“How!” wailed Lady Etain, “How can this be? Aesc? Dead?”
Mary had only just walked into the Lord of Eversby's tent. She raised her brows in shock at the statement.
“Aesc is dead?” she asked.
Ead and the others nodded grimly to her query. Tostig patted the spot next to him, beckoning her to sit.
“How did he die?” Mary asked, as she got settled in.
“Murdered,” Ead replied, “Apparently in the back-room by one of his customers.”
A thought struck her, “You... you don't think my mother put someone up to it?”
“I wouldn't be surprised if she did,” said Tostig. He held the stump on his left side, and sighed coldly, “Your mother had a lot of people killed.”
“If this is the case,” said Lord Ragnarr, “Then Ethelbald's claim - the claim that the Witch-Queen seeks to return elvish rule to the Earth-realm - rings true,” he paused, pacing around his tent, “We've also had some... irregular news concerning our rivals.”
“Your rivals?” said Mary.
“Yes,” Lady Etain sighed, “The Brimonians seem rather disturbed of late. Some of our men have seen their ships on the tide, sailing to the west.”
“They must be looking for us,” mumbled Ead.
“Excuse me?” said Lord Ragnarr.
“Brimone,” Ethelbald explained, “Lord Grumm's allied wi' the Witch-Queen. Until recently, Lady Flaed was also privy t'her scheming - but we put an end t'that. If they're sailin' west, the lot o' 'em must be lookin' t'put a stop t'us.”
“What about Uncle Khadir?” said Mary. The last thing she need was to lose another close member of her adoptive family.
“I'm sure he can take care o' 'imself,” Ethelbald replied, “Would be on the look-out too, after ye'd gone missin'.”
“We have to go back,” Mary protested.
“Don't be daft, lass.”
“I'm not being daft! Ead! Tostig! You know we have to go back!”
They didn't respond.
“Oh, come on!” Mary shrieked, “My uncle helped you secure Skye and rescue your people - does this mean nothing to you?”
“Your world's at stake here,” said Ethelbald, “I think that takes precedence o'er your uncle.”
“The world can burn!” Mary shouted, “The world can burn in the flames of its own corruption! I will not let my mother kill another person who's done nothing but aid me!”
“Oh, just listen t'your tripe!” Ethelbald barked, “You and what army, Mary? Your uncle's a man who can 'andle 'imself. Ye know that! Ye've nothin' t'worry about. But what your rescuin' him for, the cost, there's no hope there.”
“I,” interrupted Lord Ragnarr before further argument, “will send a fleet to the Guild, to see that the mercenaries are safe and to lend them what aid they can. The rest of us will head for the Gateway.”
“Don't ye think, sir, that it'd be a nice idea t'pass through Brimone?” suggested Ethelbald.
Mary crossed her arms and pouted “I'm glad the priority is still saving my world,” she muttered.
“Oh, pipe down, Mary! If we conquer Brimone, we'll cut off whatever supply the Witch-Queen has rested there.”
“My mother doesn't care about Brimone. The supplies she needs she's probably already taken.”
“We will pass through Brimone, before moving on to the Gateway,” said Lord Ragnarr.
Mary was about to protest, when she saw the look on Lord Ragnarr's face. She'd seen that look before. It was a look that, often, Mariqah had pointed out to her.
At the end of the day, the Lord and Lady of Eversby weren't a couple sent from heaven to enjoin all good and forbid all evil - though, Mary had to admit, they were better than the other Lords and Ladies she had met.
They were leaders, government, politicians - and that meant they had their own agendas and their own aims to fulfil.
And what greater agenda and aim is there than to overthrow their rivals and expand their living space?
So Mary didn't protest. A few more words were shared before the meeting was adjourned and everyone - save the Lord and Lady - left the tent.
Mary followed Gwyn and said, “Tell me something.”
The old elf paused before smiling at the girl, “Yes, dear?”
“Why don't the elves - or these elves anyway - want to conquer the Earth-realm?”
“You don't think it's out of the goodness of our hearts?” said Gwyn, innocently. It was a very easy look to put on, for such an elderly woman with such a kindly face.
“I've seen little goodness since I came here.”
“Don't be so cynical, dear. We've no wish to destroy your kind.”
“Then why is there so much enmity between our two races? Why does your race hate mine?”
Gwyn paused, “Hate is a strong word.”
“I'm sorry. Of course. I meant 'despise'.”
Gwyn's face soured. But before she could say anything more, Ead came by.
“Mary, may I?” he said.
Mary looked around for Tostig. Seeing that he'd disappeared to somewhere, she said, “Of course.”
“Elves fear humans,” he said.
“Ead!” said Gwyn, disapprovingly.
“It's only natural. We fear what we don't understand, what is different to us. Such a thing is true for both races,” Ead continued, ignoring Gwyn, “but savagery and cunning is more common in your race. You might not be the strongest or the fastest, but you humans are the most ruthless. Your will is much stronger.”
Mary nodded, understanding. She waited for Ead to continue.
“When the elves were banished to the Grey Havens, there were two factions - some that thought it best to take back the land from the humans and enslave them, and others that rejected this notion. They saw no point in trying to win a war that simply could not be won.”
“And this is why you what to stop Grumm from taking the Earth-realm?” asked Mary, “Not because humans would be enslaved to elves, but elves would be oppressed by humans?”
“That's the general gist of it.”
“And,” Gwyn conceded, “imagine what humanity would do if it became learned in magic. Only look at what your mother has done.”
Mary shivered at the thought, “It would be catastrophic.”
“Of course, there was another issue.”
Mary jumped at the sound of Tostig's voice. She turned to see that he was eating some sloppy, nameless type of pastry; getting gravy all around his mouth as he bit and chewed on it.
“It was very common for elvish men to fall in love with human women,” he continued, “Wasn't it, Ead?”
Ead curled his lip, glaring at Tostig, before walking away.
“That wasn't very nice,” said Mary.
Tostig rolled his eyes, “During war-time, human women would use this to weaken elvish men and cause them to turn against the rest of us. Some found happiness, others found heartbreak - but all of these elvish men were treacherous.”
“So... you all know this? It's, like, taught to you?”
Tostig shrugged, “How else would we learn to despise your kind?”