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Ralph woke early laying on his back, not feeling overly refreshed, but more that he’d overslept. Lifting his head he discovered that food had been provided, laid out on a small table which stood in front of a tall, narrow window to his right. ‘Mm. Room service,’ he muttered, rubbing at the stubble on his chin. Malina, still fast asleep, was pressed comfortably to his side, head on his shoulder, face uplifted, the bridge of her nose pressed to the underside of his chin; where their bodies touched felt slightly damp with sweat, but comfortable.

As before, unbidden images of Nevana came to Ralph’s mind. If only he’d given in to her, he would be laying now with her at his side, in post-coital comfort, bliss, and exhaustion . . .

And as before, such images evoked feelings of guilt and betrayal toward the small form pressed so fervently to his side.



He did feel something for Malina. That had finally become clear to him in the Hall of the Thane, when, terrified as she was, she had got up in front of all those people who hated her . . .



At that moment, when she had squared her small shoulders and set her jaw, had fought down her terror and began to speak; in Ralph’s eyes she had suddenly seemed to grow . . .



At the same time, assessing himself, he wondered, ‘How could I even consider letting someone like that down? Or allowing myself to feel the way I do towards Nevana?’ He huffed at his own thoughts. ‘Letting myself feel! What am I saying? I have about as much control over my feelings as I do over the dawn!’ Mulling this over a little longer, however, he thought, ‘Yes, well, that may be. But I can control how I act!’



Suddenly wide-awake, and realizing that he was hungry, he moved, hoping to shift himself from underneath Malina without waking her. She awoke almost instantly, however, stretched, lifted her head, and to his surprise, looked at him worriedly. ‘Rowf getting too bony,’ she said in English.



Chagrined, for a moment he almost choked with laughter. ‘Too bony? Me? Malina, I’ve been trying to lose this blub for ages!’



She frowned, though trying at the same time not to smile. ‘I miss Rowf’s soft belly, like you have when you first hold me, remember? When I first came to your world, and you hold me in your chair, in front of the fire? You melting away.’

He rose and, without thinking, kissed the top of her head. ‘The soft part on the outside, maybe,’ he said. ‘But I think you’ll find that the inside hasn’t changed at all.’

***

After breakfast, they visited Deborah and Theuli in the infirmary. Malina stayed behind with Deborah, as Deborah seemed starved for company. Ralph, however, was soon bored (and ignored) as the two girls chattered away, so he left to find something to do, and asked one of the Thane’s guards for directions to the armoury’s forges. The guard spoke in a thick accent; Ralph found it difficult to understand him at first (and vice versa). But finally he had the needed directions. Just as he was about to leave, however, he discreetly asked the guard about his speech. The guard told him in succinct terms that he was from the far Northeast reaches of the Kingdom, and Ralph left it at that. The Elf man seemed none too friendly, he thought.

***

He found the armoury as the guard said he would. It was closed up and silent, but four guards sat at the entrance, and rose when Ralph approached them. When he explained his business, one of them produced a ring of keys and opened the door, telling Ralph that the blacksmiths did not usually begin their work so early in the day. Following Ralph inside, he began pushing open louvres in the roof with a long pole, to let in light, and later to let the heat of the forges escape.



The forges were actually in a separate stone building, attached to the side of the armoury. The building housing them was very narrow; there were six forges all in a row along the west wall, each with its own chimney built into the outside wall. It was cold, dark, and very dirty, the inside walls, floor, and furnaces blackened with soot. Everywhere were barrels full of blackened iron objects and piles of slag, with implements hanging from the beams overhead, held there by grimy leather thongs and dirty twine.



Ralph grinned at the sight, took off his shirt, grabbed a shovel, and began heaving coal into the furnace of the forge he’d chosen to use.

***

By mid-afternoon the smithy was fairly busy. Three other blacksmiths and their young helpers were hard at work making various implements of war. All took time to watch Ralph as he fashioned arrowheads, and marvelled at the uniform quality of his work. They were mystified, too, at his use of baromiène, the rock-crystals he used to give his arrowheads their lustrous sheen, their indestructible hardness, and their impossibly keen edge. Several tried using the crystals, only to be left scratching their heads in bafflement when they merely burned off as slag.



A few hours later, Ralph was interrupted from his work by Birin.



‘How goes it,’ the Elf-captain asked him.



Ralph shrugged, and mopped his brow with a rag he kept tucked in the back of his pants. ‘I’ve made about thirty so far. I’ve tried to show the others here how it’s done, but they just shake their heads, and say things like “I am a smithy, not a sorcerer.” It looks like I’m on my own.’



‘Let’s leave the others to their work, shall we? I have something to discuss with you.’



Ralph washed up a bit using cold water from a barrel, gave his cache of arrowheads to a fellow worker for safekeeping, and followed Birin outside to the nearest section of a continuous courtyard which wove its way between the buildings of Mirrindale. It was cleverly convoluted, full of private nooks and crannies, many of these being furnished with tables and benches sheltered by slate-shingled roofs supported at each corner by stone pillars or thick wooden posts. About the stone walkways were raised terraces with patches of grass bordered by flowers and flowering shrubs. They seated themselves at a stone bench which was sheltered beneath an enormous magnolia tree in full bloom; nearby was an ornate fountain shaped like the heads of dolphins, which gurgled and sparkled cheerfully in the bright sunlight.



‘Pran has told me that you are not skilled in the arts of weaponry,’ Birin said. ‘Is this true?’



Groaning inwardly, Ralph replied,’ I can make just about anything, as long as I have some sort of plan to work from. That doesn’t mean that I have to know how to use what I make.’



Birin’s expression appeared as though he found what Ralph had said repugnant, but that he was making an effort to conceal his reaction. ‘This is a cause for concern with me. There is a balance to made things that comes directly from use; a balance between art and craft, if you will. I would like you to begin training. Today.’

‘You really think it’s that necessary?’ Ralph asked him, not enthralled with the idea.

‘Let me put it to you in more personal terms,’ Birin told him. ‘If you or your friends were attacked, and there was no one to defend them but yourself, wouldn’t you want to know at the least that you could defend them?’



At the moment, this was the last thing Ralph wanted to talk about, touching very closely his sense of helpless frustration and failure when he had seen battle. Even had he been there when the Goblins or renegade Elf soldiers attacked, he doubted that his presence would have made much of a difference. But he heard something else in the soldier’s words.



‘Are you testing me?’



Birin considered this for a moment. ‘Let me say that I wish to know what to expect from you.’



‘Why?’



Birin hesitated, as though he wished to skirt an unpleasant subject. ‘I will be candid with you,’ he said at last. ‘You are an outsider, and the Thane is now considering including your little toys into his plans. The Thane is a strategist, one of the best I’ve ever seen. I am a captain, and I view things in a much more personal manner. It is my job to make the Thane’s plans work, and part of his design may soon include you.



‘In short, when strategy fails, or new weapons do not live up to their touted capabilities, soldiers die. My soldiers. You have what appears to be a great talent, but you lack experience. The Thane, as a man of ideas, may blindly trust your talents, but as I consider the soldier before I consider the weapon he wields, I share neither his trust nor his blind faith. You will not have the trust of myself, nor that of my soldiers, until you have earned it.’



Ralph digested this uncomfortably, sensing both the truth in Birin’s words, and the weight of what he was asking. ‘When do I start?’

***

Gannet was the biggest, strongest Elf Ralph had seen yet. He was a good three inches taller than Ralph, and well-muscled. Ralph got the distinct impression that Gannet did not like soft civilians one bit. This impression was greatly reinforced when Gannet pinned Ralph against a wall with a razor-sharp sword against his throat. Ralph was panting as much from fear as from exhaustion as the Elf released him. Wiping at something on his neck, his hand came away bloody.



Bastard!



By late afternoon, Ralph’s muscles quivered with exhaustion, his arms and legs ached, he generally felt like he had been carrying a lead weight around all day, and to make matters worse, he was developing a pounding headache which, as it got worse, thwarted his concentration, ruined his focus, even played havoc with his short-term memory and his vision. But the big Elf showed no sign that he was tired, or that he intended to take a break, or that he intended to end this session at any time.



Finally, Ralph had no choice but to stop. He dropped his guard deliberately, and put his hand up.



‘Enough. That’s all I can do today.’



To his surprise, the big Elf stopped as abruptly and sheathed his sword, looking as fresh as when they’d begun. ‘In the course of conducting warfare, you would have no such option,’ he said. Without another word, he turned to leave.



‘When’s my next lesson?’ Ralph said adamantly, thinking by his body language that Gannet meant to snub him.



‘That is Birin’s affair,’ Gannet replied as he left. ‘One of my duties is the training of soldiers. The care of civilians is not my concern, unless it is made to be so.’



Ralph was stung by the big Elf’s remark, but decided to seek Birin out, to have a schedule made up. He found the captain at an officer’s meeting in a building a discreet distance from the soldier’s barracks. Ralph didn’t wish to intrude, but the Elf captain seemed glad for the opportunity to escape for a breath of fresh air, and a chance to stretch his legs.



When Ralph mentioned his intention to begin training in earnest, Birin’s relief, though palpable, was reserved.



‘You should understand,’ Birin told him, ‘that most soldiers begin learning their craft as small children. I must warn you that it is very rare for a late starter to become a good soldier, though within the ranks of a conscripted army (which is what the male civilian population will become the moment civil war is officially declared), volunteers command more respect than those pressed into service.’ He considered Ralph thoughtfully for a moment. ‘To be entirely honest with you, I was certain that you would last only until Gannet’s menacing nature made you fear for your personal safety.’



Ralph grimaced to show that he was not about to be taken in by such an obvious ploy. ‘It’s pretty obvious, even to me, that you don’t kill or maim the men you’re training.’ Then, he caught the look on Birin’s face. ‘You’ve got to be joking!’



‘There is more to it than the scope of our present conversation,’ Birin told him. ‘Suffice it to say that there is an . . . element . . . within the Elven soldiery . . . indeed, within the Elven people, that needs to be . . . I believe the word is excised. You need not worry, however, for this matter does not concern you; your personal safety, therefore, is not at risk. Except,’ he added wryly, ‘for the usual injuries incurred in any sort of hard and dangerous training of a physical nature; especially where the use of instruments whose sole purpose is to kill is concerned.



‘However,’ he said, ‘to illustrate that which I just mentioned; you recall that in the Hall of the Thane, there was a man in robes, an older or middle-aged man, who may or may not have been an Elf, who presented Malina with a false document to sign.’



‘How could I forget?’ Ralph replied, tersely. ‘I wish I’d got a better look at him.’



‘So do we all,’ Birin said. ‘That is the element to which I refer. Be wary. Watch for it. And-’ he said pointedly, ‘you might make mention of this to your friends, for Malina in particular will be the target of such people-’



Ralph was on his feet immediately, glaring. ‘What? You mean it’s not enough that the Thane’s soldiers are supposed to protect her?’



‘Not all the Thane’s soldiers are to be trusted,’ Birin told him simply. ‘I would be lying to you were I to claim otherwise, or to state that I knew for certain who and who not to trust, without reserve. Understand, it is not an easy or a simple matter to know where all loyalties lie. Many soldiers have had multiple allegiances, as they have served in various Merchants’ private mercenary armies, even while ostensibly being members of the Thane’s, the King’s, and Prince Cyr’s forces. There are all manner of hidden, private agendas at work, not the least of which involves spying and active attempts to undermine the Thane’s hold on power.



‘I want you to keep in mind, when training, that many of the best-trained, most lethal soldiers, are also assassins and opportunists. Being able to deal with them should rightly be your measure of quality as a soldier.’



Ralph heard something else in his tone of voice. ‘That’s why Gannet thinks I’m a waste of his time; he has that to worry about.’



‘Gannet,’ Birin told him, ‘has no love of assassins. And he has absolutely no patience with any form of weakness, which in his view, and mine, we can ill-afford.’

***

That evening, after spending the remainder of the day at his forge, Ralph returned to his quarters in anticipation of a hot bath. Along the way, he met a servant in the hall, and mentioned his desire to her, a little uncomfortably, not liking this element of class distinction which existed in Mirrindale. The girl, however, seemed only too happy to pass along his wishes to the “proper” person or persons who executed that particular duty.



Or so he thought.



However, a matter of fifteen or twenty minutes after he entered his quarters and flopped into a comfortable, overstuffed chair to rest, the same girl, accompanied by another, entered his apartment, each pushing a wooden cart. The top of the first wooden cart, he saw, consisted of trays which held implements: combs, clippers, and various devices, the use or function of which was unknown to him; beneath this was a set of drawers, which he was to discover contained linens such as towels and washcloths; the bottom held two enormous earthenware ewers full of steaming water. The second cart was smaller, having an identical pair of the large earthenware ewers sitting on its base, and a pair of bowls set into the top.



These were pushed into a corner of the apartment, to a place where a large, hinged box sat upon the floor. To his surprise, the second girl lifted the front of the hinged box, and pushed, sliding it into the wall, exposing the bronze bathtub which lay inside the box.



‘I’ll be damned,’ he muttered, as the two girls quickly filled the tub, and then stood patiently, watching him expectantly.



‘Um, that’s all right,’ he told them, finally realizing their intent, ‘I can wash myself.’



Abruptly, they exchanged a startled look.



‘How have we offended you?’ the second girl asked him abashed.



He wrestled with himself a moment, then realized something; that he felt about these young women as he would around nurses, that this was how he should feel. Feeling as though such an act came perfectly naturally to him, he doffed his clothes before the two women, and stepped into the bath.



To his further relief, they went to work on him, immediately and professionally.



After washing his hair, the first girl began tending to the wound on his neck. He stared when she brought out a tray from somewhere, complete with thread, bottles of unknown substances, and strange-looking crescent-shaped objects, shaped almost like animal claws with holes in the wider end, most of which were very small, narrow, and paper-thin. She dabbed something on his neck which made it feel tingly-warm; then, strangely, there seemed to be no feeling at all. She then selected one of the crescent-shaped objects, threaded it, and to his shock, began sewing up the gash on his neck. He flinched at first, anticipating pain, but there was none. He began to relax, to let her do her job.



Some motion caught his attention, and he looked up to see Malina staring at him, her eyes wide.



‘What happened to your neck, Rowf?’ Her tone was a mixture of anger and fear.



He told her.



She sat on a small nearby divan, looking like a worried child.



‘No,’ he thought, realizing that his impressions of her were changing. In the same breath, he realized that it was she that was changing. She was growing, emotionally, and in other ways he couldn’t readily define. It suddenly dawned on him that he, too, was changing, or rather, that their relationship to each other was changing, growing, as well. His judgements of her were clouded by what she had been, that a matter of months ago she would have been sitting as she was, watching him with simple worry. Now, however, her concerns were definitely more mature, more complex.



This revelation caused him discomfort for a number of reasons; not only was their relationship deepening, but it dawned on him that she was more than the child or adolescent creature she had been. Much more. But his very life had become entwined with that process of maturing, and he suddenly felt, with a feeling like surprise or recognition, that their lives had become merged in some way.



But another revelation struck him, one tangled with feelings of inadequacy, falsity, self-judgement and a fear of a type he had never experienced before. It suddenly occurred to him that this girl, should she continue to grow as she was, might one day simply outgrow him, that he might one day be left trying to measure up to standards that were, in a word, beyond him.



Once again his thoughts drifted back to Nevana. Where the Elven girl was concerned, there was no such fear; it seemed that only an uncomplicated stability awaited him, that his relationship with the Elf girl was . . . he searched his mind for the right word, but “non-competitive” was the closest he could come, though it was not the word he was looking for.



Yet it was true. The Elf girl challenged him in no way whatsoever. All she represented in his mind was an insulated world of stability, and the minor sort of responsibilities he was built to cope with- a simple life, far from the dangers or prospect of war, with a home, a wife, and children.



And yet . . . and yet . . .



When the servants were done with him, and had left, Ralph said to Malina, ‘Would you like to come with me to the infirmary to see how Deborah and Theuli are doing, and then get something to eat?’



Malina shrugged, not looking at him, looking uncomfortable.



‘Nevana is there. She does not like me. And,’ as she raised her eyes to look at him, he could tell before she spoke that she was deeply hurt, ‘she has told me that you tolerate my presence only because I am a child in your eyes, for whom you have made yourself responsible. She said that you have promised yourself to her-’



‘I have promised her no such thing,’ Ralph told her.



As though he hadn’t spoken, she continued. ‘She had said otherwise, as has her mother. She said that she came upon us sleeping together last night, and that she had seen, with relief, that our relationship was . . .’ she thought for a moment . . . ‘“nothing more than platonic.” That it will never be anything more than that. She told me that-’



‘When did you speak with her mother?’



‘She, too, was in the infirmary. They were together, visiting Nevana’s father. Her mother, Durus, called me dirty names. When she did, Arlon became very angry and told Durus to hold her tongue. He apologised for what his wife had said, but asked me to leave.



‘Before I could leave, Nevana, took me aside and told me that you had promised to be with her today, that I was responsible for preventing you from fulfilling your promise; that today the two of you had intended to consummate your relationship. I asked her what this meant, to “consummate,” and she told me that it meant having physical relations, after which two people were considered “joined.”



‘After telling me this, she said “go away,” so I left, and went to my apartment. I have packed my things-’



‘Malina!’



‘-but I decided to come here to you before leaving, because something of her words disturbs me. I hear truth in them, but-’



‘Don’t say any more,’ Ralph said, angry at himself for having allowed things to have gotten so far out of hand. ‘We’re going to visit Deborah and Theuli. Then we’re going to get your things and bring them here.’



She stared at him, her face a mixture of conflicting emotions, as he quickly got dressed. Then, taking her firmly by the hand, he led her to the infirmary.



Looking in on Deborah, they found that she was asleep, looking pale, sweaty, and feverish.



Theuli, however, was awake, sitting propped up with pillows in her bed. She smiled wanly when they drew the privacy curtain aside.



After briefly discussing her health and recovery, Ralph cleared his throat, and said to the Elf woman, ‘There’s something I want to you explain to Malina. I want her to hear it from you, so that there’s no doubt in her mind.’



Considering their clasped hands with a masked, though speculative look, she said, ‘I hope you’re not going to ask me to act as arbiter in some personal matter.’



‘Not at all,’ Ralph replied. Then, reconsidering, ‘Well . . . not directly.’



Theuli’s look told them plainly that, depending on the question, she might or might not answer. ‘All right. Out with it.’



‘Malina,’ Ralph told her, ‘knows what it means to “consummate” a relationship. I just want her to hear, from you, at what stage of a relationship the act of consummation occurs.’



Looking bemused, considering the young Pixie woman in a way that made her blush, Theuli replied, ‘Malina, you’re supposed to be married first. I realize that Pixies have no such social rite, though if the two of you wish to wed, that is your affair-’

‘What Malina needs to know,’ Ralph inturrupted, ‘is why a girl would try to coerce the act of consummation before she is married.’



‘Ah, this is really about Nevana,’ Theuli said in comprehension, her look not altogether kind. ‘Ralph, would you leave us for a short while?’



He did so, his feelings a mixture of curiosity and relief.

***

He was sitting at Deborah’s bedside when Malina rejoined him, her visage thoughtful. As they left the infirmary, on the far side, curtains parted wide, lay Arlon, Durus and Nevana with him. Nevana averted her gaze and sat with her head bowed, but Durus watched Ralph and Malina leave together, her expression stony. When they reached the foyer, two nurses, who were standing, talking together, spotted Malina, and approached her, their faces angry, but stopped short when they noticed that she was accompanied by Ralph.



‘What, have you brought a bodyguard this time?’ one of them asked her, tartly.



Furious, carefully holding his temper in check, Ralph gestured the woman forward with a finger.



‘How would you and your co-workers like to have a private chat with the Thane?’



The woman paled, becoming very still. Her companion coughed nervously, and began to move away with alacrity, sandals slapping her heels.



‘Excuse me!’ Ralph said, raising his voice, bringing the woman to a halt, as though she had run into an immovable, invisible barrier.



‘That includes you. All of you.’



Swallowing, the first woman said, trying to appear angry to cover her fear, ‘You have no authority here! You do not speak for the Thane.’



‘As a matter of fact,’ said a voice from behind them, ‘he does.’



It was Pran, who had come to visit his wife. Without another word, and without acknowledging or greeting Ralph and Malina, he left.



‘Probably too worried about Theuli to think about much else,’ Ralph thought to himself. Turning his back on the two women, he took Malina by the hand once more.



‘C’mon,’ he said in English, ‘let’s get something to eat.’


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