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Chapter 23

Gathering in the Twilight

‘Midnight and uncertainty doth loom;
For such as we there may be no morrow;
Utter no falsehood, even be they words
of hope, for we can ill-afford them.’

from the Laye of Estland Waik


Winter was coming to an end. Bright green buds seemed well-nigh ready to burst on the ends of the branches of the great mist-shrouded oaks of Wel’adai. Gradually, though through the winter the tree-city had acquired the look of an old and faded sepia-coloured memory, by imperceptible increments its visage was giving way to a spirit that was brand-new and hale, coming back to life and distinctness. New grass now showed through the melting snow, and early spring flowers dotted the mottled landscape like a promise of hope.



To the inhabitants of the tree city, doings in the Elf Kingdom seemed a world away. Indeed, since their arrival there had been no news or contact with Mirrindale, though this had been part of the Thane’s plan. Still there was talk of sending someone to gather news, which was quickly silenced by Birin who informed them that any attempt at communication could give away their location to the enemy. Besides, he reminded them, the Thane would undoubtedly be able to find them, as it was understood that the Outcasts would guide any newcomers to Wel’adai.



It was cause for concern with some that Birin was in possession of no certain information as to when successive evacuations would or might occur, but once again he informed them that such knowledge was dangerous, and could leave to disaster for future evacuees. Such knowledge in the wrong hands could mean ambush and slaughter.



For his part, Birin elected to live in a stone house built near to Ralph’s smithy, which Birin often referred to as “the armoury.” His appropriative interest in Ralph’s efforts often drew a groan from Ralph when he saw the Elf Captain approaching, as Ralph had work enough to do locating ore and suitable fuel, let alone supplying everyone’s needs. His daily training as a soldier, too, left him tired to the point of exhaustion at the end of each day. His only consolation on that score was that Gannet had failed for the past week to knock him off his feet. But it was consolation he paid for dearly, for Gannet repaid his dogged obstinance with attacks that left him quivering with exhaustion, bruised, and aching for even a single chance to repay the big Elf in kind.

***

For her part, Deborah’s illness had seemed to become manageable with Éha’s presence. She and the dark-haired Pixie spent much time together, wandering often within the bounds of Wel’adai. They shared a room together in the house built by Ralph and Pran, and would often stay up late at night, talking.



They had more in common than the poison which ate at them. They had both been desperately lonely for as long as either of them could remember, and had felt keenly that they were cut off, not only from life, but from themselves. They found in each other someone with whom to share their experiences.



As well, Éha was to some extent able to draw Deborah out of herself. Part of this was because of the illness they both shared, but more so because Éha was able to teach Deborah how to control the images she saw, without being led astray by them. Deborah found that in many ways, this was true where her own feelings were concerned, too.



Her black melancholy, the feeling of being cut off, had extended itself into her relationships with Malina, Theuli, and the others. None of the others were alone, and this lack of alone-ness, of unending and hopeless personal isolation, to some extent blinded them to her plight, if not Éha’s. True, they sensed her difficulty, and were rankled by their inability to help, but they were helpless when it came to helping her battle her own personal demons.

***

The first night they spent together in the same room, Deborah was awakened by Éha as she rose from her bed, checked underneath it, looked in the closet, checked the door, went to the window and peered nervously outside . . .



She repeated this performance until Deborah was prompted to say, ‘What are you doing? Don’t you ever sleep?’



The little Pixie went back to her bed and sat there, hugging her knees, her eyes wide. ‘I’m sorry. It’s just . . . bad tonight.’



Deborah knew from her own experience that the poison did this. Lifting her covers, she said, ‘Come here. We’ll keep each other safe.’



They spent that night and many others clinging to each other, like frightened children who know they’re in mortal danger, who try their best to comfort one another when no adult is at hand to remove the threat and dispel their fear. Not since she was a small child had Éha been comforted by another. With great heaving sighs the two girls fell asleep, clutching each other as if trying to merge the little courage and hope they had between them into one . . .

***

It was mid-day. Birin and Elgar stood at the south edge of the settlement near the stream, arms crossed, their individual mien stern, looking more like adversaries than people who shared the same land.



‘If the general feeling of your people is, as you say, against us, then why did you not direct I and mine to someplace more remote?’ Birin asked.



Elgar smiled in spite of himself.



‘Their mistrust is precisely why you are here, practically within their midst. They do not trust you, but they would trust you even less, were you not so near at hand as to be just out of their reckoning.’



‘Yet we came here to put an end to such sentiment,’ Birin protested.



‘That may be,’ Elgar replied, ‘yet it is a sentiment which your own people have created.’ He sighed, at once angry with life, and remorseful for the foulness of its irremediable course, of which his people, too, now unwittingly played a part.



‘Let me put it to you in other terms,’ Elgar told him. ‘When I was but a babe in arms, she who bore me was forced to flee from my Elven Sire, lest he slay her and myself out of hand, rather than himself risk the possible consequences, were the fruit of their consummation to be discovered.



‘Her own folk (she being Pixie), shunned her, and often we very nearly starved to death, as she had been stripped of her Power through giving birth to me, leaving us both at the mercy of chance and the elements. She and I spent many solitary years in the wilderness, until we came here and discovered others like ourselves.’



Elgar paused, remembering.



‘Once here, she didn’t live long, though she had well earned many years’ respite for all the hardship she’d endured, much of it on my behalf. She died broken, betrayed by my father whom she loved, betrayed by her own people; and in the end, she cursed her own life; though dear to me, it was nothing but pain to her; pain she was past caring or wanting to endure, having left her empty, alone, and utterly wretched in the hopeless misery that had become her habit, in utter violation of her gentle, happy nature.’



Birin, not one for what he termed “emotionalism,” averted his gaze, his thoughts disparaging where the present melodrama was concerned. He was about to respond with what he thought would be appropriate words, when the sound of heavy footfalls forestalled him. Ralph joined them, holding a small wooden chest, waiting for a chance to speak.



‘Excuse me, Ralph,’ Birin said impatiently, ‘Elgar and I are having a private conversation.’



‘It sounds more like the two of you are talking at each other, as usual,’ Ralph replied. ‘I think that I might have a solution.’



Both leaders turned to him, questioningly. With a grunt, ignoring the Elf captain’s look of consternation, Ralph shifted the heavy box into Birin’s arms, and left them.



Birin deposited the chest on a large boulder nearby and opened it.



‘Arrowheads?’ Elgar raised an eyebrow in ire when he saw the contents.



Birin sighed resignedly. ‘I had forgotten. An arrow from your quiver, if you would; here, we need to remove the head . . . if it will come off . . . thus . . . and replace it with one of these . . . there! That should do it’ Further upstream from the settlement, to the left, was a solitary standing stone. It stood nearly ten feet tall, and was a well known place-mark.



‘That menhir will do,’ said Birin. ‘I suggest aiming for the centre, striking it with some force, so that the arrow doesn’t become lodged.’



‘This is unseemly, if not disrespectful,’ Elgar muttered distractedly, ‘but I will do as you ask. Once.’ Drawing his bow, he took aim and let fly.



They winced at the sound as the arrow struck in a shower of sparks. Disbelieving, Elgar moved to examine where the arrow had struck the stone, Birin at his shoulder. The diamond-shaped hole still smoked slightly. The arrow had passed through at least four feet of solid stone. Trying to conceal his disbelief, he breathed, ‘How is this possible?’



‘Ralph, the Man who just spoke to us, has a special talent. He has begun the work of fashioning such weapons. Evidently, he feels that our sharing them with you will alleviate tensions between our peoples, somewhat. Though he has done so without consulting me first,’ he added irritably, ‘I agree with his sentiment.’



Elgar was silent for several moments, his jaw muscles bunching. ‘There is an unintended cruelty in the offering of such weapons. Yet how may we refuse? We who have gained our independence from your people at such a cost . . .



‘If I accept them,’ he said finally, ‘then you must make your peace with Imalwain.’



‘Why?’ replied Birin in frustration. ‘What would be the point?’



Eyeing Birin darkly, Elgar said, ‘My own Sire would no doubt have spoken thus! It is little for me to ask of you. I do so because I cannot always be there to protect her, and it is you who seems to have rendered her defenceless.’



Birin shook his head. ‘You don’t understand. It isn’t possible to reason with her.’



‘Is it not?’ said Elgar ironically. ‘Well, that much the two of you have in common.’

***

Imalwain was not difficult to find. Following Elgar’s directions, Birin found her sitting on the low branch of a tree, her back against the trunk. She was watching the dry, brown oak leaves, still clinging to the branches overhead as the wind caught at them. New buds were showing, and the old leaves were finally beginning to fall; yet in the midst of such, there was something fatal about her appearance, as though her life was akin to the dissipating remnant of last year’s foliage, rather than the budding of new life, which for her somehow marked an end rather than a beginning.



Searching futilely for something to say, Birin found that he was unwilling to speak to her. His unwillingness stemmed from an aversion to responsibility where she was concerned, and he was forced to consider Elgar’s words regarding the Outcast’s Elven sire, for he could not help but see something of such selfishness in himself. But it occurred to him also that he might expiate his culpability, if only he were to explain himself. So at last he spoke.



‘Imalwain . . . it is Elgar’s wish that we should talk. Or, failing that, that you should talk, and I should listen.’



She started, but didn’t turn to look at him. She little resembled the laughing Pixie he remembered. Her light-brown hair, which had shone and danced about her shoulders, was bedraggled and unkempt. Her complexion, once so hale and tanned, was now pale. There was a smudge of dirt on her cheek, and dirt under her fingernails. Her dress, too, was unkempt, and torn in several places. She seemed not to care.



For no reason that he could put into words, her appearance struck him like a physical blow, as though her present condition was the embodiment a crime, the cause of which somehow eluded him. He had faced strong adversaries with less trepidation, and the words he uttered in a dry voice came unbidden to his lips, ‘Imalwain, what has happened to you?’



This time, she reacted. But the act of turning to look at him seemed to take a physical effort, as though it was all she could do to look at him. Every line of her body was tense with suppressed emotion. ‘Have you come back to see your handiwork, Birin, or have you found another foolish plaything?’



His brows knitted. ‘You were never a plaything. Why do you say that?’



She stared at him incredulously. ‘For two years, you bedded me, then discarded me like a whore! If I had borne you a child, I would have had to raise it alone, cast out by my kind as well as your own. What is that, if not the life of a plaything?’



‘You knew as well as I that it couldn’t last,’ he said. ‘That there was no future in our relationship for either of us. What sort of life-’



She was suddenly furious. ‘Damn you! Do not dare to try to speak my mind! You have no concept!’ She made a small animal noise of frustration, and struggled for self-mastery once more. In an empty voice, she said ‘There is not an Outcast here who doesn’t have an Elf or a Human as a sire! I suppose you’re going to tell me that their parents were all seduced. Or are you going to tell me that you believe those tales about Pixies feeding their own young to wolves, or abandoning them in the wild?’



There was obviously no reasoning with her, he thought. But it was true that he’d never considered the possibility of her conceiving a child by him. What if she had? Trying to shake off such thoughts and their implications, he said, ‘Still, that doesn’t change the fact that we couldn’t keep seeing each other.’



She turned away, her empty, desolate look touching a foreboding feeling deep inside of him. ‘Why don’t you just tell me the truth? It was all right for me to risk everything, and I did. But you . . . you risked nothing. And you discarded me because someone might find out what a liar and a coward you really are; that you were too afraid and too ashamed of what your people might think if they saw us together.’



She was not being reasonable. He had to make her see that. Clearing his throat, he said, ‘Imalwain-’



But she was gone.

***

She fled, blindly, wishing only to put some distance between her pain and herself. She knew this was futile, but couldn’t bear being so close to what she so badly needed and couldn’t have. In a way, she couldn’t blame Birin for his prejudice. A Pixie’s heart is wild and free . . . how many times had she said those words herself? Said them, and believed them.



But it was a lie. She had never before been certain of this, but when she saw Malina, with a Man she loved and without her Power, then she knew.



And she knew, too, why Malina’s power had all but deserted her. It was not, as Malina supposed, merely that she had left her Pixie dress behind. The reason lay in what had caused Elves and Pixies to become estranged from one another in the first place.



The reason was nothing more than mortal love, and the natural birth of young that resulted. For what was mortal love, if not physical love, the love of things temporal.



Pixies like Imalwain, Éha, and Malina, were born into the world in a way that was altogether magical and mysterious. At the height of spring they would gather at an appointed place, a secret place, deep within the forest, once they had come of age, and in their tiny winged form would come together as one . . . a bystander would see a clearing full of tiny balls of light, swirling in a dizzying Dance of Life . . . they would move slowly closer and closer together, until they became a single entity, as bright and beautiful as a star.



Then, like a silent explosion, the single entity would burst apart, and each light, as it left, was now two . . . mother and daughter.



Imalwain was cut off from the Dance of Life because she had given herself to Birin.



What Birin did not understand was that this was not something she could simply “get over” in time. Believing that he loved her, she had committed herself, and there was no going back.



Now, she was dying.



She suddenly found herself out of the forest. Without realising what had happened, her power guttered like a spent candle, and she plunged to the ground, knocking the wind out of herself. Bruised, hurt, and exhausted, she lay on her back, retching for breath. Someone had seen her fall, and was running towards her. It was Malina. Imalwain struggled to her knees, and the two Pixies confronted each other.



Even with her truncated senses, Malina could sense Imalwain’s plight, and the sight of her friend in such distress struck her a heavy blow.



‘Imalwain!’ Malina wept, ‘Please . . . you’ve got to stop! You’re killing yourself!’



It was true. Imalwain could no longer use her power without causing herself mortal harm. But she knew this. She wanted only to run and run, until her life, which had become nothing but pain, was gone. Considering her skinned knees and hands, weeping, she laughed suddenly, though her laughter was that of a person beyond caring, who deliberately inflicts self-injury. ‘Well, at least now my pain is plain for all to see.’



Moaning, Malina said, ‘Please, stay here. You need a Healer. I will fetch someone . . .’



But Imalwain summoned her last reserves of strength, and was gone.

***

As Birin rode slowly back towards the settlement, he considered Imalwain’s words. I had risked everything. But what did she have to risk? True, she might have become pregnant, but she hadn’t. She had no family. No possessions. No property. She could always find another to share her affections.



What, then, had happened to so utterly blight her life?



‘Birin!’ He was jarred suddenly out of his reverie. It was Malina. She was standing before him in the middle of the path, and from her tone he suspected that she had some knowledge of his encounter with Imalwain.



Reining in his horse, he stopped and dismounted. Every line of Malina’s small form expressed suffused rage, something he was completely unused to seeing in a Pixie.



He raised his hand in an attempt to forestall anything she might say. To his astonishment, at his gesture, she spat an obscenity. Furious, trying not to weep, she cried, ‘You bloody, bloody, heartless bastard! You have killed her! She gave up everything for you. Everything!’



Trying to make sense of Malina’s anger, he said, ‘What do mean, “I’ve killed her?”’



Malina’s rage made her fearless of Birin, and she confronted him directly. ‘She has given her life to you. Have you no idea what that means?’



He shook his head. ‘You are making no sense. Her life is her own-’



‘It is not!’ she shouted. ‘She gave it up. For you!’ Fighting to think clearly, Malina said in a more level tone, ‘To be with you meant giving up her Power. Don’t you understand? Pixies don’t mate. We’re not like Elves or Men. For us to take a mate means that we must relinquish our relationship with the Earth Mother. It means much more than simply giving birth to offspring.’



The colour drained from Birin’s face as Malina’s words hit home. In a faint tone, he said, ‘Why did she not tell me this herself?’ At the same time, somewhere inside he’d known all along. He’d hurt her as deliberately as if he took a sadistic pleasure in such an act.



Watching him with something like pity or disgust, Malina said, ‘I saw her, some time ago. It may already be too late. You may soon find yourself with more than just guilt on your conscience.’



Looking at Malina as though seeing her for the first time, he said, albeit unwillingly, ‘You were right. You were right about me all along.’ As Pran had often done, he raised his eyes to the forest, once the natural home of the Elves, and knew at last that the price to be paid for the estrangement of the Elves from their natural home, was to be dispossessed from everything they were; their values, their beliefs, their principals . . . even their own conscience. ‘Is it there no end to the harm we’ve done?’



Malina drew a long breath. ‘I think you well know the answer to that question.’



Something in her tone made him look long into her eyes. In the end, it was he who looked away. Reluctantly, he nodded, and began riding away, slowly at first . . . then gathering speed.

***

He came finally to the stream. Following it for some distance, he came at last to a small waterfall. At the bottom, in the icy water, stood Imalwain in the pool under the falls, her Pixie dress discarded on some rocks. Her lips were blue with cold as she visibly tried to control her shivering. She didn’t become aware of his presence until he reached the edge of the pond and dismounted. Gasping, she made a dash for her dress, but he snatched it up before she could reach it. Juddering with cold and suppressed weeping, she said, ‘Please . . . give it back . . .’



‘Why?’ he asked her. ‘So that you may kill yourself?’



With eyes downcast, she said, ‘It is my life, to do with as I wish.’ Sidling away from him, she left the pond as she was, naked and ashamed, covering herself as best she could.



He caught up with her. She did not try to flee from him. She was too tired and empty to care what he might have done to her. Moving to stand in front of her, he took her in his arms, wrapping his fur-lined cloak around her. Then, concentrating, he embraced her with warmth. Her legs, which dangled several inches from the ground, she wrapped around him, and she clung to him and buried her head against his neck, starved for any warmth and affection.



‘Imalwain, I am so sorry! I was so blind . . .’



But his words were lost on her as she had fallen fast asleep from exhaustion.

***

She awoke some hours later, startled by a large shape in the shadows. It was Birin’s horse, grazing nearby. She felt Birin’s warm body at her back, and a pair of strong arms around her that felt protective, comforting. Her body yearned to respond, but she was determined not to be taken again so easily.



‘You are awake?’



Stiffening, she said, ‘I am warm now. You may release me.’ Somehow, she knew he smiled at this.



‘Is it that what you want?’



For some reason, his remark touched at her grief. ‘Since when have you been concerned with what I want?’



He sighed. ‘Since I learned of the suffering I caused you.’ He wrapped his arms more comfortably around her, sending an involuntary shiver of excitement through her.



Alarmed, she tried to extricate herself. ‘Birin, please! I’m not going to let you hurt me again.’



He decided then to do what he should have done years ago.



‘Imalwain, will you consent to be my wife?’



She almost fainted with shock. ‘You bastard! Stop playing with me! I can’t stand it. Why must you keep tormenting me?’



‘I am serious,’ he said in a level tone. ‘I have never been more serious in my life.’



‘Why? Is it guilt or pity that makes you ask such a thing of me?’ She was weeping almost hysterically now.



‘It is neither. Imalwain, I ask because I love you. And because I was too much of a coward to admit this before . . . to you or to myself.’



This was too much for her. She began shouting, tried to hit him. ‘You’re lying! Why would you want me? Why now?’



Holding her to him, he said quietly, ‘The fear of discovery . . . that was always the thing! Such fear made liars of the best of us. In the past, confronting that fear was always met with death. But we have acted openly against our Sovereign now, and though He may well destroy us, we will live in fear no longer.’ By now, she had calmed down, and he studied her tear-stained profile, though she kept her face averted. ‘Does this suffice?’ he asked.



She was silent for some time. But finally, she accepted his embrace.

***

Malina stopped what she was doing when she noticed the horse entering the encampment. It was Birin, with Imalwain riding before him, wrapped in his cloak. As they approached, Malina ran to meet them crying, ‘Birin! Where did you find her? Is it she all right?’



‘I found her trying to catch her death of pneumonia in the pond beneath the falls.’ He smiled. ‘I am taking her home and putting her to bed.’



Looking a little scared, Imalwain said, ‘Malina, what am I to do? I have given him my consent to be his wife.’



Eyeing Birin uncertainly, Malina said, ‘Is it true?’



‘It is,’ he replied.



Perhaps she liked Birin after all. ‘Then you should take your wife home and take her to bed before she thinks she has made a terrible mistake.’



‘Malina!’ Imalwain cried, ‘I am Pixie. I know nothing of-’



‘You will learn,’ Malina replied firmly.



Before they left, however, Birin said, ‘Thank you. For opening my eyes at last.’



‘Be gentle with her,’ Malina warned him. Then, with an Impish grin, she added, ‘But not too gentle.’


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