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‘Before coming to any sort of judgement, you would do well to remember an
ancient saying that originated in the cradle of Civilization: “To defeat mine enemy required that I walk for a time in his shoes, and in the end, become alike to him.”
Telemachus Theotokopolous (c429-387 BCE)
Elgar sat at the head of the Circle of Elders, waiting patiently for Satu, one of the Pixies who watched the western border of the Elf Kingdom for Faerie refugees. She had recently returned, but was late in making her report.
The tales the refugees told were disquieting. All was now quiet within the Elf Kingdom, yet there was a growing sense of dread as the ominous silence spread. It seemed to be common knowledge that something bad was coming, something terrible beyond imagining, though none of the fugitives could put a name to what it was they feared. Yet it was this fear, as well as the unsettling silence, that had prompted those remaining to leave.
Those who listened to such fears were at once struck with the utter lack of rumour, which in itself would not have precipitated such a reaction, leading in turn to an exodus. No one needed to be told to leave; indeed it seemed that no one had been told; yet all were leaving as though they had in some way been forewarned, and this in itself made the Outsiders uneasy.
The Elders sat on the bare ground before an open fire-pit, the sole source of light which illuminated the Outcast’s Enclave. The Enclave itself was formed from a natural half-bowl which appeared as though it had been scooped out of one side of a rocky hilltop. The inner surface of the bowl had been cut into crude rings which served as both stairs and seats, and were normally filled with people when meetings were held. They were empty now, and only the bright stars of the clear night sky were witness to the Circle of Elders’ vigil. A wide clearing lay about the Enclave, and all round it the monolithic trees of the Great Forest rose up in dark and timeless majesty.
The other Elders like Elgar, half-Elf and half-Pixie, were Morin, Yanni, Brozi, Elwin, and Sarka. Then there were Uma, Tani, Suvaii and Olwynn who were half-Human and half-Pixie. Of the younger members there were Luna and Sidus, who were half-Human and half-Nymph, Aqua, and Sola, who were half-Elf and half-Nymph, Argent, who was half-Human and half-Sprite, and Tam, who was half-Sprite and half-Elf.
Elgar smiled to himself as he gazed about the Circle. According to prevailing Elven wisdom, those Outsiders that were half-Human and half-Faerie should have been Elves. There was, he reflected, some degree of truth in the Elven beliefs. All those who were half-Human and half-Faerie did look a bit Elven. It would, however, take many centuries of interbreeding with Humans, followed by many centuries of interbreeding between new subspecies, to complete the events necessary to produce the equivalent of the modern Elf.
A bright light moving through the trees towards the Circle caught Elgar’s attention, and he had to suppress a smile: if Satu thought she was avoiding being seen in the darkness by sneaking up on them through the Forest, she was mistaken. A Pixie’s light shone like a beacon. In moments she reached the Circle and transformed.
‘There were only a few tonight, Elgar,’ she said, slightly out of breath. ‘Lux has taken them to rest. Four were wood-Nymphs. You never saw anyone so happy to see a forest!’
Elgar and the others smiled at this. Satu was one of the few whose life didn’t seem to have been marred as badly as most by some evil or misfortune, and her happy demeanour always lightened everyone’s mood. Bowing to her from the waist, he said, ‘Thank you, Satu. We are glad to hear of the wood-Nymphs. Those with us are few in number. The newcomers will be a welcome addition.’
Beaming, she transformed and soon disappeared into the forest.
Suvaii wasn’t sure he liked this news. ‘Do you think this means that our eastern forests are no longer safe?’
‘I think,’ replied Elgar, ‘this could well mean that nowhere is safe. Not even here.’
‘Do you still think we shouldn’t leave?’ It was Sarka, who spoke seldom because of her shyness, and with some difficulty. Even more rarely did she ever smile, which saddened Elgar because he thought her very young and very beautiful, though there was something disturbing about her black hair and eyes that spoke of a remote Imp ancestor.
Morin quickly voiced his displeasure at this. ‘Not until we must! The Elf army returns soon, and the Human named Ralph is working like a fiend to fashion more weapons like those he has supplied us with. At the least, let us strike a blow or two against this coming evil.’
‘You are forgetting something,’ said Elwin. He often thought Morin a little headstrong, and likely to forget caution. ‘Have we not received reports that the Elf King and his minions now have possession of the library of Nith? If they have taken the book of Elf Lore, we would do well not to confront them directly. Some other way must be found to destroy them.’
Uma shook her head in disbelief. ‘Destroy them? Did I hear aright? The day I hear Sarka utter more than ten words will I believe that we could destroy the Elf King and his army.’ She nudged shoulders gently with Sarka, prompting a general chuckle, and the shy Sarka almost did smile.
‘Destroying the Elf King’s works and his army is a task which is far beyond our meagre means, yet a way must be found.’ It was Olwynn, who was the eldest of them. In fact, he was one of the few who was genuinely old. The others considered him the wisest in Lore and Wisdom, and when he spoke, all listened with grave respect. ‘If they have indeed taken the Elven Book of Lore,’ he continued, ‘then there is no choice but to stop them. No place would be safe. The Earth Mother’s power might very well become corrupted, and with it our future as well.’
Elgar frowned. ‘I had always thought the Earth Mother to be inviolate. Surely, were the Elves to attempt unleashing something so utterly harmful to Her Creation, She will interfere.’
Olwynn smiled sadly, aware that the younger members were hanging on his every word concerning the Earth Mother, looking to him for a reassurance he couldn’t give them.
‘It is unlikely,’ he said, ‘that the Earth Mother will or can intervene. At one time I would have said that the Balance was such a far reaching thing, and the Elf King and his Lore but a little matter, that She could never be harmed. But I fear . . . it is in my heart that the King and his Loremasters are somehow responsible for Her silence these past months, impossible though that may seem.’
Seeing how shaken the others were at these words, he added quietly, though emphatically, ‘Nothing remains to all free peoples but to fight. To slay the Elf King and his followers, if we can.’
This was followed by shocked silence. To even think of killing a figure like the Elf King was hazardous, for he was both powerful and resourceful. Failure would be rewarded by certain death for all.
‘Olwynn,’ said Elgar, ‘are you saying that we have the strength or the means to attempt such a thing?’
‘We have the strength to fight,’ replied Olwynn with conviction, ‘and thanks to Ralph, the Human who is now husband to one of the Faerie Folk,’ he emphasised this last, ‘we now possess the means. Who can say what the outcome will be if we aid those Elves who have willingly left the Elf Kingdom.’
‘Help them!’ cried Uma, ‘After the years of suffering we have endured at their hands? That is not a choice many of us will willingly make.’
‘I believe the choice has already been made for us,’ replied Olwynn. ‘Regrettably, the hard truth is that we will all live or die by their success or failure in the coming battle against their King. They have already paid dearly for the excesses of a few of their kind. We would be doing those of their number who have always had our best interest at heart a great wrong if we didn’t come to their aid.’
‘But what you suggest is suicide!’ said Morin. ‘We have an idea of the strength of the King’s army. It is many times that of all those who oppose it.’
‘That may very well be,’ said Olwynn, ‘but it is a small price to pay for the survival of all Faeriekind, if not all Life, everywhere. I remind you that the stakes in this matter are far-reaching, beyond the abilities of even the Wise to fully comprehend. I remind you also that there are innocents that live far beyond the reach of our borders who have never known violence, or war, or the sort of murder and persecution we have been made to suffer. What hope will unknowing Faerie innocents have against such Evil, do you think? That is, unless we act on their behalf, though the deed cost us everything and all. Surely the knowledge that we protect the lives of untold innocents is enough reason for us to expend ourselves!
‘My friends, we have survived our trial by fire. Bereft of the sort of eldritch existence our mothers lived, bereft of a fully efficacious magic, though we still retain vestiges of such, for the most part abandoned by Elven, Human, and Faeriekind, we have not only survived, but we have thriven, and we are strong! Stronger than most of you imagine. And more importantly, stronger than the Elf King or Prince Cir would ever believe in their darkest dreams!
‘Have we not utterly rid our surrounding lands of the Goblins that hunt our friends, the deer and the elk? Do they dare enter the Forest, even under cover of the darkness that is their demesne? Do they dare raise their brackish voices in our lands, in confidence that they may dwell here with impunity?
‘They come here seldom now, never to hunt, for fear of giving their presence away; they dare not come near to the forest, they whisper only at need, and they skulk about on their dark business, all too aware of the unlikelihood of their leaving our lands as living beings.
‘We are,’ he concluded, ‘the true Masters of this land. It is ours, for we know its ways, and it accepts us. This acceptance is the Earth Mother’s gift. She Herself has smiled upon us, when we thought ourselves alone in the world, abandoned and unloved. My friends, we must fight the Enemy, if only for Her sake.’
The others were silent for some time, very much moved by the last part of Olwynn’s speech. But still, there were some who shifted uneasily, unwilling, reticent, and not easily swayed by words.
‘What sort of aid would we give?’ asked Tam. He was the most renowned of their archers, and much of the planned strategy in battle would inevitably fall to him.
‘All those who can fight will be formed into an army, which Elgar will lead,’ explained Olwynn. ‘We will fight at the Elves’ side, but in our own way. That is how it must be.’
Uma, looking slightly nauseous at the prospect of widespread violence, said, ‘So it comes to this, that we are committed to open warfare?’
‘It is either that or face extinction,’ said Olwynn. ‘I do not see that we have a choice in this matter.’
‘I find it very disquieting,’ said Elwin, ‘that we have for so very long contemplated seeking revenge against the Elves; and now, when we are strong, we must consider helping them. I would prefer to leave them to their fate, and deal later with the result.’
‘I share your sentiment,’ Yanni said, ‘but Olwynn in correct. If they fall, then so do we all.’
‘That is not certain!’ said Suvaii. ‘Perhaps we should allow their innocents to die, as ours have for so long! They would deserve-’
‘I cannot believe what I’m hearing!’ Olwynn cried in anger. ‘For shame! It is never right for the innocent to be made victims. Has our own experience with injustice taught us nothing? Or has it curdled our understanding of right and wrong?’
‘It has not!’ Suvaii replied hotly. ‘But I have seen the bodies of children murdered by Elf soldiers. I know that these same soldiers now reside in Mirrindale, along with those bloated pigs who paid for their services. Do not dare ask that I forget how those pigs gorged themselves on the fat of the land while their minions put starving children put to the sword! If we win this fight, and those in Mirrindale survive, I will not rest until they are punished!’
Olwynn’s eyes were closed, as though in pain. But he replied quietly, ‘I hear you. This must be discussed with the Elf leaders.’ He opened his eyes and faced Suvaii grimly. ‘You are right in this. They should be tried and punished, if found guilty.’
‘Don’t you mean executed?’ asked Morin coldly.
‘The dead do not learn from their mistakes,’ Olwynn replied tiredly.
Suvaii’s mien blackened in anger at this. ‘Their actions were not mistakes! They were cold, calculated, and ruthless! You use words like right and wrong, but those words are part of a belief that those people do not share in, though they have the cheek to pay lip-service to ideals that have the sound of high-mindedness in one’s ear! Olwynn, I do not say this lightly, but those people have to be exterminated! Every last one of them! This is not about right and wrong. It’s about who survives and who doesn’t. If we should prevail, what is to stop those monsters from beginning the cycle of violence and murder all over again? We must take upon ourselves to deny such people existence!’
All eyes were on Olwynn as he listened to this, and a fear grew upon the others as they watched him. In a low, dangerous voice, he replied, ‘I have heard those exact words before. So have all of you. But never before from one of us.’
Suvaii blanched as the meaning of Olwynn’s words struck home. Looking aghast, he said, ‘Forgive me . . . I should never . . . I didn’t mean . . .’
‘Those words should never have been uttered,’ Olwynn inturrupted. ‘By anyone. By their actions has their Fate already been sealed. Do not forget that the same might one day be said of us.’