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They reached the Elven city the next day in the first pale light of dawn. Their progress had been greatly slowed by the comings and goings of companies along the road, and they had to stop often to allow soldiers to pass. Always it was the same; the visage of Elf soldiers bearing a heightened aspect which spoke of the imminence of war.



Malina couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that the atrocities committed against her people had only been a precursor to this moment. It seemed that from the beginning, the Elves had really been at war with themselves. Their lesser Faerie kindred had simply been caught in the middle. The Elves were divided between those whose who wished to impose themselves upon the world, and those who saw themselves as being part of it. To her eyes, it seemed as though those who imposed themselves were holding the entire world hostage to their beliefs . . .



Malina mentally shook her head as this revelation sank in, her features colouring. For the first time in her life, wondering at her own audacity, she began to think of the Elven King and Prince Cir in terms less than awe-inspired.

***

The road became increasingly narrow, and with increasing frequency they came upon narrow stone bridges of remarkable architecture spanning deep chasms, and tunnels carved through solid rock, for as the roadway followed the Mirrow deeper into the foothills of the mountains, the river valley gradually became a chasm, the roadway having been gouged out of its stone walls. As they neared the city, the road turned sharply left, then came to an abrupt end at a sheer cliff face. On the far side of the canyon was a high stone wall, over which a few rooftops could be seen, some with pennants flying from them.



They crossed a long drawbridge which, when withdrawn, acted as the city’s gate. The canyon it spanned was cut hundreds of feet deep by the river, and crossing the wooden drawbridge was an uncanny feeling; there were no railings to prevent a fall, or a rider being borne to his death by a panicked mount. As well, the drawbridge met the road at right angles, creating a bottleneck of slow-moving traffic, wheeling about to change direction. Ralph and the others were relieved by this design, however; Mirrindale appeared impregnable. At the very least it could not easily be taken by force.



Once across the bridge, they passed through the stone archway of the gate and found themselves facing a portcullis, which was raised for them immediately, the guard having given Loriman and Dornal a quick nod of recognition.



Doc and Ralph were very much impressed with the buildings lining the roadway, which were large and elaborate. All were made of close-fitting mortared stone, many having green roofs made of heavy sheets of copper, though most were of black slate. The average height of the buildings was three or four storeys, their general shape long and rectangular, though a few were round or square, and some were fronted with stone pillars and rotundas. For her part, Malina found herself fervently wishing that she was any place but inside the fortress city of the Elves.

***

Mirrindale was the antithesis of Narvi, in every sense. Where Narvi was chaotically laid out, Mirrindale was a study in order. Where Narvi was indefensible, Mirrindale was impregnable. And where Narvi was rustic, Mirrindale was, as the newcomers were soon to find, far more cultured and aristocratic.



Pran, Doc, Malina, and Ralph, were not given a chance to rest just yet. They were met by Birin, who now wore the Thane’s livery and rode with an armed escort. Approaching Pran, he said, including the newcomers, ‘I am sent to escort you to the Thane’s Hall of Office. The Pixie woman with you, meanwhile, is to be escorted-’



‘Malina is with us,’ Ralph said firmly, cutting him off. ‘She acted as emissary to our world for her people. So far, as she is the only Faerie person from your world to make contact with our own, her presence is required.’ He added this last himself, thinking it a good touch.



Birin lifted an eyebrow. ‘Malina did not go willingly to your world as Emissary. She was banished to your world, by our people, as punishment-’



‘Your laws do not apply in our world,’ Doc put in. ‘Any time there is a sole individual of a particular race or nation in out midst, that person is deemed to be a representative. In our world, in the country that Ralph and I come from, there are people, even the lowliest criminals, who would lay down their lives, rather than badly represent their countries.’



Birin gave Pran a look that may have concealed a smile, but Pran gave no sign. With a nod, Birin acquiesced, and began leading them further into the city.



Though not a large city by modern Human standards, Mirrindale nevertheless controlled Narvi and the surround lands for a good twenty miles in all directions, and was a city-state in its own right. The population of Mirrindale was swelling, however, augmented by rural folk from the surrounding lands, many of whom had never laid eyes upon any city, large or small. Many were quite overwhelmed by the, to their eyes, massive stone structures that gave their untrained eyes the impression of being great halls of learning, though in truth only a few buildings in the entire city could be referred to as such.



Mirrindale, was largely a center of trade, but unlike the town of Narvi, with its chaotic throngs of independent shop-owners, Mirrindale’s commerce was owned and controlled by its highly organized and wealthy Merchant class. And whereas Narvi’s stock in trade was local wares hocked by local farmers acting as artisans, tradesmen and craftsmen to augment their incomes, Mirrindale was a centre of trade in a far broader sense. There was Dwarvish weaponry, jewelry, and exorbitantly expensive home crafts such as timepieces of Elven manufacture, which alone were rare and rarely-seen items; there were expensive Human silks, textiles, weaves, rugs, wood products, armour, weaponry, and tools such as spear shafts and farm implements made of ash, a wood unknown in the Elf Kingdom and much in demand.

The greater part of these goods were purchased by the rich, but many were purchased by property owners for the running of their own farms. As well, there were many specialty shops, or sections in many or most of the most expensive shops, where even the poorest soul could find some item within modest monetary means. Discount stores and clearance centers were by no means an unknown or new idea.

As they rode deeper into the city, Birin, in a formal tone, and as a courtesy, explained all of this to the newcomers, eventually prompting Doc to ask a question.



‘How is it that the Merchants have been kept from buying up or controlling Narvi?’ Thinking of the way that major chains of stores back home would move into quaint areas, set up shop, and drive all the small businesses out, wrecking such quaint areas for all, while other such businesses would worm their way in as well, and like taxidermists, keep the façade of the original quaintness, while underneath lurked the soulless juggernaut of large corporations.



Birin smiled as though he relished the answer.



‘The Thane,’ he said, ‘when he came into his Stewardship, continued the policy of the former Steward (also a Thane), which declared that no Merchant could traffic in home crafts, unless they were made wholly of materials which could not be got anywhere in the Elf Kingdom. Also, Narvi is designated solely for the commerce of the common Elven people. Those Dwarves and Men living in Narvi are bound by that same rule of commerce. You will find Dwarvish and Human Merchants only within the walls of Mirrindale.’



‘I think,’ Doc said, mulling his over, that there are people in my world who would very much like to see such a policy enacted.’

***

Her fear of the Elves quite forgotten for the moment, Malina stared at the noisy throngs milling about in the streets, her Pixie nose catching the spicy-sweet aroma of exotic foods, the crisp smell of brand-new fabrics and newly manufactured items of metal and wood. To their right, the tarpaulin had been removed from the top of a huge ox-drawn waggon, and she watched with longing as ornately carved wooden chests, fashioned from rich, dark woods and inlaid with opalescent nacre, were unloaded and taken into a nearby shop, along with huge urns of brass and bronze, packed together, for protection, with rolled and folded exotic rugs between them.



Looking up between the buildings, she could see flocks of pigeons wheeling about the city; there were coloured pennants hanging from beneath windows, and on the top floors of many buildings were high arched windows, taller and wider than any she had ever seen before. Here and there were tiny, ornate windows of all shapes, set deep in tiny alcoves, and had she still been able to transform into her tiny winged form, she would have longed to go up to them to explore.



And there were statues made of stone and bronze; statues of Elven men and women, none of whom she recognised. Most stood in some stilted, stylized pose; others rode on the backs of horses, stood upon pedestals, all of them frozen; profoundly gesticulating, enunciating, depicting, uttering . . . nothing . . . save eternal silence.



Malina’s reverie was suddenly broken. They had reached the center of the city, and came to a halt in front of a large building.



Compared to many of the others, this building was plain and unadorned. Birin once again asked that only Pran, Ralph and Doc accompany him, but Ralph was not about to allow Malina to be removed from his sight; not after what he’d learned.



Ralph was understandably torn in his decision. Malina was very tense and afraid, and neither Deborah nor Theuli were around to offer her comfort. Birin acquiesced when he saw that Ralph was adamant, but advised Ralph, not unkindly, that Malina would only be made more uncomfortable while in the Hall of the Thane.



Ralph looked to Doc, who in turn seemed to reach some sort of decision that didn’t sit well with him, and said to Birin, ‘Malina remains with us until such time as we can be absolutely certain of her safety. No offense, but her treatment at some of your people’s hands doesn’t exactly merit trust.’



Birin was about to protest the folly of their decision, but changed his mind with a shrug that said eloquently, On your own head be it. ‘As you wish.’



The four of them dismounted, their horses were led away, and they entered the comparative darkness of the building, stopping in the huge foyer a moment to allow their eyes time to adjust. Then, moving into the building proper, they ascended a short flight of stairs and passed through a pair of doors which were held open by armed guards. Immediately inside was a ‘T’ intersection, leading right, left, and center, and they took the one in the middle. Midway into the building were landings on both sides of the hall. An open stairwell rose four storeys with double staircases on either side. They followed their escort up several flights to the right until they reached the uppermost landing. They then turned left on the landing, followed it to the end, then turned right at a narrow doorway, passed through a hallway and cloakroom panelled with dark wood, passed through a small anteroom which had tall vertical windows at one end, finally passing through another doorway which brought them to the rear of a long hall.



Inside was a long narrow floor surrounded on all four sides by ascending tiers of seats. At the far end of this, seated at a table at floor level, was the Thane flanked on either side by several of his aides. To his right in the lower gallery sat a number of merchants. The rest of the hall was empty.



Their meeting with the Thane was thankfully informal, for he had long been a soldier, and had no interest in the trappings of state. At the moment, he and one of his aides were having a private conversation, discussing the contents of a document on the table before them. As Pran, Doc, Ralph and Malina reached the table, a few of the aides, and several merchants who sat in the gallery, stared at Malina coldly and muttered behind their hands to one another.

In response, Malina self-consciously tried to ignore them, and looked to Ralph and Doc, who flanked her on either side. She found that the acoustics of the room exaggerated every sound of those who muttered about her presence; she could hear their every word, and felt her heart sink down into her shoes.



Seeing her distress, Ralph took her hand, interlocking their fingers together firmly, and smiled at her, reassuringly. Immediately, she felt her spirits rise, though her sense of trepidation was no less than it had been. Unconsciously, she leaned against his shoulder for support.



The Thane was plainly dressed in the type of clothing Elf soldiers wore under their light armour. He wore no mantle or sign of office, and seemed indifferent to the aristocratic finery to his right. But when he finished what he was doing, and raised his hand for silence, the room was immediately quiet.



Without preamble, he said quietly, glancing at Malina’s and Ralph’s interlocked hands, ‘Young woman, I would begin these proceedings directly and without interruption, if I could, but a point of order has arisen concerning your status here, requiring that you read and sign a Writ of Proxy. Please understand, that when travellers act as Emissaries in our lands, they are, as a matter of course, obligated to sign the Writ.



‘The reason for this is simple: when an Emissary is not clearly elected to the task by his own people, there may come a time when that Emissary’s people will send us a person, or persons, who are, in fact, acting officially in that capacity.



‘If and when that should occur, the official Emissaries are questioned regarding the first person contacted. This is done,’ he told her, ‘because in the past, persons fleeing justice, who ventured into our lands, on occasion used the title of Emissary as pretence, until they were caught and turned over to their own people to receive justice.



‘In your case,’ he continued, ‘I would waive the matter altogether, if I could, as the social conditions I have just mentioned are not relevant.’ He said this last, turning his head slightly, indicating that these words were meant for a certain person, or persons, in the gallery, or nearby. Continuing, he said, ‘However, certain . . . persons . . . have seen fit to demand the enforcement of this point of law, so that I have no choice but to acquiesce; therefore you must sign the Writ.’ He shrugged. ‘It is just a formality, albeit an irritating one under the circumstances.



‘As well,’ he said, as though reluctant, and didn’t wish to utter words circumstances were forcing upon him, ‘there is the matter of the Emissary’s Address.’



At these words, the gallery became hushed, expectant. Several of those present bore a malicious, vindicated aspect.



Pran, however, was apparently prepared for this.



‘I will speak for her,’ he said. ‘Or one of her companions. She is unused to the pressures of public speaking-’



‘Unfortunately,’ the Thane said, cutting him off, ‘you cannot, nor can her companions. This is not a court of law, but an informal hearing, in my hall, concerning matters of State. Were she ignorant of our tongue and our culture, both interpreter and counsellor would be provided.’ Before Pran could protest, the Thane indicated the chairs before them, and said, ‘Please be seated.’ He said this in a formal way that made it clear that his directive was neither to be questioned nor ignored. They did so, Doc on the left, Ralph, Malina and Pran.



To Pran, the Thane said, ‘The news of the death of your brother and his family was made known to me a short while ago, as were the circumstances surrounding his death. I have also been informed as to the plot against yourself and your family, as well as all others living in the Eastland Waik area. It seems that these provocative events were orchestrated by Prince Cir, possibly at the urging of the King, though at present that is conjecture.



‘I understand also that you have inadvertently forced my hand where present circumstances are concerned, by making it known that you have access to weapons of some considerable importance. Since you have played a part in precipitating civil war, I am assuming that these weapons hold some decisive advantage.’



Pran said nothing at first, his gaze inward. Ralph glanced at him and almost groaned aloud. Pran was stricken with remorse for something he couldn’t have prevented, and by what he would have to tell the Thane.



The Thane leaned forward. ‘My friend, I do not wish to belittle your loss by ignoring your grief, but our need is urgent.’



Raising his eyes to the Thane’s, Pran said quietly, ‘It would not be fitting to air my grief here . . . but as to the weapons you speak of . . .



‘There is only the one. It was made at my request, and I had hoped that the technique used to fashion it could be taught to others, that they could be made in great quantity. In this I was mistaken. Also, I was spied upon . . . which is how knowledge of the weapon spread, and perhaps explains how present events became precipitated . . .’



The Thane leaned back in his chair, his features a mixture of anger, disappointment and understanding. But he took a deep breath and shook off his reaction. ‘Well, it is done, then. But I forget my manners. Will you not make introduction of your companions? From the strange attire of these Men, I can tell that they are strangers here. This young woman is obviously of the Pixie folk, and I would guess, unless by eyes deceive me, that she has adopted the sort of attire worn by her companions. Is it true that she was the one “banished” just prior to your resignation last year?’



Pran had wanted to avoid this, but said, ‘Yes, this Pixie is Malina, whom the Prince had exiled from our world. These Men are from the world to which she was exiled. They do not share the sentiments of Men or Elves from our world towards the Pixie race.



‘It was I who was forced to carry out the Prince’s sentence of banishment . . . a sentence he carried out in bad faith, as she was told that her sentence was for but a year. But at the end of that time, the Prince chose not to end her punishment. Ever.



‘Rather than be made a liar of, at the year’s end I returned to her place of banishment, intending to make good on the Prince’s word.



‘Malina, however, did not wish to return. She had a new life, and new friends. But she returned, regardless, because I asked it of her, telling her of the threat to her people.’



There was some amused tittering at this remark from the gallery, and even the Thane’s aides smiled.



His face blackening with outrage, Pran surged to his feet.



‘How dare you!’ There was shocked silence, as Pran angrily glared from eye to eye around the room. ‘It isn’t enough that you profit from their extinction, is it? You think that you can smugly condescend as well, from behind the safety of this city’s walls, and the Thane’s soldiers.’



Affronted, several of the Merchants and members of the gallery rose to leave, until the Thane raised his voice.



‘Remain seated!’



They did so with very poor grace, unnerved by the implicit threat in the Thane’s tone.



‘Please continue,’ the Thane said.



Gathering himself once more, considering his thoughts, Pran said, ‘I know what you are thinking! Pixie loyalty . . . who has ever heard of such a thing? Pixies are spiteful, untrustworthy creatures, who abduct the young, who steal small but valuable objects, who seduce young men in the guise of their lovers, and who are notorious for their pranks and their mischief.



‘Some of this is undoubtedly true, that they are vengeful and spiteful towards us. Small wonder, considering the atrocities we have committed against them! That they commit mischief and small pranks is certainly true, for I have seen these often, as have many of you. However, it should speak much for their character, that there is so little harm in their anger toward us.



‘But as to the rest . . .



‘When my daughter, Rani, was but four years old, she wandered off and was lost in the woods. After several days of frantic searching, my wife and I had given up all hope, and were beside ourselves with grief, certain that we would never see our little girl again.



‘That same evening, as we made ourselves ready for yet another sleepless vigil, there was a sound at our back door. To our astonishment and joy, it was Rani. She told us that someone had found her, several miles from our home, alone and lost and frightened. That same person gave her food, shelter, and comfort, and guided our daughter home, leaving before we could thank her. I knew from Rani’s description that the person in question was Malina.’



Malina was staring at him, open-mouthed. She had not known that Pran knew this about her, and had kept the incident secret, fearing that she would be blamed for luring the child away.



In a lower voice, he said, ‘How could she return here, under threat of death from our Sovereigns, to aid her people; and why would she risk coming here having relinquished her Power, unless motivated by powerful and higher urges, such as loyalty, responsibility, and,’ he said this last, looking at Ralph, who, caught off guard, was left pondering Pran’s words, specifically this last one- ‘fidelity?



‘How can any of you think to judge another’s loyalty, when most of you have been turning a blind eye to the senseless cruelty and brutality of our Sovereigns, some of you even aiding and abetting their schemes?’



There were few seated in the gallery who could look him in the eye as he said this. Into the uncomfortable silence that followed, he continued. ‘This Man, Ralph, is a smithy, mighty in craft, and maker of the weapon that has precipitated the present disturbance.



‘This Man, Doc, is a Healer of remarkable talent. Besides the wounded soldiers and civilians he tended, he healed Theuli, my wife, who was shot with a Goblin arrow, saving her from a wound that wound normally have been fatal. He also saved the life of Deborah, a woman from their world, who was shot with a arrow tipped with a substance so poisonous that to date none has ever survived.’



On an intuition, feeling the need for Deborah to have some sort of title, he added, ‘Though she is injured, and not with us at present, Deborah, the young woman of their world, possesses a unique talent with reflective surfaces such as mirrors. Using them, she can see things far off, or in other times and places.



‘It is because of Malina that these people are here to lend us their assistance. They, are here to help us, because there is a bond of friendship between this Pixie and these Men from a far place.’



The Thane obviously relished the disbelief and chastened discomfort of those seated with and behind him. Smiling wryly at Pran, he said, ‘I understand that you resigned your commission a year and some months ago. Would that have had anything to do with Malina’s banishment?’



Malina couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Pran?



With a dismissing gesture, the Thane said, ‘You do not have to answer that.’



‘I will answer, if I may,’ said Pran very quietly, seating himself once more. ‘The answer, which you obviously have suspected, is this; to test my loyalty, my instructions were to not only banish Malina, but to kill her, and to tell no one.’



There was a long moment of silence, not all of it guilty. Eventually, the Thane nodded. To the room in general he said, ‘Hear you? Have I not said, repeatedly, that it has ever been the most loyal, the most trusting, who are in the greatest danger of being misled and betrayed? You have only to commit one vile act, believing it to be merely a test of your loyalty or your friendship, and you are lost, both to yourselves and to your fellows. No true friend or Sovereign or deity would ever ask that you do such a thing.’ It was clear that the Thane spoke for the benefit of only a few persons in the room; several had appeared thwarted by Pran’s words, others guarded, as though their plans had either failed, or gone awry, and might possibly carry unforseen repercussions.



At that moment, a tall man in robes, hooded, perhaps middle-aged, judging by what little could be seen of his face, approached the Thane from the side, whispered something. He had a number of documents in his hands.



‘Yes, yes,’ the Thane said impatiently, ‘ it shall be done, without further delay. Young lady, ascend the podium to my left, please. It is time for you to sign the Writ of Proxy, and to deliver your Emissarial Address.’



She looked to Ralph, her eyes wild with fear.



‘Don’t worry,’ he told her firmly. ‘Doc and Pran and I are right here. Remember what the Thane said; you’re not in court; you’re not on trial.’



Pran pressed his hands to his temples, trying to disguise his worry, thinking, ‘Yes, but there are other dangers of which you do not guess . . .’



Doc shifted uncomfortably, his presence momentarily forgotten by the others. His eyes were locked on the hooded man, whom he watched, frowning.



‘Miss,’ the Thane prompted, not unkindly, ‘we haven’t all day.’



Trembling uncontrollably, thinking of what she had been subjected to at her trial, seeing the unfriendly faces staring at her in the gallery, her mouth went dry, and she was so afraid that she feared she might be sick to her stomach. She followed the young Elf who led her to a small, railed, circular podium. One small corner of her mind appreciated that it was richly carved, the sort of place a powerful orator would have stood and held an audience in thrall; not the sort of mean, austere structure upon which she’d been made to stand at her trial . . .



Clenching her hands at her sides in an attempt to conceal how much they trembled, once she gained the podium, the young Elf handed her a small, leather-bound signature tied with red ribbon. She untied the ribbon, opened the signature, laid it flat on the podium, and-



The hooded, robed man, who had accompanied her, pointed to a line at the bottom of the second page, handing her a quill. Something of the Man’s movements caused Doc’s belly to tighten, apprehensively.



‘Sign there. An ‘X’ will do, a symbol shaped like this-’ he demonstrated, with a movement of his hand.



She stared, in incomprehension.



‘Come, come, it is a simple matter,’ the man said. ‘Here,’ he tried taking the quill from her, ‘I will sign it, if you like-’



‘What sort of document is this? What does this mean, that I hereby cede all lands- Here! Let me read that!’



The man had snatched the document from her, chagrined.



‘Bring that document to me! Now!’ The Thane was on his feet, his thundering voice sending his aides scrambling into action.



Without thinking, reacting instinctively, Doc surged to his feet. ‘Look out! He’s armed!’



For a frozen moment the Man stared at Doc, from the depths of his robes, in disbelief. Snatching a long knife from his raiment, he turned towards Malina- only to find his way barred by armed guards. Before anyone could react, he turned and fled, disappearing through a curtain into an anteroom at the rear of the Hall, pursued by several soldiers.



The document, which had been dropped in haste to the floor, was seized by an aide who brought it to the Thane, who was on his feet.



‘I humbly apologise for this outrage,’ he said to Malina. ‘I myself, declare your position official, forthwith. I will have documents drawn up to that effect, and sign them myself, so that there will be no further mischief. I can assure you that I will spare no effort to have that gentleman tracked down and brought to justice.



‘That said, while I do not command you to make your Emissarial Address, still, I ask it of you. I realise that you are unprepared, but I do ask, for the sake of certain of those present, that you make some sort of address, if only because the voice of Faeriekind has never before been heard in this chamber, nor within the confines of any official office of the Elves, except in the lowliest of capacities; normally, when the machinery of such offices was being used against them.’ The Thane reseated himself, waiting.



She swallowed, realizing the truth of his words, and suddenly realized that her own fear was a secondary matter; that she had a purpose here, which she could neither ignore, nor fail to meet. To the amazement of all, despite what had happened, despite her fear, Malina straightened her small shoulders, lifted her chin, glanced in Ralph’s direction as though trying to draw strength from his presence, and began to speak.



‘Thane of the Elves . . .’ she stammered, and stopped. Biting down on her fear, her face pale, she began once more. ‘Thane of the Elves, in recognising my sovereignty as a person this day, you have also recognised the sovereignty of all Faerie peoples.’



The moment she spoke these words, the hall became utterly silent with what could only be described as stunned disbelief.



‘Yet I know not what to say. If I mention crimes against my people, or plead their case, or rail against past injustice, such words would merely be in accordance with those of you who are friends to Faeriekind, and anger those of you who are not.



‘There are many of you who believe that we of Faeriekind are stupid and ignorant. But we know that Elvenkind is well aware of its own actions, and that Elvenkind is beset with its own problems; that the injustices inflicted upon my people are only one small part of the concerns of your people; that your own people suffer as well.



‘Yet, though you think us ignorant, in truth, there are few of you who know anything about us; about our ways, our habits, the reasons we live as we do.



‘However, we of Faeriekind understand Elvenkind well enough in our way, for our very survival depends upon learning the habits and ways of certain of your people, so that we may avoid abuse, murder, torture, enslavement, and other acts of unspeakable barbarity.



Though terrified beyond words, she lifted her chin defiantly. ‘While in the world of my friends, I learned to read and write-’



There was an outburst from the gallery at this, forcing her to pause.



‘-an act punishable by death in our world,’ she continued, for the first time looking those in the gallery in the eye, amazed at her own audacity. ‘It is an odd thing, when you think about it; that Pixies are considered incapable of learning their letters, yet are put to death if they are caught trying to learn.



‘We of Faeriekind are not a people bound by title and written laws. That is your way, but it is not ours. Sovereignty to my people means personal freedom; to your people it refers to the supreme authority of those people you refer to as Sovereigns, your King and Prince Cir.



‘As Emissary, there is little I can do but try to keep the truth in the open, for all to see. Beyond that, all I can do is ask Elvenkind to respect our sovereignty, both as a people, and as individuals.’ Turning to the Thane, she said, simply, ‘That is all I have to say.’



To Ralph and Doc’s surprise, several people in the gallery began banging flat discs of hardwood against a raised area on the desks before them, which were obviously set there for this purpose. The flat discs, they noticed as the objects were replaced, were held in place by a vertical wooden slot on the side of each desk.



There were cries of protest from a few, who mentioned the King and Prince Cir, and the Law, but they were quickly silenced and reminded of the roles of their Sovereigns in the coming civil war.



Directed by a page, Malina left the podium and resumed her seat. She was very pale, and quickly reached for Ralph’s hand with both of her own, which were clammy and trembling. He put a protective arm around her, only to find that her shoulders, too, were tense and shaking almost uncontrollably.



Seeing her discomfort, the Thane, no longer speaking in his orator’s voice, smiled at her and said kindly, ‘You did well for a novice, young lady. You said what needed to be said, and no more. And most importantly,’ he added, ‘you made clear that Faeriekind is not so easily dismissed.



‘Now,’ he said, turning his attention to Ralph and Pran, I would know about this weapon. Even if it is of little or no use to us, still, I must know why Prince Cir had cause, or thought he had cause, to react so strongly to its presence.’



Reaching into a pocket, Pran produced the arrowhead and handed it to one of the Thane’s aides across the table. Taking the object from his aide, cocking an eyebrow at Ralph, the Thane said, ‘Is this a jest?’



‘If that small object embodies a jest,’ Pran responded, ‘then it is a jest that may hold countless lives in its balance. I suggest a demonstration.’



An archer was summoned, who arrived almost immediately with a headless shaft in his possession. The Thane handed the arrowhead to the archer who quickly fitted it. When this was done, the Thane said to one of his aides, ‘Have a target brought to this room.’



Ralph and Pran exchanged a look. ‘I wouldn’t do that,’ Ralph put in quickly. ‘Someone might get hit. How about the floor?’ he said to Pran. ‘The rest of the building seems empty, so it’s probably the safest target here. That way someone on the lower floors can retrieve it.’



Pran considered a moment, then nodded.



The Thane raised an eyebrow, and said to the archer, ‘Do as he suggests. One can only hope that your marksmanship is up to the task.’



Affronted by what he no doubt perceived as a blatant waste of his talent, the archer took the arrow, drew full back, and said, ‘If this comes back in my face and I lose an eye or worse, I will expect my family to be fully compensated.’ Then he released the arrow.



With a painfully harsh, ear-splitting sound, the shaft vanished into the floor in a shower of sparks, causing the archer to jump back in astonishment. The place where it struck was a diamond-shaped slit in the stone. Turning to Ralph, the Thane leaned back thoughtfully in his chair and said ironically, ‘I see.’ The room was immediately abuzz with excitement, but the Thane seemed lost in thought for a long moment. Abruptly, his eyes came back into focus, and when he considered Ralph once more there was a concealed seriousness behind his words.



‘You were well-chosen to come at our need. But it seems to me no small coincidence that Malina should find one so mighty in craft. Do you make . . . other such artifacts?’



Ralph shrugged. ‘This arrowhead was a first for me. I had no idea-’



‘What my friend is trying to say,’ interrupted Pran quietly and leaning forward, so that only the Thane could hear, ‘is that in his world, smithing does not produce anything beyond the mere working of metals.’



The Thane and Pran exchanged a long look. Finally, to ensure that nothing would be overheard by any nearby, the Thane directed his aides to withdraw a discreet distance. ‘Well,’ he said very quietly, sitting on the edge of his chair, leaning forward on his elbows, ‘it seems that fortune has indeed been in our favour, at least for now.’ Noticing Ralph’s expression, he added, ‘It is fortunate for all of us that the King hasn’t yet met your acquaintance. Was that in fact the only such weapon?’



Ralph swallowed, trying to digest all he had heard. ‘I can make more.’



‘When?’



‘After we get some sleep. Some of us have been up since yesterday.’



‘Ah,’ the Thane said, raising his voice once more. ‘I shall arrange for your rooms to be near to mine. Rest as long as you wish. And . . . Malina?’



Too intimidated to answer, she looked a question at him. He smiled to put her at ease. ‘If anyone in Mirrindale causes you affront in any way, tell me and I personally will deal with them.’


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