26. A Grim and Unwelcome Reminder

Several detachments of gray elvish troops are deployed to the North Mountains, lending intrigue to Inglorion’s return trip. They appear to be engineering units with infantry attached, sent to destroy any underground structures they can find. Inglorion is no great woodsman, but gray elvish soldiers don’t even pretend to understand the environment. They travel only in daylight, and post guards as a formality. If they spotted a lone half-Drow, they might give him a rough time, but Inglorion eludes them so easily that after a day or two, he’s emboldened to spy on them.

Inglorion’s observations confirm his suspicions: The gray elvish army is numerous and well-equipped. Not only do they have the men, explosives and permissions to destroy even man-made, reinforced tunnels; they’re prepared to besiege a small town, ford or bridge a river, or clear up to a half-acre of scrub or forest. They don’t travel quickly or lightly because they don’t have to. They have cash and vouchers to buy anything from locally brewed ale to the services of a host of cooks and laundresses. Even the camp-followers are sleek, prosperous and complacent.

In the Underdark, of course, they would be doomed. Their equipment would fail, and they wouldn’t know how to proceed without it. They’d suffer from the darkness, damp and stale air, and they’d be spooked by the toughness and brutality of the Drow. Aboveground, Inglorion likes the gray elves’ chances. A Drow force might eke out a win or two if they caught the enemy at night, outside of their territory, at the end of a long supply line. They might even luck into an encirclement and massacre a few hundred. But the sun will always rise, and ammunition carts will show up. Over time, the gray are sure to prevail, if only because they’re numerous, well-fed and well-rested, and adapted to the sunlit world.

The engineers go about their business much as an exterminator might when called in by a housewife who’s seen some kind of exotic vermin. They regard the operation as a bit of a holiday, an opportunity to dust off rarely used equipment and set some pleasingly elaborate firing trains. The deployed troops are cheerfully determined to blow up any tunnels they find around the Lavyryx farm, but Liamelia as a whole is far from declaring war.

After a couple of weeks, Inglorion drafts a report to this effect, then turns back towards the post road and Liamelia. It’s time to see to Rosalee’s security, retrieve his signet ring, and retreat to the Underdark.

As long as anyone can remember, the Gypsies have camped in and around a tiny, unattractive marsh outside Liamelia’s city walls. Like most common areas, it’s not privately owned because it’s largely useless to gray elves, wood elves, and human farmers. It’s used to hunt small game, gather herbs and greens, and graze small flocks. The Gypsies have cleared an area and made minor improvements, draining or shoring up portions, building casual fire pits and raised gardens from salvaged wood. They occupy perhaps half an acre, and range their chickens and goats nearby. The Gypsy main camp lies a hundred yards off the post road, and is screened by a spinney.

Inglorion reaches the city gates just after sunset. He stayed in the mountains longer than he intended, and is underfed, craving coffee, and down to his last few cigarettes. As he turns down the footpath leading to the spinney, he’s rehearsing how he’ll persuade Alexandra to let him stay at the caravan that night.

As he approaches, he wonders if he’s somehow mistaken the path. Normally he’d smell chimney smoke and meat stewing, hear chickens and goats. He’d see campfires winking and flashes of color through the tree trunks: the painted sides of caravans, clothing hung out to dry.

He hears a skylark somewhere behind him, the chatter of crickets, faint sounds of traffic from behind the city walls. The marshland ahead of him is quiet and cold.

His stride lengthens. He hurries down the familiar footpath, expecting at any moment to spot a campfire or a knot of stray pigs. Nothing. The scene remains resolutely blank.

He breaks through the last trees and into the clearing.

It’s empty.

He feels disoriented, dizzy. He must be mad or having a vision. They were right here.

He paces down the two little lanes, between patches of bare soil where the caravans were parked, each with an abandoned fire pit, the outlines of a garden being slowly choked by weeds — the tracery of a little village. In the small central square, there’s a pile of rubbish: Broken crockery, a rusted pot, rags too tattered to sell, a broken headstall for a draft horse. He can see the footpath leading down to the creek that they used for washing-up.

He walks over to where the cobbler’s caravan should be. Absurdly, without the familiar caravans and signs, he can’t tell which plot was hers. It doesn’t matter. They’re all empty – little beaten-down rectangles, with new weeds springing up, and fresh cart tracks leading away.

Alexandra’s caravan is gone, along with its faded silk hangings, fake Dresden tea-set and Murphy bed, and his little girl, his Rosalee.

He paces up and down the row, absurdly, as if he’s missed it somehow. He finds himself invoking a kind of childish logic: If he closes his eyes, turns around, then turns back, the familiar scene will be restored. He can bring them back by walking the little lanes properly, approaching from the correct and customary angle.

Inglorion understands that they’re gone. They’ve retreated to the North Mountains, to some traditional haven, removed from elvish quarrels. He knows there’s no mistake, but feels that there must be.

The Gypsies have vanished, and they’ve taken his daughter with them.

He paces back and forth, mortified at his own uncertainty. He’s alternately wringing his hands and flicking his fingers, trying to cast out some terrible, inchoate energy. He can’t find the correct gesture to mark this loss.

After some time — several minutes, perhaps as much as half an hour — he retreats up the footpath, stunned. He stands for long moments just beyond the tree line. He feels absurdly unequal to the task of facing down the guards, gaining admission to his own city, finding an inn.

He must, so he does. He’s exhausted and subdued, and it’s more taxing than usual to use the correct words and expressions. At the third inn he visits, the lady of the house takes pity on him, contriving to clear a little room under the rafters, and even sending up a late dinner of cold meat.

The room is hot and stuffy and overlooks the stable yard, but he’s cheered by the food and her kindness. He lights a votive, and seeks to lose himself in prayer — to quiet his questing intellect, and feel his breath and heartbeat.

He kneels there, watching his mind darting and pacing. He thinks, Yes, of course. He’s horrified partly because he’s used to disappearing — to the Underdark or Amakir or Liamelia — but he feels the world around should remain fixed and familiar. The Gypsy camp, the post road, Shelawn House, the harbor, the North Mountains — these landmarks should persist. He’s free to come and go.

The loss of the caravan is a grim and unwelcome reminder: In his absence, others may disappear.

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s