You must login to vote
“. . . despite the monkey’s far greater intelligence,his character always manages to bring about his destruction. Consider the simple workings of the monkey-trap. It is nothing more than a wooden box having a hole cut in its top or side just large enough to admit a monkey’s hand. The monkey is lured near by a piece of fruit which is then placed, before the monkey’s eyes, into the box. The greedy, obstinate creature will then, without exception, reach inside the box, grasp the piece of fruit, making a fist, and will refuse to let go of it, not even while the hunter calmly stalks up to the wretch and staves its head in. When one considers the closeness of humans to
other primates, the greater intelligence of Homo Sapiens merely adds ridicule to the monkey trap; as creatures endowed with greater intelligence, we seem in many ways capable only of attempting to work this ploy on one another, rather than putting our greater intelligence to more gainful use.”
Barnes and Scribbs, Anthropology, August 10, 1887
London, Sidney, New York
It had been several days since the Thane began leading his army in cautious retreat away from the proximity of Nith. Pran’s warning, facilitated by the Human girl, Deborah, had reached him on the eve of his approach to the Library City. Since then, wary of attack and ambush in these northern lands now controlled by the Goblins, he had moved his army slowly, cautiously, sending scouts out well in advance. His army, though strong enough and well-trained, could not sustain heavy losses for any length of time and still remain a purposeful fighting force. Therefore, avoiding casualties was foremost on his mind at all times.
His senses were heightened by a disturbing watchfulness which seemed to have no source, and it gave him cause to wonder. Was it the Enemy? Was it the riven Lore itself? Was it the Netherworld, as it struggled for mastery over the Earth Mother? Was is the Earth Mother Herself who watched the Elves’ every movement? Yet he felt that such words did not suffice; that the truth was profound beyond reckoning, like Prophesy itself.
Three days later they reached the place where the town of Narvi had been. The air was still permeated by the acrid smell of burning, and wisps of smoke still writhed skyward like wraiths. The noisome pall of death, a sickly-sweet, gangrenous odour, had attracted all manner of gangrel carrion-feeders; often the ground beneath them seemed to writhe with rats, as though the earth itself were a maggot-ridden corpse. Their horses nickered and blew with loathing, placing their hooves with care; those soldiers on foot paced the ground like men forced to walk upon snakes, watchfully staring their grim mistrust of it.
Despite their discomforture, the Thane’s army halted at the sound of pounding hooves coming from behind them. Their ranks parted, allowing the single rider to approach the Thane. It was a scout they had feared lost- he had been missed for several days.
‘My Thane,’ he gave the formal salute.
The Thane nodded. ‘You may speak.’
The youngish Elf man took a deep breath and spoke. He was travel weary, very nearly prostrate, yet somehow managed to carry himself with dignity.
The Thane learned from the scout that the nearest Goblin army had exhausted its supplies and was in full retreat. This was the same undisciplined mob that had pursued the retreating Elven army all the way from the King’s city of Valerian far to the northeast, to the gates of Mirrindale. Overextended, out of food and weakening, harassed by roving bands of Elves whose numbers were greatly augmented by Men and Dwarves, unable to feed themselves because they’d thoughtlessly burned and destroyed, rather than despoiled, and spread out thinly into roving bands whose purported task was to override and take the southern lands as their own, they had at last grasped that their hold on these lands was tenuous at best. Seeing their peril, word was sent out, the brutally inefficient task of gathering their disorganised numbers together was done as well as may be, and now they had begun the long journey north.
Hearing this, the Thane’s spirits rose. Standing in his stirrups, with drawn sword upraised, he cried, ‘Here you? The Enemy is on the run, and He is weak! The time for Retribution is at hand! Let the Enemy know no rest save that found in the arms of Death!’
Wheeling about in its tracks, the Thane’s army turned north and within hours crossed the Mirrow at the old bridge whose name had been lost in antiquity, afterwards approaching the small garrison town of Sormanen, the same in which Malina had been held captive during her trial. Uncertain as to what they would find at Sormanen, they proceeded with caution, sending advance scouts far ahead, whose purpose was to spy out the enemy’s movements in case the garrison town had somehow been used to bait a trap.
While it became clear that their fears concerning the enemy’s whereabouts were unfounded, their caution, however, was not. Sormanen was virtually empty, but a small ambush, consisting of expert bowmen, had been remained in hiding, laying in wait with the apparent and express purpose of assassinating the Thane.
The would-be assassins were Elves.
Rather than be taken alive, these traitors either cut their own throats, ran themselves on the points of their own swords, or took poison; but not before killing two scouts and injuring three others.
One soldier, who discovered his brother among the dead assassins, seemed at once gripped by a black, fey mood, and demanded that the traitors be burned, even those few who still clung to life. An angry madness seemed to grip several of the Thane’s soldiers then, and they built a pyre from the wood of buildings they had begun to vandalize. Ignoring the Thane’s orders, they tossed the traitors, living and dead, into the flames, the reflected fire dancing in their eyes like doom incarnate, their features ruddy in the orange firelight, the smell of smoke and burned flesh permeating their clothing.
All the while, sitting nearby on his mount, the Thane watched, while one of his captains, he wasn’t sure which, from behind him muttered sickly, ‘What have we become? What have we become?’ over and over again.
The smell was sickening.
Shortly thereafter, this madness seemed to pass, and the soldier responsible for initiating it approached the Thane, though his demeanour bore an unrepentant, disturbingly sated aspect.
‘Forgive me, my Thane,’ he said, ‘but this was necessary. My brother’s transgressions have been expunged, his soul cleansed, as when it was new. Fire does that.’
Were I not privy to the truth of this man’s actions, I could easily allow myself to accept his pretense of madness, the Thane thought. Gazing long into the soldier’s eyes, a sudden chill twisted in his vitals. Yet despite that which I know, there remains the deluded wish to blame this occurrence on something other than the truth. Not taking his eyes off the soldier, the Thane nodded to one of his captains who had several soldiers standing ready. The captain and his soldiers disarmed and arrested all those that had ignored the Thane’s orders and participated in the burning. Though these mutineers went off quietly and without protest, those who had to deal with them were deeply disturbed by these Elves who appeared at once distant and insensate, as though they no longer cared about their fate; yet by their behaviour had they given the lie to their present demeanour, hiding as it did something unpredictable, dangerous, and sinisterly evasive.
‘What will you have done with them?’ one of his aides asked.
‘I have given orders for them to be put to the sword, once they are out of sight of the others,’ the Thane replied quietly. ‘They are too dangerous to be released or kept prisoner.’
‘You do not seem overly surprised by this occurrence,’ the aide said, who was himself obviously shocked, and partly at the way the Thane dealt with the matter.
‘It is only that you’re not used to seeing this sort of behaviour displayed out in the open, for all to see,’ the Thane told him. ‘This has always been the problem, that it is shocking when you see it first hand, disturbing when you hear about it second hand, troubling when it comes to your ears in the form of distant news; but by the time it becomes a familiar tale indistinguishable from rumour, little remains to stimulate our sensibilities, which by this time are able to react only with a sort of detached, morbid curiosity.’
Turning to his aide, he said, ‘Such behaviour, as you have just seen it, is rife throughout the Elf Kingdom, and has been for many years. You are taken aback by what little you have seen, but try to imagine, if you can, those same soldiers, turned loose upon our Faerie kindred, or even upon certain of our own people, with no eyes to mark their unspeakably barbarous acts, with no one to answer to, and encouraged by the likes of Prince Cir.’
‘But they are Elves!’ the aide protested. ‘How is it that they can behave like Goblins?’
The Thane deigned no reply.
For the remainder of that day they travelled in a wide loop, travelling first west, slowly skirting around the deciduous forest that bordered on the farmlands north of Sormanen, until they came to be facing northeast.
There was no need to search for the retreating Goblin army; there were signs of the enemy everywhere. Often they came across discarded packs containing heavy and useless iron cooking-ware, (useless, for the Goblins had exhausted their stores attacking the retreating Elven army), or it might be a broken shoe, one of their wounded who had died, an abandoned cart, even some of their heavier weapons: hammers, maces, and suchlike.
By the third day, so common was such detritus that the Thane ordered his captains to send scouts far ahead, and to press the chase. A feeling of charged expectancy gradually stole over and galvanized the mood of the Elf soldiers, as they began to sense, as the Thane surely did, the rising desperation of the retreating Goblin army which was travelling entirely on foot. On the morning of the seventh day, a report came to the Thane’s ears that one of the enemy’s armies was within sight. They outnumbered the Thane’s army at least four to one, being some twelve thousands or more.
The chief danger, when engaging an army of this size, was in becoming surrounded. But there was little probability of this, as much of the Thane’s army was on horse, and he had dispatched scouts far and wide to prevent such an occurrence. This was a necessary precaution, as this was but one of the King’s armies.
The Goblins, upon seeing the Elven riders, began forming what for them were battle-formations, but were in fact nothing more than shapeless squads, each with a leader standing safely in the centre, shouting orders.
Though it was still early morning, the air grew sultry, the sun hot. The wide fields were overgrown with long, bleached-looking grass, and tufted with stands of tall, thin birch trees, with bone-coloured trunks that curved upwards from the ground like the scattered carcass of some great beast. Behind the Goblins, at a distance of some ten furlongs, lay an arm of the deciduous forest. Yet long before that, right at the Goblins’ back, was the river Mirrow, where it flowed from the forest. At this point the river was wide and shallow, its bottom thick with mud and silt. The Elves knew it to be impassable; it was too shallow for a boat, except perhaps for a flat-bottomed dinghy, of which they had none, and the bottom was too soft and muddy for foot-soldiers or riders, except at the very edge.
Unaware of this danger, the Goblins plunged heedless into the shallow muddy waters of the Mirrow, perhaps thinking that the obstacle of mud could be overcome by a burst of sheer speed. Several made it almost half-way before becoming hopelessly mired; regardless, the near side of the river was soon chocked with the frenzied mob. Caught and sinking, panic and terror set in, and the mud was black with seething bodies trying to clamour over each other, driving their fellows down into the mud, or being drowned beneath a tangle of frenetic, grasping limbs and bodies.
The ensuing battle was an anticlimactic affair, foregone in a way that was at once businesslike and grim, and was executed utterly without glamour or redeeming honour. It began with lines of Elf soldiers riding tantalizingly back and forth before the Goblin army. The unruly, undisciplined mob responded as expected, ineffectually loosing every arrow that remained to them, followed by every spear, dart and lance; and then they stood waiting in silence, not moving or speaking, appearing almost calm, perhaps because there was naught else they could do.
Proceeding at a carefully unhurried pace, many of the Thane’s soldiers dismounted, collected every spent missile that had belonged to the Goblins, and joined the forming battle-formations.
The Elves moved within one hundred feet of the Goblin ranks, but refrained from closing and engaging in close-in fighting. With careful deliberation, they formed a wall of archers, took aim, and began sending thick volleys of arrows into the Goblin ranks, using first the Goblin arrows, then their own. Accuracy was irrelevant. They simply fired their arrows where the Goblin hordes were thickest.
Until the first volley, the Goblins stared stupidly on, as though uncomprehending. It wasn’t until the arrows began to bite, falling thick amongst their ranks, that utter panic set in. Rather than organize sorties to attempt to break free from their Elven attackers, they instead remained where they were, milling about in a panicked frenzy, trying to use each other as shields from the hail of missiles. Many ran madly about, frothing at the mouth in incoherent terror. Some cursed the Elven soldiers, railing at them to stop, unable to believe that anyone could do something so unspeakably cruel and heartless.
As the Elves spent the last of their arrows, they dropped out of the line of archers, one by one, went to their waiting mounts, and returned on horse bearing lances. By this time, the remaining Goblins knew that they were done, that they would receive no mercy. Some fought. But many, if not most, lay down their weapons, if they hadn’t done so already, and waited, some praying to their subterranean deities, others standing motionless, heads bowed. At first, many Elf soldiers held back, unwilling to slay people who wouldn’t defend themselves. But curt orders, then threats, caused them to set aside their reservations, and they reluctantly proceeded to finish the job.
By mid-afternoon of that sullen day, not a Goblin was left alive on the field, though a good many, still living, were hopelessly trapped in the muddy bottom of the Mirrow, and were left there to die. No one spoke as the soldiers recovered arrows from the Goblin dead, piled the corpses like so much cordwood, and cut down timber to fashion great pyres. When the pyres had been set ablaze, their hearts were downcast, for there had been no great moral victory here; only meaningless, horrific slaughter. The Thane, however, was philosophical, for like as not, this was how most battles were conducted. Two opponents met, probed each other’s defences for weaknesses, then exploited the weaknesses with utter ruthlessness. If no weaknesses were to be found, then it became a standoff. Standoffs ended when reinforcements arrived, or when one army ran short of supplies, or when one army was too tired to continue, or when the weather changed, favouring one army over the other in terms of clothing, footwear, terrain, or position or condition of the battlefield. Regardless, in the end, a chink appeared in the armour, and arrows, lances and swords were driven into healthy flesh, seeking out vitals, severing limbs, slicing tendons and muscles, puncturing lungs, eviscerating bellies, beheading, hacking open the bodies’ cavities, severing arteries causing blood to be pumped directly from the heart, so that it sprayed forth into the air in warm gouts; a living, dying fountain. The battlefield soon became a quivering, bloody mass of writhing agony.
This, reflected the Thane, was the truth of war. There were no glorious charges, no battle horns blaring defiantly, no colourful standards being carried into battle, no honourable dead, and no honourable living. It was a grisly, terrible business, and there was nothing, no song or speech or epic poem, that could elevate the truth: that war is a brutal, inglorious, senseless, heartless destruction of life. Death itself seldom came at once, but was usually preceded with unbearable pain, the like of which is unimaginable to those who haven’t experience such. Those mortally wounded were ignored by foe and defender alike the moment they were cut down, left to writhe and to moan, to scream and to weep, and to stare aghast at their own broken and mutilated bodies, gaping stupidly at horrific injuries that could never be set right again. For many, it wasn’t until they lay upon the battlefield, mortally wounded and in unbearable agony, that they fully realized that their one and only life was coming to an ignominious and untimely end; and end they did, not standing upright in glory in the midst of a field of honour, but rather writhing and contorting in the mud of the battlefield, their minds filled only with suffering as they gnashed their teeth in irremediable pain and unutterable fear of their own mortality.
The Thane was left to wonder if there was any bard, living or dead, who had ever actually experienced the horrors of war for himself.
He sincerely doubted the prospect.
The next day, after fording the Mirrow at a point further north, the advance scouts came back as a body, riding like the wind.
‘Sire,’ they said, ‘we can go no further. There are roving armies, freshly supplied and well-equipped, of greater size than that we have just engaged, and they are despoiling the countryside. For that matter, we ask that you loan us a number of horses, that we may evacuate some refugees who made their presence known to us. They are mostly women and children, but many are soldiers.’
The Thane quickly agreed to this, and the scouts left, leading a good many horses that had until now been used only as spares. Late that evening, the scouts arrived with the refugees: nearly two-hundred women, children and elders, and an almost equal number of soldiers. The civilians were ravenously hungry and thirsty, terrified, had seen no food nor shelter for days, and the tales they told were often unspeakable, and will remain so.
But often the soldiers spoke of the manner in which the roving hordes would overlook the refugees, as though they weren’t worth troubling over. It became obvious to them that the Goblins were searching for something that did not include such easy prey as tender young women and children.
‘They were probably more concerned with meeting a host of Elf soldiers,’ one of the Thane’s captains commented.
‘Perhaps,’ the Thane replied, noncommittally.
Now that they were forced to turn back, the number of refugees that travelled with the Elf army grew steadily, like an accumulation of responsibility that couldn’t be met under such circumstances. Their presence worried the Thane, yet he was loathe to send them away, for fear that they might fall prey to the Goblins that now roamed the countryside with impunity. He considered sending them away with an armed escort, but that would weaken his army, and there was no telling how many more refugees might yet turn up.
At the beginning, the worst of it was that their progress was made that much slower, for
he could spare horses for the civilians without seriously hindering his army. The soldiers, for their part, were now forced to ride in rotation in order to keep the footsoldiers as fresh as possible.
When they came upon a number of abandoned Goblin wains, the very ones they’d passed by before, they immediately repaired and made use of these with a feeling of great relief, setting in them the women, children, elders, the wounded and their provisions.
The next day, as the evening sunset turned the leaves of the forest to the left of them the colour of blood, two scouts arrived, newly returned from the south, and reported that they had been following Prince Cir’s army, which in apparent great haste had left the Eastland Waik area where it had been resting, and was now, at this very moment, making for Mirrindale with all speed, giving chase to a roaming band of vengeful Humans and Dwarves who had savagely ambushed the Goblin army’s unprotected rear shortly before dawn.
In other company, the Thane would have laughed out loud.
Astride his horse, just out of bowshot of the Elven archers, Prince Cir waited impatiently for Mirrindale’s reply. At his back, his army choked the road and the valley of the River Mirrow beyond. Viewed from high above, the appearance of his Goblins hordes more resembled the antics of a clumsy garter snake with its head stuck in a constricted place, than some fearsome poisonous serpent looking for a likely place to inject its lethal venom into its intended victim.
He was well aware that the city’s occupants would never parlay with the Goblin army and its leader. But this tactic was aimed at the occupants of Mirrindale, primarily at the Merchants, whom he hoped would make trouble for the Elven army, either by trying to undermine the Thane’s authority, or by working some sort of mischief.
The Prince fully expected the Thane and his entire army to be inside the city’s walls, along with the outsiders from another world that the King wanted for his own reasons. He did not dare fail in this task. The King had charged him with succeeding, warning Cir against failure.
If this tactic didn’t work, then he would simply wait. Time would serve just as well, starving the occupants and setting them at each others’ throats.
Captain Halwyn stood atop the wall directly above the gate, surveying the Goblin army. He decided to pretend to consider Cir’s offer for surrender, to give himself time to consider his defence, if it became necessary, though he couldn’t see how the Prince could manage to mount a viable attack on the fortress city. The Prince’s last attempt had resulted in the slaughter of many Goblins, now consigned to the waters of the river Mirrow.
What are you about, my Prince? he thought. What have you got up your sleeve, if anything? Is it a dagger you conceal, or bravado?
His casualties thus far had been negligible; two Elf soldiers manning the walls struck and wounded entirely by chance as the Goblins tried effectlessly to fill the sky with arrows that skipped harmlessly off stone. Cir had been insane to waste lives on an impossible attempt to cross the ravine and scale the walls of Mirrindale. Even were there no defenders, the task would still prove exceedingly difficult. With grudging respect, Halwyn realised Cir probably did not know that the Thane and most of the occupants had left, leaving enough stores to last for perhaps as much as two years. The Thane had planned well.
The Merchants were troublesome, and there was some dissent amongst the soldiers, as was expected. A few of the Merchants had tried to bribe Halwyn and some of his soldiers to surrender Mirrindale to Cir and accept his terms. Few were willing to fight, and even fewer were willing to accept that there was no sense in trying to negotiate with or bribe the Goblin army or its leader.
Halwyn eventually had most of the Merchants put under house arrest to prevent them from interfering with Mirrindale’s defence, or worse; undoubtedly this was Cir’s intent in making parlay. Ruefully, he wondered if the Merchants would ever learn . . .
‘It is true, then,’ said the Thane’s aide. ‘Cir tries to parlay with the occupants of Mirrindale. They have ceased hostilities, and wait for some word.’
The Thane studied the burning embers of the fire, stirring at them with a stick. ‘Is it there any guess as to Mirrindale’s losses?’
The aide smiled. ‘I believe they are negligible. Mirrindale shows no sign of surrender, though no doubt the Merchants will be bending the ears of the soldiers to surrender or parlay with Cir.’
‘And Cir’s army?’
Still smiling, the aide said, ‘The ravine before the city wall appears choked with dead. I would estimate some four thousands. I think it likely that Halwyn knows he has the advantage.’
The Thane nodded. ‘Are the enemy supplies still unguarded?’
‘They are, sire.’
‘Then,’ said the Thane, ‘we will attack their rear. I cannot pass up such an advantage, whether those in Mirrindale deserve our aid or no. Have the soldiers ready themselves.’
The aide was taken off guard. ‘You mean to attack Cir’s army? At night? What of your plan to abandon the traitors to their fate, while buying us time to make our escape from the Kingdom?’
‘We will leave soon enough,’ replied the Thane. ‘but in the meantime, these fools are in such a precarious position, and have provided us with far too much light from their fires and torches to allow us to waste such an opportunity. They have been travelling far, and fighting long and hard now, and have had little rest. I intend that they shall have none. Besides, we will have a better chance of success in leaving the Kingdom with one less threat standing in our way.’
‘Halwyn! Captain!’ A nearby soldier got his attention and pointed towards the enemy. ‘There, at the rear, near to where the road widens, and that bluff above the road! Do you see it?’
Peering into the darkness, Halwyn thought he could see some sort of activity, though he could not be certain. It appeared as though many dark shapes were milling about in the dim firelight at the rear of Cir’s army. Gradually, a sound began to be heard, carried on the cool night breeze, a sound Halwyn was not sure how to interpret. A harsh horn sounded. Then another. The enemy was suddenly stirring like a nest of angry bees. The nearest Goblins seemed to be milling about in confusion, looking uncertainly at Mirrindale as though the attack had been sounded.
Cir had mounted his horse, and was standing in the stirrups, looking at the hills overhead, and back down the road, down the valley to the north. Again the attack was sounded, and yet again. Many of the Goblins began moving towards the ravine, carrying ladders, ready to renew the siege. But the attack didn’t come.
Cir was shouting, waving his sword at the rear of his army, but the Goblins didn’t respond, confused by the harsh call of the horns sounding the attack.
Besides the guttural cries of the Goblins, there came another sound, at once clear and penetrating. It was the sound of Elf voices. The enemy’s unprotected rear was under attack! And from high above the length of the road, like an uneven line of fireflies, came swarming a host of Elf soldiers bearing torches, right to the cliff’s edge. Soon the torches were raining down, along with a hail of stones and boulders.
‘Open the gates and sound the attack,’ said Halwin to his aide as calmly as he could. ‘I believe the Thane has returned to deal with Prince Cir.’
‘But why would the Thane aid us?’ asked the soldier.
‘I doubt that such is his intent,’ replied Halwin. ‘It would appear that he has managed to catch Cir unawares, and means to take advantage of the moment. I suggest you give the order before the Thane loses the upper hand.’
Capturing and using the enemies’ battle-horns had been an ingenious idea. As the Thane had hoped, the Goblins, duped into believing the attack had been sounded, moved away from their supplies and advanced almost a furlong up the road towards Mirrindale. Seizing the advantage, the Thane and his soldiers fell on the enemies’ rear with appalling results. There were few soldiers here to slow their onslaught, and the enemy’s stores and caches of weapons were soon piled in heaps and set ablaze, or thrown into the river. All the while the Goblin attack sounded, like a wail of madness in the night, while the sky above became filled with falling fires and stones, effectively blinding the Goblins to their tormenters and sending them into panic.
By the time the Goblins realised what was happening, they were hemmed in too tightly to fight effectively. And volleys of arrows began raining down on them from both the wall of Mirrindale and from the surrounding hillsides overlooking the river, sending them into further disarray. In their midst, the Thane spotted Cir on his horse, shouting orders that went unheeded. Halwin also saw the Prince as the defenders of Mirrindale stormed into the mêlée. Both leaders, however, had the good sense to leave the prince where he was, rather than make the fatal error of charging in after him.
Caught in a vicious crossfire, many of the Goblins tried in vain to climb the steep walls of the ravine to safety. At the last, drawing together what remained of his decimated army, Cir called for a final desperate charge in an attempt to break through the Thane’s ranks.
Immediately, the Thane began shouting orders to his soldiers, and the Goblins found themselves facing an impenetrable wall of shields and spears.
Halwin’s soldiers very nearly succeeded in preventing Cir and the few survivors from escaping. But in the end, they plunged themselves into the deep ravine, were carried away by the Mirrow’s rushing waters, and then they were gone.
The Thane did not stop to exchange any conversation with Mirrindale’s defenders, but went down river in search of Cir.
Satu watched the fleeing Goblins crawling from the river from a safe distance. Having been unhorsed, Prince Cir led them on foot, gnashing his teeth in anger. The waters of the Mirrow were choked with dead.
The Thane’s Elves tracked Cir for some time before losing his trail. Either sensing that he had escaped, or perhaps wary of following him too far, the Thane halted his army’s advance, sent the refugees on a journey out of the Elf Kingdom, and made plans to begin combing the countryside for scattered civilians and soldiers, before a fresh army could arrive from the North to slay the remaining survivors and stragglers that wandered the countryside.
Satu decided to approach the Thane now, while her resolve held. Elgar had charged her with passing along a message, but she was afraid of Elves, having never spoken to one directly before. Transforming herself, she flew down from the tree and towards the head of the column of Elf soldiers with her heart in her mouth.
To her eyes the Thane was an imposing figure, riding on his great horse dressed in fine armour. She stopped a short distance before his mount and transformed back into her large, wingless form. The Thane stopped also, raising his hand for those who followed to do the same.
Stammering with fear, Satu said, ‘S- Sire, I . . . I mean . . . E-Elgar h-has ch-charged me with . . . he told me to give you . . .’
‘Perhaps you should take a moment to calm yourself,’ the Thane told her with a small smile. ‘Then you may begin by telling me of this Elgar you speak of, for I have never before heard his name.’
A little indignant at this, she blurted, ‘Why . . . Elgar is the leader of the Outcasts, Head of the Council of Elders!’
Smiling, the Thane said, ‘I see. Well, perhaps you should ride with me. That way your message will not cause us any undue delay.’
Ride? He motioned for her to approach him, and extended his hand. Though wide-eyed with fear, she allowed him to pick her up lightly and set her crosswise before him on his horse. The column immediately began moving forward again. She had seen other Pixies ride this way, Éha and Imalwain, but she had never done so herself.
‘Now then,’ said the Thane, ‘what is it that Elgar, leader of the Outcasts, has sent you to give me? A message, perhaps? Take your time. Perhaps begin by telling me your name.’
‘I am Satu,’ she said, a little less nervously. ‘Elgar has sent me to give you this thing he calls a “message.”’ She handed the Thane a small scroll, and as he unrolled and read it, she watched intently as though waiting for something to happen.
‘Thane of the Elves: you must leave the Elf Kingdom immediately. A great evil has been unleashed in the North, and is spreading quickly Southwards.
I have suggested to Pran a way to rescue your book of Lore, which he agrees is likely to succeed, and this he will take upon himself, so have hope!
In the meantime, I must warn you that you may have walked into a trap devised by the King. He has been stalking your movements, and I suspect Cir may be the bait.
‘I am entrusting the safety of my messenger to you. I adjure you to see that she comes to no harm.
In Trust, Elgar.’
Grinding his teeth, the Thane digested this for some time. Eventually, he said, ‘Am I to understand that this . . . Elgar . . . wishes me to heed this advice? And does he intend that I reply through you?’
Satu stared her incomprehension. ‘Advice? I did not hear Elgar’s roll of paper speak.’
The manner in which she stared at the thing in his hands prompted a chuckle from the Thane, despite the seriousness and the implications of Elgar’s message. ‘I take it no one has taught you your letters.’
Satu folded her arms and regarded him crossly. ‘No! I do not wish to learn about letters!’
‘I see.’ The Thane rolled the scroll and placed it safely in a saddlebag. ‘You haven’t yet answered my question, young lady.’
‘I asked you,’ the Thane told her, unable not to smile, ‘if Elgar intends that I give you a reply to his message.’
Satu yawned, then said, ‘Elgar never said anything about your giving me something. I think that he does not wish for you to tell me anything. He has told me very little.’ She yawned again. ‘Elgar seems to think that the less I am told, the better.’
The Thane chuckled at this, glad for a distraction that wasn’t so utterly dire. ‘I see. Are you tired?’
Satu hesitated, trying not to appear rude. ‘I have been following you for three days, waiting for an opportunity to speak with you when you are not so . . . preoccupied. And . . .’ she added, trying to be truthful, ‘I have been afraid to speak to you. It is only because I’m so tired that I’ve gotten up the nerve .’
This remark drew quiet laughter from the Thane and those nearby. ‘I see,’ he said. ‘Well, do not fear, for this night at least. You will come to no harm while you are with us.’
Stifling another yawn, she said, ‘The others warned me against listening to Elgar and coming here. They told me that Elves had been doing bad things to Pixies, and that you weren’t to be trusted.’
‘You know,’ she replied. ‘Other Pixies. Like me.’
‘Yet you came,’ he said.
She shrugged. ‘Elgar is part Elf, and he isn’t so bad. So are several of the Elders. Is it true, that Elves have been hurting Pixies?’
The Thane frowned. ‘What have you heard?’
‘Well . . . just that,’ she replied uncertainly.
Wondering how to explain things to her, he said, ‘Some Elves . . . not all, but some . . . have been doing some very bad things. To Pixies, as well as to each other.’
‘Like Prince Cir?’ she ventured. ‘I saw him running away through the forest after the big fight. He reminds me of a bad Pixie.’
‘I have never seen a bad Pixie,’ said the Thane, making a mental note of Cir’s possible whereabouts. ‘Have you?’
Satu nodded sombrely. ‘Only once. She had blood on her hands and on her mouth. The others drove her away, saying she had eaten . . . I think they said a gröeling, whatever that is.’ She shuddered. ‘I was very small then, and my mother took me away from there. I don’t know what happened to the bad Pixie, but I do know that they buried whatever it was she was eating, and they were very sad about it.’
The Thane did not tell her that gröeling was the Elf word for a Human child. ‘What did the bad Pixie look like?’ he asked her.
She shifted uncomfortably. ‘I don’t remember exactly,’ she replied. ‘I think she had claws. It was her face that scared me the most. Her eyes were sort of pink, and pointed, with a hole in the end. She wasn’t wearing a dress, and her skin was an awful grey colour.’
‘Why would something like that remind you of Prince Cir?’ the Thane asked her.
‘It was the way she behaved,’ Satu replied, ‘when she was caught. Like something bad caught in the act.’
The Thane nodded. ‘That would made sense.’ But he was thinking, wondering how Pixies like the one before him had become so maligned, to the point where many elves believed all Pixies were as bad as the one Satu described. ‘We are going to make camp soon,’ he told her. ‘Are you going to go off somewhere, or would you like to stay with us?’
She had not considered this. But she was very tired, and sleeping alone in the open was hazardous. And, she reasoned, if the Elves meant her any harm, they could have done something by now.
Later, when they made camp and set the watch, one of the Thane’s aides pointed to the young Pixie sleeping on the open ground, away from the Elves. ‘Get her some bedding,’ the Thane said, ‘and have her sleep here near the fire where her safety will be assured. And offer her something to eat and drink. It is the least we can do.’
The aide was unable to waken her, and carried her like a child to a more comfortable place by the fire.