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Into The Forest
‘Life is but a dream . . .’
from a child’s song
Birin conversed with Elgar for what seemed like an eternity; late afternoon dragged slowly on into dusk, and finally darkness. During the wait, the other’s boredom was exacerbated by frustration and a growing sense of misgiving that there might be some sort of confrontation, or that they might be turned away. But finally Birin turned and made his way back to the head of the column of refugees. Addressing them in a somewhat ironic tone, he said, ‘We are granted permission to enter the forest and make camp. Soldiers, make no aggressive move, for all our sake. These people are well armed and will take offence to any show of hostility.
‘We are to be led to a place deemed suitable to our needs, and I am told it will take some two days to make the journey. If there is no need for delay, then let us proceed.’
This was followed by an uncomfortable silence, which he ignored. Mounting his horse brusquely, he compelling the others onward by withdrawing his presence towards the wood.
It was so dark when they first entered the forest that making their way was difficult. But their eyes soon adjusted, and the light dusting of snow on the ground made picking out the trail easier.
It was an uncanny feeling, entering the great forest. The ambience around them changed, becoming close and still as in a library, yet incongruously, distant sounds could be heard very distinctly. The air was full of smells known mainly by instinct: that of the rich, loamy decay of the forest floor, pungent, vibrant sap, the timeless smell of the damp forest vapour itself, like the first breath of air when the world was new. Staring about in rapt wonder, becoming lost in the beauty which surrounded them, forgetful of any possible danger, the refugees made their way amongst the monolithic evergreens, which stood like massive columns supporting the forest canopy high above. Directly above, through the dense foliage, bright stars could be seen.
The trail into the forest rose steadily for some time, and the travellers could see dim shapes moving in stealthful silence about the bases of the trees, and it was with some misgiving that they knew their movements were closely watched.
The women had folded down the wagon’s canvas cover, and looking about, Deborah was entranced by bright silver and gold lights she saw darting about through the trees. Some seemed to be playing, chasing each other about, while others began following the travellers as though made curious by their strangeness. She thought that if they moved close enough she would be able to discern shapes within them. Theuli noticed the lights too, as did Rani and Zuic.
‘Mother, look!’ whispered Rani excitedly.
‘I see them,’ replied Theuli distantly.
In the dim light, Deborah noticed Malina, watching the lights with an odd expression.
Moving to sit beside her, Deborah asked, ‘Is it something the matter? Are you all right? What are they?’
Her face half in shadow as she watched the tiny forms, Malina said, her voice barely above a whisper, ‘Please . . . don’t ask me . . . not yet. I’ll tell you later . . . when they aren’t so near.’ Malina’s mien was suffused with suppressed emotion.
Deborah looked to Theuli for help, but the Elf-woman shook her head, a gentle warning in her eyes.
Ralph and Pran had a much closer look at the lights. They came very near to Pran, and some seemed to speak to him.
Looking closely at one of the lights that hovered some four feet away, Ralph thought he saw a tiny golden woman with wings, surrounded by a golden ball of light. She was lingering near Pran’s shoulder.
‘Pran, what are they?’
Giving Ralph a measuring look, Pran replied, ‘Some are Nymphs. Most are Sprites. A few are Pixies.’ To Ralph’s sudden sharp scrutiny of the tiny beings, which appeared almost as dread, he added, ‘Like Malina.’
The one who had been near Pran’s shoulder came very near to Ralph, and he could see clearly now that it was indeed a tiny woman. She was, perhaps, as tall as one’s hand, and her wings . . . he was disturbed by how closely they resembled the gauzy dress Malina wore when he first met her. The dress she had discarded. A sudden disconcerting thought crossed his mind. Could that be how she lost her power? Had she given it up voluntarily? For him?
The tiny woman before him spoke.
‘I am Éha, sister to Malina. Are you one of her Human companions from another world?’
Ralph looked to Pran who watched with some humour. ‘Pixies can be very protective of each other,’ he said with a smile. ‘Have a care how you answer, or she may prove no end of mischief.’
Ralph shrugged. ‘Malina is my . . . friend. And yes, we met in my world.’
Éha seemed to hesitate. Then, in the blink of an eye, she transformed before his eyes into a small woman sitting cross-legged before him on the horse’s withers. As she stared at him intently, Ralph thought her very young; there was something childlike and naïve about her. Ralph couldn’t help but smile.
‘May I ride with you awhile?’
As she was already doing so, Ralph said, ‘What happened to your wings?’
She smiled. ‘I have no use for them in this form! Has Malina taught you nothing?’
Answering thoughtfully, Ralph replied, ‘There are some things she never talks about.’
Éha’s smile faded. Looking about nervously, she said, ‘The others tell me always that I am too trusting with strangers. But you don’t look as though you’d hurt me.’ Looking almost afraid, she said timidly, ‘Would you?’
Trying not to laugh, Ralph replied, ‘Of course not. Why would I?’
She looked a bit lost, but continued. ‘Malina used to look after me. I got both of us into trouble several times.’
Speaking to her in the Pixie tongue, Ralph said, ‘Who is looking after you now? You seem a little young to be out on your own. Why don’t you visit us, once we’re more or less settled. I think there is much that Malina could share with you.’
Éha was too surprised to answer at first. ‘The others were right! I am naïve. You know all about us already. You must think me a silly child.’
Ralph had to laugh. ‘I don’t think you’re silly. But you aren’t much more than a child. How old are you?’
She tried counting on her fingers, but soon gave up the attempt, biting her lip and looking downcast at her failure. She appeared so tragic and small that Ralph said kindly, ‘Hey, it isn’t important.’
Her smile was a mixture of shy gratitude, and awe. ‘Did Malina teach you our tongue?’
‘Ware, Ralph,’ interjected Pran, ‘if you encourage her, you’ll never be rid of her. Come, Éha, ride with me for a bit.’ With a delighted smile, the little dark-haired pixie stood and jumped lightly onto Pran’s horse’s withers. He gestured to the saddle before him, and she sat like a happy child as he gave her the reins. The horse ignored her antics, fortunately.
‘Such was Malina,’ said Pran. ‘You can see now why Pixies are mistakenly assumed to be like children. They are playful, energetic, and,’ he chuckled, ‘no end of trouble. But they are not children. Éha, I think you should tell Ralph about bad Pixies.’
‘Rowf!’ She said, laughing, ‘What a funny name!’
‘Éha . . .’ Pran prodded in an admonishing tone.
She was suddenly crestfallen and sullen. Pran gave her a fatherly squeeze. ‘It’s all right, I will tell this tale. I should not burden you with such things.’
‘I will tell it,’ she said, as though coerced. ‘Even if I don’t like sad stories.’ She sighed unhappily.
‘Bad Pixies like to cause pain. They like to hurt things. I have seen them steal . . . little ones.’
‘Little ones?’ echoed Ralph.
Éha’s eyes filled with tears. ‘Little Nymphs. Little Pixies. Little . . .’ she glanced askance at the other Elves about.
‘What do they do with them?’
To Ralph’s embarrassment, Éha began crying. Pran put his arms around her protectively. ‘Shush, little one. That is enough.’ To Ralph he said, ‘I found this one wandering alone when she was very small. Not knowing what else to do, I took her to Malina. But to answer your question, bad Pixies do what bad Elves, or Goblins, do. They lure away the young and either abandon them, or worse. Often they will kill and eat them.’
‘Malina told me,’ Ralph muttered.
‘Yes,’ replied Pran, ‘I daresay she did. What she did not tell you is how many times she and others like her followed the evil Pixies and Goblins, trying to thwart their efforts. They didn’t often succeed. More often than not, things ended tragically, while Pixies like Malina could only watch.’ He sighed. ‘That is just one more thing we’ve got to put a stop to, if ever we can.’
‘Pran fought Goblins for me!’ Éha said. ‘The bad Pixies left me for them to find.’
Pran’s visage darkened at the memory. ‘Yes, and almost we were both captured and eaten. Wouldn’t that have been a feast?’
Fidgeting, Éha leaned back against Pran’s chest, and smiled up at him. ‘May I go now? My Sisters will be angry with me.’
He smiled affectionately. ‘You may.’
Transforming into her small form enveloped in a ball of light, she took off like a shot. Pran watched her go somewhat sadly.
Speaking so as not to be overheard, Ralph said, ‘Not to be insulting to her or anything, but is she . . . all there?’
Pran winced. ‘She is lucid enough. But emotionally she is having difficulty. Her Sisters watch her closely because she is far too trusting and . . . distracted by her inner problems.’
‘Was that true,’ Ralph asked, ‘what she said about you rescuing her?’
Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, Pran replied, ‘In a sense. But I was far from alone. When I was still a captain, I led several war parties after marauding Goblins. On one particular occasion one of my soldiers came across her as she wandered about, half out of her mind. I don’t think she even knew who we were at the time. The Goblins had done terrible things to her . . . things that don’t bear thinking about.
‘The others thought it best to abandon her to her fate, but I found I couldn’t. For several long days she rode astride my horse, as she has just done. After returning, alone, I made a detour to where Malina lived. Malina took her in, but was not able to care for her for long. Éha would wander off. Fortunately it was Finli who found her on a few occasions, but she was not always so lucky. She received some rough treatment from the Prince’s soldiers until Malina led her away. After that, Malina sent her to live with a few Pixies who lived further east from the Kingdom.’ His thoughtful introspection bore a cast of tired resignation. ‘In some ways, I fear she was lost from the day she was taken as a child.’
‘Maybe there’s something Doc could do for her,’ Ralph said.
‘Perhaps,’ Pran replied, noncommittally.
After journeying about four hours, the Outsiders directing Birin’s way indicated that they were to stop for the night. The lights having departed, it was now very dark in the forest, and many of the refugees were uneasy.
The forest floor was comparatively dry, and deep beds of fern grew in clumps here and there, and around the boles of the trees. Many of the refugees elected to make their beds upon these ferns, arrayed in circles around the tree trunks, some sleeping and others watching in turn, fearing to be taken unawares.
But the night passed undisturbed, and with the first grey light of dawn, they ate a light breakfast, broke camp, and were under way once more.
The terrain was very uneven, but not difficult. They were on a wide path that was covered with a thick brown carpet of evergreen needles, and it wound up and through convoluted knees of rock, switched back and forth, up and down steep ravines, passed along the rims or bottoms of steep gulleys, and wove its way ever deeper into the deep forest.
They often crossed small streams and rivulets of water. The path passed over these by means of small stone bridges. Many of the refugees wondered at these, for they had been expertly, if crudely made, and had an ancient look about them.
By the day’s end, the forest floor had taken on a different character, as had the forest itself. The trees here were as many, but grew thinner and stunted, allowing more light to reach the forest floor, which grew lush and green. Often the refugees would see clumps of wild flowers and flowering bushes beside the trail and off in the forest. Thick moss grew on the native rock and dead or fallen trees, as well as many types of lichen, toadstools, tree fungus, and mushrooms.
They came to rest on a low hill that was dry, as the low-lying areas were wet and marshy. Once again they kept a careful watch, and once again the night passed away without disturbance.
The next day the path began to wind ever downwards, and the refugees could see that the trees were becoming fewer, the terrain more subdued. The land tilted to their right, gradually becoming steadily flatter, and by nightfall they were crossing level ground.
Midnight had long since passed, and it was the dark hour before the first pale light of dawn. The moon was rising above the treetops, and the evergreens had given way to a forest of enormous oaks, some eight or ten feet thick at the base. And suddenly, their way was illuminated!
It was a spectacular sight. The huge trees were covered in snow, and the moon in the sky above was ringed by a halo of silver light. A few of the brightest stars shone palely through the light cloud which hung in the sky like a veil.
Elgar directed Birin to stop here.
‘This is a place such as your forebears used to live,’ he said, as if trying to ascertain the true purpose of the Elves. ‘Do you still maintain that it is truly your intent to live as they did?’
‘It is,’ Birin replied.
‘Then I suggest you take this valley to be your own,’ Elgar said. ‘There is a fast-running brook at the bottom, yonder, and a small lake not far downstream. I leave you in peace.’
‘Wait!’ said Birin, ‘I would like to thank you, and to offer the loan of our support at need.’
Elgar smiled patiently. ‘We Outcasts alone outnumber you and yours by perhaps ninety or a hundred to one. Unlike you, we know the way of the land and the seasons here. You would be well advised to reacquaint yourselves with life in the forest, for that in itself will consume most, if not all of your time. Be at peace.’ He turned to leave, but stopped when he remembered something. Over his shoulder he said, ‘It would ease my heart greatly if you would make your peace with Imalwain. That will be thanks enough.’
Birin was a still, silent, lone figure as Elgar left, and it was long before he remembered himself and returned to his fellows.
When they had made camp, Ralph and Malina set up a tent of their own, and had some privacy together for the first time in days. After getting settled in for the night, Ralph told Malina of his encounter with Éha.
This seemed to break some of the ice that had been forming around Malina’s sore heart.
‘Éha! There is a sad tale! Is it she well?’
Ralph told her what Pran had told him. When he finished, Malina nodded. ‘I am glad he told you. Though I love her dearly, she can be quite a problem, even for a Pixie. She requires much supervision.’
‘Pran didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he seemed to enjoy having her around.’
Malina nodded, looking down, thoughtfully. ‘I have always wondered at Pran’s kindness where she was concerned. For years I had mistaken his concern for guilt, and for that I feel badly, now that I know him better.’ She looked up at Ralph, troubled realization marring her visage. ‘For a long time, I was blind to the fact that his kindness extended to me, also, though I wanted to believe that I was a free spirit, making my own way in the world, dependent on no one for aid. Do you know, I have never thanked him for the many times he contrived to save my life?
‘My trust of Elves does not come easily, and for good reason. Yet he has always been worthy of my trust, especially where Éha is concerned. His concern for her I know to be genuine, because he shows the same concern for her that he would for his own.’
‘Speaking of problems,’ said Ralph, ‘what about you? You’ve been pretty moody lately.’
Malina shrugged. ‘It’s hard coming back here to my world. Pran was right; I’m not like the other Pixies any more. It’s like remembering your childhood, but not being a child any more.’
‘That,’ Ralph told her, ‘is just part of growing up.’ In the dim light of the lantern which hung from the centre-pole, he could tell that she was not convinced of this; her visage was troubled, as though she were being forced to confront realizations that were painful to her.
‘It is not as simple as that,’ she told him, getting beneath her blankets, head propped up on one elbow. ‘It isn’t just that I’m growing. The truth is that I’m changing. And not just physically,’ she blurted, blushing, referring to an earlier observation by Deborah that Malina had put on just the right amount of weight in all the right places, where before she had been such a skinny little thing. It had been at that time that she finally understood the appraising way in which men stared at her, and she had been mortified, though strangely and confusingly pleased at the same time.
‘You’re talking about what you did in the Hall of the Thane,’ Ralph said.
‘I’m saying that the changes in me led up to that,’ she corrected. ‘But what happened in the Hall . . . I didn’t see it coming . . . didn’t plan on it. The same as my becoming an Emissary. Before, that title would have meant nothing to me. Now, I feel the responsibility of my people like a weight on my shoulders.
‘But these are not the sort of changes I want!’ she said, torn. ‘I want-’ she stopped herself, and turned crimson.
‘Why don’t you just say it,’ Ralph told her, quietly.
Timidly, afraid of her own feelings, she said in a barely audible, constricted voice, ‘I want you. I have from the very beginning. But I am afraid!’
‘Of . . .?’ Ralph prompted, when she didn’t continue.
‘I don’t know! I’m just afraid. Deborah says that you’re not like that Man, Rory, and that you will be kind to me. But it’s not just that! It’s all the things that go along with . . . well-’
‘The only way you’re ever going to know is if you try it.’
She swallowed, audibly.
‘If you like.’
Deborah was glad she was sharing a tent with Rani and Zuic. She did not want to be alone, and her body was not yet resilient enough to exert herself without some assistance. She was thinner than she had been, and was pale with dark circles under her eyes. But she was on the mend, though she felt a bit strange.
Instead of being on some great adventure, however, she was camping out with a bunch of refugees away from where the fate of the land was being decided, or so she thought.
But she had finally seen some truly magical beings! She was entranced at the sight of the tiny lights, and was made even more curious by Malina’s assertion that she had been one of them. As the wagon finally came to a halt, Malina had told her that she had once been able to change her form, and was able to imitate other living things. But, she said, there was a constant . . . the form she chose was limited to how she would look if she really was that form. For example, if she chose to look like Deborah, anyone who knew Deborah would know something was off. And anyone who knew Malina as well would soon figure out that it was Malina imitating Deborah. As Malina told her, it was like someone imitating your voice.
Deborah found herself fantasizing about being able to turn into a tiny winged creature and casting spells. It was lucky for her family that she didn’t have such power! Or for either of her first two ex-boyfriends for that matter.
For what was mischief, if not revenge?
The next day dawned clear and sunny and cold. As soon as the travellers had all risen and eaten breakfast, they set to work.
Thirty massive Iron oaks, (so-called because of their bark which resembled smooth grey iron) that were close together were selected, and eldritch skills that had not seen use for generations were brought to bear. Outer branches were carefully bent and woven, main branches were taught to lay parallel to the ground, while others sought throughout the surrounding forest for vines and other vegetation to transplant. Though most were dormant and lay hidden beneath the snow, the more experienced Elves knew that this would work to their advantage once spring arrived: the plants would be damaged little, and their vigour less affected than if they had been moved in the full bloom of summer.
The work went very slowly at first. Centuries of working with stone and metal had dulled the Elves’ more natural sensitivity to wood and other plant life. And it was mid-winter; the work was slow and arduous. Regardless, the labour went ahead. After several days the first enormous tree-village was beginning to take on a recognisable shape.
Ralph was faced with a very different task, however. He began the construction of a blacksmith shop, slightly away from the main place of work. He did not work alone, but was assisted by Pran and Zuic, and aided by a dozen artisans and farmers who were skilled at working wood, stone, clay, and other building materials. Besides the blacksmith shop, they decided to build a separate house for themselves and their families. There were several reasons for this:
Ralph wanted to be near the shop, and he wasn’t especially fond of heights. Besides this, Theuli and Pran wanted to build a barn and stables, and it made sense to combine this with a blacksmith shop.
Several of the farmers had begun similar projects around the tree village, and soon there was a ring of stone buildings begun in a large circle. Some of these farmers had aided Ralph and Pran, as they would soon be needing metal objects and tools, and at present needed a temporary place for their horses and other livestock.
Theuli and Malina left the men to their work. With Rani’s assistance, their own work was in some ways more important. They transformed their rude surroundings into something that resembled home, as well as helping tend to the animals and looking after children. The work was very hard and the hours long. But in the days and weeks that followed, they saw the beginnings of their dreams taking shape.
Their town now had a name; Wel’adai, which was Elvish for corner of the wood.
There were few blemishes on their new life here, and in the beginning these were little noticed. The first of these was the mistrust of the Outsiders, as they called themselves. Despite well-intentioned attempts to draw them into the new community, they were reticent and suspicious by nature. A few even showed open hostility to the newcomers’ presence.
Ralph noted sadly that Nevana and her family had become estranged from one another. Of her family he saw very little, except the children, who were often seen playing, though because of their parents they became distanced from Rani and Zuic. Nevana herself had been taken in by an older couple who were troubled by the young woman’s bleak solitude, and did what little they could to alleviate her self-imposed isolation. But she seemed disinterested in everyone and everything, and spent much of her time wandering alone.
Deborah, too, had become another concern. Despite her apparent recovery she did very little, and like Nevana would wander far, apparently daydreaming; about what she wouldn’t say. Like Nevana, Ralph and Pran were forced to ask Birin to have someone to keep an eye on her, after she went missing for an entire day, and returned that night, led by some of the Pixie folk.
Deborah’s friends became increasingly worried about her behaviour as it became more bizarre and erratic. Taking her aside one day after she had been found soaking wet and covered with mud, Ralph said, ‘Deborah, where have you been? It isn’t safe, wandering off like that. Look at you! You’re going to catch pneumonia if you keep this up. What have you been doing out there?’
Deborah had smiled as though there was no cause for concern. ‘I’ve been watching things change.’
Ralph was perplexed. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘You know,’ she replied, as though explaining something obvious, ‘in the reflections.’
‘What reflections?’ he asked.
She smiled conspiratorially. ‘The only ones I could find. In the water. Sometimes, if I stare at myself long enough, I change too.’
Ralph was becoming very concerned now. ‘What do you mean, “you change too?”’
There was an unsettling gleam in her eyes as she said, ‘I see myself changing into something free. One day, they’re going to show me how . . . one day.’
Deborah was not permitted to wander off again. Something was very wrong, something Doc had missed.
Surprisingly, it was Éha who seemed to know something of Deborah’s affliction. Ralph was working at the new forge when he noticed a small figure watching him from a corner of the shop.
Smiling, he said, ‘Hello, Éha. Have you come to help?’
For once, she seemed serious and completely lucid. ‘Your friend is in danger. Goblins hurt her, didn’t they?’
As though suddenly rooted in stone, Ralph waited for her to continue.
‘They hurt Éha too, long ago. Made her drink poison.’
Ralph was sick with dread. ‘What kind of poison?’
The dark little Pixie looked about, as though fearing to be overheard, and whispered, ‘It is like Banshees, inside the head. They hurt me, always, but I know them and try not to listen. Your friend listens because they promise to make her free. They know this is what she wants.’
Ralph ran a hand through his hair and sat down. Éha watched him with an odd expression, as though she was struggling to concentrate.
‘Éha, is there any way to get rid of this poison?’
She reacted as though he had slapped her. ‘I have endured . . . since I was very small! If there was a way, do you not think I would have given anything . . . anything . . . to be free of it?’
With a sick feeling suddenly gnawing his guts, Ralph said, ‘Maybe the Elves-?’
‘Pran has tried,’ she said, mordantly. ‘Tried and failed. Sometimes I think to die would be better . . . better than this.’
‘In a pig’s eye!’ Ralph responded hotly. ‘If Doc could save Deborah’s life from the poison, he could cure this too. And you as well.’
Éha’s eyes became wild with hope. ‘Where is this one called Doc?’
Ralph sighed. ‘For the time being he’s in Mirrindale.’
Éha saw her hope turn to ashes. ‘You should not have told me. That was cruel!’ She rose to leave.
‘Wait! I think I can help you. Both of you.’
She paused, watching him doubtfully.
‘Doc won’t always be in Mirrindale. He will join us here, sometime in the future. Don’t ask me when, but I promise you, he will come if he can, unless something bad happens to him. I mean, as things stand, we all face that possibility. In the meantime, we have to get things set up here, and you have to be here when Doc comes . . .’
‘I cannot stay here among the Elves,’ she replied in a flat tone. ‘I am a Pixie.’
Ralph smiled without humour. ‘I doubt very much that anyone here will give you a hard time. And if they do, they’ll regret it.’
Looking like an abandoned waif, as though wanting to, but not daring to trust, she said, ‘Why would you do this for me?’
Ralph motioned for her to come sit on a bench beside him. Apprehensively, she did so. ‘Éha,’ he said, ‘how old are you, as close as you can guess.’
She frowned, concentration seeming to take her some effort. ‘Fifteen? . . . I think.’
A movement caught Ralph’s eye and he saw, framed in the doorway, Malina standing there, watching.
‘Éha, Malina and I have something to ask you.’ Éha started when she noticed Malina. For a moment Ralph thought she might flee, as she often did, but she stayed, perhaps out of simple curiosity. ‘Our house is nearly finished,’ he continued. ‘All of us, Pran and Theuli too, would like you to come live with us. We didn’t ask you before because . . . well . . . you have a tendency to wander off all the time. But this poison business changes everything.’ He quickly explained to Malina what Éha had told him. ‘Anyway, we need you to help Deborah for the time being. You know what her problem is better than anyone. You need us, to keep an eye on you, and to give you a safe place to stay. When the time comes, both of you have to be where we know where you are.’
Ralph thought for a moment that she wasn’t listening, because she kicked her feet absently, staring at nothing. But finally she replied in a sullen voice, ‘I will help your friend. But I do not need anybody’s help.’
Ralph frowned. ‘Why do you say that?’
She shrugged. ‘The bad voices always promise that they won’t leave me behind. They know-’
She gasped as Ralph took her by the shoulders, forced her to look him in the eye. ‘Look at me! Éha, I am not a bad voice in your head.’
She looked away, a pale, sick expression on her face.
‘It’s so . . . hard to tell . . . sometimes,’ she said in a small voice. ‘That has become my greatest fear . . . that if help was ever to come . . . I would not be able to recognize it for what it was.’
As Éha’s words sank home, Ralph and Malina exchanged a long look. Eventually, Ralph nodded and muttered sombrely, ‘No wonder Pran is so willing to go to such extremes.’
Malina looked a question at him, but Éha actually managed to smile.
‘Pran I have learned to trust, and he is your friend. I will stay with you, I think.’
A short while later, they were arranged around the camp fire, watching Éha and Rani obliviously playing cat’s cradle. Éha’s efforts were soon rewarded with a tangled mess, but Rani showed her patiently how the game was done.
‘Do you really think Doc can help them?’ Theuli asked Ralph.
Deborah lay asleep by the fire, her blankets carefully wrapped around her. She did not look well. Having her freedom restricted was taking its toll on her, and she was becoming feverish in the evenings.
‘I think they can’t go on as they are,’ Ralph replied. ‘Something has to be done.’
Pran sighed, and with great reluctance raised the bleak question, ‘What if nothing can be done? What then?’
For that, they had no answer.
Late that evening, as Ralph and Malina, Theuli and Pran, sat at the crude picnic table, drinking tea and talking quietly, Ralph suddenly remembered something.
‘Oh, yeah! I made something the other day, and forgot all about it.’ He got up and left them, going to the blacksmith shop briefly. They soon heard his heavy footfalls as he returned and resumed his seat. He then plunked an object down on the table.
The others could only stare.
‘It is beautiful!’ Theuli exclaimed. ‘But what is it?’
Without elaborating, Ralph said, ‘I thought that I should just follow my instincts for once as I made something. And . . .’ he made a theatrical gesture, ‘there it is!’
The object was about four inches high, and looked to be made of metal and transparent stones fused together. Its bottom was a tripod of delicate, graceful shapes like birds’ wings, and from bottom to top it resembled an intricate interweaving of such shapes.
Theuli, Pran, and Malina peered at it closely.
‘There is strong magic in it,’ Pran breathed. ‘But I do not understand . . . whatever magic it possesses . . . it is somehow closed to me.’
‘May I touch it?’ Theuli asked.
Ralph smiled. ‘Go right ahead. Maybe you can make sense of it. I sure can’t.’
Theuli reached out carefully, touched it lightly at first, then picked it up. And gasped in wonder.
‘It’s so light!’
‘I know,’ Ralph said, perplexed. ‘It should weigh a ton. I got this urge to go out to the stream and find bits of stones and crystals to put in with the molten metal. They should have burned, but they didn’t. Look, here . . . see? They’re fused right into the metal.’
‘I see,’ said Theuli. She passed it on to Pran.
‘It reminds me of something,’ Malina said, thoughtfully. ‘But I can’t place it.’
‘It is very much like the Ulssar stone,’ Pran said in disbelief, shaking his head. ‘And yet, not so. How is this possible?’
‘So . . . ?’ Ralph prompted. ‘Does it do something?’
Three pairs of eyes turned to his with a knowledge he felt acutely lacking in himself.
‘Ralph,’ said Theuli quietly, ‘an Ulssar stone can be used to communicate directly with the Earth Mother. But this is not an Ulssar stone. In truth, I do not know what this periapt is, or what it represents. It has the feel of . . .’ she took several moments to find the words . . . ‘it has the feel of a device. Yet there is something . . . something incomplete about it, as though it requires something to impel its purpose.’
Ralph looked and felt completely blank.
‘I have no idea what you’re trying to tell me.’
The others watched Pran as he bent all his powers of concentration upon it. As he did so, it began to glow, and started to make a dangerous sound somewhere between a buzz and a hiss. He suddenly dropped it in surprise. Landing on the table, it began spinning around until the glow went out of it and the noise stopped.
‘For a moment,’ he breathed, ‘. . . just for a moment, it was as though it were alive.’
Theuli put her hand over his.
‘Tell us what you saw. Did you see anything?’
Malina made an audible gulp.
He blinked as though he had been momentarily blinded.
‘I saw, as in a dream, a woman who was a vision of terrible beauty. She was trying to speak to me, but I could not hear her words. She seemed a great and powerful Lady, trapped in a prison of deafness and silence, able only to watch and to despair.’
He and Theuli exchanged a long look.
‘It was the Earth Mother, wasn’t it.’ Malina said quietly.
Pran didn’t reply, but turned his gaze to Ralph, who muttered, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have made the thing.’
Pran tried to force a smile, but failed.
‘This . . . device you have made . . . I believe that, in some manner, the Earth Mother guided your hand in its forging. That She would reach out to you is exceedingly strange, but She must have had good reason to do so. From what I saw . . . I fear that she is in dire need.’
Ralph frowned. ‘So, She’s told us that She’s in trouble. Now what?’
‘Now, we know,’ Theuli said, almost inaudibly. ‘That is all, at least for now.’
‘I don’t understand you,’ Ralph said. ‘Doesn’t this mean that we should go to where she is and help her?’
Theuli smiled kindly at his incomprehension.
‘Ralph, She is the Earth Mother. One may as well try to rescue the wind.’
Still not understanding, Ralph said, ‘I guess I just don’t get it. If the wind was trapped inside a bottle, wouldn’t you just break the glass?’