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Life Outside The Kingdom
‘Beyond this point there be demons . . .’
Summoned to his first Council of Healers meeting, Doc wasn’t sure what to expect. Images of early 19th century anatomy theatres vied in his mind with rows of Mediæval scholastic monks seated at scribing desks, dutifully regurgitating yesterday’s ignorance.
He was wrong on both counts. The meeting was held in an anteroom to a large apothecary whose tall wooden shelves were laden in orderly fashion with pharmaceuticals, which in turn were prepared from a formidable-looking book of pharmacopoeia. Arriving early, as was his habit, Doc leafed through the book with growing respect, admiration, and surprise. ‘Add a few books of surgical techniques, and give these people microscopes and better tools,’ he told himself, ‘and they’ll be caught up in no time.’
When the Healers began arriving, Doc was surprised not just at how few of them he recognised, but more at how few of them there were. By the time the last expected person had arrived, they were a mere twenty-three in all, including Doc.
The Elf Healer chairing the meeting, a tall, greying, ascetic-looking fellow named Vries, was brief and to the point.
‘I have called this meeting for two reasons,’ he said. ‘The first is that this may well be the last meeting of our Order in this place. The Thane has made it clear to me that, at some point in the near future, Mirrindale is to be evacuated.’ There was no response to this, as it was common knowledge. ‘This means that we, as the Healers of Mirrindale, are faced with a difficult choice; that of remaining in Mirrindale, once hostilities have begun, or abandoning Mirrindale to its fate, and leaving with successive groups of refugees.
‘The second reason I have called this meeting is to tender to you my resignation.’ Into the shocked silence which followed, he said, ‘My friends, as you well know, there is one among us whose prowess as a Healer far exceeds my own, or any of us. And though he is not an Elf, nor is he one of our Order, I ask that he agree to allow himself to become elected Prefect of our Order. I have not yet named him, yet most of you know him well, by reputation if not in person. I name him now- James Irving Wallace.’
Doc was speechless, and for perhaps the first time in his life, caught entirely off-guard.
‘Do you accept this responsibility?’ Vries asked him.
Doc stared, unable for a moment to find his voice. ‘Were I a younger man-’
At this, Vries and a few of his companions smiled.
‘I myself have seen seventy-three summers,’ Vries told him. ‘Aga here, well . . . she stopped ageing at thirty or so-’ there were some dry chuckles at this. ‘The youngest member here, Alithæa, is forty-seven.’
‘I can see you accepting my help;’ Doc told them, ‘even accepting me into your Order, if that makes things more official. But why would you want to put me in charge?’
Vries gave him a knowing look. ‘Because you possess skills other than Healing which are vital to making a place of Healing many times more efficient when it comes to treating large numbers of casualties. These “administrative skills,” as I and others have heard you call them; it would take a blind man not to see how important they will become, both in transforming the way in which our places of Healing are organized, and in making far greater use of our limited resources.
‘Consider; it is written on your face that our lack of Healers is a concern to you. But until now we have never had need of many, and now that the need will soon be upon us, those few will have to suffice.
‘Yet you seem to be able to circumvent such obstacles, by improvising quick, simple, easy-to-learn training methods for assistants, in effect freeing our senior staff from all but the most critical of duties.
‘I will not hide from you that our nursing staff was outraged at this incursion; at least at first. Theirs is a jealously insular profession, as is our own, it must be admitted. But your methods, freely taught without hint of personal rivalry or condemnation of ignorance, has won over all those who make up the disparate disciplines of which our Healing profession consists. If nothing else, that in itself would have decided me in making this request of you.’
Doc was unable not to smile, wryly.
‘I don’t really have a choice in this, do I?’
Vries smiled in kind. ‘As a true Healer . . . not really.’
‘But you’re staying on,’ Doc said.
‘All of us, as you put it, will be “staying on,”’ Vries said.
‘And what of this business of leaving Mirrindale?’ Doc asked him. ‘I would like to hear your thoughts on the matter.’
‘As you wish,’ Vries replied. ‘There is no guarantee that Mirrindale won’t eventually fall, in which case all of its inhabitants will be put to the sword. Yet Mirrindale’s endurance is imperative, in that the King’s armies will be preoccupied with destroying this fortress city. Since Mirrindale is the only stronghold we have, not only will it buy the refugees precious time to escape, but if the city were to be quickly overwhelmed, then there will quite literally be no chance for anyone to escape from the Elf Kingdom, as the Goblin hordes would then be turned loose to roam the countryside at will . . .’
As Vries spoke, Doc considered the implications of staying in Mirrindale, and of leaving it altogether, consigning the fortress city to its fate. Working with the healers of Mirrindale had already taught him much concerning his special gift of Healing. But his Power and control over his abilities was growing steadily, and he found that for this reason he was reluctant to leave; not yet, while he still had so much to learn. Besides, he thought wryly to himself, the real reason is that I never could turn down people who need me.
In the following weeks, it was with mixed feelings that Doc received the news from the Thane that, circumstances permitting, Mirrindale’s population would be fully evacuated in a matter of months, save for the worst of the offenders amongst the Merchants and the soldiers. Hearing this decided him to stay on, even after the abandonment, though he decided for personal reasons to withhold this information from the Thane for the time being.
Parting with his young friends was hard, and when it came time to say goodbye, he was surprised at himself for being more emotional than anticipated. ‘Well, Doc,’ said Ralph, standing before him awkwardly, ‘I guess we won’t be seeing each other for a while.’ Malina wept, and embraced the old man, causing him to say gruffly, around an unfamiliar thickness in his throat, ‘Well, get on with it then. I hate long goodbyes.’
Pran was somewhat taken aback when he found that the group leaving Mirrindale would be led by Birin, having naturally assumed that the Elf soldier would continue his duties as Mirrindale’s chief captain. But the Thane had taken this role upon himself, ordering Birin instead to lead the refugees. This did not entirely make sense to Pran, as he did not think that Birin was the best choice for such a task, though he was a natural leader, known to soldier and civilian alike, and possessed a knowledge of the countryside, at least to the ends of the Elf Kingdom, that was second to none. Pran reasoned that perhaps the main reason was that Birin was deep in the Thane’s counsels, and had as good a grasp as could be had of what was to come.
Still, Pran harboured reservations in the Thane’s choice of leader. True, Birin would act out the Thane’s will as though it were his own, but therein lay the problem. In Pran’s experience in his observance of Birin’s performance as leader, the further and the longer the Elf captain was away from the Thane’s sphere of influence, the less flexible, tolerant, and organized he became. Birin’s greatest weakness, in Pran’s mind, was his inability to improvise freely when there was no plan, structure or framework from which to hang his ideas; and worst of all was his utter lack of imagination. Free-association was as alien to Birin’s mind as tatting to a stonemason.
All of those assembled for the journey were families, mostly those of soldiers and farmers. But there were many who represented the various crafts as well; the Thane had carefully seen to this. But to be so well-equipped meant also that they would be sorely encumbered; an unfortunate and unavoidable consequence. The journey was not going to be an easy one; speed, and flight if they were attacked, would not be possible. Should it happen, a chance encounter with a marauding Goblin army would likely prove fatal, but the refugees were made well-aware of all possible risks.
The Healers travelling with them were not from Mirrindale. Rather, they were rural people who had trained under itinerant educators based in the fortress city. As Healers they had their own training and methods, suited mainly to the hazards and realities of rural life. Like the military surgeons, they were self-reliant when it came to collecting and dispensing their pharmacopoeia, and had a wide knowledge of medicinal herbs, plants, fungi, animal and mineral products and byproducts, and because of their taxonomic knowledge could identity relatives of these that were possessed of similar properties when travel removed them from their familiar fare.
In fact, their knowledge of pharmacopoeia was considerably greater than either military surgeon or Healer in Mirrindale, simply because such rural folk ranged far and wide, and travelled with greater freedom that did the soldiers; and those Healers in Mirrindale had little chance of learning the skills of gathering pharmacopoeia as they spent most of their time confined within its walls. Instead, their stocks, other than what they could grow for themselves, came directly from the rural Healers, who were often paid in part with scrolls of medical information.
The refugees’ destination was to be a great forest, one that was said to exist outside the Kingdom. Legend had it that Faerie creatures had lived in that almost forgotten wood long before the creation of the Elf Kingdom. Many thought it likely that their Faerie kindred who had already left the Kingdom would most likely seek such a place.
Assuming that the great forest still existed, beyond that their knowledge was uncertain. Besides the possible presence of dispossessed Faerie-folk, there was no telling what sort of denizens might occupy such a place, or how they might react to the Elven refugees. To this end, Birin went personally to Malina and asked that she officially assume her role as Emissary, thinking that her presence might be accepted, where that of the Elves might not.
She had misgivings about assuming such a role, and told Birin as much. Being creatures of Magic and of Nature, the Faerie Folk answered to no one. They had no love for Elves, especially after having suffered at the hands of their tyranny and their dangerous Lore. And these folk would not be living within the Elf Kingdom. Pleading the Elves’ case, she told Birin, could prove a dangerous gamble, for her own personal safety as well as for the Elves.
It was well known among her Faerie kindred that the reason for the increased numbers of Goblins was mainly due to the meddling of the Elves as they probed deeper and deeper into the secrets of Nature, without any apparent regard for the consequences of their labours. They had shifted the Balance away from its natural course as they bent it to suit their own selfish wants.
As beautiful as the Elf Kingdom was, it was not a natural beauty. Instead, it was cultivated, selective, exclusive, and inherently harmful to anything or anyone the Elves had no interest in or use for.
Many Elves like Pran desired to change this, having always revered Nature for its own sake, and having mistrusted what others had done to meddle with it. Within the Elf Kingdom there had been no seasonal change for as long as anyone could remember; just one, long, stagnant summer. True, there had been no drought nor famine in as long a time, and there had been few storms. But gone, too, was the enriching decay and smell of fall, the long, meditative quiet of winter, the gentle spring mists which seemed inseparable from the new, verdant growth and poignant sense of renewal. The great Cycle of Life been stopped in its course.
The questions uppermost in the minds of many were these: what lay beyond the borders of the Elf Kingdom? Did Nymphs and Sprites still play in the streams and meadows and forests, or had they perished utterly? What unknown eyes might view a people fleeing their own folly, a people who had dispossessed others, and were themselves now likewise dispossessed? It was never spoken of openly, but there were those who felt that Elvenkind was cursed, that innocence was no guarantee of mercy. For as we have sown, so, perhaps, shall we reap, they thought to themselves.
The days and weeks passed, but finally, after a number of delays brought about by reports of marauding Goblins, the small exodus got under way. They were nearly a third on horse, a few rode atop heavily laden ox-carts and in horse-drawn covered wagons, and the rest travelled on foot. Upon reaching the town of Narvi, they turned west, skirting the foothills to enter a long, ever narrowing valley which passed eventually between two great ranges of mountains. Few had passed beyond the end of the valley, for it marked the end of the Elf Kingdom. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, what lay beyond was trackless wilderness.
The journey was hard on Deborah, who was still very ill. The bump and roll of the wagon soon had her laying in a cold sweat as she endured successive waves of dizziness and nausea. She was accompanied by Theuli, Malina, and the children. As Theuli wiped the fever-perspiration from her brow with a thick homespun cloth, Deborah opened her eyes.
‘Do you regret your decision to come to our world now?’ Theuli asked her.
Deborah tried to smile. ‘Ask me when I feel better.’ She was soon asleep again. Malina watched her, worried.
‘Do you think she will be all right?’
Shifting to a more comfortable position in the straw, drawing a warm fur over Deborah’s sleeping form, Theuli considered the high mountains and surrounding countryside. ‘I am no seer. And I am no Healer. Doc said that she would recover, given time and rest. But my heart tells me it is her spirit more than her body which needs healing. And,’ she admitted, ‘the slowness of her recovery concerns me.’
Malina found herself looking on as Zuic did small, silly things to make Rani laugh. Rani couldn’t resist making a face in response. For some reason, Malina found that seeing their play saddened her, and in some way served to remind her that those carefree days spent in the fields and streams of her youth were now gone, forever. A great emptiness seemed to open inside her, an almost physically painful gulf of need. She looked about, hoping at least for a glance of Rowf, wishing he were somewhere near . . . but there was only the passing countryside, the ponderous passage of laden oxcarts, and a host of strangers on foot and on horse.
In an attempt to push such feelings aside, she said, ‘I have never travelled this way.’
‘I have somewhat,’ Theuli replied. ‘In perhaps two days time we will near the border of the Elf Kingdom. Beyond that, my knowledge fails.’ She considered Malina closely. ‘You are so much changed. Perhaps the other Pixies, assuming we meet any, will not recognize you for what you are.’
Malina reddened slightly. ‘Oh, they will recognize me for what I am. It is their possible reaction that worries me.’
Theuli looked ahead, thoughtfully. ‘I didn’t realize the extent of the harm we’d done. Well, I hope we have paid the price already. I would not want my children to suffer for the mistakes of others.’ Her eyes widened as she watched the children, and the look she turned to Malina was profoundly sad. ‘Of course, how can I say such a thing when you have suffered the brunt of our injustice?’
Surprised, Malina replied, ‘But you have never treated me badly. Even when I did things to make you angry, you never did me any harm.’
‘Did I not?’ Theuli took Malina by the hands. Malina had never been touched by an Elf in such a manner in her life, and she stared at Theuli uncertainly.
‘I remember a time,’ Theuli told her, ‘when Pran and I travelled on a wagon much like this, when we first were married. There was an unusually cold and heavy rain that evening, and we were huddled under an oilskin, keeping each other warm and dry. We saw you, alone and shivering, huddled against the downwind side of a tree, trying to stay out of the rain.’
Not looking into the Elf woman’s eyes, Malina muttered, ‘I remember.’
‘We could have stopped,’ Theuli continued. ‘We could have offered you warmth and shelter, even for just a night. I can’t tell you how the memory of seeing you like that wrung at my heart, especially after you led Rani out of the woods.’
Malina, turning away in an effort to avoid looking directly at such memories, found herself facing Rani, who was smiling.
‘You sang to me,’ said Rani. It was true. She had sung to the frightened child a song she used to sing to herself when she was frightened and lonely, which had been often.
‘It was the same song you were singing to yourself when we saw you in the wood that night,’ said Theuli. ‘But no one ever came . . .’
Malina withdrew her hands, shaken. ‘Please, don’t.’ She turned away from the others, trying to watch the passing countryside, but her vision was blurred with hot tears.
‘When Rani returned to us, that was how we knew it was you,’ said Theuli. ‘This past year, Pran and I waited for your sentence to end, dreading what we would find. We were both so relieved . . . Malina, can you ever forgive us?’
Malina couldn’t answer at first. Theuli had touched too deeply the grief, loneliness and fear she had lived with for far too long. She found herself wishing that she was able to distance herself from such feelings, to push them aside. For a brief moment, she considered getting out of the wagon altogether . . .
‘I will be honest with you,’ she said slowly, doing her best to force down rising emotion. ‘It is hard, sometimes, not to become bitter. For understand, I have lost everything, including all that I was. I am not that same child of innocence whom you remember in the woods. I no longer need others to . . . to-’
Putting a trembling hand to her face, she began weeping, dryly. Guided by a mother’s instinct, Theuli ignored her words, and when she offered her embrace, something within Malina that had lain dormant for many years was swept aside; she pressed her face to the Elf-woman’s breast, remembering at once what it felt like to be held so by her own long-dead mother.
‘Be not so quick to abandon that child of innocence,’ Theuli told her softly, caressing the young woman who began sobbing, brokenly. ‘I see her yet. Despite all that has happened, she endures.’
That night, the air became colder and clearer, and the stars shone more brightly and in even greater numbers than before. They came to a stop shortly after midnight. When Ralph and Pran joined the others in the wagon, they ate a meal beneath the light of a lantern which hung from one of the wagon’s metal stays. Afterward, they pulled the canvas overtop the metal stays, blew the light out, huddled together under blankets for mutual warmth, and slept soundly.