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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 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 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 the trunk of an ancient oak tree that 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 enough force to drive only the head 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. This 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 realised 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 a look toward 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 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 bush 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, and 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 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 toward 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 placed 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 had 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.