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Ralph awoke with a small form pressed to his side. Glancing down, he could see Malina’s white-blonde hair in the first pale light of dawn. They had not lain together in this position when they went to bed, and it seemed to him after a moment that she had probably sought him out in her sleep; her blankets lay abandoned near his feet, where she had curled up beside Deborah. Though asleep, she was shivering, laying on top of his blankets, wearing only her light peasant dress.



Acting on impulse, guided by a strong, protective feeling he suddenly felt towards this girl, he reached down, got her blankets, pulled his own from underneath her, and covered them both. She made a small noise in her sleep and shifted against him to a more comfortable position, but didn’t wake. He was about to give himself up to sleep once more, when he noticed that Pran was watching him with a look somewhere between worry and relief.



‘I hope, for both your sake, that you realize what you’re doing,’ Pran said.



Ralph was thoughtful for a time, but declined to respond. Instead, reaching over and opening a flap of the wagon’s canvas covering, noting that new day’s false dawn that was passing incrementally into grey morning twilight, he said, ‘It’s getting colder. Do you know what season it is outside?’



‘If you mean “outside the Elf Kingdom,” I do not know. I have not set foot outside it since my youth, when curiosity used to prompt me to explore, somewhat,’ Pran responded. ‘But as we are still a day from the border and it is becoming increasingly colder, to venture a guess, I would say that it is probably winter.’



Ralph was worried about this. ‘Pran, if we’re heading into early or even mid-winter . . . we only have food enough to last a month; two at the most, it we really stretch things.’



‘Do not be overly concerned,’ said Pran with his habitual irony. ‘Food will be the least of our problems.’



Malina made a noise in her sleep, moving against him in a way that was suggestive of more than a simple search for warmth. Ralph noticed, with a pang, that she was smiling. With a rueful look, he said, ‘Despite everything, I can never get over how resilient she’s been, since the beginning.’



‘Theuli, too,’ said Pran, knowing what Ralph meant, watching his wife as she slept. Indicating Deborah with a nod, he said, ‘That one concerns me. In some ways she is hardly more than a child herself, and it seems she has known little kindness. I wonder if she has not come here to find healing, but rather to lose herself.’

Ralph shrugged. ‘I like to think that she’ll find here what Malina found in my world. She was long overdue for a change. Besides, there’s something that she needs in her life. I used to think it was me, but it’s not. It’s something else . . . not that sort of thing at all. One thing is certain, though: she was never able to find whatever it was she was looking for in the world we came from.’



‘That may be,’ Pran replied. ‘But that doesn’t necessarily mean that she will find what she needs in this one.



‘As for the rest of us,’ he said, starting to rise, ‘for the moment, I think we should have our breakfast and begin breaking camp. We must be under way soon.’

***

As the camp came to life, breakfasting around cooking fires and preparing to depart once more, Nevana left her family to walk alone, listlessly, aimlessly. Durus, following her daughter with her eyes, scowled, knowing full well the reason for Nevana’s foray. The jealous possessiveness that passed for the love of her husband and children welled up in her bosom.



An outsider would have difficulty fathoming such an emotion, or how such a person viewed the world, and her husband’s and children’s place in that world.



Arlon, however, knew his wife’s moods all too well, but accepted them with a sort of tired resignation, and with an habitual avertedness of attention, that, if one who did not know him well, might think of as distraction.



He had known Durus since she was a young, beautiful Elf-maiden, had courted her, had married her, and at first had thought himself the luckiest man alive.



But he had paid little, if any, attention to her home life, and to her parents. They were of a hard-working, humourless cast; there was no joy or laughter in that household. They seemed glad enough to be rid of the burden of their only daughter; her father was forever talking about the virtues of having sons, and her mother seemed to share this sentiment; though Durus worked hard (far too hard, he had thought at the time, as though she were trying to make up for the lack of her sex), her efforts were forever belittled. The last time Arlon had spoken to Durus’s parents was when they, sour-faced and with very poor grace, provided the most meagre, one might say spiteful dowry. Arlon thought in his heart that he was rescuing this poor waif from an ill-deserved fate.



If she had worked hard as a child living at home, to Arlon’s incomprehension, she seemed to redouble her efforts as woman of her own house. For the first three years, until their first child, Nevana, was born, Arlon had waited patiently for this mood to pass, for some spark to kindle, which in his naïveté, he thought would be ignited by his unconditional love for her; to illuminate the dark room that was Durus’s life.



His wait was in vain, and had been ever since. There was no spark, no happiness, no joy, no love. Durus’ attitude towards her first child was much the same as that towards her husband. Here was yet another thing needed to establish her independence from her parents; something that was hers, and no one else’s.



At this late stage, it could be said of neither parent that they loved their children, especially Nevana, whose behaviour, a product of their upbringing, was beginning to force a number of unpleasant realizations upon both of them about their shortcomings as parents.



But Arlon did pity his daughter, for he could see in her a longing that had long ago been unrequited in himself towards his wife, and life in general; an experience that had left him a more bitter man than he would otherwise have become.



Nurture! he thought vehemently, seeing an all too familiar lost look in his daughter’s eyes, a sag to her shoulders. The only understanding Durus has of such a word is enough food in the belly to perform a good day’s labour!



Yet it never occurred to him to do anything about this, to attempt to close the gulf between his children and himself. He had never learned how.



And now, in Nevana’s case, he sensed that it was forever too late.

***

Nevana glimpsed Ralph briefly a couple of times, riding with Pran. Neither of them had given her the least notice. ‘Small wonder,’ she thought, her mood touched by a sense of desolation as she considering the drab, overlarge, hand-me-down clothing she wore. Well-concealed beneath this garb, she wore old, ill-fitting, cramped summer slippers; consequently, her feet were cold and cramped; the sort of oversight typical of her mother; ‘Out of sight, out of mind,’ Durus would had said, with no thought for her daughter’s discomfort.



The pain of seeing Ralph together with Malina was almost more than she could bear, and she was forced to admit, perhaps for the first time in her life, that the reason she was not with Ralph was because of some lack in herself.



And she finally realized, now that it was too late, what that lack was.



It was simple love; love that, until she had met Ralph, had no idea how to give, how badly she needed it, or what its lack was doing to her life.



That knowledge had been harmful to her: it had made her realise how badly she needed Ralph in her life, and in the same breath, had made her realise how desperately lonely she was.



To make matters worse, that little Pixie vermin, that little upstart who didn’t know her place, had taken full advantage, and now had the big Human to herself! ‘Perhaps she has cast a spell upon him,’ Nevana thought, but had to push the thought aside, knowing in her heart of hearts that Malina, in her present condition, possessed no such power. ‘Perhaps she had help,’ a darker voice said, from somewhere deeper within. But no, the true reason pushed such thoughts aside. At least for now.



The true reason was that, from the beginning, the little Pixie was able to do something that she, Nevana, was incapable of. Malina loved Ralph. And her love was unconditional.



‘But if my love were unconditional, what then?’ she thought to herself. ‘Are not all things possible, where unconditional love is concerned? At least, that is how it always happens in romantic stories.’



Stories! This is real life! Consider what your eyes behold!



But Nevana had no wish to accept the evidence of her eyes. What good had that ever done her? Her life, such as it was, was not worth looking at.



So her attention began to turn elsewhere. It began to turn inward, to the voice that began telling her only what she wanted to hear . . .

***

They were moving again within the hour. Birin, whom they had seen little of, approached Pran and Ralph with a heightened sense of urgency. He pointed to a break in the mountains far to the west. ‘There lies the end of the Elf Kingdom.’ he said. ‘Beyond that gap there is no road, and no certain knowledge.’



‘But I thought that your ancestors came from that direction,’ said Ralph. ‘Wasn’t there a road, or a trail? Didn’t they make any maps of their travels?’



‘There was never a road or trail,’ Birin replied, ‘for when our ancestors first came to these lands, they were uncharted wilderness. We do have maps, of course, but they are ancient; we cannot expect to rely on them.’



‘And you still think the Pixies and other people would have left this way?’ asked Ralph.



‘That is a certainty,’ replied Birin, ‘for they had no other way to go. In every other direction lies the lands of Elves, Dwarves, and Men.’ He left unsaid what lay to the North.

***

As they passed the last visible sign of habitation, an overgrown abandoned farm with gaunt grey derelict buildings leaning in every attitude of collapse and decay, the road became a path, a trail, a guess, and then failed altogether. The ever narrowing valley floor had become an area of rolling grassland dotted with clumps of stunted trees. The damp air was cold and mist-shrouded, the visibility ahead uncertain.



To Pran, Ralph said, ‘I think we should take our horses and ride ahead for a bit. I don’t like this fog.’



When Pran readily assented, Ralph noticed Theuli’s concerned response.



Once they were mounted and away from the wagon, Ralph said, ‘Sorry. I just wanted to get away for a bit so we could talk. I didn’t mean to worry Theuli like that.’



‘She was upset because she assumed that you and I sensed something, but that she could not,’ Pran told him.



‘Sorry,’ Ralph said again. ‘I should have thought.’



Pran shrugged. ‘Why apologise for what you could not have known? Besides,’ he added with a wry smile, ‘if the perceived affront was to my wife, then why are you apologising to me?’



Distracted from Pran’s words by his own thoughts, Ralph took a deep breath, let it out slowly in a stream of vapour as though incongruously trying to rid himself of some inner lack, and tried to make out the lay of the land through the patchy mist.



‘Ever since we had that little talk, I’ve been wracking my brains, trying to come up with something that could help us, but I keep coming up dry. Just before we left Mirrindale, I even tried a few alternatives, like trying to create some of the weapons we have in my world. But they won’t work. I think the rules of this world must be different in some way.’ He shrugged. ‘Which is just as well, I guess. The weapons of my world are pretty horrible. And if we were to use them, there’s nothing stopping your enemies from figuring them out for themselves, eventually.



‘As far as your Earth Mother is concerned . . .’ he shook his head in frustration. ‘I just don’t get it! To me, such things are just so many words. But it’s more than that. I mean, Malina takes such things for granted . . . like it’s built into her . . . like magic itself. With me, it’s like trying to explain colour to a blind person.



‘And as far as magic goes . . . when I work with metal, I’m not thinking in terms of magic. The closest I can come to explaining what I do is that it’s mostly instinct. But if I want to make an arrowhead or a knife, then I have to concentrate mostly on the design. That’s not the same thing; or at least, I don’t think it is.



‘I have felt that I could make something purely by instinct,’ he added, carefully, ‘but I have no idea what that something would be.’



‘Well,’ Pran said doubtfully, ‘even were you to make some sort of curiosity, still I think that you should make the effort, if only to find out where your instincts may lead.’


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