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The next day it warmed up a little and began snowing. Large white flakes fell thick and fast, and the land ahead became obscured. Their progress was becoming slower by the hour as they wound their way between the hills. The huge oaks were soon laden with a white mantle. Occasional small avalanches of snow fell from the trees onto the travellers. This was merely amusing at first, but soon they became sodden and cold.



That night they felled a great pile of poplars and made several huge bonfires to warm themselves and dry their clothes. As Ralph lay with Malina against his side, he watched the shadow of the steam rising from the tent as it was illuminated by the firelight outside.



Pran had just taken his watch, and Theuli, after checking on Rani and Zuic, and returning to her own bed, found Deborah awake.



‘Are you hungry?’ Theuli whispered.



Deborah simply nodded, trying to keep her eyes open. Theuli left the tent for a moment, and soon returned with a steaming bowl. Deborah struggled to rise, but Theuli held her back, shifting the girl onto her side.



‘Don’t try to get up just yet. Here, I’ll feed you,’ she laughed quietly. ‘There’s no need to be embarrassed.’



Deborah considered Theuli as the Elf woman fed the girl some bread soaked in hot broth. ‘I dreamt you were my mother.’



Theuli smiled with pleasure. ‘So now I have three daughters.’



‘Three?’



‘Rani, Deborah and Malina.’



‘What does that make me?’ chuckled Ralph.



Deborah smiled. ‘Then Malina is my sister, which makes you my brother-in-law,’ she said to Ralph.



‘You’re supposed to be asleep,’ said Theuli to Ralph.



‘Yes, Mom.’



‘How do you feel,’ Theuli asked Deborah, seriously.



She shrugged. ‘I don’t know. I feel sort of . . . empty . . . different somehow...



‘I keep having these dreams, but every time I wake up, they’re gone. The only thing I remember is this . . . sort of sense that . . . well, it’s like I told you before; you remember? that day when Malina and I went with you-’ She stopped, seeing Theuli’s pained remembrance of that day. ‘I’m sorry . . . I shouldn’t have brought that up-’



‘You were saying,’ Theuli said, in a tone both firm and understanding, ‘that . . . I believe the words you used were, that “it was supposed to happen.”’



Deborah nodded, on the verge of sleep once more. ‘That’s what I remember when I wake up. It’s inside me now . . . or maybe it always was . . . or what I’ll be . . .’



Theuli paused. She held the last spoonful of broth poised to place in Deborah’s mouth, but the girl had fallen asleep. Theuli watched her for a time, her expression thoughtful. When she put the bowl away and crawled back beneath her own blankets, Ralph whispered, ‘Now I can sleep.’



Theuli, however, was long awake in thought.

***

They made better progress the next day. The snow had stopped during the night, and the sun showed faintly behind a thin layer of grey cloud. Deborah was awake and alert the next morning, and found herself staring about in rapt wonder, surprised to find herself back in the wagon, instead of the tent where she had fallen asleep. The wagon’s cover, though raised, was open front and back.



‘Good morning, sleepyhead,’ said Malina. ‘You missed breakfast, but we saved you some.’



Sitting up, Deborah found she had been dressed in a long surplice. It was very warm and luxurious to the touch. Feeling the texture of the soft fur with undisguised pleasure, she said, ‘Where did I get this?’



‘I dressed you in it early this morning when we placed you in the wagon,’ Theuli told her. ‘We thought you might wish to rise from your bed for a time. Your clothing was lost in the confusion when we left Mirrindale.’



Running a hand through her hair, Deborah said, ‘Where are we? How long is it since we left?’



‘We have been travelling for four days now,’ Theuli replied.



‘Four days! It seems like four months.’ She looked about the wagon. ‘Where are Rani and Zuic?’



‘They are with Ralph and Pran,’ said Theuli, indicating a point somewhere amongst the riders and wagons ahead of them.



Deborah wrapped her blanket about her, covering her ears. Moving to the rear beside Malina and Theuli, and taking a long look around, she saw that the landscape was hilly and marked by stands of large trees that were heavily laden with snow. The ground was unblemished and deep with the same white blanket.



‘It’s so beautiful.’



Malina smiled, crookedly. ‘I showed Zuic and Rani how to make snowballs.’



‘That is why they are riding with Ralph and my husband,’ said Theuli, not quite feigning annoyance.



‘Don’t blame Malina for that,’ said Deborah. ‘Ralph and I showed her about snowballs.’



‘I see,’ said Theuli. ‘Then perhaps you are sisters after all.’



‘Didn’t you make snowballs when you were young,’ ventured Deborah.



Almost smirking, Theuli replied, ‘There has been no snow in the Elf Kingdom during my lifetime. Yet if there were, I would not have thought to put it down my mother’s back.’



Deborah was trying not to laugh. ‘That was my fault! I taught Malina to do that to Ralph.’



‘When you are well,’ warned Theuli, ‘you may find your wayward ways coming back to haunt you.’ The three of them laughed at this, but secretly, Deborah planned to be ready for Theuli’s revenge.

***

As Ralph and Pran rode ahead with Rani riding before Ralph and Zuic before Pran, they noticed a figure stumbling through the snow. From the way she walked, Ralph assumed it to be an elderly woman, and on impulse, feeling a surge of anger, he urged his horse on, to find out from this person why she wasn’t in one of the wagons.



As he caught up, he noticed, first, that the figure was much younger than he had assumed. Then, as she stumbled once more, he caught a glimpse of her feet.



‘Pran!’



Jumping off his mount, he handed the reins to Rani, and went to help the girl to her feet.



For a moment, he stared at her in confusion, thinking that there was something familiar about this person-



‘Nevana?’



For an instant, she stared back. Then, averting her gaze, she tried pulling away.



‘What is it?’ It was Pran, who had joined him.



‘Leave me!’ Nevana cried, trying to pull away from him once more.



Ralph caught her by the waist, quickly shifted her so that she lay cradled in his arms.



‘Look at her feet!’

***

‘Why are you not wearing proper footwear?’ Pran asked her sternly as they brought her to the Healer’s wagon.



Flushed with shame, she made some inaudible response.



‘What’s that?’



‘She said,’ Ralph muttered tersely, having caught her words, as she lay in his arms, ‘that these are all that she has.’

***

They left her with the Healers, who assured Pran that she was not yet suffering from the effects of frostbite, but that the outcome would have been worse if she had gone on any longer. Much worse. Ralph accompanied Pran as they first deposited the children back in the wagon, then went in search of the wagon of Arlon and Durus. Ralph made no attempt to converse with Pran, sensing his mood. Theuli, too, had accepted the children into the wagon in silence, seeing his expression.



When they caught up to Arlon and Durus, the two were seated together on the driver’s bench, he holding the reins. Durus’s feet, Ralph noticed, poked out from beneath the hem of her long, thick winter dress. Unlike her daughter, she was shod in heavy wool-lined work boots. Arlon wore his usual footwear, suitable to working in the fields.



Before Pran could speak, Durus spotted the pair, and the glare she fixed on Ralph almost made him duck.



‘What are you doing, coming around here? Haven’t you done enough? If you’re looking for Nevana, I don’t know where she is!’



‘More to the point,’ Pran said, his voice quiet, but with enough implicit menace to deflect the woman’s ire, ‘why was your daughter walking alone in the snow with naught on her feet but a pair of light summer shoes?’



‘She’s supposed to be in the wagon,’ the woman said defensively. Ralph knew this to be a lame excuse, but wondered if the woman had even been aware of the fact.



‘With the rest of your possessions,’ Pran added, sarcastically. The way the younger children had made themselves scarce at his presence only seemed to increase his ire.



Arlon, though he looked at nothing during the entire exchange, flinched at this word, knowing full well what Pran meant. Ralph, for some reason, found himself feeling sorry for the man, who dropped his eyes, his expression one of habitual tired guilt.



‘None of this would have happened were it not for this . . . Man!’ Durus said, referring to Ralph, getting herself worked up in corrupt anger. ‘He toyed with our daughter’s affections- now look what he’s done to her! She won’t come home! You know why? Because she’s ashamed to, that’s why! If I didn’t know better, I’d say that he’s managed to compromise her. All because of that filthy Faerie vermin . . . that-’ she uttered an obscenity, leaned across in front of Arlon, and spat on the ground at their feet.



Arlon sat stock still, jaw muscles bunching, his face crimson with humiliation.



Ralph waited for Pran to say or do something. Instead, the former Elf soldier stared at the woman in stony silence until she at last became silent and looked away. As he turned to go, he acknowledged Arlon’s look of apology with a tired nod.



Making their way back to Pran’s wagon, taking their time, Ralph said, ‘There is a grain of truth in what she says-’



‘There always is,’ Pran told him.



‘-but its not like I led her on or anything . . . she, Nevana, just kind of threw herself at me. I just didn’t handle things very well-’



‘There is no need to explain this matter to me,’ Pran told him. ‘You forget, I know this family, and their problems.’



Ralph made a helpless gesture.



‘I just can’t help feeling responsible, somehow.’



To his surprise, Pran laughed at this. To Ralph’s consternation, he said, ‘I have noticed that when things happen around you, you have a habit of making yourself responsible. My friend, I’m afraid I can’t think of you without remembering a time when you first came to live at my home, when you discovered a fledgling beneath the oak near to the barn. Such birds cast out their weakest, and you repeatedly picked the creature from the ground and replaced it in its nest, until the poor thing finally expired, as it was fated to do.’



‘If that’s a failing,’ Ralph replied defensively, ‘then it’s one I don’t intend giving up.’



‘Yes,’ Pran replied to Ralph’s incomprehension, thinking of the way the big Human had instinctively responded to Nevana’s need, seeing as Ralph could not that it could lead to future entanglements with the Elf girl, ‘I can see that.’


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The following comments are for "A Pixie For The Taking -chapter 76-"
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