prompted, not unkindly, ‘we haven’t all day.’

Trembling uncontrollably, thinking of what she had been subjected to at her trial, seeing the unfriendly faces staring at her in the gallery, her mouth went dry, and she was so afraid that she feared she might be sick to her stomach. She followed the young Elf who led her to a small, railed, circular podium. One small corner of her mind appreciated that it was richly carved, the sort of place a powerful orator would have stood and held an audience in thrall; not the sort of mean, austere structure upon which she’d been made to stand at her trial . . .

Clenching her hands at her sides in an attempt to conceal how much they trembled, once she gained the podium, the young Elf handed her a small, leather-bound signature tied with red ribbon. She untied the ribbon, opened the signature, laid it flat on the podium, and-

The hooded, robed man, who had accompanied her, pointed to a line at the bottom of the second page, handing her a quill. Something of the Man’s movements caused Doc’s belly to tighten, apprehensively.

‘Sign there. An ‘X’ will do, a symbol shaped like this-’ he demonstrated, with a movement of his hand.

She stared, in incomprehension.

‘Come, come, it is a simple matter,’ the man said. ‘Here,’ he tried taking the quill from her, ‘I will sign it, if you like-’

‘What sort of document is this? What does this mean, that I hereby cede all lands- Here! Let me read that!’

The man had snatched the document from her, chagrined.

‘Bring that document to me! Now!’ The Thane was on his feet, his thundering voice sending his aides scrambling into action.

Without thinking, reacting instinctively, Doc surged to his feet. ‘Look out! He’s armed!’

For a frozen moment the Man stared at Doc, from the depths of his robes, in disbelief. Snatching a long knife from his raiment, he turned towards Malina- only to find his way barred by armed guards. Before anyone could react, he turned and fled, disappearing through a curtain into an anteroom at the rear of the Hall, pursued by several soldiers.

The document, which had been dropped in haste to the floor, was seized by an aide who brought it to the Thane, who was on his feet.

‘I humbly apologise for this outrage,’ he said to Malina. ‘I myself, declare your position official, forthwith. I will have documents drawn up to that effect, and sign them myself, so that there will be no further mischief. I can assure you that I will spare no effort to have that gentleman tracked down and brought to justice.

‘That said, while I do not command you to make your Emissarial Address, still, I ask it of you. I realise that you are unprepared, but I do ask, for the sake of certain of those present, that you make some sort of address, if only because the voice of Faeriekind has never before been heard in this chamber, nor within the confines of any official office of the Elves, except in the lowliest of capacities; normally, when the machinery of such offices was being used against them.’ The Thane reseated himself, waiting.

She swallowed, realizing the truth of his words, and suddenly realized that her own fear was a secondary matter; that she had a purpose here, which she could neither ignore, nor fail to meet. To the amazement of all, despite what had happened, despite her fear, Malina straightened her small shoulders, lifted her chin, glanced in Ralph’s direction as though trying to draw strength from his presence, and began to speak.

‘Thane of the Elves . . .’ she stammered, and stopped. Biting down on her fear, her face pale, she began once more. ‘Thane of the Elves, in recognising my sovereignty as a person this day, you have also recognised the sovereignty of all Faerie peoples.’

The moment she spoke these words, the hall became utterly silent with what could only be described as stunned disbelief.

‘Yet I know not what to say. If I mention crimes against my people, or plead their case, or rail against past injustice, such words would merely be in accordance with those of you who are friends to Faeriekind, and anger those of you who are not.

‘There are many of you who believe that we of Faeriekind are stupid and ignorant. But we know that Elvenkind is well aware of its own actions, and that Elvenkind is beset with its own problems; that the injustices inflicted upon my people are only one small part of the concerns of your people; that your own people suffer as well.

‘Yet, though you think us ignorant, in truth, there are few of you who know anything about us; about our ways, our habits, the reasons we live as we do.

‘However, we of Faeriekind understand Elvenkind well enough in our way, for our very survival depends upon learning the habits and ways of certain of your people, so that we may avoid abuse, murder, torture, enslavement, and other acts of unspeakable barbarity.

Though terrified beyond words, she lifted her chin defiantly. ‘While in the world of my friends, I learned to read and write-’

There was an outburst from the gallery at this, forcing her to pause.

‘-an act punishable by death in our world,’ she continued, for the first time looking those in the gallery in the eye, amazed at her own audacity. ‘It is an odd thing, when you think about it; that Pixies are considered incapable of learning their letters, yet are put to death if they are caught trying to learn.

‘We of Faeriekind are not a people bound by title and written laws. That is your way, but it is not ours. Sovereignty to my people means personal freedom; to your people it refers to the supreme authority of those people you refer to as Sovereigns, your King and Prince Cir.

‘As Emissary, there is little I can do but try to keep the truth in the open, for all to see. Beyond that, all I can do is ask Elvenkind to respect our sovereignty, both as a people, and as individuals.’ Turning to the Thane, she said, simply, ‘That is all I have to say.’

To Ralph and Doc’s surprise, several people in the gallery began banging flat discs of hardwood against a raised area on the desks before them, which were obviously set there for this purpose. The flat discs, they noticed as the objects were replaced, were held in place by a vertical wooden slot on the side of each desk.

There were cries of protest from a few, who mentioned the King and Prince Cir, and the Law, but they were quickly silenced and reminded of the roles of their Sovereigns in the coming civil war.

Directed by a page, Malina left the podium and resumed her seat. She was very pale, and quickly reached for Ralph’s hand with both of her own, which were clammy and trembling. He put a protective arm around her, only to find that her shoulders, too, were tense and shaking almost uncontrollably.

Seeing her discomfort, the Thane, no longer speaking in his orator’s voice, smiled at her and said kindly, ‘You did well for a novice, young lady. You said what needed to be said, and no more. And most importantly,’ he added, ‘you made clear that Faeriekind is not so easily dismissed.

‘Now,’ he said, turning his attention to Ralph and Pran, I would know about this weapon. Even if it is of little or no use to us, still, I must know why Prince Cir had cause, or thought he had cause, to react so strongly to its presence.’

Reaching into a pocket, Pran produced the arrowhead and handed it to one of the Thane’s aides across the table. Taking the object from his aide, cocking an eyebrow at Ralph, the Thane said, ‘Is this a jest?’

‘If that small object embodies a jest,’ Pran responded, ‘then it is a jest that may hold countless lives in its balance. I suggest a demonstration.’

An archer was summoned, who arrived almost immediately with a headless shaft in his possession. The Thane handed the arrowhead to the archer who quickly fitted it. When this was done, the Thane said to one of his aides, ‘Have a target brought to this room.’

Ralph and Pran exchanged a look. ‘I wouldn’t do that,’ Ralph put in quickly. ‘Someone might get hit. How about the floor?’ he said to Pran. ‘The rest of the building seems empty, so it’s probably the safest target here. That way someone on the lower floors can retrieve it.’

Pran considered a moment, then nodded.

The Thane raised an eyebrow, and said to the archer, ‘Do as he suggests. One can only hope that your marksmanship is up to the task.’

Affronted by what he no doubt perceived as a blatant waste of his talent, the archer took the arrow, drew full back, and said, ‘If this comes back in my face and I lose an eye or worse, I will expect my family to be fully compensated.’ Then he released the arrow.

With a painfully harsh, ear-splitting sound, the shaft vanished into the floor in a shower of sparks, causing the archer to jump back in astonishment. The place where it struck was a diamond-shaped slit in the stone. Turning to Ralph, the Thane leaned back thoughtfully in his chair and said ironically, ‘I see.’ The room was immediately abuzz with excitement, but the Thane seemed lost in thought for a long moment. Abruptly, his eyes came back into focus, and when he considered Ralph once more there was a concealed seriousness behind his words.

‘You were well-chosen to come at our need. But it seems to me no small coincidence that Malina should find one so mighty in craft. Do you make . . . other such artifacts?’

Ralph shrugged. ‘This arrowhead was a first for me. I had no idea-’

‘What my friend is trying to say,’ interrupted Pran quietly and leaning forward, so that only the Thane could hear, ‘is that in his world, smithing does not produce anything beyond the mere working of metals.’

The Thane and Pran exchanged a long look. Finally, to ensure that nothing would be overheard by any nearby, the Thane directed his aides to withdraw a discreet distance. ‘Well,’ he said very quietly, sitting on the edge of his chair, leaning forward on his elbows, ‘it seems that fortune has indeed been in our favour, at least for now.’ Noticing Ralph’s expression, he added, ‘It is fortunate for all of us that the King hasn’t yet met your acquaintance. Was that in fact the only such weapon?’

Ralph swallowed, trying to digest all he had heard. ‘I can make more.’

‘When?’

After we get some sleep. Some of us have been up since yesterday.’

‘Ah,’ the Thane said, raising his voice once more. ‘I shall arrange for your rooms to be near to mine. Rest as long as you wish. And . . . Malina?’

Too intimidated to answer, she looked a question at him. He smiled to put her at ease. ‘If anyone in Mirrindale causes you affront in any way, tell me and I personally will deal with them.’

After trying unsuccessfully to fall asleep in the apartment he had been furnished with, there was a quiet knock on Ralph’s door.

‘Come in,’ he murmured, hoping the disturbance would be brief.

He heard the door, open, and someone enter the room, quietly. The curtains were drawn in an attempt to keep out the annoying daylight which seemed to draw his eyes open, albeit unwillingly. At the last moment, some instinct made him turn over, to see, in the dim light of his apartment, who had approached his bed, and was making rustling noises beside it.

‘Nevana!’

She was just pulling off the last of her clothes, getting set to crawl into bed with him.

Before she could accomplish this, he got up, took one of his blankets, wrapped her in it, bundled up her clothes and placed them in her hands, and began propelling her towards the door.

‘If you do not take me,’ she protested, ‘I will start screaming. I will tell everyone that you have ravished me! Please, do not shame me like this-’

‘Nevana,’ he said, ‘I am simply too tired for this. Go ahead and scream all you like, but I am not going to sleep with you, just like that-’

‘Then when?’

‘For pity’s sake, Nevana, let me get some sleep! I can’t think right now, and I’m not going to be pushed into making any sort of decision while I’m this tired.’

‘Tomorrow, then,’ she pouted, leaning against him, looking disturbingly unflustered for a girl who was naked beneath a light blanket. ‘Promise me we will speak of this matter tomorrow.’

He sighed, holding onto the doorframe.

‘Right now, I need sleep.’

With an unsettlingly vindicated look, she smiled, and left. He closed the door behind her, and went back to bed.

The room, he noticed, suddenly felt very empty.

He no sooner lay back down again than there was a light knock on the door.

Deciding to head her off this time, now knowing how persistent she could be, he got up and went to the door, to prevent her entering.

It was Malina.

‘What the hell!’ he blurted. ‘Why are you crying-’

‘I can’t sleep,’ she said. ‘They’re so mean to me. They call me bad names-’

‘What are you talking about? Who are they?’

‘The ones who come to my room, and bang on the door, or yell at me if I don’t open it.’ she said. ‘They tell me to leave, to go away from Mirrindale-’

‘Who?’

People here,’ she said, as though what she meant were obvious.

‘Which people?’

‘Those women, those wives of Merchants, and-’

Ralph felt a sudden surge of anger, but instead of saying anything, took Malina by the arm and drew her into the room.

‘C’mon,’ he said, drawing her towards his mussed up bed. ‘I wasn’t getting any sleep anyway. You lie down and get some sleep, and I’ll watch over you. Will that be okay?’

As though waiting for those very words, she quickly pushed past him, and threw herself prone upon his bed. Like him, she was tired, almost past the point of being able to sleep.

Sitting on the side of the bed, watching Malina in repose, Ralph mused tiredly, ‘While you’re here, I was thinking . . . some of those old stories Pran used to tell us at his house late at night, about people being taken from my world and brought here . . . I didn’t quite get it. Who did take the people from my world? The Elves or the Wizards?’

Answering brusquely, impatient for sleep and an end to conversation, Malina replied, ‘Don’t be silly, Rowf! It was Faeries who brought your people to our world. Don’t you ever read Faerie tales?’

By degrees, he too fell asleep, laying spoon-fashion at her back, all the time wondering if she was having it on with him.

Chapter 14

Pas de Deux

The world of Ballroom Dance is one of

formalised, gender-specific rôles carried out

by dominant male and subordinate female

partners. It is not a democracy.’

Something is going to happen . . . it had to happen . . . it was meant to happen . . .’ As she lay in a sickening delirium, those words ran through Deborah’s mind like a litany, one part of her mind pedantic and certain, the other indecisive, possessing the inertia of unbelief.

Such things didn’t worry her. Like her nightmares they only seemed bad at the time, in a detached sort of way.

But another assertion entirely chilled her to the marrow of her being.

Your life is no longer static . . . it has been riven from its moorings . . . left to drift . . .

. . .and you are changing . . .’

These words terrified her, because they were true. The fragile truce she had made within herself to get by from day to day was being eroded, swept away by invisible, unknowable forces. At home in her own world, she coped with such destructive inner pressures either by staying up for days until she was utterly exhausted, or else she would go out and get drunk, leaving herself not focused enough for such forces to take hold. In either case, these forces, too, would become insensate for a time; but only for a time. They would, gradually, inevitably, gather strength and focus once more, even as she did, and once again she would be driven to harm herself in order to cause their hold on her to loosen, as though her fragility of being were her best and only defence.

But now, in this world, the force that had dogged her life since childhood was becoming palpable, so real that she could almost taste it; she could feel its cloying presence permeating her being, as intimate and violating as rape.

Even as she began to think of it in those terms, or rather, as such images forced themselves upon her, intruded upon her thoughts, old memories became intermixed, as though this soul-destroying force that dogged her, and her old experiences, were one and the same. The memories, or impressions, began to become stronger, more physical, trying to increase their hold on her, and she began to struggle, terrified, desperate . . .

She felt a heavy weight on top of her, and hands, someone else’s, interfering with her, pinning her hands, pulling her legs apart- her own parents or demons; she couldn’t tell the difference-

Outraged, violated, she began screaming, struggling wildly to break free-

As though frightened off by her cries, the phantoms drew away; but she could still feel their presence; they merely waited for another opportunity . . .

By degrees she became aware that her room was in near darkness, though it was very bright outside. Evidently her room faced north. The breeze coming in through the window above her bed disturbed the light curtains; the shutters had been opened wide. The air bore a tang of early morning, and from outside, occasional gusts of wind hissed through nearby trees, a timeless, haunting sound that was vaguely reminiscent of the quiet roll of breakers upon some distant beach.

Laying quietly, drifting in a netherworld of semi-wakefulness, listening to the morning breeze, and watching the glitter of reflected sunshine mixed with the silhouettes of tree-branches dancing on the ceiling, she felt somewhat refreshed, memories of terror, betrayal, of demons and soul-pain, gradually receding. The instant she moved, however, a wave of nausea and dizziness caused the room to spin, drowning out all else with hideous vertigo, leaving her drenched in a cold sweat. Her left thigh ached dully, too. Reaching beneath the covers, gingerly checking her wound, she found that her leg was bandaged. Withdrawing her hand, she thought she could smell dried blood, though that might have been her imagination. Besides the bandage, she was completely naked.

Great!

She had been in a hospital only once, and that was when her favourite aunt was dying of some lingering form of internal cancer. Ever since then, she had equated hospitals with death and dying.

Theuli! With a shock she remembered . . .

‘Malina? Theuli? Is anyone there?’

An Elf woman dressed in white came from somewhere to her right . . . she was not about to move her head to see from where, and risk the hideous nausea again. She heard the sound of water being poured, as if in a bowl, or like receptacle.

‘Are you a nurse?’

Noting the Elf woman’s incomprehension, Deborah realised that she was speaking English. Switching to the Elf tongue, she said, ‘What is this place? Can you tell me if an Elf-woman named Theuli was brought here, or if anything has happened to my companions?’

For some reason, the Elf-woman’s features seemed indistinct, though friendly enough. Deborah found that her eyes ached when she tried to focus.

‘Don’t try to move,’ The Elf-woman drew off Deborah’s covers, much to her embarrassment, and began giving her a sponge-bath. As the nurse worked, she said, ‘Yes, I am a nurse, and this is a house of healing. Your friends are all well. Theuli sleeps in the next room and the two children are with her husband.’

Deborah began to feel an uncomfortable tugging at her leg, and realised the nurse was changing her dressing.

‘I am sorry. Did that cause you pain?’

Deborah could only grit her teeth and make a small grunt of assent.

Once done, as the nurse began changing her sheets, Deborah noticed an unpleasant stickiness. ‘Please lift yourself up at bit, Miss. Your monthly has begun; I’m afraid you’re stuck to the sheets.’

Deborah was so mortified that she covered her face with her hands and began to weep, quietly.

‘Come now!’ said the nurse brusquely in a no-nonsense tone, without pausing from her work, ‘you’ll feel much better when you’re clean and the sheets are changed. There is no reason for you to feel shame.’ As soon as the nurse was done washing her, she changed the linen and wrapped a long sheet around Deborah from her calves to her under-arms. As she draped a warm blanket over the young woman, the Elf said, ‘You may find this a bit restricting, but if you try to move your leg or do so in your sleep, you will find the experience very painful.’

Drifting off again, Deborah reflected that this was not like in the movies where people defied all pain (and logic) by ripping arrows out of their own bodies and kept on fighting . . .

Ralph woke early laying on his back, not feeling overly refreshed, but more that he’d overslept. Lifting his head he discovered that food had been provided, laid out on a small table which stood in front of a tall, narrow window to his right. ‘Mm. Room service,’ he muttered, rubbing at the stubble on his chin. Malina, still fast asleep, was pressed comfortably to his side, head on his shoulder, face uplifted, the bridge of her nose pressed to the underside of his chin; where their bodies touched felt slightly damp with sweat, but comfortable.

As before, unbidden images of Nevana came to Ralph’s mind. If only he’d given in to her, he would be laying now with her at his side, in post-coital comfort, bliss, and exhaustion . . .

And as before, such images evoked feelings of guilt and betrayal toward the small form pressed so fervently to his side.

He did feel something for Malina. That had finally become clear to him in the Hall of the Thane, when, terrified as she was, she had got up in front of all those people who hated her . . .

At that moment, when she had squared her small shoulders and set her jaw, had fought down her terror and began to speak; in Ralph’s eyes she had suddenly seemed to grow . . .

At the same time, assessing himself, he wondered, ‘How could I even consider letting someone like that down? Or allowing myself to feel the way I do towards Nevana?’ He huffed at his own thoughts. ‘Letting myself feel! What am I saying? I have about as much control over my feelings as I do over the dawn!’ Mulling this over a little longer, however, he thought, ‘Yes, well, that may be. But I can control how I act!’

Suddenly wide-awake, and realizing that he was hungry, he moved, hoping to shift himself from underneath Malina without waking her. She awoke almost instantly, however, stretched, lifted her head, and to his surprise, looked at him worriedly. ‘Rowf getting too bony,’ she said in English.

Chagrined, for a moment he almost choked with laughter. ‘Too bony? Me? Malina, I’ve been trying to lose this blub for ages!’

She frowned, though trying at the same time not to smile. ‘I miss Rowf’s soft belly, like you have when you first hold me, remember? When I first came to your world, and you hold me in your chair, in front of the fire? You melting away.’

He rose and, without thinking, kissed the top of her head. ‘The soft part on the outside, maybe,’ he said. ‘But I think you’ll find that the inside hasn’t changed at all.’

After breakfast, they visited Deborah and Theuli in the infirmary. Malina stayed behind with Deborah, as Deborah seemed starved for company. Ralph, however, was soon bored (and ignored) as the two girls chattered away, so he left to find something to do, and asked one of the Thane’s guards for directions to the armoury’s forges. The guard spoke in a thick accent; Ralph found it difficult to understand him at first (and vice versa). But finally he had the needed directions. Just as he was about to leave, however, he discreetly asked the guard about his speech. The guard told him in succinct terms that he was from the far Northeast reaches of the Kingdom, and Ralph left it at that. The Elf man seemed none too friendly, he thought.

He found the armoury as the guard said he would. It was closed up and silent, but four guards sat at the entrance, and rose when Ralph approached them. When he explained his business, one of them produced a ring of keys and opened the door, telling Ralph that the blacksmiths did not usually begin their work so early in the day. Following Ralph inside, he began pushing open louvres in the roof with a long pole, to let in light, and later to let the heat of the forges escape.

The forges were actually in a separate stone building, attached to the side of the armoury. The building housing them was very narrow; there were six forges all in a row along the west wall, each with its own chimney built into the outside wall. It was cold, dark, and very dirty, the inside walls, floor, and furnaces blackened with soot. Everywhere were barrels full of blackened iron objects and piles of slag, with implements hanging from the beams overhead, held there by grimy leather thongs and dirty twine.

Ralph grinned at the sight, took off his shirt, grabbed a shovel, and began heaving coal into the furnace of the forge he’d chosen to use.

By mid-afternoon the smithy was fairly busy. Three other blacksmiths and their young helpers were hard at work making various implements of war. All took time to watch Ralph as he fashioned arrowheads, and marvelled at the uniform quality of his work. They were mystified, too, at his use of baromiène, the rock-crystals he used to give his arrowheads their lustrous sheen, their indestructible hardness, and their impossibly keen edge. Several tried using the crystals, only to be left scratching their heads in bafflement when they merely burned off as slag.

A few hours later, Ralph was interrupted from his work by Birin.

‘How goes it,’ the Elf-captain asked him.

Ralph shrugged, and mopped his brow with a rag he kept tucked in the back of his pants. ‘I’ve made about thirty so far. I’ve tried to show the others here how it’s done, but they just shake their heads, and say things like “I am a smithy, not a sorcerer.” It looks like I’m on my own.’

‘Let’s leave the others to their work, shall we? I have something to discuss with you.’

Ralph washed up a bit using cold water from a barrel, gave his cache of arrowheads to a fellow worker for safekeeping, and followed Birin outside to the nearest section of a continuous courtyard which wove its way between the buildings of Mirrindale. It was cleverly convoluted, full of private nooks and crannies, many of these being furnished with tables and benches sheltered by slate-shingled roofs supported at each corner by stone pillars or thick wooden posts. About the stone walkways were raised terraces with patches of grass bordered by flowers and flowering shrubs. They seated themselves at a stone bench which was sheltered beneath an enormous magnolia tree in full bloom; nearby was an ornate fountain shaped like the heads of dolphins, which gurgled and sparkled cheerfully in the bright sunlight.

‘Pran has told me that you are not skilled in the arts of weaponry,’ Birin said. ‘Is this true?’

Groaning inwardly, Ralph replied,’ I can make just about anything, as long as I have some sort of plan to work from. That doesn’t mean that I have to know how to use what I make.’

Birin’s expression appeared as though he found what Ralph had said repugnant, but that he was making an effort to conceal his reaction. ‘This is a cause for concern with me. There is a balance to made things that comes directly from use; a balance between art and craft, if you will. I would like you to begin training. Today.’

‘You really think it’s that necessary?’ Ralph asked him, not enthralled with the idea.

‘Let me put it to you in more personal terms,’ Birin told him. ‘If you or your friends were attacked, and there was no one to defend them but yourself, wouldn’t you want to know at the least that you could defend them?’

At the moment, this was the last thing Ralph wanted to talk about, touching very closely his sense of helpless frustration and failure when he had seen battle. Even had he been there when the Goblins or renegade Elf soldiers attacked, he doubted that his presence would have made much of a difference. But he heard something else in the soldier’s words.

‘Are you testing me?’

Birin considered this for a moment. ‘Let me say that I wish to know what to expect from you.’

‘Why?’

Birin hesitated, as though he wished to skirt an unpleasant subject. ‘I will be candid with you,’ he said at last. ‘You are an outsider, and the Thane is now considering including your little toys into his plans. The Thane is a strategist, one of the best I’ve ever seen. I am a captain, and I view things in a much more personal manner. It is my job to make the Thane’s plans work, and part of his design may soon include you.

‘In short, when strategy fails, or new weapons do not live up to their touted capabilities, soldiers die. My soldiers. You have what appears to be a great talent, but you lack experience. The Thane, as a man of ideas, may blindly trust your talents, but as I consider the soldier before I consider the weapon he wields, I share neither his trust nor his blind faith. You will not have the trust of myself, nor that of my soldiers, until you have earned it.’

Ralph digested this uncomfortably, sensing both the truth in Birin’s words, and the weight of what he was asking. ‘When do I start?’

Gannet was the biggest, strongest Elf Ralph had seen yet. He was a good three inches taller than Ralph, and well-muscled. Ralph got the distinct impression that Gannet did not like soft civilians one bit. This impression was greatly reinforced when Gannet pinned Ralph against a wall with a razor-sharp sword against his throat. Ralph was panting as much from fear as from exhaustion as the Elf released him. Wiping at something on his neck, his hand came away bloody.

Bastard!

By late afternoon, Ralph’s muscles quivered with exhaustion, his arms and legs ached, he generally felt like he had been carrying a lead weight around all day, and to make matters worse, he was developing a pounding headache which, as it got worse, thwarted his concentration, ruined his focus, even played havoc with his short-term memory and his vision. But the big Elf showed no sign that he was tired, or that he intended to take a break, or that he intended to end this session at any time.

Finally, Ralph had no choice but to stop. He dropped his guard deliberately, and put his hand up.

‘Enough. That’s all I can do today.’

To his surprise, the big Elf stopped as abruptly and sheathed his sword, looking as fresh as when they’d begun. ‘In the course of conducting warfare, you would have no such option,’ he said. Without another word, he turned to leave.

‘When’s my next lesson?’ Ralph said adamantly, thinking by his body language that Gannet meant to snub him.

‘That is Birin’s affair,’ Gannet replied as he left. ‘One of my duties is the training of soldiers. The care of civilians is not my concern, unless it is made to be so.’

Ralph was stung by the big Elf’s remark, but decided to seek Birin out, to have a schedule made up. He found the captain at an officer’s meeting in a building a discreet distance from the soldier’s barracks. Ralph didn’t wish to intrude, but the Elf captain seemed glad for the opportunity to escape for a breath of fresh air, and a chance to stretch his legs.

When Ralph mentioned his intention to begin training in earnest, Birin’s relief, though palpable, was reserved.

‘You should understand,’ Birin told him, ‘that most soldiers begin learning their craft as small children. I must warn you that it is very rare for a late starter to become a good soldier, though within the ranks of a conscripted army (which is what the male civilian population will become the moment civil war is officially declared), volunteers command more respect than those pressed into service.’ He considered Ralph thoughtfully for a moment. ‘To be entirely honest with you, I was certain that you would last only until Gannet’s menacing nature made you fear for your personal safety.’

Ralph grimaced to show that he was not about to be taken in by such an obvious ploy. ‘It’s pretty obvious, even to me, that you don’t kill or maim the men you’re training.’ Then, he caught the look on Birin’s face. ‘You’ve got to be joking!’

‘There is more to it than the scope of our present conversation,’ Birin told him. ‘Suffice it to say that there is an . . . element . . . within the Elven soldiery . . . indeed, within the Elven people, that needs to be . . . I believe the word is excised. You need not worry, however, for this matter does not concern you; your personal safety, therefore, is not at risk. Except,’ he added wryly, ‘for the usual injuries incurred in any sort of hard and dangerous training of a physical nature; especially where the use of instruments whose sole purpose is to kill is concerned.

‘However,’ he said, ‘to illustrate that which I just mentioned; you recall that in the Hall of the Thane, there was a man in robes, an older or middle-aged man, who may or may not have been an Elf, who presented Malina with a false document to sign.’

‘How could I forget?’ Ralph replied, tersely. ‘I wish I’d got a better look at him.’

‘So do we all,’ Birin said. ‘That is the element to which I refer. Be wary. Watch for it. And-’ he said pointedly, ‘you might make mention of this to your friends, for Malina in particular will be the target of such people-’

Ralph was on his feet immediately, glaring. ‘What? You mean it’s not enough that the Thane’s soldiers are supposed to protect her?’

‘Not all the Thane’s soldiers are to be trusted,’ Birin told him simply. ‘I would be lying to you were I to claim otherwise, or to state that I knew for certain who and who not to trust, without reserve. Understand, it is not an easy or a simple matter to know where all loyalties lie. Many soldiers have had multiple allegiances, as they have served in various Merchants’ private mercenary armies, even while ostensibly being members of the Thane’s, the King’s, and Prince Cyr’s forces. There are all manner of hidden, private agendas at work, not the least of which involves spying and active attempts to undermine the Thane’s hold on power.

‘I want you to keep in mind, when training, that many of the best-trained, most lethal soldiers, are also assassins and opportunists. Being able to deal with them should rightly be your measure of quality as a soldier.’

Ralph heard something else in his tone of voice. ‘That’s why Gannet thinks I’m a waste of his time; he has that to worry about.’

‘Gannet,’ Birin told him, ‘has no love of assassins. And he has absolutely no patience with any form of weakness, which in his view, and mine, we can ill-afford.’

That evening, after spending the remainder of the day at his forge, Ralph returned to his quarters in anticipation of a hot bath. Along the way, he met a servant in the hall, and mentioned his desire to her, a little uncomfortably, not liking this element of class distinction which existed in Mirrindale. The girl, however, seemed only too happy to pass along his wishes to the “proper” person or persons who executed that particular duty.

Or so he thought.

However, a matter of fifteen or twenty minutes after he entered his quarters and flopped into a comfortable, overstuffed chair to rest, the same girl, accompanied by another, entered his apartment, each pushing a wooden cart. The top of the first wooden cart, he saw, consisted of trays which held implements: combs, clippers, and various devices, the use or function of which was unknown to him; beneath this was a set of drawers, which he was to discover contained linens such as towels and washcloths; the bottom held two enormous earthenware ewers full of steaming water. The second cart was smaller, having an identical pair of the large earthenware ewers sitting on its base, and a pair of bowls set into the top.

These were pushed into a corner of the apartment, to a place where a large, hinged box sat upon the floor. To his surprise, the second girl lifted the front of the hinged box, and pushed, sliding it into the wall, exposing the bronze bathtub which lay inside the box.

‘I’ll be damned,’ he muttered, as the two girls quickly filled the tub, and then stood patiently, watching him expectantly.

‘Um, that’s all right,’ he told them, finally realizing their intent, ‘I can wash myself.’

Abruptly, they exchanged a startled look.

‘How have we offended you?’ the second girl asked him abashed.

He wrestled with himself a moment, then realized something; that he felt about these young women as he would around nurses, that this was how he should feel. Feeling as though such an act came perfectly naturally to him, he doffed his clothes before the two women, and stepped into the bath.

To his further relief, they went to work on him, immediately and professionally.

After washing his hair, the first girl began tending to the wound on his neck. He stared when she brought out a tray from somewhere, complete with thread, bottles of unknown substances, and strange-looking crescent-shaped objects, shaped almost like animal claws with holes in the wider end, most of which were very small, narrow, and paper-thin. She dabbed something on his neck which made it feel tingly-warm; then, strangely, there seemed to be no feeling at all. She then selected one of the crescent-shaped objects, threaded it, and to his shock, began sewing up the gash on his neck. He flinched at first, anticipating pain, but there was none. He began to relax, to let her do her job.

Some motion caught his attention, and he looked up to see Malina staring at him, her eyes wide.

‘What happened to your neck, Rowf?’ Her tone was a mixture of anger and fear.

He told her.

She sat on a small nearby divan, looking like a worried child.

‘No,’ he thought, realizing that his impressions of her were changing. In the same breath, he realized that it was she that was changing. She was growing, emotionally, and in other ways he couldn’t readily define. It suddenly dawned on him that he, too, was changing, or rather, that their relationship to each other was changing, growing, as well. His judgements of her were clouded by what she had been, that a matter of months ago she would have been sitting as she was, watching him with simple worry. Now, however, her concerns were definitely more mature, more complex.

This revelation caused him discomfort for a number of reasons; not only was their relationship deepening, but it dawned on him that she was more than the child or adolescent creature she had been. Much more. But his very life had become entwined with that process of maturing, and he suddenly felt, with a feeling like surprise or recognition, that their lives had become merged in some way.

But another revelation struck him, one tangled with feelings of inadequacy, falsity, self-judgement and a fear of a type he had never experienced before. It suddenly occurred to him that this girl, should she continue to grow as she was, might one day simply outgrow him, that he might one day be left trying to measure up to standards that were, in a word, beyond him.

Once again his thoughts drifted back to Nevana. Where the Elven girl was concerned, there was no such fear; it seemed that only an uncomplicated stability awaited him, that his relationship with the Elf girl was . . . he searched his mind for the right word, but “non-competitive” was the closest he could come, though it was not the word he was looking for.

Yet it was true. The Elf girl challenged him in no way whatsoever. All she represented in his mind was an insulated world of stability, and the minor sort of responsibilities he was built to cope with- a simple life, far from the dangers or prospect of war, with a home, a wife, and children.

And yet . . . and yet . . .

When the servants were done with him, and had left, Ralph said to Malina, ‘Would you like to come with me to the infirmary to see how Deborah and Theuli are doing, and then get something to eat?’

Malina shrugged, not looking at him, looking uncomfortable.

‘Nevana is there. She does not like me. And,’ as she raised her eyes to look at him, he could tell before she spoke that she was deeply hurt, ‘she has told me that you tolerate my presence only because I am a child in your eyes, for whom you have made yourself responsible. She said that you have promised yourself to her-’

‘I have promised her no such thing,’ Ralph told her.

As though he hadn’t spoken, she continued. ‘She had said otherwise, as has her mother. She said that she came upon us sleeping together last night, and that she had seen, with relief, that our relationship was . . .’ she thought for a moment . . . ‘“nothing more than platonic.” That it will never be anything more than that. She told me that-’

‘When did you speak with her mother?’

‘She, too, was in the infirmary. They were together, visiting Nevana’s father. Her mother, Durus, called me dirty names. When she did, Arlon became very angry and told Durus to hold her tongue. He apologised for what his wife had said, but asked me to leave.

‘Before I could leave, Nevana, took me aside and told me that you had promised to be with her today, that I was responsible for preventing you from fulfilling your promise; that today the two of you had intended to consummate your relationship. I asked her what this meant, to “consummate,” and she told me that it meant having physical relations, after which two people were considered “joined.”

‘After telling me this, she said “go away,” so I left, and went to my apartment. I have packed my things-’

Malina!’

but I decided to come here to you before leaving, because something of her words disturbs me. I hear truth in them, but

‘Don’t say any more,’ Ralph said, angry at himself for having allowed things to have gotten so far out of hand. ‘We’re going to visit Deborah and Theuli. Then we’re going to get your things and bring them here.’

She stared at him, her face a mixture of conflicting emotions, as he quickly got dressed. Then, taking her firmly by the hand, he led her to the infirmary.

Looking in on Deborah, they found that she was asleep, looking pale, sweaty, and feverish.

Theuli, however, was awake, sitting propped up with pillows in her bed. She smiled wanly when they drew the privacy curtain aside.

After briefly discussing her health and recovery, Ralph cleared his throat, and said to the Elf woman, ‘There’s something I want to you explain to Malina. I want her to hear it from you, so that there’s no doubt in her mind.’

Considering their clasped hands with a masked, though speculative look, she said, ‘I hope you’re not going to ask me to act as arbiter in some personal matter.’

‘Not at all,’ Ralph replied. Then, reconsidering, ‘Well . . . not directly.’

Theuli’s look told them plainly that, depending on the question, she might or might not answer. ‘All right. Out with it.’

‘Malina,’ Ralph told her, ‘knows what it means to “consummate” a relationship. I just want her to hear, from you, at what stage of a relationship the act of consummation occurs.’

Looking bemused, considering the young Pixie woman in a way that made her blush, Theuli replied, ‘Malina, you’re supposed to be married first. I realize that Pixies have no such social rite, though if the two of you wish to wed, that is your affair-’

‘What Malina needs to know,’ Ralph inturrupted, ‘is why a girl would try to coerce the act of consummation before she is married.’

‘Ah, this is really about Nevana,’ Theuli said in comprehension, her look not altogether kind. ‘Ralph, would you leave us for a short while?’

He did so, his feelings a mixture of curiosity and relief.

He was sitting at Deborah’s bedside when Malina rejoined him, her visage thoughtful. As they left the infirmary, on the far side, curtains parted wide, lay Arlon, Durus and Nevana with him. Nevana averted her gaze and sat with her head bowed, but Durus watched Ralph and Malina leave together, her expression stony. When they reached the foyer, two nurses, who were standing, talking together, spotted Malina, and approached her, their faces angry, but stopped short when they noticed that she was accompanied by Ralph.

‘What, have you brought a bodyguard this time?’ one of them asked her, tartly.

Furious, carefully holding his temper in check, Ralph gestured the woman forward with a finger.

‘How would you and your co-workers like to have a private chat with the Thane?’

The woman paled, becoming very still. Her companion coughed nervously, and began to move away with alacrity, sandals slapping her heels.

‘Excuse me!’ Ralph said, raising his voice, bringing the woman to a halt, as though she had run into an immovable, invisible barrier.

‘That includes you. All of you.’

Swallowing, the first woman said, trying to appear angry to cover her fear, ‘You have no authority here! You do not speak for the Thane.’

‘As a matter of fact,’ said a voice from behind them, ‘he does.’

It was Pran, who had come to visit his wife. Without another word, and without acknowledging or greeting Ralph and Malina, he left.

‘Probably too worried about Theuli to think about much else,’ Ralph thought to himself. Turning his back on the two women, he took Malina by the hand once more.

‘C’mon,’ he said in English, ‘let’s get something to eat.’

Theuli noticed straightaway Pran’s discomfort. Part of it was the lack of privacy in the infirmary. Some of it may have been due to the loss of their home, and the close call suffered by his wife and family.

‘Pran, you are not adept at keeping secrets from me.’

He nodded, and thinking of a conversation he’d had with Ralph, said, ‘I have been asked if I wish to be reinstated. I told Birin that I would consult with you first.’

After an uncomfortable silence, she replied, ‘I see. What do you wish to do?’

He sighed. ‘Therein lies the problem. I no longer wish to serve another, and I do not want to be involved in something that takes me far away from my family for prolonged periods of time. The death of my brother and his family has taught me that each moment we spend together is very precious. I have missed out on much of Rani’s childhood, and that which is missed is gone forever.’

‘Is there no other task you could perform?’

‘There is, but it still involves travel.’

Theuli sighed, accepted this tiredly. ‘So you would be away again?’

‘No,’ he replied, looking her uncertainly in the eye, ‘we would be away.’

‘We? You mean you and I? Or you and I and the children?’

‘I mean all of us. Theuli, as long as we stay here within the Elf Kingdom, nothing is certain, except that the King is mad, and that a bloody civil war is imminent.’

‘What? Pran, I cannot believe what I’m hearing! Are we craven, that we should abandon all hope and run away? I will admit that loss of our possessions is a grievous blow, but material things can be replaced. But our property . . . I and my siblings grew up there, as did my father, and three generations of his family before him! My . . . our life is there-’

It grieved him to torment her with this, but he said, ‘Theuli, you are my wife and dearer to me than life itself, but I must tell you that there is nothing left worth saving, or trying to preserve. If we remain and fight, we will be putting the lives of the children at risk, as well as our own. Zuic has taken the death of his family hard! I would that Rani never experience such grief; or worse, fall prey to such as murdered my brother and his family.’

Theuli was weeping now. ‘But Pran, where will we go? How will we live? What of the others who need us?’

Taking his wife’s hands, unsure if it was she or himself he was trying to convince, Pran said, ‘We have both long known that the Elf Kingdom is mostly to blame for the problems we all face. We have to make a choice; whether to fight for control of the Elf Kingdom, or to preserve the world we live in. While it is believed that the Elf Kingdom is the world we live in, that is a corruption of the truth. We must leave this place and learn to live in the real world if our children are to have a future. We Elves have been living a dream, and all dreams have their time and place. But not forever and always, and imposed upon those who don’t share our dream, as our people have been wont to do. That is the road of delusion and madness; that is the road of our Sovereign.’ Watching the trees outside being blown by the wind as he said this, the sound reminiscent of the eternal rhythms of the distant ocean, she withdrew one of her hands from his and wiped a sleeve across her eyes. ‘I had not thought of it coming to this. Well, I suppose it will assuage our culpability somewhat if we leave along with those whom you sought for so long to protect, rather than tell them how to live when our own fate is assured.’

He was troubled by this remark. ‘Have we been so blind; so very wrong?’

‘I believe,’ she said, not looking at him, ‘that by our conduct, our fate is assured, whatever that fate may be.’

The Thane was deeply troubled in his mind as he juggled the various uncertainties which were the only tools available for him to work with. The very thought of leaving Mirrindale, the most easily defended city in the Elven Kingdom, made absolutely no military sense. The rich Merchant class would never hear of it; they would lose everything. They supported the army, and the army protected the city. Everything would be thrown into chaos.

On the other hand, the Thane was only too aware that this same Merchant class was in their way responsible for much of the decay that threatened the Elf Kingdom itself. There were few of them he could trust, for they relied on him only insofar as he protected their assets. Few of them gave a thought to the farmer or soldier, without whom they would still be living in the deep forest, like the Pixies and Nymphs.

In the end, he decided to send a small exodus, perhaps five hundred or so of those who were willing. They would depart under the pretence that they would form a colony far to the East, in case the Elf Kingdom collapsed entirely and the Goblin hordes swept down from the north.

Privately, the Thane, through Birin, encouraged Ralph to keep making weapons, stockpiling them, but for the future use of the refugees only. Meanwhile, he would lead the King to believe that such weapons were kept only within Mirrindale. He wanted as little interest in the colony as possible, and hoped the perceived threat of new weapons would keep the King’s attention solely on the fortress city.

There came a day when dusk found the Thane and Pran in the Thane’s private quarters, on the top floor of the northwest corner of the building. The omniscient eye of the sun, half below the horizon, partly obscured by ochre clouds, appeared at once tired and disappointed at what it beheld, as though it might decide to withdraw its gaze forever, to leave the world to its own devices, in perpetual night. The study was in near-darkness. It was a fairly small room, panelled with dark hardwood, with a high vaulted ceiling. The Thane lighted a pair of candles from a log burning in the fireplace and placed them in holders on either end of the table.

‘If the situation is as bad as you believe, then why do we not begin a full-scale evacuation?’ Pran asked him.

Reseating himself, the Thane considered his answer.

‘We simply do not have the means to protect an exodus,’ the Thane told him. ‘If the King or Prince Cir got wind of such, they would attack. My army would be driven off and forced to abandon the refugees, who would then be massacred to the last woman and child. I realize that this is not what you wanted to hear, but that is exactly what would happen.’

‘But as things stand,’ Pran protested, ‘most of our people will be within the Kingdom, undefended.’

‘Yes, and unwarned,’ the Thane added. ‘And if they knew how serious the danger was, they would flee, and in so doing would draw the wrath of our Sovereign, who in turn would send out his armies, and they would still be slain.

‘Pran, I have not the resources to protect our people. Why else do you think that I have always avoided direct conflict with the King and Prince Cir? As well, their knowledge of my weakness has until now prevented this matter from coming to a head.’

Stricken, Pran muttered, ‘What have I done?’

‘Regarding the weapon made by Ralph, you have done nothing that I, nor any other in your place, wouldn’t have done without a thought,’ the Thane admonished. ‘You saw hope and the possibility of setting things to rights, and you acted accordingly, with the best of intentions.’ He shrugged. ‘Your hope deceived you, as it would have done to anyone in your place. As well, you were spied upon-’

‘Yes, and as a consequence, the enemy will undoubtedly be prompted to fall upon us like a storm-’

The Thane’s smile stopped him.

‘You’re talking nonsense! You think that there were no spies present at the meeting in my Hall, the day you and your companions came to Mirrindale? There is no doubt in my mind that Prince Cir, at this very moment, gloats to himself that we have in our possession a weapon that is all but useless to us. No, my friend, do not blame yourself in these matters. You are not in a position to see matters overall, as I am. The doom of our people is not on your head. What you did, bringing the strangers to our world, was, to my mind, a foolish and rash act, but we both know that the King was ready to begin his campaign, that once he had finished killing or driving off our Faerie Kindred, a task that is all but accomplished, then he would at last turn his attention to us. I feel it in my bones that that day is nearly upon us.

‘Once the fighting has begun, however, the people, Faerie and Elf alike, will have a much better chance to flee. The King will attack our armies and strongholds first, in an effort to break our strength, before fully concentrating his efforts on exterminating civilians.’

Pran rose from his chair to stand before the fire, his features distraught in the red light.

‘They will have many times our number of soldiers. Can it be that the dream that was the Elf Kingdom has become a nightmare from which there is no awakening? To make one’s way in life, one must have hope, but I can find none! What is there to fight for if our future and our children are doomed? How can I look my wife and daughter in the eye if the means to protect their lives is beyond me?’

‘I think,’ the Thane told him, ‘that you should share your concerns with the Man, Ralph; you have become close friends, have you not? Perhaps if he understands the depth of our plight, and the extent to which it concerns him, he might be motivated to plumb the uttermost limit of his talents.’

‘I have not the right to place such a burden on his shoulders,’ Pran replied. ‘He is already doing the best that he can.’

‘If you do not,’ the Thane told him, ‘then I will. My friend, we need a miracle. You may wish to spare your friend’s feelings, but as yet you do not know the full scope of the danger we all face. You see only the prospect of a civil war that we cannot win. But consider: the Elf Kingdom, for all its faults, has also been of great benefit to those of Faeriekind who do not live within our borders, and those lands populated by Men and Dwarves as well. By our very presence do we keep the evil creatures of the North from the more temperate Southern climes, in which they would thrive; their numbers would soon increase exponentially.

‘Yet at one time, our presence was not needed to keep the Evil in the world at bay. Nature, the Earth Mother Herself, if you will, imposed Her Balance; there was an equilibrium between Good and Evil.

‘Yet I must tell you, now, of a fear I have, concerning these matters.

‘I have heard, from those who have dealings with Faeriekind, and from certain Loremasters who keep me informed of the activities of their Order, that something unspeakable has been done to the Earth Mother Herself. She is lost to those of Faeriekind-’

‘I know something of this,’ Pran said, and told him of his experiences with Iniiq and her people.

Looking suddenly older, tired and grey, the Thane said, ‘There is more. Do you have any idea of the implications of the Earth Mother’s being cut off from Her Creation?’

Pran thought for a moment, but nothing beyond what he’d already heard came to mind.

‘Bethink you,’ the Thane told him. ‘Without Her, all of Faeriekind is doomed to extinction.’

‘I realise that,’ Pran answered.

‘Think further,’ the Thane said. ‘Of that which is not affected by her absence.’

‘I’m not sure I understand you,’ Pran said. ‘Mankind will continue, of course, as will all creatures of a nature unrelated to the world of Magic.’

‘Not all,’ the Thane told him.

Finally it dawned on him.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, he remembered that as part of growing up, he had mastered himself, and that part of that mastery was over fear. He had grown toughened to the truths and experiences of war, had fought for his life, had experienced situations where he was certain that his own death was inevitable; but throughout, fear no longer had a hold on him.

Until this very moment.

The Earth Mother was anathema to the Netherworld. Her presence kept it separate, sublimated, subdued. But if the Earth Mother were to be cut off from Her creation, then that anathema would vanish, as though it had never been.

The Netherworld:

In its way, the Netherworld was akin to the Earth Mother; it was possessed of Feminine and Masculine polarities, inextricably intertwined, balanced, one unable to exist without the other. Yet it was not simply an inversion of all that was the Earth Mother: were that the case, then it would in fact represent another; a Sister, as it were, to the Earth Mother, or Brother to the Earth Father. Nor were they like to the two sides of a coin.

As difficult as this may be for mortal creatures such as we to grasp, the Netherworld was the Earth Mother, just as the Earth Mother and the Earth Father were one and the same. But, as the subconscious chaos of primitive urges and passions are sublimated in our own minds, so, too, were the elements of chaos, destruction, impulse and instinct sublimated within the psyche of the Natural World.

At the heart of this chaos lurked the darkness that was forever banished by the light that was the Earth Mother Herself. That darkness, if untainted or banished by light, became pure.

Pure Evil.

‘If what you say is true,’ Pran said in a dry voice, ‘then all of us . . . our entire world . . . is doomed.’

The Thane nodded. ‘This matter has, over the years, brought to my mind the matter of Prince Cir, and for long I could not put a name to that which I fear where he was concerned. At first I thought him to simply be mad; but there has always been an aspect to his madness which has caused myself, and many others, a great and deep-seated unease.

‘That he was dead, and had been resurrected by the arts of certain unscrupulous Loremasters, sycophants who will bend to the will of the King, sacrificing scruple and all . . . that he was dead means that, for a time, he walked the paths of the Netherworld.

‘That they were able to bring him back at all; that is the matter which most concerns my thoughts. This silencing, this imprisonment of the Earth Mother, is but a recent thing. It is not the culmination of a process that the King’s Loremasters have been gradually working towards for many years now, else She would have been forewarned by their earlier, less apt efforts. This I know from speaking with certain Loremasters who keep me as informed as they dare.

‘But this matter of Prince Cir: the only way, I am told, that he could have been brought back from the Netherworld, is if She Herself allowed it to happen.’

‘But why would She do such a thing?’ Pran protested. ‘Prince Cir is evil. What purpose could he possibly serve?’

‘Those Loremasters who serve the King, and who resurrected Prince Cir, well knew what he would become, should they manage to return him to the land of the living. I believe,’ the Thane said, ‘that in retribution, the Earth Mother simply decided not to interfere; that Prince Cir has been allowed to return to serve a purpose; that his purpose, or rather Hers, is to destroy the Elven Civilization.’

Pran caught something in the Thane’s words, and in his look.

‘You did not say Elvenkind.’

The Thane nodded. ‘Consider: we, to the South, are divided primarily into two strata; the Merchant Class, and the agricultural. Only we are in a position to flee the Kingdom at need. To the North are the city-states of Nith and Valerian. Valerian lies directly in the path of the Goblin hordes, should they descend from the North. With the Elven military in utter disarray, and Prince Cir working to undermine their defences and their ability to function, Valerian, then Nith, will fall. Moreover, if the matter had remained as simple as that, we could simply elect to leave, abandoning the Merchant Class to its well-deserved fate.

‘But something unforseen has occurred. The Earth Mother has been imprisoned or silenced by the King’s Loremasters.

‘We have only seen the early consequences of this insane and despicable act. The fate of Faeriekind is just the beginning. Over time, as the Balance fails, the Netherworld will assert Itself, and an inversion of our World will occur. Even now, I am told, creatures from the Netherworld are being seen and heard clearly at night, where before only faint echoes were heard, and then only in lonely, remote areas. People are becoming afraid to travel, except under the light of day. Farmers are locking their doors at night, and burning candles in their windows, to keep the evil spirits at bay, long enough for them to get a night’s sleep. Their livestock, too, sense the danger, huddling together for protection, ever nervous and watchful, sometimes panicking, throwing riders, stampeding . . .

‘I can think of only one hope in all of this,’ the Thane said. ‘The Man, Ralph. A certain friend of mine, a Loremaster and old acquaintance, has told me that Ralph is possessed of a unique talent, of which he himself does not yet understand the nature of; that is, he is able to think of a thing, then create it. He must begin a work, at once, to make something- a weapon, a periapt, anything- that will save the Earth Mother . . . and us.’

Pran digested this in silence, his knuckles white, jaw muscles bunching. Eventually, he said quietly, ‘I will speak to Ralph. I will ask him to create something that might aid us, to this end. But-’ he made a curt gesture as the Thane was about to interrupt, ‘I will not have this burden placed upon his shoulders, at least not with his knowledge.’ To the Thane’s surprised and doubtful countenance, Pran said, ‘He must be allowed to exercise his own free will in this matter, else self-doubt might mar his judgement, causing him to fail. At least, in any event, let him be blameless, especially in his own eyes. Were we to tell him of the stakes involved, and were he to try his utmost and fail . . . we do not have the right to do that to him.’

The Thane acquiesced, with the greatest reluctance. ‘Perhaps you are right in this,’ he said, ‘that, like the King’s madness, the greatest danger lies in the fear of failure. The King, you see,’ he said confidingly, ‘never learned that he could trust in life. The balance between fear and trust is a knife-edge most of us walk daily with impunity. It is something we take for granted. Denied that, who can say how long any of us would last in the face of even one small doubt, magnified beyond endurance by the lack of such balance.

‘And yet, he is not weak of character. He is, if anything, stronger than most. Have you never considered how any of us might have fared in his place?’

Pran stared at him in wonder, uncertain whether to be angry or not. ‘Then you do not hold him accountable for his actions?’

The Thane’s visage was hard to read. ‘I hold his actions accountable,’ he replied carefully. ‘Because the consequences are horrendous, and suffered always by others. But to judge him?’ He shook his head. ‘I believe that by our conduct as a culture, we do not have the right to judge.’

Pran took leave of the Thane shortly after. But was long in pondering his words.

Chapter 15

Life Outside The Kingdom

Beyond this point there be demons . . .’

Summoned to his first Council of Healers meeting, Doc wasn’t sure what to expect. Images of early 19th century anatomy theatres vied in his mind with rows of Mediæval scholastic monks seated at scribing desks, dutifully regurgitating yesterday’s ignorance.

He was wrong on both counts. The meeting was held in an anteroom to a large apothecary whose tall wooden shelves were laden in orderly fashion with pharmaceuticals, which in turn were prepared from a formidable-looking book of pharmacopoeia. Arriving early, as was his habit, Doc leafed through the book with growing respect, admiration, and surprise. ‘Add a few books of surgical techniques, and give these people microscopes and better tools,’ he told himself, ‘and they’ll be caught up in no time.’

When the Healers began arriving, Doc was surprised not just at how few of them he recognised, but more at how few of them there were. By the time the last expected person had arrived, they were a mere twenty-three in all, including Doc.

The Elf Healer chairing the meeting, a tall, greying, ascetic-looking fellow named Vries, was brief and to the point.

‘I have called this meeting for two reasons,’ he said. ‘The first is that this may well be the last meeting of our Order in this place. The Thane has made it clear to me that, at some point in the near future, Mirrindale is to be evacuated.’ There was no response to this, as it was common knowledge. ‘This means that we, as the Healers of Mirrindale, are faced with a difficult choice; that of remaining in Mirrindale, once hostilities have begun, or abandoning Mirrindale to its fate, and leaving with successive groups of refugees.

‘The second reason I have called this meeting is to tender to you my resignation.’ Into the shocked silence which followed, he said, ‘My friends, as you well know, there is one among us whose prowess as a Healer far exceeds my own, or any of us. And though he is not an Elf, nor is he one of our Order, I ask that he agree to allow himself to become elected Prefect of our Order. I have not yet named him, yet most of you know him well, by reputation if not in person. I name him now- James Irving Wallace.’

Doc was speechless, and for perhaps the first time in his life, caught entirely off-guard.

‘Do you accept this responsibility?’ Vries asked him.

Doc stared, unable for a moment to find his voice. ‘Were I a younger man-’

At this, Vries and a few of his companions smiled.

‘I myself have seen seventy-three summers,’ Vries told him. ‘Aga here, well . . . she stopped ageing at thirty or so-’ there were some dry chuckles at this. ‘The youngest member here, Alithæa, is forty-seven.’

‘I can see you accepting my help;’ Doc told them, ‘even accepting me into your Order, if that makes things more official. But why would you want to put me in charge?’

Vries gave him a knowing look. ‘Because you possess skills other than Healing which are vital to making a place of Healing many times more efficient when it comes to treating large numbers of casualties. These “administrative skills,” as I and others have heard you call them; it would take a blind man not to see how important they will become, both in transforming the way in which our places of Healing are organized, and in making far greater use of our limited resources.

‘Consider; it is written on your face that our lack of Healers is a concern to you. But until now we have never had need of many, and now that the need will soon be upon us, those few will have to suffice.

‘Yet you seem to be able to circumvent such obstacles, by improvising quick, simple, easy-to-learn training methods for assistants, in effect freeing our senior staff from all but the most critical of duties.

‘I will not hide from you that our nursing staff was outraged at this incursion; at least at first. Theirs is a jealously insular profession, as is our own, it must be admitted. But your methods, freely taught without hint of personal rivalry or condemnation of ignorance, has won over all those who make up the disparate disciplines of which our Healing profession consists. If nothing else, that in itself would have decided me in making this request of you.’

Doc was unable not to smile, wryly.

‘I don’t really have a choice in this, do I?’

Vries smiled in kind. ‘As a true Healer . . . not really.’

‘But you’re staying on,’ Doc said.

‘All of us, as you put it, will be “staying on,”’ Vries said.

‘And what of this business of leaving Mirrindale?’ Doc asked him. ‘I would like to hear your thoughts on the matter.’

‘As you wish,’ Vries replied. ‘There is no guarantee that Mirrindale won’t eventually fall, in which case all of its inhabitants will be put to the sword. Yet Mirrindale’s endurance is imperative, in that the King’s armies will be preoccupied with destroying this fortress city. Since Mirrindale is the only stronghold we have, not only will it buy the refugees precious time to escape, but if the city were to be quickly overwhelmed, then there will quite literally be no chance for anyone to escape from the Elf Kingdom, as the Goblin hordes would then be turned loose to roam the countryside at will . . .’

As Vries spoke, Doc considered the implications of staying in Mirrindale, and of leaving it altogether, consigning the fortress city to its fate. Working with the healers of Mirrindale had already taught him much concerning his special gift of Healing. But his Power and control over his abilities was growing steadily, and he found that for this reason he was reluctant to leave; not yet, while he still had so much to learn. Besides, he thought wryly to himself, the real reason is that I never could turn down people who need me.

In the following weeks, it was with mixed feelings that Doc received the news from the Thane that, circumstances permitting, Mirrindale’s population would be fully evacuated in a matter of months, save for the worst of the offenders amongst the Merchants and the soldiers. Hearing this decided him to stay on, even after the abandonment, though he decided for personal reasons to withhold this information from the Thane for the time being.

Parting with his young friends was hard, and when it came time to say goodbye, he was surprised at himself for being more emotional than anticipated. ‘Well, Doc,’ said Ralph, standing before him awkwardly, ‘I guess we won’t be seeing each other for a while.’ Malina wept, and embraced the old man, causing him to say gruffly, around an unfamiliar thickness in his throat, ‘Well, get on with it then. I hate long goodbyes.’

Pran was somewhat taken aback when he found that the group leaving Mirrindale would be led by Birin, having naturally assumed that the Elf soldier would continue his duties as Mirrindale’s chief captain. But the Thane had taken this role upon himself, ordering Birin instead to lead the refugees. This did not entirely make sense to Pran, as he did not think that Birin was the best choice for such a task, though he was a natural leader, known to soldier and civilian alike, and possessed a knowledge of the countryside, at least to the ends of the Elf Kingdom, that was second to none. Pran reasoned that perhaps the main reason was that Birin was deep in the Thane’s counsels, and had as good a grasp as could be had of what was to come.

Still, Pran harboured reservations in the Thane’s choice of leader. True, Birin would act out the Thane’s will as though it were his own, but therein lay the problem. In Pran’s experience in his observance of Birin’s performance as leader, the further and the longer the Elf captain was away from the Thane’s sphere of influence, the less flexible, tolerant, and organized he became. Birin’s greatest weakness, in Pran’s mind, was his inability to improvise freely when there was no plan, structure or framework from which to hang his ideas; and worst of all was his utter lack of imagination. Free-association was as alien to Birin’s mind as tatting to a stonemason.

All of those assembled for the journey were families, mostly those of soldiers and farmers. But there were many who represented the various crafts as well; the Thane had carefully seen to this. But to be so well-equipped meant also that they would be sorely encumbered; an unfortunate and unavoidable consequence. The journey was not going to be an easy one; speed, and flight if they were attacked, would not be possible. Should it happen, a chance encounter with a marauding Goblin army would likely prove fatal, but the refugees were made well-aware of all possible risks.

The Healers travelling with them were not from Mirrindale. Rather, they were rural people who had trained under itinerant educators based in the fortress city. As Healers they had their own training and methods, suited mainly to the hazards and realities of rural life. Like the military surgeons, they were self-reliant when it came to collecting and dispensing their pharmacopoeia, and had a wide knowledge of medicinal herbs, plants, fungi, animal and mineral products and byproducts, and because of their taxonomic knowledge could identity relatives of these that were possessed of similar properties when travel removed them from their familiar fare.

In fact, their knowledge of pharmacopoeia was considerably greater than either military surgeon or Healer in Mirrindale, simply because such rural folk ranged far and wide, and travelled with greater freedom that did the soldiers; and those Healers in Mirrindale had little chance of learning the skills of gathering pharmacopoeia as they spent most of their time confined within its walls. Instead, their stocks, other than what they could grow for themselves, came directly from the rural Healers, who were often paid in part with scrolls of medical information.

The refugees’ destination was to be a great forest, one that was said to exist outside the Kingdom. Legend had it that Faerie creatures had lived in that almost forgotten wood long before the creation of the Elf Kingdom. Many thought it likely that their Faerie kindred who had already left the Kingdom would most likely seek such a place.

Assuming that the great forest still existed, beyond that their knowledge was uncertain. Besides the possible presence of dispossessed Faerie-folk, there was no telling what sort of denizens might occupy such a place, or how they might react to the Elven refugees. To this end, Birin went personally to Malina and asked that she officially assume her role as Emissary, thinking that her presence might be accepted, where that of the Elves might not.

She had misgivings about assuming such a role, and told Birin as much. Being creatures of Magic and of Nature, the Faerie Folk answered to no one. They had no love for Elves, especially after having suffered at the hands of their tyranny and their dangerous Lore. And these folk would not be living within the Elf Kingdom. Pleading the Elves’ case, she told Birin, could prove a dangerous gamble, for her own personal safety as well as for the Elves.

It was well known among her Faerie kindred that the reason for the increased numbers of Goblins was mainly due to the meddling of the Elves as they probed deeper and deeper into the secrets of Nature, without any apparent regard for the consequences of their labours. They had shifted the Balance away from its natural course as they bent it to suit their own selfish wants.

As beautiful as the Elf Kingdom was, it was not a natural beauty. Instead, it was cultivated, selective, exclusive, and inherently harmful to anything or anyone the Elves had no interest in or use for.

Many Elves like Pran desired to change this, having always revered Nature for its own sake, and having mistrusted what others had done to meddle with it. Within the Elf Kingdom there had been no seasonal change for as long as anyone could remember; just one, long, stagnant summer. True, there had been no drought nor famine in as long a time, and there had been few storms. But gone, too, was the enriching decay and smell of fall, the long, meditative quiet of winter, the gentle spring mists which seemed inseparable from the new, verdant growth and poignant sense of renewal. The great Cycle of Life been stopped in its course.

The questions uppermost in the minds of many were these: what lay beyond the borders of the Elf Kingdom? Did Nymphs and Sprites still play in the streams and meadows and forests, or had they perished utterly? What unknown eyes might view a people fleeing their own folly, a people who had dispossessed others, and were themselves now likewise dispossessed? It was never spoken of openly, but there were those who felt that Elvenkind was cursed, that innocence was no guarantee of mercy. For as we have sown, so, perhaps, shall we reap, they thought to themselves.

The days and weeks passed, but finally, after a number of delays brought about by reports of marauding Goblins, the small exodus got under way. They were nearly a third on horse, a few rode atop heavily laden ox-carts and in horse-drawn covered wagons, and the rest travelled on foot. Upon reaching the town of Narvi, they turned west, skirting the foothills to enter a long, ever narrowing valley which passed eventually between two great ranges of mountains. Few had passed beyond the end of the valley, for it marked the end of the Elf Kingdom. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, what lay beyond was trackless wilderness.

The journey was hard on Deborah, who was still very ill. The bump and roll of the wagon soon had her laying in a cold sweat as she endured successive waves of dizziness and nausea. She was accompanied by Theuli, Malina, and the children. As Theuli wiped the fever-perspiration from her brow with a thick homespun cloth, Deborah opened her eyes.

‘Do you regret your decision to come to our world now?’ Theuli asked her.

Deborah tried to smile. ‘Ask me when I feel better.’ She was soon asleep again. Malina watched her, worried.

‘Do you think she will be all right?’

Shifting to a more comfortable position in the straw, drawing a warm fur over Deborah’s sleeping form, Theuli considered the high mountains and surrounding countryside. ‘I am no seer. And I am no Healer. Doc said that she would recover, given time and rest. But my heart tells me it is her spirit more than her body which needs healing. And,’ she admitted, ‘the slowness of her recovery concerns me.’

Malina found herself looking on as Zuic did small, silly things to make Rani laugh. Rani couldn’t resist making a face in response. For some reason, Malina found that seeing their play saddened her, and in some way served to remind her that those carefree days spent in the fields and streams of her youth were now gone, forever. A great emptiness seemed to open inside her, an almost physically painful gulf of need. She looked about, hoping at least for a glance of Rowf, wishing he were somewhere near . . . but there was only the passing countryside, the ponderous passage of laden oxcarts, and a host of strangers on foot and on horse.

In an attempt to push such feelings aside, she said, ‘I have never travelled this way.’

‘I have somewhat,’ Theuli replied. ‘In perhaps two days time we will near the border of the Elf Kingdom. Beyond that, my knowledge fails.’ She considered Malina closely. ‘You are so much changed. Perhaps the other Pixies, assuming we meet any, will not recognize you for what you are.’

Malina reddened slightly. ‘Oh, they will recognize me for what I am. It is their possible reaction that worries me.’

Theuli looked ahead, thoughtfully. ‘I didn’t realize the extent of the harm we’d done. Well, I hope we have paid the price already. I would not want my children to suffer for the mistakes of others.’ Her eyes widened as she watched the children, and the look she turned to Malina was profoundly sad. ‘Of course, how can I say such a thing when you have suffered the brunt of our injustice?’

Surprised, Malina replied, ‘But you have never treated me badly. Even when I did things to make you angry, you never did me any harm.’

‘Did I not?’ Theuli took Malina by the hands. Malina had never been touched by an Elf in such a manner in her life, and she stared at Theuli uncertainly.

‘I remember a time,’ Theuli told her, ‘when Pran and I travelled on a wagon much like this, when we first were married. There was an unusually cold and heavy rain that evening, and we were huddled under an oilskin, keeping each other warm and dry. We saw you, alone and shivering, huddled against the downwind side of a tree, trying to stay out of the rain.’

Not looking into the Elf woman’s eyes, Malina muttered, ‘I remember.’

‘We could have stopped,’ Theuli continued. ‘We could have offered you warmth and shelter, even for just a night. I can’t tell you how the memory of seeing you like that wrung at my heart, especially after you led Rani out of the woods.’

Malina, turning away in an effort to avoid looking directly at such memories, found herself facing Rani, who was smiling.

‘You sang to me,’ said Rani. It was true. She had sung to the frightened child a song she used to sing to herself when she was frightened and lonely, which had been often.

‘It was the same song you were singing to yourself when we saw you in the wood that night,’ said Theuli. ‘But no one ever came . . .’

Malina withdrew her hands, shaken. ‘Please, don’t.’ She turned away from the others, trying to watch the passing countryside, but her vision was blurred with hot tears.

‘When Rani returned to us, that was how we knew it was you,’ said Theuli. ‘This past year, Pran and I waited for your sentence to end, dreading what we would find. We were both so relieved . . . Malina, can you ever forgive us?’

Malina couldn’t answer at first. Theuli had touched too deeply the grief, loneliness and fear she had lived with for far too long. She found herself wishing that she was able to distance herself from such feelings, to push them aside. For a brief moment, she considered getting out of the wagon altogether . . .

‘I will be honest with you,’ she said slowly, doing her best to force down rising emotion. ‘It is hard, sometimes, not to become bitter. For understand, I have lost everything, including all that I was. I am not that same child of innocence whom you remember in the woods. I no longer need others to . . . to-’

Putting a trembling hand to her face, she began weeping, dryly. Guided by a mother’s instinct, Theuli ignored her words, and when she offered her embrace, something within Malina that had lain dormant for many years was swept aside; she pressed her face to the Elf-woman’s breast, remembering at once what it felt like to be held so by her own long-dead mother.

‘Be not so quick to abandon that child of innocence,’ Theuli told her softly, caressing the young woman who began sobbing, brokenly. ‘I see her yet. Despite all that has happened, she endures.’

That night, the air became colder and clearer, and the stars shone more brightly and in even greater numbers than before. They came to a stop shortly after midnight. When Ralph and Pran joined the others in the wagon, they ate a meal beneath the light of a lantern which hung from one of the wagon’s metal stays. Afterward, they pulled the canvas overtop the metal stays, blew the light out, huddled together under blankets for mutual warmth, and slept soundly.

Ralph awoke with a small form pressed to his side. Glancing down, he could see Malina’s white-blonde hair in the first pale light of dawn. They had not lain together in this position when they went to bed, and it seemed to him after a moment that she had probably sought him out in her sleep; her blankets lay abandoned near his feet, where she had curled up beside Deborah. Though asleep, she was shivering, laying on top of his blankets, wearing only her light peasant dress.

Acting on impulse, guided by a strong, protective feeling he suddenly felt towards this girl, he reached down, got her blankets, pulled his own from underneath her, and covered them both. She made a small noise in her sleep and shifted against him to a more comfortable position, but didn’t wake. He was about to give himself up to sleep once more, when he noticed that Pran was watching him with a look somewhere between worry and relief.

‘I hope, for both your sake, that you realize what you’re doing,’ Pran said.

Ralph was thoughtful for a time, but declined to respond. Instead, reaching over and opening a flap of the wagon’s canvas covering, noting that new day’s false dawn that was passing incrementally into grey morning twilight, he said, ‘It’s getting colder. Do you know what season it is outside?’

‘If you mean “outside the Elf Kingdom,” I do not know. I have not set foot outside it since my youth, when curiosity used to prompt me to explore, somewhat,’ Pran responded. ‘But as we are still a day from the border and it is becoming increasingly colder, to venture a guess, I would say that it is probably winter.’

Ralph was worried about this. ‘Pran, if we’re heading into early or even mid-winter . . . we only have food enough to last a month; two at the most, it we really stretch things.’

‘Do not be overly concerned,’ said Pran with his habitual irony. ‘Food will be the least of our problems.’

Malina made a noise in her sleep, moving against him in a way that was suggestive of more than a simple search for warmth. Ralph noticed, with a pang, that she was smiling. With a rueful look, he said, ‘Despite everything, I can never get over how resilient she’s been, since the beginning.’

‘Theuli, too,’ said Pran, knowing what Ralph meant, watching his wife as she slept. Indicating Deborah with a nod, he said, ‘That one concerns me. In some ways she is hardly more than a child herself, and it seems she has known little kindness. I wonder if she has not come here to find healing, but rather to lose herself.’

Ralph shrugged. ‘I like to think that she’ll find here what Malina found in my world. She was long overdue for a change. Besides, there’s something that she needs in her life. I used to think it was me, but it’s not. It’s something else . . . not that sort of thing at all. One thing is certain, though: she was never able to find whatever it was she was looking for in the world we came from.’

‘That may be,’ Pran replied. ‘But that doesn’t necessarily mean that she will find what she needs in this one.

‘As for the rest of us,’ he said, starting to rise, ‘for the moment, I think we should have our breakfast and begin breaking camp. We must be under way soon.’

As the camp came to life, breakfasting around cooking fires and preparing to depart once more, Nevana left her family to walk alone, listlessly, aimlessly. Durus, following her daughter with her eyes, scowled, knowing full well the reason for Nevana’s foray. The jealous possessiveness that passed for the love of her husband and children welled up in her bosom.

An outsider would have difficulty fathoming such an emotion, or how such a person viewed the world, and her husband’s and children’s place in that world.

Arlon, however, knew his wife’s moods all too well, but accepted them with a sort of tired resignation, and with an habitual avertedness of attention, that, if one who did not know him well, might think of as distraction.

He had known Durus since she was a young, beautiful Elf-maiden, had courted her, had married her, and at first had thought himself the luckiest man alive.

But he had paid little, if any, attention to her home life, and to her parents. They were of a hard-working, humourless cast; there was no joy or laughter in that household. They seemed glad enough to be rid of the burden of their only daughter; her father was forever talking about the virtues of having sons, and her mother seemed to share this sentiment; though Durus worked hard (far too hard, he had thought at the time, as though she were trying to make up for the lack of her sex), her efforts were forever belittled. The last time Arlon had spoken to Durus’s parents was when they, sour-faced and with very poor grace, provided the most meagre, one might say spiteful dowry. Arlon thought in his heart that he was rescuing this poor waif from an ill-deserved fate.

If she had worked hard as a child living at home, to Arlon’s incomprehension, she seemed to redouble her efforts as woman of her own house. For the first three years, until their first child, Nevana, was born, Arlon had waited patiently for this mood to pass, for some spark to kindle, which in his naïveté, he thought would be ignited by his unconditional love for her; to illuminate the dark room that was Durus’s life.

His wait was in vain, and had been ever since. There was no spark, no happiness, no joy, no love. Durus’ attitude towards her first child was much the same as that towards her husband. Here was yet another thing needed to establish her independence from her parents; something that was hers, and no one else’s.

At this late stage, it could be said of neither parent that they loved their children, especially Nevana, whose behaviour, a product of their upbringing, was beginning to force a number of unpleasant realizations upon both of them about their shortcomings as parents.

But Arlon did pity his daughter, for he could see in her a longing that had long ago been unrequited in himself towards his wife, and life in general; an experience that had left him a more bitter man than he would otherwise have become.

Nurture! he thought vehemently, seeing an all too familiar lost look in his daughter’s eyes, a sag to her shoulders. The only understanding Durus has of such a word is enough food in the belly to perform a good day’s labour!

Yet it never occurred to him to do anything about this, to attempt to close the gulf between his children and himself. He had never learned how.

And now, in Nevana’s case, he sensed that it was forever too late.

Nevana glimpsed Ralph briefly a couple of times, riding with Pran. Neither of them had given her the least notice. ‘Small wonder,’ she thought, her mood touched by a sense of desolation as she considering the drab, overlarge, hand-me-down clothing she wore. Well-concealed beneath this garb, she wore old, ill-fitting, cramped summer slippers; consequently, her feet were cold and cramped; the sort of oversight typical of her mother; ‘Out of sight, out of mind,’ Durus would had said, with no thought for her daughter’s discomfort.

The pain of seeing Ralph together with Malina was almost more than she could bear, and she was forced to admit, perhaps for the first time in her life, that the reason she was not with Ralph was because of some lack in herself.

And she finally realized, now that it was too late, what that lack was.

It was simple love; love that, until she had met Ralph, had no idea how to give, how badly she needed it, or what its lack was doing to her life.

That knowledge had been harmful to her: it had made her realise how badly she needed Ralph in her life, and in the same breath, had made her realise how desperately lonely she was.

To make matters worse, that little Pixie vermin, that little upstart who didn’t know her place, had taken full advantage, and now had the big Human to herself! ‘Perhaps she has cast a spell upon him,’ Nevana thought, but had to push the thought aside, knowing in her heart of hearts that Malina, in her present condition, possessed no such power. ‘Perhaps she had help,’ a darker voice said, from somewhere deeper within. But no, the true reason pushed such thoughts aside. At least for now.

The true reason was that, from the beginning, the little Pixie was able to do something that she, Nevana, was incapable of. Malina loved Ralph. And her love was unconditional.

‘But if my love were unconditional, what then?’ she thought to herself. ‘Are not all things possible, where unconditional love is concerned? At least, that is how it always happens in romantic stories.’

Stories! This is real life! Consider what your eyes behold!

But Nevana had no wish to accept the evidence of her eyes. What good had that ever done her? Her life, such as it was, was not worth looking at.

So her attention began to turn elsewhere. It began to turn inward, to the voice that began telling her only what she wanted to hear . . .

They were moving again within the hour. Birin, whom they had seen little of, approached Pran and Ralph with a heightened sense of urgency. He pointed to a break in the mountains far to the west. ‘There lies the end of the Elf Kingdom.’ he said. ‘Beyond that gap there is no road, and no certain knowledge.’

‘But I thought that your ancestors came from that direction,’ said Ralph. ‘Wasn’t there a road, or a trail? Didn’t they make any maps of their travels?’

‘There was never a road or trail,’ Birin replied, ‘for when our ancestors first came to these lands, they were uncharted wilderness. We do have maps, of course, but they are ancient; we cannot expect to rely on them.’

‘And you still think the Pixies and other people would have left this way?’ asked Ralph.

‘That is a certainty,’ replied Birin, ‘for they had no other way to go. In every other direction lies the lands of Elves, Dwarves, and Men.’ He left unsaid what lay to the North.

As they passed the last visible sign of habitation, an overgrown abandoned farm with gaunt grey derelict buildings leaning in every attitude of collapse and decay, the road became a path, a trail, a guess, and then failed altogether. The ever narrowing valley floor had become an area of rolling grassland dotted with clumps of stunted trees. The damp air was cold and mist-shrouded, the visibility ahead uncertain.

To Pran, Ralph said, ‘I think we should take our horses and ride ahead for a bit. I don’t like this fog.’

When Pran readily assented, Ralph noticed Theuli’s concerned response.

Once they were mounted and away from the wagon, Ralph said, ‘Sorry. I just wanted to get away for a bit so we could talk. I didn’t mean to worry Theuli like that.’

‘She was upset because she assumed that you and I sensed something, but that she could not,’ Pran told him.

‘Sorry,’ Ralph said again. ‘I should have thought.’

Pran shrugged. ‘Why apologise for what you could not have known? Besides,’ he added with a wry smile, ‘if the perceived affront was to my wife, then why are you apologising to me?’

Distracted from Pran’s words by his own thoughts, Ralph took a deep breath, let it out slowly in a stream of vapour as though incongruously trying to rid himself of some inner lack, and tried to make out the lay of the land through the patchy mist.

‘Ever since we had that little talk, I’ve been wracking my brains, trying to come up with something that could help us, but I keep coming up dry. Just before we left Mirrindale, I even tried a few alternatives, like trying to create some of the weapons we have in my world. But they won’t work. I think the rules of this world must be different in some way.’ He shrugged. ‘Which is just as well, I guess. The weapons of my world are pretty horrible. And if we were to use them, there’s nothing stopping your enemies from figuring them out for themselves, eventually.

‘As far as your Earth Mother is concerned . . .’ he shook his head in frustration. ‘I just don’t get it! To me, such things are just so many words. But it’s more than that. I mean, Malina takes such things for granted . . . like it’s built into her . . . like magic itself. With me, it’s like trying to explain colour to a blind person.

‘And as far as magic goes . . . when I work with metal, I’m not thinking in terms of magic. The closest I can come to explaining what I do is that it’s mostly instinct. But if I want to make an arrowhead or a knife, then I have to concentrate mostly on the design. That’s not the same thing; or at least, I don’t think it is.

‘I have felt that I could make something purely by instinct,’ he added, carefully, ‘but I have no idea what that something would be.’

‘Well,’ Pran said doubtfully, ‘even were you to make some sort of curiosity, still I think that you should make the effort, if only to find out where your instincts may lead.’

By midafternoon the air had become very cold. The ground became hard and frozen, and the breath of riders and horses alike steamed in the crystalline air. People began to lag a bit as they donned more clothing which inadvertently served to encumber them. There having been no winter in living memory, they possessed no heavy winter clothing, and had to compensate for this lack by wearing successively larger layers of oversized clothing not designed for cold weather. The sky gradually began to pale from its usual deep blue to the pale grey of winter. They were still some ten miles from the break in the mountains when it began to snow lightly. The wind picked up, sending the light snow scudding like dust about their feet. For many who had never seen snow, the landscape began to appear lonely, sullen, desolate, and inhospitable.

By dusk, the sky was darkening as they entered the break in the mountains. Some saw this as a foreboding omen, but others took it in stride, knowing that they were still close to the Elf Kingdom. When nightfall finally enveloped them in darkness, Birin ordered a halt, and tents were set up for the first time.

‘We are on the western border of the Elf Kingdom,’ he announced. ‘Beyond is the unknown. It is early yet, but we will stop for the night now.

‘According to the old maps, there is an open hill country some distance past the gap. Beyond this country was said to be a forest, which was reported to have been very great. Through the midst of this forest, there was a great river, and it was along the banks of this river that our ancestors followed its course from the west.

‘Our ancestors,’ he continued, ‘were loath to enter into that forest, not because it was solely the demesne of Faeriekind, but because the forest itself was said to be enchanted. Unlike our ancestors, however, we hope to find that this still holds true today.’

The tents were set up in a wide circle, with a watch set up around the perimeter. The night was preternaturally cold and clear compared with what the Elves were used to. Around midnight the wind died altogether, and the refugees soon discovered that the utter and complete silence was hurtful to the ears, as one strained to hear the least sound, of which there was none.

The moonless night was so dark that, lest someone wander off and become lost, a large bonfire fuelled by piled scrub was set in the center of the encampment. For those used to being within the comfortable safety of their homes, it was an uncanny feeling, being in an open space, and utterly blind.

In the dead of night, Pran returned to the tent to awaken Ralph, so that he could begin his turn at the watch. Putting a finger to his lips, Pran led him out to the perimeter, and pointed out into the darkness. Glittering coldly, tiny pairs of yellow flecks were about the camp, a fair distance away. Ralph did not need to ask what the flecks were; they were distinctly and unmistakeably the eyes of some night creatures illuminated by the firelight.

‘We do not know what they are,’ whispered Pran, ‘but they have been there for some hours now. So far they have kept their distance. I will get my bedding and sleep here, I think. I suggest that you keep your sword ready at hand.’

One by one, as the first light of dawn approached, the pairs of eyes vanished with the night. When it became light enough, Birin sent a few scouts out to investigate. The news when they returned was unsettling.

‘There is nothing,’ the scout said to Birin and the awaiting soldiers. Pran and Ralph stood nearby, listening. ‘Not a footprint. Not a trace of spoor. Not a sign that anything was there at all.’ Birin and the soldiers were clearly worried, despite the fact that nothing seemed to have come of the strange incident.

Ralph raised a question that had been bothering him since he had begun his watch. ‘Why couldn’t we see their breath in the light? Why just their eyes and nothing else?’

One fellow, a farmer who had lived not far from Pran, having overheard Ralph’s observation, said, ‘Maybe it was just our own eyes staring back at us.’ There was some laughter at this, for the farmer was well known for his droll sense of humour. The level of tension dropped immediately.

With a crooked smile, Birin said, ‘Ezra, my friend, at times like this I am glad for your presence. But the eyes left two by two. Unless,’ he said, glaring about humorously, ‘there were more falling asleep on the watch than I was aware of.’

For the time being, the fear caused by the eyes was dispelled, and they began preparing for the morning meal, and departure. When news of the incident reached Theuli’s ears, however, she was greatly disturbed. ‘Deborah was awake a good part of the night.’ she told Pran and Ralph. ‘She kept saying that she heard voices calling out to her. She became hot to the touch and delirious, until morning came.’ Deborah was asleep now, and had to be carried to the wagon and wrapped warmly against the cold. Pran went straightaway to Birin to tell him what had happened. Birin’s reaction was to grip the pommel of his sword until his knuckles whitened.

‘Necropheids! It is as the Thane has told us; that creatures of the Netherworld are crossing over as more than mere shadows.’

‘Necropheids?’ Ralph asked, looking blank.

Birin’s look was apologetic. ‘I forget, sometimes, that your knowledge of this world is scant. Necropheids are of an order of creatures of the Netherworld that are associated with illness, and when the illness is very severe, with death and dying. Normally, the presence of these particular creatures portends nothing worse than fever dreams. But if their efficacy becomes great enough, they will call your friend to her death. It is her illness which draws and feeds them.’

Pran’s mouth became a hard line. ‘We have not yet left the Elf Kingdom, and already we are beset by a great evil. Once, long ago, alone and in the wild and wracked by illness, I felt the presence of such beings. Even as mere shadows they are terrible!’

‘Indeed,’ said Birin. ‘But what is to be done?’

One of Birin’s soldiers, having overheard, said, ‘If old tales be true, they cannot abide the light of day; but when darkness falls, fire is said to keep them at bay. And,’ he added, ‘in the elder days of our Lore, before it became usurped from us common folk by our Loremasters, spells were used which banished the presence of such creatures.’ He said this last bitterly, and it was plain that his fellows shared his sentiments towards the Loremasters.

Gannet, who had been listening to this exchange, his features stony, said, ‘These Necropheids, they are a tenuous thing, you say, only half in the world of the living. If they be so insubstantial, then why do we not put them to the sword, or drive them off with fire?’

Spurred on by Gannet’s bravado, several nearby muttered assent, but Birin was quick to quash talk of any such action.

‘I doubt not your bravery, Gannet, nor your willingness to do battle with Demons, should the need arise; but Necropheids and other fell creatures of the Netherworld cannot be brought to heel with arms or by main strength. The sword is not a weapon fit to contest the arcane might of the sort of deadly soul-sickness these creatures wield.’ He looked from eye to eye around the circle to enforce his will in the matter. ‘Let no one take it upon himself to confront these creatures. Even were you to survive such an encounter, your survival would be short-lived. Even if you be a mighty man of arms like Gannet here, you would soon begin to sicken, with a malady beyond the skill of our best Healers. And in the end you would beg for death, or for the strength to take your own life. There will be no more talk of waylaying these creatures.’

Gannet shrugged, though he appeared unconvinced. ‘As you wish.’

Heading out through the break in the mountains, and so leaving the Elven Kingdom altogether, they found themselves in a hilly country, much like the one described in old tales. The snow lay deep here, though it was interrupted by ancient oak trees with leaves that, although dead and brown, clung to the branches yet. Beneath these, there was little snow. That evening, the travellers made camps of fifty beneath ten of these trees, and made preparations to meet the threat of the Necropheids. Piles of brush were laid in a wide circle outside the camp, to be set alight in the event of the creatures’ return.

In the dead of night, drawing about the encampment like a noose of fear, the eyes returned. Birin directed a number of archers to shoot fire-arrows into a few of the piles of brush, not wishing to waste all the fuel at once.

The moment the first pyre burst into flame, grey shapes could be seen, scrambling away from the light. At first glance, Ralph thought they looked like women. But the sight of their faces chilled his heart with the worst dread he had ever known. Below their cold, bat-like black eyes was a wide oval maw set with long, inwardly curved, thin teeth. Their hands bore long claws, and their skin was grey like the underbelly of a spider. Their long hair was the white of cobwebs, and they made not a sound.

One of Birin’s archers, at his direction, fired a bolt into the chest of one of the hideous creatures. The moment he did so, a horrifying scream came from one of the tents.

It was Deborah, who lay in a wild delirium, clutching frantically at her chest as though trying to pull something out of it. Dashing back to the perimeter, Ralph told Birin to instruct his archers not to fire at the Necropheids again. The Necropheids did not return that night, but Deborah’s condition was much worsened. She did not recognize her friends, and was still in the throes of delirium when morning finally came.

Theuli spoke with Birin at first light.

‘This cannot continue,’ she said. ‘The girl is failing. We must find some way to succour her.’

‘It is unfortunate,’ replied Birin, ‘that the Healer from her world did not accompany us. It was he who saved the girl from the Goblin’s poison when none other could. This matter is beyond the skill of our Healers.’

‘In the elder days,’ Theuli said, ‘when magic was not pursued as a private craft, our people summoned their strength as one, by means of ritual. Are we so lost that such skill is no longer open to us?’

‘Our forebears were a tribal people possessed of a primitive Lore that was known to all. We are no longer that same people. We know only that they sang eldritch songs of power,’ Birin told her. ‘However, no one alive today now remembers what those songs were.’

They set out at as great a pace as they could muster, Birin assuming, perhaps irrationally, that the presence of the Necropheids was a local phenomena, that simply by removing themselves, or by putting distance between themselves and the creatures, that the crisis would be over. The going was slow, however; their best pace was only a mile every hour, if that.

The terrain, though not difficult, was not conducive to speed where the heavily laden wagons were concerned. The trail they made for themselves wended its way through an endlessly convoluted land of snow-covered hillocks topped with clumps of bare trees or tall copsewood. Twice they were brought to a near-halt by bands of thick bracken of an evergreen sort, waist-high, broad-leafed and dense. There was no choice but to plough straight through these, as they blocked all passage from north to south from one side of the valley to the other. Midway was a further obstacle, a sharp embankment dropping to a lower level, followed by what appeared to be a shallow lake, or deep marsh, covered by only a thin skin of ice.

They were fortunate in that the water was not deep; only three feet or so in spots; not enough to endanger the goods being transported in the wagons, but the going was arduous. They had to assemble the oxen into large teams and drag the wagons through this mire two by two, a task that was finally accomplished at dusk. Those travelling by foot and by horse were less fortunate than those travelling by wagon; both ox and horse had to be led by hand, and few horses were able to bear their riders across without mishap. By the time they reached the other side, most of the company was wet, filthy, shivering in the damp cold and exhausted.

Though they would have liked to stop, upon reaching the far side, Birin and some of the more experience soldiers elected to press on, distrusting the low ground underneath the snow which was just soft enough to be worrisome. Once again, as though faced with a mirror-image of the side they had left, the company was presented with a sharp embankment, followed by a wide band of bracken on the same variety they had breasted earlier.

By evening, they were crashing through the last of the snow-covered bracken, and to their relief, discovered that the land beyond this barrier resumed its former pattern of hillocks crowned with stands of trees and thick stands of copsewood.

Prostrate on their feet, trembling from exhaustion, Elf and animal alike came to a halt, and half-stumbling, began to set up camp for the night.

‘I never thought it could possibly feel so good to put on clean, dry clothes,’ Ralph said to Pran. He was juddering with cold, having just stood naked and been washed by Theuli and Malina, who had waited for and ministered to the men, each in their turn, with a tub of steaming-hot water, washcloths, and towels at the ready.

‘At least this is the time of year when the vermin that live in such waters are dormant,’ Theuli said, and shuddered. Pran glanced up at this, looking uncharacteristically chastened.

Ralph did not ask her what sort of vermin she was referring to; what his imagination supplied him with was more than sufficient.

Working with experienced efficiency, Theuli, with Rani and Malina’s assistance, had soon prepared a hot meal. As they prepared to set to, however, she and Malina disappeared into the wagon with food for themselves and Deborah. Soon after eating, Zuic, who had collected most of their firewood, picked up an axe and went to collect more. Before two minutes had gone by, however, he returned at a run, his features ashen, holding the axe in both hands as though he meant to fend something off. Seeing the manner of his return, the men were drawn to their feet.

‘Something is out there!’

At the same time, they heard a noise from the wagon, and with a feeling of cold dread, knew what that something was. Almost immediately, Theuli’s head appeared at the back of the wagon.

Ralph! I need you in here! Right now! I need you to hold her down! Pran- no , don’t bother coming in here- we need . . . get Birin! She needs help- get a Healer-!’

Pran had already left at a run, but not before telling Zuic to stay close to the wagon, and to throw the remaining wood onto the fire.

Ralph had never experienced the sort of sickening fear that he felt at that moment. Even in her delirium, Deborah was surprisingly strong, but it was clear that she was in serious trouble. Her eyes, though half-open, were rolled back in their sockets; she was writhing, head tossing from side to side, desperately fighting for every last breath.

In the dim yellow light of the single lantern, he was aware of Malina and Rani, who looked on helplessly, holding each other, their features suffused. Theuli worked frantically, stripping off Deborah’s clothes, giving her a sponge bath with ice-cold water in an effort to bring her fever down. Outside, he could hear a babel of voices, and recognised those of Pran, Birin, and some of the Healers.

‘No one is to venture beyond the camp unaccompanied! I don’t care if there aren’t enough axes! Use whatever implements you can find! Use swords if you have to! Yes, build it here, where the light will be of the best effect. And another there! What? Well, if it’s too close, then move the other wagon!’

‘. . .Lore? Spells? Don’t blame me if we haven’t such things! The King and that passel of sycophants he surrounds himself with, ask them! Yes, I have brought my pharmacopoeia! But this matter is beyond the realm of medicine! Or are you deaf to those voices that surround our camp?’

In the midst of this confusion, something, a mote of clarity, of unflagging certainty, seemed to settle upon Malina’s soul, like the eye of calm at the center of a storm. Rani, sensing something, looking up at the Pixie woman’s tearstained visage, caught her faraway look; and somehow, in that same moment, she too knew what had to be done.

Unnoticed, hand in hand, as in a dream they left the wagon and began walking, away from the fires and from the light, until at last they stood alone in the night. All around them were shadows and whispers, the faint glint of eyes reflecting the firelight.

Rani was uncertain what was going to happen next. All she knew was that Malina knew what to do; that she was not afraid; all she had to do was wait, and watch, and listen. And when the time came . . .

Deborah’s struggles had ceased. She lay unnaturally still, her pallor beginning to grey as life left her altogether; her eyes, though no longer rolled back, were staring, and beginning to take on the glassy aspect of death . . .

Ralph was too stunned at first to understand what Theuli’s words meant.

‘She’s gone. There is nothing more that we can do.’

Devoid of life, Deborah’s naked form lay white, almost ethereal-looking, in sharp contrast to the dark blankets upon which she lay in the semi-darkness of the wagon. She seemed somehow smaller, as though her inner fragility had finally pushed its way to the surface, forcing out everything that was strong in her, leaving her diminished . . .

Outside, a sound came to their ears. It barely registered at first, it was so small and faint; that of a single voice, alone in the dark. After a moment, it became joined by another . . .

Years ago, as a child, Malina’s mother had taught her a song; a simple child’s song, to sing to herself for her own protection, when her mother was drawn away by some necessity. She had sung it to herself often when her mother had disappeared, and often in the years after when she was alone and frightened. And for all those years, alone, undefended and defenceless, it had kept her alive; had kept her spirit unbroken. And when she had come upon Rani, as a little girl, lost in the woods, she had taught the child that same song.

Now, with only the two of them, alone in the night amidst creatures that would freeze the marrow of the bravest soldier in the camp, hand in hand, they sang that same song, with voices and hearts that were pure, that were proof against the evil which surrounded them.

‘That song . . .’ Theuli muttered, frowning in concentration.

At that same instant, Deborah drew a gasping breath

At the sound of their voices, soldiers and other people came from out of the darkness, bearing torches. Elders, women and children too, came to join them.

Many of the elders recognised the simple melody; the words too, almost as from a time before living memory. They joined the two, adding their voices; the children, too. Almost reluctantly, the menfolk began adding their voices. But as their voices grew in number, so did their confidence grow.

At last, as a single congregation, some inner-memory that may have been instinct caused them to separate their voices away from the simple melody into a chorus that seemed to make the night itself ring with the after-echo of an auditorium. At last they reached the end, and the last note, and though it was over, its effect seemed to linger on for several moments.

It took several more moments for them to realize that they had won, that the spell they strived against had been broken.

Malina, Rani, and Pran quickly left the circle and returned to the tent, dreading to find Deborah lying dead, or worse. As Zuic opened the flap for them, they saw that she lay there still, looking very pale, with Theuli and Ralph hovering over her worriedly. Theuli had just wrapped the girl warmly in blankets.

Her eyes opened. Though she was still very weak, her gaze was clear . . . focused.

‘Theuli? I had the worst dream. Am I really dead?’

Overcome with relief, her friends gathered about her.

‘It was just a bad dream,’ said Theuli. ‘You were very ill. The worst is over.’

Deborah shuddered, sighed, drifting back towards sleep. ‘They were trying to take me away. But all of you stopped them. They wanted to take me to my father. Make me like him.’ She began crying. ‘They hurt me. He hurt me . . .’

‘Shush,’ whispered Theuli, ‘They’re gone. Try not to think about it. You’re going to sleep now. And all of us are going to watch over you. You’re never going to be alone again.’

Trying to focus her sleepy gaze on Theuli as she drifted off, Deborah muttered, ‘. . . thought you were . . . an angel . . .’

Stroking the girl’s face tenderly as she fell asleep, Theuli replied through her tears, ‘Sleep now, child. The long night is over. You’re home now, and safe in bed.’

‘. . . safe . . .’ Deborah fell asleep, smiling.

As the congregation began to disperse, in the fading firelight, Nevana found herself standing alone in the snow, feeling utterly alone, abandoned, her feet aching from the cold, shivering in the gelid night air. It seemed to her as though she was utterly shut out, from family, friends, community . . . adrift and alone. All around her, the others were in the warmth of their tents, consoling and reassuring one another.

At the last, she stood there still, a lone figure in the dark, forgotten.

She had wanted so badly to join in with the others, and at first she had tried to sing. But no sound would come, as though she had forgotten how to speak. Then, when she discovered who it was that led them in song, she suddenly felt herself to be an unwanted stranger. Even as the sense of community grew about her, she could feel herself being pushed out.

Staring into the night, she tried to weep, but no sound would come. If she had possessed the volition, she would have gone stumbling off into the darkness. But there was no need; the source of that emptiness was now inside her.

The next day it warmed up a little and began snowing. Large white flakes fell thick and fast, and the land ahead became obscured. Their progress was becoming slower by the hour as they wound their way between the hills. The huge oaks were soon laden with a white mantle. Occasional small avalanches of snow fell from the trees onto the travellers. This was merely amusing at first, but soon they became sodden and cold.

That night they felled a great pile of poplars and made several huge bonfires to warm themselves and dry their clothes. As Ralph lay with Malina against his side, he watched the shadow of the steam rising from the tent as it was illuminated by the firelight outside.

Pran had just taken his watch, and Theuli, after checking on Rani and Zuic, and returning to her own bed, found Deborah awake.

‘Are you hungry?’ Theuli whispered.

Deborah simply nodded, trying to keep her eyes open. Theuli left the tent for a moment, and soon returned with a steaming bowl. Deborah struggled to rise, but Theuli held her back, shifting the girl onto her side.

‘Don’t try to get up just yet. Here, I’ll feed you,’ she laughed quietly. ‘There’s no need to be embarrassed.’

Deborah considered Theuli as the Elf woman fed the girl some bread soaked in hot broth. ‘I dreamt you were my mother.’

Theuli smiled with pleasure. ‘So now I have three daughters.’

‘Three?’

‘Rani, Deborah and Malina.’

‘What does that make me?’ chuckled Ralph.

Deborah smiled. ‘Then Malina is my sister, which makes you my brother-in-law,’ she said to Ralph.

‘You’re supposed to be asleep,’ said Theuli to Ralph.

‘Yes, Mom.’

‘How do you feel,’ Theuli asked Deborah, seriously.

She shrugged. ‘I don’t know. I feel sort of . . . empty . . . different somehow…

‘I keep having these dreams, but every time I wake up, they’re gone. The only thing I remember is this . . . sort of sense that . . . well, it’s like I told you before; you remember? that day when Malina and I went with you-’ She stopped, seeing Theuli’s pained remembrance of that day. ‘I’m sorry . . . I shouldn’t have brought that up-’

‘You were saying,’ Theuli said, in a tone both firm and understanding, ‘that . . . I believe the words you used were, that “it was supposed to happen.”’

Deborah nodded, on the verge of sleep once more. ‘That’s what I remember when I wake up. It’s inside me now . . . or maybe it always was . . . or what I’ll be . . .’

Theuli paused. She held the last spoonful of broth poised to place in Deborah’s mouth, but the girl had fallen asleep. Theuli watched her for a time, her expression thoughtful. When she put the bowl away and crawled back beneath her own blankets, Ralph whispered, ‘Now I can sleep.’

Theuli, however, was long awake in thought.

They made better progress the next day. The snow had stopped during the night, and the sun showed faintly behind a thin layer of grey cloud. Deborah was awake and alert the next morning, and found herself staring about in rapt wonder, surprised to find herself back in the wagon, instead of the tent where she had fallen asleep. The wagon’s cover, though raised, was open front and back.

‘Good morning, sleepyhead,’ said Malina. ‘You missed breakfast, but we saved you some.’

Sitting up, Deborah found she had been dressed in a long surplice. It was very warm and luxurious to the touch. Feeling the texture of the soft fur with undisguised pleasure, she said, ‘Where did I get this?’

‘I dressed you in it early this morning when we placed you in the wagon,’ Theuli told her. ‘We thought you might wish to rise from your bed for a time. Your clothing was lost in the confusion when we left Mirrindale.’

Running a hand through her hair, Deborah said, ‘Where are we? How long is it since we left?’

‘We have been travelling for four days now,’ Theuli replied.

‘Four days! It seems like four months.’ She looked about the wagon. ‘Where are Rani and Zuic?’

‘They are with Ralph and Pran,’ said Theuli, indicating a point somewhere amongst the riders and wagons ahead of them.

Deborah wrapped her blanket about her, covering her ears. Moving to the rear beside Malina and Theuli, and taking a long look around, she saw that the landscape was hilly and marked by stands of large trees that were heavily laden with snow. The ground was unblemished and deep with the same white blanket.

‘It’s so beautiful.’

Malina smiled, crookedly. ‘I showed Zuic and Rani how to make snowballs.’

‘That is why they are riding with Ralph and my husband,’ said Theuli, not quite feigning annoyance.

‘Don’t blame Malina for that,’ said Deborah. ‘Ralph and I showed her about snowballs.’

‘I see,’ said Theuli. ‘Then perhaps you are sisters after all.’

‘Didn’t you make snowballs when you were young,’ ventured Deborah.

Almost smirking, Theuli replied, ‘There has been no snow in the Elf Kingdom during my lifetime. Yet if there were, I would not have thought to put it down my mother’s back.’

Deborah was trying not to laugh. ‘That was my fault! I taught Malina to do that to Ralph.’

‘When you are well,’ warned Theuli, ‘you may find your wayward ways coming back to haunt you.’ The three of them laughed at this, but secretly, Deborah planned to be ready for Theuli’s revenge.

As Ralph and Pran rode ahead with Rani riding before Ralph and Zuic before Pran, they noticed a figure stumbling through the snow. From the way she walked, Ralph assumed it to be an elderly woman, and on impulse, feeling a surge of anger, he urged his horse on, to find out from this person why she wasn’t in one of the wagons.

As he caught up, he noticed, first, that the figure was much younger than he had assumed. Then, as she stumbled once more, he caught a glimpse of her feet.

Pran!’

Jumping off his mount, he handed the reins to Rani, and went to help the girl to her feet.

For a moment, he stared at her in confusion, thinking that there was something familiar about this person-

‘Nevana?’

For an instant, she stared back. Then, averting her gaze, she tried pulling away.

‘What is it?’ It was Pran, who had joined him.

‘Leave me!’ Nevana cried, trying to pull away from him once more.

Ralph caught her by the waist, quickly shifted her so that she lay cradled in his arms.

‘Look at her feet!’

‘Why are you not wearing proper footwear?’ Pran asked her sternly as they brought her to the Healer’s wagon.

Flushed with shame, she made some inaudible response.

‘What’s that?’

‘She said,’ Ralph muttered tersely, having caught her words, as she lay in his arms, ‘that these are all that she has.’

They left her with the Healers, who assured Pran that she was not yet suffering from the effects of frostbite, but that the outcome would have been worse if she had gone on any longer. Much worse. Ralph accompanied Pran as they first deposited the children back in the wagon, then went in search of the wagon of Arlon and Durus. Ralph made no attempt to converse with Pran, sensing his mood. Theuli, too, had accepted the children into the wagon in silence, seeing his expression.

When they caught up to Arlon and Durus, the two were seated together on the driver’s bench, he holding the reins. Durus’s feet, Ralph noticed, poked out from beneath the hem of her long, thick winter dress. Unlike her daughter, she was shod in heavy wool-lined work boots. Arlon wore his usual footwear, suitable to working in the fields.

Before Pran could speak, Durus spotted the pair, and the glare she fixed on Ralph almost made him duck.

‘What are you doing, coming around here? Haven’t you done enough? If you’re looking for Nevana, I don’t know where she is!’

‘More to the point,’ Pran said, his voice quiet, but with enough implicit menace to deflect the woman’s ire, ‘why was your daughter walking alone in the snow with naught on her feet but a pair of light summer shoes?’

‘She’s supposed to be in the wagon,’ the woman said defensively. Ralph knew this to be a lame excuse, but wondered if the woman had even been aware of the fact.

‘With the rest of your possessions,’ Pran added, sarcastically. The way the younger children had made themselves scarce at his presence only seemed to increase his ire.

Arlon, though he looked at nothing during the entire exchange, flinched at this word, knowing full well what Pran meant. Ralph, for some reason, found himself feeling sorry for the man, who dropped his eyes, his expression one of habitual tired guilt.

‘None of this would have happened were it not for this . . . Man !’ Durus said, referring to Ralph, getting herself worked up in corrupt anger. ‘He toyed with our daughter’s affections- now look what he’s done to her! She won’t come home! You know why? Because she’s ashamed to, that’s why! If I didn’t know better, I’d say that he’s managed to compromise her. All because of that filthy Faerie vermin . . . that-’ she uttered an obscenity, leaned across in front of Arlon, and spat on the ground at their feet.

Arlon sat stock still, jaw muscles bunching, his face crimson with humiliation.

Ralph waited for Pran to say or do something. Instead, the former Elf soldier stared at the woman in stony silence until she at last became silent and looked away. As he turned to go, he acknowledged Arlon’s look of apology with a tired nod.

Making their way back to Pran’s wagon, taking their time, Ralph said, ‘There is a grain of truth in what she says-’

‘There always is,’ Pran told him.

but its not like I led her on or anything . . . she, Nevana, just kind of threw herself at me. I just didn’t handle things very well

‘There is no need to explain this matter to me,’ Pran told him. ‘You forget, I know this family, and their problems.’

Ralph made a helpless gesture.

‘I just can’t help feeling responsible, somehow.’

To his surprise, Pran laughed at this. To Ralph’s consternation, he said, ‘I have noticed that when things happen around you, you have a habit of making yourself responsible. My friend, I’m afraid I can’t think of you without remembering a time when you first came to live at my home, when you discovered a fledgling beneath the oak near to the barn. Such birds cast out their weakest, and you repeatedly picked the creature from the ground and replaced it in its nest, until the poor thing finally expired, as it was fated to do.’

‘If that’s a failing,’ Ralph replied defensively, ‘then it’s one I don’t intend giving up.’

‘Yes,’ Pran replied to Ralph’s incomprehension, thinking of the way the big Human had instinctively responded to Nevana’s need, seeing as Ralph could not that it could lead to future entanglements with the Elf girl, ‘I can see that.’

Chap. 16

The Naiadi

A fair young maiden she seemed, ‘til

I descried her otherworldly beauty.’

from The Laye of Estland Waik

The evening of the following day found the travellers in an eerie country, marked by a sharp decrease in the amount of fallen snow, of which there was only the lightest skiff, and an endless succession of uneven hills, which appeared overall as though the crust of the land had been broken into uniform chunks, each of which was tilted so that there was a gradual slope always on one side, the east, and a sharp drop on the west face. As well, the general lay of the land was canted slightly to the left, towards the south. What colossal upheaval of the earth could possibly had expressed itself in such an odd, regular formation, none could say. But ancient and bluntly eroded though the hills were, as though the land was forever trying to remember its former shape, they were possessed of an immediacy, as though the force which had shaped them was ever present, however quiescent it might seem to the eye.

The low ground between these yellowed scrub-grass-grown hills was often covered with a dense growth of brambles, and between many of the hills were rivulets which gurgled spiritedly along ice-rheumed channels. Each shallow gulley was shrouded in dank mists which clung to the tangled undergrowth, and to the north and south the general lay of the land rose somewhat; in neither direction, north or south, could anything be seen but drear alder forest, which stood silent, naked, dark, impenetrable and foreboding.

It was some consolation that their progress was good, for the trail they traversed was wide enough for a large cart, and level, and it became apparent that there had once been a highway through this area; worn paving stones showed clearly from time to time along the center of the trail. Indeed, the reason they were able to wend their way so easily through this country was that this pathway remained, resisting the encroachment of the undergrowth.

But who had built the original road? And if a footpath remained, who was here in this strange country to use it? Birin sent several scouts far ahead, to spy out the land and unmask any threat, should the small exodus blunder into a trap. The chief difficulty of the surrounding lands was that they were all-concealing, to any who wished to remain hidden. And leaving the road to explore the hills was tedious, time-consuming work. Were it not that their lives might be at stake, one would have said that the delay was not worth the risk.

Birin’s caution was soon rewarded, however. It wasn’t long before his scouts returned with word that two trails, one on either side of the road, threaded their way through the hills, out of sight of the road. They were quite obviously designed for ambush. And they were clearly often used and recently maintained. Birin sent several riders ahead to watch these trails. They discovered that Goblins, though few in number, had passed through this region recently. But for what purpose, none could guess.

By late afternoon, when they stopped for a rest and a bite, a scout returned to Birin, informing him that a large herd of elk-like animals had been spotted. They were huge beasts, he said, as tall at the shoulder as the reach of one’s hand. They were unwary, and a few might be taken with relative ease.

Birin was thoughtful a long time before answering. But in the end he refused, telling the scout that the animals were under no circumstances to be touched, that they had food aplenty for the present, and added that he was mistrustful of this distraction. With a disappointed nod, the scout left to resume his duties. When the scout had left, Birin explained himself to Ralph, who with Pran was riding nearby.

‘That these creatures are unwary is perhaps a good sign,’ he said. ‘If they are indigenous to this area, and if Goblins frequent this area also, then they will be wary of Goblins; so we would be wise not to make these beasts wary of us.’

As evening drew near the road began to straighten, while the bare alder forest to either side drew close, hemming them in, and by nightfall their spirits sank as they saw a dense forest loom before them like a dark wall, the road becoming a tall, austere, narrow black doorway to whatever lay within.

Birin halted the company for some time, reluctant to proceed or to stay. He sent scouts ahead into the forest, and there was a prolonged wait for their return. The interval seemed endless, and some began to fear that the soldiers had been waylaid. But they returned eventually, leading their mounts at a slow walk, and watching either side of the road intently.

‘What have you seen?’ Birin asked them as they drew near.

‘Naught but a large lake, some distance off,’ one of them replied. ‘But voices we heard while travelling through this wood; perhaps those of Sylphids high above us, and Periani in the undergrowth.’

Birin considered this news thoughtfully. At last, he said, ‘The Sylphids are of little concern to us. But the Periani are another matter.’

‘They followed us closely,’ the scout who had spoken said, ‘and we heard anger in their voices. But would they attack so large a number?’

‘Whether or no,’ Birin replied tightly, ‘it is a chance we have no choice but to take. How far is this lake, and are there suitable grounds for making camp?’

‘If we move swiftly and without stealth, an hour, perhaps. Little more,’ the scout replied.

Birin sighed and gazed at the dark trail leading into the forest, as though gauging the risk. ‘Where the Periani are concerned, stealth will not avail us. We will proceed.’

It was so dark inside the forest that Birin ordered torches lighted. Once underway, it appeared to the refugees that they were traversing a great hall, which led from darkness to darkness. They heard and saw nothing over the sound of their own walking, the horses and oxen, and the groan of the wagons’ axles. But all around them was a feeling of watchfulness; of expectancy. They watched the wood for any sign, but in vain.

Riding beside Pran, Ralph asked in a whisper, ‘What are Sylphids and . . .’

‘Perians,’ Pran finished for him. ‘Sylphids are creatures of the air. They are Faerie, and very elusive, even to Elvish eyes. I do not think that you will see any.’

‘And Perians?’

‘Perians, or Periani, as some call them, are another matter,’ Pran replied. ‘Some believe that they are Faerie, but the kinship is tenuous, if at all. For my part, I believe they are closer to Men, though in stature they are small, like children. I have heard that they live in houses that are grouped into small villages; that they till the soil, and keep beasts; that they even drink spirits in taverns, and have an appetite for food and drink to be fairly marvelled at. They are a reclusive people but are extremely territorial, and often warlike to those who inadvertently trespass though their lands.’

‘Warlike?’ Ralph muttered. ‘Then why did Birin-’

‘It is unlikely that they will feud with us over the only road through this region,’ Pran told him. ‘I think it more likely that they would prefer to be rid of our presence altogether, without engaging in a conflict that could only serve to prolong contact. But it is a certainty that they will watch us closely, to be sure that we do not stray from this route into their lands. They have no love for Elves, Men or Dwarves, and to the best of my knowledge, never venture beyond their own borders.’

It was with a sense of great relief that the refugees came out of this portion of the road, as it ended abruptly, opening into a great clearing. Before them lay a shallow lake, perhaps two miles across at the widest point. It was bordered by tall brown reeds which rattled dryly in the breeze, its surface largely covered by water-lilies. Despite the cold, and a frozen rheum around its edge, it showed no sign of freezing over, though it was now clear and chill, the stars glittering coldly above. To the right and left the road wended its way around the lake, but to the right, perhaps three furlongs distant, was a wide grassy lea, largely free of snow, and it was there, Birin decided, that they would make camp.

Despite the assurances of the Healers, Deborah did not feel cured of the poison in her system, but rather changed, in some fundamental way that somehow eluded her perception. As the wagon carrying her companions and herself plunged into the darkness of the forest trail, she found that she could see small shapes flitting from tree to tree like shadows. She would have assumed that her eyes were playing tricks on her, had not the dim shapes had voices. Their words, like their appearance, seemed to hover on the edge of her awareness, but no clear words or appearance could she make out; they seemed little more substantial than the air itself.

Yet something in Deborah found itself responding, something indistinguishable from the poison laying quiescent in her veins, or some nameless, irremediable longing, which goaded an habitual bitterness within her, a hatred of the pain she bore, always, and an angry, impatient desire for surcease.

She saw that the others were as blind to her private darkness as to that which surrounded them, and this realization made her feel isolated, hurt, and angry. But these were feelings that had pervaded her life since childhood, and she turned aside from them, looking instead into the surrounding darkness, as though groping blindly for answers.

As the wagon neared the end of the trail through the deep wood, the shadows and voices vanished as though they had never been, and Deborah felt suddenly as though she had just been roused from some dark dream, only to find herself in a wakeful state of unreality. Before them lay a wide lake, bathed in an eldritch light. Lily pads glowed green on its surface, phosphorescent sparkles glittered and shone in its depths, and the surrounding forest caught this aura as though bathed in moon glow.

Yet, as the wagon followed the trail of refugees to the right, and came eventually to a stop on a wide, grassy lea, it seemed to Deborah that the others were completely oblivious to the eerie beauty which surrounded them. She wanted to ask Theuli or Malina why they took no notice but assumed that they were perhaps too tired to care, and too busy getting the children settled for the night; and perhaps, she surmised, they were used to such sights, being from this world, and naturally took little notice of them. Finally, tired and sleepy herself, she followed the others’ example, wrapped herself in her blankets, and slept.

She awoke feeling the presence of someone or something nearby watching her. Opening her eyes, glancing at the rail of the wagon, she gasped in fear, finding herself looking into the most disturbing eyes she had ever seen, that stared solemnly into her own. There was something timeless, ancient, expectant and watchful about those eyes, something that, in its way, was of the lake and the forest in nature, its Human appearance a façade for the cold, still waters, bare brambles, and submerged, gnarled, clutching roots that were its true nature. Abruptly, the eyes were gone as the figure let itself drop to the ground.

‘Wait!’ Deborah cried, jumping up and running after the lithe figure. All about her the camp slept, except for the guards on watch, sitting by fires, who seemed oblivious to her presence.

The figure ran to the water’s edge and stopped, waiting expectantly for Deborah to catch up. Drawing near, Deborah saw that the figure was a small woman, with long blonde tresses bearing a hint of green reflected light. Her slim body was completely naked but she seemed not to feel the cold at all. As Deborah came up to her, breath steaming in the gelid night air, the woman smiled.

‘Have you come to join us?’ the woman said. ‘You are not blind as the others. The water is as you see it.’ The woman gestured to the water behind her. Obediently, Deborah gazed at the water, and stared in wonder. Other women, much like the one before her, were playing in the waters of the lake, some of them watching her with amused curiosity.

‘But the water is much too cold,’ Deborah replied.

‘Nonsense!’ the woman said with a tinkling laugh. ‘Lay aside your strange attire, and you will find the waters of Nor’un Ye’en warm and inviting. Come, you must be swift! Dawn approaches, and Deep Home awaits.’

Deborah did as she was told, stripping off her clothes, and finding to her wonder that she felt warm, as did the light breeze caressing her naked skin. As in a dream, she noticed that she could no longer see her own breath. The woman took her hand and led her to the water’s edge. But there she stopped, frowning. Had she heard something?

‘Do not listen!’ the woman hissed urgently, drawing her into the water. ‘Dawn comes. We must hurry.’ Deborah followed until she was waist deep, then stopped again. She heard a voice that she thought she should know, but like a vague echo of some long-forgotten memory; a slight resemblance to nothing she could put a name to.

Without warning, she found herself surrounded by plunging, dark shapes, splashing water, and she was suddenly being pulled violently in both directions. Cold suddenly seemed to numb her mind, gripping her heart and leaving her gasping. The last thing she remembered clearly was being carried from the lake by Pran, and fainting in his arms.

After a night of murky underwater nightmares, full of cold betrayal, couched in alluring promises disguised as eldritch creatures that were both wild and free, immune to life’s corrupted hopes and unattainable dreams; Deborah reluctantly awoke to the dim interior of the wagon. The top was up, the interior warm and dimly lighted by a small oil lantern which swayed irrhythmically from one of the iron stays which served to hold up the canvas. She lay in a dreamy stupor, wrapped snugly and warm.

‘You are awake?’

The voice was Theuli’s. It took her a moment to realize that the Elf woman’s face was near her own, regarding her gravely. She mumbled something in reply.

Theuli left her, returning quickly with something that made Deborah’s mouth water involuntarily.

‘What happened?’

‘Do not concern yourself with that for the time being.’

‘Wha-lp-’

Theuli forestalled the girl by spooning food into her mouth, her features set. Deborah suddenly felt ashamed, never having seen Theuli angry before. She swallowed everything Theuli fed her, obediently, though it was more than she wanted to eat. Afterward, she tried to think of something to say. Suddenly, as though her emotion had a will of its own, she started crying.

‘I’m sorry . . . I couldn’t help myself . . . but I wanted to find whatever was out there . . .’

‘Yes, and the following morning we would have found your body floating amongst the reeds,’ Theuli said. ‘The next time you feel such an urge, tell someone! I cannot believe that those on the watch who were so lax as to miss your foray to the tarn.’

‘I don’t think they could see either of us,’ Deborah muttered.

Theuli looked at her sharply, and Deborah saw that she was mistaken about the look in the Elf woman’s eyes: it was not anger, but worry.

‘Us?’

Deborah nodded. ‘There was a woman . . . she came up to the wagon and was looking right at me. And then she left, and I shouted at her to stop, but nobody woke up. I followed her down to the water, and we walked right past the guards, but they didn’t even look up at us. There were more women like her in the water.’

Theuli remained thoughtful for some time. At last, Deborah heard Malina’s voice.

‘Was it the Naiadi, do you think?’

‘It was undoubtedly the Naiadi,’ Theuli replied, ‘though why they would trouble themselves with a Human girl, and in such a manner, defies understanding.’

‘What are the Naiadi?’ Deborah asked.

Theuli’s answer was guarded. ‘They are fresh-water Nymphs, sometimes known to inhabit such places as that which we left yesterday morning. They are perilous, if only because they are puissant, and blithe of scruple in their dealings with lesser folk. At a whim, they might benefit or threaten the lives of the unwary who wander into their demesne, though never before have I heard it said of them that they might prey on young women. The old tales speak only of the threat to menfolk . . . but I wonder now if that was their true intent.’

‘Why did I feel warm when I was in the water with them?’ Deborah said. ‘I didn’t feel cold at all until Pran came to get me. It wasn’t just the Naiadi . . . there was something following us in the forest. I could see them.’ When the Elf-woman made no reply, Deborah moaned, ‘Theuli, what’s happening to me?’

Theuli was saved attempting to answer by the wagon’s sudden halt; a moment later there came a call that they were stopped for the night.

By morning the forest came to an end, and before them opened a land of wide grasslands and meadows. The air was warmer, and only a thin dusting of snow lay on the ground. The forest behind them receded until it resembled a black, impenetrable wall, and far to the north and south rose tall ranges of dark grey-blue mountains. Over the course of the day, however, far in the distance, growing ever closer, was a bank of fog, or low cloud. The way was not difficult, and they made good time, though they viewed the gloomy wall of cloud with trepidation, wondering if it contained some veiled threat.

It was midafternoon of the following day when the line of travellers came to an abrupt halt. Pran and Ralph returned from the front ranks with the children, who had been riding with them, and deposited them in the wagon.

‘What has happened?’ Malina asked Ralph.

‘Birin wishes to speak with you,’ he replied. ‘We have reached the forest.’

As Ralph and Malina approached the front of the line, they found Birin well out in front, alone. He had dismounted and held the reins of his horse. When he heard them approaching, he passed the reins to an aide. They could see, now, that a great forest lay hidden in the cloud. Its sheer immensity was daunting.

Malina, turning to Ralph and Birin, said, ‘I must go alone. If the Faerie folk are here they may not trust even me in such company.’ With a wry glance at her attire, she said, ‘From a distance they may not even recognize me for what I am.’ She glanced at the forest and swallowed, apprehension in her every line.

Trying to conceal his anxiety, Ralph took a deep breath and said, ‘If anything happens . . . anything at all . . . please, get the hell out of there.’ The two stood for a moment, facing each other uncertainly. At once, Ralph seemed to make a decision. He took the last step forward, and they embraced, until Birin cleared his throat uncomfortably.

‘Miss . . . we’re not even sure if there is anyone out there.’ Birin was difficult to read at the best of times but there was an underlying tension to his tone that belied his anxiety.

Malina left Ralph’s embrace with reluctance, gazed long into his eyes, looking for more than simple assurance. At last they parted, and she began making her way through the virgin snow towards the forest, alone. She glanced back once at the irregular line of refugees who waited for her with uncertainty and trepidation, took a deep breath, and tried to garner her courage.

She was afraid now, if only because she found herself in the unnatural position of having others depend on her. But there was something else. Her instincts were reacting to something, though what, specifically, she could not be certain.

Nearing the massive evergreens with mounting dread, she was certain now . . . something was here. The trees towered over her like black monoliths, and she had to resist the urge to duck her head.

There! At the base of the trees, just inside the forest, she saw, or thought she saw, a figure standing in the shadows. Yes, she was sure now. The shadow moved. There were others standing behind it. But what-?

‘Come no further.’

Stopping dead in her tracks, she tried probing into the darkness with her truncated Pixie senses. A figure detached itself from the darkness; a figure she recognised.

‘Imalwain?’

The figure froze. ‘How do you know my name?’

‘It’s me. Malina.’

The figure hissed in anger or fear. ‘Do not toy with me! Malina has been dead a year or more.’

‘Imalwain, look at me. Hear me. You know me well.’

The figure moved nearer. Its features were still in shadow, indistinct. But about the voice Malina could not be mistaken.

‘You do not resemble the Malina I knew. Nor would the Malina I once knew endure the company of such as those, yonder.’

‘My Power is gone,’ Malina said in a quiet voice. ‘I need warm clothing and hot food to last in this weather. But I am still Malina.’

The figure hesitated. ‘Are you a prisoner? Do you require our help against those-!’ the figure made a spitting sound.

Our help? What could a few Pixies do to defend themselves against Elves?

‘Imalwain, what has happened to you? You shared my home by the stream often. Is it that I’ve changed so much?’

‘How did you come to lose your power?’

Malina decided to risk the truth. ‘Prince Cir had me sent into exile, to a strange world, very different from our own. I had no power there, and I could not have survived without help. I was injured and hungry . . . without shelter. It was cold, there. I was rescued by a Man from that world who took me in. He cared for me. In time . . . in time I came to love him. When my time of exile was over, I decided to leave behind my Pixie dress, so that I could be with him-’

There were angry gasps, and the figure hissed at her. ‘Outcast!’

But another figure came forward, stepping fully out of the shadows. He was an Elf, she thought.

‘Be not too quick to judge, Imalwain,’ he said. ‘Are we not all Outcasts here?’ The man was not overly tall, although his bearing was one of strength and solidity. But he was self-possessed in a way that set him apart. Then, Malina noticed something about his general features.

He was part Pixie!

‘Allow me to make introduction,’ he said. ‘I am Elgar. Imalwain you know. As to the others,’ he inclined his head to those standing in the shadows, ‘there are a good many Pixies and Wood-Nymphs. A few Water-Sprites are here as well, seeking refuge from the winter. Now, tell me, Malina, why are you here? It is not the way of a Pixie to act as an Emissary, though even I can see that you are not what you once were.’

‘There is civil war,’ Malina replied, still afraid, but to her own surprise discovering an unexpected courage. ‘The Elves fight amongst themselves. Some are outraged at the way our folk have been murdered. Such are those whom I travel with. They protected me from Prince Cir and the King, and have at last defied their Sovereigns openly. Many Elves have died in this cause. Those with me have come to relinquish their estranged ways. They wish to return to the forest, and live as Elves used-’

Liar!’ The Pixie named Imalwain stepped from the shadows to confront Malina.

Instead of being intimidated, Malina smiled sadly. ‘I seem to recall that an old Elf named Finli rescued the two of us by hiding us in his wagon on more than one occasion, and at his own peril. Another, named Birin, who now leads us, saved your life when you were set upon by gnomes.’

Imalwain’s visage took on a look of wonder, and bitterness.

‘Birin is here?’

Noting Imalwain’s reaction, Malina pointed to the lone figure, standing at the head of the line of refugees. ‘Would you like to speak with him?’

Something in Imalwain’s visage made Malina sharpen her scrutiny of her. Imalwain had once been beautiful, and somewhat proud and vain, for a Pixie. She was none of these things now. Her attire, indeed her whole appearance, was unkempt and generally unhealthy. ‘In the way a cut flower dies, cut off at the root, and is then discarded,’ thought Malina to herself.

‘No,’ Imalwain muttered in so small and quiet a voice that the others barely heard her. Then, she transformed herself into a small winged creature as Malina used to do, and fled into the forest.

Elgar watched her go with pity. Seeing Malina’s incomprehension, he said, ‘The one named Birin has caused her much pain. She loved him. But, like most Elves, he discarded her when their relationship became . . . inconvenient.’ He said the word as though its taste was bitter in his mouth.

Imalwain? Malina had always believed that a Pixie’s heart was wild and free . . . she and her few Pixie friends had always believed this. Was it not true? Or had they only wanted to believe it to be so?

‘Besides those of Faeriekind, there are a good many here like me,’ Elgar said, changing the subject. ‘Outcasts. We protect those of Faeriekind who cannot fend for themselves. We are many, now. And we are strong. If we decide not to allow you to pass, or to suffer your presence here, your friends would do well not to try our patience.’

‘We do not desire confrontation,’ said Malina, her fear returning. Many of the shadows bore weapons, and moved with stealth and cunning as they took positions along the edge of the forest.

‘There are many women and children with us. All of those who have come are families who have sacrificed everything to leave the Elf Kingdom. If you don’t want us here, at least tell us where we can go. I must tell you that it was Birin’s intent to seek out the other Faerie folk for their protection. The Elf King is evil, and he seeks the destruction of all non-Elves, even if that means murdering his own kind if they stand in his way. Pixies, Nymphs, Sprites, Imps, and others within the Kingdom have been sent to warn their folk, and to convince them either to leave on their own, or follow where others have gone before.

‘Elgar, the Elf King and Prince Cir are doing unspeakable things! They betray and murder their own people. Pran, who is friend to the Man, Rowf, and myself, has lost a brother, and his brother’s wife and children, and his tale is but one example. Birin has come to warn any who will listen. Will you not hear him?’

Elgar snorted irritably. ‘We know that your Prince Cir is in league with Goblins.’

‘It’s worse than Goblins!’ Malina cried. ‘Much worse! The Elf Loremasters have done something monstrous.’

Elgar’s eyes widened, his expression reserved, wary. ‘Explain.’

Speaking in a low voice, Malina said, ‘Birin got in a fight with Prince Cir. He split the Prince’s face open with his sword, and Cir hardly bled at all . . . there was something strange about his blood, and it didn’t look right. This has something to do with what the Elf Loremasters have done do the Earth Mother. As well, I think that the Elves are no longer able to control their own Lore. Have you not noticed that things are changing? That there are evil things about, becoming stronger?’

Watching her intently now, Elgar said, ‘You have certain knowledge concerning this matter?’

‘No,’ she said, truthfully, ‘I know only what little I am able to overhear. But Rowf is closer to such knowledge and has told me all he knows.’

Elgar was silent for a long time. Finally, raising his eyes to where the refugees waited, he said, ‘Send the one named Birin to me. I have felt the Evil to which you refer. I would know the truth of it.’

Ralph could hardly contain his sense of relief when he saw Malina returning. He and his companions had seen that she was speaking with someone but could see only two, and hints of others in the shadows. Instead of coming directly to him, though, she came to stand before Birin.

‘Their leader is an Outcast, half-Pixie, half-Elf, who wishes to speak with you. His name is Elgar. You cannot see from here, but they are many, and I think they may be dangerous. I told him why we are here; about the King and Prince Cir, and what your Elven Loremasters have done.’

Birin raised an eyebrow. ‘Why do you think they may present any danger to us? We have a fair number of well-armed Elf soldiers here.’

‘They have soldiers too,’ Malina told him, ‘and not merely unarmed Pixies with a little mischief in their hearts!’

Malina’s vindictiveness made Birin start with anger. But before he could reply, she said, ‘Imalwain is with them. I will not readily forget your cruelty to her.’

Birin’s anger was deflected by surprise. ‘Cruelty?’

‘You hurt her deeply,’ Malina told him. ‘Like most Elves you used her to get what you wanted, then discarded her like some worthless rag.’

Underestimating the depth of Malina’s anger and the injury he had caused to Imalwain, he said, ‘I once saved her life. What more could she ask of me?’

‘You may have saved her life but only to keep your plaything undamaged,’ Malina replied with undisguised contempt. ‘She loved you and you just used her.’

Birin almost laughed. ‘Don’t be ridiculous! Pixies are incapable of-’

Malina’s naked fury stopped him. ‘Yes, Birin? Remember to whom you speak!’ When he didn’t answer she shouted, ‘Say it! Pixies are incapable of any real feeling. Isn’t that right?’

Trying to deflect her anger, he said, ‘You are much changed-’

‘Yes,’ she replied coldly, ‘I am much changed. I begin to see more clearly now. You are not so high and mighty as I once believed.’ When he didn’t reply, she turned her back on him and began heading to the rear of the line towards the wagon. Turning to Pran and Ralph, Birin found Pran staring at the ground and Ralph watching him with a mixture of anger and disappointment.

‘Malina’s love is one of the few things I’m really sure of,’ Ralph told him. ‘You can’t get something from a person that isn’t already there.’

Pran raised his eyes at this. ‘Birin, when you speak to the one named Elgar, try to remember what humility is.’ He and Ralph followed Malina, leaving Birin to stand alone.

When Ralph caught up with Malina he said nothing but walked beside her. She didn’t acknowledge him at first, but when they reached the wagon, she stopped, staring at nothing.

‘I wanted to hit him. I’ve never wanted to hurt anything before in my life.’

Ralph shrugged. ‘You were provoked. You just wanted to defend your friend, and yourself. And you did hit him. With words. You did the right thing; he’ll have to take a good look at himself now.’

Still not looking at Ralph, she said quietly, ‘So will I.’

Chapter 17

The Library of Nith

At worst, a library is nothing more

than a mausoleum for the intellect.’

Some seven days’ journey east northeast from Mirrindale lay a region of the Elven Kingdom that was greatly varied; it was rich in hardwood forests and orchards, vineyards and wide fields of berries, currents, small mixed farms, low-laying meadows and marshlands teeming with wildlife, and many lakes abundant with fish and waterfowl. In the southwest corner of this region lay Nith, fairest of all Elven cities.

The architecture therein was of a classic mode, executed overall in clean straight lines and graceful arches of surpassing perfection and beauty, and built of white stone. Her elegant streets and courtyards were flagged with coloured stone and tile mosaics, and both were lined with tall oaks, elms, maples, poplars, flowering ornamental plum, and dwarf-apple trees.

The city was surrounded by a high stone wall, but like the city’s buildings its purpose was more ornamental than practical. To say the city was otherwise poorly defended would have been an understatement. To make matters even more precarious in the general scheme of things, Prince Cir had seen fit to withdraw most of the city’s soldiers, his soldiers, on some alleged errand.

The occupants of Nith knew little about the events in Mirrindale and the West of the Elf Kingdom. The truth be known, they weren’t overly concerned about events to the South and Northeast, either. For one thing, they were of different stock, these Northern Elves, or M’or-Agi, as they referred to themselves. As far as they were concerned, their remote cousin’s troubles where the King and Prince Cir were concerned were just that- remote.

Tales of atrocity and treason, the King’s madness and the plight of their Faerie kindred (who had departed so long ago that many doubted the truth of their existence), of impending war and their own possible involvement (which to their minds was highly unlikely), meant little or nothing to the citizens of Nith. Nith was, after all, a city of scholars and artisans, of experts in the culinary crafts and connoisseurs; the Elves therein were a people of art, knowledge, culture and craft. War was not made on such people, and such people had no business meddling in politics.

In their own minds, at least, they were above such things.

At the center of the city there was a wide courtyard, and to one end of this was an odd-looking building, fronted by great marble pillars and centered by a circular rotunda; though ornate, this building otherwise resembled a small fortress. Two guards, an older officer and his younger Adjutant, stood on either side of the only entrance; a single door, the surrounding stonework of which looked as though a wide and open entrance had once graced the front of the building, and had been filled in with closely fitted and mortared stone.

An Elf man, attired as a Loremaster’s Adjunct, strode purposefully towards the Library entrance, the direction from which he had come entirely in keeping with his apparent station; behind him lay the Street of Scribes; a term in which more was implicit than met the eye. Though there were many apartments containing cells in which Novices, Adjuncts, and students were quartered, there were only a few apartments on that street in which Loremaster’s and their families actually lived; there were as many scholars, teachers, and law practitioners and their families living in these same buildings.

The true reason the Street of Scribes was so named was because of a number of shops which were at, below, and just above street level, where the tools of Scribing were manufactured, imported, exported, and sold.

Scribing, then, was for the most part a business, supplying the labour and tools of commerce. Funding for the purely academic side of the trade came entirely from the state in the form of taxes. The academic aspect of Scribing was therefore a sideline on which, except for state funding, as little time, money, and resources were expended as possible.

As the man approached within hailing distance, the Adjutant muttered quietly, so as not to be overheard, ‘That is no Adjunct! He’s too old, for one thing. And look at his bearing; the way he walks-’

‘I know him,’ the other replied. ‘He’s been vouched for.’

‘Vouched for or not, he is no Adjunct-’

‘My superior,’ the other said pointedly, ‘has said that he is to be freely admitted; that no questions are to be asked. As your superior, I am telling you to take no overt notice! Is that clear?’

Carefully hiding his anger and suspicion, the Adjutant replied, ‘Perfectly.’ But he watched as the false Adjunct ascended the stairs with the poised equilibrium of an athlete, or a very well-trained soldier, nodded curtly to his superior who opened the door for the fellow, and closed it. Both of them, he noticed unobtrusively, his superior and the Adjunct, carefully took note that none in the square marked this occurrence with the least curiosity, or more importantly, with carefully concealed intent; something, to the best of his knowledge, only well-trained soldiers did, and then only under very particular circumstances.

The young Adjutant was long in determining what he should do about his observations.

The false Adjunct was not so intent on his assignment that he had missed the young Adjutant’s attitude, and he made a mental note to have the fellow dealt with, forthwith. This meant that the fellow would be transferred, his duties increased. If he tried to pursue his scant knowledge, he would therefore be quickly caught, and just as quickly eliminated.

The matter was dealt with and resolved in his mind almost instantly; casually, as a sideline that barely impinged upon his thoughts.

His first destination was a convoluted room, central to the first floor of the building, which could be reached from several directions. It served as cloakroom, common-room, scullery, and reading room, for the Novices, Adjuncts, and students.

The false Adjunct had other concerns, however. This room possessed far more entrances and exits than all but a few would have dreamed possible. The Library of Nith, he knew, was a labyrinthine maze of secrets.

The same few who possessed such knowledge of the Library, knew that this had been part of the purpose of its “refurbishing.” Ironically, those originally responsible for the building’s present design had done so in the desire to thwart any possible intrigue from developing. Their spying, however, became a self-fulfilling prophesy: they themselves became the spies hatching the plots, scheming in secret.

This was of no concern to the false Adjunct, however. In a precise, businesslike manner, he wended his way through to an area of the least used alcoves, stepped behind a curtain, removed a key from his raiment, unlocked and opened a panel which slid effortlessly and silently aside, and to all intents and purposes, vanished from the Library proper; that is, the Library proper in terms of common knowledge.

As the false Adjunct made his way through the dimly lighted corridors, his senses were heightened by his uneasy suspicion, based upon rumour he gave some credence to, that there was not simply one set of hidden passageways, but several. This suspicion was based upon a chance observation: some years ago he had stumbled upon of one of his colleagues, who was and remained oblivious to his presence while within the hidden passageways, so intent was he on watching someone through one of the fine lattice works which served both to admit light, and to allow one within the corridors to watch doings within the building without being seen.

His intent had simply been to not interrupt his colleague at once (or worse, startle him into making some exclamation of surprise, or worse), but to wait for the fellow to finish before making his presence known.

Before he could do so, however, his colleague suddenly broke off his observation, turned fully about, withershins, so that his eyes never came across his observer’s position, produced a key from his raiment, opened a concealed panel which had hitherto been at his back, stepped through and pulled it closed once more.

Concealing his faint surprise (which even at the time struck him as superfluous as there was no one present to observe his reaction), the false Adjunct then realized that he had not been entrusted with the whole truth of the Library of Nith. To his mind this was perfectly natural, and bespoke of things hierarchical (at least, this is how he viewed the world and his place in it): his was a lesser station, therefore his superiors were possessed of greater knowledge and had greater access to the inner workings and complexities of the Library.

But questions remained: how many levels of superiors were there, and therefore, how many sets of hidden passageways? And if he was at the bottom of the hierarchy, who was at the top? Or worse, were there two or more sets of hierarchies vying with each other? Could the King, Prince Cir, and certain of the caste of Loremasters, be working independently of each other? Or did they work in concert on the surface, yet maintain separate agendas?

This train of thought kept his mind occupied until he finally reached his goal; a passageway built into the outer wall of the rotunda, with an inward-facing latticework that allowed him to see and hear the object of his mission.

He noted with relief that his stool remained where he had left it. If sitting motionless and staring and listening through the latticework for endless hours made for tired, aching muscles, having to stand was far worse. Ah, for a return to the open rigours of battle! Settling himself, he noted abstractly that the walls of the corridors were well-designed, having been built of stone, lined with wood, wall, floor, and ceiling, and overall covered with jute and horsehair-stuffed burlap which had been tacked in place. In this manner, even the worst mishap would produce minimal noise.

Sitting down upon the stool, he pressed his face to the pinhole-perforated latticework; and immediately had to stifle a sneeze; and a laugh, having heard many of the ghost-stories which circulated, especially amongst the Novices and Scribes. So many of the ghosts were said to have sneezed, that he was certain, in his own mind, of the source of these tales.

The urge to sneeze finally subdued, he pressed his cheek to the latticework once more, and peered through. His quarry, as usual, was seated at his scribing desk. He heard something, shifted his gaze, and smiled. There were two! Hopefully this would mean conversation, and for himself, a break from the usual tedium. This came as a partial relief. His masters in Valerian and Mirrindale were becoming impatient for news. He smiled at that thought. There were those who believed that serving two masters could only end in disaster.

He knew better. In days when no master could be trusted not to find his servants expendable, said servants forged multiple alliances, hinting at this arrangement to their masters in the bargain. For the servant, this had not one benefit, but several. Firstly, one gained more and better information if one’s master knew how well informed his tool, his servant, was. In a game where information was the primary weapon, one supplied the best. Yet both master and servant well knew that great care had to be taken, for the weapon of information, like a two-edged sword, cut not only both ways, but in several ways. For example, the information could be false or misleading. Or it could contain an element of truth, and be useless but leading to dangerous or ill-timed action. All of this led to a greater degree of safety for the servant, as, being a valuable commodity, his master would attempt to ferret out any threat to his tools, his servants, his eyes and ears. One did not part willingly with such a sensory organ, except as a last resort.

Just as important were the tools of deception, misinformation, concealment, appearances, disguises- the false Adjunct admonished himself for allowing his thoughts to wander, and turned his attention back to the matter at hand. Peering into the rotunda proper once more, he could see clearly, sitting next to his quarry, a young Elf, the Scribe’s son. He knew that the son’s name was Mraan, and that he was aged sixteen years. The boy waited patiently as his father, Haloch, laboured on what he undoubtedly thought of as the most important work of his life. Haloch was forging a new copy of The Book of Runes, or Öht Nürn Aldhii, as it was called in an archaic tongue known only to scholars. The old copy lay open, bulging with leaves which had been stuffed between its cracked and brittle pages.

Based on what the false Adjunct knew concerning the matter, the original Öht Nürn Aldhii had become nearly impossible to follow. Fading, difficult to read passages, references, cross-references, and later additions, were scribbled in every margin, or were written upon scraps of parchment, skin and cloth, and inserted between the pages. Much of the text in the Book’s earlier chapters was written in the various scripts of generations of past Loremasters, many being in ancient tongues and dialects now long out of use.

The result of this haphazard compilation was that generations of lore and related knowledge had been added without being properly integrated into the existing text, until recently, as none save Haloch possessed either the skill or the confidence to dare such a task.

The false Adjunct smiled to himself at this. During his younger days as an apprentice, many of his teachers had deemed Haloch to be insufferably irreverent. Yet it appeared later that this seeming irreverence served an important use; veneration of the original document had prevented generations of scholars from attempting what Haloch was able to accomplish with relative ease, without fear, awe, or doubt of his own abilities or worth to blind him to the task. To him it was, after all, nothing more than just another book of Lore. It wasn’t arrogance, cockiness, or even a misguided sense of self-confidence that caused Haloch to view such artifacts with what many misunderstood as being disdain. In truth, the real reason was so simple that it was easily overlooked.

What a complete and utter fool, the false Adjunct thought to himself. To Haloch’s limited mind, magic as text was quite harmless. True, the use of magic, especially very potent magic, could be dangerous; even perilous. But in Haloch’s mind, the old Scribe had nothing to fear. He was, in his own words and in his own mind a copyist. Nothing more. As such, the book presented him with no direct peril, as a sword presents no immediate danger to the smith who forges it. In the way of a simpleton, he had neither pretensions to, nor desire for, invoking anything. Instead, he slaved away his ascetic life at an occupation that provided a mean, almost a subsistence existence, for himself and what remained of his family.

The false Adjunct took a moment to stretch his cramping back and shoulders, before resuming. In a way, he almost envied the old Scribe his simplistic vision of himself and the world in which he lived. At least he possesses a degree of humility than do his peers, the false Adjunct thought to himself. The Scholastic community, that pack of withered, dithering dotards, had been outraged at Haloch’s perceived incursion into an area they thought rightfully, solely their own; but they remained silent about it for the most part, fearing retribution at the hands of the King. Many of them rationalized that since Haloch was only organising the text, and had no interest in putting it to use, that nothing bad could come of his scribblings. And as the young scribe set himself to the task, and as time passed, most of the dissenters gradually turned their attention to other things.

But as the years and the decades passed, many now waited impatiently for Haloch to finish the text. The irony of this, as the date of completion drew near, was the apparent lack of interest from either the King or his Loremasters. They were conspicuously absent, sequestering themselves in the King’s city of Valerian, far to the Northeast. It was as though they had withdrawn themselves to a safe distance, waiting for something to happen.

As the day of completion drew near, several of the older scholars began to grow concerned, fearing that the King meant to betray them in some manner. This fear was not unfounded, for some of them had first-hand knowledge of the King’s private obsession with eternal life: namely his own. They began to wonder and worry if the King’s absence and the Book’s completion were somehow linked . . .

Small-minded fools! They think the world revolves around themselves and their works! The false Adjunct had to suppress a tremor of anger. What the Scholastic community did not know, of course, what had been carefully kept from them from the beginning, was the fact that Haloch had been told to finish the final illustration, which was incomplete. The old Scribe was secretly (so he thought) looking forward to this final piece of work, for in his entire life, he had never been directly involved in the creative process. He saw this as a fitting way to retire, capping the completion of his life’s work. That the groundwork for the illustration was clearly laid out disturbed him not at all. When he was done, his copy would reflect the outcome of the original, had its author seen fit to complete it himself. Then, in his own mind at least, he could pack up his Scribing tools for the last time, and spend his remaining days in retirement collecting his pension.

The false Adjunct couldn’t help but feel a little pity towards the old Scribe, but it was tempered with an equal disdain. Haloch, of course, thought that his son would follow in his footsteps. Such men should not be afforded the privilege of having children, he thought to himself. [_ For one thing, Mraan is not cut from the same cloth- he has the makings of a soldier. The boy and his future are being wasted, and we have few enough with his potential _].

Haloch had, the false Adjunct knew, been married only because of Fate. That same Fate had later taken his wife, a beautiful woman less than half his age, away again. She had practically been given to him (he, then a middle-aged bachelor with no thought of ever marrying), for her own protection. Her father had thought to protect her in this way from the predacious and unwanted attentions of Prince Cir.

The false Adjunct ceased his reverie as activity caught his eye, and his attention. The boy, Mraan, handed Haloch the quill his father had planned to use next without a word, making the old Elf smile. The Master Scribe then began the work of outlining the final illustration.

The false Adjunct noticed that as Haloch studied the original, the old Scribe had to suppress a tremor of misgiving, and knew the reason for this reaction. Why this ominous portrayal had been set down at all, and why its creator had seen fit to place it last, had given many, Haloch included, cause to wonder. The basic picture was of a classic mode; sharply defined and elegant stone architecture, scantily clad people in a variety of poses depicting lofty preoccupation . . . that much was understandable. But the rest of the illustration was evil and chaos. The people depicted bore a strained aspect, as though deep in concentration despite great physical pain. Dark, ghostly, evil shadows were everywhere; despite the bright illumination of the figures depicted, the sky was incongruously troubled; a portent of a great evil. The people . . . ah, there was a riddle! They continued playing out their roles as the evil things which surrounded them gnawed at their flesh, tore down and defiled the classic beauty around them.

Is it a warning? Or is it prophecy? the false Adjunct had heard this endless debate between Scholars concerning the final illustration many times. He found that his senses were heightened. He, too, wondered what would happen when the illustration was finished. And he reflected that, besides the old Scribe and his son, there would be none closer to witness the event. He was not reassured when Haloch considered the illustration and sighed, as if to say, It is an illustration, albeit an evil one. Nothing more.

Yet the false Adjunct had to smile at what he was seeing, and shook his head. To others, the Öht Nürn Adhii was an object of such eminence, some would even say “worship,” that the mere sight of this artifact, with pages that glowed like Moonstone, with Runes like lines of eldritch fire, with illustrations that seemed alive (because they appeared as though one’s hand could pass through the very page they were set upon, into the worlds contained therein, some possessing a terrible beauty, and others seemingly too great or terrible to be borne); the mere sight of this artifact now daunted those who had forgotten its more humble origins.

As was usual for Haloch, his mind wandered to other things as he worked more or less mechanically. And as he did so, he began to talk rhetorically about what had once been a simple, gentle lore; that of tree and leaf, of wind and water, of seasons and of weather, of all Nature’s many varied faces. He said that none could speak of its origins, for they were rooted in the dim past, long before the written word.

The false Adjunct watched Mraan with empathy. The boy, as usual, became bored and distracted as his father worked. He moved silently away from the scribing desk, which was set in the rotunda at the front and center of the building, and took a long look outside. The view from the rotunda’s windows was generally toward the southeast. Three storeys below was a circular cobblestone courtyard, upon which fronted the Library and several other buildings of lesser stature. Though the false Adjunct couldn’t see through Mraan’s eyes, he imagined the usual scene playing itself out, of young children playing in the courtyard, and in the waters of a tiered fountain at its center. The fountain was surrounded by ancient elm trees, and around the bole of each tree was a stone bench; most of these would have people sitting on them. Mraan watched until he grew tired of watching, and turned his attention back to his father’s work. His father, however, had fallen silent, paused, and seemed to be deep in thought.

‘What are you thinking about father?’

‘Hm-m?’

The false adjunct felt a grudging respect for the boy. He knew that Mraan was well aware that when his father was so lost in thought, that, chances were, he was preoccupied with something important . . . which meant, therefore, that it was something his son would do well to learn. Haloch, well attuned to his only son, smiled at this, knowing his son’s mind, and that his son was beginning to know his own mind, as well as his father’s, despite his sixteen years. Most boys his age lacked both patience with and interest in things which did not concern their peers.

It’s odd, but I’ve come to be able to read these two so well; their moods, their subtleties, their body language; even their silences and lack of expression, the false Adjunct reflected as he listened to Haloch’s reply.

‘Oh, I was reflecting on a number of things, as I am wont to do when my attention should be on my work,’ Haloch said with a knowing smile. ‘Sometimes I have to wonder at the latent Power I’ve been entrusted with, Power so potent that the Book has remained unused for generations.’

‘Yes, but I thought that was supposed to change, once you’ve finished the thing,’ Mraan said.

Haloch huffed. ‘I am no Loremaster, nor am I much of a Scholar, but I do not see that re-writing and updating this work will avail those who believe that progress will be attained thereafter. But they wanted it done. The King, no less (at least from what I understand), wanted this task accomplished. And so, long have I and my family been provided for, and long have I been preoccupied with a work that I enjoy very much.’

Mraan’s scrutiny of his father narrowed at that. He found as he grew older that he was growing bold enough to challenge his father on certain topics, but never before on something family related. Fighting the uncomfortable feeling that he was crossing some sort of invisible line, he said ‘I remember how often you used to say that you used to tell mother how much you hated scribing.’

Haloch was as silent as stone for so long that Mraan felt compelled to apologize for injuring his father’s feelings. But before he could speak, Haloch said in a hollow voice, ‘That may have been true, once.’

Cursing himself for intruding on his father’s private pain, Mraan tried changing the subject.

‘What else were you reflecting upon,’ Mraan asked, his face a study in self-admonishment.

‘If you must know, I was reflecting on the origins of the Written Word, and on some of its gravest consequences,’ Haloch replied, an eager note in his voice, as though he was glad for the mental distraction.

Though his father began speaking almost too quickly, Mraan listened to him with studied patience, sensing that Haloch needed to talk, more than he needed to communicate. He was telling Mraan nothing the boy didn’t already know: it was more like a vain attempt to fend off his own personal demons.

The false Adjunct well knew that Haloch was doing his best to avoid old and bitter pain; the circumstances surrounding his wife’s death, when Mraan was still small. The boy would have been too young to remember her, but doubtless, the details were still fresh in the old Scribe’s mind.

She had been the daughter of a neighbour, a soldier. The two families had known each other for generations, had played together as children and grown up.

Haloch’s family, in his youth, had, like his neighbours, come from a long line of soldiers; his older brothers had all been in the army. And they had all died, in various hazardous campaigns, fighting Goblins. By far the youngest, Haloch was not soldierly material. He was tall, placid, given to daydreaming and wandering . . .

Haloch’s father had noticed this with resigned indifference, and lived through his older sons, until one by one, they had died.

Haloch’s father was never the same again. He began thinking and behaving irrationally, and thinking to preserve his bloodline, had the young Haloch tutored as a Scribe’s Novice. This was clearly mad, as Scribes seldom, if ever, married. The reason was financial. They couldn’t afford to. Realising this, Haloch’s father prevailed upon a friend, one of the aforementioned neighbouring families, to set up an arranged marriage for his son.

The neighbour who had made this promise was spared having to make good on it when Haloch’s parents died suddenly. Haloch had never been told of this, but his mother, thinking to preserve the honour of the family name and what remained of her husband’s dignity, poisoned both her husband and herself one day when Haloch was away.

For years, the neighbour had looked back upon his promise with mixed feelings. For one thing, Haloch would never be a man of means. As well, there were no unattached women in his family close to Haloch’s age.

Yet one day, decades later, this reneging on his promise seemed to come back to haunt him in the form of none other than Prince Cir himself, who began to take an unhealthy and unnatural interest in a girl of fourteen, one of this neighbour’s nieces.

The following year, on her fifteenth birthday, for her own protection she was hastily wed to Haloch.

The false Adjunct sighed at the memory, in spite of himself, for he had known the girl. She was beautiful, intelligent, charming . . . and looked after the middle-aged ascetic with absolute love and devotion. And Haloch, who had never known such tenderness, received her ministrations with a sort of baffled, clumsy affection; he truly loved her, though his love could almost have been considered a mixture of a husband’s love and a father’s affection.

In due time, she bore him a son. And soon after that, she was dead.

The knowledge of her death touched a rarely explored, desolate place in the heart of the false Adjunct.

It had been blamed on a local simpleton, the assistant of a travelling peddlar who from his wagon sharpened implements by means of a huge whetstone, which was turned by the simpleton; such menial tasks were all that he was equipped to perform. He had the mental capacity of a six-year-old, many said, but this was untrue. Even a child was possessed of greater and more nimble wit. As well, even the most average child was possessed of far greater intelligence.

But the simpleton was well-known to the local children, and much loved. He spent all his earnings on sweets, which he gave away to the youngest children; those too young to comprehend that he was not a normal adult in every way.

One day, the peddlar chanced to pass Haloch’s home. Haloch’s wife waved and smiled to the fellow, who sent his simpleminded assistant into the home to collect whatever it was the young woman wanted sharpened.

After several long minutes, perhaps fifteen or twenty, when his assistant didn’t reappear, the peddlar began to worry. He went to the door and knocked, but recieved no reply. Instead of entering (the thought could never have entered his head- a man of his station did not enter the home of his betters unless invited) he stopped a passing soldier on horseback, and sought his assistance in the matter.

Put-out, but aware of his policing duties to the local citizenry, the soldier dismounted with poor grace and went straightaway to the door and knocked. Recieved no reply, he shouted. Then, with a shrug, he tried the door. It was unlocked.

Inside he found the young woman, laying spread-eagled on her bed, naked, her eyes fixed on nothing. She had been raped, then tortured, impaled with a sharpened broom handle, which had been forced between her legs.

The simpleton was sitting in a chair, staring at the young woman, transfixed with uncomprehending horror. He told the soldier that he had seen men in the home, that they had taken the young woman into the room. For a long time, he said, he heard muffled sound, like someone in pain. Then, nothing but silence. He went in, he said, but the men were gone.

The soldier knew that the simpleton was telling the truth. He had witnessed the result of many barbaric atrocities over the years, and knew that more than one person was responsible for the woman’s death. As well, it was clearly beyond the simpleton to concieve either of lying, or of having sexual relations with the woman.

What followed, however, was as unspeakably ugly as the grisly manner of the young woman’s death. The local citizenry, upon hearing what had happened, began to gather. A few shocked and outraged people became a crowd. Somehow the crowd became an ugly mob, spurred on by a few people no one had ever seen before, and who disappeared after the sorry affair was over. At some point, the mob became drunk on revenge, and their rage spilled over like wine gushing forth from a shattered hogshead.

The target for this sudden outpouring of hatred was the unfortunate simpleton. He was the last person to see the young woman alive, they said. No one had seen anyone enter or leave her apartment. Nothing had been seen or heard by anyone, except the simpleton.

The soldier tried to maintain order, located one of his mates and asked for reinforcements which should have come instantly, but mysteriously never materialized, except belatedly, when it was altogether too late.

‘Knives!’ someone shouted. ‘You like to play with sharp things?’

Suddenly, somehow, the simpleton, who was being pushed about by the enraged mob, was on his knees, holding his belly. His intestines were hanging out like grey sausage. Later, the soldier, when he had time to reflect, considered that no one seemed to know who had so skilfully inflicted this wound.

The simpleton began wailing in pain and terror for the peddlar, who tried pushing through the crush of people to help, but he himself was soon being kicked, punched and beaten by the unreasoning mob.

When he finally reached the simpleton, crawling on his hands and knees, battered and bloody, he stared in disbelief at what the mob had done. And for a long time, he had wept. They had cut off the simpleton’s genitalia and member, and stuffed them down his throat, choking him to death.

The false Adjunct remembered all of this in minute detail, for the passing soldier, then a young man, had been himself.

He was suddenly angry with himself; even now, after so many years, that these mental images still held great power over him.

After all, had they not shaped his life? made him what he was today? In his search for justice, and for the truth of the circumstances surrounding the matter, he had been ensnared.

It began with the realization that the woman had been alone when by all accounts her young son should have been at home. It turned out that a neighbour, the wife of a soldier, had without anyone’s knowledge taken the woman’s young son home to visit with her own children. The neighbour had acted strangely when he had questioned her. There was no mistaking the fear in her eyes, fear that encompassed more than what had happened. Often, during his questioning, her eyes would stray to her own children as she thoughtfully considered her answers.

And her answers! They were too pat. It was as though they had been carefully scripted and rehearsed.

Over time, through the asking of discreet and probing questions, he discovered that Prince Cir had once been very much interested in the murdered woman. When that piece of the puzzle fell into place, it made many other things crystal clear; no one had any illusions about the Prince, or that he would not scruple to revenge himself in such a manner.

But the Prince! In his youthful naïveté, he assumed that, while it was beyond his means to bring the Prince to justice, still he could go after those who had done his work for him! He began looking for those soldiers who hadn’t answered to his summons that day, and to his consternation discovered not only that all of them were absent, but that they had been tranferred to the far corners of the Elf Kingdom.

It was in trying to find out who had issued orders for their transfer that he was caught.

To his great fortune (or misfortune, depending on which way you examined the matter), the officer who questioned him let slip that he knew, or thought he knew, for whom he worked in this matter and why. This misapprehension both saved and damned him where bringing the Prince to justice was concerned. Quick thinking on his feet and careful answers at that time may have saved his life, but it meant that he was now working for the superiors of this same officer, over a decade later, and they watched his every move. He’d had no time since to pursue the matter.

He was grateful when the old scribe began speaking to his son once more.

‘As I have often told you,’ Haloch said, ‘our Lore began a long time before the creation of the Written Word. Before Knowledge. It began in the days of Memory and the Rhyming Lists.

‘This early lore was a living thing, as inseparable from us as the air we breath, and adapted and changed as did all other living things; it was known to all, and was more a thing of instinct than of “knowing.”

‘Of all creatures in the known world, we Elves were the most adaptable. The most complex. As a consequence, we became more analytical of our own talents, at first merely out of curiosity; then because a new desire grew upon our ancestors as they realised it was possible to improve upon their lot in life, something that had never occurred to anyone before. Out of this desire came Knowledge, and the realization that Knowledge itself was a fragile thing; a lifetime of reflection and thought was lost whenever the wisest and oldest inevitably died. As well, they discovered that although Knowledge had a way of accumulating, no one individual could retain it all.

‘At a later point, though still in the remote past, we Elves began using simple runes carved in wood and stone to mark boundaries and distances, to point out locations and count livestock, to keep track of trade, and to mark the seasons for planting and harvest.

‘One tribe of Elves became more numerous and powerful than its neighbours. Its chief Elder, growing annoyed by constant bickering over ownership of stray herd animals and disputes over property lines, ordered a census taken of all the runes used in ownership and demarcation. As a result, the first scrolls were created. But there remained a problem; describing what the various runes meant, so that all could understand them.

‘The first solution was to create a table of characters which represented specific meanings, values and attributes. Not only were many characters used freely, with no specific meaning, but a practice existed at that time, whereby the meaning of runes was changeable and secret, as they were used to conceal information. (That practice continues to this very day, but not as a mean-spirited, petty game amongst dishonest, semi-literate land-owners and people of business; our legal profession was among the first of the professions to be reformed).

‘The tabling system worked, but it was extremely tedious and complex; few were able to master it with confidence. Worse yet, many mistrusted what they weren’t able to understand for themselves, suspecting that these early Scribes meant to dupe them. In fact,’ he added with an ambiguous smile, ‘some did misuse their knowledge to that end.

‘One day, a Scribe named Noelon di Foerssen announced that he had made an ingenious discovery. By taking the simplest of characters, and assigning to them all of the specific oral sounds used in speech, he found that less than fifty of these were needed, compared to the two-hundred-fifty-thousand-some-odd characters then in use. The implications, of course, were seen right away. What began as a method to record commerce, became the means to record our oral traditions.

‘Thus began the Written Word, which changed everything, including ourselves, absolutely and forever.’

Haloch paused from his work to change nibs on his stylus, and to gather his thoughts. The false Adjunct used this opportunity to flex his cramped muscles as he waited for the old Scribe to speak once more.

Finally continuing, Haloch said, ‘The early Scribes thus began writing everything down to better preserve their records and their knowledge. But this simple act altered everything in two ways. Once the Lore became Written Knowledge, it ceased to change, and took on a character that was completely different from that of our lesser Faerie kindred. It was no longer purely a thing of Nature. Rather, it became a thing of Power and of Control, becoming rigid and inflexible. ‘Undeterred, generations of scholars began adding their own knowledge and experience to the Elven Lore, and it grew until it seemed to possess a life all its own. Indeed, the knowledge contained therein soon passed beyond the scope or ken of any one individual, being far too potent for any being, mortal or otherwise, to wield without grave risk.

‘At this time, there came Men from beyond the Western sea. They had made a great journey, sailing in tall ships, the like of which we had never seen.’

Haloch had Mraan’s undivided attention now, if not that of the false Adjunct. Both had heard mention of these travellers from the past so seldom that they had assumed that Haloch’s knowledge of them was confined to folklore and hearsay, and they listened with growing wonder.

‘These men were explorers, and didn’t stay long amongst our people. Their curiosity was, for the better part, consumed by the strange stars they saw in our heavens, the geography of our lands, the creatures that lived in them, and such; their interest in us was largely short-lived.

‘The truth be known (you will read this is none of the surviving records, but only a fool could fail to see the truth of it once he has read them through), these Men looked down upon us, and what they saw in us was cause for argument and discord amongst them-’

‘Why?’ Mraan inturrupted, partly curious, partly incensed. The false Adjunct found himself wishing that he, too, could ask questions, instead of merely listening.

‘In some ways, our Faerie kindred have always asked that same question of us,’ his father replied, cryptically. ‘Answer that question, and you will have your answer.

‘Regardless, some of their number remained; why, I do not know. Old tales tell that there were five who did so, but that is untrue. When I was young, about your age, and newly prenticed, it was my job to copy old scrolls that were falling into dust.’

He sighed. ‘It was tedious work, translating tongues of which no one knew the meaning. So long was I assigned to the task that, first the various languages became familiar to my eyes, and then by coming across the same or similar accounts in tongues I knew, the meaning of these languages became known to me.

‘Had the Loremasters I worked under known that I, a mere Scribe, could read knowledge they thought secret, I doubt very much that I would have been allowed to continue. But curiosity encouraged my silence, if not my diligence, and I managed to learn much that they knew.

‘I learned that there was not one group of explorers, buy many, over many years, and that these were the last of a long series.

‘There was bitter disagreement amongst these particular explorers about whether or not to continue. They had been travelling long; some said they missed their wives and families; others argued that conditions where they lived were not worth returning to. In the end, a group of them rebelled; from the accounts I have read, I would estimate that they numbered in the hundreds. They departed for what is now the Kingdom of Brand, to the south, where the sons of their kindred dwelt, though according to their own tales, some fifteen or twenty decided to remain here, in Nith.

‘I must tell you that what I am about to tell you is a myth of Men, one that they jealously and unreasonably hold to, despite the truth. The myth goes like this:

‘One of these Men who allegedly remained, a Loremaster (a silly notion in and of itself, because Men have no magical Lore as we do), began to study the Book of Runes (As you well know, no Man has ever laid eyes on this document). This man (according to the tale) proved to be uncannily adept at grasping the Lore, and he soon discovered a way to circumvent the power inherent in the Lore itself. He accomplished this seemingly impossible task by creating a means of articulation through which great power could be channelled without harming the user. This method of articulation bore the form and appearance of an opaque white stone, which he overlaid with silver, in the shape of a serpent’s head, so that the stone showed only through its “eyes.” This device he called the Vhurd-Aq.

‘He then created a receptacle for the Power itself; a tall staff carved with Runes of Power. To complete this task, he then mounted the stone atop the staff, and took upon himself the title of Wizard.

‘Such might had never before been witnessed by Elves, Dwarves, or Men (a ridiculous claim! In the tale, he practically ruled the Three Peoples as a King. In the tale, the Three Peoples are united, something that has never happened, and will probably never be done. There is not, and has never been, a Three Peoples). The seasons were stopped in their course! (That this had been accomplished by our own Elven Loremasters, without the help or intervention of Men, is beside the point of the tale). The cold, hungry months were gone, seemingly forever. Famine and drought were banished. No tree or leaf was tainted by blight. No one suffered from ill-health. No children were born lame or deformed.

‘This Wizard, Bellandor by name, was much revered in his time. And much loved, for he was kindly by nature. Yet his kind nature proved unfortunate, in a way, rendering him blind him to the evil in the world.

‘Fell creatures began to prowl our northern borders; Goblins who hated the light of day, who hated all living things that walked free upon the Earth, and who hated Elves most of all.

‘In the beginning they presented more of a dangerous nuisance than a real threat, being few and disorganized, and lacking any apparent leadership.

‘Then, one day, utterly without warning or provocation, they swept down from the North, wielding an evil Lore which was easily a match for Bellandor and his Elven Loremasters.

‘To the dismay of all, our people were driven before them like chaff before a storm. When news of this reached Bellandor’s ears, he summoned the First Council, instructed and organised the Elves, and with an army, went to meet this threat.

‘War ensued; the first our people had ever experienced. Were it not for the leadership of Bellandor, we might soon have been utterly overwhelmed,’ Haloch said this with such a comically pedantic flair that Mraan had to laugh, ‘for such barbarity was not in our nature. The other Faerie folk fled in terror, appalled by the unspeakable violence which desecrated the innocence of the peaceful countryside.

‘Badly overmatched, Bellandor was forced to retreat, until he was utterly driven from the Northern Provinces, or the Orna I Morag, as they were called in those days. (That is about the only part of the tale that is true, that we Elves were driven from the Northern Provinces).

‘When it appeared that the Elves might fall, however, aid came in the form of Men and Dwarves from the South and South-East, though what part they supposedly played is unclear. I think the tellers of these old myths were careful to skirt such specifics so that they could avoid answering embarrassing questions. It seemed to have made for a more credulous audience by placing the tale in a far-off corner of the world, of which they knew little. As well, it made their tales seem more glamorous to their Human listeners, I think.

‘Regardless, to return to the story; the battles fought were so horrific, the losses so great, that few survived to tell the tale, often returning to their homelands in obscurity because the world had changed in their absence (a common theme in the past, whereby the bards of Men of old would gain credulity- though actually nothing more than travelling vagrants, they would claim to have just returned from some far-off place. Their stock-in-trade seems to have been self-pity mixed with such tall tales- I mean, storytelling!).

‘Bellandor, meanwhile, had a brother (pay close attention, now! Their relationship is central to the “meaning” of the tale) who had accompanied him on their people’s journey. Although the brother had little or no interest in Bellandor’s doings at first, he had grown jealous of Bellandor’s fame and became covetous of his power, and his influence with we Elves. He decided to become greater in Lore than his brother, and so began to study the Lore with manic diligence.

‘The brother soon realised that mastering the Elves’ Lore was not enough. He would only be equal to his brother once this was accomplished. He began searching out other Lore in secret. His search took him at last to the Elid-hranin, a tribe of Elves in the mountains of the far North who had become estranged from us, due to unhappy chance. Where they lived, even the Dwarves feared to go, though they could not put a name to what it was they feared.

‘The Elid-hranin were loathe to share their knowledge, so he made with them a pact. They would share their knowledge only if he did the same.

‘His study of their Lore proved a bitter disappointment at first; though subtly different, its efficacy was no greater than our own; that which was present in their Lore when theirs and ours were well nigh one and the same had remained extant in almost every way.

‘But then, he conceived of, and did, an incredibly evil thing, practising on the Elid-hranin what he had learned from his brother; as when Bellandor had created a Wizard’s Staff, he attempted to use the Elid-hranin themselves as the means to articulate his Power, at the same time creating a receptacle of such might as was clearly insane to do-’

‘But it is well known,’ Mraan protested, interrupting, ‘that there was no corruption of the Elid-hranin; that they were and always have been Dark Elves-’

‘There is no need to remind me of this!’ his father replied patiently. ‘As I said at the beginning, this is a fiction of Men, who seem to love perpetuating such myths. Regardless; according to the tale, his brother proceeded with a reckless abandon that, in the end, thwarted his mad ambitions, for he too was as blind in his way as the kindly Bellandor; his attempt failed, the Elid-hranin were changed, horribly, becoming the warped, gangrel creatures they are today; yet he succeeded to the extent that they had no choice but to answer to his will.’ Mraan rolled his eyes at this.

‘Bellandor, meanwhile, was greatly disturbed by the Power he could feel behind the Goblins’ very essence, so similar was it to the Lore he knew so well. “How can this be?” he wondered. A cold dread made him confront his brother, who was often seen entering and leaving the Library, in secret, or so he thought. But suspicion and fear had sharpened the Elves’ eyes, so that his comings and goings no longer went unnoticed. They then told Bellandor what he dreaded most to hear; that his brother was often seen sneaking about in secret. He would disappear for months at a time, travelling Northeast into the Forbidden Mountains, where only Trolls and the self-exiled Elid-hranin lived.

‘The next time the brother thought to enter the Library upon his return, he found his way barred by Bellandor.

‘“Hail, Bellandor,” he had said, unable to conceal either his suspicion or his fear of being caught, “What business brings you hither?”

‘“The Elves have told me that you have been seen making your way north and east into the mountains, unaccompanied,” Bellandor replied.

His brother shrugged. “What of it? Am I not free to come and go as I please?”

‘“I wish you would tell me,” said Bellandor, “what the object of your curiosity is, that takes you alone and in secret to such an evil place.”

‘“The object?’ replied his brother, trying to conceal his surprise. ‘How do you know that it isn’t simple curiosity which takes me there?”

‘“I said nothing of an object,” replied Bellandor.

‘His brother’s eyes widened as he realised his mistake. And for a moment, he considered telling Bellandor all, as there had once been a bond of love between them. But the moment was lost, for Bellandor’s greater wit, once a matter of respect for his younger brother, was now taken as a challenge; a threat.

‘Mistakenly thinking that he had been found out, he then made his final mistake. Thinking to win Bellandor over, he said, “Brother, I have learned a thing, a way to increase our Power immeasurably, by working it through others, though I have not yet been entirely successful.”

‘“Through others?” Bellandor replied faintly in dismay.

‘“Yes,” his brother replied, mistaking Bellandor’s reaction for interest, “in the same way that you use Staff and Stone; and therein lies their limitation. They cannot think for themselves.”

‘Bellandor was appalled, trying to fathom the enormity of what his misguided sibling had done. “Such a Power . . .”

‘“Is Ours alone, and not the impotent toy these weak-minded fools have fashioned.”

‘Bellandor was crushed by this revelation, as he had only himself to blame for ignoring the inevitable and overwhelming consequences such awful Power would inflict, turning the temptations of power into an irremediable addiction for which there was no cure. This addiction had led to his brother’s fall, and the subsequent perversion of the unlucky Elid-hranin. He realized, too, for the first time, that the Goblins and the Elid-hranin were one and the same.

‘And now, he would have to stop him.

‘“Morlock, my brother . . . where is this evil thing you’ve fashioned?”

Evil? Morlock pondered, looking puzzled. Evil?

‘Bellandor simply nodded, watching his brother carefully.

‘Even then, Morlock could have turned away from his ill-chosen path. But he chose, rather, to turn his back on reason instead, and feigning affronted pride, said, “What you call evil, I choose to call control.”

‘“Ah. And who is to wield this control?” Bellandor asked him.

‘“I had thought to share this control with you,” hissed Morlock in a low voice. In this he spoke the truth, though they both knew how long such a sharing of Power would last.

‘“I do not want that sort of Power, as you should well know,” said Bellandor, “for there is naught in it but harm.”

‘More than any other words spoken, those went most to Morlock’s heart, for he had seen his works and his scheming as both mighty and complex. At that moment, he loosed his hold of all reason, and turned instead to all that he deemed that was left to him.

‘Power, for its own sake.

‘“Are you going to kill me, brother?” he asked Bellandor, watching him askance.

‘Bellandor closed his eyes to the sight of his mad brother as though in pain. And though he knew it to be a grave mistake, slowly shook his head.

‘Morlock then gave Bellandor a brief look that chilled him to the marrow; then he turned and left, never to return.

‘Shaken, Bellandor leaned against one of the many pillars that supported the beautiful, airy, open Library of Nith, for so this place used to look. The older structure is still there to see, if one looks carefully. Looking up mournfully at this great, graceful and wonderfully ornamented building, Bellandor had said with a sigh, “Alas, that you must become like my brother’s mind, fortified, forever closed and dark inside, accessible only at need when the world outside impinges. Ah, Ignorance! Ignorance!” He shook his fist at the heavens as though they had betrayed him. And then, realising the import of the direction of his blame, he knelt to the ground and wept.’

Mraan frowned. ‘There are some elements of truth in the tale. The Library was fortified, but for reasons other than those given in the story. The Elid-hranin are evil, but they have always been so.’

Haloch nodded as he reached for a tray holding dozens of crude glass pots, each containing various amounts of the coloured substances used to “paint” illustrations. It was an odd characteristic of these substances that their power was latent until the illustration began taking shape.

Finding the colour he desired, Haloch said, ‘I was quoting from manuscripts so old and forgotten that I doubt if any but a few of our Loremasters know of their existence. I do not know that Men still tell this tale themselves, but elements of it remain in their culture.

‘You have no doubt heard talk about the sort of Good and the Evil that Men believe in, that they speak of the great Power of Lore, and the sense of utter helplessness and frustration which accompanies it. In the tale, Bellandor himself agonized over the fact that no amount of Power could simply turn the world into a better place . . . that Power has a way of luring even the kindest and the wisest down roads where vision and judgement are of little use . . . roads that carry the traveller always to ever changing kinds of belief and thinking and seeing and feeling, that such a traveller is forever in danger of becoming lost to himself.

‘Such was Morlock’s fate. In his way, Bellandor fared little better, as doubt, guilt, and fear for the future were his only constant companions. But where Morlock was blinded by intentions which were wholly selfish, Bellandor began with a good heart, and so luck or fate was more in his favour than his brother’s.’

‘I have heard other tales based upon similar themes,’ Mraan said. ‘But the so-called hero always perishes in the end, and it is said that something of Evil still dwells in the north, and always will.’

Haloch paused from his work only briefly, but such an occurrence was so rare that his son listened all the more carefully to his words.

‘In this tale, that is true as well, that Bellandor perished, even as he threw down his brother and all his works. But the point to this tale, as least for Men, is that they truly believe that at the last, Bellandor’s simple act of bravery and sacrifice, without hope or vision to guide him . . . without the grace of a single companion at the end to comfort him . . . saved us all, from Evil and from ourselves, whether we know it or not-’

‘Of all the arrogant presumption!’ Mraan blurted.

‘Of course,’ the old Scribe said mildly. ‘This has always been one of the greatest problems with Man and his beliefs; that he feels he has the right to hold the rest of the world hostage to ideas that are at best alien to the rest of us.

‘Yet I find that there is value in such stories, of a sort. You must admit, they do have a way of telling us something about the teller-’

‘And about the listeners!’ Mraan said, distastefully.

‘Yes, well,’ the old Scribe said, with slow relish, a smile creasing his ascetic features, ‘Do you know what the more modern caste of Men call such tales?’

Mraan, who of course did not know, had no choice but to wait for his father to answer his own question.

‘They call them Faerie Tales.’

Their sudden burst of laughter was cut short by a sound that caused them to look around, nervously.

Frowning, hastily resuming work on the final illustration, Haloch muttered, ‘Nor do I believe in stories about ghosts!’

Chapter 18

Under Siege (Pt. One)

Whoever said “There are no atheists in foxholes”

never had any direct experience with war himself.

War has ever been the greatest cause of spiritual

decline, whilst Peace and Prosperity have ever

been the stuff delusion is made from.’

Monsignor Adrian Blackpool, DD, MD (1884-1949)

News of the fighting was sporadic, as traffic on the roads had ceased abruptly with the onset of war. The few riders that did approach the city gate were grim-faced, silent messengers that were hastily admitted, brought directly to the Thane without delay, then dispatched immediately thereafter. Though plied with inquiries, these soldiers would answer no questions, and ignored all attempts to make conversation, much to the disappointment and consternation of Mirrindale’s citizens, especially the Merchants, who seemed not to comprehend that their great wealth was of utterly no consequence in the matter.

One figure, a tall, middle-aged, greying man, cloaked and hooded, who was often among the number that lurked in dark anterooms and corridors, trying to elicit information from these messengers, and who had so far looked in vain for a familiar face with whom he could deal, who had exhausted virtually all avenues to obtain or send correspondence, said to the one person whom he could trust openly, namely himself, ‘I do not trust a man who can’t be bought! This Thane has locked the city tighter that any belt of chastity! He has used no lock at all, but has rather sealed the virgin in a seamless vault.’ This analogy worried him, for he was not sure, as yet, whether the Thane was acting out of desperation, or whether he was far more resourceful than anticipated. If the former were true, he mused, the thing he sought to protect would suffocate and die.

But if the latter were the case . . .

He was a patient man, not prone to worry. But he recognised the worm of doubt for what it was. His concern, at least for the moment, was whether it lay there by chance, or whether its presence had some hidden cause or design.

If that were true . . . ah, if that were true! The danger of such a prospect caused him to nod inwardly, respectfully. If that were true, then he would be pressured towards acting, to tipping his hand.

He sighed. If only Mirrindale knew what it was up against! Or, he mused, perhaps it did. Perhaps the Thane and his confidants knew only too well, and had sealed in the citizens of the fortress city, allowing none to leave, with the certain knowledge that those spies in their midst would not only share equally in their fate, but be rendered useless in the bargain.

This realization, he realized, was a fatal one, for it would leave him but one alternative: to seek a means to get close enough to the Thane to kill him, an act tantamount to suicide. It crossed his mind that perhaps this was the very thing one or more of his masters intended. Assassins, he knew, were always eliminated, despite the mystique to the contrary. ‘Isn’t it strange,’ he mused, ‘how the truth of a thing is often portrayed and glamourized for what it is not, and in the same breath, how odd it is that people will attempt to hang on to such illusions like grim death, all the while emphatically asserting that their illusions are the truth. And is it not to be wondered at that the greatest preponderance of such illusions surround death itself?’

‘Well, my Thane,’ he mused, ‘I have no such illusions. Nor, I think, do you.’

Goaded by a growing sense of isolation, many of Mirrindale’s inhabitants began keeping vigil, watching the approach to the city from atop the wall, hoping to see lines of refugees arriving from the surrounding countryside. There was no one living within the city who did not have family or friends on the outside. Oddly, these people stood not all together, but rather individually, or in small knots; a group of teenaged girls here, a mother with a babe in arms there, a pair of loudly-conversing Merchants in bright and expensive garb with their backs to the direction everyone else’s eyes were fixed, a never-ending stream of petulant criticism issuing from their mouths, their body-language eloquently expressing an irrational attempt to dismiss out-of-hand the events the citizen’s of Mirrindale were all equally embroiled in . . .

The Thane thought to curb this practice, as it interfered somewhat with the duties of those soldiers who patrolled the walls. Instead, he compromised by cutting the number of civilians to a few at a time, to avert the complaining and suspicion that would inevitably follow.

During this time of interminable anticipation, a cold weight of dread began eroding the confidence of those who waited in vain for news. This feeling soon permeated the fortress-city, seeping unabated through its walls as though the fortified stonework itself had become suspect. Dread for the outcome of the fighting. Dread for the safety of loved-ones, including the soldiers that were fighting to protect their homes and families. And dread for those that lived in the unprotected territories that had never known warfare or violence. Dread now stalked the streets at night, laying in wait in dark corners; its pall seemed to lay thick about them, even to hang in the sky above like a bad dream.

This angst served to create an unexpected sort of conflict: the poorer citizens naturally became drawn together, but seeing this caused the Merchants to interfere in any way possible, even to the point of hiring people to illegally police the city’s populace, breaking up gatherings, pressing people into service, and eventually contesting the Thane’s rule directly.

Doc was present in the Hall of the Thane, when the largest faction of the Merchants demanded a meeting to decide Mirrindale’s fate. Their spokesman, a fat, grotesquely painted, perfumed, excessively overdressed fellow named Crasp, addressed the Thane from the gallery, which was full to overflowing. Doc sat with a new acquaintance, a merchant named Finli, and a small group of quieter, conservative types, who watched the proceedings with stoic and silent reserve. None of this group was dressed in the gaudy finery of his peers, and none were as grossly obese as Crasp and his followers.

‘My Thane,’ Crasp said, getting to his feet-

‘I do not recall giving anyone leave to speak,’ the Thane said quietly, reading some paperwork, the Merchant’s petition, in fact, taking his time. ‘Or to stand, for that matter.’

‘My Thane,’ the Merchant persisted, his face growing red.

‘Your next unauthorized utterance will lead to your immediate expulsion from this chamber,’ the Thane said, gesturing to a pair of guards who began moving in Crasp’s direction.

Muttering loudly, his language fowl, Crasp reseated himself and began holding a conference with those sitting near to him.

With a smile, Doc turned to Finli, and was about to say something when he noticed the old Merchant’s expression.

Not taking his eyes off Crasp for a moment, Finli said, for the benefit of Doc and those sitting near to them, ‘My friends, would you do me the courtesy of looking about the hall, with an eye to the possible presence of the fellow who attempted to have Malina sign the false document she was presented with?’ Finli’s face was expressionless, but every line of his body seemed poised.

Doc took a good look around, but saw no sign of any tall, middle-aged man in robes. There was only the gallery with its tiers of seats, filled for the most part with Merchants, the Thane at his table at floor level, with his aides seated to either side, a group of young boys, pages, who stood behind them, the podium which stood empty, and the guards standing before the front and back entrances to the Hall.

‘We see nothing out of the ordinary,’ one of Finli’s contemporaries said quietly, voicing Doc’s observation. ‘Why do you ask?’

‘Because something is wrong,’ Finli replied, firmly. ‘I can sense it. Something is going to happen.’

‘Why do you say that?’ Doc asked him.

A friend of Finli, one sitting on the other side of the big Merchant, a small, thin, wise-looking man, leaned over and said to Doc, ‘You may not know this of one-time captain Finli, but you are asking a soldier whether or not he can smell an ambush.’

The Elf Merchant’s words struck Doc like ice-water. There was going to be violence! It was going to come suddenly, from some unexpected direction, and it was going to be directed at the Thane.

But in what form? Doc took another look around, heart pounding, his senses heightened by the anticipation of murder. The soldiers, perhaps? Had they been bought off? There were four of them at each entrance, standing at attention. None so much as ventured a glance in the direction of the gallery. Doc made a mental note to see if any of their number looked to the Merchants for some sort of cue. The Merchants themselves? Doc huffed, looking them over. Worst thing any of them could so would be to fall on someone.

His observances were interrupted when the Thane set down the petition he had been reading, turned his gaze to Crasp, and said, ‘There is a matter you wish to discuss with me?’

Crasp got to his feet as though he garnered the support of all in the Hall by doing so, and as though admonishing some upstart, said, ‘My Thane, this current state of affairs cannot continue. Mirrindale, the town of Narvi, and the surrounding area, exist by conducting commerce with the outside world. Without trade, this city-state and its surrounding areas will collapse into a state of chaos, lawlessness, and impoverishment.

‘We are cut off from the North, from Nith and Valerian, so you say. Fine! So be it! Even without those lucrative markets, there are always the Kingdoms of Men and Dwarves, and at need, there are far-off Kingdoms of Elves, and other markets as yet unexplored.

‘But this matter of sealing us all in Mirrindale, of denuding the surrounding lands of people and resources, of abandoning Narvi, and to commit the army to some fool’s errand when they should more properly be engaged in protecting our trade routes-

‘My Thane, this is madness! And it cannot be allowed to continue.

‘In the absence of responsible government, we Merchants have formed a Council, of which I am the elected representative.

‘In a word, my Thane, I am now the duly elected Governor of Mirrindale.’

The Thane’s only reaction was to lift an eyebrow in mild irritation.

‘I see. And how do you propose to enact this treason?’

‘My support is all but unanimous,’ Crasp said in such a way that it was obvious, at least in his own mind, that this were indeed true. ‘I have the support of the army, and, believe it or not, of the lesser citizenry. If you do not believe me, then I will summon representatives of both, and continue summoning them until you are satisfied in your mind that I am telling the truth.’

Some movement caught Doc’s eye. He touched Finli lightly on the arm to get his attention, and pointed to a small group of Merchants sitting in the lowest tier of the gallery, directly behind the Thane. Unlike the others, they were lean, hardened-looking, and something in their bearing was utterly unlike that of their fellows.

‘Well done, James!’ Finli said under his breath. Leaning over, he said something to one of the younger Merchants, who immediately got to his feet.

‘May I ask permission to speak?’

Crasp was about to respond, but the Thane cut him off.

‘Of course, master Valen. I would hear from every faction, even the smallest.’

Valen bowed, and said, ‘May we approach? We, too, would like to present a petition, of sorts.’

The Thane looked at him, sharply. Crasp watched this exchange, his features filled with gloating anticipation. As the Merchants with whom Doc was sitting got to their feet, Finli whispered, not looking at him, ‘If you value your personal safety, I suggest that you do not move from this spot.’ As a body, the twelve of them crossed the floor, coming at last to stand before the Thane’s desk.

Looking as though he expected some further betrayal, the Thane said, ‘Well, Valen? Why have you crossed the floor? I cannot believe that you would add your voice to that of Crasp.’

Valen, however, turned to face Crasp where he sat in the gallery and smiled.

Leaning over the table, and speaking very quietly, he said, ‘You miscomprehend us, my Thane. We have come to stand beside you, come what may. Or to fall,’ he said pointedly, ‘should the guards not respond with their accustomed alacrity. Armed or not, I suggest that you set your dignity aside for the moment, and cross the table to safety-’

A page, a boy of perhaps twelve or thirteen years, having overheard this exchange, drew a long dagger from his raiment and lunged at the Thane. He was quickly disarmed, but the Thane received a deep gash over his right shoulder-blade.

At once, the group of Merchants sitting behind the Thane sprang into action, drawing swords and casting their robes aside. The Thane took Valen’s advice, throwing himself over the table, leaving a wide smear of blood, landing amidst his supporters, some of whom began calling for the guards.

To no one’s surprise, the guards remained at their posts.

The thin, small elderly Merchant stayed well out of the ensuing fight, but not before handing the Thane a large broadsword, which he had somehow contrived to keep hidden.

Doc had never seen a real-life swordfight before, and it was utterly unlike anything he could have imagined. Looking back on it later, the closest he could come to describing it was that it reminded him of a bullfight he had seen as a child. At the last the bull was exhausted and bleeding, trying vainly to gore its pitiless tormenter, while the strutting butcher of a matador stood in a stylized pose, arm upraised with the point of the sword downwards, to deliver the final killing blow. The thin sliver of blade descended, passing effortlessly into the bull’s bulk in a way what seemed almost innocuous, except for the fact that the bull was now moaning in agony, coughing up blood, whirling about vainly in an attempt to dislodge the pin that skewered its vitals. Its death came as slow agony, while the crowd got to its feet, cheering wildly for the strutting little monster who had so cleverly murdered a dumb brute that knew nothing of the twisted, inbred “reasoning” of Man.

Until he had seen a real bullfight, all he had to go on was cartoons and stylized representation. This was just as true where sword-play was concerned. The difference was like comparing the watching of an old pirate movie to the realities of war.

In a word, there was no comparison.

There were no stylized poses, there was little finesse, and no witty réparté. Instead, there was crude, brutal opportunism, brute force, grim, businesslike determination, desperate evasion, hysterical screams of fear and agony, and when it was over, the floor in front of the Thane’s table was a pool of congealing blood, in which lay two of Finli’s companions, and all sixteen of the would-be murderers.

But it wasn’t over yet. To Doc’s horror, the Thane sent for a number of soldiers, thirty-six in all, who disarmed those who had been guarding the doors, led them to the centre of the floor, and beheaded them on the spot. Crasp was then seized and dragged unceremoniously to the centre of the floor, where he suffered the same fate.

For a time, Doc felt light-headed, and for the first time in many years had to resist the urge to heave the contents of his stomach. Then, past the point where anything could surprise him further, the Thane calmly resumed his chair and spoke.

‘This could have been avoided,’ he said, quietly. ‘There was no reason for it. You would not hear reason before, but you will return to your seats and do so now.’ He waited for the commotion to die down.

‘Firstly,’ he said, ‘I did not expend soldiers to protect our trade routes because the moment civil war began, hostiles began roaming the countryside at will. In a word, there simply are no trade routes to defend. They no longer exist. We are cut off, and we do not possess the means to make the current state of affairs other than it is.

‘Secondly, as a body, you, the Merchants of Mirrindale, have no political nor legal authority whatsoever. Yet you have taken it upon yourselves to attempt a coup, and for some time now have contrived to undermine my authority where the military is concerned, as has been demonstrated today, in the starkest terms. As well, you have been bullying the more impoverished citizenry of this city, who are protected equally under the Law.

‘Well, now, what am I to do with you? Put the lot of you to the sword? How can I make you understand that your scheming undermines the safety of all concerned, that Mirrindale does not exist solely for your use and benefit, that what you are is a threat to our future, and our future well-being? How can I make you see that the day of the Merchant class is ended? That you have brought this day upon yourselves? That you are, this day, what in truth you have always been; nothing more or less than very average citizens of Elvenkind?’

As the Thane said these words, Doc took a good look at the faces of the seated Merchants, and was baffled by the petulant obstinance that seemed so pervasive. After several moments of this, he found himself badly wanting to leave this place, these people, their inbred bigotry and arrogance and stupidity. Instead, he was soon called upon to tend to the wounded. In a strange way he found solace in the infirmary, a place, almost a world in itself, where people and their conduct made sense.

In the following weeks, only a handful of refugees arrived at the gate. They did not seem reassured by Mirrindale’s solidity, but rather gazed suspiciously at the city’s fortifications, as though finding them untrustworthy. To make matters worse, small groups of mounted soldiers began to return, moving down the road at a slow walk, seemingly reluctant to enter the city. Though pressed for news, they said little, and kept to themselves.

Doc was told to expect wagons bearing wounded sometime soon. The young Elf soldier who told him this, said it in such a way as touched a deep sense of foreboding in the old man, and groaning inwardly, he thought, Why do I know this is going to be bad?

Vries, who was standing nearby, caught his look, and Doc saw unmistakeably in his eyes that the elderly Elven Healer was thinking much the same thing. He seemed, too, to be looking to Doc for some kind of reassurance. Doc well knew that Vries felt himself inadequate to the task ahead, but Doc worried that the task might very well be of a sort that no mortal human being was able to deal with, that Vries and those like him, who knew what was going on and was going to happen, were desperate for the unattainable.

Something of this line of thought twigged a memory, of something Malina had once said, back in his own world, when she had told Deborah, Doc and Ralph, as they sat down to supper one day, about the King and what his lack of belief was doing to His Kingdom, of His subsequent quest for immortality. Maybe this is all a self-fulfilling prophesy, he thought. Can it be that one person can hold so many hostage to a private delusion? Or is it that there’s something fundamental wrong with this world?

He tried to dismiss this thought as irrational and unfounded, but found he couldn’t. What disturbed him most was the fact that it was what he thought of as his newly developing healing sense that was causing him to think such thoughts. He knew with utter certainty that, like any other sense, it was only imparting information to his brain, that reading anything beyond the obvious into one’s own senses was at best a risky business. Doc well knew in his pragmatic mind, a trait that was the inevitable consequence of being a diagnostician, that one had to be wary of one’s own instincts, that one’s judgement was often affected by a predisposition of attitude that could colour one’s interpretation of sensory information, that information was one thing, but how one acted upon it, or thought about it, were areas in which many people’s thinking was mired in illogic.

That was all very well and good, but could he trust what his senses were telling him about this world? Or was it more specific than that? He frowned in concentration, for the first time turning his newfound senses in upon themselves.

And there it was; as clear as day, he could see the source of the problem. The Elf Kingdom itself. And its relationship to the Earth Mother.

‘Vries,’ he said to the elderly Healer, who was watching him guardedly, ‘is it possible that the Elf Kingdom is . . . in the overall scheme of things . . . well . . . I don’t know how else to put this, so I’ll just say it straight out; is it possible that the Elf Kingdom represents some sort of illness in this world?’

Vries suprised him by answering utterly without hesitation, or a need to consider his words.

‘Of course it is! You must understand that the Elven Lore is a usurping of power, or at least it was, until it grew too puissant for any mortal to wield. That limitation is a consequence of the Balance established by the Earth Mother. The Balance itself is there for a reason. It is part of Her plan, which includes all living things.

‘But our Loremasters, instead of respecting such things, tried to circumvent them. Some of them believe, to this day, as many Men do, that the world and everything in it was created for our use, and that they may do with it as they see fit. Many do not rely on even that much of an excuse; such minds conceive in terms of their own unreasoning and arrogant presumption.

‘Why would our Loremasters harbour such dangerous beliefs, if they are such obvious lies? The answer is so simple that it is easily overlooked. Consider: in times of impoverishment, instability and uncertainty, people often speak of such things as peace and prosperity, as though these were the most desireable of commodities. But as a society, when such things are actually attained, that society’s citizenry, within the space of a few short years, loses sight of its original goals, because they are no longer goals; once attained they are the state of one’s existence, and are therefore taken for granted.

‘Consequently, people begin setting other goals, and other standards, in effect drifting away from the ideals previously set. The simple truth is that those who have known want are the most generous in their naïve idealism, and those who have never experienced want or hardship are not only the most selfish, but are also the most ignorant, are more inflexible in their ideas, and in general are a lesser grade of people.

‘Consider also that this lesser grade of people make up both our Merchant class and those in power, and perhaps you may understand why unreason is so pervasive. You must understand that such people have always felt threatened by those better educated than themselves, and who should those very people they fear be, but the Scholastic community; those poor in wealth but rich in real knowledge.

‘The rich, in their arrogant presumption, simply cannot tolerate the realization that they are a bunch of ignorant louts without the education, and therefore the right, to so much as express an opinion. So how do they respond to this threat? By vilifying reason itself, which they have almost always managed to get away with, because the poor, who make up the greatest numbers in any population, are also intimidated by the Scholastic community, and in this case will almost always stand by the rich who champion such spurious nonsense.

‘There is a perverse desire for self-importance, an unwillingness to admit to ignorance, and an aversion to earning accolades through hard work, which resides in each of us, the three together creating a sort of inertia which, unchecked, will drag even the best society down into muck and ruin. The cure is and has always been blatantly obvious: self-motivation, hard work, education, and a healthy degree of self-privation; but instilling those four simple axioms . . .’ he shrugged. Then smiled. ‘There is a saying, that “Every victory contains the seeds if its own defeat.” I think that it applies most eloquently to our present state of affairs in the Elf Kingdom.’

For the next several hours, as he worked in the infirmary, Doc’s thoughts turned often to ancient Rome in its twilight years.

As time went on, uncertainty for the citizens of Mirrindale seemed to become a way of life. In fact, the only certainty was that the civil war had escalated to the point where the entire Kingdom was involved. Place-names, and the names of small towns to the North and East, hitherto scarcely, if ever, coming to the ears of those in Mirrindale and Narvi, were now becoming all too familiar, but in changed form. They were now synonymous with the battles and bloody skirmishes fought there. The names of people, too, some famous, many hitherto unknown, were becoming catch-words for their actions, whether moral or ignoble, heroic or craven, self-sacrificing or utterly selfish. It soon became a common saying, spoken of those previously unknown, who had done great deeds, that they had “made a name for themselves.”

Yet, however those in opposition to the King and Prince Cir conducted themselves, such actions were bitter consolation in light of the knowledge that they were losing: every victory was but a brief respite, while every loss brought the enemy ever closer to Mirrindale.

The news from the surrounding countryside was chilling. As the Thane had predicted, roving bands of Goblins soon prowled the countryside at will, despoiling and murdering the unprotected inhabitants. Many innocents died abominably at their hands; the infirm, the elderly, women, and children. There were a few reports of the Goblins being thwarted by large bands of Dwarves and Men who “just happened to be in the area,” these having taken a few liberties with the Thane’s request to remain within their own borders. But such reports were few, and undoubtedly exaggerated by vain hope.

Then, without warning, there was an abrupt lull in the fighting which lasted several weeks. During this time, the occupants of Mirrindale learned that the King had lost all or most of his support. Companies of soldiers wearing the King’s livery, defectors from the King’s armies, began arriving at the gates of Mirrindale with their families, having left all or most of their worldly possessions behind, and most of Mirrindale’s citizenry held to the mistaken belief that the worst was over. The truth, however, left most stunned and speechless, once it came to their ears. The reason for the presence of these soldiers was that the Elf Kingdom was being overrun.

An army of Goblins led by Prince Cir had crossed the northern border of the Elf Kingdom unopposed, ushered in through the back door by members of the King’s own guard. The news from the King’s city of Valerian was appalling: he had betrayed his own city, his own people, to the Goblins, who fully lived up to their reputation for barbarity. The citizens of Valerian had been slaughtered in their beds. There had been no warning of the attack. His own army had been caught, unawares.

Some tried to dismiss this as rumour, saying that the city of Valerian might very well be under siege, but could hold its own. Valerian was almost as impregnable as Mirrindale, after all. Some reasoned that even if Valerian did fall, the inhabitants would somehow contrive to escape, that it was only a matter of time before the refugees began to arrive.

But a handful of wounded in the infirmary were from the ill-fated city, and knew with certainty the fate of the city and its inhabitants. They thought it odd that their presence and the news they bore should be ignored in favour of rumour. No matter, they told themselves. No amount of disbelief or blind faith could alter the truth.

Sitting down to lunch in the Thane’s private quarters, Doc watched the young girl who laid out the table with private amusement. She looked to be twelve or thirteen years old, and went about her duties with such exaggerated diligence as made him share a broad smile with the Thane.

When she had left to pursue other duties, the Thane, becoming serious once more, said, ‘You wished to know the truth about Prince Cir. It is this:

‘Prince Cir is the only son and heir of the King. It had long been known that Cir was unfit to hold power. He has always abused his standing, even as a child. Sometime after he achieved adulthood, during a time when the King was become fully distracted from his duties, Cir took full advantage, assuming that he could do as he pleased, not only where our Faerie kindred were concerned, but with our own people as well.

‘For his brutality, Cir was rewarded with an untimely but well-deserved death, at the hands of his own soldiers. The King, not being in his right mind, then did the unthinkable. He ordered his Loremasters to resurrect his son.’

‘Cir was dead?’ Doc said incredulously. Once past his initial surprise, a though occurred to him, and he said, ‘I seem to recall something Malina told me, that the Elves were known to have done such things, and that the result was so frightening she wouldn’t speak of it.’

The Thane raised his eyebrows in surprise. ‘So, it has been done before! I was not aware of that.’ Noting Doc’s dubious expression, he said, ‘I have no doubt that the Pixie spoke the truth. The only way she could have known about it, is if it had been done. She may even have been witness to it.

‘Well, if the King saw fit to resurrect his son, why would he stop there? But those brought back from the Dead are an enigma, for they are not truly alive. They walk in both worlds-’

‘Malina told me as much,’ Doc said.

‘Did she?’ the Thane said, surprised. ‘I had always suspected that young woman to be of greater character than she appeared. To have endured Cir’s malice for so long takes a stout heart! While it is true that she had some little aid from Pran, Birin, myself and a few Pixie friends like Finli, still I find it a thing of wonder to remember how often she risked her life to help others.’

‘Like Pran’s daughter.’ Doc said.

The Thane nodded. ‘I know, too, that she has been witness to numerous acts of horrific barbarity, both to her kindred, and indeed to anyone who had given her people aid.’

‘You mean Elves, the ones she calls Pixie-friends?’ Doc asked.

‘In part,’ the Thane replied, ‘though not always. She once contrived to give away the presence of a war party of Goblins who lay in ambush, waiting for a company of my soldiers to ride into their trap. She was seen during the fighting, barely managing to escape with her life.’

‘No wonder Pran resigned his commission,’ Doc muttered.

‘Malina is not the only one,’ the Thane told him. ‘But, back to the matter at hand:

‘Resurrecting the Dead is a very foolish, very dangerous thing to do. Being no longer dead nor alive, they live in a world in between, occupied by succubae, banshees, Tsagoroth, wraiths, and other such deadly spirits.’

Doc looked doubtful. ‘Malina brought a couple of dead insects back to life-’

The Thane made a dismissing gesture. ‘That is another matter. Such creatures lack the intelligence to conceive of manipulating or controlling other living things. Alive or resurrected, their short lives remain largely unchanged. A being like an Elf, however, is much more substantial, and more powerful than such beings as exist in the spirit world, and it is this which gives them greater influence than any should have with such creatures. In the case of Cir, he might contrive to use this to his advantage. If he was ever to get his hands on the Lore, or even a small part of it, what he would be able to unleash does not bear thinking about.

‘The King knows this, and it is in my heart that he intends Cir to be his means to accomplish what his madness has led him to, and it is of this that I now must speak.’

He rose from his seat to stand at the window.

‘Long ago, as a child, the King, then the Prince of Valerian, witnessed death for the first time. His mother, whom he loved dearly, was struck with some illness that our healers were never able to identity. She died in agony, and her husband soon followed. Many thought the deaths suspicious, that they embodied some hidden purpose.

‘If there was some hidden purpose, it came to fruition when the young Prince was made King. The responsibilities of office came hard to him, for he was far too young and mired in grief. Over time, an unreasoning fear of his own death began to grow on him like a cancer, eating at his mind, his spirit.

‘Over the years, this fear became an obsession with him. He turned to the Lore for answers, but was unsatisfied with what the Loremasters told him. They said, of course, that death is a natural and necessary part of life, which it is.

‘His obsession drove him to cruelty and viciousness. He reviled his Loremasters, telling them that if the Lore could alter the course of the Seasons and the Weather, then it could also give him greater, if not infinite life.

‘His unreasonable demands on the Loremasters had an unfortunate consequence. He would not hear those who spoke reasonably. That, of course, left only those lacking in scruple.

‘Previous to this occurrence, the Loremasters were a self-contained caste, who promoted those most fit to lead their Order from within their own ranks, as no one else was qualified to do so. The King, however, took it upon himself to change this, and his interference has brought about the present group who now serve him.’

The Thane made a sigh of frustrated anger. ‘The truth is that they do not serve the King. They do not because they can not. The King demands the impossible, which they have no choice but to promise to deliver. To survive, they make a show of pandering to the Kings’ delusions, to curry the King’s favour and influence. As things now stand, both they and the King are now hostages to his madness.’

‘You once mentioned the Tsagoroth,’ Doc said, refilling his glass of ale from a jug on the table. ‘What are they?’

‘Suffice it to say,’ the Thane replied in a carefully measured tone, ‘that they are made beings, and that they are a great evil.’

‘Made by whom?’ Doc asked him.

The Thane fixed Doc with a look that made him go cold inside.

‘By Elves. Elves whose curiosity led them to look in places not meant to be explored.’ He laughed bitterly. ‘Of course, who could have known this, until it was too late? Who could have foreseen that a thirst for knowledge would lead to answers which might destroy us?’

Doc considered this in silence for several moments, all the while aware that the Thane was watching him closely. Finally, Doc said, ‘That’s it, isn’t it? To explore such magic, to tap into this . . . the Netherworld . . . your Loremasters had to use the Lore, and have opened some sort of gateway, a portal or something . . . and now they can’t close it again.’

‘I will say only this,’ the Thane told him. ‘If those Loremasters possessed of scruple cannot seal off the Netherworld, then we are all doomed. We have not a tithe of the strength necessary to contest such evil.’

‘But you have the Elf Lore,’ Doc said.

‘Ah-h, the Elf Lore,’ the Thane said, reseating himself, pouring the last of the ale into his flagon, taking a sip and leaning back in his chair. ‘Since your arrival in this world, how often have you witnessed the power of the Lore being invoked?’

Doc frowned. ‘If you count the Weather and the Seasons, every day.’

The Thane shook his head. ‘That is a very old spell, enacted generations ago.’

‘How can that be?’ Doc asked him. ‘I mean, where does it get its power from? Who keeps it going?’

The Thane smiled without humour. ‘The explanation for such a question could only be answered by a Loremaster. As well, fully understanding the answer would require that you or I undertake years of study and discipline as an apprentice of Lore. The short answer (as I once asked this same question of a Loremaster myself) is that the Weather and the Seasons were long ago diverted in some manner, in much the same way that the digging of a new watercourse will change the direction of flow of a river.’

‘In that case,’ Doc said, ‘I have never once seen the Lore used.’

The Thane nodded. ‘And you will not. The Lore in its totality is imprecise; it has lapsed into desuetude, and it is dangerous-’

‘But the spell Pran used to bring myself and the others to your world-’ Doc protested.

‘The use of a minor spell has nothing at all in common with invoking the totality of the Lore itself,’ the Thane told him. ‘For example, your powers of Healing are your own. Had you the skill, however, the methods you have devised for yourself could be written down and added to the Lore.’

Doc was stumped. ‘Are you telling my that the Lore itself has never been used? I thought that when someone was referring to the Elf Lore, they were talking about it collectively.’

‘An unfortunate misunderstanding,’ the Thane said. ‘Using a small part of the Lore is not the same thing as invoking the Lore itself.’

‘What will happen if someone does invoke the Lore?’ Doc asked quietly, somehow suspecting the answer.

Answering him indirectly, the Thane replied, ‘The King seeks immortality, for himself only. He believes that by invoking the Lore, in its totality, he will accomplish this end. But the Book of Runes contains literally tens of thousands of spells, rites, invocations and other magicks which have nothing at all to do with the manner in which he would put them to use, collectively or otherwise.’ The Thane’s words, though simple enough in their content, carried with them undercurrents of death and killing, as though the words themselves were written in dried blood.

‘All that power . . .’ Doc muttered, and trailed off. Doing some cursory mental arithmetic, he quickly realized that he could grasp only a tiny part of the proportions of such a conflagration. Utter annihilation. That’s what this was about. Even as he made this realization, he somehow found himself considering the individual who planned such a thing, and shook his head. ‘Even if your King is right . . . even if he were to gain immortality, while the rest of us were destroyed . . . the arrogant presumption . . . the utter selfishness of such an act . . . and yet-’

‘And yet the very idea holds a morbid fascination,’ the Thane finished for him. ‘Compared to an immortal, our brief lives would soon be over, regardless. In one hundred years, what would it matter how we came by our end? That is certainly the question; what would any one of us do in the King’s place? It is easy to say, and easy to believe that we would do otherwise. But were such a choice to be real, to be laid out before each and every one of us, who can say how any of us would act?’

‘Alive but alone for all eternity,’ Doc mused. ‘It would be a living hell. But it would still be eternity.’

Doc had treated a good many injuries in his time, from blisters and hangnails to knife and gunshot wounds. But he was little prepared for the kind of violence a sword could do. The victims looked as though they had survived an attempted axe-murder. Limbs were broken and hanging by strings of muscle and tendon, chest cavities were laid open, exposing the internal organs, intestines often spilled out of wounds like grey sausage, bones were splintered and protruded whitely from mangled flesh . . .

Blood and the smell of it were everywhere. The infirmary soon acquired the dank reek of a slaughterhouse, and looked more like an abattoir than a place of healing.

He began by establishing a triage area, where those who could be saved were stabilised. Others less badly injured were sent to another area where they could be cared for until time could be spared for them.

Those who were fatally injured, and there were a great many of these, he sent most of the other Healers to first, to ease pain and suffering if they could.

A dozen apprentice Healers he kept with him, to watch and learn. They began with the most serious wounds, those to the head and body, followed by the extremities.

In a good many cases all he could do was amputate. Doc was sickened by seeing the mangled condition of so many young and healthy bodies. He was reminded of the American Civil War, when surgery was in its infancy, and most of what the early surgeons did was perform amputations.

But unlike the Civil War, Doc had the skill and knowledge to operate whenever it was possible, opening the bodies’ cavities and repairing damage to tissues and organs. To this end, his new-found power as a Healer guided his sight, speeded healing and repair, and fought both infection and poison.

At the last, when the worst was over and he was far too tired to continue, Doc went to his chamber to sleep, but not before he had taken a last look around to be sure all ran smoothly.

When he awoke several hours later, still dressed in his clothes, he felt more tired and drained than he could ever remember feeling. He was getting far too old for this kind of work, and his stores of endurance were limited. But he rose, bathed, and went to look in on the aftermath.

As he entered the infirmary, all heads turned to watch him as he made his rounds. He had introduced what the other Healers found to be a dizzying assortment of innovations, including charts and records for all the patients who entered the infirmary. One young nurse, who showed great potential for becoming a Healer herself, came up to him a bit apprehensively.

‘Sir, you asked if a mechanical timepiece existed. One of the Merchants whose son was treated here has donated such a thing, though we don’t see what help it will render.’

Doc smiled broadly. ‘It’s Luni, isn’t it?’

She smiled uncertainly in response.

‘Well, Luni, let’s have a look at this timepiece, shall we?’

At the center of the infirmary there now stood a circular desk where all the information was kept, and laying to one side, on its back, was an enormous pendulum clock. Doc could have hooted for joy. On the far wall, where all could see it, Doc had the clock mounted. Once started, it produced a tremendous tok every second as its ponderous pendulum swung. Calling his staff together, he explained that exact time was to be entered into the patients’ records, to keep a more accurate record of administered medicaments, amongst other things.

He then showed them how to take both pulse and respiration, and outlined the significance of monitoring a patient’s vital signs. When this was accomplished it was past noon, and he was about to check on some paperwork when he was approached by one of the Thane’s aids. Approaching him as nervously as Luni, the young Elf cleared his throat and spoke.

‘The Thane requests, that is if you are not too busy, that you come with me to where the Thane is having his mid-day meal. Sir.’

Needing a break from the infirmary, Doc rose and said, ‘Lead on, master Elf. I could use a break.’

They found the Thane in his anteroom, at the rear of the hall where Doc and the others had first been introduced to him. He was having lunch with a certain elderly Merchant, one who didn’t go in for the gaudy finery of his peers. A veritable giant of an Elf, he was stout without being portly, belying an underlying strength, as could be seen in his thick wrists and big hands, and his thick white beard bore an incongruous appearance, as though he grew it to conceal a wry sense of humour. His eyes, when seen at first, though kind, were almost too sharp, like those of a soldier.

When Doc entered the chamber, the Thane and the Merchant rose to their feet. To the young aid, the Thane said, ‘You may leave us.’ The young Elf bowed and did so. Still standing, the Thane said to Doc, ‘Will you share a meal with us? I would like you to meet an old friend.’

Bowing Elf-fashion, Doc responded, ‘I will indeed!’

‘Good,’ said the Thane, sounding relieved. ‘Please allow me to make introduction. This is Finli, a Merchant of Mirrindale.’

Doc’s smiled. ‘We’ve met, but hadn’t been formally introduced. By the way, I meant to ask you before; would you be the Finli Malina spoke of?’

The Merchant’s bubbly laugh at the mention of his name was infectious. ‘My fame precedes me! You have no idea how I’ve worried this past year over Malina’s absence. Karras here tells me you know my Pixie friend well.’

Doc was surprised by Finli’s use of the Thane’s familiar name. The Thane smiled wryly, and said, ‘There is no need for formality here. You too may call me Karras if you wish, at least in less formal circumstance.’

‘In that case,’ said Doc, ‘You may as well call me James. Where I come from, Doc is short for Doctor, or as you might say, Healer.’

The Thane’s mien was apologetic. ‘Then those of your world have been calling you by your title! I wish I had known.’

Doc made a dismissing gesture. ‘I have never been one for formality. Reminds me of those stuffed shirts I used to work with.’

Both Finli and the Thane exploded with laughter at this remark. ‘Stuffed shirts!’ choked the Thane, ‘That is what they remind me of.’

‘Master James!’ laughed Finli, ‘Your reputation for such coinages has preceded you. I shall never be able to look one of my colleagues in the eye again without thinking of your epithet.’

‘I’m afraid that it is a very tired old saying back where I come from,’ chuckled Doc. ‘But to answer your question, I know Malina very well. She and her friends, Deborah and Ralph, lived for a time in my home.’

Finli stopped laughing abruptly. ‘Then it is true. That dear little Pixie has survived against all odds, and has still managed to make her way in a hard world and make new friends. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this bit of news. She was like a daughter to me, you know. She could always make a lonely old sod like me forget what a hard and uncaring place the world can be. I would dearly love to see her smiling face again.’

Doc was not easily moved, but Malina had spoken often of Finli, and he now understood the reason. ‘Malina told me you saved her life, more than once,’ Doc told him. ‘She told me that you had often placed yourself at great risk on her behalf, and she worried that anything might happen to you. I am sorry that you missed her while she was here.’

Only the Thane was surprised at this. ‘Finli! Then the Prince was right. You did lie, right to his face. That was bravely done!’

Raising an eyebrow, Finli said, ‘The Prince told you about that, eh?’

‘Oh, yes,’ said the Thane, ‘in no uncertain terms. He knew you’d lied, too, though he couldn’t prove it. You’re lucky he didn’t have you skinned alive, though I daresay either Pran or myself might have done the same to him.’

Finli smiled sadly at the mention of Pran’s name. ‘I could not but notice with relief that he had ended his solitary vigil at those woods near to that isolated spot Malina called a home after he had sent her away.’

The Thane’s sombre, guarded nod, Doc realised, carried an implicit warning not to discuss the matter further, though he could not help but place a great weight on those words left unspoken. Clearing his throat, thinking to change the subject, he said, ‘Why am I left with the impression that everyone’s working in secret generates as many problems as it deals with?’

Seemingly thankful for the change of topic, the Thane said with conviction, ‘Has that not always been the way? In our Elven Kingdom, those who oppose the King always seem to do so in isolation, working together without knowing it, and concealing things of a vital nature even from each other. An inability to act or speak openly seems to breed suspicion and mistrust, serving only to lessen us all.’

‘In my profession,’ Finli said, while building himself a sort of open sandwich from dark bread, sliced meats and cheese, ‘openness presents danger and increases risk. Those of lesser character soon learn that blithe scruple makes easy gain. The rewards of honesty are often bitter, for though the conscience may be unsullied, treachery is ever near, and friends, though reliable and trusty are few.’

Doc and the Thane likewise began organising their meal, and Doc remarked, ‘It seems to me that when people’s lives are threatened, no matter how noble they are, if they’re up against odds that are too great, most of them will demean themselves if it means staying alive, silently hoping in isolation, waiting until a chance to fight back presents itself.’

Uncomfortably, Finli admitted, ‘I have been known to swallow my pride on more than one occasion, though it weighed heavily on my conscience afterward.’

‘I, too,’ muttered the Thane with a tired sigh. ‘But never again. For too long we have been beset with such snares, that come upon us unguessed, hidden within the subtle subterfuge of our Sovereign’s machinations.

‘Well, we must become as canny in the way we enact warfare. From here on in, nothing in our defence must be as it seems, nor our purpose straightforward.’

Doc was somewhat baffled by this, but Finli obviously suspected something of the sort.

‘What do you propose, friend Karras?’

Chapter 19

Into The Forest

Life is but a dream . . .’

from a child’s song

Birin conversed with Elgar for what seemed like an eternity; late afternoon dragged slowly on into dusk, and finally darkness. During the wait, the other’s boredom was exacerbated by frustration and a growing sense of misgiving that there might be some sort of confrontation, or that they might be turned away. But finally Birin turned and made his way back to the head of the column of refugees. Addressing them in a somewhat ironic tone, he said, ‘We are granted permission to enter the forest and make camp. Soldiers, make no aggressive move, for all our sake. These people are well armed and will take offence to any show of hostility.

‘We are to be led to a place deemed suitable to our needs, and I am told it will take some two days to make the journey. If there is no need for delay, then let us proceed.’

This was followed by an uncomfortable silence, which he ignored. Mounting his horse brusquely, he compelling the others onward by withdrawing his presence towards the wood.

It was so dark when they first entered the forest that making their way was difficult. But their eyes soon adjusted, and the light dusting of snow on the ground made picking out the trail easier.

It was an uncanny feeling, entering the great forest. The ambience around them changed, becoming close and still as in a library, yet incongruously, distant sounds could be heard very distinctly. The air was full of smells known mainly by instinct: that of the rich, loamy decay of the forest floor, pungent, vibrant sap, the timeless smell of the damp forest vapour itself, like the first breath of air when the world was new. Staring about in rapt wonder, becoming lost in the beauty which surrounded them, forgetful of any possible danger, the refugees made their way amongst the monolithic evergreens, which stood like massive columns supporting the forest canopy high above. Directly above, through the dense foliage, bright stars could be seen.

The trail into the forest rose steadily for some time, and the travellers could see dim shapes moving in stealthful silence about the bases of the trees, and it was with some misgiving that they knew their movements were closely watched.

The women had folded down the wagon’s canvas cover, and looking about, Deborah was entranced by bright silver and gold lights she saw darting about through the trees. Some seemed to be playing, chasing each other about, while others began following the travellers as though made curious by their strangeness. She thought that if they moved close enough she would be able to discern shapes within them. Theuli noticed the lights too, as did Rani and Zuic.

‘Mother, look!’ whispered Rani excitedly.

‘I see them,’ replied Theuli distantly.

In the dim light, Deborah noticed Malina, watching the lights with an odd expression.

Malina?

Moving to sit beside her, Deborah asked, ‘Is it something the matter? Are you all right? What are they?’

Her face half in shadow as she watched the tiny forms, Malina said, her voice barely above a whisper, ‘Please . . . don’t ask me . . . not yet. I’ll tell you later . . . when they aren’t so near.’ Malina’s mien was suffused with suppressed emotion.

Deborah looked to Theuli for help, but the Elf-woman shook her head, a gentle warning in her eyes.

Ralph and Pran had a much closer look at the lights. They came very near to Pran, and some seemed to speak to him.

He smiled.

Looking closely at one of the lights that hovered some four feet away, Ralph thought he saw a tiny golden woman with wings, surrounded by a golden ball of light. She was lingering near Pran’s shoulder.

‘Pran, what are they?’

Giving Ralph a measuring look, Pran replied, ‘Some are Nymphs. Most are Sprites. A few are Pixies.’ To Ralph’s sudden sharp scrutiny of the tiny beings, which appeared almost as dread, he added, ‘Like Malina.’

The one who had been near Pran’s shoulder came very near to Ralph, and he could see clearly now that it was indeed a tiny woman. She was, perhaps, as tall as one’s hand, and her wings . . . he was disturbed by how closely they resembled the gauzy dress Malina wore when he first met her. The dress she had discarded. A sudden disconcerting thought crossed his mind. Could that be how she lost her power? Had she given it up voluntarily? For him?

The tiny woman before him spoke.

‘I am Éha, sister to Malina. Are you one of her Human companions from another world?’

Ralph looked to Pran who watched with some humour. ‘Pixies can be very protective of each other,’ he said with a smile. ‘Have a care how you answer, or she may prove no end of mischief.’

Ralph shrugged. ‘Malina is my . . . friend. And yes, we met in my world.’

Éha seemed to hesitate. Then, in the blink of an eye, she transformed before his eyes into a small woman sitting cross-legged before him on the horse’s withers. As she stared at him intently, Ralph thought her very young; there was something childlike and naïve about her. Ralph couldn’t help but smile.

‘May I ride with you awhile?’

As she was already doing so, Ralph said, ‘What happened to your wings?’

She smiled. ‘I have no use for them in this form! Has Malina taught you nothing?’

Answering thoughtfully, Ralph replied, ‘There are some things she never talks about.’

Éha’s smile faded. Looking about nervously, she said, ‘The others tell me always that I am too trusting with strangers. But you don’t look as though you’d hurt me.’ Looking almost afraid, she said timidly, ‘Would you?’

Trying not to laugh, Ralph replied, ‘Of course not. Why would I?’

She looked a bit lost, but continued. ‘Malina used to look after me. I got both of us into trouble several times.’

Speaking to her in the Pixie tongue, Ralph said, ‘Who is looking after you now? You seem a little young to be out on your own. Why don’t you visit us, once we’re more or less settled. I think there is much that Malina could share with you.’

Éha was too surprised to answer at first. ‘The others were right! I am naïve. You know all about us already. You must think me a silly child.’

Ralph had to laugh. ‘I don’t think you’re silly. But you aren’t much more than a child. How old are you?’

She tried counting on her fingers, but soon gave up the attempt, biting her lip and looking downcast at her failure. She appeared so tragic and small that Ralph said kindly, ‘Hey, it isn’t important.’

Her smile was a mixture of shy gratitude, and awe. ‘Did Malina teach you our tongue?’

‘Ware, Ralph,’ interjected Pran, ‘if you encourage her, you’ll never be rid of her. Come, Éha, ride with me for a bit.’ With a delighted smile, the little dark-haired pixie stood and jumped lightly onto Pran’s horse’s withers. He gestured to the saddle before him, and she sat like a happy child as he gave her the reins. The horse ignored her antics, fortunately.

‘Such was Malina,’ said Pran. ‘You can see now why Pixies are mistakenly assumed to be like children. They are playful, energetic, and,’ he chuckled, ‘no end of trouble. But they are not children. Éha, I think you should tell Ralph about bad Pixies.’

‘Rowf!’ She said, laughing, ‘What a funny name!’

‘Éha . . .’ Pran prodded in an admonishing tone.

She was suddenly crestfallen and sullen. Pran gave her a fatherly squeeze. ‘It’s all right, I will tell this tale. I should not burden you with such things.’

‘I will tell it,’ she said, as though coerced. ‘Even if I don’t like sad stories.’ She sighed unhappily.

‘Bad Pixies like to cause pain. They like to hurt things. I have seen them steal . . . little ones.’

‘Little ones?’ echoed Ralph.

Éha’s eyes filled with tears. ‘Little Nymphs. Little Pixies. Little . . .’ she glanced askance at the other Elves about.

‘What do they do with them?’

To Ralph’s embarrassment, Éha began crying. Pran put his arms around her protectively. ‘Shush, little one. That is enough.’ To Ralph he said, ‘I found this one wandering alone when she was very small. Not knowing what else to do, I took her to Malina. But to answer your question, bad Pixies do what bad Elves, or Goblins, do. They lure away the young and either abandon them, or worse. Often they will kill and eat them.’

‘Malina told me,’ Ralph muttered.

‘Yes,’ replied Pran, ‘I daresay she did. What she did not tell you is how many times she and others like her followed the evil Pixies and Goblins, trying to thwart their efforts. They didn’t often succeed. More often than not, things ended tragically, while Pixies like Malina could only watch.’ He sighed. ‘That is just one more thing we’ve got to put a stop to, if ever we can.’

‘Pran fought Goblins for me!’ Éha said. ‘The bad Pixies left me for them to find.’

Pran’s visage darkened at the memory. ‘Yes, and almost we were both captured and eaten. Wouldn’t that have been a feast?’

Fidgeting, Éha leaned back against Pran’s chest, and smiled up at him. ‘May I go now? My Sisters will be angry with me.’

He smiled affectionately. ‘You may.’

Transforming into her small form enveloped in a ball of light, she took off like a shot. Pran watched her go somewhat sadly.

Speaking so as not to be overheard, Ralph said, ‘Not to be insulting to her or anything, but is she . . . all there?’

Pran winced. ‘She is lucid enough. But emotionally she is having difficulty. Her Sisters watch her closely because she is far too trusting and . . . distracted by her inner problems.’

‘Was that true,’ Ralph asked, ‘what she said about you rescuing her?’

Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, Pran replied, ‘In a sense. But I was far from alone. When I was still a captain, I led several war parties after marauding Goblins. On one particular occasion one of my soldiers came across her as she wandered about, half out of her mind. I don’t think she even knew who we were at the time. The Goblins had done terrible things to her . . . things that don’t bear thinking about.

‘The others thought it best to abandon her to her fate, but I found I couldn’t. For several long days she rode astride my horse, as she has just done. After returning, alone, I made a detour to where Malina lived. Malina took her in, but was not able to care for her for long. Éha would wander off. Fortunately it was Finli who found her on a few occasions, but she was not always so lucky. She received some rough treatment from the Prince’s soldiers until Malina led her away. After that, Malina sent her to live with a few Pixies who lived further east from the Kingdom.’ His thoughtful introspection bore a cast of tired resignation. ‘In some ways, I fear she was lost from the day she was taken as a child.’

‘Maybe there’s something Doc could do for her,’ Ralph said.

‘Perhaps,’ Pran replied, noncommittally.

After journeying about four hours, the Outsiders directing Birin’s way indicated that they were to stop for the night. The lights having departed, it was now very dark in the forest, and many of the refugees were uneasy.

The forest floor was comparatively dry, and deep beds of fern grew in clumps here and there, and around the boles of the trees. Many of the refugees elected to make their beds upon these ferns, arrayed in circles around the tree trunks, some sleeping and others watching in turn, fearing to be taken unawares.

But the night passed undisturbed, and with the first grey light of dawn, they ate a light breakfast, broke camp, and were under way once more.

The terrain was very uneven, but not difficult. They were on a wide path that was covered with a thick brown carpet of evergreen needles, and it wound up and through convoluted knees of rock, switched back and forth, up and down steep ravines, passed along the rims or bottoms of steep gulleys, and wove its way ever deeper into the deep forest.

They often crossed small streams and rivulets of water. The path passed over these by means of small stone bridges. Many of the refugees wondered at these, for they had been expertly, if crudely made, and had an ancient look about them.

By the day’s end, the forest floor had taken on a different character, as had the forest itself. The trees here were as many, but grew thinner and stunted, allowing more light to reach the forest floor, which grew lush and green. Often the refugees would see clumps of wild flowers and flowering bushes beside the trail and off in the forest. Thick moss grew on the native rock and dead or fallen trees, as well as many types of lichen, toadstools, tree fungus, and mushrooms.

They came to rest on a low hill that was dry, as the low-lying areas were wet and marshy. Once again they kept a careful watch, and once again the night passed away without disturbance.

The next day the path began to wind ever downwards, and the refugees could see that the trees were becoming fewer, the terrain more subdued. The land tilted to their right, gradually becoming steadily flatter, and by nightfall they were crossing level ground.

Midnight had long since passed, and it was the dark hour before the first pale light of dawn. The moon was rising above the treetops, and the evergreens had given way to a forest of enormous oaks, some eight or ten feet thick at the base. And suddenly, their way was illuminated!

It was a spectacular sight. The huge trees were covered in snow, and the moon in the sky above was ringed by a halo of silver light. A few of the brightest stars shone palely through the light cloud which hung in the sky like a veil.

Elgar directed Birin to stop here.

‘This is a place such as your forebears used to live,’ he said, as if trying to ascertain the true purpose of the Elves. ‘Do you still maintain that it is truly your intent to live as they did?’

‘It is,’ Birin replied.

‘Then I suggest you take this valley to be your own,’ Elgar said. ‘There is a fast-running brook at the bottom, yonder, and a small lake not far downstream. I leave you in peace.’

‘Wait!’ said Birin, ‘I would like to thank you, and to offer the loan of our support at need.’

Elgar smiled patiently. ‘We Outcasts alone outnumber you and yours by perhaps ninety or a hundred to one. Unlike you, we know the way of the land and the seasons here. You would be well advised to reacquaint yourselves with life in the forest, for that in itself will consume most, if not all of your time. Be at peace.’ He turned to leave, but stopped when he remembered something. Over his shoulder he said, ‘It would ease my heart greatly if you would make your peace with Imalwain. That will be thanks enough.’

Birin was a still, silent, lone figure as Elgar left, and it was long before he remembered himself and returned to his fellows.

When they had made camp, Ralph and Malina set up a tent of their own, and had some privacy together for the first time in days. After getting settled in for the night, Ralph told Malina of his encounter with Éha.

This seemed to break some of the ice that had been forming around Malina’s sore heart.

‘Éha! There is a sad tale! Is it she well?’

Ralph told her what Pran had told him. When he finished, Malina nodded. ‘I am glad he told you. Though I love her dearly, she can be quite a problem, even for a Pixie. She requires much supervision.’

‘Pran didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he seemed to enjoy having her around.’

Malina nodded, looking down, thoughtfully. ‘I have always wondered at Pran’s kindness where she was concerned. For years I had mistaken his concern for guilt, and for that I feel badly, now that I know him better.’ She looked up at Ralph, troubled realization marring her visage. ‘For a long time, I was blind to the fact that his kindness extended to me, also, though I wanted to believe that I was a free spirit, making my own way in the world, dependent on no one for aid. Do you know, I have never thanked him for the many times he contrived to save my life?

‘My trust of Elves does not come easily, and for good reason. Yet he has always been worthy of my trust, especially where Éha is concerned. His concern for her I know to be genuine, because he shows the same concern for her that he would for his own.’

‘Speaking of problems,’ said Ralph, ‘what about you? You’ve been pretty moody lately.’

Malina shrugged. ‘It’s hard coming back here to my world. Pran was right; I’m not like the other Pixies any more. It’s like remembering your childhood, but not being a child any more.’

‘That,’ Ralph told her, ‘is just part of growing up.’ In the dim light of the lantern which hung from the centre-pole, he could tell that she was not convinced of this; her visage was troubled, as though she were being forced to confront realizations that were painful to her.

‘It is not as simple as that,’ she told him, getting beneath her blankets, head propped up on one elbow. ‘It isn’t just that I’m growing. The truth is that I’m changing. And not just physically,’ she blurted, blushing, referring to an earlier observation by Deborah that Malina had put on just the right amount of weight in all the right places, where before she had been such a skinny little thing. It had been at that time that she finally understood the appraising way in which men stared at her, and she had been mortified, though strangely and confusingly pleased at the same time.

‘You’re talking about what you did in the Hall of the Thane,’ Ralph said.

‘I’m saying that the changes in me led up to that,’ she corrected. ‘But what happened in the Hall . . . I didn’t see it coming . . . didn’t plan on it. The same as my becoming an Emissary. Before, that title would have meant nothing to me. Now, I feel the responsibility of my people like a weight on my shoulders.

‘But these are not the sort of changes I want!’ she said, torn. ‘I want-’ she stopped herself, and turned crimson.

‘Why don’t you just say it,’ Ralph told her, quietly.

Timidly, afraid of her own feelings, she said in a barely audible, constricted voice, ‘I want you. I have from the very beginning. But I am afraid!’

‘Of . . .?’ Ralph prompted, when she didn’t continue.

‘I don’t know! I’m just afraid. Deborah says that you’re not like that Man, Rory, and that you will be kind to me. But it’s not just that! It’s all the things that go along with . . . well-’

‘Malina?’

‘Yes?’

‘The only way you’re ever going to know is if you try it.’

She swallowed, audibly.

‘Now?’

‘If you like.’

Deborah was glad she was sharing a tent with Rani and Zuic. She did not want to be alone, and her body was not yet resilient enough to exert herself without some assistance. She was thinner than she had been, and was pale with dark circles under her eyes. But she was on the mend, though she felt a bit strange.

Instead of being on some great adventure, however, she was camping out with a bunch of refugees away from where the fate of the land was being decided, or so she thought.

But she had finally seen some truly magical beings! She was entranced at the sight of the tiny lights, and was made even more curious by Malina’s assertion that she had been one of them. As the wagon finally came to a halt, Malina had told her that she had once been able to change her form, and was able to imitate other living things. But, she said, there was a constant . . . the form she chose was limited to how she would look if she really was that form. For example, if she chose to look like Deborah, anyone who knew Deborah would know something was off. And anyone who knew Malina as well would soon figure out that it was Malina imitating Deborah. As Malina told her, it was like someone imitating your voice.

Deborah found herself fantasizing about being able to turn into a tiny winged creature and casting spells. It was lucky for her family that she didn’t have such power! Or for either of her first two ex-boyfriends for that matter.

For what was mischief, if not revenge?

The next day dawned clear and sunny and cold. As soon as the travellers had all risen and eaten breakfast, they set to work.

Thirty massive Iron oaks, (so-called because of their bark which resembled smooth grey iron) that were close together were selected, and eldritch skills that had not seen use for generations were brought to bear. Outer branches were carefully bent and woven, main branches were taught to lay parallel to the ground, while others sought throughout the surrounding forest for vines and other vegetation to transplant. Though most were dormant and lay hidden beneath the snow, the more experienced Elves knew that this would work to their advantage once spring arrived: the plants would be damaged little, and their vigour less affected than if they had been moved in the full bloom of summer.

The work went very slowly at first. Centuries of working with stone and metal had dulled the Elves’ more natural sensitivity to wood and other plant life. And it was mid-winter; the work was slow and arduous. Regardless, the labour went ahead. After several days the first enormous tree-village was beginning to take on a recognisable shape.

Ralph was faced with a very different task, however. He began the construction of a blacksmith shop, slightly away from the main place of work. He did not work alone, but was assisted by Pran and Zuic, and aided by a dozen artisans and farmers who were skilled at working wood, stone, clay, and other building materials. Besides the blacksmith shop, they decided to build a separate house for themselves and their families. There were several reasons for this:

Ralph wanted to be near the shop, and he wasn’t especially fond of heights. Besides this, Theuli and Pran wanted to build a barn and stables, and it made sense to combine this with a blacksmith shop.

Several of the farmers had begun similar projects around the tree village, and soon there was a ring of stone buildings begun in a large circle. Some of these farmers had aided Ralph and Pran, as they would soon be needing metal objects and tools, and at present needed a temporary place for their horses and other livestock.

Theuli and Malina left the men to their work. With Rani’s assistance, their own work was in some ways more important. They transformed their rude surroundings into something that resembled home, as well as helping tend to the animals and looking after children. The work was very hard and the hours long. But in the days and weeks that followed, they saw the beginnings of their dreams taking shape.

Their town now had a name; Wel’adai, which was Elvish for corner of the wood.

There were few blemishes on their new life here, and in the beginning these were little noticed. The first of these was the mistrust of the Outsiders, as they called themselves. Despite well-intentioned attempts to draw them into the new community, they were reticent and suspicious by nature. A few even showed open hostility to the newcomers’ presence.

Ralph noted sadly that Nevana and her family had become estranged from one another. Of her family he saw very little, except the children, who were often seen playing, though because of their parents they became distanced from Rani and Zuic. Nevana herself had been taken in by an older couple who were troubled by the young woman’s bleak solitude, and did what little they could to alleviate her self-imposed isolation. But she seemed disinterested in everyone and everything, and spent much of her time wandering alone.

Deborah, too, had become another concern. Despite her apparent recovery she did very little, and like Nevana would wander far, apparently daydreaming; about what she wouldn’t say. Like Nevana, Ralph and Pran were forced to ask Birin to have someone to keep an eye on her, after she went missing for an entire day, and returned that night, led by some of the Pixie folk.

Deborah’s friends became increasingly worried about her behaviour as it became more bizarre and erratic. Taking her aside one day after she had been found soaking wet and covered with mud, Ralph said, ‘Deborah, where have you been? It isn’t safe, wandering off like that. Look at you! You’re going to catch pneumonia if you keep this up. What have you been doing out there?’

Deborah had smiled as though there was no cause for concern. ‘I’ve been watching things change.’

Ralph was perplexed. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘You know,’ she replied, as though explaining something obvious, ‘in the reflections.’