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Chapter 24

The Thane Departs

“The time has come, the walrus said . . .”

Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgeson


When the Thane learned of Doc’s intention to remain in Mirrindale, he had confronted the old Man, and a bitter disagreement ensued, the Thane arguing the expediency of military justice and simple necessity, Doc taking the more philosophical view that, since there were innocent family members involved, he must do the right thing and stand by them, regardless of the more practical advantage of the presence of a skilled Healer in the service of the Elven army.



Finally, to reach some sort of compromise, the Thane offered to allow the Merchants the chance to throw in their lot with those who were leaving, so long as they vowed to leave their socially disruptive ways behind. He also agreed to allow those soldiers rendered unable to fight to leave as well. In the end, Doc reluctantly agreed to this, and to depart with those who were leaving the Elf Kingdom as the first small exodus had done.



In spite of their craven nature, and the looming danger from the King’s malice, which was directed as much as them personally as at anyone, all but a few Merchants elected to remain behind, though most sent their children and grandchildren, their future, away with the others.



In the minds of many, the Merchant’s refusal to leave was to be wondered at, but the Thane knew only too well the source of their reticence. To be stripped of wealth and pretence, to be forced to throw in their lot with “common folk,” who, in their minds, had until now represented little more than vague, yet often troublesome abstractions; to toil in a physical world with inexpert hands and a soft disposition, to be painfully visible and on an equal footing with people they had smirkingly condescended to, always from a position of illicitly purchased safety; to work alongside these same people that were no longer abstractions but very real; feeling diminished and threatened by the solidity of hard-working people who were many times their number, if not more than their match in physical strength and stamina: such a fate was abhorrent to them, for this was all that the possibility of Liberty and Freedom conveyed to their minds. Once more they meant to ride on the backs of others, hiding behind the soldiers and walls of Mirrindale, forever scheming in guilty secrecy.

***

Though he had reluctantly agreed to the terms of the planned evacuation, the Thane’s reservations were quite the opposite of Doc’s. It had not been his intention to allow any of the Merchants, nor the King’s or the mercenary soldiers, to leave Mirrindale. To his mind, those who had proven themselves untrustworthy, unscrupulous, duplicitous, and a threat to Elf and Faerie alike, should have been abandoned to their fate. But at that particular juncture of their disagreement, Doc had remarked, in his quietly disarming way, that perfectly decent people often commit perfectly vile acts.



Despite the Thane’s natural desire to vilify the Merchants for their transgressions (which would have made dealing with them a much simpler and seemingly concise matter, as then he could have more easily and swiftly dealt with them out-of-hand), still, he couldn’t deny Doc’s words, though he found the implications disturbing. With his own eyes he had seen perfectly decent, moral young Elves, grow up to become brutal thugs; a fate he could well understand. For in his youth, had he not struggled with those self-same ugly moral dilemmas, being himself forced to make difficult and sometimes bitter, irrevocable, and unwholesome choices along the way? It seemed that the external pressures on people’s lives often led them down paths which under normal circumstances they would not have taken, had they been left to their own devices; nor in their youth would they have credited such an outcome for themselves, that, through being forcefully subjected to making unreasonable and evil choices, which were foisted upon them by the unscrupulous and the manipulative, they would one day allow themselves to be beaten down and become timid bystanders; or if stronger, cultivate a detached and sophistic passivity; or if somewhat naturally blithe of scruple, often abandon all compassion and turn into monsters.

***

The parting of families was grievous to behold, and few who watched the agony of children and parents being separated from one another could do so without pity, and despite everything, even with some sense of guilt; for the children, now victimized by their parent’s activities, had themselves done no wrong.



The wife of one Merchant, who elected to stay behind with her husband, confronting the Thane, said to him, ‘You have betrayed us, we who have given so much in terms of employment and security.’



‘Madam,’ replied the Thane, ‘what your class has given us is the crumbs from your table as you gorged yourselves upon the fat of the land, hoarding most everything for yourselves. As long as you exist, you are a threat to Justice, personal freedom and Equality, as you claim all the wide lands and everything within as your own. If you truly believe that you have a just claim in keeping all that you have accumulated, then here is my sword, that you may fight to keep it.’



‘But I am no Swordmain! And besides; I would need an army to fight for all that is mine,’ she objected.



‘And I have provided you with one,’ said the Thane. ‘Here are all those whom your class pitted against each others’ boundless greed. They have murdered many Merchants, many citizens, many free people, and each other as well.’



‘But these mercenaries hate us!’ she protested. ‘They would just as soon slit our throats!’



‘They are as you made them,’ the Thane replied, ‘and as such are yours in every sense. They are the tools you have fashioned to take what doesn’t rightly belong to you, and what is a tool, after all, but an extension of the hand and mind. You would do well to examine your tools closely, for on them you will find the blood of your fellows, mingled with that of many, many innocents.’



At this, the woman’s eyes narrowed.



‘Who do you think you are, that you dare believe you have the right to judge us?’



‘I deem,’ the Thane replied, ‘by your very presumption that you are better than your fellows, of whom you are surely no more than an equal, that you have come to merit a harsh and well-deserved punishment.’



‘The common Elven people are rabble, as you well know,’ the woman said. ‘Servitude for such is condign-’



‘I was not referring to the Elven people,’ the Thane said, becoming angry.



‘Then . . . to whom do you refer?’ the woman said, frowning in doubt and corrupt vexation.



‘I was referring to our Faerie kindred,’ the Thane replied quietly.



‘Then it is true,’ the woman said darkly, with a bigot’s unreasoning venom. ‘You have been taking the part of those-’ she spat such a low obscenity as made the Thane momentarily turn away in disgust. ‘I and others have long felt that our trust in you was misplaced.’



At this the Thane laughed bitterly.



‘If your trust in me had truly been misplaced, then the blood of every complicit Merchant within the walls of this city would already have been spilt! I suggest you rethink the matter; that those worthy of trust, including our Faerie kindred, have never threatened you with harm, despite your actions and the very worst of the atrocities committed at your behest.’

***

As the defectors set out from Mirrindale, they passed the ranks of the mercenary army, who lined the street on either side. Not a word of condemnation nor protest was spoken, and when the travellers had left the city, the gates were closed quietly behind them and barred, the drawbridge raised.



It was an odd feeling for many, what with the drawbridge of Mirrindale raised behind them like the closing of a book after the last chapter has been read. It was with mixed feelings of freedom and trepidation that they left that mountain stronghold; though Mirrindale’s very resilience was a product of ugly compromise, upon the open road such compromise seemed in many ways preferable to facing the King’s wrath in such an exposed manner.



The Thane led, with Doc and Finli close behind him. In their wake, the city soldiers merged with the newly returned army, followed by the families, wounded, and supplies on wains.

***

Two days later, as they neared Narvi, they began to see signs of the aftermath of battle. Black smoke still rose from many fires. Many of these were what was left of the buildings, but just as many were pyres heaped with dead, Elf and Goblin alike. The stench of burning flesh alone was more than many could bear, and many bodies, only partially burned, were plainly visible. When they reached the town proper, there was nothing left to show that it had once been a thriving marketplace. Only the stone bridges remained, looking for all the world like the exposed ribs of a ravaged corpse.

***

Once they gained the Crossroads, turned to the right at the intersection and began making their way east, the Thane, with Finli at his side, dropped back to speak with Doc.



‘There are a few matters I now must now tell you of,’ the Thane said to Doc. ‘You I am sending with Finli to find Birin and the others. Most of the soldiers and I will be leaving you soon.’



Doc considered the Thane blankly. ‘Why?’



‘We must retrieve the Elf Lore,’ the Thane told him. There was something about the Elf’s grim disposition as he said this that Doc found alarming. Seeing this, the Thane said, ‘The simple truth is, that if we do not retrieve the Lore, we are done for. All of us. It could well be that even your world will not be safe.



‘There is still much you do not know concerning the Elf Kingdom and its Lore,’ the Thane continued. ‘I will tell you of these things now.



‘All work on the Lore ceased many years ago, when it reach the point where it had surpassed all control. No one dares wield it. Not even the Loremasters. Their sole preoccupation has been to tend that part of the Lore which concerns the Elf Kingdom, something they cannot do forever.



‘The might which was released many long years ago, such as that part which controls the Seasons and the Weather, cannot be undone or called back. The means is beyond us. It runs like a vast machine, and its parts have to be carefully tended. But unlike a machine, it will not simply break down and stop. If left untended, it will eventually break free and wreak unimaginable havoc. If that happens, no one will be able to stop it.’



Facing Doc squarely, he said, ‘My friend, I must tell you . . . this chance pales in comparison to what the King and his personal Loremasters will unleash if they are not stopped . . . if they were to at last get their hands on the Lore.’



Doc took a deep breath and let it out slowly. With a wry look, he said, ‘Pran warned me before I came here, to be careful what I wish for. My guess is that such advice almost always goes unheeded.’



Finli shrugged. ‘How could it be otherwise? Such is the price of curiosity.’



‘With regard to how things came to this pass,’ the Thane said, ‘I will tell you something of how it all began. To begin: it cannot have escaped your notice that there are great similarities between the Elf and Pixie languages.’ When Doc nodded in response, the Thane continued. ‘What you may not know is the reason why the Elf language is so much more complex. That reason is simply the written word, which the Pixies do not have.



‘With written language came the accumulation of knowledge, and this in turn led inevitably to greater power. But this power has exacted a harsh price from us. When we were a simpler folk, like the Pixies and Nymphs of the forests and springs, life was simpler, and we had no need for a King, though we had leaders after a fashion; tribal elders and seers and such.



‘That chapter began when we began writing down our Lore. The most powerful individuals then were the scribes, those who could read and write. Then it was the librarians, those first scholars whose responsibility it was to guard and organize a knowledge that grew with astonishing rapidity, becoming vast over a few short generations.



‘Then came an odd turn of fate. Goblins appeared for the first time, assailing us from the North, and for the first time war was upon us. In an attempt to overthrow our people utterly, the Goblins attacked what was then the Town of Nith, hoping to sack the Library, the chief centre of our knowledge and power.



‘They failed in their bid, but only barely.



‘Many were left to wonder how the Goblins had come by their knowledge of the Library, and at the time, many assumed that these evil creatures from the North had merely sensed our growing power, and had thereby been provoked into attacking. They had assumed, as well, that the Goblins were a folk unknown to us, that since we knew so little of the North country, these creatures had simply been overlooked, or had until then escaped our notice.



‘Meanwhile, a soldier who led the defending Elf army decided that the Library was to be kept fortified and safe. As a consequence, after the Goblins hordes were defeated and driven from our lands, the Library was no longer open to the public at large, and it became a place instead of secrecy. A wall of sorts, too, unfortunately constructed by the city’s well-intentioned but impractical artisans, was hastily erected around the city, and manned by soldiers.



‘That selfsame soldier grew in power, more as a consequence of the subsequent attacks by the Goblins than anything else. He was both commander of the Elf army, and chief Loremaster, which at the time was commonplace. When he died, his eldest son, who was the rising star of the time, took his place.



‘By the third generation, a tradition had become established, and the grandson was made King. So began our monarchy.’



Doc frowned at this. ‘My understanding was that your people had a monarchy from the very beginning.’



The Thane smiled at this. ‘That was a very long time ago. Our original monarchy vanished when the first warlords came to power, and over the generations there have been many Kingdoms and systems of government built upon the ashes of the old.



‘But as to our present concerns, we now have a serious problem. It is apparent that we no longer hold the Library of Nith. Though we have received no word as yet, I fear that the city has fallen to Goblin hands through the machinations of the King and Prince Cir.



‘Our enemies, therefore, will now have possession of the Lore. If we do not succeed in retrieving and destroying it, then it will be woe for low and high alike.’



‘Why destroy it?’ Doc asked. ‘Why not try to regain the Lore for yourselves?’



‘Because,’ the Thane replied, ‘the knowledge contained therein strayed long ago from the path that benefited everyone equally. There is much that must be undone, and we must find a gentler, more compassionate and respectful Lore to replace the monster we created.



‘To this end, that is why the Merchant class and their mercenaries are now holed up in Mirrindale. You see, the King and Prince Cir will stop at nothing to destroy Mirrindale, and they will have a nearly impossible task in doing so. While they are away, I intend to slip through the back door, so to speak, and attempt to locate and reclaim the Lore.’



Finli, who had listened in silence, said, ‘No matter how things turn out, much will be lost that should never have been gained. It is a tragic pass that so many will die before the last chapter of this tale is written.’



‘But if the Lore is destroyed,’ said Doc, ‘how will my friends get back to their own world?’



‘That is another matter entirely,’ the Thane told him. ‘The use of magic is not the same as utilizing the Book of Elf Lore. There are yet many who could return yourself and your friends. That is, assuming any of us survive this conflict.



‘Nevertheless, there is one thing more I would tell you. About the origin of Elves.’



Doc nodded. ‘I wondered when you would come round to that. I think that I have already guessed the answer.’



The Thane raised an eyebrow. ‘Someone has already told you?’



Doc smiled. ‘Didn’t have to. It’s pretty obvious. The original explorers were undoubtedly all or mostly male. Most of your Kindred are female; at least the ones I’ve seen who live in these parts. That would mean that your ancestors were part Faerie and part Human. My own guess, despite what I’ve been told about the Elves creating the written word for themselves, is that it was Humans who brought written language with them, which in turn was used to set down the foundations of your Lore.



‘And as far as the Goblins are concerned, my guess is that they want the Elf-Lore for themselves, so that they can undo whatever has been done to them.’



The Thane smiled. ‘You are near the mark, on two counts at least. The Elves are descendants of some of the first Men who wandered into these lands, from someplace long forgotten far to the west. They were explorers who had come in search of the meaning of some ancient tale, and who became lost in the wilderness.



‘They were found by members of the Faerie folk who befriended them. Inevitably, over time children were born through the union of Man and Faerie, and the records of Men were replaced by what is today called the Elf Lore. But in those early days there were various tribes of Elves and their Lores: that of the descendants of Man and Pixie called the Elaas Öht, that of the descendants of Man and Cave-Nymphs called the Liadh of the Elid-hranin, that of the descendants of Man and Sprite called the Lore of the Elvan Aldii, and that of Man and Nymph called the Ast Nürnen.



‘As you may have guessed, the lores of these peoples became merged, but for two exceptions: the Imps and the Elid-hranin.



‘Of all Faeriekind, only the Imps live by Lore. The Imps, being a nomadic, reclusive people, did not interbreed with Man, having from the beginning shunned the presence of Man, and later Elvenkind. Imps have lesser powers than their Faerie kindred, lacking transformation and flight; but they possess a unique Lore which they share with no one, that allows them to communicate with the Earth Mother. I say “unique,” because their relationship with the Earth Mother is tenuous, at best; the reason for their uneasy relationship with She Who grants life, is a secret known only to themselves.



‘The Elid-hranin or Black Elves, are yet another story. They went north in search of the meaning of the tale passed down to them by the original Men. After many years, they found what they sought, and what they found was disquieting.’



‘And . . . ?’ Doc asked, as the Thane became lost in thought for a long moment.



‘They found a small ruin,’ the Thane told him. ‘A very ancient ruin, older by far than any previously known. And north of this ruin was found the object, spoken of in their legend.



‘It was . . . it is, a single standing stone, and it is vastly older than the ruin. Legend has it that the first Men came from that stone.



‘But either the words of legend had become distorted with time, or else the original meaning was lost. Whatever the cause, they had at long last found the object of their search, and it was utterly incomprehensible to them.



‘Some believed that if they were still true Men, the meaning would have been self-evident. They became exiles of unhappy circumstance, secluding themselves in the vicinity of this obelisk, trying in vain to decipher its markings. Not surprisingly, they became very bitter. And they did not prosper, as did their kindred.



‘In the meantime, they pursued their own Lore, which was not dissimilar to that of we, their southern cousins. Later (at least, according to our oldest accounts), when the Wizards came, they became enslaved by the evil Wizard, Morlock, becoming as they are today: Goblins.



‘In truth, we do not fully understand their interest in the Elf Lore. If it is to seek aid in healing themselves, they need only ask us for assistance. But they have never done so.’



‘You said the three main tribes of Elves became merged,’ Doc said, looking doubtful.



‘I said that their Lores became merged,’ the Thane corrected. ‘Cultural differences between Elves can be seen to this very day, and though there are many who are of mixed blood, as is the case in our city centres, still, you have undoubtedly made the acquaintance of people from more remote parts of the Elf Kingdom. Many of those you healed spoke with accents that must have sounded strange in your ears.’ At this, Doc nodded. ‘In truth, there are as many types of Elves as there are Faerie creatures with whom Men interbred. Elves are not the only result of such unions; the Imps are themselves such an example, if old legends are to be believed beyond their allegorical content. But they are also exceptional.



‘It is said that they share a common ancestor, a Dryad who was beguiled and seduced by a dioecious being that had befriended her, disguising itself as one of her Sisters. This being was none other than Chicane, illegitimate child of the forest god Sylvanus. The result of this union was the Mother of all Imps, She whom the Imps do not name.



‘When the Earth Mother became aware of this transgression, she was full of wrath, and banished Sylvanus for allowing Chicane to debauch a child of innocence. Fearing the Earth Mother’s retribution, Chicane fled, and has been in hiding ever since, living by crooked wits.



‘It is said that the Earth Mother refused to recognise the Dryad’s child, that the poor unfortunate was doomed to a life of wandering since birth. But to ensure her daughter’s survival, and to allow her to bring forth young from her own body, the Dryad taught her child the Lore that the Imps practice to this very day.



‘I do not for one moment believe in this tale myself. It comes down to us, not through the Imps themselves, but through old tales written about them. Most assuredly, Sylvanus, the forest god, is a fiction, for he figures in many folk-tales told by Men, and the authors of such tales, coming from a patriarchal society, imposed their beliefs on the world around them; therefore, in their eyes, Faeriekind must have been ruled by some sort of sylvan male deity- hence, Sylvanus the forest god. In the same breath, I think that there may well be an element of truth in these tales: that the Imps are descended from Dryads seems likely. But the rest of the tale is undoubtedly an allegorical fiction, referring to a lessening of magical efficacy through interbreeding with non-magical beings.’



‘I knew that Imps existed, but where are all the other such creatures?’ Doc asked. ‘Where do they live? I have never seen any, and until now, I have never heard them spoken of.’



The Thane gave him a measuring look.



‘They left the Elf Kingdom as it grew, and long ago abandoned the surrounding regions. We do know that some went far to the north, some departed northeast, while others went to a land betwixt those occupied by Men to the south and Dwarves to the southwest. Still others went west to the sea, and of these there are rumours that some went far to the south.



‘Though our knowledge of them is scant, still, news of them comes to our ears through sojourners who have travelled the wide lands. They departed,’ he said, anticipating Doc’s next question, ‘because they found the people of the Elf Kingdom too self-involved.’ To the question in Doc’s eyes, he said, ‘They were dismayed that we turned altogether from the ways of Faeriekind, living in cities like Men, which we are not. Men, you see, are notorious for being concerned only with their own doings, to the exclusion of all else. Such an attitude does not make co-existence with them practical or desirable. This they have in common with Dwarves, and the sort of Elves who live within the Elf Kingdom.



‘The Elves they fear, more so than Men or Dwarves. Men have little Lore, at least of the type that concerns magic, and the Dwarf Lore, though powerful in its way, poses no direct threat to our Faerie kindred.



‘But the Elves of Lore are another matter entirely. As a civilization, we have become both puissant and dangerous. The Power we possess we cannot wield, for it is beyond us. Those who own it cannot be trusted. Those with conscience who mislike this state of affairs are held hostage by it, for they must remain to oppose, and to hold what until now has been an endless and hopeless vigil.



‘It is because we have had to mind the affairs of the unscrupulous that, more often than not, our attention has been diverted from the peril of our Faerie kindred. This has ever been the design of the King and Prince Cir, the means by which opposition has been hamstrung at every turn.



‘The Elven and other related kindred who left long ago, departed these lands that are now the Elf Kingdom soon after that spell was enacted which wrested the Weather and the Seasons from the Earth Mother.’ He sighed. ‘Would that more of us had as much sense.’



Doc then ventured a question that he had wanted to ask for some time.



‘Why can’t you simply give up your Lore?’



‘In truth,’ the Thane replied, ‘we cannot give it up entirely. We Elves are more like to the Imps, and less like the other Faerie creatures, who live an eldritch existence, who are immune to the elements, and who are very much a part of the natural world. My friend, without Lore in some form, we are doomed, for we are not wholly Men, and we are not wholly Faerie.



‘And now, I have given you what answers there are to be had, as well as the questions which concern us, that none have yet answered. Having said that, I must now leave you.’



‘I may be an old fool for saying so,’ Finli told him, ‘but my unreasoning optimism tells me there is still room for hope.’



The Thane smiled. ‘Then I, too, must be an unreasoning optimist, for I leave to do battle with little else.’


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