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After issuing several orders in rapid succession, Birin then turned his attention to Pran, and said, ‘Quickly! What of this threat to your friends and family?’



‘Prince Cir’s soldiers were waiting for us near the old battle site on the Mirrow,’ Pran told him. ‘Others had come across the open field from the direction of my home. I fear they may have been waiting for me to leave my family undefended.’



‘Loriman! Dornal!’ shouted Birin. Two Elf soldiers came forward with alacrity. ‘Each of you form a unit of two score. Loriman, you will escort Pran to his home, and Dornal, you will continue east, and deal with any marauders. If you encounter Cir’s soldiers, slay them if you must, for they are not to be trusted. There has been enough mischief.’



A number of Men and Dwarves who had been standing about since the unpleasantries began, watched these proceedings with understandable concern. One large man stepped forward to address Birin.



‘Is it truly your wish that we should leave? I for one would aid you against these fools who so blithely destroy the peace.’



Birin bowed to the Man from his horse. ‘I thank you for your moral support, friend Helmsmith, but this is civil war, and your people should leave as soon as is possible, lest they become divided in loyalties as well.’



The Man laughed, and many Dwarves and Men about him smiled grimly. ‘We know where our loyalties lie,’ he said, ‘and it is not with your King or Prince Cir. We have long been friends of the Elven people, and there is not one of us who does not know of the barbarities committed against Faeriekind; though against our desire, we have remained forever silent and neutral in this matter, hoping it would become resolved.’



‘Nevertheless,’ replied Birin quietly, ‘if you stay, both your own and your families’ lives will be in jeopardy. Neither Prince Cir nor the King would scruple to murder your wives and children if you became involved. For the good of all, I suggest that you return to your homelands, and close your borders until this matter is resolved.’



‘Very well,’ replied Helmsmith in a way that was not altogether convincing. ‘We will leave. But we will be watching.’

***

Pran, Ralph, and Doc set out for Pran’s home once more, this time with forty Elf soldiers led by Dornal. The other forty, led by Loriman, had set out before them at a hard gallop. The sun was low in the sky now, and they set off at a quick pace.

‘Well, Doc, what do you think of this place now?’ asked Ralph, riding beside him. He was talking more in an attempt to choke down his own fear for the others, than to make conversation.

‘I think you’d better get busy with those arrowheads,’ Doc replied. ‘There’s something not right with that Prince Cir character.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Didn’t you notice anything strange about the blood on his face?’

Overhearing this, Pran slowed to ride beside them. ‘What is strange about Cir’s blood?’

‘He didn’t bleed enough, for one thing,’ said Doc. ‘For another thing, the injury itself didn’t look right.’

Ralph laughed humourlessly. ‘Well, how should it have looked?’

‘Not like a split grape,’ said Doc. ‘Look, I’ve seen every kind of wound there is. When skin is split open like that, you should be able to see fat and bone underneath, as well as muscle and tendon.’

‘And?’ asked Pran.

Turning to face the Elf, Doc said, ‘Either your friend has the strangest anatomy I’ve ever seen, or he’s not who or what he claims to be.’

Pran pondered this a moment in silence. However, instead of responding to Doc’s observations, he said, ‘My friends, I owe you an apology! I did not anticipate this turn of events; I will endeavour to make amends as soon as may be. Yet, in truth, I did make every attempt to avoid such an occurrence; as a soldier in the King’s armed forces, a service that by its nature carries certain attendant risks, I have ever been fearful for those close to me. I have, from time to time, speculated that my premises may have been watched, but I did not realize the extent to which I was being spied upon. It was my assumption that upon relinquishing my captaincy, any competitive interest in my person, or personal enmities incurred when executing my duties, would over the last year have waned and been quite forgotten. However,’ he added, ‘as Prince Cir has reminded me, such was not the case. I am sorry. I have erred.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ Doc muttered, gruffly. ‘Your Prince Cir is a dangerous and unpredictable lunatic. You’re not responsible for his actions.’

‘Ditto,’ Ralph said, though it was obvious the main focus of his thoughts was elsewhere. At last, he said, ‘Will Cir’s soldier’s have done anything, do you think?’ It was apparent from his tone of voice, as well as his visage, that he was visibly upset by what he was thinking. ‘I mean, they are soldiers. They will just take civilians prisoner, until they get further orders, won’t they?’

‘That,’ Pran said, his face pale with his own unspoken fears, ‘depends entirely on what they were initially ordered to do. Regardless, many of Prince Cir’s soldiers can’t be trusted to follow orders, and many take licence from the Prince’s actions.’ In a barely audible voice, he added, ‘There is no telling what his soldiers will do . . . or what they are capable of.’


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