The light from fires and torches was poor, but Doc was sure of his tools, and himself. He gave Theuli a local anaesthetic and had Pran cut off her blouse. The Elves watched in wonder as he quickly removed the arrow and sterilized the wound. When he began suturing it, one muttered, ‘I had not thought skin could be sown like a garment.’
You must login to vote
‘It’s not the best job,’ Doc said with unjust self-reproach. ‘I need a proper hospital. We can only hope for her lung to heal properly.’
Moving to Deborah, he had her pant leg cut away and began working to remove the arrow protruding from her thigh. He was distracted from his work by the soldier who had spoken before. ‘The girl will die whether you remove the arrow or no.’
‘Not if I can help it!’ he snapped. Ralph and Malina looked on, Ralph trying to comfort Malina who wept inconsolably, certain that Deborah was going to die.
When he had the arrow in hand, some innate instinct caused him to smell its head. It had an evil odour, but none that he could place. It seemed to glow with a faint, sickly green light. Removing his glasses, he stared hard at it. On the head and shaft of the arrow was a cloying substance that seemed almost alive. There was something odd about this that he couldn’t quite place. He concentrated harder, staring at the sickly green ooze. It seemed the more he concentrated, the more he saw . . .
What the Devil? Glancing at his hands, he saw a faint blue glow around them, like a penumbra. Intuitively, he put his hand on the green substance. The feel of it made his hand writhe, but he persisted, brought his concentration up to a higher pitch.
Then, he knew! Pitting his will against the substance, he strangled the life out of it, with a grim but satisfying will. When he removed his hand, the green was gone. A great calm seemed to spread through him, then, and using his hands, he pressed the healing blue aura into Deborah’s flesh. Within moments, some colour came back into her cheeks, and her breathing steadied.
Moving to Theuli, who was breathing in shallow gasps from the pain, he pressed his hands to her back. Pushing his concentration to the limit, he reached his senses inside to her injured lung, the torn ligaments and flesh, the severed nerves and blood vessels.
Pran, who could see none of this, said, ‘Doc, my wife . . . will she live?’
The moment he was done, however, Doc levered himself to the ground where he sat, oblivious, staring at his hands as though wondering how the life he thought he knew had slipped so effortlessly through his fingers.
Pran was startled out of his fear by Theuli’s gentle touch on his cheek. ‘Leave him be, my husband. He has succoured my life. It is enough. I will live.’ She managed to smile at him and closed her eyes. ‘Promise that you will not fear for me as I sleep. I’m very tired now.’
Pran looked to Doc in desperation, and found that the aged Healer was watching him, his gaze at once clear and lucid. ‘Please . . . I must know! Is she-?’
Doc glanced at Theuli’s peaceful, sleeping form, cradled tenderly and fearfully in her husband’s arms. ‘Oh, I think she’s in good hands,’ Doc told him, his characteristic disarming smile returning. ‘And since you obviously won’t be satisfied with anything less than clear, unambiguous language, yes, your lovely wife will be fine.’
Ralph had returned to the Goblin leader, whom he prodded into consciousness with the point of his sword.
‘Can anyone tell me what he’s saying?’
‘It is a corruption of an old Elvish tongue,’ said Loriman. ‘Why do you let it live?’
‘Ask it about Prince Cir,’ said Ralph, who had been thinking about Doc’s words, earlier. ‘About what he is.’
At the mention of the Prince’s name, the Goblin stared. Seeing this, Loriman spoke to the Goblin in its own brackish tongue. Despite its broken wrist, the Goblin began struggling wildly to escape, but Ralph pinned it down with his foot.
Several of the soldiers had come now to watch with growing curiosity. Loriman spoke to the Goblin again, this time with more threat in his voice. The Goblin said something that was obviously an obscenity. Dornal joined them, having overheard Ralph’s words.
Loriman stared at Ralph oddly, but did as he was asked. This time the Goblin thought carefully before it answered. Its reply, though only a few words, brought an angry response from the Elves.
‘What did he say?’ asked Ralph.
Dornal swallowed in a dry throat. ‘This vermin says it will tell us if we let it go.’
Ralph’s eyes were hard as he said, ‘Tell him we’ll let him live as a prisoner, but only if he tells us everything.’
Loriman did so.
The Goblin said three words, which Loriman translated as ‘Freedom or death.’ He looked to Dornal who nodded. As Loriman spoke with the Goblin, Dornal said to Ralph, ‘He is telling it we will grant its freedom for the information.’
‘Is that a good idea?’ Ralph asked him.
‘Is there a choice?’ Dornal responded.
Shortly before setting out, they were met by a squad of Elf soldiers who were but one of many that had been sent out to comb the surrounding countryside for marauding goblins and unscrupulous soldiers still loyal to the King and Prince Cir. The news was mixed. Some families living near Pran’s farm, and those living closer to Narvi, had been forewarned and reached safety, but many living to the east had been systematically and barbarically slaughtered.
As they waited, a wagon arrived, which had been located and brought to bear the wounded and their tenders. Once the group was under way, Pran approached Ralph silently, and they rode side by side. Eventually, Pran said, ‘You fought well. I could scarcely believe what I was seeing.’
Ralph looked uncomfortable. ‘I was going to apologize for what I did. I wasn’t thinking at all . . . it was just blind instinct taking over.’
Pran raised an eyebrow at this. ‘Your instincts seem to serve you well.’
Ralph didn’t respond at first. Eventually, he said, ‘What do you think about all of this? About what that Goblin said about Prince Cir? What do you suppose this means?’
Pran was silent for some time, lost in some distant memory. At last, he replied, ‘The Thane has long suspected that Prince Cir has been associating himself with some . . .’ he paused to search for words, ‘outside influence. Such as Goblins. We . . . the Thane was never able to prove his suspicions, but there was, and remains, a preponderance of evidence, however indirect, which points invariably to such a conclusion.
‘What is most worrisome is the fact that neither Prince Cir nor the King are so utterly careful, nor so skilful, as to think to conceal either their actions or their motives.’ He shook his head at his own thoughts. ‘Perhaps my mind searches for clues beyond the obvious, but which, to my eyes, are unrecognizable. After all, it could well be that it is not so much something in the King and his son that determines their actions, but rather, something that is lacking; and therefore would conveyance of their motives be utterly foiled.’
‘I think,’ Doc told him, thinking of psychopaths, serial-killers, and sociopaths, ‘that you may be right, but on both counts.’
‘Intangibles!’ muttered the Elf, tasting the bitter gall of old suspicions, doubts, and fears. ‘A soldier lives in the world of the concrete. I fear that the aim of the Prince is to carry the battle to ground that more suits him; an arena where the traditional skills of warfare will be rendered useless; or worse, will work against us. He is perhaps more skilled and resourceful than any would previously have deemed worthy of credit.’
‘Even so, I just don’t get it,’ Ralph said. ‘Why is he doing this? I can understand someone wanting to kill for the enjoyment of killing, and worse. We have that sort of people, too, back where Doc and I come from. But this thing of razing everything to the ground, and killing everyone; it just doesn’t make sense.
‘I mean, let me put it to you this way: when I was a kid in school, we had our share of bullies. I suppose, if they were allowed to go far enough, that they might actually have killed someone, but from what I’ve seen, it never goes that far, because they like to torment people, and you can’t torment someone who’s dead.
‘But even killers . . . back home, we have people who are called “serial killers”, who are people who go on killing sprees, who like to torture, dismember, and cannibalize their victims. But lots of these guys (almost all of them are men, for some reason) live dual lives, and live a normal existence, with wives and children. The point I’m trying to make is, they don’t destroy everything. They never go so far as to wipe out their own, and their everyday means of survival.’
Without looking at his companions, Pran suddenly looked very tired. ‘It could be,’ he said quietly, ‘that we Elves, as a people, have brought this upon ourselves, and that Prince Cir is the means of our destruction. The meddling of our Loremasters has made the Prince what he is . . . and their meddling was a serious transgression . . . where the Earth Mother is concerned.’
Doc looked non-plussed. ‘You’re not seriously telling us that this Earth Mother of yours is meting out Her vengeance, because of a few unscrupulous people, even on the innocent? That sounds too much like the Biblical crap I used to hear as a child, where it was said that the innocent would be punished along with the guilty, or words to that effect.’
‘I do not know what you mean by Biblical crap,’ Pran told him, frowning, ‘but I did not say that this is the Earth Mother’s doing. What I am trying to tell you is that this may be something that we, the Elven people, have done to ourselves. That is an important distinction. An apt analogy for this, and for affairs in general in the Elf Kingdom, would be something like this; and here I am quoting an old story: “There are a host of creatures that live in the water I drink. If I were of a mind to be rid of them, and if doing so meant poisoning my own drinking water, all that partook of that water would die-”’
‘“-and for that reason have I learned to share the water, taking only what I need . . .”’
Both Pran and Doc turned to Ralph in surprise. Ralph responded with a slow, thoughtful smile.
‘Rani showed me that old book of fables. She said it was one of her favourites, that it had belonged to her great-grandma. But she liked the one she wasn’t supposed to read, better . . . the one with all the scary pictures. Kind of reminded me of Grimm’s fairy tales; lots of blood and gore. It’s too bad they got lost in the fire.’
Pran sighed. ‘Yes, well at least books can be replaced. And good stories never die.’
As they moved off into the night, Pran rode apart somewhat; and gritting his teeth to contain his rising grief, considered the stars that glittered like motes in a killer’s eye. He well knew the meaning of the manner of his wife’s return and what it entailed for the fate of his brother Io, and Io’s wife and children.
Zuic! How shall I speak to you of this? How will you bear it?
His thoughts turned unwillingly to his younger brother Io, and to Io’s beautiful young wife. Dear, sweet-tempered, gentle Jan. Gone now- forever! With a physical effort of will, he wrenched his mind’s eye away from that dark corridor, down which lay the certain knowledge of how they had met their end, in unimaginable horror, hopelessness and agony!
Unbidden, as though to afford him a means to cope, there came to his mind the book Ralph had mistakenly refered to as a book of fables. In truth it was a very old book of songs, and in Elven fashion many of the songs contained within its pages were based upon true stories.
With a sick, cold feeling, like a pebble dropped down the stone throat of an eternally lightless well, Pran recollected Rani’s favourite, a song that had always left him feeling somewhat shaken. It was called Poor Bagaster, and was about an Elven-woman who had lived long ago. She had been murdered along with her children by her common-law husband, Orn, a local cobbler who had been a man of some importance in their tiny village.
It was a common epithet amongst Elves to refer to evil behaviour among their own as being Goblin-like, and down through the ages, this behaviour was sometimes spoken of in terms of being like certain Elves. Prince Cir and the King were often likened to Orn the Cobbler behind closed doors.
Her appeals were all in vain!
Orn, thy kindelun abused,
Left them dying in the rain,
False, thy leman thee accused!
O, she pleadeth on her life!
Save Bagaster, Cobbler-Wife!
Were her good acts all in vain?
Fain, withhold thy skinning knife!
Blacken is thy soul, old Orn,
Even as the deed is done!
Poor Bagaster, Cobbler-wife;
Gone to join thy kindelun.