The archers surrounding Pran, Doc, and Ralph didn’t fire, but those soldiers on foot bearing spears began a chillingly professional, steady and orderly advance. As the soldiers hemmed the three in, one Elf, riding a horse and clearly not a soldier, separated himself from his companions and rode forward, as if both to assert his authority, and to demonstrate that the three prisoners could present him with no personal danger; to reinforce in the minds of all present that they were wholly under his control. Doc guessed at once that this was Prince Cir, not from any description of the Prince, as he’d heard none, but rather from the Elf’s careless authority, if not the fact that he alone wore no livery, which under the present circumstances attested that his station in life was clearly above and beyond that of the military.
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The Prince was, at first glance, utterly lost within himself and drunk with arrogance. But a second look confirmed that his general appearance was otherwise very ordinary, especially when the self-indulgent luxuriance of his attire was ignored. He appeared dangerously average, if that may be said, for there was a hidden strength about him that spoke of a rabid, unbridled ferocity, when and where it could gain expression; from the shifty looks he cast about, it was obvious to all that seeking an outlet for his murderous ferocity consumed all of his attention. If the soldiers went along, the monster within the Prince would come out and show itself. If the soldiers did not, the monster would remain concealed, at least until another opportunity came along.
Doc groaned inwardly the moment the Prince began to speak. Some non-scientific instinct told him that the Elf before them was a psychopath: Doc had twice before met the acquaintance of serial-killers; one in a high-security mental facility, the other who had stalked a girl into a corner grocery store where a young James Irving Wallace was a customer. The killer was thwarted by Doc and the clerk, neither of whom had known what they were dealing with, until much later, when the killer had been caught and brought to trial.
Watching the Prince caused Doc’s comparative memory to bifurcate into two very disparate images; the obsequious prisoner and the rabid killer; the sight of the latter had quite literally made the hair on the back of Doc’s (and later, he learned, the store clerk’s) neck stand up.
Doc’s non-scientific, but unerringly accurate instinct told him also that Prince Cir was a sociopath, and what was more, a sociopath in an uncontestable position of authority.
Suddenly, much that was wrong with the Elf Kingdom, and with monarchies in general, became all-too-clear to Doc Wallace.
Not that he could articulate such things in so many words, Ralph knew instantly what they were in for the moment he laid eyes on the Prince: he had encountered his type twice before, in the person of Deborah’s brother, and her father. His kind were only tough when they’d caught a weaker person alone, or when they were surrounded by “friends”, the weak-willed and weak-minded types with little self-esteem and even less self-control, the type often found in gangs, who would either not interfere in, or would help with their bullying. When on the receiving end of the treatment meted out at the hands of such characters, Ralph well knew the best course of action was to do nothing; to say nothing; anything else would prompt such a character to act. Ralph’s grandfather, were he still alive, would have said “an excuse to act”, but Ralph instinctively knew better; that “excuse” implied intent.
Ralph knew that people like the one before him did not act with intent, that intent was for the most part beyond them. They acted more like machines made of meat, responding to stimuli; they were primitive-minded, wholly egocentric, apparently blind and heedless to the awareness and personal sovereignty of other living things; living in and for the moment, only for themselves.
The Prince’s attention was fixed primarily on Doc, whom he stared at uncertainly. He’d heard the rumours which circulated about his Powers of healing, but the arcane device the old man wore over his eyes bespoke of something else.
‘Well, Pran, you have finally demonstrated that you are indeed a traitor! Your attempt to conceal the presence of this Magi has failed, and though I deem him to be powerful, I very much doubt that he and his lone bodyguard will prevail against two score archers.’
‘I have concealed naught,’ Pran replied in a calm voice. ‘These two are travellers, new to the Elf Kingdom, and are guests in my home.’
‘If you have concealed naught,’ the Prince replied in a surly tone, ‘then why have they not been brought before Myself or the King?’
‘I was unaware,’ Pran replied levelly, ‘that Men travelling within and through the Elf Kingdom required Your leave. To the best of my knowledge, Men and Dwarves are free to come and go as they please.’
‘Not,’ the Prince said, his voice rising, ‘when their purpose is to conspire against My person or the King’s, or to abet those that participate in social discord.’
A crowd, comprised mostly of Men and Dwarves from the surrounding shops, had begun to gather at these words. Some of the Elven soldiers on foot attempted to dissuade these onlookers from gathering and listening, but were brushed aside. The onlookers made it plain that the words spoken here concerned them very much, and that they were going to stay and listen, come what may. The soldiers, looking uneasily at the Prince, let them be, but stood ready.
‘To what social discord do you refer?’ Pran said, in a quiet voice.
The import of the question was clear to all present, and was followed by a hushed silence. The Prince, however, remained surprisingly calm, and turned his attentions to Ralph.
‘Trafficking in weapons is common practice, and perfectly legal, but not when such weapons are powerful periapts designed to undermine the authority of our Elven armies. We know that this warrior is more than he appears, that he is a sorcerer as well as a smithy.
‘The three of you, and all of your associates, will pay dearly for this treason. You will be taken, forthwith, and all that you know extracted-’
‘What do you mean, “associates?”’ Doc inturrupted.
Referring to Pran, the Prince replied, ‘His family and friends, the Human woman who is your companion, and that Pixie vermin, the one that Pran and his associates have used to spy on his fellows . . . the one whose execution he was explicitly charged with carrying out, a little over one year ago . . . you see? there is nothing wrong with my memory.’ He said this last to Pran.
Gesturing carelessly to his soldiers, the Prince said, ‘Take them.’
No one moved.
Infuriated, the Prince cried, ‘Well? What are you waiting for? Do what I tell you! Take them! Or do the rest of you wish to suffer the same fate?’
Even as those words were uttered, there was momentary confusion as another group of soldiers approached on horse. The leader of this group stood in his stirrups as they drew near.
‘Hold! Hold in the name of the Thane.’
Some of this group were wearing the King’s livery, while others wore the Thane’s. Their leader rode straight up to the Prince with his sword drawn, and didn’t stop until he had the tip of his blade at the Prince’s throat.
‘Birin!’ shouted the Prince, ‘I’ll have your head-’
‘Have you or your friends been harmed,’ Birin asked Pran without taking his eyes from the Prince’s.
‘We have not,’ Pran replied, ‘but from the Prince’s words just now, I have cause to fear for my family and friends.’
This brought a glint from Birin’s eyes, and he pressed his blade firmly against the Prince’s throat. ‘Have you conspired to harm his family?’
Prince Cir smiled at this. ‘The fate of his family does not lie in my hands.’
‘Answer me!’ shouted Birin, nicking Cir’s neck and drawing blood this time. ‘Or
I will strike your head from your body without benefit of trial.’
Fixing Birin with his insolent gaze, he said, ‘You wouldn’t dare.’
‘No?’ Birin said mildly. For a moment, it appeared as though he meant to put his sword up. But at the last moment, he brought it up hard, and with the flat of it caught the Prince full across the face. Crying out in pain and rage, the Prince fell awkwardly from his horse. With an animal noise, thick with the promise of violence, he got to his knees, glaring malevolently, a hand clutched to his face. Birin’s sword had cut him deeply along the entire length of his jaw; it oozed slightly- but it did not bleed.
‘Take this message to your King,’ said Birin to the Prince, who struggled to his feet, ‘for he is no longer my King.’
‘You will all die for this!’ shouted the Prince, clutching his face, holding closed his split face. ‘Before this day is out, I will have each and every one of you flayed-’
‘I find that very unlikely,’ Birin told him. ‘In the meantime, if you value your life, be silent! You will tell your King that the Thane no longer recognises his former Sovereign, and will strive for the good of all free peoples to unseat his former King. This former King will then be captured and brought to trial for crimes against certain free people, including his own, for which he will surely be put to death. Do you understand me?’
There was something very un-Elf-like about the Prince now as he licked at the blood on his hands. His smile was the mad grin of a ghoul as he glared back at them. ‘You have just signed the death-warrants of yourselves and your families,’ he hissed.
One of the soldiers rode forward, beseeching Birin. ‘Must we let this thing live?’ the soldier cried in dismay.
‘Let it live awhile longer yet,’ said Birin without taking his eyes off the Prince, ‘but mark my words, snake; at the last, when your King and those conspirators who abet his madness fall, and all his plans are thwarted and his insane works destroyed, at the last I myself will come for you, and you will suffer at my hands before you die.’
‘Your words are empty,’ hissed the Prince. ‘The King has many allies, and many, many soldiers.’ He fumbled his way to his horse and mounted. Turning to face them, laughing as though he had planned this moment himself and now relished it, he said, ‘Before, I had to be satisfied with spitting Faerie women and children. No longer. Now you will all die.’ He turned his mount and left at a gallop, his words hanging heavily in the air long after he left.
Birin, who himself was wearing the King’s livery, took stock of those around him. ‘Any of you who represent the King should depart, now.’
‘You will find no representatives of the King here,’ said one of the Elves who had ridden with the Prince. ‘But we do ask your leave to alert our friends and families. They will be in danger, and should know whether to seek safety or to join with us.
‘But captain Birin, tell us . . . what did his words mean? To what allies does the Prince refer, and to what soldiers? I can speak for most of those in the King’s own guard; most of them will leave His service, and Prince Cir’s and come to our aid. But Prince Cir clearly discounts this occurrence, or I am not a soldier of experience!’
‘I, too, am troubled by the Prince’s words,’ Birin told him, ‘especially so, since it seems he has planned for this moment! A nameless dread comes upon me when I consider that Prince Cir, in his younger days, was known to have made long forays into the far regions of the North, where the Goblins dwell. The Thane attempted to track the villain, and even now, certain words of the Thane’s come back to me; words that he may himself not have understood the import of; that tracking Prince Cir was always made difficult and dangerous by the number and threat of Goblins!’
‘Prince Cir has slain many Goblins,’ the soldier said, somewhat defensively, realizing at once the import of Birin’s words.
‘Prince Cir,’ Birin said carefully, ‘has murdered many people, of all races.’
Meeting his eye unwillingly, the soldier nodded. ‘That would be like Prince Cir. What better way to cover his tracks?’ Then, sudden awareness causing his eyes to widen with fear and anger, ‘He knows every track and trail through the Northland Waik; he knows our positions, our strengths, our weaknesses, that which is defended, and that which is not-’
‘He knows, too,’ Birin added, ‘that under the present circumstances, which we ourselves have just helped precipitate, that our Northern defences will shortly be in disarray, and will subsequently collapse.’
The soldier suddenly became grey with apprehension.
‘I had always feared civil war, had always assumed, even in my darkest dreams, that such was the worst that could possibly happen . . . but this! My captain, what has the Prince contrived to do to us?’
‘I fear,’ Birin replied, ‘that he gives us no choice but to partake of his madness.’