The blaze from the funeral pyre threw leaping shadows across the mirrored walls, and the crackling of the flames echoed like thunder around the vast cavern. Those gathered around the sacred lake stood with heads bowed, too sad to watch as the craft drifted closer to the edge of the waterfall, that would take it out to sea. The cliffs on either side of the lake rose in towering heights and beyond them stars glistened in the night sky. All funerals are held under the cover of darkness, so that those who live on the land above, do not see the smoke. Each ledge, each fissure in the rock was crammed with fairies, but their colours were muted. The sombre black they wore to mourn the dead made them look like small blackbirds that had taken roost and might at any time take flight. On the lower level’s dwarfs vied for space, as they tried to see over the shoulders of the elves. Lanterns on long poles hung by the shore, but once the blazing pyre disappeared, they did little to dispel the gloom.
“It is time to leave, my dear,” Heather, the Queen of the Elves, placed a small, white hand on her husband’s arm.
“Yes, we will go now, my love,” King Karone’s eyes glistened with unshed tears. “Forgive me, I was deep in thought.”
“It is understandable,” she linked her arm through his. “These are sad times.”
As the royal party moved off, those standing behind them bowed, and the assembled throng parted to form a pathway. The dwarfs jumped from rocks and started to walk away with the toddling gait of those whose legs are too short for their bodies. The fairies took flight and moved en masse like a dark swarm swooping over the heads of the elves, as they made for home. Lord Blackthorn, the king’s friend and adviser walked beside his wife. His face was ashen and lined with worry.
“You must rest when we get back to the castle,” his wife said. “These past few days have taken their toll.”
He looked up at her and tried to smile, but his eyes betrayed him, and she felt the familiar sense of doom gnawing at her heart.
“It is you who should be resting, Iris” he put his arm around her waist. “Your time is almost at an end.”
Lady Blackthorn smiled and patted the bump in the front of her gown. She, like the queen, was due to give birth at any moment. It would be a firstborn for both families and the imminent births were the only light in this time of dreadful darkness. The funeral was the second one in a year. To mortals this would seem a small amount, but to the Elfin, whose lifespan was many hundreds of years, it spelt catastrophe.
The castle loomed in the distance and was set high above the land on an outcrop of rock. Steps were carved on each side and the queen’s ladies-in-waiting helped both the pregnant women with the climb. This gave their husbands a chance to speak without frightening their wives.
“It is a sad time,” the king shook his head.” Lord Ashwen was so young; he had just reached his hundred and sixty-eighth year.”
“It is no age,” Lord Blackthorn sighed.
“Have you asked the others to assemble in the throne room?” The king asked.
“Yes, majesty, they will be waiting for us,” Lord Blackthorn assured him.
. Both men have the fair colouring of their kind, and their shoulder-length hair shimmered in the light of the many torches lining the steps.
“Is there something else bothering you, majesty,” his friend asked. “Something other than Lord Ashwen’s death?”
“You know me too well,” the king stopped and looked at him.
“I should do, majesty, after all this time,” Lord Blackthorn’s laugh seemed alien.
It was a long time since the sound was heard in the land of Bargamore.
“Did you see them?” The king asked.
“I did majesty. They tried to stay hidden in the shadows, but they failed.”
The creatures the elves referred to are the Erebans. Dark, soulless beings born out of men’s darkest thoughts and desires. They inhabited a land beyond the forest; a place of endless shadow, shunned by the others who share the hidden world. The Erebans are the elves only enemy. Though the elves are of normal size, the Erebans tower over them, and stand at almost eight feet tall. Dressed from head to toe in a cloak of black, they make a frightening spectacle to those unlucky enough to meet them late at night. For this is their time. When others sleep, the Erebans come to life and roam the darkness. Their eyes are completely black, so they are blind during the day, but when the sun sets, they can see further than most. It is unusual for them to stray into the land of Bargamore, and the king knew they had done so only to mock him. They knew the elves were weak and like any predator they circled, anticipating the kill. The king sensed their sneers. He knew if something was not done to strengthen his people, then Perius, their leader, would lead his men in to battle against those in the hidden world. At any other time, he would not fear this, but now, as his people grew weaker, he could not bear to envision it.
In the throne room, Galten, the Seer, stood at a table and gazed into a crystal bowl. He stirred the water to dispel the images that gathered.
“Has the outlook changed?” Mistress Doogood asked.
“No, nothing has changed,” the old man shook his head.
“Nothing?” Her sister healers Mistress Gamp and Mistress Tweed chorused.
“We have a little time left,” Galten said. “Not very long, perhaps forty years.”
“Forty years,” the wise women gasped. “But that is, but a moment.”
“Nevertheless, it is what I see,” he sighed.
“We are working hard to find a cure for this wasting malady, and I pray we may do so soon,” Mistress Doogood said.
Lord Fabien, the ruler of Faranord, the land of the fairies, snorted. Mr and Mrs Furze, who were there to speak for the dwarfs lumbered over to where he sat on the arm of a chair.
“Whatever is the matter?” Mrs Furze asked.
“I do not think anything is the matter,” her husband said, before Lord Fabien could speak.
“But he made a noise, my dear,” His wife said. “At least I think it was him.”
“Perhaps it was someone else,” her husband said. “I may not have been him after all.”
“You are quite right, my dear,” his wife said, “Maybe it was…”
“Enough,” Lord Fabien roared. “We will be here all night if this continues.”
Mrs Furze blushed and turned away. Lord Fabian realising how rude he had been, apologised. Everyone loved Mr and Mrs Furze, but it must be admitted, they are the most absentminded couple. They rarely get to the root of a problem. The dwarfs did not have a ruler and worked together as a happy little group.
“What I was trying to say,” Lord Fabien said. “Was that I think my plan is the best.”
“The king will never hear of it,” Galten said. “It is a barbaric suggestion and one that belongs to olden times.”
“It might seem so,” Lord Fabien said. “But it has worked in the past. If you listen to me the elfin bloodline will be strengthened, and you will be saved all this misery.”
The wise women turned to look at Galten.
“Do not tell me you agree with them?” The old man said.
“Well…” Mistress Dogood muttered.
“Can you imagine the sorrow it would cause?” Galten asked. “The king would never agree to such a thing.”
“He will, if he wants to save his people,” Lord Fabien said.
“What if we could do it without causing suffering on either side?” Mistress Gamp asked
“I can see no way around it,” Galten said. “No matter what we do, someone will have to suffer.”
“But what if…” Mistress Gamp started to whisper in his ear.
The others watched as the old seer’s eyes grew wide in astonishment.
“The king will never allow it to happen,” he said.
“The king will never allow what?”
They were so caught up in their planning; they had not heard him enter the room.
“Well?” He looked at the seer. “I am waiting.”
“Changelings, majesty,” the old man stuttered. “They want to exchange elfin babies with those from the mortal world.”