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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.


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