THE PRICE OF MAGIC


PART ONE: THE OUTCASTS


CHAPTER THREE


     By the time Dav and his family had been in Haven for a year, a rift had begun to develop between them and the community at-large. Not only did Dav persist in his isolationist lifestyle, scorning the hospitality of everyone except Jod, but his children established a friendship with the elf girl Lora, whose dubious background had led to her expulsion from the settlement.
     For his part, Dav no longer lived the existence of a hermit. Late the previous autumn, he had decided to emerge from the gloomy depths of his late sister's house. He still spent much time indoors, either at his house or that of his compatriot, because he preferred to limit his contact with the citizens of Haven. Dav had worked out a code with Jod and his children and if he didn't hear a specific pattern of knocking, he didn't answer the door.
     The winter in Haven was mild that year, even by the community's standards. Dav discovered that the elf Niam had been correct about one thing: fires for warmth were not needed here, although there had been several evenings when a crackling blaze would have been welcome.
     Dav continued to pay little attention to his children's development. He didn't keep track of their friends, and, with the exception of a warning to them after Lora's unexpected visit during Eya's sickness, hadn't interfered with their choice of companions. He assumed they were intelligent enough to avoid elves. In that, he was wrong.
     With the onset of spring, Dav found the nature of his conversations with Jod changing. Previously, they had spent long hours re-hashing their dislike of elves and Haven, and the reasons for that antipathy. But, as the community came to life again with a huge first-of-the-year celebration, Dav and Jod started to discuss whether there were practical steps that could be taken to effect changes.
     They were engaged in one such session on an evening in late spring in Jod's house. Seated across a small wooden table, each with a mugful of Jod's brew, they returned to a recurring subject of speculation: why everyone in Haven was terrified of the night and the reason for the "no light" policy that was rigorously enforced.
     "I don't accept that it's the dwarves," stated Jod. "That's just not possible. Those animals know where we are. They've always known. If they were going to attack, they wouldn't need torches and lanterns to guide them here."
     "Can dwarves see in the dark?" asked Dav.
     Jod shrugged. "Depends who you believe. The elves say no, but I've heard people - reliable people -say they can see better in the dark than any other race."
     "Living in tunnels and caves, wouldn't they normally have little or no light to see by?"
     "Exactly my point. And if dwarves can see in the dark, that destroys the elves' argument for no light."
     "And it becomes hard to explain why they haven't wiped out this settlement before now," noted Dav. The enmity between dwarves and elves, and dwarves and humans, was well-known.
     "Apparently they did, a long time ago. There was a raid one night and everyone was killed in their sleep. But that was before they rebuilt Haven, and, more significantly, before the elves came."
     "You think there might be a connection?" asked Dav.
     "Don't you?" returned Jod. "Possibly some sort of arrangement between the elves and the dwarves - or at least one faction of the dwarves."
     "But they hate each other!"
     "And you think personal gain wouldn't take precedence over racial hatred? What about you? Would you deal with the elves if they could give you something you wanted?"
     "But what? What could either group have that the other would want?"
     Jod shrugged. "If I knew that, we'd be a lot closer to getting to the bottom of things. But consider this: look how regularly a hunting or berry-picking expedition gets slaughtered by dwarves. And are there ever any elves among the casualties? No. And they all happen in the middle of the day, when dwarves are supposed to be holed up their underground lairs sleeping."
     "So you're suggesting..." began Dav, then paused in confusion when he realized that he didn't have a clear idea what his friend was getting at.
     "I'm suggesting that maybe the arrangement with the dwarves has something to do with giving them humans. Human flesh is considered a delicacy. So maybe the elves are breeding us like animals to turn over to their dwarf friends every once-in-a-while in return for this settlement being left unmolested."
     Dav was shocked by the monstrosity of Jod's idea. But, the more he considered it, the more reasonable it seemed. During his limited time in Haven, he had come to realize that despite the preponderance of humans, all power lay in the hands of the elf elders. And it was clear that the "superior" creatures valued human life no more highly than that of the rats which frequently scuttled through the streets.
     "That's horrifying," breathed Dav.
     Jod nodded. His manner was becoming more animated as he continued to expound on his theory. "And look how isolated this place is. No one comes here or leaves. We're self-sufficient. We never trade with the outside world..."
     "Perhaps that's because the outside world won't come here. The Green Mountains - even the foothills - don't have a good reputation in the cities. You know that."
     Jod waved away the objection as if it was inconsequential. "People don't come because they don't know about us. The elves have kept the settlement a secret. The only reason you came was because your sister lived here. Do you know when the last time a peddler or merchant passed through? Or a mercenary looking for a hire?" He paused, although not long enough to let Dav make a guess. "Never. It's not the danger that keeps them away - people will do almost anything for money. It's because only the people of Haven know of the existence of Haven.
     "So, here we are, a bunch of humans who smile and nod in the streets, knock on doors to make sure their neighbors are all right, and with the exception of old Yrr and us two, never have a belligerent thought. The elves run everything, control the city totally at night because they don't allow light, and never go on any of the expeditions when there are dwarf attacks. Too many coincidences to ignore, I think."
     "If you're right, what do we do about it?"
     "I don't know," admitted Jod. "After all, we're just two people. No one's going to believe us, even if it is the truth. People here listen to what the elves tell them to. It's as if they're incapable of thinking on their own."
     The truth of that statement struck Dav. The actions and responses of every human in Haven were predictable. They seemed incapable of doing anything spontaneous.
     "Have you ever seen a dwarf?" asked Dav, changing the focus of the conversation.
     "Not clearly. There was one time when I was three miles into the mountains and one scampered through an opening in some rocks, but I didn't stay around to watch. Those things are damned dangerous and they never travel alone."
     "What did it look like?"
     Jod paused, letting his mind drift back to the brief encounter. "I didn't get a good look, but he was short and stooped, and looked very dirty, like he'd been rolling around in the mud."
     "And they mostly come out of their lairs at night?"
     "They maraud at night," agreed Jod. "According to the elves, who we have no particular reason to believe, they fan out like a swarm after dark. That's supposedly why there are a dozen sentries posted each night - all of them elves, of course."
     "But they occasionally show themselves during the day," continued Dav.
     "Obviously. The expeditions were butchered between dawn and dusk and it was near noon when I had my near encounter."
     "Maybe we should find out a little more about them," suggested Dav.
     "And exactly how would you propose doing that? Going up and asking one questions?"
     "No. But maybe we could spy a few out. Learn their habits. Watch them."
     "Do you realize how dangerous that would be? Dwarves are only too anxious for a little human snack."
     "I'm not proposing we let them see us."
     "I'm glad to hear that. But these mountains have eyes. We're not just talking about a small band of shrunken, twisted monsters. We're talking about thousands of them, all holed up under our feet. While you're watching one group, another will sneak up behind you and spill your entrails."
     "We won't give them the chance," said Dav.
     Jod uttered a few choice curses. "You don't understand what you're dealing with!"
     "That's precisely why I want to get a look at them. To learn. If they're our enemies - or the elves' allies - don't you think it would be a good idea to find out everything we can about them?"
     "No. What you're proposing is suicide. Curiosity, as far as I'm concerned, isn't a good reason to put my life on the line. I can't believe you're suggesting it. I thought you were an intelligent, rational person."
     "So you'd prefer doing nothing?" demanded Dav.
     "I'd prefer to do something sane."
     "What?"
     Jod considered for a moment, but couldn't come up with an answer.
     "You've been here for years without succeeding in anything more than coming up with some theories. If we're ever going to change things here, we're going to have to start acting, and that means taking risks. The obvious first move is to find out what the elves are doing at night. If you're right, that could involve dwarves. And I don't want to run into one in the dark without having an idea of what to expect."
     Jod gave him a sour look, then grudgingly admitted, "I suppose you're right. If we're going to actually do something, we have to start somewhere. But I don't think you realize how dangerous this idea of yours is. Not many people that go deeper into the mountains come back, and probably no one who's ever gone dwarf-hunting. If they see us, we're dead. It's as simple as that. You don't escape dwarves in their territory."
     "But surely we have an advantage during the day," suggested Dav.
     "We never have an advantage with them. Maybe we won't have as much of a disadvantage while it's light out."
     "So you're with me, then?"
     Jod let out a long sigh. "Even though I know I'm going to regret this, I suppose so. But there are limits to how far from Haven I'm willing to travel."
     "How about to the place where you saw one that other time. There may be an entrance to the tunnels there."
     "It's as good a place as any, and it isn't too far south. But there's not a lot of cover there. We're going to have to be very careful."
     "All right. We can start off just after sunrise."
     "Tomorrow??" stammered Jod, sounding shocked. "That soon?"
     "Why wait?" countered Dav. "I've been here almost a year. I think that's long enough to do nothing."
     Jod couldn't argue with that point. "Tomorrow morning, then. Provided this weather holds." He paused, then added, "And while you're considering taking action, maybe you should concern yourself with your children's companions."
     "What do you mean by that?" demanded Dav.
     "They've been spending a lot of time with that outcast whore Lora. Everyone knows about it. They're starting to consider your children outcasts."
     "I don't give a damn what they consider my children."
     "But you should give a damn that your children are letting themselves be led by an elf. They're impressionable at that age and she's probably poisoning their minds. You'd better put a stop to it."
     "I've already warned them to keep away from her. They don't listen."
     "Then you'd better make your point stronger. Or," added Jod, "teach her a lesson. Make sure she stays away from them. I doubt this community is going to care about what happens to someone they've already branded an outcast. After all, she's not allowed to associate with anyone in Haven, has to hunt her own food, and is forced to live in that little wood-and-thatch hut down in the valley to the northeast. It's a wonder the dwarves haven't carved her up ."
     "You're right," muttered Dav. "If Reg and Eya won't listen to me, maybe I'll discuss matters with her."

* * *

     The next morning, before the twins left for their day's activities, Dav gave them a prolonged lecture about how he expected them not to associate with elves, and Lora in particular. Both Reg and Eya appeared to pay attention to his words, and nodded in the right places, but Dav had the feeling he wasn't getting through. That didn't surprise him. This wasn't the first time he had demanded that they stay away from the elves. They hadn't heeded him in the past; there was no reason to assume they would start today.
     Shortly after the twins' departure, Jod arrived, armed with a variety of knives and dirks. The short man seemed jumpy and his first words to Dav were, "I'm already regretting letting you talk me into this."
     "Relax," advised Dav, although he was nervous himself. "We'll need to keep our wits about us."
     "You're telling me," muttered Jod. "Want a knife?"
     Dav shook his head. "I've got my own. And I venture it's drawn a little more blood than yours."
     "Animal blood," noted Jod.
     "Do you consider dwarves to be something else?"
     Less than a half-hour later, the pair were leaving the southern boundary of Haven, passing beyond the one-story ramshackle dwelling of Yrr the wise woman and traveling along a barely defined path that led deeper into the Green Mountains. Dav was wary, but Jod's paranoia was palpable. He tensed at the slightest noise, from the caw of a bird to the rustle of a mouse through the knee high grass.
     The journey was not an easy one. In addition to the fatigue created by the men's constant state of alertness, the terrain became difficult to negotiate. There were no passes through the range and the only way to go deeper into it was to climb. Although Jod had ventured this far from Haven before, he was little better suited for the physical exertion than his younger companion.
     It was about two hours before noon when they reached the location where Jod had previously spotted a dwarf. Aside from the small tumble of rocks through which the dwarf had emerged, there was no place to hide. The ground, while sloping steeply upward, was uncluttered, with only a light covering of grass and virtually no scrub. There were no boulders or indentations in the ground that could provide concealment. Jod and Dav were in the open.
     "No cover," said Dav, agreeing with his companion's earlier assessment of the situation.
     "I don't want to stay here long. We're too exposed. And this is their country." So saying, Jod pointed to a patch of bare ground where numerous small, four-toed footprints could be distinguished.
     Dav muttered an oath and one hand went to the hilt of the dagger sheathed at his waist.
     Both men dropped into a crouch, doing their best to mimic stone outcroppings, but it was an attempt that would have deceived only the blind. They waited for over an hour, each second ticking by with maddening slowness as the sun crept toward its zenith.
     His muscles cramping, Dav shifted his position. Startled by the sudden movement, Jod dropped to his stomach and jerked a dagger from where it was held in place at his waist. Dav in turn reacted, sliding his weapon free of its sheath. When they realized that nothing was amiss, the two men spared each other annoyed looks, then returned their gazes to sweeping the horizon, scanning for a sign of movement which might presage danger. Always in the back of their minds was the realization that, despite their vigilance, it still could come upon them unawares.
     Although the air was cool for the time of year, the beating of the sun upon the two men, neither of whom was in the best physical condition, was causing them to perspire heavily. Dav's face and forearms were damp and Jod's light tunic was clinging to his torso. Large, blue bellied flies began to gather, buzzing around the companions as if sensing potential fodder.
     Finally, needing something to relieve the tension, Dav chose the easiest and most readily available outlet: conversation.
     "You weren't really born in Haven, were you?" he asked of Jod. It was a random guess, based on a few things he had learned about his friend over the nine months of their acquaintanceship, but the sudden tensing of Jod's muscles told him he had probed a sensitive area.
     "What makes you say that?" demanded Jod warily. His grip on the dagger was white-knuckled.
     "I've been here for nearly a year now, and during that time I've had plenty of chances to observe the people of Haven. You're not one of them. You're like me, and we could never pass for a native of this place. Besides, no one leaves here. Especially not a youth the age you claimed to have been. And, even if you had left, there's no way you would have come back. Not after living out there, in a big city like Vorti. So what's the real story?"
     "You're shrewder than I gave you credit for," admitted Jod. His voice was neutral and Dav couldn't tell whether that was a bad sign. "But it really doesn't matter, and you're only half-right anyway. I may not have..." He stopped in mid-sentence and motioned in the direction of the grouping of rocks. Something was moving there.
     They emerged slowly from some hidden opening - twisted, gnome-like creatures who stood no taller than Dav's waist. They were naked, clothed only in filth. Their bodies were hairy, with copious amounts on the head and face. They moved nimbly and each carried what appeared to be a small, saw-toothed axe. At least a dozen had appeared and more were following when Dav and Jod fled.
     The humans ran as far and as fast as they could, heedless of the carelessness of their flight and never looking back. They didn't pause until weariness had so worn them down that even the rush of adrenaline could no longer keep them going. Nearly halfway between Haven and their observation spot, they collapsed in a small clearing, amidst daisies and dandelions, to regain their breath.
     It was a long time before either of them spoke. That they were still alive indicated they had not been noticed.
     "So," began Jod, rising to a sitting position. "You got what you wanted. A glimpse of the enemy. Was it worth it?"
     "Yes," said Dav, surprising Jod with the conviction in his voice. "They look vicious, all right, but in an even fight out in the open, I don't think they'd stand a chance. Their tactics must be to attack by stealth, then overwhelm by sheer numbers. And the light does bother them. I saw them squinting and shielding their eyes from the sun."
     "So how does that help us?"
     "We've seen the face of the enemy," said Dav. "We know what they're like, and it's not the mythical terror we've been led to believe. They're not some sort of superior warrior race. They're a bunch of filthy animals. Easily killed, given the right circumstances."
     "Wonderful logic!" spat Jod. "But how does that help us?"
     "It may give us the solution to all our problems."
     "You have a plan?" asked Jod.
     "An idea," acknowledged Dav. "No more than that. But it may be workable. The most ready of enemies are often the uneasiest of allies."
     "The elves and the dwarves?"
     Dav nodded, then repeated, "The elves and the dwarves. And a few select killings in the night."
* * *

     When Dav arrived home two hours before sunset, his children were nowhere to be found. He asked a few of his neighbors if they had seen them - an action that garnered a number of surprised looks since he rarely opened a conversation with anyone except Jod - but no one had, at least not since early morning. One elderly man hinted that he hoped the twins hadn't "fallen in with bad company", and that was enough to convince Dav that Reg and Eya had again gone to see Lora.
     It was hopeless trying to prevent his children from continuing the clandestine meetings. Lora had bewitched them to the point where they were beyond his ability to control. But there was another way - the course Jod had suggested the previous day. If Dav couldn't sever the connection from his offsprings' side, he might be able to break it from Lora's.
     Dav had never been to the valley where Lora's hut was said to be, but he didn't think it would be hard to find. It had to be just outside the settlement, otherwise the dwarves would have dealt with her already. In fact, regardless of how close it was, Dav understood why Jod found it so surprising that she had survived for as long as she had on her own. Rumor claimed that she had been cast out of Haven nearly five years ago.
     A ten-minute walk brought him to the edge of what was more of a dip in the ground than a valley. The profusion of wildflowers and grass, not to mention a healthy, well cultivated garden, argued for the fertility of the soil. The air was alive with bees and the sweet scent of lilacs, and Dav was momentarily distracted by the peacefulness of this place. On its natural merits alone, he could understand why his children enjoyed spending so much time here. If it hadn't been for Lora, he wouldn't have begrudged them their visits. But consorting with an elf, no matter what the fringe benefits, could not be permitted.
     Lora's hut was just that - a poorly constructed wooden building with a spotty thatched roof that probably leaked every time it rained. There were no windows and the door was rotting on its hinges. It was a pathetic structure that wouldn't be able to stand up to a strong gust of wind. Dav didn't find it difficult to accept that Lora had constructed it, although he wondered where she had obtained the timber. The nearest sizeable trees were about a mile north.
     Dav descended the path that led from the northeastern part of Haven to the hut. As he drew closer, he detected the bell-like laughter of Eya, the more subdued chuckles of Reg, and a mellifluous voice that Dav remembered as belonging to Lora.
     The three were behind the hut, sitting huddled together on crudely constructed wooden benches. Dav didn't hazard a guess at what they were up to, but the obviousness of their companionableness angered him. He stood there for several moments, watching them, before his daughter noticed his presence. The laughter stopped as all three became aware of his glare.
     "Get home, both of you," Dav demanded, his tone allowing no refusal.
     Reg and Eya bolted like frightened hares, running back along the path by which their father had arrived. When they were out of earshot, Dav turned his attention to the elf.
     She was regarding him innocently, with an open, placid expression. Her lips were not curled into the self-satisfied smirk that seemed to mask the features of every elf in Haven. Her eyes were obsidian and Dav found himself mesmerized. The desire she had stirred in him on their previous meeting asserted itself.
     "I want you to leave my children alone," he demanded.
     Lora rose to her feet, shaking her head to toss her long hair back over one shoulder. She approached Dav timidly until she was only a handspan away from him.
     "Why would you wish to separate friends?" she inquired. "We are friends."
     Dav could smell her fragrance, reminiscent of the flowers that populated her valley, but somehow more heady. More primal. His eyes raked her body and he wondered what she would look like with her robe removed. A child, yet not a child. Suddenly, he was furious at the way his body was reacting.
     "They are my children and I don't want them associating with you!" he raged. Either the words or the force with which they were spoken startled Lora, because she began to back away from him, her expression becoming uncertain.
     His hands balled into fists, Dav advanced on her. "You're an outcast of your own race! I don't want Reg and Eya spending time with normal elves, and certainly not with you! If I ever see you with them again, I'll kill you! I'll cut out your heart and leave your body for the dwarves!"
     Lora was frightened and Dav discovered that he enjoyed her terror.
     "You disgust me!" he continued, reaching out, grabbing her by both shoulders, and shaking her. Her fear was a more potent intoxicant than Jod's brew.
     "Please," she whispered, tears in her words as well as her eyes. "Please do not hurt me."
     "On your knees!" roared Dav.
     When she hesitated, he used his to force her down. Then suddenly, he was on top of her, pinning her on her back with one arm while the other tore away the single garment from her body. Her initial resistance was overcome by a stinging blow to the face, and when Dav forced her lips to his for a kiss, and tasted her blood, he lost what little reason was left to him.
* * *

     Fifteen minutes later, Dav was on the path leading toward Haven, doubled over, vomiting into one of Lora's vegetable beds. Tears stung his eyes as he threw up again and again. Even after he had voided the contents of his stomach, the dry heaves continued. When it finally ended, he straightened up, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and began to stumble off home.
     He had left a weeping Lora lying on the ground behind her hut, tears and blood streaking her face and her body a mass of bruises. Gentleness had never been his intention, but things had gone far beyond what he had planned. He wasn't sure if he felt so unclean because he had violated her, or because he had allowed himself to couple with a creature of her race.
     She had never screamed, but she had wept - soft, helpless sobs that haunted Dav's memory. And after it was all over, there had been no anger on her part. She had simply lain there on the ground, unmoving, watching him with those big eyes of hers, the tears still slipping down her cheeks. She had been a virgin, and he had taken that from her - that, and much more - giving only pain in return.
     He told himself that it was restitution for the way she had perverted his children's thinking, but that was a rationalization he couldn't accept. Simply put, he had allowed his lust and rage - an unhealthy combination - to master him.
     He supposed he would get over it, but what about her? By forcing himself upon her, Dav knew he had violated more than just Lora's body. He had also broken her spirit. And how would the elf community of Haven react, once word got out that one of their own had been assaulted? Dav couldn't accept that her label as an outcast would prevent them from taking action. They were all of one race. Vengeance was demanded. Jod had said not to worry, but he was worried - very worried. Not to mention sick in soul and body.
     He stooped by the side of the path and again began to retch.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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