THE PRICE OF MAGIC


PART ONE: THE OUTCASTS


CHAPTER FOUR


     Following his rape of Lora, Dav returned to the life of virtual seclusion he had espoused during his early days in Haven. He no longer monitored the activity of his children, even though he suspected they continued to visit the elf. He also rarely saw Jod, not having the courage to face his friend after his coupling with a non-human.
     Late one evening in the early days of the autumn of 578, Reg and Eya arrived at their house just as the sun dipped below the horizon. All around Haven, people hurried for their homes. Dav had already lit several candles and was seated on his sleeping pallet, whittling away at a block of wood, as had become his custom. He didn't look up when his children deposited a sack of food atop the only table.
     "Father," began, approaching Dav, but not getting within striking range. She knew of her father's temper, and didn't want to risk getting hurt for the message she was about to deliver.
     "What is it?" muttered Dav, not raising his eyes to his daughter.
     "We - Reg and I, that is - were with Lora today. We've been seeing a lot of her lately," said Eya. She paused to see how her father would react, since this contradicted his wishes.
     "I suspected as much," replied Dav, seeming neither surprised nor angry.
     Bolstered by her father's mild reaction, Eya continued, "Lora says that because we spend so much time with her that we're outcasts too. The people in town don't talk to us any more and they've stopped giving us food. Everything this summer has been from Lora."
     "You should have expected that," snarled Dav.
     Eya tensed for a blow, but Dav continued to shave chips from the statuette that he was carving.
     "Lora wants you to meet her at her hut this evening," said Eya.
     At those words, Dav stopped whittling and lifted his head. "She wants me to go to her hut?? Now??"
     Frightened, Eya took a step back. Reg moved to her side and added, "That's what she said, Father. She also said you owed her that much and when you came you would understand why."
     "I damn well will not go down to that valley, especially not at this time of day!" roared Dav.
     "She said if you don't come tonight, she'll come here tomorrow morning. She didn't think you'd want that."
     Cursing, Dav rose to his feet, hurled the piece he was working on across the room, where it bounced off the wall and clattered to the floor, then snatched his cloak from beside his pallet and stormed from the house. On his way out, he snapped, "Lock the door and don't open it unless you know it's me!"
     After Dav had left, Reg obeyed his command. As the boy slid the bolt into place and turned the key in the lock, Eya said to him, "He's mad at her."
     "She's mad at him, too, Eya. It has something to do with what happened on the day he went there to bring us home."
     "I hope he doesn't hit her the way he hits us," she said. "I don't want Lora getting hurt. She always seems so sad."
     "I know," agreed Reg. "I hope so to."
     "Do you think we should tell Father that the elders want to see him?"
     "Lora said not to. It would just make things worse."
     "You think we should listen to her?"
     "She's our only friend. Of course we should listen to her."
     "If Father hurts her, I'll..." Eya paused, as if unsure of a threat that would adequately express her feelings in the matter. Finally, she concluded, "I'll run away."
     "And I'll go with you," added Reg, putting his arms around his sister's shoulders. Eya favored him with a smile.

* * *

     Hurting Lora was one of the options Dav was considering. But, even as he seethed at being summoned, he feared he knew the reason why, and it was one thing he dreaded above all others. There could be only one explanation for why she would feel it necessary to meet with a man who had violated her, and her choice of time for the meeting strengthened his suspicion. A night rendezvous assured maximum discretion, since no one would be looking for a human to leave the settlement at dusk. It was unheard of, and as such, the best cover Dav could hope for.
     She had to be pregnant, and, given her circumstances with respect to Haven, he was the only candidate for the father. She had been a virgin when he had taken her and it was unlikely that there had been anyone else. Someone named an outcast wouldn't have much opportunity to cultivate a lover from among the local residents, no matter how alluring she might be. Besides, the elves didn't consider their females sexually mature until they were double her age. Dav didn't need a trial to know he was guilty. Now he was about to receive his punishment.
     He was sickened by the notion of having sired a half-breed child. Yet, aside from killing Lora or forcing her to get rid of it, there was nothing he could do about the situation, and he was unwilling to take matters that far. He could neither end her life nor induce a miscarriage. Regardless of what he thought of her or her race, he had wronged her once and wasn't about to repeat the mistake. But he wanted nothing to do with the child.
     The crowds on the streets of Haven were thinning out as the final rays of light faded from the western sky. By the time Dav reached the path to the valley, stars were twinkling above. Fortunately, there was a first-quarter moon to light his way, or he might never have made his way safely to Lora's ramshackle hut.
     He knocked quietly, not wanting the sound of his fist on the rotting wood to be heard back in Haven. All noises sounded unnaturally loud in the darkness, as if the lack of light carried them to ears listening far away.
     "Come in," said Lora, opening the door to him. She had a single candle lit within.
     The inside of her hut was no more impressive than the outside. She had a pile of animal furs that was apparently her bedding, an old wooden crate she used as a table, and a small bucket of brownish water. Atop the table was an assortment of vegetables newly harvested from her garden.
     Lora looked older than Dav remembered her, although perhaps it was just the way the shadows painted her features. Her hair was as lustrous as ever and her body as lithe, but her eyes appeared more thoughtful. "Would you like something to eat?" she asked, indicating the spread of tomatoes, spinach, carrots, and lettuce.
     Dav shook his head, but kept his eyes fixed on her. Even after all that had happened, he still found her seductive. The forbidden fruit, which he had sampled.
     "It is the elf custom for a hostess to offer refreshment to any who enters her home. We will speak much of elf customs tonight, and perhaps of human ones, as well."
     "Indeed," muttered Dav.
     "I am sorry that Reg and Eya have been branded outcasts because of their association with me, although I dare say that had you taken a more active part in the day-to-day activities of the settlement, the reaction of the elders might have been different."
     "Had I taken a more active part in controlling who they saw, the problem would not exist."
     Lora nodded in acknowledgement. "At any rate, I have provided them with food in return for their help in the garden. It will be hard during the winter - barely enough crops survive to feed one person, but, if the frost stays away, we should be all right."
     "You haven't brought me here to speak of gardens and food," said Dav.
     "No, but we have many hours ahead of us, so impatience is unnecessary. You cannot go home until dawn."
     Dav shook his head. "I'm leaving as quickly as possible. I have no intention of spending the night here with you."
     Lora shrugged. "If the guards see you approaching the village, which they surely will, they will shoot you. When you first came here with Reg and Eya, it was the presence of the children that kept you from being killed immediately. If you leave before dawn, you will not live to see your home again."
     "You scheming…"
     "If you wish, when we have finished our discussion, you may take me again. Perhaps it will make the night pass more easily. This time, no force will be needed. I will comply."
     Although Dav didn't sense anything mocking or insincere in her offer, he found it offensive.
     "I assume you have guessed why I wished to speak with you."
     "You're with child. A misbegotten thing that I'm responsible for creating," retorted Dav, his voice heavy with self-recrimination.
     "I am surprised that you willingly take responsibility."
     "I know your circumstances here, and that I was the first male to take you. There's no one else who could be responsible."
     "You are correct. What do you know about elf reproduction?" Lora asked.
     "Nothing," replied Dav. "And, frankly, I don't wish to learn anything."
     "It is not that different from human reproduction. The gestation period is longer - fifteen months - and there is a gap of at least twenty years between times of fertility, but other than that, the basic facts are the same. Oh, and nearly half of elf mothers die giving birth. That, coupled with our short fertility cycles, is why our race is dying - not enough children."
     "What happened between us happened three months ago," said Dav.
     "The baby should be born in one year."
     Dav raised his hands in a warding-off gesture. "I want nothing to do with it. It's your child."
     "You cannot deny your parentage."
     "I don't want the child to know I'm the father. I don't want to know it. I'm sorry about what happened, how it came about, but I want it to end here!"
     "Are you sure you are sorry? Do you regret the pleasure you must have experienced?" demanded Lora. "Do you not want me now?"
     Dav expelled a hiss of frustration. Was she a witch, that she knew his every thought? He had come here with only the desire to talk, but now his need for her was so strong that it was demanding an exertion of willpower to keep him from acting on it.
     "Let me tell you something about elf customs," she said. "Among my people, sex is not only an act for procreation, but for sealing a bond between two people. When a virgin is first penetrated, her secretions act like a drug on the male that enters her, even as his do on her. While you may not be an elf, your physiology is close. However unwillingly, we are bound. Neither of us will be able to touch another so long as we live. You may hate elves, Dav, but your act mated our bodies. By elf custom, we are married."
     "You're lying!"
     "Your mind may deny it, but your body betrays you. Before you leave this hut tomorrow morning, we will couple again. You cannot deny fate, Dav. And if you consider this as much a curse as I do, remember that it is of your making, not mine."
     Dav balled his fists as if to strike her, but only held them at his side, an expression of impotent rage. He could feel the currents of inevitability dragging at him, and, however unwillingly, sensed the truth of Lora's words. No matter how much he despised elves, his actions had bound him to one.
     "First, we must discuss the child," said Lora. "By elf custom, if it is a boy, I have the right of naming. A girl, the task falls to you. Also, the upbringing of the child shall be your responsibility for the first fifteen months of its life. That is not to say I will not wish to see it and care for it, but the burden must fall to you. Reg and Eya will help you, I am sure."
     Dav took several steps away from her, as if increasing the physical distance between them would keep her words from reaching him. "You expect me to raise the child? You've taken leave of your senses! Even if it was a human, I wouldn't raise it!"
     "By elf custom, the female carries the child within her for fifteen months, then the male rears it for the same amount of time. After that, all is shared equally. It is your duty."
     "And if I refuse?"
     "Then the death of the child shall be on your head," said Lora, maintaining her cool demeanor. Dav found it difficult to believe that someone regarded by her people as immature could make such a dire prediction with so little emotion.
     "And why would it die?"
     "Because I would not aid it. I will not usurp your duties. For better or worse, you must take responsibility. I do not want the child to die - for elves, a son or daughter is a gift - but I will allow its death if that is the only way to preserve the customs of my race." Unexpectedly, the cool facade crumbled and Lora began to cry. She turned away from Dav and buried her face in her hands, but her weeping was silent.
     Dav looked on uncomfortably, feeling like an outsider, the emotions churning within him: lust, rage, despair, and, surprisingly, a measure of compassion. But he could not promise what she wanted. Not now, perhaps not ever. Twelve months was a long time and he would certainly not commit himself now. The thought of raising another child, and a halfbreed at that, was anathema to him. Yet could he allow himself to be blamed for the death of a baby he was in part responsible for creating? What new dimensions would that add to his crime?
     When Lora had recovered her composure, she said, "We elves are different from you humans. There is no… rape… among us. We enter into matches with open hearts, knowing that we shall be bound one to another. But I am an outcast, so my lot is different. Perhaps I deserve what I have been given. It has taken me three months to forgive your action, and this has been the hardest thing of my life. If you hurt me again, I will never forgive you. And to be bound in body to one who despises you is a thing no living being can endure."
     Dav's bitter response was to the point. "What about being bound to one that you despise? I could never love you, even if we were together to the end of days."
     "Love??" scoffed Lora. "I said nothing about love. Love between us is impossible after what you have done. Your children I love, but not you. Never you. My heart will remain my own. We are bound by physical need, nothing else."
     As if to prove her point, Lora moved close to Dav, stood on her toes and planted a feathery kiss at the base of his throat. He swallowed hard but did not pull away.
     "Come," she said, pulling him toward her pile of furs. "Enough talking for now."
* * *

     Over the next three months, as fall faded into winter, Dav's life was in emotional turmoil. He broke off all remaining contact with Jod, refusing even to admit his former friend to his house. He became cold and unresponsive with his children, although that didn't bother them. They spent almost all their waking hours with Lora.
     Dav continued to make clandestine trips to the hut in the valley, always at dusk. On each occasion, he spent the night - talking, arguing, then engaging in sex. When he departed in the mornings, often at about the same time Reg and Eya arrived, he found himself unable to shake a growing sense of uncleanness and self-disgust.
     By the last day of winter, Lora's condition was becoming obvious to anyone who saw her. The possibility of a liaison between Dav and her was being gossiped about around the settlement. While only Dav's children, and not Dav himself, had been declared members of the "outcast community," no one came to visit him anymore. For that and the peace it accorded him, he was grateful.
     When Dav considered the future, he found it hard to imagine something bleaker and less appealing. The promise of living the rest of his life in a place like Haven was unendurable. But he knew that his body could not be parted from Lora, and she would never leave her valley, in spite of the way the townspeople - both elves and humans - regarded her. For his own part, Dav craved her like a drug. She was an addiction and he hated himself for being weak enough to give in to it time after time.
     Fortunately for the outcasts, the winter had been mild and Lora's garden had continued to yield enough crops to feed her and Dav's family. Dav took little of the food and ate less, and as the seasons turned, his body degenerated into little more than a skeleton with pockets of flesh hanging from it. His full face became gaunt and lifeless and his once-supple fingers turned claw-like. His trousers no longer fit and he had to use a length of rope to keep them up.
     The spring of 579 was warm and pleasant and the fine weather seemed to have an effect on all the inhabitants of Haven. Children scampered through the streets, shouting as they played. Humans spent less time toiling in the fields and more time exploring the simple pleasures of life. Even the somber elves allowed themselves to mellow in the warm brightness of the midday sun.
     Lora, perhaps as much because of her expanding belly as the weather, became more affectionate with the children and less brutal with their father. She even expressed to Dav that she would not consider it inappropriate if he, Reg, and Eya wished to move into the valley with her. His response was that even if he was declared an outcast and stripped of his home in Haven, he would find some other place to live.
     Dav had not seen Jod since late the previous year, and, although he was too ashamed to face the other man, he longer for the companionship they had shared. Since learning of Lora's pregnancy, he had spent little time considering the great mystery of Haven and the possible connection between elves and dwarves. He wondered if Jod had made any progress, or if he had bothered to continue the investigation. Perhaps instead, Jod had been content to meld back into the position of obscurity he had enjoyed before Dav's arrival. Or maybe he had finally left Haven altogether.
     One fine morning mid-way between winter and summer, Dav's woodcarving activities were interrupted by a knock at his front door. He was understandably surprised, since he hadn't had any visitors for more than four months. He rose to see who it was.
     The elf Niam stood outside, waiting patiently, hands folded sedately in front of him. As was common with elves, his expression was unreadable. Dav frowned when he saw who it was. In spite of, or perhaps because of, his relationship with Lora, he hated her kind more than ever.
     "What do you want," he demanded unpleasantly.
     "I wish to speak. May I come in?"
     "No. Say what you've come for, then leave. I have better things to do with my time."
     "Really?" inquired Niam mildly, raising an eyebrow. "Many of us wonder what occupies you so in your house that you hardly ever leave it. Except for frequent dusk-to-dawn trips to the outcast's valley."
     Dav's response was a baleful glare.
     "Let me speak plainly. You may or may not be aware that before her banishment from Haven, Lora was my daughter."
     Dav nodded. Although he couldn't remember the source, he had heard it.
     "Children among my race are rare. Females are fertile for only a handful of days every twenty years. They are not aware of the period until it is over. And the rate of miscarriages is high, especially during the first half-year of pregnancy."
     "So what does this have to do with me?"
     "Lora is pregnant. One does not need to be observant to see that. You obviously are the father. I do not know what brought you together, but it is plain to everyone that you are bound. Therefore, the child will be handed over to you after birth for raising."
     "So?"
     "We - the elf community of Heltala - would like to be given the child to rear. The banishment of Lora does not apply to any offspring she might have, and I have explained to you how few elf children there are."
     Dav decided not to prevaricate with the elf. It probably wouldn't do any good, anyway. He hadn't been discreet in his dealings with Lora, so it wasn't a surprise that the extent of their relationship was guessed at. But that didn't give Niam any hold over him, or his half-breed child. "It may not have occurred to you, but I'm human. This child will only be half-elf."
     "That is understood, but we are not in a position to debate racial purity. If my race is to survive, it must be willing to accept human strains."
     "And you think Lora will go along with my handing the child over to you?"
     "It is not Lora's decision. During the first fifteen months outside the womb, it is your responsibility. Should you hand the child over to us that we might raise it in our way, that would be within your rights. Lora could not dispute you."
     "And you expect me to agree yo this?"
     "We know you despise us, Dav. That makes your association with Lora confusing, but since she is an outcast, we have not concerned ourselves with that. Nevertheless, I find it difficult to accept that you would be willing to raise a child who is half-elf. Besides, we have incentives to offer you."
     "Such as?"
     "The outcast ban will be lifted. Not only on Reg and Eya, but on Lora as well, on the condition that she lives with you here. Your children will allowed the rejoin the community and Lora will be reunited with her kin. She will also be permitted to see the baby, as will you, if that is your wish."
     Up to this point, Dav had shunned the responsibility of caring for his misbegotten half-breed. He had begun devising any number of plots to avoid to avoid the task, even going so far as to consider killing the child. But now, when presented with this alternative, his position shifted. It wasn't that he suddenly wanted the child, but he was more willing to raise it than to help the elves. They would get nothing from him, even if it cost him every last vestige of strength to deny them. Nothing, that is, except despite.
     Niam continued, "Elder Ekla wishes to see you this afternoon to discuss the arrangements. You will find that he can be most generous and accommodating to those that are willing to help in such an important matter."
     "I will not give up the child," said Dav, his voice toneless.
     Niam blinked, his perfectly-unemotional facade wavering briefly to express either surprise or consternation. "Perhaps you would like some time to consider."
     "I don't need any. I'm not for sale. My unborn child isn't for sale. And those you named outcasts aren't for sale."
     "Do you think Lora will thank you for this? A chance for her to rejoin the community of Heltala?"
     "I don't care what Lora will or won't thank me for. But since you asked, I believe she'd find your offer as repulsive as I do. Why not ask her yourself? Why not make the offer to her?"
     "Because you are the child's custodian for the first fifteen months. By then, it will be too late. Your human ways of life will be ingrained."
     "Then that's the way it will be. Good day, and don't bother coming back."
     Without giving the elf a chance to reply, Dav slammed shut the door and drove home the bolt. He then returned to where he had been sitting prior to Niam's arrival and retrieved his latest project from the floor. He didn't start to carve, however, at least not immediately. His outrage was such that his trembling hands would have been as likely to slice off a finger as a wood shaving.
     And now the future looked worse than ever.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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