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Under Siege (Pt. Two)
The infirmary was nearly full, and the basement and upper floors of the building were being cleared out to make room for more wounded. Never in the history of Mirrindale had there been so many casualties of war.
Among the victims were Elf soldiers who had served the King up to the very moment the Goblin hordes had invaded Valerian. Not realising they had been betrayed, they had fought on frantically, thinking to retake the city. It wasn’t until their scouts had reported that the Goblins were being led by the King’s own son that they finally realised the truth.
The presence of these soldiers in Mirrindale caused the Merchants much anxiety, and the Merchants had petitioned the Thane to abandon them to their fate. The Thane ignored their pleas, knowing full well the source of their unease. In a sense, the Merchants were just as responsible as the King and Prince Cir for what had torn the Elf Kingdom apart. With their accumulated wealth had come power, and with power came influence. That influence had been used to generate more wealth, and with it came more power, with the final consequence, that, what began as an effort to organize commerce had turned into a desire to control people. In the space of three generations, the people of Mirrindale had gone from being willing participants in an informed democracy, to becoming the faceless subjects of a state that had become totally self-involved with its own doings.
Many of these same Merchants now presumed that the reins of power were purely economic, that the present state of affairs could be controlled and manipulated solely through the use of money. In this, they had badly misjudged the Thane. He was not a man who coveted power in any form; therefore no such desire held him hostage to their will. In his mind the Merchants had badly misjudged the true nature of power: he believed that true power in any society is power over people. He had once said to Birin, “Power over people in its most ruthless form has ever been that of life and death, and so it has ever been; that Evil rules by threatening life and commanding its followers, whereas Good attracts and leads its supporters through its never-ending crusade to preserve life.”
There were some who surmised, perhaps rightly so, that the Merchants were also somewhat complicit in what had caused, or at least exacerbated, the King’s madness; for they had become His only direct link to the people He ruled. The Merchant’s isolation from their fellows through their self-serving scheming had become the King’s isolation, and in the end, becoming utterly alone and full of suspicion, unable to have faith in those around Him, and coming to believe that His own people weren’t to be trusted, He had come to see His responsibility as ruler as applying only to Himself.
This had been an especially profitable time for the Merchants. With no one to watch over their shoulders, they took full advantage. Influence became intimidation. Cooperation became coercion. Inevitably, most of the Kingdom’s wealth was eventually bled dry. Ordinary citizens were forced to abandon rural life and seek employment in cities as their autonomy became eroded. When that happened, the Merchants began vying with each other, bribing soldiers to become mercenaries in their private armies as such activities escalated. And the cities, most of which were extensions of the Merchant’s wealth, were becoming city-states which grew and consumed, becoming little more than hungry maws which ravaged the countryside, in effect articulating the underlying unmitigated greed which had built them.
Thus would the seeds of civil war have been sewn, even without the King’s betrayal of his people.
Meanwhile, the Merchants little knew their danger.
Their mad King, growing old and seeing no cure for His decrepitude, despite the assurances of his Loremasters that yet another was in the works, now hated all living things, and those who had usurped His power, the Merchants, most of all. It was not difficult to convince the soldiers that the Merchants were fair game. The Merchants were able to avoid their Monarch’s wrath, but only because Fate, whose standards seem on the surface to be at odds with those of mortal men, most often smiles on those who least deserve good fortune. To that end, the King’s captains were unable to effectively organise His soldiers because so many of them were tied up with various mercenary involvements.
Yet there were many soldiers who had until now avoided being part of one mercenary army or another, and with the King’s lack of interest, they had been left in limbo. But when the King again seized the reins of power, they found themselves forced to make a choice.
Ironically, it was the Merchants who came to the support of the defectors, but doing so only to save their own fortunes, if not their own skins. That the Thane tolerated the Merchants’ presence in Mirrindale was only because they were useful.
Hitherto, for the King’s part, as long as the Merchants had remained in Mirrindale, and as long as the Thane appeared to be a useful ally, He was reluctant to strike out at Mirrindale openly, and civil war was avoided. He was not blind to the fact that the Merchants represented almost the entire wealth of the Elf Kingdom. Besides, the city of Mirrindale could only be taken at great cost.
Now, the battle-lines were drawn between a poorly organised army of defectors and those who blindly followed the King. The defectors had no effective leader; all possible candidates for this position, though effective leaders of soldiers in the field, had little or no grasp of the intricacies of state, commerce, or civil law and administration.
But for one exception: the Thane.
The Thane had long bided his time, unwilling to fully commit himself. As he had confided to Doc and Finli in private, he had intended to give the King and his followers time to show their true colours, so that many remaining whose loyalties were undecided would be able to make up their minds.
When the King’s Goblin army finally moved openly against His own people, the Thane sent most of his captains, including Loriman and Dornal, to lead several companies of defectors in a slow retreat, putting up only token resistance and sustaining as few casualties as possible. All the while, the remaining uncommitted soldiers spread across the Kingdom, now turned against the King, joining the growing ranks of defectors.
In this manner, the advance of the King’s Goblin army began to grind to a standstill. Having overestimated their chances of quick success, their supplies, which were inadequate for sustaining an extended campaign, began running low, and the King’s army was forced to withdraw. It was at this time that the remainder of the Elf soldiers from Valerian, most of whom were mercenaries, met with the defector’s army and sued for peace, after finally realising they had been betrayed. They were given but one choice; to turn and face the real enemy as the front line, or die.
The Thane had planned his strategy well. The mercenaries were well trained, and fought savagely when the Goblin army returned, crippling the first onslaught. Wave after wave they repelled, and fought with the utter abandon of despair, in the face of certain knowledge that their families had been murdered in their absence; they had paid a grim price for their part in the perversion of the principles on which the Elf Kingdom had been founded.
Yet savagely though they fought, the Goblin army was massive, and such losses were negligible to them. Every day brought the two forces nearer to Mirrindale. Within a week, the army of defectors was a mere twenty miles from Narvi, forced back in a slow, agonized and inevitable withdrawal from the North. But by now, being battle hardened, they had become orderly, organized and efficient, and guarded the mercenaries’ rear while waiting for the Thane’s signal.
As the two forces drew near to the fortress city, the Thane began laying plans to spring his final trap for both the Merchants of Mirrindale and the mercenaries. Any Merchant who wished to surrender everything he owned could join the Thane’s exodus from the Elf Kingdom. Any who wished to keep his worldly belongings could stay in Mirrindale, where they would be sequestered up with the remainder of the mercenary army.
As the Thane explained to Doc, it was a fair choice. Mirrindale would only fall at a horrible cost to the Goblin invaders. The Merchants had not yet been told of this, and the planned exodus was still days away.
There was an element of the Thane’s plan that Doc found very disturbing. This concerned the Merchant’s families, many of whom would undoubtedly elect to stay if the Merchants did, and most of them had children and grand-children.
Another disturbing matter was the fact that the Thane planned to leave the mercenaries’ wounded behind as well. Four out of every five wounded soldiers was a mercenary.
In the meantime, Doc did not tell the Thane that he planned to remain in Mirrindale. It disturbed him greatly that the innocent families and children of the mercenaries might die at the hands of the Goblin army. Their only hope lay in the effectiveness of the mercenaries to keep the enemy at bay.
With proper care, many soldiers would live to fight again. It was avowed that Mirrindale could hold out for a long time; Doc intended that such an avowal would be more than just so many brave words.
An unanswered question during this time was: what was the fate of Nith? From The City of Scholars, as it was popularly known, and from its surrounding lands, there had been no word since the onset of war. Not a single soldier or refugee or trader or traveller had shown up in Mirrindale bearing welcome news. Instead, there was only lingering silence and doubt.
Some argued that Nith, having a history of neutrality, and its having no strategic military value, was explanation enough. But others possessed of greater knowledge well knew that such hopes were ill-founded. If the truculent nature of Goblins were not enough to dispel such naïveté, there was always the Library, and that which it contained.
The Loremasters watched nervously as Prince Cir rode about on his horse, giving orders to the Goblin warlords and ranting about the shortage of supplies. They had no real purpose here within the ranks of the Goblin army, and were all too conscious that their presence was sorely needed in Valerian to maintain the Lore’s hold which preserved the Elf Kingdom.
They well knew that the Loremasters who remained in the King’s city were unscrupulous sycophants who would promise the King anything to maintain their status. But the cost of their status had long ago compromised anything they might have held of value, with the exception of the one thing of value that remained to them: their lives.
The King had charged them with preserving his son and seeking a cure for Prince Cir’s state of being; an impossible task. While in Valerian, they were able to put the King off with empty promises while they tended the Lore. Now they were cast adrift, abandoned to the whim of a ghoul, and surrounded by the warped descendants of the Elid-hranin.
Unknown to any but themselves, they had secretly plotted the theft of the Book of Runes for many years, hoping to prevent its completion. But as ill-luck or ill-fortune would have it, such an opportunity had never presented itself, and now the time for such a chance was forever lost.
The Book had long been left uncompleted for good reason: all the power contained within it would be consolidated in such a way that only one person could wield it. Such power, if wielded, could neither be called back nor relinquished. The result would be like a dam bursting: unimaginably vast power would be in the hands of only one tiny mortal, who would perish instantly if the attempt was made to use it, with the result that all power contained within the Lore would be unleashed in a single conflagration of unthinkable proportions.
Now the Book was complete, and in the hands of a simple scribe, who had no idea of the consequences of his having completed the work. The Elf Lore was changing, coming to life, and like the proverbial djinn in a bottle, was trying to find a way to escape.
A secret long kept amongst the Loremasters was that of the final illustration. The Loremaster who created it had done so through the process of Inevitable Discovery, in a sense allowing the Lore to write itself, pursuing it to its conclusion. He discovered that all power reaches a point where it can no longer be contained.
This was a shocking revelation, for he discovered that the Lore was not developing, as everyone had assumed, but was rather a vast accumulation of various knowledges that were never meant to be lumped together in such a way that collectively consolidated their power. Power too vast for anyone to wield or control, and that could therefore serve no sane purpose.
Knowing the deadly consequences, the old Loremaster had not finished the final illustration, and spent the remainder of his life in a vain attempt to convince his colleagues to abandon the Elf Lore.
They failed to heed his words, deciding to maintain what had been accomplished. But in the same breath, all progress ceased. Generations of work had come to an end, and the Elven Book of Runes soon became an aging and dangerous anachronism.
It would perhaps have been fitting if the book of Elf Lore, which in many ways began as a history of the Elves themselves, and which strayed so far from its path, had contained the last words spoken by the Loremaster who created the final illustration. He had said these words:
Our mistake was in trying only to improve the world we live in, without first trying to improve ourselves.