Chapter 11: What a weekend

Fevan rides. Drawing by Caitlin Shimmin

First light was still at least half an hour away when the quartet of guards selected by Carnotine assembled by lamplight at the front gate. They were armed with bows and arrows, though they hoped no bloodshed would be necessary. They wouldn’t hesitate to use them in defence of their chieftain, though, or the other members of this raiding party.

Dervarine and Carnotine, who had come to wish his guards well, turned as they heard voices. Mazimba and Fevan, looking excited but nervous, were making their way to the gate, accompanied by Batefimba. It looked to Carnotine like she was less tense than the previous afternoon.

As they exchanged greetings, two furry heads popped over the solid wooden gate.

“Morning folks, lovely day for a mission,” said Rupertonix. “This is Sebastionix.” He indicated his companion.

“Morning everyone, nice to meet you all. Looks like there’s some excitement ahead,” Sebastionix said.

“Hopefully not too much!” Batefimba said.

“I agree with you there, Ma’am,” the furriensis replied.

As introductions were made, Carnotine turned to see Monkeybreath striding purposefully towards the gate. She was not coming from the direction of her home.

“Morning, Ma’am,” he said.

“Morning Captain, I was just taking a look at the perimeter defences. Excellent work. I hope this will be one of those instances where the preparation is the bulk of the work and we don’t have to see those defences tested.”

“I agree, Ma’am. But if they’re necessary, I’m sure they’ll be up to the task.”

“I’m sure they will,” Lazarn responded.

“Now, it’s time we got going,” she said to the group.

They slipped through the gate to where Rupertonix and Sebastionix waited, with Carnotine and his guards ready to quickly lock the gate securely again.

Mazimba was surprised to see Batefimba exiting with them. “Umamba?” he asked.

“Monkeybreath and I discussed it last night. My presence will help to draw out Trevarn and Everarn, which is what we’re hoping to do to provide a diversion for you and Fevan,” she answered. “Don’t worry, my boy, I’ll be fine, and I’ll get to keep an eye on you for most of the journey too,” she said wryly.

Mazimba grinned and hugged her. “I’m glad, Umamba. But you take care,” he said, before turning to climb up onto Sebastionix, who had bent to allow him and Fevan access. Panthozine, the guard he had seen from the guest room window the day before, would be riding up front, with Haxavine behind them, watching their back.

Sebastionix stood upright again, alongside Rupertonix, who had Dervarine riding in front of Monkeybreath and Batefimba, and Brandotine at the back.

“All right,” Monkeybreath said. “I’d like us to make us much ground as we can before the sun is high and we’re more likely to run into someone. We will get close enough to Towering Pine to watch the comings and goings at the settlement, hidden from view, during the afternoon. That will help us to assess whether they are on any kind of alert as a result of Fevan’s disappearance.

“Then we will make our entrance just before the community is due to lock down for the night and guards are being changed over. The gathering darkness will hopefully add to the confusion our arrival will cause.”

“We will go quickly but carefully, Monkeybreath,” Rupertonix said. “Guards, please alert us if there is any reason we should hide.”

“We will,” Dervarine replied.

He and Sebastionix set off at a pace brisk enough to keep them ahead of schedule without making it an uncomfortable ride for their passengers.

They had a dream run, with the two furrienses only required to retreat into a line of trees once, to avoid being seen by a group of elves they would otherwise have crossed paths with.

Shortly after noon, they were in sight of Towering Pine, and Monkeybreath asked Rupertonix to look for a hiding place that would give them a good view of the settlement. They stopped to rest up through the warmest part of the day in a clump of trees not far away. Mazimba climbed one of them to get a better vantage point, but after an hour he descended to tell Monkeybreath he had seen nothing to indicate the community was on alert.

It was simply a waiting game, and that meant trying to relax in the shade. Mazimba napped briefly, but the others were too on edge to do the same.

Finally, with the sun on the last stretch of its daily descent, Monkeybreath called them all to attention. “Right, it’s time. Sebastionix, you and your team know where to approach from. You head off now, and we’ll give you a few minutes to get into position.”

They watched as the strongly built furriensis, carrying the two teenagers, along with Panthozine and Haxavine, headed off in an easterly sweep away from Towering Pine, knowing they would double back and approach the settlement from the side, taking up position as close as possible to the point where Fevan had recently escaped.

After about 10 minutes, with darkness closing in, Monkeybreath decided it was time to move.

With the four tiny creatures on his back hanging on tightly, Rupertonix sprang from the trees and bounded aggressively up to the main gate as four guards tried to push it shut.

If the sight of the giant furriensis running at them wasn’t enough to scare them, the loud hiss he emitted as he stopped just short of them was guaranteed to get their knees knocking, and the four guards retreated behind the half-shut gate.

Rupertonix had brought all the aggression he could muster and he pushed on the gate with his head, defying attempts to shut it. Yells and screams came from the guards and other nearby residents. The sound of panic. They had definitely been caught by surprise.

Rupertonix stood his ground in the darkness, then Lazarn and Batefimba stood up on his neck, and Lazarn yelled “We want to see Trevarn, and Everarn, now! We’re not leaving without seeing them!”

She pointed at one of the guards already shaken up by his close encounter with the furriensis.

“You! Go and fetch them! Tell them Lazarn and Batefimba want to see them! The safety of this community depends on it!”

The terrified elf didn’t look at all sure of his ability to persuade the pair to comply, but just then the village chieftain, Nedavarn, arrived on the scene and, quickly surveying the situation, ordered two other senior guards to accompany him. “Tell them they need to get down here as soon as possible. We’re in danger!”

Turning to Lazarn, he called out. “Please, I have no idea what they’ve done, but spare the community, I beg you!”

He sounded sincere to Lazarn, but there was no time to focus on that now.

In their hiding place near the perimeter wall, Sebastionix and his passengers could hear an almighty row coming from the main gate, some distance away. They’d also seen a guard patrol go scuttling away in the direction of the noise, leaving this section of the wall unmonitored. It was perfect.

Sebastionix edged forward from their hiding place, allowing Fevan and Mazimba to step over the wall onto the branch that had been Fevan’s earlier escape route.

They would climb up to Trevarn’s house and stay hidden until they were sure he had left, and Everarn too. Fevan had been sure he would be there, given it was the weekend.

They were in luck. As they climbed, they heard yelling coming from a house. Mazimba looked questioningly at Fevan and she nodded confirmation.

Soon they drew level with the house and the shouting was decipherable. “Lazarn and Batefimba? Oh, this’ll be some show!” It was Trevarn.

“What if it’s a trap?” responded a voice Fevan knew was Everarn’s.

“Nedavarn orders you to come! If you continue to refuse you will both be arrested!”

A few seconds later, the door opened and from the shadows they saw two men emerge, flanked by guards and with a third behind them, and head down towards the town square.

Framed in the doorway once they had stepped out was a white-haired elf with long hair, Venixan, Fevan’s grandmother. She looked out into the darkness and Fevan realised she knew it was time.

The door shut and they could see the movement of shadows in the room. They gave it five minutes, then headed for the door. The moment they knocked, Fevan’s grandmother reappeared, a young girl Mazimba could see was her sister behind her.

Fevan hugged them both, tightly, but kept any noise to a minimum. She introduced Mazimba.

“It’s time to go,” she said. “Grandmother, you and I will go first as it might take us some time to get down. Mazimba will bring Rivazan.”

Her grandmother had clearly been prepared and she pulled a backpack out from behind a couch. “Here,” she said. “It has some of your clothes in it as well.”

Fevan swung the backpack over her shoulders and then the pair stepped out into the darkness, lamplight from homes occasionally illuminating their way. It was a precarious process, and she held onto Venixan firmly. Her sure-footedness came in useful as they negotiated the last stretch along the branch, but soon they were seated comfortably on Sebastionix’s back.

Mazimba had decided to allow Fevan several minutes to get down before following. He didn’t want to be caught behind them on a tricky descent. Being able to move steadily and get down without stopping would make them less likely to be noticed, he thought.

Then, just as he decided it was time to go, and they stepped through the door, shutting it behind them, there was a yell. “Hey, there’s a capanguta here, and he’s got Trevarn’s granddaughter! Stop him!”

The elf, Trevarn’s neighbour, had just emerged from his home to check on all the noise coming from the town square when he spotted Mazimba and Rivazan.

Mazimba hesitated for only a second. “Jump on and hold on tight,” he said. Rivazan climbed onto his back and reached around his chest, as he leapt from the front step, grabbing the nearest branch and swinging into the shadows. The neighbour continued yelling, but he could no longer see them, only hear the sound of Mazimba’s agile movements getting further away.

The capanguta dropped down from branch to branch, his excellent night vision helping him find his way, with Rivazan clinging tightly to him.

“Nearly there,” he said.

From the other side of the wall, those waiting anxiously for their arrival heard him yell “Look out!” Then he and Rivazan landed on Sebastionix’s furry back.

“Go!” yelled Panthozine, and the furriensis turned from the wall, cutting into the shadows beyond the settlement and retracing the route they’d followed earlier. “Let’s check on the others!” Panthozine said after a couple of minutes, and Sebastionix swung right, coming out in a clearing a little way from the main gate. They watched from a safe distance.

With Rupertonix still standing his ground and holding the gate open, Lazarn yelled: “I know what you’re up to, Trevarn! You tried 35 years ago and now you’re plotting again, the two of you!

“Well, it won’t work! I’ve come to warn you! This prejudicial nonsense is over!”

Turning to Nedavarn, she went on. “I think you need to take a good look at what some of your residents are up to. I’d be happy to discuss it with you. Feel free to visit Mighty Pine.”

She lowered her voice. “All right, Rupertonix, we are done. Magnificent work, my friend. “Hopefully that’s given the others time to accomplish their mission.”

Just as she said that, a piercing whistle came from over her right shoulder. It was a prearranged signal between the guards. “Yes, they’re finished,” Dervarine said. “We can go, Ma’am!”

With a final hiss, Rupertonix turned and headed in the direction the whistle had come from.

Spotting the movement, Sebastionix edged forward, but just as he did so, he stopped. His feline night vision had spotted a movement in front of him.

“There’s an elf down here,” he turned his head to convey the message to his passengers. “He seems to be heading away from Towering Pine.”

Sebastionix crouched down to allow them a closer look. Fevan, suddenly curious that it might be someone she knew, edged forward as far as she could, finding herself seated right on his furry forehead.

The elf was carrying a lamp, and as he held it up, she saw a face she certainly recognised. It couldn’t be, but it was. “Father!” she cried out. “What are you doing here?”

“Oh Fevan!” he cried. “I decided it was finally time to come home. I missed you and your sister so much, but I arrived to find the place in disarray, with a fearsome creature like this one barring the gate, and didn’t know what to do. I can’t believe I’ve found you!”

“They’re only fearsome if they don’t like you. Come up,” Fevan said, “we’re going back to Mighty Pine. It’s much more peaceful there.”

Stenovan nervously climbed up Sebastionix’s neck onto his back, just as Rivazan and Venixan rushed forward to greet him. The four of them hugged joyfully.

“Aw, that’s lovely,” Sebastionix said, but we’d better get back to it now. Here comes Rupertonix.”

As his friend drew alongside, Fevan quickly explained the reunion to Lazarn and Batefimba, and assured her Venixan and Rivazan were safe and well.

“Excellent, great work, all of you! Now, we need to get back to Mighty Pine as quickly as possible. Rupertonix, how fast can you two get us there in the dark?”

“Well, we are nocturnal,” the furriensis answered. “Let’s go!”

The friends cantered along tirelessly into the night, their wide awake passengers talking excitedly, and within just a few hours they were outside their settlement.

“We’ll need to be careful here,” Dervarine signalled the furrienses to stop a little way from the main gate. “Defensive traps will have been laid, so we’ll need the Captain to guide us in.”

He let out the same high-pitched whistle Panthozine had used earlier. Just a few seconds later, Carnotine’s head appeared over the wall, and he ordered his guards to open the gate far enough for the travellers to enter. He quickly climbed down from his vantage point and strode out to meet them.

“Well done, all of you!” he beamed. “I’ll guide you in, so we don’t spring any traps.”

“Thank you so much, Rupertonix and Sebastionix, you were marvellous!” Lazarn said, and her sentiments were echoed by every one of their passengers, the guards included.

“No problem, Monkeybreath. It was a privilege to be part of that. You were pretty scary out there.I was really glad I was on your side,” Rupertonix replied.

“I’m just going to pop back to the castle for a bite. An empty bowl will let the giants know I have been home. But then I’ll head back down and sleep nearby in case I’m needed.”

“I’ll do the same,” Sebastionix said. “If there’s more action ahead, I wouldn’t miss it.”

Carnotine led the weary travellers through the gate. “We left a gap for your arrival, but we’ll be laying a net trap across it now you’re safely inside,” he said.

“Thank you, Carnotine,” Lazarn said. “How long is it until sunrise?”

“A couple of hours, Ma’am.”

“Right, I’m going to stay up until then to see if anything materialises in daylight. It didn’t look like anything was planned, or even as if most of Towering Pine supports the bigoted views of Trevarn and Everarn, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a swift response once he finds his wife and granddaughter gone.”

“There are plenty of bunk beds in the guardroom, Ma’am, if you’d like to rest there,” Carnotine answered. “And anyone else who would like one.”

It was music to the ears of the weary raiding party. All except the guards who had travelled with them, and were now focused on helping the defensive effort, despite their tiredness. This was why they were trained. They were wired by the encounter at Towering Pine hours ago, ready for further action.

As they so often had while she was chieftain, Monkeybreath’s forecast proved accurate. The sun had been up for about an hour when Carnotine shook her awake.

“You should see this, Ma’am.”

Lazarn got up, quickly followed by Mazimba and Fevan, who had heard the Captain. From the front of the guardroom, which afforded a view over the wall, they could see a series of distant shapes, colourful, shimmering in the early morning sunlight. They were getting closer.

“They’re swarmonixes, Ma’am. They’re flying towards us!”

Lazarn watched in surprise. She’d only seen one or two swarmonixes in her life, never in the swarms that gave them their name. Green, with rainbow wings. Quite unlike the flying creatures that sometimes nested near the top of Mighty Pine.

“How are we going to defend against those, Captain? We hadn’t anticipated flying creatures.”

All around the perimeter wall, traps had been laid that would see any creature crossing an area on foot unfurling a high square net that they would walk or run into, and then be dropped into a pit at its base. The nets, once unfurled, would hang from long, thick poles that reached up at an angle from the wall, but they wouldn’t be sprung by flying creatures.

“I have an idea, Ma’am. It might help,” Carnotine replied as he rushed for the door to speak to the guards. “I have a feeling those swarmonixes will be struggling a little with the weight of the elves. They’re not much bigger than the elves are,” he called back as he exited.

“Let’s hope so,” Lazarn said nervously.

Several guards were already stationed on an observation platform that ran along a length of the front wall, including behind the gate.

Carnotine quickly instructed Dervarine to gather the remaining guards and get as many rocks as possible to those observing as they could. Then he climbed to the observation platform and quickly issued instructions. “Wait until the last possible second,” he stressed.

The briefing came just in time. At least eight swarmonixes and their elven riders were seconds away from the wall. “Now!” Carnotine shouted, and several guards threw their rocks down. It was like a chain reaction as several traps were sprung and their flying foes thudded into the nets, before sliding down into the pits at the base. Once they’d collected themselves, the swarmonixes were able to fly away and make their escape. But their pilots were stuck.

Thinking it was all over, Carnotine breathed a sigh of relief, but then a guard called out “Look, sir!”

There were two more still coming. “That’s Trevarn and Everarn!” Dervarine called from just along the platform.

The two desperate friends were trying to urge their struggling swarmonixes to fly higher, to clear the nets. It looked as though they would make it. Carnotine wondered briefly what two old men could do against all his guards, but he didn’t want to take any risks. He’d rather they stayed outside the wall.

Just then he heard “No you don’t!” and a giant furry paw came whistling through the air above them, as Sebastionix batted Everarn and his ride down to the ground in front of the wall.

“This one’s mine!” yelled Rupertonix as he administered the same treatment to Trevarn. It was over. Guards quickly burst through the gate to apprehend the pair, recover their comrades from the pits, and march them to the Mighty Pine holding cells.

In the guardroom, where Lazarn, Mazimba and Fevan had been watching, they’d been joined by the others, awoken by the noise.

They all looked at each other, suddenly exhausted beyond words.

“Boy, what a weekend!” Mazimba broke the silence. “Umamba, can I please have the day off school?” he laughed.

“It just struck me,” Batefimba said. “In all this planning, we haven’t worked out where you’re going to stay,” she said to the new arrivals.

“I’ve got a feeling someone here has a massive house with quite a few empty rooms,” Lazarn interjected.

“Now I think it’s time for some serious sleep,” she said, leading the way out of the guardroom and across to the stairs.

(Copyright, Grant Shimmin, 2020)

Chapter 10: Extraordinary times

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

As the five of them headed down to the town square, where the bell had long since stopped ringing, and hundreds of residents were now assembling, Lazarn turned to Carnotine: “Captain, I will need four of your most competent guards for this mission. I hope they will not be required to fight, but it may be necessary if the plan doesn’t go as smoothly as I hope. Either way, they will add an extra layer of protection for us.

“I would very much like to be one of them, Ma’am,” Carnotine replied. “I feel I owe it to you, and this community.”

“I’m grateful for the offer, Captain, but I feel it is more important that you are here to ensure the safety of the Mighty Pine community. If I’ve read this right, what we are attempting will result in a backlash from Towering Pine, and I need you here to lead the defence of this community. You will be in charge while I am away.

“However, I would be grateful if Dervarine was among those who accompany us. It would be good for me to have the chance for a constructive chat with him.”

“Very well, Ma’am, I will see to it; and I would be honoured to defend Mighty Pine.”

“Do you really need to put yourself in harm’s way, my friend?” Batefimba asked her.

“I see no other way,” replied Lazarn. “Besides, that’s what a good leader should do. But I need to ask you something, my friend, you and Mazimba.” Turning to the young capanguta, she said: “I need you to be part of this mission, to support Fevan. Your agility and strength would be a huge asset. Are you willing to do this?”

“Yes, Monkeybreath,” Mazimba replied eagerly. “Of course I am … Grandmother?”

Batefimba wore a fearful expression. The thought of anything happening to her dear grandson, after all the loss her family had suffered, was a difficult one, and she stopped walking for a second, turning to look off through the branches.

“Batefimba?” It was Lazarn.

“Very well,” Batefimba said. “I am not happy about it, but I accept it is necessary. Please keep him safe.”

“I promise I will do everything in my power to bring us all back unscathed, with Fevan’s sister and grandmother.”

“My guards will do whatever is necessary to keep you all safe, Ma’am,” Carnotine chimed in.

As they came to the town square, Haxavine, the young guard who had sought Carnotine’s help the day before, approached Lazarn.

“Excuse me, Monkeybreath, Rupertonix is here. You said you wished to speak to him.”

“Ah yes. Thank you. I will meet him before speaking to the people. Come with me, please, you two,” she said to Fevan and Mazimba.

“Thank you for coming so quickly, Rupertonix,” she said as they met him at the main gate to Mighty Pine, the furriensis looking in at them over the wall.

“It’s my pleasure,” he replied, “although it sounds like there’s trouble afoot. Hello Fevan, I’m glad to see you’re looking well. I was a little worried about you when I brought you here yesterday.

“Thank you, Rupertonix. You were so kind. I’m glad we’ll have you to help us in this mission.”

Rupertonix’s eyes widened just a little. “A mission, eh? Sounds like fun.”

“You know Mazimba, don’t you?” Lazarn asked, cutting through the chit-chat.

“Indeed. Hello young man. Good to see you.”

The capanguta smiled. “Likewise,” he said.

“Rupertonix, this might seem a strange request, but I remember you talking about another furriensis you sometimes spend time with,” Lazarn said. “Do you think he would be willing to help us? I understand it’s asking a lot from someone who doesn’t know our community.”

“Oh, Sebastionix has heard me talk about Mighty Pine a lot,” he answered. “I’m sure he will be pleased to help when I tell him what the plan is. What is the plan, by the way?”

Monkeybreath quickly outlined her strategy to all three of them, watching their eyes grow wider but also seeing their heads nod at its logic, and simplicity. It certainly contained the element of surprise.

“Any questions?” she asked as she finished her briefing. They shook their heads.

“I’ll head off and find Sebastionix now. I’ll make sure we’re here ready for you before first light,” Rupertonix said.

“Won’t the giants worry about you if you’re not there for breakfast?” Fevan asked, the previous day’s experience fresh in her mind.

“They might, but they’ll just have to deal with it,” the furriensis answered. “I’ll sleep at their feet tonight, so at least when they wake up and I’m missing, they’ll remember I was on their bed during the night. That should keep them from being too worried.”

“Right, it’s time to address the residents,” Lazarn said. They headed to the square and Fevan and Mazimba went to stand at the back of the gathering with Batefimba, while Monkeybreath took to a small raised stage that afforded her a view of all the residents seated in the square.

“Residents of Mighty Pine, thank you for coming to the square at such short notice. I have never before had to have the bell rung for an emergency assembly since I took over as chieftain, though you have all participated in drills. Some of you will remember the previous occasion this bell was rung in anger, as I do, and therefore you’ll understand this is a matter of serious concern.

“Without wishing to alarm you, our settlement could be in danger, although we are well set to defend it if we should be attacked.”

Monkeybreath explained to the townsfolk that the attempted rescue of Fevan’s grandmother and sister might bring reprisals from Towering Pine, but if so that might also offer them the chance to finally draw a line under the conflict of 35 years before.

“The attempt to overthrow the leaders of Mighty Pine then relied on the involvement of some in this community sympathetic to that cause, and those who were caught paid long ago for their part in the plot.

“However, it has always been believed there were elements at Towering Pine who supported Everarn’s mission, and would have been called into action once Everarn and his allies here had completed preparations. Fortunately they were caught before that, but that meant his comrades at Towering Pine were never exposed. This could be the opportunity to rectify that, for the good of both communities.”

There was murmuring among the residents. The number who remembered the events Monkeybreath referred to was small, though stories had naturally been passed down through generations.

“As much as I hope it is not the case, I’m aware,” she continued, “that there may still be residents here who feel similar about our diversity, and might perhaps try to alert associates at Towering Pine. Which is why, as of now, the gates to the community will be closed and guard patrols doubled until this situation has been resolved.”

She heard a few grumbles run through the crowd. “I’m sorry this impacts on weekend leisure activities for some of you, but we are doing this for all of us, our whole community. I would ask for your patience and support. Hopefully Mighty Pine will be a much safer place for you and your families when this is over.”

“Hear, hear!” yelled a voice from somewhere in the middle of the crowd, and a cheer went up from most of the residents in response. Monkeybreath clearly had wide support.

The gathering broke up and there was a hum of animated conversation as residents headed into shops, or back to their homes. It all felt a little unnerving, but most were confident things would be ok. If there were those who were sympathetic to the separatism espoused by some elements at Towering Pine, they were not surprisingly keeping that to themselves.

As Lazarn stepped off the stage, Carnotine was there to greet her, accompanied by four guards. She recognised the pair who had been watching outside her house that morning as Fevan’s story was discussed, and Dervarine, who she greeted warmly. “Lieutenant, you will ride with me tomorrow.”

Carnotine introduced Haxavine, the young guard she had briefly encountered earlier. “He is young, but he is passionate about his work,” he said.

“I have doubled the guards on duty, Ma’am,” he added. “Just in case anyone at Towering Pine has already been alerted to this situation.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Lazarn replied. “Now it’s time for us to discuss the defence strategy.”

As Batefimba, Mazimba and Fevan began their walk back home, Lazarn and Carnotine went into the council building with three of the senior guards who would be helping their Captain ready the community for a possible attack.

Batefimba slipped her right arm sadly around her grandson’s shoulders as they began climbing the stairs, glancing wistfully back at the gate to the community that was now locked, allowing nobody in or out.

Mazimba and Fevan both followed her gaze, and then the elf slipped round to her left, and put her arm around Batefimba’s waist. The trio climbed in silent togetherness.

(Copyright, Grant Shimmin, 2020)

Chapter 9: Time for a plan

Lazarn and Carnotine stood looking through her lounge window, watching Mazimba, Fevan and Batefimba, in that order, hastily climb her stairs.

“It does seem things are under control, Ma’am, no thanks to the lapses by me and my guards,” Carnotine said. “Thankfully.”

He noted with satisfaction that Panthozine and Brandotine were following the trio at a distance.

Lazarn nodded as she walked to the door. “It certainly looks that way.”

“Good morning, Monkeybreath,” Mazimba panted as Lazarn opened the door to him. “Fevan has quite a lot to tell you.”

“Good morning, come in, all of you. Hello Fevan,” she said, before giving Batefimba a hug as she entered. “Thank you, my trusted friend,” she said.

“You are welcome, my friend,” Batefimba replied. “Boy, do you have a story coming up.”

“Shall I leave you, Ma’am?” Carnotine asked.

“No Captain, I rather think it would be best if you stayed. I have a feeling we may be about to learn some important information.”

He sat down and listened as, prompted occasionally by Batefimba, Fevan told Lazarn the story she had recently recounted to Batefimba and Mazimba.

Like her friend, Lazarn had worked out the true identity of Fevan’s grandfather a while before the elf divulged it, both from the clues along the way and from closely studying her face as she spoke. There was a definite resemblance there to the man she had once known so well.

It stung a little, but at the same time, she felt it reaffirming her decision of all those years ago.

Nevertheless, she still let out a gasp when Trevarn’s name was uttered. “That explains why Everarn latched onto me so quickly when he arrived here!” she exclaimed. “It’s troubled me all these years. Trevarn must have put him up to the whole plot. But of course he would have arrived at Towering Pine under a different name, and I’m sure he was very careful who he took into his confidence.

“Everarn may have been the only one to start with, but I’ve always believed there must have been a plan to bring in reinforcements from Towering Pine to support the plot to overthrow Masikazumba, so others must have known. At his trial, he steadfastly maintained he had been acting alone when he arrived here.”

Fevan was nearly at the end of her story. “I hope you can forgive my deception in not saying I had set out to find Mighty Pine. I was genuinely concerned about news filtering back to Towering Pine and that resulting in trouble for this community.”

“That’s understandable, and I’m grateful to you for trying to protect us,” Lazarn responded. “I am comvinced you do not mean us harm and I am pleased to offer you the opportunity to stay here at Mighty Pine if you wish.”

“Thank you,” said Fevan. “I would appreciate that very much. You have all been so kind.”

“But I am concerned about the situation for your grandmother and sister, Fevan, as I’m sure you must be.”

“I am, Monkeybreath. I discussed my plan with my grandmother before leaving and she wholeheartedly supported it, but I expressed concern about how my grandfather would react towards her, especially if he suspected she might have had something to do with it.

“We decided I would leave on one of my grandfather’s drinking nights, knowing he would not wake until late the next day. And I wrote a note to both my grandparents, explaining that the difficult relationship with my grandfather had persuaded me I should leave for the benefit of family harmony.

“I hoped my grandmother would be able to tell him, frantically, when he woke, that I was gone and show him the note. We decided she would try to sound desperate and encourage him to organise a search to find me and bring me back.

“Knowing my grandfather, and the state of our relationship, I was convinced he would not be bothered about trying to find me, and I hoped the note and my grandmother’s performance would be enough to convince him I had acted independently, and protect her and my sister, for a time at least.”

“You have thought your plan through well, Fevan. I am most impressed,” Lazarn said. “But I have to say I do fear that this protection will last for only a short time. Once Trevarn and Everarn get together again and have a few drinks, who knows what theories might start to be aired? That could spell trouble for your grandmother and Rizavan.

“Given the rest of your plan, though, I’m sure you have thought this far ahead.”

“I have. I told Grandmother I would try to find some way to rescue them as soon as I could. She is reluctant to leave my grandfather, wondering how he will fend for himself, but I told her she has to stop worrying about him when he treats her the way he does, and look after herself. She deserves to be happy. It took a while, but she came to accept that this way is best.

“I have no idea how I can get them out of there, but I am really worried about them. I also won’t do anything that could place this community in jeopardy, so I will have to think hard.”

“We will all think hard. Although I appreciate your concern for this community, Fevan, this is an issue that goes back a long way, and this may be the opportunity to get on top of it once and for all,” Lazarn replied.

“First, though, when you arrived, I was just about to tell the Captain a story, which I think is relevant for all of us, myself included, at this moment.”

She glanced at Carnotine. “With your permission, Captain, I am going to tell them why you are here. I think it’s important.”

Carnotine averted his eyes for a moment, embarrassed, but soon raised them again. “Very well, Ma’am, I agree,” he replied.

Lazarn outlined the reason for Carnotine’s presence, in ceremonial uniform, making it clear that she had refused to accept his resignation.

“I was just about to tell Carnotine the story about his grandfather, Petovine, who was the Commander of the Mighty Pine Guard when Everarn arrived here. His father, Tallovine, was the first member of this community our group of refugees spoke to when we arrived here more than 50 years ago.

“When we first heard the noise of you three approaching, the Captain had just told me his grandfather had been reluctant in his old age to say much about the events of that time, had you not, Captain?”

“Indeed, Ma’am. He seldom talked about them, and usually only if directly asked what had happened. His answers were usually brief and light on detail too.”

“I understand Petovine’s stance, but it strikes me that we can spend far too much time beating ourselves up over our mistakes, instead of learning from them and moving on,” Lazarn said. “I’m trying to learn that too, because my own role in that situation still troubles and embarrasses me from time to time. I would like to put that behind me.

“If it hadn’t been for my dear friend Batefimba’s intervention, this community could have been a vastly different and less happy place now,” she added. “If anything, you should be the one on the council of elders now, Batefimba.”

“You are kind, but you were always the much more driven leader, my friend,” she responded. “Family was always more important to me, as you know.”

Lazarn nodded. “When Everarn came to Mighty Pine, some 35 years ago, Petovine was getting near to his retirement as Captain of the Guard. It was about two years away, and he looked forward to it.

“His time in the role had been distinguished. It had been a peaceful time, which certainly owed much to his leadership and vigilance, as well as that of Masikazumba, though in truth we had never faced a situation such as the one Everarn caused. From the time of the uprising that turned my family and I into refugees from Leaning Pine, none of us here had experienced such strife again.”

“As a community, we were a lot less vigilant about visitors at that time than we have been since,” Batefimba added.

“Indeed,” Lazarn responded. “When Everarn arrived here, a clever piece of work on his part allowed him free access to Mighty Pine. Unbeknown to us until we heard the evidence at his trial, he had been close by for more than a week prior to putting his plan into action.

“He had watched the elves who left the settlement to work, noting the routes they followed, and then engaging some of them in apparently casual conversation some distance from here.

“We always believed he was subtly seeking one who was sympathetic to his cause, but knowing of his link with Trevarn now, he probably had some names and was simply trying . to find one of those Trevarn had identified as likely allies.

“Eventually he persuaded one, Ralkarn, to bring him into Mighty Pine, by telling the guards Everarn was his friend and would be staying with him for a while.”

Carnotine spoke. “I do know my grandfather felt he had let down Masikazumba by allowing Everarn in based purely on Ralkarn’s story. He felt his protective instinct for the community should have told him something was amiss.”

“Petovine had the same strong sense of honour you do, Captain. I don’t know if you knew he also offered his resignation after the Everarn episode, despite his important role in bringing the conspirators to justice?”

“No, I didn’t, Ma’am. I’m not sure he told the rest of the family that. But I assume Masikazumba’s response was the same as yours?”

“It was. I think I might have been the only resident Masikazumba told of Petovine’s offer at the time.

“It was Masikazumba who taught me that mistakes can be valuable learning opportunities.

“He gave me that advice just after Everarn, Ralkarn and their co-conspirators had been arrested in the council headquarters. After Batefimba uncovered their plot, we set a trap. Knowing they hoped to gain access to the council building to plan their takeover, I dropped a hint that Masikazumba often left a key to the building hidden for me as I was doing some work for him in the evenings, and I would replace it when I left. It was a plausible enough story that Everarn fell for it. Using the key, five of them entered the building at night, only to find Masikazumba, Petovine, a dozen guards, and myself, waiting for them.

“It was after they were apprehended, and everyone else had headed home, that I was berating myself for falling under Everarn’s spell. The chieftain gently chided me about learning from my mistakes. Then he told me, in confidence, about Petovine’s offer of resignation.

“It was shortly after that that Masikazumba asked me, with the agreement of the other members, to join the council of elders.

“Then, a couple of years later, when he was getting ready to step down, he proposed me as his replacement as chieftain, saying I had put the harmony and diversity of the community ahead of my personal concerns. The other elders agreed, to my surprise. I still feel unworthy often, even after such a long time.

“Nonsense, you have been a great chieftain, my friend,” Batefimba cut in, emphatically.

“I agree, Ma’am. My father always spoke highly of you and I have confirmed that view since I took over leadership of the guards,” Carnotine backed her up.

“Thank you both. Support like yours is what has kept me going,” Lazarn answered.

“Anyway Captain, I assumed that it would be ok to tell you now about your grandfather’s offer to resign, given how much time has passed. I’d like the others in this room to keep that to themselves, please.”

“Thank you, Ma’am. It’s comforting to know,” Carnotine said.

“Now we really must move on to the situation of Fevan’s grandmother and sister,” Lazarn continued. “I have an idea I think might work.

“Captain, could you please send your guards down to the gate with instructions to get a message to Rupertonix at the first opportunity that we need to see him urgently. And ask them then to ring the bell in the town square to assemble the residents.

“Speed is of the utmost importance.”

“Certainly, Ma’am.” Carnotine was already heading for the front door.

(Copyright, Grant Shimmin, 2020)

Chapter 8: An unpleasant memory

Despite Batefimba’s obvious impatience to have her suspicions about Fevan’s grandfather confirmed, she waited as the elf laid out her answer methodically. She had to keep reminding herself that this conversation was also an opportunity for her to continue the assessment of Fevan. Some of her concerns had been laid to rest, but she had been entrusted with an important task by Lazarn, and she needed to do it thoroughly for the good of the community. She refocused as Fevan continued.

“Although I had always found my grandfather difficult, I had never had any cause to suspect he was anyone other than who he said he was. Though it seems my grandmother had been having doubts for some years, but had always been too afraid to confront him with questions.

“My mother told me when I was only five or six that her father had not grown up at Towering Pine, but had arrived there after a long, lonely journey from a pine tree that was several weeks’ walk away.

“Food had been scarce in the community where he had grown up, Majestic Pine, and so he had decided to set out in search of a new place to live. He had told our grandmother, soon after they met, that he had hoped his departure would in some small way ease demand on the meagre food supply back in his home community. He also claimed that he had been helping for a few months to organise shipments of food back to Majestic Pine, until word reached him that the situation there had improved, but I know now that that was just a story.

“My grandmother had believed him without thinking too much about it when they had first met and fallen in love. But she told me recently she had suspected for a long time that it wasn’t true.

“Ah yes. Love is blind,” Batefimba cut in.

Fevan nodded. “Grandmother realised that if the story had been true, it would have meant he was at Towering Pine for several months before she even became aware of him. Not only is that unlikely in a relatively small settlement where news gets around fast, but as she said, she was at the age where and she and her close friends were aware of the young men in the settlement. It would have been difficult for him to stay hidden.

“On top of that, if everything was fine back at home, why had he not returned? He must just have arrived when she first encountered him.

“Grandfather’s sessions with Everarn sometimes went on until well into the night. The more pine pilsener they drank, the louder their voices grew. After my sister and grandmother had both gone to sleep, I would often sit up in bed and hear snatches of their conversation.

“This also meant Grandfather would not get up until very late the following day, and one morning, I got up early and sneaked into his study, even though we were expressly forbidden to go in there, and I knew that if he caught me, I would be in serious trouble. His rages were truly frightening.

“There was an old desk there. I was surprised not to find the drawers locked, and I rummaged through them, looking for anything that would tell me more about his past.

“I was just about to give up when I found, hidden away at the back of the bottom drawer, what looked like some kind of notebook, or journal.

“It seemed very old, and I couldn’t make out a name on the cover, as though it might have been obliterated, so I looked through it. There were some drawings; my grandfather was once fairly well known as an artist in the Towering Pine community, Grandmother told me, but he had gradually lost interest.

“There were also some notes in the book, about a long journey, when he was about 10 years old. There was a big group of elves who had been banished from Leaning Pine, it seemed, and they spent a long time travelling, with several young children among them, and some women expecting babies.”

“Yes, they came here,” Batefimba said. “I was a child at the time. If your grandfather was in that group, he must have lived here, at Mighty Pine, for some years.

“Our chieftain at the time, Masikazumba, welcomed them himself, and he very generously offered to let the group stay for as long as they wanted to.

“The group was led by Philavarn, Lazarn’s father, and they agreed to his generous offer to stay at least until the babies had been born and they were satisfied that their health was stable. But as it turned out, they stayed permanently. Lazarn was nearly eight when they arrived here.”

“Oh my goodness!” Fevan said. “There was a drawing in Grandfather’s book of a young girl. It showed her walking, carrying what looked like quite a heavy bag over her shoulder. I assume he must have done the drawing from memory. It could be Lazarn.”

“It might well be,” Batefimba responded. “But what else did you find, child? Was there any clue as to your grandfather’s name?”

“Well, I carried on looking for some time without finding any clue, but I did come across a couple of pages that upset me. There were pictures of capanguta, including one of the chieftain you just mentioned.

“But underneath it was written something along the lines of ‘I don’t like living with capanguta. They’re always swinging about through the branches of the Mighty Pine, showing off. And they’re so dark and hairy.

‘It would be much better if we could live in a community that was all pine elves, like we used to.

‘As soon as I am old enough, I will leave here and look for a community like that.’”

Fevan hesitated: “It shouldn’t have surprised me to find something like that in a book of my grandfather’s, after the things I’d heard him say to Everarn, but it was still upsetting to find that those feelings went back as far as they did, and to discover that everything he had told my grandmother and mother about where he came from was lies.

“I felt tears in my eyes as I closed the book, and went to replace it where I had found it. But as I placed it at the back of the drawer, I realised something was sticking out between the back page and the cover. It was a card.

“There were hearts on the front of it, drawn by hand, but not with the same level of skill present in my grandfather’s own drawings. Inside, there was a handwritten message: ‘Dear Trevarn, you’re wonderful.’ It was signed ‘your secret admirer’.”

There it was, confirmation of what Batefimba had been certain of for several minutes. Of course, she remembered Trevarn well. He had always been friendly to her when he and Lazarn were courting, but it had all been a front.

She wondered for a fleeting moment if they would have remained friends if Lazarn’s marriage to Trevarn had gone ahead, but she knew the answer even before the question had fully formed in her mind.

It struck her that he must have stayed in Mighty Pine because he had fallen in love with Lazarn, but his feelings towards the capanguta, towards her, Lazarn’s best friend, had not changed. He had hoped to make the change he longed for from within the community, even while married to someone whose views conflicted so strongly with his own. He wanted Batefimba out.

Trevarn’s departure had completely altered the course of their lives, in a positive way, and they had not often spoken of him, believing him to have moved far away and become, literally, a distant memory.

Now she knew he was not nearly as far away as they had all thought, and he was influencing their lives again.

“I knew Trevarn,” Batefimba said, in a somewhat subdued voice.

Fevan nodded, not surprised by this development, though Batefimba’s next words changed that.

“He and Lazarn were engaged for some time, but shortly before their marriage, he revealed to her that he hated capanguta and wanted us to leave the community, despite our chieftain’s generosity to him and his family at such a difficult time.

“We rarely speak of it now, but we both believe he had been trying to keep it secret until after they were married. It slipped out in a routine conversation about the wedding seating plan, when he said he didn’t want any of his family seated next to us, the dark, hairy capanguta. But as soon as Lazarn knew about his hatred, the wedding was off, thank goodness. They never spoke again after she broke it off. He left Mighty Pine within a few weeks.”

“My word,” Fevan responded. “I had no idea.

“That book did make me think there could be members of my grandfather’s family living in Mighty Pine. That was one of the reasons I set out to find this community. Do you know if that’s the case?”

Batefimba thought for a few seconds. “Indeed. Trevarn’s mother, Saverarn, was one of the elves who was expecting a baby when the party from Leaning Pine arrived here. She had a daughter, Netixan, within a couple of weeks, the first elfling born at Mighty Pine.

“Netixan is your great aunt. I’m sure she would be delighted to meet you. She is the principal of the village school. Trevarn had another sister and a brother too. They have children, your mother’s cousins, and grandchildren. There are many family members for you to meet.”

“I look forward to that very much, but before we get to that, there are some things that are worrying me terribly, including that I may have endangered this community by coming here. I am also worried that my grandmother and sister may be in danger.”

“It is understandable that you’re worried about them, child, but do you really believe this community could be in danger?”

“I hope not, but I don’t know how my grandfather will have reacted to my departure.

“He may just be pleased to be rid of me, given how strained our relationship had been. That is what I’m hoping, that there won’t be anger that he will take out on Grandmother and Rizavan.

“But his behaviour is unpredictable. He is not aware that I know of his links to Mighty Pine, so there is no reason for him to suspect I may have come here, but I just don’t know how he will react.

“That is one of the reasons I was not honest about the fact I had been looking for Mighty Pine when I arrived here. I am sorry for that, but I worried that if I said it on arrival at the gate, word would quickly get out in the community and would eventually filter back to Towering Pine, via those who travel outside the settlement to work. That could have brought trouble.

“I hoped to get into the community, and find someone I could confide in, as indeed has happened. I am thankful to be able to tell you this story, and hope you can forgive my deception.”

Before Batefimba could answer, Mazimba, who had been listening in fascinated silence, suddenly piped up.

“What I don’t understand is how you managed to get away from Towering Pine if access is strictly controlled.”

“It’s not actually too difficult for elves to leave and return during the day,” Fevan replied, “although that would certainly have aroused suspicion and my grandfather would quickly have been told if I had not returned. At night, there are guard patrols. No-one leaves between sunset and sunrise.

“I had been scouting around the community for what seemed like possible escape routes for a while, and had discovered that in a couple of places, out of sight of the main gate and the town square, the lower branches of our tree extended right to the settlement’s perimeter wall, and in one case slightly beyond it, so it rested on top of the wall.

“It was fairly thin at its end, but as you saw this morning, I’m extremely sure-footed, a result of all my dancing practice. When the time came, on a night Grandfather and Everarn were drinking together, I crept from the house, climbing down to the overhanging branch I had discovered. Waiting for several minutes after the perimeter guard patrol had passed by, I sprinted along the branch, building up momentum, before leaping out over the wall as far as I could. I have become used to cushioning the impact of falls through my dancing, and I was able to land relatively comfortably and roll away into the shadows without the guards noticing.”

“Wow!” Mazimba responded, impressed, then added, with a wink. “I bet you couldn’t get back IN using those fancy moves …”

It was a statement he was destined to find himself reflecting on further before very long.

The light-hearted moment was Batefimba’s cue. “Fevan, we need to talk about the situation with your sister and grandmother, but I think it’s best if we move this discussion to Lazarn’s home. She needs to hear all this.”

The elf washed quickly and then the trio left, Mazimba leading the way, and Batefimba locking the door and checking to make sure Panthozine and his fellow guard, Brandotine, were following, just in case any unforeseen circumstances arose on the way.

She had no idea what those could be, but nothing that happened in this crazy situation would surprise her now.

(Copyright, Grant Shimmin, 2020)

Chapter 7: Mistakes are teachers

Rupertonix

Relieved that she no longer had to rush to intercept Carnotine at the main guard post, but concerned by the subdued bearing she had observed from her study window, Lazarn headed to the front door.

Carnotine was resplendent in the uniform he would normally only wear on the settlement’s most important ceremonial occasions, but he did not lift his gaze to make eye contact as his chieftain opened the door.

“Good morning, Ma’am.” Despite his demeanour, his greeting was still firm and clear, a sign of the respect in which he held his leader. But he was unable to look her in the eye. He appeared to Monkeybreath like a broken man.

“Captain,” she used his rank, “I assume this is not a social call. Please come in.”

“Thank you, Ma’am,” he bowed slightly, before stepping through the impressive hand-carved doorway.

As she closed the door, he waited for her to lead the way through to the lounge.

She ushered him to a seat. “Can I offer you some refreshment, Captain?”

“No, thank you, Ma’am. I won’t keep you long.”

“As you wish. Please proceed, Captain.”

“I have come to offer my resignation as Captain of the Mighty Pine Guard,” Carnotine said. “I have failed you, Ma’am, and I am ashamed to have to admit it.”

Monkeybreath gasped in shock. “Heavens, Captain, I am sure whatever it is you have done does not warrant such a drastic step.”

“I believe it does, Ma’am. I have fallen short of the high standards I set myself, which I learned from my father and my grandfather before me. I have shamed them, and the next place I go after I leave here will be my father’s house, to apologise to him.

“I hope it will not be too difficult for him to hear, as he has not been in the best of health.”

“Before I even consider whether or not to accept your resignation, Carnotine,” Monkeybreath said, “I need you to explain yourself to me. As you infer, this would be a difficult thing for Rastovine to hear, and I will take some convincing that such a step is necessary.”

He looked up at the use of his given name. It felt like an attempt on Monkeybreath’s part to remind him of the affection she had built up for him over his several years as a loyal and trusted Captain of the Guard. He felt similar regard for a leader who had always treated him with great favour, but the embarrassment he was now suffering pushed that to the back of his mind.

“Very well, Ma’am,” he began. “I believe I have let you down in regard to the arrival of the wandering tree elf, brought here by Rupertonix yesterday afternoon. I was less vigilant than I needed to be, and I believe I have put the community in potential danger as a result.”

“Do you believe we are currently in danger, Captain?”

“Not from the report I have received from the guards you posted to watch Batefimba’s house last night. I spoke to them when they returned to the guard post after being relieved of duty this morning.

“However that is pure luck. I was not sufficiently cautious when the elf arrived and I left the settlement open to possible danger as a result.”

“How so?” Lazarn demanded, her challenging tone indicating she was still a long way from convinced.

“When Rupertonix arrived at the main gate yesterday afternoon, I was attending to a situation involving a travelling merchant, which one of my guards had called me to assist with.

“This merchant had arrived carrying goods he wished to try to sell to the residents. However, my young guard, Haxavine, believed the merchandise to have been stolen, an accusation the merchant was greatly upset by. He was making his displeasure known loudly.

“I had been called to intervene and was face to face with this irate traveller, who I had moved away from the gate, so as not to cause too much disturbance to the residents, when Rupertonix walked up.

“He called out a greeting to me and said he was carrying a precious cargo, indicating the young elf riding on the back of his neck. ‘I think she may need hospital treatment’, he told me.

“I did not recognise his passenger at all.

“I should have asked Rupertonix to wait, while I dealt with the merchant, or summoned my deputy to address the situation while I spoke to the furriensis, but I was distracted, and I asked him to inform the guards at the gate of the situation. I have to admit that my trust in Rupertonix not to endanger the settlement played a role in my lax assessment of the situation.

“It took a threat to arrest the merchant for trying to sell stolen goods to finally get him to leave, but he did not go quickly or quietly and by the time I returned to the guard post, there was no sign of Rupertonix or the elf.

“When I spoke to my deputy, Dervarine, he said he had despatched two junior guards to the hospital with the new arrival. I told him that seemed slightly risky, but he said he had seen the elf and there was nothing suspicious about her. As a result, neither of us were too concerned.

“It was not until I was leaving the guardroom for the night and came across two of the council members, who asked me about the visitor, that I discovered you had sent the elf to Batefimba’s house with her grandson, and instructed the two guards to watch it overnight.”

“I must admit I was surprised to be informed there was a new arrival under Mighty Pine only when she had already been allowed access to the village,” Monkeybreath interjected. “In fact, I was planning to find you to talk about that this morning. You saved me a journey.”

“So you have already recognised my failure in this matter, Ma’am. That should make accepting my resignation easier for you,” Carnotine said dispiritedly.

“Not so fast, Captain. I want to hear your whole story before making any sort of decision. I understand your pride and the difficulty you are having in accepting that you have fallen short of your own high standards, but I need to hear exactly what happened.”

“Very well, Ma’am, though I must emphasise that I take full responsibility for any lapses by my guards.”

“Understood. I would expect nothing less from you, Carnotine,” she responded, using his given name again.

“Very well, Ma’am. After I heard what had happened to the elf, I realised there was not much I would be able to do last night. But I believed something highly irregular must have happened, and I spent the whole evening troubled.

“This morning, after a restless night, I rose early and prepared to go down to the guard post to ensure another two guards were sent to take over from those you posted overnight, and to meet and question the latter on their return.

“I wore my dress uniform, to enable me to strongly impress upon all the members of the Guard, especially at this time, that weekend duty was to be taken just as seriously as duty during the week, but particularly because I already felt strongly that the step I have come here to take would be necessary.

“When the guards, Maxuvine and Jethatine, returned, and entered the guardhouse, I could see they were decidedly nervous about my presence. They are both recent recruits, only just through their training and with a mere few weeks of guard duty under their belts.

“Maxuvine, who was marginally the less nervous of the pair, told me hesitantly that they had been despatched by Dervarine to take the elf to the hospital. They had not felt incapable of carrying out this duty, which seemed routine to them.

“However, the school had just come out and, with it being the start of the weekend, a lot of youngsters and teenagers were milling about excitedly and the sight of the visitor intrigued them. Maxuvine said although they tried to ignore the attention and proceed, they were soon surrounded by fascinated teenagers who began talking to the elf, as a result of which their progress halted, and as the elf began interacting with them, the group grew.

“In a nutshell, my guards were unsure of how to proceed without causing an incident. They were discussing their options when they saw you appear, with a following of teenage villagers, some of whom they understood had gone to find you.

“Of course, you know what happened from there. In the circumstances, my guards were relieved to be asked to follow Mazimba and the visitor, and watch Batefimba’s home.

“I spoke somewhat sternly to them about having the confidence to take charge in a situation like that, but I did not want them to feel they were solely at fault in the situation. I encouraged them to see it as a learning experience.”

“A wise course of action,” Lazarn observed.

“Thank you, Ma’am, but it reinforced to me that there had been a string of failures, not just by my guards, but before that by Dervarine, who should have sent at least one guard with more experience to accompany the elf …”

“Fevan, I believe that is her name,” Monkeybreath interjected.

“Fevan, thank you, Ma’am,” Carnotine continued. “The conclusion I had come to last night, and reaffirmed as I walked to the guard post this morning, is that ultimately the responsibility lies with me. The community would not have been exposed to potential danger if I had been more vigilant to start with. That is why I must offer my resignation.”

“Captain, I refuse to accept it. I appreciate you taking ultimate responsibility, as a good leader should, but it seems like a small lapse to me. And anyway, you’ve told me you thought Dervarine was somewhat at fault too. So where would I find a new Captain of the Guard at such short notice?”

“I’m not sure, Ma’am,” Carnotine replied, looking up at her.

“Being a leader does not make one infallible, Carnotine. Mistakes are good teachers, if we will listen to them, as you told your guards this morning.

“And as far as we know, the community is not in imminent danger. You have guards on duty now for our protection, more experienced ones, I assume?”

“Indeed, Ma’am,” Carnotine nodded.

“Have you ever heard the story of what happened to your grandfather, Petovine, just a couple of years before he was due to retire as Captain of the Guard? You would have been a mere pup at the time.”

“I’ve only heard snippets of the account, Ma’am, mainly from my father, who was a young guard then. My grandfather was always reluctant to talk about it.”

“Then I will tell you. He should not have felt so …”

Monkeybreath looked up, alarmed, at a sudden commotion outside, but even as she crossed to the window she recognised the voices, and as she reached it, she turned to Carnotine, who had followed her.

“I think we can safely say there’s no imminent danger, Captain.”

Climbing the stairs to her front door, a look of urgency on their faces, were Mazimba, Fevan and Batefimba.

(Copyright, Grant Shimmin, 2020)

Chapter 6: A bitter man

Batefimba and her grandson watched, transfixed, as Fevan’s dynamic display continued for at least another quarter of an hour. It was extraordinary, especially as she had been so exhausted the night before. She had an amazing amount of energy.

Aside from the elf’s acrobatics, something else was playing on her mind. Although Fevan barely stayed still for a second, every so often, when she saw the young elf’s face in profile, there was something distantly familiar about it. It had struck her a couple of times last night, when Fevan had been tucking into her stew. She had yet to work out why.

“Do you have doubts about her story, Umamba?” Mazimba’s question was the first thing either of them had said for some time, as the astonishing spectacle outside had absorbed them both.

“Not necessarily,” she replied, “but I certainly have some questions for our guest.”

“I thought you would have,” Mazimba said, “though I’m relieved that she hasn’t left, as I thought when I first came in here.”

“Yes, I’m not sure even the most agile or speedy packolvers would have been able to stay with her if she had decided to make a run for it,” his grandmother answered.

As she said that, they both became aware that the graceful yet high energy movement outside had stopped. Fevan stood, hands on hips, exhausted, staring off through the branches as she got her breath back.

As she finally bent to pick up her hat, Mazimba whispered, urgently. “We should get out of here, Umamba. She’ll see us.”

“That would only be delaying the inevitable, my boy. We need to speak to her, now. We’ll wait right here.”

Batefimba turned to see Fevan striding along the branch to the window.

As she spotted them, she slowed slightly, surprised to see them there, but then smiled as she reached the windowsill and stepped through into the room.

“That was an impressive display, child. I understand now where you get your nickname from,” Batefimba said.

“Thank you,” Fevan replied, a little coyly. “Dancing has always been an escape for me. It had become very important to me under my birth tree.

“At first, I would get away to dance whenever I could, but things have become difficult in our family over the last few years and I was worried about being away from my younger sister too much.

“Our mother, Valuvian, died two years ago, after being sick for some time. We were both very close to her, and my father, Stenovan, was heartbroken. He took to wandering aimlessly around the community and sometimes not coming home until late at night, which meant I had to stay at home to look after my sister, Rivazan. She has only just turned eight.

“My parents were so delighted to have a second daughter seven years after I was born. They had begun to think their chance of having anymore children was gone. Father told me just a few weeks after Mother died that their long struggle to have a second child had made him even sadder about losing her. They had not had the chance to truly enjoy Rivazan together.

“Then one day we came home from school and my grandmother, Venixan, was at our home. She told us our father had decided to go away for a time, as he was simply finding it too difficult to live in the home where he and my mother had always been so happy together. They had been married since they were 18.

“She told us we would have to go and live with her and my grandfather, Matthan. That was a difficult thing to hear. While both Rivazan and I love our gentle grandmother dearly, our grandfather is not a happy man. Something from his past has made him terribly bitter.

“The condescending way he sometimes speaks to our grandmother is terrible. I have stood up for her a couple of times, but it has put us at odds. My grandfather and I do not often speak.”

“A terribly difficult situation, my child, but sadly, we are all too familiar with parts of it. We lost Mazimba’s dear mother, my daughter, Wazutimba, in childbirth.

“His father, Mazinbimba, was similarly grief-stricken and struggled to bond with Mazimba, whose given name was one they had decided on together.

“He eventually decided it would be better for him to find work away from the settlement. He took a job at a timber processing plant several days’ walk from here, where they process fallen pine branches into building materials. Mazimba only sees his father for a few days each year, which is very difficult for him.”

“At least I don’t have to cope with a grumpy, bitter grandfather, Umamba,” Mazimba responded, and they were both quiet for a few seconds, reflecting on Batefimba’s late husband, Gazabinda, who had been known throughout the community for his gentleness and generosity. He had been a source of great comfort and companionship for Mazimba, who had regarded him as a second father.

“I’m sorry for the loss both of you have suffered,” Fevan said.

“And we are sorry for you and your sister, child. But please continue with the story,” Batefimba said.

“It was my difficult relationship with my grandfather that started me thinking about leaving Towering Pine about a year ago, but I was worried about what would happen to my sister and grandmother.

“Since then things have worsened, however, and I felt I had no choice, despite my fears.”

Towering Pine! The answer to one of the questions Batefimba had been waiting for the right opportunity to ask hit her with a jolt, but she tried not to give away her surprise. She didn’t want to throw Fevan off her stride when she was speaking so freely.

“There is something I have to be honest with you about,” the young elf went on. “I didn’t stumble across Mighty Pine by accident. I set out to find it.”

It was another question Batefimba had been seeking an answer to. Perhaps she wouldn’t have to ask any of the questions playing on her mind. She would carry on listening closely until Fevan was finished. The elf was in a talkative mood and allowing her to finish saying her piece felt like the best approach. Any further questions could follow.

“There was a man who started coming to visit my grandfather soon after we arrived in their home. At first it was once every couple of weeks or so, but his visits grew more frequent as months passed. He began to come to their house weekly, and then two or even three times a week.

“He never spoke to anyone other than my grandfather. Even when my grandmother opened the door to his knocking, he would brush rudely past her without saying anything and head straight to the study, where my grandfather spends most of his time when he is at home.

“They would sit in there for hours. Sometimes the conversation would get quite animated and I would hear snatches of it. That was where I first heard the name Mighty Pine. I had heard of the other settlements close to Towering Pine, like Spreading Pine and Reaching Pine, so I assumed it must be some distance from our tree.

“I didn’t know who my grandfather’s friend was. He was quite good-looking, I have to admit, and I imagined he would have been very handsome when he was younger, although his terrible manners made me dislike him intensely.”

She paused, gathering herself. Batefimba fancied she could see some moisture in the corners of her eyes. She waited.

“I asked my grandmother about Grandfather’s friend one day. She said she didn’t really know him, but that he and Grandfather had been friends many years before. He had disappeared from the community for a long time and only reappeared in the last year or two. His name was Everarn.”

The name hit Batefimba hard, and she gasped, despite her best efforts to conceal her reaction. She felt as though she had been winded.

She felt sure Fevan’s grandmother must have known something of Everarn’s history. Perhaps she had kept this from her granddaughter to avoid worrying her, a little like she had done with Mazimba, thinking him unaware of this difficult past episode.

“Are you all right?” Fevan asked, alarmed, glancing towards an equally concerned Mazimba as she did so.

“Yes, my child,” Batefimba replied. “Please carry on with your story. I will have things to tell you about Everarn when you are finished, although based on what you have told us so far, I would not be surprised if you had discovered these things already.”

By her lack of reaction it was clear the fact that Batefimba knew of Everarn had come as no surprise to Fevan.

She continued: “I began to sit close to my grandfather’s study when Everarn was in there with him, to try to overhear what they were saying.”

“That sounds dangerous.” Mazimba had not spoken for some time, absorbed in the conversation.

“It was,” Fevan replied. “Grandmother would beckon me away, worried that they would both be angry if they caught me listening, but I felt I had to know what they were discussing. Their increasingly frequent meetings made me uneasy.”

Batefimba nodded knowingly.

“The second or third time I sat there I heard them talk of Mighty Pine, and a little later I heard Everarn say ‘My spies tell me things there are still as they were more than 30 years ago. It’s not right.’

“’No, it’s not,’ replied my grandfather. ‘What on earth is wrong with creatures sticking to their own kind? Why should elves have to live alongside capanguta, and packolvers, and who knows what else? They should each have the chance to determine their own future. We’re a much more advanced species.’

“Then Everarn started to talk about what sounded like some kind of a plot, many years before, involving several resident elves from Mighty Pine. ‘If it hadn’t been for that woman’s interfering capanguta friend, I’m sure I would have succeeded in the plan to use her to get close to the leader, Masikazumba. She had his ear after all,’ he said.

“’From there, it wouldn’t have been difficult to assess the weaknesses in the community structure we could exploit. I had visions of us installed in that council building, making decisions for an exclusively pine elf community.’

“’A wonderful vision indeed,’ my grandfather replied.

“’With some help from like-minded young elves here, who were finding work hard to come by and would have welcomed the move, we could have sent them, and all the other capanguta in the settlement, packing, along with those packolvers and the oh so liberal elves who were in favour of an integrated community.”

He sneered. ‘As you know, there was definitely a core group of elves who strongly backed our cause, and I’m sure they could have influenced others.’”

Batefimba’s mind travelled back as she took this all in. She knew several elves on the brink of adulthood, and even a couple with young families, had been pulled into Everarn’s plot.

They had been imprisoned, in a jail some distance from the community, for varying periods of time, ranging from one to two years, along with the interloper, who got a five-year sentence that he was ordered to serve in full. A couple of the elves had been too embarrassed to return to Mighty Pine after their release, and she wondered if one of them could be Fevan’s grandfather. The name Matthan was not familiar, but it could have been changed. Knowing some of the details of his family, she wondered if the time periods involved made that a possibility.

She tried to listen to the new arrival’s story while crunching the numbers in her head at the same time, but quickly discovered it was impossible to focus on both, and gave her full attention to Fevan’s continuing story, meaning to come back to her calculations later.

“The longer I listened in on their conversations, the more bitterness I heard,” Fevan said. “They both sounded full of regret.

“However they also made this community sound to me like a most welcoming place. We rarely saw anyone who wasn’t an elf at Towering Pine. Everyone was the same. Occasionally capanguta would call with deliveries, but they were usually sent to an entrance near the back of the settlement, and I’m not aware that they ever got beyond that gate. I have always been intrigued by why they were treated so poorly.”

Batefimba had waited patiently for this story to gradually unfold, but news of the plot that had threatened their community, and the sentiment that obviously still simmered at Towering Pine, had her deeply troubled. She could wait no longer.

“So it sounds like your grandfather once lived, or at least spent time, at Mighty Pine? You said his name was Matthan. It’s not one I’ve heard around here before. Are you sure that was his real name?”

She blurted out the questions in a single breath, then realised what she was doing and paused, hanging on the young elf’s answers, more questions at the ready, anxious to have the whole story laid bare.

Then a shiver surged through her. She suddenly knew exactly who Fevan’s features reminded her of.

(Copyright, Grant Shimmin, 2020)

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)

Chapter 4: Dancing dynamo

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Mazimba headed back towards his bedroom deep in thought. He had been planning to go out and see his friends this afternoon, as he usually did on the weekend, but his conversation with his grandmother had left him a little sombre and preoccupied. He didn’t think he would be very good company today.

He had liked Fevan immediately when he’d come upon the group surrounding her yesterday. Despite her weariness, she had been engaging and friendly with everyone who spoke to her, and nothing she had said later on their climb up to Batefimba’s house had given him any reason to think she was here under false pretences. However, he had quickly noticed the pair of packolver guards following them at a distance, despite them holding their tails as still as possible and staying as close to the edges of the tree’s winding staircases as they could, to reduce the risk of detection.

The security operation hastily arranged by Monkeybreath had triggered memories of the story he had overheard her telling his grandmother a few years ago.

He had been in his room, upstairs from the living area, reading, but had decided to go to the kitchen for a snack. However, he had caught a snatch of conversation which carried from the adjacent lounge as he stepped through the kitchen doorway, and that had frozen him in place.

“I’m still embarrassed about it all these years later, Batefimba. I feel like I’ll never fully live it down.” It was Monkeybreath. That was how he and most of the community addressed her, though his grandmother still used her given name, the privilege of being a leader’s friend and closest confidante, even if his grandmother wasn’t part of the community’s council of elders.

“My dear friend, you well know that you did more than anyone else to save us,” he had heard Batefimba answer. “It’s why you have been our leader all these years. You have more than made up for any responsibility you bore with your tireless efforts to maintain harmony and mutual respect in our community.”

Mazimba was all ears. He had often wondered how a tree elf came to carry the ancient capanguta title of Monkeybreath, and had meant to raise it with his grandmother at some stage. Now he began to understand, as he listened to them talk about the arrival of Everarn, Monkeybreath’s infatuation with him, his grandmother’s suspicions, and the eventual uncovering of Everarn’s plot.

He hoped the two women had been too caught up in their own conversation to hear him moving in the hallway as he walked to the kitchen, otherwise they might have started wondering about the lack of noise from next door now, and he would have been summoned to explain himself.

He was in luck; the conversation continued uninterrupted. Too afraid to even sit down for fear of alerting the pair to his presence, and his eavesdropping, he stood dead still in the kitchen doorway for at least half an hour, listening with growing astonishment to their reminiscences.

At one stage he almost gave the game away when he caught himself saying out loud “Well done, Umamba.” He lowered his voice as he added: “Monkeybreath might have been the hero in the end, but your alertness was the key to saving the community.”

When, finally, he had heard movement, as both women stood up and Monkeybreath said her goodbyes, he had slipped back down the hallway and up the spiral staircase to his room, as silently as possible.

As far as he knew, neither of them had ever suspected a thing.

He would tell his grandmother that story at some stage. She would be wondering how he knew so much, he thought now as he stood at the foot of that staircase. It emerged on the landing outside his bedroom, directly above the guest room where Fevan now rested.

He glanced down the short hallway. At this distance, he could hear no movement from inside the room, but he carefully edged his way down the passage until he stood outside the door. Still no sound came from within, and he turned to head back towards the stairs, but as he took his first step, the shifting of his weight caused the door to click open. He remembered his grandmother saying that the door needed looking at.

Frantically flattening himself against the wall next to the doorway, Mazimba waited for an indignant voice from within, but none came. Perhaps Fevan was still fast asleep, and he should just head back to his room, and spare himself the potential embarrassment.

But he couldn’t help himself. Despite the risk of detection, he had to take a look inside the room, especially after this morning’s discussion. The veranda where Batefimba was enjoying her tea was at the other end of the house and faced away from this room, so there was no chance she would spot him.

Hesitantly, he took a single step through the doorway, just far enough to allow him to look around the door and see if Fevan was still in bed. If she was asleep, which would be no surprise, he would try to close the door again, gently, and she would be none the wiser when she eventually awoke.

Frantically flattening himself against the wall … Mazimba waited for an indignant voice from within, but none came.

But his first glance at the interior of the room sent a chill down his spine. The bed was empty and there was no sign of Fevan! The bedclothes had been pulled back into position, though, and the pillows fluffed. Just as Fevan had found them last night. There was no obvious sign of the room having been occupied.

As he took another step into the room, a breeze billowed the curtains and he realised the big window was standing wide open.

Fevan had escaped! A panicked thought crossed Mazimba’s mind. Clearly she was up to no good. She had used their hospitality to infiltrate Mighty Pine, and now she was on the loose and obviously set on doing something terrible to throw the community into disarray.

He wondered momentarily how she had got past the packolver guard captain, Carnotine, and his charges, though there had certainly been guards present when he had come upon the group speaking to Fevan.

Guards! He suddenly remembered the pair who had followed them last night, and rushed to the window, hoping to spot them. It occurred to him that they would probably have gone off duty by now, but he was certain they would have been replaced.

Sure enough, as he reached the open window, he saw one packolver, and then, as his eyes adjusted, another, in the shadows. They were concealing themselves as best they could on either side of the long staircase leading up to Batefimba’s front door, which afforded them a view of the whole house.

While their positioning would most likely have kept them hidden from Fevan, capanguta were renowned for their powerful vision in low light, and Mazimba had quickly spotted a prominent flash of white fur.

It seemed unlikely that Fevan would have been able to climb out of the window and make her escape without the guards seeing her, he realised, positioned as they were. If she had attempted it, they would surely have seen her and followed.

That calmed him a little, but not soon enough to stop him yelling out through the window: “Excuse me! Guards!”

The packolver to the left of the stairs quickly stood up on his hind legs, and Mazimba saw that the flash of white ran half the length of his right front leg, but the other limbs protruding from his uniform were all jet black, as was his head, with its distinctive canine features. He was familiar.

It was Panthozine, who raised a paw to his mouth to signal Mazimba to silence, then pointed, some way off to the young capanguta’s left.

As he turned to see what Panthozine was pointing at, Mazimba gasped in astonishment.

Some distance from the house, along the bough it was built on, and completely oblivious to the concern her absence had generated, Fevan was dancing, acrobatically, and with an energy Mazimba had never witnessed before. Leaping and whirling in the air at dizzying speed, somersaulting, landing with an extraordinary surefootedness, she seemed fearless, completely untroubled by the fact that she was some way above the ground and a fall could badly injure her. Even to an agile ape, it was a remarkable display.

Hoping she hadn’t noticed him watching her, he edged back towards the doorway and down the hallway, passing through the kitchen on the way to Batefimba’s veranda.

“Umamba! Umamba! Come quickly!” he blurted from the doorway.

His grandmother looked up with a start. “What is it?” she asked, concern on her face.

Mazimba put a finger to his lips, and turned, beckoning her to follow him. They crossed from the kitchen to the guest room, quickly but quietly.

As they entered, Mazimba pointed to the window. “Look out to the left, Umamba,” he said.

“My goodness!” Batefimba exclaimed as she saw Fevan, still dancing acrobatically.

“No wonder she’s known as Twinkletoes,” she said, unable to take her eyes off the pirouetting pine elf, clearly lost in her own world.

“Exactly, Umamba.”

Suddenly aware that his grandmother might wonder how he had discovered this spectacle, and angrily tell him off, he decided to explain exactly how he had come upon this scene, telling Batefimba about the faulty door, and stressing his concern after their earlier conversation.

To his surprise, there was no stern response. “It’s all right, my boy. I understand you were worried. I have been worried too. I have been sitting out on the veranda trying to think of all the possible reasons for Fevan’s sudden appearance.

“But this is of great comfort to me. Her willingness to dance like this in a strange place suggests to me she must feel safe here. I’m hoping it signals that her presence here is genuine.”

“I hope so too, Umamba,” Mazimba replied. “However, now that I see how agile and athletic she is, it makes me realise we could probably have taken a quicker route back here last night than using all the stairs. I’m sure she could have stayed with me, jumping from branch to branch.”

“That’s true, my boy, but she was exhausted, and don’t forget, the guards may have struggled to keep up with you.”

“Yes, I turned briefly as we were walking up the first of those many stairs and noticed the guards. They were trying to stay concealed in the shadows, but I spotted some movement.

“That told me Monkeybreath had suspicions and I watched Fevan carefully as we walked, while trying not to let on.”

“You are truly wise beyond your years, Mazimba. I should have seen this before now. I am proud of you, my grandson.”

The young capanguta beamed, as they continued watching Fevan in silence.

(Copyright, Grant Shimmin, 2020)

Chapter 3: The Refugees

Batefimba had already been up for some time when a weary Mazimba wandered into the kitchen.

“Good morning, Umamba,” he said, staring hopefully at the stove, where a pot of corn porridge was indeed cooking, “how did you sleep?”

“Not too badly, my boy,” she replied, a little untruthfully. She had no desire to worry him.

Her rest had been disturbed, her subconscious bringing back troubling memories of the arrival of the stranger from Towering Pine, decades earlier, and the division he had sown in the community.

She and Lazarn had already been good friends at the time, and she could remember the elf’s fascination with the mysterious visitor, Everarn. Though she’d not shared in the attraction, she had been forced to admit that he stood tall and proud like his home pine, and his flashing green eyes were captivating.

Perhaps in part because she resented the impact of his presence on her time with her friend, she had been cool towards Everarn, and a little suspicious of his intentions. In time, her intuition had been shown to be uncannily accurate, and it had played an important role in saving the community from disintegration.

In her sleep, those recollections had flashed into her mind randomly, and her subconscious had amplified them into a terrifying sequence of conflict and mayhem, and she had woken in fright in the early hours, the anxiety of that difficult time long ago back in the forefront of her mind.

She and Lazarn both knew only too well that her caution then had been a key to the community becoming aware, in the nick of time, that Everarn had a hidden agenda.

Lazarn was by no means the only resident of Mighty Pine to fall under his spell. However, she was emotionally vulnerable, as long-held plans for her marriage to another popular elf, Trevarn, had been dashed only a year before. Her heart was still bruised, which meant the new arrival’s apparently kind intentions provided some comfort, and quickly attracted her to him.

Such had been the traumatic nature of the split from Trevarn, which had stemmed from a fundamental disagreement over the peaceful coexistence of the species living under Mighty Pine, that he had abruptly left the community, apparently never to return.

Trevarn had kept his strong distaste for the capanguta, who filled most of the leadership positions in the community, from Lazarn until their wedding was just a few weeks away, but then, as they were planning some of the final details for the big day, he’d made a hateful comment she simply could not ignore. When questioned, he had admitted he despised the apes they lived alongside, even though the capanguta treated them as equals and full members of the community.

“If enough of the other pine elves support me, I will find a way to drive them out!” he had declared, his cover now blown.

This had shocked and infuriated Lazarn, who had many close capanguta friends. “How could you?” she had yelled in frustration. “You’ve lived among them for as long as I have! You’ve been a recipient of their incredible generosity for all that time! And now you want to drive them out! How on earth do you think we could have spent our lives lived together with you holding such bigoted beliefs?

“I’m sorry, if that’s how you feel, you simply can’t be with me. The wedding is off. If you feel so strongly about this, I suggest you find another community that’s more to your taste!”

Batefimba knew that was the last time Lazarn and Trevarn had been in the same room together. The revelation had been shattering for her friend.

She paused in her reverie to look across at her grandson, worried that her preoccupation might have been noticed, but Mazimba was himself day-dreaming as he ate his second bowl of porridge, perhaps thinking about the mysterious visitor who had walked into their lives the night before.

Batefimba retreated again to the events of long ago, remembering just how upset Lazarn had been at Trevarn’s betrayal.

“He can’t possibly have forgotten the capanguta community’s generosity to all of us!” she had told a nodding Batefimba through sobs of frustration and heartbreak.

The pine elf community she and Trevarn had both spent their formative years in, Leaning Pine, had been torn asunder by a power struggle that had seen the chieftain, Matexan, overthrown and imprisoned by a rebel group led by one of his closest confidantes, Breavarn.

Both Lazarn and Trevarn’s parents had been staunch supporters of the benevolent Matexan, and so their families, along with seven others, had been banished from the community.

Though she had been young at the time, about eight, and in school when the families arrived at Mighty Pine, Batefimba felt she knew the course of events intimately, as Lazarn had described them to her many times over the course of their long friendship.

After wandering, lost and hungry, for several days, a group of 43 tree elves, carrying their meagre worldly possessions, had found their way, by sheer good fortune, to the settlement. Lazarn’s father, Philavarn, who had become the de facto leader of the refugee group, put aside his fears and approached the packolver Captain of the Guard who patrolled the community’s perimeter, Tallovine, to see if they might find shelter there, even if only temporarily.

Tallovine had sent a messenger to summon one of the community leaders, an aide to the chieftain, but when the message had been delivered, the chieftain himself, Masikazumba, had decided to investigate the situation, and marched down to the settlement’s main gate to greet the strangers.

Philavarn and the exhausted group from Leaning Pine had encountered neither packolvers nor capanguta before, and there was some nervousness among them about the wisdom of pursuing this contact, but Philavarn’s primary concern had been the welfare of a number of members of their party, five elderly elves who were finding the going tough, and three only a few weeks away from giving birth, who badly needed to rest. There were also several youngsters in their group, Lazarn, the apple of her father’s eye, among them. She had handled the difficult journey without complaining, but he worried about her nonetheless. For her, and for the other vulnerable members of their band of travellers, he summoned up all his courage as he prepared to greet the chieftain of this community.

Tallovine looked up as he became aware of a commotion nearby and was surprised to see the fearsome-looking chieftain striding purposefully in his direction.

“Behold, our chieftain, Monkeybreath!” The words rushed from his mouth just in time to beat Masikazumba’s arrival at the sentry post. Tallovine stood smartly at attention, focused on his leader’s every word.

Philavarn was unable to speak for a few panicked seconds as he briefly studied the face of the impressive creature now before him, and then, in a sudden fit of reverence, bowed his head.

It was an understandable move. Masikazumba, with his dark fur, turning silver in places, and flashing dark eyes, was certainly an intimidating figure. But his response belied his imposing appearance. Stepping towards Philavarn, he said, gently: “Please, don’t be afraid. You and your group are welcome here.”

With relief, Philavarn looked up and began to speak, hesitantly at first. “Thank you … chief … we seek only shelter to allow some of the members of our group to rest for a while. Unfortunately there was unrest under our home tree and we have been banished following an uprising that has seen the chief we were loyal to deposed and imprisoned. We have been on the road for some time.

“However, we do not wish to impose on your community, or to endanger it in any way.”

“You are welcome to stay for as long as you need or wish to, my friend,” replied Masikazumba. “And there is no need for us to agree how long that will be now. It is much more important that you and your party are able to rest for as long as required.”

Spotting one of the heavily pregnant elves, Trevarn’s mother, Saverarn, he added: “If I may be so bold, it appears your party will soon be increasing in size. You cannot possibly go any further until the new additions have arrived safely and their health is stable. Please agree to stay for at least that long.”

“You are most kind, sir.” It was Saverarn. She was near the front of the group and had heard Masikazumba’s generous words. Her response was heavy with emotion.

“It is the very least I can do,” replied the chieftain who, despite the tenderness he had displayed, had grown in stature in the eyes of those in the weary group who had observed the exchange closely.

“Thank you, sir. I have been remiss in not introducing myself. I am Philavarn,” said Lazarn’s father. “Your generosity is beyond anything we had expected. Rest assured, we will not forget your kindness.”

“Please, think nothing of it, Philavarn,” replied Masikazumba. “We have a tree with ample room for those in need of shelter. We would be honoured for you to stay here. Tallovine and his charges will see to it that you have adequate accommodation. When you have all had some time to rest, we will invite you to a feast to celebrate your arrival.”

Hearing his welcoming words, the group began to edge forward, all except Lazarn.

Though she was not quite eight years old, she had watched and listened to the respectful exchange between her father and Masikazumba intently.

Now she stood and watched the chieftain of the community that, it seemed, would be their home for some time, as he greeted each member of their party individually. Eventually Philavarn called out to her to follow, and she hastened forward to the gate. Masikazumba bent and shook her hand, smiling as he did so, and she could only mouth “Thank you” in response, but his graceful, generous leadership had left an indelible mark on her young, impressionable mind.

Batefimba had first heard that story from Lazarn in their days as teenagers and newfound friends enjoying the carefree lifestyle that living within the spreading branches and on the needle-covered ground below Mighty Pine offered them. The recollections had accompanied them through their entry into adulthood, and the story had been recounted several more times since the momentous events that had threatened and reshaped the community they loved.

She knew what had happened that momentous day had cemented Lazarn’s loyalty to the capanguta and indirectly spelt the death knell of her engagement the moment Trevarn’s irrational hatred had been revealed.

In many ways, although the arrival of Everarn, and her initial infatuation with him, had threatened to destroy the Mighty Pine community, it had been Lazarn’s firm stand in the face of Trevarn’s betrayal that had highlighted the diversity in the community and ultimately proved its salvation.

“Umamba?”

The last syllable registered with Batefimba, pulling her out of her reverie.

“Yes, my boy?” she answered.

“Are you all right?”

This time her preoccupation had been noticed. “I’m fine,” she said. “Why do you ask?”

“You looked like you were day-dreaming. Is anything the matter?”

“No, I was just thinking about the things I need to get done today,” she responded, not entirely untruthfully, given that assessing Fevan’s trustworthiness was on her list.

How much could she tell her grandson, she wondered. She didn’t think the situation would be particularly upsetting for him, at the age of 14, but she knew he was likely to discuss anything she said with his friends, as teenagers will. They’d naturally be interested in his assessment of the unexpected visitor staying under their roof. She didn’t want it somehow getting back to Fevan that she was being scrutinised.

“What will happen with Fevan?” Mazimba got right to the point.

“We’ll have to wait until she wakes up and see how she is,” Batefimba played for time. “She was terribly tired last night. We may not see her for some time.”

“But are you worried about her?” persisted Mazimba. “Do you think she could be like the visitor who came here many years ago, the one Monkeybreath had a crush on?”

Batefimba blinked in surprise. Her grandson must have overheard one of her many conversations with Lazarn over the years. He had always seemed to be in his own world and neither of them had ever kept their voices down due to his proximity.

But though he had never raised the subject with her before, Mazimba had clearly been aware for some time of one of the most significant episodes in Mighty Pine’s history. She would have to be frank with him.

“I owe you an apology, grandson. Clearly you are much more astute than I gave you credit for.

“Do you think she could be like the visitor who came here many years ago, the one Monkeybreath had a crush on?”

Mazimba

“I will discuss the situation with you, but please, you must promise you won’t tell your friends what we have talked about, at least not until we have made a decision about whether or not it is safe to allow Fevan to stay.”

“Of course, Umamba. I realised immediately when Monkeybreath asked me to bring Fevan here that she wanted you to watch her. I would not do anything to endanger our community.”

“You are a good boy, Mazimba. So tell me, what do you think of Fevan? Is there anything about her that has made you suspicious?”

“Nothing, grandmother. When I brought her here last night she seemed to be listening to what I was asking her, but she also stared wide-eyed on a couple of occasions as she looked at our surroundings on the way here. Perhaps Mighty Pine is just a much more impressive tree than the one she has come from. Did you ask which tree was her birth tree?”

“I didn’t think to, though I should have,” Batefimba replied.

“She may have mentioned it to those who were first to meet her yesterday. I arrived when she was already in conversation with a group, but I didn’t hear her mention it. But don’t feel too bad, Umamba. I don’t think even Monkeybreath thought to ask. She may have been too surprised at the arrival to think of it.”

“We will ask her today, when she wakes up. In the meantime I ask you please to be on the lookout for anything about her that seems suspicious,” she said, “while still helping her to feel welcome, for as long as she is here.” She picked up a mug of rosemary tea and headed towards the door. “I’m going to sit on the veranda.”

(Copyright, Grant Shimmin, 2020)

Chapter 2: Exhaustion

Batefimba heard Mazimba and Fevan approaching before she saw them. Her grandson was well known in the community for his happy laugh and his voice’s love for long-distance travel.

He was forever bringing friends, some of long standing and others only recently acquired, back to the treehouse he and his grandmother shared, for dinner, so the sound of Mazimba arriving home in conversation with someone was so familiar to her she usually didn’t even pay it any attention until he came through the door with his companion.

This time, though, she caught a high-pitched laugh she didn’t recognise , and she left her kitchen to go and open the door herself.

“Umamba!” Mazimba exclaimed from a few strides away as he saw the door open. “What is it?”

His grandmother rarely came to the door, unless news had reached her of some mischief he had got up to that would require a stern talking to. However nothing came to mind this time as he did a rapid mental scan of the day’s events.

“Can’t a grandmother open the door for her beloved grandson?” Batefimba responded, slightly indignantly, her eyes fixed on Fevan, a step behind Mazimba. If the visitor had noticed the change in his cheery tone, it didn’t register on her face as she surveyed the unfamiliar surroundings.

“Umamba,” Mazimba used his term of respect for his grandmother again, “this is Fevan. She arrived under the Mighty Pine this afternoon. Monkeybreath requests you to give her a meal, and a bed for the night.”

Batefimba had surmised as much the instant she saw Fevan, but listened intently to her grandson before nodding. “Of course,” she said. “Welcome, child. I am Batefimba. Come in, you look weary.”

“Thank you,” the young elf said. “You are very kind, like everyone here.”

As Monkeybreath had assumed she would, Batefimba immediately realised the purpose of Fevan being sent to her home for the night, and she quickly noticed something that seemed to have escaped the attention of the other residents the elf had encountered so far.

“Did you not bring any possessions with you, Fevan?” she asked. “Do you have no bag, no spare clothes?”

“I do not, Batefimba,” she replied, suddenly crestfallen. “When I fled from the community under my birth tree, I had to travel light and leave quickly. I managed to take some food with me, but that was gone within a couple of days.

“So what I am wearing is all I have to my name,” she continued. And my shoes are wearing through from all the walking,” she added, pointing to the sole on her right shoe, through which her foot was visible.

“Goodness, child,” said Batefimba. “We will have to find some new attire for you.”

“For the last few days, I have had to scavenge under cover of darkness for anything I could eat,” Fevan explained. “I found some fruit and edible plants, but it was far too risky to build a fire out in the open, so I could not cook.

“I must confess I had begun to wonder if I would be forced to try to go back to my birth tree, even though many living under it will now have turned against me. I spent several nights wandering aimless and hungry, with no clear idea where I was, or where I might find another community similar to the one I grew up in.

“Then last night, as I was walking under cover of darkness, I crossed paths with a furriensis some distance from here. I was terribly afraid, because he was so big, and in the dark he looked like some kind of fearsome monster, but he showed real concern about my situation. He bent down ever so gently and told me to climb up and sit on his back while he walked.”

“Ah yes, Rupertonix,” Batefimba said. “He has been a great ally to us.”

“The sun came up shortly afterwards,” Fevan continued. “The furriensis told me he had to go back to the castle where the giants who own him live, as they would become concerned if he was not there for his breakfast.

“I was worried about being close to the giants, but he assured me both that they would be unable to see me and that they were kindly, despite their size.”

Batefimba listened thoughtfully. She and the other residents of the Mighty Pine had never encountered the giants directly, although sometimes they heard noises coming from the direction of the castle. Once, standing near to the end of one of the Mighty Pine’s spreading branches, she had seen one of them pushing a noisy contraption of some sort back and forth on the ground outside the castle. It had made her and those she told about it fearful of coming into contact with the giants.

“Rupertonix did not take long to get to the castle,” Fevan said. “He walked around the back, past some sort of strange blue lake. Soon he came to a giant doorway and instructed me to lie flat to avoid being hurt. Then he walked headfirst towards a square-shaped panel at the bottom of the door.

“I confess I still had my head up as he walked towards it, intrigued to see what he was doing, but when it became clear he was not going to stop, I lay down and held on, fearful of what was about to happen.

“I was expecting a collision, but instead the panel moved aside as Rupertonix’s head touched it and when I next looked up, we were in a huge room. There was a giant there with long, golden hair, who turned around as we entered. She smiled when she saw Rupertonix, although that is not what she called him.

“’Hello, Puss!’ she exclaimed, and walked across the room, bending to scratch his back. I had to move to prevent her giant hand touching me, but she did seem very affectionate to her furriensis, and he started making a contented noise in his throat.

“ ‘Breakfast time!’ the golden-haired giant went on, and poured some objects that looked like square brown rocks into a big container on the floor. They did not look at all appetising, but Rupertonix seemed not to notice that, and he ate hungrily until they were all gone.

“Then he went to another round container, alongside the first one. It was full of water, and he lapped at it for quite some time. Sitting close to his head, I must admit I had to hold on to that belt around his neck to stop myself from being thrown off into the water!

“Eventually he stopped and I could relax. Despite my nervousness about being detected, I let out a rather loud sigh of relief, then realised what I had done and panicked that the giant might have heard.

“She didn’t turn around, however. She seemed to be busy cooking and there was no indication that she had heard me. Rupertonix started making that rumbling sound in his throat again, and that helped to calm me.”

“Is that when you left the castle?” Mazimba, who had been listening to the story with a growing look of astonishment on his face, asked.

“Not quite,” Fevan replied. “First he walked across to where the giant was standing and rubbed against her leg. I happened to turn around at that moment and I noticed his tail was pointing straight at the ceiling. He seemed very contented, especially when she stooped down and scratched his back vigorously.

“I thought I might be knocked right off his back then, so I grabbed hold of that belt and swung down alongside his neck, out of reach of her hand.”

“Thank goodness for the belt,” Batefimba said.

“Yes, it was useful, though if I had fallen to the floor, I’m sure Rupertonix would have protected me,” Fevan said.

“After a few minutes, he headed straight towards the door. As he was about to exit, the giant called out ‘Behave yourself! Don’t go chasing any birds!’ I wasn’t too sure what she meant. Rupertonix acted as though he hadn’t heard.

“Then we were outside again, and after resting in the shade for a little while after his meal, he brought me here. It seems a little unreal, like some sort of crazy adventure. I’m so relieved to feel safe,” Fevan said, tiredly. “Thank you again for your kindness.”

“It’s so much for you to process,” Batefimba answered, “but at least you will be able to do that in safety. I daresay you’ll need plenty of rest over the next few days to recover from your ordeal.

“But first, food, so you can get your strength up.”

“Umamba’s pine needle and field mushroom stew is renowned throughout the Mighty Pine community,” Mazimba said, adding, with a chuckle, “partly because she makes doubly sure to cut the sharp points off all the needles.”

“Behave, Mazimba,” his grandmother gently admonished. “You know it’s standard practice to cut them off. Your unfortunate experience at Nemanda’s home was as a result of his mother having been called away while cooking. You know she’s a key member of the Mighty Pine emergency services. There were more urgent things on her mind at that moment than feeding hungry young rascals like yourselves.”

“Yes, Umamba, I get your point,” Mazimba chuckled. He glanced over at Fevan, but she seemed not to have caught his witty retort. She was too busy ploughing ravenously through a bowl of stew.

Batefimba watched the famished new arrival with a slight smile on her face, and with no doubt in her mind that the elf’s hunger was genuine.

Of course, she realised, if this was part of a sophisticated attempt to infiltrate their harmonious community, Fevan would present as being in genuine hardship, so this could simply be brilliant acting.

About halfway through her second bowl of stew … Batefimba saw her eyes close for a second and her head drop momentarily.

But she somehow doubted it. There was nothing that suggested this was all a front.

Fevan’s exhaustion also appeared real. About halfway through her second bowl of stew, as she was chewing on a mouthful, Batefimba saw her eyes close for a second and her head drop momentarily. The sudden motion jerked her awake and she sat up, blushing, and continued with her meal.

“Don’t worry to finish if you’re too tired, Fevan,” Batefimba said, and the elf stopped with a look of relief on her face.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s delicious, but I’m struggling to keep my eyes open. I’m even more exhausted than I thought I was.”

“Come, I’ll take you to your room,” Batefimba said, leading the way down a short, narrow passage to a room at the end of the house. Fevan noted in passing that it had a big window that offered a view along one of the Mighty Pine’s spreading boughs, before she sat down on the bed to remove her worn shoes.

“If you need to wash, the bathroom is just along the passage here,” Batefimba said. She was standing in the doorway, pointing, but as she turned back to the room it was obvious Fevan was going nowhere. She had fallen back onto the bed, one of her shoes only halfway off, and was fast asleep.

Batefimba lifted the young elf’s legs onto the bed, removing her shoe and positioning her so her head was on the pillow, before covering her with a blanket, blowing out the lamp next to the bed, and shutting the door quietly behind her. Though it struck her that she could just as well have slammed it.

With her visitor asleep, and Mazimba having gone off to his room too, Batefimba had time to ponder the evening’s events. She hadn’t eaten yet, having been focused on attending to her guest, and now she dished up a bowl of stew for herself and ate in silence, thoughts criss-crossing her mind.

She had instinctively liked Fevan and the fact that Rupertonix had been happy to bring the young elf to Mighty Pine felt significant to her. His instincts were sound and she knew he would never have knowingly endangered their community.

The furriensis had been an unlikely protector of the settlement for several years now. She felt certain he would have picked up on any ulterior motive Fevan might have had and not brought her anywhere near Mighty Pine.

But those were just her instincts, she realised. They could inform her decision, but they weren’t a substitute for a careful watch on the pine elf over the next 24 hours, or however long Lazarn decided to leave Fevan under her care. She would have to observe every move made by the one Mazimba had told her, slightly mockingly, was “widely known as Twinkletoes”.

(Copyright, Grant Shimmin, 2020)