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.
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‘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.
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.
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.
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.’
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 an 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.’