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Chap. 16

The Naiadi

‘A fair young maiden she seemed, till
I descried her otherworldly beauty.’

from The Laye of Estland Waik


The evening of the following day found the travellers in an eerie country, marked by a sharp decrease in the amount of fallen snow, of which there was only the lightest skiff, and an endless succession of uneven hills, which appeared overall as though the crust of the land had been broken into uniform chunks, each of which was tilted so that there was a gradual slope always on one side, the east, and a sharp drop on the west face. As well, the general lay of the land was canted slightly to the left, towards the south. What colossal upheaval of the earth could possibly had expressed itself in such an odd, regular formation, none could say. But ancient and bluntly eroded though the hills were, as though the land was forever trying to remember its former shape, they were possessed of an immediacy, as though the force which had shaped them was ever present, however quiescent it might seem to the eye.



The low ground between these yellowed scrub-grass-grown hills was often covered with a dense growth of brambles, and between many of the hills were rivulets which gurgled spiritedly along ice-rheumed channels. Each shallow gulley was shrouded in dank mists which clung to the tangled undergrowth, and to the north and south the general lay of the land rose somewhat; in neither direction, north or south, could anything be seen but drear alder forest, which stood silent, naked, dark, impenetrable and foreboding.



It was some consolation that their progress was good, for the trail they traversed was wide enough for a large cart, and level, and it became apparent that there had once been a highway through this area; worn paving stones showed clearly from time to time along the center of the trail. Indeed, the reason they were able to wend their way so easily through this country was that this pathway remained, resisting the encroachment of the undergrowth.



But who had built the original road? And if a footpath remained, who was here in this strange country to use it? Birin sent several scouts far ahead, to spy out the land and unmask any threat, should the small exodus blunder into a trap. The chief difficulty of the surrounding lands was that they were all-concealing, to any who wished to remain hidden. And leaving the road to explore the hills was tedious, time-consuming work. Were it not that their lives might be at stake, one would have said that the delay was not worth the risk.



Birin’s caution was soon rewarded, however. It wasn’t long before his scouts returned with word that two trails, one on either side of the road, threaded their way through the hills, out of sight of the road. They were quite obviously designed for ambush. And they were clearly often used and recently maintained. Birin sent several riders ahead to watch these trails. They discovered that Goblins, though few in number, had passed through this region recently. But for what purpose, none could guess.

***

By late afternoon, when they stopped for a rest and a bite, a scout returned to Birin, informing him that a large herd of elk-like animals had been spotted. They were huge beasts, he said, as tall at the shoulder as the reach of one’s hand. They were unwary, and a few might be taken with relative ease.



Birin was thoughtful a long time before answering. But in the end he refused, telling the scout that the animals were under no circumstances to be touched, that they had food aplenty for the present, and added that he was mistrustful of this distraction. With a disappointed nod, the scout left to resume his duties. When the scout had left, Birin explained himself to Ralph, who with Pran was riding nearby.



‘That these creatures are unwary is perhaps a good sign,’ he said. ‘If they are indigenous to this area, and if Goblins frequent this area also, then they will be wary of Goblins; so we would be wise not to make these beasts wary of us.’

***

As evening drew near the road began to straighten, while the bare alder forest to either side drew close, hemming them in, and by nightfall their spirits sank as they saw a dense forest loom before them like a dark wall, the road becoming a tall, austere, narrow black doorway to whatever lay within.



Birin halted the company for some time, reluctant to proceed or to stay. He sent scouts ahead into the forest, and there was a prolonged wait for their return. The interval seemed endless, and some began to fear that the soldiers had been waylaid. But they returned eventually, leading their mounts at a slow walk, and watching either side of the road intently.



‘What have you seen?’ Birin asked them as they drew near.



‘Naught but a large lake, some distance off,’ one of them replied. ‘But voices we heard while travelling through this wood; perhaps those of Sylphids high above us, and Periani in the undergrowth.’



Birin considered this news thoughtfully. At last, he said, ‘The Sylphids are of little concern to us. But the Periani are another matter.’



‘They followed us closely,’ the scout who had spoken said, ‘and we heard anger in their voices. But would they attack so large a number?’



‘Whether or no,’ Birin replied tightly, ‘it is a chance we have no choice but to take. How far is this lake, and are there suitable grounds for making camp?’



‘If we move swiftly and without stealth, an hour, perhaps. Little more,’ the scout replied.



Birin sighed and gazed at the dark trail leading into the forest, as though gauging the risk. ‘Where the Periani are concerned, stealth will not avail us. We will proceed.’

***

It was so dark inside the forest that Birin ordered torches lighted. Once underway, it appeared to the refugees that they were traversing a great hall, which led from darkness to darkness. They heard and saw nothing over the sound of their own walking, the horses and oxen, and the groan of the wagons’ axles. But all around them was a feeling of watchfulness; of expectancy. They watched the wood for any sign, but in vain.



Riding beside Pran, Ralph asked in a whisper, ‘What are Sylphids and . . .’



‘Perians,’ Pran finished for him. ‘Sylphids are creatures of the air. They are Faerie, and very elusive, even to Elvish eyes. I do not think that you will see any.’



‘And Perians?’



‘Perians, or Periani, as some call them, are another matter,’ Pran replied. ‘Some believe that they are Faerie, but the kinship is tenuous, if at all. For my part, I believe they are closer to Men, though in stature they are small, like children. I have heard that they live in houses that are grouped into small villages; that they till the soil, and keep beasts; that they even drink spirits in taverns, and have an appetite for food and drink to be fairly marvelled at. They are a reclusive people but are extremely territorial, and often warlike to those who inadvertently trespass though their lands.’



‘Warlike?’ Ralph muttered. ‘Then why did Birin-’



‘It is unlikely that they will feud with us over the only road through this region,’ Pran told him. ‘I think it more likely that they would prefer to be rid of our presence altogether, without engaging in a conflict that could only serve to prolong contact. But it is a certainty that they will watch us closely, to be sure that we do not stray from this route into their lands. They have no love for Elves, Men or Dwarves, and to the best of my knowledge, never venture beyond their own borders.’

***

It was with a sense of great relief that the refugees came out of this portion of the road, as it ended abruptly, opening into a great clearing. Before them lay a shallow lake, perhaps two miles across at the widest point. It was bordered by tall brown reeds which rattled dryly in the breeze, its surface largely covered by water-lilies. Despite the cold, and a frozen rheum around its edge, it showed no sign of freezing over, though it was now clear and chill, the stars glittering coldly above. To the right and left the road wended its way around the lake, but to the right, perhaps three furlongs distant, was a wide grassy lea, largely free of snow, and it was there, Birin decided, that they would make camp.

***

Despite the assurances of the Healers, Deborah did not feel cured of the poison in her system, but rather changed, in some fundamental way that somehow eluded her perception. As the wagon carrying her companions and herself plunged into the darkness of the forest trail, she found that she could see small shapes flitting from tree to tree like shadows. She would have assumed that her eyes were playing tricks on her, had not the dim shapes had voices. Their words, like their appearance, seemed to hover on the edge of her awareness, but no clear words or appearance could she make out; they seemed little more substantial than the air itself.



Yet something in Deborah found itself responding, something indistinguishable from the poison laying quiescent in her veins, or some nameless, irremediable longing, which goaded an habitual bitterness within her, a hatred of the pain she bore, always, and an angry, impatient desire for surcease.



She saw that the others were as blind to her private darkness as to that which surrounded them, and this realization made her feel isolated, hurt, and angry. But these were feelings that had pervaded her life since childhood, and she turned aside from them, looking instead into the surrounding darkness, as though groping blindly for answers.

***

As the wagon neared the end of the trail through the deep wood, the shadows and voices vanished as though they had never been, and Deborah felt suddenly as though she had just been roused from some dark dream, only to find herself in a wakeful state of unreality. Before them lay a wide lake, bathed in an eldritch light. Lily pads glowed green on its surface, phosphorescent sparkles glittered and shone in its depths, and the surrounding forest caught this aura as though bathed in moon glow.



Yet, as the wagon followed the trail of refugees to the right, and came eventually to a stop on a wide, grassy lea, it seemed to Deborah that the others were completely oblivious to the eerie beauty which surrounded them. She wanted to ask Theuli or Malina why they took no notice but assumed that they were perhaps too tired to care, and too busy getting the children settled for the night; and perhaps, she surmised, they were used to such sights, being from this world, and naturally took little notice of them. Finally, tired and sleepy herself, she followed the others’ example, wrapped herself in her blankets, and slept.

***

She awoke feeling the presence of someone or something nearby watching her. Opening her eyes, glancing at the rail of the wagon, she gasped in fear, finding herself looking into the most disturbing eyes she had ever seen, that stared solemnly into her own. There was something timeless, ancient, expectant and watchful about those eyes, something that, in its way, was of the lake and the forest in nature, its Human appearance a façade for the cold, still waters, bare brambles, and submerged, gnarled, clutching roots that were its true nature. Abruptly, the eyes were gone as the figure let itself drop to the ground.



‘Wait!’ Deborah cried, jumping up and running after the lithe figure. All about her the camp slept, except for the guards on watch, sitting by fires, who seemed oblivious to her presence.



The figure ran to the water’s edge and stopped, waiting expectantly for Deborah to catch up. Drawing near, Deborah saw that the figure was a small woman, with long blonde tresses bearing a hint of green reflected light. Her slim body was completely naked but she seemed not to feel the cold at all. As Deborah came up to her, breath steaming in the gelid night air, the woman smiled.



‘Have you come to join us?’ the woman said. ‘You are not blind as the others. The water is as you see it.’ The woman gestured to the water behind her. Obediently, Deborah gazed at the water, and stared in wonder. Other women, much like the one before her, were playing in the waters of the lake, some of them watching her with amused curiosity.



‘But the water is much too cold,’ Deborah replied.



‘Nonsense!’ the woman said with a tinkling laugh. ‘Lay aside your strange attire, and you will find the waters of Nor’un Ye’en warm and inviting. Come, you must be swift! Dawn approaches, and Deep Home awaits.’



Deborah did as she was told, stripping off her clothes, and finding to her wonder that she felt warm, as did the light breeze caressing her naked skin. As in a dream, she noticed that she could no longer see her own breath. The woman took her hand and led her to the water’s edge. But there she stopped, frowning. Had she heard something?



‘Do not listen!’ the woman hissed urgently, drawing her into the water. ‘Dawn comes. We must hurry.’ Deborah followed until she was waist deep, then stopped again. She heard a voice that she thought she should know, but like a vague echo of some long-forgotten memory; a slight resemblance to nothing she could put a name to.



Without warning, she found herself surrounded by plunging, dark shapes, splashing water, and she was suddenly being pulled violently in both directions. Cold suddenly seemed to numb her mind, gripping her heart and leaving her gasping. The last thing she remembered clearly was being carried from the lake by Pran, and fainting in his arms.

***

After a night of murky underwater nightmares, full of cold betrayal, couched in alluring promises disguised as eldritch creatures that were both wild and free, immune to life’s corrupted hopes and unattainable dreams; Deborah reluctantly awoke to the dim interior of the wagon. The top was up, the interior warm and dimly lighted by a small oil lantern which swayed irrhythmically from one of the iron stays which served to hold up the canvas. She lay in a dreamy stupor, wrapped snugly and warm.



‘You are awake?’



The voice was Theuli’s. It took her a moment to realize that the Elf woman’s face was near her own, regarding her gravely. She mumbled something in reply.



Theuli left her, returning quickly with something that made Deborah’s mouth water involuntarily.



‘What happened?’



‘Do not concern yourself with that for the time being.’



‘Wha-lp-’



Theuli forestalled the girl by spooning food into her mouth, her features set. Deborah suddenly felt ashamed, never having seen Theuli angry before. She swallowed everything Theuli fed her, obediently, though it was more than she wanted to eat. Afterward, she tried to think of something to say. Suddenly, as though her emotion had a will of its own, she started crying.



‘I’m sorry . . . I couldn’t help myself . . . but I wanted to find whatever was out there . . .’



‘Yes, and the following morning we would have found your body floating amongst the reeds,’ Theuli said. ‘The next time you feel such an urge, tell someone! I cannot believe that those on the watch who were so lax as to miss your foray to the tarn.’



‘I don’t think they could see either of us,’ Deborah muttered.



Theuli looked at her sharply, and Deborah saw that she was mistaken about the look in the Elf woman’s eyes: it was not anger, but worry.



‘Us?’



Deborah nodded. ‘There was a woman . . . she came up to the wagon and was looking right at me. And then she left, and I shouted at her to stop, but nobody woke up. I followed her down to the water, and we walked right past the guards, but they didn’t even look up at us. There were more women like her in the water.’



Theuli remained thoughtful for some time. At last, Deborah heard Malina’s voice.



‘Was it the Naiadi, do you think?’



‘It was undoubtedly the Naiadi,’ Theuli replied, ‘though why they would trouble themselves with a Human girl, and in such a manner, defies understanding.’



‘What are the Naiadi?’ Deborah asked.



Theuli’s answer was guarded. ‘They are fresh-water Nymphs, sometimes known to inhabit such places as that which we left yesterday morning. They are perilous, if only because they are puissant, and blithe of scruple in their dealings with lesser folk. At a whim, they might benefit or threaten the lives of the unwary who wander into their demesne, though never before have I heard it said of them that they might prey on young women. The old tales speak only of the threat to menfolk . . . but I wonder now if that was their true intent.’



‘Why did I feel warm when I was in the water with them?’ Deborah said. ‘I didn’t feel cold at all until Pran came to get me. It wasn’t just the Naiadi . . . there was something following us in the forest. I could see them.’ When the Elf-woman made no reply, Deborah moaned, ‘Theuli, what’s happening to me?’



Theuli was saved attempting to answer by the wagon’s sudden halt; a moment later there came a call that they were stopped for the night.

***

By morning the forest came to an end, and before them opened a land of wide grasslands and meadows. The air was warmer, and only a thin dusting of snow lay on the ground. The forest behind them receded until it resembled a black, impenetrable wall, and far to the north and south rose tall ranges of dark grey-blue mountains. Over the course of the day, however, far in the distance, growing ever closer, was a bank of fog, or low cloud. The way was not difficult, and they made good time, though they viewed the gloomy wall of cloud with trepidation, wondering if it contained some veiled threat.

***

It was midafternoon of the following day when the line of travellers came to an abrupt halt. Pran and Ralph returned from the front ranks with the children, who had been riding with them, and deposited them in the wagon.



‘What has happened?’ Malina asked Ralph.



‘Birin wishes to speak with you,’ he replied. ‘We have reached the forest.’

***

As Ralph and Malina approached the front of the line, they found Birin well out in front, alone. He had dismounted and held the reins of his horse. When he heard them approaching, he passed the reins to an aide. They could see, now, that a great forest lay hidden in the cloud. Its sheer immensity was daunting.



Malina, turning to Ralph and Birin, said, ‘I must go alone. If the Faerie folk are here they may not trust even me in such company.’ With a wry glance at her attire, she said, ‘From a distance they may not even recognize me for what I am.’ She glanced at the forest and swallowed, apprehension in her every line.



Trying to conceal his anxiety, Ralph took a deep breath and said, ‘If anything happens . . . anything at all . . . please, get the hell out of there.’ The two stood for a moment, facing each other uncertainly. At once, Ralph seemed to make a decision. He took the last step forward, and they embraced, until Birin cleared his throat uncomfortably.



‘Miss . . . we’re not even sure if there is anyone out there.’ Birin was difficult to read at the best of times but there was an underlying tension to his tone that belied his anxiety.



Malina left Ralph’s embrace with reluctance, gazed long into his eyes, looking for more than simple assurance. At last they parted, and she began making her way through the virgin snow towards the forest, alone. She glanced back once at the irregular line of refugees who waited for her with uncertainty and trepidation, took a deep breath, and tried to garner her courage.



She was afraid now, if only because she found herself in the unnatural position of having others depend on her. But there was something else. Her instincts were reacting to something, though what, specifically, she could not be certain.



Nearing the massive evergreens with mounting dread, she was certain now . . . something was here. The trees towered over her like black monoliths, and she had to resist the urge to duck her head.



There! At the base of the trees, just inside the forest, she saw, or thought she saw, a figure standing in the shadows. Yes, she was sure now. The shadow moved. There were others standing behind it. But what-?



‘Come no further.’



Stopping dead in her tracks, she tried probing into the darkness with her truncated Pixie senses. A figure detached itself from the darkness; a figure she recognised.



‘Imalwain?’



The figure froze. ‘How do you know my name?’



‘It’s me. Malina.’



The figure hissed in anger or fear. ‘Do not toy with me! Malina has been dead a year or more.’



‘Imalwain, look at me. Hear me. You know me well.’



The figure moved nearer. Its features were still in shadow, indistinct. But about the voice Malina could not be mistaken.



‘You do not resemble the Malina I knew. Nor would the Malina I once knew endure the company of such as those, yonder.’



‘My Power is gone,’ Malina said in a quiet voice. ‘I need warm clothing and hot food to last in this weather. But I am still Malina.’

The figure hesitated. ‘Are you a prisoner? Do you require our help against those-!’ the figure made a spitting sound.



Our help? What could a few Pixies do to defend themselves against Elves?



‘Imalwain, what has happened to you? You shared my home by the stream often. Is it that I’ve changed so much?’



‘How did you come to lose your power?’



Malina decided to risk the truth. ‘Prince Cir had me sent into exile, to a strange world, very different from our own. I had no power there, and I could not have survived without help. I was injured and hungry . . . without shelter. It was cold, there. I was rescued by a Man from that world who took me in. He cared for me. In time . . . in time I came to love him. When my time of exile was over, I decided to leave behind my Pixie dress, so that I could be with him-’



There were angry gasps, and the figure hissed at her. ‘Outcast!’



But another figure came forward, stepping fully out of the shadows. He was an Elf, she thought.



‘Be not too quick to judge, Imalwain,’ he said. ‘Are we not all Outcasts here?’ The man was not overly tall, although his bearing was one of strength and solidity. But he was self-possessed in a way that set him apart. Then, Malina noticed something about his general features.



He was part Pixie!



‘Allow me to make introduction,’ he said. ‘I am Elgar. Imalwain you know. As to the others,’ he inclined his head to those standing in the shadows, ‘there are a good many Pixies and Wood-Nymphs. A few Water-Sprites are here as well, seeking refuge from the winter. Now, tell me, Malina, why are you here? It is not the way of a Pixie to act as an Emissary, though even I can see that you are not what you once were.’



‘There is civil war,’ Malina replied, still afraid, but to her own surprise discovering an unexpected courage. ‘The Elves fight amongst themselves. Some are outraged at the way our folk have been murdered. Such are those whom I travel with. They protected me from Prince Cir and the King, and have at last defied their Sovereigns openly. Many Elves have died in this cause. Those with me have come to relinquish their estranged ways. They wish to return to the forest, and live as Elves used-’



‘Liar!’ The Pixie named Imalwain stepped from the shadows to confront Malina.



Instead of being intimidated, Malina smiled sadly. ‘I seem to recall that an old Elf named Finli rescued the two of us by hiding us in his wagon on more than one occasion, and at his own peril. Another, named Birin, who now leads us, saved your life when you were set upon by gnomes.’



Imalwain’s visage took on a look of wonder, and bitterness.



‘Birin is here?’



Noting Imalwain’s reaction, Malina pointed to the lone figure, standing at the head of the line of refugees. ‘Would you like to speak with him?’



Something in Imalwain’s visage made Malina sharpen her scrutiny of her. Imalwain had once been beautiful, and somewhat proud and vain, for a Pixie. She was none of these things now. Her attire, indeed her whole appearance, was unkempt and generally unhealthy. ‘In the way a cut flower dies, cut off at the root, and is then discarded,’ thought Malina to herself.



‘No,’ Imalwain muttered in so small and quiet a voice that the others barely heard her. Then, she transformed herself into a small winged creature as Malina used to do, and fled into the forest.



Elgar watched her go with pity. Seeing Malina’s incomprehension, he said, ‘The one named Birin has caused her much pain. She loved him. But, like most Elves, he discarded her when their relationship became . . . inconvenient.’ He said the word as though its taste was bitter in his mouth.



Imalwain? Malina had always believed that a Pixie’s heart was wild and free . . . she and her few Pixie friends had always believed this. Was it not true? Or had they only wanted to believe it to be so?



‘Besides those of Faeriekind, there are a good many here like me,’ Elgar said, changing the subject. ‘Outcasts. We protect those of Faeriekind who cannot fend for themselves. We are many, now. And we are strong. If we decide not to allow you to pass, or to suffer your presence here, your friends would do well not to try our patience.’



‘We do not desire confrontation,’ said Malina, her fear returning. Many of the shadows bore weapons, and moved with stealth and cunning as they took positions along the edge of the forest.



‘There are many women and children with us. All of those who have come are families who have sacrificed everything to leave the Elf Kingdom. If you don’t want us here, at least tell us where we can go. I must tell you that it was Birin’s intent to seek out the other Faerie folk for their protection. The Elf King is evil, and he seeks the destruction of all non-Elves, even if that means murdering his own kind if they stand in his way. Pixies, Nymphs, Sprites, Imps, and others within the Kingdom have been sent to warn their folk, and to convince them either to leave on their own, or follow where others have gone before.



‘Elgar, the Elf King and Prince Cir are doing unspeakable things! They betray and murder their own people. Pran, who is friend to the Man, Rowf, and myself, has lost a brother, and his brother’s wife and children, and his tale is but one example. Birin has come to warn any who will listen. Will you not hear him?’



Elgar snorted irritably. ‘We know that your Prince Cir is in league with Goblins.’



‘It’s worse than Goblins!’ Malina cried. ‘Much worse! The Elf Loremasters have done something monstrous.’



Elgar’s eyes widened, his expression reserved, wary. ‘Explain.’



Speaking in a low voice, Malina said, ‘Birin got in a fight with Prince Cir. He split the Prince’s face open with his sword, and Cir hardly bled at all . . . there was something strange about his blood, and it didn’t look right. This has something to do with what the Elf Loremasters have done do the Earth Mother. As well, I think that the Elves are no longer able to control their own Lore. Have you not noticed that things are changing? That there are evil things about, becoming stronger?’



Watching her intently now, Elgar said, ‘You have certain knowledge concerning this matter?’



‘No,’ she said, truthfully, ‘I know only what little I am able to overhear. But Rowf is closer to such knowledge and has told me all he knows.’



Elgar was silent for a long time. Finally, raising his eyes to where the refugees waited, he said, ‘Send the one named Birin to me. I have felt the Evil to which you refer. I would know the truth of it.’

***

Ralph could hardly contain his sense of relief when he saw Malina returning. He and his companions had seen that she was speaking with someone but could see only two, and hints of others in the shadows. Instead of coming directly to him, though, she came to stand before Birin.



‘Their leader is an Outcast, half-Pixie, half-Elf, who wishes to speak with you. His name is Elgar. You cannot see from here, but they are many, and I think they may be dangerous. I told him why we are here; about the King and Prince Cir, and what your Elven Loremasters have done.’



Birin raised an eyebrow. ‘Why do you think they may present any danger to us? We have a fair number of well-armed Elf soldiers here.’



‘They have soldiers too,’ Malina told him, ‘and not merely unarmed Pixies with a little mischief in their hearts!’



Malina’s vindictiveness made Birin start with anger. But before he could reply, she said, ‘Imalwain is with them. I will not readily forget your cruelty to her.’



Birin’s anger was deflected by surprise. ‘Cruelty?’



‘You hurt her deeply,’ Malina told him. ‘Like most Elves you used her to get what you wanted, then discarded her like some worthless rag.’



Underestimating the depth of Malina’s anger and the injury he had caused to Imalwain, he said, ‘I once saved her life. What more could she ask of me?’



‘You may have saved her life but only to keep your plaything undamaged,’ Malina replied with undisguised contempt. ‘She loved you and you just used her.’



Birin almost laughed. ‘Don’t be ridiculous! Pixies are incapable of-’



Malina’s naked fury stopped him. ‘Yes, Birin? Remember to whom you speak!’ When he didn’t answer she shouted, ‘Say it! Pixies are incapable of any real feeling. Isn’t that right?’



Trying to deflect her anger, he said, ‘You are much changed-’



‘Yes,’ she replied coldly, ‘I am much changed. I begin to see more clearly now. You are not so high and mighty as I once believed.’ When he didn’t reply, she turned her back on him and began heading to the rear of the line towards the wagon. Turning to Pran and Ralph, Birin found Pran staring at the ground and Ralph watching him with a mixture of anger and disappointment.



‘Malina’s love is one of the few things I’m really sure of,’ Ralph told him. ‘You can’t get something from a person that isn’t already there.’



Pran raised his eyes at this. ‘Birin, when you speak to the one named Elgar, try to remember what humility is.’ He and Ralph followed Malina, leaving Birin to stand alone.

***

When Ralph caught up with Malina he said nothing but walked beside her. She didn’t acknowledge him at first, but when they reached the wagon, she stopped, staring at nothing.



‘I wanted to hit him. I’ve never wanted to hurt anything before in my life.’



Ralph shrugged. ‘You were provoked. You just wanted to defend your friend, and yourself. And you did hit him. With words. You did the right thing; he’ll have to take a good look at himself now.’



Still not looking at Ralph, she said quietly, ‘So will I.’


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