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Flight From Nith
‘I am Alpha and Omega . . .’
Revelation: 1: 8
The old Book of Runes lay on the scribing-desk beside the new: both were still open at the final illustration. The small chamber was, other than by a single candle, lighted only by their moon-like glow . . . an eerie light which, though it came obviously from the books, seemed to have no direct source. Mraan knew from experience, however, that once such books were completely closed, their argent incandescence would vanish.
Haloch sat before the table, unmoving, his gaze turned inward upon some private, prophetic vision. The deathly stillness of the room seemed to reflect the same dark place to which his thoughts had withdrawn, becoming as closed, numb, and darkened as the library itself.
At first the old scribe betrayed no sign of having heard. But then, he began speaking, slowly, as though his son barely impinged upon his awareness.
‘I could never have imagined . . . could never have believed that such evil existed. Nor would I have given credence to the very notion that I would somehow play a part in instigating its hideous plan. What a fool I was and am . . . what an utter, wretched fool . . .
‘The only choice I have now is to take the book and go, lest this evil dream consume everything and all. Alas, that for all my skill, it wasn’t tempered by an equal knowledge.’
Baffled by his father’s demeanour, Mraan asked hesitantly, ‘What evil dream do you speak of.’
Becoming less distant, turning to his son, Haloch replied intently, ‘Do you not feel it? The dream that was the Elf Lore is changing, becoming a nightmare! Already the fine balance of its structure has begun to alter. Soon it will be rive itself entirely from its moorings, and utter chaos will ensue. Already it is becoming an all-consuming hunger which is bent on devouring all that lives, for such was the underlying nature of the Will that forged it.
‘I understand the old Loremaster now . . . he was unable to speak openly of his discovery for fear of attracting the attention of the unwise and the ambitious . . . unwilling to ignore the danger by destroying the illustration . . . living with the fear that its lesson would be forgotten . . . relying too much on the common sense of anyone who came after him . . . trusting in Fate and believing in progress to one day solve his dilemma.
‘Yet, were I a Loremaster myself, of uncommon prowess, still the outcome would be the same. Such power . . . would instantly strike dead any who set his hand to it.’
Dread making him not want to believe what he was hearing, Mraan asked, ‘You mean . . . are you saying that the illustration . . . ?’
‘Aye,’ said his father, turning to him at last. ‘The illustration, the Lore itself, is in some way responsible for all that is happening. When I completed it, I saw . . . the inevitability of what had to come to pass . . . how can I speak of it?’
He turned in his chair, faced his son squarely, forcing Mraan to do the same. ‘I thought at first that the illustration was a trap, set in some way by the evil Wizard, Morlock, long ages ago. It did not occur to me that the Lore itself was the source of the evil I felt. The Loremaster who began setting it down must have sensed the danger as I did, no doubt understanding its true nature, and so left it unfinished. In his day, copyists only reproduced existing texts, leaving the work of illustration to a Loremaster with such skill as would see the consequences of his own craft. But over the years such practices changed, and fools such as I began reproducing works that we had little or no understanding of because there was no apparent harm in doing so. For all his lack of caution, a Loremaster would not have finished the thing. He would have known better.
‘But I am not a Loremaster! I am only a scribe!’ He shook his head, both angry and fearful. ‘They must have known! The King and his Loremasters must have known from the very beginning what would happen should the Book and its final illustration be completed. Folly! I was allowed to work on the thing only because I had the ability, and yet was utterly blind to the danger.’
Mraan stared in fear, his eyes wide. ‘Can’t you destroy it?’
Haloch passed a long, weathered and trembling hand across his brow. ‘To destroy the Book now would be utter ruin! The invocation is complete. You must understand . . . the Lore is needed to call it back . . . but the Power required to do so . . . I fear that it is unattainable.’
‘The invo- but this is only an illustration! Did you- ?’
‘It has always been suspected,’ his father said in a tight voice, ‘that the Lore itself might some day become unresponsive to our attempts to control it; that it would work its way free from its constraints like water from a dam that has simply become worn out through long use.’ He heaved a shuddering sigh. ‘My mind tells me that it may simply run its course, like a boulder rolling down a hill until it comes to rest. But my heart . . .’
They were silent for several long moments. Eventually, Mraan asked in a small, quiet voice, ‘What does your heart tell you, father?’
Unable to face his son, he said, ‘My heart tells me that this is only the precursor to the dam’s bursting . . . that the power of this invocation will continue to grow until the Balance Itself becomes overthrown, at which point it will consume everything and all within the Kingdom, unless the means can be found to stop it. But it will not stop there. Once the Kingdom is undone, it will continue its assault on the Balance, until the Earth Mother Herself becomes threatened.’ He sighed again, and took a long look at the wreckage which surrounded them on all sides. ‘My heart tells me that in some way, I am to blame for this.’
Mraan was shocked. ‘How?’
Haloch’s visage was a mixture of fondness, regret, and guilt. ‘I should have been home these last years. Home with you, instead of wasting so much time on . . . on this. The price all of us have paid in perpetuating this Lore has been distraction, negligence, precious time wasted, the illusion of gain, of power to control our fate, and the lie that all this was necessary.’ He shook his head. ‘Bellandor was right. From the beginning, the evil we have been fighting could very well be the Lore itself.’ He arose from his chair, found a leather bag nearby, packed the new Book and a few belongings, and took his son by the arm. Noticing his son’s pack, he said, ‘Have you brought food?’
‘I have,’ Mraan replied. ‘As much as I could carry.’
‘Good,’ Haloch replied. ‘Then we will be leaving.’
‘Leaving? But . . . where will we be going?’
Haloch’s movements, although stiff from lack of use, were certain. ‘Do you not know? The Enemy is nigh. I heard them in the streets below, shortly after completing the illustration. They must never get their hands on this. In fact-’
The old copy lay closed upon its dais. Haloch took the candle and touched its flame to the edge of the old book. It began to burn immediately with vigour. In a moment, the room was filled with its light. As they left, Haloch turned for a moment to watch as the fire spread to the wooden scribing-table.
‘It hardly seems possible that so many lifetimes of work and experience could end so suddenly, or be expunged from existence in such ignominious fashion. Yet when I remember that the Elf Kingdom is but a footnote in the annals of Time itself, or that it is only one tiny land on the face of a world that is vast beyond our reckoning . . . it makes me wonder how, in the face of all reason, we came to believe that our own petty concerns were so all-important.
‘But come! We must seek the means to undo what the Lore has become, before it is too late.’
‘Who would have the means?’ Mrann asked.
‘Perhaps no one,’ Haloch replied. ‘But we will seek out the Thane in Mirrindale. He at least can be trusted.’
Haloch led his son away from the staircase, towards the back of the room, and came to stand before a narrow closet. Mraan heard a quiet tinkling as his father fumbled about in his robes, presently producing a ring of keys. Then, Haloch opened the door and they stepped inside.
‘Hold the door open a moment . . . I need to see what I’m doing,’ Haloch told his son as he moved some old crates from the back of the closet. Mraan heard the groan of hinges as his father lifted a door in the flooring. ‘I have it! Now, close and lock the door behind you, and follow me. Careful! Mind your step. This is a long ladder . . . it is far to the bottom of the well.’
Their descent took them to a place in the Library Mraan had never been to before. It was clearly not the basement. Dim light filtered through iron grates, cleverly contrived to hide the presence of several interconnected narrow corridors. Presently, they were under the street at the rear of the building. On the corridor went, block after block, until at last, they were past the city walls. Even then the corridor went on. It was well made of closely fitting stone, well drained and dry. The purpose for its creation, however, was of little interest to Mraan, and the moment they made their way out the exit, it was soon forgotten altogether.
Looking to the end of the tunnel, Mraan saw a stone stair in the dim grey light. At the top of the stair was a small chamber, closed off by a tall gate of metal bars. At his father’s gesture, he handed over the keys. Haloch then selected one, reached through the gate, inserted the key with some difficulty, turned . . .
‘I need your strength,’ Haloch told him. ‘The mechanism should work anticlockwise.’
Mraan reached through the cold iron bars, found the key, and twisted. Nothing happened, but he thought he could feel the mechanism give a little. Resting his body against the gate for leverage, he gained a better purchase on the key, and turned with all his might.
There was a thundering crash from down the tunnel as part of the Library caved in, followed by a gust of hot air tinged with fire and brimstone. The air was beginning to smell of smoke. Determined, Mraan gripped the key once more and turned, adding his fear, frustration and anger to the limit of his strength-
Bang! The door opened with a groan, vibrating from the sympathetic concussion generated by forcing its long-disused locking mechanism.
They found themselves standing in front of a treed knoll in the forest to the north of the city of Nith, which was obscured by a veil of haze or smoke. A great city and its people were ended. Haloch, however, turned his back on the scene. Leading his son with steps which grew ever more certain, he said, ‘Come now. We are leaving.’
‘Do you suppose that the enemy will have reached the West yet?’ Mraan asked.
‘That is a certainty,’ Haloch replied.
‘But where will we seek safety?’
‘Safety?’ his father belied a hint of irritation at his son’s incomprehension. ‘It is not safety we seek, but rather to keep the Lore from the hands of the Enemy. The threat is not to the Elven Kingdom alone, but to everything and everyone, everywhere.
‘I am surprised that the Earth Mother Herself hasn’t yet responded to this threat,’ he muttered, half to himself, feeling as much worry as relief. ‘Such an affront should have provoked Her to such wrath that She would have obliterated the Lore, and all Elvenkind with It. Though perhaps, as some have suggested, her power wanes; perhaps She is no longer able to respond. That, too, does not bode well, for without the assurance of Her being, there is no guarantee that the Lore can be stopped.’
Mraan could not picture this, but felt he understood his father better now, regardless.
‘So, what is to be done with the Lore?’
Haloch smiled, grimly. They made their way up a small rise, moving northward, around the periphery of the city. ‘Now you are beginning to think again. As I told you, nothing will be gained by destroying the Book. The invocation cannot be called back, but it must somehow be diverted or undone. I do not have that talent, but perhaps the Thane may know someone who does.’
Mraan puzzled over this, but kept any questions to himself until they stopped to rest some hours later. They were moving carefully through the woods, some distance from the road which led west. Twice they had stopped and hidden themselves as enemy patrols travelled upon the road noisily, apparently feeling no need for caution.
When it was time to rest, Haloch led his son to a place further away from and above the road, which afforded a clear view all around them. It was then that Mraan ventured a few questions.
‘I don’t understand what you mean when you say that the invocation must be undone. Doesn’t that mean that it has to be . . . well . . . unlearned, or unknown?’
Haloch brought some food from their packs, laid out some bread, meat, cheese, and wine. They ate for a few moments in silence as he kept an eye to the surrounding lands about them and considered his answer.
‘The Lore is not so much a knowledge as it is a record of our own conduct. The great mysteries contained therein remain forever beyond our ken. No one knows what magic is or why it works, for example, and what little we know is made apparent by the kind of things we do. In that sense, magic is not so much what we have discovered, but what the supernatural has chosen to reveal to us.
‘And there are Laws in magic. To the best of my knowledge, there is nothing that once done, can’t be undone; the undoing is part of the doing. No one knows why this is, but it has always been so. It is not the same thing as dropping a glass and breaking it. If a spell is used to break a glass, that spell can be undone, the glass thereby made whole again.’
The implications of this prompted Mraan to ask, ‘But does that mean the Kingdom can be made whole again?’
His father huffed in response. ‘The end of the Elven Kingdom has been brought about only indirectly by the Lore. As a people we went too far; it should never have been. Such is the penalty for our excess.’
Haloch’s gaze became rueful. ‘This much you must take on faith; the excess I speak of has been all around you for all of your short life . . . you haven’t known anything else, so you are blind to it. Did you know that we are related to the other Faerie folk?’ Mraan’s doubtful look prompted him to smile without humour. ‘Well, we were, long ago. Over time we changed. They didn’t, except in their feelings towards us.’
‘I’ve always heard that they hate us!’
‘Nay, say rather that they hate what we’ve become, for in one way at least they are wiser than we, and justified in their anger: they didn’t try to bend the natural world to suit their own selfish desires, at the expense of all else.’
Haloch could see unpleasantly revelatory thoughts moving like storm clouds behind Mraan’s unfocused gaze as he mulled this over.
‘Then . . . the Library . . . the City of Nith itself . . .’
‘Is it the embodiment of a crime against Nature.’
Mraan’s eyes widened as this, and then another realization set in. ‘How are we related to the other Faerie folk?’
Haloch nodded, his face a smile that was not a smile. ‘Let me explain it to you in this fashion: until the first Men came in contact with the Faerie Folk, there were no Elves.’
‘No Elves!’ Mraan breathed, slowing his step, trying to fathom the meaning of this statement. Their eyes locked, and for a brief moment, as realization set in, Mraan appeared as old and tired as his father. But the moment passed, and he smiled as his youthful optimism washed the gloom away, like blood from a wound carried away by the cold and exhilarating waters of a fast-running stream. ‘Well, at least none of our ancestors were trolls.’
Haloch laughed, and said in a way that made Mraan wonder whether he was truly serious, ‘None that we know of.’