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.
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‘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 remained to her 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.