THE WIZARD AND THE SYLPH

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Chapter Twenty-five

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The Waiting Game

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Dorain stood motionless in the small courtyard, sword upraised, eyes closed in concentration, her

breathing slow, controlled, regular. Like the bare trees sketched in bleak, wintry shapes above and sharply etched shadows below, her stationary figure stood clearly defined against the pale blue sky and upon the cracked and broken skin of iced that rheumed the flagged ground. The only movement, the only sign of life, was the tenuous vapour that escaped her nostrils and lips.

Abruptly, she burst into complex motion, thrusting, parrying, spinning, tumbling, parrying,

whirling, a blur-

And then, as abruptly, she stopped.

Observe the enemy', she thought. Find the weak spot. Attack. Regroup. And again'. In her mind's eye she created attackers, fixed their positions, indentified their weaknesses. Then, in a blur of activity, she enacted the scene, a lithe, lethal dancer of death-

She was distracted by eyes. An ugly, indescribeable knot twisted the pit of her belly as she

registered who it was.

"How long have you been watching me?" she asked Brogan diffidently, sheathing her sword.

"At the risk of sounding glib," he told her, "since our very first encounter."

Gathering her outer garments, which she had discarded before beginning her exercise, she donned them and watched Brogan askance as he approached her. "If you have come to converse," she said tersely, "this is not a good time. We must prepare ourselves while we can."

"Prepare ourselves?" he said, now facing her. It sounded more like an accusation than a question.

"To make our final stand? I see no other preparation taking place here, save for the manner in

which we each will face death."

"We are warriors," Dorain reminded him. "We must do what we must. Our personal lives were

set aside the day we took up the sword."

"You do not really believe that," Brogan rejoined flatly. "Even soldiers have personal lives."

"I . . . that may be true of yourself, but it is not . . . it isn't true of me!" she stammered.

"Then why have you followed me all this long way?" Brogan said, studying her tense features, the manner in which she avoided his eye.

"I took this mission because-"

"What mission?" he provoked unkindly.

"Why . . . the . . ." Dorain stopped herself, suddenly aware how foolish her rationalisations would

sound, even to herself. "I did not follow you here!" she blurted, angry now.

Standing over her, his angry features dark and implacable, he demanded, "No? Well, if there is

another explanation, then tell me plainly what it is! What other cause finds you derelict in your

responsibilities to your own people? Are you here to enact some secret strategy of your superiors

that will give us some advantage in our dealings with the Enemy? Do you think me to be so

unobservant of your behaviour, or so obtuse?"

Dorain said nothing, but her hands were trembling, her face pale. "I am a warrior," she said, still

unable to look him in the eye. "I am not afraid of you."

Lifting her chin, forcing her to look into his eyes so that they could both look the truth squarely in the face, he said sternly, "You and I both know that it is not me you're afraid of."

Her features twisted with torment, she jerked away from him, choked back a sob, and cried,

"Leave me alone!" At that, she stood frozen for a long moment, angrily fighting for composure,

appalled at her own outburst. She found that her mouth was dry, her mind black with fear. It

seemed there was not enough air for her to breath. For a moment she was afraid that she would

lose her balance. A spasm shook her.

"Dorain!" Brogan took her by the shoulders to steady her. "This cannot go on!"

"I can't!" she cried dumbly, and fled. To her humilation, she found that her eyes were blinded with tears; she stumbled on the stairs in her rush to distance herself from him.

Brogan watched her go, his face an admixture of pain, self-accusation and pity. "I would let you

go," he breathed, "were it not that our seeking one another out demands resolution while time

remains to us. Such a resolution has no place on the battlefield."

-

Damond of Brand, Gart of Darkhun, and Prince Wilkin of Brand stood surveying the lines of deep trenches and raised earthworks to the north of Alin, that were being prepared for the coming of the Enemy. The north side of each earthwork bristled from top to bottom with sharpened poles that, when battle was enjoined, would be well-greased, initially to thwart the purchase of Enemy hands, and later, when the defenders were forced to fall back, to feed the fires that would consume them.

Each fifty-foot-wide trench was being lined with sharpened stakes, and for added measure was

being riddled by hand-auger with deep holes to thwart footing and slow the progress of the Enemy soldiers. Watching them work, they felt a surge of sympathy for the soldiers who alternated in pairs as they screwed the augers into the semi-frozen earth. To a man, their hands were bandaged to protect the raw skin of broken blisters.

This was the "kill-zone," the area that was to be saturated with a hail of arrows and other

projectiles, flung at the enemy from behind the fortifications that topped each successive

earthworks. Each fortification was afforded a clear, unobstructed view of each trench from above, while providing as much cover for the defenders as was possible.

And yet this was but the final defence that was planned for Alin. Long before then, Gart and

Damond were to lead forces to meet the Enemy head-on on the open plain, to halt the Enemy's

progress in order to afford those fighting in the north the opportunity to escape and join with them.

For his part, Prince Wilkin dreaded the thought of seeing the coming of the enemy hordes with no retreating defenders falling back before them. He did not share this thought with Damond or Gart, however, for fear of bringing bad luck upon their efforts.

In truth, those fighting in the north were able to retreat westward at need, but their numbers and

strength were sorely needed to help prevent, or at the least, hinder the Enemy from driving directly south through Alin. Such an occurrence would be disastrous, for Lund would then be cut off and surrounded, and the Enemy hordes would then be free to swarm into the heartland of Brand, before descending upon Darkhun and forcing the dwarf people into the mountains, where they would be trapped, and very probably slaughtered to the last woman and child.

-

Finally enjoying a respite from duty, Damond scratched his short red beard thoughtfully, and

wondered how long it had been since he had luxuriated in a hot bath. The water for the camp tubs

was grimy by the time most got to them, and drained of any real warmth.

He ran his gaze slowly from west to east, considering the bleak-looking, snow-dusted pastures and orchards with a sinking feeling. Crows and ravens raucously berated one another amongst the

black-barked, barren apple trees, ominous black shapes seen through the mists that were variously still as death-watchers, or bobbing to caw or croak like rasps or peals of doom, or falling to the ground like changeable flakes of evil detritus, a disturbing echo of Demons in miniature.

They're only birds,' he told himself. It is not possible that they know what will happen here.

There are carrion-fowl here at all times of the year . . .

The superstitious thought disturbed him, . . . though I do not recall ever seeing them in such

numbers . . .'

"I hate this interminable waiting," he said aloud to Gart, who likewise was momentarily freed of

duty. "All this additional planning . . . and for what? The Enemy will come, we will receive

warning from our scouts, we will ride forth to meet the threat, we will hold the Enemy as long as

we may, and then we will fall back. What more needs to be considered?"

"Spoken like a good and simple warrior," Gart jibed with a laugh, stamping his booted feet to get

the chill out of them. "Go sleep somewhere until it begins! I'll send for you when I have need of

your sword."

"You may take my sword right now, if you wish," Damond rejoined. "Any further waiting, and I

will have forgotten how to use it."

"Wonderful!" said Gart. "I find such relics very useful for prying at boulders."

"Relic!" cried Damond. "It is only months since it came hot from the forge! That great axe of yours is a relic! It bears the mark of a smithy who has been dead since my grandsire's grandsire was a babe!"

"Go!" Gart waved him off with a laugh. "You have not the patience of a gnat. I will sit here and

watch, until winter has passed into spring if need be."

As he left, Damond's spirits fell. Until winter has passed into spring . . .

There will be no spring for us. All is becoming winter, and that is how we shall depart this place; images frozen in our hearts of a winter that will never pass. And that is how the bards will one day remember the Four Kingdoms. They will say, "My homeland is not a homeland; it is winter."'

-

At loose ends, Damond found himself wandering amongst the few stone buildings at the center of Alin, when he came upon Brogan sitting on a stone bench, whetting his broadsword absently.

Damond sat beside him, and was about to speak, when unexpectedly Brogan said, "What do you

suppose will happen when Lund falls?"

Damond considered his question a moment before answering. "Many things will happen, none of it good on our account, if that is the import of your question."

"I mean the obvious," Brogan told him. "Soon after, the enemy will strike out at the Four

Kingdoms. What will happen then?"

Damond frowned, considering. "We will be scattered like the four winds, and driven from our

lands, obviously."

"And then?"

"And then?" Damond shrugged. "I hadn't considered that far ahead," he said, untruthfully, not

wishing to affect Brogan with his own private misgiving. "We will be pursued, no doubt . . .

hunted . . . I suppose those who survive will become bands of outlaws, struggling for survival.

They may even depart these lands altother. I do not know."

"And what will happen to all our peoples?" Brogan paused in his sharpening to consider his

sword down its length.

"I'm not sure I understand your meaning," Damond told him. "That they will be displaced is

obvious. Beyond that . . ." he shrugged.

"The iron in our swords," Brogan said, turning to him at last and replacing his broadsword in its

sheath, which lay at his side on the bench. "The magic used to forge the greatest of them. The

splendour and history of the Four Kingdoms . . ."

"I would hope that we will begin anew, somewhere," replied Damond, now seeing the direction of his thoughts. "The iron of the Red Hills is not the only iron. The magic used to forge iron and steel is not the only magic.

"The splendour and history of the Four Kingdoms will be forgotten in time, I suppose. It ends here for us, but hopefully not for our descendants."

Brogan sighed, lay his sheathed sword across his lap, and considered the tooling that embodied the art and culture of the Four Kingdoms. "It will end here for me, in all respects," he said with quiet certainty. "My life is of the Four Kingdoms and nowhere else. The arrival of the Enemy will mark the end for me."

Damond fixed him with a look. "What of a certain elven Swordmain?"

Brogan raised an eyebrow at that. "She feels as I do, that our lives are of the Four Kingdoms, and

that, as such, our days are numbered. You see, for my part I cannot envision the world after the

Four Kingdoms have departed. I do not know why. It is as though my fate, my destiny, begins and ends here.

"I have considered such feelings at great length, you know, trying to divine their cause, their

purpose, their meaning. But despite my best efforts they defy understanding.

"At one time I considered that change for its own sake was the answer, and so it is that I became

an itinerant soldier. And yet, for myself, not only is life without my sense of the world unthinkable, but without my sense of the world there is no life! The Four Kingdoms and I are one and the same thing, to me! Without the Four Kingdoms, I am nothing, least of all to myself!

"Yet on the face of it this is wholly irrational. It is absurd. On the face of it, I could leave when the exodus begins. But the human heart, Damond . . . I have come to the conclusion that it is mad. It knows no practicality, nor does it care a whit about self-preservation. The heart cares only about its own SENSE of well-being, even if that means ignoring its PHYSICAL well-being."

"That sounds like a very old story I once heard," said Damond, "about an old miser who hid his

treasure in his attic. The weight of his treasure steadily grew, and the attic, he thought, was the one safe place he could hide it. One day, of course, the attic collapsed on the old miser."

"That exact analogy," said Brogan, "is the one I've often thought best explains my own life. For

example, any fool could see what was going to happen. Even the old miser must have known. But that knowledge changed nothing."

"But the moral to that story is that the miser's greed was his undoing," said Damond. "If he had

given away his wealth, he would have lived."

"I don't think the miser's greed was the point of the story at all," said Brogan. "In fact, I don't

believe the story has a point. I believe it is an observation of people's behaviour. Keep in mind, in

its oldest form, there is no mention in the story of a moral."

He paused for a moment, remembering. "There are many such old tales. We try to interperate them, solve them, explain them away, and find meaning in them. But I have always seen their value as observations, and I believe that IS their true value. What we think of them is irrelevant. One might as well try to solve love or fear, let alone greed. They aren't things to be solved. The moment emotion comes under too harsh a scrutiny, it ceases to be comprehensible.

"Then, you are saying," said Damond, "that these are the things that people do. Nothing more."

"Yes," said Brogan, "and in my case, doing battle with the Enemy unto death is my attic."

-

Shivering, yet oblivious to all but the chill in her heart, Dorain stood on her small, iron-railed

balcony, which was on the north side of the House of Wilkin. The balcony commanded a wide

view . . . but her whole entire world was crushed into a knot of constricted, raw emotion that made her breast feel as though it must burst. She was furious with herself for allowing this to happen! How could her own body, her own emotions, betray her so easily? And this despite years of mental and physical discipline?

She had never known loneliness until she met Brogan, but as the years had passed it became

increasingly difficult to be too long away from him. Now, finally, things had come to a head. She

had abandoned her post, without even a thought, to be with him.

She was in agony.

The merest thought of returning to her command in itself was unbearable. She bit her lip to stop its trembling, and angrily wiped at the tears that wouldn't stop spilling from her eyes. "Ah, Lily, if

you could see me now!" she ached. "Who am I to advise on matters of the heart when mine is so

torn? What am I to do? I am a warrior! An elven warrior! He is human! An outsider! How can this have happened? I cannot think! I cannot think! What am I to do?"

Looking to the north, it struck her fleetingly that the coming confrontation with the Enemy

represented something like hope. But then, she realised that it could be weeks before the enemy

came.

She felt the coming winter as though it were her own heart that ached for unattainable warmth.

There was no escape from it. She was trapped.

-

That evening, girded as though for battle, she went downstairs to have her evening meal with

Prince Wilkin, Damond, Gart and Brogan. Pale and withdrawn, she sat somewhat away from the

others, avoiding conversation, feeling empty and sick inside. Brogan, too, said nothing, but

watched her covertly, trying to mask his concern.

The others, made uncomfortable by her demeanor, spoke lightly amongst themselves of trivial

matters.

Dorain, over the course of the meal, ate little, but drank a quantity of wine as though trying to numb her heart against the inner chill and hurt that gripped it with cruel fingers.

The five of them ate and drank well into the night, until one by one, they rose and went to bed.

She was lost in thought, when distantly she felt herself being shaken.

"Dorain," Brogan said softly, "wake up. You are quite drunk. You must go to bed." She raised her head from her arms with difficulty, and almost fell over. Her head was spinning; she felt a sudden, overpowering urge to vomit.

"I'm going to be sick," she moaned.

"I'm not surprised," Brogan replied, uncertain whether to be amused or angry as he held an empty

serving bowl before her. "Here, into this . . . and don't look so ashamed! You're not the first to

unwittingly suffer the effects of too much wine. There, are you done? Yes? Then come; I will help you to your chambers."

-

She came to again as Brogan removed her sword and scabbard. She was in her room, sprawled in

a chair. She clutched Brogan's arm and laid her head on his shoulder. "Please . . . don't leave me

alone. Not tonight. I couldn't bear it."

"Dorain," he said, kneeling before her, "you are not yourself. Get yourself into bed and rest."

"Rest?" she choked, unable to prevent the maddening tears that wouldn't stop. "How can I rest? If I am drunk, it is because I cannot bear this further! Do not leave me! Not now! Don't make me beg you. Please."

Brogan was silent for so long, with his head bowed and his eyes closed, that she had almost fallen asleep, when she felt herself being gently lifted in his arms . . .

-

She awoke hours later. It was still dark outside. Her head was still on Brogan's shoulder, but she

was no longer sitting on the chair. Remembering where she was, she caressed the hair of his chest with her palm. His breathing was deep and regular. She sighed and snuggled closer. He stirred and kissed her forehead.

"Are you going to regret this now?" he said, his breath warm against her temple.

"My only regret," she replied, "is that we waited so long."

"Are you still drunk?" he chided.

She smiled privately to herself. "A little, I suppose. You'd better take advantage while it lasts."

"And what of tomorrow?" he said.

"Tomorrow?" she said, and sighed. "This IS tomorrow."

-

It was early in the morning. Brogan awoke with the fragrance of Dorain's hair in his nostrils. She

was still asleep, yet she clung to him fervently. He sighed and stroked her back, feeling wonder at

the emotions she brought out in him . . . a warm feeling of protectiveness mixed with a deep sense of foreboding.

I'm going to lose you.' The thought was as a sharp pain in his chest.

She awoke with a start, naked and disoriented . . . and gaped at him, and flushed crimson! For a

long moment she was speechless, and buried her head against his chest. A moment later came her

muffled moan. "Ah-h! It was not a dream, after all. What are we to do?"

"In truth?" he replied, considering. "I never thought about it coming to this."

They touched, tentatively, fear and wonder indistinguishable from one another. There lovemaking was as much a response to impending loss as it was to their need for each other. Afterward, she lay in his arms and wept.

"I'm so ashamed," she said. "I've never cried in front of anyone before; not since I was a child. I

don't understand why this is happening to me!"

He smiled ruefully at this. "I suppose this is love's undoing,' that is often spoken of."

"Love!" she growled, and clung to him with a newfound, unashamed feeling of possessiveness. "It is not what I imagined it to be. It is more alike to pain!"

For this he could think of no apt reply, but together, for a time at least, they drifted off into

untroubled sleep.

-

That afternoon, as Damond strolled through the walled garden within the House of Wilkin, he

passed a couple sitting upon a stone bench. And then, a moment after he had passed them,

something made him turn and regard the two of them.

"Brogan?" he said in undisguised astonishment. "Dorain?" He had never seen either of them in

civilian clothing before, and Dorain he never would have recognised. Her hair was untied, and she wore a peasant dress beneath her fur-lined cape. He had never before noticed that she was

beautiful.

But the change in them made their difference in attire seem trivial. Before, he had found them

incongruous together. Now, they clearly belonged to one another. And, for the first time since he

had known them, he saw that they were both happy. This realisation suddenly became very

poignant to him, because in the same breath it struck him as it never had before that, in a matter of weeks, their untroubled, carefree time together would be lost forever.

Damond felt a sudden, painful misgiving, for here was something very personal, private and

wonderful that was doomed. The east is my attic', Brogan had said. Damond understood the

metaphor before, but now the raw emotional impact of that statement struck home.

"I hardly recognised either of you," he managed to say past the grief that gripped his throat. "You

appear to me to be much changed."

Dorain smiled, sadly. "Our world is ending, Damond. There will soon be very little left to

recognize."

"Ah, my friends," Damond said, and felt that he would like to weep, "what will you do?"

Brogan's responding look of humane, rueful valour almost undid Damond then, as he replied, "We will show the unknown future our best courage as it unfolds; but it is the present we must live in, and for our part, we intend to live it well, while we may. The future, as far as I am concerned, can wait."