Rani extracted her hand from Nevana’s impatiently, and walked ahead with Zuic and the other children. Arlon and Durphel walked in the lead to either side, Arlon carrying a rusty old sword that looked much too big for his thin arm to wield, and Durphel using his long-tined hay fork like a walking stick. In the rear, Mari and Durus, also bearing sharp farm-implements, were silent and watchful, though they acted as though they were merely taking a stroll in the country.
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‘Nevana, leave the girl be! She is not a child. If you want someone to mollycoddle, carry Pitr for a while.’
Pitr, the youngest, overhearing this, had been lagging a bit, but quickly increased his pace until he walked safely in the midst of the other children. Seeing this, Mari smiled.
‘Poor, confused young thing,’ she teased, loud enough that Nevana could easily overhear, as she was meant to. ‘Can’t decide whether she wants to hold hands with a child, or a certain young man.’
Pouting at Rani’s rebuke, going very red at Mari’s teasing, Nevana walked alone in the middle, listlessly, looking as out of place in the group as she felt.
‘She knows, all right!’Durus said in a stern tone that was devoid of kindness. She was annoyed by what she perceived as the often impractical and rebellious convolutions of her daughter’s mind, a subject with her that was often cause for concern. Regardless, she egged the girl on because through her daughter she hoped to exercise her own proprietary interest in the stranger who was skilled at working metals, and even now she considered various means by which she herself could profit by his skills. ‘Nothing would make me happier than a union between my Nevana and that big foreigner, and to see her safely tied down with a swelling belly.’
‘Mother!’ Her features were scarlet as much from angry embarrassment as from an unfamiliar flush, a physical reaction which seemed to emanated responsively, maddeningly, from her belly, altogether without her volition.
The group suddenly stopped, faced by Arlon.
He was furious.
‘This is no walking party!’ he said in a harsh whisper. Except for Durphel, the others stared at him, fearful. The children suddenly huddled together, terrified by the quiet farmer’s sudden wrath; something they had never before witnessed. ‘Be silent! Keep a watch out! Listen carefully! I am not going to tell you twice! Is there a one of you who doesn’t understand this? Do you not recall Theuli’s words to us?’
Met with silence, he nodded approvingly.
They continued once more, the timbre of the group’s mood sullen in response to Arlon’s outburst. But, as if in answer to his warning, the late afternoon suddenly began to feel menacing; a feeling which only increased as skies darkened, becoming close and intense as the light of day failed altogether.
Walking alone in the middle of the group, feeling as though she were wading through the darkness, a sensation which, in her imagination, was how it would feel to walk under water, Nevana found herself feeling afraid, and wishing not only for Ralph’s comforting presence at her side, but for his strength, his protection. She wondered at this sudden image in her mind, of a tall warrior wielding a sword. Until now, she had loathed soldiers and their cruel weapons of war. To her wonder, she found herself welcoming the idea. ‘How odd,’ she thought, ‘that a change of heart can steal unbidden into one’s being, utterly without volition. I wonder;’ she mused, with a thrill and tingle of fear mixed indelibly with pleasure, ‘could he take my heart as easily as he has captured all my attention?’ The thought did not give her comfort. To love, like she loved her father and siblings, and to be affectionate: those were things she could understand. But the very notion of being in love . . . of being utterly at the mercy of her feelings, her passions . . . she shuddered, and thought to herself, That is the weakness of men, and the means by which we women are able to control them. And if it were not for that interfering little Faerie, I might have lured him into compromising me; then, I would tell my parents, they would make him marry me, and I could make him take me far away from this place, and live in peace, with a little house and garden of my own . . .
In a world of her own, like a bubble, her passage through the night seemed destined to be and remain untouched.
‘You’re certain?’ the soldier asked the masked one once again, as though he didn’t trust him. ‘You’re sure those were his very words?’
‘I will tell you this last time;’ the cowled figure replied, ‘it has begun! Every man, woman and child is to be slain on sight. No mercy, no exceptions. All livestock is to be taken, and if not, slaughtered, and fowled or burned so that it’s flesh cannot be consumed. All buildings are to be put to the torch, all wells filled with debris, all stores taken or burnt: you are to cut down every tree that bears fruit or nut, you are to burn every crop, and you are to despoil what you will.
‘As for me, I leave you now. There are many others to whom I must carry this message. Go now. Do as you have sworn to do.’
When the hooded figure had left, riding into the blackness at a gallop, bearing his message of doom, the soldier rejoined his waiting company.
‘He is gone?’
There was a long stillness, and silence, and more; and still the soldiers hadn’t moved.
‘You must realize this is madness! What he asks... if we accomplish what he desires us to do, we ourselves will be left with nothing but a dead wilderness.’
‘I am aware,’ the leader said, quietly, and muttered, ‘“. . . and borne upon the wynds of Estland Wayk were the sounds of ghosts of Man and beast alike . . . a host of wandering solitudes . . .”’
And as if in answer to The Laye Of Estland Wayk, they could see, in the distance, a small group of people; men, women, and children.
The three women had retraced their steps, returning through the transitional country, leaving behind trail and copse, arriving at last at the irrigation ditch and the hedge. It was now completely dark out; the night seemed to close in around them. Malina had the uncomfortable feeling that they were being followed, but was dogged by a maddening uncertainty. At last, Theuli snapped at her.
‘Malina, we can make much better time, travelling openly across-country! I cannot afford this dithering!’
Stung into silence and immobility, the young Pixie woman, too intimidated to even consider trying to reason with Theuli, wanted instead to please her, but couldn’t because of the risks. Deborah, fortunately, came to her defence.
‘She’s doing the best she can! Can’t you see that? I know you’re worried, but you’re just making things worse by bullying her!’
Theuli was silent for a long moment, her head bowed, and in the indistinct, silhouetted darkness, the two younger women wondered fearfully if she was angry or frustrated with them. But at last, she approached the two and put her arms around them, and they saw to their surprise that her cheeks were wet.
Putting a shaky hand to her face, she said, ‘I am sorry . . . I am sorry . . . but my sister, her husband, and their children, lie dead back there . . . I can think of nothing else.’
The two girls stared at her in shock.
‘Oh my God!’ Deborah put her hands to her face reflexively. ‘Oh, Theuli! I’m so sorry! I didn’t know-’
Any hint of indecisiveness in Malina’s mien vanished. Neither of the other two could see the hard set of her jaw and her small shoulders as she digested this news. Without hesitation, drawing the others with a will, she said curtly, ‘This way! Quietly! We will wade the ditch and run the distance along the outside of the mound, where the ground is firm and flat.’
Galvanized into action, they heeded her words. And they ran.
By the time they reached the end of the irrigation mound, they could see, in the distance behind them, the light of small fires in the distance, fires which bobbed and flickered and moved unnaturally.
Changing direction, they began wending their way between the low hills near to Pran’s farm. Theuli, who seemed to have recovered herself somewhat, did her best to keep their spirits up, but she was casting an uncertain eye over her shoulder with increasing frequency.
Malina didn’t need to look back to know that they were pursued, or that their pursuers were closing, rapidly.
The soldiers spread out in a line, as if to meet the group of travellers on foot. But something in their bearing caused Arlon and Durphel to slow their approach and tightly clutch the weapons they held inexpertly before them. Mari and Durus, too, sensed that something was amiss, and the children held back, keeping close to the two women.
Nevana, however, was all set to run ahead, relieved, when her father caught her roughly by the arm and drew her back.
A few of the soldiers bore torches, and in the dim light, two of them rode forward, appraising the Elven girl. At last, one of the soldiers spoke.
‘Come here, girl.’
Something in the soldier’s voice made her go cold inside, and she was suddenly terrified of him, or what he might do. She turned to her father for help, wide-eyed. Arlon’s look was hard, his sword raised.
‘There are women and children with us. Leave them be. You can take us menfolk, but leave our women and children alone.’
The soldiers hesitated. A few of their mounts champing impatiently, as though they knew or expected what was to come.
The one next to the soldier who had spoken, said impatiently, ‘What are we waiting for? You know the orders!’
‘I know the orders,’ said the soldier, and he began moving forward, slowly, as if willing himself to perform an act from which there was no turning back, an act which he knew, in every fibre of his being, would change him forever in his own eyes, and in the eyes of the watching world; that is, if the world was watching at all.
At once, as though pivoting, turning against his former life, he said, ‘There has been no order given for the sequence of events as we must enact them. I will have my way with this wench before I kill her. The rest of them . . . do what you will!’
As the three women ran crouched over through the tall marsh, Deborah half expected to hear or see something following them through the tall grass, and her instincts screamed at her to run flat out. They stopped dead in their tracks when Malina whispered, ‘Wait, stop, I hear something!’
They found a slight hollow like an old grass-filled ditch and hunkered down into it, listening intently. There was nothing to be heard but the breeze as it hissed faintly through the grasses, nor could anything be seen. Theuli and Deborah, lacking Malina’s instincts, were about to relax, when the sound of something far off caught their ears.
Deborah didn’t recognize the language, but it had a distinctly unpleasant sound to it. Turning to Theuli to ask her what it was, she saw the Elf-woman listening in wide-eyed horror.
Theuli clutched her arm and mouthed the words, Goblins! Do not move or make a sound!
Deborah’s heart was pounding so loudly she thought it would give them away. So, it wasn’t Elves following them! The Goblins were still a fair distance off, but she could see them now, dark silhouettes in the distance, stooped over as if searching the ground.
With mounting horror, she realised the Goblins were tracking them. She tried shifting her position when her hand caught a hard object, a flat round rock about half the size of her palm. Picking it up, she turned it edgewise and threw it as hard as she could towards the direction of the forest. As she hoped, it landed rolling, and continued on for some distance.
Grunting in surprise, the Goblins froze, looking in the direction of the noise they heard. Barking orders in their brackish tongue, they began moving off. Theuli, watching Deborah with surprise, mouthed what now?
Let’s get out of here! They began crawling in the opposite direction. Malina was struggling, unused to this sort of exercise. Deborah caught up with her.
Malina! Come on! Don’t slow down. Here, lean on me if you have to. Malina shook her head emphatically, trying to catch her breath. Look, I can move a lot faster than you. Just do as I say. Seeing the sense in this, though with great reluctance, Malina gripped Deborah’s arm as though it were a lifeline.
Right! Deborah mouthed, Now let’s go!
They had gone maybe a furlong when they heard an angry cry. ‘They have found the rock,’ said Theuli, knowing silence was useless now. ‘We have to run! Malina, take my hand. Deborah, take her other hand. Go!’
Malina’s legs ached and her lungs were soon burning with exertion. The three stumbled along and almost fell several times as they stumbled through the darkness. Suddenly, they became aware of a whizzing sound in the air around them. It took a horrifying moment to realize the Goblins were loosing arrows at them.
Theuli made a short, sharp sound, a choking cry of pain. She had been hit in the back. Falling to her knees, her voice full of blood, she cried, ‘Run! Get yourselves away and run!’ Turning to go back and assist the Elven woman, Deborah felt something white-hot strike her in the thigh. Turning around, as though in slow-motion, she landed on her back. A strange feeling came over her and she felt wondrously calm and warm. Falling downwards into unconsciousness, staring up at the stars, feeling the cool night air against her face and wondering why she felt no pain, she thought she heard screaming.
In the distance, they began to see a flickering guess. The Elf soldiers stiffened.
Torches!’ Dornal shouted. ‘Loriman, take your archers and cover us.’
Pran, as though he were still a member of the cavalry, plunged after them, drawing his bow. Without thinking about what he was doing, Ralph rode at his side, having drawn a weapon he had never used. Pran seemed about to shout something to the big Human, but the sound of fighting drew all of his attention, and he spurred his mount into a hard gallop.
Ahead, besides the torches, something was burning; it looked to be a bonfire. All about it, milling in the red light and semi-darkness like demon-centaurs, were Elven soldiers
‘What the bloody hell?!’
Ralph almost drew his mount up short, unable to make sense of the fray; he could not tell friend from foe; they all seemed dressed alike. At last, however, one thing caught and held his attention, a slight form held upright, hair pulled back, throat bared, trying vainly to cover herself with what remained of her torn dress, even as the Elven soldier who held her threatened to cut her throat.
Ralph didn’t know the first thing about swordplay or killing. Instead, he relied instinctively on what he did know. Spurring his mount straight at the girl, at the last moment veering ever so slightly to the left, close enough to graze her, leaning over, sliding his left leg over the saddle at the last possible second, he let his size and momentum do for him what he lacked in finesse . . .
. . . and slammed headlong into the girl’s knife-wielding attacker like a battering-ram.
‘Football and calf-roping . . .’ he thought dazedly to himself as the stars cleared. ‘Who’d have thought!’
To his horror, looking at the result of what he’d done, he found the Elf man laying dead at his feet. Seeing Ralph coming at the last moment, the soldier had raised his blade reflexively, and the force of the big Man’s momentum had turned his wrist and driven the point of the knife at his neck, even as his head snapped back, driving the long dagger up to the hilts into his brain.
Numb with shock, feeling as though he were reeling in the midst of some horrific nightmare, his mind barely registered that the girl had thrown herself into his arms, weeping hysterically, crying something about her mother and father. In a daze, mechanically and hardly aware of what he was doing, he led Nevana to his horse, removed a blanket, wrapped her in it, and tried to take stock of what had happened to her. He was dimly aware that she was led away from him, to where Doc was working on the wounded.
Pran seemed to instinctively understand something, and drew Ralph away, saying words that only half-registered on his mind.
‘That was well done! But we have to find the others. They are not here. Do you understand me, Ralph? Malina, Deborah, my wife . . . they are not here.’
Swallowing, Ralph looked into the Elf’s eyes, saw an empathy there that made his own burn.
‘I didn’t mean to kill him! It was an accident!’
Pran nodded, his gaze wandering.
‘You prevented a murder, Ralph. And a rape. But the others are not here. We have to find them. They need us. They need you.’
Shaking his head, as though the act in itself would help gather his wits, Ralph suddenly remembered something, looking to the Elf apprehensively.
‘The dead here . . . they’re all soldiers. Nevana . . . she said something . . .’
In dry measured tones, Pran iterated, as though from a formal text long rehearsed, ‘Nevana’s father, Arlon, is badly injured. It is a miracle that the others have met with no harm. It would seem that some disagreement or reticence on the part of the soldiers prevented their committing murder.’
Ralph almost asked how they were doing, but decided that it was probably wiser for him not to. Instead, he said, ‘All right. What happens now?’
‘We wait until Doc is finished tending to the injured and the dying,’ Pran said, his gaze yearning towards his daughter, as if wishing to, but fearing to close the distance between them at this time, in this place. ‘Then, we will go. I suggest you take a meal, and prepare yourself for another hard ride.’
Standing before the Elf obstinately, Ralph replied, ‘I will if you will.’
Pran considered him blankly for a moment. But then, a bleak wintry look, almost a smile, touched his features.
Ralph was not sure whether he found this mood in his friend reassuring.