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?
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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 had 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 barely 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 loved ones.