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Theuli noticed straightaway Pran’s discomfort. Part of it was the lack of privacy in the infirmary. Some of it may have been due to the loss of their home, and the close call suffered by his wife and family.



‘Pran, you are not adept at keeping secrets from me.’



He nodded, and thinking of a conversation he’d had with Ralph, said, ‘I have been asked if I wish to be reinstated. I told Birin that I would consult with you first.’



After an uncomfortable silence, she replied, ‘I see. What do you wish to do?’



He sighed. ‘Therein lies the problem. I no longer wish to serve another, and I do not want to be involved in something that takes me far away from my family for prolonged periods of time. The death of my brother and his family has taught me that each moment we spend together is very precious. I have missed out on much of Rani’s childhood, and that which is missed is gone forever.’



‘Is there no other task you could perform?’



‘There is, but it still involves travel.’



Theuli sighed, accepted this tiredly. ‘So you would be away again?’



‘No,’ he replied, looking her uncertainly in the eye, ‘we would be away.’



‘We? You mean you and I? Or you and I and the children?’



‘I mean all of us. Theuli, as long as we stay here within the Elf Kingdom, nothing is certain, except that the King is mad, and that a bloody civil war is imminent.’



‘What? Pran, I cannot believe what I’m hearing! Are we craven, that we should abandon all hope and run away? I will admit that loss of our possessions is a grievous blow, but material things can be replaced. But our property . . . I and my siblings grew up there, as did my father, and three generations of his family before him! My . . . our life is there-’



It grieved him to torment her with this, but he said, ‘Theuli, you are my wife and dearer to me than life itself, but I must tell you that there is nothing left worth saving, or trying to preserve. If we remain and fight, we will be putting the lives of the children at risk, as well as our own. Zuic has taken the death of his family hard! I would that Rani never experience such grief; or worse, fall prey to such as murdered my brother and his family.’



Theuli was weeping now. ‘But Pran, where will we go? How will we live? What of the others who need us?’



Taking his wife’s hands, unsure if it was she or himself he was trying to convince, Pran said, ‘We have both long known that the Elf Kingdom is mostly to blame for the problems we all face. We have to make a choice; whether to fight for control of the Elf Kingdom, or to preserve the world we live in. While it is believed that the Elf Kingdom is the world we live in, that is a corruption of the truth. We must leave this place and learn to live in the real world if our children are to have a future. We Elves have been living a dream, and all dreams have their time and place. But not forever and always, and imposed upon those who don’t share our dream, as our people have been wont to do. That is the road of delusion and madness; that is the road of our Sovereign.’

Watching the trees outside being blown by the wind as he said this, the sound reminiscent of the eternal rhythms of the distant ocean, she withdrew one of her hands from his and wiped a sleeve across her eyes. ‘I had not thought of it coming to this. Well, I suppose it will assuage our culpability somewhat if we leave along with those whom you sought for so long to protect, rather than tell them how to live when our own fate is assured.’



He was troubled by this remark. ‘Have we been so blind; so very wrong?’



‘I believe,’ she said, not looking at him, ‘that by our conduct, our fate is assured, whatever that fate may be.’

***

The Thane was deeply troubled in his mind as he juggled the various uncertainties which were the only tools available for him to work with. The very thought of leaving Mirrindale, the most easily defended city in the Elven Kingdom, made absolutely no military sense. The rich Merchant class would never hear of it; they would lose everything. They supported the army, and the army protected the city. Everything would be thrown into chaos.



On the other hand, the Thane was only too aware that this same Merchant class was in their way responsible for much of the decay that threatened the Elf Kingdom itself. There were few of them he could trust, for they relied on him only insofar as he protected their assets. Few of them gave a thought to the farmer or soldier, without whom they would still be living in the deep forest, like the Pixies and Nymphs.



In the end, he decided to send a small exodus, perhaps five hundred or so of those who were willing. They would depart under the pretence that they would form a colony far to the East, in case the Elf Kingdom collapsed entirely and the Goblin hordes swept down from the north.

***

Privately, the Thane, through Birin, encouraged Ralph to keep making weapons, stockpiling them, but for the future use of the refugees only. Meanwhile, he would lead the King to believe that such weapons were kept only within Mirrindale. He wanted as little interest in the colony as possible, and hoped the perceived threat of new weapons would keep the King’s attention solely on the fortress city.

***



There came a day when dusk found the Thane and Pran in the Thane’s private quarters, on the top floor of the northwest corner of the building. The omniscient eye of the sun, half below the horizon, partly obscured by ochre clouds, appeared at once tired and disappointed at what it beheld, as though it might decide to withdraw its gaze forever, to leave the world to its own devices, in perpetual night. The study was in near-darkness. It was a fairly small room, panelled with dark hardwood, with a high vaulted ceiling. The Thane lighted a pair of candles from a log burning in the fireplace and placed them in holders on either end of the table.



‘If the situation is as bad as you believe, then why do we not begin a full-scale evacuation?’ Pran asked him.



Reseating himself, the Thane considered his answer.



‘We simply do not have the means to protect an exodus,’ the Thane told him. ‘If the King or Prince Cir got wind of such, they would attack. My army would be driven off and forced to abandon the refugees, who would then be massacred to the last woman and child. I realize that this is not what you wanted to hear, but that is exactly what would happen.’



‘But as things stand,’ Pran protested, ‘most of our people will be within the Kingdom, undefended.’



‘Yes, and unwarned,’ the Thane added. ‘And if they knew how serious the danger was, they would flee, and in so doing would draw the wrath of our Sovereign, who in turn would send out his armies, and they would still be slain.



‘Pran, I have not the resources to protect our people. Why else do you think that I have always avoided direct conflict with the King and Prince Cir? As well, their knowledge of my weakness has until now prevented this matter from coming to a head.’



Stricken, Pran muttered, ‘What have I done?’



‘Regarding the weapon made by Ralph, you have done nothing that I, nor any other in your place, wouldn’t have done without a thought,’ the Thane admonished. ‘You saw hope and the possibility of setting things to rights, and you acted accordingly, with the best of intentions.’ He shrugged. ‘Your hope deceived you, as it would have done to anyone in your place. As well, you were spied upon-’

‘Yes, and as a consequence, the enemy will undoubtedly be prompted to fall upon us like a storm-’



The Thane’s smile stopped him.

‘You’re talking nonsense! You think that there were no spies present at the meeting in my Hall, the day you and your companions came to Mirrindale? There is no doubt in my mind that Prince Cir, at this very moment, gloats to himself that we have in our possession a weapon that is all but useless to us. No, my friend, do not blame yourself in these matters. You are not in a position to see matters overall, as I am. The doom of our people is not on your head. What you did, bringing the strangers to our world, was, to my mind, a foolish and rash act, but we both know that the King was ready to begin his campaign, that once he had finished killing or driving off our Faerie Kindred, a task that is all but accomplished, then he would at last turn his attention to us. I feel it in my bones that that day is nearly upon us.



‘Once the fighting has begun, however, the people, Faerie and Elf alike, will have a much better chance to flee. The King will attack our armies and strongholds first, in an effort to break our strength, before fully concentrating his efforts on exterminating civilians.’



Pran rose from his chair to stand before the fire, his features distraught in the red light.



‘They will have many times our number of soldiers. Can it be that the dream that was the Elf Kingdom has become a nightmare from which there is no awakening? To make one’s way in life, one must have hope, but I can find none! What is there to fight for if our future and our children are doomed? How can I look my wife and daughter in the eye if the means to protect their lives is beyond me?’



‘I think,’ the Thane told him, ‘that you should share your concerns with the Man, Ralph; you have become close friends, have you not? Perhaps if he understands the depth of our plight, and the extent to which it concerns him, he might be motivated to plumb the uttermost limit of his talents.’



‘I have not the right to place such a burden on his shoulders,’ Pran replied. ‘He is already doing the best that he can.’

‘If you do not,’ the Thane told him, ‘then I will. My friend, we need a miracle. You may wish to spare your friend’s feelings, but as yet you do not know the full scope of the danger we all face. You see only the prospect of a civil war that we cannot win. But consider: the Elf Kingdom, for all its faults, has also been of great benefit to those of Faeriekind who do not live within our borders, and those lands populated by Men and Dwarves as well. By our very presence do we keep the evil creatures of the North from the more temperate Southern climes, in which they would thrive; their numbers would soon increase exponentially.



‘Yet at one time, our presence was not needed to keep the Evil in the world at bay. Nature, the Earth Mother Herself, if you will, imposed Her Balance; there was an equilibrium between Good and Evil.



‘Yet I must tell you, now, of a fear I have, concerning these matters.



‘I have heard, from those who have dealings with Faeriekind, and from certain Loremasters who keep me informed of the activities of their Order, that something unspeakable has been done to the Earth Mother Herself. She is lost to those of Faeriekind-’



‘I know something of this,’ Pran said, and told him of his experiences with Iniiq and her people.



Looking suddenly older, tired and grey, the Thane said, ‘There is more. Do you have any idea of the implications of the Earth Mother’s being cut off from Her Creation?’



Pran thought for a moment, but nothing beyond what he’d already heard came to mind.



‘Bethink you,’ the Thane told him. ‘Without Her, all of Faeriekind is doomed to extinction.’



‘I realise that,’ Pran answered.



‘Think further,’ the Thane said. ‘Of that which is not affected by her absence.’



‘I’m not sure I understand you,’ Pran said. ‘Mankind will continue, of course, as will all creatures of a nature unrelated to the world of Magic.’



‘Not all,’ the Thane told him.



Finally it dawned on him.



Somewhere in the back of his mind, he remembered that as part of growing up, he had mastered himself, and that part of that mastery was over fear. He had grown toughened to the truths and experiences of war, had fought for his life, had experienced situations where he was certain that his own death was inevitable; but throughout, fear no longer had a hold on him.



Until this very moment.



The Earth Mother was anathema to the Netherworld. Her presence kept it separate, sublimated, subdued. But if the Earth Mother were to be cut off from Her creation, then that anathema would vanish, as though it had never been.



The Netherworld:

In its way, the Netherworld was akin to the Earth Mother; it was possessed of Feminine and Masculine polarities, inextricably intertwined, balanced, one unable to exist without the other. Yet it was not simply an inversion of all that was the Earth Mother: were that the case, then it would in fact represent another; a Sister, as it were, to the Earth Mother, or Brother to the Earth Father. Nor were they like to the two sides of a coin.



As difficult as this may be for mortal creatures such as we to grasp, the Netherworld was the Earth Mother, just as the Earth Mother and the Earth Father were one and the same. But, as the subconscious chaos of primitive urges and passions are sublimated in our own minds, so, too, were the elements of chaos, destruction, impulse and instinct sublimated within the psyche of the Natural World.



At the heart of this chaos lurked the darkness that was forever banished by the light that was the Earth Mother Herself. That darkness, if untainted or banished by light, became pure.



Pure Evil.

‘If what you say is true,’ Pran said in a dry voice, ‘then all of us . . . our entire world . . . is doomed.’



The Thane nodded. ‘This matter has, over the years, brought to my mind the matter of Prince Cir, and for long I could not put a name to that which I fear where he was concerned. At first I thought him to simply be mad; but there has always been an aspect to his madness which has caused myself, and many others, a great and deep-seated unease.



‘That he was dead, and had been resurrected by the arts of certain unscrupulous Loremasters, sycophants who will bend to the will of the King, sacrificing scruple and all . . . that he was dead means that, for a time, he walked the paths of the Netherworld.



‘That they were able to bring him back at all; that is the matter which most concerns my thoughts. This silencing, this imprisonment of the Earth Mother, is but a recent thing. It is not the culmination of a process that the King’s Loremasters have been gradually working towards for many years now, else She would have been forewarned by their earlier, less apt efforts. This I know from speaking with certain Loremasters who keep me as informed as they dare.



‘But this matter of Prince Cir: the only way, I am told, that he could have been brought back from the Netherworld, is if She Herself allowed it to happen.’



‘But why would She do such a thing?’ Pran protested. ‘Prince Cir is evil. What purpose could he possibly serve?’



‘Those Loremasters who serve the King, and who resurrected Prince Cir, well knew what he would become, should they manage to return him to the land of the living. I believe,’ the Thane said, ‘that in retribution, the Earth Mother simply decided not to interfere; that Prince Cir has been allowed to return to serve a purpose; that his purpose, or rather Hers, is to destroy the Elven Civilization.’



Pran caught something in the Thane’s words, and in his look.



‘You did not say Elvenkind.’



The Thane nodded. ‘Consider: we, to the South, are divided primarily into two strata; the Merchant Class, and the agricultural. Only we are in a position to flee the Kingdom at need. To the North are the city-states of Nith and Valerian. Valerian lies directly in the path of the Goblin hordes, should they descend from the North. With the Elven military in utter disarray, and Prince Cir working to undermine their defences and their ability to function, Valerian, then Nith, will fall. Moreover, if the matter had remained as simple as that, we could simply elect to leave, abandoning the Merchant Class to its well-deserved fate.

‘But something unforseen has occurred. The Earth Mother has been imprisoned or silenced by the King’s Loremasters.



‘We have only seen the early consequences of this insane and despicable act. The fate of Faeriekind is just the beginning. Over time, as the Balance fails, the Netherworld will assert Itself, and an inversion of our World will occur. Even now, I am told, creatures from the Netherworld are being seen and heard clearly at night, where before only faint echoes were heard, and then only in lonely, remote areas. People are becoming afraid to travel, except under the light of day. Farmers are locking their doors at night, and burning candles in their windows, to keep the evil spirits at bay, long enough for them to get a night’s sleep. Their livestock, too, sense the danger, huddling together for protection, ever nervous and watchful, sometimes panicking, throwing riders, stampeding . . .

‘I can think of only one hope in all of this,’ the Thane said. ‘The Man, Ralph. A certain friend of mine, a Loremaster and old acquaintance, has told me that Ralph is possessed of a unique talent, of which he himself does not yet understand the nature of; that is, he is able to think of a thing, then create it. He must begin a work, at once, to make something- a weapon, a periapt, anything- that will save the Earth Mother . . . and us.’



Pran digested this in silence, his knuckles white, jaw muscles bunching. Eventually, he said quietly, ‘I will speak to Ralph. I will ask him to create something that might aid us, to this end. But-’ he made a curt gesture as the Thane was about to interrupt, ‘I will not have this burden placed upon his shoulders, at least not with his knowledge.’ To the Thane’s surprised and doubtful countenance, Pran said, ‘He must be allowed to exercise his own free will in this matter, else self-doubt might mar his judgement, causing him to fail. At least, in any event, let him be blameless, especially in his own eyes. Were we to tell him of the stakes involved, and were he to try his utmost and fail . . . we do not have the right to do that to him.’



The Thane acquiesced, with the greatest reluctance. ‘Perhaps you are right in this,’ he said, ‘that, like the King’s madness, the greatest danger lies in the fear of failure. The King, you see,’ he said confidingly, ‘never learned that he could trust in life. The balance between fear and trust is a knife-edge most of us walk daily with impunity. It is something we take for granted. Denied that, who can say how long any of us would last in the face of even one small doubt, magnified beyond endurance by the lack of such balance.



‘And yet, he is not weak of character. He is, if anything, stronger than most. Have you never considered how any of us might have fared in his place?’



Pran stared at him in wonder, uncertain whether to be angry or not. ‘Then you do not hold him accountable for his actions?’



The Thane’s visage was hard to read. ‘I hold his actions accountable,’ he replied carefully. ‘Because the consequences are horrendous, and suffered always by others. But to judge him?’ He shook his head. ‘I believe that by our conduct as a culture, we do not have the right to judge.’

Pran took leave of the Thane shortly after. But was long in pondering his words.



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