Malina, from behind the curtain of one the west windows, had watched Rowf go with a nameless dread gripping her heart. She stared in the direction the three travellers had gone long after they were out of sight, hugging herself, stung by the after-image of seeing how close the Elven girl, Nevana, had been standing to Rowf, and how they had looked at each other.
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Eventually, Theuli, with unspoken understanding, went to her and said, ‘They will be back by nightfall. Why don’t you come out with the others, instead of staying in here all by yourself? Deborah is beginning to wonder about you.’
Because Nevana is still here, Malina thought to herself, Nevana who is so pretty, who could have any young Elf man she wanted, who wants to take away the only thing in the world that’s worth having, to me.
And yet . . . and yet . . .
. . . and yet, there was something else . . .
‘Malina, why do you look so worried?’
Malina looking about, suddenly feeling trapped, said in a small voice, ‘I don’t know. I just feel like something bad is going to happen.’
Theuli was unnerved by this, and gazed herself out the window in the direction her husband had gone with some anxiety. A Pixie’s instincts, however diminished, were not to be taken lightly.
‘Do you think I should find a way to warn them?’
Malina was perplexed. ‘I don’t know. It feels like something bad is all around, like a noose.’
The Elf-woman looked around distrustfully. ‘Malina, is it around them, or around us?’
Malina’s eyes widened.
Wishing to avoid being trapped, Pran led Ralph and Doc through open country that was hilly, with concealing clumps of copsewood. A fear was growing upon him that he had to make his way home. Something was greatly amiss here, though he had no clear idea what that something might be.
His worst fears were confirmed when he saw the thinly stretched line of riders ahead of them, directly across their path. They were moving unhurriedly, and he knew then with cold dread that Prince Cir’s Elven soldiers were intent on murder.
‘Come!’ he shouted, wheeling his mount around, ‘we’ve got to get back to town.’ This decision tore at his heart, but there was no choice. Besides, he hoped, and it was a thin hope, that perhaps the soldiers were intent on the menfolk, and would leave the women and children alone.
The moment they turned and began riding away at a gallop towards the town of Narvi, a call went up from the soldiers, who immediately gave chase. Fortunately, Doc and Ralph had some prior experience with horses and knew how to ride with all possible speed. They gained the outskirts just after dark, and it looked as though the way to the town proper was clear. But when they reached the first buildings, their way was blocked by a line of archers. Wheeling their mounts about, they tried to make a run for it, but their retreat was suddenly cut off by a wall of soldiers bearing hunting bows and spears.
There was nowhere to go. They were trapped.
Standing beside the barn, Theuli whistled and called for the horses to come as her friends and neighbours anxiously looked on. She was answered with an ominous silence. Durus, who was Arlon’s wife and mother to Nevana and two younger siblings, a boy and girl of Zuic and Rani’s age, exchanged a look with Theuli, Mari and Durphel, who was Durus’ brother, who with Mari had four children, ranging in ages from six to thirteen. Durus said, with characteristic bluntness, ‘No offence, Theuli, but we would do well to leave this place, as soon as possible. You tell me a Pixie doesn’t trust what she scents in the air, and I say that diminished in Power or not, like the Old Wives’ Tales tell us, “A Pixie’s nose for trouble is best doubted from a safe distance.”’
‘I agree,’ said Durphel, who adamantly believed in old farm Lore where lonely farmers and Pixies were concerned. ‘We should leave for Narvi at once.’
Theuli, however, stood mired in anxiety and helpless frustration. ‘I cannot depart straightaway to Narvi. I fear for my brother-in-law, Io, his wife, Jan, and their children, Zuic’s brothers and sisters. Their farm lies east from here, away from Narvi; they must be forewarned. If they are not, I fear that something terrible may happen to them.’
‘We should stay together,’ Durus said, firmly.
‘Our first concern should be for the safety of the children,’ said Mari.
‘I think,’ said Theuli, in a tone that brooked no dissension, ‘that you should leave now, taking the children and my friends with you, and quickly, to seek safety in Narvi. I must leave immediately for Io’s farm.’
To Theuli’s surprise, as she went to leave, she found that Deborah and Malina had already conferred together, packed a few things, and were not only ready to leave immediately as quickly and quietly as possible, but were determined to accompany the Elven woman.
‘You cannot!’ Theuli said, shouldering her light pack and making her way towards the back door.
‘We can and we are!’ Deborah countered, with a stubbornness neither of the other women had ever witnessed in her before. ‘You are not going alone. Malina’s coming because she can sense danger better than any of us, and she thinks that it gets worse the farther east you get. She think’s you’re liable to run straight into it.’
Theuli visibly acquiesced, unable to argue with the sense in this. But then, she said to Deborah, ‘And why are you coming?’
For a moment, Deborah hesitated. But then, reluctantly, she said, ‘Because I had a dream last night. Something is going to happen . . . to me . . . something important. Theuli, please don’t look at me like that! It’s not like I’m going to die, or anything! It’s just that I have to go. It has something to do with the reason I’m here. I think it may very well be the reason I’m here.’
Staring at the Human girl with undisguised mistrust and apprehension, Theuli drew a stiff breath that may have been a mixture of anger and frustration.
‘Very well! But stay close to me! I do not believe that either of you are equipped to deal with what we may encounter.’
As they left the house, Theuli waited until the others were well on their way before setting out herself, with her two companions. Then, looking toward the meadow as though trying not to appear nervous, or make it obvious that she was looking for any sign of danger, she indicated with a curt nod that they were to begin their journey.
Selecting a wandering path between the low but concealing hills, she led the way to a hedge which bordered an irrigation ditch. On the other side was a continuous mound like an earthen dike, which had been made from the soil removed to form the irrigation channel. As they began following the hedge on the inside walking single-file, with Theuli leading and Deborah and Malina following her in tandem, the Elven woman said, ‘It is a good two hours’ walk to the house of my brother-in-law. This area, the Eastland Waik, is sparsely populated: there will be no aid for us if we are discovered.’
‘What does Waik mean,’ Deborah asked her.
‘It means,’ replied the Elven woman, in an unsettling tone, ‘“uncharted wilderness” in an archaic tongue of the Men who once attempted to populate these lands.’
‘Where did the Men go?’ Deborah asked her.
‘That particular race of Men is no more,’ Theuli replied, making the two younger women feel uneasy. ‘Twas they who made this irrigation channel and planted this hedge, in many ages long past.’
This knowledge only added to the unease of Deborah and Malina, who cast furtive looks at these vestigial relics of antiquity which bespoke of doomed hope. They seemed to hear, as if from a great distance, the bleat of sheep and the lowing of cattle. It seemed to them that they could feel in their very bones the wildness that had ultimately thwarted the hands and the civilizing will that wished to tame it, that Man’s inbred products of domesticity were left to wander forever, abandoned as dispossessed ghosts upon the empty grasslands.
After perhaps two hours into their journey, the dike and hedge came to a sudden end, and the three women found themselves in a transitional area; grasslands and meadows were giving way to marshes where tall rushes grew, interspersed with slightly raised areas covered by stiff, low scrub, that stood out like bald patches; and the tall deciduous forest was becoming replaced by a dense and endless copse-wood of some nondescript tree-like bush, some fifteen to twenty feet high, its canopy well above their heads. Many trails wound their way through this bush, mostly created by wild animals. At last they came to an intersection of several paths. Theuli paused before selecting one of these, turning to Malina for some sign. Without hesitation, the young Pixie woman nodded towards a wide side-trail. Looking down one of the side trails as they stood at this intersection, and which led diagonally to the left, they could clearly see the road, where it wended its way beneath the eaves of the forest.
As they went on, the trail became steadily narrower, and was crossed and re-crossed by many other small paths, which were obviously animal trails of various sorts. Their progress became steadily slower, brought on in part by a disturbing watchfulness which seemed to permeate this semi-wilderness. They stopped often to listen, for they could no longer see far ahead. The high bush and winding trails seemed to conspire to hide what lay just around each turn of the path. Deborah found herself starting to feel very claustrophobic. The air had become very stuffy and still, the trail very narrow, as though something unseen was closing in on them.
By the time they drew near to Io’s dwelling, they began to catch a faint whiff of smoke. But it was distinctly a burning smell, not like that of a cooking fire at all. Deborah and Malina looked to Theuli for some clue as to what this might mean, but the sight of the Elf-woman’s stricken look was far worse than anything she might have said.
Stopping abruptly, leading them off the trail and following a narrow animal trail where it ended in a convenient hollow in the midst of a dense thicket, she turned to the others and said, ‘Stay here! Be still and be silent! If I do not return within the hour, begin making your way to the town of Narvi, but stay out of sight of the main road.’ Without waiting for a reply, she withdrew a knife from her boot and began running in a hunter’s crouch, as though speed itself could somehow save Io’s family.
She didn’t have far to go. The concealing bush soon came to an abrupt end, the path turning sharply right as it passed along the outside of a wooden fence. Within the fence was Io’s farm, a series of low, cleared and cultivated hills, surrounded by forest.
All the buildings were gone.
What Theuli saw was enough to know that Jan and Io and their children were dead. The house had burned some time ago, and she saw the bodies of at least two of the children lying in the dirt like discarded bundles of rags. The livestock, too, were gone.
Gasping harshly, struggling to master herself, she tried to get her thoughts in order, to think about the safety of the others. Fighting for calm, and against a rising sense of panic, she tried not to flee blindly.
The welcome sight of her friends waiting for her in comparative safety, and her own pent-up need to unburden her grief, almost undid the last of her composure. But despite the giddy feeling of shock, she somehow managed to keep her wits about her.
‘They are not here,’ she told them. ‘They have left already. We must rejoin the others, as quickly as we may.’ Even as she spoke this rush of words, a peculiar light-headed feeling took hold. It wasn’t until she found herself looking into Deborah’s frightened eyes that she realized she’d almost fainted. Malina was at her side as well, her eyes wide. Groaning at her own weakness, Theuli forced herself to move.
‘Maybe you’d better rest until you’re-’ Deborah said.
‘No! We leave, now.’ Theuli replied, angry that she couldn’t control the fearful quaver in her voice. She was still white and trembling from shock, but her resolve was unshakable. The two young women stared, looking indecisive, but Theuli somehow seemed to be able to maintain a hold on their feelings as well as her own.
‘How will we do that without being seen?’ Malina asked.
‘We will cross the grasslands by night,’ Theuli replied. ‘It will be hard . . . but we must travel cross-country as swiftly as we may. I pray the others have managed to flee to safety.’