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Chap. 30

The Lore In Limbo


Mraan waited impatiently for his father to waken. He himself had slept badly, so great was his fear that their discovery by the enemy was imminent. He had finally given up on sleep an hour or so earlier, when his fear became compounded by the sense that something, perhaps everything, was wrong.



The previous afternoon, Haloch had tried to assure his son that the enemy was not so very near; that the trees were not, in fact, dying, but that it was natural for their leaves to turn brown and fall off; for the grass to turn yellow, for the birds to depart in flocks, and for the world in general to change.



Regardless, to Mraan’s eyes, the world itself looked as though it was mortally stricken by some blight, and would never appear green and hale again.



The small shed, though it had sheltered them from last night’s storm, seemed an ominously conspicuous place for them to stay, as it was the only standing structure for miles around, and would undoubtedly provoke inspection were the enemy to come across it. Indeed, it felt as though safety itself were a thing of the past, that the world around them had become unstable, untrustworthy, uncaring, unreadable, and treacherous.



Last night, Haloch had made a strange remark concerning just that observation. The world was not a safer place before. It only seemed safe to us because we had imposed our will upon it, to the woe of our fellow Faerie creatures.



Mraan found himself unwilling to accept his father’s words. Of course the world had been a safer place! Why else were they now running for their lives? Besides, he had never laid eyes upon a single Faerie creature, except in the illustrations of old books he’d read as a small child. To him they were mere abstractions, that the measure of truth of them was so many words, and nothing more.



No, his world had been safe; perhaps even a little sheltered, were he to be honest with himself.



But no longer.



Mraan found to his surprise that he wanted their journey to resume soon. Their destination, the only one he could imagine, would be some place just like the one he and his father had known all their lives; somewhere safe and predictable. He felt keenly that the malignant powers which now ravaged the Elf Kingdom were somehow directed at himself personally, much in the same manner that a woodsman might feel towards a forest fire as he ran back and forth to a nearby stream for yet another meagre bucket of water, tossing it in desperation on the roof of his house which is beginning to catch fire . . .

***

After a time, the wind began to moan and hiss through the trees, carrying with it the sound of rain, and his spirits sank. Within moments he began to hear the patter of drops on the shed roof, and on the dry leaves on the ground; it seemed a very mournful sound, he thought.



At last, Haloch stirred. Clearing his throat and blinking, the older Elf sat up, brushed straw from his blankets and clothing, and observed his son staring outside through the door.



‘Is it the real world not to your liking?’ he asked, sardonically.



‘I hate it,’ Mraan replied automatically. ‘Nothing about it makes any sense.’



Haloch smiled humourlessly. ‘Oh, it makes sense. Just not to our way of thinking.’



‘If not ours, then whose?’ Mraan asked irritably.



‘Not whose,’ his father replied, getting stiffly to his feet. ‘Its own. Nature’s.’



Mraan was not accustomed to thinking in terms beyond that of the world of Elves, and his father’s words made him feel diminished. In the past few days, he had grown accustomed to the mistaken perception that the world was no longer theirs. Until now, it had never occurred to him that the world had never been theirs. It was an uncomfortable feeling, suddenly seeing oneself as a usurper that had been put out of what he had only assumed to be his own home. This feeling was doubly ugly, in that it forced him to look anew at his own people with a baleful eye, and he was left to wonder at the incredible selfishness and stupidity of a people that had created circumstances that unwitting people like himself would have to bear the cost of.



They ate a cold breakfast from their packs, standing together, watching the weather in silence. At last, stumbling upon some unknown and hidden stores of inner resolve, Mraan following the example set by his father and shouldered his pack as they set out once more.

***

The weather was getting colder, and there were bits of ice in the rain which fell. As they shouldered their way through stands of tall, mist shrouded brambles that caught at their clothes and whipped their faces, Mraan forgot his discomfort to watch the tiny balls of ice bounce as they hit the ground. He had never seen such a thing before.



After a few hours of this, the rain turned to wet snow. Mraan knew that he should be miserable, with his clammy feet and damp clothes, but the wonder of seeing the weather doing strange new things, seeing his breath in the air, and watching the landscape change before his eyes, deeply touched his sense of wonder, of discovery.



‘What do you call this?’ he asked his father, who smiled, noticing the change in his son’s demeanour.



‘Snow,’ Haloch replied. ‘This is what the wide world outside the Elf Kingdom is like right now. It must be winter.’



Mraan had heard of winter, in stories he thought of as very old. But this didn’t feel or seem as harsh or bleak as the old stories told. He smiled, feeling a resurgence of his flagging confidence. The old stories always spoke of endless gnawing hunger, of haunting loneliness and bleak despair, of close and intimate death and constant looming danger. Usually there were . . . he paused to listen.



‘Father?-’



‘Sh-h! Listen!’ Haloch hissed.



Hearing the mournful, chilling sound himself now, Mraan thought mordantly, usually there were wolves at the door . . .

***

Pran stopped to survey the surrounding landscape. He, Deborah, and Éha, were travelling on foot, leading the horses. They were in a high mountainous region of steep hills, complex interconnected valleys, myriad creeks pouring cold and swiftly down watercourses lined with smooth rounded boulders, and covered overall with a dense forest of great fir trees.



They had reached this region by travelling first east, back through the entrance to the Elf Kingdom, then turning sharply left which took them due north. Their trail then gradually curved slightly westwards once more as they followed the foothills at the end of the mountain range.



Looking to Deborah for some sign, Pran asked her, ‘Is it there anything here that you can recognize?’



She was uncomfortably aware that the enemy was very near now. They had seen nothing as yet, but a constant thrill of tension permeated the air; her senses were almost too alive to its presence, and at times she had visions of herself snapping suddenly and cowering and hiding, or else running and screaming. She tried to choke down her own fear by realising that the safety of all three of them depended on her ability to evade this danger. Éha had offered to fly high above and scout out the terrain, but Pran had discouraged this, thinking her Pixie light might give away their presence, if not their location.



‘I think so,’ Deborah replied. ‘That sort of round hill over there on the horizon . . . it was to their right, and they were heading southwest. So that means . . .’



Pran almost groaned aloud at the sight of the rounded hill. ‘In all the wide lands, that is the last place to which they should have fled! Let us make haste. They are less than a day’s journey distant.’



Hesitating, Deborah said, ‘Why shouldn’t they have gone there? Is it dangerous?’



‘Not for us,’ Pran replied, cryptically. ‘And not for them. But perhaps for those that dwell there.’



Deborah was unsatisfied with his reply, but momentarily distracted, she stopped to consider Éha a moment. The dark-haired Pixie was hugging herself and considering the darkening skies. ‘What is it?’ Deborah asked her.



‘No more Elf Weather,’ she replied in an unreadable voice. ‘But still . . . something about it is not natural.’



Pran, too, stopped to consider Éha’s observation. What he sensed only seemed to increase his sense of urgency, and he urged them on at a quicker pace.



As they mounted their horses, Deborah once again found herself a bit awestruck by the fact that Éha wore only her light Pixie-dress, if it could be called a dress at all. The first time Deborah had seen the girl walking barefoot in the snow, she had shuddered at the sight.



Deborah herself wore a heavy fur-lined cloak with hood, warm fur-lined boots, and fur-lined breeches; yet as she helped the dark-haired Pixie up onto the saddle before her, she could feel the incongruous warmth of the girl’s skin.



Pran, too, wore only his usual travelling clothes, covered only by a light cape and hood to keep himself dry.



‘I should have been born a Pixie,’ Deborah muttered to herself, though she was far from cold. ‘Or an Elf.’



‘Pixie!’ pronounced Éha indignantly, causing Deborah to smile, and Pran to chuckle quietly.

***

Mraan didn’t see the sense in running from wolves, and said so. He suggested that they climb a tree and stay there, but Haloch shook his head, urged him on, and to silence.



Coming suddenly to the top of a steep slope, and out of the forest, they began making their way downhill. The leafless trees were sparse here, and afforded them little or no cover, growing only in small clumps or individually. The snow had stopped, and the air was shrouded by streamers of mist like low cloud. At the bottom of the hill, the forest closed in once again. In the distance, atop a rise, a single hill stood out to their immediate right. It was perfectly round, and densely covered with evergreens, marking the end of the deciduous forest. They sensed something watchful about it, but also that it lacked the threat of whatever was following them.



As they ran downhill at the best pace the old Elf could manage, Haloch muttered beneath his breath. ‘That sound you hear is Trolls! Howling to each other because they are hunting something, curse them! Would that this Book wasn’t so much dead weight! I would teach them a thing or two, instead of sneaking around in the trees like a common thief. Where in the Kingdom is there a Loremaster when you need one?’



They froze suddenly, almost stumbling over each other as they caught sight of a small, dark shape passing through the mist from tree to tree, lower down the hill, and directly across their path. They could hear heavy footfalls behind them now. The howls were replaced by loud whispers, which sounded very much like the dreadful soughing of wind in a cave.



The small, dark shape detached itself from the tree it was hiding behind, and moved purposefully towards them in a crouch. The two Elves stood ready to fight or flee, but something in the shape’s slight size and demeanour caused them to watch its approach instead. When it was thirty feet or so from them, they saw clearly that it was no troll. But what Haloch saw gave him no reassurance.



‘If you mean to betray our presence to the trolls,’ he said, ‘then you’d do better to stay well away from my wrath.’



‘Silence, fool!’ the figure hissed. ‘Stupid! Thoughtless, with so many Trolls and other bad things about! Come! There is sanctuary, not far from here.’



‘And why would we trust you, an Imp,’ said Haloch darkly.



‘Because, Elf with no brain, if Trolls find us here, all three of us will be Troll-food! Come, now, or I leave you here.’



Haloch needed only a moment to listen to the approaching whispers, when he nodded. ‘Lead on. But if you think to betray us, I carry with me an object of great power.’



‘Hah!’ scoffed the Imp, leading them away towards the round hill. ‘Great Power! Send the Trolls away, then!’ She urged them to cover behind some bracken, and they saw the dark lumbering shapes of several giant Trolls, wavering from side to side, walking almost on all fours, making their way down the hill to their left, and off into the mist. The moment the sounds of their movement receded into the distance, the Imp urged them on again. ‘Great Power is the cause of all this. Mighty Elves! Stop the Seasons! Try to slay the Earth Mother! Pah! Keep your Great Power! One does not need it to live as one should.’



Mraan was listening to little of this. Instead, he was transfixed by the strange being who quite clearly was leading them away from danger.



‘Are you indeed an Imp?’



The creature glanced at him in surprise. ‘You have not seen before?’



Mraan shook his head. ‘Never, in all my life. What’s your name? I am Mraan.’



To Haloch’s complete surprise, the Imp answered. ‘My name is Iniiq.’ To satisfy the question in Haloch’s mien, she added, ‘Iniiq has known Elves before. Some showed her mercy where she had expected none. After others had murdered many Faerie kindred, and drove the Earth Mother into exile.’



‘What is the Earth Mother?’ Mraan asked in all innocence.



It was the Imp’s turn to stare in surprise. ‘She is what gives all of us life,’ Iniiq replied brusquely.



‘You mean like . . . like Nature . . . like the Seasons . . . ?’

‘No! Is it much more than that. This, what you see around you? This is not the Earth Mother returning, bringing Winter to the land, as many Faerie folk mistakenly thought at first. This is the beginning of something very evil.’ She turned to scrutinize Mraan and Haloch, narrowly. ‘This be done by bad Elves, and by your mighty Elf Lore.’



Mraan looked a question at his father, who clutched the book, appearing at once both grieved and guilty, unable to meet his son’s eyes.



They came presently to a deep stream which divided itself and circled the foot of the round hill like a moat, and which had vine maples growing thickly along both banks. Iniiq said quietly, ‘Wait,’ and walked down the near bank to the water’s edge. From out of her leafy raiment she produced a stone the size of a man’s fist, which was opaque, and coloured with hints of purple, blue, and amber swirls within. Kneeling before the water, she held the stone before her bowed head as if in a gesture of reverence, quietly muttering words of power in her strange tongue. In response, the stone began to glow with an eerie, warm light, and with a hiss, large, flat rocks began to appear through the water, impeding its flow without blocking it. Within moments, there was a way across the deep stream, which was much swifter than it had first appeared.



‘Come,’ she said abruptly, ‘this passage will last only a matter of moments.’



Even as they crossed, they could feel the stones begin to settle once again beneath their feet. By the time they gained the far shore, the stones behind them had already sunk beneath the water.



Mraan raised his head in wonder, studying the huge evergreens which towered over them like monoliths. Haloch, too, was struck by the same sense of awe.



‘This place is Sanctuary,’ said Iniiq, putting a word to the feeling.



Mraan cocked his head, as if listening to the great trees. ‘Strange . . . it almost reminds me of the Library . . .’



‘This is how the Library once felt,’ said his father, ‘before the light of day was sealed out, and our culture turned inward upon itself. Small wonder that our Faerie kindred now often call we Elves morta visini.’



Mraan frowned. ‘That makes no sense to me. Why would they say that we see death?’



Before Haloch could correct him, Iniiq, speaking quietly but no longer whispering, said, ‘Not see death.’ She gestured at her own face with two fingers. ‘Dead eyes. Like Elf statue.’ She turned and began to lead them on a trail which wound its way uphill. ‘Elves used to leave the world free, and in peace. Now, bend it to their will and enslave it; even stone. Live in cities of stone. Walk on paths of stone. Even make stone Elf. Stone is better when its soul is free.’



‘Wait!’ said Haloch, ‘Where are you taking us?’



Iniiq stopped and turned, angry now. ‘Do you not know this word, “Sanctuary?” It is a place of safety I take you. Is that not enough?’



‘But,’ persisted Haloch, unwilling to place his trust in the hands of an Imp, ‘how do we know that we can trust you?’



There were angry words on the tip of the Imp’s tongue, but she swallowed them harshly. Setting her jaw, she returned down the path, taking an object from her raiment, and handing it to the older Elf. ‘You may hold this as a token of trust. It was very precious to the Water Nymphs who once possessed it. They are gone now, those who owned it, to the last Elder and child.’



Haloch could only stare at the beautiful thing she placed in his hand. ‘An Ulssar Stone!’ Looking it over, he muttered, ‘I sense that it had been damaged. But-’ Then, comprehension set in, and he raised his eyes, staring long into those of the Imp. ‘I trust you,’ he said in a voice hoarse with grief, and handed her back the stone. ‘Someone must have paid with her life to heal this thing.’



The hand that accepted the stone from him trembled, and not out of fear. But she mastered the pain of her loss, a fact that did not go unnoticed by Haloch, and led them onward.

***

As they drew near to the hill from the southwest, Deborah’s eyes were drawn more and more often to the face of Pran. There were undercurrents of tension in his countenance, and foremost amongst them she thought she could detect a growing sense of dread. When they finally stopped once more, she had to ask him, had to know.



Before answering, he drew a deep breath. Éha had wandered a short distance away, and was out of earshot.



‘That hill,’ he said slowly, indicating the round hill with his eyes, ‘has long been a place of safety for Faerie folk dispossessed by the Elves. Certain of the Elves, myself for one, have long protected it, by force if necessary. There were a small number of Loremasters who worked in secret on our behalf, weaving spells about it that keep the unwelcome at bay by harmlessly clouding their minds, so that no one who was unwelcome could conceive a desire to go there. But perhaps things have changed, or the spells have become weakened or undone. A fear grows upon me for those who hide themselves in that place, thinking they are safe. It is also possible that they have given aid to whoever has fled with the Elf Lore. If that is so, then let us hope that they have not also unwittingly attracted the attention of the enemy.’


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