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Chap. 29

The War Comes Home

‘The American war song “When Johnnie Comes
Marching Home Again” is a corruption of a far
older anti-war song called “Johnny I Hardly
Knew Ye.” The original, unlike its pale imitator,
makes no attempt to misrepresent the truth.’

from Popular Lies by David Thomas Olsen


The day that Pran, accompanied by Deborah and Éha, was to leave for the Elf Kingdom on a search for the Book of Elf Lore and its two keepers, he and Theuli had argued bitterly. That night, as the others gathered to wish the three safe journey, Theuli was conspicuously absent. Just prior to his departure, as Pran made the horses travel ready, he and Ralph exchanged some private words together. Afterwards, Deborah and Éha came out from the house bearing the saddlebags which they had filled with foodstuffs and necessities. They then mounted their horses, Deborah and Éha on one, Pran on the other, and left.



When Ralph came back inside, he found Malina in the living room, waiting for him. She was sitting on the couch by the fire, with her back turned to him, studying her bare feet, looking for all the world like a child that knows it is going to be abandoned out of some cruel necessity. The sight of her distress stuck an icy knife-point of fear in the pit of his stomach. He ached to take her in his arms, to reassure his young wife that everything was going to be all right; but the cold truth stopped his voice, making him feel as false and useless as though he were an effectless paper effigy with a paper sword, standing in the looming shadow of war’s unbroachable enormity.



They had been married only days before; a brief, simple ceremony, which should have been followed by the peaceful enjoyment of their home and each other, but in the face of war, their brief marriage seemed belittled.



‘You once said-’ she choked on the words, trying not to cry. ‘You said that . . . that we shouldn’t make any promises to each other . . . that life may or may not let us keep.’



He sat down, yearning to close the gap that had formed between them, wishing that he could fix things by simply saying the right thing, but the yawning gulf of separateness was unfordable and unyielding as the stiffness of her small back. ‘Yes, I did say those words.’



‘Rowf, I want you to promise me something anyway.’



They couldn’t hear, but they could both feel Theuli’s grief, where she lay on her bed down the hall. There was something fatal about the Elf woman’s loss of composure that had shaken Malina deeply.



‘Promise me you’re not going to die, Rowf.’



The shock of hearing those words from her left him momentarily speechless. Feeling as though he were physically foundering, like an inexpert swimmer dragged out to sea by the tide, he said the only words that came to mind. ‘Malina . . . you know I can’t promise you something like that.’ There was a strained silence between them as he tried to think of something further to say, but the words eluded his grasp. He wanted to say something like, ‘All I can do is try to stay alive, and hope that one day I’ll be able to come back to you.’ But it wasn’t enough. And it wasn’t what she needed to hear.



Abruptly, she got to her feet, not looking at him, one hand to her face, and fled down the hall. He heard their bedroom door slam, then silence. He had caught a fleeting glimpse of her anguished profile as she fled, and the image of her in such pain drove everything else from his mind. Rising numbly to his feet, because he needed to be doing something, he went back to the kitchen and resumed packing the provisions he would need when he left in the morning to join Birin’s small army.



In the morning, he and the other soldiers were going on a journey to the entrance of the Elf Kingdom, in an attempt to secure the narrow pass there, to hold it against any possible invasion by the King’s armies, and to allow the Thane and their friends a means to escape when they returned.



If they returned . . .



He decided to sleep on the couch, assuming that Malina had cried herself to sleep; regardless, he had caused her enough pain, and didn’t want to disturb her.



He was just making himself comfortable for a sleepless night when he heard her at the entranceway. To her look of hurt disbelief at seeing what he was doing, he said, ‘I thought you were asleep.’



‘So you didn’t want to be with me?’



‘Malina!’



He got up, went to her, picked her up and carried her to bed. They got undressed, made love with desperate abandon, and afterward lay entwined in each other’s arms, as though afraid that this night would be their very last together.



Eventually, he said quietly, ‘All right. I promise. Even if the world ends, or all the armies of the enemy stand between us, or if every single last good thing on Heaven and Earth comes to an end, I’ll come back to you.’



Even in the dark, he knew she smiled.



‘That’s a big promise, Rowf.’

***

When Ralph left early the next morning, the sight of their dwindling household, Malina, Rani and Zuic, Theuli alone in the room she had shared with her husband, brought with it a cold feeling of foreboding that he choked down as best he could. He tried his best to appear confident, to share his strength with the others, but couldn’t shake the feeling that he was leaving them alone, undefended, that his words were so much bravado and empty promises.



However, he well knew the consequences if the border of the Elf Kingdom was left undefended, and he didn’t waver in his sense of purpose. He could only hope, could only pray, that the enemy hadn’t found some secret way out of the Kingdom, by which they could attack the now unprotected Wel’adai.



Malina knew this as well, but put a brave face on it, and hid her grief until Ralph left her to join the other soldiers gathering on the outskirts Wel’adai. She would have broken down and cried her heart out then, but the sight of Zuic and Rani’s anxious faces made her dig down deep for resources she hadn’t known were there.



And somehow, some way, she managed to be strong.

***

Later that morning, Theuli finally left her room. The look she gave Malina, as the Pixie had just made the children’s breakfast, and now sat with them at the kitchen table, was both grateful and chastened. Malina pretended not to notice, and smiled to put her at ease.



‘Breakfast is still warm. I hope you’re not going to waste my inedible cooking.’



Theuli said nothing, but joined them quietly. Rani and Zuic tried not to watch her, but in their occasional glances there was a wide-eyed worry which Malina had never seen in them before. Instinctively, she decided to try to avoid having Theuli burdened with this as well, until the Elf woman had come to grips with her grief, if grief it was.



‘Come,’ Malina said to the two children, ‘let’s eat, and then get some things done. We have a lot to do today.’



They responded to the resolve in her voice, finished quickly, and set about doing their chores, leaving the two women were alone together.



‘I’m going to make some tea. Would you like some?’ said Malina, rising and moving to the stove.



Theuli shook her head in wonder at the Pixie, and said, ‘Yes, I would. And I would very much like to talk about . . . some things.’



Malina tried not to show her surprise as she filled the kettle from the ceramic water tank, and placed it on the stove. Sitting down again, she said, trying not to appear uncomfortable with this sudden change in their relationship, ‘What sort of things?’



‘I have given this a great deal of thought,’ said Theuli, not meeting her eye, noticeably skirting around the subject. ‘It’s something we have to plan on . . . something we may have to do.’



The Elf woman’s features were pale, Malina noticed. Pale with fear. With dread. But Malina bit down on her own responding anxiety, and said levelly, ‘Go on.’



Theuli raised her eyes, and the look she gave Malina now was more direct than it had ever been before.



‘Our men are gone. They may not come back. I will not stay here, undefended, and wait for the enemy to come and murder the children. That will not happen while I have breath in my body.’



Malina digested this in shocked silence for a long moment.



‘This is what you and Pran disagreed upon?’



‘Partly,’ Theuli answered, ‘though not entirely.’



The kettle began to sputter. Malina took this opportunity to stop talking for a moment and think. She made up a tea ball, placed it in the teapot, took the screaming kettle off the stove and poured the hot water into the pot, took her time as she got the cups and cream and honey, and arranged them on the table. Then, she seated herself in a way that told Theuli that she was ready to hear more.



Again, Theuli had to watch her in wonder. How so unlike the Malina she knew.



And yet . . .



‘When we first arrived here, I had hoped that our lives would become simpler; that the Evil at work in the Elf Kingdom would leave us be, so that we could get on with our lives. I decided . . . I wanted very badly to have another child. I wanted for my husband to be home. For an end to . . . raising the children alone.’



Malina, who was pouring the tea, stopped momentarily, trying to read through what Theuli was telling her. To her mind, despite what Theuli was saying, came unbidden the words, “For an end to being alone.” She resumed what she was doing, and the Elf woman continued.



‘Pran believes that we will be safe here. But I . . .’



Malina could only stare, somehow knowing what the Elf woman was about to say.



‘I do not share this belief. And it is a risk I will not take.’



They were both silent a long moment, the tea forgotten. Malina found herself searching her own feelings, grasping at intangibles that were, for her, becoming increasingly clear. Finally, she said, ‘What are you suggesting?’



‘That we prepare to leave Wel’adai. Not at the least sign of danger, when it will be too late, but now. That we find a way, perhaps with the Outcasts and Faerie Folk who remain, to leave in search of the Earth Mother.



‘The others . . . they do not seem to fully realize that She is our only hope . . . that only She can heal the wounds caused by the Elf Lore, that only She is powerful enough to overthrow the Elven King and the works of His Loremasters.’



‘But . . . shouldn’t this have been discussed- ?’



‘My husband wouldn’t hear of it,’ Theuli told her. ‘The menfolk, they see only their own strength of arms and resourcefulness and determination as being the answer to our plight, and it was this matter which was the cause of such sore disagreement between us.’



Malina was baffled by this. ‘But why? Why wouldn’t he and the others listen?’



Theuli’s mien was a mixture of angry affection and helpless frustration as she replied, ‘Pran, my husband, is just like the others in this; he is proud, and stubborn, and thinks that by taking such risk upon himself that he is somehow shielding us from danger. And because he loves us so much that he blinds himself to his own limitations, inadvertently placing all of us in greater danger. As well, he is blinded by his feelings of responsibility for us, and consequently thinks that it is he, not the Earth Mother, who must strive to protect us.’



At this portrayal of Pran, Malina had to smile. ‘When you say it like that, he sounds like my Rowf in many ways.’



Theuli, too, had to smile. ‘In some ways, perhaps. But your Ralph would no doubt listen to you in this matter.’











Malina gave her a look. ‘I think not!’


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