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Chapter 18

Under Siege (Pt. One)

‘Whoever said “There are no atheists in foxholes”
never had any direct experience with war himself.
War has ever been the greatest cause of spiritual
decline, whilst Peace and Prosperity have ever
been the stuff delusion is made from.’

Monsignor Adrian Blackpool, DD, MD (1884-1949)


News of the fighting was sporadic, as traffic on the roads had ceased abruptly with the onset of war. The few riders that did approach the city gate were grim-faced, silent messengers that were hastily admitted, brought directly to the Thane without delay, then dispatched immediately thereafter. Though plied with inquiries, these soldiers would answer no questions, and ignored all attempts to make conversation, much to the disappointment and consternation of Mirrindale’s citizens, especially the Merchants, who seemed not to comprehend that their great wealth was of utterly no consequence in the matter.

One figure, a tall, middle-aged, greying man, cloaked and hooded, who was often among the number that lurked in dark anterooms and corridors, trying to elicit information from these messengers, and who had so far looked in vain for a familiar face with whom he could deal, who had exhausted virtually all avenues to obtain or send correspondence, said to the one person whom he could trust openly, namely himself, ‘I do not trust a man who can’t be bought! This Thane has locked the city tighter that any belt of chastity! He has used no lock at all, but has rather sealed the virgin in a seamless vault.’ This analogy worried him, for he was not sure, as yet, whether the Thane was acting out of desperation, or whether he was far more resourceful than anticipated. If the former were true, he mused, the thing he sought to protect would suffocate and die.



But if the latter were the case . . .



He was a patient man, not prone to worry. But he recognised the worm of doubt for what it was. His concern, at least for the moment, was whether it lay there by chance, or whether its presence had some hidden cause or design.



If that were true . . . ah, if that were true! The danger of such a prospect caused him to nod inwardly, respectfully. If that were true, then he would be pressured towards acting, to tipping his hand.



He sighed. If only Mirrindale knew what it was up against! Or, he mused, perhaps it did. Perhaps the Thane and his confidants knew only too well, and had sealed in the citizens of the fortress city, allowing none to leave, with the certain knowledge that those spies in their midst would not only share equally in their fate, but be rendered useless in the bargain.



This realization, he realized, was a fatal one, for it would leave him but one alternative: to seek a means to get close enough to the Thane to kill him, an act tantamount to suicide. It crossed his mind that perhaps this was the very thing one or more of his masters intended. Assassins, he knew, were always eliminated, despite the mystique to the contrary. ‘Isn’t it strange,’ he mused, ‘how the truth of a thing is often portrayed and glamourized for what it is not, and in the same breath, how odd it is that people will attempt to hang on to such illusions like grim death, all the while emphatically asserting that their illusions are the truth. And is it not to be wondered at that the greatest preponderance of such illusions surround death itself?’



‘Well, my Thane,’ he mused, ‘I have no such illusions. Nor, I think, do you.’

***

Goaded by a growing sense of isolation, many of Mirrindale’s inhabitants began keeping vigil, watching the approach to the city from atop the wall, hoping to see lines of refugees arriving from the surrounding countryside. There was no one living within the city who did not have family or friends on the outside. Oddly, these people stood not all together, but rather individually, or in small knots; a group of teenaged girls here, a mother with a babe in arms there, a pair of loudly-conversing Merchants in bright and expensive garb with their backs to the direction everyone else’s eyes were fixed, a never-ending stream of petulant criticism issuing from their mouths, their body-language eloquently expressing an irrational attempt to dismiss out-of-hand the events the citizen’s of Mirrindale were all equally embroiled in . . .



The Thane thought to curb this practice, as it interfered somewhat with the duties of those soldiers who patrolled the walls. Instead, he compromised by cutting the number of civilians to a few at a time, to avert the complaining and suspicion that would inevitably follow.



During this time of interminable anticipation, a cold weight of dread began eroding the confidence of those who waited in vain for news. This feeling soon permeated the fortress-city, seeping unabated through its walls as though the fortified stonework itself had become suspect. Dread for the outcome of the fighting. Dread for the safety of loved-ones, including the soldiers that were fighting to protect their homes and families. And dread for those that lived in the unprotected territories that had never known warfare or violence. Dread now stalked the streets at night, laying in wait in dark corners; its pall seemed to lay thick about them, even to hang in the sky above like a bad dream.



This angst served to create an unexpected sort of conflict: the poorer citizens naturally became drawn together, but seeing this caused the Merchants to interfere in any way possible, even to the point of hiring people to illegally police the city’s populace, breaking up gatherings, pressing people into service, and eventually contesting the Thane’s rule directly.



Doc was present in the Hall of the Thane, when the largest faction of the Merchants demanded a meeting to decide Mirrindale’s fate. Their spokesman, a fat, grotesquely painted, perfumed, excessively overdressed fellow named Crasp, addressed the Thane from the gallery, which was full to overflowing. Doc sat with a new acquaintance, a merchant named Finli, and a small group of quieter, conservative types, who watched the proceedings with stoic and silent reserve. None of this group was dressed in the gaudy finery of his peers, and none were as grossly obese as Crasp and his followers.



‘My Thane,’ Crasp said, getting to his feet-



‘I do not recall giving anyone leave to speak,’ the Thane said quietly, reading some paperwork, the Merchant’s petition, in fact, taking his time. ‘Or to stand, for that matter.’



‘My Thane,’ the Merchant persisted, his face growing red.



‘Your next unauthorized utterance will lead to your immediate expulsion from this chamber,’ the Thane said, gesturing to a pair of guards who began moving in Crasp’s direction.



Muttering loudly, his language fowl, Crasp reseated himself and began holding a conference with those sitting near to him.



With a smile, Doc turned to Finli, and was about to say something when he noticed the old Merchant’s expression.



Not taking his eyes off Crasp for a moment, Finli said, for the benefit of Doc and those sitting near to them, ‘My friends, would you do me the courtesy of looking about the hall, with an eye to the possible presence of the fellow who attempted to have Malina sign the false document she was presented with?’ Finli’s face was expressionless, but every line of his body seemed poised.



Doc took a good look around, but saw no sign of any tall, middle-aged man in robes. There was only the gallery with its tiers of seats, filled for the most part with Merchants, the Thane at his table at floor level, with his aides seated to either side, a group of young boys, pages, who stood behind them, the podium which stood empty, and the guards standing before the front and back entrances to the Hall.



‘We see nothing out of the ordinary,’ one of Finli’s contemporaries said quietly, voicing Doc’s observation. ‘Why do you ask?’



‘Because something is wrong,’ Finli replied, firmly. ‘I can sense it. Something is going to happen.’



‘Why do you say that?’ Doc asked him.



A friend of Finli, one sitting on the other side of the big Merchant, a small, thin, wise-looking man, leaned over and said to Doc, ‘You may not know this of one-time captain Finli, but you are asking a soldier whether or not he can smell an ambush.’



The Elf Merchant’s words struck Doc like ice-water. There was going to be violence! It was going to come suddenly, from some unexpected direction, and it was going to be directed at the Thane.



But in what form? Doc took another look around, heart pounding, his senses heightened by the anticipation of murder. The soldiers, perhaps? Had they been bought off? There were four of them at each entrance, standing at attention. None so much as ventured a glance in the direction of the gallery. Doc made a mental note to see if any of their number looked to the Merchants for some sort of cue. The Merchants themselves? Doc huffed, looking them over. Worst thing any of them could so would be to fall on someone.



His observances were interrupted when the Thane set down the petition he had been reading, turned his gaze to Crasp, and said, ‘There is a matter you wish to discuss with me?’



Crasp got to his feet as though he garnered the support of all in the Hall by doing so, and as though admonishing some upstart, said, ‘My Thane, this current state of affairs cannot continue. Mirrindale, the town of Narvi, and the surrounding area, exist by conducting commerce with the outside world. Without trade, this city-state and its surrounding areas will collapse into a state of chaos, lawlessness, and impoverishment.



‘We are cut off from the North, from Nith and Valerian, so you say. Fine! So be it! Even without those lucrative markets, there are always the Kingdoms of Men and Dwarves, and at need, there are far-off Kingdoms of Elves, and other markets as yet unexplored.



‘But this matter of sealing us all in Mirrindale, of denuding the surrounding lands of people and resources, of abandoning Narvi, and to commit the army to some fool’s errand when they should more properly be engaged in protecting our trade routes-



‘My Thane, this is madness! And it cannot be allowed to continue.



‘In the absence of responsible government, we Merchants have formed a Council, of which I am the elected representative.



‘In a word, my Thane, I am now the duly elected Governor of Mirrindale.’



The Thane’s only reaction was to lift an eyebrow in mild irritation.



‘I see. And how do you propose to enact this treason?’



‘My support is all but unanimous,’ Crasp said in such a way that it was obvious, at least in his own mind, that this were indeed true. ‘I have the support of the army, and, believe it or not, of the lesser citizenry. If you do not believe me, then I will summon representatives of both, and continue summoning them until you are satisfied in your mind that I am telling the truth.’



Some movement caught Doc’s eye. He touched Finli lightly on the arm to get his attention, and pointed to a small group of Merchants sitting in the lowest tier of the gallery, directly behind the Thane. Unlike the others, they were lean, hardened-looking, and something in their bearing was utterly unlike that of their fellows.



‘Well done, James!’ Finli said under his breath. Leaning over, he said something to one of the younger Merchants, who immediately got to his feet.



‘May I ask permission to speak?’



Crasp was about to respond, but the Thane cut him off.



‘Of course, master Valen. I would hear from every faction, even the smallest.’



Valen bowed, and said, ‘May we approach? We, too, would like to present a petition, of sorts.’



The Thane looked at him, sharply. Crasp watched this exchange, his features filled with gloating anticipation. As the Merchants with whom Doc was sitting got to their feet, Finli whispered, not looking at him, ‘If you value your personal safety, I suggest that you do not move from this spot.’ As a body, the twelve of them crossed the floor, coming at last to stand before the Thane’s desk.



Looking as though he expected some further betrayal, the Thane said, ‘Well, Valen? Why have you crossed the floor? I cannot believe that you would add your voice to that of Crasp.’



Valen, however, turned to face Crasp where he sat in the gallery and smiled.



Leaning over the table, and speaking very quietly, he said, ‘You miscomprehend us, my Thane. We have come to stand beside you, come what may. Or to fall,’ he said pointedly, ‘should the guards not respond with their accustomed alacrity. Armed or not, I suggest that you set your dignity aside for the moment, and cross the table to safety-’



A page, a boy of perhaps twelve or thirteen years, having overheard this exchange, drew a long dagger from his raiment and lunged at the Thane. He was quickly disarmed, but the Thane received a deep gash over his right shoulder-blade.



At once, the group of Merchants sitting behind the Thane sprang into action, drawing swords and casting their robes aside. The Thane took Valen’s advice, throwing himself over the table, leaving a wide smear of blood, landing amidst his supporters, some of whom began calling for the guards.



To no one’s surprise, the guards remained at their posts.



The thin, small elderly Merchant stayed well out of the ensuing fight, but not before handing the Thane a large broadsword, which he had somehow contrived to keep hidden.



Doc had never seen a real-life swordfight before, and it was utterly unlike anything he could have imagined. Looking back on it later, the closest he could come to describing it was that it reminded him of a bullfight he had seen as a child. At the last the bull was exhausted and bleeding, trying vainly to gore its pitiless tormenter, while the strutting butcher of a matador stood in a stylized pose, arm upraised with the point of the sword downwards, to deliver the final killing blow. The thin sliver of blade descended, passing effortlessly into the bull’s bulk in a way what seemed almost innocuous, except for the fact that the bull was now moaning in agony, coughing up blood, whirling about vainly in an attempt to dislodge the pin that skewered its vitals. Its death came as slow agony, while the crowd got to its feet, cheering wildly for the strutting little monster who had so cleverly murdered a dumb brute that knew nothing of the twisted, inbred “reasoning” of Man.



Until he had seen a real bullfight, all he had to go on was cartoons and stylized representation. This was just as true where sword-play was concerned. The difference was like comparing the watching of an old pirate movie to the realities of war.



In a word, there was no comparison.



There were no stylized poses, there was little finesse, and no witty réparté. Instead, there was crude, brutal opportunism, brute force, grim, businesslike determination, desperate evasion, hysterical screams of fear and agony, and when it was over, the floor in front of the Thane’s table was a pool of congealing blood, in which lay two of Finli’s companions, and all sixteen of the would-be murderers.



But it wasn’t over yet. To Doc’s horror, the Thane sent for a number of soldiers, thirty-six in all, who disarmed those who had been guarding the doors, led them to the centre of the floor, and beheaded them on the spot. Crasp was then seized and dragged unceremoniously to the centre of the floor, where he suffered the same fate.



For a time, Doc felt light-headed, and for the first time in many years had to resist the urge to heave the contents of his stomach. Then, past the point where anything could surprise him further, the Thane calmly resumed his chair and spoke.



‘This could have been avoided,’ he said, quietly. ‘There was no reason for it. You would not hear reason before, but you will return to your seats and do so now.’ He waited for the commotion to die down.



‘Firstly,’ he said, ‘I did not expend soldiers to protect our trade routes because the moment civil war began, hostiles began roaming the countryside at will. In a word, there simply are no trade routes to defend. They no longer exist. We are cut off, and we do not possess the means to make the current state of affairs other than it is.



‘Secondly, as a body, you, the Merchants of Mirrindale, have no political nor legal authority whatsoever. Yet you have taken it upon yourselves to attempt a coup, and for some time now have contrived to undermine my authority where the military is concerned, as has been demonstrated today, in the starkest terms. As well, you have been bullying the more impoverished citizenry of this city, who are protected equally under the Law.



‘Well, now, what am I to do with you? Put the lot of you to the sword? How can I make you understand that your scheming undermines the safety of all concerned, that Mirrindale does not exist solely for your use and benefit, that what you are is a threat to our future, and our future well-being? How can I make you see that the day of the Merchant class is ended? That you have brought this day upon yourselves? That you are, this day, what in truth you have always been; nothing more or less than very average citizens of Elvenkind?’



As the Thane said these words, Doc took a good look at the faces of the seated Merchants, and was baffled by the petulant obstinance that seemed so pervasive. After several moments of this, he found himself badly wanting to leave this place, these people, their inbred bigotry and arrogance and stupidity. Instead, he was soon called upon to tend to the wounded. In a strange way he found solace in the infirmary, a place, almost a world in itself, where people and their conduct made sense.

***

In the following weeks, only a handful of refugees arrived at the gate. They did not seem reassured by Mirrindale’s solidity, but rather gazed suspiciously at the city’s fortifications, as though finding them untrustworthy. To make matters worse, small groups of mounted soldiers began to return, moving down the road at a slow walk, seemingly reluctant to enter the city. Though pressed for news, they said little, and kept to themselves.

***

Doc was told to expect wagons bearing wounded sometime soon. The young Elf soldier who told him this, said it in such a way as touched a deep sense of foreboding in the old man, and groaning inwardly, he thought, Why do I know this is going to be bad?



Vries, who was standing nearby, caught his look, and Doc saw unmistakably in his eyes that the elderly Elven Healer was thinking much the same thing. He seemed, too, to be looking to Doc for some kind of reassurance. Doc well knew that Vries felt himself inadequate to the task ahead, but Doc worried that the task might very well be of a sort that no mortal human being was able to deal with, that Vries and those like him, who knew what was going on and was going to happen, were desperate for the unattainable.



Something of this line of thought twigged a memory, of something Malina had once said, back in his own world, when she had told Deborah, Doc and Ralph, as they sat down to supper one day, about the King and what his lack of belief was doing to His Kingdom, of His subsequent quest for immortality. Maybe this is all a self-fulfilling prophesy, he thought. Can it be that one person can hold so many hostage to a private delusion? Or is it that there’s something fundamental wrong with this world?



He tried to dismiss this thought as irrational and unfounded, but found he couldn’t. What disturbed him most was the fact that it was what he thought of as his newly developing healing sense that was causing him to think such thoughts. He knew with utter certainty that, like any other sense, it was only imparting information to his brain, that reading anything beyond the obvious into one’s own senses was at best a risky business. Doc well knew in his pragmatic mind, a trait that was the inevitable consequence of being a diagnostician, that one had to be wary of one’s own instincts, that one’s judgement was often affected by a predisposition of attitude that could colour one’s interpretation of sensory information, that information was one thing, but how one acted upon it, or thought about it, were areas in which many people’s thinking was mired in illogic.



That was all very well and good, but could he trust what his senses were telling him about this world? Or was it more specific than that? He frowned in concentration, for the first time turning his newfound senses in upon themselves.



And there it was; as clear as day, he could see the source of the problem. The Elf Kingdom itself. And its relationship to the Earth Mother.



‘Vries,’ he said to the elderly Healer, who was watching him guardedly, ‘is it possible that the Elf Kingdom is . . . in the overall scheme of things . . . well . . . I don’t know how else to put this, so I’ll just say it straight out; is it possible that the Elf Kingdom represents some sort of illness in this world?’



Vries suprised him by answering utterly without hesitation, or a need to consider his words.



‘Of course it is! You must understand that the Elven Lore is a usurping of power, or at least it was, until it grew too puissant for any mortal to wield. That limitation is a consequence of the Balance established by the Earth Mother. The Balance itself is there for a reason. It is part of Her plan, which includes all living things.



‘But our Loremasters, instead of respecting such things, tried to circumvent them. Some of them believe, to this day, as many Men do, that the world and everything in it was created for our use, and that they may do with it as they see fit. Many do not rely on even that much of an excuse; such minds conceive in terms of their own unreasoning and arrogant presumption.



‘Why would our Loremasters harbour such dangerous beliefs, if they are such obvious lies? The answer is so simple that it is easily overlooked. Consider: in times of impoverishment, instability and uncertainty, people often speak of such things as peace and prosperity, as though these were the most desirable of commodities. But as a society, when such things are actually attained, that society’s citizenry, within the space of a few short years, loses sight of its original goals, because they are no longer goals; once attained they are the state of one’s existence, and are therefore taken for granted.



‘Consequently, people begin setting other goals, and other standards, in effect drifting away from the ideals previously set. The simple truth is that those who have known want are the most generous in their naïve idealism, and those who have never experienced want or hardship are not only the most selfish, but are also the most ignorant, are more inflexible in their ideas, and in general are a lesser grade of people.



‘Consider also that this lesser grade of people make up both our Merchant class and those in power, and perhaps you may understand why unreason is so pervasive. You must understand that such people have always felt threatened by those better educated than themselves, and who should those very people they fear be, but the Scholastic community; those poor in wealth but rich in real knowledge.



‘The rich, in their arrogant presumption, simply cannot tolerate the realization that they are a bunch of ignorant louts without the education, and therefore the right, to so much as express an opinion. So how do they respond to this threat? By vilifying reason itself, which they have almost always managed to get away with, because the poor, who make up the greatest numbers in any population, are also intimidated by the Scholastic community, and in this case will almost always stand by the rich who champion such spurious nonsense.



‘There is a perverse desire for self-importance, an unwillingness to admit to ignorance, and an aversion to earning accolades through hard work, which resides in each of us, the three together creating a sort of inertia which, unchecked, will drag even the best society down into muck and ruin. The cure is and has always been blatantly obvious: self-motivation, hard work, education, and a healthy degree of self-privation; but instilling those four simple axioms . . .’ he shrugged. Then smiled. ‘There is a saying, that “Every victory contains the seeds if its own defeat.” I think that it applies most eloquently to our present state of affairs in the Elf Kingdom.’



For the next several hours, as he worked in the infirmary, Doc’s thoughts turned often to ancient Rome in its twilight years.

***

As time went on, uncertainty for the citizens of Mirrindale seemed to become a way of life. In fact, the only certainty was that the civil war had escalated to the point where the entire Kingdom was involved. Place-names, and the names of small towns to the North and East, hitherto scarcely, if ever, coming to the ears of those in Mirrindale and Narvi, were now becoming all too familiar, but in changed form. They were now synonymous with the battles and bloody skirmishes fought there. The names of people, too, some famous, many hitherto unknown, were becoming catch-words for their actions, whether moral or ignoble, heroic or craven, self-sacrificing or utterly selfish. It soon became a common saying, spoken of those previously unknown, who had done great deeds, that they had “made a name for themselves.”



Yet, however those in opposition to the King and Prince Cir conducted themselves, such actions were bitter consolation in light of the knowledge that they were losing: every victory was but a brief respite, while every loss brought the enemy ever closer to Mirrindale.



The news from the surrounding countryside was chilling. As the Thane had predicted, roving bands of Goblins soon prowled the countryside at will, despoiling and murdering the unprotected inhabitants. Many innocents died abominably at their hands; the infirm, the elderly, women, and children. There were a few reports of the Goblins being thwarted by large bands of Dwarves and Men who “just happened to be in the area,” these having taken a few liberties with the Thane’s request to remain within their own borders. But such reports were few, and undoubtedly exaggerated by vain hope.

***

Then, without warning, there was an abrupt lull in the fighting which lasted several weeks. During this time, the occupants of Mirrindale learned that the King had lost all or most of his support. Companies of soldiers wearing the King’s livery, defectors from the King’s armies, began arriving at the gates of Mirrindale with their families, having left all or most of their worldly possessions behind, and most of Mirrindale’s citizenry held to the mistaken belief that the worst was over. The truth, however, left most stunned and speechless, once it came to their ears. The reason for the presence of these soldiers was that the Elf Kingdom was being overrun.



An army of Goblins led by Prince Cir had crossed the northern border of the Elf Kingdom unopposed, ushered in through the back door by members of the King’s own guard. The news from the King’s city of Valerian was appalling: he had betrayed his own city, his own people, to the Goblins, who fully lived up to their reputation for barbarity. The citizens of Valerian had been slaughtered in their beds. There had been no warning of the attack. His own army had been caught, unawares.



Some tried to dismiss this as rumour, saying that the city of Valerian might very well be under siege, but could hold its own. Valerian was almost as impregnable as Mirrindale, after all. Some reasoned that even if Valerian did fall, the inhabitants would somehow contrive to escape, that it was only a matter of time before the refugees began to arrive.



But a handful of wounded in the infirmary were from the ill-fated city, and knew with certainty the fate of the city and its inhabitants. They thought it odd that their presence and the news they bore should be ignored in favour of rumour. No matter, they told themselves. No amount of disbelief or blind faith could alter the truth.

***

Sitting down to lunch in the Thane’s private quarters, Doc watched the young girl who laid out the table with private amusement. She looked to be twelve or thirteen years old, and went about her duties with such exaggerated diligence as made him share a broad smile with the Thane.



When she had left to pursue other duties, the Thane, becoming serious once more, said, ‘You wished to know the truth about Prince Cir. It is this:



‘Prince Cir is the only son and heir of the King. It had long been known that Cir was unfit to hold power. He has always abused his standing, even as a child. Sometime after he achieved adulthood, during a time when the King was become fully distracted from his duties, Cir took full advantage, assuming that he could do as he pleased, not only where our Faerie kindred were concerned, but with our own people as well.



‘For his brutality, Cir was rewarded with an untimely but well-deserved death, at the hands of his own soldiers. The King, not being in his right mind, then did the unthinkable. He ordered his Loremasters to resurrect his son.’



‘Cir was dead?’ Doc said incredulously. Once past his initial surprise, a though occurred to him, and he said, ‘I seem to recall something Malina told me, that the Elves were known to have done such things, and that the result was so frightening she wouldn’t speak of it.’



The Thane raised his eyebrows in surprise. ‘So, it has been done before! I was not aware of that.’ Noting Doc’s dubious expression, he said, ‘I have no doubt that the Pixie spoke the truth. The only way she could have known about it, is if it had been done. She may even have been witness to it.



‘Well, if the King saw fit to resurrect his son, why would he stop there? But those brought back from the Dead are an enigma, for they are not truly alive. They walk in both worlds-’



‘Malina told me as much,’ Doc said.



‘Did she?’ the Thane said, surprised. ‘I had always suspected that young woman to be of greater character than she appeared. To have endured Cir’s malice for so long takes a stout heart! While it is true that she had some little aid from Pran, Birin, myself and a few Pixie friends like Finli, still I find it a thing of wonder to remember how often she risked her life to help others.’



‘Like Pran’s daughter.’ Doc said.



The Thane nodded. ‘I know, too, that she has been witness to numerous acts of horrific barbarity, both to her kindred, and indeed to anyone who had given her people aid.’



‘You mean Elves, the ones she calls Pixie-friends?’ Doc asked.



‘In part,’ the Thane replied, ‘though not always. She once contrived to give away the presence of a war party of Goblins who lay in ambush, waiting for a company of my soldiers to ride into their trap. She was seen during the fighting, barely managing to escape with her life.’



‘No wonder Pran resigned his commission,’ Doc muttered.



‘Malina is not the only one,’ the Thane told him. ‘But, back to the matter at hand:



‘Resurrecting the Dead is a very foolish, very dangerous thing to do. Being no longer dead nor alive, they live in a world in between, occupied by succubae, banshees, Tsagoroth, wraiths, and other such deadly spirits.’



Doc looked doubtful. ‘Malina brought a couple of dead insects back to life-’



The Thane made a dismissing gesture. ‘That is another matter. Such creatures lack the intelligence to conceive of manipulating or controlling other living things. Alive or resurrected, their short lives remain largely unchanged. A being like an Elf, however, is much more substantial, and more powerful than such beings as exist in the spirit world, and it is this which gives them greater influence than any should have with such creatures. In the case of Cir, he might contrive to use this to his advantage. If he was ever to get his hands on the Lore, or even a small part of it, what he would be able to unleash does not bear thinking about.



‘The King knows this, and it is in my heart that he intends Cir to be his means to accomplish what his madness has led him to, and it is of this that I now must speak.’



He rose from his seat to stand at the window.



‘Long ago, as a child, the King, then the Prince of Valerian, witnessed death for the first time. His mother, whom he loved dearly, was struck with some illness that our healers were never able to identity. She died in agony, and her husband soon followed. Many thought the deaths suspicious, that they embodied some hidden purpose.



‘If there was some hidden purpose, it came to fruition when the young Prince was made King. The responsibilities of office came hard to him, for he was far too young and mired in grief. Over time, an unreasoning fear of his own death began to grow on him like a cancer, eating at his mind, his spirit.



‘Over the years, this fear became an obsession with him. He turned to the Lore for answers, but was unsatisfied with what the Loremasters told him. They said, of course, that death is a natural and necessary part of life, which it is.



‘His obsession drove him to cruelty and viciousness. He reviled his Loremasters, telling them that if the Lore could alter the course of the Seasons and the Weather, then it could also give him greater, if not infinite life.



‘His unreasonable demands on the Loremasters had an unfortunate consequence. He would not hear those who spoke reasonably. That, of course, left only those lacking in scruple.



‘Previous to this occurrence, the Loremasters were a self-contained caste, who promoted those most fit to lead their Order from within their own ranks, as no one else was qualified to do so. The King, however, took it upon himself to change this, and his interference has brought about the present group who now serve him.’



The Thane made a sigh of frustrated anger. ‘The truth is that they do not serve the King. They do not because they can not. The King demands the impossible, which they have no choice but to promise to deliver. To survive, they make a show of pandering to the Kings’ delusions, to curry the King’s favour and influence. As things now stand, both they and the King are now hostages to his madness.’



‘You once mentioned the Tsagoroth,’ Doc said, refilling his glass of ale from a jug on the table. ‘What are they?’



‘Suffice it to say,’ the Thane replied in a carefully measured tone, ‘that they are made beings, and that they are a great evil.’



‘Made by whom?’ Doc asked him.



The Thane fixed Doc with a look that made him go cold inside.



‘By Elves. Elves whose curiosity led them to look in places not meant to be explored.’ He laughed bitterly. ‘Of course, who could have known this, until it was too late? Who could have foreseen that a thirst for knowledge would lead to answers which might destroy us?’



Doc considered this in silence for several moments, all the while aware that the Thane was watching him closely. Finally, Doc said, ‘That’s it, isn’t it? To explore such magic, to tap into this . . . the Netherworld . . . your Loremasters had to use the Lore, and have opened some sort of gateway, a portal or something . . . and now they can’t close it again.’



‘I will say only this,’ the Thane told him. ‘If those Loremasters possessed of scruple cannot seal off the Netherworld, then we are all doomed. We have not a tithe of the strength necessary to contest such evil.’



‘But you have the Elf Lore,’ Doc said.



‘Ah-h, the Elf Lore,’ the Thane said, reseating himself, pouring the last of the ale into his flagon, taking a sip and leaning back in his chair. ‘Since your arrival in this world, how often have you witnessed the power of the Lore being invoked?’



Doc frowned. ‘If you count the Weather and the Seasons, every day.’



The Thane shook his head. ‘That is a very old spell, enacted generations ago.’



‘How can that be?’ Doc asked him. ‘I mean, where does it get its power from? Who keeps it going?’



The Thane smiled without humour. ‘The explanation for such a question could only be answered by a Loremaster. As well, fully understanding the answer would require that you or I undertake years of study and discipline as an apprentice of Lore. The short answer (as I once asked this same question of a Loremaster myself) is that the Weather and the Seasons were long ago diverted in some manner, in much the same way that the digging of a new watercourse will change the direction of flow of a river.’



‘In that case,’ Doc said, ‘I have never once seen the Lore used.’



The Thane nodded. ‘And you will not. The Lore in its totality is imprecise; it has lapsed into desuetude, and it is dangerous-’



‘But the spell Pran used to bring myself and the others to your world-’ Doc protested.



‘The use of a minor spell has nothing at all in common with invoking the totality of the Lore itself,’ the Thane told him. ‘For example, your powers of Healing are your own. Had you the skill, however, the methods you have devised for yourself could be written down and added to the Lore.’



Doc was stumped. ‘Are you telling my that the Lore itself has never been used? I thought that when someone was referring to the Elf Lore, they were talking about it collectively.’



‘An unfortunate misunderstanding,’ the Thane said. ‘Using a small part of the Lore is not the same thing as invoking the Lore itself.’



‘What will happen if someone does invoke the Lore?’ Doc asked quietly, somehow suspecting the answer.



Answering him indirectly, the Thane replied, ‘The King seeks immortality, for himself only. He believes that by invoking the Lore, in its totality, he will accomplish this end. But the Book of Runes contains literally tens of thousands of spells, rites, invocations and other magicks which have nothing at all to do with the manner in which he would put them to use, collectively or otherwise.’ The Thane’s words, though simple enough in their content, carried with them undercurrents of death and killing, as though the words themselves were written in dried blood.



‘All that power . . .’ Doc muttered, and trailed off. Doing some cursory mental arithmetic, he quickly realized that he could grasp only a tiny part of the proportions of such a conflagration. Utter annihilation. That’s what this was about. Even as he made this realization, he somehow found himself considering the individual who planned such a thing, and shook his head. ‘Even if your King is right . . . even if he were to gain immortality, while the rest of us were destroyed . . . the arrogant presumption . . . the utter selfishness of such an act . . . and yet-’



‘And yet the very idea holds a morbid fascination,’ the Thane finished for him. ‘Compared to an immortal, our brief lives would soon be over, regardless. In one hundred years, what would it matter how we came by our end? That is certainly the question; what would any one of us do in the King’s place? It is easy to say, and easy to believe that we would do otherwise. But were such a choice to be real, to be laid out before each and every one of us, who can say how any of us would act?’



‘Alive but alone for all eternity,’ Doc mused. ‘It would be a living hell. But it would still be eternity.’

***

Doc had treated a good many injuries in his time, from blisters and hangnails to knife and gunshot wounds. But he was little prepared for the kind of violence a sword could do. The victims looked as though they had survived an attempted axe-murder. Limbs were broken and hanging by strings of muscle and tendon, chest cavities were laid open, exposing the internal organs, intestines often spilled out of wounds like grey sausage, bones were splintered and protruded whitely from mangled flesh . . .



Blood and the smell of it was everywhere. The infirmary soon acquired the dank reek of a slaughterhouse, and looked more like an abattoir than a place of healing.



He began by establishing a triage area, where those who could be saved were stabilised. Others less badly injured were sent to another area where they could be cared for until time could be spared for them.



Those who were fatally injured, and there were a great many of these, he sent most of the other Healers to first, to ease pain and suffering if they could.



A dozen apprentice Healers he kept with him, to watch and learn. They began with the most serious wounds, those to the head and body, followed by the extremities.



In a good many cases all he could do was amputate. Doc was sickened by seeing the mangled condition of so many young and healthy bodies. He was reminded of the American Civil War, when surgery was in its infancy, and most of what the early surgeons did was perform amputations.



But unlike the Civil War, Doc had the skill and knowledge to operate whenever it was possible, opening the bodies’ cavities and repairing damage to tissues and organs. To this end, his new-found power as a Healer guided his sight, speeded healing and repair, and fought both infection and poison.



At the last, when the worst was over and he was far too tired to continue, Doc went to his chamber to sleep, but not before he had taken a last look around to be sure all ran smoothly.

***

When he awoke several hours later, still dressed in his clothes, he felt more tired and drained than he could ever remember feeling. He was getting far too old for this kind of work, and his stores of endurance were limited. But he rose, bathed, and went to look in on the aftermath.



As he entered the infirmary, all heads turned to watch him as he made his rounds. He had introduced what the other Healers found to be a dizzying assortment of innovations, including charts and records for all the patients who entered the infirmary. One young nurse, who showed great potential for becoming a Healer herself, came up to him a bit apprehensively.



‘Sir, you asked if a mechanical timepiece existed. One of the Merchants whose son was treated here has donated such a thing, though we don’t see what help it will render.’



Doc smiled broadly. ‘It’s Luni, isn’t it?’



She smiled uncertainly in response.



‘Well, Luni, let’s have a look at this timepiece, shall we?’



At the center of the infirmary there now stood a circular desk where all the information was kept, and laying to one side, on its back, was an enormous pendulum clock. Doc could have hooted for joy. On the far wall, where all could see it, Doc had the clock mounted. Once started, it produced a tremendous tok every second as its ponderous pendulum swung. Calling his staff together, he explained that exact time was to be entered into the patients’ records, to keep a more accurate record of administered medicaments, amongst other things.



He then showed them how to take both pulse and respiration, and outlined the significance of monitoring a patient’s vital signs. When this was accomplished it was past noon, and he was about to check on some paperwork when he was approached by one of the Thane’s aids. Approaching him as nervously as Luni, the young Elf cleared his throat and spoke.



‘The Thane requests, that is if you are not too busy, that you come with me to where the Thane is having his mid-day meal. Sir.’



Needing a break from the infirmary, Doc rose and said, ‘Lead on, master Elf. I could use a break.’

***

They found the Thane in his anteroom, at the rear of the hall where Doc and the others had first been introduced to him. He was having lunch with a certain elderly Merchant, one who didn’t go in for the gaudy finery of his peers. A veritable giant of an Elf, he was stout without being portly, belying an underlying strength, as could be seen in his thick wrists and big hands, and his thick white beard bore an incongruous appearance, as though he grew it to conceal a wry sense of humour. His eyes, when seen at first, though kind, were almost too sharp, like those of a soldier.



When Doc entered the chamber, the Thane and the Merchant rose to their feet. To the young aid, the Thane said, ‘You may leave us.’ The young Elf bowed and did so. Still standing, the Thane said to Doc, ‘Will you share a meal with us? I would like you to meet an old friend.’



Bowing Elf-fashion, Doc responded, ‘I will indeed!’



‘Good,’ said the Thane, sounding relieved. ‘Please allow me to make introduction. This is Finli, a Merchant of Mirrindale.’



Doc’s smiled. ‘We’ve met, but hadn’t been formally introduced. By the way, I meant to ask you before; would you be the Finli Malina spoke of?’



The Merchant’s bubbly laugh at the mention of his name was infectious. ‘My fame precedes me! You have no idea how I’ve worried this past year over Malina’s absence. Karras here tells me you know my Pixie friend well.’



Doc was surprised by Finli’s use of the Thane’s familiar name. The Thane smiled wryly, and said, ‘There is no need for formality here. You too may call me Karras if you wish, at least in less formal circumstance.’



‘In that case,’ said Doc, ‘You may as well call me James. Where I come from, Doc is short for Doctor, or as you might say, Healer.’



The Thane’s mien was apologetic. ‘Then those of your world have been calling you by your title! I wish I had known.’



Doc made a dismissing gesture. ‘I have never been one for formality. Reminds me of those stuffed shirts I used to work with.’



Both Finli and the Thane exploded with laughter at this remark. ‘Stuffed shirts!’ choked the Thane, ‘That is what they remind me of.’



‘Master James!’ laughed Finli, ‘Your reputation for such coinages has preceded you. I shall never be able to look one of my colleagues in the eye again without thinking of your epithet.’



‘I’m afraid that it is a very tired old saying back where I come from,’ chuckled Doc. ‘But to answer your question, I know Malina very well. She and her friends, Deborah and Ralph, lived for a time in my home.’



Finli stopped laughing abruptly. ‘Then it is true. That dear little Pixie has survived against all odds, and has still managed to make her way in a hard world and make new friends. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this bit of news. She was like a daughter to me, you know. She could always make a lonely old sod like me forget what a hard and uncaring place the world can be. I would dearly love to see her smiling face again.’



Doc was not easily moved, but Malina had spoken often of Finli, and he now understood the reason. ‘Malina told me you saved her life, more than once,’ Doc told him. ‘She told me that you had often placed yourself at great risk on her behalf, and she worried that anything might happen to you. I am sorry that you missed her while she was here.’



Only the Thane was surprised at this. ‘Finli! Then the Prince was right. You did lie, right to his face. That was bravely done!’



Raising an eyebrow, Finli said, ‘The Prince told you about that, eh?’



‘Oh, yes,’ said the Thane, ‘in no uncertain terms. He knew you’d lied, too, though he couldn’t prove it. You’re lucky he didn’t have you skinned alive, though I daresay either Pran or myself might have done the same to him.’



Finli smiled sadly at the mention of Pran’s name. ‘I could not but notice with relief that he had ended his solitary vigil at those woods near to that isolated spot Malina called a home after he had sent her away.’



The Thane’s sombre, guarded nod, Doc realised, carried an implicit warning not to discuss the matter further, though he could not help but place a great weight on those words left unspoken. Clearing his throat, thinking to change the subject, he said, ‘Why am I left with the impression that everyone’s working in secret generates as many problems as it deals with?’



Seemingly thankful for the change of topic, the Thane said with conviction, ‘Has that not always been the way? In our Elven Kingdom, those who oppose the King always seem to do so in isolation, working together without knowing it, and concealing things of a vital nature even from each other. An inability to act or speak openly seems to breed suspicion and mistrust, serving only to lessen us all.’



‘In my profession,’ Finli said, while building himself a sort of open sandwich from dark bread, sliced meats and cheese, ‘openness presents danger and increases risk. Those of lesser character soon learn that blithe scruple makes easy gain. The rewards of honesty are often bitter, for though the conscience may be unsullied, treachery is ever near, and friends, though reliable and trusty are few.’



Doc and the Thane likewise began organising their meal, and Doc remarked, ‘It seems to me that when people’s lives are threatened, no matter how noble they are, if they’re up against odds that are too great, most of them will demean themselves if it means staying alive, silently hoping in isolation, waiting until a chance to fight back presents itself.’



Uncomfortably, Finli admitted, ‘I have been known to swallow my pride on more than one occasion, though it weighed heavily on my conscience afterward.’



‘I, too,’ muttered the Thane with a tired sigh. ‘But never again. For too long we have been beset with such snares, that come upon us unguessed, hidden within the subtle subterfuge of our Sovereign’s machinations.



‘Well, we must become as canny in the way we enact warfare. From here on in, nothing in our defence must be as it seems, nor our purpose straightforward.’



Doc was somewhat baffled by this, but Finli obviously suspected something of the sort.



‘What do you propose, friend Karras?’


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