Chapter 5: Lapses in judgment

Lazarn stirred as the rising sun peeped through the front window of her lounge. In her exhaustion last night she’d not even remembered to pull the curtains shut, and now the sun’s bright morning rays had found her, fast asleep in her armchair.

She squinted, and raised a hand in front of her face as she pulled herself to the front of the chair and leaned forward, feet now on the ground and her eyes out of range of the sun’s glare.

She was slightly irritated with herself for not drawing the curtains, but quickly realised there was much to do today and an early start would be her friend, even though she still felt exhausted.

“Time to get yourself moving, Lazarn. Enough lazing about in your armchair,” she gently chided herself.

Being awake just after sunrise would also give her the chance to prepare thoughtfully for what could be a really busy day for her, even though it was the weekend, and the other members of the council of elders would be spending time with their families.

Largely due to the unfortunate end to her engagement to Trevarn, and the almost calamitous events involving Everarn just over a year later, Lazarn had been on her own for well over 30 years.

Not that it bothered her all that much. “I have many wonderful friends,” she would say whenever someone well-meaning raised it with her.

It was something that smarted a little on the rare occasions when she allowed herself to think about it, but in truth, the leadership role she had been thrust into after helping to prevent the collapse of the community had taken up most of her time for the last three decades. Marriage, and raising a family, would have been an almost impossible juggling act in the circumstances.

The residents of this diverse settlement, vagrants or nomads all at some stage in their history, but now united under the Mighty Pine, were her family, she always told herself when regrets bubbled to the surface. She never allowed the feeling to linger. Being a workaholic helped with that.

While working on a weekend might have been difficult, and disruptive, for the members of the council of elders who had families, Monkeybreath always felt it it was tantamount to working for the benefit of her family.

Batefimba, who knew Lazarn better than anyone else in the community, often reminded her that she had the right to take time out for herself, but she always responded that those she had a responsibility for might suffer, that being available to the community was her duty.

It had been the subject of many a good-natured discussion between the friends over the years, but sometimes Batefimba had verged on anger as she reminded her friend that she was no use to her subjects if she was perpetually exhausted.

As she boiled water on the wood stove, then made herself a cup of the refreshing rosemary tea her friend had recommended to her, Lazarn pondered that Batefimba might well be right.

She wondered if one of the factors that drove her to work so tirelessly was guilt at the position she knew she had nearly put the village in through her naivety. There was almost certainly a grain of truth in that.

It had been her close relationship with Masikazumba, the chieftain when she had arrived at Mighty Pine as a not-quite-eight-year-old, that had caused Everarn to focus his attentions on Lazarn.

She had discovered this to her horror after Batefimba, ever suspicious of her friend’s new suitor, saw him emerge one night from the home of a young elf couple with three other elves, youngsters just finished school and entering adulthood. She followed the quartet as closely as she could, blending into the shadows. and heard whispered discussion about them using her friend to gain access to council headquarters, occupy the building, and take control of the settlement. The number of elves living under Mighty Pine had grown substantially in the nearly two decades since the Leaning Pine refugees had arrived, both through new births and through Masikazumba offering housing and employment to vagrants and those from other communities who had fallen on hard times.

“We’ll try to enlist as many of the other elves as we can to help,” she heard Everarn, obviously confident he wasn’t being overheard, tell his three co-conspirators.

Batefimba hoped they would find no takers. But if Everarn had managed to get a handful of residents on his side, she knew chances were strong others could be turned to the cause. She had rushed to Lazarn’s home to warn her about the plot, and the next day they had informed Masikazumba, and with him begun to hatch a plan to foil the scheme.

It was not a secret that Lazarn was close to the chieftain, but she had never been quite sure how Everarn had known of this. He would have found out like any other new arrival if he had stayed around long enough, but he had focused his attention on her virtually from the day he arrived at Mighty Pine, she realised once the dust had settled on Everarn’s plot.

Lazarn’s close relationship with Masikazumba had been forged, in a sense, on the day she had arrived in this community. Her ringside view of the kindness he chose to show to members of another species in need had made the perfect first impression.

Not long afterwards, at the feast he had organised to welcome them, Lazarn, though seated at a table set aside for the children, had waited for the right moment to approach Masikazumba and, somewhat shyly, introduce herself to him.

“I remember you, Lazarn. You were the one who thanked me. What can I do for you?” he asked.

Her question was one she would never have dared ask in front of her parents, who would have thought it impertinent, but she had to know.

“Why do they call you Monkeybreath, chief?”

She half expected an angry response, but instead he smiled.

“That’s a good question. We capanguta revere our ancestors, and a story has been passed down through the generations about one who was known as the Great Monkey, a leader who was powerful, wise and caring in equal measure. Capanguta chieftains are known by the title of Monkeybreath because we believe they have the breath – or perhaps the spirit – of the Great Monkey.”

Lazarn nodded, seeming to indicate understanding, but she had another question. “So why did you allow us to stay here?”

He answered without hesitation. “Because it seemed like the just and compassionate thing to do, Lazarn. You were in great need. There were elderly elves among you, pregnant ones.

“And because long ago, my father was the Monkeybreath of a troop of capanguta that had to move from our home due to a crippling drought.

“We were in a similar situation to your group, but when we sought shelter in a tree occupied by pine elves, we were told to leave, that we were not welcome. My father was bitter about that all his life, even after we found this tree. It was not nearly as tall then, but it suited our purposes and became our beloved home.

“I was determined that I would never treat creatures in need the way we had been treated.”

Lazarn reached forward and placed her tiny hand in Monkeybreath’s giant paw. “Thank you,” she said again, knowing this gesture would have been fully endorsed by her parents. “You are very kind.”

It had been the start of an unlikely but unshakeable alliance, which was why Lazarn was still mortified, and occasionally guilt-ridden, at having allowed Everarn to lower her defences with his empty charm, and nearly exposed the chieftain she so admired to a plot to overthrow him.

As usual, though, she found it too uncomfortable to sit with these thoughts for long. She kept promising herself she would address it one day, even as she pushed it to the back of her mind again.

There were more pressing matters to attend to, she told herself as she stood at the lounge window, looking down through the branches, where she occasionally spotted the movement of residents going about their leisurely morning.

It had struck her just as she was falling into her exhausted sleep, not that many hours before, that she had failed to do something important. In her tiredness she had not thought to go to the guard post at the main gate to the settlement to ask Carnotine about Fevan’s arrival, and specifically to enquire as to why she had not been summoned immediately.

The omission should have troubled her, but she had not really given it too much thought at the time, and that fact in itself troubled her. It was a bad lapse of judgment on her part, compounding what may have been a similar lapse on the part of her guard commander. Perhaps her exhaustion was indeed affecting her normally sound judgment, or was it her age?

More immediately worrying, however, was the possibility that the twin lapses may have exposed the community to danger.

She needed to see Carnotine as soon as possible, to try to understand what had happened last night and decide if they had somehow been deceived by Fevan. The next step would depend on what conclusion they reached, but the uncertainty meant it was urgent.

Fortunately she knew Batefimba was looking after Fevan for the moment. That gave her a little time, she reasoned, though she wasn’t sure how much. She fervently hoped another shift of guards had been assigned to maintain the watch on her friend’s home, and its mysterious new occupant.

More immediately worrying, however, was the possibility that the twin lapses may have exposed the community to danger.

She would dress as quickly as possible and then head down the tree’s network of stairs as fast as she safely could. Like most other residents, Carnotine would have the weekend off, with one of his senior lieutenants taking charge of the guards during that time.

However, Lazarn knew he always visited the main guard post at the morning shift change and would spend at least an hour ensuring everything was in order, and reminding his charges not to treat weekend duty any differently than they would their shifts during the week, just because he was not watching them.

If she got moving, she would be able to catch Carnotine before he left to spend the day with his wife. Their children were well past the pup stage, so they would probably be out having fun with their friends.

As the chieftain of Mighty Pine, Lazarn was entitled to keep servants, and she could have had a cooked breakfast, and been transported down to the guard post by a quartet of bearers, making her task this morning a lot easier. Though elves were generally light of foot, she was into her sixties now, and the trip took longer than it once had, even when she wasn’t stopped by residents wanting to chat.

But ever since she and her parents and siblings had fled Leaning Pine, along with the other banished families, she had been used to doing things for herself, and the idea of having people employed simply to look after her every need seemed extravagant and entitled to her. She had always insisted she was quite capable of taking care of herself, and still did, although her present exhaustion was making her wonder if it was finally time to consider a change to that strict policy.

She dressed in a hurry, brushed her hair and was striding quickly across the landing to the front door when she heard a loud knock. The last thing she needed now was to be held up by a visitor wanting to talk about something trivial, she sighed. Residents came to her door to raise issues as often as they stopped her when she was out and about … which was all the time.

She changed course, going into her study, which had a small peephole set in the wall that looked out on the front door, allowing her to see who was visiting without them being aware of her scrutiny.

She would check who it was, and if it was one of her well-meaning residents, she would sneak out of a side entrance and take a slightly different route down to the guardhouse.

This was one of the downsides of the open-door policy she had always maintained with her subjects, she thought as she put her eye to the peephole.

Then her shoulders relaxed, and she felt her jangling nerves settle a little. Carnotine stood at her front door.

But when she realised he was in full uniform, which was unusual for the weekend, and took in the sombre look on his face, her concern quickly returned.

(Copyright, Grant Shimmin, 2020)

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