When Dav stuck his head out the door one balmy autumn morning, he knew that the approaching storm, the one to break the heat wave, was going to be violent. The breeze had begun to kick up and roiling black clouds were gathering on the western horizon. Dav remembered weather like this from his years on the plains. It presaged now what it had then: devastation.
     There was nothing Dav or anyone else in Haven could do to prevent the damage that was sure to come. Crops, especially those growing at this time of year, were fragile, and downpours could wash them away. Fortunately, the houses of Haven were built sturdily enough to withstand any gale. Roofs might leak, or even collapse, but the stone walls would stand firm against the elements, regardless of how fierce they might become.
     Lora's situation in the valley was less certain. Her garden was not well protected and lesser storms during the final weeks of summer had dealt a severe blow to her harvest. The replacement crops she had planted in the wake of those rains were just now starting to thrive. They, along with everything else she was growing, would be washed away before nightfall. Additionally, her house was so poorly constructed that a sustained wind would tear it apart.
     Were Lora and her nearly full-term child to perish during the storm, it would solve many of Dav's problems, foremost of which was the matter of raising a half-breed son or daughter. But, however appealing the notion, he discovered, much to his surprise, that he could not permit it to happen. Over the past twelve months, he had spent a great deal of time with Lora, and, even as he despised himself for not being able to stay away, he had begun to develop a sense of responsibility for her. He came to realize that, no matter how mature she seemed in some circumstances, she was a child in others.
     So, before the first scent of rain was in the air, he instructed his children to stay inside and ventured out himself. For the first time since the day he had raped Lora, he went to the valley without the cover of dusk. Several passerby on the streets of Haven noted his course with curiosity, but Dav's bleak expression silenced any questions they might have.
     By the time he reached Lora's hut, the wind had become brisk and the approaching thunderheads had devoured nearly half the sky. Lightning flickered above the mountains to the west, but the storms were too distant for thunder to be heard. Not for long, however...
     Lora was outside already, gazing skyward, an expression of concern on her face. She knew how fragile her little world was and that it faced destruction this day.
     "It is going to be bad," she said as Dav joined her. Her hands rested on the small of her back, as if trying to support the burden she carried. Because of her small frame, the pregnancy had caused her belly to become abnormally distended, at least in comparison with a human female. Lora appeared riper to Dav than Sya had, and she had been carrying twins.
     "It'll rip your little nest apart," he predicted.
     "Perhaps something shall be spared. If not, your son or daughter will come into this world hungry."
     "There are always ways to find food. I have some stores saved up. Reg is an especially adept thief."
     Lora gave him a surprised look. "I have been providing you..." she began.
     Dav shook his head. "Not nearly enough since the rains ruined half your crop. And do you think I could have recovered any of the weight I'd lost on the leaves and roots you give us?"
     She shrugged. It hadn't occurred to her that his rapid decline in weight had been reversed, but now that he mentioned it, she noticed that he looked better than he had in months. She supposed that meant he had reached some sort of inner peace, or at least found a point of equilibrium.
     "You're coming with me," Dav.
     For a moment, Lora was too stunned to reply.
     "Let's go," he urged. "The storm will arrive soon and I want to be inside when it gets here."
     "I can not," said Lora, finding her voice. "Especially not like this. I am an outcast. They will not welcome me in Heltala."
     "What they think is irrelevant. You'll be there as my guest."
     "It is not only that. The distance is too great. In my condition, a walk to the edge of my gardens is difficult."
     "Then I'll carry you. But let's get going. Now." So saying, Dav gently lifted Lora off the ground, turning her into a horizontal position and supporting her with one arm under her back and the other behind her knees.
     She didn't struggle and made no further effort to argue since it was clear that Dav had made up his mind. For the first time in their tumultuous relationship, she felt something akin to amazement - amazement that he would do this for her and their child, both of whom he had professed to despise. This was not an action conceived from loathing, but from a desire to protect.
     The canopy of lightning-streaked dark clouds and accompanying booming thunder had chased most of the inhabitants of Haven inside, so there were few to stare in open disbelief as Dav strode down the main thoroughfare of the town carrying Lora, her tiny arms wrapped around his neck. The wind whipped at them and the crashing thunder caused the ground beneath their feet to shudder, but the first drops of rain had not yet begun to fall by the time they reached the door to Dav's home.
     The children were delighted to see Lora, but she was uneasy in the unfamiliar environment, especially once Dav had secured the door. She flinched at every explosion of thunder, as if it posed a danger to her health and that of her unborn baby.
     "From now on, you'll live here," said Dav. It was not a decision he had arrived at lightly, but the weight of his responsibility lay strongly upon him, and there was a primal part of him that wanted Lora near - not for noble reasons, either.
     "No," replied the elf cautiously, recognizing the sacrifice implicit in the offer. "I shall return to my own home. I will not burden you with my presence. My child you must take, but not me with it."
     "After this storm, you won't have a house to go back to," said Dav. As if to emphasize his point, a violent crash of thunder rocked the house, heralding the arrival of a flurry of hail. It clattered noisily against the outer walls.
     "I will rebuild it."
     "In your condition?"
     "Consider that I might not wish to stay here. That I might wish to return to a place where I am comfortable and secure, and where prying eyes do not seek me out."
     "If you won't do it for yourself, do it for your child," said Dav.
     Lora replied to this appeal with a confused look.
     "I need you around as it grows. There are those in Haven who want to take it away from me so it can be raised in the elf way. I believe they may resort to violence if I don't willingly give up the child."
     "They will not use violence," said Lora.
     "Can you be sure of that?"
     "Yes, but you are right about one thing. They would wish to raise the child in their way. And that is not something I want. I was cast out for a rejection of their beliefs and I do not want my son or daughter to be subjected to their influence. They have approached you about this?"
     Dav nodded. "Your father did. He said you would approve and it wasn't your decision anyway."
     "He lied. I would never approve, and he is aware of my feelings in the matter. I was given an opportunity to recant my heresies before I was cast out, but I turned my back on them all and left on my own."
     "I will not raise a half-elf child alone," said Dav.
     The look Lora gave him was stricken, as if he had betrayed her. In a strained voice, she said, "I can not stop you giving your baby to them. Not for fifteen months. By then it will be too late. Do as you must." The last word was spoken with venom.
     "It doesn't have to be that way. I've given you a choice," said Dav.
     "A choice?"
     "Stay here and help me raise the child so I won't have to give it up."
     Lora stared at him. Was he serious? How could he expect her to live with him, after what he had done to her? Though she had found some measure of forgiveness for his actions for the sake of the child she carried, she hadn't forgotten, nor would she ever. A life with him was not something she wanted; he could not be trusted. Most of the time, she found it difficult to be in his presence. He had violated her, and now he asked her to lower her guard by coming to live in his house. The suggestion was unreasonable.
     Yet there were those rare moments when she felt closer to him than she had felt to any other. Perhaps that was a product of the ties that bound them - she didn't know. Whatever the cause, everything between them was not befouled. And there were those times in his arms, in a moment of ecstasy, when she could pretend that he was an elf prince who had come to carry her away.
     "Then if I must choose, I will stay." And with those eight words, her future was sealed.

* * *

     Reg and Eya at least seemed to enjoy having Lora around the house, even if Dav did not. It took her little enough time to settle in, since her few possessions had been lost when the storm had scattered her house and its meager contents across the length of the valley, so, despite her initial protestations, she seemed at home within a few days.
     Haven was abuzz with gossip, and every time Lora emerged for a brief walk or to simply let the sun caress her skin, fresh stories began to circulate. The elders were in a quandary about what to do in the situation since they weren't sure if they had the power to declare Dav, a landowner, an outcast, and force him from his property.
     For his part, Dav tried not to think too deeply about what his actions had gotten him into. Self-loathing was normally the result of any prolonged soul-searching. He found it difficult to accept that one person could so entirely undermine the foundations of his life. He didn't really want Lora in his home, but he felt that fate had maneuvered him to where his only choice had been not only to offer her the place by his side, but to force it upon her. They were, in his opinion, probably the most mismatched couple in the history of Devforth.
     Worse still, Dav's feelings about elves had not changed, although he considered Lora an exception. Right or wrong, her status as an outcast helped to legitimatize that perception. If the elf community of Haven had rejected her, she couldn't properly be considered "one of them." He had probed for the reasons for her exile, but, other than the few hints she had dropped on the day of the storm, she was unwilling to speak of the matter.
     Food was obviously a problem, but Reg usually showed up in the late afternoon with a burlap sack full of corn, wheat, and assorted leaves and roots. Dav had initially thought his son to be a talented thief, but he was beginning to wonder if some soft-hearted townspeople might not be allowing the boy to make off with some of their excess produce.
     The impending birth was causing Dav consternation. The death rate among elf females during childbirth was alarming, so he considered it mandatory that a healer of some sort be present. Lora's status as an outcast made that problematic, however, especially since Dav wasn't on good terms with any of his neighbors. When the time came, he decided he would seek out old Mistress Yrr, who had cared for Eya during her sickness several years back. The old woman hadn't struck him as competent, but she was the sort who would flout the traditions and proclamations of Haven if there was someone in need of her help.
     On a morning ten days after Lora's return to the village, an event occurred which supplanted the goings-on in Dav's house in the minds of the Haven's inhabitants. Shortly after dawn on a gray day, rumors began to spread that two of the elf perimeter guards had not returned from their night's duty, nor had they been found at the location of their posts. A search party, comprised mostly of humans, was organized and set off during the late morning hours.
     Dav watched them gather through his half-open front door - fifteen able-bodied men and two elves. They left town heading purposefully south as the first drops of a light rain began to fall. By the onset of twilight, none of them had returned, and that night three more guards vanished.
     Early the next morning, the elders of Haven announced that there would be a noon meeting in the village's central square. Dav, although curious about the events of the past twenty-four hours, decided not to attend. He had no desire to make a public spectacle out of himself. Since Lora had arrived at his house, he had resolutely remained inside, even though she and his children had spent considerable amounts of time out-of-doors.
     However, shortly after noon, there was a knock at Dav's front door. Reg, Eya, and Lora, who had been playing a dice game, looked up in surprise. Not only had there been no visitors in weeks, but it had been assumed among those living in the house that the citizens of Haven had been warned to keep away. Dav's "harboring" of three outcasts, not to mention his taciturn attitude, had made him one of the least liked and least approachable men in the settlement.
     Dav put aside his wood carving to answer the knock. Standing outside was a nervous looking man with a balding head, pot belly, and thin, limp mustache that twitched like a cat's whiskers. Dav recognized the man as one of the people who had made repeated visits to his house during his early days in Haven.
     "Yes?" demanded Dav.
     "The elders have asked if you might attend the meeting in the center square. Issues of importance are going to be discussed. They feel all should be present."
     "I've never attended any other gatherings here," said Dav. "Why now?"
     "Heltala is in danger. It is imperative that all those living in the settlement be aware of what's going on and what measures will be undertaken to preserve our lives and homes."
     "And if I don't attend?"
     The man shrugged. "We can't force you. Come or not, as you like, but recognize the price of refusal. You're no more invulnerable than the rest of us." Then, having nothing more to say, he turned from Dav's house and headed toward the center square, from which the din of hundreds of voices was coming.
     "Let us go," said Lora, lightly touching Dav's upper arm. "They would not have gone to the trouble to invite you if the matter was not serious. The dwarves may be moving against Heltala."
     "I don't recall anyone inviting you," said Dav.
     "I live in your house as your wife and the mother of your unborn child," stated Lora. Dav frowned at her choice of words, but didn't say anything. She continued, "They can hardly continue to call me an outcast under those circumstances, unless they are willing to exile you. Therefore, I have as much right as you to attend their meeting. And, unlike you, I care about what happens to this village."
     "It's not that I don't care..." began Dav.
     "It is that you don't care. You want to sit behind these walls and let life outside go on without you. You do not wish to speak with people. You do not care about Heltala or its community. So far, there has been no problem with that, but the dwarves will make no distinctions. They will kill you as easily as those who spend their blood defending this village."
     Dav didn't say anything in response, because he wasn't sure what to believe, although he doubted matters were as basic as Lora thought. Considering the conspiracy theory he and Jod had devised about elves and dwarves, Dav found it difficult to accept that what was happening was anything as simple as an unprovoked attack by the dwarves. He wondered about the real trigger for such behavior and could only come up with two possibilities: a betrayal of some sort or a sudden rift between allies. The ones that would pay the price - in blood - were the humans the elves had been duping for decades.
     Unfortunately, whatever the root cause, the results were not in dispute. Seven elves and fifteen humans were dead and Haven's future appeared precarious. Whether he liked it or not, Dav's survival was irrevocably tied to that of the settlement. Assigning blame was something for later - if there was a later.
     "The children should come as well," said Dav. Reg and Eya's eyes lit up at their father's declaration - their first opportunity to participate in something "adult". "Let's go."
     As Dav, Lora, and the twins approached the town square, more than a few pairs of eyes - both human and elf - turned in their direction. The expressions on the faces that regarded them were a mixture of surprise, disapproval, contempt, and, in the case of a young, pregnant girl, quiet compassion. Dav ignored them all. He was here for himself - not for the other residents of this settlement.
     An elf who looked to be as old as the mountain range stood upon an improvised platform at the center the crowd of more than two-hundred. Although Dav had never seen him before, he assumed this was the chief elder of Haven, Ekla. He had the appearance and bearing of a king, down to the flowing silver beard, ermine trimmed scarlet robes, and ornate walking stick. He was flanked on either side by elf guards: Niam to his left and someone Dav didn't recognize to his right. Although Dav scanned the crowd, he saw no sign of Jod, which fueled his suspicions that his former companion had quit the settlement of Haven and returned to the "civilized" world.
     After a signal from Niam quieted the assemblage, Ekla began, his voice far more vibrant than Dav would have expected from a man his age. "Dear Friends, we are gathered today because a great crisis approaches the borders of Heltala. As yet, we do not know the seriousness of the threat, but it appears that a contingent of dwarves may be moving against us. For the better part of a century, since their last attack on our settlement stripped it of inhabitants, they have held back. No more, I fear. Over the last two nights, five guards have vanished without a trace and a seventeen-member search party has also disappeared. You can see that there are reasons to suspect - nay, to fear - the worst.
     "I am not an alarmist by nature, but we have all known how exposed and dangerous our position in the Green Mountains is. Because of our beliefs, we have remained, and even this latest threat will not drive us from our homes, but more may be required of us in this instance than a strength of the soul. Each and every one of us must be prepared to fight.
     "I will not yet authorize the use of lights outside after dusk, but if a raid comes, we will need humans in the battle as well as elves. Therefore, it is my command that poles be erected along all streets, upon which shall be mounted pitch-soaked torches so that if an attack should spill into our streets, the torches may be lit. Then those of us whose eyes cannot penetrate the blackness will be able to defend our homes. I hope it will never come to that, but preparedness is the wise man's ally.
     "For tonight, and each night hereafter until further notice, guard patrols shall be quadrupled, and no elf will at any time be out of sight of at least three of his fellows. All guards shall be armed with knives, bows, and a full compliment of arrows. As I deem necessary, further measures shall be implemented, but only if the aggressive activity does not cease. And I recommend that everyone sleep lightly. A warning gong will be constructed in this square. When it is rung, it will mean that an attack is either underway or imminent.
     "If you have any questions, my deputies will be happy to entertain them. That is all."
     As Ekla started down the stairs from the platform, he was assailed by a shout. "What about the outcasts?" Several others from different parts of the crowd shouted the same thing.
     Ekla paused, considered for a moment, then decided to address the issue. Looking directly at Lora, his expression unreadable, he said, "At a time like this, Heltala can not deny anyone sanctuary. Since they are under the protection of a lawful citizen of Haven as his wife and children, we will not reject them, until or unless he too is declared an outcast." He turned his gaze toward Dav. "I believe, given his tendencies, that seems likely to happen, and perhaps soon."
     Those were Ekla's final words to the gathering.
* * *

     The next two days, although tense, passed without incident. So, on the third day following Ekla's address, a second search party was sent out. This one was three times the size of the first and included several expert archers. Everyone in Haven went about their business as usual, but in a subdued and tentative way that made it apparent they were interested mainly in what the search party discovered - and whether they returned. Even Dav was not immune to this curiosity, and he loitered by his open door most of the day.
     The group returned several hours before dusk with only one minor injury - an embarrassed man who had fallen into a crevasse. Along with them, they bore the grisly remains of what appeared to be one of the elves - half-eaten and rotting, identifiable mainly by the clothing which still clung to the body. Clearly visible was the cause of death: the corpse had been hacked by a weapon which resembled the axe favored by dwarves.
     The next day dawned bleak and cold, feeling more like mid-winter than autumn, the mood of the weather mirroring that of Haven. In Dav's house, however, an event of more immediate concern than the dwarves' intentions was taking place.
     Lora awoke before dawn, her contractions beginning. Dav wanted to go for Yrr immediately, but Lora persuaded him to wait until dawn, that it would take a while before the situation became critical. He agreed reluctantly and sat by her side, holding her hand while Reg and Eya took turns stroking her hair and mopping her brow with cold compresses.
     As soon as there was enough light to see by, Dav was out the door, racing through the streets past startled early-risers on his way to the old woman's house.
     Yrr didn't answer the door until the third knock, and when she poked her shrunken head outside, her expression was unfriendly.
     "What be you doing!" she shrieked. "Banging on my door at this hour! 'Taint right! 'Taint proper! 'Taint decent!"
     Dav was in no mood for an apology, so he didn't make one. Instead, he said, "My wife has gone into labor. I'd like for you to attend her."
     "Wife be it?" cackled Yrr, finding something in Dav's explanation amusing. "So one who hates elves admits to marrying one! Heh, heh, heh!"
     "Will you attend her?" demanded Dav, in no mood for games.
     "She be an outcast," said Yrr evasively.
     "I know that. Will you attend her?"
     "No other in Heltala will."
     "Damn it!" roared Dav. "Will you come with me or not??"
     Yrr pretended to consider, although Dav was certain she had already made up her mind. "Aye," she replied finally. "Let me get my satchel of poultices and herbs. Since she be an elf, I'll need them."
     Fifteen minutes later, Dav arrived home with an out-of-breath Yrr. After giving him a harsh reprimand for the unwarranted speed of their travel, she went to where Lora was lying on her back, panting and grimacing.
     Dav had been with his wife Sya when she had given birth to the twins, but that experience had been mild in comparison with this one. Lora's screams were the agonized cries of a beast in torment, and like nothing Dav had ever before heard. They raised the hackles on his neck and sent Reg and Eya fleeing outside. Worse still, Yrr insisted that the door be left open to allow fresh air into the room, so it didn't take long for a crowd of vulture-like onlookers to gather, all seeking emotional carrion. Dav did his best to chase them away, but they returned as soon as he disappeared into the house.
     On the one occasion when he approached Lora, she treated him to such a violent stream of verbal abuse that he retreated to the other side of the room. Yrr gave him a reproachful glance before commiserating with Lora on the insensitivity of men. Although Dav was at a loss to understand what he had done wrong, he stayed away from the two women after that.
     Finally, after eight hours of labor, a blood-soaked, wrinkled female child was lifted from between Lora's legs. Yrr presented the baby to its mother, but she had already passed out from the ordeal, so Dav was given the first opportunity to hold it.
     He refused to touch the child - however, unable to accept that somehow this little creature with its upswept ears and too-dark skin was his. Instead of experiencing the tenderness he had felt when first gazing upon Eya and Reg, Dav knew only revulsion. This half-breed girl repelled him.
     The baby struggled weakly in Yrr's arms as she severed the umbilical cord, but didn't cry. In fact, she hadn't let out so much as a whimper since her birth.
     After cleaning the baby with a damp cloth and wrapping her in a blanket, Yrr offered her to Dav for a second time, and he again refused. The old woman didn't speak a word, but her agate-hard eyes revealed her thoughts as she handed the newborn to Eya, the only one willing to hold the child.
     Suddenly feeling sick, Dav turned and rushed from the house, pushing his way through the throng that had clustered outside his front door, then running as far and as fast as he could before his stamina gave out.

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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